Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary, 07/14/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:17 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all had a pleasant weekend, maybe even found a little air-conditioning. Let me do a little thing at the top, Julie, and then we'll get to your questions.
This week, the President will continue to discuss his plans to build on the progress our economy is making by creating jobs and expanding opportunity for all hardworking Americans with a focus on the importance of investing in our nation’s infrastructure. The President has been clear that we need to do more to improve our infrastructure in order to create jobs, provide certainty to states and communities, help American businesses and grow our economy, and he’s put forth a proposal that would do just that and pay for it by closing unfair tax loopholes and making common-sense reforms to our business tax system.
He’s acted on his own, using his executive authority, including speeding up permitting for priority projects to create more jobs. And the President will announce new executive actions on infrastructure this week.
At the same time, the President has been pressing Congress to act to avoid a lapse in funding of the Highway Trust Fund, which will go insolvent as early as August, putting numerous active projects at risk. This week Congress will consider a solution to avoid that scenario, and the President will continue to urge Republican lawmakers to not block it.
This morning we released a new report from the Council of Economic Advisers and the National Economic Council on the long-term economic benefits of transportation investment and why conditions in the infrastructure sector are ripe for innovation, with new technologies and approaches promising significant gains in productivity, efficiency and resilience. We also released an interactive transportation map that allows Americans across the country to learn more about the condition of their state’s roads and bridges, as well as how many jobs -- nearly 700,000 across the nation -- and active highway and transit projects would be jeopardized if Congress fails to pass a new transportation bill before the current one expires.
The President will continue to highlight the importance of investing in our infrastructure throughout the week. Tomorrow he will visit the Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia, a leading facility testing new technologies for highway transportation innovations. And then on Thursday, he will visit an infrastructure site in Delaware where he will announce a new initiative, using his pen and his phone, to increase private sector investment in our nation’s infrastructure.
Investing in infrastructure keeps the economy moving, spurs innovation and bolsters our national competitiveness. This is a key part of the President’s Year of Action plan and he looks forward to continuing to call for Congress and all partners to work with us on short-term and long-term solutions.
So with that long windup, Julie, you want to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to start with the Iran nuclear talks. Kerry obviously is in Vienna, and it appears as though the foreign ministers meetings over the weekend haven't really yielded that much of a breakthrough. Given that this deadline is approaching so quickly, I wonder if Kerry is in Vienna with any sort of okay from the President to pursue an extension of the interim agreement, or if his mandate is to simply finalize a deal by July 20th or leave with nothing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's important to understand where we've come from here. Our negotiating team has been working around the clock in Vienna for a couple of weeks in this latest round of negotiations and participating in a mix of plenary sessions, experts meetings, bilateral meetings with other countries including Iran, and coordination sessions that have been chaired by the EU.
As you know, Secretary Kerry traveled there just over this weekend to assess Iran’s willingness to make the critical choices it will need to make if we have a chance of getting a comprehensive agreement and to see if progress can be made on the issues where significant gaps remain between the P5-plus-1 and Iran. The Secretary has had two meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Zarif thus far. After he concludes his trip, the Secretary will make some recommendations to the President regarding next steps.
So it’s important to recognize that we’ve made some important progress in this round. Iran has come to these talks in a serious matter -- in a serious manner, I should say, and to its credit, Iran has defied the expectations of some by actually fulfilling the obligations under the Joint Plan of Action. You’ll recall that that Joint Plan of Action was predicated on Iran taking some steps to roll back their nuclear program in exchange for some limited relief of the sanctions regime that’s been imposed. The Iranians have also engaged in the comprehensive negotiations in a serious way and demonstrated some flexibility in the context of that negotiations.
But on some key issues so far Iran has yet to be able to make the decisions that are necessary to prove to the world that their nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. That ultimately is where the significant gaps remain.
Secretary Kerry is there to, again, assess the seriousness with which the Iranians are pursuing these negotiations and will return to make a recommendation to the President about the way forward.
Q Do you know when you expect that recommendation from Kerry? I mean, it doesn’t sound like he is going to be there too much longer.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific timeline in terms of the Secretary’s travel, but, yes, I would not anticipate him there -- remaining there through the week or anything.
Q Do you have any plans for Kerry to go to the Middle East to work on a possible cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, obviously we have been engaged at a variety of levels in this government with both the Israelis and Palestinians to try to resolve the ongoing violence there. We are seeking a de-escalation in that violence, and I don’t have any scheduling announcements to make as it relates to the Secretary’s travel but I know that senior State Department officials and even the President as recently as last Thursday was in touch with senior Israeli officials on this matter.
Q If I could just ask on other topic. John Cornyn and Henry Cuellar say that they’re going to be introducing legislation tomorrow aimed at addressing the situation on the border. And it appears as though, at least from the outline that they’ve sent out, that it meets a lot of the conditions that the President has called for. I’m wondering if the White House has been in touch with those lawmakers, if you’ve seen this legislation and, if so, whether you would support it.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to announce whether or not we’d support that legislation at this point. We’ll wait until it’s introduced and then we’ll review the draft. I know that senior White House officials have been in touch with a number of lawmakers and members of their staffs on Capitol Hill over the last couple of weeks that we’ve been dealing with this issue.
I don’t know of any specific conversations between Senator Cornyn and the White House or Congressman Cuellar and the White House. But our views on this topic are pretty well known; what we have communicated publicly is in line with what we’ve communicated privately on this. But we’ll certainly review their legislation when they introduce it, including as early as tomorrow.
But we certainly welcome constructive engagement from Republicans. After all, we’ve seen a lot of talk from Republicans about how urgent and pressing this situation is, but not a lot of action when it comes to acting on a proposal the President has now put forward -- a detailed proposal that the President put forward eight days ago now.
Q Josh, the supplemental request has been running into quite a bit of opposition on the Hill. What are your options if it doesn’t make it? What’s your Plan B?
MR. EARNEST: Right now we’re focused on Plan A. Again, Plan A is something that Republicans themselves have advocated for, right -- pressing this administration to mobilize resources to meet this urgent humanitarian need and enforce the law. That’s exactly what we’re seeking to do, and that’s exactly what these additional resources would allow us to do more effectively.
So we’re focused right now on getting Plan A done. Now, that’s not the only thing we’re doing. The President has already used some of his own executive authority to direct some resources from the interior to be focused on the border region. That has improved our ability to deal with this significant flow through our immigration court system that we’ve seen in the last few weeks. So there are some steps that we can take on our own, but additional resources are needed, and we’re hopeful that Congress will act soon to allow the administration to access them and deploy them in pursuit of mitigating this significant humanitarian situation.
Q Senator Feinstein says a change in regulation, not a change in the 2008 law, could speed the return home of some of the children. Is that your feeling as well?
MR. EARNEST: That’s certainly consistent with what we’ve advocated for. In answering this question a couple of times, what I’ve tried to articulate is what our ultimate goal here is. Some people have asked should we change the 2008 law, or should we just change the ability of the Secretary of Homeland Security or some other law enforcement official to enforce that law in a slightly different way. Ultimately, what we are looking to do is get greater authority to more efficiently enforce this law.
That means we would balance the legitimate humanitarian needs of those individuals who are apprehended along the border. We certainly would ensure that they receive the due process to which they are entitled, but once that due process has run its course, if it’s found that those individuals do not have a legal basis for remaining in the country, we would like the Secretary of Homeland Security to be able to exercise the discretion necessary to repatriate that individual or those individuals.
And that’s the ultimate outcome that we’d like to see. Whether it means rewriting the 2008 law or just writing a new law that would give greater authority and discretion to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the details in this are important, but either of those approaches could work if they are tailored with this goal in mind.
Let’s move around a little bit. Stephen.
Q Josh, you said that Israel has the right to defend itself, but does the administration believe that, given its capacity to fend off attacks with the Iron Dome and the density of population in Gaza, which makes civilian casualties inevitable, that it’s using appropriate force in this conflict, or does there come a point where it steps over the line?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have made clear, Stephen, is that no country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and that’s the reason that we support Israel’s right to defend itself. Certainly, the Iron Dome system that the United States has worked with Israel to set up to protect Israeli citizens has been effective. Well, I should say it’s been effective in protecting many of the civilians that are in harm’s way on the Israeli side of the border, but it is not designed to ultimately bring those rocket attacks to an end. And that is what is really important.
We need Hamas to stop launching rockets that are putting Israeli citizens in harm’s way.
Now, at the same time, the United States is also very concerned about those Palestinian civilians who are in harm’s way. And that’s why we’ve been urging Israeli political leaders and Palestinian leaders to do everything necessary to try to safeguard the safety and well-being of civilians on both sides of the border. That’s why we have said that nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put even more civilians at risk.
But, again, this is Israel’s decision to make, and Israeli political leaders certainly have the right -- even the responsibility -- to protect their citizens, and that’s what they’ll do.
Q Can you just clarify this? You said either approach could work, either rewriting the 2008 law, or writing a new law. It sounds like what you’re saying is that legislative action is necessary for you to be able to send these kids home quicker. In other words, you can’t do it with your executive authority alone, Congress has to pass something.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at the risk of getting too far into the weeds here, what I was trying to say is that the details are important. I don’t want to lead you to suggest that we don’t really care about the details. We do care about the details, but ultimately in pursuit of this goal, which is --
Q -- the same, Mexico and Central America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, which is to balance these competing equities, which is to meet the basic humanitarian needs of the individuals who are apprehended along the border, to ensure that they receive the due process to which they’re entitled, but also to enforce the law as efficiently as possible.
Q Right, but that's something you cannot do with your executive authority alone? That's what I’m asking.
MR. EARNEST: I think that there are some aspects of that that we are able to do with our executive authority alone. That is why, for example, the President has acted using his executive authority to deploy additional resources that are part of the immigration court system. That would allow us to process that backlog more quickly and would meet all of those goals.
What we are seeking are a couple of things: resources that would allow us to increase the number of personnel that are devoted to that effort. What we’re also seeking is additional authority that can be vested with the Secretary of Homeland Security so he can exercise his discretion and look for ways to more efficiently enforce the law -- that is to repatriate those individuals who the immigration courts have decided do not have a legal basis for remaining the country.
Q You said that you’ve reduced significantly the flow through the immigration ports already. You mean reduced them or accelerated it?
MR. EARNEST: I don't remember saying exactly that.
Q You said he’s moved -- he’s used his authority to move resources from the interior to the border and that has reduced significantly the flow through the immigration ports.
MR. EARNEST: What I’m trying -- thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify if that is, in fact, what I said. What those resources have done is they have helped address the problem that we’re seeing. What we have seen is a spike in individuals who are attempting to come across the southwest border. That has led to a backlog in our immigration court system. By deploying additional resources to that immigration court system we have been able to speed up that process.
That backlog, though, is still significant and remains. And so that's why we were asking Congress for significantly more resources to add some bandwidth to that court system, if you will, to try to make that system work more efficiently.
Q Just one last question. As the President considers what kinds of unilateral actions he’s going to take in the fall to ease deportations -- he’s asked for these recommendations -- how does this crisis affect that decision-making process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is simply that these are two separate but not completely unrelated issues. The challenge that we’re seeing in our current broken immigration system is that -- well, is a variety of things. One is there are some, including the President, who believe that we would benefit from additional resources being used to secure the border. There is a historic investment to border security that is contemplated in the common-sense bill that passed through the Senate. There are limitations on how much of that you can do using executive authority.
The open question that some have and that the President’s attorneys are investigating is what exactly can you do to address some of the other problems that are caused by our broken immigration system. Many of them are addressed in the Senate bill, but the question is whether or not there are additional steps that you can take to level the playing field for businesses.
There are a lot of businesses right now who are very rigorous about observing immigration law, and that creates an opening for some unscrupulous businesses to undercut them and to bypass that system and essentially hire undocumented labor for cheaper. That obviously is not playing on a level playing field and one that is not fair to business owners all across the country that are trying to do the right thing.
We also have this large question that looms about the population of undocumented immigrants that are already in this country. Many of them, as the President has discussed, have lived here for quite some time, and many of them have even been raising children here, have been paying taxes. These are individuals who in many cases are largely indistinguishable from so many other Americans. And the question is, how do you confront that challenge in a way that reflects our tradition as a country of immigrants but also a country that enforces the law?
So these are all very difficult policy problems. The real shame of all this is that the Senate has acted in bipartisan fashion to address many of these problems. So what the President has said is let’s look for ways -- since House Republicans have signaled that they are going to block that Senate legislation, that common-sense, bipartisan agreement, the President has said what can we do using only my executive authority to try to address some of these challenges. That's what the lawyers are hard at work on. I don't have a timeframe for you other than to say the President said he wanted to see a set of recommendations by the end of the summer and that he hopes to act shortly thereafter.
Q Is it fair to say that this crisis has made that decision-making process more politically fraught?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's hard to tell. It certainly has elevated the debate in a way that seems to sort of rise and fall based on other stories. So I think that we have -- in some ways, this is the largest sustained elevation of this storyline in the news media, at least, in quite some time. So in some ways, it does put Republicans in the spotlight and it makes it harder than ever for them to explain why they would block a common-sense proposal that would address so many of the problems that have been highlighted by this challenge. But it's hard for me to assess at this point whether or not this has a political impact on possible executive actions that would address these problems.
Q The Israelis have been accused by the Palestinians of acting disproportionately and, in some cases, engaging in war crimes. Is there anything the administration believes is valid about that criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Not that we have seen.
Q Secondly, in Vienna, senior administration officials described what the Iranians brought to the table as unworkable and inadequate, and said it would be hard to contemplate things like an extension without seeing some significant progress on key issues. I didn’t hear any of that in your original answer to Julie. You seemed to be more deferential or respectful of what the Iranians have brought to the table. Can you align this apparent disconnect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that there’s a disconnect. I think that there is -- over the course of these negotiations, we have seen them engage in these conversations in a serious way. That said, there are still substantial gaps that remain. And over the last couple of weeks we've seen negotiators hard at work to try to resolve or bridge those substantial gaps. There still remains quite a ways to go. What Secretary Kerry has been there to assess is whether or not those gaps are, in fact, able to be bridged.
Q How can something be serious if it's unworkable and inadequate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it means that the proposal that they’ve offered so far for bridging these gaps isn't sufficient to bridge the gap to our side. I think the point is the fact that the Iranians so far have not satisfied all of our concerns I think in some ways is self-evident. It doesn’t mean they have approached this in a way that's stopped short of being serious. They have been serious about this. But we haven't reached an agreement. What they’ve proposed so far does not address the concerns of the United States and the international community. But we're going to continue to pursue efforts to bridge the substantial gap that remains.
Q And as a result of their unworkable and inadequate proposal so far, does that make the administration less inclined to pursue and extension, or more inclined?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that is certainly part and partial of what Secretary Kerry is trying to assess in his conversations there this week.
Q What is the point of continuing to read out phone calls with foreign leaders that suggest perpetually, for weeks now, the prospect of additional economic sanctions against Russia without any action actually occurring?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's an indication -- I think it should be an unmistakable signal to the Russians that there are active discussions underway about possible additional economic costs that could be imposed on Russia. That happens to be a fact.
Q But they’ve heard that for the better part of three months now, since we were in Manila, the last stage of sanctions being applied. What is the point of continuing to discuss actions that the West finds vexing [if they] continue to happen in Ukraine and the sanctions never come?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we've seen in Ukraine over the course of the last probably couple of months, as you point out, is a lot of -- are a lot of mixed signals that we've seen from Russia, that there have been indications where there have been reports that troops were being withdrawn from the border with Ukraine --
Q Do you believe this is working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there are any number of reasons for us to be concerned about the continuing situation that we see on the ground in Ukraine. There is still a lot of violence there. There are still indications that the Russians haven't taken the necessary steps to close off the border, that there are still heavy weapons and materiel that's being provided from the Russian side over to pro-Russian separatists on the Ukrainian side. There continue to be concerns about whether or not President Putin is actually using the influence he has with those pro-Russian separatists to encourage them to abide by a cease-fire agreement.
Q Well, it's not --
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact that we're talking about imposing additional costs on the Russians is an indication that there’s more we’d like the Russians to do. That's true.
Q And I guess I'd just try to get to the heart of the matter -- why is perpetually talking about it better than not doing it -- better than doing it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what we would like to align here are Russia’s steps with possible consequences, and we've seen Russia do things -- like withdraw troops from the border momentarily -- and then redeploy troops, or reopen the border, or start resupplying pro-Russian separatists. There are a lot of mixed signals that we've seen from Russia. What we have made clear is that that's a risky business for Russia to be engaged in, that as long as they fail to contribute in a substantive way to de-escalate in that conflict they are only increasing the risk that the international community will impose further costs and further isolate Russia.
There have been reports about the impact that that has had on the Russian economy in terms of capital flight, in terms of the credit rating of some of Russia’s debt. So there have been costs that have been imposed. There have been consequences for the actions that the Russians have taken. And we've seen the results of some of those costs that have been imposed.
But, that's correct, there is more that we would like to see Russia do. And there will continue to be close coordination among the United States and our allies -- in Western Europe principally -- that put Russia at risk of sustaining further costs if they fail to act constructively to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
Q Josh, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl went back to work and the Army put out a statement saying he’s returning to regular duty, is how they called it, and saying that he can contribute to the mission. My question being, since there are strong allegations that he deserted his comrades -- and they haven’t been proven, there’s still an ongoing investigation -- why is it appropriate to let him go back to work?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for a personnel matter like that. As you point out, it's still under investigation and I don't want to be in a position of commenting on a matter that's still under active investigation by the Department of Defense.
Q But wouldn't they be -- with anyone in the government, not just the military, who is under investigation, they’d be suspended, you would wait for the investigation to be completed, wouldn't you?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the propriety of him going back to work I'd refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q Well, why don't we go back to go back to Iran. There’s a report in the Daily Beast suggesting that Iran’s economy is coming back strong right now in part because the U.S. and Western allies pulled back on sanctions so that the talks could go through. Was that a mistake, to ease up on sanctions because it could undercut our stand as we sit down for these negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: It was not. What we have seen is a very structured and specific plan from the P5-plus-1 to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Working with Congress and with our allies around the globe, this administration, under the President’s leadership, put in place the most aggressive sanctions regime against Iran. And what that did was that --
Q It brought them to the table, you’re saying, the tough sanctions because it was crippling them. But now it’s not crippling anymore. And so is that why you have Kerry aides saying they’re putting unworkable plans -- it got to the table, but now you take the boot off their throat and they’re putting unworkable plans on the table.
MR. EARNEST: Well, through this Joint Plan of Action that you’re referring to, what we did see is we saw the Iranians make significant steps toward implementing an agreement that actually rolled back their nuclear plan and rolled back their nuclear capability in a way that has demonstrated their seriousness in pursuit of these negotiations, but it has also succeeded in de-escalating tensions. They’ve rolled back their nuclear plan. This is something that the international community hasn’t been engaged in for a long time. That is what led us to these talks that are currently underway.
Now, there continue to be substantial gaps between the P5-plus-1 and Iran in terms of satisfying all of the concerns of the international community about their nuclear program. But there’s no question that the strategy that has been employed has succeeded in uniting the international community, has succeeded in bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table in a serious way, and has succeeded in rolling back the Iranian nuclear program.
Q Broader question on foreign policy -- this Wall Street Journal story that sort of puts together all of the crises that are going on -- Iranian talks in addition to the violence in Gaza you’ve been asked about today, the ongoing civil war in Syria. Obviously, nobody can say that these are all the President’s fault, but he is dealing with all of them, and the story basically says right at the top that U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous to deal with all of these challenges. So my question is, how does the White House react to the notion that the President is a bystander to all these crises?
MR. EARNEST: I think that there have been a number of situations in which you’ve seen this administration intervene in a meaningful way that has substantially furthered American interests and substantially improved the tranquility of the global community.
You saw the United States intervene in support -- or with the support of our allies and partners to rid Syria of their declared chemical weapons stockpile. For a long time, for decades, the Assad regime denied that they even had chemical weapons. Again, working with our partners and allies, he declared that they had these weapons, they worked with the international community to remove these weapons, and they’re currently being destroyed aboard a U.S. ship out at sea.
Over the weekend, you saw Secretary Kerry travel to Afghanistan and mediate an agreement between the two presidential candidates in Afghanistan, keeping that process alive and, in fact, advancing that process. Reaching an agreement to audit every single ballot in a presidential election in which 8 million ballots across the country were cast is a substantial, meaningful agreement and puts in sight a resolution of what had been a pretty dangerous disagreement.
And just last week you saw the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State meeting in China with their counterparts to work through the robust but complex relationship that the United States has with China. Those were serious negotiations, and there was a serious effort underway to advance American interests in the Asia Pacific.
So these are just three examples that I thought of off the top of my head that demonstrate that there are -- that even in the midst of what is a very complicated and dangerous world that the Obama administration thinks that this President’s leadership is succeeding in advancing American interests around the globe.
Q Last one on immigration. A couple of times you’ve said -- pushing House Republicans to act on comprehensive reform, you said the Senate bill addresses a lot of these challenges we’re seeing right now. What I’m curious about is what in the Gang of Eight bill would specifically prevent this surge in illegal immigration from Central America? What in that bill would stop this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if you listen to some Republicans, what they would say is that increasing our investment in border security would send a very clear message to people in Central America who are contemplating coming to this country illegally, or attempting to at least migrate to this country in a way that would allow them to enter the country without proper documentation. So an investment of 20,000 additional boots on the ground that's included in the Senate bill would certainly be -- based on the standards set by Republicans would be a tangible contribution.
Q -- but what specifically in the bill would actually accomplish --
MR. EARNEST: Well, but they do say that that would send a message --
Q You never quote them on immigration.
MR. EARNEST: Sure we do. Well, you guys do.
Q So I mean you really believe --
MR. EARNEST: You do.
Q You don't really believe them.
MR. EARNEST: Look, Governor Perry is the longest serving governor of Texas, and Texas is the state with the longest border of any state in the country, and he says --
Q There’s nothing specific in the bill.
MR. EARNEST: He says that -- he says specifically that the symbol of putting additional resources on the border would prevent the flow of immigration, of illegal immigration across the border. So maybe Governor Perry is wrong about that. But the President believes in border security and is willing to support an investment in it.
Q I want to follow up on Gaza and ask the question slightly differently. How do you explain the high number of Palestinian casualties -- 170 dead so far, half of them are civilians, 36 are children? Does the administration believe that Israel is acting within international law and without the Fourth Geneva Convention for protection of civilians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nadia, what we have done is we have encouraged leaders on both sides of this issue to provide -- or at least demonstrate some concern for the safety and well-being of innocent civilians. We have seen Hamas repeatedly in the last couple of weeks fire rockets that are aimed squarely at civilians, attempting to inflict terrible damage.
Q Because of the Iron Dome, there are no civilian casualties.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Because of the Iron Dome, thank God, there is no Israeli casualties. I’m just asking about the Palestinian side. How do you respond to the high casualties of Palestinians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have articulated our concern about the casualties that have been sustained on both sides over the last several weeks. We have concern about the casualties sustained by civilians on the Palestinian side as well. That’s why we’re encouraging both sides to exhibit as much restraint as possible.
But we do that with the full knowledge that it is completely unacceptable for rockets to continue to be fired from Palestinian Territory, aimed squarely at Israeli civilians. And that is why we have called repeatedly on Hamas to end that rocket fire. And we will continue to encourage Israelis -- at the same time while respecting their right to defend their country and their civilians, we’ve urged them to exhibit some concern for the lives of civilians as well.
Q You say the President wants to mediate, but is the White House calling for an immediate cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would like to see a cease-fire along the lines of the cease-fire that both sides agreed to and was facilitated by the United States about a year and a half ago; that that certainly is the kind of agreement that we would like to see in that area that would restore some -- at least some measure of peace in the area.
Q Let me follow up on that, because you had said on Friday that the White House wanted to leverage relationships in the region to bring about a de-escalation to help perhaps get a return to a cease-fire. And yet, as you know, the situation has changed significantly with the key players there -- certainly Egypt with new leadership, a new President there. Turkey certainly doesn’t have a relationship with Hamas; in fact, you could say they fractured the relationship. So can you be more specific about what the options are for leveraging relationships or just more generally bringing about a cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to chronicle all the kinds of conversations that have taken place between senior administration officials and leaders in that region. You are underscoring an important point, which is that there are a lot of cross-currents when it comes to the complicated web of relationships that exist in that region of the world. But what the United States continues to do is to encourage both sides to pursue a path toward de-escalating this conflict. And that includes working with other interested parties -- some of whom may have more influence than others -- on either side to articulate that point of view as well, and to reinforce the need for both sides to pursue this path toward de-escalation.
Right now, the violence that we’re seeing doesn’t serve either side well at all. And that is why we are going to be engaged in an effort to facilitate a de-escalation of the violence there.
Q But when you talk about what you call cross-currents with the change in the situation there, does it mean that the U.S. influence is less now than it was in 2012? Is it more difficult for us to use our influence there to bring about a cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d actually make the case to you that it’s more important the United States play a role, given the fast-changing nature of the relationships that exists there, having a country with the credibility and stature of the United States of America to work with the variety of actors in the region to try to facilitate the kind of cease-fire agreement that we saw that was effective in November of 2012. So I think it’s more important than ever that the United States continue to play a role in trying to facilitate the de-escalation and the violence on both sides.
Q Then why the hesitation to send Secretary Kerry? Or is there a hesitation to send Secretary Kerry?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that there has been hesitation to send Secretary Kerry. I think that there is a desire to maximize our leverage in this situation to try to get to a place where we can have some success in reaching a cease-fire agreement. But over the last several days, Secretary Kerry has been in China, negotiating with his Chinese counterparts in the context of the security and economic dialogue there. Then he traveled straight to Afghanistan where he mediated this agreement between the two presidential candidates. Then he was on to Vienna where he was sitting with his Iranian counterpart a couple of times in the context of the P5-plus-1 negotiations. So his dance card has been pretty full the last few days. But in terms of additional visits, I don’t have anything to announce from here.
But the United States remains fully engaged in this region. This is a priority. We stand with our ally, Israel, and we will protect their right to defend their country. But we remain very concerned about the violence and the well-being of civilians on both sides of that dispute.
Q And just a quick one on the border issue. HHS Secretary Burwell met with governors from both parties yesterday and apparently governors from both parties expressed concern about the cost to states if some of these children come in -- education and so on. She didn’t say anything coming out, but can you tell us anything about these conversations or any conversations that the President may have had with some of these governors and what he has said to them to allay their concerns about, in particular, the economic impact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you have laid out there is yet another consequence of Congress’s failure to deal with our broken immigration system, specifically as it relates to this one particular issue that we’ve seen arise in the last few weeks on the southwest border. Many of the biggest problems could be addressed with the passage of the supplemental appropriations request that the administration has put forward.
So some of the concerns I think the governors were expressing is if you have this significant backlog in the immigration court system, that means that there will be more people who are temporarily remaining in the United States -- in some cases, that means temporarily being in the community.
Now, we have been clear about what our priorities are: national security and the safety of communities is a top priority. And we’ll continue to implement the law in a way that’s in line with those priorities. But the other way that we can address some of the concerns that governors have raised is to reduce the backlog in the immigration court system to allow that system to operate more efficiently and more effectively.
So what we have included in our supplemental appropriations request is funding for more judges and prosecutors and asylum officials who can process those claims more quickly to reduce that backlog and address some of the concerns that the governors have raised.
So those governors who have been most outspoken in articulating their concerns about the consequences of the broken immigration system for their state, we certainly would welcome them to our side of the effort to encourage Congress to pass the supplemental appropriations request the President put forward at the beginning of last week, but also to join the broader fight to pass the common-sense immigration reform proposal that passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
Q But no conversations you can tell us about beyond obviously Governor Perry and Governor Hickenlooper?
MR. EARNEST: No, no specific conversations between the President and other governors at this point.
Q And I assume you were there. Do you know if perhaps Governor Hickenlooper maybe threw a pool game or two? (Laughter.) There’s been some back-and-forth about that and the $20 that was exchanged.
MR. EARNEST: I would be surprised if Governor Hickenlooper would say that he threw a pool game to the President of the United States. And I can tell you that there is no one who would be more upset about that than the President of the United States.
Let’s move around a little bit. Jessica.
Q On Egypt -- I know Egypt was just invited to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit after not being invited in January, and the White House said that's because it’s now reinstated by the African Union. But aside from that, what’s the importance to the White House of having Egypt at the summit, and not only for the United States but for the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one of the goals of this U.S.-Africa Summit to facilitate the relationships that the United States maintains with all of the countries on that continent. There is enormous economic potential that exists certainly for the citizens of those countries, but also for businesses in this country.
The other thing that we would like to do is nurture some of the advocates for democracy that we see in these countries. In some cases, those advocates are pretty aggressively squelched. What we would like to see is we want to encourage the development of governing systems that are respectful of basic human rights, and certainly the kinds of rights that are so central to our system of government in this country.
So we’ll have a lot more to say about the value of the U.S.-Africa Summit and some of the goals that we hope to achieve in the context of those meetings. But we certainly welcome the participation of all of those who will participate in the meeting.
Q Is this an opportunity to talk Gaza on the sidelines?
MR. EARNEST: It’s too early for me to say at this point what kinds of sideline conversations will be had in the context of that meeting.
Q Josh, I want to go back to something you just said to Ed. Do you really believe that this President’s foreign policy has contributed to what you called the “tranquility of the global community”? Do you really think at this point in time you can talk about the tranquility of the global community?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there are certain places where the United States -- just based on those three examples that I cited before -- where we can certainly cite tangible progress that's been made in pursuit of American interests. Ridding Syria of chemical weapons and ensuring that they no longer are a proliferation risk is certainly clearly within the interest of the United States of America. Resolving --
Q You don’t think Syria is tranquil right now, do you?
MR. EARNEST: No, I didn't say that either. The other thing is that resolving the difference of opinion between the presidential candidates in Afghanistan certainly will allow us to move forward with American policy.
There is this outstanding question about the bilateral security agreement that is the source of some concern here, and it has a certain -- a significant impact on what our military posture will look like after the end of this year. That certainly was important progress that was made by Secretary Kerry just this weekend. And the kind of robust engagement that you saw between U.S. officials and Chinese officials in the context of the S&ED is also important to advancing U.S. interests in that region of the world.
So I would acknowledge readily that there is a lot of conflict and instability in hotspots all over the globe, but it has not eliminated the United States’ ability or the President’s ability to look out for and even advance American interests in a variety of regions across the globe.
Q But, Josh, you’ve had -- Attorney General Eric Holder came out and he said that the inflow of Westerners into the civil war in Syria is the most frightening thing -- “more frightening than anything I have seen as Attorney General.”
You’ve had the foreign policy experts in the Wall Street Journal talk about how this is instability not seen since the 1970s.
MR. EARNEST: They're not exactly an impartial source, though.
Q A terrorist group -- well, it’s the front page of the Wall Street Journal. This was not a partisan -- these were not just partisan foreign policy experts. I think that you see a wide range of people looking at basically an all-out war, what’s looking like an all-out war in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. You see the situation with a terrorist group taking over vast territory in Iraq and in Syria. You see Russian aggression in Ukraine. You see concerns about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. It doesn't seem like a time to be touting tranquility on the international scene. Do you think the President’s foreign policy bears any responsibility for any of this? Or if there’s anything that he can do about any of this?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President has been really clear about is that he will allow one core principle to guide his thinking about what we can do to advance U.S. interests in each of these hotspots that you’ve mentioned. And that's the national security interest of the United States of America.
And again, when it came to eliminating Bashar al-Assad’s declared chemical weapons stockpile, we’ve made substantial progress in advancing American interests. When it comes to mediating an agreement between two competing presidential candidates in Afghanistan who are prepared to sort of take that process off the rails, is a tangible contribution to American interests.
So there is an important role for the United States to play. The U.S. influence continues to be important to resolving so many of the situations that you cited. That is why people often refer to and continue to refer to the United States as the one indispensable country in the world.
As you point out, there are large countries around the globe that have substantial strategic or even economic influence, but they aren’t involved in each of those situations that you referenced. In each of the situations that you referenced, people are asking a legitimate question about what’s the proper role for the United States’ involvement.
And as the President considers each of those situations, he considers at the core the consequences it has for American national security. That will continue to be the way that he works his way through these very difficult and complicated circumstances.
Q And can I ask you just to clarify what you’ve been asked several times here today about the negotiations with Iran? Is the President open to the idea of an extension, or is July 20th a true deadline in those nuclear talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, July 20th is a true deadline, and that was part of the Joint Plan of Action.
Q No extensions?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there has been a lot of talk of extensions. And what we have said is that this is part of what Secretary Kerry has traveled there to assess, is whether or not substantive progress can be made. So we’ll make that assessment based on the conversations that he’s had there. He is going to report back to the President, and then we’ll be able to give you an update about whether or not an extension is something that we would either find necessary or even desirable.
Q And do you think Congress is going to go along? I mean, if Congress was ready to go ahead with tougher sanctions, the administration convinced Democratic leaders in Congress to hold off and let these talks go forward, is Congress going to go along with a further extension if that’s the route you’re going to go?
MR. EARNEST: As you point out, Congress has been a very important partner in this process for quite some time. It’s because of the sanctions that Congress passed that the President has worked to implement that we were able to put so much pressure on Iran in the first place to bring them to the negotiating table. Bringing them to the negotiating table resulted in them rolling back part of their nuclear program.
So Congress has been an important partner in this process all along, and we’re going to continue to keep Congress in the loop as we evaluate the ongoing conversations there and any plans beyond July 20th.
Q Over the weekend, Governor Martin O’Malley, who is a potential presidential candidate, when asked about these children down at the border, said, we are not a country that should send children back to certain death. Does the Governor have a legitimate point there? And does the President have any reservations about sending these children back to some pretty violent circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, I’m glad you asked that question because I think there are two important points for people to understand as they’re taking a look at this situation. The first is pretty simple. The President has made clear that we’re going to enforce the law. Enforcing the law is obviously an important principle and something that the President swore to do when he took office. It also serves as an important deterrent. We’ve made very clear that parents, either in the U.S. or in Central America, should not entrust their children with strangers, criminals, to make the long journey from Central America to the southwest border with the United States.
Q Right, but the kids are here. So you’re going to send them back to some pretty dangerous conditions.
MR. EARNEST: Right, well, what I’m saying is that we have sent a clear message to those parents who are contemplating whether or not they should send their kids on this dangerous journey, and articulating our commitment to enforcing the law should serve as an effective deterrent; so should actually enforcing the law. So when there are those parents who hear of children being returned after they have gone through their due process in the immigration courts, it serves as an effective deterrent. And that will effectively make the case --
Q Do you think that will stop the coyotes from sending those kids up here? Just by sending them back, that that’s going to put that --
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no, Jim -- I said an effective deterrent as it relates to parents who are contemplating making this kind of decision. And that’s a clear case that we’ve made, and that case is only strengthened when it becomes clear that children are returned.
Now, let me say one other thing about this -- and this is important as well, and this more directly goes to what Governor O’Malley said: These children and other immigrants who are attempting to enter the country without documentation will go through the immigration process, and that means their claims of asylum will be considered by an immigration judge and by asylum officials. What that means is it means that if an immigration judge determines that they face a credible threat of death upon their return to their home country, then -- again, I’m not an immigration judge, but it is likely that the immigration judge will find that that person should be granted humanitarian relief.
Q Because earlier you had said that the vast majority or the majority of these kids probably won’t qualify for some kind of legal status --
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q -- but what you are saying here is that some of those kids are going to be allowed to stay, that they will likely have some legal standing if it’s determined by those judges that they will be allowed to stay.
MR. EARNEST: We have said from the beginning that we are going to respect the basic due process to which these individuals are entitled. That continues to be true, and that is what -- again, and that is part and partial of the law that we’re enforcing.
Q And what do you make of -- you heard these comments from Senator Coburn and others, well, we just spent X million dollars, we can all buy them first-class tickets and just put them all on a plane and send them back. What does the White House think of those comments?
MR. EARNEST: I hadn’t heard of that rather novel suggestion before. We’ve been pretty clear about the way that we think this should work, which is we should respect the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals who are apprehended along the border. That means, in some cases, setting up detention facilities that are operated by HHS that sort of fall in line with generally accepted standards to care for those individuals who have been apprehended, and in some cases children. HHS has operating facilities like this in a number of communities.
The other thing that we would like to see is we would like to see this system work more efficiently so that after they’ve gone through the immigration process, that these individuals can be returned. The other thing that we have also done is worked with our partners in Central America. The Vice President took an important trip there a few weeks ago. I know that Secretary Kerry was there just last week, I believe, and had conversations with Central American leaders about what they can do to try to stem this flow at the source. That means improving the security situation in many of these countries. It also means working with these countries to set up a system of repatriating individuals who are being returned from the U.S. back to their home country.
All of this will serve to enforce the law and will serve as a deterrent to those who may be contemplating trying to enter the country illegally.
Q And Jon mentioned this -- Eric Holder’s interview over the weekend where he talked about Americans and Europeans going to Syria being the most -- or more fighting than anything he’s heard or seen as Attorney General. What’s the administration doing about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of things that I’m sure that Secretary Johnson could tell you about in more detail. Secretary Johnson, Attorney General Holder, other senior law enforcement officials in this administration have been in close touch with our partners around the globe to confront this challenge. This is also a challenge that is facing -- or a threat that is facing other Western countries as well. Many of these individuals who have traveled to Syria don’t just hold American passports, they may hold the passports of some Western allies of the United States as well.
So we’re working closely in consultation with our allies to monitor these individuals. So there’s --
Q Does the administration believe that -- or does the intelligence community believe that those Americans and Europeans are coming back -- that those Americans are coming back? Once they go to Syria, they come back to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly is a risk associated with that, and I think that’s the risk that the Attorney General was talking about. But this is a matter that the administration has been talking about for quite some time. We’ve been focused on this, and there have been a number of consultations that we’ve been engaged in, from -- senior White House officials have been talking to their counterparts about this. We also have had other intelligence officials and other senior law enforcement officials engaged in a coordinated effort with the international community to mitigate this threat. But there is no doubt that the threat that the Attorney General was referring to is real.
Let’s move around a little bit. Bill.
Q Josh, the first President to put forward a comprehensive immigration reform plan is President George W. Bush. He’s also the President who signed this trafficking bill that you’ve been talking a lot about. Has President Obama reached out to President Bush and asked for his help in maybe convincing other Republicans to get on board here?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any presidential conversations to read out to you at this point.
Q Don’t you think he might have, or should have? Wouldn’t that help?
MR. EARNEST: Well, former President Bush is certainly not the only Republican to articulate his strong support for common-sense immigration reform. We saw 14 members, Republican members of the United States Senate vote for a common-sense immigration proposal. So this is not -- President Bush is not unique among members of the Republican Party in terms of his support for immigration reform along the lines of the compromise that was passed through the Senate. And we certainly welcome the outspoken advocacy of anybody, a Democrat or Republican, who supports this proposal.
Q Questions on two different subjects. First, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has called for a boycott of the Iftar dinners that both the President himself and other government agencies are holding tonight, citing both those strikes in Gaza as well as the allegations that the NSA had spied on Muslim leaders. Can I get your comment on what you think about that?
MR. EARNEST: The goal of the Iftar dinner here tonight at the White House is to observe a religious tradition that Muslims all around the globe are observing at this time of Ramadan. It also is an opportunity for the President and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the important role that Muslim Americans play in American communities all across the country. There are immigrants to this country from a variety of regions of the world who are Muslim.
And it is important for every American to understand that they are critical to the success of our country and interwoven into the basic fabric that makes the United States of America such a unique place to live. Tonight’s dinner is an opportunity to pay tribute to that contribution, and we certainly respect the differences that some people may have on this -- on these matters. But we would not want that to overshadow the efforts of the President and other senior administration officials to pay tribute to the contribution that so many American Muslims play in their communities.
Q A second one. Just on infrastructure, obviously, the administration back in April proposed closing tax loopholes to pay for needed infrastructure projects. It seems quite unlikely that Congress is going to act on any kind of tax reform at this time. Is the administration open to other funding mechanisms to achieve the public investment in infrastructure that the President has been calling for?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes so strongly in the importance of keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent that we would certainly entertain other proposals.
We’ve been very clear about what we think is the best way to do this. It’s a common-sense proposal that we think deserves bipartisan support. As you know, it entails closing tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well connected, and using that revenue to fund infrastructure projects that everybody benefits from all across the country. It’s a pretty common-sense proposal. We’d like to see some support from members of Congress for it, but if there are other ideas that people want to put forward, we’ll certainly open to considering them as well.
Q Can I follow on what Juliette asked about? The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee says the reason they don't want to come to any Iftar dinners by government is “given the government’s condoning of the current slaughter of Palestinians in Palestine and the spying on American Arab and Muslims domestically.” Are they wrong on that? Are they right? Is the U.S. government condoning the death of the Palestinians? And do you spy on Arab Americans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to the Palestinian citizens and civilians, let me just take this opportunity to restate our concern about the safety and welfare of innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict.
We remain concerned and are encouraging the leaders of both sides to reflect that concern for those individuals’ safety as they consider the best way to de-escalate this conflict. That’s one of the reasons that not just the United States, but people all around the world I think would have some hesitation about a ground offensive by the Israelis, is that it would put at risk even more civilians. So we would like to see a de-escalation of this conflict for the benefit of civilians on both sides of that conflict.
As it relates to the recent reports of spying on Muslim Americans, I would point out that unlike some other countries, the United States of America doesn’t target individuals based on their race or ethnicity or religion. That is a principle to which we scrupulously adhere and that hasn’t changed. For more details on this, I would encourage you to check in with the Director of National Intelligence.
April, and then Roger, and then we’ll call it a day.
Q I have a couple of questions on Africa. I want to follow up on what Jessica had asked you in another line. When it comes to investment, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, there’s been a concern for many decades that those who make promises to sub-Saharan Africa to build, to do what have you there, sometimes they don’t fulfill their promises and take more than they give. Is there going to be some type of mechanism through this conference that will be set up that will gauge and oversee the commitments of investment that’s made into sub-Saharan Africa?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to have the opportunity to talk about this a lot more in a couple of weeks as that summit comes closer. But the whole reason that we are having a summit like this is because there is plenty of common ground to be seized. There’s an opportunity for African nations to benefit from greater collaboration and coordination with American interests, both governmental and private sector. And there certainly is an opportunity for American businesses to benefit from the large markets that exist in many of these African countries.
So facilitating greater cooperation and coordination between the United States and these nations in Africa is an important national priority and can make important strides forward not just for the United States, but for a number of private-sector interests in the United States.
Q And I raise that because you said something really important. You said “to benefit” -- there’s an opportunity to benefit. During the Bush years, there was strong concern that China was doing a lot of investment into some African countries and not fulfilling its obligations and its promises. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m coming back asking, are there mechanisms going to be put in place or in place to kind of gauge the investment you put in, but are you taking out more than you’re giving to the country?
MR. EARNEST: And, again, what I think I would say is that there’s an opportunity for both the United States and private interests in the U.S. as well as the wide range of African nations who will be participating in the summit to benefit from a stronger relationship between our country and theirs.
Q All right, and lastly, on the Sudan. The EU is placing sanctions -- South Sudan -- on two of the leaders in South Sudan. Could you talk to me about the White House’s thoughts about that, and are you looking for stiffer sanctions, stiffer actions yourself?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to telegraph specific sanctions that the United States might be contemplating, but the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, April, is one that we have been very focused on for quite some time. We have worked closely with the international community, our partners and allies in the region, including in Africa, to try to deescalate that conflict and to get both sides to put down their arms.
So much of the violence that we’ve seen inside South Sudan has had a terrible impact on their economy and on civilians in that country. And we are working with the international community to try to restore some civility and some measure of peace to that country. Those efforts are ongoing and those are efforts that we’re pursuing with our allies and with partners in the region.
Roger, you get the last one.
Q Thank you. Back to the highway bill. The President, as you mentioned earlier, introduced the $302 billion bill but the House and Senate are going in far different directions, and they are much less generous -- more ambitious, I should say. Is the President okay with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been a number of proposals that have been put forward for keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent. What we’re focused on right now is making sure that it doesn’t expire. If it does, as I mentioned at the top, that would put at risk nearly 700,000 jobs across the nation and many active highway and transit projects would be threatened if the trust fund -- if Congress fails to pass a new transportation bill before the trust fund expires.
So we are -- we continue to be concerned about this situation and that’s why we’re urging Congress to take action. We’ve put forward our -- what we think is the best way for us to address this problem over the long term, but it’s also a priority of this administration to make sure that the trust fund does not expire.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good Monday.
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November 22, 2014
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November 20, 2014
The President Awards the National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation
November 20, 2014
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