3/25/15: White House Press Briefing

Mr. Earnest: Good
afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay in
getting started this morning. A lot going on. The Press: What is this? Mr. Earnest: I’m sorry? The Press: There’s
a lot going on. What’s going on? Mr. Earnest: There’s a PBS crew
that’s spending a little time getting a little look at
the White House operations. The Press: And you, right? Mr. Earnest: A little bit of
that unfortunately involved — The Press: And Schultz? (laughter) Mr. Earnest:
All right, so, Jim, we can go straight to questions,
hopefully that don’t involve the television crew that’s
following me around today. The Press: Well, we have some
news out of Yemen today. The President is on the run,
apparently, at sea, on a boat. On Monday, Josh, you said that
there continues to be ongoing security cooperation between the
United States and the national security infrastructure
of the Hadi government. Is there anybody that you
guys can coordinate with now? What’s the relationship today? Mr. Earnest: Well, Jim, let me
start by saying that the United States continues to strongly
condemn the recent offensive military actions undertaken
in Yemen that have targeted President Hadi. The actions of the Houthis and
former President Saleh have caused widespread instability
and chaos that threatens the well-being of all Yemenis. The international community has
spoken clearly through U.N. Council resolutions and in other
fora that the violent takeover of Yemen by an armed
faction is unacceptable, and that the only legitimate
transition can be accomplished through political negotiations
and a consensus agreement among all of the parties, based on
the GCC Initiative and National Dialogue outcomes. So we believe that there is a
path here that can be pursued to try to resolve the differences
among the parties. However, that path cannot be
pursued as long as you have the Houthis working with former
President Saleh to foment a lot of instability in the country. And so we would call on them to
stop that instability and that violence, and cooperate with
this U.N.-led process to resolve the differences
among all the sides. The Press: Has there been any
direct communication between the administration and the former
President to communicate that directly? Mr. Earnest: I don’t have any
telephone calls to read out at this point. The Press: But again, to the
question of what kind of coordination is
taking place at all, is there any Hadi infrastructure
left that the U.S. can deal with? Mr. Earnest: Jim, as I
acknowledged when we talked about this earlier in the week,
the kind of coordination that the United States has
traditionally enjoyed with Yemeni security forces is
certainly not enhanced by the temporary relocation of U.S. personnel from Yemen. And we would prefer to be
operating in that country, but we do continue to
have the capability, based on ongoing communications
with government personnel, but also based on assets and
resources that the United States maintains in the region. We have the ability to continue
to apply pressure on the extremists that are seeking to
capitalize on the chaos in Yemen to establish a safe haven, and
plan and potentially execute attacks against the West. We are going to continue
to apply pressure to those individuals. And as I mentioned
earlier in the week, Yemen is a dangerous place
and it’s the reason that U.S. personnel were temporarily
relocated from Yemen. But Yemen is also a dangerous
place for those extremist leaders because they are still
in the crosshairs of U.S. security forces and other
security forces that are deployed to protect the American
people and to protect American interests around the globe. The Press: I wanted to ask you
about the Medicare doc-fix. The President just a little
while ago said, “As we speak, Congress is working to fix the
Medicare physician payment system. I’ve got my pen ready to sign
a good, bipartisan bill.” Was the President endorsing
this specific legislation that appears to be headed
to the House floor? Mr. Earnest: Well, Jim, what the
President was articulating was his support for a genuinely
bipartisan agreement that would address this vexing policy issue
that for I think nearly two decades now Congress
has been grappling with. There does appear to be emerging
a bipartisan compromise in the House, so we certainly would
be supportive of a genuinely bipartisan effort. You’ve heard me talk quite a bit
over the last month or so about how Congress will not succeed in
efforts to move important pieces of legislation
along party lines. But if Congress is willing to
work in genuinely bipartisan fashion, Republicans will find
that there are some Democrats in Congress who are interested in
working with them to do the right thing for the country,
and they’ll certainly find a Democratic President in the
White House who is eager to work with them to make progress
for the American people. So the President is supportive
of the efforts to work in bipartisan fashion. And if something bipartisan
does emerge from the House, that would be good news. We also understand that there
is a bipartisan interest in the bill in the Senate. There are some in the Senate who
believe that the bill could be further improved beyond
the current proposal, through the amendment process. Senator McConnell spent a
lot of time talking about the importance of the
amendment process, and we certainly would be
supportive of individuals being given the opportunity to offer
up amendments that are directed toward improving
the legislation. But we are going to be
supportive of a bipartisan process, particularly if we can
address a problem that leaders in Washington for two decades
now have just sought to sort of kick the can down the road. The Press: The bill that
Minority Leader Pelosi appears to be supporting in the House
still has troubled some women’s rights advocates — Planned
Parenthood and NARAL — because of some item in that language
contained in that proposed bill. Is that something that would
trouble the President if that were included? Mr. Earnest: Well, Jim, I am
certainly not an expert on these kinds of issues that have
sought detailed attention from legislators not just in the
context of this legislation, but in the context of the
legislative process for decades now. The good news is that one of
those experts is Nancy Pelosi. She is the Minority Leader of —
she’s the Democratic Leader in the House, and she is somebody
that has an impeccable record of standing up for the right of
women to choose and make their own decisions about
their health care. So I don’t have an
administration view to share with you on that
specific language, but we certainly put a lot
of stock in the views of the Minority Leader on this. The Press: And lastly, could you
comment on the news that Senator Ted Cruz is looking at possibly
obtaining health care insurance through a health care exchange
under the Affordable Care Act? Mr. Earnest: Well, what I will
say is simply that if those reports are true, then what he
will find is the same thing that millions of Americans across
the country have found, which is that there
are good, quality, affordable health care plans
that are available because of the Affordable Care Act. And these are plans that will
ensure that people are no longer discriminated against because
they have a preexisting condition. These are plans that will
ensure that individuals are not discriminated against just
because they are women. These are plans that will ensure
that the recipients have access to free preventative services,
like free mammograms and free birth control. And this is certainly the
experience of millions of Americans across the country,
thanks to the Affordable Care Act. And it will be the experience
of anybody that wants to go shopping on the D.C.
marketplace as well. The Press: You don’t seem to be
taking the bait for the ironic moment that this represents. Mr. Earnest: I have noticed that
a number of other people have pointed out the irony. I’m seeking to merely point out
the common experience that it seems that the Cruz
family may be sharing in. Julia. The Press: Josh, can the U.S. confirm President Hadi’s
whereabouts at this moment? Mr. Earnest: I’m not in
a position to do that. But I have my hands full
confirming the whereabouts of one world leader. I’ll rely on all of you to
confirm the whereabouts of others. The Press: Okay. The Iraqi President said today
that the U.S.-led coalition will soon begin airstrikes in Tikrit. Is that — can you
confirm is the U.S. backing that? And has the President made a
decision to support that strike? Mr. Earnest: Well, let me say
a couple things about that. The first is that the United
States and our coalition, for I guess almost
nine months now, has been engaged in an air
campaign against ISIL in locations throughout Iraq. And we have done — we have
taken those airstrikes, again, flying side by side with our
coalition partners and closely coordinating those efforts
with Iraqi security forces. And that’s something that we’ve
done in an impactful way in Iraq. I can tell you that we have
sought to coordinate our efforts at every turn with
Iraqi security forces. And in response to a specific
request from Iraqi security forces, the United States has
been providing ISR support to the ongoing mission in Tikrit. So, ISR stands for intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance — and that is an effort that
we’ve been providing for a few days now. But I don’t have any additional
policy decisions to share with you about additional steps that
we may be taking as it relates to the ongoing
operation in Tikrit. Tommy. The Press: Thanks, Josh. I have two questions for you. First of all, Senator Ted Cruz
— I know you’ve been fielding a lot of questions about him. He recently said that he
wants to repeal Common Core, every word of Common Core. Am I mistaken? I didn’t think Common
Core was a federal law? Mr. Earnest: I’ve seen some
others make that observation. But, again, I have been pretty
disciplined about not responding to the various claims of
potential candidates for President. I guess he is the first
candidate for President. And so I’m not going to be in a
position to respond to any of those claims at this point. The Press: But, I mean, Common
Core — is that correct, Common Core is not something
that can be repealed? Mr. Earnest: We can
look into that for you. The Press: And on my
second question — also, the President was asked
yesterday what Prime Minister Netanyahu could do in order
to regain the President’s confidence in his commitment
to a two-state solution. The President didn’t really
give an answer to that. And so I’m wondering, if the
Prime Minister were to put forth a proposal for a two-state
solution that included those things that are broadly agreed
upon by the United States and others, would that
restore that confidence? Mr. Earnest: Well, Tommy, I
don’t want to go down the road of entertaining a
variety of hypotheticals. But what I will acknowledge is
that the President has been clear — as he was in his
telephone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu — about his
commitment to ensure that the administration keeps open the
lines of communication between U.S. officials and Israeli officials. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has
begun the process of trying to form a government in Israel. And this is part of the
Israeli democratic process. He is the leader of the party
that got the most votes in the most recent election, and is
now working to form a coalition government. And throughout that process, the
United States will continue to keep open the lines of
communication as Prime Minister Netanyahu makes decisions
about forming that government, and then moves to beginning to
implement policy under the guise of that new government to
advance the country in the way that — the interest of his
country in the way that he sees fit. And we’re going to continue to
stay in close touch with them as they do that. The Press: I guess what I’m
getting at — is there any hope, even a remote hope, that by
continuing to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu
on this issue, on his comments about there
not being a two-state solution during his tenure, is there
remote hope that in order to try and convince the United States
and the world that he was just saying that to get
elected or whatever, that that might bring
him back to the table? Is there any hope of that? Mr. Earnest: Well, again,
these are decisions that Prime Minister Netanyahu
himself will have to make, and he will do that after he’s
had an opportunity to form a government and after he’s had an
opportunity to sit down with the cabinet members — cabinet
ministers in that government and begin to formulate a policy and
begin to take some steps that he believes are in the best
interest of the country. But ultimately, those will be
decisions that will be made by the Israeli Prime Minister
based on what the Israeli Prime Minister believes is in the
best interest of his country. What he’ll continue to find in
this President is one that is committed to cooperating when
it comes to providing for the security of the Israeli people. We know that the
steps that the U.S. has taken in terms of
sharing intelligence, in offering military support,
are essential to the security of the Israeli people. And the President has committed
to ensuring that that cooperation continues unabated. Justin. The Press: The President is
headed down to Alabama tomorrow. Local media is saying that he is
expected to talk about payday lending. Coincidentally — maybe, maybe
not — the CFPB is slated to unveil its rules on payday
lending for the first time tomorrow. So I guess is there a connection
between those things, to start off? Mr. Earnest: Stay tuned, Justin. The Press: Well, I’m going to go
ahead and guess that they are linked. (laughter) Mr. Earnest:
Certainly a logical conclusion. The Press: And I wanted
to ask you, actually, before he goes down about — the
CFPB is an independent agency, and there’s been a lot of
questions and certainly accusations from Republicans of
the White House politicizing it. And right now Republicans in
the Senate in their budget are proposing to actually move
funding for the agency back in the congressional
appropriations. So is there a risk of the
President going down there, touting CFPB announcements and
politicizing what’s supposed to be an independent
consumer agency? Mr. Earnest: Well, Justin, I
don’t think there’s any basis for anybody to call into
question the independence of the CFPB. Obviously, it is possible for
the CFPB to be completely independent, but also have the
person who is responsible for the creation of the CFPB
to be proud of their work. And it is true that over the
course of the last few years, the CFPB has lived up to its
billing when it comes to being a forceful advocate for
middle-class families and consumers in Washington. We know that corporate interests
and other moneyed interests in Washington are well
represented here. And the President believed, as
he was working in bipartisan fashion in the Congress to
advance Wall Street reform, that it was important to
create an agency that would be genuinely independent of
the political process, but yet one that could be a
forceful advocate for taxpayers and for consumers and
middle-class families. And the President went out and
found somebody like Richard Cordray who, yes, was a
Democratic officeholder in the state of Ohio, but somebody who
cultivated a reputation as being tough but fair, and somebody who
was able to work in genuinely bipartisan fashion. And he brought his expertise to
this job and has done a terrific job of ensuring that this agency
stepped up to the plate and lived up to its billing. And the President has been
previously supportive of efforts that have been undertaken
by the CFPB, but ultimately, Richard Cordray and the CFPB is
responsible for doing what they think is best, not what the
President thinks is best. But the President is certainly
proud of their work. The President is going
to continue to look for opportunities, as
he has in the past, to make sure that people
understand that the work that they’re doing is important and
isn’t important just because of the way that they look out
for middle-class families, but important in the way that
they act in the interest of our The Press: A lot of Republicans
criticized this effort in
broader economy. particular, saying that payday
loans offer kind of a really helpful tool to people who are
living paycheck to paycheck. It’s an opportunity for them to
pay medical bills or emergency costs that come up. Is there any concern —
or I guess more generally, can you talk about — has the
White House been concerned with how payday loans have been
administered in the past and as a scenario where —
Mr. Earnest: Well, I will say a couple of things. One is, I would encourage you to
check with the experts at the CFPB because they will have a
very well-informed view about reforms that could be in place
to both protect the legitimate interests that some financial
institutions have in providing helpful loans to consumers while
at the same time making sure that the interests of consumers
are not trampled in that process. And there have been, I think,
widespread reports of concerns that have been raised about
some of this activity. And the President, who himself
is an advocate for middle-class families, I think notices when
those kinds of stories are told and when those kind
of reports are filed. But again, fortunately there is
an independent agency that has expertise that’s taken
a look at this issue, and you can ask them more about
what they found and what they believe is the proper
course moving forward. The Press: Last one. Representative
Cleaver, earlier today, again raised the specter of race
playing a role in the delayed nomination of Loretta Lynch. So I wanted to both ask if you
had any update or any comment now that it seems all but
certain that this is going to get punted, or at
least until April. But also, you know the President
was asked about this in the Huffington Post
interview, and he said, “I don’t know about that.” So I’m asking if maybe you know
what he meant by “I don’t know about that”? Mr. Earnest: I think what the
President is focused on is making sure that a highly
qualified career prosecutor with a record of service to this
country as someone who is tough but fair, as somebody that
has the strong support of law enforcement, gets confirmed to
the job that she was nominated for, which is the top law
enforcement job in the country. Loretta Lynch fulfills
that criteria. There is nobody who has raised
a legitimate question about her qualifications or
aptitude for the job. And the only thing that is
standing in the way of her doing that good work is the
partisanship of Republicans in the United States Senate. And that’s a disappointment, but
it’s also something you’ve heard me talk about quite a bit. Those views haven’t changed. The one thing that I do know may
have changed is that we — I think we are now up to seven
nominees for Attorney General who have waited for
their confirmation. If you add up the amount of time
that they were waiting for their confirmation, they
have now, altogether, they have waited less time than
Ms. Lynch has waited to be confirmed by the
United States Senate. We are in the territory of a
nearly unprecedented delay in the consideration
of her nomination. And there’s just no
legitimate reason for it. The Press: Can I just press
you a little bit on the race question, though? I mean, we’ve had a lot of
prominent Democrats at this point raise it as an issue, and
every time you’re asked about it you kind of segue into
explaining why you think she should be nominated. But does the White House
share the position of these congressional Democrats who
think race is a factor here? Mr. Earnest: I think that the
delay that we’ve seen from Senate Republicans
is indefensible, and I think you’d have to ask
them about why they think this delay is somehow in the best
interest of the country. I feel very confident in
telling you that it’s not. The Press: Josh, just a
quick one first on Yemen. I know you’re asked this every
time something terrible happens in Yemen. But now that we have essentially
complete chaos in Yemen, does the White House still
believe that Yemen is the model for a counterterrorism strategy? Mr. Earnest: Jon, the White
House does continue to believe that a successful
counterterrorism strategy is one that will build up the capacity
of the central government to have local fighters on the
ground to take the fight to extremists in their own country,
and the United States can serve both to diplomatically offer
up some political support to central governments. We can offer very tangible
support to local security forces in the form of
training and equipping, and we can also support the
operations of those security forces through whether it’s the
deployment of ISR capability, or even in the case of
Iraq, military airstrikes. And that is a template that has
succeeded in mitigating the threat that we face from
extremists in places like Yemen and Somalia, and is a template
that we believe can succeed in mitigating the threat
emanating from Syria as well. The Press: I mean,
that’s astounding. You’re saying that you still
see Yemen as the model? That building up the
central government, which has now collapsed; a
President who’s apparently fled the country; Saudi troops
amassing on one border; the Iranians supporting the
rebels — you consider this is a model for counterterrorism? Mr. Earnest: Again, Jon, what
the United States considers to be our strategy when confronting
the effort to try to mitigate the threat that is posed by
extremists is to prevent them from establishing a safe haven. And certainly, in a chaotic,
dangerous situation like in Yemen, what the United States
will do and has done is worked to try to support the
central government, to build up the capacity
of local fighters, and use our own technological
and military capabilities to apply pressure on
the extremists there. Look, there’s no doubt that we
would like to see a functioning central government in Yemen;
we don’t see that right now. And that is why we’re supportive
of the U.N.-led process to try to put an end to the
violence and instability, to bring all sides together to
the table to try to resolve their differences; to build up
the capacity of the central government; to build up the
capacity of local forces and to continue to apply
pressure to extremists. What I will say is that we have
not seen that kind of progress in terms of strengthening
the central government. I think you could make a pretty
strong case that we’ve seen the opposite of that. But we do continue to enjoy
the benefits of a sustained counterterrorism security
relationship with the security infrastructure that
remains in Yemen. The Press: Do you think the
security infrastructure still remains in Yemen? Mr. Earnest: There are elements
of the Yemeni government that we continue to be in touch with
that continue to further our efforts to apply pressure to
extremists that seek to operate in that country. And we continue to have
the capability — again, because of the planning and
because of the relationships that we have in the region,
we do continue to have the capability to take out
extremists if they’re posing a threat to the United States. The Press: Let me
move then to Iran. A couple of quick
ones on the talks. First of all, there’s been some
speculation — some statements out of the Iranian leadership,
including from the Supreme Leader, that the Iranians
don’t want to sign an interim agreement. Would the United States go along
with an interim agreement that is simply an oral agreement,
or does it have to be signed? Mr. Earnest: Well, Jon, when
the President was asked to talk about our ongoing efforts to
reach a diplomatic political agreement with the Iranians
before the end of March, the President made reference to
the fact that we would see and that we, meaning the American
people and Congress, would be able to take a close
look at the terms of that agreement. Now, the terms of that agreement
are going to be — it’s a political agreement, right,
so they’re making certain commitments to do
certain things. The details of those commitments
are extraordinarily important and there will be a process for
hammering out those details. But the President was clear that
the kinds of commitments that we seek from the Iranians are the
kinds of things that we would be able to show to members of
Congress and show publicly to share with our allies,
including Israel, about what kind of
commitments Iran has made. So I don’t want to prejudge
the process here at all, or to prejudge sort of the
outcome of the talks because there’s the chance that
a deal is not reached. But we certainly would want
and expect that if a deal is completed, it will
include tangible, specific commitments that have
been made by the Iranians. The Press: But to make sure
I’ve got the first part of your statement down — given that
you need to show something to Congress, this would have to be
a written agreement and it would have to be an agreement that
is signed by both sides. You’re not going to take just
some kind of a verbal, “yeah, sure, we’re going to do this.” This has to be
something concrete. Obviously, details
have to be worked out. You’ve got a June
deadline for doing that. But this interim framework needs
to be in writing and signed by both sides. Mr. Earnest: Well, again,
Jon, we’re going to seek very tangible commitments
from the Iranians, and the President made a
commitment to sharing those tangible commitments with
members of Congress and with our allies. The Press: — I’m just trying to
understand what tangible means. Mr. Earnest: Well, again, I
don’t want to get into where the talks are going to lead here,
but we are going to seek — The Press: I’m just asking if
it’s going to be written. I’m not asking where
they’re going to lead. I’m just asking if it’s going to
be something we can hold in our hands. Mr. Earnest: And what I’m saying
is that you can — that as we move through this process of
negotiating with the Iranians and our P5+1 partners, we hope
to be able to elicit tangible commitments that the Iranians
have made that we can then share with our P5+1 partners,
with our allies, and with the United
States Congress, all of whom have a legitimate
claim to understand exactly what kind of commitments Iran
has made in this process, if they make them. The Press: And is March 31st the
absolute deadline here still? Is there any possibility of
extending that deadline — March 31st? Mr. Earnest: Jon, we have
said that the — we have been negotiating for more
than a year now. And if Iran is going to be in a
position to actually make these kinds of commitments, there’s
no reason that we need to delay this any further. The Press: Okay. And if there is not an
agreement by March 31st? If you fail? I mean, the President has
basically presented the alternative as basically being
war in terms of taking on those that were critical
of this process. So if you don’t get an agreement
March 31st, what next? Mr. Earnest: Well, hopefully
it’s not going to come to that. We’re going to have an
opportunity to evaluate where things stand in the beginning of
April and evaluate what steps are then necessary to protect
the national security interests of the United States. Hopefully that means moving
forward with trying to hammer out the details of a political
agreement that’s been signed. The President has also talked
about how if an agreement is not reached, that the President
would be more than willing to work with Congress — depending
on the scenario — to put additional sanctions on Iran and
to work with the international community to implement them. But we continue to believe that
a diplomatic resolution to this situation is clearly in the best
interest of the United States. It’s also the best way for us
to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program. April. The Press: Josh, I want to go
back to the Loretta Lynch issue. You have said, and many people
up and down Pennsylvania Avenue — Democrat and Republican both
talked about how she is well qualified, but at the same
time there is this delay. Now, with that said — and
she’s been confirmed before. Mr. Earnest: Twice
before, in fact. The Press: Yes. All right. So with that, why is it that she
has not been confirmed in your estimation? And you say partisan politics,
but I want to get further in the weeds. What part of partisan politics
is it that’s preventing her from having this confirmation vote? Mr. Earnest: Well, the
Republican leader of the Senate presides over the majority, and
he determines what comes up for a vote. And he evidently has made a
determination that he’s not ready to bring
her up for a vote. And I don’t think it is possible
to defend the delay in her confirmation. She is eminently qualified
for this position. She’s somebody that has
bipartisan support. We’ve seen Mayor
Giuliani, for instance, even cite his support
for her nomination. So she is not a
controversial figure. In fact, she is somebody who
is widely considered to be eminently qualified
for this role. And that’s why the
President picked her. And it’s the responsibility of
the Congress — and, in fact, Senator McConnell made a promise
to the President that he would consider her fairly and
in a timely fashion. And right now there’s an open
question about whether or not he’s going to keep that promise. The Press: So, again,
getting in the weeds, why is it that he doesn’t want
to bring her up for a vote? Mr. Earnest: Like I said, I
think it is impossible to defend delaying her nomination further. And why he is pursuing and why
Republicans are pursuing this path, you’d have to ask them. I frankly don’t
understand why they would. The Press: And as someone who
understands words and the strength of words, you say
it’s impossible to defend. So at this point, understanding
what you’re dealing with, this historic timetable
that we’re dealing with, would you say race could be on
the table — issues of race could actually be on the
table with this delay in the confirmation vote
for Loretta Lynch? Mr. Earnest: Again, for why
this delay has occurred, I would encourage you to contact
the Senate Majority Leader who is the person who has the
ability to schedule this long-overdue confirmation vote. The Press: Well, understanding
that any time that you bring race into something, when you
have one topic and you bring race in, it kind of
overshadows the topic. But do you think that that is
a legitimate conversation and concern that many Democrats have
on the Hill that race could, indeed, be playing a factor,
understanding some — I’m talking from what I’m hearing
from Democrats — understanding some of the partisan politics
that they’ve seen played against this President and
this White House? Mr. Earnest: I know that there
are a number of people who have tried to figure out an
explanation for this indefensible delay. There are a lot of theories. I, frankly, don’t have a lot
of clarity about why we would continue to delay the nomination
of an individual who has strong bipartisan support and who is
eminently qualified for this very important job. The Press: So should race be
taken off the table and just look at it as she is this
qualified candidate who just has not had her time for a vote yet? Mr. Earnest: Well, it is our
view that the Republicans in the Senate have engaged in an
unconscionable delay of her nomination. She’s eminently qualified,
and I’m no expert on Senate procedure, but it seems to me
that if Senator McConnell were committed to keeping the promise
that he made to treat her fairly and to consider her nomination
in a timely fashion, that he should just bring
her up for a vote today, and we can move about the
important business of the country. The Press: So you do acknowledge
she’s not been treated fairly? Mr. Earnest: Well, Senator
McConnell made a promise that he would treat her fairly
and in a timely fashion. And I think it’s pretty unfair
to make her wait for as long as the seven previous Attorney
General nominees combined. Jim. The Press: Just to get back to
Yemen and to follow up on Jon’s question. Yemen is not currently a
model that you would cite. Is that a fair thing to say? I mean, just right now
Yemen is not a model. Mr. Earnest: What I would say is
that Yemen is a place where the United States over time did
build up a strong working relationship with the
central government, did build up the capacity
of local security forces, and backed them with U.S. military technology to
effectively pressure the extremists that
operate inside Yemen. And that strategy did
effectively mitigate, though not eliminate, the
threat that is posed by AQAP. And what I have acknowledged
since the beginning of this week is that that cooperation with
the Yemeni government and with Yemeni security forces was
enhanced by having U.S. personnel on the
ground in Yemen. There are no longer U.S. officials in Yemen because it’s
become a — because the security situation there
has deteriorated. So we would greatly
prefer to have U.S. personnel on the
ground in Yemen. That would enhance our efforts. But the fact that they have had
to temporarily relocate does not mean that we are unable to
continue to apply pressure on extremists who may be plotting
against the United States and the West inside of Yemen. We do continue to
have that capability. So for as dangerous as Yemen
is to American personnel, Yemen is also a dangerous place
for those extremists because the United States continues to have
the ability to place significant pressure on them. The Press: I was going
to ask you about that. When you say it’s a dangerous
place for extremists — earlier, you said they were in the
crosshairs — are you referring to the Houthis, or are you
just talking about AQAP? Mr. Earnest: I’m referring
specifically to extremists that we know have in the past and are
currently plotting and planning and would seek to carry out
strikes against — attacks against American interests,
and maybe even the American homeland. They have in the past. I’m not making a reference to
any sort of specific known plot now. All I’m saying is we do know
that there are individuals inside of Yemen that do
harbor that ambition, and we have engaged in a
strategy that has placed significant pressure on them and
has mitigated their ability to plot and carry
out those strikes. And while our efforts don’t
benefit from the current political instability
inside Yemen, we do still have important
capabilities that make it a dangerous place for those
extremists to operate. The Press: Does the White
House foresee a U.S. role in seeing President
Hadi return to power? And is there the
potential for the U.S. to work with some sort
of Houthi government, should it take hold and
President Hadi leave the scene permanently? Mr. Earnest: Well, Jim, the
United States believes that President Hadi is the
legitimate leader of Yemen. And we have seen violent efforts
on the part of the Houthis and by others who are acting in
concert with President Saleh to foment instability
inside that country. And we would urge them
to stop doing that. And, in fact, we would condemn
their violent tactics and encourage them to buy into this
U.N.-led process to try to resolve the differences
among all the sides here. And that is exactly what the
United States supports at The Press: And
getting back to Iran.
this point. The head of the IAEA told
Washington Post that Iran has failed to provide
access to inspectors. He generally described their
openness as being rather lacking. What does that portend
to their compliance, their potential compliance after
a nuclear deal is reached, if one is reached? Mr. Earnest: Well, the
thing that’s important to differentiate in those comments
is that the IAEA was not responding to compliance with
the terms of the Joint Plan of Action. So this is the interim nuclear
agreement that required Iran to submit to some pretty tough set
of inspections to ensure their compliance with the
Joint Plan of Action. And the IAEA has said that Iran
has complied with the terms of those inspections. There are another set of
inspections that are related to possible military dimensions
of Iran’s nuclear program, and this has been a subject of
some dispute between the IAEA and Iran. The Press: It sounds like you
might get into a situation where — Mr. Earnest: Let me just
finish this because this is important. And so the point is this, is
that those ongoing disagreements about Iran’s compliance with
inspections related to the possible military dimensions of
their program are something that we would expect to resolve in
the context of these ongoing talks. The Press: So you expect to
resolve these disagreements with the IAEA before an agreement
is reached potentially? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think in
the context of that agreement we would anticipate that we would
be working through many of the disagreements that have arisen
about inspections as it relates to the possible military
dimensions of Iran’s programs. The Press: But you have to
be concerned that post an agreement, that you may be
engaging in these sorts of games, these compliance
games with the Iranians, and I would assume that’s a
situation you’d want to avoid at this point. Mr. Earnest: Well, absolutely,
because there are — we’ve been clear about sort of what the
goal of this agreement is, and it is to shut off every path
to a nuclear weapon that Iran may have. And the second is to impose a
set of historically intrusive sanctions to verify their
compliance with the agreement. So there is — did
I say that right? A historically intrusive set
of inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. And that is — so you’re right
that the Iran compliance with the agreement and Iran’s
cooperation with intrusive inspections is critical
to this whole thing. And, again, this goes back to
the phrase that the national security advisor helpfully
coined in her speech to AIPAC, where she said that our approach
to Iran is distrust and verify. And these verification measures
are critical to the success of the agreement, and we take that
aspect of this agreement very seriously, and we’re going to
insist that Iran takes that aspect of this agreement
very seriously, otherwise we’re not going to
be able to reach an agreement, frankly. The Press: And very quickly. Ambassador Dermer had dinner
with some members of Congress earlier this week trying to mend
some fences, it sounds like. Has it reached just a — getting
back to the President’s comments yesterday — has the situation
with Prime Minster Netanyahu and his team gotten to the point
where it would just be best if Ambassador Dermer were to leave
and there be a new ambassador brought in, or can that part of
the relationship be repaired? Mr. Earnest: Well, we’ve been
very clear that it’s the responsibility of the Israeli
Prime Minister to determine who can best represent the interests
of Israel in the United States, and that is true, and that
continues to be true. Ed. The Press: Josh, on Yemen. So as not to belabor it,
why can’t you just say, you know what, we were wrong,
it’s not a model for success? Mr. Earnest: Because, Ed, we’ve
tried to be very clear about what our strategy is as
it relates to confronting extremists that seek to
establish a safe haven in chaotic unstable countries with
chaotic unstable governments. The Press: Despite that chaos
which existed last fall, the President said
it’s a success. He was wrong, right? Just say — why can’t you say he
was wrong and we’re trying to fix it, we’re trying
to figure it out? It just seems like we keep
going around and around, that it’s still a model
when it’s not, right? Mr. Earnest: Ed, we’ve been very
clear about what we think the strategy can be. And that strategy,
even in Yemen, despite all of the challenges
that I readily acknowledge exist there, that we have put intense
pressure on extremists inside of Yemen, and it has mitigated the
threat that they pose to the U.S. and the West. I want to be clear, it has
not eliminated that threat. We continue to be vigilant
about the threat that these individuals pose. And I would also concede to you
that the ability of the United States to put pressure on these
extremists is not helped by the fact that our personnel had
to leave Yemen because the situation there has
become so dangerous. But we do retain the capacity
and the capability to apply pressure to those extremists,
and we will do that both by working with our
partners in the region, by working with those elements
of the Yemeni security forces that we’re able to work with,
and we’re going to continue to be closely on the
lookout for U.S. interests inside Yemen. And that is where the core
of those interests lie, which is pushing back against
the threat that is posed by extremists that are
operating in that country. The Press: Related
subject of Afghanistan. Yesterday, the President laid
out that you’ve got to stretch out the timetable a bit
more, leave more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, in
part because of the Taliban resurgence perhaps,
but also ISIS. President Ghani says they’re
recruiting in his country. It was only in January that
General Campbell told CBS’s “60 Minutes” he didn’t see ISIS
making it to Afghanistan. This is just two,
three months ago. Again, how did the
administration misjudge that? And will you just acknowledge
that ISIS has spread to Afghanistan Mr. Earnest:
Well, Ed, as far as I know, there is one individual — a
senior Taliban commander — who did cite his
affiliation with ISIL, and that individual was promptly
taken off the battlefield in Afghanistan. So there’s one aspect of your
question that I do want to make sure that people understand. I know you understand this,
but just for precision. What the President determined is
that he lengthened the timeline for a handful of — well, for
military personnel to remain in Afghanistan through this year. But what has not changed is
his intention to draw down our military footprint by the end of
next year to reflect the need to protect the embassy and to
carry out — to maintain the military-to-military
relationship between the United States and Afghanistan. So the change in policy does
not affect that endpoint. And that’s important for people
to understand given sort of the long trajectory of the
drawdown here, right? It was only a few years ago that
we had more than 100,000 U.S. military personnel
in Afghanistan. We’re down to about 10,000. We will remain
at that about 10, 000 level through
the end of this year. But by the end of next
year, by the end of 2016, we’ll be down to about
1,000 troops, again, just to defend the embassy
and to fulfill this security cooperation relationship. The Press: A couple
of other quick topics. We’re talking about all these
crises around the world, and it appears that the head
of NATO is in Washington, has been calling
the White House, saying he wants to meet
with the President, and can’t seem to get either his
call returned or at least get a meeting with the President. Why won’t the President
meet with the head of NATO? Mr. Earnest: Yes, Ed, those
reports are entirely false. We’ve been — The Press:
Is there a meeting? Mr. Earnest: They are — well,
the report is that the President somehow — or the White House is
somehow failing to return the call to the Secretary General,
and that’s ridiculous. We’ve been in regular
touch with them. In fact, the Secretary General
is meeting with the Secretary of Defense while he’s
visiting the United States. And so I don’t have any
additional — The Press: The suggestion was that that was
added because the President — even though — Mr. Earnest:
And that’s wrong, too. The Press: Okay, but
he’s here for three days. The President can’t make a
half hour at some point — Mr. Earnest: Well, my guess —
as you’ve seen the President’s schedule certainly over the day
yesterday and over the course of the week, the President’s
schedule is pretty full. I would anticipate the Secretary
General’s schedule is pretty full. The President did meet with
him just last fall in Wales. And we’re going to continue to
be in touch with him about a presidential meeting. The Press: A very damaging
report from the inspector general at the Department of
Homeland Security yesterday, suggesting the number-two
official, Alejandro Mayorkas, gave “special access and
favoritism” to politically connected people. Two parts: First of all, why is
Mr. Mayorkas still employed by this administration after an
independent IG says he gave special access to Democrats? Mr. Earnest: Mr. Mayorkas is
still at the Department of Homeland Security because he is
a decorated public servant and an effective leader
of that organization. And we certainly value the kind
of contribution that he has made to the effective management
of that department, and he has played an important
role in implementing needed reforms in that department. In fact, he was somebody who was
leading the effort to try to strengthen the EB-5 program. And there have been requests
that have been made by members of both parties for assistance
in trying to make that program work better. And the Department of Homeland
Security has been responsive to those concerns that have been
raised by members of Congress, in particular in both parties. But what we have seen is the
need for additional reforms to be put in place, and the
Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, has directed his
general counsel to develop additional reforms that
can be implemented. And certainly we would expect
the department to do that under the leadership of Mr. Mayorkas. The Press: But what this
independent inspector general found was that Mr. Mayorkas
was going around the normal channels, going around career
officials to basically give visas for foreign investors to
people who were connected with Hillary Clinton’s brother,
the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and his
electric car company. So how could you say this is
a great public servant who is trying to reform a program that
he basically gave special visas and access to politically
connected Democrats? How could you say
he’s reforming it? Mr. Earnest: Well, to be clear,
Ed, the inspector general, who, as you point out, did take a
close, independent look at this, did not suggest that these
individuals weren’t deserving of a visa. What he suggested is merely that
the process didn’t work very well. And, frankly, that’s exactly the
problem that — The Press: — “special access and favoritism.” Mr. Earnest: Right. And what I’m telling you is, Ed,
that the questions that were raised were about how effective
this EB-5 visa process works. And these are exactly the
problems that Deputy Secretary Mayorkas was trying to address. And there are additional
reforms that are needed, and there will additional
reforms that are implemented. The Press: (Inaudible) by
letting Hillary Clinton’s brother jump to the
front of the line? And — Mr. Earnest: That’s
not the accusation, Ed. The Press: Favoritism and
special access — Mr. Earnest: So again, go back to the
inspector general report. The Press: So he’s actually
trying to reform it,
That is not what it said. even though he — Mr. Earnest:
I think that’s what I’ve said. Chris. The Press: If I can just
follow up on Israel. Yesterday, the President showed
no sign of believing that Benjamin Netanyahu is genuinely
for a two-state solution. There has been more than a few
analysts who have suggested that it’s working in the Prime
Minister’s favor; that, in fact, it’s engendering sympathy. And my question is, is the
President or is the White House overplaying its hand on this? And could it have an unintended
effect of actually boosting Netanyahu’s standing? Mr. Earnest: Well, Chris, over
the last several days I’ve stood at this podium and taken a
variety of questions from all of you about the response and
reaction here on the part of the administration to the
Israeli elections. We’ve talked about the impact
that — the outcome of the elections, and some of the
comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the context of
the elections would have on U.S.-Israel relations. The President did an interview
with the Huffington Post where he talked about this. The President convened a news
conference yesterday with the Afghan President where
he was asked about this. You saw the Chief of Staff at
the White House deliver a speech at the J Street Conference
talking about this. So it’s clear what
our position is. And I think it’s also clear that
that message has been received. But what’s also clear is that
the President reiterated in his phone call with Prime Minister
Netanyahu his determination to ensure that the unprecedented
security cooperation that exists under the leadership of
President Obama with Israel continues. The President is
committed to that. The President also demonstrated
and — or reiterated his commitment to ensure that the
lines of communication between senior American officials and
senior Israeli officials remain open, that that’s in the best
interest of both countries. And what’s clear is that the
next step in this process is for the Prime Minister to go about
the important and delicate work of forming a new government
and brokering a coalition, and appointing Cabinet members;
and then setting about, in the context of that
newly formed government, establishing policies and making
decisions that he believes are in the best interest of Israel. The Press: So what would the
United States — what would the President be looking for as he
forms that coalition government? Is there anything beyond what
you’ve talked about today that would serve as a sign that
there might be an opening? Mr. Earnest: Look, it’s the
responsibility of the Israeli Prime Minister to form that
government and to ensure that that government is pursuing
policies that the Prime Minister believes is in the best
interest of his country. The Press: Let me go back to
the domestic question and the Medicare physician
payment system. Given that it seemed to be
moving towards some sort of bipartisan deal but that Harry
Reid had concerns about a couple of aspects of this, including
abortion language and insurance for children, what’s the message
for Senate Democrats and Harry Reid, who clearly could
scuttle this bill? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think what
the President has — and I think what the President indicated
today is he wants members of Congress to act in bipartisan
fashion to address this problem. And there are signs that they’re
having success in doing that in the House, and the President is
hopeful that they will do that in the Senate. And that means — The Press: Is
he concerned Harry Reid is the holdup on the Senate side? Mr. Earnest: No, he is not
concerned about that because he has confidence that Democrats
will take a close look — Democrats in the Senate will
take a close look at this piece of legislation. Part of the commitment to that
bipartisan process would be for Senator McConnell, the
Republican leader, to allow some amendments
to be offered. But ultimately, what we are
going to ask Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to
do is to set aside politics and focus on this piece
of legislation. Now, the other thing that I’ll
point out is that any piece of bipartisan legislation is going
to involve some degree of compromise, and that’s
true in this case, too — that this bill is not
exactly the way the President would have written it. It certainly isn’t the way that
— I’m sure Speaker Boehner would tell you that it’s not
exactly the way that he would have written it, but it does
reflect a reasonable compromise where both sides sought
to find common ground, and that’s what they’ve done. And that’s why the President is
supportive of this process in the House. He believes it should get
careful consideration in the Senate, and that both sides will
take a close look at this and do what they think is
the right thing to do. The Press: And just really
quickly — yesterday, for the third time, Joseph
Clancy went before a congressional committee three
times in two weeks and got some intense questions on both
sides, and there were a lot of questions raised about whether
or not the President had made the right decision in not going
with the recommendation of the report, which was to take
someone from outside who could take a fresh look at the culture
within the Secret Service. And I know you’ve been
asked this question before, but I will ask it again: Does he
have the President’s undivided support? Is there any concern, especially
given some of the questions yesterday about his decision not
to allow other agents to testify yesterday, that the Secret
Service is not moving in the right direction? Mr. Earnest: There is no doubt
that Director Clancy is the right man for the job. And this is a very
difficult job. This is a job that will require
him to put in place very tough reforms in an agency that holds
itself to a very high standard. And there is very difficult work
that is done on a daily basis by the men and women of the
Secret Service to protect the President, to protect
the First Family, and to protect those of us who
work at the White House on a daily basis. And we certainly are
appreciative of their commitment to the task, to their
professionalism, and the skill that they use to
do that mission successfully. And that said, it is evident
that there are some reforms that — some needed reforms that can
ensure that the agency can live up to the very high standard
that they’ve established for themselves. And the President has confidence
in the character and leadership ability of Director Clancy to
lead that agency and implement the reforms in a way that best
reflects the interest of the agency and will best position
them to do the important work that they have to do. The Press: Last question. So there’s no concern that these
reforms aren’t moving quickly enough, which was the suggestion
on both sides of the aisle yesterday? Mr. Earnest: Again, for
the details of that, I’d refer you to
the Secret Service. But I think that Director Clancy
has a very strong case to make in terms of the approach that he
has taken to try to implement these reforms as quickly and
as effectively as possible. Bill. The Press: What’s the current
status of the effort to possibly supply lethal arms to Ukraine? Mr. Earnest: I don’t have an
update in terms of any decision that the President
has made on this. The United States continues to
work closely with our allies in Europe who are seeking to
deescalate the situation in Ukraine. They are seeking to work in a
diplomatic fashion because we know that the only way to
resolve that situation is not on the battlefield, but around
the negotiating table. And trying to get both sides to
come to the negotiating table and to, particularly
the Russians, to live up to the commitments
that they’ve made in the context of those talks, has
been difficult work. And that’s why you’ve seen the
Russian economy be subject to very tough sanctions. And those sanctions,
every day that goes by, takes a bigger and bigger bite
out of the Russian economy. And so there are costs
associated with Russia’s continued involvement in support
of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s continued
interference with the efforts to implement that agreement. The Press: Some people argue
that the continued sanctions on Russia may actually work not to
the West’s benefit by turning them in the direction which
would make it more difficult. Mr. Earnest: Well, the truth is,
the Russians are facing — or the Russian regime — the
Russian President is facing a lot of pressure from the
international community. And that pressure is going to
continue until the Russians start to live up to the
commitments that they’ve made in the context of the Minsk
Implementation Plan and previous agreements that have
been reached in Minsk. But this is something that
our allies in Europe are very focused on, and we’re going to
continue to support that ongoing diplomatic effort. The Press: I’ll see if this one
is at the back of your briefing book. Last August, the President
ordered a review of the program to supply used military
equipment to police forces around the nation in the wake of
the use of such equipment in the Ferguson — and others. What’s the status
of that review? Mr. Earnest: I know that they’ve
made a lot of progress in terms of putting that review together,
and I would anticipate that you would see the results of that
review in the next few days. The Press: So you
don’t have anything? Mr. Earnest: Well,
there’s an ongoing report; it’s not done yet. So I’m not going to read the
details of their report, but I would expect that we
would have something soon. The Press: Seems kind of slow. Mr. Earnest: Well, I
don’t think so actually. I think this is something that
was just ordered 90 days ago, and this is a detailed review
— The Press: It was ordered in August. Mr. Earnest: Well, I
don’t think that’s right. I think that the detailed review
that was ordered was something that came out of the findings of
the report that the President received earlier this year. The Press: So this is
a review of the review? Mr. Earnest: So this will be a
report that you will see very soon, and it will include very
detailed recommendations about needed reforms. The Press: This week? Mr. Earnest: I wouldn’t
say this week, but soon. Leslie. The Press: Thanks, Josh. The RNC has sent a letter
to the White House. I think they only sent it today,
but they’re asking about a number of questions about what
they call a flawed agreement that was supposed to protect
conflicts of interest involving foreign donations to
the Clinton Foundation. Mr. Earnest: It sounds like they
made it their own conflict of interest in writing the letter. They may have their own sort of
special interest that may be something other than the truth
and transparency and all that. The Press: Among the questions
that they’re asking is whether — you know that the foundation
did receive money from foreign governments when she
was Secretary of State, and they’re asking whether or
not foreign governments that contributed were given
special treatment. Will you be responding
to this letter? And do you agree with them that
the public has a right to know in terms of whether or not this
agreement was followed and how it worked, who oversaw it? Mr. Earnest: I’m certainly not
going to have a response to them from here, but I think that was
a letter — it sounds like that was a letter they sent
to the State Department? The Press: No, to
the White House. Mr. Earnest: Okay. Well, you mentioned both
the contents of the letter describing the Clinton
Foundation and the actions of the Secretary of State
of the State Department. So I wouldn’t anticipate
a response from here. The Press: But it was the White
House that was supposed to have the agreement overseeing it. Mr. Earnest: Well, again, for
questions about the actions of the Clinton Foundation, I’d
direct you to the foundation that does very important
work around the world. But I don’t have a
reaction to the letter. Jordan. The Press: Thanks, Josh. I just want to follow up on
the doc-fix one more time. I know you said that you hope
that Senator McConnell allows those amendments to be
offered to the bill. But would the White House oppose
the bill if it includes a two-year extension
of the CHIP funding? This is something that Senate
Democrats have said they object to in the legislation. Mr. Earnest: Well, I don’t want
to speculate about what the final legislation may look like. There is an emerging bipartisan
compromise in the House, and we certainly are supportive
of that bipartisan process. But I’m going to withhold any
judgment about the specific bit farther.
details of the compromise until
it has advanced a little The Press: And just one
follow-up on the troop withdrawal. You said that the level of
the drawdown in 2016 will be Is it conditions on the ground?
What are the criteria that
that would be based on? Is it demands from
the Afghan government? unclear to some of us.
I think that part of the
statement yesterday was a bit Mr. Earnest: Well, let me
try to clarify it for you. What the President announced
yesterday was essentially an extension of the deployment of
some military personnel through the end of this year,
through the end of 2015. And that means that we would
anticipate that our troop presence will remain
at a level around 10, 000 troops through
the end of this year. At the beginning of next year,
the process for drawing down our military personnel even
further will continue, and that by the end of 2016 we
envision a military presence that is sufficient
to protect the U.S. embassy in Kabul and to staff a
military cooperation office in Kabul. Our expectation is that would
require a deployment of about 1,000 to 1,500 U.S. military personnel, but all of
the others would be withdrawn from the country. And that reflects no change in
the timeline that the President has laid out for a strategy
quite some time ago, but it does reflect substantial
progress that we’ve made in drawing down U.S. personnel from a
high of about 100, 000 just a few years ago to
the level of about 1,000 or 1, 500 by the end of next year. The Press: I guess what I’m
asking is, next year, in 2016, how is it going to be
determined how you get from 9, 800 to that 1,000 number? Mr. Earnest: And that will be
— in the same way that the President made decisions about
the pace of that drawdown this year, it will be done in
consultation with our military commanders on the ground,
first and foremost. It certainly will include the
input of other members of the President’s national security
team back here in the U.S. I’m confident that we’ll
continue to have conversations with our NATO allies who
are also participating and contributing importantly
to this mission. There will also be conversations
with the Afghan government. We are partners with them, and
we will continue to be partners with them even after
the end of 2016. So there are a lot of people who
will have input on this decision that will ultimately be made
by the President of the United States that will be focused
on the security situation in Afghanistan and the core
national security interests of the United States. Scott. The Press: Josh, the President
pushed pretty hard for the formation of a standalone agency
that would just look out for consumers in their
financial transactions. It’s something he was talking
about all the way back at Cooper Union in his first campaign. Can you just step back a little
and say how this rule for payday lenders and car title lenders
and so forth kind of fits into his vision of
consumer protection? Mr. Earnest: Well, Scott, I
don’t want to be difficult but I know that there are,
as Justin pointed out, some announcements that are
planned for — or that may be planned for tomorrow. (laughter) So I’m going to
reserve judgment on that, but maybe tomorrow we can have
more of a discussion about some of those details. The Press: Tomorrow would
be a good day for those — Mr. Earnest: Why don’t you call
me again tomorrow and we’ll see if I can be more helpful? Francesca. The Press: Speaking about things
that you probably will reserve judgment on, but I’m
going to try anyway. Mr. Earnest: I’ll try to. The Press: Was the White House
aware that the Army would release its report today on
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl and whether he deserted or not? Mr. Earnest: I’m not aware of
any plans for them to do that, but this is a process that’s
being run by the United States Army, so I’d direct you to
the Pentagon for an answer. The Press: Okay, thank you. And another domestic
policy question. Going back to our conversation
last week about the Secret Service, when you were wont a
comment on whether or not they should be tossing out
surveillance tapes after 72 hours because Director Clancy
hadn’t had a chance to testify before Congress yet. He’s obviously had multiple
opportunities since our discussion to do that. And so I again wanted to know if
the White House thinks that that policy is appropriate, or if
it’s one of the reforms that should be made. Mr. Earnest: Well, this is
obviously a decision that Director Clancy will have
to make about what is the surveillance tape retention schedule that will best enhance the mission of the Secret Service. So I’d refer you
to them about this. We would obviously allow him
to make the decision that he believed was in the best
interest of the United States Secret Service being able
to carry out their mission. The Press: Okay. And another quick one, since I
seem to be striking out here. Yesterday, President Obama
described his relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu
as business-like. Is it fair to say that in the
White House’s opinion that they don’t have the same type of
special relationship that he has with David Cameron,
for instance, because he calls him “bro”? So would it be fair to say that
they don’t have the same type of friendship or special
relationship? Mr. Earnest: I think it would be
fair for you to take to heart what the President said
about this yesterday, which is that there has been a
lot of scrutiny of the personal relationship between the
President and the Prime Minister. And it’s the view
of the President, at least — and I think the
Prime Minister would share this view if you asked him — that
what’s even more important than the personal relationship of the
two leaders is the relationship between our two countries. And the President takes very
seriously the responsibility that he has as the President
to conduct foreign policy consistent with our national
security interests. And he does believe that it is
in the clear national security interest of the United States
to extend significant security, military and intelligence
cooperation to our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. And the President has pursued
that kind of cooperation in a way that Prime Minister
Netanyahu himself said was unprecedented. We know already that the U.S. creation of and funding for the
Iron Dome program saved the lives of a lot of innocent
Israeli civilians last summer. That is one clear illustration
of how the commitment of this administration,
and this country, to the security of the Israeli
people has benefitted them. But the President made that
decision not just because it benefitted the Israeli people,
but because he believes that it benefits the American people. And that is the kind of approach
that the President takes to these matters, and it’s why he
continues to be committed to making sure that we are doing
everything we can to not subject the U.S.-Israel relationship
to a lot of partisan debate, but rather to ensure that
we are living up to the generations-long precedent of
bipartisan support for the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And we’ve had a lot of
opportunity to talk about the impact of Prime Minster
Netanyahu’s comments, the outcome of the election on
the U.S.-Israel relationship. And those are certainly
legitimate questions and we’ve gone to great lengths
to answer them. I don’t think I have a better
way to describe the state of those relations today than I
have on any of the previous days that we’ve talked about this. But I think in the
mind of the President, what’s most important is
preserving the very important relationship that exists between
the United States and Israel. Mike. Go ahead, Mike. The Press: I guess
that answer, though, has confused me since you guys
have started issuing it for the last week. So you can imagine a situation
where you say the personal relationship between
these two guys sucks, but we agree on all the
fundamental policy — we’re like in lockstep on policy, right? Or you could say, well, the
personal relationship is great even though we don’t
agree on a lot, but somehow they’re bros
and so we make it work. But you seem to be saying the
relationship sucks and we don’t disagree on the
fundamentals either, right? I mean, that was his point was,
on the most fundamental things — two of the most
fundamental pieces, Iran and the Palestinian
peace process, you have fundamental deep
divisions on policy too. So isn’t it the case
that both things are bad? Mr. Earnest: Well, I don’t think
I would limit the extent of the U.S.-Israel relationship to just
the two issues that you cited. And I think that is the point
— that the extent of our relationship I think is
predicated on — the foundation of that relationship is the
critically important, and yes, special relationship that exists
when it comes to our security cooperation. And Prime Minster Netanyahu has
said this — that there are countless ways that the Israeli
people benefit from that relationship. The President believes that the
American people benefit from preserving and even enhancing
that relationship as he has done So that, in the mind of the
President, is where this starts.
under his leadership. And yes, that consideration is
more important than the personal relationship
between the two men. And to be fair, the President
described that relationship as businesslike, which
is a different, maybe less colorful
phrase than you have used. But I think that is where
we’re trying to get to. And I don’t — we’ve had ample
opportunity to sort of dissect where the divisions lie when it
comes to our efforts to resolve diplomatically our differences
with Iran and their nuclear program. A lot has been covered, and I
think we’ve been pretty candid in trying to answer your
questions about some of the differences we may have as we
approach a two-state solution. But the truth is, now Prime
Minister Netanyahu is in the midst of trying to
form a government. He is in the process of
appointing cabinet ministers, and then making some decisions
that he believes are in the best interest of Israel about how to
move forward and how to enhance their security. And throughout that process,
we’re going to continue to cooperate with them
on security matters, we’re going to continue to keep
an open line of communication with them. And if the need arises for us to
be clear about our perspective based on changing
circumstances on the ground, then we’ll do that. But as it stands right now, I
think you guys have very keen insight into what our views are. The Press: But you would concede
that the Palestinian situation — the situation about peace in
the Middle East vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the Israelis,
and questions about Iran and security, are at the heart of
the relationship between these two countries; they’re
not side issues. Decades have been spent where
the Palestinian issue has been the primary foreign policy
question surrounding these countries, and Iran’s security
is at the heart of what you just said was the relationship, which
is the effort to protect that country. Mr. Earnest: I don’t think
you and I disagree on this. I don’t mean to leave you with
the impression that I’m trying to minimize those issues; those
are obviously substantial. And that’s the
reason that, frankly, we’ve been talking about them
so much over the last week, and I have a sneaking suspicion
we’ll be talking about them quite a bit in the weeks
and maybe even months ahead depending on how things go
in Lausanne, Switzerland. But what is clear is that there
is one critically important aspect of our relationship
that is rock solid, and that is the commitment of
President Obama to close and critically important security
cooperation with Israel. I would just point out — and we
have in other contexts too — that we don’t — the differences
that we have carefully examined in this room,
scrutinized maybe even, on the two issues
that you mentioned, those are differences that are
related to our approach to those issues. But part of our approach to
those issues is informed by our view that our approach is
clearly in the best interest of the Israeli people. Now, what’s always true is at
the core is our concern for America’s national
security interests. But you could imagine a
difference of opinion in which there might be some other issue
where the Israelis would say, “well, that’s not in our best
interest,” and we’d say,” well, we know, but we have to do this
anyway because it’s important.” That’s not the case here. The case here is we’re pursuing
these policy options because we believe that they go
to the core of U.S. national security interests
in the Middle East, but we also do happen to believe
that they are in the best interest of Israeli security. And again, that underscores the
commitment to the relationship that the President has;
that’s why I bring it up. But we’ll have an opportunity
to talk about this quite a bit more, for better or worse. Jared, I’ll give
you the last one. The Press: Thanks, Josh. Since you mentioned the core
interests of the American people, I wanted to just try one
more time on this because if a plurality, as the
President might say, of the Israeli people agreed
with Prime Minister Netanyahu on election day the two-state
solution was out of reach, and certainly that’s the tenor
of the answer that the President gave to the Associated
Press yesterday, was that it wasn’t about a
relationship between two men, it was about the belief that
Israelis and Palestinians had when they went to the polls —
so if that’s the fundamental issue, if the United States
believes that X is in the interest of the Israeli people,
but the Israeli people don’t agree, then what is
it going to take? Is going to take another
election for this reevaluation period to end? Is that the terminal point of
this reevaluation period by the White House? Mr. Earnest: No, I think what’s
next is for the duly elected leader of Israel to
form a government, to appoint cabinet ministers,
and then to begin making policy decisions that he believes are
in the best interests of his country. And that is the next step. And throughout that process, the
United States will continue our unprecedented security
cooperation because that cooperation is essential to the
security of the Israeli people. We’re going to continue to keep
an open line of communication, even at the highest levels,
between the United States and Israel because that kind of
communication and coordination is critical to the health and
strength of our relationship. But ultimately, the next steps
here will come from the Israeli government and the newly
elected Israeli Prime Minister, who has to form a government,
appoint cabinet ministers, and being making policy
decisions about what he believes is in the best interest
of his country. The Press: In the
spirit of transparency, does the White House have any
guiding principles moving forward on releasing details
before potential or official candidates for presidency in
2016 visit the White House and meet with the President? Mr. Earnest: Can you
say that one more time? I don’t quite
understand the question. The Press: Will we know before
it happens if Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush
or Martin O’Malley, or any of the people who may or
may not be running for President — will we know in advance —
what are the White House’s guiding principles about
meetings with the President around the 2016 — Mr. Earnest:
The guiding principle is that we are going to be very protective
of the right of the President of the United States to have
private meetings, but yet, where possible, and when
we determine that we can, we’re going to do our best to
try to let you know what the President is up to. And I think that is the
principle that we applied on Monday. We did not announce in advance
that the President was going to spend some time with Secretary
Clinton while she was in town. But I was asked a very direct
question about it in the briefing, and I had said in the
context of that briefing if we had additional information
we’d provide it. And we had additional
information, and it was provided. And that will be the guiding
principle moving forward. The Press: So from the
White House’s perspective, these meetings, which are
ostensibly 2016 meetings, are private meetings
with the President? Mr. Earnest: Well, yes. Thanks, everybody. The Press: But you’ll let
us know if Ted Cruz or — Mr. Earnest: (laughter) Exactly. That’s the meeting you want
the details of — the private meeting between Barack
Obama and Ted Cruz. I agree. Thank you, guys.

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