Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/4/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Happy Monday. Let me do two quick things at the top, Julie, and then we'll get to the questions.
First, we are pleased that the VA’s new Secretary, Bob McDonald, was confirmed unanimously by the Senate last week, and we all look forward to him bringing his expertise, pragmatism and integrity to the VA.
No veteran should have to wait to receive the benefits they have earned. And in recent months, the VA has taken aggressive steps to address the systemic issues found in the VA’s health care system. I know the President and Secretary McDonald want to build on this progress. That's why the President will travel to Fort Belvoir, Virginia on Thursday, where he will emphasize our commitment to our veterans, including the work that has been done and the work left to do, by signing HR 3230, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. This new legislation that passed Congress with strong bipartisan support will put in place reforms and needed additional resources to meet the high standard of service that our veterans have earned.
We'll have more logistical details in the next day or two about Thursday’s event.
And then I have one other thing I want to do here before we move on -- just to say that the President and his entire administration are pleased to welcome 51 leaders from across the African continent to our nation’s capital for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which officially starts today.
The three-day summit constitutes the largest engagement by any U.S. President with Africa. We see this as an historic opportunity to strengthen ties with our African partners and highlight America’s longstanding commitment to investing in Africa’s development and its people. The summit theme, “Investing in the Next Generation,” reflects the common ambition to leave our nations better for future generations by making concrete gains in peace and security, good governance, and economic development.
This gathering follows our Young African Leaders Summit last week. There’s long been bipartisan support for U.S. engagement with Africa, and this summit will build on that record. You’ll hear more from the President and members of his Cabinet as the summit events unfold over the course of this week.
So, with that, Julie, do you want to kick us off with some questions?
Q Thanks, Josh. The State Department put out a statement over the weekend on the latest Israeli attack on a U.N. facility, and it was about as tough as this administration gets publicly with the Israelis. I'm wondering if you can give us a sense of the administration’s and the President’s, in particular, level of frustration with the Israelis and the amount of civilian casualties we're seeing. And at this point, do you see the U.S. being involved in any future cease-fire negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, we do continue to believe that the violence in Gaza should end as soon as possible. And we do continue our work with the Israelis and Palestinians and other parties in the region to try to bring both sides to the table to bring this violence to an end immediately. And as we've said many times, it is not in the interest of either side for this violence to continue. The tragic loss of life that we've seen on both sides of this conflict needs to come to an end. That tragic loss of life includes the many innocent Palestinian civilians who have been killed. It also includes the Israeli civilians who have been killed by Hamas rockets that have been aimed squarely at them.
So there is a need for both sides to come together to come to the negotiating table to end the violence and have a discussion and try to resolve diplomatically some of the very firmly entrenched differences that exist and have precipitated this conflict.
Q But do you see a cease-fire as being a realistic short-term goal right now? Because it seems like the Israeli position now is to continue this offensive until they feel that they’ve reached whatever their goal is there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, ultimately the parties themselves will have to decide --
Q But the U.S. has obviously been involved in these efforts over the last couple of weeks.
MR. EARNEST: Sure, and we continue to be. And what we are pushing for is a cease-fire, because we believe it is not in the interests of parties on either side of this conflict for this violence to continue. And we do continue our efforts to encourage both sides to bring all the current violence to an end immediately, and come to the negotiating table so we can try to resolve some of these longstanding differences.
Q Can we go back to the State Department’s statement over the weekend? As I said, it was as tough as this administration gets when publicly discussing Israel. What went into that decision-making? Did you feel like it was necessary to take that tougher line publicly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. There have been a number of reports of the shelling of U.N. facilities in Gaza. I think that there have been seven or so reports of that taking place. And we have, over the course of time, expressed our concerns about the necessity of the Israeli military to live up to their own standards when it comes to protecting the lives of innocent civilians, even Palestinian civilians who are caught in the middle of this conflict. What that statement from the State Department made clear is that the suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.
Now, as you know, Julie, there have been reports of Hamas using innocent civilians as cover to protect their weapon stockpiles or even to protect Hamas fighters. That is a deplorable technique or strategy, and it is one that we have strongly condemned and continue to condemn. What we have also been clear about, and as that statement laid out in very plain terms, that suspicion that Hamas fighters are operating in the vicinity of innocent civilians does not justify taking strikes that put the lives of those innocent civilians at risk.
Q And if I could just ask on one other topic. Some colleagues of mine have a report out about the administration using young people -- dispatching young people to Cuba under the cover of public health or civic programs, basically with the goal of ginning up a rebellion there. And I’m wondering if the administration thinks it’s appropriate to use public health programs in particular as cover for political goals.
MR. EARNEST: Julie, I have seen that the USAID has put out a statement on this correcting some of the things that were included in that report. So I know that many -- that the subject of that report was related to some ongoing USAID programs, so I’d refer you USAID to walk you through the details of those programs.
Q Was the White House aware that USAID would have been using both health and civic programs for these political goals?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned, I’m not sure -- I’m not in a position to confirm every aspect of those reports, because I believe that there are some aspects of those reports that are not quite accurate. So in terms of sussing out the true aims of these programs, I’d refer you to the agency that runs them -- in this case, that’s USAID.
Q Thanks, Josh. Talking about immigration for a second. In the debate over the President’s executive action and his unilateral actions, the White House has defended them, saying that he’s taken fewer actions than his predecessors. But I wonder if you would address the issue of scope for a second. Would the President be at all deterred from taking action that could have as widespread consequences as providing work permits to as many as 5 million people who don’t have them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, to answer that question it’s important to understand the context in which we’re having this discussion. More than a year ago, the United States Senate, working closely with this administration, working closely with the law enforcement community, the business community, the evangelical community, cobbled together a compromise piece of legislation that would bring about a wide range of common-sense reforms of our broken immigration system. That is a compromise proposal that was passed through the Senate more than one year ago. Since then, we have seen House Republicans engage in a legislative strategy to prevent that bill from coming to the floor of the House of Representatives.
We know that if that bill were allowed to be considered by the House of Representatives that it would pass with a bipartisan majority of votes. But the House Republican leadership and some of the more extreme elements of the House Republican conference have prevented that from happening. So again, they’re not just opposing this compromise; they’re not just willing to vote no on a common-sense piece of legislation; they’re actually preventing all of their colleagues from casting a vote on this common-sense piece of legislation.
What the President has done is he has worked with Republicans in the House over the course of the last year to try to convince them to drop their opposition -- and again, not necessarily to try to convince them to vote yes, but rather just to allow them and allow their colleagues in the House of Representatives to render their judgment on this compromise. The President also indicated a willingness to work with Republicans if they could identify some of their own priorities that they would prefer to include. But despite the President’s openness to having these kinds of conversations over the course of the last 12 or 13 months, we’ve seen absolutely no movement on this issue among House Republicans.
So what the President has said and what he has concluded is that he is no longer willing to stand idly by while the House Republicans block common-sense reforms to our broken immigration system. And so what the President has done is he has directed his Secretary of Homeland Security and his Attorney General to consider what kinds of options are available to the President in the context of the current law to try to mitigate some of the problems that are caused by a broken immigration system.
At this point, because that review is still ongoing, I’m not in a position to speculate about what that review might ultimately conclude. The time frame for that review is the end of the summer, and the President expects to carefully consider their review and act on it relatively quickly.
Q Jumping to an international topic with regard to the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, does the United States plan to provide any funding to help address that issue, as international financial institutions have announced this morning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, when this outbreak initially occurred back in March, the Centers for Disease Control was in close -- was acting in close coordination with the World Health Organization and other multilateral organizations that were trying to confront this outbreak to address the problem where it had occurred. That coordination continues.
I know that the CDC announced earlier today the deployment of additional resources to the region to try to stem this outbreak. This is, as the CDC has assessed, probably the most damaging and dangerous outbreak of Ebola that we have seen so far, and that is why it requires a significant international response. And that is why you’ve seen these actions taken by the CDC, the World Health Organization, and others to try to bring additional resources to address this problem in this region in Africa where it has occurred.
Q On the same subject, there have been some calls kind of rattling around out there for the U.S. to block flights from countries that have been affected by Ebola. Is that something that the U.S. is at all considering at this point, or would consider if it gets worse? And can you be a little bit more specific about any additional actions DHS is taking at American airports to try to stop it from getting in here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me give you a -- try to give you a better sense of how we’re confronting this problem and ensuring that the homeland remains safe.
First of all, it’s important to understand that there is a screening process that individuals have to go through when they board aircraft departing the countries where this outbreak has been reported. There is additional screening that occurs when individuals who started in that region of the world arrive in this country. To bolster that screening effort, the CDC has been involved in training CBP officers who are on the front lines of this to make sure they understand and that they have been trained on the symptoms of this illness.
It’s important for the public to understand that the reason that it’s important to identify the symptoms is you’re not contagious unless you exhibit the symptoms of this disease. That’s what differentiates [it] from a common cold or the flu, where, of course, individuals can be contagious before they start exhibiting the symptoms. It’s also important for people to understand that this disease is not transmitted through the air, it’s not transmitted through the water, and it would not be transmitted through food here in the United States.
That’s why the CDC has assessed that there’s no significant risk to the United States from this current Ebola outbreak. But because there are CBP officers who are carefully monitoring passengers who are arriving from these countries, we are in a position to ensure that public health is protected. If CBP officers do recognize an individual who appears to be exhibiting some of these symptoms, there are facilities at these ports of entry, at these airports, where individuals can be quarantined and evaluated by medical personnel.
I’ve also heard some raise questions about the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that’s being hosted here in Washington. There are some individuals from these countries where this outbreak has occurred who are participating in the summit. The United States Secret Service and the State Department have ensured that their officers are properly trained to identify individuals who are exhibiting these symptoms. There have been briefings that have been held with public health officials and with medical professionals and facilities here in the national capital region to make sure that if, again if, an individual is starting to exhibit these symptoms, that individual can be quarantined and get the kind of health care that they need.
The experts tell us at the CDC -- tell us that if health care workers are meticulous about meeting basic guidelines for protecting themselves from bodily fluids and other things that could lead to a transmission of the virus, then even those health care professionals will be safe as well.
So there are in place a lot of precautions to ensure the safety of the American public and of the traveling public, in this case.
Q So no need to consider at this point stopping flights coming in from those three countries or so?
MR. EARNEST: No, not at this point. At this point, there are screenings that are in place both before individuals board flights in their home countries or where these flights originate, but also after these individuals arrive here in the United States they’re screened once again. And there are facilities available that if an individual is detected exhibiting these symptoms, that they can be quarantined and promptly evaluated by a medical professional.
Q I think Julie brought it up, on just the U.S.-Israel relationship right now -- I mean, there’s a lot of analysis out there about the difficulty in the relationship. There’s been some tough talk even on Israel. But I think it just seems like as tough as the talk can be, there’s very little that the U.S. can do. So again, would you describe this situation and this relationship as frustrating right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think right now the way that I would describe the violence that we see in this region, Michelle, [is] as tragic; that we have seen extraordinary loss of life on both sides of this conflict. And that is something that people I think around the world right now recognize is terrible and something that needs to come to an end quickly. That is why you’ve seen U.S. diplomats and others working so intensively to try to bring both sides together and put in place a cease-fire.
As it relates to the relationship between the United States and Israel, Israel continues to be one of this country’s strongest allies. And you saw that sentiment reciprocated in the remarks delivered by Prime Minister Netanyahu over the weekend, where he praised the United States for the level of support that United States is providing to our ally. He mentioned our strong statements condemning acts of terror and condemning the tactics of Hamas to fire rockets at innocent Israeli civilians. He discussed the strong military-to-military relationship that exists between the United States and Israel. He talked about our frequent expression of support for Israel’s right to defend itself and their citizens. And you heard the Prime Minister mention the United States’ close coordination with Israeli Defense Forces in operating the Iron Dome System that has shot down scores of Hamas rockets that were aimed squarely at Israeli civilians, thereby protecting the lives of countless Israeli civilians.
So the nature of our relationship is strong and unchanged.
Let’s move around. Cheryl.
Q Thanks. Can I ask about the border supplemental now and next steps? Will you try to negotiate that as a separate bill in September, or part of the CR maybe, the ongoing appropriations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first is, you may have noticed late on Friday that DHS did make an announcement about the need to reprogram some of their funds to ensure that necessary resources could be focused on addressing this problem at the border.
We do continue to be pretty disappointed in the failure of House Republicans, principally, to act on a piece of legislation that would provide the government the resources that are necessary to deal with a problem that many Republicans themselves describe as a crisis. Instead, we saw House Republicans take what I thought was a pretty remarkable step to pass a piece of legislation that would not just tie the hands of the President moving forward but actually would attempt to undo some of the things that the President has already done to address one of the most significant problems with our broken immigration system.
The consequence of the measure that was passed by House Republicans would actually take law enforcement resources that are currently directed to prioritize individuals who pose a threat to or could pose a threat to public safety and divert them away from that task and focus them on deporting young people who are American in every way except in their papers. These are individuals who would be deported back to a country that many of them don't even remember.
And the fact that House Republicans support diverting law enforcement resources away from possible threats to our public safety and targeting them at young people I think is an indication of just how wrong their priorities are for the country. This is not just my view, I’d point out. I noticed over the weekend that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put out what I think is a pretty strong statement on this measure. The said -- I’m quoting the bishops here -- they said, “It is a sad day for our country. A chamber of Congress is poised to send vulnerable children back to danger and possible death. It violates our commitment to human rights and due process of law, and lessens us as a nation. I pray that this legislation never sees the light of day.”
So I think that is a pretty strong statement from a non-partisan group -- a group that this administration has not always agreed with, but in this case, I would certainly associate myself with this statement.
Q What do you do now? How are you going to get these funds?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, it’s now been, I believe, four or five weeks since we put forward a very detailed proposal about what it is we thought was necessary to deal with this problem. We certainly would like to see Congress take action on our proposal. We laid out in very clear detail what exactly was necessary, and Republicans in the House didn’t act on it. Instead, they passed a different piece of legislation. In the Senate, we saw Republicans do everything that they could do to block a Democratic proposal that was patterned on the proposal that this administration had put forward. That’s a piece of legislation, I’d point out, that got 50 votes in the United States Senate, but because of the rules of the Senate and the efforts by Senate Republicans to block that legislation, won’t actually pass.
So we’re pretty disappointed about that. But what it does is it adds even more conviction to the President’s view that if Congress is not going to take steps to try to address these problems, then he is going to consider whatever steps he can take within the confines of the law to address this problem on his own. And if Congress decides to return from their August recess after Labor Day and to take action to address some of these challenges that everybody acknowledges exists, then we would welcome that action. But the President is not going to sit around waiting for Congress -- or congressional Republicans in this case -- to act.
Q I wanted to kind of follow on border and immigration. And I guess my question was, do you guys see a political advantage in differentiating yourself from House Republicans on this issue? Do you think that voters are going to punish House Republicans for their -- for what they’ve done on border and immigration in either the midterms or 2016?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that what we’re focused on here at the White House are the -- is frankly, to put it bluntly, solving problems. And this is a problem that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill acknowledge exists but that has not changed the posture of congressional Republicans from trying to block every step that can be taken to address this problem.
I know that there are some Republicans who are concerned about the political impact of this. I don’t often read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, but I happened to read a little bit of it this weekend. They said that the Republicans, again, “gave the country the impression that its highest priority is to deport as many children as rapidly as possible back from wherever they came.” They continued to say, “A party whose preoccupation is deporting children is going to alienate many conservatives, never mind minority voters.”
So I think that the Wall Street Journal is concerned about the political impact that this could have for Republicans, and I think that they do so acknowledging that this is not just a move and a policy that is going to be unpopular with minority voters, it's actually a policy that's going to be unpopular and even alienate -- to use their word -- many conservation voters.
Q Well, yes, I mean, so you guys maybe are concerned about policy, but also obviously about politics. The President goes and fund-raises all the time. So I guess my question is, is that an accomplishment for the President -- if what the Wall Street Journal editorial page said is true -- to sort of consolidate the Hispanic vote, or voters who are concerned about this issue within the Democratic Party? Is that something that you guys are actively interested in, or working on, or is it part of the consideration as you go through this process of drafting a possible executive order?
MR. EARNEST: No. What we're focused on solving the problem. And I know that there are many Republicans who are suspicious of the President’s political motives. I think that that applies to just about any policy issue that the President considers. They’re certainly entitled to that point of view, but the fact of the matter is that's why it's so significant that the proposal that the President has championed, the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that passed through the Senate, is legislation that was supported by 14 Republicans in the United States Senate. It’s legislation that’s supported by even evangelicals all across the country. I suspect that they don't share the same political goals as the President, but they share the President’s support for that compromise piece of legislation.
The same could be said of the business community and even the law enforcement community. These are not communities that are packed necessarily with progressive or even Democratic voters, but yet they support the proposal that the President supports.
So I think the President alluded to this in his comments on Friday when he said that the dispute right now or the debate right now is not between congressional Republicans and the President of the United States; it is a dispute between congressional Republicans on one side and the President on the same side as Senate Republicans -- or at least more than a dozen Senate Republicans -- leaders in the law enforcement community, leaders in the evangelical community, leaders in the business community. And that is an indication that, again, the President is not interested in playing politics on this issue, he’s interested in solving problems.
Q Josh, I want to go back to the Africa summit somewhat and security. Can you talk to us about what you know with the efforts with, I guess, Nigeria and Cameroon when it comes to trying to defeat Boko Haram and deal with finding the girls, as well as finding the wife of the vice prime minister who was taken by Boko Haram as well from Cameroon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, you’ll note that in the opening remarks that I delivered, one of the focal points of the leaders summit will be on security. The United States has many deep security ties with countries across Africa, and there are steps that we have announced to deal with -- or at least coordinate with African countries who have the lead in dealing with some of these challenges.
As you know, Boko Haram does pose a significant threat to security in many of these countries in Africa. That's why the United States -- after the high-profile abduction of some 300 girls from a school in Africa led the United States to commit additional resources, including some military resources, to assist the Nigerian government in search for those girls.
So we remain engaged and working with local governments in Africa to confront this significant challenge. And again, one of the goals of this conference is to discuss security issues. And I don't have any specific meetings or anything to read out to you in advance, but a thorough discussion of security is on the agenda for this week.
Q Let me ask you this. When it comes to security, broader, beyond -- well, when it comes to security in Africa, beyond this summit, is this country working with Israel when it comes to dealing with terrorism? I’ve heard from several countries in the last couple of days that they are working closely with Israel because they have more of a sense of -- they’ve dealt with a lot of terrorism for a very long time. And African countries are really looking to them and listening to them. Is America working with Israel when it comes to the African situation with Boko Haram and terrorism there on the continent?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific programs or conversations like that, but I do think that I can say as a general matter that we are interested in working with African countries to help them bring greater security to their countries and to individual communities in their countries.
We recognize here in the United States the significant threat to security that Boko Haram poses. And we are interested in working with the leadership of these countries to professionalize their security operations and do a better job of ensuring the safety and security of their people as they confront the threats of these terrorists.
Q And lastly, is it believed that the girls are still alive?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update on their status or what our latest assessment is of their status. I think I’d refer you to the State Department who may be able to give you an update on that.
Q Just back to the immigration question. You’ve made a case here -- and we’ve heard it before -- that the American public supports immigration reform, that there’s support enough in Congress to pass it; if only a bill would come up for a vote, it would pass and would be signed into law. I’m wondering if it’s the White House’s assessment, if it’s the President’s assessment that that set of facts as you see them affects the President’s view of what he is able to do and what he is permitted to do to act on his own. In other words, does that change the calculus given that your assessment -- again, popular support, more than enough support to pass it in Congress, if only it weren’t being unfairly blocked -- does that therefore give the President some broader powers to act on his own?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the assessment of what powers the President can wield on his own to address this problem is something that will be determined by legal experts, in this case under the leadership of the Attorney General of the United States and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
But I do think that as a practical matter, the President’s desire to act where Congress has failed is strengthened by the fact that there is such broad support all across the country for trying to impose common-sense solutions to a problem or a set of problems that everybody acknowledges exists. But the scope of possible -- or potential executive actions that could be taken to address some of these problems is something that will be determined by the legal review that is still ongoing.
Q Let me ask you this way. The President several times
-- and from this podium, your predecessor several times -- when asked by advocacy groups for immigration reform why doesn't the President act alone, why doesn't he do what he did under DACA for the whole spectrum, the whole population of those who are in country illegally -- does the President still stand by those statements? Does he still think that, I’ve done what I can -- as he’s said in the past, I’ve done what I can on my own; I can’t do further. What needs to happen now is legislative action -- or has that view changed?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s view has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that for a period of time that extended more than a year, there was an opportunity for Congress to take action to address these problems. And the fact is that all of the -- well, I’d say it this way: Any of the problems -- or any of the potential actions that the President could take would not be as enduring or robust as policies that can be put in place by Congress. That's just the way that our system is structured.
And legislation in this area would have a more far-lasting impact on these problems than any sort of executive action that the President would be able to take. That is why the President has been pretty transparent about saying, look, by the end of the summer I’m going to consider a review that's been conducted by the AG and the Secretary of Homeland Security, and I’m going to take what steps are within the confines of the law for me to mitigate some of problems that are posed by the broken immigration system.
If, however, Congress returns from their August recess, comes to their senses and decides that they actually should consider a common-sense set of reforms for our broken immigration system, the President would be happy for that piece of legislation to supersede the executive actions that he’s taken to address this problem.
So this doesn't eliminate the need for Congress to act. It just reflects the President’s commitment to acting where Congress has refused.
Q Let me just get very specific. What he said one of the times he was heckled by a pro-immigration reform group, he said that if he could solve this problem on his own, he would; “…but we’re also a nation of laws. That's part of our tradition. And so the easy way out is to try and yell and pretend like I could do something by violating our laws. But what I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal you want to achieve.” Has that view changed? I mean, he was pretty forthright saying, look, I can't do it. It would be violating the law if I did it on my own. Congress has to act. But now that you’ve made a case that Congress is not going to act, does the President’s view on that change?
MR. EARNEST: No, it has not changed. And the reason is simply this, Jon -- that Congress has a greater capacity to solve this problem than the President does through executive actions. There is more that Congress can do. And I think -- I remember that event. I believe that was -- are you reading from the transcript of the President’s event in San Francisco? I believe that’s what that is, from last fall. And the President did have a very -- I think it was a pretty emotional exchange. There was a pretty emotional outburst from somebody in the audience. And what the President observed -- and that was a time frame in which there was still an opportunity and Republicans were still signaling a willingness to consider the common-sense proposal that had already passed through the Senate.
Anything that the President is able to do using his executive action will not be as powerful and as long-lasting as the reforms that are contemplated by this bipartisan proposal that’s already passed through the Senate. But what the President has said is, even if I can’t do all of that because I can’t, because the law will not allow me, I’m going to ask my team, the experts -- the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General -- to review the law and figure out what is it the President can do within the confines of the current law.
And the President is going to encourage them to cast a wide net, consider a wide range of ideas. And the President looks forward to that review and looks forward to acting on it quickly after he receives it.
Q Josh, when people heard the President say, I can’t do it, what he was really saying is, I’d rather not do it. He’s always believed he could do this and could go down this road and use executive power. His preference and what he stated was really a preference, not a limitation.
MR. EARNEST: No, there are limitations that are under -- within the confines of the current law. Congress can do more to address this problem than the President can.
So what the President has said is, I’m going to direct my Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to consider what I’m able to do under the current law. What that will be is maybe some options to mitigate some of the problems that we see with our broken immigration system, but not as much as Congress can do.
Q Getting back to Mark’s question, you talked about 4.5 or 5 million people receiving a temporary work permit that never existed before that isn’t part of the legislative process, that is executive fiat. That is a scope of executive power never before seen on an issue like this. And what I think people thought they heard the President saying is, I can’t do that. What he was actually saying is, I’d rather not.
MR. EARNEST: I think what he was saying -- and I think this is -- I’m going to try this one more time. I think what the President was saying is, I can’t do what Congress is talking about doing right now; I do not have the authority under the current law to take the kinds of steps that Congress is debating right now. The steps that Congress was debating at that time were steps that would have a far-reaching impact on our broken immigration system; that it would repair very serious problems that exist with our immigration system.
Q Wouldn’t you agree that 4.5 to 5 million work permits would also be far-reaching in its impact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to talk about specific proposals because, again, the review about what the President is able to do is still ongoing. So it remains an open question whether these proposals that are floated by a wide variety of advocates on this issue is something that falls within the President’s authority to act on. So I’m going to let the legal experts render a judgment on that and consider what options are available to the President.
The only thing I know now is that the options that will be presented to the President will not be as enduring and will not be as successful at reforming our broken immigration system as the law that was passed in bipartisan fashion by the Congress -- or by the Senate, but is currently being blocked by Republicans in the House.
Q On the statement released by the State Department yesterday, does the administration interpret that as a new signal to Israel about tactical limitations the United States believes it now must follow; that is to say, suspicion is no longer justification for any shelling? Not something I believe I heard the administration ever say as specifically as it said in that statement yesterday. Is there a rhetorical limit now you are trying to impose on the tactical flexibility Israel has to prosecute this war?
MR. EARNEST: The limits that are imposed on Israel’s ability to tactically execute this war are the standards that the Israeli military themselves have put in place. And what we are encouraging them to do is to live up to those standards and in some cases do ever more to live up to those standards.
So we resolutely defend Israel’s right to defend themselves and to take the kinds of military steps that they assess are necessary to protect their citizens. They have a responsibility to do that. But in terms of the tactical execution, they have put in place very serious standards for the protection of civilians, and the United States has been steadfast in encouraging them to live up those standards and in some cases do more to ensure that they’re living up to those standards.
Q In the course of this conflict, has Israel in any respect lived up to those standards?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we’ve seen, and I think that we’ve said before, that it is evident that Israel can and should do more to live up to those standards.
Q So it has not?
MR. EARNEST: So what we believe is that Israel can and should do more to live up to the standards that they themselves have set for the safety and security of innocent Palestinian civilians.
Q Hey, Josh. I wanted to follow up on executive action, because on Friday the President seemed to suggest the barometer for this is how many executive orders you issue, as you’ve suggested as well. He said, “…despite the fact that I’ve taken fewer executive actions than my Republican predecessor or my Democratic predecessor before that…” Isn’t the real issue the scope, as was suggested earlier, and whether or not you’re going around current law rather than just simply numbers?
MR. EARNEST: What this President believes -- well, I guess the other way that we can measure this, Ed, is by evaluating the record of Congress. And there was a lot of commentary over the weekend that indicated that this Republican Congress fell far short of the standard that was set, even by the do-nothing Congress of the last century.
So what the President is dealing with is a Congress that is refusing to act on a whole range of priorities that are shared by Democrats and Republicans. So what the President has said is that the President will not allow congressional inaction to stymie that progress of this nation. And the President has widely considered, on a range of policy issues, steps that he can take within the confines of the law and within the confines of his executive authority to try to make progress on behalf of the American people -- mostly in those situations, middle-class families all across the country. That’s what the President has prioritized, and that’s why you’ve seen the President take a number of steps to advance their interests.
Q So it’s fair to say then that the trigger for executive action likely this fall, end of the summer on immigration reform, like on other issues, is that the House Republicans fail to act?
MR. EARNEST: That is the trigger. Because House Republicans are blocking common-sense reforms that have already been passed through the Senate, the President is not going to stand by and not allow any solutions to be put in place. The President is going to consider what solutions he can put in place within the confines of the law.
As I mentioned to Major, the solutions will not be as far-reaching as legislation would allow, but they may be in a position to mitigate some of the problems of our broken immigration system. And the President is no longer going to wait for Congress to act.
Q So if the trigger is congressional inaction, why didn’t the President take executive action on immigration back in 2009 or 2010 when House Democrats failed to act?
MR. EARNEST: Because the President was committed to trying to work through Congress. I think this is evidence that the President has been very patient.
Q But they had two years. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- they were running the House and Senate. The first two years of this administration the President vowed back in 2008, by the end of my first year in office we’ll pass comprehensive immigration reform. That was his promise. So they failed to act for two years. Why didn’t he do anything then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say a couple things about that, Ed. The first is that at the time -- you’ll recall back in 2009 there were many things on the President’s plate --
Q As there are now. Israel, Gaza, Syria, the economy -- he has a lot going on now, right?
MR. EARNEST: He does. But I think that the crisis that we faced in 2009 as it related to our financial system and our economy hemorrhaging jobs, that that was understandably the focal point of congressional activity but also a lot of activity here at the White House. There’s no doubt that we would have liked to have seen immigration reform get done years ago. I think that is -- again, that is also something that is shared by Democrats and Republicans. All the more reason it is completely unreasonable for House Republicans to continue to block common-sense reforms that have strong bipartisan support all across the country.
Q But you said several times here we’re focused on solving problems, when you were ask about it.
MR. EARNEST: We are.
Q So you had a chance -- you had the House, Senate and White House in 2009, 2010. Why didn’t you focus on solving immigration problems then?
MR. EARNEST: And my point is, Ed, that there were a lot of other crises that the President was focused on at that point. And what we’re focused on now is trying to find common-sense solution, bipartisan solutions to a problem that a wide variety, a wide majority of Americans acknowledge exist at this point.
Q You used the phrase “end of summer” earlier. Is that when the President is going to announce a decision? Or is that when all of the recommendations from Cabinet members are coming to him?
MR. EARNEST: What we have said is that is when we anticipate this review that’s being conducted by the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General will be received by the President.
Q That would be about when probably?
MR. EARNEST: Roughly the end of the summer.
Q And that is September 20?
MR. EARNEST: There are -- I’ll leave -- I acknowledge that that time frame is open to some interpretation.
Q I’ll grant you that. I’m just trying to get a little bit more specific.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. I’m not in a position to be much more specific about that from here.
But let me say this that I think will do a little bit more to answer your question: We do anticipate that we will receive the review around the end of the summer, and I do anticipate that the President will act on those recommendations shortly after receiving them.
Q And a follow up. He’s going to consult the Attorney General on what legally he can do through the executive orders. To what extent is he limited in his actions by lack of money?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question. Once the President is able to evaluate -- based on the recommendations of the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General -- the options that are available to him, I’m sure there will be a discussion of resources and whether or not there are sufficient resources to take some of these steps.
Q You can only reprogram so much. I mean, that’s all there is.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. I think that sort of highlights the point that Jon and Major were highlighting, which is that congressional action to addressing this problem would be -- is vastly preferable. Congress has the power of the purse. They could ensure that the necessary resources are devoted to solving so many of the problems that are created by our broken immigration system.
The other thing I’d point out is that there are obvious economic benefits to taking the kinds of steps that were contemplated by the Congress that would reduce the deficit, it would create jobs, that it would expand economic opportunity. These are all good things. These are the reasons that you see groups -- particularly the business community -- be so strongly supportive of immigration reform. But again, for reasons that are not clear to me, many Republicans have not found that to be particularly persuasive.
Q Thanks, Josh. In the many conversations between U.S. government officials and Israeli officials over the past couple of days, has the American -- has the White House or any American official received any assurances from the Israelis that they will work -- that they will try to live up to those standards that you’ve repeatedly cited?
MR. EARNEST: Zeke, I’m not in a position to read out any private conversations between U.S. officials and their Israeli counterparts. I did hear in the remarks that the Prime Minister delivered over the weekend a commitment to ensuring that the Israeli military lives up to those standards and is doing the kinds of things that protect the lives of innocent civilians on the Palestinian side. That stands in pretty stark contrast to the tactics that are employed by Hamas and other affiliated groups that are using their rockets and aiming them squarely at Israeli civilians in the hopes of provoking a wide range of casualties among the civilian population there.
So their tactics are clearly different. But the Israeli Prime Minister in his remarks indicated not just a willingness but a desire to live up to those standards that we’ve been talking about here today.
Q It’s been a couple of days now since the latest round of sanctions on Russia, wanting to effect those sectoral sanctions that you said would be so painful for the Russian economy. Have you seen any indications yet that the Russian government is pushing back or pulling back its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, or any concrete economic impacts on the Russian regime in the past -- since these sanctions have been put in place?
MR. EARNEST: I would refer you to the Treasury Department, who is more closely watching the economic impact of these sanctions. We have over the longer term seen a range of data to indicate that there is an economic impact that’s being felt by the Russian economy. We’ve seen the Central Bank of Russia spend billions of dollars to try to shore up the strength of their currency. We’ve seen a pretty large increase in capital flight from Russia. There are concerns about whether or not that is -- among the investor community about whether or not that’s a safe place to try to invest some money. We have seen a lot of the impartial international evaluators of the health of the Russian economy revise down their projections for economic growth in Russia.
So there are a range of indications that highlight the impact that this sanctions regime has had on the economy. In terms of its impact on the calculus of the Putin regime, as it relates to their activities in Ukraine, we have not seen the kinds of actions that we would like to see. Again, we would like to see Russia not engage in the kind of destabilizing activities along the Ukraine border that have led to that escalating conflict. And we would like to see them use their influence with the Russian separatists to abide by a cease-fire agreement and pursue a diplomatic resolution. We’d like to see the Russians take the necessary steps to close their border to the transfer of heavy weapons. But we haven’t seen the kinds of concrete steps that we’d like to see.
But again, this is not the kind of thing that -- this is not the kind of policy that can be evaluated on 24 or 48 hours’ notice, but rather the kind of thing that can be evaluated over the course of weeks and months.
Q Let me just ask you a quick question about the Africa summit and anything you might have on any added meetings or sideline meetings that might be going on to address the crisis, the Ebola crisis.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know of any specific meetings that are dedicated to that topic. But I’d refer you to the State Department. They may be able to shed some more light on those kinds of activities.
Q And just a little more on the timing of any possible executive orders, particularly as they relate to the border and your comment that maybe Congress will come back from the August recess and come to its senses. Is there any implication that the President is unlikely to move before Congress returns? Or is that timing very fluid?
MR. EARNEST: I would describe that timing as fluid. And again, the reason that I worded it that way is that even if the President does take some executive action prior to Congress’s return, the President would be happy to have those executive actions superseded by passing the common-sense Senate reform -- Senate immigration reform bill that passed more than a year ago.
Again, any steps the President could take would not be as far-reaching as that Senate bill. And if congressional Republicans come back from the recess, even just come to their senses enough, not necessarily to even support the bill, but just allow the bill to come up for a vote, the President would be happy to sign that bill into law and allow it to supersede any of the policy consequences of the executive actions that he takes.
Q And just a real quick one on the redactions on the upcoming report on the enhanced interrogation techniques, and the criticism from some Democrats on the Intelligence Committee who say that these redactions, which are about 15 percent, make the report virtually unreadable. Your comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things. The first is it’s important to remember the President’s perspective here. This is his administration that we’re talking about. Prior to assuming the office of the presidency, the President -- then Senator Obama -- was pretty forward-leaning in his criticism of some of the tactics that were reportedly used during that era.
Upon taking office, within a week or so, the President took executive action to ensure that those techniques would never again be used. And he was -- he has long advocated the declassification and release of this report because it would send a clear signal to the American people and to the international community that we’re willing to own up -- as a country -- that we’re willing to own up to what occurred so that we can ensure that even in very difficult times that it doesn't happen again.
So that is the President’s view here. He’s been very forward-leaning in terms of trying to be as transparent as possible with the American public about what exactly occurred and with the international community about what exactly occurred so that we can prevent it from happening again.
Now, there are some necessary -- we’re talking about very sensitive information here. And it is important that a declassification process be carried out that protects sources and methods and other information that is critical to our national security. And that is why the intelligence community has worked through a very rigorous process to ensure that those pieces of information are protected.
I would --
Q But the criticism, and again from Democrats, is that this isn’t about protecting sources and methods; it’s redacting material -- basic source material that makes it impossible to understand the report.
MR. EARNEST: Well, more than 85 percent of the report was un-redacted, and half of the redactions that occurred were actually just in the footnotes. So this is an indication that there was a good-faith effort that was made by the administration and by national security professionals to evaluate this information and to make redactions that are consistent with the need to protect national security, but also consistent with the President’s clearly stated desire to be as transparent as possible about this.
That all being said, this administration and the relevant national security agencies have indicated a willingness to sit down with those who have spoken out about this just in the last couple of days to try to find some common ground here and satisfy their concerns so that we can get this report released as quickly as possible.
Q Do we know when that might take place?
MR. EARNEST: I don't. I’d refer you to the intelligence community about that.
Q Josh, do you have any comment on -- Jim Brady’s family has put out a statement saying the former press secretary has passed away. And I wonder if you have any reflections, given how new you are to the job.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I had not seen that. That may have just happened. I was aware that Mr. Brady was in failing health in recent days, and I was saddened when I first learned of that. He is somebody who I think really revolutionized this job. And even after he was wounded in that attack on the President, was somebody who showed his patriotism and commitment to the country by being very outspoken on an issue that was important to him and that he felt very strongly about.
So he is -- he leaves the kind of legacy that I think -- that certainly this press secretary and all future press secretaries will aspire to live up to.
I anticipate we’ll have a little bit more to say about this on paper later today.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll give you the last one.
Q Yes, thank you, Josh. On the Afghan elections, it continues to have a bumpy process as far as the counting of votes are concerned. Is it concerning to you? Or what’s the problem? How do you think about it?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the auditing of the election results?
Q Yes, counting of the election results. It hasn’t got it, yet. They just started.
MR. EARNEST: It did just start. After a break for the Eid holiday, the election audit has resumed. And both candidates are participating with candidate agents observing the process. The audit continues to be conducted by the Afghan Independent Elections Commission under the close supervision of the United Nations.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to express continued support for the Afghan electoral process and the framework for a government of national unity as agreed to on his last visit to that country. He stressed the urgency of accelerating the post-election audit and implementing the political framework agreement.
What we have said many times is that we believe it’s important for the Afghan people to have confidence in their electoral institutions. And by conducting this audit, which both candidates have agreed to -- this is an audit of every ballot that was cast in that presidential election, so no small undertaking -- that will only enhance confidence in the political system in Afghanistan, and thereby will enhance confidence in that country’s next leader.
So we’re pleased that both candidates remain engaged in this process and are going to be supportive of both candidates and of that process in general as it works its way to completion.
Q Has the President spoken to these two candidates or President Karzai of late?
MR. EARNEST: Not in the last couple of days. There have been a couple of conversations between the President and both candidates in the election to encourage them to remain engaged in the process. But I don’t have any recent telephone calls to read out to you other than the call that was placed by the Secretary of State over the weekend.
1:56 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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