Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/25/16
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. You look like you're staying cool. I do not have any comments to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, you want to go first?
Q Thanks, Josh. Let’s start with the pandemonium in Philadelphia. (Laughter.) Does the President feel that what we're seeing the last couple days in the party hurts the party’s unity, heading into the general? Does he think the emails show favoritism by the DNC towards Clinton during the primary? And does he have any thoughts on who should be the next leader of the Democratic Party?
Q Well, Josh, he’s obviously -- well, let me start it this way. There are plenty of people who are in Philadelphia who can speak to the current state of our party and the current efforts to organize our party for success in the general election, and I'll let them speak to that. There are also a variety of ways to measure that. One measure that I think is relevant is the crowd reaction when the First Lady of the United States speaks tonight. And I do feel confident that when Mrs. Obama walks out on stage, that everybody in the crowd is going to be on their feed applauding. That, I think, is a strong indication of their strong support for the First Lady and the deep admiration and respect that they have for her.
She’s also going to be giving voice to the kinds of values and priorities that this administration has been fighting for, for seven and a half years now. And there is strong support all across the Democratic Party for the agenda that President Obama has pursued and the vigor with which he has pursued it.
As it relates to the situation at the, the President has been clear about a couple of things. The first is he deeply appreciates what Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz has done during her five-year-plus tenure at the Democratic National Committee. She took the helm at the DNC at a critically important time in President Obama’s career. She had to, on a pretty short turnaround, work to prepare the DNC for the general election in 2012. And obviously the President won that reelection campaign with more than 50 percent of the vote. He’s the first President since Eisenhower to both be elected and reelected with more than 50 percent of the vote. And that certainly speaks to some of Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz’s skills because the apparatus at the DNC was an important part of that effort.
So that's the first thing. And I think the President conveyed that appreciation in the context of the statement that we issued last night. What’s also true, and what’s been true for some time, is that the President believes that the leadership at the DNC is something that should be determined by the party nominee. The ability of the party apparatus and the Democratic nominee’s campaign working effectively together will be important to our success in the fall. And so as the leader of the party, that's the President’s interest. So he’s long said that it's the party nominee that should make the decisions about the leadership of the DNC. And he certainly has been unequivocal in his support for Secretary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, and her ability to make that decision.
Q Does he think Wasserman Schultz was fair to Sanders in the primary?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I'm not going to get into the content of the email. Obviously there are plenty of people with plenty of opinions about that, and I know that Senator Sanders, himself, spoke to this a little bit yesterday and certainly in those comments he indicated his unwavering support for Secretary Clinton.
Q Turning to the investigation into this hack that the FBI is now leading, after the Sony hack, you were all relatively quick to point the finger at North Korea. Are you prepared at this point to say anything about whether Russia was involved in this hack and whether it may have been an attempt by a foreign state to try and sway the election towards Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, Josh -- well, let’s go back to the Sony situation back in late 2014. There was a careful and intensive law enforcement investigation into that hack. Obviously it generated lots of headlines. And an assessment was reached by a variety of national security agencies, including the FBI, that the actor involved was clear and the impact that it would have on the investigation to release the conclusions that they’d reached about the attribution would be beneficial.
So those are two separate determinations that have to be reached. Ultimately those conclusions will be reached by these national security agencies who are focused on the national security of the United States and the successful completion of the investigation.
So I know that there’s been a lot of public reporting about this particular matter and I know that there are some private sector entities that have conducted their own investigations and even released their own reports on these investigations. I'm not in a position to speak to the veracity of what conclusions have been reached by private sector entities. At this point, it's my responsibility to protect the ability of the FBI and other national security agencies to do their work, to conduct these investigations and to follow the facts where they lead.
So if there’s a decision that is made by our national security professionals to release additional information about what they’ve learned in the context of this investigation, it seems likely, as was the case in 2014, that they will be the first to release that information.
So the FBI has put out a statement indicating that they are investigating this situation, and the President and his team obviously have made cybersecurity a top priority. We know that there are a variety of actors, both state and criminal, who are looking for vulnerabilities in the cybersecurity of the United States, and that includes Russia. But as it relates to this situation, we're going to conduct -- the FBI is going to lead a careful investigation, and if there is a decision that's made to release information about conclusions that have been reached about the attribution of this attack, then it's likely that the FBI would be the first one to make that announcement, as they were with regard to the Sony hack in 2014.
Q Just one on the President’s endorsement for Kamala Harris. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez pretty strongly implied that the President endorsed the Attorney General over her because they’re both African American. Do you take issue with that characterization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I know that shortly after doing that interview that Congresswoman Sanchez issued a statement indicating that she did not mean to imply that that was the reason for the President’s endorsement of Attorney General Kamala Harris. I'm not really sure what she intended to imply. I think you’d have to ask her. The President’s endorsement, though, I think spoke volumes about his deep appreciation for Attorney General Harris’s service and her skill. And that's led President Obama to conclude that she would make an excellent successor to Barbara Boxer, representing California in the United States Senate. The President certainly stands by that endorsement and is quite enthusiastic about it.
Q Donald Trump said this weekend that he would be willing to pull the U.S. out of the World Trade Organization if WTO stood in the way of his plan to put tariffs on certain imports. I guess I'm just wondering whether the White House has a reaction to this general idea, the possibility of the U.S. leaving the WTO.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll let the Republican nominee make his own case for the policies that he hopes to pursue. But I think there are a couple of relevant facts that I'll just point out in terms of the way that President Obama has managed the U.S. relationship with other countries in the WTO.
Given the increasingly interconnected nature of the global economy, the United States benefits from effective trading relationships with countries around the world. The President has used the example of the American auto industry when highlighting how damaging it would be to try to wall off the United States from the global supply chain. There are parts for American cars that are made around the world, and many thousands of American jobs would be put at risk if the United States and U.S. automakers were not able to benefit from this global market both in terms of being able to make the products, but also in terms of being able to sell them.
And withdrawing from the WTO could certainly rupture those relationships in a way that would have starkly negative consequences for the U.S. economy and for American workers.
Now, what’s also true is that the WTO has been an effective location for the United States to enforce our trade rights. In fact, earlier this month, the United States launched a WTO case against China for export duties that were -- or are levied on raw materials that have critical input from many industrial products. This is the 13th WTO complaint that the United States has brought against China. Over all, this administration has brought 22 WTO complaints against other countries, 13 of them against China.
That's more cases than any other country has brought both against China individually, and overall at the WTO, over the course of the last eight years. And it's notable that of the cases that this administration has brought forward at the WTO that have been decided, we've won every single one. So that's an indication that the WTO actually does end up being a very effective venue for enforcing the rights of U.S. workers and U.S. companies in a way that has positive consequences for the U.S. economy.
So, again, I'll let other candidates make their own case, but I think what has been proven under President Obama’s leadership is that U.S. involvement in the WTO contributes significantly to the overall health of our economy and to our ability to enforce the trade rights of the American people.
Q What does the President make of Tim Kaine’s shift on TPP? He was supportive of it; right now he’s not supportive of it. And secondly, how enthusiastically does the President plan to speak about TPP in his speech at the convention this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any aspects of the President’s speech to preview at this point. But stay tuned. If we can get you some information in advance, we will.
As it relates to Senator Kaine, obviously the President, as was noted over the weekend, is quite enthusiastic about Secretary Clinton’s choice. President Obama knows Senator Kaine well. Then-Governor Kaine endorsed President Obama’s first presidential campaign back in 2007, at a time when few other people were willing to make that commitment. But, again, then-Governor Kaine did that, and the President deeply respected that decision.
Ultimately -- I guess it's a little ironic now -- I'm just sort of putting this together -- many Democrats were unwilling to commit to supporting Senator Obama’s campaign that early because then-Senator Clinton was the prohibitive favorite and not many people were willing to take a risk of rupturing their relationship with Senator Clinton in order to support Senator Obama. And Governor Kaine demonstrated a lot of courage, so much so that President Obama, after he was elected, ask then-Governor Kaine to take on the significant responsibility of running the DNC.
So President Obama knows Senator Kaine well. Senator Kaine is somebody who early in his career was a civil rights attorney, spent time as a missionary and aid worker in Honduras, and he’s been somebody who’s been fighting for values and fighting for people throughout his career in public life, including as an elected official. That's something that deeply resonates with a President who began his career in public service as a community organizer. So President Obama is pretty excited about the fact that Senator Kaine has been added to the ballot.
I'll let Senator Kaine discuss his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Obviously President Obama and our administration believes we have a very strong case to make about how the American people and our economy would benefit from a trade agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that raises environmental standards, that raises labor standards, that makes them enforceable, that protects intellectual property that's developed here in the United States. And our failure to enter into these kinds of agreements, particularly with countries in Southeast Asia that have some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, only gives China an opportunity to write the rules of the road in a way that would further disadvantage the U.S. economy and U.S. workers and U.S. businesses.
So we've got a strong case to make. It's a persuasive one, it's one that recent polls indicate the majority of Americans in both parties support. But I'll let Senator Kaine make his own case or explain his own position on this issue.
Q Thanks, Josh. How does the President or you feel about what was in those emails that were leaked?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I have very little insight into the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee, so I'll refer you to the DNC and the Clinton campaign to describe the content of those emails and what it says about the operations of the DNC.
Q That's really the whole story here and part of the argument for a breakdown in unity. So is the President aware of the emails themselves and what was in them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm confident the President read the newspaper today so I'm sure that he's aware of this story. But I haven't gotten -- I don't have a reaction of his to convey to you.
Q So you don't have a feeling on whether that was -- whether it seemed to be an attempt to undermine Bernie Sanders while this was going on?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I can't speak to the veracity of the emails. I'd refer you to the DNC.
Q And what role did the President play in Wasserman Schultz stepping down? Did he want that to happen? And I know the conversation happened afterwards, but how did the President make his feeling known in the process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what has -- the President's view is that the Democrat at the top of the ticket in the fall is the one who should make decisions about the leadership of the DNC. It's been the President's view for quite some time. The President obviously had that prerogative when he was running in 2008. The President had that prerogative when he was at the top of the ticket in 2012. But his name is not on the ballot in 2016.
And what the President does know, from having run and won in 2008 and 2012, is that the party benefits when the party's nominee and the apparatus of the DNC are effectively integrated. And that's why it makes sense to him that the person at the top of the ticket should get to decide. And that is something that was clear to Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz and to the Clinton campaign.
So, ultimately, the Clinton campaign had to determine what they believed was in the best interest of their campaign and the best interest of the party. And that's what they did. The substance of the phone call yesterday was simply the President taking the opportunity to express his appreciation to Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz for her service to the country and to the party. And he certainly continues to be enthusiastic about her reelection campaign -- he endorsed her earlier this year. And he believes that the people of South Florida have been remarkably well-served by having her represent their interests in the United States Congress, and he believes they'll -- as he said in his statement that we issued earlier this spring -- he made clear that he supports her reelection.
Q The timing of this -- I mean, obviously, it was timed for a reason. What does he think about how this affects Democrats right now and what this does just before the convention and so close to the general election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I can't speak to the motives of the individual who may have released -- leaked this material. Obviously, at this point, I can't even speak to who is responsible for obtaining the material in the first place.
Q I'm asking really about the reaction.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that most of the reaction I've seen is from journalists who are covering the convention, and I think that's fine. Ultimately, I think there are a variety of ways to assess how the state of the Democratic Party -- and there will be a lot of people who will be spending a lot of time doing that over the course of the next few days -- but one measure that I would recommend is to consider the reaction of the crowd when Mrs. Obama speaks tonight.
Q I was just going to ask you about that, because here we have the chairman having to step down a day before the convention. Bernie Sanders supporters right now are rallying on the bridge to Philadelphia. He just gave this fiery speech -- he's going to speak again tonight. How can you say that a measure of the unity of the Democratic Party right now is based on how well the crowd receives the First Lady's speech? I mean, what does that have to do with everything else that's going on right now?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the First Lady will give voice to are the kinds of values and priorities that have guided this President and this administration. And it's not just that Democrats are quite enthusiastic about those values and priorities -- Democrats all across the country strongly support them. They are unified behind them.
So, again, I think that's one indication of the condition of the Democratic Party. I recognize that there will be some skeptics who will cite other data points. That's not illegitimate. I think there are a lot of ways to assess the state of the Democratic Party. And there may be some skeptics who might overlook the fact that the Democratic Party is enthusiastic about the values and agenda and priorities that President Obama has pursued over the last seven and a half years.
So, again, I think there are a lot of ways to reach this analysis, and I'll mostly leave that to other people -- except when it comes to the First Lady of the United States, who I think is going to give a great speech and one that will be warmly received by Democrats in the hall and all across the country.
Q Just so it's clear, and quickly, can you just give us your assessment of the unity of the party right now?
MR. EARNEST: There are plenty of other people who are on hand and in a position to do that.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, Michelle.
Q Just on that hack also. Has the President spoken with President Putin about that hack, or have other high-level administration officials spoken with Russian officials about this hack?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that the President has mentioned any of these reports to President Putin in their conversations. I know the issue of cybersecurity is one that President Obama has prioritized, and I feel confident that at one point or another, that issue has come up in his previous conversations with President Putin. But I’m not aware that this particular incident, or the reports of this particular incident have been a subject of conversation between President Obama and President Putin.
Q Do you have a sense of the motive for this attack? And would it possibly have been to interfere with the electoral process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as the FBI conducts their investigation, they certainly would be looking to ascribe some responsibility for this breach, and, in doing so, I’m sure they will consider potential motives.
Q You don’t -- the administration doesn’t have an opinion on that at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Again, this particular situation is still being investigated by the FBI, and I just don’t want to do anything that would make their -- or say anything that would make their investigation more complicated than it already is.
Q Have you said anything to the Russian government at this point about, hey, we don’t think it’s kosher for you to interfere in our political process?
Q We don’t accept you interfering with our political process? Have you sent any preemptive message, that regardless of whether or not they were responsible for this hack, that they shouldn’t interfere with the election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not aware of any communication like that at least from the White House, in part because this is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. But I’m not aware of a message like that being sent.
Q You mentioned two criteria that the administration examined in deciding to reveal that North Korea was the source of the Sony leak. One was clarity of evidence, and the other was a determination by the intelligence agencies that it was beneficial to the United States to release that information. In this case, would there be other criteria you would consider? And would that decision be shaped by the possibility that this would be an attempt to interfere with the U.S. electoral process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, what I can tell you is that this investigation will be guided by the facts and not by the political implications, or potential political implications. The FBI and other national security agencies are focused on this, and they have experts that they can use to examine this situation. And they will use that expertise and they will follow the facts where they lead to reach conclusions, and then they will determine, based on broader policy implications, how much of that they can discuss publicly.
So this is a process that is ongoing. And again, there’s just not that much that I can say about it as the President’s spokesperson that doesn’t risk potentially interfering or somehow making their investigation even more complicated than it already is.
Q When Josh asked whether you and the administration thought that Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC have been fair to Bernie Sanders, you demurred, saying, “Well, we’re not going to comment on the email.” But you and President Obama and others in the administration know a thing or two about politics. Looking at it, looking at the way it’s played out, do you think she and the DNC have been fair to Bernie Sanders, as you, as astute political observers, can determine from the outside?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think what is true is that there are going to be people with intense passions with a variety of points of view. And given the fact that I don’t have much insight into the inner workings of the DNC beyond what I guess what we’ve all read in the --
Q -- what we all saw.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, based on what we’ve all read in the newspaper, that’s given plenty of people an opportunity to develop their own perspective and, in some cases, share their point of view. I just don’t have much insight into the inner workings of the DNC, particularly over the course of this campaign.
So I’ll let other people make up their own minds on this. But what is true is that Senator Sanders himself has indicated that even in light of all this news and some of these emails, his support for Secretary Clinton hasn’t changed. And so I guess in some ways, when it comes to the view of the DNC and whether they were fair to Senator Sanders, the person whose opinion matters the most is not mine, it’s Senator Sanders’s. And so he’s spoken of this a little bit, I suspect not for the last time.
Q And lastly this -- just slightly different than what people have asked before, but not too distant. Is the President happy that he kept Ms. Schultz in charge of the DNC up through this point --
MR. EARNEST: Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz has done --
Q -- through this primary process?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President believes that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, over the course of the last five years that she was leading the DNC, did an excellent job. And again, I think the results speak for themselves in terms of the President’s success in winning reelection with more than a majority of the vote. Obviously the DNC made an important contribution to that effort.
And Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz has also been responsible for leading the party through a competitive Democratic primary process. And the prospects -- again, based on the -- there are many people, publicly, who have taken a look at the election and have concluded that the Democratic Party is in good shape in the general election. And certainly the condition of the Democratic Party is something that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz deserves credit for.
I would just add that there’s nobody who thinks that being the chair of a national party is an easy job, or is a job where a whole bunch of people come up to you and say thank you. And having worked for two previous DNC chairs directly, I can speak firsthand to that. So it’s not just that Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz served for five years; it’s not just that she did an excellent job both in helping the President get reelected but also in positioning the party for success in 2016; it’s that this is a job that’s really hard and is subject to a lot of intense criticism.
And again, I think given all of that, the President felt it was appropriate to give her a call yesterday and convey to her once again how deeply appreciative he is of her service to the party and to the country, and how strongly supportive he is of her reelection campaign.
Q Josh, it now appears that the Congresswoman will not be gaveling at the DNC to kick it off officially. Does the White House have a view on the appropriate role -- this is a diminished role -- if that’s something you’re disappointed with given the praise that you just outlined?
MR. EARNEST: Again, these are the kinds of decisions that Secretary Clinton and her team will make as the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. The focus of this convention is on formally nominating Secretary Clinton and giving her a venue to make a speech. So when it comes to the day-to-day functioning of the convention I'd refer you to convention staff and Secretary Clinton’s team.
Q Was there a meeting here at the White House over the weekend regarding the DNC hack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been some reports about national security officials discussing this breach. I don't have any specific meetings to tell you about. What I can tell you is that it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are national security officials that meet on a regular basis here at the White House to discuss cybersecurity. The President has made that a top priority and obviously the cybersecurity, both the public sector but also private sector, entities is important to our national security. And this is something that is discussed frequently by national security officials across the government, but including here at the White House.
Q So you can't say?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any specific meetings.
Q But more than that -- you can't read it out?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I'm trying to convey is that there are regular meetings at the White House that are focused on cybersecurity. And I can't speak to any specific meetings or any specific agenda items, but cybersecurity is obviously a priority of this administration and our national security agencies, and this is a subject that they need to discuss regularly.
Q You outlined that it's going to be a very deliberate process, and you can't say whether or not officially that Russia is behind this. But the Clinton campaign is being pretty direct in attributing this attack to Russia. Do you think they’re jumping the gun?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they’re not the only ones that have been pretty direct. I know that a number of your news organizations have been quite direct in drawing that link. And there are also some private sector -- at least one high-profile private sector group that’s issued a report drawing that link in rather bright lines.
Q -- credibility to it, you're saying.
MR. EARNEST: So I'm saying that this is an observation that other people have made and at least one private sector entity that has looked at this matter provided a whole lot of evidence that's appeared in all of your news reports about this. I'd refer you to that company or to the DNC or the Clinton campaign about those conclusions. Right now, the United States government is conducting an investigation to formulate our own conclusions about this situation, and I just don't want to get ahead of their investigation from here. The FBI is the lead in that investigation, and when they’re ready to make -- when they’re ready to share some information about what they’ve learned they’ll be the first to do so.
Q Josh, I mean the thing that's different is it wouldn't be unprecedented for Russia to hack the administration. They recently have hacked unclassified systems at State and the White House, and that's been acknowledged. When it comes to this particular thing, though, this seems a different level to be directly interfering in an election. This is something that Russia does in its own backyard, meddling in other states. To do it here in the States would make this seem to be a whole other level of attack. Can you explain how you're thinking of this?
MR. EARNEST: I actually don't believe, at least from here, we have been direct about ascribing any attribution for the other breaches that you mentioned, including at the State Department and here at the White House. That's not because we don't take those breaches seriously. I assure you that we do. And those breaches have been thoroughly investigated and there are a number of steps that have been taken to prevent future breaches of that sort. So this is something that we're vigilant about and will be moving forward.
We take those matters quite seriously, and the fact that I'm unwilling to talk in much detail about this situation is not an indication that somehow the administration or our national security agencies take this lightly. In fact, I think it might be an indication of just how seriously we treat this matter that I don't want to say something that could, as a representative of the White House and as a spokesperson for the President, that would make this investigation even more complicated than it already is.
So that's why I'm being a little circumspect. And I would acknowledge that fact on the front end.
Q One more question. It appears that the last hospitals remaining in Aleppo, Syria have been destroyed by the Syrian air force, with the backing of the Russians, according to U.S.-backed Syrian opposition. There’s claims of 400,000 civilians in immediate risk and in need of aid. France has called this a war crime. Do you agree with that? And what is the U.S. doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, I have seen the news reports of the situation in Aleppo, and it's gut-wrenching. The targeting of medical facilities that treat civilians is something that’s impossible to justify. Unfortunately, these reports out of Syria are not unique. We know there’s been a specific strategy carried out by the Assad regime to use their country’s military might and attack innocent people.
It's why the United States and the rest of the international community -- almost the rest of the entire international community -- has concluded that President Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead in Syria. We believe that he must go. And it's just not possible for him to make a credible case that he is the right person to unify that country when he’s spent so much time and energy and resources attacking the citizens of the country.
So we continue to be deeply concerned about the situation in Syria, and particularly the situation in Aleppo. That's why we are redoubling our efforts to try to get the Russians and the Assad regime to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the Cessation of Hostilities. We've tried to do that for two reasons. The first is, by implementing the Cessation of Hostilities, we can first and foremost try to bring humanitarian relief to innocent people that have been caught in the crossfire for years now --
Q The French called that a smokescreen today, that the ceasefire, the Cessation of Hostilities has just been a smokescreen for Russia and Syria to continue to do this.
MR. EARNEST: There have been places where implementing the Cessation of Hostilities successfully has allowed hundreds of thousands of people in Syria to get some humanitarian relief. There are places where it has worked. And I think it's important we not overlook those, because that essentially serves as a model for what we would like to do in other places in the country.
At the same time, Margaret, I would readily agree that there are some places where the Russians and the Syrians have not lived up to the commitments that they've made, where they have engaged in the kinds of actions that are not allowed under the Cessation of Hostilities. And as a result, the humanitarian situation has worsened. So we continue to be quite concerned about that.
The other reason that we're concerned about it is that it's impossible to broker political talks between government representatives and the opposition as long as there's fighting going on. So we're trying to get the fighting to stop so that we can bring the much-needed humanitarian relief, but also to try to kick-start the kind of political transition that everybody acknowledges -- everybody except for Bashar al Assad -- acknowledges is necessary.
So that's the state of play. And, again, what's happening in Aleppo is deeply, deeply concerning. And we condemn in the strongest terms the effort by anybody to target medical facilities that treat civilians. That's completely unacceptable and contravenes just about every international agreement that applies to these kinds of situations.
Q Thanks, Josh. Speaking of Syria, at last check, according to State Department figures, there are about 6,900 Syrian refugees that have been admitted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016. That number seems to be accelerated by some 1,500 since July. Is the White House concerned at all by the inflow of refugees given what has happened in Germany over the past week? Three of the four deadly attacks there have been carried out by refugees.
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the refugee process in the United States involves thorough screening and vetting. In fact, individuals entering the United States as a refugee undergo more rigorous screening than anybody else who tries to enter the United States. That means that these individuals, before they're allowed to enter the country, that they're subjected to interviews; that biometric information is collected about them --
Q Mental health screening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to the specifics of those but you certainly can check with the State Department that can provide you some more incite. But once that information is collected, it then is run through a wide variety of databases, including databases that are maintained by the intelligence community, by the military, by law enforcement organizations, including international law enforcement organizations, to make sure that this person is appropriate to admit to the United States.
So that's why the President has confidence in ramping up the number of refugees that are admitted to the United States, because obviously almost all of them are innocent people fleeing violence in their home country. Some of them are people who are fleeing genocide. And the President feels like the United States has a responsibility to do our part to try to provide relief to people who are fleeing that kind of violence and including people who are fleeing genocide.
Q Is it an irrational concern, then, to have more refugees come to the country, given what's happening in Germany?
MR. EARNEST: Concern for the United States and our national security is the President's top priority. So I can understand why people are concerned about our national security -- the President is concerned about our national security. In fact, that is why he has ensured that refugees who are admitted to the United States are subjected to all of the screening that I just described. They undergo more screening than anybody else who tries to enter the United States. They undergo more screening than somebody who tries to enter the United States as a tourist. They undergo more screening than anybody who enters the United States to do business here. So the screening is thorough.
And the President has made clear that even as we increase the number of refugees that are admitted to the United States, we're not going to cut corners when it comes to our security. The President has made clear that those kinds of shortcuts are not appropriate. So we can do the rigorous screening, even as the United States fulfills our responsibility to our fellow human beings that are innocently caught in the middle of a conflict.
Q I want to draw your attention to something else. House Democrats are pressing the President to take action on nuclear weapons before he leaves office. You may be familiar with a letter sent by five Democrats urging the President to take bold action and implement a no-first-use policy. What is the President’s belief about a no-first-use policy? And would he be interested in pursuing that given the brevity of his time in office? He has not to this point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President has made counter-proliferation -- preventing the spread of nuclear weapons a top priority. And the President organized I believe on four or five different occasions a Nuclear Security Summit, where, essentially, world leaders gathered in one place -- twice in the United States -- to have a discussion about what additional steps could be implemented to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. So this has been a top priority when it comes to the President’s foreign policy agenda.
So I don’t have any news to make about any sort of new policy or any additional steps that the President may take. But the President is certainly interested in taking advantage of opportunities that are available over the last six months that he has in office to further move us toward a vision that Presidents in both parties have articulated, which is a world without nuclear weapons. And it’s a long-term goal. It’s not likely to happen -- it’s obviously not going to happen in this administration. It’s probably not going to happen in any of our lifetimes. But the President certainly does believe that our world would be safer and the American people would be more secure if we could succeed in that effort.
Q And to put a button on that, then is it fair to say he is, in principle, supportive of a no-first-use idea? Or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have any news to make when it comes to laying out any new sort of principles when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. The President’s view is that obviously it’s a dangerous world, and we’re aware of the fact that some of our adversaries do have a nuclear stockpile. And the work that we have engaged in over the course of this administration has been to prevent particular tools or some equipment, or even some nuclear material, falling into the hands of rogue actors -- whether they’re terrorists or criminal entities, or even some other countries -- that would allow them to develop nuclear capability. And we have made progress in safeguarding that material. We’ve made progress in reaching an international agreement with Iran to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So we’ve made important progress in stemming the proliferation of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons. That enhances our nation’s security. But we’ve also been able to work effectively, through diplomacy, to try to get other countries to reduce their nuclear stockpile.
Now, there’s more progress on this that we would like to make, but this has been a priority and one that we’re going to continue to track.
Q You mentioned the First Lady -- just one more -- values and agenda and priorities that the Democrats stand for. Can you give us sort of a preview of what we should expect to hear from her tonight, and why it’s so important that she really take on the mantle of healer, if you will, given what’s been happening in the last couple days with the Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that’s how she sees her role. I think what you can expect from Mrs. Obama is for her to make a very forceful case, obviously in support of Secretary Clinton. And Mrs. Obama’s case will be rooted in her own sense of values and in the sense -- and in the values that she wants to instill in her children.
I think, like many Americans, she considers her choice in this election from the perspective of a parent who deeply loves her kids. She’s also a First Lady that’s had an opportunity to travel all across the country and meet parents and kids in communities all across the country. And she certainly knows that her husband, when he was sitting in the Oval Office making decisions about our country, whether it was related to domestic or foreign policy -- that he had the best interests of the country and the best interests of our country’s kids in mind.
That certainly is what Mrs. Obama believes is important as people consider who to support in the next election. And she’ll make a forceful case that when it comes to the next President looking out for our kids and their interests, she’s made the decision to strongly support Secretary Clinton.
But she’ll make that case much more eloquently than I just did, and I certainly would encourage people to tune in and check it out.
Q Josh, I want to make sure I have this all clear in response to the answer on the genocide question on ISIS and -- you used genocide twice. And Mark was asking about Aleppo as well. I just want to make sure who the genocide designation is currently applied to.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the State Department makes that designation, so they can sort of walk you through the particulars. I know that they’ve made an announcement about a determination they’ve made over there.
Q You weren’t extending that. You’re keeping this just genocide for ISIL, not beyond.
MR. EARNEST: The point that I’m making is that there are a large number of people who are fleeing Syria because of the violence that has torn that country apart. And too often, some people that may even have a political agenda have tried to describe those people as would-be terrorists.
I don’t think that’s an accurate description. This is a group of individuals that I think can best be described as almost entirely innocent people fleeing violence. In some cases, these are people who are fleeing violence that could be directed at them because of their religion, or because of their ethnicity, or for reasons that could potentially put them at risk of genocide.
Now, there is a concern that has been expressed by our intelligence community that terrorists could try to capitalize on this situation in a way that could undermine our national security. And that’s why the President has insisted on protecting these rigorous screening standards and making sure that any refugee that’s admitted to the United States undergoes screening that involves background checks, in-person interviews, collecting biometric information and making sure that it’s cycled through all these databases. And he does that -- the President advocates this point of view not because he believes that most of these people are likely terrorists and we just need to find the innocent people among them; rather, we understand that almost every individual in this group is somebody that’s fleeing violence in their hometown. In some cases, it’s an individual who is fleeing genocide.
And we need to make sure that we’re doing rigorous screening to prevent terrorist organizations from capitalizing on the situation. And by doing this kind of screening, we can certainly and significantly reduce the likelihood that terrorist organizations are going to be able to capitalize on this chaos and sneak somebody into the United States.
Q But you're not trying to broaden the definition of entities who’s being tagged by the State Department with genocide?
MR. EARNEST: No. Again, I'm just trying to help people understand the context in which these decisions are made. And the truth is, almost every single person that's being considered for refugee status is a person that's fleeing violence in their country. And the United States has a responsibility to step up and respond to the call of providing for at least some of those people.
Q And if I could just go back to the DNC issue. When Robin Mook said this morning that they have information that it is Russia that is doing this, that's behind this, you're saying that's solely based on private intelligent and private assessment? There's nothing then from the government that has given them that indication that Russia is behind it?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that's a good question. You should ask Mr. Mook exactly what information he was relying on. The point that I was making is that there's plenty of outside analysis that's been done that has reached the same conclusion that he articulated over the weekend. The federal government, using tools that -- using a variety of tools -- is working to complete our own assessment. And that work is being done by the FBI. And there's not a whole lot I can say about that because I don't want to compromise their investigation.
Q Are you aware of any official government communication from the United States government or the FBI or the White House to either the Clinton campaign or the DNC that they'd been hacked?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any of that.
Q Because in 2008, I mean, Josh Bolten called -- when the Chinese hacked the McCain campaign and the Obama campaign, when you were on the Obama campaign, it was Josh Bolten who called up David Plouffe. And there was something official, that they weren’t just relying on private assessments.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, what I'm sure is true is that as the FBI conducts their investigation into what happened at the DNC, they'll have some interaction with the DNC as they conduct their investigation. But I can't speak to any specific conversations that have taken place.
Q So they could be relying, though, on something from the FBI that said -- telling them that they were hacked?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't know whether or not the FBI has provided them any information. I guess the point that I'm trying to make is there is always a lot of public speculation out there, including some evidence that has been marshalled by a private sector entity, and based on that evidence, that this outside group that is a group of experts -- I'm not trying to diminish them -- but they've reached their own conclusions about this. So it certainly is possible that Mr. Mook was relying on that publicly available information. You'd have to ask him if that's the case.
Q But it's also possible that he's heard from the FBI or the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you'd have to ask him who he has spoken to.
Q Just a couple topics. One is last week you talked about the President not watching the RNC convention. And you also suggested that he would certainly watch his wife, but you weren't clear who else he would watch other than maybe Secretary Clinton. I'm wondering if you could tell us whether he plans to tune into Bernie Sanders's speech tonight, considering Sanders's role in this primary process and leading up to this?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know whether or not he'll watch Senator Sanders's speech tonight. But I'll see if I can find out tomorrow if he watched it and we'll let you know.
Q That would be great. On another topic. Susan Rice -- Ambassador Rice was in Beijing today, had a meeting with a number of Chinese officials. In the readout from the White House and I think some brief remarks that she made in her meeting with President Xi -- they talked about a range of issues but did not specifically mention the South China Sea. I'm wondering if you could tell us if that issue was -- and the recent ruling by the tribunal was brought up by Ambassador Rice, what kind of message she delivered on that point, and if she got any reassurances from either State Councilor Yang or President Xi about China's behavior in that region -- whether they'll tone down some of their provocative behavior.
MR. EARNEST: David, I did not get a detailed readout from Ambassador Rice and her team who are traveling in China right now. What I can tell you is that there were a range of maritime issues on her agenda when she went to meet with President Xi. So it certainly was her expectation that it would come up in their conversation, so I expect that it did. I'm not able to speak to the reaction from the Chinese leader when it was discussed at this point.
But this was certainly among the wide range of issues that Ambassador Rice was prepared to discuss with Chinese officials, including President Xi. This included conversations about the upcoming G20 meeting -- the President, of course, is planning to attend and I would anticipate he'll do a bilateral meeting with President Xi when he's there. They spent some time preparing for that conversation. I know that she also discussed with them things like human rights and the treatment of U.S. businesses and NGOs in China -- something that we've raised concerns about in the past.
There also was an opportunity for them to talk about a couple of issues in which the United States and China have been able to coordinate effectively. Both in terms of trying to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and to make progress on climate change, and obviously we've talked a lot in the past about how the ability of the United States and China to work together on fighting carbon pollution was essential to the broader international effort to reach a climate change agreement at the end of last year.
Q Overall, the White House readout seemed fairly positive. It talked about cooperation at unprecedented levels and a very fruitful meeting between the Ambassador and President Xi. I mean, there are others who would suggest that the sort of differences among the two countries are also pronounced at this moment. And under the current President of China, things have, in some ways, deteriorated in these other areas. Why was it such an optimistic sort of readout on this? And when you call it a fruitful meeting, there wasn't a lot of detail about what fruit it delivered between Ambassador Rice and the President. Could you be more specific about what the outcomes were?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think our expectation is that moving forward, that these kinds of meetings are intended to lay the groundwork for positive results down the road. And Ambassador Rice was explicit about in her conversations with Chinese officials -- and not just her counterpart but also the Chinese President -- that she's interested in -- that the administration is interested in a constructive relationship with the Chinese. It doesn't mean there won't be disagreements. Obviously there are a range of disagreements, including on cyber issues. So those of you who know Ambassador Rice know that she is unlikely to shy away from being blunt about those differences.
But we've also worked hard in the context of our relationship with China to make sure that those differences don't prevent us from making progress in other areas. And certainly when it comes to things like climate change and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and even some aspects of our military-to-military relationship, we've made some important progress that has enhanced the standing and status of citizens in both our countries.
So there are definitely differences of opinion. I'm confident those were discussed in these meetings that Ambassador Rice had. But I'm confident that it's in the context of these discussions, she went to great lengths to make clear that, even despite our differences, let's look for opportunities to make some progress together. And when the United States and China can cooperate on something, the sky is the limit.
Q Josh, a question for you on the U.N. report that's out showing a record number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year. The majority of those it would show were anti-government forces like the Taliban, but a significant number were pro-government forces. What is the concern of the U.S. as the U.S. is getting more involved or renewing its commitment to work with Afghan security forces for these numbers? Specifically, there's a huge number of children that have been killed or injured.
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously there was a bombing in Afghanistan over the weekend in which dozens of innocent people were killed and many more were injured. Almost all of those were citizens. And, again, based solely on the public reports, it does appear that the individual or individuals who carried out that attack were intentionally trying to harm civilians. This is a tactic that we've seen from ISIL. It's a tactic we've seen from other terrorist organizations. And it's one of the many things that distinguishes terrorists from the rest of the world.
The United States, and certainly the Afghan government, go to great lengths to try to prevent civilian casualties. And I would anticipate that as we see the performance of Afghan security forces improve, their ability to successfully prevent civilian casualties when they're carrying out operations will also improve.
But there’s just -- it’s important not to draw an equivalent between organizations that set out to harm civilians and government forces, including those backed by the United States, that go to great lengths to try to protect those civilian -- innocent civilians. And it doesn’t mean Afghanistan is not a dangerous place; it surely is. But this administration and this country places a high priority on preventing civilian casualties and that’s not going to change.
Q But what role does the U.S. play? The report showed a 47 percent increase in the number of civilians killed by pro-government forces. So what role does the U.S. play? Or how does the U.S. play into that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States is certainly playing an important role in enhancing the training of Afghan forces. And improved training certainly will have a positive impact on their ability to prevent civilian casualties. I think that’s the most direct impact that we can have on that particular situation.
I would also expect that as Afghan security forces continue to make progress against the Taliban and other extremists that are operating in Afghanistan, as the situation stabilizes, that also makes it less likely that innocent civilians could be in harm’s way. And that’s why a lot of the focus that we’ve been -- that Afghan forces have made a priority is on stabilizing the security situation in Afghanistan’s major cities.
But again, these kinds of civilian casualties are a tragedy. And that’s why the United States goes to such great lengths to avoid them, and it’s also part of why we go to such great lengths to support the Afghan people and Afghan government and Afghan security forces as they take the fight to the Taliban and other extremist organizations in Afghanistan.
Q Thank you, Josh. One question on the convention and Hillary Clinton and trustworthiness. CNN and CBS have polls out showing record highs in terms of the number of American people that don’t believe that Hillary Clinton is trustworthy. What can, or is there anything the President and First Lady will say in their remarks that could help Hillary Clinton in this area?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when it comes to the campaign strategy, I’d refer you to the campaign. I think certainly something that you’ve heard the President say before is he’s in a unique position to offer up his own assessment of Secretary Clinton. He worked closely with Secretary Clinton when she was Secretary of State in his administration. He obviously competed against Secretary Clinton in an historic Democratic primary campaign. They served together for a brief time in the United States Senate. Through their extensive work relationship they’ve become friends.
So his firsthand experience is relevant. And that firsthand experience is not just drawn from the fact that he is the current President of the United States, but it’s also drawn from the fact that he knows her personally, and he can speak with his own personal knowledge of her skills and her character. And he’s already done that. He certainly did that in the joint campaign event that they did in Charlotte back in -- I guess it was just a couple of weeks ago now, seems like a long time ago.
But I certainly would anticipate that you’ll hear the President make that case in his convention speech and in his future advocacy for her campaign down the line. He’s got a unique perspective to relate based on his own personal experience with Secretary Clinton. And I imagine that some people will find that quite persuasive.
Q Will the First Lady be speaking about her relationship with Hillary Clinton? Was there any interaction between the First Lady and Hillary Clinton over her remarks tonight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously Mrs. Obama has had an opportunity to get to know Mrs. Clinton a little bit as well. But the nature of their relationship is different. So much of President Obama’s interactions with Secretary Clinton have taken place in a professional context, and that is the context through which he can evaluate her skills and her character. Mrs. Obama’s relationship with Secretary Clinton is a little bit different. But stay tuned.
Q Two quick follow-ups on Germany. One, I know that there are big differences between how the U.S. admits refugees and the situation in Germany, but are you concerned that there will be a political backlash here, given this recent string of attacks? And also, has the U.S. taken any steps in recent days to increase security cooperation with the Germans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can certainly tell you that German officials -- German and U.S. officials have been in touch in recent days. And we’ve been saddened by the violence that we’ve seen in Germany over the last week or so that has harmed a number of innocent people.
And of course, the United States stands resolute alongside our German allies as they confront the forces of extremism in their own country. I can’t speak to any specific steps that have been taken, but the United States is certainly interested in doing whatever we can to support the German government and the German people and German national security agencies as they safeguard their own country.
With regard to the political situation in Germany, I’ll let more informed individuals offer up their own analysis of the political situation in Germany. But what I will just say as a general matter is that one of the things that makes the alliance between the United States and Germany so strong is our shared values and our shared commitment to those values. And those values include protecting innocent civilians and offering humanitarian relief to those in need, and not treating people differently just because of their religion. And those values are not unique to the United States and Germany, but our shared, deep commitment to those values certainly strengthens our alliance.
Yes, sir, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks so much. On Turkey, Josh, a couple of questions, if I may. Just today, there are about 42 journalists -- issued arrest warrant for 42 journalists -- there’s another warrant for arrest for another 19 journalists. These are the only reported warrants, and there are many other across Turkey. A crackdown goes on. It has been 10 days since the coup attempt failed. Are you watching what’s going on in Turkey in terms of a government’s, some call purge, some other call crackdown after the coup?
MR. EARNEST: President Obama was asked about this on Friday, and I think the President spoke quite directly about the situation in Turkey. I think it should be evident from his response that it’s not just that the United States government is closely following the situation in Turkey. President Obama is personally following the situation in Turkey quite closely.
Turkey is an important ally of the United States. And there’s a reason that the United States was one of the first countries around the world to issue our own swift condemnation of the coup attempt in Turkey. The United States values our alliance and certainly deeply respects the democratic traditions inside of Turkey. And when President Obama had an opportunity to speak with President Erdogan on the telephone last week, President Obama conveyed his view that Turkish democratic institutions are worth protecting. It’s those very institutions and traditions that were critical to repelling the coup in the first place.
And there’s strong support among the Turkish people and within the Turkish government for those democratic institutions. In fact, in the midst of the coup, you saw the parties in the Turkish parliament come forward issuing their own sweeping condemnation of the coup attempt, even though some of those parties have vigorous political disagreements with President Erdogan.
So these kinds of democratic institutions and traditions, the democratic values that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution are all worth protecting. And even as the Turkish government conducts the kind of investigation that’s necessary to get to the bottom of what happened in the context of the failed coup, it’s also important for them to keep in mind that those democratic institutions were instrumental from preventing the coup from succeeding.
Q Do you think that these many journalists being detained or arrested, is it justified?
MR. EARNEST: Well, freedom of the press is one of the rights that’s enshrined in the Turkish constitution. And President Obama on more than one occasion has had a conversation with President Erdogan about the United States’ own view and the U.S. government’s own view that protecting those rights is important. And the President certainly has conveyed that to President Erdogan in the past, even before the coup took place.
So the United States’ commitment to those values and those principles, including the freedom of the press, is rock solid. And we certainly have -- well, I’ll just say, President Obama has certainly conveyed our rock-solid commitment to those issues to President Erdogan in the hopes that he’ll demonstrate a similar commitment to them.
Q So you think it’s not justified? Can you --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can’t from here render a judgment on that. But President Obama made clear that he’s personally watching the situation closely. U.S. officials continue to be in close touch with their Turkish counterparts, and we certainly believe that it’s important, even as the Turkish government goes to great lengths to determine what exactly happened in the context of the failed coup -- and to bring some accountability to those who may have been complicit in that effort -- that it’s critically important that the Turkish government not also undermine the very democratic institutions that, ostensibly, they’re trying to protect.
Q In the same press conference, President Obama last week stated that some of the rumors “that the U.S. involved” about coup would threaten critical alliance between Turkey and U.S. Yet over the weekend, Turkish Justice Minister said that however knows his name is Obama and U.S. also knows that it is behind the coup. This came from justice minister. And today, very staunch pro-government newspaper headline accusing the former General Campbell is behind the coup -- who operated and coordinated the coup from Turkey -- visiting Turkey several times in recent months -- with a picture and the name. Do you think your message has been listened to in Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the allegation against General Campbell is baseless and barely worth a response. President Obama was, to use his word, unequivocal in the East Room about the United States and our strong commitment to our alliance with Turkey.
The President was unequivocal in his condemnation of the attempt by some members of the military to overthrow the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. There's some pretty good evidence to indicate that we mean what we saw. The United States was among the first countries to issue a statement critical of the failed coup attempt.
So President Obama can obviously speak to this more authoritatively than I can, and he did, as recently as last Friday in saying that the United States was, of course, not just not involved in the coup attempt but rather was and has been critical of the failed coup attempt and strongly supportive of the democratically elected government of Turkey.
Q Final question. There is an Amnesty International report saying that there is credible evidence of torture, including rape, applied to detainees -- over 10,000 people so far have been detained. Have you seen the report? Do you have a comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: I've been briefed on the report. What I can tell you is that there are important democratic institutions and traditions inside of Turkey that are worth protecting. There are rights enshrined in Turkey's constitution that are worth protecting. These basic human rights are an important part of the alliance between the United States and Turkey -- both the United States and Turkey are strongly committed to those universal human rights and strongly committed to protecting those universal human rights.
And it's important, even as Turkey conducts an investigation to determine who may have been responsible for the failed coup attempt, that they protect those basic human rights moving forward. And that is something that President Obama has conveyed directly in private to President Erdogan. It's something that President Obama discussed publicly yesterday -- or on Friday in his news conferences. And it's something I anticipate that the administration will continue to watch closely moving forward.
Q Turkey suspended the human rights convention, so it is not bound to it. And also there is a state of emergency in Turkey right now. So you have been mentioning the (inaudible) suspend in Turkey.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what also happened in Turkey, as you pointed out, was just 10 days ago there was an attempt by some members of the military to overthrow the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. So it's understandable that the Turkish government and the Turkish people would be interested in a full investigation and in some accountability.
So the situation in Turkey is tense. People are understandably on edge. But what is clear is that it's important for Turkey's government to protect the kinds of democratic institutions and traditions that Turkey has long stood for you. Ostensibly, that is what the government is protecting -- is the Turkish democracy. And as they protect the Turkish democracy, it's important that they are protective of the principles that form the foundation of that democracy.
Thanks, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:22 P.M. EDT