Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:32 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any announcements to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, do you want to start?
Q: Thank you. What response do you have for the House Benghazi Committee's report? I'm sure you have something.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't have much. It seems at this point that, after eight different congressional inquiries have now been conducted into this matter, it seems that there's only one remaining question, and it's simply this: Is the RNC going to disclose the in-kind contribution that they've received from House Republicans today? This is a $7-million effort funded by taxpayers to do what the would-be Speaker of the House says was their goal, which is to tear down Secretary Clinton's poll numbers.
So that was their goal. It remains to be seen if that's what they accomplish.
Q: What about the specific claim that the military was slow to respond to these assaults -- eight hours after they had begun, no military assets had been directed towards the --
MR. EARNEST: Well, this has been thoroughly debunked by previous Republican-led investigations in the Congress. So I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth because, frankly, Republicans have already done that. Republicans in the House Intelligence Committee have concluded that those charges are not true. Questions have been raised about that assertion by the Benghazi Committee's lead investigator. So this is -- there is plenty of churn just to review what Republicans have concluded about this incident. And the fact is those congressional committees that have been committed to trying to understand the facts of a tragedy that led to the death of four Americans have concluded that what happened was a tragedy. But they've also concluded that the variety of conspiracy theories that have been flowering on the Republican side of the aisle are politically motivated fantasies. And it's unfortunate that the death of four Americans would be subject to that kind of political fantasizing, but that is the state of the Republican Party these days.
Q: One more. On another issue brewing up on the Hill, Democrats up there say that it's time to take another look at agency policies regarding displays of the Confederate flag at federal cemeteries. Would President Obama agree to that? And would he direct the Veterans Administration and also the National Park Service to remove any flags?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware of how this question has been raised administratively, so we can take a look at that. I do know that House Republicans, in a partisan attempt to extend displays of the Confederate flag, did include that in the Zika bill that they passed in the dark of night last week. I think that underscores the partisan nature of the legislation that they put forward. But I'm not aware of any executive action that's being contemplated on this question.
Q: Thank you. I wanted to talk about some more fallout from the Brexit vote. Scotland is looking at ways of possibly staying with the EU -- stay in the EU or stay in the market -- also possibly looking at independence from the UK in the wake of the vote. Is that a concern for the White House, especially from a national security standpoint? Scotland houses the UK nuclear program, so there are issues in that way, too, if there was to be a split within the UK. So does the U.S. have any position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things that we've said before that I think are relevant to the question that you raised. The first is that the United States values the critically important security relationship that we have with the United Kingdom. Obviously the UK is a critically important partner in the NATO alliance. That is the bedrock of our national security in this country. So we obviously believe that that relationship is critically important and, frankly, there's no reason that that should at all be affected by the decision that British voters made last week.
There was a referendum on Scottish independence a year or two ago. We made clear at the time that, again, that was a decision for voters in Scotland to make. But the United States' view has been and continues to be that a united UK is in the best interest of the United States. It makes them a stronger partner. It makes them more effective in contributing to the NATO alliance that's the bedrock of our national security.
Q: And following up on that, has the President made any more calls to world leaders in the wake of that vote? I know he made a call to Cameron and to Germany's Merkel, but has there been any more calls? And also, the President made the trip to London earlier this year in support of the UK remaining in the EU. Does the President -- now that it hasn't gone that way, the markets are kind of flailing, there's a lot of uncertainty now. Does the President feel the need to maybe do more to try to calm the markets, do more to maybe push the U.S. -- what the U.S. would like to happen, to stable -- I guess to stable the move of the UK from the EU -- but is there more that the President needs to do to get the U.S. message out on this issue? Because it is having such a large impact on the markets and on the global economy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I'm not going to talk about individual market movements. Obviously senior administration officials had been in close touch with their counterparts in Europe and in the UK to discuss the consequences of the decision from the British people. So we can get you a rundown of all of the conversations that Secretary Kerry has had with his counterparts. He's even traveled in Europe and had conversations in person to discuss this matter.
Other senior officials here in the White House that also work closely with the President have been in touch with their counterparts, including the President's Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, Wally Adeyemo, has been engaged with his G20 counterparts to discuss both this vote but also the consequences for increased volatility that we've seen in the global financial markets.
So this is something that the Treasury Department continues to monitor closely. Obviously the President is monitoring it closely as well. He's getting regularly briefed on it. I would expect that the next opportunity that the President will have to discuss these issues with his counterparts will be at the NATO meeting in Poland -- it's coming up next week.
You've heard us previously announce that the President intends to meet with the leaders of the EU in advance of his NATO Summit meeting, but I would anticipate that a lot of the conversations that he'll have with world leaders at that meeting, both formally and informally, will be to discuss the impact of this vote. And obviously there has been some, as I mentioned, renewed volatility in the global financial markets, but the fact is, the special relationship between the United States and the UK will endure. The close financial, economic, commercial and trade ties between the United States and the UK will remain. That's good news because that's critically important to both our economies. And I mentioned, of course, that the U.S.-UK defense relationship will remain strong.
The United States also has a number of very close partners who are part of the EU, and we're going to continue to closely coordinate with the EU on a variety of financial and national security measures. And that cooperation and that collaboration continues unabated as well.
Q: Thanks, Josh. While we're still on that subject, just very quickly, would the President support a second referendum that's been floated as at least a possibility once a new prime minister comes in?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the British ambassador to the United States was pretty definitive about the finality of this decision. But, ultimately, how all of this moves forward is up to the British people and their elected leaders.
Q: The President obviously had a strong opinion when the first referendum was coming around, so would he have just as strong an opinion on a second referendum if that does happen?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the question about whether or not it's going to happen I think is something that British leaders and the British people will have to determine. British leaders I think have made pretty clear their view that the decision that was made by the voters was final. But, again, it will be up to them to render a judgment about the path forward here.
Our expectation, our hope is that the process, as it moves forward, will be orderly, will be as transparent as possible. And we have been pleased to see a commitment to those principles, both by leaders in the UK but also leaders in the EU.
Q: And on the Benghazi report, you've made your feelings abundantly clear what you think of it.
MR. EARNEST: Not particularly surprising, I assume.
Q: But now that it's over, the fact that --
MR. EARNEST: I thought it was over after the first five investigations. This is the eighth.
Q: Well, let's start with that, then. Do you feel that the breadth of this and the amount of time spent and, as you mentioned, the amount of money spent -- I mean, this was the broadest investigation we've seen. So at the very least does this, in your view, end things and sort of put a definitive stamp on it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's hard to say. I think there were a lot of people who thought that after the first or second, or the third, or the fourth, or the fifth, or the sixth, or the seventh investigation, that that might be the end of it. Republicans have clearly discerned a political motive. And, to their credit, at least they were pretty blunt about it -- the would-be Speaker of the House indicated that the reason this committee was created was to drive down Secretary Clinton's poll numbers. Congressman Richard Hanna from New York indicated that -- basically the same thing. He said that the goal of this committee was to go after Secretary Clinton.
So it's pretty clear what their motives are. That's why, I guess, the only question that remains is whether or not this $7 million in-kind contribution will be correctly reported on next month's FEC campaign finance disclosure by the RNC. Maybe we should have a congressional committee form to take a look at that.
Q: If the goal on both sides was to -- or, okay, your goal, at least, was to put this to rest. The fact that this investigation, unlike the others before it, did look at substantially more documentation that wasn't viewed by previous investigations -- don't you see some value in that? That at least it might have answered questions in people's minds about the kind of information that was not viewed prior?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a select committee that spent more time looking at this matter than Congress spent looking at things like Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the Iran-Contra affair, the assassination of President Kennedy. So it is clear that a lot of time and money and resources has been devoted to this effort. But even Senator Rubio tweeted today that the committee found something that we already knew.
So I think even Republicans are struggling to articulate exactly what value has been derived from this -- other than what they acknowledge is their primary goal, which is to take more shots at Secretary Clinton. I think the unfortunate thing is that they had to spend $7 million in taxpayer money to do it. And the unfortunate thing is that they are cynically trying to capitalize on the death of four innocent Americans who were serving their country overseas and were killed in this tragic accident. And the degree to which Republicans are willing to play politics with their death and this tragedy is appalling.
Q: You view this as purely political. How worried are you then about the political effects of this on Democrats? And how do Democrats need to counter the message that comes out of this report?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think individual Democrats will have to figure out for themselves. Secretary Clinton and her campaign have obviously issued their own statements. You can talk to them about the strategy that they hope to pursue. But, look, I think when it comes down to the political questions here, I think we should just sort of start by acknowledging what Leader McCarthy and Congressman Hanna have indicated, which is that this is a political exercise. I think once we start from that conversation, then we can have an honest debate about what the political consequences of this particular decision should be. And I think Secretary Clinton is more than capable of making her own case about her judgment, her successful tenure as Secretary of State, and what that says about her presidential campaign. But, ultimately, that's the responsibility of her advisors.
Q: But do you view this as damaging to Clinton in the eyes, potentially, of voters?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think voters will have to decide for themselves. But, again, I think Secretary Clinton and her team obviously have a strong case to make about her successful tenure as Secretary of State. But that's a case I'll let them make.
Q: Josh, to what extent is the British exit vote going to be discussed at the North American Summit tomorrow? There seem to be some pretty serious security and economic considerations that even North American leaders will want to talk over.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the Brexit vote has had an impact on global financial markets, including financial markets here in North America. So I would anticipate it's something that the leaders will discuss. I don't anticipate that it will be the focus of their conversations, but I'm confident that it will come up.
Q: Are there any lessons to be drawn about the willingness of one part of the trading bloc to want to go it alone in terms of North America, NAFTA has proven tremendously controversial. It's a big issue on the campaign trail. Does the vote have any implications on that subject here in this continent as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it's always dangerous to oversimplify these kinds of questions that voters are considering, but there's something unique about the efforts to integrate Europe that I think makes it quite a bit different than just a trade agreement. Obviously the trade ties and our relationship with both Mexico and Canada are strong, and our economies are well-integrated. Obviously the security of all of our countries is enhanced by maintaining strong and high-functioning relationship with our neighbors.
What Europe was trying -- was attempting to do was materially different in terms of trying to establish a common currency. Obviously the UK wasn't a part of that, but it's an indication of the ambition that they had for integrating the continent and binding their countries together.
The countries in North America have pursued a different strategy, and one that has worked well for us. It is a strategy that has enhanced the economies of all of our countries. It's enhanced the national security of all of our countries, and it certainly has made North America the most successful continent in the world.
And the goal of the leaders in their discussions tomorrow will be to further intensify our efforts to cooperate, even as we see some added volatility in the global financial markets and even as we face down some other threats to our own security.
Q: One more question on trade. You said in the wake of the Brexit vote that you still want to press ahead with a trade agreement with Europe. That's not going to happen on the President's watch, is it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal that we have set, Mark, is to try to complete those negotiations by the end of this year.
Q: But you've got a continent that now is in turmoil. How can you possibly complete an agreement with a Europe that is so distracted by this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly is one argument. I think the other argument you could make is that given the new challenges that the EU is facing, they would place an even higher priority in strengthening their ties economically to the United States. So there is no denying that even if the UK had voted to remain in the EU, that completing a T-TIP by the end of this year would be an ambitious goal. I think it continues to be an ambitious goal, but one that we believe is possible by the end of the year. We'll just have to see where things go from here.
Q: Thanks. Following up on Brexit and trade, Speaker Paul Ryan said in a couple of interviews that the U.S. should start immediately sort of negotiating a new trade agreement with the UK. Is he wrong to say that that is a good strategy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what's important, first, to recognize is that there already is an important financial and economic relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. Those ties are valuable. Those ties have a positive impact on both of our countries.
What the President said when he was in London earlier this year continues to be true, however, which is that if the United States were to begin bilateral trade talks with the UK, those talks would be starting a different place because we've already made years of progress through negotiations with the broader EU. And the President discussed in some detail the value and the efficiency gains of the United States negotiating with a whole block of countries, as opposed to just one country.
Now, the one country that we're talking about is the United Kingdom, a country with whom we have a special relationship, a country with whom we already have critically important economic ties. But the fact remains that we've already made lots of progress in negotiating a trade agreement with a bloc of countries. So that's just where things stand right now.
I think in terms of sort of what additional steps could be taken to enhance the economic relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is something that policymakers in both countries will have to consider in years ahead -- and presumably that picture for that path forward will be clearer -- once it's clearer exactly how the UK will pursue the process of extricating itself from the EU.
Q: The President also sort of made a statement that it could be years before -- sort of several years down the line, and that Britain would be at "the back of the queue" when it comes to trade. It seems like you're saying that the U.S. and the UK could not even start something while other negotiations are going on on a parallel track.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's too early to say. We're four or five days out of this decision being made by the British voters, so I wouldn't handicap a date about when those kinds of conversations would occur. I think what is true is that the UK would not benefit from the years of progress we have made in negotiating a trade agreement with the EU.
The UK does benefit from the special relationship they have with the United States. They benefit from the important economic relationship what already exists between our two countries. But they start -- if and when those negotiations were to start, they would start in a different place because of the progress that we've already made in trying to complete an agreement with the EU.
Q: Thank you, Josh. I was wondering how does the President feel about the role he played in the Brexit debate? Does he believe he shouldn't have gone so far, given the end result? Or to the contrary, does he believe he did too little, too late, and as some argue, he didn't pay enough attention to Europe during his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, let me try to unpack this. I think what I would start with is that the President traveled to London at the invitation of Prime Minister Cameron. And while in London, they had conversations on a range of issues that are critically important to our two countries -- issues both related to national security and the economy. And while he was there, the President did make an unequivocal statement about the U.S. view of the question facing British voters, and the President I think gave a rather lengthy but direct analysis of how the United States would be impacted by the decision made by the British people.
And this was an important analysis for the President to offer for a couple of reasons. The first is, given the special relationship between our two countries, it seemed appropriate for the British people to factor in the impact of this vote on their relationship with the United States. It also was an important statement for the President to make because many proponents of Brexit were ascribing to the United States some views of the matter that, frankly, didn't reflect the views of the leader of the United States. So the President had an opportunity to set the record straight.
What eventual impact that had on the outcome I think is something that I'll leave to the analysts to decide. I think what is clear is that in the days after those comments from the President in London, there was what I would describe as positive movement in the polls, but things didn't end up where we would have liked.
But, again, the President, all along, from before the trip to during the trip, to after the trip, made clear that this was a decision for the British people to make based on their own analysis of their country's interests. And that's what they did.
As it relates to our broader relationship with Europe, I think it is hard for the President's harshest critics to suggest that somehow he has given short shrift to our relationship with our European allies when some of the President's most prominent critics have suggested that, for example, the United States should leave NATO. I think that would be undermining our important relationship with our allies in Europe in a way that would have devastating consequences for our national security. So I think the President's record of strengthening those relationships is well documented.
Q: On Benghazi, after all these investigations and so forth, what is the simple answer to the question of why there was no rescue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that there was a -- there have been committee hearings that have looked at this --
Q: I honestly don't know the answer to the question. And I think a lot of people at home who are trying to sort this out and it's out there, and they hear all the back-and-forth between -- it's a simple question. Why didn't that happen? Why wasn't there -- why wasn't the U.S. military able to rescue these --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think where we should start, Ron, is we should start talking about what the Department of Defense did do. And they did, as Secretary Panetta has acknowledged, react to the President's orders to make sure that all available DOD assets in the region were available and could be used to respond to the attack in Libya and protect U.S. interests and personnel in the region.
What that meant is that the U.S. military did succeed in executing the safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi 12 hours after the initial attack. And they moved a number of personnel to the Ramstein Air Force Base and took steps to protect U.S. personnel.
And that is consistent with the conclusions of the Accountability Review Board that basically found that the result was exceptional U.S. government coordination military response and saved the lives of two severely wounded Americans.
Q: You said -- the DOD statement emphasized that they were involved in stabilizing the evacuation of Tripoli, the embassy in Tripoli. You're focusing on the military role there --
MR. EARNEST: My point is they did both. There were a number of personnel in Benghazi that were safely extracted by DOD assets hours after the attack. There were some U.S. citizens who were killed. That's the reason we're having this conversation. But, yes, this was a successful DOD operation to respond to the President's orders to save as many Americans as possible.
It is tragic that four Americans died. But according to the Accountability Review Board that was chaired by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, and Thomas Pickering, a U.S. diplomat that served both Presidents, they took a close look at this and had praise for the military response.
Q: And while a lot has been said about whether this was an attack on Secretary Clinton, there were some allegations or charges at the White House, specifically -- not the Secretary. And some focused on this 7:30 meeting that was chaired by Denis McDonough. Again, I realize you don't want to litigate point by point, but in the interest of clarity, what was accomplished at that time? And I know you're going to debunk the allegation that somehow there was an order to stand down or something --
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's not just me that's going to debunk it. The lead investigator of the committee is going to debunk that.
Q: I get that. And I don't want to -- that's not the issue.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: The issue is, what happened in that meeting? What evidence is there that that moved the operation forward? The other charge that this was all about the video and not about what was really going on on the ground. I know, I hear you. But tell me whatever you can -- just to clear the air once and for all about what happened when in that session.
MR. EARNEST: I don't think there's any air to clear, Ron. I think the fact is that the White House and the National Security Council that functions here at the White House fulfilled its responsibility to make sure that the number of government agencies that were involved in this effort were assembled to discuss an ongoing emergency. And there were steps that were taken to safeguard diplomats in other places around the globe, and a variety of other steps were taken. That's what you would expect.
I think this is the best evidence yet that this is a Republican conspiracy seeking political advantage out of the terrible tragedy. There's just no "there" there. There hasn't been. But yet we have seen repeated attempts by Republicans to try to score political points off the deaths of four innocent Americans.
Q: But the "there" there was, in fact, once this happened, after this happened, there had to be some changes made. Correct? There had to be some changes made in terms of how the military could respond to something like this. So clearly, the military wasn't organized in the way effectively to do this. I'm sure the White House reassessed how it might have better responded to this sort of situation -- correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, again, years ago -- years ago, the Accountability Review Board -- this is a body that was chaired by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a renowned U.S. diplomat who served under both Presidents -- examined this situation. They put forward 29 different recommendations for reforms that should be implemented by the State Department. The State Department has implemented or is in the process of implementing every single one of those things.
Again, that is a set of conclusions that were reached more than three years ago, now. I think the real question is, again, why are we considering the eighth congressional investigation into this matter? If the Accountability Review Board that was led by men with impeccable, bipartisan national security credentials has reviewed this matter, suggested that there are 29 different reforms that could be implemented, those reforms are implemented, what possible goal could Republicans have by taking a look at this matter in 2016 other than trying to influence the outcome of the elections that are held in 2016?
Q: All right.
MR. EARNEST: Jordan.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you a question about Zika. The Surgeon General said earlier this month that we're coming to the point where the funding of the Zika response is going to run out. Now that Congress -- the Senate failed to advance this latest funding package, and it doesn't look like there's going to be a deal at least before July 4th, can you say exactly when the money for the Zika response is going to run out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jordan, I think the issue that we have is that there's insufficient funding that's being dedicated to the effort to fight Zika and to protect pregnant women and their children in this country. That is the issue. And what the Department of Health and Human Services has already done is taken funding that has been deployed for a range of public health questions, challenges, and devoted it specifically to this effort.
But even that is not enough. And we've made clear that that's not enough. That's why the President put forward a package four months ago -- this is a package that was recommended to him by the foremost public health officials in the country. And for the last four months, we have seen Republicans do very little other than play political games with that request.
So you would think that at some point the safety and well-being of pregnant women in the United States would be more important than politics to Republicans. But unfortunately, it's not. Because as I mentioned to Darlene earlier, Republicans now apparently see the Zika funding as the vehicle to allow the display of Confederate flags in cemeteries across the country. I don't really understand what that has to do with the Zika virus and protecting pregnant women, but that's the vehicle that Republicans have apparently chosen to use in order to ram through a partisan measure.
It's apparent that Republicans don't take this particularly seriously, but I can tell you that public health professionals across the country take this seriously. In fact, just today we have a letter from a couple dozen nonprofits urging Congress to dispense with the kind of partisanship that House Republicans have displayed and to act on what they describe as a public health emergency. These are organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the Easter Seals, the March of Dimes. These are organizations that don't have any interest in partisan politics; they do have a keen interest in protecting the American people and protecting pregnant women, and preventing birth defects. And what they're urging Republicans to do is to dispense with the partisanship and actually focus on this public health emergency. We'll see if Republicans are persuaded.
Q: I guess in the absence, though, of that funding for now, can you tell us when is the next time that public health agencies are going to have to move around money to fund the Zika response through the summer --
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, I think the point is that right now they don't have as much money as they would like to have in order to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. If you're asking me when are those agencies going to need more money to fight the Zika virus, they need that money right now. They needed that money four months ago. They needed to send -- for a variety of reasons. They needed to send a clear message to the private sector that we were going to be invested in their efforts to develop a vaccine and to develop enhanced diagnostics, and to expand lab capacity so that people would get tested quickly, get their results and know what precautions they should take to protect their partner or other people in their community from the Zika virus.
For weeks, if not months, we've seen local officials, particularly in the South, ask for additional assistance from the federal government so they could do a better job of fighting mosquito populations in their states. That request, even from those Republican officials, has fallen on deaf ears. Governor Rick Scott from Florida -- no friend of the Obama administration -- is making the same case that the Obama administration is, that Congress needs to step up to the plate and provide additional resources that can be used to try to fight the mosquitoes that are carrying the Zika virus.
It's only Republicans in Congress who are treating this as a partisan issue. Governors in both parties all across the country have called on Congress to act on this. Public health professionals, including charitable organizations, like the Easter Seals and the March of Dimes, are calling on Republicans in the Congress to act. But the only thing we've seen Republicans in Congress do thus far is to try to make this issue partisan, for reasons that are difficult to explain.
Q: Josh, on another subject. July 4th is next week. Federal lawmakers come back to town after that. What is the White House -- what kind of conversations have White House officials been in with the lawmakers, particularly those who staged the sit-in when it came to guns last week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President's commitment to seeing common-sense gun safety legislation pass continues to be a priority. There have been ongoing conversations between some members of the Senate and the Justice Department to put together a bipartisan, common-sense amendment that would effectively prevent individuals who are suspected of having ties with terrorism from being able to walk into a store and buy a gun.
But we've seen very little appetite from Republicans in Congress and most Republicans in the Senate to moving forward on that common-sense bill. In fact, they don't want to move forward -- Leader McConnell said over the weekend that he believes that we should just move on. That is a dereliction of duty. That is a failure of their fundamental responsibility to take common-sense steps to protect the country. And ultimately, voters are going to have to decide whether and how to hold their elected representatives in Congress responsible for that dereliction.
Q: So last week, the spotlight was on the sit-in and the effort and the bill. Next week there are calls to possibly do it again if there's not movement. President Obama, the First Lady, Valerie Jarrett and many from the White House supported publicly on Twitter and all social media the efforts of the sit-in. Are you in support of another sit-in if there were some type of action like that, that would maybe last even longer to bring more attention to possibly get this measure passed?
MR. EARNEST: What the White House is strongly in support of is congressional action. And House Democrats are going to see -- are going to need to figure out what they can do to try to prompt that action. Obviously the White House is going to stand with them as they undertake those efforts.
But we've seen far too much congressional dysfunction under Republican congressional leadership. And whether that is failing to pass -- to approve the needed resources to fight Zika, or to pass common-sense gun safety legislation, or to play politics with the terrible tragedy in Libya, I think the record of Republicans in Congress is one that is checkered with partisanship and not filled with a lot of results.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Why is it so hard to reschedule the joint campaign event with Hillary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you won't be surprised to hear that both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have rather busy schedules. But hopefully we'll have some news on that rescheduled event quite soon.
Q: She's on the trail -- that's her busy schedule. And he surely anticipated that he would be out campaigning for Democrats. I mean, it's not -- it wasn't a surprise that we're in an election year, so why -- do you guys have requirements for this? Does it have to be a particular state? Does it have to be on a particular day? I don't understand why this isn't coming together.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm not sure it's quite that complicated. I think -- you have to talk the Secretary Clinton and her team about exactly what's on their schedule. Obviously we can't do it tomorrow because the President is meeting with the leaders of Canada and Mexico. The President had the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on the West Coast last week. So there are constraints given their schedule. But I would anticipate that we'll have some news on this relatively soon.
Q: The Washington Post had a really captivating story about the apparent campaign of harassment of American diplomats by Russia. Has this ever been brought to the President's attention? Has he discussed it? His former ambassador Michael McFaul apparently was one of the targets. Has this ever risen to his attention? And if so, has he ever brought it up with Vladimir Putin?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any additional details of conversations to relay. I can tell you that the United States continues to be concerned about U.S. diplomats who are being harassed at not just the embassy in Moscow, but in other diplomatic facilities around the world. We've raised those concerns with senior Russian officials and reminded them of their responsibility, particularly when it pertains to diplomats in Russia, of their responsibility to protect those diplomats, not to harass them. But I can't speak to any specific presidential involvement other than to confirm for you that he certainly is aware of it.
Q: Thanks, Josh. When David Plouffe was at the White House, was it common for him to be involved in preparing employees with a national security portfolio for TV appearances?
MR. EARNEST: Byron, it was common for senior communications officials in the White House to be involved in preparing senior administration officials for television appearances. That was true in the first term. It's been true in the second term, as well.
Q: In her interview, Susan Rice seemed to imply that that was unusual. David Plouffe's presence in helping her prepare for that Sunday talk show had nothing to do with the fact there was a hard-fought presidential campaign underway?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the fact that a senior communication official at the White House was involved in a call to ensure that a senior administration official was prepared for a television appearance shouldn't be particularly surprising to someone like you, who has closely covered the White House.
Q: Can you understand, at least, why there is some controversy about what the administration was telling the public at the time?
MR. EARNEST: No. (Laughter.) I can't.
Q: Your predecessor --
MR. EARNEST: I can't.
Q: Your predecessor stood up there three days after the attack and said, "There is no information that suggests Benghazi was preplanned attack," when three days earlier your Secretary of State had emailed her daughter that it clearly seemed to be a terrorist attack. And then a few days later, you have State Department employees emailing each other that Susan Rice was "off the reservation." In hindsight, were the things the administration was saying in the days after the attack incorrect? Should you have been more judicious?
MR. EARNEST: Byron, I think I'm going to leave it to the Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who in their report that was issued almost two years ago -- I'll just quote from them to make this process a little easier. They said, "The process used to develop the talking points was flawed, but that the talking points reflected the conflicting intelligence assessments in the days immediately following the crisis." They continued, "There was absolutely no evidence in documents or testimony that the intelligence community's assessments were politically motivated in any way."
It's not my statement. That is the statement of House Republicans.
I don't understand why the current crop of House Republicans who are looking at this matter didn't pay any attention to the previous assessment of House Republicans. The previous assessment was from House Republicans who serve on the Intelligence Committee in the House. So I'll let you draw your own conclusions on why a politically motivated Benghazi committee may have reached a different conclusion than Republicans who serve on the House Intelligence Committee.
Q: But by saying there's no information suggesting Benghazi was a preplanned attack, that's different than saying there's conflicting -- if he had come out and said, there's a lot of conflicting information about this, that's one thing. But you chose the interpretation that's sort of most favorable politically to the White House.
MR. EARNEST: House Republicans say there's no evidence in documents or testimony that the intelligence community's assessments were politically motivated in any way.
So again, I think it is really hard to argue with the conclusion of House Republicans who serve on the intelligence committee who concluded that there is no evidence of any political motivation or interference.
Q: Being politically motivated, though, is different from whether the White House was sloppy in providing information after -- in the days after the attack.
MR. EARNEST: And again, there's no evidence of that. The process used to develop talking points was flawed. But the talking points reflected the conflicting intelligence assessments in the days immediately following the crisis. That's not my defense. That is actually the conclusion of House Republicans who serve on the Intelligence Committee in the House.
Q: Can I ask a question on North America?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, go ahead.
Q: Yesterday, during the press call with the White House official on the meeting, the bilateral that President Obama is going to have with the President of Mexico tomorrow, information, trade, energy, and other issues, but it was an absence of human rights in Mexico. That's always been a very important topic for the U.S. to discuss with Mexico. And the last few weeks has been a very high crisis with human rights in Mexico. Is President Obama going to ask the President of Mexico about the situation of human rights?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President is looking forward to the opportunity that he'll have to sit down with President Peña Nieto tomorrow. Mexico, obviously, is a country with whom the United States has a critically important relationship. That relationship has an impact on a variety of aspects of American life. That includes our economy. That also includes our culture. And the President is looking forward to the opportunity to have that meeting.
I don't have much of a preview to share at this point, other than to tell you that you'll have an opportunity to hear from the two leaders tomorrow -- both at the beginning of their bilateral meeting, but also in a trilateral news conference that all three leaders will be convening together.
Obviously, human rights is something that the President raises in his conversations with leaders of countries around the world. And human rights is a priority for this President, and advancing the cause of human rights around the world is a priority for this President. But I don't have more of a preview of that meeting to share at this point.
Q: It was also mentioned that President Obama is going to ask the government of Mexico to reduce the production of heroin. And today the DEA released the new heroin threat assessment, saying that the number of Americans who die of an overdose of heroin tripled in the last four years. My question is, since to the Mexicans, that it's also the failure of the U.S. government to attack the problem of consumption and the amount of heroin, it's not just Mexico to blame of production of heroin. It's also the consumption and the demand of the drug in the U.S. How do you respond to that question of the Mexicans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would respond to it in a couple of ways. The first is, the United States is obviously taking quite seriously our efforts to combat the drug trade. We've been able to work effectively with the Mexican government to fight the flow of drugs coming over the border from Mexico. But we obviously believe that there is more that Mexico can and should do to assist in that effort.
We also believe that there is more that the United States can and should do to treat heroin addiction in this country as more than just a law enforcement problem. And the President has put forward a very specific set of ideas about how to expand access to health care so that people who are addicted to opioids and heroin can get treatment.
And, unfortunately, we have not seen additional resources committed by Republicans in Congress, despite repeated requests to do so. And, in fact, the President put forward in his budget proposal a very specific, funded, paid-for plan to expand access to drug treatment programs in this country. And as you will recall, House Republicans and Senate Republicans, for the first time in 40 years, *[didn't] agree to even have a hearing on the President's budget. So it's not just that Republicans have blocked that funding, they won't even talk about it.
And that's unfortunate because we know that the heroin and opioids addiction problems in this country are significant and are having an impact on not just lives, but communities across the country. And there certainly is more that we can do expand access to health care, to expand access to treatment programs, and reduce the demand for heroin in the United States. That would absolutely have a positive impact on our law enforcement efforts. It also would have a positive impact on the lives of the people who are -- have been so deeply affected in a negative way by this kind of addiction.
Q: Josh, I do have a question about the summit tomorrow, but first I want to ask about Benghazi. There does seem to be at least one thing that both the Democrats and Republicans agree on when it comes to this probe.
MR. EARNEST: That it's politically motivated.
Q: Well, the Democrats in their probe, as well, I'm talking about, and the report they released yesterday --
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: -- pointing out that security was "woefully inadequate" in Benghazi. That was the language used by Democrats. They also pointed to intelligence failures in the Republican report. So my question is whether the White House is satisfied that those failures have been adequately addressed by the State Department and other agencies. I mean, are American diplomats abroad any safer now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what I would go back to is the Accountability Review Board. This was an independent group of professionals, of experts, that was created by Secretary Clinton, was chaired by Admiral Mullen --
Q: Congressionally mandated, though -- they're required to. But I take your point, people were on it.
MR. EARNEST: But they're basically our experts who took an independent look at the situation. These are individuals like Admiral Mike Mullen, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a diplomat who served under both Presidents, and they took a careful look at this. They put forward 29 specific recommendations that should be implemented by the State Department to improve security at facilities around the globe and to address other concerns that were raised by this particular incident. The State Department has implemented all of them.
So, again, this is something that happened years ago. That's why it's hard to take very seriously the charges that are being leveled by Republicans in Congress.
Q: State said they implemented 26 of the 29 recommendations. But that aside, I mean, bigger picture, is the White House satisfied?
MR. EARNEST: Twenty-six have been completed, the other three are in the process of being implemented.
Q: Are American diplomats abroad safer now?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, absolutely, because these recommendations have been or are being implemented by the State Department.
Q: And when it comes to the intelligence failures, you think those have also been adequately addressed in terms of those laid out by Secretary Panetta and other agency leaders?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I have full confidence that the kinds of reforms that we would like to see after an incident like this have been implemented in a way that has enhanced our national security, that has enhanced the safety of diplomats around the globe. That's the kind of response that you would expect if there was a genuine interest in trying to address the tragedy to make the country safer -- to learn lessons and make sure that something like that didn't happen again, or at least take as many steps as possible to prevent something like that from happening again.
If you're interested in politics, what you do is you spend basically the three or four years after the incident basically trying to drum up conspiracy theories that never really pan out, and releasing high-profile reports that even Republicans themselves acknowledged are motivated at attacking a prominent Democratic politician. That's unfortunate. And that certainly is a disrespectful way to recognize and memorialize the death of four innocent Americans who were serving their country overseas.
Q: Last on Benghazi. Your feelings are very clear, but bigger picture, do you think there is any public interest that was served to have gone through what was supposed to be this select committee bipartisan probe? I mean, some would argue that this was how evidence was revealed in regard to Secretary Clinton using a private email server for government business -- it all sort of -- the scandals melded together there in some way. But some would say, hey, at least that was something that perhaps is in the public interest, given that there's still an FBI investigation underway in regard to that particular point.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think what I would simply have to say about this is that it is clear that Republicans had to work really hard to make the eighth installment of this series interesting. I think Hollywood producers would be happy to tell you how difficult it is to sell sequels. And by the time you're around to the eighth one, you have to find ways to add high-speed car chases and more explosions, but that doesn't make them any more useful to the public. It may make them more entertaining to the audience that you're trying to appeal to, and we know there's a very clear partisan audience that Republicans are trying to appeal to, but I think it's pretty hard for any Republican or a Democrat, for that matter, to make the case that useful, additional information has been yielded in the context of the Benghazi committee's years' long probe of this particular situation.
Q: On the summit tomorrow, Canada today lifted visa requirements on Mexicans traveling there, making it easier for Mexicans to visit Canada. Is President Obama looking at a similar or any kind of sort of confidence-building gesture, given the talk right now about building walls, rather than making it easier for Mexicans to come to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any announcements to make in terms of our immigration policies. Obviously the ability of the United States and Mexico to do business, to give Americans and Mexicans the opportunity to visit our respective countries for tourism or for other purposes is something that makes a substantial and positive contribution to our economy and economic growth. So maintaining those ties is important.
But what the President has also said is that securing the border is important, and that's why, under President Obama's leadership, we have made an historic investment in resources and personnel to secure the border between the United States and Mexico. But we certainly want to do that in a way that doesn't unnecessarily inhibit lawful travel between our two countries because we know that kind of travel and those kinds of exchanges have positive economic benefits for both countries.
Q: The Mexican President has obviously watched television. -- made public comments in his own country, expressing a lot of concern about some of the rhetoric being used by Donald Trump. Will President Obama directly address some of that in his conversation with the Mexican President tomorrow? I mean, is he in any way, broadly speaking, trying to strengthen the relationship with Mexico ahead of this election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has spoken before about how world leaders have certainly made note of the debate on the campaign trail. The President has made clear that the impact of that debate has not been entirely positive when it comes to the international perception of the United States. But the President, as he has done many times publicly, has privately assured other world leaders of the wisdom of the American people.
Q: So Donald Trump, in short, will come up in terms of trying to reassure him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that's not on the President's agenda tomorrow, but --
Q: But immigration, refugees, all of those issues are on the table. The Mexican President has compared Trump to Mussolini and Hitler. I mean, his views are pretty clear.
MR. EARNEST: I think that's why I'm not denying that it's going to come up. I'm just saying that the President's agenda will be different. But we'll see. You'll have an opportunity to hear from the leaders tomorrow, and they can tell you whether or not they discussed it.
Q: Josh, back to Zika. You say that there already isn't enough funding there for public health officials and public health agencies. All indications are now that nothing will get done, as you just went through to the earlier question, but is there a backup plan right now to find funds somewhere else as there was done the Ebola funding -- take money from somewhere and apply it to this, given how urgent you keep saying this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, our backup plan has already been deployed. And you'll recall that it was four months ago that the administration put forward a very specific legislative proposal, written by public health experts, detailing for Congress exactly what was necessary to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And Congress hasn't acted. Democrats have been eager to act on that proposal, but Republicans have blocked it.
Republicans have turned yet another critical matter into a partisan tool, and that's unfortunate. But, look, I don't have any additional information about other potential steps that could be used to find additional funding for this. That's why Congress needs to act. That's why this is Congress's responsibility to ensure that the necessary resources are provided to develop vaccines, to develop diagnostics, to expand lab capacity, to educate the public about steps they can take to protect themselves.
There are certainly additional resources that can be deployed to fight mosquito populations in local communities across the country. We've got state and local officials who are practically begging for additional resources to do a better job of fighting the mosquito population. But those calls from Democratic and Republican officials alike are falling on deaf ears when it comes to Republicans in Congress.
Q: You've been ringing the alarms now for weeks, if not months, when the initial request for funding went out. But is there more that the White House could be doing? Could the President be doing more hands-on talking to members of Congress on this? Is the Vice President making calls up on the Hill and pushing for this? I mean, you keep saying how urgent it is, but besides us asking questions and you talking about it, what else is being done that we don't know about?
MR. EARNEST: I guess the question I would have is, why should the President be in the position of twisting Republican arms in Congress to do something that our public health professionals say is necessary to address a public health emergency?
So the President has had a number of conversations, and I'm confident that he will moving forward, but it's pretty obvious what's happening here. The Republicans are refusing to embrace their basic responsibility to ensure that our public health professionals have the funding that they need to do everything possible to protect the American people. And I don't know why Republicans won't act. But they'll have to explain that to their constituents I suppose.
Q: Josh, in the first part of the Republican comment that you read in response to Byron's question, you cited the Republicans said the talking-point development was flawed. Was it? Do you sign on to that part of their statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there's a -- it has long been acknowledged that there were conflicting assessments from the intelligence community in the days after this particular incident. I think that's something that the intelligence community has testified to.
Q: The posture, the answer from the administration wasn't necessarily conflicting -- it was largely focused on this video. That didn't come across publicly, at least in what we had heard in the interviews following the event on September 11th.
MR. EARNEST: But I think the difference here, Rich, is that Republicans have suggested that there is a political motive. Republicans in the context of this committee have suggested that there is a political motive when writing the talking points. But House Republicans who serve on the intelligence community -- on the Intelligence Committee in the House say that there was no evidence to substantiate that claim.
Q: So taking your point that it's not -- that you say that it's not political, was it flawed, though? Was the process flawed and were the points flawed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the Intelligence Committee -- the intelligence community, even in testifying here, has acknowledged that there was conflicting intelligence information that they were sifting through in the immediate aftermath of the attack. I don't think that's new. I also think given the chaotic situation that was unfolding, I don't think it's particularly surprising to hear that that might have been the case.
Q: And in discussing the briefing and you talking about it with Byron, Republicans point out who wasn't in the briefing. They say the administration did not have DOD, FBI, CIA -- not on that private call with Ben Rhodes and David Plouffe the night before the Sunday show appearances. Would it be -- why not? And how and when did Ambassador Rice get an intelligence assessment before appearing to essentially be the face of the description for what had happened from the administration's point of view?
MR. EARNEST: Rich, I think what is pretty clear is -- and, again, this is something that is backed up by conclusions reached by Republicans in one of the seven previous investigations that they have done -- is that there was no political effort to manipulate the information that was presented. There is no evidence to substantiate that claim. I recognize it has not prevented Republicans from continuing to make that claim, but they do so without any shred of evidence.
Q: And discussing the politicization of it in your remarks at the top of the briefing, you talked about the RNC reimbursing taxpayers.
MR. EARNEST: Just disclosing the in-kind contribution I think would be enough.
Q: In the Democrats' version of the report, they mentioned the presumptive Republican nominee 23 times. Isn't that political?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think you'd have to ask the House Democrats about their report. I think what is clear is that the would-be Speaker of the House acknowledged that the reason that this committee was formed was to drive down Secretary Clinton's poll numbers. Congressman Richard Hanna from upstate New York indicated that the whole purpose of this committee was to go after Secretary Clinton.
So, again, you're certainly welcome to quote me in talking about the political motivations of the Republicans in Congress when looking at this issue. But if you're skeptical and you think that I have a partisan bias, then I would encourage you to look at leading Republicans who serve in the House of Representatives, who say that the activities of their fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives are politically motivated and merely an attempt to drive down Secretary Clinton's poll numbers.
Q: And does the administration regret any decisions made up to, during, or after? Anything it thinks it could have done differently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Rich, the fact that the Accountability Review Board found 25 -- or 29 reforms that needed to be implemented I think is an indication that, yes, there are some reforms that were necessary. And the President certainly has prioritized the safety and security of Americans who are serving our country around the globe, whether that is in uniform or in our diplomatic corps.
So the administration is taking quite seriously the need to implement these reforms, and as Margaret pointed out, almost all of them have been implemented and the three that haven't been yet are in the process of being implemented. So I think that is a pretty clear indication that this administration has set aside politics and actually focused on what can make the country and our diplomats safer. And we've taken concrete steps to follow that advice.
But here's the thing. That is advice that we received almost three years ago, and that is advice that we are implementing to protect the safety and well-being of the American people and American diplomats. Republicans, three years later, are still trying to play politics. And that's rather unfortunate, to say the least.
Q: Back to Zika. Why isn't $1 billion better than nothing? You keep saying that this is political, that the Republicans are making this a political issue. But Speaker Ryan is the one who said there needs to be checks and balances on this money. So why don't we give X amount of money and then another piece of money?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I haven't heard him say exactly that. I think the first question I would ask for Speaker Ryan is, if our public health professionals say they need $1.9 billion to do everything possible to protect pregnant women and their newborn babies, then why wouldn't we just use those resources to do exactly that?
I think that is a very difficult question for Speaker Ryan and other House Republicans to answer. They would rather, Lauren, because there is nothing that apparently escapes their partisan motivations, they'd rather play politics. So what Republicans have done is basically found what they apparently think is a convenient vehicle for ramming through controversial policy that relates to Confederate flags. What does that have to do with the Zika virus? Nothing. Other than it presents an opportunity for Republicans to ram through the Congress something controversial.
I think the other thing that's included in here is that there are certain prohibitions on using these resources for contraception efforts. This is a sexually transmitted disease. I think that's an indication that Republicans don't take this particularly seriously.
There are also measures in here that would suspend some rules and regulations that apply for the Clean Water Act. What does that have to do with fighting Zika? Why do we need to suspend environmental regulations for six months in order to more effectively fight mosquito populations?
Again, I think these are questions that are hard for Republicans to answer. The only explanation is they're willing to play politics with the health and safety of pregnant women and newborn babies. Shame on them. But, apparently, they have no shame. That's the only explanation I can think of.
Q: The President did a video yesterday about getting people to register to vote. Is this the first time he has ever made a friendship bracelet? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: As far as I know, yes. (Laughter.) I think the President made the crafting of that bracelet look rather difficult, so I suspect it was probably the first time that he had done it.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he did.
In the back, I'll give you the last one.
Q: On Puerto Rico, there is no guarantee that the Senate will pass a bill tomorrow. The administration has said that it's this or nothing. As the time gets closer to that July 1st deadline, are there any other options? Are you guys considering anything else other than the bill?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this is yet another example -- and I'm glad you raised it here before we wrapped up -- of Congress needing to act to protect the safety and well-being of millions of Americans. In this case, we're talking about the 3.5 million Americans that live in Puerto Rico.
Secretary Lew, who has done yeoman's work to try to move this legislation across the finish line, has made clear that if Congress doesn't act, what is certainly possible is we'll find ourselves in a situation in which the Puerto Rico government has to take rash measures like emergency furloughs, and laying off police officers, or teachers, and health care workers. They could potentially be faced with the need to shut down public buses and trains.
And the reason for all of this is that because of the upcoming deadline, the government could face a responsibility to pay their bondholders and not provide these essential services.
So, hopefully, we will avoid a situation in which Puerto Rican officials have to face this basic choice. But there are grave consequences for congressional inaction. And the ray of good news here is in an almost unprecedented step, we did see a majority of Democrats and majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives come together to pass a bill to address the situation in Puerto Rico.
The bill is imperfect. But it is something that would prevent these kinds of consequences. It's not a bailout. But a bailout only becomes more likely if Congress doesn't act. That is a scenario that Democrats and Republicans in the Congress should avoid. And we're hopeful that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate will come together in the same way that Democrats and Republicans in the House did to support an imperfect but critically important piece of legislation that would have an impact on the lives of 3.5 million Americans living in Puerto Rico.
Q: So that's the only option at this point?
MR. EARNEST: That is the only option that can avert the potential consequences of this deadline. And again, hopefully we'll see the kind of bipartisan action in the Senate that we surprisingly saw in the House.
END 2:44 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/318002