Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:54 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Nice to see you all. A couple quick things before we get started. Just a logistical announcement -- I know that the call time for the President's event with the Pittsburgh Penguins is in about 45 or 50 minutes here, so if you need to excuse yourself to participate in that event I will not be personally offended.
Second, the President was updated once again on the preparations underway to prepare for the likely landfall of Hurricane Matthew. The weather forecasters at the National Hurricane Center and at NOAA now anticipate that the impact of the storm in the United States is likely to be quite significant. We strongly encourage people who live in the areas that are likely to be affected to heed the warnings and instructions of local officials, including evacuation orders.
The instructions that are being offered by local officials are informed by information that they are receiving from scientists and from federal officials, and those instructions are geared toward protecting people. And we believe that it's important for people to listen to those instructions. We also encourage people to stay up to date on the weather forecast. Those of you who have been covering this story know that the weather forecast for the forecast track of the storm has changed multiple times just this week, so it's certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that it could change once again. We want to encourage people to stay up to date on that. But what we did learn overnight is that it's likely that this storm could strengthen further before making landfall, and that obviously is deeply concerning. So we want people to be prepared.
The last thing I'd say about this is that there are those who doubt the intensity or severity of the storm, they need only look at the images that are coming back from Haiti, where it's clear the storm had a rather significant impact in Haiti. And that is pretty good evidence of what people in the Southeast could be facing.
For those Americans that are interested in offering up their assistance to Haiti, we encourage people to visit CIDI.org. It's a place where you can get some more information about how you can help a country like Haiti that doesn't have the resources that we do to deal with such a significant storm.
But obviously this is a pivotal day. People need to be making preparations and following orders today. The storm is likely to begin being felt this evening. And certainly over the course of the day, those of us who don't live in potentially affected areas will be sending our prayers to those who are potentially in harm's way. But people should take confidence from knowing that federal officials have been working very effectively with officials at the state and local level to prepare in advance of this storm. We've developed an expertise and we intend to use our resources and that expertise to protect the American people. And that will be put to the test in the next few days.
So, with that, Darlene, do you want to get us started?
Q: Yes. A couple of follow-up questions on the latest theft of classified information. Does the administration have a better sense of exactly what information was taken or stolen?
MR. EARNEST: This is an investigation that is being led at the FBI. Federal prosecutors obviously released documents yesterday that indicated that this individual had been in custody for several weeks. The Department of Justice also made clear in the documents that were released yesterday that the investigation was ongoing. So as there is more information that our investigators are comfortable discussing publicly they'll make the decision to do so.
And obviously protecting sensitive national security information is a top priority of the administration, and it certainly is an issue that this administration takes seriously. It's also an issue that prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice take seriously. So that investigation is continuing, and as additional information can be made public about it, it will come from the Department of Justice.
Q: People everywhere are probably wondering how this could happen again after Edward Snowden and reforms that were supposed to have been put in place after the Snowden theft. Can you address at all how something like this has happened again in post-Snowden era?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I'm going to hesitate to draw too many connections between these two cases. Each case is unique. Some of the similarities in the case have been well-documented publicly. But let me start by answering your question about the reforms that have been put in place.
The administration has put in place reforms principally through the National Insider Threat Task Force that is being led by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. We have established government-wide minimum reforms for these kinds of insider threat programs that prevent the theft or unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.
The intelligence community has launched a series of continuous evaluation programs to help determine whether an individual with a security clearance needs it and should continue to hold it. That effort has been effective in actually reducing the overall number of people that hold security clearances -- that number has fallen about 17 percent just in the last several years.
There also has been a requirement instituted that individuals who hold a security clearance need to submit to a reinvestigation every five years to ensure that they are complying with the terms that they have committed to. What we've also tried to do is to enhance the quality of background checking investigations, background investigations. And there is a new agency that has been stood up to ensure that those investigations are more thorough and more efficiently conducted.
So this is certainly something that the administration takes seriously, and there are important lessons that we have learned since the case of Mr. Snowden. But, Darlene, I think that this risk is always going to be there as long as there is a desire to share sensitive information across the government. And we know that there is a risk of not sharing that information. You'll recall that this is one of the principal insights of the 9/11 Commission, that there is too much stove-piping inside of the federal government. There were particular pieces of information that had they been shared across the government could have been effectively used to keep the American people safe.
So the sharing of this information is critical. It's just critical that individuals who are entrusted with this information keep the commitment that they've made to the American people to protect it.
Let me close by saying that these are the kinds of risks that our government has faced since the -- well, at least for a very long time. And we were talking a little bit earlier about
-- again, an entirely different case -- but a situation about 15 years ago where there was an individual who was arrested by U.S. officials because he was accused of stealing sensitive information and passing it on to the Russians. This is the Hanssen case.
So the case of Mr. Snowden and this individual is unique. Each is unique. Obviously, the Snowden case got some extra attention because, frankly, he was so publicly on the lam. But this is something that our government has been confronting for a long time, and it's something that in some ways is even more complicated, given the modern communications tools that we have access to now that make it easier to pass this information along. Again, there's a benefit to that in terms of enhancing information-sharing, but there's a risk. And that is a risk that we're working very diligently to mitigate.
Q: Does the administration see this latest case as serious as the Snowden case? Or is it too early to make that comparison?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's certainly too early for me to draw that kind of connection or to offer up that kind of an assessment. But our investigators at the Department of Justice are conducting their own independent investigation, and they will do so with a sense of urgency because they recognize how significant the stakes are in cases like this. But I'll let them speak to what they've learned and offer an assessment, if they're prepared to do so, about just how serious it is.
Q: Does the President intend to do anything to try to prevent Aleppo from falling?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, the United States has been deeply engaged in international diplomacy to reduce the violence in Syria. We've obviously been involved in that effort for a number of years now. The United States, just yesterday, participated in an ISSG meeting. This is the International Syria Support Group that was convened. This is a group of a couple dozen countries who are concerned about the situation in Syria and that have assessed that they have a significant national interest in resolving the situation inside of Syria. And the United States has worked effectively in a leadership role in that group to try to bring the international community together around some potential solutions.
I can tell you that U.S. officials I believe were meeting today with our European allies in Europe to discuss the situation inside of Syria. This is the so-called Quint meeting that was held at a variety of levels. But the focus of those discussions today was on the situation in Syria.
The United States is obviously very focused on supporting U.N.-led efforts, and there are a variety of those. There's obviously the efforts that are underway by U.N. Special Envoy, Mr. de Mistura, to try to reduce the violence inside of Syria. And there's also been extensive work that's been done at the United Nations Security Council over the years to try to focus the international community on potential solutions inside of Syria and on Aleppo in particular.
We continue to be deeply concerned about the tactics used by the Assad regime and the Russians that are focused on harming civilians, and it's deeply troubling what's happening there. And the United States has been deeply engaged through diplomacy around the world to try to address it.
Q: But I guess, very specifically, on the immediate threat that faces Aleppo -- is the United States, is the President considering doing anything to try to prevent it from falling, beyond diplomacy and sort of a broader effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Roberta, our conclusion about the root cause of the chaos inside of Syria is that there is no military solution to the many problems that are plaguing Syria. And we are working urgently to end the violence in Syria and in Aleppo through diplomatic channels. We have been very focused on that through all the channels that I just described.
There is an important role for the United States military to play in terms of leading a counter-ISIL coalition, and those military efforts have moved aggressively to roll back territory that ISIL previously controlled and to apply significant pressure to the leadership of ISIL and other extremist organizations that are operating inside of Syria. In fact, the Department of Defense announced earlier this week that a senior al Qaeda leader in Syria was the target of a military strike. That's an indication of the vigilance that is being exercised by the United States military as they try to keep the American people safe.
So our military is deeply engaged in the counter-ISIL campaign, but we're also trying to address the root cause of all this chaos, which is the political situation inside of Syria. And we're working diligently through diplomatic channels to try to reduce the violence and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance.
Q: And just briefly, 44 Afghan troops who are in the United States for military training have gone missing over the past two years, presumably to live and perhaps work illegally in the United States. I guess I'm wondering how concerned is the White House about the questions that this will raise about training and security, given that they were training with the DOD and have sort of gone AWOL.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, I can't speak to any individual cases, but I would refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense who may have more information on this one.
Q: I just want to read to you something that just came in this morning from FBI sources. I just lost it, so give me one second. Here it is, okay. So the FBI believes Harold T. Martin III has been illegally taking home classified information for years. When they raided his property, they found thousands of pages of classified documents, hundreds of thumb drives, hard drives, dozens of computers and servers. He appeared to have his own server farm, enough to operate his own cloud.
So I think it's one thing if he started doing this last week and they suddenly caught him. I mean, I know he's been in custody for two weeks, if this was a recent thing. But the fact that the FBI believes he's been illegally taking home classified information for years -- and you listed a number of changes that were made after the Snowden case -- so how do you have any confidence that all the changes that were made are really doing anything if this person was able to do this, it's believed, for that amount of time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I'm not going to be able to discuss any additional details about what the FBI or investigators have been able to find. So I'll leave it to them to disclose exactly what those investigations have uncovered so far. Those investigations are obviously ongoing.
The kind of steps that we have taken to mitigate against so-called insider threats are significant, and they have made some progress in terms of accomplishing some of our goals -- improving the background check system; reducing the number of people that have security clearances; making some technical changes to the kind of access that people are given to sensitive information. There are a variety of both intuitive and highly technical steps that we can take to try to limit this risk. But this is a risk that is always going to exist. That risk is more significant, given the kinds of technology that's available now that allows for the efficient transfer of information. Again, that is largely a good thing in terms of making the U.S. government more effective, integrating our defenses in a way that can have a positive impact on our national security. But it does include an inherent risk. And this is a risk that predates this kind of technology.
I think what is unquestionably true is that the vast majority of the men and women in our intelligence community take very seriously the responsibility that they have to the American people to treat sensitive information protectively. They understand the consequences that protecting that information has for our national security. They understand that the effective use of that information enhances our national security.
These are individuals who, in some cases, have the kind of expertise that would allow them to collect a much larger paycheck in the private sector, but instead, they use that expertise to protect the American people in a government job. And that's a pretty clear indication of their patriotism.
But, look, for these individual cases, this is a risk that exists. And as the investigation moves forward, if there is more that we can learn about additional protections that we should put in place to prevent something like this from happening again, we certainly will learn from this situation. And if there are additional reforms that are worth implementing, then we won't hesitate to do so because the President has made this a genuine priority.
Q: There just seems to be in such a secure operation, such a gaping hole. This person had the ability to take home classified information over the course of years. Wouldn't you agree that there's obviously a need for some different kind of changes than the ones that were already made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been important changes that have been made and we've already seen some important, positive results from them. But we certainly will -- as more is learned about this case, as the investigation continues, part of this investigation will be understanding exactly how this person was able to evade detection and commit the crimes that are alleged. Then we'll want to learn from that and implement the kinds of reforms or solutions that would prevent others from doing the same thing.
Q: Okay. And the latest voice that we've heard this week was from the U.N.'s Human Rights Chief calling, as others have, for a limit of the use of the veto in the Security Council. Does the U.S. support that? And does the administration think that that would actually do any good, especially at this point, to try to make changes in what's happening in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: There certainly has been -- the United States has been disappointed at the way in which Russia, and, to a certain extent, China, have wielded their veto authority on the U.N. Security Council to blunt international efforts to limit the violence inside of Syria. We've been disappointed that they have used that veto to protect Assad. There have also been movements at the United Nations Security Council to raise concerns about the conduct of individuals in that conflict and to ensure that they are met with some accountability. Those accountability measures have been blocked by the Russians.
So we've been deeply concerned by the way that Russia has used its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to prevent as much action from the U.N. as we would like to see. I know there has been a broader and, in some ways, more esoteric discussion about proposed reforms of the U.N. Security Council and the way that it works. I know there have been some proposals to enlarge it. Our friends in India are certainly interested in benefitting from reforms like that. But as it relates to the situation inside of Syria, I think our concern -- our most urgent concern is with the way that Russia has used their veto authority on the Security Council at the United Nations.
Q: So is that something that should be done and should be looked at more closely now? Or do you feel like now is not the time for that, that it's not really going to do anything at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think many United Nations processes are characterized by the length of time it takes to complete them. And surely, the idea of reforming those processes is also likely to take a long time, too. So we've expressed in other contexts our support for a set of reforms that could make the United Nations more efficient, more effective, and potentially even more representative, but our focus right now is on trying to reduce the violence in an urgent situation inside of Syria.
Q: I guess I wanted to follow on a couple things Michelle asked about. First, the reason that the veto conversation is particularly relevant is reports that the U.S. is considering sanctions against countries in response to chemical weapons use in Syria. I know that you never sort of talk about sanctions until they happen. But would the U.S. be willing to pursue sanctions with Europe and other allies outside of the framework of the U.N. to address concerns in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are other examples of the United States being able to work effectively outside the auspices of the U.N. to implement sanctions in a coordinated fashion to maximize the impact of those sanctions. So the situation in Ukraine is obviously the best example, where the United States has been able to work effectively with our European allies to impose tough sanctions against Russia. Of course, I would be among the first to point out that the sanctions that we have imposed on Russia, in concert with our European allies, as a result of Russia's actions in Ukraine have not yet achieved the desired result. We haven't seen the change in strategy on the part of the Russians that we'd like to see in Ukraine. We haven't seen them indicate their clear respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.
But we do know that those sanctions have had an impact on Russia's economy. Russia is paying the price for their actions inside of Ukraine. And that price is one that they have to pay because of the ability of the United States to work effectively with our European partners to impose those costs. That's something that we didn't do through the U.N. obviously because Russia has a veto on the U.N. Security Council.
So that's one example of where we have been willing to work outside the auspices of the United Nations, and in a way that has had an impact even if we have not yet achieved the desired result.
So what I would say is, our preference is always to work through the U.N. when it comes to implementing these sanctions because it means that even more countries are able to coordinate their actions with the United States, which essentially has a multiplier effect in terms of the strength of the sanctions and the size of the cost. But outside of -- we do have options, and we have demonstrated an ability to work outside of the U.N. to achieve a similar result.
So I guess the point is in this case I wouldn't rule out multilateral efforts outside of the U.N. to impose costs on Syria or Russia or others with regard to the situation inside of Syria. We've done that in the past. And I wouldn't take that off the table in terms of the options that the President may consider in this situation.
Q: On the data theft. I know you talked to Michelle yesterday and then again this morning at some length about steps that you've taken, particularly related to federal contractors. But in both this and the Snowden case, these were contractors that were working for Booz Allen Hamilton, in particular, and so I'm wondering if this has inspired any sort of reevaluation on whether that firm should be involved in or receive U.S. government contracts on highly classified data if two of their employees engaged in huge theft.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that the investigation that's been conducted thus far has detected any wrongdoing on the part of the company. So I'd refer questions about that to the Department of Justice. My guess is that since they're still in the midst of the investigation, they're not likely to talk about that a whole lot.
But, look, we want to learn as much as we can about this situation. And as I indicated to Michelle, if there are lessons that we can learn and reforms that can be implemented to prevent something like this from happening again, we certainly want to do that. But as long as we are sharing information with government employees, sensitive national security information that is critical to protecting the country, this kind of risk exists. But the risk of not sharing that information is even higher. And that's one of the lessons we learned after 9/11.
Q: The GAO released a report yesterday that found that the Obama administration spends about $1 billion on PR annually, and that you guys have added 667 PR staffers during this administration and that their median salary was $90,000. This has raised some criticism from government groups and from critics on the right. So I'm wondering if you could maybe talk about why it's important for the administration to have added all those staffers and be spending that amount of money on PR.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the report so it's hard for me to assess the conclusions that they have reached. What I can just say in general is that the administration has made it a priority to interact with the public and interact with the press corps and to be as transparent as possible. And that is work that requires dedicated professionals who are interested in furthering that goal and helping the American people understand exactly what the administration is doing, what we have prioritized, and what our success has been in implementing the agenda laid out by President Obama.
So I think our track record on this is pretty strong, both in terms of the substantive progress that we've made but also in terms of the effective way in which we've been able to communicate with the American public. I think the American public and our democracy is well served by that. But there's not much that we do around here that isn't the source of vociferous criticism from those on the right. So they're certainly entitled to do that.
Q: Storm and FEMA. Do you have any more specifics about the size of scope or metrics of the federal response so far? I know that there have been teams and resources pre-positioned. Are we talking about hundreds of people, or dozens of people, or just what?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, I don't have a whole lot of new metrics to share with you. I can certainly contact my colleagues at FEMA. I don't know if those are some of the people that were added to the GAO report or not, but --
Q: The PR report.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly. Those are the people who would find out that information for you. Let me see what we can do on that.
But I can provide you a little texture here, which is that there have been a number of resources that have been pre-deployed to the region. This is a relatively new strategy that's been implemented under the leadership of Administrator Fugate. The idea here is to essentially pre-stage supplies that are likely to be needed in areas that are just outside of the affected areas, so that after the storm passes these resources are all in one place and not too far away from where they're needed most. So that work has been going on for several days now, and we can provide you some additional information about the quantity of those supplies.
The other thing that I can tell you is that there are a number of coordination centers that have been set up, up and down the East Coast, and those coordination centers are now operating around the clock and are fully staffed. And that requires a lot of people to ensure that those operations can continue around the clock.
The other thing that we have prioritized, Ron -- and this is something that the President raised in his discussion with federal officials yesterday -- is his concern about potential power outages. Anytime you're dealing with a storm like this you want to try and get the power back up as soon as possible. That's certainly true in this case. So some of the supplies that are being mobilized are fuel for generators, for example, so that people who have emergency generators can get them up and running, but also so that critical facilities like hospitals can also fuel their generators.
There also has been a lot of important work done to pool the resources of utilities in regions of the country that are not affected by the storm so that they can share their personnel and their trucks and their equipment to help those communities that are experiencing some widespread devastation. And some of that coordination work has been done in advance, as well -- because this is obviously a priority that we're mindful of. Power is going to go out and people are going to be challenged to operate in an environment where the power is not on. We just want to do as much planning as we can in advance so that we can get it on as quickly as possible.
Q: Have there been any disaster declarations yet, or requests? I believe the governor of Florida made a request.
MR. EARNEST: He made a request for an emergency declaration, which is essentially a request that can be submitted to the federal government in advance of a storm. This is a relatively new innovation as well, again to expedite the provision of federal support in a situation like this. There is a process that FEMA considers when they receive and application like this. I know that they'll work quickly to evaluate it and respond.
Q: They have not yet responded.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that they have yet. But they will respond quickly.
Q: Is there a presidential response with it?
MR. EARNEST: What it is, is it is something that goes through FEMA first. The application is considered and processed there. I do believe there's a step that requires presidential signoff, but that is not a process that takes very long. The President relies heavily on the advice he receives from experts at FEMA.
Q: Is there any consideration of the President altering his travel plans?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, there's no plans on the part of the President to change his travel. He obviously is traveling to a part of the country that is not in the path of this storm. But even as the President travels he will stay closely attuned to federal officials who are the front lines of supporting the state and local officials who are leading the response. That's the proper role for the federal government in these situations. The federal government plays a supporting role in terms of providing supplies and offering advice. But ultimately it's the responsibility of state and local officials to manage the response.
That's why we're encouraging people right now to listen to the instructions of state and local officials. They know best about what's needed to protect their communities. They are also going to know what's best about what's needed to help their communities recover. And the role of the federal government is to support them as they do that important work.
Q: Just on Aleppo. Is there a national security meeting -- is the President having any meetings today on that situation?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any formal presidential meetings like this. The President obviously has a PDB this morning. But the President meets regularly with his national security team. I don't have any details to share with you about any meetings today.
Q: In the statement from the Syrian army last night warning civilians to get out, is it the -- is it the administration's assessment that Aleppo is about to fall? Is that conceivable in the way you see the situation there on the ground now? And is there a response that you have planned should that happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, I think it's outrageous that a military organization that has been attacking civilians for years, using barrel bombs, weaponized chemicals -- industrial chemicals like chlorine, bunker-busting bombs -- for them to suggest that somehow they're now looking out for the interests of civilians is outrageous.
So what I'll say in general is I think it's an indication of why the world is so concerned about the situation in Aleppo right now. I don't have an assessment to offer in terms of the latest conditions on the ground. But that is a city that's been under siege for years, and the pace of that siege and the intensity of that siege has only increased in the last couple of weeks. That's been deeply distressing. But I don't have an assessment to share in terms of how likely it is that that city will fall.
Q: And there's nothing that you could say that might be more reassuring to the world community who is very concerned about this, about any contingency plans or any other -- we hear your statements about the horrific nature of all this all the time. A lot of people are looking for some sort of action, frankly, something tangible.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Ron, I think the kind of action that I've been talking about is the conversations that we've been having through the auspices of the United Nations, trying to support the U.N. Envoy there; the conversation that we've been having with our European allies about the situation in Aleppo. There are a number of bilateral conversations that the United States has been engaged with our partners and friends in the region. So we've been very focused on this. And our goal has been to try to reduce the violence in Aleppo and expedite the provision of humanitarian assistance.
The United States has now provided about $5.9 billion in humanitarian assistance -- more than any other country in the world. So the United States has been engaged in trying to address the problems in Aleppo, and many other people around the world have been, as well.
Q: But despite that, it's fair to say the situation just keeps getting worse.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've been deeply concerned about the increasing pace of attacks from the Syrian army, with the support of the Russian military. That's been deeply distressing.
Q: So it's your position that U.S. response has been adequate, appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, I don't think there's anybody satisfied when you see such widespread death and destruction. The blood that has been shed by innocent civilians -- men, women and children -- has been deeply distressing. And I don't think there's anybody that feels good about the situation in Aleppo right now.
Q: Josh, just to get inside some of the conversations that he's having with FEMA and with others in the administration dealing with the storm, is it the administration's viewpoint that there is the chance that this could be the most significant, damaging weather event that the administration has had to deal with, and the potential that these local officials, who are the ones who are responsible for handling the immediate response, will turn to the federal government if there are large groups of people displaced and a great need for resources?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Rich, what the scientists tell us is that this is likely the largest and most powerful hurricane to hit the United States in a decade or so. And the preparations that we have been making in advance of the storm I think are indicative of just how serious we think it is. That's why you've seen such a forceful response mobilized by the federal government even in advance of the storm making landfall. We've seen a similar response from state and local officials, and that's a positive thing as well.
But this is something that -- this is a storm that people should take seriously. The federal government is taking it seriously. And it's important for people who live in the path of the storm to take it quite seriously as well.
Q: Have there been any conversations yet -- I might be getting a little ahead -- but if there's a need for additional appropriation -- with Congress out? Have there been those discussions with congressional leaders at all?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of those discussions at this point. What we typically will do is do a damage assessment to determine just how significant the losses are. And from there, we can make a determination about whether or not it is necessary for Congress to consider an additional appropriation.
Q: Turning to the President's piece on the economy in The Economist. He talks about expressions of Americans now are echoes of the past. He talks about "know-nothingism" -- which I assume is a shot, perhaps, more at those who support Donald Trump. But he does talk about how, as appealing as some more radical reforms can sound, the abstract of breaking up all the biggest banks who are erecting prohibitively steep tariffs on imports, on the economy, is not an abstraction. In writing this, does the President see that sentiment equally spread among Democrats and Republicans?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President addresses this directly in the piece, which is that this sentiment is more widespread on the right than it is on the left, but it is a phenomenon on the extremes of both ends of the ideological spectrum. And I think the President makes a pretty persuasive, if detailed, case for the kinds of things that we can do to address the concerns that have been raised. I think the President's view is that the concerns that have been raised are legitimate. Some of the proposed responses that we've seen from the extremes on both ends are not and, in some cases, would end up doing more damage, would compound the negative impacts of globalization that are being experienced by some communities.
And there actually are some things we can do to try to compound the positive impacts of the forces of globalization. Let me just give you one example. The article itself is quite long, and I commend it to everyone's attention. I won't repeat all of the case that the President makes, but one example of this would be investments in education. We know, in an increasingly integrated global economy, those who have marketable, highly technical skills are in a position to succeed as a result of the global economy. We know that jobs that are tied to the international economy, that are tied to exports here in the United States pay substantially more than the average job that's not tied to exports. So why wouldn't we make the kinds of investments that would ensure that our workforce can benefit from that kind of opportunity?
So let's make sure that we're investing in early childhood education. Let's make sure we open up the doors to a college education to every middle-class family and every family that's working hard to get into the middle class. Let's do more to give individuals who are ready to make a mid-career shift get the kind of job training that they need to qualify for these higher-paying jobs. That's the kind of common-sense approach that the President advocates.
There are others who say that we should respond to this situation by trying to close the U.S. economy off from the global supply chain. That would have a terrible impact on our broader economy, but it also would reduce the number of jobs that are tied to exports, which means that there's a smaller number of higher-paying jobs to be gained.
So it's important that we focus on specific, rather common-sense strategies for compounding the positive benefits to some of these global changes in the economy, as opposed to making the negative consequences even worse.
Q: The President also talks about many of the positive points of the economy. We're not at a point where we're losing 700,000 jobs monthly; income gains. But there still are issues out there -- GDP growth between 1 and 2 percent; a federal funds rate that the Fed views as an economy that isn't strong enough to support a target rate of higher than a quarter to a half-percent. Is an issue here also that just -- that growth just, broad based, isn't just strong enough yet?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that one of the headwinds that we face for growth here in the United States is actually from the weakened international economy. The United States benefits from being able to trade with the world. And when our trading partners have economies that aren't performing at particularly high levels, that's going to have an impact on the number of goods and services they purchase from the United States. So that certainly is part of it, and that's why much of the audience for this piece is the international community, international policymakers, international business leaders who can have an impact on some of these broader trends.
I think what's also true, Rich, is that we've encountered opposition from those on the extreme right who wield inordinate influence in the United States Congress. They have succeeded in blocking the kind of common-sense investments in infrastructure and education that would have a material, positive impact on economic growth. Economic growth would be higher if Republicans hadn't blocked policies that contribute to economic growth.
So I know that at the risk of offending my friends with years of technical education in the field of economics, this isn't that complicated. And it's the opposition to common-sense proposals like investments in education and investments in infrastructure that have prevented the U.S. economy from performing even better than we have thus far. And again, I guess that's where the allusion to the "know-nothings" might come in.
Q: Thanks, Josh. On the hurricane. The Obama administration and Governor Scott have sparred in the past over disaster relief and emergency funding. I believe that Governor Scott has the far higher rejection rate for emergency funding requests of FEMA than other states and governors around the country. So given that, can you describe that administration's interaction with Governor Scott's administration thus far on this storm, and describe how those interactions have been?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, when we're talking about millions of Americans who are in the path of a potentially devastating storm, the likes of which we haven't seen in the United States in about a decade or so, we put partisan politics aside and we focus on making sure that we're meeting the basic needs of our fellow Americans.
So there's been extensive coordination between federal officials and state emergency officials in Florida. Those of you who follow these issues closely know that Craig Fugate is a Floridian himself, and he burnished his reputation as an expert in emergency management in helping the state of Florida, in 2004 and 2005, deal with an unprecedented series of hurricanes that struck his state.
My personal experience with this is in 2006, 10 years ago now, I was working on the Florida governor's race for the Democratic candidate for governor, and one of the principal talking points of both the Democratic and Republican candidate for governor was to promise to leave Craig Fugate in his job. So I think that's a pretty clear indication that Mr. Fugate doesn't consider politics when doing his job.
I'm sure that contributes to the success that he has enjoyed in terms of providing service to the American people. But that's also been the approach that President Obama has taken as well. And we would expect that the significant political differences that exist between Governor Scott and the White House are going to have zero impact on the ability of emergency officials in Florida to get the kind of help and support and assistance they need from federal officials when dealing with this storm.
Q: Josh, can you give us an update on what the U.S. is doing in Haiti? The pictures coming in are showing just massive destruction. There's a lot of areas that are completely cut off right now. I think earlier in the week there was talk about helicopters going down and getting supplies to the capital, but is there an update you can give on resources that have been sent or are going to be sent there?
MR. EARNEST: I know that my colleagues at the Department of Defense can talk to you about some of the resources that have been mobilized. Military resources have been mobilized to assist in recovery efforts in Haiti. I don't have those statistics in front of me, but we can certainly get you some more information about that. There's also been some important work done through USAID to deal with the impact of the storm.
USAID Foreign Disaster Assistance Teams were actually deployed to both Haiti and Jamaica and the Bahamas in advance of the storm hitting, so there are already disaster recovery experts from the United States on the ground in these places to assist these local governments in setting up a recovery effort. There has been an initial contribution from USAID of $1.5 million to address some of the immediate humanitarian needs in the aftermath of the hurricane. But that's just an initial payment and I'm sure that there will be additional resources that will come from the U.S. government to assist our friends in Haiti who are dealing with a very difficult situation.
But I just want to mention once again, there's an opportunity for Americans who might be concerned about the situation there -- they can go to CIDI.org. This is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to disseminating information in the aftermath of disasters and they also can ensure that financial resources that are dedicated to the recovery effort get to the right place and are used effectively.
Q: You talked a lot -- you've had a lot of statements this week about the U.S.-Russia relationship -- the plutonium deal, the diplomatic talks over Syria. This morning, there's a seemingly extraordinary statement from a spokesman for the Russian Defense Minister strongly warning the U.S. to not make any attempts to conduct military strikes against Assad regime targets in Syria, being taken as threatening to shoot down American planes if the U.S. tries to do that. What's the White House response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen that statement. What I will say is there was a concerted effort on the part of the United States to try to work effectively with the Russians to reduce violence inside of Syria and, time and time again, the Russians did not live up to the commitments that they had made in the context of those negotiations. That was a source of deep disappointment not just here in the United States but around the world. And it's had tragic consequences for innocent civilians in and around Aleppo.
At the same time, there's no interest on the part of the United States in escalating the violence in Syria. We actually want to see the violence and the conflict reduced, and that's what we're working so diligently through diplomatic channels to try to effect.
Q: Josh, this administration has prosecuted more leaked cases than all previous Presidents combined. And this administration has suffered three of the largest thefts of classified information in American history -- this one, the Wikileaks one, and the Snowden one. Has the administration's crackdown been a failure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, we can walk through the statistics about the leak prosecutions. I think what is clear is that the administration does take quite seriously the need to protect sensitive national security information. Of course, those decisions about how and whether to prosecute an individual are made by officials at the Department of Justice. Those decisions are made without any sort of political influence. Of course, there is general policy direction that does come from the White House about the priority placed on protecting national security and protecting sensitive information, but those prosecutorial decisions are made by independent prosecutors at the Department of Justice.
More generally, I think that what we have seen, Gardiner, is the impact that modern technology has on the movement and dissemination of information. There's an upside; that technology can be used to ensure that national security information can be quickly, instantaneously shared across the federal government in a way that keeps our men and women in uniform safe, in a way that aids terrorism investigations being conducted by the United States and our allies around the world, and in a way that protects the United States homeland.
The downside risk of this technology is that those with bad intentions can, on an unprecedented scale, disseminate that information. And, unfortunately, that has harmful consequences. We've talked in here at length about the way that Mr. Snowden's unauthorized disclosures put Americans in harm's way, whether that's compromising the identity of undercover intelligence operatives, or unauthorized disclosure of information that has an impact on the safety and security of our men and women in uniform. That's the modern environment in which we're operating.
And that's why the administration has undertaken so many of the reform efforts that I described to Michelle to try to counter this insider threat. And as we learn more about ways that bad actors evade those reforms we'll learn those lessons, we'll beef up our defenses even further. But it continues to be the belief -- not just of this administration, but of national security professionals in both parties -- that the greater risk is associated with withholding that information and not effectively sharing it.
And this was one of the lessons that we learned in the aftermath of 9/11, that the internal stove-piping in the federal government detracted from our national security. And there has been a concerted effort to more effectively share that information to protect the American people. That has been a good thing. That has been a -- that has revolutionized the way that intelligence information is used to protect our interests and to protect our country. But it has also caused us to confront this most latest, most recent risk.
Q: Josh, you talked about waiting until the investigation is done to undertake further reforms. But given that this guy seemed to defy so many of the reforms that were implemented post-Snowden in 2014 -- the two-person rule, the no-thumb-drive rule
-- isn't there just an extraordinary urgency that this administration needs to have right now about reminding the entire federal government in sort of a hair-on-fire way that these rules are in place and cannot be defied?
MR. EARNEST: Let me assure you that there is a sense of urgency around this. And I did not mean to leave you with the impression that we're not going to do anything until the investigation is completed. If over the course of the investigation we learn information that could be valuable in patching vulnerabilities, we will undertake that work immediately.
What I think is also true is that the vast majority of the men and women in our intelligence community -- our people, our experts, are professionals -- who take these rules very seriously. They're patriotic Americans who dedicate their lives to protecting this country. And they have a valuable expertise that they use to protect this country. So the vast majority of them don't need to be reminded of just how serious this is.
But I think everybody who serves in the intelligence community recognizes the grave consequences for not following the rules that are on the books. And, again, I say that without knowing exactly -- or at least without being able to discuss in detail what we know about this particular situation.
But it's hard -- let me clarify. The point is this: It's not clear in this situation whether these alleged crimes were committed because the rules weren't being effectively followed, or if there was a creative way for getting around the rules. But either way, if there are reforms that we can implement to either ensure greater fidelity to these policies or further strengthening of these policies, we'll do that to ensure the safety and security of the sensitive information.
Q: Are you confident right now that you have the boundaries of this leak understood and under control -- in other words, that you are fairly secure that you know who leaked the NSA intercept details and the recent NSA computer codes and that you've got all of that stopped? Do you have confidence that this is now under control, the leaks are plugged, and you've got everyone that you need to get in this investigation?
MR. EARNEST: I think that's an entirely legitimate question, but it's one that's going to have to be directed to my colleagues at the Department of Justice. They're the ones that are conducting the investigation, and so I'll let them speak to the scope of it.
Q: Do you know what contractor this guy worked for prior to Booz? Because I think part of this took place prior to his Booz -- is that also details that --
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to this individual's employment history, but that may be a detail that the Department of Justice can share with you.
MR. EARNEST: Sarah.
Q: Thanks, Josh. So today a poll came out from CNN showing that the President's approval rating is at 55 percent, which is the highest of his second term.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you for mentioning it. (Laughter.)
Q: Sure. I thought you might appreciate that.
MR. EARNEST: It's a little awkward for me to do that from up here. (Laughter.) I take some pride in it, nonetheless.
Q: But it's been turning upward since earlier this year. And just from a macro perspective, it seems perhaps a little counterintuitive given that the other trend that we've seen in this election is this thirst for change. And so I'm just wondering if the President has any insight into what's at play there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'll let you guys do the important work of analyzing the polls, and lord knows, there are plenty of people who are volunteering for that responsibility. What I will say is that the President is enormously proud of the progress that we've made in this country over the last eight years. When President Obama took office, he obviously encountered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the progress that we have made over the last seven and a half, almost eight years, is remarkable and I think was better than anybody had predicted seven and a half years ago.
The kind of sustained job creation that we've seen in this country, the longest consecutive monthly streak in our history; the progress that we made in putting upward pressure on wages; the success that we've had in reducing poverty -- poverty fell more in 2015 than it has in any year since the 1960s and the increase in median wages in this country in 2015 was the greatest -- or the largest on record.
So that's an indication that we really have made critically important progress. And the President has always -- the President's approach has always been to focus on longer-term goals, and there are situations in which that longer-term focus has had an impact on the numbers reflected in short term polls. But the President has been willing to sacrifice the hot takes for longer-term results. And after eight years in this office, I think that is a strategy that has strongly benefited the American people and it's starting to show up in the polls. And the President does take some satisfaction with that.
In terms of sort of reconciling I think the unquestioned desire for some changes in our government, I think you won't be surprised to hear me say that I would attribute that to the dysfunction that has run rampant under Republican leadership in Congress. And that has contributed to deep frustration not just inside the White House, but in houses all across the country, that Congress has failed time and time again to do common-sense things that would be good for the country because Republicans continually prioritize politics.
And whether that is the kind of common-sense investments in infrastructure and education that would have a positive economic impact, or the kind of common-sense reforms of our immigration system -- there are a variety of ways to measure the congressional dysfunction in a way that's left people quite dissatisfied with the way they're being represented in Washington, D.C. right now.
So I recognize there may be some Republicans with a different analysis, but you got to admit that the analysis that I've just offered is backed up by the numbers.
Q: But both presidential candidates also have kind of historically high negative ratings, in addition to Congress and the media. But so is the President's popularity actually just organically people liking Barack Obama, or is it sort of in comparison -- people are expressing their --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's probably a little bit of both. I think that people are pleased with the President's performance in office, and that's reflected in the polls you saw today. I think the President has always maintained a personal approval rating even among those who don't support his policies because they see the approach that he's taken to his job -- even if that hasn't led to the kind of policy outcomes that they would like to see.
But they see the President as somebody who actually can be a role model to our kids. They see somebody who is a good husband and a good father. They see somebody who is serious about his faith. They see somebody who takes his job very seriously, but himself not more seriously than necessary. So I think the public's appraisal of the President's character is one that even in the most difficult times has been pretty durable.
And I think people are reminded of that when they hear some of the rhetoric that's uttered by the Republican nominee for President. And I think that might lead some Republicans and independents to conclude that for as frustrated as they are with Washington right now, they've been pleased with the decisions that the guy sitting in the Oval Office has been making.
Q: Josh, in the new relationship with Cuba, and Dr. Biden traveling there, was there any -- can we anticipate any kind of offer to help them with hurricane recovery?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any changes for Dr. Biden's schedule, but given the impact that the storm has had in that region of the world, I would anticipate that will be an added feature of her trip, that she'll be talking about work that the United States can do to help those who are recovering from the storm.
Q: Under the status of the relationship now, any kind of aid to help with that relief is permitted?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure of the kinds of rules that would govern that kind of assistance, but we can certainly look into that for you.
Q: Question for you. When you were talking about Syria, and you mentioned the support for diplomacy, including that of the U.N., were you specifically supporting the proposal from the U.N. Envoy de Mistura to go into Aleppo himself to help escort out those who were fleeing that city?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was not referring to any specific statement or initiative from Mr. de Mistura, rather our general support for the tireless efforts that he has led to focus international attention on this trouble situation and to try to find a solution. He's done important work. And he's preserved the kind of -- he's played an important role in trying to bring the international community together around some constructive ideas for addressing some potential solutions. We haven't found it yet with regard to the situation in Aleppo, but that has not prevented him from working tirelessly and in good faith to try to find that solution.
Q: Wouldn't you say that's kind of an extraordinary offer in terms of the sense of urgency being felt there right now that the diplomacy otherwise has not led to anything that would provide immediate relief, so now he would offer to go in himself?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it is an extraordinary offer. Again, it's hard to know whether or not that's a rhetorical device that he was using to express his own personal sense of urgency;, or if he was packing his luggage. You'd have to ask him what his intent was. But I think that regardless of what specifically his message was, I think he's conveying a sense of urgency that many people, including the President of the United States, feel.
Q: And can I just ask you, you said the other day from the podium that there was nothing left to be discussed with the Russians and that the U.S. was severing these -- suspending these talks. But John Kerry is back talking to Sergey Lavrov now. What made the President decide to, say, start talking to Russia again about Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll let my colleagues at the State Department read out the nature of those conversations. What we have said all along is that there are a variety of aspects to the relationship between the United States and Russia and they talk about a lot of things.
Q: But they said a big part of it was Syria in the readout today.
MR. EARNEST: So, again, I'll let them talk about the details of what was discussed. What I can tell you that they were not talking about is trying to reinstitute the kind of Cessation of Hostilities agreement that we thought we instituted a month or so ago but it failed because of Russia's repeated and violent abrogation of the commitments that they had made in the context of those talks.
Q: So, just to be clear. When you were talking about suspending, you were specifically only talking about the U.S. offer of potential military coordination with Russia? That's off the table. That's not be revisited. But we can still talk about Russia -- about other diplomatic initiatives in Syria? Is that what you're saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously Russia is going to have to be a part of any sort of U.N. process because they sit on the Security Council. Russia is a member of the International Syria Support Group. That is another multilateral institution that we have -- or another multilateral venue where the United States has tried to find a solution. Russia has been a part of those, as well. We've never indicated that we were shutting off all diplomatic ties with Russia. But we did make clear that Russia had too often, and repeatedly, violated the kinds of commitments that they had made that made it unnecessary or unworkable to continue to pursue that specific approach.
But there are a variety of other ways in which Russia is involved, and they will continue to be. But the kind of arrangement that we had envisioned of getting Russia to play a constructive role in reducing violence in exchange for closer Russian-U.S. military cooperation going after extremists is an agreement that never materialized, unfortunately.
Q: When you said the U.S. has no interest in escalating the violence in Syria, were you -- specifically in response to the question about Russia's sort of bellicose statements lately
-- were you basically saying, we've got nothing to worry about, the U.S. won't be using any kind of military force in any form or fashion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm saying is that the -- I'm not going to be in a position where I'm taking options off the table for the Commander-in-Chief. I think I've discussed at some detail -- I think the President has discussed in some detail why military action against the Assad regime to try to address the situation in Aleppo is unlikely to accomplish the goals that many envision now in terms of reducing the violence there, and is much more likely to lead to a bunch of unintended consequences that are clearly not in our national interest.
But I'm not going to take any options off the table. And I think what I'm articulating is a desire to deescalate the situation inside of Syria, to deescalate the conflict, to reduce the violence, and try to bring some much-needed humanitarian assistance to those who need it the most.
Q: Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First -- and I hope I'm saying the name right -- Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the American Relief Committee for Syria, when he appeared on the France 24 debate on Tuesday night, said that what is happening in Syria was reminiscent on Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and he called it ethnic cleansing. Is that the administration's official opinion of what is happening in Syria -- ethnic cleansing, as well?
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen that label be used in this particular situation. Obviously, we have been deeply concerned about the widespread violence that's been perpetrated against innocent civilians. In some cases, that violence has been motivated by religious differences, and that's deeply troubling. You've heard the State Department talk about how the increased violence in the region has fueled extremism, and has created a situation in which there are populations that are at risk of genocide.
So the situation inside of Syria is a deeply troubling one, both because of the actions -- both as a direct consequence of the actions of the Assad regime, but also the second and third order of consequences of their actions that have only contributed to a sense of chaos there that's fueled extremism, that has worsened the kind of sectarian conflict there that has cost too many innocent lives already. And we're deeply concerned about the potential of a further escalation in violence.
Q: Does the administration agree with former President Clinton that the Affordable Care Act needs tinkering and fixing?
MR. EARNEST: John, the very day that the President signed the Affordable Care Act into law, he indicated a commitment, a willingness to work with Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill who had good ideas for further strengthening the law. The Affordable Care Act has provided enormous benefits. Twenty million Americans have health insurance that didn't have it before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Millions more Americans benefit from the consumer protections associated with not being discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition; not being charged more because you're a woman; not being dragged into bankruptcy court because somebody in your family gets sick; not getting kicked off your health insurance because you get sick.
There are all consumer protections that are available to tens of millions of Americans. These are consumer protections that weren't available before. So the Affordable Care Act has had an enormously positive impact on the country. But if there are other things that we can do to further strengthen the Affordable Care Act -- the President has talked about the idea of adding a public option that could make state-based marketplaces even more competitive and give consumers even more options -- that obviously would be one way we could strengthen the law.
But, ultimately, it requires congressional action. And we'll have to see if Congress is -- Republicans in Congress are willing to consider anything other than just repealing the law, which would repeal all those consumer protections that I just talked about. So the President strongly opposes the idea of repealing the law, but he's willing to work with Republicans if they're prepared to work with him to strengthen it.
Q: So he agrees with President Clinton on that? That it needs some fixing and he's willing to do it?
MR. EARNEST: Considering that President Obama said it six years ago, I think it would be fair to say that President Clinton agrees with President Obama.
Pam, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Okay, the Trump campaign put out a statement calling the Paris Climate Accord just another bad deal, saying it will cost the American economy trillions of dollars, impose a higher electricity cost for Americans, and gives China an edge because it allows China to keep raising their emissions for a dozen years. Do you want to respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the benefits associated with the international agreement, the historic agreement to cut carbon pollution are significant for the United States both in terms of the impact it will have on the environment but also in terms of the impact it will have on our economy.
China, for the first time, because of tough, principled diplomacy on the part of the United States, agreed for the first time to limit their emissions. You'll recall that Republicans' chief criticism of any effort to undertake a reduction in carbon pollution by the United States was that China would never go along with it. They were wrong about that. We just needed somebody who was tough enough to go and negotiate a smart deal with the Chinese, which is exactly what the Obama administration did. And as a result, that catalyzed the international community to also make commitments that, again, will have a positive impact on reducing carbon pollution and have a positive impact on the health of the planet.
What this will also do is send a very clear, unmistakable market signal to entrepreneurs in the clean energy sector -- 196 countries have now made a commitment to reduce their carbon pollution. That means they are on the market for figuring out how to produce energy and reduce their carbon pollution. That is a wide-open market for people who have an innovative approach to solar energy or wind energy, hydroelectric energy. That is an open market to people that have -- are ready to take to market new battery technology or other forms of improved energy efficiency. That's no longer a niche market; that is now a global market.
And the President is determined to make sure that the United States is at the cutting edge of that market. And that's why the U.S. government, in the context of the Recovery Act, supported so many loans to the clean energy sector, and it's why the United States is now poised to benefit from the kind of commitments that countries are making all around -- that countries all around the world are making. And that's a good thing, and that's why this agreement is one that isn't just good for our planet -- it's going to end up being a really good thing for the U.S. economy.
Q: And one more. NOAA says that there have been 12 weather events so far this year that cost a billion dollars. Any concern about the impact on the economy on these kinds of weather events or the government's ability to continue funding disaster assistance? And there have been a string of small earthquakes in California, raising concern about a big one coming. Have there been any special preparations for that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any earthquake preparations that are underway. I think I'd refer you to officials at the U.S. Geological Service or in California about that. As it relates to the potential economic impact of the storm, that's something that we're always mindful of. And some of the cities and the potential path of the storm have large populations. And displacing large populations can have a negative impact on the economy. So we'll certainly watch that, but we're also prepared to mobilize significant financial resources to help those communities recover as quickly as possible and get life back to normal as quickly as possible. So we've done a lot of preparation in advance of that, and we intend to work closely with state and local officials to make that happen.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good rest of the day.
END 12:10 P.M. EDT
Josh Earnest, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/319288