Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/30/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:37 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologize for the scheduling switcheroo we had a little earlier today. It was my intention to be done by now, but instead we are just getting started.
I do not have announcements here at the top, Nedra, so I’ll let you kick off the fireworks here.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can you give us your reaction to the Hobby Lobby ruling?
MR. EARNEST: I suspected that might be your first question today.
The Supreme Court ruled today that some bosses can now withhold contraceptive care from their employees’ health coverage based on their own religious views that their employees may not even share. President Obama believes that women should make personal health care decisions for themselves rather than their bosses deciding for them.
Today’s decision jeopardizes the health of women who are employed by these companies. As millions of women know firsthand, contraception is often vital to their health and wellbeing. That’s why the Affordable Care Act ensures that women have coverage for contraceptive care, along with other preventative care like vaccines and cancer screenings.
We will work with Congress to make sure that any women affected by this decision will still have the same coverage of vital health services as everyone else.
President Obama believes strongly in the freedom of religion. That’s why we’ve taken steps to ensure that no religious institution will have to pay or provide for contraceptive coverage. We’ve also made accommodations for non-profit religious organizations that object to contraception on religious grounds. But we believe that the owners of for-profit companies should not be allowed to assert their personal religious views to deny their employees federally mandated benefits.
Now, we’ll of course respect the Supreme Court ruling and we’ll continue to look for ways to improve Americans’ health by helping women have more, not less, say over the personal health decisions that affect them and their families.
Q Can you talk a little more about what options you’re considering to make sure that women have access to free contraceptives?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to do that right now. Frankly, we’re still assessing the decision and its legal implications. We’re also assessing what practical implications there are from this decision, including what companies are actually covered by the Supreme Court decision. As you saw, the ruling referred pretty narrowly to closely held private-sector companies. And I’ve described in my original statement that there are a range of other institutions that are treated in different ways.
We’re also taking a look at what kinds of health care plans these companies have, and how many employees are actually affected by this decision.
So as we gather some more information, we may be in a position to better consider the range of options that are available to the President. It is our view, as I said here at the top, though, that Congress needs to take action to solve this problem that’s been created, and the administration stands ready to work with them to do so.
Q On another topic -- some advocates are expressing some outrage over the letter that the President sent this morning on unaccompanied minors. And they say it’s wrong to send minors right back to a violent situation in their home country. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: I can. Our concern principally right now is that we have seen, gathered on the southwestern border of the United States, an alarming increase in the number of children who have traveled from Central American countries to our border on the southwest expecting to gain entry and to be welcomed into the United States.
They are principally motivated by a disinformation campaign that’s being propagated by criminal syndicates that are preying on vulnerable populations of people who are living in pretty desperate situations. In some cases, they’re living in communities that are racked by violence. In other cases, they’re facing pretty dire economic circumstances. And it has led to a humanitarian situation that the President is very concerned about.
The fact of the matter is this administration is going to enforce the law. And what the law requires is ensuring that these children are -- once they are detained at the border -- and that is to be clear -- in many cases what’s happening, we’re finding these children who are showing up at the border and turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents. And the law requires that these children be -- that their needs be met, that their basic humanitarian needs be provided for.
Now, what is also true is that we also want to surge resources to this problem by making sure that we increase the number of immigration judges and asylum officers, and other CBP lawyers to make sure that we can properly process these claims quickly. Each child is certainly due -- is owed due process, and they’ll get the benefit of that. But at the same time, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing such a large influx of children at the border that we’re having a difficult time processing the large number of cases that are now getting backed up in the immigration court system.
So we have asked for additional resources to make sure that we can process these claims as quickly as possible. We’ve also asked for additional authorities that could be used at the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security to process the cases as, ultimately, if it is found that the child or an adult that is here with children does not have a legal right to stay in the country, that they can be returned to their home country and properly reintegrated. That means that we’re also working with some of these countries where the root of this problem exists.
You saw that a couple weeks ago the Vice President traveled to Central America and met with the leaders of Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador. Secretary Kerry is traveling to the region this week as well, and he’ll be having similar conversations with leaders of countries in that region while he is attending the inauguration of the President of Panama.
Q Josh, on that point, how much are you actually asking for? Is it $2 billion, $3 billion? How much?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have more information about the actual request for supplemental appropriations in the next couple of weeks.
Q Now, back on the Court, the Court suggested in its ruling today that the Obama administration could expand an exemption on birth control coverage that you worked out for no-profit groups that have religious affiliations like hospitals and universities. Is that what you’re talking about doing for this case?
MR. EARNEST: No, what we’re talking about doing is pressing Congress to actually take the step that’s required to address this problem, to make sure that the women who work for these companies have access to the preventative coverage that they deserve and that the Institute of Medicine that’s run by impartial, nonpolitical scientists believes that they should have access to. So that’s what we’re focused on, and we believe that because of the Supreme Court decision today that Congress should act to address the concerns of the women who are affected by this decision.
Q But with Congress as divided as it is now, how likely is that to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see. As we have with a range of other things, we’ll consider whether or not there’s an opportunity for the President to take some other action that could mitigate this problem as well. But, again, we’re still assessing the decision, so it’s too early for me to state what kind of action would be available to the President or what kind of action he would even consider at this point. But what is clear is that there is an opportunity for Congress to take the kinds of steps that would mitigate this problem, and we hope they will.
Q And do you see this as a major impact on the Obamacare law? There was one Republican who said it was a devastating blow
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what would have been a devastating blow is if the Supreme Court -- if this same Supreme Court two years ago had decided to declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional. They did not. In fact, they essentially upheld the Affordable Care Act, and that has preserved benefits for millions of Americans, who many for the first time now have access to quality, affordable health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act. It also put in place and protected a wide range of consumer protections -- everything from ensuring that young adults up to the age of 26 could remain on their parents’ health insurance, to ensuring that individuals couldn’t be discriminated against just because they had a preexisting condition. So all those protections remain in place.
This is one specific group of companies and one group of women who are affected when it comes to the specific access to certain contraceptive services. And that specific problem that has essentially been created by the Supreme Court -- the problem is that the Institute of Medicine says that women should have access to these kinds of preventative services, but the ruling allows the bosses of these women to essentially step in and say, well, I have a religious concern so you’re not allowed to make your own decision about whether or not you’d like to benefit from these services; we’re going to make sure that they aren’t provided. We strongly disagree with that. We believe that Congress should take action to fix it.
Q Josh, following up on that, does the White House have a reaction to the fact that in the majority you had all men writing the decision and in the minority you had three out of the four justices being women? And the President has talked in the past about Democrats needing to be energized to vote in the midterm elections. Might this case energize Democrats on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the political fallout, I’ll let the political analysts out there make that decision. The President does, however, believe that there is a very important principle at stake, which is the President believes that women should have the freedom to make their own decisions about their health care coverage, and that interference by their boss for whatever reason -- based on their religious views or just their scientific opinion -- is inappropriate. And one of the core goals of the Affordable Care Act was to put freedom in the hands of families all across the country to give them access to greater choices to quality, affordable health insurance that would be in the best interest of their family.
This decision today, while we’ll respect it, runs counter to that principle and the President is going to look to Congress to put in place a solution.
Q And on Bob McDonald, the President’s choice to head the VA, this selection seems to have come out of nowhere. It’s been greeted as sort of an unorthodox pick. And it turns out Mr. McDonald has made contributions to Republican candidates in the past. Did you view that as something that might help Mr. McDonald get through the Senate because it might discourage Republicans from blocking his nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Mr. McDonald was principally chosen because he has the kind of record as a solid manager that will be required of the next Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department to put in place the reforms that are needed to live up to our covenant that we have made, that our nation has made, with our men and women in uniform. Those management chops are going to be critical to his success, and they’re going to be critical to ensuring that our country lives up to the commitment that we’ve made to our men and women in uniform.
Now, I’d also point out that Mr. McDonald himself served in the military. He graduated near the top of his class at West Point. He served in the United States Army for five years. And he has a pretty compelling story to tell in terms of his management record at Procter & Gamble. He started at that company as an entry-level employee, and over the course of 33 years rose to be the CEO, to be the top boss. That demonstrates a lot of character and a lot of tenacity, and those two things will be required in the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
I’ll say one last thing. While he was at Procter & Gamble, Procter & Gamble was widely credited with their success in mentoring leaders at the middle-management level. And facilitating -- having the kind of management style that inspires other people in an organization to assume leadership skills is something that, based on the problems have been unearthed at the VA, will be really critical to their success over there as well.
Q Does the President feel like this is somebody who can go in there and clean house?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is somebody who has a lot of experience and has enjoyed a lot of success in managing a large company. And the VA is a large organization that is performing very important work. And there are some important changes that need to be made to ensure that that important work is actually getting done.
And so having somebody that has experience in the military, has strong bipartisan support for taking the job, and has a proven track record of implementing changes in large organizations to great effect makes him the right choice for this task.
Q Can I sneak in one question about airport security? There have been some reports that a terrorist threat in Syria may be translating into concerns about security at the nation’s airports. Is that something the White House has been meeting on here? Is that something the administration is going to be looking at? A lot of people are heading out and traveling for vacation plans this summer; is that something that Americans should be concerned about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I have seen those reports. I’m not in a position to comment on them. The Department of Homeland Security is regularly reviewing our security procedures to adapt to the threat that is faced by our transportation system. And as advisories are required to adequately inform the traveling public, we’ll make those announcements.
I don’t have an announcement here at this point to make. But for more information, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
I’m going to move around just a little bit. Nadia.
Q The Russians seem to be providing a dozen or so fighter jets to Prime Minister Maliki. Do you find it ironic that both the United States, the Russians, and the Iranians are sending military experts to aid Prime Minister Maliki?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nadia, what we have -- the United States has also offered to support the Iraqi government. And over the course of the last several years, the United States has provided significant assistance to the Maliki government in the form of training that is ongoing through the embassy there in Iraq but also in Jordan. There have also been a number of military sales from the United States to Iraq to try to support the Maliki regime and the Iraqi government
Now, what we have been disappointed by is the fact that Prime Minister Maliki has not pursued the kind of inclusive governing agenda that we believe is going to be required to ensure the long-term success of the nation of Iraq. And so we are in close touch with the Maliki government and with all of the political leaders in Iraq. You’ve seen the number of phone calls between Secretary Kerry and Iraqi leaders and Vice President Biden and Iraqi leaders in pursuit of encouraging the government to pursue a more inclusive agenda. And that’s what we’re focused on.
Now, when it comes to -- there is one piece of military equipment that has attracted a lot of attention, and that’s a delivery of F-16s that’s scheduled for later this year. I can tell you that the United States remains committed to delivering the F-16s to Iraq as quickly as possible. The delivery of the first two aircraft have long been scheduled for this fall, pending final preparations for housing and securing the aircraft, completion of pilot training, and completion of required financial and administrative details which the Iraqi government has been slow to complete.
So there are some logistical details that still need to be accounted for here, but that once those logistical concerns have been addressed, we’re still committed to moving forward.
Q I know the White House says that they do not interfere of who’s going to be the next Prime Minister, but do you believe that Prime Minister Maliki is a viable candidate right now?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a decision for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi political leadership to decide. We’re urging Iraq’s leaders to come to an agreement on the three critical posts that are key to forming Iraq’s next government. Those posts, as you know, are the parliamentary speaker, the president and the prime minister. We’re hoping that they’ll act quickly so that the government formation can move forward after the first session of the new parliament is convened on July 1st.
We’re urging all leaders across the spectrum to treat the situation with extreme urgency and quickly begin a very serious negotiation to determine the makeup of the next government. And that government, in our view, as I said, has to be a broadly inclusive one in order to provide stability to the country.
I’ll move around a little bit. J.C.
Q Just want to follow up a sec. Under these circumstances -- and the U.S. is committed, they’ve sent advisers -- has the President had any conversations with any world leader in terms of their commitment in kind? In other words, their kind of Special Forces advisers, et cetera, to go in there and to situate into this crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, over the course of the last couple of weeks, J.C., you’ve seen that we’ve read out a number of conversations that the President has had with world leaders, some of them on Ukraine, some of them on the situation in Iraq, and some of them -- some of the conversations covered both topics.
I don’t have any additional details to read out from those conversations. But the President and this administration is interested in working in a collaborative fashion with our allies but also with other countries that have an interest in the region to try to encourage the political leadership in Iraq to pursue this kind of inclusive governing agenda.
In order to confront the existential threat that is posed by ISIL in Iraq, the government of Iraq needs to represent the interests of all of the people of that country and to make it clear that each citizen has a stake in that country’s future and in that country’s prosperity.
Q If I may, is the President hopeful that any of his allies, friends, former allies, world representatives will, in fact, encourage -- be encouraged to send advisers or Special Forces to Iraq, as the U.S. has committed?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not in a position to read out those conversations in any more detail. I would assume -- and I think with a lot of confidence -- that the leaders of these other countries will be making a similar calculation to the one that the President has made, which is that our interest in that country -- or our activity in that country will be governed by what the President assesses to be in the best interest of American national security. That will continue to be the criteria that the President will use as he makes decisions about U.S. actions there, and I assume that other countries and other country’s leaders will be making a similar calculation.
Q On Hobby Lobby -- does the constitutional lawyer who sits in the Oval Office agree with the Supreme Court premise that companies have freedom of speech and companies have freedom of religion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you’ve heard -- and I think -- well, as the constitutional lawyer who sits in the Oval Office would tell you, is he would read the entire decision before he passed judgment in terms of his own legal analysis.
What we have been able to assess so far, based on the preliminary reading of that decision, is that there is a problem that has been exposed, which is that there are now a group of women of an indeterminate size who no longer have access to free contraceptive coverage simply because of some religious views that are held not by them, necessarily, but by their bosses.
We disagree, and the constitutional lawyer in the Oval Office disagrees, with that conclusion from the Supreme Court. And that’s why we -- primarily because he’s concerned about the impact that it could have on the health of those women; ultimately, that the goal of the Affordable Care Act, remember, was to provide greater freedom to Americans to allow them to make more decisions and have access to more options as they seek health care coverage. And that’s the source of the concern that we have, and that’s the problem that we want Congress to fix.
In terms of the broader legal analysis, that’s something that we’ll get to.
Q Okay then. If I could change subjects to the unaccompanied minors. The law that is applicable says --currently, the one that’s in effect now, from 2008 -- says that a child should not be placed in a secure facility absent a determination that the child poses a danger to self or others. So these facilities that you’re proposing building and expanding, it appears that the law says now they shouldn’t be put there unless they’re a danger to themselves or others. Is this one of the laws -- one of the parts of the law that the administration wants to change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be clear, the facilities that are being opened now are being opened specifically to meet the humanitarian needs of these children; to make sure that they have a bed to sleep in, a roof over their heads, access to food and other basic needs that any child has. That’s the point of these facilities that are being opened at a couple of different military facilities. And so you’ve seen FEMA step forward and perform a coordinating function, working with DHS and HHS, who has the responsibility for housing these children, to make sure that these needs are met.
More broadly, what we’re asking for additional funding to do is to deploy more immigration judges, ICE lawyers, asylum officers to more quickly and efficiently evaluate the cases of these children. And when it is determined after going through that legal progress that these children don’t have a legal basis for remaining in the country, the administration is seeking greater authority to be expressed -- or a greater authority that could be used by the Secretary of Homeland Security to resolve their case. And in many cases, that means returning them to the country where they came from.
Q About 80 to 85 percent, according to the figures given by the DHS, of those children are, in fact, staying in the United States and staying with either family or foster homes, and they’re not staying in facilities because they’re not allowed to by law. Are you trying to change this law itself? Are you going to ask Congress to change this law that was passed in 2008?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of that specific legal request, I’d refer you DHS. What we are trying to do is to confront a very specific problem, which is the large number of children that have appeared on the southwest border unaccompanied by any adults, who are vulnerable to human trafficking and other criminal elements, and making sure that their humanitarian needs are met.
Q And can you do that legally?
MR. EARNEST: Can we do -- can we meet their --
Q Can you do these things? You’re saying you want to send more of them back home, or you want to put them in detention centers so they’re not out and adopted by other families and in the fabric of American society. Can you do that legally now, or do you have to change the law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is my understanding that the greater authority that we’re seeking for the Secretary of Homeland Security would allow us to address this problem more directly; would put the administration in a posture where we can more quickly process the claims to do a better job of more efficiently determining who actually has a legitimate claim for remaining in this country and who doesn’t.
And if it’s determined -- and if and when it’s determined that they do not, that these -- again, that these children or these adults who have arrived on the southwest border with children could be returned quickly to their [country] and repatriated to the country when they came from.
I do want to make one thing clear -- and this is important for people to understand as well -- that as we’re enforcing the law, the priority for enforcement continues to be basic public safety and national security and border security. Those are where our priorities lie. In this case, we’re largely talking about children and a humanitarian situation that has the potential to only get worse. And so that’s why it’s important that we follow the law in terms of meeting the basic humanitarian needs of these children, but also making it clear, as the President did in an interview last week with your network, that parents who may find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation in their home countries, despite that desperation should not be looking for an opportunity to put their children in the hands of a stranger, who is likely a criminal, to transport them safely to the United States. That is not a good option and it is not one that any parent should pursue.
Q Josh, to follow up on that, given that many of these children are fleeing violent situations and, as you said, vulnerable to begin with, is the President concerned at all that speeding up the process by which they are processed and removed could, in fact, be violating their due process rights and could send them back to a more dangerous situation? And what is the administration planning to do about that?
MR. EARNEST: We are committed to making sure that we’re following due process rights. That’s why, in fact, we’re seeking to make sure that we have access to more judges, more ICE officials and more asylum officials who can make sure that these due process rights are being respected.
When it comes to repatriation, one of the things that we have done -- and this was part of the conversation that the Vice President had with the leaders of these Central American countries 10 days ago, and will be part of the conversations that the Secretary of State has with leaders of these countries this week -- will be about American resources that can be used to try to help stem the flow of these refugees at the source; that if there are things that we can do to improve security in some of these individual countries. We have ongoing partnerships arrangements with law enforcement officials and, in some cases, military officials in these countries; what we want to do is work them closely to try to meet some of the needs of these communities to try to stem the flow of people from desperate situations.
Q But for these children now, won’t it send them back to more danger?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re closely coordinating with these countries to make sure that we have a way to repatriate these kids in a way that’s as safe as possible. But again, this underscores the need for people in this country and in those Central American countries to understand that putting their child in the hands of a stranger who is promising to deliver them to the United States is not at all a wise decision.
Q Josh, in addition to Hobby Lobby, there are maybe six or seven other high-profile setbacks for the President this term at the Supreme Court. Can you describe how concerned and/or frustrated he is about the direction the Supreme Court is pushing the country and the law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a pretty broad generalization, and I think I’d hesitate to wade too far down the line on that one. I think I’ve been pretty clear about where our disagreement lies when it comes to this specific ruling and the problem that it creates for women who are employed by the countries [companies] as described by the Supreme Court in today’s ruling. That disagreement notwithstanding, this administration will obviously abide by the rulings of the Supreme Court.
Q For example, there has been a recess appointment ruling last week, campaign finance, the abortion buffer rule ruling. It just seems that -- I’m wondering if the President is worried that the Supreme Court is pushing the kind of center point of judicial oversight in a more conservative direction as opposed to previous sessions.
MR. EARNEST: I’d hesitate to make a broad assessment like that from this podium.
April, did you have a question?
Q Yes, I did. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: I saw your hand was raised earlier and it wasn’t now, and so I just wanted to -- it’s not a pop quiz, I just wanted to give you an opportunity to ask a question if you’d like. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you for being very attentive. (Laughter.) I wasn’t being funny. Okay, I want to go to a question that was asked about the VA. And it’s just simple: Basically, leading into this process of naming the new -- well, we expect the naming of a new head of the VA, who has the President consulted with when he was working on this whole process? Who was in his ear? Who was in the White House’s ear? Who was in Rob Nabors’s ear? We need to know how this came to be.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific conversations, April, but there was a commitment by this administration to reach out to all the stakeholders, or I should say to a wide range of stakeholders, to make sure that the criteria that was being used for deciding to nominate Mr. McDonald was inclusive of the qualities that will be required in new leadership over there.
So that sort of highlights the kinds of credentials that Mr. McDonald brings to this task. He is somebody who served bravely in our military. He graduated near the top of his class at West Point. He served for five years in the 82nd Airborne Division in the United States Army, and has decades of experience running a large organization, a multinational company that’s headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. And so he brings a wealth of experience and skills to this task, and determining that he is the best person for the job was based on the skills that he brings. And the skills that are required is something that was discussed by senior members of the White House here as they conducted this search with a wide range of stakeholders.
Q Well, as you know, this is an issue that has passions running the gamut, and there are some who are passionate who also had names that they wanted to present to the President. They even had petitions on the White House website to include Montel Williams, who he is a television personality but he also worked in the military, he was in intelligence for 20-some odd years who he wanted to talk to people. So if you could, could you give us the list of people -- if the President has talked to some -- who have I guess presented names to him or just talk -- because we’re hearing a lot of people out there are very passionate about this issue.
MR. EARNEST: There is no question that there are a lot of people who are passionate about this issue. I think there are millions of people across the country who are passionate about making sure that this country is living up to the promises that we’ve made to our men and women in uniform. We welcome the active interest of so many people in making sure that we live up to that covenant. And this will certainly be part of the task that Secretary -- or that Mr. McDonald will face when he gets that job, will be to find ways to help every American who is interested get invested in this idea that we want to make sure that we are caring for our men and women in uniform after they leave military service.
Q ISIL, or ISIS, has declared, effectively, a state. I’m sure the administration doesn’t recognize that, but I wanted to get its impression of the broader ambitions of ISIL to represent itself as representing not only territory but a way of life and an ideology. And whether or not it’s recognized by the United State or anyone else in a de facto way territorially, there is something that has to be reckoned with here. Is it the policy of this administration to eradicate this ambition and these people, and the territory they now say they control? And is that part of not only the conversations you have internally, but externally -- getting to Jon-Christopher’s question about others participating -- in dealing with this particular asserted reality in the north central part of Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question in a couple of ways. The first is that what we have seen from ISIL is a campaign of terror, of gross domestic -- I’m sorry, of gross acts of violence and repressive ideology that pose a grave threat to Iraq’s future. ISIL is not, as it claims, fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq; ISIL is fighting to destroy Iraq. And that’s why you’ve seen this administration work closely with Iraq’s political leaders to encourage them to unite the country as they confront this existential threat.
In fact, ISIL’s name suggests that they desire to form a caliphate in the region. But what we would like to do is to make sure that after more than a decade of sacrifice that was made by American military personnel and others who served in that region to give the Iraqi people the opportunity to determine their own future, to play a stake in deciding who should lead their country and what their country should look like. And that’s why it’s so important for Iraq’s political leaders to pursue this inclusive governing agenda. That’s what’s going to be required to defeat ISIL, it’s also what’s going to be required to make sure that every citizen in that country has a stake in that country’s future.
Q On the issue of the unaccompanied minors, it’s a procedural question but it may loom large for the two things you’re trying to accomplish -- one, get money and, two, obtain these authorities. Will you seek a sort of an emergency supplemental off the normal appropriations process when you come up with an amount of money, and within that try to obtain the legal authorities you’re seeking for the Department of Homeland Security? Or are you going to work this through the abnormally normal appropriations process we’ve come to know?
MR. EARNEST: There is an explicit supplemental appropriations request that will be coming from the administration in the next couple of weeks that will include a specific request for funds to accomplish some of the tasks that we’ve laid out. It will also include a request for additional authorities being granted to the Secretary of Homeland Security so he can exercise greater discretion about how to more efficiently process these cases through the immigration system.
Q So this will be something you hope to achieve within a very short order, I assume.
MR. EARNEST: We certainly would like to see Congress act pretty quickly on this. I would point out that members of both parties have expressed some concern about this situation. Some have publicly wondered whether or not -- whether the administration has the resources necessary to deal with it. So now that the administration is coming forward with a specific request for how we would like to deal with it and a specific request for the amount of money that’s required to deal with it, we hope that Congress will act.
Q Which is not yet ready.
MR. EARNEST: Which is not yet ready but will be in the next couple of weeks. So when we do, we hope that Congress will act quickly.
Q On the VA, to those who might wonder what someone who spent most of his professional career in merchandising -- selling soap and all sorts of other consumer products -- why that would make him particularly well positioned to deal with a fast, oftentimes dense, oftentimes unresponsive Veterans Administration -- those are not my words; those are the White House’s own words and those of congressional investigators and others -- why do those things match up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer your question in two ways. The first is, the success that he enjoyed at P&G is not irrelevant. This is a company that has more than 120,000 employees. They do business by selling products to more than 180 countries, and they have more than -- in more than 2.5 million stores that essentially reaches 5 billion customers. So there are some unwieldy challenges in the context of the P&G bureaucracy that Mr. McDonald grappled with, and he did so with a lot of success. That’s what allowed him to rise through the ranks through that company in a pretty dramatic way.
I guess the other thing I would point you to are the statements of others who know him well, who seem to think that he is the right person for this job. I would point out that even Speaker Boehner has said that Bob McDonald is a good man, a veteran and a strong leader with decades of experience in the private sector. Senator Portman, his home-state Senator, a Republican from Ohio, pointed out that he was glad to see the President reach out to someone with a wealth of experience managing a complex organization who has also had a distinguished career, military career, as a West Point graduate and Army Ranger. That’s why Senator Portman says that he intends to support Mr. McDonald’s nomination and will vote for him. So there is already an indication that there are other members of Congress, including some Republicans, who share the President’s assessment that Mr. McDonald is the right man for the job.
Q Will Rob Nabors remain at the Veterans Administration as the President’s point person through the confirmation process and thereafter? Should we regard Rob’s presence over there as something that’s either going to be permanent or, at least for the foreseeable future, semi-permanent?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeframe to share with you now. It is not -- the decision to send Rob to go and try to assess the condition of the VA was not intended to be a permanent appointment. You saw that Mr. Nabors’s report was presented to the President at the end of last week, where Mr. Nabors identified a pretty wide range of challenges that are facing the VA. This is an unsparing report that singled out a lot of significant problems. There were also a wide range of reforms that were proposed.
Q I guess I’m wondering if the President wants him to stay there to help this new Secretary upon confirmation, should that happen, work that process through.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do anticipate that, at least for the time being, Rob will remain at the VA as they continue to implement some of the reforms that have already been suggested by outside groups, including by the inspector general, and that Rob will play a role in helping Mr. McDonald, who hopefully will be confirmed rather quickly to help him get up to speed on some of these issues and to talk through with him what exactly the challenges are and what kinds of reforms might substantially address the problems that they’re facing.
Q Josh, I couldn’t help but notice the President mentioned the World Cup today. Do you know if he is planning to watch the Belgium game? And if so, where?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if he is going to have a chance to do that, but I will try to get that information in advance of kickoff tomorrow.
Q On McDonald, he was, in fact, forced out by shareholders who felt he hadn’t done enough to grow the company. So obviously the President is aware of that, and I ask again what makes him think that he can handle an agency with the challenges that Mr. Nabors found the VA to have.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is somebody who led a large multinational company. And the challenges associated with managing a large company like that in the private sector is certainly comparable, at least, to managing the difficult bureaucratic challenges that are posed by a large government agency.
Q You can fire people in the private sector that you cannot fire who are government workers.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple other things, which is that there are a couple of people who do have a good vantage point from which to judge Mr. McDonald’s success over at P&G, and those are people who served on his board.
So let me read you a quote from Jim McNerney, who is the Chairman and CEO of the Boeing Company who served on the board at P&G when Mr. McDonald was the CEO of that company. Mr. McNerney described Mr. McDonald as an “outstanding choice for this critically important position.” He said the nominee’s “business acumen coupled with his dedication and love of our nation’s military and veteran community make him a truly great choice for the tough challenges we have at the VA.”
So this is somebody who actually knows the business world well himself as he runs a large multinational company. He also had an opportunity to watch Mr. McDonald up close as he managed a large bureaucracy. And he believes that he is the right choice, in the same way that the President does, to lead the VA through the difficult challenges that they face right now.
Q On another subject, Ahmed Abu Khatallah-- Congressman McCaul says the administration spent time building a case on Khatallah instead of arresting him as quickly as he was basically identified and located. Is that a fair criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of prosecuting Mr. Khatallah, I’d encourage you to check with the Department of Justice. What the President said the day after the attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi was that he was determined to use the resources of the United States government to bring to justice those who were responsible for perpetrating that violence and taking the lives of four Americans who were representing our interests overseas. You have seen in the successful mission to detain Abu Khatallah and bring him to justice here in the United States the President made good on that effort.
Now, there are likely other people who are involved, and there continues to be work ongoing to bring additional people who were involved in that effort to justice.
Q But it’s taken the better part of two years to bring Khatallah to justice.
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s a pretty good indication that the United States of America, and certainly this President doesn’t forget, and that this is something that we’re focused on and determined to bring to justice those who are responsible for taking the lives of four brave Americans.
Q Follow up on a couple of things. Let me start with the VA. And when you have investigations that show you pretty dramatically what’s wrong you look, obviously, for someone who can answer those problems. What was it about someone, obviously McDonald in particular, with private sector experience as opposed to government or military management experience that this choice was made? Why private sector?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in this case what the President was looking for was somebody that had significant management experience. There’s an opportunity to get some good management experience in government service, but there also is ample opportunity to get that kind of experience and be exposed to dealing with large-scale bureaucratic challenges in the private sector as well.
Q But as Wendell pointed out, there are some very major differences between the way the public and the private sector operate.
MR. EARNEST: There are. And the benefit of Mr. McDonald’s résumé is that he has both kinds of experience -- both in terms of his extensive private sector management experience, but also his experience serving in the military. This is somebody who understands how the military operates, and he’s somebody who succeeded in the military. He graduated near the top of his class at West Point, he served for five years in the 82nd Airborne Division in the United States Army, and he’s somebody who, even as he returned to the private sector, continued to be involved in military affairs. He’s a lifetime member of the U.S. Army Ranger Association and the 75th Ranger Regiment Association. He’s also a member of the Association of Graduates of West Point.
So this is somebody who despite -- or I guess alongside his significant private sector accomplishments is somebody who has remained engaged in supporting military families. And that’s why -- it’s that combination of skills and experience and interests that make him the right person for the job.
Q Let me ask you about the challenges at the border, because the President has stated, including in his letter to Congress, a message to parents in Central America -- don’t send your children here, it’s dangerous, we’re going to send them back. Advocates for these children have suggested that the White House misunderstands that these parents have done an analysis and that they believe that the situation in leaving them there, and the threat that is posed by organized crime in those countries against their children, is a greater threat than sending them to the border. Is it fair to say that the White House has misunderstood the motivations of those parents?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve been pretty clear about our desire to try to address some of the problems that are making people feel increasingly desperate. There is ongoing work at the State Department and other relevant government agencies to work with these countries -- principally this is Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador -- to address the security situation in those countries. That is contributing significantly to the desperation that many people are feeling, and it’s what makes them vulnerable to the misinformation that’s being spread by these criminal syndicates.
So there is an effort to try to address this problem at its root. And the other thing that we have seen is it’s not just immigration to this country that we’ve seen spike, there are other countries in Central America, those that are more stable, that have also experienced a spike in children and adults traveling with children seeking to immigrate to those countries.
So this is a problem that is being felt throughout the region, and that is why we’re trying to work cooperatively with countries in the region to try to mitigate the vulnerability that so many of these people are feeling.
Q And can you answer a specific allegation that was made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and I think has been echoed by some other advocacy organizations, that sending these children back is analogous to sending a child back into a burning building and locking the door?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what this administration is doing is working closely with these host countries to also ensure that we can repatriate these children in the most humanitarian way possible.
The reason that we are focused on this problem is because we are concerned about the humanitarian situation that’s been created. We’re concerned about the wellbeing of these children. And there is a way for us to balance two imperatives -- one is to enforce the law, but also demonstrate the kinds of humanitarian values that allow our country to stand out from so many others in the international scene.
So that’s what we’re -- that’s an effort that we’re engaged in. It’s not an easy one, but that is why we are seeking to ramp up facilities that are available here in this country to detain and house these kids when they are first apprehended along the border. It’s why we are increasing the resources that are dedicated to these immigration courts to make sure that these children and the adults that have traveled with children have access to basic legal protections; that the process that they go through is subject to the rule of law and due process. And when it is determined that they do not have legal standing to remain in the country, we’re working with the host country to make sure that we can find a safe and humanitarian way to repatriate them.
So again, these are complicated problems, but this administration is doing exactly what you would expect as we try to balance the need to both enforce the law, but also to treat people with basic respect for their rights as fellow human beings.
Q Back to Iraq. Doesn’t the influence -- the increasing involvement of powers like Russia and Iran, which are working elsewhere in the world to thwart U.S. foreign policy aspirations, make it less likely that Prime Minister Maliki will do what the U.S. wants and embrace an inclusive form of government?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily. And the reason that I think I’ve arrived at a different conclusion than the one that you’ve set up is simply that it is not in the interest of Iran for there to be this sectarian strife, instability, these grotesque acts of violence and terrorism being perpetrated on their borders; that it’s in the best interest of Iran for there to be a -- for them to have a stable neighbor.
And the best way for Iraq to be stable and to confront the destabilizing threat that’s posed by ISIL is for the political leadership in Iraq to come together and unite the country in the face of that threat. And by uniting the country and governing in an inclusive way, Iran can have the kind of stable neighbor on their border that they would like to have, that’s in the best interest of their country.
Q And just to follow up on the announcement last week about support for Syrian rebels, who does the administration now see any rebels trained by the U.S. as fighting? It is still to combat President Assad and overthrow him, or is now the main focus going after these ISIL forces inside Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we would like to do and the way that we have described the goal of this assistance that’s being provided to the moderate opposition is to bolster their efforts to defeat the Assad regime. And, again, the reason for that is that the Assad regime has lost its legitimacy to rule because it has perpetrated terrible acts of violence against the Syrian people.
So by bolstering the capability and the stature of the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, we can have the effect of accomplishing both goals, which is enhancing their ability to defeat the Assad regime, or at least to withstand the terrible violence of the Assad regime, and make it more difficult for extremist elements to capitalize on the instability in that country.
So this is complicated work. It’s why we’re working closely with our other partners in the region to try to accomplish it. The President for some time has been concerned that the lawlessness and violence that we’ve seen in Syria does have a destabilizing, dangerous impact on the broader region, and that is what we’re seeing in Iraq right now. And the way to address that, in our view, is to bolster the moderate opposition, provide them additional assistance, and hopefully get to a place where we can reach a diplomatic or a political solution that would result in Assad leaving power and finally bringing some stability to that country.
Q Thank you. About two, three, four weeks ago in Brussels at the G7, the President said Russia has two, three, four weeks to stop doing what it’s doing or the sanctions are going to go forward, the sectoral sanctions, whether they be a sledgehammer or a scalpel or whatever it is now -- the adjective that we’re using. On Friday, you reiterated a June 30th deadline for Russia to do several things; it was four things: turn over border checkpoints, initiate a ceasefire, release OSCE prisoners. So here we are, it’s June 30th, it’s four weeks after the President laid down that marker. Are sanctions ready to go forward against Russia because of Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, what we want to see is a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the crisis. And so we support ongoing efforts such as President Poroshenko’s peace plan, the OSCE-facilitated negotiations, and the high-level talks among Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia. So there are ongoing discussions about how to finally deescalate the conflict in Ukraine and we’re supportive of those efforts. We have always said, though, that if Russia doesn’t use the influence that they have in eastern Ukraine for a constructive purpose, that we’re prepared to act in concert with our allies to further isolate President Putin and Russia from the international community.
Q So there’s no hard deadline? Today is not a hard deadline, or the four weeks that the President enunciated at the G7 is not a hard deadline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President enunciated at the G7 was a desire for the member European Union countries, the EC countries, to come together at the meeting that they had at the end of last week to -- on their agenda for business during that meeting was to further discuss the situation in Ukraine and what action might be necessary among European countries to further press for de-escalation of that conflict.
So we remain in close touch with world leaders who I’ve read out a number of phone calls that the President had with world leaders last week to talk about the situation. And we remain prepared to act, if necessary, to further isolate Russia. We’ve been very clear about what we’d like to see Russia do, which is to stop providing weapons and materiel to separatists, and to encourage those separatists to lay down the weapons that they do have and abide by the ceasefire agreement that’s floated by President Poroshenko.
Q And no deadline?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Mike.
Q Talks continue. Is there a concern that Russia and Vladimir Putin are doing just enough to keep Europeans -- reluctant Europeans -- Europeans reluctant to go forward with sanctions satisfied or at least provide them with enough argument against the United States, who is pushing them in that direction? In other words, Vladimir Putin is making all the right moves, but just enough of those moves to divide Western allies on the question of sanctions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the way that I would describe it is the way that I did last week, which is that we welcome some of the reassuring comments that have been made by President Putin. There were also some important symbolic actions that were taken. The Duma for example, as I recall, decided to pull back authorization to use military force in Ukraine by the Russian military. Those were important steps. But what we’re looking at, most importantly, are tangible actions taken by President Putin and Russia. And we are still in a situation where those actions do not indicate a seriousness of purpose when it comes to deescalating the situation in eastern Ukraine, and that’s what continues to leave Russia at risk of facing additional steps that could further isolate them in the international community and have a negative impact on their economy.
Go ahead, Mara.
Q You’re leaving the impression that the deadline, it’s kind of like the Syrian red line -- he didn’t really mean that they had to --
MR. EARNEST: I obviously disagree with that assessment.
Q Yes, I know, but I’m confused here because before he said they have a time period where they need to do these things. You just said they haven’t really done them because you haven’t seen actions, you’ve only seen these symbolic moves, and that we’re just -- they’re still at risk of sanctions and we’re just talking about it, but there’s no deadline for when those sanctions would go into place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’re mixing up a couple of different things here. There’s one thing that we -- or there are two things that we have long asked the Russians to do, which is stop providing weapons and materiel to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and to use -- and for Russia to use their influence in eastern Ukraine to encourage the separatists to abide by the ceasefire. So those are two long-running things that we have asked them to do.
Q That they haven’t done yet.
MR. EARNEST: We have not seen to our satisfaction evidence that that’s something that they’re serious about pursuing. And that's a source of some disappointment, and it is why Russia remains at risk of facing additional economic costs when it comes to the situation.
That's why there are regular conversations between this President and our allies in Europe about additional sanctions that could be in place. But again, we’re watching the actions of the Russians, and we will make an assessment about whether additional sanctions are required based on the course that's pursued by President Putin.
Q Well, what was the “two, to three, to four weeks” statement meant to mean?
MR. EARNEST: It was meant to mean that there would be an additional conversation at this meeting of European allies in Europe last week to discuss, again, the way that the international community will confront President Putin in Russia and their destabilizing actions in Ukraine.
Q But doesn't that put you at risk of looking completely toothless and threatening something that turns out not to be real?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think --
Q I mean, if you put timelines on --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not standing up here making threats. I think I’m merely observing what happens to be the current United States policy and the policy that's been adopted by many of our allies, which is that we have already put in place some economic costs that have been borne by Russia as a result of the actions that have already -- that they’ve already perpetrated in Ukraine. And there are additional steps that we could take if Russia doesn't decide to take the kinds of concrete actions that are required to deescalate the conflict there. That's simply our policy. That's not a threat. That is a statement of fact.
Q There’s no -- it sounds like there’s always additional actions that we could take. The President gave some sense of urgency that we -- that in a couple weeks if they didn't do certain things, we would take those actions.
MR. EARNEST: I think, Mara, the point is if Russia were to follow through on preventing weapons and materiel from flowing to the separatists, and if Russia were to step forward and actually use their influence in eastern Ukraine to encourage those separatists to abide by the ceasefire, then we’d be in a situation where those additional costs are less likely.
Q Right, but even if they don't do these things, these costs aren’t necessarily likely. Sanctions aren’t --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know what your basis is for saying that.
Q Based on the evidence so far.
Q Yes, yes -- it sounds like you’re saying that they don't do the things you want them to do, there’s no guarantee they're going to be punished.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that's different than what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that if they continue to take the actions that we have urged them not to do, that they are at risk, that -- that's our policy.
So, Zeke, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Got a couple for you. First off, in the era of the pen and the phone, why is the President calling on Congress to act so quickly here instead of applying the same regulatory fix that was used for nonprofits here? Clearly, when you said before that this decision jeopardizes the health of women, why the focus on Congress right away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because ultimately what the Supreme Court was ruling on was they were adjudicating a statute that was passed by the House, passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President, right? So this is what was something -- this is something a little bit different than what we saw from previous Supreme Court decisions that were based solely on executive actions that were taken by the President.
So the Supreme Court was ruling on the application of a specific law that was passed by Congress, so what we’d like is for Congress to take action to pass another law that would address this problem.
Now, I guess I’ll make clear that you are evincing some skepticism about Congress’s ability to act quickly to solve commonsense problems.
Q Was I?
MR. EARNEST: Well, maybe I’m evincing that disposition. So what I’ll say is that as we assess the impact of this decision, we’ll consider whether or not there is a range of other options that may be available that don't require legislative action.
Q As for a timeline on that review when the President -- has the President asked the Counsel’s Office to look at this -- before the midterms he’ll be looking at that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a timeline to lay out. I don't have a timeline to lay out.
Q And also, finally, on a very different note, apparently a few minutes ago the Israeli government announced that they have discovered the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers, including one of them an American citizen. I was wondering -- not to put you on the spot -- but if you have any -- if there are any discussions you can read out between the American government and the Israeli government or any quick reaction that you might have on the news.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms violence that takes the lives of innocent civilians. But I don't want to react any further without having a chance to take a look at those reports myself. And we’ll get you a reaction that reflects those reports later today.
1:39 P.M. EDT
September 18, 2014
September 18, 2014
September 17, 2014
September 17, 2014
September 17, 2014
September 17, 2014
September 17, 2014
September 16, 2014