Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/23/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I hope you had a wonderful weekend. I have a few things I want to run through at the top, so if you’ll indulge me here a little bit.
The first is I want to talk just a little bit about the White House Working Families Summit that’s taking place across town here. In about an hour, the President will deliver remarks at the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families. In his remarks today, the President will announce new, concrete actions that he will take using his pen to expand flexible workplace options that will better support the needs of working families.
As you know, he has also used his pen to mobilize -- used his phone, pardon me, to mobilize a very diverse group of stakeholders to elevate this national conversation, including businesses, economists, labor leaders, legislators, advocates, and the media -- because if we’re serious about changing our culture here, we recognize that all of you have a big role to play.
Now, recognizing that, as the graphics behind me show, today’s workforce is changing and we have to make sure our workforce workplace policies keep up, and recognizing that we all have a role to play from the federal government policymakers to the private sector and ordinary citizens.
That’s why today, as the President announces his own actions to help both working families and businesses succeed, you will also hear him lift up the best practices of companies that are already showing how innovative workplace policies can be good for their employees and their business’s bottom line. Companies like JetBlue, which offers flexible work arrangements for their customer service representatives; Google, which offers paid-leave policies for any primary care giver; and the Gap, which recently announced it will raise wages for all of its employees. So we’re looking forward to talking about these and other solutions over the course of the day today.
I have two other matters that I want to talk to you about before we get started, both of them foreign policy related.
Today, the international maritime task force completed its extraordinary mission of removing the final 8 percent of declared chemical weapons precursors from Syria. We congratulate the UN-OPCW joint mission and the entire international coalition for their unprecedented work in removing more than 1,000 tons of declared chemical weapons materials from Syria.
The world will never forget the loss of more than 1,400 innocent Syrians senselessly killed with chemical weapons on August 21st, 2013. There is no starker reminder that for almost 100 years, the international community has deemed the use of these weapons to be far beyond the bounds of acceptable conduct. The removal of these materials sends a clear message that the use of these abhorrent weapons has consequences and will not be tolerated by the international community.
While our work is not finished to ensure the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program, this is an important milestone in the international community’s commitment to respond to the use of chemical weapons by removing the Syrian regime’s stockpiles.
In addition to the removal of all declared chemicals, the OPCW has also verified the destruction of declared production, mixing, and filling equipment. The OPCW has also verified the destruction of all declared chemical weapons delivery vehicles, including missile warheads and aerial bombs.
In the coming weeks, the United States will begin destruction of a large amount of Syria’s chemical weapons precursors aboard the Cape Ray. This will be done in the safest, most environmentally sound manner. It’s an unprecedented mission deploying unique American capabilities to destroy the most dangerous elements of the Syrian arsenal. This will ensure that they will never be used against the Syrian people or against the United States, our allies, our partners in the region or beyond.
We continue to strongly oppose the Assad regime’s appalling violations of human rights and will continue to work with our friends and partners, including the moderate opposition in Syria, to support efforts to assist the Syrian people and bring about a transition to a government that is responsive to their aspirations.
Finally, I wanted to read one additional statement about a situation in Egypt. The United States strongly condemns the verdicts rendered against three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 other defendants today in Egypt. The prosecution of journalists for reporting information that does not coincide with the government of Egypt’s narrative flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.
As we have said many times before, democracy is about more than elections. True democracy requires thriving democratic institutions, including a vibrant free press that is empowered to hold the government accountable to the people. Perhaps most disturbing in this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance. These include the prosecution of peaceful protestors and critics of the government in a series of summary death sentences in trials that failed to achieve even a semblance of due process.
It should be emphasized that the victims in these cases are not just the defendants and journalism more broadly, but the Egyptian people, who have courageously asserted their demands for the fundamental freedoms to which all are entitled. We call on the Egyptian government to pardon these individuals or commute their sentences so that they can be released immediately, and grant clemency for all politically motivated sentences, starting with the other defendants in this trial.
We strongly urge President el-Sisi in the spirit of his pledge to review all human rights legislation to provide the protections for free expression and assembly, as well as the fair trial safeguards that are required by Egypt’s international obligations. The United States will continue to stand with the Egyptian people as they seek to realize the rights for which they have long struggled.
So I apologize for the long wind-up, but some important news I wanted to start off with today. So with that, Julie, do you want to start with the questions?
Q Yes. Thanks, Josh. I actually want to go back to the Syria chemical weapons situation. I know that the administration sees this as a policy victory, but I’m wondering if that’s tempered at all given the fact that even if you’ve gotten all of the known chemical weapons out of Syria, that policy has done virtually nothing to stop the civil war there, and that conflict is bleeding over into Iraq.
MR. EARNEST: I guess the short answer to your question is yes, that we remain very concerned about the situation in Syria. What’s notable about this announcement today is that for a long time, the Assad regime in Syria was one of the more conspicuous violators of the widely accepted notion across the globe that chemical weapons have no place, particularly when they’re being used against civilians as they were last August.
The fact that Syria has now declared that they have chemical weapons, signed the treaty, and has cooperated with the international community to dispose of those declared chemical weapons is an important step, and there was some justified skepticism by people in this room and by other close observers of this situation about whether or not Syria would actually follow through -- and they did, thanks primarily, again, to the work of the international community to hold them to account, to follow through on this mission. And the United States was able to bring some unique capabilities to bear to dispose of these chemicals.
Q I guess my question is, is there any regret that when the chemical weapon attack happened last year that the option that the President went with was this plan, to get rid of the chemical weapons, and not something more broad that could have perhaps slowed the violence there and prevented ISIL from spilling over into Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that would -- I think what I would say to that, Julie, is that the President has been carefully reviewing his options. And I think we’ve been pretty honest about the fact that there has been a regular process underway here inside the administration to continually review our options for confronting Syria and for dealing with the terrible humanitarian and diplomatic situation there.
The fact of the matter is that there are not a lot of good options. And this has been a difficult policy problem to confront. But there are a number of things that we have done. Certainly getting a handle and disposing of these declared chemical weapon stockpiles is an important step. The United States continues to be the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the region. We’ve also spent quite a bit of time coordinating with our allies in the region to assist in the response to the violence in Syria.
We’ve been worried for some time about the destabilizing impact that the violence in that country could have throughout the region. There’s no question that some of the violence that we’ve seen in Iraq in the last couple of weeks and the amount of territory that ISIL has taken over is an outgrowth of that instability. This is something that we’ve been focused on for quite some time, but there’s a difference between being focused on it and actually having a solution to what is a -- I think everybody acknowledges, even our harshest critics acknowledge that this is a thorny problem to deal with, and that the answers here are neither easy nor obvious.
But there is a strategy in place that the President has deployed that is bearing some results. And the elimination of these declared chemical stockpiles is an important step, primarily because -- and I just want to finish with this one thought -- our biggest -- among our biggest concerns with this stockpile that was maintained by the Assad regime was the possibility, even likelihood, of proliferation; that these weapons could fall in the hands of terrorist groups or other rogue nations, and that we could see them used against our partners or our allies or even, God forbid, the American people.
Because these declared weapons stockpiles have now been secured by the international community and disposed of by the United States, these weapons will never be used by anybody, and no one will be a victim of these weapons. And that is an important step, and one we’re pleased to see.
Q And just finally, you mentioned the territory that ISIL is taking over. Over the weekend, they took three border crossings with Syria and with Jordan. How concerning is that to the U.S.? And while you have these military advisers going over there, are you worried that by the time they assess the strength of the Iraqi security forces, that ISIL’s gains could be so strong that they could be almost irreversible?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen the reports of the progress that was made by ISIL over the weekend. We do continue to be concerned about the security situation in Iraq. The President has laid out a strategy, as he did from this podium on Thursday, for dealing with this problem.
At the root, though, this is a problem that’s going to be solved politically, and it’s going to require some very difficult choices to be made by Iraq’s political leaders. And pursuing a political agenda that’s more inclusive that gives every Iraqi a stake in that country’s prosperity and future is the only way that the nation of Iraq can present a united front to the extremists there that don’t have the best of intentions.
Q Just following onto what you said about the political solution. The Ayatollah said yesterday that he was critical of U.S. plans in Iraq, and I’m wondering how that -- if it’s a signal that Iran is unlikely to cooperate with U.S. efforts to find that political solution that the President has been talking about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, as Reuters and other news organizations have reported, there was a conversation on the sidelines of the P5-plus-1 meeting between American diplomats and their counterparts in Iran about the situation in Iraq. I don't have any additional conversations to read out to you.
I think I’d just remind you of the case that I made last week, that it is not in the interest of Iran for there to be a deteriorating security situation in a neighboring country. So that presents what could be an opportunity for some common ground and for the United States to work with all of our partners in the region to try to resolve that security situation in the short term, and give the Iraqi political leadership a little room to make the kinds of difficult and politically courageous decisions that are required to unify that country so that the people of Iraq can meet that threat, can defeat that threat, and pursue an inclusive future that’s in the best interest of every citizen of that country.
Q And just one domestic question. Kevin McCarthy said yesterday that he opposes renewing the charter for the Ex-Im Bank, and I’m wondering what the White House is going to do to make the public case for renewal to counter that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the incoming Majority Leader is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but there are some important facts to consider that have important consequences for policy views like the one that he articulated. The Ex-Im Bank helps American companies create and support jobs here at home at no cost to taxpayers and that helps us meet our export goals, which is why reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank has historically enjoyed bipartisan support in the past.
The benefits are clear -- these are important. Over the last five years, the bank has supported 1.2 million jobs in the United States across a range of business sectors, including more than 200,000 in fiscal year 2013 alone.
Additionally, Ex-Im Bank provides American small businesses the certainty and protection they need to enter new markets, grow their businesses, and create jobs here at home. The bank last year, in 2013, approved 3,413 small business transactions -- that’s assistance that’s provided to American small businesses.
So the focal point of the President’s domestic policy-making agenda is on expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. And one area of an important economic growth is our exports. And anything we can do to help American businesses capitalize on opportunities that exist in overseas markets is something we want to make sure that we’re taking advantage of. So the President strongly supports the funding for -- or the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank. I know that this is something that the incoming Majority Leader has supported in the past, and it’s traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
As we were talking about this a little bit earlier here today at the White House, somebody pointed out to me that President Reagan himself in 1986 had something interesting to say. He signed -- I thought it was interesting. (Laughter.) I’ll let you judge for yourself as I read it here.
He signed a piece of legislation that extended the Bank’s charter for six years. And he said that the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank “sends an important signal to both our exporting community and foreign suppliers that American exporters will continue to be able to compete vigorously for business throughout the world.” He went on to say, “This authority will give the United States needed leverage for use in negotiations to eliminate predatory financing practices whereby companies mix official export financing with concessional foreign aid in an effort to undercut bids on major overseas projects.”
So I can imagine that the incoming Majority Leader might discount a little bit what I have to say, but I’d be surprised if he discounted President Reagan’s view on this.
Q So are we going to see the President and the White House really pushing hard for this publicly, making that case?
MR. EARNEST: I think I made a pretty good case right there, but, again, I’ll let you guys judge.
Q Josh, it’s been asked a number of times in this room -- last week, as a matter of fact, from Jay to the President to you -- about whether al-Maliki is the kind of person who is going to be able to build and rework the government and build a coalition. But there’s a really practical question to all this now about whether or not there’d be even enough time if he suddenly becomes Mr. Coalition, will there be enough time -- does the U.S. believe there’s enough time for him to rebuild a government before it’s needed to -- for the U.S. to engage maybe in airstrikes or whatever?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t want to get ahead of any sort of future decisions that the President might have to make about future actions. But it is our belief, as I’m standing here today and you’re asking me, there is time for this to get done, that there is a process that’s in place under the Iraqi constitution for a government to be formed.
I know that there are a variety of leaders in Iraq who have signaled that the formation of that government should happen quickly because of a deteriorating security situation there, but also to make sure that we have -- or that the Iraqi people have inclusive political leadership. And there is a process in place -- or a laid-out process by which this needs to happen, and we’re at a common-sense place in that process for these steps to be taken. So what’s needed here is the political will from all of Iraq’s leaders to unify that country and help them meet the threat that they’re facing right now.
Let’s move around a little bit. Jon.
Q Can you clarify something -- when the President spoke in this room last week, he said the reason why troops weren’t left in Iraq was because they couldn’t work out an immunity agreement and we’d never send our troops anywhere where they don’t have a guarantee of immunity. And over the weekend, a senior official traveling with Secretary Kerry told reporters that there still isn’t an immunity agreement for the troops, the 300 that the President has now decided to send over, that that is “still being worked out.” So can you give us some clarification? Is there immunity for the troops the President has now decided to send over to Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, suffice it to say that the Commander-in-Chief would not make a decision to put our men and women into harm’s way without getting some necessary assurances. And what I can tell you is that we can confirm that Iraq has provided acceptable assurances on the issue of protections for these personnel via the exchange of diplomatic note. Specifically, Iraq has committed itself to providing protections for our personnel equivalent to those provided to personnel who were in country before the crisis. We believe these protections are adequate to the short-term assessment and advisor mission our troops will be performing.
Q So it’s been worked out? So it’s done, you’re satisfied? We’re done?
MR. EARNEST: There’s been an exchange of diplomatic notes that gives us the needed assurances.
Q Okay. I’d also like you to respond to something we heard from Ryan Crocker, of course, the former Ambassador to Iraq and to Afghanistan. He said that this group, ISIS, is actually more formidable than al Qaeda was under bin Laden at the time of September 11th. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a personal assessment to share. I think the President was pretty clear when he spoke from this podium on Thursday about his concern about the potential for violence that ISIL has already demonstrated. They have used some pretty terrible tactics. There have been reports of massacres of some Iraqi troops. So there is no doubt that this is a group that has some violent tendencies and it is the subject of some concern here. That’s why the President has laid out a pretty specific strategy for trying to contain that threat and to deal with it, but it hinges on some important political steps that need to be taken by the Iraqi government.
Q Well, there’s no question that they have some violent tendencies and they are problematic, but Crocker is suggesting --and others -- something much more: that they now have access to resources that al Qaeda never had previously -- financial resources, access to weapons -- which suggest, some are saying, maybe the most formidable terrorist threat we’ve ever seen. I mean, that sounds like something much more than what you just described -- violent tendencies.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’m just not -- I’m not in a position to make that personal assessment, but I think that what you have seen from this administration, from this President is a response that’s commensurate with the threat that is posed by this group. And it is -- I mean, I guess I would say that some of our strategy for dealing with this threat, Jon, is beefing up our intelligence resources to make sure that we are keeping a close eye on what’s happening over there and what that group is up to because of that threat that they may pose.
Q Given that threat, does the President regret what he said to David Remnick in The New Yorker, talking about the al Qaeda affiliates being like the JV team and saying if you put on a Lakers jersey, it doesn’t mean you’re Kobe Bryant? Does the President regret talking so cavalierly about the threat posed by groups like this, offshoots of al Qaeda?
MR. EARNEST: He does not, and the reason for that is simple.
Q This is not a JV team, though, right, I mean, what we’re seeing in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: I think that there is an assessment underway to figure out exactly how significant of a threat they pose to the United States and our allies and interests not just in the region but around the world. There is no doubt that the determination of core al Qaeda that had a safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was determined to do terrible damage and perpetrate terrible violence against the American people and the United States. That made them a significant threat. The threat that is posed by these offshoot groups is a little different than that.
The question I think that remains to be seen is, what do we need to do to make sure that we stay on top of them, to monitor their actions, to monitor their capabilities to ensure that we stay ahead of them? And that is a very difficult challenge. It’s a challenge that this President and this administration has devoted significant resources to and it’s something that future Presidents will have to confront as well.
Let’s move around a little bit. J.C.
Q There’s a lot of discussion about mission creep and, historically, when you talk about special forces, a lot of people go back to Vietnam and the administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. However this plays itself out, Josh, is America going to be going alone or would they have the support of their allies, especially in Europe?
MR. EARNEST: This administration, the President, and Secretary Kerry, and others have been consulting intensively with our partners, both in the region and our allies around the world, as we confront this challenge. Secretary Kerry is traveling in the region -- has been traveling in the region this weekend and we’ll be spending some time this week talking to other world leaders about how the United States can coordinate with other countries to meet this threat.
So the United States and this administration remains committed to working in multilateral fashion with our partners and allies to confront this challenge. But there are certain capabilities that the United States possesses that will require international leadership, and the President is not at all shy about exercising that international influence and that international leadership where necessary to protect the interests of the United States of America.
Q May I just follow up?
MR. EARNEST: You may.
Q When the time comes, will you let us know who the President has been speaking to in terms of his allies, his friends?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Especially in Europe?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t commit to reading out every single phone call that the President makes to his counterparts in our allied countries, but I can do my best to try to keep you up to speed as he’s making these -- having these conversations.
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Lalit.
Q Thank you, Josh. Greetings on your first day.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q In Afghanistan, one of the presidential candidates has almost withdrawn and he is not cooperating in the election commission. By any chance, do you see this as an indication of mass fraud? How do you see the elections coming up, and his future impact on Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Say the last part again.
Q And his future impact on Afghanistan.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Well, this is something that we’re following pretty closely. The United States urges both sides to remain engaged with the electoral institutions and avoid violence. We would regret any moves to the contrary.
Allegations of improper behavior and credible complaints should be investigated through proper channels. There are established legal mechanisms for receiving, investigating, and adjudicating complaints, both in the provinces and in Kabul, with both commissions and at several stages in the process.
We call upon the electoral institutions to ensure that all allegations of fraud brought to them are given careful and impartial review and adjudication. In addition, dialogue between the candidates and the electoral bodies is essential, and we encourage direct discussions as soon as possible.
So there is a mechanism in place for the concerns that have been raised about the integrity of the election to be adjudicated. And we’re encouraging both sides, both the two candidates and those who are allied with one of the two candidates, to pursue a disposition of these concerns through the well-established order, as dictated by Afghan tradition and the Afghan constitution. That is the way for these disputes to be resolved. And the United States will continue to stand beside the Afghan people as they work through the democratic processes.
As I can personally attest, the democratic process is sometimes pretty messy. But the country will be well served by pursuing the concerns that have been raised through the established electoral institutions.
Q Josh, can I follow up on Jon’s question? You said that the protections offered by these diplomatic notes are adequate. In 2011, the same sort of executive agreement was deemed inadequate by U.S. government lawyers, and that any immunity for troops had to go through parliament in order to be deemed sufficient to guarantee immunity for American troops. So what’s the difference this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s different in a couple of ways. The first is that we’re dealing with an emergency situation. That’s the first part. And there is an urgent need for these advisers to be able to do their work on the ground in Iraq.
There’s also a difference between the small number of advisers we’re talking about -- 300 or so -- and the few thousand troops that had been -- American troops that had been contemplated in terms of continuing to be in Iraq and pursuing both a counterterrorism mission as well as a training mission.
So given those differences, both in size but also in the environment in which they’re operating, the assurances that we’ve received are sufficient in the mind of this administration and in the mind of the Commander-In-Chief to assure their security as they do their work.
Q In other words, there is a certain degree of risk involved, not having a parliamentary thing. But the risk is deemed worth it, given that it’s a smaller number and that we have no -- we have little choice, in his view, to send somebody quickly?
MR. EARNEST: I think I’d say that the risk is materially different because of the emergent situation that we’re facing, and because of the smaller number. I mean, the other part of it here that seems different is that we’ve gotten urgings and requests from the Maliki government to have these troops on the ground to assist them as they confront this threat. Obviously, the dynamic was significantly different in 2011, where the Maliki administration was resisting additional American troops in Iraq.
So that’s another difference there, too.
Q But Maliki did agree in 2011 to sign what he’s called an “executive agreement,” providing the same sort of immunity you’re talking about. But it was the U.S. side that decided that wasn’t sufficient; that the lawyers all thought that wasn’t strong enough; that under Iraqi law it had to go through parliament to actually be legal.
MR. EARNEST: Right. But, again, he was in a situation where he was responding to our -- sort of our stated policy of considering additional American troops being left behind there to conduct this counterterrorism and training mission. It’s a little bit different now, where you have the Maliki government coming to the Obama administration and saying that they would like to see American troops there. The fact that we’re also talking about a much smaller number I think is relevant as well.
Q I wanted to ask about paid family leave -- it was something that the President talked about in his weekend address, and said we’re one of only, like, three developed nations that don’t have it. But what we haven’t heard from you guys is both specifics on how the President would like to see that paid for, and -- or how long he thinks that a paid family leave program should offer its benefits, and how he would pay for that. So I’m wondering -- there’s been a suggestion that it would involve some sort of tax cut; it would be like a $20 billion program. So could you nail down for us like what your exact proposal for the paid family leave is, especially if it’s something that the President is touting both today and over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. Thank you for the question, Justin, this is an important issue that we -- that the President feels very strongly about, even based on his own personal experience with some of these issues as a working father who spent some time serving in the state legislature in Springfield and even as a senator here in Washington -- had a young family that he was separated from for different periods of time. And he was concerned about all of the strain that was added to his family because of his absence and because of the challenge of juggling his work responsibilities as well as his domestic responsibilities. And it’s something that Mrs. Obama is also acutely aware of. So this is an important issue. And I appreciate you bringing it up.
In terms of paid leave, which is just one aspect of the kinds of policy proposals that we’re talking about today, the goal of the summit has been to lift up some of these discussions. There are a number of policies that have been put in place at the state level to encourage companies and make it easier for companies to offer paid leave to their employees. The administration is supportive of those state-based efforts, and there are -- I understand there is even a component of our budget that was rolled out earlier this year that would fund, or at least help assist -- or at least assist these states as they provide these services to businesses.
What we’re also seeing -- and I mentioned this at the top -- that there are companies that are acting on their own to offer up these kinds of paid-leave policies to their employees. They don’t just do that out of charity; they recognize that it’s good business. They recognize that if they’re going to invest in their employees, if they’re going to be in a position where they are offering some assistance to their employees as they try to juggle the -- again, their obligations at home and their obligations at the workplace, that that’s going to inspire a lot of loyalty among those employees.
And what these companies have found is that there’s greater employee retention, there’s less turnover, and higher productivity among their workforce when they put in place these kinds of policies.
So my point is, is that there are a variety of solutions for confronting what is a pretty fundamental challenge for millions of American families out there. There have been solutions that have been offered up by a range of states. A number of companies, both large and small, have pursued some different options that are tailored to their employees’ needs.
So the reason that we have not put forward one specific plan is that there -- right now, there are a lot of different ways for addressing this problem. And what we want to do is we want to lift up the variety of these solutions and have a national conversation about how best to support working families as they do right by their families at home, but also continue to be highly productive workers that ensure the competitiveness of our broader economy.
Q I mean, just kind of reading between the lines there, you don’t believe that there needs to be a federal law that would establish paid family leave?
MR. EARNEST: No, we would certainly support a federal law. And I know that the goals of those proposals that have been floated are in line with the kinds of goals that the President himself holds for our economy as well.
And again, the only way in which the United States is unique on this front is that we’re essentially the only developed, modern economy that doesn’t have a paid-leave policy.
Q -- that type of proposal or policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what’s important is for us to have a discussion as a country about what our priorities are, and to have -- and to provide an opportunity for businesses, large and small, for workers and advocates for workers, and political leaders to have a discussion about the best way to address this challenge. And that’s exactly what’s happening today, and that’s a discussion that the President himself today is leading today.
Chris. Congratulations on your first day, Chris. It’s nice to see you here.
Q Thank you. You as well.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q But to Justin’s point -- it does seem -- and beyond paid leave, there are a lot of other issues that are being raised today at this summit, but they seem to be largely aspirational. And are there specific legislative proposals that are going to come out of this? Are there specific ideas that actually could make it through Congress that could change some of these policies that are so difficult for working families today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the one thing I’ll stipulate, Chris, is that just because they may have some difficulty getting through Congress doesn’t mean they’re not good ideas. There are a lot of good ideas that are being blocked in Congress right now.
As it relates to some of the policies that are being discussed today, the President has put forward his own proposal for raising the minimum wage all across the country. Right now, if you’re the head of a household of four people and you’re making minimum wage and working 40 hours a week, you’re trying to raise your family below the poverty line. That is not a good reflection of the kind of appropriate balance that we want for people who are working hard, trying to put food on the table for their families, to be able to try to strike. So the President has put forward his support for a federal minimum wage law.
We’ve talked a lot about STEM education -- again, this is science, technology, engineering and math -- and expanding STEM education in our public schools all across the country. Again, these are good-paying jobs that engineers and scientists and other people who have technological skills enjoy, and that by investing in STEM education we can make sure that our workforce is prepared to compete for and win when it comes to getting those jobs in the international marketplace. So there are some specific policies we’ve put forward there.
Let me just leave you with one last thing, which is they’re also going to talk quite a bit about childcare at the summit. And one thing that the President strongly supports is universal pre-K; that every child in America should have access to a high-quality pre-kindergarten program. There are a lot of Republican governors who support that idea but, again, for reasons that are difficult for me to explain, that’s also been blocked by Republicans in Congress.
Q When you look at something, though, like the minimum wage, and you see the movement in the direction the President would like to see is largely happening at a local -- a city or a state level, I guess the question becomes, what legitimately comes out of this summit? Does it become, for example, an issue in the election? Is it something that Democrats will run on in the fall? Is that the real hope here?
MR. EARNEST: I think the real hope here is to foster a conversation and to surface these ideas. These are -- some of these things that we’re talking about here are the kinds of things that people all across the country talk about at their kitchen table -- wondering how they’re going to take their kids to soccer practice; What are they going to do if a parent gets sick? How are they going to -- what are they going to do in their household if a woman is about to have a baby? How are they going to divide up their responsibilities? Is she going to get paid leave so that she can stay home and take care of that child in its first weeks of life?
So these are the kinds of discussions that are taking place all across the country at kitchen tables. The President wants to surface this discussion -- we should be having these conversations in Washington, D.C. And political leaders in both parties should be having these conversations. Leaders in business, both large businesses and small businesses, should be having these conversations. And that’s what we’re seeing today in the context of the summit. And, frankly, I’m heartened by the fact that I’ve gotten two reporters with solid political reputations asking about this discussion. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks very much. In Iraq, does the President believe that a new government and the 300 military advisers are enough and there is still time to do that? Or does he believe it will eventually come to some additional U.S. military action?
MR. EARNEST: This administration does believe that there is time for Iraq’s political leaders to make the necessary decisions that will unify the country to confront the terrorist threat, the extremist threat that they’re facing in Iraq right now.
Q Despite the actions over the weekend and the additional territory they’ve taken?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. What we would like to see is prompt action, as dictated by the Iraqi constitution, to form a government that is inclusive, that will pursue an inclusive political agenda. And by unifying the country, they can better confront the threat that’s posed by these extremists.
Q And on the Working Families Summit, in the interest of --
MR. EARNEST: Three in a row, Ann.
Q -- to protect family time, will your press office under your new management swear off of Sunday afternoon conference calls -- (laughter) -- where one reporter said she had to leave her child’s birthday party to do the conference call yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly is not the kind of consequence that we would like to see, but I guess I would -- without knowing the exact details of that situation, I might hazard a guess that that might be the responsibility of that person’s employer to make the kinds of arrangements that would allow that reporter to find someone --
Q That was not fair.
Q You will soon learn differently when you become a dad.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q You’ll soon learn differently when you become a dad.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I will.
Q And that reporter they’re talking about is right here. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Nakamura.
Q Josh, does the President and his top domestic advisors think that Kevin McCarthy supports comprehensive immigration reform?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the person that’s most likely to have some insight into that is Mr. McCarthy himself, so I think you should ask him.
Q Let me follow up. On Friday, I think, will be the one-year anniversary of the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill. The White House has -- it’s been well reported, the President has asked Jeh Johnson to sort of delay a public announcement of his findings on this enforcement review of immigration policies until after the summer to give House Republicans a final sort of window that you’re hoping to sort of do some sort of legislation and support immigration reform. We’re down to maybe four or five weeks left before they go on their August recess, and I’m wondering, how does the White House envision that looking? What would you like to see by the recess? A full comprehensive bill, completed in that short timeframe? Some smaller legislation introduced more in committees that look like it could provide a path? What are you looking for that you want to see before you end that window, maybe, and actually announce this review, the findings of the review?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a difficult thing to forecast, David, because it’s hard to know exactly what Congress is planning to do. Unfortunately, right now I think the early indications are not very good for a lot of progress on this front. This is -- as you point out, for a year, there has been a very clear template for House Republicans -- or for the House of Representatives to follow, but House Republicans at every turn have blocked any sort of progress that would track with the compromised proposal that was passed by the Senate.
That’s unfortunate for a variety of reasons. One, clearly, is the enormous economic benefits that would be enjoyed by the United States of America if comprehensive immigration reform were passed. Two, are the enormous benefits that the budget of the federal government would enjoy by significantly reducing our deficit if comprehensive immigration reform were to pass.
Three, there is broad agreement all across the country -- at least outside of Washington, D.C. -- that comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing to do for the country; that leaders of business, law enforcement, the labor movement, even faith communities have articulated their support for this compromised proposal that passed through the Senate.
So there’s a clear template for the House of Representatives to follow. House Democrats are on board with that template even though -- and it’s important to note -- even though everybody acknowledged on both sides in the Senate that they didn’t get every single thing that they wanted in that bill. But that’s the nature of compromise -- that there was enough in that compromised legislation for Democrats and Republicans to both support it. And what we would like to see is, we would like to see the House take action in pursuit of that compromise.
Q Luis Gutiérrez, one of the most vocal immigration supporters, as you know, has set July 4th as a deadline in his own mind for the House to take action, otherwise he thinks it’s over. And other advocates are saying, why does the White House keep waiting? If you’re going to announce some changes to immigration policy, do it now; you have people suffering from these policies, the President said he wants to make them more humane. Why not take action? When is the window ending? Do you feel like it’s time now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not prepared to lay out a specific deadline today, but let me say a couple of things about that. The first is, in the context of some of the high-stakes budget shenanigans we’ve seen over the last few years, we’ve seen, unfortunately to often around the holidays, that when House Republicans or the House of Representatives wants to act really quickly to pass something that the Senate has already passed, they can do it.
So I’m no expert when it comes to legislative maneuvering but, when necessary, Congress can act quickly. And I think what I would say is that when it is clear that a piece of legislation is in the best interest of the country, the House can act quickly. I think it is clear in this case that that is so.
You mentioned something else that I was going to try to comment on but I don’t remember what that was right now. I’ll probably come back to it.
Q I wanted to get an update on the internal reviews into the VA. There is an Office of Special Counsel report, as you know, that came out that found veterans languishing in VA psychiatric facilities; one veteran at one facility was waiting for eight years for comprehensive evaluation. What is the administration’s status update on the VA? And will the President be moving soon to tap a new permanent Secretary there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, as it relates to the letter, as the acting Secretary, Sloan Gibson, has said, we respect and welcome the letter and the insights from the Office of Special Counsel; that we’re concerned both about the substance of the allegations that were raised, but also concerned that there was a failure at the VA to be responsive to the whistleblower’s concerns. That is an indication that there are some -- there are, as we have said, some significant changes that -- and reforms that need to be made at the Veterans Administration.
So what I can tell you is that we’ve accepted the letter. The acting Secretary has indicated his support for the recommendations that were made by the Office of Special Counsel and is working to implement them. As for permanent leadership at the Veterans Administration, this continues to be a priority. The Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House, Rob Nabors, is still hard at work over at the VA, and there is an ongoing process to bring new leadership to the VA to implement some of these reforms and try to move forward in a way that makes us all feel confident that we’re living up to the commitment that’s been made to our nation’s veterans.
Q And getting back to ISIS to sort of follow up on Ann’s question -- she talked about the gains that are being made by the ISIL fighters on the border with Syria and Iraq. Obviously, it’s been a stated goal of that group to sort of erase that border and create more of a broader Islamic caliphate. Is that kind of outcome something that this administration, that this President would accept? Or does that start to get into the U.S. national security interest, the interest of the U.S. from a national security standpoint, to stop that from occurring?
MR. EARNEST: That kind of instability would not be in the national security interest of the United States because it would -- it obviously would significantly infringe on the nation of Iraq, and there’s a need for that country to come together to unite around an inclusive political agenda that would allow them to confront this threat.
That kind of instability is not good for any of our partners or allies in the region, and so it’s something that we’re concerned about. And that’s why we’re offering the support that we are to help the Iraqi government confront that threat.
Q And in talking about a unified Iraq, a number of times during this briefing, Josh, I just want to ask you -- because back in 2006, the Vice President talked about an idea of splitting Iraq into three parts, essentially -- Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite. Is that idea at all under consideration as something that could be a perhaps more viable solution to Iraq’s problems down the road?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, Jim, what we believe here is that it’s going to be the responsibility of the Iraqi people to come together to determine their future, and to determine what they want their government and their country to look like. So I’m not going to be in a position to offer a proposal for how they should draw up their map.
The most direct way for -- in the view of this administration -- for Iraq to confront the threat that they face from ISIL is to unite that country around a political agenda that gives every single citizen a stake in that country’s future and in that country’s success. And by uniting that country, that’s the way that they can really confront this threat.
And again, that is not just the view of this administration. I know that’s the view of some people inside Iraq, and it’s also the view of many people in the region.
Q And maybe it’s a difficult question, but I mean, does a united Iraq at this point make any sense going down the road as the borders are drawn now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again --
Q Maybe I already asked that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you sort of did.
Q But it is -- I mean, the cover of TIME Magazine: The End of Iraq. I mean, this is not a new concept.
MR. EARNEST: It’s not a new concept. But I think that we have also seen the danger of trying to impose solutions from the outside about what anyone thinks is in the best interest of the Iraqi people. It is the view of this administration that the best way for us to confront this challenge is to empower the Iraqi people to make the kinds of decisions that demonstrate their vested interest in the success of that country. And that starts by having political leadership, elected political leadership, that ensures that the rights and interests and aspirations of every Iraqi citizen is incorporated into their governing agenda. That’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to paper over that. But it is critical to the success of that country.
Q But what makes you so sure -- and the administration -- that would work, given that, A, given the fact that the Prime Minister has done nothing, so far, despite all of the importunings from Washington and elsewhere? And, B, even if there were to be an inclusive government in Iraq, you think that would satisfy ISIL -- which now controls enough of the country so that it may have its own plan -- why would they want to be included in an Iraqi government? I mean, I think isn’t it time to look beyond this for a more broader, a more inclusive fix?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I disagree with that for two reasons. The first is I don’t think -- frankly, I don’t think they’ve really tried it. I don’t think that we have seen the kind of effort that we would like to see from the current political leadership in Iraq.
Q But even if you did --
MR. EARNEST: So that’s why -- well, you’re sort of asking why would we even try, because they haven’t yet, would be the first thing.
The second thing is, I’m not contemplating --
Q No, I’m asking what reason there is to believe that it would work, given the gains already made by ISIL and ISIL’s known intentions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, they haven’t tried it yet so I’m not ready to sort of doom this effort to failure because they haven’t tried it. The truth is they’ve pursued a different path that has too often sort of lapsed back into sectarian agendas that marginalize large portions of the Iraqi population. That’s not the kind of governing agenda that’s going to unite the country to confront outside threats like those posed by ISIL.
Now, the second thing is, when I’m talking about unifying the country, I’m not talking -- and nobody in this administration is talking about incorporating ISIL into the governing structure of Iraq. What we’re contemplating here is uniting the country so that they can defeat ISIL; that the extremist -- that the violent extremists are obviously not going to play a conducive role to bringing that country together. They’re trying to tear it apart. And in order to keep that country together, in order to keep some measure of stability, the country needs to come together across sectarian divisions to confront that threat.
That’s in the best interests of Kurds, it’s in the best interest of Sunnis, it’s in the best interests of Shias. But, ultimately, it’s a decision that they have to make, it’s not a decision that can be imposed upon them from the outside.
Q Has the President called Maliki?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any telephone conversations to read out. I would point out that Secretary Kerry, I believe, had a conversation with him today.
Q How about el-Sisi? Has he called him about these sentences handed down?
MR. EARNEST: I think there was a week -- not since the sentences were handed down, but I do believe that we read out a phone call from the President and President el-Sisi a couple of weeks ago.
Q There’s another House committee hearing on the IRS’s tax exempt abuses, if you will. Given that the former head of the program and a half dozen others’ hard drives have gone missing or have been found damaged, on what do you base your comment last week that there’s not a lot more to be discovered here?
MR. EARNEST: I base it on the fact that there have been 13 months of multiple congressional investigations, including 15 congressional hearings, 30 interviews with IRS employees, 50 written congressional requests, 750,000 pages of documents, more than 67,000 emails from the IRS employee that’s attracted the most attention among Republicans -- and despite all of that, there is not a single shred of evidence to substantiate the Republican conspiracy theories that they continue to mysteriously talk about.
Q And yet, two years’ worth of emails have mysteriously gone missing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s not quite accurate, right? Twenty-four thousand of those emails have been produced to Congress. So as I think I’ve mentioned on a previous occasion, this administration has repeatedly worked to coordinate and cooperate with legitimate oversight, and I think in this case, even with some illegitimate oversight, with politically motivated oversight, from House Republicans.
There was an inspector general who conducted an investigation into this, and even he found and acknowledged that there was no evidence that they’ve been able to produce on this. There have even been some House Republicans who have previously acknowledged that no evidence to substantiate these conspiracy theories has been produced.
So that’s why I have implored House Republicans to devote even a portion of their passion for this issue into creating jobs and putting in place the kinds of policies that we know are going to support the private sector and make our country stronger, and expand economic opportunity for the middle class.
Q On another matter, the Center for Constitutional Rights today, having forced the release of the drone program’s foundation legal precedent, in any case, called that a gross -- I’m sorry -- they sharply criticized it. Based on the fact that it took a court order to get that out, what do you base the transparency claims of the administration on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we had a very robust discussion with the groups that were interested in seeing this memo. You know that many members of Congress have already had the opportunity to review it. For reasons I don’t think that you’ll find surprising, there was a lot of national -- sensitive national security information in that memo, and there were concerns about just releasing it.
But what the administration did was we worked through the legal system and those who were most interested in seeing it to produce a redacted document that protected national security interests while at the same time trying to live up to our commitment to transparency that the President has talked about quite a bit. So I think in this case, I think even the groups that sharply criticized us would call this a win for transparency.
Q Would the White House support a higher gasoline tax to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and pay for much-needed infrastructure improvements?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that’s something that we’ve said a couple of times that we wouldn’t support.
Q You would not?
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q Okay. And in a not-so-serious question, it seems as though the bear is on the loose again. The President walked with people to a Chipotle today, and --
MR. EARNEST: So when the President walks that qualifies as a loose bear?
Q I think so. (Laughter.) Well, he did call himself a loose bear a couple of times recently.
MR. EARNEST: He did. That’s true.
Q And I’m wondering, is he feeling constricted in the bubble? Is he trying to get energy from real people? Does he need sunlight? (Laughter.) Is there something more going on here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- “is there something more going on here” -- that’s an interesting way to ask that question. Here’s what I would say about this -- I think the President, like many of his predecessors, has talked about the challenge that’s posed by the presidential bubble; that one of the things that this President misses the most is the ability to walk down the street and talk to people. That’s particularly important to him because he is sitting in the Oval Office, right up that hallway, making the kinds of decisions that he knows have a substantial impact on the daily lives of Americans. And he is looking for as many opportunities as he can to try to get some access and some insight into what are the challenges that people are facing, and what are the -- what’s the impact of the solutions that he is trying to move forward.
So there are a variety of ways this happens. As you point out, the President likes to spend time walking down the street and shaking hands and talking to people, which he’s done on many occasions recently. The President gets 10 letters a night, as has been well chronicled, from the correspondence department here at the White House, where they give him a good cross section of the kind of correspondence that he’s receiving from people all across the country.
And all of this is part of an effort to give the President even greater insight into the reaction of the American people to the kinds of challenges that they’re facing in this country. I think the Working Families Summit is a great example of how we’re trying to surface the kinds of conversations that are happening at kitchen tables all across the country, and raise the profile of those discussions, and to have those discussions here in Washington, D.C., among the elected leadership that there’s a lot of evidence to indicate that people all across the country feel too detached from Washington, D.C.; that they’re concerned that the political leaders in this country are not focused on the things that they’re focused on.
But I can assure you that this President wakes up every morning determined to go to work to find the kinds of solutions to the challenges that are faced by middle-class families. That is something that has animated this President since he decided to run for President in the first place. It was the focal point of his domestic policy agenda when he took office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And even five and a half years into his presidency, he’s focused on combing through the list of policy proposals and implementing those that he feels would have the most beneficial impact on middle-class families all across the country.
So he’s eager to take advantage of every opportunity that he has to have conversations with people about those solutions.
Roger, I’m going to give you the last one.
Q Thank you. The Kremlin has put out a statement about a Putin-Obama call. What can you say?
MR. EARNEST: I did have something to say about that, so I’m glad you asked.
The President spoke to President Putin and once again urged him to support peace instead of allowing the provision of arms and materiel across the border and continuing support for militants and separatists who are further destabilizing the situation in Ukraine. Though we believe a diplomatic solution is still possible, Russia will face additional costs if we do not see concrete actions to deescalate the situation.
We’ll have a more formal readout of the call later, but it was an opportunity --
Q When did it take place?
MR. EARNEST: -- just earlier this morning. It was an opportunity for the President to reiterate some of the things that he has mentioned to President Putin in previous conversations that they had. They had the opportunity to visit a little bit when they were in Normandy two or three weeks ago, and they’d had a number of phone conversations leading up to that trip to talk about trying to bring some stability to the situation in Ukraine. And, again, the President reiterated that we would like to see Russia and President Putin personally use his influence to try to promote greater peace and stability in eastern Ukraine.
Let me just close by saying that we are very supportive of President Poroshenko and his efforts to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis. I’d note that he has offered to grant amnesty to separatists within Ukraine and to provide safe passage back to Russia, to Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. It’s clear that President Poroshenko is willing to go the extra mile here to try to resolve the situation and to restore some peace and security to the entire country that he governs. What we need is some cooperation with President Putin and the Russians to make that a reality.
Thanks very much, everybody. Have a good Monday.
Q That’s quite the showstopper.
Q Another buried nugget of news.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it took Roger’s nose for news to ask.
Q You said you didn’t have any calls to readout.
Q That’s not true.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q You got asked earlier.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, you don’t have to get all exercised about this.
Q Why not?
Q She’s not getting exercised.
Q That’s a reasonable question.
Q We asked you a question. You should answer the question.
MR. EARNEST: I did.
Q No, you didn’t. You said you had no calls to read out.
MR. EARNEST: Alexis, I was asked if the President had any conversations with world leaders about the situation of Iraq.
Q Oh, so maybe we should go around the map every day with you.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody.
Q Hey, Josh, did Carney leave you a note in the flak jacket?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll talk about it tomorrow.
1:42 P.M. EDT
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