Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest -- Los Angeles, CA, 10/25/2016
Los Angeles, California
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
11:20 A.M. PDT
MR. EARNEST: I actually do not have anything at the top, so we can go to whatever questions you may be interested in today.
Q We saw the numbers from HHS yesterday. Does the President think it’s acceptable for people to have a 25 percent increase?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, you’ve asked the question in a way that I think illustrates a number of challenges that we face.
The first is, for the vast majority of people who are purchasing health insurance through the marketplace -- will not see a significant increase in the amount that they pay for their health care. And that’s because the vast majority of people who purchase health insurance through the marketplace get tax credits that ensure that health care is affordable.
The bottom line: More than seven in ten people who purchase health insurance through the marketplace will pay $75 a month or less. That is a good deal. It’s about the cost of a cellphone bill. That’s a particularly good deal when you consider what options were available to individuals on the individual market before the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
It’s also important to remember that the vast majority of Americans get their health insurance through their employer, through Medicare, or through Medicaid. And since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, those individuals who get their health insurance through their employer have seen the growth in health care costs so limited that they’ve actually saved $3,600 since the law went into effect.
I haven’t seen yet anybody quantify exactly what the savings is for employers who are in a position of often sharing the cost of health care for their employees. That is, in many ways, an unseen benefit of the Affordable Care Act, but one that benefits 150 million Americans in a very tangible way.
Now, as the President discussed in his speech in Florida last week, there are some things to address the individuals who are facing the situation that you've just described. And it will require Republicans doing something that they haven’t done in seven years, which is to demonstrate a genuine commitment to talking about health care reform in a way that actually makes it easier for people to get health care and holds down the growth in the cost of health care. For the last seven years, Republicans have been focused on trying to find an effective political argument in health care, and they’ve struggled to do that. They vowed to make this issue front and center in the context of the President’s reelection. It didn’t work. And there were some promises that they were going to try to do that in the context of this election too, and I feel confident in saying it’s not going to work.
So maybe after having seen this strategy, this political strategy fail in two consecutive presidential elections, maybe Republicans will come to the table with some specific ideas, or even just a willingness to work with Democrats on the ideas that they’ve put forward to address this situation. And the President has laid out what some of those ideas could be.
It could be, for example, offering tax credits -- expanded tax credits to young people, to encourage -- to give young people an even greater incentive to sign on through the marketplaces, which would improve the composition of the risk pool in a way that would reduce costs for everybody, or at least limit the growth in costs for everybody. The President has also put forward this idea of allowing those communities, where the choice in health care providers is limited, to consider a public option. That would enhance competition and presumably could improve the kinds of offerings that are available to people in communities that don’t have as many choices.
Those are a couple of common-sense ideas. And even if Republicans don’t have any of their own good ideas, just an openness to having a discussion, an honest discussion about these ideas that are common sense, that aren’t ideological, that would materially benefit millions of Americans -- that would be a pretty good place to start.
Q Josh, can I ask you -- is this sort of a one-time increase with insurers having underpriced their plans but finding out that people who are signing up for the exchanges are sicker than expected, so kind of a one-time course correction? Or is this going to be, with insurers dropping out in a lot of states, the new normal of kind of year over year for the 17 percent of people involved in the exchanges that don’t get subsidies, a major increase in their --
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, I think that your question illustrates another area of complexity here, which is that there’s a wide variety of price impacts all across the country. There are some states where the average cost of the health care -- of a health care plan on the marketplace has gone -- went down. There are some places where it’s gone up significantly. And I think that is the function of insurance companies making decisions about the most effective, competitive way to price their offerings.
We know there are some things that could be done to tweak the law that would limit that kind of volatility and would limit upward pressure on prices. And I floated a couple of those examples before -- expanded tax credits for young people. Another proposal that the President has discussed, not in a lot of detail, but is the idea of expanding tax credits for those families that are entering the middle class, or this idea of a public option that would enhance competition in some of those markets where there isn’t as much competition as we would like.
So there are certainly additional changes that we can make moving forward that would limit the risk of the situation that you’re describing. But I think the thing that we always go back to, Justin, that’s important for the context of this argument, is -- it’s actually two things. The first is, one of the benefits -- one of the other benefits of the -- often-overlooked benefits of the Affordable Care Act is imposing more transparency on this process. The only reason we’re having this discussion right now about the increase in insurance rates is that the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to publicly disclose them. That gives regulators an opportunity to push back on those rates, and regulators in states across the country did have some success in doing that in years past. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, it was not at all uncommon for insurance companies to jack up rates before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. They just didn’t have to disclose it.
So the President did give that speech last week in which he made a long argument about how the American people have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act, how the system that the vast majority of Americans face right now is improved, how it’s already saved them money and improved the kind of protections that are available to them, including not being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition, not being subject to a lifetime cap, not being at risk of getting kicked off your health insurance because you get sick. Those are all benefits that the American people enjoy as a result of the Affordable Care Act.
But moving forward, the Affordable Care Act is functionally a reform of the private health insurance system. And so pricing decisions are going to be made by the private sector. There’s a role for regulators. Greater transparency is certainly going to put pressure on those insurance companies to be competitive. But ultimately, those decisions made in the future are going to continue to be made by private sector health insurance companies that are competing for business in the marketplaces.
Q Can I ask you about the Clinton emails? The latest Podesta email exchange that came out showed that Clinton campaign officials said after the President went on “60 Minutes” -- and said that he hadn’t previously been aware of Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server -- that they need to “clean this up.” So I wanted to ask you, first of all, did the campaign alert the White House that the President either had misspoke or that they were concerned that he had misrepresented that he knew about Secretary Clinton’s email use and when? And in retrospect, did he obfuscate, either inadvertently or otherwise, to protect her from the revelation that she had done something that would look bad for her campaign?
MR. EARNEST: So just so I don’t forget it, the last answer to your question is no.
I do want to go back to the premise of your question, though. I think that the emails -- well, let me also offer my standard comment on these emails, which is that these are stolen emails. These are emails that were stolen from a private citizen, released in the context of a website that has been used as a tool, based on an analysis of the intelligence community, by the Russian government in an effort to undermine our democracy.
So I’ve been reluctant to comment on these kinds of emails in the past in part because I can’t verify the integrity of these emails. Moving past that, though, let me try to answer the spirit of your question.
The first thing is, I do believe that the emails that were released were in the context not of the “60 Minutes” interview, but actually of an interview that the President has done several weeks earlier with CBS. And so I think this was an email with Bill Plante -- or an interview with Bill Plante in early March. And the reason that’s important, Julie, is that I had an exchange about the very question you’re asking in the first briefing that I did after that interview.
And the President was asked in that interview, by Mr. Plante, whether the President was aware that Secretary Clinton was using an email system outside of the government for official administration business. And the President -- that’s a -- I think that was a fair characterization of what he said, not a direct quote. The President’s response was that he was not aware of that arrangement in terms of where her server was located, but the President did not suggest that he hadn’t traded emails with her. And, in fact, I was asked in that briefing whether or not the President had traded emails with Secretary Clinton, and I said of course he did.
And the point that I made there, and have made a couple of times subsequently, is that the President did trade emails with Secretary Clinton, not a large number of them. Of course, the President had possession of Secretary Clinton’s email address, but he did not have any knowledge of where her server was located or what sort of arrangements had been made to store her email.
In the same way that I trade emails with reporters in the White House Briefing Room, I’m aware of their email address, but I’m not aware of what arrangements your news organizations undertake to store that email, or even whether you do. I think the President’s knowledge of Secretary Clinton’s email is the same kind of knowledge that we all have about people that we email with, which is that we know their email address but we don’t know what sort of server is being used to support that email system.
Q Right. But I guess what the question is, was there concern that he hadn’t made that clear in the interview? That it sounded like he was saying that he didn’t know she was using a private email, when, of course, if he knew her email address and you know it wasn’t @state.gov, you would know that it was a private email. And was that communicated to you either before that briefing -- were you clarified, or in the days leading up to your clarification?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in the same way that I have observed that the President’s email address is not BObama@whitehouse.gov, for sensitive emails, most people, I don’t think, assume they know the arrangements of a particular email system based on the email address.
So what the President said was an entirely factual response to Mr. Plante’s question. And I think it’s notable that the answer that I’m providing you today is entirely consistent with what the President said 18 months ago and entirely consistent with what I said. I guess it’s more than 18 months ago now -- 20 months ago.
So I recognize that some of the President’s critics have attempted to construct some type of conspiracy about the communication between the President and the Secretary of State. But they’ve failed to put forward a conspiracy that withstands any scrutiny, so I guess they’re back to recycling thoroughly debunked conspiracies. So even in response to the same charges that were leveled more than a year and a half ago, my response is the same.
Q Does the President support the efforts to go after these enlistment bonuses that National Guard members here, particularly in California, are being asked to repay?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I can tell you that the President has only recently become aware of this situation. He is -- his first priority is making sure that our men and women in uniform, who have signed up to fight for our safety overseas, are treated fairly when they come home. When we make a promise to our men and women in the military, we need to keep it.
Now, I say all of that knowing that there is a process that the Department of the Defense has in place to review concerns that are raised by servicemembers. And the President has communicated to the Department of Defense that they need to ensure that we're treating our servicemembers fairly, even as they conduct that process.
What the Department of Defense has said is that they're prepared to expedite that process. It's the President's expectation that they will follow through on the commitment to expedite that process, and they will make sure that our servicemembers are being treated fairly. There's no reason that that has to be inconsistent with the priority of ensuring that the military is a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
And I know that one of the concerns that's been raised by some servicemembers here in California is that the process of evaluating concerns that they've raised about not being treated fairly is unwieldy. And the President's expectation is that the Department of Defense will follow through on their promise to expedite that process.
Q There are some lawmakers talking about waiving these debts entirely. Is that something that the President can get behind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say, first of all, I know that this is something that members of Congress were actually confronted with two years ago and, as with so many other things, failed to engage in the kind of constructive effort that could make things better for the country. But for the President's view, I don’t think he's prepared to go that far at this point; that a step like that may not necessarily be necessary in order to ensure that servicemembers are treated fairly. And again, that's the President's instinct in this situation. There's a process that the Department of Defense said that they will expedite. His expectation is that that's exactly what they will do. But even as that process is expedited, it must be focused on having the back of our men and women in uniform who have ours.
Q Can you explain what you mean by that when you said it may not be necessary to do that, and still ensure that these servicemembers are being treated fairly?
MR. EARNEST: The FBI conducted an investigation into this particular situation some time ago, and did uncover some examples of wrongdoing. And there are individuals who have been held accountable for engaging in fraud or otherwise gaming the system in a way that was not sufficiently protective of taxpayer dollars.
So the President's view is that it is possible to expedite this process of evaluating concerns that have been raised by some servicemembers who have been asked to repay these bonuses. If you do that expeditiously, and have a process that ensures that our servicemembers are being treated fairly, then a blanket waiver is not necessary. What's necessary is we need to have a process in place that protects our servicemembers. And that's what's the President is interested in.
Q When did he send that -- ask them to expedite that? Today? Yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Defense committed -- I know that Secretary Carter announced earlier today that they were expediting this process. And that's consistent with the direction that they received from the President of the United States.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeline for when he exactly said that, but the steps that have been announced by the Department of Defense are consistent with the President's expectations and with what's been communicated to the Department of Defense.
Q So does the President feel that these servicemembers that were being asked to repay their enlistment bonuses have been treated unfairly thus far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President's view is that -- well, in some cases, I think it is clear that the process has dragged on for too long, considering the claims of some servicemembers. I think the Department of Defense would acknowledge that too. And that certainly would raise questions about fairness.
But each of these cases is unique. But the bottom line is, we have a responsibility, the Commander-in-Chief has a deeply held responsibility that we're going to treat our servicemembers fairly. We're not going to nickel-and-dime them when they get back. We're not going to hold servicemembers responsible, unfairly, for unethical conduct or fraud perpetrated by someone else.
Q The President said yesterday the U.S. doesn’t know who was responsible for the DDoS attack on Friday. I’m wondering if he was using shorthand to sort of say what you often say, which is that you’re not ready to name somebody, but that the investigation is maybe progressing and has identified a leading suspect, or if the U.S. is genuinely sort of confounded by this attack. And if it’s the latter, I know it’s still early days, but what does that say about sort of our ability to protect kind of essential parts of the Internet?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my colleagues at DHS and other law enforcement agencies have indicated that they’re trying to get greater insight into what exactly happened at the end of last week that effectively disrupted the access that some people in the United States had to some commonly visited websites.
The President was just using shorthand in indicating that he didn’t have a new assessment to share about who may be responsible for this incident. But I don’t have an update in terms of the ongoing investigation. I’ll let my colleagues at DHS speak to that.
Q I wanted to ask about -- the President has also talked a bit on this trip about the HFC amendment to the Montreal Protocol. Do you guys think that’s something that’s going to require Senate confirmation? I think a lot of people looking at it think that it will. And if so, do you guys have a legislative strategy for that, or is it something that would be kind of punted to a theoretical Clinton administration?
MR. EARNEST: There has been an ongoing analysis of the agreement to determine precisely what role Congress may have to play in ensuring that the United States can keep the commitments that were made in the context of that agreement. So I can’t speak with any precision about what sort of role may be required for Congress, and the United States Senate in particular.
But the President does wholeheartedly believe that the agreement that was reached in Kampala *Kigali has significant consequences for the fight against climate change. In some ways, the impact of this agreement is actually more far-reaching than the Paris agreement that got so much attention at the end of last year.
Second, the President believes that it is consistent with our national interest to take these kinds of steps to fight climate change, that we already know that there are some places around the world where the impact of climate change could potentially have a destabilizing impact on the planet. And it’s one of our national security interests to try to prevent those kinds of things from happening.
Finally, the President believes that an agreement like this is actually in the economic interest of the United States; that focusing the world on new technology -- in this case, new technology that can be used to refrigerate food and cool buildings -- is a good thing for U.S. businesses. And the United States is on the frontiers of some of this technology. And by having countries around the world make a commitment to phase down their use of HFCs creates a global market for the kind of technology that’s being developed here in the United States. So that means enormous economic opportunity for U.S. companies and the potential for significant job growth in the United States.
All of those are good things. All of those explain the leading role that the United States has played in trying to craft and complete these kinds of agreements. The President is quite proud of that accomplishment. It’s unclear yet right now exactly what role Congress would have to play in that. I would not anticipate that there would be any sort of congressional action required before the President leaves office, so I wouldn’t anticipate the conception and implementation of a congressional plan in the next couple of months. But as our policymakers evaluate the agreement and understand its impact on the United States, particularly whether or not it requires some sort of Senate ratification, that’s work that will be ongoing. And if it is, then there will be a -- I guess the point of all of this is there will be a very strong case to make to the Senate about why they should approve this agreement, if in fact their approval is necessary.
Q There was an attack that the Islamic State helped carrying out in joining with some Pakistani militants. How concerned are you guys that this is a new area in which the Islamic State is spreading? And do you have any confidence that Pakistanis can get something like this under control?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that our thoughts and prayers are with those who were affected by this terribly bloody terrorist attack. There are dozens of families in Pakistan that are grieving the loss of loved ones right now. And it is an indication of the very serious threat that Pakistan and the citizens of Pakistan face from extremists in their country. And that’s why the United States will stand with the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan as they confront this threat. The security cooperation between the United States and Pakistan is important. It benefits both our countries. And we stand ready to offer our support to the Pakistani government and to the Pakistani security services as they investigate this situation.
That investigation is still ongoing. I have not heard a firm conclusion reached about who precisely is responsible. We have seen situations where there are extremist organizations who carry out attacks under the banner of ISIL, even though these are previously -- in some cases, previously existing terrorist organizations that are just trying to score a propaganda victory by claiming that the attack was carried out under the ISIL banner.
So there’s still some investigation ongoing to determine what sort of role ISIL may have played in this particular incident. But whoever was responsible has carried out the kind of terrorist attack that's worthy of widespread condemnation. And the United States, like I said, stands prepared to assist the Pakistani government and to offer our sincere condolences to the Pakistani people for the loss of life in this incident.
Q Josh, Jimmy Kimmel asked the President last night, he said, you look like you’re having a really good time. The President didn’t quite answer that. Is he having -- is this like the most fun that he’s been having as President at this point in the presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think it’s hard to offer a superlative in this case. There are other moments in the presidency where the President has been obviously having a good time.
Q But as an extended period.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, but look -- many of you observed over the summer the President’s obvious appetite for getting on the campaign trail and making an argument to the American people about the future direction of the country and about the election of the person who will succeed him in the Oval Office. And for months, he observed a primary campaign that he was reluctant to engage in, but once the general election started, there was some pent-up interest, you might say, in engaging in the debate.
And having an opportunity to travel across the country and address large enthusiastic crowds who are clearly excited to see him out on stump -- it’s fun. He gets a lot of energy from that. And he feels good that the argument that he is making to the country is resonating, not just deeply in the Democratic base, but all across the country. That’s a very satisfying thing to somebody who has poured their heart and soul into the progress that we’ve made over the last eight years, and to see a large portion, a majority of the American public respond to his call to support candidates that are interested in building on that progress. It’s satisfying.
And the President recognizes that the progress that he has fought for is on the ballot. And that’s why he’s dedicating so much energy to trying to defend it.
Q Does he feel vindicated to see the political movement -- it seems, based on the polls, moving toward people that he wants that? Instead of this year not being a rejection of him or shipped away from him, but people moving toward him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is pleased about the current trajectory of the race, but based on what you guys have heard over the last couple of days, it’s obvious that he’s not taking this for granted. He’s going to resist any temptation to be complacent, and that’s the reason we’re sitting here in California, so he can raise money to make sure that Democrats have the resources necessary to get our message out in the last two weeks of the race.
You can expect to see the President on the campaign trail again on Friday, in Florida, in support of not just Secretary Clinton but also the candidate for the United States Senate that he’s endorsed, Congressman Murphy. And I think you can -- I know you can expect the President to campaign vigorously over the course of next week as well. And again, all that is a testament to the idea that the President is determined to make sure that people aren’t complacent. And the President is pleased about the current trajectory of the race, but the votes have just started being tallied, and he’ll be out there making the case for Secretary Clinton and Democrats up and down the ballot until the last vote is cast.
Q Quick question. The President mentioned yesterday that he -- or he quipped that he wished he’d been able to use his veto pen a little bit more often. The House is going to vote on the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act as soon as November. Would the President veto that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the argument the President is making is that Republicans have been in charge of the United States Congress now for almost two years. You have a historically large majority in the House, and you have Republicans in charge of the Senate for the first time in, I guess, it was eight years.
So you would expect that, presented with that historic opportunity, that Republicans in Congress would get together and be passing all sorts of conservative-minded bills that the President would be forced to veto. But that’s not what Congress has done. Republicans in Congress have not been focused on trying to implement an agenda, or move the country forward, or realize a package of legislation centered on conservative ideals.
So the President’s desire to use his veto pen is a way for him to express his desire for Republicans in Congress that are actually interested in doing something. And the fact that they haven’t, even though they have strong majorities in both houses of Congress, is an illustration of how intellectually lazy congressional Republicans have become. They’d rather make simple-minded, often false arguments -- political arguments -- that undermine or obstruct the President. They’re not actually making arguments that advance their conservative agenda.
With regard to the Iran Sanctions Act, I know that there has been some reporting on this today. I don’t have a veto threat to issue at this point, but I’ll say what I’ve said before, which is simply that the President and the Treasury Department retain significant sanctions authority that already has been used to impose costs on Iran for their flagrant violation of their international obligations when it comes to their missile program.
That sanctions authority has been used to impose costs on Iran for their support for terrorism, for their violation of human rights. So this is authority that the United States government retains and has used to deal with a wide range of concerns we have with Iran’s behavior.
So I won’t prejudge at this point about whether or not the President would sign that bill, but I would just make the point that the kind of authority that Congress is saying the executive branch should have to confront Iran is the kind of executive authority that we already have and have already used to confront Iran for their support for terrorism, for their ballistic missile program, and for frequent and repeated violations of basic human rights.
12:01 P.M. PDT