Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Lake Tahoe, NV, 8/31/2016
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Lake Tahoe, Nevada
11:28 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One. Obviously, you all are on board anticipating the President's extensive travels through Asia. Before we leave the United States, however, the President will be spending time today at a summit at Lake Tahoe, organized by the Democratic Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid.
The President will spend some time speaking at the 20th convening of this summit about the importance of conservation. This is a policy priority that the President identified early in his presidency, and he's worked closely with congressional leaders across the country, including Harry Reid, who have also identified this as a priority. And the President will spend some time talking about the legacy that Senator Reid leaves behind when it comes to conservation, but he'll also talk about why conservation is a critical component of any of our efforts to fight climate change. Obviously, Lake Tahoe is a fitting setting for a conversation like that.
From there, the President will fly to Hawaii. And upon arrival in Hawaii, the President will address a dinner that's being hosted to mark both the World Conservation Congress and the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders. And this will be an opportunity for the President to identify the important role that the United States is playing in leading the international community's response to climate change and conservation. So that will be the end of what will be a very long day for all of us.
The President will head to the Midway Atoll tomorrow. You guys will be along for that trip. And we'll gaggle in advance of that travel, so we can talk more about that trip tomorrow.
But with that, why don’t we open it up to whatever questions may be on your mind.
Q Can I ask about the killing of Adnani, whether you have any more details about that -- whether it was, in fact, the U.S. involved -- that did this? And then more importantly, what it means, in your view, for the overall campaign against ISIS, how significant is the loss of this figure for ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I don’t have any new information. I can -- as you know from my Department of Defense colleagues, the United States, with the support of our coalition partners, carried out a strike targeting Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Mr. Adnani was a senior ISIL official. He's often described as spokesperson for the group, but he also has played an active role in recruiting supporters for ISIL. He's also been a leading proponent of a strategy that encourages individuals to carry out lone-wolf attacks around the world. His death would represent a significant blow to ISIL. One of the priorities that we've identified for this campaign is removing external plotters from the battlefield. And Mr. Adnani has played a leading role in those activities.
So my colleagues at the Department of Defense are continuing to work to assess the results of the operation that was carried out yesterday. When they have more details about those results, they'll share them. But if his death is confirmed, it would represent a significant blow against ISIL.
I would point out that there have been some reports of Russian officials indicating that Russia may have been involved in this effort. I'm not aware of any facts that would substantiate a claim like that.
Q There was no cooperation with the Russians on this at all?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm not in a position to confirm any facts related to any kind of Russian involvement in the operation that was carried out yesterday targeting Mr. Adnani.
Q A question on Syria. Turkish state media is saying that the U.S. failed to respond to a Turkish request for air support for their troops that are battling ISIS in Syria. I'm wondering if you can talk through at all if that's true; if the U.S got that request, why it would have denied it, if they did get the request on that.
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen those news reports. So, Justin, I would actually refer you to my Department of Defense colleagues who may be able to give you an operational update. What I do know to be true is that U.S. forces were instrumental in supporting Turkish operations along the Turkish-Syria border over the weekend, where Turkey did have some success in driving ISIL out of Jarabulus. So I'm not sure exactly what this report is referring to.
There have been a significant number of U.S. operations carried out in support of Turkish military efforts on the ground against ISIL. We've obviously been encouraging the Turks to take actions along their border targeting ISIL for quite some time. And when they did finally take more of those actions that we've been asking for, we did localize military support to assist them.
So I'm not sure if this specific report is a reference to some other request that was put forward by the Turks, but my colleagues at the Department of Defense may be able to speak to that issue in more detail.
Q Does the President have any thoughts on Mr. Trump's visit to the border?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President in a lot of detail about Mr. Trump's plans for today. I can tell you that it is not uncommon, of course, for leading presidential candidates to make overseas trips. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama traveled overseas, both to the Middle East and Europe. And again, that's consistent with presidential candidates making overseas trips to visit America's closest friends and allies.
You'll recall when President Obama took that trip, the highlight was a trip to Germany -- at least one of the highlights was a trip to Germany -- where the President spoke in Berlin to a crowd of about 100,000 Germans who warmly received him and enthusiastically cheered his speech. We'll see if Mr. Trump is similarly received.
Q Josh, I'm wondering what the White House made of the results of several primaries last night, the fact that so many incumbents -- John McCain, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Marco Rubio -- seemed to easily skate into the general election. Did the White House see that as an indication that the anti-establishment fervor this year has been overstated?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I think it's hard to generalize to that degree, in part because some of the candidates that you refer to were people who entered their primary campaigns on pretty strong footing. So I think it's hard to draw a nationwide assessment of the political climate based on a handful of primaries in two states. That said, the President was quite pleased to see a couple of Democratic candidates that he had strongly endorsed emerge victorious in those contests. And those contests didn’t end up being particularly close.
So I think that might be one indication of the President's deep reservoir of support among Democrats, primarily because that's part of the trend that we've seen all across the country. The President's track record, when it comes to Democratic candidates that he endorsed emerging victorious in the primary, is quite strong.
So I think that's an indication that the President does have some sway with voters across the country, and I think he intends to use that influence in the context of a general election. I think the other dynamic that is in play is, at least a couple of the individuals who are facing primary contests had been supporters of the President's trade agenda. So I think that also might be an indication -- again, because it's a continuation of a theme that we've seen across the country -- that the political vulnerability facing those candidates that are taking a smart approach to trade might also be overstated.
I know that, at least on the Democratic side, there was some noise that some establishment figures in the Democratic Party were going to target supporters of the President's trade agenda in Democratic primaries. Those primaries didn’t end up being all that competitive. And again, that's not just the case in Florida; that was true of all 28 House Democrats who supported the President's trade agenda.
So I think that is a pretty good indication of where the politics are in this situation. I think as with a lot of things when it comes to the United States Congress, it's apparent that some members of Congress might be a little behind the curve when it comes to the politics of the President's strategy around trade policy.
Q During the Asia portion of the trip, the President is going to meet with the President of the Philippines. He said yesterday that -- basically something along the lines of, President Obama needs to listen first and then talk during the meeting. Do you have any response to him?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, the Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States. And the President values the important relationships that we have not just maintained, but strengthened with our treaty allies around the world. And one of the -- there are a variety of benefits associated with being a treaty ally of the United States. And certainly as the Philippines deals with some of the maritime security situations in the South China Sea, they benefit from a close relationship with the United States.
You'll recall that when President Obama traveled to the Philippines last fall, the President spent some time not just meeting with his counterpart, but also spending time observing cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and the navy that's maintained by the Philippines. In fact, there is a Coast Guard vessel that had been decommissioned, transferred to the Philippine navy, refurbished, and is now being used to enhance maritime security in the Philippines. So that is one tangible benefit of the effective relationship that the United States has built with the Philippines that has consequences for the Philippines' national security.
Another feature of our alliances is the President's not just ability, but willingness, to speak bluntly -- even on those issues where there might be some daylight between the United States and our allies.
Q After listening.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the President is going to speak quite directly about our shared interests with the Philippines. Both countries benefit from effective cooperation on a variety of issues, including maritime security. But the President is certainly not going to pull any punches in raising well-documented and relevant concerns when it comes to human rights.
Q He's quite an unorthodox politician that can be quite unpredictable in some of the things that he says.
MR. EARNEST: That's putting it mildly.
Q Is the White House preparing for this meeting in any way that's different from other bilateral meetings?
MR. EARNEST: No, not particularly. I think the President's team has been interacting with their counterparts in the Philippines to set an agenda for the meeting. And I'm confident it will include some of the things that we've discussed both as it relates to maritime security, but also as it relates to some concerns that we have about the human rights situation inside the Philippines.
Q Josh, Canada has said that it is going to apply to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the AIIB.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. The international organization with the worst acronym in the world -- (laughter) -- the AIIB.
Q I'm wondering if Canada gave the United States a heads up about this, and how the White House feels about such a close ally doing this. And secondly, is there any chance that the United States is looking at joining?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the United States and Canadian officials have been in touch on this issue. And what the United States has strongly advocated for are international institutions that are committed to high standards of governance and transparency. And when President Obama welcomed President Xi to the White House last fall, we announced a set of commitments that the Chinese had made with regard to ensuring that the AIIB met those high standards.
We know that Canada shares our view about the importance of transparency and good governance when it comes to these kinds of international institutions, and we're confident that when they -- as they join that organization and as they participate in those activities, they'll continue to be a strong advocate for that kind of governance. So, ultimately I think that's a good thing.
I'm not aware of any plans right now that the United States has to join the AIIB, but if that changes we'll let you know.
Q Just another quick one on Trump. There's a report from NBC that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico has advised the Trump campaign against making the trip, or had previously advised them against making the trip. I'm wondering if you can confirm that that's true, and if so, if that's advice that the White House would overrule or has been in contact with or disagrees with in any way.
MR. EARNEST: No, the White House is not offering any advice to the Trump campaign. And I can't speak to any communications between the embassy and the Trump campaign, so I'd refer you to my colleagues at the State Department for any details about those conversations.
Q And I noticed Mark wasn't the only one with a byline in the New York Times this morning. (Laughter.) So I wanted to ask about your op-ed, and, specifically, I think one reason that the White House might not be getting as much credit for transparency steps is sort of the notion that you're doing it for political gains as an implicit contrast with the Bush administration and with Hillary during the 2008 campaign. So I'm wondering if the principle of this is really important, why you've been reticent to call on the campaigns now to open up access to fundraisers or maintain the standards that you've hit.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me first clarify that what I submitted to the New York Times was merely a letter to the editor. I don't think that qualifies as a byline or even as an op-ed.
Q A signature line.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, a signature line -- I'll take that. I'll take that.
I think the letter to the editor largely speaks for itself, but I think you have raised an aspect of the argument that I think is important that I hope to surface with the letter, and it's simply this: I don't think there's a significant political benefit associated with transparency. I don't think there are that many voters that are out there saying, look, one of the reasons I'm going to vote for President Obama in this election is because he has kept his promise to maintain the most transparent administration in history. Voters, I think, are focused on other issues -- that's okay. That's not a criticism of voters; that is just an observation about the fact that people have other concerns on their minds.
There aren't a lot of people who are -- outside of the press corps -- who are checking out the WAVES records on a regular basis or reading the pool reports that you guys generate from the President's comments at fundraisers. There's not a large built-in constituency for transparency --
Q But this was an issue on the 2008 campaign. I mean, this is something that the President -- it was in his stump speech. So, like, let's not pretend that this wasn't a political issue to some extent, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me finish my answer and we can get to that. My point is, there is not a large constituency in the American electorate for transparency. The only constituency that exists for transparency in government are professional journalists. All of you are ardent advocates for government transparency, and you should be. That is a good thing. That is critical to the success of our democracy -- professional journalists who take their job very seriously to press for more access, to press for greater transparency, to hold people in power accountable.
And so I think the point of my letter to the editor is simply that that is a valuable contribution that the U.S. media makes to the success of our democracy. That is why the White House Press Corps will continue to press every White House for more access and for more transparency. And failing to do so is failing to do your jobs.
However, effective advocacy must remain credible, and preserving that credibility involves giving credit where it's due. There are steps that the Obama administration has taken that are historic, that are unprecedented, and that advance the cause of transparency. That does not mean that the press corps should stop pushing for access, but it does mean, in my view, that the press corps should recognize that progress where it has been made.
That is an entirely appropriate debate and conversation for us to have in a political context -- for us to have in the context of a presidential campaign. And, yes, that was part of the debate that we had in the context of the presidential campaign. But the President didn't make that argument because he expected that a lot of people would be voting for a candidate promising the most transparent administration in history. He incorporated his commitment to transparency in government as part of his stump speech because he wanted to communicate to the American public what his priorities were and what his vision is for the most effective way to lead the country. Transparency in government is part of that vision, it's part of his approach to good government. But I don't think there are voters out there who are pulling the lever for Obama or are going to pull the lever for other presidential candidates because of promises they're making about transparency.
When it comes to offering advice to the campaigns, there are some built-in limitations that prevent me from offering all kinds of advice that I might have for presidential candidates. The responsibility that I have here is to be focused on government and the President's agenda and being attentive to the people's business. That is separate from campaign work.
I think what I will just say in general is the President certainly hopes that the high standard for transparency that he set is continued by his successor, and the President is certainly hopeful that the next president will seek to build on the progress that we make when it comes to transparency.
But what is also true is there is no built-in political incentive for any politician to do that. It's going to require those journalists who devote the most time and attention to covering those activities to be effective and credible advocates for doing so. And part of that credibility involves giving those politicians credit where it's due.
Q So does President Obama hope to see the next President keep the visitor logs open, as he has had?
MR. EARNEST: The President certainly hopes that all of -- that whoever his successor is is somebody who will not just maintain the high standard of transparency that he set, but will look for ways to build on it.
Q Specifically on the logs?
MR. EARNEST: And that includes the WAVES records.
Q So, Josh, when you look at a number of specific things that the Democratic nominee that the President has endorsed is not doing that the President did do -- for instance, the fact that there's no protective pool covering her the way there is for the President and was during his campaign -- are you willing to describe that as a rollback from, as you described it, this high standard that the President has set? I mean, is there not a deterioration of that that we're already seeing? And if you can't call it for what it is, then how are we supposed to interpret that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think what you should do is you should interpret it as me being quite limited in what I can say about the context of the campaign.
MR. EARNERST: Well, again --
Q You talk about the campaign every day.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you guys talk about the campaign every day; I'm pretty careful about how I do that. And again, that is based on the responsibility that I have as a government servant, as a public servant. And my paycheck is paid for by the taxpayers and so I'm cautious about that.
Q Josh, would you mind checking with White House lawyers on -- obviously you have legitimate Hatch Act concerns, but could you check and see what might be acceptable to say about genuine policy issues as opposed to trying to pass judgment on one candidate or another?
MR. EARNEST: Let me try to answer -- so I appreciate the acknowledgement. This is what I think that I do think that I can say, which is that the President does believe that all of you should make transparency an issue. This is a topic that's worthy of a political debate. And, again, I don't know how many voting decisions are going to be swayed by this debate, but it's one that's worth having and it's important for this to be part of the debate and something that all of you should scrutinize.
But, ultimately, how the campaigns respond to that is going to be their own decision based on their own analysis of the situation. And so I don't want to be a in a position of second-guessing that or even being perceived to be offering advice on that. But, I mean, whether it's tax returns or medical records or treatment of independent journalists, there are a variety of ways to evaluate how both candidates and their campaigns have performed on this measure. And I think the argument that I was making to Justin about the responsibility that independent journalists have to be advocates for transparency applies in this context too, which means giving credit where it's due, acknowledging differences where they exist, but continuing to press for more access and for more transparency and for more accountability. And that is an approach that all of you have taken when covering this White House, and I think it's entirely fair for you to pursue that same approach in covering the campaigns.
Q On a different subject. The Israelis this morning or late last night announced the approval of around -- well, hundreds of new settlement homes in the West Bank and retroactive approval of around 100 more. The White House, when the Israeli government does things like this, you routinely make statements along the lines of saying that this is deeply worrying and it makes a two-state solution less possible. Given that this keeps on happening despite your demotions, is it time for the White House to recalibrate its response and to increase the pain that Israel feels when it does things like this that you don't want them to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, let me start by saying something similar to what we have said before. This is not the first time that we have heard an announcement like this from the Israeli government. And this significant expansion of settlement activity poses a serious and growing threat to the viability of a two-state solution. We are particularly troubled by a policy of retroactively approving illegal outposts in unauthorized settlements.
So I think that we have been quite unambiguous about the concerns we have on this issue. And in terms of considering a different kind of response, I don't think that's something that we would discuss publically. I think we'd start by having that conversation privately.
Q I have one follow-up question from your briefing yesterday about Apple. And you explained the concerns of the United States about the EU acting unilaterally on tax policy. But I'm wondering how much of this you feel is going to be discussed at the G20 and whether you're thinking that this is going to overshadow some of the other things that maybe the United States had hoped to deal with at the G20.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, that is such a good question that I asked the same question earlier this morning. So what I will do is see if I can get some more information about exactly how this will be featured on the President's agenda at the G20, and see if I can give you some more detail about that in the context of tomorrow's gaggle.
Q Tomorrow morning?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. Will that be all right?
Q I guess so. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Anything else?
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, you guys.
11:58 A.M. EDT