Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/01/2016
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good Monday afternoon, everybody. Happy Caucus Day. Nice to see you all. I see you all are avoiding the snows of Iowa to join me here today, and I appreciate that.
I do not have any announcements to make at the top. So, Kevin, we can let you get us going.
Q Okay, thank you. Josh, could you talk a bit about the timing of the President’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore later this week? Why now? Why in the final year of his presidency? And what does he hope the trip will accomplish?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President is certainly looking forward to his trip to the Islamic Society of Baltimore. It will be an opportunity for the President to celebrate the contributions that Muslim-Americans have made to our nation, but also reaffirm the importance that religious freedom has to our way of life. And there obviously has been some discussion about this in the context of the political debate in the country. The President’s visit I think is an important moment to acknowledge those two things.
I think it’s also worth noting the context in which this visit occurs. Obviously, the President last week had the opportunity to visit the Israeli Embassy to speak at the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony. And of course, later this week the President will speak at the National Prayer Breakfast.
So I think this sort of fits in the constellation of events the President is doing to talk about religious liberty and to talk about the roll that faith plays in our public debate. I think it will also be an opportunity for the President to talk about the role that faith plays even in his own life.
Q Groups have been asking -- Muslim groups have been asking him to go to a mosque earlier. Why not earlier? Why at this late stage of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it’s hard to sort of explain why we didn’t do something. I think I can do my best to try to explain to you why we are doing something. And I think in this case it’s an opportunity for the President to celebrate the contributions of the Muslim-American community to our country. It’s also an opportunity to reaffirm that religious freedom and religious tolerance is central to our way of life in this country. It’s certainly central to the kinds of values that were present at the formation of this country, and those values endure more than 240 years later.
Q So, on Friday -- this came out after the briefing -- but it was revealed that 22 of Hillary of Clinton’s emails would not be released because they contained classified information. I wanted to ask how this development changes the way the White House views her use of a personal server. And is this verification, as some Republican lawmakers have suggested, that her actions endanger national security? And what is the White House’s response to her campaign’s assertion that is over-classification run amuck?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I do not have much insight into the emails because I haven't seen any of them. So for the content of the emails, I’d refer you to Secretary Clinton’s team or the individuals at the State Department who are working through a rigorous process to release them.
We have said that there is an obligation that everybody has in the administration to appropriately handle sensitive information, and that obviously is the instruction that every individual has who works in the federal government. I think what is also true is that we also have a firm commitment to transparency, and the State Department has evaluated each of these emails consistent with those priorities.
I can now say that there are more than 43,000 pages of emails that have been released by the State Department, and all of that at the request of Secretary Clinton who sent over the emails that pertain to her official government work, and has made the extraordinary request that they all be released. That certainly is consistent with the President’s commitment to transparency. And the State Department has engaged in a rigorous process, closely coordinating with other government agencies to ensure that that information can be released as soon as possible.
Now, what’s also true is that there are some additional emails that are still being reviewed that the State Department is hoping to release before the end of this month.
Q Some Saudi newspapers are saying that up to nine Americans citizens have been detained in a terror sweep there. And I wanted to ask if the White House has any confirmation of this.
MR. EARNEST: I cannot confirm that. In fact, the State Department is still working to determine whether or not that is true. And so I’d refer you to the State Department for an update on those ongoing efforts.
Q On Friday, Facebook announced that it’s banning users from using its services to sell firearms. And I’m wondering if that’s something that the administration asked Facebook to do.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to the individual communications that we’ve had with Facebook. I can look to see if we can get you some more detail on that.
Obviously, this is a step that the administration approves of. We talked about how the Internet in many cases actually is a loophole for people seeking to purchase firearms without going through a background check. And there are steps that the President was able to take using his executive authority to -- that the administration was able to take using the authority vested in the executive branch to try to prevent that from happening. But we obviously would welcome steps from private sector entities like Facebook who can also assist in that effort.
Again, this is a common-sense effort, in our view, to prevent guns from easily falling into the hands of criminals or other individuals who shouldn’t be able to get access to a gun, like people with mental problems, while at the same time protecting the constitutional rights of otherwise law-abiding Americans. And so we obviously welcome the action that was taken by Facebook, but I can’t speak to whether or not this was done at the specific request of anybody in the administration.
Q You’ve often talked about how the administration, how the White House uses the pen and the phone to try to advance its priorities and work with private sector where possible. So I’m wondering if the White House is working with other private sector tech companies on this issue, on the issue of guns, and gun violence specifically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is that this is actually -- that this is a policy that other companies who are significant players in the space of Internet commerce, that there are steps that they’ve already taken to prohibit using their tools to engage in the sale of firearms. For example, it’s my understanding that eBay doesn’t actually allow you to sell firearms using their platform.
And so again, I think what we’re seeing is we’re actually seeing companies act on their own. And we certainly are supportive of that. But ultimately, individual companies are going to make business decisions based on their own motives. But it does look like some of them are motivated by a desire to prevent individuals from circumventing the background check process.
Q On the Zika virus, just quickly, how does the President feel about the way that the WHO has responded to Zika thus far? Has the response been too slow, or are they working on it quickly enough? And did President Rousseff ask for additional assistance when she spoke with President Obama on Friday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a critique of the WHO’s efforts. All I can tell you is about the efforts that this administration has undertaken to be mindful of the risk that is posed by the Zika virus. The President got an update on this from members of his health care team, but also national security team, last week. They met here in the Situation Room, where they got a briefing. And this is a risk that the CDC is mindful of.
And I should just take this opportunity to repeat exactly what that risk is, which is that Zika is a mosquito-borne illness. It is characterized typically by mild symptoms, like a relatively low-grade fever, other swelling or joint pain. But what’s true is that only about one in five individuals who contract the Zika virus have any symptoms at all. And these are symptoms that typically fade over the course of a week or so.
The real concern that we have is that there appears to be some evidence of a link between the Zika virus and a particular birth defect when a pregnant woman contracts the virus. We’re trying to -- there’s a lot of research that’s being done now, and a lot of information that’s being collected now to try to determine that linkage. So we’re certainly mindful of that. That is why the CDC has issued a travel warning to pregnant women, or women who are thinking of becoming pregnant, to areas where there have been reports of the Zika virus.
But we are mindful of -- I guess the other data point here is that right now, in the United States, it’s early February and pretty inhospitable to mosquitoes. So the risk of the transmission of a mosquito-borne virus right now in the United States is quite low. At some point here, relatively soon, hopefully, we’re going to see the temperatures rise. That will make for a more hospitable environment for mosquitoes, and we want to make sure that we’ve got a strategy to try to limit the spread of this disease when that happens. And that includes trying to control the population of the one species of mosquito that we know carries this virus.
Q Josh, a couple of questions. I want to go back to the issue that was raised last week on cancer and the Vice President’s efforts. When you say “cancer,” it’s a very broad word, because there are so many different kinds of cancers. What specifically is this group trying to prevent? Is there some kind of way they’re trying to do an overall approach or a specific approach to different cancers? I mean, could you explain?
MR. EARNEST: April, we can certainly get you an expert to talk to you more about this. Obviously, the effort that the Vice President is leading -- and he’s been tasked by the President to lead this effort -- is focused on aligning the resources and efforts of the federal government to focus on the kinds of breakthroughs that will save lives.
And the kind of work that the Vice President is focused on is not likely to yield in the short term sexy announcements, but yet this is part of the essential work that’s necessary to lay the groundwork for a cure. And this is going to include additional research. This will include information sharing. It will include a look at testing and other ways that we can detect cancer early.
But all of this is part of laying the groundwork for long-term success. That’s why I think the moonshot analogy that the President has drawn here is appropriate. It was President Kennedy who laid out this goal, but the goal was not realized in the Kennedy presidency. What he did was he set an ambitious vision and began to orient the federal government in the direction of accomplishing this goal, and the results were realized a number of years later, but sooner than anybody thought. And we’re hoping for a similar outcome when it comes to fighting cancer.
Q So in getting in the weeds one more time with this, does this group -- will they try to help put funding and muscle to cancer research that there’s a breakthrough close, a possible breakthrough, just to help them speed it up? Or is it just more so just broad-based?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there was an announcement of some additional funds that will be included in this year’s budget proposal, and so how that money would be spent, we can get you some experts who can talk to you about exactly how those resources can benefit the effort that's underway.
Q And lastly, I want to also find out how important is it for this President to go to Baltimore County this week and talk to the Islamic group there. How important is it for his legacy, for his presidency? Just how important is it, period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President believes that this kind of visit is important for the country. It's an important way for us to lift up the value of religious tolerance and religious freedom that, again, was central to the founding of this country. It also is an important way for us to discuss the valuable contributions that are made by Muslims of all walks of life to the success of our country. And whether we're talking about Muslim Americans that are our friends and neighbors or people in our community, or even Muslims who are sports heroes, or served in the United States military, there are a variety of ways that Muslim Americans have made valuable contributions to America. And the President believes that that's worth celebrating.
And, yes, we anticipate that the President’s visit to a mosque will be rather conspicuous. All of you will be interested in covering it. I won't be surprised if there are some of the President’s critics who decide to criticize the President for doing it. But all of that I think will serve to elevate a debate the President believes is worth having.
Q And I want to ask this last question on it. You just were in Baltimore last week. Why Baltimore County? I mean, so close yet so far -- Catonsville. Why the Baltimore area again?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to why this specific mosque was chosen other than to tell you that this is a mosque that I think represents the diversity of the Muslim population in America. And hopefully, that will be evident from the audience that the President speaks to. But we'll have more on why this mosque was chosen as the President prepares for his visit.
Q So next week can we expect another trip to Baltimore, this time maybe Penn North?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any travel next week to announce at this point. Stay tuned.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about the case President Obama plans to make to Senator McConnell on TPP. Is he going to be making a hard sell for a vote this year, given the Senator’s comments at the end of last year about not bringing it up until after the elections?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, the President is certainly looking forward to sitting down with both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan tomorrow. It will be a good opportunity for the leaders to discuss their priorities heading into 2016.
We've talked a lot about the priorities that we've identified where Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together. We've talked about how there is bipartisan agreement around criminal justice reform, and certainly ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is another bipartisan priority that both leaders -- I guess all three leaders have identified.
I also would anticipate a discussion about the cancer initiative. There certainly has been an interest on the part of some even conservative Republicans in ramping up investments in medical research and development because of the potential for breakthroughs that could be good for our economy but also be good for the health care of the American people. There are ideas that Speaker Ryan has put forward related to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit as a potent way to fight poverty in this country.
There’s been a lot of discussion on the Republican campaign trail about fighting heroin addiction and abuse, and the failure to do so effectively has had a pretty negative impact on communities, large and small, all across the country. There should be some work that Democrats and Republicans can do together on Capitol Hill this year to try to combat that.
I would also anticipate a discussion about Puerto Rico. Speaker Ryan has committed to taking some action in the House in the first quarter of this year to try to give the government of Puerto Rico additional tools that they could use to deal with the financial challenges that have beset that island. And I wouldn't rule out a discussion about the need for Congress to pass an authorization to use military force.
So obviously there’s a lot that the President is hopeful that he can get done with Congress over the course of this year. These are all things that Republicans independently say are priorities for them, and hopefully we'll have an opportunity to work together to advance them over the course of this year.
Q But specifically on trade, is he going to really drill down with those leaders? And is that an issue that he’s going to real push Senator McConnell on, given that he’s sort of conflicted with you guys in the past few months here?
MR. EARNEST: Look, TPP -- the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- is something that both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan say that they support. They understand the positive economic benefits that this would have for the American economy, for American businesses and for American workers. They recognize the importance of cutting 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods.
So this is a priority. And I’m confident that the strongest political allies of Leader McConnell here in Washington are excited about the prospect of the Trans-Pacific Partnership being ratified as soon as possible so that American businesses and the broader American economy can start to benefit from that agreement. But ultimately, they’ll have to work through exactly the mechanics of getting this done. I wouldn’t be surprised if this comes up in their conversation, but I think as I highlighted earlier, there are a long list of things to talk about.
Q Is there a reason that the President decided to meet with Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan together? There’s been a lot of sort of attention drawing the fact that this is his first meeting with Speaker Ryan, and I was just wondering if maybe he might meet with him separately one-on-one at some point.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that’s a prescient question, Jordan -- because after the meeting, the President will have lunch with Speaker Ryan one-on-one in the Oval Office tomorrow, as well. And this is something that they discussed when the President called Speaker Ryan to thank him for his work in passing an omnibus budget proposal at the end of last year. And over the course of last month, we’ve been working to try to find a time to schedule this meeting, and so that lunch will take place tomorrow.
Q In the Oval?
MR. EARNEST: I believe it will be in the private dining room right off the Oval.
Q Can you say more on this -- since you’re rocking the news now, can you tell us a little bit more about this -- this meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it’s consistent -- I think the agenda for the lunch will be quite similar to the agenda that I just discussed for the meeting.
Q (Inaudible) is huge. This is the first meeting in the Oval Office.
MR. EARNEST: I think somebody has been listening to some presidential campaign commercials a little too much -- (laughter) -- and invoking that kind of rhetoric into the White House briefing.
Q I didn’t mean to be --
MR. EARNEST: So maybe that’s something you’ll hear more of a year from now from here.
Q All right, I’m going to try again. The budget coming out February 9th.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q You’ve been rolling out little bits. Can you talk any more about it? Are there going to be any big new tax proposals, spending proposals? Anything you can think of?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have more details to share from here. We’ve just got another week or so before we’ll have more details on this. Obviously, you saw the announcement about some of the investments that we hope to make in cancer research. But stay tuned for more details soon.
Q Just to clarify, this is going to be the first time President Obama has ever gone to a mosque during his time in office, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: A first time to visit a mosque in the United States. Overseas, the President has visited a couple of mosques. And we can get you the details on where those were. I may have those here, actually.
Q I know he has events at the White House celebrating Ramadan, and I think he’s had Iftar events and so on and so forth, as well, correct? Is that a regular thing, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, there have been regular celebrations of -- I think there’s been an annual Iftar dinner at the White House since the President took office.
Q The President had a meeting with Secretary Burwell this morning?
MR. EARNEST: He does later today, I believe.
Q Would you think that there would be anything new to say about -- because I believe HHS is leading the Flint initiative, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the federal official on the ground in Flint who is coordinating the variety of government agencies that are responding to this effort is an HHS official. This is a person that has an expertise in public health. And given the significant public health consequences of some of the problems with the Flint water supply, it made sense to put this person in charge.
Q Would you expect there be anything new from this meeting? I thought it was 11:45 --
MR. EARNEST: So it may be going on right now. But I don’t have a readout of this specific meeting. If there’s anything to announce from it, we’ll let you know.
Q Just, lastly -- on caucus day, what are the President’s thoughts about all this? I asked earlier -- he’s not going to be up sitting watching returns and so on and so forth. But this is a fairly seminal moment, isn’t it, for him? I mean, it’s the beginning of people actually voting.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it prompts a couple of things. The first is, obviously the President has very fond memories of his own experience participating in the Iowa caucuses. And should the President be the first to tell you that he remembers quite vividly the excitement that he felt at learning about his victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. It obviously was an historic moment and an historic day. And the President delivered an historic speech that night to the country, but I think was also surprised to find out that Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses.
So I’m confident the President is feeling a little nostalgic today about that. But look, it also is, as you point out, sort of the first step in choosing the individual that will succeed President Obama in the Oval Office. That obviously is why so many of your colleagues are camped out in Iowa and have been for the last few weeks. And it also is the first time that, after hearing so much from all the candidates, we’re now going to hear from some voters. And that’s a useful thing; that’s an important part of our democracy. So we’ll look forward to see what happens.
Q I have to think he’d be up listening to the returns to see who wins.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what his plans are for tonight. The President is typically a night owl, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he is still awake when the results are announced.
Q Josh, you have said that the White House wants to work with Congress on closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center, and that, and that Congress has to take some steps to be able to close it. Is that an issue that’s going to come up in the meeting tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if that will be on the agenda or not. We’ll try to get you a readout of the meeting when it concludes. We certainly do believe that Congress should remove the obstacles that have prevented the President from following through on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We believe that is a priority both because it would save taxpayers money, but also because it would remove a piece of propaganda that we know that extremists use to recruit people to their side.
President Obama is not the first person to reach this determination. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, also advocated for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as did pretty much every senior official in his administration, including military leaders. So there is broad agreement that this is the right step -- right thing to do for the country. We’ve just got to get Congress to go along with it.
Q And I think you said it costs, what, $4 million per inmate per year to maintain it. Just to be clear on your strategy, is it to reduce the number of prisoners that’s within your ability to do it so it becomes so expensive and members of Congress just look at the price tag and say, let’s close it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, it’s already expensive. And that threshold has already been passed. I think part of our strategy, yes, is to transfer those individuals that our national security apparatus has confirmed can be safely transferred under the right circumstances to other countries. And this is a process that’s ongoing.
The prison population at Guantanamo Bay is now less than 100, and there are dozens more that have been cleared for transfer, again, under the right circumstances to ensure that the risk that they pose to our national security has been appropriately mitigated. And so we’re going to continue to work through that process.
There are also a number of individuals that have been cleared for prosecution either through civilian courts or military courts. And so there are a variety of ways that we have settled on dispensing with these cases. And we’re going to continue to work through that process, and we’re hopeful that rather than just throwing sand in the gears, that Congress can actually play a helpful role in trying to keep the country safe.
Q And just to make one more quick run at what I asked you about last week -- the Wounded Warrior Project and the story both on CBS and in the New York Times about how their overhead is like 40 percent; they’ve had some lavish spending on trips, hotels and entertainment and that kind of thing. The President and the First Lady have been very concerned about veterans and working on their behalf. Is it an issue of concern to the White House that such a prominent charity for vets is having this kind of a financial issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, Pam, I’ve seen some of the reporting. I can’t render my own judgment on the accounting or business practices of a particular charity. Obviously, as an administration that’s committed to transparency, we believe that a certain amount of transparency is important for charitable organizations as well, and they have a responsibility to their donors to be forthright and transparent about how that money is spent. But that certainly applies to every charity.
And what this administration has focused on is the important work that our government can do and must do to keep our covenant with our men and women in uniform who have given so much to this country. And the progress that we have made in modernizing the VA and reducing the backlog on claims there has been important. And we’re determined to continue to make progress on that front.
Q Back on the President’s meeting with Secretary Burwell today. A Senate investigation found last week that the administration left many unaccompanied migrant children vulnerable to traffickers, and that HHS was aware of this risk but didn’t do much to stop it. I’m wondering if the President is aware of these findings and if that’s a topic of discussion at the meeting today.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports; I haven’t spoken to the President about them. Presumably, as an avid consumer of the news, he’s seen these reports as well. I know that the Department of Homeland Security and HHS both take those kinds of reports quite seriously. They obviously are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of these migrants that have been detained. And there is important work that is done to vet the individuals who are essentially responsible for the safety and wellbeing of these children.
So these are reports that we take quite seriously. And I’d refer you to HHS or DHS about any potential reforms that will be made to the system to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
Q Josh, since you referenced JFK earlier, I couldn’t resist -- his quest to land a man on the moon and safely return to Earth in his decade, the ‘60s. He also was fond of saying that in America, in a democracy, we are the boss and we get the kind of leadership we demand and we deserve. Does the President think that the American people will get what they deserve on November 8th?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, because of the beauty of our system, the American people will have a say in who the next President will be. And the kind of spirited debate that we anticipate will occur over the course of the next nine or 10 months is important. And the President alluded to this in his State of the Union address that the most important role in our democracy is citizen, and that means that our country is most effective, and our government is most effective when there are citizens who are informed and engaged in the process of running our country.
So the President doesn’t just look forward to a spirited debate in the year ahead, I'm confident that at the appropriate time he will be engaged rather deeply in it.
Q On the Zika virus, we've seen Canada talk about making changes to their blood donations for people who’ve been to affected areas. In the readout you gave the last time there was a meeting, the President said that he wants to see accelerated research. But for the most part, it's been kind of warnings out there, even as we've seen around the world talk about making certain changes. So can we expect to see some additional action in the near future, especially after the meeting with Secretary Burwell today? And do you think kind of the warnings are enough for the time being?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't anticipate any new announcements today, but obviously we're dealing with a mosquito-borne illness, and the current cold temperatures in North America are not hospitable to mosquitos, and that means the risk of --
Q But that wouldn't preclude planning ahead.
MR. EARNEST: No, I'm not suggesting that it does. In fact, I think that's exactly part of the discussion that the President had with his team in the Situation Room last week. But for what’s happening right now, travel warnings for pregnant women or women who are thinking of becoming pregnant and contemplating a trip to the tropics to escape some of the winter weather here is something that people should -- people should be mindful of the risks of doing that.
And that's why we're doing our best to try to communicate as clearly as possible exactly what the risks of that kind of travel are and what steps can be taken to mitigate that risk. And as the temperature changes, and as the weather warms up here in the United States and we have additional guidance about steps people can take to protect themselves from this threat, we'll be sharing it.
Q So what about something like blood donation for people who have traveled to those areas -- since people travel and come back all the time? Why not do something similar to what Canada has done? Or is that a possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd refer you to the CDC on this. A lot of this is going to be -- the steps that are taken by the U.S. government to protect the American public will be dictated by science. And we will allow the science to guide us in the direction of policies that will address the risk that is posed by the Zika virus and offer guidance to the American people about steps that they can take to assure their own safety.
Q Okay. And a few quick questions on the campaign trail. What does the President think about Bernie Sanders doing a blurb for this book, titled, “Buyers’ Remorse,” about Obama? They just had this hour-long sit-down about all the great things that they share the other day here at the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Senator Sanders was quite clear when he spoke to all of you in the driveway just five days ago about the fact that he was quite proud of the President’s record and his legacy, and was hoping that he would have an opportunity to build on that legacy, and that was a central part of Senator Sanders’s campaign platform.
And look, evaluating the President’s record is not a theoretical exercise. We've got numbers that we can consider. And whether it's the longest consecutive streak of private sector job growth in American history, or the lowest growth in health care costs in American history, or the all-time high in renewable energy production in this country, the President’s track record on issues important to middle-class families and important to Democrats is unimpeachable.
Q And we've heard the administration talk many times about Republicans making it harder in some ways for people to vote. But then over the weekend we see a mailer from Senator Cruz that said “voter violation,” I mean, trying to what seemed to be warn people into going out and voting. Any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just think showing your fear of the voters casting a vote is not typically a good way to inspire the confidence of the electorate.
Q This was trying to get people to vote. Some thought that it made it seem as if they were committing a violation if they didn’t show up and vote.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the -- it's hard to determine exactly what the strategy was here. I know that the Secretary of State of Iowa -- who, incidentally, is a Republican -- also took a pretty dim view of this strategy. But I guess if your campaign’s message is focused on pessimism and fear, then it's not particularly surprising that that may find its way into a candidate’s turnout strategy as well.
Q Okay. And on -- so Donald Trump offered to build a $100 million ballroom here at the White House. (Laughter.) Was that ever considered? What else can you tell us about that? Because it is confirmed that he made that offer, apparently.
MR. EARNEST: I've read a little bit about this. I --
Q Did you know about it?
MR. EARNEST: I was not the one who was consulted. But I can tell you that this was not something that was at all seriously considered.
Q And why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure that it would be appropriate to have a shiny gold Trump sign on any part of the White House.
Q Was that what he was offering?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's what most of the buildings that he offers to build include. So, unclear if something like that would have been required with this offer as well.
Q Thanks, Josh. Speaking of Trump, he did say earlier in his campaign he wanted to ban all Muslims from coming into the U.S. He’s poised to potentially win in Iowa today, and I'm wondering if the President’s visit to a mosque later this week is supposed to be seen as a counterpoint to that. Is he specifically going to address Donald Trump while he’s going to visit the mosque?
MR. EARNEST: Toluse, again, I think I'd go to pains to point out here that Mr. Trump is not the only Republican presidential candidate to suggest that a religious test should be imposed on individuals entering the United States. So the kind of rhetoric that we've seen from Republicans didn’t just emanate from Mr. Trump. We've seen that from a variety of candidates. And it has, unfortunately, infected our political debate in a way that doesn’t reflect the values that are so central to the founding of our country.
And so I think this would be an appropriate venue for the President to make clear that Muslim Americans make a valuable contribution to the success of our country, and that the protections that allow Muslim Americans to worship God according to their traditions in this country are sacrosanct and that no one -- whether they’re a political candidate or not -- should feel like it is acceptable to somehow put those religious freedoms at risk.
Q I have a question about the cancer moonshot, the budget component of it. $1 billion is seen as what a lot of drug companies say it costs to develop a drug over the course of its development. Is that enough from the White House’s perspective to actually make a dent and actually have a moonshot? Is that something that you see as sufficient given the huge costs of actually developing cures for diseases?
MR. EARNEST: No, it's not enough, but it's a start. And I think it reflects the commitment of the federal government to trying to organize and coordinate our efforts to be focused on this goal. And this is not an effort that is going to be bankrolled exclusively by the federal government. There’s obviously a critically important role to play by experts in the private sector. And I think what this task force will be focused on is making sure that the data collected by the U.S. government, that the expertise that is housed at the U.S. government can be organized and coordinated in such a way that we can support the broader effort to finally find a cure for this terrible disease.
And again, my suspicion is that over the course of this year there aren't going to be a lot of sexy announcements that are associated with this task force. But what this task force and what the Vice President will be focused on are the kinds of essential steps that will be critical to the success of eradicating this disease.
Q And you just said there’s not going to be a lot of sexy announcements over the next year, but the President is leaving office next year, so why -- how do you expect the next President to sort of measure what the success was of this current funding? And for what reason would the next President continue this level of funding, or increase it, if there’s no announcement or if there’s no deliverable that you expect to see in the next year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s not that I didn’t say that there wouldn’t be any announcements or deliverables. Look, one of the most critical things that the federal government can do is to make sure that data is effectively being shared among all of the parties that are conducting cancer research; that that could open the door to the kind of breakthrough that could radically change the way that we either test for cancer, the way we treat it, or the way that we offer people vaccines to try to prevent it.
Data-sharing agreements and better organizing data that is collected by government researchers or government agencies is not sexy. It’s not the kind of thing that’s going to generate headlines. It’s not going to move markets when it posts to the Bloomberg terminal. But it could eventually be a critical step along the path to finding a cure for cancer.
And that’s what I’m trying to underscore here -- that the work that is being done and will be done over the course of this year by the task force is not going to generate headlines every day, but I do think that over the course of the year, that we can lay the groundwork for the kind of progress that will be seen in future years that, look, I think we could look back on it and say, well, that was a pretty important step and we wouldn’t have made this much progress had it not been for the early and possibly underappreciated efforts by Vice President Biden to get us here.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just wanted to look ahead a little bit to the ASEAN Summit meeting at Sunnylands. Do expect that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib will be invited and will come?
MR. EARNEST: I know that Prime Minister Najib was invited, and I assume that he is planning to attend. But you can check with his office for his travel schedule.
Q As you’re, no doubt, aware, he’s accused of embezzling around $700 million. The Swiss are investigating some of the transactions involved in that. Do you have any evidence that any of that cash may have passed through the U.S. banking system?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question. To the extent that -- if there are law enforcement officials who are looking into this, you can check with them. I suppose you could also consult with the Treasury Department about it as well. But I don’t know the answer to that.
Q Thanks. And just going back to Gitmo, should we expect anything in the budget? Do you have any updates on the timing of when the plan might be presented?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on timing at this point. This is obviously something that the Department of Defense has been working on in close consultation with senior members of the President’s national security team, including NSC officials here at the White House. But I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing yet.
Q And on the budget, should we expect any --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if there will be anything related -- any budgetary announcements related to Gitmo. But we’ll obviously have a definitive answer on that a week from tomorrow.
Q Thanks. Speaking of, do you have a latest number on detainees?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have the latest numbers in front of me, but it’s still in the -- it’s just below 100. I believe it’s in the mid-90s.
Q Any announcements coming? I think 92 is my last count.
MR. EARNEST: I think that’s probably about right. I don’t have any announcements about any upcoming transfers that are planned.
Q Okay, great. On the EPA situation in Michigan, can you say definitively that the federal government is unaware of any other cities that have been impacted other than Flint, based on this emergency?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think we’ve discussed a little bit about how the President asked the Administrator of the EPA to go and take a look at the kind of regulations and rules that govern the relationship between the EPA and state and local environmental officials. The President asked the Administrator to do that because he was concerned about avoiding a situation where EPA officials might be aware of a public health threat that they’re not communicating with the public because they’re concerned about being deferential to state and local officials.
So there is some concern that something like that may have occurred in Flint. Certainly that allegation has been raised publicly. And the President wants to be sure that that kind of arrangement is not posing an unnecessary risk to public health somewhere else.
Q Where are we in the process, then, of figuring that out? And I ask -- because there are reports as recently as Friday that the particular matter and the contamination levels are still, in some cases, over 100 times acceptable levels in places like Flint, even today, even with the use of basic filters, so I’m just curious, where are we along that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to Flint, I know that there has been some work that has been done to test a lot of the effectiveness of some of the filters. And the vast majority of them, the overwhelmingly majority of them have been effective. There are signs that in a couple of places the particulate levels were higher than expected, and so they’re doing some additional work there to determine why that was the case -- whether that was a problem with the test or whether it was a problem with the filters.
So one of the things that the EPA has done is actually worked closely with state and local officials in Michigan to make water test kits available for free to houses in Flint so that people can test for themselves to make sure that their water continues to be safe on an ongoing basis. So that’s sort of addressing the urgent situation.
There is a broader testing regiment that the EPA has laid out for how they want to test individual houses, test schools, test businesses, and then test the broader water supply, to get to a place where they can certify the safety of the water supply.
Now, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to fully implement that, but that all relates to the situation in Flint. But again, more broadly, our concern about other communities is, right now, sort of focused on the idea that EPA officials, if they have knowledge of a situation that could pose a threat to public health, that they are not somehow unnecessarily prevented from sharing that information with the public.
Q On the Affordable Care Act, what can you tell us about the end of the enrollment period? Numerically, how are things looking? And in particular, marketplaces -- how concerned is the President that some of them appear to be still on shaky ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have updated numbers from over the weekend. I know it was a busy weekend. The early indications that we’ve seen over the last couple of months of the open enrollment period is that we are getting a very good response. And the question was raised, I think quite legitimately, about how successful the administration would be in signing up new people into these marketplaces -- that there were people who were relying on these health care plans, that they were likely to re-enroll. The question is, how successful could we be in enrolling new customers? And some time ago, we passed the million new customer mark, and I’m sure we’ll have updated figures on this sometime in the relatively near future.
But obviously, bringing in new customers is going to be critical to the long-term stability of those marketplaces, because the sense is, is that the new customers are -- that a large proportion of those new customers will be people who are generally in good health, and having people of good health participating in the marketplaces will contribute to the long-term financial stability of those marketplaces. That’s why that was a focus of our efforts. And the early indications are that those efforts were successful.
Q Okay, last one. On the emails that Kevin mentioned, especially we learned at the end of the week about some that they’re just simply not making available, in particular, between the President and his former Secretary of State. Is it fair to suggest then that he was aware that she did have a private email address, and was he then also aware that she had her own server?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, as I’ve said -- I’ve answered this question a couple of times. The President was aware of Secretary Clinton’s email address. The two did exchange emails. But the President I think, not surprisingly, was not aware of the existence of Secretary Clinton’s private server.
The 18 emails that you’re referring to are emails that will be released consistent with the Presidential Records Act. The State Department has indicated that those emails are not classified; there are no classification problems here. But presidential correspondence is considered an official presidential record, I think for obvious reasons, and the Presidential Records Act basically dictates that those kinds of records will begin being released five years after the President leaves office.
Q I want to go back to Iowa for a second. What would you say to prospective voters tonight in Iowa who are getting ready to caucus on the Democratic side and who feel like they’re voting for a progressive promise that they think hasn’t been fulfilled by President Obama in the last seven years? What do you say to them? There are people who believe that.
MR. EARNEST: I guess I would say to them that evaluating the President’s record is not a theoretical exercise, that there are facts and figures that demonstrate the tremendous progress this country has made under the President’s leadership over the last seven years. And I can obviously provide you a lot of statistics.
I think the ones that jump out to me are things like the strongest continuous streak of private sector job growth in our nation’s history. Obviously, the successful completion and implementation of health care reform that ensures that everybody has access to quality, affordable health insurance -- that has also yielded the lowest uninsured rate in our nation’s history and the lowest rate of health care inflation in history.
But there are also other things. The United States is less reliant on foreign oil than we’ve been in nearly three decades, and some of that’s a testament to the investments that we’ve made in renewable energy. That means that we’re producing more energy from wind and solar than ever before in our history. When you look at education, we’ve got the highest high school graduation rate and the highest number of people enrolling in college in American history.
So there are a variety of ways to evaluate the President’s performance. But I encourage people to take a look at the statistics, and those facts I think paint a pretty strong picture about the success that the President has had even in the face of historic partisan obstruction in the United States Congress.
Q The people who feel that way are -- they’re misinformed? They’re under-informed? They’re wrong? They’re, like, not willing to accept it?
MR. EARNEST: I think the people who feel that way are entitled to their own opinion, but should also consult the facts and consider the important progress that our country has made under President Obama’s leadership.
Q And do you feel like President Obama should meet Bernie Sanders and Sanders voters’ standard of what a progressive is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if that’s the case, I think Senator Sanders himself said, both in the driveway last week here at the White House, but also on a news program over the weekend, indicating that the President had a record that the President himself and Democrats across the country should be quite proud of.
Q When you talk about Guantanamo, you talk a lot about the budget. I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit more about the sites that the prisoners -- the detainees might be transferred to. You mentioned Fort Leavenworth is a place; also South Carolina. And what are the factors that are playing into that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Defense has made site visits to a handful of locations, including the two that you mentioned, but also a couple of locations in Colorado. That’s been publicly reported. And what they are evaluating is whether or not any of those locations would be an appropriate place to bring the remaining detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In some cases, these would be individuals who are in the midst of a criminal justice process, whether it’s a civilian or a military court. In some cases, these are individuals who cannot be safely transferred anywhere else.
But in all cases, what is clear is that there are detention facilities across the United States that are, even as we speak, incarcerating convicted terrorists. And all that is being done without any sort of undue risk being posed to the United States. In fact, we would make the case that the successful prosecution of those terrorist suspects actually makes the country safer and makes clear that we can keep the country safe in a way that’s entirely consistent with the kinds of values that we hold dear in the United States.
Q And just on that, I remember when President Obama tried to close the prison in the early days of the administration, he ran into problems with some of the locations that the detainees were going to be transferred to. So I’m wondering what lessons were learned from that experience, or how the administration is reaching out to places where the detainees might get transferred.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a whole lot more about the DOD process to share with you. I think the lesson that I think we can all learn over the course of the last six or seven years is that we have a justice system in this country that can ensure that people are brought to justice for planning or attempting to carry out acts of terrorism on American soil, and we can do all of that in a way that’s entirely consistent with the values that are central to our country.
And by adhering to those values and by maintaining a rigorous criminal justice, law enforcement and national security infrastructure in this country, we can keep the American people safe. And again, a lot of this is a testament to the courage and vigilance and professionalism of our men and women in law enforcement, of our intelligence communities, of prosecutors at the state and federal level.
So this is not an effort that succeeds without trying. It requires the attention and focus of a lot of patriotic Americans. But it works. And we’re suggesting that those kinds of lessons and those values can be applied to resolving the situation of those detainees that are left at the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q I just want to be clear, just because you’re talking about the Justice Department. The White House still envisions there would be a subset of the prisoners who would not be tried at the civilian courts, right? They would just be held indefinitely without trial?
MR. EARNEST: There are essentially three categories. So the largest category -- and I just don’t have the numbers in front of me, but we can follow up with you on them -- the largest category are individuals that are currently being detained at the prison at Guantanamo Bay that, under the right circumstances, could be transferred to another country. That requires a lot of painstaking diplomatic work, but that has played the most important role in reducing the prison population at Guantanamo Bay. And there is more work on that front that can be done.
There’s a smaller group of individuals that are either going through the criminal justice process or are cleared to go through the criminal justice process. And these are essentially individuals who can be tried either in a military or civilian court, that evidence will be presented and they’ll be brought to justice.
But you’re right, there’s another category of individuals who pose a sufficient threat to our national security that they cannot be safely transferred anywhere else. There are also individuals that, for whatever reason, aren’t in a position to have evidence brought against them. And the question is how do we resolve their cases.
And the proposal that -- I guess I should say the belief that the President has is that continuing to house them at the prison at Guantanamo Bay is prohibitively expensive, and only perpetuates a symbol that we know extremist organizations have used to recruit terrorists. So it’s our view that these individuals could be housed on American soil in facilities that are in line with the protections that are offered to other hardened criminals that are serving time in American detention facilities.
Q Just following up on your answer to Kevin, how can you presume that the vast majority of those new signups for the ACA are healthy?
MR. EARNEST: That is basically what public health experts tell us. And the assumption, frankly, Bill, is that the people who signed up for the Affordable Care Act during the first two open enrollment periods were people who were quite sick and looking to get health insurance and didn’t have any other place to turn to.
Q Why wouldn’t that still be the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point is that was the case over the first two years. I think the point is, is that if you’ve been sick for three years, it didn’t just dawn on you in the third year that you should sign up for health care. The sense is, is that people who were most in dire need of health insurance were the people who were most eager to sign up, and that after two years, the people who were most eager to sign up have basically signed up, and that after that population had taken advantage of the benefits offered in the marketplace, that the percentage of that population that's in better health is higher.
And that's not based on any calculation that I've personally done, it's based on a calculation that's done by our public health professionals.
Q Do you presume that the fine has anything to do with it?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I do presume that there are a lot of people who are interested in avoiding paying a fine at tax time.
Q There also seem to be a lot who would rather pay the fine than pay for health insurance.
MR. EARNEST: There are some people who have opted for a rather irrational choice. But it's a free country and they are certainly allowed to make that choice. The case that we made to a lot of people in very public fashion is that, in some cases, you could would end up paying more in a fine to the IRS than you would for quality health insurance. So it is highly irrational to end up paying more to the IRS than you would to the health care companies. For most people, they’ll end up paying more for their health insurance, but they’ll get all the benefits associated with it, including the kinds of consumer protections that every American who has health insurance gets because of the Affordable Care Act.
This is ensuring that you're not discriminated against because of a preexisting condition; allowing your child to stay on your health insurance until your kid turns 26; and some of the other consumer protections that are quite popular.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two questions. Is the President considering realistic places of other religions like Buddhist temple or Sikh gurdwara? Because under his administration, he has started celebrating various religions inside the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of any additional travel plans that I can announce from here. But I do think you can expect that the language and the message that the President will be delivering not just at the mosque on Wednesday but also at the prayer breakfast on Thursday is that the religious diversity of the United States contributes to our strength. And drawing on that diversity allows the United States to overcome challenges that other countries are unable to surmount, and that that diversity is something that we should treasure, and that freedom is something that we should work assiduously to protect. And the President is certainly committed to that principle.
Q I have another question. In the last two weeks, there are reports coming out about what the President might do after he leaves the presidency. One was about a Supreme Court judge, and second about U.N. Secretary General. Are these two things being considered by the President?
MR. EARNEST: I talked to him about the Supreme Court justice nomination or appointment last week. The U.N. Secretary General thing is new to me, I have to admit. I think the President, over the course of this year, will have an opportunity to talk a little bit more about his post-presidency plans. But I think the President has a lot of ideas about what he’s hoping that he can focus on when he leaves office, and I think one of the things that appeals to him is being unconstrained by having to hold an office in order to make progress in some of those priorities that he’s identified.
So we'll see what the future holds. But I know that the President has got a pretty ambitious set of plans.
Fred, I'll give you the last one.
Q Oh, thanks, Josh. As far as the email situation goes, would there ever be a consideration of a special counsel to take away any concerns of a conflict?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of a discussion about that.
Q And also, Donald Trump, last week, actually rented out a theater in Iowa to show the film, “13 Hours.” There have been also other political groups that have tried to tout this film. The director has said it's not a political film. The President has answered questions about movies in the past. Will there be any chance that he would actually see this film?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I don't know that the President has seen this film.
Q Do you think he’d have any interest at all in it?
MR. EARNEST: He might. But you’d probably have to ask him.
All right? Thanks a lot, everybody.
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