Josh Earnest photo

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest

December 06, 2016

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Tampa, Florida

12:32 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Tampa, Florida, home of Central Command and Special Operations Command. The President will have an opportunity before his speech today to spend some time with the military leadership on the base to get a briefing from them on some of the important work that they're doing around the world to keep us safe.

He'll also have an opportunity to briefly spend some time with some of our servicemembers -- rank-and-file servicemembers, as well. And you will all have an opportunity to see him briefly address them and shake some hands before he moves to the venue where he'll deliver his more formal speech. And there will be a number of servicemembers in attendance at this speech, as well.

You all got an update on the speech from the Deputy National Security Advisor yesterday afternoon, so I won't review all of that, although I'm happy to take any questions you may have about that in advance of the speech. The speech has not changed significantly since all of you heard from Ben yesterday.

The one thing I did want to point out before I get to your questions is, in addition, the administration has also put forward what we're describing as the legal and policy transparency report. And the President will discuss in the speech why that report is so important. It puts in one place the legal foundation of the national security strategy and operations that President Obama has ordered over the last several years. There are many features of that strategy that benefit the American people. One of them is ensuring that those programs and those operations are grounded in our values. And President Obama has talked at length over the course of the last eight years about how important it is for our national security strategy to live up to the central values that we hold dear in this country and that, frankly, we're fighting for around the world.

There are many people on the President's staff who contributed to the production of this report. There's one person that I want to single out, though, and that's Chris Fonzone. Chris is the legal advisor to the National Security Council. Chris has served in a variety of senior legal jobs on the national security team both at the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense before joining the National Security Council.

And he spent countless hours working an interagency process to ensure that this report could be both compiled and released publicly. Obviously, there's a lot of sensitive information that's included in this report. And he did remarkable work. And his skill and professionalism in carrying out that work is worthy of recognition, and that's what I'm trying to do here.

So with that out of the way, why don't we take your questions on this topic or anything else that might be on your mind this morning.

Q: Is that report a rules of engagement report for the military or for intelligence operators?

MR. EARNEST: This is essentially a report that lays out the administration's legal thinking about the military strategy and counterterrorism operations that this administration has carried out over the last eight years. And President Obama has talked about the legal underpinnings of this strategy in a variety of settings over the last eight years. And the idea here was to put together a report that would essentially, in one place, help the American people and people around the world understand exactly how the operations that we're carrying out are consistent with U.S. law and consistent with our values.

So one prominent example of this is -- it includes a discussion of how we definitively have ruled out the use of torture and interrogation. It also talks about the steps that the President has taken to provide a legal architecture for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in carrying out counterterrorism operations. When President Obama took office, there was a lot of legal ambiguity about how these programs could be used to keep the American people safe. And the President believed -- has long believed that those programs would be more effective and inspire greater public confidence in the effective use of those programs if we were more transparent about the use of those programs and if we were clearer about the legal underpinnings of those programs.

So that's what we have done in this report, and the President has essentially made clear that this is a report that will now be produced on an annual basis by the administration and by administrations moving forward.

Q: Are you also trying to give President-elect Donald Trump kind of a firm grounding of the legal underpinnings for your strategy?

MR. EARNEST: Well, to just be crystal-clear about this, as was suggested by the way that I described the effort to produce this report, this was not something that we had scrambled to produce in the aftermath of the election. This is a report that the President long envisioned making public, and it is his view that this is the kind of report that will not just support the policymaking of the next administration, it is likely to be a report that will be useful in guiding the policymaking of multiple administrations moving forward. This provides a legal foundation that future policymakers can draw on as they devise and adapt our counterterrorism and national security strategies to the modern threat environment.

And so the idea is that future presidents can use this venue to help the American people and even help the world understand exactly what the legal justification is, what the legal underpinnings are for carrying out these programs. And the President believes that it's important to codify that legal reasoning because it makes these programs more durable, it ensures that these programs live up to the values that we embody as a country. As soon as those values are called into question, the kind of moral authority that we bring to these operations and we bring to these arguments around the world is called into question and is even threatened. And so much of our strength is strength that we draw on from our close cooperation and alliances with countries around the world, and our ability to strengthen those alliances is called into question if our reasoning for carrying out these operations is called into question.

Q: Why release this report at the end of your administration? I mean, doesn't that kind of diminish the significance of it? I mean, wouldn't it have been more useful for the American people to know about the legal framework for your actions while they were going on? Presumably, the next administration -- yes, they could use it, or they could completely trash it and decide to do something different, or try to take a different look at it. So I guess I'm trying to see what is the -- if the next administration doesn't use it, then what's the point of it, what's the force?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Ayesha, the first thing to understand is that we live in a nation of laws, and these are laws that are applied that constrain the authority of the executive branch. That's how it should be.

So hopefully we will not encounter a situation in which the next administration or subsequent administration has roughshod over those laws. But particularly when we're in an environment where we are at war against terrorists, there's a temptation to do that. And the President is using this opportunity to lay out his thinking for why we should resist that temptation.

The second thing I would want to make clear is, many of these arguments are not being presented for the first time in this report. The President has spoken at length in a variety of settings about the legal underpinnings of these programs, about bringing greater -- the process for bringing greater transparency for these programs. As we've issued reports, for example, about additional drone strikes carried out by the United States military, just setting that example and setting that precedent is useful in trying to model and establish guidelines for subsequent administrations.

So a lot of the work that we have been doing over the years does serve to support the case that we are making to the American public and to the incoming administration about the value of drawing on these values and principles as they design a counterterrorism strategy that is consistent with the threat environment that we face.

So the last thing I'll say about this is that this report is being released in conjunction with the regular notification that the administration provides to Congress pursuant to the War Powers report, and that is something that we've done on a semiannual basis. And so that seems like an appropriate timing for us to not just update Congress about the operations that are ongoing around the world, but also to supplement that report with this policy and legal guidance that helps Congress, that helps the American people, and that helps people around the world understand the legal justification for carrying out these operations.

Q: Josh, on the very sensitive issue of the use of torture, which has been highly debated during the campaign, to what extent will the President's speech be also a message to the President-elect?

MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned before, Jerome, this is a speech that President Obama was prepared to give before the election. And the President does view this as an opportunity to lay out how the American people have benefitted from the counterterrorism strategy that this country has pursued over the last eight years, and this is a strategy that relies on strengthening our alliances, drawing upon our values, and enhancing the capacity of our partners on the ground in countries around the world to be at the front lines of this fight.

One example that the President will cite is the experience that we've had in Iraq. The previous administration had a strategy of invading Iraq and overrunning the Iraqi military, disbanding the Iraqi military, and essentially putting U.S. servicemembers on the front lines of that fight. That required a substantial commitment of resources, both financial resources of taxpayers but also the personal resources of the United States military.

President Obama envisioned a vastly different strategy -- a strategy where we demanded political accountability from the central government in Iraq, demanded that they pursue the kind of inclusive governing agenda that would be required to unite their country to take that fight to the terrorists on their own. And that is what we have seen them do. They have done that with the strong support of the United States. As a result, we have succeeded in rolling back ISIL. We've rolled them out of territory -- about half the territory that they previously controlled. They are under intense pressure in cities like Mosul and in Raqqa. And we have mobilized the international community to support that effort, and that has strengthened the United States.

It's also notable that we've been able to do all of that at a cost of about $10 billion over the last two years. That's a substantial sum of money. But at the height of the Iraq War that was pioneered by President Bush, that was costing $10 billion a month. So the strategy that President Obama has put in place is more effective. It keeps us safer. It has fewer men and women -- American men and women in harm's way. And it costs American taxpayers a whole lot less. It also has the benefit of being sustainable.

As the Iraqi security forces make additional progress in securing their own country, once they've driven out ISIL, they can also take responsibility for policing and securing their country. And that is something that previously was left to U.S. servicemembers. And when we tried to transfer that authority to Iraqi security forces, it didn't work.

So that's just one example of the kind of argument that the President will be making that I think will be persuasive to Americans in both parties who believe that the Commander-in-Chief has a responsibility to the American people to prioritize our national security, to prioritize the wise use of our military resources, and to prioritize the judicious use of taxpayer dollars.

Q: Josh, but as part of this transparency effort, Representative Schiff in the last couple days has talked about the release of the Senate torture report and the possibility that you guys would sort of declassify more of that than came out in the executive summary that the Senate provided. Is that anything that the President is considering or that we might hear about today?

MR. EARNEST: I would not anticipate that you'd hear much from the President on this today. But this is a report that was released in the context of the Obama administration. It was produced by Congress. And a declassified portion of the report, including the executive summary, was released. And it did provide extensive information about some of the tactics that were used by the previous administration that, in the mind of the President, at least, are inconsistent with the kinds of values that we cherish in this country.

And the President believes that ensuring that our counterterrorism programs are rooted in our values makes those programs more effective, more sustainable, it inspires greater confidence in those programs, and it makes it easier for us to strengthen our alliances. Because ultimately our ability to fight terrorism successfully is going to require effective cooperation with our allies and partners around the world.

Q: Can I ask about the budget? And I've got three things, so I'll try to go pretty quick on it. The first is, Paul Ryan said today that he anticipates the CR going to April 28th. That's barely not May, which you guys have sort of objected to in the past, but I'm wondering if that's an acceptable sort of timeline, or if you had carried the same objection.

MR. EARNEST: Justin, they have not released the text of the CR, and so I'm not going to comment in a lot of detail about the proposal until we've had a chance to take a look at it for ourselves.

I will just reiterate, though, the significant concerns that were raised by Secretary Ash Carter, who said that the extension of a continuing resolution all the way until May would hamstring the ability of the Department of Defense to do everything that they believe is necessary to keep the American people safe.

So that's not a feature -- that's not an advertised feature of their proposal that is appealing to the Obama administration. And it's something that our national security professionals are quite concerned about. But I'm going to reserve judgment on the bill until we've had a chance to take a look at it.

Q: And also, talk about a rider that would help General Mattis and his confirmation hearings by sort of clearing the waiver process now -- is that something that -- Senate Democrats have sort of voiced opposition to that. Is that something that the White House would oppose to if it was added to the CR?

MR. EARNEST: I've heard some rumors that there's the potential this could be included in the CR, but we'll take a look on what they put forward -- we'll take a look at what they put forward before we pass judgment on that specific proposal.

Q: And then finally, there seems to be some Democrat-on-Democrat crime with the water bill right now. Senator Boxer said that Republicans have added essentially a poison pill. I'm wondering if you guys agree with that assessment. This is regarding sort of the northern California-to-southern California water allocation and dam building environmental concerns, that sort of thing.

MR. EARNEST: We have been briefed on this measure. I can tell you in general that we continue to review the bill. But based on what we know so far, we don't support the kinds of proposals that have been put forward to address some of the water resources issues in California right now.

So we don't support that measure that's been put forward, but we'll take a look at the bill in its totality. And there's more of those -- more proposals that are included in the bill that we need to review.

The thing I want to hasten to add, though, is Republicans should not use the disagreement in California as an excuse to break their promise that they made to the people of Flint to provide resources to address the situation with the water supply in Flint, Michigan. This is a promise that Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate made to provide resources to address that situation before the end of this year.

We're nearing the end of the first week in December. And we know that plenty of Republicans are hoping to get out of town and begin their holiday celebrations at the end of this week. They should not do so until they have fulfilled their promise to the people of Flint who are waiting for the United States Congress to actually do something to address the difficult situation that they're facing there.

Q: Josh, President-elect Trump said this morning that he was going to cancel the Air Force One project. He said it was way too expensive. You all obviously have administered that project. What's your reaction to that? Also, today, in the Washington Post there was a long story about a Pentagon savings report that the Washington Post reported was suppressed by this administration.

MR. EARNEST: Well, let's talk about Air Force One first. I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense for the particulars of the procurement contract. Some of the statistics that have been cited, shall we say, don't appear to reflect the nature of the financial arrangement between Boeing and the Department of Defense. But I would acknowledge that these kinds of arrangements are rather complicated, so I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense for a greater explanation.

A couple of things that are worth understanding. The first is, all of you have spent many hours on Air Force One and recognize the unique technical requirements that are part of Air Force One. And I think the American people would expect that future U.S. Presidents would benefit from unique and upgraded capabilities while they're traveling on Air Force One and representing the interests of the United States around the world.

Second, I would just make clear that the work that the Department of Defense has been doing on this project with Boeing comes at the recommendation of national security experts and other technical experts offering them advice about the kinds of capabilities that should be included in an updated aircraft.

This Air Force One that we're currently flying on is in great shape thanks to the skill and professionalism of the men and women of the United States Air Force. It is, however, an aircraft that is nearing the end of its projected life. And this administration has done the important work of ensuring that we are planning ahead so that future Presidents can benefit from a modern presidential aircraft in the same way that this President has benefitted from it.

I would just point out that the updated Air Force One is not scheduled to come online until 2023. So this is a longer-range plan. But ultimately, the planning work that we have done on behalf of future Presidents is something that the next administration will have to decide whether or not to carry forward.

Q: Josh, your administration itself, President Obama cancelled the Marine One project when he came into office. How is this really any different from what you all did initially?

MR. EARNEST: Well, that Marine One project is one that was further in development, and it was clear that the expected cost was much greater than originally expected. And that was based on how far the project had advanced at that point. Our country was also in rather historically difficult financial circumstances. And what President Obama did was he basically said that the process of procuring presidential helicopters should be restarted.

So it wasn't a situation that President Obama entirely canceled the program. He essentially said the way that it's been working thus far is too expensive, so he asked professionals at the Department of Defense to go back, reinitiate the program, and see if they could get the cost projections under control.

And again, I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense about this. The way that the process has been working over the last seven years or so has factored in the significant technical requirements of a new presidential helicopter while also keeping costs under control. And I expect that that effective management of that program will result in a new presidential helicopter that President-elect Trump will be glad that he has.

With regard to your other question about The Washington Post report today, let me just quibble a little bit with some of the language in the story and in your question about the report being buried. This is --

Q: Suppressed.

MR. EARNEST: Suppressed. Suppressed.

This is a report that Defense News wrote an article on back in January of 2015. So it's possible that it's an extraordinary compliment that it is due to the fine men and women who write for Defense News. It also may be an indication that this is a document that was available to other members of the public, including other journalists who carefully cover the Pentagon.

I'll also point out that, at least as of this morning, the report was available to anybody in the world that had a live Internet connection and a relatively modern Web browser because it was available at the Pentagon website.

More generally, I would point out that there are many self-described defense hawks and fiscal conservatives in the United States Congress who are blocking Pentagon-recommended reforms that would strengthen our military and save taxpayers billions of dollars. That's the real scandal. That's worthy of front-page treatment on The Washington Post.

And when you consider the recommendations that this administration has put forward, including urging for years to Congress to re-initiate a BRAC process that would save taxpayers billions of dollars -- right now the Pentagon estimates that there's 22 percent more infrastructure than the Pentagon actually needs to keep us safe. The administration has long encouraged the phase-out of A-10 military aircraft that are in the process of being replaced by more modern equipment. The administration has encouraged slowing down the production of the littoral combat ship until more upgrades can come online. That will save taxpayers significant sums of money in maintenance costs in future years.

I could give you some additional examples, but I'll stop there. All of this is an indication that there are proposals that this administration has forwarded to Congress for years, included in our budget, that would strengthen our national defense and save taxpayers billions that are ignored by Congress, ignored by Republicans in Congress who claim to care about our national security and who claim to want to reduce government spending. It's scandalous and worthy of careful consideration.

Q: Chancellor Merkel endorsed a ban of a full-veil burqa today. You guys have talked before in the past about upholding certain liberal traditions. What reaction do you have to what Chancellor Merkel said?

MR. EARNEST: I've seen the news of the announcement, but I haven't seen the details of what she said about it or how she described her thinking. What I'll just say is, here in the United States we obviously go to great lengths to protect the constitutional rights of every American to worship God in the manner that they choose. In fact, this country was founded by people who came to the United States seeking a country where they could worship God in the manner that they chose without interference from the government.

So this is a value that President Obama feels quite strongly about. This is a value of religious freedom that I think the vast majority of Americans feel quite strongly about. But I can't speak to the specific decision that was made by Chancellor Merkel today.

Anybody else? We'll see you on the ground, guys. Thank you.

END 12:58 P.M. EST

Josh Earnest, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320218

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