Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/14/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:20 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I do not have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. I wanted to start with the collapse of the ceasefire in Aleppo that was intended to allow these final civilians and fighters to evacuate. It seems like this deal was essentially brokered by the Turks and the Russians without a whole lot of direct U.S. involvement. So I'm wondering at this point whether -- if you could tell us what kind of engagement the U.S. is involved in in trying to ameliorate the violence there or secure the evacuation of the people who are still trapped there.
MR. EARNEST: Josh, for years, the United States has played a leading role in trying to facilitate a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria, including the situation in Aleppo. And our goal all along has been to reduce the violence and create space for sustained humanitarian assistance to be provided, particularly to those communities that have been under siege by the Syrian military, aided and abetted by the Russians and the Iranians.
So the United States continues to play that leading role even today. And I know that there were discussions at the U.N. Security Council, and the United States continues to push for a diplomatic agreement. We certainly encourage other countries to be involved as well, and we've made clear that our efforts to reach a bilateral agreement with the Russians, which is something that we tried for many weeks earlier this year, is not something that we could achieve because the Russians couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. And I know they've got all kinds of explanations for why that may be the case. Most of them are rooted in the fact that they are either unable or unwilling to control their client government.
Q But as far as right now, hour by hour there's pummeling of Aleppo, even when there's supposed to be this ceasefire. I mean, is there any new push or specific engagement by the U.S. to try to restore the ceasefire?
MR. EARNEST: There is continued engagement, and there has been for years, and it continues to this moment. And we continue to be deeply concerned about the situation in Aleppo. We are seeing the same reports that you are -- that innocent people are being slaughtered in the streets at the hands of the Assad regime, aided and abetted by the Russians and the Iranians. And it raises deep concerns, and it's a deeply tragic situation. And these atrocities have to come to an end. And we're working diligently through a variety of diplomatic channels to bring about that end state.
Q There seems to be some disagreement now, even within the intelligence community, about whether the evidence that's been turned up supports an assessment that Russia was actually trying to influence the election in a way to help Donald Trump. Can you tell us -- I know you have limitations about what you can talk about -- but whether the President has been informed by his Director of National Intelligence that they do not concur or embrace what the CIA has concluded about that?
MR. EARNEST: When it comes to CIA conclusions or intelligence community conclusions, I'm going to refer you to the intelligence community. And there's a variety of reasons for that. The first is that we work hard to make sure that we are insulating the intelligence community from the suggestion that they are subject to political influence. It's important that the President be in a position to get good information. And when I say good information, I mean timely, accurate information about situations all around the world. And I certainly don’t want to do anything or say anything from here that could cast doubt about the integrity of the information that's being provided to the President of the United States.
So when they have an assessment to offer, I'll let them offer up that assessment. What they have said, and what they've said before the election, is that Russia was engaged in malicious cyber activity in an attempt to erode confidence in our system of government. And that's deeply troubling and very serious. And that's why the President ordered the Department of Homeland Security to work with elections administrators across the country to protect those systems and to bolster their ability to withstand intrusions from Russia so we could ensure the accurate counting of ballots, and we could ensure that everybody who was eligible to cast a ballot could do so.
And the intelligence community has reported that on Election Day they did not see the kind of increase in malicious Russian cyber activity that would call into question the casting or counting of ballots. That certainly is good news. But there is rampant evidence of other tactics that were used by the Russians to erode public confidence in our democracy. And that's deeply troubling, and that's why the President has ordered a review, and the intelligence community is working on that review, and the President's expectation is that review will be delivered before the President leaves office, before January 20th. And we're certainly going to endeavor to release as much information as possible from the review to the public as we can, knowing that there will be some things that we can't release because we need to protect the ability of the intelligence community to collect this information.
Q Given that the mixed signals about this is sort of fueling a politicization of the intelligence work, certainly with the President-elect, and given that you've said that this review that's taking place is basically the primary distinguishing factor between that and the assessments that had already been done, is that it's looking back into previous elections and sort of doing this holistic thing -- has the President indicated that he would like the intelligence community to perhaps release additional information or maybe clear what exactly they think happened sooner than later, perhaps sooner than that culmination of that review, which doesn’t seem like it will happen until perhaps as the President is headed out the door?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeframe. The President certainly believes that as much information can -- the President believes that the intelligence community should release as much information as they can to the public about this issue, given how serious it is, given that we're talking about the integrity of a national election. So the President certainly does support that just on principle. But I don’t have an updated timeframe to share in terms of what the intelligence community may or may not be able to do.
Q And then just quickly, Reince Priebus has been out today talking about mixing it up a bit here at the White House as far as how the press corps interacts with the White House, and possibly doing away with assigned seating here in the Brady Press Briefing Room. And so I just wanted to clarify for everyone, could you tell us whether your office has any say or control over the seating assignments here in the briefing room?
MR. EARNEST: We do not. This is -- I believe this was -- it certainly predates President Obama's presence in the White House. The White House Press Corps has worked among yourselves to organize the seating arrangements in this room, and I certainly would recommend to the incoming administration that they collect and familiarize themselves with some basic facts as they consider what sort of policies to implement moving forward.
Q A senior Chinese official warned today in China Daily that the Chinese government is ready to penalize a U.S. automaker for price fixing, and I’m wondering what notice the U.S. government has been given about this and what concerns the White House has, if any, about this.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a lot of other information that I can share. We’re still trying to collect additional information about those specific reports.
I think what I can say definitely is that the Obama administration has a strong track record of making sure that we are protecting the rights and interests of U.S. businesses around the world, including in China. And as we learn more information about this particular situation, the United States government will continue to be protective of our interests in that circumstance and in other circumstances around the world.
Q Do you see this as a response to the President-elect’s sort of tough rhetoric on Chinese policy?
MR. EARNEST: Unclear. I can’t speak to why China may or may not have made this decision. Again, I think it’s unclear exactly what the decision is. And until we can figure out what exactly that decision is, it makes it hard to consider exactly what their motive may have been.
Q Okay. And taking a step back just from the decision, whatever it may be, I guess how concerned in general is this White House, this administration, that there could be economic repercussions for U.S. companies because of the stepped-up rhetoric against Chinese policies?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this goes to an argument that I have put forward when I was previously asked about this issue. The longstanding U.S. commitment to a one-China policy, this is a policy that’s governed by a piece of legislation and three different communiqués that were signed into law by Democratic -- or were signed -- by Democratic and Republican Presidents. This is a policy that has been observed for 40 years or so. And China considers their relationship with Taiwan to be a highly sensitive issue, and signaling potential changes in that policy is going to have widespread ramifications for the United States, both as it relates to our economy and as it relates to our national security.
So certainly the incoming administration has an opportunity to consider what sort of policy they believe is in the best interest of the United States. I think the suggestion that all Americans would have is that they consider those kinds of choices very carefully before acting.
And in this case, the President-elect indicated in an interview over the weekend that he took the call based on an hour or two’s notice. And I think this is one illustration of how important the role of the presidency is and how important discipline and careful consideration of one’s words and actions is when you’re President of the United States and responsible for advancing our interests around the globe. So I’ll leave it there.
Q We heard the retired NATO commander talk about the situation in Syria, and though he had served under Obama, he said that Obama would probably look back on that situation with deep sorrow and some shame. What do you think of those words that he said?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those comments. I can tell you that, under President Obama’s leadership, the United States has been at the front of the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria. The United States has provided more humanitarian assistance through bilateral channels than any other country in the world. We have provided $6 billion in relief. And the United States has mobilized the international community to respond to the threat that is posed by ISIL, which essentially is a consequence of the chaos inside of Syria.
So President Obama has been making smart, strategic decisions that protect carefully U.S. interests in the region and around the world. That said, I think every American and every human being is deeply troubled by the violence and innocent loss of life that we see inside of Syria. It's heartbreaking. It's tragic when you see a government commit atrocities against its own people using the military might of the state. That is a failed government. That is a failed state. And President Obama has been leading the international effort to address it, both by trying to find a diplomatic solution to the chaos, but also dealing militarily and otherwise with the extremist threat that is propagated by that kind of chaos.
Q I don't think anyone disputes the efforts. But for a very long time now, those efforts have failed. So is there no other alternative?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let's be clear. You got a briefing for a long time from the President's Special Envoy to the Counter-ISIL Coalition that documented the success that we've had in rolling back ISIL and reducing their capacity to harm the United States or our interests, either in the region or around the world. So I would vigorously dispute that characterization of our efforts against ISIL.
With regard to making the kind of progress that we'd like to see toward a diplomatic solution inside of Syria, we haven't seen as much progress as we would like. And there are innocent Syrian men, women and children that have died as a result of it. And ultimately, that cause is the willingness of the Assad regime to use the military might of the state against his own people, and the willingness of the Russians to intervene on his behalf to prop him up, even though they themselves claim that they're concerned about that chaos fueling extremism that could have consequences back in their home country.
They should be concerned about that. And for years, the Russians have failed to reconcile a basic contradiction in their strategy. They say, on the one hand, that they're interested in trying to fight extremism and bring the violence to an end in Syria, even at the same time that they prop up the failed government there that exacerbates the violence and makes the diplomatic solution even harder to reach.
There's one good example of this -- there are some reports -- reports I can't confirm, I have to start out by saying -- but I think are illustrative of what Russia has done. Russia, nine months ago, touted publically their success in taking back the Syrian community of Palmyra from ISIL terrorists. Well, we have learned that ISIL has retaken that city from the Syrians and the Russians. In doing so, they didn't just succeed in driving out the Syrian government and the Russians; ISIL now has their hands on a significant anti-aircraft missile system. This is according to reports so I can't confirm it. But it does illustrate, if true, the grave danger associated with Russia's failed strategy.
Their strategy, if they're actually interested in fighting terrorists, should not involve an anti-aircraft missile system because ISIL doesn't have an air force. So what that anti-aircraft missile system was doing in Palmyra is something that only the Syrians and the Russians can explain, but it does underscore the grave risk that Russia is taking by dedicating their resources to attacking innocent civilians in Aleppo and propping up the Assad regime, and taking their eye off the ball when it comes to ISIL.
In this case, their miscalculation was so grave that it’s not just a matter of them ignoring the ISIL threat. The ISIL threat today -- again, if these reports are true -- is worse because of the failed strategy of the Syrians and the Russians. And that's something that only they can account for.
Q When we use words in here repeatedly like “atrocities” -- I mean, you just said today that innocent people are being slaughtered in the streets -- it just seems like you're saying that -- have we gotten to a point now that there really aren’t any red lines anymore? Like, it’s as if it’s gotten to a point so many people have been killed, and now because of social media and other means, Americans are watching this happen, and many people thinking humanity as a whole should be better than this. So at what point do nations say, okay, something needs to be done now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the Assad regime has demonstrated that they've crossed all the lines in pursuit of their goals. And those goals apparently include depraved tactics like trying to starve innocent civilians into submission, bombing hospitals and playgrounds, targeting them. These tactics are depraved. They do cross just about every line that I can think of. And, frankly, they cross lines I hadn’t previously thought of.
The idea that you would target a playground and bomb kids, hoping that you would then convince people to give up because you had killed their kids -- what kind of a sick mind comes up with a strategy like that? And what kind of civilized country is going to support those tactics? But that's what Russia has done.
Q So for the families that we actually hear begging for international help, what do you say to those families today?
MR. EARNEST: The United States is playing a leading role in providing financial assistance. The United States is playing a leading role in trying to negotiate a kind of cessation of hostilities what would allow for the provision of humanitarian assistance. The United States is playing a leading role in trying to facilitate a conversation about resolving the political situation inside of Syria so we can bring the violence to an end, and we can put new leadership in Syria that actually reflects the will of the Syrian people. And in that chaos, that's what the United States is doing.
What we're also doing is engaging militarily to protect the international community and the American people from the threat that is posed by ISIL. And we've made a lot of important progress against it. But we have not accomplished our goal so far.
Q Thanks, Josh. Has the President spoken with Labor Secretary Perez about the DNC chairmanship?
MR. EARNEST: Dave, I’ve seen some of the reports about Mr. Perez’s interest in that position. I can't confirm them. And I don't have any additional conversations between the President and his Labor Secretary to tell you about at this point.
What I can tell you is something that I’ve said before which is that Democrats across the country have an important decision to make about who will assume the role of leading the national Democratic Party. And I would expect there will be a vigorous campaign. I know that there are already three or four candidates that are in the race. But I don't know if Mr. Perez intends to be one of them.
Q The President over the years has obviously valued Secretary Perez’s leadership in the administration. Does he think he’d be good at the DNC chairmanship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly true that President Obama thinks very highly of Secretary Perez. He is somebody who has served at the Department of Labor for three or four years now. And he has been instrumental in advancing some of the executive actions that President Obama has prioritized.
At the Department of Labor, they've worked to implement the overtime rule to ensure that the hardest-working Americans are getting paid fairly and even getting a raise. Under Secretary Perez’s leadership, the Department of Labor has implemented the conflict of interest rule that prevents large financial institutions from not acting in the best interest of their clients, and we know that some of those practices cost working people billions of dollars every year.
We're trying to bring that to an end, and we've made progress in doing so because of the leadership and effectiveness of Secretary Perez. He’s somebody who hasn’t just effectively led that department, he also is somebody who is a forceful and persuasive advocate for the values that animate the policies that he has implemented.
So he’s a very effective guy. The President thinks highly of him. But as I've said before, I don't anticipate a situation in which the President forcefully endorses a candidate in the DNC chair’s race simply because the President’s view is there are rules and regulations that sort of lay out how the DNC chair should be elected when there’s not a Democrat in the White House. And the President believes that that process, which involves Democrats all across the country at a variety of levels, engaging in that debate is healthy for the party over the longer term.
Q Do you have any knowledge whether the Vice President’s office might have been encouraging him to get involved?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any conversations that Secretary Perez may have had with Vice President Biden, but you can check with his office.
Q One other issue. Governor Brown from California yesterday wrote to the President asking for him to ban all new offshore drilling in the state. And there are reports also that the administration might be ready to ban offshore drilling in the future in the Atlantic. Can you let us in on plans for either ocean?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the letter, but let me see if we can get you a substantive response to your question.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about comments coming up today by Secretary Jewel. This is according to reporting out of Reuters, my colleagues down the row here. "Scientists must confront climate change deniers and speak up if President-elect Donald Trump tries to sideline climate research." Is that the President’s position that scientists should speak up if they disagree with the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President’s view is that policymaking should be guided by science and that policymakers should be listening to scientists, both inside the government and outside the government. That's the President’s view and that's certainly the way that he has chosen to run his administration over the last eight years. If the incoming administration determines that they want to base their policy on something other than science, it looks like they’re going to get at least four years to try that out and we'll have an opportunity to see how it works.
Q Do you believe that it's appropriate for Secretary Jewel to sort of weigh in in this respect before she’s actually heard from the President-elect officially on the job? She seems to be making the suggestion that his administration will somehow ignore that which the scientists -- whether it be the EPA or the Interior -- have already established.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think based on some of the comments that we've seen from the people that the incoming administration or the President-elect has chosen to serve in important positions like the EPA and the Department of Energy, I think the concerns that people across the country and around the globe have expressed about the incoming administration’s commitment to focusing and continuing the fight on climate change I think are legitimate questions at this point.
Q What can you tell me about the "Investing in a Safer, Strong Baltimore: A Model for the President's Approach to Working with Cities" report?
MR. EARNEST: Let me take a look at the report. I don't know that I've seen it, but we can certainly take a look into it.
Q Okay. Last, I want to get the very latest on the Gitmo numbers. I typically ask you about this time -- is there a plan to transfer more? What’s the latest tally and/or is the President expected to make another round of transfers between now and when he leaves office? And should we expect him to also comment on this as we hear from him later in the week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't rule out additional transfers between now and January 20th. There is a process that is in place that was instituted by this administration where the case files of individual detainees are considered by six different national security agencies. And based on the view of those agencies, individuals can be cleared for transfer under certain security restrictions that would limit their ability to menace the United States or our interests around the world.
Once those individuals are cleared for transfer, then the State Department does the delicate work of asking countries around the world to assume the responsibility of taking on these detainees and imposing the security restrictions. And that work is continuing. I don't have any transfers to preview, but every time a detainee is transferred, we make a public announcement about it. And that will also be true between now and January 20th.
Q Is it also true that the United States pays these countries to receive these detainees, these transferees? And what’s that number like, and who tracks that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that the United States works closely with these other countries to ensure that there are security restrictions in place. I can't speak to all of the negotiations that go into it, but certainly in some cases, we're talking about countries that benefit from the assistance of the United States and making sure that those security restrictions are effectively implemented. And that's consistent with the mandate of these agencies that review the case files to ensure that restrictions are put in place to prevent these individuals from posing an undue risk to the United States of America.
Q Last, I'd like to get your sort of expanded comments on something Ben Rhodes talked about, and that is the continued relations between the United States and Cuba, and the importance moving forward. What is the President's message? And will he reach out directly to the President-elect about the importance of maintaining that relationship and some of the pitfalls that come along with that, given their lack of human rights and other concerns that many people around this country have?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. Well, listen, Kevin, we've got concerns about the human rights situation in a lot of countries around the world, including some countries like China and Russia that we've already spent a lot of time talking about today. The question really is, how do we shape those relationships so the United States benefits from them? How can we shape those relationships so that we can put pressure on those countries to improve the human rights situation inside their country while at the same time giving the American people the opportunity and our country the opportunity to benefit from those relationships?
So when it comes to Cuba, the United States had had a policy in place for more than five decades that attempted to isolate Cuba in an effort to pressure them to improve their respect for human rights. That policy failed. That policy was in place for more than 50 years and it didn't have the desired outcome. So President Obama decided to try something new.
And in just two years since the President decided to try a new approach that would seek to normalize relations between our two countries, we've made a lot of important progress. More than $6 billion in trade has been initiated between Cuba and the United States since then, which obviously has an important economic benefit here in the United States. More Cuban Americans are able to send more money and travel more frequently to Cuba to visit their family members who remain in that country. Other Americans who are interested in visiting Cuba for cultural or educational reasons can have the benefit of learning more about the island and essentially deepening relations between our two countries. Those Americans are also allowed to bring back as much Cuban rum and Cuban cigars as they'd like for their own personal use. So there are a variety of benefits, you might say, that the American people can enjoy as a result of this policy change.
Just as importantly, the Cuban people are benefitting too. And we're seeing the Cuban economy -- particularly when it comes to entrepreneurs in that country -- benefit from more interactions with Americans who are traveling to their country.
Q But would that lead to a change in their human rights posture at all? I mean, because on the one hand you said, listen, the old policy didn't work as far as human rights were concerned. Now this new policy seems to be working perhaps economically, certainly for them, and I think, from a social perspective, perhaps even for the American and Cuban relations. But is that changing the paradigm on human rights?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is ramping up pressure on the Cuban regime. And earlier this year, many of you had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the President where the Cuban President was asked directly and put in the international spotlight around a question about whether or not his government takes political prisoners.
That’s increasing pressure on the Cuban government in a way that, frankly, they’re not used to seeing. That was a rather remarkable, extraordinary event, those of you who saw it may recall. There were two different times in which an aide came onstage to whisper in the ear of the Cuban President about how best to answer this question because they understood they were facing more public pressure than ever before about their respect for human rights; certainly more pressure than they faced when they were under an embargo for more than 50 years. And that pressure was only existent -- only existed because of the President’s trip down there and his commitment to the pursuit of this approach.
I think the last thing is, if we’re actually interested in trying to protect and advance the interests of the Cuban people, if we actually care about their plight, then we might consider what their view is of the policy. And all the public data that I’ve seen is that, in some cases, more than 90 percent of Cubans actually believe that this policy has been good for them.
So this is a policy that has only been in place for two years, and the President is hopeful that as this policy remains in place, we’ll have more benefits to show from it. But of course, the next incoming President will have something to say about that.
MR. EARNEST: Josh, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power had some strong words, some strong rhetoric, about Syria and Russia in particular, and I want to ask if you agree with one particular thing she said. She said, "Aleppo is joining Rwanda and Srebrenica as defining historical events that embody evil." Is that how the White House views what’s happening right now in Aleppo -- comparing it to those two genocidal mass atrocities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this actually is an area of expertise for Ambassador Power. She’s written award-winning books on this topic, so I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to disagree with her.
The kinds of atrocities that we’ve seen in Aleppo, as I mentioned earlier, seem to cross every line, including some lines that I think many of us had never even contemplated before. The willingness of the Assad regime, backed by the Russians and the Iranians, to engage in depraved tactics targeting innocent civilians is beyond the pale.
And it certainly does -- the kind of chaos and violence and bloodshed and innocent loss of life that we’ve seen in Aleppo certainly does, tragically, distinguish it from so many other countries in the world -- and so many other cities in the world, I should say.
Q But using those two specific examples, they are very concrete examples that are now widely recognized as genocidal acts where the world community failed to prevent mass atrocity, and American presidents have, in past, then said, I regret not doing something then.
So it’s a powerful comparison to make, and I’m just wondering, how does President Obama think about this? I mean, is he sitting there saying -- and putting it in the same category as Srebrenica, and putting it in the same category as Rwanda? And how does he feel? I mean, does he regret that this is happening on his watch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as I mentioned in response to the earlier question, President Obama is deeply troubled by the innocent loss of life that we’ve seen in Aleppo and all across Syria. There’s no denying that. That’s why the President has played a leading role in the international community to try to bring that violence to an end. That’s why we’ve been deeply engaged from the beginning in trying to find a way to bring this violence to an end, to negotiate the kind of political solution that’s the only kind of solution that can solve this problem. A military solution cannot be imposed on this situation, unless of course somebody is suggesting that somehow the United States of America, on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, should deploy 100,000, 150,000 -- 200,000 U.S. servicemen and women to essentially occupy Syria. I don’t know --
Q Iran and Russia do believe there is a military solution and they are seeing their version of a military solution play out on the ground in Aleppo.
MR. EARNEST: At the same time that Bashar al-Assad does an interview today saying that the violence is going to continue.
Q Right. So not end the war, but certainly advantage the side that you want to win. But putting that aside, just talking about the atrocities -- not the rest of it -- President Obama did something really extraordinary when he came to office in saying that atrocities prevention is a national security priority. He was the first President to do that. You are now saying as an administration these two prime examples of ethnic cleansing, of genocidal acts are happening right now. And the action stops at rhetoric. How does the President process that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I stridently disagree with the suggestion that the action stops at rhetoric. There’s no basis.
Q But there were actions taken elsewhere, right? And President Clinton came out and said, I regret not doing something in Rwanda.
MR. EARNEST: Margaret, my point is --
Q There weren't actions taken in the Balkans. So it’s not as --
MR. EARNEST: When you say actions, you're using some shorthand for military action. If that's the case, then we should -- but you cut me off from trying to offer up why that's not a wise solution. So there is --
Q No one was advocating for invasion. I never said that, that that was the example you were doing.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, but you're suggesting why isn’t there any action on the part of the Obama administration. And the case that I have made repeatedly so often that you guys can repeat this: President Obama has played a leading role in the international community in trying to find a diplomatic solution to this situation.
You all have covered it. You all have traveled frequently to locations throughout Europe where Secretary Kerry has met repeatedly with the Russians and other countries in the region to try to find a solution to this situation. Those meetings occurred because the United States is playing a leading role in bringing people to the table to try to negotiate this solution.
The United States is the largest donor of bilateral humanitarian assistance to try to meet the needs of the people who are suffering. The United States is in a position where we are taking military action to try to prevent the chaos that President Assad is causing in his country from fueling the kind of extremism that could pose a threat to the United States and our allies and our interests not just in the region, but around the world. All of those things are happening on President Obama’s orders, as a result of his leadership, and they're the kinds of things that only a U.S. President can do given our influence around the world.
So that is what the United States is doing. I readily acknowledge that we are not seeing the results that we would like to see in addressing the violence inside of Aleppo. But it’s offensive to suggest that somehow the United States government and the world is not doing anything, particularly when no one has put forward an alternative suggestion for what we should now be doing.
Q I think the issue, Josh, is that people will acknowledge all that the United States has been doing -- humanitarian aid, so on and so forth, diplomacy -- but we are still at a place where the awfulness is still happening.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. And I --
Q And that's why the question becomes, okay, so the U.S. has done all that -- now what? Which is why yesterday Brett McGurk was saying the humanitarian, the civil war part of Syria was only addressed briefly in that meeting. Is that correct? It wasn’t -- most of the meeting was about the ISIS part of this, ISIL part of it.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q And the Syrian civil war atrocities part of it was just brief. And I guess the question is -- the President just doesn't see anything more that the U.S. can do now to stop what’s happening now despite all that you've done, all that he’s done over the past number of years? There’s just nothing else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I --
Q Again, I know -- I hear you. But again, there's nothing new, nothing different, nothing that he thinks -- it’s just a problem that can't be solved, or a situation that can't be ameliorated?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of anybody in the U.S. government who has given up trying to continue to play the leading role in finding a solution here. The diplomacy continues. And you can go talk to my colleagues at the State Department about all of the conversations and all of the work that is underway there.
And the reason for that is not just because Secretary Kerry finds those conversations particularly enjoyable; I'm sure that he doesn't. But they are the only path to resolving the situation that exists. If there's another one, by all means, please send it up and we'll make sure that it gets a careful look, because even our harshest critics cannot articulate some sort of alternative for what is happening right now.
And, again, if they think that the most powerful thing that we should do is to deploy the United States military and occupy the country, they should do so. They should explain how that's going to reduce the violence. That certainly is not our experience. They should explain how that is in the interest of U.S. taxpayers because that's going to be expensive. They should explain to our United States military why they should put themselves at risk in that way. And they should explain how that is part of a long-term strategy to protect our interests in the region. Because what we have found is when the United States engages in a ground war and tries to occupy a country in the Middle East, there are long-term negative consequences for doing that, including the situation in Syria right now.
Q And there's nothing short of a full-scale invasion? That, I guess, is what most people would just ask. I mean, we've heard -- we understand all that. And I also understand how you feel that your critics always say that if you're not doing something militarily, you're not doing anything. And I get that. But just talking to people -- there's nothing short of a full-scale invasion. And there was talk of safe zones. And during the campaign, Hillary Clinton, others, some of the allies in the region -- the Turks at one point -- were talking about that. I guess it's just hard for people to see the slaughter continue and there's not something else that can be done militarily that would, in the short term at least, stop some of the bloodshed.
MR. EARNEST: Let me try to answer your question this way. I suspect if there actually were a military solution to this problem, depending on what it was, the Commander-in-Chief wouldn't hesitate to implement it. But there's not. And this is not a new position that is being articulated by the Obama administration. This is a position that we have had since the earliest days of the civil war in Syria. There is not a military solution that can be imposed by the United States. Diplomacy is the avenue. Diplomacy is the path toward a long-term resolution that is in the interest of the United States. And that's what we're pursuing. And, in fact, that's what we're leading.
Q It's the hesitancy that I think a lot of the critics point to -- this caution that is, yes, part of President Obama's approach to this -- approach to many things. And we've heard him argue how he has not hesitated in certain circumstances to deploy the military to do things in different places. I guess this is a question for him on Friday when he -- because, again, given what's happening, I guess we'd love to get a better sense of how he processes this. And I understand it's a tremendous responsibility, but how he processes the criticism, the concern that the world has about this situation at the same time that there's this criticism of him for being too cautious, too -- dare I say -- weak to do more.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think you should use that word because people certainly didn't think it was cautious when the President of the United States ordered the Seal Team Six into Pakistan to go and take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield. I don't think people thought it was cautious that the President has built an international coalition of 68 members to go and take the fight to ISIL. And you just got a long briefing yesterday, a timely one, that reveals the progress that we've made in rolling back territory from ISIL and taking their external plotters off the battlefield and limiting their ability to organize those kinds of operations and carry them out against the United States and our allies around the world.
So I think the President has been judicious and strategic, but he’s also been bold. And the United States and our national security has benefitted from it.
Q Why did it take until October 7th to attribute the hack to the Russian government when the hack on the DNC was confirmed in April, and from the first days investigators knew it had Russian ties? That delay covered most of the presidential election, causing months’ worth of debilitating coverage of the leaks that were not properly informed by a formal government statement that this was an act of foreign espionage. Wasn’t that a mistake to take so long?
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, this is an assessment that was put forward by the intelligence community, and the intelligence community put forward this statement as soon as they were able to confirm a couple of things. First, they had to confirm across 17 different government agencies that they had high confidence that this is exactly what had transpired.
Now, I recognize that there was this independent, private analysis that had been put forward, but the standards of the intelligence community, for good reason, are very high.
Second, the intelligence community wanted to be as specific as possible in putting forward that assessment so that people could have confidence in the facts. In order to be specific, the intelligence community also had to ensure they would not be revealing the kinds of sources and methods that give them the insight that they need to conduct these investigations. So there was a determined effort to both be as specific as possible while also protecting the sources and methods that are used by the intelligence community to conduct these investigations.
I think all in all, Gardiner, this was a statement that was put out a month before the election. So I would acknowledge that there were reports of hacks and leaks before that, but what also existed before that were private assessments about how that material was obtained. And there’s no denying that those materials were stolen property. The suggestion -- there is no denial on the part of the U.S. government that somehow the DNC had not been hacked. So even as news organizations were reporting on this information, they were reporting on information that they know had been stolen and leaked.
Those are editorial decisions that are made by independent news organizations, but even the excellent report that was included in your newspaper today about this incident makes clear that news organizations in the United States essentially became the arms of Russian intelligence.
Q But shouldn’t those news organizations have been told months earlier? I mean, Josh, this is a new battlefield, and you're telling me that the U.S. government cannot respond on this battlefield for months, six months, until much of the damage as a result of this attack has already occurred? You're saying that it was appropriate to wait between April and October to allow the Russians to have their goals and aims achieved largely, and it wasn’t until pretty much the last minute of the election that the U.S. government came out with something that might have changed news organizations decision-making about using this information? Why not do it before? And shouldn’t you -- if you are not capable because of this wide-ranging review, shouldn’t you change that review process?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think there’s any evidence to indicate that editorial decisions changed as a result of the statement. So I think we actually do have an opportunity to evaluate that claim. So I think it actually is an open question about whether it would have made a difference. It didn’t make a difference when we put out the statement a month before the election in the way that this was handled by news organizations.
But here’s the other thing, Gardiner, and I think this is important, as well, as you consider the government response, and in particular the White House response to this situation. It would have been inappropriate for White House figures, including the President of the United States, to be rushing the intelligence community to expedite their analysis of the situation because we were concerned about the negative impact it was having on the President’s preferred candidate in the presidential election. That would have been all the more damaging in an environment in which you have the Republican nominee, without evidence, suggesting that the election is rigged.
So what we were deeply concerned about from the beginning was making sure that we were protecting the integrity of the intelligence community and insulating the intelligence community from the kind of political pressure that was obvious to everybody who was reading the newspapers or watching television. It's important for our intelligence community to be shielded from that kind of political interference or political influence. We need --
Q It's just that he has -- that he’s sort of paralyzed and can allow the Russians sort of open-field running as long as they attack in a way that the President himself feels awkward about intervening -- right? I mean, this was a Russian effort on the most important electoral process in the United States. And you're saying that the President himself had difficulty responding simply because of the politics of responding?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not ascribing any difficulty here. I’m merely stating the facts, which is that the President believed it was important for the intelligence community to formulate in advance of the election, if possible, the most definitive analysis that they could make public. And that's what they did -- a month before the election.
Unfortunately, that didn't seem to change the way that this was considered or reported on by the media. So again, I think that's why it’s difficult to say that maybe it would have been treated differently if the report had come out two or three or four months earlier, because it’s not clear that when the report did come out that it had much of an impact on the way that it was -- in the way that this material was reported on.
I also think this all underscores the risk of politicizing the intelligence community. There is a reason that when the review that the President has ordered is released in January will have some integrity. It will have that integrity because the President has gone to great lengths to protect the intelligence community from even the appearance of being used as a political weapon.
And that has long-term consequences for the decisions that future presidents -- plural -- will make. They need to be able to count on the information that they're getting from the intelligence community being right and not being influenced by -- and by "right" I mean timely and accurate -- and not being influenced by partisan politics.
Q Is that the reason for the very differential response between what the President did after the North Korean Sony hack, in which he very forcefully and personally came out and addressed that, and this hack? Which it’s a strange thing because this hack so clearly had far graver consequences and was so much more important to the country than the Sony hack, which he very publicly and forcefully came out and denounced.
So help me understand why those two very different responses by the President personally, and why he didn't respond to this one in the forceful personal way he did to the Sony one. Was it because of politics?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are two things at play here. The first is that the North Korea attack was, in many ways, more crude. And the President's statement in December of 2014 was also based on an intelligence assessment. So the statements that we have made as an administration have been driven by the facts and have been driven by the assessment of the intelligence community. And the intelligence community assessment with regard to the Sony hack was arrived at sooner.
Q And was more clear? Or is that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, you'd have to talk to them, I think, about how they reached these conclusions. But in both -- in all cases, our administration is commenting on this based on the facts and based on the impartial, unbiased assessment of the United States intelligence community. And the American people benefit from having an intelligence community that isn't subject to partisan politics, even in the midst of the most hotly contested, divisive election in recent history.
But you raised a second question, which is sort of about the President's personal involvement. And the President did believe, given that he had endorsed a candidate in the political -- given that the President had endorsed a candidate in the presidential race, he believed it was important for the intelligence community to make this announcement. And that's why you saw a statement from -- a joint statement from the IC and from the Department of Homeland Security. Again, that was an effort to ensure that this information avoided even the appearance of being politically motivated.
And the President had very strong feelings about the race and about the candidates who are involved in the race. And the President did not -- those of you who traveled with the President in the last four or five weeks of the campaign saw that the President didn't pull any punches in forcefully making an argument in support of his preferred candidate. And he believed that that political activity should be separate from the intelligence community's analysis of Russian malicious cyber activity.
Now, what's also true -- and this goes to something that we discussed in the briefing on Monday -- there's ample evidence that was known long before the election and, in most cases, long before October about the Trump campaign and Russia -- everything from the Republican nominee himself calling on Russia to hack his opponent. It might be an indication that he was obviously aware and concluded, based on whatever facts or sources he had available to him, that Russia was involved, and their involvement was having a negative impact on his opponent's campaign. That's why he was encouraging them to keep doing it. You had the Republican nominee refer to the President of Russia as a strong leader. The Republican nominee chose a campaign chair that had extensive, lucrative, personal financial ties to the Kremlin. And it was obvious to those who were covering the race that the hack-and-leak strategy that had been operationalized was not being equally applied to the two parties and to the two campaigns. There was one side that was bearing the brunt of that strategy and another side that was clearly benefitting from it.
Now, I know there's a lot of reporting that there may be some disagreement in the intelligence community about whether or not that was the intent. That's a question that they should ask and a question that they may attempt to answer, but there certainly was no doubt about the effect. And, again, it didn't require a security clearance or a consensus, high-confidence intelligence assessment to understand. And in spite of all that, that didn't change the way in which this information was reported on, either.
Q Josh, we've talked before here about this administration's retaliation or potential retaliation for these efforts. And we quoted a lot of experts in our story saying that basically you're making a mistake; that you didn't -- you haven't apparently retaliated against this attack and you continue to sort of say that any retaliation could be secret. They are saying that, first of all, you should have retaliated long before now and probably before the election, and that it shouldn't be a secret retaliation -- it should be very clear that the United States is retaliating against this to discourage this continued behavior.
So help me -- if you don't mind, defend the administration's decision-making on both not apparently retaliating so far, not retaliating before the election as a means of discouraging this continued behavior, and not guaranteeing that this retaliation would becoming public, which, again, according to these experts, would help discourage this behavior then and in the future.
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, what we have indicated is the President believes that based on what we know about what Russia did, that it merits a proportional response. From here, I'm not in a position to confirm whether or not that response has been initiated or not. I'm also not in a position to confirm that we won’t ever in the future discuss what that response is or what that response may be. There may eventually be a point at which we do discuss what the response is, will be, or has been.
Just trying to cover all my verb tenses there. (Laughter.)
But here’s a couple of other things that are important to consider. Given the interconnected nature of our society and our economy, the United States is in the unique position vis-à-vis the rest of the world because we rely on 21st century communications technology for just about everything in a way that lots of other societies and economies and countries don't. So --
Q Are we particularly vulnerable?
MR. EARNEST: We are -- the United States is particularly vulnerable. Now, that is counterbalanced by the fact that the United States is also more powerful when it comes to our cyber capabilities than any other country in the world. That's compounded -- the complexity of that situation is compounded by the fact that so much of this is new. When we're talking about international conflicts on the battlefield or in the open seas, there are decades and, in some cases, even centuries-long traditions and norms and treaties and understandings that have been negotiated and observed. And it sets up a framework for countries being able to avoid disagreements about what’s appropriate behavior. And when those disagreements do arise, there is a codified system for resolving them.
None of that exists in cyberspace. And, in fact, the President has made this one of his top policy priorities is to begin to initiate a process in our discussions at the G20, in our discussions at the G7, and in our bilateral relations with other countries that have significant cyber capabilities to start to establish those rules of the road.
And if you go back and look at some of the G20 communiqués, you can see that there is a specific -- I know that's something you've probably already done, Gardiner, knowing how conscientious you are about covering these issues. So just to refresh your memory about how specific some of those efforts were in the context of the world’s 20 largest economies, you’ll also recall -- and this got more attention, understandably so -- when President Xi of China came to the White House for a state visit last fall, the fall of 2015, it was notable that he stood in the Rose Garden of the White House next to the United States President indicating his country’s commitment to a norm in cyberspace that countries should not support cyber-enabled theft for commercial gain.
And that is a norm that the United States had been previously concerned China was not willing to observe. I can't offer an updated assessment on how well they are observing that norm that the Chinese President stated. But it certainly addressed many of the concerns that had been justifiably raised by U.S. companies about how China was hacking their businesses, and then using proprietary technology and information to disadvantage U.S. businesses and to give Chinese businesses a leg up.
So establishing those norms in cyberspace is a priority. I just described an economic situation that has significant economic consequences for the country, but this also applies in the national security and homeland security realm, as well.
So I think that would explain a lot of this. Look, I guess there’s one other -- you asked a lot of questions, so that’s why I’m giving a long answer.
Q I’ve got one more, by the way.
MR. EARNEST: Which is -- I welcome the opportunity to have this discussion, so I’m just trying to remember everything I wanted to say.
There’s one last thing that I did want to say, which is one of the highest priorities that was identified by the President and his policy team in the fall, given the threat that was posed by Russian malicious cyber activity, was ensuring that the elections infrastructure of the United States was protected.
Now, the thing that we acknowledged from the very first time that I was asked about this is that there are some built-in protections based on how diffuse the elections infrastructure is in this country. Cities, states, counties all have a role in administering elections. They use different systems for conducting those elections. That means that there’s not one way to hack the entire election system of the United States. That makes our elections process complicated and messy and difficult to reform and improve. It also makes it harder to hack.
Q So hanging chads are a good thing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but relying on paper ballots or hanging chads makes it hard for somebody who’s sitting in a cubicle in Moscow to have an impact on the outcome, at least by tampering with the ballots. But the same goes to voter registration rules.
Now, the concerning thing, Gardiner, was that we had detected some Russian malicious cyber activity on the systems of some elections administrators across the country, and this is where politics gets involved again. In most states, the people who are in charge of administering elections are themselves politicians. They’re not impartial observers. They have an impartial mandate to ensure the conduct of a free and fair election, and the vast majority of them do that job and do it well. But if there was a perception that the Democratic President of the United States was raising some of these concerns about Russian malicious cyber activity because he was trying to protect the Democratic candidate for President, there is not likely to be a lot of cooperation between a Republican elections official and a Democratic administration.
So this administration went to great lengths -- we even went to Capitol Hill -- to try to convince Democratic and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to signal their commitment to setting aside partisan politics and focusing on the national security of the country, and issuing a joint public statement about how important it was for election administrators in both parties to work with the Democratic administration to protect their systems from Russian intrusion.
Democrats in Congress readily agreed this was a good idea. Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan did not readily agree to it. I’m not going to get into all of our private conversations, but this was an element of the story that was published in your newspaper today. And it’s true, we didn’t get the kind of prompt cooperation we would have liked.
Now, we eventually did get a letter that the four leaders of Congress did agree to send to the organization that represents elections administrators across the country. And as a result, there were not a lot of charges and counter-charges that the Democratic administration was up to no good. And, in fact, experts at the Department of Homeland Security worked with elections administrators in 45, 46, 47 states to ensure that their systems were protected from Russian intrusions. And the good news is that the intelligence community was watching closely, and they determined -- or at least they did not observe an increase in malicious Russian cyber activity on Election Day that interfered with the casting or counting of ballots. And that obviously is good news. But that's not the whole question.
Q One more. Sorry to take so long. The GSA has released a letter stating that the Trump organization will be in violation of its lease on the Trump hotel site here in Washington the minute that President-elect Trump takes office if he doesn’t fully divest himself of his holdings in the hotel, which he has shown no sign that he is doing. Was that appropriate for the GSA to do? And what responsibility does this administration have in ensuring that the incoming Trump administration abides by conflict of interest laws and the emoluments clause of the Constitution? Is this something you're working on in the transition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware that there’s a robust role for this administration to play in this. I'd refer you to the GSA to explain the concerns that they raised about the contract that they have with the Trump organization. The relevant agency here is going to be the Office of Government Ethics. This is a nonpartisan, independent agency that is charged with ensuring that government officials -- federal government officials are abiding by all of the rules and restrictions that apply to the ethical conduct of people who are supposed to be serving the national interest.
So I think the proper role here is going to be with the Office of Government Ethics, with inspectors general who have independent oversight responsibilities in the executive branch. There’s also going to be a critically important role for Congress. And the early indications, I think, leave me cautiously optimistic that Democrats and Republicans are prepared to play that oversight role to ensure that those who are entrusted with protecting and advancing the public interest are not compromised by their own personal financial considerations.
Obviously, President Obama has gone to great lengths to prevent even the appearance of having a personal financial conflict. President Obama sold all his stock and all of his outside interests before entering the Oval Office, and tied all that money into Treasury bonds. Given the aggressive way in which the Federal Reserve was reducing the interest rate, that was a very poor investment decision, but it was the right thing for the country. And that's kind of the point.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. Russia has figured prominently in a number of questions that you’ve received this week, whether it's related to the situation in Syria, or whether it's related to the alleged hack by Russia in an effort to influence our presidential election. Does the President have any plans to reach out, pick up the phone, speak to his counterpart from Russia, Vladimir Putin, and talk about some of the same issues that we're talking about all this week?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any calls that are planned. But obviously the President has had a number of occasions to see his counterpart and to talk to him about these issues. Obviously, the President saw President Putin for a brief period in Lima, Peru, when we were there for the APEC Summit -- I guess it was just last month. It feels like about a year ago. President Obama also had an opportunity to see President Putin in China when we were in China for the G20 meeting in September, the meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies. And over the course of his time in office, President Obama has had conversations with President Putin on the phone and in person to
At this point, I'm not sure that there's a situation that they've talked about more than the situation in Syria. They've had multiple opportunities to do that. Obviously, there are even many more conversations that occurred between Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. So there's been deep engagement with the Russians. But I'm not aware of any upcoming conversations between President Obama and President Putin. But if one does occur, we'll let you know.
Q A lot of conversation has occurred this week as it relates to President-elect Trump's decision to nominate Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. And a knock on him from a number of critics appears to be his preexisting relationship with Russia, his preexisting relationship with Vladimir Putin. Do you see this as a knock, or do you think it can be helpful to have a preexisting relationship with someone who figures so prominently in America's foreign affairs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, obviously, you have outlined the case that the Trump administration has made in favor of the nomination. There are others who have raised concerns about the wisdom of choosing someone who has been awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin to represent U.S. interests around the globe, considering the adversarial nature of our relationship with Russia on so many important issues.
There are some areas where we do effectively cooperate with Russia already and have done so to the benefit of the American people. But look, I'll let others make the argument on both sides. I think the argument that I would make is simply: People shouldn't be surprised. The President-elect ran on a platform of pursuing warmer relations with Russia. He indicated his frustration and signaled a potential lessening of our commitment to NATO. He referred to President Putin as a strong leader. So it shouldn't be particularly surprising that he chose someone who got the Order of Friendship medal from Vladimir Putin to be his Secretary of State.
Q Would that be a bad thing? U.S. relations with Russia are at perhaps the lowest level they've been since the Cold War, since maybe the early 1960s. Do you think that relations between the U.S. and Russia should remain at the level where they are right now, or do you think there is room for improvement with Russia, vis-à-vis the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I think what the President would say is that he would welcome additional opportunities to try to advance our interests by working with Russia. But that's going to require not additional concessions to Russia but a willingness on the part of the Russians to deal honestly with their American interlocutors in pursuit of their stated goals.
So, for example, just to go back because it's the most pertinent one, Russia says that they are committed to working with the international community, including the United States, to go after ISIL. There's no evidence for that. And, in fact, what Russia has done against ISIL has been rolled back and ISIL's capabilities have been heightened and worsened because of Russia's poor decisions.
So in some ways, until Russia signals a willingness to pursue a different approach in their relationship with the United States, I think we're going to encounter some choppy waters here. I think what President Obama has tried to do is to try to prevent our disagreements in some areas of Syria and in Ukraine from allowing us to make progress in some other areas. And whether that's our cooperation on the space program or the success that the United States and Russia had in eliminating the declared chemical weapons stockpile of the Assad regime. There are some areas where we are able to work effectively with the Russians, and the American people have benefitted from it.
But if we want to see more of that, I think we're going to need to see a change in behavior and a change in strategy on the part of the Russians.
Q Thanks, Josh. Circling back to the Office of Government Ethics, they recently are urging Trump to act as if he must follow financial conflict of interest laws, but as Trump has pointed out, the President is not legally bound by these. Do you think it's time to update federal ethic laws to make sure that the President does have to follow these laws, that it's a law?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think all I can say to you is what President Obama has done, and as I described earlier, President Obama didn't just follow the ethics rules as if they applied to him -- he went far above and beyond them and made sure that there was not even the appearance of a conflict of interest when it comes to his personal finances. And he did that in a way that disadvantaged him financially but was good for the country because it erased any doubt about his true motivations.
So the President also believed that that actually benefitted his presidency because he wasn’t in a position in which he was sidetracked by allegations of a personal conflict of interest. And he set a very high standard for ethics that people throughout his administration have followed. And it’s why the President is quite proud of the fact that his administration has not been plagued by the kinds of major personal scandals that have plagued other presidencies.
Q So would you say then that the argument of selling a lot of real estate would make Donald Trump lose money is not a valid argument?
MR. EARNEST: I think the incoming administration and the President-elect are going to have to make their own decisions about how they handle the situation. But if President-elect Trump were to sustain a financial loss in order to enter the Oval Office, he would not be the first one.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to the comment you made about how people shouldn’t be surprised that Donald Trump is selecting someone who has close ties to Russia given the fact that he said all of these things on the campaign trail that were seen as friendly to Russia. It kind of seems to stand in contrast to this idea that once Donald Trump leaves the campaign trail and gets into the office, he’s going to be woken up by the realities of the office, and all of those sort of incendiary things he said on the campaign would not be the actual policies that he pursues. And that seems to be the message that the President was giving when he went overseas and spoke to NATO partners and other partners.
So what’s the message? Is it that people shouldn’t be surprised and they should brace for Trump to follow through on all of this rhetoric that he had on the campaign trail? Or is that -- the office will change him and he’ll moderate on some of those positions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I think it’s hard to assess, because you have in the past heard Mr. Tillerson say positive things about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Agreement. So does that mean -- so I guess -- I cite those two examples to illustrate that we’ll have to see. It’s unclear. I think what we might be seeing now is that the President-elect cares more about his Secretary of State’s position on Russia than he does about his Secretary of State nominee’s position on trade and climate change.
But again, when you go back to the rhetoric of the Trump campaign, it’s not particularly surprising that the President-elect appears to be prioritizing over a bunch of other important issues. But what that actually means for the kinds of policy they will implement, that’s something that we’ll all have to wait and see.
Q I also wanted to ask you about the -- give you another chance to maybe weigh in on the Energy Secretary pick. Obviously, President Obama selected a Nobel Laureate physicist in Ernie Moniz who -- you know, highly respected and --
MR. EARNEST: Merely a physicist at MIT. (Laughter.)
Q Right. So I’m wondering if, given the fact that Moniz had such an important role in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, I’m wondering if the President has any thoughts about the former Texas governor becoming the next person for this position.
MR. EARNEST: I’m really tempted to, but -- (laughter) --
Q Give in.
MR. EARNEST: -- maybe if you want to come by and chat in my office, I’ve got some good zingers for you. But I think I will try to exercise some discipline and refrain from commenting any more than I already have, admittedly, about --
Q You could just tweet it.
MR. EARNEST: If I can remember them all, I’ll share them with you after this briefing.
Q I’ll stay tuned for that.
One more on the stock market. Obviously, it’s hitting record highs on a regular basis, almost at 20,000 in the Dow, and Donald Trump and his surrogates are claiming credit for that. Obviously, you all said there’s only one President at a time, so I wondering if you have any thoughts on whether or not this rally has anything to do with the current President or the President-elect.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the significant number of market analysts who follow the market more closely than I do comment on individual market movements.
I’ll just make the broader observation that since the depths of the Great Recession that President Obama inherited, the stock market has more than tripled. We’ll see if the economic policies that the incoming President implements have a similar positive effect.
He campaigned on vowing to try things differently. He campaigned on the idea that we need a different economic approach. And we’ve laid out a number of times -- and we’re getting late here, so I won’t do it again -- but we’ve laid out a number of times the benchmark that the incoming administration will have to live up to. And we’ll see if they do. But an important of them is the stock market. And the stock market, since was at its nadir in the summer of 2009, has more than tripled. And we’ll see if President Trump’s economic policies have a similar positive impact on the market in a way that has a positive impact on the savings and retirement savings of millions of American workers.
Taka, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. President Putin will visit Japan tomorrow to meet Prime Minister Abe. What do you expect from the meeting? They will meet in Japan twice, in Tokyo and in Prime Minister Abe’s old prefecture. What do you think of Prime Minister Abe’s decision to maintain warm relations with President Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, you know, President Obama, as I mentioned earlier, has had a number of conversations with President Putin over the last year. Obviously, Russia has faced some significant diplomatic isolation from the international community, including the G7, of which Japan is a member. We used to refer to that meeting as the G8, back when Russia was included in that meeting. They no longer are because of their willingness to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
So I can’t speak to what may be on the agenda or what Prime Minister Abe intends to discuss with President Putin, but while we have been able to work effectively with the international community to isolate Russia -- and they are facing more isolation than they have in recent years -- we also acknowledge that the United States benefits from our allies, like Japan, having good relations with other countries around the world. So, presumably, that will be what Prime Minister Abe is pursuing when he meets with President Putin later this week.
Q Are you concerned that the meeting may send the wrong message that the G7 is not united, and may put pressure on Russia?
MR. EARNEST: I have no doubt that Japan and the other members of the G7 remain firmly united about the need for Russia to observe the basic territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation of Ukraine.
Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you tomorrow.
1:43 P.M. EST