Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:48 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody.
Q: Good afternoon.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. I appreciate the response. Fired-up crowd for Friday afternoon.
Let me do a couple of announcements before we get to the -- let me tee these up here and make sure we've got them. I just want to give you a readout of a couple of meetings that the President has had the last 18 hours or so on a couple of different topics.
Building on the President's commitment to enhance safe American energy production and respond to the threat of climate change, the President yesterday -- last evening -- convened a meeting with business and thought leaders from the clean energy sector to discuss ongoing priorities.
During the meeting, the President reiterated his commitment to a cleaner and more secure energy future. The discussion covered a variety of topics, including the important role of natural gas in our domestic energy portfolio; new opportunities for renewables like wind, solar, and advanced biofuels; the importance of clean energy research and development; as well as the promise and potential of increased energy efficiency in our homes and businesses.
Since the President took office, responsible domestic oil and gas production has increased each year. Energy production from renewable resources like wind and solar has more than doubled. Emissions of carbon pollution have decreased. And our nation has dramatically reduced its imports of foreign oil.
The President made clear that his administration will build on this historic progress using tools, including existing authorities across the federal government and leveraging public-private partnerships to achieve key energy and climate objectives in his second term. The President looks forward to working with these clean energy leaders and others toward that shared goal.
Now, to that end, on Friday, March 15th -- one week from today -- the President will travel to Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois for an event focused on American energy. We'll have more details on the President's travel early next week.
Q: Josh, can you just say -- is the President planning to talk about sequester cuts while he's there, or is this totally focused on energy?
MR. EARNEST: This will be focused primarily on energy.
Now, a couple of -- you have also asked about the President's meeting on immigration reform today. Let me give you a brief readout of that meeting.
Also earlier today, the President, joined by members of his senior staff, met with leaders from the faith community to discuss the need for Congress to swiftly act and pass common-sense immigration reform in a bipartisan manner. The President reiterated his strong commitment to a pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants, as well as his administration's emphasis on cracking down on employers who exploit vulnerable immigrant workers and undermine -- let me say that again -- who exploit vulnerable immigrant workers and undermine American workers, and continuing to strengthen our border security.
The President thanked the leaders for their work on the issue, and he looks forward to working with them to move the immigration debate forward in Congress.
One last thing that I learned about this morning that I thought you all might be interested in. As you now know, Vice President Biden swore in the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency today, John Brennan. And there's one piece of this that I wanted to note for you.
Director Brennan was sworn in with his hand on an original draft of the Constitution that had George Washington's personal handwriting and annotations on it, dating from 1787. Brennan had requested a document from the National Archives that would symbolize that the United States is a nation of laws. And before he was sworn in, Director Brennan told the President that he made the request to the Archives because he wanted to reaffirm his commitment to the rule of law as he took the oath of office as Director of the CIA. So I thought that was an interesting piece of color that might interest all of you.
So with that long windup, Julie, I've taken all the pressure off your first question. You can begin.
Q: Yes, great. Well, I guess my first thing would be just to request that the meetings, like the energy meeting, be put on the President's schedule, as well as his meeting with the Jewish leaders. That was left off yesterday. Since the immigration meeting today was put on, if we could have some consistency with that it would be appreciated.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we make those decisions on a case-by-case basis, but your interest in that is duly noted.
Q: Thank you. I wanted to ask a couple questions about Abu Ghaith, bin Laden's spokesman. Why is he being tried in a civilian court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the simple answer to that question is that there is broad consensus across the United States government. At the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community agrees that the best way to protect our national security interests is to prosecute Abu Ghaith in an Article 3 court.
There is a pretty strong track record of the success of Article 3 courts in handling these kinds of trials. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, was tried in an Article 3 court. He's currently serving a life sentence. Abdulmutallab, also known as the "underwear bomber," faces similar fate.
Article 3 courts have shown that they are, in many ways, a more efficient way for us to deliver justice to those who seek to harm the United States of America. And that is the consensus view of the President's national security team and of agencies all across the federal government that this is the best way to handle bringing Abu Ghaith to justice.
Q: So going forward, when we have similar circumstances, is this going to be the track that the President will take? Or is this still going to be specific to depending on the conditions around how these people are captured, what types of activity they may have been involved in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly, these kinds of cases will be handled on a case-by-case basis. But as the President has articulated himself many times, it's his view that whenever we can use Article 3 courts to get justice, we'll do so. As I mentioned, they've proved to be a very useful tool in getting that justice, and that's what -- that's why and how the decision was made in this case.
Q: And do you know if the President reached out, or anyone from the administration reached out to Mayor Bloomberg before making this decision?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any conversations with Mayor Bloomberg in advance of this decision having been made.
Q: Just to follow up on that quickly, Mitch McConnell suggested that the decision to try bin Laden's son-in-law would actually impede intelligence collection, and that it would be better for him to have been taken to Guantanamo and safer for all involved.
MR. EARNEST: With all due respect to Senator McConnell, that's not the assessment of the intelligence community. It's not the assessment of the Department of Justice. It's not the assessment of the Department of Defense. So he's certainly welcome to his opinion, but that's not the assessment of the people who are responsible for protecting the national security of the United States of America.
Q: Is that to say that they feel like they already exhausted whatever intelligence leads they might get from him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for additional details, if they are available, they can be provided by the Department of Justice. I can tell you that it is customary in these circumstances for questioning of the detained individual to take place, and that happened in this case. But in terms of -- well, I guess I should also point out that there have been previous detainees who have been subject to similar questioning in similar circumstances that has yielded valuable intelligence. And that's something that we've talked about in the past.
So again, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice for details about this circumstance. But this is something that has been -- this is a process that has been tried before and has a very strong track record of success. And it was the unanimous view of the national security community and the intelligence community that it should be pursued in this case as well.
Q: Okay, and one last question on the budget. Pentagon officials have told the House Armed Services Committee that the President's budget is coming on April 8th. Can you confirm that? And what, if any, concern does the administration have that the Senate and House versions are going to be rolled out before the administration's budget?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a budget date to announce to you. As we've talked about for some time, the budget has been delayed because of some of the impediments, frankly, to formulating a budget that have been thrown in the path of those who are working on it. We had a fiscal cliff debate that lasted through the end of last year. Certainly, the implementation of the sequester has affected the ability of the administration to put together our budget proposal. But that's something that people are hard at work on, and I think in the coming weeks we'll have some more details about the budget.
And what that budget will show is that the President's top policy priority is strengthening our economy for the middle class; that we want to make sure we're putting the policies in place that will strengthen the middle class, because it's the President's view that we only have a strong country when we have a strong and growing middle class. So those will be some of the policies that will be included in that budget that will be rolled out in the weeks ahead.
Q: Yes. There are reports that the Obamas had dinner with the Clintons one week ago today.
MR. EARNEST: A lot of interesting dinners this week, I guess.
Q: Yes, lots of interesting dinners. Curious if you can confirm that? I suppose you just did confirm that. (Laughter.)
And this dinner apparently happened one day before the President began his outreach, making these phone calls to Republicans last weekend. Did former President Clinton mention that as his advice to the current President that perhaps some outreach might be a good thing?
Q: Well, I can confirm the dinner for you. It was a private dinner that the President and First Lady enjoyed with President Clinton and former Secretary of State Clinton. They enjoyed the meal and they enjoyed the conversation, but I don't have any more details to read out to you.
In terms of the President's bipartisan outreach to rank-and-file members of Congress, that was actually something that started before that dinner. The President had made some calls to members of the Gang of Eight a week prior to the dinner and had hosted Senator Graham and Senator McCain in the Oval Office the day before. So this is an ongoing effort. I haven't spoken to President Clinton about what he thinks about that effort, but maybe you could --
Q: He would certainly have some insights when it comes to government shutdowns and brinksmanship and dealing with the other side. You can't say whether or not this came up at all?
MR. EARNEST: He certainly does have that experience, but I'm not going to read out the private dinner that they enjoyed.
Q: One thing that we heard from Jay and I guess from yourself here is there seems to be this reluctance to acknowledge that the President's I guess past strategy in terms of getting some kind of agreement from Republicans to go along with his proposals in bringing down the deficit. The President used some campaign-style tactics -- holding events and so forth -- to get to that point, and that was not successful. But Jay said, and has been saying all week, and the White House has been saying all week, well, it's only because there's no looming deadline that you tried this new approach. I mean, isn't that just sort of spin? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: No. Well, let's --
Q: Nothing more than that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let's talk about why the President spent so much time engaging the American public in the public debates that are happening in Washington, D.C. This was -- essentially, you could describe it as one of the core principles of his presidential campaign, that the President believed that we need to engage the American people in bringing change to Washington, D.C. And I know that this was the subject of some debate in the last election about the consequences of including the American public in that debate and whether or not change in Washington, D.C. was possible without including the American people in that debate.
It's the view of the President of the United States that if we're going to bring change to Washington, if we're going to put in place the kinds of policies that are in the best interest of the country, that are in the best interest of our economy, that are in the best interest of the middle class -- all policies that the President supports -- that we need to engage the American public in that debate. And the President will continue to do that.
And it's not something that we've just tried and aren't going to try anymore. The President believes that this is a sustained part of the job description, and as long as he's President, he's going to be interested in engaging the American public in a robust debate about the direction that we should take our country.
Now, it's also no coincidence that many of the policies that the President is advocating here in Washington, D.C. have the strong support of the American public. Pursuing a balanced approach to deficit reduction is a classic example of this. This is something that is strongly supported by the American public, and there are some polls that have indicated it's actually strongly supported by a majority of Republicans across the country. The same dynamic exists when it comes to efforts to reduce gun violence in our communities. There are many things that the President proposes, including closing loopholes in background checks, for example, and is strongly supported. Some polls indicate that up to 90 percent of Americans actually support taking that kind of policy approach.
So the President believes that it's very important to include the American public in these debates. In fact, he thinks it's part of his job description to include them in these debates, and he's been -- he's long made the case that these debates will never be successful, or won't be successful without the strong support of the American public.
Q: Josh, thanks. Unemployment report came out today --
MR. EARNEST: It did.
Q: -- and showed that the economy is showing fresh signs of strength. What does the President think the impact of the sequester will be on this latest economic picture that we got today?
MR. EARNEST: I suspect if the jobs numbers had been different it wouldn't have taken less than four people to ask me about them. But that's the nature of our work, I think, here.
We did see the jobs numbers today. The jobs numbers that came out today are the latest data point to indicate that our economy is gaining traction as we recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. And there are a couple of different ways to look at these numbers. Most importantly, over the course of the last 36 months, the American economy has created private sector jobs in each one of those months, for 36 consecutive months, for a total of almost 6.4 million private sector jobs. That is a pretty good indication of the trajectory that we're on.
If you just look at the last five months, the American economy has created 200,000 private sector jobs in four of those five months. So we really are starting to gain some traction.
Now, the question facing lawmakers in Washington, D.C. is: Is Congress going to be engaged in an effort of putting in place the kinds of policies that will support that recovery, that will ensure that the economic recovery that we're starting to see, that's starting to gain traction, will benefit the middle class, and how will the policies in Washington help that along?
Unfortunately, what we've seen is we've seen policies put in place, or policies blocked by Congress -- Republicans in Congress -- that are actually plaguing our economy, not helping it. And the manufactured obstacle that is the sequester is posing a challenge to our economy in much the same way that the fiscal cliff was; in much the same way that uncertainty around the payroll tax cut was; in much the same way, to a different degree, that the debt ceiling debate was.
Q: Does the President think that the sequester could weaken the economic outlook next month, could weaken the jobs report next month?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not an economic forecaster, and I'm not going to get in that business now. Even weather forecasters have had a pretty tough week, so I don't want to be an economic forecaster. But I would say that Democrats and Republicans both agree that the sequester is going to have a negative impact on our economy. Democrats and Republicans agree that the sequester is going to have a negative impact on job creation. And most economic analysts out there would tell you -- who have looked at this -- would tell you that the sequester itself actually does very little to reduce our deficit over the long term.
So the President -- that's why the President is such a strong advocate of a proposal of a balanced approach to our deficit reduction, where we can make some smart, strategic, targeted cuts in government spending, we can get some savings from entitlement programs, and we can close loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well-connected. That kind of balanced approach would replace the sequester, would actually yield greater deficit reduction, and most importantly, would actually put in place a set of policies that are in the best interest of our economy and would strengthen the chances of success for middle-class families out there.
Q: Josh, today is the last day of White House tours. What is the President's message to all of the people who are going to be disappointed, frustrated, and upset this weekend that they are not going to be able to have a tour of the White House -- the people's house?
MR. EARNEST: This is an issue that the President and First Lady care strongly about. You've heard both the President and First Lady talk about the value of the White House as the people's house. There are hundreds of thousands of people who come to the White House on a daily basis -- on a yearly basis, to tour the White House. And the White House has a unique place as both the seat of government, the residence of the leader of the country, but also a museum. And it is a shame that because of the sequester, those tours will no longer take place.
I'll tell you that the people that the President is most concerned about, though, are the 750,000 Americans who stand to lose their job according to the CBO as a result of the sequester. What we need is we need a long-term solution to dealing with our deficits that would turn off the sequester.
There is a proposal that the President has put forward that has -- it's an approach that is strongly supported by the American public. And you can see from the President's conversations and efforts over the last not just several days, but several weeks, that he's committed to finding a solution to this problem.
Q: Some of his critics have argued that he should cancel his golf outings and possibly even his vacation because there are these furloughs and potential layoffs that federal employees are facing. What is his response to that? And is that under consideration at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if -- I haven't heard anybody say that, so I'm not sure who exactly is saying that. What I will tell you is --
Q: Gohmert. People on Twitter.
MR. EARNEST: I assume he is one of the tea party Republicans who actually called the sequester a victory for the tea party. The sequester is not a victory for the American people, I can tell you that.
Q: But what is his reaction to that type of criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, what the President has said is it's time for Democrats and Republicans to work together to solve this problem. So I recognize that there may be some Republicans out there who think that this is great news, that think this is a victory and are cheering it on. So the President is trying to find some Republicans who don't share that view who actually agree with the President that we need to find a way to reduce our deficits in a responsible way.
As I mentioned, the people who are cheering this as a big victory have left me a little mystified. These are people who ostensibly campaigned because they wanted to reduce deficits. The sequester actually does very little to reduce the deficit over the long term. They campaigned on tax reform. The sequester does nothing to reform the tax code. They campaigned on reforming entitlements. The sequester does nothing to reform the entitlement system or get savings from the entitlement system. So it's not actually clear to me what they're cheering. And truly, they're not cheering the 750,000 Americans who would lose their jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
So we have a difference of opinion with the Republicans who espouse the point of view that you've mentioned. But the President is looking for Republicans and Democrats who are going to work with him to solve this problem.
Q: As you know, there's a movement put by some of the President's critics to collect private donations to keep the White House tours from being canceled because of the sequester. Is that technically possible?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know if it's technically possible. My guess is that it's not. And the reason for that is the sequester mandates across-the-board, non-strategic, indiscriminate cuts to the budget. It allows very little, if any, flexibility for those who are administering the budget. And it means agency heads are put in a very difficult position of choosing between two bad options.
Secretary Duncan talked about this a little bit. He said that a significant portion of his budget was dedicated to providing educational opportunities for disabled children, and another significant portion of the budget was dedicated to providing economic -- or education opportunities for poor children. And as he posed the question, are you asking me to cut programs for disabled children so that we can protect programs for poor children or the other way around? These are bad choices and bad options. This is bad policy. That's the reason it was -- that Democrats and Republicans put it in place to try to force a smart option.
So it's disappointing that there are some who are cheering this as a big political victory, because the American people certainly don't see it as a victory for them.
Q: On today's jobs numbers, does that indicate that the sequester -- the fear of it -- is having less of an impact than you all expected, or is the bad news still to come?
MR. EARNEST: You don't have to just take my word for it. There are a lot of economic analysts who looked at the fourth quarter GDP numbers who concluded that the looming sequester did have an impact on economic growth, a pretty significant one. The CBO has calculated that there are up to three-quarters of a million Americans who could lose their job as a result of the sequester, that it could have an impact as large as taking six-tenths of a percentage point off of GDP.
So there are clear consequences, bad consequences for the sequester, and that's why the President is dedicated to trying to solve that problem. Washington for too long has careened from one financial and fiscal crisis to another in a way that has impeded economic growth. The data points are in place to indicate that we have a remarkably resilient economy. We're starting to gain traction, and it's time for politicians in Washington to work across the aisle to put in place policies that will support -- not inhibit -- that recovery.
Q: Why should we not conclude -- since the White House tours came up and they end tomorrow, why should we not conclude that the choice of ending the tours by the White House was made to inflict maximum pain on Congress and be very publicly noticeable since you could have trimmed the Secret Service budget in other ways?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not sure the Secret Service would acknowledge that. I think that they --
Q: But it wasn't their choice to close the tours.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I --
Q: And they presented options to you.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure that that's what they would say if you asked them. So you can ask them that. But there are very strict limits to how much flexibility is included here. We are presented with a range of bad options, and it's not hard to imagine me standing up here being questioned by you, being asked the same question about why we didn't choose some other bad option.
So, look, the point here is that the cancellation of White House tours is something we're not very happy about. But what we're also not very happy about is the potential economic impact of the sequester, including people who stand to lose their jobs as a result of it. So this is a problem that we have to get solved regardless of -- even if it didn't impact White House tours, this is something that the President would be very focused on and interested in solving.
Q: While I would never dream of suggesting that politics plays any role in this, it does seem to me that there were other choices. The Secret Service has to make trims.
MR. EARNEST: It did.
Q: But you chose to make those trims by saying there's no tours so that you don't have to have overtime for the Secret Service people who are involved in the tours. There must be other ways.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of options, but as I pointed out, there's no magic wand here that we can wave to comply with the sequester. The reason that the sequester was put in place, just to remind you, was to put in place a policy that was so onerous and terrible that it would actually force Democrats and Republicans to come together to find an alternative solution. They didn't do that.
So if you're sitting here telling me it seems ridiculous that this terrible policy is in place and it's having an impact on White House tours, I would agree with you. But that's the way that it was designed.
Q: I was talking about your choice of White House tours as the avenue to implement the policy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, if you want to talk to the Secret Service about the range of options that they considered, you're welcome to do that. I think they'd be -- my guess is they're going to tell you the same thing I am, which is that there are no good options here.
Q: But it wasn't their choice. It was the White House's.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it actually -- they did present a range of choices. You're asking about the range of choices that we had, and I think they would be -- I think they will tell you that that range of choices went from bad to worse.
Q: Back to Abu Ghaith -- not only is this bin Laden's son-in-law, he's somebody who has spent theoretically more than a decade in Iran with other al Qaeda figures. What was the top priority here? Bringing him to justice or getting intelligence out of him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the benefit of the system that I've described to you is that we're able to do both -- that we're able to question him as a part of the regular process of detaining individuals like this, but we're also able to put him through Article 3 courts to ensure that he's held accountable for his crimes.
The crimes that he's committed are terrible. From at least May 2001 up to and around 2002, Abu Ghaith served alongside Osama bin Laden, appearing with bin Laden and his then deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, speaking on behalf of the terrorist organization in support of its mission and warning that attacks similar to 9/11 would continue. So this is somebody who is going to be held accountable for his crimes and will be done -- and that will be done in accordance with the laws and values of this country, and it will be done so in a pretty efficient way.
And so, I guess my proposal to you, unlike in Bill's choice, we don't have to choose. We're able to do both, and that's exactly what we did.
Q: Was he read his Miranda rights?
MR. EARNEST: You have to talk to the Department of Justice about the specifics of his handling.
Q: What kind of questioning, what kind of -- are we getting any useful intelligence out of him? Do you know if he -- what was the process here? Because it seems like he was very quickly moved to this criminal process.
MR. EARNEST: Your interest in this is certainly understandable, but I'm not going to be in a position to read out specific intelligence that may or may not have been gleaned from him. And if you have questions about how that questioning process worked, then I would encourage you to talk to the Department of Justice.
Q: And you were asked about Bloomberg. Was Congress informed of this decision to bring him to the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I know that we are in regular communication with members of Congress, but in terms of this specific piece of news, I'm going to have to take that question. We'll see if I can get you some more information about what the communications were like between the administration and Congress on this.*
Q: Back to the economy for a moment. Mr. Krueger said this morning that the sequester is going to be plaguing the economy, and you repeated that here again today. How do you explain the records on Wall Street this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't want to be in a position of trying to analyze the markets. There are people who are paid lots of money every year --
Q: But clearly, the market is ignoring it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to interpret the markets from up here. There are people who are paid millions of dollars, and probably lose millions of dollars, trying to interpret the vagaries of the stock market. And I'm not going to do it for free. (Laughter.)
Q: Josh, back on the economy and the jobs numbers. It went from 7.9 to 7.7 percent. That's good, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: That's actually the lowest figure since December 2008, before this President took office.
Q: Right. But is this White House bracing for the worst as it relates to sequestration? I talked to the acting Labor Secretary and he said sequestration will definitely put the brakes on job growth in this country. Are you bracing for the worst with reports down the road in the next couple of months?
MR. EARNEST: We are certainly concerned -- I think you could even say very concerned -- about the habit in Washington, D.C., particularly Republicans in Congress, who repeatedly are throwing up obstacles to a recovery that's starting to gain traction. So whether it's the debt limit fight of August of 2011 or the fiscal cliff of earlier this year -- we had the payroll tax fight a couple of times -- and even the sequester are all policies that are supported by Republicans that do not have a positive impact on our economy. There's no two ways around it. Every economist will tell you that. And even Republicans talk about the terrible toll that uncertainty has on our economy.
So the President is ready to sit down with Republicans who share his concern to do something serious about our deficit, but to do it in a way that's actually going to be constructive for the economy, that's going to expand the economic opportunity for the middle class. Those are the President's core goals, and those are goals that we can accomplish through the process of turning off the sequester. So it's time to get that done.
Q: Touching on something you just said -- the President is ready to sit down and talk with Republicans -- I talked to Marcia Fudge, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and she said Democrats as a whole want to be on the front end to know what the President is talking about. She is saying the President can come to the Hill, but they just don't know what he is doing or what he is offering to Republicans. What say you about that? Democrats want to know what the President is offering to Republicans, and they're not involved in the negotiations.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly interested in talking to rank-and-file members in both parties. So the President had lunch with Congressman Van Hollen yesterday. He was included in the lunch that the President had with Congressman Ryan. The three of them dined together.
Next week -- and I'll get to the week ahead here in a little bit -- but next week, the President will be traveling up to Capitol Hill, where he will be speaking at both the Senate Democratic Caucus meeting and the House Democratic Caucus meeting. And those will be opportunities for the President to talk to those Democrats about his legislative priorities. Certainly, that includes some of these budget issues that we've spent a lot of time talking about today. But it also includes some of the things that I talked about at the beginning of this briefing about how the President wants to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, about how the President believes that we can pursue policies that would reduce gun violence in communities all across the country.
The President put forward some specific proposals in the State of the Union that would strengthen the middle class -- proposals like increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation; proposals like expanding access to early childhood education programs that are so critical to the success of children in this country. So there are a number of things at the top the President's legislative agenda, and he looks forward to talking to Democrats about them next week.
Q: Thanks, Josh. The White House hasn't ruled out the possibility that the President might cancel his trip to Israel, because the Israeli government is not formed. I just wondered if that's something --
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me do that for you now. We're going. (Laughter.)
Q: You're going?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q: Okay, so you're ruling out the possibility of canceling the trip. Okay, thank you.
Does the President think he has an opportunity to influence the way the government is put together, perhaps with more centrist elements in it?
MR. EARNEST: The formation of the Israeli government is the responsibility of Prime Minister Netanyahu and others who have -- other senior officials in the Israeli government who will be responsible for that task. So that's not something that the President would interfere with.
The President is primarily going on this trip to accomplish a couple of things. One is he is very interested in talking to the Israeli public while he is there -- that there is an opportunity for him to demonstrate his support for Israel and his commitment to their security, something that we spent a lot of time talking about last year. We're also operating at a time when the region -- Israel's neighborhood, if you will -- is undergoing a pretty severe transition. There's crisis and it's important for the people of Israel to understand that the American people stand with them in the time of crisis, and that we're going to be there to protect them and to work with them to ensure their security.
Q: Might he be trying to persuade the Israeli public on any particular point -- about peace talks maybe, for example?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is traveling -- I guess we should point out the President is traveling to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. And while the President is not going with any specific peace plan in hand, the President's views about the interest that the Israeli people have in pursuing a peace process that he thinks it's in the best interest of both parties, both Palestinians and the Israelis, to pursue a peace agreement. And that's something that he will certainly be talking about with the leaders of the newly formed government when it's formed. It's something that he will be talking about with President Abbas.
And this is an opportunity for him to have that discussion and make sure that it remains clear to them that Middle East peace, that peace between the Israelis and Palestinians remains a priority of the President, that that's something that he is -- that the United States is ready to strongly support if that dialogue is ready to take off. And that will be the subject of a lot of conversation while we're there, but it won't be because the President is presenting a specific plan.
Q: Can I ask you a question about that also?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q: There's concern among Israelis that they're going to take a defense hit, a defense funding hit from the U.S. because of sequester -- the $155 million is going to be erased from their allocation. What's the administration saying about that? Is there any effort to close that gap?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, the sequester grants very little flexibility in terms of shifting money between these categories. And in some cases, that lack of flexibility requires difficult and painful decisions. I don't know what impact this would have on military aid to Israel, so I would encourage you to check with the Department of Defense who would have some more knowledge of this at a granular level. I'd check with them.
Q: All right.
Q: Thank you, Josh. What is the way forward on the sequester at this point? What is the most practical way to turn it off? Would that happen in the context of the grand bargain? Or is there a discrete piece of legislation that the President is interested in negotiating to turn off the sequester as soon as possible?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I don't think the answer to that is really clear right now. I think that is the subject of a lot of these discussions that the President has been having the last couple of days, and I think it will be the subject of discussions that the President has moving forward. I think it's the President's preference to -- again, I think this is another case where we actually don't have to choose, that the fault lines here of an agreement are pretty clear where our common ground lies.
There is bipartisan agreement that we can make some smart cuts to government spending. There's bipartisan agreement that we can get some savings from entitlement programs. And there at least used to be bipartisan agreement -- two months ago there was bipartisan agreement -- that there was plenty of revenue that could be gained by closing tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and the well-connected.
So the outlines of a deal here are pretty quick. So ostensibly, you could imagine a scenario where we could act quickly to consummate a deal like that that would actually reduce our deficit significantly over the long term and turn off the sequester. There's no reason that can't happen pretty quick.
Q: And also, as a follow-up, do you anticipate this outreach we've seen from the President -- going to the Hill next week -- this will continue? Will there be more lunches? More dinners? More trips to the Hill in the coming weeks and months?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have anything additional on the schedule to inform you about, but the President certainly remains committed to preserving an open line of communication with rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans who are interested in working with him.
Now, we're also not naïve about this process. The President is going to continue to talk to the Speaker of the House and the Democratic leader in the House. He's going to continue to talk to the Democratic leader and Republican leaders in the Senate. But this is -- I think you could view this as an opportunity for the President to engage in a new line of communication and an open and constructive dialogue that could contribute to a solution.
Q: Josh, a couple for you. First, does the President want to see the authorization for the use of military force to be updated and expanded to keep up with his updated and expanded war on terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, I think the way that I'd answer your question is to say this: The authorization to use military force is something that grants the necessary legal authorities for the President to pursue elements of al Qaeda. And that is something that we've done very aggressively. We've gone after the core elements and actually decimated the core elements of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in that region.
But we've also been pretty aggressive in our pursuit of elements of al Qaeda that are tied to AQAP -- al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; and AQIM -- al Qaeda in the Maghreb. And this is something that we are dedicated to. It is something that is critical to ensuring the national security of our country. And that's something that is ongoing, and that is something that -- that is an authority that is granted to the President under the current authorization to use military force.
Q: But as you expand to groups that are, as one official said, "associates of associates" of al Qaeda, you don't feel that you need to update this piece of legislation at all?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we feel like we have the authorities we need to go after elements of al Qaeda and those self-identified enemies of the United States and our allies and our interests, and we're doing that very aggressively in order to protect the American people and our interests.
Q: And on Abu Ghaith, what role did the government of Iran play, if any, in the sequence of events that led ultimately to his capture?
MR. EARNEST: For details about the sequence of events, I'd refer you to the Department of Justice. I just don't have anything on that for you.
Q: You just told April about what the President wants to talk to the Democratic caucuses next week. Can you tell us what he wants to talk to the Republicans about? And will he nuance his message between the House and the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: I unnecessarily limited the scope of my answer to April's narrowly tailored question. That's not a critique of your question. It's more a critique of my answer, to be honest with you. (Laughter.) I don't know if that makes you feel better or not. I'm not sure it makes me feel better. (Laughter.)
Suffice it to say the President is interested in talking about the range of his priorities to both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. That includes, first and foremost, strengthening our economy and putting in place policies that will expand economic opportunity for the middle class in this country. That's the President's focal point. That's his North Star, as he described in the State of the Union. And he's going to spend some time talking about that to both Democrats and Republicans. I think there are a lot of members of both caucuses, Democrats and Republicans, who share that policy priority.
The President will also talk to them about some of the other things that we've talked about today: a balanced approach to deficit reduction; finally reforming our broken immigration system; reducing gun violence in communities all across the country. So there are -- I would also anticipate, actually, that the President will talk about his upcoming trip to Israel. I know that there are a number of members of Congress, again, in both parties, that are very interested in the President's trip.
So he'll have a pretty long list when he goes up there to visit with them, and I think it will be a constructive opportunity for dialogue.
Q: Any nuance between the House and the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q: And then just very quickly, anything you can tell us about Labor? We're hearing that you might be close to announcing something there?
MR. EARNEST: I don't. I didn't walk out with any personnel announcements today, so I'm afraid I can't offer you any guidance on that.
Q: Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Victoria.
Q: Has the President spoken to the President of South Korea about North Korea's threats?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any specific calls to read out to you, but I can read you something about North Korea's threats, if you'd like.
Q: Okay. Is he going to? Could you also let us know that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any trips to tell you about right now.
Q: No, is he going to talk with her?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, is he going to make any phone calls? I don't know.
MR. EARNEST: If he does, I would anticipate that would be the kind of thing we might read out.
Q: I understand.
Q: Or not.
MR. EARNEST: Or not. (Laughter.)
Onto a more serious subject: North Korea's threats are not helpful. We have consistently called on North Korea to improve relations with its neighbors, including South Korea. This is a moment for the North to seize the opportunity presented by a new government in Seoul, not to threaten it. Further provocative actions would only increase Pyongyang's isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear and missile program is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.
Q: On the meeting with Jewish leaders last night, I'm not going to ask you to confirm quotes coming out of that, but one of them in the Post said -- quoted the President as saying, "I'm not going to beat my chest" to prove his toughness on the issue of the Iran nuclear -- on the Iran nuclear issue. It seemed to indicate to some that there was a quite sharp questioning of him about his commitment. Is he frustrated at this point that maybe some people haven't gotten that message?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think so. I think the President has been pretty clear about this. I think it's one of the reasons that we have such a strong relationship with Israel, is because we have demonstrated our unity with them. We stand shoulder to shoulder with them as we demonstrate to the Iranians that it's important for them to live up to their international obligations, to their obligations to the United Nations, to their obligations to the IAEA. And it remains a pretty bright red line for the President that Iran should not attain a nuclear weapon.
So we've been very clear about this, and I don't think there's really any misunderstanding about that.
Q: Is the red line as bright as it is for Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I'm having trouble deciphering the different shades of brightness there.
So, Cheryl, I'm going to give you the last one.
Q: Thanks. Just any update on what date the President's budget will be out?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates on that, but weeks ahead.
Let me read to you the --
Q: Josh, we never heard back as to what cuts the White House is making here in its own personnel, in its own budget here as it relates to sequestration. We've heard a couple of times this week that we're going to get those details; we haven't gotten those details. When are we going to hear anything besides the White House tours being --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that there are a number of ways that the White House also has to deal with the consequences of the sequester. The White House and the components of the White House are affected by the sequester in a way that's similar to other government agencies. I can tell you that we're making significant -- that we're also faced with making some tough decisions when it comes to ongoing projects, when it comes to purchasing equipment and supplies. But we're also a pretty personnel-heavy agency, if you will. So that means that there will be agencies -- that there will be employees of components who work here at the White House that will be facing pay cuts, that will be facing furloughs.
And again, this is the result of a policy that Democrats and Republicans agree is really bad. It's bad for our economy. It's a bad way to run a government. It doesn't create jobs and it doesn't do that much to reduce the deficit over the long term. So there's got to be a good alternative.
Q: But those will be made public? Those details will be made public?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the Office of Management and Budget has put forward a variety of charts that indicate the impact of the budget -- of the sequester on the budget, including the budget of the White House. And what I have described to you is the practical impact of that to help you get a sense of what behind the numbers is the tangible impact here. And that means that there will be some projects that are suspended. It means that there will be some supply purchases that are put off. And it's going to have an impact on the personnel here at the White House -- pay cuts, furloughs and other things.
Q: In the West Wing?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry?
Q: In the West Wing as well?
MR. EARNEST: In the West Wing as well. Everybody who works at the White House.
Okay. On that happy note, I'm going to read the week ahead.
Q: Is that where Jay is today? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry? (Laughter.) He's hard at work today.
On Saturday, the President will deliver remarks at the Gridiron dinner, at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C. I suspect many of you will be there to see him.
On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
This is an interesting one: The President, on Tuesday, will welcome His Majesty the Sultan of Brunei to the White House. The United States and Brunei have strong bilateral relations and have a shared interest in working together to ensure the continued peace, stability, and prosperity of the Asia Pacific region. The President looks forward to discussing preparations for the East Asia Summit and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, which will be held in Brunei in October. The President will also consult with His Majesty on a broad range of strategic and economic issues of mutual concern.
Later on Tuesday, the President will travel to Capitol Hill to meet with the Senate Democratic Caucus.
On Wednesday, the President will travel back to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican Conference.
And then, on Thursday, the President will travel to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Senate Republican Conference and then back over to meet with the House Democratic Caucus. The timing of all those meetings I believe is still up in the air, so we'll have more details on that exact timing when those meetings are closer.
And then, as I mentioned, on Friday, the President will travel to Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, for an event focused on American energy. More details on that trip will be released early next week.
And with that, I hope you all have a great weekend.
Q: Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
END 1:33 P.M. EST
* The relevant Congressional leadership were informed about the indictment of Abu Ghayth and the decision to try him in New York.
Josh Earnest, Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/303979