Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/19/2016
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:06 P.M. EST
Q The Patriots --
MR. EARNEST: Well --
Q You must have lost a bet.
MR. EARNEST: I did lose a bet to -- (laughter) -- resident Patriots fan here at the White House, Jen Friedman, and I had a little bet over the weekend, and it did not go my way. So I’ll be sipping from this mug. I can tell you that the --
MR. EARNEST: I probably will be over the course of today.
Q It’s deflated, I hear.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. It is.
Q -- dissing the Chiefs by using the Royals mug before? You could have had a Chiefs mug and it could all be different. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe so. What I had planned, though, is that by using the Royals mug it was going to sort of confer some good luck on the Chiefs. But it didn’t quite work out that way. But the Chiefs had a great year, and obviously they won 11 games in a row. And, Kevin, I think you and I even had the opportunity to talk about how the team would recover from a difficult loss early in the year.
Q We did.
MR. EARNEST: And we discussed how it would be pretty revealing in terms of the character of the team, and a team that endured a string of losses at the beginning but then came back to win 11 in a row is I think testament to their character. But it’s actually your team that ended up in the AFC championship game.
Q I’m very excited about that.
MR. EARNEST: So it should be a fun weekend.
So now that we have the football pleasantries out of the way, we can get down to business, and we’ve got plenty of business to talk about.
Josh, why don’t you go ahead and get us started with some questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Quiet weekend for you?
MR. EARNEST: I was going to say -- it was anything other than a traditional, quiet three-day weekend in Washington, D.C. But obviously it was a great weekend for the country and for the families of those who had been deprived of the company of their loved ones for far too long. And there obviously was a lot of work that went into the efforts that culminated this weekend, but also a lot of celebrating going on, too.
Q Well, I’m sure there will be some questions on Iran, but I want to start actually with immigration. If the Supreme Court rules in your favor later this year, on the immigration plan, how long would it take the White House to execute that plan to shield these people from deportation? And is there a plan in place to frontload that in the few remaining months that you’ll have before this administration comes to an end?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I want to be careful about being respectful for the Supreme Court. Obviously, they’re going to hear the arguments on both sides. We’ve got a lot of confidence in the legal arguments that we’ll be making before the court. The kinds of executive actions that the President took a little over a year ago now to try to bring some much-needed reforms and greater accountability to our broken immigration system were clearly consistent with the precedent that was established by other Presidents, and clearly within the confines of his authority as President of the United States. That is certainly the -- that’s the nature of the argument that will be presented to the Court.
And it should be noted that there’s one state, Texas, that’s sort of leading the charge against these executive actions before the Supreme Court, but I’ll note that there are 15 other states and the District of Columbia that have filed paperwork indicating they strongly support the implementation of these executive actions. And there are actually law enforcement officials inside the state of Texas that are hoping -- and have, again, communicated to the Court as well -- that are hoping that these executive actions will be able to go into force because it will make their communities inside the state of Texas safer.
So we’ve got a strong argument to make both in terms of the legal ground on which we’re operating, but also in terms of the practical impact, positive impact that these executive actions will have on the security of communities all across the country, a positive impact on our economy, and obviously a positive impact on thousands of families inside the United States.
Q And given that all the Republican candidates are saying that they would tear this up as they came into office, are you comfortable, if this goes your way and you have a chance to execute this, asking these immigrants, who are here illegally, to come out of the shadows and identify themselves? I mean, aren’t you asking them to really put themselves out on a limb, considering what could come next?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, this was an argument that was made by some in advance of the President’s -- the administration’s decision to implement DACA. This is essentially -- that would allow DREAMers, those individuals who entered the United States as young children, and giving them a status -- has given them the ability to live out the kind of life that’s in the best interest of the country.
The President announced these executive actions in an election year, in 2012. And there were some who suggested that there might not be a significant number of people who would sign up for this program because it could be reversed by a President who succeeded Barack Obama. And we’ve actually seen a pretty strong take-up rate when it comes to these DREAM Act protections that are extended, like I said, to individuals who entered the United States as children, essentially through no fault of their own.
And so, again, it’s hard to apply one case to the other, but the recent evidence that we can point to would indicate that there are a lot of people who would benefit from this decision who would take advantage of the benefits as soon as they possibly could. And the good news is that the benefits are not just going to be enjoyed by individuals who qualify, but also would be enjoyed by the broader country and by our economy. Like I said, there are law enforcement officials across the country who believe that the successful implementation of these executive actions would make their communities safer because it would focus law enforcement resources on felons and others who posed a threat to the community, and not on separating families. And there’s been some academic work that’s been done by the President’s economic advisers that indicate the broader economic benefit for the country is pretty significant when you take a look at the impact it would have on economic growth over the course of 10 years.
Q And I wanted to ask you about the Democratic debate on Sunday. The President was a hot topic in South Carolina.
MR. EARNEST: So I heard.
Q And Hillary Clinton, in particular, accusing Sanders of campaigning against the President and of not being sufficiently supportive of his agenda. Does the President at this point have any opinion or thoughts about which of the Democratic candidates is best positioned to carry on his agenda?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t be surprised if the President does have an opinion about that. It’s not one that he’s communicated publicly because presumably it would have an impact on his decision about who he plans to support in the primary. But at this point, the President is not prepared to offer up an endorsement. But reading the coverage of the debate, I think it is apparent that there are -- that the Democratic candidates are pretty enthusiastic about the progress that the country has made under the leadership of President Obama. And I think each of them made pretty clear that, if given the opportunity to serve as President of the United States, they would look to build on the important progress that we’ve made. And that’s obviously -- it certainly beats the alternative and it certainly is a testament to the amount of progress that we’ve made, and we’re pleased to hear it.
Q So if a Republican wins the White House, how will you ensure that the immigration action, should you be successful in the Supreme Court case, isn’t turned off on January 21st? Is there some way to secure the longevity of that?
MR. EARNEST: I think the most effective way for us to secure the longevity of these reforms is to actually have Congress pass legislation that would enact them. And there is strong support for that across the country, but strong opposition to that in the House Republican conference. That’s unfortunate. But look, that is the difference -- this is why -- or at least one of the important reasons why we’ve often made the case that the President taking executive action does not absolve Congress of their responsibility to pass legislation. And this is one reason why -- that executive actions can be, in most cases, reversed by subsequent Presidents. Legislation that’s passed is more enduring and requires another act of Congress in most cases to change it. So that’s why we’re going to continue to press Congress to take these important steps.
But what the President said in November of 2014 when he announced these actions is that he was only taking these actions and taking these steps because Congress had failed to act; that he would continue to push Congress to act even though he was taking these steps. And he also noted that if Congress were to pass legislation, that he was happy to have congressional legislation supersede the executive actions that he had taken.
So this ultimately is a reflection of a President who is determined to do everything he possibly can to try to fix our broken immigration system. But ultimately, we need to see Congress take some steps.
Q I wanted to ask you, with the CBO numbers out today -- CBO’s view of the economy is pretty weak. Does the White House agree with that? And CBO said that the deficit is going to grow this year because of the permanent tax breaks cast late last year. And I’m wondering if the White House is worried that that uptick, combined with pressures from the election, political pressures, is going to make it harder to expand the EITC.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about this. The first is that we will be releasing a budget of our own here in a couple of weeks that will lay out what we believe is an effective path forward for investing in the middle class, growing our economy, and doing so in a fiscally responsible way. And that ultimately is what -- that’s consistent with the President’s vision since he took office and it’s also consistent with his record, because we’ve seen strong economic growth in job creation since the economic recovery took hold. We’re in the midst of 70 consecutive months of job growth -- about 14 million private sector jobs. And that’s an indication of a strong bounce back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But since the President took office, we’ve also succeeded in reducing the deficit by about 75 percent. That’s important progress, too, and the President wants to build on all of that momentum, and he’ll lay out in his budget proposal how exactly we can do that.
Let’s go to the birthday boy next. Jon, happy birthday.
Q Thank you very much. Appreciate it, Josh. On Sunday, we learned that the United States made a payment to the government of Iran of $1.7 billion. Was this tied to the deal that led to the freedom of the Americans that were being held in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, this is actually the result of a long-running claims process that had been at The Hague. In 1979, there was obviously an Iranian revolution that abruptly severed relations between our two countries. And prior to that revolution, the U.S. government had entered into an agreement with the then-Iranian government to transfer about $400 million in military equipment to the Iranian government. Once the revolution took place, obviously that equipment was not transferred, but we also didn't return Iran’s money either. So that money essentially was held in what could, I think -- essentially in an escrow account. And for more than 30 years now, the Iranians have been using this claims process at The Hague to try to recover that $400 million.
This resolution that we agreed to was to return the $400 million and also to pay about $1 billion in interest. Now, the reason that this ends up being a very good deal for taxpayers is that our exposure, when it came to paying interest, could have been much higher. The Iranians were actually seeking $7 billion to $8 billion in interest payments. And I think that's an indication of how the interests of taxpayers were very well served by reaching this settlement.
Q Okay, but as I understand it, the Department of State announced this payment of $1.7 billion to the government of Iran just before the plane carrying the freed Americans landed in Geneva. You're really telling me that this is an absolute coincidence that this payment just happened to coincide with the precise moment when the American prisoners were flying to freedom?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I think we’ve made pretty clear that this is not a coincidence. The fact is, these kinds of diplomatic opportunities --
Q So it was -- because Paul Ryan has suggested this was a ransom payment. You saw his statement.
MR. EARNEST: He’s wrong about that.
Q But you're saying that this is connected with the freedom of --
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that the successful resolution of our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program created a series of diplomatic opportunities for the United States that we’ve capitalized on. And we used that opening and we used that deeper diplomatic engagement to secure the release of five American citizens who are being unjustly held inside of Iran. And we used that diplomatic opening to resolve a longstanding financial claim that the Iranians had against the United States in a way that ultimately saves U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, potentially up to $6 billion or $7 billion. So this is exhibit A in the administration pursuing tough, principled diplomacy in a way that actually ends up making the American people safer and advancing the interests of the United States more effectively than military actions.
Q So let me ask you, now that this is the third time by my count that we’ve seen a situation where Americans who are being held are freed in exchange for something else -- we had five Taliban freed to get the release of Bowe Bergdahl; we had three convicted Cuban spies freed to get the release of Alan Gross; and now we have five Americans who, as you said, were illegally detained, improperly detained by the Iranian government, freed in exchange for seven who had been duly charged and convicted under American law. Doesn't this give an incentive for America’s enemies to take Americans -- either kidnap or imprison Americans -- knowing full well that this administration has proved a willingness to give them something in return to get their release?
MR. EARNEST: Let me just go back to one thing on Cuba. Alan Gross was released as a humanitarian gesture. The --
Q Coincided exactly with the release of three convicted Cuban spies.
MR. EARNEST: In exchange for a U.S. intelligence asset that the Cuban government had been holding for quite some time. And so that was essentially a spy swap. And there had been one previous --
Q Alan Gross was a spy?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no, Alan Gross was not a spy. That's why he is --
Q You said it was a spy swap.
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish.
MR. EARNEST: Alan Gross was released as a humanitarian gesture by the Cuban government. There was an additional U.S. intelligence asset that was held by the Cuban government. That individual was released in exchange for the three other individuals that you referred to. And there was also an exchange between the United States and Russia -- a spy swap -- that was engineered in 2010 or so, I believe, and that related to a case of individuals that had infiltrated the United States that were then uprooted by our counter-intelligence officials here.
But to go more directly to your question, Jon, the President believes strongly that pursuing diplomacy with the Iranians in a tough, principled way to secure the release of five Americans who are being unjustly detained inside of Iran is in our national security interest and clearly is in the interest of those individuals who had not had the opportunity to -- who had been separated from their families for years.
And what we saw was that essentially was a humanitarian gesture that was offered up by the Iranians. We made a reciprocal humanitarian gesture by releasing seven individuals, six of whom were U.S. nationals, who had either been tried and convicted of nonviolent crimes -- essentially sanctions violations or violations of the trade embargo the United States has in place against Iran. Three of those people had been convicted. The other four were still awaiting trial. But ultimately, the President believes that this is a reflection of what can be accomplished when the United States pursues tough, principled diplomacy even with countries like Iran with whom we have significant and longstanding disagreements.
Q Josh, the Senate Armed Services Committee is going to proceed with the confirmation hearing of Eric Fanning as Army Secretary. How confident is the President that the Senate will confirm his nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Fanning certainly deserves confirmation. And we are confident that he will make a very positive presentation to the United States Senate for this job. He’s somebody who is eminently qualified and has served his country with distinction. He is somebody who has a range of experience at the Pentagon, and somebody who is certainly in a good position to provide the kind of leadership at the United States Army that our men and women deserve.
Q If confirmed, Mr. Fanning will be the first openly gay person confirmed by the U.S. Senate as civilian head of a military department. Has the U.S. Senate given the White House assurances that sexual orientation will not be an issue during the confirmation process?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to all of the conversations between the administration and individual members of the Senate. Mr. Fanning was nominated because the President believes that he is the best person to provide good leadership to our men and women in uniform in the United States Army. Given his experience, given his character, given his skills as a leader, the President believes that he is the best person for the job. And I think anybody in the United States Senate who’s willing to take an impartial look and judge him solely on the merits will reach the same conclusion.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to try to re-ask Josh’s question about the immigration ruling, about how quickly you can actually get work permits and get people out of the shadows if this ruling is in your favor. Is this something that can be done before the next election? Is the infrastructure already in place to start issuing these work permits and getting this program up and running, given the fact that the President only has a year left in office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, Toluse, I want to be deferential of the Supreme Court. They have a role to play here, and so I certainly want to be respectful of that role. The administration believes strongly that the prompt implementation of these executive actions would have positive benefits for our economy, would have positive benefits for the security of communities across the country. So we're certainly interested in moving forward with implementing these executive actions as expeditiously as possible.
But the Supreme Court has a role to play here, and we're going to make a presentation to the Supreme Court about why we should be allowed to do that. And at this point, I'm just not in a position to provide you a lot of guidance about what would happen in the event of a positive outcome at the Supreme Court. But we certainly have a lot of confidence in our arguments, but ultimately we'll have to see how those arguments play out before I can give you a lot of detail about our ability to move forward.
Q I want to ask you about Flint, as well as the President is going to Detroit tomorrow. He signed a disaster declaration, I believe, or emergency declaration over the weekend. Does he plan to visit Flint on his trip to Detroit?
MR. EARNEST: The President did, over the weekend, sign this emergency declaration that would allow the federal government to provide up to $5 million in assistance to state and local officials that are trying to manage that response. This comes on top of the assistance that the federal government has already provided in the form of both expertise and logistical support. And obviously the city of Flint and the citizens of Flint are going to be going through a very difficult time, and the U.S. government is determined to do what we can to support the state and local officials who are responsible for responding to this incident.
So let me tell you about a couple of things that we're doing. I can tell you that later today, the Department of Health and Human Services will designate an individual -- this woman’s name is Dr. Nicole Lurie. She’s Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. And she will be the lead federal appointee, the lead federal official to coordinate the federal response to this particular situation. Given the significant public health equities that are involved, it makes sense that somebody from HHS would play this role. And so she will be principally responsible for dealing with state and local officials and coordinating the assistance that can be provided by the federal government, not just by HHS but also federal agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA, and others -- the United States Department of Agriculture -- that can provide some assistance here.
I can also tell you that the Mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, is visiting the White House today on a prescheduled trip. The U.S. Conference of Mayors is meeting in Washington this week, and there is a special session held at the White House for newly elected mayors. And I know that in advance of that group meeting with other newly elected mayors, Mayor Weaver had the opportunity to sit down today with Valerie Jarrett, the President’s Senior Advisor, to discuss some of the challenges that the city is facing right now. And obviously, as a newly elected mayor, she’s got a lot of responsibility that she’s trying to juggle, and so we felt it was important for staff at the White House to have an opportunity to hear at some length the challenges that are facing the city.
And I would expect before the end of the day that the President will have an opportunity to visit with Mayor Weaver, as well, while she’s here. And again, it's an opportunity for the President to hear from the mayor of Flint on the significant challenges that are facing that city.
Given all that activity, I would not expect that the President will stop in Flint on his trip tomorrow. He’s obviously got a full schedule where he'll spend some time talking about the tremendous economic recovery that the city of Detroit has made. And a lot of that economic strength and economic recovery was possible only because of some of the difficult decisions that this administration made early on to make the auto recovery possible and to reinvigorate the American manufacturing sector.
Q Over the weekend, during the debate, Hillary Clinton brought up race in relation to the Flint water crisis thing -- that essentially because it's a majority-black town, this issue was being ignored. Does the President share that view, that race played a role in this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least I can tell you from the perspective of the Obama administration, based on what I've just told you about the FEMA response and the HHS leadership role, and the meetings that will take place at the White House today, I think this situation is anything but being ignored by the White House. I know there are questions that have been raised about the conduct of state and local officials in leading to this particular situation, but I'm quite limited in what I can say about that because the Department of Justice has indicated that there’s an ongoing investigation into this matter.
But in terms of the response, this is obviously a response that is and should be led by state and local officials. But the federal government is mobilizing significant resources to support that ongoing effort.
Q One more, on Iran. You all put forward some ballistic missile-related sanctions over the weekend, and Iran’s foreign ministry said today that they plan to continue their ballistic missile program, which they say is legal. I'm wondering if you have a reaction to that, or if there are any other tools that you have at your disposal to try to deter Iran from moving forward with their ballistic missile program.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I think what you're asking actually is a good way for us to talk about one other aspect of the history that was made over the course of the weekend. Over the weekend, the IAEA was able to confirm that Iran had taken the steps to curtail their nuclear program, consistent with the international agreement to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And they had to take a number of steps that included essentially dismantling two-thirds of the installed centrifuge capacity that they previously had. They reduced their enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent. They essentially dismantled and rendered harmless the core of their heavy-water reactor at Arak. They shipped out a significant quantity of heavy water outside of the country to come into compliance with the standards of the agreement.
And we also saw Iran do something that they had never done before, which is to agree to and begin to cooperate with a set of unprecedented transparency and verification measures into their nuclear program. And we will now have continuous monitoring of all of Iran’s declared nuclear facilities. This will include a range of measures, including technology seals to ensure that they continue to abide by the commitments that they made in the agreement.
This inspection and verification regime will also allow the international community to have insight and access to Iran’s entire nuclear supply chain. This means that there will be ongoing inspections and monitoring of Iran’s uranium mines and uranium mills and of the facilities that are critical to their nuclear program. And all along, we'll be able to confirm that their nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes.
Mind you, these are all things that could not have been accomplished if we had pursued the strategy that was advocated by some to carry out a military strike. We would not have been successful in setting back Iran’s nuclear program so far if we’d carried out a nuclear strike. We would not have preserved the international unanimity of opinion about the best way to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and we certainly wouldn’t be in a position to monitor their ongoing nuclear activities. If anything, it would have been much harder to preserve international unanimity on this issue and it would have been much harder for us to gain insight into what exactly Iran’s nuclear program was doing. And, again, I think this is another example of the success of principled diplomacy.
So this is why we believe that we can continue to advance the interests of the United States, whether that is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, securing the release of innocent Americans being held against their will overseas, or resolving longstanding financial claims at The Hague, all through tough, principled diplomacy, even with a country with whom we have significant concerns. And the fact that the United States imposed sanctions on Iran for their ballistic missile program is an indication that we’re quite serious about continuing to hold Iran accountable for their nefarious activities.
And, look, I understand the claims that are made by the Iranians that what they’re doing is not in violation of international law, but the fact is, you had the United Nations Security Council come out and express concerns about these kinds of activities. So it’s clear that the international community continues to have concerns with Iran’s ballistic missile program, and I think the one thing we can all agree on is it sure is a good thing they don’t have access to a nuclear weapon.
Q Thank you, Josh. Did you have an opportunity to talk to the President about the Levinson family’s disappointment, great disappointment, that he was not part of the number of Americans who have recently been freed? And if so, what is his position with regard to notification, with regard to maybe making more inroads to bring that man home?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Levinson family. The ordeal that they have been through over the last almost nine years now is virtually unthinkable. To imagine how difficult the situation must be for them is hard to do. And this administration has repeatedly, over the years, pressed the Iranians to be more forthcoming and to provide information about his whereabouts. And one of the things that was actually secured in this agreement was a specific commitment from the Iranians to help us locate Mr. Levinson.
Now, as we mentioned several years ago, we have reason to believe that he no longer is in Iran, and that’s why we continue to press for information about his whereabouts. And we’re going to continue to do that, and we’ve secured a commitment from the Iranians to use the channel that has now been opened to secure the release of those individuals that we know were being held by Iran on unjustly to use those same channels to try to gather information about Mr. Levinson’s possible whereabouts. And we’re going to continue to make that a priority moving forward. And I recognize, and I readily acknowledge, that that does not address the significant pain that’s being sustained by the Levinson family right now. And there’s no denying the fact that they’ve been separated from their loved one, and deeply concerned about his safety and health and wellbeing is something that we all feel. But we certainly don’t feel it as deeply as those who know and love Bob Levinson.
Q If I’m correct then, you’re confident that he is alive, and I’m getting that distinction because you said we believe he’s no longer in Iran. So you do believe or you do know that he is still alive?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated assessment of that. I know that there was some publicity in the last couple of years where whoever was holding Mr. Levinson put out a so-called proof-of-life evidence. I don’t have an updated assessment to share with you. What we are determined to do, though, is to press the Iranians to provide as much information as they have about Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts. And we’re going to continue to do that through the channel that has been opened.
Q Is there a liaison or a contact person within the administration that could reach out to the Levinsons? I guess I’m sensitive to the notion, in listening to some of the comments recently from the family, that they didn’t know that he was going to be part of this group. I was under the impression that there was someone who might, from the administration, be able to reach out to them in advance, or at least to maintain some level of communication. And it doesn’t look like that happened in this case.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there actually has been extensive communication on the part of the administration to the Levinson family. And over the weekend, there were senior officials here in the administration that were in touch with the Levinson family. They were last --
Q This was before everyone knew about the release?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I think all of you knew who were following the news on Saturday morning, that there was an announcement that was made by the semi-official news agency in Iran that was not coordinated with the United States. And we obviously were treating this information quite sensitively until we knew we could secure the safe return of our citizens who were still in Iran at the time.
So this was a delicate situation, but it is important for people to understand that the administration has been in touch with the Levinson family; we were over the weekend. The Levinson family last received an update on our efforts shortly before Christmas in another conversation they had with senior administration officials. Over the course of this process, the President himself has on at least one occasion had the opportunity to be in touch directly with the Levinson family. And they are part of the hostage recovery task force that the President formed over the summer to improve the way that information is provided to the families of those who are being held hostage overseas.
So we’re obviously very sensitive to the concerns and rather raw feelings of the Levinson family. I think the feelings that are on display are, I think, feelings that no one can really relate to unless you’ve gone through something like that. But I think we can all imagine, just in our mind’s eye, what that must be like and how painful that must be. And we certainly are very sensitive to that.
Q Just one more on the Iran deal. The windfall -- people have made a great deal about the money. Is there great concern from the President that, now flushed with cash, that the regime will not only do what they’ve made a habit of doing, which is sort of using their resources to cause problems all over the world, but is there greater concern now that they have more money that they’ll be emboldened to take an even larger role in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the thing that we do know about their economy is that it has suffered significant negative consequences as a result of the sanctions that were put in place. After all, that's why we know that Iran came to the negotiating table was because of their desire to get out from under these very tough international sanctions. And it has meant that there is a lot of rebuilding of their economy that they need to -- their infrastructures projects that they need to undertake. There are also large bills that have remained unpaid that also are coming due.
So the kinds of financial benefits that Iran will reap from this deal have been exaggerated by critics of the deal. But we would acknowledge that they will have access to more resources. And we would expect that they’re likely to use at least some of those resources for some of the kinds of malign activities that they’ve been involved with for quite some time. And that is why over the last couple of years, you've seen the President lead the effort to try to deepen our security cooperation with our friends and partners and allies in the region.
There’s an ongoing process right now with Israel to deepen and lengthen the memorandum of understanding that governs the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Israel. There potentially is, in the context of negotiating that agreement, additional military assistance that could be provided to our Israeli allies by the United States. The President convened a meeting at Camp David with our GCC partners to discuss how the United States and our Gulf partners could more effectively coordinate our security efforts. And some of that includes countering some of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. And the President is certainly committed to that effort, as well.
But overall, our top objective here had been to shut down every pathway that Iran has to building a nuclear weapon, precisely because of their support for terrorism, precisely because of their destabilizing activities in the region, precisely because of their missile program, precisely because of their willingness to threaten Israel. And that objective has been accomplished in a way that has been far more effective than some of the alternative strategies that have been advocated by our critics.
Q I don't know if you saw this last thing. A federal judge rejecting the President’s assertion of executive privilege to deny Congress access to records pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious. Did you hear about that before coming out? And if so, do you have any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't hear about that ruling before I came out here, but we’ll have somebody follow up with you on that.
Q On the tribunal and the Iranians, is it true that there were some 4,700 claims made by the U.S. for a total of about $2.5 billion, and that all of the Americans’ claims have been settled?
MR. EARNEST: It is true that there are 4,200 claims through this claims process at The Hague that have been made by U.S. citizens or U.S. businesses. And many of those claims have been settled to the tune of $2.5 billion that was paid out by the Iranians to these American nationals or to these American companies.
As it relates to this debt, I don't know to what extent there are ongoing claims, but I think it is indicative of how the claims process has been able to make some American businesses and American nationals whole. And again, it also reflects sort of how this established channel -- a separate channel than the nuclear channel, a separate channel than the one that led to the release of our American citizens but one that nonetheless yielded significant economic benefits for American taxpayers, because we potentially saved billions of dollars by resolving the claims in the way that we’ve described.
Q Was any of that money used to settle claims on behalf of the Americans who were taken hostage in the first place back in the 1970s? Or the families?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that these kinds of claims are actually different. These kinds of claims relate to contractual obligations and other agreements that were ruptured in the context of the Iranian revolution in 1979. So this is a process that was actually established right around that time -- I believe it was 1981 -- by the -- that was sort of set up -- negotiated by the Carter administration and then eventually set up by the Reagan administration; both administrations were involved.
Q The Obama administration ever bring up this issue of compensation to the families or to the individuals who were taken hostage back in 1979?
MR. EARNEST: That was separate from these discussions. My understanding is the way that these claims could be resolved is that, according to the statute, as long as these claims are resolved in a way that is favorable to U.S. taxpayers -- and clearly it is, we saved billions of dollars here based on what the Iranians have been asking for -- that this fulfills all of our obligations under the statute.
Q And so it sounds like this issue of compensation for the 50 hostages or so was not an issue and it’s a closed issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know about that. I can’t speak to any of the claims that are made by those who have been the victim of terrorism that was sponsored by the Iranian government or held hostage by the Iranians. I can’t speak to any of those claims. But my understanding is simply that these claims that were settled at The Hague were different from those.
Q And on Flint, you said that the federal government has done a lot, so much in their meetings at the White House, so on and so forth. But as you know, the mayor is asking and the governor are asking for a significant amount more money than the $5 million through the emergency declaration, and asking for a disaster declaration, which would be about $100 million. So what do you say to them? Because it doesn’t seem like even close to what they say they need.
MR. EARNEST: Well, just to be clear about what the law will allow here, a disaster declaration is essentially something that FEMA offers routinely to state and local governments who have sustained a natural catastrophe or a fire, flood, or explosion. And none of those events has occurred in Flint. So by statute, it’s going to be difficult to grant that request for a major disaster declaration. There is an opportunity for the governor to appeal that ruling, and I’ll leave it up to him to decide whether or not they’re going to do that. And there’s a regular process for considering those kinds of appeals.
So what we have, however, done is granted their request for an emergency declaration that will allow us to provide some resources as they work to recover from this situation. And there are resources that can be mobilized by USDA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA, obviously, and HHS, obviously, to assist the state and the city in weathering this rather challenging situation.
Q Knowing this gap -- and I don’t mean to sound flip, but that sounds like what an insurance company says to somebody who is claiming the flood in their basement or something -- is the administration proactively trying to marshal more resources because you’re well aware that there is like a $90 million or so gap between what they’re saying they need and what you’ve been able to provide so far? So is there a proactive process going on to fill that gap?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, certainly this is a situation that we take seriously. And I don't mean to sound flip about it, even in response, but the U.S. government also has an obligation to our taxpayers to make sure that funds are being spent consistent with the statute and with the law.
But as it relates to what we can mobilize to support them, there certainly is a lot of expertise and resources that we can make available through existing programs. And so let me give you a couple of examples. The USDA, for example, has waived requirements on potable tap water availability at school meal service, instead allowing schools to provide bottled water. The WIC program -- this is the Women, Infants, and Children program -- is allowing participants to use WIC vouchers for ready-to-feed infant formula, which does not need to be mixed with water. And they're also allowing participants to swap the powdered formula that does require water for the ready-to-feed formula. So that's sort of one example of how a federal program can be leveraged to try to meet the needs of the people in Flint.
Q Just one more on the EPA’s role in all this. The critical issue seems to be when the water system was switched to the river system. Is that something that the EPA would have had to sign off on? And are they -- what exactly is their -- is the administration satisfied that the EPA did everything that they should have been doing in this process? Or is that also the focus of some of the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to get into sort of dissecting the entire relationship between the state of Michigan and the EPA, primarily because this is a subject of ongoing discussion and investigation by the Department of Justice. So I don’t want to sort of get too far into the middle of that.
But there surely is a role for the EPA to play to assist in the response effort, and there is expertise that the EPA can bring in terms of testing the water and the system, of conducting an audit of the system to determine which parts of it are safe and what can be done to make the system more safe. Obviously, this kind of scientific expertise can be valuable as they respond to the situation there in Michigan. And that certainly is an important role the EPA will play.
Q That covers the response. But what about the process? Was there an EPA sign-off required for them to switch their water system?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if any sort of requirement like that was in place. You can check with EPA, who may be able to tell you a little bit more about their system for working with state officials in these kinds of matters.
Q And lastly, just to follow up on another question about that. Hillary Clinton the other night framed this as a civil rights issue. And the DOJ is involved in this. Is that what they are looking at, whether this is a civil rights violation in some manner, as well as other violations that may have happened during the course of the decision making?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that this is actually a pretty specific inquiry into the circumstances that led to this situation that is now plaguing the people of Flint. So you’d have to ask the Department of Justice whether or not that would include a consideration of the civil rights of the citizens of Flint being violated.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Supreme Court is asking attorneys on both sides in the immigration case to argue a point about whether the President is violating his constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Our Supreme Court reporter says it’s rather unprecedented this this question is being litigated in the context of an executive power fight. Is the White House worried that the Court might rebuke the administration’s aggressive use of executive actions? Or are you worried about anything else that this question portends?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think the case that we will make is that these kinds of decisions about enforcement are well within the authority of the executive branch. After all, these are the kinds of enforcement decisions that were also made by President Reagan and President H.W. Bush in the context of the Family Fairness program.
This is essentially a program that provided temporary relief and work authorization for up to 1.5 million people. So this is way that the authority was exercised by President Reagan and the first President Bush. And it’s entirely consistent with the way that President Obama has exercised his administration’s authority in this matter.
That is a case that we’ve been making since the day that we announced these executive actions. There probably is a more technical legal argument that will be presented before the court, and I’ll give our attorneys the opportunity to make that argument. But just as a matter of common sense, and by consulting recent presidential history, we feel confident that there is a strong precedent that exists for this executive action.
Q Can you give us the general philosophy behind the President’s approach to immigration? On one hand you have the administration offering to deportation relief -- that's at the center of the controversy that's in front of Court. On the other hand, you've moved pretty aggressively to deport some Central Americans who were here. Again, these are different groups and they're different circumstances, but what’s the overall coherence or approach to the administration’s philosophy about who gets to stay and who has to go?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple different ways to answer that question. I know it’s gets repetitive, but it bears repeating.
If we really want to solve the challenges of what is so obviously a broken immigration system, we need congressional legislation. That's the most impactful comprehensive way for us to do the common-sense thing. And that's why the President has pushed so hard for Congress to take that action. And it continues to be a source of disappointment that House Republicans blocked a common-sense proposal to do that.
So separate from the question about legislation, our approach has been to use as much of the President’s authority, consistent with the law, to try to fix as many of the problems in that system as we can. And one thing that we -- so one fact about the system is that because our system is broken, there are potentially millions of people inside the United States who have been in the country for years and are otherwise making a positive contribution to their community. And they have -- they attend -- they send their kids to school alongside American children. They attend religious services alongside other Americans. They work in factories and other facilities alongside other Americans. These are, in many cases, upstanding members of communities all across the country.
And those are the individuals whose cases we believe need to be resolved consistent with our interests as a nation. And the President does not believe that it’s in our interest nor is it consistent with our values to go and tear those families apart.
What he actually does believe is in our national interest is that we need to bring some greater accountability to our broken immigration system and allow them to come out of the shadows, and allow them to be in a situation where they are paying taxes, where they are undergoing a background check, where they are learning English. That's the nature of the President’s actions.
And that's what we're trying to achieve. And there are significant public safety, national security, and economic benefits associated with this action. We have always said that we need to do more to secure the border. That’s why the legislation that was defeated or blocked by House Republicans included an historic investment in border security. It’s also why we have said that people who have only recently crossed the border wouldn’t be prioritized or eligible for this kind of relief. And we certainly don’t want to set up a system that provides an incentive for individuals to flee violence in other countries and take a dangerous journey in their own right to try to come to the United States. And that’s why we’ve worked with the United Nations to establish this separate process that would allow individuals in Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras to petition the U.S. government consistent with a routinized process to get some humanitarian relief. And they can do that without putting themselves in the hands of a human trafficker or otherwise taking a journey that has victimized too many innocent people.
Q One more. You had the head of a prominent immigration rights group call the President the “Deporter in Chief.” On the other hand, you have Republicans saying the President is handing out amnesty, wants amnesty. These are rather different interpretations for actions by this administration. What do you think the President’s legacy on this issue will be, and how would you sum it up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think ultimately it will be historians who have the opportunity to do that. I think historians will note that Republicans blocked a common-sense compromise proposal that this administration helped to craft in the United States Senate. And I think ultimately a lot of historians will say that, despite making this a top priority, the President was not able to do as much as he would have liked to have done to fix our broken immigration system. And one of the things that we certainly want to do is, in the face of congressional inaction, try to lay out a path to solve at least some of these problems. And our proposed solution is one that we’re going to aggressively defend before the courts.
Q Hillary Clinton laid out the federal response to the situation, but obviously you know that there’s this huge emotional reaction around the country and even beyond that it was something that potentially has lifelong effects and there’s race and socioeconomics wrapped up in that. So we haven’t really heard from the President on this. We’ve heard pretty forcefully from Secretary Clinton. Does he share that sense of outrage? Or what is the President’s feeling on this that this could even happen today? And he is going to be in Detroit talking about progress in that city, where very nearby this other city hasn’t experienced that, but then had this outrage heaped upon them. I don’t know how you could really call it something else. What does the President think of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is quite concerned about the impact that the situation is having on the tens of thousands of citizens of the city of Flint. One thing it underscores is the importance of having good environmental laws on the books. I know Republicans often like to describe these as job-killing regulations. But as you point out, Michelle, the failure to properly enforce them, or what appears to be a situation in which they were not properly enforced, has grave consequences for the day-to-day lives of thousands of innocent Americans.
So these kinds of rules are important to our health and safety and to the wellbeing of our kids and the next generation of Americans. And the President feels strongly about that. And I don’t know when the President will next have the opportunity to talk about it, but it certainly is part of what he feels about this.
Q Is he disturbed by the fact that this had been going on for such a long time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s -- again, I don’t want to get too far into this because there’s an ongoing Department of Justice investigation. I can tell you that the President is determined to make sure that available resources within the administration can be used to support the state and local officials that are responding to the situation.
Q Okay. And in other reaction news, we heard from Secretary Kerry yesterday talking about when the U.S. sailors were released by Iran. And looking at that video, I mean, he described it as feeling extremely upset, frustrated, and even angry when he saw that. But around the same time that it was happening, what we generally heard from the administration was everything is working out fine and everybody cooperated and it was great. And there just seems to be a disconnect in the way the Secretary viewed that situation versus how it was described early on. So does the President share Secretary Kerry’s initial assessment of how that video was shot and used?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't spoken to the President about the video. What I can tell you is the reaction of this administration was consistent with our strategy of securing the safe and prompt release of our sailors. And there was a lot of second-guessing from our critics, some who have suggested that the full faith and -- or the full fury and anger of the United States should be felt by those who took the sailors into custody. Others suggested that the President should somehow postpone the State of the Union address.
Well, the fact is, none of that would have guaranteed the release of our sailors within 14 or 15 hours of originally going into custody. Those kinds of rash, provocative reactions would have only made the situation worse and only would have made it harder for us to secure the safe return of our sailors, to say nothing of the implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; to say nothing of the safe return of the five Americans who had been unjustly detained in Iran; and to say nothing of the resolution of some financial claims that were made by the Iranians that actually is going to allow the American taxpayers to save $6 or $7 billion.
Q So the outcome, obviously, was what everybody wanted. But do you not see the way the Iranians handled this as provocative and exploitive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what is clear is that because of diplomacy, the United States government was able to secure promptly the return of our sailors who had been taken into custody. And those are just the facts. That is an approach that I think has served the American people and our national security quite well. That has not prevented our critics from making rash claims about the President’s weakness, but I actually think that the President’s willingness to absorb those claims and pursue tough, principled diplomacy is probably the strongest endorsement of his strength and toughness that you could look for.
Q Okay. And lastly, on Levinson. Over the weekend, it was talked about by the administration that there was progress. Do you see that progress as meaning primarily that the communication is open? Or do you have some other indication that either Iran knows his whereabouts? I guess another way of asking would be, what is your confidence level that Iran can actually still be helpful in this situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have secured as a result of this agreement is a commitment on the part of the Iranians to use the diplomatic channel that's been opened to continue to engage with the United States about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson. And we're going to hold the Iranians to that commitment, and we're going to continue to make it a priority to try to determine his whereabouts and bring him home. And we're going to be focused on that moving forward.
And, look, there are some indications that Mr. Levinson may no longer be in Iran, and that may raise questions about what Iran can do to actually bring him home. But what we're looking for right now is information about his whereabouts. And we're going to press the Iranians on that accordingly as a result of this agreement.
Q Do you feel that they are using him as leverage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's hard to arrive at that conclusion until we have more information about his whereabouts. And we're going to continue to press the Iranians for more information about his whereabouts.
Q I'm going to try again on CBO. A week ago, the President was boasting about bringing the deficit down by three-quarters. Now CBO says that trend is turning around, largely because of the decisions that Congress made, the President signed off on to raise the spending caps and extend the tax breaks. Does the White House see that as a problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Scott, just as a factual matter, the consequences for the tax policy decisions and not paying for those tax breaks has far bigger fiscal consequences than the spending decisions that are incorporated into that budget agreement. The President would have preferred that Congress do the responsible thing and only enact those tax cuts and paying for them by closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.
That is a case that we have made on a number of occasions. That would have been not just the fairer thing to do, it would have been better for the economy. It also would have improved the fiscal situation of the country.
But, look, these kinds of agreements are a compromise, and we said that even as the President was signing the legislation. What the President, though, moving forward, Scott, will lay out is a budget proposal that properly invests in our national security priorities and in our economic priorities, particularly when it comes to expanding economic opportunity for the middle class, but doing so in a fiscally responsible way. And everybody will have an opportunity to evaluate the strategy that the President puts forward, and it certainly will be consistent with our goal of keeping our deficits under the 3 percent threshold that would allow us to stabilize our debt as a percentage of GDP.
Q So will the President’s budget show continued decline in the deficit as a percentage of GDP?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned.
Q Josh, obviously the families of the Americans released are happy to have their loved ones home. But coinciding with the billion-dollar payment, coinciding with the nuclear deal, what do you say to those even within your own administration who worry that this puts a price on the head of every American?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've made clear that this is a one-time proposition. Obviously the circumstances, as you just laid them out, are quite unique. And what the President did was he used tough, principled diplomacy to bring our citizens home. And if there are those -- if our critics disagree with that, then they should have the courage to stand up and say so, and say it would be better for the United States for those individuals, those innocent Americans, to remain in an Iranian prison. If that's what they believe, they should have the courage of their convictions to say so.
Q What is the administration’s view here on hostage policy and prisoner policy? I mean, it appears that this swap is different from those in the past, and it also appears that that was the case with Cuba. I mean, in both cases, Iran and Cuba, this was not prisoner for prisoner alone; it coincided with a much bigger policy shift and change. So it appears that there is a policy link between taking Americans hostage, or prisoner, and it leading to some other kind of inroad with the administration to pursue other things.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me try to explain to you how we see it. I think there is a connection generally. Each of these situations is so different. But I think there is one of general thing that you can draw from this, which is the President believes that there are a variety of benefits associated with engaging with countries around the world, even those with whom we vigorously disagree. And by more deeply engaging with those countries, we don’t give them a free pass. We certainly continue to, as we’ve mentioned earlier, institute sanctions against Iran for their continued development of their ballistic missile program.
When it comes to Cuba, you continue to hear the administration be quite harshly critical of the human rights conditions inside that country. But deeper engagement with those two countries has allowed the United States to advance our interests, including securing the release of innocent Americans who are being unjustly held in those two countries. That is a pretty strong endorsement of tough, principled, diplomatic engagement. And that’s what we’re pursuing.
Now, the other thing is, in each case, we’ve also derived other benefits. Of the Iranians, we’ve succeeded in building an international coalition to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. We resolved a longstanding financial claim that put taxpayers on the hook for potentially billions of dollars, according to claims that the Iranians themselves had made.
When it comes to Cuba, what we have actually succeeded in doing is transforming the relationship between the United States and countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. No longer is our effort to isolate Cuba an impediment to our ability to form deep and important relationships with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Those strengthened relationships doesn’t just benefit the United States, it also has the added benefit of getting people to focus less on the relationship between Cuban and the United States, but rather on the relationship between the Cuban government and the Cuban people, and to focus more attention and more pressure on the Cuban government to do a better job of protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people.
Q So it sounds like you’re saying the administration thinks it got more than it gave in both cases.
MR. EARNEST: We surely believe that -- that the result of this diplomacy, particularly when it comes to just focusing on Iran here, the United States accomplished significant objectives that, again, even our allies, some of whom are critical of this agreement, have long identified preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon as a top national security priority. And you’ll recall, when the President took office in 2009, Iran was accelerating their nuclear program in the direction of developing a nuclear weapon. And the international community was at a loss with how to deal with it.
Since that time, President Obama has stood up, organized the international community to impose these tough sanctions on Iran, compelled Iran to come to the negotiating table. And what we’ve seen Iran do now is follow through on commitments that they made at that negotiating table to essentially assure us that they don’t have a path to developing a nuclear weapon. That is remarkable progress in the space of just less than seven years, and represent a significant advancement in the national security interests of the United States.
Q But you could also look at it and say, look, these secret talks only began in the first place because Iran took three hikers hostage many years ago, and then that led to the path of diplomacy, and then this coincides in finality with another prisoner swap. I mean, some look at that and say Iran has made a successful business of taking hostages and prisoners, and the United States responded by brokering this deal.
MR. EARNEST: I actually think this started when the President stood on the steps of the United States Capitol on January 20th, 2009 and said that if Iran is prepared to engage in conversations with the United States and to do so peacefully in an effort to try to achieve our collective goals, that the United States would engage. And that was a controversial notion at the time. When the President was talking about this on the campaign trail, he was criticized for it. But the President believes strongly that this is the best way to advance the interests of the United States. And I think if you take a look at the results seven years later, it’s pretty difficult to say that he was wrong.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions on Iraq. The U.N. just issued a report -- I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at it or not -- but it has staggering statistics of 19,000 civilians dead between January 2014 and October 2015; 36,000 wounded; almost 3 million displaced. Now, the President described ISIS -- most of them are committed by ISIS. The President described them as a bunch of killers with good social media tools. And this report is saying that basically these crimes could be crimes against humanity, and possibly they could be charged with genocide. How do you square these two --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you -- the President has been unsparing in describing the horrific tactics and actions of ISIL. And, again, there is a reason that the President has stepped forward and built an international coalition of 65 nations to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There’s a reason that our coalition has taken some 9,000 airstrikes -- 9,500 airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria. And we are very focused on implementing a coordinated, integrated strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization.
The reason -- the thing that prompted U.S. involvement in this matter in the first place was the willingness of ISIL figures to carry out atrocities against innocent Iraqi citizens. You’ll recall that in August of 2014, the first airstrikes that were carried out by the United States against ISIL targets included strikes against ISIL figures that were preparing to slaughter innocent Yazidis at Mount Sinjar. So the President has led the effort against ISIL in no small part because he is quite concerned about the kind of violence that they’ve perpetrated on innocent people throughout the region.
Q -- his critics, Josh, I know you know that very well, they criticize the President as not taking them seriously.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think -- I recognize that that is something that our critics regularly say, but it flies in the face of all of the facts about what we have done to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization. The amount of territory that they control inside of Iraq has been significantly reduced. We’ve also made progress in driving them out of some populated areas in Syria.
Just to give you sort of the most recent example, the Department of Defense has recently released footage of millions of dollars held by ISIL being destroyed in an airstrike. We’ve talked in here about how critically important it is for us to shut down ISIL’s financing, because they’re not just trying to organize terrorist acts around the world; they’re also trying to occupy and govern land. And so if we can shut off their financing, we can choke off the lifeblood of that organization. And strikes like the one the Department of Defense announced over the weekend I think are a good indication of how we are integrating our counter-financing efforts with our military efforts. And we’re making important progress.
We also are going to continue to be mindful of the homeland security threat that ISIL poses. And over the holidays, the last couple of weeks in December, the United States and our coalition partners carried out airstrikes that resulted in the death of 10 ISIL figures, including at least one that had connections to the network that carried out the terrorist attacks in Paris and included others who were helping to support efforts to plan attacks in other places, too.
So even as we’re mindful of the terrible atrocities that are committed by ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, we’re also mindful of the threat that they pose to innocent human beings outside of that region of the world. And, again, I think the President’s bold action when it comes to leading a coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is indicative of how serious he understands this threat is.
Q One more on Iraq. Any update on the missing Americans -- three of them -- and it all falls into the criticism by the Republicans that basically any prisoner exchange will encourage other groups, militias or whatever, to kidnap more Americans.
MR. EARNEST: Nadia, I’ve seen those reports but there’s very little that I can say about these reports at this point. I can tell you that U.S. officials have been in touch with Iraqi officials about those reports, but there’s not much more that I can say about the situation beyond that.
Q Josh, on Iran and leverage. You’ve been asked a couple times about the nature of the way in which these five detainees were negotiated around. Has the White House essentially -- you’ve described this as the -- this was happening parallel and that this was a unique opportunity alongside the nuclear talks. Was this the last chance, the last window for the United States to exercise that kind of leverage? Or should -- I guess to the other side of this, to manage expectations, should we be expecting other areas that the United States has conflict with Iran to essentially fall by the wayside because we don’t have that kind of leverage anymore?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the way that I would describe it, Jared, is that we capitalized on an opportunity that had been presented to try to advance our interests and secure the release of these innocent Americans.
And it’s only because, frankly, that in the context of the nuclear talks every single time, once those talks were concluded, American negotiators would remind their Iranian counterparts that there was another significant priority that hadn’t yet been discussed, which is the case of innocent Americans. And it’s only because of that persistence did the Iranians agree to establish a separate, parallel track where their release could be negotiated.
Now, what we have been clear about since the beginning, even when we were being criticized for not securing the release of these Americans by our harshest critics, is that this nuclear agreement was not predicated on a dramatic change in Iranian behavior. In fact, it’s because we know that Iran is supporting terrorism, threatening Israel, engaging in other destabilizing activities in the region -- principally in Syria and Yemen -- and developing a ballistic missile program that we needed to make preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon a top priority. And so that's what we did.
If there are additional diplomatic opportunities that are presented, then we’ll see if we can use diplomacy to advance our interests. I wouldn’t rule that out. I don’t say that with anything in mind. But of course, if there are additional opportunities for us to resolve issues that benefit the United States, then we're going to capitalize on them.
But what we're not going to do is we're certainly not going to paper over the concerns that we have with Iran’s malign activities in the region. And I think the decision that was announced over the weekend to impose sanctions on individuals and entities connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program is a good example of that.
Q I guess with the implementation day in the rearview mirror, though, is it reasonable to say that the United States leverage -- so if the high-water mark is these five detainees and ballistic missiles clearly above that, since Iran was willing to exacerbate its own activities over the weekend, is there anything that you can say is still being worked on as actively as those detainees were over the past few months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one thing that will continue is the way that we will continue to press the case of Mr. Levinson and to press Iranian officials for information about his whereabouts. That's the thing that comes most directly in mind. But what -- the other breakthrough here has been the demonstration that principled diplomacy can allow the governments of both countries to make some progress. And we’ll look for additional opportunities to do that.
Olivier, I’ll give you that last one.
Q Can I take two?
MR. EARNEST: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q So Margaret, Jon, and Nadia have all asked you to directly reject one of your critics’ central points, which is that this sets up an incentive structure to take more Americans prisoner. You've defended the administration’s approach, but you haven’t directly tackled that. In fact, I haven’t heard you directly tackle that. Could you do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say is it’s not distant or ancient American history that President Reagan acknowledged on live television that he had traded arms for hostages. And I haven’t heard a lot of Republican criticism of that. So maybe they are so reflexively committed to defending those kinds of actions that it’s hard for them to consider what could be gained from a humanitarian release of nonviolent individuals, most of whom are American citizens, by the way, in the United States to secure the release of innocent Americans that were being detained by Iran.
So I think if you consider the history here, the President’s effective use of diplomacy withstands a lot of scrutiny in a way that, frankly, their claims don’t.
Q And then, in the State of the Union, the President talked about the low price of gas, but there’s a growing chorus of economists that he’s expressing concern that low oil prices might actually have negative knock-on effects on the American economy. Do you share those concerns? If so, to what extent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President’s point in the State of the Union was to note that American middle-class families who are filling up the tank in the car once or twice a week are enjoying significant benefits to their household income as a result of the low price of gas.
Now, there are a variety of reasons for that. Some of that has to do with the fact that cars are more efficient than they -- are getting more efficient than they have been before. Some of that is a result of the level of production of the oil and gas on American soil. And some of that is also a reflection of weakness in other countries’ markets. So there are a variety of factors here, and I think the President’s allusion here is that a lot of the criticism that the administration gets is related to how middle-class families don’t benefit from the energy policy that this administration has put in place.
And the fact is, right now, middle-class families are benefitting from that policy and we want to make sure that our policy reflects not just those pocketbook concerns but also reflects the need for us to invest in growing industries, including the renewable energy industry, which will create jobs and economic opportunity for middle-class families that can’t be exported. We also want to be looking out for the best interests of the planet and for public health. And all of that is consistent with a policy of transitioning our economy to a low-carbon economy. And that is a long-term goal, one that will not be accomplished before the end of this administration and probably not going to be accomplished by the end of the next administration.
But starting that planning now will allow the United States to maximize the upside potential, including when it comes to creating good, middle-class jobs of the future.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
END 2:26 P.M. EST