Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/24/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Everybody seems deep in thought today. Got a couple of things I want to do here at the top before we get started, and then we’ll go to your questions.
The first is on a topic that you may not have previously been following but I wanted to raise with this group. Right now there are 48 nominees for ambassador that are pending, and 26 who are waiting on the floor and eligible for confirmation by the full Senate. The majority of those who are waiting are career Foreign Service officers.
These nominees have been waiting an average of 262 days, and these delays are simply unacceptable. It’s time Republicans in the Senate ended their obstruction and allowed these qualified individuals to do their important work protecting American interests around the world.
In fact, there are currently 70 -- seven-zero -- nominees to positions impacting our national security, including officials at the Department of Defense, the State Department and other foreign-focused agencies pending in the Senate. Unfortunately, because of partisan delays by Senate Republicans, these qualified nominees to critical national security posts have been forced to put their lives on hold and wait indefinitely to be confirmed.
We urge Republicans in the Senate to stop playing political games and let these individuals get to work on behalf of the American people. Fielding a full team abroad is not a partisan priority, it’s an American necessity.
And the second piece of news that I have this afternoon is that earlier this morning, the President placed a telephone call to Prime Minister David Cameron. The two leaders consulted principally on the current situation in Ukraine. They also had a brief discussion about the situation in Iraq. And we’ll have a more detailed readout of that telephone call later this afternoon.
So with that business out of the way, Darlene, do you want get us started?
Q Sure, thank you. Couple of questions on Ukraine. The Russian President said today that the ceasefire there should be extended, coupled with talks between the government and the rebels. I was wondering if the administration sees that as -- sees Putin as being genuine when he says that, or is this another situation where you see his words and actions there to be -- a disconnect between what he’s saying and what he does?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. We do, as we have in the past, welcome any Russian steps to end the crisis in Ukraine, including President Putin’s request to the Duma to revoke a resolution authorizing the use of Russian military forces in Ukraine. We also welcome the separatists’ acceptance of the ceasefire and call on them to abide by it. And we certainly are supportive of any comments from President Putin about the value of a ceasefire agreement.
That said, in the coming days, it’s words, not just actions -- I’m sorry -- it’s actions, not just words, that will be critical. And this is what the President conveyed to President Putin in their telephone call yesterday.
The United States remains concerned about the continued presence of Russian forces along the border and prepositioned heavy weaponry that we believe is intended for separatists. Moving these forces away from the border, ceasing support for separatists, and calling on separatists to continue to abide by the ceasefire and disarm would send a clear signal that Russia is interested in a diplomatic settlement resulting in stability in eastern Ukraine.
Again, there is an opportunity for President Putin and Russia to play a constructive role in de-escalating the situation in the eastern Ukraine. And the constructive role that they can play involves more than just words, it involves tangible actions. There’s an opportunity for President Putin to take these actions and support the de-escalation of the crisis.
Q And if he takes these actions, and if the rebels do enter into talks with the Ukrainian government, does the administration still see the need for additional sanctions against Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal of sanctions was to accomplish a couple of things. The first is to further isolate the Russians and to put pressure on them to take the kind of action that would be conducive to de-escalating tensions in the neighboring country of Ukraine.
Obviously, if we started to see a change in the behavior of the Russian government and we saw some concrete steps along the lines that we’ve been calling for, for some time -- ending support for the separatists, making sure that materiel and weapons wasn’t being provided to the separatists -- that that would be a positive development and it would make additional sanctions less likely.
But again, what we’re focused here on is not just the words of the Russian President, though we welcome them; what we’re focused on are the actions.
Q Josh, to follow up on yesterday’s question about the Ex-Im Bank, the Wall Street Journal reported about some potential corruption there. Is that something the White House is looking into and concerned about? And how are you advocating for this on the Hill with that now in the background?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll say two things about that. The first is I know that the Export-Import Bank has issued a statement saying that they have zero tolerance for waste, fraud and abuse. I can assure you that the President of the United States has zero tolerance for waste, fraud and abuse. I know that the Ex-Im Bank is working with the inspector general, and they take very seriously reports like these. For additional information about the status of that investigation or for any steps they may be taking over at Ex-Im, I’d refer you to the press office over there.
In terms of the Ex-Im Bank’s overall mission, however, I think the numbers speak for themselves -- that what we see at the Export-Import Bank is a tangible and important contribution to the U.S. economy. The President has spent a lot of time over the course of this year talking about expanding economic opportunity being the focal point of his domestic policy agenda. And the efforts of the folks at the Export-Import Bank to support American businesses as they seek to expand their businesses overseas is important. It makes a tangible contribution to our economy. It makes a tangible contribution to job creation.
Over the last five years, the bank has supported 1.2 million jobs in the United States across a range of sectors, including 200,000 jobs last year alone. There’s also important support provided by the Ex-Im Bank to American small businesses -- about 3,400 American small business transactions were supported by the Ex-Im Bank in 2013. So expanding and strengthening the U.S. economy is a top priority of the President’s, and he does not think that it would be a smart policy decision to start withdrawing support from those institutions that play such an important role in supporting our economy.
I would point out that President Reagan had some similar comments, had a similar view to this President back in 1986, when he signed legislation extending the life of the Ex-Im Bank. I’d also point out that there are a couple of other individuals who are not well known as Obama supporters, who have articulated their strong support for the mission of the Ex-Im Bank and have encouraged Congress to take bipartisan action to reauthorize it.
Let me just read a short quote here from Tom Donohue, who is the President and CEO of the United States Chamber of Commerce, and Jay Timmons, who’s the President and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. They said, “If Ex-Im is not reauthorized, products of all shapes and sizes, from planes to medical equipment, will still be purchased overseas. They just will not be produced in the U.S. [and not] by American workers.”
So the stakes here are pretty high. There is bipartisan agreement that there is a tangible contribution that Ex-Im is making to the American economy and to American job creation. And there is bipartisan agreement that it needs to be reauthorized. And we are hopeful that Congress will do what they’ve done many times in the past, and that is support the reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank in bipartisan fashion.
Q Does it make it harder to press for that when you’ve got reports about fraud?
MR. EARNEST: I think the short answer to that is no -- simply because, as I mentioned earlier, the numbers speak for themselves. The tangible impact that the Ex-Im Bank has on our economy and job creation is reason enough for Congress to act in bipartisan fashion, again, as they have many times, to reauthorize the bank.
Q All right. And one other topic. Senior White House and administration officials are meeting tomorrow with Tom Steyer, among others, about a climate change report. Do you have any misgivings about bringing in a very top and influential political donor to the White House? And do you think that the Keystone pipeline will come up during those conversations?
MR. EARNEST: I have no misgivings about the individuals who are participating in that meeting. Their political activities notwithstanding, the administration is committed to making progress in addressing the causes of climate change and reducing carbon pollution. That’s something that Mr. Steyer has obviously well-known views on, but there are a lot of other people with well-known views on this that the White House is consulting.
I’d point out that --
Q Not worth billions of dollars, though, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of insurance executives who are here to talk to White House staff today about this very topic. I would anticipate that many of them -- although I don’t know this personally -- I would assume that many of them have a pretty active political interest, and I would assume that many of their political interests may not align perfectly with the administration’s agenda.
So the point is we’re talking to people from a variety of political perspectives. I think the thing that they have in common is they’re concerned that failure to address the causes of climate change and the failure to take tangible steps to reduce carbon pollution would have a terrible impact on our country and a terrible impact on our economy. Again, that is something that is -- that is a view that’s held by Democrats and Republicans alike, and this administration is willing to work with Democrats and Republicans alike to try to make progress on those goals.
Let’s move around the room a little bit. Cheryl.
Q Thanks. Following on climate change, though, yesterday the Supreme Court dealt the EPA a setback on regulations. What new actions is this administration proposing or thinking about in terms of climate change?
MR. EARNEST: Cheryl, I have to say that I don’t think I agree with that analysis. And I think that Chief Justice -- not Chief Justice -- I just gave him a promotion -- Justice Scalia articulated this a little bit differently. I had the quote in my book here yesterday. But he basically made the point that over the course of the case the EPA was sort of discussing their authority to regulate -- 86 percent of their regulatory authority was in question before the Court, and 83 percent of that regulatory authority was upheld by the Court.
So we actually see this as a pretty good ratification of the authority that’s vested in the EPA to take the kinds of commonsense steps that are clearly in the best interest of our country and that are clearly in the best interest of our economy. The President has talked about this at length. And I think because he has identified this as a priority for his second term, you can anticipate that he’s going to continue to be pushing members of his administration to take the necessary action to prepare our country for the consequences of climate change.
It is the view of this administration, and certainly the view of the President, that that can be done in a way that’s actually good for the economy. And what we’d be doing is focusing on those areas where we can both make our country more resilient, where we can reduce carbon pollution, but also strengthen our economy and look for opportunities to capitalize on growth industries. There are countries around the globe that are going to be grappling with the effects of climate change, and there’s an opportunity for our country to play a leading role in terms of capitalizing on new industries related to improved efficiency, but also related to renewable energy.
Q Did the President ask President Putin yesterday to seek this revocation of the Duma’s authority to go to Ukraine as part of the steps he wants to see for the situation to be de-escalated?
MR. EARNEST: Stephen, I’m not in a position to offer you a more specific readout of that telephone conversation than you’ve already seen. But we’ve been pretty candid I think over the last several weeks about the concrete steps that we would like to see President Putin take to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine.
We welcome the step that was taken as it relates to the Duma today. But there are some additional concrete steps that we would like to see them take as it relates to pulling forces from the border, moving some of that heavy weaponry away so that it can’t be transferred into the hands of separatists. There are some tangible steps -- and while we welcome those words and those symbolic measures that are taken, what we’re most focused on right now are concrete steps that Russia can take to support the ceasefire agreement.
Q The State Department yesterday said there were some tanks that appear to be getting ready to be moved across the border into eastern Ukraine. Today, there was a helicopter shot down by rebels, killing a number of Ukrainian soldiers. Does that sort of indicate to the White House that perhaps this may be more window dressing than actual progress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that is why we are reserving judgment and trying to make clear that the proper way to evaluate the posture that’s adopted by President Putin is to closely examine the actions that are taken by the Russians and the Russian military.
We welcome the positive words, but what’s critical right now are the actions that are taken by the Russian government to de-escalate the situation. And that involves moving some of that heavy weaponry that you’ve referenced, Stephen, and making sure that some of that materiel is not transferred into the hands of separatists so that they can perpetrate additional violence like shooting down helicopters.
Q Thank you, Mr. Earnest. When Secretary Kerry was recently in Cairo, he indicated nothing to worry about -- the Apache helicopters that the Egyptians want, they’re on the way. The Secretary has certified that Egypt is moving towards democracy, freeing up some $570 million in aid that was held in advance. The $1.5 billion that they get every year appears to be going forward. What leverage -- is it all’s well that ends well with Egypt? I mean, what leverage does the administration have when they’re trying to -- when you are trying to move Egypt towards, for example, freeing jailed journalists and other impingements on democracy within Egypt?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. There’s one aspect of your question that I do want to clarify for you, though.
When we announced earlier this year the resumption of some assistance to Egypt, it was predicated on the certification of two things. The first is that Egypt was sustaining their strategic relationship with the United States, and that Egypt was fulfilling the obligations under the treaty that Egypt has with Israel. And by certifying those two things, that allowed assistance to be reinstated to a couple of things. The first is -- and it’s about $572 million in assistance. Those are directed toward two things. One is support that benefits directly the Egyptian people. So these are humanitarian items like health and education support, and private-sector development.
The second area of support that that reinstated was security assistance that’s related to the United States core national security interest. So this included assistance to the Egyptian military to assist them in securing Egypt’s borders, supporting ongoing counterterrorism and anti-proliferation efforts, and helping them to ensure security more broadly in the Sinai Peninsula.
Q So what’s left of the whole deck?
MR. EARNEST: Good question. There is additional assistance that remains on hold because Egypt has yet to meet the requirements for reinstatement, including taking steps to ensure a democratic transition.
So in your question you noted that Secretary Kerry had certified, according to congressional requirements, that Egypt had met the standard as it relates to fulfilling basic principles of democracy. The Secretary has not certified to that standard, and that is why there is some assistance that has been withheld.
So the question then is, what would we like to see the Egyptian government do. And, quite frankly, it’s directly related to those principles of democracy that we referred to earlier. Unfortunately, recent developments indicate that Egypt has not taken the kinds of steps that we would like to see toward adopting widely accepted principles of respect for basic human rights and other democratic principles that we hold dear in this country.
But as we continue to evaluate the ongoing situation in Egypt and what impact that should have on the assistance that’s provided to Egypt, we’ll continue to consult closely with Congress.
Q Since you brought up ambassadors, I just wanted to get you to respond to the charge that’s come from Capitol Hill that the reason there’s been delays has been that the administration has kind of forwarded political donors as nominees at a pace that exceeds both the Clinton and Bush administrations. And we’ve also seen kind of lackluster performances by people like the ambassador nominee to Norway, George Tsunis, that people like Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have asked you guys to pull back. So I’m wondering -- you kind of blame Republican obstructionism. The rebuttal is, of course, that you’re sending up unqualified political nominees, and how you kind of grapple with that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say several things about that. First of all, of the 26 who are pending on the Senate floor right now, 16 of them are career Foreign Service officers. So the objections that you’ve raised don’t explain their obstruction to those 16 career Foreign Service officers.
In terms of the other nominees that the President has appointed to these positions, we’ve got full confidence in their ability to do these jobs. I think it is short-sighted to automatically rule out nominees that aren’t career Foreign Service officers. If that were the case, that means that Caroline Kennedy would not be serving as the ambassador to Japan. I think most people, even some Republicans, would agree that she’s doing a pretty good job over there.
The President has also appointed people like Jon Huntsman, the former Republican Governor of Utah, to an important ambassador post in China. Again, he is not a career Foreign Service officer. But, again, Democrats and Republicans would agree that he did an able job of representing our country’s interests in China.
Q Thanks, Josh. In 2011, when the President said that the U.S. was leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, was his assessment wrong at the time of what the situation was on the ground, or was he perhaps sugarcoating the situation on the ground because he wasn’t able to leave that residual force?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think what’s happened over the course of the last three years is we’ve seen the circumstances on the ground change; that so much of the sacrifice that was made principally by American servicemen and women in uniform was to create an opportunity for the Iraqi people to seize a democratic future. And what we have seen is leadership, political leadership in Iraq that has not done a very good job of capitalizing on that opportunity and unifying that country around an inclusive governing agenda.
So that’s why we’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years urging Prime Minister Maliki and other political leaders in Iraq to pursue a more inclusive agenda. To confront the existential threat that’s posed by ISIL, the nation of Iraq needs to be unified. And there needs to be a sense among every citizen in Iraq -- including those in the Shia community and the Sunni community and the Kurd community -- feeling of an investment in the success and stability of that country that the responsibility for unifying that country starts at the top. And that’s why this administration will continue to support political leaders in Iraq who are seeking to build an inclusive political agenda in that country.
Q With regards to those comments, would the President like to revise or extend them? I mean, was he wrong about the stability of that country if it didn’t last even two and a half years, or if these political problems existed even a couple years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Zeke, I think that anybody who has been looking at this situation would acknowledge that the circumstances on the ground have changed, and the necessary steps that are required by the Iraqi political leadership have not been taken to confront those changes. And that poses a very severe challenge to the nation of Iraq. And it’s going to require all of the political leaders of the various communities of Iraq coming together, putting the interest of that unified country first to confront that threat. It is still an open question about whether or not the political leadership of that country is going to choose that path. But the future of a unified Iraq depends upon it.
Q And just to follow up on Jim’s question yesterday -- is it acceptable for the Obama administration, for any sort of partition to be at the outcome of this reconciliation process, if there is one politically, or even if it is the White House insisting on a unified Iraq as the outcome here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is clearly the policy of this administration and this country that a unified Iraq is the one that is in the best position to confront this existential threat from ISIL.
Q But is the alternative acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this will have to be a decision that’s made by the Iraqi people, but it is the clear policy of this country that we feel like the best way to confront this threat is through a unified Iraq. That is going to require an investment in a political agenda that gives every Iraqi a stake in that country’s future and that country’s prosperity. It’s also going to require an investment in security forces that reflects that diversity of the country.
Again, that security force will be stronger if it reflects the diversity of the country -- again, because if the security force is put in place to defend the security of everybody in that country, that they’re going to need a security force that’s composed of individuals from the various communities of that country. And so those are the kinds of investments that this administration has been pushing Iraq’s political leadership to invoke.
Q Secretary Kerry said this morning that to have a U.S. aircraft bomb in Iraq before the formation of a new government would be completely wasted. Yesterday, he said that the administration would not have to wait for a new government in order to strike. What has changed? Is it now a precondition of U.S. help from the air that there be a new Iraqi government?
MR. EARNEST: I think there was a -- the context in which he made those comments was important. What Secretary Kerry was talking about is something that I referred to yesterday. Somebody asked if the President was willing to sort of keep open the option on the table to consider military action in Syria to confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL. What this President has made clear is a willingness to act unilaterally anywhere in the world to protect our national security interests. That is something that is true in places like Yemen, in Somalia, even in --
Q Specifically about Iraq.
MR. EARNEST: Right. But even most recently in Libya. So when it comes to protecting our core national security interests, the President is willing to use the strongest, most powerful military in the history of the world to protect our national security interests.
Now, separately is a different question, which is a question that’s related to -- is the President willing to use American military might to stabilize the security situation in Iraq to provide a little room for the Iraqi political leadership to get their act together?
And what we’ve been very clear about, and what the President himself was very clear about when he spoke in front of the helicopter 10 days ago was that to take any sort of direct military action along those lines in pursuit of that goal, we would need to see a clear commitment from Iraq’s political leaders to the pursuit of an inclusive governing agenda. Because again --
Q Does that mean it has to be a newcomer?
MR. EARNEST: Because, again, the success of this situation, the successful confrontation of the threat that’s posed by ISIL will require a unified Iraq, and that’s going to require a government that is pursuing an inclusive governing agenda.
Q So you’re basically saying that what Secretary Kerry said this morning is correct -- that there wouldn’t be U.S. airstrikes before there’s a new government in Iraq.
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that the President, when he talked about this 10 days ago, was very clear about what criteria he will use in making decisions about the use of our military to protect our national security interests and to support efforts to form and build an inclusive Iraqi government.
Q So you’re not endorsing what Secretary Kerry said.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I’m trying to do is be very clear about what our position is and what the policy as articulated by the President is. And I don’t -- I’m not sure that Secretary -- in fact, I’m confident that Secretary Kerry’s comments don’t differ from that at all.
Q And just to briefly follow up on Zeke’s question about the comments in 2011, I’d like to focus on what the President said just this past November when Maliki was here. In the Oval Office, the President praised Maliki for taking steps in this commitment to “ensuring a strong, prosperous, inclusive and democratic Iraq,” and spoke about how he had done much to bring together the Sunnis, the Kurdish and Shia. Did the President misjudge Maliki? I mean, that was not -- this was just November.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t looked at the exact comments from the President at that time. I think the President’s goal in those comments was to encourage the pursuit of a governing agenda that reflects the diversity of the country. That was the goal of the President’s comments when they were sitting in the Oval Office, and that’s the goal of the comments expressed by other senior administration officials in terms of encouraging Iraq’s political leadership to pursue the kind of agenda and governing style that reflects the diversity of that country.
Q And can I ask you -- again, just to follow up on questions you had last week about the flow of children coming over the border with Mexico. You were asked, and a number of other officials across the administration have been asked, how many of those that have been caught have been released with a promise to appeal -- you know, appear back in court? And you didn’t have that number then; I’m wondering do you have that number now.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have that number in front of me, Jon.
Q And why don’t you have that number? It’s been asked everywhere. And it’s a number the administration has, right? It’s not that you don’t have it, it’s that you don’t want to release it, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have it actually, Jon. DHS may have it. But let me just stipulate something: Without knowing what that number is and without having seen it, I think we can all stipulate that that number is too high. And that’s why you have seen an investment -- a surge, in fact -- of resources by this administration to try to address what is a large and growing problem along our southern border.
That’s why the -- we’ve seen an investment of additional judges and asylum officers and ICE attorneys deployed to try to more efficiently and rapidly process these cases. And where necessary, we’re opening up additional facilities where adults and adults that are traveling with children can be detained. In conjunction with the opening of those detention facilities are, again, additional ICE officers and immigration judges who can process these cases quickly, so that if it is determined that these individuals should be removed, that they will be removed promptly as well.
Q In the interest of transparency, can you get that number for us? People have been asking for quite some time.
MR. EARNEST: I understand -- I think your interest in this is understandable. I don’t have the numbers, but I will stipulate that the number is larger than any of us in this room would like to see. And what we’re focused on is dealing with what is a number that is too big.
Q And in terms of the reason for the flow, Cecilia Muñoz said that it was increasing violence in Central America. But today, Jeh Johnson was asked if there had been any measurable increase in violence in Central America in the last two years, and he said he couldn’t say there was. So are you still saying that that is the reason? Or is the reason, as you had suggested last week, what you called a “disinformation campaign” by smugglers who say that they can -- the children are fine, once they get here they have permission to be here?
MR. EARNEST: I think I’d make the case to you that those things aren’t mutually exclusive; that there are a lot of people who are trapped in terrible violent situations in Central America, and therefore are a little desperate to try to get out of that situation, or desperate about the safety of their children. And so it makes them easy targets for criminal syndicates and other individuals with bad intentions to propagate misinformation that gives them false hope about what kind of sanctuary they can receive in the United States.
The fact of the matter is, people who appear at the southern border expecting to be taken in are mistaken.
Q But are they mistaken? I mean, it’s not U.S. policy to send these children back, is it?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q So we’re deporting these children, unaccompanied children back to Central America?
MR. EARNEST: The policy is complicated. If the children are from Mexico, yes, that’s exactly what happens.
Q Central America, we’re talking, is most of this flow, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly some of the flow, but you asked me about children who show up at the southern border unaccompanied. Yes, some of them are immediately returned. Others are detained and returned. So they go through the immigration process just like everyone else. But there are professional accommodations that are required when we’re talking about children who show up at the southern border without an adult, without a parent nearby.
So there is a process that we put in place. FEMA is coordinating the response to this effort to make sure that resources that are marshalled from DHS and HHS are in place to handle the situation, what at its root is a humanitarian situation, but also in a way that is in strict compliance with the law. This administration has demonstrated its commitment to enforcing the law, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Q And I suppose you don’t have that number of how many have been deported back to Central America.
MR. EARNEST: I do not have that number. Again, I would stipulate that that number as well is higher than we would like to see, and that’s why you’re seeing sort of a stepped-up deployment of resources to deal with it.
Q I’d like to jump to the IRS. The Commissioner, John Koskinen, he’s been testifying up on Capitol Hill. And one thing that he testified I wanted to ask you about. He said that he didn’t know about the lost emails of Lois Lerner until April. But then, of course, the IRS did not inform Congress until June. Is that an acceptable level of transparency, do you think -- two months that the Commissioner of the IRS knew about these lost emails, but yet Congress wasn’t told until June?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I can’t account for that timeline, so I’d encourage you to direct that question to the IRS. I guess the one thing that does seem obvious --
Q No, what I’m asking is whether that is acceptable to this White House, for two months to go by.
MR. EARNEST: I think there’s a question that’s begged though by your construction, which is what would Congress have done had they known about it in April or May or whenever the Commissioner first learned about it. The fact of the matter is that there’s not anything that is tangibly different about this situation right now. So this administration --
Q If there’s no harm in releasing the information, why wasn’t that information passed along?
MR. EARNEST: Well again, Jim, as I mentioned, you should check with the IRS about this. But the fact of the matter is our commitment to cooperating with legitimate congressional oversight -- and in some cases, illegitimate congressional oversight -- is pretty well documented. But I’ll go through it again, because it’s pretty entertaining.
Q Are you saying Darrell Issa’s oversight is illegitimate here?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that there are legitimate questions that can be raised about the partisan motivation of some of those who are conducting oversight in this circumstance. The fact of the matter is there have been 17 congressional hearings into this matter -- two in the last 17 hours and three in the last 24 hours. So they’ve had as many congressional investigations into this in the last 24 hours as I’ve had meals. That seems like a lot. Thirty interviews with IRS employees, 50 written congressional requests, 750,000 pages of documents. After all of that, after three long congressional hearings in the last 24 hours, zero -- that’s the other key number here, zero -- zero evidence to substantiate any of the partisan Republican claims about this matter.
Q The problem here though, Josh, is that you have a key figure in this controversy --
MR. EARNEST: I think you and I might have different ideas about what the problem is.
Q But the problem is --
MR. EARNEST: Because I think the problem is that despite all of this, we have seen an unwillingness --
Q Right, but doesn’t that sound like the dog ate my homework? When you have two years of missing emails, it just -- on the face of it, it doesn’t sound credible.
MR. EARNEST: I guess if you listen solely to the arguments that are offered up by Republicans, you might have reason to question their credibility. I agree with that. Because the fact of the matter is that, despite the failure of the hard drive, as has been well-chronicled, the fact of the matter is 24,000 emails from that time period have been reconstructed and produced to Congress, again, because of our commitment to cooperating with congressional oversight in this matter. That’s what we’ve been focused on.
So, again, I understand why your eyebrows are raised when you see Republicans on Capitol Hill suggesting that there are two years of missing emails. It’s not true. A large chunk of those emails have already been provided to Republicans in Congress. So when they say that, it is an indication I think that they’re becoming increasingly desperate to try to substantiate the conspiracy theories that they’ve been propagating for some time now.
But again, the key number here is zero -- zero evidence to support the claims that are made by Republicans in this matter.
Q And the President is comfortable with the level of disclosure and --
MR. EARNEST: Again, for all the reasons that I cited -- 13 months of congressional hearings, 17 including three in the last 24 hours. I think that our record of cooperation on this is probably something you’re tired of hearing about right now. But again, it’s so long --
Q I’m just asking the question -- but the White House is also comfortable with the people at TIGTA looking into the missing emails? Do you think that’s appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think TIGTA is the inspector general and they’re independent. So I wouldn’t render a judgment on their activities, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to. And they’re independent.
Q I just want to follow up on Jon’s questions about immigration. The Associated Press today reported that the Homeland Security Department and the White House have -- and I quote from the story -- so far dodged the answer to the question about how many minors have received notices to appear and actually showed up, and “so far dodged the answer on at least seven occasions over two weeks, alternately saying they did not know the figure or did not have it immediately at hand.” The Associated Press concludes from that in this story, “This is how it looks when the image-conscious Obama administration doesn’t want to reveal politically sensitive information that could influence an important policy debate.” How would you respond to that? Is that accurate, that you’re concerned those numbers would inflame the situation at a time you’re trying to get immigration reform going?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would indicate, David, is that we would stipulate to the fact that the numbers that you’re seeking are higher than anyone would like them to be. And so the real question for this administration, and I think before the American people when they consider the reaction of their government, is what are they doing about numbers that are bigger than they should be? And in this case, we have taken a number of steps to surge resources to try to address this problem, both in a way that reflects the humanitarian situation that is having a negative effect on some otherwise innocent children, but also in a way that reflects our nation’s commitment to being a nations of laws.
This administration is committed to enforcing the law, and that’s why you’ve seen the steps taken that we have. I think the one additional thing here that’s also important to recognize is we’re also taking some additional steps to try to address this problem at its root. The Vice President took a trip to Central America and met with leaders of Central American countries just last week to make sure that those countries, the leaders of those countries were doing the things that were required of them to safeguard their population.
The Vice President also announced on that trip some additional steps that the United States could take to support those countries as they try to reduce the violence and address other measures related to citizen security, but also to make sure that people are aware of the facts. And that fact is that showing up unannounced at the southern border with the United States will not gain you legal entry into this country.
Q If I could just follow up on one thing. It looks like Speaker Boehner’s office has announced a working group of seven Republicans to inform, what he says, inform House leadership about this situation on the border because “the President has failed to take the necessary steps to address the crisis.” Is that an appropriate response by House Republicans because the White House would like to seem real engaged in this? Or do you worry that this kind of working group with seven Republicans would potentially complicate U.S. response by politicizing it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure where that announcement was made. Your mention of it is the first I’ve heard of it, so I wouldn’t pass judgment on it from here without having reviewed it more carefully.
If there are Republicans who do want to play a constructive role in addressing what is a complicated and difficult policy challenge, we certainly would welcome their constructive contributions to those efforts.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Thank you. On the review that Jeh Johnson was doing before the delay that the President requested, is he continuing -- was it his plan to continue doing that review over the summer? And if so, has this gotten -- has this interrupted the review that he was doing of humane practices and deportation roles?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that that review is still ongoing, but I would encourage you to check with the Department of Homeland Security for an update. I don’t know if they’ll be able to provide you with one, but they’d be in a better position to do so than I am.
Q And can you also say if the White House has seen any signs that Republicans are using the window of opportunity that the President was hoping they would do -- would maybe do this summer?
MR. EARNEST: Sadly, no. Alexis.
Q I want to go back to Bill’s question just to clarify on Iraq. In terms of the trigger -- what would trigger potential air strikes -- I didn’t quite understand the President when he was speaking to say that he was segregating the two things -- a long-term, more inclusive government and the potential to try to deal with the crisis with air strikes. So can I just clarify -- is the President saying that he would not use them under any circumstances unless the Iraqi government moves forward and shows some signs? Or would he use them to defend Baghdad or to defend the embassy? It wasn’t my understanding that that’s what he was trying to convey.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to be in a position to sort of prejudge what he may or may not conclude. I would encourage you to go back and take a look at his comments that he delivered, I guess it was a week ago Friday. I think that he was pretty clear in suggesting that there is not going to be a military solution to the instability that we see in Iraq right now. What’s going to be required is a political solution that unites the country to face a threat that’s posed by ISIL. And what may assist that effort is military support from the United States that would stabilize the security situation and give that government a little bit more room to act and unify the country.
But what the President I think was pretty clear about is his view that because political action will be required in terms of unifying the country, we’ll need to see a commitment along those lines before a decision is made about direct military action or other increases in our support for that government.
Q So is it too much to say it’s conditional -- the President has conveyed to the Iraq government it’s conditional because they have obviously made a formal request for military intervention, air strikes? Is that going too far to say that the President has conveyed to them it’s conditional?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to read out any sort of detail -- in a detailed manner any private conversations that this administration has had with our counterparts in Iraq. But again, I would encourage you to take a look at the President’s remarks from a week ago Friday, and I think he was pretty specific about what he had in mind.
Q Josh, you mentioned the stepped-up deployment of resources to the border. Could that at any point include National Guard troops, as some of the Republicans have been calling for, including in today’s hearing with Secretary Johnson?
MR. EARNEST: If I said that, I may have been a little imprecise. I think what I was trying to suggest is that resources had been mobilized to deal with the problem at the border. In some cases, these detention centers are being opened up in other communities a little bit away from the border, but they’re all rooted in trying to deal with the problem at the border.
Q What are the prospects for the National Guard becoming involved in this?
MR. EARNEST: The President has made a historic commitment to deploying resources to secure our border. That is both in the form of technology and in the form of personnel. And I think one thing that’s particularly ironic among some Republicans on Capitol Hill who are suggesting that additional resources should be deployed to the border -- in many cases, those are the same congressional Republicans who are blocking commonsense immigration reform legislation passed by the Senate that -- wait for it -- included a historic commitment of resources to the United States border.
So if we really wanted to solve this problem, one good way to do it would be for those Republicans to get on board and do what so many Republicans did in the United States Senate, which is support commonsense immigration reform that wouldn’t just secure our border, but would actually do good things for our economy, would reduce the deficit, and finally deal with an immigration system that everyone agrees is broken.
Q So you’re ruling out the use of the National Guard in this immediate crisis?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that there has already been a historic commitment of resources to the border, and if there are Republicans in Congress who are focused on increasing resources along the border, that they should jump on board the bandwagon and support the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
Q Thank you. According to a video that the White House has posted online, the President is going to travel around this summer and start visiting some of the people who have written him. Is this because he doesn’t think he really understands what’s going on in people’s lives? (Laughter.) Or is he just going a little stir crazy in his last couple of years in Washington?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ann, one of the things -- I think somebody asked me -- Tamara, I think you may have asked me a little bit about this yesterday --
Q I might have.
MR. EARNEST: -- as I recall. One of the things that the President believes is important is making sure that he is paying careful attention to the way that people all across the country are dealing with so many of the challenges that are facing working families right now. That’s one of the reasons that the White House hosted the first-ever Working Families Summit here in Washington.
But the President is also interested in getting outside of Washington, D.C. and spending time with Americans in their day-to-day routines, and talking to them about the challenges that are confronting their family, their small business or their communities more broadly.
And so this is one way for the President to break out of that presidential bubble that so many other Presidents have talked about.
Q Is he going to go to their homes? Go with them to the office?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more details about the President’s activities on Thursday. But it’s something that --
Q This isn’t a one-time thing? He’s going to do this repeatedly?
MR. EARNEST: That’s right. That’s right. And I think that the President’s efforts to spend time walking in the shoes of average Americans will take some different forms.
In the case of the Minnesota trip here, though, I think there is some -- let’s see, I thought I had some more information -- he’s going to do a town hall meeting, and he’s going to spend some time meeting with Rebecca’s family. Rebecca is the woman from Minnesota who had written the President that letter.
So this will be an opportunity for him to talk to Rebecca, to talk to her family, to talk to people in her community about the range of challenges that they’re facing. And this will hopefully be an opportunity for the President to get some additional insight into the challenges that those families are confronting on a regular basis, but also get some insight into how those families are benefitting from some of the policies, or would benefit from some of the policies that the President and his administration have proposed.
Let me move around a little bit. Jared.
Q Josh, talking about the diplomatic note -- I mean, assurances that the President got from the Iraqi government, is the bar for assurance lower because the United States government is unsure what state the Iraqi government might be in if and when they ever need to prosecute American troops?
MR. EARNEST: Let me pull this up here. Jared, the President has made clear that we need to address the status of any military personnel sent into Iraq in response to the Iraqi government’s request for assistance to address the crisis.
So Iraq has provided the exchange of 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 the country before the crisis. And we believe, the President believes that those protections are adequate to the short-term assessment and adviser mission that our troops will be performing.
Q So the fact that there's a lower bar is only because of the size and scope of the mission?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we’re seeing now is a situation that’s different in character and in kind than we saw in 2011. And those differences are that we’re dealing with a rather urgent situation when it comes to the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
The number of military personnel that we’re talking about is on a much smaller scale. It’s a small number of advisers that we’re discussing here. There’s been a clear request from the Iraqi government, and as a result of that dynamic, those three things -- the emergency situation, the small number of advisers and the request from the Iraqi government -- we’ve received the appropriate assurances from them.
Q And when we’re talking about responses to the emergency, we’ve seen Secretary Kerry there, we’ve seen other reaching out. Would a leader-to-leader call at this point give too much credibility to a Maliki government that might not be there much longer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to speculate on any calls that the President hasn’t made at this point, but we’ll keep you updated as best we can on calls.
Q I’m asking -- it’s actually about the optics. So whether or not they’ve been made or not is irrelevant to whether or not they’re being talked about and whether you’ve shown them. That’s what’s the question. So the fact that we haven’t heard about them is substantive for the question.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, then maybe I don’t understand the question.
Q If you aren’t showing us the calls, is it because you don’t want us to know that the President is talking with a leader who might not be around?
MR. EARNEST: I see. That’s a clever way of asking the question. Why don’t I just say this: I’m not aware of any conversations that have taken place in recent days from the President and Prime Minister Maliki. But there have been a number of -- at least two that I can recall at the top of my head here -- from the Vice President to Prime Minister Maliki in the last few days.
Let’s see -- Luis.
Q On the case of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to hang for apostasy -- she was released, but then we have reports that she and her family were arrested at the airport while trying to leave the country. That family includes her husband, who is a U.S. citizen, and there are reports that they were trying to head to the United States. Is the administration following this case, and is it concerned about it?
MR. EARNEST: The administration is following the case quite closely. In fact, just Secretary Kerry himself said just yesterday that we welcome the decision by the Sudanese appeals court to order her release.
This case has rightly drawn the attention of the world and has been of deep concern to this administration and to people all across the globe. We’ve seen the troubling reports of her re-arrest, but are not in a position to confirm them at this point. We urge the government of Sudan in the strongest terms to ensure her freedom and, more broadly, to respect its citizens’ inherent right to the freedom of religion.
Q Thank you, Josh. I want to go back to the President’s conversation yesterday. When the President makes this call, is his purpose more to convey something to the Russian President or to maybe get some information in order to learn something? Does he feel as if he is making progress on both of those fronts; that he understands -- in line with what Ann was asking about the President understanding the situation in his own country -- does he feel that he has a complete understanding of what’s going on in Ukraine, for instance, and especially the grievances, the legitimate grievances of the people in the east and the south of that country?
MR. EARNEST: I think you and I may have a different assessment about the legitimacy of some of those grievances, to put it mildly. But I will say this -- that the President has spoken many times to President Putin, and the President himself has talked about the business-like nature of the conversations that those two leaders have. The President certainly respects the legitimate interests that Russia has in the region, but the President is also concerned about making sure that everybody respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent nations.
So there has been a pretty open channel of communication between President Obama and President Putin in relation to this issue, but also a range of other issues as well. So whether it’s talking about Ukraine on the phone yesterday or having the opportunity to visit about this in person when they were both in Normandy a few weeks ago, the President is interested in having an open and business-like dialogue with President Putin.
And there’s no doubt that in certain situations that there is a difference of opinion when it comes to some I think what are pretty basic facts to others around the globe who might have a more impartial view. But that doesn’t -- and I think this is an important part of the relationship between the United States and Russia -- it doesn’t inhibit cooperation on other important national security priorities that both countries share. One great example of that is the success of the OPCW effort to remove the declared chemical weapons arsenal of the Assad regime. That would not have happened without the cooperation and support of the Russian government and other countries in the international community. So that’s an indication that despite the differences of opinion we may have about Ukraine, that the robust relationship between the United States and Russia isn’t just good for our two countries, it’s good for the world.
Q Thank you, Josh. And on a slightly less weighty matter, did the World Cup come up in the conversation? (Laughter.) Did President Putin congratulate President Obama on the amazing, amazing performance by the American team in the World Cup? Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about my side. (Laughter.) But does he watch those performances? Did he watch the match with Portugal? Does he intend to watch the match with Germany?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President about the soccer match. I know that he is aware of the outcome and is very proud of a couple of strong performances by the U.S. men’s national team. And I don’t know if he’ll have a chance to watch the Germany game or not. I think that we’re scheduled to be on the road that day. But I know that the President is very proud of the performance of the team so far and is optimistic about their continued success.
Chris, I’m going to give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the planned executive order that the President is planning to sign barring LGBT discrimination by federal contractors, not a lot of information is known either about its scope or the timing either for the signing or implementation.
MR. EARNEST: That would be a first.
MR. EARNEST: Right? It seems like you’ve known quite a bit about this all along.
Q Well, I don’t know anything, that’s why I’m asking you about it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So when asked, there was a lot of concern about a possibility of a religious exemption being placed in the executive order. Could you rule out the possibility that a religious exemption will be within the executive order?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I’m not in a position from here to give you any greater insight about the contents of what an executive order like this might include. But this is something that the President’s team is drafting. And once they have finished the drafting of that and are ready for the President to sign it, we’ll be able to talk to you in a little bit more detail about what’s actually included in there and what the consequences are for the President’s signature.
Q Is the White House waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the Hobby Lobby case before settling on a final form of this executive order?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that there is an ongoing process as it relates to the drafting of an executive order that would take the kinds of steps the President has talked about quite a bit. But at this point, I don’t have any update for you in terms of the content or the timing of that executive order.
Q Why is the White House announcing that the President is going to sign this executive order at this time when that could have happened at any time over the course of the five and a half years of the administration?
(Audience member faints).
MR. EARNEST: Everyone okay? Why don’t we wrap it up and we’ll bring some water out here.
1:57 P.M. EDT
December 20, 2014
December 19, 2014
December 19, 2014
December 18, 2014
December 17, 2014
December 17, 2014
December 17, 2014
December 16, 2014