Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/2/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you've all recovered from a busy weekend of source-building. (Laughter.) I know it was all business all the time over the weekend for everybody in this room. So hope you found time for a little fun, as well.
I do not have any announcements to start. So, Kevin, we can go straight to your questions.
Q Thank you, Josh. What is the White House's reaction to Puerto Rico's default of $370 million in bond payments? Did it have better options? And will this default create more urgency for lawmakers and the Obama administration to work something out?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I sure hope it creates a new sense of urgency for members of Congress to address this situation. It's a situation that we've been concerned about for quite some time. It's now been 194 days since the administration put forward our legislative proposal for addressing this situation. So I think that should be an indication to you and to the people of Puerto Rico that the administration has been focused on this for six months now. And unfortunately, we haven’t seen the kind of movement in the Republican-led Congress that we need to see to make a bailout of Puerto Rico less likely.
The truth is, what the administration is seeking is to empower the Puerto Rican government with the kind of restructuring authority that cities all across the country have. And the administration believes that that restructuring authority should be contingent on the Puerto Rican government making some needed financial reforms. We also believe that there should be a mechanism for accountability and verifying that those reforms are being appropriately implemented.
So that's why it's wrong for people to describe this as a bailout. But the situation gets worse by the day. And some days, in some situations -- in some days, the situation gets notably worse. And it only makes a bailout more likely, which is why we continue to press hard for Republicans in Congress to stop dragging their feet and to address a situation that's having a negative impact on more than 3 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico.
Q Were there better options than today's default, such as maybe slashing government services? Is that the route Puerto Rico should have gone?
MR. EARNEST: I think you'd be hard-pressed to make that case. But I'm certainly no financial expert. I'm not aware of all of the options that were available to the Puerto Rican government. And I don’t think there's anybody here who can -- well, I'll just say, I don’t think there are any good options for the Puerto Rican government at this point. And that's exactly why this restructuring authority is badly needed. You might even say that it's overdue. And it's also why a set of financial reforms is overdue, because there clearly are some significant problems that are plaguing the Puerto Rican government's budget but also having a negative impact on the broader economy.
So this situation requires an urgent response, and Republicans in Congress have been dragging their feet for too long.
Q Can you talk about where the President stands on this idea of creating safe zones within Syria? In the past, he's described them as impractical. And I would like to ask you, what has changed and what is the U.S. prepared to do to enforce these safe zones?
MR. EARNEST: So, Kevin, I think there has been, in the lexicon here of describing the chaotic situation in Syria, there has been some, shall we say, confusion. The confusion does not stem from any government officials that I've seen, but it does apply to some observers of the situation. The President's view of safe zones has not changed. The President does not believe at this point that safe zones are a practical alternative to what currently is happening in Syria right now. There have been some who have advocated for the creation of no-fly zones or safe zones inside of Syria that would essentially provide a sanctuary for Syrian citizens.
The President is concerned about that kind of proposal because it puts the United States on the hook for essentially safeguarding the safe zones. That would require a significant commitment of ground troops. It would also put those ground troops on the front lines, because presumably you would have ISIL trying to encroach on those safe zones or trying to infiltrate them, and it could set up a very dangerous situation for American forces that doesn’t actually make a lot of progress in terms of degrading and destroying ISIL.
Now, the context in which safe zones has most recently been mentioned has been in the context of the cessation of hostilities. The cessation of hostilities was an agreement that the United States, Russia, and the rest of the international community, including the Assad regime, signed on to at the beginning of the year. And we warned -- we were aware at the beginning of the implementation of that cessation of hostilities that there were likely to be violations; that the implementation of that cessation of hostilities was likely to be bumpy. And the truth is, for most of the last couple of months, that cessation of hostilities has worked more effectively in reducing the violence in Syria than most people thought. And we were, frankly, surprised that the level of violence did reduce as much -- did come down as far as it did.
There have been violations all along. What’s happened in the last couple of weeks is that we've seen an increase in the severity and frequency of violations of the cessation of hostilities. And what we have sought to do is to refresh that cessation of hostilities in those areas of the country where we've seen it start to fray.
And the United States has been engaged in conversations with the Russians to try to get them to use their influence with the Assad regime to go back to living up to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities all across the country. This is a nationwide commitment that has been made. And in many places in the country it has yielded positive impacts on the ground. But there are some areas where it has started to fray. And that is where we are reinforcing our efforts to refresh the cessation of hostilities.
Q Are you saying this is a much narrower area of safe zones?
MR. EARNEST: I would not call it safe zones. I would not call it safe zones. I know that there are some observers who are describing it as safe zones. I have not seen anybody in the U.S. government refer to them as safe zones. I certainly haven’t referred to them as safe zones. And the reason is that it gets too complicated to try to differentiate between what we're talking about here. Let’s be clear: The President is against safe zones. He’s expressed that from the beginning because he doesn't want to put the United States in the situation of trying to enforce it.
The focus of our military should be on degrading and destroying ISIL. We should, however, collectively as an international community, be conscientious about living up to the commitments that were made by all the parties in the context of the cessation of hostilities. In those areas where we've seen the cessation start to fray in recent weeks, we need to reinforce our efforts to refresh the cessation of hostilities.
And in particular, the Assad regime needs to live up to the commitments that they have made. And we would like to see the Russians use the influence that they have with the Assad regime to get them to do it.
I guess this is the last thing I’ll say about it. Russia did that once before. For several weeks we did have the effective implementation of a cessation of hostilities in which the Assad regime did curb their military activities. Just in the last couple of weeks we've seen the Assad regime go back to some of the nasty tactics. And we’d like to see the Russians go back to using their influence with the Assad regime to get them to live up to the cessation of hostilities in the way that they did before.
Q I wanted to ask about the Greenpeace leaks of T-TIP. Today, Greenpeace published about half of the deal that's being negotiated, on a website. And we've already seen the response from USTR on this. But I’m wondering if you can tell us how damaging the White House feels that these leaks are for the prospects of reaching some kind of deal before the President leaves office.
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to the veracity of any of the documents that have been published. But I can tell you that we're not particularly concerned about these purported leaks.
The truth is the President has been very clear about what our strategy is when it comes to international trade. The President around the world has sought high-standard agreements. The reason for that is simple: That's consistent with our values. We believe that there should be high standards when it comes to human rights and labor rights and worker rights and environmental standards. And that's a good thing.
So we want the world to observe higher standards. But we also know that if the rest of the world observes those higher standards, that's going to level the playing field for American businesses and workers that already observe those standards. And that's going to create expanded economic opportunity for the American people. So that's the kind of trade strategy that the President has pursued in Asia, and it’s the kind of strategy that has guided our participation in the T-TIP talks. But as it relates to the veracity of those documents, I just don't have any comment.
Q But are you concerned about the implications of these leaks on public opinion about T-TIP and how that might affect the eventual negotiations toward a deal by the end of the year?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not. And as the President described when he was in Europe just last week, our focus is on trying to complete these negotiations by the end of the year. I do not anticipate that we're going to be able to get Congress to act on it and have this agreement going into effect before the President leaves office. But there is the potential -- and we certainly are aiming -- to complete these talks by the end of the year. And I don't think there’s anything about this leak that is going to have a material impact on our ability to do that.
Q And over the weekend there was what’s being called an unprecedented breach of Baghdad’s Green Zone -- hundreds of people storming over the glass walls around the zone, demanding political reforms. And this happened right after the Vice President’s visit, obviously. So I’m wondering what your assessment is of what the visit accomplished and how concerned is the White House that this upheaval is really starting to -- or going to interfere with the fight against the Islamic State and plans for the coalition to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces as they begin to look at Mosul.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s almost two weeks ago now that the President did a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he was asked quite directly by a journalist from The Washington Post about the political situation inside of Iraq. And the President noted at the time that he was concerned about the situation there.
He noted that the dynamics of the political debate inside of *Syria Iraq right now are a little bit different than they traditionally have been; that the political dialogue right now that has been so challenging is not one that breaks down along sectarian lines, but rather some disagreement within the Shia community in Iraq about the proper way to govern the country.
So this presents some unique challenges. And given the concerns about the situation inside of Iraq, Vice President Biden made his first trip to Iraq in more than four years. So I think the significance of a vice presidential visit underscores the significance of the challenges that are facing Iraq right now.
Obviously the Vice President’s message was to reiterate our support for the reforms that are being pursued by the Abadi-led government. The Vice President also used his visit to underscore the U.S. and international community’s commitment to economic support for Iraq. There are significant economic reforms that the government needs to implement. There’s also some needed assistance that can be provided to Iraqi authorities that are seeking to rebuild communities that ISIL had previously controlled. And that is going to be a critical part of our effort to prevent ISIL from retaking those communities.
And the President spent a lot of time talking about the need to support this Iraqi effort when he met with the GCC countries in Riyadh last week -- two weeks ago.
And then the final thing that I think is important for people to understand is Vice President Biden was also there to talk about ongoing U.S. and international support for the military campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Those military efforts in Iraq are led by Iraqi forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And we have been able to effectively work with Iraqi forces to drive ISIL out of about 40 percent of the populated territory that they previously held. That represents important progress. And we are looking for ways to keep that momentum going, including beginning to support Iraqi operations around Mosul to eventually prepare for the retaking of that city.
So there is obviously a lot of business that Vice President Biden was engaged in while he was in Iraq. And those conversations took place at a critical time for that country.
Let's move around a little bit. Andrew.
Q A follow-up question on Iraq. The events of the weekend have obviously shown again how powerful Muqtada al-Sadr is. I was wondering if you could just remind us of what the U.S. position is with regard to him? Do U.S. officials meet with him? Do you consider him an interlocutor?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any high-level government meetings between U.S. officials and Muqtada al-Sadr. But I’d check with the State Department about that. I don't know if he’s participated in any other broader meetings that may have included U.S. officials. So you should confirm that information with them.
Q But you would acknowledge that he is an important figure in Iraqi politics, even if he doesn't play a formal role?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly no expert in trying to divine what sort of influence individual figures in Iraq may have in the political situation there. I think as a matter of policy, the U.S. government certainly respects the sovereignty of the nation of Iraq and the responsibility that the Iraqi people have to determine political outcomes in their country. We're entirely respectful of that process.
And, Andrew, in reading the news coverage over the weekend and in talking to some senior officials here at the White House who work on this issue all the time, I was reminded of the summer of 2014. You’ll recall that when ISIL made its dramatic advance across the Iraqi desert and deeply encroached into Iraqi territory, there were significant questions raised about what the U.S. role would be in trying to get ISIL out of the country. In those early days the question was what the United States would do to protect Iraq from ISIL.
And you’ll recall at the time the President laid down a pretty clear marker that addressing the political failures of the Maliki government in Iraq was necessary before the United States could commit to the kind of military support that we're providing now. The reason for that is -- the assessment of our experts here is that Maliki’s focus on governing along sectarian lines inside of Iraq significantly weakened the Iraqi government, but it also had a deleterious impact on the competence of Iraqi security forces. You essentially had some forces that were unwilling to defend some parts of the country based on the sectarian identification of the population.
And President Obama made clear that a military commitment on the part of the United States would be contingent upon the establishment of an Iraqi central government that prioritized uniting the country across sectarian lines; that the ability of Kurds and Sunnis and Shia in Iraq to work together to defeat ISIL was going to be critical to their success. And Prime Minister Abadi has demonstrated a commitment to prioritizing a government philosophy that unites the country.
And that’s why the United States has been supportive of his efforts to implement reforms, but ultimately those reforms need to be responsive to the concerns and priorities of the Iraqi people. That’s his top priority. He’s the leader of a sovereign nation. And that’s why the United States can be supportive of his efforts, but ultimately it’s Prime Minister Abadi listening to the Iraqi people that will make decisions about how to effectively run that country.
Q Do you think Abadi is backsliding slightly on his promises to make a non-sectarian government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he has demonstrated during his time –- speaking broadly, he has demonstrated during his time in office that he’s committed to a multi-sectarian Iraq, and he has governed consistent with that vision. For him, it’s a legitimate national security priority and I think he understands the stakes. I also think he’s not just doing that because it’s his own personal preference and because it’s critical to the national security of the country; I think he’s doing that because he thinks it’s a reflection of the ambitions of the Iraqi people and that the success of his country will depend upon his success in unifying that country to counter the challenges that they currently face.
Because, look, we also have to remember it’s not just ISIL that poses a threat to Iraq. Iraq is going through some pretty challenging, wrenching changes to their economy. The significantly lower price of oil has proved to be a significant challenge to that country. There are also challenges related to their infrastructure, like repairing the Mosul Dam, that are time-consuming both in terms of the amount of money that’s required to deal with that situation but it also requires a level of expertise that is not easily found.
So there are some significant challenges, and Prime Minister Abadi is dealing with a lot right now. And the rest of the international community is going to be supportive of him as he tries to make the changes consistent with his responsibilities as the Prime Minister of Iraq.
Q First, I just wanted to follow on the second part of Roberta’s question, which is the impact of the instability. Over the weekend, on plans to retake Mosul, obviously those efforts are going to take buy-in from all the different parts of competing interests within Iraq. And there had been a sense, I think after the trip, that the political situation had calmed, planning to kind of finalize how they were going to go into Mosul could continue and be completed to prevent inaction. So I’m wondering, now that there seems to be backsliding there, if the President's sort of perceived deadline at the end of the year is in danger or could be pushed back farther.
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the briefings that I’ve received this morning, our national security professionals have not detected any impact on our ongoing counter-ISIL activities in Iraq, based on the political instability in Baghdad over the weekend. The United States and our coalition partners conducted 59 airstrikes and six artillery strikes against ISIL targets in northern Iraq and Anbar Province. That was just over the weekend. And the ongoing effort to offer training, advice, and assistance to Iraqi forces has continued unabated.
So what we have said all along is that specific military decisions like when to begin the operation against Mosul will be made by Iraqi forces and the Iraqi central government. Again, we continue to respect the sovereignty of this independent nation, and we continue to partner with them and work effectively with them, both to carry out ongoing operations to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, but also to plan for future military operations.
Q I wanted to ask about the President’s trip to Flint later this week. Governor Snyder has been under a lot of pressure, and eventually he kind of did a photo-op to drink the tap water in Flint as a sign of solidarity. So I’m wondering if the President is going to drink the filtered Flint water while he is there and if he also plans to meet with Governor Snyder.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any photo-ops that involve the President’s consumption of water. Based on what the EPA has communicated to the public, is that properly filtered water in Flint is safe to drink. So I certainly would encourage people to continue to listen to the advice that they get from our scientific and public health experts about what water is safe to drink, and the President will certainly follow that advice.
Q And then the last thing is, news came of Malia’s college plans over the weekend, and I’m wondering if you might be able to shed any insight on what she’s doing with her gap year.
MR. EARNEST: I cannot.
Q Josh, I want to follow up kind of on Justin. And I have another question. It’s kind of an urban week for the President. He’s traveling to Flint and then he’s also doing the Howard University commencement. Are there any threads that are going to travel through to both of his speeches, in Flint and in Howard? And will he be making any news when it comes to the urban front?
MR. EARNEST: Well, stay tuned. I’m not in a position to begin previewing the President’s commencement address at Howard at this point, but the President and his team have been working on his speech for a couple of weeks now. But check in later this week, and maybe I’ll be able to give you a better sense of what the President’s plans are for that speech.
Q All right. And I also want to ask you -- this weekend at his last White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he gave jokes, got some ribbing. What did he think about the final words that were delivered to him and of him, the President of the United States -- a word that is one of the worst words many people say you could say to anyone, that's gone down in history? What did he think about that? What's his reaction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the first thing that I would observe is that any comedian who signed up to follow President Obama at the White House Correspondents' Dinner is assuming one of the most difficult tasks in comedy. Just by nature of the engagement, that's a tough job, following the President of the United States.
President Obama also, over the years, has shown himself to be rather adept at delivering a speech that consists primarily of one- or two-liners, and the President enjoys that opportunity.
So the point is that Mr. Wilmore had a difficult job that he was facing on Saturday, and the President's expectation is he took -- as Mr. Wilmore took on that responsibility, is that comedians are going to go right up to the line.
Q Did he cross the line? Many African Americans in that room, to include civil rights leaders, black comedians, were very appalled. Even members of the Republican Party -- black Republicans were upset, black Democrats were upset. People felt that not just throwing it at him, but throwing it at them, and also it diminished the office of the presidency and it diminished him. Did he cross the line?
MR. EARNEST: April, what I would say is that it's not the first time that people, on the Monday after the White House Correspondent's Dinner, that some people have observed that the comedian on Saturday night crossed the line. That happened in 2006, after Stephen Colbert delivered his speech. There were many people who felt like he had overstepped his bounds in delivering his remarks. To a lesser extent, many people made the same observation about the presentation of Wanda Sykes in 2009. So it's not the first time that we've had a conversation like this in which these kinds of concerns have been raised or expressed.
Look, I had an opportunity to speak to the President about this briefly this morning, and he said that he appreciated the spirit of the sentiments that Mr. Wilmore expressed. He ended his speech by saying that he couldn’t put into words the pride that he felt in the President. And he made the observation that our country has make remarkable progress just in his lifetime -- from not being willing to accept an African American quarterback, to electing and reelecting an African American not just to lead the United States, but to lead the free world. Again, I take Mr. Wilmore at his words that he found that to be a powerful transformation just in his lifetime, and something that he seemed to be pretty obviously proud of.
Q Did Mr. Wilmore's use of freedom of speech give the President's detractors fodder now to be able to be able to call him that and call others that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have no idea what impact Larry Wilmore's speech is going to have on the President's critics, and I don’t think I'm going to spend much time worrying about it.
Q I understand that there is a conversation about that word. The President, in June of last year, used it as a teaching moment to show that issues of race are still a problem in this country. But Wilmore used it for the President somewhat as a butt of the joke. And you were in that room, as well as I was. There was an eerie, awkward silence and quietness. And people didn’t know how to handle that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I know this is a word that does -- let me say it this way: I'm confident that Mr. Wilmore used the word by design. He was seeking to be provocative. But I think any reading of his comments makes clear he was not using the President as the butt of a joke. So what is true is that this is a tough assignment that any comedian takes on when they sign up for this job. And the President's expectation when he walks in that room is that that comedian and other people are going to get much closer to the line than they ordinarily would as they try to make a joke.
Q I just want to be very clear: So the President is okay with his use and how he used the N-word, "jiggaboo," "Negro Night," and thug"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I'll just restate what I said before, which is that the President expressed -- well, what the President said is that he appreciated the spirit of Mr. Wilmore's expressions on Saturday night.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to follow up on one of Justin's questions about the Flint trip. Governor Snyder told reporters this morning he's looking to meet with the President. So is that meeting going to happen on Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: I guess his schedule got a little freed up, huh?
Q I guess so.
MR. EARNEST: I guess so. We're still putting together the President's visit. It's traditional for the President, when he travels to a state, to invite the governor to at least greet him on the tarmac. That invitation was extended to Governor Snyder in the context of this visit. And we're obviously pleased that it looks like he'll now be in Flint on that day. So we'll keep you posted on what sort of interactions they may have.
Q And on the Supreme Court fight, the President is doing a series of local interviews this afternoon.
MR. EARNEST: He is.
Q And I know some of the groups that are allied with the White House are doing some protests and other things like that in some of the states where Republican senators reside, over the recess. But what I'm wondering from you is, what are you looking for out of these actions over this week? I know your ultimate goal is hearings and a vote. But what needs to happen over this week for you to define your efforts as a success?
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, we're going to continue to apply pressure to Republicans to do their job. It's a pretty simple message that we're delivering. Since 1875, every Supreme Court nominee, who hasn’t later been retracted by the President of the United States, has received a hearing and/or a vote by the United States Senate. That's why what Republicans are vowing to do is unprecedented and a dramatic escalation of partisan politics. That's problematic because, even in this era of divided government and polarized politics, there's been an effort by both sides to try to insulate the U.S. justice system and the institution of the United States Supreme Court from that political stray voltage. But Republicans have, in this case, ramped it up. Look, even Senator Graham, who served four years on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has acknowledged that what Republicans are vowing to do and are doing is unprecedented.
Several Republicans -- or at least a couple of them come to mind -- have indicated that they're treating President Obama's nominee differently than they would treat a nominee that's put forward by a Republican President. They're acknowledging that this is not driven by some peculiar reading of the Constitution, but it's driven by a raw, partisan political calculation that Republicans in the Senate have made to obstruct this nominee not because of any concerns about the nominee's judicial philosophy; they're obstructing this nominee simply because Chief Judge Garland was put forward by Barack Obama. That's unfortunate particularly when you consider that Chief Judge Garland is somebody who has more experience on the federal judiciary than any Supreme Court nominee in American history. He served on the second-highest court in the land for 19 years. In taking a close look at that record, it's evident that he understands that the job of a federal judge is to interpret the law, not advance a political agenda.
So that's the argument that we'll make. I recognize -- I would acknowledge that this is an argument that we've spent a lot of the last two months making. But this is an opportunity for the President to sit before local television anchors and make the argument once again, and present it, hopefully, in a compelling way that will have an impact on the constituents of five or six Republican senators.
Q Right. But we haven’t seen any real movement on the question of hearings or -- hearings or a vote from these five senators, despite you making these arguments over and over again. So if we don’t hear movement over this next week when you're applying that pressure, is that going to be concerning to you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we started out with Republicans across the board -- at least the Senate Republican Leader saying that Republicans wouldn’t meet with the President's nominee. But as you know, Chief Judge Garland has now met with 14 different Republican senators, and there are more plans for when Congress returns from their weeklong recess next week.
So we have made some progress in that regard, and we're going to continue to just apply pressure to Republicans until I make the case that they should do their job. Look, I've said this before too: The American people expect that if you're going to show up every two weeks and collect a paycheck, that you should do your job. And right now, Senate Republicans aren’t doing it despite the fact they are picking up a six-figure paycheck.
Q Two topics. First, back to the safe zones question. So I just want to clarify -- what you guys call them are "safe areas," not "safe zones," correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think there's a term of art, Mike. What we're trying to do --
Q Well, the President called it safe areas when he was asked about this during the press conference with President [sic] Merkel in Germany, and he said there's no space between him and Chancellor Merkel on the question of whether or not there are areas to carve out in Syria that he would support the idea of carving out what he called "safe areas" through the political process. So I just want to make sure that what you're suggesting seems to be different than what the President said during that news conference. He says he supports the idea of carving out some safe areas in Syria through the political process. You're saying he doesn’t support any such thing?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, what we're trying to do is we're trying to put back in place a cessation of hostilities across the country. The cessation of hostilities applies everywhere in Syria.
Q So the President said, "If we can get the political transition to separate out areas where a moderate oppositions that's at the table controls it, that should be a safe area. If it's ISIL or Nusra, that's not a safe area. And that's the concept we've been trying to build."
So that suggests that there are -- I mean, short of a complete cessation of hostilities -- which I suppose you would support, first and foremost -- but short of that, it does seem like the President supports the idea of creating some space inside Syria that is safe, whether you call it a zone or an area.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what our goal, Mike, is to reinforce the effective implementation of a cessation of hostilities nationwide in Syria. And there are particular areas where there have been repeated and increasing violations of the cessation of hostilities. And our goal is to reinforce our effort to refresh the cessation of hostilities in those areas where we've seen violations. But that is not a reference to any sort of new tactic to try to address the political situation in Syria. Our goal all along has been to implement a cessation of hostilities all across the country to try to add some momentum to the ongoing political talks.
The other thing that I have said before, but not from the context of these conversations that’s a relevant fact, is neither Nusra or other extremist groups like ISIL have signed on to the cessation of hostilities. So we would like to see a cessation of hostilities all across the country, but that is not going to have an impact on the ability of the United States or our coalition partners to go after ISIL.
Q And then on a second topic, back to Flint. The President and the White House has been highly critical I think of the state environmental apparatus in Michigan for their failures, as have a lot of people. As the President goes back, what is the President prepared to say or apologize for in terms of the federal government and the EPA’s failures to act more quickly in the face of the water problems in Flint? I mean, there have been some lower-level resignations from EPA -- and I know that some of the federal officials have been there since and are I guess going back ahead of the President’s visit -- but is the President prepared to say to the people of Flint that we screwed up too, at the federal level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is prepared to acknowledge that, as President of the United States, he takes responsibility for lots of things. But what’s also true is that the blue-ribbon independent commission that was appointed by the Republican governor of the state of Michigan found, “primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint lies with the MDEQ," which is the state-run environmental agency in Michigan.
What’s also true is that the Attorney General has filed criminal charges against some state employees for their role in this as well. So I don’t, however, expect for the President to spend a lot of time talking about specific accountability, primarily because there continues to be ongoing investigations into that accountability, and the President doesn’t want to be perceived as weighing in on one side or the other.
But the President will certainly go to Michigan and make a forceful case that as the President of the United States, he feels responsible for the safety and wellbeing of every American, no matter which community they live in. And I think that would certainly explain the widespread federal effort in Flint to help the people of Flint deal with this emergency situation. 7.3 million liters of water have been distributed by federal employees. We’ve seen 55,000 water and pitcher filters be distributed in communities there. About a quarter of a million replacement cartridges have been passed out as well. There’s been a significant expansion of health care access, paid for by the federal government. This access comes both in the forms of expanding Medicaid eligibility, but also in terms of offering grants to local health care providers so that they have more resources to treat more people.
So this is all a reflection of the federal government’s commitment to helping the people of Flint deal with what’s a tragic situation.
Q But one last thing. I mean, that’s sort of post-crisis, right? That’s the response to the crisis once it had been fully realized.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q I guess the question is, is the President prepared to –- he’s going to be meeting with a group of people, I guess, around the table. If they look at him and say, yes, obviously there were failures at the state level but where was the federal government a year ago, a year and a half ago, two years ago when this was all happening -- what does he say to them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he says that the EPA takes very seriously the responsibility that they have to work effectively with state regulators to ensure the clean air and clean water of everybody in America. And that’s why more than six weeks ago, the administrator of the EPA sent a letter to governors all across the country, making clear exactly what responsibilities state regulators have when it comes to enforcing the lead and copper rule. She was also clear in that letter that there will be a response from the EPA if the state regulators fall down on the job.
So that level of clarity hopefully will prevent the situation in Flint from reemerging in other communities. And that obviously is a top priority of the President’s as well.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back to the Supreme Court. I just want to ask you the question: Have you given any consideration to the thought process of Senate Republicans that you mentioned are taking some heat from their constituents on Merrick Garland and their decision to completely dismiss the nominating process rather than go ahead and at least go through the motions of the process, even if the outcome is predetermined?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think it’s pretty clear what’s happening here. The reason that the leader of Republicans in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, issued a statement just hours after the announcement of Justice Scalia’s death is that he wanted to try to shut down the process as soon as possible. He recognized that if the President put forward a highly qualified, experienced, respectable individual with impeccable legal credentials to fill that vacancy, that there would be enormous pressure on Republicans to vote and confirm this individual.
And that’s exactly what Republicans are trying not to do. The President effectively called their bluff by nominating someone that even Republicans have described as a consensus nominee. Even Republicans who have met with Chief Judge Garland have had very positive things to say about his character and about his aptitude for the job. So people like Pat Toomey said that he was "very, very smart and very knowledgeable." Republican Senator Rob Portman from Ohio described Chief Judge Garland as “an impressive guy.” Senator Flake from Arizona described Chief Judge Garland as “obviously a man of accomplishment and keen intellect.” Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina described him as “honest and capable” and described his reputation as “beyond reproach.”
So what Republicans are trying to do is they’re trying to prevent a situation in which Chief Judge Garland sits before the Senate Judiciary Committee and answers any questions that come his way. We know that if there’s a hearing like this, it’s going to be –- it’s going to get lots of attention. It will be carried live on many of the networks that are represented in this room, at least for parts of the hearing. And the expectation the President has is that Chief Judge Garland is going to use his brilliant legal mind and 19 years of judicial experience to effectively answer those questions.
And once that hearing is completed, you’ll really see pressure on Republicans to explain their position, trying to block his confirmation to the Supreme Court. So what we have seen from Republicans, particularly Republican leaders in Washington, is to shut down this effort before it can build momentum. But I think in spite of their efforts, we have built up some momentum and some pressure on Republicans.
And I do think this is why every Republican senator across the country, including Senator Ayotte, is facing a central question: Are they going to listen to Republican leaders in the United States Senate and not do their job? Or are they going to do what the United States Constitution requires? And that is to offer their advice and consent for the President’s choice to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Following the instructions of Republican leaders in Washington I don’t think is going to be a particularly persuasive explanation for their conduct when Republican senators are facing their constituents.
Q I’m sorry, on Syria, I still don’t understand. If safe zones or safe areas is not the purpose in Geneva, then why are negotiators there looking at maps and drawing up lines of areas where allegedly civilians and/or members of the moderate opposition could shelter? They’re looking at maps. That’s what our people are telling us.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Mark, the goal of the conversations in Geneva are to build confidence in a political transition. And what the negotiators in Geneva on the opposition side of the table have indicated is it’s very difficult for them to engage in political talks when their constituents back home are being bombed recklessly and tragically by the regime.
And so the idea behind the cessation of hostilities was to try to bring the violence between the opposition and the government to an end so that negotiations could take place. So what the negotiators are doing is trying to find a way to get the regime to stop bombing their people so that they can try to come to some sort of political agreement. What we found is that at least for a while, when the cessation of hostilities was initially implemented, that that actually worked out a little bit better than anybody expected.
And part of that was because the Russian government, President Putin, was willing to put his own credibility on the line and was willing to make a strong case to the Assad regime that they needed to abide by the cessation of hostilities. And we want them to just go back and do the same thing.
Q No, I get that. But what I don’t understand is, if they’re sitting down and drawing lines on a map and saying this area is going to be off limits, is that not a safe zone or a safe area, or propose some other way to call it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the reason that I don’t think I would describe it that way is that ISIL and Nusra are not part of the cessation of hostilities. It’s the Assad regime that has signed onto the cessation of hostilities. So I think when there was a broader discussion about safe zones and the President was asked directly in a news conference about whether or not he would support the concept of a safe zone, and the President expressed his strong opposition to it, is that he didn’t want to create a situation in which the United States was on the hook for protecting that safe zone from incursions by extremists, by Nusra, by ISIL, or by the regime. So the conversations that are taking place in Geneva right now are focused very specifically on where we can reinforce our efforts to implement successfully a cessation of hostilities, to try to lower the violence, to advance political talks, but also allow the shipment of humanitarian relief into areas that have long been caught in the crossfire.
Q Josh, thanks. There’s two topics I wanted to ask about. First, the 28 pages of classified documents in the 9/11 Commission report. CIA Director John Brennan over the weekend saying that there could be some inaccuracies in there and some unvetted information. Is the President concerned about that? And how close is the White House to releasing those documents?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw that there was a little attention that was generated by Director Brennan’s comments. I have to admit I was surprised by that attention because there was an op-ed that was written just last week by Lee Hamilton and Governor Kean from New Jersey. Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Kean were the chair of the independent commission that took a look at the 9/11 attacks, both the events that led to the attacks but also proposed reforms that would prevent those kinds of attacks from occurring on American soil ever again.
They wrote that op-ed and indicated that they also saw the 28 pages. They described those 28 pages as unvetted, law enforcement investigative materials. And they said they had an opportunity to review that material, to follow up on leads, and that they actually conducted interviews not just in the United States but around the world to follow up on that information. And as we’ve discussed many times in this room over the last several weeks, the conclusion of their report is that they found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution had supported al Qaeda.
So Director Brennan’s comments are entirely in line with those that were put forward by Governor Kean and Congressman Hamilton, who had a responsibility to look at that material, to follow up on the claims, and to offer up an unclassified conclusion about what was included there.
Q So how close is the White House to releasing the documents? And is there concern that releasing them is going to be a mistake?
MR. EARNEST: The White House is not responsible for releasing the documents. Those documents are currently in the possession of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That is the office that is responsible for processing sensitive information that is being considered for public release. They have a declassification process that they conduct that is part of their standard operating procedure. I would acknowledge that they have been conducting that process on this material for quite some time. And the Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, has indicated that they are hopeful they can complete that process by the end of June.
Q And second, on Donald Trump and some comments that he made over the weekend. He seemed to indicate that campaigning is more difficult than governing, saying, "It's harder to become President, in my opinion, than to do a great job at being President." Would the President agree with that assessment? Or do you have a comment?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any comment on that.
Julianna, nice to see you. I'm used to you sitting one chair behind you.
Q I know, me too.
MR. EARNEST: So welcome back to the briefing.
Q It's good to be in the front row. Thank you. Just going back to Saturday night, can you talk a little bit about how the cameo with former Speaker John Boehner came about in the President's speech?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Well, it's pretty simple and in some ways depicted in the video, which is that the White House called Speaker Boehner and asked him if he'd be interested in participating in the video. And I think as was evident from the finished product, he was an enthusiastic participant in the production.
Look, Speaker Boehner has a well-known and very good sense of humor. And he made I think a very positive contribution to our comedic efforts in the film.
Q When was it filmed? And did they meet in addition to the taping to talk about current events, politics, Congress?
MR. EARNEST: They had an opportunity to spend time together in the context of filming the video. There was no separate meeting. But the video was actually just filmed on Friday, so just a few days ago.
Q And did they talk about the Speaker's comments about Ted Cruz from the night before?
MR. EARNEST: There was not a detailed discussion of those comments, no.
Q And then, also, over the weekend, Bernie Sanders said that there was going to be a contested convention, and essentially called on Democratic super-delegates to flip to support him. Is that something the President thinks is appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President thinks is appropriate is individual candidates should make their own decisions about running their campaign. And we've obviously seen a very rigorous campaign on the Democratic side, and there's still some contests to go and more opportunities for Democratic voters across the country to weigh in on who they believe should represent our party in the general election. And the President thus far has refrained from weighing on that debate too much.
Q On Flint and the governor, you mentioned that the White House has extended an invitation for him to meet the President at the airport. Its sounds like the governor wants a lot more in terms of a substantive meeting with the President, and has requested that. Has there been a response to that request?
MR. EARNEST: We haven’t determined the President's schedule for his trip to Flint. As a matter of standard operating procedure, we invited the governor to come to the airport. So the invitation to Governor Snyder's office was not unique; it's one that's even been extended to him a few times before.
Q I guess the question is, does the President see the governor as someone that he thinks is important to meet and spend some time with there as a solution found to the problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly intends to spend quite a bit of time when he's in Flint talking to local residents, talking to local officials. I don’t know at this point exactly the extent of the conversations that the President will have with Governor Snyder, but we'll let you know.
Q And given what you were saying about how the state has been sort of blamed for all this, I was wondering how could he see the Governor as having the capacity and the credibility to be a viable partner in this whole process going forward.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Governor Snyder, to his credit, has recognized that there is an important role for the state to play in helping the citizens of Flint recover.
And obviously the U.S. government, the federal government, at the direction of President Obama, has been deeply involved in that recovery effort. But state officials have been, too. I’ll leave it to the state officials to detail what contributions they have made to that.
But look, this is a situation that should transcend politics. This should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to come together and try to right many of the wrongs that have been sustained by the citizens of Flint.
Q And does the President have any specific priorities in terms of what he wants to see happen as a result of this visit? I know that there’s the idea of generally reassuring residents, and you delineated the list of the water. So is there some aspect of this crisis that the President thinks should be changed, focused on, alleviated as a result of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- I would not anticipate that the President will make big news by announcing a new package of relief for the city of Flint. Obviously, there’s been a significant commitment of resources to try to help the people of Flint in this urgent situation. You've heard me here advocate on a couple of occasions that Congress should get involved here. Congress should mobilize some resources that could be used to address the situation in Flint.
I think what’s also true is the President will make a broader argument about just how important it is for government at all levels to function effectively. That stands in pretty stark contrast to some Republican candidates who suggest that environmental agencies shouldn’t even exist.
Q On the Iraq situation, just quickly. The Green Zone barriers were breached. And the reporting suggested that a lot of the security forces there basically let the protesters in. So is the United States confident that won’t happen again? And are you concerned about the level of security in that area? And I know the reporting was that the embassy was never threatened, and there were false rumors about evacuations, but that aspect of the situation, you had this fortress for 12 or 13 years, and now it does not seem to be a fortress anymore. How concerned about you about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, the President of the United States is concerned every day about the safety and security of Americans serving our country overseas. And that includes our diplomats. That is always a top priority and at the top of the list when it comes to making decisions about U.S. policy in countries around the world.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of the ISIL advance across Iraq in 2014, the President’s primary concern was about the safety of American diplomats and American personnel in Erbil and in Baghdad. And the initial military response that President Obama mobilized was to safeguard those American citizens. So this is always a top priority.
I can tell you that the U.S. has received assurances from Iraqi officials that they understand their obligations to protect diplomatic facilities. And we certainly take them at their word. But look, we're going to continue to closely monitor the situation because the safety and security of our personnel is always the President’s top priority.
Q Is it true that the security guards essentially let the protesters in, didn't stop them? That's got to be worrying.
MR. EARNEST: It’s a pretty chaotic situation there. I’m not sure that anybody knows exactly what happened on the ground. But look, we're always interested in understanding how developments on the ground could have an impact on the safety and security of American citizens who are serving over in Iraq. That is the President’s top priority. We're going to continue to monitor the situation closely as a result. And we have received assurances from the Iraqi government and from Iraqi security forces that they're prepared to live up to their international obligations to protect diplomats that are serving in Baghdad.
Q Has there been some contemplation of increasing the security posture at the U.S. embassy or inside the Green Zone as a result of this?
MR. EARNEST: Decisions that are made specifically about enhancing the security around any particular diplomatic facility would be made over at the State Department. But obviously we're continuing to closely watch the situation. And if the security experts determine that additional security is needed, we’ll make sure they have the resources necessary to make those changes.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to take you back to the 28 pages. And based on your earlier comments, you're generally aware of what Director Brennan said, using words like, inaccurate, uncorroborated, and unvetted -- echoing the column that we saw in USA Today. Does the President concur with that assessment, that analysis of what’s in those 28 pages?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President has not read the 28 pages. He’s been briefed on their contents. And look, I think you can reliably assume that based on the comments both of Director Brennan and Governor Kean and Congressman Hamilton, who don't serve in the Obama administration, that what both of them have described is an accurate understanding of the contents of those 28 pages.
Q Okay. And then based on that, does the President feel like the DNI needs to move forward with its review? It's been more than 14 years -- and you have I have talked about this -- it just doesn’t seem like there's any reason not to release it, based on the fact that you said a number of people have looked at this and there doesn’t seem to be anything that would affect national security. Maybe a little embarrassing perhaps on some circumstances. But again, it's preliminary information. It's not hard-and-fast stuff. They're saying that this is partial information. And why not just release it so the American people --
MR. EARNEST: I'm going to defer to the experts who have a day-to-day responsibility for determining what sensitive national security information can be released to the public without having a negative impact on our interests or our ability to protect the American people. And that is what should drive the decision. And the good news is that our intelligence officials have indicated that they expect to complete that process by the end of June. And we'll look forward to their decision at that point.
Q And just one last nugget on that one. Is there any reason why the President would not have read those pages? You've said previously he was generally aware, and then you said he's been briefed on them. Why not read them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President obviously reads a lot of material on a day-to-day basis. Again, I'm not sure that he felt it was necessary for him to read those 28 pages.
Q He's not opposed to reading it --
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q -- just hasn’t gotten around to it.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q Okay. Last, I want to ask you about the cruise from Miami to Cuba. An historic day not just in South Florida but obviously over on the island. Any thoughts or comments on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the latest reports on this. Obviously the goal of the President's policy changes towards Cuba was motivated by a desire to begin to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, because the President's assumption is that for 50 years we tried to isolate the Cuban government in the hopes that that would apply pressure to them to do a better job of respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people. That didn’t work for five decade. That policy of isolation was carried out with little tangible impact.
So the President decided that we needed to try a different strategy, and that that this strategy would be focused on engagement -- engagement between the Cuban people and American citizens; engagement between the Cuban government and the U.S. government; engagement between Cuban businesses and American businesses -- and that by establishing those deeper ties, we would be able to better advance our interests and our values.
And look, this is a policy change that's only been in place for a little over a year at this point. But look, I think we're optimistic about the progress that we have made thus far. There certainly is a lot more work to be done, and there's certainly a number of additional reforms we'd like to see the Cuban government undertake. But I think it would be hard to deny that this policy change hasn’t benefitted the American people. And look, I think the best proof point for that is to go and ask my counterparts at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau, and other traditionally Republican-supporting institutions that have been strongly supportive of this President's change of policy towards Cuba.
Q Thanks, Josh. Will we be getting the drone civilian casualty report before the anniversary of the NDU speech?
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I don’t have an update for you on the timing of that report. Obviously, the President's top counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, delivered a speech six weeks or so ago now, indicating that we were prepared to begin releasing additional material about the results of counterterrorism operations. I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing, though.
Q And does the President believe that Japan deserves a formal U.S. government apology for the bombing of Hiroshima?
MR. EARNEST: No, he does not.
Q And last one. Just to button up April's line of questioning -- because we're being asked -- how much visibility did the White House have into what Mr. Wilmore was going to say on Saturday night?
MR. EARNEST: None.
Q So wait, just to further clarify that clarification -- (laughter) --
MR. EARNEST: Could I possibly be clearer than none? I'll try. (Laughter.)
Q Sorry, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: That's okay. Occupational hazard.
Q So Wilmore's team didn’t run by the possibility that he would throw in the N-word at the end of his spiel?
MR. EARNEST: No. The White House staff did not vet the President's remarks with Mr. Wilmore. And Mr. Wilmore did not vet his remarks with the White House staff.
Q Okay. And based on what you were saying before, are you saying that the President was not bothered at all by the use of that word?
MR. EARNEST: I'm saying that the President appreciated the sentiment that Mr. Wilmore expressed in his speech. And I think any fair reading of the last three paragraphs of that speech I think make clear that the personal views that Mr. Wilmore was expressing came from a genuine place. And he expressed his -- he said at the end --
Q Was that a copy they gave you before to vet? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No. At the risk of free publicity, this is the blogpost from Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post. But in here he included the end of Mr. Wilmore's remarks, and he said -- this is Mr. Wilmore here -- he said, "A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team. And now to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the free world, words alone do me no justice." That is an authentic expression of his personal viewpoint, and it's an authentic expression of his appreciation for the President of the United States, but also for the capacity of this country to change. And the President has observed that progress on a number of occasions, and Mr. Wilmore was doing the same.
Q And I didn’t really expect to be on this subject so soon, but while we're on it -- some of the jokes that the President made about Hillary Clinton kind of got a mixed reaction. Some people think that they were harsher than expected. Did he have a conversation with Clinton, either before or after the dinner, on the subject?
MR. EARNEST: He did not. But it appears that that conversation was not necessary, because I did see the Tweet from Secretary Clinton indicating her approval for those comments.
Q Right. But he didn’t reach out to her, either before or after, to --
MR. EARNEST: No, he did not.
Q Actually, one of President Obama's more cutting jokes was at CNN. So was he saying that --
MR. EARNEST: Don't tell me you guys got all sensitive. (Laughter.) It's all in good fun.
Q Okay, so he doesn’t think that CNN has a problem journalistically?
MR. EARNEST: He doesn’t.
Q Does he think that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive next President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President obviously had an apt joke about turning over the podium at the White House Correspondents' Dinner to the next President, no matter who she is. Again, look the President was making a joke and acknowledging that there are a number of votes that remain to be cast before the American people have decided who will assume the awesome responsibility of addressing the White House Correspondents' Dinner next year.
Q Okay. And on the subject -- back to the 28 pages.
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Nakamura did not like my joke. (Laughter.) So there's a reason that I will not be assuming the podium at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Q I mean, we've been through this, and the President had an opportunity to just recently sit down with the Saudis on this. But given the reaction that could come after the release of those pages, is there any expectation that this will affect the relationship with the Saudis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s difficult to anticipate exactly what the reaction will be if that decision is made. So I sort of hesitate to hazard a guess that's rooted in a hypothetical here. But the one thing I think I would point out is simply that the President did have an opportunity to meet with King Salman for about two hours in Riyadh shortly after we arrived in Saudi Arabia a week ago last Wednesday.
They met for two hours, and this question about the 28 pages did not come up in their meeting. I assure you they covered a wide variety of topics, but this was not one of them. So I think that would be at least one indication that this is not an issue that rates at the same level of some of the other challenges that are plaguing the Middle East right now.
Q Okay, it’s been months now since the President put forward Garland as the nominee. And given that public pressure is something that you're going for -- either to change minds now, or change voters’ minds later -- but given that at this point, with the public pressure that you've tried to apply, that outside groups have tried to apply, do you feel like the public outrage isn’t necessarily there when you see that very few Republican senators’ minds have changed at this point? And does that tell you that possibly the public outrage won’t be there to change anything at the polls, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Look, we're not seeking to provoke public outrage. We want to have a discussion about whether or not Republicans in the Senate are prepared to do their job.
There are plenty of candidates out there that may be trying to stoke that outrage to achieve a political aim of one form or another. I think the President would observe that's precisely the problem. Let’s focus a little less on provoking public outrage and a little more on doing your job. And that's what Republicans, and particularly Republicans in the Senate have refused to do.
Q Yes, but some of the words and phrases you've used to describe what Republicans are doing are pretty harsh. And the fact that no -- if you're going for public pressure, the fact that no Republican minds have changed at this point, does that tell you that it’s not working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a lot of Republican minds across the country have concluded that Republican senators who are refusing to do their job just because Mitch McConnell asked them to I think is an indication that we are making some progress. There are at least two Republican senators that have come out in support of Chief Judge Garland getting a hearing and a vote. There’s at least one high-profile Senate candidate in the state of Florida that has come out and indicated that Chief Judge Garland deserves a vote. There are some former Republican senators -- people like Dick Lugar and Tom Coburn -- who have come out and indicated that they believe that Chief Judge Garland deserves a hearing and a vote.
I don't know if those people changed their minds, or if this is the view that they had all along. But there is plenty of evidence to indicate that there are plenty of Republicans who agree with the case that President Obama has made, which is that Republicans should not for the first time since 1875 deny a Supreme Court nominee a hearing and a vote. That would be an unprecedented escalation of partisan politics into a Supreme Court process that has historically been shielded from a lot of partisan stray voltage.
Look, there have been politics that have polluted this process in the past. The President has acknowledged that there’s no one party that is responsible for that. But there’s also no denying that it is Republicans in this instance that they're escalating this partisanship in a way that's not good for the country. And it certainly is not fair to a distinguished public servant like Chief Judge Garland who has more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history.
Q Does the administration still think that this is going to go to a vote -- to hearings and a vote, ultimately?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I have refrained from predicting legislative outcomes.
Q No -- Denis McDonough, maybe a month and a half ago, said that he believed that this would go there, and then you agreed, and you felt that that's -- do you still feel that way?
MR. EARNEST: I still feel that that's exactly what should happen. And we wouldn’t be making this case, and the President wouldn’t be devoting about an hour of his afternoon to talking to local television anchors if we didn't think this is something that can and should be done.
Q Josh, a couple more on Hiroshima. We're about less than three weeks before the President leaves for Asia. I’m wondering if you can provide an update as to whether the President will visit Hiroshima.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update for you in terms of the President’s schedule when he’s in Japan at this point. But we're obviously hard at work planning that trip.
Q Can you rule it out? We're less than three weeks from the trip.
MR. EARNEST: I cannot --
Q -- added a potential stop --
MR. EARNEST: I can't rule it out at this point. The President’s itinerary for this trip to Japan is not yet set. But we’ll --
Q But you guys are actively considering it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we've actively considered it every time the President has decided to travel to Japan. I think he’s been there, what, three or four times now, Mark, as President? I don't mean to put you on the spot there. (Laughter.) The President has been to Japan three or four times as President. And each time the President has traveled there, this question has come up and we've considered it each time.
Q Has the President spoken directly with Secretary Kerry about the merits of a visit to Hiroshima after his trip? Or has the President reached out to his ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, about what she thinks about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly Ambassador Kennedy and her office have been involved in planning our trip. I don't know whether or not the President has had a specific conversation with Secretary Kerry since he returned from his trip to Hiroshima just a few weeks ago. But this is something that we're considering.
But again, we're not considering it for the first time. This is something that -- this is a question that has come up every time the President has planned to travel to Japan.
Q Final thing on that. There have been a number of op-eds written since Secretary Kerry visited -- from The New York Times and The Washington Post -- that were in favor; the Weekly Standard and others I think were against it. But Wendy Sherman I think had an op-ed encouraging the President to go -- published by CNN -- a former high-ranking State Department official familiar with nuclear issues. I’m wondering if the President is monitoring that coverage on how the administration overall, the West Wing feels about sort of the reaction on net to John Kerry’s visit and these calls for the President to go.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that the President has read each of the materials that you've just described. But he’s certainly aware of the public debate that consideration of a visit like this has prompted. And that's entirely appropriate. But until we make -- it’s a little hard to talk about until we've made a decision one way or the other.
Q Do you know on net that the general sentiment favors -- is supporting a trip, whether you go or not?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s hard to tell at this point. But I think once we've made a decision, we’ll be prepared to explain how we arrived at that decision once we've announced it.
Chris, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Great. On the President today engaging in media interviews to encourage Senate action on Judge Garland, there’s another nominee the full Senate hasn’t acted on since he was named by the President nearly six months ago -- Eric Fanning for Army Secretary. Will the President employ the same effort to get him confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: The President certainly will continue to make clear that he believes that Mr. Fanning would serve with distinction as Secretary of the Army.
Mr. Fanning is somebody that has extensive experience at the Department of Defense. He’s served in a number of roles there. And he would bring that experience and that judgement to the Secretary’s office. The President believes that he is exactly the right person for the job. And it’s unconscionable for Republicans to continue to block his nomination for no good reason.
Q Last week, Senator McCain attempted to get a vote on the nominee, but he was blocked by Senator Roberts, who has placed a hold on the nomination. What is the White House strategy for convincing Senator Roberts to lift the hold on Fanning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the White House has made a strong and effective case to Democrats and Republicans in the Senate that Mr. Fanning deserves confirmation. And we’ll continue to make that argument on the merits to everyone who continues to try to block his nomination.
Q Senator Roberts mentioned on the floor a phone call he received from the White House on the nomination. What did that consist of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not privy to that phone call. I can't confirm that it occurred. We're going to continue to make a strong case on the merits that our national security would be enhanced by the Senate confirming the Secretary of the Army, particularly when it’s somebody as distinguished as Mr. Fanning.
Q And given Senator Roberts’s voting record, and the fact that Eric Fanning would be the first openly gay person to serve as Army Secretary, do you think sexual orientation is a factor on this hold?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea what the motivations are of Republicans to unfairly block the nomination of a patriotic American to this critical national security post.
Q It’s public record that Senator Roberts voted against "don't ask, don't tell" repeal; against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide. Doesn't that raise questions about the motivations behind this hold?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea what his motivations are. I can tell you that his actions, though, are wrong. Mr. Fanning is a distinguished public servant. He’s a patriotic American. He’s been nominated by the President of the United States to a critically important job. And the Senate should stop obstructing that nomination.
Mark, I put you on the spot earlier, so I’ll give you the last one.
Q Okay, thanks. What can you tell us about the five hours that the President spent yesterday with the Obama Foundation?
MR. EARNEST: Not much. I can tell you that the President was visiting with architects who had submitted designs related to his presidential library. But this is a process that's been administered by the foundation. So I’d refer you to them for specific questions about that process.
Q Why did he leave the White House for that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that there is an opportunity to make these presentations. And it was concluded that for logistical reasons it would be easier to convene that series of meetings offsite.
Q Was he doing fundraising?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, he was not.
Q Has he started doing fundraising?
MR. EARNEST: He has not. He has not. The President has made clear that he won’t be raising money for the foundation until after he leaves office.
Q And one other question. Is the White House upset about China’s decision not to let the Stennis carrier group have a port visit in Hong Kong?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding -- you should check with the Department of Defense on this -- I know that even as the Chinese made that announcement, there actually was a U.S. naval vessel that had made a port of call in Hong Kong. So it does not appear to be a significant change in policy that they're administering. But obviously the Stennis carrier group has made a port of call in Hong Kong before. But I can't speak to what the Chinese government may have had in mind by denying this request.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:10 P.M. EDT