Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/11/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:28 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. I've got a couple of things to go through before we get to your questions, but most of this is focused on scheduling, both today, tomorrow, and on Wednesday.
The first update is that the President has joined the meeting with the Vice President that the Vice President’s team had organized for today. This was a meeting that the Vice President convened with leaders in law enforcement to talk about, of course, the tragedy that occurred just a few days ago in Dallas, but to talk about the challenging job that those officers across the country have. It's something that the President has talked about on a number of occasions. The President has had an opportunity to meet with law enforcement leaders on a number of occasions, and he’s quite interested in making sure that that dialogue continues.
So we'll have a readout of that meeting once it has concluded, and we're going to work on getting you a list of law enforcement officials who attended the meeting.
The second thing is, the President, as you know, is preparing to travel to Dallas, Texas tomorrow at the invitation of Mayor Rawlings. The city of Dallas is organizing a memorial service for the five police officers who were killed there last week. President Obama will speak there. He'll be joined on the trip by the First Lady, Mrs. Obama. Vice President Biden will also be attending the services and he'll be joined by his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. I also understand that former President George W. Bush, who, of course, lives in the Dallas area, will also be there, and he'll be attending with his wife, Mrs. Bush, as well.
On Wednesday, the President will convene another meeting here at the White House that will include law enforcement officials, but it will also include activists, academics, civil rights leaders, local political leaders from across the country, to, again, try to further the dialogue and the identification of specific solutions to repairing the bonds of trust that have frayed in so many communities between law enforcement officials and the citizens that they’re sworn to serve and protect.
So this, too, is a continuation of the conversation that the President initiated a couple of years ago. The White House worked to form a Task Force on 21st Century Policing that reflected a diverse set of perspectives. That task force generated a specific report of best practices that many law enforcement agencies across the country have sought to implement. Not all of them have. And it's the President’s view that the effort to implement those best practices needs to be reenergized. And as the President observed on a number of occasions over the last several days, last week was a tough week for our country, and it should serve as sufficient motivation for communities across the country to come together and make the implementation of these best practices a genuine priority in their community.
The kinds of solutions that were identified by the task force are not going to solve every problem, but we know they can have a material impact in improving the relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of individual communities. And by doing so, we don't just ensure that the rights of all citizens are protected, we also make sure that law enforcement officials -- who have a very dangerous job -- are also protected, and they can be more effective in fighting crime if they can work effectively with the community to focus on that job.
So we'll have more to say about Wednesday’s meeting as it gets closer. We'll have more to say about who the attendees are at that meeting as it gets closer, too. And obviously, all of these things are being put together on rather short notice, but these are priorities that the President has had for quite some time and he'll be spending quite a bit of time on them over the course of this week.
So, with that, Kevin, we can go to your questions on this topic or anything else that may be on your mind today.
Q Is there going to be opportunities, perhaps at the stakeout, to ask questions of the people who are participating in the meeting today, as well as on Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know at this point whether or not that is part of the plan of those officials who are attending the meeting today. But if that was something that they wanted to do, we certainly wouldn't stop them.
Q The President’s address at the memorial service tomorrow comes with a mission that goes beyond consoling. People in the law enforcement community, people who have been protesting police actions will be listening to every word. Can you talk a little bit about the points that the President wants to strive to make tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, let me start by saying that the President’s schedule is a little lighter than originally planned today because the President originally planned to be in Spain today. Obviously the President had to cut short his trip and he returned last night. The President does expect to devote a significant portion of his day today to working on his remarks. I haven't gotten an update on where they stand.
Fortunately, however, the President has had multiple opportunities over the last three or four days to address this situation, not just in Dallas but across the country. And so I think you have a good sense of where his head is; you also have a good sense of where his heart is. And I think you can expect that the speech that the President will deliver tomorrow will be appropriate for the setting, which is a memorial service. The President certainly has a desire to offer his condolences to the families of those who were lost and to also the broader community in Dallas that's grieving because of the loss of these five individuals who served their community so selflessly.
The President also has an interest in trying to offer some comfort to people all across the country. It's been a tough week for our country. And the President recognizes that it's not just people in Dallas who are grieving, but people all across the country who are concerned about the violence that so many Americans have witnessed in the last week or so. And the truth is, this is violence that we've been witnessing not just in the last week but far too often over the last several years. And I think many Americans are troubled by it. And the President is hoping to offer some measure of comfort tomorrow.
Q So even before last week's violence, surveys were indicating that fewer Americans were feeling good about the state of race relations in the country than when the President came into office. Does the President understand that growing pessimism? Does he believe it's misplaced? Does he agree that fewer Americans do feel better about the state of race relations today than a few years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think that if you examine the progress that our country has made, there's just no denying how important that progress has been. That progress can be measured in a variety of ways. The President had the opportunity to discuss this in his remarks in Selma, Alabama last year. And the speech was so well received in part because he made I think an observation that many Americans -- black, white and brown -- can relate to, which is that to deny the progress that our country has made over the last several decades is to deny recognition of the sacrifices that Americans -- black, white and brown -- made in pursuit of that progress.
That work is by no means finished. There is significant work that remains to be done, and the President talked about this a little bit on Thursday night when we arrived in Warsaw, that there continue to be persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system, for example. If we're going to live up to our Founding Fathers' vision of striving to form a more perfect union, then that's something we need to be not just mindful of, we need to make that a priority and strive to address those persistent disparities.
So it's hard for any one person to assess the optimism or pessimism of the country on a particular social issue. But the President remains remarkably optimistic about the progress that our country has made.
The President also talked about how he draws a sense of optimism from the way that people have reacted to the tragic events over the last week or so. It's not just black Americans who are concerned and have their conscience aroused when seeing the shootings of two African Americans in two very different communities in this country. It's not just white Americans who are appalled at the way that a shooter targeted white cops. There was almost unanimous condemnation of that act. And I think that reflects the unity that exists in our country that sometimes is obscured by the political division in our nation's capital and the political debate that may take place in the media. But the President believes that our country has made remarkable progress and we are far more unified than it may seem if you just watched 30 minutes of cable TV.
Q Josh, the President said in the press conference over the weekend that he wanted to meet with his task force this week and look at taking some concrete actions. What kinds of concrete actions does he have in mind? And if there are concrete actions that can be taken, why haven't we taken them before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, this will be the subject of the discussion. And I think the first thing that I would observe is that the best practices that were put forward by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that was formed by the White House a couple years ago, and released results a year and a half ago or so -- were the observations that they had is because most law enforcement work is done at the local level and that there are limits on how much pressure federal officials can apply to local organizations and local law enforcement organizations as they consider what sort of reform policies should be implemented -- what sort of changes they should make to their training regimen, for example; what sort of decisions they should make about equipment procurement; what sort of decisions they should make about transparency.
One of the distinguishing features of the reform process that was pursued in Dallas is that there was a remarkable -- there has been for the last few years a remarkable amount of transparency that the Dallas Police Department has implemented when it comes to documenting, for example, violent interactions between police officers and citizens. And that has had the effect of enhancing trust and improving statistics about complaints that are filed by citizens against police officers. At the same time, they've also experienced in Dallas a historic reduction in crime. Crime is -- violent crime and murder rates and other statistics are at or near historic lows in Dallas.
So I think that's a good illustration of how important reform efforts needn't come at the expense of crime fighting. In fact, reforming police departments and enhancing trust with the public benefits law enforcement, benefits crime fighting. That's the whole goal. And it's tragically ironic that Dallas is a particularly good illustration of how leaders in the community and leaders of a city can make that a priority and enjoy the benefits of it.
Q Is police department reform -- is that one of the things that would be a concrete action?
MR. EARNEST: That certainly will be part of the discussion, I'm sure. But I'm confident that there will be a broader discussion about what steps civil rights leaders and leaders in the community can take to address some of these challenges. I think there will be a discussion about what ordinary Americans can do. But, look, the discussion is still a couple days away. We're still organizing the meeting itself -- still trying to figure out where to hold it and who to invite. So we'll obviously have a whole lot more that we can say about this meeting once we've gotten closer to having it.
Q On a separate topic, Secretary Carter announced today that the United States will be sending 560 more troops to Iraq. When did the President sign off on this? And will that be enough for the mission to go into Mosul?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, you're referring to an announcement that Secretary Carter made during a visit to Iraq earlier today, and his announcement was based on the recent success that Iraqi security forces had enjoyed in retaking a military airfield in Iraq -- a place called Qarayyah. And the idea is that Iraqi security forces will use this base, this airfield, as a logistics hub that can certainly enhance their ability to encircle Mosul and eventually drive ISIL out of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and a place that has essentially been a locus of power for ISIL in Iraq.
So this announcement about the addition of American troops represents a following-up on the successful effort of the Iraqis to continue to make progress against ISIL. So the idea is that these new U.S. forces would be used to secure the airfield and essentially get it up and running as a logistics hub that would support ongoing operations by Iraqi security forces. And this is entirely consistent with the strategy that the President has laid out, which is that the United States and our coalition partners will be committed to supporting Iraqi forces as they take the fight to ISIL.
And there are a wide range of capabilities and expertise that we can lend to that effort, and part of that is offering some assistance when it comes to logistics. And that's primarily what this effort is all about. I can't give you a specific day when the President signed off on this, but this is certainly consistent with the idea that the President's national security team, including his leaders at the Department of Defense, are focused on areas where we can leverage investments in tactics that have worked. And we know that one of the significant challenges that Iraqi forces have faced is managing long supply lines. And there’s something that we can do to shorten the supply lines in a way that can have a tangible effect on the battlefield and a tangible impact on our strategy to go after ISIL in Mosul.
Q Will this be enough? Or do you expect he’ll be having to approve more?
MR. EARNEST: Look, at this point I don't have any -- I’m not in a position to foreshadow any additional announcements about additional troop commitments. But the President has been very clear about what our mission is and what our mission isn’t. And this is an effort to reinforce our support for Iraqi forces that are enjoying some success in driving ISIL out of strategic important areas in Iraq that can put them in a position to succeed on a much bigger goal of driving ISIL out of Iraq’s second largest city.
Q Josh, in relation to the horrific incidents last week, President Obama is now holding, as you said, Wednesday, this conversation with civil rights leaders, some leaders -- law enforcement. A few months back he said after one of these, yet again, police-involved fatal shootings, the President said he wasn’t going to have -- he wasn’t going to lead the conversation from this podium. What’s changed with this dynamic? And has he talked to Sylvia Burwell, the head of HHS, who was the head of President Clinton’s race initiative when he was President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I recall the day when the President made that declaration, and I think it reflected some impatience on his part. The President’s view is we spend a lot of time talking about these issues, and he’s impatient to start seeing some results. So I think you can expect that the conversation that he’s having today with law enforcement and the conversation that he’ll have with a more diverse set of views on Wednesday will be focused on what are specific steps that we can take to address some of these racial disparities in our criminal justice system that are persistent and measurable, but what are also some steps that we can take to do even more to support our men and women in uniform that have an extraordinarily difficult job.
The President has talked at length as recently as Thursday night when he arrived in Warsaw -- hours before the shooting in Dallas, I might remind you -- about what a difficult job our men and women in uniform have; that too often we ask our men and women in uniform, police officers, to confront challenges in communities that the rest of us would just as soon forget.
We're talking about certain communities that have inadequate schools, and very little economic opportunity, maybe they don't have access to health care. In some cases, they don't have access to a grocery store that serves healthy -- or that sells healthy food. Our system has been insufficiently attentive to those core needs that we know have an impact on these communities.
Instead, we ask law enforcement to go and solve those problems -- or at least deal with the consequences of inattention to those problems. That's not fair. And the President believes that there is more that we should be doing as a country -- certainly as a federal government, but also at the state and local level, as well -- to make those critical investments in education, to make those critical investments that we know are going to give those families that are working hard to get in the middle class the opportunity to actually succeed.
We could raise the minimum wage -- something the President has been advocating for years. Right now if you're trying to raise a family of four and working full-time, making minimum wage, you're raising the family below the poverty line. That is unacceptable, inconsistent with our values, and leads to much bigger problems -- problems that we too often just delegate to law enforcement. That’s not fair.
I think it is an illustration of how difficult their job is. And if there are specific things that we can do to better support our men and women in blue, the President believes we should get about doing it.
Q I have a couple more questions on this subject. In the '60s, the Kerner Commission came out with a report, and the Kerner Commission -- basically because of police brutality in the black community at that time -- and the Kerner report said something to the effect that there are two societies, separate and unequal. And then, when it came down to policing -- and I'm quoting from the report -- it said, "Negros firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occurred repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods." It also went on to say, "In several cities, the principal response has been to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons." What's changed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a lot has changed. I think one of the things that we know -- you take a place like Dallas, I guess, would be a pretty good example. I know that there has been an effort by many law enforcement agencies to ensure that their police force is more diverse. That certainly is one thing that's changed. I think there has been a priority that many law enforcement organizations have placed on improved and enhanced training of their officers. And again, a place like Dallas is a pretty good example of where complaints about excessive force filed against police officers have declined precipitously since the police chief imposed stricter training requirements and oriented that training to focus on de-escalation tactics to try to prevent confrontations between police officers and citizens from spiraling into a violent confrontation.
So there's progress to identify, but there's a lot more work that we need to do. And the President believes that we're only going to make additional progress when there is a collective recognition of the fact that that progress will only be made when we make these solutions a priority.
Q President Obama marked -- since he got to Warsaw, he marked the situation that happened in Baton Rouge, and then he also marked both the issues in Louisiana and Minnesota. And then he marked the situation in Dallas. But he's going to Dallas. And there's a certain part of this nation that's wondering why he's not going to Louisiana or to Minnesota. Can you explain why?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I don’t have any updates about the President's travel. But, again, on Thursday night, on Friday morning, on Saturday at the news conference that he convened at the end of NATO, and then again yesterday in Madrid, Spain, where he was meeting his Spanish counterpart, the President had an opportunity at each of those occasions to talk about his concern about this situation and the priority that he places on trying to address these persistent problems. So I think you'd be hard-pressed to think of anybody -- with the possible exception of officials in Dallas -- who has been more public and more definitive about the fact that addressing these disparities is a priority for the President of the United States, and finding a way to enhance the safety and security of our men and women in law enforcement.
And again, with the possible exception of officials in Dallas, no one has been more outspoken about that priority in the last four days than the President of the United States. He recognizes that this is a time for leadership. That's what he's provided. That's why he came home early from his trip. And I think you'll see more of that on display in the next couple of days.
Q And last question. What does the images that you've seen from average citizens or loved ones of those who were fatally shot by police -- what does it say when you see images from video cameras or video phones from other people and not the body cameras from the police?
MR. EARNEST: I'm just trying to understand your question. Are you suggesting that --
Q What I'm asking is, the President was very -- he was pushing this effort for body cameras for more accountability. And in Louisiana, the body cameras fell off. And we saw a video from the fiancée in Minnesota. And then we saw videos from people who were driving by in Baton Rouge and from the store. It was not from police. The Baton Rouge police cameras fell off. What does this say to his efforts that he's trying to hold the accountability piece for policing, to support good policing and weed out the bad policing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as you know, April, there's an ongoing Department of Justice investigation into this situation in Baton Rouge, and I know that federal investigators are -- it is their standard practice to gather as much information as possible, including video evidence about what may have transpired. That's their standard practice. I'm confident that they're following that standard practice in this instance. For an update on the investigation, you're just going to have to ask the Department of Justice about that.
The situation in Minnesota is a little bit different. There is a well-established independent body in Minnesota that is taking a look at the situation. Obviously, the Department of Justice is keeping tabs on it as well. But this is an investigation that's being led by State officials in Minnesota. And because of those ongoing investigations into those incidents, I just can't speak in a lot of detail about them.
Q Josh, I wanted to ask you about George W. Bush's inclusion in the memorial tomorrow. We now know that he was invited by the mayor. But I wanted to know, does the White House, does the President see any role for the former President to play in tackling some of these issues that you've been discussing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously former President Bush and Mrs. Bush are residents of Dallas and they're prominent members of the Dallas community. They were obviously prominent figures in that community well before he served in the White House, so he obviously has got his own personal connection to this community that's grieving. So I think for that reason it's entirely appropriate and I think even a credit to him that he has chosen to speak in this setting.
I think it also serves as a valuable reminder that despite that well-chronicled political differences between President Bush and President Obama, that the two of them are coming together at this time. I do think it underscores something that the President said over the weekend that our country is not as divided as it might seem. And we have differences, and we articulate those differences and we litigate those differences politically in a very vigorous fashion. But when it comes to basic values about the courage and service of police officers and a commitment to the rule of law and justice, there's a lot of common ground to be found, even between two leaders that have some differing political views. But around these issues, there's plenty of common ground to be found.
Q And in the vein, we know that Nancy Pelosi is traveling down on Air Force One tomorrow. Has the White House extended an invitation to the Republican leadership in Congress to travel as well?
MR. EARNEST: I know that a number of invitations to congressional leaders have been extended by the White House to travel to Dallas on Air Force One. I don’t have a list to walk through with you right now. I know that a number of members of Congress are still making their travel plans. So we'll have more details about who will accompany the President to Dallas tomorrow.
Q And on the thought process behind the writing. I know he's spending, as you said, the majority of the day today. Is he doing the first draft? Can you take us a little bit more behind the scenes on who he's calling on, who he's asking for help in writing his speech? Is he making calls outside of the building, or is it just with his team of speechwriters?
MR. EARNEST: The President does have a team of speechwriters here at the White House with whom he has been able to collaborate quite effectively on previous speeches of this sort. And I think it should be evident to those of you who were closely watching the President's comments over the last four or five days here, that he's got his own deeply rooted personal feelings on this topic. So the President does have a very good sense of what he wants to say. And he'll be supported by a team of speechwriters that will help him put that down on paper.
That said, I don’t want to underestimate or downplay how difficult it is for the President to appear in a setting like this. The President would tell you that he wished that he weren’t called on so often to give these kinds of speeches, comforting those who are the surviving family members of the victims of gun violence. We’ve seen a lot of that lately -- too much of it, in the President’s mind. But the President understands that this is what the President of the United States is called on to do, and the President embraces that responsibility, takes it quite seriously, and I think will be up to the task when he speaks tomorrow.
Q Can I just follow up on that? He’s obviously done a number of these -- Newtown, Charleston, Fort Hood twice. What is different about the process of preparing for a speech like this, a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting, than any of his other major speeches?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think certainly one distinguishing feature of this tragedy is the fact that the lives that were claimed were law enforcement officers. These were individuals who signed up to serve their community. They voluntarily pinned the badge to their chest because they’re so committed to serving and protecting the community of Dallas and the people of Dallas. And to see those lives claimed in this hateful act is tragic. So that certainly adds some poignancy to this situation.
But, look, each of the events that you named were poignant in their own way, but I think what is also true about this situation, Jon, is that there’s a backdrop here that -- there are people all across the country, again, of all races, who are grieving the loss of these innocent lives, these police officers in Dallas who were gunned down on Thursday night. But there’s anxiety across the country about the shootings we saw in two other communities of black men by police officers. And the President senses that anxiety across the country as well. And he senses the frustration, again, that I think -- that doesn’t exist solely in the black community, but I think that exists in the minds and hearts and conscience of fair-minded Americans of all races. And I would expect the President to touch on that as well.
Q Has he spoken to President Bush in advance of this? Or does he intend to when he gets down there?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President has spoken to President Bush in the last few days. But obviously the two men will have an opportunity to visit when they’re in Dallas, and I know the President is genuinely looking forward to that. Periodically, their paths have crossed over the course of the presidency, and we’ve talked in here a lot about the respect that President Obama has for the way that President Bush managed the transition between their two presidencies and the way that he’s conducted himself in the post-presidency. I think the President is deeply appreciative and deeply respectful of that. And I feel confident in telling you that he’s looking forward to seeing President Bush and Mrs. Bush tomorrow.
Q Was the last time they spoke in Selma?
MR. EARNEST: I was about to say that. I think that is true. I can’t say that definitively. And the reason for that is simply that we have not read out every conversation that the President has with former Presidents; that’s one channel of private communication that we do try to protect for its privacy.
But I can tell you that I’m not aware, at least off the top of my head here, of a conversation that President Obama has had with President Bush since they crossed paths in Selma last spring.
Q Looking abroad, what’s the President’s reaction to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to move up his departure, and the choice of Home Secretary Theresa May to succeed him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, obviously, President Obama had an opportunity to visit with Prime Minister Cameron at the NATO Summit in Warsaw over the weekend. The two leaders sat next to each other for hours on end at that summit, so I know they had an opportunity to have a number of conversations.
I’m not aware at that point, however, that Prime Minister Cameron shared his plans with President Obama. I’ve learned a lot about the British political process in just the last few hours, so it’s my understanding that having one of the two competitors for the leadership of the conservative party drop out essentially made the choice a foregone conclusion.
So my understanding is that there are some ceremonial steps that have to take place here. Ultimately, this is a British political process that will follow the guidelines that are in place. The President continues, though, to rest on the principle that the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is a special one, and it is a relationship that transcends the personalities or political parties of either country’s leader. And if, in fact, Theresa May is the next Prime Minister of the UK, the President is entirely confident that he and his successor will be able to coordinate effectively with her to not just protect, but even advance the special relationship between our two countries.
Q Has the President met the Home Secretary? What’s his impression of her?
MR. EARNEST: The only reason I know this -- the answer to that is yes. I don’t know that they’ve had a detailed conversation. I know that she participated in the extended bilateral meeting President Obama had with Prime Minister Cameron in London when he was there earlier this spring. I only know that because I met her in the context of that meeting. But I don't know that they’ve had an extended conversation before.
Q The President was speaking conditionally about Brexit recently. Like in the Canada press conference, he was saying “if” Briton withdraws from the EU. One of the first comments to Home Secretary made after being chosen to be Prime Minister was, “Brexit means Brexit and we're going to make it a success.” Does the President now view Brexit as a certainty?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, the President’s views on this have not changed. As you know -- as you pointed out, he’s spoken at length on this and he’s talked --
Q -- he said “if.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been some who have picked that out. I think what is also true is the President has talked about it in a way that has been non-conditional. So our expectation is that the Brexit process will be one that will commence when leaders in the UK invoke Article 50 of the EU charter, and that will precipitate a negotiation between UK officials and EU officials.
And our hope and expectation is that that is a negotiation that will take place in an orderly fashion in a way that should not unduly disrupt the economies of either place, of either Europe or the UK -- the EU and the UK. Because what we know is that there is obviously an important economic relationship between the UK and the EU now, and even once Article 50 has been invoked there will continue to be an important economic relationship across the Channel. So it's in the interests of both sides to ensure that that negotiation is orderly. And the President certainly has confidence that that's what both sides will pursue.
Q Last question. Despite all this epic uncertainty around the world, the U.S. stock market’s benchmark, the S&P 500 at an all-time high today. What’s the President’s reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, we don't respond to -- react to specific movements in the market. There are highly paid analysts, including at your network, who can opine on that, so I'll defer to them. I will, however, note something that did not get a lot of attention -- understandably so -- at the end of last week, which is that we got a very favorable jobs report from the Department of Labor about the condition of the labor market in the United States. It continues to be strong and the envy of the rest of the world.
So the President’s view is that we need to look for ways that we can build on that momentum. But when it comes to individual market movements, I'll let your high-paid analysts take care of that.
Chip -- nice to see you today.
Q Good to see you. Two things -- there’s been a lot of progress in race relations in recent decades. And I think most Americans would agree with that. But I think most Americans would probably also -- or at least a lot of Americans -- would agree with former Philadelphia and D.C. Police Commissioner who said -- Charles Ramsey -- who said this weekend, “We are sitting on a powder keg right now.” Do you think the President would agree with that assessment that we're sitting on a powder keg? And how disappointed or mystified is he that it happened during his presidency. This is a person who came into office thinking he could heal race relations, but things seem to have gone in the other direction.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think even when the President was coming into office and he was filled with so much optimism about the direction of the country -- and continues to be filled with that optimism -- I think even then, the President was realistic about the legacy of race relations in America and the generations’ worth of work that remains to be done to address that legacy, and the consequences that it has had for our society.
But, again, there’s no denying that we've made important progress. As it relates to the situation right now, I haven't asked the President that direct question, but I think it would be a mistake to downplay the acute concern that's being felt not just by minorities in the United States but by large segments of the white community, too, about these persistent racial disparities in law enforcement.
There are steps that we can take to address those disparities, and there are steps that we can take to begin to repair the bonds of trust that in too many communities have eroded between law enforcement and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. And the President believes that it's too easy for those solutions to fall on the priority list. And, look, local officials have a lot of responsibilities, wide-ranging responsibilities. The President believes that this is one that's worth focusing on. It's one that we should be conscientious about even when it's not in the headlines.
And the reason for that is that we only make progress in this area through tenacious implementation of some of these solutions, and it requires persistence and determination to see them through. But, again, there’s no better example than Dallas in terms of the results of their efforts. For several years, they were dogged, they have been dogged in implementing some of these reforms and being more transparent in reforming the training methods, in increasing training requirements. And all of that did lead to a situation where there was improved trust between the minority community and the police department. There were many fewer reports of excessive force used. There were many fewer -- we've seen a significant decline in police-involved shootings. And all of that took place at the same time that the Dallas community was benefitting from historically low crime rates.
And I think the President is pretty confident that's not a coincidence -- that we can enhance the effectiveness of crime fighters if they are trusted by the community. So the President believes that's a priority worth focusing on, and I can assure you that that's something that his administration will continue to be focused on in the months ahead.
Q One quickly. Do you know if the President saw Dallas Police Chief David Brown's amazingly plainspoken press conference earlier today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that he saw it earlier today, but I know the President has been reading some of the coverage of Chief Brown's appearance and has been quite impressed by his grace under fire.
Q Is he going to meet with him?
MR. EARNEST: I would expect the President will have an opportunity to at least see him when he's in Dallas tomorrow. I don't know if they'll have time for an extended meeting, but I would expect that the President will compliment him on the steady leadership that he has shown under unimaginably difficult circumstances.
Q -- speech or his remarks tomorrow and also the meeting at the White House. There are critics of the President who have said that when the President starts talking about gun safety or gun control, that listening stops and polarization and divisions arise. I know the President doesn't agree with that, but can we expect to hear him talk about gun safety or gun control or gun legislation in the remarks tomorrow or Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just start by saying I can't offer a detailed preview of what the President will cover and won't cover in his remarks tomorrow. We'll see if we can get you some better guidance in advance of the speech -- I can't promise, though, that I'll be able to do that.
But the President did have an opportunity to talk about this at some point over the weekend. I believe it may have been in his news conference on Saturday where he was asked a similar question. And you said in your question that when the President mentions gun control that he's often accused by his critics of politicizing the situation and people have a tendency to sort of tune him out. And you said the President disagrees with that.
I don't think the President disagrees with that. I think he is keenly aware that there are politicians in Washington, D.C. that when it comes to significant incidents of gun violence, that they close their eyes and they hold their ears and they wish it away. They hope that people won't notice. The President is well aware of that for one reason, and one reason only, which is that is the chief impediment to us making progress on this issue. If there were a willingness to just try to focus on some common-sense things, we could make some progress on gun violence in this country.
The President has never made the case -- and I certainly have never made the case -- that there are common-sense things that can be done to eliminate every single act of gun violence in America. That won't happen. And the President is aware of that.
But the President's view is if there are some common-sense steps that can be taken that don't undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, then why wouldn’t we do it. And the only reason we don't do it is because when someone -- whenever anyone even raises that prospect, whenever someone even mentions it, they're criticized and accused of politicizing the situation. And that's unfortunate.
But the President is quite aware of this phenomenon and he finds it intensely frustrating -- and again, not just because he's the subject of criticism -- he's been doing this for a while now and I don't think he's particularly offended or wounded by that criticism. But he's intensely frustrated that it is preventing the kind of rational, common-sense conversation that is part and parcel of a reasonable solution.
And in this case, it's tragic that we've not been able to reach this reasonable solution because innocent people are dying. Innocent people are losing their lives because of the refusal of the United States Congress to even have this conversation. The House of Representatives -- Republicans in the House of Representatives won't even vote on it. So we're not even to the conversation -- to the part of the conversation where we say, oh, they should support this. We're at the part of the conversation where we're trying to convince Republicans in the House of Representatives that they should even have a debate on it. That is the debate that they've refused to have -- they've refused to have votes.
And again, it's not just the President who is frustrated by that. I think you've seen rather notable expressions of frustration from House Democrats who would like to see that situation change in the House of Representatives. And I think they're only reflecting the views of people all across the country who share that frustration.
And, again, the kinds of proposals that we're talking about are not controversial ones. These are proposals that are not -- that do enjoy the strong support of a majority of Democrats, a majority of Republicans and, in most cases, a majority of gun owners even support the kinds of measures that Democrats are advocating for.
Q Based on what you were just saying, can we pretty much guarantee that the NRA will be invited to be here at the White House on Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, there are a number of occasions where the NRA has been invited to participate in White House events and they've turned down that opportunity. The most recent example I can think of is the President convened a town hall meeting that was organized by some of your colleagues at CNN. There were a diversity of views represented at that town hall meeting. That event took place probably within walking distance -- I guess if you were willing to spend a couple hours -- just a couple miles from NRA Headquarters, and they turned down an invitation to participate in that event.
So I don't know whether or not they'll be invited on Wednesday, but we'll do what we can to try to get you a list of people who do participate.
Q And one other follow-up. The Washington Post, in the series that they have been running called Fatal Force, with all the statistics that they have spent time pulling together, have indicated that, based on the statistics, this year, cameras, video cameras of all kinds -- body cameras, whatever -- have had no deterrent effect at all on the statistics they've seen of police shootings this year. Does the President continue to believe that body cameras -- video, Facebook Live -- that they function as a deterrent? Or is that an open question in his mind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding is that there is some research to substantiate the claim that at least when it comes to body-worn cameras that it does have an impact on reducing the frequency of violence in interactions between law enforcement and citizens. I vaguely recall one study that had been conducted in a city in Arizona, I believe, that did show that there was a reduction in reports of the use of excessive force in interactions between law enforcement and members of the community.
So I think what the President would say is that when it comes to the academic research, there's probably some more work that needs to be done to verify exactly what impact and how significant an impact those cameras could have. I think there is some speculation that even if the impact is not measurable yet, there is an intuitive impact on enhancing trust between law enforcement officers and members of the community; that you could imagine it gives the police department the opportunity to be more transparent when conducting investigations into individual incidents, for example.
In some cases, that evidence can be used to highlight the heroic work of law enforcement officers. But I think that it also serves to give some members of the community confidence in those relationships and in those interactions. And that may be the kind of impact that is not measurable in the short term, but it could be worthwhile in trying to address this other question that's a little harder to measure.
Q Josh, you mentioned that there are racial disparities in our own criminal justice system and that local officials have a lot of things to deal with -- a lot of responsibilities -- and that there are limits on how much the federal government and federal officials can be involved in these types of things. Does the White House believe that the federal government should play a greater role in local policing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think it's a long tradition in our country for these kinds of law enforcement activities to be organized at the local level, and I think there's some good, common-sense reasons for that. So this administration has not been a part of advocating that somehow more local law enforcement efforts should be organized by the federal government. Rather, we are encouraging local law enforcement agencies to avail themselves of the resources of the federal government based on the experience of other local law enforcement organizations.
So, essentially, the work of this task force was done by going around and visiting communities all across the country. Many of the people who were on task force, I would point out, were not federal officials but were people who had expertise in their own right. They were either civil rights activists, academics. And Chief Ramsey, who was the chief of police here in Washington and Philadelphia -- and he was mentioned earlier -- was one of the leaders of that task force.
So this work was done by people who have their own relevant expertise. And what the federal government essentially did was served to convene these individuals, give them a forum for doing this work and generating this report, and then using our relationships with law enforcement agencies all across the country to communicate the findings and make sure that people are aware of what these reforms and what these best practices have yielded in other communities, and tried to use that to encourage local communities to pursue the same kinds of reforms. A significant number of local communities have. But --
Q But what we've seen in the last week doesn’t prompt a desire in the White House or a call in the White House to mandate certain --
MR. EARNEST: No, our position on that hasn’t changed. There's a well-established tradition in America for many of these law enforcement activities to be organized at the local level, and there are a lot of good reasons for that.
Q You were talking a bit about body cameras. Would the White House embrace efforts to require police wear body cameras? And that does get into what we were just discussing.
MR. EARNEST: No, what we have found is that I know that there a number of law enforcement agencies that do think that body-worn cameras are a good idea, but yet they don’t have the resources to pay for those cameras. And so what the federal government has been chiefly doing is trying to mobilize resources to help local law enforcement agencies make that purchase and make that investment.
We've also tried to, again, work with law enforcement agencies that have been able to use video from body-worn cameras and policies related to body-worn cameras, to have an impact on their communities, and make sure that other communities are aware of how they can best implement this new technology to maximize the benefit associated with it. So offering that kind of practical advice and expertise is another appropriate role for the federal government to play, and I know that that's one that some local communities have expressed an appreciation for.
Q Responding to President Obama's comments from this weekend -- he did catch some criticism on the right and the left. An example -- William Johnson of the National Association of Police Organizations, a union, says the President should criticize the entire Black Lives Matter movement, and not doing so only encourages violence against police officers. On the other end, Cornel West says the President is essentially too deferential to the police and needs to be more critical of police departments. Will the President address that criticism tomorrow, or at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Rich, I think anybody who was interested in understanding exactly what the President's views on this topic were, or are, would take a close look at the remarks that President Obama delivered when we arrived in Warsaw late on Thursday night. In those remarks, the President -- these are remarks, by the way, that took place -- the President delivered hours before the shootings in Dallas. But in the context of talking about his concern about persistent racial disparities in America, the President talked about the everyday heroism of men and women in law enforcement. He talked about the fact that they put their lives on the line every single day to protect us, and that the vast majority of those men and women do an outstanding job. They are faithful to the commitment that they have made to serve and protect those communities where they work. The President also said that we mourn the lives that are lost while protecting us -- a tragically prescient line.
The President also reaffirmed something that he said in his State of the Union address back in 2015, where he talked about the right of law enforcement officers to go home at the end of the shift. All of this before the strong feelings that were aroused by the tragic shootings in Dallas.
And the reason that the President decided to deliver those remarks is because he did want to articulate the fact of the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system. And he ticked through a variety of statistics -- not just from one source, but from a variety of sources -- about that reality and about how that reality leaves some people feeling like they're not being treated the same just because of the color of their skin. And the President affirmed that fair-minded people of all races should be, and are, rightly concerned about that situation.
So all these questions that we've been facing and asking ourselves in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting about racial disparities in our criminal justice system, about the need to support our men and women in law enforcement, about the fact that the vast majority of our men and women in law enforcement do an outstanding job every day -- these are all things that the President of the United States said hours before the shooting took place.
So, again, I think any sort of fair-minded person who's interested in understanding what the President actually believes about all this has a good way to figure that out. And that's simply to listen to what the President had to say when he arrived in Warsaw late on Thursday night, just hours before the shooting in Dallas.
Q And finally, if you add up the number -- this is by a couple of measures -- the number of mass shootings under the previous two-term Presidents, and you combine them, it's about what President Obama has been in office for. What is the White House assessment of why that is and what's going on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Rich, I haven’t seen those statistics, so maybe that's something we can look at more carefully. I think the President has had far too many occasions, unfortunately, to talk about gun violence and the flood of guns on our streets. And he's been disappointed that Congress hasn’t been able to take some common-sense steps to try to address that problem.
One other angle -- there are so many arguments that make the position that is taken by the NRA and their supporters in the Congress so unreasonable and so illogical and, frankly, dangerous, given the fact that their refusal to act actually does increase the risk that innocent people face. But the argument that we often see from those in those quarters is that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The fact is, because of the open carry laws in Texas, on Thursday night in Dallas, there were a whole lot of people carrying guns -- not just police officers. There were innocent people who were, understandably, by law enforcement, who were detained and arrested because they were considered suspects -- and reasonably so.
When police officers are taking fire, somebody walking around with an assault weapon is a suspect. And I actually think it is a testament to the courage and professionalism of the men and women of the Dallas Police Department that they didn’t shoot any innocent people. There were all sorts of suspects in front of them. The justification that's often used for the use of deadly force is, well, that person had a gun.
So I think it is another illustration of how indefensible the position is of the NRA and their supporters in Congress. But it also is another testament to the bravery and courage in a terrible situation by men and women of the Dallas Police Department and the men and women of the other local law enforcement agencies that were on duty that night.
Q Josh, tomorrow the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing on the First Amendment Defense Act, a religious freedom bill that critics say would enable anti-LGBT discrimination. Tomorrow is also the one-month anniversary of the Orlando shooting, which, as you know, claimed the lives of 49 people and wounded 53 others at a gay nightclub. Should the committee cancel the hearing?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I have to admit I’m not aware of the hearing at all, and I’m not sure what bill they’re planning to consider, and I don’t know anything about the bill. So why don’t you see if I can collect more information for you and we’ll come back to you.
Let’s see. In the back -- just in the back. Pam, why don’t you go ahead?
Q Three more inmates have been transferred out of Guantanamo Bay. How many left -- do you have the current number of how many left have been approved for transfer? And does the administration expect to get them all out to other countries by the time the President leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: To answer your direct question first, Pam, there were three individuals who were transferred from the prison at Guantanamo Bay in the last few days. I believe that two of those individuals were transferred to Serbia. One of those individuals was transferred to Italy. That brings the total population of the prison at Guantanamo Bay down to 76.
The individuals who were transferred were transferred based on the unanimous recommendation of the President’s national security team and based on the personal certification of the Secretary of Defense that the necessary security requirements were in place in Serbia and Italy respectively to ensure that these individuals don’t pose an undue threat to our national security here.
And this is consistent with the President’s strategy that we’re going to continue to do everything possible to try to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and the first step in that is trying to reduce the prison population there. And by working effectively with our, in this case, two NATO allies of the United States, to do that, we’re using our diplomatic influence and our security know-how to accomplish that goal. And that goal is motivated by the President’s conclusion that to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open only gives a rhetorical weapon to terrorists that we know use the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruitment tool.
We also know that it’s a big waste of money; that detaining these dangerous individuals could be done in a much more cost-effective fashion in facilities in the United States that in some cases already house hardened, convicted terrorists.
So the President is continuing to push on this, and we’re steadily making progress. I’ll just remind you that at the beginning of the administration, there were 242 detainees in Guantanamo Bay, and the prison population now is down to 76. So we’ve made a lot of important progress, but we’ve still got some work to do.
Q Are you on track to transfer those who have been approved to leave?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s hard to say that we’re on track, because the way this process works is we have to go and negotiate with individual countries to reach the necessary agreements to transfer these individuals. So I can’t say that we’ve got a commitment from other countries to take every single one of the individuals that’s been approved for transfer, but this is work that’s going on every day behind the scenes, and we’re working to secure those commitments so that we can succeed in those transfers.
Q Does the U.S. have to offer anything to these countries to take these guys? Or are they doing it because they want to be on the good side of the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a lot of these countries would say that they recognize that the national security of the United States and our other NATO allies, at least in this instance, is enhanced if we can close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So I think they’ve got -- I think what we can assess about their motives is that they’re consistent with the interests that the United States has in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q Thanks. You were looking at me earlier and I was -- (laughter) -- but all I wanted to know is about Zika funding, and whether you’ve gotten any indications from the Hill that they might increase that Zika funding. And when exactly do you run out of money for Zika?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, we continue to be deeply concerned that Republicans in Congress are not working in bipartisan fashion to confront what our public health professionals have described as an emergency. It’s a legitimate emergency. And the Zika virus does pose a significant threat to pregnant women and newborn babies in the United States. And because of congressional inaction, our public health professionals say that they’re not able to do every single thing that they would like to do to protect us.
And I can’t really articulate why this should be a partisan issue. I don’t think Republicans can either. I do think it reflects failed leadership on their part that here were are almost five months later -- the President put forward a specific request for these resources based on the recommendation he received from public health professionals almost five months ago, and yet we’ve seen Republicans struggle to actually work in bipartisan fashion to solve this problem. Instead, they’d rather play games with pay-fors, which is merely frustrating when it comes to other priorities that the President has identified, but when it comes to a public health emergency, it’s unconscionable.
I’ve been saying this for five months, though, so I don’t know what kind of impact that’s going to have on Republicans. The President has been saying this -- I know that there are Republican governors and Republican officials who do represent some states that are at event greater risk from the Zika virus who are making the same case. Marco Rubio, somebody with whom I do not often agree, is an enthusiastic supporter of the $1.9 billion package that our public health professionals say that we need. But that hasn't succeeded in persuading enough of his fellow Republicans to support that proposal. And that's deeply disappointing. It does put vulnerable populations of Americans at risk, and Republicans are going to have to explain at some point why.
Q But if Congress leaves at the end of this week without any Zika funding passed, what happens? I mean, do you literally run out of money?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that we do know happens is that Congress is prepared to go on a seven or eight-week recess here and they'll be doing so essentially at the peak of mosquito season. So I think what we can say will happen is that there will be communities that are not doing as much spraying of mosquitos as they'd like to do. There are laboratory facilities that won't be able to process diagnostic tests as quickly as they would like to help people get answers and protect themselves from the Zika virus. We know that there will be doctors who won't be able to give out or administer a Zika test as widely as they would like.
In short, we won't be able to do everything that our public health professionals say they would like to do to try to protect people from the Zika virus. And it will be up to Republicans to explain why exactly that's the case.
John, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. Tomorrow, Senator Bernie Sanders will be up in New Hampshire. He'll be in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He'll be campaigning with Hillary Clinton. Is the President pleased to see such unity in the Democratic Party? And also, on the flip side, is he pleased to see such apparent disunity within the Republican Party?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as you know, President Obama did have an opportunity to meet with Senator Sanders -- I guess this was last month now -- to talk about the race to succeed President Obama. And you've heard the President himself articulate on a number of occasions how important it is for the Democratic Party to come together behind the effort to support a candidate that's committed to the kinds of values and priorities that this President has been fighting for.
And from supporting the Affordable Care Act to supporting tough Wall Street reform, to supporting the effort to mobilize the international community to fight climate change, to uphold the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, to go and fight for civil rights for all Americans, to fight for equal pay for women -- these are all values that are broadly shared by the Democrats across the country. They're shared by the two presidential candidates. And these are the values that have animated President Obama's tenure in the White House. And he's determined to make sure that the person who takes the keys to the White House is somebody who wants to build on the progress that we've made in pursuit of those values over the last seven and a half years.
So the President has been quite candid about his interest, and so I guess what I can tell you is that he's pleased to see that development. But he'll obviously have quite a bit more to say about this over the course of the next four months or so.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
3:45 P.M. EDT