Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 04/30/15
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
April 30, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for an addendum to the transcript, marked with asterisks.
1:22 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Let me do one quick thing at the top, Jim, and then we'll go to your questions.
As you may have seen in the statement from the President, earlier today he had the great pleasure of nominating Gayle Smith to be the next Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those of us within and outside government who have had an opportunity to get to know Gayle recognize that her knowledge, experience and passion render her uniquely qualified for this important role.
In her current position as Senior Director for Development and Democracy at the National Security Council, Gayle has been instrumental in guiding our international development policy, responding to a record number of humanitarian crises worldwide, and ensuring that development remains at the forefront of our national security agenda.
If confirmed -- maybe I should say, when confirmed -- Gayle would bring this same drive and conviction to USAID, whose mission and unique capabilities are now more indispensable than ever. As the President noted, we encourage the Senate to act swiftly on this important nomination.
So, with that, Jim, let's go to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President is hosting the New Democrat Coalition from Congress today, a group that he particularly needs for support on trade. And last time trade promotion authority or fast track passed in 2002, it only garnered about 25 Democratic votes. I'm wondering if the President thinks that he can reach that threshold this time, or improve on it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the President is looking forward to the meeting that he'll have with members of the New Democrat Coalition here in the White House complex this afternoon. The President intends to speak with them about a range of legislative priorities, but everyone in this room understands that building support for trade promotion authority is among the top priorities that the President has when it comes to his legislative agenda.
At this point, I would not hazard a guess about the number of Democrats who will ultimately support this proposal. The President has made clear I think in a variety of settings how strong an argument he can make to Democrats about why the proposal that he is pleased to see moving currently through Congress is one that would allow him to reach an agreement that is clearly in the best interest of American businesses and American workers.
Now, there is still important work that needs to get done. Obviously, the President had the opportunity to discuss this with Prime Minister Abe here at the White House this week. But there is still important work that needs to get done in pursuit of this effort.
Q Now, the New Democrat Coalition has about 40 or so members, but only about a dozen of them signed on to a letter supporting the TPA agreement that Senator Wyden, Senator Hatch and Paul Ryan came up with. Does that suggest that there's some real problem of even getting moderates who typically support these kinds of things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think one clear way for us to measure this is to take a look at the one committee in the United States Congress that's voted on this so far*, and in the Senate Finance Committee, we saw that more Democrats supported this legislation that opposed it. So that's a very early preliminary measure, but I think it's one indication that there's an opportunity for us to make a compelling case to Democrats and get some Democratic support for this proposal. *The House Ways and Means Committee also passed a trade promotion authority bill earlier this month.
There's no denying the historic, reflexive opposition that many Democrats have as soon as anyone utters the word "trade." The President is sympathetic to that. The President had his concerns with previous trade agreements that had been signed into law because of the impact that they've had on some communities across the country. That precisely why the President wants to pursue this kind of trade agreement that would build on the lessons that we've learned from those previous trade agreements, modernize them, update them in a way that will actually include enforceable provisions that will protect American workers, that will protect the environment, and ultimately level the playing field in a way that will open up a variety of other markets throughout the Asia Pacific to American goods and services. And by leveling that playing field, the President is confident that that will create a prime opportunity for American businesses to succeed in a way that's good for our economy and good for middle-class families.
Q On another subject, the White House today has agreed to several recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
MR. EARNEST: The MCRMC, as we call it around here, Jim. (Laughter.)
Q That's enough with that. But the White House rejected one that perhaps sort of resulted in the most savings, and that was a proposal to replace the military's TRICARE health care system. And I'm wondering if you could explain that decision, since that would have been the biggest savings available.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we're going to have more on this today as more of the details of this review comes forward. But I can just say as a general matter that the administration has accepted 10 of the 15 recommendations that have been put forward by the MCRMC. And the administration did acknowledge that some of the other ideas they put forward that we haven't at this point fully supported do merit additional study. These are proposals that do address concerns I think that everybody acknowledges -- I guess they address challenges that everybody acknowledges that our armed forces are facing right now. And that includes the growth in retirement benefits in a way that has significant budgetary impacts on the armed forces.
So we're mindful of this challenge and are serious about considering thoughtful proposals to try to address them.
Q I'm wondering if a decision, though, is based mostly on policy considerations and some of those apprehensions, or whether it was because you recognize that there was no support for it in Congress and it was not a worthwhile effort to pursue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll have more on this today. I would say that the dynamic that you have outlined is one I think that can be reconciled. I think that there is a legitimate policy reason to build strong support in Congress for a proposal before putting it forward. I think it depends on the specific policy matter that's at hand, but particularly when you're considering something as serious as this, we'd like to see some bipartisan support build in Congress as we try to advance a proposal.
But, again, the proposals that we've seen from the MCRMC are proposals that do confront legitimate challenges that we know are facing our armed forces and our men and women in uniform, and the administration is supportive of additional study to review the recommendations that they've made to evaluate how those recommendations would apply in terms of solving the problem and what broader impact they would have on the system.
But stay tuned for a little bit more on this today.
Q Finally, can you comment on the defense authorization bill that came out of the House Armed Services Committee today? It has a lot of restrictions on the movement of detainees at Guantanamo. It provides funding to Kurdish fighters in Iraq and provides for lethal assistance to Ukrainian forces, all policies that the White House opposes. Is that veto bait?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of proposals in the NDAA that we are strongly concerned about. And this was true of the chairman's mark that was put forward a couple of days ago. I think our top concern, Jim, actually is focused on some of the budgetary impacts of this particular NDAA. Specifically it envisions a funding gimmick -- "gimmick" is the word that's been used by members in both parties to describe this proposal -- that would essentially fund the day-to-day operations of the Department of Defense using an emergency fund.
That's not a responsible budget practice and it certainly is not consistent with what the President believes in necessary to protect the country. And so we've raised those concerns before, and certainly any proposal that only funds our national security agencies at the sequester level and seeks to circumvent the sequester through this accounting gimmick is not consistent with an approach that takes very seriously our national security priorities.
And that's our principal concern. We've raised previous concerns about efforts of the Congress to prevent the administration from closing Guantanamo Bay -- the prison at Guantanamo Bay, for instance. And so some of those policy riders continue to be concerns that we also have.
Q Is that something the President could avoid with a signing statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we will -- I know that in signing previous NDAA bills, the President has included signing statements and has raised concerns with some of the proposals that were included in the bill. But this is just the beginning of the process, and we're going to continue to make clear the concerns that we have on this. And again, the kinds of concerns that you're hearing from me are representative concerns that are held across the administration, but are also concerns that have previously been articulated by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, specifically as it relates to this funding gimmick.
Q Josh, how many Democrats are coming to the White House for the meeting today?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a full tally. But you certainly can deploy the ample resources that Reuters devotes to covering Capitol Hill to calling the members of the New Democrat Coalition and finding out who's going to be here.
Q I'm asking you. Can you give me even a rough number?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have that number. Each of these members of Congress will set their own schedule. But, again, I think there are 40 or so members of the New Democrat Coalition so you've got a pretty good head start.
Q Okay. The President met with Leader Pelosi yesterday. She has said that she hopes accommodations can be made to the trade agreements to get to yes. Are you actively looking at accommodations like that? And can you give us a little bit more of a readout of how that meeting went yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a detailed readout of the meeting. But the President is interested in having conversations with Democrats in Congress about why they can be supportive of the kind of trade agreement that he's hoping to reach with 10 or 11 other Asia Pacific countries. Again, the case that the President makes to them in private is very similar to the one that you've heard from him directly in public.
Q I guess I'm asking whether or not the President is willing to make some accommodations that Leader Pelosi and other Democrats are asking in order to get their support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't heard of any specific proposals that Leader Pelosi has put forward, but the reason that we're actively engaged in having a conversation with them is to both make the case to them about why we believe they and other Democrats should be supportive of trade promotion authority, but also to hear from them their reaction to the proposal and, where possible, to incorporate their feedback.
Q On a separate issue. Speaker Boehner has said he's open to letting the Ex-Im Bank expire. How big of a concern is that, now, again, for the White House?
MR. EARNEST: That continues to be a concern. We've talked in previous settings -- I didn't bring the statistics out with me -- in previous settings about the number of times that Democratic and Republican Presidents have signed into law legislation reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank.
I know that even President Reagan spoke powerfully about the economic benefits of the Ex-Im Bank. Those are benefits that have benefitted our economy for more than a generation. The President believes that those are benefits that we should continue to enjoy. And we're going to strongly push Congress, Democrats and Republicans, to work together to figure out how to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.
Q And lastly, any reaction to the Bernie Sanders announcement today that he's running for President?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Josh, no reaction to Bernie Sanders running for President?
MR. EARNEST: No specific reaction, no.
Q What does the President think of Bernie Sanders?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't had a conversation with him about it. They obviously served together in the United States Congress, and Senator Sanders is somebody that has a strong track record of fighting for progressive values and middle-class families. And he'll have an opportunity to make a case for his own presidential campaign.
Q The President has, in quite strong terms, made the case that this trade agreement is a much better trade agreement than, for instance, NAFTA. I'm wondering, is it the President's view that the United States negotiated a bad agreement with NAFTA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is the President's view -- and he's talked about this publicly -- that there are some lesson that we can learn from NAFTA. For example, NAFTA did not include enforceable labor protections. It includes some labor protections, but they're included in essentially a side agreement that was not enforceable. NAFTA did not include enforceable environmental protections. And again, there's a similar mechanism where they were included in the side letter that wasn't enforceable.
And the fact is that both Canada and Mexico are among the countries that are negotiating this Trans-Pacific Partnership. So it does give us an opportunity to modernize and improve NAFTA based on the higher enforceable standards that would be put in place through TPP, if we're able to reach an agreement.
Q Okay. And then I want to ask you this. Yet more relations about the Clinton Foundation, the Clintons' network of charities, this latest involving their health initiative, Health Access Initiative. Once again, we're learning that the Clinton Foundation did not disclose foreign donors as they had assured the President -- as Secretary Clinton had assured the President she would. So I have to ask you again. Is the President disappointed that Secretary Clinton apparently did not live up to the very promises of transparency that she promised the President she would?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, the President continues to be very proud of the exemplary service that Secretary Clinton performed at the State Department.
Q I know he's proud of her service. But I'm asking -- she said she was going to disclose foreign donors to her family's charities and she did not -- time and time again.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I see that there have been some statements from the Clinton Foundation about their intent to correct some previous errors that had been made in previous tax filings and things. But I'm, frankly, not aware of all the details.
Q Well, I mean, I'll give you just one. I mean, the Clinton Health Access Initiative -- while she was Secretary of State, their contributions from governments, almost all of them foreign governments -- this is in the Boston Globe story today -- doubled from $26.7 million to $55.9 million. While she was Secretary of State, foreign governments doubling the amount of money that was going to this Clinton charity and none of it disclosed.
MR. EARNEST: Right. But also no evidence to indicate that those contributions had any impact on any policy decisions that she made.
Q Is that the law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that --
Q But do you have to prove bribery? Is that the only thing that would be a problem is out-and-out bribery? I mean, if the President came in --
MR. EARNEST: The lack of evidence certainly hasn't prevented others -- her political opponents from making those kinds of accusations.
Q But is that the bar the President set?
MR. EARNEST: I think the point is that we have seen those accusations flying pretty fast and furious, and that's --
Q I didn't ask you about that accusation. I asked about her promise to be transparent with the donors from foreign governments while she was Secretary of State. This was a promise she made to the President. It was part of her confirmation process. The senators that voted for her confirmation were reassured by this. Now we're looking back and see that that promise was not kept. And I'm asking, does the President have any concern about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, based only on what I read in the public reports, it's apparent to me that the Clinton Foundation is going back to remedy the mistakes that they have acknowledged that they've made in the past when it comes to reporting.
Q Is that enough for the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we'll have to see what steps the Clinton Foundation intends to take. But based on what they have said publicly, it sounds like they are serious about correcting those mistakes.
Q This week -- in fact, today, we marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. What lessons from that experience might you think have guided President Obama as he ends the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: That's not where I thought you were taking that question. That's why I'm pausing. Well, let me tell you the first thing that popped into my head as you were talking about this, that, obviously one of the reasons the President is pursuing this Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is it is an opportunity for the United States to more deeply engage in the Asia Pacific region and the President sees a clear economic benefit for the American people in doing so; that there continues to be a risk that as the United States were to disengage from that region that we would see China move aggressively into what they consider to be their sphere of influence and essentially write rules of the road that would put American businesses and American workers at a significant disadvantage.
Of course, the reason they would write the rules of the road that way is it would significantly advantage Chinese economic opportunities. And that's, frankly, not what the President wants to see. And that's part of the case that he's going to make to Democrats, which is that if you're concerned about the status quo, if you're concerned about the significant number of countries and companies that try to capitalize on cheap labor to gain an unfair advantage over American businesses and American goods and services, that we need to change that. And one important way we can change that is to go in and raise standards in an enforceable way both when it comes to worker protections and environmental protections. And that's exactly what's contemplated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
And what's important about this is that when we're talking about the Asia Pacific region, we're talking about some of the most dynamic, populated markets anywhere in the world, which means that there's a tremendous economic opportunity. We're talking about large markets where the United States can more effectively do business. And that would be good for the American economy.
And I guess as it relates to your question, I think it's a testament to how much progress we've made in just the last four decades in terms of representing American interests and creating opportunities for the American people in a region of the world that not too long ago we were fighting a very bloody war.
Q And including the historical reference to Afghanistan and extricating U.S. forces from there as well, the lessons learned from Vietnam. I'm specifically thinking in terms of the vets, how much different vets are treated now than they were back 40 years ago.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no question in the mind of the President -- and I think this is a testament to the way the President conducts himself -- that we are deeply indebted and we deeply honor the service of American men and women who have served overseas in our armed forces.
Obviously, just yesterday the President traveled to Walter Reed to visit some of our men and women in uniform who were wounded overseas. And again, I think that is a testament to the service and sacrifice of American military personnel. And the President, as the Commander-in-Chief, looks forward to the opportunity that he has every quarter to extend in person his gratitude to those Americans who have paid such a deep sacrifice for their country.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to go back to trade. Republicans on the Hill are suggesting that they're just not going to be able to carry the weight of getting the trade promotion authority bill through Congress and that the President has to step up and do more to persuade his own members. Based on what you said about the historical, kind of reflexive resistance in the Democratic Party to these agreements and TPA in general, does he share that view that he is really going to need to change a lot of minds here? Does he feel like he's making progress in that? And to go back to what Jeff asked you, are their specific adjustments he's willing to make to the negotiations or the legislation itself to try to persuade more Democrats they need to vote yes?
MR. EARNEST: First, let me point out the irony of Republicans campaigning very aggressively to win a majority in both Houses of Congress so that they could advance their policy agenda, and three months later, turn around to all of you in asking what the President is going to do to help them get their work done.
Q This is part of the President's agenda.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but on a priority that they themselves have identified. I would acknowledge that, yes, it is also part of the President's agenda, which is why he is going to do his part to make a very aggressive case to the American public and to Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about why the agreement that he is trying to broker with these Asia Pacific countries is clearly in the best interest of the United States, our businesses, our workers, and our broader economy.
And I do believe that the President -- and I think the President feels good about the case that he has to make, and I think that he feels good about the way that it has been received on Capitol Hill. We're under no illusions about changing every single mind on Capitol Hill in both parties, but we do believe that we have a strong case to make. And the President has invested his own time to making that case in person, as evidenced by the fact that this will be among the things that he'll discuss with Democrats that he's meeting with today.
Again, I would just point back to there's only been one vote on TPA in the Congress so far*, and it took place in the Senate Finance Committee. And even though there's a minority of Democrats that serve on that committee, more Democrats voted for it than against it. And that's a very early indication -- I'm not sure that's what the situation is going to look like on the floor, and in fact, I'm pretty sure it won't, but I think it is an indication that Democrats who do spend a lot of time thinking about this issue and looking at it, that there are plenty of reasons for them to support the President's position. *The House Ways and Means Committee also passed a trade promotion authority bill earlier this month.
Q -- there are a lot of political crosscurrents here -- there are Democrats who are already criticizing pro-trade Republicans in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania for their support or anticipated support for fast track trade authority. Will the President tell them to stop making that argument? And if not, isn't that going to undermine his push to get votes -- Republican votes to get this through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the more effective way for the President to rebut that argument is not to tell them to stop doing something, but to actually make the affirmative case about why so clearly an agreement like the one the President is trying to broker is in the best interest of American middle-class families.
And he will do that here in Washington D.C. He'll do that in interviews with some of you. He'll do that in the context of private meetings with members of Congress. And he'll go on the road and make that case to business leaders across the country that this is an agreement that is clearly in the both short-term and long-term best interest of our economy and middle-class families.
Q The last couple of days we heard the President speak directly on racial tension in America. And at times, it almost seemed like he was admonishing the press or the public for just reacting to unrest or spots of trouble. But hasn't his reaction and his response to race mostly been reactionary as well? I mean, the task force was in response to Ferguson. Some of his most pointed statements on race have only been because things have happened. So is this going to be a turning point for the President to speak more about race, or hasn't he been reactionary as well?
Q Well, Michelle, I think it's certainly appropriate for you to note that the President himself has chosen to publicly speak out when there have been flashpoints in these kinds of debates. What's also true, however, is that the President has been focused on these issues for quite some time, particularly in ways that may not necessarily get the active attention of even the press corps that follows him every day.
So I have one good example of this. May 17th, 2013 -- some of you may have been there to cover it -- the President traveled to -- you guessed it -- Baltimore. And the President visited an organization called the Center for Urban Families where he had the opportunity to meet with fathers and families who are working hard to get job-training skills, who are working hard to make sure that their kids were going to a good school, and were looking for some support from the local economy and from other local elected officials as they try to do the right thing and do right by their families.
And the President, over the course of that day that he spent in Baltimore, went to an elementary school where he learned about some early childhood education programs that were working to great effect in that city. He spent time at Ellicott Dredges, a local business in Baltimore that does a lot of business at the port, and then he finished his visit that day by going to the Center for Urban Families.
And my point here is to indicate that, yes, the President is very visible when we have these flashpoints, when the media is paying attention, for a good reason, to some of the very significant, entrenched challenges in communities across the country. But what's also true, and what is undeniable, is that the President is focused on these issues even when you guys aren't. And I don't say that as a criticism; I just say it as a fact.
Q Okay. I mean, there's always this call whenever something does happen for him to go somewhere. I mean, and it's getting to be kind of on repeat now and the response is, well, that's just going to cause a bigger scene. But he talked about it yesterday in saying that he wants to go there when things calm down. And does this mean that he -- when things happen, he actually wants to go and the scene that he would cause is preventing him from going? Or does he feel like it's not productive? Or what's his real take on this whole call for him to show up places when there's trouble?
MR. EARNEST: The concern that he has right now is a very practical one. It's simply that right now we're seeing that significant law enforcement resources in Baltimore are being deployed to try to address some of the instability we've seen in that community over the last few days.
Q But he wants to go? Is that what he was saying?
MR. EARNEST: And the fact is that when the President travels to those kinds of -- when the President travels anywhere, significant law enforcement resources are dedicated to protecting him, directing traffic around his motorcade that can sometimes be pretty inconvenient. And the President's concern is about drawing resource away from the urgent priority that they have right now to allow him to travel somewhere.
So I am confident, as the President expressed in his interview with Steve Harvey, that at some point he would like to have the opportunity to go back to Baltimore and to continue the discussion that he -- frankly, that he was having with people in Baltimore two years ago -- to talk about what additional things can be done to address so many of the entrenched problems in that community.
Q And this reporting that we saw yesterday in the Wall Street Journal about the FBI's facilitating a ransom payment. I know you don't talk about specific instances, but I mean, don't you want to say something about this when you've so many times spoken out again and again, strenuously, on ransom payments?
MR. EARNEST: That's right. Well, Michelle, let me just start by saying that there is a review, a hostage policy review that's underway right now. And that review illustrates a couple of things. The first is it illustrates what a priority it is for this President to try to rescue Americans who are being held hostage around the world.
It also illustrates that the kind of support that is provided to families who are in this unthinkably tragic situation is also a priority for him. And we go to great lengths -- and when I say we, I mean our law enforcement experts, our intelligence officers, even the military go to great lengths to both support those families and to try to rescue their loved ones.
Now, you're right, I'm not going to be in a position to go into private conversations that take place between the FBI or other law enforcement agencies, or intel officials and the families. I'm not going to be in a position to talk in any detail about the tactics or tools that are employed by the FBI, or the intelligence community, or our counterterrorism professionals as they support these families. But what's also true, what's undeniable, is that the families, again, that are in this terrible situation are relying heavily on these government experts.
Now, what's also true -- and this is where you started with your question -- is that we've been definitive about our no ransom, no concessions policy, and it's one that is not subject to this ongoing hostage policy review. And that's because that policy is clearly in our national security interest, that we know that extremist organizations only use ransoms to fund their terror activities.
Q But to put this in very simple terms, non-specifically, isn't facilitating a ransom payment tantamount to okaying it? And is this a practice that is not going to happen in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can't talk about specific tools or tactics that are used by the FBI or our intelligence community --
Q In a philosophical, general sense of looking at two things, isn't helping with a ransom payment tantamount to saying it's okay?
MR. EARNEST: Well, speaking generally, helping with a ransom payment, to use your word, is not tantamount to paying a ransom. And what we are trying to do is to aggressively enforce this policy -- which we do -- while also supporting these families that are relying on the expert advice and support of the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, and other national security officials that are trying to secure the safe return of their loved one.
Q So we can't say that this won't happen again in the future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to talk about any individual conversations that take place between the FBI and individual families. I'm not going to walk through -- and I think for obvious reasons, I'm unwilling to talk about the tactics and tools that the FBI and our military and our intelligence professionals use to try to secure the safe return of their loved one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said yesterday that the United Nations Security Council will need to lift sanctions within a few days of a final agreement being reached. I assume the White House doesn't view that as a realistic timeline.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say that when the President has talked about these ongoing negotiations with Iran we've made clear that any sanctions relief from U.S. sanctions would only be provided once Iran had taken verifiable steps to comply with the agreement.
Obviously the United Nations Security Council -- and it's the permanent members of the Security Council that are engaged in these negotiations with Iran -- will have to decide for themselves the appropriate pace of offering relief from sanctions that are imposed by the United Nations Security Council. That said, the United States has been clear about how we think that should proceed. There seems to be a lot of agreement around the negotiating table about how that should work, but at the same time, it's also part of the ongoing negotiations.
So I don't want to get ahead of where the negotiations are, but we have been definitive about our view that Iran will benefit from some sanctions relief only when they've taken some verifiable steps to implement the agreement in a verifiable way.
Q But even if the U.S. waits and, I guess, reduces the sanctions gradually, if the U.N. sanctions are lifted, that would essentially provide Iran with a lot of sanctions relief given that sanctions from a lot of these nations would pretty much disappear automatically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to prejudge sort of how that sanctions relief would be granted, what pace or at what stage that decision would be made. This is a subject of ongoing negotiations and will ultimately have to be a decision that's made by the members of the United Nations Security Council.
But the other thing that will also be included in these negotiations are snapback provisions that would allow certainly the United States but also the United Nations to snap the sanctions back into place on very short notice if it's detected that Iran is not complying with the agreement. And if they're not complying with the agreement, based on the onerous set of inspections that the President will insist upon including in the final agreement, we'll have a lot of insight into their nuclear program and we'll use that insight to both verify Iran's compliance with the agreement, but also enforce the agreement if we suspect -- enforce the agreement by snapping back in place sanctions if we suspect that Iran is not living up to their commitments.
Q Thanks, Josh. A question about the Highway Trust Fund, which expires at the end of May. The current thinking on Capitol Hill is to have a patch through the end of the year while negotiations continue on tax reform and repatriation. Is that an acceptable plan to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to render final judgment on a proposal that's still being debated and we haven't seen on the House floor -- or on the floor of either House of Congress at this point.
As a general matter, I can tell you that the administration believes that a longer-term solution is one that is far better for the economy -- this is an argument that you hear from Republicans that a longer-term commitment to funding something like the Highway Trust Fund would give our businesses the kind of certainty they need to make the kinds of investments that are critical to the dynamism of our economy. And for a long time the President has talked about the need for Congress to put in place policies that will actually strengthen our economic recovery as opposed to undermine our economic recovery. And short-term proposals to avert disaster is not a responsible way to govern.
Now, in many situations, those short-term proposals are better than the alternative. So that's why we'll evaluate the situation as it moves forward, but it is our strong view -- a strongly held view -- that Congress, as they're contemplating something like funding the Highway Trust Fund, should consider a long-term solution and not just fall back on the kind of short-term solutions that has been characterized -- or that has characterized the strategy previously employed by the Republican Congress.
Q Thanks, Josh. Nancy Pelosi today said that the bill was supposed to improve NAFTA, and yet fellow Democrat Alan Grayson has said this would essentially be NAFTA 2.0. And I'm just curious, can the White House guarantee that if TPP goes through, the American workers won't suffer the sort of losses of jobs that they suffered under NAFTA?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, what the President can guarantee will be included in a TPP agreement, if one can be reached, are enforceable labor protections that were not included in NAFTA. TPP would include enforceable environmental protections that were not included in NAFTA. The President will insist that they include some human rights protections that have not previously been included in trade agreements. And that is an indication of the President's commitment to making sure that we're modernizing the NAFTA agreement.
And again, I can say that because both Canada and Mexico are part of the TPP negotiations. So if we can reach an agreement, we will reach an agreement that would strengthen the kinds of protections that will make it clear that an agreement like this would be in the best interest of the American economy, of American businesses, and American workers.
Q Other Democrats are concerned about fast track. Elizabeth Warren had a letter to the President with Sherrod Brown saying that fast track as currently written would preclude Congress from amending or filibustering any trade agreement submitted to this Congress or any future Congress, potentially through 2021. Is she wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't seen the entirety of the letter. What is envisioned in the trade promotion authority legislation is essentially the most progressive trade promotion authority bill that's ever been passed. As I mentioned, it includes ensuring that we will have enforceable labor provisions -- or enforceable labor protections, enforceable environmental protections, human rights provisions. These are the kinds of things that are consistent with the President's view that a properly crafted trade agreement is one that is clearly in the best interest of American workers.
Q Because we already have -- the American public already has trade deals with some of the countries that are included in the TPP, if it doesn't work out and you're unable to secure the votes to get this worked out, is that a huge loss for the President in one of his signature priorities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President has not been shy about the fact that moving trade promotion authority through the Congress, and if we can reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, that we'd like to move that through the Congress, too, because, again, we believe that that's clearly in the best interest of the U.S. economy and that failing to act on this kind of an agreement, if we can reach one, would be to essentially ratify the status quo.
And that, I know, to many Democrats is unacceptable, that there are concerns about the way that companies benefit from the lower labor standards that exist in other countries in a way that puts American businesses at a significant disadvantage. The best way to change that is to enter into a trade agreement that will raise standards and include enforceable provisions that will level the playing field. And by leveling the playing field, the President is confident that American businesses and American workers can't just compete but they can win in that kind of competition.
And that's what the President is fighting hard to set up, because he knows that, again, if the United States doesn't engage we're going to find China stepping in and tilting the playing field in a way that will put American workers and American businesses at an even more significant disadvantage.
Q You need about 17 or 18. Do you like your odds of getting the votes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to -- I wouldn't want to hazard a guess from here. But I believe that we have a very strong case to make to both Democrats and Republicans. And it's one that I think the President has demonstrated he's willing to make in person.
Q When does the administration plan to make good on its promise of about more than a year ago of raising the overtime pay limit? Now at about $23,600.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update for you on any timing. I know that there's been a lot of speculation about this particular policy proposal, but I don't have any update.
Q A lot, indeed. And people are kind of waiting, expecting it to happen soon.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll keep you posted. If we have an announcement on this to make, I'll be sure you're among the first to know.
Q You got nothing? I mean, is it coming soon?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any timing update at this point.
Q Gee, you're usually better. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: But even you have to admit, that was a little out of left field.
Q I had nothing else. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I didn't say it was inappropriate, just that it was a little out of left field.
Q I don't know if I can top that. There are a number of Republican governors and some Republican state legislatures that seem to indicate that they would be able to get behind the Obamacare Medicaid expansion if there was some sort of work requirement. And I'm wondering if there's any form of that at all that the administration would consider if it meant that thousands, if not millions, of low-income Americans would then be covered.
Q Well, Chris, the administration has demonstrated a willingness in a variety of settings with Democratic and Republican governors to try to tailor agreements that meet the needs of the population in individual states. So whether it is -- one example that I can think of is, in Arkansas, that there was a lot of resistance in the state legislature to expanding Medicaid; that this administration worked closely with the Democratic governor to reach a bipartisan compromise that had the approval of the Democratic governor, that earned the support and approval of Republicans in the state legislature, and ultimately benefitted thousands of people in the state of Arkansas.
And I know that that agreement has been used as a template in our negotiations with other states. And I think that is indicative of the commitment that the administration has to working with individual states to do something really important, which is to make sure that thousands of people who currently do not have health care coverage could get it because of this expanded Medicare proposal that was embedded in the Affordable Car Act.
Q So work requirements are not a problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is something -- this is part of individual conversations that we have with states all across the country. And I'm not aware of any state that reached an agreement with the administration to put in place a work requirement, but these are the kinds of conversations that the administration has demonstrated a willingness to have, and demonstrated that willingness to have those conversations in a way that has yielded significant benefits for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people across the country who have benefitted from Medicaid expansion.
Q And if can just follow up on Michelle's question. The President did say to Steve Harvey, and you reiterated at the podium yesterday, that there is a resource diversion that happens if the President goes into a situation that is incendiary, difficult. And he's said that before when there were questions raised about why he didn't go to North Charleston or to Sanford or to Ferguson, and yet he did not go to those places. And he has also said that -- and other members of his administration have talked about how important it is for him when he gets out and he meets people face-to-face, and he goes into communities and he talks to them. And there's also an optical power to that, as well. So why has he never gone to any of those places? And what of the criticism that it is a reluctance to wade deeper into the race issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just start out by pointing out one other fact, that this phenomenon that we've seen in terms of the impact that a presidential visit has on a local community is something that we've cited in a variety of circumstances; that oftentimes people will say, well, how come the President hasn't had a chance to go and view the damage from the forest fire firsthand, or why hasn't he visited this community that was struck yesterday by a tornado, and the fact is that in those scenarios, there is significant police presence required to respond to whatever significant event has occurred in that local community, and the President's reluctance to draw resources away from that immediate response is the reason that he doesn't often go right away.
So this is a familiar phenomenon and experience -- the point I'm trying to make here it that's not just an excuse, that's an actual fact about what happens when the President travels somewhere.
Q But there are instances, absolute instances where this President and other Presidents have traveled to the scene of whether it's a fire or a natural disaster or instances where you --
MR. EARNEST: But not the day after the tornado. Not the day after. And what we're talking about in Baltimore is a couple of days after we've seen a significant incident.
Now, I don't have any -- I don't want to leave you with the impression that in a week or two, we're going to wait for things to calm down, the President is automatically going to go. That's not the current plan. It could be added to the schedule, but that's not the current plan.
And the fact is I think the President has demonstrated a willingness -- and this is what -- I think this is the substance of the question that Michelle was asking, which is the President has been very visible in talking about these incidents when they've cropped up in ways that have been very powerful and resonated deeply within these communities, even if the President himself hasn't set foot in them. And I think that is an indication of the power of the presidency. And it certainly doesn't rule out a presidential visit to a community like Baltimore or Ferguson sometime in the future.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to kind of stay on Baltimore. Yesterday you were asked about the President's use of the word "thug," and you said he wasn't going to walk it back. But I'm just wondering whether the President or his staff have been aware of the racial connotations of that. You had -- Richard Sherman sort of famously talked about it back a year ago or so. Did nobody think about that? Larry Wilmore last night was, "Et tu, Obama?" -- raising that. It doesn't usually happen when it's like riots of school kids, or sport teams reaction vociferously to losses or wins sometimes, so I'm just wondering why you haven't acknowledged that the word might not have been well received.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Lesley, that the President was trying to draw a very clear distinction between individuals who engaged in criminal acts like burning a CVS, or throwing a cinder block at a police officer, from the vast majority of people in the city of Baltimore who found a constructive and appropriate way to publicly raise their concerns about the treatment of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore Police Department.
And the President is wholly supportive of those citizens who, now not just in Baltimore but in places like New York and Houston and even here in Washington, D.C., where people have taken to the streets in a genuinely peaceful fashion to make their voice heard, and to call for change and to insist for justice for Freddie Gray. That is a legitimate and even honorable expression of one's views in a responsible fashion and the President strongly supported that.
The President also went the next step of praising those individuals who actually sought to defuse the violence, that we did see leaders in the community -- many of them were members of the clergy -- who did try to confront those who were engaged in criminal acts and get them to stop. And the President certainly believes that their courage in speaking out and trying to prevent that kind of violence and criminal behavior is also worthy of our praise and recognition.
And the fact is the President did use some tough language to differentiate between the responsible actions of the vast majority from the criminal actions of a very small group of individuals.
Q Right. But as the nation's first black President, did he not realize that there might be some -- people would hear it in a different way, in a different context, and not listen as soon as that word was used?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lesley, I think it is entirely understandable that when you're talking about a subject as complicated as this one, that there might be a few people who get offended by one word or two. What the President was focused on is making sure that his message was delivered. And I don't think there was any misunderstanding what the President was trying to communicate. And I think that, if anything else, is a strong endorsement of the words he chose in answering the question in the Rose Garden on Tuesday or whatever day that was.
Q Does the President feel that he is just going to get mischaracterized? If he speaks with passion on an issue like this, he is dubbed an angry black man, and yet, if he doesn't engage, he is aloof, he is disengaged. And so it doesn't matter what he does, he's going to be mischaracterized.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that the strongest endorsement of the way that the President spoke at the news conference on Tuesday is that his powerful message I think was received and I think has resonated across the country.
And, yes, there have been some people, frankly, on a variety of sides of this issue who have complained about something that the President says. But people complain about what the President says all the time for a variety of reasons. What the President is most interested in is trying to communicate as forcefully and directly and as clearly as he can to the vast majority of the country, and I think in this instance, in making clear that there is a world's worth of difference between the criminal actions of a small minority and the responsible public expressions of concern by the vast majority of people who are on the streets of Baltimore over the last few days.
Q I wanted to ask you about something that you said very definitively earlier in the briefing. You said that "facilitating a ransom payment is not tantamount to paying the ransom." And I wanted you to explain that a little bit further.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's difficult for me to spend -- to explain that in a lot of detail simply because I can't talk about all of the tactics and tools that are employed by our law enforcement and intelligence professionals when they take steps to try rescue American hostages.
But what I can tell you is that our policy about not paying ransoms or making concessions to terrorists is one that has been in place for decades, and it's not going to change under this President. And the reason for that, as painful as it is, which I've acknowledged in the past, is we know that terrorist organizations use ransom payments to fund additional terror activities, and shutting down that financing method is a top priority.
A few months ago we had David Cohen, who was then a senior official at the Treasury Department responsible for our counterterror finance operations, and he identified in the context of that briefing that ransom payments were a significant concern of ours as it relates to ISIL. But this is true -- we know this applies to other terrorist organizations, as well, that they rely on that source of funding to carry out their acts of violence. And we're focused on trying to shut that down.
Now, what's also true is that this administration -- and this is true of previous administrations, too -- that the FBI, other law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and the military go to great lengths to try to rescue Americans. And those same agencies are also involved in doing everything they can to try to support the families that are in this terrible situation. And that is something that the President also considers to be a priority.
And the best evidence I have for that is that as much effort as we devote to supporting those families, we're currently engaged in a review process to see what more we can do and how we can better support those families that are in that awful situation. And we've solicited feedback from the families themselves in response to some of the recommendations that have been put forward. And I would anticipate that we'll some more details on that review relatively soon.
But that is the policy of the United States. And I think it's one that's also pretty consistent with common sense. There's a clear reason why we don't want to -- why we don't pay ransoms. But there's also a clear reason why the President and the law enforcement agencies that are involved in these situations feel an obligation to the families of those who are being held hostage overseas.
Q So it is okay to facilitate paying a ransom?
Q Thank you. If this was --
Q Is it okay then to facilitate paying a ransom?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, John.
Q If this was a criminal setting and someone paid ransom to get a hostage, and someone then also facilitated the payment of that ransom payment, the person who is the facilitator would be guilty of a criminal conspiracy. And that's why I asked that question, to explain why you don't think it is tantamount to paying ransom for a hostage.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's hard for me to follow the analogy that you drew up. I will acknowledge generally speaking that -- look, we've talked about this quite a bit in the past. These are difficult situations. And it's particularly painful for the families that are in this unthinkable position. And the FBI, our intelligence community, our military, State Department all feel an obligation to try to support these families.
But at the same time, there is a common-sense, I think easily understandable law that it's in place that does not allow the U.S. government to pay a ransom or make concessions to terrorist organizations. And that is a challenge to reconcile those two policies. But on one hand, you have a definitive policy that I've spoken out clearly about many times, and it's a policy that's not going to change. And the question is how do you try to do everything you can to rescue an American that's being held hostage and support their family that's going through living hell at the same time? And that's something that our law enforcement agencies, our intel community, our military, and our diplomats go to great lengths to try to do.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: Jerry, go ahead.
Q Josh, earlier you suggested that it's a Republican priority -- House and Senate Republican priority to pass the TPP. I know that the President met with Democratic Leader in the House Nancy Pelosi yesterday. He's meeting with the New Democrat Coalition today. What kind of outreach, coordination, consolidation of whip counts is the President doing with Republicans in both houses of -- chambers of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jerry, we continue to stay in touch with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill on this important policy priority. There is a bipartisan proposal that's moved through the Senate Finance Committee that has earned strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. We're gratified by that initial step. We were certainly pleased to see bipartisan support for the most progressive trade promotion authority bill that has ever advanced through the Congress. We're hopeful that that won't just advance through the Senate Finance Committee* but that it will actually advance through the entire United States Senate. *The House Ways and Means Committee also passed a trade promotion authority bill earlier this month.
And that process is underway. And the White House and the administration is engaged with Democrats and Republicans to try to facilitate that effort.
Q Despite having some specific conversations and meetings with Democrats, I'm guessing you don't have any specific meetings or conversations with Republican leaders to read out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, over the last three or four months, has had a number of meetings with Republicans -- most of which you know about -- in which we acknowledged that the President was talking to them about his legislative priorities that include trade legislation. So I don't think it's surprising to anybody to know that the President has had those conversations already, and he's going to continue to have them with both Democrats and Republicans.
Q In your answer earlier you seemed to almost say that it would be -- you said that since they campaigned to get the majority in both chambers of Congress that it would be on Republicans in Congress if the TPP doesn't go through. Is that what you were trying to say? Or am I mischaracterizing that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I was just pointing out that there is a little irony associated with the new Republican majority asking the Democratic President for help in passing one of their legislative priorities.
Now, this President is going to be willing to work with those Republicans to try to advance that specific proposal because it happens to be one of his priorities, as well. But again, presumably Republicans in Congress ran for that job because -- and tried to get the majority because they're interested in trying to speed the passage of their agenda through both houses of Congress. And in this case, we can hopefully work together to do something that both the Democratic President and the Republican leadership in the Congress acknowledge should be a priority.
Q Is he leaning on maybes or nos to try to make them into yeses the same way he's doing on the Democratic side of the aisle?
MR. EARNEST: The President, again, is having a wide range of conversations with both Democrats and Republicans.
In the back.
Q Yes, thank you very much. Two questions. First one, back on Bernie Sanders. Do you think that we can expect the kind of public support from the President as he did for Hillary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: I think I've indicated that the President does not -- I don't have any sort of endorsement to offer in the presidential race at this point. So I don't anticipate that the President has an endorsement to share any time soon. But if that changes, I'm aware of the intense interest among the White House press corps for that kind of news and I'll make sure that it's shared promptly with all of you.
Q Second question, about Charlie Hebdo -- one of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo said in an interview that he was offered a meeting at the White House and he declined. Was there any kind of official invitation from the White House? Are you aware of that?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of that. We can check the veracity of that report for you.
Ali, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to return to the hostage policy one more time.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q The family of James Foley, back in 2014, cited threats by the U.S. government in relation to them trying to raise money to pay for a ransom. So I'm wondering how does that -- how do you reconcile those allegations with the idea that the FBI or other government agencies may have been trying to facilitate a ransom payment in the case of the Weinstein family?
MR. EARNEST: As I've said many times when asked this question, I just am not going to go through the understandably confidential conversations that occurred between any of the families that have been in this situation in recent months and the law enforcement and counterterrorism professionals that have worked with them to try to secure the rescue of their loved one.
Q And I know a lot of people have asked you this. I don't mean to belabor it, but I'm going to anyway.
MR. EARNEST: That's sort of what we do around here. (Laughter.)
Q It's a crass analogy, but isn't this kind of an attempt to split the baby in terms of you have one official policy which is you don't offer ransoms but that at the other time, you have these things which you understandably say you can't get into but that may be somewhat contradictory to that official position.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think -- I guess what I will acknowledge is that these are the kinds of policy dilemmas that crop up on a -- basically on a daily basis around here. Sometimes it seems like hourly. In this case, we're talking about a particularly challenging one given the emotions that involved; that we're talking about a very human situation when you have families who are waiting on pins and needles, worried to death about the safety and well-being of their loved one who is being held hostage overseas. And again, I think it is a credit to our law enforcement officials and to our counterterrorism officials that they feel an obligation to use their expertise and their capabilities to support these families. That's what they should do. That's what the President wants them to do. And in fact, that's why the President ordered a review, is to see what more we can do and how we can better support them.
The President has also demonstrated his own willingness to go to great lengths to try to rescue American hostages. So we obviously have the example from last summer, where the President, as you all know now, and as has been widely reported, ordered a raid into Syria, to put boots on the ground in Syria to try to rescue American hostages there. Unfortunately, that raid, while conducted consistent with the strategy, didn't result in the rescue of American hostages. But there have been other situations where there have been daring raids undertaken and have resulted in the rescue of Americans who were being held hostage.
I'll remind you of the situation of Jessica Buchanan, who was held in Africa. And the President ordered a military operation to put boots on the ground in a foreign land in a dangerous place to secure her rescue. And the President was delighted, and I think the American people were delighted, that that rescue was successful and allowed her to safely return.
Unfortunately, each of these situations haven't ended that way. But against all of that is a policy that's been in place for decades that is clearly in the best interest of our national security, and that is a policy that does not allow the federal government to pay ransom or otherwise make concessions to hostages [sic].
And again, I think people who take sort of an unbiased look at this do acknowledge that this is a thorny policy problem and one that has significant implications for our broader national security, but in some cases, the life of an American citizen who is in a very vulnerable situation. And the President certainly takes this seriously, but just as importantly, our law enforcement officials, our military officials and our intelligence officials who are responsible for reacting to these kinds of situations take it seriously as well.
And we're talking about this particular instance today because of a Wall Street Journal report, but I would anticipate that once we have completed this hostage policy review that we'll have an opportunity to consider some of the recommendations of that review and we'll have another briefing like this one where we'll have an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of the way that this is implemented. But I can tell you that even after that review has been completed, one thing that will not change is our no ransom, no concessions policy.
2:30 P.M. EDT
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|