Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 4/12/2016
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
April 12, 2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. You seem pretty cheery today, which I'm pleased to hear. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q Sure. I just wanted to go back to the President's remarks this morning. He inched a little closer to perhaps endorsing Hillary Clinton, with his comments about future generations being surprised that a woman could hold the Oval Office. Is that what he meant by that? Again, leaning into the idea that he's rooting for her.
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was leaning into the idea of a value statement, that the United States is a country where people who work hard and are willing to play by the rules are not going to be limited by their last name or what they look like or their religion or even their gender, but rather that America is a place where if you work hard, your dreams can come true. And the President wants to preserve that promise for future generations.
The President has certainly talked about that quite a bit and certainly when it comes -- and it certainly applies to the scenario when women are competing for the highest elected office in the land, and that they should be evaluated based on their ideas and their values and their agenda. And it's the kind of country I think that we all aspire to, and that certainly is the value that the President was giving voice to today.
Q So is he ready to see a woman President?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President indicated in his remarks that the country is ready for that. But the candidates are going to be evaluated based on their values and on their priorities and on their agenda. Well, look, there already has been a tough debate already about who the next President will be, and that debate will only intensify in advance of November. And that's the way that we're going to choose our next President. And the President will be an eager participant in that process.
Q And then one more on politics. There is an announcement of remarks coming from Speaker Ryan later this afternoon, as I'm sure you're aware. Do you think Democrats should be preparing for the possibility that he could be the Republican nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's my understanding that the meeting that Speaker Ryan has convened is to assure everybody, including Democrats, that people don't need to be concerned about the prospect of him running for President anytime soon, at least not this year. But I'll let him speak for himself about his own plans.
I think Democrats are going to have a forceful argument to make, and the President will be part of making that argument. In some ways, he already has been. But there will be plenty of time to consider exactly how that argument lines up and who the candidates will be over the course of this year. And Republicans have their own process that's established for nominating a candidate for President. They have their own set of rules that guide how that process will work. And I understand that Speaker Ryan is the chair of the Republican convention, so he certainly -- I suspect he's spent a little time brushing up on the finer points of those rules over the last few weeks. And ultimately, it will be up to Republicans to decide who they want to represent their party in the general election.
Q So Democrats should take that at face value? They should not do any preparation or at all be ready for the --
MR. EARNEST: I think that Speaker Ryan is hoping that everybody will take him at face value when he delivers his comments later today. But I'll let him speak for himself.
Q And just one more, looking ahead to next week. I assume the White House is following sort of the fallout from the Panama Papers and that Cameron has been caught up in some discussion. I'm wondering if you could just tell me whether or not the White House is following that and if we should expect the President to defend the Prime Minister in any way on this front when he's there next week.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the White House has been following this story. There's been a lot of reporting that's been generated by journalists who have analyzed the data that was released. And in some cases, this has caused politicians in places like Iceland and China and, yes, some places in Europe who have been connected to that information in one way or another. I know what Prime Minister Cameron has done is he's released an unprecedented amount of information about his taxes in order to help his constituents understand exactly what has taken place.
I don't know to what extent that will satisfy the inquiries that he and his office have received. But the argument that the President made when speaking from this podium last week is that the United States has been a strong advocate of greater transparency in the international financial system. And there are a number of steps that the Obama administration has advanced in pursuit of that goal, but there obviously is more work that we believe can be done. This is an important principle because we know that there are bad actors that capitalize on the opaque nature of some international financial transactions to try to launder money, to evade U.S. sanctions, and to store the profits of corruption.
So greater transparency into those transactions would enhance the ability of the United States and our international partners to combat those efforts. So we're going to continue to advocate for transparency. And it sounds like Prime Minister Cameron has opted for greater transparency to help the British people understand exactly his role in this story. And I don't know whether or not this will continue to be the topic of intense interest when President Obama travels to London next week. I would anticipate that while the President is in London, he'll have an opportunity to take questions from all of you, and we'll see at that point whether or not you and your British counterparts consider this to be a relevant, newsworthy topic at that point.
Q Another likely topic will be Brexit. Can you describe whether or not the President -- what we should expect from him on that front, and whether or not he's at all concerned about meddling or weighing in too much on an issue --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have any specific set of remarks to preview for you. The position that we have previously expressed is that the United States benefits from a strong UK that's part of the EU. And ultimately, the British people will have to decide exactly what they want the future to hold with regard to their country's relationship with the rest of Europe.
And I think that, in any case, the President will respect the sovereignty of the UK and the right of the British people to make that determination. But when the President is taking questions from the press corps, I wouldn't be surprised if this is at that point considered a newsworthy topic that comes up.
Q I want to talk about Brazil a little bit. Lots of difficult news as Brazil -- more votes expected on impeachment proceedings for President Rousseff in coming days. And then today, the IMF downgraded its forecast of the economy -- going to shrink 3.8 percent this year instead of 3.5 percent. Just wondering how the White House -- how concerned is it that these economic problems could hit the U.S. eventually.
MR. EARNEST: I did not see the news about the new economic assessment from the IMF. But the kinds of political challenges that's facing the government in Brazil does not typically have a positive impact on the broader economic outlook of the country. So I'm not surprised to hear that assessment from the IMF.
I don't think any of the developments, either in the political realm or in the economic realm, have changed the President's assessment of the situation there. When the President did his news conference in Argentina alongside President Macri, the President voiced his confidence in the durability of the Brazilian government and Brazilian democracy to weather the political crosswinds that they're enduring right now. And the President had confidence in the ability of that governing system to resolve the concerns that have been raised and allow the Brazilian government and the Brazilian people to move forward. They obviously have a busy summer ahead. There are Olympic Games that they're preparing to host that will put Brazil in the spotlight.
And we certainly are hopeful that the British government will be able -- or that the Brazilian government will confront these challenges, will deal with them according to the rules that are codified in their constitution and in their system of government, and move forward in a way that can, over the longer term, begin to strengthen their economy.
Obviously, when you have a country as large as Brazil that has as many economic ties with the United States, it's in our interest to see their economy strong. It's in our interest to see the country's economy develop in a way that they can continue to be an important trading partner with the United States. Prior to the President's trip to Brazil in the first term of his presidency, we spent a decent amount of time talking about how important those economic ties were, and how direct the consequences are for our trade relationship, both here in the United States when it comes to our economy, but also the impact that it has on the economy of Brazil.
But, look, even in light of the developments that you have cited, the United States and President Obama himself have confidence in the durability of the Brazilian democracy to weather those challenges.
Q And I know you haven't seen all the details of the IMF -- the wider IMF report today, but they're also quite gloomy about the global economy. Japan, Russia and Brazil all don't pan out too well. How worried is the White House that if this continues it will lead to more global protectionist sentiment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, over the last couple of years, the President's economists have noted that the chief headwinds to the U.S. economy right now are emanating from overseas. There is a direct impact on the U.S. economy that is deeply integrated with the global economy when we see some of our partners encounter some economic difficulties.
But this also goes to the argument that the President himself has made quite a bit, recently, that the United States has an economy that's the envy of the world -- that the United States' economy is durable, that the United States' economy is strong. And the investments that -- and the strategy that we committed to in the President's first couple of years of his presidency are now reaping significant benefits for the American people and the American economy.
That's a good thing. And it is what makes the U.S. economy the envy of the world. And the President's view is that even in this situation where some of our significant trading partners are encountering some economic difficulties, this would be exactly the wrong time to retrench. What we should be doing is helping U.S. businesses look for additional opportunities overseas.
We know that's good for our broader economy. It's good for creating jobs. It's good for economic growth. We know that actually places upward pressure on wages -- that jobs in the United States that are tied to exports actually pay higher, on average, than the typical American job. That is all the more reason that we should be looking for additional opportunities to help American businesses do business overseas.
And that's one of the reasons that the President continues to be an ardent advocate of congressional approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This would expand the ability of U.S. businesses to engage in commerce with countries in the Asia Pacific region, some of whom are the most economically dynamic countries in the world.
And that is the path to the kind of economic growth and success that the President would like to see the United States enjoy over the long term.
Q While the President was speaking at UChicago last week, he said that he saw encryption as one of the major judicial issues of the time, and judges sort of sorting out the difference between privacy and security. And so I'm wondering if that's another signal, especially in light of the draft that's been circulating on Capitol Hill and leaked in part last week, that the President prefers Congress not act here, and that this issue be sort of decided in combination between the courts and the sort of broader national conversation he's talked about and you've talked about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just restate the principle -- and I think it's worth doing. The President believes in strong encryption. He believes that strong encryption has important value both for our economy and our national security. He also believes that strong encryption can be critical in protecting privacy. All those are good things. All those are things that the President strongly believes. And it's why he believes that strong encryption should be robustly deployed.
At the same time, we should not set up a situation where bad actors -- terrorists -- can essentially establish a safe haven in cyberspace. And I recognize, and the President recognizes, that there is some tension in those principles. And resolving that tension both in the near term, but also over the longer, will be challenging. And one of the reasons that that will be challenging is not just because these are principles that are really important, but these are also principles that we're trying to enforce in a very dynamic environment. Technology companies are regularly innovating and finding new ways to encrypt information. And ensuring that we have a policy and a resolution of those two principles that can adapt to that ever-changing environment will be critical to the long-term success of this policymaking process.
What I will say is, after describing how complex that situation is, I'll just observe that there are some quite simple things that Congress has struggled to do. I think the example that's at the front of my mind today is, the administration two months ago put forward a specific, documented requested for $1.9 billion in funding to fight Zika. This is a virus that we know threatens pregnant women and their newborn children. This is a virus that our scientists and public health professionals are increasingly worried about. But yet we haven't seen Congress do anything on a common-sense matter of public health and public safety. That's quite a disappointment, and I think it reflects the level of dysfunction in Congress right now, particularly because we see too many Republicans dragging their feet to act on what should be a rather common-sense piece of legislation.
That does diminish my expectations when it comes to assessing Congress's ability to tackle something as complicated as an encryption policy.
Q Well, does that mean that you don't think Congress will pass something? And whether they have not passed Zika funding or not taken a vote on your Supreme Court justice, do you think that they are not capable of passing legislation that adequately addresses this issue?
MR. EARNEST: I think both are in doubt. Both their ability to pass legislation and their ability to put together constructive legislation that would pass are both questions that are significantly in doubt.
Q Russia and Saudi Arabia have reportedly reached an agreement to freeze oil production. So I'm wondering if that's something the U.S. was in touch with Saudi Arabia about, if it's something that we expect to hear about next week, because it kind of cuts both ways economically. Because it would probably increase gas prices, but could give a boost to the U.S. energy sector -- whether this is an agreement that the White House supports.
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the news reports about this. I have been asked about previous news reports hinting at an agreement like this that did not prove to -- that didn't pan out and that didn't prove to be true. So why don't we take a closer look at this specific news report before commenting on it. But we'll take a look and get back to you.
Q And one last one. Is it fair to read the President's comments earlier today that female soccer players should have their work equally valued as an endorsement of the U.S. Women's National Team's complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission? And if so, or even if it's more of a broad push by the President, does he think there should be any sort of change in U.S. soccer since women are paid dramatically less than males?
MR. EARNEST: I think the point of the President's remarks today was just to acknowledge the facts of that specific situation. What sort of ruling is handed down by the EEOC is something that the commissioners there will have to conclude on their own. I think the President is just sort of acknowledging the paid disparity that exists in a variety of professions, including when it comes to the best soccer players in the world. And that's what the President was alluding to.
Q On the U.S. National Team, as the President of the United States, would he like to see something change at U.S. soccer, whether it be leadership or whether it be them adopting a different pay structure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I haven't talked to him about this specific issue. And I'm certainly not versed in all of the policies that may govern the setting of salaries for the men's and women's team. I think the President's observation today, however, is that there is a significant disparity based solely on the gender of the players, and that seems unfair. What consequences that has for policy decisions that eventually have to be made, I'll acknowledge that I don't know what that policy process is. But I think that disparity and the inherent unfairness of that disparity I think is pretty obvious to anybody who's been paying attention -- and the President has been paying attention.
Q Does the President think that the CPT joke shared by Secretary Clinton and Mayor de Blasio is in poor taste?
MR. EARNEST: I will admit, Bill, I didn't see the joke that you're referring to.
Q CPT was used as basically a racial reference, but they claim that it was actually a politician reference. But questions have been raised about the propriety of the use of the phrase.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's hard for me to comment on it because I just haven't --
Q Is he aware of it?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure that the President is aware of it. I haven't spoken to him about it.
Q Why don't you ask him?
MR. EARNEST: Okay, will do.
Q Thanks, Josh. Does the President believe that, before now, Americans were ready for a female President, or just now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has believed for some time that the country is ready for a woman President.
Q This is not novel, this is not America is finally getting it right? He feels like this has always been the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know if it's always been the case, but I think it has been the case for some time now that the country is ready for a woman to be elected President of the United States. Look, for the reason that the President traveled to this location, this newly designated national monument, is to acknowledge the fact that for more than our country's history -- if I'm doing the math right; I think I am -- for more than half of our country's history, women were denied the right to vote. And that certainly is going to inhibit the ability of a woman to serve as President of the United States. But only because of the progress that many women -- and men -- fought for, we have made our country more fair, that we have made our country more just, and we certainly have enhanced the justice that is built into our voting system.
And it is only because of that hard-won progress that we have reached a situation more recently that it is possible for a woman to be elected President of the United States, that that's a practical reality. That's a good thing. And that reflects what our founders envisioned in terms of forming a more perfect union.
Now, the irony is that we see too many Republicans on the other side of aisle trying to use the voting system to make it harder for Americans, who are otherwise eligible to vote, to cast a ballot. And that's moving in the wrong direction.
And the irony is and the disappointment is that some Republicans have acknowledged that this is a purely -- that they have a purely partisan motive for trying to erode the progress that we have made in our system of voting. And that's something that we need to improve.
Q Does the President feel like he's done -- well, let me ask this way: Is he satisfied from Ledbetter to today in the advancement that he has made to ensure equal pay for equal work? And if he's dissatisfied, what's the source of that dissatisfaction? And what's he doing about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President has taken a number of steps since being elected President to try to make equal pay for equal work a reality in this country. And you alluded to the fact that the very first bill that the President signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. That made it easier for workers to get access to information and to take their case to court to ensure that they were being treated fairly by their employer.
But the President has done a number of other things, including creating the National Equal Pay Task Force. He has advocated for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. The President issued even an executive order that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating against employees who inquire about their level of compensation. And we've been working closely with both the Department of Labor and the EEOC to better target the enforcement of equal pay laws. There are already some rules that are on the books that could be effectively used to ensure that people are being treated fairly.
The President has often made the case that this isn't just an issue for women; that a lot of the women who are being discriminated against in the workplace and are not getting the same amount of pay for their work that their male colleagues are getting are women who are part of two-paycheck households. They have a husband who is also working hard trying to put food on the table, and they've got kids that they're trying to provide for.
So this isn't just a women's issue. This is a families' issue. And it's among the reasons that the President has been such an ardent advocate of this policy because his top domestic priority has been to expand economic opportunity for the middle class. And if we're going to do that successfully, we need to make sure that those families that require or rely on two paychecks to pay the bills, that both of those paychecks are fair.
Q So what grade are we talking about? An "A"? A "B"? An "I" for incomplete?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, there are a lot of people who can observe the progress that we've made, and I'll let them draw their own conclusions. But certainly the President is proud of the progress that we have made to make our country more fair, to make sure that that fairness actually shows up in the paycheck every month.
Q How interested is the President in declassifying the 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Report?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly somebody who has advocated for reforms to our country's classification system. You'll recall back in 2009, the President issued an executive order that essentially established the National Declassification Center that would expedite the consideration for declassification of a number of government records. There's also an effort underway to establish an open and uniform system for placing controls on sensitive but unclassified information so we can ensure that information is handled appropriately when it's sensitive, but also that we can live up to the President's commitment to transparency that should apply even in a national security setting.
I can't tell you whether or not the President has read these 28 pages. I can tell you that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is currently doing a declassification review of those pages. And the President certainly has confidence in the ability of those national security professionals to consider those documents for release.
Q You said you can't tell me if he has read them. Has he been asked? Have you asked him personally? Has he taken a look? This is in news. He's insatiably curious. I imagine that he has access, that he probably has seen them, no?
MR. EARNEST: I just -- I don't know whether or not he's --
Q You haven't had a chance to ask him?
MR. EARNEST: I have not asked him about that.
Q I'd appreciate if you get the opportunity, I'd certainly like to get --
MR. EARNEST: Got a long list of questions for him today, I guess here, huh? (Laughter.)
Q Yes. Double work. Just one last button-up on that one. Given the suggestion -- and I'm reading it now and I've read almost all of the 858 pages -- that there is a section that is not classified that reads in part: "The joint inquiry developed information suggesting specific sources of foreign support for some of the September 11th hijackers while they were in the United States." It has also been alleged or suggested by some that that support may have come, in fact, from the Saudi leadership in the kingdom. Ahead of the trip there, do you suspect this will be part of the conversation? And have you heard an allegation such as the one I've just offered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this something -- this actually was an allegation that was considered by the 9/11 Commission. This was the outside group that was formed. And there were national security experts who investigated 9/11 and issued a report both chronicling what they knew about what happened, and proposing a set of reforms that they encouraged the government to implement to try to prevent it from happening in the future.
A part of the conclusion of that report states: "Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding. But we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization."
So there already has been a close look at the kind of support that al Qaeda, including al Qaeda in the United States may have received. And this was included in a declassified 9/11 Commission Report that was released a number of years ago.
Q So it is not likely -- just to button it up -- that this will be a topic of conversation during the visit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't know whether or not this will come up. The fact that it's been in the news more recently might change that equation. But I think it's true that the people who have looked carefully at this, the experts who have looked carefully at this and put together the 9/11 report did not find any direct links between the Saudi government providing support, financial support to al Qaeda.
Q The senior Saudi government. They don't say anything about the junior Saudi government.
MR. EARNEST: The Saudi government as an institution is the way they described it, and that's what I was referring to.
Q Thanks, Josh. Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that everybody should visit Hiroshima. Does the President want to go to Hiroshima in May?
MR. EARNEST: Does the President count as "everybody"?
Q Well, he said "everybody," -- and I mean "everybody," I quote him. Does the President want to go in May? And then how likely is it to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an update in terms of the itinerary of the President's trip to Asia in May. He obviously will be in Japan for the G7 summit there. And I don't know at this point whether or not any side trips will be on the President's itinerary.
The President, on previous trips to Japan, has sort of faced a question about whether or not to include a stop in Hiroshima. And look, the symbol of Hiroshima is the significant and even, in some ways, tragic ability that mankind has to wreak terrible destruction. And one of the reasons that the President has started and routinely convened a Nuclear Security Summit is in pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons. And that continues to be a long-term goal.
The President himself has indicated that that's unlikely -- that goal is unlikely to be achieved during his lifetime, but there certainly is progress that we can make in pursuit of that goal. And one place to start is by better safeguarding and securing nuclear weapon -- nuclear materials and nuclear-weapon technology that could spread and that could proliferate. That's been the point of the summit.
So obviously there's probably -- symbolically, there's no more powerful illustration of that commitment than the city that contained the victims of the first use of that weapon. But at this point, I don't have an update for you on his itinerary, but we'll keep you posted.
Q Josh, another anti-transgender bathroom bill, much like the controversial North Carolina law, is percolating in Tennessee. The state attorney general, a Republican, said the measure could result in the loss of an estimated $1.2 billion for the state and Title 9 funding. Does the administration agree that the measure could result in loss of federal funding for the state?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a question that individual agencies have been considering after previous states have passed these bills into law. I don't know what mechanism is in place for individual agencies to consider those kinds of questions in advance of a law being passed, but you can check with the Department of Education for greater clarity on that.
What I can tell you is that the administration is firmly committed to promoting and defending equal rights of all Americans, including LGBT Americans. And specific laws like this that seek to target and marginalize one small segment of the population is nothing less than mean-spirited. That was true when they passed similar provisions in places like North Carolina and Mississippi, and it's true even as it's being considered in a place like Tennessee.
What's also true in Tennessee is that the state has thrived economically in part because of their ability to make their case to businesses across the country that they've got a great climate for doing business. Passing mean-spirited bills through the state legislature is not a good endorsement of your business climate. And ultimately, individual businesses will have to make their own decisions about this.
I think what is also true is that states like Tennessee and, to a certain extent, North Carolina and Mississippi, have a long history even over the last couple of generations of working through questions of civil rights. And President Obama has talked on a number of occasions about the important progress that our country has made with regard to civil rights. This is a good illustration that the fight for civil rights is not over, and demanding equality for every American and ensuring that those Americans are not singled out or targeted because of their sex or their race or what their last name is, or their religion, or who they love or who they are is a struggle that continues. And the President, every time, is going to be on the side of equality and fairness and justice for every American.
Q The reviews for the federal agencies of the North Carolina and Mississippi laws remain ongoing. Do you have an expectation for when they'll be complete?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have an expectation for that. You'll have to talk to the individual agencies about that. They're obviously coordinating their activities among themselves, and they're obviously doing this work in conjunction with the Department of Justice, because there are important legal questions that have to be resolved. But I don't have an update for you in terms of when that work will be concluded.
Q CNN interviewed former Mexican President Vicente Fox, obviously talking about Donald Trump and his proposals, his politics. It's not the first time he has criticized, saying that he's "arrogant," he's "egocentric," and he also called him a "dictator." But he did have a message for the American people. He said, "Wake up, America." Does the President feel as if the American people need to "wake up" during this election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President -- let me say a couple things about that. The first is that I think the President has observed in public on a number of occasions that he is confident that Mr. Trump will not be elected President. That's something that the President, himself, has said directly.
More generally, the reason that we have elections in this country is it's an opportunity for the American people to consider the values and agenda and track record of those who are competing for the highest elected office in the land. And the decision that is ultimately reached by the voters is one that has significant consequences. The American people have chosen to invest significant power and authority in the President of the United States, and making this decision is an important one. It's one that has significant consequences not just for the United States but for other countries around the world.
And I think that's part of what -- it sounds like, at least -- I didn't see the interview, but it sounds like that's part of what President Fox was referring to. Again, ultimately the President will have an opportunity to make clear why he believes the Democratic nominee is the one that should be elected and is the one that he prefers. But he'll have an opportunity to make that case certainly once the Democratic Party has chosen a nominee, and presumably he will join that debate in earnest once the Republicans have chosen their nominee as well.
Q And interestingly, the Freedom of Information Act -- some of Bill Clinton's presidential papers were released today. And this was back in October of 1999, when there was a possibility that Donald Trump would be running in an independent party for President, for the nomination. And these are notes from his aides, President Clinton's aides, before he was preparing for a CBS News interview -- if asked about whether or not his own problems in the White House, his scandal, contributed to celebrities wanting to be President. And his aides said here, according to the notes, that he responds saying, "I think it may say something about the way the media covers politics these days, but I have the utmost confidence in the American people to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Regardless of who runs for President or how they're covered, the public eventually sees through all the smoke and mirrors. They, after all, have the ultimate power at the ballot box."
Does President Obama see it that way? And what do you make of the fact that there's that argument that was made 17 years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think it sounds like based on what you've read that President Clinton was expressing the same kind of confidence in the American people and the American voters that President Obama has routinely expressed confidence in. and it doesn't mean that every election goes down exactly the way the President would hope, but it does mean that, particularly in a national election that will get as much attention as the presidential election will, the President does continue to have an abiding confidence in the American people and in American voters to take their responsibility to choose the next President quite seriously and to do the diligent work required to make the best choice.
Q And finally, Defense Secretary Carter has formally notified Egypt and Israel that the U.S. is considering reconfiguring its resources in the Sinai by increasing its reliance on remote sensory technology as opposed to troops because of the threat of ISIS. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that the United States remains as committed as ever to the success of a multinational force and observers. This is part of the treaty that was signed between Israel and Egypt, and the United States has played an important role in ensuring the success of that treaty.
And what is true is that since the decisions were made about how to observe that treaty and its entering into effect, there have been great advances in technology that will allow some of the work that is currently done by MFO forces in the Sinai to be supplemented with new technology. This has the potential to actually make this monitoring effort even more effective. And the changes that the Department of Defense is prepared to make are consistent with this desire to supplement our efforts with new technology.
What sort of impact that has on the presence of the U.S. military in the Sinai Peninsula, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense on that. But I can tell you as a policy matter that the U.S. commitment to this treaty and this mission has never been stronger. And that's evidenced by the fact that the United States government is prepared to deploy new equipment and new technology to supplement the ongoing efforts of those forces that have been in the Sinai Peninsula for several decades now.
Q -- it's more dangerous on the ground for U.S. troops because of the threat of ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, we're aware of the threat from extremists in that part of the world. That threat has been in existence since those forces were deployed there. And there have been a number of steps that have been taken over the years to enhance the force protection measures that are in place. But the policy changes that are being implemented by the Department of Defense are a reflection of newly available technology that can ensure the success of this MFO operation.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about comments made by New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton after one of his players was shot dead over the weekend. He said, "I hate guns." And he said, "If that opinion in Louisiana is super unpopular, so be it." And that "I guess the idea that we need them to fend off intruders, that's some silly stuff we're hanging on to." I'm wondering if the White House agrees with those comments, and if anyone from the White House has reached out to Sean Payton as a potential ally in your gun control efforts.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any conversations with Coach Payton about this specific issue. It sounds like he's somebody who was speaking from a position of great tragedy, and he clearly has lost a former player and somebody who he's said publicly meant a lot to him. And there's a lot of pain and emotion in that quote and in that expression.
The policy position that the administration has taken is somewhat different than that, but the administration has been forceful in advocating for the adoption of common-sense measures that would keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. And we can do that in a variety of ways without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And the President continues to be a forceful advocate for those kinds of policies.
It's unclear what exactly transpired on Saturday night that resulted in the death of Will Smith, the former New Orleans Saints football player. That situation is still under investigation. It's unclear whether or not a different policy could have prevented that loss of life. But, look, it does serve to illustrate that gun violence is too common in our society. And there are things that we can do to reduce that gun violence. We can't prevent every act of violence from occurring, but we can certainly take some common-sense steps that would reduce gun violence that don't undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And the President believes strongly that those measures should be taken, and he's going to continue to advocate for them.
Q Josh, I have a couple about classified information. The first, I'm trying to understand what you said, that the President is getting information from the news media about the ongoing troubles with Secretary of State Clinton's emails. He's never received an aide's assessment of the technical national security or political ramifications of this controversy?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you, Olivier, that the President has -- and I mentioned this yesterday -- but the President has neither asked for, nor received a briefing on the confidential elements of the ongoing investigation. Obviously, the President has talked about this issue publicly because he's read the newspaper and there have been many details of the case that have been reported publicly -- in large part because Secretary Clinton has asked that her emails in question be released publicly. And there are thousands, tens of thousands of pages of emails that all of you have combed through and reported on. And that has informed the President about the situation.
The President also can draw upon his own knowledge of her work there. But it is true that the President has not received a specific briefing -- and he hasn't asked for one -- on the confidential, ongoing investigation that's being conducted by the Department of Justice.
Q Okay. And then I was struck, watching the briefing yesterday, how much distance you put between the administration and the prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers and the like yesterday. Because when you talk about no one with politics in their job description shapes these investigations -- the President appoints the Attorney General; the President nominates a number of federal prosecutors. The President, as we've seen on immigration, has fairly wide latitude in deciding the priorities of prosecution, where these law enforcement resources go. How can you -- I mean, it really sounded to me yesterday like you were putting an enormous amount of distance between the President and those prosecutions. Can you elaborate on what you were trying to say?
MR. EARNEST: I guess the point that I was trying to make -- and I was trying to be intentionally strong -- there is a question about this principle of whether or not criminal investigations are going to be conducted independent of political influence --
Q So individual ones, though, right? Because you're not disputing that the President sets the tone, the Attorney General sets the tone, there are guidelines? When Eric Holder enacts new guidelines covering the way the Justice Department will handle, say, reporters, in one of these cases, they're shaping the general tenor of these investigations, right? You're saying -- what you're talking about are individual ones, aren't you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I'm not sure that I detect a --
Q Well, in principle versus in a specific case.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, this question -- well, let me say it more affirmatively. The President is committed -- as he described to Chris Wallace from Fox News, the President is committed to ensuring that individuals who have conducted criminal prosecutions do their work without influence from politicians or anybody that's involved in politics. Criminal prosecutions must be conducted and guided by the facts. They must be led in the direction that the evidence takes them.
And that is the way that we can ensure that people can have confidence in our criminal justice system. If people feel like the facts of an investigation are not being guided by the evidence but are being guided by the politics, that's going to undermine our basic conception of justice. And it should. And that is true regardless of which party is in the White House. In fact, I think that's why there was so much concern raised in the previous administration when there was evidence that politics was interfering with decisions about hiring U.S. attorneys across the country -- that this goes to a core principle that is unique in America.
I acknowledge that there are also other countries where we regularly travel where there is a little more tolerance for political influence in the criminal justice system and in the law enforcement system. We don't have that tolerance in this country.
And I think the President -- I haven't looked recently at the President's remarks when he introduced Attorney General Lynch as his nominee for that important role, but it's worth going back -- and I'll do it when we're done here. I'm confident that one of the reasons the President chose her for this job is because of her career-long commitment to focusing on facts and evidence, and not considering politics when making law enforcement or prosecutorial decisions. She had a long track record of that because she was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she handled a series of high-profile cases where politics threatened to intrude, and she was steadfast about preventing that from happening.
So I think that should be an indication both of the President's commitment to this principle, but also an indication that the President has chosen the right person for the job. The President has chosen somebody who doesn't just believe in this principle, but who, over the course of her career, has demonstrated a commitment to this principle even in a difficult environment.
There are some pretty high-profile criminal cases in New York that she was responsible for handling. And she has demonstrated throughout her career an ability to keep those political forces at bay and make sure that prosecutorial decisions were being made based on the facts and on the evidence, and not on politics. And that certainly is the expectation that the President has for the way that she does her job on a daily basis as Attorney General, and it's his expectation that that's the way that she and the investigators who are taking a look at Secretary Clinton's email system will do their job as well.
Does that answer your question?
Q No, but we can take this up later. I don't want to monopolize the rest of the briefing.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. I'm not trying to intentionally avoid answering your question.
Q I'm not impugning her record or her principles. I just don't know that there would have been this many prosecutions of this many leakers if this were not a priority of the President or the people that he nominates to key positions. So what I'm saying is that these -- you talked about these prosecutions yesterday in terms that to me, at least, sounded like you were trying to push them off and put them -- you said, well, some of these started in the previous administration, these are all independent prosecutors. And what I'm saying is, as we know from -- again, as we know from immigration policy, the President can set general principles for how these law enforcement resources are allocated. And so I just don't -- I just was not eager to let you push these off and say, essentially, these aren't really -- this is not our record, this is these anonymous provisional prosecutors doing this.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I guess the other way I could try to answer your question is to -- you sort of posed the
counterfactual, right? That if the President hadn't sort of raised this publicly as an issue of concern, protecting classified, sensitive national security information, that maybe the Department of Justice would have handled it differently.
I guess the way that I would pose it back to you is, if there were evidence that the President were having those kinds of conversations with the Department of Justice, like that information is not really that important, you don't need to prosecute, that would be a huge story. That would be a huge problem. Because I think the question that you would rightfully raise is, did the President reach out to the Department of Justice and those prosecutors to raise concerns about the case because he didn't think the information was that sensitive? Or is it because this is an individual who voted for him or contributed to his campaign? Or somebody who had written an op-ed favorable of his national security policy?
Any time that the President -- that there is evidence that a President would somehow intervene or try to influence the outcome of an individual prosecution would be a significant problem. And there would rightly be questions raised.
So as others were sort of entertaining the counterfactuals, I think the counterfactual that I would raise is, what if the President did express some preference on this? I think reasonably all of you would be really uncomfortable with that. As an American, I think I would be, too. Because I think the problem -- the concern that would be raised is, is this decision that's supposed to be made be a career federal prosecutor being made on the merits, or is it being influenced by a politician that may have an ulterior motive?
Q This is where the general principle versus an individual case distinction come in, for me.
MR. EARNEST: But we can certainly continue this. And I think that there are --
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: The last thing I will say on this is that I have asked for more publicly available information about sort of what is often cited in terms of these questions about how the Department of Justice has chosen to pursue investigations of people who are accused of leaking classified information. And so we can talk about it in the briefing tomorrow, or in private tomorrow if everybody else is bored with this conversation. But there is more that I hope that I can present that we can discuss.
Q Josh, is the NSC meeting tomorrow at CIA a decision-making meeting about ISIS strategy or just an update?
MR. EARNEST: Well, tomorrow's meeting is consistent with the regular cadence of meetings that the President convenes with his national security team to take a look at our campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The President typically uses these meetings where senior members of his team participate to get an update on how things are going. And those regular in-person updates are valuable to testing how effective the strategy is. And one of the keys to our success is going to be our ability to be nimble and to look for opportunities, and to detect opportunities early for investing more in certain elements of our strategy to try to yield additional progress.
So it's not uncommon for the President to make decisions in the context of these meetings. I don't know whether or not a decision will be announced in the context of tomorrow's meeting. But the President will deliver a statement at the conclusion of the meeting. And so you will get an opportunity to hear from him directly about what he believed was accomplished in the discussion.
Q On the subject of CIA, is there any White House reaction to the statement by Director Brennan that he would refuse a direct order from the President to engage water-board interrogation?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know whether I have a specific reaction to it --
Q Can you put that on your list of things to ask? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: -- but I'll try to at least address your question. Director Brennan was expressing his support for a value that he's long expressed, which is he believes that the national security of the United States is enhanced and is strengthened when we make clear that the United States doesn't torture people. And we certainly don't implement a policy that allows torture. And we don't send even an ambiguous signal that somehow the U.S. government might condone torture. That's the value that Director Brennan was standing up for in the context of that interview. And that's not the first time that he's done it.
He is somebody who, throughout his career, has recognized how important it is for our national security policy to reflect our values. And Director Brennen -- more eloquently than I am here -- can help you understand exactly why that is critical to the success of our country and critical to our national security. People look to the United States as a place where human rights are not just protected but championed. And implementing a policy and one that has been proven time and time again over the course of this presidency is that we can implement a policy, a national security policy that is consistent with our values, advances our interests, and keeps the American people safe.
The President is proud of that track record, and that track record was possible because of the enormous contributions of people like Director Brennan.
Q And lastly is there an impact on the President's trip next week by the new travel warnings about Saudi Arabia that were issued yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I saw the updated guidance that had been issued by the State Department. I believe that was actually consistent with guidance that they had issued six months ago when they were just renewing it. I would not anticipate that that would have any impact on the President's itinerary.
Q Josh, in that Fox interview that was aired Sunday, the President also told Chris Wallace that his biggest regret was in driving Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya without considering the vacuum in power that took place afterwards. Does he believe he bears any responsibility, along with the coalition allies, for the fact that Libya has become a breeding ground, base of operations for many militant organizations, including ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, the President has acknowledged that the United States and certainly the Commander-in-Chief -- he does take some responsibility, along with our coalition partners, for failing to plan effectively for the situation in Libya after Colonel Qaddafi was removed from power. And there have been consequences for that failure. And the political and security turmoil that we've seen inside of Libya has been tragic, that there have been innocent lives that have been lost, including some brave Americans who are serving their country in Libya.
But what we have seen the United States and our coalition partners do is invest in and support a long-running U.N. process to try to rebuild the political structures inside of Libya. And there now is a Government of National Accord that is in Tripoli that is beginning to establish its rightful role as the government of Libya.
But that's been a long-running process. And the fact is this was an enormous challenge. Because Qaddafi had been in power for so long -- 42 years -- the civil society structures, the governmental structures of Libya were eroded away. And when he was removed from power there was no sort of structure to try to preserve order until a new leader of the country could be selected. It just meant that the government, and to a larger extent, the civil society in that country just disintegrated. And trying to rebuild all of that from scratch has been a painstaking effort, particularly when the people in that country are enduring the influence and destabilizing activities of extremists that are operating in their country.
And so this has been a significant challenge. But we're pleased with the progress that has been made, particularly recently. And the United States is going to continue to play an important role in preventing ISIL from establishing a new safe haven in Libya that they could use to carry out attacks in the United States or in the nations of our allies. And that's why you've seen the United States and the Commander-in-Chief order some military action against ISIL targets in Libya to take them off the battlefield.
So those efforts have been important, but we've got a lot of work to do to try to bring the situation in Libya under control. It won't be a military solution, it will be a political solution, much like the one that we've seen make some progress in the last few weeks.
Q There have been instances where small numbers of U.S. Special Operations Forces have been on the ground in Libya in an advise-and-assist and a reconnaissance effort, if you will. But now that a government, an effective government seems to be forming, once that is a solid government entity, is the U.S. willing to commit any kind of ground forces there even in an advisory role eventually?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think it's far too early to consider that question, because I think what you will find is the United States is interested in partnering with the sovereign government, the newly established Government of National Accord in Libya. They obviously have their own self-interest in trying to combat the extremists that are operating in the country. They face some significant challenges in doing that because there are also a variety of militia groups across the country that make unifying the security presence in that country rather challenging, and that is going to have an impact on their ability to go after extremists that may be trying to establish a safe haven inside of Libya.
I think it's too early at this point to offer up a specific policy proposition about what the United States will do down the road. But what we are committed to doing right now is showing our support for that government and, where necessary, taking military action to take prominent ISIL targets off the battlefield in order to protect the United States and our allies.
Q Would you say an increase in U.S. military activity in Libya is likely?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's -- look, I think U.S. military activities in Libya will be responsive to the threat that we face there. And that's why the President has ordered military action that, in one case, took out the senior ISIL official in Libya, in another case, took out a number of ISIL targets that had emerged in Libya. So we're going to continue -- the President will not hesitate to order military action were necessary, even in Libya, if it's necessary to take that action in order to protect the American people and our allies.
Q And has the Defense Department, Secretary Carter, Chairman Dunford yet presented to the Pentagon, to the President their request for additional ground forces in Iraq as I guess advise and assist -- in advise-and-assist roles?
MR. EARNEST: I know there have been a number of reports about recommendations that some members of the President's national security team have given to the President. I'm not going to talk about the consultations between the President and members of his national security team. What I can tell you is that the President's direction to every member of his team is to look for opportunities to reinforce those elements of our strategy that are yielding the most progress. And the President has asked them to come to him with suggestions for how it is possible to reinforce those elements of our strategy that are showing the most success.
The President will consider those recommendations accordingly. And if we have any announcements to make, we'll let you know.
Q Thank you, Josh. In an interview yesterday with Mic news, Vice President Biden talked about how it's important what politicians say. He said, "It matters what people say. It matters what your leaders say. It matters. Words matter." So based on that thought, I wanted to go back to Mayor de Blasio's joke about "running on CP time." I know you say that you haven't seen this joke, but is it appropriate for politicians to be making jokes that hint at racially insensitive terms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don't think that there's anybody -- I haven't seen the joke and so I'm very reluctant to wade into this very far. But let me just say in general that certainly Mayor de Blasio and Secretary Clinton have over the course of their career demonstrated a genuine commitment to the pursuit of equality and justice and civil rights. And that's not just a talking point that they include on the campaign materials. That is something to which they have dedicated their careers in public service. So I can't speak to any misguided attempts at humor. I can only speak to their commitment that they've shown over the course of their career to justice and civil rights.
Q And tomorrow the Citizens Against Government Waste is going to release their annual Congressional Pig Book, outlining waste in government. Back in 2009, they determined there was close to $270 billion that could be saved. That number has gone up while the President has been in office. The last year the report said that it was $639 billion that could be saved. Does the White House think that they've done enough to promote cutting waste in government?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the administration certainly has made important strides in reducing waste from government spending. Oftentimes our efforts are set back by Congress continuing to fund programs and specific government actions -- well, I'd just say government programs that we believe are no longer necessary.
And there are a number of reforms that the Department of Defense, for example, has routinely encouraged Congress to make that would save taxpayer dollars, that for political reasons members of Congress -- even Republicans -- haven't supported. And that's been a source of some disappointment.
There certainly is more that can be saved in terms of government spending. But the President has been serious about a commitment to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars. And the President is quite proud of the record that his administration has in cutting the deficit. We've cut the deficit by nearly three-fourths as a percentage of the economy since the President took office. We've made important progress in cutting wasteful spending, in eliminating old, outdated regulations that end up costing money unnecessarily. So the President's record on this is strong and one that he's quite proud of.
Q Josh, a few more questions on TPP. While we were talking -- while you were talking, the Secretary of State was in L.A., talking about the importance of the TPP on foreign policy. I think you said earlier in the briefing that the President is still very committed to getting TPP done. And the Peterson Institute has done studies about the economic impact and said we'd be leaving money on the table, the United States would, economically for each year that the TPP is delayed. Are you pressing Congress for a vote? What timetable are you looking at? And is getting Congress to vote on this before the summer recess off the table now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have a timeline to lay out. Obviously, individual members of the Congress, including many Republicans, have voiced their strong support for the agreement. They recognize both the national security and economic benefits that the American people would enjoy through the effective implementation of this agreement.
We've also seen strong support from outside organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau and others who typically don't support administration priorities who have leant their vocal advocacy to this policy. So we're going to continue to push Congress to implement this agreement, to act in bipartisan fashion to approve this agreement. And we're hopeful that they will.
Q Is the White House calling for a vote now, though? You're asking to have a vote on the Supreme Court justice. With immigration, you said just let it go forward for a vote, it's going to pass. Do you believe this agreement should go forward immediately?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some additional steps in this process that have to be undertaken before we would be calling for Congress to vote on it. For example, I know that there is an economic impact study that is still being conducted, and there needs to be a formal presentation made by the administration to Congress before we can call on a vote. But even at that point, I know that there would be some consideration by congressional committee.
So there's an established process. It takes probably longer than we would prefer, but that's true of a lot of things when dealing with Congress. But at this point, what we are hoping to do is to continue to make a strong bipartisan case for congressional action to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Because we believe that effective implementation of that agreement would be good for our national security and good for our economy.
Q Do you have a -- like I said, the Secretary of State talking about the impact -- there was a conference call just a few weeks ago with a former general at the Pentagon saying how important this is. Do you believe that you're creating conditions in the country through these arguments in public that is improving the prospects for a big trade bill to go through? Or do you believe you're losing ground? And what does that mean if it's the latter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think that's a difficult thing to assess. Obviously, many of the presidential candidates -- who are getting a lot of airtime themselves these days -- have not spoken favorably of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In some cases, they've spoken rather negatively of it.
But look, there is a strong, substantive case that this administration has and will continue to make about how the U.S. economy will benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We're talking about 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods that would be cut through the implementation of this agreement. We're talking about an agreement that would raise labor standards, environmental standards and human rights standards in a variety of countries around the world. And we're talking about an opportunity that U.S. businesses would have to get access to countries that have very dynamic economies.
So there's a real opportunity to be seized here. And it would also have the effect of making progress in Southeast Asia, a place where we know that China would love to make progress. China is suggesting that they would like to go out and try to reach agreements with all of these countries, and gain a foothold -- or expand their influence in this region of the world. They would do so by lowering labor standards, by lowering environmental standards, and making it harder for U.S. businesses to compete on a fair playing field in this region of the world.
So it's pretty clear, both economically and strategically, why this deal makes sense for the United States. And we're going to make that case to Congress, to both Democrats and Republicans. And, yes, this may require some members of Congress tuning out the noise of the presidential election in order to focus on the merits of the agreement. When focused on the merits, we've got a particularly strong case.
Q I want to follow on your earlier answer on Hiroshima. This morning, one of your predecessors, Dana Perino, retweeted something, saying "President Obama wants to apologize for us winning World War II." Knowing that kind of criticism is likely and that people will talk about apologies and so on, is that a factor in the decision on whether to go?
MR. EARNEST: It's not. The President has spoken on countless occasions -- I think most memorably at the 70th anniversary of D-Day -- about the debt of gratitude that all Americans owe to the Greatest Generation of Americans.
And look, I didn't see the tweet that you're referring to, and I've made a habit to try to avoid criticizing my predecessors from here, so let me just say that the President will be focused on the policy considerations, and whatever decision he makes and whatever policy decision the administration makes will be consistent with the President's strong view about the bravery, courage and heroism of those Americans who fought and won World War II, thereby securing the liberty and freedom not just of the United States, but of human beings around the world.
Q Josh, what are the factors for the President to decide if he goes to Hiroshima or not? Is it public opinion, or is it visual, or a John Kerry recommendation? What are the factors?
MR. EARNEST: This is a decision that -- this is a question about whether or not the President will visit Hiroshima that comes up regularly whenever the President makes plans to travel to Japan. The President has been to Japan I don't know how many times now, three or four times now, as President, and in advance of every trip this question has come up. So the President will -- and his team will obviously consider our options here. And once we've made a decision one way or the other, we'll be able to talk in a little bit more detail about why we've made the decision that we made.
Q Is the possibility about 50 percent, or more?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't put a number on it.
Tara, I'll give you the last one.
Q Can you tell me a little bit more about the President's visit to London? You talked about it earlier. Maybe you can give me a sense --
MR. EARNEST: A lot of interest in foreign travel today.
Q Exactly. Maybe you can give us a sense about what subjects will be discussed and what we should be thinking about before the trip.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll obviously have more to say about this later in the week as we get closer to the trip. I can tell you that the President strongly values the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. We partner on so many issues it would be difficult to enumerate all of them here at the end of the briefing. But I can tell you that President Obama has found Prime Minister Cameron to be an effective advocate for his country, but also an effective interlocutor for advancing the joint interests of our countries.
So I'm confident that there will be a discussion about our counter-ISIL campaign. Obviously, the UK is making important contributions, including military contributions, to our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The United States and the United Kingdom have worked effectively to try to enhance homeland security in our two countries. We obviously work seamlessly to share intelligence information in a way that enhances our nation's national security.
I would expect that the President will talk about the global economy. Obviously, the United Kingdom has a large economy that has significant influence on the global economy, and our efforts to strengthen our economic ties benefit the citizens in both of our countries.
But, look, there are also important cultural ties. And the President will have an opportunity to talk about that. And I know the President is very much looking forward to his visit. The President has been to the U.K. three or four times now, and I know he's enjoyed each visit. This will be his second visit to London, I believe, and he's hoping that it won't be consumed just with work, that he might get to have a little fun while he's there, too. But we'll have more details on his schedule later this week.
Thanks a lot, everybody. We'll see you tomorrow.
2:17 P.M. EDT
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