Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 10/17/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. I do not have anything off the top, so we can go straight to whatever question may be on your mind.
Darlene, do you want to start?
Q Thank you. The military operation in Mosul, is that something the President expects will be over and done with before he leaves office, or does he expect that will continue into the next administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I'm not aware that any sort of specific time frame has been laid out for when that operation would be completed. Obviously this represents the next important step in our campaigns -- or our campaign against ISIL in Iraq. The United States has mobilized a 67-member coalition to support the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces as they seek to rid ISIL from their country.
Mosul is the city that -- it's the second largest city in Iraq. It was the city where ISIL’s leader announced their unfulfilled intent to form a caliphate, and it is now the last major center of ISIL in Iraq. The beginning of this campaign has been months in the making, and there have been a number of important steps that Iraqi security forces have taken, with the strong support of the United States and our coalition partners to prepare for this assault against Mosul. But this is obviously an important part of this broader effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
It's an indication that that effort is moving forward, but there’s still a lot of important work to be done before that goal will be realized even inside of Iraq.
Q Does the President also see the operation as a test of his theory that you can defeat ISIL on the ground without putting U.S. troops on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would describe it as the next test, because the truth is there is important progress that's already been made on the ground in Iraq, that there have been cities like Ramadi and Tikrit that were retaken from ISIL. These were significant cities -- significant in their population size -- that Iraqi security forces did succeed in dislodging ISIL from. They did that with the support of the United States and our coalition partners. So this would be the next test of the strategy.
And I think the President will be the first to acknowledge that this is a significant test. Given the population size of Mosul, given the large geographic area that it encompasses, and the symbolic importance that ISIL has invested in their control of Mosul, dislodging them from the city would be a significant strategic gain. That's why the United States and our Iraqi partners have been working so closely over the last several months to prepare for this operation.
Q And another topic. Does the White House have any sort of message for the individuals over the weekend who vandalized the local Republican office in North Carolina?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't spoken to the President about this, but obviously, having seen the reports, there is no justification for the use of violence to advance a political agenda. And as vigorous as the differences that have been on display in the context of this presidential campaign, the significance of those differences can never be used to justify violence.
And the President had the opportunity to speak at the 50th anniversary of the events in Selma in the spring of 2015, about a year and a half ago, and the President acknowledged, even championed and praised political activists who sought to overcome significant differences through the use of nonviolent tactics. And their success is something that benefits all Americans. Their success has also been lasting and consistent with the kinds of values that we have long prided in this country. So that's the model that we should all aspire to, even in a season of rather heated political rhetoric.
Let me also say that I also saw the reports of Democrats who are using -- at least self-described Democrats -- who are using online tools to raise money among themselves to rebuild that Republican campaign office. That's consistent with the values that we lift up in this country. That's consistent with the kind of political debate that we should be having, which is that neither side benefits from vandalism and violence; both sides benefit from a vigorous debate on the issues, and that as long as we're guided by those values and guided by those kinds of generous sentiments that we've seen from some self-described Democrats, then our country isn't just going to endure this heated election season, we're actually poised to benefit from it.
And we're poised to move forward in a direction that is consistent with our values. And that self-organized online campaign I think is consistent with the President's optimistic vision about the country and about the sense that, for all of our differences, focusing on our shared values, we can make a lot of progress. And our commitment to those shared values is what makes the United States of America the greatest country in the world.
Q Lastly, the President was talking about education today and he did that at a high school here in D.C., and it reminded me that in past years, he's given a back-to-school address and he's even spoken at some high school graduation ceremonies. Why did this go away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he did that a number of times earlier in his presidency. The President gave several commencement addresses this year, and we squeezed as many on to the schedule as we could.
Q Thank you. I wanted to ask about the visit tomorrow from Italian Prime Minister Renzi. I wanted to know -- see if you could just talk a little bit about what's going to be on the agenda between him and President Obama. What are some of the key things that they're going to be discussing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, President Obama is looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Renzi and his wife to the White House for *a state [an official] visit tomorrow. I know the President and First Lady are also really looking forward to the state dinner that they'll be hosting in their honor tomorrow evening.
During the day, there will be an opportunity for President Obama and Prime Minister Renzi to sit down to discuss a range of shared challenges that the United States and Italy confront together. Some of those challenges include the international response to fight carbon pollution and climate change. Italy has been an important partner and made a constructive contribution to the global effort that we've seen to confront that threat.
Italy is a key member of our counter-ISIL coalition that I was discussing earlier with Darlene. The Italians, for example, have made an important contribution in terms of training local law enforcement in Iraq to allow those cities and communities that have been retaken from ISIL to establish a sense of order and to establish the kind of civic basics in a community that would allow citizens to return home.
Italy has obviously played an important role in trying to help their European partners confront the migration crisis. We know that Italy has played an important role in the situation in Syria -- they're a founding member of the International Syria Support Group. Italy also has an important relationship with Libya that is important to international efforts to try to navigate the difficult situation in that country with regard to establishing and setting up a viable government there.
So many of the issues that we spent a lot of time talking about in here when it comes to the international community are issues in which the United States benefits significantly from Italy's support and friendship. And holding a ceremonial event tomorrow like a state visit and a state dinner to memorialize that partnership and that friendship and that alliance is something the President felt was important before leaving office.
Q I also wanted to ask on another topic -- Indian Prime Minister Modi called Pakistan a mothership of terrorism, as tensions between India and Pakistan are heightened. I wonder, does the White House have any response to that sort of rhetoric regarding Pakistan?
MR. EARNEST: I have to admit I had not been briefed on those comments. What I can say, in general, is that we have encouraged India and Pakistan to look for ways to resolve peacefully their deeply held differences on a range of issues. We have discussed in here on a number of occasions the significant threat that exists in Pakistan from extremists. We've actually seen that the Pakistani people have been victims of those extremist activities on far too many occasions. And the United States and Pakistan have an important relationship when it comes to our shared security concerns in the region, particularly when those concerns emanate from extremist groups.
But the United States and India also have a very important relationship, as well. And the friendship and effective working relationship between the United States and India, and between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have allowed both of our countries to enjoy significant benefits, not just when it comes to our shared security concerns, but also when it comes to our intertwined economies, as well.
Q I wanted to ask a couple on Mosul, first. The first is if you could talk about the timing here. Obviously, the President and you guys have been talking for a long time about trying to get the offensive going for the end of the year. But I'm wondering what the reason was to push forward now, and if you're confident that you've done everything you can to prepare.
MR. EARNEST: Well, significant groundwork has been laid. And as you point out, this has been -- this is an operation that's been months in the works in terms of laying the groundwork to prepare for a successful operation. Our expectation is that this operation will take some time, in part because Mosul is such a large city, but also in part because ISIL has spent the last two years digging in to defend that city. And we would anticipate that they will not hesitate to put innocent civilians in harm's way in an effort to protect that city and they'll use -- a range of what we anticipate will be some deeply unethical and dangerous tactics to try to hold on to that city.
So we anticipate facing some significant resistance. But what we also know is that this is an effort that was organized by the Iraqi central government, that the security forces that are moving against Mosul are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. They will benefit significantly from the support of the United States and our coalition partners in terms of carrying out airstrikes. They've already benefitted from training. And many of the forces who have benefitted from the training by the United States and our coalition partners are taking part in this operation. So there's a direct tie between our investment in the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces and the likelihood of success that they'll have against ISIL in Mosul.
So this is an important operation, but one that we anticipate is going to take some time, given how significant the city is both strategically and symbolically, how large the city is, and how long ISIL had had to dig in and fortify their defenses in that city.
Q Since you kind of raised the humanitarian concerns, I'm wondering both -- the U.N. has been warning that as many as 200,000 people could be displaced in the first days of this offensive. So to go back to my earlier question, have humanitarian groups in particular had enough time to sort of establish refugee camps? And sort of simultaneously, the Iraqi government has been encouraging people to stay in their homes rather than flee. And you raised I think the specter that's concerning everyone of suicide bombings and sort of guerilla warfare in the streets of Mosul. So can you talk about why -- or if the U.S. believes that that advice from the Iraqis was the right advice to give in that situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we've been coordinating very closely with the Iraqis as they've tried to organize this campaign, and do so with the strategic goal in mind of dislodging ISIL from the second largest city in Iraq, but also as they carry out this operation and try to save as many lives as possible.
I think the first thing for us to acknowledge, Justin, is that while ISIL has been in charge of Mosul they have engaged in a violent campaign to bring that city under their control. They're killing civilians all the time. So the idea that somehow the Iraqi security forces should delay this operation because of their concern about the humanitarian situation in Mosul, that doesn’t make sense.
So what we have tried to do is to work closely with the international community and the United Nations to plan in advance for the potential that some significant or widespread humanitarian concerns could be prompted by this assault on Mosul. And I know that the U.N. put out a release earlier today, or maybe it was over the weekend, sort of detailing some of the resources that they mobilized in terms of tents and facilities where people who are fleeing violence could be housed temporarily until the operation has been completed. Our expectation is that significant quantities of the food and water and medical supplies that have been mobilized and pre-staged may have to be used to treat those who are fleeing violence.
So there's a lot of planning that's been undertaken to try to address the potential humanitarian situation that could be created. But, look, the United States has contributed more than a billion dollars since 2014 to address the humanitarian situation inside of Iraq. We've helped secure pledges around the world for more than $2 billion in humanitarian assistance and stabilization in the run-up to the Mosul operation. So there's a lot of investment that has already gone into this effort in advance of the operation. And I think that will pay dividends as we continue to make progress against ISIL in Mosul.
Hopefully we won't have to spend all those investments. Hopefully the kind of humanitarian situation that we're preparing for won't come to pass. But if it does, there are already significant resources that have been mobilized to try to minimize the impact on innocent civilians there.
Q You talked about how the strategy was similar to liberating other Iraqi cities from ISIL. But humanitarian groups, including Human Rights Watch, have noted that in some of those efforts, the U.S. coalition fought alongside Shia militiamen who, by all accounts, committed what could be considered war crimes as they were going through and savagely beating people, desecrating bodies, that sort of thing. So I’m wondering if the U.S. is doing anything to make sure that doesn’t happen in this push into Mosul, or to prevent those groups from getting access to U.S. arms.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that the United States has been mindful of from the beginning, and ensuring that this operation is conducted consistent with the need to look out for basic universal human rights and to ensure that these operations are not being used as a cover to carry out retribution against other religious groups is something we’ve been very focused on in the context of these other operations, not just in Mosul.
But with regard to Mosul, in making the announcement about the planned operation, Prime Minister Abadi was clear that only Iraqi security forces would be entering Mosul and undertaking this operation to clear ISIL from the Mosul city limits. And we have seen the Iraqi central government, military leaders of the Iraqi security forces demonstrate and articulate a clear commitment to those principles, and we expect that they will be upheld in the context of this operation as well.
Q Last one, on a different subject. WikiLeaks tweeted yesterday that Julian Assange’s Internet link had been intentionally severed by a “state party.” And so I’m wondering if we could chalk this up to a proportional response that may or may not be announced by the U.S. in retaliation for the Russian leak that you guys named a week or two ago.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there’s been -- I’ve seen some of the reports of this, and I know that there have been a lot of rumors swirling about the potential this may have been linked to some classified U.S. operation. And I’m not in a position to confirm whether that’s true or not, just because I’m not in a position to confirm or deny any sort of classified operation on the part of the United States of America.
Q Follow-up on Mosul. Justin touched on some of the concerns about humanitarian preparations, but there’s also a political part of this. In many ways, Mosul is a microcosm of some of the problems in Iraq writ large regarding sectarianism. And you’re essentially -- there’s great concern about what happens the day after Mosul is liberated. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the preparation from the political side.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, there has been an intense focus on making sure that once ISIL has been cleared from communities in Iraq, that there is a strategy for stabilizing those areas that have been cleared of ISIL.
In some other communities -- in places like Tikrit and Ramadi -- we know that ISIL was intent on sabotaging the infrastructure of these communities as they left them. And it’s an indication of just how depraved ISIL’s tactics are, but it’s also an indication of the work that we are likely to have in front of us with regard to a situation like Mosul.
But, look, similar complexities were presented in Tikrit, and more than 95 percent of the population of Tikrit has returned to their homes in that community. And in Ramadi, about 200,000 people have returned over the course of this year, and that was only -- that’s something we were able to do -- those people were only able to return home after a significant quantity of IEDs were cleared from the streets.
Those of you who traveled with the President to Saudi Arabia earlier this year will recall that the President’s meeting with the other leaders of the GCC included a prominent discussion of the kind of financial commitment we would like to see from GCC countries to stabilizing those areas of Iraq where ISIL has been cleared.
So the United States has played an important leading role in mobilizing the resources that are needed to stabilize these communities, and we’ve had some success in rebuilding communities like Ramadi and Tikrit after ISIL has been cleared from them. But that’s not to minimize the significant challenge that we’ll face in Mosul. Mosul is a large city. Mosul has a larger population than either Ramadi or Tikrit. So we know that the challenge will be significant, but we’ve done this -- I should say the Iraqis have done this on a smaller scale with the strong support of the international community.
I think the rest of the international community recognizes that this needs to be a priority, that we can’t just be focused on the military effort to clear ISIL, we also need to be thinking ahead strategically about how to stabilize this large city once ISIL has been cleared. And there are resources that have already been mobilized to ensure that that’s something that we can do successfully.
Q How do you respond to accusations that while the military proportion of this is well advanced, humanitarian and political are not quite so advanced, and the military bit is being rushed because of timing that has to do with the U.S. political calendar and because Abadi needs a victory at home as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with regard to the decision about when to initiate this operation that was a decision that was made by Prime Minister Abadi. We’ve been clear from the beginning that the Iraqi central government is the one that’s calling the shots. And they should. It’s their country. They’re a sovereign nation. And the support that they’re receiving from the United States and our coalition partners is at their request.
And obviously the United States has a very strong relationship with the Iraqi central government. We’re able to closely coordinate with them, particularly through our military-to-military channels. And the Iraqi security forces have benefitted significantly from the advice they’ve received from the United States, particularly our military leadership.
But the United States is confident that the decisions that Prime Minister Abadi is making are decisions that he’s making for the right reasons. He’s not going to be distracted by the American political calendar. He’s going to be focused on the strategic considerations that are most likely to contribute to success on the ground in Iraq. He's looking out for the best interests of the Iraqi people. And he's interested in moving expeditiously as quickly as possible to clear ISIL from Mosul, to stabilize that city, and to kick ISIL out of Iraq.
That's been a priority that he's been pursuing for quite some time. And we've made steady progress over the last year, year and a half, and this is the next step in that process. And, again, I don't want to leave with you the impression that I'm trying to downplay the significance of this. This is going to be a difficult operation, and this is not something that will yield success overnight. But months of planning has gone into ensuring the success of the military operation, but also in terms of thinking through the humanitarian and political challenges that are almost surely to follow, even after ISIL has been dislodged from the second-largest city in Iraq.
Q I understand why you would want to paint this as Abadi's decision alone, but you're not suggesting that he did this without having an explicit commitment from the U.S. on intelligence assets and air support and so forth?
MR. EARNEST: No. And that was the reason I made that reference to the close coordination between the Abadi government, the U.S. government, and the senior members of the Iraqi security forces and the United States military. There's close coordination here. But, ultimately, the decision to move forward with this operation is one that was made and should be made by the Prime Minister of Iraq.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to follow just a bit about coordination. There were some reports about the U.S.'s 101st Airborne being on the ground, taking part in some of the operations in Mosul. While you can't speak specifically to who or what units may be where, are you prepared to tell the American people that it is likely that Americans will die as a part of this operation in Mosul?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, for which U.S. military personnel or which military units of the United States military are involved, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense and they will be able to give you some more detail about that.
The role for U.S. military servicemembers who are supporting Iraqi security forces in this mission is the same role that they have played in other missions around Iraq, which is that Iraqi security forces will be in the lead. This is their fight. They are the ones who must fight for their country and reclaim the ground in their country that ISIL has overtaken. And we've seen Iraqi security forces benefit from the significant training they've received from the United States and other coalition partners, including Italy, in clearing ISIL from other large cities or other large -- other cities in Iraq. So there is a template for pursuing these kinds of operations and completing them successfully.
That all said, our men and women in uniform who are serving this country in Iraq are putting themselves in harm's way for our safety and security. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude. And there is no one, including the Commander-in-Chief, who would downplay the risk that they're taking on our behalf. But there also should be no misunderstanding the role that they are playing there. They are not responsible for leading these operations. They are equipped for combat, they are equipped to defend themselves, but their role is to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces that are trying to achieve a military objective.
Q Does that include holding Mosul after the primary battle is over?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the role will continue to be the same. The responsibility for holding that community after ISIL has been dislodged from it will fall to the Iraqi central government and to Iraqi security forces. I know one of the things they're going to be very interested in doing is trying to rebuild the local police force. That was critical to the success in rebuilding communities like Tikrit and Ramadi, and I anticipate that they'll be interested in doing the same thing again in Mosul.
So that will be the responsibility of the Iraqi central government, and that's the only way we can ensure their success. If the United States is in a position where we are chiefly responsible for their security, we have seen that that's a strategy that does not yield the kind of long-term benefits that we would like to see. If we're trying to stabilize Iraq over the long term, we need to give the Iraqi central government and the Iraqi forces the confidence and support that they need to provide for their own security information so that the United States is not constantly put in the position of providing it for them.
Q Let me ask you about reports, or at least complaints of possible election rigging and voter fraud. You've heard some of the folks in the Trump campaign raise the issue prominently most recently. How concerned is the White House about the possibility of election rigging? I've read reports in Colorado -- and you've seen these before, I'm sure -- dead people voting, and ballot box stuffing, and people voting for family members, and people who are not eligible to vote somehow casting ballots for years. How concerned are you about this?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. Neither is Mike Pence, who is the second-highest ranking official of the Trump campaign. Neither is Paul Ryan, if you believe his spokesperson, who indicated that he had confidence that this election would be conducted fairly.
When you take a look at the battleground states, the states where this election -- the presidential election, at least -- is likely to be decided, we're talking about states like Georgia and Arizona and Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least the states that I've named, all of which are going to play an important role in this election, all have Republican governors. And presumably all those governors have confidence in the ability of their states to manage these elections fairly. We have seen these kinds of suggestions in the past, but any time there's been an effort to actually conduct a study and investigate suggestions of widespread voter fraud, there's never been evidence to substantiate it.
So the President is very confident in the ability and honesty of election officials in both parties in states all across the country to ensure that this upcoming national election is conducted freely and fairly.
Q Now that the Vice President has signaled that there will be a retaliation for the Russian cyberattacks, can you tell us whether it's likely to be a cyberattack in return or some sort of diplomatic retaliation?
MR. EARNEST: Bill, we have indicated that we're not going to take -- at least when I'm talking, I'm not going to be in a position of taking an option off the table for the Commander-in-Chief as he considers an appropriate, proportional response to efforts by the Russians to undermine, or at least tamper with, our political system. Whatever response the President does settle on is one that we are unlikely to announce in advance. It's also something that we're -- in some cases, we may never acknowledge. But what we are prepared to do is to make clear that this is an important issue for us and one that the President and his team will consider very carefully.
With regard to the Vice President's comments, obviously he was saying something that's not all that different than what you've heard me say on a number of occasions, and even heard the President say on a number of occasions, which is that the United States maintains significant capabilities in cyberspace, and those capabilities far exceed the kinds of capabilities that are maintained by other countries.
Q You said there will be a response. Has there been one already?
MR. EARNEST: Again, as the President considers an appropriate response, it's not likely to be something that we'll announce in advance. And with regard to -- and it may be something that we don’t ever acknowledge. The one thing I will make clear is the range of responses that are available to the President aren’t just limited to the cyber sphere. There are other responses, including the use of financial sanctions. The President, earlier this year, signed an executive order designating authority to the Secretary of the Treasury allowing the United States government to deploy economic sanctions against individuals or even countries that are involved in nefarious activities in cyberspace. So the President has taken steps to give his own administration more authorities to be considered as part of an effective and proportional response.
Q Did the White House sign off on the Justice Department decision to prosecute General Cartwright? And if so, why?
MR. EARNEST: Those kinds of prosecutorial decisions are made exclusively and solely by federal career prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and all of that was done without any White House input.
Q On the hacking issue -- what do you make of these reports about these emails suggesting there was some sort of quid pro quo between the State Department and the FBI offered during the Clinton years there?
MR. EARNEST: Not much, because both the State Department and the FBI have denied that any such arrangement existed.
Q But the documents seem to speak very clearly, plainly, that that's what was happening. You would expect that the State Department and FBI would say that didn’t happen.
MR. EARNEST: Are you suggesting that they would lie? Look, man, if that's the place that we're going to be in, then I think maybe you should go ask somebody else. The point is, both the State Department and the FBI indicated that the purported arrangement that is being flaunted around by congressional Republicans is not true.
And here's the other thing: The FBI did take a look into it. There were investigators who were taking a look at the situation, and they didn’t choose to prosecute anybody. So again, I recognize that Congressman Chaffetz likes to try to make a big deal of these kinds of things. But the fact of the matter is this is a member of Congress who is leading a Benghazi commission that Republicans in Congress acknowledged was geared solely to trying to drive down Hillary Clinton's poll numbers. And when you consider who might be a bad messenger when it comes to prosecuting these criticisms, I might have in mind a Congressman who passes around an official business card with a Gmail email address on it. And that's exactly what Congressman Chaffetz has done. So it doesn’t put him in a very good position to be criticizing the email habits of other people when he's engaged in the worst kind of that behavior.
Q So you're saying that the purported document is false somehow, was doctored? Is not --
MR. EARNEST: Ron, what I'm suggesting is that if there's a suggestion that somehow the FBI and the State Department were involved in a quid pro quo, that the thing you would do is go and ask the State Department and the FBI if they were involved in a quid pro quo. That's what other journalists have done, and those journalists have found that both the State Department and the FBI said on the record that that was an inaccurate allegation.
Q In terms of ISIS, does ISIS still have the ability to coordinate, not just inspire, attacks, despite the Mosul operation and despite where you think you are on the effort now?
MR. EARNEST: The United States remains vigilant about the threat that is posed by ISIL. We have significantly degraded their ability to organize those kinds of attacks, but we remain vigilant to guard against them. And that's why we continue to look for ways to apply pressure to senior ISIL leaders to prevent them from being able to orchestrate and organize those attacks that may threaten the United States or our allies around the world.
Q And after Mosul is captured, presumably they will still have this ability?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that there is a significant chunk of ISIL’s leadership that remains in Raqqa, but being able to dislodge from Mosul will have a positive impact, from our standpoint, in terms of degrading their ability to plan and organize and orchestrate attacks overseas. But it doesn’t eliminate it. And it's important for the United States and the rest of the international community to remain vigilant about that threat.
Q And what’s the administration’s thinking now about Raqqa and about a kind of offensive there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to support opposition forces on the ground that are engaged in shaping the battlefield to prepare for the commencement of that operation, but that's not something that's started yet.
Q And there’s been no significant change in the level of support or what the United States is doing to help its forces or allies, if you will, in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s been important work that's been done there in terms of helping those opposition forces reclaim a significant swath of territory in Northern Syria from ISIL fighters. And it has put us in an important strategic position of cutting off ISIL’s access to the border with Turkey. But the operation against Raqqa has not commenced at this point.
Q What about the -- the talks over the weekend produced nothing. So what’s the next step? Is there anything at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't think that's how Secretary Kerry would describe what’s happened there, but you can check with him to get a better sense of --
Q Well, what did happen then? There was a meeting in Switzerland, Lausanne. What happened? What positive --
MR. EARNEST: Well, Secretary Kerry continues to be engaged with our partners both in the region and around the world to try to exert diplomatic pressure in Syria to try to reduce the violence there, to try to get the Assad regime and the Russians to stop engaging in these kinds of tactics that actually target civilians, and allow for humanitarian assistance to flow to those areas of Syria that need it so badly.
Q But is there anything that came out of that that's going to improve the situation in, say, Aleppo now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there will be continued diplomatic engagement on a variety of levels on this. I don't anticipate any announcements of a major breakthrough. I think that was clear before the meeting; it's also clear after the meeting. But what is happening behind the scenes is a continued, sustained, vigorous diplomatic effort to engage the wide variety of countries that are deeply concerned about the situation in Syria to try to come up with a solution there that will reduce the violence, that will increase the flow of humanitarian assistance, and it will kick-start the kind of political talks that are badly needed to address the root cause of the problems in Syria.
Q I want to get tenses straight in regards to Russia and the potential for a U.S. counter-cyber. You said whatever response the President does settle on. Does this mean that he is still considering different options at the moment?
MR. EARNEST: It means the President and his team are continuing to evaluate exactly what Russia has done. And, yes, they are still considering the potential response. But, again, I'm not really in a position to help you with the verb tenses, though, in terms of whether or not any sort of -- any semblance of a response has already been initiated.
Q The Vice President’s cryptic message to Russia and their President in regards to these hacking attacks, was that something coordinated and encouraged by the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Vice President was obviously answering a question from an interviewer, but the Vice President has Obviously been deeply engaged in the conversations that the President has been having with the rest of his national security team about formulating the kind of appropriate response the President believes is in the best interest of the American people.
Q Well, did that mean to send a message to Vladimir Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the Vice President was answering a question. And he is obviously somebody who has a lot of influence on the policymaking process here at the White House and he is somebody who obviously has decades of experience in terms of helping to shape and manage the U.S.-Russia relationship. He is also somebody who has spent a lot of time thinking about cyber policy and he understands the significance of these kinds of decisions, given that in many ways the cyber realm is one where rules of the road have not been established, and establishing precedents -- specific precedents and norms has long-term consequences. So he certainly understands the need for caution and prudence when considering potential responses. But he also is somebody who has his own deeply engrained sense of what’s necessary to protect the American people and protect the United States of America.
Q He is having a state visit tomorrow. There are some reports that Italy may be the next nation to leave the EU. Is that something that potentially would be -- is that something that is on the President’s agenda? Will he try and dissuade the Prime Minister from a BREXIT type response?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that that's something that rates very highly on the agenda. When you consider all of the other high priorities that the two leaders need to discuss, that kind of speculation I'm not sure would come up.
Q So a discussion about the EU is a low priority in tomorrow’s visit?
MR. EARNEST: No, no. I think that obviously Italy is an important partner of the United States, an important ally of the United States, particularly when it comes to our relationship with Europe and all of the efforts that we undertake to strengthen our collective security and to strengthen the economic ties that bind the United States with Europe.
I think the prospect of Italy leaving the EU is not one that is likely to come up, frankly, because I think -- I haven't actually seen that much coverage of that coming to pass. Italy makes an important contribution to stability in Europe. They make an important contribution to the European economy. They obviously make important contributions to Europe's security through NATO. So those I think are likely to be the topics of conversation between the President and Prime Minister.
Q And on Saturday, Donald Trump suggested that presidential candidates should have to take a drug test. White House response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so you're telling me that the candidate who snorted his way through the first two debates is accusing the other candidate of taking drugs? That's a curious development in the campaign.
Q That's your response?
MR. EARNEST: That's my response.
Q Are you saying just now that you think that the sniffling or snorting, as you described it, might have been related to --
MR. EARNEST: Not at all.
Q Okay, so what were you saying? What were you trying to get across when you said that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm trying to have a little fun. (Laughter.) You guys are so serious today.
Q Well, you heard the gasps in the crowd. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I was expecting more chuckles. (Laughter.) It's probably my flawed delivery. (Laughter.)
Q It's Monday. Not a Friday.
Q I laughed.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Mark.
Q Okay, so you were saying that the President is still continuing to evaluate what has happened with the cyberattack and to look at what the response could be. But you also said something about you're not in a position to say whether it might have been initiated. So can you just clarify that? Is it possible, then, that whatever the U.S. response is going to be may have already started?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I will -- the best way that I can clarify this situation is just to make clear that our response is not something that we're going to be in a position to discuss publicly. So I can't give you a time frame about whether or not something has started or whether or not it's ended. What I can tell you is that the United States is still evaluating exactly what has happened. There's still an active investigation that is ongoing. The President and his national security team are still learning from that investigation, and they're still considering what sort of response is appropriate.
Once the President has made a decision about that, that's not likely to be something that we'll announce in advance. With some aspects of the response, it may be something that we never acknowledge. But the range of responses that are open to the President extend beyond just the cyber realm. They include sanctions and other diplomatic efforts that could make clear our concern with Russia's nefarious behavior in cyberspace.
Q All right, well, it just sounded initially like you were saying you weren't ruling out that the response may have already started. But now, as you clarify, you say that it's still being evaluated, so it sounds like now you are ruling out that it might have started.
MR. EARNEST: No. Again, I think the point of both my attempts to answer Lana's question and yours is hamstrung by the fact that I'm not going to be in a position to discuss the response.
Q But when you say things like, but the President is still considering what the best options would be, that sounds like there's been no response yet. So is that accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm just not going to be in a position to confirm our response. So that's not accurate. I'm not in a position to confirm whether or not that is accurate.
Q Okay. All right, that's fine. And when we were talking earlier about the humanitarian consequences that could happen after Mosul. And you said that there has been coordination ahead of time, there’s been well-thought-out sort of preparation. But you do hear from certain groups, especially over the weekend, saying that when you look at the emergency camps that have been established outside Mosul there’s only room for 60,000 or so, but there could be 200,000 just in the initial days and we could see more than a million Iraqis affected by this operation. So are you saying that those -- when you say that the response that’s been prepared to humanitarian concerns is well-though- out and planned, are you saying that those estimates that we’re seeing and the concerns we’re seeing might be inflated? That you think that that won’t be a problem to that extent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that our approach to each of these situations is to prepare for the worst. And that is why you have seen so much work going into preparing for a range of humanitarian contingencies. That’s why you’ve seen the United Nations take the lead in trying to collect significant resources from around the world to prepare for those humanitarian contingencies.
But no one can predict precisely what will transpire. We just want to ensure -- and when I say “we,” I mean the international community wants to ensure that we’ve thought through what those possible contingencies could be. And that’s why you’ve seen the United Nations work to mobilize temporary housing for a large number of people. There’s been water and food and medical supplies that have been pre-staged, or staged strategically so that they can be quickly used to offer relief to individuals who are fleeing violence. And I know the United Nations has actually indicated that they’re interested in in collecting additional resources because they believe there is more preparation that can be done to prepare for the wide range of contingencies.
So we’re mindful of this potential need to care for the basic humanitarian needs of a large number of people fleeing violence from Mosul. But what’s also true is the people who are in Mosul right now and have been stuck in Mosul for the last two years are facing a rather dire humanitarian situation.
We know that ISIL, in an attempt to try to exercise control over that city, has killed innocent people, has tortured people, has used violence as a tool to try to pacify the population. So that’s why there’s a sense of urgency about mobilizing an effective response militarily to drive ISIL from the city, but also to make sure that there are resources mobilized to deal with any humanitarian contingencies that may arise.
Q Over the past couple of days we’ve seen the number of women accusing Donald Trump of either assaulting them or acting inappropriate with them growing. How does the President respond to that? What is the administration’s response to seeing some of these stories coming out kind of fast and furious?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think for some insight into the administration’s response, I’d refer you to the powerful speech that was delivered by the First Lady at the end of last week. I think she spoke powerfully about this situation, about the way that millions of American women in both parties are responding to it. As she described it, it’s something that goes to our core values as Americans. It goes to our basic sense of fairness and justice and freedom.
So she has obviously thought about and responded very powerfully with her own personal reaction to this situation and to the tone and tenor of the debate and even the nature of the debate over the last couple of weeks. And she can speak to that more eloquently and more powerfully than I’ve been able to.
Q Thank you, Josh. On North Korea. North Korea launched Musudan ballistic missile last weekend. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can confirm that the U.S. Strategic Command detected what we assess was a failed North Korean missile launch over the weekend near the northwestern city of Kusong. The missile is presumed to be a Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile, and NORAD determined that the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.
As we’ve said on a number of occasions, each time that North Korea conducts a test like this we strongly condemn this missile test because it violates the U.N. Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit North Korea’s launches like this one.
The United States has worked with our partners and allies in the region to isolate North Korea and to apply pressure to them to try to persuade them not to engage in this kind of destabilizing behavior. And the United States is prepared and has mobilized the appropriate military resources to defend our allies and ourselves. And that is why the United States has been in discussions with our South Korean allies about deploying a THAAD battery, an anti-ballistic missile battery, to South Korea to protect South Korea from the ballistic missile threat emanating from North Korea.
There's other equipment and resources that have been mobilized in the Asia Pacific region, including to Japan, Alaska, and Guam, to counter this threat and to protect the American people and our allies. All of that is a reflection of the threat that emanates from North Korea, and all of that reflects the President's determination to ensure that the safety and security of the American people is protected.
Q So will the U.S. take another additional sanctions on these?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific response to outline for you, but obviously the United States will continue to stay in close touch with our allies and partners in the region to ensure that we continue to apply pressure to the North Korean regime and protect our interests in that part of the world.
Q Yesterday, the North Korean high-level government officer announced that North Korea is preparing for the missile launch or a nuclear test that would be at the end of this year. So how would the U.S. plan on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we've been deeply concerned about the willingness of the North Korean regime to ignore or even flout their basic international obligations. And that hasn't just been a source of concern for the United States; it's also been a source of concern by our allies in South Korea and Japan. Both China and Russia have expressed concerns about this kind of destabilizing behavior from the North Koreans. And it's an indication of just how isolated the North Koreans are right now.
Q Josh, if the U.S. doesn't acknowledge that it responded to Russian cyber nefarious action, how will Russia know it's been retaliated against? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think this is -- the concerns that we have are concerns that we've made clear, both publicly and privately. The President has alluded to previous conversations he's had with President Putin about our concerns about their malign activities in cyberspace. So Russia is certainly aware of our concerns about their behavior.
Q So when there is response, you're saying Russia will get it? They'll understand where it's coming from and that they're being retaliated against for their actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let the Russians speak for themselves with regard to whatever it is that they conclude or understand about a particular situation. What I've tried to do is speak as clearly as possible about our concerns about what the IC* has concluded about Russia's activities in cyberspace, and I've tried to be as clear as possible within the significant constraints that I have here to make clear that the President believes it's important for the United States to use our resources to protect our election's infrastructure and to consider an appropriate, proportional response.
Q And one clarification. You said the Renzi visit tomorrow was a state visit. I thought it's an official with a state dinner?
MR. EARNEST: It's not in my material, but we can clarify that for you just to get to the bottom of it.
Go ahead, JC.
Q Will there be --
MR. EARNEST: I don't know all the plans that are in place for tomorrow, but we'll keep you posted.
Lalit, I saw you had your hand up.
Q Thank you. Prime Minister Modi said those remarks about Pakistan is the mothership of terrorism at the BRICS Summit, which was held in Goa this week. And the BRICS Summit, China and Russia are very reluctant to include the name of (inaudible) in the joint statement that they issued. In that context, how do you see the commitment or the partnership of Russia and China in the war against terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would characterize it as simply that Russia has often made a strong case -- or what they believe to be a strong case to the United States about our shared interest in confronting extremists not just in Syria and Iraq but around the world, and there are things that they've done in the past that would indicate that they're not as committed to that shared priority as they claim to be, in part because they devote so much time to shoring up the Assad regime in a way that makes it harder to resolve the conflict that ends up fueling extremism.
So we've been -- it's no secret that we've been frustrated about Russia's inability to live up to the commitments that they claim they're willing to make in the context of shared priorities. And the fact that they have not followed through on those commitments raises questions about whether or not they actually share those priorities.
So I can't speak to the specific statement that was signed at the BRICS conference, but the United States does believe that there are countries around the world with whom we should be able to coordinate to counter extremism. The forces of extremism only threaten the interests of countries around the world, and there should be an opportunity for the international community to coordinate our response and to counter those threats, but sometimes the Russians haven't been as willing partners as we'd like them to be.
Q And China, which had been particularly blocking attempts to sanction against well-known terrorist groups at the U.N. Security Council.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think China is an example of a country with whom we have been able to work very effectively in pursuit of some common interests, but there are some interests where we have not been able to -- where apparently our interests don't align.
So, again, I can't speak to the specific decision because, obviously, the United States wasn't a party to the BRICS conference, but the United States does have an aspiration to work more effectively in the international community to counter extremist threats. And there are countries like Italy, with whom the United States is able to work very effectively in a way that safeguards the safety and security of citizens in both our countries. Our relationship with countries like Russia and China is obviously a lot different than it is with a country like Italy.
Goyal, go ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two questions. One, so far as the U.S. and India relations are concerned, these are the holidays in India that fighting against evil or evils and all that going on. What my question is, after 15 years of 9/11 and also five years of killing Osama Bin Laden, and millions of people around the globe are thanking President Obama, of course. But Pakistan is denying that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan. And also at the same time, Madam Hillary Clinton recently meeting Indian-Americans at the Silicon Valley she said that the U.S. and India to fight poverty and hunger. And same thing Prime Minister Modi had told the Pakistan people because they are the victims of the terrorism, because still Pakistan is keeping so many terrorists there and feeding and training them and -- wanted by the U.S. and India.
My question is that where do we go from here? Because there is a call in the U.S. Congress and online petition by the Indian American community that Pakistan should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism to stop terrorism around the globe.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I can’t account for many of the things that you included in your question. What I can say in general is that the United States has been able to work effectively with Pakistan to confront extremist threats that threaten the interests of both our countries.
At the same time, we’ve acknowledged on a number of occasions that there is more that we would like to see Pakistan do to confront that threat, in part because the Pakistani people face a unique threat from those extremists. And there are many times when I’ve stood at this podium being asked to respond to the attacks from extremists that were carried out inside of Pakistan that resulted in the death or injury of many Pakistani citizens.
So there is a built-in interest for Pakistan to confront this extremist threat that they face. And there are a variety of ways in which the United States supports them in those efforts. But of course, there is more that we believe that they can and should do, and we’ll continue to have those conversations with them.
Q Second, once again on behalf of the Indian-American community and a billion people in India, they are very thankful to President Obama and this administration. First it was (inaudible) who was the first Indian-American congressman in the ‘50s, and now there is a post office in his name in his hometown in California. And now, because of this administration and President Obama, there is a Diwali stamp, and it has been issued by the U.S. Postal Service. It is available around the U.S., and people are even now sending requests from around the globe for this stamp.
So any -- Diwali is coming up in the next two weeks. Any message from the President on this Diwali stamp and to the community?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don’t know that the White House can claim any credit for the decision on the part of the Postal Service to start printing and distributing Diwali stamps. But I would anticipate that the President and First Lady will issue a statement on the occasions of Diwali to offer their greetings to those who are celebrating the holiday.
Obviously, as we’ve discussed a couple of times here, Goyal, the United States and India share deep cultural ties. So there’s a large and active Indian American population here in the United States that contributes greatly to the success and vibrancy of our country, our economy and our democracy. And our country benefits from the large Indian American population that lives here and makes tangible contributions to our country on a daily basis.
So if the issuance of that stamp is viewed by the Indian community as an affirmation of the important role that they play in our country, then that certainly would please the President of the United States.
Q And finally, (inaudible) to the many, many congressmen and senators on the Capitol Hill who have worked with the administration for this effort. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: So great. Thanks, Goyal.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I wanted to ask you about a comment Hillary Clinton made in a speech to Goldman Sachs. This was a series of things that were hacked in the last couple of days. She was talking about covert activity; I think it was in the context of Syria. And she said, “We used to be much better at this than we are now. Now you know everybody can’t help themselves. They go out and tell their friendly reporters and somebody else, look what we’re doing, and I want credit for it.” I’m wondering whether the President shares her concern that covert action is more difficult for the United States to take because there is a tendency of people to talk out of school.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s an interesting question to ask the President’s spokesperson -- (laughter) -- who I think, over the course of many administrations, has historically played the role of complaining about the unauthorized leak of sensitive information. I’ve, on a number of occasions, had the opportunity to fill that role in this administration as well.
Let me start by issuing my typical disclaimer, which is that I’ve been quite reluctant to comment directly on the stolen emails of a private citizen. And so while I know much of the reporting indicates that there’s plenty of reason to believe that this particular transcript is an accurate reflection of what she said, I do think I want to initiate my response by noting the stolen nature of the materials.
With regard to the President’s thought on this question, though, which I think is where you’re going, you all have heard the President speak publicly on a number of occasions about how preserving secrecy and confidentiality does advance our national security interests. The President’s view, though, is that we should be quite judicious about deciding to invoke that kind of secrecy. In fact, the President has undertaken a number of initiatives to make our national security apparatus and our national security operations more transparent.
And even in The New York Times over the weekend, Mark, there was a careful look at this by your colleagues with regard to our operations in Somalia. Many of the details that were included in that story were reported because they were disclosed by the United States government that there were war powers report notifications made to Capitol Hill about the deployment of U.S. military personnel. There were news releases generated by the Department of Defense announcing certain counterterrorism strikes, including those that were successful against Shabbaab leaders. There have also been public acknowledgements about investigations of strikes that may have results in some civilian casualties.
The President believes that that level of transparency gives the United States of America the opportunity to indicate our commitment to upholding the kinds of values that we cherish -- in fact, in some cases, the kinds of values that we’re actually fighting for.
So the President has long acknowledged the need for some secrecy. But he believes that so much of what we do to keep the country safe on his orders is something that is even more effective when we can be transparent about it. And there are some cases where that’s just not possible. And where that’s not possible, the President believes it’s important for those who have taken an oath to protect national security information to follow through on that commitment.
But the President also, I think -- part of his legacy will be the dogged commitment that he has pursued to make these kinds of operations and make many of these efforts more transparent than they have been in previous administrations.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you later.
2:17 P.M. EDT