Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see a correction marked by an asterisk below.
11:39 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody.
Q: It is morning.
MR. EARNEST: It is morning. Nice to see you all.
Q: Love it.
MR. EARNEST: I do not have any comments to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Kathleen, would you like to start?
Q: Sure. I wanted to see if you had an update on the situation in Italy at all, if you have any new announcements on assistance or resources.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any additional details about the situation in Italy. Obviously, we've seen Italian officials significantly increase the number of people that they have now concluded died in an earthquake, and I think it's an indication of how traumatic an event this was. And I know that Secretary Kerry has had an opportunity to consult with his counterpart, and the U.S. offer of assistance remains open.
Even in an event like this where the devastation is so widespread, the Italian capabilities are significant, and they have significant resources in this region of their country that is prone to earthquakes. But we're obviously going to stay in close touch with Italian officials, and if there are ways for the U.S. government or individuals in the United States to offer them assistance in dealing with the aftermath of this tragic event, we'll be prepared to offer that assistance.
But at this point, I'm not aware of any specific assistance that's been requested so far.
Q: Okay. And then, moving on to Yemen, U.N. Human Rights Chief is calling for an international investigation into rights abuses and treatment of civilians in that conflict. And I'm wondering whether or not the White House is concerned about some of the rise in civilian casualties in that war, and if there is any pressure being put on the Saudi government to mitigate that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been concerned for quite some time about the degree to which civilians in Yemen have been caught in a crossfire in that conflict, and that's been a source of significant concern. And we have encouraged all sides in that conflict to be mindful of the responsibilities that they have to avoid civilian casualties.
So that's a message that we have delivered. It's also why the United States has been so strongly supportive of U.N. and other multilateral efforts to try to bring the military conflict in that country to an end. But Yemen is a country that's been plagued by significant problems for quite some time, and our partners in Saudi Arabia have been understandably concerned about the way that the turmoil and conflict in that country poses a security threat along their border.
So their concerns about that situation are understandable, but there have been widespread reports about civilians being caught in the crossfire. And we've encouraged all sides in that conflict to be mindful of the responsibility that they have to prevent and avoid civilian casualties.
Q: So you don't see this as a moment to specifically call out any of the Saudi attacks or to apply additional pressure to --
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been -- I mean, unfortunately there have been reports for years about -- or at least more than a year of situations in that conflict where civilians have been innocently harmed or killed. And we've expressed concerns about that many times in the past. We continue to have those concerns and continue to publicly remind people on all sides of that conflict that they have a responsibility to avoid civilian casualties.
Q: Thank you. So, Florida Governor Rick Scott on Wednesday, he was complaining that the federal government has not delivered all the Zika antibody tests and laboratory support that he has requested. I was wondering, do you have any response to that? Why hasn't Florida gotten all of the antibody tests it's asked for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't speak to the specific requests that the Governor has made. I'd refer you to my colleagues at the CDC who may be able to provide you an update on the provision of that assistance.
I think what is clear is that the federal response has been negatively affected by the refusal of Republicans in Congress to act on the funding request that President Obama put forward six months ago. It is clear that there is more that the federal government can and should be doing to try to protect the American people. And there's no reason this should devolve into a partisan fight.
The President put forward a funding request based on the advice that he received from his national security team, from public health professionals and from the top scientists in the federal government. And despite that scientific request, Republicans have engineered a political strategy to block it. And that's been quite disappointing, particularly when you consider that it's congressional representatives in Congress, in the Republican Party, who are representing states that are most directly affected or at the highest risk from the Zika virus. There are a lot of Florida Republicans in the House of Representatives who opposed the President's funding request.
So I certainly understand Governor Scott's frustration. But at the end of the day, the President, the Vice President, the top scientists in the U.S. government have appealed to Congress, appealed to Republicans in Congress, encouraging them to act on this funding request. And Republicans in Congress have resisted.
At some point, leading Republicans from the states that are most directly affected are going to need to echo this call. And we're going to need to see Republican senators from Florida and from Louisiana and from Georgia contact Mitch McConnell. We're going to need to see Republican House members from Texas and Alabama and Mississippi appeal to Speaker Ryan and make the same case that President Obama and leading scientists have made about the necessity of Congress acting on Zika funding.
Q: Well, Republicans will say they have passed a funding bill, but I know that the White House did not support some of the provisions that were in it.
MR. EARNEST: It didn't pass the Senate.
Q: And they would say that Democrats didn't go along with that. But I guess -- so my question is, does the bill have to be --
MR. EARNEST: I'm not really sure why that's an excuse. They've got a strong majority. The President put forward a strong proposal that also got bipartisan support in the Congress. There are some Republicans that did support the administration's funding request.
Ultimately, there is a responsibility that Leader McConnell has as the leader of the Senate to do important things for the American people. That's why he ran for the job in the first place. He wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the day after the election saying, under his leadership, "now we can get Congress moving again." Apparently, he didn't explicitly note that he was not going to get Congress moving again when it actually relates to public health emergencies and properly funding the response.
But he's failed on that. And Republicans have failed. And Republicans are the ones that have to account for their failure to get this done.
Q: I guess on to Syria, Russia has agreed to a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in Aleppo, but there's -- some security guarantees are being awaited from other parties on the ground. I wonder, did you have any kind of response to that agreement? Support for that -- this temporary ceasefire? Anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's important to understand the context here. And the fact of the matter is that over the last month, the Assad regime, backed by the Iranians and the Russians, launched an offensive in Aleppo to try to cut that city off, to try to isolate that city to enhance pressure on not just the civilians who live there, but also the opposition forces that are based there, as well.
And in encircling the city, the Assad regime blocked the very road that the U.N. was using to provide humanitarian access. And again, the efforts of the regime were backed by the Russians and the Iranians. So that's why you're not going to see me standing here giving the Russians all that much credit for their position on this.
What the United States supports is the U.N. effort to try to broker all sides to come together around some kind of agreement that would allow humanitarian assistance to reach people in the city who so badly need it. And we certainly would welcome the Russians and others engaging constructively in that process and reaching an agreement so that that badly needed humanitarian access can be provided.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Donald Trump's recent comments to try to win over African Americans, and talking to them about how the Democratic Party has been for them have obviously been controversial. Donna Brazile called his comments "delusional," I think. So what does the administration think about his pitch to black people in America?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think I have a specific response to the appeal that's being made by the Republican nominee. What I will say is something that the President has said, which is the President does believe that these are the kinds of debates that we should have in the context of a presidential election, that candidates in both parties should put forward their agenda, and the priorities and promises that are made by the candidates should be carefully scrutinized by the news media and by the voters. And so people who are interested in understanding the priorities and agenda of the candidates should look at their record, should listen to their rhetoric on the campaign trail, and should draw their own conclusions about whether or not that person is likely to represent their views in a leadership position in Washington, D.C.
And obviously, the President has strongly held views about the ideas that have been put forward by both sides. But ultimately people are going to decide for themselves, and they should do so based on a careful examination of the record and agenda of both candidates.
Q: Some people are talking about feeling offended by some of the things he said as it relates to African Americans. So the President, not only being African American, but feeling strongly about this issue -- is he offended by those comments?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't asked him about this particular aspect of the Republican nominee's pitch. But, look, I think the President does believe that the candidates should be judged based on their record, based on their history, but also based on the agenda and priorities that they're laying out and based on the promises that they are making in the context of the campaign. And it's important for all of you to scrutinize that, and clearly you're asking about it so that's something that you've done, but it's important for voters to do the same thing.
Q: Okay. And let's talk about some of the things that Vice President Biden said yesterday. It came up briefly. But not only did he say, "God willing" there will be enough evidence that you're presenting against him, but he said that he wished that Gülen was in another country. So is he kind of just -- was this a slip of the tongue in some of the comments that he made? Does the administration agree with both of these statements, or not agree with them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the point that Vice President Biden was making is that there is a well-established process that is outlined in the extradition treaty between the United States and Turkey and the U.S. law that governs how these kinds of requests are resolved. And I think, again, what I think he's alluding to is the fact that this issue has created some tension in the relationship between the United States and Turkey, and it's not tension that is going to be quickly resolved, because it's important for this process to be followed and for the rule to be followed, and for the treaty to be adhered to.
And the administration has made a firm commitment to the Turkish government that we will consider their requests on the merits, and we've actually followed up those promises with action. There are Department of Justice officials in Turkey right now meeting with their counterparts to go over the evidence that's been presented. And I think that's an indication that we're committed to following the process. And again, I think what the Vice President is alluding to is the fact that this issue that's created obvious tension in the relationship between our two countries is not something that's going to be resolved overnight. It's not a decision that can be made unilaterally on short notice by the executive branch. There is a much longer process that has to be followed, and the administration is committed to following it even as we are aware of the concerns that have been raised by our allies in Turkey.
Q: But do you think that he misspoke when he said, God willing, there will be enough evidence?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I wasn't in Turkey when the Vice President made those remarks, and I haven't had an opportunity to talk to him or his team, since they're flying back from Europe now. But I think the intent of his message I think is consistent with what we've been saying from the beginning.
Q: And also, I think he had mentioned Gitmo also. We talked about this yesterday, too.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q: When you're saying that the President feels that this he'll get this closed by the time he leaves office, but there are also people that have not been cleared for transfer to other countries and you won't transfer those people, so then is the process and the plan that those people eventually will be cleared for transfer? Because I thought there were always going to be a handful that you couldn't transfer and you knew that already. So how is he going to get this closed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what we will continue to do is to work to overcome the obstacles that Congress has erected to prevent the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And that's unfortunate, particularly when you consider that Democrats and Republicans, national security professionals in both parties, agree with the conclusion that President Obama has reached, which is that the American people are best served by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, both as a matter of national security -- because closing the prison would remove a tool that we know extremists use to recruit followers -- it also would save taxpayers money, and it's a fiscally responsible proposal and approach that we are taking here.
And it's not just the Obama administration that's making that case. Democrats and Republicans who are experts have made this case. So we're going to do our best to try to get this closed, and it's our expectation that that's what we'll do. I can't lay out for you exactly the path for how that's going to take place right now, but the President has made clear that this is a priority and he did that in the earliest days of his presidency, and it remains a priority here at the last several months of his presidency.
Q: Just to be clear -- so you're saying that Congress will have to be involved then to completely close it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I'm saying is that Congress has erected enormous barriers that we have to figure out a way to deal with them. And we would welcome constructive engagement from Congress to accomplish this goal that, again, Democratic and Republican foreign policy experts have acknowledged is the right goal -- and that's closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q: Apart from the funding, Governor Scott has also called on the administration, he says, repeatedly, to outline ways in which Florida should be able to cooperate with FEMA to combat the Zika virus. He says that hasn't been forthcoming. Is there a reason that the administration can't do that? Is that connected to the funding?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the specifics of his request. I know that public health professionals at the CDC have been engaged with their counterparts at the Florida Department of Health even before Zika was detected in Florida -- or at least even before local transmission was detected in Florida.
So we've been focused on robust, effective state and local and federal coordination on this. So if there are any differences of opinion about this, I'd refer you to CDC for how we can work through them.
Q: But he seems to suggest that there have been repeated requests that haven't been answered.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not sure exactly what they are, but you might check with the CD. And if there's a holdup, they can explain to you what it might be. And it's certainly possible that some of that holdup is related to the insufficient funding that Republicans in Congress have provided for this effort.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Can you give me the administration's reaction to the U.N.'s report that the Assad regime is, in fact, using chemical weapons on the people of that country?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, what we have seen from the Assad regime for years now is the unconscionable use of violence directed at innocent civilians. Indiscriminate violence has basically left the country in tatters. And it's the failure of the Assad regime's political leadership that we have reached this point where they have directed the might of the Syrian military against innocent people and against political opponents of President Assad's leadership.
And that indiscriminate use of violence has taken a variety of forms. It's included the use of barrel bombs. It's included the targeting of medical facilities and other areas that everybody knows civilians are located. And it has also included the weaponization of an industrial compound like chlorine in a way that has created innocent victims.
So there's nothing particularly surprising here. But it is something that has rightly earned international condemnation, and is an indication of the continuing tactics that have been employed by the Assad regime that have cost him the legitimacy to keep leading that country.
Q: Can I ask you about the EpiPen controversy? We looked at some of the pricing. As far back as 2007, they were going for about $57 each. I've read in reporting that the prices have gone up about 500 percent just since 2009. And while the company today did make an acknowledgement that they would do something to help people by making an adjustment in their pricing, what's the administration's reaction to this problem, which I think will impact millions of Americans, to say nothing of the fact that people who can't afford $600 for an EpiPen? In particular, we're talking about a kid who might have asthma or other life-endangering problems.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. Listen, this has gotten a lot of attention over the last couple of weeks. And we had an opportunity to talk about this yesterday. I'm just not going to be in a position to talk about the individual pricing strategies of a private company, in part because that private company is regulated by the federal government in a variety of ways. So I'll let the regulators do their job.
But I'll make the same observation I did yesterday, which is that there are other pharmaceutical companies that have tried to style themselves as innovators and people who are committed to advancing public health through the discovery of lifesaving medicine. Other pharmaceutical companies have run into problems when they have sought to, in a morally questionable way -- morally questionable, at best -- jack up the prices on lifesaving medicine. Jacking up the price on lifesaving medicine is inconsistent with a stated mission of providing lifesaving medicine to lots of people.
And other companies have found that a pricing strategy like that doesn't just raise a lot of moral questions, it's also proved to be a rather poor business strategy when you consider the toll that it's taken on the public reputation and stock price of other pharmaceutical companies.
So the administration, and certainly President Obama, has made reducing the cost of prescription drugs a priority, and we have had some success in the context of the Affordable Care Act in limiting the growth in health care costs, including prescription drug costs. But there is certainly more that we could do. And allowing Medicare, for example, to negotiate drug prices is one thing that we could do. And there have been proposals in the President's budget to give the government agency that runs Medicare that kind of authority.
Republicans in Congress have resisted that. And that's unfortunate, because we believe that the public would be well-served by taking that kind of step. But Republicans apparently are more committed to serving the interests of the pharmaceutical companies than they are of patients in America.
Q: Lastly, I want to go back on a question that we talked about yesterday, as it relates to the Iran payments. And I know that you and I talked about this sort of broadly -- just dates back to 1979. It was Iran's money. People have sort of gone over that ground. But what I'm most interested in is this New York Times report, which talked about the 13 payments that were sent each for -- or make that $99,999,999.99. I did reach out to Treasury to try to get just sort of an understanding of why they were using that specific number. At least from the outside it looks like they were trying to avoid some sort of reporting threshold. I think that's a fair curiosity, to say the least.
And so what I wanted to understand from you is also -- the President has previously said that we used hard currency because we didn't have a formal banking relationship with the regime, and yet you talked about a fund from which the Treasury could draw from to send this money. And so I'm just trying to line these up. On the one hand, you're saying the President said himself, we don't have a banking relationship, we had to use currency -- pallets of dollars, or whatever, euros. And yet, we have this fund from which I'm imagining they were able to electronically transfer dollars. Can you explain that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of it I can explain. Let's go through a couple of things. The first is, I think it is difficult to make the case that somehow the administration was trying to obscure these payments when the dollar figures that you're citing actually come off a government website that we self-reported. Right? You cited the $99,999,999.99 -- or whatever it is. Good luck with the transcript on that one, Beck.
Q: But you admit, it sounds like structuring, though. If you think back to basic banking -- and I didn't want to sort of dive into the Speaker Hastert thing -- but if you're trying to give money and it's up to the $10,000, and okay, I'm avoiding the reporting if I stay under the $10,000 threshold, that's kind of what this looks like a little bit. That's why I mentioned it.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I think you're mixing two entirely different things. On the one hand, you've got a former Republican official who was engaged in some nefarious activity. But I guess the point is, he was trying to avoid the attention of law enforcement by structuring his payments in a certain way, and was --
Q: Or reporting in general, I think is what I was getting at.
MR. EARNEST: And I guess my point is, we self-reported these payments. They're on a website and that's how you know about them. So I don't think anybody can make the case that somehow we were trying to hide those payments when the fact is we self-reported them.
But to go to your second question about the judgment fund, the judgment fund is actually a -- and we can get experts to talk to you about this who know more about this than I do. But this is something that is used at The Hague to essentially settle financial disputes like this. So this fund exists, and that's the pool of money that was used to make this $1.3 billion interest payment that, again, because we were able to settle this dispute for $1.3 billion in interest, we actually did potentially save taxpayers billions more in interest payments.
Q: Yeah -- like $10 billion or something.
MR. EARNEST: Right. So that's why we continue to make the case that this is an agreement that is one that's good for the American people on the merits. The fact that this fund exists and is used to make payments for a variety of settlements is separate from the question that you're asking about how exactly the funds were transferred. This is the part that I'm limited in talking about. What we have acknowledged is that we were able to coordinate with a central bank, using the money and these funds, to essentially be a partner of ours in executing this transaction. We have not disclosed the identity of that central bank, primarily because we're trying to protect the privacy of our partners who had essentially done us a favor here.
The reason that we had to work with this other central bank is because there are significant limitations that prevent transactions from the U.S. central bank to the Iranian central bank. And those limitations are in place because of this administration's commitment to isolating the Assad regime for their support for terrorism, their menacing of Israel, their frequent violation of human rights, and our concerns about their ballistic missile program not being consistent with United Nations Security Council regulations.
Q: You meant the regime in Tehran.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the regime in Tehran. So that's the explanation. I think we have acknowledged all along that the situation is complicated. But the fact that the funds were disclosed on this website and you're asking me about them now I think is an indication of, despite the complexity, we have tried to provide as much information as possible about what exactly happened and to explain to the American people why exactly it's in their interest. And in this case, it saved the American people potentially billions of dollars.
Q: Last one. I just want to make sure I'm understanding. So from this fund, let's just say the money goes from this fund to a central bank, yet unnamed, and from that bank they convert the money into I guess euros or other currencies, and that's kind of how that ends up on the pallets and on their way to Tehran. Is that kind of how it played out, to the best of your knowledge?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we have acknowledged is that, generally speaking, that is how the initial $400 million principal payment paid out, was by working with the central bank, we were able to move the currency to Iran. We haven't been as specific about the mechanism of the payment for the $1.3 billion in interest other than to say we had a similar arrangement with a central bank, also unnamed, to move money from the judgment fund to complete the commitments that we had made in the context of this financial settlement.
Q: Do you think the American people deserve to know about that central bank? Is that an unreasonable expectation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I understand the curiosity that some people may have, but I also think that people can understand why there are a lot of other countries that probably don't want to advertise the ties between their central bank and Iran because Iran is a country that is isolated and they do have a bad reputation. So you can certainly understand the interest that our partners would want to have in protecting their confidentiality. And our ability to work -- our ability to maintain our credibility and work with central banks around the world is contingent upon us living up to our commitments. And we made a commitment to protect their confidentiality, and so that's what we've done.
Q: I'm curious, could you say whether the White House is heartened by Donald Trump's apparent change of heart when it comes to immigration policies that he would pursue as President -- especially since some of the fate of the President's own approaches towards immigration would depend on who becomes President, or whether you take him at his original word for the past year or so as he's been on the campaign trail in terms of what kinds of immigration policies he would pursue if he were to be elected President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, I think that the challenge facing the American people as they consider who to support in the next election is to listen carefully to the promises, agenda, and priorities as articulated by the candidates themselves. And the President believes that's how people should make their decision.
Q: But which ones should they listen to?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think that's what makes that question even more difficult than it otherwise would be. But ultimately it will be up to the American people to take a look.
Look, the President has made his views pretty clear on this in terms of who he's supporting and why. But the American people are going to have to decide for themselves.
Q: But specifically on immigration, do you believe that he would now pursue a set of policies that no longer include deportation of all of the undocumented folks here in the country, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think people are going to have to decide for themselves. And the truth is, people in both parties are going to have to decide for themselves.
Q: They might look towards the White House, which has played a leading role on immigration for a long time, for guidance as to --
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And I think the President has made quite clear who he intends to support in the general election. And I think you'll have ample opportunity over the course of the fall to hear him make that case.
Q: I can't draw you into this.
MR. EARNEST: I don't think so. (Laughter.) I don't think so. But look, I noticed that -- I would expect you won't have any trouble drawing the Republican nominee's Democratic opponent into this debate. I also suspect you won't have any trouble drawing other Republicans into this debate, including people like Senator Cruz, who I saw had some pointed comments about this earlier today, too.
Look, this is going to be -- people are going to have to work through their own assessment of this situation. And it means paying close attention to the extensive comments that candidates on both sides have made on this issue.
Q: On Syria, the Chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee said that Assad's continued use of chemical weapons has "made a mockery of the President's red line." I wanted to get your reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dave, what is clear is that we have seen the Assad regime weaponized an otherwise common industrial compound, chlorine, to carry out acts of indiscriminate violence against his own people. That's consistent with the tactics that we've seen previously, including the targeting of medical facilities and the dropping of barrel bombs out of helicopters, even in places where the Assad regime knows that civilians are located. So this is part and parcel of what we have seen from the Assad regime for years, and it is obviously immoral. It is just the latest in a series of unspeakable acts of violence against innocent people. And it's led to a terrible situation inside that country, and it's threatened to tear that country apart. And it's tragic.
Q: Obviously, three years ago you had a deal with Russia to eliminate Assad's chemical weapons. Obviously that didn't happen. Does the President regret not having taken more forceful steps at the time to deal with Assad?
MR. EARNEST: Well, David it is important to draw a distinction between what we indicated that we were prepared to do and had succeeded in doing, which is getting the Assad regime to acknowledge that they had a stockpile of sarin gas, for example. This is a weaponized chemical weapon that they could not legitimately have. And until the United States had engaged in effective diplomacy with Russia, the Assad regime had refused to even acknowledge that they possessed those kinds of chemicals. But because of the tough diplomacy of the United States and Russia, we did succeed in getting them to acknowledge that they had those chemicals, getting them to disclose the whereabouts of those chemicals, and getting them to cooperate with efforts to collect and destroy those chemicals. And that's made the world a safer place. And as bad as the situation is in Syria right now, it would be even worse if we knew that the Assad regime's stockpile of sarin gas, for example, was floating around a country that had essentially been overrun by extremists. But that has not happened because the United States and Russia succeeded in destroying their declared chemical weapons stockpile.
That is the situation that we described, and that is what has improved the situation on the ground. Unfortunately, that has not prevented the Assad regime from taking a compound like chlorine and weaponizing it. The Assad's regime creativity in wreaking havoc and violence and bloodshed against innocent people apparently knows no bounds. And that's tragic, and it has rightfully earned the Assad regime international condemnation, vigorous condemnation.
But the fact of the matter is, the situation would be even worse and would be even more dangerous to American troops in the region if the declared chemical weapons stockpile that the Assad regime previously had were still in existence. But it's not because of the efforts of the United States and Russia to round up all that Syria declared that they had, and destroyed it.
Q: Is it the administration's belief that you did get all of his chemical weapons at the time and he made more, or he hid some from everybody, or you just don't know?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we know is that we rounded up and destroyed tons of it. There has been an ongoing investigation by international experts to determine if there is more, and they're still looking. And we should be vigorous about checking that out.
Q: What else is the administration willing to do at this point to prevent more chemical attacks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what we have tried to do -- and with mixed success at best -- is to try to deescalate the military conflict inside of Syria, to get countries like Russia and Iran to use their influence with the Assad regime to implement a cessation of hostilities and expedite the kind of political transition that everybody acknowledges is necessary to resolve the situation inside of Syria.
And earlier this year, there were several weeks of time where the cessation of hostilities actually worked better than just about everybody expected. And that did allow for humanitarian organizations to get access to communities in Syria that had been denied it for a long time.
But we have seen, especially in places like Aleppo, that cessation of hostilities fray, and that's cost innocent lives. And that's why we continue to make the case to the Russians primarily that they should stop aiding and abetting an Assad regime that's making the situation worse by continuing to claim innocent victims in their military operations.
And we've made the case to Russia that the continued actions of the Assad regime make the situation worse, they exacerbate the chaos, but they're also not in the interest of Russia, and that Russia does risk deepening themselves in the kind of sectarian conflict that's not in their interest.
So it's not just a matter of the United States making the case to Russia that they should do the world a favor, but rather making the case to Russia that they need to reconcile the internal contradiction in their strategy, which is -- on the one hand they say that a political transition is necessary inside of Syria, but on the other hand they aid and abet the military operations of the Assad regime that only allow Assad to hold onto power.
And reconciling that internal contradiction is something that Russia is going to have to choose to do at some point. The question is how many people have to die before they do it -- how many innocent people have to die before they do it.
Q: Josh, you've spent a lot of time discussing the public health aspects of Zika and the ensuing panic that's been going on for literally weeks and weeks. But I've heard very little discussion on the fiscal impact that Zika is having, especially on the hotel and tourism business in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Has the President or anyone from the administration been in touch with the Small Business Administration to ask for additional support, disaster relief through their loan programs, et cetera, to support the very struggling economy right now?
MR. EARNEST: We have been mindful of this concern, and that's why we've tried to be as specific as possible in describing the risk that individuals in particular neighborhoods of South Florida and in Puerto Rico face. And some of that is driven by a desire to not erroneously raise fears.
People are understandably concerned, and particularly in the neighborhoods that we've identified have legitimate concerns. But we're encouraging people to consult the CDC and their doctor for advice about whether or not to travel to these particular regions, and we do so mindful of the potentially economic impact of this disaster, or at least of this situation.
I think this goes to why we continue to make the case to Republicans in Congress that there are whole lot of reasons why an effective, robust response to the Zika virus should be properly and adequately funded, and should be funded at the level that our public health professionals say is necessary to do everything possible to stop the spread of the Zika virus. And that's not happened. And that's a tab that Republicans in Congress are responsible for.
Q: Financially, this is becoming the tourist season in that area, and there are hotels and there are restaurants, et cetera, travel -- folks down there who I've been in touch with who are very frightened that no one is going to show up, basically, because -- and they are losing revenue already. That was my question about the SBA and any kind of funding that is there in place that could be supporting the industries down there.
MR. EARNEST: There certainly are contingency programs that are maintained by organizations like the SBA. I don't know whether or not they've had to use it in this case yet, but you can check with them about whether or not those funds have been tapped.
Q: Just on Syria. So what you're saying, it sounds like, is that it is still the administration's position that even now there's been confirmation of the use of a chemical weapon -- creatively used chlorine, and confirmation that ISIS has also used chemical weapons there, that the United States -- that the President still does not see a reason or a rationale for an American military response directed at the Syrian regime.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think our approach here has been focused on ISIL. And that's been what the President has perceived as the primary threat.
Q: Right. And diplomacy, in terms of the Syrian conflict -- and you've said a number of times that the administration does not see a military solution to this. Now, given these chlorine attacks and, as you say, the infinite creativity that -- knowing no bounds, of the Assad regime, it's still the President's position that there is not a military response directed at Syria that is in America's national interest?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a military response that's been directed at ISIL, as you know. But our approach to the Assad regime has been to make clear that they've lost legitimacy to lead that country. And that's not just based on our own concerns about the morally reprehensible behavior of Bashar al-Assad, but based on the fact that the people that he's counting on to support his government are people that he's attacked militarily.
So it's just not possible, as a practical matter, for him to continue to run the country. Russia shares this assessment. And Russia is the country that has as much influence as anybody else with the Assad regime, because Russia has used their own military might to prop them up.
And so we've made the case to Russia that they should encourage the Assad regime to cease these kind of attacks, agree to the kind of -- live up to the commitments that they made in the context of a cessation of hostilities, and actually pursue the kind of U.N.-led talks that will lead to the political transition that even the Russians acknowledge is necessary.
Q: And a philosophical question about Syria. We all know the complications of it and the intricacies of it and so forth, and you're probably aware of some of the commentary out there that suggests that this may be the one area where President Obama's legacy is really tarnished, where he should have done more and where, in the months or years ahead, people may look back -- and of course you might dismiss this by saying we'll let history deal with that. But this was the thing that really -- that he didn't deal with that he perhaps should have. Is the President -- he must be aware of that kind of commentary out there. And do you have a sense of what his thoughts are about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has had an opportunity to speak to this a couple of times. And I would vigorously disagree with the suggestion that there is somehow a case that should be made, or can legitimately be made, that the President didn't do anything in Syria.
The fact is, the President has built an international coalition with more than 65 members now that has been focused on eradicating the threat from ISIL and other extremists, including al Qaeda's presence in Syria in the form of al Nusra that does pose a threat to the United States and our allies in the West. And we've been very focused on that threat. And there are significant resources that have been mobilized, including militarily, to attack that threat. And we've been able to lead an international coalition and mobilize international resources to confront that threat.
Q: But not against the regime, and that clearly is the distinction.
MR. EARNEST: But I guess the point we've made here, Ron -- and this is a lesson that surely we learned from 2003 -- attacking the regime doesn't necessarily address that concern. It just doesn't. And you don't have to take my word for it. We've got a test case just over the border in Iraq about what the consequences are for the United States implementing a regime-change policy and trying to impose a military solution on the situation.
That didn't play out well for American interests. And that's what the President has been mindful of throughout this particular situation. I would also point out that the critics that you cite -- and I'm not denying their existence -- but I am suggesting that we haven't seen an alternative solution put forward. There are very few people who are willing to make the case with precision about what the President should be doing instead.
And look, there are some people who do suggest that somehow the United States should invade Syria. They were welcome to make that case. The President doesn't agree with them, and I think they'd be hard-pressed to make the case that that would be in the best interest of the United States. But some of them do.
But the truth is, I actually give them credit for having the courage of their convictions as opposed to just standing on the sidelines and criticizing the President, saying the situation in Syria is terrible and saying that it's all the President's fault. The truth is, the situation in Syria is terrible. But they haven't proposed -- put forward their own proposal for what the President should have done instead.
Q: Let me ask you a follow-up to Michelle's questions about Donald Trump and the African American population and so on. Hyperbole and rhetoric perhaps aside to some extent, the charge is essentially that the African American community is worse off in some ways under President Obama than before, over the last seven or eight years or so. And yes, I know part of the answer is that the unemployment rate has been cut significantly in that particular, community, but there are other measures, as you know, like the rate of poverty, homeownership, median income, and others that are not -- that are worse off.
So again, some of the hyperbole aside and some of the rhetoric aside, isn't it a fair criticism that the African American community, minority communities in some ways are worse off now, eight years after President Obama?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, even the Republican leader in the United States Senate acknowledged about a year ago that the American people are better off since President Obama took office. And so I think you'd be very hard-pressed to make a case that somehow the African American population in the United States is somehow not better off based on President Obama's tenure in --
Q: But there are metrics that suggest that is the case -- homeownership rates, labor force participation rates, the poverty rates. There are 1 and 2 percent changes, but these are significant. And in terms of income inequality, in terms of wage stagnation -- problems that the President has acknowledged exist -- we know that these impact minority communities worse than the mainstream community.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President would say is that -- and I would -- I think the point here is, the President has never made the case that the work is finished, that the job is done. I think the point is that President Obama is interested in being succeeded in office by someone who is committed to building on the progress that we've made thus far as opposed to tearing it down.
And the kinds of proposals that have been put forward by the other side would have the effect of eroding our progress, primarily because they would have a devastating impact, fiscally and economically, by doling out significant tax cuts to those at the top of the income scale and leaving the rest of us to pay the tab.
So the President believes that that is a strategy that we have tried, and it has not worked. And to go back to that strategy now would make the situation worse and for everybody in America, including the African American population.
Q: Just one other thing. On the Kabul attack yesterday, is it the assessment that the local security forces performed as they should, and that this awful consequence of 12 or 13 people killed and others -- is it the assessment that the local security force was enough and that the U.S. and coalition troops were not needed to intervene?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we know -- let me start, Ron, by saying that the United States condemns in the strongest terms yesterday's attack on the American University of Afghanistan. And it's apparent that that attack resulted in the deaths of as many as 11 students and security personnel; many others were wounded, of course.
We do, in fact, salute the quick work of the Afghan security forces who responded to the attack and secured the university. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were killed. We mourn the loss of innocent -- we mourn the innocent loss of life. And it's an indication that there is additional work that needs to be done to address the security situation in Afghanistan.
But the Afghan security forces are making progress, and they are making that progress both because of their commitment to fight for their country, but also because of the support that they're receiving from U.S. and NATO trainers and advisors who have helped them improve their performance in securing the country.
Q: Thanks, Josh. This is also in regards to the -- my question is also in regards to the attack on American University in Kabul. Yesterday you said the attack highlights the huge challenge facing the people of Afghanistan, particularly as it relates to their security situation -- as you mentioned, the number of folks that died there. Earlier in the month two professors were kidnapped. This school has been threatened for years. Is security improving at all in that region? Do you have any specifics as to how?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any metrics to provide you. We'll see if we can try and provide some statistics to help you understand the situation there better.
I think what is clear is that we see security ebb and flow through -- across the country; that where the Afghan security forces are able to make progress in one area, we see the extremists in that country, including the Taliban, try to capitalize on weakness somewhere else. And it's a constant push and pull.
But I think over the long-term trajectory, there's no denying the important progress that's been made. And given the situation in Afghanistan even five or six years ago, the progress that's been made is undeniable. And it's going to require patience, but also determination, to extend this progress. And the Afghan people and the Afghan government should know that they will have the ongoing, resolute support of the United States and our coalition partners as they address the security situation in their country.
Q: Earlier in the month, a U.S. soldier died in that same region while advising an Afghan Special Operations unit with another 100 U.S. troops sent to Helmand Province to train, advise and assist the local police there. How much longer will these soldiers need to train, advise and assist? I mean, any idea when they'll be pulled out and Afghan forces will be able to manage this on their own? And will it just revert back to what the situation was years ago?
MR. EARNEST: I think what's likely is the next President is going to have to make some decisions about this. President Obama has pursued an approach where he has consulted closely with his national security team, including his military advisors, including his commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, to ensure that the strategy that he's implemented reflects the situation on the ground. And that's why we have succeeded.
You'll recall early in President Obama's tenure in office, there were more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Now there are a little less than 9,000, I believe. That's a pretty significant drawdown, and does reflect important progress that our military has made in that country, and it reflects the important progress that Afghan forces have made in that country.
But there still is a threat, there still is a risk. And it's one that Afghan forces, with the advice and assistance of U.S. forces, is working to counter.
Q: And the President is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Can you provide a preview of what the President will be talking about with Ash Carter? Is there anything specific they'll discuss, or is this just a standard --
MR. EARNEST: This is part of the regular weekly meeting that President Obama has with his Defense Secretary when both of them are in town. It's been a couple weeks since they've both been in town, so it will be an opportunity for them to meet. I suspect -- I don't know whether or not they'll have an opportunity to meet next week, but I would anticipate that the President's upcoming trip to Asia will factor into their discussions.
And I know that Secretary Carter has traveled quite extensively to Asia on more than one occasion over the last six months or so, so I would anticipate that that would be part of their agenda. But this is -- the meeting was not called to address any emergent need, but rather to cover the range of issues that they cover on a weekly basis when both of them are in town.
Q: And last question. Colombia's government and the country's biggest rebel group, they reached a peace deal. We saw that statement released just about an hour ago. What contributions, if any, did the U.S. make in the peace process between Colombia and this rebel group?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the United States is quite pleased to see the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere come to an end. And for years, the United States has been an important partner of the Colombian government as they've tried to bring this conflict to an end. And this is I think an indication of the United States being able to work effectively with an international partner even across party lines; that President Bush invested a lot in this effort to support the Colombian government, and the Obama administration, if anything, doubled down on that commitment and continued to support them.
And the kind of success that the Colombian government and the Colombian people have enjoyed in trying to resolve this conflict benefitted from the important contribution made by the American government and the American people, and that's certainly -- this is certainly going to be an important part of President Obama's legacy, but it's going to be an important part of President Bush's legacy, too. He deserves credit for the work that he had done in this area.
I would also note that the Cuban government played an important role in facilitating the end to this conflict. And the improved relationship between the United States and Cuba I think could only have helped advance that process even further.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Yesterday on CNN, Secretary Clinton said that Donald Trump is taking a hate movement mainstream, and she's going to give a speech about his embrace of a so-called "alt-right movement." I'm wondering, does the White House share her sentiments about Donald Trump and his commentary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'll let the candidates make their own case and offer up their own opinions about the tactics that are employed by either side.
I think what is clear is that there has been a willingness on the part of Republicans in Congress to appeal to extremists in this country to try to build political support for their party. We talked about the Zika funding bill being saddled with a provision that relates to the display of the Confederate flag. House Republicans elected into their leadership somebody who described himself as "David Duke without the baggage."
We've seen Republicans come forward and support -- Republicans in Congress come forward and support religious tests on people who enter the United States to try to keep people of the Muslim faith out of the country. We've seen Republicans in Congress support voting rights measures that some states have implemented to disenfranchise minority voters. The circuit court in North Carolina recently found that a Republican bill was almost surgically focused on preventing black Americans from voting. And all that's been supported by Republicans in Congress. In fact, Republicans in Congress have opposed to renewal of the Voting Rights Act that would give the federal government tools to try to address those kinds of obvious inequities.
So there's a long track record of the cynical political tactics of congressional Republicans to appeal to extremists to move their agenda forward and to win elections. And this is something that we've talked about quite a few times, and I think it's why you see a lot of Republicans, not just here in Washington, D.C. but across the country, quite concerned about the state of their party. And the years-long willingness of leading Republicans to engage in these kinds of cynical tactics appears to be taking a toll on their party.
Q: I wanted to ask about recent reports that four Iranian vessels intercepted a U.S. destroyer on the Strait of Hormuz. Do you have anything on that? Can you comment on whether or not you can confirm that and any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: I know that my colleagues at the Department of Defense talked about this a little bit yesterday, and we are aware that four Iranian vessels approached USS Nitze while it was transiting international waters in the Strait of Hormuz. As my colleagues at the Pentagon noted yesterday, they assessed that the actions taken by these Iranian vessels were unsafe and unprofessional. At this point, it's not clear what the intentions of the Iranian ships were, but the behavior is not acceptable, given that this U.S. ship was in international waters. These types of actions and incidents are concerning and they have the potential to unnecessarily escalate tensions.
Now, I know that there was a similar incident last month involving a ship that CENTCOM Commander General Votel was aboard. This was the USS New Orleans. General Votel noted that the Strait of Hormuz is a relatively compressed space, and that exacerbates the potential for miscalculations on either side. The United States is not seeking to escalate the already volatile situation in that region of the world, and we don't want anybody else to either.
Q: Tomorrow -- this is sort of a lighter note -- a film comes out in theaters called "Southside with You." It's a date movie about the President and First Lady. Obviously it's a sitting President. Has he seen it yet? I know the MPAA sent a copy over to the White House. Have they had a chance to see the film? Do you know what he thinks about it?
MR. EARNEST: I have not talked to him about the film and I don't know whether or not he's seen it. But I'll see if we can get you some information about that.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I just wanted to get back to the Vice President's comments that he made today to reporters in Sweden. He said that it's his hope and expectation that the detention facility at Guantanamo is closed by the end of the President's time in office. I get the hope part. The expectation part I'm a little confused about. I understand, as you do, that the President has signed into law legislation which prohibits any detainee at Guantanamo from being transferred to U.S. soil. So with the expectation part, explain to me how that actually would work.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I think in answer to Michelle's question on this, we have seen Congress -- you just alluded to them -- erect significant barriers to our success in achieving this foreign policy goal that Democrats and Republicans alike agree is worthwhile.
Q: There's bipartisan opposition, actually, that's opposed to closing Guantanamo.
MR. EARNEST: There's bipartisan opposition in Congress. There's bipartisan --
Q: -- votes. That's who actually decides whether Guantanamo remains open; not people that are out of office.
MR. EARNEST: I understand that, but there are bipartisan experts who have dedicated their lives to protecting the interest of the United States around the world, including leaders in our military who agree that this is a foreign policy priority worth achieving. So there is strong bipartisan support among foreign policy experts for it.
You're right -- the people who are playing politics don't share that view. That includes Democrats and Republicans. So we're going to have to work through that political opposition. And I can't sketch forward the path for you. I don't know exactly what that path looks like. But the President is determined to make progress and accomplish this goal before he leaves.
Q: So do you not share the Vice President's optimism that the prison at Guantanamo Bay will be closed in January of 2017?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is that your pessimism is understandable, but we're in the business of hope around here.
Q: That's good. And as it relates to Guantanamo -- I know you are. (Laughter.) As it relates to Guantanamo, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate early on in the President's time in office. Why was is that Guantanamo was not closed during those first two years of the President's first term?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the President was disappointed early on that we weren't able to make more progress. We've acknowledged that previously as well. But look, at some point, Democrats and Republicans are going to have to come together in Congress to do the right thing for the country. And I'm not diminishing or trying to dismiss some of the political concerns that have been raised by some, but those political concerns are rooted in individual members' of Congress own reelection. At some point, our national security has to take precedence over that, and the President will be making that case, and he'll be making that case to Democrats and Republicans.
Q: Thank you, Josh. I would like to take it back to Afghanistan. The President of Afghanistan had issued a statement today in which he says the attack on the American university was organized and orchestrated by people inside Pakistan. And he also called the Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif, asking him to take action against those terrorists. What do you make of this statement?
MR. EARNEST: Lalit, I haven't seen those comments. Obviously, as I mentioned earlier, we condemn in the strongest terms yesterday's attack. I'm not aware of any specific assessment that the United States has drawn about who, ultimately, was responsible for that attack. But we'll obviously be in touch with leaders in the Afghan government as they investigate this situation and take steps that are necessary to try to prevent it from happening again.
Q: And next week, Secretary Kerry is traveling to India for the last Strategic and Commercial Dialogue of this administration with India. This kind of dialogue was started by this administration. Do you think -- what does the President think about the progress met in the India-U.S. bilateral ties -- despite the progress that has been done?
MR. EARNEST: The President has devoted significant time and resources to strengthening the relationship between the United States and India. The President has visited India on three *two occasions, I believe, and each of those trips has been dedicated to strengthening the political relationship between the world's two largest democracies but also trying to strengthen further the economic ties between our two countries. The President believes that more effective cooperation between our two countries can improve the economy in both of our countries, create jobs and promote economic growth. And I know that Prime Minister Modi shares those goals. And the President has found Prime Minister Modi to be an effective interlocutor and partner in pursuing those goals. And the President is pleased about the progress that we've made over the first seven and a half years of his presidency, and we're going to spend the remaining five months or so here trying to do all we can to advance it even further.
Q: And are you meeting -- (inaudible) meeting the President and the Prime Minister in China on the sidelines of the G20?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any bilateral meetings that President Obama will engage in to announce at this point. We're obviously still putting together the schedule for the President's trip, and we'll keep you posted on that.
Jared, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Thanks, Josh. In the past, not very much recently, the President has said that gun control should be a single issue through which voters examine their priorities come November. Earlier this week, Americans for Responsible Solutions endorsed Senators Toomey and Kirk. The President and Vice President have endorsed their challengers, McGinty and Duckworth, respectively. Is this just people who disagree about that single issue lens? Or what explains the sunlight between the President and someone like former Congresswoman Giffords?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think they're basically going to draw their own conclusions about this. I think the promise that the President made was to not support anyone that didn't share his commitment to common-sense gun control safety -- or gun-safety legislation. And you referenced Congresswoman Duckworth and Ms. McGinty -- those are two candidates that enthusiastically share President Obama's commitment to those common-sense notions that we know would have an impact, a positive impact in reducing gun violence in this country. That's why the President went forward with endorsing them, and that's the decision that the President and Vice President made together.
Q: Former Congresswoman Giffords and her organization believe that Senators Toomey and Kirk would also work to make sure that common-sense gun reform -- and specifically cite their work after the Connecticut shooting and talk about how they supported legislation and they're willing to put that endorsement behind them. Does the President agree that these are two people that he could work with? He won't be around, obviously, for their next term, but is it someone that the next President should be able to work with to work on gun reforms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would acknowledge that I have not scrutinized the records of the two senators that you mentioned on the issue of gun safety.
Q: Isn't the word of Congresswoman Giffords good enough for the White House on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, she's drawing her own assessment and they're certainly entitled to do that. The President's decision in both of these races was rooted in the priorities and agenda that have been identified by both candidates, Congresswoman Duckworth and Ms. McGinty. And that agenda doesn't just include their strong and enthusiastic support for common-sense gun-safety legislation but it also includes their strong support for a variety of other measures, including things like job-training and support for efforts to tackle climate change and expanding economic opportunity for everybody, including middle-class families. That's the reason that the President supported those two candidates. And, again, everybody is going to have to draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions about that.
Q: Since the President is no longer using just gun control to decide who to support in these races, should people not look --
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no -- I never suggested that that was going to be the case.
Q: Well, the President said it should be a single issue for voters.
MR. EARNEST: And that's why, if there are candidates who don't --
Q: He's taking other issues into account.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, Jared, I think you're making it more complicated than it actually is. So we'll leave it there.
END 12:50 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/319577