Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:50 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. TGIF. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q: Thanks. I wanted to ask you about these requests that come into the Secretaries of State in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana -- Russians officials are wanting to observe elections and were rejected. I wonder if you have any thought for why that was and if you see this as another attempt from Russia to meddle in the election.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's unclear exactly what their intent is with regard to this specific request. The IC has reached -- the intelligence community in the United States has reached a conclusion about what their intent is with regard to some of their nefarious activity in cyberspace, which is to influence the U.S. political process.
There is a system in place where the State Department receives requests like the one the Russians have put forward, and then they refer those requests to state officials, and state officials who are responsible for administering elections in their states can then determine the propriety of allowing the observers to participate. So we'll leave it to those state officials to render that judgment.
There is a process that is organized by the OSCE -- the Office of Security Cooperation in Europe -- that does observe U.S. elections, and we have been able, in the past, to coordinate effectively with them. Russia has had an opportunity to send essentially individuals to be members of those OSCE delegations to observe U.S. elections. Russia has declined to participate in that way. You'd have to ask them why they didn't take advantage of that opportunity if they were so interested in understanding more about the conduct of a free and fair election, something -- a concept that may not be as familiar to those Russian officials.
Q: The State Department called this a PR stunt. Do you think that's what it is?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't quibble with that. But again, I think it is unclear exactly what the Russians were intending to do in this case. I think it's appropriate that people might be suspicious of their motives, or at least their motives might be different than what they have publicly stated, given the nefarious activities that they've engaged in in cyberspace.
Q: And then I wanted to switch to the Supreme Court. I'm sure you saw that Senator Flake came out yesterday and said that it was time to start moving on a Merrick Garland nomination.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q: I'm wondering if you -- I assume you're happy to hear that. Have there been any new conversations, or do you see that as a window to restart that process in any way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is largely the case that we've been making for more than 200 days now, which is that Republicans in the Senate do have an obligation to do their job and to fulfill their responsibility to treat Chief Judge Garland fairly, meet with him and give him a hearing and a timely yes or no vote. And we obviously welcome the comments of Senator Flake that he believes that's what should happen.
He is somebody who has a special influence here because he serves on the Senator Judiciary Committee. This is the committee that would be responsible for organizing these kinds of hearings, as they have for generations. And I did take note yesterday that the chairman of this committee, Senator Grassley from Iowa, had a discussion with some members of the Des Moines Register Editorial Board about this process, and in the context of that discussion, Chairman Grassley indicated that taxpayers couldn't afford for him to hold those hearings. It would require hiring additional staff in order to do so.
The American people have actually hired, already, senators to fulfill their basic responsibility. And that basic responsibility is to give a fair hearing to the President's nominee to the Supreme Court. So Senator Grassley is wrong when he says that the American people can't afford to hold those hearings. The truth is, the American people and the people of Iowa can't afford to be paying the salary of a Senator who's not doing his job. And Chairman Grassley has not been doing his job. And that is, unfortunately, a rather significant departure from the rest of his Senate career. I know that he's somebody who prides himself on acting in a nonpartisan fashion and putting the best interests of the people of Iowa and the people of this country above his party. But in this regard, he has failed to do that in this situation and I think as is evident from his rather lame explanation for why he hasn't been doing his job.
That's different than Senator McConnell bragging about not doing his job, but is concerning nonetheless. And I think in some ways the comments of Senator Flake underscore just how indefensible the position is that's been adopted by Chairman Grassley.
Q: And just one more. I'm sure you noticed then that Secretary Clinton didn't mention Garland by name when she was asked about the Court in the debate the other night. And I'm wondering if you take that as a sign that she doesn't intend to re-nominate him.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what she stated pretty candidly is her view that the United States Senate has a responsibility to consider the nominees that a President puts forward. And she indicated her strong support for that principle. She also has indicated her strong support for the President's decision to nominate Chief Judge Garland. She did that on the very day that Chief Judge Garland's name was put forward.
So I don't know who President Clinton would nominate to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court if she is elected President. At this point, I don't know if there will be a vacancy on the Supreme Court the day that she takes office. We continue to make the case that the Congress should act. Either way, if she's President of the United States and there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court, she will decide who she believes is the person that should fill that vacancy, and the Senate would have a responsibility to give that person a hearing and a timely yes or no vote.
Q: Josh, can you confirm a report by some of my colleagues today that a U.S. Navy warship has carried out a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea? And if so, can you explain what the U.S. hopes to achieve with that type of operation?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I can confirm that last night, the USS Decatur conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, specifically in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands. The purpose of this mission was to uphold the rights and freedoms of all states under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention. This operation demonstrated that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law.
As we've discussed at some length in here, the United States is not a claimant to land features in the South China Sea. The view of the United States is that disputes about claims to those features should not be resolved through coercion or military force or intimidation, but rather through negotiation. And that's a principle that we believe strongly in. And our interests in the region, again, are not rooted in particular claims or supporting particular claims that are made by countries with overlapping disputes, but rather our view that international order is best maintained if these kinds of disputes are resolve through negotiation. And our interest is that this is a region of the world through which a lot of commerce passes and the disruption of some of these commercial shipping lanes could have a negative impact on the global economy, and even a negative impact on the U.S. economy.
So that's what our interest is, and that is an interest that we will look for opportunities to convey. And that essentially is the message that was sent by the operation that was carried out by the USS Decatur last night.
Q: Are you concerned at all that China will view this as a provocative act?
MR. EARNEST: They shouldn't. I guess you'd have to ask them for a response. They shouldn't, because this is a principle that reflects what we believe is the broad interest of the international community. We believe that it's in China's interest to ensure that international norms are not violated or international order is not disrupted in this region of the world.
China has a significant economic interest in this region of the world in the same way that the United States does as well. And the kind of -- or the principle of freedom of navigation in international waters is one that we assert not just on behalf of the United States and the United States military, but one that we assert on behalf of states all around the world, including China. So you'll have to ask the Chinese for a response to this particular action, but we would not intend for this to be viewed as some sort of a controversial or confrontational action on the part of the United States, but rather an illustration of our firm commitment to an important principle that serves the interests of countries around the world.
Q: We've heard some interesting statements from the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, the last couple days. I mean, his office today is seeming like they want to walk some of it back and saying that he wasn't fully saying that he wants to completely -- I think you know what I'm saying.
MR. EARNEST: I do.
MR. EARNEST: I've dubbed that person the Filipino Mike Pence. (Laughter.)
Q: But what do you make of the impact of his words? I mean, there's a point -- often we say, okay, let's look at actions, this is rhetoric. But is there a point now with Duterte that it's gone beyond rhetoric and that some of what he's saying is actually either damaging or dangerous to the relationship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, we certainly have seen a lot of this kind of troubling rhetoric recently. The rhetoric is inexplicably at odds with the warm relationship that exists between the Filipino and American people, and the important cooperation that's existed between the U.S. and the Philippines at a government and military level for decades. We haven't heard any specifics from the Filipino government about what precisely President Duterte means when he refers to a separation, but those comments are creating unnecessary uncertainty in our relationship.
Danny Russel, who is a senior State Department official, is actually traveling to the Philippines on a previously scheduled trip to have a discussion about the scope of the relationship between the United States and the Philippines, and I'm confident that these recent comments from President Duterte will be on the agenda as we seek some clarity from the Filipino government.
For the United States, I can tell you that we will continue to do what we've been doing for a long time, which is we're going to honor our alliance commitments and our treaty obligations. And our expectation is that the Philippines will do the same thing. The United States and the Philippines have been allies for 70 years, and we value the relationship that we have with the Philippines. And the truth is, the Filipino people and the Filipino government have benefitted tremendously from the warm relationship that they have with the United States. And you can evaluate that in terms of our security cooperation. You can evaluate that in terms of the deep economic ties between our two countries. You can even evaluate that based on the deep cultural ties between our two countries, including a vibrant and active Filipino American population that's concerned about the relationship -- or the uncertainty that's been added to the relationship between the United States and the Philippines.
Q: This is somebody, obviously, who is now known around the world for his rhetoric. That's probably why he was elected. So at this point, do you take those words seriously? I mean, does it reach a certain point where you do? Or do you generally just see this as more rhetoric that is designed to make a statement or get some rise out of the United States.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, when you're the leader of a nation that has a seven-decade-long alliance with the United States, it comes with a set of important responsibilities, including understanding the consequences for your public statements. And we've seen too many troubling public statements from President Duterte over the last several months. And the frequency of that rhetoric has added an element of unnecessary certainty into our relationship that doesn't advance the interests of either country. And, frankly, it is at odds with the warm relationship between the citizens of our two countries, and it certainly is at odds with the benefits that the Philippines has enjoyed as a result of the alliance between our two countries.
Q: Are you seeing within some of his statements a real intent to back away from the agreements and the relationship with the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the bottom line here, Michelle, is that there is some uncertainty about what, exactly, his intent is. Again, you all have extensively covered the kind of rhetoric that he has used. Some of it personal, some of it offensive, some of it confusing, all of it walked back by senior officials in his government. So that's the source of the uncertainty that will certainly be part of the discussions that the Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Russel, will convene in the Philippines when he arrives there.
Q: Okay. And we just heard from the Italian Prime Minister, talking about the potential of further sanctions on Russia over Syria, saying that he doesn't think that that works, that that doesn't change the behavior, that there's no point to it. What do you think of his thoughts on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States approach has been to leave the option of sanctions on the table. And what we -- in discussing publicly these options, we've made clear that our concerns about Russia's behavior in Syria are significant. And we've also made clear that the use of this particular option -- financial sanctions -- is most effective when implemented in careful coordination with our allies and partners around the world.
We've also been reluctant to speak in much detail in advance about what a potential sanctions architecture could look like, because, frankly, we don't want to tip off individuals or entities that could be the target of those sanctions so that they could begin to take steps to evade them before they've even been put in place.
So I can't get into a lot of detail in terms of characterizing our thinking about this, but the United States is deeply engaged with our allies in Europe, but also with countries in the region, to look for ways to reduce the violence inside of Syria, including by holding Russia accountable for their actions in Syria, which have been entirely counterproductive to reaching a solution that advances the national security interests of countries around the world.
So Secretary Kerry and other State Department officials remain deeply engaged in a variety of multilateral efforts to try to arrive at that kind of conclusion, and we're going to discuss with those partners a wide range of options, including the potential of using some of the financial sanctions tools that, in the context of Ukraine, have imposed some economic costs on Russia that have hurt their economy.
Q: It doesn't change his behavior, though. It sounds like you agree that the behavior hasn't changed. I mean, that's obvious for all to see. But by leaving it on the table, it seems like you're saying that there is a potential for it to do something, though.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there is the potential that adding additional sanctions and imposing additional costs on Russia -- we know at least one impact it will have, and it's a negative impact on the Russian economy. And it is among the tools that are available to the President and the rest of the international community for trying to reduce the violence in Syria that's gone on for far too long.
And as we discussed in here at some length, there is a fundamental contradiction in the strategy that President Putin has pursued. He has intervened militarily in a conflict to shore up the Assad regime even though he says that the Assad regime needs to negotiate a political transition in that country.
So if we can mobilize the international community to apply additional pressure to Russia to resolve that fundamental contradiction in their strategy and in their tactics, then that could potentially lead to the kind of reduction in violence that's, frankly, long overdue.
Q: There were attacks overnight in Kirkuk and at a power plant in Iraq. That seemed to be an indication that even if the coalition is advancing towards Mosul, ISIS's focus may be shifting from holding territory to insurgency or terror attacks. So I know we've heard a lot about the preparations for Mosul, but I'm wondering if the U.S. has done anything in coordination with Iraq -- the Iraqi government -- to help them sort of fortify themselves for the possibility of terror attacks, and also if that concern could spread to the U.S. and Europe about ISIS-directed or ISIS-inspired attacks and whether that would spur the U.S. government to kind of -- Homeland Security to worry about the doing some --
MR. EARNEST: Well, why don't I take the first part of your question first in terms of the situation in Iraq. You'll recall, Justin, that there were a series of bombings in Baghdad earlier this year, and in response to that situation, the United States did ramp up the kind of assistance that we can provide to the Iraqi central government to help them better protect their homeland and to better help prevent the infiltration of ISIL personnel into major urban areas where they could do significant damage.
So that kind of cooperation already exists between the United States and Prime Minister Abadi's government. And we stand ready to offer assistance or equipment or expertise or advice to the Iraqi government as they respond to this latest breach of their homeland security, if you will.
With regard to ISIL's ability to focus its efforts outward and to expand and inspire people around the world to carry out acts of violence, this is a threat that we have long been focused on mitigating. Many of the military operations that the President of the United States has ordered have been focused in taking ISIL's chief external plotters off the battlefield. And we do know that the success of a couple of those military operations has had an impact on the ability of ISIL to organize and plot overseas attacks, but we remain vigilant about it.
Our principal concern from the very beginning was that ISIL could try to establish some kind of safe haven in this region of the world and use it to plot and organize attacks against the United States and our allies. So that is the most direct threat that we are very focused on, and we continue to be. We've made progress in minimizing that threat. We know that taking these external plotters off the battlefield makes it harder for them to plot and plan. We know that just applying pressure to ISIL's leadership in general makes it harder for them to plot and plan against the United States. If they're very focused on their own safety it makes it harder for them to threaten the safety of other p around the world.
Another key aspect of ISIL's propaganda efforts has been to try to send a message to people around the world that they're establishing a caliphate there and that using the establishment of that caliphate added a lot of credibility to their argument and could aid their ability to inspire people to carry out acts of violence. So that's why we've been steadily focused on trying to undermine that message. And we rolled back more than 50 percent of the territory that ISIL previously controlled in Iraq. We now have the Iraq capital of ISIL in the crosshairs. So that certainly had undermined their ability to deliver a potent propaganda message about the power and influence of ISIL. That is going to have a negative impact on their ability to inspire people around the world to carry out acts of violence in their name.
But I guess the shortest answer to your question, Justin, is simply that the United States continues to be very focused on protecting the American people and our allies from the threat that emanates in Iraq and Syria from ISIL.
Q: Ash Carter is visiting Turkey today. I'm wondering if he's going to be explicitly asking Erdogan to pull his troops back from the camp outside of Mosul and not participate in this defensive. If so, what you kind of rate the likelihood of being able to broker a solution there or an agreement between the Iraqis and the Turks.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I'll let my colleagues at the Department of Defense read out the specifics of the meetings that Secretary Carter has with President Erdogan. The message that we have delivered publicly is the same one we delivered privately, which is that our Counter-ISIL Coalition is operating in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi central government to support Iraqi security forces who are fighting for their own country. And that is a principle that we have insisted on from the very beginning of our counter-ISIL efforts.
And Turkey has had a military presence in Iraq because of a concern that they have about some extremist Kurdish elements in Iraq. But we have made clear that any effort, or any operation that's undertaken in support of the counter-ISIL operation is one that must be coordinated with and in support of orders given by the Iraqi central government.
And thus far, with regard to that Turkish presence outside of Mosul, we have not seen movements that have raised concerns about the Turks violating that principle. But obviously, this is a situation that we'll continue to monitor. And Secretary Carter and others will continue to stay in close touch with their Turkish counterparts to remind them of, frankly, how strongly we feel about that principle.
Q: There was a report from the United Nations that as many as 550 families outside of Mosul might have been gathered up by ISIL, brought into the city to be used as human shields. I'm wondering if you guys have seen that, if you agree with that assessment, and if you're doing anything sort of in response to redirect the offensive.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't independently confirm that report. Obviously, the U.N. has extensive resources on the ground, so I'd refer you to them in terms of trying to get to the facts of that specific matter.
The truth is, Justin, there are more than a million people in the population of Mosul, and all of them are at risk of being used as human shields. And there has been deep concern expressed by some observers about the potential humanitarian contingencies that could arise from an operation against Mosul. The truth is there's already a serious humanitarian situation that exists inside of Mosul right now. We know that ISIL in Mosul has carried out heinous acts of violence in order to subdue the local population. They have flagrantly violated the rights of the citizens of that city, and we know it is likely that they will try to use some of those innocent civilians as human shields, even in the context of this operation.
So we continue to be deeply concerned about the situation there. And while I can't confirm that report that you've cited, if true, it would only add to the longstanding concerns that we already have about the current situation inside of Mosul, even in advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces entering the city.
Q: Last one, on a different topic. There's a massive denial of service attack this morning that caused problems for dozens of U.S. businesses -- Twitter, Reddit, Spotify. Is the U.S. aware of this? And is there any concern that this could be part of what seems to be an escalating cyber war with Russia?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen the reports of this. I know that the Department of Homeland Security -- that is the U.S. government agency that is responsible for monitoring our security in cyberspace and coordinating with the public and private sector to protect U.S. interests in cyberspace -- is monitoring this situation. And they'll take a close look at it. But at this point, I don't have any information to share about who may be responsible for that malicious activity.
Q: Jacob Zuma has decided to pull South Africa out of the ICC. I'm wondering whether that alters your view on South Africa's role in fomenting instability and the rule of law in the region.
MR. EARNEST: Andrew, I have to admit I had not seen that report before I came out here, but why don't we take a look at it and get you a response.
Q: The President yesterday called for a big victory in November. I wonder if he agrees with your old colleague, Mr. Plouffe, and his assessment that it's necessary to run up the big score against Donald Trump in order to repudiate not just the candidate but his ideas.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has spoken at length about what he believes the stakes are of this election. And the President is certainly not taking any votes for granted. I think that's why you have seen him make such a vigorous case for Secretary Clinton and for other Democrats on the campaign trail. And his activity in the two and a half weeks that remain before Election Day is only going to increase.
So the President is not just guarding against, but warning against complacency. And I recognize how that can be confused for trying to run up the score, but the President understands the stakes of this election, and as he alluded to yesterday, his view is that the only way that Democrats lose this election is if they don't actually show up at the polls; that there's ample public evidence to indicate that most voters and most Americans are supportive of the ideas that Democrats have put forward. And the challenge now is just ensuring that those voters express that view at the polling place. And the President will be making that case in the days ahead.
If that includes a clear, unambiguous, unmistakable repudiation of the divisive rhetoric and cynical tactics that are used by Republicans, that would be a welcome outcome as well.
Q: I take your point that the broader sense that you see the margin of victory in the general election is important.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President has expressed his deep concerns about the divisive rhetoric and the cynical tactics that have been deployed by Republicans. His concern is that that rhetoric and those tactics are inconsistent with American values and inconsistent with the kinds of democratic traditions that previous generations of Americans fought and died for.
And so the President is cognizant of the stakes in this election and believes that people should not be complacent, and that a strong outcome in terms of repudiating the rhetoric and pessimistic vision that's put forward by the other side would be a good outcome.
It's not going to end the debate, because, ultimately, there is going to have to be a decision made by Republicans -- not just those that are on the ballot but those that are in Congress -- to decide if they're prepared to actually focus on some kind of governing agenda again. For the last several years, we've seen Republicans focus all their efforts on colorfully opposing any progress that President Obama advocates -- so much so that they end up opposing the kinds of policies that they'd previously backed just because President Obama is the one that's putting them on the table. And that has led Republicans to a situation where even Republicans are wondering what Republicans in Congress stand for. And I think that's why you see such intense dissatisfaction for Republican leadership in Congress, not just across the American electorate, but even among voting Republicans.
So this election is important because of the people who will take office as a result of this election, but it's also important to recognize that this debate and this question about the health and vitality and functionality of our system of government is going to extend beyond Election Day, and it's going to include some pretty significant soul-searching on the part of Republicans.
And this is not just a view that you've heard the President express. This is a view that leading Republicans in Washington, D.C. have expressed. This is part of what Senator Flake I think is referring to and expressing his concern about the way that the Senate has treated Chief Judge Garland for the last 200 days or so. He is somebody that some Republicans have described as a consensus nominee. Some of those same Republicans are refusing to even hold a hearing to consider his nomination. I think that is exhibit A in illustrating how Republicans have abandoned any sort of principle, any sort of notion of advancing a common-sense governing ideology so they can prioritize throwing sand in the gears of government.
And when it comes to midterm elections, that has allowed them make some political gains. That's proved to be an effective political tactic, but it has not proved to be an effective strategy for running the country or enhancing the confidence of the American people that Republicans have a clue as to what they should do about the future of the country.
So that's a longer answer, I think, than I intended to give when I started giving it, but I think it's an illustration of how the question that you're asking is relevant not just for the next 18 days, but for -- certainly these are the kinds of questions that Democrats and Republicans are going to have to answer on into the next administration.
Q: Just a very quick one. Duterte was just speaking in his hometown, and he said he won't sever ties with the U.S. Does that clear things up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we will -- based on his extensive, colorful previous comments, there is greater clarity that we would like to get about the intent of President Duterte and his government. But based on what you've read me, that seems to be a change in tone that is more consistent with the seven decade-long alliance between the United States and the Philippines.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Do you deny that the White House is so confident that Secretary Clinton is going to win the election that the President can really expend a lot of capital down ballot? It seems to me that he's putting a lot of energy and effort in that, and not just the President, but also key surrogates -- the Vice President, the First Lady.
MR. EARNEST: The good news, Kevin, is that the White House has the capacity to do both. You saw President Obama deliver a very forceful speech not just in support of Secretary Clinton yesterday, but also in support of the Democratic candidate for the Senate. So I would expect that in the two and a half weeks or so that remain, that you'll see the President, as he travels, make a forceful case not just for Secretary Clinton -- although that's his primary objective -- but also to articulate his support for Democrats up and down the ballot.
I would also hasten to add that President Obama's ability to try to persuade voters in the context of this election is not just limited to the geographic locations where he chooses to travel. President Obama has already appeared in a wide range of television ads that will be airing across the country over the next couple of weeks -- again, not just for Secretary Clinton, but for Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, but also even some Democrats at the state level, as well. And again, I think this is a testament to the deep reservoir of political will and support that the President has not just among Democrats across the country, but also among independents.
And the President is prepared to use that capital to benefit Democrats in this election because those Democrats share his values, and those Democrats are committed to building on the kind of progress that we've made over the last eight years. It doesn't mean that President Obama agrees with every Democrat on every issue, but it does mean he has confidence that Democratic candidates are the ones who are committed to pursuing the kind of economic strategy that benefits the middle class and that will benefit the U.S. economy over the long term, and a national security strategy that will effectively advance our interests around the world.
Q: Let me ask you about that strategy. Because on the one hand, it seems like the President is sort of -- pretty pointedly talks to the GOP base and says things like, well, how can you support a guy who did X, Y and Z, but then at the same time, the woman who had hoped to be his successor seems to be courting that very same base, saying, hey, listen, GOP voters out there, you should vote for me. Why the disconnect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you may be misunderstanding the President's message. I think the President is actually making a broad appeal to Democrats, Republicans and independents that frankly they should be asking tough questions of Republican candidates for office who continue to support the Republican presidential nominee, based on all of the controversial rhetoric, based on all of his comments that indicate an abject opposition to the kinds of values that we hold dear in this country. I think that does raise some serious questions about the judgment and character of many Republican candidates for office. And that is something the President believes that Democratic, independent, and Republican voters should consider as they evaluate the candidates below the top line of the ticket.
Q: Let me ask you about the latest round of leaks. And I know that you've been loath to sort of comment on them, specifically, because some of the veracity of what has been leaked has been in question. But still, it seems to be sort of a cascade of more inside information that seems to buffet the argument that Bernie Sanders and others weren't treated equally by the Democratic Party. How do you reach out then to the voters who backed him so strongly, and make the case to them that they should back Secretary Clinton -- when it seems to me, and certainly seems to a lot of them, the books were cooked, if you will, throughout that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think each voter is going to have to make up their own mind. And many of those people all across the country who chose to be active in support of Senator Sanders's campaign for President did so because they were animated by a core set of values and priorities and an idea of where they would like to see the country go. They were supportive of a candidate who is looking for a more just America, and a government that was looking out for the interests of middle-class families and college students who are borrowing significant sums of money to try to prepare themselves for a 21st century global economy. They got involved in his campaign because they want to make sure that the next President is somebody who actually acknowledges the reality of climate and is committed to doing it. They supported his campaign because they want somebody who is going to responsibly try to advance the interests of the United States in the international community.
And our expectation is that they will continue to be motivated by those values and that vision, and use it to determine who they should support in the upcoming election. And that certainly is what Senator Sanders himself has urged them to do. And if they take his advice, I think basically all of them are going to be supportive of Democrats in the next election.
Q: Is there a concern that that won't be the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we're certainly not going to take anything for granted. And I think that you've heard the President make rather direct appeals to people who had previously supported Senator Sanders's campaign and talked to them about the stakes in this election, and that the same kinds of values and priorities that prompted them to be engaged in support of Senator Sanders are the kinds of values and priorities that should lead them to support Democrats up and down the ballot in this election.
Q: Lastly, I want to ask you about something that we've talked about just a bit, and that's the Clinton Foundation. Is it the administration's perspective that the Clinton Foundation and sort of the relationships that Secretary Clinton had with leaders and others from different countries around the globe who were then later found to have donated to the Clinton Foundation -- is that consistent with the messaging that this administration wanted by way of its Secretary of State?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I don't think this is about messaging. This is about making sure that you have a Secretary of State that is putting the interests of the United States of America first when she's engaged in her professional responsibilities and representing the interests of the United States at a very high level.
Q: But blur the line, wouldn't you admit?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think there's any evidence that Secretary Clinton did anything that was contrary to the interests of the United States. In fact, we saw that she acted and conducted herself very effectively to advance our interests around the world. And the President is proud of her service as Secretary of State.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to follow up on something Kevin asked about. The speech yesterday -- I mean, it seemed less of a speech in support of Patrick Murphy than a takedown of Marco Rubio. I mean, it almost sounded like that Marco Rubio spit in the President's coffee or something. He seemed really going hard at him. And beyond what you said about Senator Rubio continuing to support Donald Trump, and everything the President mentioned, I mean, is there some kind of personal history there? Why did the President go after Senator Rubio so hard when we really haven't seen him go that hard on other specific Republican senators the way he did yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President made a very vigorous case in support of Democrats. And yes, he raised sharp questions about the judgment of Senator Rubio and others who continue to pursue a strategy that prioritize obstruction and opposition over everything else. There's a great example, which is Senator Rubio, at one point, played a constructive role in trying to broker a bipartisan compromise for immigration reform. He did so -- Senator Rubio did so because he recognized that that would benefit the country and because it's consistent with our values, and because it reflects his own personal story. But he turned his back on all of that when the politics got tough.
The President believes, as he said yesterday, that that says something about his character. It says something about his priorities that he pursues when he's in elective office. And it sounds like, and it appears from that episode, that those priorities are much more centered on his political ambition, his desire to be loyal to his party, his desire to raise money from Republican donors, and not the best interest of the U.S. economy or securing the border, or fighting for the kinds of values that he occasionally speaks rather eloquently about on the campaign trail.
Again -- and this is not -- I know it may have seemed to Senator Rubio like a pretty direct and even personal criticism. But this is a concern that the President has about a wide variety of Republicans that he's been dealing with over the last eight years. Republicans in Congress time and time again prioritize political tactics that obstruct the President's agenda over the national interests, over the success of the national economy, over investments in the middle class, over the safety of our national security.
That's unfortunate. And it is an indication of the state of the Republican Party. And it's how you end up in a situation where a bunch of Republican voters nominate somebody who has gained notoriety because of his colorful opposition to President Obama, but doesn't actually show much interest in trying to advance a conservative governing agenda. That's how Republicans have ended up where they are. And that's the kind of soul searching that they're going to have to engage in after the election to figure out how they're going to get back on track.
The President -- and you guys have heard him say this too -- the President is interested in a Republican Party -- he believes the country is well-served by a Republican Party that, for all their differences with Democrats, is actually interested in trying to move the country forward. It doesn't mean folding on all their principles. In fact, it means trying to stand up for those principles and looking for opportunities to work with Democrats to advance them. And there was an opportunity to do that in the context of immigration reform until people like Senator Rubio walked away when the political heat got a little too tough.
And the President is hopeful that the next President of the United States will have a different set of partners in Congress to work with.
Q: Hey, Josh. Has the White House been assured by Judge Garland that if Hillary Clinton is elected President, he will not remove his name from consideration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lana, that's not how it works. His name is in consideration until the Congress adjourns at the end of the year, and then there will have to be a reevaluation by the White House about whether or not to put him forward. And Secretary Clinton, if the vacancy is still there, will have to decide if she wants to nominate him or somebody else to fill that vacancy.
But I can tell you that President Obama certainly is committed to his candidacy and believes that he should serve on the Supreme Court. And I certainly know that somebody with the credentials of Chief Judge Garland, who could serve the country so well on the Court, is still very interested in using those skills to benefit the American people on the Supreme Court.
Q: But there will be a period of reevaluation, as you mentioned, after the election, as to whether or not -- let me say it this way. Republicans have said that they will consider Judge Garland's nomination if Secretary Clinton is elected President. We have been wondering if that's going to happen. And can we be assured that Judge Garland is not going to say, now that a Democrat has been elected he no longer wants to be considered?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen no evidence to indicate that Chief Judge Garland is somehow going to withdraw his name from the process. And President Obama is certainly committed to doing everything we can to see Chief Judge Garland be confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Q: But has the White House asked him about that specifically, since it's something that the Republicans are discussing very publicly?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any -- I don't know why we would ask him. I don't know why he would wait around for 200 days and then pull out at the very moment that it seemed likely that he was going to get confirmed. So I think that's not likely to happen.
Q: WikiLeaks. Your statement last night was -- or your office's statement last night was that you wouldn't comment on hacked emails of a private citizen. At that point, Mr. Obama was a sitting senator. He was President-elect. Why make the distinction about a public citizen? And certainly you can't claim that for Mr. Obama at that point.
MR. EARNEST: Right, they weren't his emails that were hacked, they were the emails of Mr. Podesta, who is a senior official on the Clinton campaign. And it's his emails who were hacked. And again, you guys get to make your own journalistic determination about whether or not it is appropriate to report on that kind of stolen material, but I'm not going to comment on material that was stolen from a private citizen just because it's been thrust into the public sphere, in part because there has been a determination that's been made by the intelligence community that the kinds of tactics that were used to plunder Mr. Podesta's emails are the same tactics that we know the Russians have used in other settings to get access to material and make it public in an effort to undermine our political system.
So I guess I have lots of good reasons, lots of principled reasons for not commenting on it.
Q: Okay. And finally, just one more question about the election. How is the White House feeling about the down-ballot effects of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think -- I'll let you guys play the sort of political analysts. And I think that there's lots of spinning going on by both sides. I haven't heard a lot of people spinning that the Republican nominee is helping Republicans down the ballot, but maybe there are some people out there who can make that case, and it's a free country so they're welcome to do so.
What the President is focused on is making sure that Americans understand the stakes of this election. And it matters deeply who succeeds President Obama in the Oval Office, but it's also pretty important who will represent communities across the country in the United States Senate, who is going to represent communities across the country in state legislatures. The stakes in this election are high, not just at the presidential level but at the legislative level, too -- both for the federal government but also for state government. And the President is going to make his voice heard, and he's going to make a forceful case for Democrats up and down the ballot. And he's in a position where we expect a lot of Americans to be persuaded by his advocacy.
Q: Any other candidates that the President will really be pushing for in these final days?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, many. Stay tuned.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Of course, the First Lady is out on the campaign trail, too. They've both been making a lot of noise lately. And a lot of pundits and writers have been saying that the First Lady is Hillary Clinton's most potent surrogate. Would the President agree that she has more power to move the needle in this election than he does?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President would agree that there are just some basic facts about the First Lady. The first is, she is somebody who enjoys the deep respect of a large majority of Americans.
Q: But does she have more power than he has in this election to change people's minds?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she also is somebody who is a very persuasive speaker. She is somebody who has been able to make a forceful, personal case about why she's involved in this election. And yes, I think the President would admit that his wife is an enormously influential and powerful surrogate in support of Secretary Clinton.
Q: More than he?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I think he would -- for all the reasons that I just cited, based on the strong support and deep respect that people across the country have for her; based on the compelling personal argument that she has been making in support of Secretary Clinton. And she's also quite talented in her own right when it comes to delivering a speech. And those things I do think combine to make her a very powerful advocate for Secretary Clinton and probably the most powerful advocate that Secretary Clinton has.
Q: Could we rewind the tape for a second here and go back to your conversation with Michelle when you said -- when you compared President Duterte of the Philippines to Mike Pence. Can you repeat what you said and explain the likeness a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: So I'm glad you asked, because Michelle was actually making reference to the significant number of senior Filipino officials who have tried to walk back certain things that President Duterte has said. In some cases, they've gone to the extraordinary length of denying that he's even said them when the videotape would suggest otherwise. And I think many of you have observed that Governor Pence found himself in a similar position a couple weeks ago.
Q: Just back to Mosul. Do you have anything more on the American servicemember who was killed in the operation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, let me start by saying that the Department of Defense did announce yesterday that an American had been killed in support of -- while he was supporting a Peshmerga operation in Iraq. And the thoughts and prayers of everybody at the White House are with the family of that U.S. servicemember who was killed in action yesterday.
As you've heard me say on a number of occasions, those American servicemembers who are serving our country in Iraq are doing very dangerous work and they are putting their lives on the line to protect our national security. There is a clear threat that emanates from ISIL and they are operating in a dangerous part of the world to try to mitigate that threat.
Now, the role that they are playing is to offer their advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces that are taking the fight to ISIL, on the ground, in their own country. That means that they don't have a combat role, but the work that they are doing is very dangerous. And they are equipped for combat because, in some cases, they find themselves in situations where they need to -- are forced to defend themselves. And so --
Q: Was this individual on the front lines?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have details about the incident itself. I know that the Department of Defense is investigating the situation to learn more about what exactly happened, and updates on the situation will come from them.
Q: But it's still the White House assuring the American public that there are not -- maybe I'm wrong -- that there are not Americans on the front lines in this fight.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we see in these situations, Ron, is that there are -- and this sort of goes to Andrew's question -- Kirkuk, for example, has not been on the front lines of the conflict, but it was the site of very serious violence yesterday in Iraq. And there were significant casualties as a result of ISIL's activities in that location that was not on the front lines.
So I can't speak to exactly where this servicemember was, but based on the fact that they were serving our country in Iraq, acting in support of the Peshmerga advance on Mosul, is an indication that they were in a very dangerous situation and that they were in that dangerous situation because they were trying to protect the United States of America. And we owe that servicemember and their family a deep, deep debt of gratitude.
Q: Is the President willing to do -- to win this battle, this offensive -- is the President willing to do anything it takes to win this particular battle, including increasing the American military role there?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, the President has made the case that the success of this operation over the long term depends on a couple of things. The first is the ability of Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga forces to effectively coordinate in this effort. And that's what we have seen. They have already undertaken some very logistically challenging operations as they begin their advance toward Mosul. And we certainly would compliment them on their ability to coordinate their efforts.
But ultimately, Ron, in order for us to see the kind of sustained success in resolving the security situation inside of Mosul, we know that it has to be Iraqis fighting for their own country. And they have to be operating under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. And there's an important role the United States military can play to advance their efforts on the battlefield. We can carry out airstrikes in support of their operations. We can provide them equipment and expertise that can be used on the battlefield to make them more successful against ISIL targets. But ultimately, they have to be the ones on the front lines fighting for their own country. Because they also need to be the ones who are responsible for rebuilding that community once ISIL has been dislodged.
Q: So it's some 5,000 troops. That's the top, that's the cap? That's the number that the American public can expect in Iraq during -- for how long?
MR. EARNEST: Certainly for as long as President Obama is Commander-in-Chief. The role that will be given to our men and women, our servicemembers who are serving in Iraq, will be to, in some cases, provide training to Iraqi security forces, in other cases to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi security forces that are taking responsibility for the security situation in their own country.
We do maintain Special Operations forces that do have a unique counterterrorism capability that, in some cases, they may be called on to undertake raids, to go after high-value targets or to go after caches of information that could have significant intelligence value. There are obviously U.S. military fighter pilots who are carrying out operations, dropping bombs on ISIL targets.
All of that work is very dangerous, and all of that work is a testament to the bravery and skill of the American military, but it is also a testament to the strategy that President Obama believes is critical to our long-term success, which is that we need to build the capacity of security forces to fulfill the responsibility of fighting for their own country.
Q: Just one on Aleppo. There's talk of another humanitarian pause, and I can anticipate your skepticism about that. At the debate the other night, Secretary Clinton again said that she supports the idea of safe havens in that area. In terms of the transition that's going on, the talks that are going on, is there ever any discussion between Secretary Clinton's people and the White House at that level about her views about something like that, a safe haven in Syria versus the current White House position of no safe haven? I know you're talking about a lot of things, but is there ever that kind of level discussion about those kinds of matters?
MR. EARNEST: No, there's not. The fact is, the President and his national security team are working to formulate the kind of strategy that advances our interests against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. And if Secretary Clinton is elected to be the next President of the United States, then she'll have an opportunity to participate in a transition process in which there will be extensive conversations about what our strategy has been. And then on January 20th, Secretary Clinton will take office as the President of the United States, and she can form her own national security team and implement the strategy that she believes best advances our interests.
All that is obviously contingent on the outcome of the election. But before the election, I would not anticipate that kind of consultation that you're asking about.
Q: And it's still the President's position that this is not in America's national security interest to create this sort of safe haven, as it's been generally described?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I'll also point out that it's also the conclusion of the United States military that imposing a safe haven like this is not the most effective way to advance our interests in the region. And the President has routinely pushed his national security team to evaluate different options, to consider the likelihood that different strategies could be more successful, to look for ways to reinforce or ramp up our investment in some tactics that are yielding progress.
That's the kind of rigorous process that the President has been focused on, and that has allowed us to make a lot of important progress against ISIL, both in Iraq and in Syria. But thus far, the conclusion of the President's national security team is that the approach that we're pursuing now in trying to reduce violence in Aleppo through diplomacy and using our military might to focus on ISIL has advanced the security interests of the United States, has made the American people safer, has degraded ISIL. But we haven't yet seen the kind of reduction in violence in Syria that we'd like to see, because there continue to be too many innocent people in harm's way.
Q: So his strategy is working.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's no denying that we've made important progress.
Q: But you just said that you haven't seen the reduction in violence that you want to see, so that aspect of it is not -- the strategy is not working in terms of that particular goal.
MR. EARNEST: We haven't accomplished our goal yet. We have made important progress in driving ISIL out of about 50 percent of the previously populated territory that they previously controlled in Iraq. We've been able to drive them out of about 25 percent of the territory in Syria that they previously controlled, and this is a swath of territory in northern Syria that's about the size of the state of New Jersey.
So there have been important gains in dislodging ISIL from certain territory and reducing the violence in certain territory. But there are some populated areas, including in Aleppo, where we haven't seen the reduction in violence that we'd like to see yet.
Q: Josh, a minute ago you talked about -- you made a comparison of the tactics used in the Podesta hack and tactics that have been blamed on the Russian government. I just want to make sure I'm clear that the Homeland Security Secretary and the DNI talked about the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and others. Do you know something about who's responsible for the Podesta attacks?
MR. EARNEST: The United States has not reached a formal determination about that, but I believe what the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security have said is that the kinds of tactics that we saw with regard to the malicious activity on Mr. Podesta's email account are similar to the kinds of tactics that we've seen used in other places. Obviously, the outlet is the same, but I'm not aware of any sort of formal determination that ascribes responsibility to one country or one actor with regard to the malicious activity in Mr. Podesta's email account.
Q: Thank you, Josh. On North Korea -- North Korea is continuing to threaten to launch ballistic missiles, and it would also devastate the White House. How do you address that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry, can you repeat the question one more time?
Q: North Korea threatening with their ballistic missiles. It would also devastate the United States and the White House.
MR. EARNEST: I see. Well, as we've discussed in here before, the President over the last several years has increased the U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific to counter the ballistic missile threat from North Korea. And that includes the deployment of anti-ballistic missile capabilities in places like Japan and Alaska and Guam. There are Aegis-equipped U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific that can be used to protect the United States.
And the President, his national security team and military leaders believe that sufficient resources have been deployed to protect the United States. We're looking to enhance the kind of cooperation that we already have with South Korea to locate a THAAD battery, an anti-ballistic missile battery in South Korea that would better protect the South Korean people, our allies in South Korea from the ballistic missile threat in North Korea. But we continue to be confident that the President's decision to deploy those military assets adequately protects the United States from that threat in North Korea.
What I will say is those repeated threats and provocations from North Korea do have a destabilizing impact on the region. And our goal is to work with the rest of the international community to apply sufficient pressure to the North Korean regime so that they will abandon those destabilizing, provocative tactics and actually pursue an approach that's more consistent with their international obligations.
Q: Yesterday, Secretary Kerry mentioned that U.S. and South Korea, 2+2 ministerial meeting. He said that the United States has the ability to devastate North Korea any time. Do you agree?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly would not contradict Secretary Kerry. The United States maintains significant capabilities. But what we would like to see is a de-escalation in Northeast Asia and an end to the provocative rhetoric and the destabilizing actions like nuclear tests and missile tests that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. That's the constructive path we would like to see North Korea pursue. And when I said "we," I don't mean just the United States -- I mean the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China all agree that that's what the North Korean government should do.
Q: I'd like to follow up on my colleague Chip's line of thought regarding an individual who was in the middle of all this divisiveness, as you call it, and rhetoric has come out very favorably and very powerfully, and that's the First Lady -- her very speeches, her surrogate opportunities for Secretary Clinton. Would she ever consider coming back into this White House on a future date, not as the First Lady but perhaps as the President?
MR. EARNEST: No. (Laughter.)
Q: That's it?
MR. EARNEST: That's it.
Pam, I'll give you the last one.
Q: The President's email was hacked last year on the unclassified server. Is there any concern that any of those emails could find their way onto WikiLeaks? And was the perpetrator ever identified there? And if so, is that the kind of thing that would provoke a proportionate response from the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Pam, I've never discussed the President's email system, and so I've never been in a position of suggesting that somehow the integrity of the President's email system has been violated.
What we have acknowledged is that there is a -- that there was an intrusion on White House email networks a year or two ago. I'm not aware that any public attribution for that malicious activity has been revealed by the intelligence community, but that is something that was obviously closely investigated by the intelligence community and by the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.
The White House did take steps to enhance the safety and security of the email system here, but I don't have any response to discuss publicly.
Q: And just on that OPM hack, did that -- was that ever determined publicly who was the perpetrator and whether that would require a proportionate response?
MR. EARNEST: With regard to the breach of the OPM systems, I'm not aware that any public announcement was made about who was responsible for that intrusion, but we did talk at some length, in the context of that intrusion, about the kinds of capabilities and potential responses that the President could use with regard to that intrusion. But I don't have any insight to share about what public response -- or what sort of response was mobilized.
Q: Is it that you haven't figured out who did it? Because you were pretty clear about North Korea did the Sony hack and Russia hacking to influence the elections, but we still don't know who, officially, who did that OPM hack.
MR. EARNEST: When these breaches are reported, there is a careful investigation that's conducted by experts at DHS and other investigative agencies like the Department of Justice and the FBI. And, in the context of those investigations, what they do is they try to learn as much as possible about the individuals or organization or country that perpetrated the attack. They try to get insight into what vulnerabilities they were able to exploit, and try to determine what information was put at risk.
What they also do is they also evaluate whether or not naming the malicious actor would advance the investigation or advance the interests of the United States. And that's why, on a case-by-case basis, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement carefully evaluate whether or not naming a country or a criminal organization would be helpful.
For what decision they have reached or why they have that decision, I'd refer you to those investigative agencies. But what the President has tried to do is to prioritize the resources that are used by the United States government to protect the American people and to protect our interests in cyberspace. And there is a lot of work to be done because the United States is in a position where we're quite vulnerable. So much of the work that we do on a daily basis, not just in government but also in the private sector and in the lives of our daily citizens involves connectivity to the Internet, and that includes risks.
And so that's why the United States government has been working aggressively. And it's why, frankly, we retain better defensive and offensive capabilities than any other country in the world. We need them, given how much our country and our economy and our national security relies on the Internet and our ability to use the Internet in the context of our daily lives.
Q: Anything on the mass outing today online?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry.
Q: Is the White House aware of the mass Internet outage today?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, Justin asked me about it. So the DHS is tracking it.
Why don't we do the week ahead.
On Sunday, the President will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada to deliver remarks at an event for Hillary Clinton and for Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto.
In the evening, the President will travel to San Diego, California, where he will deliver remarks and take questions at a DCCC event.
On Monday, the President will deliver remarks at a Hillary Victory Fund reception. And then, in the afternoon, the President will travel to Los Angeles where he will participate in a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live.
In the evening, the President will participate in a DNC and Hillary Victory Fund roundtable.
On Tuesday, the President will participate in a DSCC roundtable, and in the afternoon he'll come back to the White House.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
And then on Friday, the President will travel to Orlando, Florida, where he will participate in a Hillary For America event down there.
Have a good weekend, everybody.
END 1:05 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/319297