Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/12/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:06 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions for maximum efficiency today. Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thank you, Josh. So a U.S. District Court judge has ruled today that the Obama administration is unconstitutionally making payments to insurers covering reductions for certain enrollees. I wanted to ask how problematic is this ruling for the health insurance program overall. And what are the ramifications for plans and consumers if this stands?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this is not the first time that we've seen opponents of the Affordable Care Act go through the motions to try to win this political fight in the court system. There are a couple of things that are unprecedented about this effort, though. This suit represents the first time in our nation's history that Congress has been permitted to sue the executive branch over a disagreement about how to interpret a statute. There have obviously been significant differences between the executive branch and Congress recently. But these are the kinds of political disputes that characterize a democracy. And it's unfortunate that Republicans have resorted to a taxpayer-funded lawsuit to refight a political fight that they keep losing. They've been losing this fight for six years. And they'll lose it again.
Q Will the administration appeal the ruling? And secondly, if this does go through, what are the ramifications? Will insurers be leaving the program? Will this have an impact on the price for consumers?
MR. EARNEST: My colleagues at the Department of Justice obviously just started reviewing the ruling because it was just handed down a few minutes ago. So any sort of formal announcement about an intent to appeal will be announced from the Department of Justice. But we are quite confident in the power of the legal arguments that we're able to make here. But any sort of formal announcement about an appeal will come from the Department of Justice. And I have not heard at this point any sort of analysis about the potential impact of a legal outcome consistent with this decision.
Q The Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has invited Ben Rhodes to testify at a hearing on the Iran nuclear deal. Is this an invitation that the White House has to accept or reject?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with all due respect to the Chairman, if he has an interest in a hearing about false narratives as it relates to the Iran deal, then I've got some suggestions for people that they should swear in. In fact, some members of the committee actually may have some light to shed on this. Congressman Ken Buck from Colorado promised in August of 2015 that Iran would get $100 billion to $200 billion in sanctions relief. Congressman Buck is either wrong or lying, and he can discuss that with the committee. He's a member of the committee, so presumably he knows where the hearing room is, so he can just show up at the appointed time and explain his false declaration.
Paul Gosar -- I assume I'm pronouncing that correctly -- he was quoted in September of 2015, saying that this would provide immediate access to approximately $100 billion. Again, we now know -- we can verify that's not true. So again, I don’t know if Mr. Gosar was just wildly misinformed or was lying to the American public. But presumably, if he feels so strongly about this issue, he can explain himself under oath before the committee. He serves on the committee, too, so it shouldn’t be too hard to arrange his schedule.
Cynthia Lummis, congresswoman -- she explained that, in September of 2015, she claimed that the proposed deal "will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran." That, of course, has not turned out to be true. And, in fact, we can verify that that is false. So Congresswoman Lummis serves on the committee. Why don’t we swear her in and explain where she got this information. And she can explain whether she was just wrong or lying. She may also explain why she continues to make this argument.
I don’t know what the protocol is for swearing in members of the United States Senate to participate in these kinds of hearings, but there are any number of senators who could participate. Senator Cruz could certainly participate. He claimed, in August of 2015, over $100 billion will flow into Iran as a result of the deal. We've got Senator Tom Cotton, who I know has a special relationship with the Supreme Leader, so maybe he's got some interesting insight into the deal that he would like to share with the committee. He said that the deal "gives them" -- meaning, Iran -- "$150 billion of sanctions relief." Not true. Senator Cotton, wildly wrong or lying. And so let's have Chairman Chaffetz get to the bottom of this. Maybe the American people do want to actually understand the Republican false narrative about the Iran deal. So we would welcome the opportunity for those members of Congress to explain themselves.
The truth is, what the administration has said about the Iran deal, what Mr. Rhodes has said about the Iran deal, what the President of the United States has said about the Iran deal has come true. Our critics said that Iran would never go along with an agreement. They did. They signed on the dotted line. Our critics said that there would never be a way to verify that Iran would live up to the terms of the agreement. We know they did. International, impartial inspectors did exactly that, and they were given the access that they needed to confirm that Iran had lived up to their end of the bargain. And our critics said -- and I just recited many of them -- that Iran would get, as Steve Scalise, who could also testify, said that Iran would get hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. That's false. That's not true. Even Iran says that that's not true. In fact, they're saying that they are hoping that they can get access to more money.
So again, I don’t know whether our critics were just wildly misinformed, mistaken, or lying. But if Republicans are interested in getting to the bottom of this, then they should just swear in some members of their own conference and figure it out.
Q So I take that as a no. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are some people who have some explaining to do when it comes to the wildly false accusations that they made about the Iran deal. And it's not the administration; it's Republicans who are demonstrably wrong when it comes to the Iran deal. So we'll look at the letter, but I assume that -- if Congressman Chaffetz is actually interested in getting to the bottom of this deal, then I assume that similar letters were received through the interoffice mail in the House of Representatives.
Q Just one quick follow-up on that. You've taken issue with the more than -- the predictions of more than $100 billion in sanctions relief. Do you know how much has actually resulted in --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know it's a whole lot less than that. What we had said in the context of the deal before it went through, that the kind of benefit that Iran was likely to enjoy was something around $50 billion, but even a significant chunk of that money was committed to repaying debts that Iran owed. That's why you saw Iran's central bank governor come out and indicate that their expectations about the amount of sanctions relief that they would receive was around $30 billion. I don’t have an updated assessment to share in terms of the amount that they have actually received, but it is by all accounts far less than the false criticism that was put forward by Republicans.
Q Any reaction now that Rousseff in Brazil has been suspended by the senate?
MR. EARNEST: Not any one that's different than I've shared from here a couple of times. This is an outcome that many observers expected. And the President does continue to have confidence in the durability of Brazil's democratic institutions to withstand the political turmoil there.
Q Anyone in the White House reaching out to the acting President?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any calls that have been placed by the White House to the acting President's office. But you might check with the State Department to see if there have been any sort of diplomatic conversations.
Q And on the global steel glut that President Obama spoke about with Australia PM Turnbull, as the readout said last night. We saw the comments from USTR and Penny Pritzker last month, but does this suggest that there is some new White House initiative that might be going on? A broader initiative to tackle the glut?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what both Ambassador Froman and Secretary Pritzker made clear in those statements is that the United States is working both bilaterally and through multilateral institutions, including the OECD, to build a policy consensus on addressing the excess capacity in the steel market and some other industries as well.
So we're going to continue to pursue vigorous international engagement as part of a broader effort that includes aggressive enforcement right here at home. So, for instance, the United States government has initiated an historic number of trade remedy proceedings in 2015, assessing more than $45 million in penalties on importers of steel products for violating their obligation to pay anti-dumping and countervailing duties.
So the enforcement of these rules is something that the administration takes quite seriously, and it's also an important part of our foreign policy. So when President Obama is on the phone with world leaders, including the leader of Australia, we're talking about a range of issues. We're talking about important national security issues; we're talking about broader economic issues; but we're also talking about the importance of addressing something as technical as excess capacity in steel.
And so I think those who follow this issue closely will recognize that that's not a particularly surprising development. But for those who don't, this should be a revealing look at the priority that the President places on enforcing trade agreements.
Q Also, Prime Minister Turnbull told the press in Australia that Obama advised him that the new time frame for TPP would be at the end of the year, after the elections. And that sort of contradicts what President Obama said in Germany. He said he thought it could be done after the primaries. So does the White House see the new congressional window for TPP is in doubt in the lame duck?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any more information to share about the conversation between Prime Minister Turnbull and President Obama. Our view is that Congress should act as quickly as possible to implement this agreement; that delaying the implementation of the agreement only puts off the significant benefits that American businesses and American workers can enjoy as a result of the agreement.
For example, once this deal is implemented, we'll conduct the work of cutting 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods. So the longer that Congress delays the implementation of the TPP the longer American businesses and American goods will be subject to these 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American products.
So the good news is that many Republicans on Capitol Hill share the President’s view that cutting those taxes would be good for the American economy and they’d be good for American businesses and it would be good for American workers. So we're going to work with those Republicans to identify the most expeditious timeframe possible for Congress to do the work that's necessary to implement this agreement.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask about Merrick Garland’s upcoming speech at a high school commencement. This is a little bit unusual for a Supreme Court nominee. And I'm wondering if he’s going to be specifically addressing the nomination fight during his speech to students.
MR. EARNEST: He will not, Jordan. He will be specifically addressing the class of 2016 at Niles West. Obviously, he is an alum of that fine institution, and he was invited by the principal of the school to deliver the commencement address. And obviously that community, and that high school in particular, is quite proud of the accomplishments of what probably is now their most famous graduate. And so it seemed like a good opportunity for him to address the class of 2016.
I had an opportunity to talk to him about this a couple of weeks ago, and I know that he’s very much looking forward to going back and reliving some old high school memories, but also having an opportunity hopefully to impart some wisdom and inspiration to the class of 2016.
Q Any more details on the subjects he’s going to speak about during that?
MR. EARNEST: No, you’ll have to show up and find out. It should be fun.
Q Thank you, Josh. So President Dilma, as was mentioned before, she was suspended from office for the duration of her impeachment trial. Michel Temer, who was her Vice President, became now the acting President with authority to appoint ministers and enact policies. How does the U.S. government view this impeachment process? And also, what does the White House expect from this new government? Will President Obama call the acting President, Michel Temer?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any planned calls, but if a call like that were to take place, we would certainly let you know. As a government, we intend to respect the government institutions and traditions and procedures that the Brazilian government follows for governing that country. That’s what we would expect other countries to do when they’re observing our legislative process, for example. All too often, a legislative process here in the United States doesn’t work nearly as rapidly as we would like, and there may be other countries who get a little frustrated about that kind of inaction. But we assured them, invariably, that the President is pretty frustrated by how slow that process works as well. But our expectation is that we’re going to follow the rules and laws and institutions of the United States government in handling the affairs of the United States. And we certainly are going to respect the Brazilian government as they follow the rules and traditions for governing their country, and that’s what we’ll do.
Q One more question. The White House says Brazil has a mature democracy, and today the suspended President, Dilma Rousseff, said that Brazil has a young democracy and called it a coup. Does the government, the U.S. government have any concern that this impeachment process is following the Brazilian laws?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly no expert on the Brazilian constitution, but our expectation is that the institutions of the Brazilian government that have been built up over the last few decades are sufficiently mature and durable to withstand the political turmoil that that country is facing right now. And that is not to downplay the obvious significance of the events of the last few weeks, but it is an effort to convey to the Brazilian government and to the Brazilian people that the United States values the important relationship that our two countries have. We cooperate on a wide range of issues, and the President had the opportunity to visit Brazil in his first term, and that was an opportunity for him to state affirmatively, early in his presidency, about the importance of the relationship between our two countries. That, of course, was renewed when President Rousseff visited the White House not too long ago.
So the United States will stand with Brazil, even through these challenging times, and we continue to have confidence in the capacity of the government to rely on their well-established traditions and laws to manage their way through this challenging time for their country’s politics.
James. Nice to see you today. It’s been a little while.
Q Likewise. Yes, sir. Three subjects I want to cover, very quickly on each one.
First, the remarks this week by the FBI Director, James Comey, in a briefing to reporters at the Bureau, in which he once again described what he has alternately termed the “Ferguson effect” and the “viral video effect.” Previously, when he discussed those matters, it led to direct rebuke from the White House, both from this podium and you, and from the President himself. But the FBI Director appears to be doubling down on those comments in his most recent statement to reporters saying -- and I quote, “There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal, additional policing that suppresses crime -- the getting out of your car at two in the morning and saying to a group of guys, hey, what are you doing here?” I take it that in the time since this was last an issue between the White House and Director Comey in October and November of last year, nothing has arisen in crime statistics or any other external phenomena to cause the White House to now side with Director Comey in interpreting these events.
MR. EARNEST: Well, James, I anticipated that somebody might ask this question today. I think it’s certainly a relevant one, and I had an opportunity to talk to the President about it a little bit this morning.
So what I can tell you is that we have observed over the last year or so an uptick, in some communities across the country, in violent crime rates. And that’s a source of some concern. And last year when this potential trend was first noticed, the President tasked his Attorney General with supporting the law enforcement agencies in those communities to help them confront the challenge of fighting that potential increase in violent crime.
And there are a number of steps that the Department of Justice has taken. Earlier this spring, the Department of Justice announced that the U.S. Marshals Service had conducted a high-impact national fugitive apprehension initiative that was focused on the country’s most violent offenders. And that six-week initiative resulted in the arrest of more than 8,000 gang members, sex offenders, and other violent criminals. That is an indication of the important role that federal law enforcement can play in supporting the work of local law enforcement in these communities.
What’s also true, though, is that, more broadly, crime rates across the country remain at or near historic lows. So the challenge for the Department of Justice has been to try to focus on those communities where the uptick has been noticed and try to blunt the impact of that.
Now, as it relates to getting to the undermining cause of those upticks in violence, there still is no evidence to substantiate the claim that the increase in violent crime is related to an unwillingness of police officers to do their job. And I know that this is an observation that the Fraternal Order of Police has made in indicating that they don’t believe that their members are afraid to get out of their cars and do their jobs.
And so the President’s point is that as we consider policy approaches to addressing those communities where we’ve seen an uptick in violent crime, we need to be making policy decisions that are based on facts and evidence, and not anecdotes.
Q And so what we have before us then is the spectacle of the FBI Director twice in six months, before the national press, making assertions about crime and incidents of crime that are, in the view of the White House, based not on the facts or the evidence, but on anecdotes, and doing so in a very public way. And so the resulting question is why this doesn’t shake your confidence in the FBI Director.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in part because the FBI Director actually made clear that he didn’t know exactly what was going on, either. And I think, look, the fact is, this is a complicated issue, and that’s exactly the way that he described it. He said, “Why does Dallas see a dramatic spike and Houston doesn’t?” He acknowledged -- he continued saying, “It’s a complicated, hard issue, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.” Later on, he said, “I don’t know for sure what’s going on, but something has happened.” Clearly, it has. We just need to make sure that our policy approach to addressing this situation is rooted in evidence and facts. And Director Comey has indicated -- and I think this was sort of part of the reason that this discussion arose -- is that Director Comey indicated that he was seeking out additional information and additional evidence about what was exactly happening in these communities.
But it’s clear that we don’t have enough evidence at this point to substantiate the claim that police officers not doing their job is the reason for this uptick. I think the President’s concern actually is really focused on rebuking this false choice between protecting civil rights and fighting crime. The truth is, the vast majority of law enforcement officers that put on the uniform every day do both. They both are committed to fighting crime and doing it in a fair way. The best law enforcement agencies have made clear and have funded training and put in place policies that actually make it easier for their officers to pursue their job to fight crime and to do it in a fair way.
And so the President is quite interested at a federal level of figuring out what additional support can be provided by the federal government to local law enforcement agencies as they pursue both tasks: fighting crime but also protecting civil rights.
Q Two other subjects, much more quickly, I hope. Returning to Iran and Ben Rhodes, did Mr. Rhodes seek approval from anyone in the White House management before agreeing to allow Mr. Samuels of the New York Times Magazine to shadow him and quote him as he did?
MR. EARNEST: There was a decision made by the White House to cooperate with Mr. Samuels’s reporting.
Q And that decision involved individuals aside from Rhodes himself?
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q Has Mr. Rhodes been rebuked by anyone in the White House management structure following the publication of that article?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. Mr. Rhodes is somebody who has served this White House and this President with distinction. And that's true when you consider that he led the effort to open up a diplomatic channel with the Cubans to bring about an effort to normalize the relations between our two countries. Mr. Rhodes was at the forefront of our policy effort to transform our diplomatic relationship with Burma and to encourage the democracy that was forming there. And Ben has also played a leading role in trying to establish these programs that are focused on cultivating young leaders in regions across the country and helping them -- giving them access to the United States and cementing our relationship with them.
So Ben has had a very broad policy portfolio at the White House and he has carried out his responsibilities honorably and with distinction. And I think everybody here at the White House is quite proud to work with Mr. Rhodes.
Q But no one has told him that they considered his comments in The New York Times Magazine article to have been ill-advised?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware.
Q Final question on him, and following up on the earlier questions about the request for his testimony by the House Oversight Committee. I take it from your comments in saying that you're reviewing the letter from Congressman Chaffetz that the White House is not reflexively asserting an executive privilege claim with respect to this request.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. This has nothing to do with executive privilege.
Q Last subject. Both you and the President have, for a long time now, months now, jettisoned the standard posture of White House officials and the White House press briefing with respect to the opposing party’s nominating process. Normally, it has been my experience in Washington, the White House waits until there’s a nominee from the other party, doesn’t wade into the process, doesn’t comment on specific candidates or what they have to say, and says typically, the time will come for that.
That posture has been jettisoned here for months now with respect to Donald Trump, long before he cleared the field in his party. And one of the sets of comments by the President and others here has been to the effect that Mr. Trump’s candidacy is already creating a great deal of consternation amongst foreign leaders and allies of the United States who are supposedly conveying these sentiments and these concerns to the White House and the State Department and so on. Put very simply, does President Obama view that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency would constitute a direct threat to the national security of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say it this way. President Obama has been asked on a number of occasions to weigh in on Mr. Trump’s candidacy, and I think more often than not, the President has shared his opinions on this. So what I have tried to do is to choose my moments carefully and making a point about the impact of the election on the ability of President Obama to do his job. I've also made clear that President Obama’s priority is focused on protecting the important progress that we've made over the last seven or eight years. And his interest in the election is rooted in the idea that he wants his successor to be somebody who’s committed to building on that progress and not tearing it down.
And that's the way that he has engaged in the debate so far. And the President has certainly expressed concerns in the past about some of the rhetoric that a number of Republican presidential candidates have used. And the President has observed that those kinds of comments and that kind of rhetoric does have an impact on our national security, and certainly has an impact on our standing in the world. It certainly has an impact on our relationships with other countries, and the President has observed that it's not at all unusual for world leaders to ask questions about comments that were uttered on the campaign trail.
So it clearly is having an impact. But I'll let the President, at the next opportunity that he has to take questions, choose to describe what impact he believes electing Mr. Trump would have on our national security.
Q Speak for yourself then. Do you see him as a threat to national security?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I try to choose my spots, and I don’t think I'm going to choose this one.
Go ahead Suzanne.
Q To follow up on that, Donald Trump has met with Republican leaders throughout the day here in Washington -- Reince Priebus and Speaker Ryan. And they've come out of these meetings and they've described them as productive, and that they're really uniting around their core principles -- at least that's what they're saying publicly -- to deny, what they say, is a third Obama administration. Is there any concern from the White House or allies of the White House that Democrats are now falling behind now that it seems some of the Republicans are kind of trying to coalesce around Trump?
MR. EARNEST: You certainly have better-informed, more-experienced, and surely higher-paid analysts who can examine the fault lines of the Republican Party. But even as a novice, I suspect that -- well, even the joint statement that I read with some amusement today from Speaker Ryan and the Republican nominee, presumptive nominee, indicate that this was merely their first meeting. So I'm certainly not surprised to hear that.
I think what I find to be interesting about this process is that Speaker Ryan has described his view that the entire Republican Party, including the presumptive presidential nominee, should rally behind the agenda that Speaker Ryan has put forward. I think the reason that he may be encountering some difficulty is that he's the Speaker of the House. He should already be using the responsibility that he has to implement that agenda. And that is not at all what Republicans have done. That certainly is not what Leader McConnell has done on the Senate side, and it's not what Speaker Ryan has done on the House side.
There are any number of important, critical priorities that Republicans could be focused on in the House of Representatives right now and in the United States Senate that are an important part of the job they have right now. Unfortunately, Republicans seem much more focused on the elections than they do on embracing the responsibility to deal with the results of the last elections that gave them a majority in the United States Congress. But right now, we see Republicans much more focused on their relationship with the presumptive nominee than they are on things like passing a budget or passing funding for the Zika virus to avert a public health disaster, or passing much-needed funding to relieve the financial turmoil on Puerto Rico that's having a negative impact on 3 million Americans who live there. We certainly haven’t seen any action in either House of Congress on funding programs to fight opioid addiction. We see the House trying to take victory laps on legislation that doesn’t actually provide any money to ensure that any more people can get access to treatment.
So if Republicans had much conviction about their agenda, they'd be trying to implement it now as opposed to trying to convince other members of the Republican Party or the presumptive Republican nominee that what they propose is the right thing to do. If they thought it was the right thing to do, why wouldn’t they be trying to implement it right now?
All the things that I've just outlined are things that Republicans at one point or another have indicated is a priority to them, and all those are things that I have said President Obama believes are a priority. In fact, we have been working hard to try to cajole Congress to act on a budget, to act on Zika, to act on Puerto Rico, to act on opioids. But they haven’t. So I think that's why there might be skepticism both inside the Republican Party and outside the Republican Party that Republicans actually do have a governing agenda, because they've had an opportunity to present it and implement it, and they haven’t done it. In fact, on this scorecard that I've just laid out, they haven’t done anything.
Q But do you think it's just a show -- I mean, this show of unity, do you think it's genuine? And if it is, does that signal something that's even perhaps a little bit more dangerous from the administration's point of view?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know anybody here that's going to lose any sleep over the meeting.
Q Thank you, Josh. Going back to -- you mentioned Zika funding. We've talked about Brazil. With the summer games, in light of what's happening in Brazil with the impeachment proceeding starting, with the outgoing Zika crisis, outbreak in Brazil, will that impact the President's potential decision to attend the summer games? And also, does the President and the White House believe that the Olympics should be moved or delayed from Brazil?
MR. EARNEST: No, the White House doesn’t have that view. We're going to be strongly supportive of our friends in Brazil as they tackle the significant challenges that they're facing right now. And we've talked about the support that we have offered in terms of confronting this public health challenge related to the Zika virus, and there is some assistance that the United States has already provided. And we stand ready to provide additional assistance as needed to help Brazil fight Zika. We do that because, as we learned from Ebola, our investments and the capacity that other countries have to confront public health challenges ultimately has an impact on the public health and wellbeing and safety of the American people.
So we know that the preponderance of the Zika virus is much more intense in Brazil. And so we certainly stand ready to help them confront that challenge.
As it relates to the Olympics, I think hosting the Summer Olympics is a significant undertaking for any country that chooses to assume that challenge. And the truth is, the world is rooting for Brazil to succeed in hosting a Games that go off without a hitch. Ultimately, we want to be supportive of the effort of the Brazilians to host a Games where the venues are ready, where the Games take place safely and securely, and where we get to see the world's best athletes compete. So we're rooting for Brazil to succeed -- until it comes down to the actual competition, in which case we're going to be cheering for the Americans. (Laughter.)
Q Josh, obviously the President has been outspoken about gun violence, and he spoke out when the incident with Trayvon Martin happened. I'm curious if the White House has any reaction to George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, auctioning off, or trying to auction off the gun that was used to kill Trayvon Martin online. That since has been taken down, it appears. But any reaction to it appears that Zimmerman was using the gun to try to profit off that notoriety?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a reaction to it.
Q And one last follow-up for you. I'm pretty sure you're going to give a few more details on the State Dinner. We're curious if the White House feels that it was getting a five-for-one deal with the Nordic leaders. When it comes to state dinners, there's that one-on-one attention. And for those who perceive that this could be a snub, or perceived as a snub, your thoughts on that reaction to the fact that you're getting this five-for-one deal?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this merely is an opportunity for the President to repay the hospitality that he enjoyed when he traveled to Europe a year or two ago and met with the Nordic leaders in Europe. The United States obviously has an important relationship with these five countries. For those of you scoring along at home, this is Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. And these are all countries that the United States has important working relationships with. So there are a range of issues related to the economy and to national security that we'll surely discuss -- that the President will surely discuss with his counterparts.
And there's an opportunity to talk about climate change. These countries, in some cases, are dealing with more persistent and severe impacts than we are here in the lower 48. And demonstrating our ongoing commitment to implementing the international agreement to fight carbon pollution will also be a subject of some discussion. So the President and First Lady are quite proud to host the leaders of these countries here at the White House tomorrow. And it will be filled with all the pomp and circumstance that we typically reserve for countries with whom the United States has important relationships. And the United States certainly has important relationships that are worth investing in with these five countries.
Q Just to follow up on the Trump question. Just a minute ago, when you were answering questions about Donald Trump, you sounded perhaps a bit dismissive of him, and you were emphasizing the problems within the Republican Party, and so on and so forth. But the fact remains that he has won more Republican votes during the primary process than anyone else. And are you --
MR. EARNEST: As he frequently repeats on television.
Q Well, it's true. And again, are you taking him seriously enough? Is the White House taking him seriously enough, or you being too dismissive of him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, first of all, I think that's a question that can primarily be posed to the Democratic candidates for President, because they are the ones who are competing in the election. And based on the robust, competitive primary process that has unfolded over the last several months here on the Democratic side, it seems quite clear that both Democratic candidates take their potential Republican opponent quite seriously. And the President himself stood at this podium last Friday and talked about how the stakes of this election were quite significant, and it shouldn’t be reduced to a reality television program but rather should be subject to an intense debate around the issues and around the challenges that the next President will have to confront on behalf of the country.
So the President certainly takes this quite seriously. And as I mentioned in response to James's question, the President's principal concern here is we've worked really hard to dig ourselves out of a terrible economic hole over the last seven years. The President has worked hard to rebuild our relationship with our allies and partners around the world in a way that advances our interests and strengthens our national security. And the President doesn’t want to see that eroded. In fact, he wants to make sure that he is succeeded by a President who recognizes that progress and is committed to building on it.
And so the President is going to be engaged in the campaign for that reason. The President understands the stakes of this election, and I think that means that everybody who's participating in the election should be taken seriously.
Q So again, this day of unity, or whatever you want to call it -- I don’t want to do PR for them -- you said --
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t want to either.
Q I'm sorry?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t want that job either.
Q You did complain about your salary a minute ago. (Laughter.)
Q In discussing that, you don’t take that seriously, that, in fact, these leaders have come together -- that they do have perhaps an advantage because their nominee has been determined before the Democrat? I mean, I hate to -- six months from now, if we're talking about this, there could be a whole bit of evidence that suggests that the White House didn’t take this seriously enough.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the people who primarily should take this seriously are the competitors in the election. And President Obama is keenly aware of the significant stakes of the outcome of the next election. And I assure you that over the next six months the President will be actively engaged in that debate. And he looks forward to his opportunity to engage more deeply.
I think my point is -- again, you guys have far more-experienced, far better-sourced, and far better-paid analysts who can offer up their own insight about the disruption within the Republican Party. But I would just point out that even in the supposed statement of unity there's an observation that we will be having additional discussions. And the statement closes by indicating that this was our first meeting. So again, there is more work to be done there, and I think that's evident from the statement that the two men issued.
Q And on the President's schedule today I don’t think there's anything really public on the schedule about what he's doing. And the schedule this week feels -- there was the national security meeting and bill signing -- but it feels to me like -- again, in my limited experience here -- that it's relatively light. And while you were very critical of what the Republicans aren’t doing on Zika and Garland and other things, can you give us any more insight as to today exactly what the President is doing with any of these issues, since there's nothing being said publicly about what is it that he's doing? You talked to him about the issue you brought up about policing, but what else are you doing today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President does have a little bit of a lighter day than usual today, principally because he's got a very busy day tomorrow with five world leaders who he will be hosting here at the White House. I'd also point out that the President is going to deliver his commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday, over the weekend. This is the 250th commencement exercises of that fine institution, and the President is looking forward to speaking to it. He also has got a speech he's got to work on, so he's going to spend some time working on that speech for Sunday, as well.
Q He's got a team of speechwriters, though.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, but I think, as April noted, the President tends to spend quite a bit more time on these commencement addresses because he takes them quite personally. So the President is being ably assisted by a couple members of the speechwriting team, but he's putting a lot of his own time and energy into this.
Q So in terms of information being presented in his public schedule, he's not being less transparent, you would say? Or he's not slowing down -- he's, as he said, keeping it all on the floor in the final months? It's just a clerical thing, perhaps, that the schedule doesn’t reveal as much as it used to?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think I acknowledged that the President's schedule today was a little bit quieter, but that reflects the fact that he President has got a very full day tomorrow and then again on Sunday.
Q Josh, does the President intend to sign the Senate bill that would authorize the ashes of the WASPs -- the Women Air Force Service Pilots -- to be buried at Arlington?
MR. EARNEST: The President does intend to sign that legislation.
Q Do you have any timeframe on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. I don’t know that we've even received it yet from the Congress. But we'll keep you posted on that.
Q And on China, or the country unnamed in the readout last night between Turnbull and Obama --
MR. EARNEST: Really subtle, huh?
Q Yeah. A little passive-aggressive. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's the essence of diplomacy sometimes.
MR. EARNEST: As you've covered more extensively than even I have.
Q I appreciate that. But can you give us a little bit more there? I mean, there was this pretty overt action, this maritime operation near that Chinese-occupied reef in the South China Sea. The U.S. and Australia coming quite close with warships. I mean, that's happening. The President is headed to Asia next week. The steel glut was named in that readout. Obviously, China is the one who's been getting a lot of blame for overproduction there. Would you say that tensions are on the rise with China?
MR. EARNEST: I would not describe it that way. Our concerns about China's activities in the South China Sea are well-documented, and our concerns are concerns that we have raised both publicly and privately with Chinese officials at a range of levels. The freedom of navigation operation that was carried out by U.S. forces earlier this week is relatively routine. We've done at least a couple of times just in the last four or five months. And it is not intended to be a provocative act. It merely is a demonstration of a principle that the President has laid out on a number of occasions, which is that the United States will fly, operate and sail anywhere that international law allows. And this operation was undertaken consistent with that principle.
And the concerns and the tensions that exist around the South China Sea don't actually directly involve the United States. The United States is not a claimant to any of the land features in the South China Sea. Our concern lies principally with the need for those parties that do have competing claims to resolve them through diplomacy. And we certainly do not want to see the tensions increase because of the risk that that could pose to the extensive international commerce that's conducted in that region of the world.
So I think this also underscores the complexity of the U.S. relationship with Australia. Australia is one of our closest allies, and we work with them on a range of issues. And I'll let the Australians describe the concerns that they may have, or the impact on their national security that tensions in the South China Sea may have. But obviously the Australian economy is affected by the glut of capacity in the steel industry in much the same way that the U.S. is, as well. I know that Prime Minister Turnbull has indicated his own priority for ensuring the international trade is conducted fairly. And that common ground is the basis for the kinds of conversations that President Obama and he have on a fairly regular basis.
So these are -- I think at the same time, the thing that sort of underlies all of this is we have been able to work with China in pursuit of other priorities. And we've talked about North Korea and the influence that the Chinese government has with North Korea. The sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations against North Korea that went further than any set of previous sanctions that have been imposed on them were only possible because the United States and China were able to cooperate in implementing them. Obviously, we've worked with China to complete the Iran deal that we discussed earlier. That would not have been possible without China's active participation in the discussions, but also, China had to be helpful in terms of imposing and enforcing the sanctions that compelled Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
So I think this illustrates that there are differences of opinion that we have with China, and I’m certainly not seeking to downplay them. They’re significant, and they have significant consequences for our economy in particular.
But they have not prevented the United States and China from being able to work effectively together to pursue other areas where we’re in better agreement.
Q But why go out of your way to not name China? I mean, that’s obviously who you were talking about. And then that’s where the point of tension is. I mean, if you’re having a destroyer go near a reef you’re concerned are going to turn into an airstrip to land jets on, and that’s a U.S. destroyer, I mean, that’s a pretty overt signal. But you don’t want to say China directly. I mean, it seems like an effort, a very concerted effort to avoid appearing to look confrontational.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’re not just trying to avoid appearing confrontational. I think I said in my previous answer that we certainly did not intend for that to be considered a provocative act. So I think we’re being pretty explicit about that. And we’ve been explicit about that fact, both in public and in private, at a range of levels. And so --
Q And this doesn’t -- the timeframe, with the President headed to the region, obviously everything is getting scrutinized in the region.
MR. EARNEST: Sure, and that’s --
Q So that was a factor here, or no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that Vietnam in particular has some concerns about competing claims in the South China Sea. We know that Vietnam is a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and we certainly are looking to broaden our economic relationship with Vietnam. There’s a rapidly growing middle class in Vietnam, and U.S. companies could benefit from the opportunity to do business in that part of the world. That would be good for the U.S. economy, it certainly would be good for U.S. workers, and the President is committed to pursuing that priority as he travels overseas.
And look, we know that China sees the same potential benefit if they can increase their ability to do business inside of Vietnam. That’s actually the essence of the argument that the President has made with regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- that if the United States and the rest of the international community doesn’t go in and write the rules of the road for doing business in Vietnam, then China will. And the benefits of the United States being a part of those rules of road, it means we’re going to have high labor standards, we’re going to have higher human rights standards, higher environmental standards.
China hasn’t made those things a priority, and we know that if China is given an opportunity to get a foothold in Vietnam, they certainly are not going to be interested in raising standards. You could even imagine a scenario where they might even allow those standards to be lowered even further.
So there’s no denying that at least when it comes to our relationship with Vietnam, there are significant consequences for our relationship with China. But we never want to create a scenario in which we can’t pursue our common interests with China, and the President has been quite clear about that. And we’ve been effective in implementing that strategy in a way that has had positive benefits for China and the United States. And, in fact, that’s why the other thing that we often say in describing our relationship with China is that we welcome a rising China. In fact, that’s the reason that we’re hopeful that they can be persuaded to abide by the international rules of the road when it comes to resolving competing claims in the South China Sea.
When you’re an economy as large as China, when you’re as influential as China is, particularly in that region of the world, then you benefit from the ability of disputes to be resolved without going to war, and you benefit from disputes being resolved with the expectation that everybody is going to follow the rules. And that’s certainly the case that we make to China, and I think that’s an indication of how we’re able to work with China, how we welcome a rising China. But look, we’re going to have our differences and we’re not going to shy away from expressing those.
Q Quick question on Iran. With the Secretary of State in Europe, meeting with businesses, does the White House want to see more European banks do business in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the White House wants is to fulfill our responsibility to international financial institutions to describe to them exactly what is allowed and what’s not allowed when it comes to doing business with Iran. And that’s something that has been part of not just Secretary Lew’s job description, but Secretary Kerry has gone to great lengths to try to describe the rules of the road to international financial institutions as well.
There are a couple of things that I think are relevant to point out here. One of the things that these large -- that the heads of these banks say is that the United States has been forceful in enforcing these sanctions, which is why we want to be sure that we are on the right side of the law here. That’s validation of what we have said here many times, which is that we take sanctions enforcement quite seriously, and there are large financial institutions that have had to pay big fines for circumventing those sanctions. So we’re quite serious about that.
I think the second thing that I would say is that Iran has expressed concerns about the fact that they’re not getting the kind of engagement with the international business community that they would like to see. And I think our response to that is simply that there certainly is more that Iran can do to encourage that kind of international investment, because that international investment is looking for a stable business climate in which to do business. And if you are routinely testing ballistic missiles that violate United Nations sanctions that govern your ballistic missile program, well, that's not going to inspire the confidence of business leaders that this is a safe place to do business. If you are supporting terrorism around the world, that's not going to be particularly persuasive to business leaders that Iran is a good place to make an investment. So there’s more that Iran can do --
Q But are you going to provide letters basically legally assuring these firms that they won't be prosecuted if they go ahead and do business? I mean, that's the level of insurance they want.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I'd refer you to the State Department or the Treasury Department or maybe even the Department of Justice in terms of what kind of assurances can be provided to international companies about what is appropriate and what’s not when it comes to doing business with Iran.
But, look, the fact that you have the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State at different points sitting down with business leaders from around the world, I think that is an indication that we take quite seriously the responsibility that we have to help people understand what the rules are, because they should know that we're going to enforce them, but they should also know exactly what is allowable under the law that's on the books. And that's what both Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lew have done.
Q Josh, as you know, earlier this week, the lawsuit the Justice Department filed on Monday against North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law is separate from the multiagency review of the measure. Do you have an update on that multiagency review?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we've discussed in here, this is a review that agencies are working on together as they evaluate what impact this law would have on programs that are funded by the federal government. The White House has been a part of that review. The Department of Justice has been a part of that review. But all of that has been separate from the Department of Justice conclusion that they needed to take action to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And what has been concluded as a result of that effort is that the administration will not take action to withhold funding while this enforcement process is playing out in the courts.
So these are two separate actions that the government is taking, one sort of questioning, evaluating this policy question about what impact the law has on funding, but also, separately, the Department of Justice has been engaged in a process of enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And while those are two separate processes, it is clear that the decision on the part of the Department of Justice to move forward with enforcement means that, while the process plays out, the administration will not be taking action to withhold funding.
Q Have you given the state of North Carolina a heads-up prior to this briefing that they will not withhold federal funding as a result of that statute?
MR. EARNEST: I know there’s been regular communication with state officials in North Carolina from a variety of agencies, but I can't speak to the details of any of those conversations.
Q In addition to the review of the North Carolina law, at least four agencies are also reviewing Mississippi’s religious freedom law that seems to enable anti-LGBT discrimination. Has the same determination been made with respect to that law that there will be no withholding of federal funds as a result of that statute?
MR. EARNEST: I'll check with my colleagues here about the status of that. I'm not aware that the Department of Justice has notified the state of Mississippi of any potential enforcement actions as a result of that law, at least at this point. But I'll see if I can get you some more specific guidance on that.
Q And what would you say to critics who would say that by saying you're not going to withhold funding until the issue is resolved in the courts, that the administration is not putting its full force in support of equal rights?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has been quite outspoken in making clear that this is a question of values, and when it comes to fighting for justice and fairness and fighting against discrimination, that's something the President is committed to and he’s made that a priority. And I think the value statement that the President has offered with regard to this law has been clear.
But, look, as it relates to the more narrow question about the need to enforce the Civil Rights Act, I think the Attorney General has been quite clear about the priorities for enforcement that she has laid out and what impact that has on some people in North Carolina who right now might be feeling like the state government, at least, is not sufficiently committed to ensure equal treatment under the law.
So I found the Attorney General’s words to be quite powerful. And as a native North Carolinian, she had a unique perspective on the situation. So I think anybody who doubts that should take a minute to review her remarks.
Q Thank you, Josh. Back on the top story today, this meeting between Paul Ryan and Donald Trump and the chaos we've sort of seen playing out in the Republican Party. Yesterday, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz told reporters that Democrats, after their primary, essentially wouldn’t have the same thing happen, that they would be unified, there wouldn't be this divisiveness at the convention. But many supporters of Senator Sanders have said that they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee. And, at the same time, they’re also saying that -- he’s saying that if she comes out on top, it’s not really his responsibility to get his supporters behind her. And so the President, as the highest-ranking Democrat, he is the leader of the Democratic Party. I’m wondering what the President is going to do to bring the Democratic Party together when his primary -- his party’s primary ends here very soon.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President will be making a case not just to Democrats but to independents and Republicans across the country that they should support the presidential candidate who understands the progress that we’ve made over the last seven or eight years. And the President has been focused on implementing a strategy in the face of extreme Republic obstruction to focus on making economic investments that expand economic opportunity for the middle class. The President has been focused on trying to use diplomacy to advance our interests around the world. And at every step of the way, we’ve seen Republicans try to block it. And I think that gives you a good sense of where the priorities are not just of this President but of the Democratic Party.
And he’ll make that case not just to Democratic voters but to voters all across the country, because the question facing voters will be whether or not they -- whether they support a candidate who is committed to building on that progress -- because there certainly is more work to be done. There’s additional work, there’s additional progress we need to make. But we’re not going to move this country forward by electing a president who is committed to tearing down the strategy that has been so critical to our success over the last several years.
Q Well, Republicans found themselves in this position, though, because they were unprepared, essentially, for the primary to have ended so quickly, to have to deal with Donald Trump as the nominee, that sort of thing. So I guess what I’m asking is, what would the President specifically do to bring the two candidates together, the two candidates’ supporters together? We saw today, for instance, that Reince Priebus had this meeting on Capitol Hill for them. Would the President be willing to have some sort of meeting here for the two Democratic candidates -- that sort of thing?
Q A beer summit?
MR. EARNEST: Perhaps.
Well, again, I certainly am not a high qualified analyst when it comes to -- nor highly paid, as James points out -- (laughter) -- when it comes to analyzing the challenges facing the Republican Party. I would just observe that it’s not just a matter of timing that has made it more complicated for them to try to paper over the breaches in that party.
So, look, I feel confident that the President will have a strong argument to make in the fall about who he believes should succeed him in the Oval Office, and the President will root that argument in the need to build on the progress that we’ve made thus far. And the President has been deeply invested in that progress and the President believes that there is more that we can do to invest in the middle class, there is more that we can do to make our tax code fairer, there is more that we can do to strengthen our alliances and advance our interests around the world. And the President is committed to supporting a presidential candidate that is interested in building on that progress.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back to China and steel. Today, the bipartisan leaders of the Congressional Steel Caucus requested a meeting with the President to talk about illegal steel imports. Would the President be willing to meet with them?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen that request. We’ll obviously take a close look at it. I think that, again, the fact that the President spent some time with the Prime Minister of Australia talking about this issue I think should be a clear indication to you and to the members of the bipartisan Steel Caucus that this is an issue that the President believes is an important priority for our country and for our economy.
Q And also they also want to discuss whether China should be recognized as having market economy status at the WTO. Has the administration weighed in on that?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a discussion that they should have with the Commerce Department, because the Commerce Department is the one who considers that determination.
Q Josh, on the Nordic summit, I know you mentioned climate change. Is there anything concrete that you hope will come out of it? And these are countries that are also part of the anti-ISIL coalition. Are they doing enough in that? Would the President like to see them contribute more? Are they spending enough on their militaries? And are they doing enough in the refugee crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to talk about any concrete announcements a day before the leaders even arrive, so we can talk about that a little bit more tomorrow. As it relates to our counter-ISIL efforts, we certainly spend a lot of time talking to our coalition partners about additional steps that they could take to enhance our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. So I’m confident that that will be part of the discussion.
We know that a number of these countries have generously taken in refugees that are fleeing violence in the Middle East, and I would anticipate that the President will have a discussion with them about the impact that that has had on their country’s individual politics, but also to encourage them as they offer up that much-needed humanitarian relief.
When it comes to climate change, this obviously is an issue that the United States and the Nordic countries have been able to work effectively together on in a variety of ways. But stay tuned tomorrow for any announcements.
Q Will the President be meeting with victims of Agent Orange while he’s in Vietnam?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that this afternoon the President’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, is meeting with a group of veteran service organizations, leaders of veteran service organizations and other veterans to talk about the President’s trip to Vietnam and Japan. And she will make clear that, in addition to discussing some of the issues that I outlined with Margaret related to TPP and our economic relationship with Asia that she’ll also spend some time talking to them about getting a full accounting of POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. This is obviously a priority for many of these organizations, and it’s certainly a priority for the Commander-in-Chief.
As it relates to the Agent Orange situation, I’m not aware that the President has any specific meetings planned with victims of Agent Orange. But obviously our veterans organizations that advocate for America’s veterans are concerned about this issue, and the President is certainly interested in making sure that our veterans get the benefits that they deserve.
Q Also on the trip to Asia, not surprisingly, in your readout of the call to Turnbull last night, you mentioned TPP as one of the subjects. This will be the first trip to Asia since Trump has essentially clinched the Republican nomination, so we now have both the Democratic frontrunner, as you know, and the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump, against TPP. And Trump, in his recent campaigning, has very much focused on trade, including retaliation against companies that would outsource to places like Asia -- in the Indiana primary. In the conversations with the counterparties in Asia to TPP, what sort of -- have they been concerned by the fact that either of his successors will be opposed to the treaty? And what have you been telling them, given that the Congress is dragging its feet on being interested in ratifying this and now we have Democrats and Republicans more and more against it going into the convention? What have they been telling you?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this isn’t a surprising development. We saw on the campaign trail for the presidential candidates in both parties that there was not strong support for TPP. That was true last year at this time. But yet, we did succeed, despite that opposition, in advancing Trade Promotion Authority legislation through the Congress. And we did that by painstakingly avoiding some snafus that Jordan referred to, and passing in bipartisan fashion legislation that actually succeed in allowing us to complete those negotiations.
So those in other countries that are carefully watching our political system I think understand that there continues to be bipartisan support in the Congress for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and we have succeeded in navigating the cross-currents of the presidential election in building bipartisan support for those kinds of agreements.
So we did that last year with Trade Promotion Authority, and we’re confident that we’ll be able to do that this year when it comes to implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
I think the last observation I would make -- and this, I think, should be a pretty forceful argument for members of Congress who are supportive of TPP and wondering when they should vote on it. I mean, I'd just make the observation that it is very, very unlikely that the next President will be more enthusiastic about TPP than this President. So I think that would be a reason for Congress to take action before this President resigns.
Q And more directly, has the counterparties’ anxiety about its potential modification increased in recent months in your conversations with them? And is it affecting alternative arrangements they might be thinking about?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. You could probably get a better read on this from Ambassador Furman’s office. He obviously spends more time interacting with the counterparties. But I think most of the parties that we've been dealing with in the context of these negotiations understand the political debate in this country. They understand why the politics of the situation are particularly challenging. But I don't think they’ve learned anything new that they didn’t already know six months or a year ago. The truth is we've been having this conversation with the TPP parties for five or six years now, so they understand the political dynamics here.
But the President certainly feels a sense of urgency in working with Democrats and Republicans to see the Trans-Pacific Partnership get implemented.
I'll do a couple in the back here. John Bennett.
Q Senators Warren and Murray have announced a $1.1 billion agreement on an emergency Zika bill. Is the White House satisfied? That's almost a billion dollars beneath your request. Are you satisfied with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we put forward the request that we would like to see, and it obviously had a lot of details in it. That request was forwarded to Congress back in February. So we certainly would have liked to have seen more prompt congressional action on this. I think, frankly, at this point, given the delays and given the heightened stakes, we welcome any sort of forward momentum in Congress.
As it relates to the specific package you just mentioned, we'll have to take a close look at it to see if it's sufficient. But Congress has -- I made a reference earlier to the frustrations associated with the slow-moving Congress, and look, it could not be clearer that Congress needs to take action to help our states and our local officials fight the Zika virus. That is critical to the public health and safety of the American people, and it cannot be done -- we can't do everything we need to do to prepare for this virus without congressional action.
So as I mentioned yesterday, this is an emergency. It's an emergency now. That's not just my observation, that's the observation of Democratic and Republican governors across the country. It's an observation that's been made by our public professionals. So this isn't about politics; this is about solving problems. And we need Congress to act quickly so we can get to work solving this problem.
Q I talked to some experts about the Nordic visit, and they said their impression is the President has really come to respect the Nordic leaders for their pragmatism and kind of a get-things-done attitude. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did that develop over his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has had an opportunity in a variety of settings to meet with the leaders of these countries, and the observation that the President typically makes about the Nordic countries -- he uses a rather colorful expression -- he describes them as “punching above their weight.” And look, these are relatively small countries, but they are countries that make an impactful contribution to our efforts on a variety of issues.
We certainly value the contribution that each of these countries has made to fighting carbon pollution. We value the contribution that each of these countries have made to the counter-ISIL coalition. Three of these countries -- Norway, Iceland and Denmark -- are full NATO members, but event Sweden and Finland have a relationship with NATO that allows them to coordinate their activities closely with NATO. So all of them are making a substantial contribution to what we have described as the cornerstone of American national security, which is NATO.
So the President is looking forward to hosting them at the White House, repaying the hospitality that he enjoyed last year. And he’s looking forward to I think a pretty busy day of meetings on a variety of issues.
John, I give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two brief questions. Number one, you mentioned Mr. Trump. He recently said he would appoint former Mayor Giuliani to chair a special commission on Muslims and on terrorism. And does one think that that would be a good idea in terms of vetting people who can come into the country and would be threats, and letting those who are no threat and just seek refuge come in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, we actually have a very well-established process for considering individuals who want to enter the country through the refugee process. Refugees, regardless of the way that they worship, are processed through a system that carefully vets their background, collects information from those individuals in in-person interviews, collects biometric information that is then run through a variety of databases maintained by law enforcement, by our national security agencies, by intelligence agencies. In fact, people who enter the United States through the refugee program are subject to more scrutiny than anybody else that comes in the country.
So that's a well-established process, and that's the one that President Obama has ensured that our national security agencies are carefully adhering to.
Q So you don't think a Giuliani commission is needed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've got a well-established process. And I'll let the presidential candidates make whatever proposals they want.
Q The other thing I wanted to ask was, the Philippines elected a new president on Monday, and there’s been more talk of a stronger U.S. tie to the Philippines, in part because of some dangers in that part of the world. Will the President ever discuss with President Duterte, President-elect Duterte, the reopening of the Clark airbase, the Subic naval base, or at the very least, the restoration of the Filipino-American holiday that was abolished by one of his predecessors, Corazon Aquino?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President had the opportunity to visit the Philippines last year. He spent about four days in Manila, and spoke with his then-counterpart, President Aquino, on a range of issues. And there was a discussion about deepening the security relationship between the United States and the Philippines.
Obviously, the Philippines has a counterterrorism threat that they have to deal with, and the United States has been supportive of their efforts to confront that threat. Obviously, the Philippines has some concerns about claims that China has made in the South China Sea, and we have strongly supported the Filipino effort to press the Chinese to resolve those differences through diplomacy.
The Filipinos also have a challenge when it comes to maritime security. And there is expertise and equipment that the United States has provided the Filipino government to confront that challenge. Those of you who were there will remember that the President visited a vessel that has previously been owned by the United States that is now being operated by the equivalent of the Filipino coast guard there to provide security in the Philippines.
So that's an indication of the strong relationship what we already have with the Philippines, and the President would certainly be open to not just continuing but actually deepening that security relationship with President-elect Duterte once his election results have been confirmed officials.
Q And that would include possibly the reopening of those two bases and the restoration --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know that there’s any policy decision that's been made with regard to that, with regard to any of those bases. What we have said is that we're interested in an important national security-counterterrorism relationship with the Philippines that enhances the national security of both of our countries. And I’m confident that conversation will continue with the next President, whether it’s Mr. Duterte or someone else.
Q So the President has not called Mr. Duterte?
MR. EARNEST: No. I believe the results of the election -- while the election took place several days ago, I have not seen official results from the election be announced at this point. So I know that there are a bunch of projections out there, but I don't know of any official pronouncement that's been made.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Taka, I know that you've been trying to get a question the last couple of days. So why don't I give you the last chance here?
Q So on Japan, can you tell me if -- how the President will mention or talk about Nagasaki when he goes to Hiroshima?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry. Can you say that one more time?
Q Can you say if and how the President will talk about Nagasaki?
MR. EARNEST: I see. Yes, at this point, I don't have much to say about the President’s remarks that he’ll deliver at Hiroshima. The President does not intend to deliver a major address while he’s at Hiroshima. I think that will be an opportunity for him in a rather solemn place to share his reflections on having the opportunity to visit this sight. He will also have an opportunity to talk about the importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship and make an observation about the profound transformation in that relationship just in the space of 70 years or so.
And while, on one hand, you might say 70 years is a long time, it’s a lifetime. On the other hand, 70 years ago, the United States and Japan were at war. And the way that we cooperate now on such a wide range of issues that enhances importantly the national security of both our countries I think is a testament to the tremendous progress that's been made in both our countries. And I think it’s served both our countries and citizens in both of our countries quite well. And the President will have an opportunity to make that observation not just when he’s in Hiroshima but during his visit to Japan.
Q Will he have any message to the people in Nagasaki?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Any message to the people --
MR. EARNEST: The message. At this point, we’ll wait for the President’s remarks before we make any observation.
All right, thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:28 P.M. EDT