Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 17, 2016 – 2:04 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you decked out in your green today for St. Patrick’s Day, at least many of you.
Q As you.
MR. EARNEST: I’m joining the fun, as well. I do not have anything to say at the top other than thank you for accommodating my schedule and shifting the briefing back a little bit later today. I appreciate that. My schedule has been even a little more aggressive than usual today.
Q Anything we need to know?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned. Stay tuned.
Q Stay tuned.
MR. EARNEST: There you go.
Q Is someone going to walk out maybe?
MR. EARNEST: No, there’s nothing like that. (Laughter.) At least not that I know of. We’ll see how it goes.
Q Is Ben back there? Okay, just checking.
MR. EARNEST: Darlene.
Q Thank you. Can you talk about what is the practical effect of Secretary Kerry’s determination that ISIL is committing genocide against Christians and the Yazidis and others?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously over the last few weeks, I’ve received a number of questions about this. I know that my colleagues at the State Department and other national security agencies across the government have been asked about this.
What’s happening in the — in Iraq and in Syria is deeply troubling. We do see this extremist organization targeting religious minorities. In their propaganda they’re featuring evidence of trying to wipe out these religious minorities. And the President has talked on a number of occasions about how this is deeply troubling and is an affront to every person of faith.
That’s why the President has ordered military action against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. In some cases, there have been military actions that have been ordered specifically to protect religious minorities. So there certainly is the example of Mount Sinjar, which we’ve cited here frequently, that there were Yazidis who were trapped on that mountain. ISIL fighters had them cornered, and those ISIL fighters were vowing to slaughter them.
There was also a less prominent example of this, but an important one, nonetheless, that there were ISIL fighters that were carrying out a siege in the Iraqi town of Amirli, where there were an estimated 13,000 Turkmen Shia surrounded by ISIL fighters. And again, the United States took military action to break that siege.
So the United States has, on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, taken steps to try to protect religious minorities in that region of the world from being the victims of violence at the hands of ISIL. And it’s not just true of Yazidis and Shia Muslims, it’s also true of Christians. And Secretary Kerry announced today what I thought was a powerful speech, discussing how he now has judged, assessed that ISIL is responsible for genocide in this region of the world in areas under its control, particularly as it relates to Yazidi, Christian, and Shia populations.
And this designation is significant. It reflects the gravity of the situation there. And it’s one that continues to attract the attention not just of the United States, but it’s also why the United States has been able to build a strong moral case against ISIL, and build a substantial international coalition of 66 nations to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization.
Q Does it change — does the determination change anything on the ground now, today or tomorrow, for any of the people who are being persecuted or feeling persecuted?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what it essentially indicates is that the United States will cooperate with independent efforts to investigate genocide. There obviously is evidence that’s been collected, and we’ll make sure that that evidence is preserved, and we’ll assist in the effort, collecting and analyzing additional evidence of atrocities to support that investigation. But that’s the next step in the process, and the United States will be supportive of it.
Q Some groups want the administration to do more, militarily, to fight ISIL. Do you foresee that happening at some point as a result of this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is going to continue to rely on the good advice of his military commanders. Some of that will obviously be related to the kind of military contributions that other countries who are part of our coalition make to this effort. The amount of military involvement in this region of the world has already been significant. More than 10,000 airstrikes have been carried out against ISIL targets. About 40 percent of the property — territory that ISIL controlled in Iraq is area that is no longer under their control.
The percentage is somewhat smaller in Syria. I think it’s between 10 and 20 percent. But that’s an indication that we have had some success in combining the military might of our coalition with the effectiveness of fighters on the ground, fighting for their own country. And that’s an important part of our strategy.
There are other elements of our strategy, too, in terms of shutting down the flow of foreign fighters, making it harder for ISIL to recruit fighters to their cause, and obviously making it harder for ISIL to finance their efforts. All those elements of our strategy have contributed to our success as well. But when it comes to military action against ISIL, that military action has been robust, it’s made a difference, and it’s been closely coordinated with fighters on the ground that, ultimately, need to be responsible for fighting for their own country.
Q The President was having a conference call today on Judge Garland’s nomination. Can you talk a little bit about who he was talking to on the call and what the message was that he had for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House, leading up to the President making a decision about his Supreme Court nominee, had engaged with a variety of organizations — not just around town but across the country, and this was an opportunity for those organizations and their members to hear directly from the President about why he made this choice. And I think the President obviously spent some time discussing how proud he is of the choice that he’s made; how committed he is to the constitutional responsibility that he has to make this choice; and how committed he is to making the case to Congress that they should fulfill their constitutional duty as well.
So I didn’t listen in on the call, but I would be surprised if there was anything that the President said on the call that would have surprised you.
Q Would you know if he asked them to do anything specific in this two-week period that’s coming up when the Senate is on recess and members are going back to their districts, and you all are hoping that they’ll hear a lot of pushback from their constituents on this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know that the President had any specific asks — we’ll look into that. But I think the President sent a pretty clear signal, though, that this a high priority of his, and he hoped that this would be a priority that people all across the country would share.
Q And finally, just one more on this. There’s been some speculation that there is some sort of a deal that Republicans signaled to the White House that if the President nominated Garland, he would be confirmed — they would confirm him in a lame duck session if Hillary Clinton wins the election. Is there any sort of deal or agreement along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. The truth is we do not think that there is any good reason that anybody in the Senate can articulate for waiting until the lame duck to confirm a consensus nominee to the Supreme Court. There is no excuse. The only excuse we occasionally hear from Republicans is that politics is getting in the way. Well, I think my message to them is, don’t let politics get in the way of doing your job.
I don’t think the American people are particularly understanding or sympathetic to Republicans that they won’t do their job because it’s an election year. In fact, in election years, that’s actually when we have a tendency to pay the most attention to whether or not our elected representatives, at the federal or state level, are doing their jobs. And right now, Republicans are promising not to do their job, even though the President has given them a golden opportunity to rise above politics. The President has put forward a nominee that Republicans themselves say would do a good job on the Court. Senator Hatch described Chief Judge Garland as a consensus nominee.
That’s why it shouldn’t be particularly difficult for Republicans to put politics aside, put their constitutional duty first, and follow the long-followed steps of confirming the President’s Supreme Court nominee in a timely fashion.
Q Does the White House have a strategy to soften Senator McConnell’s resolve on not holding any votes and not having any hearings?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re certainly going to continue to make a forceful, principled case that that’s what he should do. Fortunately, the White House is not in a position of speaking alone on this matter. We’ve obviously been quite pleased with the response among Democrats in the United States Senate to the President’s decision to nominate Chief Judge Garland. I think it is evidence that Senator Hatch was right when he described Chief Judge Garland as a consensus nominee, because we see so many Democrats out there saying that he was a good pick.
What may be surprising to some is that there are plenty of conservatives who have had positive things to say about the President’s nominee. I can give you a couple of examples. I just happen to have them right here. (Laughter.) Judge Ken Starr, who as the Solicitor General, represented the United States of America before the Supreme Court, somebody who knows a little something about the law, described Chief Judge Garland as “superbly qualified to serve on our nation’s highest court.” We discussed the op-ed that President George W. Bush’s Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez, wrote, indicating that Chief Judge Garland deserves a vote, and urging the Senate to follow through on that.
So I can understand if Leader McConnell may not be particularly sympathetic to my point of view, but maybe somebody that has the legal expertise and the intellectual weight of somebody like Judge Starr or Attorney General Gonzalez — maybe they can prevail upon Leader McConnell to put the interests of the United States and the functioning of our justice system ahead of his more parochial political concerns.
Q Does the White House see any cracks within the Senate Republicans? There’s been some reports about Senator Grassley may be willing to see Judge Garland in the next couple weeks.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Judge Garland did have an opportunity to talk with Chairman Grassley yesterday on the telephone. As is also customary, White House staff had been in touch with a number of offices on Capitol Hill to begin arranging meetings for Chief Judge Garland. As is customary, they contacted leadership offices as well as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And in those staff-level conversations, Senator Grassley’s staff indicated to the White House that they’d be prepared to schedule a meeting after the two-week recess that the Senate will begin at the end of this week.
That obviously is something we believe is entirely appropriate. It certainly is I think the most basic expectation that people would have for a Senate Judiciary Chairman when a consensus Supreme Court nominee has been put forward. And so we’re hopeful that that’s something that will be scheduled.
I think the one thing — Senator Grassley, previously today, indicated that he mused out loud about whether or not somebody was listening in on his phone call with Chief Judge Garland. I can assure you that that, of course, is not true.
But I would hope, despite political differences, that Chairman Grassley will fulfill his responsibility and be able to work with the White House to at least begin the process of scheduling a meeting with Chief Judge Garland.
Q And how does the President plan to stay involved next week during a very historic trip?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President will continue to be engaged in this process. And I’ll have a little bit more detail about the President’s schedule in Latin America to discuss tomorrow. But there will one or two opportunities over the course of the five-day trip for the President to take questions from all of you. So to the extent that all of you may continue to be interested in this story, maybe you’ll have some questions for the President. And I’m sure the President will be happy to answer them, even if those answers need to also be subsequently translated into Spanish.
Let’s move around. Andrew.
Q Just coming back to the point on genocide. You talked about independent investigations. Can you be a bit more specific? Are you talking about the ICC?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the ICC typically is the organization that would take a look at this. And given the judgment that Secretary Kerry has made, the United States would be supportive of that effort, both rhetorically but also in a tangible way as well. The United States will support efforts to collect, document, preserve and analyze evidence of atrocities. And the United States will do all we can to ensure that perpetrators of these atrocities are held to account and brought to justice.
Q And a question about Yemen. A Saudi airstrike has killed 119 people in a market. Can you categorically say that U.S. targeting or refueling assets weren’t involved in this?
MR. EARNEST: For an operational question like this, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. We have expressed our concerns about the loss of innocent life in Yemen. The violence there that is plaguing that country has caught too many innocent civilians in the crossfire. And it is why we would welcome, and do welcome, the statement from coalition spokesperson, Saudi General Ahmed al-Asiri, who indicated today that major operations in Yemen are coming to an end, and that the coalition will work on “long-term plans” to bring stability to the country.
We have long made the case that Yemen is in dire need of a political solution and that that political solution needs to come as soon as possible. And that’s why we’ve continued to urge all parties to return to U.N.-facilitated peace talks so that we can build upon the positive conversations that occurred back in December. We need to find a way forward for those conversations to bring the fighting in Yemen to an end. And we’re going to continue to be supportive of that process and continue to urge all parties to participate constructively in it.
Q I take what you’re saying about the coalition statement. But the Saudis have offered to wind down — or said they’re going to wind down this conflict before, and then haven’t really followed through. Do you have any assurances that this time war really is coming to end, or slowing down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re obviously going to continue to monitor the situation there. There are some initial reports of de-escalation along the Saudi-Yemen border. And we’re also pleased to see coalition indications that they’re working on efforts to deliver critically needed humanitarian assistance to a number of Yemeni villages along the Saudi-Yemen border. So these are preliminary indications. I would readily acknowledge that, Andrew. But we’re going to continue to encourage all sides to engage in the kind of diplomatic conversations that could bring the fighting in that war-torn country to an end.
Q On the genocide issue, it sounds like nothing really is going to change on the ground in terms of the strategy — because as I heard from the State Department as well, it’s the U.S. position that you’ve been executing this war, this conflict, or whatever it is, as if it were a genocide anyway. This is just a formal declaration. So nothing really changes. It’s not like you have to — you don’t feel like you have to escalate anything to now deal with a genocide?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, quite frankly, we have been aware for some time of ISIL targeting religious minorities. And we’ve taken action — significant actions to try to prevent it. And that includes efforts by ISIL fighters to target Christians just because of their religion.
So I’m not at all suggesting that this judgment that’s been reached by the State Department is somehow unimportant. It is significant any time you’re talking about applying this label. But what’s also true is that robust action has already been taken by the United States and our coalition partners to try to protect the religious minorities that we already know are being targeted by ISIL.
Q Reporting on the Austin fundraiser, it sounds like the President did endorse Secretary Clinton, or said essentially that the race was going to come to an end soon; Sanders is not going sustainable. Is that a turning point? Is that was he, in fact, said?
MR. EARNEST: No, it’s not what he, in fact, said.
Q Well, what did he say, for the record?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was there for the fundraiser and I was there for the part where this conversation occurred. What I’ll just say in general is that President Obama made a case that would be familiar to all of you, which is that as Democrats move through this competitive primary process, we need to be mindful of the fact that our success in November in electing a Democratic President will depend on the commitment and ability of the Democratic Party to come together behind our nominee. And the President did not indicate or specify a preference in the race. In fact, the President pointed out something that he’s pointed out to all of you, which is that both of the Democrats who are running because they have demonstrated an understanding and a commitment to building on the progress that we’ve made thus far would be far better Presidents than anybody that’s been put up on the Republican side.
Q So nothing has changed. He is still neutral, can’t make up his mind, taking a —
MR. EARNEST: I did not say that he couldn’t make up his mind. The President has cast a ballot. The President has voted in the Illinois Democratic Primary.
Q And he voted for? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: We have not indicated that preference. But what we have said and what the President has said, both publicly and privately, is that he will have an important responsibility in the summer and fall, once the nomination process has concluded, in bringing the party together and making sure that even after a vigorous debate, which, the President, by the way, believes is really good for the party — it was really good for the party in 2008 and this kind of competition is good for sharpening the skills of the candidates and exercising the organizational muscle of the Democratic Party.
But once this process comes to a conclusion, everybody in the Democratic Party will understand the stakes of the debate, and given those stakes, will need to unify behind the Democratic Party nominee to ensure that he or she can win in November.
Q Flint — the hearings on the Hill. Does the EPA Administrator still have the fully confidence of the President?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. And I think that you have seen the EPA, at the direction of Administrator McCarthy, take aggressive action to ensure the health, wellbeing, and safety of citizens in Flint, but also citizens in communities all across the country. That EPA continues to be deeply involved in testing the water supply there and offering scientific and technical expertise and advice to local officials as they try to rectify the problems there.
Q You’re talking about now, right?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Because there was a long period where I think your explanation was that the EPA couldn’t do anything, it was the responsibility of the state authorities to act first. Is that correct? Am I correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes, but you just asked me whether or not we had confidence in the leadership of the administrator of the EPA, and I’m describing to you all of the steps that have been taken to safeguard the water supply not just in Flint but in communities all across the country. The EPA Administrator sent a letter to governors, coast to coast, saying that they need to clarify exactly how they are implementing the Lead and Copper Rule to make sure that nothing has fallen through the cracks and that if there is some inattention to these important rules and enforcing them, that the EPA will be prepared to act to plug those gaps, to make sure that we can protect the water supply of communities across the country. She understands how serious this is, and the truth is, when you take a look at the record that she has compiled just in her few years as the Administrator of the EPA, there’s a strong case to make that the United States of America has never had a better administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency than Gina McCarthy.
Q And what’s the administration’s position on the governor? There have been calls for him to resign.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have indicated is that, obviously, the citizens and voters of the state of Michigan are going to have to decide who they want to lead their state. And, frankly, this is another example of where we can’t let our partisan differences with Governor Snyder interfere with our ability to respond to an urgency situation in a community of about 100,000 people in Michigan. And that’s why you’ve seen the federal government mobilize significant resources from FEMA to provide water filters and to distribute bottled water. That’s why you’ve seen HHS announce significant grant funding to enhance health care and medical assistance in this community. You’ve also seen commitments to expand educational opportunities, Head Start centers in that community who’s dealing with this crisis.
And we’ve done all of that, despite the fact that the governor from the state of Michigan represents a different political party. This is too important for politics.
Q So, overall, the President is satisfied with the response to date?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think overall, the President recognizes that what happened in Flint was a tragedy, and this is something that is going to have long-term consequences for the health and well-being of many, many families there. And it is incumbent upon state, local and federal officials to mobilize necessary resources to try to meet these needs and fix what was so badly broken. And that includes needing additional action from Congress to appropriate the necessary resources so that some of the significant infrastructure flaws can be addressed as well.
Let’s move around. Atsushi, how are you?
Q Good. Thank you so much. Let me ask about Asia, specifically on North Korea. The President signed an executive order yesterday to put fresh sanctions against North Korean companies and individuals in Korean mining corporations and banking corporations. And in terms of the implementation of the sanctions, as we all know, the coordination with Chinese is essential. So my question is, the United States government, the administration has already launched a consultation with China in terms of the implementation of the sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good question. We have talked since we saw the North Korea nuclear test and the subsequent test of ballistic missile technology there. We’ve acknowledged that our success in applying additional pressure on the North Korean government would depend upon the effective cooperation of Chinese authorities. The reason for that is that China has a rather unique relationship with North Korea. The North Korean economy is more dependent on the Chinese economy than any other. The relations between the North Korean government and the Chinese government are more integrated than North Korea’s government-to-government relationship with any other country in the world. And mobilizing an effective international response would require effective cooperation with Chinese officials.
And that’s what we have succeeded in obtaining. And that is why we have been able to put in place sanctions against North Korea that go far beyond sanctions that we put in place against North Korea in the past. So this will apply additional pressure not just to the North Korean government but also to the ruling elite in North Korea.
Many members of the ruling elite enjoy rather luxurious lifestyles that seems in quite stark contrast to the suffering of the vast majority of the North Korean population. That is a direct result of policy — immoral policy decisions that are made by the North Korean government. And we have looked for ways that we could apply sanctions to maximize the impact they would have on the North Korean ruling elite that is, after all, making the kinds of decisions that are destabilizing the broader region.
Q I believe that the U.S. unilateral sanctions that the President signed last month required the President to investigate any person and entity and individual if there is a suspicion to have a transaction — a transaction with North Korea. So is it fair to say if any person could have illicit transaction with this entity or individual which has been designated yesterday, and this entity would also be punished, including a Chinese company or Chinese national institution, is it fair to say that that party would also be sanctioned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re asking a very technical question — it’s an entirely legitimate one. But my colleagues at the Treasury Department can help you understand exactly what sort of penalties are associated with violating these sanctions. But I think the basic crux of your question is one that I can affirmatively answer, which is that the successful implementation of these sanctions will require the United States, Chinese and other countries in the region to coordinate effectively to enforce them. And how exactly they’re enforced and what sort of penalties are associated with violating these sanctions are questions that my colleagues at the Treasury Department can answer.
Q Last one. You know, I believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit this town later this month for Nuclear Security Summit. Will the President meet in person with President Xi Jinping? And I believe if they meet, President Obama will raise concerns on South China Sea issue, and how President Obama raise concerns — or do you think United States has to take another fresh action against these issues?
MR. EARNEST: The Nuclear Security Summit will convene here in Washington, D.C. at the end of this month. We do anticipate that a number of world leaders will travel to the United States to continue working on this priority that President Obama identified early in his first term. I don’t have specific confirmation yet about who will be attending the summit, but as we have more information about that we’ll let you know. I suspect that means the President will spend some time meeting with some of the world leaders who are here, but we’ll keep you posted on when those meetings get set up.
Q I want to ask you about a report that Cuba is going to return four dissidents to the U.S. Did the White House know that this was happening, and was this a requirement ahead of the President visiting Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Colleen, the United States has been advocating with the Cubans for quite some time the release of political prisoners inside of Cuba. So obviously if the reports are true — I’m not in a position to confirm them — if they are true, that obviously would be a step that we would welcome. But I don’t have any information about where those individuals might travel, if anywhere, outside of Cuba.
Q But is this necessary to happen before the President goes to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been, both before the trip to Cuba was announced and after, have been continuing to urge the Cuban government to more effectively respect and protect the universal human rights of their citizens. That includes freeing from prison those who are jailed for no other reason than their political views.
Q And on one other subject, Gallup said last week that President Obama had a 50-percent approval rating, which was his highest in almost three years. And I’m curious what you attribute that to. Why do you think his approval ratings are going up at this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is possible that in comparison to some of the Republican candidates, that President Obama starts to look pretty good. (Laughter.) I might be biased in making that judgment, but it’s possible that that individual poll might be some evidence of that.
But, look, setting aside the poll numbers — they’re going to go up and they’re going to go down — the President’s — a large portion of the President’s success in office has been predicated on his ability to not try to tailor his individual actions or statements based on day-to-day movements in the polls. Many of the most significant successes that we have had have relied upon President Obama’s ability to look beyond just one day’s movement in the polls or one 24-hour news cycle, but rather to chart a longer course by setting long-term goals and ensuring that our eyes are fixed upon those goals over the horizon. And that is what allowed us to do things like complete an international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon or secure an international climate agreement that resulted in nearly 200 countries making a commitment to reduce their carbon pollution.
But there are even domestic things, too, that would fit this category. The President took — made some significant and politically unpopular decisions very early in his presidency to rescue the auto industry. And because of those policies, American workers and auto companies and entrepreneurs and innovators were given an opportunity to lead a resurrection of the American auto industry, and we now see, seven years later, that the American auto industry is stronger than ever. They are selling more cars — they are producing and selling more cars than ever.
And, again, if we had just been focused on what was the politically popular decision back in February and March of 2009, the President would not have thrown the American auto industry the kind of lifeline that they needed. And as a result of that decision, again, which was politically unpopular at the time, that laid the groundwork for a dramatic resurgence in not just the American auto industry but the American manufacturing sector as a whole.
Q Does the White House believe that the — or the President, rather, believe that the longer Bernie Sanders stays in the race, the more likely Hillary Clinton would have trouble defeating the GOP nominee?
MR. EARNEST: No. I’ve drawn this parallel on a couple of occasions, and I think it is appropriate. In 2008, there were many people who were concerned on the Democratic side that the primary context between then Senator Obama and then Senator Clinton was going to last much longer than most people expected. And many Democrats were concerned about the potential impact that this could have on the ability of Democrats to win the general election in November, 2008.
Instead, what we saw is that both candidates steadily improved their performance in the debates and on the campaign trail, and in their stump speeches. And what we also saw is we saw that both campaigns were also able to hone their organizational skills. Both campaigns were challenged to build political operations in states that Democrats had not traditionally competed for.
The best example I have of this is that there was a competitive Democratic primary in Indiana in May of 2008. And a lot of Democrats were thinking, we’re in really bad shape if we’re still fighting in May of 2008, especially if we’re fighting over Democratic votes in Indiana. But what that actually allowed both campaigns to do was to build really strong political organizations in that state. And what that resulted in — it resulted in a strong Democratic political organization that was in place for the general election in 2008 and the Democratic candidate for President, Barack Obama, won the state of Indiana for the first time in quite some time. That was an important victory, and I think it is the clearest example of how a longer-than-expected primary contest can actually make a candidate and a party organization much stronger than anticipated.
Q One more. Does the President — has he mentioned anything about the Adam LaRoche story? One of his favorite teams. They came to him and told him his son is kind of hanging out a little bit too much in the clubhouse. Has he made any mention of that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t talked to him about that story. I had a chance to read it a little bit earlier today. I noted that Mr. LaRoche said that his decision to retire was unrelated to that request from the general manager. But obviously, I think, if nothing else, it says something pretty powerful about the relationship between Mr. LaRoche and his son. And as a relatively new father myself with a son, I hope that I can build a similarly strong relationship like that.
Q Josh, we heard Senator Reid today saying that some Republicans are being willing now to meet with nominee Garland, are caving, that there are cracks showing that it’s a breakthrough, even. I mean, would you go so far as to say that that seems like that big of a deal that they’re just willing to meet with him at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the observation that I would make as recently as a week or so ago — the vast majority, if not all senators, were saying that they would not even meet with the President’s nominee and would never consider a vote on the President’s nominee. After the President’s eleven o’clock announcement yesterday, before I could even get my lunch we had Republicans out there saying that they were ready to meet with him and could imagine voting for him in a lame duck session.
So that’s clearly not nearly as far as the Constitution suggests they should go in giving fair consideration to the President’s nominee. But I do think it represents tangible movement in a positive direction from the previously unreasonable obstructionist position that Republicans have adopted.
Q Do you think some of that might be, though — if they still say that the endgame is to meet with Garland to let him know that they don’t think now is the right time to do this, that it’s maybe just to save face for the time being or to appear that they’re giving him at least some, I don’t know, gentlemanly consideration if they’re not considering him ultimately for the position?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these individual senators are going to have to ultimately make up their mind about whether or not they are willing to fulfill their constitutional duty, or if they’re just going to use politics as an excuse to not do their job. That’s the simple question. And we’ll have a pretty clear way to evaluate this because the Senate does at least some of their most important work in public. We’ll have a way to tell. Are they holding hearings? Is the committee taking a vote? Is the floor of the United States Senate the venue for every member of the United States Senate to weigh in, or not? And we’ll be able to judge.
Q Yesterday, you seemed pretty reluctant to — I mean, you weren’t asked to place odds on it. But you didn’t seem to want to go so far as to say, you think that this will ultimately happen, that he will ultimately be confirmed. But the Chief of Staff today on CNN made it pretty clear that he felt that is exactly what would happen. So is that just a difference of opinion within the White House? Or is there kind of a shift now towards more confidence that this is actually going to make it all the way through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, of course the White House is confident. We certainly are confident that the nominee that we have put forward merits consideration by the United States Senate. The good news is, there are a lot of Republicans who agree with us, including Republicans who still serve in the Senate — including seven Republicans in the Senate who voted for him the last time that he was up for confirmation.
So we are confident that he is somebody who deserves fair consideration. And look, if they do, he absolutely will be confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. There’s no doubt about that. So that is why I think that you see a lot of confidence from the White House in the path that we have laid out here.
Q So you also have confidence that he will actually be confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: I do have confidence. I mean, I’m not going to stand up here and make predictions about sort of what the percentage is. But there is no doubt that he deserves fair consideration. And if given fair consideration, he will be confirmed. And I’m confident in that.
Q Okay. (Laughter.) All right, that’s fine. (Laughter.) On the call today with progressives, the people on the call were urged to get involved and to make their voices heard. So what does that really mean? What does the White House want these people to be physically doing as this evolves?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has a lot of passion for this issue and I think that was on display in the Rose Garden yesterday and I think that was evident in the message that he delivered on the conference call today. And the President is hoping that people across the country who share his passion, who believe that the — an appointment to the Supreme Court should transcend politics, that the Senate should fulfill its constitutional duty, and if people share the President’s passion on this issue then they should make their voices heard, and they can do that in a variety of ways. And that’s what we’ll obviously —
Q What does the White House feel would be effective? So you state your case every single day, so there could be millions of Americans out there who feel the same way — what do you want those people to be doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously believe that people should be engaged in the process. They should sort of understand exactly what the stakes are. And if they feel strongly about it in the same way that the President does, they should make their voices heard in public. We would strongly support that. And if that means contacting their member of Congress or contacting an organization that is interested in this issue, then, again, we would encourage them to be engaged in the process.
Q So you want people out there to be calling these Republican Senators?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly is one option that is available to people. But, ultimately, people are going to have to decide for themselves what they want to do to make their voices heard.
Q Josh, can I come back to Cuba? Speaker Ryan spoke out about the President’s trip today and specifically about some of the steps that have been taken in the last few weeks — ease travel and trade restrictions, and such. He said perhaps the President needs reminding that this is a major human rights abuser that he’s going to visit, and specifically that these deals are going to further legitimize and even benefit the Cuban government. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think my response to that is just simply that the policy that Speaker Ryan ostensibly supports that was in place before President Obama announced a change in his policy was a policy that failed. That policy had been in place for more than five decades, and it had not brought about any of the kinds of changes that we would like to see on the island of Cuba. The President has decided it’s time for a different approach, and it’s time for an approach that involves greater engagement between the United States and Cuba, both on people-to-people level, but also on a level — on an economic level. And that that greater engagement, which is, by the way, strongly supported by an overwhelming majority of Cuban citizens, is one that we believe will eventually lead to the kinds of changes in Cuba that we would like to see. More importantly, it will lead to the kinds of changes that the Cuban people would like to see. And that’s why we’ve implemented these changes.
Q I also want to ask about the meeting with the dissidents that’s part of the President’s itinerary. I know you said that you’ll be able to choose who comes to it. So does that specifically mean that the White House had a list of people it invited, and every single person on that list will be able to come to that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what it means is it means that we will be the ones that do the inviting, and it means that the United States will not be checking with the Cuban government in advance to determine if they’re okay with us inviting that individual to participate in the meeting. We’ll be issuing the invites, and the President will be making the decision about with whom he meets, and that will be done without any interference by the Cuban government. And we will, as the meeting gets closer, be able to talk to you about who exactly will participate.
Q I understand that. Does that mean that you have assurances from the Cuban government that whoever you invite can come?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re not talking to the Cuban government about our list. And we’re going to make the invites based on who we believe the President should interact with and the President is looking forward to this opportunity. I think it sends a pretty strong signal about the commitment and priority that he has placed on a respect for basic human rights, including people who have different political views than the government.
Q Thank you. On Turkey, Josh, you talked about Turkey last week as well. And just today, after you talked about Zaman newspaper, the biggest newspaper seized. Today, there’s an indictment at the second best-selling newspaper’s owner, now ask for 23 years of jail sentence. My first question — I’ve got two questions — my first question is, do you think NATO ally, U.S. friend, is, under President Obama’s watch, losing its democratic character?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that Turkey is a NATO ally, and the United States takes our obligations to our NATO allies seriously. And the nation of Turkey in the last several weeks has been plagued by terrorist activity, including violence perpetrated by terrorists against innocent civilians. And the United States stands with our NATO ally in Turkey as they confront those terrorists. We also stand with them as they assert their right to defend themselves. And we have also found it effective and valuable to our counter-ISIL effort to be able to draw upon the important contributions that Turkey has made.
Turkey has made progress in sealing the border between Turkey and Syria. That has had a tangible impact on the ability of ISIL to move foreign fighters from around the world to Syria. So that’s a positive thing. We have also secured an agreement from Turkey to allow the United States and coalition aircraft to use military facilities and airbases inside of Turkey to more efficiently and more effectively carry out military operations against ISIL targets in Syria. All of that is positive and important. At the same time, the United States continues to be troubled by the Turkish government’s use of appointed trustees to shut down or interfere with the editorial operations of media outlets that are sometimes critical to government. Court-ordered supervision of a media company’s finances and operations should not prompt changes to the newsroom or to a news organization’s editorial policies. We call on the Turkish government to ensure full respect for due process and equal treatment under the law. And in a democratic society, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.
So we urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal, democratic values enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press.
Q And one more. You just talked about freedom of speech. There is a petition signed by 1,100 academics in Turkey, including some of the U.S. — dissidents from U.S. as well. And now hundreds of these academics are under trial. Some of them got fired, suspended. And 700 or 600 of them are under investigation just because they signed the letter. So my question is, since President Erdogan is scheduled to come to Washington, D.C. — I think it’s not confirmed — if he comes, or if in Ankara, do you think the U.S. needs to raise these human rights issues with Ankara more forcefully, considering we know that President Obama did not raise these issues in recent meetings in Antalya or Paris?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say generally that the Obama administration has followed in the footsteps of previous administrations here in the United States of advocating for universal human rights around the world. And President Obama routinely, in his meetings with leaders around the world, continues to impress upon those leaders how much of a priority we place on respecting basic universal human rights, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. These are priorities for the United States both in terms of them being closely held values here at home, but also in terms of the way that we advocate for those values around the world.
So in our conversations across the government, with our Turkish counterparts, it is not at all uncommon for us to continue to advocate for those values and continue to urge the Turkish government to do a better job of respecting those basic human rights.
Now, we have frequent conversations with the Turkish government because we are able to effectively coordinate with them on a range of issues, particularly issues that are critical to U.S. national security. And we value that coordination and our ability to cooperate with the Turks, particularly when it comes to our counter-ISIL cooperation. But that does not in any way lessen our commitment to standing up for the kinds of universal human rights that we believe should be protected not just here in the United States but around the world, particularly inside the borders of some of our closest allies.
Q Josh, a couple of questions. I want to go back to Flint and something that Ron had asked you about the calls for the government to step down. Is there some kind of unwritten rule or a written rule that you never asked for someone to resign or elected officials to resign? I’m just asking because that has been brought to you before about other elected officials.
MR. EARNEST: If there’s an unwritten rule, no one has ever communicated it to me. Off the top of my head, I don’t think I can recall a situation in which I called on somebody to resign from here. But I wouldn’t rule that out, I guess. (Laughter.) I guess it will just depend on if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed one morning.
Q The day is young.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll just be demanding resignation letters everywhere.
Q I’m asking because —
MR. EARNEST: But no, I don’t believe that I’ve done that at this point.
Q I’m asking because we’ve asked you in the past, and most recently with Rahm Emanuel. And I just wondered if there was some kind of rule that you guys had here. Now, on that subject, Congressman Elijah Cummings is calling for him, the governor of Michigan to step down because of “grave revelations” that they found after listening to the governor’s testimony. He called him an absentee governor, and he saw signs and he ignored them. With that, is there any blame to be laid on the governor of Michigan when it comes to this long, ongoing issue where there is going to be, some are saying, a lost generation because of this poison that was in the water?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, any time you have a problem that is this significant, that occurs on the watch of state and local officials, accountability is important. And there is an ongoing investigation — I believe more than one — to look at exactly what happened and what led to this significant failure. So I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on aspects of that investigation that could be perceived as interfering with it. But obviously, accountability is important, particularly when we’re talking about the health and wellbeing of thousands of American citizens.
Q What’s the gravity of this whole situation? Where does the blame lie? Even beyond, yes, there’s an investigation, but from what we’ve seen — we’ve heard people have been sick. I mean, there are medical reports that children are going to have problems down the road, long-term effects. You still have a water issue still there. Where does the blame lie?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I guess this is part of what the investigation is looking to uncover, is to determine how we actually got to this point. What I will tell you, I guess, to try to answer your question is the President certainly feels a responsibility to ensure that government resources are mobilized to assist those who have been harmed. And that’s why you’ve seen a significant commitment of resources on the part of the federal government — everything from the delivery of bottled water and water filters to stepped-up health care services. All of that the President feels is a responsibility of the federal government.
Ultimately, it’s state and local officials, though, who have to make some of the policy decisions to rectify the situation. There certainly are additional resources that can and should be appropriated by Congress so the federal government can support the improvement and overhaul of the infrastructure inside of Flint. So there certainly is an important role for the federal government to play to try to address the situation and try to assist those who have been harmed by it. But when it comes to who exactly made a mistake, and what are the mistakes they’ve made so we can avoid them other places, that continues to be under investigation.
Q Another subject — Judge Merrick Garland. If you can give us a little bit of insight or as much insight as you can as to the conversations with him about the uphill battle. I mean, I know he knew going in that this was going to be an uphill battle, but can you talk about the conversations here at the White House about what would be needed to convince senators, how he would have to put his elbow in this a little bit more, and how you guys might help him — just talk to us about that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chief Judge Garland has been around for a long time. And he has seen that questions about confirming a Supreme Court nominee are tough. This is supposed to be a rigorous process. There should be a debate. There should be hearings in which senators from both sides of the aisle are asking probing questions of the nominee, inquiring about their record and inquiring about the way they believe that a Supreme Court justice should do his or her job. And those are difficult, nuanced questions, but those are questions that should be asked and those are questions that should be answered.
And so Chief Judge Garland is not at all surprised that when he agreed to be the President’s nominee that he was signing up for an arduous task. But the kind of responsibility that we give to someone who gets a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court is significant, and that’s why it’s appropriate for the Senate to play this important role of asking some pretty tough questions.
Q Was there any advice from this White House to Garland to tell him how to handle this different process, the process the people are refusing to offer him? Did this White House offer him any advice?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. Look, all confirmation battles are tough. And it’s supposed to be that way. I guess our point is Senate Republicans should go through the process. Right now they’re saying, we’re not going to do our job, we’re not going to ask him tough questions, we’re not even going to meet with him. That’s inappropriate, and that indicates a willingness on the part of Republicans to put politics ahead of their constitutional duties. And I don’t think that’s something that most Americans are willing to stand for.
Q Next question. I understand that there was a meeting today on the Hill. Many African American leaders who support the President are still very angry about the fact that there was not an African American named as the nominee for this position. Could you talk to us about the meeting — who was there, what was it? Was it a terse meeting? Can you give us information on this meeting today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can tell you that Valerie Jarrett did spend some time with members of the Congressional Black Caucus up on Capitol Hill, and everyone who attended that meeting indicated their strong support for the President’s nominee. And that’s not a surprise; we’re seeing that from other leaders in the civil rights community.
There were some comments from former Attorney General Holder that I would call to your attention. Mr. Holder said, “He is a person,” — referring to Chief Judge Garland — “I think who has worked hard to keep communities safe, bring dangerous criminals to justice. He’s also a person who showed compassion. He comes from humble beginnings. He’s a person who left a pretty prestigious partnership here in Washington, D.C. to work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office that I ultimately headed, and got down here, worked with people in this community to make them and to keep them safe. That’s why,” Mr. Holder went on to say, “that he’s a guy who I think is eminently qualified.” And he observed, as I have on many occasions, that no one has taken any shots at him.
But Mr. Holder is not the only person. We saw some comments in a news release from Wade Henderson, who leads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. And he was pretty direct. He said, “Chief Judge Garland is the most well-prepared Supreme Court nominee in generations.” And he went on to say that “we will mobilize our massive network of civil rights advocates, legal scholars and everyday people who care about democracy and our Constitution to make sure that the Senate does its job.”
We obviously are pleased to see that Chief Judge Garland is getting such strong support from leaders in the civil rights community. He deserves it.
Q The President had the meeting yesterday with the leaders right after he left the Rose Garden in the Roosevelt Room, and then why have to go to Capitol Hill today to talk to the leaders? I mean, can you tell me why? I mean, if they weren’t angry about this?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I’m telling you is that everybody that Valerie met with today — that included a number of CBC members — expressed their strong support for the President’s decision to put forward Chief Judge Garland. And they share the President’s confidence that he would serve this country with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court.
So we were obviously gratified by that response, but that response is by no means unique. We’re seeing that kind of strong support from a variety of corners in the civil rights community. And that support is quite well-justified.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just to follow up on what April was asking, was the meeting set up just to sort of bridge the gap in case there were any bruised feelings based on this election of Chief Judge Garland?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that Ms. Jarrett regularly interacts with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. I don’t know what else was on her agenda when she traveled up there to visit with them, but obviously given the news and obviously given the significance of this decision and the significance of the Republican refusal to even consider this nomination, this was something that was discussed extensively in the meeting.
Q Let me also ask you about something Senator Chuck Schumer said today. He said, “In refusing to even give Chief Judge Garland an up or down vote, Republicans are essentially saying that we would rather take our chances with a Trump nomination or with a Clinton nomination to the High Court. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that it definitely leads Republicans, at least rhetorically, into a box canyon. They’re suggesting that somehow a President Trump, whom they vowed to run attack ads against to prevent him from being elected President, or a President Hillary Clinton, whom they have made no bones about the fact that they do not support, would do a better job of appointing Supreme Court justices than President Obama, despite the fact that many Republicans currently serving in the Senate have twice supported President Obama’s appointments to the Supreme Court, and despite the fact that President Obama, to fill this third vacancy, has put forward somebody that even Republicans themselves acknowledge is a consensus nominee.
Their argument, to put it bluntly, makes no sense. And I haven’t really heard anybody try to explain it, but I think, going back to Michelle’s question, I think this is why you see some confidence in the White House today. We’re not seeing a coherent explanation on the part of Republicans for why they have taken such an unreasonable position to even consider the nomination of Chief Judge Garland. In fact, there’s quite a strong argument for why they should do so.
Q But there are concerns about his positions on abortion, about his positions on the Second Amendment in particular. So you can understand why there might be some hesitance among conservatives about his candidacy.
MR. EARNEST: Again, Senator Hatch is certainly a conservative. I think he described himself that way, and I think most other people would describe him that way, too. And he described Chief Judge Garland as a consensus nominee and somebody that he strongly supports.
I think the other point, Kevin, though, is this is why we should have hearings. So if people want to raise these kinds of concerns and they want to ask Chief Judge Garland about his writings on these topics, that’s an entirely legitimate line of inquiry. That’s exactly why we have hearings.
And I’m not just suggesting that Republicans should be able to ask these questions. I’m suggesting that Chief Judge Garland should appear in public on camera under oath, and spend hours answering those questions. He has an obligation to do that. He’s prepared to do that. And I think when he does, he will demonstrate the kind of wisdom and judgment and commitment to the law that we would expect from somebody who’s going to be given a responsibility as significant as serving on the Supreme Court.
Q Last one. I want to follow up on the conversations about Administrator McCarthy. Is it your feeling or is it the White House’s feeling that she’s done everything right in the circumstance as it relates to what has happened in Flint, Michigan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in some ways, for her performance, I’d ask you to ask her. She obviously is in a position to best assess what decisions that she made, and if there are some things that she wishes she had done differently, then you should ask her about that.
What I will tell you is that she has acted aggressively to do two things. The first is to make sure we’re mobilizing the kind of scientific and technical advice that’s needed to restore as quickly as possible a clean water supply in Flint. The other thing that she has done is she has reached out to governors from coast to coast to be crystal clear about what exactly they need to do to enforce the Lead and Copper Rule to make sure that what happened in Flint doesn’t happen again. And she has vowed that if state and local officials who do have primary responsibility fail to fulfill their constitutional — or fail to fulfill their responsibility, that the EPA will not hesitate to step in and act to protect the safety and wellbeing of the American people.
Q But has the rule changed? Because if I remember, at least the way it was described to me by you, it was, well, the state has an obligation to sort of make a decision, the EPA gets information based on testing, and they might say, well, you’ve got an issue but it’s a state’s call. I’m just wondering, has the process changed along with the rhetoric, which is now saying, hey, listen, we’re committed to change, we’re going to do things differently? Has there been something substantive that I’m not aware of?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware if there’s been a specific rule change that’s been initiated. I think what the letter was intended to do — and I think it has done — it has removed any ambiguity within the rule about how it can and should be enforced, and what the EPA will do if it’s not. And I think part of the problem here is that there was some ambiguity about that, but that ambiguity has been removed because of the decisive actions that are taken by Administrator McCarthy.
Q Josh, on that same topic, you said ask Administrator McCarthy, who actually testified today and said that the EPA should have done more to head off the crisis. But she repeatedly said she did not have the authority. So you’ve said you’re confident in her abilities now. Are you confident that now the EPA has the authority and the foresight in order to head off another crisis like this, outside of Flint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if she is asking Congress for additional authority, then I hope they’ll listen to her because she knows what she’s talking about. And if that’s what she’s asking for, that’s what she should get.
What I’m saying is that in response to this crisis situation, she took decisive action to make sure that in Flint they had access to the scientific and technical advice they need to correct the problems in the water supply. And I understand that they’ve been working assiduously to do that.
But look, I think her concern that immediately popped to mind is not dissimilar from the kind of concerns I think popped into the minds of many of us, which is that if it’s happening in Flint, is it happening somewhere else.
MR. EARNEST: And that’s why she sent a letter to governors all across the country and said, look, this is what we’re going to do to make sure that drinking supplies, water supplies across the country are adequately tested. And if there are concerns about the safety of the water supply, these are the steps that we can and should take. And to the extent that there is any ambiguity about the way that that rule should be enforced in the past, her letter removes that ambiguity.
Q But as of — I understand she can ask for more authority, and it’s up to Congress. But as a federal agency, does this building have confidence that the EPA can protect all those other communities from this happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are obviously steps that she can take. But look, I would — she can speak to this more effectively than anyone else. If she’s saying that she needs more authority from the United States Congress to better protect the health and safety of the American people, then I don’t understand why Congress wouldn’t give it to her.
Q But that’s saying then that there is reason not to be confident.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Kevin was asking me more a question about her performance as the EPA administrator.
Q Right, but confidence now that you can prevent another Flint elsewhere in the country.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, she has taken steps, and I’m confident that she is using all of the authority that she has. But she is in the best position to assess whether or not she needs additional authority to assure all of us that our drinking water remains clean. So again, I’d check with her.
Q May I ask you, as well, on — genocide is a significant historical marker to put down there. President Clinton had Rwanda. President Bush had Sudan. Now this administration who has laid out atrocities prevention as a national security concern and a priority has genocide on its watch, ongoing genocide. What is the administration’s reaction to that? Because that goes in the history books.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think this is a reaction that you can measure dating back to the summer of 2014 when the President ordered military action against ISIL fighters that were targeting religious minorities only because of their religious views.
Q But it didn’t stop then, and many massacres continued well after that intervention in August.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, but what has also happened is that you’ve seen more than 10,000 airstrikes be taken against ISIL targets. You have seen progress being made by local fighters on the ground, driving ISIL out of territory that they’ve previously held. You’ve seen the President order Special Operations raids against high-value ISIL targets, some of whom were actually involved in hostage taking and in victimizing religious minorities. You’ve seen a coordinated effort to try to shut down ISIL’s financing, some of which included taking religious minorities hostage and selling them for ransom.
You have seen the administration work effectively with the international community to try to confront ISIL’s ability to radicalize and recruit individuals from around the world. So our response here has been robust. And there has never been an attempt on the part of the administration to try to downplay the significance of these atrocities. We have taken them seriously from the beginning. And I think because of how serious we think they are, that’s why the President has ordered such a robust response.
Q But what you’re describing is part of the campaign to degrade and destroy and ultimately defeat ISIL as a terrorist organization. Historians, the Holocaust Museum, which has been following this and documenting it, would also say, look, there was a different mission between stopping World War II and winning the war and preventing the mass extermination of Jews. And there was great regret that more wasn’t done. You’ve had Presidents following that — recently President Clinton saying, I wish I had done more in Rwanda.
Given that and given the acknowledgement that these things are two different issues — ending a war, winning a war, and defeating a terrorist groups and stopping genocide — does the administration feel that it could be doing more? Not just these air campaigns you’ve talked about and those choices here and there to intervene to stop mass atrocities when you can.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I used those — those are only two examples that I cited, both at Mount Sinjar and Amerli, because those are concrete examples of the United States military not just using our military power, but also our moral authority to save individuals who are being targeted just because of their religious views.
And look, I think there is an aspect of your question that I — the premise of your question that I disagree with, at least a little bit, at least in part.
Degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL is the best way for us to prevent them from carrying out these kinds of atrocities. It’s not the only way, but it the most effective way for us to definitively ensure that these terrorists aren’t terrorizing religious minorities just because of their religious views.
What we’ve also acknowledged is that there is at the root of all of this a political problem that needs to be addressed. And there is no denying or downplaying the significance of political leaders speaking out and setting the tone for a political climate that ensures that people aren’t targeted just because of their religious views, or that they’re not marginalized, that they’re not victimized because of their religious views. And that certainly is part of our effort to bring about a political transition inside of Syria. It’s to bring about a political leadership inside of Syria that will reflect the will and ambition of the Syrian people, but also make sure that Syria can be governed in a way that represents the diversity of its population.
Q But when you said there was significant legal implications when my colleagues asked you about that the other day, what are the significant legal implications, if there are any, for military actions that are being carried out now? Are you going to target differently fighters who have more than 3,000 sex slaves in their possession? Something an airstrike couldn’t really prevent? Are you going to do things to intervene on the ground to prevent incidents of mass rape or mass slaughter? I mean, tactically speaking, it’s not something that airstrikes alone can do. So what is the next step?
MR. EARNEST: So let me take apart these two things. I think I’ve tried to describe that airstrikes are certainly the most visible and in some ways among the most impactful aspects of our campaign against ISIL, but there are a whole bunch of other things that we have done to degrade and ultimately destroy that organization. We have supported fighters on the ground. We have sought to shut down their financing, counter their ability to move foreign fighters into the country, and counter their ability to try to radicalize people around the world to their cause.
We have supported the fledgling political government – political leadership inside of Iraq. Prime Minister Abadi has made important steps in unifying that country and governing that country in a way that they can confront this extremist terrorist organization. So there’s a lot that we have done to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL that does make it harder for ISIL to carry out these kinds of abhorrent atrocities. This is something that we take seriously and this judgment from the State Department reflects just how serious this situation is.
Q So just to button it up, you believe that the administration has succeeded in its mission to actively prevent atrocities?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no doubt that there are atrocities that have been prevented because of actions that this administration has taken and that this President has ordered — there’s no denying that. But our work is not going to be done and ISIL will continue to be a danger to the region and to religious minorities in the region as long as they continue to exist. And that’s why the President is determined to lead an international coalition to degrade and destroy them.
Q Just to go back briefly to the Austin fundraiser and the President’s comments. In the New York Times’ account of his remarks, it said that the President talked specifically about the issue of authenticity; that while Clinton might not come across to voters with the same level of authenticity as Senator Sanders, that shouldn’t be the only criteria under which voters judge the Democratic candidates. Since you were there, could you illuminate how accurate that is as a description of what the President conveyed to the group?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to get into the President’s private comments. I recognize that there are some people who have talked about those private comments, but I’m not going to do that from here. The President has made a forceful case, frankly, about the kind of campaign that Senator Sanders has run. And the President has noted that Senator Sanders deserves a lot of credit for the passion that he has inspired among Democrats all across the country. And Senator Sanders is talking about deeply held views and doing it in a way that deeply resonates with people, and that’s a testament to his skills as a leader and as a politician, and as somebody who has got his values in the right place.
The President has also talked about Secretary Clinton and her leadership abilities, and the way that she has drawn her own passionate following. The historic nature of her candidacy certainly has something to do with it, but so does her track record of fighting for the kinds of values and advancing the kinds of values that Democrats have long championed. That’s why the President feels especially fortunate to be in a party that can actually be proud of its presidential candidates, and doesn’t have to spend all its time trying to figure out a way to put distance between his party’s candidates. We find that Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. spend a lot of time doing that.
And the truth is they haven’t done it enough, because even in those times when they do try to put some distance between themselves and their leading presidential candidate, they continue to insist that they’ll support him if he is their party’s nominee for President. And for the life of me, I don’t understand how they reconcile those views. And I think there are a lot of Americans who are also scratching their heads when they hear those declarations, too. I’m not the only one.
Q I actually was going to ask about the same thing. You said you won’t comment, but the New York Times story says the White House confirmed it. Your response now indicates you’re not confirming it but you’re not denying it, either. If they’re not true, what they’re saying the President said, wouldn’t you just say they’re not true?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m doing my best to help you cover this story but I’m not going to be in a position to walk through every statement as I remember it from five days ago.
Q If you let the pool in to every event, then we wouldn’t have to ask.
MR. EARNEST: Good news, Anita — the pool was there for the beginning.
Q Not for these comments, though.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. (Laughter.) But allowing the pool into an event that is hosted in a private home represents an advance for transparency that the previous administration didn’t respect.
Q Let me ask you another quick question. Yesterday you mentioned a couple or few of the Republican senators that I think were either meeting — you can clarify this — or agreeing to talk on the phone with Judge Garland. Can you tell us what the update is? Do you have a number of Republican senators that have met with him or agreed to meet with him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so there are two meetings that he’s doing today. He’s meeting with Senator Leahy I believe at 2:30 p.m., and then Senator Reid at 4:00 p.m. today. He’ll do those meetings up on Capitol Hill. And I don’t know if there are additional meetings that have been scheduled at this point, but we’ll try to keep you in the loop on that.
Chief Judge Garland did have an opportunity to make some phone calls yesterday. One of those phone calls was placed to Chairman Grassley. And in conjunction with that phone, there was a conversation between White House staff and members of Chairman Grassley’s staff about arranging a meeting. And that’s what we’re working to do after the recess. And look, I anticipate that there will be additional meetings.
And the comments that I cited yesterday were just public comments from individual members of the Senate who are Republican, who, to varying degrees, indicated a willingness to have a conversation with Chief Judge Garland. So Senator Ayotte, Senator Collins, Senator Flake, Senator Portman, Senator Kirk, Senator Inhofe, Senator Grassley and Senator Cochran — what many of those people have in common is they actually voted for his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals back in 1997. But we certainly will be in touch, if we haven’t already, with all these offices to set up those meetings.
Olivier, I’ll give you the last one.
Q On keeping with tradition, I’m going to ask you two. Following up on Mark’s question about the dissident meeting in Cuba, are any of the dissidents that the President would like to meet with currently in government custody?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll be honest, Olivier, I haven’t seen the list of people that the President is planning to meet with. But we can have that discussion once we put out the list of people that the President is planning to meet with.
Q And then following up on Darlene and Margaret on the genocide question, I guess the way I would phrase it is, can you identify an aspect of the American military campaign against the Islamic State that will change as a result of this determination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was asked this question quite a bit in advance of the work that was being done at the State Department on this. And I indicated that even without that State Department decision having been made, the President had ordered robust military action. And that’s because we acknowledged, even without a formal announcement from the State Department, that religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria were being targeted by ISIL. And that was an affront on all people of faith — or an affront to all people of faith. And the President ordered action to try to stop it. And those actions will continue unabated, and they would continue whether or not there was an announcement and a pretty powerful speech from the Secretary of State today or not.
Q That sounds like a no. But when you talk about cooperating with independent investigations on the ground, I can envision a scenario in which maybe that means having American troops spend more time on the ground to collect evidence of atrocities than they currently are, building more of a case and supporting those efforts differently. But I’m not hearing you say that. So I’m trying to get at whether there’s any concrete change here. And I’ve heard you say in response to a bunch of colleagues, basically no.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if there will be additional requests that are made of U.S. military personnel to be involved in this effort. You can check with the Department of Defense about that. Obviously, there are a bunch of resources that we can bring to bear on this. And we will be supportive — strongly supportive of an independent international effort to hold those accountable for carrying out atrocities like we see in Iraq and in Syria.
George, this is St. Patrick’s Day. I feel like I should not pass over you today. So I’ll give you the final one.
Q And actually, it involves St. Patrick’s Day. I’d like to get your reaction to two statements made since Gerry Adams was blocked from entering the White House on Tuesday. Mr. Adams said that “some in this administration treat Sinn Féin differently,” and suggested they’d like to relegate Sinn Féin to the back of the bus. And then Congressman Brendan Boyle asked, “Is there something sinister going on at the White House other than the security?”
MR. EARNEST: There is no policy decision that related to the difficulty that Mr. Adams encountered at the White House gate. This is probably not different than difficulty that all of you have encountered at the White House gate on one occasion or another. I think the Secret Service spoke to this and indicated that there was a mistake that they worked to rectify, but they weren’t about to rectify it in sufficient time, based on Mr. Adams’s judgment.
Q Was there any contact between the White House and Sinn Féin or Adams about it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not there’s been a subsequent conversation to apologize. I saw that the Secret Service, at least in one published report, did indicate that they regretted what had happened and offered him an apology. I don’t know if that was just a public statement or if they’d reached out to him personally. But I can assure you there was no policy decision to in any way inhibit his ability to participate in Tuesday’s festivities.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
3:30 P.M. EDT
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