Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/1/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay. The Cabinet meeting ran a little long. But hopefully we'll be able to have a briefing here before the President begins his remarks in D.C. later today.
Q Why did it run long?
MR. EARNEST: There was a good, robust discussion among the President and his senior advisors. So it was a nice opportunity for us to have a conversation.
Before we get started -- we'll get to your questions here in a little bit -- so often I come to the podium and answer your questions by saying that I don't have any personnel announcements to make, but I did notice an interesting personnel announcement that will be made later today that I wanted to bring to your attention. For the first time in the Navy’s 236-year history, a woman will be pinned with a fourth star. Vice Admiral Michelle Howard will be promoted at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery that's taking place today. I don't know if it's already occurred or if that's happening later on today.
Admiral Howard attended the Naval Academy and she graduated there in 1982. She is somebody who has done a lot of interesting things in her career. She is also the first African American woman to command a ship, the amphibious, dock-loading ship, Rushmore, in 1999.
So her historic career is taking a next step today -- she will be named the Deputy CNO for Operations, Plans and Strategy at the Navy. So congratulations to Admiral Howard.
With that, Jim, we'll let you get started with the questions today.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about immigration and the President’s remarks yesterday to seek executive action. Today, the head of the AFL-CIO and the head of the National Council of La Raza suggested that the President should provide more permits for everyone eligible under the Senate law, and I wondered if that's something that the President would consider or if that's the kind of reach that the President doesn’t think he can accomplish through executive action.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, let me begin by saying something that we've said a few times, which is that we -- the President readily acknowledges -- and I think he did even in his remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden -- acknowledges that any sort of unilateral executive action that the President can take to address some of the problems posed by our broken immigration system are not as powerful as reforms that could be put in place through legislation. And that's why the President is so disappointed that House Republicans have repeatedly blocked compromise legislation that's already passed through the Senate.
This is legislation that we know would pass the House if it were just put on the floor and put to a vote. And that's why the President and so many others are disappointed that House Republicans have consistently blocked what is an otherwise commonsense compromise measure that's already passed the Senate.
In terms of what is on the table, what the President has said -- and again, many of you heard him speak yesterday -- he said that he wants to do everything that he can to fix as many problems as he can, stipulating that he can't do as much, he doesn’t have the authority to do as much as that legislation would do.
But the President has directed his Secretary of Homeland Security to review what authorities are available to the President that can be applied in this case to mitigate some of the problems posed by our broken immigration system. There are a number of economic consequences, there are some budgetary consequences and some basic humanitarian consequences related to our broken immigration system, and the President wants to see what executive authority he can wield to try to address some of those problems.
Q Does he find these kind of proposals helpful given that the review is still underway?
MR. EARNEST: I feel confident that Secretary Johnson will perform the kind of review that will leave no stone unturned in terms of evaluating the kinds of authorities that the President could implement, again, to address some of the problems that have been created by our broken immigration system.
Q Josh, the President had asked Secretary Johnson to do a review of deportation measures to make them more humane -- to see if they could be more humane, and there were some preliminary recommendations. Why does the President need to wait until the end of summer to start acting on these things? Aren’t there some suggestions out there that he could actually start initiating now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President would like to see is a full accounting. As you pointed out, Jim, you accurately described that this review that began in March at the President’s request by the Secretary of Homeland Security was a review of current immigration policy as it relates to deportations and whether or not there could be some changes made in that policy to make them more humane. What the President has asked for now is building upon that request and that review to evaluate the range of executive authority that’s vested in the presidency that could be deployed to address some of the problems of our broader immigration system.
So one builds on the other. The President expects that the Secretary of Homeland Security will act quickly to produce this report. The President said he would like to see it by the end of the summer. And upon receiving that report the President has indicated that he wanted to move quickly.
So the point here is that the goal here is not delay; the goal here is a quick but thorough review of the authorities that are available to the President. And I think that upon completion of that review you can anticipate that quick action will be taken.
Q And, Josh, as you know, the coalition built around supporting immigration overhaul comes from all sorts of different angles. And some have to do with expanding access to visas to high-tech workers, et cetera. Does the President intend to address all those things by executive action or simply the issue of deportation?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was pretty direct when he talked about this yesterday that he would do as much as he can. And so the question that is then posed is what exactly can he do. And that's what he’s trying to figure out, and that's what will be the topic of this review. And upon completion of that review, we’ll have a much better idea of how many of the problems that are left unfixed by Congress can actually be solved through the use of executive authority.
Q Thank you, Josh. GM recalled another 8.5 million vehicles yesterday, bringing the total of cars, vehicles it has recalled to 29 million. Does the President have any role in being more aggressive or ensuring that the administration is more aggressive in ensuring that Americans are safe in their cars?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, Mark, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is responsible for working with the auto industry and with the transportation industry more broadly to ensure the safety of the American traveling public. That is an independent organization that's responsible for acting outside of any political influence to ensure that that very important responsibility they have is performed rigorously.
And the President has high expectations for individuals who work in that administration. You’ve heard the Transportation Secretary himself say many times -- both of them, in fact, that have served under President Obama -- indicate that their top priority is the safety of the American traveling public. So we have confidence in the efforts that are underway.
I guess I would -- I might observe that the fact that there have been so many recall announcements made is an indication of the rigorous process that's underway. But I would reserve judgment on that process and the way that it’s carried out because those are decisions that are undertaken by an independent agency.
Q But given that these recalls are retroactive, these are cars that people have already bought, and that the problem is so long-running --
MR. EARNEST: That's the way that recalls work, right?
Q Right. And so extensive -- does the President not feel that there’s a need for NITSA or the Department of Transportation to be more proactive in catching these problems before they warrant recall?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that what the President expects is he expects NITSA and the Department of Transportation more broadly to fulfill a very important task, which is to ensure the safety of the American traveling public. If there are new ideas that the Department of Transportation or NITSA has for trying to catch these problems sooner or more quickly before they pose a broader threat, we would certainly welcome those kinds of proposed reforms.
But at this point, we would anticipate that NITSA and the Department of Transportation will continue to work closely with the broader transportation industry and with auto companies to ensure the safety of the traveling public.
Q And on a different topic, Israel has apparently revived a policy of destroying suspected militants’ homes in response to the deaths of -- the killings of the three teenagers. And this is in spite of the President’s call yesterday for not escalating in that situation. Can you comment on that? And have you spoken -- has the President spoken with Israel about this?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any telephone calls to read out. As you know, the administration and senior members of the President’s team are in regular touch with their counterparts in Israel. But I don't have any specific calls to inform you of at this point.
Let me begin by saying something similar to what the President said yesterday, which is that on behalf of the American people the President and First Lady extended their deepest and heartfelt condolences to the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, the three young men whose bodies were found yesterday.
I would point out that Naftali Fraenkel is somebody who held dual Israeli and American citizenship. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this senseless act of terror against innocent youth. From the outset, we’ve offered our full support to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to find the perpetrators of this crime and bring them to justice. We encourage Israel and the Palestinian Authority to continue working together in that effort. We are engaged with both sides and continue to urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation. As the Israeli people deal with this tragedy, they have the full support and friendship of the United States of America.
I think one key point of what I just read that relates to your question is that there was some security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel as they tried to -- as they investigated the disappearance of these young men as they tried to bring them home safely. So there is an important security relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And we hope that that spirit of cooperation, even in the midst of this very difficult time, will continue.
Q Josh, with the appointment of Tom Wheeler to the FCC and now the rumored appointment of Philip Johnson to the Patent and Trade Office, does the President feel like perhaps he’s preferring insiders and people with lobbying connections, people who have opposed some of the reforms that the President has himself championed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I’m not going to comment on any personnel decisions that haven’t been announced yet. So I would set aside the speculation about Mr. Johnson.
I think more broadly what the President is looking for when he is considering appointments to important positions like this are the credentials and experience of the person who is nominated. Particularly when the President is making nominations to agencies like the FCC, or even NITSA, these government agencies where the President is appointing the leader of that agency, but it’s an independent agency, that the President is entrusting his faith and confidence in that person’s ability to make decisions independently that are in the best interests of the United States of America, and in the best interests, in the case of NITSA and the FCC, of American consumers; that there is a philosophy that the President has about what role government can play in protecting American consumers and ensuring that they have a voice in a process that can otherwise be so dominated by influential insiders, as you’ve described them.
Q Is the President opposed to having someone who opposes patent reform in the U.S. Patent and Trade Office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to speculate about who may or may not be appointed to that job. But suffice it to say that when the President is ready to make an announcement, he will announce the nomination of somebody in whom he has the full confidence to carry out the functions of that office.
Q The President is going to speak later today about the Highway Trust Fund. I know that you guys have said that he’s going to talk about trying to close corporate loopholes to fund the Highway Trust Fund. So I’m wondering if you’re going to introduce specific legislative language, or if this is going to be an endorsement of Senator Wyden’s sort of stopgap measure. Since it’s going to be more broad, I’m wondering if, in theory, you do support Senator Wyden’s legislation.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the proposal that we support is actually the one that the President put forward a few weeks ago for paying for these important investments in our infrastructure.
What the President has said is that we can close tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy and the well connected, and we can generate significant revenue that can be devoted to modernizing our infrastructure and making investments in our infrastructure that will benefit the broader American public and the broader American economy. That is not just good policy; that seems like the kind of proposal that should attract the broad support of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
I know the rules that apply to Congress are a little bit different these days, but that is the proposal that we support. We certainly welcome the proposals that are floated by others, and we’ll consider those bills individually once they’ve been written and presented publicly.
But in terms of what the President supports, we’ve been pretty specific about what the President thinks is the right course of action for making these important investments in our infrastructure.
Q A couple of questions on Iraq. The first meeting of the Iraqi parliament didn't go so well. In fact, it got cut short. So how long can they muddle through if they don't seem to have a sense of urgency themselves? How long can the U.S. wait for them to get it together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Athena, it is important that Iraq’s new parliament convened today as they had previously pledged to do. But it continues to be imperative that Iraq’s new leaders move forward with the extreme urgency that the current situation deserves.
The nation of Iraq is facing an existential threat that's posed by ISIL. That extremist organization has carried out grotesque acts of violence, has perpetrated terrible acts of terrorism across the countryside, and poses a broader threat to that country. As the pressure increases, it’s important for the leaders of that country to stand up, to work together to unify the country in the face of that threat.
There is a rather tenuous security situation in that country right now. But that tenuous security situation is not going to be resolved solely through military action. The underlying root problem here is ensuring that every citizen in Iraq feels as if they have a stake in that country’s future and that country’s success. So that's why it’s so important for the leaders of that country, the political leaders of that country in both -- or Kurd, Shia and Sunni to come together and to act in line with the constitution, to quickly form a government, and set about governing that country in an inclusive way. By doing that, they can adequately face down the threat that's posed by ISIL, and in doing so will have the strong support of the international community, including the United States of America.
Q So quickly, so he’ll say nothing more in terms of an end date by which they do this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, it’s going to be up to them. But there is -- anyone who takes a look at this situation and understands the severity of the threat that is facing that country right now understands that their political leaders should be moving very quickly.
Q And just one more on Iraq. With all that's going wrong in Iraq right now, you have a lot of vets of that war who are questioning whether their service mattered. You have families of soldiers who were killed in that war. What message does the White House have for them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would say that they should know that the service and in some cases sacrifice that was made by American personnel in that country over the last decade or so was very important and it definitely mattered. What it did was it created an opportunity for the Iraqi people to pursue a future and a government that was in line with their aspirations.
Unfortunately, so far we have not seen Iraq’s political leadership take full advantage of that opportunity, but that opportunity still exists. The fact that an Iraqi parliament convenes today is evidence that that opportunity exists. And what we are urging Iraq’s government to do is to capitalize on that opportunity, to put the interests of that nation first and unify the country as it confronts the very serious threat posed by ISIL.
Q The President said yesterday in the Rose Garden that he’s going -- part of the way he’s going to celebrate July 4th is to hold this naturalization ceremony for members of the military who are undocumented. Is that something that the President is considering in a wider way? Of course, Congressman Gutiérrez has been saying that that's one of the ways that the President can expand immigration on his own. Is that under consideration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to get into sort of ruling in or ruling out things that may or may not be part of the review that's being conducted by Secretary Johnson, and that also involves the Attorney General, as well, in terms of evaluating the legal options available to the President for solving some of the problems posed by our broken immigration system.
So I’m going to decline to speculate about whether or not those kinds of proposals will be part of the review. Suffice it to say the President was pretty clear that he wants the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to cast a pretty wide net and consider a wide range of options for doing as much as possible to address the problems that have been elevated by our broken immigration system.
Q Without talking about the action itself, does the fact that the President even noted what’s going to happen on Friday in what many believe is the inconsistency of somebody serving in the military and then facing deportation afterwards -- does the President see that as an inconsistency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at the risk of articulating any new policy views here, at least on this one particular question, I will say that the reason that the President wanted to mention them in his remarks is to highlight the absurdity of some of the consequences of our current broken system. To have people who are taking the extraordinary step of signing up and dedicating their life to defend a country of which they are not yet a citizen is remarkable. It is in line with the values that the President certainly believes make our country so special and so unique. And the President is looking forward to the opportunity to recognize that sacrifice and to recognize that commitment that some people who are not yet American citizens have already made to this great country.
Q Next week the President is planning, I understand, to go to Texas for a fundraiser. Are there any plans for the President to stop by the border and witness firsthand this humanitarian crisis?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, no. But if there are any changes to the schedule we'll let you know.
Q And then finally, on a scheduling matter as well, how is the President going to watch the game today? Is he going to watch the game? And will pie be served? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The President does have a meeting this afternoon with members of his national security team right around the time that the game will begin, but if the President is able to catch any part of the game we'll try to figure out a way to let you know.
Q Josh, two related questions. First of all, does the President regret at all that he spent a year trusting that House Republicans would compromise with him on immigration and delaying his actions that could have provided relief to undocumented immigrants and their families, so he waited all this time, trusting Republicans who haven't really cooperated with him on anything in his second term, and in so doing he delayed perhaps relief for these immigrants? Does he regret that at all?
MR. EARNEST: He does not regret that. I think he’s very disappointed that House Republicans were successful in effectively, at least for now, killing comprehensive immigration reform, the kind of immigration reform proposal that was supported by 14 Republicans in the United States Senate; the kind of immigration proposal that had the strong support of leaders in the law enforcement, faith, labor and business communities.
There are plenty of reasons for Congress to take action on this front. The reason that it was worth waiting for Congress is that legislative action would do the most to address so many of the problems that are posed by our broken immigration system. The President talked about them a little bit in his remarks yesterday, saying that had Congress acted -- had the House acted a year ago as the Senate did -- that we would be ensuring that businesses were competing on a level playing field; that families were no longer being broken apart by deportation policies; that there would be an opportunity for people who have been in this country and that they would have an opportunity to learn English, pay a fine, and get in the back of the immigration line but have the opportunity to become what they so desire, which is to become American citizens.
So there are a number of things that could be fixed through legislation that could have been fixed a year ago. And what the President is focused on now, now that he has been informed by the House Republican leadership that this legislative proposal -- compromise proposal is dead, the President is now focused on working with his Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security to try and solve as many of these problems as he can using his executive authority.
Q Isn’t odd that he has to wait on the House Speaker to tell him? What if he had taken another six months to announce the House wouldn't take it up -- how long was he willing to wait to take executive action? Was he basically relying on the House Speaker to decide when he would take executive action?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, on one hand, Zack, it's common sense -- the House Speaker certainly has significant say on what pieces of legislation are going to find their way to the House floor. I think as you’ve heard me say many times, it's not a matter of counting votes; we know the votes are there. If the bill were allowed to come to the floor of the House of Representatives and be put to a vote, it would pass. The President would, of course, sign it quickly into law and we’d begin implementing so many of these proposals that would expand economic opportunity, create jobs, reduce the deficit, and bring a much greater level of humanity and fairness to our immigration system.
It would also have significant benefits for many private businesses who are trying to recruit employees to this country. It would allow those individuals who have gotten a good education in this country to stay and to innovate and to open small businesses here that could have the potential for even further strengthening our economy.
There are a whole range of reasons why Congress should have acted, and I think it makes sense that the Speaker of the House is the one that's in the best position to ascertain whether or not this is actually going to be put to a vote. We already knew that if it were put to a vote it was going to pass. The real question was whether or not the House Republican leadership was going to have the courage to put it on the floor of the House of Representatives, to do the thing that was in the best interest of the United States of America. And unfortunately, they failed the test.
Q Let me just follow --
MR. EARNEST: I like the jersey, by the way.
Q Thank you. We will win.
MR. EARNEST: I believe the same. Fortunately, we do not have a dress code in the briefing room --
Q Not today.
MR. EARNEST: -- so don't have to worry about it. (Laughter.)
Q Not today. Not today. Let me just follow what you just said, because the House Republican leadership made it clear right after the Senate bill was passed they were not going to bring that bill to the floor. That's not new news. That isn't even close to new news. What you have been waiting on was to see if House Republicans would put different bills on the floor, some of which you may fundamentally disagree with as just the beginning indicator that something might work itself through the legislative process over time.
So I'm not sure what the revelation was in the Speaker telling the President, hey, you know what, we're not putting the Senate bill on the floor. They were never going to put that on the floor and they’d said that a hundred times before. What it sounds like to me is the President just decided to make a statement that long since obvious and then turn this to an executive approach, which will also have undeniable political implications if it comes out, as you’ve led us to believe, sometime in September that tees all this up for the midterm elections. This feels much more political than a revelation about a broken-down legislative process.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I’d just point out that as recently as last month, Speaker Boehner said, “People expect there should be fairness for children who came to this country illegally [but] through no fault of their own.” And so he said, “I've said before and I'll say it again, we need immigration reform.” Paul Ryan said to him, “It's not a question of if we fix our broken immigration laws, it's really a question of when.” So there was clear support among House Republican leaders for moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform.
So what changed is that the Speaker informed the President that it wasn’t going to happen this year, that they’d effectively killed it and punted it off to the next Congress, when, again, they’ll have to start the whole process over again by trying to broker a compromise in the Senate.
So we did see a dramatic change from House Republican leaders who all along had been paying lip service to the idea that immigration reform would be good for our economy and was something that was worth doing. They’re right about that. However, for reasons that only they can explain, they declined to put forward the Senate bill, which was a piece of compromise legislation. The President readily acknowledged that he didn’t get everything that he wanted in that bill. Republican senators said the same thing. But yet, 14 Republican senators voted for it because they knew it would create job, it would expand economic growth, it would reduce the deficit, and it would restore some fairness to our immigration system.
Q Right, and I don't want to belabor this, but, I mean, when there was a concept floated to put the ENLIST Act in the defense authorization bill and that didn’t even make it in, that was disallowed, that was as clear a signal as you could possibly have that these incremental steps, even ones to address the issue the President is going to put on a public stage on the 4th of July here at the White House with a naturalization ceremony -- that should have given the President and everyone in this building all the information you needed to know that whatever lip service was being said publicly nothing was going to move legislatively. So it just seems like the President basically declared something that everyone already knew to shift the terms of debate politically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's fair to say that --
Q Is that a fair characterization?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that it is only because you had the Speaker of the House saying -- I’ve said it before, I'll say it again, we need immigration reform. I think that logically leads one to believe that something like a bipartisan compromise proposal that's already passed through the Senate is at least a live option on the floor of the House of Representatives. Right? It's at least an available option.
You know that that option is no longer available when the Speaker of the House comes to the White House, looks the President of the United States in the eye and says, this is no longer an option. And that's exactly what happened in the meeting that they had last week and that is what has caused the President to consider an alternative proposal.
Q And this will have political effects how for the White House in the fall?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea. That’s not really the consequence --
Q Yes, you do. (Laughter.) I mean, after you did deferred action you saw a definite political reaction after that. When you do this you're going to be engaged in something that is likely to have a political -- certainly you have run some traps on this.
MR. EARNEST: I have no doubt that there are a wide range of political analysts out there who would -- some of whom will say that the President acting on his own to try to reform our broken immigration system -- some will say it makes a lot of good political sense for the President to do so. I'm sure there are some out there who would say that that's not in the best interest of Democrats who are on the ballot in 2014.
The fact of the matter is that's not who the President is listening to. The President is listening to the leaders of the law enforcement community who are saying, we need comprehensive immigration reform now. He’s listening to the leaders of the business community who are saying, if you can fix some of these problems administratively in our immigration system, you should do it because it will be good for our economy and it will create jobs and it will be good for our businesses.
That's who the President is listening to. I'm sure there are plenty of political opinions out there and they’re certainly entitled to them, but that's not what’s guiding the President’s decision.
Q Back to Israel. It's a very delicate, fragile and traumatic time in that country. Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday -- and I quote -- “Hamas will pay.” Is that consistent with the spirit or the intentions as the United States reads them of trying not to escalate or destabilize the situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, the investigation is ongoing. There was some security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the government of Israel as they searched for these young men. The fact is we're still seeking some details about who precisely is responsible for this terrible terroristic act. It is notable that Hamas and their leadership has publicly praised the fact that these kidnappings occurred. So certainly the reaction of the Israeli government to comments like that that we saw from Hamas’s leadership is certainly understandable. But there is also a responsibility that both sides have to exercise restraint and to prevent this one terrible act from leading to a much broader, much more destabilizing situation than has already occurred.
Q Josh, quick one on Iraq. The President at the beginning, a couple weeks ago, announced 300 military advisers to Iraq and vowed at that podium that this would not be mission creep. With the announcement yesterday, we now have 750 U.S. servicemembers either on the ground or on the way. I realize they’re not all training Iraqi soldiers. Some are embassy security, et cetera. But when he starts out saying 300 advisers to Iraq and now you have more than double that either there or going, how is this not starting to become mission creep?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate you asking that question because this does give us an opportunity to be really crystal-clear about what decisions the President is making on this front. The President has been clear and consistent from the very beginning that his top priority when it comes to dealing with the uncertain, unstable security situation in Iraq is the safety and security of American personnel who are in Iraq. And that's why, at the very beginning, the President did announce early on that 275 American servicemen and women would be deployed to Iraq or the region to ensure the safety and security of American personnel there.
What the President and his national security team have determined is that additional military service personnel are required to ensure the success of that safety and security mission. So that's why the President made the decision over the weekend, as was announced yesterday, that 200 additional American service personnel would be deployed to the region to ensure the safety of the embassy, the security of the ability to move from the embassy to the airport, and the security of the airport so that if the security situation deteriorated rapidly that a quick extraction of American personnel could be conducted in a way that ensured their safety and security.
This is wholly and apart separate from the 300 American service personnel that have been sent to Iraq and the region that are working closely with Iraq security forces to assess conditions on the ground, to assess the capability of Iraq security forces, and to offer some advice and assistance to those security forces as they themselves are on the front lines battling ISIL forces.
What has not changed is this President’s view that combat troops will not -- American combat troops will not put boots on the ground in Iraq.
Q A couple quick ones on executive action. You talked a lot about immigration reform. In the Cabinet meeting today, the President said he wants to find creative ways to take more executive action, to go around Congress if they don't act. That includes extending contraception coverage in the wake of the Supreme Court case? It seems like you left the door open yesterday. Is he referring to that -- beyond immigration but also in reaction to Hobby Lobby?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President was most focused on when he made those comments in the Cabinet Room was his top domestic priority, which is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. There are some common-sense things that we have put forward that we stand ready to work with Congress to achieve. This includes things like raising the minimum wage, the investments in the Highway Trust Fund that somebody mentioned a little bit earlier. There are some common-sense things that Congress could do that have traditionally earned bipartisan support. Those two things that I just mentioned have traditionally earned bipartisan support. And we stand ready to work with Congress to make progress on them.
But what the President has in mind -- because we've not seen a lot of action from Congress even on some commonsense things that would be good for our economy -- are additional executive actions that we could take to expand economic opportunity for the middle class. And I anticipate we'll have some more announcements along the lines of those kinds of announcements in the weeks and months ahead.
Q When the Supreme Court affirmed the health care law a couple of years ago, the President again and again went around the country saying the Supreme Court has now spoken, this is the law of the land, let’s move on. But now the Supreme Court makes a decision yesterday he doesn’t like and he leaves the door open to both Congress moving forward on contraception coverage and him taking executive action. And I wonder what’s changed other than the Supreme Court going against him.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the Supreme Court did is they didn’t strike down the Affordable Care Act. They left in place the architecture of that law that has had enormous benefits for the American public, certainly for the 8 million people who signed up for health care coverage at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. They left in place consumer protections that ensure that people can't be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition. They left in place assistance to seniors that has provided -- made it easier for them, less expensive for them to purchase prescription drugs. They’ve left in place consumer protections that allow young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance up to age 26.
What their ruling did indicate is that there is a -- that there are women who are employed by closely held private companies who have articulated a religious objection to ensuring that those women can have access to some forms of contraception. And that limited but important ruling is one that we articulated our disappointment about. But it's one that was described by the statute, and so that's why we are suggesting that Congress should act to address this problem. But if Congress won't act, the President will consider a range of options for addressing this problem.
The fact of the matter is we're still reviewing the decision, we're still reviewing how large the group of people is that's affected by the decision. Once we have determined how large that group is we'll be able to better assess where they live in the country, what sort of health plans they’re covered by, and that will allow us to sort of drill down on what kind of policy solution we can put in place to address this problem.
Q And last one and beyond the policy part of this, does this also now open the door for the White House to make the case the President made in 2012 that, in his words, there was a GOP war on women and that now with the Supreme Court acting in this way there’s a chance for you to do the same in 2014?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as I think as I mentioned to Major, I think a variety of people will draw their own political conclusions here. And what we're focused on, at least at this point, is making sure that women who are employed by closely held private-sector companies have access to the kind of contraceptive coverage that the Institute of Medicine says is important to their health, and that ultimately the President will be defending a core principle, which is that women should be able to make their own decisions about their health care without the interference or objection of their boss.
Q Thanks, Josh. There was an inspector general’s report to HHS today that suggested that the discrepancies -- inconsistencies, as they called them -- 2.6 of 2.9 million on things like citizenship and income information that didn’t match, what the people who were applying for insurance said and what government records said were different. And the suggestion has been that because these inconsistencies cannot seem to be figured out, that there’s millions of people out there who could have their health care jeopardized. What do you know about that? What can you tell us about that?
MR. EARNEST: I know a little bit about that. I think I would encourage you to follow up with HHS, but let me tell you a couple things that I do know. This is an inspector general report that was requested by congressional Republicans almost five months ago. A lot has changed in the last five months when it comes to health care, changed for the better. CMS, who is responsible for implementing this, has been reaching out to these consumers to process the information.
What we're talking about here is individuals who applied for health insurance had to provide a large number of pieces of information -- their name, Social Security number, income levels -- and each of those pieces of information is then verified based on government databases. But to take one example, if you signed up on the website as Chris Jansing to apply for health insurance it may ping some government records that indicate that your first name is actually Christine. That would be what is described by the inspector general as an inconsistency. So additional work needs to be done to make sure that Chris Jansing and Christine Jansing are actually the same person.
So resolving those inconsistencies is important but isn't necessarily complicated and doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of problem with the application that someone has filed.
Q So you're expressing confidence that the vast majority of those inconsistencies can be resolved? Because, again, this report says that they’ve been unable to resolve 2.6 million of the 2.9 million from October through December of 2013.
MR. EARNEST: My point is just that that’s outdated information. That's more than six months ago. And CMS has made tremendous progress in reconciling some of these inconsistencies. In some cases, they are very minor like the example that I just gave. So we are confident that the vast majority of these inconsistencies will be reconciled and will in no way impact an individual’s ability to get the health insurance that they’ve signed up for.
Q How can you say that? What basis can --
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Chris.
Q I'll cede my time.
Q What basis do you have to say there’s been vast improvement? Do you have numbers before you that you can show?
MR. EARNEST: I don't, but you can check with CMS who may be able to provide you some additional information. They’ve been engaged in a process of reaching out to those consumers where these inconsistencies exist. And as I point out, in many cases, these inconsistencies are relatively minor and relatively easy to resolve.
Chris, you want to go ahead?
Q I just wanted to ask you real quickly about what’s going on at the border. As you know, congressional Republicans have been pushing legislation that would stop aid to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras unless they can show that they're taking action to stem the flow of children who are coming into this country. I want to get your reaction to that, and also the kinds of things, whatever read you could give us with the Secretary, as you talked about yesterday -- going there, addressing some of these issues about what kinds of things the administration would like to see those governments do.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there has been a very intensive effort on the part of the United States government to deal with our counterparts in the places that seem to be the source of this growing tide of illegal migration.
Those countries are, of course, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. And what we have seen is that throughout the region, not just here in the United States, but in other countries in the region, have also experienced a spike in the number of individuals seeking to immigrate to those countries. That's an indication that there is a pretty serious problem that has taken root in some of these home countries.
So there are a variety of things that we’ve been engaged on. The first is working with USAID and other government agencies that already have a presence in these countries to try to provide some assistance and stabilize the situation in these countries.
We have security relationships with these countries. We’re trying to leverage those security relationships to try to address what in many communities is a pretty serious public safety problem, that there is rampant violence and little accountability. And that is making people understandably increasingly desperate, and it’s causing them to consider a rather desperate and increasingly dangerous option, which is in some cases to put their children in the hands of a stranger who is making false promises about that child’s ability to enter the United States of America. So we’re working with these countries to try to address this tide at its source.
Q Can you be more specific when you say leveraging those security relationships?
MR. EARNEST: I’d encourage you to check with the State Department. They’ll have all the details on what we’re trying to do there. And I suspect that Secretary Kerry will have an opportunity to talk about some of those programs later today when he’s in Panama, because while he’s in Panama he’s going to be meeting with the leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala and Honduras.
Q May I follow up on that, please?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q Just through Mexico from the source of these illegal immigration kids, and I wonder why you say this rampant violence in Central America, but also in Mexico. Yesterday, for example, there was an incident that the Mexican military killed 22 people, apparently members of an extortion group. So is really Mexico not a source of this illegal immigration, kids crossing the border into the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have not seen is we have not seen a similar spike from children who in recent months have attempted to illegally migrate to this country. But we are -- this administration, the Obama administration remains in close touch with our counterparts in Mexico as the Peña Nieto administration confronts a difficult -- some security challenges in that country as well. There’s an important security relationship that exists between the United States and Mexico. And the President telephoned President Peña Nieto just about 10 days or so ago where they talked about a range of issues including the ongoing security cooperation.
Q But the majority of the guys who are taking the kids and crossing the border are Mexicans, so the Central Americans are paying to the Mexicans to do the illegal crossing. Has the President or the administration talked about that specific issue with the Mexican government?
MR. EARNEST: You’re pointing out what is something that is obvious to anybody who looks at a map, that for kids who are -- or adults who are trying to illegally migrate to the United States with their children from Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador has to travel through Mexico to get to the southwest border with the United States. So there is a role for Mexico to play, and that is one of the reasons that we are coordinating closely with the Peña Nieto government to try to address some of these problems as well.
And again, there are a variety of relationships -- not just between the two Presidents -- but also at the security level as well. So if you have additional questions about that, I’d encourage you to check with either the Department of Homeland Security or with the Department of State.
Let’s see, Mr. Dorning.
Q The Justice Department just struck a plea deal yesterday with BNP Paribas that came up obviously during the President’s trip to France. And it’s a record fine, and today BNP Paribas’s stock went up more than it’s gone up in a year. It was up like 4 percent after they issued a big dividend the day after the fine. A few months back, a similar deal with Credit Suisse -- stock shoots up right after the plea deal. Is the President at all concerned about this, or if the banks are getting off easy in these plea deals?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, I would encourage you to direct your question at the Department of Justice simply because they have a law enforcement responsibility that they're carrying out. And they're doing so free from influence by anybody here at the White House. So I don't want to wade into Monday morning quarterbacking any of the decisions that have been made by career prosecutors over the Department of Justice.
They have a very important role to fulfill in terms of enforcing our law. And certainly when it comes to enforcing regulations that are critical to the stability of not just the U.S. economy, but to the global economy, they have very important work that crosses their desk on a regular basis. So for questions about the important work that they're conducting, I’d encourage you to contact the Department of Justice.
Q Josh, how long did it take for the President to make the decision to go to -- plan to take action on immigration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you heard him say in the Rose Garden that he does not anticipate that it will take him long, that he’s going -- that he’s asked the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to conduct this review. He expects them to have this review done before the end of the summer. And I do anticipate that you can expect the President will act on those recommendations quickly.
Q That's what I’m saying. How long did it take for him? What was the timeline for him to say, okay, this is what we’re intending -- or a strong possibility were it to happen? Was it a hard decision to come up to yesterday to make this announcement?
MR. EARNEST: I think it was -- I guess I would describe it to you Rachel -- April. I don't know why I called you Rachel.
Q Don't worry about it. It happens all the time.
MR. EARNEST: Maybe I was thinking of Ryan. I don't know. April, it was not a complicated decision. And it’s simply because of what I was describing to Major a little bit earlier -- the Speaker of the House made it crystal-clear that House Republicans were going to continue to block commonsense legislation in the House of Representatives. That meant that the President was left with no other option for trying to address what is a very serious problem.
So that is why he made the decision once it was acknowledged by the person who is in charge of the floor of the House of Representatives that compromise legislation would not be on the floor of the House of Representatives before the end of the year. So the President is going to charge ahead.
And he has indicated on a number of occasions that he’s willing to work with Congress where we can. But if Congress is not going to do anything, the President is not going to just sit around twiddling his thumbs. He’s actually going to move forward with executive action to try to solve some problems.
That's, after all, why he ran for this office. That's why the American people elected him to this office.
Q What I’m trying to get at is how long has plan B been in the works or on the table? How long have you been thinking that this could be a possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that this specific opportunity presented itself just a week ago when the Speaker and the President had this conversation.
But I would imagine it’s been in the back of the mind of the President and other members of his senior team here for a while -- because, again, the Senate acted a year ago to pass a piece of legislation that enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Fourteen Republican Senators voted for it. You saw leaders in the law enforcement and faith communities. These are leaders of communities that aren’t traditionally a base of support for the President politically, but yet they came forward in support of a piece of legislation that the President himself has championed. So there is broad support for moving forward to address some of these problems.
It’s unfortunate that Congress won’t act, that House Republicans are preventing Congress from acting to address some of these problems. But the President is not going to sit around and wait for Congress. He’s going to do everything that he possibly can to address as many of these problems as he can.
Q And last question on this. As you say, there’s broad support for him to take this action. Is there a concern, or has there been a concern about Republican retaliation as some are saying they're working to build a case?
MR. EARNEST: What, that they might sue him? (Laughter.)
Q Yes, again. Again. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, they already did that -- they announced they were doing that last week. So the prospect that Republicans might do even more to try to obstruct the President’s agenda I think is a little far-fetched. It seems to me they have tried every single thing that they can think of already to block progress for this country. So the fact that they might do more is not something we spend that much time worrying about.
Q Friday’s ceremony -- are these DREAMers, or are they legal residents that are taking advantage of the longstanding fast track to citizenship if you’re in the military?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. I don't know the background of each of the individuals who’s participating in that ceremony. But before Friday, we’ll get you some more information on that.
Q And another question about today’s event, which is amazing nobody has asked yet, but about infrastructure, this isn’t the first time the President has gone out and said we should fund infrastructure by closing loopholes.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q Has anything changed to make you think that's more likely? And also, can you just give us an update on where you think the Highway Trust Fund standoff is?
MR. EARNEST: I think the thing that's changed is we’ve gotten a few weeks closer to the deadline, and there is a sense of urgency on the part of this administration for making sure that we don't allow the trust fund to expire. So we’re going to continue working with Congress. The President has put forward a very specific plan for how he thinks we should do this. It’s a plan that makes policy sense. It’s a plan that should be in line with the expectations and philosophy of even Republicans who would understand that important investments in infrastructure has broad benefits for the economy and is critical to the success of our business community. And so the President is hopeful that Congress will take action on that.
I don't have any specific updates in terms of conversations that they’ve had about this recently.
Q Is there an executive action plan B on this? The Highway Trust Fund expires. Can he do anything, or is this totally up to Congress?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding -- I’m not an attorney so I could be proved wrong -- but it’s my understanding that this is something that would require congressional action in order to make sure that the necessary funds are in the trust fund.
Q So on this one there’s nothing he can do?
MR. EARNEST: That's my understanding. But that's certainly why the stakes are pretty high for Congress at this point.
Cheryl, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Before the Cabinet meeting this morning, the President was talking about making government more customer-friendly. What was he talking about? What are you doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at the Office of Management and Budget have been engaged in a management agenda, and looking for ways that we can streamline the operation of government to ensure that taxpayers have the kind of government that they can expect and is up to their standards.
So there are a wide range of things that the government is doing that this administration is advancing to make government more efficient, to make it more customer-friendly. The most commonly cited example of this is the President’s commitment to IT procurement reform. This is a problem in the government that was highlighted by the failed rollout of the affordable -- of the Healthcare.gov website. So that's just one example of making sure that we are taking necessary steps availing ourselves of recent breakthroughs in technology to make the government as customer-friendly as possible, and that the American people can have access to all of the services and benefits that are available to them through the federal government.
Q Can I follow on one question about Israel?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Connie. I’ll give you the last one.
Q Okay, thank you. Actually, two questions. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Why don't you pick the best one?
Q All right. Okay, then I’ll do anti-Semitism. There’s been a rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Christian attitudes around the world. The President referred to anti-Semitism yesterday. Do you have any suggestions how to counter this? And do you have any thoughts on this movement by some churches to divest from businesses who do business with Israel?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard much about the divestment movement from churches. I would say that the regular urgings of the Obama administration of the political leadership in Iraq I think is indicative of our approach; that it’s the President’s view that lapsing back into accepted sectarian divisions is not a recipe for success; that particularly when it comes to Iraq, we’re going to need the political leadership of that country to put the interest of the country first, and not to fall back into old habits that highlight sectarian divisions but actually seek to rise above those divisions, place the interests of the country first. That will ensure that the nation can be united as they confront this grave threat that's posed by ISIL.
Q -- anti-Semitism and anti-Christian attitudes in Africa, Europe, other parts of the world.
MR. EARNEST: Well, my point is that the President’s approach to dealing with these kinds of challenges is strongly encouraging political leadership in countries around the world to pursue an inclusive agenda and to respect basic human rights. And this is a message that the President has communicated as he’s traveled across the globe. Whether it’s in China or in other nations of the world, he’s been very clear that human rights is on the agenda and that pursuing a political agenda in countries around the world that is inclusive and reflective of that country’s citizenry is important to the success of that country. That is certainly an area where the President himself tries to lead by example.
Thanks very much, everybody.
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