Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/20/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:17 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see all your smiling faces this afternoon. It must be because it’s Friday there are so many smiles. Well, today is my final briefing as the Principal Deputy Press Secretary. (Laughter.)
I’m pleased that there’s such a strong turnout to mark this occasion. So I’ll be looking for your Hallmark cards later today.
Q We’re still on Jay time, then.
MR. EARNEST: We are still on Jay time. Since you brought him up, I will say one thing. He did his last briefing here on Wednesday, and he is somebody who devoted a significant portion of his life over the last three years working hard to serve this President and to serve all of you. And we are sad to see him go, but wish him all the best as he pursues the next chapter in his career and sensibly, will spend more time with his family in a way that he’s pretty happy about and presumably, they are too.
Q And Colbert.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. So, Josh, I’ll let you do the first question today.
Q Thanks, Josh. (Laughter.) At risk of jumping the gun for Monday, I on behalf of my colleagues wanted to welcome you to your new role behind the podium. I know it’s not your first rodeo, but it’s official now. So, welcome.
If we could start on Ukraine, President Poroshenko has declared a unilateral ceasefire for the next week. But at the same time, the Russian troops along the border that we had seen pulled back looks like they’re heading back to the border. So is the U.S. concerned about a buildup of Russian forces along the border?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to your question, Josh, is yes, we are. The United States has been very clear in our support for President Poroshenko’s efforts to bring peace and unity to Ukraine. President Poroshenko has been clear since he took office that he is committed to finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and he has offered to grant amnesty to separatists within Ukraine and provide safe passage back to Russia to those Russian militants operating in eastern Ukraine. He has also committed to continue a national dialogue to unite the country and pledged to de-centralize power and undertake constitutional reform to address the legitimate concerns of the Iranian people -- of the Ukrainian people.
Now, we’ve also been very clear that there are some asks of President Putin as well. We have repeatedly called on the Russians to support peace and to promote some stability to the security situation in Ukraine. We’ve also asked them to halt the provision of arms and materiel across the border from Russia to Ukraine. We also want them to stop supporting the militants who are fomenting so much violence and instability in that country.
Now, unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that shows a buildup of Russian military forces near the border with Ukraine, contrary to the statements by Kremlin officials. We do not see any evidence that the Russian military units arriving to the region are connected to any type of border security mission. And further, reports from Moscow that the Russian Defense Ministry is considering creating military cordons in eastern Ukraine are also troubling. So we’re monitoring the situation closely. And we will not accept any use of Russian military forces under any pretext in eastern Ukraine; after all, eastern Ukraine is a sovereign country. And interference by outside countries is a violation of their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
There is one other point that I actually want to raise here that is also important and of some concern. In addition, inflammatory statements such as those by Foreign Minister Lavrov earlier this week in which he described ethnic cleansing taking place in Ukraine are simply false. We see these statements for what they are, an attempt to create pretext for further illegal Russian intervention in Ukraine. In fact, responsibility for the deterioration in the human rights situation in Ukraine lies with the armed separatists who are targeting the population and their backers in Russia. Multiple reports by human rights monitors over the past several months have indicated that armed separatists groups supported by Russia are perpetrating an increasing number of killings, abductions, and other violent human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine. And the same is happening in Crimea under Russian occupation.
What the President said in Europe and actually had the opportunity to communicate directly to President Putin was that there is an opportunity for Russia to play a constructive role in this process. There is no reason for the people of Ukraine to have to choose between good relations with Russia and good relations with the West. In fact, there’s an opportunity for them to have both. But they’re only going to have those solid relations if Russia respects the sovereignty of Ukraine and works in a cooperative fashion to bring some stability to the security situation there.
Q And just to clarify, you said that eastern Ukraine was a sovereign country, but you’re referring to eastern Ukraine as part of a sovereign Ukraine.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q And to move to Iraq, the top Shiite cleric there, al-Sistani, is now calling for there to be a new government. Considering that he’s a member of al-Maliki’s own religious group, does that lead the U.S. to think that it’s time for a new government there to take over?
MR. EARNEST: The views of this administration have not changed, which is that the leadership of the Iraqi government should be determined by the Iraqi people. That is the policy of this administration. It’s something that the President reiterated when he spoke to you yesterday from this podium.
Now, it is also the belief of the Obama administration and of the President personally that a successful Iraqi government, that is an Iraqi central government that has control over the country and can bring some stability to the security situation there, will be a government that governs in an inclusive fashion. Pursuing an inclusive political agenda is critical to the success of that country, and it’s critical to demonstrating to all of the people in Iraq that they have an interest in that country’s prosperity and in that country’s future.
So we’re going to continue to support the Iraqi people and support the Iraqi government as they consider pursuing a diplomatic or political agenda along these lines.
Roberta, I’ll give you the next.
Q The new programs announced today to deal with the child immigration problem, where is the money for those new programs going to come from? Does Congress have to approve that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just back up just a little bit to make sure that everybody is up to date in terms of what we’re talking about here.
What was announced earlier today by the Department of Homeland Security was a commitment of additional judges, asylum officers and immigration attorneys to deal with what we’re seeing in terms of the increasing flow of adults who are showing up at the border between the United States and Mexico.
In addition, we have also committed resources to opening up facilities in this country to deal with the growing problem of adults who appear on the border with children; that is adults from other countries who are seeking to illegally enter this country, and have children with them.
And then once those facilities are up and running, we will then deploy a similar surge of judges, asylum officers and attorneys to more quickly and efficiently deal with those immigration cases. In many cases, these are asylum requests. And that's why we’ll have asylum officers and judges there to process them quickly and efficiently.
In terms of paying for this, I don't have any details to offer you specifically here. I will just point out that in recent weeks, we’ve seen comments from Democrats and Republicans in Congress expressing concern about this situation, about this influx that we’re seeing along the southern border, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley. So it would be our hope and expectation that those members of Congress who are expressing concern about this situation will work collaboratively with the administration to make sure we have the resources necessary to deal with this growing problem.
Q So there’s no information about how many officers, judges, and how this will be paid for at this point?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, no. But again, in terms of paying for it, we would want to work with members of Congress to make sure that the necessary resources are available to deal with a problem they admit exists.
Q Just quickly on -- there was lots of excitement today about the IRS. And I’m wondering whether the White House would consider naming an independent prosecutor, some kind of independent person to clear the air over that? And if not, why not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that many Republicans in Congress at least, particularly in the House have demonstrated a pretty aggressive appetite for investigating this issue. You’ve seen extensive cooperation by the Internal Revenue Service and members of the Obama administration with that investigation. There have been 750,000 pages of documents that have provided; 64,000 different emails from one specific IRS employee. So our willingness to cooperate with this investigate is evident from the numbers.
The thing that is also true is that there have been a large number of claims and conspiracy theories that have been floated about this process by Republicans that just have not panned out, frankly. And we’ve demonstrated our willingness to collaborate with them with legitimate oversight. We’ll continue to cooperate, and that's why you’ve -- that's why there’s been the testimony that you’ve seen today because there are senior Obama administration officials that are going up there and answering all of these questions; again, some of which are rooted in the kinds of conspiracy theories that don't have any truth to them.
Q So wouldn’t it help just having an independent person come in and look at it? I mean if you’re saying that what they're doing is political, wouldn’t it help to have an independent person look at it?
MR. EARNEST: No, because I think even the politically motivated investigation has not turned up any facts that support the conspiracy theories that they’ve propounded. The fact of the matter is after 13 months of multiple congressional investigations, including 14 congressional hearings, 30 interviews with IRS employees, 50 written congressional requests, and as I mentioned 750,000 pages of documents, there is zero evidence to support Republican claims. And that's even -- again, these are investigations that have a pretty transparent political motive. So I’m not sure that there’s a whole lot more to be discovered here.
I guess the other thing I would point out is that there has been an independent inspector general investigation that's also been conducted here. And according to his testimony, he also found no evidence that anyone outside of the IRS had any involvement in the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups who applied for tax-exempt status.
So we’ve cooperated extensively with a large number of congressional hearings, many of which were politically motivated. We’ve cooperated with an independent inspector general investigation, who did not find any evidence that supports Republican claims.
I think frankly we’d prefer that Republicans would devote this kind of attention and energy to policies that are actually going to create jobs, as opposed to partisan fishing expeditions.
So let’s move around the room just a little bit. Justin.
Q Thanks, Josh. I was wondering if I could get your reaction to the Republican leadership yesterday. And specifically kind of what your guys’ opinion on Kevin McCarthy is in the building, and how you think you’re going to work with him kind of moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would certainly first begin by congratulating Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Scalise for their successful elections. They were voted into their leadership positions by their peers in the Republican Congress. And as the elected leaders of one party and one house of Congress, the administration will seek to work with them to try to find common ground.
There’s no doubt they haven’t papered over the differences. I won’t either in terms of our policy views and what we think is in the best interest of the country moving forward. There are plenty of differences. What we hope we can focus on are those areas of common ground, and we’ll see whether or not they are -- they're willing to do that.
If there is a willingness by those members of the Republican leadership to try to find common ground with the administration on a range of policies that would better support middle-class families all across the country, they’ll find willing partners on this end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Q Valerie Jarrett earlier this morning suggested that McCarthy’s election kind of opened a window of opportunity for immigration reform to happen this summer. So I’m wondering, both, if you guys have reached out to him in any way, or had discussions with him about pursuing immigration reform this summer?
And secondly, conventional wisdom of course is that Eric Cantor’s defeat would make Republicans skittish in Congress. And so why do you feel like that's -- in fact, the opposite is true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific phone calls or meetings with Mr. McCarthy to read out to you at this point. I’ve expressed my own bemusement about the political analysis that has reached the conclusion that a candidate for office who was strongly opposed to immigration reform was somehow the key to the passage of immigration reform, right? I think as I mentioned earlier, I just moved to Virginia. I didn't move into the 7th Congressional District, but I saw a lot of those mailers that Mr. Cantor’s campaign distributed, and he made pretty clear that he was opposed to immigration reform.
I’m not sure why there is this notion that if he had been elected that it’s more likely that immigration reform would have passed. He was promising to do everything he could to block it.
Now, that's unfortunate, and I think it is an open question whether or not the prospects for immigration reform’s passage are enhanced by Mr. McCarthy’s ascension to a higher position in the Republican leadership.
I know that there are many in Mr. McCarthy’s district in California that are strongly supportive of comprehensive immigration reform. That's not actually unique. There are a lot of people all across the country for a wide range of reasons in both parties who are strongly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform; along the lines of the compromise that was passed in bipartisan fashion in the Senate last year. So there are plenty of good economic reasons to support immigration reform. There’s -- I think as the Congressional Budget Office has found that there are hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit reduction over the next couple of decades that would be enjoyed by this country if immigration reform were to pass.
But again, this will have to be a decision that Mr. McCarthy makes as he gets settled into what presumably is a fancy new office in the Capitol.
All right, Jim.
Q Back on the unaccompanied minors, if you could talk about this a moment.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q I know the Vice President is down in Central America today, and the White House has been adamant that White House policies, the DREAM Act and also comprehensive immigration reform are not the reasons why people are crossing the border. But, in fact -- and in fact, that may be true. What we’re hearing is that they're coming here not because of that, but because they realize that once they get here -- moms with kids, and kids themselves -- that the bureaucratic system in this country allows them to stay in many cases.
And we can't get answers from this administration about the numbers. We’ve asked repeatedly how many people who are given these promises to appear notices, these are the mothers who get promises to appear notices, and then are allowed to go stay with relatives and go to -- and promise to go to court -- how many of them are actually going to court versus how many are disappearing into the fabric of the country?
And a related question to that is, how many of the unaccompanied minors are then released to foster homes or their relatives in this country and, in fact, are allowed to stay? Isn’t that the real reason they're coming across? And why won’t the administration answer those questions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I do want to take this opportunity to make something really clear first of all that so much of what we’re seeing on the southern border is the result of a deliberate, misinformation campaign that is propagated by criminal syndicates in Central America. That misinformation is causing some people who are in a rather desperate situation to risk their lives to come to the United States border expecting that they’ll be able to stay in this country. That is simply not true. And it is important for people all across this country and for people in Mexico and Central America to understand what the facts are.
And the reason for that is simple. What we’re seeing there is a very serious humanitarian situation. It is one that is the source of significant concern to the President. And so his administration is trying to deploy a lot of resources to deal with this.
And that's manifested itself in a number of different ways. You saw that we put a readout just yesterday of the President’s phone call with President Peña Nieto of Mexico in which they discussed this situation. The Vice President, as you mentioned, is traveling in Central America, where he’s meeting with leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as senior government representatives from Honduras and Mexico. The State Department and DHS officials have been engaged with their colleagues and their counterparts in countries throughout the hemisphere to talk about this issue. And what we’re trying to do is to address this problem in two ways. The first is to address the needs of those who have been apprehended on the border.
So I was mentioning to Roberta that DHS announced earlier today that we’re going to open up some additional detention facilities that can accommodate adults who show up on the border with their children. And we’re going to deploy some resources to work through their immigration cases more quickly, so that they’re not held in that detention facility for a long time and can, hopefully, be quickly returned to their home country.
What we’re also doing is working in collaborative fashion with countries in Central America to try to address the problem at its root. Some of that is an information campaign and countering this intentional misinformation campaign that’s being propagated by criminal syndicates, but also working through a range of USAID programs and the host governments -- the governments in these countries -- to try to meet some of the citizen security needs that are so acute in these countries right now.
Q I understand all that, Josh, but the question is, is it really a misinformation campaign?
MR. EARNEST: It is. It is.
Q Here’s why I’m asking, okay. What is happening now is that the Border Patrol is taking those mothers and kids, putting them in a bus and taking them to the bus station in McAllen, Texas. And they’re buying tickets to go stay with relatives in this country with a promise -- all they have to do is promise that they will appear in court. And the administration will not tell us how many of those we’re promising to go to court are really going to court, and are going into the system or are actually disappearing into the fabric of American society. That’s what the coyotes are telling people, is that the bureaucracy in this country is allowing them to stay.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. It’s hard for me to make a blanket statement about our immigration policy other than this administration’s commitment to enforcing the law. And the law is very clear about this, that those individuals who want to show up on the border -- whether they have their children with them or not -- are not eligible for the deferred action that the administration announced a year or two ago.
And what we are doing is we are mobilizing additional resources to try to deal with this problem more effectively and in a more humanitarian fashion. And in this case --
Q Why won’t you just tell us the percentage of those who are promising to appear, are they appearing or not? And are the unaccompanied minors who are then given to foster homes or allowed to stay with their families in this country while waiting for a court appearance, how many of those are actually showing up? Why won’t the administration tell us those numbers?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have those numbers here, Jim. But what I do have is a clear commitment from this administration to deal with what is an emerging humanitarian situation. And it’s important for your viewers to understand and it’s important for viewers or those consumers of information in Central America to understand that showing up at the border illegally is not a ticket into this country. One of the reasons that the President is a strong and powerful advocate of the kind of commonsense immigration reform that I was discussing in response to an earlier question is that it would streamline our legal immigration process.
For a variety of reasons -- some of them economic, some of them humanitarian -- there should be strong support for streamlining this process. Democrats and Republicans have both acknowledged that the legal immigration process is not as efficient as it could be. And better resources devoted to that system could mitigate some of this problem, but it does not change the fact that it is not a good idea for people to make the trek through Mexico and to appear at the southern border in the Rio Grande Valley of the United States and think that once they are detained by customs or Border Patrol personnel, that they will be allowed into the country. They will not.
Q Yes, Josh, back to Russia. Earlier this morning on that conference call with senior administration officials, they described that potential sanctions that could be imposed on Russia next might not be sectoral, but rather something more along the lines of a scalpel is the way it was described during that conference call. That sounds like less than sectoral, obviously. And does that mean that the administration is now backing away from that threat of sectoral sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: No, sectoral sanctions remain on the table. And, again, this is something that the administration is working in cooperative fashion with our partners and allies in Europe to present a united front, that the more that Russia plays a destabilizing role in Ukraine, the more isolated from the international community they will become.
We’ve already seen that the sanctions that have been put in place so far in a cooperative fashion, again, with our allies in Europe, has had an impact on the Russian economy and has had an impact in terms of isolating them in the international financial markets.
Q They don’t seem to be deterring their behavior though. Is that fair to say?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not sure that that’s a fair thing to say. I think we’re seeing a lot of mixed signals from Russia right now about what their intentions are. And I think that is evidenced by the fact that we’ve seen some troop movements on the border, some away from the border and some are toward the border. And in those situations where Russia has made the decision to withdraw their troops, we welcomed the evidence of that. But we’re concerned about this latest evidence that indicates that additional troops are being deployed to the border under the auspices of a border security policy or exercise that does not seem to be underway.
So what the President will continue to do is to work with our partners in Europe that will maximize the impact of any sanctions that are implemented. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to give Russia the opportunity to pursue a policy of de-escalation, to play a constructive role in bringing some stability to the situation in Ukraine.
Q And on Iraq, yesterday Senator Chris Murphy said that if more than 300 assets on the ground are deployed to Iraq that the administration would need to go through Congress for authorization. Is the President okay with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what this President has said, and I think that there is pretty widespread agreement about this, maybe even ostensibly from Mr. Murphy, is that the actions that the President has taken so far do not require additional congressional authorization. But you have seen a demonstrated commitment from this administration to continue to consult with Congress.
The President hosted a consultation meeting with the four leaders of Congress in the Oval Office earlier this week. Over the weekend, as administration officials were assessing the situation in Iraq, there were a number of phone calls from senior members of the President’s national security team to leaders in Congress -- both those in the congressional leadership, but also those who are the leaders of relevant committees. So that congressional consultation will continue. And we certainly welcome the interest and the support of the American policy in Iraq.
Q But when you heard the Senate Majority Leader say he doesn't want to see any U.S. forces returning to Iraq, it must have dawned on all of you here that there’s a real reluctance inside the Democratic Party when it comes to getting re-engaged in Iraq. That's where it goes without saying. How do you deal with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there’s -- that any time that you’re talking about the risks to our security that are posed by Iraq, that the memory of the Iraq war is fresh in the mind of everybody in this country, that this country made great sacrifices in pursuit of trying to create an opportunity for the Iraqi people to enjoy democracy and determine the future of their own country.
But the fact of the matter is that there are some Americans -- some very brave Americans who served in our military -- who sacrificed even more than others. That is fresh in the mind of every policymaker, in the same way that I think it’s fresh in the mind of every American.
That said, I think the President was pretty clear when he spoke here yesterday about what exactly our priorities are. If you’ll indulge me for a minute, let me just repeat them. The first is that our top priority is the safety of U.S. personnel that currently is in Iraq. And that's why you saw a movement over the weekend to deploy some additional security resources to safeguard the embassy. There’s been an increase of intelligence resources in the region. There is now around-the-clock visibility in Iraq, with particular attention to those areas where ISIL is operating.
There has also been an increased support for Iraqi security forces. There has been an enduring military-to-military relationship between the United States and Iraq. And we’re going to ramp up that support through training, through the provision of equipment and in other ways; and in the context of advisers that the President talked about yesterday.
The President has also ordered the prepositioning of some military assets. There have been some announcements from the Department of Defense about where those assets are located and what role they could play if necessary. And finally, there has been a stepped up diplomatic engagement.
You all have been on the receiving end of a number of readouts of phone calls between the Vice President and Prime Minister Maliki. And it was reported yesterday I think -- well, the President announced yesterday that Secretary Kerry would be traveling to the region this weekend to meet with his counterparts in the region, all of whom have a vested interest in the same way the United States does in a stabilized security situation in Iraq.
Q And yesterday -- just to wrap this up, yesterday one of the senior administration officials on that conference call following the President’s statement did not rule out air strikes on ISIS targets or ISIL targets in Syria. That was on a conference call on background, and so forth, so can we just get you on camera about this? Is that a possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me tell you about the President’s resolve. The President is resolved to take the action that's necessary to protect the United States of America, the homeland, certainly our American men and women who are serving in uniform, and our allies around the globe. The President has demonstrated a willingness to go into other countries where necessary to protect our national and homeland security.
You guys often report about actions that are taken in Yemen to neutralize those groups or individuals that are seeking to do harm to the United States.
Q Is congressional authorization needed though?
MR. EARNEST: There are similar actions that are taken in Somalia under similar circumstances. And just last weekend, we saw that the military and law enforcement action in Libya to ensure that one of the perpetrators of the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic post is brought to justice. So there is a willingness by this President that has been determined -- that has been demonstrated to act where necessary to safeguard the national security. And that applies in this situation too.
We’ll move around a bit. JC.
Q Thanks, Josh. And congratulations.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q Is the President in touch with his allies -- Great Britain, France, Germany -- on a coordinated response to ISIL in Iraq? And can you give us any information on any conservations that may have taken place?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to read out any phone calls at this point. But there is strong concern about what’s happening in Iraq, both that we’ve seen exhibited by countries in the region, those countries that neighbor Syria and Iraq are concerned about the rapid progress that ISIL was able to make there. There’s also concern that’s been expressed by countries who worked closely with the United States over the years in Iraq to try to, again, stabilize the security situation, give the Iraqi people the opportunity to determine their own future.
So there are a lot of people who are concerned about this. My colleagues at the State Department, the Department of Defense and other places have been in touch with their counterparts as we pursue a coordinated approach to dealing with the challenges that are posed by extremists like ISIL who are operating too freely in Iraq.
Q The President today signed a memorandum on the first-ever federal pollinator initiative. And Dan Pfieffer has referred in the past to how this is a personal interest of the President’s. Can you talk a little about both that initiative and how it is that the President got interested in the honey bee, that crisis? And butterflies, monarch butterflies?
MR. EARNEST: And butterflies. Well, Juliet, when I walked out here today, I knew I was going to be handling a range of sensitive issues. I didn’t know I was going to be talking about the birds and the bees. (Laughter.) That was pretty good, right? I’ve been thinking about this one all morning. Groans, huh.
Q Better writers -- get better writers. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’ll get these guys on some better material here. (Laughter.) You think I’d get a better crowd on my first day here, but no. Oh, my last day. I’ve got to get my story straight, don’t I -- okay, let’s get back to it.
Despite my lame attempt at humor, this actually is a serious issue. The pollinators, the so-called pollinators that are covered by this presidential memorandum, actually have an impact of about $24 billion a year on the United States economy. And they are vital to keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets. So over the past few decades, we’ve actually seen a significant decline in pollinators from our budget -- or I’m sorry, from our environment.
So what the President will include in his 2015 budget are some commonsense steps and strategies that we can take to try to respond to this challenge. So everything from directing federal government research and land management that would better facilitate a habitat for pollinators -- we can also work with states and tribal leaders, and even private landowners in some circumstances, to try to make sure that we are protecting the environments for pollinator habitats.
And, again, there is a clear economic incentive for us to continue to do so. And we’re going to continue to work in collaborative fashion with industry, with state and local leaders, with private landowners to address this problem. So thank you for the question, Juliet. I appreciate it.
Q Thank you. I want to clarify something. The White House is opposed to a special prosecutor, right, on the email controversy?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think for the wide range of reasons that I recited earlier.
Q On the investigation of the emails, did the investigators or White House Counsel look at or look for emails between the White House and the chief of staff, or other aides of Lerner’s?
MR. EARNEST: Are you asking about emails that would have been exchanged --
Q From the White House to Lerner’s chief of staff or her other aides, top aides?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I wasn’t aware that that was a specific request from Republicans. Have they asked for that?
Q I don’t know. I’m asking you. Was it just confined --
MR. EARNEST: Roger, it turns out that there have been 13 months of multiple congressional investigations, including 14 congressional hearings, 30 interviews with IRS employees, 50 written congressional requests and 750,000 pages of documents. And all of that has done nothing to substantiate false Republican claims of a broader political conspiracy. So I don’t know if you’re floating another conspiracy or if this is a request from Republicans who are floating a conspiracy, or what exactly the suggestion is.
But the fact of the matter is we’ve cooperated extensively. And despite that cooperation, we’ve seen continued allegations of Republican conspiracy theories that just never pan out.
Q Just on that point, we understand -- I think what Roger is trying to get at is what I asked Jay a couple of days ago, which is that we understand you’ve turned over -- the IRS has turned over tens of thousands of emails. But when two years of emails from the time period that’s being investigated, when tea party groups were allegedly targeted, we don’t know all the facts, how can you say there’s been extensive cooperation if two years of emails are just missing? You don’t seem to be taking that point seriously.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say, Ed, is that I think it’s fair that we recognize that software moves on and that archiving in a digital age is not as easy as it might seem to the public. Those aren’t just my comments, but those are actually the comments of Congressman Darrell Issa on February 26th, 2008. So his suggestion that somehow there’s a political conspiracy going on here is not consistent with what he’s previously said on this kind of issue.
Q But, again, not conspiracies. If the emails are there, you could show, hey, there’s no conspiracy. That’s the question. I understand you want to keep saying it’s about the Republicans. But why are two years missing?
MR. EARNEST: I think Republicans keep making it about Republicans.
Q Why are two years of emails missing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because there was -- the computer crashed. And what we’ve seen is a demonstrated effort by this administration and by the IRS to try to cooperate with legitimate questions that have been posed by the committee on this. So what that meant is that meant that we’ve turned over 64,000 different emails from Ms. Lerner’s account. We’ve also gone back and tried to -- when I say “we,” I mean the IRS has gone back and looked for emails that may have been sent or received by her colleagues at the IRS, so that they could basically try to sort of build in a structure to give people a sense about what those emails were and what they indicate.
So that constitutes 24,000 emails -- additional emails or part of that -- let me say it this way, 67,000 emails have been provided to Congress, 24,000 of them come from this period during which her hard drive crashed and which those emails were lost. So there’s been an effort to reconstruct that path. And I think that is a pretty clear demonstration of this administration’s willingness to cooperate with legitimate oversight. What’s just as important for people to understand is that despite all of the data that has been provided to Congress, there’s not a shred of evidence that substantiates Republican conspiracy theories.
Q I’ll move on to a couple of other subjects. On immigration, to follow up on what Jim was asking, not to belabor the point, but when you said that this is not a ticket into this country -- based on what Jim is saying, it is a ticket into this country for some illegal immigrants. So will you at least take the question? I understand you might not have the stats in front of you at this moment. Will you take the question and by the end of today give us the numbers on how many people who promised to go to court actually go to court?
MR. EARNEST: I will take a look and see if those numbers are available. I can’t commit to giving them to you, but I will take a look and see if we can.
Q And then, a couple of quick things. How do you respond to Republicans who are saying that what we’re seeing play out in Iraq could happen in Afghanistan when our troops leave? I understand we’re leaving at least a small residual force behind, unlike Iraq. But that we could see the same situation where the Taliban and other terrorists move in and take advantage of the situation.
MR. EARNEST: We’re certainly concerned about making sure that we leave behind a stable, self-governing, and self-securing Afghanistan when our troops come home. That is an important part of this mission, is to turn over a stable Afghanistan so that the Afghan people can pursue the kind of future that is best for their country.
I guess what I would say to Republicans who are worried about this is what’s the alternative? Is the alternative a commitment of American service personnel indefinitely in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq? They’re welcome to make that case. The President does not believe that that is in the national security interest of the United States of America.
Q Last one -- you mentioned the Mexican President -- the President had a phone call with President Peña Nieto. In the readout, it did not mention whether they talked about the jail of the U.S. Marine in Mexico. Did the President press that case with the Mexican President?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details of that conversation, but I can take a look into that for you, too.
Q Regarding the unaccompanied minors, I have two questions. First one, House Speaker John Boehner is calling for the National Guard to be sent to the border to help with the situation. Does the White House have any reaction to that? It was a letter I guess to the President.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve heard about the letter. I haven’t actually read it myself. What I can tell you is that there is the view that there are already significant enforcement resources that have been deployed to the border. In fact, there’s been a historic commitment by this administration to ensure that there are boots on the ground securing our border.
And the fact is the commonsense immigration reform proposal that passed through the Senate a year ago actually includes a significant additional investment in resources to securing our border. The fact is that last year 360,000 individuals who are attempting to cross the border were detained and removed from this country by existing resources. So what that indicates is that there is already a robust effort on the border to secure this country and enforce our immigration laws.
It’s also an indication that the President is willing to enforce that law strictly. But those who are interested in additional resources being deployed to the border should support the commonsense, bipartisan immigration reform proposal that passed through the Senate and right now is being blocked by House Republicans.
Q So that is to say the President is not going to send in the National Guard at least immediately?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no specific plan right now to do that. But again, there has been a demonstrated record of enforcing our immigration laws at the border. And the enforcement of those laws will continue. If there are those who believe that there should be additional resources placed to secure our border, I would strongly encourage them to consider supporting the bipartisan immigration reform proposal that passed in the Senate last year.
Q And could you also give a little bit more detail about what the hope is with the tens of millions of dollars that are being sent to Central American countries to presumably help relieve some of the situations there that are causing people to want to come here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are programs -- some of which are funded through USAID. Others are part of security programs that we have -- or the continuation of security programs that we have with these countries. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Department of State. They may be able to provide you some more details on those programs, okay?
Yes, this gentleman in the back.
Q Josh, in regards with the telephone call of President Obama with President Peña Nieto, did he make any specific requests like maybe controlling better the south border with Mexico to prevent the crossing of these minors? And also, there is going to be a special commission that analyze this situation with members of the U.S. Cabinet like Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any additional details about that phone call to tell you about. But I will say that the United States and the Obama administration in particular believes that there is an opportunity for us to work cooperatively to address this problem. That means cooperating with the government of Mexico, and that also means cooperating with the governments of Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador, and other nations in the region, that if we can address this problem before individuals show up on the border, that would be good and clearly in the best interests of those who are risking their lives to try to come to this country.
Q That means that maybe you are asking these governments to start campaigns to inform the people about the lies of the smugglers perhaps and make them aware of the danger?
MR. EARNEST: We are very interested in making sure that we use every available resource to correct the record and counter the coordinated misinformation campaign that's being spread by criminal syndicates throughout Central America. There’s no doubt about that. And there have been a range of things that have already done that. And we’re working with the governments of those countries to make sure that message gets out.
In terms of what you reference in your first question about the efforts of the President’s Cabinet to address this problem, a couple of weeks ago, the President directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take a hands-on role in coordinating the government response to the influx of immigrants we’re seeing at the border.
And so they have played a leading role in working with DHS and with HHS to open up additional facilities and make sure that we’re following the law both in terms of detaining individuals, but also making sure that we’re doing that in a humanitarian fashion. And it’s our hope that the announcement today of additional resources to process those asylum requests and to process these cases through the immigration courts more efficiently will also ensure that those individuals who are here are treated more humanely.
Q Is there any emphasis on more security in the southern border of Mexico?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to the Mexican government to provide you with any updates about that.
Q I want to follow up on that criminal syndicate. There’s been some implications that it’s position the drug cartels are simply doing this as a money-making operation. Do you guys have evidence of this? You’re identifying them as a criminal syndicate that is perpetuating this misinformation. What more do you guys know about who these people are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would --
Q Is it the narcos? Or is it some of these --
MR. EARNEST: I think there’s -- I think there is a concern that there are criminal elements like narco-gangs and human traffickers who are involved in this.
Q They're simply trying to profit off of rumors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, who are taking advantage of vulnerable populations to try to make some money. We remain very concerned about this.
For more details on this, I’d refer you to DHS who is working the criminal element of this more aggressively.
Q Do you have -- would the FBI be involved? Who would be involved of trying to get at these criminal elements that are doing this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a role for DHS to play. The President has talked quite a bit about human trafficking, and the threat that this poses to our national security, and the humanitarian problem that it presents.
We’re obviously going to have to work closely with the Mexican government to address this problem, as well. And I think that was mentioned in the readout.
Q Right, going to the Border Patrol issue that Speaker Boehner brought up, are you guys convinced that the Border Patrol is not over -- is not being overburdened by this right now?
MR. EARNEST: I think what’s being overburdened by this are actually the immigration courts, right? That that's where we’re seeing the backlog.
Q That's where you think the burden is?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q You don't feel like it is the Border Patrol itself, that they can still do their regular job on the border in addition to this, handle this as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that our most acute concern right now is the immigration courts, and that the backlog that is building up because of the surge that we’ve seen along the southern border. So that's why we are, in fact, surging resources to try to address that.
Q Senate Menendez, Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s concerned about the idea of you guys trying to find more camps -- essentially detention camps for these children, that there is a more humanitarian way to do this that guarantees that these children do make their court dates. Are you guys looking into alternatives other than putting them in some camps or detention camps, however you want to describe them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that we’re looking at. The first is -- what we announced today was detention facilities that could accommodate adults who traveled here with their children. There are also alternatives to detention programs like ankle bracelets that are also being deployed to try to address this problem.
Q You are deploying?
MR. EARNEST: We are. We are. And again --
Q For the children?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q For the children? Or is it specific? Or anybody with the ankle -- are you going to be putting ankle bracelets on this kids? Or on the adults?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the way that these policies are implemented, I’d refer you to DHS for that. But we are looking for a variety of ways to handle what we see is at root a humanitarian problem, but in a way that makes clear this administration’s commitment to enforcing the law. And that's why it’s so important, as Jim and I talked about, for people to understand what that law actually is. Because when they show up here, that law is going to be enforced.
Q But the law with these -- since it’s a -- the law says, the United States has to keep them for some time, does it not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, each situation is different. And each is handled on a case-by-case basis. That's why we want to make sure that we have immigration judges and asylum officers and others who can make sure that these cases are processed efficiently.
And when those cases call, as they do in many, many cases for the removal of these individuals back to their home country, that that's something that can be executed pretty efficiently and effectively.
Q Do you think this law needs to be changed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we think needs to be changed and reformed is the legal immigration system, that what we’re concerned about is that there are a lot of people who do want to follow the law and want to come to this country, but can't because the law is so --
Q This is different than the immigration law. This has to do with -- this has to do with -- this is not about Mexican immigration. This is not Canadian. This is a separate law. That's why I asked if you want this law changed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the inefficiency of our legal immigration system is not irrelevant here, right, that if we did have a much better functioning legal immigration system, as is contemplated by the current immigration reform proposal, that would contribute to solving this problem? It probably wouldn’t solve it entirely, but there is more that can be done. And one important step that would at least mitigate this problem a little bit would be passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Move around. Alexis.
Q Josh, a follow-up on what Chuck was asking because I’m still confused in your response to his question, too. You said the administration response to Chuck is concerned that criminal syndicates are responsible for this surge. And a few minutes before that, your quote was, “this deliberate misinformation campaign by criminal syndicates in Central America,” which made it seem like there was more affirmative evidence. So can you just sort out what made you so firm --
MR. EARNEST: I think you might be parsing it a little bit too much. What I was trying to say is that we’re concerned that there are individuals, criminals in Central America who are preying upon individual -- vulnerable individuals, spreading this information, and trying to capitalize on their vulnerable position.
We’re concerned about that. We would like to see it put to an end. There are a variety of ways that we can do that working with host governments, but also by communicating clearly to the American people, to everybody in this country and to everybody in Central American countries what the law actually is and our commitment to enforcing it.
Q Here is what I’m trying to ask: Obviously, DHS and Border Security officials and ICE, they are debriefing the youngsters and all these folks, and what I’m trying to get at is, are they saying, this is how I came, this is what the information was, this is -- what information do you have to build this case just so that we’re saying, look, this is what we’re seeing?
MR. EARNEST: I think in terms of the results of debriefs like that, I’d refer you to DHS.
Q So but you haven’t been given any --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any insight into those kinds of interviews and what information they’ve yielded.
Q One other question on Iraq. In the context of dealing with Congress on the Iraq-Syria situation and ISIL, what kind of budgetary implications would the President’s policy announcement yesterday have as we head towards the end of the fiscal year? Have you assessed at all what the costs --
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t. I’ll see if I can get you some more information about that.
Q Josh, when does the President expect the first teams of Green Berets to arrive in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: For those kinds of operational questions, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense and I think they may be able to provide you some more information about that.
Q So he has no expectation that it will happen any time soon?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that I don’t know what --
Q Well, he ordered it. I’m just curious.
MR. EARNEST: He did order it, and the Department of Defense, who is responsible for carrying out that order will be able to provide you with some more details about the time frame in which that order will be carried out.
Q Understood. Let me turn the Maliki question around, because we’ve persistently asked what if he goes. What if he stays? What if that’s the determination, that the politics -- looks for some alternatives and he doesn’t sort anything out, and Maliki strong arms his way into power and remains there because he did win this third round of elections. Will the U.S. by its very nature have to reassess what it has done so far and what it might be contemplating in its continued relationship with the Iraqi government?
MR. EARNEST: I’m hesitant to dive too deeply into a hypothetical about whether or not he stays, but let me try to --
Q But there’s been plenty of rhetoric about the need for an inclusive government and things that obviously take on a different, more inclusive and less divisive chain of events than we’ve seen from the Maliki regime so far.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I think I would say about that is simply that it is the view of the United States -- and the President said this yesterday -- that there is not a military solution to the challenges that are posed to the Iraqi government right now; that there may be an opportunity and it may be necessary for the Iraqi security forces to take some steps to stabilize the security situation in the short term.
But that is only a short-term solution. To get at the root of the enduring problems will require a political effort that’s much more inclusive, that demonstrates to every Iraqi citizen that they have a stake in that country’s future. And that will require the pursuit of an inclusive political agenda.
Q Taking names out of it, absent that process, would the United States have to reassess its relationship with Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the United States is always assessing our relationship with Iraq, and assessing -- most importantly, as the President, again, said yesterday -- are the national security implications of ongoing instability there. There are serious concerns that are raised by the advances that have been made by ISIL. Those are concerns that have attracted the attention not just in the United States but other countries in the region, particularly Iraq’s neighbors.
So there is an opportunity for us to work in collaborative fashion with the international community to try to address this problem, and I think that there is pretty widespread agreement that a military solution is not a long-term one, and that it will require, as the President has said, the leaders of Iraq to pursue an inclusive political agenda.
So that is an effort that we can work with the Iraqis to develop. It’s certainly one we’ve been encouraging them to pursue. And there is an opportunity for other countries in the region to play a constructive role in encouraging the leaders of Iraq to pursue that inclusive agenda.
Q On the unaccompanied children. It sounds as if what you’re trying to say, among the many things you’re trying to articulate about what the administration is now doing, is the presumption will be that these children and their maybe single mothers will not qualify as political refugees or refugees under any definition under U.S. law and that they will, once processed, be sent home. That’s why it’s misinformation to suggest, as you have identified these various criminal actors, telling them that they can’t. Is that a fair interpretation of what you’re saying about what the likely outcome of the processing of these unaccompanied children and single mothers is likely to be?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s the other way around, which is I think that the misinformation that’s being spread is that everybody who shows up on the border, on the southern border, will be allowed to stay. And what I’m saying is that’s not true.
Q Some will be allowed to stay?
MR. EARNEST: What’s I’m saying is that every person who does show up at that border will go through --
Q A process.
MR. EARNEST: The immigration process. Some of them may have legitimate, viable asylum claims, and they will go through the asylum process, but the vast majority of them will be detained and removed and that is according to the laws of this country. And that is not the interpretation of the laws that are being shared by these individuals that have very bad intentions.
Q Right. And so the overall goal of these beefed up procedural facilities -- judges, attorneys, asylum advisors -- is to run the people through that process and get them back home?
MR. EARNEST: That's right, and make sure that justice is administered swiftly and efficiently.
Q Josh, there was another transition this week and that was the President’s first headlining of a super PAC fundraiser. What is the President doing on the other side of the equation? What is he doing to limit unlimited spending on campaign financing all around the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President’s support for campaign finance reform is well known. Unfortunately, that is support that is not broadly shared on the other side of the aisle. So it's something the President will continue to push for and pursue and support. But we've not seen a willing partner on the other side of the aisle at this point.
Q Is there an opportunity for some pen and phone action when it comes to campaign finance reform? Is there anything the President can do without -- there are so many things that you're saying he can't do, so what can he do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know the answer to that, but if there is, and it's one the President decides to choose to pursue, you’ll be among the first to know.
Q But doesn’t it appear that he’s striding confidently in the other direction when he’s headlining a fundraiser for unlimited donations?
MR. EARNEST: No, it doesn’t. I think what it demonstrates is that this President is committed to supporting those who share his political agenda in the upcoming elections and that one of the ways that he can help those who support his agenda of expanding economic opportunity for the middle class is to help them raise money. And that's what the President is doing. But it does not in any way affect his continued and unwavering support for campaign finance reform that would reduce the influence of special interest money in politics and give more citizens a louder voice in a political process.
And, Mike, I'm going to give you the last one.
Q All right, thank you. There is a report from Reuter’s that Syria has told the U.N. General Assembly -- I'm sorry, the Security Council -- that it will consider humanitarian deliveries in the rebel areas as an attack. Is the administration aware of this, and do you have a reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sure the administration is aware of it. I personally am not, so we'll have to see if we can get you an answer to that question. It may be worth checking with my colleagues in the U.S. Ambassador’s Office at the United Nations and they may be able to provide you a more detailed position on it.
Q Thanks, Josh.
Q Week ahead?
MR. EARNEST: Let’s do the week ahead. We've got a note here.
Q A new joke? (Laughter.)
Q Did you rewrite it? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No, it's going to be a while before I try to tell a joke from here again, I'll tell you that. (Laughter.)
Q Well, the Royals are hot. You’ve got that going for you.
MR. EARNEST: They are. I've got that going for me.
Q Josh, can I ask --
MR. EARNEST: No, I think I'm just going to do the week ahead.
On Monday, the President will participate in the Summit on Working Families to focus on creating a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans. This will be at the Omni Hotel here in Washington, D.C. The Vice President, the First Lady and Dr. Biden will also participate.
On Tuesday, the President will host the 2013 President’s Cup teams at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President will have lunch with Israeli President Shimon Peres here at the White House. Afterward, he’ll welcome Jimmy Johnson to honor him for his 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Q I was hoping to see (inaudible).
MR. EARNEST: Dallas Cowboy fans will have to wait for another day for that, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: Well -- them, too.
On Thursday, the President will travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota -- I know the White House Chief of Staff is very excited about that trip. And on Friday, we'll have a little more detail about the schedule on Friday a little later. So we're still working up some details on Friday.
Q He’s still overnighting in Minneapolis?
MR. EARNEST: That is still the plan. That is still the plan. Thanks, everybody. Have a great weekend. We'll see you on Monday.
2:19 P.M. EDT
November 22, 2014
November 22, 2014
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November 20, 2014
The President Awards the National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation
November 20, 2014
November 19, 2014