Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/28/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any announcements at the top so we can go straight to your questions. Kevin, would you like to start?
Q Sure, thank you, Josh. Can you talk a bit about the Vice President’s surprise trip to Baghdad today? What message is he delivering on the President’s behalf to Iraqi leaders? And what does the administration hope he’ll be able to accomplish?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think this is a good indication of the United States’ continued support for Prime Minister Abadi’s efforts to unify the nation of Iraq to confront ISIL. And there are two critical priorities that Prime Minister Abadi has identified.
The first is obviously the fight on the ground that Iraqi forces are waging against ISIL inside of Iraq. That effort on the ground is strongly supported by the United States and our coalition partners. The support that we provide comes in a variety of forms. It includes airstrikes. It includes training. It includes equipment. It includes advice and assistance from U.S. Special Operations forces.
The second priority that Prime Minister Abadi has identified is pursuing a set of political reforms to fight corruption. And building confidence in the ability of Iraq’s central government to lead that country is critical. And the United States and our coalition partners are strongly supportive of Prime Minister’s Abadi’s efforts to build a government that is capable, that’s honest, and that, most importantly, has the confidence of all of Iraq’s diverse population.
So the vice presidential visit is an effort to underscore our support for Prime Minister Abadi’s commitment to those priorities.
Q Today’s GDP report indicates the economy grew by 0.5 percent the first quarter. The President has been quite vocal about how well the economy is doing. Does this report undercut those arguments? And what does he think the federal government should be doing differently to rev up the economy during the remainder of his tenure?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the strength of the U.S. economy I think speaks for itself when you take a look at the numbers. Obviously, the numbers that we’re most attuned to are the jobs numbers. And the U.S. economy is currently on the longest streak of private sector job growth in our nation’s history -- 73 consecutive months, for a total of 14.4 million private sector jobs. That’s a remarkable streak, and demonstrate the resilience of the U.S. economy.
The durability of the U.S. economy is the envy of the world. And there’s no denying the important progress that we’ve made in digging out of the hole created by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But of course there’s more that we believe should be done. The President has spent years making the case to Republicans in Congress that there is more that could be done that would strengthen our economy, expand economic opportunity for the middle class, and lay a foundation for our nation’s long-term strength for the decades ahead. And that includes investments in infrastructure. The President is quoted in a story today talking about how, frankly, the United States missed an opportunity over the last couple of years to make critical investments in infrastructure while interest rates were low, while the construction sector was not as strong as it previously was.
And it’s unfortunate that years have gone by where that opportunity has been missed. But the President -- they weren’t missed because the President wasn’t encouraging Congress to take that action. Frankly, the reason that opportunity was missed was because of Republicans’ stubborn refusal to consider any priority that President Obama has identified. That’s unfortunate.
And the President has also been a strong advocate of raising the minimum wage. That certainly would bring more fairness to our economy, particularly for hardworking Americans. At the current level of the minimum wage, the average person who’s working full time being paid minimum wage and raising a family of four is doing so below the poverty line. That’s not fair. It’s not good for our economy. And it’s inconsistent with the strategy that the President has laid out to grow our economy from the middle out.
Making investments in the middle class and those who are trying to get into the middle class is the surest way to have a strong economy in the United States in the near term, but also to enhance our prospects for preserving our economic strength over the long term.
Q So is the 0.5 percent growth something the administration feels good about?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we feel good about are the longer-term trends as they relate to the most effective measures of our economy. And even taking a look at the most persistent components of output, which are consumption and fixed investment, those rose by 2.6 percent over the last four quarters. That an indication of a durable economy demonstrating some resilience.
There surely is more. We would like to see those numbers be even better. But our proposals for improving those numbers have fallen upon deaf ears when it comes to the Republicans who are in charge of Congress right now.
Q And are you saying that the growth rate as it stood in the first quarter is an indirect result of Republicans failing to go along with increased spending for infrastructure, minimum wage increases?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no denying that there are a wide variety of economic indicators that would be stronger if Republicans in Congress had seized the initiative three or four years ago and made critical investments in our infrastructure.
As the Vice President himself often says, we know we need it. It’s not as if this would be funding that wouldn’t have direct benefits for the American people. There’s plenty of critical investment projects that would improve our economy and improve quality of life here in the United States. A whole host of road and bridge projects, airport upgrades, even laying new rail lines that would improve the economy and improve the quality of life in communities all across the country. So that's money that would be well spent in this projects. It also would stimulate economic growth and create jobs.
So I would hesitate to draw a line between one spending proposal and one economic indicator, but there's no denying that the longer-term trends would be even better than they already are if Republicans had followed the President's advice.
Fortunately, there are some things that we were able to do without strong Republican support -- things like the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform, all of which did have positive benefits for our economy that we continue to enjoy. The vast majority -- those things were passed even though the vast majority of Republicans who were in office at the time opposed them. And we continue to look for additional ways to strengthen our economy, even in the face of unprecedented Republican obstruction in Congress.
Q House Speaker Paul Ryan says he's invited Prime Minister Modi to address a joint meeting of Congress on June 8th. Will the Prime Minister be coming to the White House as well?
MR. EARNEST: The White House has been in close touch with a range of Indian officials to discuss a potential visit by Prime Minister Modi to Washington. We're still engaged in those discussions. Obviously the President has a strong working relationship with Prime Minister Modi. President Obama has complimented the important role that Prime Minister Modi played in Paris, in ensuring the successful completion of the Paris climate talks. The President had a long meeting with Prime Minister Modi in the context of that international meeting. Prime Minister Modi attended and participated in the Nuclear Security Summit that was convened here in Washington just last month. And, of course, President Obama at the beginning of last year had an opportunity to be the guest of honor at India's Republic Day celebration. That obviously was a memorable visit for the President and he was the first President to be so honored, and he accepted an invitation that had been extended by Prime Minister Modi.
So they obviously have a strong working relationship, and we're in conversations with them about scheduling a visit.
Q There was an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria, on a hospital -- dozens of patients and doctors killed. Can you tell us anything about that, and who might have been responsible, and what it means for the pause?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tim, we strongly condemn the wave of airstrikes and shelling that have killed more than 60 people in Aleppo in just the last 24 hours. We're particularly appalled by an airstrike on an MSF-supported hospital in Aleppo that killed at least 14 patients and three doctors, including, reportedly, one of the last pediatricians in the city.
This particular airstrike on the MSF-supported facility follows multiple airstrikes over the course of this week that were reportedly carried out by the Assad regime. In particular, we saw the Assad regime carry out a strike against a Syrian civil defense station in the town of Al-Atareb in Aleppo Province. It's believed that five members of the civil defense have been killed, and many more innocent people were injured.
This attack fits the Assad regime's abhorrent pattern of striking first-responders. More than 100 first-responders have been killed in action, and many are killed in what are often referred to as double-tap strikes, and this is where after a strike has been carried out on a location, forces, including airplanes, will sometimes return to that location after first-responders have arrived to try to treat the injured and another strike is carried out that results in first-responders themselves being victims.
These tactics are abhorrent, they're immoral, but unfortunately they're entirely consistent with the actions that we've seen from the Assad regime for quite some time. This does place even more pressure on an already fragile cessation of hostilities. And it's the continued violation of that cessation of hostilities by the Assad regime and supporting forces that is also having a negative impact on the political talks.
The other concern that the United States and the international community continues to have is how the violations of the cessation of hostilities are affecting the ability of the international community to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to innocent Syrians who are caught in the crossfire there. When we initially brokered the cessation of hostilities a couple of months ago, we discussed how one of the potential important benefits of implementing the cessation of hostilities was creating the space for humanitarian relief and supplies to be delivered to these communities that have been under so much pressure for years now.
So our concerns remain significant, and you'll recall that President Obama had an opportunity to speak with President Putin I guess a couple of weeks ago now to reinforce our view that the Russian President should use his influence with the Assad regime to encourage them to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities. And we certainly believe that there is more the Russians can do to affect that result.
Q Just to be clear, you're saying it's consistent with what the regime has done, so this attack was likely the regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is an attack that just occurred overnight, so I can't offer up a full assessment. But it certainly is consistent with the kinds of tactics we've seen the Assad regime use all across the country.
Q And the U.N. has said that if the talks deteriorate, that President Putin and Obama should intervene. Is there any move towards them talking again about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any upcoming conversations to tell you about at this point. Obviously the United States is deeply engaged in encouraging all parties to the cessation of hostilities to return to the negotiating table. And President Obama talked about this at some length with the GCC partners, GCC countries that the President met with last week in Saudi Arabia. And the United States continues to use our influence to encourage the parties to participate in the talks constructively. And we believe that there is more that the Russians can do to use their influence to convince the Assad regime to abide by the cessation of hostilities and to facilitate constructive political negotiations.
Q Just on the Trump speech yesterday, you don't have to watch the whole thing to determine that the allies are becoming a little bit less forthcoming with criticism of Trump. Is this a worry to the administration? As he becomes more likely to become the nominee, our allies are becoming less likely -- less vocal in criticizing him.
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't know that there are many allies that have spent a lot of time weighing in on the U.S. presidential race. I think they understand that certainly their opinion matters, but ultimately, the opinion that matters the most is that of the voters. And as I mentioned before, the voters across the country will consider the actions and policies and priorities of all of the candidates as they decide who they want to support to succeed President Obama. But, ultimately, that will be a decision for the American people to make.
Q While the President was traveling, I mean, just on that same subject, so he's in Britain, delivering his incredibly lengthy, detailed opinion on a referendum that the British people will undertake. But when Cameron was asked directly about Donald Trump and then later Merkel was asked, they wouldn't say anything. And this was kind of in the spirit of let's all share our opinions with our allies. Is the administration disappointed that they would say nothing to weigh in on the election in that way?
MR. EARNEST: No, not at all. I think the President answered this pretty directly when he noted that when he was traveling to London, the supporters of the Brexit campaign were describing all sorts of views to the U.S. government about how we would react to the U.K. leaving the EU. And the President felt like it was appropriate, since the critics are offering up their view about what the United States should do, it only seems appropriate that the President of the United States, while he's in the U.K., explain what the United States would do and how we would react to that particular situation.
So I think that is what gives the President important credibility in explaining to the British people as they consider this important decision exactly how the United States would be affected. And the President did not somehow suggest that the British people should decide based on the U.S. view. In fact, the President made clear that this is a decision that British voters should make based on their own calculations about what's in the best interest of their country. And that obvious acknowledgement -- or the acknowledgement of the obvious sovereignty of the British government and the British people is something that the President pointed out on a number of occasions.
Q So when world leaders weigh in on the American election, is that helpful, harmful, or neither, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think ultimately it's up to them to decide what views they want to share and what impact they expect those views will have. I think ultimately the American people will carefully consider the options they have before them and express a preference.
Q So if they had taken that -- in this big spirit of sharing our opinions -- if they had taken that opportunity to slam Donald Trump, which was obviously kind of the point of the question, would you have seen that as helpful? Would you have preferred that they took that opportunity?
MR. EARNEST: I think it would have depended entirely on what they had chosen to say.
Q And in his interview with The New York Times, the President said that he regretted not promoting better the country's economic recovery. If it had been promoted better, what exactly would that have looked like? In what ways would that have happened? And so is the administration doing that now, and in what way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think what the President was referring to is something that he's observed before, which is that, in the earliest days of his presidency, the country was facing a historically dire economic environment. And there were a variety of crises that were coming to a head all at the same time. You didn’t just have the financial markets spiraling out of control; you had the U.S. housing market poised to fall off a cliff. In some communities, I think it probably did; it could be described as having fallen off a cliff.
You had the U.S. auto industry on the verge of bankruptcy, potentially costing a million jobs, and a variety of other measures related to job creation and economic growth were all moving rapidly in the wrong direction. And the President and his team were rapidly responding to these crises and making difficult policy decisions that ultimately, seven years later, have yielded tremendous progress. At the time, there frankly wasn’t the time and space to spend a whole lot of time selling publicly the wisdom of those policies. The President instead -- rather than being focused and concerned about the press coverage, 24 hours after the policy was announced -- was much more focused on the economic impact of those policies over the next several years. And by that measure, there is no denying the tremendous success of this administration in responding to the largest economic crisis in America in several generations.
Q So is that selling of it happening now, as we lead up to an election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think I would describe it as selling, no. I think that there is a desire on the part of the President and the rest of the administration to help the American people understand exactly what's happened over the last six or seven years. And the reason for that is simply we've seen what works. We understand that an economic approach that focuses on expanding economic opportunity for the middle class is the best way to strengthen our economy and to ensure the strength of our economy for future generations.
And the President does want to make a powerful case to the American people that the strategy and approach that he took is the right one and, frankly, is the strategy that future Presidents should follow, or at least should be the basis of their approach as well. The reason I say that is, look, the economy is a dynamic thing, so it's always going to change, and it means that different Presidents are going to face different economic challenges. But in an approach that's rooted in growing our economy from the middle out, focused on making investments in our workforce and not focused on retreating from the international community, looking for ways to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, reduce the deficit, but also invest in infrastructure and in clean energy -- that's a smart approach and one that has laid the groundwork for a strong recovery.
And it's important for people to understand the linkage between those policies and our recovery, because that's the best way for people to understand how future Presidents should approach these issues.
Q And just very quickly, on the Aleppo bombing, is it too early to rule out that a U.S. plane was in the vicinity yesterday as Russia is saying, or can you rule that out?
MR. EARNEST: I'd encourage you to check with the Department of Defense on that. They can give you some updated information. I certainly have not heard anything to lend any credibility to that kind of a statement, but check with DOD.
Q Okay. And former Speaker Boehner is saying that Ted Cruz is "Lucifer in the flesh." (Laughter.) Is that helpful, harmful? Does the President agree with that? What's your reaction to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously Speaker Boehner was speaking based on his own experience. (Laughter.) And I’m not sure that he was trying to do -- I don’t know that he was looking to be helpful or harmful; I think he was just looking to be honest about his own view.
Q Just being honest. But when words like that are used and phrases and descriptions are thrown out there, as they have been in this election, do you consider that crossing a line?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think if you’re looking for somebody to come to the defense of one Republican who’s being attacked by another, you should probably ask somebody else.
Q I have a couple for you. One is, a doctor recently reported that CENTCOM’s new report on the bombing in Kunduz is going to come out tomorrow night. Has the President been briefed on the new CENTCOM report? Has it altered his understanding of what happened in that incident?
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, as you know, there has been a long-running investigation that was conducted by the Department of Defense I believe out of Central Command to investigate this terrible tragedy in Kunduz. I don’t know at this point whether or not the President has been recently updated on that ongoing investigation, but it obviously has been going on for some time no. And when the results are made available, they’ll be made available to the public by the Department of Defense. And I’m confident that the President will at least be briefed on the findings, if not actually read the report himself.
Q Okay. And then the second one is back in 2013 at the National Defense University, the President talked about refining and ultimately repealing the 2001 AUMF. I’m wondering, under what circumstances could that actually happen now in the remaining months that he has in office? What series of steps do you see as necessary in order to be able to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, this was part of the strategy that we laid out -- I guess it was at the beginning of last year -- for congressional passage of a new authorization to use military force against ISIL.
What we had suggested that Congress should do is pass a new authorization to use military force that would cover our actions against ISIL. That would allow Congress to then take the step of repealing the 2002 AUMF, and further refine the 2001 AUMF in a way that would more narrowly tailor the authorization that had been given to the executive branch. So that’s the approach that we took. We actually sent up legislative language that would have effected all of these changes. But the President also asked senior members of his national security team to travel up to Capitol Hill and testify under oath on camera, before Congress, to encourage them to take these steps. But unfortunately, like so many other things we think that Congress should so obviously do, Republicans have failed to act.
Q But just to be totally clear, unless there’s a new ISIL AUMF you can’t do away with 2001, right? That’s your current understanding of the --
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said, Olivier, is that the actions that the President has already ordered against ISIL -- and these are the actions that we’ve taken in both Iraq and in Syria -- and I believe even some of the actions that we’ve taken in other places, including, like, Libya -- are covered by the 2001 AUMF. The 2001 AUMF does refer to al Qaeda, and there still are places around the world where there are al Qaeda networks that -- where the United States is taking action to limit their threat to the United States.
So we do believe that we still need to have the authority to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and, where necessary, continue to apply pressure to al Qaeda affiliates around the globe. So we do believe that authorization is necessary. We believe that authorization could be given in a way that’s much more narrowly tailored than it currently is under the 2001 authorization to use military force.
Q Josh, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was on Capitol Hill this morning testifying against bringing in Guantanamo inmates to South Carolina, saying it would harm the business climate and tourism, and make South Carolina a target for terrorists. And also, in Colorado, there was a bill defeated that would have gone on record opposing any inmates going there, but even some Democrats there don’t want inmates transferred. So what are the chances that the President can follow through on his plan to close that prison?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Pam, we’re going to continue to make a forceful case to Congress that the most effective way to deal with the prison at Guantanamo Bay is to seek to transfer those individuals who can be safely transferred under the right security constraints to other countries, and bring the remaining number of inmates to a secure facility in the United States where they can be prevented from harming the American people, and where, in many cases, they can be brought to justice.
The truth is there are dozens of dangerous, convicted terrorists who are on American soil in American prisons right now. That doesn’t pose an undue threat to the American people. It doesn’t make any state a target. What it does demonstrate is that the United States of America can live up to our values that we seek to advance all around the world even as we protect the American homeland. And that consistency is powerful.
What’s also powerful is the inconsistency of the situation at the prison at Guantanamo Bay right now. And we know that there are extremist organizations that use the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool.
We also know that continuing to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a waste of money. We could detain those individuals in a much more cost-effective, efficient fashion in the United States than we currently do at Guantanamo Bay. So both for reasons related to taxpayer dollars and to national security, it's not just the President who is making this argument; it's his predecessor, a Republican President made this argument. The foreign policy experts on both sides of the aisle have made this argument. Retired military leaders who devoted a significant portion of their career to keeping the American people safe agree with this argument. So we're going to continue to make our case to Congress and we're still pressing ahead because this is a top priority.
Q Given the fact that Congress has banned transferring prisoners back here, does the President believe he has an executive authority to somehow move them to a military base?
MR. EARNEST: What we're focused on right now, Pam, is pursuing an option that doesn't really require a whole lot of congressional approval or coordination, it just requires Congress to get out of the way. Congress has erected barriers that have prevented the administration from taking common-sense steps that would achieve this goal, and we're just asking Congress to take them away.
Q Can I take that a step farther? What would happen, then -- were you successful in emptying the prison -- to the facility there, the land there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at that point, you'd have to talk to the Department of Defense about how to most effectively make use of that facility. We obviously would not transfer prisoners or detainees there, but this is military land that's controlled by the United States.
Q And there would be no interest in ceding it back to the Cuban government?
MR. EARNEST: No, we've ruled that out.
Q Okay, good. I want to ask you about home-ownership rates. They're down near a 48-year lows. Does the President view that in a positive light, insomuch as there's more stabilization, there's less risk, perhaps, in the marketplace, or is it a negative that fewer Americans are participating in the so-called American Dream of home ownership?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen those latest statistics. I can tell you that, obviously, we have seen home prices rise significantly over the last few years. That has obviously enhanced the wealth of a lot of Americans who have their household wealth tied up in the value of their home.
Q Or in some cases replenished the wealth that they lost.
MR. EARNEST: That's true, in some cases, there were homeowners who saw the value of their home plunge under water, which is to say the value of their home was less than the value of their mortgage. But we have seen the housing market recover quite strongly in a number of communities across the country, and that's been a good thing. That's good for the local economy precisely because there are so many middle-class families who have their wealth tied up in their homes.
Q But does the President think lower home-ownership rates is, in general, a good thing, or not a good thing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously families themselves have to make these decisions. I just can't give you a specific analysis of the numbers because I haven't seen them.
Q Okay, cool. Puerto Rico, I want to ask you about the so-called super bailout, super Chapter 9, super bankruptcy, whatever the latest descriptor is. What is the President's plan to advance the football on this? Because the clock is ticking.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this will give me a good opportunity to make clear it's not a bailout. So people who say that that's the case are wrong. And I suspect in many cases they have an ulterior financial motive that is not consistent with the best interest of the United States.
The fact of the matter is the administration put forward a very specific plan back on October 21st of last year -- 190 days ago -- laying out exactly what we believe should be done to address the situation in Puerto Rico. Again, it was not a proposed bailout, it actually was a proposal to give the Puerto Rican government exactly the same kind of restructuring authority that local cities across the country have.
What it also would do, it would also bring some accountability to ensure that the Puerto Rican government was also implementing the kinds of fiscal reforms that would be taken in the context of this kind of restructuring. There are other things that would improve the economic situation in Puerto Rico that we have proposed that would have a corresponding positive impact on their fiscal situation, so we have also suggested that we should reform Puerto Rico's Medicaid program and that we should give Puerto Rico access to the earned-income tax credit. The earned-income tax credit, of course, is something that many Republicans have acknowledged can be effective in stimulating economic growth and fighting poverty. It sounds like a pretty good recipe for addressing the tough situation in Puerto Rico.
Look, we're talking about 3 million Americans that live in Puerto Rico, and right now you've got Republicans who have essentially turned a blind eye to their plight. And the longer that Republicans put off finding this solution, the more likely it becomes that they'll have to resort to a bailout. Those are just the facts. And that's why the administration continues to make a strong case that Congress should act now. In fact, they should have acted months ago to address this situation so that Puerto Rico could get their finances under control, so that we could make sure that the situation in Puerto Rico doesn't deteriorate even further.
Here's one other thing that we know, just to make this even more complicated. We know that there are a lot of Americans who travel regularly to Puerto Rico because they have family there or they're going to vacation there, and we know that the Zika virus is in Puerto Rico. And because of the fiscal challenges that the government is having there, that it's having a negative impact on the public health system in Puerto Rico.
So we need to address this -- there are a variety of reasons that we need to address this situation, and the problem only gets worse as Republicans in Congress drag their feet.
Q Is the President in conversation with Speaker Ryan, for example, on this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any recent presidential-level conversations to tell you about. But the White House has been in touch with, on a regular basis over the last 190 days, with members of Congress in both parties to try to advance a solution here.
Q Just a couple more. On the Vice President's trip to Iraq, this follows visit by your Defense Secretary, your Secretary of State, as well. I think there might be some who would look at that and say, well, it must be pretty bad if all these high-level people are going over there. How concerned is the President at the deterioration of Iraq? Or am I over-reading that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, you heard the President in Riyadh talk about his concern about the tough political situation inside of Iraq right now. The good news is, just in the last 24 or 36 hours, we did see the Iraqi parliament move to confirm a majority of appointees that Prime Minister Abadi had made to his cabinet. That's good news. And that is sort of a welcome -- that's welcome progress when it comes to pursuing the kinds of political reforms that Prime Minister Abadi has identified as critical to effectively governing the country.
What's also true, Kevin, is we've also seen some important progress over the last several months in rolling back ISIL from territory in Iraq that they previously controlled. And that progress was the result of intensive coordination between Iraqi forces and coalition forces. And the President has rolled out some ideas in just the last couple of weeks about how to further intensify that coordination and that cooperation. And that President is hopeful that Iraqi forces will continue to make progress in laying the groundwork to eventually drive ISIL out of the second-largest city in Iraq.
Q Last one. What does the President believe about this idea of the bison becoming the de facto mammal of the United States of America? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I've seen some of the reporting on this, but I have not seen --
Q (Inaudible) Buffalo -- this is important to me.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I can imagine that that would be the case. But I haven’t heard the President weigh in with a view. But maybe somebody will have an opportunity to ask him at some point.
Q The House Armed Services Committee voted yesterday to approve an amendment -- a very tight vote, 32-30 -- that would require women to register for the selective service. Does the Commander-in-Chief believe that he would sign that legislation if it reaches his desk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, that's a good question. Obviously this is an issue that is going to attract a lot of attention, and understandably so. There's not much that I can say about it, however, because this is the subject of some ongoing litigation. You've seen recent announcements from the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, that would give more women who are in the military the opportunity to defend their country in more roles. And the President obviously has welcomed that progress. He certainly believes that makes our fighting forces even stronger.
And the other thing that we know to be true is that men and women have served in our all-volunteer force, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, with distinction and with courage and with bravery. And it's because of their service and their sacrifice -- both men and women -- that we're safer, and that we enjoy so many of the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. The President certainly does not take them for granted. And the President has often talked about how serving as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States military is the greatest honor. And that certainly is true because of the service and sacrifice that American men and women have made in our military.
Q Has it given him any pause to think that perhaps his daughters would have to sign up for selective service?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, at this point I can't weigh in on the specific proposal just because it is a subject of litigation.
Q More generally then, Charlie Rangel, pretty much every year that he's been in Congress, has called to reinstitute the draft vote. Does the President support that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t heard the President articulate his support for that. Obviously, we do have a system. Currently, the U.S. military functions at a high level, even though it is an all-volunteer force. And like I said, the President is quite proud of the service and bravery and professionalism of our all-volunteer force. And even in some very difficult situations, men and women of the United States military have demonstrated their mettle. But at this point, I have not heard the President express support for that proposal.
Q And then a small follow-up on the 2001 AUMF. We talked about the authority to fight al Qaeda wherever it may be, whether it's Libya or Afghanistan.
MR. EARNEST: Yemen.
Q Yemen. What about Bangladesh? There was that horrific killing over the last weekend that we spoke about a few days ago. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for that. Does the President feel that he's got the authority to go there and maybe approve an airstrike or something?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously I’m not going to talk about any operations that may be contemplated by the President or his national security team. I can just tell you that the President takes very seriously the responsibility that he has as the Commander-in-Chief to order the United States military to take action and protect the American people. And the President has not hesitated to do that.
There are a variety of circumstances in a variety of countries where he has asked our men and women to go into harm’s way to protect us. And we’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of the President ordering the operation to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield. Obviously, that mission was successful, again, because of the courage and bravery and enormous skill of our men and women in uniform.
And the President won’t hesitate. And I think that’s as clear an example as you could ask for of the President not hesitating to take the steps that he believes are necessary as Commander-in-Chief to protect the American people.
Q I have a question about Aleppo. You talked about what the Russians can do or should be doing. And in the past, U.S. officials have talked about the presence of al-Nusra Front, and about how Russians have gone after them. And since they fall outside of the ceasefire, it makes the situation more complicated. So I’m wondering what message the U.S. is sending to Russians in terms of the bombings and what should be done.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the message that we’re sending to the Russians is a direct one, and that is that they need to abide by the cessation of hostilities that they signed onto, and they need to use their influence with the Assad regime to do the same.
The United States has certainly fulfilled our commitment to doing that, both in terms of our own actions, but also in terms of using our leverage with other parties to abide by the cessation of hostilities. The reason that we have done that is because it is critical for these political talks to progress. And one of the goals of the cessation of hostilities was to reduce the violence so that the political conversations could move forward. And we have seen the political talks waver because a cessation of hostilities has been increasingly fragile.
So we continue to be quite concerned about the situation, and we continue to impress upon the Russians the priority that we believe they should place on the successful implementation of the cessation of hostilities.
Let me also say that we acknowledge that the situation on the ground in Syria is chaotic. It’s complicated. And there are situations where there are forces like Nusra who are not part of the cessation of hostilities where their forces get comingled with forces that are part of the cessation of hostilities.
So that is what is going to prevent the clean implementation of the cessation of hostilities. We acknowledge that there are going to be some complications. And even in the run-up to the implementation of the cessation of hostilities, we acknowledged that there would be some bumps in the road. We acknowledged that there were likely to be some violations. We acknowledged there would likely be some ambiguity. In fact, the cessation includes a mechanism for evaluating potential violations to try to remove the ambiguity of the situation and get to the bottom of what exactly is happening.
So as with everything in Syria, it’s complicated. But what’s not complicated is the way that the United States has prioritized the successful implementation of the cessation of hostilities. And what’s not complicated is the message that we have delivered to the Russians that they should use their influence with the Assad regime and communicate the same message.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Looks like you have some help today. (Laughter.)
Q I do. It’s “Take Your Reporter To Work Day,” or "Child Reporter To Work Day."
MR. EARNEST: Excellent.
Q She has a burning question for you about equal pay in soccer. (Laughter.) You can think about that for a minute.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think the President has spoken pretty powerfully today.
Q He did. He sounded like he was kind of outraged on behalf of the women.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q All right. A quick follow-up on the draft. You said the President hasn’t expressed support, but has he ruled it out? You sounded a little more open to it than I expected.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just meant to convey that I haven’t heard him weigh in publicly on this. And so I think -- I was just trying answer the question in the spirit in which John offered it, which was does the President support it, and I haven’t heard him say that he supports it. But I’m not trying to signal any new openness to a proposal like that.
Q Okay. On the accidental bombing at the MSF hospital in Afghanistan, would the President be satisfied to learn that that had resulted only in one suspension and a few reprimands by letter? Would that send a strong enough message about how seriously the U.S. takes this incident?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, I’m not going to prejudge the outcome at this point. There obviously is an independent investigation that’s been conducted. And over the last several months that this investigation has been conducted, we’ve gone to great lengths to try to protect the independence of the investigation.
So I’m reluctant to comment in much detail on it until the results have been produced. But the President was direct in the immediate aftermath of this incident that accountability is important. And that is something that was communicated to the military leadership, and they have undertaken this independent investigation because they recognize that accountability is important as well. But I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of the investigation at this point.
Q Many international aid organizations had specifically asked that criminal charges be seriously considered. Do you know if the President specifically asked the Pentagon to look at that?
MR. EARNEST: The President has also respected the independent nature of the investigation and has not insisted upon one course or the other when it comes to conducting the investigation.
Q But the President hasn’t been informed of an outcome, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: That’s my understanding. I’m certainly not aware that he has been at this point.
Q Just on that issue, the main concern of MSF when that happened was that they alleged it was a war crime, specifically a war crime. Is that claim going to be addressed, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what will be included in the findings of the report. But once a report has been issued, I know that the Department of Defense is planning to make as much of that report public as they can. And so we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate what they considered.
Q And again, do you know specifically if the issue of a war crime was communicated to the military by the President or anybody else as a matter of investigation? I guess the question essentially -- was it taken that seriously by the Pentagon whether or not a war crime was committed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I know is that this is an investigation that the Department of Defense did take very seriously. And I know the President is interested in understanding the results of the investigation. But in terms of how the investigation was conducted, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. And I suspect it will be a little easier for them to have that conversation with you once a report has been issued.
Q So one thing. Tomorrow there's a smart gun technology issue, there's a proposal. There's what exactly tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we'll have more that we can talk about tomorrow. The President announced earlier this year a whole set of executive actions to try to make our communities safer from gun violence. And under discussion was exploring what kind of technology could be effectively used to make guns safer. And so this is something that a variety of federal agencies have reviewed, and they'll have some findings to share.
Q So this is going to be a report of findings, not necessarily an administrative requirement to do something, or an order?
MR. EARNEST: Once we've made an announcement, we can evaluate exactly what the request is.
Q Is there anything else from the gun smart -- the common-sense, as you call it, gun control front that we can expect any time soon?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I have to give you a head's up on right now.
Q Thanks, Josh. Congress is about to take a week recess, and there's been little process on the Zika funding supplemental. Is there a particular timeline? Do you have to have a certain amount of funding by a certain time?
MR. EARNEST: Cheryl, the thing that we know is that as we get closer to the summer, the risk from the Zika virus only increases. And it's a shame that Republicans in Congress have refused to move the ball forward in giving our public health professionals the resources that they need to protect the American people from Zika. This is a public health emergency -- that's what our public health experts have told us. They don't have a political agenda; they're just trying to keep people safe and healthy. And for some reason, that doesn't appear to be high on the agenda of congressional Republicans. If it were, this is the kind of supplemental funding package that should be able to pass pretty quickly.
Let me give you a -- there's a relevant example that I would cite for you. In 2009, there were significant concerns about an H1-N1 flu pandemic having a significant impact on the United States. When Democrats were in charge of the Congress, they acted rather quickly to appropriate more than $7 billion to ensure that the country could prepare for that kind of pandemic. I would point out that this was something that was referred to as a no-year spending request that we put forward; there were not constraints about which fiscal year it would apply to.
And I know this is just the latest excuse that we've heard from Republicans about why they haven't acted. They've suggested that they need a more detailed breakdown of which fiscal year the funding would be used. The truth is, we can't fund the fight against Zika a few months at a time. In order to effectively, for example, develop and test and manufacture a vaccine that can be used to protect more than 300 million American citizens, that's a multiyear effort that we're talking about. And that's an undertaking that the private sector will have to commit to.
So if we're going to ask the private sector to commit to a multiyear effort to develop a vaccine, then Congress needs to make a commitment to a multiyear effort to fund it. That's the way that we're going to protect the American people, and there's no reason that this should get bogged down in the kind of political gamesmanship that Republicans, for some reason, seem to delight in, even in the face of a public health emergency.
Q I'm just wondering if there's any sort of deadline.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think in many ways you could say that the deadline for this funding has passed, because you had the director of the National Institutes of Health standing at this podium three weeks ago, saying that he didn't have all of the resources that he felt like he needed to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. So I think by that standard, which is an entirely reasonable one, Republicans have missed the deadline, and that puts the American people at risk. And I don't know how they're going to explain it when they go on recess next week.
Q Josh, yesterday the governor of Tennessee signed into law a bill that would allow therapists to deny services based on s sincerely held belief that seemed to enable LGBT discrimination in the name of religious freedom. You've spoken out against measures like this before. Do you have a reaction to this one?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the details of this particular piece of legislation. I can just tell you as a general matter, Chris, as you've heard me say on a number of occasions in the last few weeks, the administration believes strongly in fairness, in equality, and justice. And we believe in bills that promote fairness, equality, and justice, and we are strongly opposed to any legislative effort to undermine protections for any American. And I will acknowledge I'm not familiar with the intricacies of this particular legislation, but that principle is one that the President believes strongly in. And it's not just the way he evaluates federal measures, but when we choose to weigh in on state and local matters, it's an important criteria.
Q Coming off of the President's trip overseas last week, do these laws seem to enable anti-LGBT discrimination in these states? Have they undermined U.S. efforts -- U.S. advocacy for LGBT and human rights overseas in places like Saudi Arabia?
MR. EARNEST: Not when it comes to the President. The President continues to be a forceful advocate for human rights everywhere he goes. He views that as part of the job description. And he also has his own personal conviction about a lot of these issues, and he's eager to use the platform of the presidency of the United States to try to influence other countries and to persuade them that respect for basic, universal human rights should be a priority. And he certainly did make that case when he was in Saudi Arabia, and not for the first time, I would point out.
Q Well, I just bring that up because during the news conference in London, the President was asked to address the North Carolina and Mississippi laws, in response to the travel advisory that Britain has placed on North Carolina and Mississippi as a result of those laws. And I'm just wondering, in addition to that news conference, did these laws come up privately at all with discussions with any of the leaders overseas?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of.
Q And finally, are having these laws in place undermining efforts at the domestic level, at the federal level to further advance LGBT rights such as lifting the ban on transgender military service?
MR. EARNEST: No, I'm not aware of any impact that these state laws have had on those policies. So, no, I'm not aware of any impact it had.
Q And just to be clear, you're not aware of any obstacles stopping, blocking the change at the Pentagon to allow transgender military service, other than the process itself at the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST: That's right. There is this ongoing process, and I'm not aware that the state law -- that any state law that's been passed has had any impact on it.
Francesca. Nice to see you.
Q Nice to see you as well. It's the White House Correspondents Dinner this weekend. It's the President's last one.
MR. EARNEST: So I've heard. (Laughter.)
Q Yes, so you've heard. It's amazing how many people are in town all of a sudden. And it's the President's last one. And last year, at the dinner, he came up with a bucket list. And I was wondering how you think that the President is doing on that bucket list -- and if you'd like, I can remind you of some of the things that were on it -- but also, what he might plan to add to that in his final year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has certainly enjoyed taking things off his bucket list. I'm not aware of any recent additions to that list, but we're always open to suggestions. So if you have any suggestions, send them my way. I'll make sure that they get into the proper hands.
Q I'll come prepared tomorrow.
MR. EARNEST: There you go. But look, the President is looking forward to the dinner. He always enjoys the opportunity to spend some time delivering a light-hearted speech for a change. And I know he's looking forward to Saturday.
Q Can you give us a preview? Any jokes?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. That would spoil the surprise.
Q On the Aleppo situation, as you noted, this hospital bombing, the latest atrocity committed apparently by the Assad regime, killed the last pediatrician or one of the last pediatricians in Aleppo. It sort of raises the question, once again, under what circumstances would the administration respond against the Assad regime for civilian casualties? Syrian civilian casualties? This is not like the U.S. bombing of the hospital in Kabul. There's a long history of the Assad regime not only disregarding civilian safety, but directly targeting civilians. So it's not like this might be a one-time accident. Under what circumstances would the U.S. consider making some sort of military response to a civilian atrocity committed by the Assad regime? And are you developing options along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of consideration of any military response at this point as a result of this particular incident. I do think it underscores what you are noting, which is that the Assad regime, tragically, has a long history of using that country's military might to attack innocent civilians. And it's why we have made a strong case that President Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead that country. How could you possibly lead and unite a country whose citizens you've spent the better part of five years attacking?
So this actually reflects the failure of President Assad's political leadership, because he's had to resort to using the military might of the country to attack his own constituents. So that's why we've made a strong case that President Assad needs to go, and Syrian leadership that actually reflects the will of the Syrian people with the capacity to actually unite the country to face down the threat that is posed by ISIL -- that's what's required. And that's what we are trying to bring about.
But the process has been difficult, in part because we have seen countries like Russia that have made a tragic decision to prop him up. And that has prolonged this conflict. And we have -- that's why we have continued to urge the Russians to pursue a different approach and to try to persuade the Assad regime to, first of all, live up to the cessation of hostilities and stop targeting innocent people, but second of all, engage in the kind of political talks that are necessary to resolve the political turmoil inside of Syria. And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to get at the root of all that plagues Syria and all of the consequences that has yielded.
Q Are there atrocities against civilians that would cause us to intervene against the Assad regime directly?
MR. EARNEST: It’s hard to entertain a hypothetical like that. But our profound concern about the humanitarian situation inside of Syria is well documented. And that’s why the United States has been the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance. Because of assistance provided by the United States, some humanitarian relief has been provided to people in Syria who need it.
It’s why the United States has been a strong advocate of the U.N.-facilitated political talks to try to bring about the kind of political solution that would bring an end to the violence inside of Syria. It’s why we have regularly been in touch with the Russians to encourage them to use their influence with the Assad regime to live up to the cessation of hostilities and engage in the political talks.
So the United States has been at the forefront of this effort to bring an end to the violence for years. But what’s happening in Syria is a genuine tragedy, and millions of lives have been affected. And the United States is well aware of that, and is playing a leading role in trying to resolve the situation.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Two questions. One, let me go back to Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the White House. So much has been going on and happening between the two countries, U.S. and India, so many high-level visits, including the finance minister of India met with the Secretary of Treasury. And also, yesterday, foreign secretary of India met with the National Security Advisor, Madam Rice. Did that meeting include the state visit of Prime Minister Modi to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been in discussions with our Indian counterparts about a potential visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington. Those discussions continue. I don’t have any updates on them at this point. But obviously the President values the working relationship he has with Prime Minister Modi, and I wouldn’t rule out a potential visit.
Q And last time, when the President visited India, his goal to visit Agra, Taj Mahal. The people of Agra are still waiting for his visit, that if he’s going to take the First Family to the Taj Mahal that he couldn’t make last time because of Saudi King’s death.
MR. EARNEST: The President was quite disappointed to not have an opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal on his last visit to India. As you point out, that had originally been part of the itinerary, but the President had to cut short his visit to India because of the untimely death of the King of Saudi Arabia. So the President traveled to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects at that point.
I wish I could promise -- I think the President wishes I could promise that he would have an opportunity to visit Taj Mahal before the end of his presidency, but I’m not sure that will happen.
Q And second, last week at the Council on Foreign Affairs, they had a summit -- held a summit on diversity. And that was diverse panel and diverse audience, and it was by the George Washington University's Elliott School. My question is, here -- that they had all these questions that -- how President Obama will put this diversity, because this is the most diverse administration and diverse President. After he leaves office, what is the future of diversity in America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will just say that one of the priorities that the President has identified for staffing the U.S. government is to do more to make sure that we have a government that reflects the diversity of our country. And by and large, the administration has been quite successful in that effort. And the President is proud of that record, both because of the way it reflects the diversity of our country right now, but in some ways it’s even more important that the pipeline for talent has also been now diversified; that so often, as people get promoted or considered for higher-level openings, there’s careful consideration of their experience. I think that’s certainly an understandable thing for an employer to do.
Now you have a much more diversified workforce that has a much more diversified set of experiences. And that’s a good thing. And that means that our government has been diverse over the last eight years, but it means that our government is more likely to be diverse at higher levels for the next generation because of those steps.
And the President would certainly be pleased if part of his legacy is that the higher levels of the U.S. government are more diverse 10, 15, 20 years from now because of important early hiring decisions that were made during his presidency.
Q By the way, the Prime Minister Modi has a very high level of this administration of the President.
MR. EARNEST: The President certainly welcomes that affection.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:26 P.M. EDT