Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 05/10/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:16 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me do a couple of announcements at the top before getting to your questions. The first is that, as you all know, today the President convened his National Security Council here at the White House as part of an ongoing review of our efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL. Today’s meeting was the latest in a series of NSC meetings in recent months convened at the White House and at key departments and agencies, including most recently, the CIA, but also the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
The President was briefed on ongoing U.S. and coalition efforts to degrade ISIL’s core in Iraq and in Syria, while also checking ISIL’s ambitions for expansion outside those countries. Noting recent efforts to reinforce the cessation of hostilities in Syria, the President and his team also discussed options to further advance a political resolution to the Syrian civil conflict while continuing our efforts to pressure ISIL there. The President directed his National Security Council to continue to intensify our counter-ISIL operations across all military and civilian fronts, including disrupting foreign fighter networks, halting ISIL’s expansion outside of Syria and Iraq, countering ISIL financing, disrupting any ISIL external plotting efforts and, of course, countering ISIL’s propaganda and messaging.
In addition to that, you may not know that Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco is in Brussels, Belgium today, where she will meet with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and other Belgian security and intelligence officials in our shared efforts to disrupt terrorist plotting against the United States and Europe, and to degrade and destroy ISIL. Ms. Monaco will also meet with senior EU officials to discuss how we can support EU efforts to strengthen counterterrorism coordination amongst its members.
Ms. Monaco’s travel to Belgium is one of a series of high-level engagements we're undertaking with our coalition partners to discuss ways we can enhance our counterterrorism cooperation.
The people of Brussels know all too well that ISIL continues to both plot complex attacks against our interests and seeks to inspire lone wolves to attack us independently of ISIL command and control. That is why we are constantly looking at ways we can intensify our intelligence cooperation and further disrupt the flow of foreign fighters. We will work to share with our partners lessons the United States learned following the September 11th terrorist attacks about breaking down information stovepipes and protecting our homeland more effectively.
The second thing I wanted to call to your attention -- that many of you have already reported on -- is that, in addition to continuing to meet with senators of both parties, Chief Judge Merrick Garland submitted his questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The questionnaire and associated materials present an exhaustive picture of Judge Garland’s distinguished career and impeccable credentials as the nominee to the Supreme Court.
He has more -- as you’ve heard me say on many occasions -- he has more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee, and a lengthy record of consensus-building, judicial excellence, public service and academic achievement. His record demonstrates that he’s a careful, balanced judge who follows the law. In fact, he’s never written an opinion that’s been reversed by the Supreme Court. And I think that's indicative of his careful and principled approach to jurisprudence.
His opinions reflect his widely recognized ability to forge consensus among his colleagues on a range of challenging subjects, including national security, campaign finance, civil rights, criminal law and federalism. These are the kinds of issues that any judge has to confront when you are serving on the second highest court in the land, like Chief Judge Merrick Garland is. His litigation record reflects a decades’ long devotion to public service and an exceptional record of legal achievement, including his role in the Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber cases.
We expect that upon receiving this questionnaire, the Senate Judiciary Committee members will do their jobs by reviewing the information, notice any hearings so that the American people can hear directly from Chief Judge Garland as he answers questions under oath, and then give him a fair yes or no vote. This is the kind of hearing and/or vote that every nominee since 1875 has received, and we expect the Senate will give Chief Judge Garland the same fair consideration as prior nominees.
So, with that long windup and two important pieces of business out of the way, Kathleen, why don't you get started with questions?
Q I'm actually going to have to start with the President’s trip to Hiroshima.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q It seemed like the White House, in addition to announcing the visit, wanted to really stress that the President was not going to apologize in any way for the bombing at Hiroshima. And I'm wondering if you could just articulate a little bit in more detail why it's so important that folks understand that that's not the mission of this trip. What would be so wrong in apologizing, given the devastation and the size of the tragedy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously this is a question that historians have considered and it's an entirely legitimate line of inquiry for historians. The President intends to visit to send a much more forward-looking signal about his ambition for realizing the goals of a planet without nuclear weapons. This also is an opportunity for the visit to highlight the remarkable transformation in the relationship between Japan and the United States.
If you would have imagined that one of our closest partners and allies in Asia was Japan, just 70 years ago it would have been very difficult to imagine, given the hostilities between our two countries. But yet, that’s exactly what has occurred, based on a commitment of the leaders of our two countries to forge closer bonds. We’ve also seen deeper ties between our peoples. And even as we speak, there are thousands of U.S. military servicemembers who are stationed in Japan, and they operate in bases in Japan that enhance not just the national security of the United States but also contribute in important ways to the national security of our Japanese allies.
The United States and Japan also work effectively together, including through our militaries; on humanitarian relief efforts; on other emergency response efforts, including the natural disaster that the Japanese people suffered as a result of a tsunami and an ensuing crisis at the nuclear facility in Fukushima. All of this is a testament to the way that the U.S.-Japan relationship has dramatically changed over the last 70 years, and the President is certainly interested in further marking the progression of that relationship by visiting Hiroshima.
Q But he doesn’t need to go to Hiroshima to talk about the partnership between the U.S. and Japan, right? I mean, he has a message specifically about nuclear weapons, I assume, and there are a lot of groups saying that he shouldn’t just go there -- he should go with something actually in hand, some new announcement to make.
MR. EARNEST: There are a lot of people with a lot of opinions about this trip. They’re certainly entitled to them. So the President will be traveling to Hiroshima. That visit, of course, will follow visits that were made by both the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and, recently, by Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended a G7 ministerial meeting in Hiroshima. And the President will have an opportunity to visit the Peace Park and offer up his own reflections about his visit to that city.
The President certainly does understand that the United States bears a special responsibility. The United States continues to be the only country to have used nuclear weapons, and it means that our country bears a special responsibility to lead the world in an effort to eliminate them. And this is a goal that has been sought by both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and it is a goal that would make our country and our planet safer.
But, look, there’s also no diminishing the important contribution of the greatest generation of Americans who didn’t just save the United States, but, rather, saved the world from tyranny. And the courage and bravery of that generation of Americans is one that will go down in American history. And over the last decade or so, there’s been an increasing effort to pay tribute to them as that generation ages and, unfortunately, many of those American heroes have passed on. But I feel confident, and the President is confident that future generations of Americans, long into our history, will recognize a significant debt of gratitude that they owe to those brave Americans that ensured the United States and the defenders of freedom prevailed in the Second World War.
Q Okay, thanks. And on another topic, I assume the White House is following some of the discussion about complaints that Facebook has been suppressing conservative voices and viewpoints. And I’m just -- as the White House uses Facebook quite a lot, and the President has spoken out about concerns that people are siloed and get their news from sources that reinforce their own views, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts, or if this is something that the President is concerned about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House certainly does use Facebook to communicate with the American public. I believe the Associated Press uses Facebook to communicate with the American public, as do your media organizations -- or your news organizations.
We obviously are all dealing with a rapidly changing news environment, and communicating more effectively with the American people is a responsibility that we all have. Obviously we were pleased to see the statement from Facebook making pretty clear that this was not something that they engaged in. Obviously you can ask them directly for a better explanation of what people may be seeing. But there’s no denying that the kind of media environment that exists today places a special burden on consumers of news to make a concerted effort to seek out opinions that may differ from them.
The nature of Facebook is that it helps people connect over large distances, and it makes those connections based on shared opinions and shared characteristics. And the media environment, the way that it’s structured now certainly makes it easy for any individual to surround themselves with voices and perspectives and opinions that they share.
And the President has given a number of speeches where he’s talked about how important it is for citizens across the country to seek out differing opinions, to challenge their own assumptions, and doing so better educates them about important issues and gives them a better perspective about the diversity in our country and will ensure that our government makes better decisions, and that the citizens across the country can inform themselves about the debate, can engage in that debate, and be more effective in pushing our country’s leaders to make the decisions that reflect the preferences and priorities of the American people.
Q I want to talk about the Philippines.
MR. EARNEST: We can if you’d like to.
Q President-elect Duterte -- does the White House have any qualms about his advocacy of hundreds, if not more, vigilante killings to wipe out crime and drug trafficking?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tim, at this point, the United States is prepared to commend the Philippines on its May 9th elections. By all accounts, those elections appear to have gone smoothly and enjoyed historically high levels of participation. Those are all indications of a vibrant democracy. We’re still awaiting the official results from officials in the Philippines, and we look forward to congratulating and working with the winners of those elections on our active and close bilateral relationship.
Tim, I don’t think you went on this trip, but obviously the President traveled to the Philippines last November, spent several days there, and had multiple opportunities to underscore the depth of the U.S. relationship with the Philippines. Obviously we’ve got an important security relationship, and our efforts to coordinate with the Philippines as they provide for some maritime security that has an impact on the economy here in the United States is important.
We also value the important economic bilateral relationship between the United States and the Philippines, and the President had an opportunity to discuss those issues with President Aquino when he was in the Philippines last November, like I said. So that’s an indication of how healthy the U.S. relationship is with the Philippines. And we look forward to strengthening that relationship and deepening that relationship with whomever the Filipino voters have decided should lead their country moving forward.
Q But in the campaign, Duterte was talking about throwing away the human rights laws. Does the White House hear any of the echoes of the past there -- the authoritarian past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any comments about the campaign platforms or the rhetoric used by any of the individual candidates in the Filipino election. We’ll wait for the official results, and we can comment more directly there about our ability to work with the winners of that election.
Q And just one more on the Philippines. Duterte has called for multilateral talks to resolve some of the issues in the South China Sea. Is that an option?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have a specific comment on any of the proposals that have been put forward by the candidates. In general, our approach to the situation in the South China Sea has been that the United States is not a claimant to any of the land features in the South China Sea, but the United States does believe that those who have competing claims should find a way to resolve those differences through diplomacy and through established international procedure. And that continues to be our position, and we certainly encourage all parties in that region of the world to pursue their differences and to resolve their differences in that way. Our interest is in making sure those differences are resolved peacefully in a way that doesn’t disrupt the free flow of commerce in the region.
This is a region of the world where billions of dollars of commerce is shipped every day, and we certainly are interested in preventing any sort of disruptions that flow of commerce and goods.
Q On Zika, Senator Nelson of Florida is saying that he’s confident that the $1.9 billion that the administration is pushing for for Zika is going to pass the Senate and not even need -- on an emergency basis, so it wouldn't need any kind of -- need to be offset with any other spending cuts. Does the administration share his confidence in that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t hear who you said made those comments.
Q Bill Nelson.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We certainly believe that's what Congress should have done at least a month or two ago. This is a public health emergency that our country’s leading scientists and public health experts have identified. I began the briefing yesterday by reading a statement from the National Governors Association, representing Democratic and Republican governors across the country, who urged Congress to act quickly to provide resources both to our public health professionals but also to states and localities that are fighting the Zika virus.
Failing to do so, or delaying action is going to have a negative impact on the public health and well-being of the American people. That's not just a statement that I've made; that's a statement we've heard from Democratic and Republican governors, and it's a statement we've heard from public health professionals.
So Congress is past due in making this kind of commitment to America’s safety and the public health of the American people. The debate about passing these resources should not get bogged down in a partisan dispute about how it's going to be paid for. This is emergency funding, and Congress should act quickly to pass it so that these resources can be used to start expanding lab capacity so that we can make diagnostic tests more effective; it can certainly ramp up our ability to develop, test and manufacture a vaccine. And I think in the minds of these governors, they’re most interested in getting additional resources to help them fight mosquito populations in communities in their states where we're at risk of seeing these mosquitoes actually carry the Zika virus to more people.
Q How is the White House reaching out to lawmakers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we've been pretty blunt about what it is that we want both in terms of our public communications and our private communications. I'll just recall, because I carried it out here with me, that the White House did present to Congress on February 22nd of this year a very specific proposal of how much money is required and how that money would be used. But since that time, we have not seen Congress take the necessary steps to act on this specific proposal.
So, again, it is unconscionable for Republicans to continue to delay this kind of assistance to states that need it and to public health professionals that are pretty concerned that adequate resources are not being mobilized to confront this serious public health emergency.
Q Josh, I'm probably way ahead of the game here, but --
MR. EARNEST: You usually are, Bob. (Laughter.)
Q When the President goes to Japan, Prime Minister Abe is probably going to ask him about a potential Donald Trump presidency. And the fact that Trump keeps saying on the campaign trail he’s going to rework trade deals with Japan and China -- to the best of my knowledge, the only trade deal we would have with Japan is the one that's coming up, the TPP, if I'm correct. I don't know, but anyway --
MR. EARNEST: You are correct that Japan is part of the TPP agreement that's been reached.
Q But what is he going to say to reassure Abe that the United States will live up to this commitment for this agreement, especially with reluctance on Capitol Hill to even vote for it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bob, what we do need in order to meet the -- in order to complete this agreement is we do need congressional approval. And the good news about that is we know that there is strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a trade agreement like this one that would cut taxes that other countries impose on American goods -- 18,000 taxes, in fact. So there are ample reasons for Congress to act to implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
And the President will make clear to Prime Minister Abe that that continues to be a priority of his administration, and he'll reassure him that there continues to be strong support among Democrats and Republicans, not just in Congress, but across the country, for this agreement. That's why you’ve seen organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau come out and indicate their support for this agreement, because they understand the positive economic impact it would have on the country. And the President certainly intends to work in bipartisan fashion to get this done.
Q What about the Trump factor? Has he been asked already about this in other locales -- I mean, directly from Japan, I guess is the best way to put it.
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to all of the private conversations that President Obama has had with Prime Minister Abe. But the President has observed that it's not unusual for world leaders to ask him about the state of the American political debate and to ask about particular candidates. I think the President has made his own views pretty clear, and I think what you hear the President say publicly about this is exactly the same thing he says privately to world leaders when they ask him about it.
Q Josh, a couple questions. I want to go back to your packet or your letter to Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. We can get you a copy. It doesn’t just have to be mine.
Q I would love a copy.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We'll get that done. Let’s make a note here, guys. April seems to be showing more interest than Republicans in Congress are on it. (Laughter.) So we certainly want to cultivate that interest and make sure you can take a close look at it.
Q So tell me, I just want to know the construct of that letter or that packet of information. Give me the components of that. I just want to know a little bit more about it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, it's long, but what I can tell you is that what it does is, in rather detailed fashion, goes through exactly how much money would be dedicated to the specific efforts to fight the Zika virus. In some cases, it's funding to the CDC. In some cases, it's funding for the NIH. There’s also extensive funding that's been requested to help local authorities fight the mosquito populations in their communities.
We know that this is a virus that's transmitted by mosquito, and so this is something that, I believe, Dr. Fauci talked about this when he was here, that one of the things that we know would be helpful in fighting the Zika virus is if we know that there’s someone in the community that's contracted the Zika virus that there should be a special effort made to try to eradicate the mosquito population around that person’s house so that that person is less likely to get bit by a mosquito and have that mosquito transmit the virus to someone else.
So having a nimble operation like that requires substantial funding, certainly more funding than is currently available to states and localities for fighting the mosquito population. And this is a common-sense way -- there shouldn’t be a partisan difference in fighting mosquitoes. I don't know that Republicans are pro-mosquito. Though if they are, that would make news. But so there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see bipartisan congressional action on something as common sense as this.
Q So how much of that packet or is that letter dedicated to the dangers, the potential pandemic, the reality -- the drastic realities of what could happen? How much of that is --
MR. EARNEST: There’s not an assessment that's included in here in terms of what the longer-term projections are for the spread of the Zika virus. You might check with CDC to see if they have any materials like that. This is really focused on what are the resources that are necessary to ensure that federal, state, and local officials are doing everything possible to try and protect the American people from the Zika virus.
Q All right, so not including an assessment -- do you think that's a good thing or a bad thing, especially when you're asking for money, to show that this is such a need?
MR. EARNEST: There are available assessments. And if there’s any doubt on the part of members of Congress about the threat posed by the Zika virus, then I certainly would encourage them to be in touch with the CDC.
Q Okay. And on two other subjects -- West Point. Do you have anything new to talk to us about that picture today?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, what I can tell you -- I don't know whether or not the President has seen the picture. I've not spoken to him about it. But I can assure you that the President has an enormous amount of pride in the members of the class of 2016 who are set to graduate from all of our service academies, including West Point.
Those of you who have covered the President for a while will remember that the President has now delivered two commencement addresses at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The President is also looking forward, in a month or so, to delivering the commencement address at the United States Air Force Academy out in Colorado Springs. It will be an opportunity for him to acknowledge the tremendous accomplishments of these fine young Americans who have gone through four years of rigorous academic and military training and have been prepared to lead their fellow servicemembers on the battlefield.
And what is true is this particular photo that's gained a lot of currency online has generated some discussions about race relations in our country. But the real focus should be on the tremendous accomplishments of these cadets and, as I mentioned, the fact that they will soon be leading soldiers on missions around the world.
Q Let me ask you this. Thinking about what the President said about heritage and diversity at Howard -- again, that's the most recent piece where he’s talked about race -- thinking about what he said and looking at this picture, does this White House feel it possibly is an unnecessary controversy, an unnecessary critique of a picture showing black pride -- as the President had talked about at Howard, knowing who you are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to try to divine the message that those cadets were attempting to send. What I can tell you is that the President is proud of all of our graduates at our military academies. They’ve made a significant sacrifice and they’ve dedicated the early part of their lives as young adults to serving their country -- that’s worthy of our respect and our gratitude. And the President is certainly proud of the commitment that they have made to their country and is proud of the way that they have prepared themselves to represent our country, to serve our country, and even defend our country in missions around the world.
Q And lastly, Ferguson -- has it come full circle now? There is now a black police chief.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. Is there a question?
Q I said, now has Ferguson come full circle, now that there’s a black police chief?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that’s a judgment that I would render from here. Obviously the community of Ferguson -- I think all of the residents in that community would acknowledge that the work of strengthening that community and repairing some of the bonds between government and citizens is going to take some time.
And in some ways, that’s work that’s never done. The sign of a strong community is one that constantly challenges itself to improve and to make sure that the will of the people is manifested in the day-to-day decisions of the government. And I think what is certainly true is that the community of Ferguson has made a lot of important progress. Many concerns and problems that were beneath the surface for a long time did erupt into public view, in tragic and violent ways sometimes.
But by confronting these challenges head on and by being committed to repairing that community, that’s the path to success and there’s no denying that they’ve made a lot of important progress in that regard.
Q Last question on this. Is this a positive step forward -- after the Justice Department has been watching them and working with them to fix many of their problems that’s come out in documentation that they have had practices that were discriminatory?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s the people of Ferguson that should sort of render a judgment about how much progress that they’ve made. But based on the coverage, it does seem like they are beginning to make some important movements in the right direction, and that is a reflection of the advocacy of people in that community, but also a commitment to public service on behalf of some people in that community that have decided to take on a pretty tough assignment, including the new police chief.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two topics. One, does the President want to meet with any of the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing?
MR. EARNEST: All of the logistics for the President’s trip have not been formulated at this point, so I don’t know at this point whether or not he will have an opportunity to meet with any of the survivors, but we’ll keep you posted on that.
Q Okay. And then, John Kerry is in Western Europe. He declared parts of Iran “open for business.” He said that
Western companies should not use the United States as an excuse for not doing business in Iran. It sounds like you guys are pretty concerned that Western European companies might, in effect, cast a vote of no confidence in the Iran deal. Is that the case? Are you concerned that if not enough economic -- if not enough business is done with Iran that that might lead to some unraveling of the deal? Or Iranian expressions of hostility in some other formats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, I think the first thing it indicates is that the dire warnings of the harshest critics of the deal weren’t true. They didn’t come to pass. There were suggestions by many Republicans in Congress that Iran was prepared to receive hundreds of billions in sanctions relief as a result of this agreement. And I have stood up here countless times and said that that wasn’t true, and tried to explain why. And then this is just the latest evidence that, again, those critics of the deal were either wrong or lying but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to do that.
More generally, I can tell you that the goal of the Obama administration and of the Secretary of State is to communicate as clearly as possible with the business community around the world about what is permissible and in compliance with existing sanctions imposed by the United States and the international community against Iran, and what isn’t.
And there is an obligation on the part of the government to help people understand how to comply with the sanctions that are currently in place. Sanctions relief has been granted, which means that there are new opportunities, but they are still subject to constraints based on sanctions that continues to be in place against Iran because of their ballistic missile program, because of their continued support for terrorism, because of their violations of human rights and some other things.
But what we seek is to be clear as possible about what those sanctions allow and what they prevent, and that’s exactly what Secretary Kerry is engaged in over in Europe.
Q So in the last couple of weeks, Iran -- we’ve seen an uptick in anti-American speeches, reports of missile tests, a threat to close the streets of Hormuz. Today, they apparently announced the delivery of S-300 missile defense systems. These are not connected? You’re saying that they’re actually --
MR. EARNEST: Those are all things they were doing before the deal. And they’re doing them now. So I think it’s a little hard to draw a clear connection between those kinds of activities and the deal when they were taking place before the deal and they’re taking place after the deal. So we have been quite clear that the goal of this international agreement was to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That was not just a priority that was chosen at random; that was the priority that was identified by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and other leaders in the region who were deeply concerned about the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran.
So President Obama made a strategic calculation, and said the most important thing we can do when it comes to Iran is to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And he engaged in a concerted strategy to mobilize the international community to achieve that goal. And we have. Iran does not have a nuclear weapon -- that’s not based on some sort of intelligence assessment -- that’s based on the verification of international inspectors who have checked, and they continue to check on a continuous basis that has made the United States of America safer; that has made Israel safer; that has made our partners in the Middle East safer.
It has not resolved all of our concerns with Iran. We continue to be concerned about the way that Iran menaces Israel. We continue to be concerned about the way that Iran supports terrorism. We continue to be concerned about the development of Iran’s ballistic missile program. But their ballistic missile program is a whole lot less dangerous when there is no risk of them putting a nuclear weapon on top of one of those ballistic missiles, and that was only possible because of the Iran deal. So we certainly are gratified by what’s been accomplished, but our efforts to continue to hold Iran for other aspects of their policies and behavior have not waned.
In fact, we have redoubled our efforts to counter Iran’s ballistic missile program. There have been new sanctions that have been put in place as a result of more recent activity. We’ve continued to cultivate our relationship with our partners in the Gulf to enhance their capabilities to protect themselves from Iran’s ballistic missile program. We’ve worked with other people, with other countries, both in the region and around the world, to augment our efforts to prevent Iran from illicitly obtaining materials and equipment that could be used to advance their ballistic missile program.
So our efforts here have been comprehensive and the results have been that the United States, our allies, and our partners are safer. Iran is farther away from obtaining a nuclear weapon than they have been before. And the people who complained about the agreement were wrong or lying or both.
Q Josh, is there a concern that the President going to Hiroshima will be interpreted as an apology?
MR. EARNEST: If people do interpret it that way, they will be interpreting it wrongly, so I don’t think there’s much risk of that.
Q Was there any debate in the White House about whether the President should go or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously there have been questions raised about whether or not the President would travel to Hiroshima every time the President has traveled to Japan. He’s done that three or four times now. And on the President’s first visit to Japan, back in 2009, he observed that he would like to have the opportunity to visit Hiroshima. And given the progress that we have made to advance nuclear security, given the recent visits of the Ambassador and the Secretary of State, and given the fact that this will be the President’s last visit to Japan as President, it seemed appropriate for the President to make this visit.
Q On the Garland questionnaire that was submitted, was that something that the Judiciary Committee gave to him, or was that something that the White House had him fill out? And if it was the committee who gave it to him, do you interpret that as a good sign for the nomination?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that he actually filled out the questionnaire that essentially is filled out by federal judges who have been nominated. And when asked about this earlier this year, Senator Grassley said basically -- when asked about whether or not Chief Judge Garland should fill out a questionnaire, or whether or not the Judiciary Committee would be giving him a questionnaire, Senator Grassley said, “They’ve got the questionnaire.”
So we filled out the questionnaire that we got, and we submitted it today. And we certainly were pleased to see the Senate Judiciary Committee accept the questionnaire and to post it on the website. That is consistent with the way this process is supposed to work.
As I pointed out, the next step in the process here should be members of the committee should carefully consider the contents of the questionnaire and schedule his hearing. We certainly are ready for them to do that.
Q Last, I think you mentioned there were -- he had met with 10 Republican senators. Has that changed at all? And is there any hope for meeting with more? Because there are a lot more there who he could meet with. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll point out that there are a lot who have said that they will not meet with him. So let me see if I have the latest tally here in terms of -- he’s met with 46 senators, total, including 14 Republican senators. Later today, I can tell you that Chief Judge Garland will be meeting with Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican. He’ll also be meeting with Brian Schatz, a Democratic Senator from Hawaii. So that would bring us up to 15 Republican senators after the meeting with Senator Johnson.
I recognize -- Pam, you’re pretty good at math, so you’ve concluded that that’s not even a majority of Republican senators who serve in the Senate. But 15 is notable because you’ll remember that the opening bid by Republican senators was issued by the Republican Leader in the Senate, who said that they wouldn’t be meeting with the President’s nominee, and, in fact, 15 Republican senators at the end of today will have done so.
Q I’m not 27, either. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well. (Laughter.)
Q I’m not 27, either. (Laughter.) Just for the math.
MR. EARNEST: Not my first day here -- (Laughter.)
Q Is there any indication that any of the members of the committee have said that they will consider the content of the questionnaire and that they will schedule a hearing? Is there any -- because it feels, to be quite frank about it, you’re talking about a questionnaire being submitted as a positive sign. We did the math about the small number of Republican senators who have actually met with Judge Garland.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s 15 Republican senators who defied their Republican leadership and agreed to meet with him.
Q Well, that’s one way of looking at it, but it’s also the rest who have not defied, and are holding strong to what’s clearly been their position from the start -- that they are not going to consider this nomination.
MR. EARNEST: They’re not going to do their job. I recognize that the vast majority of Republican senators have held to the position that they will not do their job.
Q I’m not sure where we are now. Months later, do you still believe that Judge Garland is going to have a hearing before President Obama leaves -- before a lame duck session?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. We certainly believe that that’s the direction that we’re headed, and that is certainly what he deserves. That’s the way that it has worked for every single Supreme Court nominee since 1875. I’ll point out that there is one new data point, and this is actually -- Senator Flake was on your network over the weekend, and Senator Flake actually took a more forward-leaning position than many of his Republican colleagues.
He actually opened the door not just to giving Chief Judge Garland a hearing before the election, not just to giving Chief Judge Garland a vote before the election -- he actually imagined a scenario in which the Senate would confirm Chief Judge Garland before the election. We certainly believe that’s what they should do, and we were gratified to see a Republican senator making that case. In fact, this is a Republican senator who serves on the Judiciary Committee.
Q So do you think more are going to come forward and make statements like this? Are there indications like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they should.
Q They should, but are they? Is there concrete progress underway?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there’s concrete progress. They started out with saying that they weren’t going to meet with the guy, and now 15 Republican senators say they have. They started out saying that they wouldn’t even consider a hearing, and we’ve seen Senator Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, step forward and say the Senate should “man up and vote.” We’ve seen two former Supreme Court justices come out and say -- this is Justice Stevens and Justice O’Connor -- indicate that they believe that the Senate should do their job. We’ve seen Senator Collins from Maine come out and say that she would welcome the opportunity to participate in a -- to watch a hearing and to cast a vote. And now we’ve got Senator Flake out here who has gone even farther and said that he can imagine a scenario in which the Senate would confirm him.
So all of this in the face of a Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, who, just hours after Justice Scalia died, said that the Senate would not do anything to consider the President’s nominee and the President shouldn’t even bother putting someone forward. Well, the President did do his job. The President nominated somebody that even Republicans acknowledge is a consensus nominee. And some Republicans have continued to block his progress. But we’re going to continue to move forward. We’re going to continue to do everything that is required and typical of that process, and we’ll see if Republicans continue to try to block it.
Q They, no doubt, will. When do you expect the hearing would happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the Senate Judiciary Committee would have to schedule a hearing. The Senate Democrats who serve on that committee laid out the typical schedule for the way that this would have worked if Republicans were doing their job in the Senate, and they said that that hearing would have taken place in the last week in April. We certainly were prepared to participate in the hearing had it been scheduled for them. So Republicans are past due. And we’re prepared to participate in the hearing as soon as they can get one on the books.
Q And just to follow up on the Iran questions. Essentially what you’re saying is that the Iran nuclear deal has made the U.S. and its allies and the world safer.
MR. EARNEST: Undeniably.
Q But is it also clear that you have not seen any progress on any other front where the United States has concerns with Iran in terms of its missile programs, in terms of its involvement in Iraq and Syria, in terms of its support for terrorism and so forth, down the list. I mean, I think that’s what you were saying, is that you had to redouble your efforts in these areas. So it would appear that -- not to minimize the nuclear threat -- but it seems also clear that there’s no other area where you can point to where there’s been progress as a result of renewed communications or establishing communication --
MR. EARNEST: There was that little thing where we got four American hostages out of Iran. I think that counts for something. We did have some success in resolving this longstanding financial dispute in a way that saved the American taxpayers billions of dollars with Iran. So I don’t think either of those are small matters.
I would acknowledge that we haven’t seen Iran stop supporting terrorism. We certainly would welcome them doing that. But their support for terrorism is a whole lot less dangerous if they don’t have a nuclear weapon sitting in the closet. The same could be said of their ballistic missile program. We’ve been concerned that they continue to carry out these tests -- we can’t confirm the latest test that may have been conducted -- but those tests are a whole lot less menacing if there’s no risk of them putting a nuclear weapon on top of it. The same is true of their support for the Assad regime. That support for the Assad regime is not nearly as dangerous as it would be if there was the potential that they could use a nuclear weapon to protect Bashar al Assad.
Q In the context of the nuclear deal, a lot was said about the benefits of diplomacy, of talking and having -- is there any area now where you will clearly identify the administration is involved in some sort of negotiation, active diplomacy, communication with the Iranians where you expect to see some progress on some other front?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the other point of progress that I didn’t acknowledge was the rather undramatic release of those American servicemembers who, earlier this year, had been picked up in Iranian waters. That was clearly a testament to the effectiveness of the channel of communication between senior U.S. officials and senior Iranian officials.
So those communications channels remain open. And I don't have anything to predict about what sort of announcements may be forthcoming, but even in just the few months of this year, whether it's the successful return of American citizens who’ve been held unjustly in Iran, or the resolution of those financial disputes, or even the rather drama-free release of those American servicemembers who drifted into Iranian waters -- in each case, the benefits of our improved communication with Iran we're beneficial to the United States of America.
Q But in terms of Iraq and Syria, there’s been no -- the Iranians are as problematic as they ever were.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the situations in those countries are obviously complicated. And we have not resolved all of our concerns with Iran’s behavior in the context of the nuclear agreement, but we have, despite the lies and false predictions of our critics, have succeeded in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and verifying that their nuclear program has been rolled back in ways that enhance the safety and security of the American people.
Q On Iran, you said that your critics went to this wrong assumption that there would be this huge payday for Iran because of the nuclear deal, and implied there that the White House knew better. Does that mean the U.S. knew that Iran actually never would be open for business, given the U.S. financial system?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the United States has done is demonstrated a clear commitment to upholding our end of the deal. We have only been willing to do that after Iran not only lived up to their end of the deal, but allowed the international community to enter their country and verify that they had lived up to their end of the bargain. That included things like disconnecting thousands of centrifuges, shipping out 98 percent of their highly enriched uranium stockpile, essentially rendering harmless their heavy-water plutonium reactor.
Once we verified that they had taken all of those steps, then the United States moved forward with implementing our end of the deal. What we indicated is that there would be sanctions relief that Iran would get, and there would be resources that had been withheld from them that they would get access to. The President acknowledged this both before the agreement was completed and also in the statement that he delivered in announcing that the agreement had been reached.
What is false is people like Steve Scalise said that Iran would get “hundreds of billions of dollars.” So, again, I don't know if Mr. Scalise is just really poorly informed, or lying, but what he predicted is not true. We said so at the time, and now we can actually evaluate the facts and determine whether or not he was right. Steve Scalise was wrong -- not for the first time.
Q But it puts this administration in kind of an awkward position when the Secretary of State has to stand out there and say Iran is open for business, because the U.S. is the reserve currency of the world, because the U.S. has such influence and control over the world economy and the world financial system that, as he’s saying, some European institutions blame the U.S. for keeping it out of Iran. Was that something that the White House knew would happen going in, that this was sort of -- even if the sanctions were lifted, that it wasn’t Iran being open for business in the sense that money was going to flow in?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think what we knew is that Iran would get access to some of the funds that had been withheld from them because of the sanctions put in place over their nuclear program. The point that I'm making is that the amount of relief that they would get was wildly and falsely overestimated by critics of the deal.
And again, there is a point where -- we had sort of this debate and dispute about how much sanctions relief they would get. People like Steve Scalise, who said that Iran would get hundreds of billions of dollars, again, were either wrong or lying. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really prevented critics from continuing to make that case. I'm not really sure why that is. But I think it is a whole lot more awkward for Steve Scalise to have to face up to the fact that Iran did not get hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief than it is for Secretary of State John Kerry to make clear to the international community that the United States is committed to helping people understand exactly what’s in compliance with the sanctions we have in place with Iran and what’s not.
Q You're not concerned about the deal unraveling because of the griping on the part of the Iranians that they’re not getting the kind of influx of business that they expected?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q You're not?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q You're not. Another question on Iran. There was a lawsuit filed by one of the four Americans that was released, Amir Hekmati, a former Marine. And he cites in some detail some of the torture that he experienced while in captivity, and torture not just for being an American, but he says he was accused of working for the U.S. government, et cetera. Is there any White House reaction to some of what he detailed?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the documents that he’s filed in the context of this court case. Obviously the President was deeply concerned about the well-being of those American citizens who were being wrongly held by Iran, and that's why the President made it such a personal priority to secure their release. And it's why the news of their release was greeted with so much relief by people not just all across this White House, but people all across the country. There was genuine concern that these Americans weren’t just being deprived of their ability to spend time with their families, but that they were doing so, they were facing that deprivation in very hostile circumstances. And we were deeply concerned about the safety and health and well-being of these American citizens. That's why we worked so hard to get them out.
Q What he describes in the lawsuit is clear violations of the Geneva Convention, clear torture. And also within the suit he’s referred to as a hostage. Does the U.S. believe that these Americans, particularly Amir Hekmati, was a hostage, not just a prisoner?
MR. EARNEST: When I was talking about this earlier I think I inaccurately described them as hostages. Our policy is that they were detainees, that they were unjustly detained by the Iranian government. And we worked very diligently to secure their release because of our concern for their well-being and because of our concern about the conditions in which they were being held. So the President made this a personal priority to secure the release of these detainees.
Q Is there any comment on the seeking compensation and seeking some restitution from the Iranian government for what is described as torture?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't looked at the specific documents that he’s filed in the court case. So if we have a position on that, I'll make sure we follow up with you.
Q The Citadel has recently decided that it would be a violation of school policy to allow a Muslim student to wear a hijab. Does the President support the Citadel’s decision to deny this religious exemption? And does the administration think more needs to be done to recruit young Muslim Americans to the top military academy for the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not familiar with this specific case, and I'm certainly not familiar with the dress code policy of the Citadel, so I'll defer comment on that. I will say the President has often remarked about the pride he has in the thousands of Muslims who serve the United States in our military. These are men and women who are committed to their faith and committed to the safety and security of the United States of America. These are patriotic Americans who are serving their country. The President is proud of their service, and we all should be.
Q But there’s no thought on whether or not a hijab should be allowed at U.S. military academies?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure of the policies that are in place at the Citadel, and I'm also not aware of the specific policies that are in place at the four service academies. So I just wouldn't weigh in on them because I'm not familiar with those details.
Q And back to Merrick Garland. With North Carolina’s HB2 possibly ending up in the Supreme Court, does this further fuel the President’s belief that we need to get -- or that the administration needs to get Merrick Garland on the Court and appointed as soon as possible? Or does it make no difference to the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President -- this President sort of has the same view that was taken by Republican President Ronald Reagan, who talked about the fact that every day that goes by with a vacancy on the Supreme Court is a day that the American people should be concerned that the Supreme Court doesn’t have the full complement of justices to deal with the important issues before them.
So the President feels strongly that the Senate has a responsibility to make sure that the Supreme Court has all nine justices that our Framers envisioned. The President has fulfilled his constitutional responsibility to conduct an exhaustive search after consulting with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. The President has chosen someone that even Republicans have described as a consensus nominee. The President has chosen someone with more experience on the federal bench than any other nominee in Supreme Court history.
So it's really unprecedented for somebody with this much experience to be nominated for this position. Unfortunately, what’s also unprecedented is the degree to which Republicans are refusing to do their job and refusing to give this Supreme Court nominee a hearing or a vote for the first time since 1875. Since 1875, every Supreme Court nominee has been given a hearing and/or a vote. And it's unprecedented for Republicans to withhold it.
Q And yesterday’s lawsuits do not raise the stakes at all for the administration in the Supreme Court battle?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s clear is the Supreme Court is dealing with lots of very important issues that resonate with the American people on a range of matters not just related to social policy, but also matters related to national security and the economy. So there are a range of important issues before the Supreme Court, and I think the American people believe that they are best served by having the full complement of justices up there making these important decisions.
Q And one other thing. Yesterday, when asked about if you could categorically state that no senior administration official ever lied publicly about the Iran nuclear deal, you said, “No, Kevin,” but the transcript omitted the “no.” Did somebody review those transcripts, or are you changing your answer?
MR. EARNEST: No. If I had changed my answer you’d know about it.
Q Back to the President’s trip to Hiroshima. You said the intention is not to apologize. If anybody interprets it as an apology that would be a misinterpretation. But does the President welcome the renewed debate that the American people are having or will have when he goes to that city whether or not the United States should have dropped the atomic bomb?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I don't think the President sees any benefit in trying to muzzle debate. It's entirely legitimate for historians to carefully look at the decision -- the fateful decision that President Truman had to make. And President Truman made a decision that he believed was consistent with our national security priorities. He believed that lives on both sides of the conflict could be saved by dropping the bomb. And I'm confident this is a decision that any God-fearing, moral person would agonize over.
But President Truman did what Presidents have to do, which is he had to make a tough decision, and he had to make that tough decision when the stakes were high. In some ways, the stakes might not have been -- may never have been higher. And it certainly is appropriate for historians to take a look at that decision, to consider how that decision was made, to evaluate whether or not it was the right one, to consider whether or not there might have been an alternative that would have produced a better result. It's certainly appropriate for historians to examine what are the longer-term consequences of that decision. All of that is an entirely fair discussion for historians and for the American people to consider.
But that's not what President Obama will do when he visits Hiroshima. What President Obama will do is make note of the fact that the relationship between the United States and Japan has emerged stronger than anybody could have imagined back in 1945. And it's a remarkable testament to the commitment of two great countries to try to find peace, and to look for opportunities to work together and coordinate their efforts to advance the interests of their people.
And the United States and Japan have been able to do that in remarkable fashion, on a variety of issues -- whether it's the economy, or the recovery from natural disasters, or even countering a country like North Korea that has in the past threatened to use nuclear weapons again.
So I think, looking toward the future, with that kind of relationship in mind, is something that I think is worth noting and the President is certainly looking forward to his visit for that reason.
Q Is it part of his intention, his intent, the trip -- not just historians but the American people, just regular folks who take a look at that decision and weigh the pros and the cons of whether or not that was appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, that’s certainly -- I would anticipate that in the lead-up to the President’s trip that all of you will be doing stories about that fateful decision in American history. I think it’s certainly -- that’s a relevant discussion for our country to have and there’s no reason that people should shy away from considering the impact of a decision like that. But, look, when the President goes to the Peace Park in Hiroshima he is just going to offer some short, simple reflections on his visit and that will include an observation about the way that the relationship between the United States and Japan has been transformed.
Q Judge Garland -- the progress that you say is being made here -- there are some Republicans who are gaming out the election campaign and are looking at a possible President Trump or President Clinton, and thinking that perhaps Garland as a nominee would be a better option than someone who would be put forth by either one of those presidents. Is that something that is playing into perhaps the softening of Republicans’ position? Is that something the administration has heard, or seen, or is aware of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just based on all of your reporting and the kinds of conversations that each of you is having with Republican senators, it’s clear that they are feeling some pressure. And they recognize that -- let me say it this way. It has been clear from the beginning that Republicans have not been comfortable with the posture of refusing to do their job when it comes to something as important as confirming a nominee to the Supreme Court.
That position for Republicans became even more uncomfortable when the President put forward the name of a nominee that even leading Republicans had described as a consensus nominee. Even Republicans have vouched for Chief Judge Garland. Even Republicans who have had the opportunity to meet with him in private have remarked on his character and on his credentials.
Senator Graham -- Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, described Chief Judge Garland as a “well-qualified man.” He’s “honest and capable, and his reputation is beyond reproach.” Senator Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, described him as “very, very smart, very knowledgeable.” And Senator Flake, who I referenced before, described Chief Judge Garland as “obviously a man of accomplishment and keen intellect.” So these are Republicans who are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of failing to live up to their constitutional responsibility. And that discomfort was enhanced when it became clear that they were going to have to consider somebody that they basically are acknowledging should be on the Supreme Court. Somebody who does have the experience and the aptitude and the credentials to serve with distinction on the Supreme Court in a lifetime appointment.
I recognize that none of these senators would say that Chief Judge Garland was at the top of their list, but they’re also hard-pressed to deny him a position because they acknowledge that he is qualified for it. So that, I think, is what has put Republicans in the most difficult position. I’m confident that the politics are a factor here, but what I’m also confident is a factor is the fact that the President has put forward a nominee that even Republicans say is well-qualified for the job.
Q Do you see the politics as working in your favor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on with the politics right now. So I’ll let well-paid pundits make those observations and they can sort of game this out. I think what is clear is that even setting aside the politics -- which is what Republicans, frankly, should do -- there is no one who has come forward with a compelling case that somehow Chief Judge Garland does not deserve a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
Q -- a couple of candidates most likely national security intelligence briefings. The President began his in 2008 -- in September of 2008 is when he had his first briefing. Is it the President’s expectation that that process would begin sooner now, given the emphasis -- the President signed the Presidential Transition Act -- that that process would begin sooner than the fall?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will sort of make a plan for when to conduct this briefing with the party nominees. I think that he has indicated that the briefing is not likely to occur until after the conventions. I believe that’s why President Obama -- or then Senator Obama did not receive his briefing until September of 2008. You’ll recall that the conventions in 2008 were much later than they are this year. So I think that’s what’s driving the timeframe here. But you do make an accurate observation in that the President has made a smooth transition a top priority, and there are already resources that have been dedicated to this effort by the administration and by senior officials here in the White House to ensure that the next President, whomever the American people elect, will be ready to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017.
Q There was another discussion last week of the content of that briefing, particularly given one of -- the presumptive nominee on the Republican side. Some were raising questions, can that person be trusted with classified information. Is the President’s expectation that both nominees will be presented with at least the same or more information than he was presented with when he was being briefed before the 2008 election?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s assumption is that our professionals in the intelligence community will determine what will be included in the briefing that the candidates are presented. And I believe that Director Clapper has indicated that he expects both candidates to get the same information, but what exactly is included there is something that our intelligence professionals will determine.
Q Does that mean there’s no -- the President wouldn’t insist on the same level of information he was read in on eight years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, presumably that information would be outdated by about eight years, so I think it’s hard to draw a line in terms of what the same information would be. But the President -- again, what Director Clapper has said is that both the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee in 2016 will receive the same briefing. And what is included in that briefing is something that will be determined by our intelligence professionals.
Q I want to go back to Hiroshima. The President is a student of history. He must have studied the historical record from 1945. Would he have made the same decision as Truman?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President would say is that it’s hard to put yourself in that position from the outside. So I think it’s hard to probably land on a specific, precise decision.
Look, I think what the President does appreciate is that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons. President Truman was focused on the national security interests of the United States. President Truman was focused on bringing an end to a terrible war, and President Truman made this decision fully mindful of the likely human toll. And President Truman evaluated this decision carefully and moved forward in the direction that he believed was consistent with our country’s national security interests. And I think, given the way the President Truman approached this dilemma and given the outcome, I think it’s hard to look back and second-guess him too much.
Q -- indicated that the President will use the trip to make the case for a world without killer weapons. But are we right in saying that the President would use nuclear weapons if necessary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President has indicated is that we have a nuclear stockpile and it’s one that should be maintained both for safety reasons but also for readiness reasons. And the President has also succeeded in reducing that stockpile based on cooperative efforts with the Russians earlier in his presidency.
But the President’s first job is to protect the safety and well-being of the American people. And the President believes that the best way to do it is to rid the world of necessary weapons.
Q And a final question. This year is the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Do you think that there’s a need for some kind of reciprocal gesture from the Japanese?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any announcements at this point about any sort of presidential travel, or what the Japanese may do to mark that occasion. Obviously that is a day that continues to live in infamy, as President Roosevelt observed. And I don't have any announcements at this point about how the President will observe the 75 anniversary of the day.
Q I wanted to follow up on the Hiroshima visit and the nuclear weapons issue. There have been some critics who have said that -- you've mentioned that the President said that we should maintain our nuclear stockpile. But critics have said that the President has actually been upgrading and refurbishing and modernizing that stockpile in a way that sort of counters his statement that he wants a world without these nuclear weapons. And they've sort of reiterated those comments as this announcement has been made about the Hiroshima visit. I’m wondering what your reaction is to that line of --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would react in a couple of ways. The first is that the President recognizes the special burden that the United States carries because we are the only country to have used nuclear weapons. And that does set the United States apart from others.
What’s also true is that this President has worked aggressively to sign agreements with the Russians so that both sides can reduce our nuclear stockpiles. And we've made progress early in the presidency in that regard.
This President has also led the international effort to block the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the context of this international deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The President is quite proud of that aspect of his legacy. What’s also true is the President has made this issue -- nuclear security -- a top priority. He convened four international summits, most recently this spring here in Washington, where several dozen world leaders attended to focus on the issue of nuclear security.
Much of the work to refurbish our nuclear weapons stockpile has been conducted with the goal of ensuring the safety of those nuclear weapons, but also enhancing their readiness. But none of that detracts from the topline goal that the President has set out, which is to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
And while there certainly is a moral dimension to adopting a policy like that, there’s also a direct national security dimension to that policy. The President believes that the United States would be safer and the world would be safer if we could rid the world of nuclear weapons. And that is a goal that the President has laid out. It’s a goal that previous Democratic and Republican Presidents have also identified. And the President is proud of the progress that we've made in pursuit of that goal. But he acknowledges that we surely have a long, long way to go.
Q Just one on the other part of the President’s trip. He’s going to be going to Vietnam. And there’s been some reports that the arms ban against Vietnam may be lifted. I know you were asked about this a couple weeks ago, but I’m wondering if that's under discussion. If there -- there have been a lot of backlash from the Hill, both parties, about that proposal. So I’m wondering if you've reached out to people on the Hill and if you are discussing potentially lifting an arms ban.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly has been a public discussion of this policy and of this issue. I don't have any comments about those public discussions at this point, but we’ll keep you posted if anything is going to change.
Q Thanks, Josh. Did the President speak with the Attorney General following her remarks yesterday? And what was his reaction to her impassioned comments?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the President having an opportunity to speak to the Attorney General yesterday. The President did see her comments. And she was making an announcement about an enforcement action that the Department of Justice has chosen to pursue. That decision about that enforcement action was made independently by Department of Justice. It was not influenced by the White House. But I agree with your observation that she did make a pretty impassioned defense of ensuring that every American has their basic civil and human rights protected.
And that's the kind of passion that has made her not just an effective prosecutor throughout her career, but it has also made her a remarkably effective Attorney General.
Q I wanted to ask you about the overtime expansion the President mentioned quite some time ago. And I know that there is a date coming up where it’s expected that the Department of Labor may announce an expansion so that people who are making $50,000 and less could then -- up to $50,000 could get more overtime. Is the President prepared to get moving on that? Or make an announcement on that end?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is -- you're right, this is a Department of Labor rule that is currently being vetted by the Office of Management and Budget. I don't have an update for you in terms of the timeline for when a decision could be announced. Obviously, Secretary Perez has spoken to the motivation behind putting forward this rule change. But I don't have any comment on it from here. But OMB may be able to give you a better timeline for the completion of that consideration.
Q Just a couple more. Gitmo detainees and a number of potential transfers out of the facility. Can you give me an update on the number that are still there? And if there is going to be an announcement soon of other transfers?
MR. EARNEST: The number is somewhere around 90 -- it may be in the high 80s at this point. But every time we make a transfer, we publicly announce it. So there have not been any transfers since the last time you and I discussed this.
Q Is there any chance to get a number -- a specific number? Because usually when I ask, you’ll say around, or sort of, but you're not --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, we can get you --
Q Can you get that for me? I appreciate that. And lastly, sort of taking a 30,000-foot view of the President’s visit to Hiroshima -- for the people who are not awash in this all the time, what’s the message to America, in particular to older Americans, who might view this curiously, to say the least?
MR. EARNEST: I think the message to them is the President, I think most powerfully, had the opportunity to show his gratitude to the Greatest Generation of Americans at the 70th Anniversary of D-Day just a couple of years ago. And standing there, overlooking that beach in France, the President talked movingly about how that generation of Americans will go down in history for the contribution that they have made not just to our freedom, but to the world’s freedom.
And that certainly was true when it came to the battlefields in Europe, but that was surely true in the Pacific theater, as well. And over the course of this trip, the President will certainly keep in mind the significant commitment and sacrifice that was made by millions of Americans to ensure that the freedom of the United States and the freedom of the world would be protected.
There are -- when you travel around the world, other countries recognize the tremendous sacrifice that that generation of Americans made. They saved the world. And it certainly is appropriate to consider the policy decisions that were made at that time, but there is no denying and there is no questioning the patriotism, the courage, and the sacrifice that millions of Americans in the Greatest Generation made to protect our freedom.
Gregory, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. I want to go back to the Garland questionnaire. Most of this has already been a matter of public record, but there was one revealing question where he was asked to cite what he believes the 10 most important cases he’s decided are. And those cases involved what would usually be considered liberal causes -- human rights, labor rights, environmental protection, open government, free press. There was a criminal case where he ruled in favor of the defendant. What are we to make of this list? And how does the selection of these cases -- again, this isn’t his entire record, but these are the cases he believes are most important. How does that make the case to Republicans who may be on the fence that he is a moderate Supreme Court appointee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gregory, I think I would first observe there are 2,640 merits cases that Chief Judge Merrick Garland has participated in, and he has authored 357 opinions in nearly two decades on the second highest court in the land. So you rightly pointed out that this is just a small sliver of a tremendous body of work that Chief Judge Garland has assembled during his service on the D.C. Circuit. When it comes to the substance of those decisions, and the substance of the opinions that he authored, I think this is exactly why there’s a process for the Senate Judiciary Committee to have hearings.
The questions that you've raised are entirely appropriate. These are exactly the kinds of questions that Chief Judge Merrick Garland is prepared to answer. He’s prepared to answer them under oath, on camera, in public so that everybody can see exactly what kind of judge he is. He is someone who understands that it is his job to interpret the law, not advance a political agenda. And he’s demonstrated that over his 19 years on the federal bench -- more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in history.
And I got to tell you, Gregory, I think this is precisely why Republicans are blocking a hearing, because they know exactly what would happen if they were to grant Chief Judge Garland a hearing in the same way that every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 has been granted. They know that he would do an incredible job of helping understand his approach to the law. And it would reveal somebody of remarkable intellect and a commitment to fairness that Americans in both parties can appreciate.
He would make clear that he is deserving of a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. I think that's precisely why Republicans are blocking his ability to participate in the hearing.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:35 P.M. EDT