White House Press Briefing by Josh Earnest, Feb. 4, 2015

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 4, 2015 – 1:55 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It’s nice to see all of you.  For those of you who are paying close attention to my personal schedule today, you know that I went and appeared at a forum with the Center of American Progress to talk about men and fathers and work-life family balance.  I’m much less nervous sitting here talking to you about a range of foreign policy issues, and even some domestic ones, than I am talking about my personal life with my wife and child in the front row.  So for one day I can at least walk in here and say I’m relieved to see all of you.  (Laughter.)

Q    How did you do?

MR. EARNEST:  You should ask my wife.  She may have a more unbiased assessment.

Julie, you want to get us started today?

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I had a couple questions on Islamic State and Jordan.  Congressional lawmakers are calling for increased military assistance to Jordan, including weapons.  Would the President support that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julie, we do have a very powerful and important counterterrorism and security relationship with the nation of Jordan, and that relationship has significantly benefitted American national security interests throughout the Middle East.  We have also found that Jordan has been a strong partner when it comes to our broader international coalition against ISIL.  We’ve talked about — and, tragically, it’s been widely discussed — that Jordanian military pilots are flying alongside American military pilots, striking ISIL targets in Syria.  That is just one indication of the depth of the commitment from the Jordanian people to this broader effort.  And we certainly value that relationship and we certainly are interested in maintaining the strong military-to-military national security ties that we have with that country.

Q    But do you feel that there is a need to increase military assistance to Jordan, specifically, by giving them more weapons?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know if they — I’m not aware of any specific requests that the Jordanians have made for additional — 

Q    Because lawmakers on Capitol Hill are talking about pulling something together on this.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly would consider anything that they were to put forward, but I do think what would drive a decision like that is a specific request from our partners in Jordan.

Q    You talked about the commitment from Jordan to fly and launch airstrikes.  The UAE, which had been part of that coalition, has stopped doing that.  What does that say about the strength of this coalition?  And what’s the reason that the UAE has given the U.S. for stopping launching airstrikes?

MR. EARNEST:  I did see that announcement from the Emiratis, and I would refer you to them for the latest update in terms of their military participation in the campaign.  But I don’t think people should take away from that announcement that the commitment from the Emiratis and other Arab countries in the region to this broader coalition has waned in any way.  There’s a very important role for the Emiratis to play in terms of the range of other aspects of our counter-ISIL strategy that requires broad international support.

So whether it’s providing humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced by ISIL’s violence, or helping us in the fight against foreign fighters, or working to try to counter the messaging from ISIL that it attempts to radicalize people all across the globe, that there’s still and continues to be an important role for the United Arab Emirates to play in this broad, international coalition.

Q    Just as a matter of transparency, the military was still listing the UAE on daily news releases as being part of the coalition launching airstrikes against Syria, even after they had stopped doing that.  Are there other countries that were part of this coalition that have changed their participation that we don’t know about?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, not that I’m aware of.  But obviously what we have tried to do, aside from some of the documentation that you just cited, is to allow the individual countries to discuss in detail the kind of military operations that they’re engaged in on a daily basis.  My guess is, without knowing exactly which document you’re referring to, it might have been a list of the countries that had to date participated in military airstrikes alongside American military pilots.

Q    At this point, all of the countries that you have said are participating in airstrikes, besides the UAE, are still part of that effort?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m going to let the individual countries speak to the detailed sort of day-by-day accounting of their military activities and their participation in military operations.

Q    And just one more on this topic.  Is the White House or the President giving any consideration to increasing the resources that you have in the region to be available to rescue pilots if a plane were to go down?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there has been some reporting that raised questions about whether or not there was sufficient resources available to try to rescue Captain Kasasbeh when his plane went down. 

The Department of Defense has spoken to this, and they did indicate that as soon as the plane went down, an intensive airborne search was immediately initiated and personnel recovery forces were moving toward the pilot’s last known location.

For obvious reasons, we’re not going to be in a position to discuss specific response timelines for personnel recovery, but that was not, in this case, a major factor.  The simple fact of the matter is that we were not in a position to locate the pilot before he was picked up by ISIL forces.

Q    So the President feels comfortable with the resources that he has on the ground if something were to happen with an American pilot over Syria or Iraq?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly we would take — we already have taken the necessary precautions to do everything we can to try to make that very dangerous mission as safe as possible for American fighter pilots who are putting themselves in harm’s way.  I can tell you that the President relies significantly on the advice that he gets from the leaders of our uniformed military for questions like this. 

I can tell you that the President is always pushing his team to reevaluate assumptions and to take a look at the strategy to make sure that all of our strategies are pressure-tested, that assumptions are challenged, and that we’re doing everything that makes strategic sense to do to make this mission effective, to optimize its impact, and to try to put in place precautions that allow our men and women in uniform to do their very important jobs as safely as possible.

Q    The European Union has criticized Jordan’s execution of the two Iraqis yesterday.  I’m wondering how the President feels about that execution and whether that came up during his meeting with the King yesterday.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Roberta, we did see reports that the Jordanian government did carry out the execution of two prisoners that had been serving time on death row.  These were two individuals that did go through the Jordanian justice system.  They were convicted of very serious terrorism-related crimes.  These were individuals who were sentenced to death and were serving time on death row.  And then we did see reports that their executions were carried out overnight. 

For questions about the circumstances of their confinement or the decision to move forward on the execution, I’d refer you to Jordanian authorities who can provide a great deal more insight into the Jordanian justice system than, frankly, I can. 

Q    So the White House is not criticizing this, unlike the European Union?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, for questions about that specific situation, I’d refer you to Jordanian authorities.

Q    Today, Ash Carter, at his Senate hearing, said he leans in favor of sending arms to Ukraine.  And that seems to go further than what Ben Rhodes said the other day on TV and what you’ve said.  And I’m wondering if the White House agrees with Ash Carter, or if he’s gone out ahead of the White House on this issue.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the other thing that I noticed that Dr. Carter mentioned in his hearing is that he’s a strong believer in the chain of command, and he certainly understands that the Commander-in-Chief is the top of that chain of command and that a decision like this will be made by the Commander-in-Chief.  That said, the President is certainly interested in the view and opinion and insight of his national security team, including what we hope will be his soon-to-be confirmed new Secretary of Defense.  And so the President will certainly take that advice into account. 

What we have made clear is that substantial military assistance has already been provided to the Ukrainian military.  We’ve made clear that an effort to try to bring the Ukrainian military on par with the Russian military is unrealistic, that when we’re talking about the Russian military we’re talking about one of the largest militaries on Earth.  So the idea that we’re going to provide enough assistance that would allow the Ukrainian military to be on par with the Russian military is unrealistic.

That’s why we know that the only way this situation is going to be resolved is around the negotiating table.  And that is why our strategy has been focused on applying pressure to President Putin and other members of the Russian regime to try to compel them to come to the negotiating table to resolve — or to deescalate the situation in Ukraine.

That’s going to continue to be our strategy.  I know that there are some, including Dr. Carter, who articulated his view at the hearing today, who believe that there might be a benefit to providing additional military assistance to Ukrainian military authorities.  And that is consistent with the President’s view that we should, as I was mentioning earlier as it relates to our strategy against ISIL, that we’re always testing and probing our strategy to make sure that it is optimized.

Q    Just quickly, on net neutrality.  The FCC Chairman put forth his new proposal today.  How does the White House feel about his new proposal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I understand from published reports, that the FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, has published an overview of his plans to safeguard net neutrality.  And we’re certainly encouraged to see that the FCC is heading in the same direction of safeguarding net neutrality with the strongest possible protections.  This is consistent with the view that the President articulated back in the fall.  And the President has indicated that as this process moves forward, that additional legislation is not needed.  But we’re going to continue to withhold a detailed comment about their proposal out of respect for the independent process that the FCC is engaged in right now.  This proposal will be subject to a vote of the five members of the — or five commissioners of the FCC, and we’ll have a little bit more to say about this after that vote has taken place.

Q    If the speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu goes forward, will the President ask Vice President Biden to go to the speech?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Isaac, you know that the Vice President takes his responsibilities as the president of the United States Senate very seriously.  That includes even his ceremonial responsibilities.  So many of you who have watched the Vice President dig in with gusto as he swears in new members of the United States Congress — they’ve done that a couple of times, and I think that the rating for C-SPAN have gone through the roof when he’s had the opportunity to do that. 

But another of his ceremonial duties is to be a part of any joint session of Congress that is convened.  In fact, there have been a number of joint sessions that have been convened while he’s been Vice President, and the Vice President has only missed one.  He missed one back in March of 2011 when then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke before a joint session of Congress.  Unfortunately, at that point, the Vice President was out of the country and did not attend. 

But as it relates to the speech that Prime Minister Netanyahu has planned for the first week in March, I can tell you that the Vice President’s schedule for that week has not yet been set.  So as we get some more details worked out of his schedule, we’ll be able to let you know whether or not he’ll be able to attend that joint session.

Q    But would the President want the Vice President to be there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, this is going to be contingent on his schedule.  And as I mentioned, there’s only one time in which the Vice President hasn’t been there and it’s when he’s been out of the country.  So as we get some more details for that first week in March locked down on the Vice President’s schedule, we’ll have more to say about this.

Q    Just one more on that.  Do you think it’s dangerous — there are some Democrats who are talking about skipping the speech.  Do you think it’s dangerous for American-Israeli relations for Democrats to potentially boycott the Netanyahu speech?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly individual members of Congress will have to make their own decision, some of which I assume will be driven by their schedule and some of it will be driven by their own views about what has transpired over the last several weeks as it relates to this speech.

Let me just say as a general matter, that when I was asked about Ambassador Dermer’s status a couple of — maybe it was just even last week — that the President believed that it was important to uphold a broader tradition of ensuring that the strong relationship between the United States and Israel was not in any way subjugated to partisan politics in either country, frankly.  And we have — one of the concerns about the breach in protocol that we’ve seen and articulated is that it might cause some to view the relationship between the United States and Israel as a relationship between one political party in Israel and one political party in the United States.  The President does not believe that would be a positive development in our relationship.

And so the President is certainly doing everything that he can to try to avoid that.  And that — in fact, that is one of the reasons that the President has said he will not meet with the Israeli Prime Minister when he is in town the first week in March, because the President does not want to leave anybody with even the appearance of interfering in the Israeli elections scheduled for just two weeks later.

Q    But given that — so does he think that Democrats should go to the speech if it happens?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess to give you a more direct answer, the President believes that individual members ought to decide for themselves.  That’s certainly appropriate.


Q    Josh, coming back to the UAE, do you believe that the coalition has been strengthened or weakened by this whole episode involving the Jordanian pilot?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you heard from the President yesterday that the commitment of the United States and other members of the coalition has only been strengthened.  I think he referred to redoubling our efforts to carry out this strategy against ISIL. 

I think you saw that sentiment echoed in the statement from King Abdullah yesterday as well, who indicated that the people of Jordan would not show weakness in the face of this barbaric act.  And I think that is an indication of their strengthened commitment to this broader international coalition, and I think that is representative of the sentiment of others who are participants in this coalition.  But I only speak for one member of the coalition.

Q    But the UAE had been perhaps the biggest contributor to the air campaign, and it’s been now over a month since they have taken part in any airstrikes over Iraq or Syria.  It seems like a pretty significant blow to the coalition, and one that we weren’t informed of.  I mean, you’ve talked excessively about the strength of this coalition over the past weeks and months.  This seems to be a pretty significant setback to have the UAE no longer flying with American pilots.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly have appreciated the wide range of commitments that the United Arab Emirates has made to this broader international coalition, including their military commitments.  But, Jon, I can tell you that the pace of operations in Syria has not slowed; that with their — to date, more than 1,000 strikes over Syria have been carried out, and these have targeted a wide range of things — everything from ISIL fighters themselves to their commanders, hundreds of vehicles and tanks, nearly 260 oil and gas facilities.

And just recently —

Q    What percentage —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say one other thing, which is, just recently, we learned — and as been reported by some of you — that ISIL fighters have abandoned the city of Kobani.  They’ve essentially been defeated in Kobani.  And they’ve been defeated, as ISIL fighters themselves said, because of the strong coordination between forces on the ground and the airstrikes carried out by coalition pilots.  So I think that is an indication that the air campaign that’s being waged over the skies of Syria remains incredibly and, in some cases, even devastatingly effective.

Q    But what percentage of those airstrikes over Syria over the last month have been U.S. pilots?

MR. EARNEST:  Jon, I don’t have that information in front of me, but you can check with the Department of Defense about that.

Q    And then can you give a direct answer to the concerns that have been expressed by UAE about the — what they see as a lack of an effective search and research?  Clearly, it wasn’t effective — but a lack of a timely search-and-rescue effort to get that Jordanian pilot back?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I mentioned in the statement that the Department of Defense issued, that they did commence an intensive airborne search immediately after the plane went down, and that there were personnel recovery forces en route to his last known location.

Q    So the UAE does not have a legitimate point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess what I’m saying is this:  The response timeline, as the Department of Defense has said, as it relates to this case of Captain Kasasbeh, was not a major factor in this case, that the response timeline was not the major factor.

But the other thing that I think is relevant is that the American pilots, American military pilots continue to fly over Syria.  And they only do that because the President believes that we have taken the necessary precautions for them to carry out what is admittedly a very dangerous mission as safely as possible, and that there are resources available for contingencies should they arise.

And I don’t think anybody would suggest that this Commander-in-Chief, at least, takes lightly his responsibility to make sure that those kinds of strategies are in place.

Q    Okay, just one more question on Iran.  We heard from President Rouhani saying, in his words, differences have decreased between the Iranians and European and U.S. powers on this.  Is it your assessment that President Rouhani is right?  Have the differences decreased?  Have the two sides gotten closer to coming to an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that for quite some time now, these negotiations have been ongoing.  I think it is fair to say that progress has been made, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that there aren’t still very difficult sticking points that remain.

Q    Are we better than 50/50 now?

MR. EARNEST:  I would not change our assessment that we are at best — at best — 50/50 in terms of the likelihood that an agreement is reached.


Q    Talking about the UAE, you’ve mentioned it many times in here as a significant partner in the coalition.  But it sounds like you’re saying that the loss of their airstrikes over the last month hasn’t really made much of an impact.  So isn’t that saying that their contribution really wasn’t so much of an impact positively in the first place?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I wouldn’t say that at all.  We certainly value the very important contribution that the Emiratis have made to this broader strategy.  That includes their military contribution, but is not limited to it; that there are important financial contributions that they have made to this broader effort, some of which are related to dealing with the urgent humanitarian crisis that’s been created by ISIL.  Certainly, the Emiratis have an important role to play in the Muslim world to countering some of the radical extremist messaging that we have seen from ISIL.

We’ve talked quite a bit about how ISIL has attempted to use social media in rather sophisticated ways to try to radicalize populations in other countries.  And one part of countering that messaging is to ensure that moderate voices in the Muslim world are also heard, and that those messages are countered.  And certainly the Emiratis have a lot of credibility when it comes to that, and we certainly appreciate their cooperation in that aspect of the campaign too.

That’s to say nothing of the efforts of our ongoing strategy to choke off the funding for ISIL’s operations.  Just a couple of months ago, you had David Cohen from the Treasury Department standing here at the podium sort of detailing our efforts to choke off funding for ISIL.  Those efforts continue.  It requires the close coordination and cooperation of our partners across the globe, but particularly in the region.  The UAE has been very helpful on that front, as well.

Q    But while those elements might be very important in the long run, it doesn’t really stop ISIS on the ground in the short term.  And for the loss of the UAE’s airstrikes not really making that much of an impact, as you say, that the pace is continued, doesn’t that just again point to the fact that the U.S. continues to do the lion’s share of the work militarily?

MR. EARNEST:  There is no question that the United States of America is playing the leading role in this international coalition.  I think the President is proud that as the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces, that the United States is leading in this effort.  There’s no doubt about that.  But it does not in any way diminish the contributions of others that have an important role to play here.  And we are certainly proud to continue to have the support of the Emiratis as we pursue this strategy.

Q    We’ve heard repeatedly yesterday from the President and others about redoubling the commitment, reinforcing the vigilance of the coalition.  So now that we’re hearing from Jordan that they want to do more airstrikes, is it likely that everyone is going to be contributing more at this period of time, including the U.S.?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly would welcome additional contributions from other countries, and we’re going to continue to work to make sure that this wide variety of efforts is carefully integrated.  And that is an important part of this coalition as well, that we want to make sure that we’re working closely to make sure that we’re not duplicating efforts and that our efforts continues to be very carefully integrated.  And we certainly welcome the kind of support and continued willingness from the Jordanians and all the other members of the coalition to executing this strategy.

Q    But we’ve heard from some in the Pentagon that some would like to see the U.S. pace increase but that the White House has favored more of a steady pace as it’s been.  Do you feel that that is the case?  And will we see the U.S. contribute more?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t heard those complaints firsthand.  I guess in order to respond to them, I’d want a little more detailed assessment of what exactly they’re talking about.  But I can tell you that this is something that the President feels strongly about, and the President is pleased with the way that members of our military have handled their responsibilities in this effort; that the challenges put before our military are significant and their success in carrying out this operation and doing so in close coordination with more than 60 countries is no small feat.  And the national security interests of the United States are incredibly well-served by it.

Q    If you don’t mind one quick question.  When the President was talking — or it came out in a readout, I guess, of the Vice President’s meeting with the King — this ironclad support for Jordan.  Would that then include support for its reaction to the murder of the pilot through these executions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have a specific reaction to the news overnight that a couple of individuals who had been convicted of crimes related to terrorism, that they’d been executed.  Again, they’d gone through the Jordanian justice system, they’d been convicted, they were sentenced to death, they were serving time on death row, and their executions were carried out overnight.  So I’d refer you to the Jordanian authorities for additional information about that.


Q    Thank you, Josh.  On Afghanistan, today at his confirmation hearing, Ash Carter told congressmen that he would recommend changing the plan in Afghanistan, both the pace and the size of the forces — this was in Afghanistan — if there’s a change in the situation inside Afghanistan.  Is that the final plan, or is the President willing to change the plan depending on the situation in Afghanistan?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the last part is the key part of this, Lalit — that I don’t think that — again, based on — I didn’t watch the testimony firsthand, so correct me if I don’t get this right.  But my understanding about the way that he had described his view was that he was open to changing the pace based on conditions on the ground.  But I think that as things stand right now, I believe that he is supportive of the strategy that the President has laid out. 

So the President has been very clear about what he believes our strategy should be.  It’s impossible to predict with 100 percent certainty exactly what security conditions are going to be, but the President is committed to this strategy.  And the President believes it serves our national security interests very well for us to responsibly wind down the war in Afghanistan and to reduce our military footprint there.  The President has laid out a clear strategy for doing it, and the President is pleased that we’re pursuing it and is hopeful that it will be effective.


Q    Thanks, Josh. 

MR. EARNEST:  If I might, just before you ask your question, your colleague was here yesterday and asked a question about the Affordable Care Act, and I think this is one of those awkward situations where I didn’t quite understand the question that he was asking.  So if you don’t mind me eating into a little bit of your time, which I’ll repay on the backend, let me try to better answer the question that I believe that he was asking. 

I think that he was raising a question about individuals who will be assessed a fee for not purchasing health insurance in 2014, even though they could afford it.  And it is true, according to CBO estimates, that it is possible that millions of people could be affected by this.  And so let me say a couple of things about that. 

The first is, it is, as I mentioned yesterday, also true that millions of Americans saw their taxes reduced so that they could afford health insurance.  It’s also true that, as I mentioned yesterday, that three-quarters of Americans will only have to check a box on their tax forms to confirm that they have — that they did have health insurance in 2014.  And the likelihood of this fee affecting a taxpayer, we’re only talking about a range of 2 to 4 percent of taxpayers who are affected.

Last couple of things.  The first is, it is possible for people to qualify for an exemption in certain circumstances.  So that possibility is held, and I that was essentially the essence of his question — is there anything that people in this situation can do.  There are certain cases I think that are rather complicated where individuals could apply or qualify for an exception.

I think the last piece of advice I would have for individuals who may be watching us or reading this who are concerned about having to pay a fee in 2014, is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  And fortunately, they have until February 15th to sign up for health insurance at for 2015 to ensure that they don’t have to pay this fee in 2015.

So I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to clarify all that.

Q    No problem.  (Inaudible) outstanding journalist. 

MR. EARNEST:  Exactly.

Q    He wanted to get your answer; I’m glad you gave it.


Q    I want to go back to Jordan and ISIS.  I’m confused by your answer to Michelle’s question about the executions that happened overnight, when you said, “I don’t have a reaction to it.”  How can the President yesterday say, we’re here, we support Jordan, they’re a key member of the coalition; they make this decision overnight and you can’t say whether or not you support the executions?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, it is certainly possible for us to continue to support and stand with the people of Jordan at this very difficult time.  Clearly, their nation, in the same way that we all are, is shocked and appalled at this terrible act of violence that was captured on video by ISIL and released to the world.  And the United States stands with our friends in Jordan as they confront this awful, barbaric act.

But as it relates to decisions that are carried out by the Jordanian justice system, I’d refer you to them.  I don’t have the working knowledge of the Jordanian justice system to render an opinion on this.  All I know is that the individuals that we’re discussing here were individuals who were convicted of terrorism-related crimes.  They were individuals who were sentenced to death.  And these were individuals who had been serving time on death row.

Q    So let’s ask, though, about something that you do have an impact on, which the White House said, which is support, direct support for Jordan.  And back to one of Julie’s first questions, you seemed to be suggesting that the White House was not aware that the King was in Washington to, in part — large part — to get more support from the administration and the Congress for weapons, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, the administration is standing squarely behind the people of Jordan and the King, and we are certainly supportive of any efforts that are underway to try to strengthen his national security and to strengthen his ability to make tangible contributions to this broader campaign.

Q    But you said you weren’t aware of a request.  Are you suggesting that the King in the Oval Office last night didn’t ask President Obama for more help?  Or in recent weeks, there hasn’t been a conversation with the Vice President, the national security advisor?  Are you really saying Jordan hasn’t asked for more weapons?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is I’m not going to read out any of the detailed conversations, at least in a detailed way, the conversations that the King had while he was here in the United States.  As has been reported, he did visit with the President yesterday, he had the opportunity to talk to the Vice President.  I know that he spoke to the Secretary of State as well.  So he had a number of conversations.  I’m not going to read them out in a detailed way.

Q    He’s made it no secret he wants more weapons, he wants to step up the campaign against ISIS.  That’s on the record.  So, A, did he ask the White House for that support?  And, B, is the President going to give him that support?

MR. EARNEST:  Ed, I don’t have a detailed accounting of the conversation that the President had with the King in the Oval Office.  And the United States continues to stand with the people of Jordan and our ally, the King of Jordan, as they —

Q    If you stand with them, why can’t you say you’re going to support and give them more weapons?  That’s what I’m just struggling to understand.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, because, Ed, a lot of this requires important coordination not just in terms of the work that we have to do with the Congress, but also in terms of the work that we’ll do with the Jordanians to ensure that we’re providing the actual assistance that they are requesting and that they need.

Q    Okay.  And it seems like in a lot of your answers there doesn’t seem to be anything new coming from the White House today in the wake of what happened yesterday.  It seems, in the case of King Abdullah, he really seemed to believe this is a game-changer.  I understand there was a horrible impact on his country, but on the entire coalition.  This was a pilot who was working on behalf of a coalition led by this President.  So my question is, it seems like the strategy here in terms of defeating ISIS is status quo; that nothing changed yesterday.  Is there anything the President is committing to do?  Is there anything to step up the campaign against ISIS at all from the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, we have talked about how these kinds of ongoing efforts are going to be difficult and that it’s going to be difficult to measure success or failure in one-day increments.  What we’re focused on is the longer-term arc.  I think the best example I have for this is that last fall there was extensive, even breathless coverage about the success that ISIL has had, or did have at that time, in making significant inroads into this border village called Kobani.  And just last — over the weekend, we saw news reports that ISIL has been repelled from that village and that ISIL fighters themselves attributed their retreat to the success of ground operations that were supported by airstrikes from coalition pilots.

So that is an indication that, yes, the situation in Kobani was concerning.  But over the long term, this administration led the international coalition to implement a strategy that was successful in repelling that ISIL advance.

There are any number of similar stories to be told in Iraq. And this not a matter of sort of doing a minute-by-minute play-by-play here.  This is a matter of staying focused on our broader goal.  And one of those goals is keeping together this coalition.  And that’s why the President has been so clear, and why I’m doing my best to be as clear as I can about our commitment to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jordan as they deal with this terrible tragedy.

Q    Last one.  You’ve got a summit on violent extremism coming up in a week or two.  Has there been any thought about moving that up, given events over the last 24, 48 hours, that this should be at the top of mind at the White House, this should happen today, tomorrow?  Where is the sense of urgency?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, the fact of the matter is this issue of foreign fighters and countering violent extremism is something that this administration has been focused on for a long, long time.  And this is something that even in the earliest days of the administration, John Brennan went to NYU and gave a pretty important policy speech about our ongoing efforts to work with communities all across the country to try to counter violent extremism.  And this, again, as part of this ongoing effort, the President, for just the second time in United Nations history, convened a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to talk about the broader international effort to shut down the movement of foreign fighters. 

And so this is something that is ongoing, and there is work that is done here in this White House on a daily basis to try to mitigate this threat to the American people.  And the countering violent extremism summit that we’re convening next week — or in two weeks will be a very important part and an important contribution to that effort.


Q    This morning, the new Surgeon General said that preliminary data shows that marijuana could be helpful in certain medical conditions.  I’m wondering if you have any comment on that, if this is a sense that the White House is changing its position on medical marijuana.

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t actually see those comments, Steve, so I might actually take your question and take a look at those comments a little more carefully before I get you a reaction.

Q    On a second issue, on the budget, the President seemed to issue a veto threat when he was making his comments on the budget; he said he wouldn’t accept sequester levels going forward.  It sounds like that’s almost a threat of a government shutdown if the Republicans do not increase spending.  Is that the right way to look at that?  Is that a veto threat that if the Republicans don’t increase spending, he’s not going to sign any of those spending bills?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know there has been an effort to sort of do a little running tally of veto threats that have been issued by the White House.  I’m not sure this qualifies, simply because we haven’t seen a piece of legislation from Congress.  So we typically issue veto threats around specific bills. 

But I do think that the President is very firm in his belief that the mindless, across-the-board cuts that we’ve seen as a part of the sequester have been bad for our economy and they certainly have not been helpful to our national security.

And I recognize that there’s actually some bipartisan agreement around that.  And so we’re going to be working in bipartisan fashion with Congress to make some of those changes to the budget in a way that reflects bipartisan common ground, because that’s going to be what’s required to actually pass these funding bills, but also reflects a focus on our core priorities, which is protecting the country and protecting the middle class.

Q    One veto threat that he’s issued in past years on the sequester was absent this week.  And two years ago, when he was talking about the sequester at that podium, he basically — he said, I will veto a replacement that did not include new revenue, new taxes.  Is the President open to doing what the Republicans are insisting — John Boehner and others — that you replace the sequester with other cuts?  There’s certainly plenty of other cuts the President has in his own budget — $400 billion in health care savings — that in the past few years the President has put in a lock box, basically.  He said, I’m only going to touch these entitlement cuts if the Republicans come to the table with a tax increase.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, Steve, we haven’t seen a specific proposal from Republicans.  But I do think that there is a principle that does endure to this day, which is the President believes that to the extent that we’re looking to reduce the deficit even further, that we need to pursue a balanced approach in doing so. 

And just asking the middle class or the elderly to bear the burden of reducing our deficit, it’s not fair.  It’s also not the best way for us to keep our commitment to our seniors.  It’s also not the best way to grow our economy.  Our economy grows best when it’s growing from the middle out.  And asking our middle class to bear the burden alone of reducing the deficit, that doesn’t make a lot of economic sense.  And that is a principle the President has previously articulated, and it’s one that continues to apply today.

Q    Is that actually still a veto threat, though?  In the past he’s said, “I will veto.”  I haven’t heard that V-word on a sequester replacement that did not include revenue.

MR. EARNEST:  And the reason, simply, is that we haven’t seen a specific piece of legislation from Republicans.  And that is typically when we’ll use the V-word, as you described it.  So I’ll withhold that word for now.  But that principle is firmly in place.


Q    Speaking of taxes, you guys put out your proposal on international corporate taxes, and the Republicans — who haven’t always been kind to the administration — had a lot of supportive things to say.  Representative Boustany said it was the right direction.  The Chairman of House Ways and Means said, constructive.  Senator Enzi said, a step in the right direction.  Is the White House encouraged by the Republican reaction so far?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly welcome that kind of constructive response from Republicans that — again, that Representative Boustany is not somebody with whom we’re going to agree on a lot of things.  But we can’t allow those disagreements on those other issues to prevent us from trying to find common ground where it does exist. 

And it sounds like, based on his comments, that there might be an opportunity for us to have a conversation and a constructive one — no pun intended — about — nobody is going to laugh at that — about international tax reform and using that revenue to invest in infrastructure projects.

Q    So is there an active conversation now going on with leaders in sort of tax thought on the Republican congressional side —

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I mean, this is something that we’ve been talking about for quite some time, and it’s going to continue to be a part of the conversations.  I know that the Director of the OMB, Shaun Donovan, is actually testifying on Capitol Hill today about some of these issues.  So we certainly are interested in preserving an open dialogue on that.

Q    And since you’ve released that, have you had actual active discussions with Republicans on this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m not going to detail all of the discussions that have been underway.  I don’t know off the top of my head what committee Congressman Boustany serves on.  Do you have it in front of you?  No?

Q    I don’t know —

MR. EARNEST:  It’s not a pop quiz, it’s okay.  Or I guess it’s a pop quiz for me, but not for you.

Q    Twelve years ago I would have when I covered Congress. 

MR. EARNEST:  The point is, there have been extensive conversations on Capitol Hill both in the run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the submission of the budget.  And that’s included congressional testimony from people like Secretary Lew and Shaun Donovan, the Director of the OMB.  So those lines of communication are open.

Q    And last question on this.  Other Republicans say, hey, the administration has not been good to deal with on taxes.  Do you have any response to that sentiment among some?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’d encourage them to take it up with those Republicans that actually think we have put forward constructive proposals.  And I do think that there are a lot of Democrats who — the vast majority of Democrats are strongly supportive of the kinds of proposals that the President has put forward.  So it seems possible to me that we can cobble together a bipartisan coalition here relying on a large number of Republicans — or at least a large number of Democrats and at least enough Republicans to move this across the finish line.  And that’s —

Q    How likely?  Better than the Iranian deal?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t put any odds on a tax deal.  But we certainly view this as a worthy pursuit, and it could be a fruitful conversation that we’re going to devote some significant time and resources to pursuing.


Q    Thank you, Josh.  With the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, I note that on other occasions you’ve said and the President had said, there has been 40 such votes to repeal it.  Republican members of Congress —

MR. EARNEST:  I think we’re up to 56 now, aren’t we?

Q    Well, Republican members of Congress insist there are only four direct repeal votes, and that many of the votes you count as repeal votes are things that, for example, are putting legislative force behind what the President did by executive order, notably the delaying of implementation in certain cases.  What’s your response?  Do you stand by the 56 figure?  Because they’re saying that is inaccurate right now.  And many of the things you count are things the President himself support.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can’t account for — there are 56 of them, so it’s hard to account for every single one of them.

Q    Fifty-six of what?

MR. EARNEST:  Efforts to undermine or repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Q    Undermine or repeal?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  And so since you brought it up, I did notice that there were a couple of Republican members of Congress who voted against repealing or undermining the Affordable Care Act, and I was struck by why.  Congressman Poliquin said, “Show me a fix and you’ll have my support.”  Congressman Katko said, “I am disappointed that the bill taken up by Congress today did not provide a real solution to the rising costs of health care.”  And we saw Congressman Dold indicate that, “Casting yet another symbolic vote for full repeal of the law, without any replacement legislation, simply distracts us from the work that must be done.”

This is an indication that even Republicans are a little skeptical of the promises from other Republicans that they’re actually going to come forward with a specific replacement proposal; that we see Republicans take these symbolic votes that don’t actually — as Congressman Dold said — don’t actually do anything other than “distract us from the work that must be done.”  And I think it is an indication that Republicans are not really serious about health care reform; that they continue to use this as a political tool, but certainly the millions of Americans across the country who are getting health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act don’t consider this to be a game or anything like that.

Q    So you’re saying there’s 56 symbolic votes, is that correct?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’m just relying on the widespread public reporting of this. 


Q    I just want to clarify when you were asked about whether or not the coalition has been strengthened or weakened by what has happened here, and you said that we’re redoubling our efforts and the commitment has been strengthened.  But I wonder, given the fact that before this horrible murder of the pilot there were plans to try to make a deal — something that the United States has not wanted to do — and the fact that the Emiratis have stopped with the airstrikes, do you feel confident that the coalition has been strengthened or has ISIS has been successful in weakening it?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I feel confident that the coalition has been strengthened.  The President of the United States thinks that and the King of Jordan thinks that.  They both indicated as much yesterday. 

Again, I’m reluctant to say much about a Jordanian effort to secure the release of their pilot but I’m confident in saying that their efforts to secure his release in no way reflected a diminished commitment to the broader international coalition or the broader strategy against ISIL. 

And, again, I think if you look at the success that we’ve had — whether it’s driving ISIL fighters out of Kobani or repelling and rolling back the advance of ISIL fighters across Western Iraq, the success that we’ve had in shutting down the sources of funding — that there a variety of measures that we can point to, to indicate that this coalition, this strong coalition is continuing to build momentum as we take the fight to ISIL. 

And now, as I pointed out to Ed, this doesn’t mean — this is not a score that we can keep on a daily basis; that these kinds of efforts require sustained commitment and there are going to be setbacks.  But I think the overall trajectory here is positive. 

Q    You said that you couldn’t give any detail on the conversation, but do you have anything more for us on that conversation yesterday?  And since the President met with the King, has he made any other calls to leaders of the coalition countries?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any additional readout of the conversation between the President and the King.  As it relates to calls with foreign leaders, I’m not aware of any that the President has placed since last night.

Q    And then, just finally, the President had said over the weekend that anything kind of related to this he takes a look at, when he did the interview with Savannah.  Do you know if he’s seen this latest video?

MR. EARNEST:  I do not know whether or not he’s seen it, no. 

Q    We’ve got a new national security strategy scheduled to be announced on Friday.  Will it contain more specifics about exactly what the strategy is in Iraq, Afghanistan and generally in combatting ISIS?  And will it contain a draft resolution or an authorization of the use of military force?

MR. EARNEST:  I will encourage you to stay tuned for the release of that document.  I know that the national security advisor intends to give a public speech on this issue on Friday as well, so there will be a couple of ways you can learn what’s included in there.

As it relates to the authorization to use military force, I don’t anticipate that that is something that will be released in the context of the national security strategy, but there has been important work and important progress made on that ongoing effort to consult with members of Congress to develop legislative language that could earn bipartisan support.  And I would anticipate that we’ll have some more news on an AUMF relatively soon.

Q    How soon?

MR. EARNEST:  Relatively soon. 


Q    Thanks a lot, Josh.  I just wanted to follow up on a question that Isaac asked a little bit earlier about the upcoming visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the U.S. and the address that he will give to a joint session of Congress.  You had said that the reason that the President won’t be meeting with the Prime Minister is because you don’t want to give the appearance of somehow influencing the Israeli election.  Would that same rationale apply to the Vice President’s attendance at the joint session of Congress?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll see, I think is really the best answer I can give you there.  We’re still working through exactly what the Vice President’s schedule is going to look like that first week in March, and certainly as we consider the Vice President’s attendance, that’s one of the factors that we’ll weigh on that decision.

Q    You also said in answering Isaac’s question that the Vice President has been here for virtually every joint session of Congress when a foreign leader has spoken.  You mentioned the one time he hasn’t been there was when he was out of town.  If he’s in town on that particular day, should the Israeli government see that as a sign of disrespect?  How do you think they should view that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let’s wait until we’ve made a decision and that decision has been carried out before we start estimating exactly what the reaction will be from other people.

Q    Just one last question regarding this.  Does the President view the invitation by House Speaker John Boehner as an effort to influence the Israeli election in any way?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what the President has said is that that was a decision that the Speaker made on his own.  It did represent a departure from protocol, but ultimately, that’s a decision that the Speaker of the House has to make.  The President believes that it is important for us to ensure that the Israeli-U.S. relationship does not get reduced to partisan politics; that the relationship between our two countries is much more than the relationship between two political parties. 

And that is an important principle, and the President is going to conduct himself accordingly.  We’re hopeful that other members of Congress and other U.S. and Israeli leaders will do the same.  But ultimately, they’ll have to determine — make their own decisions about their behavior.


Q    Thanks, Josh.  Can you tell us anything about the President’s agenda for his meeting with Muslim leaders this afternoon?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the President is looking forward to the meeting that he’ll do a little later this afternoon.  It’s not unusual for the President to meet with the leaders of a wide variety of communities from across the country. Sometimes that includes religious leaders; sometimes that includes leaders that are involved in academia or other specific issue areas.

What the President is hoping to do is to have a broader conversation about the wide range of issues that are of importance to the Muslim American community.  Certainly I would expect a robust discussion on a lot of the kind of middle-class economics that the President has been discussing in the State of the Union and in the context of the rollout of his budget.

I would anticipate that it will be an opportunity for the President to talk about some other things.  I’m confident that he’ll remind them of the upcoming deadline for the Affordable Care Act, and encouraging them to get the word out in their communities about the opportunity that exists for people who previously couldn’t afford health insurance but now may be able to by going to

So I think it will be a pretty wide-ranging meeting.  We’re going to do our best to get you a readout of that meeting.

Q    Could I ask a follow-up on the hangings in Jordan last night?  I’m just wondering if the President agrees that there’s an important international principle of law here, because after the burning of the Jordanian pilot, the spokesman for the government of Jordan came out and said “we will have revenge.”  And then hours later, they carried out these two executions.  So my question is, does the President support any ally using the death penalty as a form of revenge?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Dave, again, the executions that were carried out by the Jordanian justice system were — I guess questions about those executions are questions that you should direct to Jordanian authorities.

Again, these are individuals who were convicted of very serious terrorism-related crimes.  They were sentenced to death, and they had been serving time on death row.  So for questions about how, or why, or what the motivation was for carrying out that sentence are questions that you should direct to Jordanian authorities.

Let me just say that the United States continues to stand strongly beside our friends in Jordan.  And we continue to welcome their support and commitment to this broader international campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Yes, ma’am, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you very much, Josh.  On North Korea, the North Korean leader emphasized that North Korea don’t want to talk with the United States anymore.  What would be President Obama’s policy toward North Korea?

MR. EARNEST:  What would be President Obama’s — I’m sorry I don’t understand —

Q    Policy to North Korea.

MR. EARNEST:  Sorry that I had difficulty understanding.  Our policy toward North Korea has not changed.  We believe it is critically important for that regime to come into compliance with generally accepted international standards and to start doing the kinds of things that reflect the commitment to basic universal human rights that we hold dear in this country, and we believe that other governments have a responsibility to protect those basic human rights when it comes to their citizens.  And that policy hasn’t changed. 

Certainly, our efforts to work with the international community, to try to bring North Korea into compliance with those things, those efforts continue.  And certainly other countries, even countries that we don’t often have a close alliance with — countries like Russia and China — have an interest in the same way that we do in trying to resolve the international community’s significant concerns about North Korea, about North Korea’s treatment of their citizens, and about North Korea’s nuclear program.  And those efforts are ongoing.

Q    It would be more aggressively approaching the North Korea, the United States (inaudible) more aggressively?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, I don’t have a change in strategy or policy to tell you about.  

Thank you, guys.

2:48 P.M. EST