Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. I do not have any announcements to make at the top, so we can go directly to your questions.
Julie, do you want to start?
Q: Thanks, Josh. We are approaching yet another deadline, I guess we can call it, on the Iran talks, where either the parties are going to have to extend the JPOA or reach a deal. What is your expectation of what happens over the next few hours?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, what we do expect is that the Joint Plan of Action will remain in place. And the reasons for that is this is the interim agreement that's been in place for a little over a year and a half now that has frozen Iran's nuclear program in place and rolled it back in some key areas. Now, obviously, if we can reach a final agreement, then that would supersede the interim agreement.
But the talks continue in Vienna. The thing that I can tell you is that they have made genuine progress in those conversations and I think even over the last week or so, there is progress -- important progress that has been made. There have been some key issues in the negotiations that have been closed and that's a good sign.
That said, there continue to be some sticking points that remain unresolved. And as I've been saying for the better part of a couple weeks now, the President has directed his team to remain engaged and participate in conversations as long as those conversations remain useful. And given the progress that's been made and given the success that they've had in closing out some key issues, that's an indication that the talks are useful.
But the President has also been clear that there's a bottom line that must be met, and that is making sure that any final agreement lives up to the parameters that were established in Lausanne. And there will not be a final agreement agreed to by the United States at least and by our P5+1 partners until the final agreement reflects that.
Q: So based on what you're saying there, it sounds like the President is willing to let John Kerry and the negotiators stay past today because he feels the talks continue to be productive?
MR. EARNEST: If it's necessary for them to continue conversations and if the conversations remain useful, the negotiating team will remain in Vienna.
Q: And I guess the question that a lot of people have about this is because so much of this is happening behind closed doors, it's hard to know what is actually being agreed upon and what is not being agreed upon. And I guess I don't have a great sense of why the President feels like another two days, another three days will close the door on all these issues that have opened for months.
MR. EARNEST: I think that's an entirely legitimate question. The chief obstacle to us providing greater insight about what is exactly occurring behind closed doors is this key tenet of our talks that we've been repeating for a couple of years now, which is that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.
Q: But I guess I'm asking it not even in terms of the specifics, but is it that he has seen the Iranians make concessions on key issues? What is it that he has seen from the Iranians that leads him to believe they would continue to move closer to the U.S. position if you just keep this going?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think because as the negotiations have gone on over the last couple of weeks, what started out as a rather long list of differences has slowly -- I would acknowledge slowly -- but steadily narrowed. And that's an indication that we are making progress toward an agreement. And that's why I would describe the talks as making genuine progress.
But what's also true is that typically some of the most difficult issues are the ones that get kicked to the end. And that's why the President is going to resist any effort to sort of fast-forward through the closing here. There continue to be significant issues that remain, and the President will not sign on to an agreement -- and this is the attitude that's taken by our P5+1 partners, too -- they're not going to sign on to an agreement until all of our concerns have been addressed. And as long as they continue to make progress in doing that, then the talks will continue.
Q: Has the President had any conversations with Secretary Kerry over the last few days over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been in touch with his National Security Advisor, Susan Rice. And she has been the one that has been principally updating him a couple times a day about the status of the talks. Those briefings for the President occurred even over the weekend -- those updates to the President occurred even over the weekend. And I know the President has been in touch with the negotiating team in Vienna as well.
There have not been any secure video teleconferences since the one that we announced last week, but the President is very well aware of where things stand.
Q: Josh, with no firm deadline in place on these talks, do you have any idea of when the interim agreement may be lifted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so the issue is this, is that the interim agreement has been extended two or three days at a time two or three times now. The latest short-term extension is up at the end of the day today. If the talks are not completed today, then the interim agreement will be extended again. And this is by essentially as a result of the unanimous view that this interim agreement has been helpful. And I know that's true of many Republicans in Congress who originally criticized the interim agreement. It also happens to be the view of our P5+1 partners and of Iran.
And so there is a unified commitment to making sure that that interim agreement remains in place, but the whole idea of an interim agreement is it remains in place only until a final agreement can be reached. And so what we would envision is a final agreement that would enter into effect to replace the interim agreement.
Q: Okay, but I imagine it's not indefinite. I mean, what would have to happen to lift that and -- would it be walking away from these talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I wouldn't want to speculate about what's going to happen or what would happen if one party or another were to walk away from the talks. What we know is that the interim agreement has been useful while the talks have been ongoing to freeze Iran's nuclear program in place and to roll it back in some key areas.
Q: Okay. And then will this be for another three days each time, or will it -- is it indefinitely extended?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if there is a need to extend to interim agreement even for a short-term period, that's an announcement that would be made by the United States and our P5+1 partners in Vienna. That's not something I'll announce here. What I'm merely trying to project here is confidence that if a final agreement is not reached by the end of the day today, that all of the parties will agree to at least a short-term extension of the interim agreement to allow the conversations to continue.
Q: Okay. Shifting to criminal justice. I know the President is traveling to Philadelphia tomorrow, where he'll talk to the NAACP and lay out his ideas for criminal justice reform. And he said today that many of those ideas have already come up in Congress. And also, there have been many ideas that have come up and been stalled, even when Democrats had control of the Senate last year. Why does he think that anything might be different now? What are the chances of getting something through, like the Smarter Sentencing Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be blunt about it, because Republicans are indicating an openness to doing it. Democrats have long been strong advocates of criminal justice reform that would make our criminal justice system more fair. There are clearly some inequities that can be and should be rectified, but they will require legislation.
Obviously, there's a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate, which means any proposal that's going to pass both houses of Congress will require bipartisan support. And since Democrats have been steadfast supporters of trying to bring some important reforms to our criminal justice system, we welcome indications from some Republicans that reforms -- that they also believe that reforms are necessary.
That's the basis for some of the bipartisan conversations that have already occurred on this issue. The President hosted one of those conversations earlier this year, you'll recall. I wouldn't rule out additional bipartisan conversations that include the President of the United States. And that's the way that we hope we can advance this priority, is by working in bipartisan fashion.
Obviously, that's not something that Congress has a particularly strong track record of doing, but there have been areas where that has been successful, and we're hopeful that we can add criminal justice reform to the list of areas where Congress was able to act in bipartisan fashion to do something good for the country.
Q: Senator Rand Paul was one of those Republicans that the President has talked about it before. Has he spoken with him lately about this?
MR. EARNEST: I don't believe so. But I obviously don't read out every single conversation the President has with members of Congress, but I'm not aware of any recent conversations on this. But you're right, Senator Paul, to his credit, is somebody that has demonstrated and signaled a willingness to be a good partner with the Obama administration on this issue.
Q: And if you look at the numbers, the President is behind some of his predecessors in this category in terms of commutations and pardons, although it appears he's doing some catching up. Is this something that we should see or that we might see accelerate over his remaining time in office?
MR. EARNEST: What I would say, Jim, in terms of the raw numbers of commutations, the announcement today of 46 commutations is actually the largest number of commutations that's been issued by a President on a single day dating back to at least the Johnson administration. And this brings to I believe it's 89 -- that's the number of people who have received a commutation from the President of the United States, and that actually is more than the number of commutations issued by the four previous Presidents combined. So the President has taken pretty bold action when it comes to commutations.
I think the point that you're raising --
Q: Pardons, then, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the pardons is a bit of a different story. But I think that the point that you're raising, however, is an entirely legitimate one, and that is that there are significant reforms that need to be implemented into our criminal justice system. And the President is hopeful that he can work with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to advance a legislative solution to address some of those inequities. He doesn't want to just have to rely on his constitutional authority as President of the United States to offer commutations. He actually is hopeful that we can develop and implement a legislative solution that would have a broader, more far-reaching impact in bringing greater fairness and justice to our criminal justice system.
Q: He's visiting a federal prison on Thursday. How is that going to work? I assume you guys are pretty confident that this is going to be safe and should go smoothly.
MR. EARNEST: We do continue to have confidence that the President's visit will be safe. There will have to be some unique steps that we'll take to ensure the safety of the President and others who will be participating in that event. But it's certainly an opportunity that the President is looking forward to. And he'll have an opportunity to speak to all of you about it while he's there.
Q: And speaking of prison security, any response from this White House to the escape of "El Chapo" down in Mexico?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's those rather colorful news reports. I can tell you that the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch, telephoned her counterpart yesterday to offer the full support of the United States government to the Mexican government as they undertake an operation to try to recapture Mr. Guzman. Obviously the United States is very interested in making sure that Mr. Guzman is brought to justice. He faces very serious crimes not just in Mexico, but he's been charged with some very serious crimes in the United States as well. And the United States will support the efforts of the Mexican government to bring him to justice.
Q: Just a quick clarification and two quick questions. So if you don't reach an agreement, is this interim agreement or the Joint Plan of Action -- can it be extended for weeks or months, and not just days? My question is, is it legally binding, or is it just a political framework that a high-level agreement has to be reached and it's not going to be -- it will be redundant after that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to the legally binding nature of it. I'd refer you to the State Department who presumably has an attorney who can discuss sort of the legal consequences of all of this. What we have found, though, is that the interim agreement over the last year and a half or so that it's been in place has been effective in freezing Iran's nuclear program in place and rolling it back in some key areas. And that's why the United States and our P5+1 partners have found it useful to continue to extend the agreement while the talks continue, even though the talks have extended on for a period of time longer than we believed originally would be necessary.
Q: My question is it's still more than a few days, more than the deadline of expected days --
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, the agreement has been in place -- well, let's step one step back just to give you a greater deal of context here.
There was concern when the United States and our P5+1 partners originally entered into negotiations with the Iranians that the Iranians would merely use the cover of diplomatic conversations to continue to advance their nuclear program. This is something they had done in the past and was something that many people were concerned about, including the President of the United States. And that's why this particular approach was taken, which is to let's enter into an agreement as we enter the final talks to ensure that that can't happen, that we can't just drag out the talks so that they can advance their nuclear program.
But, in essence, that interim agreement has been in place to facilitate conversations, and that is what we're trying to complete. And obviously if we can complete the negotiations, then there would be no need for an interim agreement.
But you raise another question, which is, well, would the agreement that was originally in place to support negotiations remain in place even if negotiations are no longer ongoing? And that's a question that, frankly, I haven't contemplated at this point. But what we have indicted is that if conversations were to break down, that the President would continue to have all options on the table before him. But I wouldn't speculate at this point how exactly we'd prepare for that scenario. Our hope is that the negotiators will continue to make progress and eventually reach a final agreement that would then go into effect and eliminate the need for the interim agreement.
Q: And on Iraq, the Iraqi army launched an operation to retake Anbar with the Popular Forces. What changed from two months ago to now? How confident are you in the ability of the Iraqi army that they retake Anbar?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there had been, Nadia, remember, some speculation by some observers that the central government in Iraq had not been as effective as necessary to resupply those troops who were in Ramadi and were doing important work to try to protect that city. So, obviously, over the last couple of months, the Iraqi government has had an opportunity to organize their efforts in Anbar Province, to ensure that the security forces reflect the diverse population of Iraq.
And what the United States has indicated is that the United States and our coalition partners will be supportive of those forces that are under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And we have made clear that we believe that those forces should take extra care, even as they are carrying out these security operations, to protect the basic human rights of the population there.
So this is obviously something that reflects a decision made by the Iraqi government. This is obviously an operation that's led by the Iraqi military. But those forces that are operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government can expect to have the support of the United States and our coalition partners as they undertake these operations.
The other thing that I understand is that, in recent days, our coalition has actually significantly stepped up the pace of military airstrikes in Iraq -- the majority of those airstrikes coming in Anbar. So that is an indication of the ongoing coordination between the Iraqi military and the United States and our coalition partners.
Q: And one last question. You don't have to get into the military details, but just politically -- the Wall Street Journal is reporting that you are coordinating with North African countries to have airbases to be used to launch drones against ISIS in Libya. Can you kind of go into some details about which countries are you coordinating with? And is this within the policy of the administration like we did in Yemen, to target al Qaeda using drones only?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are obviously a number of details that I can't get into from here, but let me try to answer your question the best that I can.
Let me start by saying that the United States coordinates closely with countries throughout North Africa and Europe who also share our concerns about the extremist threat that emanates from Libya. We are seeing, and we have seen a concerted effort by some extremists in Libya to capitalize on the chaos in that country, to establish a foothold and carry out extremist acts of violence not just in Libya but even in some surrounding countries. And we saw this terrible terrorist attack in Tunisia just 10 days or so ago. So we continue to be concerned about the growing threat from extremists that are operating in Libya, and we are going to continue to coordinate both on security matters and intelligence matters with countries in the region.
Now, you'll note that the United States recently entered into this Major Non-NATO Ally agreement with Tunisia. That's an indication of the ramped-up security coordination between the United States and Tunisia. The United States has a longstanding security relationship with Egypt, and there is additional military assistance that was recently provided to Egypt as they confront some of the security challenges in their country as well.
So that's an indication that the United States has some deep ties in the region that we will use to try to improve the security posture of countries in the region that are most likely at risk here, but also to protect the broader national security interests of the United States.
The last thing I'll say about this -- and I probably should have said this first -- but our primary effort with respect to Libya remains focused on the political negotiations. And this goes back to what I was just describing, which is that we have seen extremist elements try to capitalize on the chaos inside of Libya to carry out acts of violence. And so the best way for us to eliminate the ability of those extremist groups to operate in Libya is to actually support an effective central government in Libya that can provide for the security situation of the entire country.
So there have been some ongoing U.N.-facilitated efforts in Morocco to try to bring about this political solution, and there was an agreement that was recently initialed in Morocco among the parties who are participating in those talks. And the United States has been strongly supportive of the U.N. effort to try to bring about that political resolution.
Q: Thanks, Josh. On the prison visit later this week, will the President meet with any inmates who have clemency petitions in the pipeline?
MR. EARNEST: The President will have the opportunity to meet with some inmates. I don't at this point have details about who will participate in those conversations, but in advance of Thursday, we'll have some more information on this.
Q: And then on the Iran deal -- when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, says the United States should absolutely not ease restrictions on Iran's ability to acquire missile technology or conventional weapons, does he speak for the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he's the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so --
Q: So we shouldn't look for this Iran deal to ease either of those things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you can certainly rely on Chairman Dempsey to provide not just -- certainly his own personal point of view, but also a point of view that reflects the kind of advice the President's receiving from his uniform military leaders as well.
Q: So let me clarify on that.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: Is lifting the arms embargo on Iran on the table in the final stages of these negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, what we know is that there are a number of U.N. Security Council resolutions related to Iran's nuclear program that are under discussion as part of essentially an exchange that would -- this is the essence of the negotiations -- that Iran would take steps to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon in response to relief that they could get from sanctions that had been applied to their nuclear program. And that's the essence of the negotiations that have been going on for more than a year and a half. It's those sanctions that have actually compelled Iran to participate in these conversations. And so that's what -- that's the kind of relief they're seeking.
Q: I'm asking specifically about the arms embargo, which, as I understand, is separate from the sanctions that are imposed because of the nuclear program. Is the administration -- is the President willing to see the lifting of the arms embargo on Iran? Will he -- would he go along with that under any circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I can't get into the details of the ongoing --
Q: You won't rule out that the President would sign off on lifting the arms embargo on Iran?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm suggesting is we've been very clear that the sanctions relief to which Iran could be entitled in the context of these negotiations would be those sanctions that have been applied to Iran's nuclear program.
And there are a number of sanctions that have been applied to Iran because of their nuclear program and the possible weaponization of their nuclear program. And again, that's the essence of this whole negotiation -- that applying those sanctions is what compelled them to the negotiating table in the first place, and that's what has isolated them from the international community. And ultimately what we have sought is to get Iran to agree to demonstrate clearly beyond a shadow of a doubt that their nuclear program exists solely for peaceful purposes, and that in exchange for that demonstration they would receive sanctions relief.
Q: Okay. But I'm asking specifically about the arms embargo. Let me come at it a slightly different way. Iran has been on the official State Sponsors of Terrorism list since the 90s -- since earlier, a long time. There's no plan to take Iran off the official State Sponsors of Terrorism list is there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been clear that the -- we have been very clear about the fact that the significant concerns we have with Iran's behavior will persist even after an agreement is reached, if one can be reached.
Q: So there's no plan to take them off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we've been clear about exactly what is the essence of these ongoing negotiations. And that is the sanctions that have been applied to Iran's nuclear program at the United Nations in exchange for them shutting down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon. That obviously is very different than a consideration about their inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list.
Q: So that's why I'm asking about the arms embargo. How could you consider lifting a ban on sales of military equipment to and from Iran if you still consider them a state sponsor of terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to get into the essence of the negotiations. But we've tried to be as clear as we possibly can about this -- that the kind of sanctions relief that is envisioned in this conversation are those sanctions that are applied to Iran's nuclear program.
Q: Okay. And then one last thing. Jason Rezaian -- another hearing before this secretive court. Is there any indication that any of the Americans who are known to be held prisoner by Iran, Rezaian, Hekmati, Abedini, is there any indication that any of them will be freed before an agreement is reached?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update on the status of our efforts to secure the release of those Americans who are being unjustly detained by Iran. You named three of them --
Q: There's 11.
MR. EARNEST: That's right. So we're certainly concerned about the fact that Mr. Rezaian, Mr. Abedini and Mr. Hekmati are being unjustly detained in Iran. We've got some serious questions about the whereabouts of Robert Levinson. And these are concerns about the treatment of these American citizens by Iran that we have raised on the sidelines of these nuclear talks. But we have -- and that's something that we continue to press, but I don't have an update at this point on those ongoing efforts.
Q: If, in fact, a deal is not reached and the U.S. may walk away from the table, how concerned is this administration that Saudi Arabia will enter a nuclear arms race?
MR. EARNEST: Well, J.C., one of the reasons that we have sought to pursue a diplomatic opportunity to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is the risk that exists that if Iran does obtain a nuclear weapon that it could set off a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. That would be destabilizing to an already volatile region of the world. It also would have a negative impact on the national security interests of the United States. It obviously would not be good for our closest ally in the region, Israel. So that is one of the reasons that we have sought to capitalize on the best opportunity we have to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that's pursuing this diplomatic opening.
Q: So you said at the top, key issues -- there have been some key issues that have been closed. Can you give us an idea of what they are?
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately, I can't. As I mentioned to Julie, those issues have been closed. The reason I didn't say "agreed to" is that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. So it means that we believe that we've gotten those key issues into a good place -- essentially the negotiations around some of those key issues have closed. But they are contingent on resolving the concerns that have been expressed by everybody around the table.
Q: Let me try it in this way. There are issues related to sanctions that Jonathon just brought up, and there were underlying technical details -- inspections, application of the Joint Plan of Action. Broadly speaking, would you say the issues that have been closed fall on the sanctions side, or the technical implementation side of the Joint Plan?
MR. EARNEST: I just can't get into any greater detail about those issues that have been closed other than to confirm for you that some of them have been.
Q: Okay. There was a sense this weekend that this was getting closer and closer. The President has said as recently as last week, less than 50 percent. I'm not asking you to give us a declaration of -- but do you feel that over the last 72 or 96 hours, you are closer and this is likely to happen? More likely than it was, say, three or four days ago? Or would you say you're in exactly the same place you were?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would acknowledge that important progress has been made over the last four or five or six days. That is true. That said, there continue to be some pretty tough obstacles to a final agreement that remain in place, and that's what our negotiators are working through.
Ultimately, in order to complete this agreement, it's going to require Iran to make some tough decisions and to sign off on some significant commitments that shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and verify their cooperation with an intrusive set of inspections. And since ultimately it will be the responsibility of Iran to decide if they can live up to those commitments, that's why it's hard to put a numerical probability on it, because ultimately this will be a decision that they'll have to make at the end. Because we've been very clear about what our bottom lines are and they have a rather opaque process for making these kinds of decisions. But that's why it's hard to put a specific probability.
But to answer the first part of your question, I do think it's fair for you to say that over the last four or five or six days, that additional progress has been made.
Q: All of us are trying to translate your conversation with Jonathon, so let me try it this way. (Laughter.) The administration doesn't believe that the arms embargo was applied to Iran in reaction to its nuclear program, therefore it is not on the table -- correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I think at this point -- this is exactly the kind of conversation that if we're able to reach an agreement will be a lot easier for us to have.
Q: So, therefore, it is on the table?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not saying that. What I'm just saying is that once we've been able to lay out exactly what's included in the agreement and what's not, we'll have a much clearer conversation about what exactly has been agreed to.
Q: So this part is opaque.
MR. EARNEST: I would acknowledge that there are a variety of aspects of this that are opaque.
Q: On their side.
MR. EARNEST: Not just on their side. The good news is that if an agreement is reached that there will be extensive detail that's made public that you and the American public will have an opportunity to review. And that's what we would encourage people to do, is to withhold judgment and to evaluate the strength of this argument -- or the strength of this agreement and the way that it protects America's national security interests based on the details that have actually been agreed to.
Q: On the commutation issues, what would you say is the President's explanation for those who would observe that he's had a long time to deal with this issue and this is late in the game?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would just observe that the number of commutations that have been granted by this President exceed the number of commutations that have been issued by the four previous Presidents combined.
Q: But that presupposes that the same problems were on the President's -- those Presidents' desks as were on this President's desk. And I believe, if I understand the President correctly, that's not the case, that he has noted, and those working for him have noted this disparity in sentencing and that it cried out for some type of action. So to compare numbers suggests, well, they had the exact same problems. They don't have the same -- those Presidents didn't have this issue to deal with. This President has, by his own words.
MR. EARNEST: And I think what the numbers illustrate is that the President has taken an historic step today and --
Q: Why not earlier?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that there -- I guess there are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that these applications for clemency are very carefully considered. They go through a very rigorous process and there is an effort by the Department of Justice to make sure that the individuals who are then considered by the President for a commutation fit the criteria that the President has laid out.
And the criteria that the President has discussed is non-violent offenders, essentially low-level offenders, in many cases, who, if they were sentenced today would get a substantially shorter sentence and, in many of those cases, would actually have, if sentenced under the rules that are in place today, would have actually already served their time and been released by this point.
So that's an indication of the kind of disparity that the President is trying to rectify. And the President believes that it's possible to take this step without substantially negatively affecting public safety. And that obviously is a principal consideration as well.
But we've also been pretty up front about the fact that this kind of executive action is not a substitute for the kind of legislative action that we believe is necessary to address some of the more widespread disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.
Q: One last thing. On coverage Thursday, it has been suggested to us -- and I know these things are constantly being reviewed, so I ask you to review them on behalf of everyone in the association, but specifically the White House pool that will travel with the President, that they be given maximum access to the President not just for his remarks in some prison yard, but in the part of the facility that he will go himself. This being a historic event for this President, the first of its kind, to my understanding, the White House press pool should have as much access as possible. And I urge you to err on the side of maximum coverage and access for those who travel with the President and the government on a daily basis.
MR. EARNEST: We'll see what we can do.
Q: Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Alexis.
Q: Josh, can I ask a question on commutations?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q: I want to repeat the question I had asked last week, and that is how would the President like these 46 individuals to be used if, in the minds of lawmakers, he's trying to persuade? In other words, is there something about their cases that he -- more than the number, that these individuals that he wants to point to, to showcase a point he's trying to make?
MR. EARNEST: I think the case that the President is trying to make is that that there are -- that, again, these are individuals who are non-violent, low-level offenders. These are individuals the vast majority of whom would receive a substantially shorter sentence if they had been convicted under the rules that are currently in place. And, in many cases, these individuals would have actually served their time and already been released by this standpoint had they been convicted under the terms -- or under the rules and conditions that are in place today.
And I think the President does believe that that illustrates some inequities in our criminal justice system, and it does illustrate that there probably is a better way that we can spend taxpayer dollars. And some of these individuals who have been commuted today, who have had their sentences commuted today, are individuals who were sentenced to life in prison, even though they didn't have a violent record.
And, again, in the view of the President, there probably are some better things we can spend taxpayer dollars on, and there are certainly some things that we can do to make our criminal justice more fair.
That said, each of these cases was considered individually. And it's the President's responsibility to use this power judiciously. But there is something important that Congress can do about it, and we hope that they will.
Q: And can you add whether, on top of these 46, whether the President now hopes to continue to do this on some sort of recurring basis. In other words, the effort that he's made through the Justice Department to review these petitions and go through them sequentially, he's going to keep doing that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a schedule to lay out for you, but I certainly would expect that the President would consider the use of this kind of executive authority in the future.
Q: And then, one detail -- I don't know if you know the answer. These are effective November 10th -- four months from now. Is there something that is specific to the four-month effective date?
MR. EARNEST: There is. What I would do is I would encourage you to talk to the Department of Justice. They have a system for helping these inmates, some of whom have been in prison for an extended period of time, transition back into public life, if you will. And so that's what this -- I think it's a 120-day period for transition. But we'll look into this for you. But essentially it's over the course of that 120 days. There are things like halfway houses and other forms of training and assistance that can be provided to these individuals to prepare for their eventual release.
Q: And lastly, on the President's schedule -- if, by chance, there is a deal in Iran and the President is traveling, would he respond while he's traveling, or would he adjust his schedule?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point it's hard to say exactly how things are going to come about. But we'll obviously keep all of you apprised of the President's travel plans.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Given that there's also a human factor to what's going on in Switzerland, and an understandable level of exhaustion, do you rule out then at this point, should we go into yet another day, that they could stop and start again, that they would take any time off? Or is it your sense they're just going to power through and either have a deal or walk away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the expectation right now is that the talks will continue, and I'm not aware of any plans to take a break. They surely deserve it, but I'm not sure that's what anybody has planned.
Q: And if I could ask you just a few things about Mr. Guzman's escape. Does this in any way point to the need for swift deportations, particularly of drug kingpins?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously when Mr. Guzman was originally taken to custody about a year and a half ago, the United States did communicate clearly to the Mexican government our view that Mr. Guzman should face the charges that have been imposed against him here in the United States. The charges are serious and we believe that he should face justice, and we made that clear to the Mexican government.
Obviously, they're a sovereign government. They have their own responsibilities for ensuring that Mexican citizens who are being -- who are charged with serious crimes under the Mexican criminal justice system face justice in that country as well. But we've made quite clear to the Mexicans our interest in ensuring that he faces justice here in the United States, and that's why we're going to continue to be supportive of the effort that's already underway by Mexican authorities to recapture him.
Q: The Chicago Crime Commission, which is a well-known crime-fighting organization in the President's hometown, had named Guzman public enemy number one, and I think that was the first designation since Al Capone that they had done until he was recaptured the last time. And now, they're very concerned about -- that this might signal a resurgence of the Sinaloa Cartel, which obviously has been a major supplier in Chicago of both heroin and cocaine. I just wonder if there's been any conversations with the White House what the level of concern is about the possible reemergence of the Sinaloa.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's my understanding that the -- obviously, we're very concerned about making sure that Mr. Guzman is brought to justice. And he does have a long rap sheet, and does preside over an organization that has committed a significant number of crimes, and does pose a threat to public safety not just in Mexico but in the United States as well. And that's why we believe that Mr. Guzman should face justice and face the very serious charges that have been put in place against him. And that's why the United States is going to be supportive of the ongoing efforts by Mexican authorities to recapture him.
Q: And you mentioned the statement that Loretta Lynch put out, that they're standing by to help with, potentially, the manhunt. Can you give us any more details about what kind of assistance the U.S. might offer? Or has any specific assistance been requested?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there obviously is a strong security cooperation effort between the United States and Mexico. Particularly in the case of Mr. Guzman, we're talking about the interest of both of our countries that are at stake. But obviously, Mexico, again, is a sovereign government and a sovereign country. And they'll have the principal responsibility of making sure that Mr. Guzman has been recaptured. But the Mexican government can count on the support of the United States as they undertake that effort.
Q: On the question of clemency, I know you've talked about that it's a rigorous process where there's a review, but at this point, you have something like 35,000 prisoners who have applied for clemency. Can you talk at all about what's slowing the process down? Are there any specific steps that are being taken? And realistically, you've -- again, you've talked about how criminal justice reform would be needed to make a major change, but how many people realistically could be pardoned by the end of the President's time in office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Juliet, this is a rigorous process, and so I'd refer you to the Department of Justice to give you an update in terms of how that process works and how much bandwidth there is in that process to process applications and ensure that each of them receives the careful, individual consideration that they both need and deserve.
So at this point, I can't speculate on a number or a capacity for that particular process. But I do think the numbers that you're citing highlight how important it is for Congress to take action; that congressional action, in this case, could be much broader in terms of delivering the kind of justice and implementing the kind of reforms that the President believes is long overdue.
Q: Thanks, Josh. On the criminal justice reform push in Congress, Senator Grassley is obviously going to play a major role here. So does the White House view -- and he's sent some mixed signals on this issue in the past and currently. So does the White House see him as a partner on this, or is he --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not familiar with Senator Grassley's positions or comments on this particular issue. But we obviously would welcome support for a genuinely bipartisan effort from anybody that's willing to offer it, particularly somebody like Senator Grassley that will, as you point out, have an opportunity to have a substantial impact on the outcome.
Q: Josh, on the prison visit, isn't it usually a bar to attending a presidential event a criminal record?
MR. EARNEST: No pun intended?
Q: I mean, a serious question. Usually, if somebody has a criminal record, they don't get to attend a presidential event.
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that's a hard and fast rule that this administration has implemented.
Q: Will there be inmates in both the audience for his remarks and private meetings?
MR. EARNEST: We'll have more details on the logistics of the visit later this week.
Q: And on clemency, although he has made a big jump in commutations, he is still far behind most of his predecessors on pardons. Is he aware of that? Is he aware that many people feel he's stingy on pardons?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he's aware of that -- I can confirm for you that he's aware of the numbers. I don't know if he's aware of the "stingy" label that some have offered him. (Laughter.) But again, I think the President's focus right now is on using his executive authority to try to correct as many injustices as possible, but also to try to work constructively in bipartisan fashion to help Congress enact the kinds of reforms that the President can't by acting on his own.
Q: Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about criminal justice reform. Is it the President's idea that more needs to be done to restore voting rights for felons to get them back into the workforce? Is that his overall position? And what would he say to people who say if you've done the crime, we ought not be using more of our money, frankly, from a public policy position, to give them more or to do more for them?
MR. EARNEST: I'd say a couple things about that, Kevin. The first is that the President has spoken -- I got asked about this I think on Friday -- and the President has spoken previously of his support for allowing those individuals who have served their time to have their voting rights restored.
And as the President alludes to in the letter that he sent to the 46 individuals who are seeing their sentence be commuted, that the United States of America is a country that believes in second chances and believes in redemption, and that it is in the best interest of our country to ensure that those individuals who have served their time, paid their debt to society, have an opportunity to reenter society and be a constructive member of the country. And there may be some who disagree with that. But I think the President is on pretty firm, bipartisan ground when he says that that would make our country and our criminal justice system more fair.
Q: Broadly speaking, what can the President do to shrink our prison population that dwarfs similar size countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously some of the steps that are related to commutations -- well, let me say it this way --
Q: You have a long way to go when you're talking about the numbers we're talking about.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I was just going to say that. Look, the fact is, that is one step that the President can take. But I would acknowledge -- and again, I think the numbers bear this out -- that when we're talking about the number of people who would benefit from reforms and deserve some reforms in the criminal justice system, we're talking about a substantial number of people. And that's exactly why the President is urging Congress to consider and act on important reforms that would make our criminal justice system more fair, but also ensure that we're being good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.
Q: Just a couple more. I want to ask you about the Iran talks. Senate Majority Leader McConnell said over the weekend it's going to be a tough sell, congressionally speaking, even if a deal is reached. How concerned is the President, taking the argument to Capitol Hill? And what do you say to those who would argue if sanctions and if the way it's working out now has applied enough pressure to bring Iran to the table, why not double down on that pressure to really hold them accountable for their behavior and maybe get even more from them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me address that in a couple of ways. I mean, the first is, just to take the last statement first. The kind of pressure that has been applied to Iran is significant because it has given Iran the space to make some serious commitments -- at least preliminarily in the context of the Lausanne agreement -- to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon.
And that was the aim of the sanctions in the first place. The sanctions regime was not put in place to punish Iran. There would obviously be ample reason to do that. And again, whether that's because they have unjustly detained some American citizens or because they menace Israel or because they support terrorism, or because they're engaged in all sorts of destabilizing activities all across the globe, there are a whole lot of reasons to be very concerned about Iran's behavior and about the impact that they have on U.S. national security.
But the fact is that there are a set of sanctions that have been put in place against Iran specifically because of their nuclear program. And the goal of that was to try to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And the idea was simply this -- that Iran's destabilizing activity in the region or their support for terrorism or their menacing of Israel is a whole lot more dangerous if they have a nuclear weapon. And that preventing them from obtaining a nuclear weapon is an important step in trying to prevent the worst kind of behavior from Iran, but it certainly isn't going to prevent all of their bad behavior.
But when it comes to the tough sell that Senator McConnell referred to, we welcome the scrutiny and even skepticism of everybody across the country and across the world as they consider this agreement. But we continue to be confident that, upon looking at the details, once they have been released, that we will be able to make a strong case about how the President hasn't just achieved his goal, but how the international community has achieved the important goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and verifying their compliance with that agreement.
And when it comes to a tough sell, I think the tough sell is going to be on the part of Republicans if they try to tank the deal. It's going to be a tough sell to say that the United States should back away from an international agreement. It's going to be a tough sell to say that the United States should throw away the best possible avenue for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It's going to be a tough sell to suggest that we should undermine the international sanctions that have been so effectively put in place thus far. And it's going to be a tough sell to say, you know what, we should just foreclose a diplomatic option and only consider the military option before us.
So I think we're going to have a lot of confidence in the ability that we have to advocate for this agreement. And I think it's going to be a pretty tough sell on the part of Republicans to suggest that this is something that we should walk away from.
Q: Last, I want to ask you about the OPM hack. The Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who gets regular cyber briefings, told us on the record that the same entity that was behind the OPM hack was also behind the hack of BlueCross-Anthem earlier this year. That's about 80 million people. Has the White House learned of this? Have you all been briefed of this? Is the President aware of this? And what does that say about possible Chinese incursion into American cybersecurity?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any more information at this point about -- or at least I don't have any more information to discuss publicly about who may have been responsible for the cyber breach at the Office of Personnel Management.
Q: Thanks, Josh. There are about three weeks left until Congress leaves for its August recess and then only a few weeks after that until the end of the fiscal year. Does the President believe that budget negotiations on budget caps and sequestration, does that need to start before the August recess?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, we certainly believe that Congress should not wait until the last minute to fulfill their basic responsibility. And this is the most fundamental responsibility that any Congress has, which is to pass a budget for the federal government of the United States.
And this is the basic responsibility of Congress, and there is no reason that Congress should wait until the last minute and risk, or have people worried, about the possibility of a government shutdown. So we are hopeful that Republicans will sit down with Democrats who have indicated an openness and a desire to try to begin these negotiations.
That is where the negotiations should take place, between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. That is, after all -- that has proven to be the most effective way for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to resolve their differences and to strike the kind of bipartisan agreement that's necessary to pass the United States Congress.
Obviously, the administration will be available to facilitate those agreements -- or those negotiations. And quite frankly, the administration is going to be pretty strongly supportive of Democrats who are participating in those negotiations because our priorities are the same. Republicans have a different set of priorities. But what's going to be required is for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to try to find some common ground. That sounds like a tall order right now, but it's something that Congress has been able to achieve in the past and we're hopeful that they will this time, too. We just hope that they'll do it without having to suffer through -- or put the country through a government shutdown.
Q: And have you heard anything from Republicans about why they don't want to go ahead and start now?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't. Have you? (Laughter.)
Q: Earlier today, Greece reached an agreement with the Eurozone leaders. Do you think it's a good deal for Greece, for Europe and for the United States? And how do you look at the role Germany played over the last few days?
MR. EARNEST: We had a little bit of a betting pool about whether or not anybody was going to ask about this today, so somebody somewhere is excited. Our mantra here is that nobody asks about good news so, Jerome, you proved them wrong today.
The United States welcomes the agreement that was reached today between Greece and its creditors. The agreement reflects a commitment by Greece's creditors to provide financial support and help create a path for Greece to return to growth and achieve debt sustainability. It also includes the commitment by Greece to make deep and difficult fiscal and structural reforms.
And what we have long identified as the potential solution is one that was focused on a package of reforms and financing that would put Greece back on a path of economic growth and debt sustainability. And this seems to be a credible step in that direction. Obviously, there are still some important decisions and important steps that need to be taken, but we're hopeful that all sides will make the difficult decisions and follow through on the important work that needs to get done.
Yes, ma'am in the back. Yes, you.
Q: You've been mentioning the need to work in bipartisan fashion on the criminal justice overhaul. Late last month, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott introduced a comprehensive package. And this was the outgrowth of a, I think, more than a year-long side project of the Judiciary Committee to look at the issue. Is that your starting point, then? Have you talked to them at all about that package? Are you guys onboard with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been a number of conversations that have taken place between senior figures in the administration and members of Congress who are interested in this issue. The President has hosted at least one of those conversations, as you know. I believe there's only one piece of legislation that the administration has signaled our strong support for, and that is the legislation that was put forward by Senators Durbin and Lee. But we would not necessarily limit the discussion just to that piece of legislation.
So we're certainly open to addition conversations with other members of Congress that have ideas for us to -- for ways that we can reform our criminal justice system to make it more fair. The President is not just open to those discussions; he's actually looking forward to them. And so we certainly are interested in entertaining conversations with other members of Congress that have some ideas as well.
Steve. I'll give you the last one, Steve.
Q: Okay. Mitch McConnell suggested that they're not likely to confirm a Cuba ambassador, no matter who you nominate or who the President nominates. Do you have any quick reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that that's the kind of reflexive opposition to anything that the President proposes that is a hallmark -- been a hallmark, at least -- of this Republican Congress. The irony here is there actually is some bipartisan support for the Cuba policy that the President announced at the end of last year. And the President and the administration is going to continue working to try to make progress on this policy goal that the President has identified. He believes it's clearly within the best interest of the United States. There are important economic opportunities that U.S. businesses can benefit from.
He also happens to believe it's in the best interest of the Cuban people. And there's some data to indicate that the vast majority of the Cuban people actually agree that this is in the best interest of them and their country. So we're going to continue to press these reforms even if -- or this change in policy even if it runs into the reflexive opposition of some Republicans who are interested in catering to some well-established interests.
Q: And on the commutation issue, there seem to be some parallels between this and the President's push a couple years ago for immigration reform, which was he made the big try on Capitol Hill, and when it fell apart he did a huge -- some would call it executive amnesty, affecting millions of people. Is this a similar kind of thing where if his big effort on Capitol Hill fails, despite early promise that we should expect towards the end of his term he's going to have maybe 30,000 or 40,000 -- tens of thousands of people given that amnesty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, I think I would say that I'm not sure that that is a -- at this point, I think it's hard to jump to that conclusion primarily because there seems to be significantly more genuine bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform than there has been in immigration reform. I would stipulate that there are a large number of Republicans in Congress that have paid lip service to comprehensive immigration reform but they've never actually had the courage to follow up on it. I am hopeful and remain optimistic that criminal justice reform will be different.
And I think based on the actions that we've seen from some members of Congress, including Senator Lee, that I just mentioned, and Senator Paul that we talked about earlier, that there actually is a genuine interest in trying to make progress on criminal justice reform. So we're hopeful that Congress will take those kinds of reform steps that would have a significant impact on making our criminal justice system more fair.
Q: Did you win or lose the bet on Greece? (Laughter.)
Q: He lost. (Laughter.)
END 2:13 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/310160