Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 3/15/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction and addendum, marked with an asterisk.
1:25 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the tardy start today. I do not have any opening comments, so we can go straight to questions. Darlene, would you like to go first?
Q Sure, thank you. Could you talk a little bit about the reversal on oil drilling on the Atlantic Coast and why the administration or the President is changing their mind on allowing that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the Department of the Interior has spent a great deal of time soliciting input from a variety of interested parties on this. Today’s proposal specifically was informed by more than a million comments. More than I think 23 public meetings were convened in addition to extensive outreach with members of the public, nonprofit organizations, elected officials and other interested parties across the country.
There were a variety of factors that contributed to the decision about the Atlantic. It included conflicts that were raised by the Department of Defense. Obviously, there are some significant military facilities in some portions of the Atlantic Coast where these leases were considered. And the Department of Defense raised concerns about the way those drilling and exploring activities could have an impact on their work in that region of the country. Commercial interests raised similar concerns.
Also factored in was the response from the opposition that existed in many coastal communities who were concerned about these offshore drilling sites. And then finally, there was also an assessment of current energy market dynamics, and that factored into this overall decision, as well.
Obviously, this governs the next five years, so this lease sale has been removed for the 2017-2022 window. And the Department of the Interior has made a decision that is consistent with the policy priorities that the President has outlined, and consistent with the variety of factors that should be considered for a decision like this.
Q Did any one of these pockets of opposition carry more weight with the administration than any of the other? Maybe the Pentagon, for example?
MR. EARNEST: I think we took all of this feedback quite seriously. And obviously, we wanted to ensure that the decision was made reflecting the interests and concerns and priorities that have been laid out by the Department of Defense. But it would be wrong to assume that any one of these was the driving factor. This was a decision that was based on the variety of public comments and the variety of factors that I’ve outlined.
Q What was the President’s reaction to Russia’s decision to start pulling out some of its troops from Syria? And was he caught by surprise by that announcement yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the United States did not have -- let me say it this way. Russia did not give direct advance notice of this decision to the United States. However, as you saw, the President had an opportunity -- it was a previously scheduled telephone call with President Putin. And it was an opportunity for the two leaders to continue their discussions, both about the situation in Syria and about the situation in Ukraine.
And we have long said that our priority in Syria is bringing about the political transition in a country that's long overdue. After all, it’s the political chaos inside of Syria that is the root cause of so many of the problems that we're dealing with right now. And this is everything from the growth of ISIL, to the widespread humanitarian disaster, to even the challenges that many European countries are experiencing in taking in an influx of migrants from that country.
The root cause of all of those significant problems is the political turmoil inside of Syria, and the fact that President Assad has lost legitimacy to lead that country. And in fact, we saw an affirmative statement from the Russians -- not for the first time, but it was notable that they’ve reiterated their commitment again yesterday to redoubling their efforts to work with the international community to advance the political dialogue and to bring about the kind of political changes in Syria that are needed.
Q And the President’s reaction to the announcement? Is that something that he -- a move that he welcomes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s obviously a move that we’ll be watching. The earliest indications are that the Russians are following through. But it’s still too early to determine at this point exactly what impact it will have on the broader situation, and most importantly the continued implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities and the continued pursuit of political talks inside of Syria.
We’ve talked about how the constructive Russian contribution to the political talks was going to be important to their success. And so that's why we, again, made note of the fact that they have indicated publicly -- again, as recently as yesterday -- that they recognize that these political talks and the successful completion of a transition is in the interest of the region and other countries that have interests in the region, like Russia and the United States.
Q What theories -- or does the White House have any idea or theory on why you think Russia made this move at this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would hesitate to speculate about what President Putin’s motivations are. To the extent that he’s willing to discuss them publicly, he’s obviously in the best position to describe them.
You've heard me say for five or six months now that our focus was on the political transition in Syria, and we’d raised concerns about the fact that Russia’s aggressive military intervention would -- could potentially remove the incentive for President Assad to engage constructively in those talks -- or at least his regime, the government to engage in those talks.
And there was always an element of tension in the Russian position as something that we’ve highlighted again before. Russia has been saying for a long time that a political transition was needed. And the Russian military intervention propped up Assad and only made it more difficult for that political resolution to be reached.
So I don't know if that was factoring into this decision or not. But if they continue to follow through, and if they continue to engage constructively in the international effort to bring about those talks and to bring all the parties together to try to facilitate an agreement, then that would be a positive outcome not just for the people of Syria and for countries in the region that have been destabilized by the chaos there, it would also be good news for Russia and the United States.
Q Lastly, why did the President feel that the Friends of Ireland luncheon on Capitol Hill was the place to, again, talk about Donald Trump and violence and vulgarity on the campaign trail? Was he reacting to something specific?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President and many of us here at the White House were struck by how the annual reception that was generally hosted by Speaker Ryan is typically an event that’s characterized by a lot of bipartisan comradery and fellowship. And it’s an annual opportunity for leaders in both parties in Washington to put aside their partisan affiliations and celebrate one part of America that makes us great -- and that is the legacy in this country of immigration and the deep ties that our country has to Ireland.
And after all, Irish immigrants have thrived in America, and that’s a testament to the kind of possibility that exists in America, and it’s certainly what makes our country unique. And the President has long believed that’s an important part of what makes America great. And that is something that is regularly celebrated by Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.
And this kind of comradery and fellowship that is on display at this annual event unfortunately does stand in stark contrast to a lot of the vulgar and divisive rhetoric that we’re seeing on the campaign trail. And the President marked the occasion by pointing that out. And noting his ongoing commitment --regardless of who is responsible or most responsible for the current climate -- the President is committed to redoubling his efforts to ensure that our political disagreements can be debated without demonizing and marginalizing or questioning the very motives of people who just happen to disagree.
And the President did take the advantage, the opportunity today to talk about it. I’m confident it’s not for the last time.
Q Josh, did President Putin in his call with President Obama yesterday offer any assurances about the ability to keep violence contained in Syria despite the Russian withdrawal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the Russians read out their side of the conversation. And if they choose to share more about President Putin’s comments to President Obama, then I’ll let them do that.
But let me try to answer your question this way, though, Jeff, because it’s an important one. There was a lot of skepticism about the international community’s ability to successfully implement a Cessation of Hostilities. And I don’t mean that as some sort of backhanded sleight at the media. I think that I demonstrated some skepticism about how smoothly the Cessation of Hostilities would be implemented. And there have been bumps. There have been some violations that have been reported. The United States has been working with our international partners to investigate and follow up on those violations.
But by and large, the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities, so far at least, has gone somewhat better than expected. We have seen a dramatic reduction in airstrikes against those parties that have signed onto the Cessation of Hostilities. There have been some reports of violations that are related to small-arms fire and some operations that are carried out by tanks and other armored vehicles. We’re concerned about those violations.
But we said all along that the Cessation of Hostilities would hopefully lead to two things. One is allow for aid workers to provide badly needed humanitarian assistance to those communities that have caught in the crossfire for a long time. But the second goal was to try to lower the temperature, so to speak, inside of Syria so that the political dialogue would have more of an opportunity to advance. And we’re testing that proposition right now. The proximity talks that are hosted by the U.N. in Geneva have begun. There are still some additional parties that need to travel to Geneva to make sure that we’ve got everybody there that we need to have a successful round of talks.
But we are seeing some halting progress on the diplomatic track, and we’re encouraged by that. And you’ve heard me say on many previous occasions that Russia’s aggressive military intervention in support of the Assad regime was a hindrance to those talks. The Russians have promised to at least scale back that barrier, if not remove it entirely. And it remains to be seen how and whether they’ll follow through, but it also remains to be seen exactly what impact it will have on the talks themselves.
We are heartened by the fact that the Russians reiterated just yesterday that they support the successful -- that they support progress in these talks, and they are seeking to engage in them constructively and to encourage all of the parties to do so. That obviously is -- again, that’s not something they said for the first time yesterday, but it was notable that they repeated it, because that obviously is consistent with the goals that the United States has articulated.
Q Is the White House -- or does the President believe that you were wrong about Russia’s intentions in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, at this point I don’t think it’s constructive for me to try to spend a whole lot of time assessing their motives. So what we’re focused on is trying to advance these political talks. That’s what the Russians say that they’re interested in. Both the Russian leaders and American leaders, and leaders of a whole bunch of other countries have all acknowledged that advancing those talks is clearly in our collective best interest. So the question now really is, how effectively can the international community coordinate to support these talks? And we’re certainly going to do our part. The Russians have vowed to do theirs; hopefully, they will. And we’ll see what kind of progress we can make.
Q Any Supreme Court updates today, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: I do not have any Supreme Court updates today.
Q And lastly, any reaction from the White House to the selection of a president in Myanmar?
MR. EARNEST: I did get a briefing on this. Obviously, there were elections in Burma, and they did elect a new president. And the United States does congratulate Htin Kyaw on his election to the presidency. His election is yet another important step forward in Burma’s democratic transition. The formation of a democratically elected, civilian-led government, and the peaceful transfer of power mark an extraordinary moment in that country’s history. And we look forward to continuing to cooperate with the people of Burma and with the new government of Burma as it works to make progress on a wide range of issues, including additional democratic reforms.
We’ve acknowledged, and the President has had the opportunity to talk about this when he was in Burma, that there’s no denying the important progress that political reformers in Burma have made. But there are additional steps that we believe they should take, and we’re going to continue to support the Burmese people and the Burmese government as they decide how to implement those additional reforms.
Q Back to the President’s comments on the campaign today. You noted he was inspired by the bipartisan nature of the event, but it also just so happens that there are several high-stakes primaries today. Did that factor at all into the President’s decision to speak out this morning?
MR. EARNEST: No. I feel confident that the President would have -- well, I feel confident in telling you that the President would have made those comments even if the St. Patrick’s Day activities had been held on St. Patrick’s Day. So even if it had been Thursday, I’m confident the President would have been struck by the same inspiration to note that this is an event that is often characterized by a lot of camaraderie and fellowship, and that that stands in pretty stark contrast, unfortunately, to the divisive and vulgar rhetoric that we have seen on the campaign trail of late.
Q And the President also noted that countries around the world are following American politics closely. And I know we’ve talked about this before, but the President today seemed to go a little bit further, suggesting that this corrosive behavior could be tarnishing the “American brand,” as he put it. Is the behavior on the campaign trail hurting U.S. foreign relations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President made this observation because you had the leaders of Ireland in the room as he was making the comments. But I think the President is concerned about the corrosive impact of the tone of the political debate.
I’m not suggesting, and the President has never suggested, that there shouldn’t be a robust debate about who should succeed the President in the Oval Office. There should be an aggressive, vigorous, deeply engaged debate. The President went through that in 2008, and he went through it again in 2012. It is a sign of the strength of our democracy.
But what we’ve been quite disappointed to see is the way that the divisive rhetoric has crept into the debate, because at least some politicians believe that by ginning up and inciting animosity, that they can motivate their supporters. That is not at all consistent with our tradition of civic responsibility in this country. And the President himself has observed that he didn’t have trouble building quite large crowds in communities coast to coast, and he didn't have to resort to belittling people, to suggest that somehow people who are different based on the way they look, or the way they pray, or the way they vote are somehow responsible for the problems plaguing this country.
In fact, the President motivated people by celebrating how much this country has in common, despite our differences. That diversity is a source of strength. The President certainly believes that. That isn’t just a strength of our country. That observation ended up being an important strength of the President’s campaign.
Q One question on Flint. The former EPA official in charge of Flint told Congress today that she doesn't think anyone at the EPA did anything wrong, but that they could have done more. Does the White House agree with that assessment of the EPA’s role in the Flint crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we have -- as it relates to blame, this question of blame, that there are a couple of independent investigations taking a look at the situation and taking a close look at who knew what and when.
And I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on that question. I think what is without a doubt true is that there is an important role for the federal government to play in supporting state and local officials who are primarily responsible for responding to this situation. And I think that's why you have seen the federal government marshal such extensive resources, whether it’s public health expertise, or environmental expertise to better test the water.
We’ve also mobilized significant financial resources to offer expanded health care to citizens in that community that have been affected by this situation. We’ve offered up additional funding to open up Head Start centers and try to provide more services to people in that community who are struggling. And we’re certainly going to continue to look for additional ways that the federal government can help.
I failed to mention that there’s also been an aggressive response on the part of FEMA, who has the kind of logistical expertise that allow them to greatly assist in the distribution of water and filters while state and local officials have been working to clean up the water supply.
Q Thanks. The Irish leader today said that the issue of the U.K.’s referendum on leaving the EU came up during the meeting. Do you have any more details on that? And can you say now whether or not the President will visit the U.K. to make that case?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updated scheduling announcements as it relates to the President’s trip to Europe in April. We’ve acknowledged that he will travel to Germany in late April, but I don’t have any additional information about other stops that he’ll make on the trip. But we’ll keep you updated on that.
I don’t have more detail to share with you about the conversation between the President and the Taoiseach. Obviously, our view of how the United States benefits from a strong British ally as a part of the EU is something that is in our national interest. But we also are quite respectful of the responsibility that the British people have to decide for themselves. And Prime Minister Cameron has committed to giving them that opportunity in late June. And we obviously respect the right of British voters to decide for themselves.
Q Another issue that came up during the meeting was the EU’s position on migrants. And I guess there is going to be a meeting later this week discussing the EU and Turkey and the deal they’re trying to come to. There have been some concerns about human rights and whether or not that deal would comply with international law, the idea of sending back migrants en masse back to Turkey. Does the President share any of those concerns? And can you talk a little bit about if those concerns came up during the discussion today?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there have been reports of discussions among EU nations, and how they can more effectively coordinate with the Turks to address this significant influx of migrants that they’ve been dealing with. I think that we’ve seen -- the predominant response in Europe has been an understanding of the humanity of these, in most cases, Syrians who are fleeing violence in their home country. And we have seen a lot of generosity and acts of human kindness in response.
But what’s also true is that a broader policy response is also required, given the significant consequences this will have for these countries absorbing such a large influx of new arrivals. But at this point, I hesitate to speculate on what sort of agreement would be reached and how that could be judged by the rest of the international community. We’ll let them go ahead and do that work, and then we’ll take a look at what they decide, if anything.
Q And then just one more on the Cuba announcements today. The idea of individualized people-to-people exchanges not done as part of a group -- is the White House confident that people will be able to go to Cuba on their own and set up these people-to-people exchanges and it not become just a tourism trip when they’re not a part of a larger group that will organize, help with language barriers, and make sure that everything is going to comply with the existing embargo?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the Treasury Department will be responsible for the implementation of these regulatory changes. The goal of these changes is pretty clear. We do believe that it will make it easier for Americans who wish to travel to Cuba to do so. Some of the other changes that were announced today will give Cubans easier and more regular access to the U.S. dollar, and more access to U.S. financial institutions, which could have the effect of expanding economic opportunity in Cuba. That obviously is something that the Cuban people have long sought.
It also could apply more pressure to the Cuban government to implement additional reforms to the Cuban economy. All of that would be a good thing, and all of that would be in service of the basic policy goals that we’ve laid out from the beginning. I would just observe that those were also the policy goals under -- that were prioritized by the U.S. government for 50 years under our Cuba embargo and an attempt to isolate the Cuban nation. And they didn't make a lot of progress. And so we are hopeful that these changes will bring about some of the progress and reform that Americans have long sought in Cuba.
But when it comes to implementing the regulations and how people can travel to Cuba and be in compliance with the law, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department for the details of how that can be done.
Q Josh, would you describe the President’s remarks on Capitol Hill today as an attempt to -- an olive branch to broach a divide?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think I would describe it that way. I think the President was pretty direct in noting how concerned he is about the tone and tenor of the debate on the Republican side of the aisle. He’s been quite dismayed that some candidates have sought to target women and minorities and people with disabilities and religious minorities all in an effort to motivate their supporters. The President doesn't agree with that at all.
The President did acknowledge that for those in public life and those of us -- myself included -- who speak frequently in public, that we’ve probably made comments that we regret, some intemperate remarks that in hindsight were not appropriate, or certainly were not up to the standard that we would like to maintain.
And the President acknowledged that he had some of those regrets himself, and that he was going to redouble his own commitment and his own efforts to try to live up to the high standard that the American people should rightly expect of their leaders. And frankly, it’s time for Republican candidates to do the same thing.
I think the other thing that this highlights -- and this is something that I noted yesterday -- it also makes it a little harder to answer the question for leaders in the Republican Party about why they can continue to support somebody who uses this rhetoric not just daily, but multiple times a day when he’s hosting multiple events a day. So that's something that will have to get resolved on the Republican Party, and it will get resolved, as I noted yesterday, when somebody decides to step forward and show some leadership. But that will be for them to decide.
Q But the hate speech, divisive rhetoric, vulgar words, as the President said, that's different than having a few intemperate remarks you regret. What was the President referring to on his own behalf? Was he suggesting that perhaps he’s been too partisan in his own language? What was he referencing when he was thinking about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn't talk to him about these specific remarks, so I don't know exactly what he had in mind. But my guess is his political opponents probably have a couple things right at the top of their mind that they would suggest could be described as intemperate, I guess was the word that the President used. And I think the President would acknowledge that he’s not blameless. That's consistent with what he said in the State of the Union address, as well -- that there is more that he wished that he had succeeded in doing to try to bridge the stark partisan divide in our country.
But I guess the difference here, Margaret, is that at least he’s trying to bridge that partisan divide. And we see some other candidates who are trying -- who have basically leased a backhoe and are seeking to deepen it and exploit it for their own personal political gain. It’s not good for the country. It certainly is not good for the way our country is viewed around the world. And leaders have a responsibility to rise above that and condemn it when they see other people doing it.
And again, I think this will mean some continued pointed questions for leaders in the Republican Party, because it’s more than one presidential candidate on their side of the aisle who is engaged in these kinds of tactics.
Q Have you said whether the President watched the footage from his hometown on Friday of the rally turned violent?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t said. I know that he read about it. I don't know that he saw some of the footage there. But he certainly is aware of what happened there.
Q I want to ask you if there was any conversation about SCOTUS, about a Supreme Court nomination while the President was on the Hill with some of the folks who will have to weigh in on that. And when the President mentioned he hoped -- I think he said something about the luck of the Irish holding for him and his nominee. Does that mean we have to see something St. Patrick’s Day week?
MR. EARNEST: It doesn't necessarily. That was not an indication of timing necessarily. But obviously the President was warmly received on Capitol Hill today for St. Patrick’s Day. And he’s hopeful that his eminently qualified nominee to the Supreme Court -- whomever that person is -- will be similarly received on Capitol Hill, as well.
Q But no conversations on the sidelines of his luncheon today?
MR. EARNEST: No specific conversations that I’m aware of this afternoon.
Q Can I quickly ask you, in your phrase when you were talking about whether the U.S. had advance notice of Russia’s partial withdrawal, you said no direct advance notice.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q What does that mean?
MR. EARNEST: It just means that the Russians did not give the United States direct advance notice of this announcement.
Q Which would be at the White House or State Department level. But there was some notice that was -- or awareness this would happen that didn't come through official means. Is that the right way to read it?
MR. EARNEST: I think I’ve tried to be as clear as I can. Yes, I think you noted that I chose my words carefully there, and so I’ll probably just leave it at that.
Q And would you say now that a crutch has been removed from what’s holding up the Assad regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, this was an announcement that was made about 24 hours ago. And so I think the impact of this decision will depend a little bit on the way that the Russians follow through with their implementation of this decision. And I think it’s too early to tell -- to assess exactly what impact this will have on the Syrian government’s negotiating position, on their willingness to negotiate, and what the reaction will be on the part of the opposition groups who are negotiating -- at least in the course of proximity talks with the Syrian government.
So there are a lot of variables here, and the impact of this decision on all those variables is not immediately obvious. So we’ll continue to watch the situation. But again, what the Russians did restate yesterday was a commitment to pursuing diplomatic talks that would bring about a political transition inside of Syria. So we obviously are heartened by that restatement of a priority that the United States shares.
Q And what about coordination on ISIS now? I didn't see much in that statement about that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know that there are any announcements related to that. The thing that I’ve said on a number of occasions but I have not repeated today is that the Cessation of Hostilities that the United States helped to negotiate and implement does not have any impact on our ongoing military activities against ISIL. It doesn't have any impact on any of our coalition partners’ ability to continue to advance our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. But I don't have any updates in terms of any renewed Russian commitment to the counter-ISIL campaign.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is there at any point in the conversation a metric whereby the Russians for withdrawing from Syria could have sanctions relief?
MR. EARNEST: No, the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia are a direct result of their flagrant violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And the Ukrainian government and the Russians, with the help of some of our European allies, did negotiate an agreement in Minsk whereby both sides would deescalate the situation in Ukraine.
And the President has been clear -- almost literally from day one -- that he would be prepared to relax sanctions on Russia, if not remove them entirely, if we saw Russia succeed in following through on the commitments that they made in the context of the Minsk talks. Unfortunately, they have not done that.
So if the Russian government does want to see that kind of sanctions relief -- and these are sanctions that the United States has imposed in close coordination with our European allies -- I just note that because the impact of the European sanctions is more significant on the Russian economy than unilateral U.S. sanctions. But there is a clear path. Everybody knows exactly what needs to be done for those sanctions to be either rolled back or removed entirely. And there’s no ambiguity about that. And they relate directly to Russia following through on their Minsk commitments.
Q And that’s strictly Ukraine, not Syria.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Let me follow. Putin said yesterday that he felt like he had achieved his objectives, and that was part of the reason why they were pulling out -- at least the main part, if you will -- of their military from Syria. Among his objectives -- shoring up the Assad regime. Is he wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think time will tell exactly how we can assess the impact of the decision that President Putin announced just 24 hours ago. And we certainly will be interested to understand exactly how and whether this changes the negotiating position of the Assad regime. Does this mean that they are more willing to negotiate or less willing to negotiate in good faith? Hopefully it’s the former and not the latter. But it also raises questions about what sort of impact it will have on the ability of the wide variety of opposition groups involved here, and how they engage in the process.
So I think it’s just too early to tell whether or not that is an objective that’s advanced by this Russian decision. But again, the fact that they have restated that this is a priority for them is a good thing because it happens to be a long-stated priority of the United States. And if that means that we can more effectively work together to accomplish that shared goal, that would be good news.
Q Last one on Syria. I want to read John McCain’s statement; I assume you’ve seen it today. It reads, in part, “The administration consoled itself with the mantra that there is no military solution. Rather than facing the reality that there is a clear military dimension to any political solution in Syria,” he goes on to say, “unfortunately, that is what Russia and its proxies have demonstrated in Syria.” Is Mr. McCain right or is he wrong?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen his entire statement, but if he is suggesting that somehow a large-scale U.S. ground combat invasion of Syria is warranted and is the best way to advance U.S. interests in Syria, then he’s flat wrong about that. That’s not news, though. That is a well-known difference between Senator McCain’s approach to these kinds of conflicts and the more prudent approach that President Obama has taken.
And I recognize that continues to frustrate, and in some cases anger, Senator McCain. But the President feels quite confident that effectively using our military power to support forces on the ground to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL -- in some cases that means the United States military carrying out airstrikes against prominent ISIL targets -- that is consistent with our strategy. But a large-scale ground combat operation to carry out regime change inside of Syria is not at all consistent with our national security priorities, and the failure to understand that is a failure to appreciate the lessons of our recent history in the Middle East.
Q Last one. I want to ask you about EPA Administrator McCarthy. She says we could have done things better. She didn’t acknowledge that there was any responsibility whole-scale on the EPA in Flint. Given the fact that Susan Hedman resigned back on February 1st, given the fact that we’ve been following this story for quite some time -- children have been impacted, families have been impacted adversely -- is it the President’s commitment that there will be justice in Flint? And what does that look like?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a question about justice I do think raises some questions about blame. And again, given the independent ongoing investigations there, I’m not willing to comment on that aspect of this. But certainly the President does feel deeply that the people of Flint who have been the victims of this terrible situation are owed something by their government. And there is a responsibility for the federal government to support -- and the state and local governments who are primarily responsible for responding to the situation.
And that’s why you’ve seen the federal government come in and offer up assistance in the form of bottled water and filters to meet the urgent, immediate need, but also to consider funding for Head Start centers, for additional health care to needy members of that community so that they can get the treatment that they need and that they deserve.
But what we also need to see, frankly, is we also need to see the United States Congress step up and offer some financial assistance so that the significant infrastructure needs in Flint can also be addressed. This is something that the state and obviously the local government can’t do on its own. The local government, frankly -- many people believe that we’re in this situation because the local government had to be turned over to an emergency manager. So it’s obvious that the local government would not have the financial resources to deal with a problem as significant and widespread as this one. It certainly is an appropriate role for the federal government to intervene in those kinds of situations, to look out for American citizens who are in a pretty dire situation. And unfortunately, this has gotten stalled, blocked by Republicans in the United States Senate. And that's unfortunate. And hopefully we'll see the Congress step up and fulfill its responsibility to the people of Flint.
Q You’ve said a lot now about Flint, and now you're saying that the people there are owed something by their government. Even though you say that you're hesitant to assign blame, you’ve mentioned a couple of times now the responsibility that the local and state governments have. But it's indisputable that the EPA knew about a problem there for a long time and did not notify the public. Of course, there’s an investigation going on, but if you're willing to say so much about state and local government and some of the details surrounding this, why are you so hesitant to acknowledge that the EPA could have done more, or to say something -- it seems like that's one area of this that you deliberately leave out, where you say what the EPA has done. But it's hard to ignore the fact that they knew about this for a very long time and did not tell anyone.
MR. EARNEST: I think you're jumping to conclusions. I don't think you know that they didn’t tell anyone. There are --
Q They didn’t notify the public, and they knew about it. There’s paper that says that they knew about this. So it's hard to dispute that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s also paper that's called the law that indicates that state and local authorities are the ones that are primarily responsible for the water supply.
Q Primarily responsible, right.
MR. EARNEST: And that limits what the EPA can do. Now, the question is --
Q Don't you see a fundamental problem there? If there’s lead poisoning that is even a remote possibility -- even if it's a remote possibility and they know that that could be happening, wouldn't that be the ideal time to break that law? Like wouldn't that be a reason to say that law needs to be changed then? I mean, it almost sounds like another layer of the bureaucracy that made this entire mess.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think one of the things that we should acknowledge here is that the EPA Administrator more than a month ago, recognizing the situation that you just pointed out might exist, sent a letter to governors and local officials all across the country, making clear that they understand exactly how the lead and copper rule is enforced, and making clear exactly what role the EPA will play in ensuring that it's enforced. And if they follow -- if they fail to follow the way that that rule is governed, then the EPA will not hesitate to step in to ensure the protection of the health and wellbeing of citizens in local communities across the country.
So, yes, there is a responsibility for the EPA to both support the ongoing local and state-led response in Flint, but also to proactively make sure that local and state officials across the country are put on notice about how exactly to implement this rule, about how exactly to monitor the implementation of the rule, to make sure that people and other communities across the country aren't affected by the same kind of mistakes. And, yes, that is a responsibility of the federal government. Yes, that is something that the federal government owes citizens across the country. And, yes, that mission will not be advanced if Republicans succeed in following through on their promise to eliminate the EPA.
Q So if there’s a possibility that the state and local government failed people there, isn't there also in this a possibility that the EPA failed people there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that's why I'm reluctant to talk about exactly what happened because this is all under investigation both within the administration but also by law enforcement authorities. And again, I don't want to say anything beyond what I've said thus far because I don't want to be perceived as trying to put my thumb on the scale. We should get to the bottom of what exactly happened so we can make sure that it never happens anywhere else again.
Q It's just that you’ve repeatedly mentioned the state and local government that had primary responsibility --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, because there is no denying that.
Q But there’s also no denying that the EPA had a role in this, knowing about it and not saying anything to the people there who were being poisoned for almost a year.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I dispute the premise of your question because I don't think that it's true that they didn’t tell anybody. I think in some ways that is actually the crux of this dispute, is the suggestion that state and local officials may not have followed the warnings of the EPA.
But again, this is something that is being looked at. And again, I don't want to be perceived as weighing in here.
Q Okay, fair enough. And in the President’s comments today -- we’ve heard him several times now slam the rhetoric on the trail, and it seems like the President is getting more robust in the way he describes it. Today he used the world “vulgar” and “vicious.” So what is -- as we hear him make these statements, even at times when they're not really expected or necessarily a part of what he’s saying, what does he expect the effect of that to be? What is his goal in repeatedly bringing this up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in this case, he was observing the stark contrast between the collegiality and camaraderie and fellowship at the bipartisan St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Capitol Hill, and the divisive, vulgar rhetoric on the part of Republicans on the campaign trail.
And again, I think that stark contrast is something that all of you would have noted even if the President hadn’t himself proactively raised it. And I think the President’s goal of raising it is to underscore at least his own personal belief about the responsibility that political leaders in this country have.
And our best leaders are the ones who continually remind us that our country is stronger when we're not turning against one another. And that stands in pretty stark contrast to the cynical tactics that are being employed by a lot of Republican politicians to sow divisions, to deepen the divide as an effort to motivate their supporters. Again, in the short term, that may be a useful political tactic for one politician or another. But it’s not good for the country. And as the President has previously observed, he’s confident that it is not at all going to play well in a general election.
Q So when he said that he would not support somebody who was spouting that kind of rhetoric, was that a direct message to Paul Ryan, who had just spoken, and who has not said that he wouldn’t support, say, Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is a direct message to other leaders in the Republican Party about how their leading status -- either as an elected official in the party, or as an elected official of the country -- gives them a certain set of responsibilities. And that means standing up and speaking out against efforts to target minorities and women and those with disabilities, and religious minorities, like Muslims. Leaders have that responsibility. They do have a responsibility to speak out. And they can do it in their own way. Everybody has to choose sort of the way that they feel is appropriate to do so. But there is no denying the responsibility that leaders in this country have to speak out and speak against those who are seeking to divide the country, particularly when it’s nothing more than a cynical, selfish attempt to motivate one’s own political supporters.
Q And lastly, so Russia’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, are you saying that it wasn’t a surprise then? I know that you were careful about saying no direct heads up there. But you've been asked a couple of times. Was this a surprise to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the Russians did not give the United States advance direct notice of their plans. But beyond that, I don't have much to say.
Q Just along the theme that you were just -- Mitch McConnell just told reporters that he told Trump in a conversation it “might be a good idea to condemn that,” referring to violence, “and discourage it no matter what the source is.” To what extent do you feel like Senator McConnell’s effort to reach out directly to Trump and talk about this is a sign of exactly what you've been asking Republican leaders to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is that it is hard, on the one hand, to say that this kind of violence, or those political tactics, or that divisive rhetoric is worthy of condemnation, and then on the other hand say that you believe that person is the best man or woman to lead the United States of America. There is more than a little tension in that position, and that is a tension that Senator McConnell and other leading Republicans across the country are going to have to work to resolve.
Q What you're coming very close to saying, Josh, and you alluded to it yesterday, coming off of my colleague’s inquiries -- it sounds like the President is really the number-one leader in this country and there is one moral leader in this country. And when you factor in everything that he’s come up to and said, almost all the way up to this point -- taken the fact that our allies have always been fascinated by our U.S. elections -- they're not like in Europe. They're not parliamentary, completely different. They don't understand it. It’s beguiling, although they're fascinating. And 2008 was hugely popular especially for European media. The leaders in Europe now have gone from fascination to fearfulness. And they are afraid that a Donald Trump presidency would render this country unrecognizable to them. And I know the President says he trusts the American people that that won’t happen, but really there is a lot of fear out there.
What can the President do? And has the President had any conversations with his friends, with his allies, to abate some of that fear that they may have that this country will go on to a completely different direction as the Europeans and as our allies around the world think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any details of private presidential conversations to share from here. But there’s one aspect of our question that I do think warrants some response, which is that there is something unique about the President of the United States, which is that the President, whoever he or she is, is the one elected official in the United States that has a national constituency, the one leader in the United States that's elected by every voter across the country is the President of the United States. And that does invest in the presidency, regardless of who is in the office, a set of responsibilities.
And the President has embraced his responsibility to do things like stand up for basic American values. He’s done that here at home, and he’s done that around the world.
But the thing that I wanted to note is it’s not just our political leaders that are moral leaders in this country. There are other people who are in positions of authority and positions of power, and other people who are looked to for their perspective, and in some cases for their moral view. So this is not just responsibility of people who are in elected office, or people who have chosen to pursue the profession of politics. The President has often talked about how the most important role in our democracy is citizen and that there is a civic responsibility that we all have to ensure the continued success and vibrancy of our democracy.
And that certainly goes to a lot of what the President was talking about in his speech in Springfield that he gave last month, that it’s important that our government and the leaders of our government live up to the expectations of our citizens. The President certainly takes that responsibility quite seriously.
Q If I may, it seems the President has another role beside Commander-in-Chief, et cetera, chief executive, and that seems to be the consoler-in-chief or the moral leader-in-chief. And President Obama has in the past taken the bully pulpit -- whatever you may call it -- and made that kind of a strong reference and commitment to that. And in this time, when the world is really watching, there is a lot of concern that this country is not going in the direction that the President would, in fact, want it to.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say that I think part of what motivates the President to make comments like those you saw today are his sense of our country’s values and the moral obligations that the leaders of this country have to stand up for those values. And that's something the President feels quite strongly about.
Q Josh, what is the White House reaction to the example of bipartisanship yesterday when the House voted unanimously on a resolution finding the Islamic State guilty of genocide?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, applying the label of genocide as a policy matter is one that has significant legal implications. And that is why there are attorneys at the State Department who have now for quite some time been closely examining the use and application of that term to the situation inside of Syria. That is not a small matter. It's one that the attorneys at the State Department take quite seriously, and it's one that we are keenly focused on.
More generally, though, it's important for people to understand that the President has already taken -- the President has already ordered military action out of concern for religious minorities who have been or could potentially be victimized by ISIL. And that includes not just Yazidis but also Christians. We know that ISIL has targeted Christian populations. We know that ISIL has targeted Yazidi populations in both Iraq and in Syria. And the President has ordered military action against ISIL to try to protect those religious minorities.
So this question about the label of genocide is an important one, and I'm not in any way seeking to downplay its significance. But I can tell you that the President has already ordered aggressive, robust action to try to protect religious minorities who are in the crosshairs of ISIL fighters. And we've done so with some success. But we continue to be concerned about religious minorities in that region of the world, including Christians, and we're going to continue to take steps to try to protect them even as the legal work about a genocide designation continues.
Q Does the House vote in any way force the administration’s hand to a similar finding that the House came to yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't looked carefully at the resolution and I haven't spoken to our attorneys about this. But my understanding is, no, that the work of the attorneys at the State Department will continue.
Q Thanks, Josh. With the President talking about the vulgar rhetoric on the campaign trail these days, some people online are pointing out that when he was running against Senator McCain eight years ago, Senator Obama once said, “If they bring a knife to the fight we bring a gun, because from what I understand, folks in Philly like a good brawl.” I know it was eight years ago, but how is that any different from what’s going on today on the campaign trail?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Dave, that that would be one example -- I think that you have cited one example of something -- I haven't spoken to the President about this, so I'll let him speak for himself, but I suspect that he would include that in the category of what he described today as some intemperate remarks -- or intemperate words that we regret. The President confirmed that he can certainly recall some intemperate words that he can regret. I don't know if that would fall in the category, but I suspect that it might.
At the same time, I think I would hasten to point out that seeking to denigrate women or minorities or people with disabilities or Muslims or people in the other political party in rather colorful fashion is quite a bit different in tenor and tone and objective than the comment that you’ve just read.
Q Talking about bringing a gun to a fight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Dave, maybe that's the first time you’ve heard that expression. I think it's an expression that --
Q I've heard it --
MR. EARNEST: Okay, so then you understand why that might be different than somebody who stands in front of a stage of thousands of roaring people and suggests that somehow Muslims or people with disabilities or other minorities are responsible for the problems that are plaguing America.
Q When the President made a comment like that all those years ago then, does he still feel he has the moral authority to tell other candidates how to behave on the campaign trail?
MR. EARNEST: I think he feels a moral responsibility as the President of the United States and as a citizen of this country to stand up for our values, and to make clear that the kind of divisive, hateful rhetoric that we see from multiple Republican candidates, not just one of them, is entirely inappropriate and entirely consistent with the core values of our country that we love.
Q Following up on Jim, has the President spoken to Secretary Kerry about this issue? And if so, what is he feeling about the March 17th -- about meeting the March 17th deadline?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any specific presidential conversations with the Secretary of State. The President is obviously aware that the State Department is engaged in this effort to make a legal determination about the use of the term, genocide. I don't know -- frankly, I don’t actually even know whether or not this is a process that should be walled off and done independently, or if this is something that the President has been briefed on. But I can tell you that the President doesn’t take this sort of legal determination lightly. He believes that it's important.
But he also has not allowed that important ongoing work about the determination -- he’s not allowed that work to prevent him from taking concrete steps and ordering concrete military action to protect religious minorities that we know are being victimized by ISIL, including Christians, in that region of the world that are minorities and that are being attacked for their religion. And we do know -- and the President has restated this principle on a number of occasions -- that an assault on one individual because of their religion is an affront on all people of faith. And that's not just something that the President says when he’s delivering a speech, it's actually a principle that he believes in and a principle that he believes is worth fighting for.
Q In the omnibus bill that the President signed in December, it said that he had 90 days to make a decision -- when he signed it, he had 90 days to make a decision. That brings us to March 17th to declare if it is genocide or not. Will that be the case? Will that decision happen on the 17th?
MR. EARNEST: For the update on the timing I'd refer you to the State Department.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two brief questions. First, a few weeks ago, following the death of Mr. Mikhail Lesin, the former press secretary of President Putin and founder of Russian Television and other media outlets -- you said you had heard of it, but had no opinion. Since then, there’s been an autopsy that said that he died from a blow to the back of his head. This has been widely publicized. Is this something the administration has any opinion on at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a situation that continues to be investigated by local law enforcement authorities. I understand that the Metropolitan Police Department here in Washington, D.C. is continuing to investigate that crime that may have occurred here in Washington. So they’re taking a close look at it. *I know that the FBI has offered its assistance in that investigation. But I don't have any comment on it beyond that.
*[The Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department is leading the investigation of the death of Mikhail Lesin. The FBI is not currently involved in the investigation.]
Q Senator Hatch said in a speech on Friday, discussing the Supreme Court appointment and the controversy about whether the outgoing President should make the appointment, that Justices Bryor and Alito have both pointed out that the Court got along very well with eight members, and they cited the extended absence of Justice Robert Jackson in 1945 thru ‘6 to be prosecutor at the Nuremburg hearings. That would seem to contradict the administration’s case that you needed nine justices on the Court and needed to fill a vacancy promptly.
MR. EARNEST: When you say the administration’s case, are you referring to the Reagan administration’s case, because they prosecuted this case pretty aggressively. President Reagan, back in November of 1987, said, “I would also hope that the Senate acts expeditiously so that the highest court in the land is able to conduct its business with the full complement of nine justices.”
But he didn’t just make that case once. Four days later, he repeated and said, “Every day that passes with the Supreme Court below full strength impairs the people’s business in that crucially important body.”
So the case that we have made for the Senate to act promptly to consider and confirm the President’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court is entirely consistent with the case that President Reagan made back in 1987.
Q And so you say that that takes precedent over the absence of Justice Jackson and the yearlong vacancy of two nominees in 1970?
MR. EARNEST: John, what I'm just saying is that -- first of all, you had to go back to 1970 in order to find that example. Because -- let me do the math real quick -- 46 years since, we've never had a vacancy on the Supreme Court that has had an impact on two different terms. And the fact is that President Reagan made a forceful case about why that was an important situation for us to avoid.
Jim, did you have anything before we go? Okay. Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
Q Josh, you said yesterday you’d let us know today about the absentee ballot.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I can tell you that both the President and the First Lady voted absentee in the Illinois Democratic primary.
Q How did they vote?
MR. EARNEST: I'll let them decide if they want to disclose who they voted for.
Thanks, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:34 P.M. EDT