Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. It's mindboggling to think that about 13 hours ago, I was standing north of the Arctic Circle. But I'm certainly pleased to be here in the much warmer Washington, D.C. climate today.
Q: -- the first sitting President.
MR. EARNEST: It was a wonderful trip. We had a great time. I don't have any beginning announcements, though. So, Nancy, we'll start with you.
Q: Thanks. A couple questions related to the refugee crisis. The U.S. pace of taking in who Syrian refugees has been very low and very slow. Is the White House doing anything about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nancy, obviously there's been a lot of news on this topic over the last 24 hours, some of which have been driven by some just tragic images. And I think it's appropriate for us to start, when we talk about this issue, to acknowledge the terrible humanitarian tragedy that's unfolding in the Middle East, particularly in areas like Iraq and in Syria, but even in some place in North Africa like in Libya -- that violence and instability in those countries is causing widespread bloodshed, and it is causing millions of others to flee their homes with little notice. And it puts people in an, understandably, desperate situation.
And obviously, even as we sort of talk about some of the policy details here, it's important to not lose sight of the humanity of these people.
Let me first begin by saying that the United States welcomes the EU presidency's call for an extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting on September 14th to address this critical issue. We commend the EU for the steps that they've already taken to begin cracking down on those who prey upon migrants in desperate situations. We have seen widespread efforts of human trafficking, migrant smuggling, and we are certainly pleased to see the EU taking steps to crack down on that.
As it relates to the U.S. role in this, I would point out it warrants mentioning that the United States has provided more than $4 billion in humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict in Syria since 2011. That's a substantial commitment and certainly more than any other country has done. The United States provides significant assistance through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. We support that process, and there is an international effort to try to meet some of these urgent humanitarian needs.
And there's also some technical expertise that the United States can provide to our EU partners who are dealing with this difficult problem. And the United States Coast Guard has some expertise in this regard and that is something that is being readily shared with our allies and partners in the EU.
And I guess, finally, the United States will continue our regular consultations as a part of the U.S.-EU platform for cooperation in migration and refugee issues. The United States obviously has had our own personal experience, as recently as last summer, with an influx of families and, in some cases, children who were seeking to immigrate into this country illegally. And this has been a difficult policy problem for the United States to confront. And ultimately, we were able to resolve many of these issues successfully by working effectively with our partners in Central America and in Mexico to stem that tide. And the United States is certainly supportive of international efforts to address the significant immigration problem that's being experienced by the EU right now.
Q: But no thinking of bringing more Syrians into the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't have any announcements along those lines.
Q: Did the President -- has he talked to you about images of the three-year-old who washed up on the beach --
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him about it. I'm confident that he has seen those images, they've been so widespread. And again, I think it is a stark reminder of the tragic and widespread humanitarian toll that violence and political instability across the Middle East and in some places in North Africa has taken on innocent people, including innocent children. And it certainly is part of what motivates the United States and the rest of the international community to engage in the effort to try to bring about some peace and stability in that region of the world. But obviously there are significant forces that right now are carrying out heinous acts of violence, and it's having a destabilizing impact on the region. And it's disrupting the lives of millions of people. And it's a genuine tragedy.
Q: Just one question related to Iran. Iran's Supreme Leader today said that there would be no nuclear deal if world powers suspended the sanctions versus lifting them. How big of a deal is that? What is the U.S. approach on that?
MR. EARNEST: Our approach on this, Nancy, is that we have heard from, over the months, even before the deal was reached between the P5-plus-1 partners and Iran, a variety of statements from Iranian officials declaring what they would or would not do. And what we have indicated all along is that once an agreement was reached, as it was back in mid-July, that we would be focused on Iran's actions and not their words, and that we will be able to tell if Iran follows through on the commitments that they made in the context of these negotiations. And that is what will determine our path forward here.
We've been crystal-clear about the fact that Iran will have to take a variety of serious steps to significantly roll back their nuclear program before any sanctions relief is offered -- and this is everything from reducing their nuclear uranium stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting thousands of centrifuges, essentially gutting the core of their heavy-water reactor at Arak, giving the IAEA the information and access they need in order to complete their report about the potential military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. And then we need to see Iran begin to comply with the inspections regime that the IAEA will put in place to verify their compliance with the agreement.
And only after those steps and several others have been effectively completed, will Iran begin to receive sanctions relief. The good news is all of this is codified in the agreement that was reached between Iran and the rest of the international community. And that's what we will be focused on, is their compliance with the agreement.
Q: Hi. So yesterday, Russia's foreign ministry said that they would retaliate against the U.S. if there were any new sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. What is your response to that? And does that raise any concerns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ayesha, we've, for almost a year and a half now, been working effectively with our partners in Europe to isolate economically the Russian government, senior Russian officials in a way that has had a quite negative impact on the broader Russian economy. And we've made clear that this economic pressure is intended to get President Putin to change his calculus about his country's activities inside Ukraine. And we've been pretty upfront about the fact that despite that increasing pressure, we have not seen the corresponding reaction from the Russians that we would like to see.
Let me just repeat what the President said about a year ago, when he was talking about a new round of sanctions that the United States and Europe was prepared to put in place. And essentially, the President made clear that as soon as Russia started following through on the commitment that they had made in their talks with European leaders, that the United States and Europe would be prepared to begin to offer sanctions relief. But we have not seen Russia live up to those commitments. If anything, we've actually seen Russia continue to backslide in those commitments. And that's been the source of significant concern by the United States and our European partners. It's also continued to have a negative impact on Russia's economy.
Q: Another question on -- there were reports yesterday of five Chinese navy ships sailing in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. Does the President plan to discuss the activities of these ships and what their purpose was with President Xi when he comes to the White House this month?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if that will come up in their conversations. As I mentioned yesterday, the Department of Defense has been monitoring these ships. These ships were operating in international waters, and there is no indication that their activities were threatening to the United States in any way. So for that reason, I don't know if it will come up in the conversations in the weeks ahead between the President and his Chinese counterpart.
Q: Hi, Josh. I know you said that there are no announcements given the refugee crisis. Just today, the U.N. called it a "global crisis." You listed the ways that the U.S. believes that those refugees are obviously worth helping. So now that Europe is trying to come up with a way to allow them in evenly, does the administration feel that the U.S. should do a part, as well, in that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I did walk through some of the ways that the United States can offer some assistance, so --
Q: But in terms of letting them in, does the administration feel that the U.S. should play a role in that process of deciding how many should go where, and that the U.S. should be one of those countries that allows them in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there obviously are some immigrants from that region of the world that enter the United States. Right now this is a humanitarian crisis that is straining Europe. And there are a number of things the United States can do to offer them support. There's technical expertise that can be offered by the United States, including by the Coast Guard. There's obviously significant financial assistance the United States has offered to those countries that are providing -- that are engaged in the effort to provide the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals who've fled their home countries and fled widespread violence in their home countries.
And we're going to continue to engage the EU to discuss with them additional steps that we can do to be helpful in this regard. But I'm not aware of any impending policy change as it relates to immigrants from that region of the world entering the United States.
Q: And why not, given that the crisis has reached the proportion that it has? These countries are struggling to decide what to do with them, basically. So why would the U.S. not open up more to accepting more of them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Michelle, because there is certainly capacity in Europe to deal with this problem. And the United States certainly stands with our European partners. As I mentioned earlier, officials in this administration understand firsthand how difficult these kinds of problems can be to solve. And they pose some certainly unique policy challenges.
We do all of that mindful of the significant humanitarian impact here. These are millions of lives that will forever be shaped by this searing experience -- fleeing violence and trying to escape it. And I think it's important as we weigh these policy considerations to keep those factors in mind. But there certainly is a variety of forms of assistance that the United States can offer our friends and allies in Europe, and we stand ready to do that.
According to many of the reports that I've read, that there are a lot of leaders in Europe -- many of whom will be participating in the September 14th meeting that I mentioned earlier -- who want to figure out the way to do the right thing. And they certainly recognize the humanity of these individuals who are in a pretty desperate situation. And beginning with those intentions, that means they're off to a pretty good start. But there's no minimizing the significance or difficulty of this particular problem.
Q: Quickly, on the Iran deal, you expressed confidence in the past couple of weeks that the administration would get enough votes to uphold a veto. Do you have the same confidence that you could persuade seven more Democrats in the Senate to go along with the deal so that it wouldn't even get to that point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, Michelle, that's a significantly higher standard. It requires getting some more votes. What we have indicated that we are prepared to do is to make a forceful case to every member of Congress that's willing to hear us out to try to persuade them to support the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Now, the catch here is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Republicans that announced their opposition to the deal before the deal was even announced. And that is an indication that Republicans weren't willing to consider the merits of the agreement. They were just eager to express their partisan opposition to the Democratic President of the United States. That's particularly disappointing when we're talking about an issue as serious as this one. The President has called this the most important foreign policy decision in at least a decade. And to see that partisan response from Republicans has been disappointing.
However, we are encouraged by the seriousness of purpose that many Democrats have engaged in as they've considered this agreement. And over the last several weeks, there have been a substantial number of conversations and meetings; there have been a number of hearings in public, under oath; there have been briefings organized by senior administration officials to explain in a classified setting to every member of Congress exactly what's included in this deal and how it would ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon over the course of the agreement. And that's an effort that will continue right up until Congress votes.
Q: Josh, also on the Iran deal, we've heard now that Senator Cory Booker will join the growing number of Democrats who will be supporting the deal. Is the White House -- you described Republican opposition -- is the White House still making inroads to Republicans? Any outreach? Or is this still from the White House perspective a chance to get more Democrats in the House and Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin -- I'm sorry -- Jared. You're much better-looking than Justin. (Laughter.)
Q: Oooh --
MR. EARNEST: He's not even here to defend himself. That's the best part about that. (Laughter.) What I would say is just that the vast majority of Republicans have already indicated their opposition to the agreement. Many of them announced that opposition before the deal itself was even announced. That has not stopped the President and other senior administration officials from engaging in conversations with Republicans in Congress. Certainly many Republicans in Congress participated in the classified briefings. We saw in the committee testimony that many members of Congress participated in those settings and asked questions, despite the fact they'd already made up their mind.
So I think that indicates some good faith on the part of the administration to make the case to Republicans. Unfortunately, that case has fallen on deaf ears. There have been, as many of you pointed out early on in this process, a substantial number of Democrats who were undecided, or at least not publicly committed in terms of their position on this agreement. And we've sought to engage them and we certainly have been pleased with the significant momentum that we have been able to build up in support of the agreement. But as long as there continue to be undecided members of Congress, senior administration officials will be engaged in an effort to make sure they understand the finer points of this agreement and understand why the President believes so strongly that this is an agreement that is deserving of the support of the United States Congress.
Q: Kim Davis is taken into custody in Kentucky. Has this been a conversation in the White House that the President has taken a part in? Does he have a message for her -- or anything that he said to you or anyone else about his thoughts on this matter?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to him about this particular matter. I'm obviously limited in what I can say given the ongoing court activity. I will just say on principle that the success of our democracy depends on the rule of law. And there is no public official that is above the rule of law. Certainly not the President of the United States. But neither is the Rowan county clerk. That's a principle that is enshrined in our Constitution and in our democracy. And it's one that obviously the courts are seeking to uphold.
Q: Do you think --
MR. EARNEST: I'll get right back to you, Christi. Go ahead, Jon.
Q: Coming back to the horrible refugee crisis of Syria and Iraq, Bill Clinton, obviously, after he left office, talked about Rwanda as being his biggest regret. When the President looks at what's happened in Syria -- hundreds of thousands killed, the greatest refugee crisis of our lifetimes unfolding before our eyes -- does he look back and think, what could the United States have done more? What did I fail to do? This has clearly been a pretty profound failure of policy towards Syria. That doesn't even get into ISIS, but just looking at the humanitarian crisis that we've seen unfold.
Q: Jon, there's no doubt that what is unfolding in Syria is a genuine tragedy, no matter how you measure it. And certainly an appropriate way to measure it are the millions of people that have had to flee their homes to try to escape violence. And the United States has worked effectively and substantially to offer support to those nations that are bearing the most significant load in trying to meet the needs of those migrants. In many cases they're legitimately refugees. And the United States is the biggest donor of humanitarian assistance in response to this crisis. And I think that's indicative of our country's values and our nation's concern about this situation.
We've also been clear that this situation was precipitated by the failure of President Assad's leadership in Syria and his willingness to carry out attacks against innocent civilians. Using the military firepower of his own country to do so is despicable. And it is something that we have roundly condemned, and we're actively working to try to find a solution.
Q: But going back to really the beginning of this crisis, there were calls inside the administration, as well as outside for a more muscular response to what was unfolding in Syria -- long before the rise of ISIS. Does it weigh on the President's conscience that the United States did not do more to prevent what we are now seeing unfolding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, there is a bias among many observers that assume that more robust or muscular engagement, as you described it, would have had the result of preventing this humanitarian atrocity. And there's not really much evidence to substantiate that claim.
You certainly could make the case that it might have led to a different outcome. It might have hastened the departure of President Assad. But it also would have subjected the United States to a whole host of more significant risks, including more significant outlays of funds to fund essentially a war in Syria. It certainly would have put tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of American troops in harm's way on the ground in Syrian. So the President has made policy decisions in this area that are admittedly very difficult, but his primary focus has been on the best national security interests of the United States. That's his responsibility as President.
But there is no denying that trying to prevent, or at least mitigate widespread and significant humanitarian situations is also in the interest of our country. And that's why you've seen the substantial humanitarian assistance that's been offered. And it's why you've seen the United States work for years, even against very difficult odds, to try to bring out a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Syria.
I would concede on the front end that not a lot of progress has been made in that regard, but that certainly is not an indication that the United States has turned a blind eye to this desperate and tragic situation.
Q: So the President is confident given even what we're seeing unfold now that those difficult decisions that he made over the last several years regarding Syria were the right ones, they were the best for U.S. national security? He's confident even now that he made at every juncture the right decisions regarding Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly historians will have an opportunity to look back. And I think they probably will to evaluate how the decisions that were made by this administration at every turn in this tragedy turned out, and what impact they had on our national security, and what impact they had on the humanitarian situation there. And people have ample opportunity to judge.
I think there is a tendency -- and it's understandable, again -- to want to sort of evaluate -- essentially do a sort of play-by-play analysis of these decisions. And I'm not sure that's entirely fair to the President. But I do think that over time people will have an opportunity to take a look back at the impact of the decisions that were made and, frankly, the impact of some decisions that did not result, for example, in the deployment of American military personnel and to discuss the impact on our national security interests, both in the region but around the world.
Q: Yesterday, I believe was the -- China is commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, especially in the Pacific and Asia. And next to President Xi, who will be here shortly, was Vladimir Putin. Does the President consider perhaps that President Xi may help assist the President in discussing issues with -- about Mr. Putin and how they may resolve together some of the conflicts that are going on that are disturbing to Europe as we speak?
MR. EARNEST: Well, JC, you're talking about two large and influential countries that have their own relationship. And there are some situations in which Russia and China have been able to coordinate effectively with the United States to advance the mutual interests of our three countries. The United States, China and Russia were each part of the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran. That's an indication that our relations -- or our interests can be effectively advanced by preserving those important relationships.
But obviously there are mutual interests between Russia and China, and I'm sure that's what garnered the most attention during the conversations between those two world leaders.
Q: Josh, I had an Iran question for you. But I just wanted to follow on what you were saying to Jared. Do you think the clerk in Kentucky should actually be in jail?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what's important, Christi, is that this is a decision that is supposed to be made by a federal judge. And so I would not, from this vantage point, second-guess those decisions. Again, there is a rule of law, and the principle of the rule of law is essential to our democracy. And it's appropriate in this instance for a federal judge to determine the best way to enforce the law.
Q: And on the Iran vote, I just want to ask you, now that you've reached this threshold and you've exceeded it, is it your view that that takes care -- that's the only vote you have to worry about? Or do you expect that you may have to deal with this again when it actually comes time to lift sanctions -- that the President will have to face the same fight in Congress at that time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's unclear at this point. What we are confident of for now is that based on the public commitments that we have seen from more than a third of the United States Senate that Congress will not be able to succeed in an effort that was championed by many Republicans in Congress to kill this international agreement with Iran to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That's certainly is good news.
But what we are going to insist on Iran's part is that they follow through in terms of implementing the agreement. And once they begin to do that, the United States and the rest of the international community will also need to live up to our end of the bargain, and that will be critical to ensure that this agreement holds together. I think it would be a very difficult case for someone to make -- although I have no doubt that someone will make it, probably in the context of the presidential election -- that it is somehow in the interest of the United States, once this agreement begins to be implemented, for the United States to unilaterally withdraw and undermine it. That would not be in our best interests and could lead to the opposite of the desired outcome.
But that's a little ways down the road. What we're focused on now is allowing Congress to take the votes in the process that they supported and laid out earlier this year in the context of the Corker-Cardin legislation, and we're hopeful that shortly after that we'll be able to begin implementing the agreement, which, again, will start with Iran taking all of these serious steps to curtail their nuclear program, including reducing their stockpile and a variety of other things.
Q: So if it does come to votes on sanctions, is it your expectation that you would have all the same people with you? Or do you think that depends to some degree on those front-loaded -- the performance by Iran on the early checkpoints?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding -- and we can have some of the experts in this legislation have a conversation with you
-- but my understanding is that the vote that Congress would take when they return from their August recess would be related to the President exercising his executive authority to waive those sanctions. And that's something that he does have the authority to do. So this would be the vote on waiving those sanctions. And so I would not anticipate -- so that is what will allow us to move forward with the implementation of the agreement.
The President won't waive those sanctions until Iran has taken the long list of serious steps to curtail their nuclear program that we've discussed and as codified in the agreement. But once Iran has taken those steps to begin offering that sanctions relief would not require an additional act of Congress. It would be the President using the executive authority that Congress had previously given him to waive those sanctions as a part of the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: Josh, I have three subjects. Since we've been apart from each other for a couple of days, I want to ask you a question --
MR. EARNEST: It's been hard, hasn't it? (Laughter.)
Q: It really has. So since we've been apart --
Q: Should we leave the room? (Laughter.)
Q: No, no, no.
MR. EARNEST: That's not necessary.
Q: Could you give us the official tally? Last week you gave us one. Cn you give us an official tally now? It might be different from what we have from your private information versus what we know.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a private tally to share with you. The tally that we put the most confidence in is the tally of public commitments. And someone informed me shortly before I came out here that Senator Warner had announced his support for the agreement -- I hope I'm not making news there -- and so that would bring the number to 35.
Q: So then it will be 36, if he makes a --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I have not heard about his impending announcement or -- and that may have occurred just in the last few minutes.
MR. EARNEST: But that's the number that we're tracking. And again, the reason for that is, as I think I mentioned in our previous discussion about this, anybody who knows anything about counting legislative congressional votes puts a lot more stock in a public commitment than a private one.
Q: So in the House, are we still on the same numbers?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the latest House tally. I think it's somewhere in the 70s.
Q: It was 74 last week. I don't know --
MR. EARNEST: I haven't gotten an updated number on that. I will say that one reason that we have continued to have confidence in the support that we think we can build in the House is back -- the first week in May, we got a letter form 150 House Democrats who indicated that if there was a final agreement that was produced that looked like the agreement that was -- the political agreement that was developed in Lausanne, that they would be supportive of it. And so, obviously, individual members of Congress have to evaluate the agreement, but that gave us some confidence that we would also be able to sustain a presidential veto in the House.
The other thing that gives us some confidence is I think we're up now to three or four House Democrats who didn't sign that letter, but yet have now come out and indicated their support. So that's an indication we've got some positive momentum in the House, as well.
Q: That's 153 versus the 150 that signed the letter.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the 150 that signed the letter have not all indicated publicly what their final vote would be; they just indicated that they were likely to support it back in May.
Q: Okay. Next, second question -- second subject. Where does church and state -- the separation of church and state fall in this broad issue of this new road we're traveling down with same-sex marriage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, I think this is something that the courts will weigh in on. But as I mentioned earlier, I think the issue that's at stake right now -- and I think this is a view that has already been expressed by a federal judge -- is the question of rule of law. And every public official in our democracy is subject to the rule of law. No one is above the law. That applies to the President of the United States, and that applies to the county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, as well. And that's a fundamental principle of our democracy.
And in terms of how that applies in this particular case, that's obviously something that a judge will have to decide. And I would not second-guess it from here.
Q: And last subject -- how does this administration view the ex-Clinton staffer who is pleading the fifth in answering questions to a congressional hearing about the email server issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, I don't have a lot of insight into that person's decision about their testimony. That individual is a private citizen, and so I'd refer you to him or his attorney for a better explanation of his position.
Q: But you've had people on the Hill -- Democrats on the Hill who are surprised that he won't testify. People also in the Clinton camp, campaign, who are saying that they wish that he had done it. I mean, this is during her time when she was Secretary of State. Do you have anything to say about that?
MR. EARNEST: This individual is not a federal employee, he's a private citizen, and so I'd refer you to him for his decision about how to cooperate with the committee.
Q: Couple quick ones on China and then on Gitmo. On China, the Chinese government announced that they were going to be reducing their military by about 300,000 members today. I was wondering if you have a reaction to that. I know there's been a lot of concern about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and sort of the beefing up their regional power. Do you have a reaction to that sort of taking a different direction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I know that there are a lot of military analysts who have taken a look at this situation and have observed that while China has signaled their intention to reduce the number of troops in the People's Liberation Army by about 300,000, there is, however, a corresponding increase in investment in equipment and technology that they believe would strengthen and enhance the capabilities of their military.
So it seems that this is consistent with the kinds of reforms that China has previously announced in the past. And I think it's part of the kind of strategic decision-making that the commander in chief of any military anywhere in the world has to make. And obviously, that's a decision for President Xi to make and one that he announced yesterday.
Q: And also, on China's economy and sort of what we've seen with the markets over the last couple of weeks, with the President coming here later this month, do you have a strategy for what we want to hear from him or to move him on in terms of devaluation of currency, the stock market there? It seems like it has had an impact on our stock markets, so I was wondering if you have a strategy for what you want out of --
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, this is principally the purview of Secretary Lew. As in previous meetings, I'm confident that President Obama will take the opportunity to continue to press China to pursue financial reforms, increase exchange rate flexibility and move toward a more market-determined exchange rate system.
There is obviously more that we believe China can do in this area. We believe that that would not just benefit the global economy, but actually benefit, over the long term, the economy in China, as well.
This also raises an issue about some congressional activity, as well. You'll recall that earlier this summer, both houses of Congress passed currency legislation, trade enforcement legislation that would give the administration additional tools to counteract unfair currency policies by China or by anybody else. And this serves as a good reminder that for all of the steps that the administration has taken, there's more that we would like to see Congress do.
And while it is certainly not uncommon for us to read scathing, anti-China news releases from members of Congress, or the occasionally placed op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, the fact is there actually is a tangible thing that members of Congress can do to enhance our leverage when it comes to confronting unfair currency practices. And we're hopeful that Congress will once again take up this legislation, reconcile their differences between the House and the Senate, and put it on the President's desk so he can sign it and get about the important work of using these additional tools -- or at least having them available to use, if necessary, to ensure that we're doing all that we can to protect U.S. workers and protect the U.S. economy.
Q: Several Republicans presidential candidates have talked about China -- from like Trump to Senator Rubio, Governor Walker.
MR. EARNEST: Apropos of the Wall Street Journal op-ed that I mentioned earlier.
Q: Right, I was wondering if you -- Vice President Biden was in Florida today. He was talking about talking to world leaders. They question whether the U.S. can keep its promises because there's so much dysfunction and there's so many different types of messages coming out. So I'm wondering if what you're hearing from Republican candidates is going to weigh down on the President's discussions with President Xi when he comes. Is there that concern that whatever deals that the President makes that there's going to be questions whether it will stand beyond his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I think I'd answer this in a couple different ways. The first is obviously you would anticipate in a presidential election a robust debate about foreign policy. After all, the American people will be making a decision about the wisdom of turning over the keys to our foreign policy to one of those candidates that's standing up there on the stage. So there is a legitimate debate to be had about which direction this country's foreign policy should take. And there is -- in fact, there is a responsibility on the part of the individual candidates to explain exactly what they would do as President of the United States when it comes to managing our foreign policy.
At the same time, what's not constructive and in some ways can be detrimental to the interests of the United States are members of Congress putting their partisan affiliation or political interests ahead of the national security interests of the United States. And I think one pretty good example of that is, for partisan political reasons, announcing your opposition to the Iran deal before the deal has even been presented for your consideration.
So obviously where the current debate falls along those lines is probably in the eye of the beholder. And I think legitimate people could draw that line -- or people of good faith could legitimately draw that line in different places. But the President, I think over the next year or so that he has remaining office, is certainly going to be interested in trying to make the most of the opportunity that he has to advance our interests in the international community.
And in fact, it manifests itself in a variety of ways, including at the Paris climate talks that are scheduled before the end of the year where the United States would continue to lead the world to respond to the threat from climate change and to take steps to cut carbon pollution. A lot of progress has been made, and that's a testament to President Obama's leadership and the leadership of the United States of America. But we certainly are going to need -- for that effort to succeed, we're going to need to see other countries follow our lead. And we're optimistic that they will.
Q: Very quickly on Gitmo. You mentioned about six weeks that you're in the final drafting stages of a plan to get to Congress on how to close Gitmo. DOD said yesterday that they had inspectors and surveyors in South Carolina looking at a site there. But they also said that there's a potential for a non-DOD site to be considered. I was wondering if that's something -- if you're looking at non-DOD sites as a potential place to hold the Guantanamo detainees.
MR. EARNEST: As you point out, there are a couple of DOD sites that have been inspected by administration officials with an eye toward whether or not those facilities would be appropriate for detaining some inmates that are currently held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. I don't have any information for you about additional sites that may be under consideration.
But our goal has been to find a responsible way to transfer all the detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And that means continuing on our ongoing efforts to find appropriate places with appropriate measures in place to transfer detainees to other countries. But it may be, given the complexity of some of those cases, necessary to transfer some individuals to the United States. And our prison system and our justice system has already demonstrated tremendous strength. There are already dozens of convicted terrorists that are held in American prisons on American soil right now, including in some of the places that have been visited by our site survey team.
So the United States of America has the capacity to solve this problem. What we need now is just the political will from members of Congress to allow the administration to do it.
Q: Would you rule out that as one of the options?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any information to share with you about which options are being considered at this point.
Q: Josh, President Obama got back at 9 o'clock, but there is nothing on his schedule after that. What's he doing today?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, he's got some meetings with his staff this afternoon. But given the red-eye flight last night, the President is not working a full day today.
Q: Vice President Biden is coming back to the White House for some kind of meetings. Do those involve the President? Can you tell us about that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of what meetings are on the Vice President's schedule today and I don't know if he's planning to attend any of the meetings the President has.
Q: Thank, Josh. Are you aware of the IG report about the VA? And what reaction does the White House have? In particular, some of the wait times for veterans apparently continue to be extraordinarily long. There was a list, according to the IG report, that had some 800,000 veterans still seeking care, more than 300,000 of the names on that list were deceased veterans. Your reaction? And given the President's talking and listening tour back in Arizona and some of the other things that he has done since then -- additional staff -- how satisfied is he and how satisfied should the American people be on the progress that's been made in trying to shore up this devastating problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, it is a testament to the leadership ability of Secretary McDonald and to the determination of others at the VA that we've made important progress in reducing those wait times and making sure that we are keeping our commitment to America's veterans who've served this country so proudly.
But as to the President's satisfaction, the President is not going to be satisfied at all until every single veteran in the country is getting access to the benefits and health care that they deserve. And those are the marching orders that he has given to the leadership at the VA. And while they've made important progress and we're certainly grateful for their efforts and skill that they've used to make that progress, no one is going to be satisfied until we can ensure that every veteran in the country can get timely access to the health care and the benefits that they deserve.
Q: Has the White House given any thought to having the President come out and maybe deliver remarks to the American people about the value of life? And I'm speaking specifically to so-called "Blue Lives Matter," a movement that seems to be taking off. A lot of law enforcement officers have been engaged by individuals, in many cases violently. Has the White House given any thought to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President did give an address in prime time that was covered by all television networks, including yours, when he addressed Congress back in January. And in that speech, you'll recall that the President talked about the right of a husband or wife to welcome their spouse who serves in law enforcement home at night after they've completed their shift. And that is an indication of the sacrifice that many families make when their loved ones go and put on the uniform and go and serve communities, and willingly put themselves in harm's way to try to protect those communities.
And that profession and that commitment is not just worthy of or respect, it's worthy of our praise. And the President is deeply grateful to law enforcement officials across the country who faithfully do that every single day. And the President -- I'm sure you saw this -- earlier this week, on the flight out to Alaska, had the opportunity to speak with the widow of the Harris County Sheriff's deputy who was killed last weekend, apparently in an ambush. And the President delivered that message directly to her, as well. But it's certainly one that the American people have heard the President make even on the largest stage in American politics.
Q: A couple more. Government shutdown preps? What's happening now? The clock is ticking. And there is some concern I think across the board that this is a possibility, a strong possibility.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we continue to be concerned here in the administration that we haven't seen Republicans accept the Democratic offer made by Democrats in the Congress to sit down and try to negotiate a bipartisan resolution to the apparent budget impasse that has been reached in Congress. And we've been quite disappointed in that because Republicans have the majority in the Congress, and so it is incumbent upon them to show some leadership here for a change.
And we're hopeful that when Congress returns from their recess that Senator McConnell and/or his designee and Speaker Boehner and/or designee will sit down and engage with Democrats in Congress in a serious discussion about the most effective way to properly fund our national security interests and priorities, to make sure that our economic priorities are properly funded, and to make sure that that all gets done in a fiscally responsible way and on time. And that's a tall order. And that's, frankly, why we were so disappointed that Republicans have put off these talks for so long. But hopefully, they'll get started as soon as they get back.
For any steps that have been taken by the administration to prepare for a shutdown, I'd refer to the Office of Management and Budget that has that function. It's their responsibility as we get close to a shutdown to ensure that agencies are taking the appropriate steps to prepare. I'm not aware of any that they've begun taking so far, but you might check with them.
Q: Okay. Lastly, Russia involved possibly in battling ISIS in places like Syria -- are you aware of reports that they may be engaging an obvious enemy to the world? And if that is the case, is that something that the White House supports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, what I can tell you is that we are aware of reports that Russia may have deployed military personnel and aircraft to Syria, and we're monitoring those reports quite closely. I will just say as a general matter that any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it's in the form of military personnel, aircraft, supplies, weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive.
And the United States has worked to lead an international coalition of countries to take on ISIL, and we certainly would welcome Russian support and contribution to that effort. And the United States has also been the leading advocate of trying to reach a diplomatic transition in the political leadership in Syria, and we certainly would welcome Russia's positive contribution to that diplomatic effort as well.
Q: Last one. Deflategate -- NFL ruled against in step one. Any reaction to Tom Brady being able to get back out there and play?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my guess is that the happiest people today are either Patriots fans or Fantasy Football owners who had the wisdom to get a steal by drafting Tom Brady late in the draft. It was probably a smart move on the part of a lot of Americans who are probably --
Q: Did you draft Brady?
MR. EARNEST: I did not. But my guess is there's a lot of good ribbing -- good-natured ribbing going on in Fantasy Football leagues even before the season started.
Q: I'll just make a comment, Josh, if I can. The connectivity problems in Alaska caused some consternation. (Laughter.) You had mentioned the President in his last year and the influence he'd like to use on the international community, and obviously climate change being an example of that. But beyond what you said to Michelle's question about the refugee crisis, what does the President see as his role in this refugee crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing that I would say is to make sure that the United States continues to offer significant support to those countries that are bearing most of the weight here. And there has been a lot of attention about the thousands of refugees that have flocked to Europe, but we know that there are other countries -- like Jordan and Turkey, just to name two -- that are alone, bearing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees themselves who are fleeing violence in the region. And the United States will certainly continue to support those countries as they try to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those people who are in a desperate situation. And I think you can expect the United States and the Obama administration to continue to lend our technical expertise to our European allies and partners as they try to confront this significant challenge.
And the United States is going to continue to be committed to an effort to bring about an end to the violence there. That's a tall order and that's not something that's going to happen anytime soon. But it certainly is part of what motivates the assembly of this broader international coalition to take the fight to ISIL that's operating in Syria. And it's part of what motivates the United States to engage in an international process to try to bring about a peaceful political transition when it comes to the leadership in Syria.
Q: Beyond the political transition, the refugee part of it, as you know, there's been growing international pressure, particularly if you read European newspapers, on David Cameron and on the UK to change its position. And Germany, in a rare move, allowed the ambassador to be critical of their decision not to take in more refugees and to call on them to do so. And I just wondered if you're publicly or privately at some point -- or maybe that point has been reached -- the President feels that more direct intervention -- phone calls, whatever -- may be necessary at this point.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did mention I think last week that the President did have an opportunity to talk briefly about this issue with Chancellor Merkel in their phone call last week. I'm not aware of any other calls that the President has placed to European leaders to discuss this issue in the last week or so. I certainly wouldn't rule out that kind of engagement moving forward.
This is obviously a significant problem that the EU is dealing with, and the United States stands with our allies and partners as they confront this difficult challenge.
Q: Does the President think the UK is doing enough?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know that he's formed a specific opinion on this. Obviously the members of the EU and other countries in Europe, even those that aren't members of the EU, are going to have to determine what they can do to deal with a problem that is now present on their shores. There's no denying that this is a significant problem. And I think what we all would expect is that this problem will be more effectively solved if the countries in Europe are able to work together to solve it.
Q: Hi, Josh. So my name is Abdullah -- this is Martina and Will. We're the hosts of a show called (inaudible) --
MR. EARNEST: I've heard it.
Q: And for the past month, we've been crossing the country in an RV, meeting Americans from all walks and asking them what the most important issue is to them going into the 2016 election. And so I want to pose the same question to you and ask you, for the next four years, going into the next election, what do you think is going to be the most important issue facing the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer your question this way. The priority that the President has placed when it comes to his domestic policy agenda is expanding economic opportunity for the middle class. And the President does believe that should be an issue that should be carefully considered by voters in the next election, and I feel pretty confident in predicting to you that it will be.
The President has obviously put forward his own very specific agenda for how we can do that. That's everything from raising the minimum wage to making sure that we get equal pay for equal work. The progress that we've made in reforming our health care system is an important part of this.
And we also need to understand that the challenges posed by a more integrated global economy are going to place a premium on a better-educated, more-skilled workforce. And that's why the President believes that we need to be focused on education reform, job-training programs, and other ways we can make sure that young people in this country can get the skills, education and training that they need to compete and win in a 21st century global economy.
And so the President has made his views known on this topic pretty clear, and I think he's made clear that this is a priority to him. But it will be up to each of the candidates in 2016 to make their own case about whether or not they think this is a priority. And if it is -- or if they think it is, then what are they going to do to ensure that this kind of economy opportunity is shared by Americans, not just those at the top, but by Americans all across the country.
Q: Do any of those candidates seem like they have the best idea? Like, who's got the best shot at it right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my guess is that the candidate that is able to put forward the best plan for confronting this challenge is likely to win the vote of the President of the United States.
Q: Who's that?
MR. EARNEST: Well see. (Laughter.)
Q: Just wanted to follow up on Syria. Does the administration have any evidence of its own that Russia is conducting military operations in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any evidence to share with you. All I can say is that we're certainly aware of press reports to this effect, and the United States is concerned by those reports.
Q: And if they were to be true, how would -- that would be a significant escalation of the conflict in Syria.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what it would be is it would be both destabilizing and counterproductive. And the reason for that is we have acknowledged that the reason that ISIL has been able to take root in Syria, and even spread, is that they were able to capitalize on the chaos created by the failed leadership of President Assad; that his failure to manage that country effectively and to ensure that that country was governed according to the will of its citizens, it bred chaos and instability. And ISIL capitalized on it.
And we've seen terrible violence not just on the part of ISIL, but we've also seen terrible violence on the part of the Assad regime as President Assad clings to power. And that's why people so frequently refer to this as just a terrible tragedy; that there are millions of innocent people who are tragically affected by this failed leadership, by this ongoing strife, and by this terrible violence.
And there are no easy answers here. But what the President has prioritized is mobilizing the international community to take aggressive action to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and to mobilize the international community to support a political transition in Syria that would result in someone new taking leadership in Syria, and leading that country in a way that reflects the will and ambition of the Syrian people.
These are all significant challenges and tall orders, and neither of those solutions is likely to present themselves tomorrow. But the United States will continue to be aggressive advocates of those kinds of solutions. And that's the kind of responsibility you have when you're the most influential, powerful country in the world.
Q: Just wanted to go back to the question of China. You dealt with the question about the troop announcement, but yesterday the Chinese also unveiled an anti-ship ballistic missile, which is designed to counter U.S. aircraft carriers. And I wonder your broader political -- geopolitical take-away. What kind of message do you take from the parade yesterday about China's view of -- its attitude towards the rest of the world?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Andrew, my observation would simply be that military parades almost always feature military equipment on display. And so I haven't heard of any sort of independent analysis of the materiel or equipment or weapons that were on display at yesterday's military parade in China, but those of you who traveled to India with the President earlier this year saw that India was eager to at least show the military hardware that's in their arsenal. And this is not an uncommon thing around the world.
We have continued to make clear that the interest of everybody in the South China Sea, for example, are enhanced if military confrontation is avoided, and diplomatic resolution is pursued. And that certainly is what we have encouraged. We believe that's in the individual national security interests of all the countries that are directly involved in that region of the world, but it's certainly in the best interest of the international global economy, and it's something that we're going to continue to encourage.
Q: Josh, I just wanted to get your reaction to the resignation of Otto Perez Molina, the President of Guatemala. I know we're talking a lot about migrants today, and that's someone who the Obama administration was working closely with on the migrant crisis last year.
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, the United States respects the decision of Guatemalan President Perez Molina to submit his resignation. We commend the people of Guatemala and their institutions for the manner in which they have dealt with this crisis and continue to underscore our support for Guatemala's democratic and constitutional institutions.
Additionally, we support the succession steps being carried out in accordance with Guatemala's constitution and stand ready to work with Vice President Maldonado in his new capacity. The United States will continue to support Guatemala's democratic process, including peaceful general elections that are scheduled for September 6th. We also continue to support Guatemalan efforts to fight corruption and impunity in Guatemala, including the work done by the Public Ministry and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
Over the course of his time in office, the President has worked to deepen our relationships in Latin America. And the President is mindful of the impact that the political situation in many of these countries has on the United States -- in no small part because many Americans can trace their heritage back to these countries and continue to have ties to these countries.
So we're certainly mindful of the situation in Guatemala and monitoring it, but I don't think I have much beyond the statement.
Q: Do you plan to reiterate the concerns about corruption to the Vice President? Do administration officials, the President himself have any plans to relay that message?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly would anticipate and we certainly would expect that not just the Vice President but that the next government that's elected in the September 6th election will continue to implement the kinds of reforms that we believe are in the best interests of the people of Guatemala, particularly when it comes to fighting corruption and impunity in Guatemala.
Sarah, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Two topics. One is the SEC there is a Democratic vacancy coming up, and I just want to see if there are any status updates. Does the President have a preferred candidate and is there any kind of time frame for making that announcement?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, Sarah, I don't have any personnel announcements at this point. We continue to be mindful of the important role that the Securities and Exchange Commission plays in enforcing certain critical parts of our economy and ensuring that everybody is playing by the rules. But I don't have any announcements in terms of the President's decision about filling that vacancy.
Q: -- whose name, I apologize if I'm mispronouncing to him, but that he faced opposition from Senator Warren and other Wall Street watchdogs for having close ties -- they were concerned about sort of a revolving door issue with his legal clients. Does the President agree -- did the President agree with that complaint about him?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of the specific complaints that have been aired, but we can certainly take a look at that and if we have a response we'll get back to you.
Q: And what are the qualities that the President thinks are important in an SEC commissioner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll just say in general that when the President announced his decision to nominate Mary Jo White to lead that independent agency, that he valued her technical expertise on a range of financial issues. She also is somebody that had a good working knowledge of the law. And we also are looking for somebody that has a willingness to stand up to some pretty powerful interests, that's essentially what we're asking the SEC to do on a regular basis -- to make sure that they are responsibly regulating the conduct of some of the most powerful financial institutions in the world. And so a willingness to stand up to those interests, to protect the interests of our broader economy and certainly the interests of middle-class families all across the country will be an important criteria. But obviously we'll be in a position to talk about that once the President has made a decision about who he believes would be best appointed to fill this position.
Q: And my other topic is the Vice President. At a fundraiser yesterday, he reportedly said, I'm not a populist, but Bernie Sanders, he's doing a hell of a job. Does that also reflect the White House's take on Senator Sanders?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has in the past spoken positively about Senator Sanders and certainly his service in the United States Senate. He is somebody who over the last several months, as all of you have noted, has been able to attract large, fired-up crowds of Democrats. That's a good thing for the party. And the President is pleased that there is some enthusiasm and excitement on display about a variety of candidates in the Democratic field. And that's going to lead to a robust debate and it's going to lead to a strong general election candidate in the Democratic Party, and the President is pleased about that.
Q: And last question. If the Vice President chooses not to run himself, do you anticipate him endorsing Senator Sanders?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know -- when you say "him" do you mean the Vice President or the President?
Q: I meant the Vice President, but if you'd like to weigh in on the President as well I'd be very interested.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I said before, I don't know if the President will offer an endorsement in the Democratic Primary. If he chooses to do so, he'll announce it at that point. The Vice President's calculation is obviously a little bit different right now, but I don't know at this point whether or not if he were to decide not to run, whether or not he would make a decision to publicly endorse one of the candidates or not.
END 2:57 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/311121