Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/22/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:19 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Those of you who joined us on the trip, welcome back. Hopefully you’ve gotten a chance to catch up on some sleep. Maybe a little. Maybe that's what the Thanksgiving holiday will be, at least in part, of that. I don't have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. Has the President spoken to the President-elect since their meeting in the Oval Office shortly after the election?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I know this has come up in some reporting about an off-the-record meeting that the President-elect reportedly held with some media executives in New York yesterday. What I can tell you is that those of you who covered the President-elect’s visit to the Oval Office a couple of weeks ago, you took note of the fact that the President-elect indicated his desire to continue to consult with President Obama over the course of the transition. And you’ve also heard President Obama indicate the high priority that he has placed on facilitating a smooth and effective transition. So reports the two may have talked after their White House meeting I think are not particularly surprising.
But in the same way that I protected the ability of President Obama to consult confidentially with other senior officials, including some former Presidents, I'm not going to read out or confirm every reported meeting or phone call or conversation. But I can tell you that the President has had a conversation with the President-elect since the Oval Office meeting.
Q But, Josh, when the President speaks to other important world leaders, a number of them from Congress or congressional leadership, they’re able to have private discussions where they can confer on things, and the White House at least is able to confirm when they spoke and usually give us some type of a general readout of what they discussed. Is there a reason that that can't take place?
MR. EARNEST: That hasn’t been true when President Obama has consulted with other Presidents. And I think that's the precedent -- and precedent prerogative that we're trying to protect. But again, as President-elect Trump indicated in the Oval Office, he was hoping that he would have the opportunity to consult with President Obama over the course of this transition. President Obama has committed to a smooth transition, and as a result they’ve spoken at least once since their Oval Office meeting.
Q Is the White House hoping that Trump and his team will be similarly coy in not releasing a whole lot of details about what the two Presidents discussed?
MR. EARNEST: President-elect Trump can certainly discuss whatever he chooses to about his consultations with President Obama. Presumably, he'll have an opportunity to do that beyond an off-the-record meeting with news executives.
Q You may have seen that the President-elect -- his team, at least, is now saying that he won't go ahead and try to prosecute Hillary Clinton, if elected -- or once he takes office. Is the White House relieved to hear that that seems to be off the table? Or are you concerned that the independence between the White House and the Justice Department that you’ve worked so dutifully over the last eight years to try to maintain now seems to be going out the window?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I think the end of your question is where I would begin, which is that we have gone to great lengths in the context of the Obama administration to uphold a core foundational principle of our democracy, which is preventing politics from influencing independent criminal investigations. That is a basic principle of our democracy because we don't want to leave anybody with even the impression that there’s the potential that somebody could be treated differently by our criminal justice system because of their political affiliation. This is a principle of every American being subject to the rule of law and every American being equal under the law.
And so we have gone to great lengths not just to uphold that principle but also to even avoid the appearance of that principle being called into question. And for better or worse, in the context of the two and a half years that I've been doing this job, I've been asked repeatedly -- even before Secretary Clinton had announced her campaign, I was asked about her email system. Eight days before an election, I came out and stood before all of you, answering questions about a letter from the FBI Director that he had sent to Congress saying that the investigation had been reopened.
And at each of those turns, I've made clear that those kinds of investigative decisions and investigative conclusions should be conducted free of any sort of political interference and certainly should be conducted independent of any White House interference. And that's the principle that we have protected. That is a principle that previous Presidents have protected. And we certainly believe that's a principle that future Presidents should protect.
But again, I can't speak for the President-elect’s team or any sort of decisions or pronouncements that he’d like to make. You’d have to talk to him about that.
Q And I wanted to ask you about the President-elect publicly lobbying for Britain to nominate Nigel Farage as the UK Ambassador to the U.S. Is the White House concerned by that apparently pretty significant breach of protocol, given his status as the political opposition to the current leadership in the UK?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, as somebody who has covered the President closely for the last several years, you know that the President has been very conscientious about not wading too deeply into another country’s politics. The truth is there’s plenty of politics going on in this country to keep everybody busy, I think.
So there have been occasions where the President has taken a position on a particular issue, or at least spoken publicly about a particular issue. The Brexit question comes to mind. A lot of people made note of the President’s public statements about the Brexit vote when he visited the UK earlier this year. But he was quite direct in laying out his view that this was a decision for the British people to make.
But he offered his opinion for a couple of reasons. First of all, he saw some of the opponents of Brexit suggest that somehow the United States would benefit or have a favorable view of a Brexit vote. That was obviously not true, so the President wanted to set the record straight. The President also thought it was important for people to understand the true feelings of the UK’s closest ally as they weighed this decision that was before them. And so the President made the argument accordingly. But at each turn in making that argument, he went to great lengths to make clear that he respects the sovereignty of the British people and certainly respects the responsibility that the British people and the British government have to make decisions that are consistent with their own country’s and their own citizens’ self-interest.
And that's a principle that -- that's another principle that we've sought to uphold during the President’s eight years in office. You have to talk to the President-elect or the people of the UK about whether or not they are concerned that that tweet may have violated that principle. It's not something I'll weigh in on from here.
Julia. Nice to see you.
Q Hi, good to see you. I wanted to ask you a few questions about President-elect Trump’s recent comments on immigration. Yesterday, in a YouTube video outlining executive actions he hopes to take as soon as he gets into office, he said that he was going to call on the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programs that undercut American workers. Does the President have a response to this? Does he think that visa abuse by American companies is on the rise? And does he support an approach that would investigate, piece by piece, each abuse?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, over the course of the election, I think we made, and the President made, very clear -- even to people who were only sort of paying attention -- that the President-elect’s vision for the domestic and foreign policy he chose to -- he hopes to pursue is quite different than the priorities and agenda that President Obama has said over his last eight years in office. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of the priorities that the President-elect has discussed are not the same priorities that we've been discussing.
But for me to weigh in on and react to or even criticize those well-known differences would undermine the President’s priority of ensuring a smooth and effective transition.
So it's certainly the responsibility of the President-elect to communicate with the American public about what sort of priorities he'll pursue when he takes office. He has that right and ability because he won the election. And the election is over. The debate about the consequences of that election has been resolved. And the President is following the will of the American people and fulfilling his institutional responsibility to give the incoming team the best prospects for success when it comes to uniting the country and moving us forward.
Q An area where there may be some overlap or he may be able to comment would be on the President-elect’s plan to unravel the executive actions on immigration, like the DACA --the DREAMER’s Act that allowed children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents work authorizations. Obviously, it was a big push of this administration to get those people to give their information to the government, to come forward. That information will now be put in the hands of an administration who could use that for enforcement -- things like addresses. What does the President say now to reassure or to provide some comfort to people who he convinced to trust the government enough to come forward and share that information?
MR. EARNEST: I know the President has had an opportunity to talk about this a little bit already. I think what I would say in general is that this does underscore the need for Congress to act on the clear bipartisan agreement that exists about some of the benefits of comprehensive immigration reform. The obstruction by House Republicans prevented the realization of that goal. And ultimately, House Republicans who continue to retain their responsibility for governing the country with their majorities in Congress will have to evaluate whether or not they want this country to enjoy the significant economic benefits of common-sense comprehensive immigration reform.
The second thing I would note is that the President-elect, since the election, has given voice to the same kind of priorities and criteria that this administration has long pursued. The President-elect has indicated that his emphasis when it comes to deportation should be on criminals. That's actually the policy that this administration has been pursuing for quite some time. That is a policy that we turbocharged in the context of the President's executive actions that were announced a little over two years ago now.
So ultimately it will be the responsibility of the President-elect, though, to determine what sort of priorities his administration will pursue. The kind of enforcement priorities that are laid out in the context of the DREAMers executive action that was taken by the administration was actually something that largely rested with the Department of Homeland Security. So certainly the President-elect's choice for the Secretary of Homeland Security will be a consequential one.
But ultimately the President has made clear that those individuals who qualified for DACA, the DREAM Act executive actions that this administration pursued, are individuals who are in the United States through no fault of their own. These are individuals who are American in every way but their papers. And these are individuals who attend the same church, attend the same school, shop at the same stores, live in the same communities as Americans all across the country.
And our country benefits from making an investment in those young people, because those young people made an investment in us, and many of them have gone to college and demonstrated the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that's good for our economy. Many of them have actually enlisted our military and fought and died protecting the United States of America and the people who live here.
So there's a strong case to make about the valuable contribution that these individuals have already made to the United States, and a strong case has been made about how unraveling them and dividing families in the way that some suggest would be bad for our economy and entirely inconsistent with the kinds of values that have long been revered by American policymakers for generations.
Q One last question. Will the President withdraw Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President believes strongly that Chief Judge Garland is the best person in America to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court. That's why the President nominated him. Presumably, there are some Republicans who agree. They agree for a variety of reasons. They agree in part because Chief Judge Garland is the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in American history. He spent 19 years on the federal judiciary. And no one can call into his question his qualifications. Certainly the nonpartisan American Bar Association didn’t call into question his qualifications. They rated him unanimously well-qualified for the job. You had Republicans who in the past had described Chief Judge Garland as a consensus nominee, as somebody who is going to set aside his own political leanings and focus on the judges' responsibility to interpret the law.
But Merrick Garland is also somebody who has bravely served his country. He led the investigation into the bombing in Oklahoma City and played a key role in bringing to justice those who killed more than 100 Americans in Oklahoma City more than 20 years ago now.
So Chief Judge Garland is somebody who is qualified. He's a man of impeccable character. And he's a man who served his country. And it is disgraceful the way that Republicans in the United States Senate treated him, even setting aside their absolute failure to fulfill their basic responsibility as elected officials, as elected representatives of the American people in the United States Senate.
So this is a -- his treatment and the way that this situation is likely to end is a scar on the institution of the United States Senate. And it is a scar that I do not anticipate will go away quickly, and that is rather unfortunate. But you can certainly be sure that President Obama will continue to have Chief Judge Garland's back until the end of this congressional session.
Q I wanted to ask -- you talked a lot about ensuring a smooth transition and helping the President-elect. In his video yesterday, he said on day one he would signal his intention to withdraw from TPP. I'm wondering for you guys, do you still plan to submit a final statement in the draft of the implementing bill to Congress? Or is your support for TPP at this point academic, with the realization that there's no interest on Capitol Hill and certainly not for the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly -- we're well aware of the public statements of the President-elect. And this is true of both candidates, that neither of them was supportive of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
I don’t have any future steps to preview for you, but I would acknowledge that the prospects of TPP being ratified by this Congress or before President Obama leaves are not very good. And that's unfortunate --
Q But, I guess, are you going to try? I mean, are you even going to --
MR. EARNEST: Look, I don’t have any steps to preview at this point. I think the argument that I would make is simply that this is -- if Congress does not move forward with ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is a significant missed opportunity for the American people, in part because there were some pretty clear signals from other TPP countries that they actually intend to move forward, even if the United States does not. And that's going to put U.S. businesses and U.S. workers at a disadvantage.
You've got other countries with significant economies, and growing economies, where the United States already does business, but U.S. businesses and U.S. workers are going to be put at a disadvantage because we don’t benefit from the kinds of opportunities that are created by the TPP. You will see other countries who are part of TPP move in and capitalize on the market share that U.S. companies have lost in the Asia Pacific. And that's a real shame. Because so much of the anxiety that was, according to many analysts, expressed in the context of the election was rooted in the idea that the forces of globalization had had a negative impact on too many American workers. And those workers were frustrated that their government hadn’t done more to help them and their companies counter those forces of globalization.
That's exactly the strategy that we have laid out. And it's tragic to see that be rolled back, to see that that policy that could address some of those concerns be rolled back by the person who claims that they share those concerns. So that's deeply disappointing.
This is also concerning when you consider our broader relationship with China -- because we know that right now, even as we speak, China is seeking to advance their own trade agreement with countries in this region that we know is going to further disadvantage U.S. businesses and U.S. workers.
So it is not a situation, Justin, where Congress refusing to advance the TPP, that the status quo is maintained and that we're just going to try and find a different solution. The fact is, the U.S. will be consequentially negatively affected by the refusal of the Congress to ratify the TPP in terms of lost opportunities and lost market share, but also in terms of lower standards being implemented by China.
The last thing I'll say about this is there was some discussion in the most recent campaign about NAFTA and the need to improve NAFTA. That's exactly what the TPP would have done. It would have included some environmental and labor standards that would have been increased and made enforceable in the context of TPP. That was not true in NAFTA, and that potential improvement is also on the verge of being cast to the curb, if you will. And that's rather unfortunate, too.
So there are some significant lost opportunities. And it will be difficult, I think, for, frankly, Democrats and Republicans in Congress who opposed the TPP moving forward to justify this action and to lay -- or inaction, as the case may be -- and to lay out some sort of coherent strategy for addressing these concerns. This administration pursued a coherent strategy. We worked for years to negotiate the kind of agreement that would advantage U.S. workers and our broader economy. But it looks like that responsibility may fall to someone else. I think they're going to have a hard time putting together the kind of coherent strategy with as much promise as the one that this administration put forward.
Q Gardiner asked the President about the NSA Director, down in Peru. But the President's answer was sort of broad, and so I wanted to kind of ask a couple tighter questions about --
Q You're saying I'm wrong?
Q No, I thought you did a good job there. (Laughter.)
Q Be specific. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, would you like to sit up here and handle this one? I can take a break for a minute and you can --
Q Did the President receive a recommendation from Secretary Carter and DNI Clapper to remove Director Rogers? And has the President made the determination about whether there should be separate chains of command between the NSA and military cyber operations? And I say all this acknowledging that I'm probably not going to get more than Gardiner did. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Fair enough. You wouldn’t be doing your job if you didn’t ask, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I gave up a whole lot more, particularly when it comes to something as critical to our national security as cybersecurity. This is something that I think was evident in the President's answer. This is something that the President has been thinking about a lot, about what we can do to enhance and further fortify the kinds of cyber protections that the American people and the U.S. government rely upon to ensure the protection of our national security.
Justin, if the President was unwilling to describe the kind of advice and recommendations he's getting from his Secretary of Defense, it certainly would be out of line for me to do so. So I'm not going to talk about the kinds of advice or recommendations the President has received from the DNI or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense.
But I can tell you that this is a question, more generally, about how to structure our national security apparatus that the President has been talking about with his team. As it relates to Admiral Rogers, you did hear directly from the President, I think in pretty unambiguous terms, how the President views Admiral Rogers as a patriot and somebody who had devoted a significant portion of his life to protecting our country. And I think all of us can and should be grateful for his service thus far.
If the President were to make a decision about changing the organization of this structure by dividing the responsibilities of the NSA Director and the Commander of Cyber Command into two different jobs, that's an announcement that I would let the Commander-in-Chief make.
Q Last one. All four major stock indices yesterday closed to record highs. I know that you don’t comment on day-to-day fluctuations, but there has been sort of a decided uptick since President-elect Trump was elected. And so I'm wondering if you can maybe reflect on why investors might seem encouraged by the prospect of transitioning from an Obama economy to a Trump economy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I typically am quite reluctant to talk about individual market movements, and I suspect there are plenty of analysts out there who have their own theories about market movements over the last couple of weeks. So I'll let those highly paid analysts do that work.
I guess a market movement that I would comment on is just the market movement we've seen over the last eight years. Most of those stock indexes have more than doubled under President Obama's leadership, and I do think that that speaks well of the kind of economic strategy that President Obama has implemented. And it certainly will be a very high bar for a future President to live up to. But hopefully they'll give it a good shot.
Q Josh, in your answer on Merrick Garland, does that mean that President Obama will resubmit the nomination in January during those days when the new Congress overlaps the end of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to preview at this point about whether or not the President would resubmit his nomination. But obviously the President I think shares my -- I'm confident shares my view that the Senate's treatment of Chief Judge Garland is deplorable.
Q Speaker Ryan today is urging President Obama not to put forward any steps that would bolster Iran's economies. He's worried that there may be new concessions in the pipeline. Does he have reason to worry?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have anything to preview at this point. What I can tell you is that this administration, through January 20th, will fulfill our obligations around the Iran deal that have prevented Iran from advancing their nuclear weapon capability. In fact, that capability has been substantially rolled back because of this international agreement that the United States brokered with some of our closest allies. And the results of the deal meant that Iran had to ship out 98 percent of its enriched uranium, had to dismantle two-thirds of their centrifuges -- thousands of centrifuges were dismantled. They had to render harmless their plutonium reactor. And they have adopted and complied with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed by a country's nuclear program.
So the steps that have been taken thus far have enhanced the national security of the United States significantly. They've also enhanced the national security of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. And I can tell you that our other European allies in particular feel very good about the progress that this agreement has yielded. In fact, it has exceeded not just the expectations of those of us who believe that the Iran deal was the right approach, but it actually has refuted every criticism that we heard from opponents of the deal.
There was a suggestion at the very beginning that Iran would never ever sit down and negotiate this kind of an arrangement in good faith. Once those negotiations started, there was a sense that -- that was put forward by opponents of the deal -- that Iran wasn’t actually interested in negotiating an agreement; that they were just negotiating for time. They were wrong about that too. Once the agreement was reached, critics said that the Iranians would never comply with the deal, they would never live up to the terms that had been included on the paper. They were wrong about that. Even the Israeli military intelligence community that had significant doubts about the deal have confirmed what we've seen from other places, which is that Iran has lived up to the terms of the deal.
So while Iran lives up to the terms of the deal, the United States is certainly going to make sure we're fulfilling our commitments to make sure that the deal doesn’t fall apart. And we know that our allies -- the President had the opportunity to talk about this with some of the leaders of countries who also were a part of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and they share that sentiment. The next administration will have to decide what they want to do moving forward, but the risks of pulling out of that agreement or doing something in violation of that agreement are grave.
Q The Speaker is also asking President Obama to sign a 10-year extension of the Iran sanctions pact. Is that something you'd be willing to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that there's been a robust debate in Congress about the wisdom of this approach. If there's a bill that's passed by the Congress, we'll obviously take a close look at it. I know much of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill is them -- advocates of the bill say that they want to give the President tools to impose sanctions against Iran where necessary.
The truth is, the Obama administration has significant authority to impose those kinds of financial penalties, and we have not been timid about using them. This administration has repeatedly, through the Treasury Department, imposed sanctions against Iran for a ballistic missile program that extends beyond the accepted guidelines of the international community. We've imposed sanctions against Iran because of their support for terrorism in the region. We have imposed sanctions against Iran because of their repeated and flagrant violation of universal human rights.
So these are tools that the administration already has, and we have certainly shown a willingness to use them. But if Congress wants to put more on the table, then we'll take a look at what they propose. We certainly are not going to, however, sign a piece of legislation that would undermine the ability of the international community to continue to successfully implement the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q And one last question on today's event. Can you tell us or remind us how President Obama selects the recipients of this Medal of Freedom?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that this is a process that was created by -- or an award that was created by President Kennedy. And the President every year looks forward to this opportunity that he has to acknowledge the contributions of people, mostly Americans, to the world and to the United States. And it's a rather distinguished group of individuals who are assembling in the East Room of the White House this afternoon to be recognized by the President with the highest civilian award that the President can offer.
And these were individuals who were personally considered by the President. The President and his staff will spend some time considering a variety of candidates, but ultimately the President is the one who decides who is deserving of the award. And I think there's no arguing that the individuals who have been -- who will be recognized today are richly deserving.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to the question of Donald Trump's "prosecution" of Hillary Clinton. You spoke about upholding a core foundational principle of our democracy. Do you believe that the President-elect's comments and those of his staff risk eroding the core principle of democracy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, there's ample opportunity for people to weigh in on this debate. And certainly many people -- Democrats and Republicans -- availed themselves of that opportunity in the two weeks leading up to the debate. I suspect that the comments today will give more people a reason to weigh in. But I'm not going to weigh in from here.
I think the one thing that I don’t think I mentioned in my previous answer to this that is relevant here is that there was an investigation. The investigation was led by independent officials at the Department of Justice, including the Director of the FBI. This is an individual who is a registered Republican. This is somebody who served as a high-ranking official in the Bush administration as a political appointee. He is somebody who was confirmed in the United States Senate by a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans when President Obama appointed him to the job.
President Obama selected him for the job because of his demonstrated ability and his longstanding track record of putting aside his own political considerations to focus on the law. And his conclusion after the evidence was presented to him is that no reasonable prosecutor would move forward with the case. And he made that recommendation public. That is a recommendation that was then approved by senior officials at the Department of Justice, including the Attorney General, herself -- somebody with decades of experience in conducting criminal prosecutions.
So I guess the point, Andrew, is that we don't need staffers in the next White House to resolve the question about whether or not a prosecution should move forward. This decision was already reached by senior officials at the Department of Justice in a way that should resolve everybody’s concerns about the potential for political interference. And it's important that this longstanding tradition and principle that is the foundation, or at least one critical part of the foundation of our criminal justice system is one that is not just upheld but one that is carefully protected, because its erosion has the potential to raise questions about whether or not everybody in this country is going to be treated fairly under the law.
Cheryl. Oh -- I'm sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off there.
Q No, no. What was I going to ask you -- the President has spoken quite a few times about the negative impact of partisanship and the need for reaching across the aisle. I was wondering if you think that Tulsi Gabbard's outreach to the Trump campaign offers a kind of example for Democrats in that regard.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to comment on Congresswoman Gabbard’s conversations. I mean, I think what I can tell you is that President Obama invited the President-elect to come to the Oval Office and meet with him. So at this point I don't think I have the standing to criticize anybody for having a meeting with the President-elect. I think the President was pretty blunt over the course of the last week when he was traveling in Europe and Latin America where he encouraged people in the United States and around the world to wait and see when it comes to assessing the pursuits of the next administration. And obviously I think that's what we'll all be doing.
Q Final one. Has the administration granted a license to Airbus to sell over a hundred planes to Iran?
MR. EARNEST: I saw some of this reporting shortly before I came out here. I'd encourage you to check with my colleagues at the Treasury Department. That's the agency that handles those licenses and makes those decisions.
Q I just need to know if the President would sign a short-term continuing resolution through March. Or how do you see the budget issue being resolved this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, the approach that we have taken since the beginning is that the American people, the American government, and the American economy benefit from certainty. And one piece of certainty that the federal government owes the American people and the American economy is budget certainty. There’s no reason that Congress shouldn’t be able to fulfill their basic responsibility to provide an annual budget for the United States government and to do that on time, and to put forward a budget that is consistent with a set of principles about the best way to govern the country.
So we're going to continue to advocate for the longest possible budget agreement we can get. But ultimately the Congress is going to have to do a lot of negotiating here to figure out how they’re going to uphold their basic responsibility, which is to keep the government open.
Q Republican leaders have said that they want to wait until the next administration comes in. Will you allow that to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we'll have to see what they put forward. I think this is one of those situations where, Cheryl, if you and I were negotiating this out, it would probably get resolved in about 90 minutes. But that's not the way that our system of democracy works. There are a much larger number of people involved. Some of them are, to be blunt about it, making decisions that are based on politics and not on the national interest. And that's unfortunate. And that makes the process imperfect, longer than necessary, and sometimes yields outcomes that are not in the best interest of the country, even if they are in the best interest of some individual members of Congress.
So we'll see to what extent politics infects this particular process. But that's something I can't judge in advance.
Q Thanks, Josh. On that video announcement that President-elect Trump made last night he also mentioned the regulation -- his plan to undo two regulations, he said, for every new regulation that comes forward. Did the White House view that as a warning not to go forward with unfinished business?
MR. EARNEST: No, not at all. In fact, this administration has actually pioneered a rather successful effort to do a review of preexisting regulations that were already on the books when President Obama took office. And we can follow up with you with some data that indicate the -- or that illustrate the economic impact -- the positive economic impact -- of that regulatory look-back proposal.
There are a substantial number of regulations that were taken off the books by the Obama administration in a way that had an important material benefit for the U.S. economy. So if the Trump administration is prepared to pursue the same kind of strategy, my guess is that they, I'm confident, that they will have -- they'll reach some different conclusions than we did. But that certainly is an entirely expected pursuit of theirs.
Q What's your view about his mathematical equation? I think he's looking for a twofer, basically, to undo -- just on the basis of math.
MR. EARNEST: Again, the President spent a lot of time over the last week talking about how so much of governing may seem very simple on the surface, particularly when you're running for the job. It ends up being a lot more complicated once you get into the job and you evaluate the consequences for the actions that you are promising to take. I suspect that may be true in the context of the incoming administration's consideration of repealing a range of regulatory actions.
Michelle. Oh, I'm sorry, Suzanne -- nice to see you. I'm used to Michelle sitting there. (Laughter.) And I saw you in the corner of my eye.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: It's nice to see you today.
Q Nice to see you, as well. Can we go back to Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely.
Q Is the administration considering any new measures to bolster the nuclear deal with Iran, namely through sanctions or additional licensing with American businesses in order to make it more difficult for a Trump administration to undo?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any actions to preview from here. The one thing I can confirm for you is that the kinds of actions that we have taken in implementing the deal are the kinds of actions that have had to go through a rather extended process. So I can confirm for you that I do not anticipate any actions being taken that were initiated after the election solely in response to Mr. Trump's victory.
So any actions that are taken, if there are any, are the kinds of actions that have been in the pipeline for quite some time and are entirely consistent with the United States upholding our end of an agreement that has prevented Iran from developing their nuclear weapon capability; in fact, has succeeded in rolling back Iran's weapon capability in a way that has exceeded the expectation of the deal's harshest critics, and enhanced the national security of the United States and our allies around the world.
Q Is the administration confident that the Trump team understands the role of Russia and China in terms of whether or not this is going to be dismantled or whether or not this is going to be renegotiated?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think you'd have to ask them what their understandings are. But obviously -- and I think -- well, obviously we know that the kind of an agreement that was reached is not -- would not have been successful without the effective and constructive contributions of both the Russians and the Chinese. And I feel confident in telling you that if you ask them, their governments will confirm for you that they are pleased with the benefits that have been enjoyed by the international community as a result of the successful implementation of this agreement.
Q On another matter, the group called the National Policy Institute, a white supremacy group, held a meeting at the Reagan Building in which we heard chants -- neo-Nazi chants, "Heil Trump!" What is the administration's feeling or response, reaction to just, blocks away from the White House, that this is in the open? And I have a follow-up.
MR. EARNEST: Well, for more than a year, you have heard me express some profound concern about the extreme rhetoric that has succeeded in infiltrating its way into our political process. That rhetoric is divisive. That rhetoric has been contrary to our values as Americans and deeply concerning, not just to people in the administration but to Democrats and Republicans all across the country.
I saw some of the reporting about this meeting that took place while we were out of the country. I think what I would say is that the President's view is that it's not just the responsibility of people in elected office to speak out against that kind of divisive, hateful rhetoric. It's the responsibility of everybody who's blessed with American citizenship. We all have a responsibility to speak out and to stand up for our values, and to stand up for our fellow Americans. And that has been at the core of President Obama's career in public life.
As he said himself many times on the campaign trail, the slogan of his campaigns was not "Yes, I can" -- it was "Yes, we can." And that was a nod to the collective responsibility that we all have as Americans to advance the interests of our country together; that change doesn’t start from the top down -- it comes from the bottom up, and that all Americans have a responsibility to remain engaged in our democracy and to be vigilant in defending the kinds of values that have served our country so well for 240 years.
And the President is optimistic that people of good faith and good will all across the country, even if they're in different parties, standing up against this kind of extremism and hate. And it is, after all, critical to the success of our country that we remember just how much we have in common. It's not everything -- and doesn’t mean we should paper over the differences that we have, particularly in the political sphere. But at our core, we share a commitment to a set of values that were endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that were all equal before the law, and that we're not going to be judged by the color of our skin or the way we worship God. We're going to be judged by our character. We're going to be judged by our patriotism. We're going to be judged by our contributions to this country. And those are principles that are worth defending. And the responsibility to defend those principles isn’t just vested with people who are positions of authority. It's vested with every single person who lives in the United States of America.
Q President-elect Donald Trump denounced racism in general, but he did not specifically denounce these neo-Nazi chants. What is his responsibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let the President-elect speak to this in the way that he believes is most appropriate. Again, it's not -- I don’t think it's breaking news that people who serve in this administration have some significant differences with the style and tactics that were used by President-elect Trump in the context of the campaign. And those concerns have been well documented.
But the election is over, and what we are focused on is prioritizing the smooth and effective transition. It doesn’t mean those differences have gone away, and it doesn’t mean our passion for those arguments has diminished. But it does mean that at some point it's the responsibility of people who work in the White House to prioritize a smooth and effective transition to the next administration. And that institutional responsibility supersedes any strong concerns that I and others in the White House have about the kind of divisive rhetoric we've seen on the campaign trail and what sort of responsibility the President-elect has for commenting on it.
Q I'm just asking, transition aside, do you believe that the President-elect has a responsibility to denounce those kinds of neo-Nazi comments?
MR. EARNEST: And what I'm saying is that the smooth and effective transition is our top priority right now, and so I can't put it aside to comment on this issue, even though the feelings of people in this building about that kind of issue are intense.
Q Josh, does the President and the White House have a reaction to the bus accident yesterday in Tennessee that killed several schoolchildren?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, our heart goes out to the families of those who lost children in that terrible accident. In some ways, this is every parent's worst nightmare. And I know that first responders and EMTs and police officers responded quickly to the scene and performed heroically to try to save lives and ease suffering from those who were injured, and to deal respectfully with the families who sustained this tragic loss just three days before Thanksgiving.
So it's obviously a terrible situation there. And the families of those children who were killed and injured are on our minds today.
Q The head of NHTSA said that there should be a federal mandate for seatbelts in the U.S. Is this the White House position?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that we've taken a position on this issue. I certainly would expect that that is a question that experts at the Department of Transportation, including at NHTSA, should carefully consider. And obviously the experts who are able to evaluate those kinds of questions are the ones whose advice we should follow.
Mike. Nice to see you back.
Q Thank you, Josh. Nice to see you. I'm wondering, in a post-9/11 world, heading into this all-American holiday, how concerned the President and his team may be about potential terror threats.
MR. EARNEST: Mike, as you know, the Department of Homeland Security earlier today issued an updated NTAS sort of chronicling the kinds of protections that people should take and the kind of vigilance that is still in place in our national security infrastructure. And the truth is, 365 days a year, whether there's a holiday coming up or not, the men and women of our national security apparatus and our homeland security apparatus are going to great lengths to keep the American people safe.
Sometimes that vigilance is heightened around the holidays because we know that in the past some extremists and terrorist organizations have sought to use those holidays as a platform to carry out an act of violence. So I'd refer you to the Department of Homeland Security for an update on their analysis of the current situation.
As usual, the President will get a briefing from his national security team before the holiday about current threats and about all the steps that are being taken to mitigate and counter those threats. That response, in some cases, is something that is evident to the public in a form of an additional deployment of police officers or other security personnel. In other cases, there are steps that are taken that are unseen to the public but yet are critical to adapting to the current threat environment. And the President's expectation is that all those necessary steps are being taken, but he'll be updated on that before the holiday.
Q As Democrats do their post-mortem after the election, people are looking at different names to perhaps lead the party going forward. Former Governor Ed Rendell threw out the name of Vice President Joe Biden. Any thoughts on the Vice President perhaps having a role after this role here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the Vice President is somebody who is revered by Democrats in all 50 states, in large part because of his remarkable service to this country. And so it's not at all surprising to me that as senior officials in our party look for leadership moving forward, that they consider somebody as accomplished and as effective as Vice President Biden.
I haven’t spoken to the Vice President about his interest in assuming this responsibility. I now that he already has some plans on the books for his post-administration life. I don’t know if there would be an opportunity for him to do something like this, or if he's even interested in doing that. But it's not surprising to me that his name is among those mentioned.
Q I'm wondering how active do you expect he will be after he leaves office in terms of trying to move the party forward, and if there are any concerns about his personality and name being associated -- whether that keeps younger talent from emerging.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, the President had an opportunity to talk about this a little bit at the news conference that he did in Peru over the weekend. And one of the President's priorities for his post-White House life, after he takes a little bit of a break and fulfills his promise to take his wife on vacation, will be to think about what the Democratic Party can do to more effectively cultivate young talent. What can we do to make sure that young people have the skills and the passion for these issues?
And I think that, in the President's mind, that in large part that passion is already there. And I think that we've seen this passion manifested in a lot of different ways. The question is, what can we do to channel that energy in a way that yields positive outcomes for our country, or certainly yields outcomes that are consistent with those passions as they're expressed. So making sure that they have the skills, that they have the knowledge to engage in this public debate in a constructive way I think is certainly something the President expects to spend quite a bit of time on post-presidency.
I think the President is mindful of the unique status that he has for this generation of Americans, which is -- the President is somebody who inspired a young generation of Americans to be engaged in the governing of this country. And the President wants to facilitate that inspiration, and that means that there is an important role for him to play.
But you make an important point, Mike, which is that there also is a responsibility for that next generation to step up and to assume more responsibility, and not just rely on being impressed or inspired by an extraordinary political talent like President Barack Obama, but at some point they're going to have assume the mantle on their own. And we need to spend some time as a party -- and the President is certainly going to spend some time himself as a party leader and a former President -- about the most effective way for us to engage and inspire young people across the country.
And at some point, this actually does stop being about party politics. There are plenty of young Republicans who feel passionate about a range of issues, not all of which are in alignment with the agenda that President Obama has put forward -- but some of them are. There are plenty of young Republicans who are out there, who are strongly supportive of the idea that we need immigration reform. There are plenty of young Republicans out there who understand that putting forward an affirmative strategy like the Trans-Pacific Partnership actually is good for the U.S. economy, because it's going to create businesses for young entrepreneurs in the United States to do business in Southeast Asia.
So those are just a couple of examples where having more passionate voices of young people on the Republican side, even if they're not voting for Democratic candidates for political office, they're contributing to the national conversation in a way -- that makes our country a better place.
So the President approaches this as somebody who is a proud Democrat and as somebody who is interested in seeing the Democratic Party succeed. But he's most of all interested in the success of the country. So if there's an opportunity for him to engage and inspire and motivate even young people on the other side of the aisle, he would relish that opportunity too.
Q Josh, the President has awarded more Medals of Freedom than any other President in history, and obviously just held a ceremony a couple months ago. Can you explain why he felt like he wanted to award 20 more -- or 21 more medals today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's simple, Juliet. The President was aware of some more deserving awardees. And I think anybody who has had an opportunity to look through the list of recipients today would acknowledge that these are extraordinary people -- people who have made extraordinary contributions not just to the United States, but to people of different nationalities all around the world.
I take the example of Bill and Melinda Gates. They've dedicated their fortune to curing disease and improving the educational prospects of people not just in the United States, but people all around the world. And that makes them worthy of the highest civilian honor that any President has to give.
Q Josh, Donald Trump, on "60 Minutes," said he's fine with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage; called it settled and done. Given that he has pledged to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in the mold of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, do those words have any value?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that's a question you'll have to ask him. And ultimately he'll have to decide what kind of person he wants to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court, should they arise, or should they persist into his presidency. But ultimately that will -- I’ll let him speak to whatever criteria he intends to use to appoint people to that position.
I can tell you that President Obama is quite proud of the service of the people he's appointed to the Supreme Court. That certainly is true of Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan. And the President believes that Chief Judge Garland would be an excellent justice on the Supreme Court. And there are some Republicans who think that too, even if they can't say so.
But ultimately that responsibility will now rest with the next President of the United States in terms of filling vacancies on the Supreme Court.
Q But do you think that his words and saying that the marriage equality issue is resolved would defer a -- help deter a new process leading to a subsequent ruling that would undo the marriage -- the Obergefell decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, again, how he reconciles his public statements and his personnel choices is something that you can either ask him about now, or presumably you can get an off-the-record meeting with him -- (laughter) -- and then you can probably ask him that question. But if not, you'll have to take the kind of wait-and-see approach that the President was advocating, which is there are a lot of questions about what kind of an agenda the next administration will pursue, what sort of priorities he'll set, particularly when making important decisions like this. But I think ultimately the world will have to wait and see.
Q One more question. In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory still has not conceded the gubernatorial race, even though he has a deficit of 9,000 votes. Any reaction to the situation there?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. I mean, this is something that -- I'll let the vote-counters decide. I think the one thing that I can say is that the way that Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine have handled their election loss should serve as an example for candidates on both sides of the aisle. They have handled their loss with grace and dignity. They have not backed down from the arguments that they made. That actually resulted in them getting more votes than their opponent in the election. But they knew the rules in advance. And they have set a very high standard that other candidates should strive to live up to.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about another aspect of President Obama's post-presidency that he talked about on Sunday with the possibility that he might speak out after he leaves office if he sees that American values are under attack. I'm wondering if there was anything that he saw or witnessed from President-elect Trump in the last week, any announcements, statements or appointments that triggered him to say that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, I guess what I would say is that, if he had, he certainly had ample opportunity to do so over the course of the last week. The President over the course of the last week has done four different news conferences in four different countries. He's made himself available to all of you to take questions. And so I guess if that had popped into his mind, again, I don’t think he would schedule an off-the-record meeting with television executives and wish to share that opinion. He just would have said it publicly.
What I think I would say, though, in terms of evaluating the President's answer is I think it's notable that he has talked frequently in the past about how much he appreciates the way that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, handled a similar situation.
Again, in this situation, you had President Obama, who had been quite critical of the Bush administration and some of the decisions that President Bush had made while in office. And President Obama had assumed office promising to change the direction of the country. And it must have been difficult for President Bush and his team to maintain some respectful distance from the ongoing political debate. And I think that’s an indication of the character and leadership abilities of President Bush, and it certainly won him a lot of respect and admiration from not just President Obama, but others who served in the White House.
And President Obama is certainly interested in living up to that standard. And that will be easy to do in the first couple of months, again, because he intends to take his wife on vacation and not follow the news closely. But after that, I think the President will continue to look for ways that he can pursue the same approach that we’ve seen from President George W. Bush.
Q The second part of his comment, he seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t be taking the same approach as George W. Bush if something so severe, something worse -- something was to happen that was so off the rails in his opinion that he just had to speak out? Or is that a misreading of that, of his statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would -- I think the best way to understand exactly what he said is to understand what his preference would be, and his preference would be to be able to pursue the same approach that President George W. Bush has pursued. And he believes the country is well served by a smooth transition of power and by an incoming President who is committed to some basic tenets and principles of American democracy, and an outgoing President who is not weighing in on every policy proposal that is put forward by the new President.
The new President deserves the opportunity to make a public case about what his priorities are, and to form his own impression without somebody as influential as the outgoing President trying to undermine him or criticize him at every turn. The country is not served well by that, the institution of the presidency is not well served by that, and that’s the way that the President is thinking about this. And that’s his hope about how this will play out.
Jean, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Will the Donald Trump team be following President Obama’s North Korean policy?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to ask the President-elect’s team about what policy he chooses to pursue with respect to North Korea. Obviously, the Obama administration will work closely with the national security team that President-elect Trump appoints to help them understand exactly what situation they’re inheriting. They can understand exactly what strategies we have pursued that have allowed us to make some progress. They will certainly talk about all of the military steps that we have taken to enhance our ability to protect the American people and to protect our allies in Asia. They will certainly brief them on the success that we have had in organizing the international community to impose some additional pressure on the North Korean regime. They will brief them on the steps that we have taken through the Treasury Department to try to increase that pressure through financial penalties.
But we’ll also update them with the latest intelligence assessment about where things stand. But ultimately when it comes to making decisions and the future of that policy, that’ll be the responsibility of the President-elect beginning on January 20th.
Q So if needed so, President Obama will consult -- continuing to consult about the North Korean issues?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to any additional conversations that may occur between the President and the President-elect, but I can tell you that as the President-elect’s team gets up to speed on a range of national security issues, we certainly will spend quite a bit of time at a variety of agencies talking to them about the policy that we've pursued with regard to North Korea, what steps we have taken to marshal international opinion and action on Korea, what steps we have taken militarily to enhance the safety and security of the American people and our allies. And we’ll certainly update them with the latest intelligence assessment about where things stand in North Korea.
Thanks, everybody. We will not do a briefing here tomorrow, so I wish you all a very happy Thanksgiving. I hope you’ll spend some time giving thanks to our many blessings with your family, and we’ll see you here next Monday. Thanks a lot.
1:45 P.M. EST