Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:07 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Happy Monday, everybody. Hope you all had a pleasant weekend. I do not have anything at the top so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, do you want to kick us off here?
Q: Sure, thanks, Josh. I wanted to start with the two Libyans who were transferred out of Guantanamo Bay, announced today by the Pentagon. With the number of remaining detainees there once again lowered, how much longer does the White House plan to wait to continue to give Congress time to look at your plan before you move ahead with potential executive actions to close the prison?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, let's get to the news first, which is that the Department of Defense did announce the transfer of two Libyan nationals to the Republic of Senegal earlier today. With those transfers, there are now 89 detainees remaining at the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Let me also express our gratitude to the Republic of Senegal for this significant humanitarian gesture. The United States appreciates the generous assistance of the government of Senegal as the United States continues its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
This is part of a strategy that the President initiated when he first arrived in the White House. The decision to transfer these two detainees reflects the careful analysis of a review board that was established to consider the individual cases of detainees. The review board's goal was to determine if there are locations to which individuals could be safely transferred under the right circumstances. And Senegal has agreed to put in place appropriate mechanisms that would mitigate the risk that these individuals could pose to U.S. national security down the line.
So we're certainly appreciative of the cooperation we've received from Senegal for that effort. And this does enhance our ability to continue to make the case to Congress that we can effectively close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and we can do that entirely consistent with our national security options -- entirely consistent with our national security priorities. And we're going to continue to make that case.
Q: So even though it's getting farther and farther into the last year of this presidency, the current plan is to continue sticking with expecting that Congress at some point may reverse course and allow you to close the prison?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, this refrain may sound familiar to you, but, yes, the administration is going to continue to do our job, and Congress should do their job in fulfilling their responsibilities to look out for the national security interests of the American people. We certainly have applied that label when it comes to the Supreme Court, but it also applies to a range of national security considerations as well.
And it's not just this President that has made the case that closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay would clearly be in our national security interests. This is a case that has been supported by national security experts in both parties, including President George W. Bush and a whole range of officials who served in his administration. This is also a strategy that is strongly supported by the Secretary of Defense.
So our national security interests here are clear. And we would welcome Congress stopping their efforts to obstruct the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and actually work effectively with the administration to get that done.
Q: I wanted to see if you had any information about the release of some private documents from this bank in Panama or any Sumatra accounts that people had. The Kremlin has said that President Putin was the main target of that breach. Do you have reason to believe that's the case? Any other information about what might have been behind this whole document dump?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, we've seen the extensive reporting that's been done on these leaked documents. I don't have a comment on the specific allegations that are included in those documents, but I can tell you that the United States continues to be a leading advocate for increased transparency in the international financial system, and in working against illicit financial transactions and in fighting corruption.
There's been a lot of talk over the course of the last year or so about how effective U.S. sanctions that are imposed by the Treasury Department can be effective in advancing the national security interest of the United States. That's true if we are isolating the Russians because of their violation of the territorial integrity of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, or increasing isolating and pressuring the North Korean regime to give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons, or in targeting ISIL's financial operations.
So that's why the United States is a leading advocate of greater transparency in these kinds of international financial transactions. Greater transparency allows us to root out corruption and to fight efforts to get around U.S. sanctions that have been put in place.
So we're going to continue to be a leading advocate for that kind of transparency. And there will continue to be large groups of national security professionals at the Department of Justice and at the Department of Treasury who will continue to be focused on these issues.
Q: And in North Carolina, we've seen some major companies -- Pepsi -- and even the state of New York say that they're going to try and limit the kind of travel they're doing to that state, essentially boycotting the state over this law that they've enacted regarding transgender people. Is there any consideration about doing that as far as the federal government not having federal employees travel there when they can avoid it to try and not promote what the state has done there?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of a policy decision like that that's been reached. But there are some both policy and legal questions that are raised by the passage of this law, and there are a number of government agencies that are thinking through those questions now and taking a look at what impact it may have on existing law.
I can just say that, more generally, this administration is committed to defending and even promoting the equal rights of all Americans, including LGBT Americans. And our commitment to that principle, that people shouldn't be discriminated against just because of who they love, is one that's worth fighting for. And this administration and this President will continue to speak out in support of those equal rights, because that's part and parcel of what it means to live in the greatest country in the world.
Q: Can you be any more specific about what some of those things that you may be considering, or effects from that, that people are taking into account?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not able to be from here, but there are a range of individual agencies that are taking a look at this. So obviously you can ask them if they've reached any determinations about how this particular law would have an impact on their interactions with the state of North Carolina.
I will just say that it's not surprising to me that there are a number of significant business entities that have come out to express their concerns about this law. Obviously, the state of North Carolina has an economy that has benefitted significantly from what officials in that state proudly describe as a hospitable business environment. Passage of laws like this do not create a hospitable business environment, particularly if businesses are concerned that either their employees or their customers are not going to be treated fairly by the state, or are going to be singled out by the state. And I'm not surprised to hear that government officials in North Carolina are feeling some pressure on this right now.
Q: Back to Gitmo for a second. The Democratic governor of Colorado has said that he opposes housing former Guantanamo detainees in his state, and I'm wondering whether the White House has talked to the governor about this and how his opposition might affect the President's pledge to close the facility.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific White House conversations to tell you about, but obviously what the White House would be committed to is ensuring that we work effectively with state and local officials in implementing a strategy successfully.
But to talk about any individual state is to get ahead of the game. Because right now, Congress is focused on preventing the transfer of those detainees to any state in the United States. Now, of course, Congress's position is rather ironic because there are already dozens of convicted terrorists that are currently serving prison time in the United States, on U.S. soil, in U.S. prisons. And the administration has forcefully made the case that the ability of our criminal justice system to prosecute those individuals and hold them accountable for their crimes in a way that's consistent with our values actually does enhance our national security. What also enhances our national security is detaining those individuals in prisons where they can not pose a future threat to U.S. national security.
So we've found a mechanism for handling these kinds of cases responsibly. That's why the case that is made by members of Congress is, frankly, inconsistent with available evidence. And particularly when we know that continuing to detain these individuals at the prison at Guantanamo Bay is inconsistent with our values and does give extremist organizations the kind of propaganda victory and recruiting tool that they've already used effectively. And why we would continue to provide that to them makes no sense to me.
Q: So no specific comment on what the governor of Colorado has said? At this stage, anyway?
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q: Okay. And on Afghanistan, the topic that came up this morning in the President's meeting -- General John Nicholson said today that the U.S. and NATO are behind schedule in training because of the intense combat and fighting that has been happening there. And I'm wondering if you can speak about how that's going to affect President Obama's decision on when and how to further draw down troops there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that obviously we welcome the valuable contribution that NATO has made to our efforts in Afghanistan. Much of the progress that we have made in Afghanistan would not have been possible without the significant contributions that NATO has made to that effort. And it is that effective partnership that allowed the United States to succeed in decimating core al Qaeda that previously operated with virtual impunity in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
And we've made enormous progress in helping the Afghan government begin to assume much more control for the security situation in their own country. And that ultimately is the key to our success. And that's been a long road, and we've got a substantial journey ahead of us before we can see the kind of resolution in Afghanistan that we would like to see. But there's no denying that we've made important progress. And the United States and our military personnel in Afghanistan are going to continue to focus on their two missions, which are counterterrorism and training Afghan security forces.
NATO obviously plays an important role in supporting those missions, particularly the second one. And we have seen improved performance by the Afghan security forces on the battlefield, and they've been tested -- there's no denying that. And we're going to continue to stand with them as they counter the threat from extremists inside their borders.
Q: Thanks. Two questions. To go back to Josh's question on the North Carolina law -- pointing to the agencies, and the agencies might have the details, but I guess my question would be, is the administration comfortable that whatever the agencies decide the White House is willing to accept, even if that decision would lead, for example, to shut off all federal funding for schools in North Carolina, or all federal funding for housing, or all federal funding for transportation? I mean, if that would be what the agencies would decide, does the White House say, yeah, go ahead and do that? Or do you guys have a position on how far you're willing to go in this? And then, second, do you have any thoughts on the court's ruling today on one person, one vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, on a decision that agencies have to make, I'm not aware that any of the agencies are considering going quite that far. I'm not sure that the law would allow it, let alone the broader policy implications of making a decision that's that far-reaching. But, ultimately, individual agency officials will take a close look at what impact this particular law would have on the legal and policy questions that are raised.
Q: -- would eventually weigh in on before action were taken, whatever that action would be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly -- obviously the White House is in regular communication with these individual agencies, but right now, the work that's being done is at the agency level, and I certainly wouldn't rule out that the White House at some point would need to be involved in that effort. But right now, it's the agency officials who are taking a close look at this.
Your second question was on the Supreme Court ruling today. Obviously, I think you've seen from the Department of Justice that they were pleased with the ruling. Many of the arguments that were effectively made by the Solicitor General before the Court were incorporated into the decision that the justices reached. It certainly is consistent with -- generally speaking, it's consistent with the arguments that the government has made about the most fair and effective way for American citizens to elect their representatives in government at all levels.
Q: Back to the so-called Panama Papers. Several close U.S. allies are also implicated, including the President of Argentina, who President Obama visited just two weeks ago; the Saudi King, who the President is going to meet with in two weeks. How concerned is the President that several allies seem to be shielding their money in this way? And does he plan to address it with them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I understand that President Macri, for example, has already addressed this. I'm not going to be able to consider the individual claims that are made based on some information included in the documents. Based on some of the reports that I've seen, there are some 11 million documents that have been released, so my guess is it's going to take even the most astute experts a little while to analyze all the information that's included in there.
But, look, this large volume of documents does not change the U.S. position, which is that there should be greater transparency in international financial transactions and there are a whole host of reasons for that, many of them are consistent with our national security interests. And we continue to advocate for that kind of transparency on an international scale. I can tell you that even in spite of some of the lack of transparency that exists in many of these transactions, there are determined experts at both the Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice who can examine these transactions -- or who are regularly examining transactions in the international markets to determine their consistency with sanctions that the United States has imposed or even laws that are on the books here in the United States.
Q: And on the Supreme Court and the President's nominee, despite the White House's campaign efforts by Senate Democrats, there doesn't seem to have been much of any shift in Republicans' desire to hold any kind of confirmation hearing or a vote. Why do you think that is? And is Mitch McConnell outmaneuvering you on this one?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you'll recall that just in the hours after Justice Scalia's untimely death, Leader McConnell was quite clear that the President should not nominate a successor to fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court. That, of course, is in conflict with the constitutional obligations, both of the President and of the United States Congress. And we've seen some visible discomfort on the part of Republican senators trying to defend that position. That's why we've seen such a large number of Republican senators come forward and indicate that they are, in fact, prepared to meet with the President's nominee.
Tomorrow, the President's nominee will meet with two Republican senators -- both Senator Collins of Maine and Senator Boozman from Arkansas. And even over the weekend, Senator Cornyn, who is an enthusiastic supporter of Leader McConnell's position on this, has acknowledged that there is a slippery slope. He explained that that's why they're trying to draw a hard line here in refusing to, in any way, consider the President's nominee. His view is -- those were his words, it's a slippery slope toward the confirmation of what he described as an "Obama judge."
And so that's why we feel like we have made some important progress here. I think that progress is evident from some of the public opinion polls that your news organizations have conducted, indicating that it's not just Democrats who oppose the strategy that Republicans have pursued here -- it's even Republican voters who are uncomfortable with the position that is taken by Republican leaders on this matter.
Even Republican voters believe that members of the United States Senate should do their job, and it is evident right now that many Republican senators are refusing to do so. They're refusing to do the job that they were elected to do, and they're not doing it because of some crisis of conscience -- they're doing it because they're following the orders of the Republican Leader in Washington, D.C. That's not really a recipe for success, because the last time I checked -- and, again, I'm no political expert here -- but the last time I checked, the public's view of the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. is not particularly high. It is not particularly favorable, even among Republicans.
And I think that is what is hard for Republicans in the Senate to justify to their constituents. And I think that's why even as Chairman Grassley was doing town hall meetings in the most conservative part of his state, that he even faced some tough, pressing questions about this. He described resenting the suggestion that somehow he wasn't doing his job. We heard Senator Moran in Kansas, who has taken a couple of different positions on this issue, indicate that he doesn't like being accused by his constituents of not doing his job. He'd prefer to just take a vote. I suspect that that position of refusing to take a vote is even more difficult to defend when the only reason you're refusing to take that vote is because you're taking orders from the Republican Leader in the United States Senate.
So that's why I feel like we've made some progress in at least putting some pressure on Republicans. And we're starting to see some Republicans acknowledge -- you see some Republicans who have actually come out and say that there should be a vote. Senator Kirk put it rather colorfully himself in suggesting that his colleagues should "man up" and vote. He's right. And to her credit, even one of his colleagues in the Republican Party in the United States Senate who is not a man suggested that they should step up to the plate and vote. So we are seeing some progress to be made here, and we're hopeful that Republicans will continue to venture down the slippery slope that Senator Cornyn described.
Q: So you're still optimistic that these meetings and these conversations that are happening will still ultimately lead them to change their minds and hold an actual hearing or vote? Because so far we're just hearing about conversations, not really -- you're not seeing that sea change that you would need to get that --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there has been a sea change when it comes to actual meetings; that there was an expression on the part of the Republican leadership in Washington that their members weren't going to have meetings with the President's nominee, but yet we've seen 17 different members of the -- Republican members of the United States Senate indicate a willingness to do that. And Senator Kirk met with Chief Judge Garland last week, and there will be a couple more that Chief Judge Garland will meet with tomorrow, both Senators Boozman and Collins.
And again, I think the reason that this is complicated for Republicans is not just based on their constitutional responsibility. This would be a difficult position for Republicans to defend no matter who the President had nominated to the Supreme Court. But the fact that the President has nominated an individual of unquestioned legal credentials, somebody who has more experiences on the federal judicial bench than any other nominee in the history of the Supreme Court, and the fact that the President nominated somebody who even a leading Republican has described as a consensus nominee makes their position even harder to defend than it otherwise would be.
And again, the fact that the only explanation that they can come up with is this is what the Republican leadership in Washington, D.C. wants me to do, that's a pretty tough position to defend.
Q: I wanted to look back first on the NATO meeting this morning. I'm wondering the extent to which Donald Trump's comments last week about NATO either inspired the meeting or it came up during the meeting between the two leaders.
MR. EARNEST: The meeting with the NATO Secretary General was actually organized shortly after the first of the year. So this is something that's been on the books long before Mr. Trump's ill-advised comments about the importance of the U.S.-NATO relationship.
I did not get a detailed readout of the meeting. I would be very surprised if there was any extensive conversation that involved Mr. Trump in the meeting.
Q: I wanted to run down a couple other things that came out of the Panama Papers. The disclosures did show ties to more than 30 people that have been sanctions by the U.S., whether Mexican drug cartels, North Korea, sort of all the things that you mentioned. So I'm wondering -- I know that you said that we've got kind of dedicated people working on this, but do these revelations prompt new questions about the effectiveness of our sanctions regime? And is there something that the Treasury Department will be doing after these revelations to sort of change their enforcement of their sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it's too early to tell whether or not a change in the implementation of these sanctions is warranted. I think the available evidence indicates to us that the efforts that are put in place by the Treasury Department to impose sanctions to combat terrorist financing are effective. We've seen, since the imposition of international sanctions against Russia, for example, based on their violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine, the Russian economy has weakened significantly since then. There are a host of factors that have contributed to that, but part of that has been the effective implementation of sanctions.
Going back to the agreement with Iran, the United States organized the international community to impose sanctions against Iran. That is what compelled Iran to the negotiating table and eventually compelled Iran to agree with the rest of the international community not to obtain a nuclear weapon.
So I think we've already seen the effectiveness of our sanctions at work. And we're continually looking for ways to ensure that the implementation of those sanctions is more effective. That is why we continue to advocate for more transparency, for greater transparency in the international financial system. It's not at all a surprise to anybody in the administration -- I don't think it's a surprise to you -- that there are people who are looking for illicit ways to get around U.S. sanctions. And to the extent that there is any evidence that they are doing that, I think it would only be common sense that we might learn from steps that they have taken to ensure that our sanctions could have the maximum impact.
Q: They also included details about Ukrainian President Poroshenko, especially that he had created a shell company in the middle of the turmoil in 2014. A big part of your guys' effort in Ukraine and especially tying aid to Ukraine is rooting out corruption there. And so I'm wondering if anything in there has at all sort of led the U.S. to reevaluate its support for President Poroshenko or heightened concerns about corruption.
MR. EARNEST: No, and for a couple of reasons. The first is that, again, I can't comment on any of the specific allegations that have been raised by these documents. Given the large volume of documents that are included in here, I think it's hard to jump to any conclusions right away.
But what's also true is that President Poroshenko has demonstrated a commitment, along with the rest of the government of Ukraine, to implementing a whole bunch of anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine. And all along, the United States has continue to encourage President Poroshenko and other senior officials in the Ukrainian government to follow through with implementing those anti-corruption reforms.
There is more work that needs to be done. But when you consider the record of President Poroshenko's predecessor, it's clear that they've made some important progress. And what's clear also is that the successful implementation of those anti-corruption reforms will be critical to the long-term success of the nation of Ukraine. And as the United States continues to support Ukraine in offering some security assistance, but also in terms of providing economic assistance, we're also going to continue to encourage them to implement those reforms faithfully to ensure the long-term success of our partner.
Q: There's been some calls for leaders around the world for kind of an international effort to address some of these flaws in the international banking system. I'm wondering if that's something the U.S. would do on the lead, and if there are any plans to use this as kind of a springboard for maybe things that the U.S. has been advocating for for a long time, or new ideas that have come up kind of based on the revelations here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not aware of any specific change in our policy, or any -- the creation of a new body as a result of these documents. But look, they've only been public for 24 hours or so now.
But whether or not these documents reveal substantive, legitimate evidence of people thwarting monitors of the international financial system, the United States will continue to be a leading advocate of greater transparency in our financial system. And that's something that we have long pursued, and we're going to continue to be at the forefront of making that argument because it contributes to our national security. And there are officials both at the Treasury Department and the Department of Justice who have responsibilities here. The effective completion, or the effective implementation of those strategies by the Department of Treasury and the Department of Justice also rely on effective coordination with our partners around the world.
So there obviously is an opportunity for the United States to use some of our leverage as a leader in this field and as the world's largest economy to bring about some of the changes that we would like to see. And again, we've been doing that for a long time. And those efforts will only -- are only going to continue.
Q: On the North Carolina front, you said that the White House is not involved at this point in the agency review that's going on. What is the President's level of interest and engagement? You've said some very strong things about the law from the podium. I'm surprised that you're essentially distancing or creating some separation between the White House and this issue of funding or other measures taken against the North Carolina because of the law.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't mean to leave you with the perception that we're creating some distance, I just mean to leave you with the perception that this is the functional responsibility of individual agencies to determine whether or not this state-passed law has any impact on any rules or regulations that are on the books that would have an impact on agency funding or other agency policy decisions.
So the agencies will consider that. They'll make that evaluation and they'll take a look at the law, they'll take a look at policy. And if we reach the point where a process needs to be led by the White House to make that kind of decision, then we'll do that. We won't hesitate to do that. But right now, this is a process that individual agencies are undertaking.
Q: Would you anticipate that that might happen, you might get to that point, given what we know about the law already? You called it mean-spirited, or something like that. Given how outspoken the President has been on civil rights and gay and LGBT rights, I'm -- again, would you expect that this might be something -- principle that you'd really try to push hard?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think as a matter of principle, ensuring that individual Americans are not discriminated against because of who they love is something that the President feels strongly about, and the President will be forceful in making the case that he is going to stand on the side of fairness and justice and equality. And he's done that throughout his seven years in office, he did that before he was elected President, and I'm confident he'll do that in the time that remains.
As it relates to this specific law, though, and its impact on government policies, I think a lot of that is going to be determined by what agencies find. It may be that agencies find that there's not much that can be done. But again, it's the agencies that will lead that effort. And I'm confident that once they reach the point of announcing any decisions, that they'll be in touch with the White House about that.
Q: On ISIS, at the Nuclear Summit the other day and that session, the President said -- emphasized that he had 50 world leaders, many of them are part of the coalition. He had the NATO Secretary General here today. I'm curious about what specific asks there were, if any, by the President of this group to try and -- I think he did use the words -- of his analysis, "urgency," because of what happened in Brussels and because of the -- I'm trying to determine what actually happened or what was said or what was requested that reflects some sense of urgency that may make the strategy or the response different now, more robust. Or are we expected to see things as they've been?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President is definitely committed to making sure that we continue to ramp up our efforts against ISIL. And we have been on this upward trajectory for quite some time now, and I think there are a variety of ways to evaluate that.
One way to evaluate that is the important progress that we've made in retaking territory that ISIL had previously controlled. We've now retaken about 40 percent of the territory that ISIL previously controlled in Iraq. The percentage is smaller in Syria, but some of the strategic locations that have been recovered from ISIL are having an impact on ISIL's ability to operate in that country and in coordination with their cells, not just in Iraq but in some other locations too. All of that is valuable.
We've also seen us escalate our campaign in terms of the efforts against ISIL's leadership in Syria. And I know that the Department of Defense over the weekend announced a couple of dozen strikes that were taken just over the weekend by the United States and coalition fighters against ISIL targets inside of Syria.
So we maintain a pretty rapid pace here. And that's evidence of the priority that the President has placed on the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. I think the value of the meeting was to ensure that all of the leaders who are involved in this effort understands why this is a priority for the President of the United States. It was an opportunity to review the important progress that our coalition has made, and it was an opportunity to spend at least a little time discussing what are the priority areas that require the attention of our Counter-ISIL Coalition to further degrade and destroy ISIL.
Q: What are those areas? That's what I'm trying to get at -- what specifically --
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a detailed readout of the meeting, but what I can tell you is that the President made clear that when people like Secretary Carter or when Ambassador Brett McGurk come calling to these individual nations and are visiting with their counterparts about important contributions that they can make to our Counter-ISIL Coalition, the President made clear that when those individuals are making a request to those countries, that they're making a request on behalf of the President of the United States, and that it should be prioritized accordingly.
And we are hopeful that that will continue to allow us to leverage the contributions of a wide variety of members to our coalition to continue to ramp up our activities against ISIL. And whether that's our military contribution or whether that is a contribution to our counter-financing efforts, or even a contribution to our efforts to counter ISIL's online radicalization efforts, there are a variety of ways that people can contribute. And we're hopeful that we'll see a steady increase in the contributions that are being made.
Q: What about specifically NATO? Because as the Secretary General explained, NATO is not a part of the coalition except that many members are part of the coalition. But inasmuch as there was an attack in Brussels, down the street, figuratively, from NATO headquarters, can we expect NATO to play a more -- again, the word "robust" role in that particular mission against ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: I think you'd have to ask Secretary General Stoltenberg about that. But I can tell you that we value the contributions that we've received from the large number of NATO members who are part of our Counter-ISIL Coalition. And it underscores why NATO is an important body.
Each of the individual countries who is a part of the NATO alliance makes substantial contributions to their defense and security apparatus because of important NATO obligations that they have. And ensuring that our partners and allies have properly invested in that security infrastructure is one way that we can ensure that we've got partners around the world that can help us when we need it.
And so that's how they can ensure that they're equipped to assist the United States and our Counter-ISIL Coalition partners because they have those resources, because they've maintained that long-term commitment to a robust defense capability. And we certainly welcome that.
Q: And is the President satisfied with where those spending levels are now? I think the Secretary General made the point of 2015 being the first year that the collective figure did not decrease.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the case that we have made strongly to individual NATO members is that in order to fulfill their NATO obligations, they should devote 2 percent of their GDP to their defense capabilities. And there are some NATO countries that meet that and some that don't. And we're going to continue to make the case that that kind of investment on the front end is critical to the national security of every member of the alliance.
Q: Did the President --
MR. EARNEST: I didn't get a detailed readout of the meeting, but if it did, I'm confident, again, that that was not the focus of the conversations.
Q: And you said that the Trump comments weren't -- didn't come up, or the look on your face --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my point is that they had a lot of really important things to discuss, and I'm not sure that Mr. Trump's comments would fall in that category.
Mike. Nice to see you.
Q: Thank you, nice to see you. Was there any effort to reassure the Secretary General following Mr. Trump's comments in recent days?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure that it was necessary, quite frankly. President Obama has spoken at length about how important the U.S.-NATO relationship is. Mike, you may even recall -- you may have been covering the White House full-time at this point -- back in 2011 when the President traveled -- made a state visit to London, and he gave a speech to the members of the British Parliament about the importance of the -- not just the U.S.-U.K. alliance, but the importance of NATO as a building block in United States national security posture.
And that alliance is something that President Obama has long acknowledged is critical to our national security. And it has benefitted from our investment in making sure that alliance remains strong. And the President will certainly be interested in advocating for the election of a successor who believes in the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with NATO.
Q: With terrorism hitting NATO countries, is there an effort to reformat or refocus the alliance to focus on terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Mike, there are a variety of ways in which NATO-member countries are very focused on terrorism. And whether it's fighting extremists in Afghanistan, which NATO has been doing side by side with the United States for more than a decade, or individual countries who are fighting extremism within their borders and benefitting from the support and cooperation of NATO allies -- for example, the United States has been strong in offering our support to both the French and the Belgians in countering some of the extremism that they've seen inside their countries. And so given the national security concerns of many of the members of NATO, it's clear that the need to fight terrorism is a priority of NATO member countries.
Q: The Navy says in recent days it stopped an Iranian vessel loaded with weapons, likely heading for Yemen --
1,500 AK-47s, 200 RPG launchers, 21 .50-caliber machine guns. Is that an example of the Iranians following the letter of the agreement but not necessarily the spirit of it? Or is that a violation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think one thing that this illustrates is the commitment on the part of the United States to countering Iran's destabilizing activities in the region. We obviously work with a whole host of other countries in that effort, and one of the things that President Obama will discuss at the GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia next month -- or I guess it's later this month now
-- will be ramping up our efforts to counter Iran's destabilizing activities in the region. And one example of their destabilizing activities is their ongoing materiel support for Houthi rebels in Yemen.
What I can tell you is that we obviously are concerned about this development because offering up support to the rebels in Yemen is something that is not at all consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions. And I'm confident that the United States and our other partners on the Security Council will take a close look at this incident, consider the available evidence, and if and when it's appropriate, raise this for other members of the Security Council.
Q: Would the United States like to see some kind of consequences for this kind of destabilizing behavior?
MR. EARNEST: I think at this point, it's too early to say exactly what we would suggest, but, again, I think this is a clear illustration that the United States is quite serious about working with other countries in the region to counter Iran's destabilizing activities in the Middle East.
Q: Josh, on Guantanamo. You used the phrase, "significant humanitarian gesture" by Senegal. That's not language you normally hear from the administration. What's so different about these two detainees versus the ones taken in by Estonia or all the other countries that have taken in released detainees?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the details about these individuals -- about these individual detainees. I'm sure the Department of Defense could provide you with some additional information about them. But we certainly have welcomed the willingness on the part of other countries to take in Gitmo detainees. And in some cases, we have described it as a humanitarian gesture. So I didn't use that language to send a signal that the case of these two individuals was a clear outlier, but rather to demonstrate our appreciation to the Republic of Senegal for agreeing to this step.
Q: -- not just DOD, but State Department used that phrase, you used that phrase here. And so I'm just wondering if, given where we are in the calendar, if there is something more to the gratitude you're expressing here. Is this because it is crunch time that we do really need these other countries to step up and take in prisoners if you're going to stick to your schedule of closing the place down by January?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are going to be very focused in our diplomatic efforts to work with countries around the world to settle upon security requirements that could be put in place that would mitigate the risk that transferred Gitmo detainees would pose to the United States. And I certainly wouldn't rule that out.
I think the other thing that I wanted to acknowledge today is the fact that this is actually -- these are the first two Gitmo detainees that Senegal has agreed to take. And so obviously they've made an important policy decision that benefits the United States and it seemed appropriate in this setting to express our gratitude.
Q: Can we expect then more transfers in the month to come, given where we are on the calendar and that it is crunch time?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific -- well, let me just say it this way. I don't have any transfers to tell you about right now, but obviously there is a process that the Department of Defense and the State Department have been following to reduce the population at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And before they can make a transfer like this, the Secretary of Defense has to personally certify that appropriate steps have been taken to mitigate the risk that these individuals would pose to the United States. So that is why we make a strong case that these transfers are clearly consistent with enhancing the national security of the United States.
Q: But since the White House put forward that plan to shut down Guantanamo Bay, have you seen anything to signal that this is anything other than dead on arrival, and that you'll be entirely dependent on transfers like these?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I will say is that we have been disappointed by the reaction of many Republicans to this plan. We saw people like Senator Roberts from Kansas -- it's unclear if he even read the document before he took a selfie of himself crumbling it and throwing it into the trashcan. I think that is an indication that Republicans don't take this very seriously. And I think it is an indication, as I mentioned to Josh, that Republicans, in particular, are not willing to do their job when it comes to the national security of the United States. And they'll have to answer to the voters for that, and they'll have to make their case to the voters about why, again, taking a selfie of yourself crumbling a piece of paper and throwing it in a trashcan is consistent with serious consideration of an important national security priority.
But this administration is going to take seriously our responsibility to protect the American people, and that means working assiduously within the law to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, primarily because it's a waste of money to continue to operate it in the method that is -- in the manner in which it's currently operated. We could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the long term by closing the prison, transferring those that can be safely transferred, and housing the remaining detainees in a facility here in the United States. That also would remove an important recruiting tool that we know that extremist organizations have used to radicalize people around the world.
So I recognize the politics of this are a little complicated, but by presenting basic facts -- particularly the fact that there are dozens of convicted terrorists that are currently being detained on American soil and housed in American prisons -- I think this is where you would expect people who are genuinely concerned about protecting the United States willing to work cooperatively with the administration to advance that goal.
Q: Question for you on refugee policy, broadly. Europe began forcing migrants out of European territory back onto Turkish shores or other points. What is the White House view on this? Do you it view it as somewhat similar to the forced deportations that the U.S. has undertook along its border?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just start by saying that the United States shares the desire to protect people fleeing a desperate situation in Syria or other places across the Aegean Sea. We also are committed to supporting the effort to crack down on the deadly smugglers who prey upon these desperate individuals. Far too many innocent lives have been lost merely to line the pockets of criminal syndicates. And it's deplorable, and it's why the United States has been strongly supportive of the E.U.'s efforts along with Turkey to try to confront this situation. And we commend the commitment from the E.U., its member states, and Turkey, who have demonstrated that they are seeking a comprehensive and coordinated response to the current influx of migrants and refugees from Syria and other nations.
We've seen both the E.U. and Turkey commit to making sure that the individuals -- these migrants, or these refugees are being given access to due process to make sure that their international rights are not just respected but actually protected. And that obviously is an important priority of the United States.
What's also an important priority is making sure that we can find an orderly way to meet the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals. And we're talking about, in some cases, families who have fled their homes, just trying to escape violence or, in some cases, to escape genocide. And that's why the United States has stepped forward and offered more than $5 billion in humanitarian assistance to try to meet the needs of these individuals. The United States is actually the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance. In some cases, that means offering direct humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced internally inside of Syria. In other cases, that actually means providing assistance to other countries like Turkey that are bearing a significant burden by housing a significant number of Syrian migrants. And the United States is serious about continuing to offer that kind of support and that will continue.
Q: Did this come up in the meeting with the NATO Secretary General? And is it similar to the U.S.'s own deportation of migrants?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know whether or not this came up with the NATO Secretary General in the President's meeting with him today. I think it is difficult to compare these two situations -- both the situation of the refugees fleeing violence in Syria and the situation that we've seen with some Central American countries. I think the one thing that they do have in common is a commitment on the part of the United States to the basic protection of the human rights of individuals who are fleeing violence in their home countries. And certainly in the United States, we've made access to due process a critical component of this process. And we have been gratified to see the E.U. and Turkey prioritize those rights as well.
Q: So despite how these Panama Papers got out there and the fact that this is private information and -- I mean, some of it is not illegal activity likely. I mean, there's 11 million pages there. Does the White House think that this is a positive thing that it was leaked?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at this point it's hard to assess whether or not that's an entirely positive thing. I think what's still unclear is exactly how these documents became public. And I know that even that is something that continues to be under investigation. So I think that's going to prevent me from reaching a hard and fast assessment about that right now.
Q: But you used the leak as a way to state that the U.S. has been a leading advocate for transparency. But this transparency, obviously, the reason it's out there is because of some leak that wasn't intended.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don't want to speculate about why it may be out there. It also may be out there because somebody stole the documents and gave them to a reporter.
Q: Exactly. It's a leak.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think stealing documents and giving them to a reporter is different than sharing information with a reporter that might not otherwise be public. I'm not an attorney, but I do think that there is a difference there.
Q: I mean, it is private information on people's financial records that was unintentionally, without their permission, put out there. But you sort of answered the question as if this was a positive thing.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I tried to answer the question by suggesting that regardless of whether or not these documents had been made public or not, the United States would continue to be a leading advocate for making more of these transactions more transparent. And the value in that is it will enhance the ability of the United States and our national security professionals to enforce U.S. sanctions, to counter corruption, to shut down terrorist financing, and put an end -- or at least limit -- the kind of illicit financing efforts that are actually contrary to U.S. national security interests.
Q: Okay. And at the Nuclear Security Summit, the President, of course, took a question on Donald Trump. And he took the opportunity to answer pretty extensively.
MR. EARNEST: He did.
Q: So he gets these questions all the time now, pretty much every time he does a press conference. And lately, he has been more effusive in his responses. So does he dread these questions that he's always going to get now? Or does he relish the opportunity to counter that messaging?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if Mr. Trump does become a nominee, I suspect that over the course of the summer and fall, as the President is campaigning for the Democratic nominee, you will -- the President will have many more opportunities to highlight the difference in approach between that which is advocated by Mr. Trump, and that which is advocated by Democrats and, in some cases, even this administration.
I think particularly when it comes to questions related to nuclear policy, I think the President welcomed the opportunity to use Mr. Trump's unwise position to illustrate the wisdom of the approach that this administration has pursued, which is to prioritize the international effort to prevent the spread of nuclear materials. And the President was able to make a strong case in describing exactly why that is in our national security interest, and to describe the important progress that we've made over the last seven years in removing nuclear material from some 13 or 14 countries around the world. And that certainly makes that nuclear material harder to be turned into a nuclear weapon or to be stolen by terrorists with bad intentions.
So there are a variety of ways to make that case, but in comparison to the ill-informed, unwise, intemperate remarks of Mr. Trump, I think it only serves to illustrate the benefits of President Obama's approach.
Q: And both you and the President have said on multiple occasions that that kind of rhetoric that some of the candidates, including Trump, have been putting out there is damaging to the U.S.'s standing in the world. Do you think that that damage has already been done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I don't think that that damage has been done. I think that the damage is in concern that is expressed by people around the world about whether or not the United States is going to continue to stand for and fight for the kinds of values that have been central to this country since our nation's founding more than 200 years ago. The fact that Mr. Trump and other Republican candidates want to walk away from some of those values and, in some cases, even talk down those values isn't just disappointing, it's unsettling to our allies that continue to depend on the United States as an ardent defender of basic human rights, of smart policy, particularly when it comes to something as important as nuclear weapons or our NATO alliance.
So I think, ultimately, ensuring that we have leadership in the United States that continues to support those values and to be a leading advocate in fighting to advance those values isn't just critical to our national security, and it isn't just important to living up to the values that the citizens of this country have long cherished; it's also critical to ensuring strong relations with some of our closest allies around the world.
Q: So, I mean, the President met with a number of leaders at this summit. Does he find himself needing to reassure people and counter the stuff that's been going on in the campaigns this season?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think the President spends much more time saying something to those who ask him about this in private than he does in public. And what the President has said in public is he is not particularly concerned about Mr. Trump becoming President of the United States. He doesn't think that's going to happen. He has expressed his concern about the way that other Republican candidates have in a desperate attempt to try to keep up with Mr. Trump's supposed popularity have even given voice to some of those comments.
But the President retains a lot of confidence in the commitment of the American people to those values, and I think that's one piece of evidence that you can point to is the way that the Democratic candidates for President have strongly supported those values throughout the campaign and have not wavered on them, even in some difficult political situations.
So I think that gives the President, the American people, and our allies around the world confidence that the U.S. commitment to basic human rights, to smart nuclear policy, to our NATO alliance is unwavering, despite what you hear at some Republican campaign rallies.
Q: But you mentioned that it's unsettling to allies, that there's concern out there. So does the President have to have conversations with them about this specifically?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he does. I think he has admitted as much at least in that news conference on Friday. But, again, the conversations that he has in public are not that different -- or in private are not different than the confidence that you heard him express previously in public.
Q: Josh, I want to ask you, why and how did Senegal get in the mix when it came to the detainees? And is there a history with the Senegalese having high-value prisoners in their possession at any time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is actually the first time that Senegal has agreed to take Gitmo detainees. These two individuals are the first two Gitmo detainees to be transferred to Senegal.
Q: Did the White House ask them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the administration did. And the State Department is obviously the lead of negotiating these diplomatic agreements with other countries to both get them to agree to take these individuals, but also to adhere to a whole set of security requirements that prevent them from posing an undue threat to U.S. national security. And the Secretary of Defense is responsible for certifying that those security requirements are sufficient to mitigate any risk that they would pose to the United States.
Q: So is there any involvement with the African Union when it comes to these detainees in Senegal?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that, but I suppose you can check with the State Department about that.
Q: Hi, Josh. I was wondering if you could provide a little context to the HUD policy that's being rolled out today, which is saying that a person's criminal record should not be an automatic disqualifier to being able to rent housing in the United States.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the idea here -- and this is a policy that Secretary Castro will roll out -- is that the agency wants to ensure, or at least take a significant step toward ensuring that people with criminal records aren't being illegally denied housing opportunities.
And the idea is to make clear to housing providers across the country that blanket bans against people with criminal records violate the Fair Housing Act when they disproportionately deny housing to people of color. And this pursuit of eliminating discrimination in the housing sector is something that President Obama has made a priority. But I can tell you it's something that both Secretary Castro and his predecessor, Shaun Donovan, who is now at OMB, also made a priority.
And understanding the way that housing policy can have an influence on communities all across the country is to understand why preventing discrimination in this field is something that can have a significant impact on our broader society.
Q: Can you describe to what extent you think this has been a problem? For example, returning offenders, or how has this played out, this idea that people in the past have been denied?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the concern, obviously, is that a broad application of a ban against people with criminal records disproportionately impacts people of color. And that is a source of significant concern. Eliminating that kind of discrimination in our housing policy can have broader societal effects.
The second thing is the administration has obviously made the ability of people who have served their time and paid their debt to society to reenter our society is a critical part of criminal justice reform. Giving people a second chance, particularly people who have paid their debt to society, is a priority not just to the administration, but I think to the American people. And, again, this goes to something that Speaker Ryan talked about last week, in talking about how his faith and his sense of values animates his view of the importance of giving people a second chance. And there are already a whole host of significant obstacles that people reentering society and coming out of incarceration face -- from finding a job to finding a support network.
And to throw up or to erect barriers to being able to find housing is going to make it quite difficult for individuals who are emerging from our criminal justice system to establish the kind of basis that they'll need to find a job and to build a new life for themselves. So obviously this is a policy that was carefully considered by Secretary Castro, but it's one that the administration as a whole enthusiastically supports.
Q: And just one question on the North Carolina law. In the course of the President's time in office, is there another time that you can recall the administration has done an agency-wide review of potential retaliatory response to a state law that in the eyes of the administration violated whether it's civil rights or other principles?
MR. EARNEST: I think what you'd probably have to do is to check with individual agencies because obviously this is not a review that was ordered by the White House but rather these were individual agencies who were consulting the laws that are -- who are consulting the laws that are on the books and the policies that have been in place under this administration to determine whether some sort of response is necessary. I don't think this is something that is outside of standard operating procedure. But you'd have to talk to individual agencies to determine exactly what that standard operating procedure is.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the President's trip on Thursday, just the first part, the Chicago part? Obviously he's talked about the Supreme Court before. What's the new message and why Chicago, Illinois? Is he going to call out certain senators?
MR. EARNEST: Well, why Chicago? The President, you may recall, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. And returning to that venue to have a discussion about the constitutional responsibilities before the United States Senate
Returning to that venue to have a discussion about the constitutional responsibilities before the United States Senate seems appropriate. And it will be an opportunity for the President to discuss why he considers his responsibility to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court so important. I'm confident that he'll spend a little time talking about how he arrived at the decision to nominate Chief Judge Garland for this important position.
And I'm confident that the President will reiterate a case that you've heard him make a number of times now that the Senate should set aside partisan considerations and actually focus on their constitutional responsibility. He'll say that the Senate -- members of the Senate should do their job. And that's an argument that you've heard him make before, but making it in a venue where the President has previously talked about the importance of constitutional law is the idea behind Thursday's event.
Q: Do you think he'll mention certain specific senators? He hasn't really done that.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know necessarily whether or not he will mention certain senators, although I suspect that, for example, Leader McConnell or Chairman Grassley's name might come up. They have a pretty important role in this process that they're not playing right now, and that's sort of the whole point here.
Q: And then since he is going back home, so to speak -- and he did the same thing, Springfield, a couple months ago -- just wondering, sort of, is he feeling nostalgic? This is the second time he's gone to deliver sort of a speech about something important to him that he wants to talk about. The other was partisan politics and dysfunction in Washington. What's going on? He feeling his last year --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what's going on is that both locations are appropriate ways to illustrate how consistently the President has fought for a whole set of values and principles even before he entered the White House. So when it came to Springfield, the President devoted a significant portion of his speech before the Illinois legislature to talking about how important it was to the success of the Illinois legislature for Democrats and Republicans to be able to work together. That's something that the Illinois legislature did effectively when Senator Obama was there.
And there's a similar parallel that the President is hoping to draw by traveling to the University of Chicago. Prior to entering the White House, prior to running for the United States Senate, the President spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about and talking about and teaching constitutional principles. And many of those constitutional principles are now in the broader discussion about whether or not the Senate is going to do its job, and whether or not individual senators are going to do their jobs when it comes to fulfilling their constitutional responsibility to evaluate and give a fair hearing and an up or down vote to the President's nominee to the Supreme Court.
Q: Thanks, Josh. OMB completed its review of the fiduciary rule yesterday. And do you expect the President to roll out that rule this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates beyond what OMB has said about that rule. We've made a strong case about why this is -- why some changes were necessary, that right now there are too many financial advisors that are not putting their clients' interests first. And by not doing that, we've seen a waste of some $17 billion in retirement savings. That's not -- given that the President has made retirement security a top priority, we believe, frankly, that we should standardize best practices across the industry, particularly when it comes to offering retirement advice.
The good news here is that for financial advisors who are already placing their customers' interests at the top of the list, they don't have to do anything differently. But this is a regulation that, if and when implemented, would just focus on those individuals, those financial advisors who are not putting their customers' interests first, and that for all of the hullabaloo about this, that's why the President and the administration think this is a pretty common-sense rule.
Q: So no timing update? Because Speaker Ryan last week was very concerned about this rule.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a timing update, but we'll keep you posted.
Q: Josh, can you say whether Senegal asked that its acceptance of the two detainees be portrayed as a humanitarian gesture as part of the deal to accepting them?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any specific requests there were made by the Republic of Senegal. But I can tell you that it's not the first time that I or my counterparts in the administration have described these kinds of transfers as a humanitarian gesture.
Q: I wanted to ask this follow-up question about what the President said on Friday at his press conference. Why does the U.S. think that India and Pakistan pose an immediate challenge when it comes to nuclear security? What are the challenges coming from, and what did -- he is doing to address that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the President's comments were motivated by the concern that we have about nuclear and missile developments in South Asia. In particular, we're concerned by the increased security challenges that accompany growing stockpiles, particularly tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use on the battlefield.
And these systems are a source of concern because they're susceptible to theft due to their size and mode of employment. Essentially, by having these smaller weapons, the threshold for their use is lowered, and the risk that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to include the use of nuclear weapons.
So this is why the administration has regularly expressed concern about any sort of tactical nuclear weapon. And our hope is that improvements in bilateral relations between India and Pakistan could greatly enhance prospects for lasting peace, stability and prosperity in the region. And it is important, and the United States has made this case to both countries, that there be a sustained and resilient dialogue between the two neighbors.
And we're encouraging all parties in the region to act with maximum restraint and to work collaboratively toward reducing tensions in the region. Obviously, the United States benefits from the partnership that we have with both countries. We value it. And it's why we continue to make the case to our partners both in India and Pakistan that deescalating the tension between these two countries -- or between the two countries is a priority. And we've certainly made clear the concerns that we have about the development of tactical nuclear weapons, or so-called battlefield nuclear weapons.
Q: And the issue was discussed with the Indian and Pakistan delegations at the Nuclear Security Summit last week?
MR. EARNEST: In general, I can tell you that these are issues that we have raised with both countries directly. I don't have a lot of information about individual conversations with countries to discuss from here, but I can tell you that this is a view that we have raised directly with both India and Pakistan.
Q: They are saying that the President's statements sort of reflects a U.S. lack of understanding of India's defense postures. Many security experts both in the U.S. and in India say that it does -- comes from China, and it's -- all modernization is based towards that --
MR. EARNEST: Say the last part again.
Q: India's military modernization is based towards its defense posture with -- the security that comes mostly from China, not from any other country, and the U.S., too, is part of India's defense modernization program. How do you react to India's concerns on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that the United States is committed to developing the U.S.-India relationship into one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. And that includes pursuing the strategic security dialogue that provides a dedicated venue to exchange ideas on India's intentions and defense needs, and to discuss issues that they may have related to strategic stability.
So these are the kinds of conversations that we have with our Indian counterparts. And we're certainly aware of the unique region of the world in which India is located. And we certainly appreciate the need India has to take the necessary steps to defend themselves. But the goal of the Nuclear Security Summit, as described earlier, was to eventually create a world without nuclear weapons. And that is a longer-term goal, and one that the President has long prioritized.
And the President does believe that that is something that can be pursued consistent with the relevant national security interests of countries around the world. And we're certainly going to be particularly concerned about and attuned to the national security concerns that are expressed by close partners of the United States like India.
And that said, we do believe that evolving in this direction is something that won't just enhance the national security of the United States, it will also enhance the national security of India.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
END 2:23 P.M. EDT
Josh Earnest, 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/318048