Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 14, 2015 – 1:28 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I think based on the President’s comments at the Pentagon, he essentially has taken care of any opening remarks I might have. So we can just dive right into your questions.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q Actually, first I wanted to ask if you could confirm that some religious leaders are coming to the White House today, and describe to us exactly what the purpose of the meeting is.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by noting, Kathleen, that the White House is routinely engaged in an active dialogue with faith leaders across the country. And there are a number of engagements today, and I’m happy to do my best to explain to you.
Let me start by saying that the President does not plan to participate in any of the meetings that are planned. These are meetings that are slated to take place at the staff level. The first is a conference call arranged with a broad array of faith-based organizations across the country. This is a call that will be led by Valerie Jarrett and the Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Melissa Rogers. And this will be a conversation to discuss efforts to combat discrimination and highlight the need for welcoming all faiths and beliefs. It certainly seems a timely topic of a conversation like that.
The second is there will be an in-person meeting here at the White House today convened with a smaller group of Muslim American leaders. These are individuals who will meet with Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, who is the Director of the Domestic Policy Council here at the White House, and with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.
The third meeting is a meeting that Cecilia Muñoz will lead with representatives of the American Sikh community to discuss how the administration is supporting that community, and to discuss ways to work together to address concerns and challenges.
And then there are some additional meetings over the course of the week, including one here at the White House on Thursday. Again, these are all slated to be staff-level meetings, but yet are representative of the kind of ongoing dialogue that the White House maintains with religious leaders of all faiths all across the country.
Q Is there a reason then if, White House seems concerned about backlash against Muslims in the current climate, that the President in his Oval Office remarks didn’t raise that issue, but instead sort of came down on Muslim leadership for not pushing back against extremism and sort of took a harder line, but didn’t specifically reference these more recent concerns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d encourage you to go take a look at the President’s remarks. He does talk about how important the Muslim community in America is to our broader national community. So I’d encourage to go back and check the President’s remarks on that.
Q And he’s not going to participate though in any of the events you talked about today?
MR. EARNEST: The current plan is for him to not — for these to be meetings that are led at the staff level.
Q And then I just wanted to rewind a little to the climate change deal, if I could over the weekend.
MR. EARNEST: Good.
Q It seems like sort of the next step now — well, I mean the big concern for you all looking ahead is whether or not the President’s successor will actually stick to the terms of this deal, and as most Republicans either are ignoring or talking about tearing it up. So I’m wondering what is your strategy for trying to make sure that this thing actually holds beyond the next year or so? Does the President plan to specifically try to convince Republicans that this is a good deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kathleen, I think what you’ll see from the administration is a commitment from day one, starting today, to moving forward with implementing this important agreement. Frankly, many of the commitments that the United States had made in the context of the Paris agreement are commitments that we made some time ago and began implementing some time ago. So this is an ongoing effort.
One of the keys to us reaching this agreement was a commitment on the part of all the countries who are participating to subject themselves to a periodic review of the commitments that they have made. The idea, as the President described it, is essentially that as our economies begin to orient toward a low-carbon future, that we’ll start to see important investments in things like energy efficiency and renewable energy. And that means that there will be a much more powerful economic incentive behind investments in those kinds of new technologies. And that’s the significance of this commitment. It’s not just a recognition on the part of governments about the need to reorient our economy. This also represents an acknowledgement that there’s an opportunity for significant investment in this field. There are a couple of examples here that I can give you.
And the President has long recognized that reaching an agreement like this ultimately can be a very powerful benefit for the U.S. economy. Ultimately, you have companies here in the United States that have made important investments and important gains in renewable energy. And now they have customers all around the world, because now we’ve got countries all around the world who are seeking to invest in those technologies that will allow them to meet the goals that they have laid out.
Let me just give you two examples that I think are useful. And the first one is one that I cited before — Westinghouse Electric, a good American company. In light of the significant commitment that the Chinese have made to essentially cap their emissions in the years ahead, it means that they’re going to have to significantly scale up alternative sources of energy. And it means that they’re going to have to consider something other than just building coal-fired power plants, for example.
One of the areas, one of the technologies that they hope to tap into are nuclear power plants. And so China has actually already signed a contract with an American company, Westinghouse Electric, to build four nuclear power plants in China to help them meet their goals. So that’s sort of one example of how an American company is going to benefit from the commitment that the Chinese are making.
Let me give you one other example. There’s a company called First Solar. This is an American company that is developing, constructing, and operating solar projects around the world — many of them the largest, or among the largest in their regions, including Latin America, the Middle East, Australia, and India. As we see additional countries deciding how precisely they’re going to meet these commitments, they’re going to have to turn to investments in solar energy. And that’s going to create enormous opportunities for American companies that are already leading the way in these kinds of innovations.
So let me come back to your direct question, which is that we will see in the years ahead that there is a powerful economic incentive in the United States for us to follow through on our commitments and to make sure that other countries are doing the same, because that will create a tremendous opportunity for American businesses.
Q Josh, following up on the climate issue, does the White House see any irony in the fact that the President has just gotten what is a major legacy achievement, and yet will be presented in the next day or two, hopefully, with a spending bill from Congress that will approve lifting U.S. oil exports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, at this point, I don’t want to speculate about what will be included in the final budget agreement.
Q It looks pretty likely that that’s going to be in it.
MR. EARNEST: I know that’s the subject of extensive discussion and obviously I’ve described to you on a couple of occasions why that is a policy that we don’t support. But once we have an omnibus bipartisan compromise budget agreement to consider, we’ll have an opportunity to sort of weigh the puts and takes. Again, without sort of weighing in on any specific proposal, I would anticipate that there will be some elements of the budget bill that are not consistent with the kinds of policies that we have long supported here, but that’s the essence of compromise. And the President is only going to support the budget agreement if he does believe that it is clearly in the best interest of the country and our economy. But, again, once there is a budget agreement that’s been put forward, we’ll have an opportunity to consider the merits of it.
Q I would press you on that, but I suspect you’re not going to say more.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) That’s true, and primarily just because this is something they’re still actively negotiating. But we will have — assuming that Congress does meet the deadline that they have set for themselves for producing this agreement, that should give us ample time over the course of this week to discuss it. So I’ll make sure that we have an opportunity to do that.
Q Based on what you’ve heard from the weekend, are you optimistic that that deadline will be met this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I continue to be optimistic about the fact that there appears to be some bipartisan recognition in Congress that a deal needs to be reached, that it must be a compromise, and that it far outweighs — or is a far better alternative than shutting down the government.
Q By Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’ll have to see exactly what timeline they’re operating on. I do continue to believe — and this is based on my limited knowledge of the ongoing negotiations — that completion of the agreement would be hastened if we got Republicans to relinquish their insistence about the inclusion of ideological riders in the budget agreement. And I think we’ve made some progress on that front, but we’re not quite done yet.
Q And then a final topic. A planned summit between the Presidents of Russia and Turkey has apparently been canceled, according to the Kremlin. Is the White House concerned about the de-escalation effort that the President has called for — that that is actually not occurring?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President, since the first day that the news broke about the Turks shooting down a Russian military aircraft, has urged the leaders of both countries to de-escalate their rhetoric and to take actions that would de-escalate the tension between the two countries. I think it’s fair to say that there is more work that both sides probably need to do in that regard. But I think it’s notable that in the weeks since that occurred, we haven’t seen any tangible escalation at this point. So that’s a glimmer of optimism in that situation.
I’m confident that this will be something that Secretary Kerry will discuss with President Putin when he is in Moscow tomorrow — again, the continuing need for the Russians to de-escalate their tensions with the Turks. And one good way they could do that is actually to integrate the Russian efforts against ISIL into the broad coalition that the United States has already formed and is leading. That, of course, would require the Russians to actually invest heavily in those counter-ISIL efforts, and that’s not something that we’ve seen them do yet to our satisfaction.
Q Josh, last time the President went to the Pentagon to meet with national security advisors over the summer, Secretary Carter announced a week later the Pentagon would start a review to lift the military’s ban on transgender service. Did the President seek an update of that review at the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I don’t believe — I did not attend the meeting at the Pentagon today. I don’t believe that that item was on the agenda. I think this was a meeting that was focused on our counter-ISIL efforts. The President does have an opportunity to meet with Secretary Carter on a weekly basis when Secretary Carter is in town. I don’t believe that meeting will occur this week because I believe Secretary Carter is headed to the Middle East later today to, again, continue conversations with our partners and allies about our counter-ISIL campaign. But I know this is something that the Pentagon continues to work on, and I know this is something that Secretary Carter continues to be paying close attention to.
Q The Pentagon is reportedly planning to formally lift the transgender ban on May 27th. Is there any reason to think that won’t happen then?
MR. EARNEST: You should check with them on their timeframe.
Q Josh, could you clarify something the President said? He said today in his speech at the Pentagon, “The Special Forces I’ve ordered to Syria have begun supporting local forces as they push south, cut off supply lines, and tighten the squeeze on Raqqa.” Was he acknowledging that Special Forces are now on the ground inside of Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Margaret, what the President was acknowledging is that the work that the President has given to our Special Forces in Syria has begun. I don’t have any updates in terms of when that occurred or where that occurred, or any additional operational details, but the President did confirm in his remarks that that work has begun.
Q So not to put too fine a point on it, but this would be different than just advising from afar — that this would seem to be a decision or a movement forward to be acknowledging today that the operators are in place?
MR. EARNEST: This is an acknowledgement that the intensification of our efforts inside of Syria, by more closely linking special operators with — American special operators with local forces on the ground has begun. There were a number of weeks where there was some question about that, and I can tell you that that work has commenced.
Q Can I ask you as well — in talking about this review of visas and visa screening processes for foreign applicants to come to the U.S., particularly with the K-1, does the White House have a view on whether social a media posting should be part of that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this process is under careful review by both the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. And they will have to consider a range of things, including the amount of resources that are allocated to screening individuals who do apply for visas.
So the President has asked the two agencies that are responsible for implementing this program to review it and come back to him with a set of recommendations about how the screening requirements can or should be tightened. And the President will consider their recommendations carefully.
So at this point, I’m not going to weigh in on what they should do. They’re already tasked with taking a close look at the program and coming back to the President with what they believe should be done. And the President will take a close look at that.
Q When you say resources, is it a question of that? Because some would raise the issue of freedom of speech and other questions about whether someone expressing opinions online should be used in a judgment for or against them as perhaps a threat to the United States, and it would impact the decision of whether to clear them through a background screening.
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t leave you with the impression that resources are the only consideration, but they certainly are an important one when you are considering implementing a program. The process is tens of thousands of people into the United States each years.
Q But broadly speaking, I mean, the President being a constitutional lawyer and having obviously spent time thinking about what constitutes free speech or not, does that question weigh into this decision, or is it purely in a different category because of foreign nationals?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President’s top priority here is the national security and safety of the American people. And that will continue to be the case with ensuring that this K-1 visa program is effectively implemented, consistent with the law and consistent with the values that we hold dear in this country. Right now, this is a program that is under review by both DHS and the State Department, and we’ll take a look at their recommendations that they bring forward.
Q Is there any timeline on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a sense of what that timeline is. Obviously, the President is feeling a sense of urgency about this, and I think that was clear in his comments last week where he announced that this review was ongoing. And I’m confident that the officials at the agencies that are responsible for carrying out this review share that sense of urgency. But I don’t have a specific timeline to share with you.
Q Thanks, Josh. Without leaning too forward on what Margaret was just asking you, it would seem to make sense. If you’re an employer, you would check the social media footprint of people that might or might not be coming in. Can you at least acknowledge that it would seem to be a decent idea to consider that not just for the visa program but any other entry program?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this is something that the State Department and DHS are taking a look at. And I guess — so because they’re responsible for implementing the program, I want to defer to their expertise in terms of how the program works to render a judgment about what’s the most effective way for them to efficiently process the applications that they receive while also making sure that we fulfill the President’s priority, which is protecting the safety and security of the American people.
Q I’ll try to circle back in just a second. But I want to ask you about energy policy for just a second. Aside from just letting the free market sort of work its will, are U.S. policymakers, in your opinion, doing anything to take advantage of the historic plunge in oil prices to sort of exacerbate the problem for, say, petro states like Russia, for example? Is that happening from a U.S. policy perspective?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess you’d have to check with the Department of Energy about this. I’m not aware of any specific policies that are geared in that direction, but maybe they have some ideas that could better answer your question.
Q Nothing that you’ve heard of? No idea that, hey, listen, if we can drive down oil, we can really squeeze Russia or other rogue states? Anything like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no — because I think, Kevin, in the briefing setting when I’ve been asked questions about the inordinately high price of oil and the high price of gas, I’ve been quite forthcoming in acknowledging that the U.S. government had very little impact on our ability to set the global price of oil. That was true and was a common refrain in my answers when the price of oil was at or near all-time highs. And it happens to be true even when the price of oil is near all-time lows.
Q Okay. And let me ask you also about an update on what’s happening both in Afghanistan. And are you aware of the Iranians testing ballistic missiles? What’s the administration’s viewpoint of that? I know that previously you sort of tried to separate that from the conversation that we’ve had with the Iranians in sort of the nuclear deal. Can you give me an update on that, and how the White House views those ballistic missile tests?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there have been a couple of reports, a couple different reports about Iran testing ballistic missiles. There was a report earlier this summer where Iran basically came forward and went public with their ballistic missile tests. And the United States went to the United Nations Security Council and raised concerns there, and initiated a process at the United Nations against Iran for those actions.
Many of the individuals who were implicated in that test are already subject to significant financial sanctions that were put in place by the United States. And the President engaged in conversations with our GCC partners at Camp David earlier this summer. And many of those discussions focused on how the United States could work jointly with our partners in the region about countering Iran’s ballistic missile program and mitigating the risk that it poses to the United States, our interests, and our allies and partners in the region.
So this is something that has been on the President’s radar screen for quite some time. Now, in addition to all of that, there are more recent reports about a potential Iran ballistic missile test. This is not something that Iran has announced publicly, and I don’t believe that it’s something that we have confirmed at this point. Rather, we have said that we were aware of those reports and taking a look at the veracity of those reports.
Q Thank you. Senators Kirk and Ayotte wrote a letter last week to the President asking how the administration plans to respond to those tests. Are you aware of that letter? Has the President received that letter?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that letter. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has been received here at the White House. And if they’re referring to the more recently reported ballistic missile tests, I’d tell them what I would tell you, which is we’re aware of those reports and looking into the veracity of those reports.
Q Lastly, and this is sort of a little out there, I just want to try to tighten this up a little bit. The Department of Homeland Security had that secret policy, if you’ll allow me, to not allow immigration agents to review a visa applicant’s social media profile. Does the White House support something like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think that the Department of Homeland Security has pushed back against those reports. So for true fidelity to what exactly the policies were, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security to check that out.
But what I can tell you is that what the President has asked for is a review of the program to determine what measures are in place to allow the program to operate so that we can allow individuals seeking a K-1 visa to enter the country, but to do so based on the need to protect the American people. And so for the best way of doing that, that’s exactly what the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security are taking a look at. They’re going to come back to the President with a set of recommendations about how this program can be effectively implemented to achieve our goals.
Q That wasn’t something that the White House said you guys should maybe not do this? There wasn’t sort of a lean-on from here?
MR. EARNEST: No. I can confirm that that is not the case. But for what policy was actually in place at the Department of Homeland Security, I’d encourage you to check with them.
Q Thank you, Josh. I just want to go back first to the speech that the President just gave. He talked about going to the Middle East and trying to get a greater involvement of allies in the region. Would you say that the campaign against ISIL at the moment, with the 9,000 strikes, the President is overall — I’m not sure happy is the right word — but satisfied with it? And the next step definitely implies this greater involvement from Middle East allies on the ground.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Richard, let me just start by saying definitively that the President is not going to be satisfied until ISIL has been degraded and ultimately destroyed. That’s our goal, and the President is not going to be satisfied until that has been achieved. So there clearly is important work that needs to be done. And the President assembled his national security team at the Pentagon to determine from them about what we’re going to do to build on the momentum that we have built up in some instances. The President talked through a few of those examples. And it may create some additional opportunities for the United States and our coalition partners to further intensify our efforts against ISIL’s leadership.
The President made note — I think probably the most interesting data point that the President cited was a reference to the fact that the counter-ISIL coalition that we have assembled took more strikes in the month of November than any previous month of our efforts. That is a reflection of a couple of things. One is it’s a reflection of some of the ramped-up commitments that we’ve seen from our European counterparts, which we certainly appreciate.
However, it is also an indication of the increasing flow of intelligence that our coalition is benefitting from. We’ve got greater fidelity and intelligence around the location of some of their oil infrastructure, for example. And whether that is stationary objects like refineries and wellheads or tanker trucks that move around a lot. And obviously being able to destroy that infrastructure is an important part of our efforts to shut off ISIL’s financing.
We know that engaging in the illicit trade — or illicit sale of oil is one way that ISIL finances their reign of terror. And we want to continue to be vigilant about taking those strikes. The President also ran through a pretty compelling list of senior ISIL leaders that have been taken off the battlefield in recent months. That is also a testament to the increased flow of intelligence that our military operations are benefitting from.
Q Thanks to what? Thanks to whom?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a variety of things. One is we’ve seen some greater commitments from our partners to things like ISR — this is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — essentially from drones that can monitor movements on the battlefield. There have also been operations that have been undertaken by the United States and in some cases our coalition partners, or by local fighters on the ground, who have been able to obtain significant troves of intelligence based on raids of individual facilities.
So let me give you one example. This is an older example, but still a relevant one. When the United States special operators carried out their raid in Syria against Abu Sayyaf, this was one of the masterminds of the ISIL financing effort, that not only was that individual killed in the operation, but there was significant intelligence material obtained — laptops, file folders, thumb drives, other pieces of hardware that our intelligence analysts can take a close look at and obtain material that can be relevant both to taking strikes against ISIL leaders, but also taking strikes against ISIL infrastructure. The more information that we have and the more knowledge that we have about the way that ISIL conducts business on a day-to-day basis, the more effective we can be in disrupting that business. That obviously is a priority.
And so Margaret asked about the special operators that are assisting local forces inside of Syria. The President also has recently announced the standing up of these expeditionary task forces that will be based in Iraq. But these are also special operators that will be essentially at the ready to carry out raids when it’s determined that those raids can be effective. And the goal of those raids will not just be to either detain or kill ISIL leaders, but also to capitalize on opportunities to exploit significant troves of intelligence. And so that continues to be a priority.
Q Just to center again on my first question, Josh. I just want to see if I understand that the coalition has been doing well, or could do even better, but there’s another level, a different kind of step that the Middle East allies could take.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are certainly some things that we would like to see. And you touched on one example. There is some indication that we’ve discussed publicly before that some of our GCC partners appear to be somewhat distracted by the sectarian conflict in Yemen in a way that’s diverted resources from our ongoing efforts against ISIL. That’s something that we’ve discussed publicly before. I can assure you that that’s something that’s been raised in private on a number of occasions quite directly by a range of senior administration officials. And I’m confident that this will be the subject of some discussion when Secretary Carter is traveling in the Middle East later this week.
But there are other things that we would like to see done. There is more that we could do when it comes to ramping up our counter-messaging campaign against ISIL. We’ve talked about that. In some ways, that is probably the most challenging part of this effort, but it’s critical to our success. And there’s an important role for our Gulf Coast partners, our GCC partners to play in that effort.
But look, there are some things we need Congress to do, as well. For example, Congress could confirm Adam Szubin. He’s the financial expert at the Treasury Department who is responsible for leading our counter-finance efforts. He’s somebody who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. The President noted today in his comments at the Pentagon that shutting down ISIL’s financing is a core component of our efforts.
And right now we’ve had an individual nominated to serve in a leadership role for that aspect of our strategy for more than a year, and Congress has inexplicably — let me be more precise, Republicans have inexplicably refused to confirm him. So in terms of talking about things that can be done that would bolster our efforts against ISIL, Congress is far from blameless.
Q So is the message this week, the theme this week, “We got this”? Is that the message you’re trying to convey to the American people?
MR. EARNEST: I think the message that we’re trying to convey to the American people is that the President and his team are quite hard at work on a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
And when it comes to the military components of our strategy that the President discussed with his national security team at the Pentagon today, that we’ve made a lot of important progress. Forty percent of the previously populated territory that was controlled by ISIL inside of Iraq is no longer in their control. There are important communities like Baiji and Tikrit, where Iraqi forces, with the assistance of our coalition partners, has driven ISIL from those populated areas and retaken those towns. There is a strategic highway between Raqqa and Mosul that’s been severed. And that’s because Iraqi forces were able to retake the town of Sinjar.
Again, they did that backed by coalition military airstrikes, and that allowed them to drive ISIL out of that areas and more effectively isolate Mosul. So there is important progress that has been made, but we need to do more to shut down their financing. We need to do more to counter their messaging online. And there is more that we can do to try to advance the diplomatic process that will try to bring an end to the political chaos at least inside of Syria. And Secretary Kerry will be leading a meeting in New York later this week in pursuit of that effort.
Q And I noticed that the President said in those comments at the Pentagon to ISIL leaders, “You are next.” It seems as though — and I’m just curious if you could take us perhaps a little bit into the internal deliberations that go on here at the White House. Do you have a sense that perhaps the President, that you have needed to ramp up your rhetoric a little bit to display a little bit more urgency when it comes to this counter-ISIL campaign because of the level of anxiety that is obvious within the American people right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think the American people got a sense of that urgency when the President of the United States spoke directly to them on live national television during primetime from the Oval Office eight days ago. So I think people are keenly aware of the sense of urgency that the President feels about this. But, yes, it’s also important that people understand the progress that’s been made thus far. And this —
Q Do you feel like that message is not getting out? People don’t understand it?
MR. EARNEST: I think the success that we’ve had in taking some ISIL leaders off the battlefield is one important way to measure our progress. It’s certainly not the only way.
And I think the President’s words today are not necessarily new. Just off the top of my head, as the President was speaking today, I recalled the comments that the President used — I believe it was at the VFW convention earlier this year, where he talked about how as Commander-in-Chief he was proud of the efforts that our men and women in uniform had carried out on his orders to take extremists and terrorists off the battlefield. These are terrorists affiliated with a variety of terrorist organizations, not just ISIL — Osama bin Laden being the most famous of them.
But I think the President walked through that today because it is part of our strategy to apply significant pressure to ISIL’s leadership and make it more difficult — not just to capitalize on the safe haven that they have inside of Syria to plot and carry out attacks around the world, but also more difficult to engage in the online messaging campaign that they’re currently pursuing to try to radicalize others.
Q I guess I was curious, as political animals who crunch numbers and love metadata and all that sort of thing, have you been able to decipher what is going on with these poll numbers that show 60 percent of the American people don’t believe the President has an effective strategy for dealing with ISIS? Is that — did you look at that data and decide, we needed to toughen our talk when it comes to ISIS, and that’s why he said things like “you are next” and some of the comments that he made today? Or are these things dissimilar?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, the President, when he goes to meet with his national security team at the Pentagon, is not looking at public opinion polls. The President feels a responsibility as the Commander-in-Chief to make sure that he has communicated clearly to his team that he is interested in any and all ideas they have for intensifying our campaign against ISIL.
And we’ve talked about — that’s essentially been the President’s approach to this, which is that we have put in place a military strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There are some aspects of that strategy that haven’t panned out as well as we would have liked.
Many of our Republican colleagues in particular were suggesting that we should be devoting many more resources to try to training and equipping Syrian rebels. That effort didn’t really work out very well. But what we have been doing, and what has shown some fruit is to equip some moderate opposition fighters inside of Syria that are already having some success in pushing back against ISIL. So we’ve intensified our efforts to supply greater assistance and equipment to those forces that are fighting on the ground.
The Special Operations raids are another example of this — that there are a couple of raids that have been carried out by U.S. forces that have succeeded in taking ISIL fighters off the battlefield and exploiting significant troves of intelligence. So the President has put additional resources behind those efforts that are led by our Special Operators.
That’s the essence of our strategy, and that was the discussion at the Pentagon again today was to look at our strategy, to consider those elements that are showing the most promise and the most progress, and to discuss ways to intensify and put more resources behind those efforts that are yielding some progress.
Q And the closing arguments in those trials in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray — is there a message from the White House to people in Baltimore this week as those decisions may be coming down soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not a new one. I think obviously there’s a judicial process that’s underway and I want to be careful of not saying anything that could interfere with that ongoing process or those deliberations when they occur. Jim, I think the most relevant thing I can cite to you is the President’s comments after the video of the police shooting in Chicago was released a few weeks ago. The President noted in his comments on Facebook that he was proud of the way that the community had responded; that that video prompted significant concern I think for rather obvious reasons, and there had been a forceful but peaceful display of concern by the community in Chicago. And the President described how he was proud of his community for the way that they responded and we’re certainly hopeful that as activists and individuals and other communities have similar concerns to express, that they do so peacefully.
Q And has a decision been made on whether the President will go to San Bernardino, perhaps on his way to Hawaii?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you on the President’s itinerary at this point, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q Josh, a follow on that, please?
MR. EARNEST: Go ahead, April.
Q No matter the city or what have you, it seems to be a ripple effect when we hear these verdicts come out. Baltimore is just up the road, the President did not go. People were hoping that he would go. But does the President need to come out with — and stand in these areas that are poverty-stricken and have seen this I guess increased or visible issue with police, this tension with police in the black community. Does the President at some point need to stand somewhere and what do you say to the potentials of the ripple effect, which could happen with Baltimore sometime this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the first thing that I would observe is something that I’m sure that you recall, is about six or eight months before this tragic death occurred in Baltimore, the President actually did travel to Baltimore and he did spend some time in the community, talking to people in the community about the kinds of investments in the economy there that could be made, about the impact of the Affordable Care Act and other job-training programs that have been advanced by the administration, what impact that has had on the community. So the President has had the occasion to travel to communities to talk about the variety of challenges that they’re facing, including in Baltimore. And those were important visits.
Q But the ripple effect? Baltimore is New York, Baltimore is Ferguson, Baltimore is San — I mean, there’s a ripple effect with all of this. What do you say to the nation as the issue is weighed about this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the President’s response has also been characterized by the formation of this Task Force on 21st-Century Policing to serve as best practices that are being implemented by law enforcement agencies across the country. That will have the effect of building trust between local law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect. And this is an issue that the President has also spoken about quite powerfully in a variety of settings. And I’m confident this is something that over the course of the next year or so will continue to be on the President’s radar.
Q And this is the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, and there seems to be a march full of people protesting at the NRA headquarters in Virginia. I know this White House is hopeful for a groundswell from the American public when it comes to issues of gun violence. Is this protest on this anniversary enough to change the conscience?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think one protest is going to be enough. But the President continues to encourage the American people to make their voices heard on these issues. And he continues to believe that the only way we’re going to see the kind of change in Congress that we need to see in order to get some of these common-sense bills passed is for those who are in favor of more gun safety speaking up and speaking out, and making clear to their elected representatives that this is a priority. And I cited at the beginning of the briefing on Friday, April, this poll of New Hampshire Republicans. This was a poll that was just conducted at the end of last week — or I guess it was at the beginning of last week, it came out at the end of last week. But it noted that 75 percent of the likely participants, likely voters in the Republican primary in New Hampshire support a federal law requiring universal background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a gun.
That’s an indication I think that there is some building momentum behind common-sense gun laws. But one protest is not going to make a difference, but certainly more people speaking out, like those who are protesting today, is going to be what’s necessary for us to see the kind of legislation that’s so strongly supported by Americans that Democrats, Republicans, gun owners and non-gun owners all across the country.
Q Lastly, understanding the dynamics of this battle on gun control and understanding the time that’s left in this administration, a little over a year, is it realistic to say that with this protest and others, if there were a groundswell, that even with any push, that it just may — because of the back and forth and the fierceness and the money and the strength of the NRA, is there a possibility or is there no possibility that anything could happen before the end of this President’s term?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll tell you this — the President is not giving up.
Q Can you talk a little bit about the faith-based meetings that you’re having today? Is this — were these recently scheduled, or are they a result of the campaign rhetoric that’s been going on in the Republican primary? And can you discuss how hurtful that rhetoric has been to U.S. interests and image abroad?
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, let me follow up with you on the scheduling of these meetings. It’s my understanding that at least one of these was previously scheduled, but we can get back to you on the details. As it relates to the U.S. image around the world, people in other countries look to the United States as a nation that is built upon the values of tolerance and acceptance and freedom, and that is a reputation that we wear with pride. And the President has talked in the past and in different contexts about how our commitment to those values actually advances our national security interests around the globe. And from Secretary Kerry to Secretary Johnson, and others, including national security experts who served in the previous administration, have observed that the kind of offensive, hateful, divisive rhetoric that we’ve seen from a handful of Republican candidates for President is damaging and dangerous.
What I would anticipate will be the subject of some discussion in the meetings that you asked about will be the commitment of this administration to standing up and continuing to speak out in support of the values that are central to the founding of our country but also critical in terms of advancing our national security interests.
Q In the campaign in Syria and in Iraq, there’s always been this tension between achieving military objectives and protecting the civilian population. As the military campaign ramps up, you seem to be getting closer to potentially killing civilians. You are now going after the oil infrastructure. You’re going after trucks. A lot of these, of course, are driven by civilians and others. There are other targets. Of course, on the Republican side, you hear people talking about carpet bombing in the area, about making the sand glow. Those obviously would mean serious civilian casualties. Talk about this administration’s view of your objectives militarily while also protecting civilians. Are you gradually moving toward greater, riskier operations from a civilian standpoint? Or are you — have you kept your criteria in terms of judging the risk of this the same throughout?
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, I think for a precise answer to your question, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. Essentially that’s an operational question that you’re asking about how they factor in the risk of civilian casualties. I can tell you that they’re operating under guidance from the Commander-in-Chief to do as much as they can to avoid those civilian casualties. Our cause is not advanced by killing innocent civilians who — in Iraq and in Syria, who in many cases are themselves victims of ISIL. As the President noted in his comments, the ISIL leaders are using innocent civilians as human shields. That’s obviously not a behavior that we condone. And the values that are on display as we conduct this campaign are one of many ways to highlight the difference between the values that ISIL is trying to impose on innocent people, and the values that the United States and our coalition partners are going to great lengths to defend.
Q One more. You answered the question on whether the President will visit San Bernardino. He has visited nearly all of the sites of recent mass shootings. If he is not going to San Bernardino, why? What would be different about this one?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to prejudge the outcome of our scheduling decisions at this point. So stand by for that.
Q Thanks. The President long has counseled patience — this is going to be a long fight against terrorism and against ISIS. But today, he said very specifically, we recognize that progress needs to be coming faster. And is that a change in tone or is it in fact? Is it a recognition that in light of what happened in Paris and in San Bernardino that a stronger push is needed?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is a recognition of the President’s conclusion that he is not going to be satisfied until ISIL is degraded and destroyed.
Q But he said specifically it has to come faster. Something seems different than what he has been saying, which is to counsel patience. This is going to be a years-long fight.
MR. EARNEST: Again, the President would still counsel patience, but what he wants to do is to build on the momentum that we are already seeing inside of Iraq and in Syria. And there’s a long way to go, but if we want to capitalize on the momentum that has been built up, then we need to quickly reinforce and reintensify our efforts behind those aspects of the strategy that are working. And that means the United States taking a look at our strategy to determine what aspects of our strategy can we intensify. It also means we need our coalition partners to ramp up their assistance, and we’ve seen good news from — in the form of additional commitments from our allies in the U.K. and France and Germany. But we also need to see a greater and more sustained commitment from our partners in the region as well.
We also need to see improved performance from Iraqi forces. There have been some important gains that they have made. The President noted that they were making some progress around Ramadi, but there is more that we believe that can be done there to ensure that Iraqi forces are building the capacity that they have to provide for the security situation in their own country.
Q And you mentioned earlier the ramping up counter-messaging. But specifically, what’s sort of on the wish list that Ash Carter is taking with him? What’s he very tangibly looking for, hoping for in terms of those kinds of commitments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the meetings that he is going to have this week, we’ll be in a position to talk about them a little bit more specifically as the week goes on and as more details about the Secretary’s travel are announced. But the Secretary will be meeting with the leaders of other countries who have made important commitments to this campaign. And he has in mind some additional steps that we believe they can and should take to support our efforts. And we’ll be able to talk about this a little bit more later this week.
Q So give us a sense inside that room of how things went. Was it more of informational — “here’s where we are, Mr. President”? Because the last time, in July, when he was at the Pentagon, eventually some very tangible things seemed to come out of that, including the decision to send in Special Ops forces. So was it a series of recommendations? Can you give us a sense in that room of sort of what the tick-tock was of that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Primarily, the meeting was an opportunity for the President to be briefed directly, in person, by our nation’s military leaders about the strategy that they’re carrying out against ISIL. Now, he also got updates on other elements of our strategy, too. But the reason that the meeting was at the Pentagon, and you had General Austin, who’s the commander of Central Command, give the President, as you noted, a detailed briefing of the operations that are underway and have been for some time now. So it was an opportunity for the President to get a detailed update from his team.
And the President has been interested in getting these detailed updates because he wants to try to hone in on those elements of our strategy that are showing some progress so that we can intensify our support for those elements of the strategy. In some cases, it may be by providing additional resources to those elements, we can actually see additional progress. But in each case, that’s the kind of order that the President has given to his team — let’s take a close look at our strategy; let’s offer up a cold-eyed assessment about what’s working and what’s not; and let’s be creative about figuring how we can capitalize on the opportunities that have been created by those elements of our strategy that are showing important progress.
Q Both you and the President have alluded to this idea that the Iraqis moving on Ramadi need more support, or could benefit from more support. Has he approved close air support or any specific measures? What are we talking about here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have no new announcements in terms of new approvals that the President has given in that regard. Part of what — let me take one step back, Andrew, and just say that so much of the progress that we’ve been able to cite about the advances that Iraqi security forces have made on the ground has been because we’ve seen Iraqi forces unified and acting under the command and control of the Iraqi central government. They’re benefitting from training that’s provided by not just the United States, but by members of our coalition. There are a number of countries like Australia and Italy that have important resources to devote to those training efforts.
And what we believe is necessary is to see further intensification on the part of Iraqi forces as they build up their capacity, as they build their numbers. And I’m confident that this will be something that will be discussed over the course of Secretary Carter’s trip to the Middle East.
Q And just another issue that was raised in the address. There’s a specific focus on killing leaders of the Islamic State group. Is there a renewed focus on going after Baghdadi? Is there a specific team tasked with killing him?
MR. EARNEST: For the resources that are devoted to that aspect of our strategy, Andrew, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. Obviously, our interest is in applying significant pressure to everyone in ISIL that’s in a leadership role. And this does have the effect of disrupting ISIL’s operations in two ways. The first is, obviously if you’re taking those leaders off the battlefield, it means that ISIL needs to go through the effort of replacing them and having somebody else fulfill that responsibility.
But the second thing is that we’re applying enormous pressure to ISIL’s leaders. And so even those who are still living, they’re having to go to great lengths to protect themselves and to provide for their own security, and make sure that they are careful about their travels and careful about their communications. And that makes it harder for them to plot and plan and carry out acts of violence. It also makes it harder for them to engage in the other day-to-day operations of running their organization.
And so we’re going to make sure that that pressure continues to remain in place. And it’s also why the exploitation of this intelligence information is so critically important; that there could be information that is obtained that could give us a better sense of how these ISIL leaders move around the country. They could give us a better sense of with whom they associate. And that’s why the collection of this intelligence is an important priority, and it gives you — the other reason it’s a good example is it gives you a good sense of how integrated the strategy is; that you don’t just have a bunch of people in intelligence working over in this office, and then the folks who are in charge of the military strategy somewhere else. Our campaign benefits from the careful integration of all these different elements. That’s true of our counter-financing efforts, and it certainly is an important part of the strategy that the President’s team is implementing.
Q I want to go back to the ban on oil exports. We just ran out a story reporting that House Democrats are engaged on this issue. There’s been other reports to that effect. They’re apparently talking about concessions such as additional federal assistance for renewable energy, or even some sort of assistance for refiners. Is the White House comfortable with this kind of horse-trading? Do you think that could yield a policy that the President could support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alex, at this point I’m not going to get into the details of the ongoing conversations, even on a hypothetical basis. But let me say a couple of things. Our opposition to lifting the ban on the exporting of U.S. crude oil is something that we continue to oppose primarily because we believe that that legislation is unnecessary. However, we do, of course, believe that there is more that Congress can and should do to increase investments in renewable energy. And I described earlier how those early investments have been critical not just to our current economic strength, but also because of the tremendous opportunity that appears to be in place down the line for American companies that are at the forefront of this kind of innovation.
There is now a global market for solar energy, for example. As countries around the world consider how they’re going to meet the commitments that they’ve made in Paris, they’re going to have to consider this kind of new technology. And the more success that American businesses have, the more likely they are to win that business. And that’s going to be good for our economy back here at home. It’s going to be good for American workers. And it’s one of the reasons that we continue to be optimistic that the climate agreement that was reached in historic fashion in Paris over the weekend isn’t just an important step in saving the planet, it actually creates some important economic opportunity for the United States and American workers back here at home.
Q So it sounds like with appropriate concessions and lifting the ban, it would not necessarily be a deal-breaker for the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Alex, this falls in the category of those kinds of things that if it were just you and me trying to work it out and trying to figure out what’s fair and what we’d be willing to trade, you and I could probably reach a pretty good budget agreement in the next couple of hours. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of other people that feel like they should have a say on that.
So they’re still working through all of the puts and takes here. And I’ve declined to sort of weigh in on one side or the other in terms of drawing clear connections to the kinds of things that we would veto. But I have tried to be quite candid about our position on this range of things. And primarily for administrative or procedural reasons, we oppose lifting legislation that would lift the ban on the exporting of American crude oil. But we certainly do want to see Congress — and hopefully they will in the context of this budget agreement — make the kinds of investments in renewable and clean energy that are good for our economy and have the potential to create good, American, middle-class jobs down the line.
Q I don’t mean to harp on this, but by explicitly linking these two issues, it sounds like you’re comfortable with them being related.
MR. EARNEST: I’m only mentioning these two issues in the same breath because you did. So I don’t mean to leave you or anyone else with the impression that I’m condoning or opposing any sort of potential trade here. I’m just trying to be as explicit as I can about our position on these issues. But, ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Congress to figure it out.
Q Bowe Bergdahl — his lawyer just announced that his case has been referred to a general court-martial. I wanted to get your just general reaction to that first, if you’ve got any.
MR. EARNEST: Jon, unfortunately, in this instance, I’m very, very limited in what I can say about this ongoing matter. This is a case that is currently working its way through the military justice process, and as the spokesperson for the Commander-in-Chief, there’s a lot of sensitivity about the potential for influencing the outcome of that military justice proceeding. So I’m really not able to react even in the most general terms to the latest twists and turns in the case. There’s an established process whereby the military will both conduct this investigation and consider the results of it, and I don’t want to say anything that could be perceived as influencing that process in any way.
Q Without commenting directly on the case then, can you say, given all the time that’s passed since the trade happened, whether U.S. security — national security interests have been impacted either way, whether it’s made the country safer doing this trade by getting five less people at Guantanamo, or whether it has made our interests more at danger, given five people that are out there now threaten us?
MR. EARNEST: Well, those individuals that were transferred from Guantanamo are individuals who are still in Qatar, and they are there under a whole series of safeguards that limits their ability significantly to cause any harm to the United States or our interests. But the bottom line for this matter is that Sergeant Bergdahl was an American citizen who put on the uniform of the United States military and he was rescued by the United States military. And the Commander-in-Chief feels a responsibility to everyone who puts on the uniform that we’re not going to leave them behind. And the way that this — the way that Sergeant Bergdahl was rescued I think is a testament to the President’s commitment to that principle.
Q And then I just wanted to follow up quickly on Kevin and Margaret’s questions about the visa issue that ABC reported out today. I just wanted to make sure that I understand correctly that the White House did not pressure the Department of Homeland Security either way when this policy — this secret policy was initiated like a year ago or before?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q And did the White House weigh in either way at all? Did they just — hands off, steer clear from it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is — obviously this is a program that is run by the Department of Homeland Security, and there are experts at that agency that are responsible for determining the proper way that those programs should be conducted, consistent with national security interests of the United States. And given the fact that we’re now in a situation where any individuals that entered the United States through that program, questions have been raised about whether or not enough safeguards are in place. And that’s precisely what the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security are taking a close look at right now.
Q Is the White House itself, when they look at a prospective hire, do they consider an applicant’s social media posts when they’re going back and reviewing their own applications?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to all of the processes that are in place for individuals who are considered for hiring at the White House, but if that were the case, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Q Thanks, Josh. Over the weekend, 45 civilians died in bombings in the Damascus area and much of the areas of Syria that are not controlled by ISIS but are under contest — or contested by other rebel groups — the Assad regime air campaign coupled with Russian assistance on that. The President has met face-to-face with Vladimir Putin twice since the Russians began their air campaign. He has tried to jawbone him and I guess every other means possible to get Russia to change course. It’s obviously not going to happen, and the President has talked repeatedly about the need for a solution on the diplomatic front in the Vienna talks. But Russia, so far, is not going to go along. There was ostensibly an agreement to have rebels represented at those talks. Russia has shot that down just over the course of the last few days, is my understanding. What are the prospects for the talks as they stand right now, and the goal of the ceasefire to begin in just a couple of weeks, the beginning of the year, given the context of what’s happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, I can tell you that for a detailed update of where things stand now, I’d refer you to the State Department. But let me give you a sense of my understanding, and it will not be as detailed as what you could get from over there. The progress that we’ve made along the diplomatic front thus far would not have been possible without the constructive participation of the Russians. And the progress that we’ve made has been to lay out a timeline for a ceasefire and for a set of political talks. I recognize that sounds a little meager, but when you consider the chaos that has reigned inside of Syria for five years, that’s an important step, and a step that was only possible because Secretary Kerry showed American leadership in bringing all of the relevant parties to the table. And these are parties like Iran and Saudi Arabia that are, figuratively and presumably, in some cases, even literally, at each other’s throats.
It also required the constructive participation of the Russians, who obviously have significant equities inside of Syria. The only military base in the world outside of the former Soviet Union is in Syria. So the Russians are quite concerned about what the future of Syria looks like because of their own investment in that country. What has also taken place is there was a meeting in Riyadh of a substantial number of opposition groups. For years, we’ve been trying to work through a U.N. process to try to organize the Syrian opposition. That’s been a difficult effort but bringing a hundred of them into the same room in the same city at the same time to have conversations about engaging in the political process represents some important progress.
So I think what I would say is that we have benefitted from Russia’s constructive participation in these talks thus far, and I’m confident that this will be part of the discussion that Secretary Kerry has with President Putin when he is in Moscow tomorrow.
Q What is the likelihood, the reality of a ceasefire, though, in principle, agreed to, is actually going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously are going to work very hard to try to achieve that goal, and I think we’ll have a much better sense of the prospects at the conclusion of the December 18th meeting that Secretary Kerry scheduled for New York.
Bill Press, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Oh boy.
MR. EARNEST: No pressure. (Laughter.)
Q Somebody had to ask this, so I will. You may know that Donald Trump’s doctor just put out a statement on his health. And he says, and I quote, “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” (Laughter.) Do you accept that President Obama is not as healthy as Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Is the suggestion that Mr. Trump’s doctor has conducted a thorough medical examination of President Jefferson and President Adams? That’s a lot of work — a lot of homework to do — 44 Presidents to take a look at.
Q What serious health issues affecting President Obama have you kept from us? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: None that I’m aware of. You’ve gotten some regular updates about the President’s health as well, and obviously this is — the health and medical examinations of the individual candidates is obviously a part of this process, but I don’t have a specific comment on the findings of Mr. Trump’s physician.
MR. EARNEST: I would not — from here, I would not call into question the medical credentials of somebody who decides they were ready to conduct a medical examination of Mr. Trump. That must have been a pretty interesting appointment. (Laughter.)
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
Q Just to be clear, the administration does still stand behind the swap for Bergdahl, yes?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t announce a change in our policy.
2:35 P.M. EST
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