Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/15/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for keeping you waiting today. I don't have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q I wanted to start with the meeting with the Dalai Lama. If you could just give us a sense of what they talked about. And is the White House worried at all about damaging the relationship with Beijing? I'm sure you saw their statement.
MR. EARNEST: I've seen reports about it. I don't know that I saw it in its entirety. What I would point out is this is actually the fourth opportunity that President Obama has had to meet with the Dalai Lama here at the White House over the last eight years. Just to give you a sense of the meeting, the President thanked the Dalai Lama for his expression of condolences about the terrorist attack in Orlando over the weekend. The President has spoken publicly in the past about his warm personal feelings for the Dalai Lama. The President has articulated his appreciation for the Dalai Lama’s teachings and believes in preserving Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions.
The personal nature of their meeting would explain why the President received the Dalai Lama in the White House Residence as opposed to the Oval Office, for example. And I would just reiterate once again that the U.S. position as it relates to Tibet has not changed. Tibet, per U.S. policy, is considered a part of the People’s Republic of China, and the United States has not articulated our support for Tibetan independence.
Both the Dalai Lama and President Obama value the importance of a constructive and productive relationship between the United States and China. All of those were policy positions of the United States before the meeting occurred and our policy hasn’t changed after the meeting.
Q And then I wanted to turn to tomorrow. Can you give us a better sense of what the President is going to do while he’s in Orlando, how long he’ll be there, and what his primary message is to the families of the victims?
THE PRESIDENT: The President will spend the bulk of tomorrow afternoon in Orlando. The details about where he’s going to go and what precisely he will do are still being worked out. Typically when the President makes a trip to another American city we've got a week or so to plan it, and in this case, we've had about 48 hours to plan it. So there’s still a lot of important work to be done to nail down the specifics of his itinerary while he’s there.
But the President is interested in traveling to Orlando to meet with the families of those who were killed in the terrorist attack on Saturday night. The President certainly wants to offer his condolences and comfort to the families of those who were killed and to those who survived.
Many of your news organizations I think have done important reporting, talking to those who were there that night, and the profound sense of survivor’s guilt that some people are expressing is painful just to read. And I think it's important for the President of the United States, on behalf of the country, to show his support for these families and for these individuals.
The President, of course, will also spend some time talking to first responders, to medical professionals -- EMTs, nurses, doctors, surgeons -- who acted heroically, courageously, and in some cases with disregard for their own safety, to try to save innocent lives. And their efforts -- based on the reporting that we've seen, their efforts were successful. Dozens of lives were saved as a result of this heroic action. And the President wants to thank them for those demonstrations of professionalism and courage and patriotism.
So this will be I think an emotional trip. And the President, while he’s there, will also have an opportunity to speak publicly about what he sees and also about the message that he’s preparing to deliver on behalf of the country to make clear that the country stands with the people of Orlando, stands with the LGBT community in Orlando as they grieve for their loss.
Q The shooter’s motivations still seem sort of unclear, or there’s sort of a murky mix of influences. Does that make the President’s job more complicated in helping the families and others sort of explain exactly what happened?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think it makes the President’s charge more complicated because the President’s visit to Orlando has nothing to do with the individual who perpetrated this terrible attack. The President’s visit is about offering comfort and support to a community that's grieving. And he’s going down there to make clear that he speaks for the country when he says that we're going to be with the people of Orlando, and we share in their grief, and that they're not alone even as they endure what surely have been several dark nights.
Q Mr. Trump has said he's going to meet with the NRA about people on the watch list and the no-fly list, and not allowing them to buy guns. Does the White House have any hope that a conversation like that could lead to some route to get Republican lawmakers to fight against this -- people on the list getting access to guns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tim, we'll see. Right now, basically every Republican in the Senate is on the record protecting a loophole that allows individuals who are suspected of having ties to terrorism and their ability to purchase a gun.
I'm not really sure why Republicans have that position. But the President believes that our country is safer if there are laws that prevent individuals who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun. And I think that's a pretty common-sense proposition. If it's too dangerous for you to board an airplane, it's too dangerous for you to buy a gun. That's the President's view. And that is not the view that Republicans have expressed, because they had an opportunity to vote on this, and Democrats were quite clear about the wisdom of passing such a law and that law would have passed except it was voted down by Republicans.
So I think it's too early to tell at this point whether or not Republicans have changed their position, come to their senses and mustered some courage to stand up to the NRA. We certainly would welcome that kind of change if it materializes because it would make the country safer.
Q Obviously, there are a lot of things to get done with Congress before the President leaves in January. Where does gun control kind of fit in with all the different things?
MR. EARNEST: Gun control has been a priority for a long time, and unfortunately -- well, let me say it this way. Gun control has been -- common-sense gun control that would make our community safer without undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans has been a priority for the President for a long time. Unfortunately, Republicans have blocked every effort to make progress on that priority. Even in the face of a massacre of 20 first-graders in Connecticut, even in the face of the shooting of a fellow congressman, even in the face of other terrible mass shootings incidents in Oregon, in Aurora, in other places -- Republicans have resisted those kinds of common-sense steps.
And the President is concerned because these kinds of common-sense steps, while certainly not preventing every act of gun violence, would make our country safer. And we've heard even the Secretary of Homeland Security indicate that common-sense, meaningful gun safety legislation is a matter of homeland security. But that has not yet persuaded Republicans, much to the frustration and even anger of the President of the United States.
Q And just on the Dalai Lama again. Did the issue of the South China Sea come up? Because the Dalai Lama was in town earlier this week saying that the dispute could be resolved through dialogue and reconciliation with other Asian countries.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have more detail to read out of their conversation to share. Obviously, the position that the President has articulated on a number of occasions is that any sort of territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved through diplomacy. So it sounds like the position that the Dalai Lama had articulated is consistent with the position that we have maintained for quite some time. But I don’t know whether or not it came up in the context of their meeting.
Q Thanks. Just a follow-on to Mr. Trump's meeting with the NRA on not allowing people on watch lists or no-fly lists to buy a gun. Does the President think that Donald Trump is an effective messenger on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know that the President has many views about the effectiveness of the Republican nominee's message. What I think I would just say is this: The President does believe that the notion of preventing people who are on the no-fly list from buying a gun is a pretty common-sense proposition. It is the kind of thing that even people who have profound political differences should be able to agree on. Thus far, Republicans have not. And Republicans have protected a loophole that does allow people who are on the no-fly list the ability to purchase a firearm. That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t make our country safer. So that's why the President believes that a change is long overdue, and we would welcome support from anybody in pursuit of that goal.
Q Does he think that Mr. Trump's support for this might help tip the scale in favor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's unclear at this point exactly what his intentions are. So we've been very clear. Democrats have put forward a specific piece of legislation that would definitively close this loophole, and that's what we would like to see Democrats and Republicans come together around. And we would welcome the support of anybody, including the presumptive Republican presidential nominee for that effort.
Q Thanks, Josh. Again, to follow up on guns. In its statement, the NRA seemed to voice its support for a proposal that Senator Cornyn put forward last December that would have this 72-hour I guess wait period where the Justice Department can investigate folks on the watch list trying to purchase firearms. I know that Democrats were not for that last time around. Is there some -- are you willing to give that consideration this time around, now that there seems to be some more support behind it?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the experts that have taken a look at this have concluded that Senator Cornyn’s bill would do very little to prevent people who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun. Just to extend the analogy here, the rule is not that these individuals who are suspected of having significant links to terrorism are prevented from boarding a plane for 72 hours. They’re prevented from boarding a plane, period, full-stop, until any concerns about their links to terrorism have been resolved.
If we conclude that’s necessary to protect the country, we should have a similar policy when it comes to buying a gun. And that’s the policy that is included in the legislation that was put forward by Democrats and it’s a common-sense proposal that we believe Republicans should support, too.
Q Just on this list, how many people again are on this list -- this no-fly list?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question. I’d encourage you to check with DNI. I don’t even actually know if there is a number that they put out publicly, but you can check with them.
Q So would someone who is on this list not be allowed to buy a gun forever? Or what -- how do you see this working? Because this is I guess one of the problems with this whole idea, is that isn’t there some limit. For example, the gunman in Orlando apparently was under some sort of investigation and it ended, and the FBI Director said this can’t go on indefinitely. So you’re on this list, A, you’re suspected of a crime, you’re not -- it’s a gray area. How do you see clarifying exactly where this list begins and ends and so on and so forth?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s start by -- there are a lot of things to unpack here because there are multiple lists. So when it comes to the no-fly list, this is something that we actually did talk about back in December when the Republicans in the Senate voted down this proposal to close the loophole. There is a process in place for individuals who believe that they are wrongly included on the list that they can go through to clear their name. And I think most individuals who believe they are wrongly included on that list go through the effort to clear their name so that they can board an airplane. And there is a well-established process for doing exactly that.
There’s been a separate question that has been raised about how should individuals who have been the subject of an investigation that’s now closed be treated if they go to purchase a firearm. And while the situation in Orlando continues to be under investigation, this is something that apparently is in question in this situation. The individual who carried out this terrorist attack in Orlando over the weekend is an individual who had previously been investigated by the FBI -- an investigation that had been closed for more than two years.
The question is, should an individual like that whose previously been investigated by the FBI but the investigation is closed -- should his decision to walk into a gun store and purchase a firearm be something that triggers a notification to the FBI. And I think --
Q What’s the answer to that?
MR. EARNEST: I think the answer to that is basically this. We’re still -- Director Comey has indicated that the FBI is going to take a close look at this individual’s previous interactions with the FBI to determine whether or not the FBI could have or should have done something differently. And so this raises questions both in terms of were the procedures that are on the books followed in conducting this investigation. It also raises the question about whether or not those procedures should be changed.
Q At the other day, the President said that he was “satisfied” I think was the word that the FBI had done what it needed to do in this particular case.
MR. EARNEST: Again, what the President had been briefed -- and again, this was basically 24 hours after the incident -- is he had been briefed by the FBI that based on what they had known up to that point, that the relevant procedures had been followed. But that doesn’t answer the question about whether or not those procedures should be changed. But separate from that then is, even if you do change the procedures in some way and the investigation is closed, is there some kind of lingering policy that you can put in place that ensures some notification to the FBI that an individual who had previously been the subject of a now-closed investigation is notified if they try to purchase a gun.
And so I know that there are some proposals on Capitol Hill that consider this and -- look, considering this question is something the President believes is worthwhile. In considering this question, in considering a policy change, it’s important to factor in what impact this would have on ongoing investigations, what impact this would have on the finite resources of the FBI. But the President does believe it’s something that is worth careful consideration.
Q Just more generally speaking, in terms of initiatives that the President may have in the final months of office, I think the feeling that you’d expressed was essentially that the President had exhausted whatever executive authority he had in this area of common-sense gun safety, as you call it. Given what’s happened in Orlando, can we expect some sort of renewed effort by the President to try and push something else in the coming months, in the coming weeks?
MR. EARNEST: You mean with regard to executive action?
Q With regard to executive action. Aside from using the bully pulpit, as he did yesterday, aside from saying this is something Congress should do, does the President -- is there anything more the President can do, and tell the people of Orlando he’s going to do when he goes down there tomorrow, to try and move forward on this issue of common-sense gun control? Or is it just -- has he reached his wits’ end on this?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President, when he announced a set of executive actions back in January, was pretty clear that he was taking aggressive executive action to try to make the country safer and to try to move the country in the direction of a more common-sense set of gun safety policies.
And as I mentioned earlier this week, I’m not aware of any upcoming policy announcements or policy announcements that are being prepared for additional steps that the President could take using his executive authority. The President is always open to new ideas. And if somebody comes to him with a specific suggestion of an additional step that we could take using his executive authority that would fall into the category of common-sense gun safety legislation, the President won’t hesitate to implement it.
But the responsibility really now lies at the feet of Congress. Is Congress prepared to close the loophole that allows people on the no-fly list to buy a gun? Is Congress prepared to ban assault weapons, weapons of war? Is Congress prepared to definitively through legislation close the gun show loophole?
These are all common-sense steps that are strongly supported by a majority of Americans. In some cases, there’s polling evidence to indicate that these are steps that are supported by not just a majority of Republicans, but actually a majority of gun owners. So these are common-sense steps. These do not gut the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. And they would have a material impact on enhancing the safety of communities all across the country. They won’t prevent every act of gun violence, but the President believes they would make the country safer, and Congress needs to act them.
Q So if I hear you correctly, he’s basically -- he’s done what he thinks he can do.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the President is not going to rule out additional steps. But at this point, the ball is in Congress’s court because the President has already taken bold, aggressive action using his executive authority to try to protect the country.
Q Josh, The New York Times published a graph fairly recently which showed how gun sales spike after each of these shootings and after calls by the President, by the administration for stricter gun control. And the spike in sales is profound and dramatic. I think a new record of gun sales was set last December after the San Bernardino attack. The previous record was set in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook attack. I suspect a new record will be set this month. The irony is that the President, any time he speaks about this, becomes, as Forbes magazine said a couple years ago, the world’s greatest gun salesman. Care to comment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, there are a lot of things that come to mind. I think this is a graphic illustration of the lie that the NRA says that having more guns on the streets is going to make us safer. We have these terrible incidents; more guns are sold; there are more guns on the streets; and these kinds of terrible mass shootings continue to happen -- to say nothing of the kinds of shootings that don't involve nearly as many people but are still tragic.
So I saw a report -- just today I was commenting on it. I think this was a vox.com report. On the night of the shooting in Orlando that claimed 49 innocent lives there were 43 other shootings in America. On that one day -- 43 different shootings on the same day.
The incident in Orlando is the worst mass shooting in American history, so I certainly understand why it's getting outsized attention. It should. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of what is a widespread gun violence problem that doesn’t get as much attention as I think it should. And it certainly doesn’t get as much attention from members of Congress who can actually do something about it as it should. And hopefully it will.
Q There’s a report in some Belgium and French publications today that an operation is underway by ISIS fighters who have recently left Syria with the intention of carrying out attacks in Belgium and France on soft targets. Have you heard any of these reports? Can you confirm them? Did the President speak with President Hollande in his conversation recently about these?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not in a position to comment on any ongoing operations in France or Belgium. For years now, and certainly in the aftermath of the Paris attacks last fall, the United States has redoubled our efforts to support our allies in France and Belgium as they confront what is a quite significant homeland security threat from extremists that may be trying to enter their country. In some cases, these are extremists who already live in their country.
And so there are a whole host of things that we have done to further enhance our coordination, further enhance our information-sharing, and a set of other steps that will make them more effective in protecting their country.
What we've also done -- and this is something that the President’s Special Envoy to our Counter-ISIL coalition, Brett McGurk, talked about from this podium -- is that we have put more intense pressure, we're ramping up the pressure against the ISIL leaders in Iraq and in Syria, and we are engaged in an effort to more effectively shut down the border between Turkey and Syria and make it harder for ISIL leaders to get in and out of some key cities in Iraq and in Syria, including Mosul and Raqqa. There are currently operations underway in both of those locations that are led by local forces to encircle those cities. All of that -- shutting down the border and encircling those cities -- is going to apply pressure against ISIL leaders and make it harder for them to move fighters into and out of that area.
But obviously -- so this is important because we know that the individuals who were linked to -- at least some of the individuals who were linked to the attacks in Paris and later in Belgium had spent time in Syria. So being able to shut down those routes, or at least put pressure on the leaders who might be interested in sending people on those routes is an important part of our strategy to counter ISIL's ability to carry out acts of violence not just in Iraq and in Syria, but in other places, too.
That said, ISIL does pose a unique threat in that they are using social media and other Internet-based resources to try to inspire people to carry out acts of violence, even if they're not planned and directed by ISIL leaders in Iraq and in Syria. So this is an unwieldy threat, and we are dedicating significant resources to counter it and to protect the American people and to protect our allies.
Q Lastly, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, at the NATO meeting today, said that there is more NATO can do in this fight against ISIS. Is that at odds with what the administration's position is in this fight?
MR. EARNEST: No. We have regularly made the case that we are going to continue to ask our partners in the counter-ISIL effort to contribute more. And in some cases, that is financial resources. In some cases, that is intelligence capabilities. In some cases, that is Special Operations Forces. In some cases, that is trainers. And in some cases, that is financial resources to assist the Iraqi government as they rebuild those areas that have been retaken from ISIL. So there are a variety of ways. We even asked NATO members and other partners in our counter-ISIL coalition to make substantial financial contributions to address the humanitarian situation caused by ISIL to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of refugees.
So there are a lot of ways that our partners can contribute to this effort, and we've been pleased that we found 66 other countries around the world who have made substantial and important contributions to our success in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. But we're always on the lookout for additional commitments that can be made. I know this is the subject of regular conversation between Secretary Carter and his counterparts around the world, including his counterparts in NATO. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the subject of additional discussion when the President meets with his NATO counterparts next month.
Q One last question. NATO has its hands full these days not only with the fight against ISIS and terrorism, but also with various operations that take place in the Baltic right now. I know that you've positioned 4,000 troops along the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression. There's an operation going on underway in the Black Sea right now. There's that expression that, "Nature abhors a vacuum" and so does the statecraft. One sense is that there is this escalation and tension not only in Europe and not in the Middle East, but certainly in China. Is this administration responsible for the heightened tension because of its withdrawal from the international stage?
MR. EARNEST: Doug, I think over the course of President Obama's tenure in office we have solidified and strengthened our alliances around the world. The President, frankly, has been effective in enhancing our ability to advance our interests around the world. That's why the President has made things like TPP such a critical priority. That will expand our influence in the Asia Pacific region. The President has built an international coalition of 66 nations that are focused on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. The President did rally the international community to come together by imposing tough sanctions and enforcing them rigorously, and eventually compelling Iran to sign on the dotted line on a deal that essentially prevents them from obtaining nuclear weapons. And we have a system in place, working with the international community, to verify that Iran is living up to their end of the bargain.
So the President is quite proud, as he should be, of his record of making the country safer, of expanding and strengthening our influence around the globe, in part by strengthening our ability to work hand in glove with our allies to advance our shared interests.
Q Thanks, Josh. Yesterday, the President, during his speech, said that we're now seeing how dangerous this type of predator can be. And he talked about the Republican nominee and his Muslim ban. Sitting -- or standing next to the President was Director Clapper, who will be charged with deciding how much classified information to give the Republican nominee. Was the President, by saying that Donald Trump is dangerous, sending a signal to Director Clapper about what kind of information he should divulge when he's giving classified briefings to the Republican nominee?
MR. EARNEST: The President was sending a very explicit and direct warning about the danger of that kind of rhetoric that we've heard from a number of Republicans, including the presumptive Republican nominee. But the President has complete confidence in the judgement that Director Clapper will exercise, free of political interference, about how to effectively brief both parties’ presidential nominees.
Q Going back to the issue of the Dalai Lama’s visit. How do you define what’s a private meeting and what isn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't think I described the Dalai Lama meeting as private, I guess.
Q You said it was in the Residence because it was a private meeting --
MR. EARNEST: Personal. Look, in this case, the Dalai Lama is not a head of state and so the visit was handled differently.
When there’s a head of state, typically there will be a meeting in the Oval Office; typically there will be some kind of joint statement to the media. But in this case, the interaction was different, primarily because the Dalai Lama is not a head of state.
But the President does have personal affection for the Dalai Lama and for his teachings. The President does support the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, linguistic traditions. So that's why the President had the meeting. But the meeting was treated differently than his meetings with other heads of state because the Dalai Lama is not a head of state.
Q Is there a risk that the manner in which these meetings always take place could encourage the Chinese government to think that it can influence if not who the President meets, at least the manner in which he meets them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, based on the reaction from the Chinese government that somebody referred to earlier, it sounds like if they're hoping to have that kind of influence, they're not succeeding.
Q Josh, Afghanistan. Secretary Carter told the NATO allies apparently that the President is, indeed, reconsidering the whole notion of how many troops to leave behind at the end of the year. He’d hoped to get down to 5,500 and I think it's 9,000-plus now.
MR. EARNEST: 9,800.
Q Yes, 9,800. What are the considerations there? And is the President resigned that whatever number he settles on, that whatever hope he had to substantially have wound down Afghanistan before he leaves office is not to be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a lot there. Let me decide -- but a totally legitimate series of questions. Let me try to answer it in this way. What General Nicholson has indicated is that he’s conducting a review of our strategy in Afghanistan based on what he’s seeing on the ground. And that's something that he’s discussed publicly, and I’m confident that the President will be briefed on that review once it’s been completed. And I’m sure that part of that review will be a consideration about the personnel required to implement the strategy that the Commander-in-Chief has given our armed forces.
No recommendation at this point has been presented to the President. But as the President makes any sort of strategic decision with regard to Afghanistan, he will listen carefully to the advice that he’s receiving from his commanders on the ground, as well as the other members of his national security team at the Pentagon, at the White House, and other agencies that are critical to our success in Afghanistan.
So as decisions on that get made, we’ll obviously keep all of you posted. We obviously also value the important contribution that our NATO allies are making to that effort. And we would not have made the kind of progress that we have seen in Afghanistan without the substantial contribution and, in some cases, sacrifices that our NATO allies have made in pursuit of our interest in Afghanistan.
What is also true -- and I guess this may be the part of your question that I would quibble with a little bit -- is at one point earlier in President Obama’s tenure in office, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and now the question is are we going to reduce the number of our troops from 9,800 to 5,500? That, of course, is more than a 90-percent reduction of our military personnel in Afghanistan.
So I think the situation in Afghanistan has profoundly changed, not just if you quantify based on troop levels, but what’s also true is we have succeeded in decimating core al Qaeda that previously operated with virtual impunity in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. So that also I think is an indication of the important progress that we've made in Afghanistan. What’s also true is that there is a government in Afghanistan that, frankly, just to put it like really bluntly is a much better partner with the United States than the previous one.
Now, of course, it was the Afghan people who chose their leadership. But based on our effective work, we now have a much more effective partner and a much more effective partnership in trying to bring about the kind of changes that we’d like to see in Afghanistan.
Now, what’s also true -- and I think this is the part where I would not quibble with what you said -- is that Afghanistan is a dangerous place and there is a real risk that the progress that we have made could quickly unravel. And that's why a sustained commitment on the part of the United States and our NATO allies not just to a military presence but also to an effective coordination with the Afghan government, with things like intelligence-sharing, economic support, and investments and development in Afghanistan -- all those things are critical to Afghanistan’s future. And because of the commitment that the United States and our NATO partners have made to Afghanistan’s future, it’s important that we maintain those commitments.
Q I believe the numbers that we have there now, and the ones originally projected to the end of the year were higher than what he -- the President had originally planned himself and he had to revise those.
MR. EARNEST: That is true.
Q Suffice it to say that this is not where he’d hoped to be as he exits the White House, isn't it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't think there’s anybody that would describe the situation in Afghanistan right now as ideal. So the President I think has acknowledged for some time that continued work and a sustained commitment to Afghanistan will be required after his presidency. There’s no denying that.
But I also think there’s no denying the remarkable progress that we have made in Afghanistan to decimate core al Qaeda, to build up the governing institutions of Afghanistan, and to reduce the military commitment and military sacrifices that our country and our military was making before President Obama took office.
Q And quickly on timetable. We've got a NATO summit coming up next month. Is he hoping to have a decision by then? Or this is something that could stretch on into the fall?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific timetable to share. But once the President has been presented with a recommendation, then he’ll make a decision. But I don't have a time frame to share in terms of when that recommendation will be presented or when the President would make a decision based on it.
Q Thanks. A couple on this proposal that you said the President thinks should be considered to basically change policy so that if a person who had been investigated for terrorism tried to buy a gun that there would be some sort of flag. Does the White House have a legislation proposal? Or is there one on the Hill that the President particularly supports? Or is this just something that he thinks needs to be made a priority of the Hill right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so one of the things that's challenging about this, Julie, is that this is an issue that has gotten very careful attention just in the last 72 hours and it is important to carefully consider the impact of such a policy change.
I know that Senator Feinstein has been circulating a proposal on Capitol Hill. That's obviously a proposal that we’d want to take a close look at. I don't know that I can render a judgement on her specific proposal, but she is putting forward the kinds of ideas that are worthy of consideration. And that consideration should include what impact it would have on our national security, but also what impact it would have on the ability of federal law enforcement officers to effectively manage their workload and conduct investigations.
Q So that's the second time you've mentioned that. Has he heard directly from the FBI or other law enforcement officials at the federal level that this could be really unwieldy for them and something that would actually make people less safe rather than safer? Does the FBI -- have there been specific concerns communicated to him by the FBI Director or others about what this could mean going forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have additional information to share about the President’s conversations with the FBI Director. But the FBI Director I think has been quite explicit about his commitment to taking a look at how the investigation of this individual was conducted to understand exactly whether or not there’s something that the FBI could have or should have done differently. And again, that's something that they’ve just been doing for the last 72 hours, so it’s premature at this point to arrive at any conclusions about that.
I think the observation that I’m making is an intuitive one, one that does not require necessarily a sophisticated understanding of exactly the way the FBI works. I think the practical consideration is just this: Any sort of investigative enterprise is going to have finite resources, and those resources are, of course, dedicated to pursuing open and active investigations. And additional information about closed investigations could potentially have an impact on the FBI’s ongoing ability to pursue their open and active investigations that are on their desk. So that is just a consideration that needs to be factored into all of this.
But, look, I think in the President’s mind, an entirely legitimate question has been raised and it’s one that's worthy of careful consideration. And Senator Feinstein is somebody that's doing that.
Q And just on the visit tomorrow, this has, unfortunately, become the pattern for this President to have to go to these communities and spend hours meeting with these families. Can you talk a little bit about how he approaches it, the toll that it takes on him, and what he thinks his role is in what is a very private and horrible moment for these people -- to go in there as somebody they've never met before, he’s the President of the United States, how he presents himself to them in that situation? Can you just kind of give us insight into how he takes that in?
MR. EARNEST: The President understands that he is a symbol of the country. And when he travels to a community and meets with a family that has endured a terrible tragedy, he’s offering a message of condolence and comfort on behalf of the American people. And the President takes that responsibility quite seriously. This is a solemn responsibility.
This is a responsibility that's all the more important when you're talking about the way that the LGBT community in Orlando came under attack on Saturday. And signs of support and comfort from the President of the United States should be a powerful affirmation for those American citizens. So this is an important visit I think in the President’s mind.
The other thing I would say is the President’s life has been personally touched by his interactions with people who have endured terrible tragedy. The President recognizes that he is a symbol for the rest of the country. But it would be impossible for him to not be personally affected by these kinds of conversations and these kinds of interactions. And I'll let the President speak more about it, but I think the President in the past has indicated that he draws on his faith as he considers fulfilling these kinds of responsibilities.
Q Thanks, Josh. Sticking with Orlando and the President’s faith. Since the President has experience with comforting grieving families after something of this -- after a mass shooting, do you know if the Dalai Lama gave him any spiritual guidance before the President heads down to Orlando?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if the Dalai Lama expressed any -- offered any spiritual guidance on this specific matter. Obviously the Dalai Lama did present a condolence letter to the President to receive on behalf of the American people for the terrible tragedy that occurred in Orlando. But I don't know if there was any specific spiritual advice that was shared.
Q Following up on the DNC hack, you said yesterday you didn’t know if the President had been briefed on how it happened, the details of it. Has that changed in the past 24 hours? Has the President been briefed?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he’s received a detailed briefing. I know that he’s aware of the situation. But for any sort of discussion about a federal government response, I'd refer you to the FBI. I know that the FBI has already said that they are aware of the evolving cyber threat. The FBI certainly sees criminal and nation state actors targeting all sectors and data, including personally identifiable information, trade secrets and other confidential information. But they can speak more directly to how or whether they may be involved in looking at this particular situation. And I'm just not able to comment on this in much detail because I don't weigh into even potential law enforcement or international security investigations.
Q And finally, on FBI resources for investigations, et cetera. Funding for the FBI -- I know Democrats -- Senate Democrats are trying to boost funding for the FBI. Is that something the White House has weighed into as far as increasing the funding for the FBI? And is it having an impact on investigations, especially in light of the Orlando terror investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that FBI Director Comey has addressed this a little bit and he expressed a lot of confidence in the important work that the FBI is responsible for when it comes to keeping the country safe. I know that he has made reference to the fact that there are about a hundred joint terrorism task forces at work in communities across the country. These joint terrorism task forces are organizations that integrate federal, state and local law enforcement resources to protect those communities. And so this is a way that the FBI can work in partnership with other law enforcement agencies to protect the country.
So I know that is critical to their work and it's critical to protecting the country. But for any specific resource requests or consideration of increases, I'd encourage you to check the Director Comey to determine to what extent that is necessary. I guess I would just observe that the discussion I was just having with Julie about changing the policy for the way in which closed investigations could have an impact on resource considerations. So if it becomes necessary based on policy changes or a different assessment being reached about the threat that the FBI has to protect against, then a change in resources or even a request for increased resources could be made.
Q Speaking of Congress and guns, I'm sure you're aware of the fact that the Senate Democrats are conducting a filibuster right now. It's been going on since before we got in here, and I'm told it's still going on. Stressing an action on no-fly, no-buy and on expanded background checks, was the White House given any heads-up about plans to begin this filibuster? And what is your reaction? Do you support it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think what is clear is that Democrats in the Senate have for a long time been fighting very hard to try to persuade Republicans in the Senate to support common-sense gun safety legislation. And unfortunately, those Republicans have been solid in blocking common-sense proposals that would make the country safer. And we've spent a lot of time talking in here about how frustrated and even angry the President has been about that. Senate Democrats have been too. And I know that Senator Murphy, who represents the great state of Connecticut, represents a community that has been uniquely touched by a terrible mass shooting incident. So I know that Senator Murphy's feelings are quite strong on this. I know there are other Democrats in the Senate who have similarly strong feelings.
And so obviously we're supportive of any effort to try to get Congress to act on common-sense gun safety legislation. And you wouldn’t think it would be so hard. The kind of measures that Senator Murphy is strongly advocating for, alongside a number of other Senate Democrats, are common-sense measures that wouldn’t prevent every act of gun violence, but also wouldn’t undermine the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. These are common-sense proposals that are strongly supported by, according to some polls, a majority of Republicans and even a majority of gun owners. This is common sense. And it's unfortunate that Republicans aren't willing to use that common sense, even when it comes to something that our Secretary of Homeland Security has described as a legitimate homeland security issue.
Q And still on this issue of guns, the President was talking in the last couple of days about reinstating the assault weapons ban. Can we expect -- I guess the question is, what is the White House prepared to do to try to make this happen? Or should we expect this to be something that comes up on the stump, on the campaign trail, something the President continues to talk about and continues to focus on through the next several months as President?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President stood at this podium in the aftermath of one of the many mass shooting incidents that he's had to address and said it's time for advocates of common-sense gun safety legislation to politicize this issue. We've seen opponents of common-sense proposals politicize this issue to the extreme. And it's time for supporters of common-sense gun safety legislation to demonstrate the same kind of passion in a political context.
And one measure of this is the President's commitment to essentially become a single-issue voter when it comes to common-sense gun safety legislation; that the President has unequivocally said that he will not endorse, campaign for, raise money for, or vote for a candidate or an officeholder who doesn't support common-sense gun safety legislation that would protect the country but not undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
Q So he'll keep talking about it on the campaign trial and at various events, we assume.
MR. EARNEST: I think this is an entirely legitimate issue for debate, particularly as the American people are considering who should represent them in the Congress. And the question really I think is, are the vast majority of Americans that support these common-sense measures prepared to make their voices heard at the ballot box? That's the only way that we're going to see the kind of legislative change that the President believes is long overdue.
Q And last question on a different topic. I just want to make sure I'm clear on this -- and forgive me if this is something that has been addressed in past briefings -- but does the White House feel, does the administration feel that there is a qualitative difference between a group like ISIS or al Qaeda or whatever, a terrorist group, specifically telling someone like the shooter in Orlando to attack this specific nightclub versus these groups saying to all of their followers, hey, go attack wherever you can? Is there a qualitative difference or a distinction that's important that would change the way things are done, operationally, would change kind of the U.S. response? How important is it to decide between those two?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Athena, I think what our intelligence professionals and our national security professionals have told us is they're aware of this evolving threat. If there is direct communication between an ISIL leader and an individual directing them to go carry out an act of terrorism, there is an opportunity for the United States to use our resources to intercept that communication and interrupt the threat.
That opportunity is not presented when the communication is so diffuse; when it's individuals who are self-radicalizing. That is a different kind of threat that we must counter. And it poses a unique one because, as unfortunately as we have learned in Orlando, those threats can eventually result in a significant act of violence that, in this case, claims dozens of lives. Now, what's also different about this, Athena, is that the pre-9/11 threat that we faced in some ways was easier to disrupt because of the network of communications that was required to engineer that terrorist conspiracy, but those kinds of conspiracies have the potential to carry out even larger acts of violence.
There were thousands of Americans that were killed on 9/11 as a result of that terrorist conspiracy. So the threat that we face now is different, but one that, again, as we learned in Orlando, continues to be dangerous, one that we have to be vigilant about, and one that in some ways is harder to counter. And I don't think you've seen resignation on the faces of anybody in this administration or anybody in law enforcement or any of our national security professionals about their determination to do what is necessary to protect the country, to counter these threats, and to keep America safe.
Q Is there an overall strategy right now, coming out of the White House, for Democrats on gun control? We see the filibuster. I'm wondering if there are larger plans to move this issue forward.
MR. EARNEST: Lauren, here's the thing: Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and in the United States Senate. Republicans are the ones that set the agenda. Republicans are the ones who are able to effectively vote down bills. So this is on them. This is part of the responsibility of governing. In the same way that Republicans, for instance, will be responsible if they don't pass a budget and the government gets shut down, they have a basic responsibility to pass legislation, it's Republicans who ran for and worked hard to try to get the majority in both Houses of Congress so that they could exercise this kind of control and have this kind of responsibility.
The same is true when it comes to gun-safety legislation. It's Republicans who are responsible if these kinds of common-sense measures aren't put into place that would, for example, prevent a suspected terrorist from walking into a gun store and buying a gun. It's Republicans who are responsible for that, because they have a majority in the Congress. That's how our system works. And even though you have a Democratic President in place advocating for that legislation, ultimately it's Republicans who exercise this authority.
Q After every terrorist attack, it seems that people think, this is it, we're finally going to move on the issue of gun control. Now you have Donald Trump saying he's willing to talk to the NRA. Is there movement? Do you see light? Is this it? Is this that moment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President I think has made the observation that as terrible as these incidents of mass shootings are, they are emotional, and that's certainly true of the situation in Orlando. It's difficult to imagine a more gut-wrenching, emotional event that would tug at one's conscience more than the massacre of 20 first-graders in their classroom. And in the aftermath of that act of unspeakable violence that years later people are emotional about, Republicans still blocked common-sense gun safety legislation, even with that on their minds, on the minds of the nation. Even with that unspeakable act of violence tugging at their conscience, Republicans sided with the NRA.
So I would like to be optimistic that this unspeakable act of violence will sufficiently tug at the conscience of Republican senators. Maybe seeing the suffering in Orlando will inspire them with some courage to stand up to the NRA. Maybe it will help them put aside their political fears and insecurities and say, I’m going to put the safety and security of the American people ahead of any personal political consequences. And we’ll just have to see if that’s what happens. I hope it will.
Q Thank you, Josh. While you were talking, the Dalai Lama posted to his Instagram -- yes, the Dalai Lama has an Instagram -- but beyond that, he posted to his Instagram a photo of him and the President warmly embracing, and the photo credit on that was Pete Souza, and it’s an official White House photo. My question is, was that a photo that he was given permission to release from the White House? Or was that meant to be a parting gift that was supposed to be private?
MR. EARNEST: What typically happens after the President does have a meeting with the Dalai Lama is that the White House typically does distribute an image of that meeting. I believe that’s happened the three previous times that the Dalai Lama visited with the President at the White House.
Q Distributed an image to the Dalai Lama?
MR. EARNEST: No, distributed an image publicly.
Q Publicly. Why was that sent out then through the Dalai Lama’s Instagram and not the White House’s Instagram?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t rule out it being distributed through the White House Instagram.
Q Okay. And if -- sorry, final question -- if there is a photographer that’s allowed -- in this case, the White House photographer -- why was there not a pool spray? Why were we not allowed in there, for instance?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the way that this event was -- or this meeting was handled is consistent with the way that it was handled the three previous times the Dalai Lama visited the White House. And that meant that it’s handled differently than when a head of state visits the White House.
Gregory, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. You’ve talked about the increased number of mass shootings, and you’ve also talked about the role of the President of the United States after these events to articulate this sense of national mourning after a national tragedy like this. And another way that he does that is through these proclamations to lower the flag to half-staff at the White House and other federal buildings. And it turns out that President Obama has issued more of those proclamations than any other President in history, in large part because of the terrorist attacks and the mass shootings that we’ve seen.
So I have a couple questions. One is, can you talk at all about the thought process that goes into determining which events warrant that special symbolism? You seemed to struggle a little bit last year when you were asked why it took five days to issue a proclamation for the Chattanooga military recruiting office shooting, for example. But then also, more philosophically I guess, what does that say about America in the Obama era, that we’ve had -- 6 percent of his presidency has been during a state of national mourning. Should future generations of Americans look back at the Obama years and think of them as a time of repeated national tragedy? Is that part of his legacy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gregory, I think the lowering of the flag, and an order from the President of the United States to order the lowering of the flag, is a symbolic expression of national mourning. And it certainly is a way, symbolically, to demonstrate that the country is united in our support for a community that’s mourning. I think that what we also see is that over the course of generations that symbolism is expressed in different ways. And so I can't really speak to how this may have been considered by the Reagan White House, for example.
But I think what is true is that America has shown great perseverance in the face of these tragedies -- not just during the Obama administration, but throughout our history. And I think -- I’m hopeful -- that as people look back on the Obama presidency, while there certainly have been tragedies that our country has had to confront, but there’s also a powerful story to tell about the resilience that the United States of America has displayed in the last seven years.
Our country has fought back from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The American auto industry was on the brink of bankruptcy but came back stronger than ever, and manufactured and sold more cars last year than ever before. Our country has made profound progress when it comes to the acceptance of LGBT Americans in our society. Our country has made profound progress in strengthening our relationships and our alliances around the world. Our country has made significant progress in fighting climate change and doing that in a way that actually has positive economic benefits for our country.
Our country has reformed our relationship with Cuba. It’s overhauled -- after five decades of a failed policy toward Cuba, this new openness and this effort to normalize relations between our two countries has yielded a lot of optimism about the kinds of opportunities that are now available to Americans and Cubans. It’s also transformed our relationships with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. I could go on and on. And some day I’m sure the President will.
But I think there’s -- as you heard the President say, there’s a lot of reason to be really optimistic about the direction of our country and the people who live here. And these kinds of tragedies that we have encountered have prompted us to mourn, but they've not set us back. And I think the kind of perseverance and resilience that we've see in those communities that have been scarred by violence are an inspiration to the rest of us.
Just to use a pertinent example, many of the Newtown families are actually in Washington today. There is an event later this evening that the Vice President will be speaking at. These are parents who have gone through the unthinkable, and they've lost their first-grader in a terrible act of violence. But yet, these families summon the courage and the perseverance and the will to organize in support of policies that would prevent other families from having to face that same kind of situation.
And they don't do that out of spite or bitterness -- though surely as human beings they feel that -- but they do that because they're invested in our country, and they care about other citizens, even citizens that they haven’t met, and to make our country more perfect and to pursue the kind of policy proposals that would make our country safer, safer for other first-graders. And they do that even though their first-graders were taken from them. That's inspiration. And I think that's a pretty good testament to the way that our country, not just in the Obama presidency but throughout our history, has confronted tragedies, has mourned the loss but has refused to be divided in the face of those challenges.
We've come together and come back stronger because we're committed to our fellow citizens. And that's among the many things that makes America the greatest country in the world, and it’s among the many things that makes the President so proud to have served as our 44th President.
Q Are the families coming here at all?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are some families that will be here at the White House. I think that there is a screening of a recently released documentary that is planned for later today. But I don't expect at this point that that screening would involve the President.
All right, thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
2:23 P.M. EDT