The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/15/2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:46 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It's nice to see you all.  Jim, I don't have anything to say at the top, so if you want to get us going with some questions, I'll let you do that.

Q    Wow.

MR. EARNEST:  Just in the name of efficiency here.

Q    A few questions on immigration.  I'm wondering if the White House is open to the idea of combining, or at least parallel-tracking the supplemental request that you put out there and efforts in Congress to change or at least to adjust the law to accommodate some of the demands that members want to expedite the process.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think we've been pretty clear about what we would like to see.  We would like to see, first and foremost, Congress take action on the specific proposal that we've put forward to ensure that our administration has the necessary resources to deal with the spike in apprehensions that we've seen along the southwest border.  We've been clear about itemizing about what specifically that money would be used to accomplish.  This would include everything from ensuring that public health precautions are in place to adding additional surveillance resources at the border to assist Border Patrol agents as they do their important work.

So we've laid out a comprehensive, detailed request.  The request that we've put forward answers a lot of the questions and concerns that have been raised even by Republican members of Congress who have been talking publicly about this issue.  So we would anticipate and certainly even expect bipartisan support for this proposal.  What’s critical is that Congress act quickly to pass it.  It has been out there in the public now for more than 10 days, this detailed proposal.  A week before that, we announced our intention to submit this proposal.  So there’s already been ample opportunity for Congress to take action and we want to encourage them to move forward with some sense of urgency.

Q    I guess my question is do you want a clean supplemental, strictly on the spending, and have the policy issues, the authorities, the greater authorities that you want for the Homeland Security Secretary -- do you want those separately?  Or do you have any issue with the two being combined?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you're right, the second thing that we have asked for is we've asked for Congress to give greater authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security so that he can exercise greater discretion in enforcing the law more efficiently.

In terms of the legislative machinations of all of this, we're going to have to rely on Congress to do their business in the way that they feel is most appropriate.  What we would like to see is prompt action on both of these things.

Q    You’ve addressed this before, but I wanted to get a little bit more clarity on it.  You said yesterday that the President wants all individuals crossing the border to get the due process to which they are entitled.  And I’m wondering if does treating Central American individuals, minors who cross the border the same way that Mexican border crossers are treated now -- in other words, a review or an interview with a border official and then a determination as to whether they should be returned or whether they somehow qualify for the immigration system -- is that adequate due process for a Central American minor for which that process does not exist?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I’m not in a position to shed a whole lot more light on the details here.  We’ve been pretty specific about the principles that are at stake.  As it relates to this surge of individuals that we’ve seen from Central America, we want to, A, ensure that their basic humanitarian needs are met.  That is a requirement that is in line with the law; it is in line with the values of this country, particularly when we’re talking about children. 

Second, we do believe that individuals from Central America who are apprehended along the southwest border are entitled to due process.  Again, that is what the current 2008 law requires and that is a principle that this administration continues to support. 

What we would like to see change -- and this goes to the third principle -- is we would like the Secretary of Homeland Security to be given additional authority so that he can use his discretion about how to more efficiently enforce the law.  For example, after an individual has gone through the removal proceedings and an immigration judge has concluded that they do not have a legitimate claim for humanitarian relief, we would like the Secretary of Homeland Security to have the authority to use his discretion, in some cases, to act quickly to remove those individuals back to their home country.

Q    That’s different than what’s available for a Mexican border crosser where there’s -- at the very beginning of the process there’s this sieve, at which point they get separated -- either put into the immigration system or returned.  Is that the same kind of -- would you have that same application for a Central American?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the reason that this is more complicated when we’re talking about somebody from Central America is purely -- well, is in part a matter of logistics, that the southwestern border with the United States is adjacent to Mexico throughout.  So if it’s an individual from Mexico, you’re able to in some cases prevent them from entering and they’re not sort of caught in this no-man’s land that an individual from Central America might be, because if they’re not allowed into this border -- or they’re not apprehended and taken into custody by Border Patrol officials, they’re not in their home country if they’re on the other side of the border.  And so it’s this logistical complication that we’re working through. 

And it’s my understanding, based on some of the interviews and comments I’ve seen in the press from those who authored this 2008 law, this is a consequence that I’m not sure they fully intended.  So what we’re trying to do is to work through this process in a way that is in keeping with the values of this country, but just as importantly, is in keeping with the laws of this country.  And we would like to and are committed to enforcing that law.  In fact, what we would like is additional authority to be given to the Secretary of Homeland Security so we can enforce that law more efficiently. 

And that’s what we’re focused on.  And that may require, as we discussed a little bit yesterday, either the passage of a new law to give him that greater authority, or a change to the old law be passed by the Congress.  Either way, we’ve been pretty clear about the principles that we’d like to see Congress ultimately arrive at.

Q    And have you had an opportunity since yesterday to review the Cornyn-Cuellar proposal?

MR. EARNEST:  We have not.  It’s my understanding that that bill has not yet been filed.

Jeff.

Q    Josh, the U.S. government flew some Honduran immigrants yesterday back on a charter flight to Honduras.  Is that a flight that the President authorized himself?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, the flight that you’re referring to was a flight that was operated by the Department of Homeland Security in their capacity as a law enforcement agency, that they were enforcing the law.  So that is a decision that was made by that law enforcement agency.

I would point out, though, that that is a reflection of the effort that this administration has made to increase the resources that are used to deal with this surge that we’ve seen in recent days.  That flight was composed of -- the people who were on that flight were individuals who had attempted to enter this country without documentation and were traveling with a minor, so these were so-called family units.  And they had been apprehended at the border. 

They had been detained at the Artesia facility in New Mexico that we opened up a just a few weeks ago.  And it is a reflection in part of this administration’s commitment to prioritize the cases of recent border crossers, and that should be a clear signal, again, to individuals who are contemplating making the dangerous journey, or putting their children in the hands of a criminal to make the dangerous journey from Central America to the United States, that if apprehended at the border, they will be -- they're entitled to due process, but they will not be welcomed to this country with open arms.

Q    So you’ve made clear that it was DHS.  But is the White House or the President involved at all in authorizing that flight and/or future flights like it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President is responsible for setting out sort of the topline policy for -- adding additional resources within his capacity as the head of the executive branch to address some of these problems.  And he’s certainly been working closely with the Secretary of Homeland Security to surge those resources to open these facilities.  He directed the FEMA Director to step in and play a role in coordinating among DHS, DOD and HHS, who are the agencies involved in this broader effort.  So there is a role for the President to play in terms of making decisions about where to devote our resources and how those resources should be deployed to address this specific problem.  But when it comes specifically to enforcing the law, that's the responsibility of law enforcement officials, and that flight reflects their commitment to carrying out their duties.

Q    Do you expect to see further flights like this coming up?  And will any of them have unaccompanied minors without the family units that were characteristic of yesterday’s flight?

MR. EARNEST:  For those kinds of questions, because these flights are carried out by DHS through their law enforcement capacity, I’d encourage you to direct your questions along those lines to them.

Q    Right.  And one separate issue.  Can you discuss the administration’s efforts right now to encourage European partners to go further on sanctions against Russia with regard to Ukraine? Was there a meeting yesterday here at the White House with the EU ambassadors about that?  Any detail you can give about those efforts?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not in a specific -- I’m not in a position to read you in on specific meetings.  But over the last several weeks you have seen readout calls between -- or the readouts of calls between the President of the United States and a number of our allies in Western Europe.  It won’t surprise you to hear that there are regular communications between senior administration officials here at the White House and diplomats and other foreign leaders that happen to be in this country.  We have been working in very close coordination with our allies to impose costs on Russia for their destabilizing actions along the border with Ukraine.  We have also taken specific steps to isolate Russia, and there are a variety of measures that indicate those steps have had an impact, a negative impact on the Russian economy. 

We have signaled pretty clearly that additional steps may be imposed if Russia doesn't take the kinds of steps that we have asked them to take.  Those steps include things like securing the border to ensure that heavy weapons and materiel can't be transferred from the Russian side into the hands of pro-Russian separatists.  We’ve asked President Putin to coordinate with the OSCE in terms of a border-monitoring mechanism.  We’ve also asked the Russians to support a road map for talks under the OSCE-mediated contact group.  And we've asked President Putin to use the influence that he has with Russian separatists to encourage them to lay down their weapons and abide by a cease-fire agreement, and allow this contact group to negotiate the kind of settlement that would deescalate the conflict that we've seen in that country.

What we are primarily concerned about is the long-term impact that all of this is having on Ukraine, that ultimately we would like Ukraine to be a stable, peaceful, democratic country. And the more that Russia plays a destabilizing influence on Ukraine, it makes it harder for them to be secure both politically and economically.  And the longer that this goes on, the more difficult it will be for us to put Ukraine on the stable, sound footing both politically and economically that we would like to see them be on.

Viqueira.

Q    Back on immigration.  These families that were flown from Artesia back to Central America, did they ever leave American supervision or detention of American authorities?  And where do they get an opportunity to make their case that they may or may not deserve asylum?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, I would encourage you to ask these specific questions about these individual cases to DHS.  I'm not in a position to talk about individual cases from here.  But as a general matter, the administration has made clear that we believe those individuals from Central America who are detained along the southwest border are entitled to due process.  And for the specific details about how these individuals were treated while they were in U.S. custody --

Q    You assume that they did receive a fair hearing on --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I'm suggesting is that for detailed questions about the handling of individual cases you should check with DHS.

Q    And you’ve repeatedly used the verb “efficiently” -- it is a verb, right?  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  Adverb.  Adverb.  Somewhere my 6th grade English teacher is beaming with pride.

Q    You’ve repeatedly used that adverb “efficiently” to describe the powers that you want the DHS Secretary to have.  How efficient?  What is the goal?  What is the timeframe that you want these cases dealt with?  Within the 72 hours that the Border Patrol can have them before they’re released from detention under any circumstances?  What is the goal in terms of the timeframe?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know that we’ve set a specific benchmark in terms of what we would like to see in terms of that timing.

Q    But it’s a key question, right?  I mean --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it is a key question.  I think what is clear at this point and where I think you and I can find some agreement about this is that currently, because this surge has contributed to a backlog in the system, the time that all of this takes is too long.  In many cases, we’ve got just a handful of judges that are dealing with the thousands and thousands of cases of individuals who have been apprehended at the border.  So that’s one place where there’s a bottleneck.

Q    But you have repeatedly said that the administration is prioritizing new arrivals, right?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s true.

Q    So the backlog is less relevant here.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, not necessarily, because, again, as has been widely reported, even on a daily basis there’s been a spike in the number of individuals who have been apprehended along the border and we don’t have enough resources in terms of our immigration court system to deal with all of them.  So the President has taken some steps to try to deal with that based on existing resources.  There are things that they’re doing related to putting television cameras so that judges can participate in court proceedings remotely.

But what we’d really like to see Congress do is give the administration additional resources so that we can hire some additional judges, we can hire some additional prosecutors that could work for ICE, and speed up the processing of these removal cases, removal proceedings. 

Q    There are 10 legislative days before Congress leaves, to return on September 8th, I believe the date is.  This doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.  So what is plan B here for you?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, what we have seen is that when Congress wants to do something they can act pretty quickly to get it done.  And based on the public comments of both Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate, it’s clear that this is a priority, a bipartisan priority -- that is, dealing with this problem.  So we are going to continue to be in a position where we’re encouraging Congress to take the kind of urgent action that they themselves acknowledge as necessary to deal with this situation.  

Q    What role has the United States played in this cease-fire with Gaza, which many think was half-baked, rushed and it didn’t last long?  And even Hamas itself -- it said they were never consulted. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have the same pessimism about the cease-fire agreement that you’re exhibiting.  In a very compressed time period, we saw the Egyptians announce a proposal for a cease-fire.  Within just a few hours, the Israeli government signaled an openness to agreeing to that cease-fire.  Promptly after that we saw a vote among the Israeli cabinet to abide by that cease-fire agreement.  Unfortunately, through that period of time, Hamas and other groups that are launching rockets from Gaza into Israel have continued that activity.

As we have said many times, the firing of rockets from Gaza at innocent civilians in Israel is completely unacceptable.  And Israel -- and Israel’s leaders are certainly entitled to take the kinds of actions that are necessary to keep their citizens safe. What we would like to see is we’d like to see Hamas accept the terms of the cease-fire agreement that were floated by the Egyptians.  That would be a way for us to quickly deescalate the situation and restore some measure of calm to the area, and allow for a broader discussion into the negotiations about trying to bring some enduring sense of calm to that region of the world.

But there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.  But the fact that the Egyptians, in a very compressed time period, put forward this specific proposal and had this proposal considered and accepted by the Israelis I think is an important step.  What we need to see now is we need to see Hamas and some of the other groups that are operating in the area abide by this common-sense cease-fire agreement that was put forward by the Egyptians.

Again, this is in line with the cease-fire agreement that both sides agreed to just in November of 2012.  So there certainly is a precedent for this kind of proposal having a positive impact on relations between the two countries.

Q    Is the United States reaching out to other countries that probably have better leeway, better relations with Hamas than Egypt at this time?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States has been in touch with a variety of countries in the region, some of whom do have some influence with Hamas and some of the other groups that are operating there.  I can just give you a topline rundown.  I mean, as you know, the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the end of last week.  The Special Coordinator at the White House for the Middle East, Phil Gordon, met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramallah when he was in the region last week.  Over the course of the last week or so, Secretary Kerry has spoken at least four times with Prime Minister Netanyahu and he’s also spoken on the phone a couple of times with his Egyptian counterpart.  Over the course of that time, he’s also spoken with the Foreign Minister of Qatar, as well as the foreign ministers from Jordan and Turkey. 

So there are a large number of interested parties here, and the United States has been working to use our influence to mobilize the international community and our partners in that area to encourage, even compel Hamas to abide by the cease-fire agreement that was floated by the Egyptians and agreed to by the Israelis.

JC.

Q    I’d like to share your optimism, Josh, but as you know if Iron Dome doesn’t work just once, there is a possibility that the Israeli troops may, in fact, go into Gaza.  The region is somehow, someway, spiraling out of control.  Might it be time for the President himself to pull together a summit of international world leaders in person, like Prime Minister Cameron, President Hollande, Merkel, even Putin, for example, to form a coalition of the willing, if you will, to address this issue to find a real concrete solution to stop the violence and to appeal to the leadership in the region before it really becomes too late?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what you’ve seen is a willingness on the part of the President and Secretary Kerry to roll up their sleeves and engage world leaders around the globe in the effort to try to bring about a cease-fire between Israel and those groups in Hamas that are launching rockets.  For this kind of violence to persist is not in the interest of either the Palestinian people or the Israeli people.  And what we need to see is we need to see the two sides come together around a cease-fire. 

Now, fortunately, the Israelis have already agreed to it.  We just need to see Hamas stop firing rockets and restore some calm to the area.

Q    If I may, Josh, just one second -- I’m talking about the highest-level leaders -- the Presidents, the Prime Ministers, including President Putin, who have influence in this region, always had influence in this region, to really physically come together to promote that effort. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, these conversations are ongoing.  And in a modern, 21st century world, telephone communication and other electronic communication can be effective.  But if the President believes that a summit is necessary and would make a difference in terms of enhancing this conversation, I’m sure the President wouldn’t hesitate to propose such a meeting, or look for the opportunity to have a meeting or in-person discussion like this on the sidelines of some other international meeting.

But suffice it to say this administration, from the President on down, is deeply engaged with our allies, with the Israelis and Palestinians, and with other partners in the region to try to bring about the kind of cease-fire agreement that would at least provide greater protection for the innocent civilians who are currently caught in the crossfire.

Christie.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Back on the highway bill for a moment. The President was somewhat critical of House Republicans today, but, in fact, they're passing something today that the White House supports.  That's somewhat rare.

MR. EARNEST:  Breaking news.

Q    Breaking news.  And I wondered if you could analyze a little bit why you think -- are you all surprised at all that that's around highway construction?

MR. EARNEST:  That what --

Q    Yes, right, I mean, is this -- why is this happening on highway construction?  And do you think it bodes well for other things that you consider emergency measures?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s no doubt that the stakes around the Highway Trust Fund are high.  If the Highway Trust Fund were to expire, as I mentioned a little bit yesterday, the potential economic consequences are pretty dire.  We would see up to 700,000 jobs put at risk.  It certainly would put at risk a number of ongoing infrastructure projects that have an important economic impact in communities all across the country.

So I think there is -- I think at least part of this bipartisan common ground, that is, as you point out, very rare, is a recognition of the fact that this is a genuine priority. 

Historically funding for transportation projects and other infrastructure projects has not gotten mired in partisan politics.  We’ve seen a lot of that lately, unfortunately.  But we’re certainly encouraged that even a short-term measure like the one that Congressman Camp has put forward would avert the terrible economic consequences that come with the expiration of the Highway Trust Fund. 

Now, what has not changed, however, as you heard the President articulate earlier today, is this administration’s advocacy for a long-term renewal of the highway bill; that a longer-term investment in infrastructure would provide some certainty to the market, something Republicans themselves say is an important economic virtue.  It also would demonstrate the kind of commitment that would create many jobs in the short term, but also lay a foundation for long-term economic strength in this country.  So there are short-term benefits and long-term benefits.

We’ve put forward a very common-sense proposal for extending the highway bill in a fiscally responsible way.  As you know, this involves closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well connected, and using the revenue from closing those loopholes to invest in the kind of infrastructure that everybody uses.  So it’s a common-sense proposal.  We hope it will get consideration in Congress.  And hopefully we’ll be able to settle on a long-term proposal before we get to another deadline.

Q    Well, on the issue of the long-term fix, is it fair for the President to lay so much of the responsibility for that on House Republicans when the Senate Democrats actually haven’t been able to arrive at something that works for them?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that it is because I think that you’ve seen a steady, consistent drumbeat from congressional Republicans opposing common-sense measures time and again that the President and other Democrats have advocated -- everything from increasing the minimum wage to laws that would guarantee fair pay -- or equal pay for equal work, measures that would reduce the cost of a college education.  These are all things that Republicans on Capitol Hill have blocked.  These are all things that should be common-sense measures that have traditionally earned bipartisan support that would do important, good things for the economy in a way that would benefit middle-class families. 

So at the risk of sounding like a character on a police drama, Republicans have a little bit of a rap sheet when it comes to blocking common-sense proposals that would benefit middle-class families.  And I think that's what the President was alluding to earlier today.

Jim.

Q    Just to follow up on that, Josh, the President today said that his message is just “do something.”  But the House did something.  They're about to do something.  They're about to --

MR. EARNEST:  They're about to do something, which I guess is cause for if not celebration, at least some optimism, which is pretty rare in Washington, too.

But look, if -- as we pointed out, we put out a statement of administration position just yesterday indicating that this administration is willing to support a proposal from House Republicans to extend the Highway Trust Fund.  That's a positive development.  I think that is prima facie evidence that this President is willing to work across the aisle to get things done that benefits the economy and middle-class families.  So we’re making good on that commitment.  We’d like to see Republicans do more of that.

Q    But I’m just curious what the President’s thinking is in terms of why that opposition is occurring.  He has said in recent weeks, “they don't do anything expect block me and call me names.  If I sponsored a bill declaring apple pie American, it might fall victim.”  Is it personal?

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe the presidential rhetoric is having an effect.  We’ve seen congressional Republicans put forward --

Q    Is there something personal going -- does he feel like there’s something personal going on?  Is that what the President thinks, that they don't like him?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what the President is acknowledging is that time and again, congressional Republicans have blocked common-sense proposals that would benefit middle-class families. I think it’s difficult to explain why they would do that.  However, in this case, in this instance, we are pleased to see Republicans put forward the kind of proposal that, although it’s a short-term proposal, is in line with one of the President’s objectives, which is making sure that the Highway Trust Fund doesn’t expire. 

Q    But is he taking it personally, I guess is the question that I'm after here.  Or does he think that it is personal?

MR. EARNEST:  I think close observers of the President’s speeches will note that the President is constantly talking about middle-class families and his efforts to represent their interests and to champion their interests in Washington, D.C.

So I guess at the risk of saying it too directly, the President is not worried about himself.  He’s worried about middle-class families all across the country that are working harder and harder, and having a harder and harder time trying to make ends meet and do the kinds of things that we want middle-class families in this country to do, which is be able to buy a home, save for retirement, save to put their kids through college and ensure that hard work leads to a decent living. 

Those are basic American values.  Those are the kinds of American values that have ensured the success of middle-class families for several generations now.  We want to make sure that that continues.  That’s why the President is consistently advocating for policies that would benefit middle-class families. Unfortunately, Republicans time and time again have blocked those proposals. 

Q    But I guess you probably heard this criticism that it sounds a little “woe is me” what the President is saying.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think I’ve heard the criticism put quite that way, but I think what the President is focused on in these speeches is making it clear that there is no good reason that Republicans should continue their efforts to block specific pieces of legislation that are common-sense proposals that would benefit middle-class families. 

And the only reason that Republicans can seem to put forward is the difficulty of the politics and their desire to remain in office and to appeal to an extreme right-wing base.  That’s unfortunate that Republicans have put their political ambitions ahead of the interests of middle-class families so many times. 

But like I said, I’m willing to give credit where it’s due, and it appears that in this limited case, in terms of this short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, Republicans have changed course and are working in a common-sense way to at least in the short term extend the Highway Trust Fund.  That’s good news.  But it’s not going to stop this administration from continuing to advocate for the kind of long-term highway reauthorization that’s in the best interests of the American economy.

Q    Can I ask you on immigration, the immigration reform activist, Jose Antonio Vargas, was detained at the McAllen, Texas airport.  He’s been in this country for a long time.  Is he going to be deported?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, as I mentioned to Mike in response to his questions a little bit earlier, I’m not in a position to talk about individual enforcement cases from the podium.

Q    Any reaction to his detention?

MR. EARNEST:  No, no reaction to his detention.  Again, I’d encourage you to either check with CBP or DHS on this. 

Q    And in Gaza, the Palestinian officials there are saying that 193 people have been killed, nearly 1,500 hurt.  Is the White House concerned that this is becoming a little lopsided?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the White House is concerned about any innocent civilians who are injured or killed.  There have been far too many innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of the violence and conflict in that region.  Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones in this conflict. 

That said, the Israelis have agreed to the cease-fire proposal that was put forward by the Egyptians.  And what needs to stop is the rocket fire that’s being launched by Hamas and other groups from Palestinian-held territories that is specifically targeting innocent civilians on the Israeli side. 

Major.

Q    Picking up on that -- and I know I’m giving this to you on the fly -- but Prime Minister Netanyahu has just given a brief statement in Israel.  There’s one confirmed Israeli death as a result of a Hamas rocket fired this morning.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu said, ”Hamas will pay a heavy price for the decision to continue this campaign.  When there is no cease-fire, our response is fire.  We’ve proffered to solve it by cease-fire, but Hamas left us no other choice but to expand the operation and to cause them significant damage.”  Expanding the operation -- is the United States government comfortable with that Israeli response?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, let me just reiterate what I said to Jim, that our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been injured or who have had loved ones killed in this conflict. That applies to innocent Palestinian civilians that have been killed, and it certainly applies in the case of this individual Israeli citizen who was killed by Hamas rocket fire.  What we have seen is a conflict that has spiraled in a way that has had negative consequences for both sides.

Q    Understood.  But before you came to the podium, you knew that, A, Hamas had not accepted the cease-fire and that one of the things the Israeli government was contemplating was expanding the scope of this operation in reaction to that.  So though these are new quotes, this is not exactly a revelation.  And I’m just curious to what degree, if at all, the United States government has any comment or is comfortable with the concept, now reality, of Israel expanding this military operation to punish Hamas for not accepting the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. 

MR. EARNEST:  What the new reports of this death indicate is that this situation is not sustainable.  And Israeli political leaders have a right, even a responsibility, to protect the welfare of their citizens.  Israel has a right to defend itself. That is a right that we have articulated and defended on multiple occasions, and I’m willing to do so now.  What we would ask the Israelis to do is to exhibit some concern for the safety and welfare of innocent civilians who are at risk of being caught in the cross-fire. 

But Egypt has put forward a cease-fire proposal that Israel has accepted.  And what we would like to see now is Hamas and the other groups who are firing rockets from Palestinian-held territories to also accept the terms of that cease-fire.  That’s the way that we can ensure the safety or at least enhance the safety and well-being of civilians who are caught in the crossfire in that region.

So all eyes now turn to Hamas and the groups in Palestinian-held territories who are firing rockets.  And the question for them is whether or not they’re going to abide by the cease-fire agreement that was put forward by the Egyptians.  That’s the key right now.

Q    Is it fair to say, on the question of sanctions and Russia, that through these conversations the United States government and its European allies are closer than they’ve ever been to imposing this next level?  Is there a consensus on that? And is it a matter of timing and circumstance on behalf of what Russia does?  Or does there still need to be conversation about the question itself whether to take more steps?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll let the individual countries speak for themselves in terms of characterizing their own opinion.  I think as a general matter, our allies share the view with the United States that Russia has not done as much as we would like to see them do to contribute to a de-escalation of that conflict.

Now, it would be -- as you won’t be surprised to hear me say, it wouldn’t be particularly strategic for us to announce in advance possible timing or scope of a specific sanctions regime that’s being contemplated. 

Q    Which I didn’t ask.

MR. EARNEST:  So I won’t get into that, at this point.

Q    I'm smart enough not to ask.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  But suffice it to say that conversations that are actively being held among the United States and our allies about the next step -- and each day that goes by that Russia doesn’t take the kind of very specific steps that I’ve laid out here many times Russia is at greater risk of facing the kinds of economic costs that have been imposed on them in the past.

Q    And it sounded like you were trying to say this in response to Jim’s question.  The President would sign the House temporary Highway Trust Fund extension proposal?

MR. EARNEST:  We put out a statement of administration position last night -- I missed it, too -- that indicated our support for that legislation. 

Q    In supporting that legislation, is the President enabling Congress to kick the can again?

MR. EARNEST:  The reason that the administration and the President support the short-term proposal that was put forward by House Republicans is that it avoids what would be a terrible consequence of failing to renew the Highway Trust Fund.  Again, if we allowed the Highway Trust Fund to expire, it would put at risk about 700,000 American jobs.  It would put at risk any number of ongoing infrastructure and surface transportation projects all across the country.  That would have a terrible impact on our economy.  It would even have a bad impact on the quality of life of people who live in the communities where these construction projects would be shut down.

So that is a consequence that we were seeking to avoid.  The President made avoiding that consequence a priority.  And so we’re willing to support this Republican proposal that would avoid that consequence.  But it has not in any way diminished our ardent desire for a longer-term proposal that would give local governments, state governments and businesses all across the country the kind of certainty that comes with knowing that the Highway Trust Fund has been reauthorized for several years.  That has important short-term economic consequences in terms of creating jobs.  It’s also good for the economy over the long term. 

And while we welcome the introduction, I guess later today, of the specific proposal, we’re going to continue to encourage Congress, as the President did earlier today, to take the kind of long-term step that would be in the best interest of our economy. 

Q    Is it difficult, though, to make that case if the crisis is averted by another temporary thing that picks up past the election?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think it’s too difficult.  I was able to just do it there, so it can’t be that hard if I could do it.

Roger.

Q    Back to the supposed six-hour cease-fire.  Hamas said they rejected it because they weren’t consulted by Egypt.  So is there any thinking or any encouragement by the U.S. to have Egypt revive that plan, maybe tweak it a bit so Hamas might have a different answer?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roger, I’m not in a position to characterize the conversations that may or may not have taken place between the Egyptians and Hamas.  But it is the firm belief of the administration that putting an end to this violence and putting in place a cease-fire is in the best interests of people on both sides of that border.  So we’ve seen the Israelis agree to that cease-fire, and we want Hamas and the other groups who are firing these rockets to do exactly the same thing.

Q    Is the Egyptian plan such that it should be revived or try at it again?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, we still see this as a live option.  This is something that the Israelis have agreed to, the cabinet voted on it.  And we would like to see Hamas take steps that would put an end to the rocket fire and restore at least some sense of calm and bring some measure of safety to civilians who right now are caught in the cross-fire.

Q    And one other thing.  Kerry is either back here or on his way back here -- 

MR. EARNEST:  I think they're in the air right now, actually.

Q    All right.  He’s going to consult with the President and consult with Congress.  What is the next step?  Or is that what they're trying to figure out?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that is the next step, which is that Secretary Kerry did have the opportunity over the last couple of days to engage in conversations with his Iranian counterpart, alongside the other members of P5-plus-1.  What Secretary Kerry determined is that -- is essentially two things.  One is that the Iranians were engaged in a serious conversation and serious negotiations about resolving the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program --

Q    I’m sorry are, or are not?

MR. EARNEST:  They are engaged in serious conversations, negotiations about the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.  At the same time, substantial gaps remain between the position articulated -- or I guess the concerns sought by the international community and the willingness of the Iranian regime to take those steps. 

So given those substantial gaps, what Secretary Kerry is preparing to do is to consult with the President and with our partners in Congress to consider the variety of paths forward.  I’m not in a position to speculate about which path will be taken at this point, but that will be the subject of a number of discussions in the days ahead.

Q    There’s only two paths.  There’s not a variety, is there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don't want to close off any --

Q    -- an extension or not extension.  Or deal -- or deal.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  There you go.  (Laughter.)

Q    Well, we, I don't think, expect a deal, so it’s either extension or not, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll see what the discussions are determined to be.  I think an extension would be a broad characterization of the single path.  Ostensibly you could envision extensions of varying lengths --

Q    But that's a threshold question, whether to extend it or not.  There’s a deadline.  As you said yesterday, a serious deadline.

MR. EARNEST:  I think that my counterparts in Congress would say that those details are really important.  So working through those details is part of that consultation to consider which path we’ll move forward on.

Q    But it sounds like you’re making the case for an extension.  You’re saying on the one hand, the Iranians are engaged in serious talks about this, and on the other hand, serious gaps remain.  That sounds like you’re making the case for continuing the negotiations to narrow those gaps.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are a couple of important reasons why I wouldn’t be in a position to say that from here.  The first is I haven’t been the one that's been engaged in these conversations.  So it would be curious for somebody standing at a podium in Washington to decide the outcome of negotiations that are taking place in Vienna.

The second is, the President ultimately is going to determine what he believes is in the best interests of American national security as we decide what our posture is going to be and in terms of these conversations. 

Congress, importantly, has something to say about this.  It is because of our close coordination with Congress that we’ve put in place the kinds of difficult sanctions that brought the Iranians to the table in the first place.  So they should have the opportunity to hear about how those conversations have been going in Vienna and have the opportunity to recommend what they think is the best way to move forward.

So there are a lot of equities at stake here, and I’m just not in a position, five days before the deadline, to say how those conversations will be resolved.

Q    And if there is no deal and there is no extension, should the next step be to tighten sanctions, as Congress was trying to do before you started all this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, that characterizes or at least underscores the variety of paths forward that are on the table at this point.  And that's what the President and the Secretary of State are going to confer about, and it will be the substance of the consultations between senior administration officials and members of Congress in the days ahead.

Q    And to clarify something you said about the Israelis -- you said, “We would ask the Israelis to exhibit some concern for civilians caught in the cross-fire in Gaza.”  Do you believe -- does the administration believe the Israelis have exhibited sufficient concern for civilians in Gaza?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not in a position to Monday-morning-quarterback the steps that are taken by the Israeli government to provide for the security and self-defense of their country.  But what I will say is something that I’ve said many times and the President has said many times, which is that we are very concerned about the well-being of civilians in that region on both sides of the border.  And the reason that we are advocating so aggressively for the cease-fire is that it would benefit those innocent civilians that are currently caught in the cross-fire.

Q    And on the immigration push, you said that you would hope there would be bipartisan support for the President’s plan, the supplemental he sent up to Congress.  There has been no bipartisan -- I mean, have you seen a single Republican in Congress come out in favor of the President’s plan?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it certainly raises a lot of questions that there might be people who would complain about the situation, offer up specific proposals in their own mind about what kinds of things we need to address the problem, and then not forcefully support the President when he does exactly that.  Only they can explain why that situation exists.

Q    Okay, but given that you have failed to get any bipartisan support for that plan, and we now see there has been at least one bipartisan plan put forward -- Senator Cornyn-Congressman Cuellar -- has the President been in touch with either of them about their proposal?  I understand you said we don't see legislative language yet.  But we know the outlines of what they're proposing.  Has the President been in touch with them?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any presidential calls to read out.  But we will review their legislation once it has been filed and finalized and we’ll give it due consideration.  They’ve attempted to work through this and to try to find a solution to this problem.  These are two representatives from the state of Texas, so they have some firsthand experience dealing with these issues.  But again, I’m going to reserve judgment on their proposal until we’ve had a chance to review it.

Wendell.

Q    Did I misread him, or was the President enjoying himself in his photo op this morning?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  The President seemed to be in good spirits today.

Q    And is he likely to be just as unhappy with the photo op he has planned later this week on infrastructure? 

MR. EARNEST:  Unhappy or happy?

Q    Unhappy.  Given that he was pretty happy with today’s driving instruction.  What I’m trying to get to --

MR. EARNEST:  I guess I don't quite understand your question.

Q    I’m getting back to his blowing off photo ops on the border.  Was he concerned that that might send the wrong message to people in Central America if he went to the border?

MR. EARNEST:  What the President is concerned about is focusing on solutions.  And that's exactly what the President was focused on last week.

Q    I’ll grant you that.  But he said he didn't like photo ops, and he seemed to be having a pretty good time.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the President’s concern is, is people who put photo ops ahead of actually finding solutions to problems.  And I think all too often that's what we saw last week from our opponents on the other side of this issue.  They were eager to appear on camera, for example, touting the benefits of increased investments in border security, while at the same time in Congress they're blocking proposals to actually add resources to our border to secure it.  So that's an indication of individuals who have their priorities mixed up.  They're focused on photo ops and not on solutions.

The President is always going to put forward solutions and focus on those as his top priority.  If there are opportunities -- as I mentioned to Mr. Knoller last week, if there was an opportunity for the President to appear in a photo op that will reinforce the value of the solution that the President has put forward, the President won’t hesitate to participate.  And I think a great example of that is when the President traveled to Poland last month.  He stood in front of two American F-16s alongside the President of Poland and sent what I think is an unmistakable message to the people of Poland, to our NATO allies, and to the Russian President, that the United States is committed to the defense of our allies under the NATO agreement.

Q    Knoller and Goler goes a long way.  (Laughter.)  On another matter, Secretary of State Kerry indicated yesterday in Vienna that he’s a little bit uncomfortable talking about American exceptionalism even though he suggests he believes in it strongly.  Does the President also have that kind of discomfort talking about American exceptionalism?

MR. EARNEST:  Not at all.  The President has said on many occasions that this is the greatest country in the world; that the President believes that the story of his life is one that could only be told in this country because of the tremendous opportunities that have been afforded to him by this country.  And I think you’ve also heard the President speak on many occasions about how -- when all of these foreign policy issues come up, that people often reasonably wonder what’s the United States going to do about it because the United States is the one indispensable country in the world. 

And because of the role that this President has played in enhancing our standing in the international community, that role is -- continues to endure.  And the President is committed to using that influence and the United States -- and the goodwill of the United States as a force for good in the global community.

Okay, let’s move around a little bit.  Bob.

Q    Josh, while relations with Republicans may be on the rise a little bit, on the other hand, is the President aware, regarding the border issue, he may have to quell some kind of rebellion within his own party to get the money that you so desperately say is needed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll have to see who eventually will come forward to support the kind of solutions that the President has put forward to a problem that everybody acknowledges, both Democrats and Republicans, exists on our southwest border.  So we’ve put forward a common-sense proposal.  We think it merits the support of both Democrats and Republicans, and we’re hopeful that they will do it.

Q    The reason I asked that is because -- I’m quoting a Jeff Zeleny from ABC tweet here, that says --

MR. EARNEST:  He’s a bright, young man.  (Laughter.)

Q    -- Senator Menendez, the Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, says that the Cornyn-Cuellar Humane Act is inhumane, “They can call it what they want. What is humane is the law as it exists.”  Now, Menendez -- it’s another network, but you can certainly anticipate he feels that way.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I have not had an opportunity to review the piece of legislation that apparently Senator Menendez has had the opportunity to read through.  So I’m going to reserve judgment until we’ve had a chance to review it.  And if we get a chance tomorrow to review that legislation then maybe I can come back with a better answer then.

Fred.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to ask about the situation -- last week, a Mexican court determined that Sergeant Tahmooressi would remain there.  There is still an existing petition on We the People, the White House website, with more than 100,000 signatures asking that the President directly get involved in that situation.  Will the President get involved, or is this something that the White would get involved in?  A response would be pending since it did cross the -- at least for the We the People site.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right, the response is still pending, and so I’m going to reserve judgment until we’re ready to respond to that specific petition.

Q    Back to immigration.  In Central America, certain officials from the Guatemala government is complaining that the Mexican government is not controlling correctly its southern border with Guatemala.  And some are calling this increase of immigration kids is the fault of the government of Mexico.  Do you agree with that assessment from the Guatemalan government?  And also, Under Secretary Shannon, he just announced that some funds of the initiative are going to be used to help the Mexican government to have a more secure southern border.  Is that what the President ordered last week to the State Department?  Nobody knows why Mr. Shannon announced that out of the blue yesterday in Mexico.

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of that specific announcement. I’d refer you to the State Department about that.  I know that there is an important and longstanding law enforcement relationship between the United States and Mexico, and we certainly value the important role that that relationship has played in bringing some security to communities throughout Mexico and had a corresponding impact on the security of the United States as well.  So we certainly are pleased that that relationship between the United States and Mexico exists. 

In terms of specific steps that the Mexican government has taken to secure their southern border, I mentioned at the beginning of a gaggle last week that Mexico had decided to -- as I recall -- open up four or five additional border patrol locations along its southern border and to better monitor actions along the border, and to crack down on illicit activity along the border.  So that certainly is a step that we would welcome. 

I would anticipate that greater security along Mexico’s southern border would contribute to improved border security along Mexico’s northern border because we are seeing so many people trying to transit between those two borders.  So we certainly welcomed that announcement.  We will continue to offer the kind of support that Mexico feels is necessary to enhance those security protocols, and we’re going to continue to work with Mexico on a range of border security measures going forward.

As I think I pointed out in a previous briefing a couple of weeks ago, in the same way that the United States has seen a surge in individuals at our border originating from Central America, Mexico has seen a similar kind of surge.  So I know that they have their own concerns, legitimate concerns, about border security and the impact that this spike could have on their border security.  So that’s why the United States and Mexico continues to cooperate on these issues.  President Obama called President Peña Nieto a couple of weeks ago about this matter, and I would anticipate continued cooperation in the days ahead.

Chris, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Today, Congressman Frank Pallone sent a letter along with -- as part of 34 members of Congress urging President Obama not to include an exemption for religious organizations in that planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.  Any reaction to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen the letter so I’d hesitate to react to it, but I will tell you that the position that we still have here is that the President has directed his team to draw up an executive order for his consideration.  They’re working on something along those lines, and I’m not in a position to talk about either the content of that possible executive order or the timing -- a timing on which it might be announced.

Q    And in other news, over the weekend U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would file a brief in support of litigation seeking marriage equality once that returns to the Supreme Court.  Do you anticipate the President will weigh in on the content in that brief to ensure that he’ll advocate for a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t speculate on that at this point. But once a case is filed at the Supreme Court and there is an opportunity for -- by the Department of Justice to file a brief, I may -- or may not -- be in a position to give you greater insight into the President’s involvement in that filing.

Thanks a lot, everybody.  We’ll see you tomorrow.

END
1:43 P.M. EDT

White House Shareables