Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Joint Base Andrews, 1/14/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Joint Base Andrews
1:24 P.M. CST
MR. EARNEST: I’ll do two quick things, and then we’ll go to your questions. First, as you may have seen in the President’s Twitter Q&A today, the World Health Organization announced an end to the most recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia.
As the President said in the State of the Union, we’ll continue to have a smart, patient and disciplined foreign policy that uses every element of our national power on issues of global concern to mobilize the world to work with us and make sure other countries pull their own weight. The heroic response of our military, our doctors, and our development workers set up the platform that allowed other countries to join in behind us and stamp out this epidemic. This collaborative work saved hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of lives.
Now, while we congratulate the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea on this considerable achievement, we will remain vigilant against potential future flare-ups of the disease. The United States will continue to demonstrate leadership on this issue, just as we have since the height of the epidemic, by working closely with our West African and international partners as they recover from this devastating disease.
Secondly, as you may have seen, the Department of Defense announced today that they transferred 10 Guantanamo detainees to Oman. The transfer brings the population at Guantanamo, which previously held a total of 779 men at the facility, to 93. This is a significant milestone on the road to closing the facility. Prior to this transfer, each individual detainee had a rigorous review from our national security leadership. And consistent with the statutory requirements contained in the 2016 NDAA, the Secretary of Defense informed Congress of the President’s intent to transfer these individuals and of the Secretary’s determination that these transfers meet the statutory requirements.
The United States is thankful to all of our friends and allies that have stepped up and provided assistance as we work to close the detention facility. More than two dozen countries have repatriated their nationals or resettled detainees who could not be transferred back to their home country. In particular, we’re appreciative of the two most recent detainees -- I’m sorry, the two most recent countries to resettle detainees, Ghana and Oman.
Q Which --
THE PRESIDENT: Ghana and Oman. Oman is the nation that took this most recent transfer of 10 detainees.
We’ll continue to work diligently to reduce the prison population through safe and responsible detainee transfers to close the detention facility.
So with those two updates, I’ll now take your questions.
Q The 10 were going where?
MR. EARNEST: So there are 10 that were announced today. All 10 of those were actually Yemeni detainees and they were transferred to Oman. Part of their transfer requirements was that they would be entered into this rehabilitation program that Oman operates. And this is a program that has previously accepted individuals who were detained at the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q Josh, how many have they accepted before?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how many in total that they have taken, but it’s a substantial number -- over and above the 10 that was just announced today.
Q You said 779, as if you guys did that. You didn’t actually inherit 779. How many have you all brought it down to?
MR. EARNEST: There were 242 when President Obama took office.
Q Of those 93 that are left, how many can still be repatriated versus will never be repatriated?
MR. EARNEST: So there are another 34 of those 93 that have already been approved for transfer. So it means their case has been considered by the Periodic Review Board, and they’ve determined that, under the appropriate circumstances, it could be safe to transfer these individuals to other countries.
So there are a number of others in other categories. So there are another -- just doing the math in my head -- another 49 that are still eligible for consideration by the Periodic Review Board.
MR. EARNEST: Right. So 34 have been approved for transfer. Another 49 fall into a couple of categories that allow them to continue to be eligible for consideration by the Periodic Review Board. And then there are another 10 that are currently facing criminal charges.
It’s confusing because they divide up the numbers in a variety of ways. But I think the most relevant number is that there are another 34 that are eligible for transfer; we just need to find the right place and the right conditions for the transfer.
Q So it’s 10 permanent detainees that are going to Charleston or somewhere in the United States eventually when you do an order?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily. These are 10 individuals who -- we’re not in the process of trying to transfer them, because we’ve determined that they face -- that we could actually -- that we have the necessary evidence to bring criminal charges against them through either the military commission process or even the Article III courts. So again, they don’t sort of break down cleanly along these different categories, but that’s the case.
Q House Republicans today are complaining that the administration has a mad rush of -- their words -- “mad rush” to move detainees out, and are considering some legislation to call for more transparency in the process. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is certainly true that the administration is working diligently to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, including by transferring detainees who can be placed in situations where we have confidence that the threat to the United States can be mitigated. In fact, before those transfers can occur, the Secretary of Defense has to personally attest that the proper conditions are in place to mitigate the threat that that individual can pose to the United States. And that certification has to be presented to Congress. In fact, that certification actually has to be presented to Congress 30 days before the transfer can occur. So there already is significant transparency into this process.
So, look, on this one there is a disagreement on the part of House Republicans who don’t think that we should close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The problem is, for those House Republicans, it’s not a disagreement between them and a bunch of Democrats who are currently in the White House; they also disagree with the Republicans who were previously in the White House, who also believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed and it’s in our national security interest to close it. And the idea that we’re spending $4 million per year, per detainee, to continue to operate the prison is not a good use of taxpayer dollars. There are much more effective ways that we can address the national security interests of the United States.
Q What is the status of the plan the administration is supposed to be sending to Congress for how to close Guantanamo?
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Defense continues to work on that plan. And once they have a final -- a plan that they can present to Congress, we’ll do that. We’ll also share it with all of you so that you all understand exactly our thinking and the numbers behind our strategy. So this is obviously something that we look forward to discussing.
I’ll just say that I would not anticipate a lot of surprises. I think we’ve been quite transparent about what our strategy is for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. There are some additional numbers and some more information that we can provide, and we’ll do that in the course of this plan. But you guys all have a good sense of how this strategy works.
Q Should we expect that to come in the form of legislation first, before an executive order?
MR. EARNEST: The President has made clear that we want to work with Congress to try to achieve this national security goal. And that is the first order of business.
Q And is there any reason to think that that -- the anniversary of the order is coming up in about a week, the one that happened his first week in office. Is there any reason to expect that that legislation will come between now and that anniversary, as a benchmark, as a time mark?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t have a good sense of the timing. I mean, look, we’ve been hinting since July that we would be presenting a plan soon. So as soon as we have a plan to present to Congress, we’ll share it with all of you.
Q Can you talk a little bit about what’s going on in Chicago today? They’re going to release another one of these videos with a police shooting. Has the President been briefed on that? And has he been talking to Rahm Emanuel about the situation there? And what are his thoughts -- I guess his confidence level -- that Rahm is going to be able to pull Chicago out of everything that’s gone on?
MR. EARNEST: The President is certainly following the news about some of the challenges facing local law enforcement officials in his hometown. What is happening in Chicago, however, is not unique. There are a variety of other communities across the country that are struggling to strengthen the bonds of trust between the local police department and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect.
But Chicago’s challenges are significant. The good news is that Mayor Emanuel has taken full responsibility for solving this problem. He’s made some changes already, at the highest levels of the police department. He clearly is taking steps that he thinks are responsive to some of the concerns that have been expressed by leaders in the community in an effort to try to rebuild that trust.
What’s also happening in Chicago is they’re dealing with the kind of gun violence that also is all too common particularly in large communities across the country.
So this is a difficult challenge. The view of the President -- and I also think it happens to be the view of Mayor Emanuel, and you can check with him -- that the ability of law enforcement in Chicago to address the gun violence that they’re seeing in a variety of communities there will be enhanced if they can improve the police department’s relationship with the community -- if they can strengthen the bonds of trust between the police department and these individual communities.
There is a sense among some that somehow improving relationships between law enforcement and members of the community is at odds with fighting crime. In fact, it’s the opposite -- that improving the relationship between law enforcement and leaders in the community is actually going to enhance the ability of the police department to fight crime. And Mayor Emanuel understands that. That certainly is one of the reasons that President Obama has made this a priority.
And when it comes to the President’s confidence in Mayor Emanuel, obviously the President knows the mayor quite well, and they’ve worked together on a number of issues, particularly early in their term. But ultimately, it will be the voters of the city of Chicago, it will be up to them to decide whether or not the mayor has done enough to address this problem. The next election is not for another three years.
So the voters will have an opportunity to render their judgment about Mayor Emanuel’s leadership. But, look, to his credit, he had done what good leaders do, which is take responsibility for solving what is clearly a significant problem. And he has accepted the fact that voters and the citizens of Chicago should hold him accountable for the success that he has in addressing this significant challenge. And he’s obviously hard at work on that.
Q You said at the top that this wasn’t something that was unique, that we've seen incidents like this across the country. And I think that's true. But what is unique about Chicago is that this doesn’t seem to be dying down. There seems to be more coming out about this, more incidents and more questions about transparency and Rahm’s administration. So does the President have any concerns that this is going to continue to snowball, and has he talked to Rahm about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any presidential conversations to tell you about. Again, I think this is something that Chicago has in common with other cities across the country, that there is greater awareness among more citizens in more cities that parts of their community have a real distrust of local law enforcement. And there is a responsibility of the leaders in those communities to step forward and offer constructive solutions and to make their voices heard in a peaceful, responsible way. But there’s also a significant responsibility that is borne by city officials and by leaders in law enforcement to try to bridge those divides. And the ability of law enforcement to bridge those divides is only going to make law enforcement more effective and more successful in fighting crime. And that ultimately is our goal here.
Q The Medicaid proposal he talked about today -- the Medicaid proposal -- is there any reason to think Congress might actually approve that? Or is this just floating another idea that's not going to go anywhere with Republicans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know there clearly is Republican resistance to anything that would strengthen the Affordable Care Act and expand health care to people who need it. That's unfortunate. I think what’s different about this dynamic, though, Peter, is that there are a lot of Republican leaders outside of Washington, D.C. who recognize that Medicaid expansion can have significant benefits for their state.
So let me give you one example. Governor Mike Pence, by all accounts a conservative Republican, even recognized by his former congressional colleagues as a conservative Republican, recently worked with the Obama administration just last year to expand Medicaid in his state. Congress passing the President’s budget proposal would actually ensure that for the first three years, as they implement this proposal in Indiana, that the federal government would be picking up a hundred percent of the tab.
So it's not just the President that's going to be making the case that Congress should act on this proposal, conservative Republican Governor Mike Pence will be making the case that Congress should pass this proposal.
Q (Inaudible) Republican governor asked him to lobby?
MR. EARNEST: We know that there are other Republicans who have indicated publicly their interest in trying to expand Medicaid who also will be advocates for this legislation. The Republican governor of Wyoming is an example of this. There are Republican legislators in Nebraska who are looking to expand Medicaid in their state. The Republican governor of the state is against it, but these Republican state legislators will certainly be advocating that -- for example, the two Republican senators from Nebraska in the United States Senate, they’ll be advocating that they support this legislation.
So because of the way that Medicaid expansion doesn’t break down cleanly along party lines outside of Washington, D.C., we actually find that Medicaid expansion across the country is something that tends to get some bipartisan support. And we tend to mobilize that bipartisan support outside of Washington, D.C. to pressure Congress to adopt this proposal.
Q The President did a Twitter Q&A today. How does that work? Does he type? Do you type? Who picks the questions? How does that work?
MR. EARNEST: The President types. The staff will curate a broader pool of relevant questions that the President may want to answer, and so he'll look through those questions and decide for himself which ones he wants to answer.
QPaul Ryan asked one question about closing Guantanamo, what authority the President had. Do you know whether the President -- whether that question ever got to the President from the curated pile? And did you consider answering Speaker Ryan on Twitter?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think we -- we did not discuss whether or not to answer Speaker Ryan’s questions. This was an opportunity for people across the country to ask a question of the President, and I think the President took a pretty broad cross-section of stuff, including some lighter questions, as well.
Q Josh, you guys were very pleased last week that he had questions at his town hall on CNN that were from people who disagreed with him, and you’ve talked about how you’d like to have more of that. You didn’t have a lot of people disagreeing with him here yesterday. Are you disappointed by that? Or is there something you’d like to do to change that?
MR. EARNEST: I think what it might reflect, Peter, is the difference in a media organization organizing the event and an event where the broader public is invited. In some cases, the audience is a little self-selecting. The President’s most enthusiastic supporters are the people who are going to be most enthusiastic about standing in line and working hard to get the limited supply of tickets.
So I think you never really know what you're going to get in those kinds of town hall settings. And today it did happen to be almost exclusively supporters of the President who asked some questions. It's not because we chose the audience; I think it's because the audience chose themselves. And I think you did see the President make an attempt to call on a cross-section of people who attended the event -- men and women, young and old, white and black. But you never really know what you're going to get at these kinds of events.
Q Josh, I wanted to refer to Speaker Ryan. I know they’ve spoken on the phone a number of times, but is there a reason they still haven't sat down with each other yet, done some sort of longer, formal meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s just say the President is hoping that's something they’ll be able to do relatively soon.
Q And I want to ask about “Thirteen Hours,” the Michael Bay movie about the Benghazi attacks. Is that something the President plans to see, wants to see? And we've seen cooperation in the past with “Zero Dark Thirty,” and movies like that. Was there any request for, or cooperation by any entity in the government?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I don't know if there was a request for information for the federal government to cooperate with the making of that film. I know that there’s a wing at the Department of Defense that’s actually dedicated to coordinating with movie studios in making those kinds of films to ensure that they’re realistic. I don't know if that took place with regard to this movie.
Q Has he seen it?
I don't think the President has seen it. And I don't know, frankly, whether or not he'll see it. It looks like an entertaining film, high-production values, and obviously Michael Bay is an action movie director who has made some pretty entertaining movies. So I wouldn't rule out that the President would see it.
Q Is there any concern about the political subtext of this? Obviously, it’s an issue in the 2016 campaign with Secretary Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Not that much. I mean, I think that even Michael Bay would tell you that he was trying to put together a movie for entertainment value, not for historic value.
Q The President specifically ruled out Michelle Obama running for President. Does that denial include Senate or other elective offices? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I haven't checked with him, but given the emphatic way in which he answered the question, I would assume it would apply to any elective office.
Q Can I ask about Jakarta, the attacks in Indonesia? This may be important for two reasons. One is that it’s a major sort of moderate example of democratic governance in the Islamic world; and two, because of President Obama’s own childhood years spent in Indonesia, an affinity for Indonesia. Have you spoken with him about the attacks? Does he have concerns both personally for a place this close to his heart, or because it's been sort of off-limits for now -- ISIS and related activities have been contained to different parts of the world. Do you have concerns about this potentially sliding toward Indonesia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that everyone at the White House offers our sincere condolences to those who were killed in today’s heinous terrorist attacks. We saw an innocent loss of life from these violent terrorist attacks, and our thoughts and prayers are with those who were affected.
The government of Indonesia has developed a strong security and counterterrorism relationship with the United States, and that relationship has made the citizens of both of our countries safer. I would expect that that security relationship will only strengthen as we work together to fight the scourge of violent extremism.
Look, as you point out, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, and there is a long tradition inside of Indonesia of moderation and the acceptance of other faiths and of the variety of ways that people pursue the Muslim faith inside of Indonesia. That certainly contributes to the rich diversity that makes Indonesia such an interesting place.
What’s also true is that over the course of Indonesia’s history, there have been spasms of violence. So I think that's what gives us confidence, and certainly even the President confidence, that the people of Indonesia will come together to confront this extremist threat.
And we know that -- I'll defer to the Indonesian authorities who are investigating this matter about who precisely is responsible for this terrorist attack, but we know that there are extremist organizations like ISIL that are using social media to try to radicalize people around the world, including in Indonesia. And you’ll recall, when the President traveled to Malaysia last fall, we had a discussion about how Malaysia is actually going to host one of these fusion centers that will organize our efforts online to combat extremism in the region by trying to counter the messaging of extremist organizations. And so we're obviously going to work with Malaysia in that effort.
And so we're mindful of the strategy that these extremist organizations have used not just -- in Indonesia and around the world, and we're going to redouble our efforts to fight it. But there certainly is a responsibility that Muslim leaders have to stand up and speak out against ISIL’s efforts to radicalize people online.
Q Iran -- again, has the President watched that video of the sailors with their hands on their heads? And is there any concern -- I guess, what does the White House, what does the President make of that? Because there are concerns growing online and other reports that this might violate the Geneva Convention and be some propaganda video from Iran.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, we're still looking to determine what exactly were the circumstances that led to this particular incident. I can tell you the President has seen the pictures and he’s obviously interested in learning more about the situation. Obviously our sailors have only been returned to U.S. hands in just the last 48 hours or so. And the Department of Defense is leading the investigation to find out what happened. The President certainly expects to get a briefing on what they’re able to learn.
But, again, I think what this situation underscores is the value of the diplomatic engagement that Secretary Kerry has pursued with his Iranian counterpart and their ability to quickly enter into diplomatic discussions, what is critical to our ability to resolve the situation promptly.
Q That had to be a pretty scary situation for those sailors to be taken into Iranian custody. I mean, they’re fairly young. Is there any chance that the President would, in the coming days, maybe call some of them to reassure them, or anything of that sort?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any plans to do so right now. But if something like that were to happen, we'll try to let you know. Obviously our men and women in uniform serve in dangerous places all around the world, and obviously operating a naval vessel, particularly a relatively small one, in the Persian Gulf entails significant risk. And it is a good reminder of how there are -- some of the finest men and women that our country has to offer on a daily basis put their lives on the line to keep us safe. And this is a reminder of what those risks entail. Fortunately, this particular incident did not result in any loss of life.
All right, thank you, guys.
1:42 P.M. CST