Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday. Let me do one announcement at the top and then we'll go to your questions.
Earlier today, President Obama was briefed by his team about preparations underway to prepare for the arrival of Tropical Storm Erika. I think as all of you have been reporting, that storm has already made landfall in some islands in the Caribbean, and preparations are underway to prepare for possible landfall in the United States.
FEMA has taken a number of steps, as they typically do in these situations, to prepare. The first is that FEMA Instant Management Assistance teams continue to be deployed to Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and St. Thomas, and continue to support response activities and ensure that there are no unmet needs on those islands. Additional teams from around the country are on alert and ready to deploy as necessary.
Second, Mobile Emergency Response Support personnel and equipment are deployed to support with secure and non-secure voice, video, and information services to support emergency response communications as necessary.
Third, FEMA staff have been activated to prepare for the establishment of an incident support base in Georgia to pre-position supplies, including water, meals, blankets, and other resources closer to potentially affected areas should they be needed and requested. FEMA has also deployed a liaison officer to the Emergency Operations Center in Florida to help coordinate any requests for federal assistance.
As always, the President continues to encourage those in areas affected or potentially affected by Tropical Storm Erika to monitor local radio, television stations, or official social media accounts for emergency information. And, of course, to follow assiduously the instructions of state, territorial, and local officials. The President has asked his team to provide him with regular updates over the weekend as additional information about the weather forecast is reported.
So with that, Josh, why don't we turn to you to get started with questions?
Q: Great, thanks, Josh. A federal appeals court this morning ruled in your favor on the phone records collection by the National Security Agency. And I'm wondering -- Congress has already moved forward with legislation to replace that program, so now that a court is saying, actually, it's constitutional to do what you were doing, does that change the administration's response in terms of whether that legislation is necessary or whether the old program should be preserved?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, you'll recall that the reforms that are included in the USA FREEDOM Act that was passed by Congress over the summer were based on reforms that the President had advocated for in a speech years prior. So the President strongly believes in the reforms that are included in the USA FREEDOM Act. I think the ruling of the court is actually consistent with what this administration has said for some time, which is that we did believe that these capabilities were constitutional and I think we argued it as such in front of the court. However, the President believed that there were important reforms that could be put in place that would both better protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people while also making sure that our law enforcement and intelligence officials had the tools that they need to keep us safe. That's what's included in those reforms. That's why the President strongly advocated that Congress pass those reforms, and it's why he was pleased to sign those reforms into law.
As you know, Josh, we're in the midst of a transition period now where the intelligence agencies are transitioning into this new system, and that should be complete before the end of the year.
Q: And I wanted to ask you about this horrific incident in Austria with more than 70 migrants found decomposing in a truck. I know that you said earlier in the week that you weren't aware of any conversations between the President and EU leaders about this migrant issue, and I guess I'm wondering, why not? It seems like this crisis is really escalating in the thousands of migrants who have died, so shouldn't there be some type of response to try to do something about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, let me say a couple of things about that. The first is that the President did have an opportunity to speak with Chancellor Merkel earlier this week. In that phone conversation, they focused primarily on the situation in Ukraine, but they did have an opportunity to discuss generally some of the challenges that the EU is facing when it comes to immigrants, and handling the influx of immigrants that Europe is seeing both from North Africa and from some places in the Middle East.
This is a testament, Josh, to the ways that the violence and instability in North Africa and the Middle East isn't just destabilizing the immediate region, but is starting to have a destabilizing impact on other regions of the world, too, including in Europe.
This is also something that the President had the opportunity to discuss with Prime Minister Renzi when he visited the White House earlier this year. And in the context of that visit, the President indicated his hope that the EU would dedicate additional resources to doing a couple of things. First is helping Italy and other countries in southern Europe who are on the front lines of this influx deal with that influx in a humane way. But the second is to use more resources to crack down on those who are seeking to traffic in human beings or to capitalize on the desperate plight of some individuals, including women and children, who are fleeing violent situations in their home countries. So, clearly, that is unacceptable, and we certainly commend the EU for taking strong steps in that direction.
But, Josh, the fact is this whole situation is heartbreaking. And the discovery by Austrian officials this week is terrible. And we have mourned the humanitarian impact of the terrible violence that we've seen in the Middle East and in North Africa, and this is just the latest manifestation of that. The early indications are that it's possible that these individuals may have originally come from the Middle East.
I guess the last thing I would say is that obviously the United States has dealt with a similar situation -- that last summer, we saw an influx of immigrants at our Southern border fleeing some violent situations in Central America. Circumstances related to terrorism are quite different, obviously. But these are very difficult policy challenges. And we certainly want to commend the EU for taking this issue seriously and encourage them to continue to do so.
Q: In terms of the policy prescription that we're conveying to our EU partners -- I mean, you mentioned that we should be cracking down on these smugglers, but a lot of the experts in the region have said that when you crack down, you make it harder for people to get in; they end up resorting to even more dangerous methods to try and get there, and it actually puts them in more harm's way. So is that an assessment that you disagree with and you think that the administration wants Europe to tighten the entrance for these people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think these are two separate issues, Josh. The first is that there are some unscrupulous individuals -- criminals -- who actually are preying on these desperate people, capitalizing on their desperate situation, and offering them dangerous alternatives to the system that's currently in place. And we do believe that EU officials, including law enforcement officials, should crack down on those who are seeking to make money by exploiting people who are in a legitimately desperate situation.
At the same time, there's no question that the very large number of extremely vulnerable, irregular migrants and asylum-seekers seeking entry to Europe poses a serious and difficult challenge to EU nations. The EU is focused on saving and protecting lives, ensuring the human rights of all migrants are respected, and promoting orderly and humane migration policies. That's why we're going to urge governments in the region to develop appropriate facilities that allow for proper screening of migrants in the provision of life-sustaining assistance.
After all, these are human beings. And it is important -- as the United States and as the Obama administration has done in dealing with some of our challenges here, we need to see the humanity in these individuals. And, again, in so many of these cases, they are fleeing desperate situations and the humanitarian situation in places like Libya or in Syria is just unthinkable. And there are countries that we've seen in the region respond in ways that are worthy of recognition for the efforts that they've undertaken to try to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals.
We've talked about Turkey, just to cite one example. This is a nation that has taken on more than a million people fleeing Syria and fleeing violence in Syria, and the Turkish government and the Turkish people have expended significant resources to take them in and try to provide for their basic needs away from home.
So this is something that the EU is going to have to deal with.
Q: And has the President watched any of the DNC meeting taking place this week, or is he getting updates on it from his team?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that the President's gotten any updates on the meeting. I know that the President obviously was aware that the Vice President spent some time talking to DNC members about the Iran deal, but I'm not aware of any regular updates on the meeting that the President has received.
Q: Is the United States considering any kind of new or escalated response to assist allies struggling with this migrant crisis? Is there anything the United States can do to -- with some of those policies that you talked about, like developing facilities for screening, or aid for countries that are sort of struggling to handle all these people coming in? What can the United States do, specifically?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, the United States will continue to be in touch with our counterparts -- and I know that at the staff level, that's something that happens every day. And there certainly are international organizations that are actively involved in working with countries to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of refugees and those who may be seeking asylum.
And certainly, the United States is aware, based on our own experience, of how difficult a policy problem this is. And we certainly stand with our friends and allies in the EU as they confront this significant challenge.
Q: There's no sort of measures beyond those that you mentioned that are under consideration?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing at this time.
Q: Okay. I wanted to ask about last night's NLRB ruling. Is the White House glad that the board ruled the way it did? And if so, does the White House foresee having to defend against Congress trying to undo what the board decided?
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I'm aware of the ruling that was announced yesterday. The NLRB is obviously an independent agency, and we continue to review the decision that they issued in this matter. But I don't have a specific comment on it at this point.
Q: Okay. Lastly, today the number of senators supporting the Iran deal reached 30, and I guess I'm wondering whether the White House believes that number can grow to 41?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House is going to continue to be engaged in an effort to build as much support as possible for the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon in both the House and the Senate. There were a couple of additional Democrats in the House of Representatives who indicated their support for the agreement, including at least one member of the House of Representatives who hadn't signed the letter that I have frequently cited indicating their general support for the deal. That's an indication to us that support in Congress is actually growing, and we certainly are pleased about that.
And we're going to continue to be engaged on a regular basis to build support for this agreement. And you'll note that later this afternoon, in just about an hour or so, the President is going to participate in a webcast. It will be -- apparently, we were able to find one venue that we have not yet already used for the President to make the case in favor of the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and so we're going to take advantage of that venue today and all of you will have an opportunity to dial in and see it.
Q: Josh, there are some reports that Hillary Clinton, or at least her campaign, has been working behind the scenes to discourage Democrats from flocking over to Joe Biden as he goes through this deliberative process. I know that you have said that the Vice President deserves to have the time and space to go through this decision and make the decision that's best for him. Does that -- what would the White House say to the Clinton campaign in terms of giving the Vice President that time and space?
MR. EARNEST: Well, everybody obviously will make their own decisions on this. Based on the public comments I've seen from the campaign, I think that they've indicated that they're prepared to do the same thing that everybody here at the White House is, which is to -- that out of respect for the Vice President, they'll give him the room that he needs to make this decision.
I think the one time in which I've ever ventured out of offering advice to campaigns has been in saying that at this early stage in the race that candidates are wise to not be worried about what other candidates or what other potential candidates are doing, but to actually be focused on their own candidacy. And I've actually complimented, in public, the Clinton campaign for pursuing that strategy. I think it's the right one.
Q: And yesterday, it was interesting to hear President Obama say in his remarks down in New Orleans that he loves him some Craig Fugate. (Laughter.) Craig Fugate was the emergency management director for Jeb Bush before coming to the Obama administration. Jeb Bush, earlier this week, was touting his hurricane preparedness when he was governor of Florida. Does President Obama owe Governor Bush a debt of gratitude for having Craig Fugate on his team?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no denying the fact that in -- I believe it was in 2004, when the state of Florida withstood a variety of storms, that you had Craig Fugate on the front lines there in the state of Florida directing the emergency response.
And Craig is a dedicated professional. He is somebody who started out his career as a firefighter, developed this particular expertise in emergency management and emergency response activities. And anybody who has spent any time around Administrator Fugate recognizes that he's got some built-in charisma and leadership skills.
And so it's that combination of God-given ability and expertise that he's developed that makes him the cream of the crop when it comes to emergency management. And he served the state of Florida very well. He certainly served Governor Bush well when he served in Governor Bush's administration. And he's obviously served President Obama and the American people very well in his current role.
Jim, I think what this illustrates is it illustrates that in government, even in these politically polarizing times, that when it comes to the basic safety and security of the American people, partisan politics shouldn't matter. And that's certainly been the President's approach. I know that has been Administrator Fugate's approach. And I haven't asked him, but I suspect that may be one of the few things that I say that Governor Bush may agree with.
Q: And Donna Brazile raised some eyebrows on Air Force One when she was saying that George W. Bush almost sort of gets a bum rap on Katrina, and that he did a -- she thought he did a great job after that initial bungled response in the days after the storm. Does the White House also share that view, that perhaps George W. Bush took on too much criticism? Because I know -- I remember President Obama campaigned on this as sort of an issue of competence in government when he was running for President.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the bum rap line was actually one that could be attributed to Mr. Isaacson. I think he was the one that delivered that.
Q: Okay, yes.
MR. EARNEST: But that sentiment was shared and expressed by Ms. Brazile as well.
Look, I certainly wouldn't be in a position to contradict the assessment of those two individuals. Both Walter and Donna served on the Louisiana Recovery Authority and were involved from the initial days after the storm through the many years since to help that city and that state recover from the terrible storm. So I certainly wouldn't contradict their assessment.
I think what both of them pointed out is that, after a slow start, that they did work effectively with the Bush administration. And they obviously had a lot of kind words for the efforts of the Obama administration in following through on many of the promises that then-Senator Obama had made in the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Q: You guys feel like President Bush deserves a little bit of a break on Katrina then? Is that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I certainly wouldn't contradict what Donna and Walter had to say about it. And there's been a lot of ink spilled and a lot of airtime devoted to some of the shortcomings of the immediate federal government response, and I don't feel the need to re-litigate them from here.
Q: And just very quickly on Alaska. How does this trip to Alaska fit into the President's climate change agenda? Is this sort of the signature trip of his presidency when it comes to trying to call the public's attention to what's happening with climate change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is an important trip for that reason. The President will be visiting communities in Alaska that are experiencing firsthand the impact of climate change. And for a variety of complicate scientific reasons, there is reason to think that the impacts of climate change are actually outsized in the Northern latitudes, and that has led to rising sea levels that are having a direct impact on the economy and on the livelihood of some communities in Alaska.
The President will spend some time talking to Alaska residents and visiting those communities firsthand. The President is really looking forward to the trip, and I have to admit that I am, too.
Move around -- Toluse.
Q: Thanks, Josh. U.S. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is going to be inviting different world leaders to have a climate talk during the U.N. gathering next month. I'm wondering if the White House -- if the President had received that invitation and whether he'll be in attendance at that meeting.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any update on the President's itinerary when he travels to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. I'm confident the President would welcome the opportunity to talk with Secretary General Ban or other world leaders about this critically important issue.
Obviously, the United Nations is doing some important work to organize the international community around some climate objectives. The President is strongly supportive of that process and has already been taking steps to advocate that countries around the world make commitments about how they'll reduce carbon pollution in advance of those talks that we're hoping can be completed before the end of the year.
So we welcome the important role that the United Nations has played thus far. The President will continue to be an enthusiastic supporter of that process, and I think that's evidenced by some of the significant commitments that the President and his administration have made on behalf of the United States to be a leader in trying to reach that agreement.
Q: And also, there's a movement by the Palestinian state to have their flag raised at the U.N. when the Pope comes. Does the U.S. -- does the President have a position on whether or not that's a smart move, to have that flag raised next month?
MR. EARNEST: Toluse, I have to admit that this is the first time that I've heard of that expression by the Palestinians, so I'd actually refer you to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for a response to that.
Q: Question about the DNC meeting. There's a report that Democrats have decided not to take up a resolution on the Iran deal, not to openly debate that. Is the President disappointed that that's not going to be debated and fully supported by the DNC at their summer meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of all of the -- I know there are a lot of mechanics behind these kinds of resolutions and public declarations by the DNC. What I will say is we continue to be confident of the strong support among Democrats for pursuing a diplomatic agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And we've acknowledged that there are some Democrats who don't agree with that position, but the President continues to believe that it's the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That is an agreement that is shared by just about the entire international community. It's shared by the vast majority of nuclear scientists and nuclear nonproliferation experts who have taken a look at this agreement. And we've even seen a letter signed by a significant number of former military leaders, retired military leaders indicating their view that this agreement is by far the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So we've made our case, and the President is going to continue to make it to anybody who will listen.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I'm sure you're aware that Planned Parenthood sent a letter and a report to Capitol Hill about those videos having to do with fetal tissue. Do you see this -- does the White House see this as a significant development, and do you think it will have any effect on this whole kerfuffle over shutting down the government over these videos?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chip, I haven't done my own analysis of the videos. Planned Parenthood has, and I think that was the substance of the letter that they sent to Congress. What is clear is that the comments that are included on some of the videos that have been released are disturbing, and the leadership of Planned Parenthood has apologized for those comments, and that was appropriate.
What's not appropriate, however, is for Republicans to use those comments that may or may not have been taken out of context as an excuse to try to deprive hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans from access to health care. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time that we'd see Republicans engaged in a coordinated attempt to prevent women from getting access to health care, but we certainly do not support that effort. In fact, we've been harshly critical of it.
And to make it even worse by suggesting that if they don't succeed in defunding Planned Parenthood that they'll shut down the government is grossly irresponsible, particularly in a time of economic volatility that we've seen across the globe over the last couple of weeks.
Q: Planned Parenthood has made these arguments before that these videos were edited in a way to smear Planned Parenthood and now believe that they have hard evidence that that is the case. Do you see -- does the White House see this as a significant development in that argument and in the arguments that will be made on Capitol Hill when some Republicans say they're going to try to shut down the government?
MR. EARNEST: Chip, my view is that -- the view of the White House is that the suggestion that the federal government should be shut down over a dispute about Planned Parenthood is an irrational one. That leads me to believe that even if new facts are marshalled, it may not have much of an impact on their argument.
So I'll leave it to you, as the story develops, to determine whether or not this is a significant development. What would be a significant development is if Republicans do engage in the kind of irresponsible conduct that would lead to the shutdown of the government over a purely ideological dispute that would, if they were successful, only result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans losing access to the health care that they depend on.
Q: Have you seen the videos?
MR. EARNEST: I have certainly seen the coverage of the videos and I've seen some of the snippets that have been shown on television, but I have not watched the videos in their entirety. I know that there are hours that have been released, and my guess is that the forensic study that Planned Parenthood commissioned probably took quite some time.
Q: Josh, three subjects. I want to revisit the Iran deal tally. What is it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the last I heard is that in terms of public statements from the United States Senate, we've gotten 30 individuals who have come forward to indicate their support for the United States Senate. The number in the House is larger than 30, but I don't know what the latest number is in the House. We can follow up with you on that.
We continue to have confidence that we will be able to succeed in building the support that we need to sustain a presidential veto if that becomes necessary. That confidence is rooted in this letter that was actually submitted -- or was signed by about 150 House Democrats. You'll recall that they signed this letter in early May prior to the final agreement being reached, indicating that if the final agreement reflected the parameters that had been agreed to earlier in the spring were reflected in the final agreement, that they would be inclined to support it.
Now, I would acknowledge that them actually coming out and supporting the final deal is a critically important step, so we certainly don't take their support for granted. But it gives us confidence that we'll be able to build that support. That's also why, as I believe I mentioned to Roberta, that it's significant that there have been a handful of House Democrats now who did not originally sign that letter back in May but have now come out in support of the agreement. And that's an indication that we've got some momentum built up on our side here.
But our efforts are not going to -- we're not going to take our foot off the gas pedal here. We're going to continue to make a forceful case about the wisdom of this agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And that's the reason the President is doing the webcast later this afternoon.
Q: So you mentioned the public. Are your private numbers a bit higher than that? About 10, five, two? Can you give us --
MR. EARNEST: I think what I'd say, April, is that public commitments are much more valuable than private ones. So while it is fair for you to assume that there is a behind-the-scenes assessment about where some people may land on this, we're not putting anybody in the "yes" column until they have issued a public statement indicating their support.
Q: So there is a requirement for you, in a way, to say that, internally, that this is a definite if they publicly say it, versus telling you over the phone or in person privately? They have to make a public pronouncement before you really say it's a yes?
MR. EARNEST: Before we put them in the "yes" column. I think that's the smart way to count votes. That's certainly the -- I'm not an expert in that endeavor, but the people who are tell me that's the way to do it.
Q: And on another subject, how is it for the President right now? It's a very delicate dance for him it seems with Biden and Clinton. He's close with both. Can you give us some insight on how he's navigating these waters right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don't think there are too many waters for him to navigate in that regard. The President, as recently as in a television interview on Wednesday, spoke warmly of both individuals who have served their country and this administration with distinction. But ultimately, Secretary Clinton has a campaign that she's running, and Vice President Biden is considering whether or not he wants to start one. But obviously, those are endeavors in which the President is not involved. It turns out, the President has got his own long agenda that he's focused on right now.
Q: And lastly, on Katrina. It's been 10 years since Katrina, and there have been lessons learned -- this administration has learned from lessons in the past. What can you tell the American public concretely that you know for sure will not happen if there's a natural disaster that happens of this magnitude again -- be it housing, be it energy? What lessons have been learned and corrected that will never happen again -- that will not repeat like Katrina, or maybe even Sandy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the first thing that the American people can be confident in -- and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about Administrator Fugate -- that the man that's in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Administration is somebody who has got the skills and experience to do the job and do it well. And the American people can have confidence in the leadership of that agency.
I think the second thing is that agency has redoubled its effort to strengthen its relationship with state and local officials. That relationship is critical because ultimately, it's local and state officials who have the primary responsibility for responding in a federal -- or in a natural disaster. And the role of the federal government is to step in and offer support and additional resources if it becomes necessary to do so.
And if it becomes necessary to do so, you know that it's a significant disaster. And we want to make sure that when the federal government steps in to offer assistance that we have the kinds of tools to offer that assistance efficiently and in a way that can be most effectively used by state and local officials.
So for a more detailed description of the kinds of changes that have been put in place, I'd refer you to FEMA. I'm sure they could give you a more clear rundown of exactly what reforms they've made to ensure that the American people are as well-served by that agency as they should be.
Q: Josh, you've already answered a couple questions about rulings from the last 24 hours; one more. The federal judge out of North Dakota on the WOTUS ruling, a preliminary injunction for 13 states. What's the White House's reaction? I know that the Army Corps was just about to start work.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I've gotten a short briefing on this. What I can tell you is that the administration strongly disagrees with this ruling. And the Department of Justice is currently considering all of their options with respect to it. But for additional steps that may be taken by the Department of Justice, I'd refer you to them.
Q: What's the response to Republicans and other critics of the WOTUS enlargement that say that this is an overreach of the federal government, that it's going to apply to every puddle and crick along the routes here on the -- and instead of focusing on the larger bodies of water in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have certainly made the strong case that this Waters of the United States rule is one that is clearly in the best interests of communities all across the country. And one of the most basic functions of the EPA is to ensure that the air we breathe and the water that we drink is safe for our consumption and safe for our kids. And this is their basic responsibility and one that they are actively pursuing.
As it relates to this particular ruling, I'd just point that there are two other federal judges who have ruled on this specific matter, and they actually sided with the administration. So I would actually say if we're going to sort of look to federal judges for an endorsement here that twice as many judges have actually agreed with the administration than have agreed with our opponents.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Two days ago, in the Briefing Room, we had just heard about the shooting in Roanoke and you were asked about it. And you said, not know a lot about it, that there weren't a lot of facts known at the time but you did say there are a number of changes that can be made to the law to reduce the number of -- to reduce gun violence. Now that we know a little bit more about it, do you think that this particular incident cries out for a particular policy response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, there's no doubt that we've learned quite a bit more about this tragic case, even in just the last 48 hours or so. Many of the policy changes that this administration has long advocated -- things like closing the gun show loophole for background checks -- it appears would not have applied in this particular case.
We have never made the case that any one piece of legislation is going to successfully prevent every single act of violence in this country. But there is no denying that there are Americans killed every week, if not every day, whose lives could have been saved with some common-sense changes. And as I did mention on Wednesday, these acts of violence are becoming all-too common. And sadly, some of these shootings don't get the same kind of attention. This one is particularly tragic because it took place on live television and it's certainly understandable that people would be shocked by it, but there are similarly shocking acts of violence that don't get this much attention that could be prevented if Congress -- or at least if so many members of Congress -- frankly weren't scared of the NRA. But they are.
And until we see a sufficient number of people in this country stand up and make clear that this is something they're going to insist members of Congress act on, we're probably not going to see the kind of common-sense changes that we believe should be put in place. And, again, there's ample public data to indicate that these common-sense steps are steps that are supported not just by a majority of Americans but also by a majority of Republicans and even, according to some surveys, by a majority of gun owners. That's an indication that we can make some of these changes without trampling the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. And we're hopeful that we're going to start to see the American people become more forceful in advocating for these changes.
Q: Because this did happen on live television, does the President feel like this presents a moment to push for some of those changes that you're talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, I didn't say that the President hasn't stopped and the President continues to strongly support those common-sense changes but, again, we're not going to see the kind of action that Congress has bottled up for too long until we see more Americans make clear that this is going to affect their decision at the ballot box -- how their member of Congress represents their views in this policy area.
Q: As social media has become, in some ways, very beneficial -- we look at the Arab Spring, we look at social media efforts in Ukraine -- but when you look at this individual who has taken advantage of social media very quickly in a sense to get his 15 minutes of fame, how responsible should those individuals who use social media be to allowing such dastardly acts become part of our mainstream culture?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess in situations like this, everybody from their social media feed becomes an assignment editor. And I think sometimes as we consume social media -- I saw at least one expert on these issues indicate that a lot of times we consume this information and we hit retweet or we hit the favorite button before we even realize what we've done or recognize the consequences for the way that information is distributed.
And, look, this is new technology. It's new technology for the experts in this room and it certainly is for people all across the country as they learn about how to use it and what norms should govern the information that's transmitted along those channels. But, look, there's no denying that this a unique but nonetheless terribly tragic situation, and our hearts continue to be with the families of those who were so deeply affected by this, particularly the families of those who were killed.
Q: The President has very ambitious goals of curbing the challenges posed by nuclear weapons. And yesterday The Washington Post published a report regarding to which in about 10 years or so, Pakistan would have the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world after U.S. and Russia. Are you concerned about that? What is your take on increasing stockpile of nuclear weapons by Pakistan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lalit, I did see the report. I don't have an official administration assessment to share with you. I would say there are a couple of things that come to mind. The first is that the President has made clear that he has a long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. And the President has convened every couple of years an international summit to try to counter nuclear proliferation. And that continues to be a top foreign policy priority of his and I believe we're slated to have the next meeting next year. So the President is certainly looking forward to that.
The second thing is -- and this applies not just to Pakistan but to countries around the world that have a nuclear stockpile -- that they have a responsibility for securing that nuclear stockpile and we continue to be confident that the government of Pakistan is aware of those responsibilities and takes those responsibilities quite seriously.
Q: Thanks, Josh. So the international tax reform plan that some in Treasury and Paul Ryan were working on is expected this fall. Do you know are they still on track and has the White House seen any drafts of that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't gotten an update on that process. You may be able to get some more information out of the Treasury Department. As you know, Secretary Lew has been engaged with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle on a variety of efforts to try to make our tax code more fair, more simple and one that is constructed to make our economy stronger -- that for many individuals and for companies, the inefficiency of our tax code can have a negative impact on the broader economy.
But working through these kinds of tax-reform issues is enormously complicated. But I don't have an update for you in terms of that ongoing process.
Q: And has the President been advising Donald Trump on closing loopholes for the wealthy?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Not that I'm aware
Q: Hi, Josh, thanks. Today is the four-year anniversary of the -- American Amir Hekmati in Iran, as I think you know, is now the longest-held U.S. political prisoner in Iran. Can you give us a sense of your level of confidence as to whether he'll be released this time next year? What is the administration's view in light of the deal that you forge now and in the next 12 months? Optimistic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Devon, I think the way that you could describe the administration is determined. The administration is determined to secure the release of Mr. Hekmati as well as other Americans who are held in Iran -- Mr. Rezaian and Mr. Abedini. We have also frequently pressed the Iranians to answer questions and provide additional information about the whereabouts of Mr. Levinson, an American citizen who has disappeared but was last seen in Iran.
Secretary Kerry issued a statement about Mr. Hekmati's detention today and, once again, called for his immediate release. This is something that Secretary Kerry said that he raised every day in the context of the nuclear negotiations -- "in the context" is not the right phrase -- on the sidelines, but every day with his counterparts while he was trying to negotiate this nuclear agreement.
Now, there are some who have raised questions about why Secretary Kerry didn't include the case or the plight of these American citizens in the nuclear negotiations. And our response to that has been twofold. The first is, as all of you know probably better than anybody else, it was not at all clear that we were going to get successfully complete negotiations to reach a nuclear agreement. And so including the case of these American citizens in the uncertain prospects of a diplomatic negotiation is not the best way to secure their release.
The second thing, however, is the United States is not interested in making concessions for their release. We believe that these individuals are being unjustly detained and should be released so that they can be reunited with their families immediately. And we're going to continue to press that case and Secretary Kerry indicated as much in the written statement that he issued earlier today.
Q: And there have been some reports of late, knocked down by American officials and Iranians, about a possible prisoner swap. Putting that aside, can you say whether or not a prisoner swap is on the table? Is that something the administration would consider? Maybe they haven't considered it -- is that in play?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Devon, we've made clear that this remains a priority not just for the country but for the President in terms of securing the release of these American citizens who are being unjustly detained in Iran. And we continue to be hard at work in trying to secure their release so they can be reunited with their families. But beyond that, I don't have any update for you in terms of those efforts.
Q: But you're not ruling it out?
MR. EARNEST: I just don't have an update for you in terms of those ongoing efforts.
Q: And then real quickly if I could on the DNC summer meeting, the Draft Biden folks are in Minneapolis with some candy bars with ridin' with Biden on it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's clever.
Q: It's very fun. But their message to Democrats at the meeting is to keep an open mind about a Biden candidacy. Would the President support that message to keep an open mind for a Biden candidacy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is going to give Vice President Biden as much time and space as he needs to make this his personal decision. And ultimately, it will be up to not just every member of the DNC but for every voter in the Democratic Primary to make a decision about who they would like to support. And the President will participate in the Illinois Democratic Primary and he'll cast a vote, but ultimately, everyone is going to have to make up their mind in this regard.
Mr. Viqueira. Nice to see you.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Two questions. One Alaska, one Iran. So as we sit here, there's a storm battering the northern coast of Alaska. There's (inaudible) to suspend drilling operations. And I know the President has addressed this before back in May, but I'm just wondering, how does the President square his trip to Alaska, his emphasis on climate change, stopping climate change, and allowing what many believe to be a very dangerous threat to the environment and a further reliance on fossil fuels -- the same fossil fuels that cause climate change to go forward in Alaska?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, the President has committed this country to taking historic steps to transition to a low-carbon, clean energy economy. The President feels strongly about those steps being a priority, both because of the impact it will have on the planet and the impact it would have on the public health of the American people, but also because of the impact that they would have on our economy; that there is an economic opportunity to be seized when it comes to clean and renewable energy, and the President believes that we need to orient our economy to be prepared to capitalize on it.
At the same time, we know that this transition is not going to occur overnight. And while we're in the midst of this transition, the President believes it's much smarter for the United States to rely on American oil and gas as opposed to relying on importing oil and gas from some of the most volatile countries and regions of the world.
So what's also true is that this administration, as the President referenced in his Camp David news conference back in May, in part in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, has imposed on the oil and gas industry some of the toughest, most stringent safety standards in history. And we've even seen some complaints from the oil and gas industry about the onerous safety standards and safety protocols that they're operating under. There have been significant limits imposed on their operations. There have been delays that they have incurred because of the requirements that have been imposed by the Obama administration.
We know that there are special requirements when you're operating in an environment as harsh as the one in northern Alaska, and that has required even stepped up safety and -- safety measures. So the President takes the safety of these operations very seriously. And it's why the standards that these oil companies are operating under are very strict.
Q: And on Iran, basically it's a pretty low bar. You need one-third of each house of Congress or one of either the House or the Senate to override -- to sustain the President's veto. What does it say about the deal that such a significant majority of elected -- the public's elected representatives reject this deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, we haven't had the vote yet, so we'll wait and see what the vote looks like. And there is no doubt that we've seen very forceful advocacy for killing this international agreement. That's the same kind of forceful advocacy that we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003. In fact, it's many of the same people making exactly the same arguments.
We know that the first week in September, shortly after Labor Day, that Vice President Dick Cheney has a speech planned where he is going to take up mantle and assume a familiar role in advocating against diplomacy and in favor of war.
That's not the first time he's made that argument. It's not even the first time he's made that argument in the context of decisions like this.
Q: But what does it say that you can't win a debate with Dick Cheney?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's too early for you assess whether or not we're going to win that debate. The second is that he's not the only one; that we know that Senator Cruz and Donald Trump have announced that they're going to host a big pro-war rally on the steps of the United States Capitol.
I assume it's a follow-up to the event that Senator Cruz organized in front of the White House earlier this summer. And this is entirely consistent with what the President observed in the speech that he delivered at American University earlier this month, that the same people making the same arguments against the Iran deal were the people who advocated for getting us into the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. So the differences of opinion and the differences of approach -- so the fault lines of this debate, if you will, should be familiar to anybody who has been covering American politics really for the last 12 or 13 years.
And so I know that you've covered countless Vice President Cheney speeches making these kinds of arguments, but I hope that won't dissuade you from giving ample attention to the Vice President's speech this time around either.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Some in this building have suggested that having the former Vice President as the focal point of opposition to this deal is probably not the worst thing that's ever happened to the White House. Do you or the President share that view that maybe the Vice President's opposition is a blessing in disguise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll let some of the sophisticated political analysts in this room reach that conclusion. There is no denying the fact that shortly after Labor Day, we'll see Vice President Cheney, Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump emerge as the leading voices of opposition to the Iran deal. That's just a fact. And I think that will be a fact that will be borne out in news broadcasts and in newspapers across the country in early September.
But that certainly is not going to change the argument that the President has made about the wisdom of this agreement and about the effectiveness of this strategy for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Marco Rubio this morning stated that the Senkaku Islands belonged to Japan. I was wondering in light of China's provocative maritime actions in the region, do you think it would be useful for the White House to adopt a similarly unambiguous stance on the island's ultimate sovereignty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrew, we've certainly been unambiguous about the administration's commitment to our alliance with Japan. And we have strongly encouraged the Japanese and other partners and allies of the United States all across Asia -- not just in Northeast Asia, but also in Southeast Asia -- to try to resolve their concerns with Chinese behavior peacefully and through diplomacy.
We've made a similar case to the Chinese that it's in the best interests not just of the people of China and the Chinese economy, but also the world for them to work effectively and in good faith diplomatically to resolve these differences. And we certainly are hopeful that they will.
And the next opportunity that President Obama has to speak with President Xi, I'm confident that he'll make that case once again.
Q: Just on that point, does the White House think that Xi Jinping's visit is becoming overly politicized? There are some quite shrill things being said about the invitation for him to come to a state dinner and so on.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did see that Senator Rubio wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal advocating for changing the -- changing that visit from a state visit to a working visit. That sounds like the proposal of somebody who is running to be social secretary of the White House, not President of the United States.
I can tell you that the President and this administration certainly believes that engaging with China has advanced the interest of the United States in the past, and it will as we continue to engage with them in the future.
Q: And just finally, are we going to get any kind of readout from Susan Rice's discussions in Beijing?
MR. EARNEST: I believe so -- that NSC will have something as she completes her travel over there. She's got a spokesperson who is traveling with her who you can contact about that.
Q: Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about the webcast today. What's different since he's sort of done this before on a number of occasions? And is this a chance to teach or a chance to spar? And does the President have a preference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you know, the President has a very strong relationship with the American Jewish community. And this is a webcast that is organized by prominent leaders of a number of Jewish organizations that have come together to organize this engagement. So I would not anticipate that this will be a hostile sparring match.
I would anticipate that it will a pretty candid discussion, and there may be some differences of opinion that emerge. But the President has long welcomed the opportunity to have a robust, fact-based examination and consideration of this agreement. And that's why we continue to seek out these kinds of venues because we are confident that the more the President has the opportunity to present the facts of this matter, the more successful we'll be in persuading people to support it.
Q: -- 2016 campaign, I just want to read something that Secretary Clinton said yesterday in Cleveland. "Now, extreme views about women, we expect that from some of the terrorist groups -- we expect --" and she went on to sort of compare GOP presidential candidates to terrorist groups. And I'm just curious if the -- if you share the view with many that that was over the line, or if you feel like the spirit of what she had to say was valid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I'm frequently given the opportunity to weigh in on one thing or another that's expressed by candidates for President, and I've resisted the urge to weigh in on all of them. I think what I would simply say to you is that the President has made very clear where he stands on this issue. The President declared in his State of Union address that he believes that when women succeed in this country that the country succeeds. And that certainly has been his approach to considering a wide range of issues that are priorities to women in this country.
And I think the best example I can give you of that is that the very first piece of legislation that the President signed into law as President of the United States was the Lilly Ledbetter Act to guarantee equal pay for equal work. And that certainly has characterized the President's approach to these issues throughout his presidency.
Q: But again, it seemed like it was a little over the line for a lot of people. Did it seem that way to you? Did it seem that way to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I've certainly been asked about many over-the-line things that have been uttered by Republican candidates, as well, and I've often tried to resist the urge to weigh in on that debate. There are ample people who are eager to weigh in on either side of these matters, but I'm not going to weigh in on every one of them.
Q: Okay. Let me ask you, lastly, if I could, about Secretary Moniz. Will he be also addressing different groups as we continue to sort of head towards September 17th? Is that still part of the plan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have found Secretary Moniz to be a particularly persuasive advocate for the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the reason for that, as the President often says, is he knows as much about the effort to prevent a country from getting a nuclear weapon as anyone in the world. And having him on the negotiating team and negotiating the finer points of this agreement himself strengthened the outcome here. And the President is incredibly pleased at his performance in that role. And I would anticipate that you're going to continue to see Secretary Moniz out in public aggressively making the case for this agreement.
You'll recall that he stood at this podium a couple of weeks ago so he could make that exact case. And I would anticipate that he'll continue to do that.
Q: Veto override or filibuster, does the President have a preference? Does it matter how this deal is enacted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, Kevin, we're going to do as much as we can to build as much support as possible in the United States Congress. But ultimately we continue to be confident in our ability to prevent the United States Congress from killing this international agreement.
Q: But you would prefer to see a resolution of disapproval defeated rather than come to a veto, that that would be your preference, wouldn't it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we would -- frankly, if it got down to preferences, we'd probably be in a situation where we'd be seeking a resolution of approval from the United States Congress. I recognize that we're not likely to get that. So given that reality, what we have resolved to do is to work diligently -- even on a one-on-one basis -- to build as much support as possible in the Congress for the agreement.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I was struck by the language that you used in response to Mike Viqueira's question. You spoke about a "pro-war rally" that Donald Trump and Senator Cruz will be attending or organizing. Is that their language or are you editorializing it in calling it a "pro-war rally"?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's clear from any scrutiny of their position that the position that they advocate makes war in -- another war in the Middle East much more likely.
Q: So it's your description of it in calling it a pro-war rally, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know -- I didn't watch carefully the remarks that Senator Cruz delivered at the first pro-war rally that he convened here. But we'll all watch closely at the rally that they are convening on the steps of the Capitol, and maybe they can try to prove us wrong.
Q: And so it's your view then that anybody that would attend that rally is for war? They're pro-war -- is that your view?
MR. EARNEST: I think that -- I don't think I would try to divine the intent of every single person that tries to show up at the event.
Q: But you can divine the intent of Senator Cruz?
MR. EARNEST: I think -- well, based on his public comments that make clear that the path that he advocates is one that -- without argument -- I mean I don't know that there's a lot of discussion of this -- leads -- makes war more likely.
Secretary Paulson, again, who was the Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration, so not a member of my political party, he's a member of Senator Cruz's political party -- to the extent that Senator Cruz is advocating a better diplomatic agreement -- Secretary Paulson said that that was a completely unreasonable position.
And the President has made this case pretty forcefully on a number of occasions that if Congress succeeds -- we don't think they will -- but if they suc or if they were to follow the advice and the approach that's advocated by Senator Cruz, including at his rallies, that what we will see is we will see the international community fracture; that Iran will get sanctions relief, but will not be forced to reduce their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, will not be forced to unplug thousands of centrifuges, will not be forced to essentially gut the core of their heavy-water plutonium reactor. And they will not be forced to abide by the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed by a country's nuclear program.
And what is likely is that they'll actually try to advance further in trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. And based on what the President has said about his commitment to using every tool available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it's not too hard to imagine how we're going to go down the same path -- or that would lead down the same path that this country followed in 2002 and 2003.
Q: You choose your words carefully from the podium. Do you think it's fair to paint opponents of the Iran nuclear deal like you've done, in such a broad fashion? Paint them as pro-war? Senator Menendez -- is he pro-war? Senator Schumer -- is he pro-war? Carolyn Maloney of New York City -- is she pro-war? Explain to me why you feel that you have to describe the opponents like you did of Senator Cruz, of Donald Trump, as being pro-war, for war.
MR. EARNEST: I think the other thing I would point out is that Senator Cruz, when asked, advocated for the same position that was expressed by one of his fellow competitors for the presidency. Governor Walker indicated that on his first day in office, if he were elected President of the United States, he would pull the United States out of that agreement and be prepared to carry out military action. Senator Cruz spoke warmly of that position.
So, again, I haven't heard some of the other people that you just mentioned advocate a view of that. But the President has been very forceful about making clear that it is not a stretch -- I mean, this is the other part of this. It's worth considering the approach that's being advocated for by the critics of the agreement that if -- it is not hard to imagine this terrible scenario: If the United States were to withdraw from this agreement, Iran would get sanctions relief. They would not be subjected to all of the limitations that this agreement would impose on their nuclear program. They certainly would not be subjected to the kinds of inspections and insight that we have into their nuclear program. That would give Iran essentially carte blanche to do what they want with their nuclear program.
We know what they want to do with their nuclear program. They for years have been trying to develop a nuclear weapon. And we know that's likely what they would do. And the President and the rest of the international community has been steadfast about preventing them from doing so.
And if a military strike were required, particularly if the rest of the international community is frustrated that the United States abandoned a reasonable and even effective diplomatic solution, is going to put us much closer to a military conflict. And once that military conflict starts, it's difficult to see where that path ends. And it's certainly not hard to imagine that it ends in a broad military conflict.
So that is the case. The President certainly advocates a very different approach, which is a diplomatic agreement that's supported by the international community, that gives us very clear insight into what Iran's intentions are, certainly places significant limitations on their ability to even develop a nuclear weapon, and gives us the opportunity to watch closely what they're doing so we can verify their compliance with the agreement. That's a way for us to use diplomacy to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
I've given you a long answer, but this is the last thing I'll say on this. The other fact of the matter is simply this: Even our harshest critics acknowledge that this diplomatic agreement would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. Even the most aggressive advocates of military action acknowledge that even the toughest, most forceful, reasonable military option available to the President of the United States would set back the Iranian nuclear program only three or four years.
That's, in some ways, the basic fact of this debate that's I have to admit that I find a little confounding -- that the President is advocating an approach that everybody agrees, even our critics agree would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. And the approach that's advocated by others we know at most would limit -- would set back their nuclear program for four years. That's why the President's preference is not just for diplomacy for the sake of diplomacy -- although that's certainly a worthwhile and persuasive argument. He's also for a diplomatic agreement because it is, by far, the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Let me just do a week ahead and I'll let you get started on your weekend. On Monday, the President will travel to Anchorage, Alaska. While in Anchorage, the President will participate in a roundtable with Alaskan natives and address the Global Leadership in the Arctic Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience Conference -- that's the GLACIER Conference for those who are following along.
The GLACIER Conference will convene foreign ministers from Arctic nations and key non-Arctic states with scientists, policymakers, and stakeholders from Alaska and the Arctic region to discuss how climate change is reshaping the Arctic, increase global awareness of how Arctic climate change is affecting the rest of the world, and identify individual and collective actions to address these challenges.
On Tuesday, the President will travel to the Seward area, where he will hike to Exit Glacier, participate in a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park, and have the opportunity to view the effects of climate change firsthand.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Dillingham, Alaska, where he will meet with local fishermen and families. The President will then travel to Kotzebue, Alaska, where he will deliver remarks. In the evening, the President will depart Alaska en route Washington, D.C. We'll have some more details about each of these individual stops in the days ahead.
On Thursday morning, the President will arrive back here at the White House from his Alaska trip. And then on Friday, the President will host King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the White House. The President and the King will discuss, as I mentioned yesterday, a range of issues and focus on ways to further strengthen the bilateral partnership, including our joint security and counterterrorism efforts.
Q: Will there be a press conference on that, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: I would not anticipate a news conferences with the King of Saudi Arabia, but we are working through the press logistics now and we'll make sure that at least you have an opportunity to take a look at part of that meeting.
So with that, everybody, I hope you have a great weekend.
END 1:18 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/311109