Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
12:28 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. I hope you all enjoyed your weekends. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kevin, would you like to begin?
Q: Sure. Thank you, Josh. Has the President talked to anyone affiliated with President-elect Trump's transition team or to President Xi about the President-elect's call with the leader in Taiwan? Have any concerns been expressed with foreign leaders at all about this call? Or is this simply President-elect Trump's to own and for the current administration to distance itself from?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I don't have any presidential conversations to tell you about. I can confirm that U.S. officials, including senior officials at the National Security Council, have been in touch with their Chinese counterparts to reiterate our country's continued commitment to a one-China policy.
This is a policy that is based on three joint U.S.-China communiques that were negotiated by different U.S. Presidents in different parties and, of course, by the Taiwan Relations Act. This is a policy that has been in place for nearly 40 years, and it has been focused on promoting and preserving peace and stability in the strait. The adherence to and commitment to this policy has advanced the ability of the United States to make progress in our relationship with China and, of course, has benefitted the people of Taiwan. Taiwan, after all, is the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States, and they certainly benefit from peace and stability in the strait. And pursuit of and commitment to that peace and stability advances U.S. interests.
If the President-elect's team has a different aim, I'll leave it to them to describe.
Q: Have you had conversations with the President-elect's team, and did you get the sense that this call is designed to forge closer relations with Taiwan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's hard to determine exactly what the aim was of the President-elect. I know both the Vice President-elect and his campaign manager were -- when asked about this over the weekend, indicated that these were courtesy calls -- or that this was a courtesy call and the President-elect was merely returning that call. The Washington Post today tells a different story, with some Trump aides indicating that this was a long-planned call and that this is part of a broader strategic effort.
It's unclear exactly what the strategic effort is, what the aim of the strategic effort is, and it's unclear exactly what potential benefit could be experienced by the United States, China or Taiwan. But I'll leave that to them to explain.
Q: Keeping on foreign affairs, what is the President's reaction to the election results in Italy? And he put some political capital into this, bringing Prime Minister Renzi in for the final official visit. Is he disappointed in the results? And is he concerned that this is kind of the beginning of the unraveling of the European Union?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, obviously both the President and the President-elect had quite a bit to say about this when Prime Minister Renzi was here at the White House back in October. And the President, at that point, indicated his hope that the Italian people would be supportive of the referendum and the reforms that Prime Minister Renzi put forward. Didn't turn out that way.
I would warn against painting with an overly broad brush about the potential consequences of this outcome. There certainly is a not entirely unreasonable tendency to want to loop together the outcome in the UK and even the outcome of the U.S. presidential election with this outcome. But each of these is different. We're talking about different constituencies. In one case, we're talking about a presidential election; in two other cases we're talking about a referendum, only one of which actually had a direct impact on Brexit.
So there are some broader trends that are worthy of analysis, but I think there's a risk in oversimplifying that analysis based on the outcome of yesterday's referendum in Italy.
Q: Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Roberta.
Q: Since Friday, what contact has the administration had with other allies in Asia who may have been concerned about the call?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any other diplomatic conversations to tell you about. Obviously the United States, through the State Department and other agencies, including occasionally from the National Security Council, is in touch with our allies not just in Asia but around the world. I think that there were a couple of conversations over the weekend between senior U.S. officials at the National Security Council and Chinese officials to reiterate and clarify the continued commitment of the United States the our longstanding one-China policy. But beyond that, I don't have diplomatic conversations to read you out.
Q: You can't say one way or the other whether there were other conversations with other allies?
MR. EARNEST: I can't say one way or the other.
Q: And I guess I'm wondering, with the rebels in Aleppo being almost completely overwhelmed, how concerned is the White House that Al-Nusra or other groups like that are going to step in and sort of gain strength because of what's happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think our concern with the situation in Aleppo right now, Roberta, is focused on the plight of thousands of civilians, including children, who are caught in harm's way. And the reports continue to trickle out of Aleppo are increasingly dire and the situation there continues to worsen. And it's clear that while far too many innocent lives have already been lost, there are many more innocent lives that are at risk, including women and children.
And it is a reflection of the depravity of the Assad regime. It is a reflection of the willingness of the Russian government and the Iranians to risk deepening involvement in a quagmire to accomplish a goal of trying to shore up their influence in the region. And it raises profound moral concerns. It also serves to isolate Syria, Russia and Iran from basically the rest of the world, who's deeply concerned with the violence that they see continuing to be perpetuated in that war-torn country.
Q: So it raises profound moral concerns. Are any adjustments being made to U.S. policy in Syria because of what's happening now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the U.S. efforts underway right now are diplomatic in nature. And we have said from the beginning of this conflict that a military solution is not available. The only available solution is a diplomatic one. And for a time, the United States, through the historic and tenacious efforts of Secretary of State Kerry, were focused on trying to reach a bilateral negotiated agreement with the Russians. But again, despite his tenacious efforts, that kind of solution was not to be found. But Secretary of State Kerry has remained undeterred and has continued to pursue a multilateral negotiated agreement to try to bring the violence to an end, or at least reduce the violence and not allow so many innocent Syrians to be in harm's way of a bloody bombing campaign.
But I'd refer you to the State Department of an update on those efforts, but obviously that's something that he continues to work on very diligently because of our nation's profound concern for the plight of those innocent Syrian men, women and children.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Among the criticism that's been out there of Donald Trump's foreign policy or his contact with foreign leaders are that he's winging it, and also we've heard from one who is a congressman, that that's how wars start. How seriously does the administration take some of these contacts? I mean, do you think that this borders on dangerous?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, whenever you are talking about the President-elect of the United States interacting with foreign leaders, it's incredibly important. It has profound consequences for our country and for our national interests around the world. In talking about this situation -- well, let me be more specific.
Last week, we had some conversations about a conversation that the President-elect had with the Prime Minister of Pakistan. And I noted in answering questions about that telephone call that President Obama, over the course of his eight years in the White House, has benefitted significantly from the expertise, advice, and experience of career diplomats at the State Department. And that expertise and advice is available to the President-elect. That advice will continue to be available to him when he enters the Oval Office. President Obama benefitted from it, and President-elect would, as well.
Q: Do you think that his contact with Taiwan and his tweeting about China, is that dangerous?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is that there has been a longstanding policy in place that's been governed by our one-China policy, undergirded by three different joint communiqués negotiated between U.S. Presidents and their Chinese counterparts. My understanding is that these -- or the facts are that these communiqués were negotiated, one in 1972 by President Nixon, one in 1979 by President Carter, and one in 1982 by President Reagan, and those joint communiqués have guided our approach to this region of the world. And the Chinese government in Beijing places an enormous priority on this situation and it's a sensitive matter. And some of the progress that we have made in our relationship with China could be undermined by this issue flaring up. It's also unclear how the people who live in Taiwan benefit from this issue flaring up.
The response from the Chinese government in the aftermath of this call has primarily been to ratchet up the rhetoric against Taiwan. And it's unclear to me how that kind of consequence benefits the people of Taiwan or benefits the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States. So these are significant issues and worthy of careful consideration.
Q: And we know the Chinese officials reached out to the current administration after this phone call with Taiwan. So what does this administration say to the Chinese in this instance? I mean, what really can you say?
MR. EARNEST: What we have made clear in a couple of different phone conversations is that the administration is committed to our nation's pursuit of a one-China policy rooted in three communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. This is a policy that's been in place for 40 years -- or almost 40 years, and it's a policy that has been aimed at promoting peace and stability in the Strait. And this has been a policy that has advanced the interests of the United States both in terms of advancing our relationship with China, but also in terms of the interests of the people of Taiwan, who happen to be the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States. So there are significant economic consequences here as well.
Q: So, in saying that, are you expressing confidence to them that that policy will continue? Or do you really have no way of knowing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's the President-elect and his team who can speak to what sort of policy they intend to pursue after January 20th. I can't speak to that.
Q: But you say that there have been a number of phone conversations with the Chinese government.
MR. EARNEST: I'm aware of two different phone conversations with officials at the National Security Council with their Chinese counterparts.
Q: Okay, great. Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Justin.
Q: I wanted to return to Italy first. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what you anticipate it meaning for European refugee policy, and also if the administration -- if anybody in the Treasury Department or here at the White House has been in touch with sort of financial markets out of this concern that this could either impact the Euro, or kind of spark fears of a recession or a run on the banks -- all these different possible economic consequences.
MR. EARNEST: There are obviously a range of potential contingencies any time there is a significant national election like this. It's no secret that the Treasury Department has been closely monitoring the financial system in Italy for some time now. There have been increased signs of volatility there. I'm certainly no expert on those issues so I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Treasury Department for an analysis.
I know that a number of analysts have suggested that the market reaction is indicative of this being the anticipated outcome, but I'll let those analysts speak to that assessment. Obviously, the United States and Italy have an important economic relationship, and the United States benefits from Italy and the EU more generally making smart financial and economic decisions.
With regard to the potential consequences for the unity of the European Union, I think that remains to be seen. Obviously, this is not a -- the referendum was not on -- was not a question about Italy's relationship with the EU, but there are a range of broader potential consequences that I can't speak to. But obviously, there are some important political decisions for Italy in the near term in terms of Prime Minister Renzi submitting his resignation and the need to form a new government -- whether that's a caretaker government or another government is something that ultimately the Italian President will have some say on.
But, look, the United States and Italy have an extraordinarily important relationship. And that relationship was on display when Prime Minister Renzi was here at the White House just six weeks or so ago. And obviously, there's a deep cultural relationship between our two countries. There are many people who live in this country who proudly identify themselves as Italian-American. The security relationship between the United States and Italy is critical. Italy is a NATO member and has made important contributions to our counter-ISIL campaign, to the NATO effort in Afghanistan. And we obviously work closely and consult closely with Italy as we resolve some of the security concerns with regard to ISIL's presence in Libya.
So this is an extraordinarily important relationship to the United States and to our national security and to our economy. And that will continue to remain the case even as they work through some of the political challenges that they're currently facing.
Q: I want to ask about the decision by the Army Corps to delay the Dakota access pipeline for an environmental review. I'm interested both in your general reaction, but also if the White House was in any way sort of in contact with the Army Corps or dictating this decision to sort of further --
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I've indicated before that the White House was being regularly updated on the talks between concerned local residents and federal agencies, including the U.S. Army with regard to the construction of this infrastructure project. The White House did not and has not been dictating the outcome, but rather has been updated by the Army Corps on the negotiations.
The President, a couple of weeks ago, welcomed the indication from the United States Army and other government agencies to redouble their consultation with those communities that are most directly affected by the construction of this project.
This is typically the kind of principle that you would hear from conservative politicians -- that whenever the federal government is undertaking a project that has a direct impact on a local community or a local American citizen, that the rights to that person and that community should be very carefully considered.
There has been some criticism from self-described conservative politicians. Why they have reached a different conclusion in this case is something you'd have to ask them. It's curious to me. But I think more generally, the President believes that this kind of consultation between federal agencies and local communities is important, particularly when a local community has such a significant stake in the outcome or is so significantly affected by a project like this moving forward. And that was the case in this situation. And the result has been for this federal agency to determine that more study is required. But ultimately that was a decision that was arrived at by the agency -- in this case, the United States Army.
Q: Protestors there obviously are happy with the delay, but there's been complaints throughout the last few weeks about some of the tactics that have been used by local law enforcement, whether it be using water cannons on freezing nights, or rubber bullets. I'm wondering what the White House's perception of the way local law enforcement has treated these protests is, and if there's been any consideration of sort of a federal intervention into the interaction between protestors and law enforcement.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any contemplated federal *interaction [intervention] at this point. What I am aware of is the very first thing that the President said publically about this matter earlier this fall. And the very first thing that he said was he encouraged protestors to abide by the responsibility that they have to exercise their constitutional rights to protest peacefully. They have that responsibility. The President also made clear that law enforcement officials who have a responsibility to keep that peace have a responsibility to handle themselves in a manner that would promote peace in watching over these protests. So that's important. And that's the responsibility that people on both sides of this issue have, and the President's expectation is that those are responsibilities that they should uphold.
Q: One last one. President Rouhani said over the weekend that if President Obama did not block the Iran Sanctions Act there would be a "firm response" from Iran. I'm wondering what your reaction to that is, and especially your level of concern, considering that the Ayatollah and others in Iran have said continuing this legislation, even though it doesn't directly impose sanctions itself, would be a violation of the Iran nuclear deal.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've made clear since Congress was considering the passage of this legislation that this legislation was not inconsistent with the agreement that was reached in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- this was ultimately the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We've been clear about that from the beginning, and that's clear today. And in fact, we made clear that if Congress did pass legislation that undermined the deal that was inconsistent with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that the President would veto it.
And given the support in the Congress for the deal, there was sufficient political support to ensure that the President could back up that promise. In this case, because the legislation doesn't undermine the deal and is not inconsistent with the agreement, the President does intend to sign it into law.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I've got two for you. The first one -- I'm trying to understand this outreach -- this conversation between the U.S. and China in the aftermath of the President-elect's phone call. They know that he doesn't speak for you guys and that you guys don't speak for him, so I'm trying to understand how your message of continuity of policy can get across to them. They've got to know, as you acknowledge, that in January, everything could change. So are you promising them that he's going to see the light somehow, or what's the message there?
MR. EARNEST: No, there's no attempt and no effort and, frankly, no desire to make promises on behalf of the President-elect. When the President-elect assumes office, when he assumes the awesome responsibility of governing the greatest country in the world, that's something that he'll do on his own.
The assurances that we could offer the Chinese government were the ongoing commitment of the U.S. government to the pursuit of a one-China policy that we believe has benefitted the United States, China and Taiwan. But the Chinese government and senior officials in the Chinese government are sophisticated enough to understand the complexities of the U.S. political system and they understand that President Obama's ability to set our policy towards this region of the world expires on January 20th, and someone else will take over. Our message -- the message that was conveyed by senior National Security Council officials was intended to make clear that the policy position of the Obama administration had not changed.
Q: And then could you give us a flavor -- we got a flavor of the speech tomorrow from Eric last week. Could you flesh it out a little bit more? What is the President's purpose in giving this speech tomorrow? Is this a legacy-minded assessment of his eight years in office on the foreign policy front? Is it about unfinished business? And to the degree that it is about unfinished business, is he planning on suggesting to the incoming administration that they finish that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have a whole lot more to say about the speech for tomorrow. We'll try and get you some more information before the end of the day today, just as you prepare to write about the President's speech.
I think, in general, what I can tell you is that the speech is focused on underscoring how important some of the reforms are that President Obama has put in place with regard to greater accountability and transparency in our national security programs. These reforms were necessary in part because, when President Obama took office our country was benefitting from new technology, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, to apply pressure to terrorist organizations and terrorist leaders in remote locations. And President Obama believed it was important and worth a lot of time and effort to impose some constraints on how that program was used and to make it more transparent.
And the President's view is that by putting in place that legal architecture, it would make the program more durable. It would also inspire greater confidence around the globe in our ability to conduct these programs consistent with our values. And so much of the authority and influence the United States wields around the world is derived from our adherence to these universal values.
So I think the goal tomorrow is to help the American people understand why these reforms were so important, and understand why they're so valuable to our national security moving forward. There will be an acknowledgement that there is additional work in this area that needs to be done and will require thoughtful consideration by national security professionals in the next administration. But the President is quite proud of all of the progress that we have made, both in terms of keeping the country safe, but also in making sure that our country lives up to the values that are central to our greatness.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to know if the White House has any reaction to the arrest that was made yesterday at Comet Pizza up in Northwest. I'm asking because the President has spoken out a number of times on the corrosive effect that fake news has had on the political discourse, and I know that a lot of the rumors surrounding that establishment was spread by fake news online.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by complimenting and crediting local law enforcement here in the Washington area who responded with a lot of professionalism to that situation in preventing any bloodshed. So this is just another example of how our men and women in blue never take a day off from keeping us safe. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and that certainly applies to the brave men and women who serve in the Metropolitan Police Department here in Washington, D.C.
The second thing I can tell you is that those law enforcement officials are continuing to investigate this situation. I know there have been some interviews that have been conducted with the subject and I think there's some interest in trying to learn more about what exactly his motives were.
I think more generally it's -- even without knowing precisely what those motives were, I think there's no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate. And that's concerning in a political context. It's deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.
So, again, it's unclear if that's exactly what happened in this situation. I'll let local officials speak to that. But this is something that I think everybody is going to spend some time thinking about, particularly people in this room and the people who represent news organizations in this room. How people understand what's happening in the world is important to the functioning of our democracy. And this is something that I assume the next administration is going to have to spend some time thinking about and working on as well.
Q: Do you think the President-elect or his top advisors need to speak out about this problem, too? We've seen the son of Michael Flynn, the incoming national security advisor, spread some of the rumors about this pizza shop on his Twitter account. So given that, do you think that senior members of the Trump team need to respond?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not here to issue any specific challenges to the incoming administration on any topic. I think we all hold a responsibility, regardless of whether or not we are planning to serve in a government position or if one of our family members is planning to serve in a government position, that we shouldn't be propagating false things that could inspire violence. I think that's a -- there's probably some overlap of the Golden Rule there I think somewhere that may be worth considering.
Q: Just lastly, there was a group of 22 Republican senators who sent a letter to President Obama today asking him to stop issuing any non-emergency rules and regulations in the final weeks of the administration. Just wondering if the White House has received that letter and if you have any response to it.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the letter, but it's not the first time we've been asked about a letter that purports to carry the same kind of message. And I think I'll just reiterate something that I think President Obama has said, which is simply that the rulemaking process in the Obama administration continues. And our goal is not to generate a bunch of new rules in response to the surprising election outcome, but rather to ensure that the rulemaking process that has long been underway is completed effectively and in a timely fashion before President Obama leaves office. And that's what we're focused on doing.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Any update on the situation in Oakland, California -- devastating fire there? Is there any federal response to what has happened there?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, Kevin, what happened in Oakland is a heartbreaking situation. Dozens of people who thought they were showing up to a party didn't go home. And it raises lots of questions that are still being carefully considered by investigators about building codes and what sort of precautions were put in place to ensure the safety of partygoers. And obviously, those precautions were woefully insufficient, and it's a tragedy.
I can tell you that White House officials have been in touch with the mayor's office to offer our condolences and offer our support to local officials that are bearing a heavy burden. And this is another situation where you've got first responders who put themselves in harm's way to try to protect the public -- in this case, firefighters and EMTs that used their skill to save lives. And we're certainly grateful for that. But this is a community that's mourning and it's obviously a very sad turn of events.
Q: Let me ask you about Gitmo. I understand there was indeed a transfer. Can you give us more details about that, and do you expect others this week?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer to my colleagues at the Department of Defense for the details. But there was one Guantanamo Bay detainee that was transferred to Cape Verde. This is an individual who will be subject to some security requirements that were negotiated in advance by the United States with the local government there to ensure that this individual does not pose an undue threat to our national security.
The population at Gitmo is now down to 59. And there are still at least a couple dozen of those individuals who are eligible for transfer, and we're continuing to do the diplomatic work of finding an arrangement for those individuals to be safely transferred to another country.
Q: So it's still the President's intention to continue with the transfers but not necessarily close down the facility -- is that sort of a fait accompli at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, we're continuing to do this important work, and this is work that's rather painstaking in making sure that were carefully reviewing the files, putting the national security interests of the United States first, and doing the important work with countries around the world to try to find a suitable location where these individuals can be transferred.
Our stated goal of closing the prison is still rooted in the ideas that closing the prison would be good for taxpayers because it's prohibitively expensive to continue to run it, and our view is also that continuing to have the prison open only serves to advance the recruiting interests of extremist organizations that do view the continued operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay as an effective recruitment tool.
And this is not just an observation that was made by the Obama administration. Senior officials who served in President Bush's administration said the same thing and have advocated for the closure of the prison for the same reasons. So this has bipartisan support among national security professionals that this is a prison that should be closed. And we continue to be strongly opposed to the politically motivated effort by the Congress to prevent and obstruct the successful closure of the prison.
Q: I want to last ask you about the comments you made earlier about what happened in Italy. You said it would be a mistake, you said, to oversimplify. But would you at least acknowledge the there is a populist wave that appears to be happening throughout Europe?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think that's overly stated just because we saw the outcome in Austria --
Q: Would you also acknowledge, given that history in contributing -- one of their citizens being one of the most reviled in all of history might sort of set them separate. I'm not suggesting that they're somehow not from that community, the European Community, but I am suggesting is when you see what happened in France, Brexit, now Italy, there seems to be a building populism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think what is true is -- and this is true irrespective of the election outcomes -- I think it is true that there are people in Europe who are frustrated that the current state of the economy doesn't allow them to meet the aspirations that they have set for themselves and their family. And they are looking for answers.
And the President made the point on a number of occasions that policymakers need to be focused on expanding economic growth and looking for ways to drive that growth, both by investing in the citizens of their country, but also in making investments in local markets to try to spur that economic growth. That would be good for the global economy but also would be good for the living conditions and the aspirations of the people in their country.
And there's a reaction on the part of some people to give into the temptation to try to withdraw from the international community, the sense that there will be a bigger slice of the pie, so to speak, to enjoy if you build fences around the country and prevent other people from getting access to the pie. That actually flies in the face of a strategy that's rooted in using our interconnected, integrated world to grow the size of the pie, and give more workers the opportunity to succeed, and ensure that the economic growth and productivity and economic benefits of globalization are not just enjoyed by those at the top but that that prosperity is enjoyed by everybody.
Q: Is that message winning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think that this is a fundamental question that is facing leaders all around the world, not just in Europe, and there's a fundamental tension here that needs to be resolved. And, again, I think this is something that we can say irrespective of election outcomes because I think there's nothing that was on the ballot in Italy that was directly related to the EU or to the prospect of Italy leaving the EU. But, look, I think these are broader trends that leaders all around the world are going to have to confront.
Q: Just quickly on the Oakland fire. The federal involvement in that was just support, resources? Is that the extent of it now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the role of the federal government is to offer assistance to local officials who are dealing with the situation. And right now, local officials are engaged in a painstaking effort to comb through the remains of the fire in search of additional people who may have died in the fire, but also in carefully investigating this particular incident. And I know that some law enforcement officials have locally indicated their intent to consider this from a criminal angle. I'd refer you to them for the investigation.
Q: That's the part I was wondering about. Is there federal concern about some of these issues that have been raised about inspections, about the -- that people were living in a place that apparently wasn't a home or a residential environment? Is that part of your -- the federal government's concern and involvement?
MR. EARNEST: These regulations that relate to building codes and fire codes are something that are administered at the local level. So I'm not aware of any involvement by the Department of Justice in this matter, but you should check with them to confirm.
Q: And just lastly on the transition. We're a few weeks into now, and I know you don't want to comment on specific appointments and so on and so forth, but there are a number of issues that have been raised about the President-elect's businesses and conflicts of interests, some appointees have raised some eyebrows -- the national security advisor, counsel to the President, the head of Health and Human Services, for example. There have been these phone calls with foreign leaders that have raised some issues. Is the President still satisfied with the way things are going? And you've said his goal was for a smooth and I think you even used the word successful transition. Does he still see that happening now, given where we are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, I think this is a situation where the President is focused on making sure that this administration is doing everything possible that we can and doing everything that is under our control to facilitate a smooth and effective transition into the next presidency.
Obviously, this administration is not going to be in a position to offer them personnel advice or certainly not advice that would be unsolicited from the podium, or to try to help them craft what sort of policies they want to implement. If they're interested in the advice of members of the President's transition team, then they certainly know how to seek out that advice, and the President's team stands ready to share it. But ultimately, what the President and his team are focused on is making sure that we are taking everything that is under our control, and orienting it in the direction of ensuring a smooth and effective transition that will give the incoming President and his team the best opportunity to succeed at uniting and leading the country. Whether or not the incoming administration is oriented effectively to take advantage of that opportunity is something that you have to ask them about.
Q: Increasingly, though, more is not under your control or the President's control. Is there some tension, some feeling that he has of his inability to shape events? And while, again, you're trying to make this effective and facilitate what the incoming administration wants to do, there's obviously these contradictions between what the President would like them to be doing versus what they are doing. How does he reconcile that? Is it just that the election has consequences and you just have to -- you can't throw your hand up and walk away? To what extent is he trying to influence events in terms of policy and so forth for the transition?
MR. EARNEST: Look, what this President is trying to do is to make sure that his team is oriented in such a way that we can provide all of the cooperation and information that the next President's team requires to get off to a running start. And President Obama believes that that is in the best interest of the country to do that and that's why we are focused on that direction.
Look, the truth of the matter is that even if Secretary Clinton had won the election, it's still likely that her team would be sending signals about making changes to policies that President Obama kind of liked. So this is the nature of a democracy and this is the nature of a peaceful transfer of power -- that the person who's been in office for eight years has to willingly give up power and give up influence and give up authority.
Q: But sometimes that's very difficult to accept.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think that's -- well, I guess what I would say is that's the reason it doesn't happen in most places. Most countries in the world, they don't have this kind of process, and for most of human history, the process has been bloody and has been a transition by force. That's the genius of our system. And it does require the person who's currently sitting in that office to put the interest of the country ahead of its own political preferences. That's absolutely true. But that is a responsibility that President Obama has embraced, and the country is better off for it.
Q: You've announced that Prime Minister Abe will be visiting Pearl Harbor as the first Japanese Prime Minister to do so. This is right after President Obama went to Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. President to do so since the bombing. Why are these historic visits happening now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, obviously the decision by Prime Minister Abe to travel to Pearl Harbor is a decision that he made, and he issued a statement today indicating that is he hopeful that his visit will be an indication of how adversaries have an opportunity to reconcile their differences and pursue a peaceful future together as allies. That's certainly what happened between the United States and Japan. And there are Presidents in both parties that have sought to advance those shared goals, and certainly Japanese prime ministers in a variety of parties that have sought to advance those shared goals. I know that Prime Minister Abe also indicated his desire to travel to Pearl Harbor as a show of respect for those who died on that day.
So, look, President Obama visited Hiroshima earlier this year. It was a powerful image seeing the American President and the Japanese Prime Minister standing side by side in that city. And I would expect that seeing the Japanese Prime Minister and the American President standing side by side in Pearl Harbor, at the memorial of the USS Arizona, just a couple of weeks after the 75th anniversary of that attack I think will be similarly powerful. And I think it is just one more occasion for us to remember the substantial sacrifice and the remarkable patriotism of the greatest generation of Americans.
President Obama's grandfather played an important role in World War II in terms of signing up to fight for his country, and remembering that Greatest Generation of Americans, his grandfather is obviously at the forefront of his mind. But millions of Americans, I think, certainly can spend some time this week remembering the remarkable contribution and the remarkable sacrifice that millions of Americans made to ensure that the United States emerge victorious from World War II.
Q: When President Obama visited Hiroshima, was this visit by the Prime Minister already in the works?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, there had always been a number of conversations between the U.S. President and the Prime Minister of Japan about the symbolic value of an American presidential visit to Hiroshima. And I know there had been discussions previously about the Japanese Prime Minister visiting Pearl Harbor, as well. I think if the two were directly linked, they probably would have been announced simultaneously, but they were not. But, look, there have always been discussions about these important symbolic gestures, and there's no downplaying the significance of the Japanese Prime Minister's decision to visit Pearl Harbor just three weeks after the 75th anniversary of the attacks there.
Q: Thanks, Josh. A couple of questions related to the transition and the President's stated commitment to it. First, there have been some Democratic senators on the Hill who have talked about seeing what happened to Chief Judge Garland, to now Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and saying that maybe they should kind of not really rush on President-elect Trump's nominees. The President knows how important it is to have people in his Cabinet when he's getting up and running. How does he feel about the idea of slow-walking Trump's nominees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, there is the stated fact about the way that Chairman Grassley handled his business over the course of the last year, or couple of years. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first African American woman to serve as the Attorney General of the United States, waited longer than her six or seven predecessors combined to be confirmed into that job. Why Republicans imposed that kind of delay on her candidacy and her nomination I think is something that only they can explain.
With regard to Chief Judge Garland, he has waited more than 200 days for action in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and we've heard from Chairman Grassley a blanket refusal to even consider his nomination despite the fact he's got more experience on the federal bench than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history, despite the fact that Republicans acknowledge that he represents a consensus pick, and despite the fact that he is somebody who has served his country bravely, including investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil.
But when President-elect Trump signals his intent to nominate an attorney general, Chairman Grassley kicks the squeaky wheels of the Senate judiciary conformation process into motion. And I do think it reflects an unprecedented injection of partisanship into what had previously been a committee that went to some length to try to prevent partisan politics from infecting the process.
But under the purview of Chairman Grassley, it's clear that the process hasn't just been infected but they've got a full-blown fever of partisanship. But when you are the Republican chair of the committee presiding over a partisan committee and considering the nominees of the Republican President, I guess it's smooth sailing. We'll see.
Q: So he doesn't have advice or a sort of principled suggestion to Democrats about how they should handle --
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think individual Senate Democrats are going to have to decide on their own. But I do feel confident that they'll consider the merits of the nominees that are handed down, but how they want to respond to that is something that will be ultimately left to them.
Q: And a question that I want to distance from Ron's a little bit, but it's sort of along a similar line. You've talked about how -- and the President has talked about how important it is to have a smooth transition and how it's kind of his last big priority to really make sure that his staff is doing everything that they can to help the incoming Trump team. Is that incoming Trump team taking advantage of all that cooperation and information that -- and you used the word -- that the incoming President requires to have a successful start?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I'll refer you to the President-elect to assess how well his transition team is performing. I'm not going to hand out grades from here. What I can tell you is that the President's team is focused on making sure we're doing everything we can to facilitate a smooth and effective transition. But ultimately, how well the President-elect is served by his team is something that he'll have to assess.
Q: And so you or President Obama will not be issuing any sort of opinion or pulling back the curtain at all about how the process is actually going.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think that there are a number of ways in which we've tried to characterize exactly how the process is going, but I certainly wouldn't want me handing out a grade, if you will, to affect the ability of people to do their jobs. Ultimately, if I stand up here and sort of offer up a new assessment where, in my view, they may or may not have fallen short, that may not lend itself to the kind of cordial, professional, collegial relationships that will contribute to the most effective transition.
So this is just one of those situations that crops up all too frequently when I'm standing at this podium at least, where discretion is the better part of valor, I guess, a little bit here.
Q: Josh, this administration has made a huge priority out of responding to online threats from jihadists. You have a whole set of people at the State Department; you have them at the Pentagon; you've got people who have gone after those who posted these messages and killed them in the Middle East. The administration has gone to Silicon Valley and had conversations with Twitter and social medial companies about making sure they crack down on these jihadi threats. You had an entire set of businesses up here on Connecticut Avenue for months getting direct death threats, and they said that nothing was done about them. Is it only a priority if these are jihadi threats? And is it not a priority for this administration if businesses and normal people are getting death threats and being terrorized for months with no action on the part of this administration? Help me understand the difference there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, I would strongly disagree with the assessment that somehow the administration had not done anything to respond to this situation, particularly when it comes to violent threats. I'll refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice and the FBI for the role that they may have played in investigating those threats.
I'd also refer you to the Metropolitan Police Department here in Washington for a discussion of any work that they may have done to ensure that the D.C. residents who were patronizing those establishments were able to do so safely.
Q: Did you know the FBI investigated this and went after the people who had given those threats over the course of these many months, despite the fact that the business owners themselves say nothing has been done?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak about any sort of criminal investigations. I do know that it is a matter of standard practice that if people are threatened with violence, that that raises significant legal questions, and legal questions that must be checked out. And whether that is local law enforcement or federal law enforcement, that's something that they have to work out among themselves.
Obviously there's a joint terrorism taskforce that in some cases can pool resources to ensure that those investigations are conducted using the best practices that are maintained by individual agencies. But the safety and security of the public is the President's highest priority, and that's true when it comes to administering our national security policy around the globe, but it's also true when we're fighting crime here in the United States. And the administration has a quite strong record that we're proud of in terms of the impact of some of our crime-fighting policies and our investments in local law enforcement agencies on the overall crime rate.
But yes, I would quibble with the notion that somehow -- in fact, I wouldn't just quibble; I would strongly disagree with the notion that the administration had done nothing in the face of these threats.
Q: I think everyone in this room has gotten threatening emails and threatening things on social media and the rest. Again, the administration specifically went to Silicon Valley, had these meetings to talk about what these companies were doing about their response to threats from abroad. I guess what I'm asking -- I've never heard you talk about what the administration is doing, even not just on a law enforcement basis but a policy basis, reaching out to these Silicon Valley companies. I mean, the President has recently been discussing the problem of fake news on Facebook. Why hasn't there been a concern -- a growing concern on the part of the administration about what seems to be a growing amount of vitriol directed at a variety of people, sometimes violent vitriol, within the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, I think over the course -- over the last year or two, you've heard the President I think speak quite bluntly about the rhetoric that was being used in the context of this political campaign, and the impact that that could have on the broader political debate and the climate -- political climate in the country. So I do think this is something that we have talked about, and it's something that the President is concerned that that kind of harsh, sometimes violent, rhetoric obscures legitimate policy debates that we should be having in this country.
So with regard to the role of Silicon Valley and some of these technology companies and the role that they can play in policing the standards for people who use their platform, I know that's something that they've had a broad internal debate about, as well.
Obviously, there are some important First Amendment issues that come into play when we're having this discussion. Those First Amendment issues aren't prioritized in the same way when we're talking about overseas terrorist organizations that don't enjoy the same kinds of protections that American citizens do.
But the same observation that I made about these technology companies with regard to the use by terrorists of these platforms also applies to some of the harsh rhetoric that we've seen. And it's simply this: That many of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley didn't develop this technology to make it easier for hate to be propagated online. Their idea was to build a community where people could more effectively communicate and engage in commerce.
So they've got their own built-in interest in protecting the First Amendment rights of their users while also creating a community and a platform that people actually want to use. And yes, if you do administer a platform that is used extensively to propagate hate and to inspire acts of violence, well, I think most people are going to be less likely to use the platform.
So this is the kind of balance that these technology companies are going to have to strike, and it's something that I know that they've been grappling with for some time. In some cases, I know that they've been doing it even outside the context of politics.
Q: Do you think the market just will have to police itself on that then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I don't think it necessarily has to be -- I think there is a -- given the First Amendment questions that are raised, the role for the government to play in all of this is going to be necessarily limited by that. But I don't think it eliminates the possibility that the U.S. government could contribute to a productive, fruitful conversation about the effective administration of these online platforms to ensure that people's lives aren't at risk.
Q: What will happen to the Aleppo insurgents who don't leave? Russia says they will be regarded as terrorists and risk death. Can you help with that? These are obviously, in many cases, people who have been supported by the United States.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can say about this is that we know that it has been the strategy of the Syrian government, backed by the Russians and the Iranians, to bomb innocent civilians into submission. And the focal point of much of that bombing campaign has been eastern Aleppo.
It's a bloody tactic. It's disgraceful. And it's heartbreaking because of the scale of innocent lives lost. It's why the United States has been working so tenaciously through diplomatic channels to try to bring the bombing campaign and the violence to an end, or at least reduce it enough that innocent people can get out of harm's way and humanitarian assistance can be consistently provided.
But there hasn't been a willingness on the part of either the Syrians, the Russians or the Iranians to engage in that process particularly constructively, and at least in a way that would yield a sustainable outcome. Hopefully, that will change. Hopefully, there's more progress that we can make. And hopefully the Russians will show some renewed interest in this. And we would welcome that change. But far too many lives have been lost and, yes, it's true that even more are at risk because of the deplorable tactics that are used regularly by the Syrians with the support of the Russians and Iranians.
Q: Josh, when the Prime Minister from Japan comes to the Pearl Harbor Memorial -- one of the reasons this hasn't happened for so long is the Japanese don't feel that they have anything to apologize for generally. They feel that the attack grew out of the oil embargo and all this. So how are veterans' groups going to react with Abe showing up and just sort of bowing but no apology? Is there not going to be an apology? And how do you think that's going to play in the United States? Because from the United States' point of view, of course, the Pearl Harbor attack was completely unjustified and a total surprise, and an act of total violence and war that was, from our perspective -- there is no justification for it whatsoever.
So, I mean, this was obviously a problem when the President went to Hiroshima -- there were people in Japan who believed the United States shouldn't have dropped the atomic weapon; we don't feel that way. So how is this going to play out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't want to prejudge at this point what Prime Minister Abe may choose to say when he visits Pearl Harbor. I think that most Americans would warmly receive the sentiment that he expressed in his statement earlier today. He indicated that he will visit Pearl Harbor, together with President Obama, to "mourn the souls of the victims." He continued saying, "I would like to express my resolve toward the future that the tragedy of wars should never be repeated again. At the same time, I'm hoping to make it an opportunity to send out a message about the value of reconciliation between Japan and the United States."
So again, I think the kind of sentiment that's being expressed by the Prime Minister of Japan is one that would be warmly received by most Americans. But, obviously, the benefits of a visit like this is it displays the kind of opportunity that lies for America's future, that lies ahead.
Not long ago, within the lifetime of many Americans, the United States and Japan were at war. And hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our citizens were killed in that war. And 70 years later, the United States and Japan actually have formed an alliance that has benefitted both our countries and our national security and our economy. And I think this visit further underscores the benefits of pursuing peace and reconciliation.
Q: But you don't think people are going to sort of see the guy coming from a country that caused the deaths to occur saying simply, well, we'll mourn the deaths but I'm not going to say that I even feel bad about causing the deaths?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I can't speak for every single American and how they will respond to or react to this particular situation. If I were a World War II veteran who was drafted by the United States military to go and fight for our country overseas in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, I might feel quite embittered. And I think it would be a perfectly natural and understandable human reaction to not be particularly satisfied with the words of the Japanese Prime Minister.
But I think the thing that we know about the Greatest Generation of Americans is they're anything -- well, let me say it this way. This Greatest Generation of Americans, I think we take a risk if we underestimate their patriotism and their capacity to set aside their own personal interests and prioritize the ambition and opportunity of the American people.
And so, yes, there may be some who feel personally embittered. But I'm confident that many will set aside their own personal bitterness, not because they're personally satisfied by the words of the Prime Minister, but because they recognize how important this moment is for the United States. And that's certainly why they qualify to be described as the greatest generation.
Q: Josh, earlier you said that some of the calls by the President-elect could potentially undermine some of the progress that's been made with the relationship with China. You've also said and the President has said that we're in a situation where we have one President at a time. Do any of the calls or any of the other actions that have been taken at this point by the President-elect nibble around the edges or even take a big bite out of this concept of "one President at a time"?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I did not participate in any of the phone calls that the President-elect has made over the last several weeks.
Q: But you're aware of the reaction to them.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I'm aware of the reaction to them but I'm not aware of what he said in them, so that's why it's hard for me to assess whether or not this would erode a principle that the President-elect and his team have strongly supported, which is the idea that there's one President at a time.
Q: When we're talking about the President-elect still in his capacity as a private citizen, does anything that he's done approach a violation of the Logan Act, any prohibition against someone who's not in an elected office making arrangements on behalf of the state or government of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of the finer points of the Logan Act, so there may be somebody else that you consult on that one.
Q: Senator Cruz has said that he would rather the President-elect talk to Taiwan than talk to Cuba or Iran. What do you make of that statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the first thing I would point out is that there are any number of American officials who are in touch with Taiwanese authorities on a regular basis.
Q: He was talking about the implications of these unprecedented calls or thawing relationships that are long frozen.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the relationship between the United States and Taiwan is an unofficial one, but it's not frozen. After all, Taiwan is the ninth largest trading partner with the United States.
Q: Josh, are you saying that, in the White House view, the President-elect's phone call the Taiwan President or the phone call that he had with the Taiwanese President is a breach of the Shanghai Communiqué in and of itself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what is clear -- I think this is just an objective fact -- for the last 40 or so years, there hasn't been another phone call between the President of the United States or a President-elect of the United States and President Tsai or one of her predecessors. So that's just a fact.
What this administration has pursued very carefully is a one-China policy that promotes peace and stability in the strait. And that's served the United States well. It served our ability to work effectively with Chinese authorities, and it's also served our ability to work effectively with Taiwanese authorities. But if President-elect Trump and his team have a different goal in mind or a different strategy in mind, I'll leave it to them to articulate what those goals might be and what strategy they intend to pursue to achieve them.
Q: Would the administration like a clarification of what their goals are?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not -- look, I'll leave it to the President-elect and his team to communicate what they would like about his strategy or the policy that they intend to pursue. I think what I can do is do my best to describe to you the strategy that we have pursued and the significant benefits that have been enjoyed by the United States and the American people as a result of that strategy.
If he's got a different strategy that he intends to pursue in pursuit of some different goals and some different benefits, then I'll leave it to him to articulate that. Thus far, I think it's kind of hard to see exactly what that would be when you consider that the reaction from the Chinese has been to ramp up or ratchet up their rhetoric that is aimed at Taiwan. I'm not sure how that benefits the United States, and I'm not sure how that benefits the United States relationship with Taiwan. I'm not sure how that benefits the Taiwanese people. I'm not sure how that benefits the U.S. relationship with China. But I'll leave it to the President-elect and his team to offer up those explanations.
Q: And on the Pearl Harbor visit, is it your understanding that both leaders will be making speeches at that visit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when President Obama visited Hiroshima, both leaders had an opportunity to make statements, but I think they stopped short of something that could be described as a speech. And I think in this setting, I would expect that you'll have an opportunity to hear from both leaders at the memorial site.
Q: You said it was Prime Minister Abe's decision to come, but clearly it was coordinated with the White House, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it was. There were discussions. In fact, President Obama and Prime Minister Abe had an opportunity to discuss the potential of this visit when they spoke in Lima, at the APEC Summit just a few weeks ago.
Q: Josh, does the President have a candidate for the next head of the Democratic National Committee?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not endorsed any of the candidates for DNC Chair, and I don't anticipate that he will.
Q: So would you say then that of the three candidates remaining -- Jamie Harrison, or Ray Buckley, or Congressman Keith Ellison -- that the President would be happy with any one of the three as the next DNC Chair?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that the President is going to weigh in particularly aggressively in support or against any of the candidates.
Q: Well, that leads to my third question, which is, if the President has said that he recognizes that the Democratic Party needs a lot of work to get back on top and start winning, particularly at the state legislative level and governors races because of reinforcement -- so if the President really intends, and he says he's going to focus on that in his post-presidency, he's going to focus on that, wouldn't he have an opinion about the person that he's going to be working with as head of the DNC? Or wouldn't we expect him to?
MR. EARNEST: He may. He just may not choose to express it.
Cheryl, I'll give you the last one.
Q: Okay, thanks. Just quick on the CR that expires Friday --
MR. EARNEST: Yeah.
Q: -- have you heard from Capitol Hill? Are they going to have one --
MR. EARNEST: Still haven't seen the bill, have we?
Q: Haven't seen the bill yet. Okay.
MR. EARNEST: No, we haven't. Look, I know there have been a number of discussions, including over the weekend, between officials on Capitol Hill and some officials at the White House. But this is a basic governing responsibility. Republicans have the strong majority in both the House and the Senate. They've already put off passing a budget once, back when the first deadline arose two and a half months ago. But, look, they've got a deadline to meet on December 9th, and hopefully they'll meet it.
Q: Do you see this going into next week, maybe just a two- or three-day CR?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn't hazard a guess about what the outcome looks like at this point. But like I said, the original deadline was September 30th. We're now in the first week in December. So hopefully Congress will get its act together, and the Republicans who lead both chambers of Congress will fulfill the most basic responsibility that Congress has, which is to pass a budget and ensure the government doesn't shut down.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good rest of the day.
END 2:41 P.M. EST
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/320214