Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 26 , 2016 – 1:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. I guess many of you are attending the briefing because your colleagues were over on the trip last week, but obviously it was an opportunity that the President had to do a lot of important work with our allies and partners around the world on a range of issues. So it was a successful trip, and I’m happy to talk about that or anything else that may be on your mind today.
So, Josh, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Welcome back, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you.
Q South Korea says that North Korea is on the verge of a fifth nuclear test. I was wondering whether the U.S. can confirm that you’re seeing those preparations take place, and what kind of a U.S. response there would be to such an action.
MR. EARNEST: Josh, at this point I don’t have a new assessment to share in terms of potential steps that North Korea could potentially take. Over the last several months, we’ve seen them engage in a series of actions that are in direct contradiction to U.N. Security Council resolutions. We have expressed our strong concern about those provocative actions. We have marshalled the international community to respond accordingly. And earlier this year, there was a response from the United Nations that actually put in place the farthest-reaching sanctions against North Korea that targeted specific elements of their economy, such as it is, that we know are used to fund these illicit activities.
So we’re going to continue to ramp up the pressure on the North Korean regime. We’re going to continue to work closely with the Chinese government that has more influence with the North Korean government than any other country in the world. And we’re going to continue to make clear that the path that North Korea must choose to rejoin the international community is one that involves them committing to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and come into compliance with their international obligations.
Q I wanted to ask you about a letter that Senators Gillibrand and Grassley sent to the President asking them to — asking the White House to investigate why Pentagon officials misled Congress about sexual assault cases. Essentially, the information that’s come to light shows that the way that the Pentagon characterized the cases undermined efforts to try and perform that process — it takes the power away from commanders. Is there any follow-up in the White House to that letter? Do you guys plan to heed the senators’ call for an investigation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific response to the letter to share at this point. Obviously this question is the subject of some disagreement between officials at the Department of Defense and members of Congress. I know leading up to the production of this information there were extensive negotiations between members of Congress and the Department of Defense about this data. So this dispute and the way it’s being characterized differently by the two parties is not new.
The President has made clear that this is a top priority of the Commander-in-Chief. You’ve heard the President speak on a number of occasions quite powerfully about the need to eradicate sexual assault from the military. The President has talked movingly about how victims in the United States military should understand that the Commander-in-Chief has their back, and the President has made clear to the civilian and military leadership at the Department of Defense that eradicating sexual assault from the military is a top priority.
The President had an opportunity to reinforce that priority at the meeting that he convened with combatant commanders from around the world here at the White House earlier this month. The President convened that meeting on April 6th in the Cabinet Room, and this was a conversation that the President had with the Secretary of Defense that all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commanders. And this continues to be a top priority. And the President anticipates and expects that the leadership will follow through on reforms and other appropriate steps based on the President making this a priority.
Q But, Josh, I mean, misleading members of Congress is a pretty serious charge. Does the White House have any concerns about the veracity of the information that Pentagon officials provided in testimony to members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Based on what I have read in the reports is that members of Congress have expressed concerns about the way that the information was presented. At the same time, I’ve seen in in those reports that Department of Defense officials have characterized that material as accurate.
Q So you’re siding with the Pentagon that —
MR. EARNEST: What I’m observing at this point is that this information has been the subject of long-running controversy between Congress and the Department of Defense. And while this is an important issue, the difference of agreement about the presentation of this information is something that they’re going to have to resolve between Congress and the Department of Defense.
It’s important that this bureaucratic dispute not overshadow the way that the President has made this a top priority when it comes to military policy. And the President has spoken on this publicly on a number of occasions, and even in his private meetings with the top leaders in the military, the President time and time again makes clear that the Commander-in-Chief has made this a priority and expects military leadership to follow through with the necessary steps to eliminate sexual assault from the military.
Q And on the campaign trail, Donald Trump said today that Hillary Clinton has only gotten to where she’s gotten because she’s played the woman card. Any thoughts about that statement from the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. I think Secretary Clinton and her team can certainly speak to her qualifications and her credentials, and I don’t need to weigh in.
Q I wanted to ask about a division between the two governments in Libya. Evidently, today, the government in eastern Libya shipped a cargo of crude oil, much to the chagrin of the government in Tripoli. Does the administration have a reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen those specific reports. I can tell you that the United States was strongly supportive of the U.N. process that led to the creation of the Government of National Accord that does now reside in Tripoli. We’ve also been pretty candid about the significant challenges that are facing that newly created government.
Libya is a unique country. It was one that was presided over by an autocratic dictator for four decades. And the Qaddafi regime succeeded in essentially eroding any pillar of civil society or of government inside that country. And so when he was deposed, the country was struggling and continues to struggle with rebuilding those institutions that are critical to governing a large country like Libya.
And part of what the Government of National Accord is facing is building support among the variety of groups that have sprouted up to try to fill that vacuum. Some of them are armed groups. In other cases, there are fledgling attempts to form some substance or some entity that looks like a government. And the international community, including the United States, continues to support the effort of the GNA to unify that country. And that obviously is going to raise significant questions about security and providing security for the country. It also is going to raise important economic questions like how to effectively manage the oil supply in Cuba — I’m sorry — in Libya that obviously has significant consequences for that country’s economy.
So these are just some of the significant challenges that are facing the government. And the United States, the United Nations, and other countries around the world are strongly supportive of the GNA’s efforts. We do not anticipate that they’re going to succeed in unifying that country and restoring order to the chaos overnight. But over time, and with a commitment to basic principles, they will be successful.
Q U.S. Special Forces have stopped another cargo — before coming from that government. Is that an option here?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of a discussion about that, but, again, I didn’t have a debriefing on this today because I hadn’t seen the report.
Q Turning to refugee issues in Kansas. Governor Brownback told the administration today that Kansas will withdraw from the U.S. relocation program for refugees. Do you have a reaction to that? And what would this mean, practically? That no refugees would end up in Kansas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen his letter, so we’ll have to take a look at the letter and get back to you on that.
Q And just one more on Iran. Heavy-water purchase last week. The Department of Energy said at the time that it’s not going to be — the U.S. is not going to be the customer for the heavy-water forever. And Tom Cotton, Senator Cotton has introduced an amendment saying no U.S. dollars would go to another purchase. How confident is the U.S. that another country will step up and make more of these purchases?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly not an expert on the global market for heavy-water. But I can tell you that the United States, through the Department of Energy, did make this properly licensed purchase of about 32 metric tons of heavy-water. There is a market for heavy-water, particularly when it comes to applications related to industry and research here in the United States. And that’s how that material will be used by the Department of Energy — to essentially sell it at market prices to entities that would use it for industrial or research purposes here in the United States.
I should underscore that there this is no — that heavy-water is not radioactive. It doesn’t pose any sort of public health concern. But it is valuable in terms of its use in these particular technical applications.
More generally, I can say that this is consistent with Iran fulfilling their obligations as a part of their Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This was the international deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Part of the prescribed steps that they had to take was to reduce their nuclear stockpile and that involved reducing their technological nuclear capabilities. So Iran did have to ship a bunch of its heavy-water out of the country, and that’s what they’ve done and now they’re selling off the stockpile. And the United States has purchased some of it for resale to entities in the United States that would use it for research purposes or even industrial purposes in some cases.
As it relates to Senator Cotton’s amendment, I’m not aware of what sort of impact this could potentially have. I guess I would suggest that if he has genuine concerns about this, maybe he can just write another letter to the Supreme Leader and see how far that gets him. (Laughter.)
On that note, Jon.
Q Thanks. What was the President’s reaction to the brutal killing in Bangladesh of the Foreign Service national who worked for USAID? Did he share that with you?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I can tell you that this is a murder that the United States government strongly condemns. The individual who was killed was the employee of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Bangladesh. His name was Xulhaz Mannan. Mr. Mannan served the U.S. embassy in Dhaka with distinction, and he worked on behalf of his fellow Bangladeshis as a voice for justice, equality, human rights for all, including for the local LGBT community. And while his death is obviously a significant tragedy, there are also reports that indicate that he was targeted because of his advocacy for these human rights, and that makes his death even more tragic than it seems.
Mr. Mannan set an example of dignity, courage, and selflessness, and his legacy will live on in the causes that he championed. We extend our deepest sympathies to Mr. Mannan’s loved ones as they mourn his loss. And we strongly encourage the government of Bangladesh to ensure that the perpetrators of this senseless crime are brought to justice. I can tell you that the U.S. government has already been in touch with the government of Bangladesh to make it clear that this investigation is a priority. And we are pleased to see that, so far, the government is moving forward with the kind of thorough criminal investigation that we would expect them to conduct.
Q Does the President believe that the government of Bangladesh should take a stronger public stance against these high-profile crimes? It seems like there have been a few, not just this one.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, our expectation is that the government of Bangladesh should engage in a serious criminal investigation to determine who is responsible and to bring those individuals to justice. They’ve committed a heinous crime and they should be held accountable for it.
Q One more question on Judge Garland. I believe it’s been 4i days since he was nominated. Is the pressure that the White House is putting on Republicans, is it making any sort of impact on Capitol Hill? What do you see developing over the last several weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in the last week or so we have seen some signs that Republicans continue to feel pressure from the American public as they refuse to do their job. This is a convenient opportunity for me to say that Chief Judge Garland will be participating in a number of other meetings on Capitol Hill over the course of this week. Tomorrow, Wednesday, he has meetings scheduled with Senator Lankford of Oklahoma, Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, Senator Rounds of South Dakota, and Senator Nelson of Florida. And on Thursday, he’ll meet with Senator Peters of Michigan and Senator Widen of Oregon.
So he’s going to continue to have meetings with individual senators. This is consistent with the way the process usually works. And the way the process usually works is that after these private meetings are completed that there’s an open hearing that is scheduled. And the kinds of issues that are discussed in private by the Chief Judge and individual members of the Senate are then discussed publicly. And that’s appropriate.
And there are certainly a number of Republicans — 11 — who have already met with — 11 Republican senators who have already met with Chief Judge Garland and many of them have had nice things to say about the Judge. We heard Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina indicate that Chief Judge Garland’s reputation is “beyond reproach.” Senator Portman described Chief Judge Garland as “an impressive guy.” Senator Toomey described Chief Judge Garland as “very, very smart, very knowledgeable.” And Senator Flake noted that Chief Judge Garland is “obviously a man of accomplishment and keen intellect.”
I think the question for all of these senators who have made a strong case that the American public should have a voice in this process — I think the question is why are they denying the American public the opportunity to hear directly from Chief Judge Garland? Why wouldn’t they support a hearing, particularly when they have nice things to say about him? I also understand that Senator Toomey had some criticisms to lodge against Chief Judge Garland’s record. I would actually make the case that that is all the more reason to hold a hearing.
Even across party lines, I think most Americans subscribe to this general notion of fairness, and for Senator Toomey to criticize Chief Judge Garland and his record without giving Chief Judge Garland the opportunity to answer questions about it, that’s just unfair. And it’s even worse when you consider that it’s Senator Toomey’s job to ensure that Chief Judge Garland has an opportunity to discuss these issues in public. So it’s not just unfair, it is a classic example of Washington obstruction that, frankly, I think the American people are going to be pretty dissatisfied with. And there’s plenty of public polling to indicate that that’s the case.
And, look, the message has gotten through at least in the state of Florida; you have a Republican candidate for the United States Senate who, I understand, just yesterday said, ”I do think he should have a hearing and I would like to see a vote.” That’s not a Democrat saying that. That is a Republican candidate for the United States Senate. And I think that is a pretty good piece of evidence that somebody who is obviously making a pretty direct appeal to the people of Florida that he should be the representative of their state and that legislative body that his view is consistent with the expectations of most of his — most of the citizens in his state.
And I think it’s notable that we’re not talking about a candidate for the United States Senate that’s a Democrat. We’re not even talking about a candidate for the United States Senate that’s a Republican that’s running in a blue state. We’re talking about a Republican candidate that’s running in the biggest swing state in the country, and even he is making the case that Chief Judge Garland deserves a hearing and a vote.
So I think that’s a pretty good piece of evidence that Republicans continue to feel pressure from the public. And they should. They’ve taken a position that’s stands in stark contrast to the expectations not just of a majority of Democrats and independents, but in plenty of polls there’s strong indications that the position that they’ve taken is not even approved of by a majority of Republicans.
Q Just one more, quick question. This is on a different topic. But Senator Durbin and a couple others are on Capitol Hill today calling for a ban on powered caffeine — just one teaspoon of this can kill somebody — does the White House support a ban on powered caffeine?
MR. EARNEST: I am not aware of the policy position that we’ve taken on this. But let me check with our Domestic Policy Council staff and see if there’s a position that we can particularly take.
Q Thank you. Recent reports that the White House is considering releasing the 28 pages of the joint inquiry from Congress regarding 9/11 sources of foreign support. Is there any update on that and when those 28 pages could be released?
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be clear, this would not be released from the White House.
Q But if you approved the release from Congress.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s material that is currently being reviewed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so Director Clapper’s office is currently conducting a review to determine how or whether this material could be released without compromising national security. Obviously it’s classified right now and they are engaged in a process to determine if we can declassify that information so that it could be released.
This is consistent with the process that the Director’s office undertakes whenever a piece of information is considered for declassification, and this is obviously something that they’ve been working on for a long time. I think this has been going through the process for over a year now. And I think that’s an indication of just how seriously they’re taking this matter.
I saw that Director Clapper had an opportunity just yesterday to discuss it, and he indicated that he viewed a June time frame as a realistic goal from completing the process of reviewing this information. You will have to check with his office to see whether or not — what that actually means about the process, but I think it is an indication that Director Clapper is approaching this with the seriousness that is required and that we would all expect.
Q Can this be expedited at all because of a bill that while it doesn’t directly address that — the Schumer-Cornyn bill — which would essentially allow the families of victims of terrorists killed on American soil to sue foreign governments, and Saudi Arabia has been brought up. Is that expedited this at all as sort of a carrot in a way in this ongoing discussion?
MR. EARNEST: What I can say is this. For the process and for the timeline that’s been established, I’d encourage you to check with Director Clapper’s office. I can tell you the White House has not made a request of Director Clapper with regard to the process as a result of the legislation being filed.
Q And lastly, a recent announcement — 250 more troops to Syria to combat ISIS. The President saying to “keep up the momentum.” Is there a possibility for more troops to be deployed in the near future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Luke, the President’s approach to this situation has been to direct his national security team to consider the range of elements in our strategy. And you’ll recall that it was a few months ago that the President initially announced that there would be this commitment of 50 Special Operators to Syria to see if we could deepen our coordination with the forces in Syria that are fighting ISIL. And what the Department of Defense has found is that the efforts of the preliminary commitment of Special Operators proved to be quite useful.
And through deepened coordination and better organization on the ground, we saw improved performance of those forces on the battlefield. And we saw that the United States and our coalition partners were better able to coordinate our efforts with them. And the judgment that was reached by the United States military is that an additional contingent of Special Operators moving into Syria would advance that coordination and that cooperation even further, and that that would yield even more progress on the ground. That’s why the President approved the request that the Department of Defense brought forward for that additional contingent of troops.
So, to answer your question directly, I think what that means is that if this additional commitment of additional troops yields positive results, and the Department of Defense concludes that, again, additional results could be generated with an additional commitment, then that’s something that the President would consider.
Obviously this is something that both the Department of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief would consider quite carefully given the significant risk that these Special Operators are facing. They’re not in a combat role, but they are in a role that puts them in harm’s way. They are armed for combat. They are armed to defend themselves if necessary. But the role that they have is to offer advice and assistance to forces on the ground fighting ISIL in their own country. And that has proved to be a valuable tool and one that the President is seeking to intensify.
Q Considering we don’t have a formal AUMF for Syria, are there any geographic limitations on this time of deployment? Libya has ISIS factions. We see some in Africa, as well. Is this something that the American people could expect to see in other parts of the world?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any geographic limitations that have been put in place. Obviously, each country is different, though. Libya is a good example. There are military operations that the Commander-in-Chief has ordered against ISIL targets in Libya. There have been a couple of reports of airstrikes carried out against ISIL targets that have — back in November took off the battlefield the individual who at the time was described as the most senior ISIL official in the country. There have been other strikes carried out against ISIL targets that included — or at least one instance in which a military strike was taken against an ISIL target where fighters had congregated in one location.
So the President has not hesitated to order military action in Libya, when necessary, to protect the American people and to further advance our campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There are other places in Africa where the United States is working closely with host governments to help them combat extremism within their own country. I think the most prominent example of this is a concern that we have about Boko Haram. And there are U.S. forces — U.S. personnel in Nigeria that are working closely with the Nigerian government as they fight those extremist elements in their own country.
So we’ve been clear about what our strategy is, and that strategy is to build up the capacity of local forces in countries around the world to fight extremism. And there are a variety of ways that we do that. In the situation in Iraq, we obviously work closely with the Iraqi central government and support the efforts of Iraqi forces. In Syria, we obviously don’t have a situation where we can coordinate with the central government in Syria. We certainly would like to see that, and that’s why we believe that a political transition in that country is overdue. But since we can’t coordinate directly with the central government in Syria, we’re working with those forces on the ground with whom we are able to cooperate, and we are seeing some progress against ISIL targets in Syria.
So each of these countries has taken — is considered individually for the appropriate strategy that will protect the American people — that is obviously the first priority — to advance our campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL, but also to build the capacity of fighters to take the fight to ISIL in their own country. And the reason for that is that the United States cannot be a substitute for those kinds of forces. We cannot impose a military solution on ISIL in any country around the world. And, in some cases, it may require military involvement to build the capacity of local fighters to take the fight to ISIL, but the President has made clear that the United States military will not be a substitute for the effectiveness of local fighters.
Q The Senate Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, said he was blaming the Obama administration for delays in Puerto Rico on a solution, saying that the cause of the delays is questions raised by the Treasury Department. I was wondering what your response was to that. Do you agree with him, or disagree with him? What’s your feeling?
MR. EARNEST: I strongly disagree. And fortunately, the facts are on my side in this one. You may recall, Mike — I think you’ve been covering this story closely, so you will recall this — somewhere there’s a Bloomberg story out there, possibly with your byline on it, that dates back to October 21st, 2015. For those of you scoring along at home, that is 188 days ago. And that story included a summarization of our legislative proposal for addressing the situation in Puerto Rico. So we put forward our proposal 188 days ago. It’s a little ironic for Leader McCarthy or any other Republican to come forward after 188 days and suggest that somehow the Obama administration has been slow to act to address the situation in Puerto Rico.
Q What is your assessment of the risk that there will not be some sort of solution in place by July 1st, when Puerto Rico has to make a $2 billion payment?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I go to great lengths to avoid putting myself in a situation of predicting a positive outcome from Congress, particularly because there are plenty of common-sense things that Congress should do that they don’t. In many cases, there are a variety of explanation for that. Sometimes that is just run-of-the-mill congressional dysfunction. Sometimes it is the fact that Republicans allow ideology and partisan politics and political considerations to get in front of core American priorities. In some cases, it’s because the issues that they’re working through are really complicated and really hard. As it relates to Puerto Rico, it’s probably some combination of all three of those things.
And so I can tell you that at least we are encouraged by the fact that the Republican Leader of the House has finally acknowledged that there’s something that needs to be addressed here. For most of the last 188 days, we haven’t seen much responsiveness from Republicans in Congress. We haven’t seen much of a sense of urgency about needing to act on this. So if he feels the need to come out and criticize the Obama administration, even if it’s false, because he’s feeling some political pressure to act, that might be evidence of potential movement in the future. And we certainly would like to see it. We’ve been very clear about what we believe needs to be part of the solution.
We do believe that the Puerto Rican government should be given access to an orderly restructuring regime. We believe that the Puerto Rican government should also be held accountable for following through on financial reforms, including through an independent fiscal oversight body that would — or at least some form of independent fiscal oversight that would ensure and hold the government accountable for following through on the reforms.
We also believe that a reform of the Medicaid program in Puerto Rico would have positive benefits both for Puerto Rico’s fiscal situation but also for the health of the Puerto Rican people. We also believe that providing Puerto Rico access to the earned income tax credit could have a positive impact on Puerto Rico’s economy in a way that would also further their efforts to dig out of a pretty deep fiscal hole.
Q Related somewhat to Luke’s question, in the meeting with the European leaders on Monday, was more substantial intervention in Libya discussed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a whole lot more to describe about that meeting beyond what you saw on the readout. I can just tell you in general that there is concern among our European allies about the situation in Libya. And as I mentioned in response to Luke’s question, President Obama has already demonstrated a commitment and a willingness to order U.S. military action in Libya where necessary to protect the United States. And he continues to recognize that that’s a priority and he’s willing to take additional military action, if necessary, to protect the United States.
There is a strong sense, however, that like in Syria, a military solution cannot be imposed on Libya. And that’s why you’ve seen the United States and our European allies be so strongly supportive of the Government of National Accord and hopeful that that fledgling government can succeed in unifying the country, in trying to restore some order to the chaos that they have sustained, try to institute some order over the security situation, some control over the security situation in Libya, and also begin to address the wide range of economic questions.
When you have sustained the kind of damage to their infrastructure — both governmental and physical — in Libya, that’s going to have some pretty significant negative consequences for the economy. And that’s why there are important decisions that need to be made the GNA about restoring the strength of their economy.
Q Lastly in the context of the President’s remarks on being prepared probably by the end of the year for an assault on Mosul, I was really struck by The New York Times’ article yesterday on the situation in now Anbar Province and in Fallujah where, as you know, your allies, the Iraqi government is laying siege to Fallujah. And many of the civilians are not getting much food. In the Times’ story, their reporting showed that the price of a bag of flour in Baghdad at $15 would cost you $750 in Fallujah because of the siege. Is that a tactic the administration feels comfortable with? And would you like to see it replicated against the Sunni civilian population in Mosul?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, Mike, when you are encountering a situation where you have extremists that have essentially set up shop in some of the largest cities in your country, that’s going to have a profound and profoundly negative impact on the local population. And one of the things that President Obama spent some time talking about in Saudi Arabia is the need for additional economic support to the Iraqi government for those areas that have been liberated from ISIL.
Ramadi is a good example. That’s a country where — that is a community in Iraq that is still trying to rebuild and recover after enduring many months of ISIL’s reign of terror. And for the central government in Iraq to succeed in rebuilding and restoring those communities, they’re going to need some economic resources.
And this is a good example of where countries in the region can step up and offer economic assistance to the central government in Iraq that will have a tangible, positive impact on our campaign against ISIL.
Q But still in Fallujah, which the government hasn’t retaken, they’re essentially laying siege to the city, which starves the civilian population.
MR. EARNEST: Well, my point is that obviously the central government in Iraq is dealing with a very difficult situation, and trying to root out ISIL fighters is, of course, going to have a negative impact on the local population. That’s the reason it is so important for the Iraqi government, once they have succeeded in driving ISIL out of these communities, to have the support from other countries in the region and other countries around the world for rebuilding and restoring those communities that have endured such great loss.
Q Josh, Speaker Ryan says he hasn’t read the 28 pages that are currently being considered to be declassified from the 9/11 Commission, but he believes that it would not be detrimental for the U.S. and Saudi relationship, saying “There’s the Saudi Arabia then, and now there’s the Saudi Arabia now.” And he also — he brings up the example of the Saudis cooperating in tracking financing of terrorists. Does the President agree with that assessment that there would not be a negative impact? And if so, is that because the role of the Saudis has changed, or when you take a look at those 28 pages, there really is no “there” there in terms of them contributing to the 9/11 attacks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about this. The first thing that comes to mind is that we have made the point that we have seen an improvement in the way the Saudi government has confronted extremism both in their country and around the world since 9/11. That prior to 9/11, there was a sense that the Saudi government didn’t recognize the risk of extremist groups operating either in Saudi Arabia or around the world, but since 9/11, we have seen the Saudi government engage with a greater sense of purpose in efforts to counter those extremist activities, and to counter the activities of extremist organizations that are trying to propagate a hateful extremist ideology.
That is part of what has made Saudi Arabia a valuable partner of the United States. We have seen tangible Saudi contributions to efforts that strengthen American national security. And the basis of that coordination and cooperation is the basis of the important relationship the United States and Saudi Arabia have today. It’s why President Obama has traveled to Saudi Arabia four times as President of the United States — more than any other President in American history.
And this is a relationship that, while complicated because of the obvious differences between our two countries, there are areas of common ground, particularly as it relates to taking the steps to protect our national security. And the President has worked hard to cultivate that relationship even further.
I haven’t read the 28 pages, so I can’t offer up my own assessment about what impact it would have on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Speaker Ryan is certainly entitled to his own opinion, but, as he pointed out, it’s an opinion that he has offered up without having read the 28 pages.
The process that we’re engaged in now is a process whereby people who have read the 28 pages can consider the range of ramifications of releasing that material and declassifying it so that it can be read by the American public. And that’s what they’re doing. And that’s what I think the American people would expect, which is carefully consider how transparent it’s possible to be without posing undue risk to our national security.
I think the other thing that’s relevant is that the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission have been made public. They have been declassified. And you saw the — I don’t know if you saw the statement from Governor Kaine and from former Congressman Hamilton about the work of the 9/11 Commission. They indicated that they did read the 28 pages. They described those 28 pages as being “almost entirely raw, unvetted material that came to the FBI.” And this is material that the 9/11 Commission did have an opportunity to vet. It is material they did have an opportunity to follow up on. And they discussed the range of interviews that they conducted to pursue the leads that were included in that material.
And the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission is something that we’ve talked about in here quite extensively. The conclusion of the 9/11 Commission is that Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government, as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.
So I think the point is, there is an outside blue ribbon commission that was established to take a look at what contributed to the 9/11 attacks and what reforms we could put in place to prevent an attack like that from ever happening again. They had an opportunity to look carefully at the 28 pages. They had an opportunity to follow up carefully on the information that was included in the 28 pages. And they reached the declassified conclusion that they did not find evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.
Q And just coming off this trip with Saudi Arabia, does the President feel more reassurances that this is not going to be something that is going to impact the relationship?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the best way to describe that — well, let me say it this way. When the President had an opportunity to sit down with King Salman in Saudi Arabia — as you know, he spent about two hours talking to him about a range of issues that are critically important to both of our countries — and King Salman never raised this question about the 28 pages. I think in some ways that is a testament to the wide range of other important issues that the two leaders had to discuss. But I think it also is an indication that there are a range of other things that are more important to the relationship between our two countries than just these 28 pages.
Q Should we read into that that the President didn’t bring it up, either? The 28 pages?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. The President did not bring it up, either.
Q And just on another thing. The Senate race here in Maryland — Van Hollen and Donna Edwards. There are some people who are saying this is turning into identity politics as opposed to based on ideology — that the way people are voting in Maryland are along racial lines. Does the President have an opinion or an assessment of how that’s playing out here —
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s too early to draw that kind of conclusion because people are voting right now, even as we speak. So we can take a look at the results tomorrow and determine whether or not that’s an appropriate conclusion to draw, and whether or not there’s any evidence to substantiate that claim.
Q Another question for Leader McCarthy. He says that Republicans still have not been given all the answers to their questions on Zika. And so I’m just wondering, is the White House aware of any outstanding questions from Congress on Zika funding? And if so, is there a timeline for answering them? And then just in addition to that — I might as well just add it now — there’s a complaint that you guys have not stipulated how the money needs to be apportioned between a supplemental for Fiscal Year ’16 and the regular appropriations process for Fiscal Year ’17.
MR. EARNEST: To the extent there is a regular appropriations process in Congress.
Q But I mean, have you guys — do you guys have sort of — how much, specifically, do you need for supplemental in ’16 and how much can wait for the ’17 approps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take your question about providing information to Congress first. As I’ve noted previously, there have been 48 open public hearings in Congress where questions about Zika have been asked and answered by administration officials. I think that’s an indication that there have been a variety of venues where any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, has had an opportunity to ask a senior administration official a question about Zika.
So if there are any unanswered questions about the strategy that the administration has put forward to fight Zika and to protect the American people from Zika, I think it’s members of Congress themselves who are responsible for not having answers to those questions because they’ve had ample opportunity to ask them.
That being said, if, after 48 open public hearings, some Republican who hasn’t shown up to the hearings continues to have outstanding questions, I’m confident that we can find a way to try to answer the question. That’s the first thing.
I think the second thing is, and I’ve —
Q Just to be clear, you don’t know of any outstanding questions, like some list of questions they’ve sent you that you guys haven’t responded to?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. But, look, I wouldn’t put it past some Republican that I’ve never heard of producing a detailed list of questions that they say has been residing on their website for a couple of weeks.
So I think my point is, send the questions over; we’ll take a look. But there’s no excuse for them having those unanswered questions when you consider that we’ve already put forward a detailed legislative proposal more than two months ago now. We’ve already participated in 48 hearings in which questions about Zika have been raised. There have been briefings that have been convened by senior administration officials for both the House and the Senate to discuss this issue.
So I guess what I would say for members of Congress who say that they have questions about the administration’s Zika strategy, that ignorance is not an excuse. They’ve had opportunities to ask their questions. There’s ample information that’s been provided by the administration. And I don’t think their constituents are going to find it an acceptable response when there is a widespread media freak-out about the Zika virus that Republicans haven’t acted because they didn’t get their questions answered.
Your second question was about?
MR. EARNEST: Supplemental. Well, you’ve heard from public health professionals that they don’t have all the resources that they need right now to do everything that they believe they could do to protect the America people from the Zika virus. Now, part of that is because — particularly as it relates to our efforts to develop a vaccine — the government needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment to funding these efforts. The efforts to develop a vaccine and to manufacture that vaccine will include a robust role for the private sector. And the private sector will only fully engage when they see that they have a customer that’s committed to buying the product.
And so that’s why the delay that we’ve seen thus far is already problematic. And it’s also why the suggestion that Republicans are just going to tie Zika funding to a totally inept budget process is also destined to fail.
This is an emergency. Our public health professionals have said as much. And the American people are counting on the Congress to act. And instead, we’ve gotten bureaucratic excuses from Congress about why they’ve done nothing. And right now they haven’t paid a significant price for that. But at some point, there are going to be direct, specific, serious questions asked to members of Congress — particularly Republicans — about why they haven’t done anything. And I’m not sure exactly what their explanation will be.
And that’s also why, Gardiner, we don’t take a lot of solace in Republican proposals to say that they’ll attach an emergency appropriation to a regular appropriations bill. What evidence is there that regular appropriations bills are going to pass either house of Congress, let alone both? Republicans in the House haven’t even passed a budget, despite the fact that the deadline passed a couple of weeks ago. And Leader McConnell has indicated that it’s not clear to him when a budget is ever going to pass the United States Senate.
So, again, it’s pretty simple exactly what we need here. There is no reason it should be bogged down in partisan politics. There’s no question of ideology or principle at stake, other than the basic public health and well-being of the American public. And right now that has fallen victim to a Republican refusal to govern.
Q Josh, the Democrats have suggested a supplemental that also includes funding for Flint water, as well as for the opioid crisis. Obviously, these are three crises. But if the Zika virus is truly — the opioid epidemic, obviously, has been going on for 15 years. If the Zika crisis is truly this summer’s public health emergency, why not just a supplemental just about Zika? Why not tell your allies in Congress, look, this goes to the head of the line, just a clean Zika bill, we need it to pass right away?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think ultimately members of Congress are going to have to decide how this moves through the legislative process. We’ve talked about the urgency that Congress should feel about giving our public health professionals the resources that they need to fight Zika. And we’ve even presented our own proposal for how we believe Congress should do that, what those resources should look like.
But, look, we’ve also acknowledged that there is a role for Congress to play in helping Flint deal with the situation with their water supply. That’s a pretty urgent situation, too. There are some other things that we can do to manage that situation. But there is a role for Congress to play here, and Congress has been AWOL on this one, as well.
As it relates to opioids, this is a — I guess in some ways, the way I would differentiate the opioid crisis from the Zika situation is that we’ve long passed the point at which the opioid crisis has taken effect. This is a problem that reached crisis proportions quite a while ago. And I do think that’s why you’ve seen bipartisan rhetoric, at least, to making this public health question a priority. The administration has put forward a very specific proposal for how we believe additional resources could be used to fight the opioid epidemic. And we’d encourage Democrats and Republicans to work together on that, as well.
So, ultimately, members of Congress are going to have to decide how to address these priorities. This what governing is all about. And the irony of the situation that you’ve raised is that there is a reason that we can have legitimate discussions and even debates about the appropriate funding levels for the Department of Education. There are some basic questions that go to core political beliefs about the proper role of government. That’s not an excuse for congressional inaction, but it is an explanation for why you would have long-running debates about appropriate levels of funding for that agency.
But when it comes to giving our public health professionals the resources that they need to fight Zika, or fighting the opioid epidemic, or even helping an American city rebuild their water supply, I don’t understand why that would get bogged down in partisanship. There’s no reason that should come into conflict with the ideology of anybody who has got the best interests of the American people at heart. It shouldn’t. And, unfortunately, in the fact of a Republican Congress that time and time again refuses to do its job, it has.
Q I’m sorry to say that The Washington Post had a very good story today about this crisis and how the juggling of funds that has happened within the administration is causing ripple effects and problems across states, across the country. Is that — can you confirm that? Is that, indeed, happening — because you have not gotten this emergency funding from Congress specifically from Zika, you are having to do a juggling act that is having ripple effects that is causing problems around the country?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I happened to see the story, too. And I do think that it did chronicle the significant challenge that our public health professionals and that our emergency responders are facing right now. And they’re not getting any help from Congress. In fact, Congress is making the problem worse. Congress has put our emergency response officials in a situation of choosing which oncoming potential disaster to prepare for, as opposed to doing the responsible thing and making sure that our emergency responders have all the resources that they need to protect us.
Knowing that there’s — here’s the thing. When you’re an emergency manager, you’re often in a situation in which you are responding to a situation that nobody could have ever predicted. No one can predict the exact path of a tornado. Nobody knows exactly how powerful a hurricane will strike the American coast this summer, if at all. Those are emergency situations that can’t be predicted in advance, but yet our expectation is that our emergency managers are going to have the necessary resources to deploy a flexible response and to keep us all safe.
The question with Zika is, in some ways, not quite as complicated. We have known for months that this was a virus that could threaten the American people, particularly as it relates to pregnant women. And we’ve known for months what kinds of steps we can take to fight it. There’s nothing that we can do on this short of notice to make sure the Zika virus never enters the United States, but there are a whole bunch of things that we can do to blunt its impact. We can better fight the mosquito population — that by personnel that can quickly respond in certain situations to go and kill mosquitos, that can actually have the effect of protecting an entire community.
One of the things that our public health professionals have talked about is that if they detect that an individual has tested positive for Zika, that essentially a strike team should go into that person’s neighborhood and try to eradicate as many mosquitos as possible around that person’s house to prevent a mosquito from biting that person and spreading the disease to someone else. That’s kind of a common-sense approach.
We have some strategies to protect people, but they require resources. And that’s to say nothing of the kinds of resources that could be invested in diagnostics that would make sure that an individual like I just described has access to a test and can get the results of that test quickly. In some cases, people may not be able to get tested and we won’t know whether or not they have the Zika virus.
As we’ve discussed in here before, the vast majority of people who contract the Zika virus won’t have any symptoms. But for those who do, they can get a diagnostic test in many situations. But because of constrained lab capacity, it could take them a couple of weeks to get the results. So, again, that couple of weeks’ delay could expedite the spread of the disease.
So, again, there are a number of things that we know we can do to better protect the American people from the Zika virus, and Congress hasn’t given us the resources to do any of them. And to make matters worse, they haven’t just restrained resources when it comes to fighting Zika, the government has been forced to try to look for other accounts where our fight against Zika can be enhanced. And that has meant that there are other worthy government programs that are critical to our homeland security that have been negatively affected.
And I can’t speak to confirm any of the individual details in that story, but I suspect that those kinds of impacts aren’t just being felt in the handful of states that are mentioned in that story, they’re having an impact in states all across the country.
Q Last one on this, Josh. If there is a child that gets microcephaly from a domestically acquired infection, will that be on the Republicans’ watch and their responsibility?
MR. EARNEST: I think what will be true is what you heard Dr. Fauci say when he stood at this podium a couple of weeks ago. He said made clear that they don’t have — that our public health professionals do not have all of the resources that they need to do everything that they can and should be doing right now to prepare for Zika. And that’s going to have consequences.
Now, as I said before, Gardiner, I don’t think there’s a strategy that would prevent every incident of Zika in the United States. But there are surely steps that we should already be taking to minimize the spread of the disease later this year. And every day that goes by, where Congress makes excuses, that’s a day lost to preparing for the Zika fight.
And I’ve said this a couple of times, and it’s true — there will be a day when I’m going to come out here and I’m going to do a briefing, and the headlines in the newspapers and the breaking news alerts from all the television stations are going to be worrying about the impact of the Zika virus in the United States. And we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about all the steps that our public health professionals have taken to try to fight this disease. We’re going to talk about all the steps that the administration has proposed, dating back to February, to prepare for this situation. And I don’t know what Republicans are going to say when they come face-to-face with their constituents who are wondering why Congress hasn’t done a thing.
Q Did the 28 pages come up in any of the conversations between administration officials, including the President, and any other members of the Saudi delegation?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Bill, it would be hard for me to account for all of those conversations. Obviously there were — even in just the one bilateral meeting that the pool had the opportunity to briefly observe when we first arrived in Saudi Arabia, there were about 20 U.S. and Saudi officials in the same room. So that’s a lot of different conversations to account for. What I can tell you is that it did not come up between the President and the King, and I’m not aware of it coming up between any other senior U.S. official and their Saudi counterpart.
Q You didn’t hear it discussed?
MR. EARNEST: I did not.
Q Josh, in regards to North Korea, when the President said to CBS that the United States is spending time positioning our missile defense systems, is that in response to recent provocations to the last few months, or is that part of this broader pivot to Asia?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question, Rich. This is actually something that our Department of Defense has been doing on the orders of the President for at least a couple of years now. There were a number of anti-ballistic missile capabilities that were moved to Alaska in 2014. We have increased the deployment of naval assets in the Asia Pacific as a part of the Asia pivot, but that also has enhanced our ability to counter ballistic missiles in that region of the world.
Over the last several years, there’s been equipment that’s been deployed to places like Japan and Guam that could be effective in protecting the United States and our allies from ballistic missiles. The United States is in discussions right now with our allies in South Korea about the potential deployment of something called a THAAD battery. This is essentially an anti-ballistic missile system that could be useful in protecting our allies in South Korea from a ballistic missile fired by the North Koreans.
So this is not a response to recent provocations from North Korea, but rather a response to the threat that has emanated from North Korea for quite some time now. I think it’s an indication of the value in planning ahead and the strategic approach that President Obama and his national security team have taken to protecting the American people in the face of the North Korean threat.
Q Has that strategic approach changed at all since the fourth nuclear test in January and then the submarine or the apparent submarine launch of a ballistic missile this past weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any — let me take that back. I can think of one change. It was only in response to a more recent test from the North Koreans that the United States and South Korea began our dialogue about the potential deployment of an anti-ballistic missile battery in South Korea. That was — the beginning of those conversations was a response to a specific and recent event.
But other than that, I can’t think of any other responses that I can tell you about. Obviously, there are a number of things that our national security apparatus is engaged in on a daily basis to protect the American people. And when necessary, they can make changes that reflect the threat emanating from anywhere around the world, including in North Korea. But as it relates to things that I can talk about publicly, I don’t have any other examples for you other than discussions about the deployment of this THAAD battery to South Korea.
Q Is the administration confident in its ability to defend allies in the region on the Korean Peninsula? And are sanctions working here?
MR. EARNEST: Rich, I can tell you that the President is quite confident in the defense capabilities that we have to protect the American people and to protect our allies in the Asia Pacific.
It means we need to continue to monitor the threat that’s emanating from North Korea. It means that we need to be nimble and adjust our strategy accordingly. But there has been a significant commitment of resources and a lot of time spent considering how we can best arrange those resources to protect our allies and protect the American people, and that work is ongoing.
As it relates to the impact of sanctions, we have not yet seen the desired change in behavior that is long overdue. But what we have succeeded in doing is working with the international community to ramp up the pressure on the North Korean government even further. And that includes by targeting specific aspects of the North Korean economy that we know were used to fund their ballistic missile program. And we did succeed in working closely with the Chinese and other members of the U.N. Security Council to pass those sanctions and to implement them in a way that maximizes the impact on the North Koreans.
So the North Korean government has been isolated for quite some time. That’s had a terrible impact on the North Korean population, and it is solely as a result of the management decisions that are being made by the North Korean government that that pressure has only tightened in recent months as a result of the stepped-up provocations from the North Koreans.
Q Thanks, Josh. The House plans to vote this week to reauthorize the D.C. School Choice program, something the President has opposed. Will he veto that legislation if it reaches him?
MR. EARNEST: Dave, I know we have expressed our concerns about similar legislation in the past, but I haven’t seen the specific proposal that has been put forward. I know that our team has taken a look at it. But hopefully in the next couple of days we can give you a better answer in terms of our final position on it.
Q On another matter, the House Armed Services chairman has floated a proposal to rein in the size of the National Security Council and to possibly make the NSC director subject to congressional confirmation. It look like it wouldn’t affect your administration by the time it was enacted, but do you have thoughts on it? Do you have a reaction to it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly makes me think that Republicans in Congress aren’t too bullish about the prospects of a Republican succeeding President Obama. But you can ask them about that, I guess.
I did see that the proposal includes limiting the size of the National Security Council. I think it warrants mentioning that under the leadership of the current National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, the size of the National Security Council has actually shrunk 10 percent in just the last 18 months or so. And that’s based on her own initiative to try to streamline the National Security Council and make its actions even more efficient than it already is.
So this is something that we’re already focused on here. I have also seen that — those proposals suggest that the National Security Council staff should be capped at 50 people. I might note that the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee is larger than that. That seems like a rather curious apportionment of resources when you consider the important work that’s done at the National Security Council every day. So obviously we’ve got some concerns with their proposals.
Q I’m sure you’ve seen that the rationale for this proposal is to give the Congress and the Pentagon more leverage in policy disputes with the White House over military policy. Do you have a comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, considering that this Congress doesn’t seem like they’re at all prepared to pass a budget for our military this year; considering that Congress has for the last two years refused to even consider seriously an authorization for the use of military force; and considering that there are a range of spending reforms that the Department of Defense has repeatedly put forward only to see them be denied by Congress — I saw a story while we were traveling about continued opposition in Congress to considering another round of base closures. These are base closures that the Department of Defense assesses would have a positive impact on our national security because it would allow for the more efficient deployment of military resources around the country. But Republicans, and some Democrats, probably, have voiced some opposition to those reforms.
I think all of that makes clear that there are too many members of Congress that don’t take very seriously their responsibility to engage in a legitimate debate about policies that are critical to our national security. That’s why I’m surprised to hear that some of them are seeking more authority over those decisions that they have thus far refused to make.
Q How concerned is Chancellor Merkel — or did she express her concerns to the President while he was there that Schengen agreement regarding travel within the EU, an essential part of the entire EU, that would remain in place despite some of the reactions had by some of the political activities that have gone on in terms of — vis-à-vis the refugee crisis going on right now?
MR. EARNEST: JC, I don’t have more details to share. They’re private conversations. And for her government’s view of that policy, I’d refer you to my German counterpart. He’s a nice guy. I got a chance to see him over the weekend. (Laughter.) So I’m sure he’d be happy to try to answer your question.
I think what I can tell you more generally, though, is that Chancellor Merkel and the President had an opportunity to consult with the leaders of the UK, France, and Italy yesterday. And part of those discussions focused on the need for greater information-sharing to ensure that we’re working together to combat homeland security threats to all of our nations. And that level of information-sharing can and should improve. And doing so would improve our national security. Okay?
Pam, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Just on the Zika funding, there were Republicans talking about $1.1 billion last week. Would that be enough to at least combat the problem this summer if that was the agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, we’d have to take a look at what they’re proposing. And I would note that that’s barely half of what we’ve indicated is needed. So I’m not going to rule it out until we’ve had an opportunity to take a close look at it. But right now our concern isn’t just focused on the fact that it’s about half of what our public health professionals say that we need to effectively fight this fight. Right now our concern is that that funding is tied to a moribund appropriations process.
So, again, there is very little prospect for the passage of appropriations bills before the fall at the earliest. The onset of Zika is going to be felt several months before that. And that’s why we believe Congress needs to find a way to act before then, as well.
Q This is College Signing Day. Do we know yet where the First Daughter is going to college?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. But once we have an announcement to make, we’ll make sure you all are read in. All right?
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:30 P.M. EDT
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