Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/23/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for keeping you waiting, but I assume that you enjoyed the music that was playing in my absence. So I'm late, but at least I arranged for some little entertainment before we get started.
TGIF. Let's get this going. Josh, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. Let's start with this Saudi legislation. I'm disappointed that you didn’t erect like a countdown clock, cable news-style, for us to sort of all build up the anticipation. But I know there are some folks that work in the legislative office that are adept at counting votes. Do you have the sense that at this point, given the work that you've done to try and persuade lawmakers to reconsider, that you have the votes to avert an override of the President's veto?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, we certainly are counting votes and having a number of conversations with members of Congress in both parties, in both houses of Congress. One of the particular challenges of counting votes in this instance is the frequency with which we hear private concerns expressed that don’t match the public votes that are cast. So I don’t have a solid vote count to share, but I can confirm for you that we continue to make a forceful case to members of Congress that overriding the President's veto means that this country will start pursuing a less forceful approach in dealing with state sponsors of terrorism, and it potentially opens up U.S. servicemembers and diplomats and even companies to spurious lawsuits in kangaroo courts around the world.
That’s the crux of our concern. And I know you described it as the Saudi Arabia bill, and they certainly are interested in the outcome here. But from the administration perspective, our concern extends not just to the impact this would have on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but rather the impact that this could have on the United States' relationship with countries around the world.
Q You've been saying for a few days now that you're hearing one thing from lawmakers in public and something else in private. Are you suggesting that members of Congress, including a lot of Democrats, are being duplicitous by saying -- telling something to their constituents that's contradictory to what they acknowledge off the record?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I'm acknowledging is, first of all, I don’t think I'm the first person or even the first White House Press Secretary to stand up here and to say that we're getting conflicting signals from members of Congress based on comparing their private conversations and their public expressions of a position on a particular issue. I'm also acknowledging that the politics of the situation are really tough. And if anything, I think that is an illustration of the principled nature of the President's position.
The President is not blind to the politics of this situation. The President understands that the talking points that are being prepared for the proponents of this bill have more political upside than the talking points that I'm able to present you from here. But if we're focused on the substantive, long-term impact on our nation's national security, that's what's driving the position, that's what's driving the President's decision to veto this bill -- not because it's politically convenient, it's not; it's political inconvenient.
But when it comes to the stakes and the impact that this could have on our national security, the President is willing to take some political heat in order to try to do the right thing and stand up for a principle that has an impact on the safety and security and risk that's faced by our servicemembers and diplomats around the world.
Q I know he disagrees with this substantively from the points that you just described, but does the President attach any symbolic significance to the prospect of being rebuked by Congress in a way that he never has before, and to having another branch of government so decisively overrule his decision-making on a major issue?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President is not particularly concerned about that. I mean, in part because this President has gone longer in his tenure in the White House than just about any other President in modern history before facing the prospect of having his veto overridden. That's not happened yet. We're going to continue to make our case. But the President is much more worried about the long-term impact of this legislation on our national security than he is about the impact that this could have in his daily interactions with members of Congress.
Q And on one other topic. We learned today that Cheryl Mills and two others officials were granted immunities as part of the look the FBI was doing into the Clinton email situation. Given that this whole controversy is basically driven by the perception that the Clintons play by different rules than anyone else, does the White House think that it was appropriate for the FBI to offer the immunity to those three individuals?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, off the top of my head, I can't recall an instance in which I second-guessed the decision made by the FBI Director or an independent investigator at the FBI, and I'm not going to start today. The fact is, the reason that President Obama nominated Director Comey to lead the FBI a few years ago is based on his reputation and commitment to putting politics aside and focusing on his responsibilities as a public servant and as a senior law enforcement official in the United States government.
It's presumably that same criteria that prompted just about every member of the Republican Senate Conference to support his nomination to this job, and to confirm him in this job. So the President has got a lot of confidence in the ability of senior officials at the FBI to make decisions based on their judgement, not on the politics. And that's what the President wants his FBI Director to do.
So I don’t have any insight into this decision. For more insight into it, I'd refer you to the FBI.
Q Thank you. Going back to the 9/11 bill, you say you're making your case. Has the President been making any calls to lawmakers on this, trying to prevent an override?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific presidential-level conversations to share with you. But there certainly have been a number of conversations at the staff level, here at the White House, with staff members and members on Capitol Hill, again, in both parties and in both houses of Congress.
Q Secretary Clinton has come out today -- or her campaign has said that she should sign this legislation if she was elected. Does that complicate the efforts to persuade lawmakers to not override this veto?
MR. EARNEST: No. I don’t think anybody was particularly surprised by that announcement.
Q Moving on to the continuing resolution and trying to fund the government, Democrats have opposed legislation from Republicans in the Senate because it wouldn’t provide funding for Flint, Michigan. Now, I know that you're not going to negotiate this from the podium, but --
MR. EARNEST: As easy as that would be. (Laughter.)
Q -- but I wanted to know, does the White House support that position? Should funding for the government, should it include funding for Flint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the Republican Leader in the Senate put out a proposal yesterday, and there are some attractive elements of the proposal, the first of which is Congress has a basic responsibility to keep the United States government open for business, and that's what the bill that he put forward would do. The President is obviously pleased to see that, and that's certainly something -- the President would like to avoid a government shutdown. He believes that Congress needs to do its job, and this is one element of it.
This proposal also includes funding to fight the Zika virus -- not as much money as we initially requested, but after seven months of waiting, it is a welcome development that Republicans in Congress are finally moving forward on a bipartisan proposal to give our public health professionals the resources that they need to fight the Zika virus.
We were, however, disappointed that Congress has not made a commitment to addressing the situation in Flint. I know there are a bunch of Democrats who are advocating for that approach, but not enough Republicans. And the President is concerned that that situation has not been addressed in the context of these ongoing negotiations. So he’s concerned about that.
The President is also concerned about the fact that the proposal includes a rider that would essentially protect the ability of special interests to funnel money into political campaigns without having to disclose it. First of all, I don't really know what a proposal like that is doing in a budget bill, setting aside the fact that transparency in government and transparency in politics is something that is worthy of bipartisan support.
So one of the reasons why I was a little late in joining you all today is I had an opportunity to talk with the President in the Oval Office about this proposal. And after that conversation it's not at all clear to me that he is prepared to sign this bill because he believes that Congress has got more work to do. And hopefully they’ll get to work on that and get it done without putting the American people and the American economy through another cliffhanger related to a government shutdown.
Q When we're talking about the 9/11 bill, and you're saying that sometimes what is said in these conversations doesn’t match the votes and that the politics are tough, it sounds like you're saying that Democrats are playing politics, just as you've accused the Republicans of doing with other issues.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the -- I'm not going to generalize. I think what I would encourage you to do is to go talk to these members of Congress about what their position is. And the President has made it quite clear about what his position is. It's a principled one. It's one that means he’s taken some political heat, but he’s prepared to take that political heat because he’s committed to protecting our national security.
But, look, here’s the other thing that I've acknowledged. The President is also in a better position to take this political heat because of his strong record of looking out for the families of those who lost loved ones on 9/11. This is the President that ordered the operation to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield. This is the President who, time and again, advocated for legislation that provided health care to recovery workers at Ground Zero, even in the face of some Republican opposition to that.
And this is the President who, time and time again, has spoken movingly about the impact that 9/11 has had on our country and the way that those who lost loved ones on 9/11 serve as a daily inspiration to the President and to Americans across the country in exhibiting the kind of resolve and resiliency that's unique to this country.
And so, look, the President is better positioned to take this political heat than your average back-bencher in the United States Congress. But that’s heat that the President is prepared to take, nonetheless, because he feels strongly about looking out for the interests of our servicemembers and our diplomats when they’re representing our country overseas.
Q But if he feels that strongly about this particular piece of legislation, why isn't he making calls or having meetings with particular members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't rule out that he’s had some conversations about this, but I don't have any specific conversations to tell you about. What I can say is there’s no doubt about the President’s position. He stated it clearly, both in answering your questions, and I've been answering a number of questions about this every day for the last couple of weeks. So I don't think there’s any doubt about what the President’s position is or why the President has adopted this position even in the face of some political criticism.
Q So in having these conversations at the staff level, I mean, what you said was a little bit vague -- that what is said in these conversations don’t necessarily match the votes. But what would you say about progress that is made in these conversations? Do you feel like that -- I mean, there’s a positivity there, that this override might not happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me try to explain to you that in talking about this bill to members of Congress, our staffers are saying this opens up potentially U.S. servicemembers and U.S. diplomats to being hauled into court under spurious charges or under spurious claims in a way that would force the United States to expend significant resources and, in some cases, diplomatic capital to go and defend them.
We also make a strong case that the most effective way for the United States to confront state sponsors of terrorism is to level a government-wide designation against them and take appropriate steps, including sanctions, to isolate them from the United States and the rest of the international community, that that is a forceful way to compel them to stop supporting terrorism. But if we delegate that decision to a variety of judges in a variety of courtrooms, at a variety of levels, that unmistakable message of isolation is muddied.
That’s not a very effective way for us to express and confront -- to express opposition to and confront state sponsors of terrorism. And when those arguments are presented, some members of Congress express some sympathy to that position and, in some cases, even articulate their own unease about the potential impact of this bill.
I’ll just point out that members of Congress, those who do, in private, express concerns about the potential consequences of this bill are not alone. I read for you the letter yesterday from George W. Bush’s attorney general expressing his deep concerns about the impact of this legislation. He was joined by national security experts in both parties who served under President Bush and President Clinton. We got a letter our allies at the European Union, some of our closest allies and partners in the world, expressing their deep concern about the consequences of this legislation entering into law.
So there’s widespread concern among our allies and among national security experts in both parties that’s consistent with the argument that you've heard me make and that you’ve heard the President make publicly.
So the argument that I’m trying to make here, Michelle, is to emphasize [that] much of the objection that we encounter on Capitol Hill to our arguments is not one that’s based on the merits, but one that’s based on the politics. That’s not a new phenomenon. That’s happened throughout this presidency, and it’s happened throughout the presidency of the 43 previous American presidents. But in this case, we’re talking about our national security. We’re talking about the risk that is facing American diplomats and American servicemembers. And that risk is significant, and it’s not one the President is prepared to take. And he certainly is not -- does not believe that is a risk that the country should take.
Q Do you feel these conversations have swayed any votes?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see.
Q You’re running a very persuasive case on behalf of the administration for --
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Q -- well, good for you on that. But you would think that when you’re talking about the diplomatic consequences of that, when you’re talking about President Obama’s own former Secretary of State saying that that isn’t a concern for her and that she would, in fact, vote in favor of this bill if she was in his position, how do you reconcile that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’ll let Secretary Clinton and her team talk about the position that she’s taken on this.
Q You said you’re not surprised by it.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I’m not. I’m not.
Q You’re saying she’s taking the politically convenient choice rather than the choice on the merits that you’ve been talking about.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t characterize her position. I’ll let her and her team do that.
Q So is there a method by which somebody could look at all the same information and come up with a different conclusion about the potential diplomatic consequences of this bill?
MR. EARNEST: Potentially. You’d have to go ask Secretary Clinton. I’m also not speaking on behalf of the position that’s taken by individual members of Congress, either. They’re going to have to explain their own position and their own votes, and if they want to reconcile their private conversations with the White House about this, then they’re welcome to do that. And if they’re -- I’m not going to reveal any confidences here, so they’re going to have to sort of search their own conscience in terms of making a decision about how they want to talk about this publicly.
I’m not aware of any conversations between Secretary Clinton and President Obama on this issue. So again, to get any insight into the position that she’s taken, you’ll have to ask her.
Q Will you let us know if they do have a conversation on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Potentially. (Laughter.)
Q All right. So, Monday night, does the President have any plans, anything he’s going to tune into TV and watch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Monday Night Football.
Q Oh, Monday Night Football. Is that what he’s going to be watching?
MR. EARNEST: I know the President is pretty fired up about Monday Night Football. I don’t know who’s on the calendar for Monday Night Football this week, but I’m sure the President does. (Laughter.)
Look, I would anticipate that the President will watch much of, if not all, of the debate. I didn’t talk to him about that today. But look, I think there will be millions of people across the country who are quite interested to see the two candidates on stage together for the first time, and I imagine the President will be one of them.
Q And a follow-up to yesterday’s hack. You had said yesterday that the White House was investigating this. Any updates? You weren’t prepared at that time to tell us whether or not that was in fact First Lady Michelle Obama’s passport. Can you confirm that now?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to confirm that. You can check with the Secret Service, who obviously is at the forefront of ensuring the safety of the First Family. There continue to be administration officials who do look at this particular situation, but I don’t have any update on it at this point.
Q And just one more follow-up on that. Do you have any comment on the potential Russian ties with this email hack?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t at this point. Olivier.
Q Thanks, Josh. On what's being called the 9/11 bill, can you share, or can you get us the number of times that this administration has invoked sovereign immunity and the circumstances surrounding the most recent case?
MR. EARNEST: Let me see what I can find out about that. I’ll look into it.
Q And then just on the substance of the question, why shouldn’t a government official who is responsible for, tied to, whatever, an act of international terrorism -- whether it’s a government official from this country or another country -- why shouldn’t there be civil relief available to relatives of people who were killed under those circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because I think the question really, Olivier, is to evaluate -- well, I think the question is actually about whether or not the country of Saudi Arabia would be held responsible.
Q But when you're being asked, you're pointing to specific American diplomats and servicemen and women. So, clearly, individuals here -- there’s got to be jeopardy for individuals.
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that that could be the corresponding response to this legislation going into effect. And that would be a reasonable reciprocation of the steps that the United States Congress is poised to pass into law here.
So look, the administration believes strongly that individuals need to be held accountable. And, in fact, we also believe that countries who sponsor terrorism should be held accountable. And if anything, this legislation waters down our ability to do that. There already is a well codified -- there already is a codified process enacted by Congress for designating specific countries as state sponsors of terrorism.
So there are countries like Iran and Syria that fit that description, and they are faced with a whole set of sanctions and broader international isolation because of that designation. And that's a forceful way -- that's a forceful response.
And if we were going to essentially delegate that designation to individual judges considering different pieces of evidence and reaching different conclusions potentially, that waters down our ability to send an unmistakable signal that the United States is prepared to confront, in the toughest possible terms, governments that sponsor terrorism.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the CR, we're one week away from the end of the fiscal year and a possible government shutdown. Do you believe that the CR proposal that the Senate has is the best you're going to get, or are you expecting them to continue negotiating it?
MR. EARNEST: The President does believe that they've got more work to do. And I think there are a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill who share that view, and I think it is unclear at best right now whether or not this particular piece of legislation will pass both houses of Congress and make its way to the President’s desk. Even if it were, it’s also unclear at best right now if the President would sign it.
So it sounds to me like Republicans in Congress have some more work to do to make sure that the government doesn't shut down a week from now.
Q How would you describe, at least from the White House perspective, the tenor of the negotiations? Clearly, there does not appear to be panic that the government is about to shut down. Would you say negotiations are going well, better this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think it’s too early for people to panic. So I’m not advocating that. But there remains some important work to be done. Fortunately, there are seven days to get it done. And hopefully Congress will not take all seven days, but will spend some time working over the weekend. I don't think that's too much to ask considering they recently completed a seven-week vacation. So pulling a few hours over the weekend to make sure this gets done in a timely fashion I don't think is too much for the American people to ensure that Congress is fulfilling arguably their most basic responsibility, which is funding the government and avoiding a government shutdown.
Q I'm not sure I understand this argument about the bill, the 9/11 bill and state sponsors of terrorism. There’s no other way to designate a country or to impose sanctions comprehensively on a country if this bill is -- aside from this mechanism?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, the point is that there already is an existing system for doing that. That's the point.
Q So what you're saying is that if this -- this would eliminate that?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, it wouldn’t eliminate that. But it certainly would cloud that judgement. Because right now, for example, Saudi Arabia is not on the state sponsors of terror list. And this kind of legislation could open up the potential for a variety of court decisions that could reach differing conclusions about that.
You could also imagine other court cases being filed that would raise similar questions about Iran’s conduct or Syria’s conduct. And if we end up in a situation where plaintiffs in a case do not succeed in making their case against Syria, hypothetically, it certainly muddies the water when it comes to the U.S. government position about whether or not Syria is complicit in supporting terrorism.
Q The other part of this -- you were asked earlier about sovereign immunity. What is the situation -- is there any situation that you can recall, or if you can tell us about where, without that protection abroad, a diplomat, a soldier, someone would have been at risk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for a specific case, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice or even the State Department, and they may be able to tell you a little bit more about a particular situation where this cropped up. But in general, we know that U.S. government personnel are engaged in a variety of activities to protect our national security, to advance our interests around the world. And the prospect that in carrying out that work they could get hauled into court in some other country under dubious pretenses, that's something that we're deeply concerned about. But that's exactly the kind of loophole that could potentially be created here.
Q Do you think the Saudis would do that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not going to speculate about individual countries and what their potential reaction would be. But you can talk to the Saudis about that.
Q Have they warned you or told you, told the U.S. what they will do if, in fact, this bill is -- this veto is overridden?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know they’ve said a number of things publicly. I'll let them characterize their position. But our partners and allies at the European Union are certainly concerned about that, and that was the reason that they sent the letter expressing their grave concern about this particular piece of legislation, because they understand that countries around the world, and potentially countries who are members of the European Union, would pass legislation carving out exceptions to sovereign immunity. And no country has more to lose in the context of those exceptions than the United States of America, given the preeminent role that we play in global affairs.
Q On Charlotte, there’s a DOJ team that went down there. Now, this is not an “investigation,” as in the case in Tulsa. Have they been able to give the President an assessment of where the situation stands there now in real time -- this community relations team, essentially?
MR. EARNEST: That team is on the ground primarily to offer some expertise and advice the local officials who are grappling with the difficult situation right now. Their primary function is not to report back to the White House. There are other ways that the President can continue to be informed of events on the ground. There are White House staffers here who are in close touch with the Charlotte mayor and her office, and the Tulsa mayor and his office. I can tell you that senior administration officials -- or senior White House officials have been in touch with Anthony Foxx. He’s currently the Secretary of Transportation, but he’s also the former mayor of Charlotte, so he obviously has a lot of ties to that community and a lot of relationships with people who can offer an assessment about what’s happening there.
So there are a variety of ways for the President to get a very clear understanding about what exactly is happening in Charlotte right now.
Q What is the assessment now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the assessment is one that -- the assessment that the President has received is consistent with the one that all of you have been reporting, which is there continue to be protests. They appeared to have been more peaceful last night than they were on the two previous nights. That obviously is a welcome development. And you heard the President talk about this a little bit yesterday in his interview with Robin Roberts. But this is a situation that we're going to continue to closely monitor from here in terms of the impact on that broader community.
Q And lastly, on this issue of the release of the videotape and all that, what is the President's thinking about that particular aspect of this, given the demand for transparency in that community and so many others?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President believes that this is a decision that should be made by local officials. And the mayor and the police chief I think are the ones that ultimately are going to have to decide, and they should do so consistent with their judgment about the best interest of the community. And they also are going to have to make a judgment consistent with state and local laws. And based on what I've read, there may be some laws that could have an impact on their decision.
So I'm not going to be able to speak precisely to the decision that needs to be made by local officials in Charlotte. But as a matter of principle, I think the President has reached the pretty common-sense conclusion that when you're in a position needing to build trust with a group of people, being as candid as possible is usually the best approach.
Q And being as transparent as possible? Candid, transparent -- I don't want to put words in your mouth.
MR. EARNEST: Candid as possible is usually the best approach.
Q Thank you, Josh. The EU President said today that it was not realistic to get a deal with the U.S. by the end of the Obama presidency. The TPP, the prospect of being ratified in Congress looks very limited. What’s left of the President’s ambitious trade deals policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jerome, the briefing room is an appropriate setting for skeptical questions to be asked, but as is usually the case in this setting, we're a lot more hopeful than your question would suggest. There is plenty of reason for Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to give careful consideration and eventually support the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There certainly is widespread public support all across the country, and there are a variety of polls that have come out in the last few months that indicate that a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans and a majority of independents across the country support the Trans-Pacific Partnership or trade deals like it.
We also know that last year the President was able to succeed in building a bipartisan coalition to support legislation that gave him the authority to complete the negotiations. If you think about it, that actually seems like a much tougher sell. Convincing Republicans to give the Democratic President authority to do something is a tough sell, but something we succeeded in getting done.
With regard to the TPP, now we're in a position of just advocating to Republicans in Congress, hey, do you want to vote for a bill that will actually cut 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods? And we can go to Democrats and say, hey, do you want to go raise labor standards, and environmental standards, and intellectual property protection standards in countries all around the world in a way that will level the playing field for American workers and American businesses? We can actually do something about these broader global trends that, in some cases, have dealt a pretty tough blow to some communities across the country.
That's a pretty good case. Not a slam-dunk case, but I think it's a pretty strong case. And based on the track record of building a bipartisan majority last year, we're hopeful that we'll be able to do the same thing before the end of this year. But we'll see.
With regard to T-TIP, the European trade deal, it's not uncommon, over the last several months, for people to be openly worrying about whether or not this is something that we can do. The President set an ambitious goal earlier this year of trying to complete negotiations before the end of the year. They’re not completed yet. They’ve got a lot of negotiating left to do. But as I understand it, the U.S. Trade Representative was just in Europe within the last few weeks trying to move this forward.
So we'll see if we can get you some more information from them about the current status of those negotiations. But that's an ambitious goal, I would acknowledge that on the front end, but it's still one that we're aiming to achieve.
Q This 9/11 lawsuit bill seems to be framed as an up or down proposition. Is that accurate, or is there room for compromise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would welcome congressional action that would address the concerns that we've raised. So I guess that's the reason that we're having conversations, is to try to find an approach that would satisfy the concerns and the desire of some members of Congress to want to address the request of the 9/11 families. And we're hopeful that they can find a way to do that that doesn’t carve out the kinds of exceptions that put our diplomats and servicemembers at risk around the world.
Q But your answer to Olivier before sort of suggested that there are two moving parts here. There is the sovereign immunity stripping provisions of JASTA, but also the response from other nations, which may or may not be reciprocal to that. So is there any -- am I characterizing your position correctly? If that's true, is there anything that you can do to reduce the immunity protection without triggering some sort of international law --
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I would say -- the best way I can answer your question, Gregory, is to say that, yes, potentially there is a way to address the significant concerns that we've raised about the risk facing U.S. servicemembers and U.S. diplomats while also addressing the requests of the 9/11 families. That's the --
Q Are you prepared to say (inaudible)?
MR. EARNEST: No, but I think that's the nature of the conversations that we're having with members of Congress on Capitol Hill. I don't know if something like that exists, but we're certainly in conversations to find out if it does.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about Syria. There's a new offensive there in east Aleppo. I'm wondering if the White House still believes that the ceasefire that was agreed to is still in effect. And if you do, sort of what kind of case can you make for it at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, we clearly have seen an increase in violence over the last several days. And that's not a welcome development at all. In fact, the arrangement that we tried to reach with the Russians was engineered to try to reduce violence. And unfortunately, that only worked for a rather short period of time.
Look, over the last several days we have seen Syria announce their intent to unilaterally withdraw from the Cessation of Hostilities. We saw an attack on U.N. aid workers, for which we hold the Russians accountable, because know that it was either carried out by the Russian military or by the Syrian military. And Russia is the party that's taken responsibility for keeping the Syrian military in line. And obviously striking a humanitarian aid convoy is way out of line, entirely inconsistent with international principles, and in the view of many people, potentially a war crime.
You also saw President Assad make a statement yesterday falsely ascribing blame to the United States for this increase in violence. Nothing short of a bald-faced lie. And then you had the announcement overnight, East Coast time, of a new offensive by the Syrian government in Aleppo.
Considering that Russia is the party that is taking responsibility for ensuring Syrian compliance with the Cessation of Hostilities, Russia is culpable. And if this arrangement has a future, Russia is going to need to step up and prove it. And they've got some work to do.
Q You've often said that this is a test of whether or not Russia is willing or able to sort of have influence on the Syrian regime. I’m wondering if you've been able to make an assessment on whether -- since this has basically broken down, whether they were unwilling, or whether they were unable, and if you think there’s a difference in terms of White House policy in terms of whether or not it was one or the other.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen -- well, that's an interesting question, actually. I think it is -- I’m not prepared to offer an assessment in each of these cases whether or not it was weakness on the part of Russia, where essentially they were rebuked by the Assad regime, and despite Russia’s warnings, Assad went ahead and ordered the actions that he did. Or if Russia failed to clearly communicate to Assad what their expectations were. It’s too early to tell exactly whether they were unwilling or unable.
Q A third option could be that they were not being straight with the U.S. and they see some benefit to having an agreement with the U.S. and not fulfilling it on their end. Is that something that --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I guess I would see that. I would put that in the unwilling category, which is to say they weren’t willing to go to the Assad regime and actually make them live up to the terms of the Cessation of Hostilities.
But I guess the question you're asking is: "Does it matter?" I guess it’s hard to say. It certainly matters if they're unwilling, right? Because it certainly does raise significant questions about their credibility. If they were unable to, it raises similarly difficult questions -- because the only reason we're really having this conversation with the Russians is they seem to be the only people that we can talk to that do have any influence over the Assad regime. And if they don't, then I’m not really sure why we would continue to talking to them.
Well, again, we're going to have to see how this plays out. And when I say how this plays out, we're really just going to have to see what the Russian response is. Their credibility is on the line under either scenario. And they're going to have to decide -- President Putin is going to have to decide whether he’s interested in protecting that credibility in the international community or not.
Q One more question on Wells Fargo. They obviously face about $100 million in fines for setting up millions of bogus accounts that customers didn't want. Now we're hearing from Senator Warren that she believes the CEO should resign and should be investigated. She just sent a letter with eight other senators saying that Wells Fargo’s executive should be investigated by the Labor Department for potentially unfair labor practices. I don't think we've heard from the White House on this yet. So I’m just wondering, do you agree with Senator Warren that the CEO should resign? Do you think the fines that were put out are enough of a punishment? And is the White House going to weigh in any further on this in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I can't recall an instance in which I called for the resignation of an executive at a private company, so that seems a little outside my purview. But maybe I’ll reserve the right to do that at some point. But I can't imagine a scenario in which that would come up, but we’ll see. I haven’t done that before, and I’m not going to do it in this instance.
With regard to the Department of Labor, I can’t speak to any potential enforcement action that they may be considering. Those kinds of enforcement actions are conducted independent of any sort of White House interference. And so I certainly don’t want to say something that could lead somebody to conclude that there was inappropriate White House interference in that decision, if there is even a decision to be made. So I’ll refer to them.
More generally, though, I do think that this announcement from the CFPB is strong vindication of the President’s pursuit of tough Wall Street reform legislation. Republicans have been foursquare against the CFPB since the day that it was created. But the reason that the CFPB was created is that there previously had not been a financial regulator dedicated solely to protecting consumers.
The CFPB is the only financial regulator with the express mission statement to look out for American middle-class families. And here it paid off in spades. You had one of the largest, most influential financial institutions in the country scamming people who were trying to set up checking accounts. And nobody was in a better position to hold them accountable for that than the CFPB. And they took action, levying the largest fine in its history in response to this egregious conduct. And that means that they’re going to be -- the fine was on the order of $185 million. And that also -- when you combine that with the other actions that the CFPB has taken over the last several years, they’ve put nearly $12 billion back into the pockets of 27 million American families that have been harmed by financial institutions.
I think that’s a pretty good illustration of the President making good on his promise to bring change to Washington and to change business as usual in Washington, and making sure that there is somebody in Washington looking out for middle-class families. And he took a lot of political heat for making this a priority too. We saw millions of dollars in lobbying efforts and campaign ads spent by the most influential financial institutions in the country to try to block this. But the President stood up to them and said no, even though those financial institutions have some members of Congress in their back pocket -- those members of Congress who have repeatedly tried to gut funding for the CFPB.
So this is a good illustration of why the President fought so hard for the CFPB, and I think it’s a pretty strong vindication of his efforts and the several million American families that are going to get the benefit from it.
Q Yeah, Josh, on the 9/11 bill. You keep saying it goes against international norms, and there’s this somewhat fuzzy area of sovereign immunity -- or is it fuzzy? Correct me --
MR. EARNEST: It’s fuzzy to me. I’m certainly no expert in international law.
Q Well, that’s what I’m asking, I guess. Can you say that this would specifically go against some kind of international agreement? Or is it just an international norm?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I have not heard -- as a technical matter, no one has made the case to me that this is the violation of a specific agreement. Maybe it is, and if it is, then I’m sure one of the White House lawyers will be appearing at my door when I get back to my office to explain it to me, in which case I’ll explain it to all of you.
My understanding, however, the way that it’s been described to me, is that there is a legal concept of sovereign immunity that countries around the world observe. And if the most influential country in the world starts carving out exceptions to sovereign immunity, then other countries are going to do the same thing.
Now, the problem with that approach is that there’s no country in the world that has more to lose from carving out exceptions to sovereign immunity than the United States, given the role that we play around the world. So that’s what the -- that’s the concern that we have. And what that means is it means that there’s more legal risk that our servicemembers and our diplomats and, in some cases, even U.S. companies face as a result of this action.
And at a certain level -- and so the concern is, is not just the legal risk that they would face, but also the significant resources and diplomatic capital that the United States government would have to spend to defend them. So that’s the principle that’s at stake, and that’s why the President feels so strongly about this.
Q Is it fuzzy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’m not an attorney, so I’m sure that there’s -- somebody who is an expert in the technical aspects of this law would say that the risk that we face is really clear. And look, I think in this instance I’d be inclined to believe them, because it’s not just White House lawyers that have reached that conclusion, it’s lawyers at the European Union that have reached that conclusion and it’s the top lawyer in the Bush administration that has reached that conclusion.
So this isn’t some partisan fight here. This is basically a contest between politicians that are worried about their political standing and experts in national security who are focused on the long-term best interest of the country.
Q Can I follow up?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, John.
Q Thank you. You're familiar with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act? It’s a law that was passed -- signed into law in 1976, signed by Gerald Ford. And under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act there actually is one exception that's carved out for suing a foreign government, and that's if a foreign state engages in commercial activity. Are you familiar with this already?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve certainly heard of the law, but I’m not familiar with all the consequences of it.
Q So there’s a carve-out -- there’s a carve-out that exists right now --
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q -- under U.S. law, and I assume the President has no problem with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and the way this carve-out exists. Is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. The President does not have an objection to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The concern that the President has is carving out another one. Carving out additional exceptions only --
Q This carve-out -- what’s wrong with a carve-out that would allow an individual to sue a foreign state engaged in terrorist activity? So you allow it for commercial activity, but why not terrorist activity? Explain that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of things about this. The first is, it’s just the principle that is at risk of further erosion and degradation as a result of this bill. And again, this is a principle that insulates and protects the U.S. government, U.S. servicemembers, U.S. diplomats, and U.S. companies around the world. This is a concept, this is a principle of sovereign immunity that is worth protecting because the United States benefits more from that principle and international regard for that principle than any other country in the world.
Here’s the other thing that's important to recognize, though, John, which is there already is a mechanism for individuals who were harmed by state sponsors of terrorism to be compensated. So there already is a mechanism for victims --
MR. EARNEST: -- individuals who were harmed by state sponsors of terrorism. There’s already a legal mechanism for seeking that kind of compensation.
Q After the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act was signed into law, I don't believe there was any rush to the courts all around the world -- based upon that one carve-out -- for commercial activity that a foreign government maintained. What makes you think there would be this rush to the courts based upon this carve-out as it relates to terrorist activity that a foreign government may take against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, John, I’ll just point out that Bashar al-Assad did an interview with the Associated Press this week in which he cast the kind of allegations that, again, if there were these kinds of exceptions in Syria, could put the United States at grave legal risk. So it’s not exactly uncommon for other countries to irresponsibly and falsely accuse the United States of terrorism.
The second thing is -- all I can tell you is that that is the legal conclusion that the Obama administration has reached about the potential consequences of this legislation. That conclusion was also reached by officials at the Europe Union. And that legal conclusion was also reached by Michael Mukasey, who was the Attorney General for President George W. Bush. So this isn’t a partisan conclusion or a partisan analysis that's been put forward. This is an analysis that is actually bipartisan in nature and has been reached by national security experts in both parties.
Again, I think that's the reason that there is sympathy for the case that we're making to individual members of Congress. The question is, is it actually going to show up in the vote count. And I don't know if it will.
Q Your example of Bashar al-Assad, does the President -- does this government consider him to be the legitimate leader of Syria?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that Bashar al-Assad has lost legitimacy to lead that country; that, moving forward, it is impossible to imagine the country of Syria coming together and being led by a tyrant that has used the military might of the country to attack his own people. It is impossible for him to have any -- just as a practical matter -- setting aside the moral questions here, just as a practical matter, there’s no reasonable prospect that President Assad would build, earn, or win the confidence of even a majority of the Syrian people.
Q Josh, the Interior Department just finalized a rule today that would clear the way for Native Hawaiians to have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government should they form a unified government. Could you just explain why the administration is pursuing this, and whether the President’s own childhood and experience in Hawaii influenced the approach the administration has taken on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President took office vowing to strengthen the relationship between the United States government and tribal governments around the country, including the Native Hawaiian population.
And next week -- I’m jumping ahead here -- but next week the White House will convene the Tribal Nations Conference here in Washington, D.C. This is something that the President has prioritized, and he’s regularly appeared at this conference as a demonstration of the priority that he has placed on improved relations between the federal government and tribal governments.
The President obviously does have his own personal connection to the Native Hawaiian population and the rich cultural heritage of the Native Hawaiian people. The President got to experience a little of that when he traveled to Hawaii a few weeks ago. And the President believes that that cultural heritage isn’t just worthy of our respect, it’s also worth protecting. And that's the reason that, in designating the marine monument out there, the policy was careful to ensure that local populations could continue to engage in their ancient traditions.
So I think this also -- I would put this in the category of the kind of policies the President is hopeful the next president will pursue. But there’s a lot of progress that we've made in terms of strengthening the relationship between the federal government and a variety of tribal governments. But there’s more work to be done.
And there certainly is more work to be done in terms of supporting and empowering the next generation of Native Americans to ensure that they've got access to good schools and quality health care and the kind of stable home life that so many other American kids benefit from. And we've made some important progress, making investments that would ensure that kind of future for native populations. But there certainly is more work to be done. And the President is hopeful that the next president will build on that progress.
Let’s move around. Kevin.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about the Assad sanctions legislation. There are leaders on the Hill who feel like the White House is getting in the way of that. And given that there is not only no longer a ceasefire -- certainly not one that's been consistent -- to say nothing of the fact that the President himself feels like this is a man who is an illegitimate leader in that nation, why would the White House stand in the way of such legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to put it bluntly, Kevin, we already have got the authority that we need to impose sanctions against the Assad regime if we believe that's going to advance our interests in that part of the world.
What recent history has shown is that our sanctions strategy is most effective when it is closely coordinated and implemented with our allies and partners all around the world. We were able to apply maximum pressure against the Iranians and compel them to come to the negotiating table, and ultimately give up the most concerning aspects of their nuclear program because the United States worked in concert with other countries around the world to apply tough sanctions against them. Unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States Congress are not likely to have the desired effect.
So Congress has already given the President broad authorities when it comes to imposing sanctions, and his administration has not hesitated to use them, but we only use them -- or at least we use them most effectively when we’re able to coordinate those activities and that strategy with our partners and our allies around the world.
Q Let me push back for just a second, though, because I want to read just part of Speaker Ryan’s remarks yesterday morning. You may or may not have had a chance to hear. He said, “Listen, this week we learned that the Syrian military was complicit in bombing a humanitarian aid convoy." You and I talked about that this week; it should come as no surprise. “At no point has the Assad regime stopped committing atrocities against the Syrian people.” When you have that as a backdrop, you can understand why there are leaders who feel very forcefully that anything that can be done to punish this regime, this lawless regime, is a good thing. It’s difficult to reconcile that you have them thinking that this is something that should move forward when you also have a White House that feels like we need to do all we can to not only punish this specific regime, but do all we can to get him out of power. Why wouldn’t the two sides come together?
MR. EARNEST: Because what we’re looking to do is we’re looking to maximize the pressure that we can apply to the Assad regime. And applying unilateral sanctions by the United States is not the most effective way for us to do that. The most effective way for us to do that is to work carefully with other governments in the region and countries around the world to coordinate our sanctions and apply maximum economic pressure to the Assad regime. That’s the approach that we have taken with regard to Iran. That’s the approach that we’ve taken with regard to North Korea. That’s also the approach that we’ve taken with regard to Russia.
And there are varying levels of success that we’ve had in each of those instances, but what all of them have in common is that the force of our sanctions are multiplied when they are implemented in coordination with other countries around the world.
Q Let me run back a bit on the CR. Did you suggest that the Senate hadn’t really addressed Flint? Because they actually have. Funding for Flint was included in the recently passed WRDA bill. It passed 95 to 3. I’m not sure if you’re aware of that.
MR. EARNEST: I am aware of that. But in the current version that the House is working on, it’s not included in there. And I did notice that there is funding in the CR that’s dedicated to meeting the needs of people in places like Louisiana, Texas and Maryland who have been victims of flooding.
The President is obviously supportive of that. The administration was among the first to come forward and say that we believe Congress should act as soon as possible to provide relief to the people of Louisiana. The President promised that he would fight for the people of Louisiana when he visited them in the immediate aftermath of that flooding.
Q And he wouldn’t forget them.
MR. EARNEST: And wouldn’t forget them, and he hasn’t. The President made a similar commitment when he went to Flint earlier this spring. He went to Flint, he visited with people in that community. And he promised to help them as much as he could by providing them the kind of resources that they need to address the infrastructure problems that have put thousands of kids at a pretty significant risk.
Congress has a responsibility to look out for the needs of those kids in Flint just as much as they have a responsibility to look out for the needs of kids in Louisiana, too. So we need to see some congressional attention to this issue. And look, I know a lot of Democrats are quite focused on this issue in Flint. It’s time for some Republicans to get the message, too.
Q Let me -- one more -- or a couple more. Gitmo, I know I ask you every week about the possibility of, in particular, bulk transfers coming up certainly in the days ahead. Is there any reason to believe that there will now be more transfers in the next week that you would announce?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing I have to announce from here, but we’ll obviously keep you posted if any of those transfers take place.
Q Okay. And last, on JASTA. I want to run something by you that Jack Quinn said; he’s an attorney for the victims’ families of the tragedy of 9/11. He says, “It’s increasingly apparent that these false reciprocity arguments reflect nothing more than a desire to protect the Saudis from having to answer the legitimate claims of the 9/11 families whose loved ones were murdered on September 11, 2001.” How sensitive is the President to the notion that there is a perception, at minimum, that by voting against JASTA, or vetoing JASTA, is somehow a nod to the Saudi government and our relationship with them?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, the President has made a forceful case and I’ve made a forceful case that our deepest concern is not limited to the impact that this bill would have on our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Our deepest concern is about the impact that this bill would have on our relationship with countries all around the world.
Q But we don’t sponsor terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q We don’t sponsor terrorism. When we’re talking about JASTA, it’s specifically tailored against state sponsors of terror. The United States doesn’t do that.
MR. EARNEST: You and I both know that. But there are irresponsible people all around the world who accuse the United States of being complicit in terrorism all the time. Bashar al Assad just did an interview with the Associated Press two days ago. We know that this happens.
And here’s the other part of this, Kevin. People like Mr. Quinn stand to make some money from these kinds of exceptions being carved out. Nothing wrong with that, but we should acknowledge the interest that he has in this as well. The President’s interest is focused on our national security. The President’s interest is making sure we’re looking out for the safety and security and legal risk that could be facing our servicemembers, our diplomats, and U.S. companies around the world.
Q Last, can you give us a readout on what you expect the President to say tomorrow at the opening of the African American History Museum?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President is quite excited about the prospect of appearing at the dedication of the new Smithsonian that’s dedicated to African American history and culture. The President and his family had an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum a week or two ago. And I was just talking to him about what a special opportunity that was and how much he enjoyed being able to take his family there. And he believes it's something that all Americans should see. The story that African Americans have to tell about their history in this country is in line with the American story. It's an important part of the American story.
And the President was talking about this in his interview last night, and I thought he made a real interesting point, which is much of the history that's contained in that beautiful new building is not ancient history; it's history that took place in his lifetime. And I think that says two really important things, particularly as we're dwelling on -- and rightfully focused on -- the situation in Charlotte and Tulsa and other communities that have encountered some of the distrust between law enforcement and African American communities.
The lesson is simply this: Since that is not ancient history, we need to understand that there is a legacy that's still very present. And I think that can help white Americans understand the concerns that many African Americans have. At the same time, the fact that this is not ancient history is also a great indication of how much progress our country has made in a really short period of time. Some profound changes have happened in this country, and those who are advocating and demonstrating and protesting should take confidence from the progress that was hard won by people like John Lewis and others who are advocates of civil rights.
So this is an important -- this museum is important, not just to the African American community, but it's important to all Americans. It says something important about who we are and what we can accomplish when we put our minds to it. And the President will say it much more eloquently tomorrow than I just did. But he’s got some strong feelings about it, and he’s looking forward to appearing at the dedication tomorrow.
Q Last week, around 18 Indian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack (inaudible) Kashmir. After, they (inaudible). What did the White House think of the situation there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I've seen some of the public reports about this incident. Obviously, the United States strongly condemns acts of terrorism around the world. And we have long urged India and Pakistan to find ways to resolve their differences not through violence but through diplomacy. And over the years, they’ve made some important progress in that pursuit, and we're hopeful that they’ll be able to continue to make the kind of progress that will bring greater stability to what is a rather volatile region of the world.
Q Has there been outreach made by the White House to the two capitals of --
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific conversations at the White House level. I can certainly tell you that the White House is aware of this incident. But for any contacts with either the Indian or Pakistani government, I'd refer you to the State Department.
Q Thank you, Josh. With regards South Korea issues, yesterday South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se remarked at the U.N. General Assembly, and Foreign Minister Yun suggested its exclusion of North Korea from U.N. member states. How would you comment on this?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry, can you repeat that one more time? Just the last part.
Q Foreign Minister Yun suggested the exclusion North Korea from U.N. member states.
MR. EARNEST: It's crucial that North Korea --
Q -- from United Nations member states.
MR. EARNEST: I see -- it's important for North Korea to hear from the United Nations?
MR. EARNEST: Was that the statement?
Q Taken out.
Q No, be excluded from.
MR. EARNEST: I see. Obviously, I'm unfamiliar with the comments made by the Foreign Minister of South Korea yesterday, so why don't I take the question and we'll see if we can get you a specific answer.
Q Also, another one. Is the United States concerned about the North Korea as a state sponsor of terror country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States is certainly deeply concerned about the kind of provocations that emanate from North Korea. And you hear the President on a regular basis express his solidarity and our nation’s solidarity with our allies in South Korea, our allies in Japan who are facing the biggest risk from North Korea’s activities.
So the United States is resolute in our stance in support of our allies, and the United States is committed to playing a leading role in the international community in working with not just our allies but also our partners like Russia and China in applying significant pressure on North Korea and bringing them into compliance with their international obligations and with a variety of U.N. Security Council resolutions that they violate all too frequently.
Why don't we do the week ahead, and then we'll let you get started on your weekend. Mark Knoller is not here to snicker at my joke.
On Monday, the President will host the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C. This will be the President’s eighth and final Tribal Nations Conference, providing tribal leaders from the 567 federally recognized tribes with the opportunity to interact directly with high-level federal government officials and members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. This year’s conference will continue to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
On Tuesday, the President will participate in a DNC roundtable.
On Wednesday, the President will welcome Kyle Bush and his team members to the White House to honor his 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. On Wednesday afternoon, the President will travel to Fort Lee in Virginia to meet with servicemembers and the post community to thank them for their outstanding service to the nation. While he’s there, the President will tape a CNN town hall meeting with Jake Tapper, where he will have the opportunity to take questions from members of the military community.
On Thursday, the President and First Lady are looking forward to welcoming the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams to the White House to honor their participation and success in this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.
On Friday -- next Friday -- the President will travel to a local high school to discuss the importance of a high-quality education and how the United States must strengthen and reform our education system to ensure that our students have the tools, skills and support they need to succeed.
We'll have some additional details about the President’s visit in the coming days, and hopefully we'll even have some more details about the precise location of that visit before the end of the day today. So stay tuned on that. But that will be somewhere here in the Washington, D.C. area.
Everybody have a good weekend. Take care.
2:23 P.M. EDT