Barack Obama photo

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest

June 29, 2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:56 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope everybody had a nice weekend. As you know, we're planning a bill signing in the East Room today, so if there's a need for you to leave the briefing a little bit early in order to make the final call, which I think will be about 1:45 p.m., I will not be offended if you have to get up in the middle. But hopefully we can wrap this up before that event actually gets underway.

With that, Julie, do you want to get us started?

Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to start with the situation in Greece. Does the President support the Prime Minister's decision there to hold this referendum and to close the banks in the meantime?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, let me start by saying that, as many of you saw, the President over the weekend telephoned Chancellor Merkel to discuss this issue. It was the second time in the last couple of weeks that the President has discussed this issue with her. They had an opportunity to discuss it at the G7 Summit over in Germany earlier this month.

This morning, the President had the opportunity to telephone President Hollande of France to discuss this issue. This is also the second time that he has discussed it with President Hollande this month. He had an opportunity to sit down for a bilateral meeting with President Hollande in Germany where this was among the issues that came up.

In the context of that telephone call, the President reiterated to President Hollande something that we've indicated in the past, which is that it's important for the parties sitting around the negotiating table to develop a package of reforms and financing that would allow Greece to return to growth and debt sustainability within the Eurozone. That is the target that we have been aiming for. And the good news is that achieving that goal is consistent with the interests of all of the parties at the negotiating table.

These are obviously difficult issues, but the United States has been strongly encouraging all parties to pursue this goal, and that's something that we continue to do even today.

Q: The Prime Minister in Greece, though, is taking some steps this week. Does the President support what he's doing?

MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously they have a democratic process in Greece that they'll have to pursue. And we believe that it's important for all of the sides, even in advance of the referendum, to continue to engage in constructive conversations. And again, ultimately, it is in everyone's interest to reach a solution that allows Greece to return to growth and debt sustainability within the Eurozone, and they can do that if it's coupled with a package of reforms and financing. And that ultimately is, again, in the interest of all of the parties.

We have seen strong statements both from the leaders of Greece, but also from the leaders of the Eurozone countries, reiterating their view that Greece should remain part of the European currency union. And we hope that all sides will continue to act in that spirit.

Q: What kind of exposure does the President believe the U.S. economy has to the situation in Greece?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, the fact is the U.S. exposure to Greece is small in terms of our direct exposure. And for that reason -- this was even true sort of at the previous height of the Greek crisis back in 2010 and 2011 -- that Greece does not pose a major direct risk to our banking system. However, what we have said for some time is that robust growth and economic stability in Europe is clearly within the U.S. economic interest but also in our national security interest as well. And so we do continue to urge all sides to contribute to a pragmatic discussion in pursuit of the goals that I described earlier, both because it's in the economic interest of our country but also in our broader national security interest.

Q: On a similar topic closer to home, Puerto Rico says they're having problems paying their debt. Does the President feel like the U.S. federal government has any responsibility to step in, in this instance?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, there's no one in the administration or in D.C. that's contemplating a federal bailout of Puerto Rico. But we do remain committed to working with Puerto Rico and their leaders as they address the serious financial challenges that are currently plaguing the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The Treasury Department and other administration officials have been engaged with Puerto Rico to try to help them get access to all available and existing federal resources. And the Treasury Department, over the last year or two, has shared its expertise with local officials in Puerto Rico who are trying to address the significant challenges that they face.

You'll recall, Julie, that there was this interagency task force that the Administration formed. This is similar to the kind of task force that was formed to support the city of Detroit as they dealt with some of their significant financial challenges. And the goal of this task force was to mobilize some expertise within the federal government to work with local officials -- in this case, in Puerto Rico -- to help them understand exactly what kinds of federal programs they would qualify for based on existing resources.

And there are a variety of things that have come up, things related to -- so let me give you one illustrative example. The Department of Energy has worked with Puerto Rico to help them lower their electricity costs and to reform the island's power authority to get a better hold on the cost associated with that. So that's one example of how the expertise of the federal government can be brought to bear in a way that is beneficial to local officials who are dealing with this problem firsthand.


Q: I want to ask about the Supreme Court decision on mercury emissions. What does this mean for the President's goals when it comes to the Clean Power Plan? Is this a setback? And if not, why not? Or does the White House feel there's more solid legal footing for the rest of the Clean Power Plan?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, let me just say as a general matter that we're still reviewing the decision that was announced by the Supreme Court earlier today. Obviously we're disappointed with the outcome. And for specific questions about what impact the outcome of this decision will have on that rulemaking process I'd refer you to the EPA.

I will say, however, that based on what we have read so far, there is no reason that this court ruling should have any impact on the ability of the administration to develop and implement the Clean Power Plan. These are two separate rulemaking processes that we have pursued here, and there is nothing that's contained in this ruling that should in any way impact our ability to successfully complete the implementation of the Clean Power Plan.

Q: Leader McConnell said this morning that the ruling should warn governors off of plans for their own states to implement the Clean Power Plan. Is he wrong then?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Leader McConnell has taken matters into his own hands, as we've discussed here, in a rather extraordinary display of his opposition to the administration's rulemaking efforts. Leader McConnell took it upon himself to send leaders to governors across the country, warning them against cooperating with the administration on a policy that will clearly benefit the public health of the citizens of states all across the country. So it's not particularly surprising to me that this is Leader McConnell's interpretation of the ruling, but it doesn't make his interpretation either accurate or in the best interest of the American public. In both cases, he's wrong.

Q: And if I could ask about Ex-Im, briefly. It seems clear that the authorization is going to lapse tomorrow. What kind of contingency plans are in place, especially for businesses whose line of credit might lapse between tomorrow and whenever the reauthorization might happen?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, what we have long said is that the Ex-Im Bank contributes -- makes an important contribution to the U.S. economy, particularly in terms of facilitating U.S. exports. And that has led to good-paying American jobs, and that's why we have urged Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. That's what previous Presidents of both parties have routinely urged Congress to do. And you've heard me note before the praise that President Reagan had for the important work that's done at the Ex-Im Bank because of the positive economic impact it has on the country.

For any contingency plans that may be put in place, I'd refer you to Ex-Im, who can walk you through that.


Q: Hi. The fact that the negotiators will be staying past the deadline on the Iran nuclear deal, even though you said that deadline was firm last week, is this an indication then that they're getting closer to a deal; that the odds are good that this will amount to something other than just cutting it off?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, what our negotiators are currently engaged in is an effort to try to complete negotiations consistent with the political framework that was agreed to in the first week in April. And, yes, it is the day before the deadline, and at this point I would anticipate that the negotiations will extend past the deadline.

This is not surprising or uncommon. Those of you who covered -- Michelle, I know you covered this closely -- the previous round of discussions that led to the political agreement in early April, the deadline for completing those talks was actually March 31st; an announcement wasn't made until April 2nd about the agreement. So I wouldn't be surprised. And in this case, it's likely that the negotiations will extend beyond the deadline and our negotiators will remain in Vienna past the deadline in pursuit of a final agreement.

Q: But because you said the deadline was firm before and you were still looking at that as a firm deadline as late as last week, would you see the extension of the deadline then a promising sign?

MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't read it that way. I think I would see the likelihood -- or the higher likelihood that the talks will extend past the deadline as an indication that there are still some important unresolved issues in the negotiations. And these are not issues that can be resolved in the next 36 hours. It will require additional time, and that's additional time that our negotiators will take in Vienna in pursuit of reaching an agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and ensure that they cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country's nuclear program.

Q: And at different times, you would place odds on a deal actually being reached. It started out being less than 50 percent, then it went to 50 percent. So what are the odds today?

MR. EARNEST: I'm not feeling like I'm ready to make a deal today, but I would say that our negotiators continue to pursue this very serious work and it looks like they're going to be working overtime to try to get it done.

Q: So can you -- I mean, at least 50/50, as it was before, since those were the last odds that we saw of a deal actually being reached?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would hesitate to put numbers on it at this point. So we're close to the deadline, and obviously our negotiators understand the stakes of these negotiation. And that, frankly, I think is why the United States and our P5+1 partners are willing to sit at that table a few extra days to try to reach an agreement that is consistent with the political framework that was agreed to back in early April.

I mean, the thing that the President has been very clear about is if the Iranians refuse to agree to a framework that's consistent -- or a final agreement that's consistent with the framework that was reached in April, then there won't be an agreement. And we understand at this point that that's something that the Iranians are hoping to avoid. They would very much like to get some sanctions relief, but there are going to be some serious commitments that they're going to have to make in terms of shutting down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and complying with a verification regime to ensure that they're living up to the commitments that they've made. And all of that will be part of any final agreement consistent with the political agreement that was reached back in April.


Q: On the Supreme Court -- is the Texas Attorney General when he says that the equal right to marry is not, in fact, the law of the land and that individual clerks in his state can refuse to issue marriage licenses? And what is the United States federal government prepared to do to ensure that, in fact, those clerks do issue marriage licenses?

MR. EARNEST: Well, that's certainly not our reading of the law, but for the specific legal interpretation I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.

Q: And is there anything that the United States, the administration, will be doing to ensure that people are able to get marriage licenses that the Supreme Court said they should?

MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, as a general matter, the Department of Justice has an important responsibility to ensure that justice is being carried out all across the country.

And again, I think the ruling from the Supreme Court was pretty clear to the millions of Americans that were obviously interested in their decision. But for what role the federal government would have in this case, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice.

Q: On the other -- so today, as has already been mentioned, the administration lost one in the Supreme Court on the EPA. Do you now agree with Senator Cruz that there should be elections for the Supreme Court?

MR. EARNEST: I do not.


Q: Josh, last week was a very big week, and I want to particularly focus in on the aspects of race and symbols and symbolism, and one of the components of last week, the Confederate flag. Elijah Cummings, a friend of the President and the Minority Leader in the Oversight and Reform Committee, said, "Now we must begin to address racial disparities and inequities themselves," he said, asking the country to move beyond the flag. How does that happen? How do you move beyond the symbolism of taking the flag down -- it's coming down -- but going into areas of helping Jamal get the job when Johnny gets the job? How do we make that happen in this country?

MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the President spoke at this at some length in a pretty moving fashion on Friday. And I think the President's description of ensuring that we don't fall back into a comfortable silence as it relates to these issues I think is what the President's hope is for the way that the country will confront these challenges.

And the President has obviously been very clear when he considers the kinds of policies that he believes we can put in place to make our country more fair and more just, and to make sure that we're expanding economic opportunity for all Americans. That has obviously been his priority dating all the way back to his first presidential campaign.

And so we're hopeful that we can continue to have a robust debate in this country about what policies we can put in place that would make our country more fair and more just, and ensure equal opportunity for all.

As the President also alluded to in his remarks, it's certainly possible for people who are acting in good faith to have a difference of opinion about what policies will be most effective in achieving that goal. But if we can at least keep in mind that that's a priority and that that is a goal that we should be striving for, then that would certainly position our country to continue making the kind of progress that we've seen so far in becoming more fair.

Q: Two more questions on this. Now, when you were on the plane when we were going to Selma, the President basically essentially said to a question that I asked, he's still here to close gaps. What gaps, when it comes to racial inequities, disparities, are remaining for him to, his words, as President, executive branch, to close? What gaps can he close?

MR. EARNEST: Well, there are -- let me give you a couple of examples. I can't give you a comprehensive list, I don't think. But one of the things the President has indicated he would certainly like to see is to ensure that every young child in America has access to a high-quality early childhood education program. And there's plenty of data out there to indicate the disproportionate benefits of children having access to programs like this; that participation in a high-quality early childhood education program is highly correlated with things that are directly relevant to success in this country. That is participation in a high-quality early childhood education program is strongly correlated with kids who get good standardized test scores, with kids who have fewer brushes with the criminal justice system. There's even a correlation between participation in an early childhood education program and a lower teen pregnancy rate.

So that's one example of the kind of investment that the President believes that we can make in everybody, in all of America's children, that would make our country more fair.

Q: And lastly, when I started out with the issue of symbols, the Confederate flag for many is a symbol of hate. And everyone is now -- we have Republicans and Democrats and this President saying that it needs to come down. But there was also a debate a couple months ago with the Edmund Pettus Bridge -- the name of a bridge. Edmund Pettus was a Grand Dragon of the KKK. Do we go back into that kind of debate about the name of a bridge or some other things that are in this country that stand for hate and racism? Do we bring those down? Do we change the names? How does this administration view that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the administration would view this as part of the kind of debate that I hope, and the President certainly hopes, that we'll continue to be attuned to. That as we pointed out -- as the President pointed out in his remarks on Friday -- that when traumatic and even tragic events occur, sometimes we are -- our conscience is often aroused and we're much more attuned to the kinds of symbols and the kind of language and the kinds of policies and the kinds of labels that can be perceived, understandably so, as hateful.

And the President is hopeful that we won't allow ourselves to fall back into a comfortable silence but that the country will continue to be attuned to this debate; that the country will be better off for it.


Q: Thanks, Josh. To go back to the EPA Supreme Court ruling, I heard what you said about the Clean Power Plan, but is the administration also committed to regulating -- continuing to regulate mercury and air toxics going forward?

MR. EARNEST: At this point, we're still reviewing the decision from the Supreme Court, but I'd refer you to the EPA. This continues to be a priority for the President because of the important public health benefits associated with this law. That there are -- the goal of this specific rule was to try to reduce incidents of asthma attacks and, in some cases, even incidents of premature death.

But for the path forward when it comes to that specific policy, I'd refer you to the EPA.

Q: And so is the administration directing the EPA to review power plants and power plants in a -- to maybe reissue those mercury standards?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is something that EPA is still trying to figure out, but they can give you some guidance in terms of what their path forward is.


Q: Thank you, Josh. Just a couple things on Greece and one on the other Supreme Court decision. Re-reading the communications, the readout, between Secretary Lew and officials in Greece and in Brussels over the weekend, one finds that the administration sounded very much in favor of the referendum that Prime Minister Tsipras has called for Sunday, July 5th, and that a lot should be planned around it. Is the administration aware that this could lead to an exit of Greece from the EU very promptly, and from the Euro very promptly? And are they in favor of the referendum?

MR. EARNEST: Well, John, what we've indicated is that there's a democratic process that is underway in Greece, and that's a process that will be determined by the Greek people. As it relates to Greece and their continued membership in the European currency union, I would merely note for you that the public opinion that's expressed by everyone who's sitting around the negotiating table right now -- the Greeks, leaders of the EU, the IMF and the ECB -- have all indicated that it's their view that Greece continue to remain part of the currency union there.

And it is in the interest of the United States for Europe to continue to be closely integrated and strong and effective. And that is the view that we have expressed in the past, and that is what gives us some confidence that the kinds of challenges that are currently being confronted by the negotiators can be expressed through a package of reforms and financing that will allow Greece to return to a path of economic growth and debt sustainability.

Q: Shortly before you came up to the podium, Prime Minister Tsipras announced officially that Greece will not be paying its installment of 1.8 billion euros that was due to the IMF today. Any reaction on that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, John, we've long made clear that we expect the Greeks to keep their commitments. And I'd refer you to the IMF for more information about how exactly the Greeks can do that.

Q: Final question. You've addressed the Supreme Court decision on EPA. What is the administration's reaction to the Supreme Court decision upholding special commissions and other bodies to perform redistricting in the states along with state legislatures?

MR. EARNEST: John, I'm aware of that Supreme Court ruling today, but let me get back to you with a specific reaction.


Q: I'd like to go back to the Iran talks for a second, Josh. Over the weekend, we had another one of these cases where another Iranian leader said, no, we will absolutely not countenance inspections at military bases. This was a senior Iranian general. Obviously, we've talked a lot about what Ayatollah Khamenei has had to say. Is the administration really confident that in Mohammad Javad Zarif it's got a man it can negotiate with and can get an agreement that will stick?

MR. EARNEST: Mark, that's an entirely legitimate question. And this is -- (laughter) -- I hope he'll accept the compliment in the spirit in which it's offered. What I would just say is this -- is that the efforts to try to reach a diplomatic solution to ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon is not predicated on trusting anybody. In fact, the only way that we'll be able to reach an agreement, and the only way that the President and our P5+1 partners will sign an agreement, is if Iran does commit to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country's nuclear program.

And, in fact, what will be written into the agreement -- if it can be reached -- would be a mechanism for snapping sanctions back into place if Iran doesn't live up to the commitments that they make in the context of the agreement.

So I think the point is that the negotiations continue. Hopefully we'll be able to reach an agreement, a final agreement that's consistent with the parameters of the political agreement that was announced in April, and we'll move forward from there. And if it turns out that Iran is not able to live up to the agreement that they hopefully will make, then we'll have ample opportunity to deal with that, most prominently by acting quickly to snap sanctions back into place.

Q: The reason I ask is because we had this framework agreement, which was like pulling teeth and was reached after much effort and last-minute negotiations, et cetera. And at the time, the administration said this is clear, it's on paper; obviously we have to fill in the details, but this is something that both sides can live with, et cetera. And within hours, we had senior Iranian officials repudiating parts of it. Is there a danger that's going to happen again?

MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. I think the first is -- I think that this will be at least one indication to you and other careful observers of this process that the agreement that was reached back in April is one that requires significant commitments from the Iranians. And I think that is -- some of the concerns that we have seen raised by the Iranians I think should be one indication that we're requiring and the international community is requiring Iran to make some pretty serious commitments here.

But again, I think I'd just go back to this -- that there is no aspect of this agreement that is predicated on trusting anybody in the Iranian government. What is built into this agreement are a set of verification measures that will ensure that international experts have access to Iranian sites and Iranian facilities and even Iranian personnel to ensure that they're living up to the commitments that they make in the context of this agreement. And if they don't, we will have mechanisms written into the agreement, outlining exactly what steps will be taken by the international community to snap sanctions back into place.

So I guess the point is, we already know that the Iranians are very interested in getting relief from the very tough sanctions that the international community has imposed on them. And there will be a very clear incentive, if a deal is reached, for Iran to live up to the commitments that they make in the context of the deal.

Q: I'm sorry, one last little thing. Is there any specific -- at this point, any new target that's been set in terms of -- the tomorrow midnight deadline is going to slip, or it's just open-ended at this point? And as part of that, assuming it does go on for some number of days, does the interim deal that both sides have been observing continue on for that same length of time?

MR. EARNEST: It does. The Joint Plan of Action will remain in effect, and that is important. And that will be -- it will remain in effect beyond June 30th.

But again, at this point, we anticipate that the negotiations will continue for at least a couple of days after the deadline, and we'll take it day by day from there.


Q: I wanted to ask first about Puerto Rico. And I know, in response to Julie, you outlined some steps that the government has been taking, but obviously the situation there is pretty dire. And so I'm wondering if there's been any consideration by the administration of a kind of financial control board in the way that D.C. had back in the 1990s when they were going through a similar financial crisis.

MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll say two things about that. The first is, I will refer back to what I mentioned to Julie, which is that there has been an effort by the Administration to put together essentially an interagency task force, where experts from the federal government can offer their expertise to the leaders of the Puerto Rico government as they deal with these significant financial challenges. And that has led to a variety of things.

One other example is that the Department of Transportation identified more than $750 million for Puerto Rico in available toll credits for use and funding new infrastructure projects. So obviously the new infrastructure projects would be an important job creator inside Puerto Rico, but would also lay a foundation for their longer-term economic strength. So that's sort of another way that this interagency task force has been able to offer some assistance to the Puerto Rico government.

The other thing that I can say is that Puerto Rico currently has no access to a tested, restructuring regime for any of its public debt. This includes its municipal and public corporation debt, which, in the 50 states, would ordinarily be subject to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy process.

So there are strong merits to having an orderly mechanism for Puerto Rico to manage the financial challenges of its public corporations if needed. And so we've urged Congress to take a close look at this particular issue. Essentially, this means that essentially a Chapter 9 scenario that would be available to all of the 50 states is not one that's currently available to Puerto Rico, and that's something that only Congress can change.

Q: Just to clarify, you would advocate Congress would pass some sort of similar authority for the territory?

MR. EARNEST: What we've encouraged Congress to do is to take a look at this, mindful of the challenges that Puerto Rico is facing right now.

Q: And then, on Greece, I'm wondering if the U.S. is at all concerned that the paralysis of the Greek government, or the financial crisis, could all create an opening for infiltration of extremists into Greece -- and Greece has a gateway into Europe; this has obviously been kind of an issue with the Islamic State for months now -- and whether this creates a new security concern on top of financial ones.

MR. EARNEST: Well, let me reiterate something I said before, Justin, which is that the national security of the United States and our interests around the globe benefit significantly from a strong and effective and closely integrated Europe. And that has been true on a whole range of security questions but also happens to be true when it comes to a range of economic questions as well. And so that is why the United States, principally through the Treasury Department, has been closely engaged in trying to facilitate all of the parties in these talks to come to an agreement that is clearly within their mutual interests.

Q: And just to put a really fine point on it, you've said that the U.S. is interested in a strong and integrated Europe and that the negotiating partners at the table want Greece to remain as part of the Euro. But does the U.S. still want Greece to be part of the Euro going forward?

MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, that is something that they'll have to decide. And, again, the members of the EU will have to decide whether Greece remains part of the union. But we're heartened by the fact that Greece's leaders say they want to remain part of the currency union. All of the members of the European currency union have indicated their desire for Greece to remain part of the union, and that certainly would be our preference as well.


Q: There's another issue, Josh, if I may. Unlike the United States, which has sort of come out of their recession, the EU nations are still struggling to crawl out of that. There's the contagion issue. In other words, as goes Greece, will go -- will possibly go Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, et cetera. Is that a concern to this administration?

MR. EARNEST: Well, J.C., I actually asked this exact question of our experts here, too. Here's what they told me.

Q: I'm lucky. (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST: Well, so am I. But here's the -- so this is a little technical, but let me try to explain to you what I was told. What has always been true is that there is minimal direct U.S. exposure to Greece. And that's why we can say pretty definitively that Greece does not pose a major direct risk to the United States banking system.

But what's also true is that direct exposures to Greece from banks or other market participants are much lower across the globe than they were in 2010 and 2011, sort of at the other height of this Greek crisis. The other thing that has changed since then is that European policymakers have made it clear that they're committed to doing whatever is necessary to maintain the stability of the Euro area and create conditions for Greece to grow and reform within the Eurozone.

So what that essentially means is it means that Europe's capacity to manage this situation is also much stronger today because policymakers have put in place a powerful set of financial tools. Now, these tools include things like the European Stability Mechanism, which is something that is available to the European Central Bank to deal with some of these financial challenges. The ECB also has the Single Supervisory Mechanism, which can be used to help support banks.

So what we've seen from Europe is that they have, over the last four or five years, clearly developed the capacity and expressed the will to do what it takes to preserve their monetary union. The last aspect of this answer that I think is also worth recognizing is that the European economy, while, yes, what I would acknowledge is not quite as strong as we would like it to be -- economic growth is not quite as robust as we would like to see -- it is much stronger than it was four or five years ago. And that's a testament to the progress, the slow progress that Europe has made out of the depths of the Great Recession. And the greater strength and stability of the European economy as it exists right now helps provide a backdrop for solving this problem.

Q: And may I just -- and it's a very noble answer, and I appreciate it, Josh, very much. Unlike the United States, the Eurozone is not the United States -- the Euro is not the United States of Europe. Although that was kind of the goal. We are a federal system. We get to control our spending and we get to control who's taxed and how we're taxed. They don't have those kind of controls. That's not really a federal operation there. So is that what's causing the problems? They don't really have their hands on exactly how Greece is spending their money and how they're getting their revenue.

MR. EARNEST: Well, you've highlighted one aspect -- one challenge of the method for integrating the different economies and countries of Europe. And this is obviously something that all of the policymakers are working through. And, again, we continue to be heartened by the public expressions from not just the leaders of Greece but also from leaders of other large European economies that they would like to see Greece remain part of the European currency union.


Q: Josh, following three separate either ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks on three separate continents last week, the FBI and DHS put out a new bulletin warning about the potential for attacks coming up on the 4th of July holiday. So is this concern routine, as it would be before every 4th of July or every major U.S. holiday like the U.S.'s birthday? Or is there some sincere, deep concern here that makes this unique? And what do you say to Americans that are concerned right now?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, I would point out as a factual matter, as you alluded to, that it is not uncommon for these kinds of joint information bulletins to be issued in advance of the 4th of July. I can also say that there is no specific credible intelligence to indicate any threats against celebrations over the 4th of July weekend.

However, we have repeatedly seen calls for violence over the past year by the leadership and supporters of ISIL against members of the military and military installations, law enforcement, the U.S. government and the American public. And we're mindful of the more recent call by leaders of ISIL and other extremists to carry out attacks over Ramadan, which we're obviously in the middle of now.

So I think it is fair for you to conclude that issuing this kind of joint information bulletin is part of our standard operating procedure, but we're certainly mindful of the unique environment in advance of this 4th of July holiday.

Q: Given Peter King, Representative from New York, said that there is "great concern this weekend" -- he said, the highest threat level that he is aware of -- of course, a New York Representative, so this is personal for him in the wake of 9/11, even this many years removed. He said, the highest threat level that he's aware of since 9/11; "no other time compares." Is that a fair assessment of the situation that we now face?

MR. EARNEST: Well, for an assessment like that I'd refer you to the intelligence community. Again, the thing that I'd reiterate is that there is no specific credible intelligence to indicate any threat against celebrations over the 4th of July weekend. But again, I say that mindful of the public calls that we have seen by some extremists for their supporters and their sympathizers to carry out attacks over Ramadan, which obviously is taking place right now.

Q: The Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, said today that violent extremism is going viral, but our response to it is moving at a bureaucratic, sluggish speed. There are statistics from intelligence community members that there are tens of thousands of these social media messages being sent out and ultimately propelling their message to far ends of the planet where ISIS themselves, their members, may not reach. How concerned are you about the impact of social media and of these lone wolf type attacks where it doesn't take knowing who ISIS is, it just takes finding one individual anywhere in this country that could take action like we witnessed in Tunisia?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, our intelligence community and our national security professionals have long identified a so-called lone wolf attack as one of the most dangerous threats that they face. And the reason for that is precisely for the reasons that you just highlighted -- it's difficult to prevent those kinds of attacks from happening before they occur when you're only talking about one individual who's become radicalized, in many cases, through the use of social media by extremists anywhere around the world. That's a particularly difficult challenge.

I think what we've also seen is we've seen our national security and our intelligence and our law enforcement professionals engaged very aggressively in trying to mitigate that threat. And it's not uncommon for the Department of Justice to make announcements about investigations that have yielded arrests, mindful of the alleged plans to carry out a lone wolf attack.

So we continue to be very mindful of that. I mean, the thing that I'd just remind you of -- and I'm assuming you covered it at the time -- is back in the winter, right here at the White House, we convened a summit to counter violent extremism. And so what we sought to do is to bring relevant officials from across the federal government as well as local law enforcement officials and community leaders to discuss this issue -- and not just from a law enforcement perspective, but also to make sure that we were drawing on the wisdom and influence of leaders in communities all across the country to try to prevent vulnerable people, in most cases vulnerable young people, from being radicalized over the Internet and carrying out acts of violence.

Q: Very simply, to conclude, Chairman McCaul also called for a full-time office combatting violent extremism here at home. Does the President, does this White House support a full-time office committed to that sole intent?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I hadn't see that specific proposal be floated, but obviously this is something that the administration takes very seriously and something we've been working on for quite some time. It obviously didn't require an office to pull together an interagency summit to discuss this important national security priority. But certainly we're open to suggestions like that.


Q: Josh, thanks. Can you describe the President's awareness of the fact that within a week of the shootings in Charleston, six predominantly African-American faith communities have been attacked, burned, in fact -- six of them. And three, we are told by reporting, were the acts of arson. And what is the White House doing to help those faith communities be protected?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, we obviously are -- the President had the opportunity to talk about the long history that the black churches had in this country and the meaning that it has to the African-American community and in African-American communities all across the country. And unfortunately, we have seen some extremists carry out acts of violence against the black church -- or against black churches across the country -- recognizing the power of such violent displays.

So, obviously, the local law enforcement officials have the responsibility to conduct these investigations and, obviously if federal resources are needed to support those ongoing investigations, they will be provided.

Q: To follow up on Puerto Rico for just a second -- you said no bailout. But I want to ask what does the White House have to say to the many, many cases -- hundreds of thousands, millions of Puerto Ricans who live here in the States from New York to Florida and all over -- their concern? What are you hoping -- what are you going to do, what can you do to help our countrymen? What's the general message that you would have for their population?

MR. EARNEST: Well, what I think we'd say to everybody is that the administration remains committed to continuing to work with Puerto Rico and its leaders as they address the commonwealth's serious financial challenges. And in some cases, that means the Treasury Department lending their expertise to officials in Puerto Rico as they navigate some of the complicated financial aspects of dealing with these broader economic challenges. In other cases, it means convening an interagency task force to offer some advice to the government of Puerto Rico about available and existing federal resources that they could use to benefit both the people of Puerto Rico, but also to benefit their financial situation.

So this is something that the federal government has long been in touch with Puerto Rican officials about. But ultimately this is going to be the responsibility of the Puerto Rican government to resolve.

Q: Two quickies. You talked about ISIS and the sort of global reach given the Internet and how it could be a lone wolf, as Peter just pointed out. Can you sort of, in broad brush, talk about the growth of that reach and how it now extends here and beyond?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think what we have found is that it is going to require a coordinated effort to mitigate the strategy that ISIL has deployed, and other extremists have deployed, to try to use social media to radicalize vulnerable people all across the world. And there are several strategies that we can use. The first is there are leading Muslim governments that can expend significant resources to try to counter this online messaging effort. But I think what we found would be most effective, and has been effective, is to engage leaders in the community in this effort.

And that's why it's so important, as we confront this challenge of countering violent extremism, that we not just focus solely on the law enforcement aspect of this strategy, but to make sure that we're engaging community leaders; that in many cases, the best way for us to counter a radical, violent message online is to have a respected member of the community step up and speak out and say that it's wrong, and that in some ways can be the most effective way of deterring the online radicalization efforts of extremists that may be operating outside the United States borders.

Q: Lastly, on the talks for the P5+1, when is a deadline a deadline?

MR. EARNEST: Well, the deadline that we have established is June 30th, Kevin. And what we have acknowledged is that the talks, in order to be completed, are likely to extend a couple days beyond that deadline and our negotiators will remain in Vienna as they try to reach that final agreement. But obviously the time has come to try to reach an agreement. And after more than a year and a half of negotiations, we have got the final agreement within our sights, but ultimately it's going to require some serious commitments from the Iranians to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon and to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country's nuclear program. And it is going to be up to them to determine whether or not they're willing to make those serious commitments.

Q: So by a deadline, it's sort of a soft deadline, but what you're saying is it's not going to be a month, it's not going to be two months.

MR. EARNEST: That's certainly not what we're talking about right now. What we're talking about right now is, as Mark mentioned, the Joint Plan of Action would remain in place for a couple of days past the deadline, and ultimately the Iranians sitting around the negotiating table will have to determine if they're willing to sign on to an agreement, a final agreement, that is consistent with the parameters that were established back in April in the context of the political agreement that they've already signed on to.


Q: So even though there are no particular threats, the heightened level of awareness that's being called for -- does that bring about any special level of protection for either government figures or government property?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, the thing I can -- you're right that there are no specific credible intelligence to indicate threats against celebrations over the 4th of July weekend. But over the last few months, the Department of Homeland Security has made a number of security adjustments, including things like enhanced screening at select overseas airports, and increased random searches of passengers and carry-on luggage on flights inbound to the United States.

There are a number of other security measures that have been taken at federal facilities, dating back to February, in response to some intelligence. So there are a number of steps that have been taken, some of which are readily visible and some of which are not immediately obvious to casual observers, that have been taken to try to protect the American public.

Q: -- immediately in this period coming up this holiday weekend?

MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I'm aware of. But if DHS -- DHS would be the agency that would announce a security measure like that.

Q: On the Iran negotiations, there are a lot of observers who see the belief that sanctions could be snapped back quickly as right up there with the belief in the Tooth Fairy. I mean, when you have granted Iranians access to some -- at least some of the money that's been frozen, when you have allowed nations which are anxious to trade with Iran to go back to trading with Iran, how could you possible expect a sanctions regime to be snapped back quickly? The very name suggests that it's instant, but it does not seem possible.

MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, there was a lot of skepticism about the ability of the international community to impose these sanctions in the first place. That skepticism was healthy, that there was no way that we could get other large economies around the world to voluntarily agree to stop buying Iranian oil. But, yet, those sanctions have been in place for three and a half years now.

Q: All the more reason to believe that the people who are putting them in place are anxious to stop sanctions.

MR. EARNEST: Sure, but they were anxious the first day that these sanctions were put in place, and the fact that we've been able to get them to hang on for three and a half years I think is an indication that the international community is united in this regard.

Look, I'm not denying that there won't be some pressure on the sanctions regime, but there's been pressure on the sanctions regime all along because there are some countries that have made an economic sacrifice to apply this pressure on Iran. The fact is there's also a countervailing pressure, though, on the Iranian government and on the Iranian people that if given some sanctions relief, the prospect of those sanctions snapping back into place and the Iranian people once again suffering from a significantly weakened economy does serve as a significant financial disincentive for the Iranian government to violate some of the commitments that they've already made, if they make them.

Q: I guess my point here is that this wouldn't be instant in any sense. "Snap back" suggests instant. And if there's some relief for the Iranian economy in the event of an agreement, then if there were a default of some kind and sanctions were imposed again, it would take time. It would buy Iran a great deal of time to do whatever it wants to do.

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the goal of setting up and writing in these snapback provisions would ensure that it is actually not a great deal of time before sanctions could be reimposed. And, again, there is a lot of confidence that once the Iranian people, who have been the principal motivators here, right? -- there's all kinds of analysis that's been done to determine that it's the Iranian people who are eager to see these sanctions lifted. And if they see this sanctions relief even for just a couple of days or a couple of weeks, they'll start to see the economic benefits associated with that. And that would be significant pressure on the Iranian regime to make sure that they live up to the commitments that are made in the context of the final agreement. There will be enormous domestic pressure that they will face to not allow those sanctions that exacted such a terrible economic toll in the first place from being reimposed. And that's essentially the goal of this provision.

Now, the other thing I will acknowledge is that the details of how this snapback sanctions regime would work is something that continues to be negotiated in Vienna. And that is at least part of what's contributing to the talks going over the deadline here, because these are tough issues. But I think that is an indication that -- again, I think that's an indication that the Iranians are very focused on how those provisions are written because they understand the power that snapback sanctions could have in applying additional and significant pressure to the government of Iran to live up to the commitments that they make in the deal.


Q: Josh, the administration seems remarkably passive about the Puerto Rican problems. You've been discussing things with the Puerto Ricans for years. They still went over the cliff. At this point, your only plan is to talk to Congress about giving them authority to do something that they cannot do. You have obviously in the past been very aggressive about helping in cases of serious financial distress. Why the passivity around Puerto Rico?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, I don't think I would -- I'd quibble a little bit with the premise of your question. I think that the response that this administration has mounted in the form of the Puerto Rico task force is consistent with the kind of response you saw from the federal government to Detroit's financial challenges.

And so, again, Detroit did not receive anything that could be described as a federal bailout, but they did receive significant advice from an interagency task force that was formed to help them understand the kinds of existing federal resources for which they qualified. And that did have a measurable impact on their ability to turn their financial problems around and to begin to rebuild the economy of that great American city. They've made enormous progress over the last several years, and even local officials in Detroit would tell you that some of that progress is directly related to the kind of support that they received from the Obama administration.

So this is a template that we hope to follow in Puerto Rico. And, again, this is consistent with the responsibility of the administration to not provide a bailout, but to provide important advice and expertise that can be used by the leaders of Puerto Rico to try to address these significant financial challenges that they face.

Bill Press.

Q: One other Supreme Court decision we haven't talked about yet is the one on the death penalty. While upholding the lethal injection cocktail -- the Court did -- Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg issued a pretty blistering dissent, saying the Court had not gone far enough; that now it's clear as it may not have been 30 years ago that the death penalty violates the Constitution of the United States and should be abolished. Does the President agree? If not, what's his position on the death penalty?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, this is obviously something that the President has spoken about a couple of times and I can get you some other examples of where the President has talked about this publicly. But the President's principal concern over the years has been with the way that the death penalty has been implemented and that there are documented cases where there are some biases and some flaws, frankly, in the criminal justice system as the death penalty was applied. And the President does have significant concerns about that, and those are concerns that he has expressed previously.

Q: Well, that was Justice Breyer's chief argument -- one of them -- that there's such a disparity that people -- in terms of race, in terms of income, in terms of geography, and who gets the death penalty and who doesn't that it's really time to reconsider its constitutionality. Would the President go that far -- it's time to take another look at it?

MR. EARNEST: I don't think the President has gone quite that far at this point, but the President more generally has talked about his genuine interest in trying to pursue some reforms of our criminal justice system. And he's heartened by the fact that there is some interest on the other side of the aisle in those issues as well.

And so I would anticipate that criminal justice reform is something that we'll have the opportunity to talk about over the course of the next several months at least. And I wouldn't be surprised if this particular issue comes up in the context of those discussions.

Q: But as a continuum, thinking of the things he talked about in Charleston even, he mentioned we've got to go beyond the flag. We have to talk about schools. We've got to talk about jobs. We've got to talk about the disparity of young African-Americans and their arrest record by police, the number in prison. It seems that that would lead also that a poor person of color is much more likely to get the death penalty.

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Bill, I think you're certainly raising a relevant point here in the context of criminal justice reform and some concerns that have been raised about the disproportionate impact of some punishments and the disproportionate impact of some decisions that are made in the criminal justice system of the United States on a daily basis.

All right. Mark, I'll give you the last one here.

Q: Thanks. As we discuss the debts in Greece and Puerto Rico, can you tell me whether the White House has studied the warnings about the national debt issued a couple weeks ago by the Congressional Budget Office, talking about its unsustainability, the dangers that it poses in the out-years that, even with reduced deficits, continue to grow the public debt.

MR. EARNEST: Mark, what we've been very mindful of is the need to ensure that we keep our deficits and our debt on a declining path here as a share of the broader economy. And that is something that the President has been very focused on. You'll recall that since the President has been in office we've actually been able to reduce the federal deficit by two-thirds. And that represents substantial and important progress to preserving our nation's fiscal health not just in the short term, but over the median term.

But there is no denying that there are some longer-term challenges over the horizon. And it will require the United States government at some point to act in bipartisan fashion to make some difficult decisions. Unfortunately, we haven't seen a lot of that spirit of bipartisanship as it relates to difficult decisions in Congress in great abundance. All of you are prepared to cover a bill signing ceremony, however, that does reflect some genuine bipartisanship. And I think we have acknowledged that we're hopeful that those bipartisan muscles that were flexed in passing trade legislation could lead to other bipartisan agreements.

But the prospect of a broader bipartisan agreement that might resolve the long-term fiscal challenges of the country might be a bridge too far.

Thanks, everybody. Have a good afternoon.

END 1:55 P.M. EDT

Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives