Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 6, 2016 – 1:34 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody.
Q Quiet a day. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: You know, just a day at the office.
I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions. I assume there are a variety of topics we’ll cover today. But, Josh, I’ll let you choose where we start.
Q Great. Thanks, Josh. Why don’t we start with Afghanistan? I wanted to see if you could tell us how the President feels that this troop announcement reflects on his legacy. As President, he came in wanting to disentangle the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, now leaving conflicts in both of those places, as well as ones in Syria and in Libya. Does the President wish that he would have been able to finish his presidency without so many Americans still overseas in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, it’s important for people to understand the context in which this decision is taking place. First of all, it takes place in the context of a dramatic change in the nature and scale of the U.S. presence if Afghanistan. When President Obama took office, there were about 38,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The President spent much of his first year in office weighing how to fulfill the promise that he made in the context of the campaign, which is to ensure that our national security resources were focused on the real and significant enduring threat that existed in the form of core al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
And in the context of making that decision, the President made the choice — based on recommendations from the Department of Defense and other members of his national security team — to increase our troop presence above 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That peak was reached around 2011 and 2012. And that surge of resources, that surge of troops on the ground had a material impact on the security situation in Afghanistan such that we have succeeded in decimating core al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. We have succeeded in building up the capacity of Afghan security forces to provide for the security of their own country. We have also formed a strong and enduring relationship with the Afghan central government such that the Afghan government now is an effective partner of the United States and the rest of the international community that is focused on the situation in Afghanistan.
The President’s announcement today indicated that the troop level headed into next year will be 8,400. That represents a substantial commitment on the part of the United States to the future of Afghanistan. It also represents a significant reduction in the number of men and women that the United States has in harm’s way in Afghanistan. And it is also a validation of the approach that is focused on training, advising, and occasionally assisting Afghan security forces so that they can fight for their country.
This doesn’t just reduce the exposure of our men and women in uniform; it also enhances the longer-term outlook for the security situation in Afghanistan. We’ve already tried the approach — the previous administration tried the approach where the United States would try to impose a military solution on a country like Afghanistan. That’s not a long-term solution.
So the President’s approach is one that ensures a positive long-term outlook for Afghanistan. But there’s also no denying that the next president will also have to make some substantial weighty decisions with regard to our ongoing relationship with Afghanistan, with regard to our ongoing strategy for countering extremists that continue to try to threaten U.S. interests that are based in Afghanistan. And there will be substantial questions to be answered and decisions to be made about our ongoing relationship with the Afghan government. But there’s no denying the progress that we’ve made and the change that — the relationship between the United States and Afghanistan that we have seen as a result of the decisions made by President Obama over the last eight years.
Q I wanted to drill down on what administration officials told us on a call was the administration’s intention to engage with Congress on finding a way to pay for these additional troops. Can you be more specific? Are you planning to submit a supplemental budget request? Do you have any sense of what actually the cost is for these additional troops? And are you willing to ask Congress to increase military spending to pay for these troops without also increasing domestic spending, as you’ve called for in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, let me say a couple things about our expectations. The first is, given the positive reaction that we’ve seen from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to this announcement, I would expect that we would see constructive engagement on the part of Congress to fulfill their responsibility to pay for this policy decision. That’s their responsibility. We would expect them to fulfill it — particularly when you consider that this is a policy that they say they support.
So this shouldn’t be a situation where there needs to be a lot of arm-twisting or partisan wrangling. This is the Commander-in-Chief making a national security decision that is supported by senior leaders in both parties.
So what’s also true is that Republicans spent a lot of time over the last six years or so talking about how the United States of America would benefit from Republican majorities serving in the House of Representatives in the United States Senate. Those majorities come with certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities, among the most important of those responsibilities, is making sure that our national security efforts are properly funded.
Now, what’s also true, Josh, is that our Department of Defense has indicated that this strategy for Afghanistan is a priority for them. And our men and women in uniform and our commanders in Afghanistan have said that this enhanced troop presence is a genuine priority for the Department of Defense. We would expect — well, and what is true right now, and many of your news organizations are covering this, is that Congress right now is interested in funding a variety of projects that the Department of Defense does not at all describe as priorities.
Q But we’re talking about troops here, and not these other bomber projects.
MR. EARNEST: That’s true. But you’re raising a question, though, about how the Congress will apportion the limited resources of U.S. taxpayers to focus on our national security priorities. And there are a number of things that do have the attention of Congress right now that our military commanders say are not priorities, but they do say that our Afghanistan presence is a priority. And so we do expect that members of Congress will listen to our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan and at the Department of Defense, at the Pentagon, about what our priorities are and fund them accordingly.
Let me say two other things. The first is that there was a budget agreement that was reached last year, and we do expect members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — to keep that commitment, to keep their word. There were many people who were advocating the passage of that agreement last year, who are touting the benefits of a two-year agreement. So they kept their commitment in year one. We expect everybody to keep their commitment in year two.
But I would acknowledge the substance of your question, which is that this is a priority and it’s complicated, and it requires a substantial commitment on behalf of U.S. taxpayers. So it will require the administration working with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to make sure that the needs of our men and women in uniform are properly met.
Q That budget agreement that you discussed was predicated on a previous assumption about troop levels that was different from the one that was announced today. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, when you’re talking about working with Congress like that, are you going to now go back and ask for more money to fund these troops specifically?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our expectation right now is that given the strong support on Capitol Hill from Democrats and Republicans in Congress for this policy proposal, we anticipate that we should be able to all collectively, as political leaders, fulfill our responsibility to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources that they need to do their job and to keep us safe. And that will require Republicans doing something that they routinely find to be quite challenging, which is putting the country’s priorities ahead of their own personal political considerations.
But in this case, the stakes are high enough that that’s what they must do. And given their stated support for this policy, it shouldn’t be that hard for them to do it.
Q And I just wanted to ask you about a report that the British did on Iraq and the lead-up to that that was pretty damning. It talked about flawed intelligence and wholly inadequate planning. This President was obviously pretty critical of how that war started as well. Do you concur with the results of that report?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, my understanding is that the report numbers some 6,000 pages. So I don’t know that anybody in the U.S. government has had an opportunity to evaluate the entirety of the report. The President’s longstanding opposition to the invasion of Iraq is well-known and has been extensively litigated.
What is true is that President Obama has been dealing with the consequences of that fateful decision for the entirety of his presidency, and future presidents will likely have to do the same. So that certainly would — I guess my point is, the fact that I haven’t read the report does not mean that this is an inquiry that is not worthy of careful consideration. And it is important that certainly the United States — I’ll speak for our own country here — learn the lessons of those past mistakes.
But what is also true is that the United States and the United Kingdom have a special relationship. And the ability of the leaders of our countries to work together to focus on our common interests and to pursue them jointly has made our countries more prosperous and more safe. And I would expect that that relationship will endure, regardless of who is leading the United States and the UK. Obviously, both countries are facing some leadership transitions in the months ahead. But even as both our countries go through those transitions, I would expect that that relationship will remain special and strong.
Julia, nice to see you.
Q Thanks. Yesterday, FBI Director Comey said that while the FBI was not recommending charges against Hillary Clinton, he did say that it shouldn’t be ruled out; that people who repeat that behavior in the future wouldn’t be subject to security sanctions or administrative sanctions. What is the White House’s view — what’s the Obama administration’s view on what punishment should be in store, if not for these folks — you might not want to talk about them — but for future people, future staff members who don’t follow the rules surrounding keeping classified emails secure?
MR. EARNEST: Look, as we’ve discussed from here many times and across the administration, everybody who works in this administration understands how important it is to protect national security secrets and to handle sensitive information appropriately. And that is certainly a priority. And even as there are a number of agencies that have had to deal with situations like cyber intrusions, we have worked to update our technology and to ensure that our workforce understands the appropriate steps to take to protect that information. And our expectation is that’s what the professionals who work at our national security agencies will continue to do.
Q What about some members of Hillary Clinton’s staff who were part of these e-mails, who Director Comey said they would know they were classified? Should their security clearances be reviewed if, for example, they were about to come in and serve with the next administration?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I’m not going to render any judgment on that, primarily because these are the findings and recommendations of the FBI, based on their investigation that they have been conducting. The findings and recommendations of that investigation are still being considered by prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and we’ve gone to great lengths to prevent any undue White House influence on that situation. So it’s just going to be hard for me to react to the specific findings and recommendations of the FBI at this point.
Q Okay. So, on Afghanistan, some critics have already come out since this morning’s announcement of keeping 8,400 troops, saying that the White House really should be examining strategy, not troop levels, in order to achieve more success in Afghanistan. In the reviews that came before the President when he made this decision, was there any talk of changing any part of the strategy going forward? Or is he staying the course at the end of this administration just with this level of troops instead?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julia, I think you heard the President reference in his statement to the fact that – you heard the President in his statement reference the fact that the President meets with his team on a regular basis to get an update on the situation in Afghanistan. In the context of those meetings, the President and his national security team, including commanders on the ground, review the strategy and they evaluate which aspects of that strategy are working effectively. They evaluate those aspects of the strategy that aren’t working as effectively as intended, and they consider what changes need to be made.
And there’s always an ongoing effort to ensure that we are moving in the right direction and that we have a policy that is oriented to supporting the efforts of those who are bravely serving this country on the ground. And that’s why the President listens so carefully to the advice that he receives from our commanders in Afghanistan and from the Department of Defense. I think today’s announcement, in fact, reflects the recommendation that they put forward to the Commander-in-Chief.
But I guess to answer your question as directly as possible, there’s an ongoing evaluation of the strategy because the President is determined to make sure that in order to do right by those who are putting their life on the line to protect the country that the Commander-in-Chief owes it to them to make sure that we’ve got the right strategy in place. And if there are aspects of our strategy that aren’t working as well as intended, that we need to figure out why. And if that means we need to make changes to the strategy, the President won’t hesitate to do so. If that means that we need to ask for greater contributions from our partners or our allies, the President won’t hesitate to do so.
But the truth is, this situation in Afghanistan has improved because of the strategy that we do have in place. We did succeed in decimating core al Qaeda in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. We do have a much more effective partner in the Afghan central government because of the diplomatic efforts of officials at the State Department and other agencies. There is a much more effective Afghan security force, both in terms of law enforcement and military, that are doing a better job of securing the country.
But Afghanistan remains a dangerous place and there’s still significant work that needs to be done, but there’s no denying the progress that Afghanistan has made, and there’s no denying the degree to which the safety of the United States has been enhanced because of the strategy that has been successfully implemented by President Obama and his national security team.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back on the whole idea of security sanctions for Secretary Clinton. Yesterday, Paul Ryan said that he believed that Secretary Clinton should not be given classified briefings because she was extremely careless with classified information. He said that that should be the security penalty that she should receive. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my reaction is that I was specifically asked earlier this year about the wisdom of providing national security briefings to the Republican presidential nominee for President. Many people had raised questions about whether or not that was — whether it was appropriate for the Republican nominee to receive those briefings. What I said at the time is that those kinds of decisions should be made by intelligence professionals who have a responsibility to set aside their own political considerations and focus on the best interest of the country.
The fact is, there is a longstanding tradition of providing briefings to the major party nominees to make a smooth transition much more likely in the event that either of them is elected President of the United States. There is a long tradition of those briefings being presented without political influence. And what the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has indicated is that they expect those briefings to move forward after the party conventions, after the parties have chosen a nominee. And the expectation that the DNI has is that they’ll provide the same information to both candidates.
So that is the most effective way to handle this situation. When we’re talking about the safety and security of classified information, we should leave those decisions in the hands of our intelligence professionals and not risk them being sullied by the political debate.
Q — political influence in the political debate. Director Comey and the Attorney General have been sort of called up to the Hill to testify about this case. Do you think that’s a good idea? You mentioned that it’s an ongoing case and you don’t want to talk too much about it, but they’ve agreed to talk about this case on the Hill, publicly.
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple things about that. The first is that the administration has, I think by any impartial measure, gone to great lengths to cooperate with even the most unfair of congressional inquiries. That is just — that’s the principle that we have lived by. What is also true is that Director Comey and Attorney General Lynch are going to make decisions based on their own expertise and their own judgment about the best way to cooperate with that Congressional oversight. They understand the importance of protecting the independence of their investigations — Director Comey said as much yesterday in his statement.
That certainly is a consequence of the lengths that we have gone to here at the White House to prevent any undue outside influence from the White House on this ongoing matter. But as it relates to congressional influence and whether it is undue or inappropriate, I’ve got confidence in the ability of the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI to protect the integrity and independence of those investigations. They’ve been doing that for quite some time now and I’m confident that they can do so as this process continues.
Q And just one more on the e-mail situation. One of the things that Director Comey mentioned is that there were several work-related emails that were deleted by Secretary Clinton’s lawyers as personal. We know that Secretary Clinton has had all of her work-related emails, the ones that she declared so far, already released. Do you believe that those work-related emails that were deleted should be released as well to the public in the same way that the previous emails were released?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, what the information that you’ve provided that you’re asking about is information that has come to light as the result of the ongoing FBI investigation. And because the results of that investigation and the recommendations that arise from that investigation are still being considered by prosecutors at the Department of Justice, I’m just not going to be in a position to react to those details at this point.
Q Do you anticipate that, more broadly, when this investigation is over, you’ll be able to discuss these types of questions and answer these questions sort of when the investigation is over, kind of discuss this in a more robust way than you are now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, whenever I walk out here, I always endeavor to answer your questions to the best of my ability. In this case, there are going to be obvious limitations to that in part because I haven’t seen any of the emails; in part because I wasn’t privy to the decisions that were made about Secretary Clinton’s email system; in part because what we’re focused on when I’m standing behind this podium is the official work of the United States government, not the presidential campaign, and certainly many of the questions that have arisen have been the result of political charges that have been traded back and forth in the context of the campaign. I’m not saying that’s inappropriate. I would expect a spirited debate on the campaign trail. But the focus of our time and attention in this room is on the official conduct of U.S. government business.
Q Josh, if the situation in Afghanistan is as precarious as President Obama says, why make any reductions in troop levels at all? Why not leave it at 9,800?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, this is actually based on the recommendation from our commanders on the ground about what resources are necessary to conduct the missions that the Commander-in-Chief has given them. Those missions are to provide training and assistance to the Afghan security forces and to maintain the kind of counterterrorism platform that’s necessary to counter those extremists that may be plotting in Afghanistan against Western interests around the world.
So the President has been very clear about what that mission is. The Department of Defense came forward with a specific recommendation about the number of resources and the number of military servicemembers that would be required to carry out that mission. That number was a little over 8,400 and that’s what the President has authorized.
Q May I ask about yesterday? His campaign event — what is the policy of the White House about the use and display of the presidential seal at political events?
MR. EARNEST: At the White House, frankly, we have tried — we have treated the presidential seal consistent with the way that previous Presidents have, which is that it is certainly used at official events and sometimes used at political events. That’s been the case throughout the last seven years and, again, that is a precedent that dates back at least to President Truman.
The commitment that we’ve made before and that I would expect that we would continue to uphold is to not put the seal on the podium when the President is speaking at a fundraiser, when he is soliciting donations for political causes. And I think that’s a line that we’ve kept to over the last seven years. But that’s — it may be aggrandizing it to describe that as a policy, but that is a description of the way that we handle this matter.
Q How did you decide to use the seal yesterday? Do you know if the Clinton campaign asked for the seal so that the candidate could be seen speaking behind it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any such requests from the Clinton campaign.
Q Does the same policy exist for the Vice President and his seal when he campaigns for the candidate Friday?
MR. EARNEST: I have not asked the Vice President’s team about what policy they expect to have in place, but we can certainly check with them, or you can check with them, and get an answer, or we can just tune in on Friday. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about opioid legislation. Now that House and the Senate Republicans have voted down additional funding to attach to that bill, would the President veto that package if it landed on his desk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, the thing that I find at least somewhat surprising is the way that Republicans in Congress continue to abdicate their basic responsibility to address an emergency. Democrats and Republicans all around the country have identified the opioid epidemic in the United States as an emergency. Public health professionals have identified this as an emergency. Mayors and governors all across the country, Democrats and Republicans, have identified the opioid epidemic in America as an emergency. Republican presidential candidates have campaigned in states across the country earlier this year and talked about how the opioid epidemic in America required a robust response. Somehow, that message has not gotten through to congressional Republicans.
The administration has gone to great lengths to try to do what we can, using the President executive authority, to try to enhance the fight against the opioid epidemic. Just yesterday, there was an announcement of a couple of steps that the Department of Health and Human Services was taking to give physicians the authority to offer medication-assisted treatment to more patients. There were announcements from the VA and the Department of Defense to improve prescription drug monitoring to prevent people from becoming addicted to opioids.
So many people all along the ideological spectrum in both parties are making the case about how this is an urgent priority. But it’s only Republicans in Congress that are deaf to those calls. And I’m not really sure why. There are patriotic Americans in Democratic and Republican congressional districts who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. There are people in America right now who know they have an addiction, who have sought treatment and are unable to get it because beds in treatment facilities are not available to them.
Everyone who has spent any time looking at this issue understands that additional resources are necessary in the form of hospital beds and public health professionals to treat this problem. Thousands of Americans are in need of assistance. And passing a bill that is doing little more than paying lip service to the problem falls woefully short of Congress’s basic responsibility.
Democrats have been fighting for additional resources. You’ll recall that the President of the United States put forward a comprehensive proposal to fight opioid addiction in his budget. And I don’t have to remind you that that billion-dollar proposal was something that Republicans in Congress were unwilling to even discuss. They canceled a hearing that had that the past 40 Congresses had previously held to evaluate the President’s budget proposal. For 40 years in a row, that meeting had been held, but Republicans wouldn’t even give the President’s budget director the opportunity to discuss the President’s budget and to discuss his specific proposal.
So Republicans don’t take this seriously, and I don’t understand why. So we’ll see what gets passed out of conference. But if there is a bill that reaches the President’s desk that is geared toward fighting the opioid epidemic but doesn’t include any funding, I certainly cannot promise that the President would sign it. So we’ll see what they do, but hopefully Republicans in Congress will listen to the calls from Democrats and Republicans alike who are asking for more resources to deal with this significant emergency.
Q Josh, I have two subjects I want to ask you — two total different subjects. First, I want to go back to yesterday. How did — give us a little color off of Air Force One. How did the conversation, or the issuing of the Comey statement come up yesterday with the President and Secretary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: Good, this is the easiest question I’m going to get all day. It did not come up.
Q So you mean to tell me they were on the plane traveling to Charlotte, never talked about it on the plane, not even when they had broke bread and had barbeque together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Secretary Clinton did not fly back on Air Force One with President Obama. So presumably she got to —
Q They had barbeque at the restaurant.
MR. EARNEST: Well, they got it to go, so, presumably, she was able to enjoy it on her own plane. I know that some members of the President’s staff enjoyed the barbeque on Air Force One on the flight back to Washington yesterday. It was excellent.
But, no, the President takes quite seriously the need to avoid the appearance of outside influence on an ongoing investigation. The FBI Director has indicated that they have completed the investigation, but the results of that investigation and the recommendations that spring from that recommendation are still being evaluate by prosecutors at the Department of Justice. So the President did not discuss this matter with Secretary Clinton.
Again, the President and his views on this matter are not relevant because the decision that prosecutors at the Department of Justice will make will be rooted in their own expertise, their own evaluation of the facts and the evidence. And that’s how they will reach their conclusions. They will do that independent of their own political preferences, and they will certainly do that independent of any preferences that the President has.
But the President takes this quite seriously, and it was not discussed by the President and Secretary Clinton on the flight yesterday.
Q Next subject. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alton Sterling. The President is a huge partaker of social media. Has he seen this video that has gone viral of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of police in Baton Rouge?
MR. EARNEST: The President is aware of the situation. I do not know whether or not he has watched the video. April, as you probably know, the Department of Justice announced just this morning that they would be taking a close look at this matter. And again, for reasons that are not dissimilar from what we were discussing earlier, I’m just not going to be able to comment in a lot of detail on this situation given the fact that the Department of Justice has said that they’re going to take a look at the situation.
But obviously the President is aware of this. And regardless of what this investigation finds, there is a family in Baton Rouge and there is a community that is grieving right now. And obviously our thoughts and prayers are with the family that’s lost a loved one.
Q So you say the President has been made very aware of this — well, he’s aware of this. Could you tell us how? Because he started an office, My Brother’s Keeper, because of situations like this. Could you tell me how he was made aware, and what has he said? And could you talk to us about the process as it relates to a possible (inaudible) or law violation that the Justice Department is looking at?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the Department of Justice talk about the process. Again, it is a process that they’re going to conduct independent of any White House judgment about the situation.
But look, the President is aware of it, but I don’t have a specific reaction to the news to share with you.
Q And how was he made aware of it? Did Broderick Johnson, the head of My Brother’s Keeper, tell him? Did Valerie Jarrett send him an email? I mean, how did he find out?
MR. EARNEST: No, this incident has obviously garnered significant media attention, and that’s how the President is aware of it.
Q Back to the emails and congressional hearings. Is it appropriate for Congress, members of Congress to call before hearings the lead investigator and the Attorney General? Is there a danger of them asserting political influence that you say the President is so keen to avoid?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’re raising a legitimate question, but it’s one at this point that I’m just not going to be in a position to comment on given the fact that what the FBI Director will presumably be asked to discuss is the findings of his investigation and the recommendation that that investigation prompted to the Department of Justice. And given that those findings and that recommendation are still being evaluated by the Department of Justice, I’m reluctant to weigh in on it at this point.
Q Speaker Ryan said that he should supply a point-by-point justification for the things he said yesterday. Is that appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think — again, the FBI Director did speak to this investigation at some length yesterday. Many people have observed that that is not the standard practice. But there is little about this matter that is standard, you might say. So I think the FBI Director did have an opportunity to be quite transparent with the American public about the investigation that was conducted, how it was conducted, what they found, and what they recommended to the Department of Justice. But I’m just not going to be able to speak on this matter given that the findings and recommendations are still under review by the professionals at the Department of Justice.
Q So what do you think of Donald Trump’s assertion that letting Clinton off the hook represents bribery of the Attorney General?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific reaction to Mr. Trump’s comments on this matter. Thank you for giving me the opportunity, though.
Q I want to follow up on April’s question about Baton Rouge. Louisiana Governor Edwards said that there were a number of White House officials who reached out to him this morning. Was the President one of them? Has the President talked to the Governor? And why has the Justice Department reacted with such speed in terms of taking over the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not made any calls to the Louisiana Governor on this matter. I can tell you that the White House officials that did place calls placed those calls prior to the announcement from the Department of Justice about the ongoing investigation. Now that the investigation is underway I would not anticipate extensive conversations about this matter between the White House and any Louisiana officials, again, out of respect for the independent Department of Justice investigation.
For the decision and speed with which the decision was made by the Department of Justice to take a close look at this matter, I’d refer you to officials at the Department of Justice. They reached that decision on their own and based on their knowledge of the facts. But exactly what factored into that decision and the timing for that decision being announced, that’s something that they’ll have to speak to.
Q Some of those officials, including the police chief, felt like it wasn’t necessary, that, according to him, that he didn’t need hand-holding and that type of thing. Is there any sense that there’s some pushback for the Justice Department getting involved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let the police chief speak to his perspective. Obviously, the Department of Justice has made a decision based on their own expertise and based on their own knowledge of the situation to conduct an investigation. But how they reached that decision, I’ll leave it to them to explain.
Q So back to the President. The video of what we did see is another African American man on the ground being shot and killed by police officers. It is under investigation, which we know, but the family held a press conference in which his 15-yeaer-old son wailed and broke down at the loss of his father.
MR. EARNEST: It’s heartbreaking.
Q Heartbreaking. Has the President seen that particular video? And just to a larger point, what does he think? What is his reaction in response to something like that happening again in our country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, in response to April’s question, I noted earlier the pain that is obviously being felt by this family and by this community in Baton Rouge. And we’re thinking about them as they endure that grief.
But as it relates to the facts of the situation, I’m just not going to be able to get into it because the Department of Justice has taking a look at that. But this is something that the President is aware of. I don’t know if he saw the news conference, but I’m certain that he’s aware of the news. But we’re obviously going to be deferential to the decision-making at the Department of Justice about how to pursue justice in this matter.
Q Thank you, Josh. You’re getting a lot of questions about what the President has watched in the past 24 hours. Has he watched Comey’s news conference from yesterday in its entirety?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe the President had the opportunity to watch it in its entirety in real time. There was obviously extensive news coverage of it. Those of us who did watch his news conference in real time had an opportunity to describe the news conference to him, so he certainly is aware of what transpired. But I don’t believe he got to watch the entire news conference from beginning to end.
Q How did he describe it?
MR. EARNEST: Keep going, Megan.
Q I want to take another crack at the reaction to the congressional inquiry — inquiries — surrounding this. What about this as a use of members of Congress in terms of their time? Do you see an issue with members of Congress focusing on this particular issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, you have heard me express significant concerns about the inattention that Congress has placed on things like funding for the opioid epidemic, and to make sure that individuals who are seeking treatment can get access to a hospital bed before they die. You have heard me discuss how important it is for Congress to act on a request that was put forward by public health professionals to fight the Zika virus. There are pregnant women and newborn babies all across the country that are at risk, and the fact is our public health professionals have not been able to do every single thing possible to protect us because they haven’t gotten adequate resources and adequate funding from the United States Congress. In fact, they’ve gotten basically nothing from the United States Congress. I know there is essentially a talking point, though, that Congress has previously passed on Zika, but that’s not going to actually get them the resources that they need to do everything possible to protect the American people.
We’ve certainly talked at length about how Republicans in the Senate have not done their job and given a hearing to the President’s eminently qualified nominee to the Supreme Court. This individual is, based on his 19 years on the federal bench, somebody that I’ve described as the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in history, somebody that even Republicans have described as a consensus nominee. But yet, more than half of the Republican conference won’t even meet with the man. They won’t even have a conversation with him, let alone fulfill their official responsibilities to give him a hearing and give him a yes or no vote.
So there are — again, without talking about the FBI investigation or the Director’s decision to travel to Capitol Hill and talk to members of Congress about this, I’ll just make the simple observation that there are significant other priorities that have languished, that Republicans have ignored, the kind of things that should be far beyond any sort of partisan wrangling. But that’s, unfortunately, not how they have spent their time.
Q Are you then characterizing —
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I would hesitate to characterize the interaction that Director Comey is scheduled to have with Congress later this week, simply because the investigation that he’ll be discussing and the recommendations that he ostensibly will be discussing are still being considered by lawyers at the Department of Justice.
Q And I did have one question on 2016 campaigning and what’s ahead for the President. Is he going to be campaigning for House and Senate candidates as well? And what’s the planning there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any additional events to announce. I can tell you the President is quite interested in making a strong case to Democrats all across the country. It was probably evident to those of you who watched the President’s remarks yesterday. So I would certainly confirm your analysis if that’s what your conclusion was.
So the President is obviously quite enthusiastic about Secretary Clinton’s campaign. He described that at some length yesterday. The President is also pretty enthusiastic about a number of Democratic candidates for the Senate and House, as well. And he, I’m confident, will have an opportunity to make his case on their behalf, as well. He certainly is looking forward to that opportunity.
Q And then I’d like to hear a little bit more of the description in the back and forth on Comey’s announcement.
MR. EARNEST: So you yield your time to Mr. Nichols.
MR. EARNEST: Hans, go ahead.
Q How do you describe it, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President had not seen it, and I certainly described what I saw, which is the FBI Director offering a detailed public description of what his investigators had done, what they had found, and what they had recommended to the Department of Justice. Again, what was quite clear from the beginning of his statement is that he was going to go into quite a lot of detail — and he did. And it certainly was not clear, I don’t think to anybody, by the Director’s own admission, exactly what the recommendation was going to be until he announced what it was. And that’s how I described it.
Q Can you give us any adjectives he used, other than “quite”?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q Thanks. If I could follow up for just a second. It seems to me —
Q Ask about adverbs.
Q Yeah, I should — adverbs. (Laughter.) It seemed to me that Director Comey suggested without saying — maybe using Washington speak — that the Secretary lied about a number of her statements previously made about her server — about why she used it, about whether or not classified material had been sent marked classified. He cited over 100 of those. As the leader of the party, how did the President take it when he heard that about the person that he was then going to go out and tell the people of North Carolina and, ostensibly, the people of America that this is someone you should place your trust in?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I just don’t have a presidential reaction to the investigation to share. And the reason for that is the investigation is still being evaluated by Department of Justice prosecutors.
But as it relates to the President’s feelings about Secretary Clinton, the President had an opportunity to speak about them at length yesterday in Charlotte. And the President made a forceful and compelling case for someone that he has gotten to see in action, up close. He made his case in support of somebody who he started out running against and now strongly supports. And that’s a pretty powerful story, particularly when you consider the President’s own perspective.
As the President talked about yesterday, you don’t really know what it’s like to be President until you’ve had to sit behind that desk, in the Oval Office, and make those weighty decisions. Many of those weighty decisions are not something that are discussed publicly every day but do have a significant impact on the American people.
And the President, I think, made a robust case for why he believes that Secretary Clinton is the right person to inherit that responsibility.
Q You have may have been asked this already, but just if I might: Was there any tipoff at all that this was going to go the way that it went? And the reason I ask is I’m wondering what the contingency — what had been, say, had the outcome been different — would the President have continued and gone on, and done the event with the Secretary as planned?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I did mention this yesterday. The White House did not receive any advance notice of Director Comey’s remarks. There was no advance notice given to the White House about the recommendations that Director Comey was prepared to give to the Department of Justice. In fact, there was not advance notice given to the White House that Director Comey was planning to speak, let alone what he was going to say.
So that all said, no, I’m not aware of any contingency plans that were in place. There was never a discussion that I was a part of that the President’s schedule would be changed in any way.
Q VA report out today by the Commission on Care. And among the many things that were written in that report — it was pretty damning, to be blunt — it said that there were many profound deficiencies, that it requires urgent reform, and despite the fact that billions have been sent on making improvements, in some cases things have gotten worse. What’s the White House reaction to the report as it is now? And what, if anything, can be done to improve the conditions for the VA and Care veterans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, what I would say is that at the administration we’re not going be satisfied until every veteran across the country can get access to the benefits and health care that they deserve. And the truth is, over the last two years we’ve made important progress in making that a reality. The fact is that the VA has reduced the backlog of disability compensation by 90 percent over the last three years. The VA has dramatically improved the wait times for veterans who are seeking medical appointments.
There are a lot of metrics I can share, but about 97 percent of appointments are now completed within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred date for that appointment to occur. Twenty-two percent of those appointments are scheduled on the same day. The average wait time for primary care is about five days. The average wait time for specialty care is about six days. That’s a pretty good track record, particularly when you compare it to the private sector. And I think that would explain why nearly 90 percent of veterans, according to a recent survey, said that they are either satisfied or completely satisfied with the timeliness of their scheduled appointments.
So that, I think, is a clear indication of the critically important progress that has been made thus far. But look, there is no one in the administration who is going to be satisfied until this job is completed. So we’re pleased with the progress, but there’s no denying that there’s a lot of important work that remains to be done.
Q And lastly, on Afghanistan. The number that you mentioned — in 2011, more than 100,000 Americans at that point serving in Afghanistan — has continued to dwindle down. Is there any disappointment in the fact that still, after 15 years, there are more than 8,000 Americans that will still be serving in this theater?
MR. EARNEST: Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place. And we’ve made a lot of important progress in strengthening the Afghan central government, enhancing the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight for their own country, and to preserve the ability of the United States military to take action against extremists and against terrorists to protect the United States and our interests around the world.
We’ve been able to do that, even as we have followed through on a responsible drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The drawdown is not all the way to zero, but we’ve drawn down more than 92 percent — or about 92 percent of our previous commitment just in the last four years or so. So that’s an indication that we’ve made a lot of important progress in Afghanistan, both substantively in terms of the results that we’d like to see on the ground, but also in terms of following through on the President’s promise to find a responsible way to bring our servicemen and women home.
Q For the record, it’s Goyal’s birthday. You may want to give him a shout-out.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, okay. Well, maybe we’ll give him a birthday question here near the end. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, Josh. If the FBI determined that a current member of the President’s Cabinet or another top official was extremely careless with classified information, would the President expect that official to resign, or ask him or her to resign?
MR. EARNEST: Byron, I just don’t have a response to that hypothetical question.
Q Given that a number of other members of this administration have resigned for far less — including your OPM director over a data breach, your Secret Service director over security breaches, your VA Secretary over a wait time scandal, a top Afghanistan general over comments to a magazine — yet here you have a member of your administration being accused of carelessness, and the President has endorsed her to succeed him. How do you square that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the President squared it yesterday in his remarks. The President made a forceful case for why he believes that she is the best person in the country to succeed him as President of the United States. And he had an opportunity to watch her up close, in action. And they started out running against each other. That relationship evolved into the two of them working together to advance our interests around the world. And now the President is pleased to offer his full-throated endorsement for her to succeed him. And the President talked about her experience and her priorities and her values that she’s dedicated her career to fighting for.
So the President spoke in his own words about why exactly he believes she should be the next President of the United States. I think the President did that with obvious zeal yesterday, and I would anticipate that he’ll continue to do that up and including on Election Day.
Q I got this email from someone who says he worked for a Department of Energy lab. He writes, “I would have lost my security clearance and ultimately my job if I was simply careless with classified information.” I feel like that’s a common sentiment in the civil service around the government. Is the White House willing to say right now that what Secretary Clinton did was a major error in judgment? And are you willing to warn all current members of the administration not to do similar things — run their own private email servers and conduct government business on unclassified email?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Byron, we’ve made clear what the policy is as it relates to the use of government email, and our expectation is that individuals who serve in the administration are using their government email for official purposes. In those rare instances in which government email is either not accessible or otherwise unavailable, use of personal email should be limited, and in each instance, that personal email should be transferred to the official government system as soon as possible so that it can be properly archived. That’s been our policy for a long time and our expectation is that that’s what employees will follow as they conduct the official business of the United States government. That certainly is the policy that I follow, and everyone else does, too.
But again, you’re asking other questions that are related directly to the assessment that was made by the FBI Director based on their investigation and it’s just not something I can react to. As long as that assessment and investigation and recommendations are being considered by prosecutors at the Department of Justice.
Q You can’t warn federal employees that they shouldn’t be careless with classified information?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ve just reiterated what our policy is and, in response to a previous question, discussed how much of a priority we have placed on the careful handling of sensitive information. But as it relates to the investigation that was completed by the FBI, we’ll let that be evaluated by prosecutors at the Department of Justice and avoid any sort of outside or undue influence from the White House — something that we’ve successfully done for the last year or so. And we certainly want to make sure that we do that up to the conclusion of this matter.
Q Just to follow up on that, I mean, Secretary Clinton has said that this was absolutely permitted by the State Department. But in light of the policy that you kind of outlined, which I assume was in place or that she knew about — I mean, did she seek legal guidance from the Counsel’s Office? Or was the Counsel’s Office totally caught off guard?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I have zero knowledge of the decisions that Secretary Clinton and her team made in setting up her email system.
Q But I mean, what about the White House Counsel’s Office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not aware of who Secretary Clinton and her team may have consulted with this matter, but you can certainly check with them on that. But the policy was in place and has been in place since the beginning.
Q So she would have been aware of that policy?
MR. EARNEST: Again, you’d have to ask her if she was aware of it, but it certainly was in place.
Q Okay, I’m just trying to — but you have no knowledge of whether she, with this policy in place, consulted with, say, the White House Counsel’s Office of any White House legal staff or team about whether or not something that may be a little different would be acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: Who Secretary Clinton may have consulted you should get from her team.
Q Josh, neither President Obama, nor Secretary Clinton, during the campaign appearance yesterday, articulated their opposition in North Carolina’s anti-LGBT House Bill 2. Meanwhile, Donald Trump said yesterday during a rally event he’s a friend of the gay community, but then later told reporters he’s with the state on HB-2. Did the President miss an opportunity to contrast the Democrats to Trump by not speaking out against the law?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I think this — again, the Department of Justice has gotten a lot of air time today. But as you know, this is a matter that is being considered by legal authorities in the administration, so that certainly contributed to the President’s decision not to raise it in public yesterday.
Q But do you have any reaction to Donald Trump saying in one night he’s a friend of the gay community and also with the state on House Bill 2?
MR. EARNEST: I do not have a reaction to Mr. Trump today.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about something the President said at the rally yesterday. He was talking about what a great Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was — he said, “That was before the whole political machinery got moving. It’s funny how the filter changes a bit — same person, done the same work — but that filter is a powerful thing.” Was he referring in any way to the email investigation?
MR. EARNEST: No, Dave, I think what the President was referring to was that Secretary Clinton’s approval ratings and the willingness of Republicans to work with her was evident while she was serving as Secretary of State. And her political standing was strong, her approval ratings obviously grew. Many people, including people in this room, observed that her approval rating as Secretary of State was higher than the President that she serves, and there was a willingness on the part of many Republicans to work with her effectively to advance our interests around the globe.
But obviously, that all changed once she left government service. And, again, I think that is a function of our political system right now — that Republicans who were willing to work effectively with her while she was Secretary of State are now harshly criticizing her. I’ll leave that to all of them to explain why that is the case, but that’s what the President was referring to. He wasn’t referring to this specific matter.
Q — email investigation by the Department of Justice had nothing to do with her disapproval ratings going up?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think the — I think the point that the President was making yesterday — I’m just not going to talk about the investigation to the email system. The point that the President was making is that her service as Secretary of State is something that won her strong support all across the country because she served the country well, because she served the President well, because she succeeded in advancing our interests around the globe in a variety of settings. And the President is certainly proud of her service and that is what contributed to his decision to strongly endorse her candidacy for President.
John, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Last week, you mentioned that the President had talked to congressional leaders about a Zika package. How would you describe those conversations — a negotiation now, or he is just continuing to push the original request?
MR. EARNEST: I would describe them as intensely frustrating because our public health professionals have been blunt about what resources they need to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus, and Republicans, for some reason, haven’t gotten the message. And when I say Republicans, I’m referring to Republicans in Congress. Republican mayors and Republican governors and particularly in the South, where the mosquito population is larger have definitely gotten the message.
We’ve seen a bipartisan group of governors write a letter to Congress, urging them to act on the President’s funding request. We have seen even some Republican members of the Senate strongly support the President’s budget proposal.
Republicans ran for the job of serving the country in the United States Senate. They made what they thought was a strong case about how the country would benefit from a Republican majority in the House and the Senate. That comes with it significant responsibilities, including making sure that our country has the resources necessary to deal with an emergency. And when faced with this significant emergency, Republicans have not acted on the specific request that our public health professionals have made for funding. And the President has been quite disappointed by all that.
Q It looks like Congress will get out of town next week without passing anything. Is the administration preparing another reprogramming request?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any significant plan B here. The fact is, significant resources are required and the administration has already tried to reprogram some $600 million from other accounts to try to bridge the gap. But there’s a whole lot more that is not being done because Republicans haven’t acted. And that is contrary to the best advice that we’ve gotten from our public health professionals. This doesn’t have anything to do with politics; it doesn’t have anything to do with political parties, but it should have everything to do with Republicans in Congress fulfilling their basic responsibilities to the American people. And thus far, they have dropped the ball.
I’ll give the birthday boy the last one here. Happy birthday, Goyal.
Q Thank you. How about my question on this, my birthday, that I need blessings from all my colleagues at the White House, from you and the President and your White House press office. That’s all my question today, the blessing.
MR. EARNEST: All right, well, we’ll find a way to get those to you before the end of the day.
Have a good day, everybody.
2:38 P.M. EDT
You have used up your free articles for this month. To continue reading click here to login or subscribe.