Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary, 5/9/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. Before we get started I wanted to just bring to your attention a statement that was issued today by the National Governors Association. So the NGA is a bipartisan organization that represents governors from across the country. They issued a statement, and I was going to take the liberty of reading it to you.
So this is a direct quote from the NGA: “The nation is on the threshold of a public health emergency as it faces the likely spread of the Zika virus. As with all such emergencies, advanced planning and preparation is essential to prevent injury and death. A key component to averting infectious disease outbreaks is to prevent incident levels from reaching a critical tipping point, after which there is a rapid increase in the number of infections. This is particularly true of the Zika virus. The most important way we can protect people is to minimize infections and prevent a concentration of cases which can lead to outbreak and children born with severe, lifelong birth defects, such as microcephalis.
“As Congress returns from recess today, the nation’s governors urge the administration and Congress to work together to reach agreement on the appropriate funding levels needed to prepare for and combat the Zika virus. We also ask they act as expeditiously as possible to ensure those funds are available for states, territories and the public at large.”
So this obviously is consistent with the argument that the administration has been making for more than two months now that given the public health emergency that exists around the Zika virus, it's critical that Congress act quickly to provide the necessary funding to our public health professionals and to states to ensure we can protect the American people. That's what the President has been advocating for for quite some time, and we're hopeful that Republicans will drop their opposition and actually work with Democrats to get this done.
So with that, Kevin, do you want to get us started today?
Q Sure, Josh. Thank you. So now that North Carolina has sued to keep in place this so-called bathroom law, how will that affect the review that agencies were undertaking that could have limited federal dollars to the state? Will the administration hold off on those reviews now that there’s a lawsuit and let it play out in court?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any change in the posture of that review. The position of the North Carolina government has not changed. They’re asserting that this mean-spirited law is somehow consistent with the Civil Rights Act and with our values. The Department of Justice has obviously spoken to its compliance with the law given their enforcement role. So for questions about that, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice. And I think the President has spoken pretty powerfully to the idea that what the state of North Carolina has passed -- in a one-day special session -- is inconsistent with the values of fairness and equality and justice that we hold dear in this country.
And I think it should be evident from the response from the business community that what the North Carolina government has done is inconsistent with the best interests of the people of North Carolina and the economy of North Carolina. That obviously will be something that North Carolina officials will have to deal with, but there has been a reluctance on the part of businesses that had previously committed to expanding the amount of business they do in North Carolina from engaging with a government that just makes it easier to discriminate against their employees and potential customers.
Q What are the ramifications of Iran test-firing another ballistic missile? And has the nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of certain sanctions emboldened Iran to undertake these provocations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we are aware of Iranian claims of additional ballistic -- let me say that again -- we're aware of Iranian claims of an additional ballistic missile launch. I would note we're also aware of statements from the defense minister indicating that such a launch did not take place. So we're still trying to get to the bottom of what exactly transpired.
I think the clearest impact of the successful completion of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is we can now verify that Iran has not obtained a nuclear weapon. And in fact, we have verified that Iran has taken significant steps to actually roll back their nuclear program. And the worst-case, dire predictions of the deal’s critics did not at all come to pass. What did come to pass is exactly what this administration indicated our objectives were, which were to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, guarantee access for international inspectors who could verify that Iran’s nuclear program only exist for peaceful purposes.
Q So last week, you talked about a criticism of the administration’s selling of the Iran deal in the wake of the New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes as sour grapes. And I wanted to -- he’s now written kind of a follow-up -- and I wanted to ask, if that was the case, why has he felt the need to explain himself more? And did the President or anyone else at the White House ask him to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't spoken to the President about this story, so this was not something that was written at the request of the President. I think what motivated Ben to discuss this further is that there was an attempt and there has been an attempt by opponents of the Iran deal to suggest that somehow the effort to protect the deal was based solely on spin.
The fact is, as I just mentioned, we can evaluate the Iran deal now in terms of the impact that it has had on our national security and on Iran’s nuclear program. So we're no longer in a situation in which we have to argue about what the impact of this agreement will be. We actually now can verify what the impact of the agreement is.
And what is clear is that Iran has eliminated 98 percent of its highly enriched uranium stockpile. Iran has disconnected thousands of centrifuges. Iran has essentially rendered harmless its heavy-water plutonium reactor. And Iran has complied with its commitment to give international inspectors widespread access to the country to verify its compliance with the agreement.
Our opponents, and opponents of this deal, had suggested that Iran would never go along with it, that Iran would never implement the terms of the agreement. They were wrong about that. Our critics often suggested that there would never be a way to verify Iran’s claims that they had gone along with the agreement. They were wrong about that, too. The international inspectors at the IAEA have gotten the access that they have needed to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
What our critics have also suggested is that the agreement would open the door to hundreds of billions of dollars in cash for the Iranian economy. That has not occurred either. In fact, we actually see some in Iran suggesting that they want -- that they haven’t gotten as much funding out of the deal as they expected.
So the truth is it’s hard to think of a scenario or a single fact that critics of this agreement predicted that actually came to pass. In fact, time and time and time again, almost regardless of which factor you consider, the critics of the deal have been wrong. And I think this is an indication that our efforts to protect the agreement were rooted firmly in fact. And that's the point that Ben wanted to reiterate in the context of his online post today.
Q I wanted to ask about the Philippine’s election. I’m curious to know whether the White House has any reaction to the candidate who appears all but certain to have won. He has said that he wants multilateral talks to resolve the South China Sea disputes -- talks with Japan, Australia, the United States, and China. And I’m wondering what the White House thinks of that idea, and whether the White House has any general reaction to his election and his campaign.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a reaction to the election at this point. We’ll let all the votes be tallied before we weigh in with a specific response to any of the statements that were made by the candidates.
I can just tell you, in general, that when it comes to resolving the competing claims in the South China Sea, the United States is not a claimant to any of those land features, but we have urged all of the countries that are to resolve their differences through diplomacy and through well-established international procedures for doing so.
We're strongly supportive of that effort because we benefit from the kind of rules-based order that allows the free flow of commerce in that region of the world, and it’s obviously in our economic and strategy interest for the flow to continue uninterrupted. And any sort of destabilizing activities there would not be in our interest.
So while we are not a claimant to any of those land features, we do have interest in those differences being resolved through diplomacy and without disrupting the broader international order.
Q So would well-established diplomatic procedures include the possibility of having multilateral talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the specific proposal that this one particular Filipino candidate for president has put forward. But we’ll obviously wait for the results to come, and then we’ll then have more of a reaction to offer in terms of his election and any proposals that that may put on the table.
Q And just a quick one. This weekend Saudi Arabia named a new oil minister. And I’m wondering whether this White House reaction to this key appointment -- whether the White House is expecting a new era of transparency, as this oil minister is younger, or any sort of thoughts about this significant change?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific comments in reaction to some political changes inside of Saudi Arabia. Obviously, the King and the government there are making decisions consistent with their own interests.
I would point out that the new energy minister did make clear that the political changes did not signal any significant short-term changes in their energy policy. But for any developments on that front, I’d refer you to his statement and any additional statements that they choose to put out.
But obviously the United States continues to consider Saudi Arabia as an important partner in that region of the world. And that certainly was part of the reason that President Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia just a couple of weeks ago and engaged in serious and lengthy consultations with the Saudi government while he was there.
Q Is there any statement you may have on the President’s thoughts on the election of Sadiq Khan as the first Muslim mayor of the city of London?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, obviously, we saw those news reports over the weekend. This is obviously an historic development for a historic city. Obviously, the political debate inside of the UK and in London is obviously charged with a lot of different issues. And this outcome obviously reflects the will of the people of London and I certainly wouldn’t second-guess them from here. But there is no denying the historical significance of Mr. Khan’s election.
Q Some see it as a strong get-out-the-vote effort by Pakistani Brits who were very, very -- joined very strongly together to dissuade or discourage some of the racism that has come up for the last few months in Great Britain and some of the concepts that may exist even in this country. Some are using a parallel there, calling it an interesting one.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know enough about the election in order to offer my own analysis here about what may have motivated the voters of London. But obviously this is an historic election.
Q Josh, I want to go back to Zika. Has this administration gotten any word on the tests for treatment or the status on what's next for those who have it, and also on efforts to prevent -- what's the status on what's happening?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated status for you in terms of the work that's being done at the CDC and the NIH on a range of diagnostic or vaccine development. What I do know is there our public health professionals have indicated that, if given additional resources, that there's more that they could do to speed up the development of critical diagnostic tools and speed up the development of a vaccine. One of the limiting factors is lab capacity, and additional resources could be devoted to expanding lab capacity that would allow for the more effective use of diagnostic tests, both in terms of using them more broadly, but also in terms of getting a more prompt response to the tests.
The other thing that our public health professionals have indicated is that we're going to be relying on the private sector to do a lot of the work around vaccine development. Particularly when it comes to widespread testing in eventually the manufacturing of a vaccine, we're going to rely on the private sector that has resources that it can devote to that effort. But we know that that would require a multiyear commitment on the part of the private sector to produce a vaccine in quantities that are that large.
So that's why we have made a strong case to the United States Congress that they don’t just need to provide funding expeditiously, as a bipartisan group of governors has indicated, but we also need them to make a longer-term commitment to those funds so that the private sector can be confident about making their own long-term commitment that will be necessary to complete the testing and manufacture of a vaccine that could protect the American people from Zika.
So this is an urgent effort that requires a long-term commitment. And those are two things that Congress isn’t very good at. They aren’t very good about acting quickly, and they aren’t very good about making long-term commitments to things. But for the good of the American people and for the safety of our public health, we need Congress to act quickly to make a long-term commitment to the resources that our public health professionals need to keep us safe from the Zika virus.
Q So you have world health organizations, the CDC, and now the governors and others are saying that this is going to be a pandemic. What are the Republicans saying to you or to the President or to leg affairs here, or whomever, the reasoning as to why they are not making this an urgent issue right now?
MR. EARNEST: Frankly, I don’t know what good explanation there could be possibly be.
Q What is the explanation they've given you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'll leave it to Republicans to make their own case about what explanation they have for ignoring the advice of our public health professionals, ignoring the urging of our public health professionals, and not providing much-needed resources to the effort to combat Zika. We know that there are resources that could be used to expand the use of diagnostic tests and to accelerate the development of a vaccine. We also know that there are resources that can and should be used to fight mosquitos. This is a mosquito-borne illness. And if we can provide additional resources to state and local authorities who are trying to fight mosquito populations, we can have a positive impact on reducing the spread, or potential spread of this virus.
So there are common-sense things that Congress can and should be doing to fund the effort to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And for the life of me, I don’t think that anybody can offer up a legitimate explanation for why they haven’t taken these common-sense steps that we know would enhance the safety and security of the American people.
Q So what do you say to this Democratic congressional leader who says -- they just texted me this -- there's a fear of the GOP looking like they're spending money without making cuts elsewhere, as it relates to funding for Zika?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think the American people are going to think that's a very good excuse. When faced with a public health emergency, I don’t think that the American people are going to have much sympathy for Republicans who are concerned about political criticism from conservative, right-wing ideologues. I don’t think that's a very good excuse for not doing your job. And I don’t think the American people are going to think that's a legitimate excuse if Republican members of Congress choose to make it in this case.
Q And lastly, on another subject. Howard, over the weekend -- very powerful. How much did the President have input in the speech? It was a strong race speech, I would say. Well, it was -- I would say it was a race speech. How much input did he have in the speech? And when did he decide that it was going to be more of a race speech? As you said, it was kind of moving into the future with all the issues and opportunities and obstacles that were in front of them, but it was also a huge race speech.
MR. EARNEST: The President spent a lot of his own time drafting and revising that speech. And I know that he was working on it as recently as Friday afternoon. So this obviously -- this is a speech that reflected his own efforts to write and edit and revise the speech in the days leading up to delivering it.
Q Will there be one more or maybe two more, or however many more of these kind of speeches before he leaves? Because he is historically the first black President in the United States, and he put out some information that we never heard put in the ways he presented them Saturday.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we got eight months to go, so stay tuned.
Jon, nice to see you today.
Q Good to see you, Josh. Just a couple other questions. I know you were asked last week on this Ben Rhodes profile. One, the article describes Ben as the single-most influential voice shaping American foreign policy, aside from the President himself. Is that a characterization that you'd say is accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's no denying that Ben's relationship with the President and his close work with the President on a range of foreign policy issues since President Obama was merely a candidate for the Presidency means that the President relies on Ben for a lot of advice. But what's also true is the President is fortunate to have a team of national security officials that have a lot of experience working on these issues that the President also relies on.
So certainly somebody like the Secretary of State, John Kerry, wields a lot of influence when it comes to this administration's policy and the President's own thinking. The President has for years worked closely with Susan Rice -- who's National Security Advisor -- on a range of issues. She obviously served at the United Nations representing the United States at the United Nations for a number years during the first term. So she is somebody who has had both influential positions, as well as the kind of relationship with the President that allows her to influence his thinking. Obviously somebody like Ash Carter is somebody who has years of experience working at the Pentagon and at the Department of Defense, and he can use that experience to help the President make difficult policy decisions.
So there are many people who plan an influential role in guiding the President's thinking when it comes to a range of foreign policy issues. But Ben is, by all accounts, I think an influential figure.
Q One of the things he talks about in this article is the foreign policy "blob" as something that the President sought to kind of stand against. And the article says, according to Rhodes, the blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq war promotors from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse in American security in Europe and the Middle East. So I'm just wondering on this -- the foreign policy blob -- does the White House view that Hillary Clinton is part of that foreign policy blob, or is that just a view of Ben Rhodes?
MR. EARNEST: I will say that I've spent a lot of time with Ben over the years, but also on a couple of foreign trips with long flights just in the last couple of months. I have not heard him use the term "blob." I'm not suggesting that he's misquoted; I'm just saying I don’t know the direct frame of reference in which he used that word.
Q Do you think Hillary Clinton is part of the foreign policy blob?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not even sure what that means. But obviously, Secretary Clinton is somebody I think I would also put in the category of influencing the President's thinking and influencing this administration's policy --
Q It's not often we see a major profile of somebody who, in your words at least, is an influential voice in the forming American foreign policy, describing Hillary Clinton as something that would -- where the President's stands on foreign policy -- a little blob, and whatever you want to use -- it's clearly a derogatory description here coming from one of the President's top foreign policy advisors.
MR. EARNEST: Well, stepping back from that specific term, I think what is true is that one of the things that the incoming President of the United States vowed to do in 2009 was to bring change to Washington, D.C. And that was interpreted in a lot of ways -- first, in terms of his commitment to trying to fight the influence of special interests in Washington. Certainly pursuing a different kind of economic policy than the one that was pursued by the previous administration. But we've also spent a lot of time over the last seven years -- and you certainly have covered a good chunk of this -- sort of pushing back against the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. that did support what in hindsight were really bad foreign policy decisions. One of them was to invade Iraq in 2003, something that --
Q Supported by Hillary Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Well, something that then State Senator Barack Obama strongly opposed.
So I think the point is this -- is that President Obama has worked hard to implement a foreign policy that he believes strongly advances the interests of the United States around the globe, but doesn’t just rely on the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. Certainly the President has benefitted tremendously from the advice of experienced foreign policy hands inside this administration. Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter -- these are all people that have a lot of experience in the national security establishment in Washington. But what the President has sought to do is to incorporate that advice but also to make sure that he’s thinking smartly about the most effective way to use U.S. influence, to use the United States military to advance our interests around the globe.
And there is a tendency that's undeniable on the part of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. to turn to the military option, in the President’s view, often prematurely. And it is that kind of thinking that contributed to --
Q You're including Ash Carter and Clinton in that foreign policy establishment.
MR. EARNEST: I'm including them in the category of people who’ve got an enormous amount of foreign policy experience that has been used to give the President excellent advice when it comes to advancing our national security interests and formulating a foreign policy that has made the American people safer. I think what is also true is there is a tendency generally when it comes to the debate in Washington, D.C. about the foreign policy establishment in Washington that makes -- that prioritizes the use of the United States military often in a way to sort of protect the strength of the United States. President Obama strongly believes, and I think many members of his national security team agree, that there are other ways that the United States of America can project our strength in a way that better advances our national security interests around the globe.
Q One more quote from this. This is a quote from Ben in the story I just wondered if you could interpret for me. “The average reporter we talked to is 27 years old and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing.” What exactly is he talking about there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I guess at some point you’ll have an opportunity to talk to him about that quote. I think what is clear is --
Q Is that the average reporter you talk to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, looking around this room, unfortunately -- (laughter) -- not many of us meet that 27-year-old threshold. I think I can speak confidently on behalf of --
Q I mean, it's kind, but -- (laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not just young at heart, but also young in age here.
Q We're the ones talking to the 27-year-old spokesmen. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: What I would say to you is that I can speak confidently on behalf of the President and on behalf of the White House that we obviously work hard to engage respectfully with the White House press corps that is quite serious about understanding exactly what’s happening in the White House and describing that situation to your readers and listeners. And I think that everybody in this White House has worked hard to engage in that kind of respectful dialogue not just because it advances the country’s interests for the citizens to understand exactly what President Obama is doing, but also because it's critically important to our democracy.
The President spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner just over a week ago where he talked about how important it is for professional, independent journalists to hold people in power accountable. That is critical to the success of our democracy, and it is why the President and the rest of us here at the White House have worked hard to engage in that debate in a respectful way that reflects the need for the American public and our citizens to be informed about the issues of the day.
Q On Zika, given there’s an active current threat from the virus in Puerto Rico, and also, of course, strong ties between that island and many cities and states in the mainland, how much concern is there that the island’s financial situation could contribute to a more full-blown public health crisis there that could affect the mainland? And if and when, or if Congress eventually allocates this money, presumably some of it would go to Puerto Rico, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question a couple different ways. Some of the financial turmoil in Puerto Rico is having a negative impact on the public health care system inside of Puerto Rico, and given the fact that there are reported cases of the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, this seems like a pretty bad time for investments in Puerto Rico’s public health system to be cut. Yet that's exactly what the Puerto Rican government is having to do because they have not been given the restructuring authority that they need by Republicans in Congress.
So there is a concern about how the interplay between these two issues could have a broader negative impact not just on the 3 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico but potentially on the U.S. mainland as well. So that's why the administration has prioritized both of these issues -- both our efforts to try to address the financial challenges in Puerto Rico, but also to make sure that we are providing the necessary resources to state and local officials across the country to fight the Zika virus in their communities. And, yes, that would include providing resources to the government in Puerto Rico to, for example, more effectively concentrate efforts to fight the mosquito population.
Q And also, on Howard -- there were a lot of things in that speech that were interesting beyond race. The President talked a lot about voting and activism and being a change agent. He talked about how America and the world, including race relations, in most ways is much better than when he graduated college. And he used a line we've heard a lot from him recently, saying that if he had to choose any time in world history to be born, and didn’t know what your position would be, you’d choose now. That's sounds like an implicit review of the “make America great again” sloganeering. Can we expect this to be a large part of the message that he delivers on the campaign trail in the coming months, maybe particularly to young or diverse crowds?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- I can assure you that President Obama delivered a commencement address at Howard University this weekend with the graduates of Howard University on his mind, with the class of 2016 in universities across the country thinking about entering the workforce. And he didn’t have the presidential campaign on his mind. He was focused on these graduates, and he was focusing on the graduates not just at Harvard but -- I'm sorry -- at Howard, but also colleges and universities all across the country.
And I recognize that political coverage is omnipresent these days. But this was a speech that was really a message to those graduates. And it does provide a lot of insight into the way the President thinks about a range of these issues and the consequences it has for graduates of Howard and other esteemed universities across the country. But it was not -- there will be ample time for the President to make his election argument to young voters across the country, and there may be some common themes. But what the President was focused on here was delivering what I think is a powerful message to the voters -- or to the graduates of Howard University.
Q And last, on Hiroshima. When can we expect a decision on whether the President will go? What’s being weighed? Is it logistics? Is it politics, policy, desire? What sort of is going into the decision of whether he goes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President made an observation in 2009 when he traveled to Japan about his interest in traveling to Hiroshima. Given that the President is scheduled to depart for Asia in about a week and a half here, our work to plan that trip is something we need to complete relatively soon. And so we'll have more information about the President’s itinerary when he’s traveling in Asia relatively soon.
All right. Ron.
Q On the commencement beat, this photograph of the West Point graduates with the clenched fists, what is the President’s thought about that as Commander-in-Chief?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t talk to him about it. Obviously the officials at West Point will be responsible for enforcing the rules of that institution consistent with the way that they have been established. At this point, I wouldn't weigh in with a view on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief just because I haven't talked to him about it.
Q Because it happened around the same time of his commencement speech at Howard and a lot of black pride, so on and so forth. And that seems to be what some of the cadets are saying that was an expression of. And that's why I'm surprised the President doesn’t have a thought. There’s no indication of what he thinks about this or feels about this?
MR. EARNEST: I just haven't talked to him about that particular issue today.
Q On the North Carolina situation, I just want to clarify, there was this agency review going on about funding and so forth, and now you have the lawsuit, the threat. So where does the process stand on funding cuts, potentially, to North Carolina because of the law?
MR. EARNEST: Remember these are two different things. The first is there’s a policy question to be answered about what impact this North Carolina law would have on the way in which the federal government funds some programs in the state of North Carolina, and there are a range of agencies that are considering the policy implications of HB2. There’s a separate question that is considered by the Department of Justice, independent of any White House judgment, about whether or not HB2 is consistent with the Civil Rights law -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to be specific.
And the Department of Justice issued a letter expressing their concerns about the fact that, in their view, HB2 is inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act. It does appear that this is a question that will go to the courts, so I don't want to wade into this too far. But the policy review is being conducted at the agency level. It's still ongoing. But the Department of Justice question about whether or not this is consistent with the Civil Rights Act is something that will apparently be litigated in the courts.
Q So what is the President’s view about the involvement in terms of these funding issues? Has he been aggressively pushing the agencies to look at this matter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's actually the agencies themselves, shortly after the law was passed --
Q Right, you said that one time, and it seemed a little bit inconceivable about how this happens in North Carolina, and then, independently, all these agencies, without any direction or motivation, just independently, would look at this issue without the President’s involvement or the White House saying --
MR. EARNEST: I think this is an indication that the agencies take their jobs pretty seriously. And they certainly are going to coordinate with one another, they’re going to coordinate with the White House and they’re going to coordinate with the Department of Justice as they make these policy decisions. We obviously will want to make sure that whatever policy consequences are realized, that they are consistent across agencies. But that's a process that is ongoing.
So, yes, the White House is involved in that policy review process, but primarily to coordinate the activities of the agencies that are involved.
Q Right. So is it conceivable that this law could defy the civil rights laws yet still be consistent with any particular agency’s policies?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what these agencies are reviewing right now is what impact the law has on their policies.
Q I think the real question is how aggressively is the administration going to go after the funding of North Carolina now that it clearly believes that this law is violating the civil rights of -- it is not consistent with the civil rights law?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I don't think this is an issue of going after North Carolina’s funding. I think the question is simply a policy one in terms of evaluating what impact this law has on policy questions related to funding that North Carolina uses a variety of programs inside their state. So this is something that officials at a variety of agencies will consider. But we will be working to try to coordinate those decisions so that there can be a pretty consistent interpretation of this policy across agencies.
Q And if I can follow up on the 27-year-old reporter -- (laughter.) Just we all make -- is it fair to say that that was -- it's clearly not an accurate comment. Is it fair to say it was an unfortunate comment? Or is he going to have more to say about that? I mean, it seems like a really -- quite a putdown, frankly, of the press corps.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I assure you that's -- look, based on the conversations that I've had with Ben over the last couple of days, I assure you that's not how it was intended. And based on that reaction, I'm confident he would say it differently if given the chance.
But, look, all of you have had multiple opportunities to talk to Ben on a range of foreign policy issues, and I think all of you appreciate the commitment that he has demonstrated to working with all of you to help inform your viewers and readers. And I think that's an indication of how seriously Ben takes this process. It certainly is reflective of the approach that the White House in general has taken to working with reporters, to engaging in a public debate about the wisdom of the policies this administration has put forward. And Ben has been a persuasive advocate for the President’s policies, but also an eager participant in that debate.
Q Not to make this personal about him. It, in fact, raises a larger issue of how the administration views the press corps generally and the relationship over the -- I haven't been here all eight years, but it has been at times, and it should be, contentious. And I guess to what extent is this some indication that the President’s thinking about the press corps is not perhaps as complimentary as we would like it to be, or as positive as we perhaps think it should be?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I would encourage you to consider the President’s own words on this, and whether you want to consider the statements that the President made at the Correspondents’ Dinner, or the statements that the President delivered to college journalists in this room just a couple days before the Correspondents’ Dinner -- in both settings, the President paid tribute to the critically important role that independent journalists have in the success of our democracy.
And I think, look, as you point out, there is built-in friction between the White House press corps and the White House. That is always going to be there. And the day that it's not, the day that there is not friction between the White House press corps and the White House is the day that you guys stop doing your jobs. The day that you walk in here and you sit in the front row and you say, well, you know what, Josh, I think you just answered all my questions here at the briefing, there’s not another single thing I could possibly ask about -- that's the day you haven't taken seriously your responsibilities to push and prod and hold the administration and the President accountable for the decisions that he’s making and for the consequences of those decisions.
And I think the fact that I come out here and stand here for an hour, hour and a half every day to answer your questions is an indication that we take that process quite seriously.
Q Do you think that in the coming months or weeks that the President might increase his level of engagement with the press? I remember I was struck that day that he stood here and took about, oh, many, many questions from the students, but his interactions with us are, I would say, more limited. That's not over the course of the whole -- but the question is, can there be -- or given some of what’s been said here and the thought here, do you think the President might rethink the level of access and engagement he has with the press corps? Does he feel that it's appropriate --
MR. EARNEST: I think -- look, last Friday, the President stood at this podium and delivered an opening statement and took four questions from people in this room. And I think that's an indication of the President’s commitment to engaging with all of you and answering your questions and being accountable to you and to the American public for the decisions that he’s making.
And, look, if there’s ever a day that you guys walk in this room and say, you know what, I think we've heard enough from the President today, or you know what, we've gotten all kinds of questions that we've been able to ask the President, is the day that you stop doing your job. You're supposed to sit there and say, why can't we get more access to the President? Why can't the President spend more time answering our questions? That's your job. That's what you're supposed to advocate for.
And that's the nature of our arrangement here. I think the question really is not whether or not the White House press corps is going to be satisfied with the number of questions the President has taken from the press corps -- you shouldn’t be. I think the question is, is there a commitment, institutionally, on the part of the White House that starts at the top to answer as many questions as possible and spending the time necessary to help the American people and the journalists who cover the White House the most understand exactly what’s happening here.
And I think by -- I'm quite proud, and I think the President is quite proud of the efforts that we undertake on a daily basis to help all of you understand exactly what the President is doing and why he’s doing it. And to be clear, the President understands that's part of his job. Part of the job of the President of the United States is to communicate with the American public, and certainly to participate and engage in a process where you have independent journalists who’ve got years of experience, either on the campaign trail or around the world, who are here to hold the President accountable and to hold his administration accountable.
Again, that is part of what makes our democracy successful. And you’ve heard the President make this observation after returning from travels overseas -- well, actually, there’s a better example of this. The President had this conversation with Vladimir Putin on the telephone where President Putin made an observation about some news coverage of the President back here in Washington. And the President noted to President Putin that while President Obama has the opportunity to talk to reporters, he doesn’t have an opportunity to edit their pieces, and that sometimes that makes for a little bumpiness. And sometimes the President feels as if his message is being blurred, but that's part of our process. And that's what makes our country and our democracy strong. And it's why the President, so willingly and freely, engages in that process.
Q Thanks, Josh. Last week, the President granted clemency to 58 nonviolent drug offenders. At the time, you guys noted that he’s granted more commutations than the previous six Presidents combined. But when it comes to the use of his pardon power, he lags pretty far behind other modern and historical Presidents. He’s only granted 70 pardons. George W. Bush has granted 180. Bill Clinton granted nearly 400. Why is the President so reluctant to pardon people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, we've got eight months to go, so I think it's too early to draw that conclusion. The second thing I would point out is the President has been aggressively advocating for criminal justice reform legislation. In terms of the potential impact of that legislation, it would have a positive impact on many more Americans, particularly when it comes to bringing greater justice to our criminal justice system.
What’s also true is this administration has worked hard to upgrade the processes that we have in place internally for considering clemency requests. That effort to make that process more efficient has resulted in changes both here at the White House and at the Department of Justice to streamline this process. The administration has also worked with outside organizations, again, to try to make this process function at a higher level. And I think the benefits of all of that work is something that we've seen in recent months with an increase in people who’ve been granted clemency.
And the President is certainly hopeful that at least over the next eight months that we'll continue to benefit from that work. I think what is also true is there’s no denying that the next President of the United States will inherit a higher-functioning clemency system than the one that President Obama inherited. And that also has the potential to make a difference in the lives of Americans who are ready for a second chance.
Q But when it comes to pardons specifically, is there something the President likes better about clemency over offering a blanket pardon for a crime?
MR. EARNEST: No -- well, it's hard to answer that question, Byron, just because each of these cases are considered on a case-by-case basis. So it's hard to make grand pronouncements about the use of the granting of clemency in the form of a commutation as opposed to a pardon.
But what I can tell you is, after a lot of work, we now have in place a much better system for considering these kinds of requests. There is a backlog that has built up that we're working through. But because of improvements at the Department of Justice, because of better coordination with some outside organizations, and because of a commitment on the part of this President to using this presidential authority to bring more justice to our criminal justice system, we've seen clemency granted at higher rates over the last several months. And hopefully that progress will continue.
But again, none of this will ever be a replacement for the kind of criminal justice reform legislation that has bipartisan support in Congress, that would have a much broader impact in terms of making our communities safer, but also bringing greater justice to our criminal justice system.
Q One more on this. A pardon generally restores lost rights, like the right to vote or possess a firearm. The commutation does not. Does the administration’s hesitance to use the pardon power have anything to do with the fact that it would restore rights, whether firearms or voting? And broadly, does the White House believe in the right of ex-felons to get their rights back, whether to own a firearm or vote, after serving their time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, when it comes to issuing pardons, that is something that is done on the merits and is not done with any consideration toward voting rights. More generally, I can tell you that it is the policy of the administration that we strongly support those who have paid their debt to society being given the opportunity to get access to their constitutional rights once again.
And so I know that Governor McAuliffe in Virginia has recently made some news with this effort, and that's something that, in general, the administration has been supportive of. I'll leave it there.
Q And firearms? Voting, but --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of a position that we've taken on this question related to firearms.
Q On the question of commutations, can you tell us what the process is by which the President goes through applications? Does the pardon attorney come over, sit with him, run down -- because there are thousands of applications. Who goes through the process, weaning applicants and making the final decisions? Or is he just presented with 58 and that's how it happened last week?
MR. EARNEST: The way that this works -- and the Department of Justice can give you some more granular detail on this -- but there are attorneys at the Department of Justice that do consider applications that have been submitted through the formal process for people who are seeking clemency. And those attorneys will review the individual cases, determine whether or not they meet a set of criteria. And if they do, they are then forwarded to the White House for consideration both by the White House counsel and by the President of the United States.
And that's generally how the process works. We can provide you some additional details on it.
Q But can you say if in the last batch, did the President receive more than 58 commutation prospects and then he ruled yes for some and no for others?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that. I don't know that we're going to be, frankly, willing to disclose that much detail, because this would sort of fall into the category of advice that the President is getting from his attorneys. But let me take a look at that and see if we can give you a little bit more insight into this.
But just to go back to your original question, the President is not the one who is sort of combing through the large stack of cases --
Q No, no, I get that. But what I want to know, does the counsel, White House counsel go through it first, and then sit down with the President and go through them one by one? Or does the President get a batch and goes through it himself?
MR. EARNEST: I know that the White House counsel is certainly part of that process. A lot of this can be done on paper, and so the President does take the time to review individual cases that have been recommended for clemency. I do know that.
Q North Korea. Over the weekend, Kim Jong-il delivered a speech. He seemed to tout nuclear weapons development, but also said they were going to fulfill their nuclear nonproliferation requirements. What does the White House make of what he said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, as with many countries, we're much more focused on their actions, the actions of North Korea, than we are on their words. There are a set of concerns that we have raised about the way North Korea’s conduct is inconsistent with their international obligations when it comes to their nuclear program.
And we've made clear that once North Korea demonstrates a commitment to coming back into compliance with those international obligations, the United States and the rest of the international community would be prepared to enter into negotiations with them and begin to give them access to the international community that they’ve been denied for some time now. And they’ve been denied -- been isolated because of their insistence on violating these basic international norms that just about everybody else lives up to.
Q So you see this as neither hopeful, nor worrisome.
MR. EARNEST: We see this as a piece of -- as a factor that can be incorporated into a broader analysis about the situation there. But ultimately, we give greater weight to the actions that North Korea chooses to carry out. And there are a set of specific actions that we have made clear North Korea needs to undertake in order to escape the international isolation that they face right now.
Q On North Carolina, I know you're not going to want to get ahead of where the AG goes later today. And we know broadly what the President thinks in terms of where North Carolina is with its own laws. But fundamentally, what are the President's views on whether transgender should be a protected status under federal law? And has he ever called on Congress to do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm going to have to look this up for you. I know that there has been legislation that has been put forward to consider this specific question, and let me follow up with you if we've taken a specific position on this.
I think what I can just say generally is -- and you've heard the President say this on a couple of occasions -- the law that was passed by North Carolina, this HB2 law, it's just mean-spirited because it seeks to discriminate against people because of who they are. And it, frankly, is inconsistent with the kinds of values that we cherish in this country. It's also inconsistent with the economic interests of the state of North Carolina. And you've seen a number of businesses indicate that they are not willing to invest in North Carolina -- or at least hesitant to invest in North Carolina because of this particular piece of legislation.
So, Deutsche Bank has already announced it was cancelling planned expansion of its operations in Cary, North Carolina. That expansion would have added 250 jobs to the state of North Carolina. PayPal announced that it was canceling plans to open a global payment center in Charlotte, North Carolina, which had been expected to bring 400 jobs to that city. You've heard the NBA announce that they were potentially moving the 2017 All-Star game. The state of North Carolina lost their NBA franchise a few years ago and went to great lengths to try to win the confidence of the NBA to get that franchise back there. Basketball is obviously a cherished pastime of the people of North Carolina, and this would just be another setback.
So I think it is clear exactly what the impact of passing this law has been. And ultimately the governor and state legislators will be the ones that will have to defend to the people of North Carolina exactly why they went down this route. The irony is, is that the state of North Carolina, for a generation, has sought to cultivate a business-friendly climate. This was a state whose economy largely rested on the agriculture industry, and they've worked hard to develop research and development capacities, and to develop Charlotte as a financial hub. And much of that progress has been dealt a setback by the mean-spirited politics of the governor and some Republicans in the state legislature. But exactly how that all gets considered by the people of North Carolina is something that they'll have to determine.
Q Because, arguably, the next administration may not have the same interpretation as this administration's Department of Justice. So without that federal protection, you could continue to have these arguments state by state. So does the President want that? Is he encouraging -- is there any kind of effort on the Hill that he's really trying to court opinion to get this to be protected status?
MR. EARNEST: Let me take a look at our record on this and see if I can get you some specifics about what legislation we have supported in Congress.
Q And a really quick one. In that same New York Times piece, there was mention of the President's two letters -- or two that we know of -- that were written to the Supreme Leader of Iran, or to Iran's leadership at least. And in the article, it framed it saying that Panetta, CIA chief, then SecDef,was not included or consulted on the letters when they were written, and had no knowledge of them. At least that's how it was made in the article. Can you confirm that to be the case? Or can you explain who was part of the writing of these letters to the Iranian leadership?
MR. EARNEST: I can't account for who may have been in the loop on the writing of those letters and who wasn’t. Obviously, the President drew upon the advice of his national security team in terms of trying to pursue a diplomatic opening with the Supreme Leader and with other leading officials in Iran. But I, frankly, can't speak to whether or not then-CIA Director Leon Panetta was shown a draft of the letter before it was sent.
Q And it would suggest, or some are definitely interpreting that as an indication that perhaps he was not one of the top national security advisors to the President, or considered to be someone who needed to be in the know in the room and consulted with on something that was pretty substantial in terms of outreach.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I assure you that President Obama would not have made the decision to promote his CIA Director to be the Secretary of Defense if he didn’t have complete confidence in the advice and wisdom that he was receiving from Leon Panetta.
Q Will you able, you think, to tell us who was part of that drafting of those letters?
MR. EARNEST: I'll take a look and see if we can get you some more details on that, but I can't promise that we'll have any information on it.
Q Thanks, Josh. I'm not sure if you made this clear, but has the President -- do you know if the President has read that New York Times magazine article about Ben?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether he has or not. I haven’t spoken to him about it.
Q Okay, got it. Ben told Jake Tapper of CNN on April 6th, and I quote, "Under this deal you will have anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access as it relates to the nuclear facilities that Iran has." Is that a lie?
MR. EARNEST: No. To their nuclear facilities, there is 24/7 access to Iran's -- to verify their compliance with the agreement.
Q 24/7 access, anytime, anywhere.
MR. EARNEST: To their nuclear facilities. That's the quote you just read me, right?
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Can you state categorically that no senior official in this administration has ever lied publicly about any aspect of the Iran nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think the facts of this agreement and the benefits of this agreement make clear that the national security of the United States of America has been enhanced, and Iran's effort to acquire a nuclear weapon has been set back. In fact, Iran has now committed to not seeking to acquire to a nuclear weapon, and we can now verify that they're not able to acquire a nuclear weapon.
It is our critics who either falsely or just wrongly suggested that Iran would never go along with the agreement. They have. They falsely or wrongly suggested that we would never be able to verify through the international community that Iran would abide by the agreement. They have. It is our critics who have suggested that Iran would experience hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits -- a financial windfall from this agreement. They have not. In fact, we have seen the Iran government complain about the fact that they haven’t gotten the kind of financial benefits that they expected.
So I recognize that there is an attempt by those who either lied or got it wrong to try to relitigate this fight. But the fact of the matter is, when you take a look at the concrete results of this agreement, Iran is not able to obtain a nuclear weapon; we can verify that their nuclear program is only focused on peaceful purposes; and we have succeeded in making the United States safer, in make Israel safer, and making our partners in the region safer because Iran is not able to obtain a nuclear weapon.
This wasn’t just a priority identified by President Obama. Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was a priority that was identified by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other leaders in the Gulf that work closely with the United States to advance our national security. That's the crux of this argument. And the facts indicate that the strategy that the President laid out was remarkably successful.
Q I just want to make sure -- I want to give you another run on it, because I'm not sure if you misspoke. I said, can you state categorically that no senior official in this administration ever lied publicly about any aspect of the deal.
MR. EARNEST: There is no evidence that that ever occurred. And what I would encourage you and other critics of the deal to do is to look at the facts and to look at the results. We can verify them now, and the facts are clear.
Q Last week, you called the House Republican plan to prioritize military readiness concerns and have war funding expire next April as grossly irresponsible. And yet back in, I think it was 2008, then-Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton, for that matter, voted for a similar timeline. Can you square the difference?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of that vote in 2008. We can always take a look at it. But I'm sure it was different.
Q Okay. I can actually read that to you, if you’d like. But I can send it to you, if you prefer.
MR. EARNEST: We'll follow up.
Q Okay, thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Angela.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senator Hatch was here at the White House today for the basketball team event. He, of course, is a Republican who has spoken in complimentary terms in the past about the nominee for the Supreme Court opening. Did the President have a chance to have any private conversations with the Senator today on that topic?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific private conversations the President may have had. But if they're private conversations, we probably wouldn’t talk about them publicly anyway. But certainly President Obama and Senator Hatch agree about the historical significance of the exciting 1983 NCAA championship game. And the President was honored to welcome the national champion North Carolina State Wolfpack Men's Basketball Team to the White House today.
Q And Donald Trump has been talking about how he would approach U.S. debt, and there seems to be some inconsistencies in how he says he would approach that. But one of the things he's proposed is he'd be open to renegotiating U.S. debt in case the economy were to tank. That's not the approach that the President took when he was new in office. But what does he think about that idea being floated right now from the Republican nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Over the course of the President's seven years in office, you've had multiple opportunities to evaluate the priority that the President has placed on protecting the full faith and credit of the United States of America. We saw an effort by congressional Republicans in 2011 to hold hostage the full faith and credit of the United States to accomplish some of their ideological aims. The President stood steadfast and has made clear time and time again that he's committed to protecting the full faith and credit of the United States.
The President made that a priority throughout a series of rancorous budget negotiations with congressional Republicans, because this is a principle that is critical to our nation's short-term and long-term economic health. The United States of America is a global leader when it comes to our economic strength, because the world has confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States. And the President does not believe that that full faith and credit should be subjected to negotiation or the threat of hostage-taking.
So the President has made this a priority. That is a priority that other American Presidents -- in fact, every other American President has made clear that protecting the full faith and credit of the United States is critically important, Democrats and Republicans. And the President's effort to protect the full faith and credit of the United States has been strongly endorsed by the American business community because they understand the repercussions that our economy would sustain if that were called into question.
So the President's view on all of this I think is clear, based on a track record that all of you can evaluate. But I'll let the individual presidential candidates make the case for why that should change if that's what they believe.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. Just a question regarding the ballistic missile test which was recently conducted by Iran.
MR. EARNEST: I'd just note, John, that the defense minister of Iran, shortly before I came out here, came out and said that that missile test did not take place.
Q That's interesting. The Pentagon claims that -- we have a Pentagon source that says that it did indeed take place. But let me go forward as it relates just to the issue of ballistic missile tests. There have been a number of them since the Iran nuclear deal. And as Iran points out, rightly so, this is not in violation of the Iran nuclear deal, but it does appear to be in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution. What are the consequences of that violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, as you point out, the United Nations has expressed concerns with Iran's continued development of a ballistic missile program. So those were concerns that were expressed by the United Nations both before the completion of an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Those were concerns that we have expressed even in the aftermath of the deal.
So the United States continues to work with the international community to impose costs on Iran to impose sanctions on Iran because of their violation of these international violations. What President Obama has also sought to do is to deepen our coordination with our partners in the Gulf who are most directly threatened by Iran's ballistic missile program. And that was the substance of extensive negotiations that the President had with our GCC partners in Saudi Arabia just a couple of weeks ago.
The President believes that both by providing some additional expertise, but also helping the Gulf Coast -- the GCC partners work more effectively to coordinate their efforts, that we can actually strengthen the ability of our partners to counter that threat.
What we've also indicated should be done -- and the United States has worked effectively with our partners in this regard, too -- is to improve our interdiction efforts to make it harder for Iran to obtain, through illicit means, materials and resources and expertise that could be used to benefit their ballistic missile program. So we've worked hard to do that, as well, with some success.
So our strategy to counter Iran's ballistic missile program is one that's rooted in our ability to work with the international community to achieve this objective. I think what is clear is that the world is safer because we can definitively say that there is no chance that Iran is going to put a nuclear weapon at the top of one of those ballistic missiles because of the international effort that was led by Barack Obama to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q So do you not anticipate the U.N. Security Council imposing any type of additional sanctions on Iran for their ballistic missile testing?
MR. EARNEST: That certainly is a possibility. It always it. But again, in this particular case, there are doubts about whether that actually occurred, because the Iran defense minister said on the record that it didn’t. But we obviously have ways to evaluate that, and we'll work with the international community to do so.
Q Was it a mistake that this particular issue -- ballistic missile testing -- was not included in the Iran nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: No, again, because our focus in the context of the Iran deal was to work with the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was the number one threat, I think for obvious reasons. The concerns the international community, including the United States, has about Iran's ballistic missile program are longstanding concerns. Those concerns continue.
Our efforts to counter their ballistic missile program haven’t waned in the aftermath of the Iran deal. In fact, we've actually stepped up our efforts to coordinate with our GCC partners, with Saudi Arabia and with Israel, both to put in place an architecture to counter Iran's ballistic missile program, but also to ramp up enforcement of international sanctions that prevent Iran from being able to acquire resources and materials through illicit means.
So we've stepped up that coordination, and we're going to continue to apply pressure to Iran to come into compliance with their international obligations.
Q A Mexican judge just ruled that El Chapo can be extradited to the United States. Do you happen to know, Josh, where he might be incarcerated or when the timing of that might happen?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn’t aware of this announcement. It may have just occurred in the last hour or so. What I will say is that the Department of Justice has, for years now, filed charged against Mr. Guzman. These are charges that have been in place for years. And as a result of those charges, the United States has sought extradition and to bring him to justice in U.S. courts.
But obviously that requires the Department of Justice to work with the Mexican government. They have him in custody now. And so for updates on those efforts, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released an audio tape over the weekend -- his first since January -- urging jihadists to unify in Syria. Given al Qaeda's diminished stature these days, particularly in Syria, how important are these utterances anymore in the context of the fight there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, we obviously take quite seriously the threat that is posed by al Qaeda and other extremists that seek to carry out violence against the United States or our interests around the world. And the President has been vigilant about countering that threat.
Let me give you a good example. This is an announcement that was made, I believe, over the weekend by my colleagues at United States Central Command. They announced that in the last week in April, the United States military had conducted four counterterrorism airstrikes against al Qaeda figures in Yemen. Yemen is a place that, despite all the turmoil that's there, that we don’t talk a lot about in here, but it is a place where we know that some of the world's most dangerous terrorists are seeking to establish a foothold and plot and plan against the United States. And these counterterrorism strikes are an indication that the President takes quite seriously the threat from AQAP that emanates from Yemen.
But more generally, we have talked a lot in here about the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. And the President has laid out a comprehensive strategy for doing so. He's assembled a coalition of 65 nations to work with the United States to degrade and ultimately destroy that organization. We know there are other extremist organizations that are operating in Syria, in particular, and there have been U.S. airstrikes conducted against leading figures and fighters who are associated with those other extremist networks.
So the President is well aware that there are dangers that emanate from Iraq and in Syria, and that would explain the robust response, both militarily and otherwise, from the United States to protect the American people.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:28 P.M. EDT