Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/11/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:57 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Well, maybe we should -- apparently, this Royals mug is lucky for the Chiefs, as well. So certainly enjoyed the victory over the weekend. Well, Senator Cruz’s hometown teams are now 0 and 2 against my hometown teams in the playoffs.
Q Ooooh --
MR. EARNEST: The good news is that Calgary Flames can rest easy because Kansas City doesn’t have a hockey team.
Q You're liking the sports --
MR. EARNEST: I'm excited. It's the Monday before the State of the Union. A little fired up, ready to go! (Laughter.) But I don't have an opening announcement, so we can go straight to questions.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q Well, I'm not going to start with the State of the Union. I guess we'll get to that. I wanted to start with Sean Penn’s interview with El Chapo.
MR. EARNEST: -- made a little news this weekend, too.
Q Can you just tell us whether or not the President has read it?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to the President about the Rolling Stone interview. I have read a little bit about the interview, but I haven't actually read the interview myself. Obviously this is -- the capture of Mr. Guzman has been a high priority both for Mexico and the United States. Mexican authorities have been aggressive about looking for Mr. Guzman and bringing him into custody. We obviously commend the Mexican authorities for their success and we obviously salute the law enforcement officials in that country that have spent a lot of time and worked quite bravely to ensure that he can be brought to justice.
But we're going to continue to work with Mexico and other partners around the world to respond to the threats that are posed by transnational criminal organizations.
Q And there’s a report this actually may take up to a year. Is that an acceptable time period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would refer you to the Department of Justice for sort of the tick-tock on how the process works. I can't speak about any specific case. What I can tell you is that the standard operating procedure is that if there is an individual who is facing charges in the United States that is arrested overseas, then the extradition process commences. Obviously Mr. Guzman is facing some serious charges here in the United States. But for details about sort of where things stand in that process or what that process looks like, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q And on the reports that the Mexican government will be investing Sean Penn about the interview -- do you have any details on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any details about that. But you can obviously contact Mexican authorities about that.
Q And then I wanted to ask you -- you talked a little bit about the deportation raids that happened over the holiday weekend. Obviously there are a lot of Democratic lawmakers on the Hill that are very upset about this. They’re going to ask the administration to grant temporary protective status for some of these people. I'm wondering what your reaction is to that. It sounded like you're not inclined to change the policy in any way.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. At this point, our policy will remain the same. But I do think that given the sensitivity of this issue, it's worth me spending at least a little time here just reminding people what our policy is. When the President put in place -- used his executive authority to try to reform as much of the immigration system as he could, using only his executive authority, that included the Department of Homeland Security implementing some prosecutorial discretion, some guidance that would be used to prioritize for removal those individuals who don't have the legal basis for remaining in the country but yet are accused of crimes. We've also prioritized for removal those individuals who have only recently crossed the border. And the idea here is that we should prioritize felons -- the deportation of felons over the separation of families. And given the limited law enforcement resources that we have to work with, that's a rather common-sense proposition.
The individuals who were involved in some of the operations that have gotten a lot of attention fell into the category broadly -- fell into the category of people who’d recently crossed the border.
Now, what’s also true is even for those individuals that are prioritized for removal, those individuals, though, are still given access to the justice system and given access to due process. And the administration is committed to that process. In fact, part of our response to the surge that we saw at the border about a year and a half ago was to actually increase the amount of resources that are devoted to that justice process. So this is a system of due process that we take quite seriously. And it was only after individuals had exhausted the legal remedies available to them to claim asylum or to be granted some other form of humanitarian relief, only then was the decision made to remove them.
Q How would you describe the White House’s level of involvement in that decision -- in these specific operations?
MR. EARNEST: These are enforcement operations, so this is consistent with the kind of prosecutorial guidance that's been put in place by the Department of Homeland Security. But obviously executing these enforcement actions are the responsibility of law enforcement professionals.
Q So no one at the White House was notified that this was going to happen in advance? Or, I mean, was there some notification?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to any sort of communication that takes place between the Department of Homeland Security and the White House. But for decisions like this and decisions to move forward with operations, those are obviously decisions that are, appropriately, made by law enforcement professionals.
Q And just lastly, is it accurate then to describe this as part of the broader attempt to prevent another crisis like we saw in 2014?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think our desire to make clear that individuals should not embark on the dangerous journey from Central America to the Southwest border, that's the case that we’ve tried to tell in a variety of ways, including by saying publicly that people shouldn’t attempt this journey and they certainly shouldn’t entrust their children into the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers to make that journey.
The administration has also cracked down on human traffickers that have preyed upon people who are in a rather desperate situation. The administration has also invested in trying to enhance the resources that are available to governments in Central America like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to help them better account for the security situation in their own country.
In fact, the administration sought a billion dollars in funding that could be used to work with the governments down there to address this situation. Congress did appropriate $750 million for that task. We obviously were pleased to see that commitment from Congress to this effort.
There also has been an effort underway to establish alternative paths for those individuals that have legitimate humanitarian and asylum claims that they can -- essentially we wanted to establish a process that would make it easier for these individuals to have those claims heard without them embarking on this dangerous journey.
The real tragedy here is that there are far too many men, women and children that have attempted this journey. Many of them have been killed. Others have been victimized in terrible ways when they have sought to embark on that journey. And so that is what we are trying to prevent. And there are a variety of ways in which we’ve tried to confront this challenge. And those efforts only attract some attention, I think, when there’s a surge at the border or there are some enforcement actions. But I can assure you that since the summer of 2014, this is something that has been part of an intense focus by the Department of Homeland Security.
Q Going to the State of the Union, the White House has said repeatedly that it won’t be a laundry list of proposals, but will the President lay out any concrete legislative goals for the year? And what should the American people kind of read into that? Should they not expect any big legislative accomplishments this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ayesha, traditionally, the State of the Union is an opportunity for the President of the United States to speak before the Congress and the American people about all that’s been accomplished and all that the President hopes to accomplish in the year ahead. And you certainly will hear some of that from the President tomorrow. But the President’s main focus will be on the opportunities and challenges that are facing the country not just in the year ahead, but what’s critical are the kinds of decisions that we make now will have a significant impact on not just the next generation of Americans but future generations of Americans.
So there is certainly a lot that we have to get done over the course of the next year. That includes criminal justice reform. We’ve seen that there is strong bipartisan support for criminal justice reform on Capitol Hill, and the White House has worked hard to try to nurture the bipartisan agreement that will be required to pass that legislation.
We are hopeful that Congress will take steps to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This was an agreement that was reached by the United States and 11 other countries in the Asia Pacific. This is an agreement that we spent years negotiating. We were pleased to see this agreement completed. And now we need to see Congress vote to ratify it. There is a process, though, of public consideration and public comment, so we’re not calling on Congress to vote for it now, but we are hopeful that they will move in a timely fashion to vote to approve that legislation. That obviously is going to require bipartisan support there, too.
Those are just two examples of some high-priority items that the President is hopeful this Congress can act on before the end of the year.
Q Moving on to the -- in light of the North Korean nuclear test, the U.S. and South Korea have been discussing the deployment of more strategic weapons in the area, and also there was a flyover of a B-52 bomber, I believe, over the weekend. And so China has raised some concerns, calling for all sides to avoid escalating the situation in the region. So I was wondering, did the U.S. talk to China at all before they did the flyover? And are there any concerns, when you’re discussing deployment of more strategic weapons, about possibly escalating the situation or making the situation worse?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me tell you a little bit about -- let me say a couple of things. The United States has obviously been closely consulting with our partners and allies in the region in terms of putting together a response to the provocative actions that we saw from the North Koreans last week. Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter have been in touch with a number of their counterparts in the region. Even President Obama called his counterparts in Japan and South Korea in the aftermath of North Korea testing this nuclear device. So we have been consulting quite closely with our partners and allies. And I didn’t even mention the Security Council meeting at the United Nations. So we are committed to preserving the international unanimity of opinion when it comes to confronting North Korea. And that will only strengthen our hand in this effort.
That said, we have indicated that there are a variety of appropriate responses, and we’re going to continue the work to develop those responses. We also, however, are committed to this safety and security of our close allies in South Korea. And there obviously are men and women of the United States military who are deployed to South Korea. They are, I think, the most graphic representation of that -- or manifestation of that commitment. There are also resources that are deployed through the Asia Pacific that are critical to protecting the United States homeland. And this is technology that can be used to counter North Korea’s ballistic missile program. And we certainly will take the steps that we believe are necessary to protect the country.
Q I had a couple of things following off that. One is North Korea announced today that it had arrested an American citizen on espionage charges. There seemed to be some debate about whether or not he is, in fact, a citizen. But I’m wondering if you can confirm that, and if you guys are taking any steps to try to work towards his return?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, as you’ve heard me say before, this is report that we have seen, but it’s not a report that I can comment on. Talking publicly about possible cases of detained Americans can complicate our efforts to try to secure their freedom. So there’s just not much I can say about these reports.
And if there is a point where there is more that we can say, we’ll keep you posted.
Q Secretary Kerry is going to meet with his Russian counterpart, presumably to discuss North Korea, among the litany of other issues that the U.S. and Russia have kind of going on. I’m wondering -- are there any plans for the President to call President Putin? If not, why not, since he’s reached out to the leaders of Japan and South Korea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not aware of any calls like that that are on the agenda in the short term at least. If that changes, we’ll obviously let you know. As you point out, there are a variety of other U.S. officials that have been in touch with the relevant parties here. And if it’s determined that President Obama needs to communicate with President Putin about this, then he won’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call.
Q What’s the administration hoping for out of that conversation between Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lavrov?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have the rundown on their agenda. Presumably, there are a number of things that they will discuss, including efforts to advance the long overdue political transition inside of Syria. Obviously, Russia has got an important role to play there. We welcome their constructive contribution to that effort thus far, and we hope that that will continue.
Obviously, there is some ongoing work to implement the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Russia has been a constructive supporter of that process. So for a more detailed rundown on the agenda, though, I’d encourage you to check with State Department.
Q Because you mentioned Iran, last week you said you didn't have an update on Iranian sanctions relief, but President Rouhani said today, kind of echoing Secretary Kerry, that he expects sanctions relief to begin in the next few days. So I’m wondering if that's an accurate timeline, and if this is something that's you guys are preparing, or if you have any update on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the pressure is on the Iranians to deliver at this point. What we have said is that the international community and certainly not the United States, we're not going to provide relief from sanctions to the Iranians until they have taken the steps that are described in the agreement to dismantle large portions of their nuclear program.
In addition, we're not just going to take their word for it. We actually will have international inspectors who can verify that Iran has followed through in carrying out the actions that they’ve committed to carry out.
Iran has made some progress, to their credit. A couple weeks ago, they shipped 25,000 pound of enriched uranium out of the country. That is consistent with the commitment that they have made to reduce their uranium stockpile by 98 percent. There are also specific requirements around the heavy-water reactor that they operate around Arak. They are required to remove the core of the reactor and fill it with concrete to ensure that it can be rendered -- to essentially render it harmless. This would shut down the plutonium path to a nuclear weapon that we believe Iran had been pursuing. But there are whole steps related to centrifuges and other things.
Once Iran has taken all those steps, and once the international community, through the IAEA, has been able to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, then, and only then, will Iran begin receiving the sanctions relief that we know they seek.
Q Well, is that verification possible in the next few days, the next week? Or is that something that you're envisioning still months away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s going to depend on Iran and when they complete implementing the provisions of the agreement. Obviously we have a robust infrastructure in place to verify their compliance with the agreement -- not just at the beginning, but on an ongoing basis. And I’d refer you to the IAEA for a better assessment of how long that process will actually take.
Q I actually didn't have a question.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I’m sorry. I saw your hand up earlier. I was just trying to move it around here.
Q Since you called on me, though, I’ll dredge up two. (Laughter.) One is, it’s been a little weird to watch television today and see all this coverage of the Powerball jackpot as large as it is. Does the President -- how does the President feel about the message that Americans really should go out and buy these tickets? That's the unmistakable takeaway from the cheerleading on TV for this giant lottery jackpot.
And the other is, of course, the passing of David Bowie -- any reaction from you or the President? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: There you go.
Q Justin asked my Iran question, so I got to go with something else.
MR. EARNEST: These are just the two topics on your mind today, huh? (Laughter.)
Q Just back from vacation. I can't help it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President has purchased a Powerball ticket.
Q So I guess I didn't win on Saturday. (Laughter.) But you know what I mean about the policy aspect of this, right? This is a voluntary but regressive tax on Americans. How does he feel about this as a matter of public policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a decision that states make. And there are a number of states who benefit from participating on these kinds of games and it’s a source of revenue that they benefit from. And obviously, the American people can decide sort of how best to spend their money. Obviously, the odds are long of winning, but people can sort of make up their own minds about whether or not it’s a good way to spend their hard-earned dollars.
As it comes to David Bowie, I think the way that his loss will be felt I think is illustrated by the pretty broad outpouring of reaction to his death. There are a number of people all across the globe who talked about they had been inspired by his life and his work. And I haven’t spoken to the President about whether or not he was a David Bowie fan, but there’s no denying the impact of his contribution to art and music and film not just here in the United States but around the world.
Q First, a quick follow-up to something on Friday, the attempted assassination of the police officer in Philadelphia. Does the White House consider that a terrorist attack?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, this is something that is still being investigated by the Philadelphia Police Department and they have not concluded that it actually is an act of terrorism. But given some of the circumstances of the event, obviously that is something that we're all wondering right now. And I'm confident that as the Philadelphia Police Department investigates the shooting of one of their own this is something they will consider -- that's specifically the motivation of the individual who carried out this heinous act of violence.
We obviously are pleased to hear reports that the condition of the police officer is improving. And again, it is a timely reminder of the way that hundreds of thousands of police officers across the country put on their uniform and leave home every day prepared to put their lives on the line to protect the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect. And the overwhelming majority of those individuals carry out that important work with courage and with professionalism. And we obviously owe them a debt of gratitude.
Q And a question on the state of the Union, literally. The President has said he’s never been more optimistic going into a new year. How do you square that with where the American public is on that question? The most recent poll from NBC had just a fifth of the country saying the country was on the right track, 70 percent saying that the country is going on the wrong track. Why, if the President is so optimistic about the state of the Union, why did the overwhelming majority of the American public believe that things are seriously off the rails?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think part of that, Jon, is obviously attributable to the avalanche of negativity that we've seen from the Republican candidates for president, the kind of -- the willingness of those candidates to exploit people’s fears and insecurities and anxieties has infected the political debate. That's surely part of it.
I think it's perfectly reasonable, as the President discussed in his interview with Steve Inskeep before the end of the year, that there are a lot of Americans who are feeling insecure about the economy. Obviously, given the terrorist attack that we saw in San Bernardino at the end of last year, people are understandably concerned about national security and it sort of reawakened people’s concerns about that. So there’s certainly reason for people to be concerned.
The President’s reaction to that, though, is that he has never been more confident about our ability to confront successfully those challenges, but also never been more confident about our capacity to capitalize on the opportunities that exist for this country.
Q I guess I want to ask you -- so you have the President saying he’s never been more optimistic, and Denis McDonough, yesterday in his interviews, struck a similarly optimistic tone about where things stand right now. Donald Trump says the state of the Union is a mess. It seems that the vast majority of the American people think that Trump is right on that question and not the President. Why is that? Is it really just because of what Republican candidates have been saying in a primary? You think the American people have been fooled by that?
MR. EARNEST: I think that’s certainly had an impact on the nature of the political debate in this country. But again, I also think that there are justified concerns about the impact of the global economy on middle-class families here in the United States. And I think there is a justified concern about the ability of ISIL to use social media to carry out acts of violence against Americans.
The bottom line, though, when it comes to the President’s thinking about all of this is he’s got a lot of confidence that betting on America is going to be a good bet, both in terms of confronting those challenges but also in terms of capitalizing on those opportunities.
And the President is hopeful that he’ll have an opportunity in the speech to not just talk about the kind of political rhetoric that is on display from Republicans leading up to the next election but to actually talk about how these issues are going to affect the next generation of Americans. And that’s what leadership is about. That certainly is consistent with the kind of leadership that the President campaigned on in 2007 and 2008, and I think it’s consistent with the kind of leadership that the President has shown since he took office for the first time in January of 2009.
Q Josh, following on Olivier, on Powerball -- (laughter) -- no, but I mean, it’s a serious question, and going back on -- okay, let me hit Powerball first. (Laughter.) No, seriously. Granted, it’s gambling, but it’s over $1 billion -- the jackpot is over $1 billion. And lotteries were typically sanctioned by governments -- well, approved by governments for infrastructure projects, facilities, and state projects. I mean, does that say something that -- granted, a lot of people are gambling, looking to get this big jackpot so they don’t have to go to work anymore -- or work anymore, but there could be a benefit. I mean, does the White House look at it as a possible boon for states and localities that do have Powerball in that location?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not clear to me what sort of impact this particular game will have on state budgets across the country. I think a lot of Americans are talking about this because it’s fun. I don’t think they do it because they expect that they’re going to win and they’re not going to have to show up to work the next day. I think they do it because they think it’s fun. And a lot of state governments see this as an opportunity to try to make a little money -- yes, to augment funding for infrastructure projects, or education, or other priorities that they’ve identified. And I haven't heard the President express a particular objection to that. So I guess that’s all I’ve got to say.
Q Do you think there needs to be --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you’d have to ask state governments about that. And I think what they would tell you is that this is helpful in helping them fund the kinds of priorities that they’ve identified, particularly in this era of fiscal belt-tightening.
Q And now on to the State of the Union. Could you give us a little tick-tock as to how many drafts, how long will it take?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a metric to share with you in terms of the number of drafts that the President has gone through. I know that the President, in addition to a round a golf, devoted a significant portion of his weekend to working on the speech. I can tell you that the President’s schedule has been left pretty flexible today so that he can spend ample time working on it again. And I would anticipate that there will be even more work that’s done tonight and tomorrow. The President typically is working on the State of the Union pretty close -- up to the last minute, and i would anticipate that that will be true this year, as well.
Q Now, when the President delivers the State of the Union, talking about the state of the union -- it’s either strong or he’s optimistic or what have you -- typically, every year, when a President does this, it’s a statement of optimism, resilience, and strength. And then you have people like Donald Trump saying it’s a mess. But when any President delivers a State of the Union, isn’t there positives in the country and negatives? What would you say to this State of the Union as you have Republicans saying it’s a mess and looking at the negatives when this administration is tallying positives as well as the negatives?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President has ample reason to be quite optimistic about the capacity of the American people to confront the significant challenges that we’re facing. The President’s optimism about the country is not because he isn’t concerned about the future. His optimism about the country is characterized by his confidence in the American people and our country to overcome those challenges, and, just as importantly, to capitalize on the opportunities that exist.
There is no country in the world that is better positioned to capitalize on the kind of opportunities we see -- whether it relates to our national security or it relates to our economy -- than the United States of America. And you’ll get the opportunity tomorrow to hear directly from the President about why exactly that is.
Q And last question. Since this is more of a visionary statement, we’re at a time where we’re seeing some very divisive words about race. We’re seeing it from Justice Scalia, in many people’s opinion. We’re seeing it from the Governor of New Hampshire just in the last couple of weeks. Will the President address these --
MR. EARNEST: You mean the Governor of Maine.
Q Excuse me, I’m sorry -- yes. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Forgive me, I’ve been on vacation. Yeah, but we’re seeing it from -- seeing these words from officials who lead or judge in some shape or form in this United States system. Will the President speak to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, stay tuned.
Q Can you give me more than that?
MR. EARNEST: Not today.
Q Thanks, Josh. Congress is considering a package of changes to the Freedom of Information law, which would basically codify the presumption of openness and strengthen the office responsible for oversight of FOIA issues. It has bipartisan support. Does it have the White House’s support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, we’ll obviously take a close look at the legislation. There’s one thing that I’m confident they could do that would strengthen this proposal -- you think you know what I’m going to say?
Q Include themselves?
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. And I would expect that the press corps that spends so much time covering Congress and covering government and demanding transparency would have those same kinds of questions for Congress. Congress is the one writing the rules. And right now they're writing the rules in such a way that they don't have to play by them. I don't think that's particularly a, frankly, American way to pursue this.
Part of our government is about making sure that we're all playing by the same set of rules. And the basis of this legislation is that the American people have a right to know more about what’s happening inside their government. I don't understand why Congress doesn't think the American people don't have a right to understand exactly what’s happening in the Congress. So we certainly would encourage them to consider adding that to their proposal.
When it comes to the administration’s views on this, we feel like we’ve got a pretty strong record. I’ll just walk through a couple of highlights. In fiscal year 2014, the administration processed 647,142 FOIA requests. That number of letters doesn't get responded to unless you're serious about trying to fulfill your responsibility to run the most transparent government in history.
More than 91 percent of the FOIA requests that were processed by the administration resulted in the person making the request receiving some or all of the requested information.
But part of our commitment to transparency is actually reflected in our efforts to put out information before we're even asked about it. And if you visit data.gov -- which I’m sure all of you have done -- there are more than 180,000 data sets and collections that have been made available on data.gov. And consistent with our commitment to transparency, the administration has said that that information should be presented in machine-readable format so that when you're considering those data sets, you can slice and dice the numbers and actually help the American people learn a little bit more about what’s happening in their government and in their world.
And so these are some of the reasons that we obviously are quite proud of the work that we have done to make government more transparent and more accessible, and wish that Congress, while they're writing these rules, would follow suit.
Q A House panel concluded -- a Republican-led House panel concluded in a recent report that the entire FOIA process is “broken,” and I think we’ve seen some really high profile incidents of this at the State Department, for example, over Secretary Clinton’s record and the fact that there are I think a couple dozen lawsuits against the agency over that. But there have also been questions raised about transparency at other agencies and parts of the federal government. Has -- you rattle off some statistics -- but as a philosophical question, has access to information gotten better during the Obama administration? Have these agencies lived up to their responsibilities and the standard you set as the most transparency administration in history?
MR. EARNEST: There is no denying that we have made improvements in a way that have led people to have a better understanding of exactly what’s happening in their government and making their government more transparent. And that includes releasing a whole lot of information even before we're asked. And that is -- let me give you another example of that. On a regular basis, the White House puts out a list of just about everybody who visits the White House. I’ll remind you that the previous administration went to the Supreme Court to try to prevent the release of that information. And this is something that we release on a voluntary basis on a regular schedule. So, yes, our record on this is good and transparency has improved.
Let me also state that the commitment to transparency means constantly working to improve that process even more. And I’m confident that those of you who are advocates for transparency believe that there is a lot more that we can and should be doing to provide more information and we certainly do strive to live up to the goal that the President -- the ambitious goal that the President set at the beginning to ensure that he’s presiding over the most transparent White House in history, and that those kinds of -- that that commitment to transparency also extends to a variety of government agencies.
And when it comes to the State Department, yes, there have been some disputes about this. But again, I would encourage you to take a look at the results, which is that you have the former Secretary of State releasing all of her work-related emails, consistent with the FOIA process. So, again, I think the outcome here is evidence of the kind of commitment to transparency that the President has championed.
Q Josh, you mentioned visits to the White House. Yesterday Denis McDonough said that Senator Sanders had had a visit with President Obama. What can you tell us about that?
MR. EARNEST: It was a private meeting, so not very much.
Q When was it -- you know when it was?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have details about when the meeting took place, but the President has had an opportunity -- has had multiple opportunities, both in private, one-on-one interactions, as well as in interactions with the broader Senate Democratic caucus, to visit with Senator Sanders. And I certainly wouldn’t rule out future sit-downs in the future.
Q And why did Denis -- and I think you did this a little bit on Friday -- why are you guys taking credit for Senator Sanders’ movement on gun control? And do you also believe that Secretary Clinton has maybe moved in your direction a little bit because of the President’s actions on guns over the years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the reason is that when the President published an op-ed suggesting that he would only support candidates who share his commitment to common-sense gun safety laws that we saw Senator Sanders’ office indicate that Senator Sanders has said that he was more open to those kinds of laws than he had been in the past. It’s not a direct quote, but I think that's consistent with the spirit of what they have said.
Q And you think they did that because of the op-ed, because of the concern that maybe President Obama would not campaign for Senator Sanders in the future?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to ask him about that. I think the point --
Q Do you think he would need President Obama’s assistance up in Vermont were he running for reelection for a Senate seat, for example?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again -- I don't have to tell you this -- he’s not running for reelection as senator, he’s actually running for President of the United States. And I’m confident that whoever the Democratic nominee is, they're going to be pretty eager to have President Obama’s support. So I can certainly understand why this is something that Senator Sanders is talking about quite a bit.
Q Do you think it was necessary movement on his part? Is the President pleased that Senator Sanders has moved in his direction since the publication of that op-ed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we saw some pretty direct comments from Senator Sanders over the weekend. I understand he did a town hall meeting or some sort of public event in Iowa where he noted that he supports changing laws that currently allow gun manufacturers who have acted irresponsibly to avoid accountability. And the President believes that the opposite should be true, that gun manufacturers should be held accountable for their products and for their business practices, and we obviously were pleased to see Senator Sanders’s comments. And that's consistent with the kinds of values and priorities that you’ll see from candidates that the President is prepared to campaign for next year -- or later this year.
Q Is he trying to help Hillary Clinton a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q There’s a lot of discussion about it on the Sunday talk shows.
MR. EARNEST: It sounds like I spent the last like 90 seconds talking -- saying good things about Senator Sanders’s commitment to common-sense gun laws, so I have a feeling I’m more likely to hear from my friends in the Clinton campaign than my friends in the Sanders campaign right now.
Q I bet the folks in the Clinton campaign would probably like it if you were saying that we're glad we got Senator Sanders to move in our direction a little bit.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say that we were pleased to see his comments over the weekend and they are certainly consistent with the kinds of priorities that we would expect candidates who are seeking the President’s support to prioritize on the campaign trail. And the President is quite serious about this. If there are Democratic candidates who aren’t willing to walk the walk and live up to a commitment to advancing common-sense gun laws, then they should look elsewhere for support for their campaigns.
Q And let me ask you about this last State of Union. Are you concerned that after the State of Union, the public’s focus will shift away from the White House and to the campaign trail, and folks aren’t going to pay attention to what you're doing anymore and that sort of thing? And how are you planning to deal with that? You're still working for the President of the United States, so you got that going on for you.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that's certainly true. (Laughter.)
Q Is that a concern? Is that a concern?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I got a lot of people asking me this question back in November of 2014, after Democrats had been beaten badly in the midterm election. And there were a lot of questions about whether or not the President was going to be able to, A, stay relevant; and B, advance his agenda. And I think when you take a look at all that we accomplished over the course of the last year -- reaching an international agreement on climate change; reaching an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and Republicans not being able to even muster a vote of disapproval in the Congress. We advanced the President’s ability to negotiate trade agreements that we believe will have long-term positive consequences for our economy. We passed a budget agreement that included an additional $50 billion over and above sequester levels to ensure we're adequately funding our economic and national security priorities. We’ve reauthorized the Export-Import Bank. We finally long overdue reform of the IMF through. We got a transportation bill done that guaranteed five years of funding. We believe there’s more funding that should be done, but getting a five-year commitment to that funding is important. We reformed the “No Child Left Behind” law so we can make sure that students aren’t facing too much testing.
And all of that happened since many pundits were prepared to say the President was irrelevant and unable to advance his agenda.
Q And on the -- you made this announcement earlier about SnapChat.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q What’s the President going to be doing on Snapchat? (Laughter.) Is he going to Snapchat with Hillary Clinton? (Laughter.) The messages disappear.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir. (Laughter.) I missed a good one. What did I miss?
Q She made that remarks in the past that the messages disappear.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll check the tape.
Q That's what she likes about Snapchat.
MR. EARNEST: I see. I see. Look, we have unveiled the White House Snapchat function. And we certainly are hopeful that people will take a look at it and follow the White House. It is just another tool for us to try to communicate with the American public about what’s happening here at the White House.
And apropos of Byron’s question, I am confident that we will ensure that even though the Snapchat messages disappear, that they are properly recorded for posterity’s sake. (Laughter.)
Q They will be archived.
MR. EARNEST: They will be.
Q Okay. And Snapchat is aware of that, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: We’ve been able to work this out with them. I’m not sure exactly how, but we have.
Q I don't know how it works either.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, good.
MR. EARNEST: Margaret.
Q Josh, I want to go back to what you said earlier about GOP candidates were shaping the mindset of some Americans with an “avalanche of negativity.” Does the President see the State of the Union tomorrow as his chance to burnish his legacy and set the stage for a Democrat to follow him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President sees this as an opportunity to talk to the country bluntly about the challenges that we face and the opportunities that are there for the taking, and if we're going to successfully confront these challenges, it’s important that we understand exactly what they are. So you will hear the President talk about that.
You’ll also hear the President talk about why he is so confident about our ability to meet those challenges. And when it comes to the opportunities that are available for the taking for the United States, no country in the world is better positioned to capitalize on those opportunities than the United States.
And that ultimately is the essence of the message that the President wants to deliver, precisely because the next president needs to understand that and the American people need to understand that. They need to have an accurate assessment of what our challenges are, what the risks are out there, but also have an adequate understanding of what opportunities are available so that we don't miss them.
And we are at a critical juncture in our history. We've spent seven years digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And thanks primarily to the grit and determination of the American people and American entrepreneurs and American innovators, we've made a lot of progress -- such that the United States’ economy is now the envy of the world.
And the question is, where do we go from here? What do we do to make sure that we can lock in prosperity for future generations of Americans, but also make sure that that prosperity is shared not just with those at the top, but with middle-class families and those families that are working really hard to try to get into the middle class.
So that's the essence of the message that the President wants to deliver. But I'm confident he'll deliver it much more articulately than I just have.
Q But given the “avalanche of negativity,” as you said, and given the approval ratings of where they are, would you say the President feels like he needs to be on the offensive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President feels like this is a good opportunity, when you have the attention of the Congress and the American people, to help people understand this case. Look, if the President wanted to give a speech about what the President has been able to do over the last seven years, we’d have plenty to talk about. But the President is delivering a speech that's not about him; it's about the American people and about the future of our country, and about how our kids and their kids are going to fare.
And he understands quite clearly that the kinds of decisions that he will make over the course of the next year and that the next president will have to make during their tenure in office will have a substantial impact on whether or not we pass on a country to the next generation of Americans that is as strong, that is as secure, that is as prosperous and is as fair as the United States has ever been. That is a tremendous opportunity that we have, but it is directly contingent on the kinds of decisions that we make right now.
So the stakes are high, and, frankly, the stakes are higher than any one president or any one Congress. But they will have a long-term impact on the kind of country that we pass on to future generations of Americans.
Q This will be Paul Ryan’s first State of the Union as Speaker.
MR. EARNEST: I'm sure he'll enjoy the view from the great front-row seat that he'll have.
Q Well, does the President see this as sort of a fresh start with Congress? Or is one of the reasons why he’s not walking in with this laundry list of legislative items because he knows he can't really get anything done, regardless of who the Speaker is with the Congress he’s facing now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a lot that we've been able to get done just since Paul Ryan entered his office a couple of months ago. Many of the things that I talked about in answering Jim’s question related to IMF reform and reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, and a budget agreement that includes a bunch of the priorities that we've long championed -- a transportation deal, “No Child Left Behind” legislation -- all of that was work that we were able to do by trying to find common ground with Paul Ryan.
We certainly don't agree with him -- President Obama doesn’t agree with him on every issue. I'm not even sure we agree on most issues. But there is common ground that can be found. And by seizing that common ground we can do something good for the American people. And so the President is optimistic that we'll be able to continue to work constructively with Speaker Ryan in the year that remains in the Obama presidency.
Q Do you expect that the President will once again pledge and promise that he will shut down Guantanamo Bay? Today I believe is the 14-year anniversary. He hasn’t succeeded in doing so at this point.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know exactly how the President will discuss this in his speech. To go back to April’s question, I anticipate that there will be more than one draft between now and 9:00 p.m. tomorrow night. But regardless of how the President talks about this in the speech, I can tell you that the President’s commitment to achieving that national security priority is as strong as ever.
And it often gets lost in the political debate, but the President’s view that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is in our national security interest is a view that is shared not just by Democratic foreign policy experts, but even by Republican foreign policy experts that served the previous President, and include the previous President. So this is something the President is going to keep fighting for over the course of the next year.
Q There’s been three detainees released over about the past week to 10 days. So is this chipping away at the detainee population the most the President can get done at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this chipping away at the population -- that included the announcement from the Department of Defense just this morning that an additional Gitmo detainee had been transferred to Saudi Arabia -- certainly is what we can do right now. And we have made some progress in reducing the population at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But ultimately, to accomplish the goal of closing it, we're going to need Congress to remove some obstacles that have prevented it thus far.
Q Thanks, Josh. And congrats on your Chiefs.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, sir.
Q I want to begin by asking about Officer Hartnett in Philadelphia. Has the White House in any way reached out to him directly? Has the President been in contact with him at all, and is there a plan to do so?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that White House officials have been in touch with officials in Philadelphia. I'm not aware of any personal contact with the officer at this point. Last I heard, he was still in the hospital. But we certainly are closely monitoring this case, and Officer Hartnett has certainly been on the hearts and minds of everybody here at the White House, including the President and the First Lady.
Q You mentioned earlier that because the Philadelphia Police Department and others are still working on this that you couldn't make necessarily a terror designation meaning, despite the fact that this particular perpetrator claimed to be a devotee of ISIS. Has that changed at all? Are you not feeling like that is something that would push you closer to making the declarative statement that this was obviously something that was terror related?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, obviously those reports lead us to worry that this could be an act of terrorism. And I'm sure that's part of the ongoing investigation that's being led by the Philadelphia Police Department right now.
The FBI has been supporting that investigation and there obviously is keen interest in trying to understand what may have motivated this individual to carry out this deplorable act of violence. And it is relevant whether or not this individual was motivated by demons inside of his own mind, or by demons that he encountered through social media. And either way, we want to make sure that we are mindful of the steps that we can take to mitigate the risk that is posed by this individual or others like him across the country.
Certainly one thing that we can do is to keep guns out of the hands of people like him. And somebody who is planning to carry out a terrorist act or somebody who has significant mental problems is something who shouldn’t be able to so easily get their hands on a gun. And so we're pretty mindful of that as well.
Q I want to ask you, speaking out about the State of the Union, could you maybe give me three words to describe -- I know it's a bit of a preview -- the President’s intentions in this year’s State of the Union?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if I can shrink it down to three words, but I can certainly tell you that the President intends to use this opportunity to convey his optimism about the future of the country and to convey his optimism about the ability of this country to confront the challenges that are ahead of us, but also to capitalize on the opportunities that are there for the take.
Q Would you expect him to acknowledge some of the promises that have not yet been fulfilled, as well, including closing the prison at Guantanamo, including ending the war in Afghanistan, maybe even comprehensive reform on immigration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, some of those things that you mentioned are things that haven't happened because they were specifically blocked by members of Congress, and at least one of them was something that was blocked by Republicans in Congress. So I’m not sure the President can be held accountable for that.
But surely the President -- well, I’ll let you watch the speech tomorrow and conclude for yourself.
Q Thanks, Josh. I understand that you say that this is not a political document, but do you deny that part of the aim, at least, is to help whoever the Democratic candidate is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I think what is clear is that those who are closely following this election -- presumably that includes all of you, but also includes many Americans -- will take in the President’s speech in the political context in which he’s giving it. And there’s no denying that. But the President is actually going to try to do something tomorrow that he regularly challenges Washington politicians to do, which is to look beyond the next election and actually consider the fate of the next generation of Americans. That’s what’s really on his mind.
Will there be candidates in either party -- some Republican candidates trying to use this to advance their campaigns? Will there be Democratic candidates for President trying to use the President’s message to advance their campaigns? I’m sure that will happen. And I’m not even sure that's inappropriate. But that's not what’s motivating the President of the United States right now. What this President has the opportunity to do -- because he’s not on the ballot for the next election -- he’s got an opportunity to lay out for the American people the longer-term challenges that we face, but also the longer-term opportunities that exist.
And if our goal really is to pass on an America that is stronger, more secure, and more prosperous to not just the next generation of Americans but to the kids of the next generation of Americans, then the decisions that we make today matter. And that's what the President is mindful of every day in the Oval Office. And tomorrow will be an opportunity for giving the American people the opportunity to get a little behind-the-scenes look at the President’s thinking on this.
Q He’s not on the ballot, but his legacy is. And he’s got this -- you've all stated and he has stated that your goal is to get a Democrat elected so that his policies will not be under threat; that some of the important things that you feel that have happened over the course of the last seven years will continue. So at least in that context, is this a political speech?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I am not confident that -- the President certainly does want a successor who has the same set of priorities that he does and is interested in trying to build on the important progress that we’ve made over the last seven years. That certainly is something that the President is interested in. But again, the speech the President will give tomorrow will be focused less on the next election and much more on the interests of the next generation of Americans.
Q Can I ask you about the humanitarian crisis in the Syrian town on the Lebanese border and the concern by some humanitarian groups about what is causing that? Doctors Without Borders now says at least in one of their clinics, 28 people, including six babies, have been killed. And the suggestion has been made that part of what’s motivating it is, frankly, a failure of international powers who have been looking to get the warring factions to come to the negotiating table and, as a result, are kind of ignoring international law. Are you concerned that the efforts to end the war there are actually contributing to the humanitarian crisis? And what are the White House’s thoughts overall about what’s happening there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, the situation that we see in these graphic images and what you've just described are no less than heartbreaking. And these are innocent Syrians who are caught in the middle of terrible chaos and terrible violence.
Many of the people that are in the towns that are actually getting some humanitarian relief today are people who live in towns that have been besieged by the Assad regime for years. And some of these communities are actually communities where the Assad regime had claimed to implement a ceasefire months ago, but yet it’s still a dangerous place. And again, it’s just the latest example of the terrible conduct of the Assad regime and the willingness of the Assad regime to use violence against the people that they're supposed to be governing and looking out for.
There are some estimates that there are about 400,000 people inside of Syria that are still besieged right now. And that is precisely why we are working so aggressively in the international community to try to bring about this political transition that's long overdue inside of Syria. It’s ultimately this failed political system which is the direct result of Bashar al-Assad’s failed leadership that has led to this problem. And so the sooner we can bring about that political transition, the sooner we can start to address these challenges at their root.
Q So do you reject the idea that perhaps inadvertently international efforts to intervene there are exacerbating the problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will admit I’m not entirely familiar with the argument that some are making here. Our view is that we should be doing as much as we can to provide humanitarian relief to those who are suffering. And the United States has done more than any other country to provide the kind of relief both to other countries in the region who are housing refugees, but also to those relief organizations that are providing humanitarian relief inside of Syria. And we know that there are a number of U.N.-affiliated agencies in the Red Cross that are doing heroic work to respond to this situation, and the United States has been providing financial support to those efforts. They matter.
But, ultimately, to solve this problem, we have to bring about a political transition inside of Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy to lead that country. We believe he should leave and a government that is prepared to unite Syria and to govern consistent with the will and ambition of the Syrian people should take power. And that's not going to happen overnight. This is painstaking work. And we have been focused on this for a long time, and a lot of people have died while we’ve been trying to solve this problem. There’s no denying that either. But we're working as aggressively as we can because we're mindful of the very real human toll that this situation is having on a whole lot of innocent people.
Q And just a real quick one, if I can, on El Chapo. And you praised the Mexican officials for what they did in the capture. And at least one Mexican official has been pretty widely quoted as saying that they knew about the meeting between him and Sean Penn. And I just wonder if you can give us any background leading up to this -- how closely the White House was following it, if the President was being briefed on it, and if the United States knew -- if you know if the United States knew about this meeting.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a lot of information about what exactly led to Mr. Guzman’s capture. This is obviously an effort that was led by Mexican authorities, that they’d been working basically around the clock on since he escaped. And this is not just a priority of the Mexican government. It had been a priority of the U.S. government, too. So we're obviously pleased to see the success that they’ve had in bringing him into custody and placing him under arrest. But for sort of the tick-tock of all this, I just don't have a lot of details for you.
Q Josh, is the State of Union address still as relevant as it used to be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's an open-ended, philosophical question, I guess. I guess, thinking about it for four seconds, the answer to that question is yes. I think in a political environment in which there is so much debate and so many opportunities for various candidates and others with a political agenda to make their views known on whether it’s Snapchat or something else -- that having a moment that we all acknowledge that for an hour, one day a year, the President of the United States, whoever it is, will command the attention of the United States Congress, a majority of Supreme Court justices, just about the entire Cabinet, and the television viewing audience during prime time is an important moment.
And this year’s speech, like every State of Union that takes place in an election year, will be taking place in a political environment. But ultimately this is an opportunity for the American people to hear from their President about the condition of the country and what that President’s vision is for the future of the country. And I think that is -- even in the midst of the swirl of television ads and YouTube videos, tweets, and everything else -- that having a moment where everybody is focused on one speech I think is probably a pretty good thing both for the country but also for the political debate.
Q But fewer people are focused on it. We’ve got more channels now. It used to be when you and I were growing up, there were three channels and you pretty much had to watch the State of Union address. Now you can watch “Desperate Housewives” if you --
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q You’re also speaking to a more polarized Congress, half of which is going to sit on their hands for a lot of what the President says and the other half is going to get up and applaud. It’s a different environment than it used to be. And so I guess my question is geared to trying to get at, do you acknowledge that reality? And how are you adjusting the communications strategy for this speech to acknowledge that new communication reality of YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat that you just alluded to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would say there’s no denying that this exercise has changed, but I don't think that makes it any less important. In some ways, I guess the case I’m trying to make is that it might be even more important than in an era where there was just less political communication because the technology at the time in the form of printing presses couldn’t accommodate a whole lot of more political debate.
But obviously the situation is different now. And I actually think that that makes this one moment where the country sort of acknowledges that the President gets an hour to assess the condition of the country and to offer up a prescription for confronting the challenges and capitalizing on the opportunities is as important as ever.
And we're surely going to use these new avenues for communicating that message to the American people. There will be more Snapchats. There will be more YouTube videos. Even Amazon is going to be running the State of Union address as a video-on-demand piece. So we're looking for new ways that we can capitalize on these tools to broadcast the State of Union even more broadly.
But again, in an era where the political debate is chock-full of arguments, having a moment where everybody focuses on what the President has to say is I think an important part of keeping the country together, and continuing and advancing a political debate that is up to the challenge of responding to the will of the people.
Q Josh, I want to ask you a State of Union question, but first I want to follow up on your answer to Jim’s question about Senator Sanders. You were describing the White House’s pride in being transparent about visitors. So either the President met with Senator Sanders in the last week or he met with him last year -- because the President has been away and Senator Sanders has been busy campaigning. So can I ask you again, when did that meeting take place?
MR. EARNEST: It didn't take place in the last week. It was at some point last year, but I don't know when.
Q So was it a one-on-one meeting?
MR. EARNEST: As I’ve mentioned to Jim, they’ve both had a one-on-one meeting and met in settings that included more than just the two of them.
Q And was it the meeting that the President desired to have with the Democratic candidate?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know who invited him.
Q Now I guess my State of Union question -- the State of Union -- in your answer to the question that Margaret asked you about the speech, you know that there are many Americans from both parties who are concerned about Washington being broken and the dysfunction, so what extent does the President want to use this speech as a chance to talk about his use of executive power to try leap over the body that he’ll be speaking to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, I recognize that that’s how our critics often characterize executive actions. But the fact is we have been clear at every stage that the President taking an executive action does not in any way absolve Congress of their responsibility to take action. The President didn't take action to keep guns out of the wrong hands as a way to go around Congress. He did that because he wanted to use every element of his authority to try to keep our communities and our kids safe -- or at least make them safer.
And we are just as convinced as we were the day before the President announced these actions that Congress needs to pass legislation -- common-sense steps that would, for example, close the gun show loophole, or close the no-fly, no-buy loophole that currently allows somebody who is on the no-fly list to buy a gun. We certainly believe that there is legislation that could be passed to ensure that gun manufacturers are actually held accountable both for their business practices and for their products.
So the President’s executive actions are not at all a substitute for congressional action. The same is true when it comes to minimum wage. The same is true when it comes to immigration reform.
I recognize that there are some members of Congress who are hoping that this gets them off the hook, that they can somehow use the President’s action as an excuse not to act. But they're learning the wrong lesson if that's the case they want to make.
Q One other quick follow-up. Is Mr. Buffett going to be in Omaha with the President?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure what Mr. Buffett’s schedule is.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. Again, I don't know what his schedule is. But we’ll let you know, obviously, when we get to Omaha.
Cheryl, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to talk about State of Union. And over the weekend, the White House put out a release that it’s going to be using this Genius app to annotate the speech. Is that going to be where maybe more detailed descriptions of policy proposals are going to be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a variety of places that you can go. You can surely check the White House website for more details about the President’s State of Union speech after he gives it. But there are a variety of ways in which we are hoping to help people understand exactly what the President’s ideas include.
And you've touched on another of them. This is a platform online, Genius, that allows people to essentially annotate documents to provide more information. Actually, I learned about this a little over the weekend. Apparently, this is a tool that actually was used to annotate rap lyrics, but has been appropriated for a variety of different topics. And in this case, it’s been appropriated to help people better understand what’s included in the State of Union. So, just another example of the kind of interesting tools that we're hoping to use to give people a sense of the President’s thinking about the State of Union.
All right, thanks, everybody. Tune in tomorrow.
2:09 P.M. EST