Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/19/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Thank you. Starting with the news that everyone woke up to today. What conclusions has the United States government reached about what may have brought down the Egyptian airline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start, Darlene, by offering our thoughts and prayers to the families of those who were aboard EgyptAir Flight 804. The uncertainty and creeping sense of loss that the loved ones of those who were lost on the plane must be experiencing right now is painful to even contemplate.
The President, as you all are aware, has received multiple updates from his national security team on the situation. U.S. national security and aviation experts have been in touch with their counterparts in France and Egypt to offer assistance. Many of you all have probably also seen the announcement from the Department of Defense that the United States Navy is working to deploy a P-3 Orion aircraft to provide support for the search of the missing jetliner.
At this point, Darlene, to go straight to your question, it's too early to definitively say what may have caused this disaster. The investigation is underway and investigators will consider all of the potential factors that could have contributed to the crash. And obviously if there’s an opportunity for the United States government to support those efforts then we will do that. And the President asked his team to keep him apprised of developments as they occur.
Q Switching topics to Puerto Rico and the legislation on the Hill, the agreement on a new bill. Is there any reaction from the White House on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the administration has made clear for several months now that any legislation to address the crisis in Puerto Rico must provide a workable and comprehensive restructuring authority with appropriate oversight that respects Puerto Rico’s self-governance. We're encouraged to see the House introduce legislation yesterday that provides Puerto Rico with these tools to address a crisis that's having a negative impact on the 3.5 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico. There are tangible, real-world, negative consequences for Americans living in Puerto Rico.
And we continue to believe that additional measures are necessary to help Puerto Rico grow its economy and address this humanitarian crisis. But the legislation that was unveiled late last night is an important first step. We believe that overall the legislation provides a fair process for Puerto Rico to restructure its debts, enact fiscal reforms, and create a foundation for economic recovery after enduring a decade of recession.
Q There’s one other thing I'd like to ask you about. The chief of staff to the Hungarian Prime Minister today said that President Obama and the United States favor immigration to Europe because they want to send all the Muslims to Europe. Is there anything you want to say in response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those comments. I'm not sure they’re worthy of a response.
Q Josh, is the United States concerned about security at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, and are you concerned about reports that Islamic State militants have infiltrated that airport and others?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, the United States does have a relationship through TSA and DHS with those airports around the world that are the last point of departure to the United States. So the United States has successfully worked with security officials at airports across the country to ensure that international flights arriving in the United States are subject to more exhaustive security and screening procedures to ensure the safety of the American traveling public.
Again, at this point, it's too early to say what potential factors may have contributed to this particular incident. But it is fair for you to observe and for the American people to understand that over the last 18 to 24 months, the Department of Homeland Security has made some important enhancements to those international airports that are the last points of departure for international flights. And that includes expanded screening that's applied to a variety of items that could be transported on an aircraft, so not just carry-on baggage but other baggage and other equipment that is maintained on the aircraft.
TSA officials have also engaged in conducting airport assessments in conjunction with our international partners to ensure the security of the terminal and the airport more broadly. And the DHS has worked with partners to offer assistance to certain foreign airports related to broader aviation and airport security questions. There’s extensive expertise that exists at TSA, and working with the operators at foreign airports, we've been able to use that expertise to discuss best practices that could be used to enhance security at foreign airports.
Q Do you have any specific concerns, though, about the Paris airport?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I have to articulate from here. Obviously there are U.S. flights that originate from that airport and the United States has a very important national security relationship with France and that would extend to our coordination on issues related to aviation security. But I don't have anything specific to raise in terms of concerns about the security situation in Charles de Gaulle.
Q More broadly, does the United States have concerns about militants from the Islamic State infiltrating airports, be it in Europe or be it elsewhere in the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say something that probably is even slightly broader than the way that you asked your question. We have seen a desire on the part of extremists around the world, including some extremists in the Middle East, to carry out attacks targeting the international aviation system, so we obviously are mindful of that. And here in the United States we’ve experienced the pain of those aviation-borne attacks firsthand on 9/11. So our experts at the TSA take very seriously the need to apply adaptive security measures to ensure the safety of our aviation system. They pursue a layered approach that involves a variety of technologies and tactics, and these are tactics that they can be shared with our partners around the world and applied in airports around the world.
So we’ve obviously learned a lot since 9/11 about what’s necessary to protect the aviation system. But that has not diminished the desire of some extremist organizations to try to carry out attacks against the aviation system. We’re aware of that, and we are constantly countering that threat by adapting our security system to protect the traveling public.
Q Finally, you said it’s too early to comment on what the causes were. Are you able, or has the U.S. intelligence community been able to rule out anything, such as a bomb? Or has anything so far, from the United States’ perspective, been ruled out?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any sort of intelligence assessment that has ruled anything out. I’m also not aware of any intelligence assessment that’s ruled anything in at this point. So we’re still quite early in this investigation, and investigators will examine all of the potential factors that may have contributed to this tragedy.
Q I wanted to ask about Puerto Rico. You mentioned that you think there are still more steps that need to be taken in addition to this bill, but as the bill stands now, would you sign it? Is this something that the White House supports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we are encouraged that Democrats and Republicans did work effectively together to produce this piece of legislation. Bipartisanship has been hard to come by in the United States Congress for a few years now, so that’s why you heard me describe the fact that we’re encouraged by the introduction of this legislation yesterday. So, yes, I think you could say that we are supportive of this legislative proposal to establish a fair process that allows Puerto Rico to restructure its debts, enact fiscal reforms, and create a foundation for economic recovery.
What’s true, though, is that the introduction of legislation is just the beginning of the process. And this crisis in Puerto Rico can only end when Congress takes bipartisan action. And we urge members of Congress in both parties to stand firm against the special interests attempting to undermine this essential legislation. We urge Congress to act without delay to provide Puerto Rico with the tools that it desperately needs to address a situation that’s having a negative impact on 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico.
Q One of the fiscal reforms in the bill includes allowing the governor of Puerto Rico to reduce the minimum wage over five years, below the national average. Obviously, that’s something
-- the minimum wage is something the administration has pushed for increasing -- there are state increases as high as $15. So what’s your response to the idea that Puerto Rico could be reducing its minimum wage less than $7.25?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is -- I’ve been briefed on this provision -- is that it applies to a particular quirk in the law that actually affects people who are younger than age 20 who are working for the minimum wage and that it would allow their employer to pay them even below the minimum wage.
I think it would be pretty hard for anybody to explain how exactly a 19-year-old Puerto Rican who’s making minimum wage is somehow responsible for the situation or should be punished as a result of this situation, or that the situation would be improved if 19-year-old Puerto Ricans who are working minimum wage got paid less.
So, no, this is not a provision that we support. Supporters of this provision I think have a hard time justifying it, but in order to see bipartisan action in Congress, we are prepared to encourage Congress to pass a piece of legislation even if it’s less than perfect.
Q And it seemed like one of the recent changes was actually increasing the age from 20 to 25. That was one of the things that got changed.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. And so, yes, are 23-year-old Puerto Ricans who are making minimum wage deserving of a pay cut, and somehow that’s going to improve the economic climate in Puerto Rico? Again, we’ve seen mean-spirited policymaking on the part of Republicans for quite some time now. I think we’ll just file this example in a rather large file. But the President has made assisting Puerto Rico and addressing their challenging economic situation a top priority, and sometimes getting bipartisan progress in Congress requires supporting legislation that’s not perfect.
Q Josh, back on the plane. Can you say whether and with what frequency the expanded screenings have resulted in thwarted plots against Americans?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an assessment of that. These expanded screenings, just to be clear, are applied to international aircraft that are bound for the United States. Obviously, EgyptAir Flight 804 took off from Paris and was bound from Cairo, so it wasn’t subjected necessarily to these specific enhanced screening.
Q I understand.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an assessment for how those enhanced security measures have disrupted plots, but we do believe that expertise from the TSA and additional screening measures even at foreign airports does enhance the safety and security of Americans traveling abroad.
Q Two more. I’ll try to keep them short. You said that investigators would look at all factors. Did you mean U.S. investigators? And if so, why are they involved at this point?
MR. EARNEST: No, I didn’t say U.S. investigators.
Q But I’m just wondering --
MR. EARNEST: What I have indicated -- and I think that this was part of the President’s instruction -- is that U.S. officials, both national security officials and aviation experts, would be in touch with their counterparts and offering assistance. I’m not aware that that assistance has been accepted at this point, but certainly U.S. officials, including officials who could assist in the investigation of an aviation disaster, could be made available if requested.
Q Last one. When you were asked whether you had specific concerns about Charles De Gaulle Airport, you said nothing you can articulate from there. That doesn’t sound terrifically reassuring.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, what I’m saying is I can’t offer a security assessment of any airport around the world, so I certainly would encourage you guys to check with TSA on that. But there’s no specific concern that’s been raised that I’m aware of.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said that it’s too early, of course, to really know what happened. But even at this point, and even hours ago, Egyptian officials were saying that terrorism in this case is more likely than a technical fault on this plane. Does the administration share that view? Or does the U.S. have information that backs that likelihood up, at the very least?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, the information that is available is something that investigators are still taking a close look at and so I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this point about what factors may have potentially contributed to this disaster. But obviously we’re going to take a close look at all the available evidence and we’re going to be in close touch with our counterparts, and if there is assistance that U.S. experts or U.S. national security officials can provide in the investigation, then we’ll certainly do that.
Q So when Egyptian officials are saying it’s likely terrorism, and other officials are speculating that, based on what we know happened, it looks like a bomb, is that something that is taken into account? I mean, do you feel that it’s premature to make those assessments right now? Or is the U.S. looking at those assessments from other countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now, what the United States is doing is offering our assistance to those investigators who are taking a look at this information and trying to draw conclusions as best they can. So that’s why I don’t have a separate assessment to share from here. But we obviously want to be supportive of those who are conducting this investigation, and the deployment of a U.S. Navy aircraft to assist in the search is one tangible example of how U.S. assets can be used to benefit the ongoing effort.
Q But by saying it’s too early to really know, you’re not, by saying that, dismissing those early assessments?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m merely explaining why I don’t have my own assessment to offer.
Q Okay. And because it is a question mark and because those assessments at this point are coming from elsewhere and this originated at an airport where flights to the U.S. originate, on its face, does this, at this point, raise the risk for U.S. passengers?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I think it’s too early to reach that conclusion. Obviously national security officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA can offer up the best assessment about that. As I was explaining to Olivier, flights that originate from Charles De Gaulle that are bound for the United States are subjected to additional screening that may not have applied in this situation. So American passengers can certainly take some confidence from that.
But, look, we’re only hours, not even days, into trying to get to the bottom of what exactly happened here. So we obviously are going to be very supportive of those who are conducting the investigation, and we are eager to understand exactly what may have contributed to this particular tragedy. And if it merits any sort of change in our security posture, then I’m confident that’s something that will be carefully evaluated by DHS Secretary Johnson and TSA Administrator Neffenger to make the appropriate changes if necessary.
Q And because we don’t know what happened here and terrorism is a possibility, can you just sort of broadly describe the kinds of additional measures that are going on in foreign airports by the TSA right now? I mean, can you say that this is something of an internal alert? Or because there are expanded measures already, are they now tighter immediately? I mean, what can you say about what happens after something like this has transpired?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what happens immediately when something like this transpires is that there is work -- well, that there are offers of assistance that are made to the investigators overseas that are conducting the investigation. And the United States has expertise and assets that other investigators may find useful. They certainly have been useful in other international investigations that have been conducted.
But there are a number of things that the TSA is engaged in, regardless of whether or not there is an unexplained crash like this one. So let me give you a couple more examples. In the fiscal year 2015, the TSA’s transportation security specialists performed 289 air carrier inspections and 146 foreign airport assessments. So, again, this is an example of how expertise at the TSA can be deployed overseas to enhance not just the U.S. aviation system but the international aviation system.
The other thing that the TSA often does is they will deploy canine teams in airports, including teams that are sometimes led by state and local law enforcement as well as by TSA officers themselves. These teams operate in secure areas of the airport, including activities such as screening cargo and baggage as it’s being loaded into the aircraft.
The other thing that DHS has been able to do is to establish something called preclearance. And there are a handful of airports around the world where international flights will originate and fly into the United States. And preclearance means that Customs and Border Patrol officers don’t screen the passengers after they get off the plane but actually will engage in screening those passengers overseas on foreign soil before they even board a plane that is bound for the United States.
And that means that the security of those flights is enhanced even further than they already would be. And there are 15 preclearance locations around the world right now, and DHS and CVP are working together to try to expand that program and, again, provide greater confidence that air passengers who are boarding flights bound for the United States have actually been thoroughly reviewed by U.S. national security professionals before they even board the plane.
Q Does TSA have any involvement in the maintenance of planes and how those procedures are done before that plane takes off?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that TSA has a maintenance function, but TSA can certainly provide assistance and advice to foreign airport officials as they try to secure sensitive parts of the airport. So that could include terminals, but that could also include sensitive maintenance areas. So while they're not, firsthand, involved in conducting that maintenance, they can certainly offer advice and assistance in terms of helping airport officials secure those sensitive parts of the airport.
Q Continuing on the theme of bipartisan agreement on legislation, today a group of Republican and Senate Democrats have unveiled a bill to overhaul the decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act -- a chemical bill that is something the White House and EPA have been consulting on. Can you say at this point if the White House endorses this proposal, which has received considerable support from both parties in the Senate and, to a lesser degree, in the House?
MR. EARNEST: I have to check with our team to see to what extent we've been briefed on the details of the proposals that's apparently been agreed to. So let me circle back with you on the details of that.
Q I'm just trying to understand the investigative cooperation relationship between the U.S. and, say, the Egyptian and French and other authorities. Because you said that there have been offers of assistance and that so far they have not been accepted. Yet, at the same time, there's every -- well, there are some indications that this could be a terrorist attack, and this is obviously a big concern for the United States. So what you've described sounds more passive than active and aggressive and engaged. Do you see what I'm saying? And I'm just trying to understand why that is. Why is the United States not just -- why isn’t there some sort of mechanism whereby because of -- again, there's been so much emphasis on intelligence-sharing and the fight against ISIS. Why isn’t there some sort of mechanism or some sort of process whereby, given the work that TSA has done in these airports, that there's a much more aggressive and engaged posture by the United States when something like this happens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, I think the first thing that we should step back and recognize is that this is an aircraft that did not originate on American soil. It was not bound for American soil; it was not an American airline. I'm not aware that the pilots were American. Obviously, the plane didn’t crash in America. So there are other countries that have appropriate jurisdictions.
And the United States has important relationships with both France and with Egypt. We've got an important relationship with Greek authorities, who had launched the preliminary search effort because this obviously took place near Greek waters. So there are reasons why there are other countries who were immediately responsible for dealing with this situation, but that has not at all resulted in a delay of the United States offering assistance, communicating with our partners in both of the countries, and being engaged in trying to get to the bottom of what exactly transpired.
I did not mean to lead you to conclude that somehow our offers of assistance had been rebuffed, just that other countries have the lead. We have offered to help and we stand ready to provide that assistance as soon as they're ready to integrate it into their efforts.
Q So what if it's not accepted? Is this diplomatic language that you can't say --
MR. EARNEST: Given the strong relationships between the United States and France, and the United States and Egypt, I'm confident that we'll be able to provide them the needed support to ensure that this investigation proceeds expeditiously and is conducted with a focus on getting to the bottom of what exactly transpired so that we can make any necessary changes -- whether that's changes to an aircraft, enhancements to maintenance, or taking additional security precautions to ensure the safety and security of the traveling public.
Q Right. Because, again, even though this does not involve an American plane or passengers or a pilot or airports, the international air system is essentially -- it's an international system. It's really not -- I mean, obviously it's not a state-separated system. And that's why -- again, so you have every expectation that the -- so at this moment, the FBI, the TSA, others are not actively involved in this investigation? They are essentially -- have extended an offer, and now some 12 or more hours after this happened, we're still waiting to hear whether or not they will be engaged and involved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would encourage you to consult with those individual agencies, and they can detail for you the kinds of conversations that they've had with our partners. But I have confidence that France and Egypt will seek whatever assistance is required, and the United States stands ready to provide as much assistance as is necessary to achieve our shared goal, which is to get to the bottom of what happened as quickly as possible.
Q Josh, I want to ask you questions on two different subjects. One, starting off with the airports and this crash, or this possible or alleged terrorist attack. What is the, I guess, conversations, and is there some line of conversation between the FAA here, intelligence officials, and their counterparts in other nations when it comes to airports and airlines? Because that is still considered the number-one target for terrorists, in airports. What kind of conversations are happening? And particularly when it comes to the uniformity in stepping up security in all of these airports around the country -- because every airport is different. Security in every airport is different.
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the priority that we have placed is on those airports overseas that are the last point of departure. So international aircraft that originate in other countries flying into the United States, those are, for obvious reasons, the point of emphasis that our security professionals have identified. And as a result, there are enhanced screening measures in place at airports around the world -- not on American soil -- but that are consistent with established standards put together by TSA to ensure the safety of flights bound for the United States that originate in other countries.
In addition to that, TSA obviously has experts and equipment and strategies for safeguarding aircraft, for safeguarding passengers, for safeguarding airports. And that assistance advice about that expertise is provided to our partners around the world. As I pointed out, in the last fiscal year, TSA security specialists performed 289 air carrier inspections and 146 foreign airport assessments. So I think that's an indication that the scope of their work is quite broad.
But in addition to that, the Department of Homeland Security has sought to expand their preclearance program that provides significantly enhanced screening of passengers who are originating -- who are trying to travel to the United States from overseas. And examining the passports and documentation of those passengers before they ever board the plane, ensuring that those aircraft and those passengers can be swept prior to boarding the plane consistent with U.S. standards is certainly another way that we can enhance the safety of the American traveling public.
So DHS and TSA and CVP and all of these national security agencies that have different responsibilities for protecting the American people are not just actively engaged in the United States in protecting the traveling public, but they’re actively engaged overseas to ensure that international flights arriving in the United States are secure as well.
Q What I'm getting from what you're saying is there’s not uniformity but there’s efforts to increase and enhance it. So with that, what’s the reality in the timeline that there could be uniformity in these airports where everyone is on the same page with documentation, screenings, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I don't envision a scenario in which every single airport in the world has the same security screening measures.
Q I'm asking about the airports that -- as you say, there are efforts that you're making when it comes to security more so with the airports that have flights coming into the United States. When will there be -- what’s the timeline for that uniformity as far as screenings and documentations, things of that nature?
MR. EARNEST: Flights that are the last point of departure are subject to enhanced screening measures that are applied by TSA. So does that answer your question?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would do is this. I think you should check with TSA and they can provide you a more detailed assessment of what security measures they have in place at airports around the world.
Q Make sure TSA and I can talk? Okay.
MR. EARNEST: Anybody else?
Q I'm not finished with my other question -- I'm sorry. It was the Nigerian girls since we had the latest news yesterday. Could you talk to us about any intelligence you’ve received? What’s the latest as relates to the Nigerian girls?
MR. EARNEST: AS you know, April, extensive resources have been provided by the United States to the Nigerian officials who are responsible for searching not just for the Chibok girls but for the thousands of Nigerians who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Boko Haram is a vicious terrorist organization that has capitalized on kidnapping to try to raise money for their terrorist organization and to otherwise terrorize the people in that country and the people in that region. And the United States has provided intelligence, military and financial support to the Nigerian government as they confront this threat. And we continue to provide that even to this day.
Q And was that a glimmer of hope yesterday that even though she was found pregnant and they were questioning if that could have been one of the captors -- it was supposed to be her husband -- is there still a glimmer of hope that more will be found?
MR. EARNEST: Certainly the United States continues to vigorously support the efforts of the Nigerian government. Ultimately, it's the Nigerian government who is responsible for conducting the search, and their search efforts have been enhanced greatly by the assistance provided by the United States.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two Chinese tactical jets have intercepted an American reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea. And I was wondering, how seriously are you taking this incident? Do you see it as a provocation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, the Department of Defense is reviewing public claims of a May 17 intercept of a U.S. maritime patrol reconnaissance aircraft by two tactical aircraft from the People’s Republic of China. The incident occurred in international airspace during a routine U.S. patrol in the South China Sea. Initial reports of the incident characterized it as “unsafe.”
I can tell you more generally that the Department of Defense has made progress reducing the risk between U.S. operational forces and those of the People’s Republic of China. We've reduced that risk by improving dialogue at multiple levels under the bilateral confidence-building measures and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. These are established diplomatic and military channels that allow the United States and China to communicate clearly and raise concerns about these kinds of issues when they arise.
I'm told that the next Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks are actually scheduled for May 24 and 25 in Hawaii. So there is a well-established diplomatic and military channel to work through these kinds of concerns. Over the course of the last year, the Department of Defense has seen improvements in the way that Chinese military pilots fly consistent with international guidelines and consistent with the way that aircraft can be operated in a safe and professional manner. But suffice it to say that the Department of Defense is addressing this issue through the appropriate channels.
Q Is the President typically told about these incidents, or this one in particular?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is certainly apprised of these developments as warranted. I don't know whether or not he received a specific briefing on this particular situation. Again, based on the kinds of improvements that we've seen over the last year, I think these kinds of incidents are not common. But there also was a pretty significant incident in the first few months of the Bush administration with Chinese military aircraft intercepting U.S. intelligence aircraft that resulted in a much more significant geopolitical incident. The reports of this incident obviously didn’t result in the same kind of consequences.
Q This is obviously not an accident. Do you think that it’s going to coincide with the President’s trip to Vietnam?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll try to address this issue through the established channels. And presumably, in those channels, Chinese officials can explain their perspective on what exactly occurred. But I would hesitate to ascribe a motive at this point.
Q Josh, you’ve been pretty restrained in how you’ve described what has happened with the EgyptAir flight. Donald Trump was out with a tweet this morning -- he says, “Looks like another terrorist attack. Airplane departed from Paris. When will we get tough, smart and vigilant?” That would imply that this administration has not done those things in terms of being “tough, smart and vigilant.” What do you make of those comments? Inappropriate at this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a specific reaction to that tweet. Obviously we believe that this investigation should move forward, and move forward expeditiously. And if conclusions point toward specific security concerns, then I’m confident that our security professionals will address it.
But since you, or someone else, brought it up, my colleagues at the Department of Defense did provide I think a pretty useful update on some of the progress that’s been made against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria in recent weeks. So let me just point out a couple of the highlights.
The first is that we obviously are pleased with the progress that Iraqi security forces have made in the western Anbar town of Rutbah. This operation, once it’s complete, will help the Iraqis reclaim Iraq’s southwestern border and reestablish economic trade along highways between Jordan and Iraq. We obviously have been supportive of Iraqi forces that are operating in that area, and we’re pleased to see them make important progress.
I also have an updated assessment for you in terms of the success that Iraqi forces have had in driving ISIL out of populated territory in Iraq. The updated assessment is that now 45 percent of the populated area that ISIL previously controlled has been retaken from them. In Syria, that figure is now 20 percent, thanks to the work of local partners, including the Syrian-Arab coalition. That’s an increase in both countries.
In addition, there are some additional metrics I can share with you here. DOD has indicated they have targeted and killed more than 120 high-value individuals in ISIL’s attack network, including leaders, facilitators, planners and recruiters. And my colleagues at the Department of Defense have indicated that that’s had a measurable impact on ISIL’s effectiveness.
The coalition more broadly has trained more than 30,000 Iraqi security forces. They reported that, right now, nearly 5,000 Iraqi security forces are in training. That’s about 3,800 Iraqi army soldiers and about 1,100 Peshmerga fighters in Erbil. Together, that is the highest number the coalition has been training at any one point in time.
And then finally, I want to draw to your attention an announcement that was made today by the International Monetary Fund. They announced that they had come to an agreement with the government of Iraq on a $5 billion loan agreement over the next three years. Over the last several weeks, you’ve heard the President talking with a greater sense of urgency about the economic situation in Iraq, and obviously the security challenges in Iraq combined with some of the challenges that they’ve encountered in implementing political reforms, as well as the impact of a much lower global price of oil -- all have combined to have a negative impact on the economic situation in Iraq.
And the President made a concerted effort to encourage our partners and allies who are part of the coalition to ramp up the financial assistance that they’re providing to Iraq, both to offer support to the Abadi government, but also to offer support to the Iraqi government as they try to rebuild those areas that have been retaken from ISIL. We know that some of ISIL’s tactics have been to essentially destroy the infrastructure of places that they had occupied.
So being able to quickly rebuild that infrastructure and allow people to move home is a top priority of the Abadi government and will be critical to the success of stabilizing and securing the country. And the international contribution to this effort is critical. And obviously, a $5.4 billion commitment from the IMF is significant.
So thank you for indulging me on that.
Q Well, ISIS hasn’t claimed responsibility. Is there a reason you brought them up?
MR. EARNEST: No, but I think that was implied in the tweet. And you had asked whether or not we had been vigorous in pursuing extremist organizations that have vowed to attack the United States, or at least our interests. And so it seemed appropriate to offer an update to our efforts against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria.
Q Lisa Monaco delivered the briefing this morning, I believe, to the President, according to your readout. Is that the U.S. official who has continued to update the President? Or are there others from different departments?
MR. EARNEST: She will continue to be principally responsible for that, but obviously there are other officials, including in the intelligence community and other places, that may also have information to share with the President. But she obviously is the person responsible for that, principally.
Q Given her role in counterterrorism, it would imply that that is obviously a key concern when it comes to this EgyptAir crash, or disappearance, I suppose. Is that a fair thing to surmise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she is both the President’s top counterterrorism advisor but also his top homeland security advisor, so it’s also customary for her to apprise him of events that could have a potential impact on the homeland, even if they’re not related to terrorism.
Q But is this being treated, I guess, like any other plane downing or disappearance? We’ve had a few in the past few years. I mean, is there something specific about this focus and how quickly the administration has responded -- about it?
MR. EARNEST: I think the response that we have initiated here at the White House is consistent with any significant or potentially significant world event that could have an impact on U.S. policy. And certainly Ms. Monaco and her colleagues at the NSC have been conscientious about making sure the President has all of the information that he needs.
Q So in public discourse about this, do you think that terrorism is being too focused on? Or are we -- you’re getting a lot of questions in this room specifically about that as a hypothesis that hasn’t been ruled out. But is that the prime focus right now, ruling that out?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that our intelligence community has concluded that that’s the prime focus at this point. But look, I think I’m not going to second-guess the questions that independent journalists choose to ask.
Q Josh, Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said today on TV that politics is the reason that the United States is not defining the mission in Iraq as a combat mission. He says he believes it is. He says it’s a disservice to those out there putting their lives on the line, and “incredibly unfortunate not to speak openly about what’s going on.” Is Secretary Gates wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Karen, we’ve had an opportunity to discuss this on a number of occasions from here. But I know that people like General Dunford and Secretary Carter have also had an opportunity to discuss this. The fact of the matter is we have worked very diligently to try to be as clear as possible about what mission our men and women in uniform have been given by the Commander-in-Chief in Iraq and in Syria. And the mission that they have been given and the responsibility that they are bearing is significant and dangerous. And I’m not aware of anybody in the administration who has sought to downplay that.
What we have tried to do is to be as precise as possible in describing what exactly their mission is. And while their presence in Iraq and in Syria is dangerous and, on occasion, our men and women in uniform have found themselves in combat situations that are dangerous, they have not been deployed to Iraq to wage combat on the ground against ISIL. Their responsibility, their mission has been to offer training, advice, and assistance to Iraqi security forces.
Now, of course, there are some U.S. Special Operators that have been deployed to carry out raids against ISIL targets. Obviously that’s a combat situation. But that is very different than the decision that was made by President Bush to deploy more than 100,000 U.S. forces on the ground in a sustained combat role where their principal responsibility was to seek out and engage the adversary in combat. The mission that has been given to U.S. forces is different. And we have gone to great lengths to try to help you and the American public understand with precision exactly what responsibilities the Commander-in-Chief has given them.
The reason that that precision is important is it’s important for people to understand the different in approach, but it’s also important for people to understand how much gratitude we should have for our men and women in uniform who are assuming a great burden, at great peril to themselves, to keep our country safe. Certainly the Commander-in-Chief has that gratitude, and hopefully every American does.
Q It’s a pretty tough charge, though, using the word “politics” in this. Can you specifically respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I’m going to respond to Secretary Gates today.
Q Josh, back on the Chinese aircraft incident. You said you would not ascribe a motive to that incident. But is there any doubt in the administration’s mind that the incident was deliberate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think this is exactly why we’ve got this established channel where U.S. military and diplomatic officials can consult with their counterparts in China and engage in a dialogue with them about this particular incident and give those Chinese officials an opportunity to explain from their perspective exactly what happened and try to prevent those kinds of dangerous incidents from occurring in the future. So that’s why I’m hesitating to ascribe a motive. I’ll let Chinese officials explain their actions, and I’m confident that they’ll do that both publicly and privately.
Q Could you say whether this is the kind of incident President Obama would raise in his next conversation with President Xi?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that it necessarily would rise to that level. There have been a couple of high-profile incidents with --
Q The Russians.
MR. EARNEST -- the Russians. And the President, in the immediate aftermath of one of those incidents, had a long phone call with President Putin and it didn’t come up. I don’t know if this kind of incident would rise to that level. It certainly wouldn’t rise to the level of prompting proactively a call from the President to his Chinese counterpart, but it’s hard for me to say whether or not it would come up in a call that was scheduled to discuss something else.
Q Last one. Can you say whether or not Chinese leaders have raised the issue of U.S. reconnaissance planes near their airspace operating in that area?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the concern that they have raised is about the kind of territorial disputes that have arisen in the South China Sea. And China makes some significant claims in that region of the world that are in dispute. And the United States has asserted that those disputes should be resolved through diplomacy. We've made clear both publicly and privately that the United States is not a claimant to any of those land features in the South China Sea, but we have encouraged those with competing claims, including China, to find a diplomatic resolution to those competing claims.
Q Thank you, Josh. Former U.S. Marine working for the U.S. military base Kadena in Okinawa was arrested by Okinawa police after a Japanese woman's body was found. Are you concerned this incident will make worse relations between people in Okinawa and U.S. military base?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Taka, we've seen the reports and we're aware of the arrest of a U.S. citizen civilian in Okinawa, and we're following the case closely. You probably have seen the statement from Ambassador Kennedy on this issue. Our heartfelt sympathy and deepest condolences go out to the family and friends of the victim. This is a terrible tragedy and an outrage, and we wish to express our deepest sorrow.
The United States is treating this situation with the utmost seriousness, and the United States military is cooperating fully with local authorities in their investigation. For additional details about that, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. They presumably could answer any questions you would have about any impact this could potentially have on the military presence in Okinawa, but I would not anticipate any sort of policy change.
Q The President is going to Japan next week, so will he talk about these kinds of issues?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry? He'll go to Japan next week. And what was the last part of your questions?
Q Will he talk about these issues when he goes to Japan? Will he talk about this military base issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the conversation about this particular incident will occur. I would anticipate the President will have an opportunity to have a discussion with Prime Minister Abe, but I don’t know whether or not this will be on the agenda.
Q Thanks, Josh. On TPP, the ITC report came out late yesterday and it showed in their assessment that the TPP would boost American agriculture, boost the service sector, but actually have a slightly downward impact on U.S. manufacturing. Obviously, manufacturing has been a big selling point for the President in this, and this is showing that it would actually reduce manufacturing slightly. Is that a disappointment to you? Or do you agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things. I mean, the overall numbers are, as you point out, quite good. The U.S. annual real income would be boosted by $57 billion if TPP were to go into effect based on this independent analysis. And about two-thirds -- GDP would increase $42 billion. And about two-thirds of the GDP growth resulting from the TPP would go to American workers through wage increases and increased job opportunities. And that's how -- I think this provides additional evidence of how the TPP is consistent with the President's strategy of focusing on growing the U.S. economy from the middle out.
I would say that these numbers would be even higher if they factored in the important success that we have enjoyed in negotiating a reduction in non-tariff barriers in the TPP agreement. This independent analysis did not fully account for the impact of the reduction in non-tariff barriers.
As it relates to the manufacturing sectors, the report shows very clearly that, under TPP, manufacturing employment and output do not decline from where they are now, but they would grow. And the ITC says very clearly that output in employment in each of the 56 sectors that they model will rise with TPP in effect.
Let me give you a couple of examples. The fact that -- the ITC report shows that nearly $2 billion in increased auto exports is evidence of the impact of reducing the 70 percent tax that Vietnam currently imposes on American automobiles. Malaysia imposes a 30 percent tax. And the reduction in those taxes would have a positive impact on U.S. workers and auto companies here at home.
The last thing I’ll say about this is just that I think it’s important to consider also that the ITC report didn’t -- conducted their analysis essentially in isolation. Their analysis compares TPP to a baseline in which everything remains the same. One of our most powerful arguments, I think, about the need to move forward with implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is that if we do not, then China will certainly look to capitalize on opportunities in Southeast Asia that would not just preserve the status quo, but actually put American businesses at a further disadvantage.
So the question right now is not whether or not we should protect the status quo -- which many critics of the TPP are concerned about -- but rather, whether the United States would benefit from deeper engagement in the region and a trade agreement like the TPP that would raise labor standards, raise environmental standards, and raise human rights standards. Or are we going to subject U.S. businesses and U.S. workers to further disadvantage by effectively retreating from that region of the world?
Q Obviously your opponents, including Democrats in Congress, have been saying this would be bad for manufacturing. Are you concerned that this newer port will give them even more ammunition and decrease the likelihood that Congress will take this up this year?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not. Again, I think they would be challenged to make the case that the U.S. auto industry, for example, would be negatively affected by cutting the 70 percent tax that Vietnam currently imposes on American autos. I also think they’d be challenged to make an argument that, given the status quo that they claim to be concerned about, that we should try to preserve it and not implement the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Because I haven’t really heard them articulate a strategy for dealing with our increasingly globalized 21st century economy.
In fact, what’s likely to happen if the United States withdraws from this region of the world -- we will see China seek to expand its influence. They won’t be looking to raise environmental labor and human rights standards. If anything, they’ll be looking to reduce them. That will put U.S. businesses and U.S. workers and the U.S. economy at a further disadvantage. And that’s the essence of the case that we have made about the wisdom of moving forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
Q One other thing. You’ve now had a full 24 hours to study the list of Donald Trump’s potential Supreme Court nominees. (Laughter.) Anything else you’d like to add about them?
MR. EARNEST: You won’t be surprised to hear that I have not devoted a single second of the last 24 hours to doing that. Plenty of others have and I’ll let them weigh in with their opinions.
Q Thanks, Josh. Has the President reached out or spoken to President Sisi or Hollande?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. But if a contact like that occurs we’ll definitely let you know.
Q And should we or should we not expect him to make an on-camera statement or comment about it?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t expect that today.
Q Should we or should we not expect the President at some point to address the Puerto Rican people directly or visit the island?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any presidential plans to visit the island, but if that changes we’ll make sure -- we would make accommodations for you to join as well.
Q Would there be any interest in doing that, though?
MR. EARNEST: The President did have the opportunity to campaign in Puerto Rico in 2008. I had the pleasure of joining him on that trip. It was actually about this time of year eight years ago. Seems like a long time ago now.
Q But given the economic crisis there, it would seem to be of interest to the President, certainly the Puerto Rican people, that he make a direct appeal, especially if this makes its way through Congress and something gets signed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don’t have a trip right now to tell you about. Obviously Secretary Lew traveled to the island within the last couple of weeks. I understand that Secretary Castro is there this week, I believe -- is that right? So Secretary Castro is there this week. So there certainly have been a number of Obama administration officials, Cabinet-level officials who have visited Puerto Rico just within the last couple of weeks, to see firsthand the impact of the financial crisis on the island, on the livelihood of the 3 million Americans who live there.
So the President and the senior officials who are responsible for the domestic economy are quite concerned about the situation there. After all, that’s why the administration put forward a plan back in October to try to address this situation, and ever since then, we’ve been trying to get Republicans to engage in a good-faith conversation about addressing the situation. We obviously were pleased that that lengthy process resulted in the introduction of bipartisan legislation last night.
Q It would be, by the way, the 40th bipartisan piece of legislation signed by the President this year. Were you aware of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, we’re a long way from getting it signed. We certainly would like to see Congress act expeditiously to get this to the President’s desk.
Q Let me circle back on something Karen asked you about, what former Secretary Gates had to say. He’s been relatively consistent in his criticism of this notion that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. It is combat by any definition. Today you said you wanted to make certain that the American people understood the difference between having a combat mission and being engaged in combat. I want to give you another run at that, and I want to understand specifically, are you suggesting that unless they’re on a combat mission, they are not in combat? Or are you saying even the ones who are not on a combat mission are engaged, in fact, in combat?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m trying to do, Kevin, is explain to the American people and to your viewers exactly what mission our men and women in uniform have been given by their Commander-in-Chief. I think what’s important for people to first recognize is that the mission that our men and women in uniform have been given by President Obama is quite different than the mission that more than 100,000 U.S. servicemembers received from President Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That was a ground combat operation in which their principal responsibility was to go and seek out the enemy and engage them in combat.
The mission of most of our personnel in Iraq and in Syria now is different than that. Their principal responsibilities, setting aside those who are focused on counterterrorism and some of the special operators there that are conducting raids. The bulk of our servicemembers are engaged in a training, advice and assist mission. This means they are supporting Iraqi forces on the ground in Iraq who are, themselves, responsible for taking the fight to ISIL in their own country. Those forces, those Iraqi forces, are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government and U.S. forces have been deployed in relatively small numbers to support their efforts, to offer them advice, including tactical advice, to carry out those operations and to maximize their likelihood of success.
But we have said on a number of occasions that that responsibility requires tremendous courage and professionalism because it’s dangerous. Iraq is a dangerous place, and there have been situations in which U.S. military personnel have found themselves in combat situations when in the context of carrying out this training, advising and assist mission. That is why those soldiers that are deployed and given this role and given this mission are armed for combat, they are trained for combat, and some of them have had to engage in combat.
Tragically, I think at least three of them now have died in combat, and we owe them and their families a debt of gratitude for the tremendous sacrifice they have made for the safety and security of our country. Again, I know that our critics want to ascribe a variety of motives to this explanation. And what the Commander-in-Chief, his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his Secretary of Defense have all consistently done is try to be as precise and as clear as possible about what exactly the mission is that our men and women in uniform are pursuing in Iraq and in Syria.
Q Josh, a quick follow-up, really. Since we brought up the fight against ISIS in Iraq, as they’ve been squeezed -- as ISIS has been squeezed in other parts of the country or wherever they’ve launched a series of suicide or car-bomb attacks, any number of them in Baghdad itself, does the United States have any kind of role in securing Baghdad right now that you know of?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Iraqi forces obviously do have a responsibility both to proactively go after ISIL and fight for their own country. They also have a responsibility to try to protect the Iraqi people from terrorist attacks that are perpetrated by ISIL extremists. So they are responsible for doing both. And our men and women in uniform that are providing training and are providing some advice and assistance are providing them that training, advice and assistance even as they try to perform both of those functions.
Q In Baghdad, you mean?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in Baghdad there are Iraqi security forces.
Q It’s a big city, I know. I understand.
MR. EARNEST: In Baghdad, for example, there are Iraqi security forces that are there to protect the city. Some of those forces have been trained by the United States and our coalition partners. That probably, I guess, is the most tangible example I can give you.
Q Yeah, I want to follow up on TPP. The ITC report was a prerequisite for congressional consideration of the deal on the Hill. Can you just say what the White House preference is in terms of timing? Will you start the clock on that congressional proceedings now?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, what we have said is that we’d consult with the Democrats and Republicans in Congress about the best strategy for getting the TPP agreement approved as soon as possible. So the White House has been in touch with Democrats and Republicans who are supportive of the agreement to develop a legislative strategy for moving forward.
Q And are you resigned to this probably -- I mean, there’s only I think five or six weeks that they’re in session before the long recess. Is this only going to be something that happens in the lame duck session at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily. We’re going to continue to consult about the best path forward and we would like to see Congress act soon to approve the agreement. And the case that we have made is consistent with the argument that the Chamber of Commerce and other influential Republican-leaning organizations have made, which is that every day that goes by is a missed opportunity for American businesses and American workers to benefit from this agreement.
So we’re hopeful that we’ll build the same bipartisan coalition that we built last year to give the President the authority necessary to negotiate this agreement, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to build a similar bipartisan coalition to approve the agreement.
Q And I noticed that the White House has been in touch with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. I think Denis McDonough was up there this week. Can you say when the last time was that the President spoke directly with either the Speaker or to Senator McConnell?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t, Mike, primarily because we’ve preserved the President’s ability to engage in private conversations. But I can just tell you as a general matter that our consultations on this issue have -- well, let me say it this way. Both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan have indicated on a number of occasions that they believe an agreement like this would be in the best interest of the United States and our economy. So it certainly makes sense that we would coordinate with them, even at the highest levels, on the path for legislative approval.
Susan, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two things. While you were out here in the briefing, it seems like CNN -- I’m looking on Twitter here so I can’t be quite sure -- is reporting that U.S. officials are saying that the early belief is that a bomb brought the plane down -- the Egypt airplane down. I’m wondering if you can confirm that they’ve found wreckage and whether that -- if you could confirm that U.S. officials are believing this is a bomb.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw some of that reporting before I walked out here and I don’t have an intelligence assessment to share at this point.
Q Okay. The second question is a little more complicated. I’m wondering if -- I know that at the beginning of the administration the President really stressed the importance of not including lobbyists coming into the administration -- there were some exceptions. But does he feel the same way about it when -- does he have the same concern when officials leave the administration? That when they become lobbyists, do they need to sign up and be transparent about that disclosure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Susan, I don’t have the details in front of me, but I know that some of the restrictions that the President put in place on his first day in office didn’t just apply to individuals who might be considering employment in the federal government during the Obama administration; there were also commitments that incoming administration officials had to make about limiting their lobbying activities after leaving government. And so there are prohibitions, or at least limitations, that apply to former Obama administration officials.
Q Does the White House advise people leaving? Do they remind them of that and their requirements? Is there a process --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there is. As part of the out-boarding process, you’re reminded of the commitments that you’ve made on the way in that would limit your job prospects on the way out. And look, many people have raised concerns about how historically there’s been a revolving door between the federal government and K Street. And the President’s efforts, again, that he initiated on his first day in office were to close that revolving door, both in terms of the impact it has on people seeking to enter the government, but also based on restrictions that individuals committed to on their way out.
Q It’s not just K Street that these individuals are going to. I’m wondering if anybody left the White House that went to go on and lobby on behalf of engagement in Cuba, if -- and they’re contacting administration officials, should they have registered to lobby?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I assume -- it sounds now like you’re asking about a specific case, and why don’t we just walk through the details and -- help you understand how the rules might apply in a particular case.
Q Sure. Luis Miranda left the White House. He went to the Trimpa Group. He did, from what I understand, engage in contacting the White House on that issue repeatedly, and from what I understand there’s no lobbying disclosure records to show for that. I have written about this, but we’ve talked about a lot -- there’s been a lot of discussion about the Iran narrative this week, but there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the -- and the timeline -- and there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the Cuba timeline and the transparency on those negotiations. That’s why I’m asking.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Well, look, we can take a look and see if we can provide you some additional information. It sounds like -- I’m not sure that any of that disclosure would apply to the administration, but we can take a look.
Q To Luis Miranda specifically?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he doesn’t work here anymore.
Q Right, so that’s why --
MR. EARNEST: So maybe you should go ask him.
Q Right, I’ve tried to contact him.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Is it important for the White House to have some level of -- on the Cuba issue -- to have had some level of surprise on that issue? Or I mean, is it the President’s right and the White House’s right to -- and the State Department -- to engage in diplomacy behind the scenes before announcing a major initiative like trying to normalize relations with Cuba or another country?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think that’s entirely appropriate. And that certainly has applied to other diplomatic breakthroughs that have been -- that the United States has benefitted from in just the last couple of years. And when we were negotiating to secure the release of Americans who were being unjustly held in Iran, that was not something that we discussed extensively in the past. When the United States was working behind the scenes with China to get them to make some significant commitments to fight carbon pollution in their country, that I think -- the results of those negotiations I think were a surprise to many in the public, but the United States enjoyed significant benefits as a result.
Those kinds of negotiations, that kind of diplomacy is often most effective when it’s done behind the scenes, as you described it.
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