Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It's nice to see you. I've got a couple of announcements to do at the top, and then we'll get to your questions. This morning, the President was briefed by his top Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, about preparations that are underway for the possible landfall of Hurricane Joaquin. FEMA, through its regional offices in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York, continues to monitor Hurricane Joaquin, and remains in close contact with state, tribal and local officials up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Although there have been no requests for federal Stafford Act assistance, FEMA continues to stand ready to assist states and tribes as needed and as requested. At all times, FEMA maintains commodities, including millions of liters of water, millions of meals, and hundreds of thousands of blankets strategically located at distribution centers throughout the United States and its territories.
It's no coincidence -- or maybe it is a coincidence -- that today is the final day of National Preparedness Month. And the storm in the Atlantic serves as a reminder that we all must take action to prepare now, and throughout the year, for the types of emergencies that could affect us where we will, where we work, and where we visit.
In any emergency it's always important to follow the instructions provided by state, local, tribal and territorial emergency management officials. FEMA encourages all Americans to visit Ready.gov, or Listo.gov, to learn more about how to be prepared and how to protect your families during emergencies. That seems particularly important today for those of us that live in the Mid-Atlantic.
And as we're talking about emergency response, it seems also appropriate that we would have in our thoughts and prayers our first responders. And on Sunday, October 4th -- this coming Sunday -- the President will travel to Emmitsburg, Maryland to deliver remarks at the 34th National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service. The President will honor 84 heroic firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2014, and three other firefighters who died in previous years. The President looks forward to thanking our nation's firefighters for the extraordinary courage they display every day, particularly during these challenging times as communities across the Western United States combat the recent outbreak of wildfires that we've seen there.
We'll have additional details about the President's trip to Emmitsburg and his participation in that solemn event in the days ahead.
So with all that, Josh, let's go to your questions.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Some foreign policy topics for you today. Does the U.S. know who Russia is targeting with airstrikes in Syria at the moment?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the Department of Defense is obviously reviewing the ongoing Russian military activity inside of Syria. You'll recall that when President Obama and President Putin had the opportunity to meet just two days ago, both Presidents agreed that it was a priority for both countries that tactical, practical conversations between our militaries take place to ensure that our military activities inside of Syria are properly de-conflicted.
That continues to be a priority. The U.S. military officials have been in touch with their Russian counterparts already to set up those discussions.
Q: But Russia says they're going after ISIS. We see reports coming from the region that other groups are being struck, including Nusra and even a U.S.-backed rebel group, which would, at least the way you've described it in the past, mark a larger effort by Putin to try and shore up Assad's government, not to simply go after extremists like the Islamic State that we share a mutual goal of ousting. So what do you make of the fact that it seems like they're bombing in areas that are not necessarily ISIS-held, and could be expanding this military operation to really try and shore up the Assad regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Defense is going to take a look at the Russian military activities there. And it's too early for me to say exactly what targets they were aiming at and what targets were eventually hit.
Q: I guess, do you take Putin at his word that he's only going after the Islamic State?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Defense will take a look at the Russian military activities in Syria, and they may have more information to share about that in the days ahead.
Your question, though, does raise I think something that warrants mentioning here at the outset -- which is we are seeing the Russians ramp up their support for President Assad. They've been supporting him for quite some time, and it's clear that they've made a significant military investment now in further propping him up. The fact that Russia has to take these noteworthy steps to ramp up their support for Assad is an indication of how concerned they are about losing influence in the one client state that they have in the Middle East.
And this is in contrast to -- or at least calls into question their strategy, because when President Putin and President Obama had to the opportunity to meet at the U.N. earlier this week, much of their discussion was focused on the need for a political transition inside of Syria. Now, there are well-known differences of opinion about what that transition looks like, but there was agreement on both parts about the need for a political solution to the problems that are plaguing Syria. That means Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution on Syria any more than the United States was successful in imposing a military solution on Iraq a decade ago, and certainly no more than Russia was able to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago.
So this goes to the case that the President made in his speech at the U.N. on Monday, which is that to confront these significant global challenges, nations around the world can exercise strength and exercise influence by being part of a large international effort to address those challenges. That's precisely what the United States is doing inside of Syria. The President is leading a coalition of now 65 countries that are implementing an integrated strategy that includes a robust military effort but also includes efforts to try to counter ISIL's online radicalization efforts, shut down the flow of foreign fighters, engage in efforts to counter their financing efforts.
And that is part of -- that is the most effective way for the United States to lead the international community. It's also the most effective way for us to advance U.S. interests in the region and around the world. It also is the most effective way for us to eventually arrive at the kind of solution to the significant problems that are plaguing that war-torn country.
Q: In Afghanistan, amid a new setback in Kunduz, military commanders from the U.S. are recommending that they'd like to see additional troops remain in Afghanistan beyond that small presence at the embassy that we've talked about in the past. Does the President agree with those recommendations and is that something that he's actively considering?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, let me start by saying that the United States continues to monitor efforts by the Afghan national defense and security forces to retake Kunduz. U.S. and coalition forces are providing advisory support and have conducted a limited number of airstrikes, primarily for the purposes of force protection.
The United States will continue to work closely with President Ghani, the rest of the Afghan government, and our international partners to ensure that Afghan forces have the capabilities and training necessary to preserve the gains that have been made by the Afghans and the international community over the last 13 years. When it comes to policy decisions, I think there -- I don't have a lot of news to make in this regard. But there are two observations that I have. The first is that the President, when announcing these decisions in the past when it comes to our military commitment to Afghanistan, has routinely noted that the conditions on the ground influence that policy process. And so I would expect that that would be the case in this circumstance as well.
At the same time, we have always warned against the inclination to essentially make snap decisions on policy almost literally overnight. And so that's why we're going to continue to monitor the efforts by the Afghan government and Afghan security forces to retake Kunduz, and that will factor into a longer-term assessment of the conditions on the ground, which will influence longer-term policy decisions that the President will have to make.
Q: Has the President received those recommendations from commanders in any kind of a formal way as of this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any update for you in terms of the kind of communication between the Commander-in-Chief and the commanders on the ground, but as you know, Josh, the President does receive regular briefings and regular updates from his military commanders through the chain of command. And that certainly will continue.
Q: And at the United Nations today, Palestinian President Abbas said he is no longer bound by agreements with Israel; they're going to start pursuing legal means to pursue Palestinian statehood and are basically abandoning the direct-negotiations approach that has been your position for a very long time now. So what is the U.S. response to the Palestinians dismissing that approach?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I believe that Prime Minister Abbas was speaking -- or President Abbas was speaking right as I walked out here. So I don't have any direct response to what he has said. I will just say as a general matter that the United States has long been and continues today to be committed to achieving peace that the Palestinians and Israelis deserve. And we've described the resolution of this conflict as a two-state solution that results in two states for two peoples, with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.
That's been our position for quite some time, and that continues to be our position today.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Going back to Russia's involvement in Syria, you just told Josh that the Defense Department is reviewing those actions. The Deputy Defense Secretary told lawmakers on the Hill today that Russia's move was "alarming and aggressive" and had come before discussions that they were promised to have on de-conflicting. Is that same level of surprise being shared by the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see those particular comments. I think what is clear is that we have known for quite some time -- and when I say "we," I'm including all of you -- because we've had active public discussions in here about the significant deployment of military assets and personnel by the Russians into Syria.
And so I don't think it's particularly surprising that Russia is using those new military capabilities, particularly in light of their longstanding efforts to prop up the Assad regime. And in light of the continuing weakness of the Assad regime, in terms of their ability to control territory inside that country, the Russians felt that they need to ramp up their efforts.
And the reason that -- I think the second data point that I would remind you of is that there's also a reason that both President Putin and President Obama have prioritized and agreed on the need for operational, tactical-level conversations to de-conflict military operations inside of Syria. You wouldn't need to have conversations to de-conflict military activities inside of Syria if you didn't have plans for military operations inside of Syria.
So the point is that U.S. military officials have been in touch with their Russian counterparts to set up those conversations, and I would expect that those conversations would take place in short order.
Q: So, yes, President Obama and President Putin discussed the need for conversations to de-conflict. But during that hour-and-a-half conversation they had at the United Nations, did anything -- did President Obama get any kind of indication from President Putin about the timing of these strikes, or the targets? Or was this something left completely off the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that there was not an operational-level conversation in the meeting between the two Presidents. Those operational conversations were the kinds of conversations that both Presidents expect their military officials to engage in. And like I said, the United States has been in touch with Russian military officials to begin those tactical, practical-level conversations to ensure that our military activities and Russian military activities are properly de-conflicted.
Q: Another question. On the Hill yesterday, lawmakers reached a compromise on the annual defense authorization bill. And they have it so that it would use $90 billion believe from special war funds to avoid sequestration. Would the White House oppose this bill on the grounds that it would end sequestration for defense but not other programs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we would oppose the bill for the reasons that you have described because that's an irresponsible way to fund our national defense priorities. Even Republicans in Congress have referred to this is as a "slush fund." So this is not a partisan response. In fact, we know that this is actually a view that is shared by some Republicans on Capitol Hill.
I'd also point to you -- direct you to the statement that was released by the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, a West Point graduate from Rhode Island. And according to his news release, he said, "There are many needed reforms in the committee conference report, but the use of emergency war funds does not realistically provide for the long-term support of our forces." Senator Reed continued saying, "I cannot sign this conference report because it fails to responsibly fix the sequestration and provide our troops with the support that they deserve."
The position that's articulated by Senator Reed is the position that President Obama has advocated, as well. That's why if the President got this bill he'd veto.
Q: He'd veto it. Okay, thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Let's move around. Justin.
Q: Just a quick one on Russia. Based on your language, is it fair to say that the U.S. wasn't given -- or didn't have any of these de-conflicting conversations, or conversations about coordination before the airstrikes began?
MR. EARNEST: It is fair to say that U.S. officials had already been in touch with their Russian counterparts to set up those meetings. But it is accurate to say that those de-confliction conversations have not yet occurred, though I would expect that they will begin in short order.
Q: And when those conversations start, is it merely going to be Russia or the U.S. saying, "We plan to act in this area, so keep your military interests out and safe," or will there be any sort of coordination of efforts between the U.S. and Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's hard to prejudge at this point exactly what those conversations look like other than that they will abide by the description that I have used here for a couple of weeks now -- that these will be tactical, practical-level conversations. And we have long said that we would welcome constructive Russian contributions to our counter-ISIL campaign, so I certainly wouldn't rule out any coordination; we would welcome Russian coordination. But the purpose of the conversations is to ensure that our military activities and the military activities of our coalition partners are effectively and safely de-conflicted from any military operations that the Russians may be planning.
Q: I wanted to shift over to the budget. There were some reports on Capitol Hill yesterday that the President had spoken to leaders from both parties about the possibility of a longer-term budget deal that could happen over the next month before Speaker Boehner leaves. I'm wondering if you could talk kind of detailing the conversations of what your guys' goals for those talks are, what the parameters of the deal that you guys and the congressional leaders are looking for.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the kinds of conversations that we are interested in having are conversations that prevent a government shutdown and conversations that ensure that our national security and economic priorities are adequately funded, which means that Congress needs to arrive at the kind of bipartisan budget agreement that was reached by Senator Murray and Chairman Paul Ryan from the House that essentially raised the sequester caps to ensure that those priorities were adequately funded.
Now, what the President made clear -- has made clear at every turn, and is something that I've made clear -- what the President has made clear at every turn in his private conversations is something that you've heard me say many times in public, which is that Republicans have not succeeded and will not succeed in passing budget legislation strictly along party lines. They've tried that countless times now. It doesn't work. They don't have enough unity within the Republican caucus to advance legislation like that. And I think that's even evident when you take a look at the vote that we expect to see in the House of Representatives for a clean CR to prevent a government shutdown. Hopefully that will happen today.
So what that means is it means that Republicans are going to need to work with Democrats in Congress to pass compromise legislation. And that's why we have insisted at every turn that if Republicans in Congress are interested in negotiations, then they should walk over to Senator Reid's office and to Leader Pelosi's office, and accept their invitation to engage in bipartisan negotiations. Any effort to circumvent Senator Reid and Leader Pelosi will ultimately fail because they're going to -- Republicans are going to need the support of Democrats in the House and the Senate in order to pass this legislation.
Q: Well, I mean, on that point specifically, it doesn't seem that Republicans don't want to negotiate with Democrats; they want to negotiate with the President directly. And so I'm wondering if you could --
MR. EARNEST: The President is not the leader of the House of Representatives, and the President, he's certainly not the leader of the Senate, either. There are elected representatives of the House Democratic caucus and the Senate Democratic caucus, and of course the administration has influence in those two caucuses, and the kind of highly functioning working relationship that we've had with those caucuses have been able to advance critical pieces of the President's agenda. But, ultimately, while the administration will certainly be involved in these budget discussions, Leader Reid and Leader Pelosi and their support is going to be necessary to get this done.
Q: Why do you think Senator McConnell only wants to work through the White House? Have you guys indicated that you're willing to consider something that House Democrats or Senate Democrats haven't?
MR. EARNEST: I don't quite know exactly what their thinking is on this. Senator McConnell frequently does news conferences on Capitol Hill, so it might be a good question to ask him. I will say that the President is also mindful of the fact that Democrats in the House and Democrats in the Senate will need to support this legislation for it to pass.
So in the same way that it would be foolish for Leader Reid and Speaker Boehner to try to circumvent Democrats in Congress, the President wouldn't support that effort either. It seems unlikely that the President would support the kind of budget agreement that wouldn't also get strong support from Democrats on Capitol Hill, so maybe that's just a hypothetical exercise. But the fact is, the President understands quite directly that a budget deal will not be possible without the support of Democrats in Congress, which is why it would be foolish to leave Democrats in Congress out of those negotiations.
Q: Sorry, last one.
MR. EARNEST: It's okay. I don't mind talking about this at all. (Laughter.)
Q: I mean, on that issue, if Republicans think that the most effective way for them to negotiate is directly with the President, the President certainly has done that in the past. Why not just have direct one-on-one negotiations between Leader McConnell and President Obama, come up with a plan that you guys think can sell, and go present it? The President could protect the interests of Democrats, as you just said, and carry sway in both those Houses, and the Republicans would be responsible for taking care of their part.
MR. EARNEST: There are a variety of reasons for that. The first one is that there is a basic constitutional responsibility that Congress has, which is to pass a budget. And that's what members of Congress were elected to do, that's their basic responsibility, and the American people are counting on them to get it done.
The second thing is, the last time we were faced with this dilemma, the last time that Congress was challenged to pass bipartisan legislation to keep the government functioning at a level that appropriately invested in our economic and national security priorities -- that was an agreement that was reached in bipartisan discussions that took place on Capitol Hill.
Senator Patti Murray and House Republican Paul Ryan sat down across the negotiating table and hammered out a good agreement. It's not an agreement that anybody thought was perfect, but it was an agreement that represented a genuine compromise. And it's a compromise that succeeded in passing essentially a two-year budget agreement, which is why it's been two years since we last had this standoff. But the unfortunate thing about last time is that the country had to go through a 17-day shutdown before Republicans would agree to those kinds of conversations. We're hopeful that Republicans will agree to those kinds of conversations before a government shutdown this time.
But I guess the shorter answer to your question, Justin, is that we know that that is a strategy that works and we know that that is a strategy that's essentially consistent with the Constitution.
Q: Josh, back to Syria. What is the President's strategy regarding Syria right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, first and foremost, the President's top priority when it comes to Syria is making sure that the national security interests of the United States are protected. And that has involved the use of military force by the United States against extremists that are operating inside of Syria.
So you've seen recent announcements from the Pentagon about Hajji Mutazz, who's an ISIL -- leading ISIL operational figure who was killed in a U.S. military airstrike inside of *Syria Mosul last month. The Department of Defense reported earlier this month that a U.S. airstrike in Syria over the summer led to the death of David Drugeon. He was an extremist not affiliated with ISIL, but an extremist who was actively engaged in leading efforts to strike the United States and the West. And we've talked quite a bit about the U.S. military operation that the President ordered inside of Syria against Abu Sayyaf that resulted in the death of that leading ISIL official and the exploitation of some intelligence material that was located there. There are a list of other extremists and other ISIL leaders that we can go through, but that is the top priority.
The second priority has been the effort that's been made by the United States and our coalition partners to back the efforts of opposition fighters that are on the ground inside of Syria. So these are fighters like Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, even some Turkomen fighters inside of Syria that have had some success in pushing back ISIL. So the President, you'll recall, earlier this year made a decision to resupply Kurdish fighters in Kobani who were under siege from ISIL fighters. Because they were resupplied, those Kurdish fighters did mount an offensive against ISIL fighters, and drove them out of Kobani and actually drove them out of a large swatch of northern and northeastern Syria. So there have been elements of that strategy that have been successful against ISIL.
But ultimately, despite that important military activity that is critical to protecting the basic fundamental national security interests of the United States, the President is keenly aware of the fact that there is no military solution that can be imposed by Russia or anybody else on Syria, and that the root of this problem can only be solved with the kind of political transition that results in President Assad leaving power.
Q: Okay. So you've listed some priorities and you've listed some operations that have taken place. But let's try it again. Just give me, in short, what is our strategy in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our strategy, first and foremost, is to protect the basic core national security interests of the United States, and that basically means preventing extremists like ISIL, but other groups who may be trying to capitalize on the chaos inside of Syria, to establish a safe haven that can be used to plot and carry out strikes against the United States or our allies. So that is the overriding priority.
What the President has also made clear is that we're not going to commit U.S. military personnel to a drawn-out offensive ground operation against ISIL or anybody else inside of Syria. So, that said, we are going to need ground fighters inside of Syria, and there have been a couple of ways that we've tried to build that effort. One way has been this Department of Defense train-and-equip operation that as we've been -- we've been pretty blunt about the fact that that hasn't worked out very well so far. The Department of Defense is considering some changes to that program that could improve the results.
What has been more successful -- significantly more successful than that -- is the support of the United States and our coalition partners for those Kurdish, Arab and Turkomen fighters inside of Syria that have had some success in driving ISIL out of some part of Syria. We've also been able to enlist the support of other U.S. allies, including Turkey, in an effort to try to close the border between Turkey and Syria. This is a border that stretches some 500 or 600 miles. There's now a very narrow corridor that ISIL is operating in to get access to the border that's only about 60 miles wide. So we've got some more work to do, but we're enlisting our allies in that effort.
But, ultimately, the root solution here to this problem is a political transition that results in President Assad leaving power.
Q: But given the failure of our efforts to train and equip an opposition -- a moderate opposition in Syria, and given the significant change in the facts on the ground, now that you have the Russians conducting airstrikes and moving in a significant military personnel and equipment, is there an effort to rethink the entire approach -- a comprehensive review of our strategy?
MR. EARNEST: I would not describe it that way. When it comes to opposition fighters, I've routinely conceded, and I would do once again, that our training-and-equip operation has not performed well.
Q: It's been a failure. I mean, you had four or five --
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's a dramatic way to say it, which is what you've described. But I think we can agree that it certainly has not performed well.
But the point that I want to make, though, Jon, is that those are not the only opposition fighters on which we can rely; that there are other reliable opposition fighters who we have backed both by providing them some assistance and also by carrying out military airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground.
So there is a fighting force on the ground, inside of Syria, with whom we are able to make progress against ISIL. But the reason that we have considered this training-and-equip operation is because we'd like to see more of those fighters. And that's why the Department of Defense is considering changes to that program that would improve its performance.
Q: Okay, one last quick -- totally different topic. We learned today the Vatican confirmed that the Pope met with Kim Davis while he was here in Washington. What's the White House reaction to that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific reaction to the meeting. The President did note in his comments over the weekend that it's important for Americans across the country to say clearly that our religious freedom doesn't grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights.
So the President talked about the importance of religious freedom when the Pope was at the White House on the South Lawn last week. But the President has been just as clear that our religious freedom doesn't grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their basic constitutional rights.
Q: So the President would disagree with Pope Francis that Kim Davis acted "courageously," as her lawyer characterized his --
MR. EARNEST: Well, secondhand. I think what I would say is our position about Ms. Davis is quite clear, that the President believes strongly in the rule of law. And that's a principle that applies to those who are engaged in public service, starting at the level of the President of the United States, but even going down all the way to the level of the Rowan County Clerk in Kentucky.
Q: Josh, following up on Congressman McCarthy's comments on television about the Benghazi committee. His spokesman today is saying that Congressman McCarthy believes that the Benghazi committee has nothing to do with politics.
MR. EARNEST: Oh? (Laughter.) That is an interesting spin, huh?
Q: So I was wondering what the White House reaction to Congressman McCarthy's remarks might be, and whether there is a difference of opinion about whether the committee is interested in politics and specifically Secretary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: I think everybody here at the White House takes Mr. McCarthy at his word -- Congressman McCarthy at his word.
I think the thing that's happening here is that Leader McCarthy has committed the classic Washington gaffe of saying something that everybody already knows is true. And I think that's quite apparent what happened on Fox News last night.
Q: Okay, can I follow up with a question on Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, absolutely. Unless you want to talk more about Mr. McCarthy. I'd be happy to do that, as well.
Q: You covered that I think pretty completely.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: On Syria, you said that it isn't particularly surprising what has occurred with Russian-led airstrikes. Russia is saying today that Western airstrikes in Syria are illegal and that Russian strikes are legal because they were requested by President Assad. So my question to you is: As the White House is trying to wrestle with the idea of what constructive -- the definition of constructive offensive action might be by the Russians, how is the administration going to assess what Russia's intentions are; how the strikes are being called in; how they're being identified; what the results are; and what the implications might be for the Western coalition trajectory?
MR. EARNEST: It comes to mind to me that I think there are three ways for us to do that. The first would be that one of the things that both President Putin and President Obama have asked their teams to do is to continue to consult. And so I would anticipate that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov will have additional conversations about Russia's activities inside of Syria.
They've been consulting regularly about this, and I know that they've met -- they're probably up to four or five times -- they've probably met four or five times now just this week in New York to discuss these issues. So that ongoing consultation will be one channel.
The second would be that there will be these practical operational-level discussions between U.S. military officials and Russian military officials geared toward de-conflicting our activities inside of Syria. Those conversations will give us a sense of what exactly Russia's operations are.
The third is that we have a variety of ways, particularly given our presence in the region, to evaluate exactly what Russia's military operations are resulting in. And that's something that our Department of Defense will continue to look at.
There's one other aspect of our question that I also wanted to just remind you directly. We've talked about this in here before, but it had been a while so I thought I would remind all of you of the legal justification that we have cited for the actions of the United States and our coalition partners inside of Syria. So I do want to take this opportunity to get this back on the record again, which is that the United States provided public notification to the United Nations Security Council that the United States is using force against ISIL in Syria in the collective self-defense of Iraq and in U.S. national self-defense consistent with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.
And it was probably -- it may have been even a year since we talked about this, but the concern that we have long had -- and I think it was -- this was a concern that was justified -- is that ISIL would use the chaos inside of Syria to establish a safe haven, and then use that safe haven inside of Syria to expand their operations into Iraq. And that's what we saw that they did in the summer of 2014. And that is what has precipitated the kind of action that the United States military and our coalition partners have taken inside of Syria. And that's entirely consistent with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
Q: Just to follow up, would the coalition -- the U.S.-led coalition -- if it differs dramatically with the Russians over choice of targeting, what the aims are, the strategy, is the U.N. then the body that the United States and Russia would disagree together -- would appeal to the U.N. based on what you just were reminding us?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the kinds of practical, operational discussions that would take place between U.S. military officials and Russian military officials would be geared toward preventing the circumstance that you just presented. And that's why both President Putin and President Obama have acknowledged that those kinds of de-confliction conversations are a priority, and it's why I would expect those conversations to take place in short order. I don't think there's any indication that either side believes that that kind of conflict would be in the interest of either country.
Q: And can you just remind us, because of Jens Stoltenberg's comments about this in the last few days, is NATO involved in those de-conflicting discussions? Does NATO play a role?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of, but you might check with the Department of Defense. My understanding, based on the conversation between President Putin and President Obama, is that those de-confliction talks would take place between U.S. military officials and Russian -- U.S. and Russian military officials bilaterally at an operational, tactical level.
Q: Thanks. A senior administration official told CNN today that what Russia is doing seems to have no strategic purpose against ISIS. And it looks like they're hitting just groups that are opposed to Assad, and this is proof that their focus is not ISIS. Is that not consistent with what you're seeing? And if so, how is that going to affect what the coalition is trying to do there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's not something I'm prepared to say at this point because the Russian military activity inside of Syria is something that the Department of Defense is closely reviewing. So it's possible that that source was at the Defense Department and may have access to more information, at least more immediately than I do. These operations have only been taking place for a few hours now. So that analysis is underway at the Department of Defense.
The priority that we have right now is trying to get those tactical-level conversations to de-conflict Russia's military activities with the U.S. and coalition military activities. Russia shares that priority, and we've -- U.S. military officials have already been in touch with their counterparts to try to arrange those talks. And I would anticipate that those talks will take place in short order.
Q: Yes, but if that's a shared priority, if that were true, wouldn't that mean that they would have these conversations before they start airstrikes? And isn't that an indication that they're not as committed to that kind of communication being a priority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the way that we'll eventually be able to tell this is how serious Russia actually is in participating in these discussions. And based on the conversation between the two Presidents and based on the conversations that have already taken place between U.S. and Russian military officials to try to arrange those talks, and based on the pretty obvious observation that it's hard to see how Russia would benefit from their activities coming into direct conflict with U.S. and coalition military activities, I think we can have some confidence that they'll engage in that process seriously. But we'll see.
Q: But the fact that they haven't started that process -- which was agreed to in this rare, high-level meeting -- doesn't this indicate that they're not that serious, that they didn't have that contact before they actually began?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there was contact between U.S. and Russian officials to set up those conversations, but those conversations haven't begun yet. But I would anticipate that they'll take place in short order.
Look, if we find that the Russians don't participate in those talks, or if Russia is less than cooperative in participating in those talks, then I think that we would have grounds to raise some questions about how serious they take this matter.
But at this point I think it's too early to reach that assessment. Based on what President Putin has said both publicly and privately, I think -- and based on the obvious strategic calculation that I think is evident from the facts on the ground, it's in everybody's interest here for these de-confliction talks to occur.
Q: Well, we know that U.S. -- based on the press release that went out, that U.S. airstrikes are continuing as planned.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q: So we know that obviously even without this communication going on, we know that there is no risk of these two operations getting in the way of each other. So we know that the Russians don't see the U.S. prioritize targets as their targets. And after the bilateral meeting, we heard Ben Rhodes say that it seems that the Russians are focused on ISIS.
But knowing what another administration official said just today, and knowing that what they're doing is in no way related or at risk with what the coalition is doing, does that change your view that they are focused on ISIS? Or does that raise serious questions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think at this point it's -- well, let me say a couple of things. The other thing that the two Presidents agreed upon in their discussions at the U.N. on Monday was the risk that ISIL poses to U.S. interests, to Russian interests not just in the region, but around the world. Both countries share that priority. So the question, though, is what can we discern about Russia's military strategy. And I think I would just -- I'm certainly no military expert, but it does seem unwise to start drawing those kinds of firm conclusions based on military strikes that have just take place over the last few hours.
So we'll have a variety of ways to get greater insight into their eventual strategy. That will include conversations between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. That will include the operational level de-confliction talks. And it will include the Department of Defense's analysis about exactly what targets Russia has hit, and what the result of those strikes has been.
Q: But the fact that no one is saying they seem to be hitting anything to do with ISIS, does that not bother you?
MR. EARNEST: I'm just saying that our experts are taking a close look at this, and it's too early for me to share any conclusions with you at this point. The Department of Defense, if they have greater analysis, I'm sure they'll share it with you.
Q: Josh, putting aside the question of exactly what was targeted today, did the President, or has anyone on the U.S. side said to President Putin or others in the Russian government, we are arming -- "we are backing some groups in Syria; do not target them"? Have you issued that warning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that would be part of the kind of -- well, let me say a couple things. I can't account for all of the conversations, and certainly would refer you to the State Department for a little more texture about the conversations between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov.
President Putin and the Russians are keenly aware of the strategy that I described to Jon earlier in this briefing, which is that the United States recognizes that boots on the ground will be required to stabilize the situation inside of Syria and ultimately to root out ISIL. The President has made clear that those will not be U.S. boots on the ground. And I think we've seen some indications from the Russians that they're reluctant to put Russian boots on the ground. They are aware of the fact that the United States has made some progress against ISIL by relying on other opposition forces inside of Syria.
I think the other thing that bears mentioning is that President Putin, in the context of his meeting with President Obama, noted the importance of a political transition inside of Syria. Now, he's not willing to make the same commitment that we are -- or the same observation, frankly, that we have that President Assad has lost legitimacy to lead. But implicit even in President Putin's description of the need for a political transition is the need for some kind of functioning opposition; that you can't really have a political transition in which the politics don't change.
So I think President Putin understands that at some level there's going to have to be more of a political contribution from the opposition inside of Syria, and that's why the United States has worked hard both to build up the capacity of -- the military capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition inside of Syria, but also worked to support the U.N.-led talks to facilitate conversations between the Assad regime -- representatives of the Assad regime and the moderate Syrian opposition.
Q: Are you not able to say with any certainty that there was a warning issued to the Russians -- "do not touch this moderate opposition that we are supplying and backing and training"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm willing to say is that there was not this kind of operational-level discussion between President Obama and President Putin. It was, as you would expect from two Commanders-in-Chief, it was a relatively high-level conversation. But certainly when it comes to de-conflicting our efforts, that would include making sure that Russia is not taking military strikes against U.S. military forces or other forces that are advancing the same goal that we are in coordination with our coalition.
Q: But the U.S. would take a dim view of any attacks that targeted groups that U.S. equipment is being used by and that we're training and supplying -- whether or not they're operating against ISIL, because some of them are also operating against the Syrian regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is -- let me try to say it this way. We have sought a Russian contribution to our counter-ISIL campaign that's constructive. There are 65 nations that have worked with the United States to advance our strategy inside of Syria that includes backing opposition forces on the ground. There are a variety of ways that those forces can be helped. In some cases, that is providing some military air support. In other cases, that is providing them some military assistance. In some cases, it's even providing assistance like MREs and medical equipment that can be useful to fighters on the battlefield.
And the United States has provided I believe the last tally is about $400 million in that kind of assistance to Syrian opposition fighters. And we certainly wouldn't want Russian military operations to come into conflict with that ongoing effort, which is why both President Obama and President Putin have placed a priority on de-confliction talks.
Q: Josh, a quick follow-up to that. In his newfound zeal to fight Islamic State, did Putin suggest to the President that maybe the U.S. and its coalition partners should -- I don't know if maybe there's a better word, but stand down on the airstrikes in Syria? Kind of a let-us-handle-this attitude in the meeting?
MR. EARNEST: The focus of their conversations with regard to our ongoing military operations and their planned military operations was the need for ensuring that those operations were properly de-conflicted. And both President Obama and President Putin placed a priority on those talks taking place at an operational level. And shortly after that meeting concluded, U.S. officials were in touch with their Russian counterparts to begin arranging that meeting. Those talks haven't occurred yet, but I would expect they would occur in short order.
Q: There was no suggestion, let us handle this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, there was no specific request like that.
Q: Josh, can you confirm that a Russian commander informed the U.S. military in Iraq that the strike was going to take place within an hour? And do you think this is appropriate considering that both Secretary Kerry and Mr. Lavrov are in the same city, most likely in the same building? And do you think that's a slap in the face? And why don't you take it seriously?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first, let me say I believe that the State Department has confirmed some version of that notification. So I'd refer you to them for the details.
The second is, I don't know that -- I don't know exactly what time that took place, but based on the way that I learned about this, I suspect that took place overnight. So I don't think it would be accurate to say that both Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov were inside the same building at the same time. Presumably they were both asleep.
Q: (Inaudible) the day before.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. But I take your point, and so that gets me to the point that I would want to make, which is simply that beginning these military-to-military conversations about de-conflicting our activities is important. And the kind of notification that you've just described is obviously not the most efficient way for us to ensure that our military activities are de-conflicted. And that's why both Presidents have ordered military officials in their countries to coordinate at an operational level to more formally ensure that those operations are de-conflicted.
Q: Senator McCain had a blistering attack on the administration this morning.
MR. EARNEST: Must be a day that ends in Y.
Q: He said you're being weak, abdicating the leadership, et cetera. He said that you're inviting President Putin to the Middle East, first time to come back in full force since the '70s, after Sadat kicked them out of Egypt. Does this alarm you? Does this cause you to look back at the strategy once again from your answer to Jon of revisiting what exactly that you wanted to do in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: The short answer to your question is, no. The longer answer to your question is to observe that Russia has treated Syria as a client state for quite some time now. Five years ago, that client state was pretty stable. And right now it's a client state that is in utter chaos, where the leader that they have propped up for years is losing his grip on power.
And I think that's a pretty clear indication that Russia is not flexing its muscles when it comes to Syria. Right now they are trying to prop up an investment that's about to go south. And we've made clear that any sort of effort to double-down on their support for the Assad regime is a losing bet. And so I think that's -- and that's the first observation.
The second thing that I would say is that we would welcome a constructive Russian contribution to the counter-ISIL campaign. There are clearly priorities that we share. The leaders of both nations recognize the threat that is posed by ISIL. Both nations -- the leaders of both nations recognize that there is a fundamental political problem inside of Syria that has led to this chaos, that has taken the form not just of ISIL, but other extremists that are hoping to use the chaos in Syria to carry out attacks against countries around the world.
It also has precipitated a terrible humanitarian crisis and a flood of refugees fleeing violence inside of Syria. That kind of refugee movement is not in anybody's interest. And so there is plenty when it comes to our interests that Russia and the United States should be able to find such that Russia could be a constructive participant in our counter-ISIL campaign.
Thus far that's not been the strategy that they have chosen to pursue. And if they're not going to be integrated into our broader counter-ISIL effort that includes 65 nations, then we want to make sure that any Russian military activities that are taking place inside of Syria, that are unilateral, are activities that are at least formally de-conflicting with our ongoing operations inside of Syria. And President Putin agreed that that should be done.
Q: Your opinion that this military strike would shift the dynamics to the degree that it might speed up or delay the political process?
MR. EARNEST: Again, after one day I think it's hard to tell. What we have said is that if Russia uses its military assets inside of Syria to prop up the Assad regime, that will make a political transition more difficult.
And the reason for that is simply it's only going to ensure that the Assad regime alienates even more of the population and could essentially be run counter to the goals that both President Obama and President Putin say they share, which is the defeat of ISIL. By further alienating the population inside of Syria, you essentially serve as a recruitment tool for the extremists that are operating inside of Syria. And that's why we believe that doubling down on Assad is a bad bet for the Russians, and it's why we have encouraged them to contribute constructively to our effort there.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Two domestic questions. One, you'll recall last February the President was pushing the Department of Labor to adopt a fiduciary duty rule, or you can call it conflict-of-interest rule. Today, a House committee is marking up a bill to delay that. Will the President veto such legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you point out, they're still marking up some of this legislation. But it clearly -- so I'm not prepared to issue a veto threat at this point. But what you've described certainly runs counter to the priority that this administration and this President has placed on making sure that we're protecting the retirement savings of middle-class families.
Some studies indicate that because this rule is not in place, that American families lose $17 billion in retirement savings every year -- $17 billion. That's a substantial risk that is not worth taking.
The fact is -- and this is the case that we've made -- the fact is that a responsible financial manager wouldn't have to do anything differently. And rather, this is a rule that would ensure that there is no conflict of interest, and the retirement savings of middle-class families is effectively managed. And failing to implement this rule puts at risk $17 billion in retirement savings -- and that doesn't seem like a good idea. And that's why the President and his administration have moved forward with this particular rule. And we certainly would take a dim view of efforts by Republicans who are acting at the behest of Wall Street interests by the way to block it.
Q: And just slightly different. Is the White House far more concerned now, with Speaker Boehner stepping down, about increasing the debt limit in the end of November, December?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be direct about it, this is an important responsibility of the United States Congress. And when you're talking about something this important, and you're dealing with a Congress that has been this unreliable, there's always going to be a source of concern. And I think that's a concern that I would articulate to you whether the Speaker of the House is John Boehner or Kevin McCarthy or, frankly, anybody else.
But it's something we're certainly mindful of and tracking closely. But ultimately this is the responsibility of Congress. And we're hopeful that they'll do the responsible thing that, to their credit, that they've done two or three times since 2011, which is ensure that the debt limit was raised without a bunch of drama that would unnecessarily inject additional volatility into the financial markets.
That certainly wouldn't be good for the economy. It wouldn't be good for middle-class families. And if Republicans in Congress focus on those priorities, then we won't have anything to worry about. So hopefully they will.
Q: Thanks, Josh. So given that the confirmation was given by the Pentagon about what was essentially a knock on the door at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and that as we've well established, both Presidents have agreed -- they looked at each other, in the eye presumably, and they agreed that it was a priority to de-conflict -- was an hour's notice what President Obama had in mind when he spoke with Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying this, Chris, which is that there was no persuasion that was needed on either side to make de-confliction a priority. Both Presidents readily acknowledge that.
And so it wasn't a matter of trying to persuade one side or the other that this should be a priority. Both Presidents readily agreed that because it's so clearly in the interest of both our countries to make sure that our operations don't come into conflict there.
Q: Did President Obama take that agreement to mean one hour's notice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President took that agreement to mean that U.S. military officials would be in touch with Russian military officials to set up talks to engage in a formal process of de-conflicting those operations at a formal level. The outreach has occurred to begin setting up that meeting, but those actual talks have not yet taken place, but I'm confident that they will take place in short order.
Q: Does one hour's notice at least violate the spirit of that conversation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, the spirit of the conversation is the construction of a more formal process, where U.S. military officials and Russian military officials can engage in a regular dialogue to de-conflict their activities. That's the spirit of that agreement and that's what we expect to be set up in relatively short order.
Q: So in the meantime, given that the Russians have launched airstrikes, does the U.S. just in the interim I guess trust that Russia is not going to conflict with U.S. military operations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the Russians have made clear that they're not interested in provoking a conflict.
Q: And you trust them with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that's something that they have said and that their actions thus far indicate that that's what they believe. But, ultimately, the more effective way and more efficient way for these activities to be properly de-conflicted is for these talks to take place between military officials at a tactical, operational level, and we anticipate that will take place soon.
Q: Josh, I want ask you a couple of questions on a couple of different subjects. Back on Russia, the relationship with the U.S. and Russia is complicated at the very best. And I want to find out -- you're taking the higher ground and talking about the situation that happened with Russia and Syria, but I want to go to reality. What's the level of tension here at the White House with Russia's actions, especially as you're trying to de-conflict and preparing for talks, what's the level of tension around here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was asked earlier about whether or not this Russian action would prompt a comprehensive reevaluation of the situation inside of Syria, and it won't. The fact is, President Putin and the Russians have been trying to prop up Assad for a long time. And the fact that they are now having to ramp up that support is an indication that their previous efforts to prop him up weren't very successful. And the reason they were trying to prop him up is because this is essentially the client state that they've had in the Middle East for quite some time now, and they're eager to try to preserve that toehold in the region. And so that principally is why we're seeing what we're seeing there.
At the same time, the President believes that it's important for Russia's military activities to not come into conflict with our efforts there. And, in fact, if Russia is willing, we would welcome their constructive contribution to this effort. The fact that they have not decided to make a constructive contribution to our counter-ISIL effort means that Russia is not doing exactly what we would like them to do in Syria, and that's not unusual in the relationship between our two countries.
But I think I've also pointed out on a couple of occasions here that there are areas of common interest that we have inside of Syria, and that relates to not just the priority that's placed on de-confliction, but also on the priority that's placed on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. That's the goal of our coalition, and that is a goal that President Putin, I'm confident, would say that he shares.
There also was an acknowledgement on the part of the Russians that our view of the necessity of a political transition inside of Syria is correct -- that, at root, this is political problem, and that the problems that ISIL has caused will not be solved over the long term until a political solution is reached. What that means is it means that Russia is not going to be successful in imposing a military solution inside of Syria, and they'll be no more successful in that regard than the United States was in imposing a military solution in Iraq in the last decade, and certainly no more successful than Russian efforts to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago.
Q: I want to attack in another way. What was the level of surprise and upset after the meeting two days ago, and finding out what's happening today? What was the level of upset and surprise here in the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Quite low. Again, the reason that we've been having conversations about Russia's military commitment inside of Syria is because all of you were keenly aware of the fact that Russia had moved all kinds of military equipment, including fighter jets, into Syria. That wasn't a secret; therefore, it's difficult to be taken by surprise. And it's entirely consistent with the kind of efforts that they've undertaken in the last five years to prop up the Assad regime.
So it certainly represents an escalation of those efforts, but the trajectory is the same. And obviously we would like to see Russia do something different. I'm not trying to suggest to you that this is what we would like to see Russia do. But I'm surprised that anybody would say that it had taken them by surprise.
Q: And another question on Kim Davis. How much time did this White House have to look at the Pope's itinerary prior to his arrival in the States?
MR. EARNEST: How much time did the --
Q: Did you see his itinerary prior to his arrival in the States?
MR. EARNEST: I think that all of us had the opportunity -- all of you had his public schedule, and so were aware of his itinerary. I think you're sort of getting at whether or not that we were aware that this meeting was taking place?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn't aware of the meeting, and I don't know to what degree anybody else was either.
Q: Well, were you taken by surprise by that?
MR. EARNEST: Umm -- (laughter) --
Q: By anything? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I know, right? (Laughter.) Mark, wait until you see what happens tomorrow.
Q: Bring an umbrella.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. I guess I hadn't had sufficient time to consider, really, the consequences of this particular meeting. I did not know that it had occurred. I don't know if anybody else around here did, either. But the -- but you know, I guess I would, in terms of the reason for the meeting and what the objective was of the Pope in having the meeting, I'd refer you to the Vatican.
Q: So did the President say anything to you, especially since he follows the media on his Blackberry? Did he say anything to you about this Kim Davis meeting and what she said -- the Pope said, "Keep doing what you're doing" to Kim Davis? Did he say anything to you about that?
MR. EARNEST: And that's a second-hand account.
Q: That's her account. She was there with the Pope. So that's her account.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that her lawyer was there, though. And I think it was his comment. Well, but that makes it a second-hand account, right?
Q: But she was the person giving the information.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. The point is, I don't have a specific reaction to the actual meeting. Our position on this issue has been quite clear from the very first day that this burst into the headlines, and that position hasn't changed.
Q: Josh, thanks. I want to touch base on Afghanistan before I double-back on Syria. You mentioned earlier that there had been a number of airstrikes to assist the Afghan forces as they attempt to reclaim the sixth-largest city in that country. Is the White House aware of 100 Special Forces on the ground, American personnel, as well, engaged in firefighting there?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, for these kinds of operational questions, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. They can give you the most reliable information. My understanding, based on the information that I received before I came out here, is that there were three airstrikes that were carried out as a part of this effort. And they were carried out to protect U.S. and coalition forces that were providing advisory support to the ongoing Afghanistan effort to retake the city. So that is to say that clearly U.S. and coalition forces that are operating in that advisory role in Afghanistan are operating in a very dangerous place, and it's important for us to -- or it's important for the military to carry out the President's mission, which includes force protection.
But I think the military would say that it's not accurate to describe them as being engaged in that firefight. The role that they have is to provide advisory support to the Afghans that are participating in that effort. And that, as I said once before and I'll just repeat again, that is not in any way to downplay the risk that these brave soldiers are taking on -- it's just an effort to try to describe to you precisely what their role is while they're there.
Q: Okay. I want to get sort of a big-picture view on Syria. There have been people over the last couple days in particular, Josh, that have suggested that Vladimir Putin is really running circles around the President; that strategically he is always one step ahead. In response to that, what would you say to people who feel like the President is being out-witted, out-strategized, even out-smarted by Vladimir Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that doesn't reflect the facts. The fact of the matter is, the Russians are responding from a position of weakness. They are seeing the client state that they have maintained inside of Syria progress over the course of five years from being a relatively stable state where they could exercise significant influence to a country that's torn apart by chaos and that risks the status of the leader that they have supported there for years. That is what has prompted Russia to ramp up their involvement there.
The second thing is that Russia continues to suffer from the kind -- Russia's economy continues to suffer from the kind of international isolation and economic costs that have been imposed on them as a result of their destabilizing activities inside of Ukraine. Russia, again, as a result of broader economic forces and the sanctions that the United States and our European partners have imposed on them, have led to a bunch of negative outcomes when it comes to their economy.
According to the IMF, the Russian economy will contract 3 to 4 percent this year, and it will remain in recession into next year. That stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of the world's economies, including those that rely on energy exports that are slated -- that are projected to grow this year. Just in the last three years, we've seen the Russian economy plummet in size from being one-eighth the size of the U.S. economy to being one-sixteenth the size of the U.S. economy. And Russia's economy now rates as the 15th largest in the world, coming in right after Spain.
So with all due respect to our friends in Spain, that is not a country that is thriving right now. This is a country right now that is sustaining significant economic costs and responding to a situation where they see their influence diminishing and the prospect of a significant long-term investment in Syria going down the tubes. So I guess that's the case that I would make.
This is not inconsistent with the broader case that the President made in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly that one of the hallmarks of American influence and American strength is the fact that, at least in this situation, the United States is leading an international coalition of 65 nations that are carrying out an integrated strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. That certainly stands in stark contrast to the military operation that Russia is conducting today.
Q: Is it accurate then to say that the President is comfortable with the idea that Russia will take a larger, broader role in the region, even as the U.S. sort of steps back, in particular in Syria? Is that accurate? Is that inaccurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Russia would be wise to consider recent history before they take a wider role in the region that is focused on imposing a military solution inside of Syria. Recent history makes pretty clear that they will not succeed in that regard, and they certainly will not succeed any more than the United States was able to impose a military solution in Iraq in the last decade. And they certainly won't succeed any more than the Russian effort to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago. So I think this is the backdrop to the Russian military activity that we see inside of Syria today.
Q: Lastly, I want to ask you about the Secret Service. I know that often we end up with news reports when things go poorly for them, and yet having come off this dramatic week where they were very busy, I'm just curious, has the President personally gone out and thanked the women and men who not only protect him, but also protected a number of high-level visitors here in the last week or so?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, you make an appropriate observation, which is that the men and women of the Secret Service over the last week have faced the kind of significant challenges that no law enforcement agency -- let me say it this way. I think you could make a strong case that this has probably been the busiest week in the history of the Secret Service. And when you consider that they were responsible for protecting the Pope during his week-long visit to the United States over three different cities; when you consider that they have been responsible for the safety and security of the Chinese President while -- during his multi-day visit to the United States that included at least two cities that I'm aware of; and when you add onto that, that that took place while the United Nations General Assembly was going on, where there were more than 100 world leaders gathered in New York -- there were a wide range of significant responsibilities that the United States Secret Service had to live up to.
And it wasn't just a matter of keeping all those individuals safe, it was also making sure that those individuals could travel efficiently around the country and around the cities that they were visiting, and at least when it came to the Pope, trying to balance the desire of the Pope to remain safe with his desire to engage with the American public.
So this is just -- all of this is a long way of saying, I admit, that the men and women of the Secret Service are dedicated professionals who are committed to serving their country and advancing the best interests of their country. And they have a very specific, unique mission for doing that.
And there's no denying that over the course of the last week, when faced with these very significant challenges, that they were anything less than wildly successful.
Q: On that point, did President Obama phone Joe Clancy to convey his commendation that he made publicly out on the South Lawn yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: The President -- yes, as you pointed out, the President did have an opportunity to talk a little bit about this publicly yesterday. I don't know if he had an opportunity to speak directly with Director Clancy. I know that Director Clancy himself has been pretty busy over the last week.
Q: He'd probably take a call, though. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I bet he would. If something like that took place, I'll see if I can get you the information and let you know.
Q: Josh, of the 65 nations in the coalition, how many are willing to put boots on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: Inside of Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Let me check on the commitments that they've made. My guess is that most of them -- and I think I'd even say the vast majority, if not all -- have, like the United States, been unwilling to make that kind of commitment, principally because they also recognize that a military solution cannot be imposed on Syria from the outside; that, rather, there is a premium on backing the efforts of opposition fighters on the ground. That ultimately those opposition forces that are members of the moderate opposition essentially represent what would hopefully turn into a moderate political opposition, and would sort of serve as the basis of the kind of political transition that needs to occur in that country.
Q: Do the nations sign a document explaining what their commitment will be to the coalition?
MR. EARNEST: There is something like this. The State Department -- you'll recall that General Allen is a State Department employee -- he's retired from the military -- has been leading the effort to integrate the contributions of all of the nations who are part of this coalition. And so he's engaged in an effort to make sure that the expertise and resources of individual countries are best leveraged to advance the interests of the broader coalition.
So I believe that there is a way that they keep track of the kind of contributions that countries have made to this effort. But check with the State Department; they may be able to give you a better sense of how those records are kept.
Q: And one more thing. What is the subject of the President's meeting today with the state legislators?
MR. EARNEST: I believe those state legislators are actually in town for a more formal meeting, and the President invited them to the White House. And the President will speak to them a little later this afternoon about a range of priorities that he has. Some of those state legislators have advanced efforts to raise the minimum wage, or to implement Medicaid expansion. And it underscores the variety of areas where the federal government and state governments can work effectively together to maximize the benefits for their citizens. And the President will have more to say about this this afternoon.
Jessica, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Just a couple more on Russia. Does the White House or the U.S. acknowledge that Russia's timing is such that it comes just as the U.S. has acknowledged that the efforts in Syria were unsuccessful?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that's what's going on here. I think we've long acknowledged the kinds of challenges that we face inside of Syria. And I think Russia has long been involved in ramping up their efforts to support Assad. So I'm not sure that there's any turning point that you could point to in terms of our activities that would hooked to any new Russian decision.
Q: So the narrative that Russia felt the need to step in essentially where the U.S. was failing is not one that you would concur with?
MR. EARNEST: I think that Russia felt the need to step in because Assad was failing, and Russia was concerned about the consequences that would have for their investment in that country. And I think there's ample evidence to indicate that that's actually an accurate explanation of what's going on here.
Q: And the President said earlier this week that he's open to working with Russia on the problem, obviously.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q: What are the chances of the U.S. accepting Russian help going forward, given what's just happened with these airstrikes and sort of seemingly being caught a little bit unawares?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if a Russian offer is made that is constructive when it comes to cooperating with the broader international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, we would readily accept it. But that's not an offer that Russia has made thus far.
Q: Constructive, meaning they need to join your coalition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, meaning that it needs to be properly integrated with all of the other efforts that are underway there.
Tara, I saw you had your hand up, and you emailed me earlier saying you had a question, so why don't you tell me what your question is and I'll see if I can answer it.
Q: Can you tell me about the raising of the Palestinian flag at the U.N.?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. You want to -- we talked about this a little bit earlier. The United States, as you know, opposed the resolution to raise the Palestinian flag at the United Nations. But that is not and should not be construed as a change in any position on the part of the United States about Palestinian aspiration for statehood.
The fact of the matter is, the vote reflects the reality that the two parties themselves must ultimately take the responsible steps that are required to achieve a two-state solution, and to end the cycle of violence and suffering that's persisted for far too long in the Middle East.
The fact is, the United States continues to support the kind of two-state solution that would result in two states for two peoples with a sovereign, viable and independent Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish and democratic Israel.
Thanks a lot, everybody. See you tomorrow.
END 2:11 P.M. EDT
Barack Obama, 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/312381