Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/25/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:31 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. Appreciate that.
Q Personnel announcements?
Q Sleep deprived?
MR. EARNEST: That’s probably true. It’s been a couple weeks since we gathered in this room, so I’m glad to welcome you all back. Some of you I know were covering the President in Martha’s Vineyard. That was probably not particularly restful. But those of you who weren’t, I hope you used that occasion to get away just a little bit and get a little time with your family.
So with that, let’s go ahead and get back started again. Julie, do you want to start us off?
Q Sure thing. Welcome back.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q And congratulations to you and Natalie.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you very much.
Q A bit of housekeeping just off the top. Last week, officials said that the President had not received any military options for striking Syria. Is that still the case, following his meeting with Secretary Hagel today?
MR. EARNEST: The President later this afternoon will be meeting with Secretary Hagel. This is not a special meeting. The President, as you know, on a weekly basis meets with the Secretary of Defense when he’s in town to talk about a range of issues. We don’t traditionally read out those meetings. I would anticipate that they will talk about some of the recent military actions that the President ordered in Iraq.
In terms of our broader strategy, the President has been very clear about what he believes our priorities are in Iraq, why he believes it’s important for the United States to pursue a comprehensive approach to countering the threat that’s posed by ISIL, not just to Iraq, but also to Americans and American interests. That strategy includes some of the military strikes that the President has ordered. It also includes working closely with an effective, inclusive Iraqi government that can unite that country to meet the threat. It also includes greater engagement with the Iraqi military to improve training and, if necessary, improving and increasing the supply of equipment that they have access to. It also includes engaging Sunni tribes in western Iraq. These are areas where these tribes have significant influence. These also happen to be the areas where ISIL has made the most significant gains.
So there’s an opportunity for us to leverage their support to try to confront this threat. There also is the likelihood, or the ability of the United States, using our diplomatic abilities and relationships, to leverage the involvement of other countries in the region and other countries around the world to work with the Iraqis to confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
Q But in terms of the component of that that could include military action in Syria, is it still accurate to say that the President has not received any options for such action?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to be in a position from here to talk about any sort of ongoing deliberations or consultations between the President and senior members of his national security team.
Q I’m just asking because last time we were told specifically that he had not received those options yet. So I just wanted to see if that is still an accurate statement.
MR. EARNEST: I’m just not going to be in a position to talk about those specific conversations or planning. It is the role of the Pentagon -- and they will tell you this themselves -- for them to develop a wide range of plans to confront a whole range of things, and that there are entire wings of that very large building that are dedicated to making sure the President has a range of plans and options that they can present to him if and when necessary. They are very good at their jobs. But I’m not going to be in a position to talk about the communication at this point between those military advisors and the advice they’re offering to the Commander-in-Chief.
Q Okay. And I wanted to ask about the release of Peter Theo Curtis by al Nusra. The family and U.S. officials have said that there was no exchange of money that they know of. So if there was no ransom paid, no money that exchanged hands, what’s your understanding of why he was released?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. The first is, as you know, Julie, it is the policy of the United States government not to provide ransoms to terrorists to secure the release of hostages, even American hostages. This is a policy that the United States has pursued for a long time and has been in place for a long time. That policy is in place because providing ransoms to terrorist organizations only gives those terrorist organizations access to more funds and resources. It also makes American citizens more likely targets of terrorist organizations, knowing that they could eventually hold them for ransom.
So this is a policy that we have pursued, and that not only do we not pay ransoms, we tell other organizations and countries not to pay ransoms for American citizens for precisely those reasons.
So what I can tell you is that the -- as you point out, the Curtis family said that the Qatari government told them that they did not pay a ransom for Mr. Curtis. The United States government certainly did not ask the Qataris to pay a ransom. In fact, we asked the Qataris, consistent with our longstanding policy, to not pay a ransom for Mr. Curtis. That, all said, we are grateful in knowing that Mr. Curtis is coming home after so much time held in captivity in Syria. And on behalf of the American people, we join Mr. Curtis’s family and his loved ones in welcoming his freedom.
Q But it still leaves open the question then of why he was released, and so I’m trying to get a sense of what you think the reason was. Was there something else that was promised to al Nusra? Was there money that was paid by --
MR. EARNEST: Certainly not. Certainly not by the United States.
Q There was nothing else promised to al Nusra?
MR. EARNEST: Again, not by the United States.
Q By the Qataris?
MR. EARNEST: The role of the U.S. government in this situation was to facilitate a conversation between Mr. Curtis’s family and the Qatari government. And from there, the Qatari government pursued, through their established relationships, a conversation with the individuals who were holding Mr. Curtis, and they secured his release.
Q Is there something that they promised this group?
MR. EARNEST: Again, you’d have to ask them. They certainly didn’t -- they told Mr. Curtis’s family that they did not pay a ransom. The United States made clear, and it is clear to the Qatari government, that we did not want them to pay a ransom. In fact, we encouraged them not to pay a ransom. But in terms of trying to get in the head of these individuals who were holding captive an American citizen is just not something I’m in a position to do.
Q The role of Qatar in this, is this something that you’re encouraging?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are pleased that Mr. Curtis has been released, and we certainly are and we welcome his return to his family and loved ones. The Qataris played the role based on the existing relationships that they have in the region, and so we’re certainly pleased with the outcome, if that’s what you’re asking. But maybe that’s not what you’re asking, because I guess that seems a little obvious. We’re certainly --
Q I was wondering if you’re going to rely on them going forward and trying to get more hostages out.
MR. EARNEST: I see. Well, let me go at it this way. Mr. Curtis had been held in captivity for a couple of years, and the United States, as we have done with other Americans who were being held hostage around the world, has pursued a wide range of leads to try to secure that individual’s release.
So the United States, as it relates specifically to Mr. Curtis’s case, over the last two years had been in touch with more than two dozen countries to ask them for their assistance in securing Mr. Curtis’s release. So the United States will continue to use all of the tools in our arsenal to try to secure the release of American citizens who are being held hostage around the world. In this case, because of the kinds of conversations that we were able to facilitate between the Curtis family and the Qataris, we were able to eventually secure the release of Mr. Curtis. We welcome his release. And we will continue -- and when I say “we” I mean the United States government and the Obama administration will continue to work tirelessly on behalf of all Americans who are held overseas so that they, too, can be reunited with their families.
Q And going back to the military options question, where do you see the process right now? Has the President asked for options, or is he talking to the Pentagon, is the Pentagon going to talk to him? Where does it stand? It doesn’t sound like a decision is imminent.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that the President has not made a decision to pursue any sort of military action in Syria. I can also tell you, as I mentioned earlier, that the Department of Defense has personnel who are responsible, as they can tell you, for ensuring that the Commander-in-Chief has access to the kinds of plans and contingencies that he may need if necessary.
But in terms of giving you an update on the status, I’m not in a position to do that beyond saying that the President has not made any decision to order military action in Syria.
Q And one last thing -- sorry -- Burger King is planning to move its headquarters to Canada if it purchases this Tim Hortons chain. Does this add pressure on you to issue executive orders about the issue of tax inversion? And is something like that imminent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, I have read reports that this a specific financial transaction that’s being contemplated by a specific American company. I’m not in a position to comment on the specific transactions.
I will reiterate, though, what the Treasury Department has said, which is that they are considering a range of administrative options that are available to the administration to make those kinds of financial transactions less appealing to countries that -- or to companies that may be considering them; that there may be an opportunity for the Treasury Department to change some rules in a way that makes -- that removes or at least reduces the financial incentive for some American companies to consider those kinds of transactions.
The President -- again, speaking as a general matter, not as it relates to any specific transaction that’s being contemplated -- doesn’t believe that a company simply switching their citizenship, filling out a few papers to switch their citizenship to avoid paying their fair share in U.S. taxes is good policy. It certainly isn’t fair, and it certainly isn’t fair to the millions of middle-class families in this country that don’t have that option.
The reason it’s not fair is because those companies -- again, not speaking about any specific transaction -- but the reason that it’s not fair is that companies that consider transactions like an inversion continue to benefit from all of the resources of the United States, the United States government and other assets that are funded by taxpayer dollars. So companies that are based in the U.S. continue to benefit from the infrastructure that we have in this country. Countries that are based in the United States continue to benefit from an access to -- from access to a supply of the most highly skilled, hardest-working employees in the world.
So those are just two examples of how companies that are in the United States benefit from being in the United States. And it's not fair for them to just fill out some paperwork that would allow them to renounce their citizenship and essentially renounce a portion of their tax bill.
Okay, let’s move around just a little bit. Bill.
Q If the President were to widen the air mission in the Syria-Iraq area, would he feel a need to go back to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to speculate about what would be required if the President were to make a specific decision one way or the other. The President thus far has not made a decision to order additional military action in Syria. That said, the President remains committed, as he has throughout this situation, throughout the advance of ISIL in Iraq -- has remained committed to consulting regularly with members of Congress and congressional leaders.
You’ll recall that the President hosted a meeting here the last week that Congress was in town -- I believe it was the last week in July, maybe the first week in August -- where he invited members, Democrats and Republicans from both the House and the Senate, to talk through some of these issues. There’s also consultation that can be done and has been done at the staff level from senior members of the President’s national security team to members of Congress. Those kinds of consultations and conversations continue. But in terms of what may be required if the President were to take or order a specific action, I'm just not in a position to speculate from here right now.
Q Well, as you very well know, there are two ways this could be done. It could be done with the actual consent of Congress or it could be done somewhat passively by attaching it to a bill that has to be passed. But would the President want some kind of congressional approval?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to speculate about what sort of congressional approval would be requested or required based on a military action that hasn’t been ordered at this point. The administration remains committed to consulting with members of Congress.
As you’ll recall, over the course of the last several weeks there have been a number of War Powers notifications that have been submitted to Congress as they relate to specific military actions that have been ordered by the President in Iraq. So the President remains committed to this process. He remains committed to consultations. But I'm not going to speculate at this point about what may or may not be requested or required based on a decision that hasn’t been made.
Q Josh, one year ago this week, as you know, the President went right up to the line of ordering U.S. airstrikes in Syria. He specifically went in the Rose Garden and said, I believe I have this power; I was going to give General Dempsey the green light, but I think it's better to go to Congress first, get a consensus. Does he still believe that principle? That's what he told the American people one year ago, that he would first go to Congress to get approval before going forward with airstrikes. Those were his words.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. The President does remain committed to coordinating and consulting with Congress as he exercises his responsibilities and authorities as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America. The President recognizes that Congress has an important role to play. He also recognizes that he has an important role to play as Commander-in-Chief and as the individual who’s ultimately responsible for the national security of the United States of America and the American people.
The President will not hesitate to use his authority, as he’s already demonstrated, to keep the American people safe. But it also means he’s committed --
Q Well, actually, he said he wanted a vote in Congress. He said there would be a vote beforehand.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that was a different situation, right? And so we'll consider each of these situations differently.
Q Why is it different?
MR. EARNEST: The situation is different precisely because what the President was talking about in that scenario was ensuring that the Assad regime didn’t use chemical weapons or would pay a price for what the intel assessment -- for what the intel community had assessed was his use of chemical weapons. What we're talking about now is not about the Assad regime, but about this threat that's posed by ISIL that's operating both in Iraq and in Syria.
So the President is serious, as he’s already demonstrated, about confronting the threat that's posed by ISIL. That's, after all, why the President has already ordered airstrikes in Iraq. And that said, it's important to remember -- certainly the President acknowledges this -- that the only -- that military force and military might is not the only tool in the toolbox here; that the sustainable solution to this situation will require the active involvement of an effective, inclusive Iraqi government.
Q You’ve also made a distinction in recent weeks between Iraq and Syria, before the last couple weeks. You said repeatedly at the podium that in the case of airstrikes in Iraq -- and I believe the President said this, too -- that you were invited in by the Iraqi government to deal with ISIS, and that there’s a big difference with airstrikes in Syria because the Syrian government had not invited you in to deliver airstrikes, to launch airstrikes. Does that principle still apply? Or would you go in without Assad’s approval? Would you go in without a U.N. resolution?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the other thing that's important to remember here, Ed, is the President has also demonstrated -- and I thing the Deputy National Security Advisor mentioned this at the end of last week -- that the President has already demonstrated a willingness, where necessary, to protect the American people -- has demonstrated a willingness to use military force to protect the American people regardless of borders. This is evident from the President ordering the mission to go in and get Osama bin Laden -–
Q But you said you were invited in by the Iraqi government, that there was a difference. I haven't heard Assad say, bring airstrikes in.
MR. EARNEST: No. But again, in the situation as it relates to the mission to go get Osama bin Laden, the United States was not invited in by the Pakistani government. That was a decision that the President made to go and get Osama bin Laden because it was necessary to protect the American people.
So these are complicated situations and they always will be. But what’s not complicated is the President’s willingness to act decisively and authoritatively in ordering military strikes to protect the American people. But each of these situations is different and it doesn’t eliminate the President’s commitment to the principle of the important and robust congressional consultations.
Q Two other quick ones. You say the President is meeting with Secretary Hagel today. Last Thursday, Secretary Hagel called ISIS “an imminent threat to every interest we have. This is beyond anything that we've seen.” Does the President agree with his Defense Secretary’s assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what Secretary Hagel said -- and I believe you quoted him accurately. You may have seen more of the news conference than I did. But what is true is that there is a serious threat that’s posed by ISIL. They have --
Q He said an imminent threat, not serious. He said imminent threat. Is that an imminent threat to America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is an imminent -- I think as you read there –- American interests.
Q “To every interest we have.”
MR. EARNEST: So one of the concerns that the President has had about the situation in Iraq is that there are American personnel, both diplomatic and security personnel, in Baghdad and Erbil, specifically. And there was a threat that was posed by ISIL as they were making gains in both of those cities. That's why the President ordered military airstrikes against ISIL to stop their advance against those two cities to ensure that American personnel in those two cities would be protected.
But back to your original question, there is no question that ISIL has demonstrated a pretty significant military capability. They rapidly made gains across western and northern Iraq in a way that overran what was previously believed to be a pretty effective Iraq security force. Now, there are a variety of reasons for that. Some of it is a testament to the military sophistication of ISIL. Some of it was also due to the weakness of Iraq’s government -- it wasn’t particularly inclusive and they hadn’t built up a security force that was inclusive and committed to protecting the entire country.
So, again, this is a complicated situation but there is no question that there is a significant threat that’s posed by ISIL, in part because of their demonstrated military capacity; in part also because they have demonstrated access to significant financial resources. They have a flow of financial resources that ensures that they can continue to be well-funded.
The other concern that we have -- and in some ways this is the most significant concern -- is that there are individuals with Western passports who have taken up arms alongside ISIL in this fight. And the United States and other Western countries harbors a significant concern about those individuals returning to the West to carry out terrorist attacks. These are individuals who have been radicalized, who have ostensibly gotten some military training, and in some cases may be even battle tested.
So there are a range of reasons for this administration -- as the Secretary articulated -- for us to be concerned and to take very seriously the threat that is posed by ISIL.
Q In that same news conference, General Dempsey said, “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organization that resides in Syria? The answer is no.” He suggested we have to go into Syria if we’re going to defeat ISIS. Does the President agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what I would go back to is the President’s stated strategy for dealing with ISIL, which is to remember that there are more tools in the toolbox than just brute military force.
Q He is saying you have to go into Syria to defeat them. Does the President agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what I think that he was saying is that there are a range of ways for us to confront this threat; that we need to confront this threat in a sustainable way -- it can’t just be through brute U.S. military force; that we need to build up an effective Iraqi government. One of the things that we’ve been doing in Syria for some time now is trying to build up the moderate opposition in Syria. They certainly can play an effective role in marginalizing the influence of some of these radical elements, like ISIL, in Syria. There’s a role to be played for other regional governments who are threatened by the destabilizing actions of ISIL.
Q But General Dempsey is not in charge of those other militaries; he’s in the charge of the U.S. military. And he said, can you defeat ISIS without going into Syria? The answer is no. I’m not hearing it -- does the President agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: But that doesn’t necessarily -- Ed, the point that I’m trying to make here is that --
Q He was pretty direct.
MR. EARNEST: I think he was direct in saying that right now ISIS is clearly, without any doubt, using a bit of a safe haven in Syria to supplement and support the gains that they’ve made across Iraq. That is the source of some concern -- of significant concern. The question is, how do you root that out? How do you undermine that stability? And the point that I’m trying to make here is that it doesn’t necessarily require just U.S. military action to do so; that there is a role to be played for the moderate opposition in Syria. There’s a role to be played for other governments in the region that have a stake in this outcome. There’s a role to be played by other countries in the international community that have a stake in this outcome.
So I think what the Chairman was saying is that, yes, obviously, you have to make gains against ISIL in Syria in order to defeat ISIL. What you shouldn’t necessarily do is jump to the conclusion that that means robust American military action is required in Syria to further or accomplish that goal.
Q Josh, welcome back.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q Are there ISIS fighters inside Syria right now actively plotting attacks against the United States?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that Chairman Dempsey himself talked about over the weekend. And he indicated that according to intelligence assessments that there is no evidence of an active plot right now. That said, we are well aware of the threat that is posed by ISIL, and that we’ve already -- ISIL has already demonstrated in rather violent fashion their willingness to perpetrate terrible acts against American citizens.
We are concerned, as I mentioned to Ed, about the role that so-called foreign fighters could play in undermining the security of Western nations. Again, these are individuals with Western passports, citizens of Western countries who have traveled to this region, to Syria and Iraq, to fight alongside ISIL; that the risk that is posed by them, that they're getting back on a plane and flying back to the West to carry out terrorist attacks, that is why we are working cooperatively with our partners in the region and among our Western allies to monitor these individuals to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to mitigate the threat that's posed by them.
So we are concerned about the threat that is posed by ISIL. But it is the assessment, as stated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the intelligence community, that there currently is not an active plot underway to attack the U.S. homeland by ISIL.
Q Help us to better understand how what’s happening in Syria right now is different than Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and perhaps Somalia where we’ve used drone strikes and individually have attacked those fighters in those regions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's an open-ended question. I think, Peter, you could probably write a book in terms of answering that. (Laughter.)
Q Let’s be specific to extremist fighters that have aspirations, if not direct and active efforts underway right now to attack the U.S. How is it different what’s happening in Syria in terms of their pursuit of attacks on the United States -- what’s happening in Syria versus what’s happening in those other nations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me attempt to answer that question. It probably will be incomplete, but let me give it a shot here. I think one important way in which they're different is that in some of the countries that you’ve named -- Pakistan, Yemen, even Iraq -- that there is a basis of coordination and cooperation that exists between U.S. counterterrorism officials and counterterrorism officials in each of those individual countries.
So in places like Yemen and Pakistan, we are able to work collaboratively with those host governments to try to eradicate or at least mitigate the threat that is posed by those violent extremists that may even harbor ambitions of carrying out terrorist attacks against Americans or American interests. I think that is one important difference.
I think the other important difference is that we have seen -- and again, I alluded to this in my answer to Ed’s question -- we’ve demonstrated a pretty sophisticated military capability by ISIL. Again, they made rapid gains across western and northern Iraq that a lot of people didn’t see coming. So at least those are two sort of ways in which ISIL is distinguished from other extremist organizations around the globe.
Q Does the White House believe that the chief goal of ISIS is regional power and authority? Or is it to attack the West?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that they themselves have stated that their goal right now is to create this Islamic caliphate in this area that overlaps Syria and Iraq. That’s their stated goal. And I take them at their --
Q And our view of what they’re trying to accomplish will impact ultimately whether we view it as a threat to the U.S. and view the need to root it out within Syria.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point is that is their stated goal. That said, there are ways in which they pose a threat to American interests. And again, they demonstrated just last week a willingness to perpetuate -- or to perpetrate a terrible act of violence against an innocent American citizen. They have demonstrated significant military capability. They’ve demonstrated that they have access to significant financial resources. They have demonstrated an ability to recruit Westerners to their cause. And that does mean that we continue to be concerned about those so-called foreign fighters returning to the West and carrying out acts of violence or acts of terror here in the United States or among our Western allies.
That is why the United States has been focused on this for some time. And I think that’s, I guess, another point that I should make here. This is not something -- this is something that the United States and the Obama administration has been focused on for a number of months now; that there have been conversations that have taken place between law enforcement officials and counterterrorism officials in the United States with our partners to counteract this threat for months; that Lisa Monaco, the President’s top counterterrorism advisor has traveled to the region several times over the last several months to talk to her counterparts about making sure that we are coordinating with our allies around the globe to mitigate this threat.
Q Just to complete this thought, then -- did the President underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple of months ago as a JV squad, in making a reference to National Basketball Association teams like the Lakers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today, so I wanted to pull -- (laughter) -- I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview, because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit.
The President said, “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland, versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.” So the President was not singling out ISIL. He was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was led by Osama bin Laden.
Thanks to the efforts of this President, and because of the heroic efforts of our men and women in uniform and the intelligence community, that al Qaeda core network led by Osama bin Laden has been decimated and defeated. But there is a different threat that exists and that continues to pose a threat to American national security, and that is this wider range of extremist organizations, some of whom do not have designs on attacking the West or on attacking the American homeland. Many of them -- and I would say this is probably true -- well, let me say it this way: Not only do they not have designs, the vast majority of them do not have designs on attacking the West, they certainly don’t have the capability of attacking the West. What Osama bin Laden presided over was an international network of highly trained, sophisticated, well-funded terrorists that were capable of carrying out a terrible, heinous attack on the U.S. homeland.
Q Isn’t ISIS international?
MR. EARNEST: The capability that has been exhibited by what the President described as jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes is quite different than that. And that is the point that the President was making. So it’s important that we don’t sort of shorthand the analogy that the President was trying to draw here.
Q Thank you. What is the administration’s reaction to Syria’s offer today to coordinate airstrikes against Islamic militants? And he speaks to the American Legion tomorrow. Will he be addressing some of these topics?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the reports about that offer from Syria, Roger, so we’ll have to take the question and get you an answer to that.
As it relates to the President’s speech tomorrow at the American Legion, the President is looking forward to traveling to Charlotte to address the annual convention of the American Legion. This will be an opportunity for the President to talk about the important sacrifices that have been made by our men and women in uniform over the generations to ensure the safety and security of the American people.
Principally, what he’ll be focused on is what the administration has been doing and will be working to do to make sure that we live up to our commitment to those veterans to take care of them when they come home. And we’ll have more details on that speech later today.
Q Is there nothing about the Mideast or Syria, or anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t anticipate a detailed policy speech as it relates to our policy in Iraq and Syria tomorrow.
Q How about just an update of his thinking?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t anticipate anything like that. Again, I wouldn’t rule out a mention of the situation there, because certainly there are men and women in uniform who are sacrificing for the security of this country right there. But what the speech will be focused on will be making sure that we’re doing everything that we promised to keep our commitment to America’s veterans.
Q Okay, and one more quickie. Back to Burger King. The administration has made several comments, statements, even speeches against inversions, but there hasn’t been any action taken. Is that the intent, or is that the strategy to produce some sort of chilling effect among the corporate boardrooms?
MR. EARNEST: That is not the -- no, the goal here is to change the law and get Congress to pass legislation that would prevent the ability of American corporations to renounce their citizenship all in pursuit of trying to get out of paying their fair share of U.S. taxes.
Now, there are a couple of different ways we can tackle this problem. The first is, the President does believe and has had on the table for quite some time a proposal for reforming the business tax code in a way that would lower the tax rate for all American businesses, close some loopholes, and use some of that revenue to invest in things like infrastructure and job-training programs. This would also have the goal of making our tax code, and therefore American businesses, more competitive in the international community. So there are a whole bunch of reasons why Congress should take action on corporate tax reform.
I’ll acknowledge here right at the top that that’s a significant endeavor and a complicated one, one that’s going to take some time to succeed.
Q Well, it’s almost impossible. They have only about 10 legislative days before they go home for the elections. So are you waiting for that to pass and then issue an executive order?
MR. EARNEST: No. So what we have said is that we certainly believe that dealing with broader corporate tax reform is an important goal. It’s something the President has been pushing for for quite some time, for a variety of reasons -- both to enhance Americans competitiveness, but also to generate the kind of revenue that could be used to strengthen the U.S. economy.
Separately, we do believe, because of the complicated nature of corporate tax reform, that’s going to take some time, as you point out. What the U.S. Congress could do in the short term is just pass a piece of standalone legislation that would essentially close the inversions loophole that would prevent companies from pursuing this kind of financial tactic. They could do that retroactively -- we believe that they should -- to ensure that there are companies that can’t sort of slip in under the wire here and take advantage of -- or rather, slow-moving Congress.
I would remind you and your readers that this is consistent with previous congressional action. Back in 2004, there was a similar loophole that Congress took action to close that passed with strong bipartisan support through the House -- passed with bipartisan support through the Senate. It was signed into law by a Republican President of the United States. And all that took place in the run-up to a national election. So there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see Congress act in similar bipartisan fashion this year, have it be signed into law by a Democratic President, and for all that to take place in a month or two before the national election. That wouldn’t be unprecedented. In fact, it would be very consistent with steps that Congress took just a decade ago.
Q Just a little bit bigger picture on the quagmire that is Syria. What assurances -- or has the United States tried to get any assurances from the moderates that the United States support in Syria that they would control, or are working against, ISIS who are battling against the same person that the moderates are? What type of dialogue is there with the United States to make sure that if the moderates we support actually eventually win, that ISIS does not become in control?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think there is no doubt that the moderate opposition in Syria has a very different vision for the future of their country than the radical extremists in ISIL; that the people -- that the moderate opposition in Syria is moderate because they envision a country that reflects the diversity of the people of Syria. And one of the reasons that this resistance emerged to the Assad regime in the first place is because President Assad was not pursuing the kind of inclusive government that those people would like for their country. That ultimately, it should be -- the Syrian people should have the ability to determine the future of their country. That is certainly not what ISIL contemplates. And that’s why --
Q But aren’t they allies?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q I mean, it’s very confusing. Aren’t they allies, though, the moderates and ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think ISIL considers the moderate opposition to be allies, and I don’t think the moderate opposition considers ISIL to be allies. And the reason for that is simply because they have very different visions for the future of their country. That is why the United States has invested heavily in supporting the moderate Syrian opposition to be victorious.
Q So is it difficult now for the United States to choose right now? And is it difficult for the American people to understand who they should be supporting right now. When you’re talking about ISIS versus Assad, is there a lesser of two evils here?
MR. EARNEST: In the judgment of this administration, no. In the judgment of this administration, the people of Syria should have the opportunity to determine the future of their country; that they should have the opportunity to exercise some influence over what kind of country they want to live in. That is a basic fundamental human right, a basic fundamental value that this administration supports. It’s why we have weighed in heavily in support of the moderate opposition in Syria. It’s why we urged President Assad to leave power. And it is why we do not believe that ISIL would be acting in the best interest of the people of Syria if they were to take over leadership of that country.
But, again, that doesn’t seem to be part of their aspirations. What they’re looking to do -- again, based on their stated intentions -- is to create their own Islamist caliphate that includes some territory in Syria and some territory in Iraq. So they have a pretty different goal than the moderate Syrian opposition.
Q But if the White House is considering bombing ISIS in Syria, are you not then helping Assad? And isn’t that a problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the answer to that is no. We’re not interested in trying to help the Assad regime. In fact, we have been calling for a number of years now for the Assad regime to step down.
Q But isn’t that the unintended consequence of bombing ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of cross-pressures here in this situation, there is no doubt about that. But our policy, as it relates to pursuing American interests in this region of the world, are actually really clear -- that we want to make sure that we are safeguarding American personnel. And that's why the President has ordered military strikes against ISIL in Iraq, is to make sure that American personnel in Baghdad and Erbil, in particular, would not be in the path of the ISIL advance.
The President has already demonstrated a willingness to order military attacks to prevent a genocide that ISIL said that they were preparing to carry out against some ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq. And the President has already demonstrated a willingness to use some authority, some executive -- or to order military action in furtherance of some counterterrorism goals. That is also a priority, and that is true not just in Iraq and not just in Syria, but also in countries around the world.
So there are a lot of cross-pressures as it relates to the complicated situation in Iraq and Syria. But those cross-pressures don't complicate the clearly stated goals of the United States foreign policy.
Q Speaking of cross-pressures, the Syrian foreign minister -- and I know Roger brought him up -- the Syrian foreign minister said that anything outside of being consulted on airstrikes in Syria by the United States would be considered “aggression”. Would the White House try to get a green light from Damascus before conducting airstrikes in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Jim, I think this is what Roger was asking me about as well. I haven’t seen those comments out of the Assad regime. Let me just say though --
Q Take his comment out of the equation.
MR. EARNEST: Right.
Q Would you seek a green light from Damascus?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President has demonstrated a willingness on a number of occasions to take the action that's necessary, to order the military action that's necessary to protect American citizens. And that is true without regard to international boundaries.
Certainly it is the preference of this administration to build up partners to confront these kinds of threats. In fact, that's the stated policy of this administration is to build up partners around the globe who can assist the United States and the U.S. government and the U.S. military in confronting some of these terrorist threats. This is part of the West Point speech that the President gave at the West Point commencement earlier this year. It is why we have been so focused on building training relationships with both Kurdish and Iraqi security forces. It’s why this administration has been strongly supportive of the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq so that the political leaders in Iraq can unite that country to meet the threat that's posed by ISIL. And this is true of our actions not just in this region of the world, but in other regions of the world, as well.
Q And you said that there’s no evidence of an active plot right now against the United States by ISIL.
MR. EARNEST: That's what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Q And that's what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said as well. But that seems to be a different question, though, than does ISIS pose a national security threat to the United States.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q And the answer is what?
MR. EARNEST: The answer to that is we are concerned about the threat that's posed by ISIL, principally because of this situation as it relates to foreign fighters. Again, these are individuals who have Western passports, citizens of Western countries who have traveled to this region of the world to take up arms alongside ISIL fighters. And the risk that’s posed is that these individuals who have been radicalized, who have gotten military training and are now battle tested, could return to the U.S. or to other Western countries and carry out terrorist attacks.
Q So they pose a 9/11-style threat, in that sense? In that you could have cells penetrate the homeland and conduct terror attacks? Or is that going too far?
MR. EARNEST: I think when you describe a 9/11-style threat, you’re referring to something a little bit differently -- a little bit different, at least as I interpret it. I think what we’re concerned about is these individuals returning to Western countries and carrying out terrorist attacks.
Now, could it be on the scale of a broad conspiracy like we saw on 9/11 where extremists hijacked multiple commercial aircraft and simultaneously -- or nearly simultaneously crashed them into significant American landmarks, killing thousands of American citizens? That is an attack on a scale unlike any we have seen in this country’s history.
Q And you don’t think that they pose that kind of threat?
MR. EARNEST: I think the threat is different at this point. At this point it is different. And I think one of the concerns is, is that we want to make sure that we confront this threat before it gets worse, before they’re able to establish a safe haven in which they could build a large international network and conceive of a broader conspiracy that would allow them to carry out a more -- a broader, more violent, catastrophic attack like that.
That said, they do pose a significant threat that we are closely monitoring and we are actively coordinating with our allies around the globe to mitigate.
Q And did I catch this right? Did you say earlier that the President was not singling out ISIS in that New Yorker interview? Because last week Ben Rhodes said that the reason why the President made that comment and the reason why things are different now is because they’ve made gains since then. Ben Rhodes seemed to indicate that that’s what the President was talking about in that New Yorker interview.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just read you that -- I can read the quote again.
Q I’m just -- because you read it earlier and it’s in the transcript now. But that is what you’re saying now? You’re saying now --
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is the President was making a much more general reference to jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian. So is that an apt description of what ISIL has been carrying out? I think that is a rather apt description of ISIL. It’s also an apt description of a large number of other organizations around the globe that are perpetrating acts of violence that are not -- again, that are not being carried out in a particularly sophisticated way and are not directed towards the United States or other Western interests.
Q And just finally, over the weekend the British ambassador to the U.S. said that they are close to identifying James Foley’s murderers. Does the U.S. have that same sense, that the investigation is close?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position to characterize the status of that investigation. I think for reasons that are rather obvious we have a significant vested interest in tracking down the individual who is responsible for that heinous terrorist act against Mr. Foley. And the United States is working closely with our partners around the globe, including the British, to identify that individual, and that effort is underway. I’m not in a position to characterize the status of that ongoing investigation.
Q Josh, I want to ask you a couple of questions as it relates to Ferguson. Congressmen Clay and Cleaver met with Secretary Hagel Friday about the militarization of local law enforcement, and they object to it. They object to the program, the Surplus 1033 program, and they’re asking him to review it. In this meeting the President is having with Hagel, is the President expected to talk about that? Are they going to talk about it? And where does the President stand on the militarization of local police?
MR. EARNEST: April, I believe that the President spoke about this when he made an appearance in the briefing room last week. And the President himself is the one who has ordered a review of these programs that send surplus military equipment to local law enforcement organizations across the country.
As the President pointed out in his remarks, the goal of those programs is ostensibly a good one; that it was recognized after 9/11 that there were some local law enforcement organizations that didn’t have the kind of equipment that they might need in the event of an emergency. One situation -- or one good example that got a lot of attention in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were police radios that did not have interoperability, they did not have the ability to talk on the same channel to law enforcement organizations in neighboring communities, or with fire and EMS personnel -- that upgrading their communications equipment was a laudable goal that many of these local law enforcement organizations were pursuing. And in some cases, it made good financial sense to turn to the military to take advantage of their equipment and their training to upgrade the ability and capability of local law enforcement organizations.
So the goal is a laudable one. The question, though, is, is the program operating as was intended? Are there situations in which local law enforcement organizations are getting equipment that they don’t actually need? Are they using government funds to acquire equipment and use it in a way that’s consistent with the way that equipment was intended to be used? Are the individuals at these local law enforcement organizations who are responsible for operating the equipment getting the necessary training to operate that equipment correctly and safely?
So these are legitimate questions that are worthy of answering. And the President himself has asked his staff here at the White House, under the leadership of the Director of the Office Management and Budget, Shaun Donovan, to consider to review these programs and to ask these kinds of questions and ensure that ultimately these local law enforcement organizations and the Department of Defense are being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Q So do you think that will come up in that meeting? That issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if it will come up in that meeting, but, again, that’s not a review that’s being conducted by the Department of Defense, it’s a review that’s being conducted here at the White House.
Q All right. And two other questions.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, ma’am.
Q What’s the next phase -- since Michael Brown has been laid to rest today, what’s the next phase with the government as it relates to what’s happening in Ferguson?
MR. EARNEST: The next phase as it relates to the federal government, April, is this ongoing investigation. As you know, the Department of Justice has conducted -- or is conducting an investigation into what exactly happened in the middle of that street and to determine -- and to get to the bottom -- to get an accurate assessment of what actually occurred. That is different and running alongside the local investigation that also is underway into Mr. Brown’s death. And ensuring that that investigation is conducted in a way that is professional, in a way that is unbiased and impartial, and ultimately gets to the facts of what actually occurred is the primary goal of that investigation, and that will be the focal point of the federal government’s activities in Ferguson in the weeks ahead.
Q And one last question. The President has talked at least twice about passions as it pertains to young African American males who have died in situations like this, by gun violence -- Trayvon Martin, the outcome -- he talked about passions during the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. And the President talked about passions recently when it came to the death of Michael Brown. Is this country ready -- as we understand those passions -- is this country ready for a grand jury’s decision either way when it comes to the death of Michael Brown and this police officer who shot him to death?
MR. EARNEST: It is in the interests of citizens across the country for this investigation to be conducted, both the federal investigation and the local investigation, to be conducted in a fair, professional and impartial manner, and for people across the country to have confidence in the justice system. And that is ultimately the goal that we're working toward. And I don't want to say anything that might inadvertently interfere with the ability of federal or local law enforcement investigators from completing that task in an expeditious manner.
So in terms of whether the country is ready, it's hard to -- I do think that the country is ready and has an interest in ensuring that we get the facts about what happened and that justice is served.
Q Do you think it's time for a conversation on race -- not necessarily the way that Bill Clinton had it, but because there are so many different sides and so many different ways, and we saw not just in Ferguson, but other places around the nation, large protests on both sides -- do you think it’s time for a discussion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, yes, I think that's a good question, and I think that there’s no doubt, anybody who’s picked up a newspaper in the last two or three weeks has seen that that conversation is underway. And that is why -- I think that's one of the reasons why it's so important for a thorough, professional investigation -- or that a thorough and professional investigation is conducted to get to the bottom of what happened, to get the facts out, because that will inform this conversation, these important conversations that are happening not just in Ferguson, as you point out, but in communities all across the country.
Q Josh, do you have any comment on The New York Times report that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been conducting strikes in Libya without the U.S. knowing?
MR. EARNEST: I saw that report right before I walked out here. I'm not in a position to comment on it, but I'd refer you to my colleagues at the NSC. They may be able to get you something.
Q Can you give us an update on where the President is in his decision-making process on immigration? Has he received the report from Jeh Johnson yet? Is that happening quickly? Where is he?
MR. EARNEST: I don't really have an update in terms of this process. As you know, we said at the end of the summer, and while the President has returned from Martha’s Vineyard and it is a beautiful, 80-degree day here in Washington, it actually still is technically the summer, so we're not at the end of it yet. But when we get there we'll probably have some news to make on immigration.
Q Thanks, Josh. You mentioned this threat from ISIS -- ISIS is predominantly the foreign fighters who have Western passports who could leave Syria and Iraq and come here to potentially commit acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. Is there a figure you have of how many of these fighters are there? How many are Americans? How many are you tracking? Are we talking about a handful, or hundreds, or thousands even? How would you quantify this threat?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen an assessment from the U.S. government about that. I’m sure there is one. I just don't know that there’s one that we’ve talked about publicly. I think I’d refer you to the State Department. They may be in the best position to answer a question like that. But that's not something that at least to my knowledge that we’ve discussed publicly. But it is something that we’ve been monitoring not just in the last couple of weeks that this has been in the news, but it’s something that counterterrorism officials here in the Obama administration have been focused on for a number of months now.
Q And lastly, with the press conference at the Pentagon and your comments earlier today, it seems that you’re trying to convince the American people that there is a real threat here potentially, if there’s going to be any sort of military action in the next couple of -- further military action in the next couple of weeks. What are you trying to tell the American people about the nature of this threat? Should they be concerned today about ISIS in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do want to be clear about something. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything other than making sure that you and the American people understand that these kinds of terror threats are threats that this administration takes very seriously; that that there are people inside this administration who are working around the clock to protect the American people from terror threats, some of which are publicly reported and debated in the most public fashion possible, some of the threats that we’re working to counter are threats that haven’t been reported publicly and that are not widely known, but yet still are a danger to the American people.
So this is very difficult work, and it’s work that consumes a significant period of time. And our success in mitigating so many of the threats that are directed toward the United States and our interests around the globe is a testament to the hard work and courage and perseverance of our men and women in uniform, of our men and women in law enforcement, of our intelligence community, of our diplomats. This is a whole of government approach that is being brought to bear to keep the American people safe.
A lot of times, particularly when we’re in environments like this, we spend a lot of time talking about those efforts. But the fact of the matter is that these dedicated professionals are focused on this task even when the news media isn’t.
Q Josh, thanks. Back to the President’s review that he ordered about the police equipment -- will part of that review look into the possibility that some of that equipment should be recalled by the government?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to jump ahead to what the conclusions might show. I don't know if recalling that equipment is even an option that's on the table. But let’s let the review be conducted, and then we can have a discussion about possible steps that could be taken to correct any problems that may exist in that system.
Q But if the President is concerned about the amount of hardware that's out there, wouldn’t that be a logical step, is to recall some of it back?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it could be. But I think each situation is different. And that is why we’ve got the folks at OMB and the Domestic Policy Council and other places who are taking a careful look at this to determine the proper course of action, and to take any corrective steps that may be necessary.
Q I have two quick ones, the first one on Iraq. I know when Ed kind of pressed you about whether the Congress would vote if you decided that strikes were necessary, you said you’d consult but didn’t commit to a vote. I’m wondering if you anticipate an appropriations request coming. I know we talked about this a couple weeks ago, but there’s been some grumbling up on Capitol Hill that you guys might be preparing a long-term supplemental appropriations act, and so I’m wondering if -- whether it’s Iraq or Syria, if that’s something that you guys kind of have on the burner right now.
MR. EARNEST: Anytime we’re talking about some military actions like the ones that the President ordered a couple of weeks ago, that’s going to require some resources. The question that I don’t have an answer to is whether or not that will require additional resources beyond the ones that have already been budgeted for military activities around the globe. So I’m not in a position to give you additional insight into that, but if additional resources are requested or needed, we’ll make that request. And we hope that we’ll see the kind of bipartisan support we’ve traditionally seen from Congress for our men and women -- to ensure that our men and women in uniform who are putting their lives on the line to protect the country is adequately and consistently funded.
Q And then I wanted to ask an optics question. I know Eric kind of -- over the weekend --
MR. EARNEST: You don't think he did a good job of handling it? (Laughter.)
Q Well, there were big stories I guess in the Times and the Post over the weekend about how --
MR. EARNEST: The Times and the Post.
Q I know. (Laughter.) The President seems disconnected and in these stories were Democrats on Capitol Hill fretting about how that could hurt Democrats in the midterms. So I’m wondering if this is something that you guys are concerned about and will address in some concrete way headed towards the midterms, showing the President to be more connected or worrying about the optics of going to play golf right after kind of a big foreign policy speech. Or is there -- or do you perceive any sort of risk of Democratic success or the President’s agenda by having those kind of harsh contrasts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is, I think understandably, people look at a lot of things that happen in this town through a political lens. That’s an understandable pursuit. That’s just not the way that we look at them. That when the President is out making these kinds of decisions about which foreign leaders to call, what sort of military actions to order up, balancing the pros and cons of the specific strategy or an intervention, the President is not worried about politics. He’s worried about the safety and security of the American people. And that’s what he’s focused on. It’s okay for other people to be focused on those things; we’re just not.
Q I mean, in the decision to going to play golf, like, that’s not a military mission, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is the second point that I was trying to make. I think Eric had it right when he said that anybody who is trying to get a sense of what the President was focused on last week got that sense by watching the statement that he delivered to express his condolences to the Foley family and to discuss his commitment to making sure that those who carried out that terrible act would be brought to justice.
Anybody who is wondering what the President was focused on last week could just read the whole raft of written readouts of calls to foreign leaders that the President placed over the last couple of weeks from Martha’s Vineyard. We often talk about the fact that when the President is traveling or even when he is on summer vacation with his family, he still is bearing the responsibility of being the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief. And he takes with him all the necessary resources to make sure that he can do his job. And he took with him a telephone that was used on many occasions to confer with international leaders about American interests around the globe and emerging situations in Ukraine and Iraq, and other places. So that’s what the President was focused on.
But in addition to that, the President did, like many other Americans this time of year, did enjoy some downtime with his family. And balancing those two things is something that is a challenge for every single President of the United States. But there is no questioning the fact that this President was focused and attentive to his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, even while he was trying to enjoy some downtime with his family.
Q Really quickly.
MR. EARNEST: That’s all right. Take your time.
Q There were a bunch of questions about why the President came back for a couple days. I know that you guys have said meetings at the White House, but Attorney General Holder was up in Martha’s Vineyard with him. Obviously, as you just said, he had the capability to talk to his defense team and anybody else. So I’m just wondering if -- I mean, certainly it was a costly trip to come back and forth. We didn’t really see any reason why the President did it, and so I’m just wondering if you could shine any light on why that happened.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did want to convene -- the President convened several meetings while he was here with his team on a range of national security issues, on these issues related to the terrible situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The President wanted to convene these in-person meetings and he was able to do that here at the White House. There were some individuals who participated in those meetings because they had to dial in. They were able to participate in a robust fashion by doing so. So their telephones worked, too.
But ultimately the President wanted to be in his office for a couple of days to knock out some items on his to-do list and he convened some important meetings. And after those meetings were concluded, the President did return to Martha’s Vineyard. And when he returned to Martha’s Vineyard, there was still important work for him to attend to, but he was able to do it in a more comfortable place -- at least for another couple of days before he had to return.
Alexis, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Josh, Justin wanted to ask but he was being too nice -- did the President come back for his daughter’s schedule?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea what his daughter’s schedule was last week.
Q But you can’t rule out that Malia’s schedule was the reason the President returned?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t know what the President’s daughters’ schedules were last week. All I can tell you is that the reason the President returned to the White House was because he had a couple of meetings that he wanted to convene in person when he got here.
Q Secondly, you were just talking about the President’s conversation with James Foley’s family and his promise to seek and get justice. Can you elaborate on whether the President has issued any kind of directive or order to kill or capture, if identified, James Foley’s murderer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know of any order like that. What I can tell you is that the United States has been working very closely with the British government through intelligence channels and through law enforcement channels to try to determine the identity of the individual who appeared in that gruesome video. And that is part of this administration and this country’s commitment to bring to justice those individuals who perpetrated that terrible act against an innocent American civilian.
Q And lastly, the North Carolina trip. Is Senator Hagan going to be present for the President’s speech or the delegation that’s been invited? Can you elaborate?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that Senator Hagan is at some point tomorrow also addressing the American Legion, but I don’t know the exact tick-tock of her schedule. I don’t know if she’ll be there at the same time as the President, but I’m sure her office does, if you want to give them a call.
Q Any plans for them to be together?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t know what her schedule is. Thank you, guys.
2:35 P.M. EDT
November 22, 2014
November 22, 2014
November 21, 2014
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November 20, 2014
The President Awards the National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation
November 20, 2014
November 19, 2014