Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/1/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: All right, good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kathleen, you want to start?
Q Sure. First, I just wanted to start with if you have any update on the Istanbul attack, if you can confirm these reports that the man behind it was a Chechen extremist.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of these reports. I’m not in a position to confirm them at this point. Obviously, this is a Turkish-led investigation. U.S. officials are devoting significant time and energy and attention to learning what we can about this incident, as well. And when we have information that we think could be useful to Turkish investigators, we will share it with them. But at this point, I don't have an updated assessment to share.
Q So was Chairman McCaul off base, or out too far ahead of the administration? He’s come out and confirmed his name.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of his comments. But you’d have to ask him or his staff about the nature of them.
Q Okay. And then I wanted to talk a little bit more about the Attorney General’s comments about her meeting with President Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: I suspected you might.
Q So she said she fully expects to accept the recommendation from investigators in the FBI. If that's the case, should she just recuse herself from the case entirely in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety there? And can you tell us whether or not the White House and the President were involved in that decision?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the White House and the President were not at all involved in that decision. I will leave it to the Attorney General to describe the role that she will play and the process that the Department of Justice will undertake as they conduct this investigation.
The President’s expectation is that this investigation will be handled just like all the others, which is that the investigators will be guided by the facts, they will follow the evidence, and they will reach a conclusion based on that evidence and nothing else. That's the President’s expectation about how this should be handled.
I think the Attorney General in her most recent comments indicated that that was her expectation about how this will be handled. But I’ll leave it to her to describe what role she will play and what process the Department of Justice will follow in the conducting this investigation.
Q She said she understood that the meeting sort of cast a shadow on the investigation. I guess, do you think that now that shadow is lifted, that she’s gone far enough?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I didn't attend the meeting. I’ll let her describe the meeting. And if it’s had any impact on the investigation, I’ll let her describe that, as well. This is something that is being handled completely independent of the President and completely independent of the White House.
Q Josh, just to follow up on that, you said yesterday you hadn’t had a chance to speak with the President about it. Have you since? And is he frustrated about this issue and the fact that that meeting took place?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I have not raised this directly with the President, so I have not discussed this particular piece of news with him. But what I do feel confident in telling you -- even though I have not discussed it with him -- is that he believes that this matter should be handled without regard to politics. And he believes this investigation should be conducted based on facts, not based on the political affiliation or the political standing of anybody who may be involved in it. That is the way that these kinds of investigations have been handled in the past. It’s the way these kinds of investigations have been handled throughout President Obama’s tenure in office. And it’s his expectation that that's how these kinds of investigations should be handled in the future.
Q Does that suggest then that he would also be supportive of her decision that she has articulated today that she will accept the recommendations of the FBI and not intend to overrule them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President feels strongly that that is a decision that she should make without regard to his opinion about it. These are independent decisions that should be handled by the Department of Justice. And it’s appropriate for the Attorney General to determine what her role is. And she’s spoken to that today, and that is appropriate for her to do. And, frankly, my view of that matter or even the President’s view of that matter is not relevant. This is an independent investigation that is intentionally being shielded from any sort of political interference.
Q Moving on to the next week, the President will be campaigning with Secretary Clinton on Tuesday. Can you give us a sense of the message that he intends to bring to that? Will he have anything more to say about Bernie Sanders? And how will he be trying to attract voters for her in that state?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I don't think anything the President has to say on Tuesday will be a particular surprise to those of you who have been covering the President for a long time. The President obviously has had an opportunity to evaluate Secretary Clinton both when they were competing against one another on the campaign trail, but also when she was serving this country as the Secretary of State under President Obama.
And over the years, the President has developed a deep appreciation for her toughness under fire and her commitment to a set of values that the President shares. So those attributes, that character, those values are principally the reason the President believes that she is the best person to succeed him in the Oval Office. Those are the reasons that the President has decided to support her campaign. And I think that will be the essence of the case that he will make on Tuesday in Charlotte.
Q All right. And lastly, there was a ruling in Austria today allowing for a rerun of a presidential election there, giving the far-right party a second chance at trying to achieve office. Are you concerned about that ruling? And is the White House more broadly concerned about the rise of the far right in Europe?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I didn't see the news about the specific ruling, so I’ll have to take that aspect of your question. But I think the President has spoken more generally about the question that voters -- not just in the United States but around the world -- will have to face in terms of how countries want to engage in the world.
And obviously the Austrian people will make their own decisions about who they believe should lead their country. But politicians in Austria certainly have a strong case to make about the way their country has benefitted from engaging with their partners and allies across the continent of Europe. The President certainly made a strong case about how the United States of America has benefitted -- both economically and from the security perspective -- when it comes to our engagement with the world. And whether that is trade agreements that expand economic opportunity for American workers and American businesses, or national security alliances that keep us safe, the United States benefits from using our influence and using our advantages to advance our interests around the world.
That has certainly been true over the course of his presidency, and he believes that -- President Obama certainly believes that his successor is somebody who should continue that strategy.
Q Yes, Josh, can I ask about this report that I gather we're getting on drone strikes and the executive order that the President is planning to issue along with it? Why the need for some greater clarity in the rules on drone strikes? And does the President think that the numbers show that there have been too many civilian deaths and more that he was expecting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I can't speak to the specific numbers. I do anticipate that the Office of the DNI will have some news to make on this relatively shortly. So they’ll have some context to present alongside those numbers, but I’m not going to speak to them at this point.
I also anticipate that there will be some news a little later today on steps that the President believes would be useful in ensuring that the counterterrorism strategy that he has put in place is one that continues to be transparent and durable going forward.
The President believes that our counterterrorism strategy is more effective and has more credibility when we're as transparent as possible. There are obviously limitations for transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this, but the fact is, these operations that will be the substance of an announcement later today are the kinds of operations that just a couple of years ago we wouldn't even confirm existed.
And I think it's an indication of how far that we've come that we're now in a position where we are describing the process for making decisions about these kinds of operations and being rather transparent with not just the American public but with the world about the outcome of those operations, even when the outcome is not entirely consistent with our intentions. Because the truth is, the United States of America goes farther than is even required by international law to avoid civilian casualties. That certainly is a stark contrast to the adversary that we face that seeks to maximize civilian casualties to try to advance their narrative. The United States, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to avoid those kinds of civilian casualties. And when we fall short or when those efforts are not as successful as we would like, the President believes it's important for us to be as transparent as possible about those results.
And in doing so, yeah, that may mean that there will be a little bit of negative press coverage in the short term, but over the long term, it will build the kind of credibility that is critical to the ongoing success of these efforts.
Q But by issuing the guidelines to go with these numbers, is the President acknowledging that there were instances where civilian deaths or the possibility of civilian deaths were not properly taken into account in making targeted decisions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the architecture that the President plans to discuss later today -- and by that, I mean I don't anticipate that the President will be making a statement later today, but information that we will be able to release on paper from the President later today. I just want to be -- I don't want to ruin anybody's Friday afternoon plans here. (Laughter.) So consider that a public service announcement.
The point is, the President believes that it's important to put an architecture in place that reflects the kinds of reforms that this administration has implemented to ensure that proper steps are taken to avoid civilian casualties and to ensure that the operations that are undertaken are consistent with our national security goals. You will recall that when President Obama took office, drone technology was relatively new. And, again, it was something that was not discussed from this podium and there were a lot of legitimate policy questions about how this new technology and this new tool could be used to protect the American people.
And there is an extraordinary amount of work that's been done not just over the last two or three years, but really over the last seven and a half years, to organize an architecture for making decisions about how to use this technology and how to use this tool to enhance the safety and security of the American people. This is a tool that this administration and this President has used frequently in a way that has had a devastating impact on the ability of terrorists to establish a safe haven and use the safety of that safe haven to plot against the United States and our interests.
So this is a powerful tool -- one that has been used to great effect and one that makes the American people safer. But the President believes it's important for us to establish a structure to guide how that tool is used not just for the remainder of this administration but into the next one, and also to establish a regular mechanism for bringing some transparency to those efforts. And that includes at least some transparency around those occasions when the outcome is not as good as we expected.
Q But not to belabor the point, Josh, does not the issue in some of these guidelines imply some regret about the way things have transpired to date?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this will be an easier conversation for us to have once you have seen these guidelines. And this is why this is important: The guidelines extend far beyond steps that should be taken to prevent civilian casualties; that there are a whole host of other questions that are raised about when this technology and when this tool can be used in an appropriate and in an effective way.
So certainly the question of civilian casualties is a critically important one, both for moral reasons but also for legitimate policy reasons, too. And that certainly will be discussed in some of the language that you'll see, and the report that's issued by the DNI I think will illustrate the greater transparency that we're bringing to this. I also don't want to overpromise because not all the questions will be answered by the material that is presented, and I think that is an indication of how difficult it is to be completely transparent about matters that are this sensitive.
But I think it would be very difficult to deny the remarkable progress that has been made over even just the last couple of years, where we have gone from refusing to even confirm that these kinds of operations are taking place to now disclosing proactively not just the fact that they have taken place but to chronicle some of the outcomes, including those that are negative.
Q Speaking of negative outcomes, why not include Afghan and Iraq and Syria in this -- the numbers that we're going to see?
MR. EARNEST: Because -- and we'll have a more robust explanation of this, but let me just take a shot here -- operations that are carried out by the Department of Defense already have a regular mechanism for disclosing the results of those operations. So you regularly get news releases, for example, from Central Command detailing individual operations that take place in Iraq, for example. And there have been a number of situations where the Department of Defense, after a careful analysis, has disclosed that there were civilian casualties associated with individual operations.
So there is a mechanism for doing that when operations are carried out by the Department of Defense. When there are counterterrorism operations carried out not by the Department of Defense, there was not an established mechanism for reporting the outcome, and that's what's being established today and that's what will be reported for the first time today.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Kevin, sure.
Q So if I'm understanding you, the things that are Title 50 then would all begin to move over to Title 10, which is more standard in recognizing and releasing information about these certain strikes. Is that your understanding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for technical questions, we'll be able to talk about this a little bit more today. But the point is, operations that are carried out by the Department of Defense already have a mechanism for public reporting, both in terms of specific operations that are undertaken and the battlefield assessment that's done with regard to those operations. They also have a mechanism for reporting in those rare instances where civilian casualties that we go to great lengths to avoid are nonetheless sustained. And so there's a mechanism for transparency that's built into the Department of Defense process.
There has not heretofore been a process for disclosing specifics around counterterrorism operations that are not carried out by the Department of Defense.
Q Which would fall under Title 50.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I've said what I can say.
Q I got it. Quick on Hillary, will she be riding aboard Air Force One?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have details about the travel arrangements for Tuesday at this point, but we'll keep you posted.
Q Is it certainly possible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you can check with her campaign to determine how exactly she's going to get to Charlotte. The President will be riding Air Force One to Charlotte. (Laughter.)
Q Fair enough. During the Brexit controversy, if you want to call it that, Advisor Rice talked about contingency plans and things that happen whether it goes one way or the other way. And I'm just curious if the White House has made a contingency plan in the event that Secretary Clinton were to be criminally indicted.
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. I'm not really sure what impact that specifically would have on any specific policy around here.
Q Would the President then say, encourage someone else to run for the nomination, if that happened?
MR. EARNEST: Again, that's a hypothetical situation. I won't get into that.
Q Last thing. You talked about an indication of how far we have come in disclosing not just often what has happened, unfortunately, as it relates to drone strikes. Is it fair to say then that you are satisfied with where we are along the continuum in this presidency in terms of disclosure, in terms of using the mechanisms as you have been to inform the American people and, indeed, the world when you have utilized drone strikes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, again, we have made remarkable progress in both establishing an architecture for making smart policy decisions about when to use this incredibly powerful counterterrorism tool. And part of that architecture also includes the extraordinary lengths that this administration goes to and our national security professionals go to, to avoid civilian casualties. Of course, that stands in quiet stark contrast to our adversaries that seek to capitalize on civilian casualties to demonstrate their strength, when, in fact, what it illustrates is that they are cowards.
What is true is we're talking about technology and a capability that in many cases in unique to the United States. But I think what is also true is that we are going to greater lengths in our commitment to transparency when disclosing this kind of information is also unique to the United States. And it's something that the President believes builds a lot of credibility into our broader national security efforts, but also adds credibility to our efforts to go after terrorists.
I think I would just add that none of this capacity would exist and it would not be used so effectively were it not for the skill, professionalism and courage of our national security professionals. These are men and women who do not seek the spotlight. These are men and women who, in some cases, even when we are trying to be as transparent as possible, we're not able to discuss them or their activities. But as we prepare to enter the Fourth of July weekend, I think it merits at least some time spent to expressing our deep appreciation for their courage and their professionalism and their patriotism in keeping our country safe. And it has been patriots like these individuals over the course of generations that have allowed us to establish the greatest country on Earth.
Q Last one, for me. Did the President have an occasion to speak with the Attorney General since the much talked-about meeting with former President Clinton? Has he had a conversation with her? I know that she's made public comments. I presume you watched them this morning, as well. Have they had a phone call?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any conversations that they've had in the last couple of days.
Q Do you agree with the Attorney General that having that meeting was not a good idea now?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm not going to second-guess or offer my own backseat driving here. I'll let the Attorney General speak to her schedule and to her handling of the significant responsibilities that she has.
Q Even though she's come out and said it? I mean, she just said that she would not do this again because of the shadow that is cast. I mean, isn’t that something that the White House agrees with now that this has turned into a couple of days of debate over --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again I will let the Attorney General speak to that.
Q It is a question of judgment, though, isn’t it? And the decision to sit down for that 30 minutes or however long it was. Isn’t that something that you would be concerned about -- the judgment and what it leads to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think when it comes to judgment, I think there is no quarreling with the 30-year history that Loretta Lynch has established as a highly competent, highly successful federal prosecutor. She is somebody who has prosecuted Democratic and Republican public officials for corruption. She is somebody who has broken up organized crime rings. She is somebody who has held accountable some of the largest financial institutions on Wall Street to make sure that the interest of middle-class families are protected.
She did that work as the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York, and that's work that's she's continued to do even as the Attorney General, both in terms of fighting corruption in the most powerful, international, athletic institution in the world, as well as continuing the important work to fight Medicare fraud and make sure that taxpayer dollars that are dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our senior citizens is wisely spent and that unscrupulous administrators, scammers aren’t able to get away with it.
So she is somebody who is remarkably tenacious. She is somebody who handles her responsibilities consistent with the values that are enshrined in our Constitution, and consistent with the President's expectations about what the Attorney General of the United States should do.
Q Do you also then not quarrel with her saying that that was a bad idea?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'll let her render her own judgment on that.
Q Okay. And on the drone report -- even before it comes out, even before we see any numbers, some groups are questioning how those numbers would be arrived at, since, in the past, estimates on the ground or from NGOs are larger. So what would you say about the effort that was made to find out really how many were killed recently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal of being as transparent as possible is to settle on numbers that are as accurate as possible. And I'll let the Director of National Intelligence discuss how exactly the numbers that they present were arrived at. And once they've had an opportunity to do that, everyone will have an opportunity to evaluate how successful these kinds of operations are.
Q Do you acknowledge, though, that there's a possibility that this number -- whatever it will be -- wasn’t able to account for every death? I'm assuming there's some threshold of verifiability that --
MR. EARNEST: I'll let the Director of National Intelligence speak to this, because these are numbers that they have worked up.
Q So is it possible that the actual number would be higher than these numbers?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'll let the Director of National Intelligence speak to it.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said you feel confident that the President feels that this investigation of Attorney General Lynch to Secretary Clinton's emails should be handled without regard to politics. But doesn’t her announcement this morning mean that politics did rear its head here?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think so. I think -- again, the President continues to believe that it is critically important for people across the country to continue to have confidence in our justice system at large. And for generations, our country has followed a tradition, makings sure that our justice system is not used to benefit or exact revenge against American citizens based on their political affiliation.
A core principle of the United States Constitution is that the rule of law is paramount and that everyone, including the President of the United States, is subject to the rule of law, and that people are treated, under the law, the same -- regardless of whether they're famous, regardless of who their supporters are, regardless of which political party that they're in. And this is an important principle, one that the President believes is worth fighting for. His Attorney General has said the same thing, and we continue to be confident that that's what she'll do. What exactly her role is in that process or what exactly the process will be as it's implemented by the Department of Justice is something that they should answer.
Q So is it in the White House's view that her announcement this morning was in any way related to the airplane meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let -- well, look, I think it's pretty obvious that that's exactly what she was discussing today. But again, I’ll let her words speak for themselves.
Q Okay, and then on Zika. We did a poll earlier this week where 73 percent of the public said that they're okay with the level of the administration’s funding proposal. But only 46 percent said that it should be approved immediately. Does the administration feel that they could have pitched this any differently to instill this kind of urgency into the public?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, Alex, I think this is the kind of question that, frankly, should be quite a bit more important than politics. What we have here is a public health emergency. And that's not just -- that's not a phrase that I’m using by accident, or even a phrase that I have coined. This is what our top public health professionals say about the situation. And this is an emergency that the President and these public health officials identified five months ago.
And over the course of that time, we've seen very little movement from the United States Congress. And this does raise significant questions about the Republican leadership in Congress. Republicans spent hundreds of millions of dollars, spent days and days, if not weeks or months, on the campaign trail making the case to the American public about why they deserve to wield the authority that's exercised by the majority in Congress.
Now, presumably they did that because they had an agenda they wanted to advance. There’s very little evidence that they have an agenda, or that they've succeeded in advancing it -- to the extent that it even exists. But it also -- we can have that discussion if you’d like. I would like to. But I’ll leave it up to you guys to decide that.
That also comes with an important set of responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is making sure that our country’s and our government’s top health care professionals have the tools and resources that they need to do everything possible to protect the American people, including our most vulnerable populations, like pregnant women and newborn children.
And Republicans in Congress have utterly failed to fulfill that responsibility. I don't know exactly how they're going to account for that. But they certainly do have some explaining to do. And I won’t be surprised if it is the subject of some discussion across the country while they're enjoying their Fourth of July recess. The President certainly feels a sense of urgency about this, and I think that's why you heard the President say earlier today that before Congress embarks on their nearly two-month-long summer recess, that they will fulfill this responsibility.
So the President has had some conversations with congressional leaders in the last 24 hours about this. I would anticipate that he’ll have some additional conversations with congressional leaders in the days ahead. But the responsibility rests with Congress. This administration has put forward a very specific proposal based on the recommendations the President has received from top public health professionals. That is the proposal that we forwarded to Congress more than four months ago. It’s time for Republicans in Congress to fulfill their responsibility and make sure that our public health professionals have the resources that they need to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus.
Q Josh, the Pentagon yesterday lifted the ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces. Did the White House have a hand in moving forward with that? Or was that completely internal at the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, as you know, this is something that Secretary of Defense Carter decided to review. He announced a few months ago that he wanted to take a look at this policy. At that point, he had described the policy as outdated. So he conducted this review consistent with the priority that he has placed on making sure that our Department of Defense and our armed forces are ready and well-prepared to defend the country.
He’s come to the conclusion that the best way to do that is to update this outdated policy. This was a review that he conducted on his own. This is a decision that he made, but it’s certainly one that is supported by the Commander-in-Chief.
Q Even though the President supports it, it sounds like he didn't have a specific role in moving forward with the decision to pull the trigger on (inaudible) transgender service yesterday. Is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the Secretary of Defense had the responsibility, and assumed the responsibility to conduct this review. Obviously, the President and the Secretary of Defense have had an opportunity to discuss it. But this is a review that was conducted by the Secretary of Defense, and he did so focused on the priority that he places on military readiness. And he made an observation that is consistent with the President’s view, which is that our country and our military is best served when everybody who is qualified to serve in our military has an opportunity to do so.
That means that our military can draw on the rich diversity of this country, on the skills of everybody in this country to protect it. And we should be giving everybody who has a talent or a skill and a commitment to this country the opportunity to use it in service to this country in the military if they're qualified to do so.
Q Because the change is regulatory, a future administration hostile to transgender military service could reverse it. Does the change yesterday underscore the risks to LGBT rights in the upcoming election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’ll let individual voters make their own determinations about this. The President and the Secretary of Defense agree on this principle. And both men certainly believe that it enhances our national security to live up to this principle. So, frankly, this is not a decision that's rooted in politics. This is rooted in a decision, something more important, which is the national security of the United States.
Q Also, on Thursday, a judge enjoined the enforcement of that Mississippi religious freedom law seen to enable sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination. The Obama administration was reviewing that law. Is that review now on hold as a result of the judge’s order?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, this individual law is subject to ongoing litigation. So I’m somewhat limited in what I can say about it. What I can just say in general is that these types of laws raise a number of difficult legal and policy questions. And what happens in the courts in these cases will obviously inform our assessment of these laws and their implications.
Speaking more generally, you've heard the President say on a number of occasions that he pretty strongly disagrees with laws that are focused on taking away the rights of law-abiding Americans. The truth is we should be a little more focused on protecting the rights and expanding the rights, and enhancing the rights of law-abiding Americans. And that is a principle that the President has been guided by throughout his tenure in public service. It’s also been a principle that has guided his assessment of laws that are passed at the state and local level, as well.
Q Another anti-LGBT law, much like the one you just spoke about, is on the books in North Carolina. Will President Obama speak out on his previously stated opposition to that law in Charlotte next week and urge voters to keep that in mind when they head to the polls in November?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I don't have detailed remarks to preview for you at this point. But I can tell you that the focus of the President’s remarks in Charlotte will be on Secretary Clinton, and his view that she has the character, the toughness, skills and experience to succeed him as President of the United States.
Q Josh, ahead of the press being briefed today, were the leaders of the countries where these done strikes took place briefed? Or were they involved in any kind of weighing in on these disclosures?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously there are significant diplomatic implications for this kind of transparency. And that certainly goes to I think the legitimate questions that Mark was raising about how challenging it is to be transparent when you're dealing with matters that are as sensitive as this one. But I can tell you that there certainly was a diplomatic effort to communicate with our allies and partners about this information.
Q Did they in any way get to weigh in, for lack of a better term? Was this a two-way communication, given how sensitive it is, given oftentimes countries don't really want to be acknowledging that America is bombing their own citizens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is we certainly are going to factor in concerns that are raised by our allies, particularly our closest partners. But I’m not able to speak to the substance of any individual conversations that the United States had with our counterparts around the world. The State Department may be able to provide you some additional insight on that. But I haven’t been briefed on any individual conversations.
Q But it's safe to say that the architecture that the administration is trying to shape here, that you're talking about, took some of that into consideration? Or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, sure, we certainly are aware of the way that these kinds of operations have an impact on our diplomatic relations. And when we're talking about countries that are either allies or close partners of the United States, then their opinion matters.
But the architecture that we have established is one that is consistent with our national security interests and consistent with our values. And this is something that was the result of a lot of painstaking policy work that's been done over the last seven years.
And again, the President inherited this powerful tool that we were just beginning to understand and our national security professionals were just beginning to understand how powerful it is and what the consequences of its use could be. So I bring this up not to criticize the previous administration, but rather to illustrate how dramatically our counterterrorism capacity has been enhanced over the last seven or eight years. And that has challenged our policy process to ensure that that new and highly effective tool is effectively used consistent with our national security objectives, but also consistent with our values. And that's the work that's been underway for quite some time. And that is something that -- the establishment of this architecture is something that the next President will benefit from.
Q Any chance that we get similar disclosures on one of the other powerful tools -- cyber?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that is a different policy area but I think is another example of the way our nation's capabilities and vulnerabilities have developed. And there is a similar set of questions that could be asked about this policy area, too. I think what I would say about that is that when it comes to cybersecurity and our cyber capabilities, and the policymaking around that, it's not as developed as these questions about our counterterrorism capabilities. But there certainly is appropriate time and attention that's focused on them as well.
Q Quickly -- the President heads to NATO next week. Vladimir Putin today saying he wants to start a dialogue with NATO, even though they're creeping so close to Russian borders. Are there any plans to sort of change the agenda or have any kind of outreach to Russia as the President heads to NATO?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any conversations in the NATO context that are planned with Russia. But look, what is true is that the United States has a wide-ranging and extraordinarily complex relationship with Russia. And we've talked about, at various times in this briefing room, about the way that we have been able to successfully work together, for example, to isolate North Korea, to eliminate chemical weapons from Syria, and even to reach an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Each of these things are priorities. Each of these things have significant consequences for the national security of the United States. And in each instance we have been able to coordinate effectively with the Russians to advance our shared interests. Now, there have been a variety of situations in which our interests are not shared, in which we have had significant concerns with Russian behavior, particularly as it relates to the situation in Ukraine, which is a subject of heightened concern in Europe.
Let me get around to my point here, which is simply that the United States and even NATO will continue to have an open line of dialogue with Russia about a wide range of issues. But what's also true is the United States and our alliance with NATO is critical to our national security. And the United States has been looking for ways to invest more deeply and deepen our cooperation with our NATO allies. And that will be the subject of discussion when the President travels to Poland next week.
Q And you said nothing planned in terms of speaking to Russia about this proposal for dialogue, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I didn’t see exactly what Putin was -- or what President Putin was suggesting, so it's making it a little hard to answer your question. But in the context of the NATO Summit, I'm not aware of any specific of prominent Russian role or negotiation that will be started.
Q And lastly, Attorney General Lynch joked that she wished she knew where the lock on the plane door was in hindsight.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see that part of her discussion.
Q She said she wished Eric Holder had given her the scoop on that.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I see.
Q It was a joking comment, but is it one that you would agree with?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'll let her speak to that particular situation. I wasn’t there, so I'll let her describe exactly what happened and what she thinks about.
Q It would suggest that she was an unwilling recipient of the guest who boarded her plane.
MR. EARNEST: That is what it suggests. But again, if that's what she intended, you should ask her.
Q Will the drone strike report contain a definition of what a civilian is?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned.
Q So, human rights groups are saying that the U.S. has changed its definition of what a civilian is over the past several years. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: I can't. I'll let you all have an opportunity to take a close look at it -- close look at these materials for yourself. That's the point of this whole exercise here.
Q Will that be in there, or won't it?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry?
Q Whether the U.S. has changed its definition of what a civilian is over the seven years that this report covers, will that be in there?
MR. EARNEST: Take a look at the report when it's released, and I'll let you evaluate that for yourself.
Q Because changing the definition of what a civilian is will --
MR. EARNEST: Victoria, I think you know what we're doing here.
Q I do. But it would seriously impact the numbers of those --
MR. EARNEST: And my point is, you'll have an opportunity to take a look at it.
Q Thank you, Josh. I came a bit late, so I don’t know if you answered this question. But, on Syria, did the President sign on that plan that will further cooperate militarily with Russia to target the al Nusra Front in Syria? And how does this benefit the moderate opposition that you're supporting? And I'm referring, of course, to The Washington Post article that I don’t know if you're familiar with.
MR. EARNEST: I did. I talked about this a little bit yesterday, actually. It has not come up today. So our position from yesterday has not changed, but let me describe to you just a little bit about what our view is here.
We've been saying -- and I think you and I have had this conversation -- we've been saying for quite some time that the United States would welcome a more effective and more constructive contribution from the Russians to our counter-ISIL coalition. The United States and our 65 or 66 partners have been very focused on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. And we would welcome any available assistance that Russia is prepared to offer. The reason that they haven’t is that they have prioritized shoring up the Assad regime over going after extremists. And the problem with that is that represents a fundamental contradiction in their strategy -- that by shoring up the Assad regime they only prolong the kind of political chaos inside of Syria, they exacerbate the violence inside of Syria that makes for a more hospitable environment for a terrorist organization like ISIL.
So the case that we've been making to the Russians that even predates their military intervention in Syria is essentially twofold: focus your efforts on ISIL and work with us to do it, and use your political influence with the Assad regime to get them to engage in the kinds of talks that will lead to a political transition inside of Syria. This is a political transition, by the way, that even President Putin acknowledges is necessary for addressing the many problems plaguing Syria.
But even though they have acknowledged that that transition is necessary, they continue to shore up the Assad regime. Again, it's difficult -- there's such a clear contradiction there, it's difficult to explain exactly what their intentions are.
So the case that we continue to make to the Russians -- again, this is one that predates even their military intervention in Syria, but one that we continue to make is let's focus on the Cessation of Hostilities. Let's make sure that every signatory to the Cessation of Hostilities -- and that includes both the Russians and the regime -- should live up to those commitments. And that will nurture the fledgling political talks that we've been trying to get going. And when I say "we," I actually mean the international community, because it's the United Nations that's facilitating them.
And if Russia is concerned about the threat that is posed by extremists in Syria, then they should be focused on trying to hasten those political negotiations. And if they want to take military action, then they should work with us to target ISIL and other extremists that are capitalizing on the chaos inside of Syria.
Q So for all these reasons that you just mentioned, you obviously don't have much faith in the Russians. So are you disputing the fact that -- not fact, but disputing the report that is saying that the President has signed on to this plan?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I am disputing the nature of the report. That's not true. But what I'm trying to illustrate here is the context of the case that we made to the Russians. And in some ways -- you described it as not having faith in the Russians -- I think there are a lot of reasons for us to be somewhat distrustful of them, but that's not really the question here. The question here is about this fundamental contradiction in their strategy that they have thus far refused to address. And that simply is, as long as you're shoring up the ability of the Assad regime to remain in power, you're just prolonging the chaos, you're exacerbating the violence, and pushing a solution off further into the distance.
And so that's been -- again, I think no surprise -- a subject of some consternation on the part of the United States and the rest of the international community. And so our case to President Putin and to the Russian government is that if they're willing to capitalize on the opportunities that exist, for them to use their influence with the Assad regime, then we can actually make some more progress in trying to address the situation.
Q Josh, back on the Attorney General. Can you say why President Obama didn't avail himself of the opportunity yesterday that the pool gave him to comment on it? They asked several questions but he wouldn't have any of it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think some of that is -- I think it's rooted in two things. The first is that the President's views on the importance of investigations handled by the Department of Justice being free of political influence are quite well known. This is a topic that he has addressed on a number of occasions. I think that's the first thing.
The second thing is, it undermines -- or at least has the potential to undermine -- that independence if the President is weighing in on this at every opportunity. So there are some times when the President is asked a direct question, as he has been in a number of interviews or news conferences where the President has answered the question. And in each case, I think the President has made clear that he believes in the importance of these investigations being handled independently and free of any sort of political interference. So those, frankly, are situations in which he can't avoid the question, but yesterday was a scenario in which he could avoid the question and so he did.
Q Did he not think questions on that matter were appropriate, as you indicated they were yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no -- I don't recall the President ever suggesting that somehow it's inappropriate for somebody to ask him. I just think that, again, given how well-known his views are on this topic, I think he decided to pass up the opportunity.
Q And on your comment earlier about not wanting to ruin our afternoon by bringing the President out, can I invite you to ruin away?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) I know, Mark, that you, in particular, like to start your weekend rather early on Friday afternoons.
Q Thanks for looking out. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I'm just teasing.
Q Josh, yesterday the State Department issued its report on human trafficking and it put Myanmar in the same category as Iran, North Korea and Syria. This is a country the President has visited twice and with which his administration reopened diplomatic ties. I'm wondering whether you can tell me -- is the President disappointed by the evidence of backsliding in Myanmar? And what does it say about the future of the relationship between our two countries?
MR. EARNEST: The President has made nurturing political reform inside of Burma a national security priority. And we certainly are pleased with the progress that Burma has made just over the last several years in making some fundamental changes to the way that country is governed in a way that has benefits for the citizens of that country and for the broader region.
At the same time, and I think at every turn, the President has made clear that the journey on which they have embarked will be a long one. And there is a lot more progress that we would like to see the government of Burma make when it comes to protecting the universal human rights of their people. So I think what you're underscoring, Mark, is the fact that they've got a lot more work to do. I don't think that even when he has been on Burmese soil the President has not papered over that priority; he's acknowledged it.
And, in fact, I think he has made the case that the government doing a better job of protecting the basic universal human rights of their people will actually strengthen their country and strengthen their democracy. And I think that was a pretty powerful signal for the President of the United States to travel to Burma and make that case rather directly. So there's no denying that the government of Burma has a lot of work to do, but there's also no denying the remarkable progress that they've made in a rather short period of time.
Q Thanks, Josh. The situation in the UK of choosing its next prime minister seems to have evolved very quickly in the last couple days. And some of the leading candidates now are talking about a lack of urgency in executing Brexit. Does the President want to see a new prime minister in the UK who might want to slow-walk that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that the President's -- I think the views that the President has expressed on this matter are irrespective of who succeeds David Cameron at Number 10. The President believes that the UK and the EU should negotiate with one another and establish an orderly and transparent process for removing the UK from the EU. And it will be up to those two entities to carry out those negotiations. Obviously the United States is going to continue to maintain our strong relationship with both parties, but ultimately those kinds of decisions need to be made by leaders in the EU and the UK.
Q I guess what I'm trying to get at is, does the U.S. have a stake in the pace of that process? You want it to be orderly and transparent, but should that happen at a sooner date or a later date? How does that play into the President's thinking on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is that the way that the EU charter has been written is that it essentially establishes a process that could take up to two years once Article 50 has been invoked. So there is a -- this is time-bound a little bit, based on the rules and regulations of the EU. But, look, whether it ends up actually taking two years to complete that process is something that will be determined in talks between the EU and leaders in the UK.
Q And then one other topic. There's been some in-fighting this week among the Clinton and Sanders camps as the Democratic Party works on its platform that will be approved at the convention in a few weeks. Is the President concerned about this intraparty squabble over what should be in the platform? And what are his priorities for the platform?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think the President is particularly concerned about it, in large part because the President has been through a process, back in 2008, of working to unify the Democratic Party after a competitive primary campaign. And I think the President has been pleased thus far with the good-faith effort that leaders in the party have made to unify the party. I think they're an indication of how leaders in the Democratic Party understand the stakes in the upcoming presidential election.
I think all of this is being done with a healthy amount of respect for Democratic voters. And I think people at all levels in the Democratic Party have an interest in making sure that our party platform reflects the diversity and diversity of views that are in our party. And the President continues to have confidence that as that process plays out, that the result will reflect that priority.
Francesca, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. I have a few questions, but we'll stay on the Democratic Convention for the moment.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q How involved is the President and the White House in the convention itself and the platform and all that? Is that really more Secretary Clinton's team, or is the White House heavily involved?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this is almost entirely the responsibility of the Democratic National Committee. The DNC does now bear the imprint of the presumptive nominee, so that's where those decisions are made.
Q Well, how involved will the President be? I mean, obviously he will give a speech at some point during the convention, the Vice President as well. Is he doing anything more than that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that the President will be doing a lot more than that.
Q Okay. Staying on the topic of Secretary Clinton, how frequently can we expect the President to be out there campaigning with her before November?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen I don't have an update on the President's schedule at this point. The President has indicated a desire -- I think those of you who have watched some of his public appearances over the last six weeks or so have recognized that he is quite eager to make a public case about the path that his successor should follow.
So it's hard for me to say at this point exactly how many days a week the President will be engaged in political activity. My sense is, is that over the summer I do not anticipate that there would be extensive political travel, but once the general election is fully engaged and as the attention of the country begins to focus on the presidential election, the President's opportunity to make a visible case for Secretary Clinton will increase.
Q Okay. Last one on a completely different topic. Going back to NATO -- Donald Trump, he said that it's going to have to be readjusted to take care of terrorism, or we're going to set up a new coalition, a new group of countries to handle terrorism because terrorism is out of control. And so with the NATO Summit coming up next week, is it on the President’s agenda to put in a new request for NATO to fully join the ISIS coalition -- the coalition against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: What is true is that the United States benefits enormously from the commitment that our allies have made to our NATO coalition -- to our NATO alliance. Many of our NATO allies are also active participants and contributors to our counter-ISIL coalition. And the President has been appreciative of the contributions that our partners and allies around the world have made to our counter-ISIL coalition, but he believes that there is more that can be done both in terms of committing military resources, but also in committing financial resources to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
In some cases, that means offering that military and financial support to the central government of Iraq as they work to rebuild those communities that have been retaken from ISIL. In other cases, that means making substantial and important contributions to international relief organizations that are trying to meet the basic humanitarian needs of the millions of people who have been displaced by the violence in Syria.
So there are a lot of ways for people to participate. We certainly have been deeply appreciative of the important contributions that have been made thus far, including by so many of our NATO allies. But we surely believe that there is more that can be done.
Q So he does think it should be readjusted to focus more on terrorism -- the President -- or he doesn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, NATO has a fundamental place when it comes to our national security, and NATO has performed a variety of functions, including in Afghanistan. And we certainly have welcomed the important contribution that our NATO allies have made to our efforts in Afghanistan. There are also some significant challenges that Europe is dealing with, and there is a potential that NATO resources could be used to confront some of those challenges, particularly as it relates to the migration situation there.
But NATO is primarily a defensive alliance. And the goal is to unify these North Atlantic countries in pursuit of our collective self-defense. So that contribution has been valuable to the United States and to our national security. Certainly countries throughout Europe have benefitted from that alliance. And the President’s goal is to look for ways to strengthen that alliance and further deepen our cooperation with our allies on the other side of the Atlantic.
Q Josh, just quickly on a developing terrorist potential situation in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It's ongoing, so I just want to know if the President has been briefed on this. Do you have anything for us on this? It's happening right now in the diplomatic quarters there.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of this particular situation, but we'll see what we can learn and let you know if and when the President has been briefed.
I'll just do week-ahead before we adjourn here.
On Monday, the President and the First Lady will celebrate the Fourth of July, as they always, do by hosting military heroes and their families for an Independence Day celebration, with a barbecue, a concert, and a view of the fireworks on the South Lawn of the White House. White House staff and their families from throughout the administration will also attend this event for the fireworks viewing. There will also be a performance on Monday evening by fellow Kansas Citian, Janelle Monáe, and Kendrick Lamar.
On Tuesday, the President will travel to Charlotte, North Carolina for a "Hillary for America" campaign event. Additional details on the President’s travel to North Carolina will be available in the days ahead.
On Wednesday, the President will attend meetings here at the White House.
On Thursday, the President will travel to Warsaw, Poland, to attend the 2016 NATO Summit. It will be the President’s fifth and final summit with NATO leaders. The meeting will afford an opportunity to underscore alliance solidarity, to advance efforts to bolster security to NATO’s East and South, and to project stability through new partnerships beyond the North Atlantic area.
On Friday, the President will meet with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission to discuss U.S.-EU cooperation across a range of shared priorities, including countering terrorism, fostering economic growth and prosperity, and addressing the global refugee crisis. Afterward, the President will hold a bilateral meeting with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg.
On Friday afternoon, the President will hold a bilateral meeting with President Duda of Poland to discuss U.S.-Polish relations, reaffirm the American commitment to Poland’s security, and exchange views on the broader security environment in Europe. Afterward, the President will participate in a NATO family photo and attend a NATO session on the NATO Alliance Council.
On Friday evening -- a rather long day -- the President will participate in a family photo and attend a working dinner with NATO leaders.
The President will spend Friday night in Warsaw, Poland.
On Saturday, the President will attend a NATO session on Afghanistan, followed by a session of the North Atlantic Council. In the afternoon, he'll participate in a session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission before convening a news conference that evening.
After the news conference, the President will depart Warsaw, Poland and travel to Seville, Spain. The visit to Spain, an important NATO ally, will highlight robust security cooperation, a strong political and economic relationship, and longstanding people-to-people ties. The President will spend Saturday night in Seville.
And we'll have more details about the President’s trip in the coming days.
Q Is Thursday a travel day, or is there NATO action on Thursday?
MR. EARNEST: Thursday is just a travel day. The excitement of NATO will begin on Friday.
Thanks, everybody. Have a very happy Fourth of July.
1:32 P.M. EDT