Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. A lively bunch today. Let me do two quick announcements, and then I'll go straight to your questions.
The United States welcomes today's historic opening of the embassy of the United States of America in Havana, Cuba, and the opening of the Cuban embassy here in Washington, D.C. Today's openings are the result of respectful dialogue between the United States and the Republic of Cuba following the December 17th announcements by President Obama and President Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations between our two nations.
This is yet another demonstration that we don't have to be imprisoned by the past. We look forward to working collaboratively to normalize relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people after more than a half-century of discord. Beginning today, U.S. diplomats in Havana will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island of Cuba, with the Cuban government, Cuban civil society, and even ordinary Cuban citizens.
We look forward to collaborating with the Cuban government on issues of common interest, including counterterrorism and disaster response, and we are confident that the best way to advance universal values like freedom of speech and assembly is through more engagement with the Cuban people.
Let me do one other one, and then we'll go to your questions.
Over the course of the last week, we've been gratified by the support the Iran deal has garnered from many different corners, both at home and abroad. On the world stage, you saw the United Nations Security Council this morning unanimously adopt a resolution endorsing the deal. Yesterday, you heard British Prime Minister David Cameron speak powerfully and unambiguously in favor of the deal. Closer to home, last week, you heard me mention a letter that some 100 former bipartisan U.S. ambassadors had signed in support of the landmark diplomatic agreement, as well as the outpouring of support from some of this country's newspapers, both large and small, all across the country.
Today, some of you may have seen a letter in support of the deal signed by some 60 former senior U.S. government officials from both Democratic and Republican administrations. Among the signers were those who know Iran best, the mechanics of nonproliferation and the art of diplomacy. Included in this list are former national security advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski; former Secretary of Defense William Perry; former Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neill; former Ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Pakistan, Ryan Crocker; former State Department officials, Nicholas Burns, Christopher Hill, and Les Gelb; as well as Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
We continue to urge members of Congress as well as the American public to judge the deal on its merits. We're confident that if they do they'll reach the same conclusion that so many of those who know these issues best already have.
So if you have not seen that letter, we can make sure that we get you a full copy of it.
So, with that, Julie, do you want to get us started today?
Q: Thanks, Josh. Actually, I had some follow-ups on those two topics.
MR. EARNEST: Great.
Q: On Cuba, is the President going to be meeting with the Cuban foreign minister or any of the other Cuban officials who are in town for the embassy opening?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any plans for the President to meet with Cuban officials. I know that Secretary of State Kerry, if he hasn't done so already, will be meeting with his Cuban counterpart later today.
Q: Okay. I'm not sure if we've gotten a straight answer to this -- is the President intending to actually nominate a U.S. ambassador to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any personnel announcements at this point in terms of -- including the time frame for announcements.
Q: I'm not asking for a name, I'm just asking if that actually is his intention. Is he going to nominate someone for that post?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don't have a specific commitment to share with you in terms of when this person would be announced or who that person would be. We certainly do believe that U.S. interests in Cuba would be best represented by somebody serving as the ambassador there.
That said, the current Chief of Mission is a gentleman named Jeffrey DeLaurentis. He is somebody who had previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He is somebody who has done two previous stints at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, and somebody who has served in a wide variety of diplomatic roles, including as the political counselor to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations in Geneva, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Bogota, even did a stint here at the White House at the National Security Council.
So this is somebody representing the United States as the Chief of Mission of the U.S. embassy in Cuba. This is somebody with a wide range of experience in a variety of roles, and we've got a lot of confidence in the ability of Ambassador DeLaurentis to represent U.S. interests on the island in Cuba. But I certainly wouldn't rule out that the President would nominate somebody to serve at the rank of ambassador at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.
Q: You wouldn't rule it out, but you're not actually making a commitment that he definitely will nominate someone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, only because I don't have a time frame or an individual to share with you at this point.
Q: Okay. And on Iran, I know that the President spoke briefly at the pool spray earlier on the Security Council resolution, and I know that you've said that that does not -- that would not trump any action by Congress. But what would you say to lawmakers who say that it appears as though the President is at least violating the spirit of what Congress passed to have this 60-day review period and have a say on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd strenuously disagree. The fact is there actually is an extraordinary provision included in the Security Council resolution that was adopted by the Security Council today, which is to ensure that the resolution adopted today doesn't actually go into effect for another 90 days. And that is specifically to allow Congress ample time to conduct their review of the agreement.
And that does show, on the part of the international community, significant deference to the privileges of individual members of Congress. As I mentioned last week, I would just note that there is -- that the U.N. Security Council resolution that was passed today doesn't have an impact on the kind of sanctions that are implemented bilaterally by the United States. That's the purview of the President of the United States and the United States Congress. And again, I think that also reflects the important role that Congress must play in this debate.
Q: And finally, can you give us any sense of what the President himself personally is doing behind the scenes to court lawmakers on this? And was his golf outing with three congressional Democrats yesterday part of this effort? We don't see him golf with lawmakers very often.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, I know the President did enjoy the opportunity to play golf yesterday. I would assure you that had the engagement been focused solely on the Iran agreement that the President would have chosen a location that benefited from air-conditioning to have that conversation yesterday. (Laughter.) So I know that most of their activities yesterday were focused on golf.
Q: And anything about what the President is doing on Iran to talk to lawmakers?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any additional specific conversations to tell you about, but there are a number of presidential conversations that have already occurred with leading members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. And I would expect those kinds of conversations to continue.
There are some -- just to get this out of the way -- there are some details about the administration engagement with Congress that are coming up this week. On Wednesday, there will be separate classified briefings for all House members and all members of the Senate on Capitol Hill. This will take place on Wednesday, and this is a briefing that will be conducted by Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, Secretary Lew, as well as a senior intelligence official.
Then there will be an open hearing on Thursday in front of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee with Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, and Secretary Lew. And then a week from tomorrow, next Tuesday, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, those three Cabinet Secretaries will testify in an open hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
So that's an indication that the administration continues to be serious about the responsibility that we have to make sure that members of Congress have the information that they need to consider this agreement over the course of the next 60 days.
Q: Josh, does the White House have any reaction to Donald Trump's comments about the President's former rival in 2008, Senator John McCain, over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I'll just tell you generally that, even in the midst of their competitive 2008 campaign for the White House, that Senator Obama expressed his admiration and deep respect for Senator McCain's heroism. Their political differences between Senator McCain and President Obama have continued, even while President Obama has been in office, but those debates have not reduced his appreciation for Senator McCain's remarkable service to the country.
The fact is the most notable comment in this episode came from Senator McCain himself, who I think pretty selflessly made clear that he didn't really care about an apology, but he did believe that our military veterans are entitled to one.
Q: It's probably hard for the President not to have heard about these comments. Did he have a reaction to them?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him about it.
Q: On a more policy-oriented question, there is some discussion in Congress, in both houses of Congress, about how to pay for the highway funds. One option that is being looked at is to sell oil from the SPR. Does the White House have a position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at the risk of unintentionally suggesting to some people who are closely watching the energy markets that this may be telegraphing a decision about a sale, I don't have a specific comment on that. I will just as a general matter that we have indicated in a written statement our support for the five-month extension that the House considered last week and approved, primarily as a mechanism for buying time to reach an agreement on a longer-term highway funding bill.
We've expressed our frustration at the repeated short-term extensions that we believe are entirely inconsistent with the best interests of our economy and the best interests of maintaining a modern infrastructure.
So we believe that serious, long-term investment is needed in our infrastructure. The President has put forward his own specific proposal, the GROW AMERICA Act, that wouldn't just ensure that we are funding our infrastructure over the long term, it would make sure that we are funding our infrastructure over the long term over and above the current level, because there is so much built-up maintenance that's required of our infrastructure in this country. And we're hopeful that Congress will make a similar commitment -- a commitment similar to the one that we have proposed. And I would hasten to point out that the proposal that the administration put forward is one that's entirely paid for, so it's one that is fiscally responsible.
Q: Yesterday, we heard Cuba asking that the embargo be lifted, saying that Gitmo needs to be returned. And Cuba's human rights continue to be a pretty bad example. Congress is also pushing back and saying that Cuba arrested thousands of people for political reasons just this year. So that all said, what kind of relationship really is this going be, with such big problems on each side?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think what we will see is a change in policy that is consistent with the national security interests of the United States. And it certainly is consistent with the kinds of values that this President and that previous Presidents have aggressively advocated all around the world. Those values are the respect for the basic human rights that we hold dear in this country -- freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of the press.
It's clear that Cuba has significant progress to make in all of those areas. What's also clear is that the previous policy that had been in place, that had aimed to accomplish the same thing over the course of 55 years, didn't really make much progress. The President believed that a change was necessary. And we're hopeful that in the coming years we'll start to see the kind of respect for basic human rights on the island of Cuba that the United States has long advocated.
I would just point out that it's not just the President and bipartisan leaders in Congress that share this view and share optimism about this strategy, it's actually the Cuban people. An overwhelming percentage of the Cuban people are supportive and optimistic about this change in policy because of a chance that is has to improve their prospects on the island nation of Cuba.
So the President is looking forward to these kinds of changes taking effect and that the Cuban people and the Cuban government start to enjoy the benefits and see the results from greater engagement with the United States.
Q: Is there any indication, though, at this point that the Cuban government intends to allow more freedoms on the island or to stop arresting people for purely political reasons?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, you'll recall that even in the days after this agreement was announced back in December, a substantial number of individuals who had previously been held by the Cuban government for their political views were released. And that's an indication that the Cuban government is trying to at least change their reputation when it comes to these issues.
But we have got a long list of concerns. I think the other thing that happens to be true is that for a long time the U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba became a source of irritation in the relationship between the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. And by removing that source of irritation, the United States can now focus attention of not just the United States but other countries in the Western Hemisphere on the Cuban government's rather sordid human rights record.
And again, that is part of the strategy for seeking to engage the Cuban people more effectively, and bring about the kind of change that we would like to see inside of Cuba.
Q: Quickly, with the meeting today with President Buhari, did the kidnapped girls come up at all? Was there any indication of any progress made there? And does the administration feel like this new administration there in Nigeria will have any greater effect on preventing those kinds of kidnappings and bringing that group back safely as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I don't have a detailed readout of the meeting to share with you. I can say that as a general matter the President -- President Obama did have the opportunity to discuss with President Buhari the importance of the security cooperation between our two countries. We know that there are extremists that are operating inside of Nigeria, and that is having a negative effect on the Nigerian population. And the United States is committed to working with the Nigerian government to help them counter those disruptive terrorist activities.
We're also committed to working with the Nigerian government to helping those communities that have been plagued by violence recover. And that will require a sustained investment and a commitment on the part of the Nigerian government. It's also going to require the Nigerian government to improve their own human rights record as well, to make sure that even as they're carrying out counterterrorism raids and other security operations that they're mindful of the basic human rights of their people. And that was certainly an important part of the conversation that the President had today.
Q: Coming back to Donald Trump's comments. You cited approvingly John McCain's calling for Trump to apologize to veterans. Do you agree with that? Does Donald Trump owe veterans an apology?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I've resisted the temptation to weigh in even though I've had ample opportunity to do so on the --
Q: Well, you were approving of what McCain did.
MR. EARNEST: That's right. And I do think it warrants lifting up the selfless example that Senator McCain has established here today in terms of suggesting that he doesn't really care about an apology for himself. He suggested that as somebody who is in the political arena, he's taken his own fair share of criticism and he can handle it. But he's right when he says that our veterans are the ones who are entitled to an apology.
Q: So you agree that Trump should apologize to the veterans?
MR. EARNEST: I agree with what Senator McCain had to say.
Q: Okay. And what do you make of -- I mean, obviously the President has got -- well, he's got history with both of these guys I guess, but particularly with Trump. You may recall there was that whole birth certificate question that Trump didn't seem to want to let go of. What does the President make of the fact that Donald Trump now in several polls is actually leading in the battle for the Republican nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't had a detailed conversation with the President about this. But obviously there's a spirited process that's underway on the Republican side and this will be a significant challenge for Republican candidates, but they'll ultimately have to navigate their way through this process.
Q: What was his reaction in the non-detailed conversation you had with him? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't have more details of that conversation to share with you.
Q: Okay. And then just a clarification on your comments on the Ambassador.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q: It's a little odd to me. You said you wouldn't rule out the President would appoint an ambassador. I mean, we're opening the embassy. Why wouldn't he? I mean, we'll -- I'm not asking you about timing, I'm not asking about who it is, but an embassy is opening up in Havana. Will there be a United States ambassador appointed by this President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we know that there have been significant objections that have been raised by Republicans in Congress, so I don't know if they will fulfill their responsibilities to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. But again, I don't have a time frame --
Q: But I'm asking about the President nominating -- not whether or not we will have a new ambassador, but will the President, even in the face of those Republican objections, will he nominate somebody? Just a yes or no.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't know who that would be. I don't know what the time frame would be, but I --
Q: I'm not asking about the time frame.
MR. EARNEST: -- I would expect that he would do that, yes.
Q: Okay, thanks a lot.
MR. EARNEST: Victoria.
Q: Yes. Given the corruption within the Nigerian military and the fact that it's been infiltrated by Boko Haram, what is the extent to which you feel that you can assist Nigeria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Victoria, the U.S. military personnel have been in Nigeria for some time now to assist them in trying to counter this extremist threat that they face from Boko Haram. And I would anticipate that -- well, I will just say that we continue to believe that we can play a role in helping Nigerian security authorities deal with this threat in their country. And that involves not just carrying out security operations against Boko Haram, which is what Nigerian security officials have done, but the U.S. can provide some intelligence support for them.
We can also support and encourage the Nigerian government as they assist those communities that have been the site of so much of this violence -- that one of the concerns that we have expressed is about how those communities are recovering after they've gone through having a significant Boko Haram presence in their community, they're driven out by Nigerian security forces. We want to make sure that those Nigerian security forces are first, respecting the basic human rights of the people who live in those communities, that they're taking steps to protect those basic human rights, but then also make the investments that are necessary in that community to help them recover from the traumatic presence of Boko Haram.
Q: Josh, I'd like to go back to what Julie was asking about, the golf game yesterday. I would defer to Mark Knoller, but I believe in six and a half years, this is certainly a rare moment when he has golfed with only members of Congress -- I think the only time that all three of his partners have been members of Congress. So are we wrong in assuming this is part of the full-court press on Iran?
MR. EARNEST: With all due respect, yes. (Laughter.) This is a golf outing that has been in the works for quite some time, I can tell you that, for a number of months. Members of Congress aren't in Washington -- aren't often in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, so it took some extensive advanced planning in order to coordinate this weekend's round of golf.
Q: So we would also be wrong in assuming that in the next 60 days there will be more rounds of golf with members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have additional information about the President's golf partners. I'm confident that in the next 60 days, many members of Congress will be playing lots of golf -- (laughter) -- which is why they wanted the extra 30 days to consider the agreement.
Q: Ooooh --
MR. EARNEST: Well, we all know the deal, right? They go on their August recess and so wanted to extend the period of time. That's not a criticism, it's just a fact. I'm confident the President will enjoy the opportunity to play some golf when he is on vacation as well.
Q: Is he looking for partners among the press corps? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of.
Q: Josh, in the wake of the Chattanooga shooting, several states have changed the way business is done at the recruiting centers for servicemembers. Does the President believe, as some governors have said they believe, that there should either be armed guards stationed at those recruiting sites or that the servicemembers working there should be armed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, there are a number of things here. The Department of Homeland Security has announced some additional security measures that they're taking to improve security at those facilities that they have jurisdiction over. The Department of Defense is actively considering some changes in the security posture. I'd refer you to them for any announcements that they may make on this.
Q: And no position --
MR. EARNEST: Well, and I know that there are some who suggest that the policy as it relates to whether or not members of the Armed Forces should carry weapons when they're on duty. That's a policy decision that should be made by the Department of Defense and I don't know if that's something that they're reconsidering at this point. It's the President's view that that decision should be made with solely the safety and security of our men and women in uniform in mind, and not as the subject of a political argument.
Q: Following Newtown, following the Boston bombing, following the massacre at Fort Hood, the President ordered the flags be lowered to half-staff. There have been questions raised about why the President hasn't done the same following the Chattanooga shooting. The White House's response to those questions is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Peter, you've heard the President talk about this issue once last week where he offered his sincere condolences to the families of those who were killed in this attack. I would anticipate that you'll hear the President discuss this a little bit more in his remarks to the VFW tomorrow. I don't have more information about the status of the flag over the White House.
Q: Without being specific to Donald Trump or to John McCain, broadly, does the President believe that everybody who served representing this country should qualify -- should be considered a hero?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that many people have made in discussing Senator McCain's service to this country is that the courage that he showed as a POW is extraordinary; that this is an individual who was confined for many years, and for many of those years had the opportunity to walk out because his captors recognized that there was a propaganda victory in the offing, and he declined the opportunity to be released from the terrible conditions in that prison because of the code and the respect that he had for his fellow prisoners.
And I don't think I would be willing to render a judgment on every single individual who has put on the uniform of the United States military. Certainly we owe them a lot of respect for their service to the country. But there's no denying that Senator McCain's service to the country is extraordinary and qualified him as a hero.
Q: So just by serving, you're not necessarily a hero?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Peter, I'm not going to render judgment on the service of the millions of Americans who have bravely put on the uniform of this country. We certainly are indebted to them for their service to the country, but there's no denying that Senator McCain's service to this country is extraordinary.
Q: Was Bowe Bergdahl a hero?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Peter, I'm not going to get into those kinds of classifications.
Q: Josh, thanks. I just want to clarify something that we talked about a little bit. Back in April, Ben Rhodes said in an interview about the deal that it would provide anytime, anywhere access to Iran nuclear sites. And so I'm just trying to make sure that that's still the case from his understanding, because based on what I've read and based on what Secretary Kerry is now saying, it's not anytime, anywhere; it's more of anywhere in a reasonable time and fashion. Can you help make sense of the difference?
MR. EARNEST: I'd be happy to. Let me give you credit for quoting Ben correctly in that April interview. He did say there would be anytime, anywhere access to Iran's nuclear facilities. That's true. We're going to have 24/7 continuous monitoring of Iran's nuclear facilities. That's what was envisioned in the agreement and that's what was completed in the final agreement.
Q: So you're talking about electronic surveillance and that sort of thing. Not necessarily, hey, you can make a phone call and we can put people in the room at any point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn't rule that out. When it comes to Iran's declared nuclear facilities, international investigators will have 24/7, continuous access to those facilities to verify Iran's compliance with the agreement.
Q: But is that the same as saying 24 days later they can allow you in? Or you're saying, at any point, you don't have that sort of delay?
MR. EARNEST: I'm saying that that delay doesn't come in when we're talking about Iran's declared nuclear facilities. We have 24/7, continued monitoring of Iran's declared nuclear facilities. That's what was promised; that's exactly what was delivered in this final agreement.
Q: Let me ask you about guns. There's an interesting report in The Los Angeles Times today that suggests that those who are on some sort of managed care, Social Security, would have more restrictions by a proposal from the administration to access to -- the ability to access guns. Can you explain that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen that report, Kevin. I know that the central tenet when it comes to policymaking here in the administration as it relates to gun safety is that there are a number of steps that we have been able to take that prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who shouldn't have them. These are people like criminals, people with documented mental problems. And we can implement those policies without in any way undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, and yet, what we believe we can do is make the country a little bit safer.
That's not going to prevent every act of violence. It's certainly not going to prevent every act of gun violence. But it is a common-sense way for us to try to improve public safety. There's actually more that Congress can do in this regard, and we're going to continue to advocate that they do so.
Q: A couple more. Puerto Rico -- they're obviously going through the massive economic issues down there, and some people have suggested it's our Greece. We've seen pushback on that. If Puerto Rico were a state, would that ameliorate some of the problems financially that they're having?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd refer you to the Treasury Department for that kind of accounting. Obviously, that would be a decision for the people of Puerto Rico to make.
Q: Okay. And lastly, a lighter one. Did the President see the video of the shark attack on the surfer? And if he did, what did he say about that to you?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he's seen that video. I haven't actually seen the video itself. I've seen some of the news reports about it. It seems like quite an interesting confrontation.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Does the White House have any reaction to what appears to be the first ISIS bombing in Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: I do. Give me just a second. I can tell you that the United States strongly condemns the heinous terrorist attack that occurred in southern Turkey. Our condolences go out to the families of the victims, many of whom had come to that community to assist in reconstruction efforts in Kobani. We express our solidarity with the Turkish government and the Turkish people, and reaffirm our undeterred resolve to the fight against the shared threat of terrorism.
Q: Is there concern that the Islamic State seems to be expanding into new countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, I think in this case we have talked quite a bit about the important progress that's been made against ISIL in this region of Syria. And obviously we condemn this act of violence against individuals who are actually seeking to go and engage in some humanitarian efforts on the other side of the Syrian border. We continue to be mindful of the destabilizing impact that extremist groups like ISIL have in the region. And that's why you have seen the President work so hard to build and lead an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy them, because of the destabilizing impact that they're having on the region.
And that destabilizing activity takes a variety of forms. There are millions of refugees who have fled Syria. They fled to nearby countries. That has a destabilizing impact on other countries. And we have started to see some extremist activity in other countries that does seem to be related to ISIL, and we continue to be concerned about that. And that's why, frankly, it's been so critically important for us to mobilize other countries in the region in support of our coalition's efforts. And that's why the President is certainly pleased to have the support of so many other Middle Eastern countries inside this coalition, many of whom are actually flying alongside American military pilots as they conduct airstrikes in Syria against extremist targets.
Q: You mentioned earlier, Josh, Cuba's rather sordid human rights record. Would you say, would this administration say, since the historic announcement in December -- setting aside the arrangement both governments made with Alan Gross and the political prisoners that were agreed to in that move -- since then, has the human rights record in Cuba been better or worse than it was before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would -- it's hard for me to sort of assess that in a lot of detail. I think what I would say is that over the course of the last seven months, we haven't seen nearly as much progress as we ultimately would like to see. But considering the previous policy was in place for 55 years, I think some additional time is warranted before rendering judgment about the success of this approach.
Q: You're not prepared to say you're dissatisfied, but you would like -- you would have expected to see and would have been pleased to see more progress?
MR. EARNEST: There's no doubt that there is more progress that's needed in Cuba and more that we're going to continue to press them to carry out.
Q: I was thinking of Jeff DeLaurentis's mandate as the charge d'affaires. Whether he's ever eventually nominated or confirmed is secondary. What's his mandate from the President? What is his top agenda item? Is it to travel the country, to meet with dissidents, to try to press for the release of political prisoners imprisoned since this historic move? Obviously he had to supervise this transition phase. It strikes me now this is a new phase. What is his number-one agenda from the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, overall, his top agenda item will be to represent the interests of the United States on the island. In some cases, that is going to involve making sure that U.S. businesses and U.S. individuals that are engaged in commercial activity on the island of Cuba, that their views are -- or that their interests are represented and protected on the island. That's certainly one reason that we've seen some bipartisan support in Congress for this policy change.
But obviously diplomats who are working at the new U.S. embassy in Cuba will also have the ability to more freely travel throughout Cuba and to interact and engage the Cuban people and, yes, even some members of the political opposition. And we believe that that will better represent the interest of the United States on the island.
Q: How does the President prioritize those two -- representing U.S. businesses and this expansion and this interaction, or other issues dealing with human rights?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say that the President believes that both are important to the mission there for our diplomats at the facility and that they should do both.
Q: Okay. Tomorrow, there might be some expectation the President will address the year past in trying to fix what he identified and what cost the previous Secretary of Veterans Affairs his job. Is the President intending to give an assessment of what he has and has not accomplished in the last year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll have more details about the President's speech that he's preparing for tomorrow. But certainly the commitment of this administration to making sure that we're doing right by our veterans is an important part of that. And it is true that there is more work that needs to be done when it comes to ensuring that we're living up to the promises that were made to our veterans.
Q: Specifically --
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is more work to be done in terms of reducing the backlog, and there is more work to be done in terms of making sure that we're reducing wait times. Substantial progress on both of those counts has been made even in just the last year, but there's more work that needs to get done and the President is insisting that we follow through and build on that momentum that we built up to make sure we do right by our veterans.
Q: One question on Iran. The snapback sanctions provision -- some in the proliferation community who are supportive of this deal, not opposed to it, have, nevertheless, pointed out that there is a kind of dueling character to the snapback provisions, because if they go to the Security Council and the United States vetoes, meaning putting the sanctions back because it's not compliant, under the agreement Iran can say, we're no longer bound by any of these other inspection things. So the deal sort of breaks apart as far as their compliance and the sanctions coming back. And nonproliferation experts have observed that means the United States will be under tremendous pressure not to put the sanctions back in place unless it's an egregious, massive violation of the agreement. And then on smaller things, the temptation will be to ignore those smaller violations to keep whatever part of the deal exists going and the inspection regime going. Is that a fair appraisal of this particular component of the deal?
MR. EARNEST: Major, the way that we see it is that Iran will be under intense pressure to live up to the terms of the agreement. You'll recall that the only reason we have reached this place is that the Iranian government was facing intense domestic pressure to get sanctions relief for their people -- that their economy was crumbling, that we saw the value of their currency significantly diminished. Unemployment rates and other measures of economic activity got significantly worse in the years that this sanctions regime was in place. And there will be -- the Iranian government will be under intense pressure to make sure that they don't end back up under those sanctions. And that is the way that we see this working out.
I think the other thing that's important is there is no sanctions relief that is given until Iran has taken important steps to demonstrate their compliance with the agreement, which means significantly rolling back their nuclear program. So we've talked a lot about how, as a result of this agreement, Iran is committed to reducing their uranium stockpile by 98 percent, removing 13,000 centrifuges, essentially rendering harmless their heavy-water reactor. They have to take all of those steps before they get any sanctions relief.
So even if we are in a situation where we discover that Iran is starting to cheat on the deal, as it were, they will be trying to make up significant ground that they've already lost. And that means that the international community will be in a much better position to respond to any Iranian cheating if it occurs.
Q: Last question. The President saw "Hamilton" Saturday. Did he enjoy the play? And did it in any way alter his belief as to whether or not Alexander Hamilton should be removed from the $10 bill? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President firsthand about this, but I know somebody who did, and he relayed to me that the President genuinely enjoyed the performance on Saturday afternoon, that the President believed that the show lived up to the hype. And so he really enjoyed it and I'm confident that he enjoyed the opportunity to take the show in with his daughters.
There is a policy process that's underway at the Treasury Department that would make a change to the $10 bill but would not, contrary to some rumors, would not remove Alexander Hamilton from the bill. Even with the change, his face would remain on the $10 bill.
Q: So no change in policy, just enjoyment of the play?
MR. EARNEST: No changes in policy that I'm aware of.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Going back one more time to the golf partners. You mentioned this has been in the works for some time. Why these three members in particular? And if the President indeed did not bring up Iran, why not? Why miss that opportunity when he's got three votes golfing with him?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry, when you said -- when you started to ask your question I thought you said "Gulf partners," not golf partners. So when you said the three, I was trying to think of which countries. (Laughter.) So it's going to take me a minute here.
Q: -- Colorado. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. I wasn't aware that Colorado was on a gulf. It's my understanding -- I don't know of the specific topic of conversation throughout the round of golf. I suspect most of it centered on the game of golf. This is a golf appointment that the President had been trying to schedule for a number of months. And again, members of Congress typically aren't in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, so this took some advance planning in order to coordinate it. And I know that the President enjoyed the round of golf, even if it was a little steamy.
Q: It wouldn't be fair for sure to say Iran did not come up?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct, I wouldn't say that, necessarily.
Q: And then, on Nigeria. President Buhari had an editorial in the Washington Post this morning where he asked the U.S. for help in recovering about $150 billion thought to have been taken by corrupt Nigerian officials prior to his administration. Is that something that they discussed in their meeting? Is it something that the U.S. is willing to run ahead on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do know that in the context of his discussion with President Obama that they did have the opportunity to talk about important economic reforms and even some important governmental reforms inside the country. I don't know whether the specific issue of trying to acquire some assets that may have left the country through some corruption -- I don't know if that came up in the conversation or not.
Q: Does the U.S. government have any evidence to suggest that ISIS has used chemical-laced weapons against the Kurds?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we have seen those reports, but we have not reached that conclusion. We certainly are seeking additional information, though, to get to the bottom of those reports. We continue to take all allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria very seriously, as well as any indication of ISIL's interest and intent in using such capability.
We continue to monitor these reports closely, and would further stress that any use of chemicals or biological material as weapons is completely inconsistent with international standards and norms regarding such capabilities.
Q: Just to follow up on Byron's question on the attack in Turkey. Is the U.S. helping with the investigation? Has anybody been in contact with the Turkish government about the attack?
MR. EARNEST: I know that U.S. officials have been in touch with Turkey on this, but I don't know the nature of those conversations.
Q: Thanks. Can I go back to Cuba and ask about potential presidential trip there? You mentioned on Friday a couple of conditions for the President making a trip, including a free press and not suppressing dissidents and political opponents, which seem kind of unlikely to happen by the end of his administration. Does that mean he would not travel to Cuba? Or is it --
MR. EARNEST: I think I was pretty careful in discussing this on Friday to note that these are the kinds of things that we would like to see Cuba make progress on. But at this point, I wouldn't necessarily suggest that the successful protection of those rights is required before any sort of presidential visit is discussed. But as a general matter, when we talk about advocating for the protection and respect of basic human rights in Cuba, it is trying to convince the Cuban government to fulfill what we see as their responsibility to protect basic human rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and a free press.
Q: But you're not saying without those being addressed by the time he leaves office he would not go to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: No, I'm not saying -- I'm not laying down any markers in terms of what would be necessary definitively before a presidential visit.
Q: Are there any markers that are definitive before he would make a trip there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, nothing that I would discuss publicly. But I think that certainly the amount of progress that the Cuban government is making as it relates generally to the protection of basic human rights will factor into the decision by the President to travel to Cuba if he makes the decision to travel to Cuba.
Q: Can you clarify a little bit -- did you say you would hope that they would make a little bit more progress since December?
MR. EARNEST: No. What I'm suggesting is that we believe that there is substantial progress that needs to be made when it comes to respecting basic human rights inside of Cuba. And there are some I think who have -- some of our critics who have suggested that because we haven't seen as much progress as we believe is necessary over the last seven months that somehow that is a reflection of a deficiency in the President's policy. And my response to that merely is that it's too soon to tell since the policy has only been in place for seven months. We had 55 years to evaluate the success of the previous policy and it didn't bring about the kind of results that we would like to see. And the case I would make to you is that it's going to take longer than seven months to demonstrate the clear success of this specific policy change.
Q: Josh, you mentioned the word "engagement" a number of times today. With the outreach to Iran and the outreach to Cuba, are we looking at a burgeoning Obama engagement doctrine or doctrine of engagement with other leaders and other regimes for the last year and a half of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, J.C., the President I think has drawn a pretty clear line between the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, and the relationship between the United States and Iran. The United States continues to have significant concerns with Iranian behavior, including Iran's support for terrorism, Iran's continued menacing of Israel, Iran's support for proxies that engage in destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East.
So the approach that the President has taken to Iran is very different than the President's approach to our relations with Cuba.
I do think that -- and this is something that the President mentioned in his address to the nation on Tuesday -- that the one common principle that I think might be here is that the United States -- he quoted President Kennedy in saying that the United States should not be afraid to negotiate, but should not negotiate from fear. And I think that principle was implemented in our approach to both countries. But when it comes to our relationship, the U.S. relationship with these two countries, they are very, very different.
Q: Would there be other countries, regimes, individuals, leaders that the President may be reaching out to as he continues his last phase of his administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the other country with whom the United States has sought to ramp up engagement is actually Burma. And that is a place where the President has now visited twice, and that, again, is another country that I would put more closely in the category of Cuba than Iran, I think for obvious reasons, but yet is another place where we hope that deeper U.S. and global engagement in Burma can bring about the kind of change when it comes to the protection of basic human rights that we'd like to see.
Q: Josh, just a quick follow to J.C. just to double-check -- since the Iran deal was reached, just to follow up, has the President of the United States and President Rouhani exchanged any kind of communication directly with one another?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware.
Q: Thanks, Josh. First I want to ask about the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce and Eliot Engel, put out a joint statement saying they were disappointed by the U.N. Security Council vote. Does the White House have a response on that and the fact that it was bipartisan --
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the letter, Fred. I'll just say as a general matter, the unanimous vote in the U.N. Security Council is an indication of a strong international community's approach to dealing with Iran. And again, this is a testament to the success of this effort -- that you'll recall that when President Obama took office in 2009, the nation of Iran was united behind their efforts to try to obtain a nuclear weapon; the international community was fractured in trying to prevent that from happening. Because of this President's leadership and because of an important role played by Congress, the international community did band together to impose some of the toughest sanctions that have ever been imposed on another country, and those international sanctions had a devastating impact on Iran's economy, and it compelled Iran to come to the negotiating table.
And they negotiated in good faith with the international community to try to reach an agreement. And the unanimous approval of that agreement by the U.N. Security Council I think is a testament to the success that the international community had in staying unified to confront Iran. This will further our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That has been our goal all along. And it's an important contribution to the safety and security of the United States and our allies and partners not just in the region, but around the world.
Q: And secondly, the congressional committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee, has called the Planned Parenthood senior director that was in that video to give a congressional briefing on some of the facts on that. Given that video that was out last week, is there any possible reconsideration about federal funding for Planned Parenthood in the future?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q: Hi, Josh. Thanks. A couple of questions on Iran, detailed questions. There was some reporting over the weekend out of the Iranian media that the parliament may not approve the ballistic missile embargo (inaudible) included in amendment form. And I'm not sure from what the White House's position is if that's necessary for that piece of the deal to go forward. Do they have (inaudible) in the Iranian parliament?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen that specific report. You may be following developments in the Iranian legislature more closely than I am. And I give you credit for that. I will say that the agreement that was reached in Vienna and announced last week is one that was approved unanimously by the international community before the U.N. Security Council. I think that's an indication of the international community's commitment to seeing this deal go into effect as written.
Q: You're assuming that because it was signed by the Iranians that anything domestically that happens legislatively won't derail it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I'm just saying is I don't know enough about their domestic process to render a judgment either way. What I am following closely are the developments at the United Nations today, which I think are a clear indication that the expectation of the international community is that this is an agreement that would go into effect as written.
Q: Is the White House prepared for it to be derailed by domestic politics in Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not aware that that prospect is likely at this point. But obviously, the thing that we have been clear about -- and I guess this would apply -- the same thing that was true in the final days of the negotiation I guess is true even in this interim period while the various bodies are considering the agreement -- the fact is we continue to have all of the options that are available to us that we did before, but we are hopeful that this diplomatic approach will be successful because we do believe that it is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Q: And a question on the remarks from Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif today, which he basically seemed to be responding to some of what's coming out of Israel and Secretary Carter's visit. He talked about the threat of military action not being taken off the table during the course of the nuclear deal and called it a dangerous temptation. I was wondered if you had a response.
MR. EARNEST: I didn't see the full context of his remarks, but obviously the President's approach to this agreement has been to pursue diplomacy so that the military option is not necessary. But the benefits of this approach that we have advocated is that, if for some reason it becomes clear that diplomacy will not be successful, that we see Iran start to cheat on the agreement, that the U.S. President, whether it's President Obama while he remains in office or the next U.S. President, will continue to have all the options that are currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The President has been unequivocal about his commitment to taking the necessary steps to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The President's commitment in that regard has not changed. It's just his view that the most effective way for us to do this is through diplomacy.
And I know that there are other critics of the deal who have at least implicitly acknowledged that there's no kind of military strike that's possible that would have as much of an impact as this diplomatic agreement would have in terms of setting back the development of Iran's nuclear program over a long period of time. So that's why the President believes that diplomacy is the best strategy for preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But at the same time, the President has also been clear that if Iran cheats on the deal that all options will be available. The most obvious and the most direct one will be to snap sanctions back in place. We know that's pretty effective because the Iranians responded to that kind of economic pressure previously. But there's also the fact that the military option would continue to be available to this President or the next one as well. And in fact, that option is likely to be enhanced based on the knowledge about Iran's nuclear program that's developed in the context of all of these inspections.
So that's why the President has made a very strong case that this agreement and its successful implementation will only strengthen the hand of the next U.S. President as they continue the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Jared, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Two very different subjects, one each. Despite difficulties with Russia, you, the President have cited cooperation in space as something -- as a highlight of an otherwise difficult relationship. What does the White House make of Russian plans to move astronaut training facilities to Crimea?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I hadn't seen that particular announcement, but it's certainly -- what we have indicated is that the space program does reflect an area where the United States and Russia have been able to coordinate effectively in pursuit of our countries and our citizens' mutual interests.
Q: On a separate subject -- you started with Cuba today and I just wanted to finish with it. What leverage does the United States have at this point to work on all the issues that still remain on the table with Cuba? The opponents to this move, the embassies, say that the administration is giving away the store. What leverage does the White House have with Cuba at this point? Because what the President has mostly emphasized has been this cultural exchange that will happen over time, but is there any leverage that the White House -- or, sorry, that the United States has more directly than that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jared, the first thing that comes to mind is that we'll have the leverage of the other countries in the Western Hemisphere that now are no longer distracted by the U.S. embargo against Cuba as the irritant in the U.S. relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. In fact, what we've done is remove that irritant and allowed the rest of the Western Hemisphere to focus more closely on the conduct and policies of the Cuban government. That certainly is a positive development.
I think the other thing that should be crystal-clear to anybody that's been following this policy over the last five or six decades is that any perceived leverage that was included in an embargo did not succeed in generating the kind of outcome that its most ardent advocates believe is important. We didn't see the kind of progress on human rights reforms that we would like to see while that embargo was in place.
And that's why the President has called for the removal of the embargo and to start to take steps to restore diplomatic ties between our two nations; that the policy of isolation is a policy that failed and it was time to try a different approach to succeed in achieving the goal that we all share, which is a Cuba that thrives and a Cuban government that respects and even protects the basic human rights of their citizens.
Q: Obviously the criticism is that the leverage that was there before didn't work, but is there anything new other than this new template you've got for the Western Hemisphere? Is there any specific leverage that the United States can have to try to effect that change more quickly or more directly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I think what we have is we have significantly more diplomatic leverage. And this is leverage that can be used by other countries in the Western Hemisphere. It certainly is leverage that can be used by the United States. It certainly will be an important part of the deeper ties between our two countries. Part of this agreement included ensuring that Cuban citizens have greater access to the Internet and greater access to information, and we believe that, equipped with that knowledge, that that's a good thing for the Cuban people.
And, again, I know that some of our critics may find my case -- because it's coming from me -- to be unpersuasive and that's okay. I think what is persuasive is that most public polls indicate that upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban population actually support this policy change. So that I think is an indication that it's not just the U.S. interests that are best served by this policy; it's actually the interests of the Cuban people that are best served by this policy as well.
But, again, this is something that we can evaluate in the years to come. I certainly am not going to make you wait 55 years to evaluate the success of this policy, but it's clear that the previous policy could be evaluated over 55 years and it clearly did not bring about the kind of results that we'd like to see.
Thanks a lot, everybody. Have a good Monday.
END 1:49 P.M. EDT
Barack Obama, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/311478