Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 11, 2015 -12:15 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I don’t have anything at the top, Darlene, so we can go straight to your questions if you’re ready.
Q Thank you. Two questions on Kayla Mueller. Has the White House learned any of the details since the last time you briefed yesterday on the circumstances of her death, specifically timing and manner?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any additional intelligence to share about this matter today.
Q Is the U.S. still trying to figure out the circumstances of her death, or have we moved on from trying to find out what exactly happened to her?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly continues to be some ongoing work, but I don’t have any results of that work to share at this point.
Q There also were some reports today that she was apparently, while in captivity, married off to an ISIS fighter. Do you have anything on that?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen those reports as well, but I don’t have anything to share on that matter, either.
Q Okay. Moving on to the AUMF —
MR. EARNEST: I might have more to say about that. (Laughter.)
Q Will the President request any additional spending to go along with that, or is there any — are there cost estimates associated with the request?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, there are no specific cost requests that the administration is making of Congress as it relates to our ongoing campaign against ISIL. You’ll recall at the end of last year the President did make a specific request to Congress and we were gratified that that request for additional resources to execute our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL was supported in bipartisan fashion. And we certainly welcomed that kind of support. I hope that we’ll continue to see that kind of bipartisanship as Congress considers the appropriate role that they should play in demonstrating their support for the President’s strategy.
Q There are some Democrats who have expressed concern about the scope of the authority the President is asking for, and John Boehner said this morning that he didn’t think it gives the military commanders enough flexibility and authority to do what they would need to do in order to defeat ISIS. Is there any reaction to comments from both parties on that? And how do you think it will affect the chances of this getting passed through Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, the President has laid out the goal at the very beginning of this process of wanting Democrats and Republicans to be able to support this authorization to use military force. So it’s going to require Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to do something that they have not done with a lot of success over the last several years, which is actually to work together to make progress on something that’s pretty important for the country. So we are hopeful that Democrats and Republicans will be able to sit down and take a look.
I think in some of these situations, Democrats and Republicans have a genuine difference of opinion about how to proceed, and those differences are understandable. I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that we consider them to be insignificant. We’re talking about rather weighty matters of national security. But what we’ll need is we’ll need Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate to take seriously their responsibility to weigh in on these weighty matters of national security.
After all, it was the Founding Fathers of our country who envisioned a legitimate role for Congress to play when it comes to matters of national security like this. And we hope that Congress will assume that responsibility and act in bipartisan fashion to lend their support to the strategy that the President has laid out. After all, the President, our men and women in uniform, are certainly fulfilling their responsibility to keep the country safe. It’s time for Congress to step up to the plate and fulfill their responsibility to do the same thing.
Q Hi, thanks. In the Buzzfeed interview that the President did, he criticized Staples for not — for cutting hours and creating more part-time workers who wouldn’t qualify for health care. Since then, the CEO, Ronald Sargent, has shot back and said that their policy for part-time workers has been in place for over a decade and this had nothing to do with Obamacare. Does the President stand by his comments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, we’ve often seen opponents of this law — Republicans — trying to cite the experience of some workers at companies like Staples as evidence that the Affordable Care Act was somehow bad for the economy and bad for job creation. So it sounds as if — I haven’t seen the comments from this Staples executive that you’re citing, but I think it would be a pretty good indication that he disagrees with those Republicans who indicate that the Affordable Care Act is responsible for a large number of employees having their hours cut back.
This is something that we’ve seen some anecdotal evidence that this is the case. Republicans have tried to make the case that this is widespread, but there has not been evidence of that.
Q Okay, so when the President shamed Staples and companies who would have cut back hours, that’s not necessarily
— if, in fact, they actually cut back hours independent of Obamacare, that would actually not be a criticism then of these companies?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is the reason that — I suspect the reason that the interviewer asked the President the question about Staples is because he had noted that there were Republicans who have criticized the Affordable Care Act and said that it is having a negative impact on job creation and they have cited the experience of companies like Staples and others, as having to cut back on worker hours because of the Affordable Care Act. So that’s why you can imagine that I’m in a position where I’m feeling gratified that the executive at Staples has come forward and said that the decisions — or the policies that they’re putting in place as it relates to the number of hours that their employees are working is entirely independent of the Affordable Care Act. That’s consistent with the case that we’ve been making for years now, and undermines probably the chief Republican criticism of the law.
Q Okay. On Yemen, on the U.S. and the UK closing their embassies there, is that going to change our counterterrorism strategy there? And what will remain of U.S. presence in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Julia, I can tell you that our counterterrorism operations in Yemen are ongoing. Those operations continue to be coordinated with national security officials in Yemen. As we have said since the beginning of this latest round of turmoil, that the United States would be focused on monitoring the security situation in Yemen and in Sana’a in particular, mindful of the need to protect U.S. personnel that are operating at the embassy there.
And over the last several weeks, the United States has taken steps to draw down the number of personnel that were operating at that facility in Sana’a. Overnight, the United States did make the decision and carried out the decision to temporarily relocate American personnel out of the U.S. embassy in Sana’a.
I should note that we are certainly grateful to the government of Oman, that provided critically important assistance to ensure that that temporary relocation was executed safely, and we are grateful to the Oman government for stepping up and playing an important role in that effort.
That said, there continue to be Department of Defense personnel — U.S. Department of Defense personnel on the ground in Yemen that are coordinating with their counterparts in Yemen, in the Yemeni government, and continuing to carry out the kinds of actions — the counterterrorism actions that are necessary to protect the American people and our interests around the world.
Q Josh, back to the AUMF. Because the President does lay out certain criteria where ground forces would be used, in terms of what he’s asking, is the President going to be asking for more U.S. forces to be deployed in theater?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point.
Q Not at this point, but that’s possible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, we have been pretty clear — the President has been pretty clear about what he envisions for our strategy. And it is codified in the language that was submitted to Congress today. It notes — or it places a limitation on the ability of the Commander-In-Chief to order enduring offensive ground combat operations in Iraq and in Syria.
And in the cover letter that the President submitted to members of Congress, the President noted that that is consistent with the strategy that the President has pursued so far in that the President does not believe that making a long-term, large-scale commitment of U.S. ground combat troops into Iraq or Syria would be in our best interest.
There are a variety of reasons for that. The first is we are still dealing with the consequences of that large-scale long-term commitment that was made by the previous administration when they were pursuing the previous strategy in Iraq. Those consequences — some of them are fiscal and some of them are human. And that is something that our country will continue to deal with in years to come.
In addition to that, the President believes that a more successful strategy will involve building up the capacity of local forces to take the fight to ISIL extremists on the ground in their own country. That’s why there are American military personnel that are operating in Iraq, that are training and equipping Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, and offering them advice as they take the fight to ISIL on the ground. And we’ve seen that that has been successful in blunting the offensive that ISIL had mounted in the middle of last year, and even, in some cases, rolled back some of the offensive gains that they had made.
There is a similar strategy in place in Syria to train Syrian opposition fighters. That work is not as far along as the effort to support Iraqi ground forces is, but it’s ongoing.
Let me just say two other things about that. There are two other reasons why it is — well, at least one other reason why — two other reasons why this is important.
The reason the President wants to pursue a different strategy is, one, it’s also consistent with the preferences of the central government in Iraq. One of the reasons we saw that Iraqi security forces had failed was because they weren’t backed up by a unified central government that had succeeded in uniting that country to face the threat from ISIL. So to deploy a large-scale, long-term commitment of U.S. ground troops in Iraq would be contrary to the wishes of the very central government that we’re trying to support.
And finally — and this is important, too — and finally, it’s also important to the cohesion of our international coalition. There are 60 countries that have made a substantial commitment alongside the United States to take the fight to ISIL. And many of those countries — that includes countries in the region. And, at least some of those countries would not be entirely comfortable with a large-scale, long-term foreign military deployment in their neighborhood.
Q But operations would be authorized for rescue missions, taking out ISIS leaders, calling in airstrikes and intelligence. How is that not mission creep?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because, Jim, the President has been clear about this I think from the very beginning that this kind of large-scale, long-term commitment of U.S. ground troops is not a successful strategy.
Q But short of a large-scale, long-term operation, you can expand the operation under this authorization?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have —
Q Your language is fuzzy, is it not?
MR. EARNEST: Intentionally so. And the intent is —
Q Intentionally so? That language is intentionally fuzzy?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Jim, because we believe that it’s important that there aren’t overly burdensome constraints that are placed on the Commander-in-Chief who needs the flexibility to be able to respond to contingencies that emerge in a chaotic military conflict like this.
So the fact of the matter is we do need the President of the United States and the Commander-in-Chief, both this one and the next one, to have the ability to respond to specific contingencies; that if there is the need to order military action within these constraints but that is clearly in the best interest of the United States or the safety and security of our military personnel, then the Commander-in-Chief needs to have the ability to order that military action and to do it quickly without seeking additional specific authorization from the Congress.
Q And the three-year time limit does tie the hands of his successor, does it not?
MR. EARNEST: How so?
Q If a future President, if the next President wants to go longer than three years in 2018, he’s going to have to go back, or she’s going to have to go back to Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is true that this authorization to use military force would expire, based on the way that this draft reads, would expire three years after Congress passes it. And the President believes that is an appropriate period of time for our military to implement a strategy, and for us to measure what kind of progress is being made and whether or not the national security interests of the United States are being appropriately advanced.
And if, after three years, the strategy is continuing to succeed and we’re seeing the results that we would like and we believe it is necessary for that strategy to continue to be implemented, then, yes, then Congress can take up additional legislation to approve the continued use of military force. And again, if the strategy is demonstrating continued progress and it is determined that that strategy needs to continue to be implemented in the same way, then Congress should certainly be able to pass that authorization to use military force as well.
That is, after all, the appropriate role for Congress to play in all of this, and it is not appropriate for Congress, frankly, to try to sidestep the responsibilities that they have in this matter.
Q Just to quickly follow up on Yemen. There are reports, including from CNN, that the Houthis did not allow the Marines to take their weapons with them when they were departing, and that there were cars and other assets, I guess, of those embassy personnel that were seized, and that inside the embassy, that documents were destroyed and other items were destroyed inside the embassy. Is that your understanding of how things unfolded? It sounds like this was a close call.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, this was a delicate situation. We noted that we were — that the administration was carefully monitoring the security situation on the ground in Sana’a to ensure the safety and security of American personnel who are there. And so obviously the U.S. government determined that the security situation in Sana’a was serious enough that it required the temporary relocation of U.S. personnel that are operating in that country and in that city.
So I think it is fair for you to assume that this was a pretty serious situation. I know that there are some conflicting reports on the ground about what has happened since the facility was emptied. And I can’t speak to those specific reports and I can’t confirm them. But I certainly would use this opportunity to reiterate the responsibility that the Yemeni government and that the Houthi rebels have in ensuring the protection of diplomatic property and other equipment that was left behind.
Q Thanks, Josh. I have an AUMF question, but I first want to ask you on two other small — well, very important news items.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q One is, has the President been briefed on the situation in Chapel Hill with the shootings and the deaths of those Muslim students? And does he have any reaction — does the White House have any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no specific reaction from the White House. I know that this is something that local law enforcement is investigating. I know that they, based on published reports, they have a suspect in custody. And I know that part of that investigation will include the circumstances that may have led to this act of violence and that will also include the investigation of questions about what motivation this individual may have had. So this is the very beginning of an ongoing local law enforcement investigation, and we’re going to await the results of that investigation before we say anything.
Q So he’s not been in touch with the families or anything at this point?
MR. EARNEST: No, he has not.
Q And yesterday — I believe today, actually, the U.S. brought a case before the World Trade Organization over China’s subsidy program and a challenge to it. And I’m just wondering whether that came up yesterday in the call with the Chinese leader, whether he gave him a heads-up that that was coming, and whether there was any discussion or reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know, frankly, whether or not the President brought it up in the context of the call. But I’m glad that you brought up this case with me, because it is an appropriate time for me to remind all of you of this administration’s strong record of going to the WTO to protect the American economy and American businesses and American workers.
Throughout this presidency, 18 different times this administration has taken specific cases to the World Trade Organization raising concerns about the trade practices of other countries. Eighteen times, the United States has come away victorious in resolving those claims, that they were resolved in the favor of the United States and in the favor of U.S. businesses and U.S. workers.
And I think that is testament to the kind of commitment that this administration and this President has made to ensuring that as we engage in a global economy, that the President is going to make sure both that we are protecting American workers and American businesses, and that we’re going to hold other countries accountable for playing by the rules.
And as we consider taking additional steps to enter into trade agreements with other countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific, that as people evaluate whether or not the President is sufficiently committed to protecting American interests as he does that, I think this is a pretty good example that he’s not just committed to protecting American interests but that he’s been very successful in doing so.
Q And if you’re able to clarify any more on whether it was something they discussed yesterday, that would be great.
On the AUMF, it sounds sort of obvious, but is this now the package that you believe does have enough bipartisan support to be passed by Congress? How confident are you that the AUMF ask, as it now stands, is going to be a go, get a green light?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, the text that was sent up to Capitol Hill today and sent to all of you today does reflect the results of hours of conversations between administration officials and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. And it does reflect a committed effort on the part of this administration to try to find common ground on some of these complicated and significant issues.
At the same time, I’m not at all going to be surprised if there are members of Congress who take a look at this legislation and decide, well, I think there are some things that we should tweak here, and if we do, we might be able to build some more support for. So I think it is fair for you to assume that this reflects a starting point in conversations. But this starting point was arrived at after extensive consultations between senior members of the President’s national security team and Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill in both the House and the Senate.
Q On the AUMF, I’m wondering — I’m about to ask you to play dictionary, but if you can define the word “enduring” and what “enduring” means in the context of this AUMF?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t have a specific number to assign to that word, but I do think that it is an apt way to describe what the President envisions and what he doesn’t. What the President does not envision is a long-term, large-scale commitment of ground combat troops that we saw in the context of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan in the past. That’s not what the President has in mind.
There’s no question that U.S. military personnel who served in those countries were there on an enduring basis. They were there for years — in Afghanistan, more than a decade now. And that is not at all what the President envisions as part of the strategy for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. And for the reasons that I admittedly went on at length to convey to Mr. Acosta, the President doesn’t believe — not only does the President not believe that should be part of our strategy, he believes that if we were to make those kinds of commitments, it would actually undermine our strategy for success in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q I guess what I’m trying to figure out is why that word was inserted. Because as you’ve already discussed, there are already all these provisions to explain kind of instances where ground forces could be used, for rescue missions or whatever else they might need to be used for. So that already exists in the AUMF. What is the point of the word “enduring” ahead of “offensive ground operations”?
MR. EARNEST: Right. Well, I think that, again, the reason this phrase is put in there in the way that it is, is it is designed to, again, be very clear about what the President does not envision. And again, what he does not envision is any sort of large-scale, long-term commitment of ground combat operations like we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan previously. But what he does want to preserve is the ability to react to contingencies. And in some cases, reacting promptly to contingencies may require ordering military action that does involve combat boots on the ground.
And again, the two most easily imagined examples are examples in which the President would order a military operation involving combat troops to go try and rescue U.S. hostages. The President has already done that once. And that put combat boots, U.S. combat boots on the ground in Syria in an offensive operation. They were running toward a target, firing at ISIL fighters.
Q Sure. It’s already sort of set aside in the AUMF —
MR. EARNEST: Well, not really. Again, this phrase is to try to codify exactly what we’re envisioning, right? So “enduring offensive ground combat operations” means not doing what was done under the previous administration in Iraq, but yet preserving the ability to order military operations like the one the President has already ordered to try to rescue U.S. hostages. And that is the way that it’s described in the AUMF.
Q So the AUMF does include separate language about rescue operations or about —
MR. EARNEST: I see where this is — it does not include that. The President — this AUMF text does not itemize specific contingencies that would authorize the President to do certain things. And the reason for that is pretty straightforward, that when we’re dealing in a chaotic situation like a military conflict, particularly like this one, it would be difficult for even a group of really smart, experienced people to come up with a comprehensive list of the kinds of contingencies; that there certainly is the possibility that contingencies that none of us could otherwise imagine could arise, and it would be important that there not be language in the AUMF that would limit the President’s ability to quickly reaction to those contingencies.
So there have been previous proposals that have been put forward by some members of Congress that did envision some sort of checklist that would carve out some specific loopholes, if you will, that would allow the President to response to contingencies that they were able to imagine. And it is the view of this administration that an approach like that doesn’t sufficiently preserve the needed flexibility for the Commander-in-Chief.
Q On the authorization of military force, I just want to make sure I’m reading it properly. There is nothing in this authorization that would prevent an expansion of this war effort beyond Iraq and Syria to other countries?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, there are no geographic limitations included in this specific draft legislation.
Q So it would offer this President or the next President to — authorize this President or the next President to engage in an air campaign against ISIS, ISIL targets if they were in Lebanon, or if they were in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or if they had moved elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if necessary, it would preserve the ability of the President, of the Commander-in-Chief, to order military operations against ISIL or ISIL-affiliated groups in other countries.
And let me explain to you the reason why. Simply, we don’t want to send a signal to ISIL that they may be able to establish a safe haven somewhere else; that if we pass a piece of legislation that says Congress has authorized the President to carry out the use of military force against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria, we don’t want anybody in ISIL to be left with the impression that if they moved to some neighboring country that they will be essentially in a safe haven and not within the range of United States military capability. So that is why we’ve been clear about not including a geographic limitation in this proposal.
Q And in the President’s letter accompanying this authorization of military force, it says that it does not authorize long-term, large-scale contact — combat operations like those conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq. You would acknowledge that there is a lot of daylight between what’s going on now and having 100,000 troops on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, as we had at one point in both of those countries? I mean, there’s a lot of room for expansion.
MR. EARNEST: What I would acknowledge is that the strategy that the President has pursued in this case against ISIL to degrade and destroy them is markedly different than the strategy that was pursued by the previous administration in Iraq.
Q I understand. I’m trying to get at what’s authorized here, because it clearly authorized what’s going on now, but it would also authorize — based on that language — a rather dramatic expansion of the current operation. We are nowhere near 100,000 ground troops in — like we were in Iraq or Afghanistan.
MR. EARNEST: That’s for sure. And that is —
Q And that’s the only thing you’re expressly limiting —
MR. EARNEST: — based on policy decisions made by this Commander-in-Chief. That’s exactly true.
Q But this is going to apply to the next Commander-in-Chief.
MR. EARNEST: It will. It will.
Q Commander-in-Chief Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, whoever. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q This will apply to the next President.
MR. EARNEST: It will. It will. And the President has been very clear about the strategy that he has envisioned here, and he’s been very clear I think about what he believes is in the best interest of the United States.
And you are right that the next Commander-in-Chief, when that person is elected by the American people, will have to pursue their own strategy. But they will be — they will face the same limitations and constraints under the authorization to use military force that the President would.
Q But the only constraint I’m seeing is that you can’t conduct an operation on the scale that we saw in Iraq or Afghanistan under the previous administration — and under this administration.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s something that could be described as an enduring offensive ground combat operation.
Q A fuzzy term, as you pointed out earlier.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I acknowledge that what it does is it does preserve the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to make the kinds of decisions that he or she believes is in the best interests of the United States.
That said, the President believes we should state clearly upfront that the kind of commitment of ground troops that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan in the previous administration was not in the best interests of the United States.
Q Now, the President’s letter also talks about the places where combat troops, grounds troops could be used under this authorization. Of course, he mentions rescue operations, which have already been done. But there are things here that I believe haven’t been done yet — correct me if I’m wrong. Special operations personnel on the ground to after ISIL leadership; combat operations on the ground to gather intelligence or to enable kinetic strikes, presumably by our partners on the ground, or maybe by our pilots. Are those things that the President is currently contemplating in addition to ground combat troops for intelligence-gathering or to go after ISIL leaders on the ground?
MR. EARNEST: The President has indicated in the past — and we went through some questions about this when General Dempsey testified before Congress last fall — that it was on the table for the President to adopt a recommendation when it was made. And it has not yet — at least based on the last update I’ve gotten on this — let me start over. If the President’s senior military leaders and his national security team recommended to him that it would be beneficial to our strategy and this overall operation to forward-deploy some troops to assist in kinetic airstrikes, that that is something that the President would consider. But I think what General Dempsey testified before Congress is that he had not yet made that recommendation to the President.
Q Or to go after ISIL leaders, which is mentioned here. That was not part of Dempsey’s testimony.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think that is a different scenario. I don’t know that there has — that anything like that has been floated at this point. I mean, I think what the President, or at least what some of us envision in this description is the raid that President Obama ordered against Osama bin Laden. That was a scenario where there were U.S. combat troops that were on the ground in Pakistan, in this case, to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. And you could imagine a scenario where the President might find that it would be beneficial to our strategy to order a similar raid against a high-value target that was a member of the ISIL leadership.
Q Okay. And then one other topic quickly. The counterterrorism chief for the FBI, in prepared testimony before Congress today, said that — warned of a “new wave of extremism that would blend home-grown violent extremism with foreign terrorist organizations.” And he said, “Individuals inspired by foreign terrorist groups could be covertly arming themselves with expertise and tools to carry out an attack on the homeland.” Does the White House agree with the counterterrorism chief of the FBI?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen his entire testimony. But based on what you’ve read and what we’ve said in the past, the President has directed his team — including the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement — to be vigilant about the kinds of threats that are posed both by foreign fighters — these are individuals with Western passports and they have previously traveled to the region to fight alongside ISIL and may be considering or may have already returned home and considering carrying out acts of violence here.
We’re also mindful of the need to try to counter efforts by ISIL to use social media to radicalize people and inspire them to carry out acts of violence. That’s one of the reasons that the President is convening a summit here next week here at the White House on countering violent extremism, to make sure that we are mobilizing all of the resources that we have both at the federal government but also at the local level to try to counter that messaging, and to protect people who may be exposed to that kind of radical messaging.
Q And one of the things he expressed concerns about specifically is that those coming to the country as Syrian refugees may not be properly vetted. Is there a concern in the administration that we could have people coming to this country, portraying themselves as refugees from the conflict in Syria, who may actually be something far more sinister?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can say is that as a general matter, the United States government does spend extensive resources to ensure that individuals that have recently traveled in Syria are properly vetted before they’re allowed into this country.
Q A couple on Yemen. At the top, you said that counterterrorism operations are ongoing and they’re being coordinated with national security officials in Yemen. Who are they?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense who is principally the point of contact for a lot of these operations and they may be in a position to tell you a little bit more about who their counterparts are in Yemen. But there are —
Q Are these U.S. national security officials in Yemen that you’re referring to? You mean like special operators?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I noted that there are Department of Defense personnel, U.S. Department of Defense personnel that continue to be on the ground in Yemen, that are continuing to work with their counterparts to carry out counterterrorism missions.
Q And to someone who might ask you reasonably, the embassy is closed, you have a pretty serious and somewhat delicate — to use your words — evacuation of U.S. personnel — in what way does this still qualify as a success of U.S. counterterrorism operations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, it’s really important to differentiate between two things. Yemen has been a country that has been divided and reassembled on multiple occasions, and it is a country with a pretty weak central government. That’s been the case for a long time now. And that is despite the efforts of the United States to try to support the Yemenis in terms of having the kind of central government that represents all of their people and is able to successfully provide security for their people. But that has been a long-running challenge.
But what is also part of our strategy in terms of our dealings with Yemen is to make sure that we are using our diplomacy and our work — our counterterrorism work with the Yemeni government, but also using our own equipment and personnel to carry out counterterrorism operations in Yemen. Some extremists, including the extremists in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have sought to use the instability in Yemen as a safe haven to plan and carry out operations or terror attacks around the globe. And because of our diplomatic work, because of our strong counterterrorism partnership, but also because of this President’s own determination and willingness to order U.S. military operations in that region, we have succeeded in applying significant pressure to the AQAP leadership that’s operating in Yemen.
And I’m often not in a position to talk about specific operations that have been carried out, but it is not uncommon for you to read unconfirmed reports that the United States was somehow involved in taking an AQAP leader off the battlefield in Yemen.
Q Justin appropriately focused on the word, “enduring.” Not to parse this too specifically, but I’d like to focus on the word, “offensive,” because the joint resolution starts with, “Whereas ISIL holds significant territory and has stated its intention to seize more territory, and demonstrated their capability to do so” — would this not authorize defensive operations that, in fact, could be enduring if, in fact, Baghdad or someplace else strategically important were to come under sustained threat from ISIL and the U.S. would need to protect it to achieve its long-term military goals?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly wouldn’t want anything in the AUMF to be construed by anybody as a limitation on the ability of American men and women to protect themselves, particularly if they’re military personnel that are operating in a place like Iraq. So let me give you a good example of this. Right now there are some U.S. military personnel that are operating in bases outside Baghdad, but in Iraq, where they are working not in a combat role but to train security forces in Iraq. So these are individuals who — they’re operating still in a very dangerous part of the world. And if their base, for example, were to come under sustained attack by ISIL extremists, they would certainly have all of the authority that they need to protect themselves and protect their position, and we wouldn’t want any language in the authorization to use military force to leave them with the impression that they should do something other than protect themselves.
Q Right, clearly. And it also seems to me to open up the window for the moving into Iraq large numbers of U.S. combat forces in a defensive posture if necessary to sustain and ultimately achieve the other objectives that are outlined here in the AUMF.
MR. EARNEST: That is certainly not contemplated in the President’s strategy. The underpinning of our strategy here is to try to build up the capacity of local security forces so they can provide for the security of their own country.
Q It doesn’t rule it out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that the strategy that the President has laid out I think probably would rule out what you’re talking about. And Congress is going to have to sort of evaluate this language in terms of trying to strike the right balance of both placing appropriate limitations on the Commander-in-Chief while at the same time making sure that they don’t interfere with his or her ability to react to contingencies that may arise in a military conflict.
Q Why not repeal the 2001 authorization in this process? And why no mention of the Assad regime? I know they’re different questions.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, they are. Let’s do the first one first, which is that what the President does mention in his letter to Congress is further refinement of the 2001 AUMF. As the President mentioned in the speech that he gave at National Defense University a year and a half ago, he noted that the authorization to use military force that was passed by Congress in the days after 9/11 is now more than 13 years old. And there is no doubt that the ongoing conflict with al Qaeda has changed; it’s evolved. The threat that we face from al Qaeda is much different than it was in 2001.
And it is the view of the President that the AUMF that authorized the use of military force against al Qaeda should be changed to reflect that, with the eventual goal, as the President articulated in that speech a year and a half ago, of repealing that 2001 AUMF — that, eventually, we want to be in a scenario where we’re not on a permanent war footing.
But there is no question that right now, the threat that we face from al Qaeda is one that we take very seriously and one to which the President and his national security team devote significant attention.
On Assad, the policy of the administration has not changed. The President and this administration does believe that Assad has lost his legitimacy to lead the nation of Syria. In fact, it is the view of this administration that because of Assad’s failed leadership, the security situation in Syria deteriorated precipitously and allowed a group like ISIL to gain a foothold and eventually to expand pretty rapidly not just across Syria but also across Iraq.
So our opposition to and our concerns about the Assad regime have been well chronicled. But our focus, and the focus of this authorization to use military force, is on ISIL.
Q Let me briefly indulge my colleagues on behalf of our affiliate in Chicago. The President welcomed the Jackie Robinson Little League team here and celebrated their success. That success in the Little League World Series is now under intensifying scrutiny. Does the President have any regrets about celebrating that victory, or believe this investigation is in danger of de-legitimizing that which he celebrated here with those young men on that baseball team?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President invited the Jackie Robinson West Little League team to the White House to celebrate the accomplishment of those young men and the performance that they — the strong performance that they delivered on a pretty large stage for a 12-year-old. The President is proud of the way that they represented their city and the way they represented the country.
The fact is, some dirty dealing by some adults doesn’t take anything away from the accomplishments of those young men.
Q And the White House believes dirty dealing has been done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s just based on the public reports that I’ve read. So I understand that there is an investigation into this, but —
Q Is he going to take any other steps, Josh? Just to follow up on that one, is he going to do —
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come back to you.
Q Josh, I want to come back to AUMF, but I don’t want to forget — I don’t think you’ve been asked about Ukraine yet. And you read out a call the President had with Russian President Putin yesterday and we heard the President’s side of it. What can you tell us now that this deadline that the President and Chancellor Merkel held up on Monday at that news conference that Wednesday is the deadline — did Vladimir Putin indicate to the President at all that he’s ready to deal, that he’s going to deescalate this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think that’s something that Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, President Poroshenko will find out when they meet with President Putin later today. That’s scheduled for Minsk later today. And that will be a very important meeting, that it will be an opportunity for certainly President Putin to come to the negotiating table. And we’ll have an opportunity at least preliminarily to gauge how serious he is about trying to resolve, or at least deescalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine.
Q If that does not deescalate, when the President talked the other day about potentially arming Ukrainians, what did he mean by quote “lethal, defensive weapon.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, the United States has provided substantial assistance to the Ukrainian military already, in excess of $100 million worth of equipment. On a couple of occasions I’ve read the long list — I’ll spare you this time.
Q But aren’t weapons usually offensive? I’m trying to understand the approach of you’re giving the military weapons, but defensive — wouldn’t it be an offensive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are things like counter-mortar radars, de-mining equipment. These are things that could be used as weapons by military force to protect themselves. And again, that is equipment that the President has already authorized could be provided to the Ukrainian military as they withstand this withering assault from separatists that are backed by the Russian military.
Q But can you sustain a withering assault with de-mining equipment? Does that make a difference?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I think what we have seen is that we have seen that Russia has committed significant military equipment to backing the separatists. And what the President has said is that it’s unrealistic to think that the United States can provide enough military assistance that we can level the playing field between the Ukrainian military and the Russian military. So what the administration has sought to do, working closely with our partners in Europe, is to apply pressure to the Putin regime and change their calculus as it relates to their commitment of military resources to back the separatists.
Q Okay. A couple quick ones on ISIS AUMF. One, several times in your answers you refer back to Afghanistan as being a big difference from the previous administration. It seems a little awkward for you to be citing Afghanistan when we’re seeing more reports and public testimony from Ash Carter suggesting the President might be backsliding again on how many troops you’re leaving behind in Afghanistan. I understand it’s not 100,000 — a big difference — but are you leaving the door open yet again to leaving more troops behind in Afghanistan than the President has repeatedly told the public about?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, the President has laid out what he believes is a very clear strategy for Afghanistan, and that over the course of his presidency we’ve seen the President announce a surge of military personnel into Afghanistan that did allow the Afghan people to assume greater responsibility for the security situation in that country. There’s a tangible contribution to the improvement in the security climate in Afghanistan. And since then, the President has authorized and ordered, in fact, a staged withdraw — a responsible withdraw of American military personnel from Afghanistan.
And the President, throughout that time, has preserved for himself the flexibility to respond to the security situation on the ground. But what has been clear over the course of the last six years is that the President’s vision for the strategy has been consistent, and I can tell you that over the course of the last two years, as we continue to withdraw our military personnel from Afghanistan, the President remains committed to that strategy.
Q Since in Afghanistan and repeatedly back on ISIS and the AUMF, you talk — the word “flexibility” just keeps coming up. So if this is all about flexibility, why is there any sunset at all? Why is there a three-year timetable? Why not leave it open? Is the President guaranteeing with this that you’re going to defeat ISIS in three years?
MR. EARNEST: The President is not saying that. The President has made clear that this is a longer-term proposition; that dealing with the extremists in ISIL, particularly in a region of the world that’s as volatile as the Middle East, is going to be a longer-term proposition. The President has been very forthright about that.
Q So why not leave the door open, if it’s going to take longer than three years, you’re acknowledging up front —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it will. And let me say one other thing about that. The other thing is this — is that the other reason this is going to take a while is that the President does not believe it is in the interest of the United States for us to commit all of our military resources to going in and solving this problem for the Iraqi people or for the Syrian people; that, ultimately, a durable solution to this nettlesome problem is building up the capacity of security forces in Iraq and of opposition fighters in Syria to fight for their own country.
And it’s going to take time to build up the capacity of other fighters. The United States has the bravest, most well-equipped, best-trained fighting force in the world. It is a logical assumption that if U.S. military resources were committed and we were going to go in there and do this on our own that the timeline would be shorter. But in this situation, building up the capacity of local security forces is going to take some time, but we can do that in a way and making that kind of longer-term commitment is consistent with our national security interests.
Q Last one on Kayla Mueller. The President in the Buzzfeed interview said, we did all we could to try to rescue her. We’ve been told about intelligence as far back as last May, suggesting that the intelligence community had at least some sense of her whereabouts and other hostages. And the President talked about, you talked about the rescue operation I believe happened in July. There’s a gap there between May and July. Obviously I understand there could be weather, there could be other factors on the ground, other pieces of intelligence — you don’t just move in within five minutes. I get that. But how can the President, if there’s that gap of a couple of months, how can he tell Buzzfeed, I did all I can, when a couple of months there passed. Can you explain that gap?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I can confirm for you that there was no delay in the President’s decision to order this military raid as soon as he and his military advisors and his national security team had confidence or at least a high degree of confidence about where exactly she was. And that is why the President can say unequivocally that he and his administration and this government did everything that we could to try to secure the safe return of Kayla Mueller.
Q Thanks, Josh. Some of the lawmakers who either were involved in crafting or certainly voted on the 2002 AUMF have stated since then that they never intended it to be what it became. And that’s not just in terms of the timeline and how long it took, but in the breadth of it. So when you talk about some sort of intentional fuzziness in the language, what do you say to lawmakers today, particularly Democrats, who have those concerns about an open-endedness, if not in terms of time but in what actually transpires?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, anybody who takes a look at this language that’s included in the submission that we put forward would acknowledge that it does contain limitations. It does include this three-year sunset that Ed referred to in his line of questioning. It does include limitations that prevent the deployment of enduring offensive ground combat operations. So there are limits. But within those limits, the President believes that the Commander-in-Chief needs to have flexibility to respond to contingencies that often come up in a chaotic situation like a military conflict.
And this military conflict, in particular, has demonstrated — or has created a particularly chaotic situation. And it’s important for the Commander-in-Chief to have the ability to order military operations when necessary to protect the American interest — American national security interests or the American people. But all of that can be done within the constraints that we’ve laid out, which is within three years and within — or at least short of an enduring offensive commitment of ground combat troops.
Q You’ve said — the President has said, as a matter of fact, that he doesn’t believe he needs this legally, but he thinks it sends an important message. What is that message, very specifically? And if this AUMF passes, what’s the very practical implications of it if it’s not necessary legally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think on principle the President believes two things. One is that the United States Congress, the members of the United States Congress, when they took the oath of office, took an oath to fulfill their duties under the United States Constitution. And one of the duties that they have been given under the United States Constitution is to have a role in foreign policy. And the President believes it’s important for Congress to step up and assume that responsibility.
As I mentioned before, the President, his national security team, and certainly our men and women in uniform have fulfilled their responsibility to keep the country safe. And Congress, both Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, have a responsibility to make their voice heard and to take the actions that they have been given — or assume the responsibilities that they’ve been given under the Constitution to take actions that are supportive of the national security interests of the United States.
The second thing is — and this is important as well — is that it does send a powerful signal to the American people, to our allies, and even to our enemies, that the United States government and that the Democratic and Republican parties inside the United States are united and supportive of the President’s strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And that will be an important diplomatic signal that we’ll send to the members of our coalition that the United States government commitment to this task of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL is unwavering. And it will send a clear signal to our enemies that if there is any doubt in their mind that the United States of America takes their threat very seriously, this would eliminate that threat — that doubt.
Q But would it be fair to say that the impact is largely political and diplomatic, and will not have an impact, either strategically or operationally?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has already indicated and his lawyers have confirmed for him based on their review of the law that Congress has already given the President the authority to authorize — or to order these military actions under the AUMF that they passed in 2001.
There are some lawyers who argue that the President has this authority under the 2002 AUMF as well. But the fact of the matter is the President has the authority to order the military operations that have been undertaken so far. The President believes that as a matter of principle, it’s important for Congress to make their voice heard and to pass an authorization to use military force that is more tailored to the specific threat that the United States faces today.
Q Let me ask you, finally, there’s been a lot of talk about the fact that this has been an unusually high level of cooperation between the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. We’ve heard about conversations — Air Force One conversations. Can you speak a little bit more about that level of cooperation and what the President plans to do going forward as this debate gets underway?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I can tell you that a wide variety of officials were involved in these conversations; that it’s not just officials from the White House who were involved. The Secretary of State has previously testified before Congress on some of these issues. Other high-ranking officials at the Department of Defense and the Department of State, some of my colleagues at the National Security Council have all been involved in the conversations with members of Congress and their staff about these issues. And certainly the White House Counsel’s Office, so members of the President’s own personal staff, have been involved in these consultations as well.
And it’s all been part of an effort to try to find common ground on these complicated but yet very important issues. And we have put forward legislative language today — this is language that members of Congress requested to try to help them identify common ground, or at least identify common ground as a starting point for the legislative process on Capitol Hill.
So the administration and this President will continue to be engaged in conversations and working with Democrats and Republicans, because ultimately what we would like to see is an outcome that reflects the strategy that the President has pursued so far, that reflects our clear national security interests and that reflects the bipartisan support of the Congress.
Q I guess I asked the question because, as you well know, a lot of Republicans and some Democrats have criticized the President for not being more involved and not doing more outreach, and, in fact, some have been quite complimentary over the last couple of days about the level of discussions between the White House. So would you foresee a more in-depth level of participation, direct participation by the President going forward on this debate in particular?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it won’t surprise you to hear that the President has a lot of personal interest in the way that this is all resolved. And so, yes, I would anticipate that the President will continue to be involved in conversations with individual members of Congress as this issue works its way through the legislative process.
Q Thanks. Two quick ones. Given the difficulties that the Senate is having passing funding for the Department of Homeland Security, would the White House consider a short — another short-term CR?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, we haven’t seen a specific proposal like that. I can tell you that the administration believes firmly, as I’ve said on many occasions, that it is pretty irresponsible for Republicans in Congress to be playing politics with the funding of the Department of Homeland Security. And what’s clear now is that they have painted themselves into a corner. That they — I made reference to this in a briefing earlier this week — I don’t know if it was yesterday, maybe it was last week — where, back in the fall, we were talking about this, this whole cromnibus thing, where essentially the Congress would pass a full year — or a full fiscal year of funding for every element of the U.S. government except for the Department of Homeland Security.
And we had a long discussion about how I didn’t think Republicans were going to think it was particularly smart to hold up funding, or at least threaten funding for the Department of Homeland Security, in protest over their political differences with the President. And lo and behold, that’s actually what’s happened. And I do think that it raises questions about whether or not Republicans are prepared to assume the responsibility that the American people have given them to run the United States Congress.
This is a matter that the President can’t solve for them. Again, the Founders of this country conferred upon the United States Congress the power of the purse, and they are the ones that have to make the funding decisions and they are the ones that have to make the decisions about what the budget of the Department of Homeland Security is going to look like. And I don’t think there’s anybody who thinks it’s a good idea, Democrat or Republican, for us to not fund the Department of Homeland Security, particularly at this time when our homeland faces some pretty serious threats.
So it is time for Republicans to set aside politics, to focus on their core responsibility to fund the Department of Homeland Security. If they do that, I think they will find a lot of willing partners on the Democratic side of the aisle, and they’ll find a Democratic President who is eager to work with them to sign legislation that will ensure that our Department of Homeland Security has the resources necessary to protect the American people.
Q And real quick, last night the members of the Congressional Black Caucus came out, said they had discussed trade with the President and that they were looking for creative ways to find job opportunities for the unemployed should Trade Promotion Authority pass. I’m just wondering if you have any insight into what they’re looking at.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any — I didn’t sit in on the conversation. I know that there was a rather detailed readout of that meeting that was put out after the meeting concluded. At this point, I don’t have any specific detail to add to it other than I know that there was an extensive discussion of the economy and middle-class economics in the context of that meeting. But as it relates to specific proposals, I’m not in a position to readout exactly what they discussed.
Q Quick follow on Chris’s question about sort of the AUMF and the tangible evidence of what could happen. Is there anything from what you understand that you could do under the requested AUMF language that you cannot do under the current language?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s actually the other way around. I think what the President envisions is more constraints on the executive branch in the ISIL AUMF than exists under the 2001 AUMF. For example, the 2001 AUMF does not have a time limitation, but, yet, the ISIL alternative that we’ve put forward does. The 2001 AUMF that we’re currently operating under does not include a limit on enduring offensive ground combat operations; that is something that is contemplated in the legislative language that we put forward.
So I think the way to look at it is that there are some things that are allowed under the 2001 AUMF that would not be allowed under the ISIL AUMF. And this is part of — this is consistent with the President’s approach to these issues. The President gave this speech at National Defense University a year and a half ago where he talked about why it was important for Congress to play a more hands-on role as the U.S. government confronts some of these difficult challenges. And the proposal that we put forward I think reflects the President’s desire to give Congress that role, but to ensure that when Congress speaks, that they’re speaking with a bipartisan voice.
Q I haven’t heard you use that rationale in defending the new request. I’ve heard unity. I’ve heard Congress needs to step up. Is that also part of the rationale for the new draft of legislation and asking the Congress to vote on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, the reason that these —
Q In other words, the restrictions — that you want the restrictions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President said this more eloquently than I could in that National Defense University speech, so I would commend that to your attention. But, yes, the President’s view is that Congress should play a more important role in these matters, and that he’s hopeful that they will step up to the plate, assume responsibility, and engage in the kind of dialogue on this issue that is worthy of the American people and that is worthy of something as important as our national security.
Q Josh, I want to just follow up on this and ask two related questions about AUMF. Is the President saying that if Congress does not step up and exercise its responsibility, the end result of not passing a new AUMF will have no practical impact on his exercise of his authority as Commander-in-Chief.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President does believe that he has the authority that he needs to authorize or to order the military actions that have already taken place. So the answer to your question is, yes, because the President believes that Congress has already given him this authority. However, the President has made the case, I think pretty persuasively to all of you at least, that the authorization of military force should be updated and right-sized to reflect the threats that America faces right now.
Q And the follow-up is, as Congress engages in this debate, which could be prolonged, is the President expecting to be influenced by the debate in terms of his strategy or pursuit of policy to defeat ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has been pretty clear about what our strategy is, and it is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to lay out that strategy. That doesn’t mean the President — well, the President is, of course, open to the advice and counsel and opinions and insights of members of Congress as he assumes his responsibility for implementing the strategy.
As I mentioned before, there is plenty of reason for us to feel good about the progress of the strategy so far. As I’ve done on a couple of occasions — let me just give you an update — the coalition has conducted more than 2,350 airstrikes against ISIL targets; 1,300 of those airstrikes have been conducted in Iraq and more than 1,050 of them in Syria. Those airstrikes have been successful in taking out ISIL fighters, their commanders, more than 1,000 vehicles and tanks that were operated by ISIL, more than 200 oil and gas facilities. This is part of the infrastructure that funds their reign of terror. These airstrikes have also succeeded in taking out at least 20 training camps and more than 2,000 different fighting positions, checkpoints, buildings and barracks in Iraq and in Syria.
And this has been — the evidence for this can be viewed in many ways. In the middle of last summer, we saw that ISIL was rapidly making an advance across the desert in Iraq and they were closing in on Erbil. But because of steps that this President ordered to support fighters on the ground and to carry out military airstrikes, that advance was rebuffed and it’s been rolled back.
There was a lot of discussion last fall about the situation in Kobani and that the advances that ISIL had made in Kobani posed significant threat. But because of fighters on the ground that were backed by coalition airstrikes, those fighters succeeded in driving ISIL out of Kobani.
Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that is going to somehow be a turning point in the broader conflict, but I do think it is clear evidence that the strategy that the President has pursued has succeeded in rolling back ISIL and limiting their capacity to establish an Islamic state, which, as we know, is what their goal is.
So the President certainly welcomes advice and insight of opinions from members of Congress, but the strategy that we’ve pursued so far has shown important progress already.
Q And just to follow on one other element of this — the word “enduring” — the President is conceding that the risks to U.S. national security, as you described it, and his efforts as Commander-in-Chief to defend that will be “enduring”. It will be many years’ long. So despite the elements that you’ve just described as success, he is not arguing that this element of our U.S. foreign policy will be “enduring,” it will be prolonged — yes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President has said is that it requires a serious commitment from the United States and from our government to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And we’re going to work closely with the international community; the members of this coalition that the President has put together will have a lot to say about this.
And this is another — I’ve talked a lot about the AUMF today, but I think there’s one other important point that’s worth making about this three-year limit that’s in place, based on the draft legislation that we’ve put forward. Based on what I’ve just said about the important progress that our strategy has already demonstrated, it certainly is possible that three years from now the threat that is posed by ISIL could look different. And so it might make sense, then, three years from now for maybe there continues to be a need for military operations but the threat that we face could, after three years, be different.
If our strategy continues to succeed, we could see that ISIL continues to be rolled back. As the proficiency of the Syrian opposition fighters improves, based on the training that they get in the region and then they take the fight to ISIL on the ground in Syria, we could see the threat from ISIL change. And it might even be a scenario where the AUMF that Congress needs to pass to continue authorizing the use of military force could be further limited and further constrained, further tailored to meet the threat that we face three years from now.
So that would be the other reason for there to be this three-year limit in place — not because we expect the war to be over, or this conflict to be over, but because we anticipate that the conflict will be different because of the progress that we’ll have made in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q Thank you so much. I have a serious question and a lighter question.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So I’m going to begin with the serious question. On Buzzfeed, the President spoke yesterday about the difficulties of not paying ransoms for hostage. Could you confirm that the United States will never pay a ransom for an American hostage? And what do you have to say to the family who is asking you to pay a ransom?
MR. EARNEST: Laura, it is the policy of the United States to not make concessions to terrorists, and that includes paying ransom. That is a policy that has been in place over the course of the six years of this administration. It was also in place in previous administrations, as well.
And the reason for that, in this case, is twofold. The first is we know that ISIL benefits financially from hostage-taking and the payment of ransoms, that many of their operations are funded by the ransoms that they collect. And one of the core components of our strategy against ISIL is to shut off their sources of funding. So that is one reason that the United States will not be a part of paying ransom to terrorists.
The second thing is it only exposes Americans to greater risk. If ISIL can operate under the assumption that every time they take an American hostage that they can collect a substantial sum of money in exchange for that person, it only makes the situation more dangerous for Americans.
So that is the reason that we have pursued this policy. At the same time, I would acknowledge, as the President did in the interview yesterday, that this is a policy that is terribly painful for families that are in the unthinkable position of having a loved one held hostage in Syria or the broader region.
And that is why our hearts go out to the families that are in that terrible position. It’s why the administration works so closely with them. It’s why there’s deep engagement all across the administration — that we use our diplomatic resources, our law enforcement resources, our intelligence resources, and even our military capability, to try to secure the safe return of Americans who are being held hostage.
But I will not be in a position to deny that this is a very painful policy for the administration to pursue in the eyes of a family that is desperate to secure the return of their loved ones.
Q The lighter question — the French love Jon Stewart. Does the White House have a comment on Jon Stewart? Also, do you have a comment on what’s happening with Brian Williams? Because it’s making news also all over the world about what journalists in America might be.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it is. Well, there are a lot of fans in the United States of Jon Stewart’s as well. And as somebody who — I would certainly describe myself as a fan and an occasional victim of Jon Stewart. (Laughter.) But we will certainly be sad to see him go. He is somebody who brought a really unique perspective to comedy, and even to informing the public about what was happening in their country. And he’s a really — a talented guy. And as others have noted, this is probably not the last we’ve heard of Jon Stewart, and I certainly hope that’s the case.
As for Mr. Williams, I know that this is something that NBC News has been talking about quite a bit in the last several weeks. And I don’t think that’s something I’m going to wade into from here.
April, I’ll give you the last one today.
Q Josh, back on the CBC and the AUMF. Did the President or the Vice President at all, in any way, preview this AUMF letter today to the CBC last evening?
MR. EARNEST: April, I didn’t sit in on the meeting — I know that it lasted for quite a while. I don’t think — I know that they did not hand out paper copies of what was distributed on Capitol Hill today. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there might have been some discussion of this issue in the meeting. Let me have somebody who sat in on the meeting follow up with you and maybe they can give you some more insight into this.
Q So you’re not surprised that that could have happened last night?
MR. EARNEST: That there might have been a discussion of some of the AUMF? I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened. But let me have somebody who sat in on the meeting follow up with you about it.
Q I wanted to ask you this as well on the CBC. With that, with the AUMF, was there a discussion about Boko Haram, as there was a topic of Africa put on the table with that meeting last night? What was your — what was the White House response to the CBC about Boko Haram and Africa?
MR. EARNEST: April, again, I don’t know whether or not this — whether this particular national security issue came up either. I can tell you that this is an issue that is commonly raised to the President’s attention when he deals with members of Congress, and I know that there are many members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are particularly concerned about the security situation in Nigeria and other countries that are affected by Boko Haram.
And the President restated to them what I have said publicly many times, which is that there continues to be a U.S. presence in Nigeria. These are individuals who are working closely with our counterparts in Nigeria who have a specific expertise, who are using intelligence resources and other advice from the U.S. government to try to assist the Nigerian government as they carry out counterterrorism operations and they fight these extremists in their own country. That coordination continues, and it continues to be a situation that we’re concerned about here.
Q And lastly with the CBC. The new chair, Congressman G.K. Butterfield, has very high expectations for these remaining two years of this President. He said the first six years were historic, but he’s expecting more with these last two. Is the White House going to in a way marry his expectations with new legislation that affects — that targets black America? Particularly, as he says, black America is in a state of emergency in this country.
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think, most importantly, it’s the President who has high expectations for the last two years of his presidency. The President has used this analogy that he’s entering the fourth quarter. We’re not in the — or at least stages of the fourth quarter of his presidency, and a lot of important things happen in the fourth quarter. And I think anybody who watched the President’s State of the Union address would acknowledge that he’s got pretty large aspirations for what can be accomplished both by working with Congress and by working on his own to make progress for the American people. And certainly by focusing on middle-class economics, we can do the most good for the most Americans, including many black Americans as well.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Lynn, were you trying to ask a question earlier, or do you want to ask it now?
Q Well, thank you very much.
MR. EARNEST: You’re welcome.
Q I just want to — given the enormous attention that the team got when they were here in November, if there was anything more of a message to the boys about what you said was the “dirty dealings of adults.” If they feel that his trip here was not right, or if they have to apologize, or do you think they have anything — is there any message to the boys, more than to the adults?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think what the President would say is that, again, the actions of those adults doesn’t in any way take away — does not in any way take away from the accomplishments of those young men who performed brilliantly on the baseball diamond, on a pretty large stage.
And their accomplishment is the product of years of commitment and practice and some skill. And they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished, and there’s nothing that those adults who may not have done the right thing could do to take away from those accomplishments.
And the President, for that reason, was pleased to have the opportunity to have met them last fall. And the President, I think in the message that he delivered to them personally, is hopeful that they will continue to take that sense of purpose and that determination and that patience, and apply it to success in other elements of their lives.
1:31 P.M. EST