Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/2/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for corrections marked with asterisks.
12:48 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I have a couple of announcements before we get started.
The first is: The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the heinous murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Hussein Abu Khudair. We send our condolences to his family and to the Palestinian people. We note that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called upon law enforcement authorities to work as quickly as possible to identify the perpetrators and motives behind this heinous act and we hope to swiftly see the guilty parties brought to justice.
We call on the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to take all necessary steps to prevent an atmosphere of revenge and retribution. People who undertake acts of vengeance will only destabilize an already volatile and emotional situation.
The second thing I wanted to mention at the top is this morning the President telephoned King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia. You’ll note that on previous occasions early in the Ramadan season the President has offered his best wishes to the King. We'll have a more formal readout of that call a little later today.
And then, finally, I wanted to discuss with you a report that was issued by our Council of Economic Advisers this morning. And I think we have a little graphic on this that we'll put up.
The CEA released a report showing the economic and health benefits of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. To date, 26 states have chosen to do the right thing by expanding coverage, and in those states 5.2 million Americans have gained access to affordable health care through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, all at no cost to those states -- no cost this year, no cost next year, and no cost the year after that. In the years beyond it will cost those states no more than 10 percent of the total tab of providing this kind of care. That's why governors of both parties across the country decided to put their people ahead of politics and expand Medicaid in their states.
With today’s report, we can see the opportunities that other states are missing. For example, if the remaining 24 states expanded Medicaid, 5.7 million Americans -- I'm sorry -- 5.7 fewer Americans would be uninsured. Did I say that right -- 5.7 million fewer Americans would be uninsured; 800,000 fewer people would have to borrow money to pay bills or skip a payment entirely in order to pay medical bills; 650,000 more people would receive all the care they feel they need in a typical year. And, notably, 85,000 more jobs would have been created in 2014 alone.
So some governors and state legislatures in the 24 states that have blocked Medicaid expansion face a central, consequential decision: They can either score short-term political points by continuing to attack the Affordable Care Act and block the expansion of Medicaid, or they can boost their state’s economy, save their state’s taxpayer money and ensure that thousands of their citizens have access to quality, affordable health care.
As today’s report shows, it shouldn’t be a very difficult choice. And we hope the remaining states will take action without delay to expand these benefits to their state and their citizens.
So with that long windup, Julie, do you want to get us started with questions?
Q Thanks. I want to go back to the situation in the Middle East. Is it the U.S.’s assessment that the death of this Palestinian teenager was the result of an act of revenge or retaliation for the deaths of the Israeli teens?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. This investigation is still ongoing, so I wouldn't want to get ahead of the investigation that's currently being conducted by law enforcement authorities over there. We are certainly interested in the details they uncover about who exactly is responsible for this despicable act.
Q But typically, you wouldn't -- I don't want to minimize this teenager’s death, but typically the U.S. wouldn't put out statements from the White House or Secretary Kerry on just an isolated murder of a teenager. So I'm wondering if you have an assessment that this is, in fact, related to what we've seen with the Israeli teens.
MR. EARNEST: We don't have an assessment yet because there is an ongoing investigation, so I wouldn't want to get ahead of it. But you heard me -- when asked about this yesterday, I expressed our concern that this is a very volatile situation that could devolve into a more violent and destabilizing environment. And that is something that we want to prevent. It certainly is in the interests of both sides, both the Palestinians and the Israelis, to prevent. It's in neither of their best interests.
I would note that there continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, and I certainly want to -- the United States certainly would encourage both sides to remain engaged in that cooperation. I would also point out that we’ve also seen statements from people like Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said earlier today that people should not take the law into their own hands. So we want to see both sides acting responsibly to this situation to ensure that it doesn’t spiral out of control and lead to even further tragic violence.
Q Has President Obama reached out to Netanyahu or Abbas? And does he have any plans to do that if he hasn’t already?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any calls to read out at this point, or any calls to give you an indication that we’re planning -- but as we consider calls like that, we always have a discussion about whether to read them out and if we’re in a position to do so, I’ll make sure that you guys are informed.
Q If I could switch over to the meeting with economists today. This is the second such meeting that the President has had in the last couple of weeks, and I’m wondering if his goal in these meetings is to get ideas for short-term executive actions that he can take, or is he looking for sort of their take on broader trends, more historical data?
MR. EARNEST: The top item on the President’s domestic policymaking agenda is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. And this President has put forward a large number of ideas that would demonstrably improve the ability of middle-class families to make ends meet, to succeed and to pursue the American Dream, and to do the kinds of things that we want middle-class families to be able to do -- to save money for a house, to save to send their kids to college, and to save money for retirement.
So the President has put forward a lot of ideas, many of which have been blocked by Republicans in Congress, unfortunately. The President is also interested in having an ongoing conversation and he is willing to consider new ideas that others may have for accomplishing this goal of expanding economic opportunity for everybody in America.
And so the President is having lunch today where I think he’ll have a pretty open-ended conversation about what trends they’re seeing in the broader economy and ideas they have for policies that could capitalize on those trends to benefit middle-class families here in this country.
Q Josh, following up on that, was this the first time the President has seen or spoken to Ben Bernanke since he stepped down from being Fed chair?
MR. EARNEST: That is a good question. I don’t recall off the top of my head a previous conversation between them so that may, in fact, be the case.
Q And aside from sort of the general middle-class themes that you just discussed with Julie, can you tell us a little bit more about what specifically they are or did discuss?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that they are having that lunch right now. We will see if we can get you a little bit of a readout of that lunch. I can’t guarantee that we will. But this is an opportunity for the President to hear from them. These are people who come from a variety of perspectives who aren’t constrained by politics in terms of their thinking and the President is interested in tapping into some of these new ideas that, in addition to the ideas that he’s already put forward, have the potential to benefit middle-class families all across the country. And I expect it to be the kind of conversation that the President looks forward to. There’s a reason we’re doing it twice in two weeks.
Q And then two other quick topics. On the Abdullah call, did the President raise the subject of oil supplies on that call?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have a more formal readout of that call later today. I haven’t gotten a full download, to be candid with you, about all of the topics that were covered in that phone call.
Q And then, lastly, what was the President’s reaction to the World Cup yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. Some of you who were in the pool yesterday had the opportunity to see the President display his excitement about the performance of the American soccer team. I think we can all agree that while the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for, that the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team gave us all another reason to be proud to be American. Their performance on the field was terrific. And the United States doesn’t have the long-established reputation that so many other countries do when it comes to soccer, but I think they performed admirably.
The one thing that I will say is -- and somebody raised this in a meeting that I was at earlier today -- that it’s not too hard to imagine that maybe in 2030, for example, there might be a U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team that comes to the White House to celebrate an achievement of some kind. And I suspect that when you’re talking to those players, that they may harken back to being 8 or 10 or 12 years old and having watched the 2014 men’s national team and that they’ll remember the performance of people like Tim Howard and Julian Green and Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi -- that these players who performed so well this year served as an inspiration to the next generation of American soccer players. And while the final score wasn’t exactly what they were hoping for, having the opportunity to inspire the next generation of American footballers is quite a legacy and it’s one they should be proud of.
Q Thanks. I wanted to go back to the economists, not surprisingly. So you had said that they aren’t constrained by politics. But it is interesting that they’re all kind of on the conservative-leaning side, if you look at them as a group, and I'm wondering was that by design. Is the President trying to send a signal to Republicans in Congress that he’s talking to economists who may share more of a philosophy with him, or is it just a total coincidence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not a coincidence, but I think it’s a little different than what you’re hinting at. The fact is many of the ideas that we’ve already put forward are the kinds of things that have traditionally earned Republican support, but yet they have been, time and again, blocked by Republicans.
Just two examples of that -- the first is increasing the minimum wage. That’s something -- the last minimum wage increase was signed into law by President George W. Bush, but yet we’ve seen House Republicans in particular block and indicate their strong opposition to increasing the minimum wage.
Traditionally, investments in our infrastructure have been strongly supported by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. And the President has put forward a number of proposals to increase funding and increase investment for our nation’s infrastructure, and Republicans have opposed them.
So this is less about convincing -- or putting forward the kinds of ideas that should appeal to Republicans. We’ve already done that and they’ve repeatedly blocked them. I think what the President is interested in is making sure that he is consulting a wide variety of perspectives. There are going to be people on both sides of the aisle that have good ideas, and there are going to be people in the academic field of economics who are going to have good suggestions for creative policy ideas that can move our economy forward. And the President wants to make sure that he is consulting a wide variety of experts and people who come at this from a wide variety of perspectives to have an intellectual discussion with them about some of their ideas.
And again, some of this is not just about the policy ideas they may have; some of this is also about identifying some broader trends in the economy and looking for ways that we can capitalize on those trends by making key investments. One example of this would be in the field of technology. There are a lot of advancements and innovations in the field of technology that have much broader implications for our economy. And so the question is, can we capitalize on one of the consequences of these rapid changes in a way that leads to a significant economic benefit for middle-class families and small business owners all across the country.
Q In journalism, usually it takes three to make a trend; this is two. Are we going to see this in a couple of weeks -- will we see these economist lunches continuing at least through Labor Day? Should we expect a lot more of these?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of another one that’s on the schedule right now, but if we add one to the schedule we’ll let you know. But the thing I would want -- the impression I would want to leave you with, though, is that the President is having these kinds of conversations on a pretty regular basis. And whether it is a formal lunch with a group of economists, or somebody else who happens to be on the other end of the phone with the President, or somebody who comes into the Oval Office for a meeting, or somebody that the President meets on the road when he’s traveling, he’s ready to hear from people from outside of Washington, D.C. or outside of the sort of traditional policymaking sphere for their ideas about what we can do to expand economic opportunity for the middle class.
Q And I if I could -- sorry, a quick one -- the President -- I always get this acronym wrong -- the presidential daily briefing is on the schedule for the very end of the day, which seems highly unusual. I’m just wondering, is that like a new thing? Are you going to go through the entire day before he knows what he needs to know? Or what’s the reasoning for the timing today? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I think it’s for a pretty unexciting scheduling reason, which is that the President telephoned King Abdullah this morning during the time in which he’d ordinarily do the PDB. So they moved the PDB to the afternoon.
Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about the crisis along the border. As you know, busloads of migrant families, children, were blocked from entering detention centers in southern California and re-routed due to protestors. So a couple of questions -- what was the President’s reaction? Was that something that you were anticipating? Was that something that you had any sense could happen? Was he surprised?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about those news reports. What I would say is that what the President has directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to do -- and he’s asked for funding from Congress to make sure that we can maximize this -- is to increase the amount of resources that is dedicated to dealing with the surge in illegal migration that we’ve seen at the southwest border.
And so this means adding immigration judges, asylum officials, ISE attorneys and prosecutors, and bringing online additional facilities where those who are detained at the border can be held in humane conditions; they can be processed rapidly and efficiently through our immigration system. And if it’s determined through that process that there is no legal basis for them to remain in the country, the President would like to have the resources available and for the Secretary of Homeland Security to have the discretion to act quickly to repatriate them.
Q What happened yesterday in Southern California, what’s continuing to happen, is that causing the administration to even further reassess its strategy in terms of dealing with what’s happening?
MR. EARNEST: No, not at this point. At this point, what we’re focused on is making sure that we can ramp up the resources that are necessary to meet this growing need. And, again, this is about balancing our responsibility to treat in a humane way those who are attempting to enter this country, but also sending a clear signal to everybody inside this country and to people in other countries who might be contemplating making the very dangerous trip to our southwestern border that the law will be enforced. And that’s exactly what’s happening.
Q Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday in traveling to the region said that the administration would be working with governments in Central America to deal with some of the root causes -- there are a lot of root causes, obviously -- but including poverty and violence. Can you put any meat on that? What, specifically, is the administration planning to do? And is there anything that can be done that could help immediately?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there are some things that can be done that the State Department has been working on. I’d encourage you to consult with them for details. There are a number of existing law enforcement relationships between the United States and some of these countries where we may be able to leverage some assistance and resources to help these countries deal with what is a growing violent crime problem.
There are also some USAID programs that are in place to try to meet some of the needs of the basic day-to-day needs of some of these populations to make sure that they’re getting food and access to clean water and some of these other things. So making sure that those resources are ending up in the right place can try to at least reduce some of the desperation that people in these countries are so obviously feeling.
Q And just finally, Josh, some advocacy groups say that this is not an immigration issue; it’s actually a refugee issue -- it’s a refugee crisis. Does the administration see it that way? Is this a refugee crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, the way that we’ve described it is it’s a humanitarian situation that requires urgent attention. And that’s why you’ve seen the surge of resources there to make sure that housing facilities can come online so that they can be detained in humane conditions, but also surging enforcement resources there so that while those who are detained are subject to due process, that this immigration process can move efficiently and a determination can be reached about whether or not they have a legal status or a legal claim to remain in the country. And if they do not, we’re seeking the ability of the Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise his discretion about repatriating.
Q And I guess the concern for these groups is that if you repatriate them, you’re sending them back to these situations that are dangerous and, in some cases, deadly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is part of our coordination with the countries that you mentioned. And usually that means Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. There are repatriation centers that the United States can work with host governments to set up to make sure, as you point out, that in some cases these kids aren’t just sent back into a dangerous situation but that they actually have someplace to go where their concerns about their security can at least be addressed.
But there’s no doubt that this is a multifaceted problem that has lots of causes. One of those root causes is misinformation that’s being spread by criminal networks down there that are preying upon people who are in increasingly desperate situations. That’s why the other authority that we’re seeking is greater ability to punish these criminal elements that are preying on desperate people. That is part of solving this problem as well. And again, we want to consider the range of abilities that we have to try to meet this need.
Move around a little bit. Steve.
Q On Iraq -- in recent days, the Iraqi -- a lot of Iraqi government officials have been stepping up calls for the President to launch airstrikes and there’s been an explicit, basically, warning that if the White House doesn’t act, they’ll increasingly turn to Iran for help. I’m wondering why the President hasn’t decided to launch airstrikes yet, and if he’s concerned about us not acting, helping out Iran.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the guiding principle that the President is using as he considers this difficult situation in Iraq is focused on the best interests of American national security. And what the President has said is that deploying significant American military resources to try to stabilize the security situation in Iraq will only be successful if that is accompanied by legitimate efforts by the Iraqi political leadership to form an inclusive government that pursues an inclusive governing agenda.
And that is why you’ve seen senior members of this administration in regular touch with Iraq’s political leaders to encourage them to act urgently to form a government that actually is inclusive. As a part of that effort, the Vice President today called Osama Nujaifi, who served as the Speaker of the previous session of Iraq’s Council of Representatives. In that telephone call, the President -- or the Vice President -- excuse me -- expressed the United States’ strong support for Iraq in the fight against ISIL and concern for those Iraqis affected by the current crisis. The two agreed on the importance of Iraqis moving expeditiously to form a new government capable of uniting the country.
So we’re engaged in a sustained effort to push all of Iraq’s political leaders to come together, to move expeditiously to form a new, inclusive government, because what will be required to meet the existential threat that’s posed by ISIL is a united Iraq in which all of the citizens of Iraq feel a stake in that country’s future.
Q Is the message to Iraq’s leaders right now that if they want U.S. airstrikes that they have to follow through and form that unity government and change how they act before the President will act?
MR. EARNEST: I think the message might be slightly more direct, which is that if Iraq intends to successfully confront the threat posed by ISIL, it will require a united Iraq to do so. And the nation of Iraq will only be united if there is a unified government that is representative of Iraq’s diverse population. And that is what will be required for success. The United States will stand with the people of Iraq as they pursue an inclusive government like that, but they won’t be successful if they don’t pursue that kind of inclusive governing agenda.
Q -- threat from Iran, the idea -- there are a lot of folks in Congress as well who are worried that Iran is going to step into the breach, gain more of a foothold in Iraq, if we don’t act soon.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said about that is that anyone who seeks to exacerbate the sectarian tensions that are already manifest there will be acting counterproductively. And when I say counterproductively, I mean against the interests of the nation of Iraq, but also against the interests of other nations in the region -- that an Iraq that’s torn apart along sectarian divisions is going to have a destabilizing impact on countries all across the region.
And it’s because of that analysis that it is our view -- and I think it’s been a view that’s been expressed by others outside the administration as well -- that it’s in the interest of Iran for Iraq to come together to confront this threat; that a destabilized Iraq, again, that is divided along sectarian lines, is not the kind of neighbor that Iran wants.
So I’ll let the government of Iran speak to their own motivations and their own decisions that they make about the application of their military might. But I think any clear-eyed assessment of the situation leads one to conclude that Iraq needs to come together to confront this threat, and that doing so is in the interests not just of Iraq but of nations around the world.
Do you want to follow up?
Q Yes, I do. On the Biden call, did the Vice President have any specific suggestions about how to form a government, who should be leading that government?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details to read out other than what I just gave you there. But it is the view of this administration that Iraq’s political leaders need to put the interests of the country first, and that we can’t be in a situation where the United States is dictating to the Iraqi people or even to Iraq’s political leadership who should be in charge or who should be getting which positions.
What they should be working to do, what Iraq’s political leaders should be working to do, is to form the kind of diverse government that will actually reflect the will and aspirations of the Iraqi people. There was a significant turnout for Iraq elections recently, and it’s --
Q The Vice President is calling powerbrokers within Baghdad, so it would stand to reason that they’re talking specifics about how the government should be formed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it stands to reason that he’s talking to people who might have some influence over the ability of Iraq’s political leaders to come together and make the formation of an inclusive government a priority. And that is the clear message that the Vice President is sending, both privately and publicly.
Q Okay. And then finally, you and various officials including the President have described what’s happening in Iraq as an existential threat to Iraq. But yet you’re insisting that the government form more inclusively before U.S. aid -- more U.S. aid is forthcoming. Would the President allow Baghdad to fall in the absence of a new government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a hypothetical that I’m not sure I would entertain from here. I think that our principal concern when it comes to dealing with the situation is ensuring the safety and security of American personnel in Iraq. And there’s a substantial number of American personnel in Baghdad and that was the reason for the announcement earlier this week that the President was deploying additional military personnel to ensure both the safety and security of those American personnel and the ability to extract them quickly if necessary.
But in terms of your sort of hypothetical question about what the United States may or may not do if it looks like --
Q ISIS is pressing from the north, they’re pressing from the west, and you’ve described it as an existential threat. It’s something more than hypothetical.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the detailed operational question you’re asking about, the vulnerability of one particular city in Iraq, is one that’s difficult for me to assess. But suffice it to say, the reason that I called it an existential threat is not just because of the security situation on the ground but because of the broader conflict that’s being played out here; that what ISIL is doing is they are perpetrating terrible acts of violence but they’re also trying to play upon these old sectarian divisions in an effort to pull the country apart.
I mentioned yesterday that ISIL is not fighting to take over Iraq; they’re fighting to destroy Iraq. And that’s why it’s important for Iraq’s diverse population to come together. It’s why it’s particularly important for the political leadership to come together to place the interests of that country ahead of their own political ambitions. Because if the country doesn’t unite and does sort of lapse back into these old sectarian divisions, that is only going to create an environment in which it’s easier for ISIL to succeed. To defeat ISIL and to defeat the threat that they pose, Iraq’s Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations are going to need to come together and stand up to efforts by ISIL or any other extremist organization that wants to play upon sectarian divisions that only pull the country apart.
Q As of Monday, the President authorized a sum total of about 770 U.S. servicemembers into Iraq in various capacities, including combat role -- prepared for combat roles if necessary. Is there a sunset on how long they’ll be there, or are they going to be there indefinitely? And also, is there a ceiling at which the President won’t continue to add more troops? I mean, obviously, clearly the ones in the security -- if the security situation continues to deteriorate -- he obviously decided he needed to send in an additional 200 on Monday -- would he expand that number to another 770?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I understand why you would do the math and the way in which you did, but I think the details here are really important. What the President has done is he has sent in some military personnel in two different stages, totaling a little under 500 troops that are specifically focused on ensuring the security and safety of American personnel in Baghdad. That is their core mission. The President has said that his top priority is to ensure the safety and security of American personnel in that country. And the President is satisfied that, based on the military deployments that have occurred so far, those two, that at this point, as of today, that we can adequately account for their safety and security.
Separate from that, the President has indicated a willingness to deploy up to 300 military personnel to work closely with Iraq security forces to help them assess the conditions on the ground and also to assess the capability of Iraq security forces. And that assessment is ongoing, but it’s important to also differentiate that assessment and advisory team from troops that would have a direct combat role. The President has essentially ruled out a direct combat role for American military forces.
Q Even with that tranche of troops, that’s slightly fewer than 500 -- the President is reserving the right to send in more if needed, A; and B, just judging by your comments before, that there’s no window by which -- or there’s no timeframe right now that the President is envisioning for them to be pulled out, that years from now that they could still be there if the security situation in Baghdad is still the way it is now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what we’re seeing is a pretty rapidly changing, dynamic environment, so I wouldn’t want to speculate about what might happen years from now. But suffice it to say the President will do what’s required to ensure the safety and security of American personnel in Baghdad. But that is separate from any military effort that may be underway to advise and assist Iraq security forces.
Q Josh, back to the economists. The President said earlier -- well, in late June, that he intended to have TPP ready by November. Is part of the conversation today to enlist these economists to support congressional approval of TPP once it arrives?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t want to prejudge a conversation that’s still ongoing. But the --
Q It’s not on the President’s agenda?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President is much more focused on is -- this meeting is not about securing their political support for a range of economic ideas. This is a meeting that’s about hearing from them, based on their observations of the economy, ideas they may have for moving this country forward and expanding opportunity for the middle class. This is an opportunity for the President to hear from them their ideas and maybe even some new ideas that the President hadn’t previously considered that would do really good things for the economy.
This isn’t really a meeting to build political or legislative support for one proposal or another.
Q There were quite a few free traders among those economists there today.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with the position on trade that each of these economists has adopted. But again, this is not really about legislative strategy. This is more about hearing from experts on the economy about what we can do to expand opportunity for the middle class.
Q I guess when we see the list of economists from TPP we'll compare and contrast.
MR. EARNEST: You’re certainly free to do that.
Q On Ukraine, what is the administration’s position on the President’s decision to end the cease-fire and to carry out, in his words, a forceful effort to liberate cities from Russian-inspired or backed separatist groups?
MR. EARNEST: It’s unfortunate that Russian-supported separatists did not abide by the cease-fire or provide the kinds of assurances that would have enabled President Poroshenko to extend the cease-fire. A unilateral cease-fire doesn’t work, at least as a prolonged strategy. Unfortunately, in this case, it only fueled separatist violence and allowed the separatists to make further advances.
So over the cease-fire’s 10 days we saw numerous incidents of separatist violence and takeovers of border posts, even as the government of Ukraine, at the direction of President Poroshenko, demonstrated restraint and remarkable patience.
So we respect the Ukrainian government’s decision and its responsibility to maintain public order in their country and to protect the population. And we commend President Poroshenko’s ongoing efforts to pursue decentralization, constitutional reform, and outreach to the eastern part of the country.
The one thing that’s not written down here that I’d also relay is that President Poroshenko has not said that he would no longer consider a cease-fire. If the separatists are willing to lay down their arms, President Poroshenko is willing to reinstate the cease-fire. What he’s doing is he’s saying that they’re no longer going to abide by a unilateral cease-fire that essentially caused Ukrainian troops to withdraw or at least not fire back, even when fired upon. So that’s the key difference. And I think any reasonable assessment of the situation there would provide some understanding and some insight into why President Poroshenko made the decision that he did.
Q What is the White House’s message to Putin as he considers his options now?
MR. EARNEST: I think our message is not dissimilar from one that you’ve heard before, which is that we and our European and international partners continue to press President Putin and Russia to end all support and weapons flowing to separatists; to do more to control the border; to call on separatists to lay down their arms, to return the border checkpoints that they hold, and to release all their remaining hostages. Conciliatory remarks from Russian officials, including from President Putin, are nothing but doubletalk if Russia continues to support armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, including through the provision of heavy weapons.
So you’ve heard me say before that we welcome the encouraging works from Russian officials, but what we really need to see is concrete action to deescalate the conflict.
Q Governor Perry has invited the President to come to the border when he goes to Texas next week. You made it clear yesterday that’s not currently contemplated. Why not? And are you really going to be comfortable with a situation where the President of the United States, with this ongoing humanitarian crisis and significant policy issue that is alarming people not only in Texas but obviously now in places where you’re trying to take these unaccompanied kids -- are you comfortable with the optics of the President going for fundraisers only and not taking an eyeball look himself on the border?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to have more details about the President’s travel to Texas and it will include some activities other than just building some support for Democratic candidates for office who are on the ballot in November.
The President’s travel to the border both as a presidential candidate and as President -- this President is obviously very attuned to what’s happening at the border. Senior administration officials, including the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of HHS, and even Cecilia Muñoz, who works here in the West Wing, have recently traveled to the border region to see firsthand the situation there. I know that that group in particular -- Secretary Johnson, Secretary Burwell and Ms. Muñoz spent some time at Lackland Air Force Base, the facility that HHS is operating there to provide a humanitarian way to detain individuals who have been apprehended at the border.
So this is something that the administration is paying very close attention to. The President is getting regular updates on this situation.
I think the last thing that I would say is those individuals who are concerned about border security and concerned about this situation at the border, that the most important thing they could do is not offer public invitations but actually to lend their public support to comprehensive immigration reform. Those people who are focused on border security understand that passing comprehensive immigration reform would allow for a historic investment in our borders. And that’s one of the many reasons that the President has strongly advocated for Congress to make progress on that.
Now, unfortunately, we’ve seen that House Republicans have probably effectively killed that for the year, but the President is going to do what he can to try to mitigate some of the impact of our broken immigration system. And one of the things that the President ordered earlier this week is DHS to move some of the resources that are currently deployed in the interior along the border to try to meet the need that we’re seeing there.
Q Just to make sure, the President still has no plans to go to the border, that’s what you’re telling us?
MR. EARNEST: That’s the continued plan, but schedules sometimes change and if they do, we’ll let you know. But right now, there is no plan to visit the border while he’s in Texas.
Q -- probably won’t --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t rule it out until the day of, but our focus at this point is to plan to do something else.
Q Continuing on that if we could for just a minute. Besides the ugliness and the rancor that happened at Murrieta yesterday, there are some people there who are genuinely concerned that their towns are not able to handle the influx, and concerned about their health. There was a quote yesterday from one of the people there -- “We don’t want your unhealthy people coming here, making my family sick.” What is the government, A, doing to make sure that isn’t happening, that the people who are coming across are, in fact, being screened for diseases? And, B, what is the government doing to help out towns like McCallum and others who are bearing the immediate brunt of this overwhelming flood of people coming?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for details about exactly the kinds of screenings and other processing that’s involved with individuals who have been detained at the border, I’d encourage you to check with DHS. I’ll point out that the law does require that the federal government treat these individuals in a humane way, and that’s why FEMA has been coordinating the resources of, in some cases, the Department of Defense -- I mentioned that there’s a facility at Lackland -- resources at HHS, who is responsible for managing these facilities, and DHS, to ensure that we’re providing a humanitarian way to detain these individuals. So there is a plan for dealing with those kinds of contingencies.
More broadly, the President has over the weekend indicated his desire to seek greater funding from Congress so that we can devote more resources to dealing with this problem at our border. And that’s certainly the kind of assistance that would benefit communities like McCallum that are working very hard to deal with the consequences of this surge that we’ve seen.
Q And then if I could just ask you about yesterday. The President at Key Bridge called upon -- again, was trying to -- in saying that he must go around Congress, calling upon the public in general to be on his side and pressure Congress to work for more funding for infrastructure. He has frequently done that and is doing that again. Is the White House concerned, is the President concerned that with now his poll numbers so low, with less and less support -- in fact, today a new poll saying that he may be the most unpopular President since World War II -- is he worried that he is still able to do that? Does he still have the chops to call on the public to back him?
MR. EARNEST: There is no doubt that the President has the leadership and stature necessary to call upon the American public to rally around the kinds of ideas that are in the best interests of the country. The President is going to continue to do that. And what’s important to remember here is it’s not just the power of the presidency; it’s the power of these ideas that have the potential to significantly benefit our economy broadly, but also middle-class families more specifically.
It’s also indicative of the power that’s wielded by citizens all across this country that they do have within them, based on our system of government, the ability to bring pressure on their elected representatives to actually act in the best interest of the country. And the President -- whether it’s common-sense measures that would make it harder for an individual who shouldn’t have a gun to get one, or common-sense measures that would address some of the problems of our broken immigration system -- that ultimately getting these kinds of changes through Congress are going to require the active engagement of citizens.
And the President, as recently as his commencement address at the University of California Irvine, talked about the important role that citizens have to play in our democracy; that our democracy is not just about politics and politicians, it ultimately is about the needs and desires and engagement of our citizens. And I think you’re going to hear the President talk more about this as he tries to motivate and mobilize Americans in support of a set of policies that aren’t inherently partisan -- rather, these are policies that are inherently in the best interest of our economy.
And that’s why we should see Democrats and Republicans in Congress coming together to support them in the same way that we’re seeing Democrats and Republicans across the country come together in support of these ideas. We’ve seen Democrats and Republicans indicate across the country -- not in Congress, but across the country -- indicate their support for raising the minimum wage. You’ve heard me say many times, probably too many times, Democrats and Republicans all across the country outside of Congress have come together in support of common-sense immigration reform. We need to see that kind of common-sense bipartisanship that exists in communities all across the country actually manifest itself inside the hall of Congress. If we did, the country would be in a better place.
Q So is the White House aware of there being confirmed cases of swine flu among these undocumented -- I mean, sorry, unaccompanied minors? And how big a concern is that for the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that, but that is -- for questions about that I’d encourage you to check with DHS and HHS.
Q How big a concern is that for the White House that something like that could be present, and whether -- most importantly, whether the resources are even there at this point to deal with something like that?
MR. EARNEST: There are significant resources that are being applied to deal with the wide range of challenges that have been posed by this surge that we’ve seen at the southwest border, and that includes resources from HHS, resources from the Department of Homeland Security, and even resources from FEMA that are mobilized to deal with this effort both in terms of ensuring that we are providing the basic humanitarian needs that are required for these individuals, but also making sure that we have the resources to enforce the law.
We’re going to do both of those things. And we certainly do all of that, mindful of the impact that this is having on local communities along the border. And we certainly, in terms of the federal government, want to make sure that we’re applying these resources in a way that reflects the needs of those populations as well.
Q Do you feel that the resources -- is the situation prepared enough to handle something like that? If several cases were -- or there was a need for some kind of quarantine or something like that, I mean, you feel that the preparation is already there?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’re jumping ahead to a hypothetical. What I can tell you is that --
Q That’s what preparation is.
MR. EARNEST: Sure, and that’s why we’ve applied significant resources to address this problem, and it’s why the President has asked for additional funding to make sure that we have the resources on hand to deal with it. And again, we’ve seen both Democrats and Republicans speak out about their concerns about this situation. Hopefully we’ll see Democrats and Republicans lining up together to support legislation that would make sure we have the resources available to deal with the situation.
Q On the middle-class issues and equal pay for equal work -- whenever these numbers come out concerning the White House, it keeps coming up repeatedly that the metric that the White House cites for there being a gap nationwide is also there at the White House, and that the White House’s response is continually that you --
MR. EARNEST: Well, just as a factual point, before you continue on this -- the statistic that’s cited about the country is about 77 cents on the dollar, and here at the White House it’s 88 cents on the dollar. So the White House is doing appreciably better than the country is more broadly, but we still have more work to do at the White House. There are a lot of ways to evaluate pay equity.
Q But the White House response, of course, is when you look at the number for equal pay for equal work, which should be at the heart of this, it is equal. So do you think that that comparison then is one that should be made using the averages, whether you apply it to the country as a whole or to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I think that there are a variety of measures to try to get at whether or not workers are receiving equal pay for equal work. You can look at whether individuals who hold the same title make the same salary. That’s certainly the case at the White House. There are a variety of examples of this.
To choose two -- the senior advisor to the President, Dan Pfeiffer, who is a man, is paid the same salary that the President’s senior advisor Valerie Jarrett is paid. So there is equal pay for equal work that is demonstrated here at the White House. I’d point out that of all of the departments here at the White House -- there are 22 **16 different departments -- more than half of them are run by women. So there are women in senior positions who are being paid according -- in line with those senior positions. That’s also another way to sort of evaluate one’s commitment to pay equity.
Let me tell you one last and what I think in some ways might be the most important way that one can demonstrate their commitment to pay equity. There is paycheck fairness legislation that is sitting in Congress right now that’s being balked by Republicans. The President is strongly supportive of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The President has signed an executive order essentially applying the principles of the Paycheck Fairness Act to federal contractors. That’s as much as he can do using his executive authority. He thinks that these rules should apply to workers throughout the private sector. And right now they would apply to workers throughout the private sector if it weren’t being blocked by Republicans.
Q Right, but the question is more specific. If that average doesn’t necessarily represent equal work for equal pay, is it really fair to say that in America, it’s 77 cents to the dollar, female to male?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what I would say is that there are a variety of metrics that can be consulted to evaluate whether or not equal work leads to equal pay. You can cite a statistic like that that would indicate that the country has quite a ways to go in order to ensure pay equity for private sector workers. I think you could use that statistic to indicate that the White House has some improvement to make along that measure as well. But if you consider other measures, like at the White House that people who have the same title make the same amount and that essentially they get equal pay for equal work, there’s no question that that’s the case.
Q Can I follow up?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Wendell, go ahead.
Q The Washington Post report on this story indicated the President really hasn’t made any progress on gender pay equity since his first year in office. So how is it that he is able to be so critical of the private sector and of Republicans for not following in what he would like to call his footsteps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say that, again, for two ways. One is that if you look at the metrics, the White House performs significantly better than the private sector does.
Q But it’s not improving on that metric.
MR. EARNEST: But it’s already a lot better than the private sector. And the question you asked me was how can the President demonstrate that the private sector needs to do better when the White House isn’t doing better. The White House does do better than the private sector does.
Q But it’s not improving.
MR. EARNEST: You’re right that there’s more work that needs to be done. The President remains committed to that work. What we would like to see for people all across the country is we would like to see a Paycheck Fairness Act passed. Right now, that’s being blocked by Republicans. That wouldn’t just guarantee fair pay for people in government, it would guarantee fair pay for workers all across the country.
The other point I think that I want to make that I found particularly persuasive in talking about this issue is that this isn’t just a women’s issue. We’re not just talking about fair pay for women. Many of these women are married and they have husbands who I think are pretty interested in making sure that their spouse is getting paid a fair wage. There are a lot of fathers across the country who are looking at this issue and they certainly want to make sure that their daughters who are showing up to work every day are getting paid a fair wage as well.
So this is a family issue in the eyes of the President. There is no doubt that there is more that we can do to improve our record here at the White House. But when compared to the private sector, our record stands pretty strong.
Q On another issue, for a while after yesterday’s game -- and this was on Wikipedia -- Tim Howard was identified as “Secretary of Defense.” (Laughter.) I don’t know if the White House had anything to do with that. What’s your reaction to the 3,000-plus signatures on the White House blog, “We the People,” calling for Reagan National Airport to be named after Mr. Howard? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I can’t claim credit for that brilliant idea that was manifested on Wikipedia.
Q Any personnel announcements?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any personnel announcements to make. (Laughter.) But I think that even Secretary Hagel would agree with me that Tim Howard demonstrated an ability to repel an opponent’s attacks with remarkable courage and bravery and athleticism yesterday.
Q An Iraq question and a Highway Trust Fund question. On Iraq, you’ve said this message repeatedly and very clearly that in order to succeed they have to form an inclusive government. How would you assess the Maliki’s government response to your repeated requests? Is he rejecting this idea? It doesn’t seem like he’s making any effort to move in that direction.
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now it’s not just up to Prime Minister Maliki. Under the Iraqi constitution there is a process for forming a new government. Certainly, the incumbent Prime Minister, you might call him, will have something to say about how that process moves. And what we are seeking is we’re seeking all of Iraq’s political leaders to assume a leadership role to put the interests of the nation of Iraq ahead of their own political ambition and make sure that there is a government in place that can unify the country in the face of this threat that’s posed by ISIL.
Q What kind of response are you getting from those leaders?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the fact that those leaders met yesterday, that they were urged to act promptly to form a new government but yet they walked away without an agreement is an indication that that process is not off to a good start. They have indicated that they’re going to meet again next week, and we hope that when they do that they will take the advice of not just the Obama administration, but interested countries around the world who are urging them to act quickly and expeditiously to form a government that’s inclusive and that can confront the threat that’s posed by ISIL.
Q On the Highway Trust Fund, I know you’re on record as opposing the gas tax, but there is a bipartisan proposal in the Senate -- Corker and Murphy had this idea of raising the gas tax but making it revenue-neutral so it wouldn’t be a tax hike net. Are you opposed to that idea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we think is the best way for replenishing the Highway Trust Fund is along the lines of the proposal that the President put out that we can close loopholes that benefit the wealthy and well-connected and that would raise ample revenue to replenish the Highway Trust Fund and make the kinds of investments that wouldn’t just benefit those companies that benefit from those tax breaks, but would benefit all Americans. That’s a better use of our funds, of taxpayer funds, and it make good policy sense.
It also is the kind of thing that should earn support from Democrats and Republicans. There’s plenty of reason for small businesses who don’t benefit from many of those tax breaks but would benefit from a wider highway or a new intermodal transportation facility.
Q The deadline is approaching and that idea is not going anywhere. So I’m just wondering, there are alternatives out there and I’m asking about one of them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a specific reaction to the number of proposals that have been floating.
Q Well, just this one proposal, this bipartisan proposal I’m asking about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, we’ll evaluate the proposals as they make their way through the legislative process. But what we are focused on right now is two things. One is doing what I try to do, which is appeal to the wisdom of --
Q You do it very well.
MR. EARNEST: -- wisdom of members of Congress in this proposal, but also to remind members of Congress that the economic consequences for allowing the trust fund to expire would be dire.
Q Is it fair to say the White House is still opposed to an increase in the gas tax?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that what the White House is supportive of -- I’m an optimistic person, as is the President -- what we’re supportive of is the proposal that we’ve put forward. If there are other people that have other ideas, we’ll certainly evaluate them as they move through the process. But we’ve been very clear about what we support.
Q I wanted to go back to -- oh, sorry.
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, Justin. I’ve forgotten Ann twice now. And I apologize, Ann, I’ll come right back to you after this. Sorry about that.
Q I just wanted to ask about Israel real quickly. Senator Rand Paul has been kind of pushing this bill that would eliminate aid to the Palestinian Authority after the killing of the three Israeli teenagers. He says their decision to form a government with Hamas means that the U.S. should cut off aid. So I’m wondering both what your reaction to the bill is and if that’s something that the President would veto, and less concretely, whether there’s been a reevaluation of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority in light of the killings and in light of their joining of a government with Hamas.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have not, at this point, considered that. I haven’t seen Senator Paul’s legislation. What we are focused on in terms of the killing of these Israeli teenagers that we have condemned pretty clearly is urged both sides to not allow the situation to spiral into an even worse outbreak of violence; that there remains some ongoing coordination between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government and we hope that that cooperation will continue.
When it comes to reconciliation between the Fatah party and Hamas, what we have done is we’ve drawn a distinction between the reconciliation between those two parties and the independent technocratic government that is headed by Prime Minister Abbas that does not currently include any members of Hamas. That’s an important distinction. We have said that we will assess the interim government based on its composition and its policies and its actions. And again, right now there are no Hamas members in that government.
And so we’re going to continue to urge both sides to cooperate, quite frankly, because we believe it’s in the interest of both sides to cooperate to try to calm tensions on both sides, even in the face of some terrible violence that we’ve already seen there.
Ann, I’m going to give you the last one.
Q Thank you. I’m still confused on the pay equity. If this has been a signature issue of the President’s for six years, and he can’t even bring his own staff into closer alignment, is 100 percent pay equity simply impossible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is a difficult policy challenge because there are a variety of reasons why this gender gap exists, that there are a variety of influences that contributes to some of this pay gap that we see. So this is a difficult problem to address.
Q But is it solvable?
MR. EARNEST: But the question is, are we going to try and solve it or not? And the President has done a number of things to try to solve it. You’ll recall the very first bill that this President signed when he took office was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. He’s going to push for Congress to act on the Paycheck Fairness Act. He already signed an executive order mandating that the principles of the Paycheck Fairness Act apply to federal contractors. So the President is certainly pushing on this policy initiative, and it’s something that we’re aiming for.
Q But the staff that he hires and pays, for six years he still couldn’t do it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it depends on how you want to calculate that, that there are 22 **16 departments here at the White House and more than half of them are run by women, and that when there are women in senior positions they’re paid the same amount as their counterparts. We’ve seen high-profile women here in the West Wing get promoted over the course of the last year. My colleague, Amy Brundage, was promoted to be Deputy Communications Director. My colleague, Katie Beirne Fallon, was previously the Deputy Communications Director and is now running our Legislative Affairs operation.
So we’ve seen women here in the West Wing rise through the ranks into leadership positions. And when they rise through the ranks, we see that they are paid fairly in terms that they’re receiving their equal pay for the equal work in the same way that their male counterparts are.
Q He keeps mentioning 77 cents per dollar. By that measure, the White House still can’t reach 100 percent.
MR. EARNEST: Well, by that measure the White House is doing significantly better than the private sector is. And we’re encouraging the private sector to get better. We’re certainly going to make some efforts here at the White House to improve on our standing. I wouldn’t hold up the White House as the perfect example here, but we are an example of an organization that is making an effort and enjoying some success in making sure that there are women who get equal pay for equal work and women who have an opportunity to advance their careers here at the White House. And I think our record when judged by that standard holds up very, very well.
April, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you. Civil Rights Act anniversary today.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, good, I’m glad that you asked me about that so I’m glad I stuck around.
Q You don’t need to thank me. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll give you a little news here. Later today, we’re going to have a statement from the President on this so you’ll be able to quote him. You won’t have to rely only on my eloquence up here.
Q Is he coming out, or is it going to be on paper, or what?
MR. EARNEST: It will be a statement on paper. The President earlier this year, though, gave a very compelling speech when he was last in Austin, Texas, at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, where he spoke at a civil rights summit that was attended by several other Presidents and marked the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
There are a number of other senior administration officials who are taking part in the activities that will commemorate this important anniversary. Secretary Duncan, Secretary Perez and the Attorney General, Eric Holder, are at Howard University today participating in a ceremony. And Secretary Foxx is down in Louisiana participating in a ceremony with Mayor Landrieu to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. So there are a number of activities. But in terms of a comment from the President, we’ll have something on paper later this afternoon.
Q As you look back 50 years to today, what’s the work that’s left to be done that this President thinks that he could do in his remaining years here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President would probably have something more eloquent to say about this than I would, but I’ll give it a shot. I would encourage you to definitely look at that speech that he gave back in April. But this President believes that on a variety of issues there’s a basic humanitarian standard that should be applied; that people should not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin, where they come from, or who they love. And that is a principle that this President has tried to live up to and one that he has tried to make progress in pursuit of.
There clearly is more work that needs to be done to live up to that standard in all aspects of governmental policy and in all aspects of our society, but this President is going to keep pushing. But there is no doubt that somebody like Lyndon Johnson, if he were still here with us, would be looking at the world or this country as it exists right now and I think would be remarkably impressed at the conviction and dedication of the American people to make as much progress as we have in the last 50 years.
But that progress would not have been possible without somebody like President Johnson. And so today is a day not just to remember the signing of that piece of legislation, but remember the man who pushed so hard to bring it to his desk so he could sign it.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good day.
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