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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/6/2016

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
January 06, 2016

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:20 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay. There's a lot going on today, as you've seen. Before we go to your questions, there is some news I did want to discuss proactively that all of you have been covering closely.

There's a lot of good news about the American auto industry in today's papers. And the early analysis indicates that the American auto industry has just completed a record year, and that is a pretty stark turnaround. Those of you who have covered the administration from the beginning will recall the rather dark future that was facing the American auto industry in late 2008 and early 2009. But since then, there has been a remarkable turnaround. And one way to illustrate that I think is to actually look at some of the reporting that has been done by outlets represented in this room and, in some cases, journalists who are represented in this room.

So let's start in January of 2009 -- I think we have some graphics here. The New York Times, in January of 2009, had a headline that said, "Markets Declined as Auto Sales Plummet." But earlier this week, they reported that "Auto Industry Sales Explode In An Ever-Changing Market."

The next slide has a Reuters report that notes that "U.S. 2009 auto sales is at a 27-year low." But yesterday, Reuters reported that auto sales in 2015 set a record after a strong December.

The next slide is USA Today -- it covered extensively that in January of 2009 they noted that in 2008 auto sales dropped by 3 million. But then yesterday, they noted that auto sales had soared to a record high by increasing 9 percent year over year.

There were newsprint outlets who were noting this. CBS News had also reported that U.S. auto sales fell 18 percent in 2008, but yesterday, they noted, as others did, that auto sales cruised to a new high in 2015.

Last, but certainly not least is The Washington Post. They noted in January 2009 that "U.S. auto sales fell 36 percent in December." But they reported yesterday -- I believe it was in today's paper -- that U.S. auto sales hit a record high in 2015.

So it's been a pretty stark turnaround. And in many ways, the auto industry is the best way to illustrate how strongly the U.S. economy has come back since the depths of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Now, a key part of this was a decision that the President made in his first couple of months in office to bail out the American auto industry. This is something of which the American public was deeply skeptical. Before the President officially took office in December of 2008, there was a CNN poll, Jim, that showed that 61 percent of those surveyed opposed government assistance for major U.S. automakers. A Gallup poll from a similar time period found that 51 percent, a very slim majority of Americans, opposed the federal government giving major financial assistance to the Big Three U.S. auto companies. That same question was opposed by 65 percent of Republicans.

In March of 2009, about the same time that the President was announcing his plan to bring the auto industry back, a poll found that 63 percent of Americans said extending loans to General Motors and Chrysler to help the automakers stay in business was the wrong thing for the government to do. As you'll recall, that actually was the strategy that was implemented by the Obama administration. And since mid-2009, after the strategy was implemented, the U.S. auto industry has added 640,000 new jobs, the strongest growth on record for that industry over that period of time.

Now, let's be honest about the fact that none of this would have been possible without the grit and determination and innovation of American autoworkers and the workers in industries that are critical to the success of the American auto industry. But what's also true is that because of the policy decisions that were made by this administration to place a bet on those workers, America has won, and our economy has been better for it.

And I think all of this is an apt illustration of what the job of being the U.S. President actually is; that when you're President of the United States, you're faced with weighty choices with significant consequences, and there will be a tendency, understandably so, to be worried about the next poll that's going to come out or the next news cycle, and to be conscious of how likely you are to be sharply criticized for the decision that you make in the immediate aftermath of that decision. But the best Americans Presidents ensure the strength of this country by looking beyond the next news cycle or the next poll, or even the next election, and focusing on the long term. And I don't think there's a clearer case study of that approach to presidential leadership than the kinds of decisions that President Obama made early in 2009, and the results of those decisions that we're seeing here in early 2016.

So with that long windup, I'm happy to take additional questions about the success of the American auto industry, or anything else that may be on your mind. I think it's possible I may have exhausted any questions that you may have about this topic. (Laughter.) But I think that is merely an endorsement of my opening statement. So either way, I win -- I think. (Laughter.)

But, Josh, go ahead.

Q Thanks, Josh. I want to turn to North Korea.

MR. EARNEST: I thought you might. (Laughter.) I don't know much about the North Korean auto industry. I suspect it's not doing very well.

Q Has the U.S. determined whether there was a nuclear test, what kind of a test it was, and whether it was successful?

MR. EARNEST: Josh, this is a serious subject. The initial analysis that's been conducted of the events that were reported overnight is not consistent with North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test. There is nothing that's occurred in the last 24 hours that has caused the United States government to change our assessment of North Korea's technical and military capabilities.

Now, I hasten to add that we're continuing the work necessary to learn more about the nuclear test that North Korea conducted last night. But you've probably seen by now the extensive independent analysis that's been done in the United States and in other countries that includes significant and understandable skepticism of the claims of the North Korean regime.

So we're obviously going to continue to look at this by monitoring the situation, assessing the available data and evidence. But the initial analysis is not consistent with the claims that the regime has made of a successful hydrogen bomb test.

Q So, at this point, can you rule out that it was an H-bomb? Or just, so far, you haven't seen that --

MR. EARNEST: Based on this initial analysis that has been completed, the initial analysis indicates that the initial analysis is not consistent with the North Korean claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test.

Q Regardless of what this was, it was clearly a provocative act. And, Josh, every time that North Korea does something like that and we all have this response about what we're going to do about it, there seems to be some lack of confidence that the options that we have available to us through the U.N., such as sanctions, are really up to the job of stopping North Korea from going down this path. We slap some new sanctions on them, and they basically ignore it and keep doing what they're doing. Is the White House confident that the new sanctions that you're calling for today at the Security Council, for example, are capable of securing your goal of preventing North Korea from becoming a nuclear state?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, you're right to point out that any kind of nuclear test like the one that North Korea conducted last night is provocative and a flagrant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions -- not just one, but any number of them. And based on reports of that nuclear test, both the United States and Japan called an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting. That meeting did recently conclude, and the result of that meeting was that additional measures against North Korea would be considered for the violation of their international obligations.

What is true is that North Korea continues to be one of the most isolated nations in the world. And their isolation has only deepened as they have sought to engage in increasingly provocative acts. These include not just nuclear tests, but some of the ballistic missile tests that have attracted some attention over the years, as well. What the United States has succeeded in doing under the leadership of President Obama is not just further isolating the North Koreans, but also cementing the international unanimity of opinion that North Korea needs to end these provocations, needs to commit to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, and demonstrate a commitment to some peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

And it is notable that it's not just our stalwart allies in the Asia Pacific, like South Korea and Japan, who are voicing their disapproval of these North Korean actions, it's also notable that our collective statements are echoed by countries like China and Russia, with whom we don't always agree. So we've already seen quite strong statements from those countries that echo the sentiments that I have just relayed to you. And I think that is an indication that the interest of the United States can be successfully advanced through principled, focused, tenacious, diplomatic engagement. And that's what we're going to continue to pursue.

Q If sanctions and diplomacy don't work, is military option on the table if North Korea continues to march towards a nuclear weapon?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, the thing that I should reiterate at this point is the rock-solid commitment on the part of the United States to the safety and security of our allies in South Korea. That commitment also extends to the safety and security of our allies in Japan. And we have demonstrated our significant investment in that security relationship, and there's no doubting the strength of that commitment.

But, at this point, what we want the North Koreans to do -- and when I say "we," I don't just mean the United States, I mean our allies and our partners in the Six-Party Talks -- is we want the North Koreans to end their provocative acts both in the form of missile tests and nuclear tests, to commit to denuclearization, and to demonstrate a commitment to pursuing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. We're not asking them to do that out of charity. We actually also believe that that would be in the interest of the North Korean people and certainly the broader region. And that was the goal of the Six-Party Talks. And we would like the North Koreans to begin to orient their public posture and their behavior in the direction of constructive international engagement.

Q And one other topic, I wanted to ask you about an internal timeline from the State Department on the political transition for Syria that was obtained by the AP. And maybe you can't talk about the document itself, which lays out March 17th as -- I'm sorry -- March 2017 as the best-case scenario for when President Assad would relinquish his office. But I'm wondering if it's fair at this point to say that the White House does not envision a scenario where President Assad leaves office prior to the time that the President does.

MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I think we've been quite clear in our view that Bashar al-Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead the country of Syria. And we don't just say that out of our moral objection to the way he has violently attacked his own people. I say that as an observation about his inability to lead a country where most of the citizens have been victims of his violence. It would just be impossible for somebody who had that much blood on their hands to succeed in uniting and governing that country successfully.

So it's not just that we find his actions morally repugnant, it's just, as a practical matter, he won't be able to lead that country and unify it in a way that we can bring it into the political chaos, that we can begin to address the significant security situation inside of Syria that has allowed a terrorist organization like ISIL to gain a foothold, we can begin to address the root causes of the millions of people that have fled their homes inside of Syria.

There are a lot of problems, and they all trace back to Bashar al-Assad. And it's not possible to envision a scenario in which he could succeed, even just as a practical matter, in leading that country. And that's why we have always envisioned a political transition that includes Bashar al-Assad leaving power, and the Syrian people having some say over the future of their country. The Syrian people shouldn't be in a position where they have to choose between a dictator and a brutal terrorist organization running their country.

Q My question is really about the timing. Do you see any chance for that happening before this presidency is over?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn't set a timeline for it. There's an ongoing process that is being painstakingly negotiated right now. This is a process that's being led by the U.N. But we wouldn't have made as much progress as we have thus far without the leadership of Secretary Kerry in his efforts to bring the international community together to be engage in these talks.

The United States is obviously invested in seeing these political and diplomatic discussions make some progress. But I would -- given all the starts and stops that we have seen as this political transition process has been pursued, I'd be reluctant to make any public predictions about when certain mile posts will be reached.

Ayesha.

Q Going back to North Korea, has the U.S. deployed equipment that would detect a vapor that would tell us about the nature of the nuclear test, an authenticity of North Korea's claims? Or do you plan -- or does the U.S. plan on launching such equipment?

MR. EARNEST: Ayesha, I don't have a lot of details to share with you. I can tell you that the United States will be collecting additional evidence and conducting an additional analysis to learn more about the nuclear test that North Korea conducted last night. We'll obviously be working closely with our allies and partners in the region who have their own capabilities that can be brought to this collection and analysis of data. And as we have more analysis to share, we'll try to do that.

Q And can you talk a bit about what -- as the United States and U.N. are considering additional options in light of this action by North Korea, what could be done as far as sanctions? You talked about earlier how the country is already isolated, already very poor. What actions -- what additional sanctions could actually be taken? And then also, could you talk a bit about -- it seems that China would have to play a major role in enforcing any sanctions against North Korea for them to really take effect. So can you talk a bit -- has the U.S. reached out to China on that issue? What would the U.S. like to see China do in response to the action from North Korea?

MR. EARNEST: Both of these are very good questions. Let me start with the first one, which is the United Nations Security Council right now is taking a look at what additional steps can be taken, what additional measures can be deployed to further isolate the North Koreans as a result of their provocative acts.

You're right, North Korea is a country whose citizens are enduring extreme poverty and extreme isolation from the international community. All of that is a result of the failed leadership of the North Korean regime. And the international community is united in insisting that the North Korean regime needs to end their provocative acts, end the missile tests, end the nuclear tests, and actually commit to a process of pursuing peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. Then we could start to see North Korea emerge as a constructive participant in the international community.

We obviously would welcome that development. It would be good for the nation of North Korea. It would be even better for the people of North Korea. There also would be obvious benefits for the broader region of Northeast Asia. And that's obviously the direction that we're headed.

There's no denying the significant role that China will play in all of this. The subject of North Korea and their repeated violations of their international obligations is something that the President discusses with his counterpart just about every time they get on the phone or meet in person. And this is something that the two leaders discussed when President Xi was at the White House this past fall, and there was an agreement out of that meeting that neither the United States, nor China will accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state.

Again, that is a testament to how unified the international community is on this issue. There are plenty of things on which the United States and China disagree, and all of you have spent some time talking about those disagreements when President Xi was in Washington. But this is an issue on which we do agree, and that agreement is significant because of the important role that China plays as a neighbor of North Korea.

I would anticipate that -- there already have been conversations between U.S. officials and Chinese officials. I can tell you that the President's National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, recently completed a conversation with the Chinese ambassador to the United States to discuss this very issue.

Q Today?

MR. EARNEST: Yes, when I say "just finished," I mean shortly before I walked out here.

Q And this was --

MR. EARNEST: This is Susan Rice, the President's National Security Advisor, and the Chinese ambassador to the United States.

Jim.

Q You mentioned that the United States and other allies, meaning China and Russia, are condemning what happened in North Korea and that additional sanctions may come down the road. What good, though, does that do when it comes to North Korea? This is already the most isolated regime in the world. It's already facing crippling sanctions. What more can you do to North Korea?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think what we can do is basically make clear to them that there is only one path out of the extreme poverty and isolation that they currently face. And it's not a path that is advanced by pursuing nuclear weapons; it is actually a path that they can follow by ending their provocative acts, ending the missile tests, ending the nuclear tests, and demonstrating some sort of commitment to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. That is the path that North Korea has to escape the poverty and isolation that has led millions of North Koreans to suffer needlessly.

Q And Hillary Clinton put out a statement a little while ago saying that the Chinese need to be tougher. Does the White House agree with that? Do the Chinese need to be tougher with North Korea?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I can tell you that the United States is committed to working closely with the international community, including the Chinese, who obviously have significant influence here, to try to address the situation and to make it clear to the North Koreans what their options are, and to describe to them the situation that I just described.

Q Do they have a more constructive role, would you say?

MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are going to be talking with China about what role we believe they can play. But, look, Jim, the Chinese were definitive. President Xi was definitive when he visited with President Obama here at the White House last fall that China will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. That obviously is the position of the United States. And we're going to work together as the world's two largest economies, two of the more influential nations in the world, and we're going to work together to accomplish that goal.

The fact that we'll also be working with our allies in South Korea and our allies in Japan -- there aren't also a lot of things that Japan, South Korea, and China agree on, but yet this is one of them. So there is a lot of -- there's unanimity of opinion here about what North Korea needs to do.

Q And earlier today, Speaker Ryan described the executive actions that were laid out by the President yesterday as a distraction. What did you make of that? I guess the Speaker is trying to say that what you announced yesterday won't really amount to much and that this is an attempt to distract the country from problems in the country right now.

MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of different ways I guess I could --

Q Pretty heartfelt statement that was made by the President yesterday and the Speaker comes out and says, well, it was a distraction.

MR. EARNEST: Yes. Well, I guess you probably would have to ask the Speaker what he was talking about. I think the President -- again, I think as was evident from his comments yesterday, does believe the fact that 30,000 Americans are killed by guns every year that this is a significant problem and that there are some common-sense things that can be done to prevent gun violence. And the President is determined to take action where he can. And that's what the President announced yesterday.

One of those common-sense steps is closing the gun show loophole, something that, in 2013, Speaker Ryan described as "obvious and very reasonable." But I did note that in his news conference today, he said "there isn't a loophole." So, as confusing as his declaration about a distraction is, it's a quite alarming reversal of opinion for him to say that the gun show loopholes are a reasonable issue and it's "obvious that it should be addressed," and now three years later, he's denying that it even exists.

So I guess there are a lot of questions that are raised by Mr. Ryan's comments today.

Q And has the President met with Speaker Ryan yet, personally, since he became Speaker?

MR. EARNEST: I don't know that they've had any face-to-face conversations. I can tell you that --

Q It doesn't sound like the relationship is off to a very good start. You've been hammering the Republicans pretty consistently, and then the Speaker comes out today and makes this comment today. It doesn't sound like the relationship is off to a promising start.

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think the legislative success that we saw at the end of last year I think is a testament to the ability of the President and the Speaker to work together to try to find common ground in some areas. The budget agreement was obviously significant. We feel good about the results of that process. It certainly was a compromise process, but it was one that was important nonetheless.

We've seen significant reform of the "No Child Left Behind" law enacted. We've seen the Ex-Im Bank reauthorized. We've seen reforms to the IMF that the President has sought for five or six years now finally be approved by the Congress. To say nothing of the transportation bill that Democrats and Republicans have long sought. All of that has happened since Speaker Ryan took office. And I do think that is an indication that there is an actual ability of the two leaders to work together.

But there is no denying that there are significant differences on a range of policy issues and certainly a commitment to reducing gun violence would be one of them. But Speaker Ryan, at the same time, has noted a couple of things. We need to do more to enforce gun laws and we need to expand access to mental health care to address this problem. We agree. And there will be an opportunity for Speaker Ryan to actually do what he says. And hopefully he will when it comes to those issues.

Mara.

Q Just one question about guns. A lot has been made out of the fact that many of these recent mass shooters got their guns legally, passed background checks. And one of the things that would certainly decrease the number of victims is a ban on assault weapons. And the President hasn't really talked about that recently. I know it couldn't get anywhere in Congress, but I'm wondering why he doesn't talk about that anymore.

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President has been focused on lately are actions that he can take using his own executive authority. And it is not possible, using only his executive authority, for the President to reinstate the assault weapons ban, but it surely is something that the President supports. Over the last couple of weeks -- or the last month or so, that's a position of the President's that I've repeated a couple of times, and it certainly is a position that the President continues to believe would make the country safer. But there continues to be entrenched opposition in Congress to reinstating that ban.

I will note -- I don't think I have it in front of me, but as I recall, former President George W. Bush, when he was running for President, noted his support for reinstating the assault weapons ban.

So, again, you're right, we don't talk about it as much, but it's a position that didn't previously attract a whole lot of controversy, at least if it's a position that was held by the conservative Republican President and his progressive Democratic successor.

Q Is the point of tomorrow's town hall meeting for the President to focus on the executive actions he's described this week, or to talk about gun violence in a much broader way?

MR. EARNEST: The goal of the town hall meeting is for the President to engage with both people who support his position on gun safety, but also to have a conversation with those who don't agree with some of the President's positions on these issues.

And, look, the President has often said that we can disagree without being disagreeable. And when it comes to protecting our constitutional rights and protecting our kids, surely we should be able to find some common ground even if we don't agree on all the particulars. And the President is hopeful that he can have an enlightening discussion.

And I'm confident that there will be an opportunity for the President to discuss the executive actions that he announced yesterday that we do believe will make our communities safer. But I'm also confident that it will spark a broader conversation about additional steps that state and localities can undertake to make their communities safer about how gun manufacturers and gun dealers and gun store owners could assume greater responsibility for their actions. And I'm confident that there will be a discussion of the politics of this issue, too. After all, we do see this as a very good example of how political dysfunction on Capitol Hill has serious consequences for the safety and security of communities and kids all across the country.

Margaret.

Q Josh, Happy New Year.

MR. EARNEST: Happy New Year, nice to see you.

Q Nice to see you. Can you give us any detail on how the President was informed, when he was informed about this test, and whether it was Ambassador Rice and if in this phone call with the Chinese ambassador, if she requested a conversation between President Xi and President Obama?

MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President has been briefed a couple of times on this issue. I don't have the timing of the mechanisms to relay to you for how that occurred. But the President has been thoroughly briefed on this as recently as this morning.

I can tell you that before the end of the day, the President is hoping that he'll have the opportunity to speak on the phone both with Prime Minister Abe and President Park of South Korea. We're still working to schedule those calls -- it's obviously the middle of the night over there. But if those calls are completed, we'll be sure to let you know.

Obviously, consulting with our allies in the region and reiterating our steadfast commitment to their security is a priority at this time, and that's something that the President will do personally as conversations with those two leaders. I know that there have been a number of U.S. officials that have been in touch with their counterparts just in the last 18 hours or so. I know that Secretary Kerry has communicated with both his Japanese and Korean counterparts. I know that Secretary Carter has been in touch with his South Korean counterpart as well. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken will be traveling to the region next week, I believe, to discuss these issues with our partners in the region.

So there is some -- there's a lot of engagement and discussion of these issues that are ongoing. I think all of it underscores what I was describing earlier, though, which is that the international community is united in our belief that Iran -- that the North Koreans need to end their provocative actions and commit to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

Q Did Ambassador Rice speak to the Chinese ambassador in person or on the phone? Was he summoned here?

MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he was summoned here, but he was here in person to speak with Ambassador Rice today.

Q And then more broadly -- you threw Iran in there.

MR. EARNEST: I know, I'm sorry.

Q No, no, I think it's actually a good pivot because we've heard so much from this administration -- (laughter) -- I didn't mean the pun on that one, either -- you've heard so much from the administration on direct engagement, the need to speak directly to Iran is the best way to denuclearize that state or prevent it from becoming a nuclear state. Why not the same with North Korea? Because your critics love the talking point that Dennis Rodman is the American who's spent the most time with Kim Jong-un. Why with this administration -- direct engagement not a choice?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess there are a variety of reasons for that. Each country is different, and so our approach to each country is going to be a little bit different. What's true about the North Koreans is that they -- well, they essentially acquired nuclear weapons under the previous administration, and so the President inherited a situation where he was already dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The situation with the Iranians was different. And what is true now about the Iranians is that they have begun to take steps in a verifiable way to confirm that they don't have a nuclear weapon and will not acquire one. So there was a significant development in the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action over the holidays where the Iranians announced that they had shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of their country, consistent with the obligations under the international agreement to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That's a significant step.

The North Koreans already had nuclear weapons when the President took office. What we have also seen on the part of the North Koreans is an apparent willingness to accept international isolation. In our dealings with the Iranians, the President had -- well, obviously, we're dealing with a much bigger country, a much bigger and more developed economy, and an economy with much greater and deeper economic ties all around the world. That's why it was much harder, again, as a practical matter, to build an international coalition to isolate the Iranians.

And it was painstaking work. And Secretary Clinton has, rightly, taken some credit for some of her work in this regard in flying around the world to convince other partners of the United States to help us enforce the sanctions that were in place against Iran. And by applying that pressure to Iran, we gave them an incentive -- because they had a desire to reengage with the world -- they now had an incentive to start to live up to their international obligations and to verify for the international community that they had not acquired a nuclear weapon.

So those are just two differences. But I do think that they underscore why a different approach was required and, ultimately, why a different approach -- an approach with Iran is on the track to success.

Q But you just also talked about, in the case of North Korea, that they've accepted international isolation. So adding on more sanctions only feeds into that same problem. Outsourcing it to China, some would say, in terms of reining them in, hasn't prevented this type of testing. Is it the view of this administration that the capabilities of North Korea so far just make it a nuisance -- a bad actor, but not a threat -- to the national security of the U.S.?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that we take the provocations and these violations of their international obligations quite seriously. We do have the expectation that the North Koreans will live up to U.N. Security Council resolutions and international obligations that the rest of the international community abides by.

Q Even though they don't?

MR. EARNEST: Well, but the expectation of the United States and the international community is that they should. And I mean, it's notable that North Korea is the only country that over the last 15 years has conducted a nuclear test. So that's an indication that there is value to protecting the international unanimity of opinion as we pressure the North Koreans. But, yes, ultimately the North Koreans will have to decide for themselves exactly how they want to reengage with the international community. And the international community has made clear that the only way they can do that is to end their provocative acts and commit to a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Q But at this point, it sounds like you're saying a new approach is not needed, even though the President has spent a lot of time talking about prioritizing denuclearization and a lot of time talking about refocusing on Asia. But the policy so far has not led to the kind of reengagement and taking these actions that you're calling for. So are you doubling down on that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm suggesting that the fact that we see these provocative acts from the North Koreans is an indication that we aren't getting the results that we'd like to see yet. But we do continue to have a steadfast commitment to the security of our allies in South Korea. We have a steadfast commitment to the national security of our allies in Japan. And we're concerned about the destabilizing impact that North Korea's provocative acts have on the broader region.

The Chinese and the Russians are concerned about that, too. And that's why we're working hard to keep the international community together and to make it clear to North Korea that there's only one path back that will be good for the North Korean people, be good for the North Korean economy, be good for the country of North Korea in terms of their ability to engage with the international community.

Margaret.

Q I got a couple. Just some cleanup on North Korea. Shockingly, the Republican presidential candidates have held up the latest test as evidence that President Obama has a weak foreign policy that invited North Korea to do this. Generally weak -- weak because you didn't immediately sanction Iran after the most recent thing; and that it's also Hillary Clinton's fault because she was Secretary of State at the time. So I just wanted to give you an opportunity to respond. Do you think there's any merit to any of that? Or if not, why do you think Republicans are saying that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I think they're saying that because they're trying to win votes from conservative Republicans in the presidential primary. That's the way our process works, and they're certainly entitled to do that. But we've heard a lot of campaign rhetoric but not a lot of specific, tangible suggestions about what should be done differently. And I think that is not unique in the context of an election. But that's why the President is focused on confronting this challenge by making our national security interests the top priority. My guess is that the priority of some of the candidates is right now focused on their presidential ambitions.

Q Also, I wanted to ask you whether the President is -- what the President's reaction is to the fact that questions are now being raised by some of Ted Cruz's -- well, by one of Ted Cruz's opponents about the nature of his birthplace and whether that qualifies him to run for President, and whether he in any way enjoys watching that play out?

MR. EARNEST: I don't know if he does, but I sure do. (Laughter.) Look, it would be quite ironic if after seven or eight years of drama around the President's birth certificate, if Republican primary voters were to choose Senator Cruz as their nominee -- somebody who actually wasn't born in the United States and only 18 months ago renounced his Canadian citizenship.

Q Do you think he's a legitimate candidate? Are you questioning his -- okay. (Laughter.) And then perhaps this is a question better posed for Hillary Clinton given her love of burrito bowl, but I wanted to ask you whether the White House is following the situation with Chipotle, whether you have any national health concerns about the -- as of yet, not completely understood -- the nature of the E. coli outbreak, whether you have any reaction to that at all.

MR. EARNEST: I've seen some of those reports, but for a detailed reaction, why don't I have somebody else follow up with you?

Let me also clarify, Margaret, one thing that you and I just discussed. North Korea is the only country in the last 15 years to test a nuclear device. I think I said nuclear test earlier, so just trying to be precise here.

Mary.

Q A question about the timing of all of this. Did the administration have any indication that this test was happening, or was this a surprise?

MR. EARNEST: Well, it was not a surprise, and I think the best way I think I can describe that to you is that about a month or so ago I was asked, based on public reports about North Korea's intentions, about whether or not we believed they had a hydrogen bomb. And so I expressed some skepticism of their claims at the time. I think that's a pretty clear indication not just to us but to all of you and to the public of what they were up to.

Q But specifically, this day, this precise timing, not just that they were working on -- the timing of this you knew was coming?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say that based on -- I can tell you that the United States government was not surprised.

Dave.

Q Thanks, Josh. You made a reference to the town hall meeting coming up tomorrow night and that the President wants to have a conversation about guns with those that don't agree with him. Can you flesh that out a little bit? Are you expecting that to take place tomorrow night at this town hall meeting at a campus in Northern Virginia?

MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll have a little bit more detail about the event tomorrow. But the audience will include not just people who agree with the President, but also some people who have views that differ from his on this issue. And our expectation is that when the President takes questions from the audience, that people with different kinds of views will be given the opportunity to ask a question. Obviously the journalist at CNN will decide exactly who attends and who gets called on. But my expectation is that they think that that kind of discussion would be more interesting and more fruitful. And that's certainly what we're hoping for.

Q Is the White House exerting less control over this event and who attends than typically in the past?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I'll just say that it's CNN that will be -- we've consulted with CNN about who will be in the audience, but ultimately it's CNN who is making the call about who will participate. And I think that's actually typical of most of our events, that the general public is generally invited when the President is on the road and some of the people who attend will be specifically invited by the White House, but it certainly is not uncommon for the general public to be invited.

Max.

Q On the gun orders, considering the President signed more than two dozen following Sandy Hook, how come the ones announced yesterday, it took three years for them to be developed and they didn't come out before?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Max, the process that the administration undertook to review the law and carefully consider what sort of authority the President could exercise under existing law was painstaking. And there was a lot of work done to determine how far the President could do based on the authority that he's given by the law. And the emphasis was on the kinds of actions that would actually address the problem that we've identified, which is that it's too easy for criminals to get their hands on guns. And then the question is, what is it that the President has within his authority to do about it? And there's a lot of work involved that was carried out by lawyers at the Department of Justice and in close consultation with White House officials, as well, as you'd expect. And that's what resulted in the announcement you saw yesterday.

Q And what further guidance has the White House given the state of Connecticut's Governor when it comes to his attempt at banning people on a no-fly list from purchasing guns in the state?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Max, we obviously believe this is a pretty common-sense proposal. If the government has determined that it's too dangerous for you to board an airplane, then it should be too dangerous for you to buy a gun. And we believe that Congress should actually pass a law, a national law that would prevent those who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun.

Q So you think that would be a power best for Congress, not necessarily the state of Connecticut?

MR. EARNEST: Well, the state of Connecticut has obviously been quite aggressive in taking the kinds of common-sense steps that we believe should be implemented all across the country. I don't have an update for you in terms of conversations that have taken place between the administration and Governor Malloy's office on this issue, but we obviously believe that this is a common-sense proposal that the United States should pass and should go into effect all across the country. The good news is that there are -- there's at least one Republican presidential candidate who agrees that this is a good idea. So there's no reason that this has to be a partisan thing. But again, it would not be the first time that the Republican-dominated Congress has blocked a common-sense proposal that has bipartisan support.

Andrew.

Q I want to go back to North Korea. Now that it seems very likely that North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests during the Obama administration, in retrospect, do you think that the administration's policy was the correct one?

MR. EARNEST: Andrew, I think it is true that we have not achieved our goal, but we have succeeded in making North Korea more isolated than ever before, and the international community more united than ever before about the fact that North Korea needs to bring a halt to their nuclear activities. The North Koreans have flagrantly violated their international obligations, including a variety of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

And, you're right, it's not the first time that they have done that. But there continues to be strong international unanimity of opinion about the correct approach here and about the steps that North Korea can take to reengage with the international community. And ultimately, the North Koreans will have to decide when they're ready to begin taking those steps. Right now, they apparently are under the misimpression, the wrong impression that there is a path to integrating into the international community that can be pursued by developing nuclear weapons. They're just wrong about that.

And the United States is not the only country to say that they're wrong about that. China, Russia, South Korea, Japan all agree. And what we seek is a North Korea that is prepared to renounce their nuclear intentions, abide by their international obligations, and actually pursue the kind of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula that would actually benefit the North Korean people.

Q While you wait for North Korea to try and change their calculus, it seems like there's a cycle developing. North Korea tests something, there are more sanctions; they test again, there are more sanctions, all the while, it develops more and more dangerous technology. I mean, where is the red line? Is it attacking South Korea? Is it developing a hydrogen bomb? Is it miniaturizing that bomb, putting it on a warhead and pointing it at the U.S.? I mean, where is the line?

MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no denying the U.S. commitment to protecting the national security of our allies in South Korea. There are thousands of U.S. military personnel on the Korean Peninsula right now who can testify to that fact. And what I can say is that we continue to be confident in our ability to protect the United States from the threat that's emanating from North Korea. And we do believe that resolving this situation would resolve a lot of the instability in Northeast Asia right now. And that would be a good thing for our allies and partners in Asia.

Kevin.

Q Josh, Happy New Year.

MR. EARNEST: Same to you.

Q I wanted to follow up on something Margaret was asking, and that is, is the broader strategy vis-à-vis North Korea working, given that since 2009 there's been no conversation? Is it working, would you say, or not working?

MR. EARNEST: Well, we have not yet seen the kinds of results that we would like to see. But what we have succeeded in doing is making North Korea more isolated than ever before, and the international community more united than ever before; that North Koreans need to end their provocative acts, give up their nuclear program, and actually commit to a process that will bring greater peace and stability to the Korean Peninsula.

Q Is it your view that the President bears some responsibility for this, based on the fact that they haven't been talking to North Korea, the Six-Party Talks haven't been moving forward? Is there any responsibility from this perspective, the U.S., given the fact that actors like Assad and Putin and Un and even Iran continue to sort of poke their finger in the chest of the United States?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't think that's the situation that we see. What we have succeeded in doing is actually ensuring that Iran will not be able to develop a nuclear weapon.

Bashar al-Assad is in a situation where his country has been torn apart by his own failed leadership. And, yes, the international community is sitting down thanks to the leadership of the United States to plot the political transition that will result in him leaving power. Again, that is somebody whose failed leadership has caused a lot of problems not just for the rest of the world, but for himself as well.

When it comes to North Korea, that is a country that is enduring extreme poverty and extreme isolation. Meanwhile, the rest of the international community stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States as we seek to resolve that situation. I think that is an indication of successful presidential leadership even if we haven't at this point accomplished our ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Q Can you understand how some critics would argue that because this hasn't been a very robust engagement by the United States, that actors like Putin in Crimea, for example, and Assad and even Un are kind of running wild right now in absence of American strong leadership?

MR. EARNEST: Again, I don't think you can "run wild" if you are more isolated than any other world leader. And we certainly are concerned about the destabilizing impact that North Korea's provocative actions are having on Northeastern Asia. And we certainly are concerned about the impact that that could have on the north -- on the national security situation of our close allies like Japan and South Korea. But what is clear is that as the international community continues to work together to confront the situation, the national security interests of the United States are enhanced and our interests are advanced.

Q You mentioned Iran earlier, and I'm wondering if there's a bit of sleight of hand there from the Iranians' perspective -- meaning they're trying to, on the one hand, work with the international community to have sanctions relief, but on the other hand, it's been widely reported that they've been working with the North Koreans, perhaps even using them as a proxy to continue development of their own nuclear ambition. Does the White House understand that view?

MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to the veracity of those claims. Obviously both Iran and North Korea have been subjected to significant sanctions and significant international efforts to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons, and that certainly has had an impact on the ability of both those countries to get access to materials and technology that could advance their efforts.

Q Just so I'm clear, are you saying that the White House doesn't believe that Tehran and Pyongyang are working together in concert in nuclear development, like -- even in this particular test?

MR. EARNEST: I'm just saying that I can't confirm the veracity of those kinds of claims. But I can suggest that there -- because of the leadership of the United States and other international institutions like the United Nations, there are significant barriers to those two countries doing exactly what you described.

Q Last one. Trey Gowdy said his committee has dates on the calendar to interview Mr. Rhodes and Ms. Rice. At this point, they have not said that they would refuse, although Gowdy is willing to issue a subpoena. And I guess the obvious would be, would Rice and Rhodes be willing to testify without the necessity of a subpoena?

MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen that announcement from Mr. Gowdy's committee, but we'll take a look at it and get back to you.

Q Thank you.

MR. EARNEST: Byron.

Q Thanks, Josh. Can I ask specifically about the President's options regarding North Korea? The White House statement overnight said the U.S. would respond appropriately. Can you talk a little bit about what that might mean? Will he use provisions in the executive order that he signed after the Sony hack? Will they be relisted as a state sponsor of terror? What are some of the actions that the United States might take?

MR. EARNEST: Byron, at this point I'm not prepared to sort of list the potential actions that the United States and the international community could take in light of North Korea's nuclear test. But we certainly will consider a wide range of options to appropriately respond to this particular situation. That was the subject of the discussion at the United Nations just this morning at an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting that the United States and Japan convened.

So this is something that we take quite seriously. But I don't have specific potential responses to itemize for you at this point.

Q Doesn't this test show that for all the time the President has invested in Asia, what you've termed the "pivot," that it's failed to result in any sort of changes to North Korean behavior?

MR. EARNEST: We haven't seen the kinds of changes in North Korean behavior that we would like to see. But I do think the President's investment in Asia is at least in part responsible for the unanimity of opinion we see among the Chinese, the South Koreans and the Japanese for confronting this situation. It's notable that those three countries that don't often agree on much do all agree on the appropriate approach here.

It's also notable that the Chinese government has confirmed that they agree with the United States that the international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. That is a result of this administration's efforts to continue to strengthen our ability to work with China on those areas where we can find common ground -- and North Korea is certainly one of them. And our efforts to resolve this situation will certainly be enhanced based on that common ground.

Q Related to China, does the U.S. need to put more pressure on China to get involved in this situation? Has the President prioritized economic issues in climate change in its relationship with China rather than dealing with the North Korean security situation?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, whenever the President sits down to talk to his counterpart -- and whether that was President Hu or President Xi over the last year, year and a half -- the agenda has been filled with lots of items. When you're talking about these two large countries and two large economies, you'd expect that there would be a lot on the agenda. And surely, when they do sit down to talk, they spend a lot of time talking about the economy and climate change and cybersecurity, maritime security and other high-priority issues -- that includes human rights -- that the North Korean issue is one that also comes up.

The Chinese are, understandably, concerned about provocative actions from the North Koreans. Again, instability in Northeast Asia, and on the Korean Peninsula, in particular, has significant consequences for China because they share a border with North Korea. So they're rightly concerned and invested in their own right in trying to resolve the situation. And we certainly are pleased that we've been able to find some common ground around an approach that will apply significant pressure to the North Koreans.

But, look, as you point out and as I've acknowledged here on a number of occasions, our ultimate goal here has not yet been achieved.

Chris.

Q If I can just follow up on Byron's question about the statement from the NSC overnight that there would be an appropriate response to any and all provocations. Even if you're not willing to enumerate what some of the things might be that are on that list, is this something that requires a response beyond what's already out there? In other words, not just doubling down on more of the same.

MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I wouldn't -- that's a difficult question to answer. Presumably, if there's something like that out there, it's not something we would want to announce in advance. If there were a new type of financial sanction that we're prepared to implement, for example, that's something that we would want to do without announcing it in advance.

So let me just say that I'm confident that the President and his national security team will think broadly about the most appropriate way to respond, but also we're going to want to do so in a way that preserves the kind of unanimity of opinion across the world that we see right now. That strengthens our hand in dealing with the North Koreans. And we want to make sure that we're preserving international unity even as we consider a range of steps that we believe will advance the interests of the United States.

Q When you said this is an initial assessment -- how confident is the White House this was not a hydrogen bomb?

MR. EARNEST: Well, I can't give you a detailed assessment at this point because it's only an initial analysis that has been completed. This, after all, is an event that just occurred 18 hours or so ago. But that initial analysis is not consistent with the claims that were made by the North Koreans that they had successfully conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb.

We have determined that they conducted a nuclear test last night. That's based largely on seismic data but also based on information that was collected by our allies and partners in the region. We are certainly interested in examining and analyzing more evidence and more data to see if we can get greater clarity about what exactly did happen.

Q Is anybody else going to be in the meeting with Secretary Kerry and the President?

MR. EARNEST: When they meet today?

Q Yes.

MR. EARNEST: I don't know the answer to that, but we'll keep you posted.

Q Let me just ask you quickly about the announcement yesterday on the executive orders. Even some critics who, frankly, support broader regulation of guns have said that part of the problem is that, one, there's no clear indication of how many more background checks will be conducted, and that the ATF is not, frankly, set up to deal with sort of more work, that 200 agents who are being proposed are barely enough to keep up with attrition, that it's already an agency that's understaffed. It's been behind many other agencies and doesn't even have a permanent director. So even if you work from the assumption that what the White House hopes will happen will happen, which many people are skeptical of, are the ATF and the FBI prepared to deal with it?

MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that in two ways. The first is, one of the proposals that the President has put forward is to invest in actually making the background check system more efficient and more effective. Right now, the background check system is run on technology that is a decade or two old. Obviously tremendous advances have been made in information technology that could --

Q How long would it take to bring it up to speed?

MR. EARNEST: Well, we've got some really good people working on it, and our record of making these kinds of improvements is a good one. So obviously it will be a priority and something that they are working on. So by deploying some better technology we can certainly address some of the concerns that you have just raised. By making the system more efficient we can more quickly get results and get more reliable results that can be used to make sure we're keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

But, look, we've also asked for more resources to hire additional agents to conduct additional investigations. And again, the refrain from Republicans is that we don't need any new laws, we just need to better enforce the laws that we have. I can't think of a better way of doing that than clarifying the law by issuing some legal guidance and making clear exactly what the law is, which is what the President did in the course of the executive actions, and backing that up by hiring more agents to go out and actually enforce that law.

And again, that's why it is hard to take seriously the kind of criticism and objection that has been raised by Republicans. It's just not serious. But it is rooted in politics. And the President has talked at some length about how this issue, I think, as well as any other, is a good illustration of the political dysfunction and the broken politics on Capitol Hill.

Let me just say one other thing about the numbers. One reason that it is hard for us to point to a lot of data on this issue is that Republicans supported legislation that actually prevents the collection of data. That's how outrageous this whole situation is. Republicans like to say, well, there's no data out there to support these claims, and yet it's Republicans themselves that have specifically prohibited the CDC and others from actually collecting that data in the first place and allowing analysis to be done that would target it.

So, again, it certainly raises some questions about those claims. But there is a lot of anecdotal evidence. And there is one website that has been viewed that is advertising the sale of about 80,000 guns. And the question is whether or not that website and all those transactions would be subject to a background check. And that's what we're seeking to clarify and that's what we're seeking to enforce. And if there are people who are out there selling guns for profit and right now hiding behind the hobbyist exemption that currently exists, they should know that they're running a significant risk, that the penalty associated with violating the statute that has now been clarified is significant. If you're found in violation of the statute, you can be punished with up to five years in jail and subject to a fine of up to $250,000.

So this is something that is quite serious. And I think that understanding the stakes and understanding that there are serious consequences for not complying with the law I think will prompt a substantial number of people to take the necessary steps to make sure that they are complying with the law, and as a result, making sure that their customers are going through background checks. And if we can make that background check system more effective, we can actually do a better job of keeping guns out of the wrong hands, which is a common-sense goal and certainly one that the President is determined to make progress on.

Q So if this is the priority that you and the President have indicated it is, what level of priority is it to get a permanent director into the ATF?

MR. EARNEST: Well, we've talked before, and I guess we'll talk again, about the sordid record that Republicans have of confirming highly qualified Obama administration nominees to important positions.

Q (Inaudible.)

MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly -- if there were, I would not have any confidence that that individual would be treated fairly by Republicans in the Senate. There are plenty of nominees right now who are not appointed to controversial jobs like leading the ATF that are being treated very poorly by Republicans, some of which have significant national security consequences for the United States.

Q Will there be a nomination?

MR. EARNEST: I don't have any personnel announcements to make at this point. I wouldn't rule it out, necessarily.

Gardiner.

Q Josh, just one quick question. The President has apparently appointed a new CENTCOM commander -- the former Special Operations boss, Joe Votel. To what extent does this signal a different or a new approach in the military campaigns in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan that you now have a Special Operations guy in charge of the military operations in all of those areas?

MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, I've seen some reports speculating about potential personnel announcements that may be made, but I'm not in a position to confirm it. I'll just say, in general, that we're talked about the important role that our Special Operations personnel are playing in our ongoing efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And the President did announce the deployment of some Special Operations personnel into Syria to be a force multiplier with some opposition forces that are working with our coalition to fight ISIL and we've also seen the establishment of these expeditionary task forces that could carry out raids and pursue other priorities that are identified by the administration, and obviously there are Special Operations personnel that are involved in that effort as well.

So any personnel announcements notwithstanding, the observation that you have made about the important role that our Special Operations personnel are playing in the counter-ISIL campaign is certainly warranted.

Mark.

Q Josh, on North Korea, what are the agencies that make the determination about what type of nuclear device was detonated?

MR. EARNEST: The intelligence community obviously draws on significant scientific resources and their relationships in the region to offer an assessment like this. I don't know exactly when they'll have a more robust assessment that they'll be able to share, but the intelligence community will obviously be working closely on this, based on the scientific expertise that they can bring to the situation.

Q And on Congress, when you talk about disagreeing without being disagreeable, isn't it being disagreeable when you accuse Congress of political dysfunction?

MR. EARNEST: Well, again, even Speaker Ryan himself acknowledged that Congress not passing legislation to close the background check loophole -- he described that in his statement as a legislative failure. I think a legislative --

Q He meant by you.

MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know. It didn't say the President's legislative failure. (Laughter.) I mean, I don't know. The President doesn't serve in the Congress, he doesn't serve it the legislature. I think he was describing a legislative failure on the part of Congress. It's a legislative failure that he obviously sought to advance.

But, look, I think acknowledging that there is political dysfunction on Capitol Hill I think is obvious and is an opinion that is shared by Democrats and Republicans who work on Capitol Hill themselves. I'm also confident that that is an opinion that is shared by the up to 80 percent of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, who say that they have an unfavorable view of Congress. So I don't intend it to be disagreeable; I intend it to be a statement of fact.

Q Now, you and President Obama have both criticized Congress for defying popular opinion on background checks. And yet, at the start of the briefing you trumpeted how the President defied popular opinion on the auto bailout. Is there a disconnect there?

MR. EARNEST: I think when I cite polls talking about the strong support for the common-sense steps that the President announced yesterday, I'm not suggesting that Congress should take these steps because they're popular; I'm suggesting that Congress can't use as an excuse to oppose those steps the suggestion that somehow what the President is doing is controversial or something that a whole bunch of Republicans don't support. So that's the point that I'm trying to make by citing the poll there.

Q Not having it both ways?

MR. EARNEST: I don't think so. I'm sure my critics won't agree.

Q He doesn't think so. (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST: Gregory, I'll give you the last one.

Q Thanks. The Secretary of Defense is ordering a review of medals, decorations and awards granted to soldiers -- servicemen and women since 9/11, with the idea of reexamining whether some of those servicemen and women should be awarded the Medal of Honor. The feeling is that perhaps in the warzone of Iraq and Afghanistan, too many valorous deeds have been overlooked and that too many of those medals, where they have been awarded, have been awarded posthumously. Does the President share those concerns and would he like to see more Medal of Honor ceremonies in the East Room?

MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of that specific announcement by the Secretary of Defense, so I want to be cautious about what I do say, based on what you have asked, primarily because the process for awarding a Medal of Honor goes through a rigorous chain-of-command process that the President eventually signed off on. So I don't want to say something from here that could influence that process at a stage before it reaches the President's desk. But let me just say, in general, that the President has, on a number of occasions over the last seven years, had the great honor of presenting that medal to servicemembers who have undertaken significant acts of bravery while serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the President himself has spoken rather movingly about the contributions of the 9/11 generation of military personnel to our national security.

And there's no denying that that generation of Americans has made a substantial commitment to our national security and, in some cases, paid a substantial sacrifice. Some of the medals that the President has awarded have been posthumous. Some of the medals that the President awarded to a servicemember, even those who are living when they receive the medal, had families back home who endured their loved one being in a warzone for months or years at a time. And that's an indication that this generation of Americans has borne a significant burden in protecting our country since 9/11.

And we certainly have -- the President himself has raised concerns about the wisdom of the decision that was made by the previous administration to go to war in Iraq. But that does not in any way diminish the President's deep appreciation, respect, and even honor for those who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

But I will see if there is more that we can get you, Gregory, from here on that particular review process.

Thanks a lot, guys. We'll see you tomorrow.

END 2:39 P.M. EST



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