Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 8, 2015 – 1:35 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Before we get started, why don’t I give you a quick update on the ongoing situation at the New York Stock Exchange?
This afternoon, the President was briefed by his Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, and the White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, about the technical issues that are currently being experienced by the New York Stock Exchange. Lisa Monaco told the President that, at this point, there is no indication that malicious actors are involved in these technology issues. She informed the President that New York Stock Exchange officials had been in close touch with the Department of Homeland Security, with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as the Treasury Department.
The officials at the Stock Exchange are working feverishly, as you would expect, to try to resolve the situation. For an update on their efforts, I’d encourage you to contact them. The President told Ms. Monaco and Mr. McDonough that he wanted to continue to be updated on the situation over the course of the day. But at this point, there is no indication that malicious actors were involved in these technology issues.
So, with that, Darlene, we can talk about this some more or take other questions you may have today.
Q Thank you. Even though you say that there’s no indication that malicious actors are involved, is that something federal authorities are still kind of being on guard for as they continue to look into what happened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the administration is keenly aware of the risks that exist in cyberspace right now. There are a number of steps that this administration has taken to improve communication between the private sector and the federal government when it comes to safeguarding cyberspace.
I would point out that the Stock Exchange is actually an example of a private sector entity that has a strong relationship with the federal government. And one of the most important elements of our strategy for safeguarding the nation’s computer networks from cyber threats is effective communication and sharing of information between private sector officials and the federal government, particularly those elements of the federal government that are responsible for responding to cyber threats.
The New York Stock Exchange does have an effective information-sharing relationship with the federal government, and I think the information that I shared with you is an indication of how valuable that kind of information-sharing can be.
Q And given what has happened today, did the federal government take any steps to beef up its own cybersecurity defenses, or anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the federal government is obviously very vigilant about the steps that we need to take to protect federal computer systems. The kind of security measures that are in place are sometimes obvious to the general public; sometimes they aren’t. We also work aggressively to make sure that the kind of defenses that we have in place reflect the threats that we perceive. And this means that our security posture is continually evolving to reflect the current threat environment.
I don’t have any steps that we’ve taken at this point to tell you, but I can assure you that officials, even on days when these kinds of questions are not lingering in the air, are very vigilant about their need to adapt to an environment in cyberspace that is filled with malicious actors.
Q On a different subject, on the Hill today, Senators Schumer and Portman unveiled details of a plan to sort of overhaul the way U.S. companies pay taxes on foreign profits, and some of the money they would propose using for infrastructure — roads, bridges, et cetera. Do you have any reaction or comment on that framework that they’re talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Senator Schumer and Senator Portman have communicated to the administration about their report, and we certainly applaud their interest in this area. The Treasury Department is still reviewing the details of the report that they have issued, so I would refer you to the Treasury Department for a specific reaction to the report that they’ve issued.
Obviously, the President has put forward his own specific plan for reforming our tax code in a way that would close tax loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected, and using some of that revenue to invest in infrastructure that benefits everybody — that would have important benefits for our economy over the long term, but also would have important benefits for the job market in the short term. All these kinds of infrastructure upgrades would stimulate further hiring in the job market. That’s obviously a worthwhile goal.
More broadly, I can tell you what the President’s goal when it comes to tax reform is to make our tax system more simple, more fair, and ensure that American businesses are in a position to compete. And that is the aim of the proposal that the President himself has put forward, but we obviously welcome the interest from these two senators on this particular issue. Obviously there is a lot of important reform that is necessary for our tax code that would have positive economic benefits for the entire country.
Q Josh, back on the stock exchange. Even if it turns out that it was not a malicious actor involved, is the President concerned about the effect of this glitch or whatever it is on investors?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, it’s unclear exactly what kind of impact this particular glitch will have. Obviously the market has been closed here for 90 minutes or so. So as the officials at the Stock Exchange get to the bottom of what exactly has occurred, make the repairs that are necessary and get it back up and running, then we’ll take a longer look at what sort of impact a disruption like this may have caused.
Q Is there any concern that it could have an economic impact for being closed, even for a short period of time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that the Treasury Department continues to monitor. Obviously the Securities and Exchange Commission is doing the same thing. At this point, it’s too early to offer an assessment about that.
Q On a different stock market — stocks in China have been falling for the last week, and despite intervention from the Chinese as well as the central bank there, they haven’t been able to stop it. Is this on the White House’s radar? And do you have any concerns about that affecting the global economy?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, the administration — particularly the Treasury Department but also economic officials here at the White House — do closely monitor activity on global financial markets. We do live in an age where our global financial markets are interconnected and interrelated, and activity that we do see in one market could have an impact on other markets, so that’s something that we carefully monitor.
In terms of assessing the impact of the volatility that we saw in China’s stock market, I would reserve judgment on that. I’ll let those who are a little bit more experienced and skilled in putting together that kind of analysis to put forward their own judgment. But, yes, this is something that is closely monitored by the administration — principally by the United States Treasury Department.
Q And lastly, just can you give an update on any White House communications with the Europeans about Greece, what your assessment is on the situation now after the Prime Minister addressed parliament, and what contingency plans the United States might be making for a Greek bankruptcy this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I don’t have any other presidential calls to tell you about. As you recall, I believe it was just yesterday that the President spoke to both Chancellor Merkel from Germany and Prime Minister Tsipras from Greece. The day before, the President had spoken to President Hollande from France. And the truth is the President has been in touch with his European counterparts on this issue over the last several months. Many of those European officials have actually been visiting the White House over the course of this year, and resolving the financial situation in Greece was the subject of discussion in each of those meetings.
I can tell you that Secretary Lew, who has been the principal point of contact of the administration in dealing with this issue, has continued to be in touch with his counterparts around the world, and he will continue to be as Greece and its creditors attempt to resolve their differences.
Our view on this, despite the colorful activity that we’ve seen on this issue over the last week or so — or 10 days or so — has not changed. Our view continues to be that it remains in the collective interest of Greece and their creditors for the situation to be resolved in a way that allows Greece to remain part of Europe’s currency union.
Our view is that the solution is essentially the assembly of a package of financing and reforms that puts Greece back on a path toward economic growth and debt sustainability. And that is pretty easily said, but not easily done, and it’s going to require all parties to focus on their collective mutual interest. And that is the thing that we have long taken to heart, is that for all of the turmoil and all of the rancor and the negotiations, the fact that they have a collective interest in resolving the situation in the same way continues to be evident. And as long as the negotiators are focused on that, then we’re going to continue to be hopeful about a positive outcome, because that’s what we believe is in the best interest of the United States as well.
Q On Iran, first of all, the administration seemed to be saying over the last few days that the deadlines that have been put in the past have served a purpose, but now as we get close the deadlines are not as important, and that you’ll continue to talk as long as there’s something to talk about. There are those who criticize that and say that the further delays is allowing — further delays are allowing Iran to continue to build up a nuclear program. Do you agree with that? Is that true? And are there safeguards against that?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, it’s not true. And this is a concern that this administration has been cognizant of since the very beginning, which is that there had been a history of Iran using the cover of diplomatic talks to continue to advance their nuclear program, that they would essentially fend off any sort of international scrutiny or limitations on their nuclear program by saying, well, the diplomatic talks are ongoing. And that’s why the United States and our P5+1 partners insisted that Iran would take steps to freeze their nuclear program in place in most aspects; in other aspects, actually roll back key aspects of their nuclear program while the talks are ongoing.
And that’s what’s occurred over the last year and a half. And I think that’s why, early on, we saw a lot of Republicans, critics of the administration, suggesting that entering into talks with Iran were a really bad idea. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, I believe, described it as a “historic mistake.” The fact is, after a year and a half or so, many Republicans are now suggesting that rather than trying to reach a final agreement with Iran, that what the administration should just do is leave the agreement that they previously criticized in place because it’s been good for our national security.
So the fact is the concern that Iran could use diplomatic talks as cover for advancing their nuclear program is something that we were aware of from the beginning and actively took steps to prevent, and that effort has been successful.
Q On the meeting last night that the President had with the Senate Democrats, among those who were there was Bernie Sanders. Was there any specific conversation between President Obama and Mr. Sanders, since he is doing so well, surprisingly well, on the campaign trail?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific conversation that the two men had yesterday.
Q And then, finally, if I could, on the issue of Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby, in fact, has a congressional — I’m sorry, a Presidential Medal of Freedom that was granted to him by President Bush. Today, a group of victims of rape came out and asked President Obama to revoke his Medal of Freedom. Does the President have that power? And would he consider doing that as Mr. Cosby comes under fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I hadn’t seen that particular statement from the group that you’re referencing. I haven’t at this point heard any discussion of taking that step. But I can tell you that, as a general matter, this administration has been very focused on countering sexual assault, and doing so in a variety of settings. The administration has been very active in pushing the military, who, to their credit, has taken some important steps to root out sexual assault in the military. The President has spoken very forcefully as the Commander-in-Chief about those efforts.
The administration has worked hard to prevent — to build awareness and put in place programs to prevent sexual assault on college campuses across the country. And the President has played a leading role in the “It’s On Us” campaign, which makes clear that all of us have a responsibility to step up and to speak out to ensure the safety of people in our community. And this is an issue that the President feels strongly about and he’s spoken forcefully about it in the past, and that continues to be true to this day.
Q And revoking a medal like this would be unprecedented, I understand. Is it possible, do you know? Is it legally possible for it to be pulled back?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that, but we can look into that for you.
Q Follow-up question please, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come back to you.
Q First I wanted to discuss about the Stock Exchange. I’m wondering if you guys are anticipating any sort of federal investigation into what’s happened, whether from the SEC or the Treasury Department.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I’m not aware of a federal investigation. We’re just a couple hours into the situation, but obviously the Securities and Exchange Commission will be closely monitoring this situation, and so if there were to be an investigation, I assume it would fall under their jurisdiction. So I’d be sure to check with them before the end of the day.
But obviously the Department of Homeland Security has some equities in this as well. I’m not aware of anything that’s planned right now, but we’re obviously in the very early stages of this.
Q On the Chinese stock market, Secretary Lew said earlier today that he wasn’t worried about the immediate impact but that could sort of slow important financial reforms within China because it could, I guess, keep the Chinese from pivoting towards a more market-based economy. Is there anything that the White House or the federal government is doing to encourage China to continue to take those market reforms despite some of the turbulence in their stock market?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not aware of any specific conversations that have arisen in the last five or six days that we’ve seen this renewed volatility in the securities markets in China. But it has been a consistent message that’s been delivered by U.S. officials about the importance of these kinds of economic reforms being effectively implemented in China.
The United States has — and I believe this is true even of the previous administration — has made the case to China that it’s not just in the best interest of the global economy, it’s actually in the best interests of the Chinese economy for these kinds of reforms to be implemented; that we could actually make some progress in stabilizing the economy over the longer term if they were able to effectively implement these kinds of reforms.
I’m confident this is the kind of thing that was discussed at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue that was hosted here in Washington last month, where both Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lew had the opportunity to meet with their counterparts. But I’m confident that officials at the Treasury Department could tell you a little bit more about those conversations that Secretary Lew had with his counterpart.
Q And then on Puerto Rico, Senators Schumer and Blumenthal said that they’re going to introduce a bill on Chapter 9 access to mirror a bill in the House that’s being supported by Nancy Pelosi and others. I know that you guys have said that this is something that you want Congress to look at, but I’m wondering was this, first, a topic of discussion between the President and those senators last night, and secondly, whether now that there’s — kind of more concrete details are coming out whether you can fully endorse the effort that’s being championed by Democrats.
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t attend the meeting that the President had with Democratic senators here yesterday, but I got a pretty detailed readout of the meeting. A discussion of Puerto Rico was not included in the detailed readout that I received, so I don’t think that it came up. If it did, it didn’t come up in the context of an extensive discussion.
But, you’re right, we have been, for the better part of a week and a half here, been suggesting that this is something that Congress should take a careful look at and that we’d be willing to work with them on it, because it would ensure that Puerto Rico would have access to some greater tools to deal with some of the financial challenges that they’re experiencing right now.
And so I haven’t seen the specific piece of legislation that you just referenced, but I’m confident that White House officials will take a close look at it.
Q Do you want to share all the details with us on that meeting that you were — (laughter) — or any more details on that —
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see what happens over the course of the briefing. Thanks, Justin.
Q Josh, I want to go back to what Jim asked. With your answer, it seems this administration is well aware of the news reports about Bill Cosby, this iconic man who now — information has been released that he, indeed, gave Quaaludes to women. What is the President saying about this, particularly as he is someone who has promoted women and girls? And as you said, he has fought against issues of sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. What is he personally saying about this, as Bill Cosby is an iconic person throughout the years, and globally, not just in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I believe the last time the President talked about this was he was asked about it in an interview with Univision back in December. So you can take a look at the President’s comments at that point. I haven’t spoken to him since these latest revelations that were reported publicly in the last couple of days.
Q But with this — and going back to Jim’s question — is it out of the realm of possibility? Because of this — and again, the times that we’re in, the fact that there is a push for women and girls in this administration, and the fact that you are countering sexual assaults — with somebody like this, this could be a very big statement. Would the administration consider revoking his medal from the White House, from the Bush administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned to Jim, I don’t know whether or not it’s legally possible to do so. But —
Q Can you investigate the possibility, because, again, of what I asked?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll see if we can get an answer to the question that you’ve asked.
Q Also, with everything that’s going on on the racial front, there has been a call by an organization under the name of John Hope Franklin, a gentleman who headed former President Bill Clinton’s efforts on race, his race initiative — they’re calling for a conversation on race. I know President Obama, at the funeral of — when he delivered the eulogy, saying that he was not looking for conversation on race — that they felt — they feel that this is the time for it, especially with all the divisive comments that are coming — we have Donald Trump, we have this and that person, and they’re feeling that it’s time for a conversation on race. And this President is the moral leader to be able to do that. What do you say to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I recall from the President’s remarks a couple of weeks ago, the President says we’ve been talking about race and that it’s time for the nation to sort of consider what that discussion actually means when it comes to trying to make our country more fair, more just, an essentially a more perfect union. And that’s something the President thinks about every single day. And I think it’s something that a lot of Americans think about every single day.
Q And lastly, on that point, I talked to an NAACP board member, Dr. Amos Brown, who was one of the students of Dr. Martin Luther King for that one year at Morehouse College, and he said people like Donald Trump — the comments that Donald Trump are making, the divisive comments are things that perpetuated Dylann Roof to commit the murders that he did in South Carolina. What do you say to people who have that microphone right now, who have that podium, to be able to speak — and people are listening, and the comments people are taking in — what do you say to people like Dr. Brown and other people who feel that this is not the time for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve studiously avoided — with a lot of success — responding to comments and, in some cases, outrageous claims made by possible presidential candidates. So I think this falls pretty cleanly in that category.
Q He’s not a possible — he is a presidential candidate now and he is making strong statements against a community that this President is embracing.
MR. EARNEST: I think he has gotten all the attention and response that he is going to get, and I’m not going to add to it.
Q So there were three episodes today that got a lot of people’s attention — Wall Street Journal, United Airlines, New York Stock Exchange. Was the President briefed on all three, and is he sharing the federal law enforcement interpretation currently that these are all coincidental? Just to clarify all that.
MR. EARNEST: The President was also briefed on the incident at United Airlines. At United Airlines, the readout is quite similar — that there’s no indication at this point either that there is malicious activity involved or that it was related to any other of the high-profile technology issues that have cropped up today. I don’t know whether there was a conversation about the Wall Street Journal website, or not.
Q That this appears to be coincidental and not based on malicious intent.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, there is no indication that it’s based on malicious intent or that these events are related.
Q Let’s talk about something that did have malicious intent behind it. Have you developed any more information that you can share with us — because you were not, the last time we raised this with you — about the OPM and Interior Department hacks either in scale, origination, or damage?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have more information to share with you in terms of the assessment about the scope of this particular incident. But I know that our officials who are taking a look at this are working hard to get to a place where they can provide additional information.
Q Is there any timetable of that that you can share with us?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a specific timetable for you. This is a priority for them; that we have made clear that when we investigate incidents like this, we want to try to share as much information as we can both with those who have been affected but also with the public. And so that continues to be a priority, and so I would expect that we’ll have some more information on this soon.
Q When you referred to the Greek economic conversations, you seemed to be making if not light, at least in a low-level way, mocking some of the hype around the potential downside to this, or the calamity that has crept into some of the headlines. Is that because the President is of the mind, based on his conversations, that this is going to get worked out and that all of the fear associated with what might or might not happen is overblown?
MR. EARNEST: Major, I didn’t mean to leave you with the impression that we somehow don’t take this seriously. I think what I was referring to is that there have been over the course of the rancorous negotiations, not just over the last several years but also over the last several weeks, some colorful displays of disagreement and conflict, and I was making perhaps too light a reference to those actions and, in some cases, comments.
What we have said is that when it comes to the U.S. economy, there is very little direct risk to the U.S. economy from the Greek economy — or direct exposure for the U.S. economy to the Greek economy. Obviously, the risk that we’re concerned about is the impact that some additional volatility in the European economy could have on the U.S. economy. Obviously, we do have an important economic relationship with Europe, particularly when it comes to exports, and so we’re very mindful of that. And that’s why we monitor significant financial events on the European continent, and certainly the ongoing negotiations between Greece and their creditors would fall in that category.
Q But you have well-deserved reputation — you and this administration — of sometimes reminding us that we can get a little over-cooked on certain things. It almost sounded to me today as if you were trying to say the President is of a mind that because of the conversations he’s had after the referendum and if the negotiations are continuing, it is his belief this is going to be worked out. He is not anxious about all of this falling apart. Is that a fair interpretation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, I don’t think I would interpret my comments that way. I think this is something that we continue to be concerned about, but we continue to take solace in the fact that it is in the clear, collective interest of all those who are sitting around the negotiating table to resolve this in a way that includes Greece — continues to include Greece in Europe’s currency union. And we’re hopeful that that’s the way the situation will be resolved. But it’s going to require all sides to come together around a package of reforms and financing that would allow Greece to resume a path of debt sustainability and economic growth.
Q Former Attorney General Holder said something a couple of days ago that I haven’t had a chance to ask you about. And there were few people in the Cabinet closer to the President than Eric Holder; he’s held in incredibly high regard by the President, by those who work closest with him. And he said “it is a possibility” — direct quote — that Eric Snowden could obtain a plea agreement through the Justice Department and that he created “a necessary debate on surveillance and national security in this country.” Does the President agree with both of those statements? It’s hard to hear Eric Holder say that and believe he is not in some way, shape or form, trying to represent a change in thinking within this White House as it regards Eric Snowden.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d caution you against reading his comments in that way. As it relates to his treatment in the criminal justice system, that’s something that I’m going to reserve comment on, simply because it is the view of this administration that Mr. Snowden has been charged with very serious crimes and we believe that he should return to the United States to face those charges. If he were to do so, he would be afforded all of the rights to due process that are given to other American citizens. And I don’t have any information to share about whether or not there are even any ongoing negotiations that could allow that to come about.
As it relates to the broader political debate that was spawned after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, we’ve been clear that if Mr. Snowden had concerns — and it’s evident that he did — that there was and there continue to be proper channels for expressing that concern in a way that doesn’t do the significant damage to the national security of the United States that was brought about by the disclosures that Mr. Snowden made.
And this administration has worked hard to make sure that we’re protecting whistleblowers and others who may have concerns about U.S. government activity, and the President has also shown a responsiveness to the broader public concerns that have been expressed in the context of this political debate. In fact, with the most recent renewal of some of our national security infrastructure’s surveillance programs, there are some significant reforms that have been put in place. And I think that is a testament to the President’s commitment to making sure that we strike this appropriate balance between protecting the privacy of the American people but also protecting the national security of the country.
Q When the former Attorney General says it’s a possibility there could be a plea agreement, is that just an ill-informed speculation on his part?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously it’s informed based on his own experience working in the administration. But those kinds of decisions are decisions that are made — those prosecutorial decisions are decisions that are made by the Department of Justice. So he would have some insight into that process that I would not have.
Q But we should not interpret it as something that is either part of ongoing conversations or a new softening of the administration to this question of bringing him home and pleading this out?
MR. EARNEST: I think you should interpret it as an expression of Mr. Holder’s personal opinion, but not as the signaling of a change in policy.
Q Thanks. Affirmatively furthering fair housing — we actually heard about it back in 2013. I wanted to have you address some of the concerns that a lot of Americans have that this is social engineering, sort of an administration overreach. What would you say to Americans who have, I think, legitimate concerns that this is somehow going to change their neighborhood, or change the way that their towns and cities are operating?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think the first thing that people should understand is that the administration continues to believe that zoning is and should remain a local power. This rule, that is based on a law that’s been on the books for 50 years, does not infringe on local decision-making. In fact, it actually supports decision-making and ensures that more resources and more data can be provided to local officials as they make land use and zoning decisions.
And that is what we believe is the proper role of the federal government as we work with state and local officials to accomplish what I think we all share as a priority, which is ensuring affordable, quality housing for every single American.
Q So when local leaders say this will impact the way we make our own decisions with the power of the purse, they’re not being accurate?
MR. EARNEST: What this administration believes — and this is something that we’ve long believed — is that zoning is and should remain a local power. And what the Department of Housing and Urban Development can provide is additional data, additional tools, and additional guidance to local officials who we know share the goal of ensuring that everyone has access to quality, affordable housing.
Q I’d like to ask you about the Iran talks. And someone sort of put it in, I thought, a pretty unique way. Is this a win-win for the administration if the talks break down or go forward? Because if they don’t happen, he could — the President could then say, well, I walked away from a bad deal. If they do go forward, he can say, I did something transformative. Is that being too cynical?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s not the way that we see it. Our preference would be for Iran to sign on the dotted line of a final agreement that reflects the political commitments that they reached in Switzerland back in April.
And the United States, working with our P5+1 partners, has succeeded in getting Iran to the negotiating table, and laying out a clear mechanism for shutting off every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, and implementing the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement. But ultimately, it’s going to require Iran to decide whether or not they’re willing to take on those commitments.
And our hope is that they will choose to do that. But ultimately, the President has made clear that if they choose not to do that that having no deal at all is far better than agreeing to a bad deal.
Q Because the way you laid it out was, we’ll walk away, we have snapback provisions if they break the deal. So it kind of looks like this is a win no matter what.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what it’s an indication is that the ball is in the court of the Iranians. That we — and when I say “we” I don’t just mean the United States and the administration — I mean the United States and some of our closest allies and partners around the world have made a compelling case to Iran that it is time for them to make serious commitments about the peaceful nature of their nuclear program, to verify that they will not acquire a nuclear weapon, and to agree to a set of verification measures that would ensure their compliance with the agreement.
No longer — we’re not going to put ourselves in a situation where we’re just going to take Iran’s word for it. We’re not going to sign on the dotted line and go our separate ways. We’re going to sign on the dotted line and we’re going to send international inspectors to Iran so they can keep eyes on Iran’s nuclear program and verify their ongoing compliance with the agreement.
Q Last one. I want to ask you — and I know DOD will address this as well — 40,000 Army ranks cut, an additional 17,000-plus civilian Army employees. There are a number of small communities — and large — that are gravely concerned about the impact economically this will have, to say nothing of the morale. What’s the mindset and the rationale behind making such dramatic cuts, especially given all that we’re facing in the world right now militarily?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that a couple of ways, Kevin. The first is that this is part of a long-planned drawdown and a multi-year process as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review. This is an interagency effort — and obviously the President has confidence in the Army’s continued ability to fight and win our nation’s wars. And obviously, our men and women in uniform make significant sacrifices to ensure that we enjoy these freedoms and that we have these unique capabilities. And the Commander-in-Chief is grateful for the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
But these are steps that we’re taking consistent with the view of our civilian and uniform military leadership about the threats that the country faces, and the need to ensure that our fighting force is composed in a way that’s consistent with those threats. And the fact is it’s not uncommon to see these kinds of fluctuations when it comes to the number of or the size of the force. And it’s a testament to the President following through on the commitment that he made at the beginning of his presidency to responsibly withdraw troops from Iraq and to make some responsible decisions about Afghanistan that has reduced our military footprint and continues to put us on a path of reducing the number of military personnel that are committed to that country, as well. And this reflects the changing requirements that the United States Army must uphold.
Q What about the communities, though? They’re going to be severely impacted. You do know that.
MR. EARNEST: And what I would say about that is that this is part of the kind of decision-making that the military has to go through on a regular basis, and this reflects a long-planned, multi-year process for taking a look at exactly what the needs are of the United States military and this reflects the decision that was made by the uniformed and civilian military leadership.
Q Let me just follow up, if I can, on the three cyber incidents today, which are the New York Stock Exchange, United and the Wall Street Journal. And even though there are no indications that there were bad actors involved here, I wonder where the White House is on the cybersecurity? Does this change the prioritization since it’s back in the conversation? And would you assume that this will be a major topic when he meets with Secretary Lew?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I’ll tell you that this is a top policy priority of this administration even when it’s not in the news. The President continues to be very mindful of the risk associated with activity in cyberspace.
And as Major alluded to in his questioning, we’re very mindful of the risk that U.S. government computer systems face from determined and creative adversaries that would love to have access to the information that’s stored on those computer networks. We’re mindful of the kinds of activities that we’ve seen from adversaries in cyberspace against private U.S. interests, as well. And one of the things that this administration has done is put forward specific legislation to the United States Congress that would improve the flow of information between public and private entities when it comes to cybersecurity.
And one of the things that our cybersecurity professionals tell us is that quickly sharing information is critical to our ability to defend both public and private computer networks; that when our adversaries are able to exploit a particular flaw in one computer network, we need to make sure that that information is quickly communicated to law enforcement officials both so they can help the operators of that one network respond to that incident and contain the damage, but also communicate with public and private networks all across the country to ensure they’re aware of this particular tactic and can bolster their defenses against it.
And the fact is we would like to see Congress pass that legislation that we moved up to Capitol Hill six months ago. And it’s long overdue for Congress to take the kinds of actions that we believe are necessary to keep the American people and their data safe in cyberspace.
Q Is there anything that’s been done recently on that front then? Three years, three times it’s failed. Did pass in the House, but it — was it part of the conversation last night?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that it was part of the conversation that the President had with Democratic senators yesterday. But this continues to be an important priority, and we’d like to see some congressional action.
Q And in terms of the average American who has felt the impact of many of these breaches, whether it was Target, or insurance companies, or now people who, frankly, were left stranded for a while this morning by United or couldn’t make trades — there’s also a question of functionality. And I wonder if you could speak to the role that the federal government plays in ensuring that, especially in a time where it does seem to a lot of people like it’s extremely difficult to keep up with where our dependence on the Internet is going.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would want to draw a distinction between the technical issues that were —
Q — functionality and economic —
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes, the technical issues that were experienced at United were different than the kind of cyber-attacks that Target and others entities have faced.
And what we have — what the administration has made a priority is trying to help computer systems across the country bolster their defenses against malicious cyber activity. And we’ve taken some important steps to try to do that. The best example of that is that there are five Chinese military officials that were indicated by the Justice Department a year or two ago because of their conduct in cyberspace. That’s an indication that we take this quite seriously and that the U.S. government and that our federal prosecutors, in particular, are willing to take serious steps to try to go after those adversaries that are seeking to either steal information or to wreak havoc in cyberspace. And we’re aware of the threat those individuals pose.
At the same time, there is a question about the basic infrastructure and architecture of the country. And while roads and bridges and railways and runways are critical to the basic infrastructure of the country, so, too, is the infrastructure of the Internet. And making sure that that equipment and that software is up to date and reflects the burden that we place on the modern computer infrastructure of the country is also important and something that we’re mindful of.
MR. EARNEST: But let me just finish by saying at this point it’s too early to tell, though, what sort of impact — whether that basic computer infrastructure was in any way responsible for some of high-profile, technical problems that emerged today.
Q And one last question on — back when the President was talking about the hack that affected 4 million federal workers, he talked about a problem within the federal government of some very old systems. And I’m wondering if you have any update where the government is — where the federal government is on improving those systems.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the Office of Management and Budget has been engaged in an effort to streamline the information technology procurement process at the federal government. And what an initial review found is that oftentimes the procurement process required so much time that by the time the procurement process concluded and a purchase was ready to be made, that the purchase was of either software or equipment that, over the course of time that the procurement process had lasted, had become if not obsolete, at least out of date. And that’s an indication that buying office furniture is different than buying computer software. And we need to make sure that we have rules that govern the federal procurement process that reflect that.
There are obviously a lot of equities involved. We also want to make sure that we’re getting the best bang for the buck when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars. And we also want to make sure that we are capitalizing on all of the built-in advantages that are enjoyed by the federal government, including bulk purchasing.
So there are a lot of conflicting interests here, but this is something that we have taken a close look at because it’s clear that some improvements can be made in a way that would benefit taxpayers and the service that they receive from their federal government.
Q Back to Greece. All the European countries are far from being on the same wavelength. The President had a chance to talk to Chancellor Merkel several times over the past week. Does he believe she should be more flexible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did have the opportunity to speak to her yesterday, and it was not the first time that they’ve discussed this issue. I know that they had an opportunity to discuss this when the President was in Germany just about a month ago at the G7 summit. And I know that they discussed this issue when Chancellor Merkel visited the White House earlier this year. So this is — and those are just the examples of times in which they discussed the issue this year.
I know that over the last several years this is something that they’ve had the opportunity to discuss on a number of occasions. And I don’t want to violate the confidentiality of two world leaders having a private conversation, but I can tell you that the general message that the President has conveyed to her in private is consistent with what we’ve said in public, and that is it’s our view that it’s in the collective interest of all of those involved to resolve this in a way that ends with Greece remaining part of Europe’s currency union.
The President has acknowledged at every turn that this is not a situation that the United States can or wants to solve for them. By the way, there’s no indication that the Europeans would like the United States to step in and solve what is a European problem. And the President has been direct about his view that the best path to an agreement is one that centers on a package of reforms and financing that puts Greece back in range of debt sustainability and economic growth.
And that’s the way that we can — that Europe can remain as integrated and united and as strong as they would like to be. And the President has been blunt about his view that a strong, integrated, highly functioning, prosperous Europe is within the clear national security interest of the United States. And that’s why the United States has played the role that we have in trying to encourage all the parties to come together and to facilitate an agreement.
Q Following up on that, Secretary Lew said this morning that Europe needed to restructure Greece’s debt to keep the country in the Eurozone. And it was the first time we kind of heard him use that language — “restructuring the debt.” When Obama spoke to Chancellor Merkel yesterday, did he signal that the U.S. was going to express that view publicly, or is that a message that you’ve been delivering to other world leaders that you want to see the debt restructured?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I won’t get into the details of the conversations that the President had with Chancellor Merkel beyond what I just told Jerome. For Secretary Lew’s comments, I didn’t see them firsthand, but based on the significant number of conversations that I’ve had with him over the last several days about these issues, it strikes me that those comments that you’ve read are consistent with what we’ve said about the need for an agreement around a package of reforms and financing that would put Greece back on a path to both economic growth and debt sustainability. And I think it’s that last factor that Secretary Lew was apparently emphasizing in at least that part of his remarks this morning.
Q Three high-profile glitches all in one day affecting some pretty major institutions in this country — that’s not suspicious?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, what I can tell you is that our professionals have looked at this and, more importantly, the information technology professionals at the New York Stock Exchange, at United Airlines and the Wall Street Journal have been looking at this, too. And what I can tell you is that as it relates to at least the New York Stock Exchange and United Airlines, that there’s no indication at this point of any sort of malicious activity being responsible for the technical issues that they’ve endured today. I can also —
Q Why come out so quickly and make that kind of statement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we endeavor to share as much information as possible with the public. And in this case, this is what our experts have concluded. The other thing that’s important is that our experts have also concluded that the two incidents, both at the New York Stock Exchange and at United Airlines, are neither attributable to a malicious actor, they’re also not related to each other. And these are just two separate incidents.
Q High degree of confidence, you would say, inside this administration these are just glitches?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that is the assessment of our folks who have taken a look at this. But obviously, we’re going to continue to monitor this situation. I know that even as the situation at the New York Stock Exchange is something that’s still being worked on, that I know that the SCC is closely monitoring their progress in trying to get the system back up and running.
Q I want to ask you something about what Hillary Clinton said yesterday to CNN about her use of a private email server to conduct her correspondence while at the State Department. She said, “Everything I did was permitted. There was no law, there was no regulation, there was nothing that did not give me the full authority to decide how I was going to communicate. Previous Secretaries of State have said they did the same thing.” Is that true? All that true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, what we have focused on is the —
Q I know, but is that true? Is that a true statement? “There was no law, there was no regulation, there was nothing that did not give me the full authority to decide how I was going to communicate.” Fact check — true? Mostly true?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any reason to contradict what Secretary Clinton has said. What we have focused on is the need for those communications to be properly archived and maintained at the agency so that they can be responsive to requests from the public or from Congress for that information. And it’s my understanding that’s what Secretary Clinton has done by taking the emails that were contained on her private server and forwarding those that were related to her official business as Secretary of State to the State Department so that they could be used to respond to requests for information from Congress or the public.
And Secretary Clinton did take the extraordinary step of suggesting that the State Department shouldn’t just release those emails that are relevant to specific requests, but rather that they should work to declassify and release all of that information. And that’s what the State Department is doing, consistent with her request, and consistent with the priority that this administration has placed on transparency.
Q And what lessons would you say have been learned, though, through this whole controversy regarding her emails, do you think? Are there any lessons to be learned about how she handled this?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe that’s a question that you guys could have asked in the interview. (Laughter.)
Q Well, I don’t know, it’s your administration, so I’m asking you if the administration feels there have been any lessons that have been learned.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, none that I can think of, I guess.
Q Should a future Secretary of State be able to conduct his or her business in that fashion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jim, what we have told everybody — whether they’re the Secretary of State or they’re somebody answering the phone for the Secretary of State — that they should use their official government email account for official government business. And in those instances where they don’t, it’s important that the information or the business that’s transacted on a personal email system or on a private email server is then shared with the State Department so that information can be properly archived. And, again, based on everything I know about this situation, that’s exactly what Secretary Clinton did.
Q Josh, can you give us a readout of the meeting last night with the Senate Democrats, particularly vis-à-vis the Iran talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bob, this was an opportunity for the President to spend some time talking to Senate Democrats about some of his legislative priorities and to take some questions from those who attended. It’s my understanding that at the end of his remarks yesterday, the President had an opportunity to update the gathering of Democratic senators on the current status of the talks on Vienna. But the truth is the update that he gave them is not a whole lot different than the updates that I’ve been sharing with you over the last several days.
Q Was Senator Schumer there, do you know?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if he was there. But I’m sure his office would be happy to confirm for you one way or the other.
Q But you don’t know if he spoke one-on-one with anybody who had particular concerns about Iran?
MR. EARNEST: No, not that I’m aware of. Not that I’m aware of.
Q Can I just follow up real quick and then ask a question? Can you just describe the format? The President — this was a reception. It was in the — can you just describe the setting? And then he spoke to them and he took questions — or not?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I wasn’t there, but the way that it was described to me was that it was a working reception — which I observed to somebody sounds like the worst of both worlds. (Laughter.)
Q Sounds like Washington.
MR. EARNEST: I guess it does. I guess it does. But I think the reason it was described that way is that there was food and drink that was served, but the principal focus of the event was the President’s remarks and then an opportunity for him to take questions from the assembled group. And I do think that the President had the opportunity to spend a little time with members one-on-one afterwards in a less formal way. I know that there were some Cabinet officials and White House officials who were there as well.
Q And just related to that, did they talk at any length about their ambition — shared ambition to gain seats in the Senate in the next election?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think what they were focused on was the legislative priorities. I’m not sure if there was an extensive discussion of politics or not.
Q As you know, there’s, I don’t know, 200 or so state, local jurisdictions that have enacted laws or policies to not cooperate with DHS, with immigration — San Francisco being one. And the term is often called “sanctuary city.” Does the President approve of or embrace those cities and communities that have adopted these policies or laws?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alexis, one of the important executive actions that the President announced back in November was a significant change to the Secure Communities program. And the Secure Communities program was essentially the way that — it was essentially the program that codified the relationship between local law enforcement authorities and federal immigration enforcement authorities.
And there was lots of dissatisfaction I think on both ends of that relationship about the Secure Communities program. And so what the President announced back in November was essentially an overhaul of that system. He threw out the Secure Communities program and put in place something called the Priority Enforcement program that was designed to improve coordination and allow local jurisdictions to exercise more flexibility in working with the federal government on these issues.
And the President did that — undertook that change with an eye toward making sure that we’re concentrating our limited federal law enforcement assets on deporting criminals, those who pose a threat to the community and those who may pose a threat to national security. And too often, we saw a broken immigration system that allowed those enforcement resources to be diluted by being focused on essentially hardworking people who were just trying to provide for their families and that it resulted in a situation where every bit as much attention was focused on separating families as deporting felons. And the President didn’t believe that that made a lot of sense. It certainly isn’t consistent with the kinds of values that we hold dear in this country and it certainly is not consistent with a common-sense assessment about what’s going to best protect the American people.
And so this Priority Enforcement program was put in place to improve the coordination between state — I’m sorry, between federal and local law enforcement, and make sure that these law enforcement resources were being focused on the greatest need, which is deporting those individuals that pose the greatest threat to communities across the country or to the country itself.
Q So back to the situation in San Francisco recently that was much in the news. Does the President believe that the sheriff in San Francisco made a mistake, or it should have been handled differently? What’s his feeling now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to this specific case, I’m just not going to be able to talk about the specific details of this matter. But the Department of Homeland Security may be able to share more with you.
Francesca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q All right, thanks, Josh. Earlier this morning, in a national security speech, Senator Lindsey Graham was talking about immigration, but on a different subject. He was talking about comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. And as you know, he was one of the leaders who did try to pass the bill that the President had supported at that time. But he said today that the President didn’t lift a finger when he came into office. In 2009, he could have tried to help pass comprehensive immigration reform then, but he didn’t lift a — d-a-m-n — I’m not sure if I can say that word in here — (laughter) — d-a-m-n finger is actually what he said. (Laughter.) This is a PG-13 briefing.
MR. EARNEST: There you go.
Q But I just wanted to get your take on that and see if you felt that characterization was accurate.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s not accurate. I think what is a fair assessment of the situation is the general recognition that when this President took office in 2009, this country was facing an historic recession and, in fact, our country was on the verge of a second Great Depression. And that’s where the President concentrated his policy focus.
And by focusing as much as he did on trying to rescue the U.S. economy, we actually see the fruits of that labor — that we are now in the midst of the strongest continuous streak of job growth in this country in history. And it’s a testament to the importance of those early efforts, but also to the success of that effort by the President.
Now, what’s also true is that, in 2013, the President made clear — shortly after the election — that immigration reform would be a priority. And you’ll recall that in early January of 2013, the President traveled to Las Vegas where he delivered a speech vowing to work closely with Democrats and Republicans to bring together a bipartisan package of common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform that would be in the best interests of our national security and the best interests of our economy.
That’s what this administration did. We worked closely with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate — including Senator Graham, to his credit. He was an effective partner with the administration on this. And that essentially led to a breakthrough in the Senate that we saw a piece of legislation get nearly 70 votes for a common-sense package of immigration reforms.
Now, the President didn’t believe that that was a perfect piece of legislation, but it did generally reflect a bipartisan agreement and would make a substantial difference in improving border security. It made a historic investment in border security. But it also imposed some reforms to our immigration system that would have been good for our economy, as well.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that everybody who looked at this — just about everybody who looked at this, at least — concluded that there was majority support for this legislation in the House of Representatives, the House Republican leadership made a conscious decision to not allow this common-sense, bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate to come up for a vote in the House.
So we do continue to deal with a broken immigration system. And that quite simply is the fault of House Republicans who blocked a common-sense measure that would have improved the program.
Q Sure. But quickly going back to 2009, which was what the Senator was specifically talking about, you’re not necessarily disagreeing that the President didn’t focus on that back in 2009. It sounded like to me you were saying that he didn’t have time, he couldn’t. He was busy with the economy. That’s not necessarily to say that Senator Graham is entirely wrong in his take.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, to suggest that the President didn’t do anything on immigration reform in early 2009 is false. The President was a strong supporter of immigration reform then. But what also is a fact is the President had a significant crisis on his hands in terms of the state of the U.S. economy at the time that he took office, and that is what he was focused on.
But again, the only reason that we don’t have common-sense immigration reform right now that would be good for national security, that would be good for public safety, that would be good for our economy, that would be good for deficit reduction, is because House Republicans made a cynical, political decision to block it. And that’s unfortunate, but it is a fact of life.
And it sounds like Senator Graham has the same lament that I do in that regard.
So thanks, everybody.
2:35 P.M. EDT