Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–June 30, 2016 – 1:02 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologize for being a little more tardy than usual today. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions.
Kathleen, do you want start?
Q I just wanted to follow up a little on the news out of Andrews. Do you have any more detail on exactly what happened there this morning?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any additional information about what happened there. I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. Obviously, the President is always quite concerned about the safety of our men and women in uniform, and it certainly is important that they undertake drills to prepare for a wide range of scenarios. But for exactly what transpired today at JBA, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q Do you think that this sort of false alarm will become the kind of thing that’s more common as people get a little more anxious or worried about these kinds of attacks?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the President certainly believes in vigilance, and he believes that we should be vigilant about protecting our men and women in uniform. So I think there’s always a risk of that. And it’s important for there to be procedures in place so that authorities can communicate clearly with the community and with the public about what’s transpiring. But what’s inherent in these kinds of situations is that they’re always chaotic.
But again, it’s hard for me to speak to this particular incident just because I don’t know much about what exactly transpired.
Q Okay. And then I just want to follow up on something he said yesterday at the press conference when he was asked about Brexit, and he was talking — the President was talking about that he has genuine concerns about global concerns “if, in fact, Brexit goes through” and that freezes the possibility of investment in the UK. Does he thinks there’s the possibility that Brexit won’t happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think others have asked about this because somebody else on our team flagged this for me. I think this may be an issue of sentence construction. I think the President was talking about the combined effects of Brexit and the negative impact it has on the possibility of investment from the UK into Europe, and then the potential impact that that could have on the global economy. I think that’s the point that the President was trying to make. And this is why it is important for officials in the UK and officials in the EU to set up a transparent and orderly process for Brexit to prevent the unnecessary complications of companies that are trying to maintain their business relationships through Europe and the UK, even as the governments of these locations are negotiating a withdrawal.
So the point is, the President reiterated in the context of the news conference why he believes it’s so important for officials in the UK and the EU to establish an orderly, transparent process for Brexit. And there obviously will continue to be an enduring economic relationship between the UK and the EU. And the President doesn’t want to see that relationship be any more disrupted than it already will by the process of the Brexit, because doing so would have an even more substantial impact on the global economy. And that’s what the President is hoping that UK and EU officials will takes steps to protect again.
Q Does the White House have any reaction to Boris Johnson’s announcement this morning?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. I had difficulty keeping up with the candidates for President of the United States. My ability to keep track of the candidates for prime minister in the UK is even more limited. So I’ll let him speak for himself. He seems to have no trouble doing that.
Q Josh, I just want to follow up on Kathleen’s question. The President did use the word “if” twice in his response to the Brexit question yesterday. Does that — just to be very clear, does he think there’s a possibility that Brexit will not go through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the President’s expectation is that UK officials have the best sense of what’s happening, and UK officials have been pretty definitive about the finality of this decision. We’ve heard people like the current prime minister. We’ve heard the ambassador from the UK to the United States indicates that this was a decision that was made by the British people. And look, there’s a lot invested in this election. It’s not as if people didn’t know that this election was occurring. There was a lot of attention and there was a healthy debate around it.
So ultimately it will be the responsibility of officials in the UK and officials in the EU to work together to determine what kind of economic relationship will exist between those two entities in the future. But that will be part of the negotiation of the UK leaving the EU. It’s not going to end their economic relationship. As the President pointed out yesterday, I think it’s about half of all of UK exports go to EU countries. So there’s going to be a robust economic relationship there. It’s just going to be different because the UK won’t have the same kind of access to the common market that they have previously enjoyed.
But establishing that transition period and determining what the post-Brexit economic relationship looks like between the UK and the EU is important. And answering those questions as quickly as possible, but in a way that is orderly and transparent and predictable, will be critical to minimizing the negative impact on the global economy over the long term. And I think that’s the other sort of key part of the President’s answer here, is that he acknowledged that there’s been obviously this volatility in the short term. But how this plays out over the long term will have an impact on the long-term prospects for the global economy.
Q And the President doesn’t believe that it’s possible to roll back that vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the President believes that it’s UK officials who should speak to this, and that’s exactly what UK officials have said.
Q Does the White House have a reaction to Attorney General Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton at a time when DOJ is overseeing the probe into Secretary Clinton’s email usage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, I’ve obviously seen the reports about this, and the reports are driven by the answer that Attorney General Lynch herself gave to this question. Look, I think the bottom line is simply that both the President and the Attorney General understand how important it is for the Department of Justice to conduct investigations that are free of political interference. And that’s been a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system in this country since our founding. The rule of law is paramount. And every American citizen should be held accountable to that rule of regardless of their political affiliation, regardless of who supports them politically, regardless of what their poll numbers say. And that is a principle the President believes is one that’s worth protecting.
The reason that that’s so important is it prevents erosion in the public confidence in our justice system. And this is a principle that Attorney General Lynch has dedicated her three decades in law enforcement to. She served as the U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York. She has her own firsthand experience in conducting public corruption cases. She did that — she protected the public trust by prosecuting individuals in both parties where there was evidence to indicate that they may have violated the public trust. This was what earned her strong bipartisan support when she was nominated for the job. And she has continued that work in the Attorney General’s office in a variety of ways, including a recent announcement about Medicaid fraud, and obviously her efforts to root out corruption in one of the most influential international athletic organizations in the world.
So she certainly understands that investigations should be conducted free of political interference and consistent with the facts. Investigators should be guided by the facts and by evidence. And that’s ultimately what should support their conclusions.
And she’s made clear that that’s the expectation that she has for the way that this investigation should be conducted. The President has made clear that that certainly is consistent with his expectation about how this should be handled. And so I also think that’s consistent with the American public’s expectation about how this should be handled.
Q But given that, Josh, is the White House concerned about even just the appearance of political influence because of that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’m not going to second-guess the way that this investigation should move forward or should be handled. Again —
Q I’m not asking about the investigation. I’m asking about the meeting between Attorney General Lynch and Bill Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, well, I wasn’t there for the meeting, but the Attorney General was. She was asked a direct question about it, and she answered it. So again, I think that’s consistent with everybody’s expectations.
Q My question is about the appearance that that meeting created.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I’m suggesting is that she was asked about it directly, and she answered the question directly about what exactly transpired. And so she’s spoken to this. I don’t have any insight into that meeting. I also don’t have any insight into the investigation.
But the President’s view is that this is an investigation that should be conducted free of any sort of political interference. And the Attorney General has indicated that that’s exactly her expectation, as well.
Q Thanks, Josh. Are you saying that the White House feels that it’s fine that she had this meeting with Clinton? There’s no problem with it?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is that the President believes that this principle of protecting any investigation from any sort of political interference is critically important. The rule of law is paramount. And people should be judged by the rule of law without regard to their partisan affiliation or their political standing. And that is a principle that’s worth protecting. It’s a principle that both the President and the Attorney General are committed to.
Q So you said that she answered questions about it. I don’t know — if there’s any question of impropriety, who would stop at just asking the person who was involved in that, or if a mistake was made? So does the President have a question for her about this meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t spoken to the President about this particular matter. But again, the President’s expectation is that this is an investigation that will be guided by the facts, not by politics.
And we’ve been gratified to see other senior officials at the Department of Justice, including the Attorney General and the FBI Director, indicate that that’s a priority for them, as well.
Q You just talked about how important it is for people to see things being handled properly so that there is no erosion in public confidence. But Democrats today — some — are also saying that just the optics of this, that they should have known better. You’re talking about that potential of erosion in confidence. Doesn’t this have the potential to do that, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think — again, I think what should give people confidence is the 30-year career that Attorney General Lynch has in keeping the public’s trust, and making sure that she continues to be an effective advocate for the rule of law and for the fair administration of justice. She’s done that throughout her career. She’s done that in the Office of the Attorney General. And again, when it comes to appearances, she was asked very directly about the meeting. And she answered the question very directly. So for what impact that may have on the investigation, I’m just not going to comment on that because I don’t want to be in a position of second-guessing an investigation that, quite frankly, I haven’t been briefed on.
Q But we’re not talking about the investigation itself. We’re talking about —
MR. EARNEST: I think that’s the question that you’re raising, is what potential impact does this optic have on the investigation. And again, I’m just —
Q Well, you raised —
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to talk about it.
Q You raise the appearance which could lead to an erosion of public confidence in that process. That doesn’t mean the process itself is tainted. But you spoke to the erosion of public confidence. So if you seem satisfied with what the Attorney General said about the meeting, why will you not say that you’re okay that that meeting happened, that you don’t have a problem with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is simply — when I was talking about the erosion of the public trust, what I said is public trust would be eroded if it were — if people were not making an effort to make clear that these investigations should not be influenced by politics.
And the Attorney General, the Director of the FBI, other senior officials at the Department of Justice and the President of the United States have all indicated that the rule of law is paramount, that people should be subject to the rule of law without regard to their political standing or their political party or their poll numbers. That is a principle that we should all subscribe to. And the President, and the Attorney General, and the Director of the FBI all do.
Q But just to be clear, you’re not saying then that the President and the White House is fine with this meeting having happened the way it did.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I did not attend the meeting. But Attorney General Lynch did, and she’s spoken directly to how the meeting came about and what was discussed.
Q We are talking optics here, though, not the content of that meeting. Just the optics themselves. I hate that word, but that’s what everybody is talking about.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q So the appearance, you’re okay with the fact that this meeting has raised that question? Are you concerned that that appearance has —
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let the Attorney General speak to her meetings. But what is paramount in the mind of the President is a commitment to the rule of law and a commitment to ensuring that justice is administered without regard to political affiliation or political standing.
Q I’m wondering after some of the information that’s come out in the last 24 hours if you guys are any closer to making a determination on who’s responsible for the terror attack in Turkey yesterday — or two days ago.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, listen, this is something that the CIA Director has talked about. I don’t have any new information to share or an additional updated intelligence assessment to offer from here.
But when Director Brennan was talking about this yesterday, he indicated that this attack “bears the hallmarks of ISIL’s depravity.” I think that’s an indication of what the intelligence community has assessed thus far. But I don’t think that is — obviously, that is not a definitive analysis.
U.S. officials are certainly using all of the information and all the tools at our disposal to learn as much as we can about this particular situation — useful information we will readily share with our NATO allies, the Turks, as they conduct this investigation.
So I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that we’re not interested in it. We are quite keenly interested in understanding exactly what happened. But this is an investigation that’s being led by the Turks. And we stand with them as they conduct this investigation and take the steps that are necessary to safeguard their country and their citizens.
Q Given that, and given that the Turks I think have leaned even harder into the possibility that ISIS is responsible for this, I’m wondering if in the conversation between Presidents Obama and Erdogan, if there was any signal from the Turks that they were going to intensify their efforts against ISIS. It’s obviously been a point of some tension between the two Presidents. So I’m wondering if you’re expecting sort of additional actions by Turkey.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any additional actions to preview or additional details from the call to share. What I will just reiterate is how important a role the Turks have played in our counter-ISIL coalition. And that is everything from taking steps to more effectively close their border with Syria, to giving U.S. and coalition military pilots access to military installations inside of Turkey that makes our military operations against ISIL in Syria more efficient and more effective. So Turkey has played an important role. They’re a valuable member of our counter-ISIL coalition.
You’ll recall that it wasn’t that long ago that all of you were asking me rather pointed questions about why Turkey wasn’t more involved in our efforts against ISIL, and since that time we have seen the Turks become more active, more cooperative, and more effective in supporting our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q If I could turn to the campaign, obviously we heard the announcement yesterday that the President is going down to North Carolina. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the significance of North Carolina as the first stop, and specifically, I guess, if it’s an indication that the President, Hillary Clinton, and Democrats are now kind of playing offense instead of defense. She’s going to a state that he won once but is traditionally a Republican state, versus Wisconsin, which is kind of a Democratic stronghold.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, for the electoral strategy of the campaign, I’d refer you to the Clinton operation. They can obviously speak to this in much more detail than I can. I think there are some relevant facts that I’m happy to point out, which is that the President in 2008 did win the state of North Carolina. He was the first Democrat in some time to do so. Obviously, the President decided to hold the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012 when he was running for reelection. And it was an indication of the kind of political support that the President retains in that state. So he obviously is proud of all that support. But how this factors into Secretary Clinton’s campaign strategy, I’d refer you to her operation.
Q And I just wanted to parse one more bit of the President’s remarks yesterday when he was talking about politicians, it was during this sort of sermon on populism.
MR. EARNEST: The self-described rant.
Q Yes. And he said some of the policies or positions that have been forwarded, presumably by Donald Trump, or Republicans, weren’t nativism or xenophobia. He said, it wasn’t populism but nativism, xenophobia or worse. And I’m wondering what that worse is? I think pretty obviously it is racism. And so if the President believes that these policies are racist, why he won’t just say that, or if he will say that he believes Donald Trump’s policies are racist.
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think the President’s words speak pretty clearly for themselves. So I don’t think I’ll elaborate on them at great length. The President also noted that this kind of rhetoric was rather cynical.
And the reason he used that word is that the President believes that the policies that are being pursued by this administration are the ones that are most effective in advancing the interests of middle-class families across the country. And the President spoke at this at some length, as well, in terms of our efforts to regulate Wall Street, to reform the health care system to ensure that more Americans would have access to quality, affordable health insurance.
These are all policy decisions that the President made with middle-class families and those families that are trying to get into the middle class in mind. He made these decisions and set these as priorities with the American people in mind, even though those kinds of steps have been regarded with some controversy by those at the top, by those with the most influence in Washington, D.C., by those with the most influence on Wall Street. You might even call them the elite.
That’s why the President believes it’s cynical to suggest that opposing those kinds of policies is somehow in the best interest of the American people. It’s not. And so for somebody who ran on a campaign platform that was rooted in hope, labeling something cynical I think should be viewed as a pretty harsh criticism.
Q Sure. Is the implication here that they’re cynical for forwarding policies that would help elites? Or is what you’re really saying, the use of racist language, the President believes — the President believes that Donald Trump is using racist language cynically for electoral gain, but is not perhaps actually racist? I’m trying to —
MR. EARNEST: The cynicism — what I’m trying to say is the cynicism is rooted in the idea that there are people who have opposed for political reasons policies that this administration has put forward that have obviously benefitted the American people. Twenty million Americans — 20 million more Americans have gotten access to health insurance coverage after the Affordable Care Act went into effect. Our economy has grown significantly and become more stable after Wall Street reform went into effect. These are just two examples. There are many others. The President cited the auto industry yesterday as another example of this.
Again, these are all policies that were opposed for partisan reason by Republicans even though they’ve had significant and well-documented benefits for the American people. So for partisan reasons to oppose those policies and put forward alternatives — Republicans haven’t really put forward alternatives — but to say that they’re opposed to those policies because they’re populist is cynical. It’s also just not true.
And I think that is the point that the President is making. There are plenty of other people who have raised concerns about what potentially — what others have described as racially tinged remarks on the campaign trail. Those are other people’s words. That’s not a word that the President chose. So I think the President chose his words, as you noted, quite carefully.
Q One more on the President’s rant yesterday. He named himself as a populist. He named Bernie Sanders as a populist. He did not name Secretary Clinton as a populist. Does he believe that Secretary Clinton is a populist? And I’m wondering why her name was left out of there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point is — I think the reason — the point that the President was trying to make is, again, when it comes to a fair evaluation of the policies championed by this administration and the impact they’ve had on the American people, I think the President is suggesting that people who are looking to apply the populism label could fairly apply it to the administration based on the fact these are policies that benefit the American people even though they were harshly criticized by the elite. That’s a pretty fair analysis of what’s been happening.
And the point is, the reason that the President cited Senator Sanders is there are several instances or policy areas where Senator Sanders recommends going even farther. That is different than the arguments that are made by some Republicans to go in the opposite direction. That’s why the President believes it’s cynical for those who want to go in the opposite direction to describe themselves as populist, or to have impartial arbiters use a shorthand for their criticism of the President as populist criticism. It’s just inaccurate. And I think that is the broader point.
When it comes to Secretary Clinton, I’ll let her speak for herself to describe her own philosophy. But again, my guess is, given the fact that she has been an outspoken advocate for building on the progress that our country has enjoyed under President Obama’s leadership, that you could probably fairly apply that label to her, too. But that’s something that her team should speak to.
Q Josh, was that rant — self-described rant — totally spontaneous? Or has he been waiting for an opportunity to vent on the issue of populism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I’ll just tell you what I noticed when I was there yesterday, is I noticed at one point during the news conference, the President did take out his pen and start making some notes to himself while the other leaders were talking. And I assume that’s where he was — something had prompted him to think about this.
And so, yes, this was something that the President delivered extemporaneously. I don’t think this is the first time the President had thought about it, but something in the context of the discussion at the news conference had returned him to this thinking. And he clearly had jotted down some notes in his book and took advantage of the opportunity at the end of the news conference to share his thoughts.
Q Do you believe there might be more rants in the pipeline? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Considering we’ve got another six and a half months to go before the end of the presidency, I think it’s likely we’re all going to get to enjoy at least one more.
Q He indicated that he feels liberated at this point in his presidency to say things that he might not have been willing to say four years earlier. Is that right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think there is a certain amount of freedom that politicians enjoy when they’re not on the ballot. But look, I also think that what’s true is the President has a well-earned reputation for being pretty blunt and candid and speaking his mind. And he’s got his own style for doing so that’s dismissed by some of his critics as professorial. But I think there are a lot of other people who actually find that kind of argument to be pretty compelling and persuasive.
But that’s something the President has done throughout his presidency. And as somebody who chronicles the metrics of the presidency as carefully as you, my guess is there are probably a number of things — a number of ticks in the spreadsheet under the rant column, if you decided to create one.
Q He’ll have to start his new log. (Laughter.)
What can you tell us about plans for signing the Puerto Rico bill? Will there be a signing ceremony when you get it?
MR. EARNEST: As you saw from the statement that we put out last night, we’re obviously pleased that the Senate has finally completed the bipartisan effort to give Puerto Rican officials the authority to deal with their significant financial problems.
This is important because this is going to have a direct impact on the livelihood of the more than 3 million Americans who live in Puerto Rico. There is a looming deadline tomorrow, so I would anticipate that the President will sign this piece of legislation into law shortly after we receive it. I don’t know if that will allow us time to organize a signing ceremony. But we’ll keep you posted, and we’ll let you know as soon as the President has signed it.
Q What is he doing all day today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has got a number of internal meetings today. His schedule is a little lighter today because his schedule yesterday, frankly, was so jam-packed.
Q What do you think of the chants of “four more years” in a foreign parliament?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I noticed that, too.
Q Did he notice?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’m sure that he did. From the floor, I was unable to see his reaction. I didn’t talk to him about it last night on the way back. But I’m not aware of any plans the President has to run for Prime Minister of Canada.
Q Or retire there?
MR. EARNEST: Or retire there. I think he probably would — as lovely as Ottawa was yesterday, I think the President would prefer a warmer climate.
Q Yesterday, the President pushed back when reporters asked him to weigh in on politics, and asked President Nieto and Prime Minister Trudeau. And he said that it wasn’t — when he’s abroad, it’s not his job to weigh in on domestic politics. But the President himself gave what you said was that self-described rant, and then during his parliament — speech to parliament, he talked about the need not to rebuild walls. Didn’t the President himself bring American politics into the fore in Canada?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think — the context in which a lot of these questions were asked yesterday were about a broader question about the sentiment of the electorate — not in just the United States, but around the world. And I think there are questions that have been raised about what does the electoral climate in the UK around the Brexit vote say about popular sentiment in the United States, and voter sentiment in the United States. That’s an entirely legitimate question.
Yes, it has an impact on the 2016 election, but it also has a direct impact on American values and the kinds of things that the President has been fighting for, for the last seven and a half years that he’s been in the White House.
So, again, I think it’s impossible to separate the two, I guess is my point. So while there might be some who would say, well, geez, the President was taking on the arguments of the 2016 election, but what’s also true is the President was taking on arguments that have been raised about the core American values that this President deeply believes in.
Q And I don’t think that the President got a chance to answer Ms. Rampton’s question yesterday about will the President next week, when he’s campaigning, or along the cycle with Secretary Clinton — will he offer a full-throated endorsement of TPP to her supporters. Is there any chance that he’s willing to pitch the TPP directly to Secretary Clinton’s supporters?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I don’t have an update on the remarks at this point, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out that the President will make a forceful case for the shared economic vision that’s advocated not just by President Obama but by Democrats across the country, including Secretary Clinton. I don’t think the President is going to make the case that Secretary Clinton and he agree on every single issue, but I do think he’ll make a pretty persuasive case about how they have spent their careers fighting for the same values and the same priorities. The President has always put those American families that are in the middle class and fighting to get in the middle class at the center of his domestic policymaking agenda, and Secretary Clinton does the same thing.
It doesn’t mean they agree on every issue. But when it comes to their values and priorities that are deeply held, they’ve got a lot in common. And I think that will be the focal point of the President’s remarks next week.
Q The TPP is emerging as a pretty big division in the Democratic Party between President Obama, and a big brunt of especially Senator Sanders. And I’m wondering, will the President — if the Democratic platform is passed with language explicitly opposing TPP, would that change the President’s plans at all and his attendance at the convention or his plans to speak there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re asking a hypothetical because the platform hasn’t been finalized yet. But I don’t anticipate at this point any changes to the President’s plan to participate in the Democratic convention.
Q On the attack in Istanbul, you said the U.S. isn’t sure whether this was ISIS or not. Where is the ambiguity and the uncertainty about that at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I’m relaying, Ron, is just that there’s an intelligence assessment that’s still being conducted. We’re trying to learn as much as we can about what exactly happened and the individuals who were responsible for this terrible terrorist incident. I just don’t have a lot of insight to share about what we know so far.
Q And in the interim, where there’s this uncertainty, is it safe to say that there’s not been an American — U.S. response to what’s happened directed at ISIS? Nothing has changed on the battlefield, if you will, out there? Or has something changed on the battlefield out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that does provide a pretty good opportunity to start talking about what is happening on the battlefield.
Q No, no, I mean, just in the last 48 hours or so since this attack happened. Again, if you’re in this process of still trying to evaluate what happened, has there been something that has — has there been a response or not?
MR. EARNEST: I think we have seen tremendous progress that the United States and our coalition partners are making against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. And there was the announcement earlier this week by the Iraqi central government that they had succeeded in driving ISIL fighters out of Fallujah. This was a large priority of the coalition, in part because of its proximity to Baghdad. And this is an operation that was more successful and went more swiftly than I think most experts had predicted.
Q But all that is pre-Istanbul.
MR. EARNEST: Again, this has been a long — is a long-planned effort, and the success was announced on Monday. And then there were — the other thing that has happened as Iraqi security forces were working to clear Fallujah, the United States and our coalition partners identified a large convoy of ISIL vehicles in Anbar who appeared to have recently left Fallujah, and allowed the United States and our coalition partners to carry out strikes against those vehicles that resulted in — we’re talking about two different convoys, but a total of more than 150 vehicles being destroyed.
So that, I think, is a pretty substantial indication of the kind of pressure that ISIL is under, and the success that we’re having in developing targets and acting against them in short order in a way that is having a material positive impact on the fight against ISIL on the battlefield.
Q What about the reports that the United States and the Russians are going to cooperate more deeply, militarily in Syria, specifically? Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: I think what has been true for a long time, Ron — and this was actually even true before the Russian military buildup in Syria last fall — is that we talked a lot about how there was an opportunity for Russia to more effectively work with the United States and our 65 coalition partners to go after ISIL and to go after extremists in Syria. That’s been true from the very beginning. The reason that that opportunity has not been capitalized on is that Russia has been far more focused on using their military might to prop up Assad than to actually go after extremists. And we’ve said all along that there is an internal contradiction in the Russian strategy. They say, they claim that they’re quite concerned about extremists inside of Syria, but the steps that they’re taking to prop up the Assad regime and make a political transition more difficult makes it harder for us to deal with the extremist threat inside of Syria.
Q So is there now — is something different now? Is there an agreement between the United States and Russia to cooperate militarily in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: We have not seen the Russians — and again, I’ve been saying this for more than a year, too — we have not seen the Russians demonstrate a commitment to using their military might against ISIL. Instead, they’ve been much more focused on propping up the Assad regime. And that is a problem for a variety of reasons mostly because continuing to prop up the Assad regime makes it more difficult for the world to address the root cause of this extremist problem.
So they’ve got this internal contradiction in their strategy that they have been unable to explain or resolve for almost a year now.
Q So nothing has changed. I understand the background. But you’re familiar with these reports that there’s some sort of agreement that’s been reached. You’re familiar with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen — I saw one report in the Post this morning that alluded to all of this. And what I’m saying is that I don’t have details about sort of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that is part of our open line of communication with the Russians. But what hasn’t changed is our basic approach to this situation, which is we would welcome a Russian commitment to working more closely with the coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. I think the 65 members of our counter-ISIL coalition would welcome that kind of participation as well. The problem has been that Russia is much more interested in propping up Assad than they are in going after ISIL. And until that changes, we’ve said it’s hard to imagine coordinating out military efforts.
Now, what we have been doing thus far is we have been de-conflicting our efforts to provide for the safety of our military pilots primarily operating over Syria. But what has prevented us from being able to more effectively coordinate militarily is that what the Russians have been militarily doing is propping up Assad and not going after ISIL.
Q There was a Navy investigation released on the report involving the Iranian military and the Navy sailors. It seemed to be — well, it was critical of the Americans, and some saying they weren’t prepared, there were a litany of errors, there were a number of officers and others disciplined. What’s the White House reaction to that? The narrative coming out of that at the time seemed much more positive and supportive of the actions of the U.S. military in that context.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the immediate aftermath of this incident was the relief that we expressed about the safe return of our sailors. But what the Navy has said since that day back in January is that they were going to conduct an investigation to determine what exactly had happened. They briefed the results of that investigation earlier today, and I think there were a number of Navy personnel who were reprimanded for the way that they — for their role in the incident.
But for the details of all that, I’d refer you to the Navy. I haven’t look carefully at the investigation myself.
Q I guess one of the concerns of it, it seemed — the investigation — as I read it quickly before we all gathered here — was that it seemed to suggest that they were not prepared, that there was something systemic that wasn’t as it should be for them to deal with the situation like that when they found themselves in it. It would suggest training, leadership, those sort of structural things, not necessarily what these individuals may or may not have done.
MR. EARNEST: Look, for any recommendations that the Navy has, I’m sure that they will be carefully considered by policymakers at the Department of Defense to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again. But I’m just not aware of the substance of any recommendations they may have made.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can you just give a little bit more information about the Iraqi — the airstrikes that knocked out a number of foreign fighters? A big number. And I’m just curious what you know about it. Did the President order that particular strike? And how soon was he advised?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, this is what I was alluding to with Ron. My understanding about the way this worked is that ISIL — I’m sorry, Iraqi security forces have been working over the last several days to definitively clear Fallujah. The Iraqis announced on Monday that they had retaken the city, and there was just an effort to complete the — to essentially assure that all ISIL elements had been rooted out of that city.
And what occurred last night is that coalition military pilots detected the movement of two unusually large convoys moving away from the general direction of Fallujah through the desert of Anbar Province. And we’ve talked before about how early on in this campaign we recognized that ISIL had changed tactics. ISIL had originally been showing — we saw footage of ISIL moving in large convoys across Iraq as they were taking large territory there back in the summer of 2014. As soon as U.S. military pilots got involved, they were taking opportunistic strikes against those convoys. ISIL, in response, changed their tactics and started moving in much smaller numbers to present less of a target to coalition military pilots.
What happened last night is that U.S. coalition pilots spotted two large convoys, and they took strikes against them. And those strikes resulted, in the case of one convoy, of the destruction of more than 100 vehicles. In the other convoy that was identified, more than 50 vehicles were destroyed. And I think what this underscores is the success that the United States and our coalition partners are having in integrating our intelligence and our military capabilities. Being able to quickly spot these targets, identify them, and take action against them is, frankly, harder than I just made it sound. But it’s something that now is clearly happening quite effectively in a way that is having a significant impact on ISIL.
I think the other thing that’s true is that ISIL is certainly feeling under more pressure. And that has been an important part of our strategy, which is to apply pressure to ISIL elements in a variety of different places simultaneously. And that’s making it harder for ISIL to defend themselves. And this is an example of why our efforts to expand the capacity of Iraqi security forces to make sure that they’re well integrated with coalition military pilots, that we can apply — we want to make sure we can apply maximum pressure against ISIL targets. And we saw the benefits to that approach last night in a way that has a tangible, negative impact on ISIL’s ability to continue to fight this fight.
Q For the success against ISIL, the Taliban seems to be enjoying a bit of a resurgence. Can you tell me about the attack on the cadets in Afghanistan there, what you know about that?
MR. EARNEST: I got a briefing on that earlier today. My understanding is that extremists in Afghanistan did target some cadets from the Afghan security forces. There were significant casualties associated with that — dozens of casualties. I’d refer you to the Afghans for a more specific assessment.
And, look, this is I think an indication of something that we have long acknowledged, which is that security situation in Afghanistan is quite difficult, particularly in the fighting season. But what is true, and what continues to be true, is that the Afghan forces are showing great determination and resilience, even in the face of some setbacks, like the one that you just described. And what is important is the continued commitment of the United States and NATO and other international contributors to the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces.
The United States and our coalition partners have good partners in the Afghan government. And it’s important that we continue to support them both militarily and economically as they seek to both rebuild the institutions of that country but also strengthen the security forces in that country.
Q A bit of housekeeping. The DNI review of the 9/11 Commission’s 28 pages, we were understanding that maybe by the end of June they would finally have something that the American people can take a look at. Have you gotten an update on what’s happening with that? And has the President, as yet — because the last time you and I spoke, you said you didn’t believe he had had a chance to read those 28 pages. Has that changed at all? And can you give me an update?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a timely reminder. It is June 30th, after all. And the Director of the DNI did indicate that he expected that they would have the results of this review concluded by the end of June. I haven’t gotten an updated assessment about the timeline, so you might check with his office to see where things stand. And I don’t know that the President has been briefed at this point on the final conclusions of the DNI. But the President, while not having read the 28 pages, is aware of their contents and he has been briefed on the contents of those pages. I don’t know that he’s necessarily been briefed about what the DNI has concluded is appropriate for release.
Q Last, I wanted to follow up on pretty much everybody’s question about optics. Would you at least acknowledge that if you have on the one hand a candidate, a former colleague whom you’ve endorsed — we’re talking about Secretary Clinton; the President has endorsed her — and his appointed Attorney General who is having social calls with her husband, the President, can you understand where people might feel like not only does it not look good, it makes them worried about the fact that this is going to be an open, transparent and impartial process as the investigations continue into her conduct regarding the server?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, let me try to answer your question this way. I think the question you’re asking is entirely legitimate, and I think the question that was asked of Attorney General Lynch was entirely legitimate. That’s why I think it was appropriate for her to give the direct answer that she did. And I think it was also important for her to continue to demonstrate her commitment to a principle that she has stood up for in her three decades in public service, and that is the primacy of the rule of law. The rule of law is most important.
We’re all subject to it in the same way, without regard to our political affiliation or our partisan affiliation, without regard to who supports us politically or who opposes us politically. We’re all subject to the rule of law in the same way. And it’s important that investigations are conducted consistent with that principle in mind. These kinds of investigations should be conducted in a way that investigators simply follow the facts, they follow the evidence, and they use that to form conclusions.
And I guess the one part of your question that I might quibble with a little bit is, I don’t think anybody is making the case that this kind of investigation is transparent right now, but what investigators do have a responsibility to do is, once they have conducted an investigation and reached a conclusion, that there is some explanation required in terms of how they reached that conclusion. But it’s important that that conclusion not be rooted in political preference, but just be rooted in the facts and the evidence and what the law requires.
That’s the way to ensure the fair administration of justice. That’s something that the Attorney General has been committed to as a career prosecutor throughout her career. That’s something that she’s been committed to as the Attorney General. I know it’s something that the FBI Director and all those who report to Director Comey and Attorney General Lynch are committed to. That’s certainly consistent with the President’s expectations about how this would be handled. It’s also consistent with the expectations of the American people in terms of how this should be handled.
Q So we shouldn’t read into the sort of social hanging out, if you will, between the Attorney General and the former President that there’s nothing there and that there’s nothing to worry about? Should we read that much into this sort of gathering?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is entirely appropriate for journalists like you to ask the Attorney General what she talked about. And she answered that question directly, on the record, as soon as it was asked.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and whatever else. So, look, I think that’s an appropriate question to ask, and I think it was appropriate for the Attorney General to answer it. But what is clear is the President’s view is that no one is above the law, and everybody should be subject to the law in the same way without regard to their political affiliation or who’s happened to endorse them.
Q Library update, by chance? There was some reporting that there might be a library announcement on location specifics today.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any of those details. The foundation that the President and First Lady have created will handle any announcements that they have to make on that matter.
Q Thanks. Could I just ask something about Andrews again? You mentioned the importance of training and vigilance on military bases. But does it make any sense to hold an active shooter drill so soon after a major terrorist attack when people might be on edge anyway, and when the Vice President is scheduled to be on the base?
MR. EARNEST: Pam, I just don’t know the details of the way that these kinds of drills are scheduled, so I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for that. But, look, the President believes that it’s important to conduct drills and to do training that ensures the safety of our men and women in uniform.
Q And on gun control, Speaker Ryan says that he’s going to hold a vote on a bill to prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns. Does that give you hope that something like that might be able to pass?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the details here are rather important. We saw claims from people like Senator Cornyn that the legislation that he had put forward would address the questions that many Americans have raised about the wisdom of allowing people who are on the no-fly list to buy a gun. So I think I’d want to see the details before I commented on it. But, look, the President has made this a priority. We’ve certainly been pleased to see congressional Democrats make it a priority. The President’s view is a simple one: If it’s too dangerous for you to board a plane, it should be too dangerous for you to buy a gun. And that, I think, is a pretty common-sense notion and is something that we believe shouldn’t just get a vote, it should pass and be sent to the President’s desk so that he can sign it into law.
Q Do you think public pressure is now kind of moving in that direction on members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I hope so. There’s ample public evidence to indicate that a strong majority of Americans supports these kinds of common-sense steps. They support these common-sense steps because they believe that it’s likely to make the country a little bit safer and it doesn’t undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
So it’s a pretty common-sense proposition. I’m not surprised to see that it’s got strong public support across the country. Not just a majority of Democrats, but according to some polls, even a majority of Republicans and a majority of gun owners support that kind of common-sense approach to making our communities a little safer from gun violence.
So, again, we’ll see the details of what the House of Representatives is willing to consider, but this is a pretty common-sense notion and it’s something that Congress should act on soon.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back in March, Lisa Monaco promised a report on civilian casualties by U.S. airstrikes in the coming weeks. That was more than 16 weeks ago. Can you give us any transparency on what’s holding up that transparency? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously what the national security team and the intelligence community is attempting to do is to break some old habits, and bringing transparency to this element of our national security strategy and our counterterrorism strategy is difficult. But I can tell you that that work is ongoing and has been ever since — frankly, even before — Ms. Monaco gave the speech that you’re referring to. That work is ongoing, and I would anticipate that we’ll have some additional information about that pretty soon.
Q Will there be just a report on casualties, or do you expect the President to issue any executive orders, presidential policy directives, and sort of executive action clarifying the rules of engagement that limits civilian casualties?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any previews of the announcement at this point, but stay tuned.
Q Is it fair to say both on this report but also with any potential executive orders, that the President is in these last few months of his — the President has been trying to lock in the default policy choices for his successor? For a Democrat, that means maybe making some tough choices and getting them off of her plate before she comes in. Or for a Republican, to sort of lock in a policy that a Republican President would have to very conspicuously and deliberately rescind.
And I’m thinking specifically if there was an atrocities executive order, a Global Entrepreneurship executive order, all of which are things that this President has been doing all along. But issuing these kinds of things, executive actions, so late in his presidency — are they an attempt to sort of set the plate for the next President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it’s hard to paint with that broad of a brush. When it comes to our Cuba policy, for example, we’ve made no bones about the fact that we are seeking to lock in that change in approach toward Cuba. And so I think the description that you have applied would fit with what we’re trying to do in Cuba. In other situations, though, the situations that you’re describing are just the culmination of years of work and —
Q But going back to the atrocities executive order, the President already issued less formal guidance and has been operating under that system since the early days of his presidency. Why formalize that as an executive order unless it’s to bind his successor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, again, I also think it’s possible to do both. And I haven’t read up lately on the executive actions around the atrocities report. But obviously the President has made that kind of work a priority throughout his tenure as President. And if there is an opportunity for us to routinize that approach to dealing with these complicated issues, the President believes the country would benefit from that. After all, because that routinized approach didn’t exist when President Obama took office, it required a lot of work to figure out how to most effectively deal with this policy challenge and be transparent about it.
And so by establishing a procedure and a clearly delineated routine for implementing the strategy, yeah, I do think it makes it harder for somebody to undo, but it also means that kind of work continues to get the regular attention that the President believes that it deserves. But I think ultimately that’s the goal that we have in mind in trying to complete this important work before the President leaves office.
George. Twelve wins in a row for your Indians, George. Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. (Laughter.) Much to my dismay.
Q They haven’t lost since the Cavaliers won.
MR. EARNEST: That’s what I keep hearing.
Q Did I notice that Cleveland had won — anyway — (laughter) — I want to follow on your answer earlier about trade. The President gave a very vigorous defense of trade agreements in Ottawa. But with TPP and NAFTA and all trade agreements so under assault, are we going to be hearing a lot more of this from him in the coming weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you will continue to hear from the President is a commitment to a set of policies that embraces the opportunities that lie ahead for the United States. And the President believes that that future is enhanced when we more effectively engage with the international community. That certainly is true when it comes to trade agreements. And the President described that rather colorfully yesterday in terms of the impact that shutting off all trade would have on our country’s economy.
The President talked about the decimating impact that would have on the auto industry, for example. That’s essentially a global supply chain. And to shut off the United States from the global supply chain would have devastating economic consequences for the United States.
But I think, George, it doesn’t just apply to trade policy. There’s a lot of work that we can achieve when we’re willing to coordinate with other countries. I think some of the climate announcements that were made in the context of yesterday’s summit are a very good example of that. The United States cannot solve the problem of climate change alone. And in fact, this was actually the principal line of criticism from those who were most skeptical of our approach to climate change. Right? Remember there was this sense that why would the United States take all these steps to pursue a low-carbon economy if a country like China that’s the largest emitter is not going to make the same kind of commitments?
So it’s only by engaging China and seeking common ground with them, and reaching those kinds of commitments in concert with them can we collectively address a challenge that has significant consequences for the planet.
I think the same is true — let me just give you one example, and I’ll keep it quick — which is just the effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That effort would not have been successful had the United States not been able to effectively work not just with our P5+1 partners, but with countries around the world — like Japan and South Korea and India — to help us implement those sanctions. By implementing those sanctions against Iran we applied substantial pressure to their economy in a way that compelled them to come to the negotiating table and make specific commitments about not pursuing nuclear weapons that we can now verify, and essentially the United States and the rest of the world is safer because we now know that Iran will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons.
That was work that was only successful because of our ability to work effectively with the rest of the international community. And if we were trying to shut ourselves off from the international community we would not have enjoyed that success.
Q If I could stick with trade for a second.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q On trade agreements — does he feel lonely out there arguing for trade agreements? There aren’t many voices being raised domestically on his side.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think some of that is a consequence of the current political climate. But I don’t think the President has shied away at all from any opportunity that he has to make the case about how important it is for the United States, both in terms of our economy but also in terms of our national security team, when it comes to pursuing an agreement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
So I’m not going to stand up here and make any character judgments. I’m just saying that the President has the courage of his convictions when it comes to articulating a coherent strategy for making sure the United States can leverage our advantages in a way that benefits not just this generation of middle-class Americans, but future generations of working Americans.
We’ve got a lot of built-in advantages in this country. We’ve got the best colleges and universities. We’ve got the most — we’ve got a climate that rewards innovation and new ideas. We’ve got a society where good ideas can rise to the top. And that gives us a competitive advantage over just about the rest of the world. We’ve also got a healthy, well-developed market for those products here in the United States.
All of that combines to the give the United States a significant competitive advantage. Why wouldn’t we try to press that advantage by entering into agreements with other countries to get them to raise their environmental standards, raise their labor standards, protect intellectual property, and give the United States better access to the markets in other countries so that we can actually have a chance to compete on a more level playing field.
Right now you hear people who are opponents of the TPP say that globalization has had a terrible impact on workers across America. The President is willing to acknowledge, and has on many occasions, that there are Americans — even American communities — that have been negatively affected by globalization. That’s not the question.
The question is: What are you going to do about it? The President is the one who has put forward a coherent strategy that makes sense, that leverages our advantages, maximizes our benefits, and creates additional opportunities for American businesses and American workers to succeed.
Opponents of these trade deals haven’t. They haven’t put forward a coherent strategy. And to the extent that they have, that coherent strategy is one that would only promise economic ruin in the United States by attempting to sever the global supply chain.
Q Last question. Is it fair to say that the President has evolved or grown on this issue since the 2007 debate where he called for reopening NAFTA?
MR. EARNEST: Actually, George, I would say that the President is making good on that promise. That’s exactly what the TPP does — that Canada and Mexico are part of the TPP. And what the TPP does is that it raises labor and environmental standards and makes them enforceable in a way that they were not enforceable in NAFTA.
So I don’t think the President has evolved on this promise; the President has made good on this promise, and in some ways has succeeded even more than he thought he would be able to.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Pentagon is lifting its ban on allowing transgender men and women to serve openly in the military. Did the President weigh in on that decision? Can you enlighten us a little bit about how he participates in conversations like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Christi, this is something that the Department of Defense is supposed to announce this afternoon. So I don’t know if they’ve done that while I’m up here. Presumably they have if you’re discussing it.
What I can say about this is that what Secretary Carter announced today was the result of a review that was conducted at the Department of Defense. In announcing that review, Secretary Carter indicated his belief that every American who is appropriately qualified to do so should be able to serve their country in the military, and that by having that kind of approach, our country is safer and our military is stronger. The President agrees with that general approach.
As it relates to the specific policy that was announced today, again, that’s a policy that was formulated by the Department of Defense. So I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ll get a chance to take a look at it before the end of the day today. And we can either discuss at the end of today or in tomorrow’s briefing.
Q Could you also update us on the President’s deliberations about troop levels in Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update at this point. The Department of Defense, including the President’s — including our military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have been conducting a review. And the last I heard, which is I guess a week or so ago, is that the conclusions of that review have not been presented to the President at this point.
But the President will carefully consider not just the judgement of his military commanders on the ground, but also the other members of his national security as he continues to evaluate our strategy in Afghanistan.
Q Do you think that’s something that he might reach a conclusion on or make a public announcement about before he meets with NATO leaders?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any announcements to foreshadow at this point, but if there is a policy change to announce, we’ll make sure that all of you are in the loop.
Q Senators Reid and Schumer mentioned a meeting today with Denis McDonough, Secretary Burwell and Donovan from OMB. Do you have anything on that meeting? And was Zika on the agenda today?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the details of that meeting, but let me go ask about it and see if I can get you an answer.
Q Okay. Back to trade. Have you heard the President express any concerns that him talking about it as regularly as he has recently could be politically — could politically hinder Secretary Clinton and other Democratic candidates?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think the President is worried about that. Obviously, he’s got a different position on this issue than the Democratic nominee. I think we’ve all been pretty blunt about that. But look, the reason the President was talking about it yesterday is two of our most important trading partners were attending the summit alongside the President of the United States. So that’s why he was discussing it yesterday. And I think it served as a useful backdrop for illustrating how important it is to our country’s economy and to our country’s national security.
Fred, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. A separate matter regarding transgender issues. The National Park Service has said that restrooms on public lands will be open based on gender identity. And I wanted to see — will that also be the policy for restrooms in all federal buildings? Will that be sort of consistent with the directive to the public schools that was issued in May?
MR. EARNEST: Fred, I have to admit that I can’t speak to the bathroom policy of the federal government. But I think you should check with individual agencies. I can confirm for you that that’s the policy here at the White House.
Q It is the policy?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:20 P.M. EDT
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