Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/5/14
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I don't have any opening statements. Josh, if you want to go ahead and get us started.
Q Thanks, Josh. Let’s start with the attack this morning in Afghanistan that killed a two-star general. I know the Pentagon has a briefing underway, but what was the President’s reaction to learning about this attack?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the President was briefed earlier today about a shooting accident that occurred – a shooting incident that occurred at an Afghan military academy in Kabul City earlier today. More than a dozen coalition servicemembers were killed or were wounded and at least one U.S. servicemember, a general, was killed. The President called General Dunford earlier today to get a briefing on the latest available information in that incident.
While we have made tremendous progress in disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda operations and leadership in Afghanistan, and progress in winding down U.S. involvement in that conflict, this shooting is, of course, a painful reminder of the service and sacrifice that our men and women in uniform make every day for this country.
The thoughts and prayers of those of us here at the White House are with the family of the general, are with the soldiers and the family of those who were injured in this attack. Those thoughts and prayers are also with the families, of course, who have seen the loss of loved ones over the course of the United States’ 12-year involvement in military operations in Afghanistan. Many of those families are still grieving for the loss of their loved ones, and those of us here at the White House are determined to ensure that their service and their sacrifice for this country are not forgotten.
Q You mentioned the progress in fighting al Qaeda. This doesn’t appear to be an al Qaeda attack. How concerned is the White House that this attack undermines or is a step backwards in the progress that the U.S. and our partners have made in reducing these insider attacks in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I'm not in a position right now to give you any information about the motive or circumstances surrounding today’s attack. There is, as you would expect, an ongoing investigation into the circumstances of this incident, and so we're going to wait until there are some additional details about this incident before commenting further about the possible motive or any information about the perpetrator who was involved in this incident.
Q In a broader sense, then, does the United States still feel that you’ve made progress in stemming some of these attacks by Afghan troops on coalition forces?
MR. EARNEST: There are a number of security protocols that have been put in place to ensure the safety and security of American servicemen who are serving overseas, many times alongside Afghan service personnel. Those security protocols are in place because a couple of years ago, you’ll recall, there was a spate of incidents in which it was clear that there were American personnel who were facing a risk based on the conditions in which they were serving. So those security protocols have been put in place, and we'll, of course, review this incident to see if any changes to those protocols should be made as a result of this. But it's far too early for me to say anything about that at this point while we're still learning information about what exactly happened.
I do think it's important to note that because of our efforts to wind down the war and because of the changing mission of American personnel in Afghanistan, we have seen a decline in the casualty rate of American personnel there. Earlier this year, we went an entire month without a servicemember being killed in Afghanistan. But today’s tragic incident is a painful reminder that our servicemen and women are still serving and sacrificing in Afghanistan and they’re facing significant risks to protect our country and to protect American citizens all around the globe.
Q And in Israel, now that this 72-hour cease-fire appears to be holding, at least so far, and the Egyptians set to kind of act as a go-between between Hamas and Israel, is the United States playing an active role in those negotiations to achieve a long-term cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, we certainly -- the United States certainly supports the latest 72-hour cease-fire proposal that appears both sides are respecting and abiding by at this point. For weeks, the United States, from the President to the Secretary of State on down, have been actively engaged with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership -- with the United Nations, other multilateral organizations like the Arab League, and even other relevant parties like the Egyptians and the Turks and the Qataris -- to try to bring the violence to an end and both sides to the table to resolve this conflict. And we have noted for some time that an immediate cease-fire was critical to bringing about the kind of calm in which negotiations could occur.
I’ve seen reports that the Israelis are sending a delegation to Cairo; I know that the Palestinians have done the same. I don’t have an update in terms of the United States, the American delegation that was previously planning to participate in those discussions. I’d refer you to the State Department for questions about that status.
Q Josh, how engaged has the White House been, if at all, in trying to streamline development or speed up approvals for Ebola drugs like ZMapp, or any other drugs that might be in the pipeline to fight Ebola?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, it’s the responsibility of the FDA to approve specific medication for treatment of a range of illnesses. Since this Ebola outbreak first occurred back in March, the CDC has been actively engaged with other global health organizations, and particularly, the World Health Organization, to try to respond to the outbreak and to marshal resources from the international community to assist those countries in meeting the needs of their local citizens and trying to prevent the outbreak from spreading.
The CDC is redoubling their efforts to add additional resources and to make sure that those resources are well coordinated. That is the best way for us to stem this Ebola outbreak, is to make sure that the response is consistent with medical protocols in terms of isolating those who are exhibiting the symptoms, and making sure that medical personnel who are treating them are taking the necessary precautions. I know there are also protocols in place for burying those who have died as a result of this disease that are also critical to ensuring that the disease does not spread.
So those kinds of efforts are underway. They are spearheaded by the experts at the CDC. And as I mentioned yesterday, and as the CDC has mentioned many times, it’s their assessment that those in the United States do not face a significant risk from this Ebola outbreak.
Q So recognizing that that’s the approach, I’m just wondering if the White House is at all sort of engaged at a high level in talks with those agencies or others in trying to advance these drugs that seem to show some promise.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any comment on specific medication that may or may not be approved. That’s something that would be evaluated by medical experts at the FDA with some input from the CDC, I would assume.
But, yes, the White House has, of course, been in touch with these government agencies to ensure that we are providing the necessary resources to respond to this situation, and effectively coordinating and integrating this government’s response with the international response to this Ebola outbreak in a couple of countries in Africa.
Let’s move around a little bit. Anita.
Q Staying on the same topic, the Council of Foreign Relations had a conference call today about health issues, and there was some complaining on there that there was -- on the ground there in Africa that sort of no one was in charge, there’s not enough money, not enough workers. And I’m wondering if you can sort of talk about the U.S. perspective on that.
Separately, there was some complaining about the summit. I know the summit is not supposed to be about the Ebola outbreak, that there’s another focus. But there was some complaining that it hadn’t changed to sort of address it more seriously or more closely. I’m wondering if you could respond to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, one thing I can say, Anita, is that I’m not in a position to comment on the specific on-the-ground response. I know that it has been something that this administration through the CDC has been focused on for several months now -- the initial reports of an Ebola outbreak occurred back in March, and there have been CDC personnel on the ground in the affected countries since then to try to deal with and contain this outbreak.
That has been done in coordination with the World Health Organization and other global health organizations that are involved in responding to incidents like this. I know that there are organizations like the USAID that is planning to send additional resources to try to deal with the situation and prevent the spread of this disease. And that remains -- that will continue to remain a focal point of planning and effort here in Washington until this disease is contained.
As it relates to the forum, I would highlight that your question serves to illustrate the importance and one of the important goals of this forum, which is to help people understand that our relationship -- the United States’ relationship with nations in Africa is broad and full of opportunity. So often the immediate thought of many Americans when they consider U.S. policy toward Africa turns to issues of poverty and disease and conflict, corruption. And the truth is there is significant economic opportunity that exists in Africa.
Six of the largest -- or six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are on the continent of Africa. And there is a tremendous opportunity for American businesses to coordinate and invest in Africa and in businesses in Africa. There’s the potential for new markets to be opened to U.S. businesses in Africa. And that is an indication that while we stand with our African partners in their time of need, particularly when it comes to something as threatening as an outbreak of a disease like Ebola, that our relationship is much more diverse and broad than just focusing on that one specific issue.
And this is something that the President will talk about in his remarks a little later today. He’ll deliver remarks at the first-ever U.S.-Africa Business Forum, where he’ll announce that a number of American businesses have committed over $14 billion in investments for the continent of Africa, ranging from construction to clean energy, to banking, to information technology and more. So that is an indication that the economic potential and opportunity that exists in Africa is significant, and that these kinds of investments aren’t just good for the Africans who live in these countries and stand to benefit directly from them, there also is an opportunity for American businesses and American workers to benefit from this kind of relationship, as well.
Q -- have you all talked about including more about health care? I know there is some.
MR. EARNEST: There is an element of public health that is being discussed in the forum. And I understand that there was a meeting yesterday with some officials from Africa and Secretary Burwell to discuss the international response to the Ebola outbreak.
Q Thanks. Today, Senators Durbin, Jack Reed, and Warren sent the President a letter asking him to use his executive actions to stop the corporate inversions. I’m wondering if that's something that the President would consider doing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, what I can tell you is that the President has talked about this a little bit already, and it’s his view that the best way for us to close unfair tax loopholes like the one that you have mentioned is through corporate tax reform. That would allow us to close some loopholes, lower the overall tax rate in a way that makes American businesses more competitive around the globe. We’ve also noted that you could use some of that revenue that only benefits the wealthy and well-connected businesses in this country and invest it in the kinds of projects that would benefit everybody, particularly modernizing our infrastructure.
So that's why the President is calling on Congress to act on corporate tax reform. But we understand that that's a process that would take some time. And so we are hopeful that in the meantime, Congress -- as described in a letter from Secretary Lew just a couple of weeks ago -- would take the step of closing this specific loophole and making it retroactive to send a clear signal that this is the kind of behavior that corporate America shouldn’t engage in.
The President has talked a lot in recent weeks about economic patriotism, and I think tactics like the one that we’ve seen here I think are a pretty good example of the need for us to consider the kind of economic patriotism that is good for the country and good for the businesses and workers located here in this country.
Q So you still think this is something Congress needs to do, not the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if there’s any sort of announcements that we have to make about steps the President could take unilaterally, we’ll announce those at a later time. I’m not in the position to make any announcements like that now. But it is our view that Congress should take the necessary step to address this loophole.
The one thing I would point out is the last time that Congress -- I’m only saying this because I know that there is some skepticism sometimes in this room about Congress, and in particular, congressional Republicans taking action on what would otherwise be seen as a pretty common-sense step to address a problem in our tax code. I think your skepticism might be rooted in the fact that congressional Republicans often don't want to be in a position of angering the corporate interests that are so beneficial to their political campaigns.
That said, I’d just point out that the last time that Congress passed legislation to address corporate inversions and to close a loophole related to corporate inversions was in 2004, and that was a piece of legislation that was passed with bipartisan support through the House and Senate and signed into law by a Republican President.
I’d also note that 2004, for those of you who don't remember, was an election year. So the sense that Congress -- or the excuse that Congress won’t act in 2014 because it’s an election year certainly is inconsistent with congressional action that took place a decade ago.
Q I wanted to ask about Iraq. Over the weekend, Baghdad took the extraordinary step of sending forces to bolster the Kurdish fighters. And so I’m wondering if you guys are considering anything to help aid the Kurds, as ISIS is kind of pushing farther into their territory, and if you remain confident in their ability to kind of hold the ground in Iraq right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, the United States is supporting the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish Peshmerga forces working to defend these areas. Our joint operation centers in Erbil and Baghdad are sharing information with the ISF and the Peshmerga. We welcome the statement from officials in Baghdad that Iraqi security forces will provide air support to the Peshmerga as they counter the ISIL offensive. The Peshmerga have played a critical role in addressing this threat, and all parties must continue to enhance cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil.
I would also point out that U.S. officials from Washington and Baghdad are also in contact with Iraqi officials from Baghdad and Erbil to discuss a coordinated approach to the humanitarian situation in that region of the country. We urge all Iraqi authorities, civil society and international partners to work the United Nations and its partners to deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
Q I remember about two years ago being on a U.S. base in Afghanistan where Americans were training the Afghan recruits. And to a person, the American soldiers did not agree with the pullout because they really felt like it would take a long time before security there could be at a point where it was kind of ready to go. And granted, that was two years ago. But isn’t another incident like this that just happens to involve a high-ranking general a painful reminder of the volatility there? And isn’t the broader concern here not the risk to American lives, which is diminishing, but the security situation in Afghanistan as a whole?
MR. EARNEST: Afghanistan is a dangerous place. It has been for some time. It was dangerous before the U.S. got there, and it obviously continues to be dangerous today. What’s different, though, and what’s most important about this is that before the United States arrived, some lawless areas in Afghanistan were used by a terrorist organization to launch a horrific terrorist attack against the American people on our homeland. And the military operation that has been underway in Afghanistan for more than a dozen years now has been devoted to ensuring that terrorists could never again use Afghanistan as a base of operation to launch large-scale attacks against Americans in the U.S. or anywhere around the world.
We have made tremendous progress against that goal, and that is a testament to the service and sacrifice of so many American servicemen and women who have served in that country, but also to the service of many American civilians who have also served to build up Afghanistan and to strengthen their local institutions of government and security there.
So the progress that we’ve made is important. And the President has laid out -- and he did lay out earlier this year -- our strategy for moving forward in Afghanistan. And the thing that we have reiterated as a priority is ensuring that Afghans have the support and resources necessary to provide for their own security; that ultimately -- that our commitment to Afghanistan can be strong and will remain strong as long as we get the necessary cooperation from the Afghan government. But at some point, their security efforts need to be self-sufficient.
And what the President has said is that at the beginning of 2015, the United States will have approximately 9,800 service personnel in different parts of the country and will be serving alongside our NATO allies and partners. By the end of 2015, we’ll have reduced that presence by roughly half, and consolidated that presence in Kabul and at the Bagram Air Field. One year later, by the end of 2016, we would anticipate that our military drawdown -- or that our military would draw down to the kind of normal embassy presence that you see in other countries, along with a security assistance component there to ensure the safety of American personnel that will remain in Afghanistan.
All of that, of course, is contingent upon the signing of the bilateral security agreement that’s been agreed to for many months now. But this is why we have been focused on ensuring a proper, but hopefully prompt, resolution of the Afghan election so that the new Afghan president can take office and sign the bilateral security agreement. Both of the remaining candidates have indicated a willingness to promptly sign that bilateral security agreement, and that would allow us to move forward with the strategy that the President laid out earlier this year.
Q And, realistically, how soon do you think it would be before that is signed? And do you think that that would make a significant difference in the continuing security situation there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s hard to assess whether or not an incident like this would have occurred had the election been resolved in a more timely fashion. What we are focused on
-- and this is the focal point of conversations that Secretary of State John Kerry had with the two candidates over the weekend. As I mentioned yesterday, Secretary Kerry telephoned both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to encourage them to remain engaged in the process of counting the ballots that were cast in the national election.
And the resolution of that election through the existing protocols that were established by the Afghan constitution are important. They will bolster confidence in the election itself. They will also bolster the mandate of the eventual winner and the next president of Afghanistan. So that investment in and commitment to the Afghan electoral process is critical to the future of that country and not disconnected from the strategy that the President has laid out for continued military involvement in that country.
Q So you think -- both candidates are ready to sign this thing right away. I mean, what are we talking -- months after one of them takes office? Or is going to be --
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, they will make that decision. I think both candidates understand the sense of urgency that the United States is feeling about the signing of that agreement. And that’s something that we would anticipate that they would hopefully -- well, let me say it this way. We will be asking them to sign it as soon as possible after that election result has concluded. But it will be up to the eventual winner to make the decision related to when that agreement would be signed.
Q More on the attack in Afghanistan. Does the President have any intention of speaking about this publicly today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update on the President’s schedule at this point, but we’ll try to keep you posted to let you know. The President is speaking at the CEO forum later today.
Q And this I believe is the highest-ranking U.S. military official to be killed in Afghanistan, the highest since the plane hit the Pentagon on September 11th. What added significance does it have? Or what does it say about -- obviously the loss of any American servicemember is a tragic event, but what does it say about the security that they were able to penetrate to the point of hitting such a high-ranking official?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I’m not in a position to disclose the specific rank of the individual who was killed today, other than to say that that person was --
Q The Pentagon has confirmed it was a general officer.
MR. EARNEST: And I did note that earlier, but in terms of his specific rank, I’m not in a position to confirm that.
But in terms of your question, a shooting incident like this occurring inside a military academy that I understand was operated by the ANSF but frequented and obviously included the presence of a large number of coalition service personnel as well is something that I’m sure is traumatic and, of course, it’s tragic. And our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the general who was killed in this attack. Our thoughts and prayers are also with those soldiers who were wounded in that attack. And I know that the military has taken the kind of extraordinary steps that you would expect to ensure that those soldiers who were wounded get the kind of medical treatment that they need.
It is a reminder of the service and sacrifice that so many servicemembers over the last 12 years have made to further the mission in Afghanistan of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda, and ensuring that Afghanistan could never again be used as a base of operations by a terrorist organization to strike at Americans here in the homeland or anywhere around the globe.
Q Is there any indication that this general was specifically targeted?
MR. EARNEST: There is an ongoing Department of Defense investigation into this incident, and so for questions like that, in terms of who perpetrated this event and why and whether or not the individuals who were wounded today were specifically targeted, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense who is conducting that investigation.
Let’s move around a little bit. Lisa.
Q Just a quick follow-up on the inversions. Is there a deadline for Congress to act on inversions, after which the President would take unilateral action, like immigration?
MR. EARNEST: We have not laid out a specific deadline. We would like to see Congress take action on this quickly. We also believe that, as I pointed out earlier, Lisa, that Congress should take action on legislation that would be retroactive, that we should not allow companies to sort of cynically capitalize on the fact that Congress is rather slow-moving these days, but by passing legislation that’s retroactive, we would ensure that companies couldn't benefit from the slow movement of Congress in this area.
That is consistent with the way that Congress has addressed this problem in the past, so that would not be an extraordinary provision of the law. But it's an important one and one that Secretary Lew described in the letter that he sent to Congress a few weeks ago on this issue.
Q Also, on Africa, the $14 billion in new investment you guys announced, are all those new as of this week, different from those from previously announced? And are we going to get a full list of all the investments and dealings?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that you will get a factsheet that will include some more details about the agreements that were reached in the context of this forum. In terms of when those deals were actually struck, I would anticipate that that information will be included in the factsheet. I also encourage you to just follow up with the individual companies who may be able to give you more information about the agreements that were reached.
Q And is there any consideration by the President to institutionalizing this, like a summit -- like making it a regular event like the G7 or G20 or something like that?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I have to announce from here. But I'd note that the President is certainly pleased to have an historic opportunity like this. Never before has an American President participated in a meeting that included up to 50 African heads of state to discuss the wide range of issues and the broad relationship that exists between the United States and some of the countries in Africa. So this is an historic and important occasion, and I know the President certainly wouldn't object to future meetings along these lines.
Q So just to be clear, Josh, the White House does believe the President would have executive authority to change U.S. tax law related to inversions?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to speculate about what sort of executive actions the President would take in this area.
Q But you have not ruled them out.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to rule anything in or anything out at this point.
Q Because there’s a rather elaborate precedent in this country of not just Congress but the House initiating all changes to tax law, just as it does with appropriations. And by you suggesting that it's possible if Congress doesn’t act that the President might do something with executive authority, I'm just trying to clarify if the White House believes it has -- and the President retains executive power to change U.S. tax law as it relates to inversions.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not in a position to render any judgment about the legality of any option. Again, I'm not in a position to rule either in or out at this point. So what we're focused on right now is calling on Congress to take action on common-sense legislation that would close a loophole that many companies have benefited from to avoid paying taxes to the U.S. government that they owe. Middle-class families certainly don't have the opportunity to sort of capitalize on a loophole to remain in the United States of America and benefit from all of the resources of this country but claim some sort of outside exemption.
So this is a matter of fairness. It's a matter of common sense. And we hope that Congress will act on that fairness and common sense to take the kinds of steps that I think everybody believes is necessary that would be in the best interest of the American economy.
Q The reason I ask is yesterday we had a conversation about the President’s preference that Congress do this with immigration. When a deadline was reached, he said, you know what, you're not acting so I'll do it on my own. And there’s a process by which the President is going to be given information as to what he can and cannot do. Has that process begun with inversions?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware.
Q The Israel government said yesterday this cease-fire is essentially the same one presented three weeks ago and much of the tragic loss is civilian life, therefore, must at least partially be laid at the feet of Hamas and its associated militants. Does the administration agreement with that point of view?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that have changed over the course of the last few weeks. There has been mounting international concern over the significant loss of life that has been sustained in this conflict. We've also seen the Israelis make significant progress in terms of destroying the tunnels that were used by Hamas fighters to carry out acts of violence against Israeli soldiers. We've also seen the Israelis make significant progress in destroying some of the sites that Hamas was using to launch rockets aimed squarely at civilians in Israel.
So based on the broad international concern about the violence sustained by both sides, and based on the progress that the Israeli military has made in accomplishing the military goals that they laid out, we believe that the circumstances for a cease-fire have been strengthened. More importantly, that is a conclusion that was arrived at by the two parties in this conflict, the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Q -- that civilian casualties could have been avoided if Hamas and its associated militant fighters would have accepted this three weeks ago, as the Israeli government asserts. What does the administration think about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no doubt that the Israeli government did previously agree to a cease-fire. I actually think that this happened a couple of times, that the Israeli government agreed to a cease-fire, and we saw that it was violated by Hamas. And that is something that we were quite critical of on those occasions in which it occurred. And we said many times that each day that this conflict continues that more civilians are going to be put in harm’s way and their lives will be put at risk.
And that is why this administration worked so hard in pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to at least put in place the kind of temporary cease-fire that would allow both sides to come to the table and have a discussion over the longer term by trying to put in place a protocol for deescalating that conflict.
Q To the degree the United States is going to be involved in these talks in Cairo, are these talks going to be about just prolonging a cease-fire, or actually getting at some of the underlying issues that have been unaddressed for many months since Secretary of State Kerry’s efforts on that came to a standoff or dropped several months ago?
MR. EARNEST: It would be the expectation of this country that -- I mean, first of all, it's important to understand that extending the cease-fire is going to require a decision that's made by Palestinian leaders and by Israeli leaders; that as much as the United States and other countries around the globe, even international organizations like the U.N. would like to impose a cease-fire, that can't successfully occur. A cease-fire will only be sustained if both sides who are a party to this conflict make the decision not to prolong the violence. So the point is these will have to be independent decisions that are made by the two sides.
I would anticipate that both sides will have long-held grievances and concerns about the conduct of the other side. And so it's going to require at least addressing some of these deep-seated issues in order to get a more sustainable cease-fire in place. So the United States and the U.N. and others will be advocating for a cease-fire to remain in place and against the resumption of violence, but I think it's going to require -- I'm confident that it will require a decision to be made by both sides. It will also require a discussion of some of the underlying issues that have plagued the situation for so many years.
Q One on a housekeeping matter. There were reports the President left the White House last night to celebrate his birthday in town. I want you to address that and tell everyone in this room that after a lid was called the President did not leave the White House under any circumstances. If you want to tell us how he celebrated his birthday we’d be happy to hear.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any details about how the President celebrated his birthday last night, other than to say that he celebrated the occasion here at the White House.
Q Thank you.
Q Josh, first on Ebola. You said at the top that the CDC has been working on this I think since March, and obviously it makes sense that professionals like that would be taking a lead. But as this has gotten more serious, can you lay out, has the President been briefed on this on a daily basis, weekly basis? How much more engaged -- I think you made a brief mention about the White House has been interfacing with CDC, obviously. Has it risen to the President’s level day by day?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, and other members of the President’s national security staff have been engaged with the CDC, HHS, and other organizations that have been principally responsible for responding to this situation. In the course of those discussion, the President has gotten periodic updates, as necessary, on the situation.
It's important, though, for people to understand that as bad as the situation is in three or four countries in Africa, that the CDC has assessed that there is no significant risk faced by Americans here in the United States as a result of this outbreak. And the reason for that is -- and I just want to go over the details here and remind people –-the reason for that is that this disease cannot be transmitted through the air; it's not transmitted through water; it's not transmitted through the food supply here in the United States. The only way that this disease can be transmitted is through the body fluids of an individual who is already exhibiting symptoms of the illness. In other words, a person is not contagious if they're not showing the symptoms.
That's why we feel confident that the kinds of screening measures that we have in place both on the ground in those countries but also at ports of entry here in the United States will be very effective in protecting the American public.
The CDC has also been in touch with public health officials in this country and with large medical facilities in this country to ensure that medical professionals are on the lookout for individuals who are exhibiting these symptoms so that they can be quickly quarantined and treated in a way that doesn't threaten the health of either those medical professionals or of the broader public.
Q Great. The reason I ask is we heard about this situation in New York that's being checked out yesterday, last night. Before we came out, a few moments before we came out, there was a possible case in Ohio where a woman I believe is being tested. But I guess I just want big picture, the White House believes that the public should not have great fear about this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is -- well, let me say a couple things about this. The first is I think that these reports that we’ve seen from the hospital in New York -- I wasn’t aware of the medical facility in Ohio or the reports from the medical facility in Ohio -- but I do think that both of those reports are evidence of the close coordination and consultation that exists between experts at the Centers for Disease Control and medical professionals all across the country.
In both -- certainly in New York, which is the case that I know a little bit about, you had a situation where medical professionals were keenly aware that they should be on the lookout for individuals who were exhibiting the kinds of symptoms that are associated with Ebola, and once an individual like that was recognized, proper steps were taken to quarantine that individual to ensure that the disease could not be spread to other patients in the hospital, any of the medical personnel in the hospital, and to ensure the safety of the public.
So that's an indication that the information for managing the situation is being effectively communicated from the CDC to medical professionals all across the country, and that is the reason that we do -- that the CDC, the experts at the CDC have assessed that there is no significant risk posed to American here in this country by this latest outbreak of Ebola.
Q Two other quick ones on Afghanistan. At the top when you were asked about this terrible tragic attack today, you again used the language about “we’re still dismantling al Qaeda.” And I wonder why you’d say that when the Associated Press has a story today saying that from 2010 to 2013, a U.S. government database of known or suspected terrorists has doubled in size. And I’m not sure why it’s doubled. I wonder if you could shed some light on it. But at a time when there are reports that this database has grown in terms of suspected or actual terrorists, how does the administration continue to say, al Qaeda is being dismantled?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the success -- primarily due to the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform -- has been in dismantling the al Qaeda leadership that was previously using Afghanistan as a base of operations to attack U.S. citizens here in the United States and around the globe. And there is no question that significant progress has been made in disrupting that terror network on the ground in Afghanistan.
And that is why the United States remains so committed to ensuring that we address the security situation in Afghanistan and build up the ability of the Afghan government to provide for the security of their country and their people, to ensure that their land can never again be used as a base of operations by a terrorist organization.
What is also true is that we have seen other groups in other countries in the region and in some places around the globe aligning themselves with the ideology and, in some cases, the tactics of al Qaeda. And this administration, in close consultation with our allies and partners around the globe, have been effective in countering and mitigating that threat to the American people. But that is what makes the work of our national security professionals and our intelligence professionals and our United States military so critical to our national security.
And there is no doubt that the policy and strategy that this President has put in place has -- again, thanks to the service of our men and women in uniform and intelligence professionals -- ensured that we are meeting that threat head on and mitigating the risk that's posed to Americans both here in the United States but also around the globe.
Q But to cite progress on the day when an American general was killed, doesn't that raise questions about whether we’re going to be getting out of Afghanistan too quickly, that timeline you mentioned earlier? And that the fear of the Taliban, al Qaeda building back up again -- how can you cite progress when an American general was killed today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the progress that I cited is the progress that was made, hard-won progress that was made by our men and women in uniform who have been serving in Afghanistan for more than 12 years, and there is no doubt that what previously was a base of operations for core al Qaeda no longer exists. And it no longer exists because of that work and our efforts to build up the Afghan government, to build up Afghan security forces so that they could eventually take security responsibility for their country. And the President has laid out a very specific strategy for how the United States can continue to stand alongside the Afghan people as they confront this threat.
But there’s no doubt that over the last 12 years that threat has been significantly degraded and the threat the emanates from Afghanistan to the United States has been significantly reduced. But there continues to be a threat posed by groups around the globe that align themselves with al Qaeda. And that is a threat that this administration works day and night to counter.
Q Speaking of those threats, a spokesman for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan suggested yesterday that Boko Haram, the al Qaeda threat and the headlines recently about Ebola have made it more difficult for them essentially to sell themselves as a place for investment because those kinds of headlines create uncertainty in businesses. Has there been any suggestion that that $14 billion is not firm or that those kinds of headlines about Boko Haram and Ebola could affect investment going forward and the success of this summit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you have to talk to individual investors about their assessment of investment risk on the continent of Africa. I think many investors recognize that there is tremendous opportunity that exists in Africa for the kind of investment that benefits Africans in their countries but also benefits American businesses in this country. And capitalizing on that opportunity is one of the critical goals of this conference -- or this summit that the President convened here in Washington. And that will be the subject of the President’s remarks today, where he’ll be meeting with African business leaders and CEOs and American business leaders and CEOs to further strengthen the relationship that exists between the United States and around 50 countries in Africa.
Q So that $14 billion is considered a hard commitment?
MR. EARNEST: It is. It is. And, again, more details about those commitments and those agreements will be released later today.
Q I also know -- it’s been reported that USAID has deployed or is going to be deploying a disaster assistance response team, and they’re going to coordinate U.S. government response to the Ebola threat. Can you tell us a little bit more about that team and what precipitated that deployment now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a lot more details about that specific team, but that is some of the -- those are some of the resources that I referred to earlier in talking about ramping up our efforts to confront this outbreak of Ebola in Africa and ensuring that our efforts are coordinated within the U.S. government, but also carefully and properly integrated with the international response that’s already underway.
And so the USAID has an area of expertise in this -- for dealing with situations like this. And for details about what exactly they’ll be doing on the ground, I’d refer you to the USAID.
Q Josh, on corporate inversions, why is it fair to question the patriotism of a company that tries to utilize a duly-enacted provision of the tax code?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you’re seeing, Mark, is that this is a tactic that is used by some of these companies to not actually change anything about their operation. The way that this often works, as it’s been described to me -- I’m a little bit of a layman when it comes to this area --
Q Join the club.
MR. EARNEST: -- but my understanding is that you essentially have U.S. businesses, in some cases large U.S. businesses, that purchase a much -- either purchase or emerge with a much smaller competitor that is based overseas. And even though that company is smaller than the U.S. operation, the U.S. company will organize in such a way that that overseas company becomes the parent company and, therefore, is assessed tax rates charged by that foreign country.
What that means is it means that the business that continues to be located in the United States, that continues to benefit from the infrastructure of the United States, that continues to benefit from the national security of the United States, that continues to benefit from the supply of workers in the United States -- well-educated, highly-motivated workers here in the United States -- they benefit from all of those things without paying their fair share in taxes. And the President believes that that’s simply not fair. It’s not good for the American economy; it erodes the tax base. And it certainly isn’t in keeping with much of the rhetoric that we hear from corporate America about the benefits and strength of this country.
And the President would like to ensure that this principle holds. And that is why we are urging Congress to take the step of closing this loophole that Congress didn’t intend to exist, and ensure that companies are dealing fairly in this area.
Q But if the law provides for it, why is it unpatriotic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s why we’re suggesting that the law should be changed. That’s exactly the goal of this effort.
Q Are there any other unpatriotic tax deductions or credits that you see out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not that I’m aware of right here off the top of my head, but if you spot one definitely let me know. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, Josh. The President has obviously expressed concern about human rights in some African nations and also governance issues, as you alluded to earlier. Is there any setting this week in which the President expects to discuss either of those things with the African leaders in town?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of sessions tomorrow that will be the venue for some wide-ranging conversations with the African leaders that the President will participate in over at the State Department. I don’t have an agenda to walk through with you in terms of what will be discussed in those meetings, but we do anticipate that we’re going to look at some -- that these meetings will be pretty wide-ranging in terms of the areas covered.
The economy is the focal point of today’s activities. And while economic issues I’m sure will be discussed in the context of the meetings tomorrow, there will also be discussion of areas like public health -- I think Chris mentioned earlier -- security and human rights. And there will be an opportunity for those kinds of discussions to take place both in the context of the formal meetings, but also in the context of the extensive sideline conversations that I’m sure will occur when you have 50 world leaders in a room. There are lots of different conversations that are being held at the same time.
Q And on that point, I know you don’t have time for bilateral meetings with each of these heads of state obviously, but will each one of those who has traveled here have some time to be in conversation with the President, even if it’s just at the dinner tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I do believe that there is a receiving line that is associated with the dinner tonight. In terms of specific conversations that the President will have, I can’t give you a script or a checklist for each one. But the President is certainly pleased that we have so many leaders from the African continent here in the United States of America. The President is looking forward to hosting them here at the White House tonight for a dinner that at least for a brief period of time in their visit here to the United States they won’t be focused on business and will have an opportunity to hopefully have a little bit of fun tonight.
Q And also, I know that the invitation had gone out to President Kenyatta, but I never heard if he actually accepted. Do you know if he’s here?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have the detailed list of those who are participating in the dinner, but I think we’ll get that list out tonight as we often do with state dinners. In terms of their participation in the summit, I’d refer you to the State Department. They may be able to give you some more information.
Q Is this is a state dinner?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that it is a formal dinner at the White House. I don’t know if it’s in compliance with the diplomatic protocol in place that describes some dinners as state dinners and some dinners as something else. But I know it will be a very formal occasion, and the President is honored to host so many world leaders here at the White House tonight.
Q Josh, Affordable Care Act question. Because the summer into the fall is a period of time in which consumers might be learning more about the premium pricing for the 2015 enrollment period, what role does the President hope to play going into the fall to educate consumers about what they should be doing? As you know, there’s been reporting that in some state-based exchanges the premiums may be going up considerably. And I’m just trying to figure out what kind of planning the White House has going forward.
MR. EARNEST: This is a pertinent question. I’m glad that you raised it. It’s important to remember that what we are seeing in marketplaces all across the country is that consumers were able to find in many markets very affordable options for ensuring their family had access to quality health care. That was one of the principal goals of the Affordable Care Act and one that we are gratified by.
In fact, the recent HHS analysis found that the average premium after tax credits was just $82 a month. And again, that is health care that meets standards that were set in place by HHS to ensure that quality health care would be available.
You’ll recall that before the Affordable Care Act, premium hikes year over year were generally around 15 percent a year. So we did see this sig increase in the cost of premiums year over year before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. And now that we’re in the early stages of the Affordable Care Act, we’ll be able to evaluate what impact that does have on premium prices. And that is something that individual states are starting to do.
What we have seen more broadly, as a general matter, is that since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, that the cost of health care has -- or the growth in the cost of health care has declined. And we certainly -- we’re pleased to see those kinds of broader trends. But what’s important is to make sure that those trends also benefit individuals, particularly when they’re shopping in marketplaces.
The last thing that’s also important to remember is that premium filings are the subject of a negotiation. So some of these early reports that you see in states are merely the opening offer -- or the opening bid that’s placed by insurance companies, and that they are subject to a negotiation process that last year you’ll recall resulted in a reduction in price for a large number of consumers across the country.
Q And so that process, is that something that the administration is monitoring closely -- dealing with and talking to insurance companies? For instance, as you know, there’s a report that in Florida, the risk pool is skewed older and therefore insurance companies are saying they would like to raise the premium rates for 2015. So in those cases, is there -- and you’re saying it can be adjusted -- but is the administration monitoring that and talking to insurance companies?
MR. EARNEST: We’re certainly aware of those ongoing conversations that are principally taking place between insurance companies and state officials. You’ll recall that at the very end of the open enrollment period this spring, the President convened meetings both with -- separate meetings -- with state officials and with insurance executives from across the country to talk about this very issue.
So this is something that the President and this administration, and even officials here at the White House have been focused on for a number of months now. And we certainly are committed to making sure that as this process gets resolved and as the premium levels get set, that there continues to be quality, affordable options for consumers all across the country, in many cases for consumers that didn’t previously have access to options like this.
Q On Jon’s question earlier, because the President was already scheduled to see Secretary Hagel this afternoon, is there any chance that that might be opened up and he might comment on the tragedy?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have changes in the President’s schedule to announce at this point, but if there are any changes that are made we’ll definitely let you know.
Zeke. I’ll give you the last one.
Q In his call to General Dunford this morning, the President asked for an assessment of whether the existing force protection measures in Afghanistan were adequate and whether any sort of -- whether the troop levels out of the rest of the year or into the next year or the year after that need to be revisited as a result of force protection concerns.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of an investigation that, of course, is just starting. But, Zeke, the President is very concerned about making sure that our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan who are doing very dangerous work have sufficient protection. Again, it’s dangerous and not the kind -- and involves taking on some risk. But if there are policies and protocols that can be put in place to try to mitigate that risk, the President is certainly open to suggestions from the Department of Defense for those kinds of recommendations.
This is something that the President spends a lot of time thinking about. And, again, while I would not want to be in a position to prejudge the outcome of that investigation --
Q Would he be open to sort of more -- if the Pentagon came back and said we need more troops in order to sort of adequately protect the forces on the ground, is that something the President would be open to?
MR. EARNEST: I think that the President has been pretty clear about the troop levels that he’s committed to and what our strategy will look like over the course of the next couple of years. I think the question would be, are there steps and protocols that can be put in place to ensure the safety and security of those the President has ordered to be serving in Afghanistan for the next couple of years.
And so if there are suggestions for a change in protocol or procedure that come from the Department of Defense, the President will, of course, give them very serious consideration and, if necessary, work alongside the Department of Defense to implement them effectively.
1:46 P.M. EDT
October 21, 2016
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October 19, 2016
President Obama and the First Lady Attend the State Dinner with Prime Minister Renzi and Mrs. Landini
October 19, 2016
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