Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/5/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. We've got a couple of quick comments at the top before we get to your questions.
As we've discussed in here many times, America’s economy continues to come back strong, creating 14.4 million private sector jobs, over the longest streak of job growth on record -- 73 consecutive months. But too many Americans still aren't sharing in the benefits of that economic progress as much as they should be.
One reason for that is that too often large corporations are stifling fair competition and stacking the deck against workers, entrepreneurs and consumers. I want to highlight important pieces of progress today toward addressing these kinds of unfair practices. First, mandatory arbitration clauses and the improper use of what are called non-compete agreements.
First, the independent Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today put out a new proposal that is designed to crack down on the use of mandatory arbitration clauses. In recent years, many financial products -- from bank accounts to credit cards -- have found a way to avoid accountability by burying mandatory arbitration clauses deep in the fine print of hundreds of millions of contracts. These clauses force consumers to, basically on their own, take on large, well-resourced companies when their rights are violated. Mandatory arbitration clauses deny consumers the ability to join their resources, band together with others who have been harmed and get their day in court. That's just not fair.
Today’s action is yet another example of the important work that's being done every day at the CFPB. You will recall that the CFPB was created by the Wall Street reform legislation that the President aggressively pushed and happily signed into law back in 2010. In addition to writing stronger rules of the road for mortgages, credit cards, and student loans through enforcement actions, the Bureau has put nearly $11 billion -- with a B -- $11 billion back in the pockets of more than 25 million consumers who’ve been harmed by illegal practices.
That's why the President fought so hard to create a strong CFPB, and that's why it's so appalling that Republicans in Congress have proposed to repeal the CFPB in their budget -- while appalling, if not particularly surprising where Republicans get a significant portion of their campaign contributions.
Also today, the White House released a report underscoring the need to reform the use of non-compete agreements, which deny workers the ability to leave a company and go work for another company in the same industry -- something that all of you, I assume, might take a little notice of. (Laughter.) Far too often -- just try to --
Q There's that.
MR. EARNEST: I know my audience, Kevin. (Laughter.)
Q Yes, you do.
MR. EARNEST: Far too often, these agreements aren't credibly protecting trade secrets. Instead they’re unnecessary roadblocks for workers trying to get a raise, move up by joining another employer, or even start their own company. Nearly one in five workers, including 14 percent of low-wage workers, are subject to them. That holds down their bargaining power and their wages.
In the coming months, we will build on examples of states that have taken actions highlighted in the report and put forward options for reform. We'll certainly encourage more states to take action and to make sure employers are treating their employees fairly. The President knows that the best way to make sure everyone shares in our economic success is through healthy competition and stronger protections that guarantee consumers are treated fairly. That's what today’s actions to combat both of these unfair practices are all about.
So with that, Kathleen, let’s go to your questions.
Q Okay. I'm going to go back to something you said yesterday, if I could. Your reaction to the elections on Tuesday. You said that you didn’t think that the Democratic primary would go to a contested convention, and I just wanted to sort of put a finer point on it, if I could. Does that mean that you think that Hillary is going to win the necessary delegates before the convention? Is that what you're saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I was alluding to is that there’s been a lot of analysis that's been conducted about the trajectory of the campaigns, and that was merely a commentary on the reporting out there that's conducted an analysis. I haven't conducted an analysis. The White House hasn’t conducted that analysis. I'm just pointing out that most people who’ve taken a close look at this do not expect there to be a contested Democratic convention.
Q So is the White House -- the White House has no opinion on whether or not Bernie Sanders remains in the race?
MR. EARNEST: As I've said many times, it's the responsibility of individual candidates to make decisions about how to conduct their campaigns. And ultimately, that's what they’ll do.
Q So if we take Senator Sanders at his word and he’s going to stay until the very end, it looks like, at least for the next, maybe six weeks, Hillary Clinton will be hit by Donald Trump on one side and by Senator Sanders on the other. And I'm wondering what the President thinks about that situation. Is that good for the Democratic Party, as he has often said? And if anyone in the White House is interested in trying to mitigate the damage that that might do to her candidacy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I can say is that the President certainly does envision a scenario where he will be strongly advocating for the Democratic nominee for President. And part of the case that he will make will be the importance of Democrats coming together behind our nominee.
But the President’s interest in this is primarily rooted in his desire to see a successor who is committed to building on the progress that we've made over the last eight years. That progress has been notable, and the President will have a strong case to make when he begins making that case. But we haven't reached the general election yet, but the President will not be shy about making that argument when we do.
Q And privately, is anyone in the White House working to talk to the campaigns about how the next six weeks are going to go?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any private conversations to discuss from here today.
Q And then I want to turn to the Justice Department letter to officials in North Carolina on the law there. Is it accurate to assume that that's a sign that a lawsuit is coming? It sounds like officials in North Carolina aren't backing down in any way. And was it also meant to send a signal to other states that have passed similar pieces of legislation -- possibly Mississippi?
MR. EARNEST: The decision to pursue that enforcement action and to notify the state of North Carolina that the Justice Department intended to pursue that enforcement action was a decision that was made at the Justice Department. These kinds of enforcement actions are made independent of any sort of political interference or direction from the White House.
So as we have discussed before, the White House as a matter of policy has been in discussions with a number of federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, about what potential impact this law could have on programs that are funded in individual states by the federal government.
But when it comes to enforcement actions, those are decisions that are made entirely by attorneys at the Department of Justice.
Q So has the White House been updated on this agency review process that you just mentioned? And should we expect similar announcements?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t expect any announcements any time soon -- at least that I’m aware of. But, yes, the White House does continue to coordinate among the agencies that are taking a look at this. And look, the agencies themselves have acknowledged that the passage of this law does raise questions about certain programs that are funded by the federal government through these individual agencies.
And there are a range of legal questions and policy questions that have emerged. They're being carefully considered by individual agencies. The Department of Justice, given the legal questions that are raised, has been involved in that review. And given the need to coordinate the policy questions that have been raised across agencies, the White House has been involved, too. But I’m not aware of any impending decisions.
And all of that, of course, is separate from the enforcement decision that was made by the Department of Justice and announced just yesterday.
Q Okay, and then just last one. On the ceasefire in Aleppo, can you give us the White House assessment of how that appears to be holding? And there was some discrepancy about exactly when it started and the need to settle that --
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that this was -- the refreshing of cessation of hostilities in and around Aleppo was slated to take effect yesterday at midnight Damascus time.
Since then we have seen a reduction in the frequency and intensity of violence in that area of the country. But we do continue to be concerned about some violations, even in that area, that continue. But there are also other places in the country where we have not seen the steadfast commitment to the cessation of hostilities that both the regime and opposition have signed on to.
So we continue to make a strong case that all sides benefit from the conscientious implementation of a cessation of hostilities. One obvious benefit is that it creates an opening for international aid workers to provide much needed humanitarian relief to civilians who have been caught in the crossfire.
And I don't know that there has been enough of an opening created in Aleppo thus far to deliver that humanitarian relief. But certainly there is widespread interest in the international community in that taking place. And that certainly is part of what motivates our interest in making the implementation of cessation of hostilities a top priority.
Q So is there an effort to extend this one so that these rescue and other -- can get through?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly are interested in continuing to refresh the cessation of hostilities in those areas where it’s started to fray.
And look, the agreement that was reached 36 hours ago did result in -- or I should say the agreement that was implemented 36 hours ago did result in a reduction in violence in and around Aleppo. But there’s still too many violations in and around Aleppo and in other parts of the country that are a source of significant concern.
Q Josh, what’s the White House’s reaction to the resignation of Turkey’s Prime Minister today? And broadly speaking, are you concerned, or is the President concerned that President Erdoğan is becoming too powerful?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, we have seen the news that Prime Minister Davutoğlu is planning to step down later this month. The Prime Minister has been a good partner with the United States, and we have appreciated his leadership.
Obviously, he and the Vice President have been in frequent communication on a range of issues that are important to our two countries.
I do not anticipate -- just anticipating another line of questioning, I do not anticipate that this is going to have any impact on the ability of the United States and Turkey to work together, to continue to implement our strategy to degrade and destroy ISIL.
There are a number of important steps that we have seen the Turks undertake in the last several months that have been important to that effort. We've seen Turkey do a more effective job at shutting down their border with Syria. There’s more that we believe that they can do, but they've made important progress that has reduced the flow of foreign fighters to ISIL in Syria.
Turkey has granted the United States and some of our coalition partners access to air bases in Turkey that have made our military air operations more efficient, and in some cases even more effective. We've also seen Turkey play a constructive role in working with our European allies to address a very difficult immigrant situation.
And even before that agreement with the Europeans, Turkey was bearing a significant burden in terms of providing for the basic humanitarian needs of more than a million Syrians who had fled to Turkey trying to escape violence in their home country. So there is no denying that Turkey has been an important partner and made a valuable contribution to our broader counter-ISIL effort.
But as we often do, we regularly remind Turkish authorities to ensure that their actions uphold the universal, democratic values that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution. Those values are not just enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, they're enshrined in the United States’ Constitution, as well. And these are the kinds of values that we advocate for around the world. And particularly when it comes to questions like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, we've had specific concerns that we have raised with the Turks. We won't hesitate to do so in the future, but it has not affected our ability to work together with our NATO Allies and Turkey to implement a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Are you concerned -- and that last piece sort of addresses this -- but more specifically, are you concerned that the concentration of power in the office of the presidency in Turkey, specifically President Erdogan, has gone too far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as this point, I wouldn’t render a judgment about what potential political impact the Prime Minister's resignation may have. What we're focused on is continuing to effectively cooperate with our Ally to degrade and destroy ISIL. And that's not going to prevent us from raising concerns or, in some cases, even outright objections about the way the government observes the universal and democratic values that are enshrined in their constitution.
Q Okay. And then moving south, what is the White House's reaction to the latest development in Brazil, where a Supreme Court justice suspended the Speaker of the House -- or Speaker of the Lower House in Congress, who is one of the main rivals of President Rousseff?
MR. EARNEST: I was not aware of that latest development. I think what is clear from the coverage that we've seen over the last several months in Brazil, that there is a very challenging political environment that that country's leaders are trying to navigate. And it certainly comes at a difficult time for Brazil, given the economic challenges facing the country and giving the international spotlight on the country during this summer's Olympics.
But as the President said in Argentina, six weeks ago, Brazil has a developed democracy. They've got sturdy, democratic institutions that should be able to effectively deal with these challenges and ensure that the concerns that have been raised are properly adjudicated.
As with any democracy, that will take some time. There will be some bumps along the road. But the democratic institutions in Brazil are sturdy and should be up to the test of weathering this difficult political situation.
Q Thank you, Josh. Once a presidential candidate receives his or her party's nomination, it's tradition for them to receive classified intelligence briefings, as I'm sure you know. So Donald Trump has promoted numerous conspiracy theories. He has quoted the National Enquirer. He's gone to Twitter to make what some would see as unfiltered statements. So is this White House concerned about Donald Trump getting those classified briefings? And also, is he hesitant to approve that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kenneth, I know that Director Clapper, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence, has spoken to this a little bit already. What Director Clapper has indicated is that the intelligence community typically begins providing those briefings after the party nomination conventions have occurred. And I would expect that that would take place in this instance this year, as well. The decisions about how and whether and when and what to brief to the presidential nominees is something that will be made -- is a decision that will be made by our intelligence professionals. They are committed to fulfilling the spirit of this bipartisan, or even nonpartisan, cooperation when it comes to sensitive national security issues.
At the same time, they also will carry out those activities consistent with their understanding about treating this information sensitively. And the President has full confidence in the ability to Director Clapper and the professionals in his office to carry out these responsibilities appropriately.
Q But no comment on whether the President would be confident or feel comfortable with Donald Trump getting intelligence briefings?
MR. EARNEST: Those are assessments that will have to be made by the intelligence community. And the President has full confidence in the ability of our professionals in the intelligence community to make those assessments.
Q Josh, on Merrick Garland, now that there are some GOP senators who came out and said, we will not support Donald Trump, is the White House now trying to approach those senators to push Merrick Garland through a little faster, to maybe give him a hearing, maybe get them on your side?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have made the case to all 100 senators that they have a basic responsibility that's dictated by the Constitution whether they're on our side or not. And right now, we've seen too many Republican senators indicate that they're not prepared to do their job, that they're not prepared to fulfill their basic constitutional responsibility. That's a tough position for them to be in, particularly because their explanation is not that they have legitimate, substantive concerns with Chief Judge Merrick Garland. After all, Chief Judge Garland has served for 19 years on the second-highest court in the land. He's got more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history.
And just yesterday, the Congressional Research Service issued a report that confirms what you've heard me say many times. The Research Service wrote that, "Judge Garland has been widely viewed as a meticulous and cautious jurist, writing with his precision and an eye toward ensuring that the Court does not overreach in any particular case." It's that approach to doing his job that has prompted even Republican senators to describe Chief Judge Garland as a consensus nominee. I suspect it's also part of what prompted the chairman of the Judiciary Committee to acknowledge that by not doing their job, Republicans in the Senate were taking "a gamble."
Republicans are rolling the dice with the Supreme Court, because they have an opportunity to carefully consider a nominee that the President has put forward that Republicans themselves acknowledge is a consensus nominee; that he has an approach to the law that is entirely consistent with what Democrats and Republicans would like to see in a Supreme Court justice. That's not just my opinion; that actually is the opinion that's articulated by Ted Olson, who was appointed President George W. Bush to represent the United States before the Supreme Court. He's a conservative, he's a lawyer who knows a lot about the Supreme Court, and even he has described Chief Judge Garland as somebody who is exactly what Americans need on the Supreme Court.
But ultimately, I don’t think the American people are comfortable with Republicans rolling the dice with the Supreme Court. They're not comfortable with this gamble. What they would like Republicans in the Senate to do is simply their job to fulfill their basic constitutional responsibility. As long as they're picking up a paycheck, they might as well do what their constituents sent them to Washington to do. And unfortunately, too many Republicans are saying, well, I'm not going to do what my constituents sent me to do; I'm just going to follow the instructions of the Republican Leader in the United States Senate. That may be their explanation, but I'm not sure it's one that's going to fly with their constituents.
Q Thanks, Josh. This morning, the FDA released a rule to regulate more tobacco products, and I'm wondering if the President would veto any bill or rider that would exempt the e-cigarettes from that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the FDA did make an important announcement today. And obviously, while we have made important progress over the last 50 years in reducing smoking rates, the fact is that smoking continues to be a leading cause of preventable death in the United States. About one in every five deaths each year can be traced back to tobacco products.
So that's why the scientists at the FDA have taken steps to further regulate tobacco products, particularly as it relates to the ability of kids under the age of 18 getting their hands on them. So this is a common-sense proposal carefully considered by the FDA. I know many critics of this rule have suggested that this rule took too long to implement. I actually think it underscores the care and caution and concern that our scientists took in implementing this rule effectively and fairly.
So obviously this is something that our scientists believe would have a tangible impact on the basic public health and safety of the American people, particularly America’s children.
So that's obviously a good thing. I haven’t seen any proposed riders. We have made clear -- the President takes a very dim view of attaching ideological riders to appropriations bills. We've certainly indicated our strong opposition to those kinds of proposals in the past. But I’m not aware of anything that's been put together at this point.
Q Josh, a couple questions on a couple different subjects. One, what is the concern from this White House about the party not coming together like it had in the past around convention time? Because there is a difference in the politics between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. And many of Bernie Sanders followers may not be the traditional Democratic supporter.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I would say that there’s concern at this point for a variety of reasons. I think most important of which is that you've heard the President say on many occasions that the differences between the Democratic nominees -- or Democratic candidates are not nearly as significant as the difference between the Democratic candidates and the presumptive Republican nominee.
The President has said that on many occasions. And I suspect he’ll have many opportunities in the future to make that case.
But look, the President’s view is that he’s going to advocate strongly for a successor who is committed to building on the progress that our country has made under his leadership. And obviously, the President has got a lot personally invested in those policies and in that progress. And he’s going to certainly spend a decent portion of the fall here making a strong case that his successor should look to build on that progress.
Q Does the White House look at this potential fight leading up to the convention, or this separation still leading up to the convention a problem in relation to fighting against the presumptive nominee who is already the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party? Is this an impediment to possibly gaining ground on Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think -- again, based on what the President has said before I think he feels quite confident that Democrats will come together around a set of values that he himself has been advocating for, for the last seven years.
There is a reason that the President is the most popular politician in America, particularly among Democrats, that his approval rating is higher and his unfavorable rating is lower than -- among Democrats than anybody else in the country. That is a strong endorsement of the work that this President has done over the last eight years or so. And that certainly is going to enhance the President’s ability to make an argument to those very voters about the stakes in the election, about the need to elect somebody who will look to build on that progress.
Q Now -- looking at the next subject, now looking forward to the weekend, Howard University, how does this administration view Howard as it relates to the President speaking this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, Howard University is one of the finest institutions of higher education in the country. And it certainly is a distinguished institution of higher learning that is -- among HBCUs. And so the President is looking forward to visiting the university and speaking to the graduates.
It will be an opportunity for him to discuss the responsibility that the graduates have, not just to the African American community, but to the American people to use their skills and their gifts to form a more perfect union. And there are a variety of ways that those distinguished graduates will be able to do that -- whether that’s serving in their community; whether that is serving in our military; or whether that is pursuing a profession and starting a new business; or being part of a remarkable scientific breakthrough that could have consequences for the health of millions of Americans or the convenience of Americans through the use for new technology. So the future is quite bright for those graduates.
And the President will talk about the sense of optimism that he has about their future and the country’s future. But he certainly will not skim over the important responsibility that they have, as well.
Q So the President is very well aware of the financial troubles that many HBCUs have been undergoing at this time. Is that one of the reasons why he chose Howard? It’s the nation’s first federally funded HBCU, and it’s having some financial problems. Is that one of the reasons why he chose Howard as his last HBCU commencement address as President?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think that's why he chose Howard. This is a distinguished class of graduates, and the President has got an important message to deliver to them.
Q And when you look back over the eight years and HBCUs, what would you say the President has been able to contribute to the HBCUs, and the HBCU community, which is vast in this nation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the President has had an opportunity on at least a couple of occasions to speak at -- to deliver the commencement address as HBCUs. The President has enjoyed that opportunity in the past, and he certainly is looking forward to Saturday’s festivities.
But as a policy matter, this administration has worked hard to significantly increase funding for students who attend HBCUs, but also to support HBCUs as institutions. The President believes those institutions have an important role to play in educating future generations of Americans. And this administration has been strongly supportive of it. I can provide you some more details here. I don't have them in front of me. We’ll follow up with you.
Q Now that a lot more of the detail has come out surrounding the death of a Navy SEAL in Iraq -- that Special Forces were overwhelmed, that they had to call in more Navy SEALs, that they finally had to leave when they ran out of ammunition; the Peshmerga then had to take over. It’s kind of a different line of questioning than -- now that we know those details and just kind of how overwhelmed these guys were, even after they called in their own backups, does that raise concerns for you about the positioning of these Special Forces, given what their role is supposed to be, and how prepared they are? Or in this case, how prepared they weren’t for something like this happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think for the most direct answer to this question, given the operational details that are included in it, I’d encourage you to check with the Department of Defense.
Let me just say I’m not aware of any policy changes that are prompted as a result of this particular situation and the tragic death that resulted. The individuals -- the servicemembers who were in this situation were highly trained. They were well armed. And they were backed up by overwhelming military airpower that did succeed in exacting many more casualties on ISIL targets -- both fighters and equipment -- than was sustained by American forces to be sure.
But there has been a recognition from the beginning that American servicemembers serving our country in Iraq, in an advise-and-assist mission are taking a significant risk. They are putting themselves in harm’s way to protect our country. And we owe them a debt of gratitude. And is it at times like these when we're mourning the death of a brave American servicemember that we're reminded in rather vivid terms of their significant sacrifice.
That certainly is not lost on the President. And I don't think it’s lost on any American who has read the news coverage of this incident over the last couple of days.
These individuals are going to great lengths and assuming great personal risk for our freedom and for our safety. They do that so that we don't have to. And we owe them a debt of gratitude. And the Commander-in-Chief certainly does not take lightly the commitment and patriotism of those brave Americans who are serving our country over in Iraq and Syria right now.
Q Knowing what happened, does these details bother you?
MR. EARNEST: What is clear is that it’s a dangerous situation. And what’s also clear is that these are servicemembers. These are Americans. These are patriots who are well-trained. This is some of the best -- these men and women are some of the best that our country has to offer. And they're preforming a great service to our country.
Q I guess the concern is, though, that you could say that this is a fluke situation where nobody really predicated what exactly would happen. Every situation is obviously different. But now that they're in those positions where they are closer to the battle -- okay, this was two miles away. But where they were and what they're doing now, and the fact that more Special Forces are going over there, I feel like this may have been asked before, but I’m sort of asking it now in the context of what happened, that can we expect these kinds of firefights and unpredictable situations to happen more often now that more Americans are over there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say a couple things about that. The first is that any sort of military conflict like this is going to include a lot of unpredictability. For example, that's precisely why these individuals who are not in a combat mission are equipped for combat, so that if an unpredictable situation arises, they have the equipment and training and resources to defend themselves.
The Department of Defense has described the circumstances of the servicemember who was killed. He was actually part of the quick reaction force that was summoned to defend and help expedite the departure of Americans who were advising Peshmerga forces. I think that -- just the circumstances of the situation should illustrate the capabilities of the individuals who are involved. They're tremendous. These are well-trained, well-equipped American servicemembers who are prepared to fight for their country, and to keep us safe, and to keep their fellow servicemembers safe.
What’s also true is they have an enormous advantage in terms of being backed up by American military airpower. And there were a number of United States military aircraft that responded to this situation, carried out a series of airstrikes that took some 50 ISIL fighters off the battlefield, destroyed a number of other vehicles, and took out other fighting positions that were maintained by ISIL terrorists.
So as tragic as this one particular death is, there were no other casualties that were reported by the Department of Defense. So this is I think a good illustration of just how dangerous the situation is. It’s a reminder of how significant a debt of gratitude we owe our servicemembers in Iraq and in Syrian.
But it’s also a testament to our military planners that even in a situation as unpredictable as this one, the United States and our coalition partners were able to quickly mobilize the resources necessary to respond to a dangerous situation.
Q And just before the President went to Flint you were asked here in the briefing and kind of drew some laughs as to whether the President would drink the Flint water.
And you -- just in the words you chose and your tone, you seemed kind of dismissive. And you called that a photo-op. And you didn't know then that the President would take part in that kind of a photo-op. But then he did it three times yesterday. And that seems like the kind of thing that the President doesn't usually like to do, that it really did seem like it was some kind of photo op. Why did the President feel like he wanted to drink the water three times and kind of make this big deal out of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I actually think that, for those of you who were at the pool spray yesterday in the briefing with federal officials, the President spoke for about 15 minutes or so and indicated that he was finished talking and that the pool could move on so we could move on to the next event. And it was actually reporters in the pool who said, Mr. President, will you drink the water? And so he did, acknowledging that he doesn’t usually indulge them in these kinds of stunts, but in this case, he did in response to a specific request from a journalist.
Q And then he did it two more times. And he called it a stunt, and said it wasn’t a stunt, and then he -- calling for the water, and saying, I'm thirsty, and where’s the water?
MR. EARNEST: There typically is a glass of water or tea underneath his podium when he’s delivering a speech. It was not there yesterday when he was giving the speech. And I think everybody, again, who was listening carefully noticed that 20 or 30 minutes into his remarks he started coughing and asked for something to drink.
Q That wasn’t from the water, was it?
MR. EARNEST: No, this was before the water was provided.
Q But it was after the pool spray where he drank the water the first time. Was that what he was coughing from?
MR. EARNEST: I think he was coughing from having spoken for 20 or 25 minutes in a row without having anything to drink.
So I guess what I would say is this. I would acknowledge that the President was indulging the photographers in which he consumed water from Flint after the briefing with federal officials. But at the speech, the man was just thirsty. (Laughter.)
Q Well, yeah, but he made it a point to say, I don't want a bottle, I want a glass of water -- like somebody bring me a glass of water. And he asked for it twice. And then at the end, he also drank some. So I guess what I'm saying is, if you guys were kind of like calling this a photo-op from the start, why did the President feel it was so important to keep on drinking the water while --
MR. EARNEST: Again, the President was speaking publicly for an hour, and so I think most people get thirsty when they talk for a long time. The President had spoken for a long time and got thirsty.
Q The stories that he told saying how he, others had eaten lead when they were kids. He said he felt sure that he had eaten paint chips when he was a kid. Is that true? Is he sure that at some point he had eaten paint chips as a child?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is making the point that the effort to remove lead from gasoline and from paint is a relatively recent phenomenon; that before 1980, it was actually common for even young children to be exposed to lead. And it's only as we've come to understand the impact of that exposure have we taken significant steps to try to prevent that exposure from occurring because it has a negative impact on cognitive and emotional development.
I think the message that the President was trying to deliver was a critically important one, which is people in Flint have been concerned and were concerned to learn that children in their household, their own children had been exposed to lead through the water supply, and that they had been misled by *federal[state] authorities. And they were scared, they were anxious, and justifiably anger, in the President’s own description. But at the same time, the President did not want them to despair about the future opportunities for their kids to succeed. They should feel confident that despite this failure of government, that the children of Flint continue to have a future, and a future that is bound only by the limits of their own imagination.
And that's why it's important for the parents of those kids to understand that even though they were exposed to lead, that's not going to limit the future opportunities of their kids. Yes, they need to get the health care that they need. Yes, they need medical attention. Yes, they should get the proper follow-up. Yes, they should be conscientious about making sure that follow-up occurs, that there are specific things that our medical professionals recommend that can counteract the impact of lead -- of elevated levels of lead in the bloodstream, even for kids. And parents should follow that advice. But they shouldn’t further restrain the ambitions of their kids because of this situation.
And I think the President is a good example. The President is making clear that even when the President himself was a kid, he was exposed to lead. And I don't know whether that was from the lead paint in his house when he was growing up, or whether that was from lead that was in gasoline or lead that was in the pipes. The President was exposed to that lead as a kid, and he had a very bright future that allowed him to attend Harvard Law School and be elected President of the United States.
Q This is what I'm saying. We're not comparing apples to apples here. Doesn’t it seem like an odd comparison that I may have had some environmental exposure to lead as a kid, versus these people who have been drinking lead-tainted water for about a year, and some of these kids had elevated lead levels that are eight times what is considered the minimum level of elevation by the federal government? I mean --
MR. EARNEST: I guess the President’s point is he wasn’t even tested for lead when he was a kid, so we don't know exactly what his elevated level was. The point of this is -- but in some ways, that is beside the point. The point here is that being exposed to lead is not going to limit the potential of these kids. The kids in Flint still have an opportunity to succeed. They should get medical attention. That's why we've expanded access to Medicaid. That’s why the Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday a million-dollar grant to health care workers in Flint to expand their capacity to try to meet the needs of these kids. If kids get that medical attention, if they get the follow-up, if they follow the instructions of medical professionals, there is no reason that this government failure should have any impact on their long-term ability to grow up and fulfill their dreams.
Q And the President has made the point that government is “us” and you can trust government, it's just a bunch of people just like us. But these people for more than a year have been failed by literally every level of government, so why should they put any store in what the President was saying to them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I don’t think that's exactly the argument the President was making. The argument the President was making is that too often we find Republicans who denigrate the institution of government without recognizing that government reflects their citizens and that government, as described by Abraham Lincoln -- the first Republican President -- is that government is formed to do the kinds of things that we can't do for ourselves. Nobody should have an expectation that they're going to hire their own police force or hire their own fire department, or hire their own water department. But rather, we're going to work together, we're going to pool our resources, and we're going to be dedicated to the pursuit of the common good. And a tax on government failed to acknowledge that fact, as cleanly articulated by Abraham Lincoln.
What is also true is that when government makes mistakes, as in this instance, we should own up to it, and government should mobilize an effective response to deal with the fallout. And that's exactly what's happened in this situation. But that's not an attempt to downplay the significance of the failures in Flint. It's an attempt to underscore the need to invest in the things that we know are critical to the health, safety, and wellbeing of the American people.
I used this example yesterday: There's an acknowledgement that environmental regulators at the state level are principally responsible for this failure. That does not mean we should eliminate the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. How exactly is eliminating the role of environmental regulators going to make our water safer or our air cleaner? It's not. It's going to make it worse. What we need is we need effective government, a competent government. And that's what the President spent a lot of the last seven or eight years working on. And I think we've got significant, positive results to enjoy because of that attention.
Q On a couple different topics. One, I wanted just to follow up to I think something Kathleen asked about the DOJ letter to North Carolina. Given that you're saying that the White House did not weigh in directly on that letter -- it was sort of a legal decision, a legal matter -- and given the fact that I think the administration has an ongoing review of whether maybe to withhold some federal funding from different agencies to the state based on that law, in the meantime, is the administration or the White House doing anything, taking any direct steps to try to discourage public officials in other states to not pass similar kinds of laws?
And then also, I'm wondering, is there any concern out of the White House, given the DOJ letter, of the issue becoming politicized in North Carolina and having sort of a counterproductive effect of legislators digging in their heels, when you could maybe wait to see if public pressure in the state might have the same effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, on the second part, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice about their strategy. They were the ones who made the decision to write the letter based on their own interpretation of the law and the need to enforce it. So they can sort of walk you through their thinking when it comes to whether or not that was the right approach.
More generally, in terms of other states considering these kinds of laws, I'm not aware of any specific message that's been directed by the White House with regard to discouraging other states from pursuing these kinds of rules. But I think any other state that has observed the economic impact on the state of North Carolina would draw their own conclusions about the wisdom of pursuing laws like this.
There are a number of large business interests that have come forward and made clear that this law that makes discrimination against their customers and their employees more likely makes it less it likely that they're going to do business in North Carolina. That's true of athletic organizations like the NBA and the NCAA, but there are other businesses that have come forward and indicated that they're reconsidering expanding their business in North Carolina because of the law.
So particularly in an economy where we see states aggressively competing to land business opportunities, there's no denying that passing discriminatory laws like this one is counterproductive.
Q On another topic, if I could. On trade -- the President had an op-ed in the Post, promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I'm wondering if -- I know that the administration would like Congress to begin to take this up, maybe pave the way for a vote. Just curious whether you could say whether the administration thinks that having on a vote on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame duck session is legitimate strategy that you would be okay with if it came to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, David, what I can tell you is that we've been in conversations with Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate, and Democrats who have been supportive of our efforts thus far, about the best way to get TPP passed through the Congress. And the political calculation I would acknowledge is complicated. It doesn’t fall cleanly along party lines. So we're going to have to work in bipartisan fashion to develop a strategy that will lead to success. And those are conversations that are ongoing with --
Q Is the lame duck session a part of the conversation? Is that a legitimate strategy? Does that delegitimize it in any way if a new President has been elected and is coming in and may have qualms about the deal -- does that legitimize it in any way? Or do you feel like it is legitimate as part of your conversations that you're talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to get into the details of the substance of those conversations. I will just stay that there's no reason we need to wait that long, particularly when you consider that ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership would hasten the end to 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods. So American businesses certainly don’t want to wait until the end of this year, before Congress acts on the TPP. So it's not just the White House that's making the case that Congress should act on this; it's organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau and the National Organization of Manufacturers who don’t typically agree with the White House but are joining us in the effort to encourage prompt congressional action.
Q And the final thing on that is just, if the remaining three major candidates in the race total, on each side, have come out as they have with concerns and said they do not support TPP is it currently exists, and they do not necessarily support a vote in the lame duck session, does that make it more difficult, do you think, for the White House to go forward on lame duck with a vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, David, I think you have just articulated a political dynamic that should be rather compelling to supporters of TPP wondering whether or not Congress should act this year. Again, supporters of TPP are not likely to have a more enthusiastic President for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017.
Q One more. Just following up on April's question about Howard University. The President is giving three addresses to -- or commencements this year, three very different types of universities. One is a sort of historically black college, another is a big state university, and one is a military academy. Is he tailoring his message to each of those? You mentioned -- talking about encouraging the young people to use their skills to form a more perfect union. That's pretty general I think. Could you talk a little bit about if there’s a specific message at Howard?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll be prepared to do that tomorrow.
Q Why not today? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Christi.
Q Josh, thank you. You said a minute ago that the President will spend a decent portion of the fall advocating for the Democratic nominee to succeed him. Can you envision a scenario in which he does that for a specific person prior to the convention?
MR. EARNEST: At this point I would hesitate to predict exactly what the timeframe will be. But I guess the other thing I would point out is it’s -- there are other important races on the ballot other than -- in addition to the presidential race. There are important races for the United States Senate, for the United States Congress, and for some governor’s offices where I would expect the President would also be involved.
And we’ll sort of see how things play out over the next couple of months. But as we start to make those decisions, we’ll let you know.
Q Well, as he was speaking yesterday, at one point it really looked -- actually not at one point, but pretty much through the whole address in Flint yesterday, he was making the case for a Democratic Congress and a Democratic White House and a Democratic point of view in general. Could he conceivably continue to do that through July and be as effective as he would be if he were advocating for a particular person?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President was making less of a partisan argument yesterday, and more of a philosophical one. The philosophical argument that he was making is that for our nation and our communities to succeed, we need an effective government. And too often every answer that is put forward by Republicans is one that is focused on tearing down government, or shrinking government, or undermining government.
Again tearing down institutions that are responsible for keeping our air clean and our water clean are not going to make it safer for our kids to drink. There are a variety of ways to sort of draw this analogy. It certainly applies to local governments who are responsible for administering elections. It certainly is true when it comes to public safety.
So there’s a basic question here about what our approach to governing is going to be. And the President believes that Flint actually illustrates those differing -- the consequences of those differing philosophies in rather stark terms. And I don't know if the President is going to make that same argument around the country. But it certainly is an argument that feels pretty resonant in Flint, Michigan right now.
Q I think -- I guess my question is if he’s worried about the lost time advocating for a particular nominee. But I don't feel like you're going to answer it. So I don't want to waste --
MR. EARNEST: No. (Laughter.)
Q I don't want to hear that speech again. I heard it yesterday. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Fair enough.
Q That was a good summary.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not offended. I’m happy to admit the President is better at giving that speech than I am.
Q Now if you drink some water right now, that would just be --
MR. EARNEST: Okay, I’ll do that. (Laughter.)
Q Can I ask you about something else? The President and his staff lately seem to be doing a lot of explaining, a lot of interviews explaining his record and setting the record straight. Is there a feeling in the White House that some basic things about the President’s record in office are misunderstood by the American people?
MR. EARNEST: I think there is a sense in the White House that it’s important for the American people to understand exactly what the President has prioritized over the last seven years. The President entered the White House with a very specific strategy to prevent a second Great Depression, but also to strengthen the middle class. The President entered with a very specific strategy to fight climate change. The President entered with a very specific strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The President entered with a very specific strategy to responsibly get our men and women out of harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President entered with a very specific strategy to ensure that the next generation of Americans would be trained and educated to compete and win in a 21st century global economy. The President entered the White House with a very specific strategy to reduce the deficit, and the deficit has been cut by three-fourths since he took office.
So I think just as a factual matter it’s important for people to understand that. I think it’s particularly important for people to understand, as they consider whether or not they should elect someone who will build on that progress, or scrap it.
I think it’s also important as people evaluate what kind of policies the United States Congress should pursue. Many of the things that I just described were either things that were accomplished as a result of strong Democratic support in Congress, or were accomplished in spite of Republican opposition in Congress.
So people understanding exactly what the President’s strategy was and what the results have been is relevant as they consider the broader impact of the Obama presidency. And I would actually make the case this is something that we've been talking about for quite a while. And I would anticipate that it will continue over the course of the year.
Q Why do you think people -- well, you mentioned the deficit just now. And that's a thing that the President in recent days has said is misunderstood by people. Why do you think people don't know that -- since we're talking about factual things, why people don't know that, haven’t registered that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of it is certainly that there are Republicans who go to great lengths to lie about the President’s record. That happens with some regularity. And there are some Republican interests that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to do that, particularly in the context of the 2012 reelection campaign. So that certainly would be a part of it.
I think the President has also acknowledged that in the very earliest days of his presidency when there was a raging economic crisis, there wasn’t ample time to spend a week or two describing to the American people the steps that the government was taking to address the crisis because the truth is, after implementing a strategy to address one crisis, the President and his team had to move on to addressing the next one.
So immediately after -- I think the best example of this is that immediately after passing the Recovery Act, that included billions of dollars in tax cuts for middle-class families, numerous tax cuts for small businesses, and critically important investments in infrastructure and clean energy, the administration also had to figure out how to rescue the American auto industry.
And that was something that was announced at the end of March, just a couple of weeks after the Recovery Act was passed by Congress. So that's an indication of the rapid pace of crisis-driven decisions that this administration had to engage in.
And look, those are two isolated decisions that are still the subject of extensive political debate. But there is no denying the tremendous positive impact that both of those decisions had on our economy. They were unpopular at the time. Some of them are unpopular now. But the results speak for themselves. And so it’s important for people to understand the context of those results so that the next time that our country is facing an important economic decision, it’s important for the American people to have the facts about what worked so that we can make smart decisions about wise investments in the future.
Q Josh, at the top of the briefing you said something about the ceasefire in Syria, and a reduction has been noted in terms of the frequency and intensity of the violence. There’s been an airstrike in a refugee camp in Syria near the Turkish border that has reportedly killed dozens. There are images all over social media right now. Were you aware of that when you said that you had seen this reduction in violence?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the reduction in violence is specifically around Aleppo, and that is a reduction in violence that we have seen. Yes, I was also notified of this specific report shortly before walking out here.
There is no justifiable excuse for carrying out an airstrike against innocent civilians who have already once fled their homes to escape violence. These individuals are in the most desperate situation imaginable. And there is no justification for carrying military action that's targeting them.
The other thing that you should confirm with the Department of Defense, but I believe this to be true, there were no U.S. or coalition aircraft that were operating in the region primarily because our efforts are focused on ISIL. And there’s little intelligence to substantiate the presence of significant ISIL forces in that region of the country. But obviously reports like this are heartbreaking and indefensible.
Q Well, given that Russia has an air force, and the Assad regime has some aircraft, though not a full air force, is it safe to assume that that's who you believe carried out this strike?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't hazard a guess at this point about who carried out this particular strike. We have seen a willingness on the part of the Assad regime to use what military aircraft they have to carry out attacks against innocent civilians. The dropping of barrel bombs is the best example of that.
Again, I don't know enough about the details of this particular situation to say whether or not the tactics that were used in this particular strike are the same as the tactics that the Assad regime has used in other parts of the country. But if it does turn out that the Assad regime is responsible for this particular strike it would not at all be the first time that the Assad regime has used its military force against innocent civilians in a desperate situation.
Q And to very little consequence, as some would say, particularly when it comes to this ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, that there are no repercussions for these violations, however flagrant they are, that the U.S. just keeps going back to the negotiating table, saying we're dealing with malicious actors but we're hopeful that they’re going to show some honor here. Is there any repercussions to a strike like this, killing, as you said, dozens of innocent civilians?
MR. EARNEST: I think as a result of the behavior that we've seen from the Assad regime thus far, there is no hope that they’re going to show much honor. What is true is that the only way to solve this situation effectively, consistent with our national security interests, is for a political transition that results in Assad’s departure. And the United States has mobilized the international community, worked closely with the United Nations to try to facilitate those political talks. President Putin has acknowledged himself that that kind of political transition needs to happen. And we continue to impress upon President Putin the need to use his influence with the Assad regime to get them to abide by the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, and to participate constructively in the ongoing political talks.
And there was a point where we did see an important reduction in violence as a result of the initial implementation of the cessation of hostilities. That initial implementation went more smoothly than expected, and in the last few weeks we've seen that agreement start to fray. And the improvement in the situation around Aleppo is notable, but as I pointed out, there are other areas of the country where the cessation of hostilities is not implemented in the way that it should. And we're going to continue to work closely with the rest of the international community to impress upon all parties the need to live up to their commitments.
Q The White House, the President has talked at great length about how concerned he is about the refugee issue and internally displaced people. Among many of the proposals put forward for some version of a safe zone, some not requiring ground forces, the argument has been to protect against situations exactly like this, hitting people who are already fleeing and in camps. You're still saying the White House does not support any kind of safe zone to protect these situations, these areas, refugee camps near the border of Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, this situation is tragic and there is no downplaying that. But I think it also underscores the difficulty of establishing a safe zone. It certainly underscores the tremendous commitment of military firepower that would be required to enforce a safe zone.
In the past, those who advocate a safe zone have suggested that, well, it would not necessarily need to be treated as a no-fly zone. But based on the circumstance that you’ve just raised, that's not true, and to say nothing of the significant commitment of ground forces that would be required to prevent ISIL or anyone else from infiltrating the camp, to monitor people as they move in and out, and frankly, if necessary, to root out extremist forces that are able to get access to the camp. That is a significant commitment of firepower and manpower. It also puts American troops in a very dangerous place. Lots of them.
So our view continues to be that a political transition is the only solution that is consistent with our national security interests in that region of the world.
Q Can I ask on North Carolina -- when we were in London, the President said that he thought the law there and in Mississippi wrong and it should be repealed. He went on to say the next day that he lacked the authority essentially to be able to do just that. So lawmakers in North Carolina are saying they feel bullied by this DOJ action. How do you respond to the accusation that this is just another way of achieving the aim of getting that law repealed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what this is, it's an independent enforcement decision that's made by attorneys at the Department of Justice. And there certainly is a legal mechanism for evaluating the concerns that have been raised by the Department of Justice. Hopefully it won't come to that. Hopefully the state of North Carolina and the lawmakers in North Carolina will make some decisions that are consistent with the law, consistent with our values, and consistent with the economic interests of their own state.
Thus far, the actions that they have taken have been inconsistent with all of those things. And the President has spoken out quite forcefully against it because in his view this is something that goes to a core principle of fairness and equality and justice, and treating people the same and not discriminating against them because of who they love or because of who they are.
So it's a pretty simple calculation when it comes to values. The Department of Justice has reached their own conclusions about what the law requires, and they’ve notified the state of North Carolina of their conclusion.
Q You said there had been no political interference in the DOJ process. But the President has clearly made his views very public.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the President has been asked by certain insightful, demanding journalists for his view. I'm looking for a way to get -- (laughter.)
Q Okay. But again, though, at that town hall the next day. I mean, this is an issue that's drawn a lot of attention.
MR. EARNEST: I would acknowledge the President has not pulled any punches when it comes to making clear his view that this law is wrong. And that is a value judgment that he is offering, and he believes those values that have been called into question aren't just worth defending, they’re worth advocating. And he'll do that.
But when it comes to enforcing the law, that's somebody else’s responsibility. That's the responsibility of the lawyers at the Department of Justice, and they’re carrying out those responsibilities consistent with the requirements of the law and without interference from the White House.
Q You're saying there was no influence in the President stating his views and the actions that DOJ took.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you’d have to talk to the Department of Justice about that. There certainly was no attempt either publicly or privately to influence what is an independent enforcement decision carried out by Department of Justice attorneys.
Q Thanks, Josh. A U.S. Army intelligence officer based in Kuwait, a captain, has brought a lawsuit, challenging the President’s assertions that the war against the Islamic State is legal under existing law. You’ve been asked a lot about that in this briefing room. Does it give you pause, though, to hear some of these questions come from someone who is deployed in active duty?
MR. EARNEST: No, it doesn’t. I think these are legitimate questions for every American to be asking. The truth is that 449 days ago, the President of the United States sent a detailed ISIL-specific AUMF proposal to Congress. That proposal included a recommendation to Congress that they not just pass this ISIL-specific AUMF but they repeal the 2002 AUMF and take steps to more narrowly tailor the 2001 AUMF.
The President feels strongly about this. The day after the election, the President held a news conference with all of you in the East Room of the White House and was blunt about the need for Congress to take action on this. That was the first time that he’d discussed it in really blunt terms publicly, but certainly not the first time that he has advocated in other settings for congressional action on this.
And unfortunately, we've not seen Congress take much action on this. The President sent up senior members of his national security team. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, his then Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel both testified under oath before Congress. But we haven't seen congressional action on one of Congress’s most critically important responsibilities. And I'm not really sure why.
Maybe it's because they were spending a bunch of time considering the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court. No, it wasn’t that. Maybe it's because they are busy dealing with responding to a public health emergency to make sure our public health professionals they need to respond to the Zika crisis. Well, no, it wasn’t that. Maybe it was because Congress was holding intensive meetings with the President’s Budget Director to consider the President’s budget proposal on a range of important issues, including cybersecurity. No, they didn’t do that either. They cancelled those hearings. Maybe it was because Congress was considering how important it was to ensure that the Puerto Rican government had the restructuring authority that they need so they can deal with the financial crisis that's affecting 3 million Americans in Puerto. No, it wasn’t that either.
I don’t really know what Congress was doing. But this is yet another example of Congress dropping the ball when it comes to a core American priority.
Q And I want to draw your attention to an anecdote in The New York Times, a profile of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. You remember, right around the time of the State of the Union, when the Iranians captured a number of American sailors?
MR. EARNEST: I do remember that.
Q Here's what the Times says: "Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning" -- meaning that State of the Union -- "but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the President's speech. 'They can't keep a secret for two hours,' Rhodes says with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline." That sounds like he was putting pressure on the military to withhold that information to avoid a political headache. Is that what happened? And how often does it happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to -- well, I'll acknowledge I have not read the story about Ben in the Times magazine. I do remember vividly that day, and I don’t think there is any expectation that -- well, let me say it this way, because I think there are a couple of factors here.
The first is, Olivier, we've often found that it is easier to resolve situations like this when they aren’t subject to intense media scrutiny. We often will decline to discuss specific cases of Americans that are being held hostage around the world because we conclude that discussing them publicly before they are freed is not conducive to their prompt and safe release. I'm sure that was a factor in this situation.
At the same time, I think anybody who took a look at the situation recognized that it was not going to stay secret for long, and that that certainly was true in this instance. And I think it is a good example, once again, of President Obama demonstrating his ability to effectively handle a crisis situation. You will recall that despite the pleas of some Republicans in Congress, the President did deliver the speech on time, as planned. And those American servicemembers were released unharmed, with their equipment, the next day. That was an agreement that we had reached with the Iranians.
So I think the outcome of this situation and the way that it was handled during that busy day I think is a strong endorsement as any of this President's ability to manage the affairs of the country.
Q So you can't say one way or another, though, whether the Times' characterization is accurate -- that it was to avoid an embarrassing piece of news that might overshadow the speech?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I haven’t read the piece. I would be surprised if anybody thought that a situation that volatile was going to be secret for that long. I also would say that the way that it is covered publicly has a direct impact on the ability to resolve these situations. And when we're talking about the lives of 10 U.S. servicemembers, their safe return is the top priority, and certainly much more important than any political calculation.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I can follow on candidates getting the classified briefings. You said the White House was confident that the intelligence community can make the proper assessments on what presidential candidates receive in terms of classified briefings and information. That seems to leave open the possibility that there are concerns about either one of these candidates and that there are worries about either Trump, or whichever candidate has access to classified information. Is that the impression you meant to leave?
MR. EARNEST: I meant to leave you with the impression that the decision about what information to provide is a decision that will be made by the intelligence community. That's what I meant to convey.
Q The CIA, believe it or not, has a book on the history of presidential candidates getting briefed. True fact. (Laughter.) And there is actually precedent for the White House asking to withhold certain information from candidates. In fact, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger asked that George W. Bush not be given anything sensitive. Can you commit that both candidates will received the same amount of information in this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I can commit to you is that the White House will not be interfering in the decisions that are made by the intelligence community to provide information to the presidential candidates. What information they provide, how often they provide it, whether or not it's the same information for the two candidates -- those are questions that I would direct to Mr. Clapper's office.
Q One more on the same topic. The potential Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is actually under investigation for potential loss or mishandling of classified information. Does the administration have confidence that Secretary Clinton can properly maintain and store and receive classified information, given this ongoing investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, we do.
Q Would you say the same about Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Again, we'll have to see what decision the Director of National Intelligence makes. I guess I can't -- off my own assessment, Secretary Clinton has obviously served this administration with distinction. And she's got a lot of experience in understanding the need to protect classified information.
But look, this decision to provide that classified information will be made by the intelligence community. It will be made by the professionals there. And they'll do the right thing for the country, and they'll do that without any political interference from the White House.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I could follow up on Michelle's question for just a second.
MR. EARNEST: She asked a lot of them. I'm not sure which one you may have in mind. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Q Not that there's anything wrong with that. Exactly.
MR. EARNEST: I'm here to take them all.
Q Actually, you know what, let me start off with something simple and we'll sort of back into it. Has the President reached out to the family of Charles Keating IV? And if so, has he made contact with the family thus far?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Kevin, what the President often will do -- and I think this is what previous Presidents did as well -- is to write letters to the families of those servicemembers who have given their life for their country. And I would anticipate the President will do that in this situation too.
Q Thank you. E-cigarettes not for sale for folks under 21. What's the President perspective on that? And what's behind the push?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is actually a decision that was put forward by the FDA. And what they indicated is that, based on their analysis of public health trends, we've made a lot of progress in reducing smoking rates. Smoking rates are now at an all-time low in this country. But we have seen an alarming increase in the use of e-cigarettes and even cigars, particularly by kids. And so the FDA regulation that was announced today is focused on making it harder for kids to get their hands on these products that we know have a very negative impact on their health. And so as an agency that's focused on the public health of the American people, for an agency that has conducted studies that indicate that smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, this is a prudent step that is driven by scientific evidence that's focused on keeping our kids safe. And this is, in that regard, is a carefully considered regulation that I think makes a lot of common sense.
Q Does the President believe that the ability to acquire cigarettes should be limited to all Americans who are only 21 and up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think as it relates to this proposal, it’s 18 and under. And I’m not aware of the President weighing in on raising the age limit.
Q To sort of follow up on what Michelle was asking, can you say with 100 percent certainty that there was no conversation or coordination or collaboration in any way between the White House Counsel’s Office and the DOJ as it relates to North Carolina?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is an important thing for you to understand here. We've talked before for a couple of weeks now about how the White House has worked with a range of federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, about the variety of policy questions that have been raised by HB2, this controversial North Carolina law.
The policy questions raised are things like what impact that law could have on programs in the state of North Carolina that are funded by the federal government. So this raises questions for everybody from the Department of Transportation, to the Department of Education. And there will be a careful review of what policy impact that law has on policy decisions made at a range of federal agencies.
What the Department of Justice announced today is an intent -- they announced it yesterday -- what the Department of Justice announced is an intent to pursue an enforcement action. Those enforcement decisions are made by Department of Justice attorneys, and they are not subject to influence by the White House.
Q Not subject to influence. But if they've had conversations about some of the actions that might be legal, some of the actions that might be relevant in a particular area, can you not see how folks in North Carolina might feel like that's the White House directing -- sorting winking and nod, tap the side of the nose -- saying, hey, listen, DOJ, if you want to pursue this, maybe this is an area that you can pursue? Or if you think of it this way, this is a possible remedy to sort of take a shot at a law that we think is a negative law? Can you understand how people in North Carolina might feel that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can understand how the people in North Carolina might think that passing this law ended up being a really bad idea. It certainly has not yielded a lot of positive headlines for the state of North Carolina, and it certainly has not yielded a positive economic impact for the state of North Carolina.
In fact, concerns about the NBA’s decision with regard to the All-Star Game, decisions that could be made by the NCAA about locating college athletic competitions in the state of North Carolina --
Q Concerts --
MR. EARNEST: Concerts. Even other businesses that suspended their intent to expand their footprint in North Carolina. All of that is going to have a negative impact on the economy in North Carolina. So I think that’s the biggest impact. And I think that is probably the concern that the vast majority of North Carolinians have about the bad decision that the legislature and the governor made to pass and sign this law.
Q So you reject the notion that this is some sort of a government overreach, the Feds coming in and telling us how to --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are some people who have a pretty persuasive case that this is a government overreach on the part of state officials in North Carolina that's had a negative impact on the public perception of their state and on the economic climate in their state.
This is unfortunate because the state of North Carolina is a state that has traditionally -- certainly over the last generation or two -- worked really hard to diversify their economy; and that there are young adults -- not just across the South but across the country that have been attracted to the state of North Carolina because of their positive business climate, business you have a hub of innovation there, like the Research Triangle, that has drawn young, educated people and their families to come and pursues some interesting economic opportunities in that state.
And that is a testament to the innovation and ingenuity of the people of North Carolina and to previous governors and previous state legislators. Unfortunately, it’s this current governor and the current legislator that have dealt a pretty big setback here. And it is something that -- it is not true to the culture and values and beliefs of the vast majority of Americans who live in that great state.
Q Just a couple more. I want to ask you about AUMF if you have a second. Has the President -- maybe by way of the Counsel’s Office -- given the ongoing actions in Iraq, opened the door for future Presidents to be able to wage war in perpetuity based on the way that currently this Counsel’s Office is interpreting the AUMF as it stands? Has this now made it possible for future Presidents to point to this President and say, well, if Congress doesn't act and give me a new AUMF, I can continue to use this footprint, or this blueprint to continue to wage actions around the globe?
MR. EARNEST: The fact of the matter is, Kevin, the 2001 AUMF didn't have a time limit on it. And one of the things that we have discussed with Congress is how and whether to force Congress to review at some regular interval an authorization to use military force that they previously passed.
There have been some proposals that have been put forward, including by some members of Congress, that have suggested that an authorization to use military force should have to be renewed by Congress every three years, otherwise it goes away. It sunsets.
So there are a variety of creative legislative proposals on this. But look, the fact of the matter is the 2001 AUMF that was passed by Congress didn't include a time limit. It just didn't. So that is precisely why -- or that's among the reasons why the President believes that the 2001 AUMF should be more narrowly targeted. And that's what our proposal included an ISIL-specific authorization to use military force. We've put forward legislative language describing what we believe that should be.
That was the source of some criticism by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And we said, fine, negotiate with us. Tell us what else you’d like to see in there. And we haven’t seen much action on that. We also proposed eliminating the 2002 AUMF that allowed President Bush to order the invasion of Iraq. And we suggested that Congress take action to more narrowly tailor to the 2001 AUMF.
I think all of that is a pretty clear indication that this President of the United States is quite eager for Congress to actually step up to the plate and fulfill one of the most basic functions that they have. But this Congress has unfortunately abdicated that responsibility in the same way they've abdicated their responsibility to address other urgent needs of the American people like the situation in Puerto Rico, or the situation with respect to the Zika virus, or even filling a vacancy in the Supreme Court.
Q Last one and this is your favorite topic, Donald Trump.
MR. EARNEST: So many favorite topics. (Laughter.)
Q The Intercept and The Washington Post over the last couple of days have put out a number of different quotes from pundits who dismissed completely or outright the ascendency of Donald Trump. And yet he continues to rise. He’s now on the verge of capturing the GOP nomination. And I’m just wondering, as you look at that, what does that say about the mood of the country? And does the President view that with amusement? Or does he view that through the prism of it speaks to a frustration and he’s not surprised by the ascendency of a Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I think mostly what it tells me is that I don't get paid enough to be a pundit, so that's why I try to avoid doing that from here. (Laughter.)
So with respect to the President’s view, I think the President has had on a number of occasions the opportunity to discuss this, primarily when asked by one of you.
Q But so many missed it so badly. Even Nate Silver missed this.
MR. EARNEST: But there -- again --
Q That's amazing.
MR. EARNEST: That's why I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid playing pundit up here. I also suspect that there will be a robust market for books about the 2016 election chronicling this phenomenon. So I think one of the reasons that it’s interesting is that there are no clear obvious answers to exactly what’s happening. But that will only be one other factor will combine with several others to make for a rather interesting fall 2016.
Q But it must say something about the mood of the country, no?
MR. EARNEST: The President has talked about this. The President has talked about how justified people are in being frustrated that all of the benefits of the tremendous economic recovery that we’ve made since the Great Recession have not been enjoyed evenly across the country; that too many of those benefits flow to those at the top. And that exacerbation of an already yawning gap, wealth gap, is something that a lot of Americans are justifiably frustrated by.
And the President sought to take this head on. That’s why the President advocated for raising the minimum wage and making permanent tax cuts for middle-class families, and raising taxes for those at the top, and closing tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well-connected. Unfortunately, Republicans have blocked those attempts time and time again. Some of them we actually achieved over Republican obstruction -- raising taxes on the top 1 percent, for example. But look, this is something that I anticipate will be the subject of ongoing debate leading up to the next election as well.
Jared, go ahead.
Q Two of your favorite topics wrapped up into one question -- classified presidential directives and also press access. For the DNC and RNC in July, the United States Secret Service is justifying a drastic change on convention background checks on a 2013 still classified national security directive from President Obama. Is the President aware of the extent of the changes that the DNC and RNC will undergo because of his directive? And is he concerned by that?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I feel confident in telling you the President is not aware of the press access plans for either the Democratic or Republican conventions that are planned for July. So I have to admit that I know very little about them as well.
Q This was a directive signed by the President in 2013. It is classified, it’s Presidential Directive 22 -- PPD 22 -- and it’s something that is going to require for the first time -- the President’s conventions where he was nominated as the Democratic candidate in 2008 and 2012 did not have Secret Service background checks the way we will now have in 2016. So not as something he should be aware of except maybe as the person who swore to protect the First Amendment rights of everybody in the country. Is that something that he’s concerned about? These changes are drastic.
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I don’t know that they are. The pass you’re wearing around your neck right now required you to submit to a background check conducted by the Secret Service.
Q Sure, but there are no delegates in this room who didn’t have to go through a background check.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Everybody that’s -- actually everyone that’s in this room did have to go through a background check in order to enter this building and stand here right now. That’s a fact. That’s true of me and my staff, and that’s true of all the journalists here, too. So, again, I don’t know that much about the details, but I suspect that the Secret Service can do a better job of helping you understand exactly what security precautions they’re taking to ensure the safety of everybody who participates in the conventions this summer.
Q Can you take the question? Because I feel like there’s more. And I know that this is a classified directive, but I feel like there --
MR. EARNEST: I think you should take the question to the Secret Service if you have questions about why you need to undergo a background check in order to attend the convention. I think most reasonable people would acknowledge that that kind of safety is required for everybody’s protection.
Q Josh, can you say whether President Obama has given up on the idea of making any recess appointments?
MR. EARNEST: No, I can’t speak to that. I don’t know of any that are planned at this point.
Q Is he stopped by considering them by when the Senate -- like this week, when they’re out, they hold pro forma sessions a couple of times during the week to keep him from making a recess appointment -- even though you might say they’re on recess, but they say they’re not because they have the pro forma sessions that last about 30 seconds.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think even many of them will talk rather freely about the fact that they’re on recess. But, look, the Supreme Court has weighed on this just recently in the last year or two. So I think this is largely a settled matter.
Q In what way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in that the Supreme Court has had an opportunity to weigh in on at least part of this question.
Q So does he think he is unable to make recess appointments because of the Senate sessions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is limited, but again, I’m not an attorney and I haven’t gotten the legal briefing on this. But I don’t know that that’s necessarily been eliminated.
Q None in the pipeline, you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q You’re saying there are none in the pipeline?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. Not that I’m aware of.
John in the back, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back on TPP and the ongoing discussions with congressional leaders. Can you say if those talks now include Senator McConnell?
MR. EARNEST: Senator McConnell is somebody that has, in the past, talked about how important the Trans-Pacific Partnership is for our country. And he is somebody who did work effectively with the administration to pass Trade Promotion Authority last year, and we certainly would need to work closely with Leader McConnell to succeed in passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year as well.
It’s not just the administration that’s making this case. Our friends at the Chamber of Commerce just across the street here I’m sure are in regular touch with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. The same is true of the American Farm Bureau and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Q And House Republicans are proposing for war funding to expire next April. Given the fact that President Obama would be out of office, would he veto, say, an omnibus or any legislation, even a defense authorization bill, that came over with that plan? Or does he -- would he feel the next President, the next Commander-in-Chief should negotiate the war funding?
MR. EARNEST: John, I’d actually refer you to Secretary Carter’s comments on this. President Obama believes that funding our war effort a few months at a time is grossly irresponsible and not the way that we should be demonstrating our clear commitment to our men and women in uniform who are risking so much to protect our country. Again, Congress’s responsibility here to provide for the basics when it comes to ensuring that our men and women have the resources that they need to go and degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is critically important. And Secretary Carter had some very uncharacteristically direct language about this, and it’s fair for you to assume that the views that he expressed are consistent with the views of the Commander-in-Chief.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:38 P.M. EDT