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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/27/2016

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:07 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Looks like you’re all feeling “the Bern.”  (Laughter.)  I do not have any opening statements to make at the top, other than a corny joke.  So we can go straight to your questions.

Darlene, do you want to start?

Q    Great, thank you.  I wanted to follow up a little bit on a meeting the President had yesterday on the Zika virus.  I was wondering if the President’s approach to the Zika virus is similar -- if he’s approaching the spread of the Zika virus similar to the way he approached the spread of Ebola in West Africa.  I mean, does he kind of see the U.S. leading some sort of anti-Zika virus effort?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, one thing that’s important for people to understand is that there’s a pretty significant difference -- a number of significant differences between the Ebola virus and the Zika virus, obviously both in terms of the way they are transmitted, but also in terms of the health impacts.  Obviously, Ebola is a deadly disease.  The Zika virus poses a different set of risks that are most serious for pregnant women.  And that explains the kind of reaction you’ve seen from the federal government and the kind of guidance that the CDC has shared with Americans who are considering travel to tropical areas -- to a variety of tropical areas in the Western Hemisphere.

I think the President has spoken at some length about the lessons that we can draw from fighting Ebola, that the value of having a critical health infrastructure in place is critical to positive public health outcomes.  He’s talked about the unique role that the United States can play in mobilizing an international response to diseases like this that do pose a broader public health risk.  And we’re certainly mindful of all of that as we consider the risk that is posed by the Zika virus.

Most of our efforts right now, however, are focused on sharing information with the public about steps that they can take to protect themselves.  And again, this is a risk that is most acute for pregnant women, or women who are planning to become pregnant.  For people who are not pregnant, men and women, the Zika virus is basically a mild, non-fatal form of Dengue fever.  And the most common symptoms are things like a mild fever, a rash, or conjunctivitis.  That said, studies show that only about one in five people who get Zika will have any symptoms. 

But what we are primarily concerned about is the link that is apparent between a particular birth defect in women who have contracted the Zika virus.

So I would anticipate in the days ahead that you’ll see more of a conspicuous, concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government to communicate with the American people about the risks of this virus and the steps that they can take to protect themselves. 

Q    And then the statement that you all released last night after the meeting said the President emphasized the need to accelerate research to make available better diagnostic tests, vaccine development, and again, public information.  Do you anticipate the President asking for any additional money to do any of the things that were just cited here, for research or vaccine development?


MR. EARNEST:  There’s no specific request that I’m prepared to make from here today.  But mobilizing the kind of response that may be necessary certainly could require additional funding, but I would also expect that the kind of funding that we would envision would at least in part be useful in building up the broader public health infrastructure that would have benefits in fighting a variety of diseases.

Q    And then to switch over to “the Bern” -- (laughter) -- did you --

MR. EARNEST:  You guys laugh when she says it.  (Laughter.)  And I get groans when I say it.

Q    She’s funny.  (Laughter.) 

Q    Did you have a chance to hear any of what the Senator said outside after the meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  I did.

Q    He seemed very complimentary towards the President, almost embracing the President.  Was there any early feedback from the President on how he thought the meeting went?

MR. EARNEST:  Obviously, the meeting had just ended before I came out here.  I did not speak to the President about the meeting. 

But look, the two men spent about 45 minutes together.  It was, as Senator Sanders said, a one-on-one meeting.  And the President was certainly expecting to spend some time talking in the meeting about how they could work together to advance Democratic priorities and values.  That’s work that they’ve obviously done in the past, and that’s work that the President hopes they can do together in the future. 

Obviously, Senator Sanders, as he noted to all of you, is a part of a very active campaign right now, and he’s spending a lot of time on the campaign trail and clearly is enjoying the kind of response that he’s getting from large crowds all across the country -- not just in Iowa, but in other places, including Minnesota. 

Obviously, when the President spent some time on the campaign trail, he had the experience of drawing some big crowds and he enjoyed that experience.  And I think there was -- I would anticipate there was an opportunity for the President to reminisce a little bit about his own experience campaigning for President, both in terms of drawing big crowds but also spending some time talking to people in more out-of-the-way places where the crowds are not as large but the interactions do allow for a more personal, private conversation. 

And the President, even as he has served in office, has talked about how those kinds of opportunities are fewer and farther between when you’re President of the United States; that you do sort of live in a bubble.  And the President is constantly looking for creative ways to get out of it.  And when you spend time on the campaign trail running for President, you’re necessarily going to spend some time interacting with individuals one on one.  And the President certainly enjoyed that opportunity as a candidate and has talked a lot about how he wishes he could do more of it as President.

The last thing I’ll say about this -- and this is something that the President expected to talk about in the meeting and Senator Sanders alluded to this as well -- it’s good for the Democratic Party for there to be such a robust debate going on about who should be our party’s nominee.  That debate is good for our democracy, it’s also good for the party.  And in the context of that debate, Senator Sanders has had great success in engaging and even inspiring a large segment of the Democratic Party.

That ability to engage Democrats and excite them and inspire them will be critical to the success of Democrats up and down the ballot, whether Senator Sanders is a nominee or not.  And it underscores that while there is an important debate going on inside the Democratic Party, the real difference lies between Republicans who advocate for the kinds of economic policies that mostly benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and led us to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and Democrats who continue to believe that our government policies should be focused on expanding economic opportunity for everybody, especially those in the middle class and those who are working hard to get into the middle class.

And that’s an important part of the debate, and that’s a debate that you’re hearing on the campaign trail now, but that is a debate that will really crystallize in the context of a general election later this year.  And while, as Senator Sanders noted, the President is doing his best to allow the candidates to make their own case in the Democratic Primary process, he expects to be very actively and personally engaged in the general election to support those candidates that actually are interested in building on the progress that this country has made in the seven years of his presidency.


Q    One more on the meeting with Bernie Sanders.  Who called for the meeting?  And then also, he has put a hold on the nominee to lead the FDA, saying that he has too close ties to the pharmaceutical industry.  And I was wondering, did that come up in the meeting?  Was that a plan to come up in the meeting?  Has the White House at all been trying to work with him to get him to lift that hold on your nominee?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me go to your first question first.  The President and Senator Sanders had the opportunity to visit at the congressional holiday ball here at the White House last month.  And at the party, Senator Sanders noted to the President that he’d like to have the opportunity to sit down for a more formal meeting.  And the President agreed that would be a good idea, and we’ve been working to set up this making for more than a month now. 

Obviously, the President has had a pretty busy schedule over the last couple weeks, and Senator Sanders has, too.  But this is a meeting that came together in the last week or two.  And the President was pleased to have the opportunity to sit down with Senator Sanders today.

I don't know whether or not the President’s nominee to be the next leader of the FDA came up in the context of this meeting.  Obviously, the President and the administration have full confidence in the ability of our nominee to make the kinds of decisions that are in the best interest of the health and safety of the American people.  The President would not have nominated him to the job if he didn't think that he would be able to effectively look out for the interests of middle-class families in that role.

Q    Going back to the Zika virus, are there any plans at this point to appoint a Zika czar or someone to kind of lead the effort?  And even though, yes, it is really primarily focused on pregnant women and the effects are focused on pregnant women, it still seems like it would be pretty serious if these mosquitoes that spread the virus do come to the U.S.  Is there a plan?  Does the White House have a plan to respond, like if this really becomes -- starts spreading in the U.S.?  I mean, in some of these other countries they’ve just told women not to get pregnant.  That doesn't seem like that would fly in the U.S.  So is there a plan in place?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, our public health experts both at the CDC and the NIH are mindful of the risks that are associated with the Zika virus.  And the President is himself concerned about it.  That's why he convened a meeting here at the White House yesterday to discuss it.

So what we will do is we will rely on the best scientific advice that is available to protect the American people.  And first and foremost, that starts with warning people about any travel plans they may have where this virus has been detected; and making sure that people are educated about the risk that it poses.  Certainly, the risk to pregnant women or women who could become pregnant is serious.  But it’s important for people to understand that if you're a man or you're not pregnant, that the impact of the virus is relatively mild.

So first of all, we want to make sure that people are properly educated about the risks of this virus, but also that we're taking the kinds of steps that are necessary to do as much as possible to try to fight this disease.

And Darlene mentioned the readout noted a desire to sort of ramp up our efforts to look for a vaccine and other treatments.  The other thing that scientists tell us is that trying to limit the mosquito population is another way that we can fight this disease.  So we're certainly going to avail ourselves of all of the scientific knowledge that's been accumulated to make sure that we are trying to stay in front of this disease.

Obviously, the mosquito population in the United States in January is not significant.  But we are mindful that as the thermometer heats up here, that we need to be mindful of this risk.

Q    But is there a need for a czar, do you think? 

MR. EARNEST:  At this point -- other than a catchy name like Zika Czar, I wouldn’t anticipate the need for that kind of position at this point.  (Laughter.)  But we did find it useful in the fall of 2014 to have somebody with the skills of Ron Klain to come in and help organize the interagency efforts across the federal government to fight the Ebola virus.  It's too early at this stage to say whether or not that will be necessary when it comes to the Zika virus.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  So in President Obama’s interview with Politico last week, he called Secretary Clinton “idealistic, progressive, good, smart, tough, experienced.”  Then he again called her “wicked smart” a second time.  So that sounded to many listeners like a pretty glowing endorsement of Clinton.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I would encourage you to just take it at face value.  It sounds like that's what you might be doing.  The President had kind words for Secretary Clinton.  She is someone who served the President ably.  In his Cabinet, as Secretary of State, she advanced the interests of the United States all around the world.

The President also had the opportunity to watch her up close as she campaigned for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, and he came away from that experience with a deep admiration for her skills as a political candidate.  And the President has made no secret of the fact that over the years of campaigning against one another and then working together in the administration, that the two have become genuine friends. 

That said, the President has also been clear that at this point he does not plan to offer up a specific endorsement in the presidential race.  And he has made a point of both saying nice things about his friends in public.  He also, as many of you have observed, has also explained where there are maybe some differences.  And sort of depending on the news cycle, sometimes that's interpreted as a jab at his former friend, or a resounding secret endorsement of someone whom he has long admired. 

I think what all this reflects is a desire on the part of the President to support Democratic candidates and to position Democrats to win the presidential election in November, regardless of who the nominee is.

Q    In the same interview, he had a few kind words for Bernie Sanders, as well.  But at one point, though, it seemed like he was describing him as a “bright, shiny object,” which I guess you can interpret positively or negatively, depending.

MR. EARNEST:  The President has certainly been described as worse.

Q    Well, because it almost seemed like he was also referring to a point where he, himself, at one point had been described in the same way.  But anyway, he used that, and then at another point it seemed almost like he might be saying that you need to have more than one focus or you need to have more than one issue, as if he was saying that that was Sanders.  So by saying those things the way he did, but not officially endorsing someone, and the timing of this, doesn’t this essentially have the weight, the effect of being an endorsement of Hillary Clinton?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don't think it does.  I think that the President did have the opportunity to talk in that interview about how important it is that somebody like Senator Sanders has succeeded in inspiring tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Democrats all across the country to attend his campaign events, become engaged in his campaign, contribute to his campaign, and be a part of a broader effort to put another Democrat in the White House.  That’s a really good thing for the party. 

The President also happens to think that’s a good thing for the country because it will ensure that the next President, if that person is a Democrat, recognizes the need to build on the progress that we’ve made so far and not go back to the policies that actually led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  And all the Democratic candidates have given voice to that kind of commitment and that kind of view of the challenge facing our country. 

And so the ability of somebody like Senator Sanders to engage Democrats all across the country in that debate and in that fight is a good thing for the country and a good thing for the party.  And so that’s obviously why what Senator Sanders has been doing over the last year or so is so important.  And I say that regardless of whether or not he’s the nominee.

Q    So when the President said that, as President you don’t have the luxury of focusing on one thing.  Was he saying that, at this point, Sanders has been seeming to focus on one thing?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the President was just making an observation that applies to all of the candidates.  It certainly applies to Senator Sanders, it also applies to Senator Clinton, that the kinds of skills that you’re going to need in a Commander-in-Chief is not just a passion about one issue -- although that passion is really important and is critical to the success of any sort of campaign, particularly a national, presidential campaign -- but you’re also going to have to demonstrate an ability to handle lots of different things at the same time.  And obviously the American people will have an opportunity to evaluate the capacity of candidates in both parties to do exactly that.

Q    So in the differences that Sanders and the President have, which are well known, did they come any closer in agreement on any of these?  What would you say the -- if there was a positive outcome to this meeting today, what do you think it was?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, I think it was an important opportunity for the two men to sit down and sort of talk about their shared commitment to advancing the policies and priorities and values that they have in common.  And, again, I don’t have a whole lot more of a detailed readout to share with you from a private meeting, but I think there is value in having those kinds of conversations, and I suspect it’s not the last one.

Q    And on foreign policy, would you say that they see eye to eye?  Were there any areas you could discuss that they talked about?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any more detail about that aspect of their conversation to share.


Q    On the President’s interview with Politico, Hillary Clinton seems to think that the President’s comments were somewhat tantamount to an endorsement.  She said the President was arguing that she is “best prepared to do all aspects of the job.”  Is that a correct interpretation?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has not issued an endorsement in the race.  At this point, he doesn’t plan to.  I would expect that the President will vote in the Illinois primary.  He’ll vote absentee.  I don’t know that we’ll announce in advance exactly who he chooses to support, but we’ll keep you posted if that changes.

Q    And a few months ago, the President joked about the Republican debate, saying that if the candidates couldn’t handle some of the moderators, then how are they going to handle the Chinese or the Russians.  Given that, what does the President think of Donald Trump’s decision now to skip the next debate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I noted that a spokesperson for Fox News had a variation on that very statement.  So I guess imitation is the highest form of flattery, even if it’s Fox News that’s doing the imitating. 

Look, I think what is true is that -- since you brought up the Politico interview -- the President himself noted that he was not a big fan of participating in presidential debates, but he never backed out of a debate two days before it was scheduled to be held.  And I think that demonstrates his own commitment to the process, and making good on one’s commitments. 

And we’ve seen that over last several months that Mr. Trump has repeatedly chosen to kick reporters out of the room for asking tough questions.  It appears he’s taking that approach to a new level by avoiding those questions entirely.

Q    So does he think it says something about his temperament and his ability to do the job?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m confident that his Republican opponents think so.  But ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide.


Q    Josh, a couple of questions.  I want to go back to the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton thing, but in a different way.  He’s met with -- the President has met with Hillary Clinton several times as a private citizen.  And he met with Bernie Sanders today.  Is there any room for him to meet with Martin O’Malley?  Does he I guess pass the bar to have a meeting with him when it comes his poll numbers?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we're not examining poll numbers before deciding on presidential meetings.  I certainly wouldn’t rule out a future meeting between the President and Governor O’Malley.

Q    Is it being talked about?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any active discussion right now.  But I wouldn’t rule out that if Governor O’Malley makes a request like that, that we wouldn’t find a way to find some time on the President’s schedule for it.

Q    Has it been (inaudible)?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of one.  But --

Q    All right now, back on another subject, the Flint subject.  What is the expectation for the Governor, the Mayor, for all involved when it comes to the water issue in Flint, Michigan?

MR. EARNEST:  What is our expectation for the --

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  I think the most important thing is that the people of Flint are looking to their state and local leaders who are responsible for water safety in their community to step up to the plate and fix the problem. 

And the federal government is certainly committed to playing our important role in helping them succeed in that endeavor.  There are a variety of ways for us to do that.  One is we obviously have the expertise of the EPA, who has recently announced ramped-up testing of the water in that community.  Late last week, the President announced that he was expediting $80 million in funding to the state of Michigan that could potentially be used to confront some of the issues that are facing Flint and their water system right now.  There is a federal official from the Department of Health and Human Services that is there on the ground coordinating the assistance that's being provided by the federal government. 

The reason it’s an HHS official is that obviously there are significant public health consequences for the water quality in Flint right now.  And we want to make sure that we have the expertise on the ground that's necessary to deal with it and to try to support the ongoing efforts of state and local officials.

Q    This has been years in the making to get to this crescendo moment.  Why did it take this long?  And why is not viewed by many in this country as a crisis?  People are saying we want to get someone to come in and test the water.  We're going to do this -- we're talking about not charging people for water.  People are saying out in the street -- you can hear it from those who live in Flint, you can hear it from people just in the black community trying to understand why has this not been placed in a higher priority than what we're seeing now.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think the President has made clear that this is a priority.  And I think that is evident both from the tone of his remarks, but also based on the kind of efforts that you’ve seen mobilized on behalf of the federal government.  I think there’s no denying that Mayor Weaver of Flint considers this to be a crisis.  I think she’s acting like it is.  And you saw Governor Snyder dedicate the first 10 or 15 minutes of his State of the State address to discussing this issue.  That's an indication that he believes that this is a significant problem that needs immediate attention.

I think the other thing that's notable here is that the reason that many people attribute -- what many people attribute the problems with Flint’s water supply to is this changeover from where the water was obtained; and that by getting the water from the Flint River, that raised some significant questions about how clean the water is and what sort of threat that poses to public health.  That's only a recent change that has been made.  I believe that was in the summer of 2014.

So there may be a variety of things that conspired to contribute to this problem, but I think what most scientists have concluded is that this all stems from a decision that was made only about a year and a half ago.

Q    And lastly, the President has his My Brother’s Keeper initiative and it deals with at-risk minority males, while there are many critics who are now saying, and doctors who are saying that there could be a lost generation in Flint, Michigan because of the effects of this contaminated water.  What is being done as relates to that in this White House in trying to catch that lost generation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what’s clear is that the potential -- I want to underscore “potential” -- public health impact here is quite significant.  And that is why the federal official that is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the federal government is an expert in public health.  And so we're mindful of those risks and certainly will be mobilizing the resources that are necessary to try to deal with them.

Q    But when you have lead -- I mean, I’ve talked to doctors who say we've seen the effects of lead like in kids who were diagnosed years ago.   Like Freddy Gray, for instance, in Baltimore, he had been diagnosed with lead poisoning.  So you’re saying “potential” -- there is a reality that lead poisoning and other contaminants can really do damage to a person academically, physically.

MR. EARNEST:  I wasn’t attempting to downplay the impact of lead poisoning.  I think it is unclear at this point exactly what the extent of it was in Flint, and that's what they’re trying to take a look at.  I'm certainly not downplaying the significance of -- or the seriousness of something like that.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I'd like to ask you about the budget that's coming out in a couple of weeks.  And the White House today rolled out a program of school lunches.  But I wanted to ask, will the President’s budget adhere to the spending caps that were just agreed to in the budget agreement in December?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we'll have a whole lot more detail about what’s included in the budget when we roll it out here in a couple of weeks.  So stay tuned for that.  Sorry I can't help with yet.


Q    Just a couple questions.  On Flint, the Governor there has asked for -- specifically asked for medical care, long-term medical care for minors under 21.  And he’s asked the federal government to help with that.  Is that something that the President thinks is a good idea, or something that you're working actively towards doing?  I gather there will be a formal proposal to Health and Human Services fairly soon.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we'll obviously take a close look at any requests that are made by state and local officials for assistance that the federal government can provide.  And again, the federal official on the ground in Flint that’s coordinating the federal resources that are being brought to bear to this situation is a public health expert, so she would certainly be in a good position to evaluate the benefits of a request like that.

Q    It just seems like a very -- a somewhat unique request because of the unique nature of this particular crisis.  Essentially, federal health care coverage for minors under the age of 21 on a long-term basis, that seems like a very significant commitment that the government would have to make, the federal government to make.  Conceptually, is that something the President, you think, would support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think we’d have to take a look at exactly what the request is before rendering a judgment on it. 

Q    There was a pretty stinging editorial in the Detroit News about the EPA’s role in all this.  Are you familiar with that?

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t see the editorial, but go ahead.

Q    The basic point of it is that the EPA knew that there was a problem about a year ago, but chose not to be very public about it, chose to deal with this more discreetly through the Michigan State Department of Environmental Protection.  But the critics in the agency are saying essentially they knew that there was a problem a year ago or more but really didn’t sound the alarm.  Is that a fair criticism?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple of things about that.  The first is that there is an ongoing Department of Justice investigation to this, so I have to be limited, at least measured in what I can say about it, because I don't want to be perceived as weighing in on this investigation or trying to defend or deflect blame from anybody.   

Let me just say, in general, that what the President himself has identified is the need to take another look at the relationship between the EPA and those states like Michigan where it is state and local officials who are responsible for things like water quality, because it does raise exactly the kind of moral and, in some cases, legal question that you’re raising, which is that if the EPA has a legitimate concern about something, but yet it is the responsibility of state officials to administer the water system, the question then is, what does the EPA do?  Particularly if their concerns are not being heeded by the state and local government.

What the President has asked the EPA to do -- and I think the EPA Administrator made an announcement about this recently -- is to clarify exactly how that relationship should work so that the EPA is not put in a position where they’re expected to keep private information that is critical to the health of the public.  That obviously is a situation that we need to avoid, and the EPA has taken another look at the rules and regulations that govern the relationship between state officials and federal officials to make sure that that kind of situation doesn’t arise in the future.

Q    I don’t know the legality of it all, but apparently there’s a situation where the EPA, it would be illegal for them to essentially say there’s a problem because it’s a state responsibility.

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that there are a bunch of rules and regulations that govern the relationship between the EPA and state and local officials.  And so they do have a -- they obviously want to try to follow that procedure.  What we need to make sure is that that procedure doesn’t unnecessarily inhibit the ability of the EPA to make public information that could have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of the public.

Q    And the decision-making by the EPA, is it part of the focus of the DOJ investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’d have to talk to the Department of Justice about what all they’re taking a look at.  But I certainly want to be cautious about not unintentionally interfering in an ongoing investigation.

Q    And just one thing on the campaign.  Another way of looking at this whole thing is that President Obama appointed Senator Clinton to a very sensitive position.  They worked side by side in the Situation Room and in the trenches for years and years.  Why wouldn’t he endorse someone like that?  Why wouldn’t he come out and -- it would seem perfectly natural.  The relationship he has with Senator Sanders pales in comparison, at least by the way anyone would like at this.  So isn’t he just playing politics?  Is he hedging his bets?  Why wouldn’t he come out and say something much more supportive of his own former Secretary of State?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that’s an entirely legitimate question. 

Q    Thanks.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I just -- (laughter) -- well -- here’s, I think, the President’s thinking about this.  It’s simply that he’s not the only person that should have an opportunity to decide.  Democratic voters should be engaged in this process.  And there is a strong benefit to the Democratic Party to have people like Senator Sanders who doesn’t have a long, personal relationship with the President of the United States, but yet has been remarkably effective in galvanizing support for his campaign among Democratic activists all across the country.  He is somebody who has been able to engage Democrats all across the country in the debate about the future of our country.  That is a good thing for the party.  And the President and his vision for the future of the country benefits from somebody like Senator Sanders having success in mobilizing Democrats to be actively engaged in the debate about the future of the country. 

And so, second, the President also believes that it’s important that he himself benefitted from a vigorous primary campaign; that anybody who followed the President’s election in 2007 and 2008, it was pretty obvious that the President improved dramatically as a candidate over the course of 2007 and 2008.  And if the primary process had been wrapped up in late to mid-February, the President would not have had the benefit of honing those skills, both on the stump and on the debate stage.

Now, I will readily acknowledge that, at the time, that it was a little harder to discern that benefit; that those of us that had been moving from state to state, and certainly the President, who was spending days upon days and weeks upon weeks on the campaign trail in a way that nobody really expected, at the time felt like a little bit of a slog.  But in hindsight, it’s quite clear that he benefitted from -- that his performance on the stump and his performance on the debate stage and his performance as a candidate improved as a result of that.

So any sort of presidential attempt to sort of head off that debate at this early stage by weighing on the primary isn’t really going to benefit any of the candidates.  And the truth is the President wants to encourage a robust debate within the Democratic Party.  That's going to be good for both inspiring people to be active and engaged in the political process, but also it’s going to sharpen the skills of all of the candidates involved. 

All that said, I wouldn’t necessarily rule out an endorsement down the line.  But at this point, the President reserving his private preference -- or keeping his private preference private, I guess, has had important benefits for the party and important benefits for the candidates.

Q    Is it fair that that non-endorsement could be seen as a negative for Secretary Clinton?  Some will see it.

MR. EARNEST:  I have no doubt that some will see it that way.  But I think that -- I think I’ve tried to lay out what the benefits are of the President keeping his private preference private and allowing the process to play out in a way that engages Democrats across the country and sharpens the skills of the Democratic candidates who are competing for those votes.


Q    Josh, thanks.  Staying with 2016, is it fair to say that the President believes that Hillary Clinton is better prepared to be President than Bernie Sanders?

MR. EARNEST:  The President hasn’t made public an assessment like that at this point.  Again, I think the President has talked about the --

Q    This morning he said she’s better prepared than any non-Vice President to ever run for the office.

MR. EARNEST:  I think that was a clear acknowledgement of the skills and experience that she brings to the job.  But look, ultimately his preference in this contest is one that will be expressed in his absentee ballot in the Illinois primary.  If we choose to make that public, we’ll let you know.

Q    Staying -- actually, let me talk foreign policy for just a second.  I’m sure you saw the report of President Rouhani making this grand European tour.  He made a comment in which he said, we invite American businessmen to join their European counterparts in investing with us as part of a win-win collaboration after years of mutual losses.  Is that how the President would see it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, President Rouhani has taken advantage of the opportunity to go and make his case around the world of why his country is open for business again.  And he makes that claim based on the significant steps that his nation has already taken to dismantle a significant portion of their nuclear infrastructure.

They’ve also -- they did that by eliminating 98 percent of their enriched uranium stockpile; by essentially gutting the core of a plutonium reactor; dismantling -- or at least unplugging thousands of centrifuges; and agreeing to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.

And in exchange, we have -- the international community has allowed Iran to try to re-establish business ties with other countries and other companies around the world.  What’s also true is that Iran continues to be subject to significant sanctions -- not just here in the United States, but also in Europe, because of their ongoing support for terrorism, because of the human rights abuses that are all too common inside of Iran, and because of their continued development of a ballistic missile program in violation of their international obligations. 

Q    You said something important -- you said in sort of opening the possibility for investment.  Does the President feel that he can take some credit for that?  That by creating this Iran nuclear deal or at least having a hand in it, that now he’s been able to assist the Iranians in opening their economy to the world again?

MR. EARNEST:  The goal of the nuclear agreement was focused on making sure that Iran’s nuclear program existed only for peaceful purposes, and that the international community had full transparency into their program so that they could confirm for ourselves that that program existed only for peaceful purposes.  And that is an objective that was achieved as a part of the nuclear agreement.

I would acknowledge that President Rouhani pursued that agreement for different reasons.  But ultimately our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was achieved.

Q    Last one.  You’ve probably read the reports about Afghanistan and the potential that American troops could be there for decades.  Does the President see it that way?  And is this an acknowledgement that his best-laid plans when he campaigned on the idea of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t going to play out?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, when he ran for this office in 2007 and 2008, actually talked about the need to intensify our focus on Afghanistan to make sure that we are confronting the extremist threat that had led to the worst terrorist attack on American soil in 2001.

And under this President’s leadership and because of the strategy that we put forward, and principally because of the courage, bravery, and professionalism of our men and women in uniform, we have decimated core al Qaeda that previously did capitalize on the instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Q    So decades is --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we have always said is that the United States envisioned a long-term partnership with the government of Afghanistan, and that our commitment to economic development and shoring up their governing structures was a long-term commitment.  And again, this was a commitment not just made by the United States, but by the broader international community.  And we always did envision a scenario where there would be a U.S. embassy in Afghanistan that would be guarded by U.S. military personnel.  We envisioned the establishment of a security cooperation office at that embassy that would strengthen the military-to-military ties between Afghanistan and the United States. 

So we always envisioned a long-term relationship between our two countries.  But right now, there is a military presence inside of Afghanistan by the United States and our NATO partners to focus on counterterrorism and on continuing to train and advise Afghan troops that are currently providing for the security situation in their own country.  And that effort continues.

Q    So if I’m understanding you, you're comfortable with the idea that for decades, potentially, there could be thousands of American troops in Afghanistan; that after 15 years of tireless effort by the women and men who fought in that country, the blood, the treasure, that's not going to be nearly enough.  And you're comfortable with that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the scenario that we envision right now is that we would essentially draw down troop levels to about 5,500 troops by the end of this year.  Moving forward, the next Commander-in-Chief and his or her national security team taking advice from our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan will have to determine what sort of troop presence is appropriate for that country moving forward.

What the President envisions is a continued decrease in that number.  But ultimately that's a decision for the next President.  What is clear, though, again, is that our goal was to destroy the core al Qaeda cell that had planned and supported the worse terrorist attack on American soil back in 2001.  And that objective was achieved.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  You said -- if I heard you correctly, you said the President hasn’t made public his private preference in the Democratic primary contest.  Does that mean he has one?  Or is he approaching the field with an open mind?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m confident the President approached this with an open mind.  I don't know whether or not the President has made a decision about whose -- about which candidate he will support in the Illinois primary.  But yes, it’s fair to say that the President is considering that decision -- or at least considered that decision with an open mind.  I don't know if he’s decided at this point.

Q    Can you point to some areas where Senator Sanders and the President have worked together, either when he was in the Senate or during this administration?  And would you describe Senator Sanders’s role in advancing the President’s objective as constructive or obstructive, or a little bit of both?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s one way to measure this, and that is that during the two years that they served in the United States Senate together, there were about 200 pieces of legislation that they either sponsored or co-sponsored.  I think that at least is one -- I would concede that is a relatively arbitrary measure, but at least it's one way to quantify the depth of their cooperation in the United States Senate. 

Obviously, Senator Sanders has made a name for himself in part because of his passionate advocacy for Wall Street reform and standing up for and fighting for middle-class families.  That's also been at the core of the President’s domestic policymaking agenda as well.  And while there are some differences in the details when it comes to their approach to those two issues, their agreement about championing the middle class being critical to the success of our country I think is probably the most prominent. 

But there are -- as it relates to other issues where they agree, based on what Senator Sanders said at the stakeout, it sounds like he’s generally supportive of the broad approach the President has taken to fighting ISIL and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and some of those foreign policy issues.  But when it comes to whether or not Senator Sanders agrees with all those things, you probably have to ask him.

Q    Can you clarify the history of their meetings?  Have they met privately in the Oval Office before?  I think you said in the briefing that they have.  Was that a meeting that took place in December of 2014?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, that's when the meeting took place.

Q    Do you know what happened there?  Do you have a readout?  Do you know how that came together?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't.  I think that was, frankly, a similar circumstance to this one, where Senator Sanders basically informed the White House of his intent to seek the Democratic nomination for the office of President.  And he, I think understandably, concluded that one thing to do might be to ask the last guy who successfully obtained the Democratic nomination for the office of President and spend some time talking to him.  And that's what they did. 

I don't have a detailed readout of that meeting either. But, yes, there are at least two occasions in which Senator Sanders and President Obama have met privately in the Oval Office in the last year or so.

Q    One last quick one.  Does the President think there should be more Democratic debates?  This is something of some controversy.  There’s talk of adding an unsanctioned debate or reexamining the Democratic debate schedule.  He’s been through this.  What does he think?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President believes that the Democratic National Committee, who actually is neutral in this race, should decide exactly what that debate schedule should be. It's my understanding that's something that they settled on many months ago.


Q    Josh, I have two questions about Senator Sanders, and then one unrelated question.  To follow up on what Byron was asking you, Senator Sanders was saying that he believes that the President is trying to be as evenhanded as possible.  Just process-wise, did the President extend to him any kind of conduit or contact that he can use to make sure that his relationship with the White House, should he need it, is facilitated in anything akin to the way that Secretary Clinton can access White House information?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I think the fact that we were able to set up this meeting I think is an indication that when Senator Sanders needs to communicate with the President or senior members of the White House team here, that he has the capacity to do that.

Q    But I mean, other than leg affairs, what office or contact -- did the President setup any special -- like call Denis or --

MR. EARNEST:  No, I’m not aware that anything like that was necessary.  I’m confident that if, again, if Senator Sanders needs to get the attention of the President or anybody else here on the senior staff, that he’s able to do that.

Q    One other question just to follow up on Byron, too.  Because the President has said that he wants to be a single-issue voter or assist himself in the Democratic Party on gun control, can you clarify whether the two men talked about gun control today and whether they’re on the same page?  Would the President have any hesitation to be supportive of Senator Sanders on the basis of that issue?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not this came up in their private conversation.  And, again, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, it’s apparent from Senator Sanders’s public comments on this issue that he has arrived at a position and an agenda that is consistent with the kind of agenda we’d expect of a candidate who supports common-sense gun-safety measures like those the President has said will have a significant impact on who he chooses not just to vote for but also to support and campaign for in the next election.

Q    Then the unrelated question is about Guantanamo.  Cheryl asked you about the budget, but I want to ask you, can you say whether the President -- the budgetary implications of his proposal to shutter Guantanamo as a prison will be included in the budget that would be released in early February so that lawmakers could see what the implications might be in the savings that he envisions?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not this will be included in the budget, but obviously we’ll be able to talk about that when we roll out the budget.  I do know that part of the plan that the Department of Defense has been working on for a number of months now includes a discussion of the fiscal impact of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and finding a more cost-effective way to detain those individuals who pose a threat to the United States.

Q    Do you think that the plan will be public before the release of the budget?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have an update for you on the timing of the Gitmo plan.  But when that plan is presented to Congress we'll make sure that all of you get a copy of it as well.


Q    Josh, in the past, the President has sought the counsel or taken the counsel of Michael Bloomberg, particularly on guns.  Does the President believe that there’s room for another billionaire in this race for President?  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  Mayor Bloomberg was just at the White House a couple of weeks ago, two or three weeks ago now, to discuss the effort that he has undertaken to make our communities safer from gun violence.  Obviously, the President has been deeply appreciative of the kind of investment and commitment that Mayor Bloomberg has made to this issue.  The President believes it's important as well.  And they had an opportunity to talk about their efforts in the Oval Office just a few weeks ago.

Ultimately, Mayor Bloomberg will have to decide for himself if he wants to run for President.  I mean, it does seem like on about every 12 or 13 months we do see anonymous sources claiming to be familiar with the thinking of Mayor Bloomberg, speculating that he might even be considering a potential run for the presidency. 

So, look, as I noted in the context of Vice President Biden’s deliberations, everybody around here is mindful of the kind of personal considerations that are included in a decision like that, and obviously that's a decision that only Mayor Bloomberg can make for himself.  And it's not a decision that can be made by an anonymous source who claims to be familiar with his thinking.

Q    Going back to the Politico interview that we discussed so far, there’s a comment President Obama made when talking about Hillary Clinton -- he made that reference to sort of the Ginger Rogers analogy -- “She had to do everything I did except backwards and in heels,” suggesting she had it harder.  Does the President think it's harder for female candidates running for office?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the point that the President was making in the context of that interview is just simply that a long national campaign for the presidency is arduous and is physically demanding, and as tiring as the President found that process to be, it must have been even more challenging for Secretary Clinton.  Again, he noted -- he cited this example in his interview.  One example of that is, I would assume, based on very little personal knowledge, that it takes Secretary Clinton a little longer in the morning to do her hair than it does for the President of the United States to do his hair.  And that may seem like a rather prosaic observation, but ultimately, when you're talking about an 18- or 19-hour day, that matters.  And that's the observation that the President was making.

Q    But he wasn’t necessarily only thinking of Hillary Clinton in that context.  I mean, is he saying, generally speaking, a campaign as arduous as this one, it is just tougher for women to run for the same office?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess in that context and with that sort of -- I would acknowledge that the unique challenges that were faced by Secretary Clinton in 2008 are probably familiar to women candidates who have competed in other political campaigns, even below the presidential level.

Q    It would take Trump a while to do his hair.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  The last time I talked about Mr. Trump’s hair I got in a little trouble.  So I'll let you make that observation, not me. 

Q    But just to clarify here, do you think, in the context of this race now, that gender is playing a role?  Was the President trying to go that far in this statement?  Or was he just speaking in what sounds like you're kind of characterizing in a lighthearted, sort of “it takes longer to get ready in the morning” context?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what the President was chiefly talking about is just why it is he had developed so much admiration for Secretary Clinton.  And they have this -- look, it's a rather unique thing for two people to have participated in such an historic presidential election.  And it lasted a whole lot longer than most people expected.  It involved campaigning in states that had not recently been involved in -- or at least actively contested in the Democratic presidential primary process.  And while they were on different sides of the contest, they went through that contest together.  It was a searing experience for him, personally, but yet it was an experience that the two of them shared in common. 

And I think the President was just making the observation that he found that process to be demanding, but his admiration for her was that it must have been even more physically demanding on her as she was going through that process.  And so I think he was just trying to explain why he admired her skills as a candidate, and her tenacity and her perseverance. 

And would that apply to other women candidates in the context of other races?  Yes, it potentially could.  But each race is a little bit different.

Q    And one other remark in that interview I wanted to ask -- the President I guess expressed some regret for being so hard on Hillary Clinton the last time around, in 2008.  Is that sentiment felt here, elsewhere within the White House, given how deeply some of those competitive juices were flowing back then?  I mean, is this now a sentiment that, in looking at the race now, people who worked on the campaign, the President himself said, wow, it shouldn’t have gotten that tough?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think one thing that the President made clear once he made the decision to add Secretary Clinton to his Cabinet, and once he took office as President, he made clear to his staff that those old rivalries needed to be set aside for the good of the country.  And I think for the most part, that's what staff members who served on both campaigns did, because they recognized, particularly at that stage in our history where you had the broader American economy teetering on the edge of a cliff, that the stakes were too high to continue petty personal or political rivalries.

And, look, some of that work happened in the context of the campaign in the general election.  There were a number of my colleagues who still work at the White House today who originally supported Secretary Clinton in the primary race, worked and supported Senator Obama in the general election, and now serve President Obama here.  Obviously, Secretary Clinton, then-Senator Clinton, campaigned pretty aggressively for Senator Obama in the 2008 general election.  So that was part of a long-running process.  And I think if you take a look at the effectiveness of their working relationship once she became Secretary of State, I think you could observe that that process was successful.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to ask you about inversions.  On Monday, Johnson Controls and Tyco went through a merger.  It's a pretty big inversion that would cost the U.S. taxpayers about $150 million.  Senator Sanders said it would be a disaster for the taxpayer.  Hillary Clinton also spoke out against it.  I'm wondering if the White House has any statement or reaction to that deal.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't have a comment on any individual company’s transaction.  What I will just say in general is the President has made clear that closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, whether those are individuals or corporations, is a top priority of his.  And unfortunately, we haven't seen Republicans embrace that notion, but we're going to continue to talk to them about it. 

And I know that there are a number of steps the Treasury Department has already taken to make it more difficult for any company to engage in a transaction that allows them to avoid their tax bill unfairly.  And they’re continuing to look at other policy proposals that would improve upon those efforts.  But ultimately, we need legislation to address this loophole.  And that legislation continues to be high on the President’s agenda.

Q    It does not seem like that legislation is moving forward in the Republican Congress at this point.

MR. EARNEST:  Yeah, unfortunately.  And I think it is a good illustration, though, of the Republican priorities.  Look, the President made this observation at some recent public event: it's not middle-class families that are moving to a PO Box overseas so they can avoid paying their taxes.  Most middle-class families here in the United States stand up and pay their fair share.  Why shouldn’t we ask the same thing of large corporations that benefit from the infrastructure in this country, that benefit from the talent pool that exists in this country, that benefit from the most -- being part of the biggest economy in the world, and a legal structure that allows their business to thrive?  It's time for them to pay their fair share, too.  And I’m not sure how Republicans can make the case that that's somehow a bad idea.

Q    Then why is there so much reluctance to speak out specifically about these deals when they come up?  Why not use the bully pulpit to try to stop some of these deals from happening since legislation doesn't seem to move forward?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the challenge here is that the -- obviously, there are elements of the U.S. government that have jurisdiction over individual companies.  And so I don't want to somehow suggest that our approach to regulating companies is going to be prejudiced based on some policy decision that they’ve made.  So I’m not going to weigh in on a decision that's made by an individual company -- frankly, particularly one that involves tax policy like this.

But the principle is one that the President has talked about quite extensively and continues to be a top priority of the administration.  And look, I’d encourage you to check with the Treasury Department for an update on their ongoing efforts to address what we view as a pretty significant flaw in the tax code.

Q    Also, kind of speaking of the Treasury Department, I think Secretary Lew was here this morning.  I’m wondering if Puerto Rico came up in that discussion.  We saw the readout of the discussion with Leader Pelosi and Harry Reid.  And it seems like Puerto Rico was one of the top issues that came up in terms of what the President wants out of Congress.  Did that issue come up?  Is the President coming up with a strategy for how to get Congress to move on Puerto Rico here in the next few weeks?

MR. EARNEST:  Are you asking if it came up in the meeting with Senator Sanders? 

Q    With Secretary Lew.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Secretary Lew is at the White House most mornings because he participates in the senior staff meeting in the Chief of Staff’s Office.  So I don't have an update for you on any sort of specific internal deliberations on this.  We’ve made clear that the administration considers this a priority, and it’s not uncommon for this to be a topic of some conversation here at the White House.

Obviously, Secretary Lew has been at the forefront of our efforts to try to address the situation.  I know that he traveled to Puerto Rico just last week to meet with officials there.  And we were gratified at the end of last year when Speaker Ryan made a specific commitment to allow the House to vote on legislation that would not bail out Puerto Rico, but give Puerto Rico some more options for dealing with their financial challenges.

Q    One more question on potential executive actions on tax policy.  Senator Sanders, I think he wrote a letter to the President last year calling for the President to take some executive actions and close some loopholes.  And one of his advisors just came out this week and said that the President could -- or executive actions could close the carried interest loophole.  I’m wondering if the President or any of his advisors are looking at the authority or executive action to specifically address some of these tax loopholes that Congress doesn't seem to want to address.

MR. EARNEST:  Look, I haven’t seen any specific proposals that have been put forward.  But certainly the President has demonstrated a willingness to use his executive authority to try to advance priorities that we’ve identified, even when it comes to tax policy.


Q    Josh, on the record, to get you to clarify, is it accurate for us to describe President Obama as impartial and neutral in the Democratic race both privately and publicly at this time?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it is fair for you to say that the President has been conscientious about remaining publicly neutral in the presidential race.

Q    And there was no effort on his part to use the Politico interview as a way to signal a preference for one candidate over the other?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think the goal of the Politico interview, as was evident for most of the discussion, was to have an opportunity to talk about his experience campaigning in Iowa, and why that was a meaningful experience for him both in terms of shaping his public identity, but also the way that it had an impact on his approach to public service and to fulfilling his responsibilities as President. 

And the truth is that's how most -- that was the context for most the questions about both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders came up.

Q    Today’s meeting with Senator Sanders was on the President’s public schedule, but his meeting last month with Secretary Clinton was not.  Can you tell us why?  And will you be putting future meetings with candidates on the schedule?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there certainly were a number of concerns raised by people in this room about the fact that the President’s meeting with Secretary Clinton was not announced in advance.  And so we took that step with Senator Sanders last night to include on the nightly guidance that the President was intending to have this meeting today.

We will endeavor to announce those kinds of meetings in advance in the future.  I’m certainly going to protect the President’s ability to have a private conversation.  And there have been conversations that the President has had, for example, with former Speaker of the House John Boehner, when he was still in office, that were not announced in advance and were not actually even confirmed shortly after they were completed.

The President needs to have the ability to have private conversations with other political leaders, and we're going to protect his ability to do that.  But those kinds of meetings are obviously not the norm.  And when the President is having what would otherwise be described as a routine meeting with Senator Sanders, or somebody like Secretary Clinton, then we’ll plan to announce it in the guidance of the night before.

Q    And on another issue, is there any White House response to the Doomsday Clock announcement on Monday that it’s keeping the clock at three minutes to midnight; that we are in a very dangerous environment? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I saw some news reports about that.  I’ll just say that the President intends to convene the next installment of the Nuclear Security Summit here in Washington, D.C. in the next couple of months to talk about our ongoing efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons.  And the President does believe in a longer-term role of trying to essentially nuclear disarm every country in the world.  I know the President believes that that would make the globe and the United States of America more safe. 

I know that another factor in that analysis was climate change.  And while we’ve made important progress in the context of the Paris agreement last year, for the first time we had more than 190 countries committing to reducing carbon pollution.  We're going to need to see countries follow through on those commitments.  And there will be more work that needs to be done to confront the challenge of climate change.

Now, the good news is we’ve seen a preliminary commitment on the part of these countries to taking that step.  And the President is optimistic about the kinds of economic opportunities that that creates for American businesses and American workers here in this country when it comes to the wind energy, or solar industry here in the United States.  So we're optimistic about the current trajectory there.  But again, there’s no denying that more work needs to be done.

Lauren, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    President Obama on Monday announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system, saying that the practice was overused and that it had the potential for death, stating psychological consequences, and then had an op-ed where he outlined a series of executive actions.  If bans like this -- there’s a not a ban for adults.  If this is torture for children, isn’t it torture for adults to put them in solitary confinement?  And what steps will be taken to remedy that, if any?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the reason that the President was motivated to announce this policy change is because there are legitimate concerns that have been raised about the devastating mental toll that prolonged solitary confinement can have on inmates.

And if we envision a criminal justice system that gives people a second chance, after they’ve paid their debt to society, we need to make sure that they're equipped to do that.  And again, based on the studies that have been done about the impact of solitary confinement on one’s mental health and mental condition, it’s hard to make the case that we're giving people an opportunity to succeed in the normal world once they’ve been able to reenter mainstream society if they’ve gone through this terrible ordeal of being confined in a prison cell alone and limited in their ability to interact with other human beings.

So there are a number of steps that are included in this announcement that include, even when individuals are held in solitary confinement, allowing them to spend more time outside their cell; trying to find other ways to detain individuals who might otherwise be put in solitary confinement. 

Let me give you one example.  Maybe a prisoner is having some mental problems, and too often right now the option is just to put them in solitary confinement until they calm down.  The question is if there are other ways to limit the ability of that individual to harm others or themselves, while also ensuring they get the kind of mental health treatment that they need.

The other thing that is included in this executive order are new limits on the use of this -- of solitary confinement as punishment, limiting the amount of time that they can be included in solitary confinement, as well as developing additional measures that can be instituted both as a punishment, but that will have less of a long-term negative impact on the inmate’s mental health.  And greater communication with the inmate about being placed in restrictive housing is another part of this strategy.

So the President is mindful of the severe impact that solitary confinement can have on inmates.  And that’s why he’s put forward what he hopes will serve as a model for other law enforcement agencies to follow when it comes to implementing solitary confinement procedures.

Q    Which was one of the issues that he had raised at the State of the Union, saying that he wanted to find bipartisan support for things like this.  Can we expect anything like this in the future along the lines of the prison system?

MR. EARNEST:  The President certainly continues to be very interested in criminal justice reform.  And while our goal is to get Congress to work in bipartisan fashion to pass criminal justice reform, I certainly wouldn’t rule out the President using his executive authority to take additional steps to reform the system in a way that he believes would make the American people more safe.

Ultimately, that’s what this is about.  It isn’t just about looking out for the interests and rights of individuals who are in the prison system.  Certainly, that’s important.  But if we’re also going to give those individuals a second chance -- something we all believe in -- we need to make sure that we’re not impairing their ability from the beginning to go out and develop relationships with their families when they get out of prison, and get a good job and be able to hold down that job.  If they’ve undergone this terrible mental trauma, then we’re making it a lot harder for them to go out and do what we want them to do.

And the ability of individuals to come out of the prison system, pay their debt to society, and start to make a positive contribution to our country ultimately makes all of us safer.  And that’s the President’s aim here.

Jen, you got something real quick?

Q    Yes, thank you.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  I just got to get going.  I don’t want to be late for a meeting.

Q    Okay, I’ll be really quick. 


Q    You and the President both have been pushing Congress to pass a new war authorization for ISIS for a long time.  Unexpectedly, last week, Mitch McConnell introduced a sweeping AUMF himself, and actually used a rule to expedite it to the floor and bring it up if he wants to.  Is that something the President would support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t looked at the actual text of the AUMF, but we believe that Congress has, for too long, put off their fundamental responsibility to pass the authorization to use military force against ISIL.  And obviously, our men and women in uniform are fulfilling their responsibilities to keep the country safe, and it’s time for Congress to fulfill their responsibilities, too.

Q    But would the President support something as broad as that?  It’s basically an open-ended authorization to give the President any war powers he’d like to go after ISIS.

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I haven’t looked specifically at the proposal that Senator McConnell says he supports.  Obviously, we believe that an authorization to use military force that’s passed by Congress should reflect Congress’s constitutional responsibilities to weigh in here.  And that’s our expectation that Congress should do; it’s still unclear if they actually will fulfill that responsibility.

Q    And speaking of war, Concepcion Picciotto is the woman who has been living in the tent out front for about 35 years, waging the longest peace protest in U.S. history.  She died this week.  I wanted to see if the President is aware at all of who she is and aware of this long-time fixture out there, and if he has anything to say about her and her vigil.

MR. EARNEST:  I saw some of the news coverage of this over the weekend.  I don’t know if the President is aware, but it’s clear that she had a lot of passion and conviction for trying to make the planet a safer place. 

Q    Thirty-five years.

MR. EARNEST:  And we certainly got to pay our respects, not just to the life that she lived but to her passion for making the world a safer and more peaceful place. 

Thanks, everybody.  We’ll see you tomorrow.

2:23 P.M. EST