Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/15/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any announcements to make at the top, so we can go directly to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Thank you. A couple of questions about Nice. In the statement the President issued last night, he said that what happened there appeared to be a terrorist attack. And I was wondering if that's still the working theory -- the United States government theory that it is a terrorist attack.
MR. EARNEST: That is still the working theory. President Hollande issued a statement last night -- he delivered a statement last night, indicating that French investigators who have the lead in investigating this incident, that they’ve concluded that it's a terrorist attack.
And President Obama had an opportunity earlier today to telephone President Hollande and relay his condolences to the people of France on behalf of the American people. France is, after all, our oldest ally, so it should be no surprise that President Obama didn’t just offer condolences, he offered significant security cooperation and any assistance that they need to conduct their investigation and to take steps to try to prevent something like this from happening again.
The President’s top counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, had an opportunity to telephone her counterpart today. I know Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has been in touch with his French counterpart today. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has been in touch with the French ambassador to the United States today. And I can tell you that a range of U.S. officials in law enforcement and the intelligence community and at a variety of homeland security agencies have been in touch with their French counterparts to discuss the situation and to pledge cooperation.
So this is obviously something that the U.S. government will be monitoring closely in the days ahead. And we'll be offering our strongest support to the people of France in this very difficult time.
Q What about the method that was used, the truck that was used to mow people down? That's not something that we've seen before, or at least in the terrorist attacks around the world. What kind of clues does that method -- what does it say about --
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s still a lot -- there’s still much more that needs to be learned about this particular situation. There’s more about this individual that French authorities have identified as the perpetrator. There’s more that needs to be learned about his background, about other people that he may have associated with, anything that would provide some insight into how the attack was planned, how it was carried out, and whether or not he received any instruction or direction about doing so.
So we're in the early stages of the investigation. But as French authorities begin to collect the information that could help answer those questions, they’ll be able to rely on the strong support and the capabilities of the United States government.
Q The message of the guidance from the President and the U.S. government after other terrorist attacks has been that people shouldn’t give in to terrorists, they should go about their business, not make any changes in their lives. There seems to be an attack every week or every 10 days or so. So can that still continue to be the guidance or the message that's coming from the government when people are seeing things like this happen on such a regular basis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question two different ways. I think the first thing is the kind of advisories that are issued by the federal government are consistent with the advisories that the federal government is offering to federal employees, particularly U.S. citizens who are working at diplomatic facilities around the globe. And we believe that it's good practice to ensure that the information that's being shared with federal employees to ensure their safety and security, it's important that we share that information with U.S. citizens as well so they can take appropriate precautions.
Those advisories regularly encourage people to be vigilant, to be aware of their surroundings. And we certainly would encourage people to follow that advice.
What’s also true is that the United States government, in an effort to protect the American people and to protect the interests of our allies around the world, expends significant resources in countering extremists, fighting terrorism, and protecting the American people. And one element of that strategy is deepening our coordination with our allies, including our allies in France. So the President is determined to continue to do that work, and in the days ahead we'll see more of it.
Q Lastly, on a different subject. Do you have anything at all to say about Donald Trump’s choice of Indiana Governor Mike Pence to be his running mate? He made it official today.
MR. EARNEST: You mean the TPP-supporting, Medicaid-expanding Mike Pence? (Laughter.)
Q If that's what you want to call him.
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't have any comment on it. (Laughter.)
Q Is there any information thus far that shows that the Islamic State is responsible for the attack?
MR. EARNEST: French investigators are still looking very closely at what sort of connections this individual may have to extremist organizations. There have been no claims of responsibility that we have seen thus far, but we'll obviously look to that as a potential clue about what may have contributed to this particular terrorist attack. But at this point, it's too early to draw any firm conclusions about who may -- whether or not this individual had ties to a broader terrorist network or was part of a broader terrorist conspiracy.
Q The President is going to be speaking this afternoon. Can you tell us a little bit about what he hopes to get across?
MR. EARNEST: The President had previously planned a primarily social gathering with diplomats from around the world who are based here in Washington, D.C. This is something that the President and First Lady have hosted here at the White House in the past. And I think it's an appropriate time for the President to speak to those diplomats about the resolve of the United States, working together with the rest of the international community, to fight terrorism and to fight extremism.
This is not something that the United States will be able to do alone. And in fact, we benefit significantly and our national security is greatly enhanced by our ability to cooperate and coordinate with our allies and partners around the world. That's certainly what we've seen in the context of our counter-ISIL campaign -- 66 nations that are working together to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization. But our efforts to cooperate with the international community have benefitted the United States in a variety of ways.
That includes our efforts to reach an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That includes our efforts to confront what our officials at the Department of Defense describe as a significant national security problem, which is climate change. And the United States did reach an agreement last December with 193 nations to take a coordinated approach to fighting carbon pollution and addressing climate change.
These are all good examples of the way the national security of the United States and the day-to-day lives of the American people are enhanced by the strength of our alliances and partnerships around the world.
Q During the Paris attack last year and the Brussels attack earlier this year, the President and other White House officials talked about a need for better information-sharing and intelligence-sharing in Europe. And I'm wondering how satisfied the White House is that intelligence-sharing has improved, and whether more needs to be done.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly is more that needs to be done. But why don't we talk first about what progress we have made just since November. And the United States and France have made important progress in enhancing our security relationship. Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November, the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did succeed in working with the French to reach a new or enhanced information-sharing relationship. The sharing of that information does enhance our national security and it certainly enhances the ability of our military and our intelligence community to take steps to protect the American people.
Earlier this year, the President’s top counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, traveled to France and completed an arrangement with her French counterpart to further enhance our security and intelligence cooperation and information-sharing with the French. This information could be used for a variety of purposes, including mitigating the flow of foreign terrorist fighters, disrupting potential terror plots and even preventing future terrorist attacks.
This is also part of the regular dialogue that Secretary Johnson has with his French counterpart. Homeland security is obviously something that has been at the forefront of the agenda for French policymakers, given the attacks that have occurred on French soil over the last 18 months. There is certain expertise that the United States has, and Secretary Johnson has worked to try to share that information and to share those best practices in a way that could enhance border security in France.
We also have sought to enhance law enforcement cooperation so that our investigative efforts on a law enforcement level can be more effectively integrated and coordinated. That's a testament to the work that Secretary Johnson has done. And again, that is something that would enhance the national security of both the United States and France.
So those are just a few examples of the important progress that we've made, because this is something that we did identify at the end of last year, Roberta, after the Paris attacks, that there is more that the United States and France should be able to do to more effectively integrate and coordinate on security issues. So we've made some progress.
There are additional steps that we believe our European allies can and should take. The best example I think that I can point to is we do believe that information-sharing among European countries needs to be enhanced. And there’s some difficult work that needs to be done among European allies to ensure they’re effectively sharing information. If those European countries can knock down some of the barriers that prevent that efficient sharing of information, that's only going to improve the information that the United States has access to.
So this is the subject of ongoing conversation with our French allies. And the kinds of things that I was highlighting here earlier in terms of the work that the Secretary of Defense, the President’s counterterrorism advisor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to deepen our security relationship with France, these aren’t the kinds of things that generate headlines. These aren't the kinds of things that are covered closely by the public. That's understandable. But it should be an indication to the American people that the safety and security of the American people is the President’s top priority. And he has given specific direction to his team that this must be our top priority. And it's why you see these national security agencies deeply engage on these issues even when it may not be work that generates headlines. It is work that makes the country safer.
Q The French President, François Hollande, said to his people that they have to accept, they have to live with terrorism, with terror. And at the same time, the presidential hopefuls, Hillary and Donald Trump, said that we are "at war." How does the President feel Americans should think about where we are in terms of at war with terrorism and living and accepting there will be acts of terror?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has said on a number of occasions that terrorists in al Qaeda declared war on the United States on 9/11, and we've been at war with them ever since. And we've made important progress in that war. Core al Qaeda, that previously used to operate and live with impunity in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, has been decimated. There are al Qaeda affiliates in other parts of the world that are the source of ongoing concern. There are also organizations like ISIL that trace their roots back to al Qaeda. And obviously those are -- that's one extremist organization that does pose a threat and has attracted the intense attention of the United States and the international coalition that we lead.
The President has been pretty unequivocal about all of that. We've also been quite unequivocal about the fact that we're still waiting on Congress to pass an authorization to use military force against ISIL. I know that there are some critics of the administration who like to talk tough and suggest that somehow we need to declare war on ISIL. I would encourage those individuals to consult the copy of the United States Constitution that many of them carry around in their suit pocket. They often wield that as evidence of their patriotism. I would encourage them to consider that document carefully and actually remind themselves that it's Congress who has the authority to declare war.
And it's now been almost a year and a half since President Obama sent up legislative language for an authorization to use military force that we believe that Congress should pass. And passing that authorization to use military force would send a clear signal to the American people, to our allies, and yes, to our enemies, that the United States is united behind the President's strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The truth of the matter is, our men and women in the intelligence community and our men and women in the military are doing their part to take the fight to ISIL. And it's time for members of Congress to do their job.
Q Newt Gingrich responded, saying that he felt that all Muslims in this country should be checked to see if they subscribe to Sharia law, and if so, they should be kicked out of the country. Does the administration have any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: It sounds like he might need to consult his copy of the pocket Constitution as well. Our nation was founded on the principle that this is a country where people could choose to worship as they please, without harassment from the government. And that is a principle that is enshrined in our Constitution, and one that the President believes is worth protecting.
So observations like that, or proposals like that, rhetoric like that, is un-American by its very definition. This is also the worst possible time for leaders or aspiring leaders to suggest that somehow Americans should start turning on one another. That's exactly what the terrorists want us to do. I think the American people would expect their leaders to stand up and seek to unify this country in these trying times.
That certainly is going to make us safer, and it certainly is a way that we live up to the values that make this the greatest country in the world.
Q Speaking of 9/11, Josh, I know we've talked about this earlier in the week -- the 28 pages -- the congressional report that it's been cleared -- Congresswoman Pelosi said that the release is imminent. Without actually having seen the 28 pages yet ourselves, can you just summarize, does the administration think these 28 pages shed any important new light on the Saudi role in the attacks on 9/11?
MR. EARNEST: We do not, Mark. And the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has completed the process for declassifying as much of that material as possible. This material was actually all included in a congressional document. And that's the reason that the DNI conducted this review, declassified as much of it as they could, and then handed it off to Congress. And now it will be up to Congress to decide how and when to release this information.
But what you'll find once you do have an opportunity to take a look at what has been redacted -- and the vast majority of the document has been made available for public review, declassified -- what you'll find when you take a look at the document is that it will confirm what we have been saying for quite some time, which is that this material was investigative material that was reviewed and follow up on by the independent 9/11 Commission that was formed outside of the U.S. government to take a look at the attacks of 9/11. And the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission is -- or was, as they wrote -- they found "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda." The other thing that I would point you to is, in 2014, the FBI conducted some work as a part of the 9/11 Review Commission, and they concluded that there was no new evidence that "would change the 9/11 Commission's findings regarding responsibility for the 9/11 attacks."
So the decision that was made by the DNI to declassify this material is consistent with the commitment to transparency that you've seen this administration impose on other areas of our national security policy that had previously been secret. It was just a couple of weeks ago that we released the updated accounting -- well, I guess that we released the accounting for first time of civilians who were harmed in counterterrorism strikes. The administration also worked diligently with the United States Senate to declassify significant portions of the report that they wrote on the CIA interrogation program. That was a subject of some controversy in the national security community. But the administration concluded that it was important to be as transparent as possible about that report.
And so these pages, while they don’t shed any new light or change any of the conclusions about responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, they are consistent with the commitment to transparency that the administration has tried to apply to even sensitive national security issues.
Q They don’t really change anything. Why did it take so long to go through the declassification process? I mean, I realize that it was declassified -- it was classified originally in the prior administration. But still, even on President Obama's watch, why did it take so long? And is it, as some people think, deference to the Saudi royal family?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I know that there were a variety of considerations that were factored into the decision to declassify these 28 pages. I would acknowledge that it did take quite some time for the decisions to be made to declassify this material. I'm not in a position to discuss what may have factored into those decisions. But the President is certainly satisfied that so much of this material, even after a long wait, has now been declassified and will be available for review by the public.
Q I'm going to restate the question in the simplest form. Was it out of deference to Saudi sensibility?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to what factors may have factored into the length of time that it took to complete the review.
Q Given the attack in Nice, is Homeland Security suggesting any enhancements to U.S. security given the nature of that attack -- a truck? Or is the feeling that at this point we're protected by enough, that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, this is certainly something that our Homeland Security professionals are already considering. As you've heard me say on many occasions, our Homeland Security professionals are constantly updating the procedures that are in place to protect the American people and to defend our homeland. So as new information emerges, that could potentially expose a new threat to the United States or to the American people. That will be thoroughly evaluated by our Homeland Security professionals. And if they determine that it's necessary to make some changes to our security posture, then they will do that. But they will be the ones to announce it.
Q But nothing has happened in the last hours since all this happened?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing has happened in the last 18 hours since this happened. But I guess the other thing I'd point out is, this only happened 18 hours ago. So as they learn more about this situation, and as they conduct a further investigation, it may reveal more information that does prompt Homeland Security officials to make a change in our security posture. But at this point, it hasn’t.
Q You mentioned in terms of intelligence-sharing the problem of our European allies sharing information amongst themselves and then with the United States. What is the deficit there as a result of that? Does it mostly have to do with the U.S. knowledge of foreign fighters crossing? Does it have to do with -- I'm trying to understand what's missing in terms of what we would like to know that we don’t know as a result of this problem that you identify.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you're obviously asking about information that's classified, and sensitive intelligence material. So it's hard for me to talk about it in a lot of detail. But let me try to answer your question by drawing an analogy.
There were conclusions after 9/11 about the intelligence collection and intelligence-sharing process inside the United States. And one of the things out of the 9/11 review was identifying what they described as stove pipes -- information that was collected by the U.S. government in one agency but not shared with all the others, including other agencies that could act on that information in a way that would enhance our national security.
Q I think the situation in Europe is essentially analogous to that; that there may be certain European allies that have access to a particular piece of information that may or may not be significant to their national security. But we need to make sure that there's a mechanism, and Europeans need to make sure that there's a mechanism in place so that they can share that information with other countries who may need to act on that information to ensure that safety and security of their own citizens.
So ultimately that's what we want our European allies to do more to address. Quite frankly, just to speak bluntly about this, the previous attacks in Paris, in November, I think illustrated this vulnerability best --
Q Because there was information that was available, was out there somewhere that might have been used to stop it?
MR. EARNEST: Because the evidence right now indicates that the plotters of that attack were in Belgium, but the attack that took place was in France. So it indicates the cross-border nature of this threat, and it’s why we have placed a premium on the ability of our allies to share that information effectively and efficiently even across borders. Ultimately, that will improve the quality of information that the United States receives.
Q Let me ask you a broader question. After the various attacks we often hear the administration say we're going to intensify our campaign against ISIS on all fronts -- cut off their finances, their air attacks, so on and so forth. But obviously this is going on now -- we've had a series of these. So, again, is there going to be some stepping-up of the administration’s attack efforts against ISIS? And why do we always do this incrementally? Why isn't there -- it seems like there’s always an incremental approach to this. And after the next attack we'll have more intensifying, and then again, and again. Are you -- can you tell the American people that you are -- that the administration is really doing everything possible now, not after the next attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, we often make announcements about the intensification of our efforts even when it doesn’t come on the heels of another attack. In fact, it was just -- the last couple weeks have been -- I guess it was earlier this week, the Secretary of Defense traveled to Iraq and announced the intensification of our efforts against ISIL in Iraq by committing another 400 or so U.S. military personnel to staff up and operationalize a key military airfield that Iraqi forces had taken back from ISIL. I think that is a good example of how we are always looking for ways to intensify our efforts. And if there is one aspect of our strategy that has yielded some progress, then the President has said let’s look for ways to intensify it.
One of the challenges we know that Iraqi security forces are facing is dealing with long supply lines. And so by establishing this base and getting it up and running, it can essentially be a logistical hub for one part of the country that is closer to Mosul, which we know is a top objective of Iraqi security forces.
So that's an example of how the United States and our coalition partners are constantly looking for ways to intensify our efforts. And the President makes important decisions -- measurable decisions to intensify our efforts even when an attack has not just occurred. I think that's an indication of the rapid pace of our efforts there.
Q What is the assessment of whether ISIS is still capable of coordinating attacks from Raqqa and elsewhere, given the effort to degrade and destroy? They can still coordinate -- even though we don't know what happened in Nice, they can still -- they’re still operational, they still have the ability to do this.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen a detailed updated assessment of this, but I think it is fair to say that the United States and our coalition partners continue to be concerned about the ability of ISIL to direct attacks from Iraq and in Syria. What’s also true is that capacity has been degraded. We have applied significant pressure on ISIL leaders in Iraq and in Syria, including in Raqqa and Mosul -- in such a way that we know that many of these leaders are quite concerned about their own personal security. And if they’re taking steps to protect themselves that is time they are not spending in recruiting and directing terrorists overseas.
Another key area of progress has been closing the border between Syria and Turkey. We know that was the route that previous terrorists have used to infiltrate Europe and carry out attacks. That's much harder now than it was in the past because of efforts that have been taken on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border. But there’s more work that needs to be done in that regard, as well.
Q And does the administration see a connection between -- on the one hand, you talk about how much territory you’ve recaptured, the coalition has recaptured, yet ISIS is more diffuse now and they’re more -- they’re in various other places -- Libya, especially; Afghanistan; elsewhere. Does the administration see a connection between that and the recent attacks that have happened in -- not Nice, but in Baghdad and Bangladesh, Istanbul?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is some speculation among some analysts that ISIL may focus more of their time and attention on carrying out attacks outside of Iraq and in Syria as their claim to establish a caliphate is exposed for the fantasy that it is.
Q What do you do about that? Now you have this diffuse organization that is --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say this is not a new threat, though. It is one that is potentially enhanced by the fact that we're actually making progress against their efforts to form a caliphate. But it goes back to many of the things that we were saying before -- that we've talked about before in this room. That includes our efforts to shut down ISIL’s financing. We know that they rely on money from the sale of oil on the black market, from hostage taking, and from other nefarious activities to fund their activities, to fund their operations not just in Iraq and in Syria, but around the world. So we've made great strides in shutting down their financing system. There’s more that we need to do.
We've obviously made countering violent extremism and their efforts to radicalize people using social media a top priority. And we've worked effectively with countries around the world, including nations like the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, to establish fusion centers where we can organize our efforts to counter them online. More intelligence-sharing to track the flow of foreign fighters or other individuals that could be the source of some concern, and coordinating our efforts on that front is important, too.
So this is an effort that we have been working to counter all along, and we've made some progress. But it's more of a significant threat now, according to some analysts, because of the important progress that we have made in undercutting the fantasy of a caliphate in Iraq and in Syria established by ISIL.
Q Let me see if I got that correct. So the theory is that we're seeing more terrorist attacks because we're making progress against the core terrorist organization?
MR. EARNEST: This is what some analysts have concluded. This is something that we're obviously watching carefully, and we want to be mindful of this potential risk.
Q What does the White House see is behind what seems to be a stepped-up pace of attacks around the world? I mean, today, this morning, Secretary Kerry said that it's virtually every week that world leaders have to come out and denounce another terrorist attack. Why are we seeing more attacks around the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think this is --
Q What does the White House think?
MR. EARNEST: There are some who are concerned -- or who are aware of the risk associated with the progress that we're making against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Let me give you one example. We know that in at least one case, some of ISIL’s recruitment efforts to foreign fighters has changed from “come travel to Syria and join the fight” to “go to Libya and pick up the fight there,” or “consider launching attacks in your home country.” So we know that there is some evolution in the direction that ISIL is giving to potential recruits. That's something that we continue to be very mindful of, and we're taking the steps I just outlined to Ron to try to counter that.
But, look, this is an organization that still has a substantial number of fighters under their command, and they still have the ability to use social media to add to their ranks. And we're mindful of that potential and we want to make sure that we continue to be vigilant about countering that effort and about taking the steps that are necessary to protect the American people.
Q So you ticked through a whole bunch of things. I mean, you mentioned earlier decimating al Qaeda, the increased intelligence-sharing, these fusion centers, countering violent extremism efforts, closing the border between Syria and Turkey, taking away territory from ISIS in Iraq. If it's all adding up to more attacks, is it possible this just isn't working for all the -- you're citing progress in individual, specific areas, and yet we're seeing more violence. We're seeing widespread attacks that are taking more -- not only are there more of them, but they appear to be deadlier.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, the concern that we have -- when you think back to the summer of 2014, when ISIL made this rapid advance across large portions of Iraq, there was this concern that there would be a large base of operations that ISIL would be able to establish in Syria and Iraq that would give them the capacity to carry out much broader, much more deadly terrorist attacks on the scale that we saw on 9/11. And what we're seeing now is different than that. What we're seeing now more often are essentially lone wolf attacks; individuals who, in some cases -- and I can't speak to the Nice case because we just don't know yet -- but in some cases, aren't even directed by ISIL but rather are radicalized by hearing their propaganda online.
And the President has said for a long time that it's very difficult to prevent those attacks from taking place because they’re not conspiring with other people so it's harder to catch them. But it's why we need to be very focused on things like countering violent extremism. That's why we need to work effectively with, in particular, the Muslim community. We know that some parts of the Muslim community are particularly vulnerable to the radicalizing strategy and messaging that ISIL has undertaken.
So the threat that we're facing now is different -- certainly different than the threat that was posed by core al Qaeda, and different than the threat that precipitated the terrible attacks on 9/11. But as you point out -- and I certainly wouldn't disagree -- they’re dangerous, they’re violent, and we need to dedicate significant resources to preventing them. And that's exactly what we're doing.
Q I understand, you're a hundred percent correct -- last question -- that it's Congress that declares wars, not the President who declares war. But on the substance, do you agree -- does the White House agree with Donald Trump that we are effectively engaged in a -- or need to be engaged in a world war right now, and that we should declare war on ISIS? I know it's not the White House to do, but does the White House think that would be a good idea or a bad idea? And this is different obviously from authorizing force.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it is.
Q -- a declaration of war against a terrorist organization.
MR. EARNEST: The President, on a number of occasions, has acknowledged -- had essentially declared that the United States is at war with terrorist organizations like ISIL. The best example of this -- I was just pulling up here -- December 6, 2015, you’ll recall the President gave an address in the Oval Office. And included in that address he said, “Our nation has been at war with terrorists since al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” The President has not been reluctant to apply the definition of war against the terrorists that have attacked us. And, frankly, that's why he believes it's so important for Congress to fulfill their responsibility to pass an authorization to use military force that would send a clear signal to the country, to our allies, and to our enemies that the country is united in this effort against ISIL.
I think the thing the President has also taken pains to point out is that we are not at war with Islam, we are at war with a terrorist organization that attacked us, that perverts Islam to try to recruit people to their cause.
Q The means of this attack, of course, was a truck. When airplanes were used to attack the U.S. it was pretty immediate -- in terms of airport security and procedures. Trucks are a lot more ubiquitous, of course, than airplanes, but they can be a threat anywhere there could be a truck. Are there any thoughts or discussions going on at this point, any sort of security changes in the United States involving trucks?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any changes like that that are being contemplated right now. But as I mentioned to Ron, there’s a whole lot more that we need to learn about this particular incident. And if there are some steps that our homeland security professionals conclude that we could take that would enhance our security in this country given what happened in Nice last night, then I'm confident they’ll move forward with implementing those security measures.
Q How concerning is it to the administration that this individual was apparently not on any terrorist watch list? Many of the perpetrators of recent attacks have been known to at least some intelligence services, and this person seems to have been much more under the radar. How concerning is that that there wasn’t any intelligence of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this actually goes to I think Jon’s question, which is, we're mindful of the risk that is posed by a so-called lone wolf. This is an individual that doesn’t have immediate or necessarily even any direct ties to a terrorist organization or a broader terrorist network or conspiracy. These are individuals who are radicalized based on propaganda that they view online. And that propaganda prompts them to carry out these violent attacks. And we're quite concerned about it. And these are -- it's very difficult to interrupt, disrupt attacks that are plotted and planned just by one person.
That said, the Department of Justice, on a regular basis, issues news releases of individuals being apprehended based on investigations that they’ve conducted, and based on what they have concluded is solid evidence that these individuals were preparing to carry out a lone wolf attack. So we do have mechanisms in place to disrupt those kinds of plots. The Department of Justice and our men and women at the FBI are quite skilled at doing so. And that's very difficult work.
Director Comey, when talking about an attack here in the United States, described this as a situation of looking for not just a needle in a haystack, but looking for pieces of hay that turn into needles. And that's a particularly challenging task. It's one that the FBI and the Department of Justice is quite good at, but it's very difficult nonetheless. And that's something that -- this is not a threat that just the United States faces. Countries around the world, including France, have to counter this threat as well.
Q Thanks, Josh. I have two questions. One, I'm seeing comments by Speaker Ryan that he’s leaving open the possibility of a TPP vote this year. Do you have any updates on when the President might move forward on TPP?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates at this point. The White House is committed to working with Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell to try to get TPP ratified. We've acknowledged that our ability to succeed in that effort is going to require working in bipartisan fashion. And I don't just mean the Democratic President working with the Republican leaders in the House and Senate. I also mean that the Republican leaders in the House and Senate are going to have to coordinate with not just the members of their Republican conference, but they’re also going to have to work with Democrats on Capitol Hill to build a bipartisan majority that's necessary to ratify TPP.
The President also, obviously, believes strongly that Congress should ratify the TPP as soon as possible. He believes that it includes significant benefits for the American economy, for American workers, and for American businesses. This is an agreement that includes the highest ever standards as it relates to the environment and to labor conditions, human rights, protecting intellectual property. And what’s notable is that those higher standards are enforceable right inside the agreement.
So the President believes this is an effective strategy not just in terms of looking out for the United States economy, but also in countering the growing influence of China in that region of the world. If the United States shies away from trying to raise these standards we know that China will not hesitate to step into that breach and write standards that put American businesses and American workers at an even further disadvantage. So when it comes to a strategy of preparing the country to counter globalization and to counter China, the TPP is our best bet.
Q And on a different subject, on Zika funding. Yesterday, House and Senate appropriators sent the White House a letter asking if the HHS Secretary could reprogram funds and maybe provide more funds for Zika that way. Any interest in doing that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any announcements like that. You know that the Department of Health and Human Services has already reprogrammed several hundred million dollars in funds for this effort. We did so even though we continue to be quite concerned about the potential of the risk that's posed by Ebola. So to further take away funding from that effort in order to fight Zika could potentially be counterproductive. So it's something that we're quite reticent to do.
I think what we'd simply like to see is Congress respond to the request from Democratic and Republican governors across the country, and from our public health professionals who laid out exactly what resources they need to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And the President put forward that legislation back in February. And here we are almost five months later, and Congress hasn’t approved that request. And that's a source of deep disappointment to the President. It's also something that means that we're right now not doing everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And that's something that Republicans in Congress have to account for.
Q The French authorities released the name of the driver of this truck, the man who was shot by police. Can you confirm at this point that that name was not known by any U.S. authorities?
MR. EARNEST: Philip, I think you have to check with the intelligence community for any information that they may have had about this individual. I know that what French authorities have indicated is that he was not somebody who was considered a terrorism suspect there. He was someone whose interaction with law enforcement had been limited to him committing some relatively low-level crimes. Again, it underscores the lone wolf attack threat that is particularly hard to disrupt.
Q You’ve described this as a terrorist attack, as have French authorities. What if it is confirmed there are no ties at all to any terrorist groups for this man? There appeared to be first indications that what all of this might have been a bad personal situation for him, a case of depression, a divorce he was going through, nothing to do at all with terrorism. Would you still stick with that definition if that was the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I noted at the beginning, we still need to learn more about this individual, about his potential motivation for carrying out this terrible attack, and his potential links to any other organization. So we'll certainly take a close look at the situation and we're going to support the French investigators who are obviously leading the investigation. There are significant capabilities that we have to assist them, and we won't hesitate to use them.
Q Finally, the Secretary of Homeland Security traveled to the French Embassy here in Washington I believe to sign a book of condolences. Are there any plans for the President to do something like that in the coming days?
MR. EARNEST: We'll keep you posted if something like that happens. I believe Secretary Johnson did sign the condolence book, but also had an opportunity to spend some time with the French ambassador to the United States. But we certainly intend to continue those kinds of consultations in the days ahead.
Q Josh, can you explain the thinking when you use the word "terrorism" on this? Because when you look at something like -- we're not sure what happened in Nice -- but something like what happened Orlando versus a centralized, developed conspiracy plot that was centrally planned and executed, the terms used by the White House are the same, but the situations seem to be different. Can you explain how you see -- and the though in using that term?
MR. EARNEST: In this case, we're using that term because French officials have. French officials are the ones --
Q -- it's not the U.S. position that it's an act of terrorism, it still appears to be terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, our view is that it's terrorism because that's what our oldest allies in France have concluded. They're the ones who are conducting this investigation. As they learn more about this investigation and as they need to update their assessment -- I'm confident that they will -- we'll work with them on that investigation. And if they update their assessment, we'll do the same. But as the President said last night, this appears to be terrorism. That appearance was confirmed by the French President whose government is leading this investigation. And obviously the people of the United States stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest allies in France as they confront terrorism in a variety of forms.
Q Because, I mean, it seems these days, regrettably -- I mean, the flag is at half-staff more often than not. The President is making comments like this. I mean, there's a litany of attacks to read off. I'm not going to. But it's becoming almost a memory, a recitation of what we do each time these attacks happen. I mean, is this just going to be not the new normal for the world, but the new normal of just what happens every time there's an attack, it's assumed and just explained as this is part of us winning on the battlefield, that this kind of lashing out is going to happen? I mean, the public would look at that and say, in some ways it's that much more terrifying that it's unanticipated, that it's just in the streets, people are celebrating, rather than a centralized plot.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think you're drawing an important distinction, because there are differences between a large-scale terrorist conspiracy and the kind of lone wolf attacks that we have seen. Those large-scale terrorist conspiracies have the potential to be much more bloody, to be much more violent, to claim many more deaths than the kind of lone wolf attacks that we've seen in the last few weeks. We certainly grieve for those who have been lost in these lone wolf attacks. We certainly expend significant resources and are vigilant about trying to prevent those lone wolf attacks. But they are materially different. And they require a different strategy, but a strategy that we are just as committed to implementing in order to protect the safety and security of the American people and of our allies.
Q You have on the calendar I think next week this anti-ISIS coalition meeting happening in Washington. Is that going to change in any way? Is the White House going to be more involved in that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a meeting that Secretary Carter is convening with his counterparts who are making a substantial military contribution to our counter-ISIL efforts. He's organized that meeting. It had been previously scheduled for the end of next week, I believe at Andrews Air Force Base. I don’t have any updates to agenda at this point. But if anything like that -- if there are any updates to that agenda, we'll definitely let you know.
Q And finally, Secretary Kerry said today when he was in Moscow that -- when he was talking about Nice, these things happen on a weekly basis now. And he called Syria the single greatest incubator for terrorism in the world right now. Does the White House agree with that? And in some ways, doesn’t that raise questions if the plan for the past five years not to use large-scale military force should be revisited? I mean, is that an acknowledgement that there was some overestimation of this being contained?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say is simply that we have been concerned about the potential terrorist threat from ISIL for more than two years now. And the President formed an international coalition of more than 66 nations to counter it -- not just to counter it, but to degrade and ultimately destroy it, because we're mindful of the terrorist threat that emanates from there.
I think what the President would argue is also true -- and we're happy to have this argument -- is that as difficult and violent and complex as this problem is, the ultimate solution is not a military one. We can certainly apply significant military pressure and devote significant resources -- and we have; the Commander-in-Chief has ordered it -- against ISIL, to counter them, to degrade them, and to ultimately destroy them. But the root cause of all of this has been the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad, that --
Q But in terms of the estimation of this being a massive, as Kerry said, the biggest incubator of terrorism in the world, was that underestimated by the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, based on the fact that we've built a coalition of 66 nations and dropped 13,000 airstrikes -- or conducted 13,000 airstrikes against them, based on the significant commitment of resources not just in the military effort, but to organize our diplomatic efforts to counter their financing, to try to prevent them from recruiting foreign fighters from all around the world, I think the strategy that we have implemented against them has yielded important progress.
But the President acknowledged at the beginning that this was a long-term proposition and it's going to require some tenacity and some follow-through; that we wouldn’t be able to chart our progress in a straight line; that there would be some days where we'd feel like we were making progress, and occasionally we would suffer a setback. And anytime you see the loss of so many innocent people in an allied nation, that certainly is a day where it's hard to feel like you're making a lot of progress. And that's why we mourn with our French allies. But it certainly is not going to diminish our commitment. If anything, it's only going to further energize our multilateral, multinational effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Again, I say all of that, even before we understand what the true motivations were of this individual. But whether or not this person had ties to ISIL, the President is committed to making sure that we do everything possible to protect the American people.
Q Thanks, Josh. As expected, the Intelligence Committee has published the previously classified 28 pages. For the people who are not awash in this on a daily basis, what does the White House want the American people to take away from the fact that these pages are now public, they’re now available? And what’s the White House’s perspective on -- now that they are out there, how the White House feels about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the number-one takeaway for people should be that this administration is committed to transparency even when it comes to sensitive information related to our national security. Just within the last couple of weeks, the administration published for the first time the numbers of people who -- of civilians who were casualties from U.S. counterterrorism operations. The administration worked to declassify key elements of the CIA interrogation report that was written by the United States Senate Intelligence Committee. And today’s announcement was part of an effort to try and be as transparent as possible about investigative material that was collected in the context of investigating the terror attacks of 9/11.
This information, even as it’s now publicly available, does not change the assessment of the U.S. government that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. I’m reading that language because that’s the language that was included in the 9/11 Commission Report. And the 9/11 Commission was able to draw on the information that’s been declassified today as they wrote their report. They were able to do follow-up interviews and to further investigate those leads. Those leads didn’t really turn up anything as it relates to specific evidence about the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funding al Qaeda.
Q Interesting how they use the expression “senior Saudi officials.” Does that mean to suggest that maybe there were some lower-level Saudi individual government officials that may have been involved in providing material support for those who were at least alleged to have been co-conspirators to the 9/11 attacks?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t looked lately at the 9/11 Commission Report, but certainly that is a comprehensive document that was written to provide as much information as possible about what contributed to the attacks on 9/11.
Q You’ve also said on a previous occasion that the White House was against JASTA. And I’m just wondering why there would seem to be this disconnect between the White House’s view of JASTA when there are so many in the United States Senate, overwhelmingly so, who feel like this may be a very good idea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this just goes back to a long-held principle here about the risk that this legislation would pose to --
Q It’s pretty narrow, wouldn’t you agree? At least the way it’s currently --
MR. EARNEST: Again, based on the analysis that’s been conducted by our lawyers here in the U.S. government, the way that this law is written could open up U.S. companies and even potentially U.S. personnel to vulnerabilities when they’re engaged in actions or doing business or conducting official government work overseas.
There is an important principle related to sovereign immunity. And when you’re the most powerful country in the world, you’re invested in the idea of sovereign immunity, given how deeply the United States is involved in so many other countries.
So we believe that’s a principle worth protecting. And that is the concern that we have with this legislation, at least the way that the most recent draft was put forward. Doesn’t have to do with any specific country, but rather has to do with our concern about a specific principle that benefits the United States and private U.S. interests in countries all around the globe.
Q Were there some instances, just broadly speaking, as a general matter, that the White House found concerning in the review of some of those 28 pages? Specifically, there seems to be a suggestion that there may have been material support provided to one of the so-called co-conspirators -- possible co-conspirators. And yet, while you’ve said there’s no specific proof, were there areas where the White House or White House Counsel or others were concerned some things didn’t exactly pass this so-called smell test? They look suspicious, to be blunt.
MR. EARNEST: The White House has not conducted an investigation into this matter. And the reason we didn’t have to do that is that there was a 9/11 Commission that was formed that looked at all of this evidence. They were able to follow up on this information. They were able to follow these investigative leads. I know that they did interviews in a variety of other countries to pursue those leads. And despite all of that investigative work, they didn’t find any evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. That’s the definitive word of the outside experts who took an unvarnished look at this particular situation. And that conclusion is unchanged by the release of these 28 pages today.
Q Okay. Last -- it is Friday; figured I’d throw a little sports your way. Deflategate is apparently over. Tom Brady says he’s no longer going to push it; he’s going to be out of four games to start the NFL season. Big reaction from the White House? I know the President is a big football fan. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is Jimmy Garoppolo’s big opportunity here.
Q That it is.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see if he makes the most of it.
Q Are you concerned about the open-carry laws in Ohio, especially with the convention starting next week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Connie, as you know, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the head of the United States Secret Service have been focused for more than a year -- about providing security for the Democratic and Republican conventions in Philadelphia and Cleveland, respectively. Homeland security officials have been in close touch with local law enforcement in Ohio and Pennsylvania to ensure the safety and security of not just the party nominees but the convention delegates and the reporters who will be in attendance.
I know that their efforts are focused on also protecting the First Amendment rights of people who may want to register a protest at the conventions. And those rights will certainly be protected. But the President’s expectation is that people who are protesting should do so peacefully. And law enforcement officials will certainly be in place to ensure that those rights are protected.
Q There will be a lot of people carrying guns.
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are some limitations about their ability to do that in the context of the conventions, but I’ll let the Department of Homeland Security speak to that.
Q On a different matter, the reception this afternoon. Will the President try to get any antagonistic ambassadors together, such as Israel and some of the Arab countries?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think the President would consider those ambassadors antagonistic.
Q -- try to get them together?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any specific meetings that the President is planning. I think this is largely a social event, but I think it will have a more serious tone in light of the terrorist attacks in Nice last night.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: John.
Q Thanks, Josh. Your decision not to weigh in on Donald Trump’s choice for his vice presidential pick, is it just a today thing? Do you plan on weighing in as the process moves forward?
MR. EARNEST: No, at this point I don’t anticipate having much of a reaction to his selection of a running mate.
Q “At this point,” meaning as the process moves forward you may indeed weigh in on this ticket?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t entirely rule it out, but I don’t have any plan in the back of my mind to weigh in on this.
Q And on Nice, with what happened in Nice, in your view, in the President’s view, was this unique to France? Could something like what happened in Nice happen right here in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned in response to a couple of other questions, the President is deeply concerned about the threat posed by lone wolf attacks. And it takes a variety of forms. We’re coming up on the anniversary of the shooting at military recruitment installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I think there are some aspects to that investigation that are still ongoing, but many people could describe and I think have described that as a lone wolf attack.
Obviously, we saw the situation in San Bernardino, where a husband and wife carried out an attack. Again, they were not directly connected to a broader conspiracy or terror plot, but at least there is no evidence of it at this point. But they were able to just coordinate among the two of them, and it was very difficult to disrupt that plot. We saw a similar dynamic in Orlando.
So we understand that this is a threat that needs to be countered and confronted. And it is a different threat than the one that was posed by the 9/11 co-conspirators, for example, that killed more than 3,000 Americans on one day. So this threat is different. It’s of a different scale. But it’s one that’s still dangerous. It’s one that the President and the rest of his national security team is determined to prevent.
Q Is there anything that you can say to lessen the level of anxiety that people may feel after seeing the horrific video they saw in Nice, France?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of things. I think the first is that it’s important for the American people to understand just how rigorously their government is focused on preventing that kind of violence in the United States. That’s why we have worked so hard to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. It’s why the President, when he first took office, had identified decimating core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a top priority. It’s why the United States works so closely with our partners around the world, because by cooperating we know we can be more effective in countering this threat.
So the American people should take some solace in knowing that this is the highest priority of the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest country in the world. And we’ve enjoyed important successes in limiting that threat. It’s not uncommon for the Department of Justice to make announcements about these kinds of plots being disrupted, even though we know how difficult it is to disrupt these plots.
We’ve been able to chart the progress that we’ve made against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. Iraqi forces, with the support of our coalition, have taken more than 45 percent of the land inside of Iraq that ISIL previously controlled, and we’ve enjoyed some important strategic victories in Fallujah and at this military airbase in Qayyarah to -- that’s evidence that we continue to make progress against ISIL.
And the President continues to be mindful of the other threats that are out there. The President continues to be mindful of the al Qaeda threat that we know is present inside of Syria in the form of Nusra. We’re certainly aware of the threat that is posed by ISIL in places like Libya, where they’re also trying to capitalize on the chaos there.
We’re also aware of the threat that emanates from al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa. And this is actually something that our French allies deserve a lot of credit on. We have relied significantly on the French to use their expertise and their history in that part of the world to counter al Qaeda extremists in places like Mali. They’ve made a lot of important progress in the world, and the United States is safer as a result of their efforts. It’s an indication of how we benefit from the capacity and determination of our allies in France. That’s also why we’re going to stand with them, even in this difficult time for their country.
Janet, I’ll give you the last one. I saw you had your hand up back there.
Q Thank you. Yesterday the guidance announced that President Peña Nieto will be here next Friday. Do you have any more to share on that? Why does this meeting come about now? And anything that you can give us on what the two of them will be talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Janet, it will be an opportunity for President Obama and President Peña Nieto to continue the conversation that they had in Ottawa, Canada just a couple of weeks ago. The two of them had an opportunity to have a bilateral meeting there in the context of the North American Leaders Summit. And I would anticipate that they’ll continue their conversations on a range of topics.
Obviously, our security coordination with Mexico is important to both our countries. I’m confident that will be a prominent aspect of their conversation. Mexico is a part of the TPP agreement, and I’m confident we’ll have an opportunity to talk about ways that we can deepen our relationship -- our economic relationship in a way that will have benefits for both our economies and workers in both our countries.
The President is optimistic that we can substantially transform our economic relationship with Mexico, because by signing on to the TPP agreement, Mexico is signing on to higher labor and environmental standards that will allow U.S. businesses to compete on a more level playing field. When President Obama ran for office in 2008, he promised to renegotiate NAFTA. That’s exactly what he did in the context of TPP.
Obviously, Mexico wouldn’t be enthusiastic about signing it if they didn’t also believe that the greater economic opportunity that would be created by these deeper economic ties would also be good for their economy, too.
So this is a win-win, and we certainly believe that Congress should act to approve it. And that will be the subject of some ongoing discussion between the two leaders as well. But we’ll have more next week to preview their meeting.
Q Any ideas if el Chapo or immigration will be coming up in those meetings?
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident there will be a discussion about immigration. President Peña Nieto is obviously aware of President Obama’s tireless work to try to fix the many aspects of the U.S. immigration system that’s broken. Implementing those reforms and repairing those problems would only strengthen the relationship between our two countries. That’s part of the reason that the President has made that a priority, and I’m sure that will be the subject of some discussion too.
I don’t know what to -- I don’t know to what extent they will discuss the status of Mr. Guzman. Obviously this is something that the United States Department of Justice is looking at. And we have a tradition in the United States where we separate those law enforcement activities from political interference, and so I don’t know to what extent the President will be able to discuss it.
With that, let me do what I find to be a personally rather exciting week ahead. (Laughter.) We’ll get to why in a couple of days here.
On Monday, the President will award Lieutenant Colonel Charles Kettles of U.S. Army the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. Then-Major Kettles distinguished himself in combat operation in Vietnam on May 15, 1967, and is credited with saving the lives of 40 soldiers and four of his own crew members. A rather remarkable story, so if you haven’t had a chance to take a look at it I would encourage you to do so. But should make for a moving ceremony here at the White House on Monday.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House. On Wednesday, the President will host the White House Summit on Global Development at the Ronald Reagan building. The President will bring together development leaders, public and private sector financing partners, civil society, diplomats and entrepreneurs to mark our global progress and catalyze further developments.
On Thursday, a day we’ve long awaited, the President will welcome the Kansas City Royals to the White House to honor the team and their 2015 World Series victory. I’m very much looking forward to Thursday. That afternoon, the President will deliver remarks at an Eid reception here at the White House.
And then on Friday, the President will welcome President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico to the White House. The visit follows the two Presidents’ meeting during the North American Leaders Summit in Ottawa on June 29th, as well as the meeting at the White House in January of 2015. The President looks forward to hosting President Peña Nieto in Washington to build upon the significant progress made at the North American Leaders Summit, and to reaffirm and deepen our bilateral partnership on a range of issues. And we will obviously have more to say about that important bilateral meeting next week.
Q -- press conference?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that there will be a news conference associated with that bilateral meeting. So stay tuned for the details on that.
Have a good weekend, everybody.
2:26 P.M. EDT