Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–June 20, 2016 – 1:46 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. As you might suspect from the screens behind me, I have a couple of comments at the top before I get to your questions. I’m going with the subtle approach today. (Laughter.)
As many of you may be aware, today marks the first day of summer, the summer solstice, which is an important reminder that families should be taking steps to prepare for local transmission of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. The graphic behind me outlines these measures, including how to prevent mosquito bites, and the importance of removing standing water inside and outside your house — for example, pet water bowls, vases and open trash containers.
While Zika poses the biggest risk to pregnant women, now that summer is here, travelers visiting Zika-affected areas should also be mindful of the risk of personal infection, and of the risk of spreading Zika within the continental United States upon their return.
We know that last year, U.S. citizens made more than 80 million visits to one of the 46 CDC-listed Zika-affected countries. Individuals who traveled to these regions should be taking steps to prevent mosquito bites. They also need to wear mosquito repellant for three weeks after returning to the United States to prevent Zika spread to family and friends, and men with pregnant partners who traveled to Zika-affected areas need to take special precautions to protect their partners.
Today is also another reminder that it has been nearly four months since the President submitted a request to Congress for $1.9 billion in funding that our public health experts and scientists say that we need to prepare for Zika. In those four months, despite inaction from Congress, the federal government has been hard at work redirecting nearly $600 million in existing funds as a stopgap measure.
The administration has also been coordinating closely with state and local officials, both to limit the potential for transmission in the continental United States, but also to ensure that everyone is ready to respond once local transmission of Zika is detected. In addition, state and local officials are taking action on their own. And here’s a flavor of what they’re doing: We’ve seen public health departments from New York City to Tallahassee, Florida, to Sacramento, California, to Houston, Texas — they’ve begun campaigns to educate residents about mosquito control and Zika. County and state health departments are bulking up their mosquito control and tracking, including places as far-flung as Hillsborough County, Florida, to Douglas County, Nebraska. And some health departments, including here in the D.C. area, have created Zika-prevention kits to educate and protect residents.
So while federal, state and local leaders have been hard at work, congressional Republicans continue to drag their feet. This is a public health emergency, and Congress needs to stop playing politics with the health and safety of the American people. Congress must pass emergency funding today to ensure we’re doing everything in our power to protect pregnant women and children. The House Zika bill provided no new money and did nothing but essentially cannibalize existing funds. And that’s clearly not the answer.
During the conference process this week, we ask that members of Congress take their job to protect the American people seriously, and we ask them to provide the full funding that our administration — that our public health and safety professionals say that we need, and they should take that action before they leave on their Fourth of July recess.
So with that, I’m happy to take your questions on the Zika virus or anything else that may be on your mind today. Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q Sure. I’m not going to start with Zika, though.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q I wanted to —
Q What? Come on.
MR. EARNEST: Are you saying that all your questions have been answered?
Q All my questions. (Laughter.) No, I wanted to start with the transcripts of the 911 calls in Orlando, if I could. The administration is being criticized for the redactions of those transcripts, and I’m wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about why those transcripts were redacted and whether the FBI should release the full transcript.
MR. EARNEST: This obviously is pursuant to an ongoing law enforcement investigation. The decision about the release of the transcripts is one that was made solely by Department of Justice and FBI officials. They’re doing that consistent with their assessment about the best way to advance the investigation, and so for questions about the transcripts I’d refer you to them.
Q You’re saying it’s not a sensitivity issue; it’s actually about advancing the investigation?
MR. EARNEST: I’m saying that all decisions about releasing the transcripts were made by Department of Justice officials.
Q And the White House has no opinion on whether or not those decisions were appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: The opinion of the White House is that we should not interfere with an ongoing law enforcement investigation, and rather that those decisions should be made consistent with the assessment that is made by law enforcement officials about the best way to advance their investigation.
Q Okay. And then just secondly, the Senate is going to hold votes today — four votes on different gun measures and they’re all expected to fail. I’m just wondering if, from the White House perspective, if there’s any progress here at all, or if you consider this all sort of political theater of some sort, holding votes that no one expects to pass.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the view of the administration is that the American public should be engaged in the debate. And for too long, we have seen Republicans in Congress use the majority that they have in the Congress to block progress, in some cases even block consideration of common-sense measures that would reduce gun violence.
So the fact that this is something that is being actively debated and considered in the Senate does represent some incremental progress. The President has also been pretty blunt about the fact that we won’t see the needed change in our gun laws until we start seeing needed changes in Congress. And that’s why the President has just used his own executive authority to make as many changes as he can to make our communities safer from gun violence. The President has also vowed to use his political capital and to only support and actively campaign for members of Congress that share his commitment to prioritizing common-sense measures that would reduce gun violence.
Q You didn’t mention that Senator Susan Collins is supposedly working on some sort of deal. Is that because you don’t think that there’s any help for any —
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s primarily related to the fact that I haven’t seen the results of her work that is reportedly ongoing. So the President’s appetite for common-sense gun safety legislation in Congress is well known. And the only way that we’ll be able to make progress is by working in bipartisan fashion. Thus far, we’ve seen a partisan effort on the part of Republicans to shut down that debate and shut down any progress toward passing these common-sense laws. So we obviously would encourage members of Congress to get it done.
Q I guess I’ll bite on Zika. (Laughter.) So given all the —
Q Aedes aegypti.
Q Given all the travel statistics and other information you presented, how do you know that Zika is not being transmitted in the U.S. yet? What makes you confident that it’s not happening — that it’s not already being transmitted local yet?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that local health departments are closely monitoring. So they’re obviously aware, as best they can, based on getting reports from local physicians and other health care workers in local communities, about the Zika virus. And when individuals are suspected of having Zika, they are able to go through — they’re able to take some tests to diagnose that disease, and then once the diagnosis has been completed and if they test positive for the disease, and there is some work done to determine how exactly they may have contracted the virus, there have been some instances of sexual transmission of the Zika virus, and that’s a source of some concern among public health professionals here as well.
And that’s why there is an effort to try to educate the public, particularly men who have partners who are pregnant or could become pregnant, about the risk that they could pose to their partners. So there are some steps that could be taken to significantly mitigate that risk, and we obviously want everyone to be educated so that they know exactly what steps they need to take to prevent the transmission of this disease.
Q I wanted to ask about this event on Friday with Mark Zuckerberg that Jeff Zients wrote about today. I guess I’m wondering, given what’s happened in Orlando, whether the President is going to be talking at all while he’s there in Silicon Valley about new ways to counter extremism on social media, and whether he plans to push Mark Zuckerberg at all on encryption, given that WhatsApp is now fully encrypted, and also whether the President is concerned about the role that Facebook’s news algorithms play in campaign coverage.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the focus of the President’s panel that includes Mr. Zuckerberg will be on innovation and the important role it plays in a strong U.S. economy. That will be the focus of their discussions. So it’s possible that some of these other topics could come up.
As it relates to the effort to work with the tech community to counter the strategies of using social media to radicalize vulnerable individuals that’s used by ISIL, we’ve made some important progress in that regard. There has been effective work that the U.S. government and technology companies have been able to cooperate on.
On Friday, this past Friday, the President’s top homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco, put out a statement lauding the efforts of an organization called the Counter Extremism Project’s National Office for Reporting Extremism. They’ve been engaged in some work coordinating with counterterrorism professionals and law enforcement and technology to counter the online activities of terrorist organizations. And they have had some success in countering extremism online, and that cooperative effort is something that the President is strongly supportive of. And I think that’s why you saw the statement from Lisa Monaco last week.
Again, that’s not the topic of the panel. I certainly wouldn’t rule out that it could come up, though. But we obviously are looking for ways that we can cooperate with organizations like Facebook in the same way that we have in countering things like child pornography, that law enforcement in the United States has been able to work effectively with the tech community to counter the proliferation of child pornography. And we believe that we can effectively pursue a similar strategy to counter radicalizing messages online, as well.
Let me move around a little bit. Michelle.
Q Thanks, Josh. You’ve often spoken about — as has the President — not wanting to play into ISIS’s propaganda, not wanting to further the propaganda. And that’s what Attorney General Lynch said these redactions are about. So does the White House not want to weigh in on that, and why not?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, this is the subject of an ongoing investigation, and the decisions about the investigation are made by law enforcement professionals. And those law enforcement professionals have to balance a lot of different equities, including protecting against potentially playing into ISIL propaganda. They also have an obligation to be as transparent as possible. And I know that the Attorney General indicated that that was an important priority, as well. But how they strike that appropriate balance is a decision that should be left up to our law enforcement professionals, particularly when it comes to something that is so central to the ongoing investigation.
Q And she’s the one shedding on why, she’s making that explanation — which, again, is something we’ve heard from the White House a lot as being a priority when you’re dealing with things like this. And it’s clear that the President cares a lot about sort of the backlash, the rhetoric that has grown up around the President not using the words “radical Islamic terror.” We’ve heard the President’s own words, kind of his rebuttal to all of that, a few days ago. So now that Republicans, in particular the Speaker of the House, is saying that these redactions are preposterous, do you worry that that’s going to just rev up that sentiment even more?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I haven’t seen the statement from the Speaker of the House, but what our law enforcement professionals are doing is they are reviewing the material that’s available to them; they’re doing their best to follow all the leads to determine what events, what activities, and what conversations led up to this horrific terrorist attack. And the desire of law enforcement officials, as they’ve publicly stated, is to further the investigation and learn as much as possible, elicit information from the public that may be known to individuals of the public about this individual, and also be as transparent as possible.
But, look, it’s up to our law enforcement professionals to be focused on the task at hand, not be distracted by politics, and make these decisions consistent with their judgement. And the administration believes that’s what they should do.
Q And speaking generally, if the redaction of anything is going to be because we don’t want something to play into ISIS’s propaganda — but that reason is already known. I mean, the gist of what a person has said is already known and out there. So do you worry that a redaction, even though it’s supposed to be in the interest of transparency, is happening for that reason, do you worry that something like that is not preposterous?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, this is up to the FBI and Department of Justice officials to decide. And I’ll let them explain their decisions, so I’ll leave it to them.
Q Josh, two subjects. One, I want to ask you a little bit about Donald Trump and this gun issue. The NRA is quipping at what you said about the Orlando shooter and what happened there. What are your thoughts as this gun debate continues? Donald Trump is now lending his voice. The NRA is not necessarily happy with him. And the President cannot get movement on this almost at the end of his term at all. What is all of this mosh right now? This is coming together —
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I think the President believes that common-sense gun safety measures is something that should be a priority in the Congress. And unfortunately it’s not. And the reason it’s not is that Republicans have a majority in the Congress, and they’ve been unwilling to support common-sense measures that would reduce gun violence without gutting the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s not just the situation that we find ourselves in here at the end of the Obama presidency. That’s a situation that we found ourselves in several years ago, even in the aftermath of a horrific shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut.
Q So do you see a glimmer of hope, even as this President is leaving? It may not happen on his watch, but there could be a change in the mindset any time you have the NRA going up against the presumed — presumptive Republican nominee on issues of violence.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think it’s unclear exactly how opinions inside the United States Congress are changing, but we are seeing ample evidence that minds across the country are made up in support of common-sense measures that would reduce gun violence. As you’ve heard me say many times, there’s plenty of polling to indicate that it’s not just a majority of Democrats who support closing the background check loophole. There’s ample evidence to indicate that a majority of Republicans and a majority of gun owners share the same view.
So that, you would think, would lead to overwhelming support for something like the amendment that’s been put forward by Senator Murphy that will get considered by the Senate later today. This would ensure that everyone who tries to purchase a gun is subject to a background check. That’s a common-sense proposition, but yet one that is overwhelmingly opposed by Republicans. That is unfortunate. But that’s why the President has observed that we’re only going to see the change we’d like to see in gun safety laws when we see a change in Congress.
Q And I’m trying to get you to kind of take the fight from what I’m — Donald Trump, NRA — got anything on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t.
Q Okay, great. Moving on to the next subject. Twitter was abuzz last night with a story about the Supreme Court — Justice Clarence Thomas mulling over the possibilities of retiring. What say you as there is an opening right now and there’s no hearing set for your nominee? This could be two openings before he leaves.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don’t have any insight into the future career plans of any Supreme Court justices at this point. But, look, the fact that we have gone this far without Republicans in the Senate being willing to give a hearing to the President’s nominee to fill the current vacancy in the Supreme Court is extraordinary, it’s unprecedented, and it’s terrible for our system of democracy. And it is an escalation of partisan politics into a branch of government that we have gone to great lengths to try to insulate from partisan divisions. That’s unfortunate.
And it’s particularly unfortunate when you consider that the President put forward a nominee that has more judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history. The President put forward a nominee that even Republicans acknowledge is a consensus pick. You’ve got Republicans publicly admitting that the only reason that they’re not considering this individual is because he was nominated by a Democratic President. All of that sets up a situation that is entirely inconsistent with what the Framers of our Constitution intended. It’s ironic because that kind of situation has been precipitated by a bunch of people who describe themselves as strict interpreters of the Constitution.
So, unfortunately, however, rationality and facts and appeals for fairness have fallen on deaf ears in the Republican conference of the United States Senate. And that’s unfortunate when you consider the profound impact it has on our system of government.
Q — has President Obama met with Clarence Thomas at all during his time here?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I can think of off the top of my head.
Q On the terrorism attacks, the President and others noted that the last two were American citizens who are I guess — a lone wolf. Is there anything new that the administration is doing to focus in on that particular problem, that particular threat that the country faces now that this is such a — again, pushing back about the immigration debate, the radical Islam — what’s really being done about this phenomenon of home-grown terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, there are a couple of things that come to mind. The first is that the FBI has more than 100 joint terrorism task forces that are at work all across the country. These task forces are essentially a way to integrate federal resources and state and local law enforcement resources to fight terrorism. And these task forces are focused on trying to prevent suspected terrorists from moving forward with a terrorist act. And it is not uncommon for the Department of Justice to issue news releases announcing the results of a joint terrorism task force investigation to announce the arrest of an individual who is planning to carry out a terrorist attack.
So that certainly is one way that we — and when I say “we” I mean primarily the law enforcement community is keeping the American people safe. The other thing that we are very focused on is countering the use of social media by extremist organizations to radicalize people who could be vulnerable to that kind of inspiration. And that is relevant in the two cases that you cited because these are American citizens who the evidence indicates was potentially heavily influenced by this online propaganda.
Q Is there some effort to increase the size of those task forces? Is there some staffing increase, some change in their scope, or is that the essence of their response?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to the FBI for consideration of the question about whether or not they feel like additional resources are needed to ensure the success of these ongoing investigations.
Q And just on the guns front, I think that people sort of asked this and I think you’ve said essentially the President has exhausted his range of — what he sees as his range of options in terms of executive action and it’s basically on the Congress. There’s nothing more in the seven and a half months or so that he has left that he can do.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you actually — just because you asked the question that way, you did remind me of a third thing that we certainly could do that would make the country safer from the risks that you outlined, and that is we could close the loophole that currently allows individuals who are on the no-fly list but are still, right now, under existing law, able to walk into a gun store and buy a gun. The President thinks that that is a policy that only endangers the American people.
The truth is, if it is too dangerous for you to board an airplane it should be too dangerous for you to buy a gun. And that’s why we strongly support the amendment that Senator Feinstein has put forward to try to close that loophole.
Q In terms of — you’ve often talked about — scrubbing the laws and so forth — there’s really nothing expected that he thinks he can do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President and his team announced a set of executive actions early this year that would have an impact on individuals who are seeking to circumvent getting background checks. But there are a number of things that are tied up in those proposals that include increasing funding for the ATF to allow them to hire 200 more agents that would more effectively enforce the gun laws that are on the books.
Again, you hear Republicans in Congress saying that they believe that gun laws that are already on the books should be more effectively enforced. But yet they are blocking funding to hire additional resources and additional officers who would do exactly that. So it’s a little hard to take their prescriptions particularly seriously.
But the President believes that the country would be safer if there were more ATF officers on the beat enforcing our gun laws and protecting the American people.
Q When can we expect that event that the President cancelled with Senator Clinton to happen again? Soon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have date for you. Obviously coordinating the schedules of Secretary Clinton and President Obama is complicated, particularly this time of year. Both of them are quite busy. But there are active conversations that the President’s senior aide David Simas, who handles these political matters, is having with the Clinton campaign to determine a mutually agreeable time for us to reschedule that event.
Q Perhaps this week?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t have an update for you. But when we do, we’ll let you know.
Q Just lastly, on conversations, are there any further conversations between the President and Senator Sanders, and what is his status? What does the President see as his status? He’s still running for President, apparently.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any additional conversations that the President has had with Senator Sanders since he was here a couple weeks ago now.
Q Senator Sanders is still running for President.
MR. EARNEST: It does appear that way. But as you’ve heard me say for a couple of weeks now, Senator Sanders has earned the support of more than 10 million Democrats across the country and he certainly is entitled to make his own decisions about his own campaign on his own schedule.
Kevin. Welcome back.
Q Thank you, Josh. Appreciate that. Good to see you. Has the President been briefed on the violence — the latest violence in Afghanistan that took place over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President has received a specific briefing on this. Obviously we have seen those reports, and obviously we condemn these actions that at least in one case targeted innocent civilians, and in another case targeted essentially peacekeepers. So that’s — this does underscore the difficult security situation that continues to exist in Afghanistan. And the United States and our NATO partners continue to stand with the Afghan government as they counter the threat from extremists and terrorists inside their own country.
Q I want to throw some numbers past you. In 2011, there were approximately 97,000 American service personnel in Afghanistan, and that number has been cut to roughly just under 10,000 now. Has there been any reconsideration or regret, if you will, in dropping that number down given the increase or uptick in violence in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: There has not, Kevin, and the decisions that the President has been making about appropriate troop levels and about an appropriate military posture in Afghanistan is consistent with the guidance and advice that he’s receiving not just from his military advisors on the ground and at the Pentagon, but also the rest of his national security team. And the —
Q But the last time we talked you said the drawdown was under review — because I remember specifically that I think it was 2014, you suggested that the President wanted to get it down maybe even to 1,000, maybe just sort of making sure that the embassy was safe there. But that plan has been under review. So I’m wondering if that review is ongoing, and if that has been reconsidered completely given the circumstances on the ground.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll recall, Kevin, that a month or so ago — maybe it was longer ago than that — General Campbell transitioned out of the job as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Nicholson transitioned in. And in the early stages of his tenure, General Nicholson has been conducting a review to determine the appropriate military posture for U.S. servicemembers on the ground in Afghanistan. And that includes a review of the number of troops that he believes he needs to succeed in the mission that the President has given him.
That review is still ongoing. The latest update that I heard at the end of last week is that the results of that review have not been relayed to the President at this point. But the President is working very closely with the members of his national security team and our military commanders on the most effective way for us to protect our interests in Afghanistan. And that means making sure that Afghanistan cannot be used as a safe haven for terrorist organizations that seek to do harm against the United States. It means fulfilling the commitments that we have made both militarily but also financially and diplomatically to the Afghan government.
At the end of 2014, the Afghan government did assume responsibility for the security situation in Afghanistan, and in that time, U.S. forces and NATO forces have been working to train up Afghan security forces and to support them as they take on this very difficult challenge.
Q Are you satisfied with the pace of that training?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to DOD for an update on that assessment. I think overall in Afghanistan I don’t think anybody can be satisfied with the ongoing violence that we see there. And the good news is that we have seen Afghan security forces be quite resilient, that they have demonstrated a clear willingness to fight for their country, that they do have the commitment and the drive to take significant risks and to put themselves in harm’s way to try to defeat the extremists that are wreaking havoc in their country.
And the American people and our NATO partners and our men and women in uniform stand with the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces as they undertake that difficult mission. But this is a mission that has consequences for U.S. national security.
Q A couple more. One on Garland and one on the Syrian refugees. Is there a reason — and forgive me if you’ve covered this — is there a reason to want to accelerate the number of Syrian refugees that might be brought here to this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the goal that the President has set is for the end of this fiscal year — so, basically, by the end of September — for 10,000 Syrian refugees to be admitted to the United States. These individuals, however, have to undergo the most rigorous screening of any individual that attempts to enter the United States. These individuals have to undergo a background check. They have to submit biographical and biometric information that is then run through a variety of data bases that are maintained by law enforcement, intelligence community and military organizations.
Q Is that for all refugees, or just Syrian refugees?
MR. EARNEST: That’s for all refugees, but certainly includes Syrian refugees. The reason I mention it here is that the President has indicated a desire to try to increase the number of Syrian refugees in this fiscal year, but the President has made clear that we’re not going to cut any security corners in meeting that goal.
But the Department of Homeland Security, our intelligence community, and the Department of State are actively working to meet that goal. There’s been some reporting in recent weeks that the administration is behind pace to meet that goal, but we continue to be hopeful that as we continue to increase resources that are dedicated to that effort, we may still be able to reach that goal. Certainly the officials who are working closely on this are aware of that goal and understand that it’s a priority.
Q Last, on Merrick Garland, is it time for the President to head back to the Hill? Or is it just time to give up? I mean, it’s been a while, and Chief Judge Garland doesn’t appear to be getting any traction. Is there anything planned for this week that you can let us know about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any updates in terms of the President’s schedule. But this is still a priority, and this is still a level of obstruction that we haven’t seen before. And we continue to see Republicans struggling to explain their position. Unfortunately, that discomfort has not translated into tangible legislative action.
But, look, I think the American people understand the stakes of filling a Supreme Court vacancy. And the American people understand that the President has done his job by appointing a highly experienced, very well-regarded nominee that even Republicans have described as a consensus nominee. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Senate refuse to do their job. And it’s not that they won’t support this individual, they won’t even consider Chief Judge Garland. They won’t even give him a hearing. They won’t even give him a vote.
And even some Republican senators have criticized that posture. Even Senator Kirk has said that the Senate should “man up and vote” on Chief Judge Garland’s nomination. And in that regard, he’s correct.
Q First, I was wondering if you had any comment on Donald Trump’s decision to dismiss his campaign manager today.
MR. EARNEST: I do not.
Q I wanted to ask about Brexit. The vote is obviously later this week, and we’ve talked about it a few times, but I’m wondering if you could maybe address specifically any steps the U.S. government, the Obama administration are taking to prepare for the possibility that Britain could leave the EU, and whether there are specific areas of concern, from treaties, from trade deals or anything like that where you guys are kind of looking at what the ramifications of an exit would be.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, with regard to our position — this is something that you’ve heard the President communicate directly, including when he was in London earlier this year — the United States of America continues to believe and value a strong U.K. and a strong EU. So the British people will decide what they believe is in the best interest of their country, but the President has made clear what he believes is in the best interest of the United States. And given the special relationship between our two countries, we believe that that matters. How much that matters, though, will ultimately be up to the British people to decide.
With regard to contingency planning, there are various aspects of the federal government that are quite focused on a wide range of contingencies for which they need to plan. So I’m confident that somebody somewhere in the U.S. government is considering what sort of contingencies may need to be considered in the event that this vote goes down in the direction of the U.K. leaving the EU. But I don’t have any details about that. I think the polling indicates that this continues to be an uncertain outcome at this point. But this is a decision that will be made by the British people, as it should be.
Q I was wondering if you could describe the President’s plan for signing the chemical safety bill this week. And also, some critics of the legislation say it handcuffs the ability of states like California to press forward with tougher chemical safety regulations, and so why the legislation’s positives, which you guys have extolled, sort of speaks to that or overwhelms that in your guys’ mind.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we can do just a scheduling announcement here — that on Wednesday, the President will sign H.R. 2576, which is better known as the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. The signing ceremony will take place in the South Court Auditorium, and there will be members of Congress, advocates and organizations that played a critical role in passing this legislation.
This is a rare instance of strong bipartisan support for a piece of legislation. We haven’t seen a lot of that over the last year and a half, but I think that is an indication of how this bill could ultimately make our communities safer. And I think any time you see Democrats and Republicans come together on a piece of legislation, it does reflect a measure of compromise, which means that there may be some people who will criticize it because it’s not perfect. But the President believes strongly that by instituting more uniform standards, we can more effectively regulate substances that are used in consumer products in a way that ultimately will better protect the American people. And the President was pleased to see Democrats and Republicans come together in strong support of this bill.
Q Last one. I assume you guys were happy that the Supreme Court decided to review a lower court ruling that had sort of thrown into doubt the President’s ability to temporarily fill top government jobs. But I’m wondering if you can talk about that, and also if there’s concern that, because of the way the Supreme Court operates with vacancies, that if this comes down to a split decision you could see a good number of the President’s sort of nominees or appointees have their actions sort of invalidated by the split-court decision.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, Justin, we continue to have a lot of confidence in the legal power of the arguments that we’ll be making in this case. So I don’t want to handicap the outcome at this point because it’s something that the Supreme Court has now agreed to consider. So we’ll have an opportunity to make an argument before the Supreme Court, and we feel confident that we have a strong argument to make.
But look, with regard to filling vacancies, I do think that this underscores another element of congressional dysfunction. There are critically important jobs that don’t have confirmed officials leading them. And that’s a significant problem when you’re talking about our counterterrorism strategy.
So we’ve talked a lot in here about Adam Szubin. This is a career professional who has served in both administrations who is the point person for implementing our sanctions against terrorist organizations, and even state sponsors of terrorism around the globe. He’s a financial expert, and he was nominated more than a year ago and has still not gotten the vote that he needs on the floor of the United States Senate.
The same could be true of Beth Cobert. Beth is somebody who was nominated almost a year ago to lead the Office of Personnel Management, and yet for reasons that Republicans are unable to articulate, she has not gotten a vote either, despite the fact that she is unquestionably qualified for the job.
So this underscores I think a little of the frustration that we have about this particular case, because the way that it’s been interpreted by some courts essentially suggests that individuals can’t do the job if they haven’t been confirmed by Congress, but yet when you have as many examples as we have of a Congress refusing to confirm individuals that are unquestionably qualified, you start to see the process break down. And it means that critically important functions like implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations, or managing the human resources of the entire federal workforce are undermined by a dysfunctional Congress.
So we’ll make our arguments before the Supreme Court. But we certainly would appreciate a more conscientious Congress fulfilling their basic responsibility to ensure that our government can work.
Q Was the executive branch consulted in any way by the Justice Department about the release of the 911 transcript?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Department of Justice is part of the executive branch, but the White House —
Q Make it the Executive Office of the President, if you wish.
MR. EARNEST: This is a decision that was made entirely by the Department of Justice and by officials at the FBI.
Q No consultation with the Office of the President?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I can’t speak to every single conversation, but I’m not aware of one.
Q So the censorship was not at all reviewed here?
MR. EARNEST: It was not. This was a decision that was made solely by officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI consistent with their need to be as transparent as possible about the investigation, but also to make sure that they could advance the investigation by eliciting additional information about the suspect from the public.
Q Might they have received some guidance beforehand from here?
MR. EARNEST: No, they did not.
Q Thanks, Josh. Secretary of State John Kerry said today that he had read the dissent cable about the White House Syria strategy and he found it “very good.” I was wondering whether the President had read the cable and whether he shared that view.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do not know whether or not the President has read the cable. I think, as you heard my colleague indicate at the end of last week, the President does believe that having a procedure in place for State Department employees to make their dissenting views known is valuable.
And so the process that’s in place is worthwhile. But I think we’ve been just as clear about the President’s policy in Syria, how it has not led yet to the results that we would like to see in Syria, but it has prevented a repetition of mistakes that previous administrations have made. So, for example, the President has been quite clear that the United States, not anyone else, will be successful. Let me say that more clearly: The United States will not be successful, nor will anyone else, in imposing a military solution on the problems inside of Syria. That, I think, is a basic lesson that we learned after the 2003 invasion of Iraq that was ordered by the previous administration.
That is a simple lesson learned, and it’s one that we should keep in mind as we confront the situation inside of Syria. What’s also true is our efforts inside of Syria right now are focused on ISIL. And any careful consideration of directing military assets or intelligence assets against the Assad regime means that there are fewer assets and resources that are being directed at ISIL. And ISIL is the terrorist organization that poses a threat to the United States and our interests around the world.
So that’s why we have maintained this intense focus on ISIL. But what’s also true is that our diplomats at the State Department have been working tirelessly and tenaciously to build international consensus — and they’ve succeeded in this — about the need for a political transition inside of Syria. And we’ve gotten organizations — I mean, we’ve gotten countries like Russia and even Iran, that we know are strong supporters of the Assad regime, that are making at least vaguely constructive contributions to the ongoing process to facilitate a political transition.
That international pressure is going to be critical to our success. And we have seen that that international pressure has succeeded in putting in place a cessation of hostilities that has not worked nearly as well as we would have liked. But there are places where that cessation of hostilities has allowed significant humanitarian relief to be provided to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who desperately need it.
So that’s the explanation for the policy that we have pursued thus far. And when you’re dealing with a situation as complicated and as difficult and as high stakes as the situation inside of Syria, trying to stifle dissent is the wrong option. The President welcomes ideas from anyone that has a good one. But the President has been just as clear about the kinds of principles that we need to abide by in order to protect our interests.
And the truth is, the strategy that we have pursued thus far has yielded some important results. We just haven’t gotten as far as we’d like.
Q Would the President be ready to meet these diplomats?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any meeting like that that’s on the books, but if something like that were to happen we’ll let you know.
Q I wanted to follow up on Kevin’s question about Merrick Garland and to see if you could give me a better sense of what he’s been up to the last weeks, up to this week. When we got started, you were giving us a lot of information about senators that he was meeting with and kind of giving us updates on the number of senators he’s met with. Do you have any —
MR. EARNEST: I can get you the specific numbers. I think that he’s met with just about every single Democratic senator in the United States Senate, and we’ve yet to see a Democratic senator say he doesn’t deserve a hearing and a vote. And he’s met with a number of Republican senators, at least of couple of them who have indicated that he does deserve a hearing and a vote.
So this is the situation that we find ourselves in right now. And we’re going to continue to make a public case that Republicans in the Senate should stop blocking the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in American history. And I say he’s the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in our history because he’s spent more time on the federal bench than any other Supreme Court nominee in history.
So this is the current situation. We’ve got Republicans in the Senate who are refusing to do their job. And in this case, it has unfortunate and significant consequences for the successful functioning of our democracy.
Q What’s he up to this week? Does he have any meetings on the Hill? Are you guys continuing to look for those, schedule those?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there aren’t — I believe at this point he has now met with 16 Republican senators. That means there are more than 30 who have abided by the request of the Senate Majority Leader to not meet with him. That’s unfortunate, and I’m not sure how those senators reconcile that position back home — they say I’m not going to do my job because the Republican leader in the Senate told me not to. But that’s a position that they’ve taken thus far.
Q And then just two quick questions about maybe some possible phone calls the President might make. Has he called anybody in the Clinton family to congratulate them on the newest addition to their family?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any calls like that, but obviously when the President heard the news about the birth of Chelsea Clinton’s second child, he was obviously pleased to hear it.
Q And then secondly, with the Cleveland Cavaliers championship win last night, has the President called anybody at their organization? And does he intend to invite them to the White House before he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident the President is looking forward to the chance that he’ll have to congratulate the Cleveland Cavaliers on their world championship victory last night. The President obviously had a chance to watch the end of the game on Air Force One last night, and I would expect that in the next day or two he will be making a call either to the head coach or somebody in the front office in Cleveland to congratulate them on their victory and to invite them to the White House.
I don’t know whether or not we’ll have a chance to schedule that visit before the President leaves office, but I’m sure the President is hoping we’ll be able to do that.
Q In a little over two weeks, right after the Fourth of July break, the President is heading to Warsaw for the NATO summit. Notwithstanding what happens this week in the vote with Great Britain to withdraw from the EU, London being the second-largest and most powerful financial capital after New York, and other issues that are going on in Europe at the moment, what role will the President be playing and what are the major concerns the President has as he participates in the last NATO Summit of his administration?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to speculate about the outcome of the U.K. election later this week. So setting that aside, the President has valued the kind of close coordination that the United States has enjoyed with our NATO allies since the President took office. And one of his goals upon taking office, and I think one of his achievements upon leaving it, is succeeding in strengthening and deepening that alliance in a way that has a tangible impact, a positive one, on U.S. national security.
So there certainly are a range of questions to be discussed at the NATO Summit. I would anticipate that there will be an ongoing discussion about the situation in Afghanistan. Obviously, NATO has made a significant contribution to our efforts there, and we’ve been pleased by the contribution — by the impact that their contribution has made.
I would anticipate that there will be continued discussion of the security situation in Europe, including the challenge presented by the flow of migrants into Europe. This obviously is not just a pretty desperate humanitarian situation, but this is a situation that has an impact on the security situation inside of Europe. And the President had the opportunity to discuss that situation with some of our European allies when he was last in Europe earlier this spring. I would anticipate that something like that would come up again.
And there continues to be a unanimity of opinion in Europe about the importance of protecting the principle of sovereignty, and that’s why you’ve seen so many European nations stand with Ukraine as they confront repeated violations of their sovereignty by the Russians.
So there’s plenty on the agenda. We’ll certainly have more of an opportunity to talk about it as that trip gets closer.
Q Thank you. Forty-eight members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group are meeting in Seoul tomorrow, and India has applied for its membership. The President has supported it. What are the expectations of the meeting tomorrow? And what is the message the U.S. is sending to these countries for the meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lalit, the President did have an opportunity to discuss this issue with Prime Minister Modi when he was here at the White House a couple of weeks ago. The United States, as you know, strongly supports India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group. We believe — and this has been U.S. policy for some time — that India is ready for membership. And the United States calls on participating governments to support India’s application at the plenary later this week.
At the same time, participating governments will need to reach a consensus decision in order to admit any applicant into the group. And the United States will certainly be advocating for India’s membership.
Q Has the U.S. reached out to this country or some of the countries who are opposing the membership?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any conversations to read out at this point. But we’ve made our views known both publicly and privately, and we’ll continue to do so in advance of the meeting this week.
Q Hi. Okay, so going back to the Orlando 911 calls, is the White House at all concerned that redacting such large portions of the calls may help feed conspiracy theories that may be circulating?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think that there’s been a pretty blunt discussion of this situation. And these are decisions that are made by the Department of Justice and investigators at the FBI, and so we’ll leave it to them to handle it.
Gardiner, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Sure. I got a question from our foreign desk. There’s an escalating crackdown on the political opposition — the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain said Monday that it had revoked the citizenship of a top cleric who is regarded as a spiritual voice of the Shiite majority. This is obviously a crucial country for the United States. It’s where we have a huge Navy that — fleet is there. The United States has continued to encourage this monarchy to not be quite so tough on the Shia minority. Do you have a reaction to this, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, I have to admit I’m not aware of this particular situation.
MR. EARNEST: So I can get you a more specific response to it. Obviously, the President has regularly advocated for better protection of basic universal human rights, and the President believes that that is important not just because these are values that we hold dear in this country, but the President believes that it’s in the best interest of countries around the world to organize themselves and to govern their country consistent with the recognition of these universal human rights.
But let me see if I can get you a more specific response to that particular situation.
Q You passed on this question before, but let me just rephrase it differently. Does firing a campaign manager by a nominee suggest there’s a problem in the campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let the wide array of outside analysts who are closely monitoring the campaign weigh in on that decision.
Q And one other thing. On the editing of the transcript of the calls, it was just sort of a strange thing there in that this is a state function. There is a very good state Sunshine Act in Florida. Presumably — I’m wondering why you think that it’s appropriate for the FBI, which clearly is taking the lead in the investigation, but for the FBI to step on what is a state function with this very good state open-records law in this immediate time. Because presumably that open-records law will allow these records to come out fairly quickly, no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, this decision was made by the FBI, and I’m confident they did that consistent with their interpretation of the law. Obviously, their interpretation matters a lot because, as you pointed out, they’re in charge of the investigation, they have the lead on the investigation. And this particular transcript obviously is central to that ongoing investigation. But for how they arrived at that conclusion I’d refer you to them.
Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your Monday.
2:40 P.M. EDT
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