Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/29/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s Friday already. That’s something we can celebrate. Let me do a quick announcement that you may have already seen a little bit about, and then we’ll go to your questions.
On Wednesday, February 10th, nine years after he announced his candidacy for President, President Obama will return to the place where his political career -- or his national political career began by traveling to Springfield, Illinois. As a state senator, Barack Obama spent each day in the Illinois State Capitol working in good faith with folks from all walks of life -- Democrats and Republicans and independents -- representing good people of every ethnicity and faith, determined to do right by the people of the state where he made his home.
And as a United States senator from Illinois, Barack Obama chose the steps of the old state capitol where Abraham Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together to ask Americans to join him in the unfinished business of perfecting our union.
Now, in the final year of his second term, President Obama looks forward to addressing the Illinois General Assembly on February 10th about what we can do together as a country to build a better politics, and one that reflects our better selves. So that should be an interesting event that’s a week from this coming Wednesday.
With that, Josh, let’s go to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about Iranian state media reporting that they had flown a drone -- surveillance drone over some type of a U.S. ship to conduct some surveillance. Do you have any evidence that backs that up? And does the U.S. consider that to be a provocative act?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I’ve seen these reports, as well. I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for any -- for an assessment of whether or not any significant risk was perceived in that action. They can give you a better sense of sort of how worrisome something like this is.
Q And on another concerning issue of North Korea, I wanted to see if you could give us an update on the latest U.S. thinking about what the best approach is to responding to that testing incident. It seems that some of our partners in other countries that we’re trying to get to put pressure on North Korea are concerned that if we push too hard with sanctions, it could actually destabilize North Korea and lead to even worse situations. So is there -- would the goal of additional U.S. sanctions be to put more economic pressure on Pyongyang, or to actually try and see a new type of government there?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, we’ve talked about how the nuclear test that the North Koreans conducted earlier this month was inconsistent with their international obligations. And North Korea's pursuit of a larger nuclear weapons stockpile and a potentially more dangerous nuclear weapons stockpile only serves to destabilize the broader region. And that’s why the broader region -- all the large countries in the broader region have called on them to stop doing it.
And that certainly has been the position of the United States and our allies, Japan and South Korea. But that position has also been echoed by Russia and China, including when President Xi attended a state dinner here at the White House. At the news conference that he conducted with President Obama in the Rose Garden, he reiterated the Chinese commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. And obviously that’s something that we support and we’ve been able to work effectively with the Chinese in pursuit of that goal. And we’ve been engaged in diplomacy with them to have a discussion about the best way for us to try to achieve that goal.
Secretary Kerry was in China earlier this week discussing that particular issue. I know that his deputy, Tony Blinken, was traveling in the region within the last couple of weeks to discuss this issue. And, look, the situation with North Korea, as evidenced by the fact that this is something that President Obama and President Xi talked about at the White House last fall, I think is an indication that this issue ranks highly on our agenda any time that senior U.S. officials sit down with their Chinese counterparts. The reason for that is simply that China has as close relations with North Korea as any other country does.
And we have been in conversations with China about how they, in coordination with the international community, can apply more pressure to the North Koreans to get them to comply with international obligations -- or at least come to the negotiating table to have a discussion about how they can become at least a little less isolated.
So those conversations continue, and we continue to look for the best way to apply pressure to the North Korean regime to come into compliance with the kinds of international standards that just about everybody else follows.
Q And the National Security Council met with the President last night. At this point, has the President been presented with the suggestions from his advisors that he send additional troops either into Iraq or Syria, Special Forces? And any update on his thinking on that?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the President meets regularly with his national security team to discuss our efforts against ISIL. And they did have the opportunity to do that again just yesterday. The President’s message to his national security team has consistently been to look for ways to intensify those elements of our strategy that are already showing some progress. And the President and his team have made some announcements in recent months that are consistent with that strategy.
One thing that we have seen, in particular, is that conducting raids against certain targets have been successful in taking some ISIL leaders off the battlefield and allowing the United States to obtain important intelligence information that can then be used to further our campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. We know that that’s a strategy that has allowed us to make some progress. And at the end of last year, the President and his national security team announced our intent to deploy additional troops and to ramp up that element of our strategy by creating essentially these expeditionary task forces that could be positioned to carry out these kinds of raids on relatively short notice. That’s just one example of how the President’s team has followed through on the President’s stated goal of intensifying those elements of our strategy that are already starting to yield some progress.
Secretary Carter did an interview with NPR that aired today, where he noted that this is exactly the instruction that he has received from the President of the United States. And each time that Secretary Carter has presented to the President a specific plan for intensifying one element of our strategy that has already shown some progress, the President has approved it. And I think that is an indication that the President is quite serious about accomplishing our goal of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Now, I would note that that’s quite a bit different than the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. ground combat troops to go and occupy large territory in Iraq or in Syria. The President doesn’t think that’s a good idea, doesn’t think that that would be useful in advancing our broader strategic objective. The Secretary of Defense doesn’t happen to think that’s a very good idea either. And that’s not a recommendation that our Secretary of Defense or our uniformed military leadership have made to the President. But when they have made recommendations that are consistent with intensifying our strategy, that every time the President has approved them.
Q So has the Secretary of Defense made specific recommendations -- in this case, for Libya -- about that strategy that you just talked about sending expeditionary Special Forces to de-raid on such short notice?
MR. EARNEST: The reference that I made to the expeditionary task forces was a reference to an announcement that we made at the end of last year about Iraq. And I don’t have any decisions to announce about our efforts in Libya. Obviously, we’ve been mindful for some time about the strategy that we know ISIL uses. We know that ISIL is constantly on the lookout for areas where they can capitalize on political chaos and try to establish a foothold in a country. And obviously, Libya is a country that is going through some turmoil right now.
So our strategy in Libya is consistent with the strategy that you’ve seen us employ in other places, which is to be strongly supportive of ongoing diplomatic efforts to try to resolve the political situation in Libya while also preserving a capacity to take military strikes where necessary to push back against an ISIL threat. And back in November, the United States military carried out an airstrike in Libya that took the leading ISIL leader figure in Libya off the battlefield. And I think that should be an indication to you that we’re mindful of the risk that ISIL poses to Libya. And we’re going to confront it -- continue to confront it in the way that we have now for many months.
Q And have the recent attacks in Libya on oil facilities sort of spurred the need to consider more action or a range of options of action there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there are -- unfortunately, Libya is a country that has -- that is in political turmoil, and that has led to a lot of violence. And we’re of course concerned about that situation. This is a country that is struggling to put together the kind of central government that can actually exercise control over the entire government and provide for the security situation in that country.
The United States has been strongly supportive of the U.N.-led effort to try to build up a central government that reflects the views of the diverse population of that country. And so we continue to be mindful of the risk that ISIL
poses to areas where there is some political chaos, but also mindful of the need to support the work that’s being done to establish an effective central government there.
Q And lastly, just briefly, you’ve said before that the President has hoped to meet face to face with Speaker Ryan relatively soon. And I know it’s just 10 days until the budget is released. I’m wondering whether that meeting is going to happen soon, or do you have any news on that?
MR. EARNEST: I do. It’s in the week ahead. Next week -- we’ll just jump ahead. Let me make sure I get this part right. Next Tuesday, I believe, the President will meet with both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to discuss legislative priorities for the coming year. Building on the bipartisan budget agreement that the President signed into law last year, we certainly believe that there are areas of cooperation for the year ahead. And we are going to have a discussion, and the President will have a discussion with Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan about opportunities to work together to deliver for the American people.
Q Why has it taken so long to have the chance to meet with Speaker Ryan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve obviously been in a discussion with him since the beginning of the year about setting up this meeting. And it’s obviously been a busy couple of weeks; obviously the State of the Union address, or --
Q Snow days.
MR. EARNEST: There have been some snow days. There have been at least a couple weeks where Congress hasn’t been in session. But this is the opportunity that we’ve had to meet, and the President is looking forward to the conversation. Again, based on the success that we had last year in finding some common ground to advance a whole range of shared priorities, there’s plenty to talk about this year, too.
Q The DHS IG today released logs from the Secret Service showing that their radios had experienced technical issues some 100 times over the last 11 months. Congressman Chaffetz in response said that DHS and Secret Service had gotten more money than they had requested, especially for this, and so this was more evidence of mismanagement at the agency. I’m wondering how you kind of respond to that and why the Secret Service hasn’t been able to get their radios working.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the IG report, Justin, but obviously we can take a look at the findings of that report and see if we can get you a response.
Q The Labor Department today sent over its fiduciary rule to OMB. I’m wondering if you anticipate OMB sort of expediting that -- their consideration of that rule, and if you could kind of lay out a timeline. Embedded in it is an eight-month sort of windup process, and so if you’re kind of seeing that by the end of the year be done.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is obviously something that the administration and the Department of Labor in particular has been hard at work on. I was just looking through some of the stats here. This rule has been subject to public comment for more than five months now, and there were four days of public hearings that were convened to discuss the potential consequences of this rule. I know that the Department of Labor received more than 3,000 comments and hosted about 100 meetings to discuss the rule.
Look, the President has made this a priority because being able to save for retirement is part of the kind of American Dream that every middle-class family aspires to. And saving for a retirement where you can continue to live out your golden years in dignity without placing an undue burden on your kids I think is something that, again, that every American worker aspires to.
And right now, based on the way that the laws are written -- or based on the way that the rules are written, there are estimates that up to $17 billion each year in retirement savings is lost because some financial advisors don’t act consistent with the best financial interests of their clients.
So I know that there are some who complain that a rule like this could be overly burdensome, but this does not place a single additional burden on a financial advisor that is acting in the best interest of their client. If you’re doing the right thing and you’re a financial advisor, then you don’t have to do anything differently than you’re already doing.
That’s why I think this falls pretty clearly in the common-sense category. And I don’t have an exact timeframe to lay out for you about when this would be implemented, but obviously we’re working aggressively to work through the process, incorporate the input, be receptive to the feedback that we receive, but also put in place a regulation that is clearly in the best interest of those workers who are trying to do the right thing by saving for their retirement.
Q Senators Boxer and Feinstein introduced an amendment today that would require the Energy Department to kind of convene and lead a task force looking into the methane leak in California outside of L.A. I’m wondering if you have a stance on that amendment specifically, but also why -- I mean, this has been kind of an ongoing environmental catastrophe -- why we haven’t heard the President speak about this or any kind action out of the White House.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the details of the amendment that they’ve put forward. I do know, however, that the EPA has been focused on the situation in California for quite some time now. They’ve been working closely with California officials providing some environmental expertise to try to guide the response to the situation.
You’re right, I haven’t heard the President talk about it publicly either, but I know that the President is aware of this issue. And the best-informed, most-empowered experts in the federal government aren’t just aware of this issue, they’ve been actively working on it for some time now.
Q Last one, because it’s Friday. The President, when he was talking to House Dems behind closed doors yesterday, seemed to suggest that although he didn’t think they had the sort of the legislative capacity to do it, that if they were able to pass legislation reclassifying marijuana, that he’d be willing to sign it. That is a shift in position for him. And so I’m wondering if you could flesh out sort his thinking there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me first compliment you on your Friday reference. (Laughter.) So that was very clever. For those who are fans of that cult classic, you’ll appreciate how clever Justin was in asking that question. I did not attend the President’s meeting yesterday -- he’ll explain it to you after the briefing. (Laughter.) He doesn't have anything to do. So -- that was another joke. You can explain that one to him, as well.
Q Can you add it to the transcript? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’ll see what I can do on that. I didn't participate in the President’s meeting yesterday, but I did get a readout of the meeting. And my understanding is that it was a tongue-in-cheek response to the question.
There are some in the Democratic Party who have urged the President to take this kind of action. And the President’s response was if you feel so strongly about it, and you believe there’s so much public support for what it is that you're advocating, then why don't you pass legislation about it, and we’ll see what happens. I think that was the tenor of the President’s remarks.
Q Does the President agree with the Vice President that the Republican presidential race is a “gift from the Lord”? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The Vice President has a well-established reputation for his colorful expressions like the one that you just cited there. The President has made clear that regardless of who Republicans nominate at this point, based on the rhetoric that we hear not just from the leading candidate, but from all of the leading candidates -- to the extent that there are multiples of them -- all are offering up the same kind of pessimism and doom and gloom that stands in stark contrast to the kind of optimism and energy and momentum that Democrats are running on.
And that dynamic historically in politics plays pretty well for those who are running on optimism and the kind of can-do spirit that has infused American politics since the founding of our country.
Q But does he think that the Republicans -- or the state of the Republican race is at all making things easier for Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- again, I didn't see the entirety of the Vice President’s remarks. But I think his point is that the contrast offered up from the pessimism of the Republican candidates, again, creates a genuine opportunity for Democratic candidates that are interested in championing the interest of middle-class families and capitalizing on the momentum that our economy is showing, and building on what is best about America. And the Vice President’s observation is that that's a winning message, particularly when it comes in contrast with the doom and gloom that's being spread by the Republican Party.
Q Okay. There was a poll this week, though, that showed that 57 percent of Americans feel that things are going badly in this country. And when you see the doom and gloom rhetoric, as you describe it, getting maybe more of a groundswell than you would expect -- maybe in other years, I don't know; it seems to have taken a lot of people by surprise -- how are you so certain that optimism is going to really capture people when it seems based on these numbers that it’s the pessimism that is the stronger feeling out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see. That's the beauty of these things. There will be a contest. There will be a long debate over the course of this year, and there will be an election in November. And we’ll tally up the votes, and we’ll find out. And that's the beauty of the process.
Some of this is clearly bias by my own experience. One of the things I think that is particularly notable about the Iowa caucuses that are coming next week is you do see a lot of this effort by Republican candidates to try to exploitpeople’s anxieties.
Barack Obama, when he was running in Iowa, had yard signs all across the state. They didn’t have his name on it; they had the word “hope” on it. And that message is what propelled him to not just an historic upset in the Iowa caucuses, it propelled him to the Oval Office.
So, yeah, I guess I have a little bit of a bias here. But I think there is a strong element of our political culture that is, at its core, optimistic; that this is a country that was founded on an ideal. And ever since it was founded, we have been striving to make our union more perfect. And that is infused with the sense that we have the capacity to change and improve our country, and to build on the progress that we've made, and to capitalize on the momentum that exists.
And particularly when you take a look at the amount of progress that we've made over the last seven years, digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, when you compare the strength and durability of the U.S. economy to economies around the world, you quickly see why the United States is so well positioned. And it doesn’t mean that we should take the challenges that we face lightly. It doesn’t mean that there isn't a whole lot more work to do to expand economic opportunity for everybody in this country, to do more to fight for the middle class -- sure, all those things are true. But we should feel confident about our ability not just to confront but to overcome those challenges, not by turning against one another or contradicting the kinds of values that were critical to the founding of this nation, but actually by drawing upon the strength of the American people and the strength of the values that have served our country so well over the last two centuries.
Q That's a lot of what you hear virtually every time the President goes somewhere and gives a speech. He starts it out, of course, by listing all of the progress over the last seven years. So it must be frustrating when a poll comes out like that -- and we've seen several over the last year -- where there does seem to be a sense that things are going badly. So is it frustrating to you in the message that is being put out there, and to what do you account for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ve got 14 Republican candidates for president that are running around the country telling everybody that things are bad. And they’re spending tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising trying to convince people of that. That's not surprising to me that that's having some kind of an effect. But it doesn’t change the fact of the strength and durability of our economy, about the way that the rest of the world looks to the United States as a beacon of hope and opportunity and a source of strength. It doesn’t change the fact that we're seeing higher graduation rates and higher percentages of students enrolling in college; that we're seeing health care inflation at an all-time low and the un-insurance rate -- or the rate of people who are uninsured at an all-time low
There’s tremendous progress that this country has made. And whether you consider domestic politics or our standing in the international community, there’s just no denying those facts. And I recognize that that makes it inconvenient for those who are peddling a lot of doom and gloom, but it does give the President optimism not just about the future of our country, but also the likelihood of success of politics candidates who are, frankly, aware of and prepared to capitalize on the momentum that our country has built up.
Q It does seem to tell you that the message isn't quite getting out, right? I mean, you list a lot of progress. The President lists a number of points every time he speaks. Is there something you think that prevents that message from really registering?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what is clear is that there are 14 -- or however many there are now -- Republican candidates for president that are saying something a lot different, and they’re spending a lot of time on the campaign trail and they’re getting a lot of media attention, and they’re spending a lot of time with their advertising campaigns making a different case.
So, no, I'm not particularly worried about that. I think we're actually focused on the results. And I think the strength of the results speaks for itself.
Q And also the meeting that will happen on Tuesday -- because Mitch McConnell is going to be there -- is that going to count as the “bourbon summit”? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: My guess is that the meeting will take place either in the late morning or early afternoon. We'll get you some more updates on that. So --
Q It’s prime time for --
MR. EARNEST: In some offices, that may be true, but not in the Oval Office.
Q I mean, are you saying that this is going to be the bourbon summit?
MR. EARNEST: No, I'm saying it's not the bourbon summit.
Q It’s not the --
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q So we can continue to look forward to, at some point in the future, a bourbon summit?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. You can continue to look forward to it. (Laughter.) All right?
Q Today we understand is the last day in office of the United States pardon attorney, whose job it is to recommend to the President clemency actions. She’s leaving a historic backlog of clemency applications -- 9,000 commutation applications, more than 1,000 pardons -- almost 1,000 pardon applications. Is the President at all concerned that his attempt to use his clemency power more rigorously in his last year in office is at all in jeopardy? And is the White House considering any structural changes in how those clemency applications are processed in order to move this caseload forward? At this rate, it would take an entire another presidential administration -- two terms -- to get through that backlog of cases.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President is committed to the clemency process. And I think some of the announcements that you’ve seen from us over the last year or so I think are an indication of the President’s willingness to use that process to make our system more fair.
We believe the most impactful thing -- the most impactful way to reform the system is for Congress to pass legislation. And the President is working hard to try to nurture bipartisan agreement that would lead to criminal justice legislation -- criminal justice reform legislation passing the United States Congress. We’re going to continue to be a leading advocate of that.
At the same time, the President does have authority to grant clemency in cases that are reviewed by attorneys at the Department of Justice. And the President has been aggressive about using that authority over the course of the last year, and I would expect that in the year that remains -- that he remains in office, he’ll continue to look for opportunities to use that authority to make our system more fair. And I don’t have any announcements about additional resources or any sort of restructuring, but based on the progress that we have made in both soliciting and approving clemency requests, I think the President is quite proud of his record thus far, but there is more that we intend to get done over the course of the next year.
Q Thanks, Josh. The State Department today is reportedly releasing only about 1,000 of Secretary Clinton’s remaining 9,000 emails that’s in -- at least doesn’t comport with the judge’s order, ordering their release by today. Lawyers for your administration have asked to delay the release to the last day of February, which would be the day before the Super Tuesday primaries. Does the public, especially the Democratic voting public, have the right to see Secretary Clinton’s emails before they cast ballots?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think no. I think the extraordinary request that Secretary Clinton put forward to actually release her emails is something that I’m not sure has a precedent, at least for federal office holders. So the fact is, the Democratic primary voters, to the extent that they’re interested in reading those emails -- and I’m not sure very many of them are -- but to the extent that they are, have already had the opportunity to review tens of thousands of them -- at least tens of thousands of pages of them. And there is more work that needs to be done, and the State Department has been engaged in a rigorous process to ensure that the release of those emails is consistent with the standards that are laid out in the Freedom of Information Act.
And given the volume of material that they had to review, they weren’t able to complete that work in the timeframe that was laid out by the judge, but they have a plan in place to complete that work as soon as possible. And I know they’re pursuing that even as we speak.
Q You said it was her request to release these emails, but you concede that these are records the public is entitled to see under the Freedom of Information Act, right? I mean, this is part of an ongoing lawsuit. It’s part of a long-delayed litigation into her records, which are public. I mean, it’s not like she -- this was a judge’s order. Would you concede they’re public records and they belong to the public?
MR. EARNEST: I would concede that they are public records that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act request, but that is different than proactively releasing all of them. No judge ordered her to do that. She said that to demonstrate her commitment to transparency, that that’s what she would do. And this administration has devoted significant resources, because that’s consistent with the President’s commitment to transparency, to try to fulfill that request.
And all of you and Democratic voters -- again, to the extent that any of them are interested in this -- have had ample opportunity to read thousands of pages of otherwise private correspondence. So again, the State Department is going to work hard to fulfill both the request that was made by Secretary Clinton and consistent with the direction of the judge.
Q In this correspondence, we’ve seen some emails dealing with the way Secretary Clinton and her aides talk about dealing with sensitive or classified information, including an email where she asks an aide to transmit something non-secure. Another video surfaced that Fox found of Wendy Sherman, a top State Department official, saying that top diplomats were emailing things that you shouldn’t -- you would never see on an unclassified system. Does the White House have any concerns about the attitude of the State Department or among the Secretary’s staff about classified information and sensitive information?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen any of that reporting. I can tell you that certainly the President has made clear that the handling of sensitive information should be something that people are conscientious about. And that’s certainly the case here.
I know that Secretary Clinton and her team have said on a number of occasions that she neither sent nor received information on her private server that was stamped “classified.” That is consistent with the proper handling of sensitive materials.
So look, in the context of a presidential campaign, people are going to have a whole bunch of reasons to criticize any of the candidates, so it’s not surprising to me that there are certain political opponents of Secretary Clinton that are looking for a way to use this situation to criticize her. That’s part of the process. And she and her team I’m confident will muster a robust defense.
Q On the pay gap issue that we’ve been hearing about this morning, just to be clear, the 79 cents on the dollar differential, how much of that does the administration now insist is the result of discrimination in the workplace versus larger societal issues? Is it still your intention -- your insistence that, in fact, discrimination plays a significant part in this discrepancy?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’d be hard pressed to say that doesn’t play any role whatsoever. Exactly what percentage that is I think probably varies by position. I think there probably are some places where we do see some discrimination. I think there are a lot of places where you don’t.
And I think this is precisely why the EEOC has announced today that they want to collect more information about this matter so that they can have much greater insight into what kind of pay gap exists by industry or at an individual company, and they can then draw better conclusions about both how to bridge that gap, but also see if there are ways to prevent it from happening in other places, too.
Q And this would apply to every company over 100 employees, from Comcast, dare I say, to Joe’s whatever around the corner.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q And you know the criticism of that -- it’s onerous, some have described it as a fishing expedition, it’s unnecessary. You have existing anti-discrimination laws that are already on the books. Why does business need to do this?
MR. EARNEST: This is just adding an additional component on a form that they already file every month or so.
Q But it’s asking for a significantly different kind of qualitative kind of data -- not just race or gender. And it’s data that I think many people see as private.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that -- I know that there are at least some leaders in the business community, and you heard from Marc Benioff, at Salesforce, who says that this kind of transparency is actually good for running a business; that he is somebody who is known as a particularly effective chief executive. But he wasn’t even aware of the fact that there was a pay gap, a gender pay gap at his company. And that by taking a closer look at the numbers, he was able to discern that there was some work that needed to be done in his own company to remedy that gap.
That's a good thing. He’d be the first to tell you that that was good for his business. He didn't do that out of charity. He believed that's an effective way to run his business.
So I do think that the request that the EEOC will now make of all these companies is consistent with good business practices. But what’s also true is the EEOC has a responsibility to make sure that they're rooting out discrimination where it exists. And so what they're asking for is additional information that will help them fulfill their mission.
Q On the Flint situation and the Senate Democratic bill, what is the administration’s position? I think you said yesterday that you're kind of waiting to see exactly what it says, or what is the -- because we’re talking about $600 million, which is significant, and there’s obviously a great sense of urgency out there.
MR. EARNEST: It is. It’s a significant sum of money, and it also includes some policy changes, as well. So we're carefully reviewing the proposal that they’ve put forward.
What I can tell you is that we do believe that it’s appropriate for Congress to pass legislation that would give the city of Flint and the state of Michigan the resources that they need to address this situation. For the details, we're going to continue to work with Congress and take a look at the proposals that have been floated and see what might be most effective.
Q It seems like it’s taking a while to review something that a lot of people would like to see the President champion, get out in front of, if you will -- especially because there is still this enduring perception that the situation there isn’t being taken seriously enough because it’s a poor, minority community. Is the President sensitive to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’ve heard directly from the President himself that he takes this quite seriously. And I think you could hear the emotion and passion in his voice when he was discussing it. I think if you take a look at the response that's been mobilized by the Obama administration in terms of the resources provided by FEMA, the resources provided in the budget that have been expedited to give the city of Flint and the state of Michigan more resources to deal with this situation. There has been a federal official who is an expert in public health put in charge of coordinating the federal resources that are being offered to that situation. So our response has been quite serious and I think consistent with the need there.
Q Still consistent with the need there, because there’s still a huge gap -- even when we talk about the emergency declaration versus the disaster declaration. I don’t know the legalities of why that happened. There is still a huge gap between what people are saying is needed there -- $1 billion to replace infrastructure, to the $28 million that the Governor signed off on today, to the $5 million or so in the emergency declaration.
MR. EARNEST: And the $80 million that the President announced that he was going to expedite at the end of last week.
Q But we’re not even close to what people seem to be saying or definitely saying that they think is needed to address this.
MR. EARNEST: Let me say two things about that. The first is, I do think it is still unclear exactly what is needed to remedy the problems in Flint, and that’s something that state, local, and even federal officials are still studying. And I think that what I’ve said is consistent with that observation, which is we do believe that Congress should pass legislation that would give the state of Michigan and the city of Flint additional resources to address the situation.
Now, the question is, what kind of policy should be attached to that bill, what exactly are the numbers that are needed in terms of resources, and that is work that’s still being done to determine what exactly is needed.
Q Thank you, Josh. First, a question about the refugee crisis in Europe. Germany, Finland, soon up to 80,000 in Sweden, they will be deporting tens of thousands of refugee that came in the last months, 45 percent of them not being serious candidates for refugee status. Do you see any reason to review the American refugee system -- evaluation system, just considering the steps that are being taken in Europe?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the situation in the United States is different than the situation in Germany and other countries. And the reason for that primarily lies with the fact that we’re not so close to the situation. It’s not as easy for refugees from the Middle East to show up in the United States. That means that we can impose a set of screening measures that take a close look at the individuals that are seeking to enter the United States. And those who apply to enter the United States through the refugee program undergo the more strict screening than any other individual that attempts to enter the United States.
That said, the United States actually accepts more refugees through the U.N. process than all the other countries in the world combined. So I think that's a pretty good indication that the United States can both prioritize our national security and our homeland security while, at the same time, showing the kind of generosity that is the hallmark of American values. And so I’m not going to second-guess the kinds of policies that are put in place by other countries because other countries are facing a different situation.
But the President has certainly made clear that the screening process for individuals seeking to enter the United States will be structured in a way that makes the safety and security of our homeland and the American people the number-one priority.
Q A question on Afghanistan. A new commander over there, General Nicholson, wants everyone to be cautious when talking about the potential drawdown of troops. First, is the President satisfied with the mission over there at this very point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point it’s clear that there is -- it’s a very difficult situation in Afghanistan right now. It's a dangerous country. And the Afghan government and the Afghan national security forces have been in charge of the security situation in that country for only about a year or so. And there are lessons that they’ve had to learn and some losses that they have sustained. But the United States military and our NATO partners have made substantial contributions to offering training and advice and assistance and expertise to those security forces. There’s also been a mission that U.S. military personnel have undertaken that is focused on counterterrorism that has both an element of protecting the forces that are serving in Afghanistan, but also protecting the United States and our interests from extremist organizations that are operating in that region of the world.
So the President is certainly pleased with the performance of the U.S. military and our NATO partners in this effort. And we've actually seen from the Afghans a willingness to fight for their country, a willingness to respond to losses and to recover from them and fight back.
We talked about the situation in Kunduz last fall; this was a city that was taken over by the Taliban. But what you saw was the Afghan national security forces withdrew, reorganized, and then retook the city. Obviously you would prefer to be in a situation where they repelled the initial Taliban advance in the first place, but their ability to be resilient and to continue to have the passion to fight for their country will be critical to their long-term success in securing their country against extremist elements that operate there.
Q What do you expect -- I know the administration was expecting there would be a greater involvement of NATO partners. The President is pleased with what’s being done, but more was expected and not much is coming -- am I right?
MR. EARNEST: I think what you're right about is that we're going to continue to have intensive conversations with our NATO partners about how they can contribute to the ongoing efforts inside of Afghanistan. And over the last --
Q You want more from them.
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry?
Q You want more from them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say that over the last 15 years we've seen countries in NATO make substantial contributions to the situation in Afghanistan, and they’re going to need to sustain those kinds of contributions moving forward. And I'm confident that that will be an important part of the discussions over the course of this year leading up to the NATO Summit that’s planned for later this summer.
Q Josh, a quick follow-up on your answer to the question about the Iranian fly-by, the drone fly-by, and pointing that to the Pentagon or to the Navy. Is it correct to understand that that fly-by didn’t cause concern in this building, the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously would want to get a good sense from the Department of Defense how concerned they were about the situation. Obviously those who are on the frontlines here can best assess what sort of threat this posed to our men and women in uniform and what impact this had on their ability to conduct their mission and their regular operations in that region of the world.
So for an assessment of that, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. If they tell you that they were not unnecessarily constrained by this activity, then yes, I think it would be fair for you to assume that the White House wasn’t concerned about it. But you should check with the Department of Defense.
Q And in other drone news, I wanted to ask you about a report in The Intercept you probably saw about the U.S. allegedly hacking into Israeli drones to get a sort of bird’s-eye view of what they were looking at. They’re said they’re reporting based on files provided by Edward Snowden. Do you have a response to that? And anything you can say to us in regard to the status of Mr. Snowden? Give us information?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update on Mr. Snowden’s status. He is somebody who continues to face serious charges here in the United States, and we believe that he should face those charges. If he does, he will obviously be given all of the rights and access to due process that other American citizens enjoy. But he’s facing serious charges and that's his status.
As it relates to the news reports, I have some language that probably will sound familiar to you, and this is the language that we used in response to other reports that were based on Mr. Snowden’s activities, and that simply is that I'm not in a position to comment on any specific alleged intelligence activities. As a general matter, and as we have said many times previously, we do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose.
More generally, our commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct. And those aren't just words and rhetoric that you hear from government officials. That is actually backed up by specific commitments and actions by the United States of America. And this President has certainly lived up to those commitments in a way that caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to remark that the cooperation between our two countries on security matters is unprecedented. And the President is committed to continuing that cooperation.
I noted yesterday that there are these ongoing discussions about deepening and even expanding our security cooperation with Israel. I can tell you that those meetings that were planned between senior national security officials in the United States and Israeli counterparts was, like many other things, affected by the bad weather over the weekend. But I can tell you that those officials will leave and travel to Israel early next week to begin those discussions -- or to continue those discussions, which have been ongoing since President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu met here at the White House at the end of last year.
Q Unwavering except for the weather delay. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Exactly.
Q Okay. Can you tell us who’s going?
MR. EARNEST: No, but I can look into that for you and get you some more details on that.
Q One other question to follow up on Hillary Clinton’s email release from the State Department. In terms of the delay, there have been some allegations that there’s something specific to this last cache of emails in terms of perhaps the clearance level security -- classification level of the content of these emails. Can you respond to that and the allegation that because of that particular element and that particular aspect, that the delay towards the time on the calendar that is after early state voting, that there are allegations that this is politically motivated? Can you respond to that idea that the administration has somehow tried to tip the scales on this?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you with full confidence that there has been no political interference in this process. I don't have a lot of knowledge, granular knowledge about the content of the materials that are being prepared for release. I can tell you that their work has been important because there are guidelines that are laid out in the Freedom of Information Act that require a lot of coordination with other agencies that may have equities in the release of those materials.
So I think what you can infer from the delay are two things. One is that the volume of materials was large. And, second, that they’re being quite conscientious about the need to coordinate with other agencies that may have a stake in the release of these materials to ensure that the materials are properly handled and properly released.
Q Can I follow up?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come back to you.
Q Thanks, Josh. Staying with emails for just a moment, can you say with certainty and confidence that Secretary Clinton will not be indicted because of this email scandal?
MR. EARNEST: That will be a decision that is made by the Department of Justice and prosecutors over there. What I know that some officials over there have said is that she is not a target of the investigation. So that does not seem to be the direction that it’s trending, but I’m certainly not going to weigh in on a decision or in that process in any way. That is a decision to be made solely by independent prosecutors. But, again, based on what we know from the Department of Justice, it does not seem to be headed in that direction.
Q As a Democrat, should there be a plan B just in case? In other words, if Secretary Clinton were to get the nomination or be leading significantly after Super Tuesday or deeper into the process, should there not be a plan B for Democrats in the event that she is indicted?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not something I’m worried about.
Q Not at all?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Okay. On the economy, it’s been described as -- the fourth quarter we’re talking about -- by some as sluggish, anemic, very little growth. Are you surprised? And is this -- low expectation performance by the economy, especially when you add it to the fact that we’ve just learned from the White House that the deficit will likely rise in 2016 as well?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the numbers that we saw from the Department of Commerce today were actually right on expectations. And they are an indication that the United States continues to have the strongest, most durable economy in the world. In fact, our economy is the envy of the world, particularly when you consider what’s happening in other economies with whom we have -- do a lot of a business.
Q So this is a day of celebration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is a day in which we acknowledge that the United States is in a much better position than basically any other country in the world, particularly when it comes to advanced economies. And, in fact, one thing that is restraining even stronger -- an even stronger performance by our economy is the fact that these other economies around the world are showing some weakness right now; that what we’re encountering right now primarily are headwinds from overseas. And that’s the biggest challenge to our economy right now.
The good news is, there are several things that we can do about that. The first is, we can take care of more of our business here at home. We can make deeper investments in infrastructure that we know create jobs in the short term but actually lay a long-term foundation for economic strength. We can do more to look out for the hardest-working Americans by raising the minimum wage.
And we can also do more to strengthen our relationships with those economies that are the most dynamic. And that’s why the President has advocated the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a trade agreement that, if we can get it done this year, would have a positive impact on economic growth, would have a positive economic impact on job creation, and would position the United States even better to weather some of the international headwinds that we’re experiencing right now.
Q Okay, last one. I want to ask you about the strategy as it relates to ISIS. We talked earlier -- or you did -- about Secretary Carter’s interview on NPR, where he suggested that all the proposals that we’ve given the President he has readily accepted. And yet, the New York Times in its reporting said that the President resented efforts to pressure him to have more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that true? Or did they get that wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have learned long ago that I’m not going to stand up here and critique others’ reporting. I will note that my eyebrow is raised in the same way that yours apparently did when you read that.
What I can tell you is the President is quite pleased with the kind of advice that he gets from his national security team. He relies heavily on the expertise of our men and women in uniform at the Department of Defense for suggestions and recommendations about the best way to intensify those elements of our counter-ISIL strategy that are showing some progress. And I assure you that, if anything, it is the leaders at the Department of Defense who are feeling pressure from the Commander-in-Chief to find new ideas and new ways to further intensify those elements of our strategy that are working.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to get your take on the Iowa caucus coming up tonight. Last opportunity to ask you about this before I head out to the Hawkeye state.
MR. EARNEST: Dress warm. (Laughter.)
Q I will indeed. Snowstorm on Tuesday. You have some experience here helping the President, then Senator Obama, win the Iowa caucus back in 2008. I wanted to get your sense about how important it is for Democrats to win Iowa. Does it give you that momentum? If the President, then Senator Obama, had not won Iowa, would it have, in your opinion, hurt him in the process to winning the Democratic nomination? Give me your take as someone who’s experienced this before.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, each race is different, and the dynamics of the race and the calendar are different every year. And I think in some ways that’s what makes the primary process and even the Iowa caucus process so interesting.
I do think that it’s true, in 2008, if Barack Obama had not won the Iowa caucuses, that he probably would not have won the nomination and therefore would not have become President. At the time, in 2008, there was a lot of skepticism about a couple of different things.
First is, then-Senator Obama demonstrated an ability to draw large crowds in ways that Democratic candidates had traditionally not been able to draw. And he even had been able to inspire a lot of young people, a lot of people who had not previously been engaged in the political process, to be interested in his campaign.
And so there’s a fundamental question about whether or not he was going to be able to take that interest and that passion at a rally and turn it into a high-functioning political organization that’s required to turn out and win a caucus campaign. And the skepticism about his ability to do that I think was entirely understandable. That was a credible thing and a proposition that could only be tested on caucus night. And it clearly passed the test with flying colors.
There was also some skepticism about whether or not an African American senator who didn’t have much experience in Washington, D.C. -- he looked pretty young; certainly a lot younger than he looks now -- about whether or not he would be able to sort of pass the Commander-in-Chief test. And there were a lot of people that said, well, you know, Democratic activists and people who follow the political process will be interested in hearing him speak, but it will be a different thing when they actually have to consider whether or not they’ll support him to be Commander-in-Chief.
The third question was, frankly, about race. Iowa, it’s no secret, even in the Democratic caucus process, is overwhelmingly white. And there were questions about whether or not an African American candidate could earn so much support from white voters. And again, he passed that test with flying colors.
So that’s why the Iowa caucus in 2008 was so significant to the prospects for then-Senator Obama’s campaign. The dynamics of this face are obviously a whole lot different, and I’ll leave it to you guys to analyze sort of the stakes in this contest for Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley. I’m sure they all have their own take on it.
But look, I think what’s notable is it’s the first contest of the presidential cycle. And I think that’s the other reason that it’s so interesting. It’s the first time that all of our own personal assumptions and hypotheses about the candidates and their strategy can be put to the test. And that’s what will make Monday night a pretty interesting night of television.
Q Do you think that -- I realize -- I agree with you, dynamics are always different in each election cycle. Do you think Iowa will give momentum to whoever wins on Monday? Momentum to either Hillary Clinton or Senator Bernie Sanders?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as important as Iowa was in 2008 for then-Senator Obama, it didn’t give us very much momentum in New Hampshire, as many of us rather vividly recall. Obviously, then-former Senator Clinton did quite well in the New Hampshire primary against Senator Obama.
So again, I think the dynamics of each of these contests are a little different, so it’s hard to assess whether or not the candidate that wins this time will get the same kind of -- or will get a boost, unlike President Obama did in 2008.
Q The Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee is boycotting the peace talks starting today in Syria, so there’s really nobody to negotiate with. So haven’t the talks sort of failed before they’ve even started?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Victoria, this has been a long-running process, and there have been a number of diplomatic engagements that have brought us to this point. And it’s my understanding that the U.N. right now is engaging with representatives of the Syrian government as a part of this ongoing process.
For updates about the participation of the high negotiating council, I’d refer you to the State Department. They’re sort of tracking this most closely.
But, obviously, the resolution of the political situation in Syria is critical to our efforts to address the chaos in that country. And the political failures inside of Syria have led to terrible consequences both in terms of the humanitarian toll that this situation has taken, but also on the broader instability not just in the Middle East but around the world. And there’s a lot riding on this diplomatic process, and it’s why the United States is so invested in it.
I think that’s also why I’d caution against sort of a snap judgment about success or failure. I think it’s only over the long term where we will be able to determine if these talks will eventually prove to be fruitful.
Q What is the United States willing to do to try to get them to the table at this point?
MR. EARNEST: We believe there’s a pretty clear interest that the opposition groups have in trying to negotiate the long-overdue political transition inside of Syria.
Q They feel that the U.S. is putting undue pressure on them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the international community is putting a lot of pressure on them to be constructive and to constructively engage in a process that will bring about the kind of political transition that is badly needed inside of Syria.
Q Thank you. A follow-up on the Middle East. The President’s Holocaust speech was very, very powerful. Have you had much reaction from the Arab governments about the speech?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. I’m not aware of the specific reaction that we’ve received from them, but we can check on that and see if there’s anything notable to share with you.
I’ll just say that the President did feel strongly about having the opportunity to deliver those remarks both to demonstrate -- well, I think primarily to sort of demonstrate how the actions that were taken by those brave Americans to save Jews who were fleeing the Holocaust represents the best of America. It represents American values saving innocent lives. And that is worthy of celebrating all these many years later.
Q And on the MOU, do you know if American aid levels to Israel and to Egypt will remain at the present level? It’s very high.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, right now, what is being discussed is the kind of security and military assistance that the United States provides to Israel. I wouldn’t speculate at this point about what those levels will be, because that’s precisely what’s being negotiated. But once we have an agreement, we’ll have more detail to share about the kind of assistance the United States is providing our close ally in the Middle East.
Susan, I’ll give you the last one then we’ll do the week ahead.
Q Back to the Syria question. Can you unequivocally say that John Kerry did not threaten the Syrian opposition leaders with defunding or failing to back their efforts anymore if they did not --
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to talk to the State Department about the conversations that they’re having with the agency. They’re in the best position to try to describe that situation to you.
Q Surely, though, the EU would have checked in with the State Department by now, and the White House would have --
MR. EARNEST: Oh, we’re in touch with them all the time about a range of issues, as Byron well knows. But I don’t want to characterize the kinds of conversations they’re having. I mean, I think what I did acknowledge to Victoria is I’m not surprised if there are some representatives of the opposition who are saying they’re feeling pressure from the international community to engage in diplomatic talks to try to resolve the political situation inside of Syria. If they are, that’s good, because that’s what we’re trying to do.
We want to bring both sides together through this U.N.-led process and try to resolve the political situation inside of Syria. That’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in the context of one set of talks. But we’ve got to continue making progress in this effort.
And Secretary Kerry deserves a lot of credit for being so tireless and dogged in his attempt. There are lives that are on the line here, hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives that have been terribly affected by the chaos inside of Syria. And look, it only continues to get worse.
Q And the opposition leaders have put a lot on the line, obviously, for that -- I mean, their own lives, the lives of their families.
MR. EARNEST: Obviously they have.
Q But what I’m talking about -- when you say the word “pressure,” are you talking about defunding the opposition?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to get into the details of the conversations. We believe strongly that both sides need to play a constructive role in these conversations. And it’s not just the United States who feel strongly about this, it is the broader international community who was quite focused on trying to resolve the political situation inside of Syria.
For all of our military might and all of our military effort, the situation inside of Syria will only be resolved when the political failures in that country have been resolved.
Q Can you address the Syrian opposition leaders’ concern about your closeness, and Kerry’s closeness specifically, with his Iranian counterpart and also his Russian counterpart? They have said to me and others that they are very -- that they’re worried that they’re going to be cut in a bad deal, and that they’re going to have to accept Bashar Assad’s reelection and not going to get any humanitarian protections out of this.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think there is a lot of evidence that would ease whatever concerns may have been expressed. I’ll go through a few of them.
For years, and repeatedly, we have made clear that Bashar al-Assad must go, that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead that country, again, not just because of the great moral offense that we’ve taken to his willingness to slaughter innocent civilians, but also because, as a practical matter, he’s not going to inspire the confidence of the Syrian people if he continues to attack them. So we’ve made clear that Bashar al-Assad needs to go.
The United States I think has demonstrated quite a clear commitment to trying to meet the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people who are fleeing violence. The United States is the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrians who are fleeing violence, both within Syria but also in the broader region. And I think you also heard -- Margaret and I had a conversation yesterday about the Russian role in all of this. And I think I was pretty blunt in saying that the Russian military support for the Assad regime was having a negative impact on our ability to try to reach a political resolution to the situation.
And so it’s not as if there’s been any reluctance on the part of me, frankly, or anybody else publicly, to express our significant concerns about the way that Russia is handling their business when it comes to this situation. Their military strategy directly contradicts their stated political strategy, and we’ve held that up and made that clear, and told them in no uncertain terms that their military strategy needs to change.
Q My question was Bashar Assad’s reelection -- are you saying right now that the deal would not include any provision for him to be reelected?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to draw any sort of -- look, the political situation inside of Syria has to be negotiated between the government and the opposition. You’ve got the U.N. negotiator in place that’s prepared to facilitate those discussions, because what we’re talking about right now are just proximity negotiations. We’re not even talking about sitting across the table from one another -- we’re talking about the U.N. doing some shuttle diplomacy here. And we’ve been clear about what our position is, and the details are going to have to be worked out by the Syrian people. And that’s entirely appropriate. We’re not dictating outcomes here. We need the Syrian people to engage in this.
Let me do the week ahead, and then we’ll let you guys get started on your weekend.
On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Tuesday, as I mentioned, the President will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. They’ll discuss a range of legislative priorities for the upcoming year. And the President is certainly hopeful that they’ll be able to build on the momentum of the bipartisan budget agreement that was reached at the end of last year and discuss areas of cooperation for the year ahead.
On Wednesday, the President will be here at the White House hosting meetings.
On Thursday, the President will deliver remarks at the national prayer breakfast. This is something that the President has done each year that he’s been in office, so I know he’s looking forward to this year’s event.
In the afternoon, the President will welcome the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors to the White House. We’ll obviously be honoring the team for winning the NBA Finals last year. This visit will continue the tradition begun by President Obama of honoring sports teams for their efforts to give back to their communities.
Later that afternoon, still on Thursday, the President will welcome President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia to the White House for an official working visit. The leaders will hold a bilateral meeting and mark 15 years of bipartisan cooperation through Plan Colombia, the joint effort to create a safer, more prosperous future for the people of Colombia.
And on Friday, the President will be here at the White House.
I have one additional bonus announcement. Not this coming Monday, but the Monday after, February 8th, President Obama will host President Sergio Mattarella of Italy at the White House. President Mattarella will visit the United States from February 16th -- I’m sorry, from February 6th through the 13th. Italy is a valued NATO ally and a close partner on a broad range of global challenges. During their meeting, the two Presidents will discuss our shared efforts to counter ISIL and the global refugee crisis. They will also exchange views on economic developments on Europe, the importance of concluding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and a variety of other areas of mutual interest.
So lots to look forward to in the next couple weeks. But until then, have a great weekend.
END 2:04 P.M. EST