Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:54 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any statements to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, do you want to start?
Q: Sure. Thank you. There was a time –- I wanted to ask about the economy. There was a time when, every month the jobs report would come out, and the President would have something to say about the numbers. Then he stopped doing that for a little while, and it seems now that he's resumed. I was wondering if you could explain why the resumption.
MR. EARNEST: What continues to be true here is that we were mindful of the need to not be too disappointed when one set of jobs numbers fall short of expectations, and not get too excited when one set of jobs numbers exceeds expectations. But what we are focused on are the longer-term trends. And the longer-term trends were further cemented in this month's jobs numbers –- 72 consecutive months of private-sector job growth; 14.3 million jobs created -- that is over the last two years. The fastest rate of job growth since the late 1990s. The longer-term trends when it comes to wage growth continued to be pretty good. I know wage growth is increasing –- or wages are growing at about 2.5 percent a year. That's good; it could be better. And the President certainly has some ideas for how to make that better.
And I think the reason that it seems particularly important to discuss it now is precisely for the reason that the President explained. And that simply is this: There is a vigorous political debate going on in the country, and the intensity of that debate will only increase as we get closer to the general election. And the debate in the general election will be focused on whether or not we build on the progress that we've made over the last seven years that have led to the longest consecutive streak of private-sector job growth in American history, or are we going to go back on that progress and are we going to the policies that actually led to the Great Recession. And the reason the President feels it's important to comment on this with increasing frequency is it's important for people to understand that we have made important progress. And there are a lot of ways to measure it. This is the measurement that tends to get the most attention, and that's the reason the President chose to discuss it.
So will we get another good set of jobs numbers next month? Hopefully. Does that mean the President will necessarily talk about it? Not necessarily. But, look, this will be an important part of a discussion because, look, if people don't recognize that we have made progress, then it's going to be harder to make the case that we need to build on that progress. And it won't just be in reaction to release of information from the Department of Labor. This is certainly something that all of you who cover the President's fundraisers hear him talk about. And as the President becomes more engaged in the campaign across the country over the course of this year, I'm confident this will be an important part of his stump speech.
Q: So he's warming up for the campaign basically?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think I'd say it quite that way. But I think the President is certainly pleased about the important progress that our country has made; that's borne out in the numbers. And I don't just mean the numbers that relate to the state of the economy in February of 2016. I mean, the longer-term trends point to important strength in our economy, and there is a fundamental question about whether or not we want to build on that progress or if we want to turn back to a set of policies that actually weakened our economy. That is a legitimate subject of political debate. Republicans obviously have their own ideas, the President just happens to think they're the wrong ones.
Q: I also wanted to ask about Cuba. Secretary Kerry apparently has decided not to go –- to make a stop in Cuba before the President arrives there later this month. Apparently there is still some disagreement with the Cubans over which political dissidents the President will be allowed to meet with. I was wondering if Secretary Kerry's decision not to go has any bearing in any way on the President's trip.
MR. EARNEST: It doesn't, because as Secretary Kerry testified before Congress a couple of weeks ago, he was considering a trip to Cuba. He had made no plan to follow through on it. Since then, Secretary Kerry has decided to travel with the President to Cuba in just a couple of weeks. On that trip, the President does intend to meet with some political dissidents inside of Cuba. The guest list for that meeting will be determined solely by the White House. There will not be any input from the Cuban government about the list of people who attend that meeting.
So there's no real dispute about this. I suspect that there's no real dispute about this because the
Q: On North Korea, I'm sure you've seen the reports that North Korea has told its military to be ready to maybe make a preemptive strike or even to use nuclear weapons. And this is coming after they've been hit with these additional sanctions. I mean, is it a concern that they're still engaging in this rhetoric, that they're still making these threats? Obviously, the sanctions are just starting, but is it a concern that they may not be changing their posture at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we've often discussed in other contexts, where the United States in coordination with the international community has imposed sanctions against another country, our expectation is that that will not yield a change overnight. But over time, we have seen that increasing isolation does prompt some countries to reevaluate their strategy. Iran is, of course, the best example of that. There are some situations where we have seen that international isolation has had a tangible and increasing impact on a country's economy. Russia is a good example of that situation.
So I think it is too soon to evaluate what impact the recently agreed-upon sanctions against North Korea has on the leaders of that country's decision-making. The fact is, as you pointed out in your question, the kinds of comments and provocative actions that we've seen out of Pyongyang in the last 36 hours or so are not new. And we continue to urge the North Korean regime to refrain from provocative actions and statements that tend to aggravate tensions. Instead, we believe they should focus on fulfilling their international obligations and commitments, particularly when it relates to their nuclear program. And that is not just the view of the United States, that's the view of the international community.
And that will continue to be our posture moving forward, even as we implement a set of sanctions that are tougher than have ever been implemented against them.
Q: Is there concern that -- I mean, even though the rhetoric is not new, they have been doing more testing -- testing more equipment and things of that nature -- is there a concern about maybe eventually them following -- or being able to follow through on some of these threats? Are these threats that they're doing now, like, how much concern does -- or how seriously does the White House take the threats that they're making at this moment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the concern about the North Korean ballistic missile program and nuclear program should be evident based on the significant sanctions that were passed by the United Nations Security Council. I think that is an indication that the international community agrees that this is a subject of concern. It's why we've imposed a level of sanctions and inspections against them that have never been imposed against them before.
Our concern stems primarily from our need to protect the American people. And we've talked about steps that the administration has taken at the direction of President Obama to bolster the defenses of the United States in the face of threats that emanate from North Korea.
There are ballistic missile defense systems that have been moved to the Asia Pacific region to protect the United States. There was a ballistic missile defense system that was moved to Alaska in 2014. There are ballistic missile warning radar systems that have been moved to Japan. There are a set of naval assets that are part of a ballistic missile defense constellation that have been moved to the Pacific. And that ramped-up presence there enhances the security not just of the United States but also of our partners and allies in the region, including countries like Japan and South Korea that are most likely to be in harm's way.
So we certainly take very seriously the responsibilities that we have to protect the security of our allies -- Japan and South Korea. We're going to continue to monitor the situation closely, and we're going to continue to call upon the North Korean government to avoid destabilizing actions and other provocations that tend to rattle an already jittery region of the world.
Q: And on Zika, the White House is planning to hold a summit on Zika in April to try to control the spread of the mosquitoes that would spread the disease. Can you talk a bit about why the White House has chosen to move ahead with this summit at this time, the main goals that you hope to accomplish out of that, and just kind of the outlook for Zika response at this point?
MR. EARNEST: This summit is actually the result of a discussion at the National Governors Association Conference here at the White House a couple of weeks ago. The CDC will be hosting this conference in Atlanta on April 1st, and it will include representatives from state and local governments across the country, including many governors. And it is an opportunity for us to bring together these leaders from across the country with the foremost public health experts in the U.S. government to discuss what prudent steps should be taken to protect the American people.
The administration has treated this as a top priority, and we certainly recognize that when confronted with risks like this, early action is important. And that's why we've taken the kinds of steps that we have already taken to try to get ahead of this situation.
The most important of those steps, frankly, was putting forward a package to the United States Congress that would ensure that all of these activities that are necessary to protect the American people are adequately funded. And we haven't seen Congress do anything with that proposed package.
And these -- our request is predicated on steps that are necessary to protect the American people, and it is necessary for Congress to take action to protect the American people. We're mindful of what the risks are. For most people, the Zika virus does not pose a risk, but it does pose a particularly acute risk -- potentially -- to pregnant women.
And so an important part of this effort is a public education campaign. But there are resources that are necessary to ensure that our public health systems are adequately oriented to this threat. There is important work that can be done with what's called vector control to essentially try to prevent the spread of mosquitoes that we know carry the virus.
And we need Congress to support that effort. And it's important for Congress not to be asleep at the switch when we have a significant emerging threat.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Well, with Super Tuesday in the rearview mirror, we're sort of in a new phase in the campaign. And something struck with the President's remarks today. He sort of had a few subtle jabs at Republicans and some candidates in what he was saying, specifically Donald Trump -- well, not so subtle in some cases. (Laughter.) But is he chomping at the bit to get back out there? How would you describe his interest level in getting into the mix right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he's just mindful of the fact that there's a general election ahead. And I think the President is certainly looking forward to having an opportunity to make the case in support of a successor who understands that we need to build on the progress that we've made. And that makes him an important voice when the candidates on the Republican side of the aisle are suggesting policies that would actually roll back that progress.
And as somebody who has devoted a lot of his own sweat equity to the last seven years, and as somebody who loves this country, the President is somebody who feels like he's got a vested interest and is somebody who can make a pretty persuasive case in favor of a candidate that's committed to building on this progress.
Q: I guess what I'm asking you is, he seems eager to go right after the Republican frontrunner. Are we reading that right? He really seems to want to get back in the mix and not just defend his own record and support the Democratic nominee, but he really seems to want to take some swipes at the other side.
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is quite focused on making a substantive case on the issues that are most important to the country and most important to the American people. And certainly the economy would fit that description. And having a substantive discussion about what sort of economic policies will allow us to continue the progress that we've made I think is a subject of legitimate discussion on the campaign trail. And when it is, the President will be an eager participant.
Q: Can I ask you about a development at the State Department today? Their IG has issued a final memo on the email practices of past and current Secretaries of State, and they claim pretty definitively that past Secretaries -- specifically Rice and Powell -- have handled classified material on unclassified systems. And basically, the bottom line is they're sort of moving towards making this case closed. And my question is, does the President, with respect to Secretary Clinton, consider this matter closed? Should the matter be closed with respect to her email situation?
MR. EARNEST: I'm reluctant to weigh on directly on your question, because there is an ongoing independent investigation into this. And I certainly want to avoid even the appearance of trying to influence the outcome of that independent investigation by suggesting the President's view of how it should conclude.
So we've all along been respectful of that ongoing independent investigation. And once that independent investigation is concluded, then that will be announced by the independent investigators who are performing it.
Q: And could you just -- in October, on "60 Minutes," he said that he didn't think the Secretary's email arrangement endangered national security. Does he still, in the months since and what's come out, does he still share that view?
MR. EARNEST: His views on this haven't changed. But his views also include, as he noted in that interview, that there's an ongoing independent investigation that is led by independent investigators. They'll follow the facts and they'll reach their own independent determination.
Q: First, I was wondering if you have any updates on the Supreme Court in any capacity -- the timing next week, what the President is doing over the weekend; if he or Brian or anyone is going to meet with candidates for the bench.
MR. EARNEST: Just to manage expectations here, I would not at any point -- I do not at any point expect to be in a position to confirm any individual private meetings with potential candidates either at the staff level or the presidential level. So that's what I can't talk about. Let's talk about what I can talk about.
I would expect that the President will have an opportunity to meet with his team before the end of the day today, and that will essentially -- to get some additional material that he can review over the weekend as he weighs this important decision. Obviously, there's been extensive consultation involved in this process with both Democrats and Republicans. I noted earlier this week that White House officials from the President on down have now been in touch with every office in the United States Senate to discuss the constitutional responsibility that the Senate has to fill this vacancy.
I don't know whether or not there will be additional calls over the weekend, but we'll try to get an update for you on that early next week. But certainly the work to review relevant material about potential nominees is ongoing.
Q: The President is expected to meet with financial regulators on Monday. I'm wondering if you can preview that meeting at all but also talk about whether discussions on the fiduciary rule, which obviously is kind of getting close to being finalized, will be part of that discussion.
MR. EARNEST: The President is meeting with a number of federal independent financial regulators on Monday here at the White House. The President has done that periodically over the course of his presidency. We're obviously quite respectful of the independent role that these regulators have to play, but there seems value in at least keeping an open line of communication from the White House to these regulators with periodic engagements like this one.
I don't have a good sense for you of exactly what's on the agenda as it relates to the conflict of interest rule. I know that it's still going through the regulatory process. I don't have an update for you in terms of how soon it will emerge from that process, but I know that that process is ongoing.
One of the key legacy achievements of this presidency will be the important reforms of Wall Street. And those reforms have led to a financial system that is more stable and ensures that taxpayers are not on the hook for bailing out financial institutions that make risky bets. And I've said it so many times now over the last few years that it sort of sounds like a really easy thing, but the truth is, in implementing that law, administration regulators have had to fight tooth and nail with Wall Street institutions and their highly paid lobbyists to ensure that that law is effectively implemented.
And the President also takes some pride in knowing that we were able to keep the promise that he made at the beginning, which is that we could impose greater regulations on Wall Street to make the system more stable, while at the same time not shutting down the dynamism of the U.S. economy. In fact, we've seen Wall Street's -- we've been talking a lot about economic numbers in the context of this briefing. I'm loath to talk about independent movements of the stock market because it fluctuates so wildly based on sometimes unknown forces. But the truth is, when you look at it over the last seven years, there may be no metric on which the economy has performed better than the significant growth of the financial indexes.
And that's an indication -- it's just one piece of evidence that we have succeeded in both making our financial system safer and more stable, and less of a threat to middle-class families, while at the same time allowing Wall Street to perform an important function, which is to ensure that homeowners and business owners, small and large, have access to capital in a way that allows them to innovate and create jobs and grow our economy.
So all along, we saw immediately in the aftermath of Wall Street reform being passed, that this was something that was going to be really bad for the economy, and the numbers just don't bear that out.
Q: Last one. On Prime Minister Trudeau's visit next week, the Canadian press is saying that the U.S. and Canada are negotiating an environmental climate package announced, talking about auto emissions, car technology, and also maybe a trade element having to do with Canadian lumber. I'm wondering if you can confirm that those discussions are going on, and if you have any detail or light that you can shed on it.
MR. EARNEST: I've been briefed on those reports. I haven't seen them firsthand. I don't have a lot of information to share about what's on the agenda for Prime Minister Trudeau's visit next week. I'll see if I can get you some more information about that early next week that we can discuss.
I can tell you that in the first meeting that the President had with Prime Minister Trudeau during our trip to the Philippines last fall, it was clear that there were a number of issues where the United States and Canada very effectively cooperate. And countering climate change is an important one. Obviously, Prime Minister Trudeau dedicated a significant amount of time in his campaign on the campaign trail, talking about how the policies of the government in Canada needed to be and could be more effectively oriented to counter the threat from climate change. And he made a case quite similar to the case that the President has made, that the people of Canada and the economy of Canada can benefit from focusing on this in the short term.
And I think what that does mean is it means that there may be an opportunity for the United States and Canada to coordinate even more effectively our policies when it comes to fighting climate change. How much of a discussion that will be when Prime Minister Trudeau visits the White House next week is something that I'll see if I can track down for you for next week.
Q: That meeting today with the staff on the Supreme Court, is that something he's been doing every day, or that is that sort of in the week check-in?
MR. EARNEST: Periodically, the President has been meeting with members of his team who are working on this. Sometimes it's more formal than others, and sometimes it's just an opportunity to hand him some paper so that he can go do his homework, if you will. So I don't have a lot of details to share about this particular meeting, but it certainly is an opportunity for the President to consult once again with his team prior to the weekend about the work that he's already done.
Q: When we heard from the President today on the economy, it was almost as if he was framing the entire news in political terms. I mean, talking about it contrasts the Doomsday rhetoric. At one point, he even said that America is doing great right now. I mean, couldn't the news stand on its own? Why did he feel the need to frame it that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly seems to have attracted all of your attention. And I certainly welcome the opportunity to have a robust discussion of them. But, look, to your point, I think that these numbers do merit attention in on their own. In their own right, this is an important indication of the direction that the economy is headed and of the progress that we've made over the last seven years. And it's certainly relevant to the ongoing political discussion in the country, and will be even more relevant in the fall when you have one candidate on the ballot, a Democrat -- whether it's Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton -- making an aggressive case about how important it is for us to build on this progress. And they'll be matched up against a Republican candidate who is vowing to roll back that progress and roll back the policies that led to that progress. That's an important debate for the country to have, and it's a debate that the President is looking forward to engage in.
Q: But as much as you and the President himself has diminished that rhetoric out there and basically said it's hurting the country, you've basically trashed a lot of what is said out there. So why does the President feel the need to respond directly to individual points in that rhetoric? Does that in a sense just give as much attention to the rhetoric as it does to the economic news that the President was announcing? I mean, he could have said, here's why this news is great for the economy and here's what it did. But no, he wanted to kind of match individual points in that news to individual things that Donald Trump has said. You know what I mean?
MR. EARNEST: Look, there's no doubt that the -- given the colorful style of some of the Republican candidates, that they've gotten plenty of attention for their rhetoric talking down the economy. So I think there's little risk of inflating that attention even further. I think the benefit is that particularly when you have jobs numbers illustrating a much broader trend, that that warrants some attention too. And oftentimes, these kinds of positive economic reports include a whole set of pretty inconvenient facts for those who are getting the most attention. And the President felt it was worthwhile to point that out, as well.
Q: I guess maybe a better way to frame the question and more simply is to say, couldn't the President get his own attention for these points without having it be political? I mean, doesn't he have a -- you're talking about getting attention for this. Does the President have to bring in the Republican rhetoric to get the amount of attention that he wants for what he feels he has done?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think this has more to do with the fact that there is an active, roiling debate that's going on across the country and in newspapers and on your airwaves every day. And most of the attention is focused on the colorful candidates who are talking down the economy. And the President felt like this was a good opportunity to weigh in on other side with the facts. And that's what he did.
Q: Wow, I really didn't expect to be asking this many questions about it, but now that we're on it -- (laughter) -- it almost seemed --
MR. EARNEST: I'm pleasantly surprised.
Q: It almost seemed as if he was maybe referring to, I don't know, the debate that went on last night and was pretty colorful. So did he watch it?
MR. EARNEST: The President did not watch the debate last night.
Q: You know that for sure, he did not watch. And also -- I shouldn't ask any more questions really. I don't know, never mind. I'm good. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Have a good weekend, Michelle. (Laughter.)
Q: Following up, was the economic reading on the schedule before this morning, or was only the photo-op in doubt?
MR. EARNEST: The President's economic team was meeting today to discuss a handful of economic issues. And the President dropped by that meeting to discuss a couple of them, and we decided to invite all of you in there to attend the President's drop-by and also give him an opportunity to speak with all of you about the good news from the report.
Q: On another subject, does the President have any misgivings that we overheard him talking about remaining in Washington after his term in office is over?
MR. EARNEST: That's an interesting way to ask the question. Not the way I expected you to. I did talk with the President earlier today about some of these reports. And look, the President's approach here -- you guys have all heard him talk about this to one extent or another over the last couple of years. And the President has previously noted the significant sacrifices that members of his family have made for him while he's been engaged in public service.
And the truth is, he's reluctant to disrupt the high school career of his youngest daughter after having disrupted her education at least once before when they moved to Washington back in January of 2009. So there's nothing definitive that's been decided here.
Q: Well, it sounded definitive. He's staying in Washington, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again --
Q: Or the Washington area.
MR. EARNEST: So there's nothing definitive that's been decided about where he or the family will live precisely. That's what I'm trying to convey here. But I think you get a good sense, based on the President's comments yesterday, about how he thinks about this.
And look, I think this is an opportunity for the President to, again, after having asked his family to make some sacrifices for him as a result of his demanding schedule and public service, that at this point he can be sure that the education of his youngest daughter is not disrupted once again.
Q: Is there now a concern that the President will be inundated with real-estate offers? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I'm confident --
Q: Have I got a house for you.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I'll bet, right? (Laughter.) I'm guessing the President and the First Lady will be able to handle it.
Q: Are you remaining Washington after your term here? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Time will tell. (Laughter.)
Q: I have a realtor for you.
I just want to ask you about North Korea and sort of the complicated relationship that the U.S. has with China. How much pressure can the administration realistically put on Beijing to sort of rein in Pyongyang? And is it fair to suggest that it hasn't gone so well, at least based on the last 36 hours? They seem to sort of just be doing what they've always done, which is saber-rattle and threaten. What's your assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my assessment is that the North Korean government understands how isolated they are. The set of sanctions that were imposed on North Korea by the United Nations were significantly stronger than the sanctions that had been imposed on them before. So this includes inspections of all cargo moving in and out of North Korea. It's an outright ban on small arms and other weapons. And it imposes broader sectoral sanctions on those aspects of the North Korean economy that do actually generate some revenue for the government. There aren't many that do. That's why the imposition of those sectoral sanctions is so significant.
And look, I think it's pretty obvious based on the way that we negotiated this so intensively with the Chinese that their support was going to be necessary for this to move forward. I think this is an indication that our diplomacy with China was quite effective in yielding a set of sanctions that will impose pressure on the North Koreans. The North Koreans themselves recognize this. And I think as a result, you see the kind of provocative rhetoric and behavior in response.
But what is true is that it is not possible to judge overnight the impact of these sanctions. It will be over time that we'll be able to determine what impact they have on the strategy that's laid out by the North Korean government.
Q: Let me follow on diplomacy. Do you think it would be more fruitful -- or a better way, how much more useful or impactful might it be to focus on Japan and South Korea applying more pressure on Pyongyang versus sort of working through Beijing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have talked before that there's no government in the world that has more influence with the North Koreans than the Chinese. And that is why we have sought to gain leverage or to work with China to try to encourage them to use their leverage and influence with the North Koreans. And that's why having Chinese support for this set of sanctions is so critically important.
Look, South Korea and Japan are close allies of the United States. So us being able to reach an agreement about what kinds of sanctions we should impose on North Korea requires some diplomacy but it's not particularly complicated. When we're dealing with China, it's much more complicated. Obviously, the United States and China don't see eye to eye on everything. Fortunately, when it comes to North Korea, we see eye to eye on the most important things, including the fact that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized.
And so that is why we have chosen what is admittedly a more difficult path to work closely with the Chinese to impose these sanctions. Because, frankly, they'll be more impactful if the Chinese go along. And, fortunately, they have. And they haven't just gone along -- they've actually stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States as we have led this international effort to impose these sanctions. But ultimately, time will tell whether or not it will have the desired effect.
Q: A couple more. And I know part of this will come from the Pentagon. Can you sort of give me a broad assessment of the movement of a carrier group into the area in the South China?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can confirm that the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier group is in the vicinity of the South China Sea. I know that the Department of Defense made an announcement about this late in the day yesterday. This is part of the regular movement of that aircraft carrier group. It is not part of an ongoing freedom of navigation operation or anything like that, but rather part of the routine movement of U.S. naval assets through the Asia Pacific region. The number of U.S. naval assets in the Asia Pacific region has increased significantly under President Obama's leadership, so this is not an uncommon occurrence. But for more details about their mission, I'd refer you to United States Pacific Command.
Q: Last one, and this is sort of a Friday fun question. So the President will be binge-watching "House of Cards" like the rest of us this weekend? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I know the President has watched earlier seasons of "House of Cards." I don't know if that will be part of his weekend plans this weekend or not. But I think there are a lot of people in Washington that are looking forward to spending some time in front of the television, watching "House of Cards" this weekend.
Q: Josh, was the President watching cable news today? What was the reference to O.J. Simpson at the beginning of his remarks?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that prior to seeing all of you, the President had been in the Situation Room. He was actually -- (laughter) -- stick with me here. He was in the Situation Room; he was actually doing a secure video teleconference with President Ghani and CEO Abdullah of Afghanistan. We'll have a more formal readout of that meeting later this afternoon. But as the President was coming out of the conference room where they were conducting the video teleconference, there are a bank of television monitors right there as you walk out the door of the Situation Room. And the television monitors are regularly tuned to cable news, as I'm sure Kevin and Michelle are pleased to hear. And so that's where the President saw that all of the networks were covering this bit of news.
Q: He seemed bemused.
MR. EARNEST: He did seem bemused, didn't he? Are you suggesting that you weren't?
Q: I was shocked he even referenced it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I mean bemused about the news that was being reported.
Q: I don't even know where to begin on what I think of that. But you said you are going to have a readout of what he was discussing about Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, so we'll have a more formal readout on paper of the video teleconference with the Afghan leaders.
Q: On SCOTUS, you've had obviously personal appeals by the President to Senate leadership, and now you have the Vice President having written this op-ed, making a very public appeal. Is the White House's view at this point that all of this is just falling on deaf ears, or is there any room to think that the conversation is moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based on the reaction of at least some senators, it's clear that the message is being heard. And I think it's also clear that the public is hearing this message; that there now is ample public data to indicate that a strong majority of the country doesn't support the apparent initial reaction of Senate Republicans to put politics ahead of their constitutional duty. And we're going to continue to make a case, both publicly and privately, directly to senators and directly to the public, that their constitutional duty should come first. The President is committed to putting his constitutional duty first. That will come before any political considerations that he makes. And we hope they'll do the same. That certainly is what Vice President Biden did in 1988, as he alluded to in his op-ed. And we hope that Senate Republicans will do the same thing in 2016.
Q: At a minimum, would ask or expect the Senate to at least meet with a nominee, even if they won't yet say if they'll give a hearing or reverse Mr. McConnell's position?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly believe that they should do that. But those kinds of courtesy visits are a sign of a functioning, professional United States Senate. Refusing to meet with presidential appointees is inconsistent with longstanding tradition -- but look, so would be refusing to have a hearing and a vote. Since 1875, every single presidential nominee to the Supreme Court has gotten a hearing and/or a vote from the United States Senate. So this would be a stark break from longstanding tradition. And it also would be inconsistent with the expectations of the U.S. Constitution. So we've got a strong case to make here, and we're going to keep making it.
Q: You're not at that point, though, of asking for them to meet with the nominee -- or with the candidate?
MR. EARNEST: Once the President has put forward a nominee, that nominee will begin, as previous nominees have, begin making courtesy visit on Capitol Hill. And I'm confident that those courtesy visits will include requests to meet with Republican senators. And it will be up to Republican senators to determine whether or not they will accept that invitation. I do feel confident that the Democrats will. And I would just note, in 1988 -- that was the last time we faced this situation -- you had a Republican President dealing with a Democratic majority in the United States Senate, and that was the last time that any President was asking the Senate to confirm his Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.
And Senators Grassley and McConnell know this because Senators Grassley and McConnell voted to confirm Justice Kennedy in 1988 in a presidential election year. So they certainly understand the stakes. They understand the tradition. And they understand the requirements of the United States Constitution. The question now is whether or not they're going to follow it.
Q: And is it safe to say that the President has made some progress in his review and consideration of nominees?
MR. EARNEST: It is safe to say that the President has been doing a lot of work on this. It's hard for me to quantify exactly -- it's hard for me to discuss publicly how we would quantify that progress. But he's devoted significant time to this, and I know that there have been some sleepless nights on the part of his legal team making sure that he's got the materials that he needs. And that work is going to continue through the weekend.
Q: There have been reports lately that -- one, that the President was -- or the administration is vetting someone, a judge in Iowa who had been supported by Chairman Grassley, and now potentially a relative of House Speaker Paul Ryan. Is there some directive given to the President's team to find people who have the closest possible ties to some of these top Republicans, or to make it as difficult as possible or as uncomfortable as possible for them to reject either the nominee itself or not hold any hearings?
MR. EARNEST: I can't confirm that either of those individuals that have been publicly reported a number of times are part of the process.
Q: But you're not denying it.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not going to confirm and deny any individual candidates. What I can tell you, though, is I can tell you the instructions that the President has given his legal team. And it's pretty simple. The President has said, I want to find the best person for the job, and I want to evaluate this person based on their legal credentials. I want to evaluate this person based on their judicial temperament. I want to evaluate this person based on their life experience. And I don't care if this person is a Democrat or a Republican, I want the best person for the job. And that's what his legal team is trying to help him do.
And it's hard to -- once the President has selected that person, it will be a little easier for me to be in a position to help you explain how he arrived at that decision. But as he's in the midst of that decision, it's just hard to discuss.
Q: You just said a minute ago that there's ample data out there that suggests that the public sees it your way that the Senate should act, or the President should. But were you referring to something specific, or is it just anecdotal news reports? Or is there some --
MR. EARNEST: It's anecdotal. There are national polls, there are polls in individual states that indicate that a substantial majority of people who were surveyed in those polls believe that both the President and the United States Congress should fulfill their constitutional duty.
Q: How aggressively is the -- or is the administration doing its own polling and its own analysis to try and gauge the public sentiment?
MR. EARNEST: This is not a decision that's going to be made based on polls. There are not names that are included in polls. There are not blind biographies that are --
Q: This issue of whether -- of how the process should or shouldn't go forward.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've been clear since just a couple hours after Justice Scalia's death was announced that the President intended to fulfill his constitutional duty. So that's not -- fortunately, the Constitution is so clear that that's the only place we need to look for direction about what the President should do.
Q: And the last nomination process, how many people did he interview personally? Did you ever reveal that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if we've revealed that. I've been asked that question before, but let me see if we can get you an answer to that.
Q: If you can get a sense of whether it's one or two, or 10 or 20, or just where that --
MR. EARNEST: Let me see if that's information that we have revealed about past searches. I don't think that's something we'll be able to get into about this search at least until it's been completed, but let me see if I can get you some information about previous searches.
Q: Because you said this search is going to be very similar to the last search.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it will in that the President is evaluating the same kinds of criteria. And I guess the other reason to keep the searches at least similar is the last two searches yielded nominees that performed very well during the hearing, it yielded nominees that got bipartisan support in the United States Senate, and it's gotten two nominees that, even in their short time on the bench, have already demonstrated an ability to serve in that position with honor and distinction. And those are the kinds of goals we have in mind this time, too.
Q: There's been some reporting out there suggesting that the nominee may play a more public role in trying to move this whole process forward. Is that a fair strategy to anticipate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some that have speculated that that would be a good strategy; there are some who have warned about the risks associated with that strategy. So I think it's too soon to tell. Obviously, people are entitled to their opinion. But that also is something that will be easier for us to discuss once the President has made a decision about who his nominee will be.
Q: We're still -- and again, what is your guidance again as to what the time frame is from now? You had said I think before, just like the other situations. Can you say -- 24 hours, two weeks? There has been a number of things.
MR. EARNEST: At this point I don't have additional timing guidance to share. I think the things that we have acknowledged is that the two previous vacancies -- that nominees for the two previous vacancies were announced about four or five weeks after those vacancies occurred. In his SCOTUSblog, the President noted that he would expect an announcement in a matter of weeks. But, unfortunately, I just don't have more specific guidance to share with you at this point.
Q: Do you think we'll get some more specific guidance before it happens, or it will just kind happen?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is it will probably just happen. (Laughter.) But we'll see. We will at least endeavor that all of you are in a position to report when it does happen.
Q: We're here all the time. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That's good. That's good. That's probably a wise choice.
Q: Thank you. Last night the debate was watched by Americans, but by people all over the world. And according to French TV, the candidates spent more time instead insulting each other than talking about Syria and problems all over the world. Is the President -- is the White House concerned about the degree of vulgarity we saw last night and the image we saw that America has now in the rest of the world with this type of debate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it was widely reported -- I assume overseas -- that most people concluded that the debate last night was a pretty bad night for Republicans. My observation was actually it was a pretty bad night for journalists -- primarily because I think we've used up all the metaphors at this point. We've got "demolition derby" and "slow-motion train wreck" and "dumpster fire," and we haven't even gotten to the Republican convention yet. (Laughter.) So I wish you guys luck.
But, look, there's no denying that when we get around to the general election, we're going to have a pretty clear choice. And there will be ample opportunity for the President to make the case that the Democratic nominee is the person who understands the challenges facing the country and understands the value of building on the progress that we've made thus far.
Q: I have a follow-up. Is the President concerned that Donald Trump can become the President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: The President has previously observed that he does not think that Donald Trump will become President of the United States.
Q: But he might become the nominee.
MR. EARNEST: He might become the nominee.
Q: And that's a concern all over the world.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And the President has not weighed in on the horse race on the Republican side, but the President has been pretty resolute in his belief that Mr. Trump will not be the next President.
Q: Thank you, Josh. I want to go back to the Supreme Court. You mentioned again, for the umpteenth time, the Anthony Kennedy precedent in 1988. One name I haven't heard is that of Robert Bork, who, of course, was the nominee who was rejected by the Senate the previous year that led to the election-year confirmation. I went back and I read Vice President Biden's floor speech that's been often quoted. He actually cited the Bork nomination 41 times in that speech. And he argued that the problem with Bork was that President Reagan tried to remake the Court during a period of divided government. He said that the President, during a period of divided government, should moderate his choices for the Supreme Court. He said, "The public has not given either party a mandate to remake the Court into a body reflective of the strong vision of our respective philosophies, and both of our parties should finally, honestly admit to that fact."
Is the President willing to concede that, in an era of divided government, he does not have a mandate to remake the Supreme Court? And what are the lessons -- are there any lessons to be learned these many years later from the Bork nomination?
MR. EARNEST: I think there is a -- well, let me start with the lessons first. I think there is an important lesson to be learned from the Bork nomination, which is that, at the time, then-Senator Biden was the chair of the Judiciary Committee and he presided over the hearings that Judge Bork participated in. And what's notable about the outcome is that Senator Biden presided over a confirmation hearing process even though he didn't support the nominee. So it would have been easy for Vice President Biden -- then-Senator Biden -- to say, I don't support Judge Bork, we're not even going to have hearings. He could have said that. That's what Republicans are saying right now. That's not what Senator Biden did. Senator Biden moved forward with hearings.
Now, the irony of the difference here is that Republicans have taken the position that they're not going to have hearings, even though the President hasn't named who his nominee is. And one thing, Gregory, I'm not going to be in a position to confirm potential nominees, but there was a Republican governor who has the strong support of Republicans in his state who was publicly considered -- or publicly discussed as being under consideration, and Republicans in the Senate said that they wouldn't give him a hearing either. So I think it is an indication of just how starkly different the Republican approach in 2016 is from the Democratic approach in 1988.
I'll make one other point about this, because I think this is relevant, too. So it wasn't just that Vice President Biden -- then-Senator Biden -- presided over those hearings; he allowed a vote in the committee. And he voted against the nominee, but despite his opposition, he allowed that nomination to go to the floor of the United States Senate for the entire Senate to vote on. I think that does show a commitment to the functioning of the institution of the United States Senate. That's the kind of commitment to functioning, to governing, that we expect Republicans to show.
So that's a little longer answer than I intended, but I think that's an indication that there are a lot of lessons out of the Bork nomination, and it underscores just how unreasonable the Republican position in 2016 is.
There was an earlier part to your question, though.
Q: The earlier part was that the Vice President, then-Senator, in that speech, was arguing that a President should not be able to remake the Court in an era of divided government; that that situation necessarily calls for more moderate choices to be nominated.
MR. EARNEST: And I think -- I read think a similar part of the speech, as well, which is that then-Senator Biden says that the White House should engage in aggressive consultation with the Senate, and if they do, that's when he would consider supporting that nominee.
So again, he didn't rule out hearings. He didn't rule out support prior to any nominee being put forward. He indicated, in fact, that, if there was a vacancy and there was a commitment to consultation and engagement from the White House, that he could envision a scenario where he could support the nominee. I think that's a pretty starkly different approach than Republicans have taken thus far, which is to say, under no circumstances will we support anybody that the President puts forward, and not only will we not support them, we're not even going to them a chance. We're not going to hold hearings, we're not even going to give them the courtesy of a visit.
And again, that's just an unreasonable position. And I think that would explain some of the public data that I was referring to earlier that a lot of Americans understand that is not at all consistent with how the Senate should function. And it's an indication that Republicans, after six or eight years in the minority, are having a hard time breaking the old habits of obstruction that are often wielded by the minority party.
When you take the majority in the United States Senate, you have a responsibility to govern. And thus far, Republicans have refused to embrace that responsibility.
Q: I have a free speech question. The late Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, said that censorship had a meaning outside of government when private corporations either invent new kinds of speech or have a monopoly on certain places online. It's becoming very clear that Twitter and Facebook, in particular, are censoring and punishing conservative and libertarian points of view. The President has made some encouraging comments about free speech. He said, for example, that university students shouldn't be coddled, perhaps suggesting that the safe space and trigger-warning culture isn't something he believes in. Is there anything the President can do to encourage Silicon Valley to remind them of the importance -- the critical importance of open, free speech in our society?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate the question. Obviously, part of what's built into our system is a respect for private companies to put in place their own policies. But I think the President would be the first one to observe that the success of that kind of social media and some of the social media tools is actually predicated on the idea of freedom of expression, and in fact, it allows -- many of these tools are so groundbreaking because they give people an opportunity to express themselves in ways that we didn't previously even imagine.
It also gives the average person the opportunity to be heard by the world. And that's what makes that kind of technology and those kinds of tools so remarkable. And, frankly, I think that's part of what makes them so successful.
But, yes, as you point out, that is predicated on the important protection of First Amendment rights to self-expression.
Q: He obviously can't enforce the First Amendment on private situations, but there seems to be a very clear trend. My verification check was taken away for making jokes about the wrong group of people. Conservative commentators and journalists are being punished, being suspended, having their tweets deleted by Twitter. Facebook is removing criticism of immigration in Europe. Are there any mechanisms that the government can use to remind these companies that they have that responsibility? Or do we just have to trust that the market is going to punish them if they don't?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure exactly what sort of government policy decision could have any influence on that. Obviously there is, though, a third branch of government, which is our courts; they are supposed to be insulated from politics. They're supposed to be in a position to resolve those kinds of questions. So if there are private citizens who feel their constitutional rights are being violated in some way, that they do have an opportunity to address that before a judge in a court of law. And that should be the way our system works. But, again, even that is predicated on the idea that our court system is appropriately insulated from partisan politics.
Let's see here. Leslie.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I wanted --
MR. EARNEST: I'm trying to anticipate your question, Leslie.
Q: Yes, I know. I figured. I wanted to go back to Cuba. And obviously, the Secretary's cancellation raised some questions about whether the Havana government was going to be cooperative with the President meeting with dissidents and discussing human rights. And you had a quite strong statement that the White House will meet with whoever it wants to, that the guest list will be come up with by the White House.
So I wanted to ask you, is the President planning -- does he want to meet a wide range of dissidents? And can you give any indication of in what sort of setting he wants to do this? Will it be a reception? Will he go anywhere to meet with dissidents? And will he meet with people who are not necessarily -- who are dissidents against the government but opposed to his new policy changes?
MR. EARNEST: Look, all of the questions that you're asking are important ones. And the truth is the President's schedule for Cuba is just not set yet. But as we develop that schedule and it comes into clearer focus, we'll be able to talk more clearly about where and when and how the President will interact with Cubans who are seeking to express their political views without being subject to intimidation or, in some cases, even incarceration. The President is interested in lifting up the importance of universal human rights and the importance of the government not just respecting but actually taking steps to protect the expression of human rights.
So that will be a focal point of the President's visit to Cuba. But I don't have a sense at this point exactly how that interaction will take place. But we'll obviously be interested in making sure you understand how that interaction takes place. And hopefully we'll be able to make sure that you get at least a little flavor of what that -- of how that interaction occurs.
One other part of your question, in answering Darlene's first question, I pushed back strongly against the notion that somehow the Secretary Kerry cancelled a planned trip. The trip was not planned. It was something that was considered, but ultimately, once it became clear that Secretary Kerry would travel with the President to Cuba, a Secretary-level trip prior to the President's one was not viewed as necessary.
Q: -- sort of send a signal that their government is going to play hardball in the meeting with the dissidents?
MR. EARNEST: Not really, because it's not going to have -- certainly the government is entitled to their opinion, but it's not going to have an impact on the decision that we make about with whom the President will meet. That's a decision that we'll make on our own without any sort of negotiation with the Cubans.
Q: Can you, Josh, confirm a meeting that the President may have within the next two weeks with King Salman of Saudi Arabia here at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of a meeting like that that's on the books. But let me take a look at it and see if we can give you some guidance. We certainly haven't announced anything like that and I haven't heard discussion about something like that coming up. But let me check.
Q: And on the Supreme Court, have you detected in your conversations with Republicans senators right now any daylight between Leader McConnell and Chairman Grassley on their approach to any nominee that the President puts forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did see that Chairman Grassley did acknowledge that there's at least one nominee that's been discussed publicly -- one potential nominee that's been discussed publicly that he would meet with. Now, I know he said that he would only meet with her in her capacity as an Iowan, but it doesn't seem consistent with the spirit of his previous declaration that he wouldn't meet with anybody that the President put forward.
It sounds like we've already found an exception. Maybe there will be others. Hopefully there will be others, because this is a longstanding Senate tradition. And I don't have to explain that to Chairman Grassley. He's been dealing with these issues for decades. He has probably hosted a dozen courtesy visits with Supreme Court nominees. So it would be a pretty stark reversal on his part, even based on his own personal career, to refuse that kind of meeting.
But my ultimate point here is Chairman Grassley understands that the stakes are significant, that he's got significant constitutional responsibilities, and that the recent precedent in the modern history of the Supreme Court is clear. And hopefully he'll be willing to abide by it.
JC, I'll give you the last one and then we'll do the week ahead.
Q: Thank you. Considering that Fidel Castro has lived through 11 Presidents, from Eisenhower to Barack Obama, might this administration, might the President, even for historical purposes, meet with the leader of Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is it's not likely to end up on the schedule. But we're still working through the schedule, and so if that changes we'll let you all know.
We'll do the week ahead, and we'll let you get started on your weekend. On Monday --
Q: Josh, do you really think we start our weekend after -- (laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. I don't know what goes on back there. (Laughter.)
Q: On behalf of my colleagues, we really don't. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I see. Okay. Well, hopefully you will soon get started on your weekend, then. (Laughter.)
On Monday, the President will host a meeting at the White House -- that Justin referenced -- with financial regulators to receive an update on the progress in implementing Wall Street reform, eight years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The participants will discuss efforts to continue to implement the strongest consumer financial protections in history that have afforded millions of hardworking Americans new protections from the kinds of abusive practices that predated the crisis. They will also update the President on their work to make our financial systems safer and stronger as well as present the kind of recklessness on Wall Street that we saw lead to devastation on Main Street.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the President will be here at the White House. I don't have any updates on his schedule for those two days, but we'll keep you posted.
On Thursday, the President and First Lady will welcome the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, and Mrs. Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau to the White House for an official visit with a state dinner. The visit will be an opportunity for the United States and Canada to deepen our bilateral relationship, which is one of the closest and most extensive in the world. That relationship is based on a shared history, common values, and a vast and intricate network of cultural, familial, and commercial ties. The visit is also intended to advance cooperation on important bilateral and multilateral issues, such as energy and climate change, national security, and the economy.
On Friday, the President will travel to Austin, Texas to participate in South by Southwest Interactive. The President will sit down with the editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, Evan Smith, for a conversation about civic engagement in the 21st century. The audience for that discussion will be creators, early adopters and entrepreneurs who are defining the future of our increasingly connected lives.
The President will call on the audience to apply their ideas and talents to make technology work for us, especially when it comes to tackling big challenges like increasing participation in the political process and fighting climate change. In the lead-up to the event, the Texas Tribune will also source questions for the discussion from its online audience.
Afterward, the President will attend DNC events in Austin. He will then travel to Dallas, Texas, where he will spend the night.
On Saturday, the President will attend a DNC and DSCC event before returning to Washington that evening. We'll have some additional details about the President's trip to Texas early next week.
So with that, I know it's still a couple hours away -- (laughter) -- but I hope you have a great weekend. See you guys.
END 2:00 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/316060