Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/5/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:30 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: It's pretty good when the opening act brings its own seal and flags. So, Josh, do you want to get us started with our regularly scheduled programming here?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. Let's go back to the Panama Papers for a minute. The Prime Minister of Iceland has resigned, facing questions about potential conflict of interest regarding his funds disclosed as a result of these papers. Do you think that step was called for? Do you think that there are other leaders that also may need to step aside in the wake of these disclosures?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of what the newly released documents indicate about the financial situation of any world leaders, let alone the leader of Iceland. Obviously that was a decision that the leader of Iceland made based on a variety of considerations. And I don’t have a specific comment on that ultimate decision.
Obviously there are a lot of materials that have been released and that will continue to be reviewed by the general public and certainly by many of your news organizations. As the President noted, it does sort of highlight some issues that the President has been focused on for quite a long time. And I did actually want to add to one aspect of his answer about this.
There are some specific steps that the administration has succeeded in implementing that has been effective in countering some of the international tax avoidance schemes that were revealed in the context of this document. Many of you will recall -- or at least some of you will recall, in 2010 the President signed into law the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. FATCA was a piece of legislation that this administration aggressively pushed Congress to pass. This was legislation that was targeted at countering tax evasion by U.S. taxpayers using offshore accounts.
The benefits of this legislation were significant in a variety of ways. Let me discuss a couple of them. The first is that the law actually prompted countries around the world to begin reciprocal financial information-sharing agreements. That's beneficial because there are now 112 countries that exchange information with the United States about financial transactions that are occurring in their countries that were initiated, or at least that involve the other countries' citizens. So this is helpful in getting -- in providing greater transparency into the details of these financial transactions.
So as a result, more than 150,000 foreign financial institutions have now registered under FATCA; 150,000 financial institutions that the U.S. government now has greater clarity into as a result of the effective implementation of FATCA legislation.
In addition to the legislation, the Department of Justice has a Swiss bank program because of the peculiar regulations that apply to Swiss banks. Because of the greater insight that they have obtained through this program, since the end of last month the Department has entered into 78 different agreements with 80 Swiss banks that have paid more than $1.3 billion in penalties. And when it relates to the IRS -- that is the agency that's chiefly responsible for enforcing these tax regulations -- they have also, because of their efforts, gotten greater insight into the conduct of these specific foreign financial transactions.
Since 2009, the IRS has received more than 54,000 offshore voluntary disclosures. The disclosures are voluntary because taxpayers understand that the IRS is paying new attention to these kinds of transactions, and people are interested in getting right with the law. And so we're seeing greater compliance with these laws because of the effective implementation and the effective work of the IRS.
The number of reports that are filed by foreign bank and financial accounts -- these are FBARs, for those who follow these issues closely -- have increased significantly over the last five or six years, from about 330,000 filings in 2008 to more than 1.1 million of them in 2015. All told, the IRS has conducted thousands of offshore-related civil audits resulting in millions of dollars of assessments. And the Department of Treasury and the IRS has pursued criminal investigations leading to billions of dollars in criminal fines and restitution.
So there are a variety of ways to chronicle the success that this administration has had in cracking down on some of these international tax avoidance schemes that are now in the news in a way that they haven’t been previously.
As the President points out, we're obviously quite focused on those areas and those transactions that are not in compliance with the law. But there are significant concerns that are raised by financial transactions that, while technically legal, are egregiously unfair. They're unfair because these are tax maneuvers that are not available to middle-class families. They're only available to wealthy individuals or powerful corporations. And not only is that unfair, the consequences of these actions leads to significant loss of tax revenue that could otherwise be devoted to improving our schools, making college more affordable, or even putting people back to work building our infrastructure.
So the policy questions are significant. These are questions that we've been grappling with since the President's earliest days in office. And, frankly, we're pleased that this is an issue that's now in the news that's getting the kind of attention that it deserves. Hopefully it will prompt long-overdue action in the United States Congress. Right now, we've got too many Republicans in Congress who are looking out for their wealthy donors or wealthy corporate interests as opposed to pushing for the kinds of policies that would be more fair to middle-class families and better for our economy.
Q Aside, though, from the issue of tax avoidance and the revenues, does the fact that the leaders of so many key economies -- China, Russia, Argentina -- are now embroiled in this scandal over their finances, are the President's economic advisors concerned that that will have some negative effects on the economy or on markets?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t heard any specific concern expressed in the context of this document release. I can tell you that one of the leading items on our broader diplomatic agenda is fighting corruption. And when the President has traveled to other countries, he's talked about how important it is and how beneficial it can be for governments to prioritize transparency measures that will give people greater confidence in the trustworthiness of their government and in senior government officials.
Obviously, the United States is a strong advocate for that. There are a variety of multilateral fora -- things like ASEAN and even at the U.N. -- where the United States has pushed for higher transparency standards when it comes to good governance. That's going to continue to be a diplomatic priority. Again, I think this would also fall in the category of not a particularly sexy piece of diplomacy but still is important to the broader functioning of the international system -- both of governance and of finance.
Q And China has essentially imposed some type of a media blackout over this issue. They're not reporting about it in the state media. And searches on the Internet for terms related to these Panama Papers have been prohibited. Is that something the U.S. is watching? Are you raising those concerns about freedom of information with the Chinese government?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if we’ve raised a specific concern about this issue. But the United States regularly advocates for greater transparency and greater press freedoms around the world, including in China.
Q Back to tax inversions. Why is this coming out now, since some big deals were in the works back in November and given the administration’s long-term abhorrence of tax avoidance?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, look, the President has spoken out quite a bit about how unfair tax inversions are. And the President for more than two years has been calling on Congress to update the rules that are on the books that would limit the ability of corporations to essentially renounce their American citizenship, to relocate their business interests, on paper, all in an effort to avoid paying their taxes. That's not fair. It’s not good for the economy.
And the President has spoken out strongly against it. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Republicans, frankly, spend more time worrying about protecting the tax loopholes that benefit their wealthy contributors as opposed to looking for tax policies that would benefit middle-class families and the broader economy.
We’ve made no bones about our distaste for the Republicans’ approach to this policy. That's why the President I think has spoken in rather colorful terms in the past about this issue. And we have seen previous steps by the Treasury Department because the President has said Congress needs to act to close these loopholes and to definitively prevent these kinds of transactions. But short of that, the President vowed to use all of the executive authority that's vested in the executive branch to take a look at this. That authority is vested in the Treasury Department. And it’s the Secretary of the Treasury, Jack Lew, who has been at the forefront of putting in place regulations that could limit the ability of large corporations to benefit from these unfair tax practices. And there have been a series of announcements over the last couple of years from the Treasury Department. This is just the latest one.
But at the same time, I think some of the coverage has described these actions as the most significant administrative effort to prevent corporate inversions that the administration has taken. And I wouldn’t quibble with that.
I certainly have a layman’s understanding of these kinds of decisions. But I do think that this announcement that Treasury made at the end of the day yesterday reflects a careful, but aggressive effort to make our tax system more fair. And it certainly doesn't eliminate the need for Congress to take action. But I think it does demonstrate how serious the administration thinks this issue is.
Q Is the administration worried about getting sued by companies or groups, having these regulations weakened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly has been a common tactic of our Republican political opponents to sue the administration over policies that they don't like. I’ve got full confidence that the kinds of executive actions that were announced yesterday to make our tax system more fair are well within the legal authority of the administration to take.
Q And just one on Syria. News today of rebels shot down a Syrian jet, the second one in a month. Is this cause for concern?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. And obviously our intelligence community has seen them, as well. At this point those are reports that we are not able to corroborate at this time.
Q There are some concerns that these new rules, because they are so aggressive, will also affect foreign investment coming into the U.S. The expansion of foreign companies that are here; that that could then affect jobs. What do you say about that? Obviously, in your view, the breadth was needed for this round. But is it possible that this breadth now could have a real chilling effect on foreign investment?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I have only a layman’s understanding of these specific policies. What I can tell you is that the Treasury Department did include certain provisions in the regulations that do not dis-incentivize foreign corporations from investing in the United States. There essentially is a way to write these rules that would target people who are looking to avoid their tax bill, while not negatively affecting foreign companies that are interested in doing legitimate business inside the United States.
After all, the administration has actually gone to great lengths to encourage foreign businesses to invest in the United States, to benefit from hiring the best workers in the world. We view that as good for our economy. We view that as good for job creation. And we have put forward a whole set of incentives to encourage companies to locate inside the United States. That's been beneficial for our economy because we’ve seen a steady increase in that investment over the last several years, and we want to make sure that that trend continues.
Q Also, we just heard the President say in response to the same question from yesterday -- does he feel that Donald Trump and other candidates’ rhetoric has already done damage in terms of the U.S. standing in the world -- and he unequivocally said yes, right off the bat. But yesterday you said no. So how do you sort of smooth that out? What damage is done, if any, by this rhetoric already?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I acknowledged yesterday, the fact is the President does get these kinds of questions from world leaders. Secretary of State John Kerry was on television today just indicating that every conversation he has with world leaders includes a conversation about their concerns about the political rhetoric coming from the Republican presidential candidates. That is concerning.
I think the point that I was making, Michelle, is that that damage can be mitigated, if not outright eliminated, if the American people choose to elect someone that's serious about protecting American values and advancing American interests around the globe in a way that acknowledges the important relationships we have with allies and partners around the world.
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of other Republican candidates, including Senator Cruz, doesn't reflect that. That is harmful to the United States. But over the long term, electing a successor to President Obama who understands how important those relationships are and how important it is to advocate for and defend consistently good, old-fashioned American values, that's going to be good for the country. And that will protect our standing in the world. And I’m confident this will be an important part of the argument you’ll hear the President making into the summer and fall.
Q This is confusing, though, because you're trying to make the point that you don't want this rhetoric, that it’s not good. But when we're talking about something like damage being done -- I mean, you were quick to say yesterday, no, I don't think that the damage has been done, where today the President was just as quick to say, yes, there’s damage that has been done.
So could you just describe what is the damage? Because there are concerns out there -- nobody has been elected yet. So what is damaging? What exactly is it? And how does it affect U.S. standing? Or whatever you see the damage --
Q Well, look, when you have a political leader who is given a large platform and is using that opportunity to give voice to values that are inconsistent with the kinds of values that the American people have long stood and fought for -- in some cases, we're talking about values that American servicemen and women have fought and died for -- that sends a confusing signal. And the fact that important conversations that are hosted by the President of the United States or the United States Secretary of State are clouded by these kinds of discussions is not good. It’s harmful. It makes those meetings less productive than they would otherwise be. That's what makes the stakes of this next election so important.
And electing a President who does give voice to those values that we’ve long stood for, who does continue to see America has a beacon of human rights and fairness and justice and equality and democracy is a good thing not just for our government here at home, but for the standing of the United States around the world.
Q So you would say that the harm done is in time taken up in conversations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, and I guess the questions that are raised in the minds of world leaders about what it is the United States is willing to stand for. And given the platform that people like Mr. Trump and Senator Cruz have used to give voice to values, frankly, that most Americans don't stand for is harmful. It’s damaging. And that's why it’s important, in the President’s mind, to elect a President who understands that this kind of rhetoric is, in fact, damaging, and that electing a President who does demonstrate a commitment to core American values, again, is critical to making sure we have a government that the American people can be proud of, but it’s also critical to shoring up the kinds of relationships that President Obama over the course of the last seven or eight years has spent repairing.
Q A couple of times these conversations with world leaders have been brought up in terms of how this is harmful. So do you feel that these world leaders now see the U.S. in a different light because of this election cycle?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’d have to ask them exactly how it’s changed their view.
Q You're saying that there’s been harm and damage. So I’m trying to get a sense of what you see it being, exactly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think I’ve taken a couple of shots at trying to answer your question here, so you've got some material to work with.
Q Josh, just a minute ago, in the aftermath of North Carolina enacting the anti-LGBT law in the state, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has signed into a law a religious freedom bill seemed to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination. Does your sentiment that the North Carolina law is mean-spirited apply to this brand-new Mississippi law?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I have to acknowledge this is the first I’m hearing of the Mississippi law. But if it is as you described, the President and the administration has long been on the side of justice and equality. And some of the laws that we’ve seen passed that target LGBT Americans are not consistent with those values of fairness and equality. And in some cases, those laws are outright mean-spirited, and it’s not something that most Americans are comfortable with.
But, again, I think, more importantly, a state like North Carolina in particular, you’ve got an influential business community. And over the last generation or so, the North Carolina economy has been revitalized because they have turned that state into a magnet for businesses, both in the technology sector but also in the financial sector. They’ve done that by creating a hospitable business environment. Passing laws that put those companies’ employees or their customers at greater risk of being discriminated against is not a hospitable business environment.
And look, the companies themselves are going to pass judgment on this and they’re going to have to decide what impact this is going to have on any range of decisions that they may make about traveling to the state of North Carolina, about doing business in the state of North Carolina, about locating in the state of North Carolina. Businesses are going to have to make those kinds of decisions for themselves. But clearly, laws like this will be a factor in those decisions.
Q It’s been reported that the administration -- the agencies are reviewing whether the North Carolina law will impact federal funding for that state. Any update on when that’s to be completed? And could that investigation apply to other states that are considering similar laws, like the recently enacted law in Mississippi?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to talk to the individual agencies about this. Obviously, the individual agencies are taking a look to determine what impact at least the law in North Carolina would have on a range of legal and policy questions that are under their jurisdiction. The individual agencies will ensure that they’re coordinating with the Department of Justice and with each other to ensure sort of a uniform interpretation of these laws if a legal interpretation is necessary.
But you’d have to ask the individual agencies for a timeframe about when a decision would be made. You’d also have to ask those agencies about whether or not the law that apparently was signed into law in Mississippi would trigger a similar review.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said you wouldn’t quibble with the idea that this is the most aggressive action that the President and the administration has taken against inversions. This is coming just a few weeks after Pfizer and Allergan planned to do their merger. And I know you guys said that this doesn’t target one specific company, but why should we not come to the conclusion that you all were not hoping to block this deal from going forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I can say that for two reasons. One is this review of -- well, let me say it this way. Considering what sort of executive action was available to the administration to fight corporate inversions is something that was underway long before the specific deal that you referenced was announced.
So this is something that has long been in the works in terms of considering what options are available to the Treasury Department to taking steps to close these loopholes. And, after all, the Treasury Department is not focused on a specific transaction; they’re focused on specific loopholes.
And we know that there are corporations that are using these loopholes to avoid paying taxes -- that’s why we’re targeting them in the first place. And when I say "them," I mean the loopholes, not the individual transactions. But that is the process that has been underway at the Treasury Department for a couple of years now. And, as you point out, again, the deal that you announced was something that was just referenced in -- or just announced in the last few weeks.
Q And there are signs that this deal could be starting to unravel. Stock has gone down, and there are analysts who say that stock is basically trading as if the deal was being more or less cancelled. I know you can’t comment specifically on stock movements, but would the administration be happy if this deal did not go through or deals like this did not through in the future because of these rules?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is fair to say that the administration would be pleased if corporate inversions that are undertaken solely to prevent companies from paying their fair share in taxes don’t go through. That would be a good thing. That would be a good thing for our economy, and that would be consistent with the goals of the policy that we announced.
How this specific policy applies to any deals that have been announced but not yet completed, or any deals that have not yet been announced, that’s something that I think individual analysts can probably speak to better than I can.
But as a policy matter, yes, this action is being taken by the United States government to prevent companies from being able to engage in a complicated transaction that would prevent them from paying their fair share in taxes. That’s exactly what our goal is. And how it applies to individual transactions is something I can’t speak to, but in terms of our policy goals, I think we’ve been pretty clear about what exactly they are.
Q I wanted to ask you about Iran and the issue of U.S. dollars being used in transactions -- financial transactions by European foreign financial institutions. I know the President said that that’s not the tactic that the U.S. is hoping to take, but I was hoping to get a little bit more clarity on if there is a European company or European financial institution that wants to use dollars in its own transactions with Iran. Is that something that the U.S. is considering allowing, which it seems like it’s not clear whether or not that’s allowed right now to go on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me do my best to try to clarify at least a little bit here. For the details of your question, you may have to check with the Treasury Department, because they’ll understand how these complex regulations are implemented and what impact they could have on specific or pending transactions.
What I can say, at least specifically, is that the United States is not preparing to reinstate so-called U-turn authorization. This is something that got some attention because we actually did make some policy changes that would allow U-turn transactions with respect to Cuba. We are not considering reinstating U-turn authorization with respect to transactions emanating from Iran.
Secondly, I can tell you that reports that the United States is considering allowing Iran to get access to the U.S. financial system are false. But what we are interested in doing -- and this has been true for almost a year now -- we are interested in making sure that the United States and the rest of the international community lives up to the commitments that we made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
We’re only prepared to follow through on the commitments that we made because we have verified that Iran has followed through on the commitments that they have made. Iran, for example, reduced their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent. They unplugged thousands of centrifuges. They have taken steps to render their heavy-water plutonium reactor harmless and incapable of producing fuel that could be used for a nuclear weapon.
There are a whole variety of steps that Iran committed to implement, including the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country's nuclear program. Because Iran has followed through on all of those steps, the United States and the rest of the international community has an obligation to follow through on giving them the kind of sanctions relief that we promised in return. That's something that we're going to follow through on. But we can do that without reinstating U-turn authorization or giving Iran access to the U.S. financial system.
Q Congressman Pompeo said yesterday that he's considering doing an inquiry to figure out whether or not administration officials, like Secretary of State John Kerry, misled the U.S. Congress when they were saying what's in this deal. Now that the deal is coming to fruition, they believe in some ways that they may have been misled simply on this issue of dollar transactions and European financial institutions. So I'm wondering if you have a response to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think there's any evidence to substantiate that kind of claim. To the extent that you care about my opinion, I think you should take a rather dim view of that suggestion because Congressman Pompeo -- or however you say his name -- didn’t approve the deal and certainly didn't vote in favor of it. So it's a little hard for him to suggest that he was misled about a deal he didn’t support in the first place.
What I am confident in is that the administration has been extraordinarily transparent about the terms of the deal when communicating with Congress about it. Time and time again, Congress has been briefed on the details of the deal. That was true even while the deal was being negotiated. And after the deal was finalized, I know that there were a variety of briefings that were held with interested administration officials. I don’t know whether or not Congressman Pompeo took the time to actually attend those briefings, but that would be an interesting fact to learn.
Because, in fact, I know that there were actually briefings that were hosted by national security officials for the entire House of Representatives. Every member of Congress was given access to a classified briefing, to say nothing of the variety of documents that were provided to members of Congress to take a look at in person.
So we've got a lot of confidence in the deal that we have reached with the rest of the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It's going to enhance the national security of the United States. It's going to enhance the national security of our partners in the region, including our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. The President is proud of this foreign policy accomplishment. And we are pleased that thus far we've able to verify that Iran has lived up to the agreement that was signed.
Q Josh, back to the timing of this -- on inversions. If this Allergan-Pfizer deal had gone through, the savings would have been close to $40 billion, or in that range. It was being called one of the largest inversions of all time. Are you really saying that the timing of this move was just purely coincidental?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess for the specifics about the timing, you can check with the Treasury Department. What I can tell you is that this kind of action is something that the Treasury Department had been looking at for literally for years. Certainly their consideration of the use of this authority predated the announcement of this agreement. But again, for specifics on the timing of the announcement, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department.
Q But to have the President come out at this time, as well, underscores it. It's not just some Treasury action.
MR. EARNEST: No, it's not.
Q I mean, it's a significant one.
MR. EARNEST: It is.
Q And it's amplified by having the President speak to it.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q So you had to be aware of the symbolic resonance --
MR. EARNEST: We're in vigorous agreement on this one, Margaret. (Laughter.)
Q Well, yeah. But that's why it doesn’t really hold water to say, oh, we've just been waiting and the paperwork is ready to go. This was symbolically resonant, this moment. And this deal in particular made it so.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- so maybe we finally found the place where you and I disagree, which is simply this: That the President has been talking about this issue for more than two years. And there has been -- and the reason he started talking about it, frankly, was because there was a new loophole that was carved out by corporations that they were taking advantage of. We did see a steady increase in the number of corporate inversion transactions that were being carried out by companies who essentially were renouncing their U.S. citizenship, relocating their operations -- only on paper -- just to avoid paying U.S. taxes. And there were a variety of these kinds of transactions that were undertaken prior to this announcement about the Allergan-Pfizer deal.
Q It's been going on for a long time.
MR. EARNEST: So the President has been quite outspoken about this. And there have been previous Treasury actions that have also been significant, both in 2014 and 2015. And there were constant questions about whether there were additional steps that the administration could take to fight inversions. And that's something that Treasury officials have been working on, like I said, for more than two years.
At each stage, the decisions about moving forward with these policies is focused on the specific loophole in question. And look, there's no denying that the loophole that is closed by this action is one that companies have previously taken advantage of. That's the reason we're closing it in the first place. But we're not closing it because one specific company is trying to take advantage of the loophole. We're closing it because --
Q Because the largest tax inversion of all time was about to happen?
MR. EARNEST: We're closing it because a variety of companies have taken advantage of this loophole, and we're looking to prevent it.
Q Can I also ask you on the comments about the proposal made to stop remittances to pay for the wall with Mexico that Trump made? The President talked too -- I mean, "Draconian," "wacky," "half-baked." Focused specifically on just stopping remittances from Mexican immigrants, would you add "discriminatory" to that? Or is that laundry list of problems about where you want?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the entirety of Mr. Trump's remarks on this. But to the extent that there are any details behind this suggestion, it certainly does sound consistent with the kinds of discriminatory policies and discriminatory rhetoric that has unfortunately been the hallmark of Mr. Trump's stump speech.
Shannon, nice to see you today.
Q Dovetailing off of that, the President seemed to enjoy fielding a question dealing with the GOP field.
MR. EARNEST: I think you might have been misreading his body language a little bit. (Laughter.)
Q Well, no, he enjoyed responding to it, maybe. And based on the reports today, that there is some level of angst that he's out in the campaign trail -- that there's a protracted Democratic primary at this point. How anxious is he to be out there campaigning?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is certainly looking forward to the opportunity to make a strong case in favor of a Democratic candidate for President that is looking to build on the important progress that our country has made, both at home and abroad, under President Obama's leadership.
The President feels that that is a strong case, and I'm sure the President is looking forward to spending hours talking publicly about the evidence available to describe how exactly the United States can benefit from building on the progress that we've made. The case that is made by the Republican candidates for President is to actually roll back that progress by going back to the policies that were in place before President Obama took office.
President Obama feels strongly about making an argument against that, in part because he loves his country and he wants to ensure America succeeds. That's the most important thing. The second thing is, he obviously feels a little bit of a personal investment. He obviously has dedicated the last eight years of his life to focusing on these policies that have led us to make so much progress. And he doesn’t want to see so much of that work be undone.
So the President is certainly ready to make an affirmative case about the progress that we have made and about the prospects of continuing that progress under a Democratic leadership here in the White House.
I will say I had not detected significant concern on his part about the longer-than-expected Democratic primary. As I've described on a couple of occasions, the longer-than-expected Democratic primary in 2008 actually accrued to the benefit of Democrats in the general election. There was a lot of concern right around this time, in 2008, that the protracted Democratic contest between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama was going to be bad for Democrats. But I've often cited the example of the aggressively contested Indiana primary in May of 2008. It had been a generation, at least, since an Indiana primary had been so aggressively contested by Democratic candidates. But yet, there was a good four- or five-week period where Senator Clinton and Senator Obama were campaigning aggressively in the state of Indiana.
That allowed both of those candidates to get to know that state, to spend some time in those communities making the case for Democratic policies. Their campaigns made significant organizational investments in the state, built a grassroots infrastructure that in the general election in 2008 actually yielded important electoral fruit for the Democratic Party because Barack Obama won the state of Indiana and their electoral votes in the 2008 election. That ended up being good for the Democratic Party and for the Democratic candidate for President.
I think it's too early to predict exactly what the long-term impact will be of this longer-than-expected Democratic primary. But I wouldn’t -- and I don’t -- automatically assume that the impact on the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects will be negative.
Q On this inversion issue, once again this is an example of the administration using executive action to get something done.
MR. EARNEST: Because Congress has failed to act.
Q Because Congress has failed to act. Is there anything that you can point to as we go forward now where the administration expects to get anything done with this Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve gone through this list -- let’s see if I still have it in here -- but it’s a long list. I want to make sure I don’t forget anything off of it.
Q But it’s a list of things to do, not the things getting done.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you asked about sort of is there potential for us to get some things done.
Q No, I’m asking is there anything, not potentially -- what’s getting done now --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think right now we see a lot of Republicans in the United States Senate that are not doing their jobs. That’s certainly true.
The President has put forward a consensus nominee to the Supreme Court, for example, and we see Republicans basically saying that they’re not even going to hold hearings to consider his nomination. So they’re not doing their jobs in that regard.
I think you’re going to have to go ask somebody else to try to defend the work ethic of Republicans in the United States Senate right now, because I’ve got -- and I think everybody else here at the White House has -- significant concerns about that.
There are some available opportunities, though. Certainly confirming a consensus nominee to the Supreme Court would be something important that the United States Congress could do. It would be good for the country. It wouldn’t require anybody to fold on their principles. But it would require the United States Senate to do their job.
There’s been a lot of talk about criminal justice reform. Obviously, there are some Republicans in both the House and the Senate that are supportive of that effort. We heard some positive comments from Speaker Ryan 10 days or so ago about that legislation. We obviously would welcome continued bipartisan work to advance that legislation.
The President is hoping that at some point this year Congress will take action to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a trade agreement with about a dozen other countries in the Asia Pacific region. This would have important benefits for the U.S. economy, and the President has made a strong case that Democrats and Republicans should support it. We’re hopeful that we can work with Republicans on that.
But look, we can also fight poverty by expanding the EITC, something Speaker Ryan has talked about. We can fight heroin addiction, something the President talked about last week. Republicans have been on the campaign trail saying this is a top issue. So there are a whole host of issues that we should be able to work together on.
Q Why would they give him any victories on any of this in the final months of his administration? And isn’t this really the end of that part of this Obama presidency, working with Congress to get things done, and therefore I would expect that there’s going to be more aggressive executive actions taken to try and nail some of these things down that are still on his to-do list?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly am not going to rule out aggressive executive actions. But I will say, in general, the list that I’ve gone through, Ron, is not the list of priorities of the Obama administration. There are a whole host of things we would love for Congress to do that they won’t do because Republicans are in power, and, frankly, we’ve got some different priorities.
So closing the inversions loophole, for example, is something we would love for Congress to do. I’m not standing up here saying that that’s likely to happen. In fact, I don’t think it’s going to because Republicans are so committed to protecting corporate interests as opposed to looking out for middle-class families.
Another thing that Congress could do that the President believes would be a really good thing would be raising the minimum wage. This is a way we could give some of the hardest-working people in America the opportunity to raise a family, save for retirement, send their kids to college, buy a house. And right now, the minimum wage is so low that if you are the head of a family of four and you’re working full-time making minimum wage, you’re raising that family below the poverty line. And that’s not right, and that’s something that Congress should address. But again, Republicans haven’t demonstrated a willingness to considering that kind of proposal, again, because their corporate benefactors don’t support it.
So there are a whole host of things we would like to see Congress do. But those things weren’t on my list. The things that were on my list were actually things that Republicans themselves say that they support. These are things that Republicans themselves in many cases have previously been on the record supporting.
So the question really for Republicans is, are they willing to do their job? Are they prepared to demonstrate that they can be entrusted to govern the greatest country in the world? And if not, I think voters may have something to say about that.
Q And just lastly, on Judge Garland, the meeting with Senator Collins just wrapped up. It was “excellent,” as I’m reading, they say, so on and so forth.
MR. EARNEST: Good.
Q Is there any, today, news about any other movement by any Republicans on the Hill in a very positive direction towards actually not just meeting -- let’s start with meeting and then a hearing and a vote -- on the Judge Garland issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I made a reference to Senator Cornyn’s comments yesterday. I mean, he is somebody who has acknowledged that it’s a slippery slope for Republicans. That is why I think you’ve seen so many Republicans, including Leader McConnell, rule out having any sort of private meeting with Chief Judge Garland. Because it is a slippery slope -- that once you have a private meeting, then it starts to beg questions, well, why wouldn’t you have a conversation with Chief Judge Garland in public? You say that you’ve got tough questions you want to ask him, and you’re just going to ask him these questions over breakfast, for example. Well, okay. Those kinds of private meetings are sort of part and parcel of the regular process for considering a nominee, but why would you have those conversations in private? And why wouldn’t you let the American people get the benefit of seeing that exchange? So it’s Republicans --
Q So there’s nothing more on his calendar?
MR. EARNEST: But it’s Republicans who indicate that the American people should have some sort of voice. Well, shouldn’t the American people, if they’re going to make their voices heard, have the opportunity to actually hear directly from Chief Judge Garland?
There haven’t been that many concerns that have been raised by Chief Judge Garland. He’s somebody with impeccable legal credentials. He’s somebody that’s described by Republicans as a consensus candidate. But to the extent that people have concerns about his nomination, he should have the opportunity to talk about them in public.
And here’s the thing: He’s prepared to do exactly that, under oath, on camera, in front of the American people, for hours at a time. And he’s willing to take tough questions from Democrats and Republicans, from the left and the right, to explain his approach. He is somebody who has a track record -- who has demonstrated that he understands the role of a judge is to interpret the law, not to advance a political agenda. And he’s prepared to do that.
Now, as it relates to the process, Chief Judge Garland met with a couple of Republicans today. You mentioned his meeting with Senator Collins; he’s meeting with Senator Boozman later today. And we have seen Chairman Grassley from the Judiciary Committee indicate that the committee is prepared to accept the questionnaire when he fills it out. So that sort of is another step in this process.
And I would anticipate that there will be additional meetings with additional Republican senators over the next couple of weeks. There are still a dozen or so other senators, beyond the three now, that Chief Judge Garland will have met with by the end of the day today who have also indicated an openness to a meeting.
I think the other thing about this is it’s also going to start to beg questions for other Republican senators. So let’s take one example. Senator Boozman from Arkansas has indicated that he’s willing, just out of good, old fashioned courtesy -- and I think probably a commitment to doing his job -- that Senator Boozman has agreed to have a meeting with Chief Judge Garland. Well, where does that leave Senator Cotton? Is he not going to show that same old-fashioned Southern hospitality to Chief Judge Garland? Is he somehow concerned about even having a private meeting with the Chief Judge?
I don’t know the answer to that. But it certainly begs that question now that his colleague from the great state of Arkansas has agreed to meet with Chief Judge Garland. And I guess we’ll have to see what Senator Cotton’s response to it is.
But again, I think Senator Cotton’s refusal to have the meeting thus far is an indication that he doesn’t want to edge farther out on the slippery slope that Senator Cornyn has described.
Q I’m hoping you can tell me a little bit about the incident with Boko Haram and their kidnapping of girls in 2014, and what the U.S. has done since that time to help get the girls back.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tara, obviously the United States government has been quite concerned about the tactic that Boko Haram has used to terrorize communities all across Nigeria. And the United States has been strongly supportive of the Nigerian government’s efforts to find those girls, but frankly, to find the large number of people that have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.
The United States has some areas of expertise that we can leverage to assist in that search. So there have been military resources that have been committed to Nigeria to offer some intelligence assistance and some training to Nigerian security forces. The United States has also offered some assistance in helping Nigeria set up programs that would allow the victims of these acts of terror to recover. And some of these individuals have just been through unthinkable situations. And the humanitarian assistance that they need and the recovery to which they’re entitled is something that the United States can assist the Nigerian government in providing.
And part of the President’s strategy to combat terrorism has been to build up the capacity of local forces in countries around the world that are partners of the United States, like Nigeria, to do a better job of providing for the security situation in their own country, to protect their citizens and to root out terrorists. And the United States is committed to assisting the Nigerians and other countries in Africa that have submitted military resources to combatting this terror threat in Africa.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two political questions. First, you spoke of world leaders expressing their concerns about some of the statements of the Republican presidential candidates. I'd like you to flesh it out for us. Has, for example, President Peña Nieto of Mexico or any of the Latin American leaders voiced to the President or Secretary Kerry their concerns about his -- Mr. Trump's call for building a wall?
MR. EARNEST: Well, President Peña Nieto of Mexico, I have seen him publicly express his concerns about this specific policy proposal. And I know that at least one of his predecessors, former President Vicente Fox, has expressed some concerns about -- and I think he puts it mildly particularly as it relates to President Fox's comments -- some concerns about Mr. Trump's proposals.
And as President Obama just acknowledged when he was standing up here, obviously the United States has an important economic relationship with Mexico. And it is in our country's interest to see the Mexican economy continue to at least be healthy, because if it starts to collapse, you would see a much greater influx of migrants from Mexico into the United States, at least headed this direction. And that wouldn’t be good for Mexico or the United States. So that's just one example.
I don’t have details of private conversations to share with you. But look, we've seen Mr. Trump's comments about barring Muslims from entering the United States; Mr. Trump's comments about suggesting it would be just fine with him if countries in Asia, including allies of the United States, like Japan and South Korea, started to develop their own nuclear program. We've seen him advocate for the breakup of NATO, for example -- or at least the U.S. withdrawal from NATO. I think I've covered just about every region of the world now. And these are comments that he's offered up in just the last week or so.
So I don’t think it's a particular surprise to any of you that world leaders have expressed these concerns to people like President Obama or to Secretary Kerry. I think in many cases you've heard these world leaders express these concerns publicly.
Q Another question on this. I was in Pennsylvania over the weekend, and the President created quite a bit of news when he, along with Vice President Biden, made a near-unprecedented step of endorsing Ms. Katie McGinty for the Democratic nomination for the Senate over former Congressman and narrow 2010 loser, Joe Sestak. Now, the President did endorse one or two incumbent House members who had primaries in 2010. But more often than not, he does not get involved in primaries unless an incumbent is there. What led him to make this decision? And has he received any comments back from Pennsylvania Democrats, including Mr. Sestak?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we talked about this a little bit last week, that there are other Senate races that are in the midst of primaries where the President has weighed in with an endorsement. Florida is a good example. There is a vigorous Democratic primary going on in Florida right now, and the President weighed in in support of Congressman Patrick Murphy from Florida, even though --
Q Or Congressman Grayson, another Democrat.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. So there are a couple of examples where the President has weighed in in Democratic primaries. And I think in each case, the President and his team have carefully considered the record and agenda that is being put forward by the individual candidates. And in some cases, the President and the Vice President have chosen to weigh in.
I don’t have more detail to share with you about Ms. McGinty's race beyond what was included in the public statement. But obviously those kinds of public statements are carefully considered, and I think that's why voters in these individual states where the President does weigh in should recognize that that's a carefully considered decision. And the President only makes a decision to weigh in when he feels strongly about the benefits of one particular candidate. In most cases, it shouldn’t necessarily be considered a criticism of the other Democrats. In some cases, it might. But in many cases, it shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a criticism of any of the candidates, but rather the President's strong feelings about the potential of the candidate that he endorsed.
Q We don’t have primaries until September. Can we expect any other involvement in the internecine races for the Senate or House on the President's behalf between now and then?
MR. EARNEST: I'm confident that there will be additional endorsements. I, at this point, don’t know -- I can't telegraph at this point about whether or not there will be additional contested primaries where the President will weigh in, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out that prospect.
We'll just do a couple more. Dave.
Q Back on the Garland nomination. Senator McConnell and Senator Cornyn both said today that essentially all the money and advertising in grassroots activism that progressives had done during the Easter recess to compel Republicans to accept the confirmation hearing for the nominee were a wasted effort, because we started the Easter recess two weeks ago with three Republican senators talking about allowing confirmation hearings, and now we're back to two. Do you disagree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: I do disagree with that assessment primarily because I think what we have seen is actually a significant change in the position of many Republican senators when it comes to the prospect of having a private meeting with Chief Judge Garland. Traditionally, the private meeting is the first step in the confirmation process. So we were certainly pleased to see now more than a dozen Republican senators come out and indicate a willingness to meet with Chief Judge Garland. I recognize that many of them hastened to add that they wouldn’t vote for him, but they also -- many of them, not all of them -- but many of them started out by saying that they didn’t want to meet with him.
So I think that is at least one evidence in the kind of change that we've seen. I mentioned earlier the openness of the Senate Judiciary Committee to accepting the questionnaire from Chief Judge Garland. And I think what we will continue to see is continued pressure on Republicans. I made the reference to Senator Cotton. It begs questions now that he has met with Senator Boozman about whether or not Senator Cotton will participate in the same meetings. And once a number of these meetings have taken place, then it's going to start to beg the question, "Well, why do Republicans want to have all these private conversations with Chief Judge Garland, but yet they don’t want to have those conversations in public?" Exactly what is it they're concerned about? Are they concerned that they don’t actually have tough questions for Chief Judge Garland? Are they concerned that Chief Judge Garland would do so well in public that it would be very difficult for them to oppose him if the vote came to the floor? I'm not really sure exactly what the explanation is.
And what's true is, we have seen -- in editorials and in news stories, and even in polls -- that the position that Republicans have taken to not do their job is extraordinarily unpopular. I think I have a pretty good explanation for that. The only explanation they can put forward for why they're not doing their job is because the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. told them not to do their job. As Mr. Trump can attest, the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. is not particularly popular right now.
So I think it would be a tough case to make to voters in an election year that you're not going to do your job under any circumstances. But when your best explanation is I'm not going to do my job because the Republican leader in the Senate told me not to, I don’t think that there are many Republican voters, let alone Democrats and independents, who are going to find that an acceptable explanation. And I think that is why we're going to continue to see the pressure on Republicans continue to ramp up.
And we're going to continue to make a strong case -- not that Republicans should do the President a favor, not that the Republicans should somehow fold on their principles, but rather than Republicans should just do their job. They should meet with Chief Judge Garland. They should give him a hearing. And they should give him an up or down vote.
This is exactly what Democrats did back in 1988. That was the last time that there was a President in office who was calling on the Senate to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court in their last year in office. Democrats had the majority at the time; President Reagan was in office. Democrats at the time confirmed Justice Kennedy; they did so unanimously. We're looking to -- we're only asking Republicans to meet the same standard that Democrats did when the show was on the other foot, and we're only asking Republicans to fulfill their basic constitutional duty. And we're only asking Republicans to consider the nomination of somebody that Republicans themselves has described as a consensus candidate.
So I don’t really understand why this is complicated, but I do understand why it's so difficult for Republicans to assume a position of saying I'm not even going to consider the guy.
Q The President's event in Chicago, on Thursday, do you expect him to make those arguments that you just outlined, or talk about the judge's qualifications more? Or is he going to start going after individual Republican senators like you are today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure that I've gone after Republican senators.
Q You've been a little more specific than usual.
MR. EARNEST: I've been a little more specific. I would not anticipate that the President would be particularly specific. I think the President is interested in making a broader legal argument in the context of a law school where he previously taught constitutional law about the importance of the United States Senate doing its job and the impact that that has on public confidence in the Court -- and not just the Supreme Court, but actually the entire federal judicial system. If it gets overly politicized and starts to break down on party lines, that's going to undermine the public confidence in the notion that when it comes to interpreting the law and the rule of law, that politics should be set aside. And so you will hear the President talk a little bit more about this, and I think it's an important argument for the American people to hear.
Q Speaking of constitutional law, Secretary Clinton recently referred to the topic of abortions, saying that the unborn person doesn’t have a constitutional right. Does the President agree with her on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly talked about his view of a woman's right to make her own health care decisions. And I recognize this has gone through the wringer quite a bit. I did not see the comments of Secretary Clinton. But we can certainly do the work to pull for you President Obama's previous thoughts on this issue.
Q Well, back in 2008 he said that the topic was above his pay grade, I believe. Has he evolved on that by any chance?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it sounds like you've done a little more work in looking at his past comments than I have. So why don’t we take a look and we'll get back to you.
Thanks, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
1:30 P.M. EDT