Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I do not have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, do you want to start?
Q: Sure. I wanted to get the President's reaction to the Iowa caucuses last night. Was he glad to see Donald Trump defeated? Was he concerned to see the amount of support that Ted Cruz garnered in the Republican primary -- caucus?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I did not have a chance to talk to the President about the caucus results last night, so I'm sorry to disappoint you on that front. I think, in general, what I can share with you is that for at least a generation, Republican candidates aspiring to work in this building have tried to claim the mantle of President Reagan. While they've sought to claim his mantle, they have utterly failed in trying to claim his message of sunny optimism -- at least this year.
We've seen a campaign that's been characterized by candidates trying to exploit people's fears and anxieties and insecurities about the future. And those candidates ended up doing pretty well last night. And I think it's why a lot of Democrats wake up this morning, at least at this point, not particularly concerned about the potential match-up that we would face in a general election when you consider that all of the candidates are now under more pressure than ever to sort of adopt this pessimism and darkness in terms of assessing the future of the greatest country on planet Earth.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have been pretty forward-leaning, talking about the opportunity that exists for middle-class families, and the need to put in place policies in Washington, D.C. that actually will do more for the middle class. And that draws the outlines of a general election whose outcome bodes quite well for Democrats.
Q: A lot of people here at the White House are obviously very interested and engaged in seeing a Democratic successor to this President. Looking at the results of the Democratic caucuses last night, is there concern here at the White House that a drawn-out slugfest between Hillary Clinton and an upstart candidate who is doing very well with young people could be difficult for the party or weaken the party's eventual nominee, heading into the general election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Josh, even in framing your question you're sort of noting some of the echoes to 2008. I think while it's not a perfect analogy, I think it's an apt comparison. And many people worried about the same thing in 2008, about Senator Obama and Senator Clinton getting sucked into a long, bloody, drawn-out primary campaign that could hurt the general election candidate -- or hurt the Democrats in a general election. It turned out that the opposite was true -- that the drawn-out primary campaign in 2008 had the effect of sharpening and improving the skills of both candidates on the stump and on the debate stage. It had the effect of forcing Democratic campaigns in just about all 50 states to build up a turnout operation that yielded important benefits in the general election.
There are a lot of my colleagues who were focused on the ground operation that said that the aggressively competitive Democratic primary in the state of Indiana -- I believe Election Day in 2008 in the primary in Indiana was in May, so sort of something that was basically unprecedented in at least the modern political schedule -- led directly to the President's ability to win Indiana in the general election.
So I don't know if that's going to be the case in 2016, but those concerns in 2008 were unfounded. And I think there's certainly the potential that you could find in 2016 that a message that has -- or a campaign and a debate that has clearly energized Democrats in Iowa -- and I think we'll see energized Democrats in New Hampshire, too -- that having this campaign go to some other states would have the effect of energizing some Democrats in other states that eventually would be beneficial to whichever candidate emerges as the Democratic nominee.
Q: Turning to the meetings here today at the White House, the President and congressional leaders. I know that at least the lunch portion of the agenda is probably still going on, but from the earlier portion with McConnell and Ryan, do you have any early readout you can give us or sense of what the leaders spoke about?
MR. EARNEST: I can give you sort of a brief overview of their discussion. The President spent some time sort of highlighting five of the priorities that he's hopeful that we can work with Congress on this year. The first of those is addressing the crisis in Puerto Rico. I know that Speaker Ryan and other leaders in the House of Representatives have committed to taking action in the first quarter of this year to try to give government authorities in Puerto Rico more tools that they can use to address the financial challenges that are facing Puerto Rico.
The second topic of discussion was ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell are obviously committed supporters of an agreement that would cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that are imposed by other countries. So there's an opportunity to discuss the path forward there, and obviously the President is eager to see Congress take that action as soon as possible this year so that the U.S. economy and U.S. businesses and American workers can start enjoying the benefits of that agreement.
There was also a discussion of additional steps that the administration and Congress can take to fight the opioid epidemic. Heroin abuse is actually something that has gotten a lot of discussion on the campaign trail. And you may have seen the announcement from the White House earlier today about the additional resources that we would like to commit to fighting heroin abuse in communities large and small all across the country. We've certainly been pleased to see this issue get a lot of bipartisan attention in the context of the presidential race, particularly in New Hampshire. So today seemed like an appropriate day for us to talk about some of the administration's plans for confronting that significant challenge.
Just two other things that I'll mention. Yesterday there was the meeting of administration officials to discuss the cancer moonshot initiative that the Vice President is leading. There has been interest expressed by Republicans in Congress to supporting that effort, and that was discussed today.
And then of course they talked about criminal justice reform. And we've seen a lot of bipartisan discussions take place on that issue, frankly, for more than a year now, so it shouldn't be surprising that that came up in the meeting as well.
Q: Just before he came over here this morning, Speaker Ryan was saying that basically the best thing about the Iowa caucuses last night was that it signaled the start of the end of the Barack Obama presidency. And I was wondering what the outlook from a lot of Republicans that they're basically trying to run out the clock on this administration -- does that bode well for compromise or some progress on the issues that you just mentioned?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I think that's an appropriate question when you consider that the President is not going to be on the ballot in 2016. But all the Republicans in the House of Representatives are going to be, and a third of the United States Senate is going to be on the ballot, too. And there will be a lot of voters who are asking those members of Congress exactly what they've been doing for the last two years and what they've done to earn their vote, particularly when you consider that Republicans, with a lot of fanfare, captured strong majorities in both Houses of Congress in the last election and I think a lot of voters are going to be asking incumbents what exactly they've done with that privilege.
And so this goes to something that I mentioned a little bit last week. There's a lot of coverage lately of some Republicans on Capitol Hill -- not a majority, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill -- signaling a desire to undermine potential bipartisan cooperation between Republicans on Capitol Hill and Democrats in the White House -- and whether that is approving TPP, or working on criminal justice reform. And that's, understandably, covered by many in the news media as a rejection of the President's legislative agenda.
We obviously would like to see those two things advanced, and we're certainly going to be invested in trying to advance those two priorities in our legislative agenda. But it begs the question about what exactly is on the Republican legislative agenda. The only thing that we can reliably count on appearing on the Republican legislative agenda are repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare. Republicans are poised to host another vote in the United States Congress today, for the 60th time, to repeal Obamacare. It's almost like it's Groundhog Day -- except that today it actually is Groundhog Day, and they're doing it again. (Laughter.)
So I'm not really sure that qualifies as the contours of a proactive legislative agenda. But it does put some pressure on Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell, and other Republicans in Congress to lay out what it is exactly they support, and try to find some common ground with the administration. We certainly have done that. And we've made clear that some of the items that we have prioritized are things that they strongly support in their own right. And hopefully we're going to find willing partners on Capitol Hill to advance those measures. I think that is certainly the expectation of most voters across the country.
Q: So moving on to another topic. Today some top U.S. generals told lawmakers at the Senate Armed Service Committee -- Armed Services Committee hearing that women should be required to register for the draft. I was wondering, is that an official White House position at this point? Does the President believe that women should be required to register for the draft?
MR. EARNEST: It is not an official administration position. I believe that those military leaders were asked their personal opinion on that. I didn't see the exchange firsthand. But there is no policy change to announce from here today.
Q: Are you considering it?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of how seriously this is being studied by the Department of Defense. I know that there have been some members of Congress that have advocated for expanding Selective Service to include women registering, as well. So I've seen those kinds of proposals floated, but I don't know how seriously that is being considered. You might check with the Department of Defense to get a steer on it.
Q: On North Korea, they've notified some U.N. agencies that the country plans to launch a satellite later this month, and this could be an attempt to advance the country's development of long-range missile technology. How concerned is the White House about this latest announcement? And does the international community -- does the U.S. need to move faster to get more sanctions on North Korea to kind of stop these actions that could be considered provocative? Or is something more than sanctions needed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the international community -- I feel confident in telling you that the international community would regard a step like that by the North Koreans as just another irresponsible provocation and a clear violation of their international obligations.
We have been working with the international community, both at the U.N. and with our allies and partners in the region, to confront North Korea for their destabilizing activities. Just a few weeks ago they conducted a nuclear test that violated sort of their basic international obligations. And carrying out a satellite launch like the one that has been discussed publicly would just be another destabilizing provocation on the part of the North Koreans.
And that's not just the view of the United States. I feel confident in telling you that is a view that is shared by our partners at the United Nations Security Council and by our allies and partners in the region that had been seeking to stabilize and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Q: But is there anything that can be done to stop these actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States has worked closely not just with our allies in South Korea and Japan, but also with our partners in China and Russia, to convey to the North Koreans the need to end their provocative actions.
And there are a range of options that have been on the table. And we certainly have, in our conversations at a diplomatic level with the Chinese in particular, encouraged them to continue to work with us and develop potential options. And obviously China is in a unique position. They have unique influence over the North Korean regime. And we certainly are pleased to be able to work cooperatively and effectively with the Chinese to counter this threat. And that work will continue.
We haven't, at this point, announced any specific response to the North Korean nuclear test, but that certainly has been the subject of intense diplomacy over the last several weeks. And once we have developed an appropriate response and are prepared to implement it with our allies and partners, then we'll be prepared to talk about it with you then.
Q: Josh, were you in the meeting with Ryan and McConnell?
MR. EARNEST: I was not.
Q: So the readout you gave us was just based on what the agenda -- you knew the agenda to be?
MR. EARNEST: And based on a conversation that somebody on my staff had with somebody who was in the meeting.
Q: Do you expect to be able to give us any more about the tone of the talks today?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. But if there's more detail that we can dig out for you, we'll look to do that.
Q: On another subject, yesterday the Treasury Department posted that the national debt topped $19 trillion -- $8.3 trillion of that was -- soared during President Obama's watch. Is this something that the President is concerned about as part of his legacy?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, the measure that we are focused on is the percentage of debt to GDP. And the best way for us to confront that is to actually start driving down the deficit as a percentage of GDP. And under the President's leadership, we have actually reduced that measure 75 percent because of this President's commitment to fiscal responsibility. And we have -- at least in fiscal year 2015 and in the last couple of years -- succeeded in driving the deficit-to-GDP ratio below 3 percent. That is the measure that economists tell us over the long term will stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is the statistic that we follow most closely.
And I think in the budget proposal that we'll put forward, the longer-term vision that the President has is to continue to keep the debt at a relatively stable level as a percent of our GDP.
Q: My understanding is the debt is over 100 percent of GDP, that gross total debt at $19 trillion. That's an enormous amount. Do you believe that is sustainable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what we're seeking to do is to try to limit the growth of the debt as a percentage of GDP. And that's why we've been so focused on driving down the deficit. And that's why, frankly, the President is pretty proud of the success that we've had in reducing the deficit by 75 percent since he took office.
But this is certainly a measure that we're mindful of. And look, to understand the long-term trends here we have to sort of take a look at what exactly happened. When the last Democratic President was leaving office, he was passing off budget surpluses as far as the eye could see to his successor. His successor inherited that strong fiscal position and proceeded to put in place tax cuts that predominantly benefit the wealthy and the well-connected, and launched a ground war in the Middle East -- all without paying for it. And that also led to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression that put enormous pressure on the federal budget.
And digging out of that economic downturn, leading our economy to recovery and doing it all in a fiscally responsible way will be a hallmark of the President's legacy.
Q: The Congressional Budget Office projects a $100 billion increase in the deficit for FY17. Is that something that corresponds with OMB's projection?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen what OMB's projections are, but we can certainly check with you on that.
Q: We get it Tuesday anyway.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think it will be a part of the budget proposal that we'll put forward.
MR. EARNEST: Ron.
Q: Back to Iowa. You said how the winners of that were pessimistic, dark, all negative, so on and so forth.
MR. EARNEST: I think others have made that observation, but I have, too.
Q: It also marked the rise of another candidate who is a young person who represents a different generation, who arguably has not been as dark and has been optimistic and sunny. What's the administration's reaction to that, to Mr. Rubio?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mr. Rubio finished third and did so on the back of television ads saying that he no longer recognized his country.
So, look, it is difficult to differentiate among the messages from all of the candidates. I think that people like Senator Rubio have felt an intense pressure to try to parrot the pessimism and darkness of the leading candidates on the Republican side. And that does not position the party -- the Republican Party or the Republican Party nominee very well for a general election matchup in which they'll be squaring off against a Democratic candidate that's committed to building on the progress that this country has made under President Obama's leadership.
The Republicans will be offering up a candidate that is pessimistic about the future and committed to taking our country back to exactly the kinds of policies that got us into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first place.
So I think that's why -- again, I think that's why a lot of Democrats wake up feeling pretty good about our presidential prospects this morning.
Q: With the meeting, the Ryan-McConnell meeting, you said that the President had five things he wanted to highlight. Did they have five things they wanted to highlight? Or four things, or 10 things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for a readout of what they came to present, you should check with them. The five things that I noted that were on the President's agenda and that the President brought up in the meeting are things that Republicans themselves say that they support. It doesn't mean we agree on every single aspect of them, but surely there is opportunity to find common ground when trying to fight heroin addiction or trying to cure cancer.
So you'd have to ask Republicans about what they're agenda is. This was part of my response to Josh's question. It's not really clear right now what their agenda is. We certainly know what they're against. We know they're against a health reform bill that has driven down the uninsured rate and driven down the growth in health care costs, to say nothing of the fact -- sort of alluding to Mark's question -- repealing the Affordable Care Act would actually have a disastrous impact on the fiscal situation in this country.
So again, you'd have to talk to Republicans about what exactly it is they're trying to advance.
Q: So at this early read, there's really -- you can't say anything more about where there might be some cooperation, an idea that they have that the President would run with?
MR. EARNEST: All five of these are things that they say that they agree with. All five of these are ideas that they had.
Q: In the past, but was that -- was there agreement on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just to be blunt, out of respect for them, I'll let them describe what they said in the meeting. I'm not the spokesperson for Speaker Ryan or for Leader McConnell, and if they want to characterize their conversation with the President, then I'll defer to them to do that. All I can tell you is that the proactive agenda that the President put forward included these five things, which are five things that they say that they support.
Many of these are things that right now some of these Republican candidates who are on the campaign trail are actually trying to advance. So, for example, fighting heroin addiction. Why don't we lay the groundwork so that the next President has a running start in trying to address that specific challenge?
Q: On TPP, where are we technically in terms -- can they bring it up at any time? Or are we still on a waiting -- just so I --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it's a complicated process. We are not yet at a place where the President has forwarded the agreement to Congress for their ratification.
The signing ceremony for the Trans-Pacific Partnership I believe is actually scheduled for tomorrow in New Zealand. This will be at the ministerial level. The United States will officially agree to the agreement. Part of the commitment that the President made was that we would give the American public ample opportunity to review the agreement before we signed it. And so that will be taking place in New Zealand tomorrow. After that, there are a couple of other steps before Congress has an opportunity to consider it.
So I'm not standing up here and suggesting that Congress should act tomorrow to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What I am saying is that once we go through this process and that there has been an opportunity for the public to carefully consider what's included in the agreement, we'd like to see Congress act quickly on it.
Q: You must be aware that time -- where the line is that they have to act before or there's not enough time.
MR. EARNEST: I don't at this point have a specific time frame to lay out. As this process moves farther, we'll be able to characterize a little bit more clearly for you what the calendar would look like in terms of what sort of legislative steps would be required to ratify the agreement.
Q: Josh, do you have any more detail you can share with us about the President's visit to this Islamic Society in Baltimore tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly looking forward to his visit to this mosque in Baltimore. The President will begin his visit by sitting down for a roundtable discussion with some leaders in the Muslim community. And the President is looking for the opportunity to have some dialogue, to talk to leaders in the community about what's on their minds, what their concerns are. And the President is certainly looking forward to that discussion.
After that the President will have an opportunity to speak to a broader audience at the mosque, and it will be an opportunity to do a couple of things. The first is to affirm the important role that Muslim Americans play in our society and to affirm our conviction in the principle of religious liberty, that law-abiding Americans should be able to worship God in the manner that they see fit, consistent with their religious heritage and traditions, in a way that doesn't subject them to either interference from the government or, frankly, divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail.
And this is an important message, and the President is looking forward to delivering it.
Q: is this -- in this message, is it a recognition that the President thinks profiling and discrimination against Muslims is a problem right now? It's not theoretical, it's a reality?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let the President's words speak for themselves tomorrow. I think the President has talked a lot about how important it is for the government to have an effective partnership with leaders in the Muslim community. We know that there are extremist organizations like ISIL that are seeking to use social media to radicalize vulnerable members of the population. And certainly the leaders in the Muslim community have a strong interest in preventing that from happening.
And we will have more success in our efforts to prevent that if we work effectively with the Muslim community to confront that threat, as opposed to branding everybody who attends a mosque as a potential enemy of the United States of America. A, it's not true; and, B, it's going to be counterproductive to our efforts to fight extremists.
Q: So is this a personal appeal by the President to get Muslim leaders to help root out extremism when they see it in their own communities? Is that a specific request from the President?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the point that I'm making, and I've made before, and you'll hear the President make again tomorrow, is that we already see that that's what leaders in Muslim communities are doing; that we do see that there are Muslim leaders in communities all across the country who are concerned about the pernicious influence of the radical ISIL ideology and they are looking to protect their community from that. And the U.S. government should work with them to do that.
But, look, I also don't want to leave you with the impression that the President's remarks at the mosque are going to be focused on national security. I think the President is quite interested in making sure that we're affirming the important role that Muslims play in our diverse American society, and certainly affirming their right to worship God in a way that's consistent with their heritage. And they shouldn't be subject to ridicule or targeting by anybody, let alone somebody who aspires to leading the country.
Q: Since this is the President's first visit, do you expect anything to come out of it? Are there proposals that the President is bringing, or is this just a conversation?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't expect any policy proposals tomorrow. But I would suspect that the President's activities tomorrow will prompt exactly the kind of discussion and debate that the President thinks is worth having.
Q: Two topics. This one first. Can you talk a little bit about the buildup of kind of anger or frustration that the President has seemed to have on this topic of the rhetoric against Muslims, dating back -- I don't know -- at least to when he was on the trip to Turkey, and all of the stuff came up with the Syrian refugees, and he seemed very eager to repeatedly come back to this topic again. Does it go back further than that? And can you talk a little bit about what -- sort of how this appears to be kind of a culmination of that sort of finger-wagging at the Republicans and the candidates about the kind of rhetoric that he just feels very strongly about?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is certainly true that we've seen an alarming willingness on the part of some Republicans to try to marginalize law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans. And it is offensive. It's not just offensive to the President. I think it's certainly offensive to a lot of Muslim Americans. I think it's just offensive to a lot of Americans who recognize that those kinds of cynical political tactics run directly contrary to the values that we hold dear in this country. And I think the President is looking forward to the opportunity to make that point.
And again, we have seen a willingness on the part of leading Republican presidential candidates to try to appeal to people's fears and anxieties, and they capitalized on terrorist attacks to do exactly that. And it's unfortunate. And I don't think that most Americans have had a particularly positive reaction about that. And I think the President is looking forward to the opportunity to affirm the kinds of values that are broadly held in this country.
Q: Quickly, a follow-up on that. In Turkey when we were there, he didn't limit it to a partisan attack against Republicans. He was very frustrated with Democrats on Capitol Hill and in this country that were questioning the Syrian refugee program. Are tomorrow's comments limited just to Republicans? Is it essentially a partisan critique that he's prepared to make?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's no doubt that there are people in both parties who've gotten swept up -- or at least at the time, sort of got swept up in the furor around all of this. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that Democrats have -- well, let me just say it this way. It has been a transparent strategy on the part of Republicans to play on people's anxieties, to target religious minorities to advance their political ambition. And there have been some people who are not Republicans who have gotten a little swept up in that. And the President was frustrated by that. But there is no doubt that the cynical strategy that's been employed by some leading Republican candidates is a violation of our values that the President is most concerned about.
Q: And just on the Paul Ryan and the meeting with Leader McConnell, I understand you want to talk about the things that were on the President's agenda and you want to leave the reaction from the Republicans to their folks. What was the President's reaction to the things that they brought to the meeting? What did he say? What were the topics of conversation that were beyond the five things that he wanted to talk about, and what did he say about them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again --
Q: This isn't a question about what their comments were.
MR. EARNEST: You're being very clever, so I'll give you that up front. I'm not going to have a whole lot more detail than this. I can tell you that --
Q: You don't want to talk about the topics that -- the other topics that were discussed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because I want to be deferential to Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to describe their contribution to the meeting. But I also didn't sit in on the meeting, so the level of granular detail I can provide to you is limited.
The other thing that I can say that I didn't mention in the first run at this is the President was pleased with the opportunity to sit down with them, and he was -- again, for all of the divisiveness and hateful rhetoric and pessimism and partisanship that we see on the campaign trail, it actually is possible for leading Republicans to sit down in the same office with a leading Democrat and have a conversation about the priorities of the country. And it's not treasonous to do that. In fact, it's part of the responsibility that goes along with leadership.
And it certainly doesn't mean they agreed on everything. They didn't. But where there are areas of agreement --
Q: You don't want to give an example of where they didn't agree? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't. But where they did agree, there is an obligation that both sides have to try to find that common ground. And the President, in the year that [he] remains in office, is certainly committed to doing that. And maybe it's easier for Republicans to do that, knowing that the President is not on the ballot. Speaker Ryan said he was reminded of that today. If that makes it easier for us to get some business done in Congress that's going to benefit the American people, then maybe we should hold the Iowa caucus every day.
Q: On the list that you keep referencing for this meeting, you mentioned several times that trying to fight the heroin epidemic is something that seems to be an area of possible compromise. But are there any signs that Congress is willing to allocate these new resources that the President is calling for?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see what sort of Republican reaction there has been to the budget proposal that we put forward today. But I'm confident that as the Congress undertakes the serious work that they have to undertake to pass a budget that the proposal that we put forward will be carefully considered.
Again, oftentimes budgetary debates sort of break down along party lines, and I would acknowledge that things like investing in education is something that Democrats have traditionally supported and Republicans have been traditionally skeptical of that. And we can have a debate about that, but that is sort of a traditionally partisan thing. I do think that most Americans agree with Democrats on that, but that's another matter.
My point is, is there's nothing inherently partisan about dedicating the kinds of resources that we have proposed to helping people who are suffering from heroin addiction. And both parties recognize that there are long-term consequences not just for those individuals and not just for their families, but for the broader community. And trying to address the root causes of some of that is an area where we're hopeful we can find some common ground.
Q: And back on Iowa. It now seems official, the AP has just declared Clinton the winner of the caucuses. Any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: That's a lot of responsibility, Josh, that the AP has. (Laughter.) This is an election that's conducted by the Iowa Democratic Party, but yet it is the Associated Press who determines whether or not who won.
Q: I did not do it personally from my phone. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I was going to say that's an impressive show of multitasking to sit there in the front row and count votes at the same time.
Listen, this is the first contest in what I expect will be a series of competitive ones. And it was a spirited and close race in Iowa, and I suspect it's not the last state where we say that.
Q: But no kind of congratulatory message?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, obviously, Secretary Clinton has won, so congratulations to her. But, look -- and I'm sure they feel good about that. They should. But this is -- Secretary Clinton, based on her 2008 experience, knows better than anybody that these kinds of contests -- or that the path to the Democratic nomination is a long one. And she can -- again, based on her 2008 experience, she would tell you that the outcome in Iowa is not indicative of the outcome in New Hampshire. So whether or not she came out on top in Iowa, I'm confident that she would be campaigning like an underdog in New Hampshire.
Q: And what do you make of how close it was? I mean, it came down to three-tenths of a point.
MR. EARNEST: Look, it's a spirited debate. And she clearly had a very sophisticated and effective turnout operation, and her field staff and her staff in Iowa I think should feel very good about the way their operation performed last night. At the same time, it's clear that Senator Sanders has, just in the space of a few months, inspired a passionate following. And I think that's a testament to his skills as a candidate. It's also a testament to the power of his message. And he should feel pretty good about that.
I guess the one advantage I would say that he has is it's easier to take that message to other states, and Secretary Clinton's team are going to have to do the hard work of building a grassroots infrastructure in the states ahead. So, look, it's going to be a spirited competition. I think all of that is good for the country, and it's good for the democratic process. I also think, as I mentioned to Josh, I do expect that it will eventually be good for the Democratic nominee.
Q: Secretary Clinton got lots of attention from one of her emails where she called the caucus process "a creature of the extremes of both parties." So would you say that the results last night exemplified that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's a difficult thing for me to comment on because, based on my own experience, I have a different sort of assessment of the caucus process. There is no denying that because of the impediments to participating in the caucus, you don't just sort of show up in a 12-hour window and cast a secret ballot -- at least on the Democratic side. It requires more of a sustained commitment to the process and to the party.
So does that mean that you're much more likely to have partisans participating in the process? It definitely does. But, look, everybody knows the rules on the front end. It's not as if it was -- that it was a surprise to anybody who is participating in the caucuses exactly what the rules were going to be. And this is the kind of competition, again, that serves to hone the organizing skills of a particular campaign. It certainly hones the skills of candidates who are put to the test of participating in town hall meetings and forums and living room conversations for months on end. It's a grueling process. But, ultimately, it's one that reflects something important about our democracy.
These are Iowans in both parties who are participating in essentially community-run, self-run events to organize, cast ballots, and have them counted. So there are parts of it that are a little anachronistic, but it also is a pretty pure form of the kind of democratic ideals that are pretty important to the strength of our democracy.
Q: And the extreme closeness of the Democratic race, and Ted Cruz coming out on top -- was that surprising to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn't particularly surprised. Traditionally, in Iowa -- again, I don't know what everybody at the White House thought, but traditionally, at least in recent history, those on the Republican side, those candidates that had demonstrated the most success in building support in the evangelical community in Iowa had ended up winning the Iowa caucuses. That was true of Senator Santorum in 2012. It was certainly true of Governor Huckabee in 2008. And knowing how hard Senator Cruz had worked to build support in that community in Iowa, I know that wasn't what the polls say, but I wasn't particularly surprised by the outcome.
Q: When you look at each side, isn't this kind of a perfect example, though, of the extremes of both parties in this particular contest?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I think it's hard to say. I don't think that -- I did have the chance to watch some of the C-SPAN coverage of a couple of the polling locations -- caucus locations yesterday. And the process is not always clean and efficient, but I don't think everybody that I saw on camera, at least, was an extremist. (Laughter.)
Q: You can tell by looking?
MR. EARNEST: It seemed to me that most people were committed to participating in a democratic process, both on the Republican and Democratic side. And, again, I've seen some news coverage of that email from Secretary Clinton. My experience in the caucuses has just been different.
Q: Okay. And do you know if the President watched any of the results coming in last night?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him this morning, so I don't know how much he watched. I'm confident that he has read a lot of the coverage of the results, though.
Q: Okay. And Speaker Ryan did put out -- his office put out a note this morning criticizing what the President wants to do with his budget. It's not that that was unexpected, but what does that mean for some of these really specific elements that the President wants to fund for the upcoming year? Even some of the ones where you say there's a lot of bipartisan support, but hearing that from Speaker Ryan, it doesn't exactly sound too optimistic overall.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, budgets are always -- particularly in an era of divided government -- are always an exercise in compromise. And that's certainly been true the last couple of years. And I would anticipate that if we can reach a budget agreement this year, that the same will be true.
There will be some budget priorities that Speaker Ryan is able to advance in the context of the budget, and hopefully, there will be some priorities that we'll be able to advance, too. And if we strike that compromise in the right place, I think it would be a good thing for the country and I think it will attract the support that's necessary to be passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President.
Q: Among those priorities, even when the President met with the Democratic leadership and afterwards you laid out what those priorities were, Gitmo was never mentioned, even though in other venues you talk about that being a major priority. And you've laid out that the plan is going to save money. All of the virtues of this plan you've laid out. But by never mentioning it as something that the President can work with Republicans on, are you essentially saying that there's no chance of that going anywhere?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think what I've tried to do is to lay out the areas where a bipartisan agreement is likely -- in some cases, blatantly obvious -- and that's a good thing. When it comes to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, not many members of Congress share that priority. And that's unfortunate, but it's certainly not going to stop us from making the case that doing so would be good for our national security and would be good for our country's fiscal situation.
Q: So did the President lay out any desire for the TPP vote to happen before the lame duck session? Was that part of the conversation at all? You talked about the calendar and the immediate, but what's his take in the meeting, or what's the White House's take?
MR. EARNEST: I think there was a general discussion about timing for considering congressional votes on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We're obviously not there yet because there are some additional steps that this agreement has to go through before it can be presented to Congress. But we haven't laid out any firm deadlines at this point. We've just made the case that it would be good for the country and our economy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be approved by Congress as soon as possible. The good news is, it's not just the White House that shares that view. Other organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau, who are strong supporters of Republican causes, who share that view.
Q: So, ideally, would you want this passed before the lame duck session, before the election, or vote to happen --
MR. EARNEST: I mean, we're obviously going to have to work with Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell on that. We haven't set out any firm timing deadlines at this point, but we certainly would have a bias toward earlier action from Congress.
Q: The Republicans would say that what's going on with this meeting and the stuff that you've laid out is that it's an old game from you guys, that you sort of beat them up for being obstructionists, and then use it for political gain.
MR. EARNEST: Prove us wrong. Prove us wrong. Do it. Just do the five things then. Take that argument off the table.
Q: So if the Republicans were to pass TPP and criminal justice reform, then you think that the Republican majority should be reelected?
MR. EARNEST: No, certainly not. (Laughter.) But I think Republicans would certainly have a stronger case to make to the American electorate that they should be able to retain the majority if they can actually point to something that they've done in the last year other than vote to repeal Obamacare.
They'll probably queue up four or five more of those votes, but that's not doing anybody any good. That's not helping any Republicans do anything. It's not helping anybody find a job. It's not strengthening our economy. It certainly isn't strengthening the security of the country. It's not helping anybody get access to health care. It's not improving our fiscal situation. So what are Republicans doing to address those challenges? The President has got some good ideas of where we can work with Republicans to do that, but we haven't actually seen anything from Republicans about that. If anything, we see comments from people like Tom Cotton who suggest that even bipartisan agreements should be torpedoed somehow.
Q: But you guys think that the Republicans should be voted out of office, whatever they do on these agenda items, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, what we believe is that Republicans should work with the President on at least these five areas because it's good for the country for them to do so and because they say that they support these things. So if you accept that being elected to Congress means that you have some sort of responsibility to try to take the country a better, stronger, healthier, more prosperous place, then this should be a good place to start.
We can have vigorous debates about a bunch of other things that Republicans should do. We believe they should vote to raise the minimum wage. But we can at least start, as a practical matter, by focusing on areas where we know there is agreement, and where there is bipartisan agreement that this kind of progress would be good for the country.
Again, I'm not suggesting that Republicans need any sort of electoral advice from me -- Republicans in Congress have done just fine in elections by ignoring me. But my point is that in November, incumbents are going to be on the campaign trail making the case to their constituents about why they should be reelected. Why not go on the campaign trail and say that you should be reelected because you are helping communities across the country fight heroin addiction; because we're going to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that are imposed by other countries; or that we're going to make a historic investment in curing cancer? Those are the kinds of things that -- again, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, those are the kinds of credentials that are going to enhance anybody's prospects for reelection.
Q: Josh, you had previously listed seven things where there might be common ground -- AUMF and EITC. Did the President take those off the list today?
MR. EARNEST: Those continue to be strong priorities that we support.
Q: Saving those for lunch? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. We'll save those for a follow-up meeting maybe. Those continue to be items on our agenda. Obviously, the deal with the AUMF is that this is something that they've actually talked about in a number of other meetings. And there have been -- it's no secret that there have been some staff-level discussions about this as well. And the truth is, it also might be a little harder to find some bipartisan common ground on this one. So they didn't spend a lot of time on that in the meeting.
The EITC thing -- our view on the EITC proposal is pretty well known. I don't think it's a surprise to either leader that this is something that the President advocates. It just wasn't on the agenda today.
Q: And just to be clear, on Selective Service. Is the administration against expanding it to women, or you've just got to wait and see until the Pentagon --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll be honest, I was informed of this congressional exchange shortly before I walked out here. I'm not aware of any rigorous policy process that's underway to consider changing that policy. But let me take a look and see if there's additional information on this I can provide to you. I can just tell you that right now, our policy on this has not changed.
Q: Thanks, Josh. You mentioned Puerto Rico first. I'm wondering if the ordering of the list, of the agenda is an indication of how important and how much the President pushes those things.
MR. EARNEST: It's not. They're not in any order. The reason I noted Puerto Rico first is just to underscore the commitment that the House had made and Speaker Ryan had made to take action on giving the leaders of Puerto Rico greater restructuring authority early in this calendar year. And so I guess in some ways it's in chronological order in which we hope they'll take action, but it's not a reflection of our priorities. All of these things are important.
Q: And did you get any sense from Leader McConnell that he also would move on this quickly? Because it does seem like there's a timeline with Puerto Rico sort of having the clock ticking on them in terms of their finances.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the situation in Puerto Rico is certainly urgent, and obviously Secretary Lew has spent quite a bit of time working on this, even traveling down to Puerto Rico just a couple weeks ago to have additional conversations on this. You'd have to ask Leader McConnell about any commitments he's prepared to make about timing for Senate consideration of that kind of legislation.
Q: And Speaker Ryan, on a number of different occasions -- I don't know if it came up at the meeting -- has said that one of the top things he wants from the President is for the President to lay out a plan for how to defeat ISIS. I know you guys have talked about this regularly, but it doesn't seem like he's satisfied with whatever plan that you all have put out. So I'm wondering --
MR. EARNEST: But he hasn't proposed an alternative, and he actually hasn't demonstrated yet a willingness to actually have members of Congress do the one thing that they're supposed to do, which is vote to authorize the use of military force against ISIL. So that's why I guess I'm not particularly compelled by his rhetoric on this.
Q: And the Defense Secretary today laid out some information about how much more money they want to spend on the budget request for this upcoming year on counterterrorism and on defeating ISIS. I'm wondering if you could talk about specifically what you hope to achieve with the extra money.
MR. EARNEST: That will be part of the budget rollout that we'll do next week, so we'll have more details on that. But the one component of the Defense budget that the Defense Department talked about in a little bit more detail was the European Reassurance Initiative funding that we're seeking in this budget. And this would be money that would be used to strengthen and deepen our coordination with our NATO allies.
And we have asked our NATO allies to ramp up the kind of financial commitment that they make to their national security and to our collective defense as NATO allies. And one way I think we can signal that being a priority is to ramp up our own commitment to those efforts. And that's exactly what this budget proposal would do. But Secretary Carter I think talked about that in a little bit more detail today.
As it relates to ISIL, we'll have more on that next week.
Q: Just one more on Afghanistan. A suicide bomber in a suicide bomb attack this morning or yesterday killed about 20 different policemen and we've been hearing about increasingly growing numbers of casualties among the Afghan security forces. The President's plan says that we would draw down U.S. troops from 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of this year. But it does seem like the Afghan security forces are really struggling and taking on more casualties, so I'm wondering if the White House is reconsidering that timeline, and whether or not you may end up having to change that timeline once again.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, let me start by just condemning in no uncertain terms this act of violence that occurred in Afghanistan yesterday. It did target police officers -- or it appeared to target police officers who are just trying to keep the peace in their city and in their country. And obviously our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were killed in this attack.
More generally, I think this is just the latest illustration of how Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place. And the security challenges in that country are significant, particularly when you consider an attack like this on police officers.
What the administration, what the United States and our NATO allies have committed to do is to standing with the Afghan people and the Afghan national security forces as they take full responsibility for the security situation in their own country. That was a responsibility that they assumed a little over a year ago, and it has proved to be a challenging task. Afghanistan is a big country, and there are extremists with a lot of skill that have sought to take the fight to those security forces. But what we have seen is a willingness on the part of those security forces, even when sustaining losses, to fight for their country.
And I cited the example of Kunduz last week, I believe, where you saw extremists overrun Afghan national security forces that were protecting the city of Kunduz and Afghan forces were forced to flee the city. But what they did was they reorganized and acted quickly, with the support of the United States and our NATO allies, to within a couple of weeks, retake the city.
So that is an indication of a couple of things. One is, it's an indication that additional training and equipping of Afghan national security forces is needed. And that is the first pillar of the ongoing mission of U.S. troops and NATO troops that are still in Afghanistan. But the second thing it illustrates is that it illustrates the commitment that the Afghan national security forces have to fighting for their country. And that's a good thing, and that bodes well for their long-term ability to fight extremists and eventually secure their country.
Q: It sounds like you think that the timeline for now is the same. No plans to change that.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't have any policy changes to announce.
Q: Thanks, Josh. To the best of your knowledge, has the President ever had a 50-point lead in a poll in a race?
MR. EARNEST: Off the top of my head, no.
Q: Has he ever lost a 50-point lead in a race, to the best of your knowledge?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of.
Q: Has he ever, in your memory, been involved in a race where he led the group by 50 points plus, and then finally on Election Day -- in this case, caucus day -- squeaks by, by less than 1 percent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, now that we're talking about this, I do think that -- I don't know if it's 50 points, but I know that there was some pretty pessimistic polling the first time the President decided to run for the United States Senate. He was mired at the bottom in the very low single digits in that race, and he did, eventually, prevail.
Obviously, he faced some long odds the first time that he ran for President in 2007 and 2008. But even at that time, we had encouraged people to not focus on the national polls but actually to consider the President's prospects in the early states because that was going to be part and parcel of our strategy.
Q: But he hadn't been in national public service for more than two decades when this happened. And so doesn't it speak to the weakness of the Clinton campaign to have barely squeaked by against a socialist in the caucuses?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think what is clear is that there is a robust and vigorous campaign in store for Democrats in this presidential campaign. And that's a good thing for our democracy. It's a good for a country, and it's ultimately going to be good for the Democratic Party. The skills of the Democratic nominees are going to be honed and improved in the context of a vigorous debate. We're going to see Democratic campaigns go from state to state, building up operations and exciting and inspiring and energizing their supporters. And as we saw in 2008, that is going to have benefits for Democrats in the general election in 2016.
So I don't know how long this Democratic nomination process is going to take, but I think everybody has always expected that it would go beyond the early states. How far beyond I think is the key question. But if it goes far beyond those early states, that's not necessarily a bad thing for Democrats -- in fact, it was a really good thing for Democrats in 2008.
Q: Okay, broadly, maybe for Democrats. But if you're in the Clinton camp today, are you doing a dance, or are you worried, looking over your shoulder, that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Secretary Clinton herself said last night that she was breathing a sigh of relief. So that generally means that they're feeling pretty good. And, again, I think the other thing that they remember well is that New Hampshire primary from 2008, where even after sustaining a pretty significant defeat in Iowa in 2008 --
Q: Third-place finish.
MR. EARNEST: -- a third-place finish, that Secretary Clinton emerged victorious in New Hampshire. Now, I'm not following the race close enough to know whether or not something like that is possible this time around, but I think it is an indication that both candidates are going to be campaigning hard in New Hampshire. And if they don't, there's some risk associated with that.
Q: Just a couple more. On women in the military, you would agree and acknowledge that they serve honorably and well. You would agree that they are entitled to every opportunity that any other servicemember should be entitled to.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And you know the Secretary of Defense has recently announced a policy decision that would open up combat positions to women inside the military, too. So this certainly is a principle that is on display not just in terms of the President's rhetoric but in terms of some of the policies that we've implemented that we believe will enhance and strengthen our national security.
Q: Then why not equal treatment in Selective Service?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just don't know if this is a policy decision that's being carefully --
Q: Broadly speaking, is it a good idea, do you think? Do you think the President might back something like that?
MR. EARNEST: I'll acknowledge I don't know sort of the pros and cons of advancing a policy like this, but we can look into it for you.
Q: Okay. Lastly, on the economy and the deficit. You mentioned that -- or Mark mentioned the debt earlier. An enormous number. And then you came back and talked about the deficit and how you cut it down I think 75 percent is the number that you used.
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q: And yet, you've also acknowledged, or at least the CBO is suggesting that the deficit will, in fact, increase in 2016. Do you acknowledge that is what will likely happen? And if that is the case, is the President's economic plan still working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let's go through a couple of these things. I'm wary of conceding that the early projections on the deficit are going to be right because they're usually wrong. So I think that's the first thing. The second thing is we'll have some updated data that we'll be able to produce in the context of our budget rollout next Tuesday, a week from today. We'll be able to discuss some of the projections that we see as most likely in the future.
The third thing is the reason that the CBO made the change in their deficit projection was principally driven by the agreement to cut so many taxes at the end of last year and to make permanent some of those business tax cuts, not all of which we supported, but is part and parcel of a compromise budget agreement. So I certainly do think that it merits asking Republicans -- who do believe with such conviction that the size of the debt and the deficit is a problem -- why they believe it is appropriate to pass and make permanent business tax cuts without paying for them.
Q: Okay, last one then. On the meetings today -- and I know we'll probably get a bit of a readout from the Leader hopefully and from the Speaker as well -- did the President go into this meeting expecting something substantive to come out of it other than an exchange of ideas? Or should we all expect that sometime in the next week or so, even shorter time period, that something concrete will be announced?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't expect -- our expectation going into this meeting was not that any specific policy announcements would be made coming out of it. But I do think that the hope is that by having conversations among these three leaders in government, that it can lay the groundwork for effective progress on shared priorities in the future and hopefully a discussion about, for example, investing in a cure for cancer among the Speaker of the House, the Leader of the Senate, and the President of the United States -- that they can lay the groundwork for effective bipartisan discussions moving forward to try to find a budget compromise around those kinds of investments.
And so, no, I wouldn't expect any sort of immediate announcement, but we are hopeful that it can lay the groundwork for some progress in the future.
Q: Two follows on the Baltimore visit. You put it in the context of the ongoing political campaign. Is it fair to say that the scheduling of it for now, after seven years of requests by the community, is driven by the President's desire to partake in that debate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think as Mike pointed out, the President was a pretty robust participant in that debate over the fall. But I certainly think this is an opportunity in the eyes of the President to send a clear signal to the Muslim American community that the President of the United States is going to firmly defend your right in this country to worship God consistent with your tradition and your heritage. That is a founding principle of our democracy. It is part of what makes America the greatest country in the world. And it's unfortunate that some people might perceive our commitment to those values cheapened by cynical political tactics from some Republicans. The President is not going to stand for that, and I think his appearance at the mosque tomorrow will make clear his commitment to our nation's founding principles.
Q: But he's not just sending a message to Muslim Americans. He's sending a message to other Americans, too.
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that other Americans will make note of his visit and I won't be surprised if that arouses some controversy. But, look, this is a debate that the President welcomes. And so tune in tomorrow. It will be interesting.
Q: Can we expect him to specifically mention the Republican debate?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't expect any of the candidates tomorrow to enjoy the benefit of being singled out by the President of the United States. But I think the President will -- look, I think the fact that this visit is taking place in the current political context is obvious to everyone. So even a subtle reference will be immediately recognizable to all of you that are such close observers of the President's speeches.
Q: Josh, thanks. The European Reassurance Fund that you mentioned a little while ago -- first of all, did the President bring that up today in the meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if that was something that came up. It certainly was not the focus of a lot of discussion in the meeting. But you'd have to ask Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell. I would hazard a guess that this would be the kind of investment that those two gentlemen would support. But you should check with them to confirm that.
Q: And I know you've been pretty up front over the last several months about the fact that sanctions against Russia have not been changing Putin's mind about Ukraine and so on.
MR. EARNEST: Certainly not to the degree that we would like to see.
Q: So is this proposal to quadruple the funding in this program to reassure NATO allies, is that another indication that diplomacy is not working with Putin?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn't read it that way. I think it is an indication that the United States values deeply the strength of our alliance in NATO, and we are investing in that alliance in a way that will have important national security benefits not just for the United States for also for our allies in Europe.
And we're doing that in part to send a clear signal to our NATO allies that we're committed to their defense, but also as a signal that they should be making a similarly serious commitment to enhancing their national security and investing in their national security capacity -- both because it will enhance the national security of that country, but also of our alliance.
And there's no better way to do that and to send the clear signal that we believe that those kinds of investments should be a priority than to go ahead and make that kind of investment ourselves. And that's the signal that we're hoping to send.
Q: What does the White House expect that Putin's response will be?
MR. EARNEST: I have no idea what his response will be. I think he prides himself on being a little unpredictable. And so I'm not even sure if he will determine that such an announcement merits a response. But if he does, I'm sure he will make sure that we're all aware of it.
Yes, ma'am, in the back. I'll give you the last one. Yes.
Q: Hi, Josh. Thanks.
MR. EARNEST: Hi, there.
Q: Hi. Just a couple quick questions. One, I just want to go through the TPP tomorrow. It's being signed in New Zealand tomorrow.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q: And yet it still has to go through its process here, which, of course, is not fully understood in New Zealand and the countries outside of America.
MR. EARNEST: There are plenty of people in America that don't entirely understand that process. You might even include me in that category.
Q: Worst-case scenario, Congress doesn't pass it. The public throws their arms up in the air. What then happens to that agreement that they've signed in New Zealand?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't expect that that's what's going to happen. There is strong bipartisan support in the United States Congress for a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that achieves the goals that we achieved in the context of this agreement. So we're bullish about the prospects for completing this agreement and we're certainly going to make the case to Congress that they should act as quickly as possible on this.
But the good news is, is it's not just going to the Democratic President trying to appeal to Republicans in Congress to support this agreement. We're going to be relying on the United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Manufacturers and other Republican-friendly organizations to make a strong case to the Republicans that they work closely with to support this agreement.
So we've got a strong case, and we'll be making it pretty aggressively. I'll also note that because of the successful passage of the Trade Promotion Authority legislation last year, we see a couple of things. One is there is a clear sort of outline for a strategy for getting this passed. The Trade Promotion Authority legislation was designed around this idea of getting Republicans to vote for authority that the Democratic President could use to negotiate the agreement. That's a pretty tough sell among Republicans. Our sell this time is much clearer. Right now we've got 18,000 American goods that are facing taxes that are imposed by other countries and we believe we should cut those taxes. Republicans like cutting taxes. They surely like cutting taxes that other countries unfairly put on American products. So we've got a stronger case.
The other thing is that because of Trade Promotion Authority, at least in the United States Senate, we don't have to worry about the 60-vote filibuster threshold. And that should also make it at least lower the bar for congressional passage of this approval legislation.
Q: Right, so Asia and Australia and New Zealand can be confident that this is actually going to go through at some point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're confident that we'll get it done. And so hopefully they will be, too.
All right. Thanks very -- you had one more?
Q: One more question on the Zika virus. It's been discovered that this is possibly as a result of 500,000 mosquitoes being genetically engineered mosquitoes being released in the Amazon as a result of actually American testing and experimentation by companies, such as Bill Gates's. Would there ever be any accountability in that situation? Does the White House think there should be any accountability to organizations who are releasing genetically modified insects without in this case failing to observe or acknowledge what could happen without antibiotics?
MR. EARNEST: I have to admit I have not seen the news report that you're citing. I think what I can say about this is it is clear there is a lot more that needs to be learned about the science behind this disease. There are still questions that are being raised about the precise linkage between the Zika virus and this particular birth defect. There are questions that are raised about how closely those two things are actually related. And that will have consequences for what steps we can take to try to fight this disease.
So there's a lot more that needs to be learned. In fact, this is why the CDC and others have devoted so many resources to trying to study this disease, to try to interview those individuals that have suffered sort of the worst impacts that we're quite -- most concerned about. And so the more that we learn will inform our ability both to protect the American people here at home, but also to make sure that something like this, if we can prevent it -- keep it from happening again.
Q: The report that actually came out that (inaudible) in Brazil, I think -- they did a study that they released in 2015, and it was directly related to genetically engineered mosquitos.
MR. EARNEST: The President spoke to President Rousseff earlier this week, where they talked about -- or maybe it was last week -- where they talked about how we could coordinate our efforts to fight this disease. And so we're certainly going to stay in touch with them moving forward.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
END 2:07 P.M. EST
Josh Earnest, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/311972