Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/9/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:54 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Sorry to keep you waiting here a few minutes. I’m joined today by a special guest, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to talk about our week-long focus on making college more affordable for millions of Americans.
We kicked off this effort on Saturday when the President discussed in his weekly address our previous efforts to expand college access for students and families, and the importance of continuing to offer relief to both students and graduates still paying off their college loans.
In about an hour, the President will host an event in the East Room where he’ll use both his pen and his phone to take action to further lift the burden of crushing student loan debt. He will announce a new package of executive actions and will sign a presidential memorandum that will make federal student loan repayments more affordable for nearly 5 million borrowers, including students, graduates, and their families.
We’ll continue this focus tomorrow when the President will do a live Q&A with Tumblr, answering questions directly from consumers across the country about this crucial issue. I expect we’ll have some new data for you about the impact of student debt and our executive actions ahead of that event tomorrow.
At both of these events and throughout the week, the President will use every opportunity to urge Congress to do their part by passing the Senate Democrats’ bill to help more young people save by refinancing their federal student loans.
So I’ll turn it over here to Secretary Duncan. He’ll do some short remarks on his own. He’ll take your questions about the President’s student loan event later today, and then I’ll take your questions. And hopefully we’ll wrap all this up right around 1:45 p.m. when the President himself is going to use his pen and his phone in the East Room.
So with that, Secretary Duncan.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you, Josh, and good luck in this new job.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Tough crowd here. I don’t envy you. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate you being here to help.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I’m here today because I continue to believe -- and, in fact, I’m convinced -- that a college education is the single-most important investment that Americans can make to build a stronger future. But while college has never been more important, unfortunately it’s also never been more expensive. I know that cost keeps too many students and their parents up at night, and probably some of you guys in this room are in that boat. They’re unsure how they’re going to pay for it and they feel burdened by their student loans, and some are wondering is it actually worth it. And let me be clear -- it is absolutely worth it.
Research continues to show the many, many benefits of higher education. With some form of post-secondary education come higher earnings, lower risk of unemployment, and greater economic strength for our nation. And when I talk about a college education, that means everything from a four-year degree to a two-year program to community college and trade, technical, or vocational training. All of these institutions are key components of our dynamic and diverse higher education system.
But for too many of our low- and middle-income families, hardworking families, the dream of going to college is slipping out of their reach as tuition continues to rise and more students than ever are relying on loans to pay for it.
Now, I’ve traveled to all 50 states, and everywhere I go I meet students and families who feel overwhelmed trying to repay student loans. Even worse, I met parents and students in high school who desperately want to pursue some form of higher education but they feel that college is too expensive or they’re scared to take out loans, worried about graduating with too much debt they cannot manage. I tell a story of a while back when I in Iowa, after a town hall meeting a young girl came up to me -- she was a senior in high school -- was talking about what her family is going through. Actually, she has a twin brother and she said at that time her parents were trying to decide which twin to send to college -- her or her brother. That was the very real dinnertime conversation in their family.
Those kinds of situations -- obviously we have to do better. It’s not good for the economic strength of our families, our communities, or our nation as a whole.
The Obama administration has made some significant progress in creating flexible repayment options for borrowers, like those that determine your monthly payment based upon how much you earn, and loan forgiveness after 10 years of public service. And federal student loan programs come with a wealth of consumer protections. We’re working to raise awareness about the steps that borrowers can take to responsibly manage their debt, but we know that more needs to be done.
As part of his year of action and impact to expand opportunity for all Americans, President Obama is committed to building on these efforts to make student debt more affordable and manageable to repay. The President has called on the Senate to pass legislation, allowing 25 million student loan borrowers to refinance outstanding student loans at lower interest rates. This move could save the typical student as much as $2,000 over the life of their loan. If you do that math -- 25 million borrowers, $2,000 each -- $50 billion. Rather than paying back loans, think if that went into buying houses and buying cars and starting businesses. Think what that would mean to our economy.
And today, President Obama is taking further action by signing a new presidential memorandum, which directs our department, the Department of Education, to consider and develop proposed regulations that could allow an additional 5 million federal student loan borrowers to cap their monthly payments at 10 percent of their income.
The President is also outlining a series of new executive actions aimed at ensuring that we are all doing what we can to support federal student loan borrowers, especially vulnerable borrowers who may be at greater risk of defaulting on their loans. These actions range from strengthening the incentives for the loan services that we work with so they are encouraged to serve students well, collaborating with the private sector to spread the word about borrowers’ options, and ensuring our active-duty military get the relief that they need and deserve, that they’re entitled to, on their federal student loans.
College is absolutely worth it. By every measure, college is worth it. But we must do more to make college more affordable. So today’s announcement is just one more step towards that goal, and we look forward to continuing to work on this issue as we move forward.
I’ll stop there and take any questions.
MR. EARNEST: Julie, want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. Mr. Secretary, two questions for you. The President’s budget, I believe, puts the price tag for this student loan program expansion at $7.6 billion in its first year. Can you tell us how you’ll plan to pay for that?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So we actually don’t know the costs yet. Obviously, we have to go through this regulatory process, so we’ll figure out that on the back end. But we think this is something that would be fantastic for the economy. And again, the benefits of having people -- rather than paying back loans -- buying homes, buying cars, investing, starting businesses -- there are huge benefits there. But we’ll work through the details as we go through the regulatory process.
Q Okay. And on Common Core, there are governors in three states that have signed legislation basically opting their states out of the Common Core standards. Is the administration looking to do anything to try to keep other states from following that example? And could states that do opt out lose federal education funds?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So to be very, very clear -- and you guys can help to clear this up -- what we have always been about is high standards and college- and career-ready standards. And what we’re reacting to, as you guys may remember under No Child Left Behind, it’s not the intent, but we had about 20 states actually dummy down their standards to make politicians look good. And that’s bad for kids, it’s bad for the country, it’s terrible for education. But we need to have high international benchmark college- and career-ready standards. And so whether common or not, that’s less the issue; it’s more having high standards.
The Oklahoma example is a pretty interesting one. Just to give you a couple facts -- and I think sadly, this is not about education; this is about politics. So in Oklahoma, about 40 percent of high school graduates -- these are not the dropouts -- 40 percent of high school graduates have to take remedial classes when they go to college. Why? Because they weren’t ready -- 40 percent. About 25 percent of Oklahoma’s eighth-graders in math are proficient -- 25 percent. And other states locally are out-educating Oklahoma.
And if you go back to just a couple of months ago, this is what Governor Fallin said about higher standards -- I’m quoting her -- she said, “The standards” -- and I quote -- “outline what students need to be college- and career-ready. I want to be really clear” -- this is Governor Fallin -- “I want to be really clear: Common Core is not a federal program. It is driven and implemented by those states who choose to participate. It’s also not a federal curriculum. In fact, it’s not a curriculum at all. Local educators and school districts will still design the best lesson plans and choose appropriate textbooks, and will drive classroom learning.”
So what changed? Politics changed.
Q Governor Fallin has also said signing this legislation, said that there’s a possibility that her state could lose federal funding. Is that a realistic possibility?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So, again, we are partnering with folks who have high standards. If people want to dummy down standards, that’s a very different thing. We partner with states whether they're in Common Core or have their own high standards. But where we will challenge status quo is when states dummy down standards.
Q I’m sorry, is that a yes, that states that pull out and don't have a similar set of standards could lose federal funding?
SECRETRARY DUNCAN: If they do not have high -- again, I’m repeating myself. What we’re asking is that standards be high -- college- and career-ready -- not certified by us, but certified by the local institutions of higher education. And what we want to make sure is that our high school graduates -- we got a dropout problem we got to deal with. We want to make sure our high school graduates aren’t having to take remedial classes, burn up Pell grants, burn up student loans taking non-credit bearing. And right now, roughly 40 percent of those graduates in Oklahoma are having to do that. We don't think that's good for those young people, their families, or for the country.
MR. EARNEST: Mark.
Q Mr. Secretary, what do you say to critics who say that changes to the structure of student loans are responsible for creating the bubble that has created this wave of indebtedness?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, it’s just simply not true. And again, we need to all work together. This is not about pointing fingers and laying blame. This is about mutual responsibility, mutual accountability. We want to continue to invest at the federal level. So one of the things I’m most proud from the first term was $40 billion in additional Pell grants without going back to taxpayers for a nickel, and simply stop subsidizing banks and put all that money into grants. That was wildly controversial in Washington. We thought it was common sense. We went from about 6 million Pell recipients to about 9 million.
We want to continue to play -- obviously, what we have done, what the President is proposing this week, we want to continue to try and reduce that debt burden. But we can't do it alone. States have to invest. And when states stop investing, what many universities do, they jack up their tuition. And universities have to do a better job of keeping down their tuition and focusing not just on access but around the completion. So all of us have to work together in this effort and do the right thing.
I have to say, everywhere I travel -- and you guys do the same thing -- airplanes, wherever I am, the cost of college for hardworking Americans is a huge, huge challenge. And it worries the President, it worries the Vice President, and it worries me.
MR. EARNEST: Mara.
Q I have two questions. Can you give us an update on your department’s report card on colleges that was supposed to show the value of college? Where does that stand?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we’re still working it through, and we’re on track to have that -- was it December ‘15, Dori? Is that right? School year ’15-’16.
Q And then after you do that, then you’ll ask Congress to peg federal funds to do that?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, going forward. And again, just having -- again, this has been controversial and will be controversial. But as a nation, we put out $150 billion in grants and loans each year. That's all of us -- taxpayer money going out. Basically zero of that, very little of that goes to outcomes. That's all based upon inputs. Just getting families basic information transparency: What’s a grant? What’s a loan? What’s not the one-year cost, what’s the four-year cost? What’s the graduation rate of the college I’m going to? Basic stuff that we want to get out.
So having transparency and ultimately having money go to places that are serious about this. One quick positive example -- I did the commencement address at Arizona State a couple weeks ago. The President there, President Crow, has done an amazing job over the past six, eight years of increasing graduation rates, increasing access. Record numbers of Hispanic and African American and Native American young people going. He is building a culture of excellence around inclusion rather than exclusion and helping many first-generation college-goers go. And he is keeping costs down in a pretty interesting way.
Q And just one other question. Just what are, like, the one or two most important reasons that college costs have escalated so much faster than anything else, the cost of anything else?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Great question. I don’t know if there’s one or two. The state disinvestment in tough economic times was not helpful, and, again, challenging universities to do a better job of containing costs. And for me, again, this is not about cost, it’s about value -- making sure it’s not just about access but graduation. The goal is not to go to college; the goal is to get that degree. Some universities do a better job of that than others. Again, a positive example -- places like the University of Maryland system -- they’re using technology in those intro classes to drive down costs and they’re increasing completion rates. That’s the kind of innovation that we want to incentivize.
Q So other than state disinvestment, there has to be something else.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: State disinvestment and universities not doing a great job of containing costs, those two.
MR. EARNEST: Chuck.
Q Mr. Secretary, what’s the legal rationale for what the President is doing today? And if you had this rationale, why wasn’t it done four years ago?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So we’ve done this in the past. We’ve sort of taken this in a couple different steps. As we go back into 2010, we did this for future students going forward. We came back in 2011 and did it for current students. What the President is proposing, asking us to work on, is this is going back to folks who borrowed before 2007. So it’s a big --
Q Going back until when? How long? In perpetuity? They have a student loan, they all get to be a part of it?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Right. So in the past couple of years we’ve done future students, we’ve done current students, and now we’re trying to take a step back to help those who are borrowers or --
Q How do you pay for something like this in an executive action without getting Congress to codify it?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So, again, we’ll work that through as we go forward, and don’t know the cost yet. But we just think for the economy this is such an important thing to do.
Q But you’re confident this is constitutional? This is legal for you guys to do it?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, I’m not a constitutional scholar, but --
Q No, I understand, but you guys -- you’ve gotten legal advice to say you can do this above and beyond?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes, we have. And, again, we’ve done it in the past just to be very clear.
Q But just because you’ve done it in the past, maybe nobody challenged it. But if somebody challenges this, you feel like --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I’m happy to have folks look at it.
MR. EARNEST: Roger.
Q Mr. Secretary, on the 2010 and the 10 percent cap, how many students are taking advantage of that now? And has there been any studies, research showing that this is doing what it’s supposed to do?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don’t know the exact numbers, so we’ll have to get that for you. And it’s still early on, obviously, and this is just an option. It’s not right for every student. We don’t think every student needs to do this or wants to do this, but having it as an option we think is really important.
MR. EARNEST: Sam.
Q In light of the events today focusing on the burden of students’ loans, I’m wondering if --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Sorry, could you speak up a little bit?
Q In light of the events today focusing on the burden of students’ loans, I’m wondering if there’s any regret in the administration about not backing Senator Warren’s bill from last year that would have tied student loan rates to the loan rates given to big banks.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So I don’t know all the details of that one, but again, going forward I think we have a real opportunity to break through. We’re absolutely supporting her bill. We’re doing a series of executive actions ourselves. And again, this is something I think we all have to think about when you have a trillion dollars in debt out there -- what do we do to relieve some of that burden; what do we do to help young people afford going to college. And there’s been lots of focus on the cost of debt, which is very important. We also want to focus on the amount of debt itself.
MR. EARNEST: Peter.
Q On another issue -- I’m wondering, as an athlete yourself, what you think about the NCAA issues that are being so hotly debated right now.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I don’t have a really informed opinion. I followed it not as closely as maybe I should. These are really complex issues. That’s a longer conversation. I do think student athletes, again, should not just be going to the institution to make millions of dollars for the institution and have no degree to show for it. And I grew up playing with a lot of basketball players back home on the South Side of Chicago who did exactly that -- didn’t quite make the NBA, came home, had nothing to show for it and had very tough lives. And that was something that’s sort of indelibly marked from my experience.
So making sure young people have a chance -- yes, to play, but to be students first, athletes second, and holding universities accountable for that; having them have the chance to come back and earn their diploma at some point if they need to do that; and looking at sort of their long-term medical needs or whatever -- I think there’s some commonsense middle ground that folks can and should get to.
Q To what extent do you think they’re being taken advantage of with their images being sold and that sort of thing?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, so, again, I don’t know all the details there. But where I challenge universities and challenge university presidents and athletic directors and coaches, to your point, where they’re being used to generate revenue for the coach and his salary; where they’re being used to generate revenue for the university, and no sense is given to the importance of their academic success -- it is absolutely using, and I would say abusing those young men and women.
And the most important thing -- if they can get that college degree, that changes their life forever. We know a tiny, tiny percent -- make a nickel professionally. They get that college degree -- this is what we’re talking about today -- they have this huge opportunity in front of them. If they don’t have that, if they compete for a couple years and go back to the streets with nothing, they have absolutely been used and that’s not acceptable.
A quick thing you may know -- we challenged the NCAA a couple years ago to raise college graduation rates in order to compete in the NCAA. We got that through -- were very good about that.
Final thing I’ll say is, it’s interesting the vast majority of coaches’ contracts -- Tom McMillen, who’s a Rhodes Scholar, has done some work on this -- coaches’ contracts, the overall majority of their incentives are tied to wins and losses; very little is tied to academic performance. So the structure of this is backwards, and we’d love to see more coaches’ contracts -- to get any bonus, their student athletes would have to meet a minimum academic success level.
MR. EARNEST: April, I’ll give you the last one, and then the Secretary has got to go.
Q Secretary Duncan, is there a crisis when it comes to minorities getting student loans in this nation? If so, tell us why; if not, tell us why.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, again, young people have access to loans, and we want to make sure we can increase not just loans, but Pell grants. And I talked about that. The challenge is in helping more young people and their families pay back these loans. And if we can mitigate the costs, the interest rates on the back end, we can have more young people -- rather than paying back loans -- buying houses, buying cars, starting businesses, becoming entrepreneurs. We think that’s the right thing to do.
Q And did you work out the issue with the parent PLUS loan program that you were --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: That’s been going through negotiated rulemaking, so we’re still working on that. But that team has done some very, very good work together.
MR. EARNEST: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time today.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thanks, guys.
MR. EARNEST: All right, I have two quick things unrelated today to today’s student loan announcement that I’ll do here at the top, and then we’ll go to your questions.
The first is that earlier today, Governor Shumlin of Vermont signed legislation increasing that state’s minimum wage. The President commends the Governor, as well as the state legislature, for giving their state’s workers the raise they deserve. Governor Shumlin was among the New England governors who appeared with the President earlier this year in Connecticut to call for an increase in the federal minimum wage.
The President again calls on Congress to follow the lead of the large and growing coalition of states, cities, counties and businesses that have done the right thing for their citizens and their employees. Only Congress can get the job done for the whole country, lifting wages for 28 million Americans. The President will continue working with Congress to get this done and ensure that no American who works full-time has to raise a family in poverty, and that every American who works hard has the opportunity to succeed.
Secondly, and not completely unrelated to that, I wanted to note that today, here at the White House, we’re hosting an event to explore the state of working dads, including the challenges dads face balancing career and family, and how he can better support the needs of both businesses and working families. This discussion, as many of you know, is part of a series of events we have been doing leading up to our White House Summit on Working Families that’s scheduled for June 23rd. The President, the Vice President, the First Lady and Dr. Biden will all participate in that summit. They’ll be there alongside business leaders, labor leaders, economists, policymakers, advocates and workers who are directly facing these challenges -- which I know includes not an insignificant number of people in this room, as well.
We know that workplaces that make full use of the talented pool of American workers are essential to a thriving and healthy economy, to enabling businesses to stay competitive in today’s global economy, and helping all workers ensure the economic stability of their families. The summit, as I mentioned, is June 23rd. That’s two weeks from today. And we’re excited as we continue to build some momentum in advance of that event.
So, as you can tell, there’s a lot going on here today, including the conclusion of a trip to Europe last week.
So with that, why don’t we go to some questions. Julie, I’ll give you the first shot here.
Q Thanks. I just had one on the VA audit that’s out today -- again, pretty scathing. Over 57,000 new patients are awaiting appointments at VA hospitals and clinics. And I’m wondering both how this was allowed to get to this point, and while these studies and reviews are going on, if anything is being done to help these 57,000 patients actually get appointments.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been a number of things. The first thing I want to point out -- that the release of today’s data is an indication of the President’s commitment to trying to be transparent about this process; that the data that has been released will be helpful in giving all of us -- both folks inside the administration, as well as individuals on Capitol Hill, as well as members of the public and in the media -- to take a look at exactly what the scope of this problem is. And being able to review this data should help us not just decide on the scope, or determine the scope of this problem, but also to evaluate proposed reforms that the President is committed to.
This continues to be a priority, and we’re going to continue to work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to put in place the kinds of reforms that will ensure that we achieve the goal that we all share, which is making sure that every single veteran has access to the health care and to the VA benefits that they deserve.
Now, in terms of your specific question about what exactly has been done, the VA has been working to provide care to veterans and has taken steps at the national and local levels to ensure timely access to care. One example of this is that in Phoenix the VA has reached out to all the veterans that had been identified by the Office of Inspector General awaiting appointments, who are not currently in the system, to discuss their individual medical needs and immediately begin scheduling appointments.
One of the things that they have done to try to expand the capacity of the VA to provide these services is to deploy mobile medical centers so they can provide greater medical services and medical services more quickly to those who have been waiting on them for too long. There also has been an effort to hire some new staff and to put human resources employees in place so that they can more quickly onboard additional staff.
There have also been some management things that have been put in place -- for example, suspending some performance awards for senior executives at the VHA, and other things. I mention that only because it’s also a topic of some discussion on Capitol Hill, and there are some steps that we’ve already taken proactively as an administration to address some of the management challenges that are associated with this, as well.
Q I know we’re talking about a very large number of people -- 57,000 people -- but the situation in Phoenix has seemed to have gotten a lot of attention, but I’m wondering if some of the other people on these lists who haven’t been able to get appointments can expect the same kind of outreach that the patients in Phoenix who have been waiting have gotten.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what’s important about the study that was done in Phoenix is it does highlight some of the significant challenges that the VHA is facing right now. And what we have learned as we have investigated further is that these problems aren’t just centralized in Phoenix; that there are problems at other facilities. And part of what Rob Nabors, the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, who is working over at the VA right now, is trying to assess is to get a sense of what the scope of these problems is and to propose some reforms that would address not just the challenges that we identified in Phoenix, but some of the challenges that may also exist at some of the other facilities across the country.
This is a large task. There’s no sugarcoating that. But it is a task that the President has never been more dedicated to.
Q How important is naming a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs to this process? And how soon do you have to do that to really get this reform off the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Clearly, having some new leadership at the VA is a top priority. And whoever has this responsibility will have a very important job, and it is a priority of this administration to get someone in place soon.
At the same time, we need to make sure that we have the right person for the job. And so this is a “while we’re going to move expeditiously, we’re not going to rush through this process”. We need to make sure that we’re going to choose an individual that has the kind of experience and résumé that's needed for a task that is this large.
Q And back to Julie’s question. Today’s audit talks about how widespread these problems were not just in Phoenix, as you mentioned, but elsewhere in the country. Does this report provide any additional impetus to expand the effort that you’re making in Phoenix to other areas? And if so, where are you locating them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the VA in terms of what specific steps they're taking beyond what I’ve already mentioned here in response to this data release. Generally speaking, I can tell you that it is evident that there are problems in locations outside of just the Phoenix facility -- the VA facility in Phoenix.
And what the President is committed to doing is making sure that we put in place the kinds of reforms that will ensure that benefits all across the -- that veterans all across the country have access to the kinds of benefits that the President certainly believes they should have.
Q And can I ask on the attack at the airport in Karachi by the Taliban, does this indicate any resurgence of the Taliban as a force? And is it a sign that efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks have failed in that country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just start by saying, Mark, that the United States condemns the attack on the Karachi airport. And our hearts go out to the victims -- or to the families of the victims and those who were wounded in that attack.
In terms of who was responsible for that attack, I’d direct you to the government of Pakistan for that assessment. And in terms of negotiations, that is a decision -- a strategic decision that will have to be made by the government of Pakistan. And I don't have anything to say about it.
Let’s move around here a little bit. Steve.
Q Yes, a couple weeks back the House voted to pass a bill that would prevent the Department of Justice and the DEA from enforcing the law against medical marijuana facilities provided that they are state-licensed. Does the White House have a position on that yet? I know that as of now the White House is still opposed to medical marijuana, but 170 House Democrats voted for that.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll confess, Steve, I’m not familiar with that specific piece of legislation. I do suspect that my colleagues at the Department of Justice may be able to give you some insight into what our position is on that piece of legislation and what impact it would have on the way they're currently enforcing the law over there.
Q On the VA -- again on the accountability issue, Josh, this report says that front-line, middle and senior managers -- senior managers -- felt compelled to manipulate VA’s scheduling processes, and that they felt, in fact, that there could be retribution.
With that being the case as high as senior managers, how is it that here in Washington at the VA, they say they never heard of this going on? And when will there be accountability at the highest levels beside Shinseki, who has resigned obviously? What does the White House plan on doing when somebody was putting pressure on these senior managers to commit fraud?
MR. EARNEST: Right. Jim, there are three or four of the senior-level managers in Phoenix that have been put on administrative leave as a result of these allegations and as a result of the details that have been uncovered from the investigation. So there has been some personnel accountability that's already been -- they’ve been taking in Phoenix because of some of the problems that you’ve just identified.
What we’re focused on -- well, let me point out one other thing that we’ve also done, which is that we have removed the 14-day scheduling goal that has led to some of the unintended consequences that you’ve cited -- this creation of these alternate lists and some of these other things that the VA is working through right now.
So it is clear that some personnel changes need to be made, and some have already. It’s also clear there need to be some management changes in terms of the procedures that the VA has in place to fulfill their responsibilities. So both of those are things that are currently being evaluated, and it’s something that the President believes is very important.
There’s an ongoing inspector general investigation. Mr. Nabors is currently working on his own review. So there are a lot of eyes that are taking a look at this. And the President and other members of this administration remain committed to making sure that we give this problem the due amount of attention and that the creative thinking goes into the reforms that are needed.
Q On student loans, is it responsible to come out here today and announce this -- the President using his pen again, and have no details on how much this is going to cost and how many people are affected? Is that a responsible thing to do?
MR. EARNEST: It is. We have a good sense of how many people are affected; it’s about 5 million students and graduates and their families who are affected by this. In terms of the cost, we’re at the very beginning of this rulemaking process. So as this rule, part -- let me say two things about that. The first is, as part of the rulemaking process, there’s public input on this rulemaking process. So if people have ideas for the way that this rule can be designed to strengthen it or better target it, we’re certainly open to those kinds of recommendations and there will be an opportunity for individuals to provide some feedback.
The second is, is as a result of that process of taking some feedback, we will start to pin down some of the details of that rule. And based on those details, we’ll get a better assessment of exactly what the cost is. And as we get some more of those details, we’ll provide them.
Q But before the money is spent, will we know those details?
MR. EARNEST: There certainly will be a process for putting this rule together. And putting this rule together will mean deciding -- making some policy decisions about what the details of the rule are. And then you can make some assessments based on how much that will cost. So there’s a process that’s in place to govern this. It’s not unique to this field and it’s certainly not unique to other things that the President has done to exercise his executive authority to take action on behalf of middle-class families.
But yes, this is the beginning of a process, not the end.
Q And if I could just -- I’m sorry, and then one final question on immigration. I know you’re having a meeting, the President is having a meeting today. It’s sort of a naïve question, but I think people out in the country, outside of Washington, wonder this: The Republicans say that this is the President’s fault because they can’t trust him to enforce the law, and so they’re not going to pass it because they don’t trust him. So why doesn’t the President just pick up the phone and tell John Boehner, you can trust me, I will do the following, I will enforce the law; or in fact, not only will I enforce the law, you can wait until I’m out of office to have the law take effect? Why can’t a simple conversation like that happen?
MR. EARNEST: Those kinds of conversations have taken place. The President, as you know, has spoken to Speaker Boehner on a range of issues, including immigration, in the past. I would actually submit to you that there are actually two better ways for anyone in either party to conclude that the President is serious about enforcing our immigration laws.
The first is, there are any number of people that you can ask inside the President’s party who will say critical things about the President for enforcing the law. There’s no shortage of people in the Democratic Party who are agitating very aggressively to get the President to consider a range of options that would reduce the impact of the enforcement of the law precisely because the President is enforcing the law.
So the suggestion that some people don’t trust the President to enforce the law doesn’t withstand a whole lot of scrutiny. I think the other thing that you can do is you can also look at the numbers, and when you take a look at the numbers you will see -- again, much to the chagrin of some people in the President’s party -- that a lot of the metrics related to interdictions and immigration enforcement indicate that that enforcement process is as robust as ever.
Some of that is a testament to resources that have been dedicated to the border in a way that we’ve never seen before. Those resources have been committed to border security under the President’s watch and with the support of the President.
So there is no doubt that the President understands that protecting our border security is a key component of our national security. It’s also a key component of immigration reform. The President said that from the beginning. That focus on border security is included in the compromise legislation that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate both supported. And there’s no reason that it shouldn’t earn the bipartisan support of Democrats and Republicans in the House, as well.
Q I wanted to kind of follow on immigration. I know you guys have been working to address kind of this influx of unaccompanied minors on the southern border, and what I’m interested in is kind of the political implications of that. We heard a lot from House Republicans over -- or House and Senate Republicans that this was sort of the byproduct of the President putting together DACA, and so, because of the way that that’s been sort of filtered through, immigrant children believe that they can cross the border and stay here. So they’re saying --
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the ability of members of -- Republican members of Congress to divine the thoughts and insights of children in Central American countries.
My point is, I’m not sure this withstands a whole lot of scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that the DACA legislation that you’re referring to, the Dream Act legislation -- or the Dream Act executive action that the President’s administration took only applies to those who -- to minors who immigrated to this country, or who entered this country before June of 2007. So if there are children that are coming to this country now thinking that they are eligible for the Dream Act, they’re not.
Q So you don’t see it as a political problem that could impede either immigration reform going through Congress or the administration’s review of where do we start on deportation procedures that you might be able to take --
MR. EARNEST: Well, if anything, I think it certainly highlights, once again, the need to try to address the problem of immigration reform -- that this is a broken system that we’re operating under here. There has been bipartisan action taken by the United States Senate to try to devise a workable solution that meets the concerns that have been raised by individuals in both parties -- everything from border security, as I mentioned before, to ensuring that there is a level playing field for American businesses and employers in this country, and also to making sure that we reform the legal immigration process to make it easier for people who do want to immigrate to this country legally that they have an opportunity to do so.
So there is compromise legislation that exists, and I recognize that there are, for whatever reason, that there are some who oppose this compromise and will cite a wide range of things to suggest that why they think that immigration reform shouldn’t get done. I mean, I guess apparently that extends to trying to divine the motivations and thoughts of minors who don’t live in this country.
Q Do you expect the President to take a public stance on this position?
MR. EARNEST: Ed is asking the question.
Q I know.
Q Regardless of who is to blame for what’s happened, can you just explain what the federal government is doing right now? Because there are alarming reports coming out of Arizona where there are literally hundreds of kids who are unaccompanied by parents or relatives, children of migrants who are being bussed from Texas to Arizona and being left in a detention facility in Nogales. What is the federal government doing with these kids?
MR. EARNEST: That’s conflating two different things. Let me read this little section here about how we’ve been dealing with this influx that we’ve seen of unaccompanied immigrant children:
The number of children coming alone, particularly from Central America to the United States, has grown significantly in recent years. Many are escaping abuse or persecution, others are fleeing criminal gangs and violence, others are victims of trafficking or abandonment, and others merely seek to reunite with their families in the United States. The entire administration is focused on addressing the immediate and pressing challenges to make sure these children are appropriately cared for as required by federal law.
So the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security asked the FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, to organize the federal response to this urgent humanitarian situation. This means FEMA would lead and coordinate a government-wide effort to identify additional overflow facilities, provide safe and prompt transportation for the children to HHS custody, and provide medical and other services to children in the DHS facilities.
So this will ensure a unity of effort across the federal government in responding to the humanitarian aspects of this urgent situation. So there are resources that are being put in place that are being coordinated by the FEMA Administrator to work with the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and HHS to make sure that we have adequate resources to deal with this influx of unaccompanied minors that we’ve seen.
Q But the governor of Arizona has been a frequent critic, obviously, but still is wondering why these kids are being moved from Texas to Arizona. What’s the rationale?
MR. EARNEST: Now, my understanding of the situation is it’s not kids -- it’s not these unaccompanied minors that are being shipped to Arizona; that there are facilities in Texas and one in California and one in Oklahoma, where unaccompanied minors are being cared for -- again, under the supervision of HHS as required by law, as coordinated by FEMA.
So in Arizona, what we’re seeing is a different situation, which is that there are also situations in which CBP, the Customs and Border Patrol, will come across basically families that are attempting to enter the country. And so what they will often do is to process those families; they will send them to a processing center that has more bandwidth, that has the capacity to process them through the system.
Q So the kids who are at the facility in Arizona, are crossing the border there, are not being shipped from Texas?
MR. EARNEST: What we’re seeing is that there are some of these families that are attempting to gain entry into the country that have been moved to the Nogales processing facility simply because that facility has some additional bandwidth and capacity to process these families. So that’s the longstanding practice and that’s not anything new, and that’s not related to this recent influx of unaccompanied minors. Does that make sense? Am I clarifying this enough?
Q Clarifying, but there’s still a lot of unanswered questions right now as to what’s happening to these kids.
A couple quick questions on Bergdahl. On Friday, the head of the VFW sent a letter to President Obama saying now that you’ve secured the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, when are you going to secure the release of the Marine sergeant who is in a Mexican prison? And specifically, the head of the VFW asked, what is the President -- we’ve heard about Secretary Kerry and others -- what is the President personally doing to get this Marine out of the Mexican prison?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me draw a distinction between the Marine that you’re citing in the Mexican prison and Sergeant Bergdahl. Sergeant Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban, who was engaged in an armed conflict with the United States and coalition forces. And so what was conducted to free Sergeant Bergdahl was a prisoner exchange. And this is something that has been part of winding down armed conflicts for centuries.
And as the President mentioned in his news conference in Europe, this is something that previous presidents going all the way back to President Washington have had to grapple with; that exchanging prisoners at the end of an armed conflict is a necessary part of ending wars. And that’s something that this President is committed to.
So separately, I don’t have a lot of information to provide you in terms of the current efforts underway --
Q But is the President pressing to get him back, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly the President is concerned about all detainees -- or Americans who are being held against their will in other countries. And this is something that the President is certainly concerned about. But in terms of what specific efforts are underway, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q Specifically on Bergdahl then, you mentioned, the President has mentioned as well, that at the end of any armed conflict you have these negotiations for a prisoner swap, but as The New York Times points out today, you also as part of those negotiations get the Taliban, in this case, to give up something else -- to renounce violence, renounce terrorism, to reconcile with the Afghan government. If this was, as you just characterized it a minute ago, part of the end of a conflict to do this, why didn’t the President get the Taliban to renounce terrorism, to work again with the Afghan government?
MR. EARNEST: The goal of these more recent conversations that senior members of the President’s national security team have been engaged in through the government of Qatar has been an effort to free Sergeant Bergdahl. We have said -- there have been previous reports about efforts to free Sergeant Bergdahl that he could be freed in the context of broader agreements or broader concessions by the Taliban that would promote additional conversations or negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
So it is our -- the goal of this recent effort was to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl. That was achieved. If that paves the way -- if that builds a little trust and creates some space to enhance or restart negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and there’s a role for the United States and our other coalition partners to play in that, then we’ll welcome that opportunity and we’ll certainly consider it.
Q But since we’ve gotten these five Taliban commanders out now, do they have any incentive to actually sit down and work it out I think is the question. Now that this has already happened, are they actually going to sit down?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t want to make the same mistake that some Republican members of Congress did by sort of putting themselves inside the head of somebody in another country. But I do think that common sense does indicate that because there’s an ongoing armed conflict in Afghanistan, that there’s an incentive for both sides to try to resolve their differences. Again, whether they can do that remains to be seen. The odds of that are difficult and long, and if there’s a process that has begun here, it will be a painstaking one and not one that’s resolved overnight.
But if we can build some trust, and this does create an opportunity for more fruitful conversations, so be it. But the ultimate goal here was to fulfill a promise that every Commander-in-Chief, going back to George Washington, has made to every single American who has put on the uniform of the United States military, which is not to leave them behind.
Q Last one. If a soldier deserts his or her colleagues in war, a U.S. soldier, does that person serve with honor and distinction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re asking me a hypothetical question.
Q Well, it’s not -- might not hypothetical this time.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q It might not be hypothetical in this case.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it might or it might not be. The Department of Defense --
Q Well, there’s a lot of evidence suggesting it happened.
MR. EARNEST: Well, a lot of evidence doesn't indicate that you should jump to conclusions or that anybody should jump to conclusions. The fact of the matter is the Department of Defense --
Q So why did Susan Rice say that he --
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish, let me finish.
Q But if she didn't have all the facts that day, why did she say that it was honor and distinction?
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Defense -- the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have indicated the Department of Defense has a regular process, a standard operating procedure for determining whether or not -- for taking a look at these kinds of circumstances. And there will be a process that they will undertake.
Right now what we’re focused on is making sure that Sergeant Bergdahl gets the kind of medical treatment that he needs after five years in Taliban captivity. There will be a time and a place for a review to be conducted about the circumstances of his disappearance. And General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel have indicated that that will occur.
You’re asking me separately about Susan Rice’s comments about serving with honor and distinction. And the point that I would make to you is that anybody, any American who puts on the uniform and volunteers to fight for this country overseas is doing something honorable and is serving the country.
Q You mentioned if this swap does anything to build trust or pave the way -- so are you saying that there is no indication at this point now that it has done anything to build trust or pave the way for more discussion?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I would say is that that's the kind of thing that you’re not going to determine after a couple of days. I think that that's the kind of thing --
Q Shouldn’t that be part of the discussion, though?
MR. EARNEST: Part of what discussion?
Q Leading up to the swap, that there would be some kind of understanding or some kind of moving forward, or let this be a start to things?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Michelle, the discussions were focused on one thing, which is securing the safe recovery of Sergeant Bergdahl. And there has been a lot of talk over the years, over a decade you might say, of suggestions that there should be some sort of way to reach an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it here, in the last several weeks when these discussions were ongoing about securing the release of Sergeant Bergdahl, we did not want to reduce the likelihood of our success in securing his release by injecting a rather complicated variable into it, which is making it contingent upon some negotiations that have been stopped and started countless times over the last 10 years.
Our goal was to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl -- and we did that -- and we did that in a way that protects our national security, as concluded by the President, as certified by the Department of Defense. So we’re pleased that we were able to secure the release of Sergeant Bergdahl.
The question, though, is an open one, which is: Does this pave the way for more fruitful talks? And I think what I would say to that is it’s too early to tell. And it’s not the kind of -- you can't reach a conclusion about that kind of thing within just a few days. This is the kind of thing that you can ascertain over a period of time.
Q Okay, and quickly -- Susan Rice also said over the weekend, I think she said the U.S. is leading in lethal and nonlethal aid to Syria. Can you just clarify those comments? Because since then I think there’s been some vagaries among different parts of the administration depending on who is asked.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is the way that I would describe it to you -- that we remain committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition in Syria, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition.
While I’m not in a position to detail all of our assistance, as we’ve made clear, we provide both military and nonmilitary assistance to the opposition. That's been our position for some time, and those efforts are still underway.
Q So though she said lethal aid, can we just say that some of that military aid is lethal aid at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you can say whatever you want. What I will say is that --
Q We want to be accurate, right?
MR. EARNEST: -- is that we continue to provide assistance. And if that's the case, then I think what I would encourage you to -- the way that I would describe this to you is that we continue to provide assistance to vetted members of the moderate opposition, and that assistance can be described as both military and nonmilitary.
I’ll remind you that the United States continues to be the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition. So there are a variety of ways in which the United States can offer assistance to the moderate opposition.
There’s also a way that we can try to address some of the terrible humanitarian need that exists there.
Q But she said lethal aid, so she did not misspeak?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what she was doing is she was describing the military and the nonmilitary assistance that we have been providing. In terms of describing it as lethal or nonlethal, that's not something that I can provide to you. But I can describe to you that the opposition -- that the assistance that we provide to the moderate opposition could accurately be described as both military and nonmilitary.
Q Josh, I think we’re getting close to the President.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. We’ll try to move quickly here. Bill?
Q Well, since it’s now quite evident that the U.S. knew during negotiations going back a couple of years of the circumstances of Bergdahl’s disappearance, was it a good idea to have a welcoming ceremony in the Rose Garden when it was announced? You made a big deal out of it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President did was the President invited all of you to the Rose Garden where he made a statement, a very simple but profound statement about the commitment of the United States government being rock solid and unbreakable, which is that if you put on the military uniform of this country, you will not be left behind. That was a very powerful thing for the President to say.
I think you’re right, it was made more powerful by having the parents of Sergeant Bergdahl standing next to the President when he delivered that statement. But that was a clear, unmistakable signal to everybody in the country, everybody in this country, to everybody who puts on the uniform, and to countries around the world that when you wear the uniform of the United States military, you’re not left behind.
Q You didn't have to do that in the Rose Garden. Knowing the circumstances --
MR. EARNEST: No, we didn't have to do that in the Rose Garden, but that is a very important principle, and it’s an important principle for people in this country to understand. It’s important for people who wear the military uniform to understand. And it’s an important principle for people all across the world to understand. So standing in the Rose Garden to make that assessment, or make that commitment clear is exactly what the President chose to do.
Q But just following up, Josh, why not --
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come right back to you, Mara. Hold on.
Q I want to follow up on immigration.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Can we just finish Bergdahl first, just quickly?
MR. EARNEST: Let’s let Chuck go, and then --
Q To go back to the question that you were asked previously that you didn't answer, which is, is there any concern at the White House that the illusion that people -- that minors are protected here as part of the DREAM Act -- whether it was the executive action here or, frankly, the one part of where there appears to be bipartisan compromise on the Hill when it comes to DREAMers -- that it’s being used as an incentive to get families to send their children over the border, that it’s sort of being used -- no matter what the law says -- and I understand what you quoted on the law -- but is the White House concerned this is being used as a way to try to tell families that if you want to get over, send your kids by themselves first and then maybe you can get over to join them?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, when you say “used,” used by whom?
Q Well, maybe people that want to get over here or think that, hey, if they send their kids over the border first, they’ll be protected, they’re not going to be sent back.
MR. EARNEST: I guess it’s hard I think for any of us, really, to put ourselves in the position of a family or an individual that’s facing a question like that. I think all I can do is --
Q But you do agree this is a crisis, right?
MR. EARNEST: I think all I can do is speak to the facts, which are that if there are unaccompanied minors who show up at the border today or tomorrow, those individuals are not eligible for the deferred action -- executive action that this administration announced a couple of years ago. That’s simply a fact.
And for those Republican members of Congress who are trying to figure out whether or not they can trust the President in terms of his enforcement of the law, we’ve been very clear about that, and that the law has been enforced that way accordingly.
Q Are these unaccompanied minors going to be sent back to their home country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s my understanding -- and you can ask DHS --
Q -- how the process works?
MR. EARNEST: And you can ask DHS for more details about this, but my understanding about the way that it works is the law does require that we render assistance to those children, and that is a process that begins with DHS when they are detained. They’re transferred to the custody of HHS, who provides for their basic health care. And then they go through a process to determine whether they’re going to be sent back to another country, how they’ll be sent back to another country, or how that process is otherwise resolved.
And again, you can check with DHS for more details about that process. But that’s my understanding about the way that it works.
Q Josh, on that point, Cecilia Muñoz said on Monday that there are rumors being spread in Central America that is causing people to send their children to the U.S. So what is the administration doing to counter those rumors that you said are going on in Central America, saying that if children come to the border they will be allowed in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think one thing that we can do is to be as clear as possible about the law and about what the consequences are for making a decision like that. And I think that that’s what I and others have tried to do today and previously.
Q Will the President speak on this? Because, after all, people are hearing his words, even as far away as Honduras.
MR. EARNEST: Alexis.
Q Josh, just following up on Bergdahl --
Q I’ll take that as a no-comment.
Q -- in Brussels, the President said that the administration was continually trying to brief members of Congress. And I know you saw that the Intelligence Chair and the Ranking Member said yesterday that they had not been updated or briefed about the latest information, that Sergeant -- has been providing about his captivity. Can you say today whether the President hopes that the administration will continue to update or try to update members who said that they were in the dark about this new information?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not in a position to comment on the new information that was reported over the weekend, and I’m not able to comment on whether or not -- how that information has been shared within the government. I can just merely convey to you that this administration continues to be committed to coordinating with our partners in Congress, particularly those who lead the relevant committees. So we’ll be continue to be engaged in that coordination progress. But in terms of specific conversations that have been had as a result of that commitment to coordination and consultation, I’m not able to provide any insight.
Q Just for our own follow-up, are you not going to be able to comment today, tomorrow, any day, on information that’s coming out of debriefings with Sergeant Bergdahl?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t want to predict the future on this. I mean, suffice it to say that at this point I’m not in a position to comment on those reports.
Q Because you do know the information and you’re not allowed to say? Or why?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think because right now what we’re focused on is making sure that Sergeant Bergdahl is getting the care and attention that he needs after five years in Taliban captivity. That’s the focal point on our efforts right now.
QBut you’re not denying the reports in the major media?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to confirm or deny them. We’re going to be focused on providing him some care.
I will point out that this is not actually my first day in this job. (Laughter.) Jay will be back later this week, so I don’t want you to conclude that after a couple of days of doing that somebody changes their mind. That would be terrible.
QDoes the President have a copy of Hillary Clinton’s book? And has he bought a house in Asheville, North Carolina?
MR. EARNEST: Those are two wildly different questions.
Q A simple yes or no will do.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President has purchased the book. I’m not sure that it’s available for sale yet, is it?
Q Oh, yes.
MR. EARNEST: You can find it somewhere? I don’t know if he’s read the book. He’s not purchased a house in --
Q There’s a report he’s bought a retirement home for after the presidency in Asheville, North Carolina.
MR. EARNEST: That is not true.
Q Josh, a question on unemployment insurance.
MR. EARNEST: Sam.
Q House Democrats today said that 3 million Americans have now seen their unemployment insurance lapse. I’m wondering what, beyond occasionally mentioning the topic at the briefing, what the White House is doing to try to push through a compromise on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a handful of Republicans who have stepped forward to try to work with us and try to work with Democrats on the Hill to move this forward, but there’s only one reason this hasn’t gotten done, and the reason for that, Sam, is that congressional Republicans in both the Senate and the House have blocked it.
There is a clear case to be made that this would meet an urgent need that’s being felt by families across the country. There’s a clear case to be made about the benefits that this would have for the broader economy. But Republicans seem unmoved by those facts, and that’s the reason it hasn’t gotten done.
Q So what are you doing to move them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we are in regular consultation with members of Congress, particularly Republicans, on a range of issues, not the least of which is ways that we can take steps that would strengthen our economy and things that we can do to strengthen the financial standing of middle-class families. And this is certainly an example of one of them. But again, it’s not the only example of Republicans standing in the way of commonsense policy decisions that would benefit middle-class families in this country.
Q You’re in regular consultation with members of Congress. Does that include Speaker Boehner, who has said specifically that he wants to see the platform of the White House on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything specific to -- any specific conversations to read out. But there is a compromise piece of legislation that has been proposed by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate that we have indicated that we’re generally supportive of.
We’ll do one last question. Zeke.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just following up on the former Marine -- you said earlier that he was a detainee. I’m wondering if that is a -- is that a reflection of any sort of legal determination made by the U.S. government?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not. And if I said that, I didn’t mean to further confuse the issue. I think he’s being detained in Mexico, is what I was trying to convey.
Q And then also, in terms of that, does the President, does the administration have confidence in the Mexican criminal justice system, in the prosecutors there to see this case through? Or is the U.S. government putting pressure on Mexican authorities outside of that system?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the conversations that we’re having with the Mexican government I’d refer you to the Department of State.
I’ll let you guys get covering the President’s event. Thanks very much. See you tomorrow.
1:51 P.M. EDT
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