Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:58 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. So, as you may know, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is meeting in Washington this week. And a significant group of mayors will be meeting with the President later today to discuss a range of issues. I asked for the three best mayors in America -- (laughter) -- to join me at the White House briefing today. A bipartisan group of the three best mayors in America have joined me today. And so what I am inclined to do is to give them the opportunity to make brief statements at the top, and then they'll stick around for a little bit to take some questions from all of you.
So I'll just introduce them all, and then we'll go from there. To my right is Mayor Sly James, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri -- (laughter.) He was chosen specifically because he is one of the best three mayors in America. (Laughter.) To his left is Mayor Ashley Swearengin. She is the mayor of Fresno, California. And she is a Republican, but she is also somebody who committed to solving problems, and I think she is a good example of somebody who does not let partisan differences get in the way of actually trying to do the right thing for her city. She'll talk more about that. And then, to my left is Mayor Marty Walsh from the great city of Boston.
Mayor James, do you want to just start and we'll work our way across?
MAYOR JAMES: I'll be happy to.
Well, first of all, it's great to be here. And I noticed the groan when I was introduced. I guess that has something to do with the fact that the Royals are world champions. (Laughter.) Far be it from me. But I am here to say, first of all, that Kansas City has done quite well under this administration. We have been very fortunate to be the recipient of a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant that is being put to use in one of the gateway areas of Kansas City. We are involved in ConnectHome and ConnectED.
The Choice grant specifically is something that we treasure because it's a collaborative effort between universities, neighborhoods, and services and housing units that will really help change the dynamic in that part of our city.
We're also very fortunate that we've had great success and backing and support from the Department of Transportation with our streetcar project. At one point, we had the largest TIGER grant for streetcar of anyplace in the country. And Secretary Foxx was there. We've collaborated quite well with Secretary Castro on HUD issues, and we're engaged with him again on mobility issues.
But the thing that's most important to us is that we have, during the time that President Obama has been in office and I've been in office, we have been able to increase our jobs numbers by a tremendous amount; over 80,000 jobs have found their way to Kansas City. I don't say create jobs because I think, as a mayor, I don't create jobs. We simply try to build an environment in which jobs can foster. And we've done that by promoting entrepreneurs and startups.
So this has been an administration that has helped my city tremendously, and for that I'm grateful -- because, at the end of the day, we're trying to move an agenda along that betters the lives of our citizens and provides them with jobs and services that they need, and this has been an administration that has reached out to us -- without our asking a lot of times -- and done some very good things for the people of Kansas City, Missouri. Thank you very much.
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: Well, I suppose we're starting with baseball credentials, so I'll just say Fresno is not far from San Francisco -- (laughter) -- and with the Giants championships on the table for all of you all to admire. (Laughter.)
And with that, let me just say, good afternoon. I'm Ashley Swearengin, Mayor of Fresno, California -- a 515,000-person city right in the heart of the state. We're the fifth largest in California and also the 34th largest city in the United States.
Fresno is known for being the food capital of the world. We're also the fastest-growing region in California and we're known for our young and our diverse population. Unfortunately, in recent decades, we've also been known for chronic, long-term economic challenges, and a near financial crisis during the Great Recession.
But I'm very grateful and proud to say today that those economic conditions are being reversed in our city, in no small part thanks to partnerships with and support from the Obama administration. In 2011, Fresno was selected as one of six cities in the nation to participate in the White House's Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative. As a result, we had half a dozen federal agencies that were assigned to our city to help us with our economic development plans, our downtown revitalization efforts, as well as our transportation infrastructure.
In addition, we had two federal officials actually move to Fresno -- they were embedded in the Mayor's office. They worked directly with local officials to help us really chart a new path for our city.
So almost five years later, the results are pretty incredible. We've developed, environmentally cleared, and adopted local land-use plans that are geared towards revitalizing the older parts of our city and really accommodating new growth in Fresno.
Last year, California broke ground on its high-speed rail system. It's the first of its kind in the nation, and that happened in downtown Fresno.
Next month we're breaking ground on another major public infrastructure project to support our downtown revitalization and our historic Main Street. Next week, we're issuing a contract to construct two new transit lines that are federally funded that serve major portions of our city.
On top of all of that, Fresno's unemployment rate has been cut in half. Chronic homelessness has dropped by 60 percent. And after coming dangerously close to having to file municipal bankruptcy in 2013, I'm very proud to say that Fresno has paid off all of our negative fund balances. We've begun to restore core city services, and we're just two years away from hitting our targeted general fund emergency reserve levels. That will be the largest such rainy day fund in the history of our city. And I say that to say I really am a Republican.
Challenges in our city still remain, of course. We have much work to do, but our partnership with the Obama administration has been pivotal in helping Fresno reverse the course of many decades of decline and to chart a new future for our city.
MAYOR WALSH: Thank you, Mayors. And before I start my formal remarks, I want to first of all say this is pretty cool. Usually as a mayor you don't say it's cool talking to the press. But today is one of those days. (Laughter.) So it's great to be here. And I have no idea why I'm up here because my sports credentials certainly don't fly with Kansas City. And I know that my little football team is playing Sunday, so sorry, guys. (Laughter.) But it's a great opportunity to be here.
I want to thank Josh and I want to thank my fellow mayors for joining me today. One of the things -- I've been mayor of Boston now for -- heading into my third year. And one of the things that's been the most surprising about being mayor of a city is the support you get from the administration in Washington, D.C. -- never really expecting that.
And President Obama and the White House has been tremendous partners in cities across America, particularly with -- and this is probably a little controversial -- particularly with the inability for Congress to act on so many different pieces of legislation that affect our cities. And the fact that that's not happening in Washington, D.C., it's really taken upon the mayors that we have to do more. We have to do more to try and get things done.
And the Obama administration, the Obama White House has been a very good partner in many of those because they understand what it takes to move cities ahead and what it takes for cities to lead.
Boston has been proud to answer the White House's call in ensuring health and safety in our communities, as well as growing opportunity for our children and all our residents.
We're investing right now because of initiatives working very closely with the administration in affordable homes. We broke our record last year in the city of Boston by creating 1,000 low-income, affordable homes. That's not all of the housing we've done in the city of Boston. That's a piece of low-income housing. We've been able to set records in other areas of housing.
We launched a citywide housing plan to create 53,000 units of new housing by the year 2030. We're into the First Lady's call to end veterans' homelessness. And I was happy to announce at my state of the city two nights ago that we ended chronic veterans' homelessness in the city of Boston. And we're working towards a goal of ending all chronic homelessness by the year 2018.
We're supporting our workforce by creating skill-building opportunities. Boston received a $3 million grant from the Department of Labor to go to apprentices and construction and hospitality. We're offering free salary negotiation workshops with the American Association of University Women for women to help women understand and help them negotiate when they're going for a job so that the economic gap that they have with men gets closed. We're working on that.
The other night we were able to -- we also announced a task force to look at a $15-an-hour minimum wage in the city of Boston. We don't have the ability in the city of Boston right now to raise the minimum wage because it's a state law, but we're going to work through a task force to see how we can do that.
We established the first-ever parental leave policy to support workplace and creative development. Boston is also, I feel, a leader of community-police relations. My Brother's Keeper has been a tremendous success in our city where we've engaged the community, particularly young men of color. But we're also tying in the young women of color, as well. And we're very active there.
Some of our stats: violent crime this year in 2015, went down by 3 percent; property crime went down by 10 percent; homicide rates fell to a 16-year low; all the while our arrests also dropped by 15 percent.
So in Boston we don't believe in locking people up; we believe in lifting people up. And we're working to make that happen across our city.
And in 2016, I look forward to working very closely with the White House to address the issue of substance abuse. The U.S. Conference of Mayors named me the chairman of the substance abuse task force. I have a great working relationship with Michael Botticelli, who works for the administration, and I look forward to working with the administration because substance abuse is in every single one of our communities all across America. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat, Republican, independent, Green Party, drug addiction is affecting everyone. So the White House has made a real commitment. The U.S. Conference of Mayors have made a real commitment. I look forward to working with them.
MR. EARNEST: Let's take some questions. Here. Tara, you want to go first?
Q: Welcome. I'm from Kansas City.
MAYOR JAMES: You're delightful. (Laughter.)
Q: This is rare. Three people from Kansas City at the White House. I work at the BBC, and I'd like to ask you about race relations.
MAYOR JAMES: Yes.
Q: You talked about the administration and Kansas City. What has the President done to help Kansas City and the state also around Kansas City deal with race relations?
MAYOR JAMES: Well, the best thing that he's done was he was elected twice. That in and of itself says something about race relations because there were -- before his election, there were people who believed that that was an impossibility. A lot of older African Americans thought they would never have an opportunity to see that in their lifetime. So the mere fact that he was elected is a tribute not only to him, but to this country and the fact that there were people in this country far surpassing the numbers of African Americans who had to participate in that election to elect him. So that gave us hope right off the bat.
Number two, he's been to Kansas City I think four times. It's not just because he likes the barbecue or my bowties. He's been there because we're doing things. And when he comes to the city and we're able to show the people of Kansas City that the President of the United States is in town, we're able to leverage that in the conversations about race.
The main thing that he has done is he's put into place a set of policies that in my city, we are able to build upon. TechHire, for example, allows us to put people who have been out of the workforce for over 18 months back into employment. That's something that takes place and is very important in the minority community. All of those things are important. The Choice Neighborhood grant is going to affect a racially discrete area of town, but it's also a diverse area of town. And those types of things are things that actually have an impact on people's lives, and those are the types of things that we use in order to leverage good conversations about race and race relations.
MR. EARNEST: Justin.
Q: Mayor Walsh, I was wondering if I could ask you about the minimum wage study that you announced a couple days ago. I think there's some question about whether you support a $15.00 minimum wage, or whether the study is to determine whether or not you'd support it.
MAYOR WALSH: Both. I mean, the study is for both. I support a $15.00/hour minimum wage, but also we're going to have business leaders, non-profits, community engagement workers sitting down and talking about how would this be implemented, what the effects would be. I certainly support a $15.00/hour minimum wage. As a legislator, I voted for the increase in minimum wage a couple times in Massachusetts. But this is a task force to really look at how do we get there. And also, we're going to need a state law changed to be able to get there.
Q: And is that something that you've been working with people here at the White House on? Or is that just something --
MAYOR WALSH: No. Well, the President made the initiative -- spoke about it. And really, when the President starts talking about -- and Secretary Perez, when we start talking about the $15.00 minimum wage -- the Secretary of Labor -- a lot of conversations start happening in Boston. Cities like Seattle did it, and then it starts to go across the country. So a lot of people have been talking about it.
We have two hospitals in Boston -- Boston Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center -- that both increased their lowest wage to their employees to $15.00/hour. So we're starting to see the momentum going that way, so I felt it was the appropriate time. There was also a study that came out that said the income inequality gap is number one in the city of Boston in the country. So we have to address those issues.
MR. EARNEST: Juliet.
Q: Also for Mayor Walsh, this issue of substance. But again, if the other mayors want to speak to this, too. Obviously this is something that the President has elevated in recent weeks. Can you talk about what specifically you think this administration needs to do to help tackle this problem, and anything else you would say for context about how you think the national approach to heroin and prescription drug abuse has changed, given what we've been seeing nationwide?
MAYOR WALSH: Well, first of all, just as far as a national approach, I think that the approach to addiction is very different in different cities and towns across America. So I think what we have to do is -- not one system is going to fix the problem when it comes to addiction. And I think, really, what the White House can do the best right now is sit down with the Conference of Mayors and work with us, and also with SAMHSA and with their own department, and figure out what's needed around the country.
Some cities and towns have done some good things. Some states have done some good things. Some states have ignored it because it's the stigma around it. And when I say "ignored" I'm not saying in a critical way. It's like any family, any member watching this press conference right now, they have a loved one that's in the grips of addition, they can't talk to anyone, they're embarrassed, there's a stigma there.
So I think that part of what the White House can do the best is listen and then come up with some policies on how we address the issue.
I think the fact that -- it can't be just a money situation; you can't just throw money at the situation, even though we do need money for detoxes and treatment centers. So I think we have to work on how do we get a continuum of care that can work that way, and how do we also get some best practices into our schools and into America to talk about how do we get prevention.
And I think that the addiction that we're seeing today, particularly around prescription drugs, is something that we've never seen in this country before. We've had addiction for a long time, but because of prescription drugs, we see it rampant. And again, it's different in every city, but at the end of the day it comes down to a stigma. So I think that the White House can do a lot around it.
Q: Is there anything that the other two mayors might want to say about what you've seen in your communities?
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Kathleen.
Q: I have a question for Mayor Swearengin. The President has lately been on a push to change the narrative around the economy, to change people's perception. As part of that, he's been really critical of Republicans, saying that they're talking down the economy and exaggerating problems. I'm wondering, from where you sit, if you agree with them on that.
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: Well, certainly in our struggle in Fresno to deal with chronic, long-term unemployment. When we see good job reports -- for example, in 2014, our job creation rate was actually one of the highest in the nation and one of the best in the world. So, in Fresno, what we do is we celebrate that, we honor and recognize that achievement, but we also look at how high the mountain is that we still have left to climb.
So, usually what I find in these debates, whether it's right versus left, or the other way around, it's usually a both/and. It is both the case that there are good things happening, there's momentum, and there are strengths to build on. But it also is the case that there's a lot farther that we need to go. So that's our focus in Fresno, is celebrate the success, but then get back to work, because we know we need 10 years of good job performance to really be where we want to be as a city.
MR. EARNEST: JC.
Q: The mayor of Boston -- needless to say, tomorrow, within 24 hours, Mayor, we have a major snow event on its way. Your advice? (Laughter.) You know it well.
MAYOR WALSH: Yeah, I do. I saw the mayor of Washington on TV last night, and I think that's number one. The best thing you can do is get on TV and talk about what the preparation is. Number two is make sure you have in the wings -- if Washington gets hit with two feet of snow, which we dealt with last winter several times, be prepared to reach out to your partners. My public works department in the city of Boston has already contacted me. If we don't get hit with the snow that's getting hit in Washington, we brought our two truck-mounted snow blowers last year to remove the snow off the street. So when I see the mayor later on today, I'm going to offer to her, if she needs these snow blowers to come to the city to help her, we will help.
Last year, we had great help from around the country. The White House reached out to us right away. We had mayors from around the country that send their crews up and send their equipment up. We needed it. I mean, we had literally three weekends -- three blizzards in a row. We set a record, as you most of you in this room now, for all-time snow. And it didn't melt until March or April. And the last bit of snow melted in July -- I think it was July 17th. (Laughter.)
So I feel bad. I'm leaving tonight, and I'm going to hopefully watch on TV and I'll look out the window and see it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Leslie.
Q: Thanks. Mayor Swearengin, I had a question for you on -- the drought remains a critical problem in California. Have you talked to the administration? Is there more they could be doing on it?
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: The drought is absolutely still a critical issue. In California, even though we're starting to see rainfall this year, it's a welcome sign. But the reality is we still need major cooperation between the federal and the state government to make sure that to the greatest extent possible we are keeping and storing that water because we know we are a long way from being out of this hole that we're in.
So it is always a struggle. It's a very complicated issue. And yes, I've talked with folks at the White House about the need to literally be in the weeds, counting the number of fish that may be close to a pump. And the second we have a chance to turn on the pumps and store some water, we have to do that. So it is a constant press for us from California here in D.C.
Q: Do you feel like the administration is doing enough?
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: I think they're very focused on the issue. I don't think yet we've seen the resolution that we need to see. And it's incumbent upon both the federal and the state government to really efficiently manage the water situation and the pumps. And of course there are great debates over exactly when the right moments are to turn them on. But as mayor of Fresno, all I can say is make sure that every drop of water that can be stored for next summer is being stored.
MR. EARNEST: Kevin.
Q: Mayor Walsh, first of all, my condolences to your team this weekend up in Denver. They're going down. Just letting you know now. (Laughter.) I do honestly want to say congratulations on GE. And this is probably for all three of you -- I want to talk about job attraction to cities and how you avoid brain drain. This probably doesn't happen often in Boston -- young people graduate, and they tend to stick around the hub. But what advice would you give to mayors and other leaders in middle-size and smaller cities to keep their brains in town? Because what happens is, often they'll graduate from college and they go to other places; whether in Kansas City, they move to Chicago or Denver; in Fresno, they go to Los Angeles or San Francisco. What advice would you give?
MAYOR WALSH: Well, I think, first of all, we do everything we can to keep the talent in the city of Boston. We lose a lot of people in Boston. We have 25 college universities within the heart of the city, and 75 within the greater Boston, including Boston. So we have those conversations all the time in our city. Some of it is by trying to change some social perceptions of Boston as far as the nightlife and make it more lively.
The housing stock is a big key. Part of my reason for announcing the creation of 53,000 units of new housing is because the cost, the affordability of our city -- young people leave because they can't afford to live there. Also, trying to attract new businesses, tech and startup companies. The downtown Boston area, which is all skylines and big buildings and the financial district, in the past it's been insurance companies and financial services -- 35 percent of those companies [sic] are filled by high-tech companies.
So we have to constantly work at this every single day. GE was a very big win for the city of Boston, but it doesn't mean that we stop there. We have to continue to try and attract new businesses to our city. So what I would suggest to other cities, it's about quality of life. To keep young people, it's the jobs and quality of life. And part of that quality of life is what's the environment living in that city, is it a safe city, is it a walkable city, is it an affordable city. And I think those are the key components in trying to keep young people -- or attract young people.
Q: How many jobs with GE, by the way?
MAYOR WALSH: About a thousand.
MR. EARNEST: Mayor James.
MAYOR JAMES: We have a slightly different approach. I, frankly, believe that the day of chasing smokestacks from one area to another has become too expensive and too unpredictable. We like to try to grow our own and to create an atmosphere where people come from other places, like Boston, to Kansas City. And I certainly don't want to disadvantage Mayor Walsh or Mayor Swearengin, but the fact of the matter is, the competition right now is less for businesses than it is for talent. And we are definitely in the talent competition business.
When we were chosen, along with Kansas City, Kansas, to be the first cities in the country to have a Google come in and install fiber, our phones lit up, our televisions lit up. Everything lit up with people curious about how that could be used in order to promote entrepreneurism and startups. And it's been very successful.
We started a place called Startup Village, which straddles the line between Kansas and Missouri, where people -- young people -- as a matter of fact, Mayor, there were two kids that showed up -- three kids that showed up at a reception for Code for America, and they came in off the street. I asked them where they were from, and they said they had just driven in from Boston to go live at Startup Village where they started their business that deals with software for home 3D printers. And they moved to Kansas City; they're still there.
MAYOR WALSH: They must have left their Red Sox hats in the car. (Laughter.)
MAYOR JAMES: They did -- because now they're all wearing Royals jerseys.
Q: Oooh! (Laughter.)
MAYOR JAMES: But we have a tremendously active entrepreneurial population with a lot of startups. We surprised Tech Week -- they brought Tech Week in on kind of an experimental basis, expecting 1,500 people; 4,000 showed up. And during the time of Tech Week, he had a launch code that we used, and we gave away $500,000 in $50,000 blocks to 10 selected entrepreneurial enterprises, which have now grown and are getting secondary and third-level funding.
So we're developing jobs at home, because we believe that if we develop the jobs there, they're more likely to stay. And the process of trying to chase the big companies costs cities way too much money in terms of incentives and such. So we want to make sure that we're building a city for the future that is attractive to people. And it doesn't hurt that we have a very reasonable cost of living in Kansas City. Anybody who wants to move to Kansas City, we have plenty of houses and you can afford them.
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: I'll just chime in quickly and reinforce what my colleagues have said. And you'll notice a theme, when you're talking to mayors, every mayor has the best city ever. So we're all touting our city's credentials.
So, absolutely the case for mid-size cities -- there's no way that you should have any expectation that you can find the money necessary to become a major center, like a Boston; in our case, San Francisco or L.A. So you absolutely have to focus on, number one, build a great urban center in your community. Cities have to have the type of quality urban infrastructure. This generation wants to be in a downtown setting. So making sure your city center is as amazing as it can be, authentic and genuine to who you are as a community -- number one.
Number two, I'll repeat it again because it's that important -- entrepreneurship is really the key. So, in Fresno, we focus on entrepreneurship education. Started at the undergraduate level, developed a degree in entrepreneurship, taught a bunch of college students how to start their own businesses. And then went to the graduate level, then down to the community college level, then high school. We have the only high school in the United States that is dedicated entirely to entrepreneurship. And now, every fifth-grader in Fresno Unified gets entrepreneurship training, as well. So it's absolutely the case that we have to grow our own, knowing that that really will reap the benefits down the road.
MR. EARNEST: Mark.
Q: This is to all the mayors. What do you think of what's been going on in Flint, Michigan, the crisis there? The President yesterday seemed to think this was a real cautionary tale about neglecting infrastructure. Do you guys share that view? Have you been calling your water departments lately?
MAYOR WALSH: First of all, I spoke to Gina McCarthy last week from the White House because our water and sewer department is one of the best in the country -- Boston Water and Sewer -- partly because of a federal court case that forced us to make some changes. So we're trying to reach out to the people of Flint, Michigan and help them with some of the infrastructure problems. That's an issue where I think mayors and the federal government have an obligation to come together and try and help another city that's in desperate need of support. And I think that anything that we can do from the city of Boston through the White House, which we're doing right now, we're going to offer any support we can. I think that's our obligation as mayors, to work with the administration. That's not a partisan issue; that's something that's right for the American people and for the people of Flint.
MAYOR JAMES: I'd say that any time that you get more than three mayors in a room, there will be two subjects that are always going to be discussed. One is education and the other is infrastructure -- because we deal with infrastructure. And I know that these mayors will tell you that the businesses that reside in our cities are very keen about the infrastructure that's available to them and the impact it has on their ability to conduct business.
Infrastructure has been neglected in this country and it needs to change, because if it does not change, we're going to be in serious trouble. At some point, it's going to become a national security issue, if it's not already. But infrastructure is huge, not just roads and bridges, but water infrastructure. In Kansas City, we're engaged in an EPA mandate now of an overflow control project; it's about 25 years on the horizon and about $4 billion. It's a very expensive and costly thing, but it's something, frankly, that we probably should have done 30 years and didn't do. Now we're paying extra to catch up. That's what happens when you neglect things -- that old thing that we had that our mothers taught are a "stitch in time saves nine," we're going that with infrastructure, except it's a lot more serious and it's across the board.
So by addressing infrastructure in a positive and concrete way, we accomplish a couple things. We become stronger, we become more agile. We become more able to support our business and security needs. But we also put people to work. So infrastructure is huge. We don't have the water infrastructure problems that are going on in Flint, Michigan. That's also a very serious health problem. And frankly, it's horrible. There should not be people -- there should not be children in this country, in this day and age, drinking leaded water, especially with what we know, and certainly not for as long as it's been going on.
So we have to take care of our business, and that's a basic thing. Water is essential to life in this country, and it's something that should never have happened and hopefully will be rectified soon.
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: I think about it every day. I see the reports every night on the news. And as I'm watching what's unfolding, I am stunned by the tragic circumstances. And I'm also grateful that in Fresno we took significant steps over the last three years to raise the rates, which nobody likes. No mayor ever wants to champion increasing water rates. But we knew in Fresno, for 25 years there has been talk about the need to upgrade our infrastructure, take better advantage of our surface water, stop pulling water up out of the ground, which is potentially contaminated.
And it took us ultimately five years to get the rates passed. We went through lawsuits. We went through a voter referendum. But ultimately, those rates were passed. And as a result, we've got $600 million of infrastructure being spent to upgrade our water infrastructure. And frankly, I think ultimately Fresnans came to grip with the fact that we were going to have to invest in our water infrastructure, but all you have to do is turn on the TV and see what's happening in Flint to know that was the right decision. And while painful in the immediate term, it is the right thing to do for our kids, our grandkids, and our great-grandkids.
MR. EARNEST: We have time for one more. Mike, do you want the last one?
Q: Governor Brown is giving his state of the state address again today, and speaking of water, he's going probably address his Delta Fix plan. I wonder if you want to weigh in on that and what you think the impact might be. And then also, a political question -- it's not often you hear a Republican praising the White House and talking about their cooperation with the White House. To the extent that you might be on a statewide ballot again, I know there's this top two system, which is a little bit more unpredictable, but are you not worried about this clip being played down the road?
MAYOR SWEARENGIN: Well, I'll take the second question first. And you know, my mom and my grandmother were always big when I was growing up in saying give credit where credit is due, and you always tell the truth. So it is the case that Fresno has been substantially supported and improved as a result of the work and our partnership with the Obama administration. To say otherwise would not be telling the truth.
That doesn't mean that in every circumstance I may agree with the administration. But it is absolutely the case that there's been good work done on behalf of the residents of Fresno. So I, as mayor, need to be the first one to help tell that story and speak the truth about what's been going on.
Whether or not there are political consequences, there always are, but it doesn't matter. At some point, you have to choose a different path and choose leadership and do the right thing.
As far as the Governor's state of the union goes, I'm sorry to miss it. I've got other things going on here. But, look, I don't know that there is a more complicated issue in the United States than water issues in California. And I really applaud the Governor for taking on a comprehensive water fix. I know there will be lawsuits, challenges -- there are all kinds of complicated issues that have to be worked out.
Fresno is south of the Bay Delta, and so, obviously, we would benefit from more water coming south. But I certainly respect and appreciate, if that were my water in the Bay Delta, I would be fighting every bit as hard as we see people fighting there.
So, ultimately, my hope is that cooler heads can prevail, that there are technological solutions, that there are policy solutions. And honestly, if anybody can help figure this out it's going to be Governor Brown. So I'm certainly rooting for him to be successful in this effort.
MR. EARNEST: Well, thank you for spending the time with us.
Q: Mayor Walsh, any chance you can take Papelbon back with you? (Laughter.)
MAYOR WALSH: We're focused on one football game right now at a time. (Laughter.) We'll focus on the Red Sox later on.
MR. EARNEST: All right. I think the only thing I would add to their presentation is I drew a similar conclusion and made a similar observation I think, Kathleen, that you alluded to, which is that I think you saw three local leaders in different parties standing up here telling about how optimistic they are about the future of their communities. And I think that was indicative of the kind of optimism that most people are feeling about the direction of the country. And surely there is more work to be done, and the President is certainly looking forward to all the things on his to-do list over the course of this year, but there's no denying the important progress that's been made and the kind of momentum that we have built up.
The challenge for this country and the leaders of this country right now is how do we capitalize on that momentum, and how do we build on it.
So, with that, Kathleen, let's go to your questions and our regularly scheduled programming here.
Q: Well, to change topics, I want to ask you about a British judge coming out with a report that says that President Vladimir Putin probably approved a plan to poison a Russian critic and spy, and I'm wondering if the White House had something to add to that.
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, we've seen the reports about this inquiry and the conclusions that were drawn. This is a high-profile case for a variety of reasons. There are some salacious details involved and it does look to be lifted right out of a spy novel of one form or another.
But what it also points to is the way in which the political environment that currently exists in Russia seems to also extend, at least in some occasions, beyond Russia's borders. Inside Russia, we see that critics and political opponents of the Russian government are often subject to threats, intimidation, and in some cases, death. And this willingness to flout basic conventions around human rights and free speech and the ability to speak out and make your political views known, even if they are critical of the sitting government is something that we've long been concerned about inside of Russia.
And I think this particular investigation is a reminder of why this is a source of such serious concern not just here in the United States but on the part of many countries around the world.
Q: But you don't expect to take any particular action or issue any sort of direct warning to -- do you support Cameron --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously -- in this case, the concerns that are expressed by the British government are unique because the incident took place on British soil. So their concerns are understandable and I think it makes sense that they're going to take some specific actions to try to address some of those concerns.
I don't have any actions to announce today in direct response to these findings, but I certainly wouldn't rule out any relevant future steps. And some of that will involve a closer look at the actual investigation.
Q: And then I also wanted to get your reaction to Sarah Palin's comments today. She was very critical, as a mother of a veteran, of this administration's support for veterans, particularly veterans suffering from PTSD. She blamed the President for some of her son's troubles. Did the President see those remarks? Do you know if he's talking to anybody about them? What's your response?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if the President saw the remarks. I can tell you that the reaction of some people I think is to make light of some of the rhetoric that we see on the campaign trail, particularly from Governor Palin. But the fact is domestic violence is not a joke. Gun violence is not a joke. Problems with addiction are not a joke. And the consequences -- or I should say the sacrifices that many of our men and women in uniform make for our safety and security are not a joke. And these are issues that this administration is quite focused on. We take them all very seriously.
And there are many communities and families that are dealing with these very difficult challenges in a way that sometimes is difficult to talk about publicly. But certainly this administration, over the course of the last seven years, and I'm confident over the year that remains, will be focused on many of the issues that are raised by this particular case.
Q: So was she out of line? Are you saying she was taking it lightly?
MR. EARNEST: No, I'm just saying that instinct that some people have when hearing her rhetoric is to make light of it. And sometimes those jokes come pretty easy. But in this case, the issues that she's talking about are quite serious. And they're certainly issues that we take quite seriously here.
Q: So on to another topic. There have been reports that the White House has granted the Pentagon a new authority to target ISIL in Afghanistan. Can you confirm those reports? And if so, why grant this authority now? And what will this new authority allow that wasn't allowed before?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any new details to share with you in terms of the rules of engagement that our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan are operating under. Obviously, they have been given a mission by the President of the United States to do two things. The first is to conduct counterterrorism operations to target the remnants of al Qaeda and other terrorists that are operating in that region of the world. And a lot of that is to prevent any sort of resurgence by al Qaeda or other extremist groups that want to try to plot against the United States or the homeland.
The other thing that we've obviously been focused on is supporting the Afghan government and trying to enhance their capability to provide for the security situation in their own country. And as a part of those missions, we've been pretty aggressive in taking terrorists and extremists in Afghanistan off the battlefield, both to protect the United States, but also to protect our men and women who are serving in Afghanistan.
And these are serious tasks, and there are American men and women in uniform who are in harm's way right now that are making us safer. And we certainly owe them a debt of gratitude for their work. But I don't have anything new to announce in terms of any greater authority or any sort of change in the missions that they've been given.
Q: On another issue, health officials have confirmed the first birth of a baby in the U.S. affected by the Zika virus. How concerned should Americans be about the spread of the Zika virus in the Americas? Should they be concerned? Obviously right now the focus is on women who travel to these affected areas. Is the White House doing anything to make preparations or expecting more cases?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we are trying to do at this state is to communicate with the American public about the precise nature of the risk. I know Dr. Fauci was discussing this earlier today.
What the CDC has concluded is that it would be appropriate at this point for pregnant women or women who may become pregnant to be mindful of the risk associated with traveling to other countries in the Western Hemisphere that have had -- where we know the Zika virus is being transmitted. This is a mosquito-borne illness, and this is a mosquito-borne illness that traditionally is found in tropical areas.
And the concern is not as much about the impact of the virus itself on an individual who is bitten by a mosquito, but rather the linkage that our public health professionals are concerned between contracting this virus and birth defects -- a particular kind of birth defect that has been seen in Brazil and has been -- and there's reason that some public health professionals are concerned that the spike that we've seen in a particular birth defect in Brazil may be connected to the Zika virus.
And so we are at the stage now where we are trying to educate people about the risk that exists and to allow them to take the necessary precautions. Again, the impact of the virus on somebody who is not pregnant or on men are symptoms that are rather mild. And the concern is just the focus on the possible linkage between this virus and a particular birth defect that could have an impact on women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.
Q: Tomorrow is the anniversary of when the President in 2009 signed his order to close Guantanamo Bay. I'm wondering do you guys have plans to ruin our snow day with a release of your Gitmo plan -- (laughter) -- or any update on when that might go out to Capitol Hill?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update for you in terms of the timing of a new plan that would be presented to Congress to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. What I have committed, though, is that when that report is presented to Congress that we'll make it available publicly. And what I'll do is I'll make sure that if that comes tomorrow, we'll put it on the Internet so that even if you are snowed in, you'll still be able to cover this remotely.
I'll just say I don't have the expectation that it's coming tomorrow. But I don't have a specific guidance to share with you.
Q: I wanted to ask about Vice President Biden's talks with the leader of Pakistan and Afghanistan today. One of the elements that you guys read out was that he was encouraging them to restart talks with the Taliban towards kind of a peace accord. I'm wondering how viable you see those types of negotiations, especially in light of the Taliban attack on the university in Pakistan a couple days ago, and also whether the U.S. should get directly involved or if the U.S. is directly involved in those talks.
MR. EARNEST: The United States has long been supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process. And the conclusion that we've drawn here is one that I guess, based on the incident that you've just cited, is pretty obvious, which is that the Taliban poses a security threat to both countries, and that the nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan are going to be able to more effectively confront that threat if they're able to more effectively cooperate. And that's what we're hoping to do and that's what we're hoping to facilitate.
And any sort of decisions about how the continuation of those talks and any sort of agreement that could be produced by those talks about whether or not that's in the interest of those countries to pursue -- those are decisions that will be made by the leaders in those two countries, as it should be.
But certainly the United States will continue to play the role that we've played for some time now in supporting reconciliation talks that are led by those individual countries.
Q: Lastly, Secretary Kerry said earlier today that it's likely that some of the sanctions relief that Iran is getting will go to terrorist groups inside of Iran, but that you haven't seen that yet. So I'm wondering if you could describe how or if the U.S. is tracking the money that's been unfrozen and going back to Iran, whether you're planning to do so going forward, and if there's anything you can do -- you're seeing that money go to groups that obviously pose some sort of security issue to the U.S. -- to kind of stop that, or if that would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement in any way.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's a difficult question to answer primarily because I don't have much that I can say about any possible intelligence programs or intelligence capabilities that we may have here.
I think the point that Secretary Kerry is making is that we know that Iran supports terrorist activities. And that's why they're on the list of the state sponsors of terrorism. That is why there are a number of individuals and entities in Iran that are under significant financial sanctions by the United States and by the international community because they support terrorism.
So the United States has chosen to confront this threat in a variety of ways. The first and most important way that we've confronted this threat is making sure that the government that supports terrorism doesn't have access to a nuclear weapon. And that's that essence of the agreement that was reached and successfully implemented over the weekend.
The other thing that we have tried to do is to work effectively with the international community, including at the United Nations Security Council, to counter this threat. And we have found -- I would say not consistently, but certainly there have been important moments where we've been able to work effectively at the United Nations Security Council to demonstrate international opposition to terrorism and to governments that support terrorism.
What we have also sought to do is to build up the capacity of our allies and partners in the Middle East to mitigate the threat that is emanating from Iran -- whether it's in the form of terrorism or other destabilizing activities that Iran engages in.
And so one thing I can tell you is that there have been these talks between the United States and Israel about renewing the memorandum of understanding between the United States and Israel when it comes to the security assistance that's provided by the United States. Next week there will be another delegation of senior administration officials, including some White House officials, traveling to Israel to continue those conversations.
So obviously the President has made that a priority. He said that when he was sitting in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the end of last year. And that continues to be a high priority for his team, and they're traveling there next week.
We also continue to deepen our cooperation with our Gulf partners, as well. And that work also continues. So we're mindful of the risk that is posed by Iran and their support for terrorism and we're serious about confronting it.
Q: Just picking up on Iran, Secretary Kerry also made some comments about the Supreme Leader, essentially praising him for making statements that were critical of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. I'm wondering, does the administration think the Supreme Leader is softening, turned over a new leaf? Kind of surprised -- I never heard a Secretary of State kind of say positive things about the actions of the Supreme Leader of Iran.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I think what is clear is that any government around the world, including the government of Iran has an obligation to provide security for diplomatic installations in their country. And so when I was asked about this after there was this incident at the Saudi embassy inside of Iran, I noted with marked displeasure that Iran had not fulfilled their responsibilities to protect those embassies -- or to protect that embassy or those diplomatic institutions. And so that's a basic responsibility of any government, including the Iranian government.
As it relates to turning over a new leaf, as you described it, I don't think that's something that we're going to be able to judge based on three or four days of public statements after the implementation of the agreement. I think this is -- most importantly, as we've long said about the Iranian government, we're going to judge them by their actions. And we will not do that based on any single action, but rather based on an observation over the long term about whether or not they want to start fulfilling their international obligations when it comes to things like their ballistic missile program or their support for terrorism, or start joining the rest of the free world in doing a better job of protecting the basic human rights of their people.
So there is -- we're certainly going to be watching the actions of the Iranian government moving forward. But as we've said a number of times, this nuclear agreement was not predicated on Iran improving their behavior. Rather, this agreement was implemented primarily because of our concern about Iran's behavior.
Q: And then two other quick ones, entirely different subjects. As I'm sure you saw, the ATF has reportedly identified a .50-caliber rifle that was found in El Chapo's hideout. I'm wondering, the administration, frustrated -- from the Fast and Furious program -- is the administration frustrated to again see weapons from this program show up at crime scenes?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I can tell you that I've seen those reports. I haven't actually been able to confirm them independently, so let me take a look at that.
Obviously, more generally, we've been quite concerned about the ease with which arms tend to flow across the border between the United States and Mexico. And we have obviously worked -- we've gone to great lengths to work with the Mexico government to try to shut down the flow of arms back and forth between our two countries.
Q: Okay. And then I understand the President's motorcade had a slight delay given the snowstorm in Washington yesterday that was it about an inch or two?
MR. EARNEST: They were not the only vehicles affected by the snow last night. I can personally attest to that.
Q: Yes, I can, too. (Laughter.) Does the President have confidence in the city of Washington as this storm is about to hit? And what are his plans for being snowed in here at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if local officials -- what seems to be the case is that local officials were a little surprised by the amount of snow that the region received last night. I feel confident, based on all the reporting that all of you are doing, that they will not be surprised about the amount of snow that will be hitting the region starting tomorrow. So it is clear -- I've already seen that Mayor Bowser has announced that a local snow emergency will begin tomorrow morning. I think that is an indication that the city is taking this quite seriously and already beginning to mobilize the kinds of resources that will be needed to deal with what sounds like a pretty significant storm.
I know that that Governor McAuliffe and Governor Hogan have made similar announcements and are already beginning to make similar preparations. Again, based on the forecast, it looks like we're going to need it.
Q: And the President's plans?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is the President will stay warm and toasty here inside the White House. (Laughter.) I suspect we'll all be doing that a little bit, too.
Q: Just one follow-up on that. As a result of that motorcade, the President spent 74 minutes driving from Andrews to the White House -- longer than his usual commute. Do you have any insight on what he did in terms of spending his time during that extra-long travel time?
MR. EARNEST: I don't. I didn't have a chance to talk to Schultz about that. I think what it probably was --
Q: He's right there.
MR. EARNEST: He is. He is. (Laughter.) I think probably what it is, Juliet, is a reminder of how much the President is going to miss having access to Marine One a year from now. He often talks about how that Marine One is something that makes his travel much more efficient and is something that -- helicopter travel is not something he's likely to have regular access to as a former President. So last night may have been a reminder of how painful that transition could be.
Q: And then on the question of the visa waiver policy that was just implemented, I was wondering if you could just talk a little about how the White House sees this compromise that was obviously struck with Congress, and if you could say anything about specifically how it affects dual nationals, which is certainly one of the key questions.
MR. EARNEST: I spent a lot of time talking with our staff about this earlier today to try to understand exactly how this is implemented. And there's no denying that there are a lot of complexities here.
I think there are a couple things I want to start out by saying because these are the real priorities. The goal of this legislation that Congress passed at the end of last year was to improve and tighten the screening measures that were in place for those individuals that had recently traveled to countries that were the state sponsor of terrorism.
And I guess I want to start there because, prior to that -- more than a year prior to that, the Department of Homeland Security had taken steps on more than one occasion using their own executive enforcement authority to actually tighten screening measures for individuals traveling to the United States through the visa waiver program.
And that involved running more information through more databases and also collecting more information from travelers. So the need to try to tighten these security requirements is something that has been a priority for the administration for more than a year before Congress acted. And we obviously sought to work closely with Congress to develop some additional measures that Congress could pass. And the legislation that passed reflected a compromise.
And let's talk about what that compromise is. And, frankly, this is what makes it complicated, Juliet, is that everyone shares the priority of protecting the homeland. That's everyone's top priority, and I think that's something that -- that's one of the few things that transcends partisan differences here in Washington.
The other thing, though, we want to be mindful of is we also want to be mindful of the fact that the United States has the strongest, most durable economy in the world in part because U.S. businesses do a lot of business overseas, particularly in visa waiver -- countries that are in the Visa Waiver Program. And we're talking about a lot of traditional allies of the United States that are included in this program.
So we want to make sure that we are doing everything that is necessary to keep the country safe. That is the top priority. But we also don't want to unnecessarily disadvantage American businesses that are trying to do business overseas, because ultimately that's good for our economy, it's good for creating jobs here in the United States.
So there are a number of -- consistent with those two goals in mind, there are some additional work that's already underway to try to work with members of Congress on refining the measure that was passed at the end of last year. And again, the goal here is to, number one, make sure that the country is safe and that we have in place appropriate screening for those individuals that have recently traveled to the nations of Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria; but at the same time, we don't want to undermine the ability of U.S. businesses to interact with and to do business with partners or counterparts in countries like the UK, France, Germany, and other countries in Europe that are allies of the United States, that are part of the Visa Waiver Program.
And I guess the last thing I just want to be clear about is the restrictions that were put in place both by the administration and by Congress over the last year and a half do not prevent individuals from traveling to the United States. What they do is they subject individuals that have recently traveled to these countries to more screening. And that's an important thing for people to understand.
Q: And is there anything you can say specifically about dual nationals, just because there seems to be a little uncertainty about how that's --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's a good example of how we feel the system can be improved. So let me give you one example. In some cases, there may be individuals who are dual nationals -- so one example, somebody who was born in France, so is a French citizen, but was born to a parent who was an Iranian citizen -- therefore that individual is a dual national. And even though that individual has never traveled to Iran -- just to use one example -- they would be subjected to additional screening measures because of their status as a dual national. And our view is that that is something that could be refined to ensure that our screening system is applied in a way that prioritizes national security but also makes the system as efficient as possible.
Q: Just to follow up on that. DHS has left some room to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis for people whose travel was for humanitarian purposes. There's been some criticism from Congressman Goodlatte that that's -- you're stretching a loophole that was supposed to be smaller. Can you just talk about the balance you're trying to strike?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this sort of falls under the realm of common sense, too. The other example that we've used, Scott, that may I think resonate some more in this room is with journalists. Journalists who traveled to Iraq, for example, to cover the Iraq war, those are individuals who don't pose as much of a risk as other individuals for whom the system was designed.
Look, we have talked for a long time about the threat that is posed by foreign fighters. These are individuals -- fortunately it's a relatively small number of Americans who have traveled to Iraq or Syria to take up arms alongside ISIL. And the concern that we have is that there are individuals who hold Western passports. And we want to know if they're planning to travel back to the United States, and in some cases, we may not want them to travel back to the United States.
And so here is the broader concern. The number of U.S. citizens who have made that trip is relatively small, but we know that there are other countries, including in Europe, where the number is substantially larger. And these are countries with whom the United States participates in the Visa Waiver Program. And so the concern is that an individual who is a European citizen, has traveled, fought with ISIL, and now may want to use that Western passport to enter the United States with very little screening -- that is the situation that we want to try to prevent. And that is the goal of these measures.
That's obviously much different than a journalist or an aid worker or somebody who has traveled as a part of a regional or some national government -- someone who had traveled for official government purposes. And so the more that we can try to draw those distinctions -- again, which makes implementing the law extraordinarily complex, but we also want to make sure that we're doing this in a way that reflects our most urgent national security concerns and reflects the economic realities of the global economy.
Q: Josh, on Guantanamo, I understand you laid out the public disclosure, but can you tell us internally where the President is in his review of Secretary Carter's proposals to shut down the prison?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the Pentagon has been working on putting this report together for a number of months now. Part of this report included some site visits that were made by Department of Defense personnel to a couple detention facilities around the United States to evaluate the security measures that were in place and to evaluate whether or not these were places where Gitmo detainees could potentially be transferred.
But, look, their work has primarily been focused on developing some of those kinds of options and trying to put some hard numbers around the fiscal impact of closing the prison. Part of our case has been that taxpayers can save some money. And that's a responsibility that we all have, is to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. The longstanding concern that the President has -- and this is a concern that is shared by Democrats and Republicans, including the President's Republican predecessor -- that we know that terrorist organizations continue to use the prison at Guantanamo Bay in their recruiting materials. And effectively closing the prison is one way that we can make it harder for extremist organizations to recruit people to their cause.
So both for that obvious national security reason, but also for fiscal reasons, that's the reason that the President promised seven years ago tomorrow to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and it's why every day since, his administration has made that a national security priority.
I think all of what I have laid out also underscores why there's no surprise ending to the report. I think those of you who have covered this closely -- and I think most people in this room have -- you understand what our strategy is here. And the development of a plan is not an attempt to implement a radically different strategy, but rather to provide some more texture and detail about the benefits of the strategy that we're pursuing.
And you'll have an opportunity to take a look at that when the report is completed and presented to Congress.
Q: So it's in the final stages?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, as I mentioned earlier, when I was first asked about this over the summer, in July, I noted that the plan was to present the report to Congress "very soon." That obviously didn't happen, so I just don't want to be in a position of making additional promises about timing that, frankly, I've already broken. So when we have additional details about that, then once the plan has been presented to Congress we'll make sure you all have an opportunity to take a look at it.
Q: Can I go back to you on Iran? There are some questions -- and I understand you can't talk about where the monies that have been released have gone and hypotheticals like that. But the Secretary specifically said -- Secretary Kerry -- "I think some of the money will end up in the hands of the IRGC or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists." Do you agree with the Secretary of State?
MR. EARNEST: He began by saying, "I think," and I think that reflects his I think rather logical conclusion that a nation that supports terrorism may use some of the money that's coming into the country to further support terrorism.
Now, the thing that's important for people to recognize is that critics of this agreement often exaggerate the sanctions -- the value of the sanctions relief that Iran will obtain, and they often overlook the rather severe economic priorities that are badly underfunded inside of Iran. There are a number of bills that are already past due that Iran needs to pay. There are significant investments in their infrastructure that also need to be made because they are already having an impact on their economy. And I've seen at least one economic analysis that indicates that Iran is not going to immediately bring all of the available money into the country because it would have the effect of artificially appreciating their currency, which would further weaken their economy.
So I guess that is why we have been pretty honest about the fact that this agreement is not going to resolve all of our concerns with Iran's bad behavior, and it is entirely likely and I think it is even expected that Iran will continue to support terrorism. But because of Iran's intention that we assess to continue to support terrorism, that's what makes it so important that we prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Look, that's not just a case that we've made. This is also the case that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, himself, has made. He, himself, made it a priority, I think for very good reason, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the President concluded that the best way to do that is through a diplomatic agreement like the one that we've recently implemented.
And that's what's motivating this action. And it is why the implementation of this agreement was one that we celebrated, because it did represent substantial steps that Iran had to take to scale back significantly their nuclear program, and to cooperate with the kinds of international inspections that will verify that they're not developing a nuclear weapon. And those are kinds -- that is access and that is a change in their nuclear program that could not be achieved through military action.
Q: To be clear, what you're saying is while some may conclude, and it would be logical to conclude, that some monies may flow to groups like terrorists -- and you think you could mitigate the threat -- but you do say it could flow there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've been candid about that possibility, and that assessment is drawn from Iran's longstanding support for terrorism. And again, that longstanding support for terrorism is what motivated us to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And it's also what motivates us in part to ramp up our efforts to provide additional support to our closest ally in the region, Israel, and to seek to better integrate the defense and security capabilities of our Gulf partners as well.
Q: On a totally different note -- on the President's commute home on the treacherous roads that were not necessarily plowed or salted and all the rest, were there some security concerns that he was sitting on the road for 74 minutes in traffic, where others are swerving and having accidents all around him? I mean, isn't there some serious safety concern around that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's no doubt that these kinds of road conditions pose a hazard to everybody who's on the roads. And obviously the President was being driven in a heavy SUV with a highly trained professional driver at the wheel, and surrounded by a number of other vehicles as well. The assessment that was made by the President's team, including the military and Secret Service, is that driving home from Andrews would be much safer than flying home from Andrews in a helicopter. And the President's security when he travels is a top priority and that's what led them to choose to drive home from Andrews last night.
Q: Thanks, Josh. The ICIG has been in the news a little bit of late, and I just wanted to ask you how would you characterize the President's level of confidence in the Intelligence Community's inspector general?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, these kinds of reviews that are conducted by inspectors general are done independent of the administration. The decisions to pursue a particular review and the results of those reviews that are presented to Capitol Hill or made public are entirely decisions made independent of the administration.
So it's hard for me to pass judgment on them one way or the other. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the inspector general to describe what he or she is doing and to explain why it's part of their scope of responsibilities.
Q: But you would agree that the President values that position, because if he didn't value that position there wouldn't be one.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can say is, in principle, the President does believe that independent inspectors general who fulfill their responsibilities consistent with the law are an important part of holding government in general accountable to the taxpayers. And that's an important position. But because of the independence of the inspector general at the Intelligence Community, I don't want to be in a position of rendering a judgment one way or another about the decisions that are made by that individual or the office that they run. Ultimately, the American public will have to arrive at their own conclusions about that.
I can just say that, in general, the administration is quite strongly supportive of the principle of having independent oversight of the government, primarily because of the obligation that we have to taxpayers.
Q: Well, then, can you think of another example in history of someone with the stature and the experience of Secretary Clinton publically criticizing such a position -- a leader in that position -- in a way that she did recently, and basically accusing this high-ranking official of colluding with a political party to influence an election? Can you think of another example of this happening to anyone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I can say is this, is I think that while people who have a position like I do have a responsibility of protecting the independence of the inspectors general in the administration. And that's one of the reasons I try not to comment on them too much, is because I don't even want to leave you with the appearance of trying to influence some of their activities.
But there's a responsibility on the part of the inspectors general themselves as well to avoid both in deed and in appearance actions that would be carried out to politically benefit one side or the other, or one party or another. And so that responsibility -- the responsibility to protect the independence of the inspector general is certainly one that I take seriously. And the inspectors general should do the same thing.
Q: And rightly so. But isn't this unprecedented, that a former Secretary of State, for example, would accuse someone at that level of essentially colluding with a political party to try and influence an election? That seems extraordinary if nothing else.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I will leave it to all of you to sort of assess the actions of the inspector general. I don't know if this latest report that's been the subject of a number of news stories is something that's been made public yet, but when it is, obviously the American public will have the opportunity to evaluate for themselves whether or not the decisions that were made by the inspector general were appropriately independent and unbiased and consistent with their responsibility to be looking out for taxpayers.
Q: Last one. I just want to make sure I give you a good run at this one on the EPA situation in Flint. I've been looking at a number of different stories that have sort of gone through a tick-tock from February when a tester originally raised the issue, then again confirmed it in April, then again sent a memo in June, and yet it's been now into January these people have been drinking this contaminated water. The process seems to have played out very slowly and, frankly, in a dangerous way for the people of Flint. What is your assessment of the process? Did the EPA get it right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there are a number of factors here that are important to consider. The first is, and state officials have acknowledged this, that it is state and local officials inside of Flint who are primarily responsible for the safety of the water supply in Flint.
Q: Primarily, but not solely, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President acknowledged yesterday is that we need to take a look at the relationship that EPA has with state and local governments across the country to make sure that that process doesn't impede unnecessarily the ability of the EPA to present information that may have a significant impact on the health and safety of the American people.
So that's one of the things that the President talked about in his conversation with the EPA Administrator earlier this week, is to take a look at the procedures in place and determine if we need to make some changes to those procedures to make sure that if the EPA is aware of information that could have a direct impact on the health and safety of the American public, that they're not somehow prevented from sharing that information with the public. And the President believes that that's an important principle.
The other thing that this underscores is the value of -- or the role of government in keeping us safe and protecting our health. And there's a pretty vigorous debate going on on the campaign trail right now about the proper role of government. But I think this highlights the fact that there is a role to play to protect our public health and safety and to keep our water clean and to keep our air clean. And we also need to make sure that we're holding that government accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities.
Q: Last one. Do you agree then that the EPA was prevented from alerting the public to the danger in Flint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what is true is that there continues to be an ongoing investigation, including one that's led by the Department of Justice, about what exactly transpired in the months since the water supply -- or the source of the water in the city of Flint was transferred from one source to another. And so I don't want to get out ahead of that investigation by sort of commenting one way or another about the propriety of the actions that were taken by state and local officials or by the EPA. But certainly the President believes that the principle of accountability is important, particularly when the stakes are this high. And the President does want to make sure, and will make sure, that if there were errors or wrongdoing that was carried out by officials at the EPA that they're held accountable for those actions.
Q: Josh, you mentioned earlier that you spent a bit of time preparing for the -- Visa Waiver Program. Obviously a lot of questions are being raised about just how dual nationality is going to be applied. And I wonder if the administration is anticipating problems and implementation of this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think based on the exchange that I had with Juliet and Scott, it's apparent that implementing this law is complex. And I think the thing that we want to be sure of is that complexities associated with implementing this law do not affect our ability to keep the country safe. And so that's why you've seen DHS and the State Department enter into a rigorous process here in evaluating the law and determining the most effective way to implement it. And they'll continue to be rigorous as they implement the law moving forward, because keeping the American people safe is our top priority.
Q: And where does fair and equitable treatment factor into that in terms of -- there are obviously a lot of people upset who feel that they are already being unfairly targeted. So where does the White House see that balance?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that is a balance that we believe could more effectively struck by refining the law that was passed at the end of last year. What you saw at the end of last year was Democrats and Republicans work together in a good-faith effort to find a compromise for imposing tighter screening on individuals from Visa Waiver countries who had recently traveled to Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria. The administration, for a couple of years, has been focused on tightening the screening that was in place because we were mindful of the threat that was posed by foreign fighters. Congress weighed in, as they appropriately should.
But what is clear in our view is that there are some refinements to the program that we make it more effective. And we're going to try to work together with Democrats and Republicans in the same spirit that allowed us to pass these reforms in the first place at the end of last year to try to pass some refinements to the program that we believe would make it more effective.
Q: And if I can just one more, to yesterday's motorcade and the upcoming storm. The President, back in 2009, when school was cancelled for Sasha and Malia, had some comments that some Washingtonians --
MR. EARNEST: "Flinty" was the word he used, I think.
Q: Yes. They were somewhat disparaging to the personal nature of people who live in this city, and I wonder if he still thinks that Washington needs to toughen up. And more broadly, what's the role of the federal government in all of this, if it's as bad as they're predicting?
MR. EARNEST: What I think is clear is that local officials here last night were dealing with a pretty difficult situation, that the amount of snow that was received was not, on its own, significant, but based on the amount of snow exceeding expectations and coming right at the onset of the evening rush hour, it made dealing with the surprise rather challenging.
There's no denying that 18 to 24 inches of snow would be a challenge to any metropolitan area in the United States -- certainly one like the Washington, D.C. area that doesn't have as much experience dealing with situations like this as the city of Boston does, for example. But the President is confident that the local leaders in the area -- Governor Hogan, Governor McAuliffe and Mayor Bowser -- are all appropriately attuned to the risk and of the forecasts, and are taking the kinds of precautions they need to take to keep the country -- or keep the citizens of the Mid-Atlantic region safe.
Q: -- any federal conversation on standby?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific federal request for assistance that had been made at this point. But if there are ways that we can offer up some assistance, then I'm confident that we'll do that.
Q: Josh, does the White House consult with OPM about when to let federal workers in the area go home tomorrow or whether they need to come to work?
MR. EARNEST: OPM does have a regimented process in place where they consult with a variety of government agencies, and they consult with other local officials as well, both in D.C., Virginia and Maryland, but also at Metro, to evaluate the impact of the weather on the variety of modes of transportation here in the city. So the process will run as it normally does. They will look at the latest weather forecast, and I'm sure they are hoping for additional information about when the storm is expected to begin here, or the effects of the storm will begin to be felt here in Washington. And that certainly will have a significant impact on the decision that they make tomorrow about -- or the decision that they will make either tonight or first thing in the morning about the operating status of the federal government tomorrow.
Q: Back on Flint. Is the White House willing to reconsider Governor Snyder's request to reconsider issuing a disaster declaration?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, there's a formal process for evaluating those requests, and I'm confident that officials at FEMA will do their due diligence on this. But as I mentioned earlier in the week, the case that Governor Snyder has to make, even based on my own layman's reading of the law, is not a strong one, simply because the statute says that that kind of designation can only be used for essentially natural disasters or acts of God. And the tragedy that we're seeing in Flint is a manmade crisis.
So there is already significant assistance that's been provided by FEMA. There was an emergency declaration that the President issued earlier this week that freed up $5 million in assistance for Flint. But the truth is, FEMA had actually been on the ground in Flint prior to that request for emergency assistance, providing some logistical support and providing bottled water that was drawn from stockpiles that FEMA maintains.
Q: On the same subject. It can be frustrating for people not just in Flint but around the country to hear things like, well, local and state authorities are primarily responsible for that -- when the EPA is really supposed to be kind of the gatekeeper to make sure that things like that aren't happening, especially when they knew about it. And when you say this shows the value of the role of government, but this seems to be the ultimate example of government failing at every single level, when most people would consider the primary -- the very basic role of the government, what their money goes to, is to protect them.
Now we know, based on the EPA's own admission, that they could have done things faster, that they did know about this. We heard some strong words from the President on it briefly, though, yesterday. Is this not enormously concerning to the administration that the EPA very clearly knew about it and didn't alert the public? I mean, we're talking about long-term contamination here. It just seems like the way it's described it's very -- I'm not sure that in the public view it really matches the level of emotion that people feel when they see this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think that there are some more facts that need to be learned to substantiate all of the claims of responsibility that were included in your question.
Q: But on its face, we know that the EPA knew about it. We know that the EPA did not alert the public. Isn't that enough to know that this was a big failure on the part of the EPA?
MR. EARNEST: No, it's not. There is more information that needs to be learned. But what the President has been quite clear about -- and I think the President was pretty blunt in talking about his reaction to this situation -- as a parent, as he mentioned yesterday, he'd be beside himself if he knew that the water that he'd been giving to his child was poisoning them. That's an outrage that something like that would happen in the greatest country in the world.
And so the question is, essentially -- there are a number of questions. The first is, what do we do to make sure that this is something that's not happening in other places? And that's why, because we know in this situation that state and local officials had primary responsibility for the safety and integrity of the water system in Flint, what are the guiding principles for the way that the EPA interacts with state and local officials who are themselves responsible for the health and safety of people who are drinking the water in their communities.
So the President wants to get to the bottom of that, and he wants to get to the bottom of that quickly. Again, we don't want a situation where the EPA is unnecessarily obstructed from being able to share information with the public that has a direct impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of the public. So the President certainly has that concern, and the President has made clear to his EPA administrator that he is concerned that this is not happening anywhere else.
The second things is, we should be take a look at the actions that were taken at the EPA. And if there were individuals who made mistakes, or did not do their job appropriately, then there should be some accountability. The President is quite serious about that as well. I think we're also gratified to see that the state and local officials -- again, who are primarily responsible for water supply in Flint -- are taking a similar posture. That's to their credit.
What's also important is that the federal government is doing what's necessary to assist state and local officials as they respond to this situation. I mentioned to Mark the steps that FEMA has taken to try to enhance their response by providing some bottled water and some logistical support. The President has tapped the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services to lead -- or to coordinate the federal efforts to support the state and local response. He tapped that individual because there clearly is a significant public health problem here, and so having somebody with that kind of expertise to coordinate the federal assistance is important.
Let me say the last thing. As it relates to the role of government, the President does believe that the government needs to be held accountable, and government does have a basic responsibility for the health and safety of the American people, particularly when it comes to keeping our air and water clean. I think that, in some ways, this situation underscores the danger of the approach that is advocated by some Republicans of doing things like eliminating the EPA. That doesn't seem like a very smart thing to do either. And I think the consequences of something like that are on full display in Flint, Michigan right now.
Q: And we're talking about this as this -- I don't know mega-monster storm, whatever we're calling it -- is barreling down on us. And the President slipped and slid in his own motorcade after what about an inch of snow fell, and that prompted an apology by the mayor of the Nation's Capital the next day. Does that bode okay for how the Eastern Seaboard is going to handle this several feet of snow? Do you have real concerns about that? I think it kind of seemed like a bad omen this morning.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is that local officials were caught a little off guard last night. And I think the likelihood that they are caught off guard in advance of this significant storm is quite low. They've already taken significant steps to prepare for the oncoming storm. And I think the advice that we would share with people is the advice you hear me offer up quite frequently, which is that it's important for people to listen to the mayor and for emergency officials here in the area for steps they should take in advance of the storm to prepare for it. And if they do that, then even if it's a record storm, we'll be able to all weather it together.
Q: My apologies. Now that the Litvinenko report is out, based on what is in there, that it's a legal process that came to that conclusion, based on what has been shared between the U.S. and Britain, based on U.S. intelligence, does the administration share that assessment that President Putin probably had a role in this killing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the evidence that we have seen that was put forward by the British government is pretty compelling. But we have not thoroughly reviewed the report to draw our own conclusions at this point. But once we've done that, we'll let you know.
Andrew, I'll give you the last one.
Q: I wanted to go back to the administration's assumptions on how Iran -- or predictions about how Iran might spend the cash gleaned from sanctions relief. It's emerged that Iran's budget for next year, there is going to be a 15 percent increase in funding for the Revolutionary Guards, and a doubling of intelligence spending. I was wondering if you think it's time to revisit your assumptions about how they might spend the money that they're getting.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the only assumption that we have made about how they intend to spend the money was based on the observation from the Secretary of State that it certainly seems possible if not likely that they will use some of those funds to support acts of terrorism. That possibility certainly exists.
That is precisely why we have implemented an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. As dangerous as their ongoing support for terrorism is, it would be even more dangerous -- even catastrophic if Iran had access to a nuclear weapon. And they don't right now because we successfully implemented this agreement that caused them to dismantle thousands of centrifuges, to ship out 98 percent of their enriched uranium stockpile, and to agree to a whole set of intrusive inspections that will verify their ongoing compliance with the agreement, and verify that they're not actively working to build a nuclear weapon, that their nuclear program exists solely for peaceful purposes. That's the goal of this agreement.
We're going to continue to have significant concerns with Iran's behavior, particularly when it comes to supporting terrorism, developing a ballistic missile program, or even threatening Israel, our close ally in the Middle East.
And we're going to continue to take steps to further isolate Iran for any sort of continued efforts they make with regard to those things. That's why on Saturday, even as we were -- or Sunday, even as we were announcing the completion of this agreement, the Treasure Department was announcing an additional round of sanctions that would be imposed on those individuals who are connected in one way or another to Iran's missile program because Iran continues to engage in activities that are in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that govern their missile program.
So I think our approach to this has been quite realistic and quite consistent with achieving our top priority which is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: -- rather more specific about your assumptions on what Iran would do with the cash. You said today and administration officials have said repeatedly that you think that a good proportion of the money will go toward propping up the riyal, towards building infrastructure, towards addressing some of the more fundamental macroeconomic issues that exist in Iran. And it looks like that might not be the case.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think we'll have to see exactly what happens. And I think the observations that we have made are that -- at least that some have made -- I don't know that this is an official government conclusion, but there is reason to doubt why it would not make good economic sense for them to immediately bring all of the money that will be made available to them back into Iran because it would cause the currency to artificially appreciate in a way that could further damage their already weakened economy.
The same thing applies to a number of bills that have come due. There are a number of infrastructure projects that Iran has engaged in but not paid for. And their creditors are going to be interested in collecting the money that they're owed.
We also know that the state of the Iranian economy has been significantly weakened by these international sanctions. And that after all is what pressured them to come to the negotiating table in the first place.
And Iran is going to have to use at least some of that money to address those economic weaknesses. And again, the reason that Iran was compelled to the negotiating table is because -- is quite obviously driven by their concerns about the state of the economy.
And we know that there has been an ongoing commitment inside of Iran to supporting terrorism. But I don't think they came to the negotiating table so they could get access to more money to carry out acts of terrorism. They came to the negotiating table because they were concerned about the economic pressure that was being applied to their country and the impact that could have on their domestic political situation.
So ultimately the government of Iran is going to have to make their own decisions about how they use the money. But I think that there are a lot of reasonable assumptions based on our knowledge of their economy, and based on our knowledge of basic economic principles like how currency is -- the value of currency is affected by significant flows of cash, but also affected by our knowledge of their ongoing support for terrorism.
And so I think the administration has been quite realistic about what our priorities are and what our expectations are out of this agreement. And again, for those who say that our concern should principally be about Iran's support for terrorism, we agree. And that's exactly why the President did as much as possibly can be done to verify and to prevent Iran from obtaining an nuclear weapon because a nuclear-armed Iran that supports terrorism would be very dangerous to the United States and to allies in the region and around the world. And that's why we've gone to such great lengths to prevent that from happening. And all of that was accomplished without the United States having to wage another land war in the Middle East. And I think that is why the President noted over the weekend that the implementation of this agreement is something that can and should be celebrated here in the United States.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Good luck with snow tomorrow.
Q: You going to brief, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: We'll see what OPM decides. If the government is closed, we will not have a briefing. But if it's open, we will. We'll keep you updated on the rest of the schedule.
END 2:37 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/311974