Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Fort Lee, Virginia
1:12 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Welcome aboard Air Force One. I hope you’ve taken your Dramamine. (Laughter.) And I say that not because I’m prepared to spin you, but because it’s going to be a bumpy flight. But I don't have anything at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q Will the President be attending the funeral in Israel on Friday?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the President was saddened to learn of the passing of Shimon Peres. President Peres is a giant. He is somebody who dedicated his life to advocating for peace and championing the cause of the people of Israel. The President would very much like to attend his funeral, and his staff back at the White House is working diligently to try to make the logistics work so that he can do that. And as soon as we have a plan in place, we’ll let all of you know.
Q Josh, the Saudi bill -- the Senate override of the Saudi bill came back. It’s the most overwhelming override vote of a presidential veto since 1983. I'm wondering both what your reaction is to that, but what the margin says about either the President’s effectiveness at this point in his term or the effectiveness of your argument on this issue.
MR. EARNEST: I would venture to say that this the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983.
You had at least one prominent Republican senator quoted today saying that the Senate -- the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill actually did. And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our servicemembers and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing. For those senators then to move forward in overriding the President’s veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people.
So, ultimately, these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today. You've got to give some credit to Harry Reid. He showed some courage. The same can't be said for the other 96 members of the Senate who voted today.
Q What’s the White House’s understanding of how soon the 9/11 families would be able to sue the government of Saudi Arabia once the override is -- goes through the House?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I can't speak to any steps that individual plaintiffs may take if and when this bill becomes law.
Q Josh, what can you tell us about troop numbers for Iraq? How was that decision made? And what will the number be now?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that we’ll have a more formal announcement on this today that includes some more specifics about the troop levels. But the President has approved a request from the Department of Defense to increase the number of U.S. military personnel that will be deployed to Iraq by about 600. These are military forces that will be deployed to intensify the strategy that is in place to support Iraqi Security Forces as they prepare for an offensive against ISIL’s -- against Mosul.
And we have previously announced, in the context of previous troop announcements, that the United States military has an important role to play with our coalition partners in both helping to organize the logistics of an effort to retake that city, but also to offer advice and assistance to Iraqi forces on the ground that will be leading that fight. The 600 or so U.S. military personnel that will be added to the U.S. military presence in Iraq will be engaged in those same kinds of activities.
Q How does the President feel about increasing levels of military personnel in Iraq when he campaigned at the end of his term, when at the beginning of his term he campaigned against -- for drawing down the number of people in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President made good on his promise to responsibly reduce significantly the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. I looked this up just yesterday -- when President Obama took office in 2009, there were 144,000 U.S. military servicemembers in Iraq. The number we're talking about now is around 5,000 or 6,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. They also -- and it’s not just that the number is so much smaller; the mission is markedly different.
When President Obama took office, U.S. servicemembers in Iraq were responsible for taking the fight to the enemy. Current servicemembers are now in a position where they are offering training and advice and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces that are leading the fight against ISIL.
There are some Special Operations Forces that do have discreet missions that in some situations have led to them engaging the enemy directly. But it’s the Iraqi Security Forces that are on the front lines by and large. They are the ones who are responsible for taking the fight to ISIL. And the President believes that that has important consequences for the safety and security of our men and women in uniform. It also has important consequences for the long-term success of our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Let me just -- it’s important for us to remember that I’m not going to be in a position of downplaying the significant risk that our men and women in uniform are assuming to protect our national security.
Our men and women in uniform, while they have a different mission than the one that was given to them by President George W. Bush, still are putting themselves in harm’s way. They're going to a dangerous part of the world. They're undertaking dangerous missions to protect the American people. And we owe them a deep debt of gratitude. And I would anticipate that the Commander-in-Chief will have the opportunity to talk about that with some of the servicemembers at Fort Lee later today.
Q Can I ask, in terms of the timing of the Mosul operation, does this signal that it’s likely to start relatively soon? And will the additional troops allow American forces to move a little bit closer to the front lines in terms of their advisory role as Iraqi forces move on Mosul?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that this is going to tangibly change the operational responsibilities that our men and women in uniform will have on the ground in Iraq. Their mission is to offer their advice and support and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces that are leading this effort. This will just be more U.S. servicemembers who are doing that.
As for timing, we have said all along that because it’s Iraqi Security Forces under the command and control of the Iraqi central government who will be leading this fight, the decision about timing will be made by the Iraqi central government. They’ll be closely coordinating with U.S. military advisors, but ultimately, that decision will be made by the Iraqi central government.
I wouldn't speculate at this point about when exactly that will take place, but obviously we've been preparing for some time now to put Iraqi Security Forces in a position where they can undertake that mission. So we've made a lot of important progress, but I don't have any update in terms of timing to share at this point.
Q What is the President’s view of the Gulf members of the anti-ISIS coalition potentially selling shoulder-fired missiles to moderate rebels in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I don't -- I haven’t seen those reports, Kevin, so I don't know that we've taken a specific position on this. But we can look into that and get back to you.
Q CR -- whether the deal that seems to be worked out in the House last night to put the Flint money into the water bill kind of satisfies your concerns and if you expect at this -- well, if you support kind of that compromise. And if you expect at this point a CR to pass by the end of the week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are hopeful that members of Congress will fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget and ensure that the government doesn't have to shut down at the end of the week. The President has been deeply concerned about how Republicans in Congress have failed to act promptly to provide resources to the people of Flint that have been dealing with some rather significant problems to their water supply. And the President urged Congress to consider the need to provide those funds in the context of these budget negotiations.
Obviously, in the last 36 hours or so, we’ve seen both Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan offer their own personal commitment to acting to provide those funds before the end of the year. That’s later than we would have preferred but we certainly welcome that personal commitment from the two Republican leaders in the House and the Senate. That was a commitment that had been missing, and so we obviously welcome that change in position.
Look, I think you also at this point have to give some credit to the Democratic members of the House and Senate who represent the people of Michigan. They have been dogged in their determination to see Congress appropriate these funds. The President has had their back all along, and the President was pleased to see this new commitment from Republicans looking out for those people in Flint that have had to suffer the consequences of the problems with the water supply there.
Q But no kind of updated odds on whether you think the government shutdown is likely? Or if you’re doing anything to prepare -- kind of pumping the brakes on preparations for --
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not aware of any changes to our preparations, but obviously the commitment from Leader McConnell is a good development and hopefully they’ll get that done this week.
Q One last thing, Secretary Kerry said today that they might suspend the agreement over recent Russian actions in Aleppo -- the Syrian agreement. At this point, I guess are things getting even worse somehow and at what point does the U.S. just walk away from this entire enterprise and say, they’re not being serious here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think there have been serious doubts that have been raised about Russia’s credibility, and Secretary Kerry’s statement today indicated that it’s difficult to engage diplomatically with the Russians when they’re not living up the commitments that they have made in the context of previous diplomatic discussions. That’s a rather obvious observation, but when you see the actions that they have undertaken or supported over the last couple of weeks, it raises serious doubts about whether Russia has a strategy that serves their national interest.
Right now, they appear to be pursuing a set of tactics that worsens the situation in Syria, that deepens the humanitarian tragedy that’s taking place in Syria, but also that increases the risk that Russia is exposed to. Russia is deepening their involvement in a sectarian conflict. Deepening their involvement in that quagmire is not going to be in the interests of their national security.
And our hope was that, through diplomacy, we would be able to help Russia chart a path out of that quandary and in the direction of working effectively with the United States and our coalition partners to confront challenges in a way that would benefit the broader international community. But we haven’t seen that kind of cooperation from the Russians, and it’s taken a significant toll on their international credibility.
Thank you, guys.
1:25 P.M. EDT