Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/29/2016
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
February 29, 2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:53 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Let's go to the questions. Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Josh, can you talk a little bit about the White House's assessment of how the ceasefire is working in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, we've obviously been closely monitoring reports since the ceasefire went into effect on Friday afternoon Washington time. Since that time, we're aware that there have been some reports of violations, some concerns that have been raised that is consistent with our expectations heading into this process, which is that we did anticipate that there would be reports of violations and that we would encounter some potholes on the road to implementing this successfully. And fortunately, there is a process in place for members of the international group responsible for monitoring the cessation of hostilities to examine these reports. And that's exactly what they're doing.
So we remain committed to this process for two reasons. One is that successfully implementing a cessation of hostilities -- actually, there are three reasons. The first reason would be that it can allow for a more sustained and successful effort to deliver humanitarian relief supplies to communities inside of Syria that have been suffering for a long time. There are a lot of people, innocent people, who were caught in the crossfire and not able to get the basic sustenance that they need. So being able to move food, water and medical supplies into some of those communities is critically important and could save lives.
The second thing is it will serve to reinforce the need for all of the parties to focus on the most important goal, and that is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And the concern that we have had is that some of the actors, particularly the Russians, have been distracted by and focused on the political opponents of the Assad regime, and not on the extremist and terrorist organizations like ISIL that are trying to use the political chaos in Syria to establish a safe haven.
The third thing is that we are hopeful that successfully implementing a cessation of hostilities would at least add a little momentum to the ongoing effort to reach a political solution to the situation inside of Syria. That's going to require even further sustained diplomatic efforts, but it could -- and is necessary, in fact -- to ultimately address the problems inside of Syria.
So that's what we're hopeful of, but that's -- we're going to continue to closely monitor the situation.
Q Can you say yet where the responsibility lies, or most of the responsibility lies for the violations that have occurred so far?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, it's too early to say that. At this point, we've seen these reports and they are being investigated consistent with the process that's been established before the cessation of hostilities went into effect. So there is a method, a mechanism for reviewing these reports and assessing whether or not everyone who signed on to this understanding is acting consistent with their obligations.
Q So moving on to North Korea, there is a University of Virginia student who I guess has been taken into custody by the government, and they're saying that he's admitted to kind of severe crimes and propaganda and all these things. And so I was just wondering, is the White House looking into this issue of this American that's being held in North Korea? And do you have any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a specific response. Obviously, we've seen the news conference and we're aware of this particular situation and have been for almost a couple of months now. The fact is, there's no greater priority for the administration than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad. And in cases where U.S. citizens are reportedly detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish embassy, which serves as the United States protecting power in North Korea. Obviously, we're working through the Swedes to learn as much as we can about this individual and about the circumstances of his detention, and we're interested in ensuring for the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens around the world.
Q I wanted to ask about Apple. They're going to be on the Hill, and they're saying that, once again, when you're talking about the court order that would force them to open up the San Bernardino shooter's phones, that this would open up a liability or a privacy issue for many iPhone users, and that this is going to -- or that this could set a very dangerous precedent. And you said time and time again that this is more of an isolated thing, that this is not some back door that the Justice Department is trying to get into the iPhone. So I guess, do you have any kind of response to that? I mean, they're making this case that this is a dangerous precedent, that this is something that could really be harmful to the privacy of, I guess, millions of iPhone users. And the administration is kind of going against that. So I guess, can you talk anything about this case that they're making?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been clear from the beginning -- because this discussion has arisen around one specific court filing and one very important investigation. And the fact is, our policy in this instance is focused on this particular device. This is a device that was used by a terrorist. That terrorist is no longer living. The device itself was used by the terrorist but is actually owned by the local government there, and the Department of Justice has made a case to a judge, as they should, that obtaining as much information as possible about what's in that phone is important to their investigation.
Obviously, this is an investigation that's being conducted independently. These are federal prosecutors and officials at the FBI and other law enforcement agencies that are conducting this investigation. So they're obviously going to determine what they believe is necessary, and what they believe is most important in this circumstance to ensure that their investigators have access to the necessary information to keep the American people safe.
The President has made clear, just as a general matter, that this investigation is a priority to him, and that he believes it's important to our national security for our investigators to learn as much as possible about the individuals who carried out this terrorist attack, to try to understand who they may have communicated with, and make sure we're taking all the steps that are necessary to protect the American people. That is related to this one isolated investigation.
More broadly, we've been clear about what our policy is, and our policy is actually pretty straightforward and I think consistent with what most Americans think. The policy is simply that the American people and our economy benefit from robust encryption. And we do need to make sure that we are protecting the privacy and civil liberties of law-abiding Americans. The President believes that that's an important priority as the leader of the country.
At the same time, there are some common-sense things that we can do to prevent terrorists and others who want to do harm to innocent Americans from using cyberspace as a safe haven. And I think even when you talk to people in the -- leaders in the technology industry, they understand that they created these tools to benefit from the kind of open society that we all enjoy, and that that includes great opportunities for improving people's quality of life. It certainly includes opportunity to make money and to capitalize on an information economy. All those are good things. Those are the kinds of things that make the United States the envy of the world. They certainly are the kinds of things that people move to this country with the hopes of enjoying. It's also why the United States continues to be at the forefront of innovation around the world, because of our ability to use these kind of technologies to improve lives around the globe.
So those are all good things. And I would acknowledge that there is some tension in those two principles, and that's what makes this hard. But there's no confusion about the position of the administration and how that reflects basic common sense in terms of protecting privacy, protecting the kinds of freedoms that allow an industry like this to thrive, while at the same time protecting our national security.
Q Josh, two different questions. I want to go to the GOP and issues of race in their candidates. There's a broader issue than politics at play. Do you feel a President of the United States -- do you have the luxury to select and choose what group or what culture or what race or what type of people you want to support, or be President over?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, if you're elected President of the United States, you have a responsibility to lead the whole country. The President has made this observation on a number of occasions -- that he's not just the President of the people who voted for him; he's also President of the people who didn't vote and President of the people who supported someone else.
And ultimately, the President feels a deep responsibility to look out for the interests of everybody in this country. And certainly President Obama has conducted his presidency in that way, and I think that's consistent with the way that previous Presidents have approached their job.
But ultimately, individual candidates that are running to replace President Obama will have to make their own case about whether or not that's part of their philosophy.
Q What do you say about the RNC really trying to change the face and the look of the Republican Party in distancing themselves from some of the comments and some of the antics during the primaries when it comes to separation versus unity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll leave it to the RNC to make their own decisions about how they want to run their party's elections.
Q I understand it's another party, but this is a bigger issue. It's about a division, about race. And we've seen how divides have caused anger and have caused a groundswell that really people don't want. And people say it's a heart issue versus a legislative issue, and there's a heart issue going on. Do you have any comment for the RNC? I mean, whether it be work on this, or they need to stop -- what?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't have any comment for the RNC.
Q All right, then. So the next question, the next topic -- voter ID. On Super Tuesday, there are about five states that are going to have some problems with photo ID issues, and it could also hurt the Republican Party. Could you talk about that and your thoughts about the problems that these states are expecting to encounter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point I don't want to anticipate what may happen. I think the President's view on this, though, is something that he has discussed on a number of occasions -- I think most recently in a speech that he delivered in Springfield just a couple of weeks ago. In that speech, the President talked about how, in his mind, it doesn't make sense for the government taking steps and putting in place laws that make it harder for people to exercise their right to vote. If anything, we should be trying to make that more convenient for eligible voters to cast a ballot and have it counted. That's the essence of our democratic process, and the President has expressed his disappointment that Republicans have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to think of creative ways to make it harder for people to vote. I don't think that's consistent with the spirit of our democracy.
And the President is going to continue to make the case that when it comes to protecting people's right to vote, that is actually something that should rise above our narrow political partisan considerations. That should be the kind of thing that, as a country, we should be able to rally around, which is encouraging people to be engaged in the business of governing the country and encouraging them to take the time to cast a vote.
And, look, the President, after the last election in 2012, formed a taskforce that was actually headed up by the President's election lawyer and Governor Romney's election lawyer. And they put together a whole set of recommendations that would essentially make it easier for eligible voters, citizens, to cast a ballot. And there's some local jurisdictions that have consulted those recommendations and tried to implement them, but truly there is more that can and should be done.
Q Do you believe that this is a foreshadowing of things to come, because in the last presidential election you didn't have this, and now it's increasing even more? Do you think that there is going to be more efforts to be able to change this to go back to what it was, or do you think this is a foreshadowing of things to come and it's going to increase?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's hard to tell. I think it's hard to cast forward that far. But certainly the President's views, as a policy matter, are that the government should actually be making it easier for eligible citizens to cast a ballot.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said that the President would likely be looking at materials for Supreme Court nominees this past weekend. Do you have any update for us on either timing? Or has he narrowed his list -- anything?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any updates in terms of the process. The President has continued to review materials that were compiled by his team. We are not at a place yet where the list has been closed, so the President is not reviewing a final list at this point. But look, it's going to be hard for me, as we move forward here, to provide a whole lot of detail about this process while it's ongoing.
But what's also true is the President continues to take seriously his responsibility to consult with Congress, and the President is looking forward to the meeting that he'll have tomorrow with Leader McConnell and Leader Reid, and Chairman Grassley, and Ranking Member Leahy to discuss his appointment.
Q And any more updates on that meeting? Because, as you know, Senator McConnell and Grassley have different views about what this meeting maybe should be about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, initially, Mr. McConnell and Mr. Grassley had different views about whether or not to participate in the meeting. But, look, the President takes quite seriously the responsibility that any President has to consult with Congress when making a nomination that's this important. We're talking about a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. The stakes are quite high. And the Constitution is quite clear about how we should proceed. The Constitution says that the President shall nominate someone to the Supreme Court, and that's exactly the constitutional responsibility that the President has embraced and will fulfill.
Q So going into Super Tuesday, I don't know if you saw the latest poll numbers this morning, but they're pretty surprising for Donald Trump. I mean, in one of the questions, it was about 50 percent of college-educated Republicans support Trump. So the administration must feel like there's at least a good chance that he is the Republican nominee, yes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly seems to be what all of you are reporting. I don't have any insight beyond that.
Q But looking at the numbers alone, it's -- I mean, it's huge. He has a double-digit lead.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I think he even might use that word to describe it. (Laughter.)
Q That's where I got it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Look, there are a lot of votes that are still to be cast. And Super Tuesday is tomorrow; there are 11 or 12 states that are up. And we are entering a stage in the campaign where there will be a significant number of states and a significant number of voters in those states that will be casting ballots. And that's true not just on Tuesday, but I know that into the weekend and the next couple of weeks, that's the case.
Q But those numbers don't impress you very much?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think those numbers -- I think voters all across the country will have a lot more to say about this, and we'll see what their opinions are.
Q Well, the President had a lot to say about Trump's prospects when he was in California, and he said he didn't believe that Trump would be President because, I don't know, America's better judgment would prevail, or something to that effect. Does the President -- does the administration still believe that that's the case, that he will not be President?
MR. EARNEST: That continues to be the President's assessment.
Q Okay, great. And also, you know, last week we heard from the Vice President while he was in Mexico, saying that he almost feels that he needs to apologize for the rhetoric that's been out there. Does the President feel the same way about that? When he travels or when he meets with foreign leaders, does he almost feel like he needs to apologize for somebody else's rhetoric?
MR. EARNEST: I do think it is just about -- I think by just about any standard, the kind of rhetoric that we have seen from Republican candidates -- and not just the frontrunner, but from all of the Republican candidates -- has not been consistent with the kinds of values that this country has long cherished. And it is those values that other countries admire. Those are the kinds of values that allow the United States to continue to be so influential around the world.
And when you see prominent politicians running down those values, that's going to have an impact on our standing in the world. And that doesn't serve anybody's interests here in this country, Democrat or Republican. And I think that's why not just this President, but I think you've seen many Americans come forward and express in some cases, concern, in some cases, alarm, over the rhetoric that's being employed by Republican presidential candidates right now.
And, look, the other thing we should be mindful of is that other countries do follow our elections. And that kind of rhetoric does have an impact. Obviously, individuals should choose to run the campaign that they believe best reflects their vision and their priorities, and that certainly is their right to do it. But there are consequences for it too.
Q Do you feel that it's already had an impact on our standing in the world? I mean, that rhetoric has been out there for a pretty long time now.
MR. EARNEST: I think what is true is that, based on the way that President Obama has chosen to use our influence around the world, our standing has been enhanced and our interests have been advanced based on that strategy. And there are a variety of ways to measure this -- whether it is building an international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, or uniting the world to confront Iran over their nuclear program and sealing a diplomatic agreement that will prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon, or, even just as we saw at the end of last week, working effectively with the Chinese and other members of the United Nations Security Council to put forward the most robust sanctions that have ever been put in place against North Korea in response to some of their destabilizing activities there.
So I think that is an indication that President Obama has succeeded in enhancing our standing in the world. It has made America safer. And there's no denying that some of the rhetoric that we see from the other side does have the potential of rolling back some of that progress. And the President certainly doesn't want to see that.
All right. Gardiner.
Q Josh, just a couple of questions. The first is, why Brian Deese in charge of the process for the SCOTUS? This is not something that he would generally run. Just a question about that.
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President has relied on Brian in a variety of critical situations to do important work and to take on important projects. There are a couple that come to mind. Obviously, very early in the administration, Brian played a key role in the auto taskforce that engineered the recovery and rescue of the American auto industry. Those were tough decisions that the President had to make early on. He didn't have a lot of good options, but he relied on the advice of Brian and other members of economic team to put in place a strategy that has laid the groundwork for not just the recovery and revitalization of the American auto industry, but of the historic health and performance and strength of the American auto industry.
Another example is, Brian, for most of last year, was focused on trying to move across the finish line a climate agreement in Paris. And that was an agreement that was successfully negotiated and completed at the end of last year. And a lot of that is a testament to Brian's hard work; obviously, he was part of a much broader team, including people earlier in the administration who had worked on this. But Brian certainly deserves a lot of credit. And in terms of moving that over the finish line, Brian played a key role here in the White House.
So taking on this substantial responsibility when it comes to the Supreme Court, where Brian will be organizing a broader process that will include other key members of the President's team -- including the President's counsel, Neil Eggleston -- that, given Brian's performance in those other priorities, I don't think it's particularly surprising that he would be tapped for this responsibility too.
Q Can you give us a little more insight into that process at all, where you are precisely now? Obviously we want the short list. Have you gotten to the short list? Just anything at all on that process.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a whole lot more on the process today. I can tell you that the President did spend a significant period of time over the weekend reviewing materials and considering potential candidates. Based on the last update that I've received, the President -- we're not working with a closed list at this point. There could still be people added to the list for consideration.
But look, as we've also acknowledged before -- that previous Supreme Court vacancies have taken about 30 days or so to fill -- I don't have an update for you in terms of what our timeframe -- the timing expectations are with this vacancy. But obviously the President will do his due diligence and spend some time thoughtfully considering who the best person is to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. He's going to spend plenty of time talking to members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans about this decision. He'll also spend some time talking to people outside of Congress. And to the extent that we can give you some insight into who those kinds of people are, we'll try to do that as well.
Q And when you say 30 days, you mean his own process, not to fill the vacancy including Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. It typically took about 30 days for the administration to put forward a nominee.
Q The President has made clear he's ready to make the case against Donald Trump in the campaign if Mr. Trump ends up being the Republican nominee. As Michelle has pointed out, the polls indicate that that is very much the likely outcome. What would the President say in making the case against Donald Trump? Are you all putting together a sort of list of things for him, kind of a book about Trump? What's going on in that process? And what would the President say when he makes that case?
MR. EARNEST: There is no internal process that's related to the potential Republican presidential candidates. Look, at this point, there are still a lot of voters in the Republican Party that haven't made a decision yet about who they will -- who they believe should lead their party in the next presidential election. Maybe they've made their decision, but they haven't formalized that decision in casting their ballot.
So, look, the Republican voters will decide who they believe best should represent their party. I think what is true is that there is some consternation in Republican circles, at least in Washington, D.C., about the strength of Mr. Trump's campaign. And the suggestion has been that he is on the brink of succeeding and hijacking the Republican Party.
But the truth is, when you have party leadership in Washington, D.C. that is blocking important work that needs to get done, it's not surprising to me that it's not particularly challenging for the views of the party and its candidates to be a little unclear. We see Republican leaders in Congress who spent years campaigning to try to get the majority of both the House and the Senate. Now they have that majority and they're in a position where they're not just saying no, they're not saying anything. They're refusing to speak.
Whether it's the President's plan that he's put forward to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay -- it's just not that Republicans are opposed to that, they're refusing to even engage the administration, despite the fact that we have put forward a plan on the time frame that they laid out, despite the fact that it's actually the Secretary of Defense who put together that plan and put together that set of recommendations. And you have a leading senator being filmed -- filming himself, basically, crumpling up that piece of paper and throwing it in the trash can.
Is that a party that is trying to advance our national security and stands for something? Or is that a party that's refusing to do their job?
The same is true when it comes to a whole range of nominations. We've talked at some length about Adam Szubin. This is a financial expert that doesn't have a particularly political job, but he does have an important responsibility, which is to put in place sanctions that will be focused on North Korea, on Russia, on Hezbollah, on other national security adversaries of the United States. And you have Republicans in the Senate who say that he's qualified by refuse to give him a vote, refuse to even move him through the committee.
So, again, it's not surprising to me that a Republican majority in Congress refusing to do their job is on the brink of being taken over by someone that they say doesn't represent their views. When you don't stand for anything, I guess you'll fall for anything -- or, if you don't stand for anything, you'll fall for anything -- or however that expression goes. (Laughter.) Somebody Google it for me -- because it seems particularly apt in this situation. That appears to be what's happening to Republicans right now.
Q Just following on this question a little bit. Has the President actually had any conversations with any potential candidates, even if the short list isn't finalized yet? Has he begun to reach out on the phone, or conducted any interviews in person with anybody that's potentially under consideration?
MR. EARNEST: If he has had those kinds of conversations, they're not the kind of thing that we'll discuss prior to announcing formally a nomination.
Q And then, following on Michelle and April's questions -- over the weekend, David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK, he expressed support for Donald Trump. And there's been some criticism in the aftermath of that that Donald Trump didn't speak out forcefully enough against the support. What is the White House's reaction to that? Do they think that the Republican frontrunner should take a more public pronounced stance on that? Or does the President believe that this is just Donald Trump representing his own values, like you said just earlier, not necessarily with --
MR. EARNEST: Look, it will be up to Mr. Trump to decide how he wants to run his campaign and what he wants to say in terms of the kind of support that he's recruiting to his campaign. And it will be up to Republican voters across the country to decide whether or not they're comfortable with those tactics. I think my observation is simply that Mr. Trump says that there is more that he needs to learn about Mr. Duke before he can render an opinion, but I think we now know all we need to know about Mr. Trump to render our own personal opinion of his candidacy.
Q You said in December that you didn't believe that Donald Trump was qualified for the presidency based on his position banning Muslims, foreign Muslims, from entering the country. Do you believe that, based on the full product that Donald Trump has presented so far to the American people, that he's a racist? Or does the President believe that he's a racist?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the people are going to have to decide for themselves. They'll have to sort of take their own measure of Mr. Trump and his rhetoric and the kinds of values that he champions on the stump. They'll have to evaluate who his supporters are, and the extent to which he is coordinating with his supporters. But that will be up to the American people to decide. And as Michelle noted, the President has previously expressed his confidence in the ability of the American people to make those kinds of decisions. And that's why we have elections. It's why we have debates. It's why we have campaigns. And it's a testament to the strength of our democracy that we give our citizens a responsibility that's that significant.
Q Do we know what time this meeting is going to happen tomorrow about the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have the time in front of me, but we'll let you know, and there will be some press access to the meeting so you'll get a chance to see all of them gather.
Q And last week, Leader McConnell made a statement essentially saying that his purpose for this meeting is to come and tell the President why you're not going to do anything with a nominee. What's the President's reaction to that? And what does the President expect to accomplish out of this meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think that there are a number of things that we could discuss in the meeting. I think one of the things the President is interested in discussing is actually what happened in 1988. That was the last time that a President of the United States was calling on the United States Congress to vote for his nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And it seems to me the President is actually meeting with the right group of people, because he'll be meeting with two Republicans who supported that nominee, who voted "yes" the last time that there was a congressional vote to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court in a presidential election year.
The President will also be sitting next to the person who served as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time -- that was Vice President Biden. And that's notable because Vice President Biden was the chairman of the committee because Democrats were in charge of the Congress, a Republican was in charge of the White House. So you had Democrats who were acting in a presidential election year to confirm a Republican nominee to the Court. And that vote was held in a presidential election year. There's no arguing that.
Q Right. Everybody knows that, they all know that. Everybody in the room is going to know all that.
MR. EARNEST: So, again, if we're going to sort of discuss exactly how Congress is going to handle something that hasn't arisen in, what is it, 28 years now, then maybe it's the right group of people that are at the table.
Q There's some headlines about the fact that Justice Thomas apparently today asked a question during oral arguments for the first time in a decade. It was a domestic violence case that involved the Second Amendment, gun rights. Your reaction to the fact that -- not sort of the minutiae of the case, but the fact that he asked a question?
MR. EARNEST: I've seen some of the reporting around that. I suspect that there will be an intense dissection of the words that he offered today. But I wouldn't speculate at this point about what it may mean about his views on that particular case or whether or not he is approaching his job different now that his close friend, Justice Scalia, is no longer on the court.
Q You anticipated my next question. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: So, look, at some point he'll have an opportunity to discuss that publicly. But obviously he is somebody who has thought a lot about what he believes is the best way for him to express his opinions on the Court, whether that's signing on to specific opinions or participating actively in the questioning. That's obviously the way that he has chosen to pursue his responsibilities, and I wouldn't second guess those.
Q Has the President, as a constitutional lawyer, ever expressed an opinion about the fact that there had been this long period of time when he has not asked a question?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of the President talking about that.
Q Does he have an opinion about it?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't asked him about it.
Q Would you ask him?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe one of you will have an opportunity to do that at some point.
Q And just lastly, over the weekend there was a really horrific shooting incident involving a police officer in Prince William County. A 28-year-old woman who was on her first day of the job. Has the President reached out to her family at all, or the department out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, obviously we saw the news over the weekend and it's heartbreaking that an individual who is a reservist in the United States Marine Corps was demonstrating her commitment to public service and she was doing the kind of thing that we see hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officials do every single day, which is she put on the uniform, prepared to put her life on the line to protect her community. And, unfortunately, it was the very first time she put on that uniform that she paid the ultimate sacrifice. And that's tragic, particularly when you see how young she was and how much promise her career had.
So obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with her family and with the law enforcement agency that she worked for. I don't have anything to tell you right now about any presidential communication, but I would anticipate that they'll be in touch.
Q And I ask because obviously the President has had a lot to say about gun violence in this country and he has faced some criticism from law enforcement about not being even-handed about it, which is why I asked would he -- would you expect that he might call, or why would he not call the department, the family of the officer.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have anything to say about that right now, but I would anticipate that we'll be in touch one way or another. But, look, I do think that this underscores -- once again, you heard the President on Friday in Jacksonville talk about the impact that gun violence is having in far too many communities across the country. Ironically, the President was actually talking about a different mass shooting incident. In this case, a day later, you saw a police officer be killed in the line of duty. And again, it is a reminder of the risks that law enforcement officials, police officers take for us on a daily basis. We owe them a debt of gratitude for that service.
And I think it is a reminder, once again -- even without knowing the specific circumstances of this particular incident -- that it's long past time for Congress to take some common-sense steps that would reduce gun violence. I don't know what kinds of laws would have been required to prevent this particular incident from occurring, but if there is even one incident of violence that we can prevent, particularly if that incident of violence is against a police officer, then shouldn't Congress take it? It certainly seems to me that they should fulfill that responsibility.
But in some cases -- this goes back to the answer that I was giving earlier -- when you've got Republicans in the majority in both the House and the Senate, they vowed to use that majority to get Congress moving again, to do some common-sense things, but yet they have not done any common-sense work to make our communities safer from gun violence.
And again, when you have a nominee that's come forward and by their description is seeking to hijack the party, it seems like you make that a lot easier when you're not willing to do your job, even though you're in control of the United States Congress.
Q Josh, with this meeting tomorrow with the Senate leaders, given how contentious the conversation already is about a potential nominee, is the President trying to lower the temperature? Is there an objective from this meeting that he's seeking? Is he offering up an openness, a willingness to take on some names for potential nominees?
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President is open to a discussion, but it would represent a pretty dramatic reversal in position for Mr. McConnell, who has said that the President shouldn't put anybody forward, to come with a list of potential nominees. So again, when his position is that the United States Senate is not going to fulfill their constitutional responsibility, it makes it hard for him to engage constructively until they change that position.
So I'm confident they'll have a discussion about what the President hopes the process looks like. But look, I think the other thing that's true is the President is going to continue to make the case now that we're here in the middle of a Supreme Court term and the Supreme Court is hearing cases. The case that the President will make is similar to the case that President Ronald Reagan made. President Reagan in November of 1987 said, "Every day that passes with the Supreme Court below full strength impairs the people's business in that crucially important body."
So look, the position that President Obama is taking is entirely consistent with the position that was taken by President Reagan. And when President Reagan put forward someone to fill that vacancy that he was talking about there, the Congress voted -- in a presidential election year with bipartisan support, even though Democrats were in charge -- to confirm Justice Kennedy to the Court. And we're asking Republicans this time to do the same thing, and to put their constitutional responsibilities ahead of their narrow political, partisan motivations.
Q So at this point, the President would believe that the Court itself is "impaired," to follow through on the quote you just read there, from making a decision?
MR. EARNEST: That's certainly what President Reagan believed. And the President has on a number of occasions, just in the last couple of weeks, said that he's going to put forward a nominee, because that's what the Constitution requires. It says that the President shall appoint -- shall nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And then Congress needs to follow through on their responsibility to ensure that the Supreme Court can function as our Founders intended.
Q So it sounds like you think it's going to be a pretty short meeting.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I'm not going to preempt -- or prejudge what the meeting looks like. The President is certainly committed to a serious discussion of constitutional responsibilities. We'll have to see if Republicans are also committed to that kind of serious conversation. Maybe they won't be. And if they aren't, then maybe it will be a shorter-than-expected meeting.
Q Can you explain what Stephanie Cutter's role is going to be in this process?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, there are a lot of groups here in Washington, D.C. that are pretty interested in the outcome here. There's no denying that the Supreme Court is tasked with a set of weighty decisions before them. And it's the President's view that they should be fully staffed and have the full complement of Supreme Court justices when considering those important decisions.
But, look, outside the White House, there are a range of groups that are interested in some of these outcomes, and in order to sort of self-organize, they're going to work closely with Stephanie and some others to organize their efforts. And that will also make it easier, where appropriate and where necessary, for the White House to coordinate with those outside groups. We can do so through -- by having conversations with Stephanie.
But that is ultimately a role that is outside the White House. She's not a White House employee or anything like that. She was at one time, but is not at this point.
Q But she'll be in regular communication with Brian Deese on this.
MR. EARNEST: I don't know about regular communication, but when necessary, yes, they'll be in touch.
Q A follow-up on Syria. France today said it was very concerned with these violations that it is seeing, and called for an emergency meeting to be held by the task force overseeing the so-called ceasefire. You said it was still too early to tell what's happening on the ground. Is it easier for you to tell what's happening in the skies, given the continued Russian bombing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reason that we have referred to this understanding as a cessation of hostilities is that this is different than a ceasefire. The United States and our coalition partners are continuing to take strikes against ISIL -- ISIL is not party to the cessation of hostilities -- and Russia is continuing to take strikes against groups that they claim are not party to the cessation of hostilities, either because they're ISIL-affiliated or they're affiliated with other extremist organizations that are operating inside of Syria.
And so the question is raised about who actually their targets are. And there is a process in place where we can work with the parties involved to evaluate exactly what the targets are and whether or not the military operations that are being conducted by the Russians are consistent with their obligations in the cessation of hostilities. And so that's what -- there's a process in place to review.
Q The French said they were very concerned about these reports. Is the U.S. also very concerned?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly are aware of the reports, and we are interested in making sure that the process that has been established is followed for investigating them.
Q So it's too early to tell if the Russians are violating the cessation of hostilities.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q Turning to another international crisis, North Korea. Do you know -- do you expect a U.N. vote on sanctions against North Korea this week? And are the United States and China agreed on what those sanctions should be and what that sanctions bill -- vision should look like?
MR. EARNEST: U.S. and Chinese officials have been for several weeks now engaged in intensive diplomacy to put together a set of sanctions against North Korea that would require the support of the international community through the U.N. Security Council to essentially account for North Korea's provocative activities that are a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
So the package that's been put together at the U.N. is a significant one, and it would significantly tighten the screws on the North Korean regime. It would subject all cargo going in and out of the DPRK to mandatory inspection. That would be the first time that that kind of -- that those kind of mandatory inspections would apply to all of the cargo moving in and out of the DPRK. The package includes a prohibition on all small arms and other conventional weapons going to North Korea.
For the first time, it would impose broad, sectoral economic sanctions against the North Koreans. And it would include, in some instances, even banning outright exports from North Korea of things like coal, iron, gold, titanium and other rare-earth minerals. In some cases, it's just limiting the export of those products. But that's going to have a significant impact on the North Korean economy and an impact on their ability to continue to fund their nuclear and missile activities that are in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. There also will be stepped-up enforcement of previously imposed sanctions against the North Koreans.
So this is a very serious package that's been put forward, and a lot of this was the important work of U.S. and Chinese officials. But obviously, other members of the United Nations Security Council have been involved in this process thus far and will continue to be critical to our success in getting this package passed.
Q So just to be clear, the Chinese and the U.S. are agreed on the package, correct?
MR. EARNEST: I'll let the Chinese speak for themselves, but this kind of package was the result of intensive diplomacy between U.S. and Chinese officials.
Q And do you anticipate a vote this week?
MR. EARNEST: I'd encourage you to check with Ambassador Power's office for the timing of a vote. I know that at one point there had been the expectation that the vote would happen in quite short order. I don't know if that's still the case; you can check with them.
Q And is Russia an impediment to a vote this week at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think you'd have to check with the Russians for their view on this particular package.
Q Last North Korea question, I promise, from me. The THAAD missiles, that's been subject to controversy between the U.S. and China, as you know. Secretary Kerry said the way that we would be willing not to put them there is if North Korea would abandon its nuclear program. The Chinese are concerned about the range of the radar on those missiles. Has any sort of understanding been reached regarding deployment of the THAAD missiles?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have begun discussions with our allies in South Korea about the deployment of this system that would better protect South Korea from the North Korean missile capability. And that's the focus of the system and that's the focus of our discussions. I've certainly seen the public concerns that have been raised by China with regard to the deployment of this system. But that's why we've been crystal clear from the beginning that this deployment is not a reflection of something that's happening with China's missile program, but is a direct reaction to North Korea's ongoing development of a ballistic missile program, and one that our North Korean -- or our South Korean allies are justifiably concerned about.
Q Quick domestic question. We all found out today that Brian is leading the SCOTUS effort, or at least organization at the White House. Did he start doing that today? Or if not, when did he start that?
MR. EARNEST: That was work that he began doing last week.
Q A couple for you, Josh. The North Koreans are making the admittedly unlikely claim that the federal government is in some way responsible for that young American's attempts to steal a sign with a slogan on it from his hotel. Do you rule that out? Rule out federal government involvement in this?
MR. EARNEST: There are some limitations in my ability to discuss these reports because of privacy concerns, so let me see if -- let me consult with our team and see if we can get you some more information about that that would still allow us to be appropriately protective of the privacy considerations here.
Q That would be great. Is the Islamic State carrying out a campaign of genocide against Syria's Christians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have long expressed our concerns with the tendency of -- well, not a tendency -- a tactic employed by ISIL to slaughter religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria. You'll recall at the very beginning of the military campaign against ISIL that some of the first actions that were ordered by President Obama, by the United States military, were to protect Yazidi religious minorities that were essentially cornered on Mt. Sinjar by ISIL fighters. We took those strikes to clear a path so that those religious minorities could be rescued.
So we have long been concerned by the way that ISIL attempts to target religious minorities. We also know that they target Christians in the area, too. In that region of the world, Christians are a religious minority, and we certainly have been concerned. That's one of the many reasons we're concerned with ISIL and their tactics, which is that it's an affront to our values as a country to see people attacked, singled out or slaughtered based on their religious beliefs.
Q But you're not prepared to use the word "genocide" yet in the situation?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is, the use of that word involves a very specific legal determination that has at this point not been reached. But we have been quite candid and direct exactly about how ISIL's tactics are worthy of the kind of international, robust response that the international community is leading. And those tactics include a willingness to target religious minorities, including Christians.
Q All right. Last one. How does the Supreme Court fight change once there's an actual nominee, as opposed to a notional one?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think at that point there will be a process commenced -- a much more public process. We've talked about the fact that there is a private process that's ongoing right now that the President and his team are engaged in to choose who the President believes would be the very best person to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. That process is entirely consistent with the President's constitutional responsibilities. After all, the Constitution says that the President shall nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Once that nominee has been put forward, the ball will then move squarely into Congress's court -- no pun intended. And Congress will them have to determine whether or not they're willing to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. And ultimately, this will be a choice for the Republican majority to make.
But the President has -- our expectation is that the President's nominee should receive the same consideration that the President's two previous Supreme Court nominees have received. After all, the Constitution of the United States does not include an exception for presidential election years. And in 2009 and 2010, when the President put forward nominees to the Supreme Court, they happened to be two women in those cases, but those two women were given the courtesy of private one-on-one visits with a number of United States senators. They were given timely -- they were given fair hearings that took place in public, under oath, where they were questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike. And I would expect this time that questioning would be no less intense and serious. But what those nominees also received were timely yes-or-no votes.
And those steps were not taken as a courtesy to the President of the United States. They weren't a political favor that was delivered by one political party or another. It was the Senate's constitutional responsibility to do those things. And the Senate has a constitutional responsibility to do those things in 2016, even in a presidential election year. And that's the kind of process that we envision. I'll just note that the two previous processes in 2009 and 2010 culminated in confirmation of the President's nominees. And those confirmations included "yes" votes from a number of Republicans. And I feel confident in telling you that even though I don't know exactly who the President is going to choose to fill this vacancy on the Supreme Court, I'm confident the President is going to put forward somebody who he believes can serve with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court, and therefore merit bipartisan support in the United States Senate.
Q Josh, can I follow up on this?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, go ahead.
Q It has been eight months since the President sent the nomination of Under Secretary Jacobson to be ambassador of Mexico. My question to you is, has the White House been in contact with Senator Marco Rubio about his opposition to her nomination? Or what else is the White House doing in trying to go ahead with the vote for Jacobson?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you raised another example of the kind of approach that Republicans in Congress have taken to their job, which is to not do it. I haven't heard anybody raise substantive objections to Ms. Jacobson's confirmation to that important job, to be the ambassador to Mexico. She is somebody who has served at the State Department in a career role for quite some time. She is an expert in this region of the world. And she would do an admirable job of protecting and even advancing the important relationship between the United States and our neighbors to the south. But yet, we've seen Republicans in the Senate refuse to act on that nomination, and it's been unfortunate.
I don't have any specific conversations to tell you about, but certainly seeing her nomination confirmed and seeing her on the job is an important administration priority.
Q But how long is the White House going to continue pushing her nomination? Or are you looking for another candidate to be ambassador of Mexico?
MR. EARNEST: No, not at all. She's the right woman for the job. She's the right person for the job. She's a skilled diplomat, and is more than qualified to advance this important relationship between the United States and Mexico. And the longer that Republicans engage in this totally unwarranted, unjustified delay, is the longer that we miss out on an opportunity of having our embassy in Mexico fully staffed.
Q Using that example, and Szubin and some of the lower courts, is there any expectation then that the White House has that this similar gridlock will somehow miraculously be broken in the case of a Supreme Court nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know it's Republicans that run around and say that they believe that Supreme Court nominations are different. And they like to say that these are even more important. That might be an area where we have some bipartisan agreement. That may be an area where would acknowledge that, yeah, we can have our differences of opinion over Roberta Jacobson -- I don't think there's anybody that can quibble with her credentials. But even if you want to register your objection to the U.S. government policy in the Western Hemisphere, then that's one tool that you have at your disposal. Again, I'm not condoning it in any way. I don't think it's appropriate. But it certainly is one lever that Republicans can pull. It has consequences.
But in this case, when you're talking about a Supreme Court justice, there is significant consequences for essentially having the Supreme Court not fully staffed. And that is -- we're talking about a third branch of government that is at the risk of being blatantly politicized. You essentially have Republicans who are coming forward and saying, we're not going to support the nominee -- or not even consider a nominee put forward by this President because we want to see if our chances are better after the next election.
And I don't think people want to see -- the American people want to see the Supreme Court's objection to that kind of politics. I think what the American people want to see is they want to see their President, whatever party that individual serves in, put forward a nominee that is eminently well qualified and that can earn strong support in the United States Senate. That's exactly what the President is going to do. The President intends to fulfill that responsibility. And that's an expectation that the American people have; it's also an expectation of the Constitution. The President is going to fulfill it, and we'll have a situation where Republicans will have to make a pretty important choice about whether or not they will fulfill their constitutional obligation.
Q And a robust conversation about it tomorrow. Deese, Cutter, Eggleston -- is it fair to say that the First Lady would have an interest in having a little conversation with the President about the Supreme Court nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm certainly not going to get into those kinds of conversations. But I think --
Q Would she be a part of the group, the cadre of folks that will look at --
MR. EARNEST: No. She would not have any sort of formal role like that at all.
Q You said no formal role. But might she weigh in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to get into any conversations between husbands and wives at any level, let alone any conversations between the President and the First Lady.
But look, I think the First Lady obviously has on a range of issues acknowledged and respected that her husband has got an important job to do and that he's got a whole team of advisors here that he can rely on to offer him the very best advice as he makes important decisions. So again, I'm not going to get into any of their conversations, but this decision will be driven by the kind of advice and material that's provided to him by his legal team. And he will, based on reviewing the backgrounds and public record of those potential nominees, make a decision about who he believes is the very best person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Q It was reported that he's reading some past cases, some past decisions involving some potential nominees. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I won't go beyond saying that the President will consider the public record and take a close look at the public record of each of the potential nominees. And that would include, if there are judges on the list, at least taking a look at some of their public writings.
Q Is there a pro-choice litmus test?
MR. EARNEST: The President, when talking about this before, has said that he would not have specific litmus tests. He did lay out, in the blog that he wrote for SCOTUSblog last week, the criteria that he will use in choosing a nominee.
Q You mentioned earlier -- you said the Apple investigation is a priority for this President. Why?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because, Kevin, we started out talking about this as being the investigation into the terrorist incident in San Bernardino. That's why the President believes it's a priority. And the President believes that our investigators need to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. They need to get their hands on as much information as possible to determine what motivated these individuals, whether or not they were working with anyone else, either inside the United States or around the world, to carry out this attack. If there is more that we can learn about exactly what their plans were about what may have radicalized them and inspired them, we want to know that information too.
So there is an independent investigation. We've got our law enforcement experts, our investigative experts on the task. And they're doing the very best that they can to collect information that could be used to protect the American people.
Q So the President is interested in compelling a company -- a private enterprise to essentially hack their own material to assist the federal government in this investigation?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, this is a filing by the Department of Justice based on conclusions that were reached by independent law enforcement investigators. So again, this is something that the Department of Justice is engaged in. This is an independent investigation. But the President has made clear that he wants to review the results of that investigation and make sure that all the steps that are necessary are being taken to protect the American people.
Q So that was a yes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'll let you take a look at my answer. I think I was pretty clear.
Q Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First one on Syrian refugees. Canada welcomed the last of the 25,000 refugees, as promised, without major problems. Where are we in this process here in the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, as we've discussed, the process for refugees entering the United States is a long and difficult one. Refugees who, through the U.N. program, enter the United States are subjected to the most robust screening standards of anybody who attempts to enter the United States. That means that they have to undergo background checks, which includes in-person interviews. Refugees have to submit biographical and biometric information before they can be admitted to the United States. And that information is all run through a set of databases that are maintained by the Department of Defense, by the intelligence community, by law enforcement organizations both here in the United States but also international law enforcement organizations.
Typically, that process can take 18 to 24 months before an individual is admitted to the United States through the refugee program. So the reason for that is that our national security interests and the safety of the American public is paramount. At the same time, it also is a testament to the generosity of the American people. Through that U.N. program, the United States takes in more resettled refugees than every other country of the world combined. And that, again, I think is an indication that the United States can both continue to play a leading role in responding to an international crisis while at the same time protecting our national security and protecting the safety of the American public.
Q And in this very case, how many do you think have been welcomed? I understand the process is long and it's rigorous. About 1,000, 100? How many do we think we have?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know where we are in the current process, but you can check with the State Department about that.
Q We haven't reached 25,000?
MR. EARNEST: Not this year, no.
Q Not this year. Another question. Last week, during the GOP debate, there was a question by one of the panelists on the border -- a wall on the border of Mexico. This is one of the ideas of the candidates -- one candidate in particular. And they talked -- this panelist talked about how about the Canadian border, and the answer was only, well, the Canadian border is just too long to wall -- to be walled. Is there a danger coming from the north?
MR. EARNEST: Say the last part --
Q Is there a danger coming from the Great White North?
MR. EARNEST: I think what is true is that the United States and Canada have a really important national security relationship. And our ability to share information and to cooperate to protect the citizens in both our countries ultimately is a strategy that has served our countries well.
And I suspect that this continued national security and counterterrorism cooperation will be the subject of some discussion when Prime Minister Trudeau visits the White House next month.
Q So even if the border is long, it's not worth building a wall, considering the relationship that you described?
MR. EARNEST: I think we've laid out a strategy for protecting the American people and the Canadian people that's served the citizens of our countries quite well.
Q Turning to the election in Iran -- results are still coming in, but it appears that President Rouhani has secured a more moderate parliament. Does the President see that as an indication of his diplomatic engagement with this country?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I'm not going to weigh in on the results of the elections because they have not been formally announced. But we do expect that official results will be released tomorrow. At that point, however, it will also likely be clear that there will be a number of runoffs that will need to be run. And so I probably will not be able to offer up any specific reaction to the Iranian elections for some time.
I can just say in general that the diplomatic agreement that was negotiated last summer to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was not predicated on a more moderate government taking power in Iran. In fact, I've heard some make the case that that international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is actually even more important if government leaders in Iran that are hostile to the United States take power; that that's all the more reason we need to make sure that Iran is abiding by the broad international obligations that other countries abide by.
So that's sort of our view in terms of the legacy of the agreement. What's also true is that just the prospect of succeeding in negotiating the agreement and completing it has created an opportunity for the United States and Iran to improve our relations. So it was in the context of -- or at least on the sidelines of those talks where there were discussions about securing the release of U.S. citizens that were being unjustly detained inside of Iran. And we were able to bring those American citizens home because of those discussion. There were a number of other arrangements that were reached that were mutually beneficial.
So that was a rather short-term prospect, but yet the process of successfully negotiating the agreement has allowed us to advance our interest. But it remains to be seen over the longer term exactly what direction the Iranian people choose to pursue for their country. But we've made strongly the case that even if that is a government that is hostile to the United States, it makes the international agreement to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon all the more important.
Q Two follow-up questions. One, to the pro-choice litmus test. The Supreme Court is going to be hearing one of the biggest cases argued for it on Wednesday, and it's a Court that's altered by the death of Justice Scalia. He was the most vociferous opponent to abortion. If you appointed or if the President nominated a pro-choice person, it would flip the makeup of the Court, so how can you say that that is not going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I think I have shied quite a ways away from predicting outcomes on the Supreme Court. And I certainly wouldn't speculate on how those outcomes would be changed by a nominee that the President hasn't named yet.
So the President is very mindful of the criteria that he will use to choose a nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. He'll be interested in somebody that has unquestioned legal credentials. He'll want somebody who has the right kind of experience for the job. And he'll want somebody who is committed to the rule of law and focusing on what the law says and what precedent says, and not focusing on politics. And in some ways, that's what makes the institution of the Supreme Court so unique -- is that our expectation is that regardless of whether you are appointed by a Democratic or a Republican President, that you're going to be a judge who will impartially apply the law.
And the concern that I have about this process is that the unprecedented way that Republicans are injecting partisan politics into the nomination process does put that third branch of government, the Supreme Court, at risk of being exposed to far more partisanship than I think most Americans are comfortable with. And that's the concern.
I mean, look, every nominee that a President has put forward since 1875 has gotten either a hearing or a vote, unless of course that President withdrew that nominee. So that's the degree to which the Republican tactic here is so unprecedented. And it is all motivated by partisanship. And that's a disappointment.
And the President is hopeful that at some point, enough Republicans will come forward in the United States Senate and say, we're going to allow our constitutional obligation to supersede any sort of personal political considerations. That's what the Constitution calls on us to do. That's the expectation of our constituents. And hopefully, that's what they'll conclude.
Q One last question, follow up. Last week -- two weeks ago I asked you about the term "genocide" as related to Syrian Christians. It was asked again today. When is that decision going to be made? We keep saying it's illegal, it's -- when can we have a definitive answer on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a timeframe for that, but I'd check with the State Department. That's the agency that is taking a look at this and they may have some guidance to share with you in terms of timing.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:08 P.M. EST
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