Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/17/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the dry White House Briefing Room. (Laughter.) I do not have any announcements to start, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, do you want to go first?
Q Thank you. The Senate passed legislation today by voice vote that will allow families of 9/11 victims to sue in U.S. court for any role the Saudi government may have played in the attack. Does the White House threat to veto that bill still stand?
MR. EARNEST: Darlene, I know that the advocates of this legislation have suggested that they have taken into account our concerns by more narrowly tailoring the legislation. But, unfortunately, their efforts were not sufficient to prevent the longer-term, unintended consequences that we are concerned about. This legislation would change longstanding international law regarding sovereign immunity. And the President of the United States continues to harbor serious concerns that this legislation would make the United States vulnerable in other court systems around the world.
There’s also a concern that hasn’t gotten as much attention about the potential vulnerability that is created for some of our allies and partners in U.S. courts. And the concern is related to the fact that sovereign immunity is a principle that is critical to our national security. The United States is more engaged in activities in other countries than any other country in the world. Typically, those are actually activities that other countries benefit from significantly. These are peacekeeping activities, or humanitarian relief activities, or other activities in which the United States is supporting the national security activities of other countries, and the national security of other countries is enhanced by the involvement of the United States.
But out involvement in those activities is made more complicated by the chance that the principle of sovereign immunity could be eroded. So the administration strongly continues to oppose this legislation. And we're obviously going to begin conversations with the House about it.
Q Are the serious concerns that you just cited -- are those strong enough to lead to a veto of the bill?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, as I think I mentioned before, given the concerns that we have expressed, it's difficult to imagine the President signing this legislation. That continues to be true.
Q Will the White House -- as the bill goes to the House, will the White House work with lawmakers in the House to maybe keep the bill from coming up for a vote there? Is it important enough to try to do that and stop it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a variety of options. That would certainly be one of them. I think the other option would be seeking additional changes to the bill that would more directly address the concerns that we have been raising for months now. So there are multiple options, but we certainly anticipate having conversations with members of Congress about this issue.
I would just note that there are both Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives that have expressed concerns with the bill. So there is an opportunity for us to work in bipartisan fashion to try to address the serious concerns that we've raised about the unintended consequences of this legislation being enacted.
Q Just to before we came out -- concerning the veto theme -- the Statement of Administration Policy that was released on the $622 million Zika funding bill in the House -- saying that -- would recommend that the President veto that if it got to him. The Senate today is voting on three different Zika funding measures. There’s one for about $1.1 billion that seems most likely to advance. Where does the White House fall on that particular bill? If the $622 million is not enough.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have several concerns with the House bill. The first concern is that it is woefully insufficient given the significant risk that is posed by Zika. That’s not just my own personal analysis -- that actually is the analysis of our public health professionals who advise the administration about what should be included in the supplemental appropriations package that we sent up to Congress nearly three months ago.
So it’s disappointing that Congress is -- at least the House of Representatives is three months late and more than a billion dollars short of doing what’s necessary to protect the American people. There’s no reason that this should be a partisan or ideological issue -- this isn’t a question of government philosophy. This is a question about whether or not you’re actually committed to ensuring that we’re doing everything possible to protect pregnant women and babies in the United States of America from getting a debilitating disease, or at least a virus that has debilitating consequences for the neurological development of babies.
So we’re quite disappointed that the House is so late in acting and what they’ve put together is so woefully insufficient. It’s not just our public health professionals who have expressed those concerns. I would note that one certain Republican senator from Florida was on the floor of the United States Senate today expressing those concerns. So I do think it does raise a question for the 17 Republican House members from the state of Florida about what their view is. The Republican senator from the state of Florida has indicated that the Congress should act expeditiously to pass the $1.9 billion funding proposal that our public health experts say is needed.
I think it would be interesting to understand exactly what position the 17 other Republicans from Florida who represent that state in the Congress think of this. I think it’s certainly a relevant question. I think it underscores the point that I was making before that there’s no reason this should be a partisan issue. This is a basic matter of the public health and well-being of the American people.
Q And the $1.1 billion -- where does the administration fall on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Senate, fortunately, appears to be making more progress. They will also include a vote today on the $1.9 billion proposal that we put forward back in February. And we strongly encourage Democrats and Republicans to come together around that bill. That’s what our public health professionals say is needed to do everything possible to protect the American people from Zika. And this would be an emergency appropriation that would be available to state and local officials, and federal government scientists immediately. We believe that is the preferred -- we believe that’s the best way to protect the American people from the Zika virus.
Q You seem to be saying the $1.9 billion or nothing. I mean --
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that is what our public health professionals say that we need. So we’re looking for Congress to act on that request and that’s what we would like to see move forward.
The other concern that we have with the House bill isn’t just that the amount of resources committed is much smaller; the funding would be offset by taking away resources that are currently being used to protect the American people from Ebola. And traditionally, when Congress has been faced with a public health emergency, they haven’t wasted a lot of time looking for funding offsets. And that’s a pretty dangerous exercise because it delays the needed funding, but it also risks gutting other critical priorities.
Let’s talk a little bit about how that Ebola funding is currently being used. Right now, that funding is being used by the CDC to work with the health ministries in both Guinea and Liberia to investigate the rapidly changing situation related to new Ebola cases there. Right now, the CDC is assisting those governments in tracing nearly a thousand contacts. These are individuals who are at heightened risk of potentially spreading Ebola. So the CDC has 100 staff that are deployed over there, and that staff is helping to process 10,000 samples per month in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
So it’s pretty clear that what’s happening -- that the work that the CDC is doing in West Africa was very helpful in the fall of 2014 in stopping the spread of that terrible disease, but it requires vigilance. And the lesson that we should have learned from 2014 is that the United States and the American people benefit from enhanced capacity of public health officials in other countries, that stopping the spread of a dangerous virus in another country makes the American people safer. And when that was an academic hypothetical exercise, there was some skepticism that some people expressed about that notion. But there weren’t many people expressing skepticism about that notion in the fall of 2014 when there was concern about the Ebola virus appearing in the United States.
So it is a bad idea for Republicans to move forward with a proposal that would gut our efforts to follow through in the fight against Ebola and it’s a bad idea for Republicans to further delay the emergency funding that’s necessary to protect the American people from the Zika virus.
Q In Baghdad, several bombings today, extending the deadliest wave of the year in bombings there. And on Saturday, Prime Minister Abadi said that he’s afraid that the political crisis there is hampering the fight against Islamic State. Does the administration share that concern?
MR. EARNEST: Tim, let me start by saying that the United States strongly condemns the barbaric terrorist attacks in Iraq today by ISIL that specifically targeted innocent civilians. We extend our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. These string of attacks by ISIL is the latest reminder of the danger that this group poses to all Iraqis and the importance of Iraqi leaders from all communities, working together against a common enemy.
Tim, you’ll recall back in 2014, the President made the offer of U.S. military assistance to Iraq contingent upon Iraq’s central government more effectively uniting that country to confront ISIL. So that should be an indication to you that a unified, effectively governed Iraq is critical to our success against ISIL. It has been a central part of our strategy from the very first day. And we’ve been encouraged over the last year and a half by the efforts that Prime Minister Abadi has undertaken to unify that country and pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that can inspire the confidence of Iraq’s diverse population that the central government in Baghdad is looking out for their best interests. We believe that that will have a corresponding impact on the effectiveness and resilience of Iraq’s security forces.
I think that’s largely proved to be true. Iraq’s security forces, backed by coalition military airpower and the advice and assistance of coalition militaries from around the world, has bene effective in driving ISIL out of territory that they previously controlled. We know that ISIL has been driven out of about 40 percent of the populated areas that ISIL previously controlled in Iraq. That’s tangible progress.
And our coalition is committed to trying to keep up that momentum and continue to pressure ISIL while also providing the Iraqi central government necessary resources to rebuild those areas that ISIL had taken over. We know that in places like Ramadi. ISIL didn’t just occupy that community -- they essentially destroyed it. And rebuilding that infrastructure and rebuilding those communities so that people feel confident in moving back home is going to be critical to our longer-term success of bringing some stability to that region of the world. And so the important financial contributions that have been made by countries around the world are also an important part of our strategy, but they’re all predicated on the Iraqi people and the international community having confidence in the effectiveness of the Iraqi central government.
Q Well, Abadi seems to be very concerned about the turmoil in his own government. Are you saying that the troops that are coming in, the U.S. troops that are coming in are going to help him deal with that while he figures out the turmoil?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the U.S. troops that are in Iraq are there for a very specific reason, which is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And they’re focused on missions that involve protecting the embassy, carrying out military air operations against ISIL targets, in some cases providing training and advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces, and there’s a small number of special operators that have been organized into these expeditionary forces that can carry out raids against senior ISIL figures. We’ve been very clear about the mission that U.S. forces in Iraq are pursuing.
Q And on Syria, there’s a lot of pessimism over the talks in Vienna. Does the White House believe that the Syrian government has systematically denied humanitarian aid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s extensive reporting and plenty of evidence to indicate that too often the Assad regime or forces that are operating under the command and control of the Assad regime are making a concerted effort to prevent the kind of humanitarian access that’s needed for Syrian populations that are caught in the crossfire of that conflict.
And we’ve expressed our concerns on a variety of occasions about the tendency of Assad regime forces to either prevent convoys of humanitarian goods from moving into needed areas -- in some cases, there actually are reports of Syrian forces essentially raiding those convoys for the supplies that they would like to have or at least prevent those supplies from reaching the intended audience. So that is a source of significant concern. And one of the reasons that the administration has worked aggressively to hold the Assad regime accountable for living up to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities is to make it easier for those kinds of humanitarian supplies to get to those areas that badly need it.
So access for humanitarian relief workers and for humanitarian assistance continues to be a critical concern not just of the United States but the rest of the international community. And that includes the Assad regime following through on the commitment that they’ve made to abide by the cessation of hostilities and create conditions where it's much easier for humanitarian aid workers to get access to communities that have spent years caught in the crossfire.
Q Vice President Biden, tomorrow, is going to announce the final overtime rule, and the news here is that it's pegged now to the 40th percentile in sort of the lowest-paid region of the country rather than the country overall. It's about a $3,000 dip. I'm wondering if you can explain why the administration ultimately decided not to extend this benefit to more workers.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, the Department of Labor has been considering this change to overtime rules for quite some time, and their focus has been on making sure that people are fairly paid, including for their hard work. And by definition, this is a rule that would apply to the hardest-working Americans.
But this is a rule that continues to be under consideration and is in the process. It has been for some time, and I would expect an announcement about a decision soon, but I don't have any information about the conclusions that have been reached at this point. Once they’ve made an announcement, then we can engage in a discussion about why they’ve reached the decision that they have.
Q Senator Warren wrote a letter to the administration earlier this month and urged you guys that, one, too often the voices of workers are buried beneath a flood of comments from lobbyists and lawyers. If there an erosion here that would leave hundreds of thousands of people without getting that benefit, wouldn't that be a sign that lobbyists and lawyers ended up winning out with the administration?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think there is a strong track record of this administration making sure that the rulemaking process represents the best interests of middle-class families. And that is true when it comes to establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency that was established specifically to look out for the interests consumers that aren't as well represented in Washington and in the rulemaking process as much larger financial institutions that can afford highly paid lobbyists.
So whether it's the implementation of rules related to Wall Street reform, or the implementation of rules related to health care reform, or the implementation of rules related to fighting carbon pollution, the administration’s track record of protecting the interest of middle-class families is rock-solid.
Q On the 9/11 bill, obviously it's got to pass through the House, but Senator Schumer said today that he believes -- that he would vote to override the President’s veto and he thinks that he could have the votes to do that. Is that a legitimate concern? Are you guys going to start whipping against a veto override in the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, before we get to the question of a veto override there’s a question about whether or not this legislation will pass the House. So as I noted to Darlene, there are Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives that have raised concerns about the bill in the same way that the administration has. So we'll engage in a conversation with the House of Representatives, and we'll take it from there.
Q Last one, on Gitmo. You guys released a veto threat against the NDAA yesterday, and in it you said specifically that the restrictions preventing you from coming up with an alternative site for Guantanamo Bay was potentially unconstitutional. That's also the reason that you cited, back a few months ago when presenting the plan to Congress, for why you couldn't say which site would be picked -- your hands were tied because of this restriction. So if you believe it's unconstitutional, I guess the question is, why not either defy the law and let the courts decide, or challenge the law in the courts to allow you to do this work that you say is necessary for the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, we have made clear that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a top priority, and it's a top priority because taxpayer funds could be much more effectively spent in housing those individuals in facilities that have already been built here in the United States. And we could do that -- and in doing so, we could save millions of dollars in taxpayers funds. We've also expressed a concern that is shared by national security experts in both parties that extremist organizations use the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool. And the President believes that the American people would be safer if we took that recruiting tool, that propaganda tool away from extremist organizations.
This is all important, particularly when you consider that we've demonstrated in this country that we can effectively detain convicted terrorists on American soil in a way that doesn’t pose an enhanced security threat to the American people. We've also demonstrated that we can bring terrorists to justice on American soil, using the American criminal justice system to hold them accountable for their crimes. That would give the United States the benefit of being able to say we're going to protect the American people and we're going to do it in a way that's entirely consistent with our values even if our adversaries and our enemies aren't willing to subscribe to those values.
It's a pretty powerful argument and a pretty powerful statement, and something that makes the American people safer. So that's our motivation.
And, frankly, what we would like to see, Justin, is we’d just like to see Congress get out of the way. In some ways, it's not even a situation -- so often -- let’s take Zika, for example. To fight Zika and protect the American people from Zika we need Congress’s affirmative cooperation to do that. And right now, Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, are falling down on the job and putting the American people at greater risk because they aren't working effectively with the administration to fight the Zika virus, because they won't appropriate the emergency funding.
When it comes to Gitmo, the standard is much lower. We just need Congress to get out of the way. They have, time and time again, included all these restrictions that have prevented the administration from doing what is necessary to protect the American people. So we just need Congress to remove those obstacles so that we can move forward effectively in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and doing it in a way that will enhance the national security of the American people.
Q But I think my question was if you believe the restriction is unconstitutional, and for all the reasons that you just outlined, strongly believe that the prison should be closed, why not either mount a legal challenge or just defy what you see is an unconstitutional restriction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to our legal strategy. I think the most direct route is not one that winds through the federal courts for years, but rather --
Q Well, we're in year eight, right, so, you might as well try something, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I actually think that that's sort of my point, which is we are in year eight, so initiating a years-long legal process is certainly an option that's available to the administration. I'm not going to take it off the table. But given the priority that the President has established here, we’d like to just see Congress take the steps that are necessary to remove those obstacles so that we can get this important business done. That's the most direct route to accomplishing a national security goal that has been advocated by both Democrats and Republicans, including Republican President George W. Bush.
Q Thanks, Josh. Staying on Gitmo for a second. The NDAA has a section that would appear to reopen the door to detainees there now to take plea deals in Article 3 courts and then be transferred to third countries. Is that something that you guys support? And by how much do you think that would reduce the population?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, I haven't considered every single proposal in the NDAA, so let me consult with our policy staff in terms of the way that proposal is written and get back to you with a position on it.
Q And then on the talks about Syria, John Kerry today said if Assad “has reached a conclusion that there is no plan B. He has done so without any foundation whatsoever and it’s very dangerous.” It’s dangerous for whom?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the concern that Secretary Kerry is expressing there is that the longer that President Assad remains in power in Syria, the more chaos and violence and division plagues that country. And that’s why the United States and most of the rest of the international community is strongly in favor of executing a political transition inside of Syria as soon as possible. He has lost the legitimacy to lead that country, he continues to order the Syrian military to carry out attacks against innocent, unarmed civilians, and by doing so, he has lost any claim within the realm of reason to being able to govern the country of Syria. Just as a practical matter, it’s hard to imagine that Syrian citizens who are on the receiving end of barrel bombs would at all be open to President Assad continuing to lead the country.
So the longer that he is there, the more dangerous and violent that country becomes. And that’s dangerous for the United States because we know that extremist organizations like ISIL -- and they’re not the only one -- try to capitalize on that chaos and that violence to establish a safe haven and plot and carry out attacks against targets outside of Syria, including areas -- including locations that are important to the United States and including on the soil of close American allies.
Q Josh, on the NDAA, the Statement of Administration Policy objects to a provision in the bill that would undermine President Obama’s federal -- executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Would that provision alone be enough for the President to veto the House version of the NDAA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, the way that it’s detailed in the Statement of Administration Position that you’ve clearly reviewed quite closely, there’s a long list of concerns that we have with the proposal that Republicans have put forward. So at this point, I don’t think I can single out any one as being sufficient to garner a presidential veto, and the reason for that is just that there are a whole lot of reasons why the bill is bad and why the President strongly opposes it.
So I think what I can say as a general matter is that the President has been forceful in using his executive authority to prevent discrimination and the executive order that you’ve cited is a good example of that. And the President has on a number of occasions protected his ability to use that executive authority in his negotiations with Congress. Because we know that there are some in Congress who, for reasons that seem rather perverse to me, believe that the President shouldn’t be taking actions to prevent discrimination. So I’ll leave it to them to explain why that’s an appropriate position for them to take. It’s one that seems hard -- difficult to justify, in my opinion. But the President has worked hard to protect his executive authority that can be used to prevent discrimination, and that’s something that we take quite seriously.
Q How confident are you that the Republican-controlled Congress will present the President a version of a defense authorization bill that will omit this provision against his executive order?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it’s very difficult to predict exactly what this Congress will do. But what is true is that there are a long list of reasons why we have strong concerns about the way that the NDA legislation is currently written, and we’re hopeful that Republicans will begin to make some changes.
After all, this is their responsibility. Republicans have a strong majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans have a strong majority in the United States Senate. So, ultimately, it’s Republicans who need to carry the weight of figuring out how to ensure that our national security professionals and our men and women in uniform have the authority and funding that they need to protect the country.
So this is a basic function of the United States Congress. It’s unfortunate that it is being larded up with a bunch of proposals like the one that you just cited that aren’t related to our national security but are intended to be divisive. And we hope that at some point Republicans in Congress will act responsibly to put forward a funding authorization proposal that is consistent with our national security interests.
Q Thanks, Josh, appreciate it. I wanted to ask you, going back to the directive on Friday, on the bathrooms, transgender bathrooms. There’s an impression that the administration has been particularly aggressive on transgender issues, sort of more so than it was on gay marriage before the President’s evolution in 2012. I’m just wondering if you see that reflecting society or if that’s an administrative decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think I would describe our position that way for a variety of reasons. I think the first is, this is a confrontation that Republicans have sought out, rather cynically, because they are seeking a political advantage. So it’s the Republicans in the North Carolina legislature, for example, that convened a one-day special session to ram through HB2, the now infamous HB2 in North Carolina so that it could be quickly passed in both houses of the legislature and then signed into law by the governor of that state. They have since walked back some aspects of that bill in the face of significant criticism, particularly from the business community, and it’s clear that it’s had a negative impact on the economic climate in North Carolina.
So the comments that we’ve seen from Republicans in other places I think makes clear that they’re not really interested in helping schools across the country confront what is a difficult policy challenge; they’d rather just cynically try to appeal to people’s fears in order to try and gin up political support for their campaigns.
And that’s not the approach that the administration is taking, and in fact, I think this was evident from the guidance that was issued by the Department of Education on Friday, that in response to specific requests from school administrators across the country, the Department of Education put forward best practices and good ideas with regard to how schools can implement this policy in a way that will protect the dignity and safety of every student at the school. And these weren’t just ideas that were developed by administrators in Washington, D.C. -- these are actually ideas that were developed by school administrators across the country who had found workable solutions that could be successfully applied in their schools. And sharing those ideas with school administrators across the country is a tangible, constructive offer of assistance that I think the majority of school administrators appreciated.
And that’s not the kind of constructive contribution that we’ve seen from conservatives. From conservatives, you basically have seen the suggestion that they don’t really have a way of -- they haven’t really put forward a specific suggestion for how they believe that the rules should be applied. The best that they seem to have come up with is suggesting that birth certificates should be examined before anyone can enter a public bathroom. So that doesn’t make sense. That certainly is an indication that they are much more interested in politics than they are in actually trying to solve the problem.
Q But you said that the directive was not necessarily brought about by the North Carolina law. So I’m wondering if the administration has made a concerted effort -- I mean, the Wall Street Journal calls it an effort to start a culture war to drive voter turnout in November -- I mean, if they’ve made a decision to sort of be more aggressive on these measures.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t make a habit of reading the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal I think for obvious reasons, but I did happen to take a look at it today, and I noticed that the editorial also noted that somehow Democrats appeared to be obsessed with sex, which I thought was a rather amusing observation on their part because it’s Republicans who have, for example, passed this HB2 law in North Carolina. It’s Republicans in the Congress that have created a special congressional committee to take a look at Planned Parenthood. It’s Republicans who have sued the administration over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including as it relates to women being able to get access to their birth control. So it’s a curious observation by the Wall Street Journal that I don’t think stands up to a lot of scrutiny.
Q Getting back to the President, is he making more of a decision to be more forceful on these issues than he had been back in 2012 when he was criticized for being sort of slow on gay marriage?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think so. And again, I think that at every stage, it's this administration that fought for and successfully ended “don't ask, don't tell.” It's this administration that declined to continue defending the Defense of Marriage Act as litigation contesting that law wound its way through the courts.
So, again, I think as it relates to this issue, it is clear that it's Republicans who are seeking a political advantage and an administration that is seeking to offer tangible, practical advice to school administrators who are seeking to protect the safety and dignity of every student at their school.
Q Thanks, Josh. On lifting sanctions on Burma, the Treasury Department announced today you're going to be lifting a variety of those sanctions tomorrow. But the President did say that the national emergency is going to continue and called Burma an extraordinary threat. So I wonder if you could tell us whether the President feels like the human rights situation in Myanmar warrants this action, and whether you might like to see some more progress on that front before additional sanctions come off.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s start by saying that the U.S. government announced steps to support Burma’s new democratic government, including the recalibration of sanctions on Burma, to demonstrate support for the new government’s democratic reforms and the broad-based economic development.
There’s no denying the important political process that has been made in Burma, and the United States has been strongly supportive of the Burmese people and Burmese government as they pursue these reforms. One high-profile piece of evidence about that progress was the election that was conducted just in the last few months that allowed for the peaceful democratic transfer of power. It's an important development in that country’s history and is indicative of the important progress that they’re making in pursuing long overdue political reforms.
At the same time, the United States wants to continue to further incentivize democratic reforms and continue to pressure targeted individuals and entities, including the military, so that work of reforming that government continues. There obviously is more work that needs to be done, and the sanctions that remain in place do serve to pressure those entities that may be advocating for rolling back some of those reforms.
So the government has made important progress. We want them to build on that momentum. And that's why the recalibrated sanctions announcement will move forward. But there still are entities that are obstacles to needed reform and we continue to apply pressure against those entities so that we can hopefully nurture the continued progress that Burma has met.
Q But if you still think that there are concerns as it relates to human rights and the military’s control and the government potentially rolling back the progress they’ve made, wouldn't it be wiser to wait until you see some more of that progress before you go lifting sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think that's why we've described it as recalibrating the sanctions rather than lifting them, because --
Q -- entities that you listed, though.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for discussion of specific entities and what impact they may have had on political reforms, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department. They can sort of walk you through our policy towards specific entities. But most of the remaining sanctions are primarily intended to discourage economic activity with certain individuals and entities, particularly those who undermine or obstruct political reform in Burma, commit human rights abuses in Burma, or propagate military trade with North Korea.
Those are the entities that are targeted. And I think for those reasons, continuing to apply those sanctions makes sense. At the same time, it's also important to recognize the progress that Burma has made, and by recalibrating the sanctions and easing the sanctions against some entities in Burma, we acknowledge the important progress that they’ve made and further incentivize additional reforms.
So that's the recalibration strategy that's been applied in this instance.
Q Okay, so the White House has now issued several strongly worded warnings about the 9/11 bill to members of Congress. And you’ve come out publicly and said these exact same things before. But today, when this bill passed on a voice vote, there was no opposition. So doesn’t that tell you that there’s just as strong a feeling even from the President’s own party that this is a legitimate concern, and that the needs of these families to at least bring their claims to a court are more important than some indeterminate risk that some other country could do something similar to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the administration is strongly committed to assisting the 9/11 families, and there are a variety of ways in which this administration has gone to bat for 9/11 families and those who did such important work around Ground Zero to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. I have in mind, of course, the legislation that on a number of occasions got bottled up in the Congress to ensure that those who performed so heroically at Ground Zero were able to get access to health care.
So the administration’s commitment to our nation’s national security and to those who lost the most on 9/11 is steadfast. And our commitment to those principles will not change.
But we have to acknowledge the significant unintended consequences of moving forward with a piece of legislation like this. And this is a concern that's not just expressed by the Democratic administration; there are Republicans in Congress who have also expressed concerns about this in the past. So this is a sensitive issue, and I would acknowledge that the politics are tough. But focusing on the substance, we need to make sure that we don't overlook the potential unintended consequences of a bill that could put the United States at risk around the world. That is a dangerous proposition and one that the Commander-in-Chief I think is rightly concerned about.
Q So it just seems like Democrats in the Senate, by there being zero opposition on this bill, it seems like they’re sending a message to the White House that the concerns of the White House aren't as important. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I'll let them explain their position and I'll let them explain why they did not object to a proposal that has significant, though, admittedly, unintended consequences. But, look, the accusation here is not that somebody in Congress voting for this legislation is seeking to intentionally inflict harm against the United States. Our concern is that that is an unintended consequence of this particular piece of this legislation. And it's the responsibility of the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief to look out for the interests of the United States and our servicemembers and diplomats around the world.
The concern that we have is that other countries could use the passage of this bill as an excuse to initiate their own proceedings in their own courts that puts the United States uniquely at risk.
Q Are you disappointed that Democrats in the Senate didn’t voice the same concerns or oppose this bill that the White House is --
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, we oppose the bill, so we obviously are not pleased to see it move forward in the Senate. But we're going to engage with the bipartisan members in the House of Representatives who have expressed similar concerns and see if we can ensure that they are addressed as this legislative process moves forward.
Q In the past, you’ve urged members of Congress not to proceed because this could have ramifications. So the fact that it has now passed the Senate, are there ramifications to that alone in terms of the relationship with Saudi Arabia or anything else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I think as we discussed when the President traveled to Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago, the President had a long bilateral meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia and the issue of this legislation was not raised. And I think it is an indication of the fact that right now, at least, this legislation is not interfering with our ability to coordinate with the Saudi Arabian government on a range of issues of mutual concern.
But our broader concern is about the potential, unintended consequence that the passage of this legislation would bring about, and that is basically giving other countries an excuse to subject the United States of America to what could just be kangaroo courts in other countries. And it puts the United States in a situation where we spend a lot of time and energy and resources going and defending the United States in foreign courts. That’s not a good use of our time. It’s also certainly not a good use of our diplomatic capital. These kinds of cases would just serve as an additional irritant in our relations with countries around the world.
So, again, we believe that these kinds of concerns are the kinds of concerns that should be taken into account by every member of Congress as they consider their position on this bill.
Q The families out a statement saying, well, the big difference here -- they’re sort of dissecting the arguments that the White House has made, and they said, well, the difference here is that the U.S. doesn’t support terrorist organizations that target civilians. So if this bill is so narrowly tailored to involve just terror attacks on U.S. soil, and you look at the argument that those families are making, is that really such a huge risk that somebody would do something similar? If you’re just looking at that specific instance, of targeting civilians on our soil in this case? And obviously Democrats in the Senate don’t agree that that risk is --
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I do understand what you’re saying. And, look, I think that the concern is about potential unintended consequences. There are a number of countries around the world that do falsely accuse the United States of engaging in acts of terrorism that result in the death of innocent civilians. There are other countries that publicly make that accusation on a regular basis, and if they now have a precedent for establishing their own method of bringing the United States into court and putting at risk U.S. assets that are held overseas, even as they prosecute those false claims in a kangaroo court, that’s not a path that we want to go down.
The other concern, Michelle, is exactly how that system could work. You can imagine a scenario where somebody who’s injured or wounded overseas is brought back to the United States for medical treatment and then they die. That could potentially open up the United States or other countries, including our allies, to claims in an American court because that individual died on American soil. And this is the thing. I mean, our court system is such that you don’t have to be an American citizen in order to file suit in an American court. I recognize that these are hypotheticals, but they are potential, unintended consequences that are quite serious. And that’s the basis of our concern about this bill. The potential, unintended consequences that have and could have a very negative effect on U.S. national security, could put at risk the United States, our assets, and our personnel in countries all around the world.
Q So is this just a closed matter again, the whole issue of 9/11? Because obviously you’re talking about unintended consequences, and the families are concerned about finally trying to figure out exactly what happened. And you’ve said before I think on Saudi Arabia that the investigation showed there was no Saudi connection, the 28 pages. Others have said that this is not significant information -- just like the furor about it. So do you say to the families essentially that -- oh, and also, you seem to say that there are some changes to the legislation that Congress didn’t consider that might have made it more palatable to the administration. Is there some way to reconcile this whole concern about sovereign immunity and the families concern? Or is this really just the end of it as far as the administration is concerned?
MR. EARNEST: It’s certainly not the end of it. There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start by -- there was a commission, an outside -- a commission of experts established outside the government to examine the attacks of 9/11, to take a look at what conditions led up to the attacks, what exactly transpired on that fateful day, and what sort of reforms could be implemented to ensure something like that never happens again. It’s that outside group, the 9/11 Commission, that carefully examined all of the available evidence and concluded that there’s no evidence to indicate that the Saudi government as an institution supported the 9/11 plotters.
So that’s not some sort of government conspiracy -- this is an outside organization, staffed by experts that took a close look at this. And those -- the leaders of that commission themselves reviewed the 28 pages. They have acknowledged that 28 pages included preliminary investigatory materials that they had an opportunity to pursue. And that as a result of reading those 28 pages, they conducted interviews -- not just in the United States but in other countries around the world to follow up on those potential leads.
And despite having read those 28 pages and despite having acted on them by pursuing investigations that that information could point to, they still concluded that the Saudi government as an institution didn’t support the 9/11 plotters. So I think there is no denying that that part of it has been exhaustively investigated. I’m not saying this to suggest that somehow that’s going to ease the pain of somebody who lost a loved one or several loved ones on 9/11.
Our heart breaks for those people. These are thousands of Americans who walk around every day with a hole in their heart because they lost a loved one on that tragic day. And trying to make sense of that and trying to move on with one’s life is something that many of them have been challenged to do, and they’ve demonstrated tremendous patriotism and heroism as they’ve moved on with their lives.
And in some cases, we’re talking about parents who have had to raise kids on their own. In some cases, we’re talking about first-responders who have continued to fight fires and respond to emergencies, even with the memory of their partner in the back of their mind. So there’s no denying the heroism of the 9/11 families. And there is no denying the courage that they have shown every single day since 9/11.
But what we’re focused on here -- and I think what the families are genuinely focused on as well -- is the national security of the United States and making sure that the United States of America continues to preserve the ability to protect our interests around the globe. They understand that our capacity to do that is critical to preventing terrorist attacks on American soil. So the President’s priority is not different than the priority that’s been identified by the 9/11 families when it comes to protecting the United States of America and protecting our men and women in uniform and our diplomats as they serve our country around the world.
Q So did I hear you correctly that there were some changes that could have made that could have reconciled this whole concern about sovereign immunity? Or did I -- in terms of the way these bills were written -- or is this just not a reconcilable situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the reason that we are going to talk to Democrats and Republicans in Congress is to figure out if there is a way to address the serious concerns that are raised by these potential, unintended consequences. I don’t know if that’s possible at this point, but we certainly are willing to engage in a bipartisan conversation to make that happen if it’s possible.
Q On the TSA -- there’s been a lot written lately about long lines at airports and people being really inconvenienced. I saw a study that said the morale in Homeland Security is the lowest in the federal government; there’s high turnover. The summer season is coming up. And while that’s an inconvenience to travelers and all that, how much of a security risk is there now? Is it greater? Is there a concern in the administration that because of this tension on the system, to put it mildly, that there is now a greater concern about security lapses, perhaps, at airports around the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you probably should talk to somebody at the TSA to draw a definitive conclusion about that. I think what I would just state is the significant challenge that TSA officers face, which is they don’t want to inconvenience people. They know people are just trying to get on their flight and do their business or go home to see their family or go on vacation or whatever it is that they’re doing. But they want to make sure that people can engage in that travel safely.
And so there’s always going to be a little tension in making sure that we’re doing thorough checks and making sure that we are protecting the integrity of the aviation system while also at the same time giving people the freedom to use that aviation system without a whole lot of hassle and inconvenience. And resolving that tension is challenging, and there are a number of creative things that the TSA has tried to do -- the establishment of pre-check, which allows some individuals to go and essentially go through a background check that’s conducted by the government so that they can go through an expedited security line. That’s one example.
We know that the TSA has been working closely with airports to see if airports can actually commit to using airport personnel to expedite the process. So, Ron, as a reporter, you’ve had to travel through a lot of airports. It’s not uncommon for TSA officers to help people navigate the screening process by loading materials into trays and getting into the right line. So that’s not necessarily a core security function so what you could do is the TSA could coordinate with airport staff so that when lines get long or volumes are expected to be high, that it’s airport personnel that don’t have a security function that can help people manage the security process so that all of the security-trained people can be involved in the actual screening.
So my point is that there’s always going to be a little tension here in the basic function of the TSA. And the TSA, to their credit, has worked hard to try to be creative about developing solutions that would make this process more efficient and not inconvenience travelers as greatly while also adhering to the high security standards that I think we all would demand.
Q Right, but, again, the long lines have revealed that there seems to be staffing problems. There’s a high turnover rate; there’s low morale. And the question is, to what extent is all of that potentially compromising safety at the airports? Is there a concern in the administration, has there been some focus in trying to make sure -- well, you do this on a daily basis -- but given where we are in the last month or so of this particular phenomenon of these long lines, has there been some targeted effort focused to make sure that this is not causing security problems, beyond the inconvenience?
MR. EARNEST: Even in the face of these significant challenges, the professionals at the TSA are committed to the safety and security of the American traveling public. And they maintain these very high standards because they’re concerned about safety, and you’re right that this is something that they are reviewing safety standards and security standards regularly, daily, to ensure that those high standards are being met. And they’re doing all that even though on average the TSA is now screening about 125,000 more passengers per day. And there has been an effort by the TSA to expedite the processing of the newest class of TSA officers. There has been an effort on the part of TSA to get Congress to approve funds that could be reallocated so that additional overtime pay can be paid to the TSA officers so that they can be paid for working longer hours and therefore try to shorten lines.
So, again, there’s a lot of work that’s going into trying to be creative about how to not inconvenience travelers unduly while also maintaining the strict safety and security standards that the American people would expect.
Q Thanks, Josh. Has the President or the White House been tracking what’s happening -- or what happened in Nevada at the Democratic State Convention there? Sanders supporters were reportedly making death threats against the state party chair to the point where the state party actually filed a complaint with the DNC. Does the White House have a reaction? And obviously there’s a lot of emotion around this primary process still. Is it time for the President to sort of step in and calm the waters and help unify the party, moving into the final stage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to the delegate selection process for individual states, I would refer you to the DNC. They have a very well-established process whereby they review the plans that are put forward by individual states for choosing their delegates to the convention and every state does it differently, and that makes the process a little cumbersome but it’s the way that each state retains control over the process for selecting delegates to the Democratic Convention.
But I think at the same time, you’ve heard the President on a number of occasions talk about how political disputes can never justify an act of violence. And the President talked about this in his speech at the Rutgers commencement ceremony just on Sunday, about the importance of good citizenship, about the importance of focusing on facts and evidence, and how the establishment of our political system was intended to resolve disputes among our citizens to prevent violence from occurring in the first place.
And I think what is true is the expectation that the President has that there will be a strong commitment to that principle of nonviolence. And the way that candidates in both parties address this question publicly is important and I’m confident it’s something that people all across the country will carefully watch.
Q Is the White House disturbed by the behavior of not only members of his own party making death threats against the state party chair over what is, essentially, as you characterized it, a political dispute?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t looked at the individual claims that have been made, but I think the President on a number of occasions has spoken out against violence and has certainly said that a political dispute like this can never be justified or used to justify an act of violence or even a threat of violence. And that is a principle that he has championed for a long time and his expectation would be that politicians in both parties, whether they’re involved in an election or not, would express their support for that principle.
Q One more on the President’s legacy on special interest. Roll Call yesterday reported that a Republican lobbyist is trying to organize other lobbyists on behalf of Hillary Clinton. She’s had lobbyist bundlers. Donald Trump has hired some ex--foreign government lobbyists into his campaign. The President banned lobbyists from donating to his campaign and the DNC. No current 2016 campaign has embraced that pledge. Even Bernie Sanders sort of made this a key issue. Is the President worried that his legacy on this issue is being eroded?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think the authenticity of the change that President Obama brought to Washington has been confirmed in what you just relayed. And it's an indication of how difficult it is to change our political system, particularly when it comes to confronting entrenched special interests and the President is quite proud of his record of doing that. And the truth is, it’s going to be up to the next President to determine exactly how to build on that progress. And presumably there are a variety of ways to do that, and I think that will be part of the debate -- not just through the summer but also into the fall. But these principles of ensuring that citizens retain a voice in their government is something that the President has made a high priority.
Q Over the past week, you’ve had some pointed words from the podium about Republicans’ use of this $100 billion figure in regard to the Iran nuclear deal. I’ve gone back and asked them about it, and they basically point to the administration’s own use of it last summer, back in July, and a few instances from the Treasury Department, from Secretary Kerry, President Obama in an interview with The Atlantic. Where did the administration, when they were initially using that figure before the deal was finalized, where was that coming from?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, what I can tell you is that there were initial estimates about the amount of money that Iran had in reserves outside of their country that were subject to sanctions. And this is essentially money that Iran was not able to get access to because of the sanctions that we had put in place to compel them to come to the negotiating table. And those sanctions did have the effect of bringing Iran to the negotiating table and ultimately pressuring Iran to sign on the dotted line of an agreement that verifiably prevents them from acquiring a nuclear weapon. That was a genuine success.
Now, what the Secretary of the Treasury and others repeatedly tried to explain is how much money Iran was likely to get access to -- that much of those funds that were held overseas were basically already spoken for in terms of debts that Iran had already sort of -- they had already incurred. And what critics of the deal have suggested is that Iran would get all that money and be flush with cash and then use it for terrorism. And we’ve said that the critics were vastly exaggerating that risk. That was the essence of the debate at the time is we were trying to explain exactly what would happen here. And they did vastly overstate that risk in a way that they continue to repeat. And they’re wrong about it. Ted Cruz just wrote an op-ed in the New York Times repeating this claim. It’s not uncommon to come across Republicans spouting off this false claim, and the truth is, what’s happened is we actually see officials in Iran saying they didn’t get nearly as much sanctions relief as they thought they would.
Around the time of the negotiations, it was actually the Iran Central Bank Governor who came forward and said that they expected that Iran would get $30 billion in sanctions relief. And I think based on the tone and the comments from Iranian officials, they haven’t even met them that far. So that’s the essence of the way in which Republicans repeatedly misled the American public when talking about the Iran deal or just didn’t know what they were talking about.
So it’s not just as it relates to sanctions relief where what Republicans said didn’t turn out to be true. Many of them, at the very beginning of this exercise, said that it didn’t make sense for the United States and the international community to negotiate with Iran over their nuclear program because they’d never go along with the deal. They were wrong about that.
And many of our critics have suggested that Iran would never make -- take the kind of actions that are consistent with rolling back key aspects of their nuclear program. But yet that’s exactly what they did. They reduced their uranium stockpile by 98 percent. They rendered harmless their heavy water reactor. They disconnected thousands of centrifuges.
And Republicans, critics of the deal suggested that the international community would never be able to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement. But, in fact, the nuclear experts at the IAEA -- an organization that’s won the Nobel Peace Prize, I might point out -- has verified Iran’s compliance with the agreement. So critics of the deal who predicted that we would never be able to verify that Iran was going along with the agreement are wrong, or at least on the wrong side of an argument with internationally renowned nuclear experts.
So the list of concerns that we have here with the way that Republicans have conducted this debate is lengthy and I can certainly understand why Republicans appear quite desperate to try to recapture what credibility they have left.
Q And despite that characterization, isn’t it about the money being freed up for Iran to use their other resources towards other programs? I mean, it's the money that the sanctions relief is going towards, these debts that they’ve already incurred and paying those off, isn’t that freeing up another pocket of money they could use? Isn’t that kind of the Republicans’ point that they’ve got access now to a broader fund? Or is your point just that they wouldn’t have paid off those debts in the first place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my point is that they weren’t paying off those debts, and then when the money was freed, some of them have gone to doing exactly that. So there’s no evidence that anybody can marshal that that’s exactly -- Republicans cannot demonstrate that what they predicted came true. But I can certainly substantiate the fact, even in the claims made by Iranians themselves who are responsible for managing their economy, they’ve expressed concern about the fact that they haven’t gotten as much sanctions relief as they expected to get. And they acknowledged a much lower level of sanctions relief than what Republicans said was likely to happen -- to say nothing of the many Republicans who I can point to who said that Iran was going to get $150 billion in sanctions relief, a number that was completely unsubstantiated. And then you’ve got somebody like Congressman Steve Scalise who said that Iran would get hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. So it appears he might have a little baggage when discussing the truth about the Iran deal.
Q So what’s the bottom line? What’s the total figure? You said it was far less than $100 billion, but has Treasury come up with an estimate? Or are you relying on what the Iranians have said publicly?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an assessment to share with you. You certainly can check with the Treasury Department and maybe they’ll know.
Q And my final question was, Senators Cornyn, Barrasso, and Mark Kirk -- they wrote a letter to the President yesterday regarding Ben Rhodes, calling on the President to fire him. You said that the President stands by his Deputy National Security Advisor. What’s your response to the letter? What’s the President’s response to the letter?
MR. EARNEST: The publicity stunt that Senator Kirk attempted one week ago today -- I think pretty much everybody ignored it then, and I'm going to ignore it now.
Q Josh, thanks. Back on the Zika bill in the House. The White House wasn’t just saying that you don't want to offset the money from the Ebola fund, you're saying you don't want to offset the money for Zika from anywhere else in the budget. In a $4 trillion budget, why are you insisting that there be no offsets for this Zika relief?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is typically the way, Dave, that Congress has considered emergency appropriations, which is that they, recognizing the existence of an emergency, Congress has not gotten bogged down in political fights related to pay-fors. Demonstrating a sense of urgency, most Congresses, when confronted with a public health emergency, would consult with public health experts and consider carefully what sort of assistance should be provided and they would provide it. And that's what we believe that this Congress should do.
Q On the Ben Rhodes matter, obviously he didn’t go to the hearing today to testify like the committee wanted. Can you explain why last week you said this has nothing to do with executive privilege and today Neil Eggleston said, oh, yes, it does have to do with --
MR. EARNEST: No, he didn’t. That word does not appear in the letter. And my good friends at the House Government Oversight Committee posted that letter on the website, so you can certainly check it out for yourself. But the White House counsel did not raise that prospect.
Q So why didn’t he go?
MR. EARNEST: Because there’s longstanding concerns that we have expressed and that previous Presidents have expressed when it comes to declining a request to voluntarily testify based on institutional concerns. The President of the United States should be able to get confidential, candid advice from his top advisors. And this is a principle that basically every President has observed.
I would note that at least one of the individuals who did testify before the House Oversight Committee today served in the previous administration and invoked exactly the same concern -- because he had almost exactly the same title as Mr. Rhodes -- in explaining why he wouldn't testify before Congress. So this is an indication that it’s not a partisan matter, but rather a longstanding institutional difference of opinion between Congress and the executive branch.
Q Isn't that asserting executive privilege without saying the words?
MR. EARNEST: No. Executive privilege applies specifically to situations when the President of the United States acts to protect information that is compelled by Congress. This was a specific request for testimony on a voluntary basis. So on one hand, you’ve got information that Congress is compelling; on the other hand, you’ve got testimony that was requested. So the principle is different. And that is evident in the letter, so I would encourage you to check it out.
Q If I could overstay my welcome for one more.
MR. EARNEST: You're not overstaying your welcome.
Q The Senate Democrats tomorrow are going to hold what’s called a hearing on Chief Judge Garland because there is no nomination hearing yet. Did the White House participate in arranging this in any way? Do you think it's a good idea? And isn't it a clear sign that the nomination just isn't going anywhere?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did hear that the Judiciary Committee is planning a hearing for tomorrow. And obviously the White House has been coordinating closely with Democrats and Republicans on the committee to try to move that process forward. But as it relates to the individuals who are testifying before the committee tomorrow, I'd refer you to the members of the committee to talk to you about it.
Q Is this a sign that things are just not going well, that this nomination is dead?
MR. EARNEST: No, the fact is Chief Judge Garland has got another six meetings over the course of this week. He’s met with 15 Republicans. He’s submitted his questionnaire and members of the Judiciary Committee have posted that questionnaire publicly on their website. So we continue to apply pressure to Republicans. The President did an interview with BuzzFeed just yesterday, talking about why this is a critically important issue. And we're going to continue to raise pressure on Republicans. And all of the publically available data that I've seen indicates that it's not just Democrats and independents who are dissatisfied with the position that many Republican senators are taking, but many Republican voters across the country are expressing concern with the way that Republicans in the Senate are refusing to do their job.
Q Josh, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, was spotted leaving the White House. Can you tell us anything about why he was here?
MR. EARNEST: I'll see if I can get you some more information about what he was doing while he was here. He obviously is somebody who has had an opportunity to interact with the President in the past. He participated in a forum with President Obama at the G20 in Malaysia where they talked about the global economy and the impact that climate change is having on the way that businesses, large and small, around the world are confronting climate change.
But I'll see if we can get you some more information about his visit.
Q Also if it relates in any way to our trip to Asia.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Also, going back to I guess it's technically called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act -- this passed Senate bill, it's not just about Saudi Arabia. It opens up I guess litigation against any other state, which is your concern about sovereign immunity there. From what -- you're saying from the podium, you’ve said focus on the substance, look at the facts. Are you saying that, in that sense, one of the most emotionally eroded living memories in American history is being used for political purposes and in some ways overshadowing the substance of a bill that you’ve described as perhaps potentially dangerous to American interests? I mean, are you going that far to say that this one issue is overshadowing all the other ways that this bill could become a problem for the U.S. or other countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no denying the charged, emotional nature of this issue and why the discussion of this particular legislation could arouse particularly strong feelings. I'm not going to question the motive of the people who may be involved in supporting this bill. I'm just merely pointing out the source of the concerns that we've expressed.
This bill does potentially open up the United States to a range of unintended consequences that would be bad for our national security. It would be bad for our ability to continue to coordinate with our allies, make that even harder, and it could risk -- put at risk the United States, our assets, and maybe even our personnel in countries and courts all around the world.
So that's the source of our concern. This is a concern that we've repeatedly expressed. And that's the reason we oppose the bill. It's not because we question the motives of those who are involved in trying to promote the bill. Our concerns are substantive and relate specifically to the potential of unintended consequences.
Q And not specifically about Saudi Arabia, which is the only country we've discussed here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's because the advocates of the bill are suggesting that they want to create an opportunity that --
Q -- played it in some way that this is some sort of special treatment or that this is being treated differently because of Saudi Arabia, versus, say, the Supreme Court decision that was just recently upheld regarding suing Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, which the administration has supported. So can you explain the difference, I guess?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the difference is, is that there is this small class of countries that are confirmed state sponsors of terrorism that are in a separate category from every other country. And, yes, that includes Iran. We do know that Iran uses assets of the state to support terrorism around the world, including terrorism that has claimed the lives of American citizens.
So we do treat Iran differently from every other country. Iran and other countries that are confirmed state sponsors of terrorism are treated differently than every other country, including Saudi Arabia that's not.
Q So you don't see the position to be supportive of the Supreme Court upholding being able to sue Iran and a position opposing this bill because it could compromise sovereign immunity as contradictory in any way?
MR. EARNEST: No, because there is this special exception that does apply to confirmed state sponsors of terrorism, and Iran is one of them.
Q Question for you on -- an amendment from Congressman Thornberry specifically trying to cap the number of NSC officials at 100. It's being suggested that power is too concentrated in the hands of too few located in this building and not other assets of national security establishment. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple observations I guess. I think the first is the President’s current National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, has actually undertaken an effort to try to streamline and reform certain functions of the National Security Council that have allowed her to reduce the size of the National Security Council by about I believe 10 percent or so. And I think that's the first thing.
I think the second thing is there’s no denying the wide array of significant national security challenges that any President of the United States confronts when they walk into the Oval Office every morning. And ensuring that that President has access to the expertise and advice that he needs to deal with those challenges is an important priority. And the desire of some Republicans to try to limit the ability of the next President to make foreign policy decisions may reflect their lack of confidence in their prospects for the next presidential election.
Q Thanks, Josh. Maybe you covered this. I was out a couple days last week. But transgender Americans as it relates to White House facilities and other government facilities, be that the State Department, elsewhere -- they’re able to use the restroom of their gender identity without restriction, and that's always been the way, correct?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that it's always been that way, but it's certainly been that way in the Obama administration.
Q Okay. Is the President aware of the readiness issues as it relates to the United States military?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there certainly are a number of things that we believe that Congress has proposed to do that would have a direct impact on our military readiness. There are a whole range of programs that Congress repeatedly funds that our military leaders say that we don't need, and there are a whole set of national security priorities that our military leaders have said are worthy of an investment from Congress that have been underfunded by the United States Congress.
So there are a number of things that the President and our military leaders believe that we could do that would enhance our readiness, and there are a number of things that Congress shouldn’t do that would degrade our readiness. And so there are concerns about the way that Congress handles its business with respect to the military.
But I can tell you that the President of the United States is quite proud of the finest fighting force that the world has ever known. He has often described his role as Commander-in-Chief and leading the men and women of the United States military as the greatest professional honor of his life. And I think, time and time again, we have seen the heroism and courage and professionalism of the United States military yield significant and enormous benefits to the American people. And that's true when it comes to fighting Ebola. That's true when it comes to rescuing hostages. And that's true when it comes to taking out terrorists. The President is quite proud to lead the United States military.
Q And yet he may veto the defense bill, despite the fact that there are a number of F18s that can't be launched right now, B1 bombers having trouble. I'm just wondering if the President feels like the services deserve more money. And if they deserve more money, what’s he doing about it? He’s going to veto this bill. It can make it even tougher for them to do the job and the missions that they’ve been charged with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President is not vetoing the bill and suggesting that Congress shouldn’t pass them any funding. The President is actually going to veto the bill because he believes that Congress should more effectively fund our national security apparatus, including our military, and that there are programs that are worthy of more funding, and more consistent funding.
I believe that Secretary Carter has spoken to this repeatedly, that right now what Congress is proposing to do is to basically just fund the military for the next six months. That doesn’t make any sense. That's not a smart way to manage the most effective fighting force in the world, particularly one that we depend on to protect our national security.
So this is an ill-advised piece of legislation. And there are a number of reasons that we oppose it. And the President --if this is passed, it's something that he will veto so that Congress can pass funding at an appropriate level for our United States military to protect our readiness and to protect our country.
Q So while you all squabble back and forth with congressional leaders, what’s the message to the women and men who are charged with mission readiness and their job is to protect us all? They need their funding. They need their money.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, they do. I hope that Congress is hearing your message, Kevin.
Q Right. And so you guys have to figure this thing out. Because I get letters and emails from people who say, ask the White House, what are they doing about this? When are they going to put pen to paper and make sure that we’re covered and that we’re taken care of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, it’s the responsibility of the United States Congress to fund our government. That includes funding our military. And I’ll remind that if people want to actually understand exactly what the President’s proposal is, we put forward a budget back in February. And for the first time in 40 years, Republican leaders in Congress refuse to have a hearing to even discuss what the President’s Budget Director exactly what our national security funding strategy should be. So it’s Republicans who have fallen down on the job. It’s Republicans who have refused time and time again to handle their responsibilities consistent with putting our national security first.
They’d much rather play politics and attack the President’s EO to prevent discrimination against LGBT Americans, something that has nothing to do with funding our national security priorities, but, for some strange reason, is actually included as a provision in the NDAA bill. That’s not a provision that was inserted by Democrats, that was a provision that was inserted by Republicans who are much more interested in playing politics than they are with funding our national security.
Q What’s next? What’s the solution to the issue? Because every day that goes by, there’s another aircraft that can’t be launched, there’s another soldier out there that doesn’t have what she or he needs.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think that is a very good question for the men and women in the United States Congress who have a responsibility to fund our government and to fund our military. That is a core function of the United States Congress. That is the way that our Founders designed our system of government. And the President has a responsibility to put forward a very specific proposal and he did that. And it’s Republicans who refuse to even discuss it with him.
So Republicans are the ones that have to bear the responsibility of figuring out how they’re going to use their majority in the House and the Senate that they fought so hard for to make sure they’re doing right by our men and women in uniform.
Q Lastly, I’ll take this one because I’m not sure if April can make her way back in. The Urban League’s 40th State of Black America report is out. Is black America better now than it was when President Obama took office?
MR. EARNEST: There is no denying -- and Mitch McConnell agrees with me on this -- that all of America is better since President Obama took office, and black America is better since President Obama took office. And no matter how -- on almost any measure that I can think of, whether it comes to graduate rates, access to health care, or the strength of our economy and job creation, by every measure, our economy and our country is stronger -- not just for African Americans but for all Americans.
Q Thank you, Josh. Someone who does not have a political agenda or any partisan bones in his body I don’t think spoke about the new regulations in the administration. This is Cardinal Robert Sarah, one of the Pope’s right hands in the Vatican, speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast this morning. He said, and I quote, “Should it be not that biological men should use a man’s bathroom. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.” Does the administration have a reaction to criticism of its new orders from a top Vatican official?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen his comments.
Yes, ma’am, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. When the President --
MR. EARNEST: She sat through the whole thing.
Q I had to run -- I’m dealing with Roots over there -- I wanted to ask you about that, too.
MR. EARNEST: I understand. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you, Josh. When the President visits Japan for the G7 meeting next week, will the North Korean nuclear issue be discussed at this meeting? And also I have a second question for you. And what is it the United States final destination of North Korean nuclear issues? Does the President consider before his administration, the end of this year, will there be more attention to the North Korean nuclear issues?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that this is an issue that will be discussed at the G7 meeting in Japan. Obviously the world is concerned about the provocations and destabilizing activities of the North Korean regime, and Japan is particularly concerned about the impact that those activities could have on their national security.
The United States believes strongly in our alliance with Japan. The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of regional security in Northeast Asia. And the United States has deployed resources and personnel to Japan to assist them in countering the threat that emanates from North Korea.
As it relates to resolving our broader concerns with North Korea’s nuclear program, we continue to work with the international community to pressure the North Korean regime, to isolate them further and encourage them to come into compliance with their international obligations. Earlier this year, the United States worked effectively with China at the United Nations to ramp up the pressure that has been placed on the North Korean regime. We put in place sanctions that went farther than they ever have before in isolating that country and targeting certain industries in North Korea that we know generate revenue that’s used to invest in their nuclear program.
So those kinds of sanctions would not be possible without the effective cooperation and coordination of the United States and China, and we’re going to continue to work with the rest of the international community to make progress in isolating North Korea until they make clear that they’re prepared to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and stop engaging in the kinds of provocative acts that are broadly destabilizing.
Q What is President Obama’s final decision for the North Korean nuclear issues before he steps down?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the next step will be up to the North Koreans and it will be up to the North Koreans to decide whether or not they’re ready to commit to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Until they do, they’re going to continue to face the kind of isolation that they currently suffer from.
Go ahead, April.
Q Thank you. I’m sorry. Please don’t be angry. It’s hard dealing with two events at one time. One, as you talked about the Urban League, they’re talking about an issue -- ACA, focusing on ACA, and hoping that the costs will be cut for health care, the price -- the high prices of health care. What does this administration say in the midst of that report?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m glad that you asked that question because it does give me an opportunity to point to the recent study that was published that indicates for the first time the percentage of Americans with health insurance in 2015 exceeded 90 percent.
That’s the highest annual measure that’s ever been recorded and is another sign of the important progress that our country has made under the Affordable Care Act. One of the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to put downward pressure on the growth in health care costs. And since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, we have seen the slowest growth in health care costs on record. That, again, is another tangible sign of the important benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
Moving forward, as the law continues to be implemented and as more people get access to health care and as more competition is created in individual markets, we’re optimistic that we’re going to continue to put downward pressure on costs and put outward pressure on expanding coverage to even more Americans.
Q And then on another subject, really fast. You have “Roots” in your next building -- the conversation and airing I guess of the film, parts of the film. Can you explain why this White House for “Roots,” this historic movie event that happened decades ago, and the re-airing of it in a new version now? And also, the most recent movie filming, the John Legend movie, the Underground movie. Can you talk to us why these events are happening here?
MR. EARNEST: I think the significance is that this is obviously a film that shaped a generation of Americans views of our country’s history and of race relations in this country. And there’s been a movement to modernize the film and present an updated version that I think has a lot of people talking and a lot of people considering some issues that are central to the founding of our country. And they’re central to our nation’s history, and they’re central to the impact that race relations has on everyday life in the United States. So these are issues that are worthy of discussion and study and using an opportunity with the presentation of a new film like this, the administration decided to try to capitalize on that opportunity to cultivate and engage in an important discussion.
Q So this is part of the President’s effort to keep the dialogue going on race? These movies -- the airing of these movies from this historic place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is an opportunity for people to come together and discuss these issues. And certainly people’s interest in a film like this provides an appropriate venue for having those discussions.
Go ahead, Mark.
Q I wasn’t aware of this event. Was the President at this screening?
MR. EARNEST: He is not. He is not.
Q One other question. You mentioned the 90 percent with health insurance. Why is it not 100 percent? What’s holding up the ACA on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, part of what’s holding it up are Republican governors across the country that are opposing the expansion of Medicaid. And it’s unfortunate that we’ve seen -- that we continue to see millions of Americans be denied access to health care because Republicans in their state don’t want to be viewed as implementing, let alone supporting, the health care reform law, championed by President Obama. So that’s a -- there are millions of Americans who don’t have access to health care for that reason. That certainly is a big chunk of that 10 percent that doesn’t have access to health care.
Some of them are -- some of those people are also individuals who have chosen to pay a penalty as opposed to paying for health insurance and we talked a lot last fall and even earlier this spring about why that was not a common-sense financial choice but yet it’s a choice that some Americans make.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:48 P.M. EDT