Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 07/29/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:25 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Tuesday. I have one, quick piece of business to dispense with before we begin with questions.
As you’ll recall, yesterday I began by speaking about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on extending the life of the Medicare Trust Fund. Today we have some additional good news. There is now available new data showing how the Affordable Care Act is helping millions of seniors save on their prescription drugs. The Affordable Care Act makes Medicare prescription drugs more affordable by gradually closing the gap in coverage known as the doughnut hole where beneficiaries had to pay the full cost of their medications out of pocket.
Information released today by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that more than 8.2 million seniors and people with disabilities who are covered by Medicare continue to enjoy prescription drug savings as a result of the Affordable Care Act, saving a total of $11.5 billion since 2010. That comes out to an average of about $1,400 per beneficiary in doughnut hole discounts.
Now, in my home state of Missouri, where the President is traveling today, seniors have saved more than $229 million on prescription drugs since 2010, thanks to the Affordable Care Act -- $229 million goes a long way in the state of Missouri. More than 34,000 seniors in the “Show-Me” state are seeing savings in the doughnut hole just in the first six months of this year alone.
So, more good news about the impact that the Affordable Care Act is having on people all across the country -- in this case, senior citizens.
So with that, Jim, do you want to get us started?
Q Thanks, Josh. Thanks for the doughnut hole discounts. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: They may not be good for your health, actually. (Laughter.)
Q Diplomats in Europe are saying that the EU has adopted new economic sanctions against the Russians. When can we expect the U.S. to follow these? Tony Blinken said yesterday that we would come afterwards. When do we expect to see U.S. sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I can tell you that -- I don't want to get ahead of a formal announcement from European leaders, but for months the United States, at a variety of levels, going all the way up to the President, has been engaged in an effort to work in close coordination with our allies to impose economic costs on Russia for their destabilizing activities in Ukraine. We welcome these early indications that European countries are going to take additional steps today to impose additional economic costs on Russia. We believe that that's welcome news, and we certainly look forward to continuing to coordinate with them as they move forward.
In terms of economic sanctions that -- additional economic sanctions that could be imposed by the United States, let me say one other thing about this. You’ll recall that just over two weeks ago, the President did make an announcement about sectoral sanctions that the United States was putting in place against Russia. And we do anticipate that the announcement from the Europeans later today will track pretty closely with the previous announcements that have been made by this administration.
In terms of additional U.S. sanctions, we have made clear that those -- that additional sanctions and additional costs could be imposed on Russia, and we do anticipate that we'll have some news on that soon.
MR. EARNEST: As soon as today.
Q As soon as today. Okay. Can you talk a little bit about this formal accusation that Russia violated the 1987 missile treaty, and why the administration has made a determination to make that formal accusation now, since it has been an issue for quite some time?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, it's correct, the United States has determined, according to an intelligence analysis, that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Specifically, the 2014 Compliance Report, which is something that we have filed on an annual basis, includes the determination that the Russian Federation is in violation of that treaty and that treaty’s obligations not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.
This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now. The United States is committed to the viability of the INF Treaty. It is our view that the INF Treaty and the agreements that are part of it are in the broad national security interest of every party that has agreed to that treaty. That includes the United States, obviously. It includes Russia. It includes the other 11 successor states of the former Soviet Union that are also parties to that treaty. The adherence to that treaty also provides important safeguards for our allies in Western Europe and even some of our allies in the Asia Pacific region as well.
So this is a priority. This is a concern, a serious concern that we have raised with the Russians on a number of occasions through our standard diplomatic channels. I know that there have been reports that the President informed President Putin by a letter of our determination and as an indication that this is a matter that merits the serious attention of the leaders of both the United States and Russia.
Q But Congress has been asking the President and the administration to do this for some time. Why now and not before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these determinations are rooted primarily in the kind of intelligence analysis that I can’t discuss from the podium. But it is true that this is something that we have been reviewing for some time and has been the subject of conversations within the administration and with members of Congress as well.
Q The House is moving on a pared-down immigration -- I’m sorry -- border security bill today, I believe $690 million, quite a fraction of what you had asked for. And it also contained some changes in the 2008 law. In the statement of administration policy yesterday, you said that the House bill injects partisan provisions that are unworkable and would increase cost without solving the problem. I wonder what it is that that refers to, since the administration itself had asked for changes in the 2008 law, along the lines of what the House bill does.
MR. EARNEST: There’s a lot there in that question. Let me try to take those elements one at a time. First, as it relates to language where you ended up, it is correct that almost a month ago -- I think even more than a month ago now -- the administration did put forward a specific request for Congress to take action in granting additional authority that could be used by the Secretary of Homeland Security to incorporate some flexibility in enforcing the law so that we could actually do a better job of enforcing that law more efficiently.
The language that has been put forward by Senator Cornyn and Congressman Cuellar doesn’t -- it actually undermines the desire for more flexibility. It actually puts in place a couple of arbitrary and stringent restrictions that, for example, require immigration judges to process certain cases within seven days. That sort of inflexible approach only risks bottling up the system further.
We have seen in other policymaking contexts that adding arbitrary deadlines to an already overburdened system only makes the problem worse. And we are concerned that by putting in place these kinds of arbitrary deadlines, it puts the due process rights of those who are going through these proceedings at risk. It also could force the court system to divert resources from other higher-priority cases -- the cases of criminals or others that pose or could pose a national security threat or a public safety threat -- and direct them toward trying to meet this arbitrary seven-day restriction.
So rather than granting the administration additional flexibility to more effectively enforce the law, it puts in place arbitrary constraints that make the enforcement of that law more difficult. And that’s what our concern is.
Q Josh, the SAP refers to partisan provisions, and the example you just provided is from a bipartisan bill. So how can that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, as far as I know, I think that that “bipartisan bill” was supported by one Democrat. So maybe I have a more stringent definition of bipartisanship, at least in this case. So that’s the first thing.
In terms of the broader supplemental package that the House has put forward today, you’re right that it falls well short of the resource request that this administration has put forward. We’ve seen a lot of House Republicans booking themselves on cable television to talk about what a serious problem this is at the border, but yet they are refusing to take the kind of action that would ensure the administration has the necessary resources to deal with what they themselves describe as a serious problem.
The other thing that is notable -- and again, this piece of legislation was introduced just shortly before I walked out here, so I only got a top-line briefing on this -- but it is my understanding that this package does not include funding for wildfires. As you know, there's a very serious situation out West where there are communities that are threatened in the midst of a pretty challenging wildfire season. This administration needs additional resources to make sure that we can protect homes and communities from those wildfires, and we would like to have additional resources to do that.
I would also make note of the fact that we were just talking yesterday about the valuable contribution that the Iron Dome system has made to protecting the lives of innocent civilians in our allies’ -- in Israel, one of our closest, strongest allies. It is unfortunate that this Republican proposal does not include the requested funding for Iron Dome.
As you know, that system has been used to great effect in recent weeks, unfortunately. It’s had to be used in recent weeks to protect the lives of innocent civilians -- in this case, innocent Israeli civilians. And the Israeli government has made a request of the U.S. government for additional funding so that additional resources could be devoted to restocking that system, and we’re disappointed that Republicans did not include that in the proposal as we had requested.
Q Josh, on the INF Treaty, what exactly did the Russians do? Did they launch a cruise missile? And what sort of response are you getting to your complaints from them?
MR. EARNEST: Steve, I’m not able to detail the intelligence behind the analysis that led to the determination that was included in the 2014 Compliance Report, so it’s difficult for me to answer in a lot of detail the basics of your question. But let me repeat that there is an obligation on both countries -- on all parties, I should say, who have signed that treaty not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles. We have raised concerns with the Russians about the importance of complying with this aspect of the treaty, and I guess suffice it to say that the response that we received from them was unsatisfactory.
Q Separately, Israeli TV says all parties have agreed to a Gaza cease-fire. Is this something you’re aware of?
MR. EARNEST: That is not something I was aware of before I walked out here, but that may have been a breaking-news item on Israeli television. As you know, this administration and the President and Secretary Kerry have all been pushing both sides to impose an immediate cease-fire out of concern for the well-being of innocent civilians on both sides of that border. So we’ll have to look into those reports, but if true, it would certainly reflect what this administration has been encouraging both sides to pursue.
Q And lastly, Speaker Boehner says, “We have no plans to impeach the President.” He called it a scam to raise money, raising this issue. Was it a scam?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if that’s the case, then I suspect that there may be members of the Republican conference that didn’t receive the memo. We’ve seen comments in recent months from Congressman Steve King from Iowa, Congressman Ted Yoho from Florida, Congressman Lou Barletta from Pennsylvania, the distinguished Congressman Steve Stockman from Texas; his fellow Texan, Blake Farenthold, has raised this prospect. We’ve even seen Kerry Bentivolio from Michigan call this a “dream come true.” I think that was about nine or 10 months ago. So it’s an indication that if this is the case then maybe the Speaker should direct that attention and that message to members of his own conference.
Q On Ukraine again, the fact that Ukraine has now fired missiles at the rebels, does the U.S. see that as an escalation of this, and doesn’t that just raise the possibility that Russia will use its own missiles that the U.S. is so concerned about as it concerns the treaty?
MR. EARNEST: We have seen evidence to indicate that the Russians have fired weapons from the Russian side of the border aimed squarely at Ukrainian forces. That’s something that the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, mentioned from this podium just yesterday. That does reflect what we think is an escalation in this conflict, and it only underscores the importance of the international community taking action to impose further economic costs on the Russians to get them to reevaluate their strategy in Ukraine.
Q No, I mean Ukraine firing missiles now at the rebels. Apparently they’ve used ballistic missiles as well.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I misunderstood your question.
Q That’s okay.
MR. EARNEST: I was referring to previous reports that Russian forces on the Russian side of the border were targeting the Ukrainian military forces on the Ukrainian side of the border.
Q Is the U.S. concerned that Ukraine is now dangerously escalating this past the point that it could or should?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to talk about those specific reports. It is our view, however, that military actions that are taken by the Ukrainian military reflect the aggressive efforts of Russian separatists to perpetuate the violence in that region of the world. So I’m not in a position to talk about those specific reports, but we do continue to be concerned about ongoing violence there and we do encourage the Russians to use their influence with the Russian-backed separatists to lay down their arms and to try to resolve their differences diplomatically.
Q And today we heard Kerry again emphasizing a diplomatic solution, saying that Putin has all of these choices. But hasn’t this now gotten past that point? I mean, Russian has contributed to the downing of a commercial plane and has annexed part of its neighbor. So at this point what would a diplomatic solution even look like in the U.S.’s view?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said is that it is possible for us to set up a political dialogue that would allow the people of Ukraine to determine the future of their country. There is a debate in that country that raises questions about what sort of relationship Ukraine should have with their neighbor Russia. It raises questions about what sort of relationship Ukraine should have with their economic partners in Western Europe.
Now, many of those questions have been resolved, because in the last six months or so -- maybe it’s a little bit longer than that, eight or nine months -- we’ve seen the election of a new Ukrainian President; we’ve seen that Ukrainian President sign an association agreement with the Europeans that was the subject of so much dispute, that led to the departure of the previous President. So that is an indication that the Ukrainian people do want to have a strong relationship with Europe.
The point that the United States and much of the international community has been trying to make is their strong relationship with Western Europe shouldn’t -- doesn't necessarily mean that they have to have an adversarial or contentious relationship with their neighbor Russia. It is possible for the Ukrainian people to have strong relationships with both. Unfortunately, what we have seen is we’ve seen the Russians feel undermined by the desire of the Ukrainian people to have a relationship with the West. And that is what has led them to unnecessarily and improperly interfere with the affairs of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people.
So, ultimately, what we would like to see is a way to resolve this politically so that the Ukrainian people do continue to hold the authority to make decisions about the future of their country, and that they have the freedom to make decisions about what they would like their relationship to be with countries around the world -- even holding open the prospect that Ukraine has a strong and thriving relationship with Russia. Their strong relationship with the West would not preclude their close ties to their neighbor.
Q Really quickly, the Russian Foreign Minister just announced that he’s agreed with John Kerry to work toward ways to implement the agreements in Geneva back in April. How does the U.S. view these announcements periodically from the Foreign Minister? Do you see that as positive, or do you just see it as more lip service that really means nothing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have seen throughout this conflict in Ukraine are announcements from the Russians that are not necessarily backed up by concrete actions. And that has been the source of some disappointment and even some frustration on the part of the international community. That is why you’ve seen the international community progressively take the kinds of steps that have imposed greater costs on the Russians to further isolate them.
All of this is part of not just putting in place a sanctions regime for the sake of sanctions. Rather the sanctions regime is geared toward prompting President Putin principally, but the broader Russian government, to reevaluate their strategy in Ukraine. Their efforts to destabilize Ukraine have weakened their country politically and have hurt their relationship with their neighbor. It also, after the imposition of some of these sanctions, has had a negative impact on the Russian economy.
So what we need is we need President Putin to reevaluate his strategy and actually participate constructively in that situation by engaging in the kinds of facilitated diplomatic talks that would de-escalate that conflict and allow the people of Ukraine to make the kinds of decisions that they should make about the future of their country.
Q We know that the President is waiting until the end of the summer but is likely to make some fairly big moves on immigration. And now we understand from lawmakers on the Hill and advocates that the White House has begun talking about the possibility of the executive order to issue at least some work permits before the end of the year. And I’m going to go out on a limb and anticipate that you might not want to get ahead of an official announcement --
MR. EARNEST: You know me so well.
Q I was wondering if you could talk in some general terms at least about whether this is something that you’re exploring, the politics of exploring it before midterm, and how many people you’re looking realistically to cover.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, you’ll recall that in the Rose Garden about a month ago, the President delivered a statement in which he communicated to the American public and to all of you that he had been informed by the Speaker of the House that House Republicans were for the foreseeable future going to block the common-sense, bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. And in response to that declaration from the Speaker of the House, the President announced his intention to review the authority that was vested in the executive branch to see what tools were available to him to address some of the problems with our broken immigration system that House Republicans won’t allow the Congress to solve.
The President is not comfortable just sitting in place, waiting for Congress to act, particularly when Congress, in bipartisan fashion in the Senate at least, has identified a common-sense approach for addressing so many of these problems.
So what is underway right now is a review, at the order of the President, by the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to consider what options are available to the President. What those options reflect is a determination by this President, as I mentioned, to act where Congress hasn’t, but to do so within the confines of the law.
That’s why we’re taking our time to carefully review what the existing law is and what steps it allows the President to take in terms of addressing the problems that are caused by our broken immigration system. And once that review has been concluded and it has been made clear to the President what options are available to him I anticipate that we’ll have an announcement about steps that the President has decided to take to address some of these problems.
Q -- speak from the podium, though, that this work permit is one of those options that’s being studied right now, that your team is considering presenting --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to talk about what sorts of things are currently under review. That review is being conducted by the Department of Justice and by the Department of Homeland Security. And for the content and timing of that review, you can check with them, but I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time waiting for an answer.
Q What concerns exactly do you have about the Russian testing of missiles? It’s been going -- you’ve known about it since 2008. What do you believe they’re trying to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, it’s hard for me to talk in specific detail about the intelligence analysis that led us to this specific determination. I think it would be fair for you to conclude that the concerns we have specifically relate to the Russians failing to uphold their obligation not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of missiles like that.
It is correct that the concerns that we’ve had about this have been raised with the Russians. It’s correct that our concerns have been discussed inside the administration for some time. And it’s correct to assume that we’ve had conversations with our partners on the relevant committees in Congress about this, as well. The reason for all of that consultation and careful study is that the INF Treaty, as it is known, is an important part of our national security. It also provides for the national security for the people of Russia. It also provides the national security of some of our strongest allies both in Western Europe and the Asia Pacific region.
So this is a top priority. That is why it has been raised at the presidential level. And we’re going to continue to work with Russia -- we’ve offered to engage in a high-level dialogue with them so that they can resolve our concerns of this matter.
Q Do you feel that they would use these missiles or make them available to other states?
MR. EARNEST: Our concern principally now is with their commitment to this treaty, and that is what we intend to hold them accountable for, which is living up to the commitments that they made in the context of this treaty. And, again, we don’t do so solely because it’s in the interest of the United States and our national security for them to do so; we believe that it is in the strong national security interest of our allies and we actually believe it’s in the strong national security interests of the Russians to abide by this agreement. We’re going to hold them to living up to the commitments that they made, and we’re going to continue to live up to those commitments because, again, we believe it’s in the clear national security interests of the United States of America for us to do so.
Q -- have looked into this and they consider the matter closed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have had, as I alluded to a little bit earlier, some conversations with the Russians about this where we raised our concerns, and again, it is fair for you to conclude that their response to our concerns was wholly unsatisfactory, and that is why additional talks are merited. And we hope that the Russians will take us up on our offer to conduct those conversations at a pretty high level.
Q One more time -- are you concerned that they could possibly use or make available these missiles for other purposes?
MR. EARNEST: We are concerned with ensuring that the Russians live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the INF Treaty for a whole host of reasons. Certainly proliferation -- the proliferation risk associated with these kinds of weapons is part of the wide range of concerns that makes this treaty such an important document.
Q Vladimir Putin was quoted last year as saying that former President Gorbachev’s decision to sign the INF Treaty was debatable at best. Why do you believe he has any commitment to the treaty? And what if he does not? What if he wants to get rid of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's certainly -- I would assume that's the kind of thing that would come up in the high-level talks that we’re offering to have with the Russians.
What we believe is really important is for both sides to live up to the agreements that have already been signed. The United States has lived up to our end of the agreement. We believe that doing so is in the clear national security interest of the United States, it’s in the clear interest of our allies in Western Europe and in the Asia Pacific, and we believe it is in the clear interest of the Russian people for this treaty to remain in effect and for both sides -- and for all sides, all parties to live up to the agreements that they made in the context of this agreement.
Q But what if he does not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that is the subject of some conversation. And we look forward to having a dialogue at a high level to assess the willingness of the Russian regime to live up to the obligations that they’ve made.
Q And what about Putin’s claim that the U.S. plans to station Aegis missiles in Romania is itself a violation of the treaty?
MR. EARNEST: It is not. Again, the United States remains committed to abiding by these security agreements that we have signed with Russia. And again, we do that because it is in the clear national security interest of the United States to live up to the commitments that we have made on the international scene. We can do that in the context of also providing for the national security of our allies in Europe, and we’re going to continue to do that as well.
Q Why is it not a violation of the treaty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the State Department for sort of the detailed ins and outs of these kinds of treaty agreements. But we take them very seriously. It’s also why we take it seriously when our partners who also sign these treaties don't live up to the commitments that they’ve made.
Q Thanks, Josh. Israeli TV is now retracting that report on the cease-fire.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks for keeping us up to date here.
Q Shocking. But in the context of the criticism which most people would suggest it’s hard to remember when there has been such hostility in Israeli media against a U.S. Secretary of State -- in fact, Secretary Kerry again defended his record, saying 29 years in the Senate, 100 percent voting record. But is all of this having a negative impact on his ability to help broker a real cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: We do not think so. The United States certainly does not think so. Secretary Kerry, as Mr. Blinken noted yesterday, is a strong defender of our allies in Israel. And that is why I guess I would be so bold as to suggest that it is in the interest of the Israeli people for the harsh words that we’ve seen directed at the Secretary not affect his ability to continue to be a strong advocate for them.
Secretary Kerry has worked doggedly over the last year or so since he took office -- I guess it has been a little longer than that -- pressing both sides in terms of a broader -- to the negotiating table in search of a broader peace agreement. What he has been engaged in more recently is working with Palestinian leaders, Israeli leaders, other leaders in the Arab world, U.N. officials, to try to put in place a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 cease-fire agreement.
Secretary Kerry has been working hard on that effort because, again, it’s in the clear interest of American national security for that cease-fire to be put in place. It also will provide for the protection of innocent civilians on both sides of the border that, right now, are caught in the cross-fire.
And so he is going to continue to work very hard on this, and he is an important element of resolving this situation because he is somebody who is well-versed in all these issues; he is somebody who has the clear backing of the President of the United States; he is somebody that has very good relationships with both Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders. This is credibility that he has built up through his years of service to this administration in pursuit of that goal. And I anticipate, and this administration anticipates, and the President anticipates that he is going to continue to be hard at work on this.
Q As you know, there have been multiple reports in the Israeli media quoting senior Israeli officials, one of the toughest in Haaretz yesterday, saying that senior officials believed that the proposal put forward by John Kerry was a “strategic terrorist attack.” Do you not believe those reports? How would you categorize the feelings of senior officials then if you don’t think that that’s the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- let’s start with the facts. The facts are that the cease-fire proposal that was put forward by the Egyptians two weeks ago -- this is the cease-fire agreement that Israel readily accepted -- included many of the elements that some anonymous Israeli officials are now suggesting were wrongly included in the document that was circulated by Secretary Kerry. That’s the second thing that’s important to understand, is this is a document that was circulated among the parties that reflected an attempt to get a dialogue going between the parties. This did not reflect a specific American proposal. This reflected an effort to try to find some common ground and to elicit comment from the Israelis to try to find the kind of cease-fire agreement that they would believe would be in their best interests, and would also provide for greater security of their citizens.
So this is part of the diplomatic effort that was underway, and it is in line with the proposal that the Israelis had readily agreed to a couple of weeks ago. So those facts as it relates to the document that we circulated by Secretary Kerry are really important in this case.
In terms of the broader relationship, again, we’ve said for a couple of days now that those comments were pretty disappointing. But our determination, and more importantly, Secretary Kerry’s determination to try to put in place an immediate cease-fire that would end the crossfire that so many civilians -- innocent civilians are caught in the middle of right now continues to be a top priority. And I know that he’s working very hard as we speak in pursuit of that agreement.
Q Josh, back to the sanctions anticipated today. I don't suppose you're going to want to put it this way, but isn’t it perhaps a fair assessment to say that it took the shooting-down of a commercial jetliner to have the European leaders get some serious shivers finally about Vladimir Putin? Isn’t that the tipping point of all of this?
MR. EARNEST: I would leave that sort of analysis to others. I would point out a couple of things. The first is the announcement that we anticipate later today from the Europeans is the culmination of months of diplomatic work that has been conducted by members of this administration, and it reflects the commitment of the international community, led by this President, to respond to Russia’s destabilizing activities in Ukraine.
Now, I think the President himself, when he spoke at this podium 10 days or so ago, acknowledged that the downing of that jetliner with 300 innocent people aboard was a head-snapper and would attract the attention of the international community in a way that this conflict hadn’t previously. So I think it is certainly reasonable, the prospect that you floated, that the downing of this airliner contributed significantly to the Europeans’ willingness to step up to the plate and take the kind of serious action that this administration and this country put in place against Russia a couple of weeks ago.
But this work continues. This is not the finish line here. There are still -- we need to assess whether or not these economic costs that are being imposed on Russia have the desired effect. The desired effect, again, is to get President Putin to reevaluate his strategy for Ukraine, and that remains to be seen. But I suspect we’ll have a little more on this today after the Europeans announce their decision.
Q Josh, Monday starts the U.S.-Africa Summit. Could you talk to us about it? And what news will come out of this investment in Africa?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to give away all of the news six days before the conference starts, but --
Q Give us some. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: -- I’ll give it a shot here. The President is looking forward to welcoming leaders from across the African continent to our Nation’s Capital for a three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. This summit, the largest event any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government, will build on the President’s trip to Africa in the summer of 2013, and it will strengthen ties between the United States and one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing regions.
Specifically, the summit will advance the administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people. At the same time, it will highlight the depth and breadth of the U.S. commitment to the African continent, advance our shared priorities, and enable discussion of concrete ideas to deepen that partnership. At its core, this summit is about fostering stronger ties between the United States and Africa.
Q So when you talk about this, is this -- we understand the investment piece, but is this also going to shore up some of the African countries that may have some issues with policy as well as -- domestic policy as well as security -- as many Africa nations are places where terrorists do go and run and stay there to breed and hide -- is this part of that as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I do anticipate that we’re going to discuss in the context of this summit, April, is a wide range of topics. You touched on some of them there. But we do want to try to encourage progress in a few key areas that are so critical to the future of that continent. Those areas include expanding trade and investment ties, engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive, sustainable development, expanding cooperation on peace and security, and gaining a better future for Africa’s next generation.
You saw the President allude to some of that in the town hall meeting that he did in the context of the Young African Leaders Initiative just yesterday, where the President talked about the importance of engaging Africa’s young leaders.
All across that continent we see that there is a whole generation of young leaders who are poised to decide the future of that continent and their individual countries, and the opportunity that we can seize to engage them and conduct discussions about trade and investment and leadership, and promoting inclusive, sustainable development, and a focus on peace and security are the kinds of things that may not pay dividends right away, but they are the kinds of things that will build strong ties between the U.S. and one of the most dynamic regions of the world.
Q One last question on investment and trade. I asked this question of you a couple weeks ago and I’m hoping I get an answer now. I asked you about how China in the past -- there’s a concern about how China was investing particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, making promises that at one time they were not keeping. They were taking more out than they were giving. Will there be some forms of accountability for these investments from these U.S. companies, U.S. organizations, that there is a mutual win-win, versus you take more than you give -- you put in?
MR. EARNEST: I think the operating premise of the summit is the idea that there is an opportunity for both the African continent and the United States of America to benefit from stronger ties between our countries and our people.
Those ties benefit both sides in a variety of ways, I think. We certainly would benefit from some of the security arrangements that are already in place with some countries in that region. But encouraging the leaders of these countries to play a more constructive role in fostering peace and security is certainly one obvious way that these kinds of stronger relationships could benefit the American people in a way that they would also benefit the African people, as well.
I think the same could be said of economic ties between business interests in Africa and business interests in the United States who are looking for growing markets. Some of these African countries include among the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic markets in the world. So giving American businesses the opportunity to invest in those areas certainly makes good business sense for a lot of companies here in the U.S., but also would stand to yield significant economic benefits for people who live in those countries. So this will be the topic of a lot of conversation both at a government level, but also among the private sector leaders who are participating in the summit.
Q Do you have any reaction to a letter sent to the White House by Senators from Colorado and Washington asking for more clarity and perhaps a unified approach in helping license marijuana businesses? They said that -- they have criticism that at times it seems like some different arms of the government have been at odds over how to enforce the law.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen that letter, Lesley, but I’d refer you to the Department of Justice, who, as we discussed yesterday, has put in place some guidelines for administering the law in the unique circumstances that exist in Colorado and Washington State.
Q What about some of the criticism, though, that -- like the Bureau of Land Management is doing one thing on water reclamation and DOJ is enforcing it in a different manner -- is there any sort of review underway?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. But as it relates to the Bureau of Land Management, I’d encourage you to check with the Department of the Interior, and they may be able to give you some more details about how they’re untangling any regulatory knots that may exist there.
Q Josh, back to the situation in Gaza. The President talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q You put out a readout saying that, “The President made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that ends hostilities now.” The Israelis responded by going to some of their most aggressive offensive operations into Gaza of the entire conflict. What is the President’s level of frustration with the fact that he gives a very strong what looks almost like an order -- gives very strong words telling the Israeli Prime Minister that we must have “an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” and then, he goes in the opposite direction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, we’ve been pretty steadfast. And I think it’s also included in that readout that the United States continues to not just acknowledge but support the Israeli government’s right to take steps to defend their civilians. And that Israeli right to self-defense is something that the President doesn’t just respect, he supports.
Q Does he support what the Israelis have done over the last 24 hours, or what they have done in the hours after that phone call?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President has said is that he supports the Israeli government’s right to make those decisions. What we have also suggested is that Russia -- that the Israelis need to do more to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves to ensure the safety of innocent civilians on both sides of that border, including Palestinian people.
So it is apparent from the reports that we have seen about the civilian deaths that there is more that the Israeli military can and should do to account for the safety of Palestinian civilians. It’s important to remember, though, that there is a distinction here, which is that Hamas is routinely targeting innocent civilians on the other side of the border. The Israeli military puts in place standards to try to protect Palestinian civilians -- innocent Palestinian civilians. That said, we believe that the Israeli military should do more to live up to those standards.
Q And moving on to the question of impeachment, did you coordinate your comments on Monday about impeachment with the -- I’m sorry, did you coordinate your comments on Friday about impeachment with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q You don’t know if you coordinated, or you didn’t? I mean, the reason why I ask is Dan Pfeiffer says what he says Friday morning, that impeachment is a real possibility the White House is concerned about. You go a little bit further from the podium during the briefing. And then within hours, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is putting out fundraising emails quoting what you said with a red alert: the White House says impeachment is a real possibility, we’re concerned about impeachment. So I’m just wondering, it seems -- Pfeiffer says something, you say something, then you have a fundraising drive that they’re now saying is one of the most successful fundraising drives of the cycle.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I know, Jon, is that the comments that I made on Friday were in response to questions from people who were asking about the prospect of Republicans in Congress taking that step. So it would be --
Q And you don’t know if you coordinated with the DCCC?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I’m saying is that it would be difficult for me to coordinate what I was going to say in response to a question that hadn’t been asked yet.
Q Well, you had your answer, which was quite forward-leaning, saying the top Republicans are pushing impeachment, and I think your answer at the time was, for an example, was Sarah Palin.
MR. EARNEST: Well, true. That was not an answer that I had discussed with anybody at the DCCC in advance. Again, this was based on my own reading of the newspaper a couple days before I got asked the question.
Q And you’re a pretty calm guy -- (laughter) -- but the DCCC put out a fundraiser saying -- this is after your words -- “It’s Saturday and we’re in the office freaking out.” Is the White House freaking out about the possibility of impeachment?
MR. EARNEST: I think it would be appropriate for you to characterize the White House sentiment that we are very disappointed that, in this pivotal week before Congress embarks on a five-week long August recess, as they have in previous years, that they’re spending so much time debating a taxpayer-funded lawsuit that they are prepared to file against the President just for doing his job, instead of focusing on some of these other priorities that should get done before Labor Day.
Q You’re not freaking out about impeachment?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is fair to say that we believe that the Republican priorities that they have articulated are completely wrong and don’t reflect the view of so many middle-class families; that their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., should be focused on putting into place the kinds of policies that are going to expand economic opportunity for the middle class; and that efforts to focus on these political partisan attacks don’t create jobs, they don’t reduce the deficit, they don’t make things better for middle-class families. That’s why the President is focused on these priorities. We wish that House Republicans would be focused on them, too.
Q Now, specifically on the priorities, one big thing is dealing with the border crisis. So the Senate -- Senate Democrats have moved in one direction; House Republicans are moving in another direction. Both are putting out -- off money, saying that they would appropriate money to deal with the crisis -- obviously the Republicans less in the House. There’s a little -- there’s disagreement on some of the policy. Are you going to insist -- is the White House going to insist that Congress delay its five-week congressional recess until it can resolve the differences between those two approaches and deal with the border crisis?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any proclamations to make about our views of the congressional schedule at this point other than to observe that this administration, more than three weeks ago, put forward our own specific request about what we felt like needed to be done, and here we are, three days before Congress is prepared to leave town for the remainder of the summer, and we see a preliminary proposal from House Republicans. That is not acting with a sense of urgency that we feel is necessary to deal with this situation.
This administration has demonstrated a whole-of-government approach to try to deal with the problem at the border and to make sure that we’re mitigating the impact that’s having on communities across the border. Unfortunately, that whole-of-government approach that has a sense of urgency doesn’t include Republicans in Congress right now.
Q Just to follow, but would you veto -- would the President veto the House bill as it stands now, the House supplemental?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I was just briefed on the very top-line details. I understand that our folks here at the White House, our experts here at the White House are reviewing the details of that legislation, and if we get to a position where we have a more specific position to express, we’ll let you know.
Q And can I also ask, do you have any readout of the meeting that was this morning with the House Democrats?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a readout in front of me.
Let’s move around a little bit. Zeke.
Q I know you don’t want to go into too much detail about how that determination was made, but was the decision to go public last night at all tied to the current state of relations, or lack thereof, between the United States and Russia -- to send a letter -- start distributing that information to the press related to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: No, it was not. As we’ve talked about before, Zeke, the relationship between the United States and Russia is a multifaceted one. We have worked in cooperative fashion with the Russians even in the midst of this turmoil in Ukraine to rid Syria of their declared chemical weapons stockpile. That was an important -- that reflected important cooperation between our two governments in pursuit of a goal that was in the clear national security interests of the American people, of the Russian people, and of people around the globe. We’ve also been working closely with the Russians as it relates to the ongoing P5-plus-1 talks with Iran. So it is possible for us to consider a wide range of aspects in our relationship.
Dealing with these issues in isolation, this is yet another factor in our relationship with Russia and it is something that we continue to be concerned about. The decision to reach this determination, again, was based on intelligence analysis. And the decision to make it public was based on our filing of the 2014 Compliance Report, something that's done on an annual basis. And the letter that was sent from President Obama to President Putin is pursuant to the filing of that Compliance Report and our intention to make clear to the Russian government that this is a very serious matter.
Q Just to drill down there for a second, you mentioned earlier that there was concerns of -- potentially about proliferation of these weapons. And we’re seeing in eastern Ukraine, the separatists are being sort of given surface-to-air missiles, as the administration alleges, as well as heavy weaponry, artillery and the like. So that's not a factor here in that -- was it a factor in that determination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a difficult question you’re asking primarily because you’re asking about our -- you’re alluding to an intelligence analysis that's difficult for me to discuss from here. Let me just say as a top-line matter, we have on many occasions expressed our serious concerns about heavy weapons being transferred from Russia across the border into Ukraine. We have seen those heavy weapons used by Russian-backed separatists, occasionally with very tragic results.
As it relates to our concerns about Russia’s obligations under the treaty, I’m not in a position to talk about some of that intelligence analysis, but what I can say is that our concerns about the Russians living up to their obligations not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launch cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or possess or produce launchers of such missiles is a concern that we would have even if the Russians were acting in a much more responsible fashion in Ukraine.
Q And just finally, there seems to be another dustup now between Secretary Kerry and the Israeli government, with Secretary Kerry saying a couple of hours ago that Prime Minister Netanyahu had asked him to broker a cease-fire in a call late last night; now the senior Israeli officials are telling reporters that that conversation didn’t happen, in fact it was the other way around. I was wondering if you could clarify -- do you know whether, in their conversation with the President on Sunday, or with Secretary Kerry last night, did Prime Minister Netanyahu ask the U.S. government to broker a cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States has been engaged -- I’m not in a position to read out a phone call between the Secretary of State and the Israeli Prime Minister. I’d refer you to the State Department for that. I might hold it up as evidence that there is -- that there continues to be an important role played by the Secretary of State in working on this situation.
However, it is the view of the United States that it is in the clear interest of people on both sides of that conflict for an immediate cease-fire to be put in place. It is tragic the violence that we’ve seen in that region, and it is tragic how many innocent lives have been lost as a result of that conflict.
That is why the Secretary of State, the President of the United States, and other American officials are working so hard to try to put in place that cease-fire. Enough tragedy has been experienced by people on both sides of that conflict. It needs to come to an end. And it’s time for parties on both sides to try to reserve their differences diplomatically.
Q Josh, can you elaborate at all on what you describe as a “wholly unsatisfactory response” by Russia to the INF charge?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to elaborate on that further. I think that’s a pretty colorful description.
Q -- the diplomatic equivalent of “bite me”? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That might be an even more colorful description of that conversation, but I’m not in a position to describe that conversation any further.
Q Okay. And on Ukraine, the administration continues to ask that there be unfettered access for an investigation into the crash site. At what point does it go beyond the point where it would be of any value by virtue of the fact that it’s been 10 days that all of the material is out in the open, tampered with, stolen?
MR. EARNEST: There are experts who could make that assessment. And what we want to ensure is that the Dutch and the Australians and others who are working with the government of Ukraine to try to finalize a plan for international investigators to get access to that site, that they’re in a position to do their work. And we want these international investigators to carefully look at what evidence does remain to get the best possible assessment about what exactly happened.
It should be clearly in the interest of everybody involved on both sides of this debate for us to get a fair, unbiased, international assessment of what exactly happened. And that’s why we’re supporting the efforts of the Dutch, the Australians and the Ukrainians to allow international investigators to get unfettered access to the scene.
Q Given all that you’ve said about the impeachment situation -- Dan Pfeiffer said it’s a serious topic being bandied about --
MR. EARNEST: -- and Ted Yoho and Steve Stockman and others have said about this situation.
Q Does the White House feel, and does the President feel that Democrats should stop fundraising on this topic?
MR. EARNEST: It is up to Democrats to make their own decisions about ensuring that their candidates have the resources necessary to run successful campaigns in the fall. That’s always been the case. And I’m not in a position to comment on their strategy or tactics at this point.
Q But aren’t they just as culpable in making this a topic that’s being run about? I mean, there were, I don't know, 20 fundraising emails the DCCC and the House Majority PAC put out about impeachment over the weekend.
MR. EARNEST: I think the people who are culpable for this are the people who have the prospect of voting to do exactly what they say should be done. That is something that we believe reflects a whole set of priorities that stand in stark contrast to the priorities that are shared by middle-class families all across the country.
Again, what the vast majority of people want their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., to be focused on, and what the President is focused on, is what can we do to put in place policies that will make it easier for middle-class families to raise a family, send their kids to college, save for retirement, buy a home, to live the American Dream.
And that continues to be the President’s focal point when it comes to his domestic policy agenda. You’re going to hear the President talk about this quite a bit more tomorrow. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the priority that is shared by Kerry Bentivolio, who says that impeaching the President would be “a dream come true.”
Q You want Republicans to stop talking about it, but not the Democrats to stop fundraising on it?
MR. EARNEST: No, what I’m suggesting is that the priorities of the Republican Congress are all wrong. And I will leave it to Democratic strategists, who have a much better sense than I do about the best way to raise money for their campaign committees. What we would all benefit from, and what middle-class families across the country would benefit from would be from elected leaders in Washington, D.C. doing what the President is doing, which is setting aside partisan differences and trying to find common ground in pursuit of policies that everybody agrees would be in the best interest of middle-class families.
Kathleen, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Just to clarify on the missile treaty, can you confirm that the letter yesterday was the first time that the President has raised this issue with Putin directly?
MR. EARNEST: I’m going to have to check on that. I believe that it is, but let me check with our national security folks and we will let you know. I know that this was raised at a variety of levels prior to that letter being sent. I don’t know if it was raised between the two Presidents prior to that letter being sent. So let me check on it.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
1:22 P.M. EDT
November 22, 2014
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The President Awards the National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation
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