Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/21/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:12 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I just want to do a quick statement at the top before I get to your questions. It has now been 97 days since the President fulfilled his constitutional responsibility and presented the American people with an exceptional nominee to the United States Supreme Court -- a man named Chief Judge Merrick Garland. And today, the nonpartisan American Bar Association agreed with that assessment. The ABA released an evaluation of the Chief Judge in which they unanimously concluded that Chief Judge Garland merits their highest rating.
The ABA's extensive review found that "lawyers and judges uniformly praise the nominee's integrity. Most remarkably, in interviews with hundreds of individuals in the legal profession in a community who knew Judge Garland whether for a few years or decades, not one person uttered a negative word about him." They found that his "judicial temperament is unassailable." And they wrote, "The unanimous consensus of everyone we interviewed was that Chief Judge Garland is superbly confident to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
This significant point warrants repeating: All of the experienced, dedicated and knowledgeable sitting judges, several former solicitors general from both political parties, legal scholars from top law schools across the country, and lawyers who have worked with or against the nominee in private practice -- government or within the judiciary -- describe the nominee as outstanding in all respects and cite specific evidence in support of that view. Many described Judge Garland's professional competence as brilliant, exceptional and phenomenal."
The ABA, of course, is just the latest in a long line of well-respected voices from across the political spectrum, agreeing that Chief Judge Garland has a record of judicial excellence. There is no question that the Senate has abdicated its responsibility under the United States Constitution. Since 1975, the average period of time, from nomination by the President to confirmation by the Senate for a Supreme Court nominee, has been 67 days. We're now approaching day 100. It's long past time for Senate Republicans to do their job and consider Chief Judge Garland's nomination.
So obviously the kind of memo that we received from the ABA today is glowing, and I think does accurately reflect the universal assessment about Chief Judge Garland's integrity and competence from such an important job. That's why it is such a shame that he's been treated so unfairly by the United States Senate. But ultimately, it's our democracy that has to deal with the long-term consequences of this unprecedented partisan action by Republicans in the United States Senate.
So with that, Kevin, let's go to questions.
Q Thank you, Josh. FBI Director James Comey said recently he won't mention the Orlando nightclub shooter's name publicly. And it doesn’t appear that you or the President have either. Is refusing to publicly say the names of individuals who carry out these mass shootings part of this concerted strategy, a new strategy on the part of the administration?
MR. EARNEST: It's not a new strategy that I'm aware of. I haven’t mentioned this individual's name. But, frankly, it's because we believe that the focus should be on grieving with the victims and making sure that we are dealing head on with the potential threat that exists. I know that there are other journalists who have gotten attention for reaching a similar conclusion.
I do recall that after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the President had the opportunity to visit with some of the victims in the hospital in Aurora just days after that mass shooting incident occurred. And I know that in the context of those conversations, the President had promised the families that he wouldn’t repeat the name of that assailant. And the President does not make a habit of naming individuals who seek attention for themselves by resorting to violence like this.
It, frankly, is an effort to put the attention where it should be, which is on the victims and their families who are grieving, but also on the more significant problem that exists both as it relates in this situation to the availability of weapons of war and the risk that is posed by extremist organizations that seek to use social media to radicalize vulnerable members of the population and inspire them to carry out acts of violence. We want to make sure that we continue to implement a strategy to counter that.
Q Thank you. You spoke of yesterday's votes in the Senate as a shameful display of cowardice during your interview. Democrats voted down a pair of Republican-led amendments -- one that was designed to steer more money toward the federal background checks, and another that provides what they would describe as due process for those who want to appeal being placed on the no-fly list. I wanted to ask, did the White House support the GOP amendments? And wouldn’t they have resulted in some progress in keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I've expressed concerns about the Cornyn amendment before, when that was being discussed last week. It's apparent that that would do very little to keep individuals who are suspected of having ties to terrorism from being able to buy a gun. And as a practical matter in terms of the way that bill would be implemented, it would do very little to enhance the security of the country.
As it relates to the amendment put forward by Senator Grassley, the other Republican amendment that you're referring to, even he acknowledges that it would do nothing to close the gaping loophole in a background check system that currently exists. So the President believes that it's common sense that we would close loopholes that allow individuals to purchase guns without going through a background check. In some cases, this is Internet purchases and other places.
Senator Murphy, the senator from Connecticut, did put forward a proposal to do exactly that, and we enthusiastically support it because it would close the background check loophole, make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns from being able to get their hands on them. It is a proposition that is strongly supported all across the country by Democrats, Republican and gun owners. A majority of all of those groups support this kind of rule because it's a common-sense rule. It is a rule that would make our community safer without undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. And after spending the last week listening to Republicans talk about “radical Islamic terrorism,” this is the very textbook definition of cowardice -- to talk tough in the hopes that nobody is going to actually do something. Republicans were asked to do something. They were asked to vote on a common-sense proposal that would make our community safer, and they abdicated that responsibility, too.
Q You do not concede that the Republican-led amendments would have led to some progress on keeping guns away from people who shouldn’t have them?
MR. EARNEST: What is clear is that Republicans did not put forward an amendment that would prevent terrorists from getting their hands on -- potential people with ties to terrorism getting their hands on guns. And they didn’t put forward an idea for closing the significant loopholes that exist in our background check system. Democrats did. Democrats overwhelmingly supported proposals that did, but hardly any Republicans did. And that's why both of those common-sense proposals that have strong support all across the country from a majority of Democrats, a majority of Republicans and even a majority of the gun owners, but those proposals were defeated by Republicans, frankly, at the request of the NRA -- and that's unfortunate.
Ayesha, welcome back. Very nice to see you.
Q Thank you. So Reuters is reporting today that there's a bit of disagreement between the White House and the Attorney General over whether to allow prisoners of Guantanamo Bay to be able to plead guilty to terrorism charges via videoconference, and thereby they would avoid having to step foot on U.S. soil. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about whether the White House plans to pursue this strategy, even over some objections from the Justice Department, or plan to pursue a strategy where you would support legislation or things of that nature, even over objections from the Justice Department. And if not, are there any alternatives to videoconferencing that could kind of avoid the issue of bringing these prisoners to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that there is strong unanimity of opinion across the administration that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is a national security priority. And I feel confident in telling you that every member of the President's national security team, including the Attorney General, supports that goal and believes that it would enhance the national security of our country to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
What is also true is that the President believes that Article III courts have proved to be an effective way to bring terrorists to justice. Attorney General Lynch certainly believes that. She's got her own experience with that. Prior to becoming Attorney General, she was the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York where she was involved in some of those terrorism cases. So she certainly has a strong track-record on this, and she understands the importance of bringing terrorists to justice, protecting the country, and doing so in a way that's consistent with our values.
So beyond that, I'm not going to get into the views that are expressed in private conversations. You won't be surprised to hear that the administration certainly is considering a wide range of options to bring to justice those individuals that are currently in the prison at Guantanamo Bay so that we can close that prison. And that work is ongoing. The only reason that we haven’t succeeded in getting that done is that obstacles have been erected by Congress to prevent that from happening. That's unfortunate, and that is something that the President and every member of his team strongly disagrees with.
Q Going back to gun control, Senator Collins is supposed to be releasing legislation today, and there's a thought that her legislating could maybe get support on both sides of the aisle. Has the White House at all reached out to Senator Collins or talked with her or her staff about a possible compromise on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that we're quite disappointed that Republicans voted down a proposal from Senator Feinstein just yesterday that would prevent everyone who's suspected of having ties to terrorists from being able to purchase a gun. It appears that Senator Collins is considering a proposal that would prevent some people who are suspected of ties to terrorism from being able to purchase a gun.
So, frankly, I don’t know why you would water down a proposal that would prevent everyone who's suspected of having ties to terrorism from being able to purchase a gun. But because Republicans have blocked that proposal, that's what some senators have had to resort to.
So what I can tell you is that the White House and attorneys at the Department of Justice are taking a look at the proposal that's been put forward, and if the assessment is that this would enhance the ability of our law enforcement professionals to keep us safe and to prevent suspected terrorists from purchasing a gun, then that's likely something that we'll be able to support. We're still reviewing the legislation to determine if that is actually the practical effect it would have. But this certainly does not make up for the rejection by Republicans of a common-sense proposal that would prevent people who are on the no-fly list or otherwise suspected of terrorism from being able to buy a gun.
Q It was clear from the beginning, even before these votes were cast, the Democrats weren’t going to get what they wanted on these bills. So would it not have been better to vote for the Republican bills? I mean, wouldn’t that have been an incremental change, and then go from there? Maybe then this Collins bill next. Wouldn’t that have been better than nothing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess for the legislative strategy, I would encourage you to check with the senators who conceived of it. I think part of it -- so part of their thinking, I'm sure, is the fact that all of these proposals that went down provided an incentive for somebody like Senator Collins to try to step up and find common ground with Democrats at least on something. It's unlikely that would have happened if Democrats had gone along with a do-nothing Republican attempt, like the Grassley and Cornyn amendments.
Q What you're ending up with, though, is a very narrow amendment with this Collins thing. So --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're still assessing exactly how narrow it is and determining what kind of impact it actually would have. So I think it's too early to say at this point whether or not the administration would support it, because it's too early to -- we have not yet assessed exactly what impact it would have. If we conclude that it would have a positive impact and at least prevent some suspected terrorists from being able to buy a gun, then that seems likely something that the administration would be able to support.
But we're going to take a look at the details of this. The details in this case are quite important and do have an impact on whether or not this would enhance our national security.
Q I guess what I'm saying -- and maybe it is too early, as well. I mean, that's fine if that's your answer again. But when you're looking at what each of those original Republican amendments would have done with the mental health piece, the background check piece, and the five years looking at possible terrorist ties, might you not have ended up with more with those two amendments than this compromise?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think so. Again, the Cornyn amendment would do every little to prevent suspected terrorists from being able to buy a gun. Very little. And as it relates to the Grassley piece, look, he himself said that it would not expand background checks. That has been a top legislative priority of this administration for quite some time. And Senator Grassley was pretty blunt about it.
And this is a little of a hobby horse of mine, but it is hard to take seriously claims from Republicans that they actually care about enhancing mental health care in this country. They have voted more than 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has done more than any other single piece of legislation in American history to expand mental health care coverage in this country.
So it's hard to -- I don’t believe Republicans when they say they care about expanding mental health care for the American people. I don’t believe them when they say that. And I think their record makes it very hard to make a convincing case that I'm wrong.
Q Okay. And on the topic of tweets today, there was a tweet last night from Senator Warren saying that she agreed with Chris Murphy that Republicans have decided to sell weapons to ISIS. Do you think that goes too far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the tweet, but what I could say about this is simply the situation that is created by Republicans blocking the Feinstein amendment is simply that individuals who are suspected of having ties to terrorism are able to buy a gun with impunity, because Republicans are protecting that loophole at the simple request of the NRA. Those are the facts of the situation. And again, I’ll leave it to Republicans to try to defend that position. I don’t think it's a position that many Americans are going to have sympathy for.
Q Are you saying that you agree with that sentiment that it's essentially deciding to sell weapons to ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: I think what is -- again, I'll let Senator Murphy and Senator Warren describe the situation as they see it. As we see it, it is without question possible for suspected terrorists to buy guns because Republicans are protecting their ability to do so.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just before the briefing, Congressman Chaka Fattah was convicted of federal corruption charges, and I'm wondering if the White House has any reaction to that conviction.
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, I saw that report shortly before I walked out here, so I don’t have a reaction to it at this point. But we'll take a look and see if we can get you a reaction. Obviously -- I think this is pretty good evidence that the Department of Justice is faithful to their mandate to pursue justice irrespective of political affiliations. Congressman Fattah is somebody that was a supporter of President Obama's campaigns. That's just a fact. But as it relates to this specific investigation, I don’t have a reaction at this point.
Q On another topic -- on the redaction, yesterday that we discussed. Now that the Department of Justice reversed course and decided to release the unedited transcript of the 911 call, are you willing to say that yesterday's decision to release a redacted transcript was a mistake?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not going to be in a position of doing any backseat driving as they pursue this investigation. They're obviously making decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the investigation and of the broader community, and I'll leave it to the investigators to make those decisions and comment on the wisdom of those.
Q Thanks, Josh. In an interview with Charlie Rose, the Vice President said that he argued strongly against the intervention in Libya. And he said -- this is from the interview -- my question was, “Okay, tell me what happens? He’s gone. What’s happens?” I’m assuming that “he” is Qaddafi. “He’s gone. What happens? Doesn't the country disintegrate? What happens then? Doesn't it become a place -- a petri dish for the growth of extremism?” Why did the President set aside that advice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Olivier, I can't speak to the views that were represented by anybody in the private conversations that the President was having in the run-up to the decision about intervening in Libya. You’ll recall that the decision that the President made was actually to work closely with our allies to carry out a military operation to try to protect tens of thousands of innocent Libyans that were at risk of slaughter.
Now, the President has now on a number of occasions acknowledged that he made a mistake. He didn't carefully consider what would be the aftermath even of a successful military intervention. Military intervention was successful to the extent that it did prevent the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Libyans, but the aftermath of even that successful intervention has led to a very difficult security situation inside of Libya that does have consequences for our national security. So the President gave a speech at the United Nations where he acknowledged that he bore some responsibility for that failure to think through the situation.
And again, I’ll leave it to the Vice President to describe what his -- what advice he offered to the President in advance of that situation. But I think the President has spoken to this pretty bluntly.
Q All right. One more on Libya. The President’s choice to lead AFRICOM has reportedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States needs to have some troops on the ground and to work to choose airstrike targets. Does the President share that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen that testimony, so let me take a look at it and we’ll get back to you on that.
Q On the Garland nomination, are there any meetings or anything planned? I think as of yesterday there was nothing on his calendar?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any additional meetings at this point. Obviously, the Chief Judge is available for meetings with Republicans who have changed their mind and decided that they are ready to do their job and actually have a conversation with him. He certainly merits that kind of consideration, but unfortunately too many Republicans have refused to offer it to him.
Q Is there any -- what changes this besides the outcome of the election in November?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that the only thing that can change the situation is Republicans deciding that they're actually willing to do their job in the Senate.
Q But nothing -- there’s no consequence, it would seem, short of the outcome of an election. Is that fair?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is -- I think it is reasonable to assume that there might be some voters out there who are interested in the position that their elected representative has taken. They might be interested in the fact that their elected representative is refusing to do their job, particularly when it comes to something as important as a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. So there could be consequences in that regard. But that will be up to individual voters to determine.
I think much of the public data that we've seen out there does indicate that there is the potential for downside for some Republicans, at least in terms of their standing with their constituents.
Q And the President is willing to still -- going to see this through to January 20, whatever the date is?
MR. EARNEST: The President strongly believes that Chief Judge Garland is the best person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. That assessment has not changed. If anything, the President’s view has been strengthened based on the independent conclusions of the nonpartisan American Bar Association.
Q And on Gitmo, did you confirm that, in fact, there was this proposal to have a videoconference session as a solution? Was that something that was, in fact, considered?
MR. EARNEST: I did not confirm that. I’m just not going to get into the internal deliberations. I confirm that there are, in fact, internal deliberations to consider a wide range of ideas for advancing the process and making progress against the goal of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But I haven’t discussed what some of those ideas might be.
Q Why not? Is there anything -- well, the report that was sent up there, the proposal with the various sites, that was, what, a couple months ago? Has anything happened with that at all? Has there been any response?
MR. EARNEST: No, other than Pat Roberts minutes after receiving that piece of paper, crumpling it up, and filming himself throwing it in the trash can, I think that is a pretty good indication of the lack of seriousness on the part of Senate Republicans. It seems unbelievable, but he’s actually considered one of the serious ones. Maybe after that display he’s not anymore.
Q How is that going to ever happen? How is Gitmo going to be close? Can you sketch out any scenario whereby you get past this number 30 who are not seen as prosecutable, if that's a word?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a couple of things. The one thing that we can do is continue to do the important diplomatic work of considering how to transfer individuals who are currently in the prison at Guantanamo Bay to other countries. Now, this is difficult diplomatic work because we ask those other countries to impose significant security restrictions against these individuals. And --
Q So are there new countries? Were there discussions going on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have much to say about -- obviously, those kinds of diplomatic conversations are rather sensitive. But whenever there is a decision to move forward with a transfer, that is always something that we do publicly announce. And we always disclose the destination of that individual. But I’m not going to get into the talks in advance of those agreements being secured.
Q And there’s obviously Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the Five. Do you really think -- does the President think that that's going to be resolved on his watch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly hopes so. And again, there are a variety of ways of dispensing with each of these cases in terms making sure that these individuals are brought to justice. And whether that is transferring them to another country or putting them through Article III courts, or having them go through military commission proceedings, there certainly is a way to deal with many of these cases.
Now, the question really is some of these legal proceedings could take quite some time, and quite some time longer. The question is are they going to sit in a prison at Guantanamo Bay at a prohibitive cost to the taxpayers and serve as a recruiting tool for extremists, or are we going to do a common-sense thing like bring that individual to a secure facility where there are already terrorists, convicted terrorists being held in American facilities on American soil. That's not going to make the country less safe. In fact, it’s going to make us more safe because it will remove this recruiting element. And it is a much more cost-effective way to deal with these dangerous individuals.
Q I ask because, on Gitmo, on Garland -- it seems that the President has absolutely no leverage remaining with Congress to get anything done.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, when you have Republicans in the United States Senate and in the United States House of Representatives that are unwilling to do their jobs, yes, that makes it hard to get things through Congress. That is an accurate observation. But the President certainly hasn’t given up. And the President is on the right side of these issues. The American people in general agree with the President’s approach to these issues. But thus far we've seen a lot of obstruction from Republicans. And it’s not because Republicans are busy doing other things; they're out there doing nothing.
Q Josh, can you say why the U.S. does not allow a U.N. monitor on torture by the name of Juan Mendez to visit the facility at Gitmo?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know what kind of access is granted by those who are in charge of running the facility at Guantanamo Bay. Certainly the Department of Defense can give you more information about the access that they provide.
There is extensive access that is provided to the International Committee for the Red Cross, for example, to reach their own independent assessment of the conditions there. So there certainly is an effort that is made by the Department of Defense to provide that kind of access. But as it relates to the individual that you're referring to, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. I’m just not familiar with the request that he’s made for access.
Q Have you got any information on the interception of a vehicle on the New Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel filled with weapons that might have been tied to some kind of a terrorist plot? Has the White House been informed about that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of these news reports, or I was briefed on some of these news reports. I understand that this was -- that these individuals were apprehended by local law enforcement. I would actually check with the FBI to determine what role they would play in this case and what role they could play in any potential investigation.
Q Did the White House play any role in the reversal at Justice to reverse on the redactions in that transcript?
MR. EARNEST: The decision to release the un-redacted version of the transcript that was released yesterday was made independently and entirely by the Department of Justice.
Q Okay. That's it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
MR. EARNEST: Good. Angela.
Q Thank you, Josh. Following up on Olivier’s line of questioning about the Vice President’s comments in the Charlie Rose interview yesterday, one of the other things he said that was -- that it is “unlikely that there will be a political resolution in Syria.” That doesn't seem to represent a change in administration policy, but it’s a little bit different line than what we’ve heard about -- a little more optimism about a political solution there. Can you extrapolate on that a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the Vice President has a reputation for calling it like he sees it. And it is difficult to be optimistic about the situation inside of Syria. There’s no denying that.
The United Nations has worked very hard to try to bring all of the relevant parties to the table. The United States has played a central role in that effort. We have made progress insofar as we've been able to bring the international community together in support of the concept of a political transition inside of Syria. Even people like Vladimir Putin have acknowledged that a political transition inside of Syria is required, is long overdue, and is what will be necessary to bring an end to the violence in that country.
We have succeeded on a number of occasions in helping the U.N. bring the parties together to participate in what they described as proximity talks. But this is a very difficult process to get moving. And we've been frustrated that far too often the Russians and the Assad regime have not lived up to the commitments that they made in the context of the Cessation of Hostilities. And that's been disappointing.
And the fraying of the Cessation of Hostilities has had a negative impact on our ability to engage in those kinds of diplomatic political negotiations. So the Vice President is a pretty optimistic guy, but the situation in Syria is difficult.
Q On Brexit, obviously the administration position is very clear and it’s been articulated. But there’s two more days between now and when the U.K. votes. Will we hear anything more out of the President either directly in words or in social media, or in any other way? Is he likely to reiterate his position between now and Thursday on Brexit?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any plan to do that. But if that changes, we’ll let you know. The President has obviously had an opportunity -- a rather high-profile opportunity -- when he was in London earlier this spring to make his views known. I think it was apparent at that time that his view that the United States benefits from having the U.K. as a strong member of the EU was something that was good for the United States was considered rather newsworthy. It got a lot of attention. And the President felt it was important to share his view given the special relationship between our two countries.
But the President said at the time, and you've heard me say on many occasions, that this is up to the British people to decide. And they should make this decision consistent with their own instincts and their own views about how their country is best served. But obviously the relationship between our two countries is such that the President felt like it was appropriate to share his view. But we’ll see on Thursday what’s going to happen.
Let’s move around. Karen.
Q Josh, the President had tweeted earlier today about the gun votes last night in the Senate. And he said that the Senate failed the American people. He didn't say Senate Republicans. Is he expressing frustration with Democrats on the Hill, too, casting blame on everybody?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is that the institution of the Senate has not functioned the way that it should. And the reason that that bill didn't succeed is because about 95 percent of Republicans flunked the test. And that's the reason that the bill didn't pass.
So I think the President’s statement is a pretty blunt on about how we're not going to see the kind of changes to our gun laws that most Americans would like to see until we see some changes in Congress. And that's what has motivated the President to assume this posture of essentially being a single-issue voter and only being willing to support Democrats who share his commitment to common-sense gun safety legislation.
Q Was there something more he wanted to see from Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, again, about 90, 95 percent of Democrats voted the right way on this. So I think it’s also pretty clear that the only way we're going to see the kinds of changes in our gun laws is when we elect people to Congress that are supportive of those common-sense measures.
And right now an overwhelming majority of Democrats do support those kinds of changes and an overwhelming majority of Republicans oppose them. So I guess it’s not just clear that we need changes in Congress. It’s pretty apparent what kinds of changes we need in order to pass gun safety legislation.
Q And one question on Florida. Governor Rick Scott is not happy that the government is not giving $5 million in emergency funds that he’s requested, which he said would be for the emergency response, the law enforcement response, medical care, counseling services, and other services. Why not approve that as an emergency funding request?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Karen, I’d principally refer you to FEMA. Requests for disaster assistance are considered at FEMA. These are not decisions that are made by the White House.
Generally speaking, I can tell you that the Stafford Act, under which this request was made, is intended to provide emergency federal assistance when it is beyond the capacity of state and local authorities to protect immediate life and safety. This particular incident took place within a defined period of time, unlike other major incidents that were ongoing and required additional emergency federal support.
That's why hurricanes are typically the kind of scenario where you would see federal disaster assistance readily provided. In this case, it’s obviously somewhat different. What is true, however, is that there may be additional federal assistance that can be provided to the state of Florida as they are dealing with what is admittedly a very difficult situation.
So let me just give you a couple of examples. The first is, obviously, as has been well documented by all of you. The FBI has taken over the investigation. So this investigation is going to require and already has required substantial resources. These are obviously a very complicated, difficult crime scene in which significant forensic work will be done. And so the FBI is using their resources to conduct that aspect of the investigation.
The FBI has also indicated that they're going to commit significant resources to learn as much as they possibly can about the days -- about this individual and how he spent his time in the days and weeks leading up to this terrorist attack.
That obviously is going to require a lot of manpower, a lot of expertise, and a lot of resources. And those will be -- significant quantities of those resources will be expended by the federal government.
In addition to that, the Department of Health and Human Services has a unit that's dedicated to offering assistance to victims who have been affected by a tragic incident like this. So certainly the Department of Health and Human Services stands ready to provide that kind of assistance. That offer has been made to the state of Florida. So separate from a disaster declaration, there certainly is an important role that the federal government can play in providing assistance to a community like Orlando that is going through a very difficult time.
Q Josh, has the White House done any assessment of the impact of the executive actions on guns that the President announced five months ago in terms of whether there have been more background checks? Because it covered a wider population of sellers.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those statistics, but why don't I look -- why don't we check with our team and see if there’s some information like that that we can provide to you.
Q Okay. How about -- how is Judge Garland handling this long delay in his nomination? Is it frustrating to him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, this is a guy who has spent the last 19 years going to work at the second-highest court in the land. He spent the last several years as the chief judge on the D.C. Circuit. So he’s used to having a pretty busy workload. And I think he’s ready to get to work on the Supreme Court. And he’s ready for the Senate to treat him fairly and ready to get to work serving the American people.
So he’s ready to go and eager to get to work. We just need members of the Senate to do their job.
MR. EARNEST: Kevin.
Q Thanks, Josh. How concerned is the President about the economic impact of new drone legislation -- regulations, as it relates to commercial use? In particular, large providers like Amazon have expressed great concern about not just the proliferation potential of more drones, but obviously more regulations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think what most people understand is that there needs to be a regulatory regime put in place to allow these kinds of devices to realize their potential. We need to make sure that we are protecting public safety, that these kinds of unmanned aerial systems don't interfere with commercial aircraft, for example. And I know that there has been some investigation into the, I think, rather obvious negative consequences of having drones operating in and around airports without some sort of regulation.
I think there are obvious concerns that are raised about privacy. We need to make sure that these drones can't be used in such a way that they violate the privacy of Americans. So having a regime in place to protect that privacy is important.
But this is -- this does represent a potentially powerful innovation that could have a positive impact in our economy. So I think most people, even people in the private sector who recognize the economic potential of this kind of innovation, recognize the value of establishing parameters for regulation to ensure that we can put in place protections for public safety and privacy, while also creating space for economic interests to thrive.
And that’s the work that is just starting. This is just the beginning of this process. And obviously we’re going to continue to work closely with private sector entities that recognize this potential, because the President has made clear that the future success of our economy will depend on our ability to continue to innovate. That is the competitive advantage that the United States has long had over the rest of the world, is our potential that’s built in to innovate and to pursue new ideas and new ways of doing things. And this is certainly a good example of that.
Q I want to switch gears and talk about China and cyber. Obviously, you remember back in September the President made the announcement about the new U.S.-China cyber agreement, and yet since then, there have been more than a dozen Chinese-based hacking groups that have been able to compromise computer networks belonging to U.S. corporations -- this is according to a study released today by the cybersecurity firm FireEye. Two parts to the question. One, how would you assess the success of that agreement given the ongoing problems? And what, if anything, is this administration able to do to either punish, retaliate or whatever else there might be in terms of tools that you can utilize to stem this problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you alluded to, last fall, when President Xi visited the White House, he did commit, alongside President Obama, that neither government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled economic espionage for commercial gain. And both countries agreed to work together to advance international adoption of peacetime norms of responsible state behavior in cyberspace. That was an important commitment on the part of the Chinese, and we obviously have tried to capitalize on that common ground to advance our mutual interests.
And so one element of that has been the establishment of what is described as essentially a cyber dialogue. This dialogue took place for the first time last December, and the agreement was to meet every six months with national security officials and cyber officials to discuss how the United States and China could cooperate on this.
Our two countries met just last week for the second installment of that dialogue. And maintaining those open lines of communication I do think will enhance our ability to protect U.S. interests in cyberspace. But this still continues to be an irritant in our relationship, and this is something that is raised at all levels just about every single time U.S. and Chinese officials sit down at the same table.
So we’re going to continue to try to advance our mutual interests in this regard, but also we want to take some common-sense steps to enhance the cybersecurity of the United States. And the President put forward a very specific proposal for how we could use additional resources to protect our cybersecurity. The President included those proposals in our budget, and, as you recall, Republicans in the House and Senate refused to even convene a hearing to discuss that budget. They refused to even discuss the specific proposals that the President put forward to dedicate a billion dollars to enhancing our cybersecurity.
So I said at the time and I say it now, the next time that there is a prominent cyber intrusion somewhere -- and I’m confident there will be one -- whether it’s in the government or in the private sector, Republicans are going to have a hard time explaining yet again how when it comes to a critically important national security and economic priority of the United States, that it’s not just that Republicans have the wrong priorities, they’ve refused to do their job. They refuse to even have a hearing to discuss the President’s ideas for strengthening our cybersecurity. And that’s an abdication of their responsibility.
Q Is there a sanctions element to what the U.S. can do to get the Chinese to rein in the problem? Or in the conversation, are they suggesting that it’s a two-way problem, that U.S. companies are doing it to them, for example.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the Chinese characterize their views. One step that the President did take -- and I believe this was about a year and a half ago -- the President did sign an executive order essentially giving authority to the Treasury Secretary to use financial sanctions and other instruments against either countries or entities that violate our cyberspace, that this is a newly available option to the President and to the administration to protect our interests.
I don’t have anything to telegraph in terms of how or whether those sanctions could be used against any Chinese entities. But this is an option that is on the table because the President put it there.
Q Last one. I was watching this morning -- you were on a competing network, CNN -- (laughter) -- and you said, “Using the term ‘radical Islamic extremism’ is not a counterterrorism strategy.” And I’ve heard you say that, and the President has actually said something similar. You said, “It’s a political talking point, plain and simple.” And I’m just -- I want to be careful and give you an opportunity to sort of expand on that, because it’s very real in the minds of a great many people around the globe that this isn’t just politics. It goes beyond sort of Republicans and Democrats in the United States. This is a worldwide issue. So I wanted to give you a chance to sort of explain what you meant by that.
MR. EARNEST: What I meant by that is I think pretty much what I said, which is that Republicans actually don’t put forward their own strategy for protecting the American people, they just use the word “radical Islamic extremism” -- or the words “radical Islamic extremism” to try to make it seem like they’re somehow tough on terrorism even though they don’t have an actual strategy.
It’s the President of the United States that’s actually put forward a very specific strategy for protecting the country. It’s the President of the United States that’s built a coalition of 65 countries to go after ISIL. And it’s because we’ve been able to work effectively with those countries that we have reduced the influence that ISIL has over about more than 40 percent of the territory inside of Iraq, and more than 20 percent of the territory inside of Syria.
It’s because of the strategy that the President has implemented that we’ve actually been able to work closely with our partners in the Muslim world to combat ISIL and to take strikes against ISIL, and to get those countries to contribute to our fight, both in a tangible military sense, but also in a financial sense and in strategically -- and in a strategic sense.
So that is our strategy. And we haven’t heard a strategy from Republicans; we’ve just seen Republicans try to use the words “radical Islamic extremism” to fool people into thinking that they’re tough on terrorism when the truth is they don’t even have the courage to vote against the NRA and prevent those same suspected terrorists from being able to buy a gun in the United States. It’s shameful and it’s cowardice.
Q But when other leaders around the globe use that expression, you’re not suggesting that they’re also being political, “plain and simple”? Which is what you said.
MR. EARNEST: No, because those leaders actually have a strategy too. So many of the leaders -- and I think Michelle and I talked about this a week or two ago -- President Hollande in France has, on occasion, described a threat in this way. President Hollande of France has actually made a substantial contribution to our military strategy against ISIL, both in Iraq and in Syria. There are French soldiers that are serving alongside U.S. troops to counter ISIL. France has been very helpful in terms of sharing information in a way that has obviously important national security benefits for the people of France, but also for the United States as well.
And obviously, France has taken the lead in combatting extremist elements in North Africa and in West Africa. That obviously is an important contribution that the French are able to make because of their long history in that region of the world. That represents a strategy. That represents a substantial commitment to actually countering the violent extremists that threaten the United States and the West.
Republicans can’t make the same claim. Republicans don’t have the same strategy. All they can rely on is a talking point. And I think it’s doing less and less to fool people into thinking that they actually have a thoughtful approach to these kinds of issues that are so consequential to our national security.
Q Thanks, Josh. In the criminal justice system, the standards for certain activities are reasonable suspicion for a detention, probable cause for an arrest, beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction. These are clear and well-known legal standards. But very little is publicly known about how people end up on terror watch lists. And given that gun ownership is a constitutional right and is affirmed by the Supreme Court, shouldn’t Americans have a little more insight into how and why they end up on a government list that would deny them their rights? In the spirit of transparency and to allay concerns about this proposal, would you be willing to consider sharing more details about standards for inclusion on this list?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think that there are some challenges to that, and some of it is that these kinds of investigations often deal with classified information.
But here’s what I would acknowledge is important about your question, which is that there are civil liberties that are worth protecting in here. And that is why, built into all these proposals, including the Feinstein proposal that was voted down by Republicans in the Senate yesterday, is a specific mechanism for individuals to seek redress. If individuals feel like they’re wrongly included on that list, there should be a process that they can go through to have their name cleared. This is something that DHS already administers, a redress process for individual who are on the no-fly list and believe that they’re wrongly included on that list.
So we certainly do believe that that’s important, and we need to make sure that that process is working effectively. And I know that the Department of Homeland Security, particularly in the last nine months or so, has made improvements to that process to make it work more efficiently, to make sure that we are protecting the constitutional rights and civil liberties of innocent people.
But, Byron, here’s the other thing that I would say: What about the thousands of people that are killed every year in acts of gun violence? Those people have rights too. It’s worth standing up for them. And if, in order to protect their rights, we’re actually going to say to people that if you’re suspected of having ties to terrorism that you can’t buy a gun, I think that’s a pretty good way to protect the rights of the maximum number of Americans, particularly when there is a well-established, fair process for individual who believe that they’re wrongly included on that list to be exonerated, or at least to get off the list. And that’s the approach that we have taken.
Q The President spoke early in his political career and pretty extensively about the need to protect civil liberties in the face of threats like terrorism, but he is proposing using a rather opaque process, even though there are, as you point out, safeguards built in to deny people who have been convicted of (inaudible) their rights. Is there concerns from this President about the constitutionality of this? Has the Department of Justice or the White House Counsel’s Office done a memo or an analysis on constitutionality?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to any of the legal advice that the President may have received. But look, Byron, this is not a novel process. The no-fly list has existed for quite some time. And things like the freedom of assembly and the ability to pursue happiness, these are all values that are central to our country’s founding. And I think you could make a strong case that people have a right to be treated fairly when it comes to buying an airline ticket. But we’ve been able to establish a process that protects the rights of people to fly on an airplane even at the same time that we protect the country’s aviation system. And I think the same principle applies when it comes to firearms.
Q But domestic travel on an airplane is not a constitutional right in the same way -- protected by the Second Amendment, the ownership of a gun. Can you name other constitutional rights that are circumscribed --
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, there weren’t airplanes when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, so I think there are reasons for that. I think in large part this comes down to common sense. And if the government has concluded that it’s too dangerous for you to board a plane, it should be too dangerous for you to buy a gun. I think there’s a reason that about 90 percent of the American public agrees with them.
And it’s because of the President’s concern for civil liberties that we’ve been focused on making sure that individuals who believe that they’re wrongly included on that list have an opportunity to go through a process to get their name off that list. But I think this is a pretty common-sense strategy for protecting the American people.
Q Josh, I want to ask you -- back on these questions about guns. Past, present and future, presidents -- plural -- have been dealing with this issue in many ways. I mean, just going back to Clinton, he was dealing with issues of the gun show loophole -- it didn’t happen. Then you had President George W. Bush, he allowed the assault weapons ban to sunset. Now this President has overseen many shootings. We’ve seen many shootings, to include one where kids were killed in Newtown. And we’re hearing that you guys put everything on the table with that and the President leaned in. And if nothing could happen there, the possibilities are bleak.
As you have seven and a half months, the reality looks like nothing -- you can really do anything from this point. But looking at the next President, and President after that, realistically -- I mean, this country has been dealing with this issue for decades, at the very least -- looking at the future, what do you see -- I mean, as it relates to issue of guns in this country and mass murders that continue to happen and get worse and worse?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, April, there’s not a piece of legislation that we can put forward that’s going to prevent every incident of gun violence. But what we can do are some common-sense things that would make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns from being able to get their hands on them. And that’s all that we’re asking. This is not some radical, pie-in-the-sky notion that we should somehow, for example, amend the Constitution. Nobody is raising that prospect. In fact, the President himself has reaffirmed, on a number of occasions, his believe in the Second Amendment. He believes that’s something that’s worth protecting for law-abiding Americans.
So we’re just looking at common-sense proposals to do things like prevent people who are suspected of ties to terrorism from being able to buy a gun; to make sure that everybody who attempts to purchase a gun goes through a background check, that they aren’t able to easily circumvent that background check by going to a gun show or trying to purchase their gun on the Internet.
So these are common-sense proposals. And I have confidence, I have some optimism that common sense will eventually prevail. I think the tragic question, though, that has to be answered is how many people have to die before it does. Because it’s clear 49 people dying in a nightclub in Orlando wasn’t enough. And that’s tragic. But it didn’t persuade Republicans to muster the courage to stand up to the NRA. That’s a tragic turn of events. It says something quite sad about the state of the Republican Party, about the state of the Republican conference in the United States Senate. But those are the facts.
And that’s why the President has been pretty blunt about his conclusion that in order to see the change in gun laws we’d like to see, we’re going to need to see some changes in Congress. And the President is working toward that.
Q And I understand all administrations try to have this outlook of hope and optimism, but you have people --
MR. EARNEST: None more so than this one.
Q You have people who are people who deal with issues of guns in various sectors and believe in the right of guns but also believe that there should be somehow gun control. But they are still saying that it looks bleak, as you’ve had these kind of things happen. What say you to those people who feel that, yes, the reality is this happening and things are doing downhill, even though you have Republicans who are in support but they still cannot pass something?
MR. EARNEST: Here’s the cause for optimism. Just about every American citizen agrees with the President’s position. When it comes to closing background checks, I think we’re -- close to 90 percent of Americans agree that we should close the background check loophole.
So this is not a daunting task of trying to win hearts and minds. Most of those hearts and minds have already been won. The challenge now is just to make clear that people who agree with the President’s views on gun safety are just as passionate as he is about them, that they’ll exercise their right to vote, that they’ll show up and use it, and that they’ll make this the number one issue as they look at their ballot.
That’s a commitment that the President has made when it comes to filling out his own ballot and using his own political capital. He’s the head of the Democratic Party. He’s the most popular politician in America. So he’s got some political capital to use, and he’s prepared to use it in pursuit of this goal. And that does give me some optimism that common sense will prevail. But unfortunately, there are going to be more lives lost. More innocent lives will be lost as a result.
Q Josh, thanks. On Thursday it will be two weeks since the President’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton. We haven’t heard from Mrs. Obama or from Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Jill Biden, Joe Biden. Is there an endorsement coming from her separate of the video that we can anticipate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I acknowledged on the day that the President released his video is that that could be and should be interpreted as a joint endorsement from the President and the First Lady. The President -- I mean, the First Lady shares the President’s enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton’s campaign. And I’m confident that at some point, Mrs. Obama will have an opportunity to describe that enthusiasm in her own words. I don’t know exactly when that will take place, but we’ll keep you posted. I’m sure there will be a lot of interest.
Q Not the United State of Women, or -- her new Snapchat maybe?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly would encourage everybody to follow her on Snapchat.
Q But you anticipate one might be coming.
MR. EARNEST: But at some point she’ll have an opportunity to describe her enthusiasm in her own words. I’m sure you’ll all be listening.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions about guns and about Chief Judge Garland. First, on the vote in the Senate, you talk about the Republicans. Now, Senator Portman of Ohio, a Republican who has a difficult reelection, changed his position and did vote for the amendment to bar guns from those who are on the watch list. Has the President called, congratulated him, or did he lobby him in any way on this vote?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not aware of any White House lobbying that was directed at Senator Portman on this. And look, this is a common-sense proposal. So I’ll let Senator Portman describe his position and why he may or may not have changed it. But this is a common-sense proposition. I don't think anybody -- anybody who is accomplished enough to have run for and won election to a six-year term in the United States Senate think supporting common-sense legislation is the bare minimum when it comes to doing their job.
And I think that's why I can confidently and forcefully say that Republicans are failing to do their job when they oppose common-sense legislation like the amendments that were put forward by Senators Feinstein and Murphy last night.
Q Did the President say anything about Senator Portman’s position, his vote or anything?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, no.
Q On Judge Garland, you continually say this is unprecedented what the Senate is doing now.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Senator Graham said the same thing.
Q Senator Lindsey Graham.
MR. EARNEST: Senator Lindsey Graham said the same thing when he was discussing Chief Judge Garland’s nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee, he noted that what Republicans were prepared to do with regard to Chief Judge Garland’s nomination was unprecedented. We can get you the full quote on that.
Q All right, please. Senator McConnell said that the last time someone was nominated for a Supreme Court seat that a vacancy occurred in a presidential year and someone was confirmed by the Senate was Justice Murphy in 1940. The last time it occurred when the White House and the Senate were in opposite parties was under President Cleveland in 1888. So he would differ with the view that this is unprecedented.
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, with Senator McConnell the facts are just not on his side. There’s actually a very direct historical reference that we can consider. You’ll recall -- and, John, you may have covered this back in 1988, we were in exactly the same situation. You had a Republican President of the United States who was asking a United States Senate that was controlled by the other party to confirm in an election year, in that President’s final year in office, his appointee to a lifetime term on the Supreme Court. And what Democrats who were in charge of the Senate in 1988 did was they confirmed Justice Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court. Justice Kennedy continues to serve on our Supreme Court.
Democrats who confirmed him unanimously -- the Judiciary Committee was led by Vice President Joe Biden. So all we're asking Republicans to do is exactly what Senate Democrats did in 1988. That's the thing on this -- is that so often people want to say, well, you know that Democrats would be doing the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot. The shoe was on the other foot and Democrats did not do the same thing. Democrats actually did their job. They stepped up to the plate. They fulfilled their constitutional duty. They considered carefully the record of Judge Kennedy. They gave him a hearing. Many of them met with him in private. And they gave him a timely vote, and they voted in favor of him because he demonstrated -- even though he was nominated by a Republican President -- that he was somebody who could serve with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court.
And look, I think history proves that vote to be a prescient one. It doesn't mean that the President agrees with every decision that Justice Kennedy has made, but I think it would be hard for anybody to quibble with his service on the Supreme Court. And I think that's an indication that in 1988, when Democrats were in charge of the Senate, they did the right thing. Now we're asking Republicans who are in charge of the Senate in 2016 to do the same thing.
Q And that was for the vacancy of Justice Powell’s retirement from the Court?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that's correct.
Q In 1987?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that's correct, yes. But it was in 1988 that the Republican President of the United States was asking the Democratic Senate to confirm his nominee to fill that vacancy. And the Democratic Senate voted in that last year, the President’s last year in office, in an election year, to confirm Justice Kennedy to the Supreme Court. So they didn't take the year off just because it was an election year. They actually did their job.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, sir. A couple of questions. One, today is the International Day of Yoga.
MR. EARNEST: No kidding. How is that not in my briefing book? (Laughter.) Where is the International Day of Yoga tab? Come on, guys. We can't just take the year off because it’s an election year. We got to be focused on the priorities.
I’m just teasing with you.
Q Declared by the United Nations under --
MR. EARNEST: Asking this question is quite a stretch.
Q Yes, sir. (Laughter.)
Q Oooh --
MR. EARNEST: I couldn’t even let you get the question out before I pulled that one.
Q Well, Prime Minister Modi proposed to the United Nations, and was declared by the U.N. And also when he addressed the U.S. Congress, he said that over 30 million Americans they practice yoga today, which, of course, can eliminate most of their medical bills and stress and mental health if it’s practiced properly.
And any message from the President on this day? Because even the First Lady and the First Family, they have been working in the White House and practice this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I was not aware before you brought it up that today was the International Day of Yoga. But obviously there are millions of Americans who benefit from the studious pursuit of yoga. And there are many mental and physical health benefits associated with those who pursue this practice regularly. So obviously it underscores the deep cultural ties between our two countries. It certainly is a way that the American people have benefitted from the rich and ancient culture of India.
Q And if I may, two more. One, when Prime Minister Modi entered the United States Congress and he said that this is a temple of democracy, and he said this is where the world is watching whatever you do. And this is similar what he did when he entered for the first time in the Indian parliament, that this is where the people look for justice and all that.
What I’m asking you, he told the lawmakers in the U.S. Congress that as far as terrorism is concerned, there is no good or bad terrorism, or there is no distinction between the two because terrorists are always bad. There are not good terrorists. So what he was telling the lawmakers that there should be done something about this terrorism. And what do you think that what they have been talking about after his visit to the -- to the international lawmakers that the whole world depends on it? And also, at the same time, he was sending the message to the world that now we are one and fight against these terrorists. And finally, who the ISIS, and who are sponsoring them or financing them or arming them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, Goyal, obviously I think this underscores the shared values of the United States and India, which is that there is a shared commitment to the idea that using violence to accomplish a political goal, or even a threat of violence to accomplish a political goal goes against everything that we believe in. It goes against everything that we stand for. And it is a testament to the world’s two largest democracies that we are committed to resolving our differences -- our political differences -- through a political process that sometimes is messy, that sometimes is less than efficient, that sometimes takes longer than it should, but a commitment to resolving our differences peacefully and in the context of an established political process and the rule of law is something that binds the United States and India. The commitment to these principles is important.
And that is why the United States and India have been able to work effectively to combat terrorism. And we obviously value the counterterrorism relationship between our two countries. And our cooperation on those issues has been enhanced under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi and as a result of the effective working relationship between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama.
Q And quickly as far as two leaders are concerned, they're very close. And Prime Minister and President Obama, where to go from here? Because he’s leader to the U.S. and also President’s visit to India. And Indians in India, over a billion, they are praising the two leaders today.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, obviously Prime Minister Modi was just at the White House a couple of weeks ago. And that gave both leaders an opportunity to spend time together and to not just deepen their personal relationship, but actually strengthen the relationship between our two countries.
And in the seven months that the President has remaining in office, I’m confident that he’ll continue to work closely with Prime Minister Modi to advance our shared goals. And hopefully the President’s successor in the Oval Office will be somebody who recognizes how important it is to build on a strong U.S.-India relationship that's been established under the leadership of President Obama and Prime Minister Modi.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:26 P.M. EDT