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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 5/31/2016

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

**Please see below for an addendum to the transcript, marked with an asterisk.

1:27 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It's nice to see all of you.  For those of you who traveled to Asia, welcome back. Before we get started with questions today, I do have a couple remarks I'd like to make at the top about the President’s travel to Elkhart, Indiana tomorrow.

Many of you know that the President is going to return to Elkhart, Indiana tomorrow.  Elkhart is, after all, the city that President Obama visited first after assuming the presidency.  And during his visit to Elkhart, Indiana back in 2009, President Obama promised that if we worked together we could pull that community and this country out of the depths of recession and put ourselves on a better, stronger course.  More than seven years after that visit, and despite near unanimous obstruction from Republicans in Congress, that's exactly what we've done.  And I've got a couple of charts here that I think will illustrate that progress. 

We've cut the unemployment rate in half from a peak of -- nationwide, we've cut the unemployment rate in half from a peak of 10 percent during the recession to just 5 percent today.  And Elkhart, as you can see behind me, the unemployment rate quadrupled during the crisis, peaking at 19.6 percent.  Today that rate is down to right around 4 percent.  At the peak of the housing crisis in 2010, 9.5 percent of mortgages in Elkhart were late or in the process of foreclosure.  Today that percentage is down to 3.7, lower than pre-crisis levels.  And we've seen similar trends all across the country.

Q    You mean Indiana, not Elkhart, right?

MR. EARNEST:  I believe that this is a statistic that applies to Elkhart, but we can double-check that for you *[The label on the graphic is correct: 9.5 percent of mortgages in Indiana were late or in the process of foreclosure in 2009].

As it relates to the manufacturing sector, this obviously is something that is critically important to the local economy in Elkhart.  Manufacturing employment has rebounded and domestic auto production has doubled since the crisis.  Elkhart’s iconic RV industry is leading that trend and is set to break an all-time production record this year.

In the United States and Elkhart, high school graduation rates have risen to their highest level on record.  In Elkhart, the graduation rate has reached nearly 90 percent, up from just 75 percent in 2008. 

What ties all this together, of course, is the President’s work to enact the Recovery Act.  And the Recovery Act laid the foundation for many of the trends that we just walked through, with $170 million in critical investments in infrastructure and education in Elkhart alone, alongside additional support for the hardest-hit families through expanded unemployment insurance and Medicaid, as well as tax cuts for the middle class and for working families. 

All of this contributed to the kind of economic recovery that the private sector has led all across the country, and is a testament to the hard work and tenacity and ambition of business owners and employees and middle-class workers in the Elkhart community.  Elkhart is, in fact, a symbol of America’s recovery. And that's why, as the American people begin to think more about the very real choice they have in November, the President chose to return to Elkhart to make a forceful case for the policies that have helped communities like Elkhart recover and to talk about how we can build on that success in the months and years ahead.

So it should make for a pretty interesting event tomorrow. And hopefully many of you will be able to travel with us as we make the visit. 

So, with that, Kathleen, we can go to your questions.

Q    I'll just stick with Elkhart because it seems like this looks like something like a victory lap.  But I would suggest the President’s polls or approval rating in Elkhart probably don't match some of these stats.  So I'm wondering if you have any explanation for why you feel the President isn't getting credit for this kind of economic --

MR. EARNEST:  Look, I think inherent in our political process are politicians who seek to claim credit for themselves so they can win reelection.  President Obama is not running for reelection.  And the truth is he implemented these policies in early 2009 because he thought they would help the economy, not because he thought they would have a positive impact on his approval rating.  In fact, many of the policies that President Obama implemented were almost unanimously opposed by Republicans. Some of the policies were even opposed by some Democrats. 

For example, the rescue of the American auto industry is something that has had a profound impact on communities like Elkhart throughout the industrial Midwest.  Outside economists have estimated that a million jobs were saved because the American auto industry was rescued.  It was on the brink of total collapse, but because of the policy decisions that were implemented by the Obama administration, we now see that the American auto industry is even stronger than before.

I think that's a testament to the fact that the President was not committed to making decisions based on what impact they would have on his approval rating but rather what impact they would have on the economy.  And I think the results speak for themselves. 

I guess to try to answer your question more directly, I think the President does believe, while he is not particularly concerned in accepting credit for himself, he does believe it's important for the American people to understand what sort of policies have made our recovery possible.  The President, time and time again, has made clear that it's the private sector who led our recovery; that the determination and commitment of the American people and business owners and workers all across the country to scratch and claw out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, it's the American people who deserve credit for our recovery.  But that recovery would not have been possible without the federal government making smart decisions to invest in the middle class, to invest in those aspects of our economy that are critical to our longer-term success.

That includes the manufacturing sector.  That includes research and development.  That includes clean energy.  It also includes an investment in middle-class families.  And that's why the Recovery Act included more than a dozen tax cuts for small businesses.  It included a significant tax cut for middle-class families and those families that are working hard to get into the middle class. 

And it's important for the American people to understand exactly what policies created this opportunity, because that's the way to evaluate whether or not the government responded appropriately to the previous economic downturn.  And we know that there are going to be challenges that future governments have to confront, and it's important for people to understand exactly what led us out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression so that when future governments have to make a decision that they can draw on relevant evidence about what worked last time.

Q    So just to be clear, why exactly does the White House think he doesn’t get credit?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think there are probably -- I think there are a variety of explanations for that, and I suspect many of you will write about them in the next 24 hours.  (Laughter.)  And I think certainly some of it goes back to what I said before about the remarkable and almost unanimous Republican obstruction to many of the solutions that President Obama has proposed. 

Again, there’s a tendency on the part of some outside commentators to essentially want to look for a way to spike the football -- because I think the results are pretty resounding in terms of the wisdom of the approach that President Obama pursued -- but President Obama also understands that there’s a lot of important work that still remains to be done.  There’s still more work that we could do to invest in our infrastructure to ensure the long-term success of our country.  There’s still more work that we can do to put upward pressure on wages.  There’s still more work that we can do to reduce inequality. 

And we’ve made important progress on each of those measures, but the President is not content with the progress that we’ve made thus far.  He understands that his successor will have some important decisions to make about whether or not we are going to build on this progress, are we going to build on this momentum, or are we going to tear it down.  And there is a pretty clear choice to be made if you take a look at the policies that are being advocated by the two parties.

Q    And just one more on that.  Does the President think there’s any chance the Democratic nominee could win Indiana?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I keep going back to this example because it’s such a resonant one -- but in late May of 2008, I don’t think there was a lot of optimism among Democrats that the Democratic nominee would eventually win that state in the general election, but, of course, that’s exactly what then Senator Obama did in 2008.  So it certainly is not out of the realm of possibility that Democrats could win it once again. 

But, look, that will be part of a debate for the individual campaigns to engage in.  President Obama will deliver his remarks tomorrow mindful of the political backdrop for his speech, but the focus of his remarks will be on the results of the policies that he implemented early in his presidency.

Q    And I just wanted to turn to the Inspector General’s report on Clinton -- on Secretary Clinton’s email.  I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to offer some reaction.  It was clear that she did not -- even though she said that she -- acknowledged the situation was approved, that she didn’t seek approval.  She never demonstrated that her BlackBerry met minimum requirements -- security information requirements.  Does the President still stand by the statement that he’s certain that Clinton did not endanger national security?

MR. EARNEST:  The President does -- the President certainly stands by what he said in the past on this.  When the President was given the opportunity to talk about this in Asia, he referred questions to Secretary Clinton’s campaign.  They can obviously discuss the decisions that she made as Secretary of State as they relate to her use of email.  I think the focus of the White House has been on the institutional questions that have been raised about the way in which the State Department manages its records and manages its email system.

And based on the report of the Inspector General, this is a report that was solicited specifically by the current Secretary of State, John Kerry.  But according to this report, there were eight specific recommendations that the Inspector General put forward to the Department of State about steps they could take to ensure that proper record maintenance was being implemented.  And based on the IG’s examination of the situation, all eight of those recommendations have now been resolved in terms of the State Department following through and actually implementing those recommendations that the Inspector General had put forward.

So it’s clear that the Department of State is fulfilling their institutional responsibilities.  That certainly is consistent with the President’s commitment to transparency and competence.  But for your more specific question about Secretary Clinton’s use of email, I’d refer you to her able spokesman.

Q    And does the White House think that she should have participated -- or cooperated in that IG investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’d refer you to Secretary Clinton’s team for how she handled those questions.  I think what is clear from the IG is that they took a broad look at what the Department of State needs to do to make sure that they are in compliance with sort of the relevant rules, but also to make sure that they are handling these records in a way that’s appropriate and consistent with the commitment that the President has placed on government transparency.  And, again, the Inspector General had eight recommendations, all of which have now been implemented by the Department of State.


Q    Turning to North Korea, another missile test.  Kind of unusual to do another test of a missile after three failures in April.

MR. EARNEST:  I think there are a number of things that are unusual about North Korea, Tim.  But this would certainly be one of them.

Q    Does the White House have any thinking on why these rollouts keep continuing even though they tend to be duds?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that the United States and the rest of the international community calls on North Korea to refrain from actions, including this failed missile test, that further raise tensions in the region, and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments. 

The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s missile test, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which explicitly prohibit North Korea’s use of ballistic missile technology.  These actions and North Korea’s continued pursuit of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities pose a significant threat to the United States, our allies, and to the stability of the Asia Pacific region. 

I can tell you that U.S. Strategic Command systems detected what we assess was a failed North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile launch yesterday afternoon from North Korea.  NORAD conducted their own assessment and determined that the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America. 

The President had the opportunity to discuss in Asia steps that the United States has taken in coordination with our allies and our partners in that region of the world to confront North Korea and their ballistic missile program that is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.  The President also discussed some of the steps that the United States military has undertaken on his orders to strengthen our defenses in that region of the world, both to protect our allies in Asia, but also to protect the American people back here at home.  And we continue to have confidence in the steps that the military has taken to protect the American people and to protect our allies.  But we certainly would like to see North Korea begin to take steps that are consistent with the pursuit of compliance with its international obligations.

Q    What is the White House thinking behind what North Korea is doing here?  Even China criticizing --

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a renewed assessment to offer in terms of what the leader of North Korea may be contemplating at this point, but what is clear is that the international community does agree that what North Korea is doing is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.  It’s destabilizing and it’s something that they should stop doing.  And as a result of North Korea’s insistence on pursuing this approach, the North Korean government has been increasingly isolated and they’re under increasing pressure, economically, as a result of the coordinated actions of the international community.

We obviously are hopeful that that pressure will lead to some different strategic decisions being made by the North Korean government.  But thus far it has not.

Q    Turning to Fallujah, the Norwegian Refugee Council -- it's one of the organizations displaced from the city -- has said that a human catastrophe is unfolding there as residents are stuck in the city.  To what extent does the White House agree with that assessment?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have my own assessment to offer from here.  Obviously the international community has been deeply concerned about the citizens of Fallujah for a couple years now. And that concern is rooted in the willingness of ISIL terrorists to use violence to try to subjugate the local population.  And what the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces have undertaken is an effort to try to liberate the city.  And they do so mindful of the need to live up to a standard of respecting basic universal human rights.  And we do believe that it’s important for Iraqi forces, as they undertake these operations and as they seek to liberate the city, that they’re mindful of the needs of the local population.

After all, many of the efforts that we’ve undertaken, both in Iraq and in Syria, have been part of trying to free up some space for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.  Obviously that’s not possible in a city like Fallujah that is controlled by ISIL, but the need for humanitarian assistance once the city is liberated is something that we’ve been mindful of.  And, in fact, President Obama spent some time in meeting with his G7 counterparts last week in Japan in discussing financial assistance that can be provided by the international community to residents of cities in Iraq that have been liberated from ISIL.

We understand that these communities have been decimated, their infrastructure has been, in many cases, destroyed, and the civilian population has gone through a terrible ordeal.  And the truth of the matter is the economic weakness that we see in Iraq doesn’t allow the Iraqi government to deploy as many resources as they would like to try to address that situation and rebuild these communities, and they’ve benefited significantly from broad international support for those efforts.

I’d also point out that within the last couple of weeks the IMF has announced a significant package of financial assistance that they’ll provide the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government in pursuit of the same kinds of goals.  So we’re all very mindful of the devastating humanitarian impact of ISIL’s violence.  That, after all, is the leading motivator for the international community to come together and try to drive them out of these cities and ultimately destroy that organization.

Q    Fallujah is obviously a huge test for the Iraqi military.  To what extent would the administration have preferred to hold off on Fallujah and instead keep concentrating on preparations for Mosul?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we have said all along, Tim, is that these kinds of operational decisions will be made by the Iraqi government and Iraqi forces.  After all, the focus of the President’s strategy is to build up the capacity of local forces and local authorities to provide for the security situation in their own country.  And that includes taking the fight to ISIL in their own country. 

So the United States and the rest of the international community is supporting the Iraqi central government and certainly looking for ways to offer our support and assistance to those forces that are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government.  That's what we're doing in this instance. 

And we certainly do believe that this offensive against Fallujah is something that will allow us to make important progress against ISIL, but we also acknowledge that this is something that's going to be a tough fight.  This is going to take some time.  And it will be a test of the determination and tenacity of Iraqi forces.  They've shown that determination and tenacity and resilience on the battlefield in making progress against ISIL in places like Anbar Province and Ramadi.  But that will certainly be a challenge to display those qualities in the long fight to retake Fallujah.


Q    Josh, we're about to head into June, which is Pride Month for the LGBT community.  The President is said to host a Pride Reception at the White House on June 9th, but how do you anticipate generally the President will observe the occasion?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, I don’t have anything to announce yet about the President's June schedule.  But as you point out, the President has in the past hosted receptions like the one that you describe that's set for next week.  I think the President obviously is quite proud of the important progress that our country has made over the last seven years when it comes to greater equality for LGBT Americans.  And the President is certainly interested in looking for ways to continue to build on that progress. 

Q    The administration is conducting listening sessions on designating a national monument in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots.  There’s speculation that it would be announced in time for June of this year.  When will the President pull the trigger on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any updates on any potential presidential designations, but we'll obviously keep you posted on any developments that might be of interest to you.  I suspect that might be one of them.

Q    And a number of cities are hosting Pride celebrations and parades, including D.C., which is hosting its parade on June 11th.  Would you rule out the possibility that President Obama this month would participate in an LGBT Pride Parade? 

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not aware that that's on the President's schedule.


Q    I wanted to go back to Indiana first.  I know that you outlined some of the positive signs, but I think for a lot of people, Indiana has been kind of symbolic of some of the downsides of the Obama economy.  A majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the state, when they went to the polls last month, said that the economy was their top concern.  Donald Trump obviously got a lot of traction by pointing out that Carrier was laying off hundreds of people in the state to send those jobs to Mexico as a part of free-trade policies that the President has championed.  So I'm wondering how you respond to that and whether the way that the President's economic policies have played out have created a vulnerability that the next Democratic nominee is going to have to grapple with, since you've kind of opened the fact that this a campaign backdrop.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me answer that question a couple of ways.  The first is, I think that when you take a look at the basic economic measurements in terms of evaluating the impact of the President's policies on Indiana, there's no denying how the people of Indiana have benefited from decisions that President Obama made.  And that's true whether you look at the housing market, or look at the manufacturing sector, or you look at the broader unemployment rate.

But I think the other way that I would answer your question is to acknowledge that the economic forces of globalization are powerful and they are having an impact on communities all across the country.  And the question really for the American people and for voters who go to the polls in November is what do you think is the most effective strategy for dealing with it.  And the President has pursued an approach that prioritizes growing our economy from the middle out.  And the President believes that if we are focused on what's in the best interest of middle-class families all across the country, we're likely to see the kinds of economic results that are positive. 

So let's talk about the question of trade, for instance.  And I know that this has been the subject of some debate not just in campaigns but in politics now for a number of years.  I'm reluctant to get into the decisions made by any individual company, but I think what is true about the decision that was made by Carrier is it's not that different than the decision than we've seen by other manufacturing entities in the United States. And again, those are decisions, some of which actually even predate President Obama's election to the presidency.  The point is this:  These are longer-running trends, and President Obama has put forward a very specific strategy for dealing with it.

So, in some ways, I think the impact on Indiana is a useful illustration.  The Carrier plant that you refer to is, according to the announcement made by that company, actually going to be relocated to Mexico.  Mexico is a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  That is a trade agreement that has not yet been ratified through the United States Congress.  And there are Democrats and Republicans who have both said that the movement of this plan is evidence of how damaging free trade is to the U.S. economy. 

So the question is, are you just going to bemoan that fact, and bemoan the fact that there are manufacturing jobs that are leaving Indiana as a result of this decision by Carrier, or are you actually going to do something about it?  And President Obama has pursued a strategy for actually doing something about it -- by completing a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that includes Canada and Mexico, that effectively does renegotiate NAFTA, that will put in place higher and enforceable labor and environmental standards. 

The President talked quite a bit when he was in Asia about how the agreement also includes higher and enforceable intellectual property standards.  These are the kinds of -- and the effect of this, of those standards being included in the agreement, is that it starts to level the playing field.  Right now, there is a competitive and unfair advantage that places like Mexico have when it comes to labor conditions in that country.  But the Trans-Pacific Partnership, by signing on to it, Mexico is going to be in a position where they have to start meeting higher standards.  And that's starting to level the playing field for American businesses and American workers. 

That doesn’t mean it's going to prevent every job from moving overseas.  But it does mean that we'll actually be putting some pressure on Mexico and other countries that sign on to the TPP to level that playing field, to give American businesses and American workers here in the United States a better opportunity to compete -- not just as it relates to where to locate their operations, but also in terms of doing business. 

The United States will now also have better access to customers in Mexico and Canada and other places throughout the Asia Pacific.  That's a good thing for the U.S. economy, too.  Overall, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would actually cut 18,000 taxes that other countries place on American goods.  That's the President's strategy for confronting these powerful forces of economic globalization.  And that, I think, is a strategy that is certainly more specific and one that shows more promise than anything that's being articulated by critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Q    Senator McCain has proposed an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill that would boost OCO funding by $19 billion.  So this is different from the House version because rather than back-filling it, it would just be an increase, but not have to deal with the sequester caps.  You guys have bemoaned using OCO for sort of regular defense spending before.  So I'm wondering if you would at all be open to a plan like this.  And I'm also wondering if it's still kind of a veto red line for the President that any increase in the defense spending would -- 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say at the outset that I have not seen Senator McCain's specific proposal.  I will note that Senator McCain himself has been previously critical of budget gimmicks that essentially fund regular defense spending through overseas contingency operation budgets.  So, presumably, his own proposal is consistent with his own previously expressed views on this.  I just haven’t seen his specific proposal, so we'll take a look at it.

It certainly is the President's expectation that the budget agreement that was signed last year -- and that was a two-year budget agreement -- that Republicans and Democrats in Congress would live up to the commitments that they made in the context of that budget agreement.

Q    Eric Holder said in a podcast over the weekend that Edward Snowden had performed a public service by leaking documents about the classified NSA's program, while criticizing his methods.  I'm wondering if the President agrees with that assessment.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has had the opportunity to speak on this a number of times, and I think a careful review of his public comments would indicate that he does not.  Everybody here at the White House who had the opportunity to work with Attorney General Holder certainly respects his work, certainly respects his knowledge and view of the law.  And I would point out that even Mr. Holder pointed out in that interview, "He's broken the law.  In my view, he needs to get lawyers, come on back and decide what he wants to do -- go to trial, try to cut a deal.  I think there has to be a consequence for what he has done."

What Mr. Holder is articulating there is the view of the administration, which is specifically that Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes.  He should return to the United States.  He should be afforded due process.  And that's essentially how the situation should be handled.  But Mr. Snowden has not done so.

Q    Last one.  Mitch McConnell, in an interview today, said that he expects an agreement on Zika funding soon.  I'm wondering if the White House shares his optimism that an agreement will be coming soon, and if the package that's shaping up on the Hill is something that you guys are okay with, because it will likely be less than the $1.9 billion that you've requested.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that $1.9 billion request was actually one that was put forward by our public health professionals, so that is certainly what we believe that Congress should act on. 

But congressional action is long overdue.  And we have lost an opportunity over the last three or four months here to get ahead of a potentially significant problem.   And every day that goes by, even while Congress is on recess, is another day that's lost to preparing to protect the country from the Zika virus.  So we certainly would hope that Congress would act quickly to move forward on the funding request that the administration has put forward to ensure we're doing everything that we could possibly do to protect the American people from the Zika virus. 

And this is a budget request that was put together and is strongly supported by our public health professionals.  This is a budget request that Democratic and Republican governors across the country have advocated in favor of.  So we need to see some congressional action here.  And so hopefully Leader McConnell was right.


Q    A couple of questions.  I want to go back to Fallujah. What does the U.S. think of the Iranian role there?  A report that Qassim Suleimani was playing a part in liberating the city. Do you think this plays into ISIS’s hands, especially that the Iranians are playing a big part?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what the United States has long said is that to allow the situation in Iraq to devolve into a sectarian conflict would only play into the hands of ISIL.  And this is not just a view that's been articulated by the United States and a concern that's been articulated by the United States, it's actually a concern that's been articulated by the other members of our counter-ISIL coalition and by Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. 

Look, I'll let the Iranians speak for themselves, but I think it's pretty obvious that it is not in Iran’s interest to have this sectarian bloodbath right on their border.  They understand that that would only empower ISIL.  And the reason that they’re involved -- or at least interested in the outcome in Fallujah in the first place is because they don't want to see ISIL strengthened.  So they clearly understand -- the Iranians clearly understand the stakes here. 

But the United States has been clear about what our approach will be.  Our approach will be to offer support and assistance to those forces that are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government.  Our insistence will be that those Iraqi forces operate consistent with basic humanitarian obligations and that they do so respectful of the population that they’re seeing to liberate.

And we have made that case, not just because of our commitment to those values and a high standard that we have set when it comes to these kinds of moral questions, but also because of the basic understanding of what ISIL is seeking to do.  ISIL is seeking to sow sectarian conflict that will create the kind of chaos that allows them to grow and thrive.  So we're certainly mindful of that risk, but I think other countries with an interest in defeating ISIL also recognize that risk.

Q    So would you say that you would -- any coordination, whether direct or indirect, with the Iranian forces, since both the U.S. and Iran are assisting the Iraqi security forces?  And do you have any leverage whatsoever on the Iranians or the Iraqi government to say -- or to illustrate what you just mentioned, that this is not helpful in the long run?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I have said here on many occasions that the United States does not plan -- or does not coordinate militarily with Iran.  And I'm not aware of any plan to start doing that.  What’s also true is the Iraqis themselves -- the Iraqi government understands that sectarian division and further sectarian conflict in their country is counterproductive.  After all, that's the reason the international community came together to support Prime Minister Abadi, because he promised to change from the kind of sectarian governing agenda that was pursued by his predecessor to pursue a governing agenda that's much more inclusive.  And he’s faces some obstacles to implementing that agenda, but he’s been aggressive in pursuing it.

And that's why the United States has been strongly supportive of Prime Minister Abadi and his efforts.  That's why the international community has stepped up in providing the financial assistance, both through the IMF but also through the G7.  And the international community is supportive of the Iraqi Prime Minister who’s indicated that he understands that further sectarian conflict will not be beneficial to his country and certainly will not be beneficial in the fight against ISIL.

Q    On Syria, Syrian activists are reporting that Russian airplanes have been hitting a hospital in northern Syria and 50 people dead.  Can you, first of all, confirm actually that it was the Russians who hit the hospital?  And this is the second incident, I believe, in a short period of time.  Do you still believe that the Russian motivation there is really fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that I cannot confirm those reports.  Obviously I've seen them and we are following up on those reports.  But if it is confirmed, this strike would be the latest in a series of strikes against medical facilities in Syria.  The international community needs to get to the bottom of this and those who are responsible for these threats need to be held accountable.

So we’ll continue to take a look at these reports.  As it relates to Russia, we’ve continued to make clear that Russia needs to be onboard with implementing a Cessation of Hostilities. It means that they have specific obligations as it relates to their own activities, but it also means that it is incumbent upon them to use their influence with the Assad regime to get the Assad regime to abide by the Cessation of Hostilities.  And that doesn’t just mean in some particular corners of the country.  That means in every area that’s covered by the Cessation of Hostilities, including communities like Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib. 

One of the reasons that this Cessation of Hostilities is important and why it’s important that this Cessation of Hostilities be implemented is it will allow for humanitarian access.  And in some of these communities, including some of the ones that I just discussed, the humanitarian situation is dire and there are basic humanitarian needs like food and water and medical supplies that are going unmet right now.  And the international community and the United States is deeply concerned about this.  And it’s why we believe it important for the Russians to live up to their obligations so that this humanitarian relief can be provided.

Q    Aren’t you a big part of the international community?  How are you going to make the Russians accountable?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are a number of procedures in place -- I’m not trying to pretend that this is easy, but it certainly has not been for a lack of engagement that our efforts to implement a Cessation of Hostilities across the country has not been as successful as we would like.  There have been places where we’ve seen the frustration -- the Cessation of Hostilities begin to fray, and that’s been problematic.  And that has put innocent people in harm’s way.  And the United States remains determined in working with all parties, including the Russians, to remind them of their obligations that they signed onto under the Cessation of Hostilities.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  The President-elect of the Philippines said earlier today that corrupt journalists are legitimate targets of assassination.  I’m wondering your reaction.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, Olivier, the U.S. government and President Obama believe strongly in basic human rights, including freedom of the press.  That is a freedom that’s enshrined in our Constitution.  But we do not believe that is a uniquely American value -- that’s a universal human value.  And President Obama has, as he’s traveled around the world, strongly made the case, both in private and in public, to world leaders about the need to protect basic press freedoms.  And that’s been true in places like Cuba and Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, and even in Vietnam, where the President traveled just last week. 

So this is a priority for the President whenever he travels around the world.  And he has not been shy about making a strong case about the importance of protecting professional journalists. And that’s the case that he’s made both publicly in high-profile settings, but also privately in his direct interactions with world leaders.

Q    And we’ve talked a few times about the topic, and I'm sorry if it’s getting tedious, but the difference between an American serviceman being in combat versus having a combat mission -- are there objective criteria that lead you to label something a combat mission?  Or is that something that is just at the discretion of the President?  How does that work?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean, Olivier, I think the best that I can do is just to try to provide you with sort of a layman’s description of what the President has in mind.  I think for sort of a more technical definition you might try the Department of Defense -- maybe there are specific criteria that they have in mind.  But what I can do is try to provide you what the President’s thinking is as he explains what mission has been given to our men and women in uniform in Iraq and in Syria.

And actually, let me start by referring you to a document that I know that you’ve closely read -- this is the proposal that the administration put forward for an AUMF more than a year ago. And included in this proposal was some language that I think is relevant to this discussion and it includes this -- I’m quoting now -- “The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel, or the use of Special Operations Forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.

That is in the AUMF, drawing a distinction between the mission that President Bush gave to our men and women in uniform at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the mission that President Obama has given our men and women in uniform who are serving in Iraq right now. 

Our men and women who are serving in Iraq right now are doing so at great danger to themselves.  Serving in Iraq, serving in Syria is dangerous, and these are men and women who are putting themselves in harm’s way on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief to benefit our national security.  And we certainly owe them a debt of gratitude.  We also should be candid about what mission they are given and what their responsibilities are and what risks they will assume, and what mission they have not been given. 

And that’s what the President has tried to describe in a variety of settings, and obviously our military pilots, for example, who are carrying out airstrikes against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria, that’s a dangerous situation.  That’s also a combat situation.  But those are military pilots.

On the ground, the goal of our forces on the ground has been to support local forces that are taking the fight to ISIL in their own country.  That means it is chiefly the responsibility of Iraqi security forces in Iraq, for example, to seek out and engage ISIL fighters and to drive them out of territory and to occupy it.  U.S. forces have been in a situation where they have provided training in advance to those Iraqi forces that are prepared to undertake that kind of mission.  They also occasionally will operate in a role that allows them to provide some advice and assistance, even in a dangerous situation, to enhance their ability to operate on the battlefield. 

And that has put U.S. forces in a dangerous situation in some circumstances.  That’s why those forces, when they’re deployed to Iraq, have been trained in combat and are armed for combat so that they can defend themselves accordingly.  But the President believes that it’s important to draw a clear distinction between the dangerous situation that our men and women in uniform face in Iraq and in Syria right now, and the mission that those men and women -- that our men and women in uniform were given in Iraq in 2003 by President Bush.

Q    I understand that distinction.  I think, though, for a lot of people, it’s hard when you see American Special Operators rolling in Syria on tanks towards the front lines, that distinction gets really hard. And I saw in the “Stars and Stripes” interview that people who were not laymen, like me, also feel a sense of concern about how you are defining this.  So I will reach out to the Pentagon, but this is something I want to talk to you more about.

MR. EARNEST:  I mean, as it relates to the technical definition, that’s something that my colleagues at the Department of Defense can help you with.


Q    On the same subject -- why not stay on that -- now that we are seeing two more U.S. soldiers badly injured -- one in Iraq, one in Syria -- so soon after we saw one soldier killed, I mean, you often say that it’s a dangerous mission, but given what the mission is now and kind of how it’s evolved, would you say that the mission is now getting more dangerous for U.S. soldiers that are over there?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think I would describe it that way.  I think that it’s been dangerous for U.S. forces in Iraq and in Syria for quite some time.  And, look, when the President made the decision in late summer of 2014 to deploy U.S. forces to Iraq, those were forces that were undertaking an operation to ensure the safety and security of U.S. personnel in Iraq and that was dangerous work.  The President has also made the decision to allow U.S. forces to train Iraqi forces at some bases outside of Baghdad and Erbil.  That work has been dangerous, and the President has been concerned about the safety and security of American personnel that are operating there from the beginning.

So we’ve been mindful of the risk and it’s been risky from the beginning.  But, again, what we have gone to great lengths to help both the American people understand but also our partners around the world understand -- this is not -- the United States cannot be in a situation where we are imposing a military solution on this problem.  This is a fight that the Iraqi people must wage for themselves in Iraq, and this is a fight that the Syrian people must wage for themselves in Syria.  And that is the only way that we will find the kind of long-term solution that is in the interest of just about everybody involved.

Q    But given the situation and how it has changed with ISIS losing ground, and you’ve said a number of times that ISIS will get more desperate as they start to lose territory and things like that, so as we’re talking about offensives coming up and ISIS possibly continuing to lose territory -- won’t even an advise-and-assist mission become more dangerous over time?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I guess I would leave it to my colleagues at the Department of Defense to offer up that kind of operational assessment.  I think the assessment from here is that the work that has been done by our servicemembers in Iraq and in Syria has been dangerous from the beginning, and it’s why we owe them a debt of gratitude in terms of the personal sacrifices that they are prepared to make for our national security. 

But what is also true is that the mission that they are carrying out on the orders of President Obama is a mission designed to bolster the capacity of Iraqi forces to take the fight to ISIL in their own country.  And that is different than the mission that more than 100,000 U.S. servicemembers were given by President Bush to invade Iraq, to seek out the enemy, and to occupy territory.  The differences here are significant both in terms of the number of U.S. forces involved but also in the responsibility that’s being assumed by those individual forces.

What’s probably not different is that for both forces in 2003 and forces operating in Iraq in 2016 it’s a dangerous situation, and those forces need to be prepared to defend themselves.  And that’s why the men and women that President Obama sends into Iraq now are individuals who are armed for combat.  These are individuals who have been trained for combat. And, unfortunately, we’ve seen situations where American servicemembers have been killed in combat because of the situation that they found themselves in.

Q    It’s been said many, many times now, though, by soldiers and former U.S. soldiers that not calling it a combat mission or not -- I don’t know -- calling it something other than simply advise and assist diminishes the role that these soldiers are actually doing.  How would you respond to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I would respond to that by saying on countless occasions we have made clear that the distinction that we are drawing is an effort to be as precise and as specific as possible with the American people, with the Iraqi people, and with our partners around the world about what exactly our military personnel are doing in Iraq and in Syria. 

That does not in any way diminish the sacrifice that they are making for our country.  It certainly does not diminish in any way the heroism and courage and professionalism that they have to show on a daily basis, both to protect themselves, to protect their partners and teammates, but also to accomplish the mission.  So we are deeply indebted to our men and women in uniform who are making extraordinary sacrifices and taking extraordinary risks to protect our country.  They're doing so on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief.  And I can tell you that the Commander-in-Chief, as he described just yesterday at Arlington National Cemetery, is deeply respectful of that service and deeply indebted to the commitment that they have shown to their country.

Q    Okay.  And just very quickly on the Eric Holder statements on Edward Snowden.  When he was talking about public service, he was referring only to it raising a debate about these programs.  Does the White House not agree that that was one maybe good thing that came out of that, or that that is, I don’t know, not a service that was done by what he did?

MR. EARNEST:  Michelle, that concern that we have is that the information that revealed by Edward Snowden put the United States and certain U.S. officials in grave danger.  It endangered our national security.  And that's not just a statement that I have made; that is actually an assessment that has been reached by leaders in our intelligence community. 

And the fact of the matter is, there is a path for whistleblowers to take if they have legitimate concerns about what they are seeing, particularly when it comes to handling classified, sensitive information.  And Mr. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes because he did not do that.  And it's our view that he should return to the United States, be offered due process, but that he should face those charges directly, in person, on American soil. 

I'll just say more broadly, Michelle, that what's also true is President Obama came into office vowing to pursue reforms of many of these programs and much of the work to reform these programs was being discussed and, in some cases, was even initiated before anybody had ever heard of Edward Snowden.


Q    Josh, as you know, the French are convening a conference later this week to try to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  There's reports that Secretary Kerry is planning to attend this.  Nevertheless, the Israelis have been opposed to this conference from the start, arguing that the way to find a solution to this is through bilateral talks between the two sides and not this kind of multiparty arrangement.  Does the White House support what the French are doing, or does the White House have some understanding of the reservations the Israelis have?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it has been the U.S. principle for quite some time -- not just under President Obama, but under previous Presidents -- that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will only be generated by talks between the two parties. Ultimately, it's the two parties that will have to make the difficult decisions and, in some cases, sacrifices that will be required to make peace. 

However, the rest of the international community, including the United States, has long played an important role in trying to bring both sides to the table.  And the United States has used our influence in the international community to try to facilitate conversations and try to facilitate talks, and try to help the two sides identify potential common ground.  Secretary Kerry has certainly invested a lot in that effort early in President Obama's second term.

So there has long been a role for the international community to try to encourage both sides to pursue reconciliation and to try to bring an end to the conflict that hasn’t just led to a lot of innocent lives in that particular region of the world, but has also fueled conflicts in the region for more than a generation now.

But, look, as it relates to Secretary Kerry's travel and what his expectations are for the meeting, I'd refer you to the State Department.

Q    But you are saying you support the idea behind the meeting?

MR. EARNEST:  Support the --

Q    You're endorsing the idea of holding this conference?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t think that I would do that.  I'd refer you to the State Department to see what their specific view would be.  I think what I'm merely observing is that the Israelis and Palestinians will resolve their differences when they sit down face-to-face and actually engage in constructive conversations about resolving their differences.  And there is a role for the international community to play in terms of encouraging both sides to contribute constructively to that process.  But nobody in the international community, including the United States, can make those difficult decisions for the parties.  Ultimately, the parties themselves have to make those decisions.


Q    Josh, I have some questions on three different subjects.  Going back to Chris and Pride in June, President Obama was basically called the "rights President," advocating a voice  -- you know, the talks on equality for everyone.  Being President, he worked through his issues that he had.  As an outgoing President, as someone who's considered a "rights President," primarily starting from the issue of gay rights, what's the legacy of this President when it comes to the LGBT community?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, I'll just say as a general matter that the President is enormously proud of the progress that our country has made over the last seven or eight years of becoming a more accepting society for LGBT Americans.  The President has long been a champion of equality and justice, and certainly we have seen that equality for LGBT Americans grow in the last seven or eight years.

What the President's legacy is, though, is something that historians will have to determine.  And the President has still got another seven or eight months here in office that he's very focused on the task that he has at hand.  So for questions about legacy, it will be answered by historians many years from now, who will take a look at the progress that our country has made.  They'll take a look at the leadership that President Obama displayed, and draw their own conclusions about what the President's legacy says about the country.

Q    So do you believe that his evolution on this issue has opened minds and opened hearts to be more embracing of different people?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, I think leaders in the LGBT community would say that President Obama's evolution on gay marriage and President's Obama's commitment to fighting for greater equality for LGBT Americans has been important to that fight, has been important to that struggle.  But again, when it comes to sort of evaluating the full sweep of his legacy, that's something that historians will be able to better assess many years from now.

Q    On Cleveland, we understand that the federal government has offered millions of dollars in prevention and also dealing with if there is a possible -- if there's violence there.  What is the Obama administration offering, and where are you offering, and will you help in any kind of way as it relates to possible violence in Cleveland for the RNC Convention?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, the United States Secret Service has, at least for the last several conventions, played the lead role in ensuring the safety and security of everybody who attends those conventions.  And there are significant federal resources that have been expended in that effort.  Obviously, federal law enforcement officials, including at the Secret Service, are working closely with state and local law enforcement officials to ensure that security and to ensure that it's not just the nominee and the running mate that are protected, but everybody else who is participating in the convention can attend and express his or her political views freely and without being subject to violence.

So that certainly was true what federal officials worked closely with the cities of Charlotte and Tampa in 2012, and it certainly is true both as it relates to the Secret Service's role in Philadelphia and Cleveland this year.

Q    Do you think that the atmosphere is charging up even more?  I mean, I'm thinking back to when this President first ran for the office and people were aghast when they were hearing people were carrying guns to rallies.  And now you have a situation where at one point people were thinking about carrying guns to the RNC Convention, and that was kiboshed.  And now there's a possibility of violence.  What is this climate?  Where are we right now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen, the role of the Secret Service is to ensure that those who participate in the conventions can do so safely.  But I'll leave commentary and the political views of those who choose to attend the RNC to someone else.

Q    Has the President said anything to you?  Because he's an avid follower of social media.  Has he talked about it at all?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President is certainly aware of the robust political debate that's playing out on the campaign trail and likely to be on display at the conventions.  But look, ultimately those who attend the Republican Convention should have an opportunity to do so safely.

Q    And the last question.  Climate change -- did they talk anything about climate change in this hurricane preparedness conversation today?

MR. EARNEST:  There certainly was a discussion about how some of the very early effects of climate change put some communities across the country at even greater risk from a hurricane.  So one example is that there are some communities in South Florida where we have seen sea levels rise and begin to encroach on populated land.  That makes a potential impact of storm surge associated with a significant hurricane even more dangerous.  And the President is certainly mindful of that risk here at the beginning of hurricane season. 

Fortunately, he and the country are very well-served by having somebody like Craig Fugate as the head of FEMA.  Mr. Fugate is somebody who is a legitimate expert when it comes to helping communities prepare for and respond to a hurricane.  And he has restored tremendous competence to that government agency, and the President is certainly proud to have had somebody like Mr. Fugate serving the country in that role while he's been President.


Q    Hi, Josh.  You said earlier that the President would be mindful of the political backdrop of the speech tomorrow in Elkhart.  Will he wade into the Democratic race?

MR. EARNEST:  Look, I do not anticipate that the President is going to name any candidates tomorrow.  But I would anticipate that the President will use this opportunity to draw a clear illustration about the choice that the American people will face in November, and that choice is on full display in Elkhart.  Elkhart is a community that has benefitted tremendously from many of the decisions that President Obama made early in his presidency to support that community's recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

And the President will lay out what's at stake if Republicans, at every level, have their way.  We've seen Republicans in Congress fighting tooth and nail to roll back our progress.  In fact, they fought the implementation of some of these solutions in the first place.  And the question really is a choice between those on the right, who are telling a story of a smaller America that's defined and held back by our differences, and the kind of optimistic vision that President Obama has repeatedly laid out about how our country’s diversity makes us stronger and how we can build on the progress that we've made over the last seven years that will ensure everybody has a chance at success.

Look, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who recently has taken to the trail to hock a book, even he has acknowledged that the American people are better off than we were seven years ago.  Even he understands that we've made important progress.  Apparently he doesn’t appreciate the irony of the fact that much of that progress came in spite of his efforts to limit President Obama’s success, limit the country’s success, and to make President Obama a one-term President.  That was his stated strategy. 

And that's really the argument that the President will lay out tomorrow.  And when you consider how Elkhart was affected by the economic downturn, and when you consider that Elkhart was the first community that President Obama visited as President of the United States, it serves as a rather apt illustration of the argument that I think we're prepared to have here over the next few months.

Q    On a different topic, yesterday there was another lockdown at the White House, an object thrown over the fence.  And over the weekend we read about the Secret Service’s proposal for building a higher fence -- 14 feet, double what it currently is, with thicker spikes.  Has the President seen the renderings of that potential fence?  And if he has, what does he think about it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't know that the President has seen any of the individual renderings that have been made public just in the last few days.  You’ll recall that more than a year ago, after a significant security incident here at the White House, that there was a review that was conducted by the Secret Service where a variety of reforms were developed for enhancing security here at the White House while also protecting the status of the White House as a functioning government building among the more popular tourist destinations in the country. 

So the United States Secret Service has a very complex mission here on these 18 acres, and the President has full confidence in the professionalism and the capacity of the United States Secret Service to implement the reforms that our professionals believe are necessary to protect not just the President and the First Family here at the White House, but to protect everybody who works or tours the White House every day.


Q    Republicans on the Hill today are saying that there is no funding crisis for Zika, there never has been, and they are accusing the White House of politicizing a public health emergency.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think by definition, a public health emergency -- at least what our public health professionals tell us -- is something that requires additional funding so that we can protect the American people.  So what this administration has done is aggressively advocated for the resources that our public health professionals say that they need to do everything possible to protect the American people.  And when it comes to protecting pregnant women and their babies, the President believes that we should go to great lengths to do that.  If Republicans disagree --

Q    They’re saying the money is there.

MR. EARNEST:  If Republicans think that it's not that important for us to go to great lengths to protect pregnant women and their babies, then they’re certainly entitled to make that case.  I think that's going to be a tough case for them to make, but they’re certainly entitled to make it.

Q    I didn’t hear them make that case exactly, but they seem to suggest that the money is there. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, our public health professionals disagree with them.  Democratic and Republican governors across the country disagree with them.  And President Obama made the case back in February that Congress should act quickly to appropriate the necessary funds.  And Republicans now, for more than three months, have dragged their feet and, yes, enhanced the risk facing the American people from the Zika virus because our public health professionals have not gotten the benefit of having had the last three months to prepare for a mosquito population that could be carrying a dangerous virus.

Now, what we've said from the beginning is that this virus is not dangerous to most people, but it does pose a particular danger to pregnant women and their babies.  And that is something that we believe is worth protecting.  And what our public health professionals say is that we need $1.9 billion in specifically allocated resources to do everything possible to fight that virus. 

That's what we've been seeking for more than three months now to implement.  And governors across the country share our concern about this.  I know that public health professionals across the country share our concern about this.  Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress appear to not have gotten the message. 

Q    Can you confirm that the Obamas have agreed to rent a home after they leave the White House that is in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C.?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I've obviously read those reports.  I'm not in a position to confirm any details about the housing arrangements that President Obama and his family have made for February of 2017.  You’ve heard the President say before that he and the First Lady intend to remain in Washington for at least a couple of years at the conclusion of his presidency so as not to disrupt the education of their youngest daughter.  But I don’t have any details on where exactly that will be at this point.

Q    In other words, if you did, you wouldn’t tell us.

MR. EARNEST:  That's probably true.  But at this point, I don’t.


Q    On the fence situation, which seems to be ongoing, why not just move pedestrian traffic across Pennsylvania Avenue?  They still get clear view.  It would seem to make things safer.  Is that something the Secret Service is considering?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you should check with the Secret Service about this.  Obviously, there are professionals there that are assessing the situation.  And what they're trying to balance, Kevin, is the pride that I think all citizens take in having the seat of democracy here in Washington, D.C. -- the White House, the home of the President -- also be something that's accessible to the public.  And there are -- I think it's even hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House every year as tourists.  There are also hundreds of people who work here in the White House every day as either journalists or employees of the federal government. 

So our security professionals have a daunting task both to protect a valuable piece of real estate and the occupants of that building, but they also need to ensure that people who are touring the place or people who work here have access to it.  And striking that balance is not easy, but it certainly is something that we believe the professionals at the Secret Service have the capacity to do.

Q    Let me ask you, on Zika, should we expect another briefing from the public health officials that have been here previously?

MR. EARNEST:  If you'd like one, I'm sure we could arrange it.  But look, what is clear is that this is a serious situation.  And our public health professionals are taking it seriously, and they're doing as much as they can, with the limited resources that they have right now.  But there is more that they believe that they can and should be doing to ensure that the American people are protected, particularly pregnant women and their babies that are most at risk -- that are most threatened by this specific virus.  And they're not able to do that right now for only one reason, and that's because Republicans in Congress have blocked the effort to provide them those necessary resources.

Q    So I'm trying to square, though, if there's a great risk here -- potential great risk here, does the White House believe that Americans should not go to the Olympics in Brazil?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think our public health professionals have spoken to this, so I'd defer to the advice of Dr. Frieden and others.  I think what they have said, at least in part, is that pregnant women shouldn’t go.  Pregnant women shouldn’t travel to those areas that are experiencing a widespread outbreak of the Zika virus.  But for detailed advice, I would encourage people to consult a source that's more authoritative on medical issues than the White House Press Secretary.

Q    Okay.  A quick follow also on the IG situation involving former Secretary Clinton.  Was it an oversight that the President didn’t nominate a permanent IG during her time as Secretary of State?  And was that a mistake?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there were a number of people who were considered for that position.  I don’t have a lot of details about that personnel process.  What I do know is that even while an active interim IG was serving at the State Department, there were dozens of reports and other findings that were published, even when there wasn’t one inspector general leading the department.  So I think that's an indication that the individuals in that office took quite seriously the responsibilities that they had to provide oversight and to conduct independent investigations to ensure that the people's business was being conducted appropriately at the State Department.  But as it relates to that personnel decision, I just don’t have much information about it.

Q    So it wasn’t a mistake, you don’t think, to not nominate a permanent IG?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, I think anybody would be hard-pressed to make the case that somehow the Office of the Inspector General wasn’t functioning effectively -- because I think if you take a look at the dozens of reports that were generated during Secretary Clinton's tenure at the State Department, it's clear that there was aggressive oversight in place. 

Q    Okay.  A couple more.  Is there anything the U.S. can do or is doing to prevent China from further militarizing the contested waters in the South China Sea?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, the case that we have made is that the United States does not make any claims to the land features in that region of the world.  The United States doesn’t even back one specific country's claim.  We simply believe that all the countries that do have competing claims should resolve those disputes through diplomacy, and based on international rules and international law and regular order. 

And what the United States is seeking to preserve is the ability of every country in the world and of legitimate commercial interests to traverse the South China Sea to ensure that commerce is not disrupted.  And certainly China has a significant stake in ensuring that that commerce can continue unimpeded.  And we certainly would not want disputes over some of these land features to devolve into a military conflict of one form or another.  We believe that those countries with competing claims should pursue, through already-established international procedures, a resolution to those disputes.

Q    You mentioned something earlier about combat, and I just wanted to kind of drill down on something.  And I know I could go to DOD about the specific yes or no, but I'm just curious about your opinion or about the White House's perspective.  If a colonel is serving with his company, and he's in a very dangerous advise-and-assist environment, combat environment, but isn’t actually out there on patrol, does that person deserve credit for having served in combat, even if they're not out there on patrol?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I will say is this:  I will defer to my military colleagues at the Department of Defense who obviously have to make decisions about military citations and other recognition that is afforded to our men and women in uniform who serve this country.

Q    But you see what I’m getting at?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, here’s what I -- let me finish my answer, because I think this goes to what you’re getting at.  All Americans owe a deep debt of gratitude to our servicemembers who are in that situation because I think what is clear, and certainly what the Commander-in-Chief understands, is that those are individuals who are taking an extraordinary personal risk, that are entering a dangerous situation on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief because it enhances our national security and keeps the rest of us safe. 

So as it relates to the military designations that they’re given, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.  But as it relates to the debt of gratitude that all Americans owe those servicemembers, I think you can put the White House down in the column of a group of people who believe that the American people are indebted to those servicemembers for their service to the country.

Q    And last one.  CEOs of some of the companies at the center of the recovery in Indiana cite a can-do attitude and a business-friendly environment, including the right to work, that’s allowed Indiana to succeed in spite of, they say, the President’s policies.  Do you deny that low interest rates and low gas prices also played a part in the recovery that Indiana has enjoyed since 2009?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has been clear, both from the early days of the recession to now, that it’s the private sector that led our recovery.  And it is through the grit and determination of America’s workers and small business owners that we have not just survived but actually thrived in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  And there are a number of things that contributed to that success.  Many of them are policies that President Obama initiated that were strongly opposed by Republicans.  And that is an inconvenient fact for a number of Republicans who are running for Congress and advocating a much different agenda than the one that President Obama has been fighting for, for the last seven years.

President Obama believes that by focusing on the middle class and trying to grow our economy from the middle out, that is what has laid the foundation for our longer-term economic strength, and that’s the progress that President Obama believes that we should build on moving forward.


Q    I just wanted to quickly clarify on the Eric Holder/Edward Snowden question.  You’re not saying that the President -- setting aside Edward Snowden -- you’re not saying that the President doesn’t think that having a national debate about surveillance is worthwhile, correct?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that’s setting aside a lot.  But setting aside Edward Snowden, should we have a debate in this country about government transparency and about steps that we can take to protect the American people while also being accountable to the American people?  The President does believe that that’s a worthy debate.  The President does not believe that we should reveal government secrets that endanger Americans and endanger our national security to have it.

In fact, President Obama initiated many of these reforms and certainly engaged in discussions about some of these reforms before anybody had even heard of Edward Snowden.  And I think that’s a testament to the President’s commitment to government transparency and protecting the privacy of the American people.  But the President does not believe that we need to reveal secrets that endanger our national security in order to have that debate. 

Pam, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Okay.  Just two quick ones.  As far as the Elkhart trip, is it fair to call it a campaign trip, just based on how you described what the President will be talking about?  And has he come around to Vice President Biden’s thinking yet, that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee and win the election?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has not reached any conclusions about the conclusion of the Democratic nominating process.  Obviously there are still votes to be cast in a couple of states and even in the District of Columbia, I believe.  So I do not anticipate at this point that he is going to signal a preference or going to indicate the end of a race until it’s ended.

As it relates to how you describe the trip -- look, based on some of the questions that the President got at his media availability in Japan, I think there would be some reporters who would describe his Japan trip as a campaign trip.  (Laughter.)  But the President’s focus when he travels to Elkhart tomorrow will be on our economy, and I think the President would welcome a debate in the context of the campaign but also outside the context of the campaign about what are the economic policies that best serve the country.  And the President believes that policies that expand economic opportunity for the middle class, policies that are focused on growing our economy from the middle out -- those are the kinds of policies that best serve the American people not just in the short term, but over the long term.

And the President certainly believes that’s the strategy that was effectively pursued over the seven years of his presidency so far, and he certainly believes that the next President and the next Congress and the next slate of governors and state legislators that are elected across the country in November should look for ways to build on that progress because he believes the country will be best served by doing that.

Q    And on the Japan trip, the President made the historic visit to Hiroshima.  Some might even call it a magnanimous gesture.  It wasn’t an apology, but it was certainly an acknowledgment of the suffering that occurred there when the bomb was dropped.  Did the President feel dissed at all or surprised that Prime Minister Abe, as soon as he arrived in Japan, kind of scolded him publicly over the crime that occurred in Okinawa?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I think these are two different issues.  Obviously, the President expressed his profound sorrow on behalf of the American people to the victim of that terrible crime.  President Obama reiterated that the United States would, within the confines of the law, coordinate on the investigation and ensure that justice was served in this particular incident.  But I don’t think that in any way overshadowed what I agree was an historic visit to Hiroshima that occurred a couple days later.

Q    And is he going to take any steps, as the Prime Minister suggested, to try to control crime that might be associated with the U.S. military there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the Prime Minister was alluding to are steps that could be taken by U.S. personnel in Okinawa that could have an impact on the way that U.S. military facilities there are run -- the way that people have access to the facilities and the way that personnel spend time off the base.  So I’d refer you to local military officials in Okinawa for details about that.

Thanks, everybody.

2:48 P.M. EDT