Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 24, 2016 – 1:22 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I apologize for the late start today. Let me do one quick thing at the top, and then we’ll hustle on to your questions.
As many of you have heard me say many times before, the United States is on the brink of finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. And we’re hopeful that the Congress will work to approve the highest-standard trade agreement in history, particularly when it comes to protecting labor and environmental rights, intellectual property and a variety of other areas. This is an agreement, as we’ve discussed many times, that will cut 18,000 taxes that various countries impose on products that are made in America.
Now, part of this discussion has been the administration’s commitment to enforcing our trade laws. Our track record when it comes to enforcement actions at the WTO is quite good. To date, the United States has brought 20 enforcement actions to the WTO. That’s more than any other member of the WTO. And in fact, where every one of those disputes has been decided, the United States has won. We’re undefeated.
I mention that because that winning streak continued today. The WTO made an announcement today that the United States has won a challenge to rules in India that discriminate against imported solar products. This represents a significant victory for the rapid deployment of solar energy across the world, but also for clean jobs right here in America. It also represents, as I mentioned, the administration’s continuing emphasis on using all the tools at our disposal to hold our trading partners accountable.
Now, in order to further expand our robust trade enforcement efforts, the President will sign into law today H.R. 644 — this is the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015. Among other things, this bill will create a trade enforcement trust fund to provide new resources currently authorized at $15 million per year for trade enforcement efforts.
It also will bolster the enforcement tools that we can use to protect intellectual property rights, and it will also give the United States new and unprecedented measures to address unfair currency practices. I know this is a sticking point with many members of Congress who are considering their support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The conference report for H.R. 644 that the President will sign into law today creates a new, binding mechanism to confront countries that engage in unfair currency practices, and requires the administration to impose penalties on countries that fail to work with us.
So the President is serious both about having access to these tools, but also in using them in a way that we can protect the American economy, American businesses, and most importantly, American workers.
So, with all that out of the way, Darlene, do you want to kick us off?
Q Thank you. I have a couple different topics to poke you on today.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q First, what is the response from here to Speaker Ryan saying that Republicans are taking legal steps to stop the President from taking unilateral action to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay?
MR. EARNEST: I did observe that Republicans certainly seem to be in a pretty litigious mood these days. And I guess this is just the latest installment in that. Look, if they spent just a portion of the time that they do in hiring lawyers at taxpayer expense to sue the President to actually work with the President to make progress on behalf of the American people, they’d have a lot more to show for their work. And whether that is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or even fulfilling the vacancy at the Supreme Court, this is the basic work that the Constitution and the American people expect of the United States Senate. And that applies, at least in some of those cases, to the House of Representatives as well.
But, look, when it comes to our plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, that’s something that we laid out yesterday and it’s a plan that we believe merits serious consideration by the United States Congress.
Q A question on the President’s meeting with the King of Jordan. Jordan has been talking a lot about needing more aid to deal with the Syrian refugees. Did the President offer any additional assistance specifically to Jordan to deal with the refugee issue there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did discuss some additional military assistance that the United States will be providing Jordan. Obviously the United States and Jordan have an important security relationship that enhances the national security of both our countries. The President talked about why that relationship is particularly important, and it will be enhanced with these additional resources that were announced today.
The United States is the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance to the humanitarian crisis caused by Syria, and that means that we’ve offered significant assistance to the Jordanians who, themselves, have demonstrated tremendous generosity in meeting the basic humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million people, who have fled to Jordan from Syria, trying to escape violence.
And this is just one particularly troubling consequence of the chaos inside of Syria right now. And the United States will continue to stand with Jordan as they certainly are doing more than their fair share here to address that situation. There were not any new announcements as it relates to humanitarian assistance today. But I certainly would not rule out additional humanitarian assistance being provided by the United States of America.
Q Do you know what percentage of the assistance the U.S. has already given to help Syrian refugees who have gone to Jordan?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have that statistic, but I can certainly look to see if that’s something we can make available to you.
Q And then on the Supreme Court. The announcement yesterday by Senator McConnell that there would be no hearing, no vote, not even any meetings with whoever the President chooses for the Supreme Court — does that not complicate the process for him choosing someone? Because you then have to find someone who is going to be willing to put themselves in the middle of this not regular situation when it comes to a Supreme Court nominee.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I certainly would agree with that description. I think we have seen an unprecedented attempt to inject politics into the situation, and that’s rather unfortunate. It’s inconsistent with the expectations of the United States Constitution. I think it’s also inconsistent with the expectations of the American people. The American people expect that the United States Senate will do their job. And right now, you have members of the United States Senate suggesting that they’re not going to do their job for the next 11 months. And I think that’s a position that’s rather difficult to justify.
But that’s something that they’ll have to determine — they’ll have to determine for themselves whether or not this is a position that they can maintain. The President certainly is intent on following through on his constitutional responsibilities. The President will do his job. And in fact, his team is already hard at work at preparing materials for him so that he can eventually choose the best person to fill the vacancy at the Supreme Court.
And the kinds of people who would be considered for a position like this I think are well aware that every debate that takes place — well, let me say it this way. Certainly in the modern era, anybody that’s been nominated to the Supreme Court has gone through a rigorous vetting process. It’s not supposed to be an easy process. And I don’t think the expectation is — it’s certainly not the expectation of the President that it’s going to be easy. But it is the expectation of the President — and again, I think it’s the expectation of the American people — that it’s a process that will be carried out seriously, and that places constitutional responsibilities ahead of narrow political considerations.
So that is why both the President is committed to following through on his responsibility. I also think it’s why that when the President has decided on the right person to fill this vacancy that that person will be enthusiastic about what is a weighty responsibility but also a tremendous opportunity.
Q So you don’t think it will make the search more difficult?
MR. EARNEST: I will tell you — obviously I can’t speak for someone who has not been asked yet, but I can tell you that when it comes to our search process, we are going to set aside politics and we are going to be focused on helping the President make a decision about who the best person in America is to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. That’s what he will be focused on, and that’s how he will make his decision.
Q Moving on to Syria. I know the President said today that he didn’t want to raise expectations — or was cautious about raising expectations about the cessation of hostilities agreement there.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q Secretary Kerry has said that if the parties don’t live up to the agreement or if these peace talks fail, that there have been a lot of discussions about a plan B, and that there are other options. Can you talk a bit about what would be the plan B if these peace talks don’t go ahead — if people don’t comply with this agreement, what are the other options for the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I know that when people refer to a plan B it assumes that diplomacy will fail. And I think that in some cases, people using that terminology assume that that means a consideration of military options. And at this point, I’m unwilling to discuss potential military options at a time when we’re hoping that diplomacy can succeed.
We’re clear-eyed about the situation, and I think you heard me acknowledge earlier this week that we anticipate that there will be some obstacles to the implementation of the cessation of hostilities. I would anticipate that in the early days it will be difficult to implement, that there will be some violations, and it will be unclear after a few days or maybe even after a few weeks about whether or not this understanding will stick. But right now, that’s where our attention is focused.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t have important military objectives inside of Syria. Of course, we do. The cessation of hostilities does not apply in any way and does not have any impact on our ability to continue to press the case against ISIL. In fact, the reason that we are trying to put in place this cessation of hostilities is in part to get the parties to focus on the need to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and begin to make additional progress on the political tract and begin to negotiate the kind of long-overdue political solution that everyone acknowledges is required.
Q But these discussions of a plan B, do they include military options?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to speculate at this point about what a plan B would include, because our focus right now is so squarely on trying to ensure the successful implementation of the cessation of hostilities. And I want to be clear, it’s not going to be obvious after a few days, or even few weeks, about whether or not the implementation has succeeded. In fact, we anticipate that there will be some obstacles that are encountered basically right away.
I should point out that the responsibility is not just resting with the United States. The Russians and the Syrian regime have a significant burden to bear here in making sure that this understanding about a cessation of hostilities can be effectively implemented. And based on the understanding that’s been reached, the world can see exactly what the expectations are of the Russians and the Syrians, and it puts them on the hook for making sure that his can succeed.
Q Today, the President is going to be meeting with the VFW commander. There’s been some scandal with the VA hospital in Cincinnati. There were talks about cuts of medical services. There’s been an investigation — presence of dirty surgical equipment in hospital rooms, and things of that nature. Has the White House looked into this at all? Has the President raised any concerns with the VA Secretary about this? Are there concerns about this scandal in Cincinnati?
MR. EARNEST: Well, most importantly, the VA Secretary has looked into this. This is a situation that the White House is aware of. But Secretary McDonald has worked assiduously in the couple of years that he’s been in that role to implement some overdue reforms and making sure that we are keeping faith with our veterans. And there was important work that needed to be done to make sure that those health care services were being provided in a timely fashion and that they were getting the kind of high-quality attention that they deserve. And it’s been painstaking work.
But Secretary McDonald has been serious about implementing these reforms and improving the performance of the VA. And we certainly are pleased with the progress that has been made under his leadership, but I think everybody around here acknowledges that there is more important work that needs to be done in this regard. And I think when you’re talking about something that is a priority as high as this, trying to meet the health care needs of millions of our bravest citizens, I don’t think that work is ever going to be finished in making sure that we are serving them in a manner that they deserve. And certainly, Secretary McDonald takes that seriously. I can assure you that the Commander-in-Chief takes that seriously. And we’re going to continue to watch these situations, moving forward.
Q Back on the Supreme Court. The President said in the Oval today, multiple times, that the American people should decide on his nominee. And I’m wondering — I mean, that seems to signal kind of a shift from what you guys have been talking about, which is engaging with senators directly. And I’m wondering if it sort of previews you guys gearing up for now kind of a public fight or a political fight over your Supreme Court nominee.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, I would urge you not to read that as a shift, primarily because I don’t think the President intended to send a signal of any kind about a shift. Our focus right now is on nominating the best person for the job. That’s the President’s responsibility right now, and he’s hard at work on that.
And when asked what’s going to change the Senate’s mind about this nominee and convince the Senate that they should fulfill their responsibility to give the nominee the courtesy of a meeting, and do what every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 has done, which is appear at a hearing before the United States Senate to discuss their potential nomination — that’s true of every nominee who wasn’t withdrawn before the hearing was convened. So there’s a longstanding precedent here.
And I do think that the President believes that we’re certainly going to continue to make our case to the United States Senate that they should do their job. The President has called a significant number of the members of the Judiciary Committee, both Democrats and Republicans. And the President is hoping that he’ll have an opportunity to actually meet with the chair and ranking member of that important committee who would consider — who would host those hearings and consider the nominee.
The last I heard is that Senator Leahy, who’s the ranking member, has said that he’s eager to meet this week. We have not yet heard back from Chairman Grassley, but we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to schedule that meeting quite soon. And that’s what the President has done the two previous times that he sought to fill those vacancies — he’s had meetings in the Oval Office with the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both in 2009 and 2010. And that’s what he wants to do this time, because he takes seriously his responsibility to consult with Congress.
So we’re certainly going to continue to be making our case. But I think the President is alluding to the fact that I think most Americans agree that senators weren’t elected to a term of five years and one month, but rather, they were elected to six-year terms. And they should spend that six years doing what the Constitution describes. And that’s the case that we’ll make, and I think there’s broad public agreement about that.
Q Speaking of that consultation, The Washington Post reported earlier today that Senator Reid had asked the President to look at the Governor of Nevada as one of the candidates for the Supreme Court, and that the White House was vetting Governor Sandoval. I’m wondering if you can talk at all about whether that request was made by Senator Reid, and if on the list that you have said is not complete, that Governor Sandoval is one of those names.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have reported that the President has spoken to Senator Reid about the Supreme Court vacancy. He did that at the end of last week. And I don’t have any details about their conversation to share with you. I haven’t read The Washington Post story, but I was told about it before I walked out here. I suspect it is only the first of many stories that speculate on potential Supreme Court nominees. And I don’t think it will be helpful for me to get into a rhythm of responding to each one as it appears.
So we’re going to let the process play out. The President is going to conduct this work rigorously. And once he has chosen the best person to fill this vacancy, then we can have a conversation about that individual’s credentials.
Q I asked you last week about work in the Senate on an encryption bill that would allow law enforcement access to encrypted technology, if they were able to get a warrant. Senators Burr and Feinstein said now they’re actually drafting this legislation and they hope to introduce it in March. I’m wondering, has the White House been involved, or do you plan to be involved in the drafting of that legislation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the extent of the conversations on this issue. Obviously, this is an issue that our policymakers here at the White House and across the administration have spent a lot of time considering. And so I certainly wouldn’t rule out some consultation between the administration and Capitol Hill as members of the Senate who are interested in this issue try to develop helpful legislation. We’ll want to play a constructive role in that process. But I don’t know at this point to what extent administration officials have been consulted about that bill.
Q In theory, are you very supportive of the legislation? I mean, you’ve kind of talked about a sweet spot between Apple not deciding and the White House, or the administration not deciding. In this case, Congress and the courts would be deciding. It’s been iffy before on if you’d support an encryption. So I’m wondering if — acknowledging that the specifics of the bill aren’t out — if this, in general, is something that you guys can get behind.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, as you point out, we have previously been quite skeptical of legislative handling of this particular matter. But I’m confident that we’ll engage constructively with those members of the Senate who are interested in this issue. I don’t know at this point whether or not this will result in a piece of legislation that we will embrace. But I feel confident in telling you that there will be consultation between senior administration officials and the senators who are writing this bill.
Q Josh, in the blog post from the President this morning, he said we are — in the weeks ahead, we will see a decision on his nominee. Did that mean to suggest that we are weeks away from a decision?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that that necessarily provided a whole lot of insight, though, into the President’s timeline. We previously noted that the President nominated Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan about a month or so after the previous vacancies occurred in 2009 and 2010, respectively. I don’t have a new timeline to lay out here, but certainly “in the weeks ahead” language would be consistent with previous timelines. But it also could foreshadow a slightly shorter timeline or even somewhat longer timeline. So we’ll just have to see.
Q That was helpful. (Laughter.)
Q You know the questions are just going to get worse and worse. (Laughter.) But two weeks into this, what you’re signaling then is that the President is just not in a place, not only information-wise, but perhaps, given the President’s comments today with the press, that he needs maybe to lay a little bit more groundwork politically. It seems like the strategy is take your time; go slow and steady, emphasizing how much of a quick reaction you’re seeing on Capitol Hill from Republicans. Do you mean to emphasize that contrast?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we’re trying to emphasize is two principles that I would acknowledge are in some tension. The first is, there is ample time left in this term, left in the President’s final term in office. There is also ample time before the beginning of the next Supreme Court term in October for the President to carefully consider a nominee, put that nominee forward, for that individual to get a fair hearing and a timely yes-or-no vote. We’ve noted that over the last 40 years or so, about the average time frame for a Supreme Court nominee to go from nomination to confirmation —
Q But this is anything but average when it comes to the political firestorm you’re looking that.
MR. EARNEST: That average time frame is about 67 days. And I would acknowledge, as I did with Darlene, that what we have seen from Republicans is rather — is unprecedented. Not just rather unprecedented; it is genuinely unprecedented. And that said — the President alluded to this in the Oval Office — the Constitution doesn’t include any exceptions for election years. The expectation of our Founders and the expectations of the American people are that the United States Senate will do its job, even though it’s an election year. And particularly in this era of what’s often described as the permanent campaign, it seems like you could use this as a permanent excuse; that you could say, well, there’s just another election around the corner.
And the fact is, by spending more time focused on elections and less time focused on constitutional responsibilities, Republicans in the United States Senate risk politicizing a branch of the United States government that’s supposed to be insulated from politics. And that certainly is part of the stakes here.
Look, the other part of — the other stakes involved here are the fact that we have a Supreme Court right now that is functioning with a vacancy. That’s obviously not how the Founders intended. And it certainly, again, is inconsistent with the expectations of the American people.
Q And you said that there’s a risk of politicizing the Supreme Court. Do you mean to suggest as well that the President is not looking for the political affiliations of potential nominees? Would he be willing to appoint a Republican?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President laid out in his SCOTUS — in his blog, on the SCOTUSblog today — some of my colleagues have been joking that it’s the POTUS blog on the SCOTUSblog — but the President made clear in that presentation exactly the criteria that he intends to use to select a nominee. And you are right that there is no reference to a nominee’s political affiliation. There’s no reference to which candidates they have previously supported in the political process. There is no reference to the political party that he or she has joined. The President is focused on criteria that, frankly, is more important, and that is an individual’s qualifications and their experience and their view of the law. That will take precedence over any sort of political consideration.
Q So, in theory, yes, he would consider a Republican for this job?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the accurate way to say it is that the President is not going to — when the President gets to a stage — and I’m confident that he will get here — where he’s interviewing nominees or potential nominees in a conversation, I’m confident that he’s not going to ask them which party primary they vote in.
Q He’d probably know.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q He’d know, going into the meeting — no?
MR. EARNEST: Not necessarily.
Q Well, if he were sitting down with a certain GOP governor —
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Well, I guess in some situations, you’re right, that may be a little more obvious that in others.
Q And you said interviews right there. No interviews have actually been held yet with —
MR. EARNEST: No interviews have been held at this point. And I’ll answer that question because I raised it. But I don’t anticipate that we’ll make a public acknowledgement when those sorts of interviews have been conducted.
Q And one on Syria, if I could. You said you’re unwilling to discuss military options as a potential plan B. “Plan B” was a phrased used by the Secretary of State, at least twice so far, publicly. So it wasn’t simply speculative; it was from the administration. So is there or is there not a plan B?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that I was making to Ayesha is that we are focused on trying to bring about the successful implementation of the understanding about a cessation of hostilities. That is certainly the focus of Secretary Kerry’s efforts and it’s the focal point of all of the work that’s going on as a part of our work in Syria. Again, the cessation of hostilities does not apply to our ongoing military efforts against ISIL. Those efforts continue, and they will continue unabated. But when it comes to this diplomatic track, our focus right now is on trying to get this cessation of hostilities implemented, and that we navigate the early potholes in the road that we’re sure to encounter.
Q So you’re unwilling to discuss a plan B, but you’re not unwilling to entertain a possibility of military option? Because many would say, frankly, they’d be shocked if the administration would consider a military option, given that consistently the administration has been against any kind of military option in Syria.
MR. EARNEST: Right. A lot of our critics, or at least sort of the armchair quarterbacks have suggested that a plan B should be considered that would include some sort of military option. And I think the case that I’m trying to make here is that we’re very focused on trying to implement the cessation of hostilities.
The reason that I’m not ruling out a plan B generally is because you would expect the administration to take responsible steps around contingency planning. We do that on essentially every policy question that the President faces, both foreign and domestic. So I’m not suggesting that there’s not a discussion about potential contingencies, but I am suggesting that those kinds of discussions are not the focus of our attention right now. What is the focus of our attention is the successful implementation of a cessation of hostilities.
Q Less than two weeks ago, the Vice President was on the phone with the popular-elected President of Ukraine, Poroshenko. They discussed the political importance of the Minsk agreement, hostilities still raging in the eastern part of that country, and their effort together to root out any kind of corruption, et cetera. Might the President — since he has been meeting with some leaders to bring more openness in his last part of his administration, might he consider a visit to Ukraine in this last year of his administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any updates about the President’s travel at this point. Obviously, the situation in Ukraine is something that has — it’s been something that the administration has been working on quite a bit lately. And obviously, Vice President Biden had the opportunity to travel to Ukraine at the end of last year. And I think Vice President Biden, probably more than anyone at senior levels of the administration, has been invested in trying to bring about the resolution in Ukraine that we’d like to see.
Much of that has been blunted by the refusal of the Russians to implement their part of the Minsk agreements. We have seen the Ukrainians take some important steps. We’ve also seen the Ukrainians put in place some important reforms that will be beneficial to their longer-term success. But right now, the biggest problem is the continued willingness of the Russians and the separatists in eastern Ukraine that they back to flout the obligations and commitments that they made in the Minsk agreement. And even as Ukraine is facing some significant challenges, they can continue to rely on the United States to be there to support them as they navigate this difficult situation.
Q You’ve said lawmakers aren’t fulfilling their responsibility when it comes to the President’s Supreme Court nominee. But under the Constitution, Congress’s only responsibility is to give advice and consent on the President’s nominee. Clearly, Senate Republicans are opting not to consent. But just to be clear, do you feel that they are defying their constitutional responsibility, or simply breaking precedent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s a little of both — both when you consider that every nominee that was put forward by a President since 1875 that wasn’t later withdrawn by that President has received a hearing and/or a vote in the United States Senate. It may even go back farther than that, but that’s essentially as far back as our records went. So I think that is an indication of how their actions are not consistent with more than 120 years of precedent here.
What’s also true is that Republicans, in offering up an excuse, often suggest that, oh, well, there’s an 80-year precedent of not confirming Supreme Court nominees in an election year. The fact is, that’s not correct either. Justice Kennedy was confirmed by a Democratic majority in the United States Senate in 1988, and Justice Kennedy was a nominee of President Reagan’s. So it’s not just that Justice Kennedy was confirmed in a presidential election year, it’s not just that he was confirmed in the final year of President Reagan’s tenure in office; it’s that Justice Kennedy was confirmed by Democrats in the Senate, even though he’d been appointed by, or nominated by a Republican President. That’s the essence of the case that we’ve made.
And I know that the letter that was circulated by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee yesterday got a lot of attention. I think what also merits some attention is that two of the 11 people that signed that letter were people who actually voted for Justice Kennedy to confirm him in a presidential election year. So there’s a little irony about this whole thing. I think it is why Republicans are going to continually be evaluating whether or not the unreasonable, obstructionist precedent-breaking posture that they have adopted is one that they will sustain over the course of the next 11 months. I think that will be a difficult thing for them to do.
Q But do you feel they’re defying that responsibility to give advice and consent?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think for hundreds of years, the Senate has had a lot of clarity about what exactly their responsibilities are when it comes to the Supreme Court. And those responsibilities are that the President nominates someone and the Senate offers their advice and consent. Senators don’t think to themselves, when evaluating a nominee, “Gee, is this the person that I would have picked?” Rather, what they do is they consider whether or not this is somebody that they are confident will serve in a lifetime appointment in the Supreme Court with honor and distinction.
And the President has had success the last two times that he has nominated Supreme Court justices, and nominating people that he was able to persuade Republicans would serve the country with honor and distinction — and they have. And I’m confident that’s what the President will do this time in terms of the person that he puts forward. Hopefully, Republicans will be able to set politics aside and focus and prioritize their constitutional duties.
Q And any word back yet from Senator Grassley to the President’s invitation?
MR. EARNEST: The last I heard, which is about 90 minutes ago, is that we had not yet heard directly from him about whether or not he would attend the meeting. But we’re certainly hopeful that he will.
Q And just one question on the campaign. Now that Donald Trump has three of four contests, does the President feel or consider him to be the presumptive Republican nominee?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t asked the President that question. I think the President has weighed in I think pretty directly on his views about Mr. Trump’s chances if he is the Republican nominee. But I don’t think that the President will, at this point, weigh in on his expectations about who will be the Republican nominee.
Q Thanks. Earlier today, when the President talked about the Supreme Court, he seemed to suggest — you said he used the phrase, “this will evolve over time.” And he seemed to suggest that he thinks that once there’s a nominee, a name out there, that he thinks that it’s possible the Republicans will rethink their position. Did he mean to suggest that? And then also, it sort of would seem to point to him trying to figure out a nominee would be a consensus choice, rather than somebody the Republicans would look at as a liberal crusader or someone who would be a sop to the progressive base. Is it fair to draw that conclusion from what he said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s separate out those two things. You may have to remind me of the second question. I’ll focus on the first part. I think the fact of the matter is, we’ve actually already seen a number of senators change their position on this issue. There are a number of senators who have come forward, initially declaring their openness to a vote or their openness to a committee hearing, or their opposition to a filibuster, and then to have walked that back after a conversation with the Republican leader in the Senate.
They’ll have to explain that to their constituents why they seem to be listening more closely to what the Republican leader in the Senate tells them as opposed to following what the Constitution tells them to do. But I think we’ve already seen an evolution in the position that some senators have taken, and so I certainly — it would be inaccurate to suggest that the positions that have been adopted by Republicans in the Senate have been fixed. Some of them I guess it has, but certainly not all of them. And I think what is also true is that we also have seen some members of the Senate come forward and say that the President’s nominee should get a hearing. And so, if anything, there’s bipartisan support for a hearing. And we’re hopeful that that’s what the Senate will do.
Q But he did seem to suggest that when they see the nominee and see that the nominee is, in his words, well qualified, they may change their position. And that does seem to suggest that he is going to pick a certain kind of nominee that Republicans would look at as someone who deserved a fair hearing. So is it fair to draw that conclusion from what he said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t speculate at this point about who the President is going to choose. But we do have two relevant points of reference, and those are in the form of Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan. These were two women with unquestioned qualifications. They had different kinds of experience, but the kind of experience that would serve them well on the bench. The President put them forward, and they were supported by I think just about every Democrat and some Republicans. That is a bipartisan process. And I’m confident that when the President makes a final decision the President will be able to make a forceful case that those individuals deserve at least the same kind of bipartisan support that Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan got.
Q Is he consulting with the Republicans who (inaudible) talk to about who they think should be considered?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’m not going to get into the details of their conversations. But obviously you would expect that there would be some discussion about who the President picks in those consultations. I will say that it is probably hard to have that conversation if the person on the other end of the phone has said that they’re not willing to consider anyone. It sort of makes it hard to —
Q Even if they’re sheepish about it? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, maybe even if they’re sheepish about it, they’re — maybe if they’re sheepish about it in public, maybe they’re a little bit more willing to discuss it privately. But I don’t have details of those calls to read out.
There’s another element to your question that I’m not sure I answered.
Q Well, that was if it was fair to draw the conclusion from what you said that he was looking for a consensus pick. If he’s looking for someone who Republicans would look at and say, this person deserves a hearing even though I said I’m not going to grant a hearing — that would seem to point us in the direction that the President is looking for a moderate or someone who would be seen as acceptable to Republicans.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s what I would try to sort of distill here, is that — again, the requirement of the United States Senate is not to only vote for the person that you, yourself, would have chosen to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. So I’m confident, for example, that at least some of the Republicans who ended up voting for Justice Sotomayor probably had someone higher than her on their own personal list. That’s okay. That’s a perfectly reasonable position. But that’s not what the Constitution requires. What the Constitution requires is determining whether or not this is an individual who can serve the country with honor and distinction — do they have the qualifications necessary to serve on the Supreme Court. And that’s the criteria they used, and that was the criteria they used in making the decision to support Justice Sotomayor’s nomination.
I think we’re realistic about the fact that whoever the President puts forward, even if this is the most nonpartisan person and the most insightful legal thinker in history, the person is not going to get 100 votes in the United States Senate. We’re realistic about that. And the President has acknowledged that politics have been injected in this process. And particularly people like Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio, if they’re still running for president at the time, that’s going to make it an even more complicated vote for them. The President understands that firsthand. So that’s understandable.
The question is, is the institution of the United States Senate prepared to act and function in a way that the American people expect? Right now it’s not. But will that change over time and will that change once there is a nominee put forward that has indisputable qualifications? Hopefully. But we’ll see.
Q Just about a week ago, when the President was traveling and he was talking about this when asked, he use words like venom and rancor, saying we’ve almost become accustomed to the obstructionism of Republicans. But today, it just seemed like there was a markedly different tone. He used words like sympathetic, saying he understands the pressure and the posture, saying he recognizes the politics are difficult. Why this sort of change in tone there? Is he kind of coming around to seeing why this is possible? Because, like I said, a week ago it was all this is obstructionist, and this keeps happening, and this shouldn’t happen.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President did make the observation even when he was on the road that this is a process that has been subjected to politics and that it was going to be impossible to extract all politics out of the situation, but that what he’s focused on is making sure that the institution of the United States Senate functions as the American people and as the Constitution expect.
And, look, you’re right, though, that the Senate is not off to a good start on this. Refusing the courtesy of a visit with the President’s potential nominee? That’s certainly not the spirit that either the Founders of the country expected; I also don’t think it’s the spirit that most Americans would expect. They elected members of Congress to come to Washington, D.C., fulfill their constitutional responsibilities and do the work of the American people.
And allowing a Supreme Court vacancy to extend on for more than a year I don’t think fits anybody’s description of members of the Senate doing their job. And particularly, announcing this reflexive opposition just hours after Justice Scalia’s death and even before the President has had an opportunity to put someone forward so that their qualifications can be evaluated I think again is more evidence of how politicized this process has been.
I noted in some of the coverage yesterday that Senator McConnell apparently paid a visit yesterday to the House Freedom Caucus. It’s unclear if they met at Tortilla Coast. I know that is a frequent watering hole for some members of that caucus. But I think the fact that Senator McConnell requested the visit, that this was the first time he’d ever addressed the group, and that members of his staff at least told a couple of reporters that he was pleased with the reception that he got might be an indication that politics is looming rather large here.
And again, I think it’s pretty clear that the previous Tortilla Coast gambit that was employed in the House wasn’t a successful strategy, and hopefully, those kinds of tactics have not metastasized to the United States Senate.
Q It sounds like the President is no longer harshly criticizing Republicans and he’s saying, I’m sympathetic, I understand, I know where it’s coming from — is he trying a different tact? Is he thinking that this might help things along, given that this is one day after Republicans basically said, hell, no, we’re not doing this?
MR. EARNEST: I think this is a reflection of the President’s longer-term view. The President is not going to announce who his nominee is tomorrow. This isn’t going to play out in the next 24 hours. As the SCOTUSblog points out today, this is a process that’s going to play out at least over a couple of weeks. And the good news is we do have ample time. We do have time for the President to make a decision, to nominate someone, and there will be ample time, considering recent precedent, for the President’s nominee to get a fair hearing and a timely up or down vote.
Q So who was the President trying to reach in this SCOTUSblog? Why did he want to do that in that venue?
MR. EARNEST: The goal here is to help all of you, but also the American people, understand exactly what kind of criteria he’s evaluating as he contemplates who should fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. And so that’s why he sort of walks through the kind of qualifications and experience and temperament that he would like to see.
Q So when he’s saying that he recognizes the politics behind what Republicans are doing now, and he said the easier thing to do is to give into the extreme voices of the party, and in fact, when he went for a filibuster against Alito, was he then giving into the more extreme voices in his own party?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President acknowledged that he regretted the vote because of the role that politics played there. The difference in that situation, though, is it was already well-known at the time that the Senate was prepared to act on Justice Alito’s nomination and that he had sufficient support to be confirmed.
Q Wasn’t that just playing politics then? Is that why the President understands this so well?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s why the President regrets the vote. But again, that is different than taking the kind of action that knowingly disrupts the ability of the United States Senate to perform their institutional and constitutional duty.
So, again, I think the President acknowledged that he accepted some responsibility for this. But he also acknowledged why these two situations are different. And it certainly is a far cry from opposing President Bush’s nominee without even considering who that individual is. In fact, the President had some substantive objections to President Bush’s nomination.
Q I mean, you’re making the argument that there are not — I mean, it’s obviously breaking precedent that they’re not even going to take this up, if they do what they say they’re going to do. But let’s say they please the public and try not to make so many waves by taking it up, but then they’re just not going to let it go through, they’re not going to vote this person in. Is there really any difference if that’s just going to be the outcome?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it would be a notable difference for a couple of things. First is it would reflect a significant change in their position. Right now, you have the Senate Majority Leader saying that he won’t even meet with that person. I don’t know if that means that he’ll just lock the office door that day.
So, again, if we got to a place where that nominee is treated with courtesy and respect, engages in the kinds of private, one-on-one meetings that have been taking place between Supreme Court nominees and United States senators for generations, and we see a public hearing where an individual testifies under oath about their qualifications for the job, and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have an opportunity to explore those views in public, on television for everyone to see, that is much more consistent with the Senate’s constitutional responsibility. And at that point, members of the Senate will then have to consider whether or not this person has succeeded in making the case that he or she has the proper credentials to serve in a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
And, again, I think what’s relevant about this is, at that point, after a hearing has taken place, the American people will have some sort of opinion about this. And whether or not that has any influence over the opinion of individual senators I think remains to be seen. But the criteria that the President will choose is somebody who in a setting like I’ve just described will be able to demonstrate that they are the best person for the job and that they can serve with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court.
Q The President also mentioned that, let’s see if the American public thinks that they’re well within the mainstream. So is it safe to assume that his nominee will be well within the mainstream?
MR. EARNEST: I think, based on the President’s comments in the Oval Office today, I think you can add that to the list of accurate descriptions of who the President will eventually choose.
Q I want to go back to the Supreme Court process. Has the President met informally with people, just having conversations with some of the people, not necessarily formal interviews but just have like a meeting, hey, how are you doing, or just coming through?
MR. EARNEST: April, I’m just not going to be able to provide that much granular insight into how this process is shaping up. It’s still early on in the process. A final list has not been compiled at this point. But I don’t have any more detail to share beyond that.
Q A finalist hasn’t been made, but there is a list, as you have said, yourself. Now, with that list, is there a possibility that the President already knows many of these people on the list and may have already interacted before in the Oval Office and other places?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t — I don’t have a lot of insight to share with you about who is on the list or even what kinds of people are on the list. I can say, as I’ve said before, that just because people have been considered the previous time but not chosen doesn’t disqualify them from being considered this time. So my point is it certainly is possible that the President could be familiar with the qualifications and background of a potential nominee that he’s considered in a previous round.
Q — that he already met those people in a previous round that are on the old list?
MR. EARNEST: Some of them.
Q So there’s a possibility that some of them he already has familiarity with that are on this list?
MR. EARNEST: That certainly is possible. But again, I won’t confirm who exactly is on the list.
Q Lastly, how much does legacy play into this process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the truth is that I would expect that historians will look back on this moment, and I think they’ll be evaluating not just the performance of the President but also the performance of the Senate. And I think the President has found that over his first seven years in office, that the way that he’s most likely to be proud of what he did in his eight years in the White House is by focusing on the task in front of him and making the best possible decision. And that’s the kind of criteria that he’ll use in choosing this nominee.
Q Josh, I just wanted to ask about something that you said in your opening remarks. You we’re talking about the unbeaten record in trade disputes. I’m trying to square that with what happened at WTO with the country of origin labels.
MR. EARNEST: These are 20 enforcement actions that have been brought to the WTO by the United States.
Q Strictly enforcement actions.
MR. EARNEST: Enforcement actions brought by the United States. And the reason this is relevant is because there are concerns by some opponents of TPP who suggest that the President somehow has not been as aggressive as he should be in looking out for the interests of the United States when it comes to international trade. But the fact of the matter is the United States has brought more enforcement actions to the WTO than any other member of the WTO, and each one that has been decided has been resolved in our favor. So that’s an indication not just of how rigorous the administration has been in putting forward enforcement actions to protect the American economy, it also shows that we’ve been successful in protecting the U.S. economy.
Q Critics of TPP have also raised concerns that the U.S. would be less able to enforce its own rules about standards, where our meat is raised, that sort of thing, if we were subject to an international body. And that was sort of borne out in the WTO decision on the country of origin.
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of these details are complicated — I don’t know that I can get into the details of it. I think the first observation I would have at least when it comes to the example of agricultural products, the American Farm Bureau is a strong supporter and has endorsed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They didn’t do that just as a political favor to President Barack Obama. In fact, on most political issues, they come down on the opposite side of President Obama. But in this case, they recognize that the U.S. agricultural industry has much to gain from leveling the playing field with countries in Southeast Asia — or Asia and the Asia Pacific.
So I can’t speak to the specific country of origin labeling ruling that you described there, but if we need to explore that more I’m sure we can find somebody who knows a lot more about it than I do.
Q The Iranian elections are on Friday. Do you have any comment on them, or anything you can share about what the administration is watching for?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. At this point, I’ve resisted — I’ve usually succeeded in resisting extensive commentary on the U.S. election. I’m certainly going to reserve judgment on the Iranian election at this point. But obviously, this is an opportunity for the Iranian people to make their voices heard. And it’s not just the United States that will be watching. The world will be watching.
Q Just listening to all the Supreme Court stuff, I think one thing I think we’d agree on is that the American public is tired of all this partisanship and this back-and-forth and nothing getting done here, and all the acrimony back and forth. So why doesn’t the President — and you said, in terms of these meetings with Republicans and others and discussions he’s doing, kind of the same thing he’s done with Kagan and Sotomayor process — why doesn’t he adopt a different process? Why doesn’t — to follow up on Julie’s question — tell the public, we’ll find a consensus candidate? We won’t make this divisive, and be transparent and open about it, instead of all this “I’m going to do my job, they should do their job.” And he’s talked about how this is one of his biggest regrets ever in office of this rancor and partisanship. So why doesn’t he try a different approach that’s transparent, that is a consensus so that the country doesn’t have to suffer through months and months of all this back-and-forth?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, I actually have a really direct answer to this question, which is it is impossible to find consensus when they Republicans in the United States Senate said that they won’t support anybody, they won’t even consider anybody, they won’t even offer up a courtesy meeting with anybody that the President puts forward. So I —
Q So you think that’s going to happen? Or do you think it’s bluster? Do you think that’s — in this a poker game, that’s the first — you take them seriously?
MR. EARNEST: I think it was Leader McConnell himself who indicated that he very rarely finds himself off message. So I believe that he meant what he said. I certainly have no reason to doubt it. I don’t think it’s the right position. I certainly don’t think it’s a position that most Americans support. I do think there’s some evidence, based on his meeting with the House Freedom Caucus, that politics are playing too large of a role here. But ultimately, he’s the Senate Majority Leader and he’ll have to determine what he believes is the most effective way to lead the Senate.
The questions now for him are different than they used to be. He was a Senate majority — minority leader for a long time, and he found that — or at least he concluded that political obstruction was a useful political benefit for him. He saw that as his strategy and his road map for getting back into the majority. But, apparently, that’s a strategy that he’s chosen to continue to pursue.
Q But again, it’s back to what they need to do and so on and so forth. Where does the White House see some compromise in all this? Although you don’t want to perhaps tip your hand or show your cards because of this, again, endless game of partisanship, but is there some way to get out of this situation? Again, does the White House — does the President have some idea, some approach that can be different, that can spare the country all this back-and-forth for another —
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly would like to try. But that’s going to be hard to do when you have members of the United States Senate saying that they won’t do courtesy visits with whomever the President puts forward. That’s going to be hard to do when every Republican on the Judiciary Committee says that for the first time since 1875, they won’t even hold a hearing for whomever the President puts forward. And this is even before the President has put forward a nominee.
So again, I think it’s going to be hard to try to find some common ground until Republicans — because this is the thing that I think is notable — and I made this point yesterday — this is not even a situation of Republicans saying that they object. This is Republicans saying that they even refuse to consider. And that’s why it’s hard for them to make the case that they’re doing their jobs. Again, for most Americans, they’re showing up to work not even considering any alternatives. I don’t think that’s part of anybody’s job description.
Q And you’re not getting any signals privately that that’s not real?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President made the observation in the Oval Office that some people might be a little sheepish about this. So again — but we’ll have to see. These are individuals who have been elected by states across the country to serve in six-year terms — not five-year, one-month terms — but six-year terms in the United States Senate. Many of them had to go through hotly contested campaigns both in a primary and a general election to get there. Many of them have been reelected multiple times. These are serious people. They understand what’s required to make serious decisions. They understand the stakes that are involved when you’re considering a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. They understand the decisions that are made in the United States Senate have an impact on the country.
Q And just lastly, why did the President speak out today? Nine minutes — that’s a very — and it seemed like he was prepared. He was ready — not that he’s not ever unprepared — but he seemed ready for that, he seemed to want to take that moment. It seemed planned. It seemed that he thought about it a lot to spend nine minutes talking about this. Why today? Was it the flat refusal to have meetings? Was there something in particular that someone said to him, or something that he was aware of?
MR. EARNEST: I think what this reflects, Ron, is — I noticed that it was a rather lengthy answer, as well; detailed some might say. I think this is a reflection that the President has spent a lot of time thinking about this. This is an indication the President did do his homework over the weekend when he was considering the materials that have been put together by his legal team. This is an indication that he has had multiple conversations with members in both parties on Capitol Hill about the proper way forward.
I think this is a good illustration of just how seriously the President takes this constitutional responsibility of his. And I think you can expect that seriousness of purpose to continue throughout this process.
Q You said not in 24 hours and not in a couple of weeks
— meaning two weeks, or 14 days? (Laughter.) So can we draw those lines?
MR. EARNEST: When I said a couple of weeks, I knew I was going to regret it. I would encourage you not to over-read into that.
Q I was trying to read exactly. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes. And what I would refer to is the President’s words on SCOTUSblog today that in the coming weeks he’ll have a decision to announce.
Q You can go back and do that fine line — (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. But thank you for giving me the operation to clarify that. I do appreciate that.
Kevin, go ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to sort of — again, without sort of trying to have you say exactly who is on the list, how important would it be for the President to consider a female judge for the High Court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has obviously appointed two distinguished, accomplished women to the Supreme Court in his first two years in office. But, again, I think the President will evaluate the nominees’ credentials based on their record, based on their intellect, based on their experience. And the gender of this individual does not rate highly on the list.
Q Let me follow up by simply asking then, given the makeup of the Court currently, is it relevant at all that — for the broad swath of history, there have been relatively few women on the High Court. And him now having appointed two, or nominated two, and having successfully two confirmed, would it not be important then for him to continue that trend to more equitably balance the Court? At least from that perspective, is that interesting at all to him? Is that a conversation that he’s had?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that the President will consider some women candidates. But at this point, I don’t think that the gender of the nominee will drive the decision. What will drive the decision will be that individual’s qualifications, their experience and their intellect, their ability to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States with honor and distinction.
Q Any chance that the President will — if he can’t persuade Senator McConnell or Grassley or others to come here — will he go to the Hill?
MR. EARNEST: The President has certainly done that before. He’s done meetings on Capitol Hill before. But in the aftermath of the last two Supreme Court vacancies, the President has convened a meeting in the Oval Office with the leaders of the Judiciary Committee, and he’s interested in doing the same thing again. Senator Leahy from Vermont, who’s the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has agreed to that meeting. And so the meeting will take place. Hopefully Chairman Grassley will be there.
Q And do you have a readout of possibly when that might have happen?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t at this point, but we’ll keep your apprised of that. I’ll point out that the two previous times that the President convened these meetings, in both 2009 and 2010, the pool was allowed in there, and photographs were taken. And the President even made a brief statement to the pool at both circumstances.
Q — Tortilla Coast.
MR. EARNEST: Well, exactly. (Laughter.)
Q Lastly, I just wanted to ask you about his conversation with the King today and the importance of the partnership in the fight against ISIL. There seems to be some sense that there’s a disagreement within the administration about how best to go forward, in particular given Russia’s previous disposition for breaking agreements, be they Minsk or others. How concerned is the President that even if a cease-fire is brokered that the Russians simply won’t hold to it? And is there a rift within the administration at all at how best to go about applying more pressure on the Syrians and others to hopefully get this to stick?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you there is unanimity of opinion inside the administration that successfully implementing a cessation of hostilities is the clearest and best way to advance our interests there. It will allow multiple things to happen.
First of all, it will give a boost to the ongoing but fledgling political transition process there. It will allow the freer flow of humanitarian assistance to areas of Syria that right now are hard to access because of the fighting. It also will refocus everyone’s attention on the counter-ISIL effort.
And we have said for quite some time that Russia should stop taking strikes in Syria where there is little, if any, ISIL presence, and actually integrate their military efforts with the broader international coalition and actually start focusing their firepower on ISIL. That is why the cessation of hostilities has emerged as a priority.
You’re also pointing out something that is really important, which is that it requires the Russians to live up to what they’ve committed to here, and that’s a tall order. So that may be hard to do. It’s why I do anticipate that it will be a little bit of start-and-stop process at the beginning. But if over the course of several weeks, we can get that cessation of hostilities implemented, it will allow us to focus on the more important tasks at hand, like the political transition, the delivery of critically important humanitarian aid, and a renewed focus on the part of countries like Russia on actually succeeding in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q Thank you. I want to go back to Guantanamo Bay if I could. A lot of attention yesterday was on the President’s proposal to close the facility outright by transferring detainees to U.S. soil. There’s a couple of other things that he proposed, or said that he was — the administration was already doing to — for example, speed up the Periodic Review Board process, form the military commissions, et cetera. If, in fact, he — if those Periodic Review Board hearings are completed by the end of the summer, as the President said, and if the current trends continue, a lot of human rights activists who are watching these cases said we could get down to perhaps a half dozen people who are not eligible for transfer to some third country — if you can find third countries willing to make the security and humanitarian arrangements to take them.
So then, in addition to the 10 military commissions, you’ve got maybe a dozen or so hard-core, sort of indefinite detainees. I guess my question to you is would the President consider that victory? Would that be a substantial fulfillment of his campaign promises? Could he use maybe lower-level executive actions to extradite those or somehow find a place for those? Could we get to zero or near zero by the end of the President’s term? And is that part of the strategy here to put legal, economic and sort of political pressure on Congress to say, hey, look, we only have a handful now of detainees, even more of an argument to close the facility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that in a couple different ways here. Transferring Gitmo detainees who, based on a careful review by the President’s national security team, are eligible for transfer continues to be a high priority. We have seen Congress interfere in that effort. For example, Congress has required 30-day notification and specific certification by the Secretary of Defense before those transfers can be commenced. That is a lot of red tape and a lot of bureaucracy that we have routinely complied with. And we’re going to continue to do that work.
Now, it also depends upon — as you point out — the cooperation of our allies and partners. There are about 35 countries that have agreed to take Gitmo detainees. And so it will require further intensive, diplomatic work with those countries — or maybe some others that haven’t taken any yet — to try to find an appropriate arrangement for the safe transfer of these individuals.
That will continue to be a priority. Even in the face of continued congressional obstruction, that’s still going to be a priority. Primarily because, Gregory, as you point out, that is part of our strategy for closing the prison. What we’re looking ahead to is an acknowledgement — something that you also referred to — which is that some of these individuals will not be deemed safe for transfer, and some of these individuals cannot be effectively prosecuted in our criminal justice system. And it means that these individuals will be subject to a law of war detention.
And the case that we have made to Congress, and we’re going to continue to make publicly — we’ve made it for seven years and we’re going to keep making it — is that we can do that, keep these individuals detained under law of war rules in the United States in a way that removes a potent symbol that is used by terrorists to recruit. And by bringing them to facilities that are here in the United States, we can actually detain them under the laws of war in a way that costs taxpayers a lot less money.
So when you consider those benefits, and when you consider the recommendations of the Secretary of Defense, this is a pretty easy policy decision. And again, we hear a lot of Republicans running around for President who say that they want to keep America safe, that they want to cut wasteful government spending, and that they want to follow the advice of our leaders at the Pentagon. That’s exactly what the President is proposing to do with this plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
And that’s also why I think it’s notable that there is bipartisan support for this plan. Certainly, President George W. Bush, a Republican, believes that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be close. And I noted that earlier today, his Secretary of State, General Colin Powell, indicated his support for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. So this isn’t a partisan issue. This is a situation where President Bush, President Obama, our leaders at the Pentagon, and others that have deep, respected experience on these issues all agree that this is worthwhile goal. And it could be completed this year if Congress doesn’t prevent it.
Q Do you have a number in mind of how many would be subject to indefinite detention even if the President is able to go through all the steps that you just —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an estimate at this point. Obviously, the periodic review board is doing its work. And we’ll have prosecutors also evaluating whether or not these individuals could be successfully prosecuted. So those determinations — the determinations by the review board and the determination by the prosecutors — will have an impact on what the final number looks like.
Q Josh, does the President believe the Constitution prohibits senators from voting against a nominee to the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: No. What the President believe is that the Senate, as an institution, has a responsibility to continue to function and to make sure that the third branch of government can also continue to function as our Founders intended.
As I pointed out, it is unprecedented in modern Supreme Court history for a single vacancy to have an important act on two different terms of the Supreme Court. And right now, if Republicans in the Senate follow through on their promise, that’s the unprecedented result. And so the President’s expectation is that the Senate, as an institution, will function to prevent that from happening.
But here’s the thing — and this sort of goes back to what Michelle was asking about — the President is not suggesting that every ounce of politics needs to be drained out of this. Over the years, too much — a lot of politics has built up. And the President is realistic about that and the President is realistic about the fact that that’s more pronounced in an election year. That’s entirely understandable. We know that there’s going to be politics influencing this process. What we can’t afford to have is politics dictating this process. But yet, right now, that appears to be what’s happening. And that’s not good for our system of government, and it’s certainly not good for the one branch of government that’s supposed to be most isolated and protected from the influence of partisan electoral politics.
Q Does the President believe that the Constitution requires senators to meet with a Supreme Court nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, since 1875 —
Q I’m not asking about the precedent. I understand that there’s a lot of discussion about precedent and history. I’m asking about the Constitution and what the President assesses — the bare minimum requirements. Because, clearly, based on the politics, as you’ve been arguing, we’re talking about the bare minimum, unfortunately.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as the Constitution points out, it’s the responsibility of the Senate to offer the President advice and consent on his Supreme Court nominee. And it seems quite difficult to do that if you continue to refuse to even meet with that person. I’m not sure that would be — that their advice and consent would be particularly well informed.
Q Does the President acknowledge, then, senators’ right to withhold consent from a nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the President hasn’t even named a nominee.
Q I’m not asking — we’re talking about the basement, the bargain basement of what the Constitution requires. Is withholding a nominee — withholding their approval or their consent from a nominee within each individual senator’s right?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Jared, maybe some of the questions that you’re asking could be directed to a constitutional scholar. I think everybody in this room, and I think many of the people watching understand the expectations that the Senate has based on their constitutional duty to provide the President advice and consent on his Supreme Court nominee.
Q I’m just asking if the White House believes, as many in the Senate have claimed, that they have a right to withhold that consent. Do you agree with their assessment?
MR. EARNEST: I think my assessment is that most people think that it is unreasonable for Republicans in the United States Senate to say that they will not support any nominee that the President puts forward, to refuse to meet with any nominee that the President puts forward, to refuse to hold hearings about that — for that nominee for the first time since 1875.
Again, the American people have an expectation that members of the United States Senate are going to do their job. And again, maybe part of their job description does involve making a decision after careful thought and consideration. After listening to hearings, after meeting in private with this individual, maybe they determine that part of their job means voting no. But again, their job does not require them to choose someone and only vote yes for someone who they believe is at the top of their own personal list. If the person that’s at the top of their personal list is appointed to the Supreme Court, then they should run for President, if they want that responsibility.
Q I think some of them are.
MR. EARNEST: Some of them are. I would point out that they’re not running for three-year terms, they’re running for four-year terms. Because whoever is elected President in 2016 will take office in January of 2017, and for the next four years will have the constitutional responsibility to appoint individuals to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court. That’s the way that our system has worked for more than 200 years.
And I certainly would expect that people who claim to be passionate defenders of the United States Constitution would be passionate advocates for that argument — unless politics is interfering. And I suspect that’s what’s happening here.
Q Does the White House have any reaction to Senate Majority Leader McConnell yesterday saying that he wouldn’t commit to an up or down vote on the next President’s nominee to the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think that I saw that part of his answer. But I’ll just say, in general that, again, what we are seeing is an unprecedented escalation in the politicization of the Supreme Court nomination process. And that, in the view of this President, is not a good thing. Doesn’t mean that for this process to succeed that we need to drain every element of politics out of the equation, but it does mean that Republicans — who are in the majority, who worked hard to gain the majority of the Senate, who vowed when they took the majority of the Senate to get Congress moving again — the President does have an expectation that the Senate, as an institution, will fulfill their responsibility, which means giving the President’s nominee a timely hearing — a fair hearing and a timely up or down vote.
Q Do you have any reaction to President Erdogan saying that basically the YPG should not be protected in the cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: That is not what the government of Turkey committed to in the context of the cessation of hostilities. So our expectation is that the understanding has been reached. We’ve got a framework for implementing it. We do anticipate that there will be some bumps along the way. It will not be a smooth implementation process. But we have now seen public commitments on the part of the Russians and the Syrian government, most importantly, about the steps that they will take to implement this understanding.
Q President Erdogan seems to be backing away from that, and he obviously represents the government. So would there be consequences imposed by the United States on Turkey if they were to go ahead and violate the cease-fire by targeting the YPG?
MR. EARNEST: Look, Turkey is a NATO ally, and it is an ally that can count on the reliable support of the United States of America, particularly in a time frame in which the people of Turkey have been subjected to terrorist attacks on their soil. Their concern about their national security is understandable.
But the best way to address that concern is for us to address the longstanding political chaos that is fomenting so much violence on the other side of their border with Syria.
That’s a problem. And that’s one of the many important reasons that the United States has been so deeply engaged in this diplomatic political effort, because of the negative impact it’s having on the broader region, especially on our NATO ally in Turkey.
Q So there would be no negative consequences for Turkey if they defied your wishes and continued to strike the YPG?
MR. EARNEST: Our expectation is that everybody who signed up for the cessation of hostilities understanding will fulfill –will meet their commitments. And our concern right now is most directly focused on the Russians and on the Syrian regime. They’ve made some important commitments, and we’re going to expect them to meet them.
At the same time, this process is going to be bumpy, and I don’t just mean in the first few days, I mean at least in the first few weeks. But with some perseverance, we are hopeful that we can implement a cessation of hostilities that will pave the way for advancing the political transition inside of Syria, for speeding the flow of humanitarian assistance, and for an intense focus being placed on our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Could a cease-fire actually survive if Turkey isn’t playing ball?
MR. EARNEST: Again, our expectation is that those who have made commitments in the context of reaching an understanding about a cessation of hostilities, that they’ll keep those commitments. And we have that expectation for everybody.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:45 P.M. EST