Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/28/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:51 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any statements to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q I wanted to ask about a piece of legislation that Senate Democrats are pushing in response to the Flint, Michigan crisis. This is a bill that would put up $400 million to fix lead pipes and also require Michigan to match the federal funding, and would require federal action if the state refuses to warn people about unsafe water. And I’m just wondering if the White House supports the legislation, and if you think this is it in terms of what’s needed in terms of federal reforms.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we haven’t taken a close look at the legislation. I just got the top lines that you described shortly before walking out here. So we’ll obviously take a close look at the bill that’s put forward by members of the Michigan delegation I believe in both the House and the Senate. So we’ll take a close look at that.
There are already a variety of things that the federal government and the Obama administration have already moved on to try to offer some assistance to the state and local officials who are responding to this particular situation. That includes what the President and the EPA Administrator believe are needed reforms to the relationship that governs -- or to the rules that govern the relationships between the EPA and state and local environmental regulators.
It sounds like that’s similar to the proposal that’s been put forward legislatively to ensure that those regulations don’t unnecessarily interfere with the ability of the EPA to make public information that could be directly relevant to the health and safety of the public. So it sounds like this legislation certainly touches on some of the issues that we have identified. But I think what the administration is committed to doing is making sure that over the long haul we follow through on this response. While certainly the issues that you’ve mentioned that are included in the legislation are important, so, too, are the public health consequences for some of the failures that we’ve already seen there.
And again, the lead federal official in Michigan who is responsible for coordinating the overall activities of the federal government is a public health expert from the Department of Health and Human Services, again, mindful of the fact that there are significant public health consequences for some of the infrastructure failures that we’ve seen in Flint. So my guess is that even those who put forward this specific piece of legislation would not view it as the final word on assistance that could be offered in a helpful way to the people of Flint, Michigan.
Q And then I wanted to ask another question about some action on the Hill. It looks like, at least at the moment anyway, that Senator McConnell is not all that interested in moving criminal justice legislation this year. And even some of the big supporters have suggested that it’s not -- Senator Cornyn recently said it’s not critical that the legislation move this year. And I’m wondering if the White House feels like it’s already lost steam. This is one of your only -- maybe one of two major legislative priorities this year, and it seems to be stalling.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve actually identified, based on the last count, about seven different things we feel like we can actually work effectively with Republicans on over the course of this year to advance shared priorities. These are things that we have identified as priorities, and things that Republicans themselves say they’re interested in. You noted one of them, criminal justice reform. The other is, of course, ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that was completed by the administration last fall.
Other issues that the President has discussed that Republicans say they also support are things like significant investments in medical research and development, including the cancer moonshot that the President discussed in the State of the Union address.
Another thing that the President has indicated he supports is expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to offer additional tax credits to childless workers. Right now, the Earned Income Tax program is an economically powerful way to keep families out of poverty, and this is a benefit that we believe can be structured to effectively help childless workers. Speaker Ryan has indicated this is a proposal that he supports. There’s been a lot of talk on the campaign trail about fighting heroin abuse and addiction. Certainly the administration has played a leading role in that. We would take up Republicans and their stated interest in that.
Two other things -- the authorization to use military force, again, something that some Republicans at least say that Congress should act on. We’ve been saying for more than a year now that this is something that Congress should do. And Speaker Ryan, at the end of last year, committed to House action that would offer needed assistance to Puerto Rico, and we have long advocated offering the island of Puerto Rico, that government, the opportunity to restructure some of their debts in order to meet some of their financial challenges.
These are all things Republicans say that they support. But as you note, we have seen comments from Republicans indicating that, well, maybe they’ll get TPP done this year; maybe they won’t. Now they’re saying something similar about criminal justice reform. I think it does beg, though, one question, which is, what are Republicans going to do? What is exactly their legislative agenda that they’re seeking to advance? They’ve got some ideas that they know are nonstarters. There are plenty of partisan initiatives that they put forward, like repealing the Affordable Care Act. Again, I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that that would actually be a proactive legislative accomplishment, to actually undo something that has provided health care to 17 million Americans. But maybe Republicans can make that case. That’s a different argument.
The argument I’m making is, what’s the Republican agenda? The things that we’ve identified -- I’ve laid out seven of them -- are things that Republicans say that they support. They’re things that we say that we support. Why wouldn’t we make progress on them? And if they -- and I also recognize that a lot of times this gets covered as, well, Republicans deal another blow to the President’s legislative priorities. I understand why that’s the coverage. And to a certain extent that’s true. But at what point, do Republicans actually have to start becoming more transparent about what their objectives actually are?
We are in an election year, and the American people will be evaluating whether or not Republicans should continue to entrust the majority in the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives to Republicans. And based on the way that Republicans are talking right now, I’m not really sure what they intend to do to demonstrate that they deserve that responsibility and that opportunity.
Q So what does the President plan to do about this?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President plans to do is to continue to try to work in good faith with Republicans in those areas where we agree.
I walked through some things that the President certainly considers a priority, and we stand ready to work with Republicans to advance them. I don’t think either of them is particularly ideological. I don’t think there’s a reason that any of them needs to be necessarily the kind of issue that breaks down along party lines. And it certainly would be consistent with the President’s stated view that he intends to make the most of every remaining day that he has in office, including by working with Republicans to advance legislation that would be good for the country. The question is whether or not Republicans are actually going to have the courage to step up to the plate and reciprocate that interest and that action.
Q Josh, Russia said today that Saudi Arabia has proposed cutting oil production by up to 5 percent. Is the White House aware of these deliberations among oil-producing countries? And would you welcome it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is certainly an interesting indication from the Russians about how concerned they are about their economy. The Russian economy over the last several years has been isolated because of their destabilizing activities in Ukraine. That’s had a significant impact on their economy in the short term, but it’s also had an impact on their longer-term economic projections. Those sanctions had been put in place around the same time that oil prices on the global market started to decline. And those two things have combined to have a pretty negative impact on the Russian economy and on the prospects for Russian economic growth.
And so I think it is notable that you see the Russians essentially looking for a lifeline from some other countries to try to cooperate with them to boost their economic prospects. I think it remains to be seen whether or not they’ll be successful in doing that, but I do think that this admission from the Russians is telegraphing the kind of economic weakness that they have for the last couple of years attempted to deny.
Q You make it a point of saying that Russia has leaked this deliberately, but they did say that it was a Saudi Arabian proposal.
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m mostly reacting to are sort of the statements from the Russians that they were going to seek to try to work out some agreements with other oil-producing nations to address some of their own -- the weakness in their own economy.
I don’t have much insight into the announcement by the Saudis. So we’ll have to get back to you if we have a specific announcement from them -- or on their action.
Q Your point about Russia is understood. But, generally, oil prices being at the low level that they are have had other impacts on the world economy. Would the White House welcome a shift in policy from big oil producers -- such as Russia, such as, more appropriately, Saudi Arabia -- to alter that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific comment to share with you in terms of the energy policy decisions that are being made by other countries. What the President has advocated for the United States is a policy that, over the long term, transitions the United States to a low-carbon economy.
In the meantime, we need to be making sure that we’re taking advantage in a safe way of the natural resources that we have in this country. And oil and gas production here in the United States is at an all-time high. What also is at an all-time high is our production from cleaner sources like wind energy and solar energy. And what the President envisions is a longer-term transition that will be good for the planet, but also capitalizes on the economy opportunity that exists when it comes to solar and wind energy and energy efficiency and other technologies where U.S. businesses and U.S. workers could really benefit.
Q All right. And then one other topic -- the World Health Organization today said that the Zika virus is exploding -- or spreading explosively, and could affect as many as 4 million people in the Americas. Has the response been too slow?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I think what you have seen from this administration is a response consistent with the kind of threat that could be out there.
I think at this point, here in the United States, the risk of disease spread by mosquitoes is quite low. The January temperatures in North America are quite inhospitable to mosquito populations. But obviously, that’s going to change. Eventually, the mercury is going to start to rise, and we need to be mindful of any sort of potential risk here in the United States. What we also need to be mindful of is the risk that’s facing, in particular, pregnant women or women who could become pregnant who might be considering traveling to regions of the Western Hemisphere where it’s warmer and where the Zika virus has already spread.
The concern that we have is not with -- well, the concern that we have is most focused on pregnant women or women who could become pregnant because of a concerning correlation that scientists have between contracting the Zika virus and the manifestation of a particular birth defect. And that’s I think what explains the pretty serious reaction that you’ve seen from the administration.
The President convened the leading scientists and public health officials in this administration to discuss this issue in the White House Situation Room earlier this week. You’ve seen the CDC issue guidance to Americans who might be considering travel throughout the Western Hemisphere in the short term. And you’ve seen the ramping up of a public communications effort from the CDC, from the NIH, and other public health professionals about steps that Americans can take to protect themselves. Just today, the CDC convened a tele-briefing to discuss this issue.
And we are in a stage right now where we want to educate the public about what the risks actually are. For most people, the risk of the Zika virus is minimal because the Zika virus has relatively mild symptoms, and only one in five people who are infected with the Zika virus actually manifest those symptoms. So our real concern is about this correlation between the Zika virus and a particular birth defect. And that’s what we’re mindful of, and that’s why we’re mobilizing the kind of response that we believe is consistent with the threat that’s out there.
Q Thanks, Josh. So the President’s going to be talking to House Democrats tonight. What is his message to them on TPP, in particular?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would not expect that the focus of the President’s remarks would be on TPP. Most Democrats don’t support the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- at least not most Democrats in the House of Representatives. We believe we have a strong case to make to Democrats about why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is good for American businesses, is good for American workers, and is good for American middle-class families. It levels the playing field for American businesses and American workers, and it cuts taxes on 18,000 American products that are imposed by other countries.
And so we have a strong case to make. We’ll be making that case to the American public. We’ll certainly be making that case to Democrats who supported giving the President Trade Promotion Authority last year. And we’ll certainly be making that case to Democrats who opposed Trade Promotion Authority but did at least leave open the possibility that they might support the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
So we have a strong case to make and we’ll make it. But for the majority of Democratic members who will be in that room today -- or tonight, they obviously do not consider passing -- or ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership a legislative priority. There are a lot of other legislative priorities, though, that we do share in common, and I would expect the President will talk about some of those. And you’ll hear from him directly about that tonight.
Q A question related to the President’s speech yesterday. A while back, the President indicated that he would -- the U.S. would be reviewing its position with regard to Middle East peace, so I wonder if in the next 12 months or so we could expect any fresh push to try and resolve or take small steps forward on the Israel-Palestine issue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any progress like that to tell you about that’s been made recently. So I would hesitate to predict much about that over the course of this year.
The focal point of our conversations with the Israelis right now -- or actually, on deepening and extending our security cooperation -- senior administration officials and their Israeli counterparts are in the midst of discussions about a memorandum of understanding that would extend the U.S. commitment to supplying the Israelis with defense equipment and technology that they need to keep their citizens safe. And those negotiations have been ongoing as recently as this month.
But I don’t have any update for you in terms of resolving the generations of disagreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Q Back to Flint for a moment. I think a lot of people there are concerned about the Governor’s statement that he has no plans to replace any of the lead pipes in that community in the short term, or whatever his words were. And the Mayor there, who has met with the President, has said that this is an awful thing, I guess -- I don’t remember the quote -- because the issue is a lack of trust. Is the President aware of that decision? Is he concerned about that decision, about something that narrow -- replacing these pipes -- and whether or not, in fact, that is going to set back any efforts to try and solve the problem there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in some ways you’re asking a question that’s directly about science -- about whether or not it is necessary to replace the pipes to ensure the safety of the water supply in Flint. And there obviously will be environmental officials in Michigan taking a look at this question, and the EPA has offered to lend their expertise in terms of testing water quality and offering advice in terms of what steps the government of Michigan and the city of Flint should take to address this crisis.
Q She said it was an issue of trust, not science, because people just don’t believe him. And again, this is not years later where concerns were raised, they weren’t addressed, and I think that’s the concern. It’s a matter of trust, not science. And is the President -- has he had any follow-up conversations with the Mayor or -- I’m trying to get a sense of how engaged he is. I know he’s got a lot of things on his agenda, but how engaged is he in this particular issue at this time?
MR. EARNEST: I know the President is regularly updated on the situation in Flint. I’m not aware of any additional conversations that he’s had with the Mayor. I think everybody who’s been involved in this situation has acknowledged that trust does need to be rebuilt between government officials and the residents of Flint. The Governor of Michigan, himself, acknowledged that there was a broader systemic failure here, and I wouldn't disagree with that notion.
But I think because these kinds of decisions should be driven by science, I think that's why it's particularly important that government officials and regulators take the steps that are necessary to begin to rebuild the trust with the citizens they’re supposed to be looking out for.
Q One other issue. Are there going to be meaningful Syrian peace talks beginning tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: For the latest update I'd refer you to the State Department. But obviously there has been a lot of painstaking diplomacy involved, both by senior State Department officials including the Secretary of State himself; officials at the United Nations; and other members of our counter-ISIL coalition who are trying to use their diplomatic leverage to get both the relevant opposition parties and their representatives to Geneva at the same time as officials representing the Syrian government.
What is planned for Geneva are not face-to-face talks between those two groups of people, but rather proximity talks where you’d have U.N. officials sort of shuttling between representatives of the government and representatives of the opposition to try to advance the diplomatic process.
This has been hard work that's been underway for a long time and we've made a lot of progress in terms of getting to this stage, and were hopeful that we can continue to move the ball forward. But no one underestimates how difficult that challenge is.
Q And just lastly, it may be a difficult thing to measure, but is there any indication that the improved relations with the Iranians as a result of the deal and so forth -- does that have any positive impact on this process in Geneva?
MR. EARNEST: The State Department would be best positioned to offer a judgment on that. My guess is if there has been any change it's been largely at the margins. I don't think we've seen any sort of overhaul or dramatic turnabout in the context of these negotiations that has occurred since the implementation of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon going forward.
Q Josh, on Syria -- a question on that. With the Russians bombing the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition on behalf of the Assad regime as recently as this week, doesn’t that undercut the credibility of the administration’s position that that same opposition should agree to sit down with the regime backed by Russia at these talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have on many occasions -- and when I say we, I include myself -- expressed our significant concerns both about the tactics that are used by the regime and their supporters to wage war against Syrian citizens. And that is, after all, why we are trying to broker the kind of political transition that we're hoping to discuss in Geneva tomorrow.
When you have a government entity that is using weapons of war against its own people, you need a political transition. And there’s no denying the human suffering that has resulted from the failures of the Assad regime. And there’s also no denying that a political transition will be required. We're not going to be able to solve this militarily. And it is our hope that through diplomacy and through talks and through a political transition, we can bring -- at least reduce the violence and chaos inside of Syria, if not eliminate it altogether.
Q So you still think Russia is a credible partner here in these talks even though they’re bombing the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our view of the Russians has been that there are a number of things that they have done that have not been particularly constructive. In fact, we've noted that their heavy support for the Assad regime has actually set back our diplomatic efforts to reach a political transition. We've noted that on a number of occasions. And it is primarily because of -- and again, the reason for that, it's just a practical matter. If they succeed in shoring up their support for the Assad government and help stabilize the Assad government, and weaken the political opposition that we want the Assad government to begin negotiating with, you reduce, if not eliminate, any incentive that the Assad government has to negotiate in the first place. And that's the reason that we have found Russia’s military involvement in Syria to be so concerning.
Q Can I ask you on another front here -- foreign policy, different country -- General Dunford said that the U.S. is looking to take decisive action in Libya against ISIS. Is there anything you can tell us about the President’s consultations on this or potential decisions about that action?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in one regard, I would say that there’s some evidence that the United States has already taken some decisive action inside of Libya. Back in November, because of U.S. military action, the leading ISIL figure in Libya was taken off the battlefield. So the United States has long been mindful of the risk that is posed by the kind of political chaos that we see in Libya.
We know that one of ISIL’s strategies is to capitalize on chaos in a particular region, and using that to try to establish the foundation of their hateful ideology and to further their aspirations for a caliphate. That's what they’ve done in Syria, and we know that they have similar aspirations inside of Libya because they see the same thing that everybody else does, which is that there is political chaos in that country.
That's why the United States has long supported the U.N.-led effort to try to broker the establishment of a government in Libya that reflects the will and aspirations of the Libyan people. But it's also why we've been mindful of the broader security risk in Libya. And I referenced one particular airstrike -- that's why the United States has taken steps to counter the growth of ISIL inside of Libya.
I don't have any decisions to preview at this point, but the President has certainly been discussing the threat posed by ISIL in Libya with his national security team, and that discussion has included steps that the United States could take -- in close consultation with some of our European allies that obviously have their own set of experiences and resources to bring to bear there. Obviously, countries like Italy have experience in that part of the world, and we would draw upon their resources, their skill and their expertise to advance our goals in that region of the world.
Q Just to clarify, so what you're talking about is one strike, a targeted strike to take out a leader. What General Dunford seemed to be talking about was more like a campaign and working with forces on the ground. That's different. That would be, in that sense, an escalation or new front in the fight against ISIS. Is that the way you're viewing this, as a new front, a third front against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, it's too early to make any -- I don't have any announcements to make from here about any sort of policy decisions that have been made in this regard. I think the point that I'm trying to emphasize is that the administration and the President have been mindful of the risk that is posed by ISIL and their aspirations to operate more aggressively inside of Libya. And that's why we've been strongly supportive of the U.N.-led political process inside of Libya. It's why we've already taken some military actions inside of Libya to counter ISIL. But I don't have anything to tell you about any sort of potential actions or escalation with regard to our efforts against ISIL in Libya.
Q And lastly, will the President tonight ask for an AUMF
-- authorization of force -- when he speaks to Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there are some Democrats in the House who do believe that Congress should fulfill their responsibility to pass an authorization to use military force. That's something that the President has been advocating for more than a year now. I don't know if it will come up, but if it does, I think what House Democrats will hear is encouragement from the Democratic President that Congress should fulfill their responsibility.
Q Josh, two questions on two different subjects. One, back on Flint. Back in the beginning of this administration, about seven years ago, this President had two cities in special categories, and those cities were Detroit and New Orleans. And both of those cities wound up coming out of those special categories and special grouping because they had started climbing out of devastation either economically -- or, really, both economically, and the other, devastation of Katrina. So now, with the situation with the water in Flint and some other areas in Michigan, is there a thought to put Flint and Detroit and that whole area maybe back in a special category again to maybe focus in on the issues that are specific and unique to that community?
MR. EARNEST: April, I'm not aware of any sort of formal designation that's being considered for Flint at this point. We've talked about the wide variety of resources that have been provided by the federal government just in the last few weeks to try to assist state and local officials who are responding to a serious situation there.
And there is no doubt that the challenges facing Flint right now are daunting. When you consider the work that may be required to overhaul and maybe even replace a significant portion of their infrastructure; when you consider, April, as you raised yesterday, sort of the longer-term public health consequences of the failures that we've already seen; the need by government officials and regulators at the state, local and federal level to repair trust with the citizens of that community -- the challenges facing that community are daunting.
But I think you raised an interesting point, which is they don't have to look much further than the city of Detroit to understand a few things. One is that the federal government will be committed to following through on the commitments that we make to ensure that that city gets the support that they need to come back stronger than ever.
And there were significant challenges that were facing the city of New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. The widespread devastation of that community and the dislocation of the population had a profound impact on that city and its prospects for the future. But the President had the opportunity to visit New Orleans last November, mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and they spent a little time talking about the storm, but mostly talking about the renaissance of a great American city.
So I think that the people of Flint, despite the daunting challenges, I think can really look to their neighbors in Detroit and they can look south to New Orleans for a lot of hope and inspiration.
Q So and this leads to my second question. When you talk about this renaissance in a great American city -- the President is going to Baltimore today. There were calls for him to go to the area that was affected -- Penn North -- or just some of the blighted, more impoverished communities in Baltimore. In Baltimore today, will he -- or this evening -- will there possibly be -- maybe this is a security concern, I shouldn’t ask, but I'm going to ask -- could the motorcade kind of drive a little bit in a different direction than normal just to take a look at some of the areas that could be hurting -- while he's still in office? Areas that supported him as President.
MR. EARNEST: I don't expect that today. But I just remind you, the President did have the opportunity to travel to Baltimore in 2014, I believe it was --
Q This happened in 2015.
MR. EARNEST: I understand that. I guess that means the President was ahead of the curve here in trying to address some of these problems that Baltimore has been challenged with for a long time now. But I'm not aware of any changes to the motorcade route to announce here today.
Q Will he get any updates while he's there in the city? I understand the reason why he’s there, but will he meet with the outgoing mayor or other officials -- or Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is very active in the community? Will he meet with community leaders to talk about what’s happening and changes possible?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s visit today will be focused on House Democrats, so I will anticipate he'll have a chance to meet with Congressman Cummings, to visit with him in the context of the session with House Democrats. But I wouldn't anticipate a special discussion of the situation in Baltimore.
Q Will he get updates on Baltimore, on the situation in Baltimore and the other cities that have had the unrest last year because of the policing issues that they were dealing with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly is interested in making sure that we're following through. And I know one thing the President does regularly get updates on is the success that we're having in implementing the recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This is a task force that the President assembled in the aftermath of some of the unrest that we saw in cities across the country, expressing concerns about the actions of members of their law enforcement.
And there are a whole set of recommendations that were produced by this task force, and ultimately it will be up to local jurisdictions to decide how and whether to implement these recommendations. But I know that the President is kept apprised of the efforts of local communities to implement those recommendations.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to touch a little more on the Syria talks. I didn’t hear a clear answer to Margaret’s question of whether the President views Russia as a really credible partner in those talks -- given all of the sort of contradictions you laid out about what they’re doing and what the ultimate goal is of the peace discussions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, again, we have expressed significant concerns in a variety of settings, including from here, about Russia’s military support for the regime and the negative that has on our ability to try to reach the kind of political transition that even President Putin acknowledges will be required to address the situation inside of Syria.
When the President had the opportunity to sit down with President Putin at the United Nations last fall, we came out of that meeting with some disagreements with -- well, we came out not attempting to paper over the differences in our view of the situation inside of Syria. But both sides came out of that meeting acknowledging that both sides agreed that a political transition inside of Syria was necessary to ultimately address the problems that were having not just a terrible humanitarian impact on Syria, but a broader impact on the region.
And the concern that we have is that Russia’s military actions contradict their assessment of the political situation inside of Syria. And that's why we have long urged the Russians to reevaluate the military strategy that they’re pursuing.
So, given that, it is hard to describe the Russians as playing an entirely positive role. But given the influence that Russia has with the Assad regime, they’re going to have to be a part of this. And we’re hopeful that they will use their influence with the Assad regime to encourage them to pursue the kind of political transition that even the Russians themselves acknowledge are necessary. And we’re going to continue to encourage the Russians to do that.
And at this point, given the influence they have with the Assad regime and given how isolated the Assad regime is, the influence that they will bear is important, and we’re hopeful that they’ll use it in the right way.
Q Given that they haven’t done that yet, though, what is the point of these talks? I mean, does the President still share Secretary Kerry’s view that a cease-fire is possible in the short term? Is that something that’s realistic at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Secretary Kerry and his team can give you the best assessment of where things stand, and so I’d mostly defer to them about the likelihood of a cease-fire going into effect. That’s obviously something that Secretary Kerry has long been encouraging the parties to pursue and to agree to. But I don’t have an update on those efforts for you at this point.
Q And the President still believes that President Assad must go ultimately as part of any political transition that they agree on?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And again, that view is rooted not just in our moral objections to the way that the Assad government has slaughtered innocent Syrian people, but it’s also just a practical consideration. The Assad regime has lost the legitimacy to lead that country primarily because they’ve used their military to attack large portions of the population. So it’s not surprising that that population is no longer interested in seeing Assad sitting atop their government. He’s lost the legitimacy to lead.
So in order to have a government that actually reflects the will and ambition of the Syrian people, somebody else needs to be in charge. And that’s why, as long as President Assad is there, we’re still going to see instability and chaos that has consequences not just for a dire humanitarian situation inside of Syria but larger consequences for the region and potentially even the world.
Q Speaking of Russia, this week we heard the Treasury Under Secretary tell the BBC that Putin is corrupt. Does the administration share that view?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the assessment of the Treasury Department I think is the one that is the one that best reflects the administration view. Obviously, the Treasury Department is responsible for enforcing sanctions, and obviously there are significant sanctions that are in place against Russia because of their destabilizing activities inside of Ukraine.
Q That’s a pretty blunt public statement, though, and that’s why it’s being asked now because it’s something we really haven’t heard in so many words before. So if that is the case, a pretty black-and-white statement, why have we not yet seen sanctions against Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would encourage you to check with the Treasury Department about the sanctions that they have designed. I think there are probably a variety of reasons for that. The first is, we obviously work closely with our European partners to make sure that we’re taking coordinated steps to isolate the Russians and their economy. And so that’s certainly part of the equation here.
But the other thing that we don’t do is we don’t make a habit of announcing sanctions in advance, or spend a whole lot of time discussing in detail what sort of sanctions may or may not be considered by the U.S. government and our partners. To do so would only give those who could potentially be the target of these sanctions the opportunity to take actions to evade those sanctions, and we certainly don’t want to give anyone the opportunity to do that.
Q Okay, got it. And last night, when the President was giving his speech at the Holocaust event, he again made a kind of what seemed to be another veiled reference to rhetoric that’s been out there on the campaign trail, specifically coming from Trump. And it seems like virtually every time we hear the President speak now, he makes a reference like that, and everybody kind of knows -- I mean, it tends to be just particular enough that you kind of know what he’s referring to. But here in the briefing room, we heard you repeatedly dismiss the level of support for Trump out there, dismiss the nature of his rhetoric. We’ll say --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that I’ve done that.
Q I, myself, have said that this many people are supporting Trump, and you seem pretty dismissive of what it represents on the whole, as well as the value of what he’s espousing. So if that is the case, why does the President feel it necessary to now constantly bring this up and to make these references?
MR. EARNEST: I think you might -- it’s not the first time this has happened -- I think you might be reading a little too much into the President’s remarks. I think the President does frequently talk about his commitment to American values and talk about how those values represent the best that our country has to offer. And certainly, the kinds of values that were on display by heroic Americans who saved the lives of innocent Jews who could potentially be in harm’s way because of the Holocaust does represent the best of American values. And that’s something the President has said on a number of occasions, even before any of the current candidates for President on the Republican side announced their candidacy.
What is also true is there’s no denying that some of these values are the subject of a political debate. And the President does continue to be confident that the vast majority of Americans does subscribe to the kinds of values that this country has long stood for.
And so I would interpret those kinds of comments on the part of the President not as an attempt to rebut the claims of any particularly presidential candidate, or even any particular political party -- because, after all, many of the values and controversial comments that we see from Mr. Trump are consistent with the kinds of views that are being expressed by a whole range of candidates in the Republican Party. And the fact is, as long as we’re going to debate these values, the President is going to stand up and reinforce the values that this country has long stood for, and he’s not going to hesitate to participate in that debate.
But yesterday, in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I feel confident in telling you the President was not trying to secretly respond to a political candidate. He was seeking to champion the kinds of American values that led a few very brave Americans to selflessly look out for people who could otherwise be innocently victimized.
Q So he -- blaming a group and tribalism, you think that those statements had nothing to do with the political rhetoric that’s out there now?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t think they’re a response to the claims, outrageous as they may be, of any particular candidate. I think they are an expression, an affirmation of the kinds of American values that this President has spent his time in office championing. And these are the kinds of values that make America the greatest country in the world.
Q Back to the fight against ISIS in Libya. I know you can’t get into too many specifics, but can you discuss at all what kinds of steps are on the table, or the scope of options that are being considered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to do that at this point. What I think I could do is to help you understand that the President has been talking with his national security team on a regular basis about confronting ISIL. And those conversations do include not just a discussion of our intense efforts in Iraq and in Syria, but also any steps that may need to be taken in other places where we see ISIL trying to establish a foothold. And that obviously includes Libya.
But at this point, I’d hesitate to get into the options that the President is weighing at this point. The President will certainly consult with his national security team, consider the situation on the ground in Libya, and once he’s made a decision, or if a decision is necessary, that’s something that we’ll be able to discuss.
Q Any timeline on that at all?
MR. EARNEST: Not a timeline I have to share with you.
Q And on a totally separate topic, Hillary Clinton earlier in the week said that she loves the idea of appointing the President to the Supreme Court. I know in the past he said that the Court is too monastic for him, but he hasn’t ruled it out. Is it something that he might be open to?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is it is -- that his aspirations for his post-presidency extend beyond a Supreme Court appointment. I think the constitutional lawyer that the President is I’m sure would have plenty of things and plenty of ideas for how he would do a job like that. But I think his preference for how he wants to spend his time after he leaves the White House would lie in areas that would give him the opportunity to handle a wider range of issues than just those issues that come before the Court.
Q Speaking of a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders is going to co-sponsor a bill that would get rid of the immunity that gun manufacturers now enjoy, and it was something that he originally helped pass. Is that something the President might take credit for, seeing as he said he wouldn’t campaign or support any candidates who didn’t support common-sense gun measures? And did they talk about that issue during their meeting yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details to share with you about their private conversation. As it relates to the legislation that Senator Sanders was discussing, I think you’d have to talk to him about what was motivating the change in his position on this issue. The President certainly has made a concerted effort to raise the profile of the kinds of common-sense steps that Congress could take to make our community safer, while at the same time protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
So the President certainly would encourage other members of Congress to consider supporting that legislation. But for Senator Sanders’s position and his change in position, you’d have to ask him when that occurred and what prompted the change.
Q I don’t know if you saw it or not, but I was wondering if the White House might have any response to my colleague Chip Reid’s report on the Wounded Warrior Project and how that charity spends as little as 54 percent of the money that it raises actually helping injured servicemembers, and has some other sort of frivolous expenses that they spend their money on.
MR. EARNEST: Pam, I actually didn’t see Chip’s report, but why don’t we take a look at it, and if we can get you a response we’ll try to do that.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to get your memories jogged. Where were you during the Challenger event? What do you recall about that day? And as Americans recall what for many was a similar moment, what does the President have to say about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we did issue a statement from the President shortly before I walked out here through NASA, which is what we’ve done in years past. And the President himself has talked about how space exploration has long served as a source of inspiration to American students since even the President himself was a child.
My own memories -- actually, I was in the fifth grade when the Challenger disaster occurred. And I do remember vividly the lead-up to the launch of the space shuttle because there was an elementary school teacher that was on board, and there was a concerted effort that was made by NASA to discuss that mission in elementary schools and to hold Christa McAuliffe up as an example as an educator who was committed to science and the kind of exploration that was part of any sort of scientific endeavor. So I do have memories of that as an elementary school student.
Look, I think there are a lot of people who are involved in the space program today who say that they were inspired by those astronauts who gave their lives in pursuit of that cause. And the fact that even 30 years later they serve as an inspiration to a whole generation of American scientists and innovators I think is a pretty good indication that while their loss was a tragedy, it certainly was not -- their lives were not given in vain.
Q Let me get you to circle back for just a second on Flint. You mentioned that you said “some of the failures we’ve already seen, and I think there’s been plenty of blame to go around.” I just want to sort of drill down on the resignation of the Region IV administrator. Is that a tacit acknowledgement that the administration made mistakes in this circumstance, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I’m limited in what I can say about this because there’s an ongoing Department of Justice investigation. They will be responsible for taking a look at exactly who did what and when, and who bears some responsibility here. So there’s not a whole lot I have to say about that resignation beyond what that individual had to say about why they were leaving their post.
Q Any reason that we haven't heard more from Administrator McCarthy on the topic, certainly given that this story continues to sort of unfold?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that last week she announced a number of steps that was responsive to the conversation that she had with the President of the United States last week. This includes overhauling the rules and regulations that govern the relationship between the EPA and state-level regulators in states across the country. Obviously, there are significant EPA resources that have been offered to Flint to conduct some additional testing and to offer other scientific advice that could help them address the problem that they’re dealing with right now.
And I think the other concern that the President has -- and this is one that I know that Administrator McCarthy shares -- is making sure that there is not some other community that is experiencing something like what Flint is going through. And ultimately the EPA does have an important responsibility to protect the safety and public health of the American people. Their responsibilities are significant, and I know that they take those responsibilities seriously.
Q But we haven't heard from her since last week, and I’m just curious, is she in Flint? Is she going? I just would expect, especially given the magnitude of the story, that she’d want to be out in front on this, and it doesn’t look that way, at least from the outside.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think she’s taken some important steps here. Again, responsive to a conversation she had with the President and based on her own expertise about the way the EPA operates, she’s taken the steps I think that people would expect that she would take. And I’m confident that she is closely monitoring the situation moving forward.
Q Okay. Last, on Zika. Given the weather here at this time of year, it may not be something that’s rushing our way, but it does a great many of our neighboring countries in the region. Is the President getting a daily update on this circumstance? I know that WHO is making this sound fairly alarming, to be honest with you, and not just for pregnant women.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think their concern is much like ours. Our concern does focus on pregnant women. The symptoms from the virus are relatively mild. I don’t think anybody wants to get them, but the kind of symptoms that we’re talking about are not life-threatening. These are symptoms that relate to a mild fever and joint pain, and even conjunctivitis. But those symptoms are only seen in about 20 percent of those who contract the virus. And those symptoms go away after about a week.
The concern that we have is that there is a correlation between those who contract -- pregnant women who contract the virus and a particular birth defect. And that is what we’re primarily concerned about. So the travel guidance that we have -- that the CDC has issued relates to advice that is given to pregnant women or women who are thinking of becoming pregnant about traveling to some of these countries, and steps they can take to mitigate the risk that they face.
We’ve shared this guidance for informational purposes for other people who may be traveling to these regions of the world. But the kind of risk that men, for example, face from the Zika virus is, at this point, based on what we know now, is relatively mild.
Q Any comparisons to Ebola really don’t fly -- is that kind of what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think some of the most prominent differences are the Zika virus is obviously not fatal in the same way that the Ebola virus was fatal. The transmission of the disease is quite different. The Zika virus is transmitted through mosquitoes, again, based on what we know now. The way that Ebola was transmitted -- that there are a variety of ways that Ebola could be transmitted through intimate -- by person-to-person contact. So I think those are sort of the two most prominent differences.
But the other thing that’s true is that there’s more that we need to learn about the Zika virus. Our health care professionals have told us that there’s no vaccine that prevents the disease, and the kind of treatment options that are currently available are quite limited. And there is this significant concern about the correlation between the pregnant women who contract the Zika virus and a specific birth defect.
So there are certainly reasons to be concerned about this disease. And I think that explains the federal response that’s been mobilized here by the United States. It certainly explains the kind of response that we’ve seen in other countries. I know that there are thousands of members of the Brazilian military that have been mobilized to try to counter this disease. One of the most effective ways to actually deal with this disease is to limit the population of mosquitos that are known to carry the virus. And that certainly -- mosquito control will certainly play into some of the steps that we will take here in the United States once the weather warms up to further protect the American people.
Right now, our focus is on making sure that people have the facts about the risks that are posed by the Zika virus, and steps they can take to try to minimize that risk.
Q So not at a point where if you’re going for spring break, for example, you need to not go south of the border -- that kind of thing?
MR. EARNEST: What we’re offering right now is just advice to people. And our concern primarily is focused on pregnant women or women who are planning to become pregnant.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’m looking for you to unpack something that the Vice President said while he was speaking at the Democratic retreat this afternoon. Just to quote him, he said, “After Ramadi, watch what happens in Raqqa and in Mosul by the end of the year.” He didn’t elaborate, but he implied that those cities could be taken out of ISIL’s control in the near future. Is that something that the White House is hoping that they can accomplish and that you see as a real possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is the first time I’m hearing of the Vice President’s remarks, so --
Q This was after you started the briefing.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. So why don’t I just say in general what we have said about ISIL’s control of Mosul and Raqqa. What the Department of Defense has indicated is that these are obviously strategically important areas to ISIL. And there are -- particularly in Raqqa, there are already steps that are being taken by the United States and our coalition partners to apply pressure to ISIL in those areas. There are already airstrikes that have been taken by the United States and our coalition partners in Raqqa against ISIL targets. Those strikes have also taken place in the vicinity of Mosul, as well. And we’re going to continue to keep up that pressure against them.
Ultimately, the decision to have Iraqi forces move against ISIL in Mosul -- that will be a decision that’s made by the Iraqis. They’ll do so in close coordination with the United States and our coalition partners. Obviously they’ll also be relying on training that they’ve received from the United States and our coalition partners, and military airpower that can be leveraged by the United States and our coalition partners.
The situation in Raqqa is a little bit different. We know that there are opposition fighters that have made a lot of progress in northern and northeastern Syria, and they have advanced toward Raqqa. But obviously in order to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL and accomplish that goal, we’re going to need to get -- root ISIL leaders out of Mosul and out of Raqqa. And that’s a significant task.
We know that they’ve been dug into those cities for a while now. And it means it’s going to be hard to dig them out. But we certainly are mindful of the fact that this will be necessary in order to achieve our eventual goal.
Q Was the Vice President being too optimistic, perhaps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the entirety of his remarks, so I’d be reluctant to comment directly on them.
Q On one other matter. The President announced his cancer task force this morning, starting with a meeting next week. Of course, his budget comes out the following week. Can we assume that there will be a request for more funding for the National Cancer Institute in this year’s request?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned, and we’ll keep you posted.
Q Thank you, Josh. On North Korea issues -- on North Korean nuclear issues. It seems like that President Obama is not interested in the North Korean issues or he ignored North Korean issues. What is the U.S. final destination of North Korean nuclear issues?
MR. EARNEST: We continue to believe that North Korea should come into compliance with their international obligations, both as it relates to their nuclear program and as it relates to their missile program as well. We know that the North Koreans conducted a nuclear test earlier this month, and since then, the United States, including President Obama, has been in close consultation with our allies and partners in the region to design an appropriate and effective response.
There have been discussions that have been held at the United Nations. Within 24 hours of the tests being conducted, the President was on the phone with his counterpart, both Prime Minister Abe in Japan and President Park of South Korea. And you saw both the Deputy Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, and the Secretary of State, John Kerry, traveling in the region just in the last couple of weeks, discussing this very issue -- not just with Chinese leaders but with other leaders in the region.
And what is notable about this situation is that it’s not just the United States and South Korea and Japan -- three important allies who agree that North Korea needs to give up their nuclear program and commit to actions that will make the Korean Peninsula stable and more secure -- we know that the Russians and the Chinese agree with that proposition as well. And during Secretary Kerry’s visit, I know that President Xi reiterated his commitment to a de-nuclearized Korean Peninsula. And our agreement on that principle will be critical to our ability to achieving that goal. Obviously, China has a closer relationship with North Korea than just about anybody else, and we’re hopeful that they will continue to work closely with us to use their influence to advance safety and security on the Korean Peninsula.
Q Recently, South Korean President, Park Geun-Hye recommended Five-Party talks instead of Six-Party talks for denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula. Will the United States support this Five-Party talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said before [is] that the North Koreans would need to demonstrate a commitment to stability and security on the Korean Peninsula and giving up their nuclear program. That is essentially -- that would be the essence of the conversation, and so we’d have to see a commitment on the part of the North Koreans to actually wanting to have that conversation before we would sit down at the table with them. And that’s ultimately where things stand right now.
John, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I just want to bring it back to that conversation that you were talking about at the top about bipartisan efforts in terms of eradicating cancer. I know you put something out on this, this morning. What are the administration’s latest efforts on this effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we do have the -- you saw that the Vice President had a post on Medium today where he talked about some of the preliminary efforts that have just gotten underway in the last couple of weeks since the President announced this initiative. There will be a meeting that’s scheduled for next week where I would anticipate we’ll have some more information on this. So stay tuned.
Q And you anticipate and you’re open to the idea of some sort of bipartisan legislation moving this effort forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have seen -- and, again, there are some Republicans who are pretty aggressive advocates for investing in research and development that could lead to medical breakthroughs. This is one of the things -- one of the areas where Republicans have been relatively enthusiastic about increasing funding, and the budget is behind those efforts that could advance our understanding of particular medical phenomenons and scientific breakthroughs. And so there should be an opportunity for us to work together to make sure that that funding is at appropriate levels and is focused on the right things, and we certainly are interested in having that kind of conversation with Republicans who are actually interested in working in a bipartisan way on this. Again, there’s no reason this should be ideological or should breakdown along party lines -- it just needs -- what we’re looking for is a partner with a seriousness of purpose when it comes to fighting cancer.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
END 1:57 P.M. EST