Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 25, 2016 – 1:20 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we get started, I know that there’s a lot of attention on the campaign trail today, as there should, particularly because Michelle’s network is hosting a big debate tonight in Houston. I suspect many of you will be watching.
And there actually is a question that came to my mind that I thought I’d put forward for consideration tonight. It’s a pretty basic one, and it’s one that Republicans are quite intimately familiar with. It’s simply this: Do you believe America is better off than it was seven years ago? The case that we have to make — that America is certainly better off than it was seven years ago — is quite strong. And I’ve got a couple of slides here to show you that substantiate that.
Let’s try a little technological wizardry here and see if this works. Hmm. (Laughter.) Or not. Let’s see if this one works. No. Okay. (Laughter.) So, we’ll give you the slides. There we go! There we go. There we go.
Let’s go with slide number one. Since the Great Recession, the household wealth in the United States, net worth, has increased by $30 trillion. That obviously greatly exceeds the pace of the recovery from the only economic downturn that was worse than the one that we experienced in 2007 and 2008. That obviously is a testament to what American households have recovered from.
Let’s go to the second slide, and you’ll see that if you take a look at the growth of the U.S. economy. Our recovery is actually faster than the recovery that was experienced by other advanced economies in the world. In fact, the U.S. economy has recovered faster than any other advanced economy in the world.
Let go to the third slide. Unemployment rate — this is probably the most accessible measure that people have used. But when you take a look our unemployment rate, it has been cut in half. We’re now down to 4.9 percent. That obviously exceeds the predictions that were made earlier on in our recovery. So it’s not just that we’ve cut the unemployment rate in half; we cut the unemployment rate even faster than most people thought was possible. It’s certainly faster than the previous Republican nominee for President thought was possible. He famously vowed to get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent by the end of his first term. And already we’ve got the unemployment rate down below 5 percent.
Let’s go to the next slide. The housing market has been the intense focus of a lot of evaluation. And we’ve seen the housing market in the United States recover quite strongly. And one way to take a measure of that is by looking at the number of foreclosures per month. The number of foreclosures in the United States, by month, are only about a quarter of what they once were. Again, that is a testament to the strengthening of our economy and certainly is a way that a lot of middle-class families can relate to.
Let’s go to the next slide. We’ve talked a lot about the success of the U.S. auto industry. Obviously, auto sales in the United States have grown by two-thirds since 2009. There are obviously a whole lot of jobs associated with this. The President made an important decision early on in his presidency, a decision that was not particularly popular — not even particularly popular in the state of Michigan that had a lot to gain — but yet we’ve seen the American auto industry come back stronger than ever. And one way to evaluate that is that auto sales have increased by 67 percent just in the last seven years.
Let’s go to the next slide. One of the core investments of the Recovery Act was in renewable energy, and ensuring that the United States was well positioned to benefit from the clean energy economy of the future. One way to evaluate that are the investments that were made in solar. And we’ve seen that solar-powered capacity in the United States has increased 25 times since the President took office. That is thanks in large part to an important investment that was included in the Recovery Act, but it’s an indication of how much potential exists for the U.S. economy as other countries around the world start to embrace clean energy.
And last but not least, there’s obviously been a lot of discussion, particularly on the campaign trail, but even here in our nation’s capital, about health care reform. One of the promises that the President made about health care reform was focusing on lowering health care costs. A lot of ways to evaluate that. But the way that most Americans feel about health care costs is understanding how much they have to pay in premiums. The vast majority of Americans get their premiums from their employer — or get their insurance from their employer. And when you take a look at premium growth among people who get their health insurance from their employer, premium growth has been cut almost in half. It’s down to about 4.2 percent growth rate when previously is up near 8 percent.
So there are a lot of ways to evaluate this question. But in some ways, the questions yield the most information. And in some cases, this is a good example of that. I think by all the measures that I’ve just walked through, there’s no denying that the American people and our nation is in much better condition than it was seven years ago. But we’ll obviously see what the candidates have to say about it.
So with that prelude, we can now get on to the main event. Josh, do you want to start?
Q Great. Thanks, Josh. Let’s turn to the Supreme Court. Just a little bit before you came out here this morning — or actually, this afternoon, I should say — Governor Sandoval said that he told the White House he’s not interested in the Supreme Court nomination. Now that he’s out of the running, so to speak, can you tell us whether he was actually seriously being considered? (Laughter.) And is he emblematic of the type of mainstream candidate that the President feels might garner enough support to be able to be confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, even after the fact, I’m not going get into a lot of details about who’s on the President’s list and who’s not, in part that is because the list is not final at this point. So the work that the President and his team are doing to find the very best person in America to fill the Supreme Court vacancy is ongoing. And for the kind of criteria that the President will use in evaluating potential nominees, I’d encourage you to take a close look at the blog that the President wrote on the SCOTUSblog yesterday where he outlined how he will evaluate potential nominees to the Court.
Q The Quad-City Times out in Iowa had an op-ed out this morning about Senator Grassley, saying that he’s gripped the grenade he’s clutching and pulled the pin, and now it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing blows up in the Republican Party’s collective face. I was wondering, is that how the White House sees this? And can you put this in the context of some of the hard-fought Senate and political fights that are shaping up for some vulnerable members being asked about this now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, Josh, that is some colorful imagery. I hadn’t seen that this morning.
Look, the way that we see this is that both the President of the United States and the United States Senate have a constitutional responsibility. And the Constitution says that if there’s a vacancy in the Supreme Court, the President should nominate someone to fill it and the Senate should offer their advice and consent about that person’s fitness to serve on the Supreme Court.
It’s pretty straightforward. And this system, with some bumps along the way, has functioned and served the American people pretty well over the last two centuries or so. However, what we see now is we see Republicans take what I think is a pretty unreasonable stand. And it does put Republicans in a position of somehow suggesting that there is some sort of exception written into the Constitution that the President is supposed to fill nominees — fill vacancies on the Supreme Court except in an election year. And that doesn’t really pass the smell test with most Americans.
I think people recognize that when they were voting in 2012 for President, they were voting to choose the person who would have in their power — have it in their power to fill Supreme Court vacancies that opened up in the next four years. Importantly, they were also voting for 33 Senate seats, and they were electing the individual who will represent their state in the United States Senate, who will offer the President advice and consent over the next six years to fill the Supreme Court vacancy if one arose.
So that’s why you’ve heard the rhetoric from here that it’s simply about doing your job. The President intends to do his job; in fact, he’s already started doing the important work to prepare him to do that job, and that is to evaluate candidates. And we expect that the Senate should do their job. Unfortunately, they’re resting their case on insisting that they’re not going to do their job, and so that the President shouldn’t bother. That’s not really the way that it works.
The way that this works is the President will do his job. He will nominate someone to fill that vacancy. And then there will be a responsibility that the Senate Republicans will have to decide whether or not they will accept to fulfill their constitutional duty to offer the President advice and consent on that nominee.
Q How much progress has the President made in that process that you just described? Has he started narrowing the list? Is he still looking broadly at a whole bunch of candidates? Where is he?
MR. EARNEST: He’s still continuing to review material that was provided by — that’s been provided by his team. They have updated the material that all of you saw him carry home with him last Friday night. He spent a lot of time over the weekend reviewing that material, and he’s continuing to do that over the course of this week.
The President has also continued to follow through on his promise to intensively consult members of the United States Congress on this. The President — as has been reported, the President had an opportunity yesterday, while Senator Hatch was at the White House for the bill signing, to have a conversation with him in private about this constitutional responsibility that both men have. That was a useful discussion, and, again, is consistent with the variety of other phone calls and conversations that the President and members of his team have had.
I can tell you that, at this point, the White House has contacted the office at least of every member of the Judiciary Committee, both Democratic and Republican. In most cases — or in a lot of cases, those were conversations with individual senators. In some cases, it was conversations with members of their staff. I certainly wouldn’t rule out future conversations with members of the Judiciary Committee. But at this point, at least every office — both Democrat and Republican — has been contacted.
And this kind of intensive consultation will continue. This is consistent with the way that the President consulted in advance of nominating individuals to fill the two previous Supreme Court vacancies that have occurred while he’s been President. And he’ll do the same thing with this one.
The last thing I’ll share with you, sort of process-wise here, is that the other thing that the President did shortly after the two previous vacancies occurred is that he invited the Senate Majority Leader, the Senate Minority Leader, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Ranking Member of Senate Judiciary Committee to come to the White House and sit in the Oval Office and have a conversation to continue consulting about the process for filling that vacancy.
And we’re pleased that after a number of conversations, some more awkward than others, the President will be convening a meeting on Tuesday here at the White House with the four individuals that I just described. Again, this is what we did in 2009 when Justice Souter announced his retirement — or shortly after. It’s what we did in 2010 shortly after Justice Stevens announced his retirement. And it’s what the President will be doing on Tuesday.
Q On one other topic, I wanted to ask you about this agreement between the U.S. and China that we’re learning about for getting U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korea. What can you tell us about what those sanctions will look like? And do you see it as a positive sign for our diplomacy that China seems willing to take these punitive actions that could hurt one of their top allies?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I don’t have a lot of details at this point about what’s included in the resolution. Obviously, this resolution has been the topic of extensive diplomatic conversations between the United States and China. And Ambassador Power up at the U.N. intends to submit for consideration a draft sanctions resolution that would be a response to North Korea’s flagrant violations of their international obligations.
And I do think it is indicative of how productive diplomacy can be. It’s not easy, but it certainly is an indication that the United States and China, when our interests are aligned, can cooperate quite effectively to advance the interests of citizens in both our countries.
I would point out that these kinds of diplomatic discussions have occurred at a variety of levels. In fact, just yesterday, Ambassador Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, hosted a meeting here at the White House with the Chinese foreign minister, Foreign Minister Yi, to discuss this among other issues. So this is something that the President’s national security team has worked assiduously to make progress on. Ambassador Power will present that resolution for consideration at the U.N. Security Council today. And once the U.N. Security Council has had more of an opportunity to formally consider the resolution, we can talk in a little bit more detail about what’s actually included in the package.
Q Josh, you mentioned the President is meeting with Senator Hatch, as Senator Hatch said after that meeting that the President had said he was seeking a very moderate candidate. Is that accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jeff, there was not a — I’m not aware that there was a transcript of the conversation. I think this was an opportunity just for the President to meet one on one with Senator Hatch. I think for people who are interested in understanding from the President firsthand about what kind of person he intends to nominate, I’d encourage them to check out the SCOTUSblog — because, there, the President did lay out in pretty direct terms what kind of nominee he believes would be most effective in filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
And this includes somebody with impeccable legal credentials, somebody with the right kind of judgment and experience, somebody with a commitment to the rule of law. And again, that’s how I would describe the criteria that the President will use in choosing what he believes will be the best person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Q Would you dispute Senator Hatch’s characterization of their conversation?
MR. EARNEST: Senator Hatch is certainly entitled to share with all of you what he remembers from that conversation. But for those of you who are interested in hearing from the President firsthand about what criteria he’ll be using, I’d encourage you to check out the SCOTUSblog.
Q Nancy Pelosi has said today she thought it was a good idea to look at both Republicans and Democrats. That said, is the White House prepared for the reaction from the base that, elected the President, if he were to choose a Republican for this historic nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, as I alluded to yesterday, there will be a number of questions that potential nominees will have to answer as they go through the vetting process and as they have a conversation with the President of the United States about whether or not they are the best person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I can tell you that what political party do you support will not be one of the questions.
The President is interested in choosing the best person for the job regardless of politics. And that’s what the process will drive toward, and that certainly is what the President is interested in focusing on. This shouldn’t be about politics. It certainly shouldn’t be about partisan politics. This should be about fulfilling a constitutional duty to appoint someone to a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the land.
And, frankly, this is an issue that has been increasingly politicized over the years. I understand, and the President himself said that he understood that politics are going to continue to have some influence on this process. But we can’t allow partisan politics to dominate this process in a way that prevents the President of the United States and the members of the United States Senate from fulfilling their constitutional duties.
The President is determined to make sure that that doesn’t happen when it comes to his constitutional duties. That’s why the President will put forward a nominee. And it will be up to the Senate whether or not they’re going to choose partisan politics over their constitutional duties. And right now, I think, as you point out — I guess this is maybe a bad pun — but the jury is still out on that one. We’ll have to see exactly what they choose to do.
Q But it is about politics, and the President acknowledged as much in his remarks yesterday in the Oval Office when saying that it’s tough and he has sympathy for the Republicans because this could change the balance of power on the Supreme Court. Are you saying that he’s not taking politics into account at all when thinking about the possibility of having a Court that would have five liberal justices instead of five conservative justices?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think —
Q It’s hard to believe.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen — as I acknowledged in my answer to your first question, politics are going to be part of this, particularly in an election year. I don’t think anybody disputes that.
Q For you guys, too.
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think so. The President has made clear he’s not on the ballot. And the President is interested in fulfilling his constitutional duty to appoint the person that he believes is the best person in America to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. And the President is not going to be asking that person who they voted for in the 2008 or the 2012 election. He’s not going to be asking that person which party they’re registered to vote in. The President is going to be asking them much more relevant questions about their legal qualifications and about their view of the law, and about their belief in the importance in the rule of law.
Those are the kinds of questions the President will ask, and those are the kinds of questions that should take precedence both in terms of who the President chooses to nominate, but those are also the kinds of questions that members of the United States Senate should be asking the nominee when that individual sits down for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s how the choice should be made. It’s certainly how the President will be making his decision.
And, look, the President also acknowledged yesterday in the Oval Office that the American people are going to have a view of this person, and I think most Americans are going to be interested in that person’s legal views — understanding their commitment to public service, understanding their commitment to the rule of law, understanding exactly how they apply their legal training and how it informs their judgment about a range of issues that are important and have an impact on the day-to-day lives of the American people. That’s certainly how the American people will decide, and that’s how they should.
The question is, are senators actually going to say — or how many senators, at this point, are going to say, look, I’d rather put my partisan affiliation ahead of my constitutional duty. That would be a rather unfortunate choice and an unprecedented escalation of partisanship of a branch of government that our Founders intended to shield from partisan politics.
Q And lastly, you mentioned the debate tonight. If you were advising establishment Republicans who are concerned about the prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, what would you advise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, fortunately for them, they’ve got much more qualified people to consult for advice than me. I think the hand-wringing has become public, and ultimately I think what’s clear is Republican voters are going to decide who they want to lead their party. And that will mean a fundamental question for the American people, but also for leading Republicans about what kind of party they want to have.
And I think what is true, the thing that has not worked is to essentially have establishment Republicans try to adopt Trump-style rhetoric and prioritize Trump-style values to advance their campaigns. That hasn’t played very well. That hasn’t worked. And I think the real question that will be on display in the general election is whether or not the American people either want to support Mr. Trump or somebody who won an election by parroting Mr. Trump’s views, or do they want somebody on the Democratic side who’s committed to building on the progress that our country has made over the last seven years of the Obama administration.
And I guess the question that I posed at the top was a pretty direct and simple one, but the one that you’re posing is much more of an existential question for millions of Republicans.
Q Back to this “best person for the job regardless of politics”? I mean, the President is considering this person based on their likelihood of confirmation, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is certainly aware that anybody that he chooses is somebody that will have to go through a confirmation process. That means it will have to be somebody who is prepared to face the public spotlight, somebody who’s going to have to spend several hours answering tough questions under oath, on camera, before the American people on a range of complicated legal issues.
So this is going to require a rather unique individual with a good mix of qualifications and cool under fire to win — or to be — essentially win the approval of the United States Senate. But, look, that’s true of anybody that’s been appointed to the Supreme Court in the last 30 or 40 years. There have been lots of other tough Supreme Court fights too. But Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan had to withstand days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They certainly didn’t get a lot of softballs, and they also had to withstand a lot of intense scrutiny from all of you. All of you did a lot of stories about Justice Sotomayor’s tenure as a federal judge and spent a lot of time scrutinizing the arguments that then-Solicitor General Kagan made before the Supreme Court. That’s part of the process.
We would expect this to be a rigorous process. And the President certainly expects that whoever he nominates to this job will be able to engage in that rigorous process and emerge from it having successfully described to the American people what their views are and why they actually are the best person for the job.
Q But in a Republican Senate, many of whom are opposed to even bringing this person up for a hearing, the President has to consider politics to a large extent. How likely these same Republicans are going to even give this person consideration, right? I mean, can’t we just say that goes without saying that he’s going to have to consider that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I guess I would say two things about this. The first is, both Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kagan, when they were put forward as nominees by the President, they were confirmed with Republican support. They both got Republican votes. And that was when Democrats were in the majority in the United States Senate.
So the President has a track record of choosing highly qualified individuals that deserve bipartisan support. So that’s always been part of the President’s calculation here. That’s always been part of the criteria. But some of that is also a function of the question that senators face when they are considering a nominee for the Supreme Court.
Again, as I’ve mentioned, they’re not supposed to base their vote solely on whether or not that person would have been their top pick to the Supreme Court. If they want to see their top pick ascend to the Supreme Court, then they should run for President, because that is a job that the Framers of our Constitution gave to the President of the United States — some of them are, to be fair. But those who aren’t should be using criteria to evaluate whether or not this person is qualified and can serve the country with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court.
This is an important job, and it does merit the serious consideration of members of the United States Senate. But it should not be clouded by a partisan political calculation.
Q So to get a notification from Sandoval’s office like that — that he’s not interested in being considered — if he were to be considered, is the White House disappointed in that message?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think there’s going to be anybody that’s disappointed in it. He’s obviously entitled to make decisions about his own career. And I don’t really want to serve on the Supreme Court either. It seems like a really important job. I’m not sure that I’m —
Q We’ll scratch you off —
MR. EARNEST: There you go, scratch me off the short list. (Laughter.) The long list just got shorter.
Q No Earnest.
Q Do you expect more of that potentially to come? I mean, do you expect fewer people to be interested in going through that process, which may or may not even happen? But you can imagine if somebody was up for hearings, then the process is going to be pretty tough this time around. Do you expect that to affect people’s acceptance of consideration?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t expect that it will. I think that people understand. I think the kinds of people who actually are interested in a job like this, and are interested in serving on the Supreme Court in a lifetime appointment, they understand that this is a rigorous process. And they understand what that entails. And I think it’s certainly understandable that most people wouldn’t want to go through it.
But I think the kinds of people who have the kind of passion for the law, that have the kind of extraordinary intellectual and legal skills, are the kinds of people who are going to perform well in that difficult setting. So I’m confident that the President will be able to find the right person to fill that vacancy, and that that person will be enthusiastic about the opportunity.
Q And on this meeting Tuesday, Mitch McConnell has already said that he’s going to use that time to tell the President that he should wait until the next President is in office for someone to be brought up. So what do you expect to come from this meeting? You’ve already mentioned that some of these conversations were kind of awkward to begin with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I say awkward because I think that there were some people who were uncomfortable with the position not attending the meeting, and so we obviously are gratified that they are going to attend. And that’s an important part of the process. The President is determined to consult with members of the Senate about his constitutional duty. And hopefully there will be participants in that meeting who recognize the constitutional duty that they have, too.
Q Following up on the Supreme Court, do you expect the President to consult with the 2016 Democratic candidates? Has he already called Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders to talk about this? If this doesn’t go through, they’d be next in line potentially, if they won, to make the appointment.
MR. EARNEST: Look, at this point I would not expect the President to consult with them specifically about who he will choose. Again, this is not about politics. This is about the President fulfilling his constitutional duty. One of the interesting things here is obviously Senator Cruz is running for President, but yet he also has a responsibility to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. So, some many consider that a little ironic, but he actually may be at least the first presidential candidate who is consulted about this.
But look, I guess on the other hand, Senator Sanders continues to be a sitting member of the United States Senate. I’m confident — the President has already consulted with a number of Democrats. But if that kind of conversation occurred, it would be solely in the context of Senator Sanders’ current service in the United States, not because he’s a presidential candidate.
Q I wanted to also ask about the meeting at the State Department today. Can you give a little bit of an update or preview of what the President might say? Is this specifically about the cessation of hostilities? What can we expect to hear from the President on this?
MR. EARNEST: The meeting that the President will convene with his national security team today will occur at the State Department. And at the same time, all of the members of the President’s national security team — the senior members of his team — will be there. There will be a number of White House officials but also senior officials from the intel community, the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department and others that have an important role in our counter-ISIL campaign.
The reason the meeting will take place at the State Department is obviously State Department officials have been intensely focused recently on trying to successfully implement this understanding about a cessation of hostilities. That’s required a lot of diplomatic spadework. And that has really just begun. It’s going to require a lot of follow-through to implement this successfully, if it can be implemented successfully.
So that certainly will be an important part of the discussion. But the meeting agenda will not just be limited to a discussion of the cessation of hostilities. There will be the regular update that the President will get from his military advisors about the ongoing military efforts against ISIL. There will be a continued discussion of our counter-finance efforts against ISIL. There will even be a discussion about some of the work that the United States has been doing to prevent ISIL from capitalizing on other areas where there is political turmoil and chaos. Libya is probably the best example of that.
So this will be a rather wide-ranging meeting, but it will all be focused on our ongoing effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. The President will speak to you after the meeting, so you’ll get a little more of a flavor of what occurs there.
Q I wanted to ask you about Apple, because it appears they are potentially going to come up with a new operating system that would make it impossible for them to create this backdoor that there’s this fight over right now. Could that be a potential — a backfire of the FBI sort of coming hard after Apple to get into phone in San Bernardino?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have very limited actual knowledge and technical knowledge of what Apple’s future plans are. I know that many people who work on technology issues focus on the realm of the possible. And at this point, we’ve been pretty clear about what our position is in this specific case. But as it relates to Apple’s broader plans, you’d have to talk to them about it.
Q And just finally, you mentioned the previous Republican nominee. He said, I think yesterday, that there may be a bombshell in Donald Trump’s taxes that haven’t been released yet.
MR. EARNEST: He didn’t seem too happy when somebody said that about his tax returns, as I recall.
Q Since the President did engage in sort of this back and forth on taxes with Mitt Romney, does the President believe that Donald Trump needs to release his taxes as soon as possible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, to be clear, I wasn’t making a reference to the President. I think the President has made transparency a priority. And even as President, he has released his tax returns every year, and he certainly did so as a candidate. And it wasn’t just his current tax reforms, it was a number of previous years as well. I don’t recall the exact number off the top of my head. But that’s, I think, what the — I think the American people have the expectation that that’s what the candidates will do. But ultimately, I’m not here to issue challenges about what one candidate should or should not do. Each of them will have to decide on their own what they believe is the most appropriate way to provide that kind of information to the American public.
Q Just to clarify, the statement that the President is going to make after the meeting, is that going to be essentially a summarization of what happened? Or this some sort of announcement about something new — a new policy, a new proposal, a new initiative?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t expect a major new announcement today. I think it will be an opportunity, though, for once the President has received an update from his team about the progress that we’ve made against ISIL, he’ll share a version of that update with the American people. And that will be the intent of the President’s remarks today.
Q I imagine it would parallel what we heard the other day from Brett McGurk.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Brett was obviously focused on much of the military campaign on the ground in Iraq and in Syria. I think there will be some other elements that will be covered in the meeting, including an update on our counter-finance efforts. Some of the diplomatic work around a cessation of hostilities will obviously be covered. And I certainly wouldn’t rule out discussion about ISIL’s effort to gain a foothold in Libya, as well. Obviously, the United States military took a pretty significant airstrike earlier this week that targeted a leading ISIL figure in Libya. That’s not the first strike that we’ve taken there. But anyway, the conversation will be somewhat broader than the presentation that Brett made earlier this week.
Q On the Supreme Court meeting, reaching out to members of the Judiciary Committee, the President didn’t make any of those calls, or did he?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President made many of those calls, not all of them.
Q So he spoke to someone in each member’s office? Did he speak to any members directly?
MR. EARNEST: No — maybe we’re talking past each other. Someone from the White House has contacted every single office on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many of those calls were made by the President of the United States to members. The President did not call any staff. So any staff-level contacts occurred from White House staffers to Senate staffers.
Q Can you say how many members he spoke to? He spoke to all of them?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President did not speak to all members in all of the offices, but many of them. He did speak to both Democrats and Republicans.
Q Can you say how many?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have the specific numbers here. But the President convened many calls with Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.
Q And you say these are intensive consultations. Are names exchanged?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have —
Q What do you mean by — beyond just saying, “Do your job, I’ll do my job, and you all know the Constitution,” when you say intensive, can you give some indication of what?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it depends on the person and on the view of the person on the other end of the phone.
Q Or in the best possible circumstances —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, look, as I’ve noted earlier, there are some people who have publicly and privately said that they’re not going to consider anybody. So it’s hard to have a detailed conversation about who the President is considering if they’ve already said it doesn’t matter who you choose, I’m going to oppose them. Unfortunately, that’s the approach that’s been taken by a large number of Republicans, and that’s unfortunate.
Q But is that the response he got from some of the members he spoke to? They just tell him, look, we’re not going to deal with this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to ask them about what they conveyed to the President of the United States. But the President has been pretty clear about his commitment to doing his job, and he expects them to do theirs, as well.
But in some cases, there was a discussion about how the President would make this decision, about what kind of criteria that he would use. In some cases, there was a discussion about what that process would look like and what it should look like. But again, those conversations were a lot more fruitful with people who weren’t refusing to do their job.
Q Is there ever a sharing of names? Could you say for certain that at some point the President will actually discuss nominees with members of the committee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it certainly isn’t off limits or somehow inappropriate for members of Congress to say to the President, hey, I really like this person; you should consider them. That’s not an inappropriate thing for them to say — particularly if there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court, particularly if they’re a member of the Judiciary Committee, and particularly if they recognize that the President has a constitutional duty to name someone to fill that vacancy. So that certainly is an appropriate thing to do. But you’d have to ask members of Congress if they did that.
Q Just one last thing. In the session this morning about precision medicine, the President said something about, we just had a meeting about Zika and there is some promising news about vaccines. Was he referring to something that had just happened very recently that we’re not aware of? Or was he just using the term more generally?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure exactly what he was referring to. I know that the President did obviously convene a meeting that you do know about that occurred in the Situation Room about three or four weeks ago, where the President met with members of his national security team, but also his top science and health advisors to discuss this issue.
I know the President is regularly updated on the efforts of his team to prepare for the Zika virus. So I don’t know if he was referring to that formal meeting that he had back at the end of January, or if he was referring to one of the many updates that he’s received in that period of time.
Q Because he sounded generally positive about a promising pathway for vaccines, and that the virus is not as complicated as we think. Maybe he was talking — obviously as a layman — but it sounded like he was referring to something that happened post that.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll see if we can look into this and get you some more specific information about what the President was referring to.
Q Josh, on Tuesday’s meeting would you say it is the principal objective of President Obama to persuade McConnell and Grassley to launch a confirmation process?
MR. EARNEST: I think the principal objective is for the President to share his views about why he believes his constitutional duty to nominate someone to fill a Supreme Court vacancy is so important. And I think he intends to try to help those members of the Senate and the Judiciary Committee understand exactly how he will make this decision.
I suspect that some of them will have questions for him. He’ll answer those questions. But look, ultimately Senator Grassley and Senator McConnell and the rest of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Republican side and the rest of the Republican caucus is going to have to decide for themselves whether or not they’re going to fulfill their constitutional duty.
We’ve seen a couple of them come forward and say that that’s exactly what they intend to do. Both Senator Collins and Senator Kirk have indicated that that’s what they intend to do. There are some others that have had a couple different positions on this issue. But ultimately, the President is going to fulfill his duty, and it will be up to the Senate to decide if they’re going to fill theirs.
Q But McConnell has already said he’s not going to accept a nominee from this President. So the whole process becomes moot if there’s not going to be a confirmation process.
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I don’t think that’s true.
Q So isn’t that the number-one thing that the President needs to address with them to get them to see that they’re obligated to do otherwise, in his view?
MR. EARNEST: Look, ultimately — obviously, that’s what the President would like them to do. But we’re realistic that that’s a conclusion that they’re going to arrive at on their own. They’re going to have to decide. I suspect some of them will consult with their constituents about it. Some of them will spend a little time thinking about what their responsibilities are.
But, look, if you’re talking about members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, these are individuals who are conversant in what the Constitution requires. Many of them have served on that committee or in the United States Senate for a long period of time. In fact, both Senator McConnell and Senator Grassley can remember when they personally voted to confirm a nominee in a presidential election year, in 1988. So they understand the history here. They understand the responsibility that they have. But ultimately, they’ll have to make up their own mind.
I don’t think that the President is going to be in a position of twisting arms. This ultimately is a decision that these Republican senators will have to make on their own.
Q Why would you say that, that he wouldn’t want to be in a position of twisting arms? Isn’t that what he needs to do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think he will certainly make a strong case about his commitment to fulfilling his constitutional duty. He will urge them to fulfill theirs. But it’s not as if the President is going to present to them some part of the Constitution that they haven’t read before. They understand exactly what their responsibilities are. These are guys that have served in the Senate for decades. They’ve got decades of experiences of dealing with this stuff.
And again, when it comes to Senator Hatch and Senator Grassley and Senator McConnell, the last time that there was a vacancy in the Supreme Court in a presidential election year, they voted to confirm the President’s nominee. We’re just asking them to do the same thing this time.
Q And let me ask about your slideshow.
MR. EARNEST: We can get you copies, absolutely.
Q Appreciate it. Did you do this because you believe the President’s economic record is being unfairly criticized by Republican candidates?
MR. EARNEST: No, actually I did it because I — the President is taking — is making a visit to Jacksonville, Florida tomorrow. He’ll be visiting an advanced battery facility that benefitted from the Recovery Act. And this is a facility that now employs about 300 people in the Jacksonville area, including a bunch of veterans. He’ll be talking about the important progress that they’ve made in developing their product and some of the potential applications for that product down the line.
So there’s an interesting story to tell about the President’s travel, but I figured I could make the presentation that I’m sure you all felt was riveting even more interesting by discussing its relevance to tonight’s festivities.
Q But you would agree that your economic selections were certainly chosen to put the best point of view on the President’s economic record. I didn’t see a slide about wages or taxes or the debt.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think when it comes to taxes, there are — I think there are 20 or so taxes that have been cut by the Obama administration when it comes to small businesses. Taxes haven’t gone up for people making less than $400,000 a year or so. So middle-class families actually now have permanent tax cuts that were made permanent in the Obama administration.
Q Maybe you ought to do a tax slide. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe we should. That’s a good idea. Maybe you and I should have consulted before I did the presentation tonight.
Q You’ve got my number.
MR. EARNEST: I do. But I do think that — and again, we’ll get you copies of the slides — but whether it’s the housing market, household wealth, the auto industry, health care costs, the unemployment rate, comparison to other countries — there’s a pretty wide net that we cast here. And I think all of that serves to illustrate that there are a lot of metrics that demonstrate how much progress this country has made over the last seven years, which makes it, frankly, pretty easy to answer the question that the United States actually is better off than they were seven years ago. We’ll see how Republican candidates choose to handle that tonight.
Q Thanks, Josh. Speaking of taxes and TPP, you’d mentioned previously how, with that, you would be able to cut a number of business taxes.
MR. EARNEST: That tax slide would be a lot better if we could finish that one. 18,000 would be a big number.
Q There you go. What’s the latest on the canvassing? And I imagine it’s ongoing, from your perspective. And I’m curious about how concerned are you that, as that continues to sort of unpack itself, given the rancor sometimes between the White House and the Hill, how worried are you that this will eventually move forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there was a lot of discussion at the end of last year — I guess, actually, at the end of 2014 — among Republicans who vehemently disagreed with the President’s decision to move forward with executive actions on immigration reform. And Republicans were threatening at the time that if the President moved forward on executive actions on immigration reform, that that would poison the well and that Republicans would refuse to cooperate with the administration again.
And the case that the President made was that Republicans shouldn’t let a difference of opinion over one issue become a deal-breaker over all the others. And that approach is one that Republicans largely did adopt, and it’s why there was so much that we were able to accomplish at the end of last year. And we’re hopeful that Republicans would pursue that approach with regard to the Supreme Court and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well.
We right now, at least, have a pretty vigorous disagreement about whether or not the Senate Republicans should fulfill their constitutional duty. They don’t think they should. But we shouldn’t allow the disagreement over that to prevent us from making progress in areas where we do agree. And for all of our differences over the Supreme Court, Senator McConnell who shares the President’s view that ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership — allowing it to go into effect and allowing it to cut taxes on 18,000 taxes that are imposed by other countries on American goods would be good for the U.S. economy. Leader McConnell and President Obama agree on that. So hopefully the Senate will take action on that.
I will point out — which is also absolutely true — we’ll need bipartisan support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So it’s not just Republicans that we’ll be making the case to. We’re going to continue to make the case to Democrats. And we’ve got a pretty strong case to make.
Q It’s going over soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, there’s still some work to be done. There is still a period of public review that’s ongoing right now, but I don’t have an update for you in terms of when this will be presented to Capitol Hill.
Q So nothing imminent. Let me ask you about the Iranians. About six weeks ago, there was a prisoner swap that we all talked a great deal about, and yet it would appear that they’re back at it again, arresting Americans. A former UNICEF official has been arrested by the Iranians. Are you aware of this report? And if so, what is your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of these reports, but for privacy reasons I can’t get into it from here.
Q You can’t get into the fact that you’re aware that it’s happened, or is there a negotiation to try to somehow work out a release of this individual?
MR. EARNEST: I think Secretary Kerry acknowledged that this is something that he’s focused on and he’s been engaged on this issue. But, again, because of privacy considerations, I’m not in a position to discuss it from here.
Q And lastly, I want to ask you also about the process on Tuesday. Not to put too fine a point on it, but are we talking about flip charts and names across the board — “not this one, not that one”? Is that sort of how the process works itself out when you have this conversation?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think it will go like that, in part because there are at least two people who will be sitting in the meeting who say that it doesn’t matter what name you write on the board, we’re going to oppose them. Again, that’s not consistent with the constitutional duties that Republicans have, and that Democrats have, frankly, too. So, again, I’m not sure that there will be an extensive, detailed discussion of particular nominees, at least until such time as Republicans move off their position of saying that there’s nobody that they can accept.
But I do think the President wants to have a serious discussion about his constitutional duty, about their constitutional duty, about the criteria that he will use to evaluate potential nominees, and to discuss what the process for moving forward should look like.
Q This afternoon, when the President speaks — and I know you don’t want to sort of preview what’s going to happen in the meeting — the counter-ISIL strategy, are you still satisfied that even within the last, say, several months, with all the adjustments, that it’s going in the right direction? Or is that over-reading where we are right now on the counter-ISIL strategy?
MR. EARNEST: No, there’s no denying that this is moving in the right direction, and I think Brett McGurk made a pretty powerful presentation about why that’s the case at Tuesday’s briefing.
We’ve made important progress in taking back territory from ISIL. There is ongoing a pretty aggressive fight around Shaddadi in Syria right now, which is just outside Raqqa. If that effort yields success and we are able to make some additional gains there, that would have the effect of essentially separating ISIL in Iraq and ISIL’s headquarters in Syria. And that would be sort of the next phase of this strategy.
So there’s still a lot of work to be done. We still are keenly aware of how significant the threat is that ISIL poses. But there’s no denying that whether you look at last 18 months, or the last nine months, or the even the last six months, we’ve made a lot of important progress in that fight.
Q Thanks, Josh. You mentioned in your slide presentation that unemployment falling below 5 percent is one of the administration’s main economic accomplishments. But Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made a frequent campaign trail talking point that the real unemployment rate is above 10 percent because of labor force dropouts. Does the White House agree with that economic theory that real unemployment is about or above 10 percent? And if yes, do you bear any responsibility for the state of real unemployment and the number of labor force dropouts?
MR. EARNEST: Byron, I think the point is simply this: We’ve made a lot of important progress in the last seven years. And part of that progress can be measured by the way that the unemployment rate has been cut by more than half from its high of around 10 percent to now below 5 percent. That is undeniable progress that some Republicans will continue to deny.
What’s also true — and I think this is the point that Senator Sanders is making — is that we can’t let up. We need to continue to be focused on making sure that we’re expanding economic opportunity for the middle class, and that we’re making the kinds of investments that are going to benefit future generations of American workers.
And again, unfortunately — and so that means, as the President has said, doing things like raising the minimum wage, and investing in early childhood education, and offering two years of community college education to students that are willing to work hard for it.
Unfortunately, Republicans — while some recognize that more work needs to be done — have exactly the wrong prescription. They actually want to go back to the policies that led to the Great Recession in the first place. They just want to go back to cutting taxes for the wealthy and for wealthy corporations. That doesn’t make any sense. And it certainly is a vision that is not consistent with what President Obama has fought for the last seven years, and it’s not consistent with the kind of vision that’s being articulated by Democrats out on the campaign trail.
Q When Senator Sanders says that on the campaign trail, does the White House view that as a critique or sort of a dig at its economic record?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think — again, the way that I interpret, at least, is that Senator Sanders is making the case that the next President is going to have to build on the progress that we have made over the last seven years. And that’s why Senator Sanders can often be heard saying things like, we need to invest in early childhood education; we need to raise the minimum wage; we need to do more to expand economic opportunity for everybody in the middle class and for everybody that’s working hard to try to get into the middle class.
That’s the kind of rhetoric that you hear from Senator Sanders and that’s exactly what President Obama has been fighting for the last seven years. We’ve made important progress on that scale, but we can’t let up. And unfortunately, Republicans have a starkly different vision for where to take the country and our economic policy. And that’s why the stakes of the presidential election in the 2016, when we get around to the general election, will be quite high.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President had the event this morning about precision medicine. And of course, that involves as many as a million people donating their genetic information to go into a large database for medical research. And the President spoke of the need for strong privacy protections in this program. Given the high profile breaches that cyber-attacks on OPM and other government agencies in the last year, how can the administration assure people that their personal genetic information isn’t going to fall into the wrong hands?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Dave, I think primarily because this is something that we’ve made clear from the beginning is a top priority. And we’re certainly going to work with the private sector, but also use the best government experts to make sure that this data is protected and that it is secure, and that it can be used for the scientific purposes that are intended.
I don’t have a good sense about sort of what kinds of vulnerabilities would exist or may exist out there, but fortunately we’ve got experts who are very focused on this, understand that this is a top presidential priority. And they’re very focused on it.
Q Can you guarantee people that their information won’t be stolen?
MR. EARNEST: I can guarantee people that this is a top priority and that the focus on cybersecurity and protecting this private information will remain paramount.
Q Thanks, just going back to Syria, Josh. You mentioned — you noted the progress made in Shaddadah and that Shaddadah is quite close to Raqqa. I was wondering, will Raqqa be retaken before the President leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a sense of that timing. The Department of Defense probably does have a better sense of that timing. But I don’t think that’s something they’re going to be prepared to talk about publicly. I think for understandable operational reasons, those kinds of plans will be kept private.
But you’ve from our military commanders that they believe that that certainly is a goal that they have. And we’re making some progress against that goal, even right now as the fighting is ongoing in Shaddadi.
Q Another Syria-related issue. Secretary Kerry said that the administration has seen a reduction in Iranian Revolutionary Guard numbers in Syria. I was wondering if that’s the sense from here, and why that might be.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t gotten a sense of that assessment, so let me take that question and see if I can provide you some more details about that.
Q Josh, also on Syria, Vladimir Putin appears to be at least trying to look like he’s taking a very personal role in this cessation of hostilities, if he’s not actually. I mean, even your own release said the other day that it was at the Kremlin’s urging that this phone call happened with President Obama. So with the President going to the State Department today, is there some thought to trying to make this look like a parallel here, that the President himself is also as involved?
MR. EARNEST: No, there’s not. I think the first thing that is true is that this kind of cessation-of-hostilities understanding would not be possible without the dogged tenacity of America’s top diplomat, John Kerry. And he deserves a lot of credit for cobbling together the wide variety of parties that are involved here. And that is a reflection of American leadership.
What is also true is that Russia, and President Putin personally, have a lot of skin in the game. And they’re on the hook for making sure that this understanding is successfully implemented. And there will be bumps in the road, there will be setbacks, there will be early indications that it’s not taking hold as intended. But Russia is going to be on the hook for playing their part and making sure that the parties that they are in regular communication with and that they have influence over are abiding by the understanding. So we certainly welcome the prominence that President Putin has attached to this because Russia has got a lot riding on it.
Q But with that, are you saying that this kind of picking up the phone, calling — the immediacy that Putin tries to be projecting here is not something that’s appropriate for the United States? That this should stay at Kerry’s level and not be elevated to the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, the President is regularly updated on this situation. Obviously, the President is consulting with his counterparts in other countries, including in Russia, about this. But this is a diplomatic effort that has been painstaking, and it’s a testament to Secretary Kerry’s skills and patience.
But Secretary Kerry understands that the stakes are high. There are millions of lives that are riding on the line. And I think that would explain the passion that he has for this. But Russia is on the hook. And this is, I think — let me try to put it this way to you, Margaret. I think our bigger concern would be, if before the cease-fire is even implemented, Russia looked like they were backing away; if President Putin was trying to act like he didn’t want to talk to anybody. That would be a bigger problem, because that would be an indication that Russia doesn’t quite understand that they’ve got a lot riding on the successful implementation of this understanding.
But in fact, they do understand that they have a lot riding on it. And we certainly are pleased that they are aware of the high stakes here. And gain, in the days and weeks ahead, Russia has got some significant responsibilities.
Q If you take a step back — I mean, this is a President who has won the Nobel Peace Prize. So given that, and given the focus that the administration says it has, rhetorically, on diplomacy here and the importance of this, why is it not more important to the administration to elevate Syria as an issue? Is the President feeling like he has some skin in the game when it comes to this? Because he certainly takes a lot of flak, as you know, from critics about where the state of the conflict is and whether he should have acted earlier or not.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that it is true on a variety of issues that President Putin is far more interested in claiming personal credit for things than President Obama is. Maybe there’s some armchair psychology to be done there. But I think this President is less focused on his self-image and much more focused on advancing U.S. interests around the world and keeping the American people safe.
That is, after all, why the United States has done the hard work of organizing an international coalition of 65 or 66 countries to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Again, as I was saying before, that what sort of fits my little vision or view of this situation is that Russia has chosen to stand apart and take unilateral action separate from our counter-ISIL coalition. I’m not really sure why that is. But the President believes that U.S. interests are best advanced by building that kind of large coalition. I think that’s just one illustrative example.
I guess the other thing that I’ll say is, this has been going on for a long time, as you’ve closely covered. Since the beginning, the United States has insisted that a military solution cannot be imposed on Syria; that the root of this problem that has caused so much chaos and violence and innocent loss of life is that a military solution can’t be imposed on it. And that’s something that we’ve long understood. And that’s why even when military action is required to degrade ISIL, even when military action is required to exploit available intelligence, even when military action is required to prevent an attack on American interests or our allies, or even the United States, the President won’t hesitate to do that.
But we know that the core of solving this problem involves bringing about a long-overdue political transition inside of Syria.
Q Perhaps — also difficult but maybe less perky — Gitmo. Does the White House believe that the President does have constitutional authority to override the ban on transfers of prisoners to the U.S. mainland?
MR. EARNEST: Our position on this has been pretty clear since the President articulated it in mid-December of last year, where he said the focus of our administration is on working with Congress to get them to remove the obstacles that prevent us from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And what was included in that plan was a very specific proposal for how we could take steps that were consistent with the military advice that the President is receiving, that was consistent with the need to cut wasteful spending, that was consistent with the need to remove a symbol that we know terrorist organizations use to recruit followers.
That’s the plan that we’ve put forward, and we want Congress to remove the obstacles that prevent that plan from being successfully implemented. That continues to be the focal point of our efforts right now.
Q So that means the White House Counsel’s Office has concluded that the President does not have constitutional authority to override that law, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t been briefed on any legal conclusions that have been arrived at by the White House Counsel’s Office. What I know is that the whole reason we put together a plan and presented it to Congress on the timeframe that they asked for is because they asked for that plan, and we had the fleeting hope that that plan would actually be considered on its merits, and that we might be able to work in bipartisan fashion to get Congress to remove the obstacles that they’ve instituted that had prevented the prison from being closed in the first place.
It’s still unclear whether or not that’s actually going to happen. We certainly have seen that plan be rejected basically before any of them read — before some members even read it. That was not encouraging. But conversations on this issue and on this topic still continue, and I would expect they will in the days and weeks ahead.
Q The reason I ask is because Attorney General Lynch was on the Hill today and she was specifically asked whether a new law would have to be written before prisoners were transferred. And rather than answering the question, she said she didn’t want to get ahead of the White House, which would appear that this is actually something the White House is looking at and deciding on, or at least deliberating about.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is that the White House is most focused right now on getting Congress to remove those obstacles. And does that require them writing a new law or amending a law that they previously passed? We can get somebody from leg affairs up here to try to figure that out for you.
All I know is that our focus is on trying to get Congress to remove those obstacles so that we can implement this common-sense plan that will make America safer, that will save taxpayer dollars, and is consistent with the advice that the President is receiving from the leadership of the Pentagon.
Q Vice President Biden is attending the Academy Awards on Sunday night.
MR. EARNEST: I saw that. That’s kind of fun.
Q But it’s coming at a time when many actors are planning to boycott the awards show because they perceive a lack of minority nominees down the list. I know the President has spoken out about this a little bit in the past, but does Vice President Biden’s attendance at this event, does it at all undercut the White House’s message that they’re standing behind these actors that are protesting? Or what’s your take on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Vice President Biden is going to the Academy Awards primarily for one reason, which is to raise awareness about which — raise awareness of an issue about which he is quite passionate, and that’s stopping sexual assault. And the Vice President is playing a leading role in the It’s On Us campaign. And one of the songs that has been nominated for an Academy Award is a song that was written and performed by Lady Gaga. And it was included in a documentary that chronicles the plague of sexual assaults on college campuses all across America.
And the Vice President has done a lot of important work in leading the effort to end violence against women and to end sexual assault. This is an opportunity for him to stand at a rather high-profile podium when millions of people across the country and around the world will be watching. And I think the Vice President’s passion for this issue will be evident once again on Sunday night.
Q Are there any plans to address the other issue, though, the lack of minorities that are nominated for this awards show?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that his appearance is relatively brief, and will thus be focused on this issue on which he’s got quite a long track record.
Q Earlier this morning, when the President was walking back from next door, when he was walking with Senator Alexander, and I wondered if you have any sense whether the President gave Alexander, who is perceived as a moderate Republican, moderate conservative, is he delivering any sort of message to the Republican conference — Senate conference? Did they discuss any sort of nominees? Is he as a moderate himself under consideration? I know he’s not on the judiciary or anything, but what did that conversation — did it continue in the West Wing when they came back?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t gotten a readout of that conversation. I know the President was hoping to visit with Senator Alexander when he was at the White House today. I don’t have the details of that conversation at this point. But if we can get more information about their conversation, we’ll share it with you.
Q And then finally, talking about Sandoval taking himself out of consideration, are you aware of any other candidates — I know you can’t name anybody — but are you aware of anybody else taking themselves out this early on?
MR. EARNEST: Other than me? (Laughter.) No, I’m not aware of any other statements like that.
Q Thanks a lot. It’s been a difficult week for the President. He submitted his proposal to close down Guantanamo this week, and that plan seems to be going nowhere. In addition to that, the President continues his efforts to fill this vacant seat on the Supreme Court. And based upon the statements by the Senate Majority Leader, the letter that was signed by all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which opposes the idea of even a hearing for the nominee, that effort also seems to be going nowhere. On these two particular issues, does the President this week feel like a lame duck?
MR. EARNEST: He does not. I think the thing that’s really taken a beating this week is the public perception of Republican — Senate Republicans’ work ethic. You listed two examples of where Republicans are basically saying we’re not going to do our job, we’re not even going to consider the administration’s efforts to do its job to keep the American people safe and to perform a basic constitutional duty, which is to nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
There are other examples, of course. The other thing that happened just a couple of weeks ago is we saw Republicans come out even before the President had rolled out his budget and say that for the first time in 40 years, the budget committees were not actually going to allow the President’s budget director to testify about the budget. So essentially you had Republicans rejecting the President’s budget before it was even announced. They said they wouldn’t even consider it. It makes it all the more ironic that House Republicans have now had to postpone their plans about drawing up their own budget. That may be an indication of some deeper problems that they have.
And we saw an interesting story that ran in The New York Times this week about how Senator Shelby and Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee have not advanced a single administration nominee since the beginning of the Congress. And when asked why that was the case, when asked why he wasn’t doing his job, ironically enough, Senator Shelby said it was because he had an upcoming primary. We’ll see how he does in the primary. But there are consequences for him not doing his job.
We’ve talked about Adam Szubin many times. This is the individual who will be responsible for implementing the kinds of sanctions against North Korea that the United Nations is considering right now. There is no reason for him to be the victim of such partisan obstruction. There are also nominees to the Export-Import Bank, to the SEC, and to the Federal Reserve that have not been considered by the Senate Banking Committee and have not been advanced by the Senate Banking Committee because Senator Shelby and other Republicans on the committee refuse to do their job.
So there is a track record here that’s problematic for Republicans because they’re in the majority. They’ve spent years fighting tooth and nail, raising millions of dollars from special interests in Washington, D.C. and around the country to fund campaigns so that they could take over the majority in the United States Senate. Now they have the majority, and, like the dog that caught the car, they’re not really sure what they’re supposed to do. Even when the Constitution specifically describes what they should do, they’re unwilling to do it.
And I’ve raised this issue earlier because I think this — again, they’ll be getting their political advice from people other than me. But I think this could be in the category of nonpartisan advice — Democratic voters and Republican voters elect people to represent them in Washington, and they expect those representatives to do their job. And this week, there’s not much evidence to point to that Republicans are doing their job. There’s plenty of evidence to point to that they’re not doing their job. They’re not willing to consider any nominee that the President puts forward to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. They’re not willing to even consider a plan that they asked for from the administration that was provided by the Department of Defense about keeping the American people safe and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. They’re not willing to consider a single Obama nominee in the Senate Banking Committee even when those nominees have important nonpartisan responsibilities like imposing sanctions against Russia and North Korea, and ensuring the stability and safety of our financial system.
So Republicans will have to speak to this at some point, or, better yet, they’ll just have to change their strategy. It doesn’t mean they have to give them — I mean, look, this is the other thing. I know Republicans like to make the case that, well, they disagree with the President. That’s okay — you’re allowed to disagree with the President, of course. That’s why you’re in a different party. In some ways, Republicans would say that’s part of the reason they’re in the majority, is because they campaigned on disagreeing with the President.
But I would be surprised if they campaigned on not doing anything when they got here. They haven’t done anything. And there’s no reason that the kinds of issues that we’re talking about have to be partisan. They surely don’t. In fact, the Framers of our Constitution were counting on the White House and the Senate to be able to put aside partisan politics and focus on the best interests of the country.
And that system — again, there have been some bumps, there have been some inefficiencies, but that’s worked even during President Obama’s presidency. He’s put forward two Supreme Court justices to fill vacancies there. Both of them have earned Republican support in the Senate because these are individuals that had unquestioned credentials and demonstrated a capacity to serve the American people with honor and distinction in a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court.
So it’s possible there’s a path out of this mess. But it will require — in fact, it will start with Republican senators embracing the responsibility that they have to do their job.
Q The President, in the last two weeks, has said that he regrets working to filibuster the nomination of Samuel Alito when his nomination was up before the Senate. I had never heard him say that before. And I’m a journalist; I’m a cynic by nature. It seems to me that it’s convenient to talk about regret now when he hasn’t mentioned it any time over the course of the past 10 years. How would you explain that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first thing that I would explain is that the situation is different; that when the President cast his vote to filibuster President Bush’s nominee, the President was pretty direct about having given Mr. Alito — Justice Alito a fair hearing. And the President made clear that he had substantive objections to Mr. Alito ascending to — eventually becoming Justice Alito.
So Republicans, however, are not taking that same kind of approach. They’re actually saying there’s no one that we will support.
The second thing is this: The President made those statements and cast that vote after it was already clear that Justice Alito had the support that he needed to ascend to the bench. And that’s not what Republicans are proposing to do. What Republicans are proposing to do is to prevent the institution of the United States Senate from functioning. And that’s why what the President did at the time was quite different.
But look, I also think the President, being pretty blunt about the fact that if he could have done it differently he would have rooted his objections more in those substantive concerns that he had with Justice Alito. But it didn’t change the outcome.
Q Is it difficult to get Republicans, in your view, to see the President’s point of view when you have this video out there of then-Senator Biden and Senator Schumer and Senator Reid essentially advocating the exact procedures that Republicans are carrying forward right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, it depends on the part of the video that you want to watch. When it comes to Vice President Biden, he said on the floor of the United States Senate in the same video that you’re citing and said, “Mr. President, if the President consults and cooperates with the Senate or moderates his selections absent consultation, than his nominee may enjoy my support, as did Justices Kennedy and Souter.”
We’re basically suggesting that Republicans in the Senate in 2016 should do precisely what Senator Biden — and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Biden — did throughout his career. When you take a look at his record on the Judiciary Committee, and his willingness to put his constitutional duty ahead of partisan politics, his record is hard to beat. I’m not sure that anybody can do it.
He presided over the hearings that allowed Justice Thomas to move to the floor of the United States Senate, even though Senator Biden had his own personal objection to Justice Thomas’s nomination. That represents him taking quite seriously his responsibility as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
When Justice Kennedy was up for a confirmation vote in a presidential election year, Democrats were in the majority, Joe Biden was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Justice Kennedy was nominated by a Republican President. The situation is the same. And yet Senate Democrats actually moved to support Justice Kennedy, even though it was an election year; even though it was President Reagan’s last year in office. We’re asking Republicans this time around to do exactly the same thing.
Q And the video of Senator Schumer and the video of Senator Reid. How do you explain that away?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see their particular comments. I mean, there are obviously a bunch of comments from Republicans on the other side of this issue, too. So I think as I observed with Gardiner in a previous briefing here, we can sort of throw old quotes back and forth, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. I do think there’s something inherently wrong, though, with Republicans refusing to fulfill their constitutional duty.
Jared, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said the American people are going to have a view of the Supreme Court nominee that the President eventually makes. Normally, that would occur as part of the hearings process. But if the hearings process is stopped, as it’s promised to be, is the White House prepared to put a nominee out on Sunday talk shows or YouTube interviews with celebrities? Or how is the White House going to make the case to the American people, as the President indicated yesterday, that this is the right person, given that the major forum for that may be closed to them?
MR. EARNEST: We’ve actually been talking about having Zach Galifianakis down at the White House. (Laughter.)
Q Lady Gaga.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Yeah, exactly.
Look, Jared, I think that pre-supposes Republicans not fulfilling their constitutional duty. And we’re going to continue to make the case that they should do their job. And the President is going to put forward an individual that I think will be able to make a compelling case that they deserve — they merit serious consideration for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
This individual will have an opportunity to spend some time on Capitol Hill in private with members of the Senate first. Hopefully we’ll see senators take those meetings. There are some Republicans who are promising not to. We’ll see how that goes over. But we’re still counting on the President’s nominee getting a fair hearing and a timely yes-or-no vote.
Q Mark mentioned some of the slides that weren’t in your presentation at the top. Another one that wasn’t there was the 63 percent of the American people that believe that the United States is headed in the wrong direction. Despite the facts that you put out there, the feeling is very much against the administration. How do you respond to that — again, kind of looking ahead to the debate tonight?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think I’d respond the way we started this briefing, which is that if you ask a very focused question, just objectively — not in a poll, but just objectively — looking at the facts, looking at the condition of the country in 2009 and looking at the country in 2016, there’s no denying that on a whole variety of measures — whether it’s the housing market, whether it is comparing our nation’s economic strength to other countries, or it’s the auto industry, or even the unemployment rate — that America is in a much stronger position now than we were seven years ago.
I would be ready to willingly admit to you that that is due primarily to the grit, determination, and innovation of American entrepreneurs, American businessmen, and most importantly, American workers. But it’s the President’s policies that made that possible. And that’s why the President is looking forward to campaigning for a Democratic nominee in the summer and in the fall who will be committed to building on that progress.
Q And lastly, Josh, if we looked at a word cloud of what’s been said in a briefing — no one has said the name, “David Duke” in this briefing more than you. And so I wonder if you have a reaction to David Duke urging supporters to vote for Donald Trump, as has recently been reported.
MR. EARNEST: I hadn’t seen those reports. I don’t really have an immediate reaction.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
2:45 P.M. EST
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