Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/25/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for corrections marked with asterisk.
1:00 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Before we get started, I just wanted to let you know that the President this morning telephoned Italian Prime Minister Renzi. The two leaders discussed our ongoing efforts to coordinate the response to the situation in Ukraine. I anticipate we’ll have a more formal readout of that telephone call later this afternoon that will be generated by my colleagues in the National Security Council.
But with that, Julie, do you want to get us started today?
Q Thanks, Josh. I’m hoping you can give us the White House’s reaction to Speaker John Boehner’s announcement today that he plans to file a lawsuit against the President, accusing him of failing to carry out laws passed by Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Julie, you’ve heard the President talk many times about his approach to working with Congress. It is the President’s preference that we would be able to find opportunities to work with Democrats and Republicans to put in place policies that would expand the economic opportunity for middle-class families. That is certainly the focal point of the President’s domestic agenda. And ostensibly, that’s something that we shouldn’t have to work too hard to convince Republicans it should be a priority.
What the President has also said is that, where necessary, he’s willing to take action on his own, using the executive authority that’s vested in the presidency to advance the cause of expanding economic opportunity for the middle class and strengthening our economy overall.
So for a long time we’ve seen Republicans block progress in Congress, a range of bills that would promote economic strength. But in this case, it seems that Republicans have shifted their opposition into a higher gear. Frankly, it’s a gear that I didn’t know previously existed. The fact that they are considering a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President of the United States for doing his job I think is the kind of step that most Americans wouldn’t support. I think they’re looking -- I think what most Americans would say is they want their leaders in Washington, D.C., to make progress on behalf of the American people. I’m not suggesting that that is easy. Bipartisan progress in particular is difficult. But just lapsing into these kinds of tactics that for so long -- that have been employed at the legislative branch and now appear are being applied at the judicial branch is, frankly, not the right way to go.
Q Speaker Boehner was over here yesterday for an event with the President. Do you know if he told the President that this lawsuit was coming?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to speak with a lot of detail about what kinds of conversations they may have had while the Speaker was here.
Q Could you check on that? Did the President have any kind of heads-up that this was happening?
MR. EARNEST: We typically don’t read out in detail much of the conversations that are had when they do occur between the President and Speaker of the House. But if I can get you some more information, I’ll look into it.
Q Do you know if others at the White House were aware that this was going to be happening before the Speaker’s announcement today?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that. But again, let me look into whether or not the White House got any heads-up with this.
Q And if I could just switch to the situation in Iraq. We now have Syria launching airstrikes against ISIL. We have Iran deepening its military involvement in support of the Iraqi government. How concerned is the U.S. that Iraq is just becoming this military playground with the U.S. also involved as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that we’re aware of reports that the Syrian government has taken strikes against targets in Iraq. We have no reason to dispute those reports. But for confirmation or additional details about what those strikes may have included, I would refer you to the government in Iraq.
More broadly, I would underscore that the solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime. In fact, it’s the Assad regime and the terrible violence that they perpetuated against their own people that allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place. The solution to Iraq’s security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime, but the strengthening of the Iraqi security forces to combat threats.
Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected, and the government of Iraq must focus now on strengthening its internal political and security institutions in an inclusive way. Ultimately, the long-term solution to the instability that we see in Iraq right now will require the political leadership of Iraq to make the kinds of decisions that will unite the country. That means bolstering the security forces. The best way to bolster the security forces is to pursue the kinds of inclusive policies that make sure that the security forces are representing the interests and security of everyone in that country. And they need to do a similar thing on the political front as well.
That has been the nature of the conversations that have taken place between senior U.S. officials and Iraq’s political leadership. And those conversations will continue, because it is the view of this administration that that’s the way this problem will get addressed in a way that’s consistent with the goals of the people of Iraq, but also consistent with the national security interests of the United States of America.
Q But do those objectives become harder to achieve when you have multiple countries involved militarily inside of Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say it this way. It’s important that no one lose sight of the way that this situation can be resolved, that an over-reliance on military tactics may address some of the symptoms, but will not get at the root cause of this problem. So what the United States has been focused on is looking for ways that we can support Iraq’s political leadership as they pursue an inclusive governing agenda. That ultimately is the way that this problem gets solved.
Now, there are a variety of ways that we can offer that support. Some of that has been security assistance. And we’ve talked quite a bit about the materiel and equipment that the United States has been providing the Iraqi security forces for quite some time now. That’s also taken the form of training that U.S. personnel has been involved in training Iraq’s security forces both through the Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation, but also in Jordan. And we’ve been engaged in a sustained, high-level dialogue with the political leadership in Iraq about the necessity of that political leadership in Iraq pursuing an inclusive agenda.
Again, the only way that Iraq will be able to successfully confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL is by uniting that country and ensuring that it’s clear to every citizen in Iraq that they have a stake in that country’s future.
Q The Commerce Department has said that a minimally processed form of crude oil called condensates can be exported. And I’m wondering, what was the White House involvement in this decision? Or was the White House caught off guard by it?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s fair to say that we were caught off guard by the reporting, because there has been some misunderstanding out there. The fact is there has been no change to our policy on crude oil exports. As the Commerce Department has said, oil that goes through a process to become a petroleum product is no longer considered crude oil. A petroleum product that can be exported without a license -- I’m sorry -- a petroleum product can be exported without a license
only *except in very limited circumstances.
Let me just take a step back here. What we’ve said before is that there is no question -- and this is a good thing -- that domestic oil production is up. In fact, it’s an important part of the President’s all-of-the-above approach to energy. So we are closely studying the economic, environmental and security opportunities and challenges posed by that growing production, and we’ll evaluate policy options as needed going forward.
Q But what’s the wisdom of making this clarification -- the Commerce Department in making this clarification in what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, given the potential to boost oil prices at this volatile time, what’s happening in Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s why I’ve tried to be very clear about what our policy is and to make clear to you and Reuters readers around the globe that there’s been no change to our policy when it comes to crude oil exports.
Q I saw on the schedule today that the President is meeting with Senate Democrats. Can you tell us what one topic or many topics that will be about?
MR. EARNEST: Anita, you may recall that about six months ago the President invited the Senate Democratic Caucus to the White House for a meeting that included both a serious policy discussion but also included an opportunity for the President and some members of his senior staff to interact with Democratic members of the Senate in a more informal environment. That’s the form of today’s meeting.
I would anticipate that the President will have the opportunity to talk about some of the top items on his legislative agenda. Certainly, a number of the economic priorities that we’ve been talking about with you over the last few weeks would fall into that category.
Q Is that more like a reception, a meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s both.
Q Okay. And will you have a readout after that or is this it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t -- that’s probably not something I’ll promise at this point, but if there are additional details to share I will see if I can get you something.
Q Okay, and one last one on it. Could you release the names of the people that are coming?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that every member of the Democratic Caucus in the Senate was invited. But you’ll have to ask them who was able to accommodate a White House visit onto their schedule today.
Q Can I just follow on a couple questions on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q I’m wondering, is this something that’s been on the books for a long time?
MR. EAREST: It has, for a while. This is not an urgently scheduled meeting.
Q And I’m wondering if, the extent to which Iraq will be an issue that the President wants to discuss -- I don’t know if you saw today Tim Kaine called on the President to submit a draft authorization that if he were to undertake any sort of military action in Iraq -- and I know that you guys have said that what you’re doing so far doesn’t require that -- but he made the point that this is something that Congress should be debating in the future. And so I’m wondering the extent to which the President is going to try to shore up Democrats who have been wary on Iraq.
MR. EARNEST: It’s my expectation that there will be some Democratic members who will be interested in an update on the situation in Iraq, and I anticipate the President would have something to say about that if he gets the chance to. But the thing that’s important to remember as it relates to the op-ed that you referred to in the Washington Post today, the President has been very candid about his desire and commitment to continuing to consult with Congress as we move forward, as we continue to deal with the consequences of the instability in Iraq. That’s something that the President thinks is important and is something that you can anticipate will continue.
He said that to the four congressional leaders when they were here just last week I believe. I think the President had the opportunity to reiterate that last week when he spoke to all of you last Thursday. And rest assured that will be part of our efforts moving forward.
Q And then, just finally, I was wondering if you could talk about just the relationship between Senate Democrats and the White House in general. There have been some high-profile disagreements on the way you guys informed on Bowe Bergdahl. And I know that Denis and Katie have certainly been making a push to kind of improve that relationship in the last year. So just talk about kind of the state of play, especially going into what should be a tough election summer.
MR. EARNEST: I would say that the relationship between the White House and Senate Democrats is very strong, as evidenced by the track record of progress that's been made through the Senate over the last five and a half years. A number of the things that Senate Democrats are talking about in the context of the upcoming elections will be the progress that they have made and their credentials in terms of fighting for middle-class families in Washington, D.C. All of that has happened and is a testament to the strong coordination and the strong working relationship that exists between Democrats on that end of Pennsylvania Avenue and Democrats on this end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Q A couple questions on immigration. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez today said it’s over, that he no longer believes that Republicans are going to, in fact, do anything as far as immigration reform is concerned. Does the White House agree? He also says it's time for the President to act on stopping deportations. Has the President now decided as well that Republicans are not going to act? He gave them that extra time.
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you, Jim, as I think I mentioned yesterday, that we've certainly been disappointed that a legitimate bipartisan compromise that passed through the Senate one year ago has been blocked repeatedly by House Republicans. This is a piece of legislation that is strongly supported by leaders in the labor community, in the business community, in the law enforcement community, and even among the diverse leadership of the faith community in this country. There is strong agreement that the commonsense immigration reform proposal that passed through the Senate should be enacted into law. This is a proposal that is strongly supported by House Democrats, and it is just one faction of House Republicans that are blocking progress on this piece of legislation.
I don't think the President has been shy about sharing his disappointment about that fact. I certainly haven't been shy about sharing the White House’s disappointment about that fact. But what does remain is a majority in the House of Representatives who support that legislation, that there is some confidence that if Speaker Boehner and other members of the House Republican leadership who object to this legislation didn’t just drop their objection -- it's perfectly fine for them to vote no -- all they need to do is they need to drop their efforts to obstruct the bill from even coming to the floor.
So the solution to this is rather simple and straightforward. But you're right, and I certainly would agree with the frustration that Congressman Gutierrez has expressed that we have within grasp a solution to a pretty persistent problem and a fix to a system that just about everybody agrees is broken within reach, but we have not been able to move that across the finish line simply because of the efforts of House Republicans to obstruct it.
Q So is the President now looking at the options that the DHS Secretary has been working on? He asked that be delayed for a while. Is that delay over now? Is he looking at them now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the way that I would characterize it to you is that process is ongoing; that the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, is engaged in a process to evaluate what kinds of options the President has. He has not come across any options and does not expect to come across any options that are a substitute for the compromise proposal that is currently sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives. And the President will consider those options as the Secretary develops a list of recommendations.
But I'm not prepared at this point to make any grand pronouncements from here about what comes next other than to say that this is an ongoing process and that the frustration that is felt by people all across the country who support this legislation is shared by the President and just about everybody who works here at the White House.
Q From the unaccompanied minors that are coming across -- I know you addressed this I think yesterday as well -- but as you were addressing that, Secretary Johnson on the Hill, although not giving specific numbers that we've been asking for, did say that as many as 50 percent of the children coming across were, in fact, given custody -- were given over to custody of parents in this country, and that as many as 80 percent were given to relatives in this country. Does the White House agree with those numbers? And does that mean that, in fact, very few of these unaccompanied minors, as little as 20 percent, are actually going back to their countries eventually?
MR. EARNEST: There’s a lot there to unpack. I didn’t see those exact comments from the Secretary of Homeland Security, but his agency is responsible for enforcing the law, so he would have at his disposal the kind of detailed numbers that he apparently referenced yesterday. So I'm not in a position to confirm those numbers, but I wouldn't disagree with them either.
In terms of the law, the law is pretty clear that there is an anti-trafficking law that dictates pretty clearly how unaccompanied minors are treated once they enter immigration proceedings, and I'd refer you to DHS and ICE and others for more details about that. This administration is dedicated to enforcing that law and following it.
That is why, when it comes to dealing with this influx of unaccompanied minors at the border, we have devoted additional resources to setting up some HHS facilities that would make sure that we're meeting the humanitarian needs of those children. The President has tasked FEMA with helping coordinate some of those resources.
What we've also done is we've deployed additional federal resources to deal with the influx of adults who have appeared at the border with children. We've identified a detention facility in New Mexico and we're trying to add additional resources in the form of immigration judges and asylum officers and immigration prosecutors to try to process those cases more quickly. And this is a difficult task.
But the one last thing about your question that I did want to clear up is that a lot of -- that what’s driving a lot of this news right now is that there are a lot of children and adults that arrive at the border with children who are from other countries in Central America besides Mexico. The law is very clear about Mexico, that when those individuals are apprehended along the border they can be immediately returned. The law is different when it applies to so-called non-contiguous countries.
The thing that I wanted to make clear is that it's not just the United States that's seeing a surge in this kind of population shift; that other countries -- other more stable countries in Central America are also seeing an influx in the number of immigrants seeking to enter their country. That is an indication that there is a serious security problem in a handful of countries in Central America. And that was the subject of discussions when the Vice President was visiting with the leaders of Honduras and Guatemala when he traveled to the region last week.
Q I just want to follow up on that. Since it's clear now from the Secretary that as little as 20 percent of the unaccompanied minors are being sent back --
MR. EARNEST: Well, just from those countries, right?
Q From Central America. Because Mexico is contiguous you just send them back. I understand that.
MR. EARNEST: So the 20 percent number is a little misleading. That's the only thing I want to -- because it --
Q But the ones who are coming across right now, it's an influx of Central Americans, not Mexicans.
MR. EARNEST: But that doesn’t apply to sort of the whole group, the whole population of unaccompanied minors who are at the border. Some of them are children from Mexico and they are returned immediately. They don't have to go through the immigration process. So I understand the point of your question. It's just the 20 percent number I think is imprecise.
Q So if it's a small amount that are going back, isn't there a disconnect with your statement from a few days ago, last week, when you say that what they’re being told by cartels or coyotes or whoever is telling them to come across that they are welcomed in the United States or that they will be given a permiso, a permission to stay is incorrect? In fact, they are being given a permission to stay.
MR. EARNEST: They’re not, Jim. And it's important for people to understand that -- that those children are being put through the immigration process and that means that they are subject to detention and that means they’re also in some cases, after they’ve gone through the process, subject to removal. And that piece of paper they have in their hand is not a permiso; it is a notice to appear before a judge in court to have their immigration status determined by a judge.
And it is important for people in this country and in Central America to understand that that's the case, because there are some desperate times in some of these countries and there are people who are taking desperate measures and placing their children in the hands of criminal networks who are trafficking in children and helping them move from some Central American countries to our southern border, all in the promise that they’ll be welcomed into the United States with open arms. And that is simply not true.
Q Just a follow-up on immigration. The President has said several times both in public interviews and private meetings with advocates that he is not legally able to expand the deferred action program for young people that he announced and that the administration announced in 2012. Given the fact that folks like Luis Gutiérrez, a strong immigrant activist, are saying they’ve lost hope in the legislative process and are calling on the President to act, does the White House still stand by that determination that you’re not legally able to make a broad change to that -- or even any change to the DACA-style program to protect immigrants?
MR. EARNEST: This is the nature of the question that Secretary Johnson is taking a look at right now, that he is evaluating the options that are available to the President in terms of any sort of executive action that might be at the President’s disposal to try to address some of the more pressing problems that are created by our broken immigration system. So none of those will be a substitute for the kind of congressional action that we’d like to see.
Q But he’s also looking at a program like DACA that would -- similar that would create broad protections for people, defer their deportations --
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to tell you precisely what policies he’s looking at or what sort of legal solutions he may have uncovered.
Q But it’s on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you should talk to him about what kinds of policy considerations he’s incorporating into this review. But suffice it to say, his direction from the President has been very clear, which is that there has been a reluctance from House Republicans to allow a vote on a commonsense proposal to reform our immigration system that already enjoys bipartisan support.
So what the President has said to the Secretary is, what kind of options are available to me under the law to exercise executive authority that would address some of the problems that had been created by our broken immigration system. The President has also been very clear about the fact that he acknowledges -- and I think the Secretary, based on his review, is going to back this up -- that none of these executive actions would be a substitute for congressional action. But in terms of what Secretary Johnson has learned so far and what kind of progress he’s made, I’d encourage you to check with the Homeland Security about that.
Q A couple of sanctions questions. As you know, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are concerned going forward with them. In the event there are future sanctions imposed by the government, is the White House concerned -- or confident that whatever is put forth will not harm multinational companies, especially in the oil industry?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll tell you, Roger, that in dealing with the challenge that’s posed by the situation in Ukraine, the President and his national security team have evaluated the range of responses that would make sure that the United States is standing squarely behind a very important norm, which is the idea that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of independent nations should be respected.
And what the United States has done -- in close concert with our allies, particularly those in Western Europe -- is put in place a sanctions regime against Russia that has isolated them from the international community. And what we have indicated is that if additional sanctions are necessary to finally prod President Putin to use the influence that he has in eastern Ukraine for constructive purposes -- that is to say in a direction that would deescalate the conflict there -- then we won’t hesitate to use them, again, in close coordination with our allies in Western Europe.
Now, there are a couple of reasons that we want to work closely with our allies -- or I should say continue to work closely with our allies on this. The first is the sanctions regime will be more effective in isolating Russia if many of Russia’s trading partners are cooperating in that effort. It will have more of a pinch. The second is the President is mindful of not putting American companies at a significant competitive disadvantage.
So we’re balancing a lot of different equities as we approach this, and the President will continue to be mindful of both our national security interests, particularly when it comes to this principle of respecting the territorial integrity of independent countries, but also recognizing that this is a global economy that we’re talking about and that American companies have an important stake in the smooth functioning of the global economy. Frankly, that’s one of the many reasons that we would like to see the situation in Ukraine resolved -- because it has had an impact on the global economy and not for the better.
Q So it sort of comes down to try to avoid any damage but no guarantees.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what it comes down to is that we’re balancing a lot of important national imperatives, and the President is mindful that we can best -- that these policies are most effective when we are acting in close coordination with our allies as these sanctions, or potential sanctions, are implemented. That’s why the President was on the phone with Prime Minister Renzi of Italy just this morning. It’s why he spoke with President -- I’m sorry, Prime Minister Cameron yesterday, and with President Hollande last week.
These conversations will continue, and this consultation will continue not just at the presidential level but among the national security staff here at the White House that’s working on it.
Q A quick follow-up. Is the U.S. prepared to go ahead with sectoral sanctions even if the EU doesn’t proceed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Roger -- I guess you weren’t on the trip with us in Europe but I think that you were a part of covering it -- this was the subject of extensive discussion among the President and the world leaders that he met with when he was in Europe a few weeks ago. So this is something that is being closely monitored by the international community. And, yes, it’s fair to say, as the President did then, that sectoral sanctions remain on the table.
Q That the U.S. is prepared to go ahead, even if Europe doesn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we are committed to doing is closely consulting with our allies -- because as I mentioned before, these policies are going to be most effective if they’re implemented in close coordination with our allies in Europe who also happen to be many of Russia’s strongest trading partners.
Q The economy -- first three months of the year -- apparently upon revision, it suffered its worst decline since the President’s first three months in office. What’s your reaction to that? I know they blame the weather. But I also want to point out that you were counting on a bump from health care spending that you didn’t get; in fact, it contracted. And does that suggest a misread of the impact of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that, Wendell. When you’ve asked me about jobs reports and other GDP reports in the past over the years, I’ve often said to you that we don’t get too excited when these individual reports surprise on the upside, and we don’t get too exercised when they surprise on the downside. Obviously, in this case, the latter is true.
So what we’re looking at is the broader trends, and some of the broader trends about our economy continue to be encouraging -- 51 consecutive months of private-sector job growth for a total of almost 9.5 million private-sector jobs. That is a pretty good trend. There are also some trends related to just the first quarter, related to the output from the manufacturing sector and other employment indicators that indicate a healthier economy than the one that was indicated by today’s GDP revisions.
However, the President continues to be focused on putting in place additional policies that will further strengthen the private sector and further expand economic opportunity for the middle class. That while it is I think obvious to anybody who has looked at this situation or at least followed the health of our economy over the last five, five and a half years, you’d see that there has been tremendous improvement in our economy.
But the President is certainly not satisfied, and there’s a lot more work to do. And frankly, that’s why we’d like to see House Republicans working more closely with the White House to put in place some of these policies that we know would be good for the economy as opposed to resorting to tactics like filing a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President just for doing his job.
Q The health care aspect, though -- the government had expected a strong gain in the health care spending with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In fact, a full third of the decline is being attributed to health care spending. Have you misread the impact of Obamacare?
MR. EARNEST: We have not. What we have been focused on is a couple aspects of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The first is expanding access to health care for people all across the country. Eight million Americans signed up and took advantage of that in the first few months of -- or in the last couple of months of last year and the first few months of this year. That’s a tremendous accomplishment and one that we’re pleased about.
What we’ve also seen is a variety of metrics that indicate that the cost of health care, as measured in a variety of different ways, has slowed. That is part of what the President views as addressing one of the root problems with our health care system, which is that the growth in cost of our health care system was rapidly out-stripping even regular inflation. And that was having a terrible impact on our economy, it was restraining job growth a little bit, and was even having a pretty bad impact on our deficit.
So we are pleased with some of the early indications about the impact that the Affordable Care Act has had on lowering costs for businesses, lowering health care costs for consumers and families, and even having an impact on the cost of health care that’s paid by the government, which is good for our bottom line and good for our nation’s deficit.
So we’re pleased about the positive impact of the Affordable Care Act, and we’re going to continue to implement that law in a way that maximizes benefits for people, including in ways that will have a positive impact on the cost of health care.
Q And on Boehner, if I could ask one more on the Boehner law suit -- is the President re-thinking his kind of in-your-face I’ve got a pen and a phone and I’m going to use it? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Well, let me follow up on that -- because any lawsuit, obviously, could lead to a very protracted court battle with wide-ranging implications. And is that something --
MR. EARNEST: And a significant expense to taxpayers, I assume. I’m not an attorney, but I don’t think they come cheap.
Q Well, is that something that the White House is gearing up for, or do you think that John Boehner is bluffing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I am not sure what the strategy is behind the House Republican announcement today. Quite frankly, I’m not sure that, again, an announcement that House Republicans are preparing a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President for doing his job is going to be very warmly received by the American public.
I think what they would like to see is they would like to see their elected leaders in Washington, D.C., focused on the kinds of issues that are having an impact on their communities. That’s why you see the President -- just to cite one example -- host a Working Families Summit here in Washington earlier this week to talk about many of the issues that working families all across the country are talking about: having access to paid leave; having access to the kinds of flexible workplace policies that will allow families to better balance work obligations and family obligations; raising the minimum wage so that the head of a household who is trying to raise -- working full-time and trying to raise a family of four doesn’t have to do it below the poverty line.
So there are a range of issues where there should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together. It’s unfortunate that Republicans have opted for what might be described as a more litigious strategy.
Q Well, without ascribing motives to the Speaker or to the Republicans, is it something that the White House is taking seriously enough to gear up for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I’ll say this. In terms of the kinds of executive actions that Speaker Boehner objects to and the House Republicans object to, they haven’t been very specific about that. It’s unclear if what they object to are actions that are taken to protect the public health of Americans all across the country by making sure that our air and water is clean. It’s not clear to me if they object to protections that ensures that individuals aren’t discriminated against based on who they love. It’s unclear to me if they object specifically to the President using his executive authority to make sure that every worker in America has access to some kind of retirement program. The President, using his pen, announced the MyRA proposal in the State of the Union address. It’s something that is going to make it easier for workers to save for retirement.
So we feel completely confident that the President was operating within his authority as the President of the United States to take these steps on behalf of the American people. But I’ll be interested to hear what kind of objection Republicans have to those specific steps.
Q Well, they say specifically things like immigration, health care. I mean, they’ve been very vocal about the kinds of things that they’re unhappy with.
MR. EARNEST: But I don’t think they’ve explained what their legal rationale would be for objecting to them. I understand that they may have different priorities other than those that are broadly shared by the middle class in this country. I think I’ve said as much myself many times. But we haven’t heard a legal rationale from them.
But, again, if they relish the opportunity to have a legalistic, litigious discussion about the steps that the President has taken on behalf of middle-class families and are looking for an opportunity to raise their objection not just in the legislative sphere but also in the judicial branch, it’s certainly I assume within their legal rights to do so.
But again, this lawsuit is not something that is going to consume the attention of the White House. What this President and this White House are going to be focused on are the priorities of middle-class families, and that’s why the President is traveling to Minnesota tomorrow and will spend a couple of days there talking to people in Minnesota about ways that we can strengthen the economy and the ways that some of the steps that the President has already proposed are already benefitting middle-class families in Minnesota.
Let’s move around a little bit. Olivier.
Q I’ve got a couple for you.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q Senate Democrats today -- any plans for a similar get-together with Senate Republicans?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that there is one in the books right now.
Q And does the President -- what’s the White House’s reaction to the Supreme Court saying that the police need a warrant to gain access to the contents of the cell phones, even in cases of legitimate arrest?
MR. EARNEST: Olivier, I’ll confess that I’ve seen those reports but I haven’t read the opinion, so I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice who are better informed on that specific issue.
Q Josh, a couple of things. One, in New York’s 13th congressional district, the President failed to endorse Congressman Charlie Rangel for reelection, though it looks like he won anyway without the President’s help. If that holds, will the President endorse him in the general election?
MR. EARNEST: It is the policy of this White House that we typically support a Democratic candidate in general election races, particularly when they’re running for Congress.
Q So that’s a yes?
MR. EARNEST: That’s what I would anticipate, yes.
Q And second, has the President changed -- arranged his schedule tomorrow between 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. so he will be there, where most Americans -- on the issue most Americans care about?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’re referring to a soccer game, I think, right?
Q You got it.
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that based on the schedule, the way the schedule is laid out for tomorrow, the President will be on Air Force One tomorrow. So for most Americans, you’re on an airplane, you’re disappointed that you’re not going to have a chance to watch television --
Q Not on Air Force One.
MR. EARNEST: When you’re the President of the United States, it’s one of the rare opportunities that you actually have to be around the television when it’s on, so we’ll be able to provide you an update whether or not the President takes advantage of that opportunity.
Q And finally, American governors and mayors do this, they make bets with each other on the games. Has the President called Chancellor Merkel and made any big bets between the U.S. and Germany?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. If we do make a bet along those lines, I’ll make sure you guys are aware of the details. (Laughter.) That could be kind of fun. I’m sorry, Bill?
Q A couple of beers?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe so, maybe so.
Q A couple quick follow-up stuff. First, can you identify this Rebecca woman who wrote, or are we just going to find out when we get there? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more details about her tomorrow. In fact, I think that she is planning to appear with the President tomorrow, so you’ll get a chance to maybe -- maybe even get a chance to meet her in person.
Q But you’re not going to tell us ahead of time who this person is?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t have her name right here. We may be able to get you some information about her.
Q Do you have any more of the details?
Q Yes, what are they going to do? Aside from chat?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the President’s schedule tomorrow?
Q In terms of his interaction with her.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have those details in front of me, but we’ll get you something before the end of the day on it.
Q Can I just do one other -- come back to the Boehner lawsuit one more time? I think you're missing the point, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: It's happened before. (Laughter.)
Q Well, the thrust of the lawsuit is about the faithful execution of the laws. And the contention is that the President, by changing aspects of the health care law unilaterally or --
MR. EARNEST: Providing greater flexibility to states as they try to implement the law?
Q -- that doing that, that the DREAM Act, DREAMers, that you're not going after those who he believes -- prosecutorial discretion permits him to do that -- I think the contention of the law [sic] is that he’s exceeding the discretion that is built into the presidency in ways that other Presidents haven't done. Do you dispute that?
MR. EARNEST: I do dispute that. There is a solid legal rationale for each of these steps that the President has taken. The President’s working principle has been that we will work with Congress wherever we can to try to make progress on behalf of the American people. But we have seen a Congress -- Republicans in Congress -- who have been engaged in a comprehensive, coordinated legal strategy to block everything. And that has been a source of a lot of disappointment here at the White House. The President would like to have --
Q Does the President --
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish -- which is that the President would like to have the opportunity to work with some partners even on the other side of the aisle to advance his agenda. But he’s also said that he’s not going to sit around and wait for Congress to change their strategy; he’s going to look for opportunities within the scope of his authority to make progress in support of policies that are good for middle-class families and good for our economy.
So that's what the President has done. I recognize that the reason that Republicans may be blocking some of these things is because they disagree with the President about the benefits of these things, or at least they disagree that they shouldn’t be priorities. That is a worthwhile political debate for us to have. But I'm surprised that, again, Republicans would turn to a taxpayer-funded lawsuit to express their disagreement with the President on issues that, frankly, have really strong public support.
Q The couple of cases that I just cited are laws that Democrats and Republicans voted for, that were on the books that this lawsuit alleges the President unilaterally changed.
MR. EARNEST: And I think what I'm saying is that the decisions that the President made were well within the scope of his legal authorities as described by the Constitution and as described by the law.
Again, you can ask Republicans. I think that the reason that they’re raising all these concerns is because they disagree with the steps that the President has taken, and that’s -- again, that is fine. What I think is not fine in the eyes of the American people is that Republicans are resorting to a taxpayer-funded lawsuit and not focused on trying to work through the political process to find common ground and move the country forward.
Maybe this is both -- I guess in some ways this is both a difference of opinion not just about governing philosophy but, in this case, also about tactics, again, and I'm skeptical that a lot of Americans are going to approve of this specific tactic. But they shouldn’t be taking tactical advice from me, so I'm sure they’ll do whatever they want to do.
Q Josh, getting back to these apparent actions that have been taken by the Syrians and Iranians in Iraq, is that making for some strange bedfellows with the U.S. when it comes to dealing with the ISIS threat, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think that it does. We've been pretty clear about what degree of interaction we've had with the Iranians about this. As you know, I guess it was just last week that there were senior State Department personnel who were in Europe to participate in P5-plus-1 talks with Iran about their nuclear program, and on the sidelines of those discussions there was a conversation between some of those State Department officials and their counterparts in Iran. But we've been pretty clear that there will not be any sort of ongoing military coordination between the United States and Iran.
We've also been pretty clear that any kind of discussions we do have with Iran would not include a discussion over the heads of the Iraqi people about the future of Iraq. The fact of the matter is it's the responsibility of the people of Iraq to make decisions about their country, to make decisions about their political leadership, and make decisions about how best to unify that country in the face of this threat that's posed by this extremist group.
Q And earlier today, the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, he seemed to be cool to the idea or reject the idea of greater Sunni participation in the Iraqi government. What’s the administration’s response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those specific remarks. I think our reaction would merely be that we've been pretty clear what we think is necessary to solve this problem, or at least to address it in the most effective way, and that's to unify the country and to give Sunni, Shia and Kurd communities access to their government and a sense that they have a role to play in their government’s future and in the future of their country; that by uniting that country they can best confront the threat that's posed by ISIL.
I would point out that there have been other political leaders in Iraq -- and religious leaders in Iraq, in fact -- who’ve also expressed the point of view that I just did, that it's important for the Iraqi government to pursue a unified governing agenda that is inclusive and that gives Kurds, Sunnis and Shia the opportunity to participate in the government of their country.
Q And you said earlier that it's the Assad regime that allowed ISIS or ISIL to make gains there in the first place. But didn’t the President have a chance to go after the Assad regime and he passed it up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I --
Q Any responsibility that he bears indirectly for ISIS being able to emerge as a large and looming threat in Syria that's spilling over into Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we've been very direct about the policy that we've pursued in Syria. We have expressed our extreme disappointment at the violence that's been perpetrated by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. We have made clear that it's the view of this administration that Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead and that he should leave. We have made clear that we are going to support moderate elements of the opposition. We've provided a variety of -- we've provided support in a variety of ways, including both military and non-military support.
The United States continues to be the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to try to meet the humanitarian need. There are millions of refugees that have been spawned by the violence in Syria.
We're also working closely with countries throughout the region to try to coordinate the response to the instability. And we've warned for quite some time that ongoing violence and instability in Syria would have a potentially dangerous and destabilizing impact on the broader region.
So that is the way that the President has approached this problem, and we're going to continue to work with partners in the region -- because there is common ground that can be found around the idea that the continued advance of this extremist group is not good for security and stability in that region.
Q Forgive me -- you said the word “partners” in the region. Do Syria and Iran qualify as partners in the region?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Syria certainly not. We consider the moderate opposition, the group that we will deal with diplomatically there. When it comes to Iran, I think I've described sort of what we have done already, which is to have some discussions on the sidelines of other meetings that are wholly separate and apart from the conversations that are ongoing about our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
But there are a number of other countries in the region -- certainly the Iraqi political leadership, Saudi Arabia and others -- who have a vested stake in security and stability in the region. And turning a blind eye to ISIL and not encouraging the Iraqi political leadership to take the steps that are necessary to confront that threat would have that destabilizing potential that's not in the best interests of any of the countries in that region.
Q Thank you, Josh. For all the strained relations, today, for the very first time in 65 years, a state level Chinese official visited Taiwan. How does the United States view this event? And does the U.S. support the two leaders -- to meet each other in person?
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen those reports, so I'm going to have to have one of my colleagues at the National Security Council get back to you on that. Thanks for the question.
Q Hey, Josh, a couple of quick ones just on what you mentioned earlier about a Rangel endorsement. The President typically endorses Democrats. Are there parameters, if you can go into any details in terms of how the White House decides which Democrats he will endorse, if there are any? And the second one is, with regards to the lawsuit that's going to be filed by Speaker Boehner, who at the White House will handle that. And is there an estimate that you can provide or any details in terms of what that will cost the White House in terms of man hours or actual real dollars?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of our policy for endorsement, I think that Democratic candidates at the federal level who are running against Republicans can reliably know that the President is eager to support them in their efforts.
As it relates to our legal engagement in the lawsuit, I think I’d actually refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice on this. But if there is an answer to be had from the White House Counsel’s office, I’ll see if I can track that down for you.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, sir. First of all, congratulations officially and I wish you all the best.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Q Two quick questions. One, do we have any announcement about the upcoming visit of India’s new prime minister? And also, when are you going to have a new U.S. ambassador to India?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a date for a visit from the new prime minister. As you’ll recall, a few weeks ago the President had the opportunity to call him and congratulate him on his election, but I don’t have any updates about visits.
In terms of ambassadorial appointments, we talked about that quite a bit yesterday, but I don’t have an update at this point about any new nominees to that position.
Q And finally, as far as immigration is concerned, ongoing problem with this border problem is going to affect those millions who are waiting in the dark tunnel, and they are asking for President Obama is the only hope who can bring the light in the dark tunnel for the future. Are you going to affect their future, or what message does the President have for them?
MR. EARNEST: The message that the President has is that the best way to tackle so many of the problems that are created by our broken immigration system is for Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate has acted in bipartisan fashion to do exactly that. That compromise proposal is supported by a strong coalition of leaders all across the country in the business and labor and faith communities. Even the law enforcement community is strongly supportive of this proposal.
So we’re hopeful that Republicans, even if they are determined to vote against this proposal, that they will stop blocking it, allow it to come up for a vote so that it can pass the House of Representatives, the President can sign it into law, and we can finally address so many of these problems that have had a terrible impact on our economy, have had a bad impact on our deficit, and have really taken a toll from a humanitarian standpoint on millions of immigrants and would-be immigrants to this country.
Q I have been talking to many illegal and legal people -- I mean, immigrants and non-immigrants. What they are saying is that if this becomes the law, if they become legal, it will bring billions of dollars into the economy and they will be out of the shadow in the public, and they will have respect and, plus, create jobs and so forth, and they will be investing and contributing economically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say two quick things about that. The first is we’ve been very clear about what’s included in this compromise proposal. It does include a path to citizenship, but it is a difficult path to citizenship for those who are in this country illegally. It requires them to learn English, it requires them to pay taxes, it requires them to get to the back of the line. They should not be advantaged in the immigration process just because they are already here.
But that said, the President does believe that we need to have a process for dealing with the millions of people who are already here. It’s simply not viable or realistic -- and I think even Republicans acknowledge this -- to try to deport each and every one of those individuals. So we need to have a system for dealing with it.
The system that has been proposed in this compromise, bipartisan piece of legislation would have enormous benefits for our economy in terms of promoting economic growth, creating jobs, and reducing our deficit. Those are just three good reasons to support commonsense immigration reform. There are many others, and hopefully we’ll get to see -- we’ll see House Republicans change course and allow this piece of legislation to come up for a vote.
1:54 P.M. EDT
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