Press Briefing with the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/22/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:08 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Hope you had a good weekend. As you can see, I'm delighted to be joined today by the chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association. To my left is Governor Herbert from the great state of Utah. To my right is Governor Terry McAuliffe from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Actually, one of my first jobs in Washington, D.C. was actually as a spokesperson for Governor McAuliffe. We had the opportunity to travel across the country a lot. I think when we went to a lot of our events there weren't too many people that thought they were hearing from the future Governor of Virginia. But, to be fair, I think even fewer of them thought that you had brought the future White House Press Secretary with you. (Laughter.) But, anyway, it's nice to see you here today. Glad you're here.
So we'll turn it over to Governor Herbert first, and then we'll got to Governor McAuliffe, and then we'll open it up for your questions.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Well, thank you, Josh. We're honored to be here with you all today. And as the chair of the National Governors Association, we've just completed our Winter Conference, as we call it, here in Washington, D.C. And we had great participation from the governors. And I think you’ll hear from the vice chair, Terry McAuliffe that we've had a successful meeting, now just completed, with the President and the Vice President and Cabinet members, and had an opportunity to have dialogue that's important I think for us to be able to, as states and as governors, to move our respective states forward and help contribute to the discussion here of policy in Washington, D.C. and to help America move forward.
We've had an opportunity, through the National Governors Association, as you know, as a bipartisan organization of states and governors from Republican and Democrat, and we have one independent -- maybe two independents, I think we found out today -- and again, the opportunity to discuss significant issues whether it's health care, whether it's homeland security, economic development, education.
The federal-state partnership in relations that we hope to foster and even improve has been a hot topic of discussion at this gathering. We believe as states that we really are the laboratories of democracy, that we, in fact, are having innovation and creativity that's taking place in solving people’s problems, and thereby, improving people’s lives. And so we want to make sure that we foster as a bipartisan organization the opportunity to work in concert, in a complementary fashion, with our Congress and certainly with the White House.
And that's been our efforts. And I just would like to highlight as we are looking at states to see the successes that they are having. If you look at Mississippi, for example, is leading the way on criminal justice reform, doing some things to help with nonviolent offenders to address the underlying problems of their criminal behavior, which may be substance abuse, mental health problems -- and addressing those to help eliminate some of the criminal behavior and help them transform and transition back into society.
Alabama has recently had remarkable progress on health care reform, where they’re rewarding providers for quality health outcomes instead of just a traditional fee-for service. So we pay the doctors, but we want you to produce a better outcome for the same amount of money, rather than constantly fee-for-service where it's repetitive and becomes more expensive.
New York is partnering with industry to provide college courses and immediate career opportunities. They partner with IBM, for example, their P-TECH school in Manhattan, where people go to school there for five or six years, graduate not only with a high school diploma but with an associate degree, and then are given a job in the private sector. Again, their success ratio is great, and again, a new, innovative way to help educate particularly at-risk youth.
Governor McAuliffe, from the Commonwealth of Virginia, again, is doing some wonderfully good things on cybersecurity, kind of the new frontier that we in states are facing, as is the folks here in Washington, D.C. But as any good governor would, he’s doing things that are important to his state, and he has more cybersecurity entrepreneurs and entities in Virginia than anyplace east of the Rocky Mountains. And again, that legislation is helping to protect individual’s security and identity, as well as protecting the security. So, again, a great example of innovation taking place.
And let me just mention last, my own home state of Utah. Again, we are leading out in many areas. Our economy is healthy, and nine out of the last 12 months, our economy has led the nation, based on the Department of Labor statistics, of private growth creation in America today.
It's not lost on me why people call. That's the benefit of this organization, is we share best practices; we learn from each other.
One of the calls I've received from many governors is how were you able to thread the needle when it came to LGBT rights and religious freedom rights in a very red, conservative state, a very religious state, and still be able to find resolution to that difficult issue. It was not easy, but we brought people together and we were able to, in fact, have success in protecting LGBT rights, but also religious rights in the state of Utah.
I'll just finish with that, saying if we can do that in Utah, we can do it across America; We can do it in our respective states. And we can hopefully have the states held up as examples of bipartisan collaboration effort where we find common sense really is the key issue, and get some things done.
And our initiative this year, Governor McAuliffe and mine, is to highlight the successes of the states. We'll have a compilation at our summer meetings in Iowa, where we’ll, in fact, highlight two or three of the great successes of all the states and our five territories, and show to the American public that the states really are laboratories of democracy. We’re finding solutions to people’s problems and improving people’s lives.
So we’re honored to be with you today, and thank you very much for attending. Turn the time over to my vice chair, Terry McAuliffe.
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Governor Herbert, thank you. It’s an honor to be with you today. As you know, we just spent the last hour, hour and a half with the President of the United States, talking about the issues that are important to the governors. We all come from different backgrounds, we come from different political parties, but what unites us is we talked to the President about our issues of national security -- how do we keep our respective states -- make sure they’re safe, keeping our communities safe; in addition, growing our economies. And that’s something the President has been involved in since day one, since he became President of the United States.
In Virginia, our economy -- very strong today. I just announced 3,856,100 workers -- more than any time in our history. We just announced the largest budget surplus in Virginia history. We’re strong. We’re working together.
I do want to thank the administration -- we had four great meetings here. We met with the team about six weeks ago to plan this meeting. I’ve got to say on behalf of all the governors, thank the administration. They gave us, at the FBI the other day, a secure briefing, something we had not had before, on the issues of cybersecurity. We talked a lot with different administration officials about refugee settlement and other issues, and spent a tremendous amount of time on trade and those other issues.
So it’s been a very, very productive meeting, and I do want thank the administration. All of us governors are working together. We have one common goal -- how do we grow our economies; how do we keep our communities safe. That is not a partisan political issue, it’s what we were elected to do as governors. We came to our respective jobs to get things done. That’s what we’re doing. We don’t have the luxury of kicking the can down the road. We don’t have filibusters and other things that may go on in Washington. We have to make decisions every single day.
Governor Herbert and I have also met with the leadership of the House and the Senate to continually convey to them that inaction in Congress causes us tremendous problems. I do want to commend the Congress for pushing sequestration off for two years. I want to commend the Congress now for getting a bipartisan -- transportation so that we can now make decisions in our respective states going forward.
But we have to work together. We are in a global economy, as I mentioned to the President today, and we need to continue to work on these trade projects to grow and increase our economic activity in our respective states. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Governor.
Let’s move it around here. Gregory, you want to kick us off?
Q Thanks, Governors. Governor McAuliffe, you just mentioned the refugee issue. That was a big issue for a lot of governors a few months ago. Has the communication improved? Are you satisfied with the vetting process? Are you satisfied with the information you’re getting from DHS and from the White House?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Well, they sent three administration officials over to meet with us the other day in a closed, governors-only session. Lot of issues were raised. We’re continuing to have the dialogue, and they promised they would get back to us with additional information as we go forward.
Different states -- and as Gary and I talked about -- we at the NGA have to take better responsibility as well. In Virginia, as you know, we’re very happy with how we are dealing with this issue. Once a refugee arrives in the Commonwealth of Virginia, working through our state employee with the federal funds, we know who’s in our state. But I think other states are confused about the process to go through, so I think NGA, working with the administration, we can get everybody in a place that satisfies everyone.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: And let me just echo that, if I could, because part of the challenge we face is making sure we have the appropriate information and have the appropriate policy in place. We understand as governors one of our first responsibilities is the public safety of the people within the state that we represent. So I appreciate the fact the administration has provided opportunities for us to access better information, to help answer some questions and maybe find solutions to some misunderstandings and apprehensions that are out there.
We still have work to do. And so we have an opportunity I think to build upon what we learned this past weekend, and it resolves some of the questions and concerns we have when it comes to the public safety aspect.
Q On that same subject, the President mentioned gun control today in his remarks, and I mean, we’re a day after another shooting rampage, something that’s affected so many states. So how big a topic is that in the discussions? And do you think there’s some appetite growing for change, and can we expect to see more among states in the next year?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: I can just speak to Virginia. As you probably have read, we, for the first time now in 23 years, just passed significant gun safety legislation. It was done in a bipartisan way. The two bills that were passed were two bills that I ran for governor on, making sure, number one, that we now have state police at every gun show in Virginia. Those that don’t have a federal license, as you know, beforehand, were not allowed to do background checks. Now, everybody will have access to a background check who wants to get one at a gun show. We have many gun shows in Virginia.
In addition, we have protective orders in Virginia. Under current law, if you are under a protective order, you cannot purchase a gun or transport a gun. We have changed the law there because it doesn’t make sense. You could go out and possess a gun, but if you can’t buy one, you can’t transport one, why should you possibly be able to possess one? We are changing that. It is now -- will be as soon as I sign the bill -- it’s now passed -- it will be a class-six felony for you within 24 hours not to hand that weapon over.
So we have made progress. This is bipartisan. Every state is different. It’s unique in Virginia. As you know, we are the home of the NRA. But this was worked out in a bipartisan way. And when I made this announcement I stood with Democrats and Republicans.
And at the end of the day, I made the decision on this particular action, it keeps our communities safer. And I stood with the head of the state police, the head of our Sheriffs’ and Chiefs of Police Associations, who stood with me to say the actions, Governor, that you are taking with the legislature, is going to make Virginia safer. It is a key, top issue for every governor in America.
Q You said at the beginning of the briefing that Mississippi was a great example. What is the common thread among the states when it comes to criminal justice? And listening to what the President just said, it’s a heart issue in a lot of ways, not just legislative. So how will states in the next year merge this before this President leaves office? And this is, I guess, is a legacy piece for him.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Well, from my perspective, states ought to be leading out. We ought not to be waiting for Washington, D.C. and Congress or the President to do things. We have our own unique situations as states.
In Utah and I think other states, too -- we mentioned Mississippi -- we are leading out on criminal justice reform with the intent of understanding what is the underlying cause of the problem; what is causing the criminal element to occur and the crime to be a result?
And we find that there’s a lot of things that are underlying that. And some of it has been substance abuse, alcohol abuse, mental health problems. And so we are trying to address by creating, as we’ve done in Utah, mental health courts and drug courts. We have a significant campaign for eliminating underage drinking. We find that if people don't start drinking until they're adults, chances are they will not be abusing alcohol when they're adults.
We also have not only education, but opportunities for them to, in fact, have learning and awareness of the health conditions. And so part of our curriculum in schools is part of this awareness for our young people so that they grow up with those good principles and values which will help lead to a productive life and get a good job.
And so, again, I think all states are addressing this in their own unique way. I think it’s top of mind for most of the states, and we see the Congress now following. So I think in a collaborative effort we can, in fact, do better when it comes to, in fact, criminal justice reform and making lives better, to illuminate the “ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure” approach that the states are taking.
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: And, April, it’s a good question. I also want to address juvenile justice reform, something we're doing -- I just put in my budget, in Virginia. In Virginia, today we have two gigantic, concrete structures that should house mass murderers. Instead, they're housing 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds. I’ve toured both facilities, proud to be the first governor to visit both facilities. We spend $186,000 on a juvenile who goes through the system; 80 percent of these juveniles are re-arrested in three years -- 80. You cannot tell me that this system is working.
So I proposed to shut those facilities down, to have smaller centers closer to the communities, where we actually have workforce training inside so that when someone gets out, a juvenile, there is a skill there so they can move into the workforce, get them closer to their families. Because, clearly, as a governor, to spend that money and have 80 percent rearrested in three years, the system does not work.
And I’ve spoken to the Attorney General -- and I do want to thank the President, who had the Attorney General address us before the President came in today -- on how we can better collaborate.
Q Governor, the President in his opening remarks to you mentioned Zika and fighting disease. Are you concerned about the funding issue there? Did he talk at all about plans to get that funding through? And are you working at all as governors to press Congress to pass it?
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Well, again, states ought not to be waiting for Congress to act. Sometimes that's a long wait. And we understand the budgetary concerns and where does the money come from. But at least in Utah through our Department of Health, we understand the importance of the health, safety, and welfare of our population. So our Department of Health is already addressing the Zika issue and concern.
What we’ll be doing is probably appropriating money out of our own legislative session. If we can do that with what comes out of Congress, with the Department of Health, but our own health department, headed up by Dr. Joe Minor, will be out there making sure that we have awareness and we are there to provide help as we’ve done with other of these kinds of issues that have come from time to time. So as a state -- and I think most states are saying what can we do to get ready -- we’ll work with the Congress, but we cannot wait and hope that something happens there.
Q Are you frustrated about that?
GOVERNOR HERBERT: No. I think that, again, what we’ve heard today from Sylvia Burwell and Health and Human Services, that they are acutely aware of the problem and are trying to push information out to the states, which will help us in our own responsibilities. There’s always a matter of resources and money, and so that will be worked out. But I expect that we’re going to be ready. Again, the concern is this summer -- people are outdoors, and this certain type of mosquito, it seems to be centered in most of the southern part of our country. But again, states can’t wait. We are a little more nimble, and we have a responsibility to be out there and protect the public safety and health.
MR. EARNEST: Kathleen.
Q Governor Herbert, I wanted to ask you -- the President made a joke -- I think it was a joke -- when he opened his remarks, suggesting that the governors might be sort of sympathetic to his predicament on the Supreme Court nomination, that you, too, are responsible for nominating judges, maybe even in an election year. I’m just wondering if you -- what you think of that issue as an executive.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Well, I can tell you, as an executive who has now appointed more than half of the judges in the state of Utah on the state bench, I understand how significantly important that responsibility is. At the state level, it’s probably not talked about as much as it is on the federal level, but I’ve appointed, of our five members of the [state] supreme court, three of them.
And so the vetting process, getting good people to apply, and vetted appropriately, and put good people, men and women on the bench is a significantly important issue for governors. So we can relate to that.
I think that was what he said. We can relate to the President on a lot of things. The executive branch of the states are very similar to the executive branch of the nation. We have frustration with our own legislative branch. He has frustration with his legislative branch -- the challenge of getting things done and how do you balance the budget and prioritize correctly. Those are concerns and situations that we can, in fact, relate to -- Democrats and Republicans alike.
There’s a process in place for the Supreme Court appointment, and I expect that process will go forward.
MR. EARNEST: Angela.
Q Governor McAuliffe, you’ve been supportive of the President’s trade agenda. You mentioned it here. A year ago, you singled out the tobacco carve-out as a problem in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What’s changed in your thinking in the past year on that? And how do you expect the governors to work with the administration the rest of this year to try to get that passed?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Well, I’ve always been supportive of the trade package. When it was unveiled, I went on a conference call with Ambassador Froman and Secretary Pritzker. But with any proposed legislation, there’s going to be issues that we may have. We did have an issue with a Virginia-specific related company. We were not successful in negotiating what we wanted, but I have to look at the total package. I don’t always get everything I want, but I have been very supportive on the trade package.
I’m a governor; I have the deepest port on the entire East Coast. Right now, when the Post-Panamax ships come through the Panama Canal in June, there’s only one port they can come to -- they can come to the port that we have in Norfolk. So trade is very important.
I was probably the most-traveled governor last year, internationally. I go where the customers are -- 95 percent of the world’s customers live outside the United States of America; 81 percent of the economic growth over the next five years is projected to be outside the United States of America. We can’t grow our economy unless we’re doing trade and growing our international trade. And that’s why I’ve been supportive of this.
I’ve just been to China twice, Japan, Korea, seven European nations. I just went to the Middle East, and January 2nd, I went to Cuba -- had some significant projects that we were able to announce in Cuba. That’s how you grow your economy. And where I may have specific issues on parts of the legislation -- but I’ve got to look at it in totality, and I support it, and I’ve been very supportive of it.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Can I just add. too -- states really are at the forefront when it comes to economic development. And clearly, as we now find ourselves in a global marketplace, international trade is of significant importance to the states. And I’m in a state that has taken advantage of that opportunity. We’ve had international trade grow faster probably in Utah than any state in America over the last five or six years. We’re uniquely suited for that. We speak 130 languages in Utah, so we’ve very bilingual and speak the world’s languages.
And again, we recognize, as Terry has mentioned, that 95 percent of the customers live outside the borders. Our own Senator, Orrin Hatch, has helped to lead the charge on this trade agreement. The devil is in the details. I expect that they’ll work out some of those and resolves some of the differences and have compromise. But clearly, we need to have international trade opportunities for us to have a healthy economy here at home.
Q Governor Herbert, I wanted to hear your answer on the gun question. And did you agree with the President’s call this morning for more legislation, and do you think there is consensus among Republican governors on that issue?
GOVERNOR HERBERT: What I agree with is what Governor McAuliffe said, and that is that it’s a state issue. And the states have different perspective. We have different cultures and different politics. We see it in the West a little bit different than some see it maybe in the East.
But that being said, I certainly believe in background checks. We need to make sure that those people who probably are not fit to be carrying a gun or a weapon ought to be restricted where -- that’s because of mental health concerns, background checks. We have a very significant concealed weapon permit process in the state of Utah, where those background checks can be received and done. We have reciprocity with about 31 other states with our concealed weapon permit that we have.
So, again, we want to make sure that the bad guys don’t have access to guns but the good guys do. And so it will be different. It’s something we’ve not addressed as an issue with the NGA, and something maybe we should address. But I think we’ll find there’s significant differences in the different states. We’re a very strong Second Amendment supporter in Utah.
MR. EARNEST: Kevin.
Q Thanks, Josh. Question for both of the Governors on infrastructure. We read the Economic Report today, and the advisers talked about the necessity for expanding infrastructure to put people to work in broad terms, but in particular men. The workforce participation for men has been on the decline for several decades. I’m curious if you feel like you’re getting the support you need from the administration in terms of infrastructure expansion. And are you doing all you can do to enhance to expand your own infrastructure to put more people both in Utah and Virginia to work?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: In Virginia, I can tell you, we’re in a much better place today because we finally have a transportation bill that will take us forward for the next five years. I was very vocal, very critical of the Congress’s inability to be able to pass that particular piece of legislation because it was crippling to us at the state level. You can’t build roads, you can’t build for the future if you don’t know funding is going to be there for successive years. Now we have that.
Just in Virginia, for those who live in northern Virginia, we have just had another historic agreement for the first time in 30 years -- we are widening lanes both inside and outside the Beltway. This has been a very tough issue for over 30 years. I negotiated it out in a bipartisan way. We’ve just announced we’re adding eight lanes on 395 all the way up to the district line. Two miles south we’re going to go on 95 to get around that problem we had at the Garrisonville exit. We’re adding lanes on 64 from 295 in Richmond all the way to Hampton Roads. So we are turbocharging our infrastructure.
But it’s a very good question. We are just nipping at really what needs to be a much bigger, broader -- and we as a nation need to do so much more on infrastructure. Our roads, our rail, our electric utility, our electric grid in this country are in desperate shape. And we have bridges -- thousands and thousands of bridges that are structurally deficient. So we’re making progress with the money we have today, but we need to do a lot more in this nation. And Congress needs to move swifter on this to give us the tools to rebuild the aging infrastructure in this country if you want us to compete on a global economy -- and our ports.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Let me just echo a little bit of what Terry has said. A good Republican, President Eisenhower, in the ‘50s, had the wisdom of putting together the Interstate program, which has allowed us to connect the states an increase commerce opportunities, and enhance -- have a better economy because of that vision. The states are doing the same thing -- or should be doing the same thing at their own local levels.
And it’s whether the chicken comes before the egg, I guess, on this thing. We’ve tried to reflect the demands of the marketplace. We don’t build roads just because we think that’s some kind of economic stimulus. We build roads because that’s what’s needed in the demands of the marketplace for commerce. And that’s a wise investment of the taxpayers’ dollars because now you’re getting a return that the marketplace wants. So we don’t want to artificially stimulate by putting money in there just to build a road for building a road’s sake. It’s a matter of what does the market demand need.
We’ve met with our business community -- I meet with our CEOs every quarter in different sectors of our economy. And one of the things that’s become loud and clear in a very fast-growing state like Utah -- which is about the fifth-fastest-growing state in America -- our infrastructure needs are becoming acute. So not only building capacity, but also maintaining what we already have in our roads and our bridges. And for Utah, another uniqueness is that we live in an arid state, so water is a big infrastructure need for us, too, to accommodate the demands of the marketplace.
So states are all unique in what we do. And we need to find the infrastructure needs we have and be proactive in doing that. I’m a little reluctant to send all the money to Washington then have it sent back to me. Sometimes we get too many strings attached to it when it comes back that way, as opposed to just keeping the money at home and doing what we need to do with our infrastructure needs on a local level.
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Let me just mention sequestration for a second, too, because this has caused Virginia a lot of problems. And I do want to thank Congress -- this was a piece of legislation that was so onerous that it would never pass. Well guess what -- it passed. And it has created such problems at the state level.
I can tell you, in Virginia we are the number-one recipient of Department of Defense dollars of all 50 states -- 27 military installations, the largest naval base in the world, the Pentagon, CIA, Quantico, Langley Air Force Base, Oceana -- all in Virginia. And the indecision that went around that and Congress’s inability for several years to figure out what they’re going to do has been crippling to the northern Virginia economy.
I commend the Congress -- they’ve pushed it off for two years. But you know as well as I do, the percent of the debt-to-GDP in two years, we are going to be right back in this situation. We have to begin to think long term. We need leadership decisions to grow our country so the economy can grow and everybody can benefit.
MR. EARNEST: Jon Christopher.
Q Thank you. Hopefully, Governor, you’ll find this a timely question. You have been the Democratic National Committee Campaign chair. You were the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. You maintain a close relationship -- I think you know where I’m going -- maintain a close --
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Not sure.
Q Well, we’ll see. You maintain a close relationship with the Clintons. You ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008. If Secretary Clinton becomes the nominee of her party in Philadelphia, would you consider, if she asked -- see, now you know where it’s going -- would you consider, if asked, the spot of Vice President?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Listen, I’ve been friends with the Clintons a long time. I love them dearly. Honestly, I have the greatest job in the United States -- I am the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. So when you go all home tonight and you think about this -- Patrick Henry, our first governor -- “Give me liberty or give me death” -- our second governor, Thomas Jefferson, and now, Terry McAuliffe. (Laughter.) How could you honestly ever -- and I have, as you know, two years to go, I’m just warming up.
We’ve got our economy back. And let me say this -- we have two very qualified United States senators who I think would be spectacular on the ticket, as you know. I’ve never worked for anyone in my life -- I have been an entrepreneur my whole life. I love being Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I can help people.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Let me just add to that, if I could, because -- (laughter) -- you don’t need my endorsement, I’m sure, it won’t help you. But he is the Governor of Virginia, which is a great position to be in, but he is going to be the chairman of the National Governors Association. Why would you want to take a step backwards? (Laughter.)
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: That’s a good point. Thank you for that.
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I’ll give you the last one. (Laughter.)
Q Terry, you’re allowed to say no.
Q How are you, Governor?
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Good. Good to see you again.
Q Good to see you. On a related question, have you and your colleagues taken notice of how poorly governors have done in the campaign so far this year? There’s only one governor left in the race, and governors -- former governors have had to drop out. So what do you make of that?
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Governor McAuliffe and I were not running -- (laughter) --
GOVERNOR MCAULIFFE: Yes, they would have changed it. You know, Mark, listen, every presidential season is different. I think this is a rather unique one, at least on the Republican side, that we’ve seen. You have very qualified people. I always -- I think being a governor is a great training ground to be President. You have to make executive decisions every single day; you cannot pass the buck. Every single day, Gary and I and the other governors, there’s items on our desk, we’ve got to make decisions that particular day. I think that is a great, great training ground.
But every election season has its own individual quirks in what comes up in it, and this one is a unique one.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: Let me just say, too, again, on the Republican side, it was going to be the year of the governors. We had so many that were running. And so it’s a little bit of a surprise --
Q They’re almost all gone, though.
GOVERNOR HERBERT: They almost are all gone. Governor Kasich is still hanging in there, and we’ll see what happens. But, again, I think Governor McAuliffe has said it right. Every election cycle has its own kind of flavor and uniqueness, and this has been unique, certainly on the Republican side, what’s taken place there. But I mean, I support governors. I think governors really do have the right training. And the American people, historically, have supported governors more often than anybody else, either. And, again, that training ground that you give us as a state executive helps you transition to the Oval Office. So who knows what’s going to happen. My crystal ball is as foggy as anybody else’s.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you very much, gentlemen. Nice to see you.
So there’s a little excitement to kick off the briefing today, huh?
Q You let them go when --
MR. EARNEST: He answered the question pretty directly.
Q No, he didn’t. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You had your chance. You asked about criminal justice reform.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sure it will. Other than that, I don’t think I have anything at the top so we can go straight to your questions. Kathleen, do you want to fire away first?
Q Sure. I wanted to start with the ceasefire in Syria. I’m wondering if the President has spoken with Vladimir Putin yet on that topic and if you have any readout from the call.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, President Obama did have an opportunity to telephone President Putin today. That call was placed at President Putin’s request, and it was a call to discuss the ongoing conversations about arriving at an understanding around a cessation of hostilities in Syria. As announced in Munich a little over a week ago, this cessation of hostilities will apply to all parties in Syria except for ISIL, except for al-Nusra and other terrorist groups that have been so designated by the U.N. Security Council.
In the coming days, the United States and our ISSG partners on the ceasefire taskforce will undertake a series of steps to implement the cessation of hostilities by February 27th. And we recognize -- I’m sure all of you do, as well -- that this is going to be difficult to implement. We know that there are a lot of obstacles and there are sure to be some setbacks. After all, for years, we have been trying to reach a diplomatic resolution to the many problems that plague that nation that has broken apart.
But this is a moment of opportunity, and it is the result of tenacious diplomacy on the part of Secretary Kerry, and we are going to continue to try to capitalize on this moment of opportunity. And we are hopeful that all the other signatories to the document will do the same thing. And we’ll proceed from there.
Obviously, Secretary Kerry has put out a statement on this. I would anticipate we’ll have a little bit more of a formal readout of the President’s telephone call with President Putin later today. But that’s the essence of the situation as it stands now.
Q And given how long you’ve been working on this, as you mentioned, the fact that the President is not coming out to formally announce this deal, this major step, as you said, should we that as skepticism?
MR. EARNEST: I think -- let me make a couple of observations. The first is that this is a moment of opportunity and it will require all of the parties who signed on to this document to follow through on the commitments that they have made. The whole world can see in writing what everyone has committed to. And it's time for the signatories to step up and for the bloodshed to come to an end.
I would be quite surprised if there aren't some bumps along the road as we try to implement this agreement. There are going to be some obstacles that we're going to have to work through. There will likely be setbacks. But this is a moment of opportunity, and we are hopeful that all of the parties will capitalize on it.
After all, the stakes here are high. There are millions of innocent lives in Syria that have been negatively affected by the ongoing chaos inside of Syria. And this cessation of hostilities could provide an opportunity for a couple of things. The first is increasing the flow of badly needed humanitarian assistance in Syria. The cessation of hostilities is also envisioned as the first step in trying to -- I guess the next step -- in trying to advance the political track of the ongoing diplomatic discussions about bringing the kind of political change that's long overdue inside of Syria.
So this is the next step in what has been a long-running process. It is a moment of opportunity. And it a situation that the world will be watching most directly to evaluate whether or not those who have signed the agreement live up to the -- those who have signed the understanding live up to the commitments that they’ve made.
Q Okay. If I could just change topics. Briefly, the President, last we saw last Friday, was carrying a big binder of names, apparently. I'm wondering if you have any update on this weekend of research for the nomination -- has he reached out to any potential candidates --
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any presidential conversations with potential candidates. The President did complete some additional telephone calls with members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate, including some who serve on the Judiciary Committee. So that is, again, continued evidence that the President takes quite seriously the responsibility that he has to consult with Congress in this matter.
The President also did spend some time, quite a bit of time, this weekend, reviewing the materials that were compiled by his legal team. I don't have an update for you in terms of the President’s initial impressions here, but it is an indication that this process has begun.
Q Did he have any calls over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have details about individual telephone calls. But I could describe them to you as both Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate, including some who serve on the Judiciary Committee.
Q Josh, China says that what it is doing in the South China Sea is just like what the United States has done with its military in Hawaii. What’s the White House’s response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Our response to this is actually quite direct. There is no other country that has a claim on Hawaii. But yet when you consider the land features in the South China Sea, there are a variety of overlapping territorial claims that a variety of countries have made on those features.
And I recognize that the Chinese government may have a disagreement about the claims that are made by other countries. That's all the more reason that we believe that all of the parties should resolve their differences of opinion about this matter in a way that doesn't provoke a military confrontation.
That is why we have urged all parties who are claimants to these features -- the United States is not among them, but we’ve encouraged all of the countries that do have claims to resolve them in a peaceful, legal manner, and to avoid confrontation and to seek to avoid escalating the tensions in that area of the world.
The stakes for the United States are not insignificant. Again, we don't make claims on the features, but we certainly do want to ensure that the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea is protected. There’s a lot of commerce that flows through that part of the world, and it has a significant impact on the United States if that commerce is somehow disrupted. So that's why we're seeking to reduce tensions and encouraging all sides to come together to resolve their differences in a way that does not provoke a military confrontation.
Q All right. And just to follow up on the Supreme Court, as well. Can you give us a flavor of what the President will be doing this week going forward about -- on the nominating process?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I would expect that the President will continue to review material that's provided by his legal team. You guys had an opportunity to see how thick the binder was, so I’m not sure that he was able to go through all of the material that was provided by his team, but he was able to get through a good portion of it. And I would expect that he’ll continue to receive material over the course of this week.
I do anticipate that the President will place additional phone calls that will be consistent with his commitment to consult with members of the United States Congress about this nomination. Over the course of the week, hopefully we’ll be able to -- we’ll be in a position to provide some greater clarity about who exactly the President has consulted with. But we’ll keep you posted on that moving forward.
MR. EARNEST: Sarah.
Q Thanks, Josh. A Pentagon spokesman said that the Guantanamo closure plan will be coming out tomorrow. I just wanted to hear if there’s anything more you can tell us about that, if you're confident in the political palatability of it in Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not confident in that. In fact, we’ve seen many members of Congress express their opposition to considering the kinds of necessary steps to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. That political opposition stands in stark contrast to the best advice that the Commander-in-Chief receives from our military. It stands in stark contrast to the view of both Democratic and Republican national security experts, including officials who served in senior positions in the Bush administration.
So I don't have a specific promise about the time frame for the plan. But the plan that is put forward is one you’ll have an opportunity to review. And it will make a compelling case that closing the prison is clearly in our national security interest, but also will reflect the need for the United States government to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
There is far too much money that is spent to operate that prison when there are more cost-effective alternatives available. And we certainly would like to work with the Congress to make those alternatives a reality because we know that those alternatives don't weaken our national security. In fact, they strengthen it. They enhance it. And it would take away -- by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- a chief recruiting tool that we know is used by terrorist organizations about the world.
Q Given your pessimism about working -- that you just mentioned about working with Congress, would you say it’s more likely that the President will, indeed, take executive action to close it? And is the legal team, the White House Counsel’s Office looking for ways to do that inside the building?
MR. EARNEST: My pessimism is rooted in the way that Congress has handled this issue over the last seven years. If there’s an opportunity for members of Congress to take a look at the plan with an open mind, I think there’s a compelling case to be made. I think it’s an open question about whether or not members of Congress are actually willing and able to do that. The President has said on a number of occasions that working with Congress to succeed in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is the preferable outcome here. That’s something that we’ve been hard at work on for seven years, and we certainly are committed over the course of this year to continuing to do that work.
Q Will the President walk out the door in 2017 with Guantanamo closed?
MR. EARNEST: That doesn’t have to be the case. There is an opportunity for Congress to step up and to work with the administration to do the right thing for our national security, to do the right thing for U.S. taxpayers and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is there a distinction between closing it and emptying it of detainees, from the administration’s perspective?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if there are no longer detainees that are housed in the prison then we certainly would close the prison. And the President does not believe it’s in our national security interest to transfer any new individuals to the prison. There have not been any individuals that have been transferred to the prison since President Obama was elected.
In fact, we have found more effective ways to bring a significant number of terrorists to justice, and in many cases, we have actually used Article III courts in the United States to bring individuals to justice, and there are convicted terrorists sitting in U.S. prisons right now, even as we speak. That does not pose an undue threat to our national security. In fact, it enhances our national security because it demonstrates that the United States of America is serious about abiding by our values but also taking the necessary steps to bring people to justice. That’s what we’ve done on any number of occasions under President Obama’s leadership, and it’s that spirit that is guiding his effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q And you’re also making the argument it’s an economic argument to close it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a financial one, which is that there is a -- I don’t remember off the top of my head the number -- I think it’s like $4 million a year per Gitmo detainee that is spent to keep those individuals at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We could house those detainees in other facilities, including in the United States, that would be much more cost-effective.
And there are a variety of consequences for continuing to keep this policy in place that also drive up the cost. And this will certainly be part of the case that we’ll be making to the Congress about keeping the American people safe but also more effectively using taxpayer dollars.
Q What’s the latest number of detainees? And do you plan to announce this week another reduction?
MR. EARNEST: The current detainee population at Gitmo is 91. I’ll remind you that at the beginning of the administration, there were 242 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. So we made a lot of progress in reducing the prison population, but there’s obviously some more work to be done here. I don’t have any announcements to make about any upcoming transfers.
Q Okay. Just a couple more. On the High Court, is it possible that the President is in consultation with leaders on Capitol Hill because he is looking for a palatable potential nominee, someone that would be acceptable to them and acceptable to him? Is that the process that’s ongoing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now, we’ve heard from a number of Republicans that they’re not willing to consider anybody that the President puts forward. As I mentioned earlier, that makes it a little difficult to have a particularly detailed conversation about somebody that they are willing to accept when they basically have said that they won’t accept anybody.
I think that underscores the unreasonable position that at least some Republicans in the Senate have taken. It’s inconsistent with their constitutional responsibility and it certainly is inconsistent with the American people’s conception about what it means to do your job. And so I would say that there has not been a lot of detailed discussion at least with those members of Congress who have ruled out consideration of any nominee that the President puts forward.
But, look, we’re interested in keeping the lines of communication open. And the President, in those conversations, has been pretty direct about the fact that he does intend to fulfill his constitutional duty, that he does intend to put someone forward, and he is urging members of Congress to fulfill their constitutional duty to give that person a fair hearing and a timely yes or no vote. The President reiterated in those conversations his commitment to nominating somebody who has indisputable credentials and qualifications, and he is confident that the individual that he puts forward is somebody that can serve the United States of America with honor and distinction in a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
But, look, the kinds of conversations that the President has had over the last 72 hours or so are just the first conversations, and I certainly wouldn't rule out additional conversations. And those conversations would probably be more fruitful if there were members of Congress who are willing to move off their position of suggesting that they won’t consider anyone.
Q Last one. The Economic Report, a little glowing, I think. At least broadly speaking, they seem rather pleased with how the economy is going. And yet there seems to be a disconnect from a lot of voters who feel like the economy isn’t working for them. Can you explain that disconnect? And do you accept the criticism that while there are a number of metrics that do point to an improving economy, it’s not exactly improving for everyone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, it’s just not the Economic Report of the President that indicates the strength and robust nature of the economy. I think you just heard from the Governor of Virginia and the Governor of Utah that they’re pretty enthusiastic about the strength of the economy in their states, too. So it’s not just a matter of taking the White House’s word for it. There’s a story to tell all across the country about the strength of our economy.
I think one of the reasons that there still is some work to be done is in the area of trying to put upward pressure on wages. Wages have not been growing as quickly as our economists would have expected. They certainly haven’t grown as quickly as the President would have hoped.
We have seen, however, over the last six months a noticeable increase in the pace of wage growth -- that the wage growth over the course of the last six months is faster than at any time in the last seven or eight years. That’s a positive sign that wage growth may be increasing, and I think that certainly would address many of the concerns that are out there.
The other threat -- and this is detailed in the Economic Report to the President -- is that some of the economic weakness that we see with our trading partners overseas could have a longer-term impact on the U.S. economy. And we’re concerned about that. These are companies with -- or these are countries overseas with whom we do a lot of business. And if they’re not buying as much from the United States, it’s going to have an impact on our economy back here at home.
That’s why the President has eagerly advocated for a couple of things. One is a focus on those elements of our economy that we can control -- doing things like investing in education and job training to make sure that our workers have the skills they need to compete and win in a 21st century global economy. We also need to be looking for opportunities to deepen our economic relationships with those countries that are demonstrating some economic dynamism. And that’s one of the benefits associated with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement -- that many of the countries that are signatories to that agreement have some of the most dynamic economies in the world. So if we can deepen our relationship and improve our ability to do business in those countries, we can compensate for some weakness in some other countries. But, obviously, this is something that we’ll be watching closely in the months ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just a question on Brexit. Does the United States have a position on what’s going on with the vote currently? And secondly, if the U.K. does leave Europe, is there concern about the impact on American businesses?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jessica, we’re obviously aware that Prime Minister Cameron has indicated that June 23rd will be the day that the British people have an opportunity to weigh in on their continued membership in the EU. As you’ve heard me say before, and as the President himself has said, the United States benefits from having a strong UK in the European Union. And the European Union continues to be a critical global partner of the United States on a variety of issues, both economic but also some national security issues, too.
You’ll recall that the EU Foreign Minister played a critically important role in completing the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That kind of cooperation is valuable, and it’s even more valuable to us when we have an outward-looking EU that has the UK as a member. So we’ve been pretty clear about what the United States equities are, but obviously the British people will have an opportunity to weigh in here.
Q Josh, the Governors made reference earlier to a meeting they had a couple days ago when they were going over the Syrian refugee plan, and there were still obviously lingering concerns among some of the governors about the plan. Can you describe in any more detail what the administration’s efforts are to reassure them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dave, we’ll try to get you some more specific information on the meeting. I didn’t attend it. What I can tell you that the administration is committed to doing is to working closely with governors and the non-governmental organizations in their states who are chiefly responsible for resettling refugees that are fleeing violence in other countries.
Obviously, refugees who enter the United States and enter any of our 50 states undergo the most rigorous screening of any individual that attempts to enter the United States that’s not a citizen. And in many cases, this involves two years of work to take a look at somebody’s background, to conduct in-person interviews, to collect biometric information to make sure that these individuals are vetted before they enter into the United States. And then, what often happens is they are paired up with faith-based organizations that have played a really important role in helping these new arrivals to the United States get their feet on the ground and get established in their community.
And in some ways, this -- the President made a reference to this, actually, in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he talked about this is some of the really important work that faith-based organizations across the country do every day. And it doesn’t often get noticed, but it certainly contributes to the strength of our country. It certainly is the way that the United States lives up to the kinds of values that we advocate for around the world. And it’s the reason that the United States can be in a position to say that we actually take in more refugees to the United States through the established U.N. process than all the other countries in the world combined. And that’s just another way that the United States demonstrates our exceptionalism and the kind of values that make our country great.
Q Looking at the President’s big binder before the weekend, it seemed like it might have been divided into nine sections or so. (Laughter.) Using a special, space-age lens we’ve determined --
MR. EARNEST: That is quite a lens on that camera. (Laughter.)
Q No, actually it was kind of obvious. So would you say that that is an accurate representation of how many names might have been in there?
MR. EARNEST: That’s good detective work. What I would say is I would caution you against leaping to that conclusion, though, simply because I’m not prepared to tell you that right now the President has a final list, so it certainly is possible that there are additional names that could be added to the list.
I can’t confirm for you that the list is at nine right now. I would just say that the President and his team are still evaluating potential candidates and that that work will continue.
Q Okay. And is there a sort of time frame at which you would like to have a list that would then be narrowed down? I mean, if you’re looking at a nominee potentially in a month from when this started, could we expect that you would have a list narrowed by this week or next week? Could you ballpark it then?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t set a time frame for it. As the President observed, there’s ample time for us to get this done. There’s still 11 months left in the President’s term here, which should provide us ample time for the President to fulfill his constitutional responsibility, and ample time for the Congress to fulfill their constitutional responsibility, and to prevent something that is unprecedented in modern times, which is for a Supreme Court vacancy to linger and have an impact on two different Supreme Court terms.
So while there is plenty of time to do this work, the President and his team are moving expeditiously to nominate someone and put someone forward so that Congress can fulfill their responsibility. I think the reason that we have said that there’s ample time is it means that this is not a process that has to be rushed. But I think everybody understands that there’s a sense of urgency in putting forward a nominee.
Q And it seems like Republicans in the Senate are pretty hardline on not wanting to take this on right now. So do you expect the outreach to have an effect? I mean, what’s kind of the next step in that outreach? Are you going to have face-to-face meetings? Are people going to go to the Hill from the White House? And really, what’s your expectation from those meetings, given the climate right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the climate -- at least if you’re evaluating the public comments of Republican senators, the climate is pretty murky. I think it depends not on the day you ask, but on the hour you ask, in terms of their openness to considering the President’s nominee. And there certainly have been some very conservative -- self-described conservative Republicans who have indicated that they believe that Congress should do its job.
So the goal of the consultation, again, is part of the President fulfilling his constitutional responsibility. The President is committed to engaging with Congress and he recognizes that it will be incumbent upon him to put forward a nominee that can be approved by a Republican Senate. The Republicans are in the majority. We’re aware of that, believe me. The good news is that the two previous Supreme Court nominees that the President has put forward, even when Democrats were in the majority, they got Republican votes. Both Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan got Republican support. So it would be rather unusual, in fact, for the President to put forward somebody that he didn’t expect Republicans could support.
Now, I’ll just say the thing that I said before. The Constitution doesn’t suggest that senators should only support someone that they themselves would have nominated. That’s not the process. The President of the United States nominates someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And the Senate’s role is to offer their advice and consent about whether or not that individual can serve honorably in a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
And again, certainly Justices Sotomayor and Kagan are off to a good start in doing that. And we’re confident that the nominee that the President puts forward is somebody that could also fit that description.
Q Josh, couple of questions about Asia. I wanted to follow up on Jeff’s question on the South China Sea. The CSIS think tank has new images that seem to show a powerful radar being installed on one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. And this comes just a few days after evidence that China was maybe installing missiles on another set of islands in the same area.
The administration has done quite a bit, including last week, with the Southeast Asian nations, to send a signal to China to stop this -- and new partnerships with the Philippines -- has the administration concluded that China is just not listening to these warnings from the U.S.? And if so, would that mean that you’ll have to take more dramatic steps than you already have, which has included even a sail-by by U.S. naval vessels in the past? I mean, is that something -- you’re going to have to do something much stronger to get their attention?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to continue to evaluate the situation in the South China Sea. And our hope is that tensions actually in that part of the world can be reduced, and they can be reduced if all of the claimants to the land features in the South China Sea make the same kind of commitment that we saw from the leaders of ASEAN in California just last week.
In the context of the summit, the leaders of ASEAN committed to not building up a military presence on those features that are the subject of competing claims. And that is a responsible way to resolve differences of opinion over those features, and we certainly would urge the Chinese and every other country that has a competing claim here to abide by that standard.
Q You had the Chinese President here last fall. He stood in the Rose Garden and said they weren’t going to militarize these islands. I mean, do you feel that you see any evidence of that pledge being abided by? Or do you see the opposite?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to tell. It’s hard to evaluate these things sort of on a day-by-day or even week-by-week basis. But certainly, those kinds of comments that you heard from the Chinese leader are an indication that they are certainly giving this some thought. They're also well aware of the view that is expressed not just by the United States but by other countries in Southeast Asia, by their neighbors, ostensibly.
So the United States is interested in continuing to try to facilitate the kind of de-escalation and diplomatic resolution of these differences that is clearly within the interests of everybody involved, but also clearly within the interests of the United States both from a national security perspective that you mentioned, but also in terms of the economic perspective that I discussed earlier. The South China Sea continues to be an area where a lot of commerce is shipped. And it would have an impact on the U.S. economy if that flow of commerce is disrupted by ongoing tensions in that part of the world.
Q On another topic in Asia, the Wall Street Journal reported last night and today that the United States had had some sort of level of discussion with North Korea through the U.N. about potentially reopening peace discussions. And in that story, it talked about one of the conditions would be that they would have to talk -- North Korea would have to sort of talk about the nuclear program as one of the conditions, but that wouldn’t be mandated ahead of time that they would agree to dismantle the program. Would you comment on that? How serious were these discussions? And was that a shift in the administration’s sort of thinking on North Korea? Did you feel that there was an opportunity there? Or was this sort of overblown?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that -- let me just acknowledge I’m probably going to talk about this a little bit more than I otherwise would have. You wouldn’t expect that secret diplomatic discussions would be discussed publicly. But I will do so to help you understand that those discussions were entirely consistent with the longstanding policy that the Obama administration has put forward.
There was interest expressed by the North Koreans in discussing a peace treaty. We considered their proposal, but also made clear that denuclearization had to be part of any discussion. And the truth is the North Koreans rejected that response. So as long as there is an insistence on the part of the North Koreans to a nuclear stockpile, it’s going to be very difficult for us to resolve our differences.
And the reason for that is not just because of the preferences of the United States, the reason for that is because of the view expressed by our allies -- both South Korea and Japan -- but also because of the comments of people like the leader of China. President Xi made clear that the Chinese government would not tolerate a nuclearized Korean Peninsula; and that de-nuclearization is a goal shared not just by the United States and our allies, but by the players throughout the region.
But North Korea’s insistence on preserving their nuclear stockpile and attempting to develop it further is what has led to their extreme isolation. And their continued provocative actions including additional nuclear tests or additional launches to test missile technology will only lead to further steps that isolate them further. And that will include unilateral steps by the United States. You saw that the United States Congress has passed legislation to impose additional sanctions against North Korea. And there are ongoing discussions at the U.N. among the United States and China and other players in the region about imposing additional costs on the North Koreans for their continued provocative acts.
Q Can you tell me is this initiated discussion by North Korea through the U.N. something that happened before in any way under this current leader, Kim Jong-un, and in a similar fashion in any way over the last two or three years? Or was this something that came out of the blue? What precipitated it?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’ll see if we can get you some additional information about what led to these talks, if anything. But that may be a little harder to describe to you, but let me take a look and see if there’s additional information we can provide.
Q So the President has said a couple times that he strongly doubts that Donald Trump will be President at this time next year. After South Carolina over the weekend, did the President have any further reaction to Trump’s candidacy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has pointedly avoided handicapping the Republican race. I don't think he’s willing to make any predictions about who the Republican nominee may be. But he certainly stands by his conviction about Mr. Trump’s chances in a general election.
Q Did he have any reaction to Jeb Bush dropping out of the race at all?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q And also, just going back to the Supreme Court nominees and just working through the binder, I know you can't really talk about the number -- nine to 10, or however close we are -- but can you characterize at least that the slate of potential candidates -- what sort of positions they hold, whether they're senators, any lawmakers, elected officials, judges, Vice President, anything like that? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's a good question. It’s a risky proposition for me to begin to describe even generally the kinds of qualifications of individuals that the President may be considering just because we want to try to protect the President’s ability to make this process without -- at least without undue public influence. But certainly the President will be mindful of the promise that he has made to appoint somebody with indisputable qualifications, and somebody who he continues to be confident can serve the American people at the Supreme Court with distinction.
And I think the one thing I would say is this, is that there are a variety of ways that you can demonstrate that capacity, and it doesn't necessarily mean being a judge. And again, that was true with Justice Kagan, somebody who had represented the American people before the Supreme Court as Solicitor General. She’d also worked in academia and also worked in the Clinton administration. So she demonstrated a variety of skills that made clear she is somebody who has and will continue to serve with distinction on the Supreme Court. And she did that without having a track record as a judge. Now, Justice Sotomayor obviously had a different set of qualifications. And in some ways it’s because of her distinguished service on the bench that she was able to demonstrate that she’d be a good Supreme Court Justice.
So that's why it’s hard for me to describe to you exactly what kind of experience the President is looking for, because the President believes that there are a variety of experiences that you can bring to this job that would demonstrate your capacity to serve the American people with distinction on the Supreme Court.
Q Is it fair, though, then to say that this potential slate does include people that are not part of the judicial branch?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t characterize any further the people who may be under consideration.
Q Thanks. Just following up on that, has the fact that Republicans that they might not even consider the President’s nominee shaped his deliberations so far, or his team’s, in terms of who they're thinking about would be an appropriate nominee? That is to say, if it’s possible that this person won’t even be considered, let alone confirmed, does that then affect his thinking about who he should nominate?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll tell you that it hasn’t thus far and I don't expect that it will. I think the President believes that he has a responsibility, a constitutional duty to appoint the best person in the United States for the job. And that's why he’ll cast a wide net. He’ll consider individuals with a range of experiences. But ultimately, he is focused on setting aside politics, focusing on his responsibility, and appointing the best person for the job.
And we're hopeful that in this way the President can lead by example, and that Congress will do the same -- that they’ll find the courage to set aside politics, to focus on their constitutional responsibility, and give this individual a fair hearing and a timely yes or no vote.
Q So even if that means putting forth someone who might sort of languish out there for weeks or months or maybe until next year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, ultimately, that will be up to the United States Senate. The President’s responsibility is to nominate the best person for the job, and I’m confident that that's what he’ll do.
Q And then just one more on Syria. Last week the outgoing foreign minister of France criticized the President pretty harshly for making the red lines comment and then not going through with airstrikes in 2013. And he’s obviously faced a lot of criticism both here and abroad about his approach to Syria and ambiguity there. I guess the accusation is that it has harmed American credibility, and now we're in a position in Syria where there are no good options and we don't have any credibility left. So I’m just wondering how you respond to that, how you think the President sees that, and whether that is having -- playing a role here in the situation we find ourselves in now where, you said before, you're sort of crossing your fingers that this cessation of hostilities understanding is going to go forward, but you understand that there is a big risk that it won’t be able to be implemented.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, anybody who suggested that there were good options in 2013, or even 2011, for that matter, when it came to resolving the situation inside of Syria I think may not be well acquainted with history.
The fact is that the situation in Syria has been very difficult from the get-go. And what the President has done is to assert American leadership in a way that has enhanced our national security. After all, it’s the President who built and is now leading a 66-member coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. That includes taking military action against leading ISIL targets in Syria. When it comes to the diplomatic track and arriving at the kind of political solution that everyone says will be necessary to resolve the situation inside of Syria, it’s the perseverance and tenacity of the American Secretary of State who continues to push for the kind of opportunity that has now materialized.
So I think at every step of the way, you see the United States leading the effort to try to solve what everybody acknowledges is an unwieldy problem with tragic global consequences. That's the expectation that people in the United States and around the world have for the President of the United States, and those are expectations that this President hasn’t just met, he’s exceeded them.
Q Question on two other issues. One, I was in South Carolina over the weekend, and I heard people say --
MR. EARNEST: Just for vacation? (Laughter.)
Q No, professionally.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, okay.
Q There was something called the presidential contest down there. (Laughter.) Yes, so many of the people that I happen to encounter happen to be African American. They were still saying, we're fired up and ready to go -- something President Obama used, but he’s not on the ballot this time. What is his hope for South Carolina and other states that really showed up for him when it comes to the black vote? Because that's going to be the first state that really has a pressing black vote in this election cycle.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fired up to go --
Q Fired up, ready to go.
MR. EARNEST: Fired up ready to go phrase is one that the President heard for the first time in South Carolina when he was campaigning there in 2007, and it became a rallying cry for his supporters throughout the campaign and even during his reelection campaign. And I think that is a testament to the impact that the people of South Carolina had on this President’s campaign back in 2008.
Those of us who were there on the night of the 2008 primary -- it was in late January during that cycle -- that was a historic night, and it felt like a big night -- that you saw significant turnout from African American voters, and you saw an African American candidate get unexpected support from white voters in South Carolina, even though he was running against then-Senator Clinton, who obviously had a deep history in that state. And people often forget that the other candidate in that race at the time who loomed large was actually born in the state of South Carolina. John Edwards talked a lot about how his ties to that state dated back to his birth. And even in that environment, and even in that crowded field, the fact that President Obama could perform so well there made the primary victory in South Carolina in January of 2008 a memorable night.
One of the reasons that the Democratic National Committee continues to support having the South Carolina primary early in the process is it is an opportunity for the diversity of the Democratic electorate to be on display; that certainly the first two states, in Iowa and New Hampshire, even on the Democratic side are overwhelmingly populated by white voters, but, including Nevada, you get a significant segment of Hispanic voters, and then obviously in South Carolina you have a large group of African American voters. And it’s a way that the DNC can demonstrate a commitment to giving the wide variety of voices in the Democratic Party an early opportunity to weigh in on who the Democratic nominee should be.
So this is an important part of the process, and obviously, Saturday I think will be a similarly important night for the two Democratic candidates.
Q How is he getting the results? I mean, the race is tight, and I’m sure he’s not as interested in this one as he was in his own, but how is he getting his results? How is he getting the results in this? How is he following it?
MR. EARNEST: The President is following the coverage just like all of you are. Obviously, there’s plenty of coverage to see -- all of you are dedicating significant resources to covering that race -- and the President has benefitted from that in the way the rest of us have.
But it’s also not unusual for the President to have other conversations -- whether it’s with David Simas, his political director, or I certainly wouldn’t rule out that even the President might have had a couple of political discussions last night when he was dining with the governors here at the White House. This is a race that has a lot of interest among people who are interested in politics, and the President has variety of opportunities to have those kinds of discussions.
Q All right. And lastly, since our colleague is so great in using a microscopic lens to find those nine tabs, is there diversity amongst those tabs?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not going to characterize the group of individuals that the President is considering, but he did direct his team to cast a wide net. He wants to make sure that we’re choosing the very best person in America to fill this job.
Q Is there a woman in there?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not going to characterize the list, but if you’re casting that wide of a net, it seems hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be a woman included.
Q Is there a minority in there, since the net is broad?
MR. EARNEST: I’m going to stop there. (Laughter.) But again, it’s a wide net.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to try to clarify your answer to Sarah’s question on the Gitmo plan. Is that coming tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I know the Department of Defense has said that, but I don’t have any update for you in terms of -- I don’t have any guidance to share with you in terms of timing. But obviously, the Department of Defense has been working on this plan. They are trying to beat a congressional deadline that’s in place for tomorrow, so -- but they can give you the best assessment of when to expect that plan. The thing that I will tell you is that when that plan is presented to Congress, we’ll make sure that all of you have an opportunity to see it as well.
Q Will we hear the President talk about it at all in his own words?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, it’s too early to say exactly what kinds of comments the President will have when the plan is presented, but we’ll certainly keep you posted.
Q And a new topic for today -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a speech earlier today that he is “sympathetic” -- I think those were his words -- with Apple’s position on whether to allow access to the San Bernardino terrorist’s phone. The President obviously has spent a lot of time courting Silicon Valley in trying to get them to work with the administration on security issues. Now, to have a second company lining up on the other side of the FBI at the moment, is that a concern? Is the President trying to do -- want to try to do more on that front?
MR. EARNEST: Look, we’ve been pretty clear about what our -- I think we’ve actually been quite clear about what our position is here. The administration believes -- and the President has said this personally -- the administration believes the American people benefit from robust encryption that protects their privacy and civil liberties, that, as a policy question, that is a protection that’s worth supporting. At the same time, our law enforcement and national security professionals have an obligation to keep us safe and to do what they can to keep us safe.
And in this situation, as it relates to the phone that was used by the terrorist in San Bernardino, we’re talking about a phone that was owned not by the terrorist, but by the local government. The terrorist is no longer living. And the need to extract as much information as possible to learn as much as we can about that incident is something that our law enforcement officials have concluded is a priority.
So as they carry out this ongoing, independent investigation into this terrorist act, they’re going to do everything they can to keep the American people safe, and learn as much as they can about this incident and this individual to keep us safe. However, they’re also going to follow standard procedure and they’re going to follow the law. That’s how this ended up in the courts in the first place. And it is a judge who evaluated the arguments that were made by Apple and evaluated the arguments that were made by the FBI, and came down in favor of our law enforcement.
And, look, Director Comey I think said this pretty eloquently in a blog that he posted overnight -- that the case that we’re making is not that the FBI should determine what access they should have to that information, but it also shouldn’t be a private sector company that’s trying to sell stuff that decides that question. That’s the reason that we have courts, and that’s the reason that we have a process. And that’s the reason that we have an opportunity for both sides to weigh in in front of a judge to advocate for one side or another.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that the request that the FBI has put forward is one that is quite limited in scope. It doesn’t require Apple to redesign a product or to create some sort of new backdoor. And I think that’s why it is an effective way for the FBI to follow their regular procedure as they conduct this independent investigation, but also stay true to the kinds of principles that the President has discussed publicly about the need for robust encryption methods.
Q Given that he just sent a whole bunch of top administration officials to Silicon Valley to meet with these companies and ask for their help in general around this specific case, is the President frustrated that that’s not turning out the way he probably hoped it would at this moment in this case?
MR. EARNEST: No, because I don’t think this difference of opinion is particularly surprising to anybody who has been covering this issue. I think what we are going to continue to try to do -- and the goal of the meeting, by the way, was one that was focused on trying to ensure more effective cooperation and coordination between social media companies and law enforcement. It didn’t necessarily focus on encryption. There are plenty of other things that social media companies and technology companies can do that don’t undermine in any way, even based on their definition, anybody’s privacy.
These are things like being aware of particular social media platforms that are used to try to recruit potential terrorists. Those technology companies have no interest in their tools being used to recruit terrorists that harm or kill innocent people. That’s an area where we certainly can find common ground with technology companies, and we’re going to continue to work with them to do that. That’s just one example.
This is a template that was followed by law enforcement and technology companies when trying to fight child pornography. So there’s an opportunity for us to try to find some common ground and work together in a way that enhances the safety and security not just of the customers of technology companies but of the American citizens that rightfully expect that their law enforcement professionals are protecting them.
Q And lastly on this, Apple has suggested that it would a good idea to have a congressional group, committee, whatever, take a look at privacy issues when it comes to access to phones like this. Does the White House think that kicking it to Congress to evaluate would be a good idea?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen a clear description of what exactly they have in mind. Again, I’ll just sort of make the observation that I have made in a variety of other settings -- that sending complicated things to Congress is often not the surest way to get a quick answer. In fact, even asking some of the most basic questions of Congress sometimes does not ensure a quick answer.
But, look, there’s also a responsibility that Congress has here to weigh in and to help the American people protect themselves from cyber threats. The President included in his budget a substantial investment in upgrading cybersecurity not just of the government but also for the private sector and for individual citizens.
And again, we saw the Republicans in Congress refuse to even discuss that budget proposal with the President’s budget director. So I don’t know if Apple would receive the same kind of reception on Capitol Hill, but I think it’s a pretty clear indication that Congress is not particularly interested in discussing that issue.
Felicia, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Hi. Recently released emails show Hillary Clinton appeared to be directly involved in the State Department in selecting -- or trying to select the State Department’s Secretary General. Why didn’t the White House put forward the candidate that she and her staff had picked out?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those specific emails. What I can tell you is that the appointment of independent inspectors general is something that this administration has taken quite seriously. And I think we’ve seen at the State Department that they have an Office of the Inspector General that’s been pretty robust and been pretty prolific in terms of making sure that they’re looking out for the interests of the American people and the American taxpayers, and that they’re providing an independent assessment of that. But I don’t have information about that personnel search.
Q Just more generally, does the White House think it’s appropriate that a department head weigh in on the selection of its inspector general? Is that a common practice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I can’t really speak to how that process usually works. I think the first thing I’d point out is it sounds like, based on just what you’ve told me, that the individual that she weighed in in support of is not the person that was selected. Even if it had been, the person would only have been selected by the administration and appointed by the President if there was strong confidence that that individual could effectively do their work independent of the agency, and certainly independent of any sort of outside influence. That’s a requirement for the job, and that certainly has been a requirement for the job as the President has worked to appoint people to fill those kinds of positions.
Q Josh, one thing?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Mark.
Q The Putin phone call was this morning?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it occurred this morning. And, again, that was a call that was placed at President Putin’s request, and it was to discuss this arrangement that’s been finalized for a cessation of hostilities.
Q Do you know how long it lasted?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how long it lasted, but we’ll see if we can get you that information.
Q Okay. Any chance of another binder photo op today? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but we’ll keep you posted. We’ll keep you on standby.
All right, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:35 P.M. EST