Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/16/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me do a quick opening statement here and then we’ll get to your questions.
Since he announced his campaign for office, the President has been very clear that we should have a tax code that does not reward companies for moving their operations and jobs overseas, but instead encourages them to invest here in the United States to build businesses and create jobs here at home. And this is reflected in the President’s budget.
As Secretary Lew wrote in a letter to Congress last night, the best way to address this situation is through business tax reform that makes investment in the United States attractive and creates incentives for companies to invest here, instead of the current tax code that contains loopholes that companies can exploit to avoid the taxes they owe on U.S. income. But short of undertaking comprehensive business tax reform, there are concrete steps that Congress can and should take right now. Senators Wyden and Levin and Congressmen Levin and Van Hollen have supported legislation to address this abuse of our tax system and make it retroactive to May, 2014. Congress should act on this immediately.
As the President has said, it’s time to rally around an economic patriotism. That means instead of protecting companies that are shifting profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share we’re putting people to work here at home, focusing on things like investment in our infrastructure and rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports, as the President has been calling for this week. You can expect that this is a topic you’ll continue to hear about more from the President in the weeks ahead.
With that, Nedra, we’ll go to the questions.
Q Okay, great, thanks, Josh. We have a report out of Vienna that the parties to the Iran talks have agreed to extend them past the July 20th deadline. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to confirm those reports. As you know, Secretary Kerry was just in Vienna yesterday. He has traveled back here to Washington, D.C., to consult with the President and to begin consulting with members of Congress about the way forward.
Over the last six months, since the Joint Plan of Action took effect, we’ve made tangible progress on a range of key issues in our negotiations with the Iranians. All of the parties to those talks -- both the Iranians and the United States and the other members of the P5-plus-1 -- have made good on the Joint Plan of Action. And that means that progress on Iran’s nuclear program has been halted and rolled back in some key respects, and we have been negotiating in good faith to try to reach an agreement.
There are some gaps that continue to remain and part of Secretary Kerry’s consultations with the President will involve a discussion about the path forward, which reflects the fact that some gaps remain here, just four days before the preset deadline for these negotiations to end.
Q Do you expect that we’ll hear from the President or get some sort of readout after that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly a possibility. But in terms of the content of that meeting and what Secretary Kerry plans to discuss with the President, I think I’ve given you a pretty good preview.
Q How much longer would -- if you can’t say whether you’re going to extend the deadline, how close are they? You say there are some gaps, but would a little more time allow them some time to negotiate an agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s part of what Secretary Kerry was trying to assess in the conversations that he was having with the Iranians in Vienna over the weekend. It is clear that their track record over the last six months, I think many people would acknowledge, has been surprisingly favorable and that there has been a legitimate discussion and constructive engagement between Iran and the P5-plus-1. There were a lot of people who were pretty skeptical about that six months ago. That skepticism was justified, so I don’t mean to be criticizing it in any way, but the fact is there have been constructive conversations.
The successful implementation of the Joint Plan of Action has allowed the international community’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program to be eased at least a little bit -- that’s because we have seen Iran live up to that Joint Plan of Action to halt any progress that they’ve made as it relates to their nuclear program. And in fact, as a part of the Joint Plan of Action, they’ve even rolled back some key aspects of that program.
So over the last six months, important progress has been made and there has been a willingness on the part of both the Iranians and the P5-plus-1 partners to live up to that agreement. That is indicative of constructive process. But nonetheless, there are four days that remain before the deadline and the fact is there are still gaps that remain. So there are a number of paths forward for all of the parties to consider, and Secretary Kerry is consulting with the President this afternoon to make sense about what path would be in the best interest of the United States.
Q How close are you to imposing more sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine situation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we continue to be concerned about Russia’s actions as it relates to Ukraine, and we have said for quite some time that Russia’s failure to take some of the steps that would de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine put them at risk of facing greater isolation and greater economic consequences.
The President has been in regular touch with his counterparts in Western Europe and other countries around the globe about this situation. We have acted in the past to impose some economic costs on Russia. We’ve done that in coordination with our allies in Western Europe, and that coordination is ongoing.
At this point, I don’t have any new additional sanctions to announce or preview. I discussed with Major a little bit yesterday how unwise it might be to preview the timing or content of sanctions -- it would undermine their effectiveness. But I do know that European leaders are meeting today to discuss a range of issues, including this specific issue.
Q And are you prepared to go it alone on sanctions, depending on the outcome of the European meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we are prepared to do is to continue to coordinate with our allies and take the kinds of steps that we feel are necessary in response to Russia’s refusal to take some pretty common-sense, basic steps to de-escalate in the conflict in Ukraine.
Q Josh, getting back to Iran, it sounds like from what you’re saying that their behavior, their contributions to the talks may merit an extension of some sort. Is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is just pointing out that Iran, to the surprise of some, has lived up to the commitments that they made in the Joint Plan of Action. That’s significant because the commitments they made in the context of that Joint Plan of Action involved halting their nuclear program and even rolling back some key aspects of that nuclear program. That addressed many of the concerns that were held by members of the international community about Iran’s intentions as it relates to their nuclear program. So that was a positive step.
The other positive step that we’ve seen over the last six months is that there has been a legitimate negotiation underway among Iran and the P5-plus-1 partners about trying to resolve the international community’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program.
So those are two things that many people at the beginning of this process predicted were pretty unlikely to happen. Again, their skepticism about these talks was well-founded. Their skepticism about Iran’s willingness to live up to the terms of the Joint Plan of Action was also well-founded. But over the last six months, Iran has demonstrated a willingness to do those things. The question now is what do we do, considering we’re four days ahead of the deadline and gaps still remain.
The President and the Secretary of State are discussing the possible paths forward this afternoon. There will be consultations. I understand there actually have already been a couple of conversations between senior administration officials and members of Congress on this issues.
I should point out the only reason that Iran is at the negotiating table is because the United States has put in place, in partnership with Congress and under the leadership of the President, some very strict sanctions against Iran that posed significant economic consequences for their failure to live up to the international community’s expectations as it relates to their nuclear program. So we’ve worked successfully to implement those sanctions that brought Iran to the table. We’ve had a constructive six months, but it does leave open the question about what the path forward is and that’s something that’s under discussion today.
Q And I asked you a couple of days ago about Governor Martin O’Malley’s comments about the administration’s plan for dealing with the young migrants down at the border. He was critical of the administration’s plan and I understand that on Friday evening he had a conversation with Cecilia Muṅoz about his comments. What did she say to him about how the White House felt about his comments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I’ve seen some of the reports, including your own, in which the details of that conversation leaked out. From the podium here, I’m not going to be in a position to share the details of a private conversation between a senior White House official and a prominent governor of an important state.
Q The conversation occurred?
MR. EARNEST: The conversation occurred, and I think Governor O’Malley’s spokesperson confirmed that. In fact, I think Governor O’Malley himself may have confirmed that. What this administration has done over the last several weeks has been in regular touch with state and local officials all across the country to enlist their support and their tangible contribution to dealing with the situation that we’ve seen at the border.
You’ll recall that the President, one week ago today, traveled to Texas, and while he was there he visited with the Governor of Texas, the county judge in Dallas County, the Mayor of Dallas and some other local officials to talk about what citizens in that community were doing to provide for the humanitarian needs of those who had been apprehended at the border.
So this is part of a regular series of conversations that the White House has been engaged in. But, again, in terms of the details of the conversation with Governor O’Malley I’m just not in a position to discuss them from here.
Q One thing that he told us, he still takes issue with the administration’s plans and he feels that those children should be treated as refugees first. And he said at one point during an interview that, “We do not return kids who find themselves on our doorstep back to war-torn or famine-wracked places where they face certain death. I think we have to act like Americans.” I think he is saying that Americans should be treating these children better than they’re being treated.
MR. EARNEST: It’s the position of this administration, Jim, that our treatment of these individuals who have been apprehended at the border should be in line with our values as a country. Our values as a country dictate that these -- the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals be met.
There is an aggressive effort underway to make sure that detention facilities are to appropriate standards. Second, we also want to make sure that the individuals who have been apprehended have access to due process proceedings. That is something this administration is committed to. That is something that is always required by law. And we’ve taken some steps to try to make sure that that due process is functioning as well as it should. We have concerns about that. That’s why we’ve put forward this supplemental appropriations request to get additional resources that could make that system work better.
The third thing, though, is that this administration is also committed to enforcing the law. And that means that after going through that due process proceeding, if an immigration judge determines that an individual does not qualify for humanitarian relief, then that person will be repatriated and sent back to their home country. That, I think, is -- that is the approach that this administration has taken and it is consistent with the kinds of values that Americans believe are important.
Q You’re having a lot of Democrats over here this afternoon -- the entire caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- to talk to them in part about this border emergency. And it sounds as if you have a lot of Democrats who are very uncomfortable with your plans for dealing with these kids. Isn’t that fair to say?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that it’s fair to say. I think that there is widespread recognition among members of both parties that we’re dealing with a serious situation at the southwest border, that these are thorny policy problems, and the administration is working through in a very constructive way that’s in line with our core values to deal with it.
And that is why you’ve seen the President take executive action to move additional resources to the border. It’s why you’ve seen the President make a specific request of Congress to provide additional resources so that we can hire immigration judges and asylum officers who can make sure that those who are apprehended at the border have access to due process. You’ve also seen the administration request additional resources that could be used to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals.
The President has also asked for additional authority so that the Secretary of Homeland Security can make the kinds of decisions that are necessary at his discretion to enforce the law even more efficiently. We’ve also sought additional authority from Congress to crack down on these criminal networks that are facilitating so much of the illegal migration that we’ve seen in recent weeks.
So this administration has taken a whole-of-government approach to deal with this challenge, but we are committed to continuing to address this challenge in line with our core American values that we hold dear in this country.
Q And I’m sorry, not to belabor this, but these kids are not refugees in the view of this White House, is that what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: In the view of this White House, an immigration judge should make the determination about whether someone qualified for refugee status. That’s certainly not a declaration that I’d be willing to make from here.
Let’s move around a little bit. Cheryl.
Q Yes, if I could follow up on your opening comments. You said to expect more in the weeks ahead. Does that mean a new tax proposal from the White House? Or are you going to be talking about it more -- what do you mean by that?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’ll hear the President talk about it a little bit more. There is a proposal for corporate tax reform in terms of principles that we’ve already put forward. There are a couple pieces of legislation that I referred to in my opening remarks that Democrats on Capitol Hill are considering. We’re supportive of their efforts to make progress on legislation like that.
In general, the President believes that this is a pretty important principle, this idea of an economic patriotism where we’re rewarding companies who are investing here in America and not allowing a tax system to persist that only serves to incentivize companies who are looking to ship jobs overseas. That is a system that has its priorities backwards. And so this President is committed to try, working with members of Congress, to rearrange those priorities in a way that are in the best interests of this country and, most importantly, in the best interests of middle-class families in this country.
Q Is the President still interested in using some of the savings from tax reform to help pay for infrastructure? Is that where the President is --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have put forward this specific plan. This is one idea that the administration has put forward to close some loopholes in the corporate tax system that benefit only the wealthy and the well connected. That would raise some substantial revenue that could be used to rebuild and modernize our infrastructure -- infrastructure that everybody benefits from.
So that’s the kind of common-sense plan the President has put forward. That’s merely one idea. I know that there are a range of ideas out there. But I think the reason that I wanted to begin the briefing today with that statement is to reinforce the principle that’s at stake, and this idea of an economic patriotism that aligns our nation’s policies with the best interests of middle-class families is the way to ensure that our country remains as strong as it is and continues to get stronger.
One of the strengths of our economy is a vibrant and growing middle class. And we want to make sure that we’re growing our economy from the middle out. And one way you could do that is to close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well connected, and invest that revenue in infrastructure that everybody uses. That’s a pretty American idea. It’s one we’d like to see get some bipartisan support.
Q Back to the sanctions. Is the administration making any calls today to business leaders to warn them of things coming ahead, such as JPMorgan or any of the financial institutions?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific calls to read out from here, Roger.
Q Okay. Let me follow up. You mentioned at the top that things still needed to be coordinated and they were still going on right now. Will they be done coordinating after 3:00 p.m. this afternoon when we could use –- (laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That’s a very clever way of asking that question. As I mentioned to Steve, I think, it would be pretty unwise for us to signal -- to send a very clear signal about the timing or content of a potential sanctions regime. That would only give those who are subject to sanctions the opportunity to try to evade them before the regime was put into place.
So I’m not going to be in a position to talk about timing or content of any sort of sanctions regime today. But suffice it to say that we have not seen the kinds of steps that we would like to see from Russia to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine. And we’ve been pretty clear about what those steps are. That’s making sure that they shut down the border that has allowed the transfer of heavy weapons from Russia to pro-Russian separatists. We have not seen President Putin take the kinds of steps that we’d like him to take to encourage the separatists to lay down their arms and abide by the cease-fire proposal that’s been put forward.
So there are some clear steps that we’ve asked Russia to take that they haven’t taken, and that is what has elevated the risk that Russia faces right now as it relates to additional economic costs that could be imposed by the international community.
Q That sounds like a yes to me.
Q Yes, sounds like it.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q It sounds like a yes to me.
MR. EARNEST: What’s that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not going to be in a position to talk about any timing or anything.
Q The cease-fire didn’t seem to work -- or just broke down – so, 200 Palestinian dead, one Israeli so far. What’s the latest that the administration is doing to reach a cease-fire, and how urgent are you dealing with this?
MR. EARNEST: Nadia, the situation in Gaza is very urgent. We are concerned about reports of loss of life on both sides of the border. That’s why we have encouraged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to resolve this situation as soon as possible, at least in terms of putting in place the cease-fire that originally was put in place in November of 2012.
Fortunately, the Egyptians have floated up a proposal that the Israelis readily accepted. We have not seen, however, that lead to a decision by Hamas and other groups in the Palestinian-held areas to stop firing rockets aimed squarely at civilians on the Israeli side.
So we continue to be concerned about this situation. Senior administration officials have continued to be in touch with leaders and senior officials in countries throughout the region, and this is something that continues to be a top priority. There are a lot of civilians, again, on both sides of the border who are caught in the crossfire right now, and our thoughts and prayers are with those who have been injured and with the families of those who have been lost. And we are encouraging both sides to abide by this cease-fire so that we can reduce the risk that is currently being endured by innocent civilians on both sides of the border right now.
Q So are you blaming Hamas for not accepting the cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly would like to see Hamas accept the cease-fire. We certainly would like to see Hamas stop firing rockets aimed squarely at innocent civilians in Israel. There is no doubt about that.
Q On Syria, just quickly. President Assad made a grand speech today, starting his third term in office. Basically, where is the negotiation that -- you keep talking about that the only way to end the crisis is through a transitional government. What incentive for President Assad to enter a third round of talks? And will the President call on him to step down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say that -- I mean, we have -- well, let me say something that we’ve said before, which is that the so-called election that was hosted in Syria was nothing more than a farce. And we’re certainly disappointed to see Mr. Assad continue to indulge in the charade related to that exercise.
Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing people in his country who are starving and besieged in the capital. We see Syrians who are dodging barrel bombs in Aleppo and fleeing across Syria’s borders in large numbers seeking refuge. This has had a terribly destabilizing impact on the region.
That’s why you’ve seen this country step forward as the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to try to meet the needs of those who are fleeing violence in Syria. We have offered that support to our partners in the region who are bearing a pretty significant burden as they try to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals.
What we’ve also done is we’ve also worked closely with the moderate opposition in Syria to try to build them up and give them the capacity to withstand the brutal attack from the Assad regime, but also to try to facilitate the kind of consensus among the moderate opposition that’s required to negotiate an end to this situation.
Again, this is also a situation where we’re seeing innocent civilians who are being killed, and that is terribly tragic. It’s something that has been going on for far too long, and it is why you’ve seen the United States of America take the serious steps that we’ve already taken to try to bring that conflict to an end. Again, there’s not a military solution, though, as you alluded to in your question. This is going to require some tough diplomacy. And that’s something that we whole-heartedly support.
Q I wanted to ask you about two separate things that are going on up on Capitol Hill. The first one was what happened in the Oversight Committee today. It seemed like the big question coming out of it from Chairman Issa was whether the White House would formally assert executive privilege to keep David Simas from having to testify. So I’m wondering if it comes to that, if that’s something you guys would do. And then if more generally you could talk about what happened today and maybe even opine just on Chairman Issa’s term, which is kind of coming to an end at the end of this session, as committee chair.
Q Maybe a grade?
Q Opine away.
MR. EARNEST: Opining is an opportunity I’ll never turn down. (Laughter.) So I appreciate the opportunity. Well, let me start by saying that we’ve been very forthcoming in describing the role of the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, including sending White House officials up to the committee to brief them at their request as to how the office operates in full compliance with the Hatch Act.
Now, it’s notable to me that White House lawyers attended this briefing, traveled up to Capitol Hill to answer all of the Chairman’s questions that he may have about the situation, but, unfortunately, that the Chairman himself didn’t actually show up for the hearing or for the briefing. So that was something we certainly were disappointed by. This was after the Chairman sent four separate letters, 32 pages’ worth of questions and concerns that he was raising, but he didn’t want to find time in his schedule to participate in the briefing from White House officials who came prepared to answer his questions.
Q Well, it was a staff-only briefing, though, right? That’s what Issa’s office said.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s Chairman Issa’s name that’s on the door. It’s his name that was on the letterhead of the letters. I assume that he signed them. He professes when he’s talking to all of you that he has very serious concerns. But yet, when it came time to actually talk about the substance of his baseless accusations, he wasn’t there to actually engage in that conversation.
So the point is this: There has not been a single shred of evidence that’s been presented to raise any concerns about the conduct of those who work in the Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. In fact, what you saw today was the Director of the Office of Special Counsel submit testimony indicating that they were in full compliance with the Hatch Act.
So this is, I think, more of the kind of shenanigans that Chairman Issa has been engaged in that I think has undermined the credibility of his committee, unfortunately; that throwing out subpoenas like candy on Halloween has not served the functioning of that committee very well. It also has, I think, understandably, caused a lot of people to tune him out. And I think that’s probably a source of some frustration to him.
But the fact is this administration believes firmly in the principle of oversight. Congress has a responsibility to conduct oversight. That’s why, in spite of the questionable credibility of many of these claims, and even some of the individuals who are making them, this administration has sought to cooperate with those questions and with those requests. And we’re going to continue to do so, not because those questions have any legitimacy, but because the broader principle of congressional oversight is an important one.
Q And on executive privilege specifically, would you guys be willing to assert that formally if it came to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, based on our willingness to answer all these questions and based on the inability of the committee to marshal any shred of evidence of wrongdoing, I’m not sure that either side is going to need to resort to that. But, again, we stand ready to answer the kinds of questions that are being asked, even if the other side doesn’t appear to be taking them very seriously.
Q And just on one other thing that’s going on, on the Hill -- both House and Senate Democrats today have kind of introduced legislation that would address the Hobby Lobby decision. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made it very explicit that House Democrats see this as kind of a key part of their effort to win House seats in the fall. So I’m wondering if President Obama is going to be engaging on any backing of this effort or get involved in this push by Democrats.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have read some reports of the Middle Class Jump Start plan that House Democrats have put forward today. It embodies the kinds of values that the President thinks should be prioritized in our broader political debate.
What House Democrats are saying is they’re saying that middle-class families all across the country should be at the center of the political debate in Washington, D.C. And I think that that commitment is backed up in the approach they’ve taken. We’ve seen Democrats on Capitol Hill ardently advocate for things like raising the minimum wage, ensuring that equal pay is paid for equal work. These are the kinds of principles that are important to middle-class families, and they’re important to Democrats in this building and Democrats up on Capitol Hill.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a different approach that’s taken by congressional Republicans who have resorted to a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President merely for trying to advance some of these initiatives.
So the President is pleased to see House Democrats put forward such a clear articulation of the kinds of values that make the Democratic Party and the United States of America so strong. And the President is looking forward to continuing to work with Democrats up on Capitol Hill to fight and make progress on these kinds of priorities that are so important to the success of middle-class families all across the country.
Q Josh, can you go beyond the readout from last night and tell us about the tone of the phone call between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel?
MR. EARNEST: There’s not a whole lot of insight that I can share about that telephone call. As you know, the President and the German Chancellor speak with some frequency. I do know that the President had the opportunity to congratulate the Chancellor on her country’s big win in the World Cup. The President is pleased with the strong personal relationship that he has with Chancellor Merkel. That is the foundation of what is a very important working relationship between our two countries. We’re pleased with the ability of those two leaders to communicate and represent their country’s interest to one another. It serves both countries pretty well. I understand that overall, it was a pretty friendly, cordial conversation.
Q Closer to friendly and cordial than frosty and chilly?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard anybody else describe it that way.
Q Well, I wasn’t describing, I was asking.
MR. EARNEST: I would describe it as a friendly and cordial conversation.
Let’s go to Stephen, and then I’ll come back to you.
Q So could you opine on the meeting in Brussels at which the EU threatened new sanctions against Russia, but stopped short of the kind of phase three economic sanctions that would be most harmful to the economy? Doesn’t this undermine any more stringent steps the U.S. might take?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my guess is there’s probably a long line of European spokespeople who would prefer to opine on that meeting, but I’ll take a shot. What we have been engaged in for quite some time is an effort to work closely with our partners and allies in Europe to ensure that we’re presenting a united front to Russia. It’s important that every nation in the world, including Russia, observes the basic territorial integrity and sovereignty of free nations. And the activities that we’ve seen from Russia along their border with Ukraine run contrary to that principle. And that’s why you’ve seen some important steps that have already been taken by the United States, in concert with our allies, to impose economic costs on Russia.
Russia has continued that destabilizing activity, and that puts Russia at risk of facing additional economic consequences. That’s been the subject of a number of conversations between the President and individual leaders in Western Europe for several weeks now.
In terms of the conversations that are ongoing in Brussels right now, I don’t really have any sort of reaction from here other than to say that we’re going to continue to closely coordinate and consult with them about the way forward.
Carol, you had a follow-up on something?
Q Yes. The readout said that the President and Chancellor Merkel exchanged views on intelligence issues. Presumably, that means they had a discussion about what’s recently been in the news. Can you give us any flavor for what the President had to say to her and if he updated her on how the U.S. is looking into this, or anything along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: I’m afraid, Carol, I can’t shed any additional light on that conversation. As is the case between two countries that have sophisticated intelligence operations, it’s our view that differences about those activities should be resolved through private channels and not litigated in the media. So with all due respect, I’m not in a position to talk about that aspect of their conversation in any more detail.
Q A quick follow-up?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Jon.
Q That readout also said that they discussed ways to improve intelligence cooperation. What would you say is the current state of intelligence cooperation between the United States and Germany?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I understand it, there is a strong and ongoing national security relationship between the United States and Germany. That relationship has served both countries very well. And I understand that that relationship is enduring. And we are always, in a variety of environments, looking for ways that we can strengthen and improve our national security and intelligence-sharing capabilities.
This is part of an ongoing effort. The American people have certainly benefited from that relationship. It’s our view that the German people have benefited from that relationship as well. And it’s a relationship that we’re committed to working on every day.
Q And on the Oversight Committee, Chairman Issa has also released an audio recording of Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis asking a subordinate at the Labor Department to contribute funds and help solicit contributions from others to the President’s political organization. Does the White House condone that kind of activity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I appreciate the spirit of your question. I’m not in a position to publicly comment on that audio recording. It relates to an ongoing law enforcement investigation. This is a law enforcement investigation that was first reported back in January of this year. We weren’t in a position to comment on that law enforcement investigation at that point and I’m not in a position to comment on it today.
Q So let me ask you as a general principle -- or let me actually back up -- has the President ever, or anybody in the White House, asked Cabinet Secretaries to help raise money for Organizing for America or to raise money from government employees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, what this administration -- the clear guidance that every member of this administration has received is to follow the guidelines, both the spirit and letter of the Hatch Act. As you note, the Hatch Act does not allow government officials to solicit funds for political purposes. That’s simply a matter of law. And every member of this administration has been directed to follow that law.
Q Hilda Solis is a former member of this administration, the President’s Cabinet. She’s now running for office in Los Angeles. Has the President taken a position on her race? Has he endorsed her?
MR. EARNEST: I have to confess, Jon, I have no idea what candidates have filed for that office.
Q You’re not following the L.A. County Executive’s race?
MR. EARNEST: I am known as a little bit of a political junkie, but I have to admit that that one has evaded my attention.
Q And let me ask you on the border, you were asked yesterday about Jose Antonio Vargas’s arrest or detention down in McAllen. He’s been released now with a promise to appear at the hearing. Given that you at this podium and others in the administration have said that the undocumented children that have come over the border are likely to be sent home -- will have their hearing, but they’re likely, most of them, to be sent home -- who is more likely to be deported -- the Pulitzer-prize winning author, Mr. Vargas, or these children that are fleeing dangerous circumstances back in Central America?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you, Jon, is that this administration is committed to making sure that those children from Central America get the due process to which they’re entitled. So making a general claim about who is more likely to be deported is difficult to do here. It’s just a generalization. Each of these cases will merit the attention of an immigration judge who will decide on the merits, whether or not there is a legitimate claim for that individual to remain in this country.
I’m not in a position to talk specifically about Mr. Vargas’s case. I’d refer you to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, who may be able to give you more information about the status of his case.
Q Josh, I just want to follow up with what Jim was asking earlier about the meeting this afternoon with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Since it’s a week after the President’s presentation, what would the President like to achieve out of this discussion today? What’s his goal in talking to them?
MR. EARNEST: The priority for this meeting is for the President to hear from congressional Democrats some of their ideas about steps that the President can take using his executive authority to address the problems created by our broken immigration system.
A couple of weeks ago, you heard the President announce that he’d been informed by the Republican Speaker of the House that Republicans were not planning to consider common-sense, bipartisan legislation that had been passed by the Senate. That was a disappointing development. But the President is not going to stand idly by while Congress does nothing. The President is determined to use the authority that’s vested in the executive branch to take the kinds of steps that could mitigate or alleviate some of the worst problems created by our broken immigration system.
Currently, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General of the United States are taking a look at what options are available to the President, what sort of executive authority he can wield to address these problems. But I know that there are many Democrats up on Capitol Hill, including many members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who have their own views on this topic and the President is eager to hear from them about that.
Q So then, my next question -- and maybe you’ve been asked this before, so my apologies -- but how does the President perceive that these two initiatives will blend together with his executive power? In other words, his presentation to Congress of legislation that he seeks for the border crisis and his vow to move ahead through executive initiatives to deal with the immigrants already here, how do they intersect in his mind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s clear that this policy challenge that we’re dealing with is significant and, unfortunately, we have seen very little from Congress to indicate their willingness to act to address any of it. So what you’ve seen this President do is to do everything that he can, using his own executive authority, to try to address some of these challenges.
Now, one possible consequence of the increased attention to the situation at the border is that it raises the stakes even higher for Republicans who want to stand in the way of common-sense immigration reform. There’s demonstrated bipartisan support for this proposal in the United States Congress. There’s demonstrated support for this proposal among the law enforcement community, the labor community, the business community, even the faith community all across the country. Leaders in those communities strongly support common-sense immigration reform.
As it is highlighted to Americans across the country, principally through your media outlets, that this is a significant problem, it seems possible that even more political pressure can be brought to bear on Republicans that could persuade them to, if not change their mind about immigration reform, might change their mind about using this tactic to even prevent that piece of legislation from being considered by the entire House of Representatives. The reason that would be significant is that it’s the view of the White House and many observers that if this legislation were brought to the floor of the House of Representatives, that it would actually pass with bipartisan support.
So we’ll see what impact this ongoing debate has. I guess I should say we’ll see what impact this ongoing situation has on the political debate in Washington, D.C. Hopefully, it will have a positive impact.
Q Would you say that the President has in mind that Speaker Boehner may have been premature in suggesting that nothing was going to happen this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s up to Speaker Boehner to make this decision. So it’s not premature -- if he’s made a decision to block legislation that has broad bipartisan support all across the country, that is a decision that he says that he’s made, that would make it not premature for him to say that. He certainly is entitled to free will and entitled to changing his mind. We hope that’s what he’ll do. But if he won’t, the President stands prepared to take the kinds of executive action that he’s allowed to take to try to address some of these problems.
Q Josh, to follow up on that, given the amount of time -- and you’ve stated this repeatedly -- that key members of his administration who deal with immigration have devoted to dealing with the border crisis, how does that change the equation on how he’ll use his executive powers, both perhaps in terms of what gets done and the timeline for recommendations and making decisions?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s hard to assess that before the President has made a decision about what exactly he wants to do. So I have full confidence in the bandwidth at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to conduct expeditiously a review of the authorities that are available to the President under existing law to try to address some of these problems. So I’m confident that we’ll get a good review from DHS and from the Attorney General. I’m confident the President will carefully consider their recommendations and will make a decision pretty quickly about which authorities he’s going to invoke to address some of these important challenges.
None of the things that the President will do using his executive authority will be as substantial as the reforms that are included in the legislation. That’s why we’re continuing to encourage Congress, and specifically, Speaker Boehner to change his mind to allow that legislation to come up for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives, because it has the potential to address so many more of the problems that are created by our broken immigration system.
Q So you don’t think what’s happening on the border is likely to affect either the content or the timing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to say. I do not anticipate that it’s going to have any impact on the timing at all. I do think that they have enough bandwidth to conduct this review and get the President a report by the end of the summer, which was the established deadline.
Q Let me just ask you quickly, if I can, about Israel. There’s a senior Israeli military official who has suggested that the likelihood of ground invasion is very high. All the reports about the four children who were playing on a Gaza beach who were killed -- what’s the sense? Is there any hope, given what Hamas has said, for a cease-fire under this Egyptian proposal? And if not, then what’s the next move by the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is hope. That hope is embodied in a proposal that was put forward by the Egyptians and accepted by the Israelis.
Q But what’s the indication from Hamas that that’s going to change, especially given what’s happened?
MR. EARNEST: We have not so far seen an indication from Hamas that they’ll stop firing rockets. But a good-faith willingness expressed by the Israelis to abide by the cease-fire should be sufficient encouragement to stop firing rockets at innocent civilians on the other side of the border. Now, we’ll have to see what decisions the leaders of Hamas and other organizations who are engaged in this activity make. But this administration and this country stands firmly behind Israel and their right to defend themselves.
As I’ve mentioned before, Israeli political leaders don’t just have the right, they probably have the responsibility to take the steps that they believe are necessary to protect their civilians. But at the same time, we are hopeful that both sides will exercise some care and concern for innocent civilians on both sides of the border. That, ultimately, is who would benefit the most from a cease-fire -- that’s people on both sides of the border. It would reduce the risk that’s faced by innocent civilians. And the fact is, it’s not in anybody’s interests -- not in the Israeli people’s interest or in the Palestinian people’s interest -- for this exchange of hostilities to continue.
Q Josh, on immigration, you’ve heard Republicans charge that it was the President’s executive order in 2012 that helped create this crisis because it encouraged families in Central America to send their kids and suggested to them perhaps that they could stay in America. So my question is, I hear you saying now the President is under pressure from Democrats to treat these kids well. He’s meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and you’re saying he is going to sit down with them today and talk about more executive orders. Couldn’t more executive action potentially backfire and create more problems that we don’t know about?
MR. EARNEST: No. And I don’t think Governor Perry agrees with your assessment as well. He pointed out, as you’ll recall last week, that this is a problem that originated -- that he saw the roots of before the President even announced the action that his administration was considering as it relates to deferred action. So I think that’s important for people to understand.
The second thing that’s important for people to understand is that individuals who are coming to the border are not eligible for the deferred action that the President announced back in 2012. In fact, what the President has said is he’s devoting additional executive resources to deal with the problem now and to prioritize the case of recent border crossers. So there should be no misunderstanding about the situation and the impact that the President’s decisions are having on that situation.
But what we really face here is a broken immigration system, and a broken immigration system that has some problems that can be solved through congressional action. Fortunately, because of hard work in the Senate, in conjunction with representatives of this administration, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would address a lot of these problems. House Republicans are blocking those reforms from taking effect.
Q Simple question, is the border today secure?
MR. EARNEST: The issue that we’re seeing at the border right now, Ed, and the issue that --
Q I’m not talking about the issue. I’m saying, is the border secure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will tell you that there are more resources that are dedicated to this border right now, in securing it, than there ever have been.
Q Securing it, but is it secure today?
MR. EARNEST: And the issue that we’re seeing right now is not individuals attempting to evade detection by Border Patrol officials. What we’re seeing right now are people who are coming to the border and turning themselves over to Border Patrol.
Q Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Republicans keep saying secure the border first, then we’ll deal with comprehensive -- Senator Reid said -- he put the Majority Leader’s Office right behind him -- said the border is secure. Do you agree with him?
MR. EARNEST: The administration, under the President’s leadership, has dedicated significant resources to securing the border. And here’s what I would say to those -- particularly, those Republicans who are concerned about border security. There is a historic investment in border security resources included in the bipartisan bill that was passed by the Senate. So those in the House, in particular, who are concerned about border security should be the champions of common-sense immigration reform.
So it is hard to take seriously the concerns of those who say the border is not secure while at the same time they’re blocking a piece of legislation that’s already passed the Senate that would actually invest in securing the border.
Q They’re saying it’s not secure, the Republicans. You’re saying it is secure?
MR. EARNEST: They’re saying it’s not secure and blocking a piece of legislation that would actually make a historic investment in border security. I’m saying that is a deplorable act of playing politics with a very serious situation. The position of this administration is that we have made an important investment in securing the border. There are more resources there now and have been put there under the President’s watch than at any time in our history.
Q It’s getting more secure you say, but not secure --
MR. EARNEST: The President is certainly supportive of additional security being added to the border, right. That’s why the President -- again, there are a whole host of reasons to support comprehensive immigration reform. Historic investment in border security is one of them. It’s one of the reasons the President strongly supports it.
Q Two other quick ones -- one on immigration, and then Iran. Immigration -- Sunday, you said on CNN, this is still the most transparent administration in history.
MR. EARNEST: I did. I’m glad you watched.
Q I watched it very closely.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q And my question is, why then is the administration, in the interest of transparency, not putting some sort of list out there for the public to know where are these unaccompanied minors going? We’re hearing governors in both parties saying they’re finding out at the last minute buses are coming into their neighborhoods. Shouldn’t the public have a right to know?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, the public does have a right to know what’s happening. And that’s why this administration has been trying to communicate very clearly with the public about the steps that we are taking to address the problem at the border.
Q So is there a list of where the kids are going that you’re giving to governors?
MR. EARNEST: At the same time, there are privacy rights that are included in the law that this administration is committed to enforcing and following. So we’re going to abide by the privacy rights of particular individuals. We’re also going to enforce the law, and we’re also going to do our best to communicate with the public precisely what this administration is doing.
Q People in neighborhoods have a right also to understand if illegal immigrants are coming into their neighborhood?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I don’t understand the question entirely.
Q Well, if I live across the street from one of these facilities where you’re sending people, do I have a right to know that they’re going to be showing up, illegal immigrants?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what this administration is committed to doing is working with state and local officials to coordinate our efforts to meet the basic humanitarian needs of individuals who are under detention because they’ve been apprehended at the border. And that’s why one of the concerns I know that has been raised by some public officials has been related to public health -- are the individuals who are being detained getting access to vaccinations and being treated for other communicable diseases that they may have. That’s included in the supplemental funding request, are additional resources that could be deployed by the CDC and HHS to try to meet those needs.
So this administration is working in close consultation with state and local officials to try to meet these needs and to do that in a way that it protects communities. Again, when we’re talking about border security -- and particularly, as it relates to our immigration policies -- one of this administration’s priorities is making sure that we’re protecting national security and public safety. And that is part of the priority set that law enforcement officials and even prosecutors are using as they determine where to direct their actions against illegal immigration.
Q In December and January -- on Iran -- you had Democrats like Bob Menendez saying he wanted more sanctions against Iran. The President had meetings with Democrats, pushed back and said, give me six months. But he, in his State of the Union, Jay Carney at that podium has said previously, if at the end of that six months there is no deal, we’ll lead the effort to push more sanctions. That’s how you got Congress to get off your back six months ago. So if there’s no deal this Sunday, will the President push forward as soon as next week on new sanctions against Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I welcome your line of questioning about this. What we have said is that Secretary Kerry is going to come back from his conversations with the Iranians and our P5-plus-1 partners to consult with the President and to consult with members of Congress about the path forward. So there are still four days to the deadline. I’m not going to make any announcements from here about that.
Q But there was a promise made. Jay Carney said in December 19th, if Iran fails to reach agreement with the P5-plus-1 on the more comprehensive agreement that’s being discussed now over the course of six months, we are very confident we can work with Congress to very quickly pass new effective sanctions against Iran. Mr. Carney’s comments still valid?
MR. EARNEST: They are still valid because what Mr. Carney was saying is that if Iran doesn’t act in the kind of good faith in the context of these negotiations that we stand ready to work with Congress --
Q Well, he didn’t say good faith -- he said if Iran fails to reach agreement. He didn’t say if they act in good faith or don’t. He said if Iran fails to reach agreement we will very quickly pass new sanctions. Is that still true?
MR. EARNEST: What is still true is that the Secretary of State is going to continue to consult with the President about his conversations with Iran and the P5-plus-1. The Secretary of State and senior administration officials will also consult very closely with Congress. Ultimately, it will be Congress who will have to decide whether or not additional sanctions legislation should be passed. But they will do that in consultation with administration officials about the best way to deal with these ongoing negotiations.
Like I said, we’ve made important progress in the context of those talks. We’ve also made important progress in terms of getting Iran to roll back some aspects of their nuclear program because Iran did live up to the Joint Plan of Action that was agreed to about six months ago.
Q Just a real quick one back on the border stuff. You guys have said that what you’re interested in is the ultimate outcome. You’re not so worried about how that happens in terms of flexibility with dealing with the Central American kids. In a conversation with one of my colleagues, Nancy Pelosi just said that she now will oppose any change to the 2008 law. Before she had said she might accept that. Are you guys also taking off the table any change to the 2008 law and saying that you only want this extra flexibility, or are you still open to the possibility that some kind of change to the 2008 law would resolve -- would be what you would want?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen Leader Pelosi’s comments so I don’t want my comments to be interpreted as a reaction or a comment on hers. But what I can do is I can restate what continues to be our position.
Our position is that we would like to see Congress grant additional authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security so that he could exercise his own discretion to enforce the law more efficiently. Now, some people have asked me on a couple of previous occasions whether that means should Congress pass a new law, should Congress pass a law that replaces the 2008 law, should Congress pass a piece of legislation that would modify the implementation or enforcement of the 2008 law.
Q And you said you’d be open to all of that.
MR. EARNEST: What I have said is that that’s Congress’s job to determine.
Q But you said you’d be open to all of that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re open to Congress doing their job in deciding what the best path is. And if Congress chooses a path along those lines that results in the Secretary of Homeland Security getting the kind of authority he needs to exercise his own discretion to enforce the law more efficiently, and do that in a way that continues to respect the basic due process rights of these individuals, then we’ll be happy with that. In fact, that’s specifically what we’re requesting.
Q So you’re open to something that it appears that Ms. Pelosi is not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I have not seen her comments. She may have made them while I was speaking up here. I’ve been talking up here for a long time. But our position has not changed.
Q But your position hasn’t changed?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Juliet.
Q Just following up on that, Nancy Pelosi is saying this; you have several members who are coming down here to deliver this message as they meet with the President at 3:30 p.m. from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Leader Reid has also indicated his opposition. So what is it that the White House is doing to communicate with members who have concerns about, for example, accelerating deportations when that is obviously seen as something that Republicans would want in order to reach any compromise on approving additional funding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first is that funding is the priority, the funding is important. We need the resources to deal with this spike that we’ve seen along the southwest border. Those resources would allow these immigration proceedings to move more efficiently and more quickly. By adding additional judges and prosecutors, you can work more people through the system in a way that respects their basic due process rights while at the same time enforcing the law.
There are a whole range of other resource requests that are included there -- everything from, as I was mentioning to Ed earlier, resources that would ensure for the public health and safety of the individuals who are being detained. There are additional resources that are sought to increase surveillance and other security measures along the border. So there are a lot of important things that are included in that funding request. That is our priority.
What is also, though, important is that additional authority be given to the administration to crack down on the criminal networks that are facilitating so much of this illegal migration. And as I mentioned to Mike, we would also like to see Congress give additional authority to the Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise his discretion to enforce the law more efficiently. All three of those things are important, but our priority right now is focused on the funding for the resources that are necessary to deal with this challenge.
Q Can I ask you an off-topic question?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q You’ve seen in reports -- Miami Herald reported yesterday or last night that a Navy nurse at Guantanamo has refused in the first -- considered a conscientious objector -- to participate in the forced feeding of detainees there. Is the White House aware of this? And what – are you afraid of what complications it could lead to in trying to continue with keeping Guantanamo operating?
MR. EARNEST: Leslie, I did not see that report in the Miami Herald. I’d encourage you to check with the Department of Defense to see if they have a reaction.
Q Back on sanctions. There were reports today out of Russia that the Russians have indicated an intention to reopen a signals intelligence operation in Cuba, which was closed back in the ‘90s, I guess. Are you aware of that? Could you comment on it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that specific report, but if one of my colleagues has an answer for you, we can have somebody get in touch with you about it.
Q And the other sanctions -- you sure that we can’t expect something this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST: I’m just not in a position to talk about the timing or content of a possible sanctions regime. Again, to send a clear signal about a planned sanctions regime would be pretty counterproductive, so I don’t want to do that from here.
Q Not a clear signal, just a kind of fuzzy signal. (Laughter.)
Q The Pentagon says that there are now 10,000 to 12,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, scaled up from 1,000 just a couple of weeks ago. Isn’t the President’s credibility on the line if he doesn’t do something, whether it’s with the EU or at least unilaterally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve observed on quite a few occasions over the last few weeks that the Russians have demonstrated a willingness to take a step or two forward in terms of trying to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and then a couple of steps back. I think the movement of a -- deployment of additional troops along the border with Ukraine would represent at least a couple of steps back. That is the opposite of what we have been calling on them to do, that’s correct. And you’re right, it does raise the stakes and increase the risk that Russia faces of additional isolation and economic costs being imposed on them.
Zeke, I’m going to give you the last one.
Q Secretary Burwell met with governors on Sunday in Nashville. Many of the governors expressed concern over whether or not their states would have to pick up some of the tabs if these children are transported away from the border. What assurances is the White House giving to the states that their resources, which are already fairly strained, won’t be tapped by this crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Zeke, as was evident from the President’s conversation with Texas officials last week, and evident from the report and conversation between senior White House officials and Governor O’Malley, that we’re in regular touch with state and local officials, many of whom have expressed a willingness to try to assist the federal government as we deal with this difficult challenge; that there are a lot of people in these communities who are responding to their own conscience in terms of wanting to meet the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals, who are responding clearly to a pretty desperate situation.
So I know that when the President talked to some of the faith leaders in Dallas that he had the opportunity to meet he was really struck by the expressions of generosity and kindness that they articulated in the context of that meeting. I think that’s indicative of the response of the vast majority of people all across the country who are watching these stories and these reports and are responding to the basic humanity that’s in them.
So we’re going to continue to work closely with state and local officials to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to meet these basic humanitarian needs but in a way that doesn’t impose unnecessarily on local communities.
Q And with regards to that call on Friday, Governor O’Malley said today to The Washington Post that -- he suggested that the White House specifically leaked the contents of that call, saying he did not leak it. Did anybody at the White House release the contents of that call with Governor O’Malley?
MR. EARNEST: You guys are the ones who are doing the reporting here, so I’d encourage you to check with your sources. What we value is the strong working relationship that this administration has with state and local officials all across the country on a whole range of issues.
Q Does the Governor have that kind of relationship if -- when this comes up -- can he have an honest and frank exchange of ideas if the contents of those conversations have been disclosed to the press?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that we strongly value the working relationship that we have with Governor O’Malley. There are a whole range of issues on which we’ve worked closely with the O’Malley administration to benefit the people of Maryland. We’re pleased with that relationship and that relationship is as strong as ever.
Q Josh, are you satisfied with it on this issue, on the way that the O’Malley administration has been working with the White House in terms of the facilities that might be used for these children?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that, again, only from reading the reports, you guys have great sources, including your story. The O’Malley administration --
Q (inaudible.) (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I'm going to try. The O’Malley administration I think was quoted even in your story indicating a willingness to work with the administration to try to find a suitable facility that could be used to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those who had been apprehended.
So we welcome that kind of cooperation and that’s the kind of spirit that I think reflects the view of a lot of Americans who are watching these news stories. These are individuals, when they’re apprehended along the border, who have gone through a terrible, difficult, dangerous journey. They are clearly fleeing a desperate situation. And I think the humanitarian impulse to try to care for them while at the same time we’re enforcing our law is a natural one. And that reflects the kind of cooperation that we’ve gotten from so many state and local officials from across the country.
Q But have you been satisfied with the O’Malley administration’s response on this issue to this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the most that we can ask for state and local officials is to demonstrate a clear willingness to work with us to find an appropriate place where these individuals could be detained and their humanitarian needs could be met. That sounds like what the O’Malley administration is promising and I take them at their word.
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