Daily Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/19/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Before we get started I do want to do a brief statement at the top.
You will recall that when Republicans took the majority in the Senate in November of 2014, Leader McConnell penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, noting that under Republican leadership, now we can get Congress moving again. Instead, Leader McConnell, Chairman Grassley, and the Senate Republican caucus are setting records for inaction as they fail to fulfill even their most basic constitutional responsibilities.
Today marks 125 days since President Obama fulfilled his constitutional responsibility and nominated Chief Judge Merrick Garland to serve on the United States Supreme Court. Chief Judge Garland is somebody who has more federal judicial experience than any other nominee in Supreme Court history. He is somebody who the nonpartisan American Bar Association voted unanimously to give their highest rating. And he is someone who Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has described as a consensus nominee.
Now, despite Chief Judge Garland’s extraordinary qualifications, Republicans in the Senate have refused to do their job. And Chief Judge Garland’s nomination has now been pending longer than any Supreme Court nominee in history whose nomination was not otherwise withdrawn.
As the President wrote this week in his own op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, filling a vacancy to the Supreme Court should be bigger than a political party or politics in general. It's about our democracy and the integrity of the institution of the United States Supreme Court.
That's why the President lent his support to an idea that his predecessor, Republican President George W. Bush, also supported -- namely, that the Senate should commit to giving qualified Supreme Court nominees a hearing and a vote within an established time frame. As the President wrote, “This reasonable proposal would prevent the confirmation process from breaking down beyond repair, and help restore good faith between the two parties.”
So it's a bipartisan proposal that we would strongly urge Senate Republicans to consider as they enjoy the first week of their seven-week recess.
So, with that, Kevin, do you want to get started?
Q Thank you. Josh, the administration has been very adamant about how the President has repeatedly made clear his support for law enforcement. Is his open letter to police a sign that the message, for whatever reason, wasn’t getting through enough?
MR. EARNEST: No, Kevin, I think in part because the language of the letter is entirely consistent with what the President has been saying about his support for law enforcement not just in the last few weeks but the last few years.
Q My question is why did he feel the need --
MR. EARNEST: Because he wanted to make clear, particularly at this time when we know that the law enforcement communities across the country are grieving the loss of their colleagues that have been taken in such tragic fashion the last week and a half. The community is hurting right now. And the President felt it was important for them to hear from the President and understand that the President has their back and the rest of the American people have their back. And this was a particular poignant time to deliver that message.
Q There were a couple of lines in Melania Trump’s convention speech last night that sounded similar to Mrs. Obama’s speech in 2008. How does the White House view this? Was it coincidence, the sincerest form of flattery? Or does it even go so far as plagiarism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there certainly has been a lot of color commentary about yesterday’s Republican convention. And I'm going to largely let others weigh in with their view on the variety of questions that were prompted by a variety of the speeches yesterday.
As it relates to Mrs. Trump’s speech, I'll let all of you weigh in on that and try to learn more about how exactly it was written. What I can say is that in 2008, when Mrs. Obama spoke at the Democratic convention, she received an enthusiastic reception and strong reviews because of her words, her life story, and the values that she and her husband deeply believe in and try to instill in their kids.
These are American values that we all strive for when we're at our best. And I'll add, they’re the same values -- integrity and hard work -- that President Obama expects of everybody who works at the White House. And he’s led by example. These are the kinds of values that have animated his two terms as President.
Ultimately, when it comes to our politics, what matters most is the agenda that's put forward to advance these values and instill them in the next generation. And in November, the American people will get to decide who’s best suited to do that as the next President of the United States.
Q Can you tell us whether the President or Mrs. Obama watched the speech last night?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that -- I haven't spoken to the First Lady today. The President did not watch the Republican convention last night, but he obviously is aware of the news coverage that Kevin was referring to.
Q And do you know whether Mrs. Obama has any reaction to the speech or the charges of plagiarism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- I'll let her speak for herself, but I think that -- let me say that I'm quite confident that she agrees with the sentiment of the response that I just relayed to Kevin.
Q I want to ask about the Olympics. Does the White House believe that Russia should be banned from the Rio Olympics over doping?
MR. EARNEST: The U.S. government does not have a position on Russia's participation in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee and the relevant governing bodies of individual competitions will have to make those kinds of decisions. Obviously they're reacting to a report from the World Anti-Doping Agency. That is an independent body; that is not a U.S. government agency. There are a substantial number of countries that are represented on that body and I do believe that the United States has one representative on that body. But that is an international organization that was formed to enforce rules and ensure fair competition. That obviously is -- that notion of fair competition is obviously something I think that all Americans and, frankly, most people around the world strongly support.
But even that report that was generated by the World Anti-Doping Agency is one that belongs to them, not to the U.S. government. So, ultimately, they'll all have to make some decisions about what impact that has on the Olympic Games and Russia's participation in them. But there's no official U.S. government position on it.
Q When you say that the President is aware of the news coverage surrounding the convention, what is his reaction to it? I mean, what a number of outlets, including us, have been doing is showing them side by side, and the similarities are remarkable. And in some cases, it's word for word. So what is his reaction about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did speak to him this morning. I didn't get a specific reaction to convey to you. Again, I think it's fair to say that what I described to Kevin about the First Lady's speech in 2008 -- how enthusiastic the crowd was about her speech and, frankly, how strong the reviews were of her speech -- were an indication that her words and her values and her life story is quite powerful. And they're also consistent with the kinds of values that I think most Americans subscribe to. And, ultimately, it's those kinds of values that will be at least a part of the decision-making process that American voters will have to make later this year.
Q In talking to him about this, though, can you at least describe his demeanor? Was he amused by this? Was he surprised?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think I have much of a description of his demeanor to relate at this point. Presumably, at some point, he'll be asked to discuss this and I'll let him do that in a way that he chooses.
Q So I know you said he didn't watch this speech, but did he watch any of the convention itself, and does he plan to?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that he watched any of the convention coverage last night. I don't know that he expects to watch much of the convention, but we'll keep you posted.
Q I mean, obviously there was a lot said in the course of the day yesterday, but one of the things we heard kind of in different forms a number of times, but also very specifically from Rudy Giuliani, was that a vast majority of Americans don't feel safe. What do you think of that statement? And do you think that that is true right now for whatever reason?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it was -- I did hear some of Mayor Giuliani's speech yesterday. I guess it was difficult to not hear -- (laughter) -- given the volume at which it was delivered. But I'll let other people sort of assess the effectiveness of his delivery. I think what you've heard me acknowledge and what the President I think has acknowledged over the last couple of weeks is the kind of violence that we've seen in our streets is unsettling and there's obviously been a lot of debate about what we can do about it. And I think the President continues to be confident, however, that even in these unsettling moments that our country is far more united than it might seem.
And the kinds of divisions that are on display in our political system aren't reflective of the unity that I think most Americans feel, particularly when it comes to our common values. And all of that was on display in the reaction that we've seen to much of this violence. Americans of all races were deeply disturbed by the killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge over the last week and a half. You've seen strong expressions of support, even from people who have been protesting about isolated incidents of police misconduct, saying that they condemn this violence targeting police officers. Even they have made clear that it's unjustifiable.
At the same time, we've seen Americans of all races express concern about the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system and about some of the footage of interactions between law enforcement and African American men in the last couple of weeks that have also involved some violence.
So, again, the reaction to these events, while these events themselves are unsettling, the President actually would use the reaction to these events as clear evidence the country is far more united than it might seem.
Q Unity and united -- we've been hearing those words a lot. So what I'm trying to get at is, does the administration believe that the vast majority of Americans does not feel safe, does feel safe? I mean, do you think that that statement is wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let other people assess the claims of Mayor Giuliani. I think the President spent a lot of time talking over the last couple of weeks about his view of the current situation, and I think the President has tried to work quite constructively over the last couple of weeks to address it, both substantively in terms of having conversations with law enforcement leaders and civil rights leaders to work on some specific solutions that can be used to address the situation, but the President has also been interested in a broader conversation, including the one that was aired on primetime television last week to try to help people with different perspectives open their hearts to the views of people who might disagree with them. And that will be an important part of making progress to address some of these situations.
Q One of the headliners last night said during an interview that President Obama is absolutely a Muslim, in his opinion. What do you think that this is the sort of statement that's being made on the first night of the convention?
MR. EARNEST: I don't make much of those claims.
Q You said yesterday that President Obama and President Erdogan would likely talk on the phone soon. Has that conversation happened yet?
MR. EARNEST: It did. It occurred this morning. The President did have a conversation with his Turkish counterpart, President Erdogan. I would anticipate we'll get you a more formal readout of the call early this afternoon if we can get it done. But I had an opportunity to talk to the President about his phone call as well. I can tell you that the President used the phone call to reiterate once again the strong commitment of the United States to the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. The President pledged any needed assistance to the Turkish government as they conduct an investigation to determine exactly what happened. The President's expectation is that people in Turkey are -- want to see a full investigation and accountability for those who are complicit in the failed coup.
The President also believes that that investigation should be conducted consistent with the democratic principles that are enshrined in Turkey's constitution, and that includes a commitment to due process; that includes a commitment to the basic rights that are enshrined in Turkey's constitution like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly.
Ultimately, those are the values that the Turkish people were defending in repelling the coup. And I think one good piece of evidence of that is you promptly saw statements from all of the parties represented in the Turkish parliament condemning the attempted military overthrow of the civilian government. That was a sentiment expressed by the leaders of political parties who have vigorous political disagreements with the current civilian government. So the Turkish government's and the Turkish people's commitment to democracy is strong. And the principles of democracy should be adhered to, even as a thorough investigation is conducted.
Q Did the President express any concerns that those principles of democracy might not be adhered to as the investigation goes forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is mindful of the fact that just three or four days ago, we saw a NATO ally whose democratically elected government was threatened by some components of their military. That's going to prompt some uneasiness and some tension. It's going to put people on edge. That's understandable. But it's in times like these that it's particularly important for the Turkish government and the Turkish people to adhere to the principles of democracy that they've been fighting for and that they're justifiably proud of.
So it's not the first time that the President had the occasion to discuss with President Erdogan the importance of adhering to democratic principles, but the heightened anxiety in Turkey is certainly justified, given the events of the last several days there. But it's important for leaders in the Turkish government and leaders in Turkish society to demonstrate continued commitment to these democratic principles.
Q Did they discuss in the call Fethullah Gülen? And, if so, was there any formal extradition request issued by the Turkish government?
MR. EARNEST: The status of Mr. Gülen was discussed on the call. I can tell you that also earlier this morning, separate from the phone call, there were materials presented by the Turkish government in electronic form to the U.S. government related to Mr. Gülen's status. And the Department of Justice and the Department of State will review those materials, consistent with the requirements of the extradition treaty between the United States and Turkey that's been on the books for more than 30 years now.
But the President also made clear a couple of other things. The first is that the United States doesn't support terrorists. The United States doesn't support individuals who conspire to overthrow democratically elected governments. The United States follows the rule of law. And as it relates to Mr. Gülen's status, there is a process that is established in the extradition treaty that we will follow. There also is due process to which people who live in the United States are entitled. And we'll make sure that that due process is followed as well.
The decision about Mr. Gülen's status and the decision to extradite him is not a decision that is made by the President of the United States. It is a legal decision that is made pursuant to a legal process, part of which is codified in a longstanding treaty between the United States and Turkey. So that's the process that we'll follow.
Again, I can't say definitively at this point that a formal request has been made. We're still reviewing the materials that were submitted by the Turkish government, and we'll do that consistent with the process that's been established both in U.S. law and in the extradition treaty between the United States and Turkey.
Q Josh, just to be clear, the documents received today don't yet count as a formal extradition request, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to put it bluntly, they're still reviewing the materials to determine if they do qualify as a specific formal extradition request. They were received just a couple hours before I walked out here.
The thing that's a little complicated about this is we typically do not discuss publicly many details related to extradition requests. So I don't know that, moving forward, I'm going to have a whole lot of information that we'll be able to provide about the process. But given the discussion that we had yesterday about the fact that we had not received a formal extradition request, I want to be sure to explain to you where that process currently stands. I don't know, however, that we'll be able to provide a daily update on the status of this process.
Q Well, can you understand -- help us understand a little bit the process here. When you say it is a "legal matter," is it not correct to say, then, that diplomatic considerations will come into play here? That that state will also get to weigh in on whatever Justice comes down on?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that the process is quite complicated, but the way that it's been described to me is essentially there are a couple of tracks. The first is there is a review of the request, if one has been received, both by the United States Department of Justice and by the Department of State. And that is, of course, related to both U.S. law and the due process that individuals who live in the United States are entitled to. But it's also to ensure that that process is consistent with the steps that are laid out in the extradition treaty between our two countries.
The other part of this process is that -- I made a reference to it in the context of the due process that's afforded individuals living in the United States, which is there is a role for a federal judge here as well.
So it's complicated. That's basically the extent of my knowledge of this process. And, again, I don't expect, moving forward, to be able to provide a day-to-day accounting of where things stand, but that's the direction that we're headed. But all of that is, of course, contingent on the review of the materials that have been received.
Q But obviously Turkey's status, being that they are a NATO ally, their importance to this country and our fight against ISIS would come into some consideration in some way, even if it's just states versus the federal judge and DOJ.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a pretty well-established process here, and so I don't know that there is -- I don't, frankly, know how much room there is for any discretion that could be exercised based on diplomatic sensitivities. That may be a technical question that's better directed to the State Department.
Q Question for you. In the phone call that the President had with Mr. Erdogan -- you talked yesterday about the need for restraint. You used that word over and over again, saying that was the President's message. We've seen 15,000 members of the Education Ministry dismissed, 3,000 from the judiciary, I don't even know how many from the military. Does that constitute restraint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think I tried to address this in part of my answer to Angela. The situation in Turkey is tense right now. You saw elements of the Turkish military use the equipment of the Turkish military to attempt to overthrow the civilian democratically elected government of Turkey. Innocent people died in that effort. And at this point, we don't know precisely the scope of that effort. We don't know how many people were involved. And that's something that Turkish officials are obviously working quickly to try to determine. They want to get to the bottom of what happened.
I think the Turkish people have an expectation that it's worth getting to the bottom of what happened. After all, it is their government, the government that they voted for, the government that they elected that was threatened. And there are innocent civilians in Turkey who lost their lives in the effort to overthrow it. So there's a genuine public interest in getting to the bottom of what happened. But even in times like these -- especially in times like these -- it's important to demonstrate a commitment to the well-established democratic traditions and practices of the Turkish government, and a commitment to those principles that are enshrined in Turkey's constitution is important.
After all, it is a testament to the strength of Turkey's democracy that this coup attempt failed and you saw the political parties come together in condemning it. You saw the Turkish people come out on the streets to express their opposition to it. The leaders of that democratically elected government have a responsibility to adhere to those principles, especially in times like these.
Q It sounds like you're saying it's not exactly like what we wanted to see. It doesn't look like the restraint we're calling for.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I'm indicating is that the events that we saw in Turkey on Friday night -- I think it's hard for us to put ourselves in the place of the Turks. I think the one thing we can acknowledge is that a military action like that would be deeply unsettling to the government and to the population. But the only reason that effort failed is directly related to the strength of the Turkish people's commitment to democracy and the strength of Turkey's democratic institutions. And the strength of the commitment of political leaders to the notion of democracy, even in the face of some profound political disagreements.
So this is a particularly important time for the Turkish government and the leaders of Turkey to adhere to the principles of democracy and support the democratic institutions and traditions of the Turkish government.
Q Josh, you said the President did not watch the Republican convention last night. Why not? Is there something he was doing that was taking his time last night, or was he watching something else? I'm curious.
MR. EARNEST: I didn't speak to the President directly about what exactly he was doing last night. But knowing his habits, I
expect that he was working in the private residence and had sports on television, not politics.
Q Does he think that the American public should watch the Republican convention? I mean, this is a showcase for what a good-sized portion of the country believes in, to some degree, a discussion of ideas about where the country should go. Does he believe the general public should tune into this, and even Democrats who don't necessarily agree with the party?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the limited portion of the convention that I watched last night, that sounds like a rather generous description of what transpired on television. But I'll let other people speak to that.
Look, I think the President does believe that it's important for people to be engaged in the political process. And the President does believe that it's important for people to be informed about the issues that our government is confronting and about the people who are aspiring to lead the government or at least have leadership positions in the government. So that said, there are a lot of ways that voters can educate themselves about the process that aren't just limited to watching the Republican convention.
Q I think tonight you’ll have several of the elected officials, top Republicans in Washington speaking, I believe -- House Speaker and the Majority Leader. Would the President tune in for that? Does he believe at least that that is something that’s maybe more worthwhile than say the roster last night?
MR. EARNEST: It's possible. I don't know what the President’s plans are for tonight. I'm confident that even if he doesn’t watch the speeches, he will certainly be interested in the news coverage of them. So I don't mean to put additional pressure on you guys but --
Q The President may feel like he’s heard their arguments, maybe this is overheated rhetoric, which he sort of alluded to a few days back that could be coming down the pike. But at the same time, he’s talked a lot about having a conversation, listening to each other, making sure that we are hearing, and he probably wants Republicans to tune in when he talks to hear what he has to say. Would you agree with that? And wouldn't it be wise for him to maybe make a point to say I've been watching and listening even if I don't agree?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen. I think tuning in to hear the President of the United States speak I think is different than tuning in to a party convention proceeding. So the President himself will be delivering a message to the Democratic convention next week, and that's different than the kind of speech that the President gives, for example, in the East Room of the White House, or in the well of the House of Representatives on the night of the State of the Union.
Q -- affect the public attitude when he speaks?
MR. EARNEST: I guess my point is, I think the President would understand if there are partisan Republicans who chose not to tune in to watch him deliver a speech to the Democratic convention. I do think the President is hopeful that they’ll read news coverage about it, that they’ll make an effort to understand exactly what message the President was hoping to deliver. And I think the President walks the walk when it comes to that advice, based on his own consumption of the news.
And I guess I also want to be clear, the President is not making some principled statement, registering some kind of protest by not watching the Republican convention. I think he is merely making a choice about how to spend the small amount of free time he has in the evening. And his preferences tend toward the athletic as opposed to the political.
Q Josh, the administration has asked the Supreme Court to rehear the immigration case, the 4-4 split on the President’s immigration actions, and acknowledged that it was a long shot that the Supreme Court would review this case. So given that, is it an effort to put the spotlight on the vacancy and Merrick Garland’s stalled nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the spotlight was already on the vacancy because the Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision about the administration’s executive actions. In this case, the filing from the Department of Justice is merely an effort to pursue every available legal avenue because we believe in the power of the legal argument in support of the President’s executive actions.
So how that is going to move forward, I'd refer you to the office of the Acting Solicitor General. But we continue to have confidence in the power of our legal arguments, and we're going to make them in every available venue.
Q And can you give us just some more guidance on the agenda for the meeting today with the Attorney General?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is an opportunity for the President and senior officials at the Department of Justice. I'd just note that we also expect that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, will also participate in that meeting. I think the President is interested in understanding what more we can do to protect our law enforcement officers. And he’s also interested in furthering the discussion that has involved Director Comey, Attorney General Lynch, and Secretary Johnson about how to strengthen the bonds of trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities across the country that they’re sworn to serve and protect.
And in too many of those communities, we've seen those bonds of trust start to fray. And that ultimately makes law enforcement less effective. It only increases the risk that law enforcement officers face, and it ends up potentially, in some cases, making the streets more dangerous for the people who live in these communities. So it's a cycle that we need to reverse because we know that there is a virtuous cycle that we can benefit from. When law enforcement agencies are able to effectively work with community leaders to restore some trust that has the effect of improving the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect. Tensions subside. And ultimately, those stronger relationships make it easier for law enforcement officers to do their job. It makes them safer and more effective in fighting crime, which ultimately leads to a reduction in crime and makes the community and the streets a little safer.
So that's the dynamic that the President and Director Comey, Attorney General Lynch and Secretary Johnson are interested in creating. And they’ll have a discussion on how to do that in the Oval Office.
Q Will Director Comey be there as well?
MR. EARNEST: Director Comey will be there as well.
Q If I could just go back to plagiarism. Your answer seemed to be focused on process and the integrity you thought was in the White House. Could you give me a sense of your level of certainty -- if you are, indeed, certain -- that the President hasn’t lifted passages from predecessors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Hans, we obviously go to great lengths to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen. And so there’s a thorough vetting process in place here at the White House to ensure the accuracy of the President’s words, and also if there are quotes that are included in the President’s speeches or other sources of inspiration, that they’re properly given credit in his speeches.
So the President obviously -- I don't see Dr. Kumar here today, but she’s got lots of statistics about how frequently the President has spoken in public. So we obviously have safeguards in place to prevent that kind of things from happening.
Q Is that 100 percent certainty, or 99, or 95?
MR. EARNEST: I've got a lot of confidence in our process.
Q Thank you, Josh. On North Korea, yesterday North Korea launched three ballistic missiles into its east coast near South Korea. Would you please comment on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can confirm that U.S. Strategic Command systems detected and tracked what we assess were three North Korea missile launches yesterday. The United States strongly condemned this and North Korea’s other recent missile tests, all of which violates U.N. Security Council resolutions explicitly prohibiting North Korea’s launches using ballistic missile technology.
This provocation only serves to increase the international community’s resolve to countering the DPRK’s prohibited activities, including through implementing existing U.N. Security Council resolutions. I'm confident that the United States will continue to engage our partners in the region, including not just our allies, Japan and South Korea, but even countries like Russia and China that are also concerned about North Korea’s destabilizing actions.
The United States has been able to work effectively with our partners in the region to apply significant pressure to the North Korean regime. But ultimately, it has not led to the kind of strategic change in direction that we hoped and we continue to hope that they will pursue.
But what’s clear is that North Korea is isolated like never before. The international community is united like never before. And hopefully that will lead to a situation where North Korea makes a strategic decision to come out of the shadows of the international community and try to rejoin the international community. But before we can do that, they’re going to have to make a clear commitment to ending these kinds of provocations and abiding by the nuclear -- I'm sorry -- by the U.N. Security Council resolutions that govern both their nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile program.
Q Do you think it is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolution?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. This test is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit North Korea’s launches using ballistic missile technology.
Q There will be another sanction, or other --
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I'm not able to preview what sort of response, but I'm confident that this is something that we'll be discussing through diplomatic channels both at the United Nations and in the region.
Q Thanks, Josh. How concerned would the President be knowing that if Gülen were to be extradited he might face certain death?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the decision about this extradition, if and when we receive a formal request from the Turkish government, will be driven by the legal process that is codified both in U.S. law and in the treaty between the United States and Turkey that was signed more than 30 years ago. There’s a well-established process for evaluating all of this, and ultimately as it proceeds, there is the possibility that a federal judge would ultimately be called upon to weigh some of these considerations as well.
So we intend to pursue that process both because of our commitment to fulfilling our responsibilities that are codified in the treaty, but also because of what President Obama told President Erdogan earlier this morning, which is that the United States doesn’t support terrorists and it doesn’t support people who conspire to overthrow democratically elected governments, but we are interested in making sure we're following the law and that people who live in the United States are afforded the due process that they’re entitled to. And so we're committed to that process as well.
Q Are you familiar with the story out of Germany about the axe-wielding person -- some madman apparently attacked a bunch of people? I'm just curious, what lessons, if any, can the U.S. draw from that axe attack on the German train by what I believe was an Afghan refugee?
MR. EARNEST: We're still learning the details of that particular situation. Based on the most recent reports that we saw, that I've been briefed on at least, the only death that resulted was of the -- was the axe-wielding individual who was confronted by German police officers. So we are obviously relieved that there was no further loss of life.
It's hard to draw any clear connections until we learn more about the precise status of the individual involved and the circumstances of this particular incident. I think what it might -- what it could potentially be a good illustration of is the importance of ensuring that there are rigorous screening measures in place before individuals are granted refugee status in the United States, regardless of where they originate from.
In fact, refugees attempting to enter the United States are subjected to more rigorous scrutiny and background checks than any other individual attempting to enter into the United States. And that is something the President believes is in place for good reason. And even as we have sought to increase the number of refugees that are admitted into the United States in fiscal year 2016, the President has made clear to his team that he’s not willing to cut any corners when it comes to our security. And he’s confident that his team understands that and will pursue this role of taking in more refugees than we have in the past consistent with the imperative of not cutting corners when it comes to security.
Q Last one. I wanted to kind of circle back on Hans’s question earlier. You would acknowledge that sometimes in the process of a campaign, speeches are given where bits and pieces may have been -- for lack of a better description -- borrowed, taken, plagiarized, some would say. Have you ever worked on a campaign where there’s been an accusation where a candidate you worked for said, oh, well, that's sounds a lot like candidate A or B from years previous? This sort of thing does happen on occasion, does it not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was reminded this morning that there was a situation in 2008, I believe, where someone pointed out to then Senator Obama that some of the rhetoric that he was using was similar to rhetoric that then --
Q John Edwards.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it was then Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had used. And the President acknowledged that they had discussed that language and that that was -- that the President had, in fact, been inspired by Governor Patrick to incorporate some of that language into his stump speech and into some of the arguments that he was making.
But again, I guess the point is, when asked, the President thought it was important to give credit to his friend, Deval Patrick, who had been a source of inspiration to him. Again, I can't really speak to the process that was undertaken by any of the people who delivered speeches last night.
Q If you were in that camp and that happened -- for those of us who haven't worked on a major campaign like at that level -- and it came out minutes later that the speech was given, warmly received, and had passages that were apparently borrowed from another speech -- would heads roll immediately? Tell me what that process would be like.
MR. EARNEST: It's hard to imagine exactly what the reaction would be. But, look, the --
Q You’ve been in that position where -- tell me what we happen.
MR. EARNEST: I'm sure there are plenty of people who are eager to offer the Trump campaign some advice today, but I'm not one of them. And I'm sure they don't really want it either.
Q No, no, I meant more like would there be screaming in the background? Would somebody -- would you hear from the candidates themselves? What would that be like?
MR. EARNEST: It's hard to say. I can't recall that I've been in that situation.
Q In the spirit of belaboring the point -- (laughter) --
MR. EARNEST: Occupational hazard.
Q Why did you remind us that Michelle Obama’s speech in ’08 was very popular?
MR. EARNEST: I guess because -- I think the point that I'm trying to make is simply that the reason that Mrs. Obama’s speech -- based on my recollection -- was so well received by people in the audience and so strongly reviewed by the pundits and political observers is that she spoke eloquently. She talked a lot about her powerful personal story, but she also was focused on core American values that are widely shared all across the country. Values like integrity and hard work are values that most people deeply believe in and aspire to. These are the values that we’re thinking about when we are trying to be our best. And the President certainly holds everyone who works here at the White House to a high standard when it comes to those values. The President holds himself to a high standard when it comes to those values. And the President and First Lady have certainly worked to instill those values in their kids.
And the next President is going to have to put forward an agenda, and when they do, I think the American people will assess to what extent their agenda would advance those kinds of values.
So I think the point is that these are values that are shared by people across the country, regardless of political party. And we’ve been talking a lot in here over the last couple of weeks about our dysfunctional political system and how divided our country may or may not be. And, look, I think in some ways, last night was clear evidence that there is very strong bipartisan support for those kinds of values.
Q Would you agree with me that a speech that turns out to be a dud is less likely to be imitated?
MR. EARNEST: Assuming you’re making rational decisions, yes, I would agree with that notion.
Q (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: John.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. After an investigation, the Office of Special Counsel determined that the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their official authority or influence to affect the outcome of the election. I read the statement that your office put out as it relates to this, and it doesn’t sound like there’s going to be any punishment for Secretary Castro for violating the Hatch Act. Did I read that correctly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I saw the statement from Secretary Castro, who acknowledged the inadvertent error. And he indicated that he would participate in some additional training and get an additional briefing to make sure that when he’s doing interviews in the future that he understands what the Hatch Act requires.
So, look, I think to his credit, Secretary Castro acknowledged the mistake that he made. He owned up to it, and he’s taken the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again. I think that’s the expectation that people have when you make a mistake, particularly in a situation like this.
Q As you know, Secretary Castro is a very intelligent person -- he went to Stanford, Harvard Law School. And in the report that the Office of Special Counsel put out, they write, “Since beginning his appointment in July, 2014, Secretary Castro has received four briefings on the Hatch Act, including one in February, 2016. But ethics officials advised him that when speaking in his official capacity as Secretary, his appearance must remain official and not become political. An ethics official,” the report continues, “testified that they specifically advised Secretary Castro how to handle political questions when he is speaking in his official capacity by stating that he is not there to talk politics.”
And so my question is, how does Secretary Castro make a mistake like this? And how is that an official in his capacity is not, it seems to me, punished in any way for violating a federal law, the Hatch Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, John, I think one thing it does do is it exposes the hazards of bluntly answering questions that are posed by journalists, a hazard that I’m intimately familiar with.
So, look, again, Secretary Castro I think was pretty blunt in his letter about acknowledging that he had made a mistake and taking the kinds of steps to ensure that that mistake wouldn’t be repeated. I’m quite confident that when he reads a transcript of the exchange that you and I are having, that it will feel like a punishment.
Q It seems to be a pattern, though. Because former Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, also was found to have violated the Hatch Act. Do you see this as a pattern in the Obama administration, where administration officials -- very senior-level administration officials -- are violating a federal law that exists in this regard?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think it’s a pattern at all. I’m not aware of the details of Secretary Sebelius’s case that you’re referencing.
Q And one final question. Do you think it should be disqualifying for an individual to be put on a presidential ticket if they violated federal law?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’m going to leave it to both candidates. Obviously, one candidate has already decided about who he believes should serve with him on the ticket. And so as it relates to the decision that Secretary Clinton still has to make about who should be added to her ticket, she’s getting plenty of advice from people, and I’ll let her make that decision.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. In the eight or nine months since the President killed Keystone, gasoline prices have fallen or stayed pretty stable, sort of undercutting one of the arguments that the supporters of Keystone always -- they said we need this to lower gasoline prices. To what extent does the administration feel perhaps validated by the fact that those predictions did not come true? And I have a follow-up.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that validated it, to be blunt with you. I think you’ve heard the President say on a number of occasions that his expectation is that at some point, the continued growth of the global economy will put some upward pressure on gas prices.
So the President certainly has offered people advice, suggesting that they should enjoy these historically low gas prices while they last. Some of the price reduction that we have seen is a consequence of a success that we have had in making the country more efficient. As the fuel-efficiency standards that the President put in place early in his first term take effect, that will gradually improve the efficiency of the U.S. auto fleet. That’s going to -- that will put some downward pressure on prices because, obviously, demand will be a little lower.
But the conclusion about the Keystone pipeline was driven by factors other than the price of gas. I recognize that that was an argument that was made by some of the proponents of the pipeline, but ultimately the decision that was made by the State Department and ultimately supported by the President was a decision that was related to climate change and what approving the pipeline would say about our country’s commitment to the low-carbon economy of the future.
Q Shifting gears, on Russia, the sanctions that remain in place against the Kremlin and the low price of oil, the White House has always said that, at some point, President Putin is going to pay a price. How do you explain the 75, 80 percent approval rating that he continues to have?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would assume that those of you who are journalists and come by your skepticism honestly will be particularly skeptical of polling data that emerges from Russia.
Q The polls are rigged?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't say that. I think that you all will make your own assessments. The broader argument that we have made is that there's no denying that the Russian economy has been hurt by the sanctions that have been put in place. They've certainly been hurt by lower energy prices as well, but the combination of those two things has had a negative impact on the economy. And the sanctions that were put in place against Russia have impeded their ability to response to those low-energy prices in a way that would allow them to try to compensate for them.
So the point is, Russia's isolation in this instance has had a negative impact on their economy. And the thought has been that the pressure of that economic isolation could, at some point, prompt President Putin to live up to the commitments that he made in the context of the Minsk agreement. That hasn't happened yet, but we're hopeful that at some point he'll make that decision. Because if he does, the United States and the rest of the international community is prepared to lift those sanctions and give the Russian government and the Russian economy some more flexibility to compensate or at least mitigate some of the weakness that they've sustained as a result of low energy prices.
Q Apparently Putin has said that he does not want to be President for life, but he hasn't ruled out running again in 2018. I recognize that's not necessarily this President's problem, but would the White House -- it seems to me it would not be in favor of him running again in 2018. Do you have a position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, ultimately, we would respect the decisions that President Putin would make with regard to his political future. But beyond that, I don't think I would weigh -- given my hesitance to weigh in on the American presidential election, I'm going to be doubly reticent to weigh in on the Russian presidential election.
Did you have your hand up earlier?
Q Why don't we go back to plagiarism?
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Do you have any background on the '08 speech itself? Those words that seem to have been lifted -- were those written by the First Lady at the time? Do you know?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we acknowledged at the time is that the First Lady worked closely with a team of speechwriters to prepare that speech. Sarah Hurwitz, who actually continues to serve in the First Lady's office as her speechwriter, at that point in time had recently joined the Obama campaign and had been involved in helping the First Lady draft that speech. But certainly that speech reflected the First Lady's values, her life story, and her words, but she certainly did work closely with some very talented speechwriters on her team to perfect it. And she is justifiably quite proud of that speech that she delivered back in July of 2008 -- August of 2008, I suppose.
Q On immigration, do you know if President Obama gave the green light so DOJ could file the motion yesterday? I mean, it seems like it could go either way -- you don't know who the judge will be or who will get a judge on the Supreme Court. So it can backfire on the immigration plan.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know whether or not the President signed off on the specific filing. I know the decision was made by the acting Solicitor General. I don't know to what extent the White House was consulted on the legal strategy. My understanding of the situation -- and you should definitely check with the acting Solicitor General on this -- but my understanding is that there was a very narrow window of time in which the Solicitor General could petition to the court for a re-hearing. And, again, that petition was only possible because of the 4-4 deadlock that prevented the Supreme Court from reaching a final decision.
So I think in this instance, the conclusion of the Acting Solicitor General, at least, was to pursue every available legal avenue for making this argument. And I don't have a good sense of when we can expect a decision from the Supreme Court about whether to rehear the case, but I'm sure you can get some more details from the Solicitor General's office.
J.C., I'll give you the last one.
Q Hopefully kind of a fun question. During the speech -- you were involved in the campaign way back -- Eric, a Democratic guy, activist, involved with DCCC, et cetera -- was there a lightbulb moment between you and your staff when you heard Melania's speech last night? I mean, I know people who said, wait a second, this is Mrs. Obama's speech. You guys didn't have to see a parallel in The New York Times or anywhere else between the two speeches. It had to send off some kind of -- did anyone get on the phone and say what is going on? I'm just curious.
MR. EARNEST: I will admit -- and maybe it's because her speech was delivered late at night, at least past my bedtime -- I did watch her speech, but there were no lightbulbs that went off immediately in my head. It wasn't until I saw the news early this morning that some questions have been raised about it.
Q Governor Christie just made a comment earlier that said, hey, 93 percent of the speech was not taken out so it's okay. Do you think 7 percent is a good balance in plagiarism? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's among the many explanations I think that we've seen from the Trump campaign in response to these reports -- again I'll leave it to them to describe -- well, and all of you, I guess -- to describe exactly what may have happened with her speech.
2:15 P.M. EDT