the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/20/2015

*Please see below for a correction and clarification, marked with asterisks.

1:16 P.M. EST

     MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you all.  Glad you braved the cold to make it to the White House today.  I don't have anything at the top, Josh, so if you want to get us started with questions I'll let you go first.

     Q    I wanted to ask about the 800,000 Americans who won't be able to file their taxes on time because the government sent them incorrect tax information about insurance through healthcare.gov.  What went wrong?  And what is the administration doing to fix it?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, let me just correct one fact in your question.  This should have no impact on the ability of people to file their taxes on time.  I would anticipate -- HHS has said that they anticipate that they’d be able to send these updated forms in the next couple of weeks.  So it would be ample time for people to file in advance of April 15th. 

     It's important for us to sort of take a step back here and recognize what we're talking about.  We're talking about the fact that, first of all, 75 percent of people who file their taxes will just check a box on their tax forms to indicate that they have health insurance, whether that health insurance is provided through their employer, by Medicare, or even the VA. 

     The form that you're talking about only has an impact on those who are likely to qualify for tax credits to make their health insurance more affordable.  This is health insurance that they purchased through a marketplace.  It's also true that the vast majority of people who received this form actually got the correct version of it.  So we're talking about a very small fraction of people who are affected --

     Q    Well, 800,000 people is not a very small amount of people, though.

     MR. EARNEST:  It's a small percentage of overall tax filers. You're talking about less than 1 percent of people who file taxes.  And each of these individuals are people who are eligible for tax credits -- or likely to be eligible for tax credits from the government.  So we're talking about -- the question that has to be resolved is just how substantial of a tax credit are they going to receive from the federal government to make their health insurance more affordable.  And that is the question that HHS and the Treasury Department are working to resolve.  And we do anticipate that they’ll be able to resolve this within the next couple of weeks in terms of sending out the updated form to the small percentage of people who got the wrong one.

     Q    And in terms of what went wrong and what is being done to prevent it happening again, can you give us some insight into that?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is the process that's being run at CMS, so I'd encourage you to direct your questions over there to understand what sort of operational steps they’ll be taking to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.

     Q    Okay.  The Pentagon has started laying out details about this operation to retake Mosul that is going to be getting underway in a couple months -- very specific operational details about how many Iraqi brigades, Peshmerga forces.  And I’m wondering, why detail this in advance?  Doesn’t that just give your playbook to the Islamic State and make it easier for them to prepare to defend themselves against such an attack?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, I think I saw many of the same news reports that you may have seen on this.  This sort of operational planning that was discussed at the Department of Defense is something that’s done by the Department of Defense, so I’m not in a position to confirm the accuracy of those details.  But what we do know are a couple of things.  The first is that, of course, the Department of Defense is working closely with Iraqi security forces to train and equip them and build up their capacity so that they can take the fight on the ground in their own country to the ISIL militants that have encroached on their territory.  So this will be an effort that will be led by Iraqi security forces.

The second thing is that this is an offensive that won’t begin until the Iraqi security forces are ready.  This is something that will be Iraqi-led and it will be carried out by Iraqi security forces.  Now, they will, of course, be backed up by the coalition airstrikes that have proven quite effective on the battlefield against ISIL, and we would anticipate that with this advanced training, with new equipment, and with the strong support of coalition military airpower, that the battlefield performance of the Iraqi security forces will be enhanced.  That’s a good thing. 

But for the details about when this might commence, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.  And as it relates to reports that we saw overnight about what that offensive may look like, I can’t confirm the accuracy of that, and I’d refer you to the Department of Defense who, again, may be in a position to offer you some more details about it.

Q    Sure.  I’m not asking you to confirm the accuracy of those reports, but is there a concern among the National Security Council that if the Pentagon is handing out the playbook for what this operation is going to look like that it could make it less effective?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess the point that I’m making here is that I cannot confirm that that is the playbook.

Q    Has the President made a decision about whether, during that Mosul operation, to send in a limited number of U.S. ground troops specifically to help call in airstrikes?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has not made that decision.  I’m not even in a position to confirm that that request has been made by his military commanders.  This is something that General Dempsey discussed in his testimony before Congress and at that point -- last fall -- and at that point, what he said was this was an option that he would consider recommending to the President.  But as of last fall, he had not made a decision to recommend to the President that that was something that American military personnel should be in the position of doing.

So I don’t have anything new to report on this.  But what is true about the strategy that we have pursued here is that we believe it is in the best interest of American national security for the Iraqi people and their nation’s military forces to fight for their own country. 

And we tried it a different way; we tried it in the previous administration by deploying more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel to go on the ground and engage in sustained offensive combat operations in Iraq.  And what we found is that the security situation improved dramatically as a result of the courage and effectiveness of American military personnel. But what we found was that that solution was not enduring.  It did not endure because there was not sufficient buy-in from the Iraqi people.  And that is why our strategy this time is necessarily different, that we want the Iraqi people to be fighting for their own country.

And that’s why the strategy -- the President has pursued this strategy because he believes it is in the national security interest of the United States, but also that the Iraqi people and the security situation in Iraq will be better off under this strategy as well.

Q    And since it’s Friday, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in his attempt to clean up some comments he made about the President not loving America, says that he couldn’t possibly have been racist with those remarks because the President has a white mother and grew up among white people.  Any reaction to that from the White House? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, I don’t have a direct response to Mr. Giuliani’s comments, either from --

     Q    It looks like you have one to look to right there. 

     MR. EARNEST:  Why don’t you indulge me for a little bit and we’ll see if I can give you something to work with, even if it’s not a direct response to his comments.

     Many of you have been in the room when the President has delivered speeches where he’s talked about his love for this country or how the United States is a force for good in the world; in fact, it’s the greatest force for good that the world has ever seen.  And so we can send you those examples, and many of you have been in the room when he has delivered remarks like that, both in this country and around the world.

     More generally, I can tell you that it’s sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly.  And the truth is I don’t take any joy or vindication or satisfaction from that.  I think, really, the only thing that I feel is I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani today.

     Roberta.

     Q    On immigration.  A couple of days ago, you said that the administration would make a decision in a couple days about whether to pursue a stay of the Texas court judge’s ruling.  Has a decision been made?  And what’s the hold-up?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roberta, what I can tell you is that the Department of Justice has made a decision to file a stay in this case.  I would anticipate that they will file documents at the district court level on Monday at the latest.  And so when they have filed those documents, they and we will be in a position to talk a little bit more about our legal strategy. 

That, of course, is separate and apart from our intent to pursue an appeal.  That was something that we announced in the immediate aftermath of the decision.  And we will seek that appeal because we believe that when you evaluate the legal merits of the arguments that there is a solid legal foundation for the President to take the steps that he announced late last year to reform our broken immigration system.  That’s consistent with the way that previous Presidents over the course of several decades have used their executive authority.  And that is why we’re going to continue to pursue this case through the legal system.

     Q    So by filing a stay, what does that mean for people who are considering filing their paperwork for the program?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, the Department of Homeland Security has also put out a statement earlier this week indicating that, at this point, they’re not prepared to accept applications for the program that the President announced at the end of last year, but once we have taken some additional steps through this legal process, we may be in a position to give you an update about the status of implementing the program.  Obviously, some of this will depend on the way that the question of the stay is resolved.

     Q    Okay.  If I may jump to one other topic just briefly.  A senior Republican lawmaker, Kay Granger, has urged the administration to give Egypt fighter jets and weapons to fight ISIL, and she also wants to see weapons provided to Jordan and tools and training for the Peshmerga.  And I’m wondering whether the White House has a response to her demands and whether there’s any sort of explanation about why there’s been this hold-up with the fighter jets, specifically.

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roberta, as you know, each of the countries -- let me just start by saying I have not seen the remarks from Congresswoman Granger.  I’m hearing them from you for the first time.  But my initial reaction is that the countries that you and apparently she named are all countries that have a robust security relationship with the United States, a security relationship that's been enhanced under the leadership of President Obama. 

*    That's true of Egypt, with whom we have a very important counterterrorism relationship.  We’ve obviously worked through and, in some cases, are even still working through some of the differences that we have with that government.  But there is an important counterterrorism relationship between the United States and Israel Egypt, and we continue to believe that the interests of the United States are well served by continuing to have a strong counterterrorism relationship with them.

     I think something similar could be said about Jordan.  So we certainly welcome her interest in this issue.  But the administration has been focused for quite some time in making sure that we are working to maintain a strong security relationship with our allies and partners in the Middle East. 

     Jim.

     Q    Josh, just getting back to Mayor Giuliani.  Did the President have a reaction to those comments?

     MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.

     Q    Not that you're aware of.  Okay.  And on the President’s speeches this week on the countering violent extremism, specifically the one yesterday, he talked about some of the underlying issues that lead to extremism in the Muslim and Arab world, and he talked about the need for economic opportunity, human rights, democratic rights.  But it seems that many of the countries that he would be referring to are members of his own coalition.  Is the President going to be making that case to the Emir of Qatar, for example, when he comes to the White House next week?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't want to preview those discussions, but it’s true, Jim, that it wasn’t a coincidence that the President was talking about human rights and urging those world leaders to be cognizant of universal human values and to do their part to protect them.

     We do have important relationships with those countries.  They are valuable to enhancing U.S. national security around the globe.  And, yes, the President believes that it would be clearly in the interest of those countries, their leaders, and our national security if many of those countries did a better job of protecting the basic universal human rights of their citizens; that there are certain circumstances where we know that the governments -- or governments around the world when they fail to protect those human rights, that that only makes the recruiting ground for some terrorists more fertile.  And this is what the President was talking about in his remarks.

     And so, no, it is not a coincidence that in a room full of our allies and partners, some of whom don't live up to the kinds of standards that we wish they would when it comes to human rights, that the President brought it up.

     Q    These countries are breeding grounds for terrorists?

     MR. EARNEST:  That's not what I said, and that's not what the President said.

     Q    But I mean, that is, in fact, the potential.  If he’s talking to these countries, and they have these issues. 

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Jim, I’d encourage you to check the President’s speech.

     Q    Can I ask you about immigration?  Is the President ruling out a continuing resolution to keep the Department of Homeland Security open?

     MR. EARNEST:  The President believes that the Congress, particularly Republicans in Congress who now have the majority in both the House and the Senate, should fulfill their responsibility to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security doesn't shut down at the end of this month.  We're basically about a week away from the funding for the Department of Homeland Security running out.  It’s running out because Republicans insisted on not funding it for a full year at the end of last year.  And it’s on the brink of running out because Republicans have failed to take the steps that are necessary at the beginning of this year to ensure that the operations of that department are properly funded.

     So we certainly hope that they will.  There are all kinds of proposals that are floating out there, and I’m not in a position to react to any of them specifically.  But I will just say as a general matter that it is the responsibility of Republicans in Congress to do their job.

     Q    But he’ll sign something to keep things going if it’s necessary for a couple days to work out specifics, or --

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don't want to --

     Q    Is there flexibility there?

     MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen any sort of specific proposals like that.  But let me just also say that Congress is going to be returning from a week-long recess next week.  So on Monday, members of Congress from all over the country, many of them are going to board airplanes to return to Washington, D.C.  And as they do so, they're going to through security just like other Americans, and I hope that they're going to take a minute and look in the eye of TSA officers who are representing their country.  Those are patriotic Americans who are defending the transportation system, defending the airports, defending the safety of the traveling public.  And I hope that they will think about them as they come back to Washington, and consider what they’re going to do to fund the Department of Homeland Security. Because if they don’t, those individuals who process their luggage, who they had to look in the eye, will continue to do their job.  These are good Americans.  They’re patriotic.  They take their work seriously.  They’re professionals.  But they’re not going to get paid on time unless members of Congress step up and do their jobs.  And we’re hopeful that when Republicans confront that reality, that they’ll do the right thing.

     Jon.

     Q    Josh, coming back to the three-day summit on combatting violent extremism, why was FBI Director James Comey not invited to that summit?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, a couple of reasons.  One is, his boss was.  The nation’s top law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, attended.  The second is, we also had local law enforcement officials from across the country who could talk about their own experience in working with community leaders to counter violence extremism in their communities.  And the third is we wanted to make sure that there wasn’t a perception that this conference was overly focused on law enforcement tactics.  Certainly, law enforcement has a very important role to play.  That’s why we had the nation’s top law enforcement official in attendance.  That’s why we had police chiefs and other law enforcement officials from communities across the country in attendance.

     But the focus here is on the broader set of tools that are available to communities all across the country to protect vulnerable people who could be susceptible to violent extremist ideology that’s propagated on social media.

     Q    But, Josh, in terms of combatting violent extremism --

     MR. EARNEST:  It’s countering violent extremism.

     Q    Okay, “countering.”  Let’s say we want to combat it, too.

     MR. EARNEST:  We do. 

     Q    So in terms of countering violent extremism, isn’t the FBI Director -- the head of the agency that is on the front line of doing exactly that.  So you’re having a summit, a three-day meeting on countering violent extremism, and you don’t invite the lead official in charge of countering violent extremism.

     MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  We just invited his boss. 

     Q    Okay.  So you invite the Attorney General, you don’t have the FBI Director, but you did have the head of the Russian security service there.  How does that look?

     MR. EARNEST:  Hopefully, he was listening carefully when the President was talking about the importance of government respecting and protecting basic universal human rights.

     Q    But you don’t think that sends a strange message, to have the head of the Russian FSB, the successor to the KGB, at this meeting and not the FBI Director?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be clear about the Russian official who attended, the United States issued an invitation to the country; and Russia, in this case, made the decision about which official from their government would represent them.  So it wasn’t as if there was an invitation that was sent specifically to this official.  This is the official that the Russian government chose to represent them at the summit.

     Q    Was there any hesitation of having that official there from Russia, given that he is on the European Union’s sanctions list related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

     MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.

     Q    Another question about this.  I know you’ve gone back and forth over why the President’s officials don’t use “Islamic terror” as a term, or “Islamic extremists” --

     MR. EARNEST:  I think it’s fair to say we’ve all gone back and forth over that.

     Q    Yes, we all have.  But I just want to be -- just to button it up and be clear.  The White House, the President -- you don’t deny that in terms of the current threat, the groups that we are battling now, the primary threat are Islamic extremists?  That’s not something you disagree with, is it?

     MR. EARNEST:  Jon, there is no doubt -- and I said this, if you go back and look at the comments the last time that we went around on this, on Wednesday -- I think I was pretty clear about this, that there is a very real threat that is emanating from some of the darkest corners of the Muslim community around the world that does threaten Americans.  And that is a threat that we are very cognizant of.  And there are substantial --

     Q    Is that the primary threat we're facing right now?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, in terms of countering violent extremism, of course, it is.  It's not the only threat that we face, but of course, it's the primary one.  There’s no doubt about that.

     Q    Okay.  And buttoning up on Rudy Giuliani, you said something interesting.  You said -- correct me, but you basically feel sorry for him.  I mean, this is kind of -- you're kind of sorry to see what’s happened here.  Do you think Rudy Giuliani has lost it?

     MR. EARNEST:  I don't know.  But, look, any time that we have -- there is somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration, in some cases, to see that person so thoroughly tarnish their legacy, it's sad.  And again, there’s no element of schadenfreude that people are feeling around here.  The fact is, I think what people are feeling is sorry for Rudy Giuliani. 

     Q    And because, again, on this specific allegation, which -- however you want to characterize it -- but he says that he doesn’t believe the President loves America. 

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, there are a number of examples -- and, Jon, you’ve traveled around the world with the President so you know firsthand that there are a number of situations in which the President said exactly that.  The most high-profile example that I can think of was actually the last line of this year’s State of the Union in which the President said, “God bless this country we love.”

     Q    What makes somebody of that stature, Rudy Giuliani, what makes him say something like that?

     MR. EARNEST:  I don't know. 

     Ed.

     Q    Josh, given your sorrow for Rudy Giuliani, do you think the President has any regrets about saying President Bush was unpatriotic for adding $4 trillion to the debt?

     MR. EARNEST:  Ed, I don't know if “sorrow” is the word that I would use.

     Q    You said, “I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani.”

     MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I do.  I do feel sorry for him. 

     Q    Okay, so you feel sorry, but does the President have any regrets?  Regardless of what Giuliani said -- as a candidate, Senator Obama said that President Bush was unpatriotic.

     MR. EARNEST:  I think -- again, I haven't seen the actual comments.  I don't know if you have them there in front of you.

     Q    He said that the President -- I'm paraphrasing this part -- had added about $4 trillion to the debt, and then he said, “That's irresponsible.  That's unpatriotic.”  So I see a difference from Giuliani because he’s talking about an issue, but nonetheless questioning the patriotism of the President of the United States.

     MR. EARNEST:  I think that what the President was doing was he was questioning the specific wisdom of that decision and questioning whether or not that was in the best interest of the country.

     Q    He didn’t say that’s unwise.  He said that's unpatriotic.

     MR. EARNEST:  Right.  But again, he was talking about that.  He was not talking about a person.  And again, I think there is a lot that the President also had to say in the State of the Union about the level of our discourse, and there is no doubt that we're going to have significant disagreements across the aisle, and that is ultimately what a democracy is all about, where we go in and we debate the issues. 

But the President, as you’ll recall, in the State of the Union said we should have a debate that's worthy of the United States Congress and worthy of the country; that there are significant challenges facing this country, and that sort of resorting to a politics in which we question each other’s basic decency is not consistent with the reason that a lot of people got into public service. 

     Q    On the summit, I want to go back to what Jon was asking about James Comey.  You made clear, well, look, his boss, Eric Holder, was there.  But you also said, we wanted to make sure this wasn’t overly focused on law enforcement.  With that decision and other decisions at the summit, were you tiptoeing around not offending Muslims?  Or is there some reason why the summit was largely about just not offending Muslims for some reason?

     MR. EARNEST:  I certainly don’t think that’s the way that anybody here would characterize the summit.  I think this was an opportunity for us to have a very frank discussion with people all across the country about steps that countries can take to try to protect their communities and try to prevent people from being inspired by this radical ideology that is propagated through social media. 

And I think the goal of this summit was actually not to tiptoe around these issues but actually to confront them head on.  And that’s why we had leaders of law enforcement, we had leaders of the Muslim community who participated in this summit.  And it was an opportunity for us to have a frank discussion of these issues that certainly, as Jon pointed out, there is concern about the way that some of this ideology has infiltrated some Muslim communities.  But there’s an extremist threat that inhabits other communities in this country, and we’re mindful of those threats as well, and all of them were discussed at the summit.

     Q    In terms of confronting it head on, the former CIA Director, James Woolsey, was on CNN and said that he believes by refusing to call it Islamic terror, the President “looks scared.”  How do you respond to that?

     MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think that the countless terrorists that have been wiped off the battlefield as the result of military action that this President has ordered feel that the President is particularly fearful.

     Q    On the health care issue -- last one.  I thought your narrative was that Healthcare.gov was really doing a lot better.  Who is going to be held accountable for what seems like a pretty big mistake?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, as I pointed out earlier, what we’re talking about is we’re talking about a form that only has -- that will actually determine the size of the tax credit that an individual will receive from the federal government that will make their health care more affordable.  We’re talking about less than 1 percent of taxpayers being affected.  And we’re talking about government agencies between HHS and CMS and the IRS that are responsible for making sure that this gets fixed and gets done right.  And that’s why we’re going to address this promptly and ensure that people can pay their taxes on time.

     Alexis.

     Q    Josh, two quick things.  When the President selected Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, the White House and representatives of the Clintons spent some time talking about what some of the ground rules might be to eliminate maybe conflicts with what Bill Clinton might be doing, what the foundation might be doing, what the Clinton Global Initiative might be doing. 

And my question is, in relationship to some of the reporting about potential conflicts between Secretary of States’ activities in the administration and the fundraising for the family foundation, does the President believe there are any legitimate questions that need to be answered about problems that he and his representatives wanted to eliminate at the beginning?

MR. EARNEST:  Alexis, this is a question that I haven’t given a lot of thought.  I think I’d refer you to the State Department for any sort of questions like this that may have arisen.  I’m not aware of any.  But as you pointed out, there was an effort early on to make sure that obviously the former President’s large international profile was clarified and distinct from the official U.S. government activities, and there are situations in which former President Clinton did play an important role in representing the interests of the United States government.

Obviously, there was the effort that he led to build support for rebuilding Haiti after they suffered that terrible earthquake.  Obviously, former President Clinton took a high-profile trip to North Korea to recover a U.S. citizen that had been detained there.  So obviously it’s important to keep all of those things distinct.

But as it relates to any sort of questions like this, I’m not aware of any that have been raised at this point.

Q    And to follow up -- one quick cleanup on what Josh was asking earlier.  Maybe I’m the only one who’s confused about this, but are you saying that on the final day of the summit, that the President was not aware that there was a background briefing happening at the Defense Department to outline an operation that’s supposed to happen in the spring?  You seem to be suggesting the President was not aware of this.  Am I wrong?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know that that was the focal point of Josh’s question.

Q    Okay, so answer that question.  He is aware of this operation, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’re asking like four different things at the same time here.  Was the President aware of the background briefing that was being conducted by some military officials at the Central Command?  I don’t know that the President was --

Q    He’s aware of the operation? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’re talking about an operation the details of which I’m not able to confirm.  So if you are asking about whether or not the President is aware that the United States military is engaged in an effort to strengthen and fortify the Iraqi security forces, back them up with military airpower so that they can start retaking chunks of their country -- the President isn’t just aware of that mission, he’s the one who ordered it.

Q    Right.  But maybe my confusion is about why you cannot comment on detail of the operation, but yet you can comment on the strategy?  And then we’re asking questions about --

MR. EARNEST:  The Department of Defense is responsible for setting out the operational details of a mission.  And so that’s why I’m directing questions about these operational details to the Department of Defense.

Q    So you were aware that DOD was going to brief reporters?  You -- you were aware of that yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you were just asking about the President being aware of it, right?

Q    And now I’m asking you this.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know that I was necessarily aware that Central Command -- not the Department of Defense -- but Central Command was conducting a briefing.  But again, there are any number of briefings that take place across the federal government on a daily basis, and I don’t sign off on all of them.  Why are you shaking your head?

Q    It seemed like you were answering --

MR. EARNEST:  I guess if I did sign off on these background briefings I might be accused of mismanaging --

Q    No, no, no, if you were --

MR. EARNEST:  -- or micromanaging the Department of Defense, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of doing that.

Okay, Cheryl.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Getting back to the funding for Department of Homeland Security.  The President met with Senator Reid this week.  Did they discuss a path forward?  Or have you had conversations with the Hill.  What do you expect to happen next week?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Cheryl, I think the ball is in the court of the majorities in the House and Senate to make a decision about whether or not they’re going to fulfill their responsibility to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security is properly funded.  If they don’t take action by the end of next week, then we’ll be in a position where there are DHS personnel that are showing up on a daily basis to protect our ports, to protect our borders, to protect the friendly skies, so to speak, who will be doing so without collecting a paycheck on time.  And the President doesn't believe that's fair.  He also doesn't believe that's in the best interests of our homeland security. 

So we are concerned about the impact that this disruption in funding could have on Homeland Security operations.  We're hopeful that Republicans will do the right and responsible thing, and ensure that that agency is funded.

     Q    Is that really kind of what you're expecting, is maybe a shutdown?

     MR. EARNEST:  Again, prognosticating when it comes to congressional action, particularly now that there’s this Republican majority in place, is not something I’m willing to do -- at least in public.

     Mark.

     Q    Hey, Josh.

     MR. EARNEST:  You have a birthday coming up, I see.

     Q    Yes, I do -- (laughter) -- everybody how old I am.   

     MR. EARNEST:  Happy early birthday.

     Q    Thank you.

     MR. EARNEST:  I’ll withhold those details in terms of your age.

     Q    Okay, thanks.  The tax forms that went out erroneously, I realize you're saying it’s a small fraction of the forms that went out.  But we still have nearly a million people, roughly, who are going to have to wait to file their returns.  Admittedly, they’ll be able to do that before April 15th, but many of those people are owed refunds, so this is money that the government is going to be hanging on to for weeks at least.  And they won’t be able to file for their returns.  Aren’t those people owed an apology?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, here’s what I’ll say, Mark.  The IRS and CMS are working diligently to address this problem.  And it’s something that they take seriously.  But you were right to point out that the individuals who are affected are individuals who have received, or are receiving a tax credit from the government to make their health insurance more affordable.  And this is why they’re working expeditiously to address this problem.  And, like I said, we do anticipate that in the next couple of weeks we’ll have this cleared up.

     Q    So no apology is necessary for the fact the government is going to be hanging on to their money for weeks?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess, Mark, what we’re trying to do here is to try to solve this problem.  And certainly the American people should hold their government to a high standard and should count on these kinds of operations being implemented effectively.  And when they’re not, they should expect government officials to step forward and solve them as quickly as possible, and that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

     Q    Some of those people also are going to have to refile their taxes, those who’ve already filed, they’re going to have a substitute form.  Is this another self-inflicted wound, Josh?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, in terms of the mechanics about whether a refiling is necessary, I’d refer you to the IRS.  I’m not sure that that’s necessarily true.

     Q    In any event, is it another self-inflicted wound?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, it certainly is something that we want to make sure doesn’t happen again.

     John.

     Q    I wanted to ask you, Josh, about the President’s remarks that I watched a little bit earlier.  The President spoke at the DNC, and I realize it’s sort of an opportunity to cheerlead for fellow Democrats, but this meeting comes, I guess you could say, on the heels of a very bad midterm election.  Democrats lost the Senate.  They lost more seats in the House.  Why was there, in the President’s remarks, no recognition of that?

     MR. EARNEST:  I guess, John, what the President talked very directly in his remarks about the need for the country to look forward.  And that’s what he’s focused on, is the future of the country.  And the President wanted to talk about what are the values that he believes the party should stand for.  He’s the nominal lead of the -- head of the Democratic Party, as the highest ranking elected official in the Democratic Party.  And that’s what he was there to do, was to sort of lay out what he believed was his own vision for the country and how that’s consistent with the values that our party has espoused for quite a long time.

     Q    The President, though, it seemed, was looking backwards in a way.  He said, “The American people stand right beside us on most of these issues.”  And if that’s the case, why did Democrats do so poorly in the midterm elections if they do stand beside the President on so many of these issues?

     MR. EARNEST:  Jon, people have spent the last four months or so combing through the results of the midterm elections with their own theory and analysis about the outcome.  And you’re welcome to continue doing that, but I think I’m done.

     Q    Why no mention of ISIS to this group that gathered today here in Washington?

     MR. EARNEST:  Frankly, he was speaking to a political group and focused on politics, and they did spend a lot of time talking about the economy.  But, frankly, when it comes to national security, the President doesn’t believe necessarily that that’s at the top of the list when we’re talking about politics, that’s for sure.

     Q    Josh, can I follow up?

MR. EARNEST:  Let me move around a little bit.  Byron.

     Q    Thanks, Josh.  Was the White House aware that the NSA reportedly stole information from a private European company in order to access encrypted cellphone data?  Is that something the White House is aware of or signed off on?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Byron, you’re talking about -- I believe you’re talking about the latest report from The Intercept, I believe that publication is called.  I don’t have any specific information about that.  I’d refer you to the NSA.  I believe that the documents, however, were -- the basis of that report were actually from the U.K.

     Q    But they dealt with a U.S. agency.  It was a joint operation.

     MR. EARNEST:  But, again, I’m not going to be in a position to confirm or to discuss the details of those documents.  I’d refer you to the U.K. government about that.

     Q    Is that a legal authority, though, that the White House claims the ability to hack a private company for security reasons, whether it’s an allied country or not?  I mean, is there a legal theory under pins --

     MR. EARNEST:  For the legal basis of some of these kinds of questions, I’d refer you to either the DNI or the NSA.

     Q    One more try.  The White House recently has talked a lot about building public-private partnerships with U.S. tech companies for cybersecurity reasons.  Can the U.S. tech industry trust the U.S. government in the wake of some of these disclosures?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, Byron, we certainly are aware of how important it is for the United States government to work with private industry; that there are a lot of situations in which our interests are pretty cleanly aligned.  And there are certainly steps that the U.S. government has taken in the name of national security that some members of private industry haven’t agreed with.  But I do think that there is common ground when it comes to -- and this is a principle that I’ve cited before -- it’s hard for me to imagine that there are a lot of technology executives that are out there that are in a position of saying that they hope that people who wish harm to this country will be able to use their technology to do so. 

So I do think, in fact, that there are opportunities for the private sector and the federal government to coordinate and to cooperate on these efforts, both to keep the country safe but also to protect our civil liberties.  We’re talking about technology companies and technology executives that have a lot of expertise in this area.  And we can benefit from their insight and their perspective as we confront I think what everybody acknowledges are some pretty thorny public policy issues.  But by working together, we are confident that we can reach some common ground that reflects the necessary balance of protecting civil liberties, but also protecting the national security of the United States.

     Chris.

     Q    A couple things on the -- well, the second part of the Obamacare announcement today had to do with uninsured Americans, and there’s going to be a special period for them, people who didn’t realize that they were going to have to pay a penalty for not signing up for Obamacare.  Is the White House concerned that this latest problem with the taxes will reinforce a perception in some quarters that parts of Obamacare are broken and will make people who are uninsured less likely to sign up?

     MR. EARNEST:  No.  If anything, Chris, I think this is an opportunity for us to talk about the fact that there are millions of people all across the country who can go to a marketplace, who can shop for health care, and they can actually get a tax credit from the federal government to make that health care more affordable.  And so --

     Q    But you can understand why someone would say, yeah, but if I had to sign up for Obamacare I could potentially not have my tax return now, or I will have to go back to the Treasury Department, or I can’t file yet.  Does it perpetuate an idea that there are all these problems with Obamacare? 

     MR. EARNEST:  No.  Again, I think it is a good reminder that there are millions of people that stand to benefit from this law, and all they need to do is to go to the marketplace.  And there are some people who, as you point out, may still be unaware of the fact that they will face a penalty if they don’t sign up and if they haven't signed up.  And that is why the IRS and the Treasury and HHS have coordinated on what we believe is a pretty novel solution to this challenge, which is to set up a special enrollment period for individuals who did have to pay a penalty in their 2014 taxes for not having health insurance, and were previously unaware that they were required to do so. 

So there will be this limited six-week window in which those individuals can ensure that they can limit the penalty that they have to pay and actually make sure that that money is going to a good purpose, which is protecting themselves and members of their family with health insurance.

     Q    And how do you respond to Republicans who say this is just another example of how this was not well thought out, that it’s a constantly moving target, they’re constantly changing the rules of the game?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think what I would do is I would just refer them to the seniors across the country who have saved billions of dollars on their prescription drugs because of the Affordable Care Act.  I’d refer those Republicans to the fact that since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, health care costs have grown at the slowest rate in recorded history.  I would note that the uninsured rate in the United States has gone down faster than at any time since the early 1970s. 

And I’d just point out also that hospitals have saved an estimated $5.7 billion just last year in lower, uncompensated care costs.  That’s good for our deficit.  It’s certainly good for the bottom line of those hospitals.  And it’s also good for every American in the country that has insurance, because it’s going to have an impact on their premiums.

     So there are substantial benefits associated with the Affordable Care Act.  And I recognize that it’s awkward for some Republicans who voted against the law that has resulted in such significant benefits for the country.  That’s probably pretty difficult for them to explain, so I can imagine that they may be looking for an opportunity to try to wriggle out of that.  But that’s going to become just more and more difficult as time moves on here.

     Q    If I could read one sentence from the President’s remarks today at the DNC, taking them out of context.  But he said, “It’s making a nation we love more perfect.”  Was that written in after as a response to Rudy Giuliani?

     MR. EARNEST:  It was not.  As I pointed out, the President said something very similar at the end of the State of Union address this year -- “God bless this country we love.”  So the fact is the President often talks about his love for this country.  It’s not unique.

     Lori, nice to see you.

     Q    Good to see you, Josh.  What is the reaction of the administration to the latest events in Venezuela?  And also, President Nicolás Maduro accused the government, the U.S. government of trying to overthrow his government in a plot that they say they discovered last Wednesday.

     MR. EARNEST:  These allegations that we’ve seen from the Maduro government, like all previous such allegations, are ludicrous.  The fact is the Venezuelan government should stop trying to blame the United States and other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government actually needs to deal with the grave situation that it faces. 

The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government.  In fact, the United States remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner.  The Venezuelan government should stop trying to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems, and focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue among the people of Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government should respect the human rights of its citizens and stop trying to intimidate its political opponents. 

And we continue to call on the Venezuelan government to release political prisoners, including dozens of students; opposition leader; and Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma. 

Q    The U.S. government has already taken some actions against Venezuelan individuals with some sanctions.  Are you considering any other action?  Are you seeking -- maybe seeking help from other countries in the hemisphere, like Brazil, that could put pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the Treasury Department and the State Department are obviously closely monitoring this situation and are considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.  That obviously means that we’re continuing to engage other countries in the region in talking about operating in coordinated fashion as we deal with the situation there.

But ultimately, it’s going to be the responsibility of the government of Venezuela to stop blaming other countries, including the United States, for their problems, and start tackling them head-on.

Q    Could I ask you one last question?  This is in regard to an emergency stay.  The Justice Department I understand will file probably by Monday.  If that is denied, what would be the next step for the administration?  And how frustrated would you be that these DACA/DAPA would not be implemented?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to assume the rejection of a legal document that has not yet been created or filed yet.  So we’ll have an opportunity to talk about this more next week, I’m sure. 

But the thing that you should remember is, in addition to the stay that we do anticipate will be filed by Monday at the latest, the U.S. government will be appealing the decision.  And the reason for that is we continue to believe that there is a solid legal foundation for the steps that the President has taken to bring some accountability to our broken immigration system.

And there are a couple of other important points that are worth noting about the ruling.  The first is that the ruling did prevent the federal government from issuing work permits and requiring state agencies to issue driver’s licenses and other documentation.  And I recognize that this is a ruling that some Republicans have cheered.

The fact of the matter is, those steps are exactly the kind of steps that are required to bring millions of people out of the shadows, to make them submit to a background check, to make them pay taxes, to make them get right with the law.  It’s surprising to me that that kind of accountability is something that Republicans would actually oppose, not to speak of the kinds of significant economic benefits that would be associated with these individuals actually paying taxes.

The second thing is, the court ruling doesn’t, however, touch the ability of this administration to make decisions about prosecutorial discretion.  And one element of the President’s proposed reforms was to ensure that our enforcement activities were focused on felons and not on families; that we believe that these efforts should be focused on rounding up and deporting individuals that have a criminal history, individuals that may pose a national security threat of some kind, or individuals who may otherwise pose some kind of public safety threat to the communities in which they're living.

     What we should not be doing is using those very important but insufficient enforcement resources to focus on separating families; that, frankly, we need to be focused on the public safety risk that's out there.  And that's why -- DHS can provide you these materials -- or these metrics.  But what we're seeing is an increasing number or increasing percentage of deportations has been individuals with a criminal history.  And that's an indication that our enforcement efforts are improving on this scale.

     And thanks to the efforts of the President and this administration to exercise prosecutorial discretion, we're going to see that metric continue to improve.  And that's going to mean safer communities for everybody.

     Bill.

     Q    Back to cybersecurity and hacking.  The Journal yesterday said that three months after the State Department discovered hackers in its system, they're still there.  Last fall, I think around the end of October, you announced that there had been hackers discovered in the White House system.  Are they still there?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, the update that I have for you on the incident here at the White House is that we have taken appropriate steps to address the activity of concern and protect our systems. 

     And although we have addressed this particular incident, we're mindful of the fact that networks at the White House will continue to be a target.  So we're going to continue to monitor our networks for additional activity of concern.

     Over the course of that intrusion, I can tell you that our computer systems were not damaged, though some elements of the unclassified network were affected when we took our initial mitigation steps.  And that's something that we talked about before, as well.

     We’ve restored the vast majority of services that we took offline during those mitigation efforts, and are continuing to take additional steps to bolster our defenses.  We're also focused on longer-term efforts to implement broad cybersecurity initiatives that will further protect not just the computer network here at the White House but all across the federal government.

     Q    So are you saying that there have been no further intrusions into the White House system?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I’m saying is that we’ve taken appropriate steps to address this specific activity and the concern that we discussed last fall.  And we’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure that our systems are protected.

     Q    So you're not saying that there have been no further intrusions?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I’m saying is as much as I can.

     Q    Well, and are you concerned about the State Department situation?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, yes, of course we are.  We are certainly monitoring that situation, as well, but in the same way that we monitor reported breaches of computer systems that affect U.S. agencies, U.S. companies and U.S. infrastructure.  Now, we’d note that the Department of State has been working closely with a variety of government agencies, including the FBI, on a comprehensive investigation and a specific response to the intrusion that’s taken place over there.  And that work is ongoing.

     Scott.

     Q    Josh, on this question of the sort of awkward partnership with countries in the Middle East that contribute to the kind of grievances the President was talking about.  He was asked about this specifically last month.  He’d just given a speech in India talking about religious tolerance and women’s rights, and then he was headed to Saudi Arabia.  And he said at the time, “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights with our immediate concerns in terms of countering terrorism and dealing with regional stability.”  So my question is:  Is the President comfortable with the way that balance is struck right now?  Or is he worried that our immediate security concerns may be planting seeds for trouble down the road?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Scott, this is something that's evaluated on an ongoing basis.  But I think that the President’s commitment to ensuring that the United States continues to be a beacon of liberty, and a country that stands at the vanguard of protecting basic universal human rights, is embodied in the fact that the President, when standing before these world leaders, brought it up.  Nobody asked him a question in the context of yesterday’s summit.  He brought it up proactively and talked about the need for countries to live up to their requirements that they respect and protect the universal human rights of their citizens.

     And the President did that for a variety of reasons.  The first is, it’s consistent with our values.  But the second is, as he explained, it’s consistent with the kinds of steps that countries around the world can take to counter violent extremism; that as countries take steps that are detrimental to human rights, it can enhance the ability and create a more fertile recruiting ground for extremists.  And that's exactly the threat that we're trying to counter.

     But the President has been pretty forthright about the need to balance all of those concerns.  There are countries that don't have the kind of human rights record that we’d want them to have that yet still continue to be good partners with the United States in a way that is advantageous for our national security.  So there is -- these are complicated issues, ones that are constantly under evaluation here.  But the President’s seriousness about these issues and about speaking up and speaking out for human rights -- both because of the values associated with it, but also because of the impact it has on our national security -- again, I think is consistent with his decision to raise it proactively at yesterday’s summit.

     Fred.

     Q    Thanks, Josh.  A couple things.  First, with the DNC winter meeting going on today, does the White House have any comment regarding the controversy in Florida with Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the allegation that she was willing to change her position on the medical marijuana?

     MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of that situation, Fred.  I’d refer you to the Congresswoman’s office. 

     Q    Okay.  It was reported in Politico that she talked to a donor and asked him to take back his criticism of her if she would change her position.

     MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t see the report.  I’ll have to go take a look at it.  Apologies to all Politico executives out there. 

     Q    Another question then.  On the minimum wage, you’ve talked about that with the Walmart situation.  Is there an argument, though, to be made if Walmart is doing this voluntarily, that they see an economic benefit for their part, then there may not be a need for the government to step in and mandate a wage, if the private sector is taking the lead on this?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s certainly one argument.  I think the argument, though, Fred, that I would make is that executives at Walmart certainly have a strong track record of understanding the kinds of business decisions that they can take that will enhance their bottom line.  And what these executives concluded is that offering more flexible scheduling policies to their workers and raising their wages was good for their bottom line and good for business.

     So the reason I think it’s notable is that Republicans’ excuse for not raising the minimum wage is that it’s bad for business.  So I think this is the reason that we hold up this example, as we have with other private sector companies that have also sought to raise their workers’ wages.  They find that it’s good for business.  They find that it’s good for the economy, and they find that it’s good for their bottom line.  We believe everybody should benefit from it.

     Q    Would it be good for all businesses, though, or just those that are as big as Walmart?  I mean, some businesses might not be able to afford it as well.

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is something that when you look at the macroeconomic impact and when you look at the individual experience of businesses, that they have found that it’s good for the bottom line.  And there are a number of small businesses that we’ve held up as employers who are doing the right thing by their employees.  And, again, I’m confident that as business owners, they are not motivated solely by charity.  They’re also motivated by profit, and they do believe that this is good for their bottom line, that it allows them to do a better job of retaining their workers, which cuts down on their training costs.  It also inspires greater loyalty among their workforce.  And that is a good thing. 

And, again, this can take a variety of forms.  It can take -- it could be as simple as increasing the pay in their paycheck.  It can also take the form of offering up paid sick leave or policies that allow a flexible work schedule.  These are the kinds of things that will make a real difference in the lives of middle-class families.  And that’s why the President has advocated putting in place these policies all across the country, not just in a few select locations where they’ve chosen to take action.

     Mark.  Another birthday boy.

     Q    Thanks.

     MR. EARNEST:  Happy birthday.

     Q    Thanks.  Is there a “birthday interview with the President program” that I might qualify for?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  If so, it seems like there would be a lot of radio reporters interviewing the President today, between you and Mark, and I saw that one of your colleagues at Sirius XM is having a birthday today, Tim Farley.  So something in the water, I guess, about being born on this day.

Q    I don’t mind going first.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m sorry?

Q    I don’t mind going first.

MR. EARNEST:  Oh, okay.

Q    I thought it was part of your “send a fourth-grader to the park” program.  (Laughter.)  Will some of yesterday’s trip to Chicago be billed out as political travel?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe so.  The President was using his -- again, another example of the President using his executive authority, his official authority, to travel to Chicago and designate Pullman Park as a national monument.

Q    He stopped at a phone bank for Rahm Emanuel, and he gave remarks there that were totally partisan.  Doesn’t that qualify as political travel?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d have to check with the attorneys.  I don’t believe that it does.  It means there’s a political stop, but the reason for the travel was to make this presidential announcement about the Pullman National Monument.

Q    But under the rules, aren’t you required to deduct some of the taxpayer-supported travel from political travel?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let’s -- I can follow up with you and we can dig in on the rules on this.

Q    Would you?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.

*Given the campaign stop for Mayor Emanuel, Thursday’s travel to Chicago has been deemed a mixed official and political trip. Consistent with past practice, we follow all rules and regulations to ensure that the DNC or other relevant political committee pays what is required for the President to travel to political events.

Q    Okay, and one other question.  Did the President make any decision yesterday about the site for his presidential library?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has not made any decisions, but he did have the opportunity to get a briefing, get a little update on the progress of the committee that’s been formed to evaluate the proposals that have been put forward by a number of locations; I believe they include New York, Hawaii and Chicago. 

But the President has not made any decisions yet.  I think one way you can tell that it was not a decision-making meeting necessarily is that the First Lady wasn’t there.  I anticipate that she’ll have some input on this decision, as well.  But when we’re ready to -- when a decision has been reached and we’re ready to roll out an announcement, I’m sure you’ll be hearing from the committee.

Q    It lasted two hours, the meeting.  It seems like they had a lot of time to discuss the issue.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d note that a lot of the people who participated in that meeting are also friends of the President, so my guess is they were mixing a little business and pleasure.

Andrew.

Q    A question on Libya.  Islamic State has claimed responsibility for bombings that have killed up to 40 people in eastern Libya today.  Why is there a military response to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and not in Libya, given these increased number of attacks that you’re seeing there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple of things about that.  The first is that the United States condemns today’s terrorist attack near Qubba, Libya that took the lives of more than 40 innocent victims, as well as all the other violence and terrorist acts that have been inflicted on Libya, its people, and others living in Libya in recent months.  We send our condolences to the victims and their families, and to the people of Libya as they continue to fight back against terrorism.

This latest terrorist attack underscores the need for all Libyan parties, including General National Congress members, to participate in the U.N.-led dialogue convened by Bernardino León, the Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General, to form a national unity government.  Those who choose not to participate are excluding themselves from discussions which are critical to combatting terrorism, as well as to the overall peace, stability and security of Libya.

The best way to counter these terrorists who are operating in Libya is to help the Libyan people build the national consensus that they need to fight these groups instead of each other.  And ultimately, that is what we’re focused on, is that we have seen that violent extremists and terrorists have sought to use instability in one country or another to establish a safe haven.  That’s certainly what they have attempted to do in Yemen.  It’s certainly what they had designs on doing in Syria.  And that is why you’ve seen the United States take pretty aggressive action in both of those places to counter their ability to establish a safe haven there.

We’re mindful, and have been for some time, of the ongoing insecurity and instability inside of Libya.  And we have been supportive of this U.N.-led dialogue to try to bring some more stability to that situation; and in doing so, it will enhance the ability of the central government to provide for the security of the Libyan people and ensure that radical extremists and terrorists are not able to use it as a safe haven to carry out attacks either against the Libyan people or against other people in the region.

So we’re very mindful of the situation in Libya.  We obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms today’s terrorist attacks.  And it’s a situation that we’re going to continue to monitor.  But while we do that, we’re going to continue to be supportive of the U.N.-led dialogue.

Q    And just another one on Ukraine.  The State Department said that the Russian-backed rebels have broken the ceasefire 250 times.  Are more sanctions now inevitable?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States does continue to be deeply troubled by ongoing military operations conducted by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, which have continued despite Russian and separatist commitments to an “immediate and comprehensive ceasefire.”  This is a commitment that they reaffirmed in the February 12th Minsk Implementation Plan.

Russia and the separatists it backs have acted in direct contravention of the Minsk Implementation Plan.  And we call on all the signatories to that document to carry out the commitments undertaken in the plan, and the September Minsk agreements, fully and without delay.  Despite these aggressive actions, we continue to support a negotiated solution to the crisis.  At the same time, we’ve made repeatedly clear that President Putin has a choice.  We’ve also made it crystal clear that the longer that the Putin regime continues to refuse to abide by the commitments that they have made in the context of diplomatic negotiations, that the risk of higher costs will continue to increase.

We have seen that the sanctions regime that’s already been in place only tightens as time goes by, that Russia becomes further isolated.  And whether you evaluate the investment climate in Russia or the value of the currency, or future projections of economic growth, that Russia has taken a hit and that hit worsens as the weeks and months go by.

So that’s the status quo, is that the impact of the sanctions regime is having more of a bite.  What’s also possible is that it’s possible that there could be additional costs over and above those increasing costs that could be imposed.  But any sorts of decisions like that will be made in coordination with our allies in Europe, and we have valued the kind of close cooperation we’ve gotten so far from our allies over there.  And that cooperation will continue in an effort to maximize the impact of these costs

Q    I guess my question is, if you’re saying they’ve broken the ceasefire 250 times, how many times do they have to break it before you say, okay, we’re not thinking about this anymore, we’re going to implement more sanctions?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s a legitimate question.  And certainly as we see Russia fail to live up to those commitments -- and President Putin in particular fail to live up to those commitments -- it does put them at risk of facing even higher costs.  And the question has always been -- and this is a question that I’ve gotten in this room before -- has always been, at what point do the costs become sufficiently high that Russia and President Putin reevaluates his strategy for his country’s actions in eastern Ukraine? 

And that’s something that we’re going to continue to watch.  And if the President determines in consultation with our allies in Europe that additional sanctions are needed and additional costs should be imposed, then we’ll act in coordinated fashion to impose them.

     Jessica, I’ll give you the last one.

     Q    Just going back to the Mosul attack briefing.  I just wanted to be clear in your answer to Alexis:  Did you or did you not know that CENTCOM was doing a briefing with reporters?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, as I explained to Alexis, I am not aware of all of the background briefings that are -- or even on-the-record briefings that are conducted all across the federal government on a daily basis.

     Q    Was there any effort by the White House to make coalition partners aware that CENTCOM would be discussing the operational details of the Mosul attack?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m not in a position to confirm that the details that they cited are accurate, but there is a lot of intensive international coordination that actually goes on at CENTCOM.  Many of you will recall that when the President went to CENTCOM last fall, he met with representatives from other countries who are integrated with the efforts at CENTCOM.  And we take very seriously, and I know the Department of Defense takes very seriously the responsibility that they have to closely coordinate with our partners and allies who are part of this coalition.

     So, again, you’d have to check with Central Command about whether or not they incorporated these foreign representatives either in that briefing, during the briefing, or in advance of it. 

     Q    So it wouldn’t be the White House role there to inform coalition partners on that?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, not necessarily.  Not necessarily.

     Q    And what about informing Qatar that they were going to be outed as a training site when they hadn’t been before?

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t know that they were outed.  I’m not aware that --

     Q    (Inaudible) before.

     MR. EARNEST:  Well, it doesn’t mean that Qatar wasn’t ready to announce it.  The President, however -- I guess this is a good segue to the week ahead.  The President will be hosting the --

     Q    I tee’d it up for you.

     MR. EARNEST:  There you go, it was good. 

The President will host the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, at the White House on Tuesday, February 24th.  The President looks forward to discussing with Sheikh Tamim political, economic, and security issues of mutual concern to our two countries.  The United States and Qatar have a longstanding partnership, and this meeting is an opportunity to further that relationship, along with our shared interest in supporting stability and prosperity in the Middle East.  So I’m jumping ahead.  That meeting will occur Tuesday here at the White House.

     On Monday, the President will meet with the National Governors Association.  In the afternoon, he’ll participate in an ambassador credentialing ceremony in the Oval Office.  At this event, as you’ve seen in the past, the President will receive the credentials from foreign ambassadors recently posted in Washington.  The presentation of credentials is a traditional ceremony that marks the formal beginning of an ambassador service in Washington. 

I mentioned that on Tuesday the President will meet with Sheikh Tamim.

On Wednesday, the President will travel to Miami, Florida to participate in an immigration town hall meeting hosted by Telemundo.  Further details about the President’s travel to Florida will be made available in coming days. 

On Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.  That evening, the President and First Lady will host a reception celebrating Black History Month in the East Room. 

And then on Friday, the President will welcome President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia to the White House.  President Sirleaf’s visit comes at a time of critical cooperation between the United States and Liberia.  The President looks forward to building on a strong and historic partnership with Liberia and discussing a range of topics with President Sirleaf, including the ongoing Ebola response, the region’s economic recovery plans, and other issues of mutual interest.

With that, I hope you all have a tremendous weekend.  Thank you.

Q    Josh, are we going to get any readouts about calls to foreign leaders today?

MR. EARNEST:  There is a possibility of that, so stay tuned.

Q    Will there be a veto event next week on Keystone?

MR. EARNEST:  If there is, we’ll let you know.

Q    Did you get anything on the Ayatollah that I asked you about?

MR. EARNEST:  Actually, I did, so I'm glad that you brought that up.  Let me get through this. 

What I was reminded of after our discussion on this topic on Wednesday is that the President on a couple of times has been asked this directly, and the President himself has said that he tends not to comment on communications that he has had with foreign leaders.  He has in the past acknowledged exchanging letters with the Supreme Leader. 

But as I said on Wednesday, we don’t have any new details to share with you.  The one thing I will say is that contrary to some recent reports, there has been no recent letter from either side.  Speaking more broadly about our policies vis-à-vis Iran, our message both in private and in public has been consistent:  That the United States will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon and that we encourage them to engage constructively with the international community to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program.

As you’ve also heard us say, we’ve raised significant concerns about Iran’s support for terror activities and other destabilizing activities in the Middle East.  And we often, and even in the context of these letters, have raised concerns about Americans who are being held against their will, or are missing in Iran.  And those are things that we have said publicly many times, and that’s consistent with the private messages that the President has communicated to the Supreme Leader in letters that they’ve previously exchanged.

Q    Thanks, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Thanks, guys.

                           END             2:28 P.M. EST