Josh Earnest photo

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest

February 03, 2016

Islamic Society of Baltimore
Baltimore, Maryland

11:52 A.M. EST

MR. EARNEST: So I had the opportunity to sit in on the first part of the President's roundtable discussion with some of the Muslim leaders that the President was meeting with prior to his speech today.

It was an opportunity for him, as you saw, to visit with Muslims from all walks of life, with a variety of experiences. But all of them do reflect the diversity of our country, certainly the racial and ethnic diversity of our country. But they all have their own story to tell about the way that they contribute to and enrich the communities in which they live. So the President will certainly enjoy the opportunity to hear from them. That discussion is ongoing, but I wanted to step out and have a chance to speak with all of you before the President's speech.

So with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

Q: Can I ask about the Zika virus?

MR. EARNEST: Sure.

Q: The WHO has said it's concerned about a potential new way it's transmitted. And I'm wondering whether this changes anything for the United States and its response and its strategy. The Dallas case I'm referring to.

MR. EARNEST: Well, as you've heard me say over the last couple of weeks that we've been talking about this, there is still a lot of scientific work that needs to be done to understand a lot about this disease, including its connection to a particular birth defect, but also how it's transmitted. At this point, our understanding of exactly the impact of the disease, though, has not changed. The symptoms that are associated with this virus are relatively mild, and they last only a week or so. And they only appear in about one in five people who contracts the virus.

The particular concern that we have is about the potential link to a birth defect. In the case that you mention, in Texas, that does not appear to be an issue. But we're certainly going to rely on the collection of data and the analysis of our scientific experts to guide the American public and provide them with the information that they need to protect themselves.

Q: Should Americans be more worried about potentially contracting it, particularly women who may be considering having a child, given that there's this potential new route of transmission?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as we have more information about what people can do to protect themselves, then we're certainly going to share that information. But as you point out, it is important for people to understand exactly what those risks are. If you're a man, the risks are relatively minimal. The risks are associated with contracting a virus that has relatively mild symptoms. But we do want to communicate with the American public. And as we have more information to share about the steps that they can take to keep them and their families safe, then we'll share that information.

Q: Josh, I wanted to ask about Libya. The Secretary of State seems to have indicated that the President has ruled out any participation in a U.N. ground force in Libya should the national unity government be established. I was wondering, has the President actually ruled that out? I understand they haven't received any recommendation as yet.

MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did convene his National Security Council a week or two ago to talk about our counter-ISIL efforts. This is something that he does every couple of weeks. And the focus of those discussions is typically on the ongoing efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. But we're mindful of the desire on the part of ISIL's leaders to try to establish a foothold in other countries that are experiencing severe political chaos like they are in Libya.

So there are a number of things that we've done to try to counter that. The first is, we have been working hard to support the U.N.-led effort to bring about the kind of political transition inside of Libya that will allow a national unity government to be established and to stabilize the political situation in that country. I think that's our top priority. But that's a difficult challenge and one that's been ongoing for some time.

The President has not hesitated to order the use of military force, even in Libya, to protect the American people and to counter ISIL. In fact, back in November, the United States military carried out an airstrike where the leading ISIL figure in Libya was taken off the battlefield.

As we move forward, the President will continue to be updated on the potential risks associated with the spread of ISIL into Libya, and he's going to continue to get updates from his team about what they recommend is the best way to counter that threat. I don't have any new announcements to make about decisions the President has or hasn't made. But I think the track record of just the last couple of months I think gives you the opportunity to assess that the President has demonstrated a willingness to take decisive action to protect the American people from ISIL, even in Libya.

Q: Do you think if the national unity government is stood up, which it looks like it will be, is it possible for them to survive without foreign military assistance on the ground and boots on the ground?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing that we'll do is, as the national unity government is put together, we certainly are going to be very respectful of the sovereignty of that government. So that will be the first thing. I think that the national unity government, to the extent that they request the assistance and support of the United States and other Western governments, they can count on it. We understand that the stability and even success of the national unity government in Libya has national security consequences for the United States and our allies, because we know that ISIL is looking to capitalize on countries that governed by unstable governments. And so the more that we can bolster the capacity of the national unity government in Libya to govern that country, the better off we're going to be.

I'm confident that part of that support will include cooperation on a range of national security issues. What form that kind of support or assistance will take at this point is too early to say. But if there is a need -- again, as we demonstrated back in November, if there is a need for the United States to take unilateral action to protect the American people, the President won't hesitate to do that.

Q: Josh, can I ask you about the visit here today? There has been criticism in a variety of outlets about this particular mosque and its potential ties to extremist groups. Given that focus, does the White House still feel good about the vetting process of selecting this particular mosque to visit? Are there any questions about how this particular site was chosen?

MR. EARNEST: I know that there has been some criticism. But I think you all have had the chance to spend a little time here, just in the last few minutes. I think you can see that there is -- that this is an institution that is making a valuable contribution to its community. There is a school here that's educating children. There are medical services provided in this facility. And this is a faith community that regularly speaks out against extremism.

And what the President is here to do today is to affirm the rightful role that the people who worship at this mosque have in our country, and that our commitment to protecting their religious liberty is quite firm.

And I think the President can make a pretty powerful statement to that effect just by showing up. But he also brought along a speech where he intends to communicate that not just to those who are in the room, but to those who will be watching his remarks around the country and even around the world.

Q: But you don't have concerns that the message he's trying to deliver gets overshadowed by this pulled focus of these criticisms and concerns that are being raised?

MR. EARNEST: No. There is no one who has been covering politics over the last year who is surprised to see that the President's visit to a mosque is going to be criticized by the President's political opponents. We're not concerned about that at all.

If anything, if it elevates the President's visit and elevates the President's message of protecting religious liberty and affirming the rightful and meaningful contribution of Muslim Americans to our country, then our opponents should be keep it up.

Q: Should he have come earlier considering rising levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric in this country and rising anti-Muslim hate crimes?

MR. EARNEST: I think the timing of the President's visit is good. And it does serve as an opportunity for him to send a meaningful message to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Q: Can you describe the process by which the roundtable participants were chosen?

MR. EARNEST: What we sought to do is to bring together a diversity of voices, people with a variety of perspectives, different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and even people who practice their Muslim faith in different ways. All of them know what they have in common is they've all made an important contribution to the community in which they live, and that makes them important representatives of how much Muslim Americans across the country have to contribute to the communities in which they live.

Q: Do you know if any of the people in the roundtable were victims of bias or discrimination or any behavior of that sort?

MR. EARNEST: I think I will leave it to them to tell their stories. And you obviously have all of their names, and we can help connect you with them directly. But if those individuals want to tell their stories, they can do that. Why don't I just say in general that part of the discussion that the President had earlier today did talk about some of the stereotypes and bias that many Muslim Americans are subjected to.

Q: The President is expected to talk a little bit about national security here, as well, as I understand it. Is that right?

MR. EARNEST: Yes, the President certainly will talk about national security while he's here as well.

Q: Does the fact that he's doing that not encourage this bias? I mean, what does national security got to do with these people? Why is every time somebody opens their mouth about Muslims you have to have some kind of (inaudible) about national security?

MR. EARNEST: I think that's a good question. And I think, Andrew, what the President is hoping to reinforce is a message that you've heard from us before, which is that we know that there are extremist organizations like ISIL that are seeking to infiltrate Muslim communities both in the United States and around the world. And the question is, as somebody who has a responsibility to protect the American people, the question the President asks is what is going to be our most effective strategy for countering that. And the strategy that is proposed by some is to automatically assume that every Muslim in America is a potential terrorist. That actually is going to undermine our strategy to keep the American people safe.

The President believes, rather, that we should enter into a partnership with the Muslim community. After all, it is leaders in Muslim communities who, as much as anyone else, are interested in countering the efforts of terrorist organizations like ISIL from radicalizing vulnerable members of their community. So why not work with them in that effort both to safeguard their communities but also to safeguard the country.

We'll do a couple more. Go ahead.

Q: Any thought of inviting Republicans today?

MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure exactly how the list -- I think the list was put together in terms of members of Congress who were invited. We invited the local congressional delegation as well as two Muslim members of Congress. I'm not aware of any interest that was expressed by Republicans to attend the event, but I'm confident that they were not intentionally excluded.

Q: Yesterday you called Mitch McConnell a committed supporter of TPP. He went up on the Hill and said that there were a number of flaws with the bill and he wasn't sure if he could support it. What's the kind of disjoint there?

MR. EARNEST: I think I was -- I tried to be careful in my comments, and if -- I needed to be more precise than I should have been. The point that I have made -- and I know I've said this a number of times -- we know that people like Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan and many other Republicans in the United States Congress are supportive of agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would, for example, cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that are imposed by other countries.

I'll leave it to Leader McConnell to render his judgment on this specific agreement. We certainly are going to advocate to him and to Democrats and Republicans alike that this is a good agreement that is clearly in the best interest of our country and our economy. But I'll let him say whether or not he supports it. I think there will be a lot in here -- based on his public comments in the past, I think there's a lot in this agreement for him to like.

Q: And then, Ukraine's economy minister resigned today. He said he was under pressure to appoint people who would have blocked some anti-corruption practices that the U.S. has backed. Obviously it's the latest sign of instability in the Poroshenko government. Do you guys have a response to that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, there's no denying that the Ukrainian government is under intense pressure because of Russia's destabilizing activities in their country. And that's why we have pushed hard for the implementation of the Minsk agreement to try to resolve that instability.

But what's also true is that we have repeatedly encouraged the Ukrainian government to consider and move forward in implementing needed reforms in their government and in their economy. Much of the assistance that we have provided has been contingent on the successful implementation of some of those reforms. We're pleased with the kind of progress that the Ukrainian government has made in implementing those reforms. But there's more work to do, and they can count on the support and partnership of the United States as they implement those reforms.

Q: A quick one on the Brexit, just because it's so hot right now in Britain. What is the White House position on how it would affect the U.S. relationship with Britain if the UK leaves the EU? And what would it mean for the economy and NATO?

MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, this will be a decision for the British people to decide -- or a decision for the British people to make. And I know that Prime Minister Cameron has made some commitments to the British people about national consideration of this question. The U.S. position has long been that we benefit as a country and as a broader NATO alliance from a strong UK being a member of a strong EU. And all of that is something that we want to encourage.

But in terms of the kinds of decisions that need to be made by the British people about the best kind of relationship, that's a decision that they should make. And it sounds like they'll have an opportunity to do so relatively soon.

Q: Valerie Jarrett was in the roundtable. Was there anyone else of note from the White House who was in the roundtable?

MR. EARNEST: There's some other White House staffers, including Melissa Rogers, who is the Director of Faith Outreach at the White House.

Why don't we let you guys go and get a seat for the President's remarks. Nice to see you guys.

END 12:07 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/311929

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