Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–August 3, 2016 – 11:44 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, everybody. Nice to see you all. You’ll have to bear with me a little bit today. I’m fighting off one of those nasty summer colds. So I’ll try to keep the sniffling and sneezing to a minimum up here.
I don’t have any statements at the top, Josh, so we can go straight to your questions.
Q You didn’t get Zika did you?
MR. EARNEST: I hope not. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to start briefly with the arrest this morning of a D.C. Metro Transit police officer charged with trying to help the Islamic State. The first arrest on terrorism charges of a law enforcement officer post 9/11. How concerning for the White House is that? And do you know anything additional about what investigators are looking at there?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I know that the Department of Justice has issued a rather lengthy statement detailing some of the evidence that they’ve collected in this case. So I’ll let them speak to the details.
I think what I would just say more generally is the Department of Justice and law enforcement officials at the FBI take quite seriously the responsibility that they have to protect the American people. And we’ve seen the FBI and U.S. attorneys across the country make announcements about arrests that they have made, and even convictions that they have won against individuals who have sought to support extremist organizations. And we’re mindful of the risk that is posed by homegrown extremists. And we know that part of the strategy that is used by extremist groups around the world, including ISIL, is to use social media to try to recruit followers in countries around the world. We know that that certainly is true here in the United States, as well. And the FBI and the Department of Justice take quite seriously the responsibility that they have to use the relevant resources at their disposal to pursue these investigations and do everything possible to protect the American people.
Q I wanted to ask about Donald Trump’s suggestion that the election might be rigged against him. I know you’ve talked a lot about one of the reasons that the White House is putting so much effort into the transition planning is because of the importance of the public’s confidence in continuity of transitions of power here in the U.S. So I’m wondering if the White House thinks that comments like his, particularly when there’s nothing to back them up, risks eroding that confidence and creates a situation where people — where you don’t have faith in the confidence of a presidential election.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I know that this was the subject of some debate at the end of the last presidential election when some supporters of Governor Romney complained of skewed polling. So this is not a new claim. I would just note that it is often a claim made by people who don’t end up winning elections.
What I’ll just say in general is that the cornerstone of our democracy is the ability of eligible voters, citizens, to cast a ballot and to have it counted. And the more that people participate in that system, the more that people participate in that process, the stronger our democracy. And the President has made that case not just in front of audiences full of Democrats, he’s made that case in front of audiences that include people that don’t share his views, or may not even have voted for him in the two previous elections.
So the President believes strongly that our democracy benefits when more people are engaged. And he’s certainly going to encourage people to engage in that debate. You’ve seen the United States Department of Justice pursue cases in the courts to ensure that the rights of eligible voters are protected when it comes to participating in elections. And the President has actually worked in bipartisan fashion, including signing up the lawyer for Governor Romney’s campaign to offer up advice about what we can do to make it easier for eligible voters to participate in the process. And the reason for all of that is the President believes that our democracy benefits when the American people are engaged in that debate and when as many eligible voters as possible cast ballots.
Q I guess to put it more bluntly, can the U.S. government provide assurances that this election, at least from a mechanical standpoint, will not be rigged against Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, the President has confidence in the integrity of our electoral process, and everybody else should too.
Q Secretary Jeh Johnson this morning said that one of the things that the U.S. should look into is deeming the election’s infrastructure part of the critical infrastructure in the country, which should obviously trigger some additional protections and perhaps eligibility for federal funds. Is that an idea that the President supports?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know this is an idea that other members of the President’s national security team have also discussed. And I think this should be an indication that this administration has placed the highest priority on cybersecurity. The administration understands that there are risks in cyberspace, and those risks take a variety of forms. And that’s why the President included in his budget proposal more than a billion dollars to increase our cyber defenses in this country, both to protect the public sector and government networks, but also to more effectively work with the private sector to ensure that critical infrastructure that’s maintained by the private sector is protected as well.
Unfortunately, as we’ve discussed in here many times, Republicans in the Congress refuse to even hold a hearing to discuss the President’s budget proposal. That’s quite unfortunate and I think raises questions about whether or not they have their priorities in order. But when it comes to how important our cybersecurity is in this country, the President and this administration have made that a priority and there are risks out there, but I think the American people can have quite a bit of confidence in our ability to mitigate those risks and to confront that threat.
Q On Zika, New York’s attorney general is targeting companies today that make phony products — they say they fight Zika but they don’t. How concerned is the administration that some companies might be taking advantage of public fear about Zika and selling these kinds of things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tim, at the risk of disappointing the New York attorney general, I have not seen those reports. But I can tell you that our experts here in the federal government and in state and local governments across the country are very focused on the risk from Zika. And we would encourage people who are concerned about that risk to consult their doctor, to consult the publically available resources, either from state and local public health officials or even from federal officials at the CDC.
The CDC has been working very effectively with local public health officials across the country to meet this threat. So if people have questions about steps they can take to protect themselves or members of their family from the Zika virus, we would encourage them to consult the experts and to follow that advice.
Q And on Zika also, can the administration act without Congress to relax some of the restrictions on some of the pesticides that have been restricted over the years to fight Zika?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would say about this is that the administration is going to continue to rely on the advice of experts at the EPA and at the CDC in determining what is the most effective way for us to try to fight mosquito populations that could carry this virus. And I know that our public health professionals and environmental experts have determined that in some places — in South Florida, for example — aerial spraying for mosquitos could help limit the size of the mosquito population that carries the virus.
So we’re willing to consider a range of options to implement effective what’s called vector control measures — essentially trying to fight the mosquito population. In some cases, it does raise questions about environmental safety. It does raise scientific questions about how effective certain chemicals are against this particular mosquito species that carries the virus. So we’re mindful of all those questions and we’ll certainly rely on the advice of experts in making decisions about the most effective strategies to deploy to fight the mosquito population.
Q And organophosphates have been mentioned as one pesticide that could be relaxed. Is that one of the options?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not clear to me exactly what assessment the EPA has made about that specific chemical, but you can ask them about that.
Q And just lastly on Zika. In Florida, we’re finding out just how hard it is to fight. I mean, the mosquitos can breed in a bottle cap full of water. What other steps can be taken, even if more money got to the fight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have known since January that this is a particular species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is a tough one to fight. As you point out, it can thrive in a very small amount of water. It can reproduce rather quickly. And, obviously, it is a carrier of this virus. So the President and his team have been planning for months now. It’s unfortunate that Republicans in Congress have not stepped up to the plate to play their role in providing necessary funding to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to protect the American people from the Zika virus.
So you already know that there are emergency response teams that have been deployed by the CDC to South Florida to work closely with local officials in this effort. Fortunately, in a place like Florida, there are public health professionals who have experience in fighting mosquito-borne diseases. The mosquito population in South Florida is larger than it is in many other communities in the country, and so when it comes to countering not just the Zika virus but things like Dengue and Chikungunya, there is an expertise that is already in South Florida that understands what’s necessary to try to fight those mosquito populations and limit the risk to American citizens in those communities.
So they’re very focused on this effort. The support that can be provided by the federal government can come in the form of additional resources to fight mosquitos. It can also come in the form of providing researchers who can help track the spread of the disease. This includes widespread testing to determine who exactly has it, where they are, and how they may have gotten it so we can take appropriate steps to contain the spread. There’s also work that needs to be done as it relates to expanding the capacity of labs across the country to do tests of diagnostics. There’s also important work to be done as it relates to developing vaccines.
The NIH earlier today announced that they had begun phase 1 trials of a particular Zika vaccine. That’s good news. The bad news is we already know that they will not be able to begin phase 2 testing if Congress doesn’t act. And if Republicans continue to obstruct funding for the Zika virus, then that’s going to limit our ability to rapidly develop the kind of vaccine that next summer or the summer after that could start protecting the American people from the Zika virus and limit the risk associated with this particular disease.
So, again, Republicans in Congress have a lot of explaining to do. And I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of sympathy for their position. They left on a seven-week recess a day early, at the height of mosquito season, and have basically told the American people good luck. And I think the American people expect a lot more from their government, and they certainly expect a lot more from their elected members of Congress.
And the irony here is that the states that are at greatest risk are those states that are overwhelmingly represented in Congress by Republicans. It makes the Republican position on this issue all the harder to explain, let alone justify. So the response that you’ll see from the federal government is going to continue to be robust. We’re going to continue to work effectively, even with Republican officials in Florida, to try to protect the people of Florida from this virus.
At some point, Republicans in Congress are going to have to fulfill their responsibility.
Q Could you talk a little bit about the report in the Journal today of the pallets of cash that went to Iran? Obviously, the cash, the amounts were talked about and reported on at the time — that’s not a surprise. The detail of the procuring the amount in foreign currencies and putting them on a plane and flying them in on the same day that the hostages were being released, prisoners were being released is what seems to be causing a lot of reaction. Donald Trump tweeted that it’s a big scandal. Other Republicans have said that it essentially proves that you guys were paying ransom directly for the folks that were released. So what do you guys have to say about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not a whole lot different than we said six months ago, Mike, as I appreciate you pointing that out in the context of your question. I know that this is actually — I think you devoted a significant portion of your weekend back in January to covering that story. So you have my continuing sympathies for that.
But listen — so you guys know the facts here. But for those who are flailing in an attempt to justify their continued opposition to the deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I’ll review the facts. The facts in this case are I guess two relevant ones, and then we can pursue others that you feel like we need to discuss.
The first is, this $400 million is actually money that the Iranians had paid into a U.S. account in 1979 as part of a transaction to procure military equipment. That military equipment, as it relates to this $400 million, was not provided to the Iranians in 1979 because the Shah of Iran was overthrown. So that was the right decision. It’s also why it was hard for the United States to make an argument in this case that we could just keep the money. So what the United States did was resolve a longstanding claim at The Hague that saved the American people potentially billions of dollars.
Now, as it relates to the details, the fact of the matter is the United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran. And the reason for that is that the administration — the Obama administration — has kept in place tough financial sanctions against Iran because of a variety of concerns that we have about their behavior, including their support for terrorism, their violation of human rights, and a ballistic missile program that they maintain that continues to be inconsistent with U.N. Security Council regulations — resolutions.
So the facts of this are quite clear. And again, I think it’s an indication of just how badly opponents of the Iran deal are struggling to justify their opposition to a successful deal that has prevented and continues to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Q But can you just respond to two specific instances, though? One is, was this money ransom for the folks that were released?
MR. EARNEST: No, it was not. It is against the policy of the United States to pay ransom for hostages.
Q Was this a coincidence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, here’s — again, we talked about this in January, too, so let’s talk about this. There was a conscious, strategic decision that was made on the part of the Obama administration as we were implementing the deal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon to resolve other longstanding concerns that we had with Iran. And that included securing the release of five American citizens who had been unjustly detained in Iran and closing out a longstanding financial dispute in a way that saved the American people potentially billions of dollars.
So this all came to a head at the same time because we were addressing and resolving longstanding concerns with Iranian behavior. And the benefits are almost too long to mention, but the highlights are: Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon; Iran has had to scale back significant aspects of their nuclear program; Iran released five Americans who were unjustly detained on Iranian soil; and we resolved a 35-year-old financial claim with the Iranians in a way that saved Americans potentially billions of dollars. There are many other benefits we can get into as well, but those are the highlights.
Q One other thing, and then I’ll let my colleagues go. But you cited the sanctions on Iran, the banking sanctions on Iran because of concerns of terrorism and all of that that are still in place. There are people who say, yeah, but handing over a pallet full of cash is actually less secure. I mean, that money could be handed off and distributed to terrorists potentially with even less ability to track, ability to know what’s being purchased — arms, other things. So was the White House at all concerned that they were essentially handing the Iranians a pot of untraceable money that is potentially going to fall into the hands of people who we don’t like very much, or doing things that we don’t want to be doing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so let’s just review. As I mentioned earlier, the United States continues to have concerns with some of Iran’s nefarious activities. But the CIA Director just last week addressed concerns that had been raised by critics of the deal about how money that Iran has received since January has been spent in Iran. And I don’t want to ruin the surprise here, but the Iranian government has spent the money largely in the way that we expected that they would.
Since the international community worked together to impose sanctions on Iran because of their nuclear program, their economy suffered. So it makes sense that when Iran got revenue as a result of the Iranian agreement, for example — the nuclear agreement, for example, they used that money to prop up their currency that had been significantly devalued by the sanctions regime. We also know that when Iran was subject to all these sanctions, they were not able to finance infrastructure improvements. Their infrastructure was crumbling. So we know that they used a revenue from sanctions relief to start investing in infrastructure. We also know that they had significant debts that they were unable to pay, and they were eager to repay those debts, and that, frankly, their creditors were eager to collect. So —
Q But you don’t know specifically how that specific pile of cash, literally, was used — do you? Do you know how specifically that money was spent by the Iranians?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, it’s Iranian money. And I think what is true from all of the money that Iran has received since January, including from sanctions relief — which actually, as we know, is more than $400 billion [million]* — it’s much smaller than the hundreds of billions of dollars that critics of the deal predicted, but we can get to that in a little bit too. The analysis that we’ve done confirms what we predicted — is that, largely, that money was spent to address the dire economic condition of the nation of Iran.
The President was quite forward-leaning, in advance of the nuclear deal even being completed, in acknowledging that we know that Iran supports terrorism. We know that Iran supports Hezbollah and the Assad regime. And it certainly is possible that some of the money that Iran has is being used for those purposes too. That’s precisely why this administration, on the front end, has been deepening our engagement with our partners in the Middle East to counter those activities; to more effectively interdict illicit materials that could be used to support Iran’s ballistic missile program; to more effectively strengthen the defenses of our partners to counter Iran’s nefarious activities.
But the bulk of the money we know has been going to shoring up their economic weakness. And that’s exactly what we predicted. What has not happened, and where the critics of the deal get it wrong, is Iran has not enjoyed hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Iran has not been able to use hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to support terrorism or to prop up the Assad regime. People who have made that prediction were either badly misinformed or lying to the American public. And I’ll leave it to them to explain why their prediction didn’t come true. It does explain, however, why they continue to resurface six-month-old news stories to try to justify their opposition to an agreement that has benefitted the American people, both financially and when it comes to our national security.
Q I got a couple for you following up on my colleagues’ questions. A question about cybersecurity. Could you lay out your degree of concern or lack thereof about the integrity of voting machines, given that we’ve talked now a lot of hacks and about cybersecurity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think anybody who’s watched “Scandal” on ABC — (laughter) — would recognize that this makes for an interesting storyline.
Q Is Kerry Washington going to walk out —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know.
I think the point here, Olivier, is that elections are conducted at the local level, and there are government officials in cities and counties all across the country that are responsible for administrating elections. So it’s tough to generalize given the varied nature of election infrastructure in this country. There are some places that still use paper ballots. Presumably, those can’t be hacked.
But there are other places that do use electronic voting machines. They have a variety of — there’s a lot of different software that is used. So the point is that it’s important for the federal government to offer support to state and local governments as they seek to take appropriate steps to protect the integrity of elections.
I guess you might also say that that varied infrastructure and those different systems also pose a pretty difficult challenge to potential hackers. So it’s difficult to identify a common vulnerability throughout the system. But that also poses — so I think people can take some solace in that.
At the same time, it also means that it’s hard to put forward a blanket prescription for securing those systems. But certainly the federal government is committed to working with state and local officials to protect a wide range of critical infrastructure that’s operated at the local level.
Q But you say that these concerns have not risen to the level of the President. You talk about the local responsibility, that’s true. But, for example, DHS has a lot of relationships with local governments —
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q — on things that properly devolve to them. So you’re not aware of a request from a particular state asking DHS for help in securing their systems?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to all those conversations. I think what I would go back to is I guess what somebody raised earlier, which is that the President’s national security team has acknowledged that we should consider the benefits and propriety of essentially labeling our electoral system in this country as part of critical infrastructure that is subject to additional protections that can be provided by the federal government. So that’s something that is being actively considered by the President’s national security team. And presumably if there’s an announcement about that, it would come from the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Q We are blessedly past the conventions. (Laughter.) Which also means that now it’s time for transition work. I was hoping you could lay out a little bit about the degree of cooperation that this White House is engaged in with the Clinton and Trump camps.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, at the end of last week, the White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, placed telephone calls to designated officials on both campaigns to make them aware of the variety of resources that can be used to benefit their transition-planning activities.
And the President made clear at the beginning of this year that one of his goals for the year, one of his top goals for this year was to ensure a smooth transition from the Obama administration to the next President. And President Obama has talked before about how this administration benefitted significantly from the effective planning of President George W. Bush’s White House. And even though that transition took place across party lines, the effective coordination is something that benefitted the incoming President and the American people more generally. And the President aspires to meet, if not exceed, that very high standard that was set by the Bush White House.
So I do know that there is office space that the GSA has made available to the campaigns’ respective transition teams. The much-discussed process of ensuring that the officials — I’m sorry, that the candidates themselves receive an intel briefing from the Director of National Intelligence, that process is now available to the candidates. They have to schedule the timing of that briefing.
And there also will be an opportunity for officials from the respective campaigns to now be a part firsthand of more official discussions about the transition-planning process that will include a wide variety of government officials.
So we can get you some more details on those kinds of meetings. But this process has been initiated by the President because the President has made it a priority to ensure a smooth transition to the next President.
Q Last one. Does the President’s finding that Trump is unfit for office have any impact on transition, intelligence briefings, any other kind of preparations for the possibility that he might win in November?
MR. EARNEST: No. The fact is, this administration is committed to working both effectively with the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee to ensure that once the American people have made a decision about who should lead our country, that that transition can take place smoothly.
Q That was my question. How can there be a smooth transition if the President thinks that Donald Trump is unfit? How can you — there must be some overcompensation that has to happen in this transition relationship.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron —
Q If he’s unfit, how can there be a smooth transition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’re planning for right now, Ron, is we’re planning for a smooth transition. And that’s the responsible step that you would expect the Commander-in-Chief to undertake. And the President is committed to engaging in that process across party lines in the same way that his predecessor did.
Q So is there like additional staff that’s — you understand the logic of this? If you think that the other party can’t do this job, then how can you possibly work with them to transition into something that you don’t think he can do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now, Ron, we’re not planning to transition with them. We are planning for a transition. And we are incorporating both campaigns into that process.
The kind of question that you’re asking is a legitimate one, but I think is one that probably is more relevant once the American people have decided who the next President should be.
Q On the Iran thing, you kept referring to how much money — how much money has Iran received in sanctions relief?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the latest assessment that has been made about this. What I do know is that there had been predictions prior to the commencement of the deal from critics who suggested that Iran could get hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. That’s false. They were wrong. And were they just informed or lying? You’d have to ask them.
Q Right. But again, you were giving a fairly — you were giving an accounting that seemed based on something that — X went to debt relief and infrastructure, and so on and so forth. So how much went to — how much didn’t go to terrorism, and how much did go to terrorism if you have this accounting of — if you’re so confident that you know that the money primarily went to debt relief and infrastructure, and so on and so forth?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I was actually citing the comments of the Director of the CIA. So you can certainly check the intelligence community or the Treasury Department for a specific number.
Q So the point is, you don’t know how much they’ve gotten in sanctions relief or really where it’s gone.
MR. EARNEST: I think, Ron, the point is right now that we do know how Iran has spent a lot of that money. And the amount of money that Iran has received is far less than what critics predicted. So they were either wrong or lying. You can go ask them.
What we do know is that Iran was quite concerned about the state of their economy. That was the whole strategy that we put in place from the start. We recognized that the international community was fractured over how to deal and confront Iran and their growing nuclear aspirations. So the United States demonstrated some leadership. President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other people had to represent the United States, get the international community to agree to apply significant pressure to Iran and their economy. The strategy worked. Iran’s economy struggled. The value of their currency plummeted. They went into a recession because we were able to coordinate with the rest of the international community to apply this pressure. So Iran was desperate for sanctions relief so that they could address this economic weakness in their country.
And we know that they used this money to invest in infrastructure, to try to pay off their economic debts that they were saddled with, and to try to shore up the value of their plummeting currency.
Q So the administration is not concerned about the amount of money that Iran has spent to finance terrorism post-Iranian — post-nuclear deal?
MR. EARNEST: Pre-Iranian nuclear deal, the President made clear that we continue to be concerned about Iran’s nefarious activities in the region. That’s why the United States has deepened our coordination with our allies and partners in the Middle East. To counter Iran’s destabilizing activities, we’ve beefed up and strengthened our interdiction efforts to prevent Iran from being able to expand on their ballistic missile program. We’ve sought to deepen our cooperation even further with Israel because we know how Iran seeks to menace our closest ally in the Middle East. So we’ve acknowledged on the front end that we continue to be concerned with Iran’s nefarious activities.
The other thing that was pointed out to me today — and I’d actually forgotten this — the day after, or two days after this agreement was announced, that weekend in January, later that week, the United States announced additional sanctions against Iran because of their ballistic missile program, as I recall. So we’ve been serious from the beginning about making sure that we are taking appropriate steps to counter Iran’s various nefarious activities.
Q On the $400 million that was the tribunal settlement — the whole amount, as I recall, was $1.7 billion.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q Where’s the other $1.3 billion now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that $1.3 billion is essentially what was subject to negotiation in terms of how much interest accrued on this money. So that is why I make the case to you — and other senior administration officials have done the same, including back in January — that the American people saved potentially billions of dollars because of this smart deal that was reached.
Q Right — the estimate was $10 billion or something, as I recall, that the United States could have been liable for. But the question is, where is the $1.3 billion, less the $400 million, that’s already — has the rest of it already gone to Iran, as well?
MR. EARNEST: You have to check with the Treasury Department in terms of whether or not that other payment has been made.
Q But that’s significant, isn’t it? Why can’t the administration be more transparent about — and this is the concern raised by the reporting about the pallet and the cash. So why —
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t know how much more transparent the President of the United States can be than to call all of you into the Roosevelt Room, I believe it was, on live national television, and announce the fact that we have reached an agreement with Iran. I don’t know how much more transparent we can be than to have the Secretary of State of the United States on January 17th issue a standalone written statement that’s headlined, “Hague Claims Tribunal Settlement.” It’s seven paragraphs long and it explains exactly the deal that was reached. So we have been quite forward-leaning in terms of explaining to the American people how they benefitted from this agreement.
Q So has Iran received the rest of this more than a billion dollars or not?
MR. EARNEST: You need to check with the Treasury Department in terms of how these transactions are conducted. What I can tell you, Ron, is that when the United States makes an agreement and we make a commitment to make a payment, we’re good to our word.
Q And the other thing on Iran, how many American citizens are now in Iran — Iranian custody, post Iran nuclear deal? Because the reporting and the suggestion from the Iranian media base — some of it, in reading that — is that this is happening because a ransom was paid, because there was this coincidence.
MR. EARNEST: Well, to be clear, I never called it a coincidence. We confronted that before.
Q Yeah, the question is — there are other Americans who are now being held prisoner by Iran. What is the administration doing about that? And do you see a connection to the Iran deal from January?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things here. The first is that I’m not in a position to talk publicly about the cases of individual Americans if they have not signed a privacy waiver. So we protect the privacy rights of American citizens around the world. So I’m quite limited in what I can say about this.
What’s also true is that in discussing the cases of Americans who are unjustly detained or being held hostage, we have often found that it is not helpful to name them, to detail them, to identify them specifically. So let me just say that we have continuing, longstanding concerns with Iran’s treatment of American citizens in Iran. And that is why an agreement — again, announced back in January — that prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, that reached a financial settlement to save the American people potentially billions of dollars, and secure the release of five Americans that had been unjustly detained in Iraq was hailed as such a positive, beneficial outcome for the United States. But let me be clear: The United States does not pay ransoms. The only person that’s making that accusation, at least included in The Wall Street Journal story that we’re talking about, is some Iranian official.
Q No, it’s actually Paul Ryan is doing it now and —
Q Marco Rubio —
MR. EARNEST: They are now. So it sounds to me like they are once again in a position where they’re making the same argument as hardliners in Iran in an effort to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement. The President made clear a year ago that right-wingers in the United States were making common cause with right-wingers in the Iranian government. And, again, if they’re doing it again to try to justify their opposition to an agreement that has benefitted the American people, they can do that, but I think that’s going to be pretty hard for them to explain. Maybe there’s another letter from Senator Cotton to the Supreme Leader we don’t know about.
Q Just this last — can you confirm or deny that the money arrived the day that the Americans left?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t confirm the details of the specific transaction.
Q And you can’t say anything about the remaining balance of this hundreds of millions of dollars that the United States has agreed to pay to settle the tribunal issue?
MR. EARNEST: What I can — I can’t provide a specific update for you in terms of the transaction. I can tell you when the United States makes a commitment, we’re good for our word and we live up to the terms of the agreement that we signed onto.
Q Josh, I think a lot of us reported on that transfer at the time — $400 million to the Iranian account, $1.3 from taxpayers, coming from the Treasury. But in terms of the logistics of this, there are some in Congress, including Ed Royce who has written an exchange letter to the State Department asking for more granularity on that.
MR. EARNEST: A vowed opponent of the Iran deal continuing to try to justify his opposition to this agreement.
Q But as you would say, these are actually three separate deals. This isn’t about the nuclear report, this isn’t about prisoners, you’re arguing; this is its own deal. So if we put those two aside and we just focus on this deal, specifically with the money transfer, will you be providing that detail to Congress, knowing that you can’t tell us from the podium, as you just said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’ll continue to engage with members of Congress about this. I think what is true — and I think would certainly account for the descriptions that were included in the newspaper today — is that the United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran. And the reason for that is because of this administration’s commitment to ensuring that we continue to hold Iran accountable for a variety of activities that we are deeply concerned about.
Q So that’s logical in terms of not refuting the idea that it had to be a cash payment since there weren’t any banking accounts, and that now that the banking system is a little less clogged, you could find other ways to pay, so maybe the timing suggests once again it’s around the same time. Do you understand that — I’m sure you appreciate that without the clarity on this, the innuendo and the optics make it tough, so to truly kill that idea and the allegations being made of a ransom payment. So why not provide that detail of exactly how the money was received?
MR. EARNEST: I actually don’t think that there’s a lot of rationality in the argument that you’ve outlined that is being made by hard right-wing officials in Iran and Republican critics of the deal.
Q That taxpayers don’t need to know how the $1.3 billion of their money was —
MR. EARNEST: No, no, no. No, no, no. I’m talking about as it relates to this suggestion that somehow this was a ransom payment, that this is somehow connected to other elements of the deal. The only people who are making that suggestion are right-wingers in Iran who don’t like the deal, and Republicans in the United States that don’t like the deal.
Q But it would be very easy for you to kill that argument by saying this is exactly how it happened and why — not just “trust us, there’s nothing shady about a plane arriving in the middle of the night loaded with cash” — which you’re saying innuendo, right? You’re saying there’s nothing that was done that was not above board. So why not —
MR. EARNEST: I think, Margaret — I guess the point that I’m trying to make, Margaret, is we could not possibly have been more transparent about this arrangement than to have the President of the United States announce it to all of you on live national television on the day that the agreement was reached.
Q The day the agreement was reached and intent to pay the $1.7 billion, yes. But the details — you’re saying yourself it’s new detail and an old story. I guess clarifying the detail is what would help clarify it.
MR. EARNEST: But why is that relevant? Why is that relevant? Particularly when we all know that there’s no banking relationship between the United States and Iran. So again —
Q You’re talking about the cash transfer —
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I understand — again, I understand the political attacks that are being made by people who are trying to justify their opposition to our engagement with Iran.
Q But at a minimum, the $1.3 billion is taxpayer money. So don’t people have a right to have an answer to that question?
MR. EARNEST: Again, that’s why we announced it, as you point out, back in January.
Q But the details of that.
MR. EARNEST: And what are the details?
Q Those transfers from the trust fund to this bank, to this bank, or it had to be in euros and francs because we don’t have a banking relationship because it’s complicated. Like, that would be a really simple thing that people would be able to follow.
MR. EARNEST: So, look, I guess none of what you have walked through changes the basic facts there. We acknowledged, again, back on January 17th, that there would be all kinds of innuendo hurled by people who oppose engagement with Iran — Republicans in the United States who oppose engagement with Iran. I recognize that the details that you’re seeking to elicit might make for a colorful news story, but they don’t change the facts. They don’t actually change any sort of innuendo that’s going to be lobbed by critics of the deal about our intent. They certainly are not going to effectively convince, again, a right-winger in Iran who’s seeking some kind of propaganda victory in the pages of The Wall Street Journal from basically making a false claim that this somehow is a ransom payment.
What I can tell you is that the United States, when we make an agreement, we live up to it. We announced the terms of this agreement back in January. The reason we announced the terms of the agreement in part is because we have a desire to be transparent with the American people. We also have a desire to advocate for the fact that because of this smart agreement, the American people potentially saved billions of dollars.
Q So you say this is completely politically motivated?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the facts of this case, the facts of this situation and the benefits of this situation have been known for more than six months now. You all have been reporting on it for more than six months ago — again, not because of some secret anonymous leak in the bowels of some government bureaucracy, but because the United States of America announced it on live television from the White House.
Q I know we’ve all been covering it. But the thing that’s new is the detail that you’re saying is irrelevant. And that’s why it becomes a sticking point in the conflict.
MR. EARNEST: I recognize it’s my job to answer that questions up here, but I will acknowledge I don’t understand — other than for the fact that it makes for a colorful lead, I’ll concede that — but it’s doesn’t change the facts of the situation. It doesn’t change anybody’s assessment about the motive of the United States whether or not this was wired from one particular U.S. government account to some Iranian government account, as opposed to delivered on pallets. That’s not going to change the argument of Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio that they’re opposed to the deal. It’s not going to change the propaganda efforts of the —
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, they’re opposed —
Q You’re linking them all.
MR. EARNEST: Because they are.
Q But you’re saying they’re not linked.
MR. EARNEST: Because they are. I’m saying, the argument that they’re making — that is false, that has been proven wrong time and time again — is not going to change based on whether this was wired or delivered in paper currency. So that — so I understand the interest in details for a more colorful story, but I don’t understand what this does to the broader outlines of an argument that have been in place for six months now. Republicans have lost that argument, critics of the deal have lost this argument, because we have succeeded in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We did succeed in securing the release of five Americans who were unjustly detained overseas in Iran. And we did succeed in saving the American taxpayers potentially billions of dollars by reaching a longstanding financial settlement with the Iranians over their money.
Q You’re just arguing that it’s all worth it, basically?
MR. EARNEST: I think, again —
Q But the details don’t matter on this, is what you’re saying.
MR. EARNEST: I have not been quoted saying that, and I wouldn’t be quoted saying that. I think what I’m saying is, it doesn’t change the contours of the argument. The argument that is being made by Republicans is they’re struggling to justify their opposition to our engagement with Iran. They’ve lumped it all together. We have made clear time and time again that we capitalize on this opening with Iran to try to settle this variety of claims.
And there is no disputing, despite the best efforts of right-wingers in Iran and right-wingers in the United States, that we have prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, they have rolled back key aspects of their program, we did secure the release of five Americans, and we have settled a longstanding financial claim in a way that benefits the American people, potentially saving billions of dollars.
Q And lastly, nothing like this will happen to secure the release of the four Americans that are U.S. residents who some of their families have said are being held in Iran and the Iranians have said they’re being held? I know you can’t talk to those specific cases.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I will say is that the United States, under President Obama, has not paid a ransom to secure the release of Americans unjustly detained in Iran, and we’re not going to pay a ransom. If there are Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran, we will make a case regularly through some now-established channels with Iran to advocate for their release.
Q This financial dispute you mentioned has been going on for 35 years. Why was it necessary to airlift in the pallets of cash on the very weekend that the American prisoners were released?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Scott, the reason is simple. The United States does not have a banking relationship with Iran. So —
Q That explains that it was cash, but it doesn’t explain the timing.
MR. EARNEST: Because we reached the agreement and Iran wanted their money back. So, again —
Q They waited 35 years.
MR. EARNEST: Right, so you might expect that they would be eager for them to get their money back. Again, this all stems from a payment that Iran had made into a U.S. account related to a military sale that didn’t actually go through. The military equipment wasn’t provided. So, again, you could understand why they’re quite eager for the money.
You also would understand that they’re quite eager for the money when you consider that the value of their currency has plummeted, that they haven’t been able to invest in infrastructure, that they’ve got debts that need to be paid, and that they’re in the middle of a recession. So at the time, they were eager to try to address the legitimate concerns of the Iranian people about the state of the Iranian economy.
Q And why was the U.S. government so eager to pay —
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Why was the U.S. eager to deliver the money so quickly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would not describe the United States as eager — I would describe the Iranians as eager. I think what the United States is, is we’re a country that lives up to the commitments that we make. And that’s exactly what we did.
Q So it’s been called a ransom payment by Iran. That’s not exactly surprising. But would those prisoners have been released had this payment not been made at the time that it was? And so it isn’t essentially a ransom payment then, even if the U.S. does not view it that way?
MR. EARNEST: No. It is not a ransom payment. The United States does not view it that way, and it’s not accurate to describe it that way.
Q So would those prisoners have been released then if this money hadn’t been paid then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what is true is that there were a team of negotiators — let me just start from the beginning. What I know is true is there were a team of negotiators in the United States that were interacting with Iranian officials to secure the release of five Americans who were unjustly detained in Iran. That negotiating work was successful and those Americans are at home.
There was a separate group of negotiators who were working through The Hague process for decades to try to reach an agreement, a settlement, on these financial claims. And there was momentum in our relationship where we were closing out accounts, where we were resolving longstanding concerns. And in each case, the United States reached agreements and closed out accounts in a way that benefitted the American people. And whether that is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon or rolling back key aspects of their nuclear program or securing the release of five American citizens who were unjustly detained there, or reaching an agreement on a longstanding financial claim made by the Iranians about Iranian money in a way that saved the United States taxpayers potentially billions of dollars — there are a lot of benefits to this deal. And we talked about them back in January with a lot of transparency. You all reported on it. And, again, the motive of people who want to talk about it again seems to be to just drum up innuendo in an effort to cover up the benefits of all of these agreements.
Q I think a lot more people find this interesting than just people who are opposed to it. But, again, would those prisoners have been released then if this money had not been paid then?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that our negotiators who were talking with the Iranians about what was necessary to secure the release of American citizens in Iran succeeded. That was different than the group of negotiators who were involved in The Hague negotiating with their Iranian counterparts to settle these longstanding financial claims.
Q So because U.S. policy is opposed to ransom payments, even if it were only for the appearance of this not being a ransom payment, why would you not have made Iran wait even a week longer? I mean, why would Iran’s eagerness to get their hands on their money be more important than making sure that this was not a quid pro quo that was based on the exact timing being right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the answer to that is pretty obvious, which is that even a week delay would not have prevented Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio from falsely claiming that they’re a ransom. Because, Michelle, come on, I saw you sigh. If we announced this financial settlement on the same day that the prisoners were released, that’s fodder to our Republican critics. I get that.
Q But everything is fodder.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Laughter.)
Q No one is questioning that. It’s an election coming up.
MR. EARNEST: That’s fine.
Q It works both ways.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think it works both ways.
Q But it was a pretty simple question. Would those prisoners have been released —
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say one thing about this —
Q — if the money wasn’t paid on that same weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I guess what I’m saying is it’s a pretty simple negotiation that took place, which is you had a group of negotiators who are interacting with their Iranian counterparts to secure the release of five American citizens. It is a different group of negotiators who are involved in trying to reach this settlement at The Hague. I think at some point the premise of your question is predicated on a decision that was made by Iranian officials. So I guess I would wish you the best of luck in trying to get an answer from them about what decision that they would have made.
Let me tell you one other thing, though, as it relates to sort of waiting a week. It certainly wouldn’t have prevented Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio from falsely accusing us of paying a ransom. But here’s the other key thing. It also would not have prevented right-wingers in Iran from falsely seeking a propaganda victory by making the same argument. So that’s why — again, to go back to Margaret’s line of questioning —
Q We already said none of that is any surprise.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. None of it is a surprise but it also is a good illustration I think of how the outlines of this argument haven’t changed in six months. So there may be some more details that make for good newspaper copy, but they don’t change the facts of this situation and they don’t change the rationale for the argument that we have been making about the variety of ways in which the American people have benefitted from this series of agreements.
Q There’s no harm in putting second eyes on something when some new detail has put it back in the public view. I mean, nobody is questioning that anything really has changed. It’s just, you know, why not ask again? There’s no harm in that. Anyway, just quickly —
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t stood up here and said that you guys shouldn’t be asking the questions that you are. I welcome the opportunity to talk about all of the ways in which the American people have benefitted from our interactions with Iran. I think what I do take some umbrage at is the suggestion that somehow this is new evidence that proves that a ransom was paid. That’s false. It was false when that accusation was made in January, it is false when that accusation is made in August, and it is false when that accusation is made in light of facts that don’t change the calculation, either on the part of the President or anybody else who has a view on this matter.
Q How helpful would you say Iran has been in determining where Robert Levinson is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have an update for you in terms of the conversations that we’ve had with the Iranians about that. What we have indicated, as a part of that agreement that secured the release of five Americans who were unjustly detained in Iran, is Iran made a specific commitment to cooperate with our efforts and to share information with the United States that could potentially lead to the rescue of Mr. Levinson. But I’m not able to speak to the status of those ongoing talks.
Q Thanks, Josh. Despite the sharpening of my axe for a while, to dive into that topic everybody else has pretty much touched on it, so I’m going to switch gears a little bit and talk Russia. (Laughter.) You guys did a great, job by the way. Thank God, right?
The President mentioned a tough relationship, obviously, with Russia and in particular with President Putin. I’m just wondering, how concerned is the White House, sort of to follow up on an earlier question, about the possibility of Russian hacking impacting not just our election but more broadly our infrastructure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the United States has been concerned for some time about Russia’s nefarious activities in cyberspace. And Director Clapper discussed this in his — the Worldwide Threat Assessment that he delivered to Congress earlier this year. He said, “Russia is assuming a more assertive cyber posture based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure systems and conduct espionage operations, even when detected and under increased public scrutiny.” Secretary Carter has talked about Russia’s nefarious activities in cyberspace as well. He noted that earlier this year, the censors that guard DOD’s unclassified networks detected Russian hackers accessing one of our networks. And you’ve heard Lisa Monaco, who is the President’s top counterterrorism advisor and somebody who is focused on homeland security, talk about how cognizant the Obama administration and the U.S. government is of Russia’s activities in cyberspace.
We understand that there is a risk, a threat that Russia poses in cyberspace, and this is something that we have raised with them in a variety of channels and we’ve made clear that we have some concerns. So there are a variety of things that we have done in response. We haven’t just raised it with Russian officials. The President more than a year ago designated additional authority to the Secretary of the Treasury to allow him to impose financial sanctions against entities or individuals who are involved in hacking in cyberspace. That is a capability that the U.S. government didn’t previously have, but it is something that we have used before and could potentially be used in preparing a proportional response to cyber threats.
The other thing that we have worked to do is to work with the rest of the international community, including through the G20, to try to arrange the international community around a set of international norms. And the President made reference to this in his comments yesterday that innovation in cyberspace and development of capabilities in cyberspace has outstripped the international community’s ability to establish rules of the road and norms when it comes to appropriate conduct in cyberspace. And so we need to do the important work of building international momentum around agreeing to those kinds of norms. That will help us and be effective in enforcing those norms and holding people accountable for violating them.
Q When the President has a conversation with Vladimir Putin or other leaders and you say that he’ll have an exchange — and he even said yesterday, he said, add to the laundry list, effectively, of the problems of disagreements that I might have — does he get specific about if you do X, or if you continue to do X, we will be forced to do Y? And I ask the question because people wonder often, when he’ll make a comment and he’ll say, you know, we have raised that with our counterparts or we’ve discussed this with our counterparts — they are always looking for more meat on the bone in that respect. You kind of touched on it a bit. Can you expand on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any additional insight to shed on private conversations between the U.S. President and the President of Russia. But I do think I can faithfully tell you that the President has been very direct and other U.S. officials have been very direct in talking to their high-level Russian counterparts about our concerns about Russian activities in cyberspace. Those are well-known.
Those concerns are well-known, their activities are something that have been well-documented. Their capabilities are something that U.S. officials have been talking about publically for quite some time. So the Russians are well aware of our concern, and they’re well aware of our capability when it comes to potential responses.
But just to make sure that people don’t misinterpret what I said, I want to be clear that the FBI has not announced any specific conclusions about their investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. So I don’t want any of this conversation to be construed as applying to that specific case. Our discussion relates to our broader concerns about Russia’s activities in cyberspace, and they’re not commenting with regard to one specific case.
Q And the last thing — I guess I can take maybe a small swing at it — would you at least acknowledge the wince-some appearance going back to this payment — the wince-some appearance of payment goes out, people who are held captive come home? Maybe it was just timing, granted, but would you at least acknowledge that it doesn’t look great?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, if that was a legitimate concern, it is a concern that would have been raised six months ago when we originally announced it. That’s why I’m quite skeptical of the integrity of the reaction that we’ve seen from people who have long been on the record of opposing our efforts to engage with Iran. And the fact is, despite their opposition and despite their criticism, we have succeeded in rolling back key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and securing the release of five Americans who were unjustly detained in Iran, and settling a longstanding financial dispute in a way that potentially saves American taxpayers billions of dollars.
Q They keep plucking American — Iranian Americans. Do we have any of their citizens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not quite sure what you mean by saying “have any of their citizens.” There are any number of Iranian Americans in the United States.
Q I meant specifically they seem to be — the government seems to be kidnapping Americans — kidnapping Iranian Americans over there. Are we doing anything in response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to any individual case for the reasons that I outlined earlier. What is true is that when there were Americans who we believed were unjustly detained in Iran, Secretary Kerry acknowledged when he was having daily meetings with his Iranian counterpart in the context of the negotiations to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. He raised U.S. concerns about that unjust attention every single day.
So this the status of Americans held against their will around the world is a top priority of the U.S. government, and there are significant efforts and significant resources that are committed to seeking the recovery of Americans who are unjustly held or held hostage around the world.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I can circle back to Iran briefly. Is it your contention that it is not a ransom payment because there was no quid pro quo or because it was Iranian money that was flown in?
MR. EARNEST: It is our contention that there was no ransom paid to secure the release of U.S. citizens who were being unjustly detained in Iran because, A, it’s against the policy of the U.S. government to pay ransoms. And that’s something that we told the Iranians that we would not do. We would not — we have not, we will not pay a ransom to secure the release of U.S. citizens. That’s a fact. That is our policy and that is one that we have assiduously followed.
Q You said the timing — you refused to describe this as a coincidence also. Regardless of whether this was a ransom, was the timing a concession to allow the Iranian regime to save face or to gain a symbolic propaganda victory? Was that something that factored into the U.S. calculation?
MR. EARNEST: We talked about this calculation back in January. And what we said back in January — I stood at this podium on January 19th and we talked about this. The timing is predicated on the ability to resolve a variety of concerns that we had with Iran. Iran was signing off on deals and we got them to sign off on a deal that released five Americans who were unjustly detained in Iran. We got them to sign off on a deal that rolled back key aspects of their nuclear program and prevents them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We got them to sign off on a deal that would resolve longstanding financial concerns — our longstanding financial dispute that, yes, that returned $400 million of Iranian money but that also saved U.S. taxpayers potentially billions in interest charges.
So all that came to a head at the same time because we were focused on capitalizing on this opportunity to complete these agreements. And the benefits of those agreements are quite difficult to argue with. I recognize it doesn’t prevent our critics from trying to do so in a partisan, political way, but when it comes to our national security and when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, when it comes to the safety of American citizens abroad, when it comes to saving taxpayers billions of dollars, those are the kinds of things that should rise above politics.
Q Switching topics. The President said in March at the South by Southwest Festival about voter registration online and online voting, he said: “We can pay our taxes, we can hold up our phone at the supermarket to pay with our credit card, but somehow online voter registration is perceived to be insecure…” Given that there is potential meddling by a foreign government in our election process, is it still his contention that online voter registration and voting does not raise significant concerns of the security of our elections?
MR. EARNEST: I think you may be taking some editorial liberties with the President’s comments there. I think the President’s comment speaks very well for itself. The chief obstacle that we had seen to modernizing and making the voting registration and ballot casting process more efficient is Republicans who have no interest in making it easier for people to participate in our democracy. In fact, we actually see Republican intentionally erecting barriers to participation because somehow they believe that that allows them to enjoy a political benefit. That’s rather disappointing.
The fact that banks have been hacked does not prevent anybody in this room from accessing their checking account online. The point is we place a high priority on addressing threats in cyberspace. And the risk associated with this is not a reason to remain in the 20th or 19th century when it comes to our voting system. It actually is an argument for a more robust and more technologically sophisticated investment in our voter registration and vote tabulating system. And we’ve made that case forcefully, and the President will continue to do so.
Q The administration’s position on online voting and online voter registration is that it is something that should be looked at.
MR. EARNEST: It is our view that there is a way for us to use technology to make it easier for eligible voters to register to vote and cast a ballot. And we should be trying to capitalize on technology that makes it easier for our citizens to participate in democracy. That certainly is true. There obviously are a number of technical questions that are raised. But we should confront those questions and we should address them because the President believes that our democracy is stronger when more people are able to participate. And if we make the process more efficient and more convenient, the President believes more people will.
Q Josh, you mentioned that you told the Iranians that the U.S. government doesn’t pay ransom. Did they ask for one?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to speak to any requests that were made the Iranian government. You can check with them. But if they were to have asked, the answer would have been no.
Q Okay, and on a different subject. North Korea fired two intermediate-range ballistic missiles yesterday, one of which landed in Japanese waters. Is there anything about the target of these launches or the proximity to them getting a nuclear-armed ballistic — developing of a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that would change your calculus in how you approach this? As I understand it, you’re going to go back to the U.N. and Pyongyang is going to ignore whatever sanctions come out of that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me go through the details here. The U.S. Strategic Command systems detected what we assess were two North Korean launches yesterday at about 7:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. Initial indications reveal one of the missiles exploded immediately after launch, while the second was tracked over North Korea and into the Sea of Japan.
Those are the details. You saw the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations announce today our intent to convene an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council with Japan to discuss this issue.
We continue to believe — the United States continues to believe that our response to North Korea’s destabilizing activities is stronger when the international community remains united. So that’s why the United States continues to work so closely with our partners at the U.N., with our allies like Japan and South Korea, and with countries like Russia and China to try to counter this activity and try to urge, impress upon the North Korean government the need to stop these kinds of missile launches that are destabilizing to an already volatile region of the world.
So we continue to be concerned about this, but we continue to place a high priority on our effective coordination with the international community. In order to apply additional pressure on the North Korean government, we’re going to need to work effectively with the Russians and the Chinese to get that done. And that’s what we’re committed to doing.
Q Final question. Do you have — is there a public estimate about how long it will take before North Korea has a nuclear-armed ballistic missile?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of an updated intelligence assessment on this that’s been presented. But let me see if there’s some additional information that we can provide on this.
Q Josh, three different subjects. Going back to Iran, what other options were on the table from the consideration of making this payment to fulfill your obligation and also in light of the recession that’s happening in Iran? You said something about the week later. Were there other timelines on the table when you were trying to figure out how to make this payment?
MR. EARNEST: The weeklong delay is a hypothetical that Michelle raised, and I think was a good illustration because it indicates that the logistics involved in this transaction don’t at all change our desire to resolve a longstanding financial dispute with the Iranians that saves the American people potentially billions of dollars.
So I don’t know what else was considered in terms of the logistics, but what I’m saying is that doesn’t affect both our desire to resolve this dispute, it also doesn’t affect the way in which the American people benefitted from the resolution of this dispute.
Q Next subject. Going back to something earlier in this briefing, Denis McDonough and the efforts for the transition for both campaigns for whomever is going to be President of the United States. How was Denis McDonough received from the Trump camp? This was days before President Obama said that Donald Trump was unfit. But we understand, everyone knows that there is disdain in both camps — or maybe that might be too harsh a word — there is no love lost between both sides. How was Denis received by the Trump camp?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that Denis was fulfilling a responsibility that President Obama had given to his team to prioritize planning for an effective transition come November. And so I can tell you that Denis fulfilled that responsibility seriously because the President has made it a priority. How the campaign’s representative may have responded to that call, you’d have to ask them.
Q So you think he fulfilled — there’s a lot in that — he fulfilled his responsibility. But was he able to adequately fulfill his responsibility? Was there a blockage? Did it go smoothly? Was he able to pick up the phone and meet right away? Could you give us a little tick-tock?
MR. EARNEST: It was just a telephone call. And I’m not aware of any concerns that were raised by the call.
Q And lastly, not serious but significant. President Obama has his last birthday as President on the 4th, tomorrow. How is he spending his birthday as President — the last birthday he has as President of the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’ll be spending at least some of his birthday with all of you when he does a news conference tomorrow at the Pentagon after convening his National Security Council meeting to talk about our efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
If that’s something he wanted to do for his birthday — (laughter) — is something you’ll have to ask him tomorrow.
Q But if I recall, he had another press conference I think it was last year or the year before on his birthday. But let’s go — sorry, I digress a minute. So okay, that’s for his birthday. But I’m talking about a party. I understand — I hear that there’s some big planning and some big names coming in for the President. Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on how the President is planning to celebrate his birthday, but we’ll keep you posted.
Q You don’t have any updates, but you do know something, right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details at this point, but we’ll keep you posted. All right?
Q Thanks, Josh. Earlier today, French President Hollande said that Donald Trump’s “excesses are both sickening.” I’m wondering what’s the President’s reaction to that. And does the President feel that his comment about Trump being unfit for the presidency while sort of standing next to another world leader gives other world leaders an opening to speak out against Donald Trump, as we’ve seen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, other world leaders are going to make their own decisions about what they share with regard to their feelings about the U.S. presidential election. So we’ll let them do that in the way that they believe is most appropriate.
I’d just point out that President Obama’s comments yesterday were in a response to a direct question that he received at a news conference standing next to the Prime Minister of Singapore.
Q Also part of his response was to say that sort of in 2008 and 2012 if McCain or Romney had won, that he’d be disappointed, but he would tell the American people this is the President and I believe this person will be able to uphold the Constitution. Was the implication there that if Donald Trump wins, that he won’t be able to look at the American people in the eye and say, this is your President, and I think he’ll be able to uphold the Constitution?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think — I don’t think the President was being particularly subtle about the doubts that he harbors.
Q I also wanted to ask about the DNC. A few people were let go there yesterday. Has the White House or the President been in touch with the DNC, with Donna Brazile? Is the White House satisfied with what you’ve seen so far in terms of the dismissals?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, as we discussed, I believe it was last week — what the White House believes is that the leadership of the DNC should be closely coordinating their activities with the campaign apparatus with the individual who is at the top of the ticket in 2016. That person is not President Obama but rather Secretary Clinton.
So I’m confident that the White House has been in discussions with the DNC about some of their activities over there. But ultimately it’s the responsibility of the Clinton campaign to effectively coordinate with the Democratic Party apparatus to integrate their efforts and focus on the upcoming election. So ultimately the question about the leadership of DNC is something that they’ll resolve.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to North Korea very quickly. And in an interview today, North Korea’s top official dealing with the U.S. warns that relations between the U.S. and North Korea will be dealt with under wartime laws. And he specifically said that includes the detention of the two American prisoners who are being detained there. Does the U.S. have any word that these Americans are being mistreated or abused, or concern about their treatment going forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we obviously are concerned about the status of U.S. citizens that are unjustly detained in foreign countries, including in North Korea. And we’ve made the case to the North Korean government about appealing for their release. There are obviously specific channels through which we can do that because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. But we certainly are making efforts to pursue the release of U.S. citizens that are being unjustly detained in North Korea.
As it relates to the rhetoric that we’ve heard from the North Koreans, I think it is in indicative of their destabilizing approach to the region. And U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea have encouraged North Korea to abandon that overheated rhetoric and those destabilizing activities. China and Russia have done the same. So ultimately, our case is strengthened, our hand in strengthened, in compelling the North Korean regime when we work effectively with the international community. And that’s the reason that Ambassador Power will be working at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to coordinate on an international response.
Q And on Zika really quickly, you said that Republicans need to act to pass funding. But since the outbreak in Florida has been announced, has the President made any personal outreach to congressional leadership to discuss this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, congressional leaders aren’t in Washington, D.C. He can. I’m not aware of any specific conversations to tell you about right now. But I can tell you that the President has been on the phone with the governor of Florida to ensure that federal officials are coordinating effectively with state and local officials to make sure that we’re mobilizing an effective response.
Republicans in Congress know everything they need to know to make a decision about whether or not they’re going to fulfill their responsibility to do their part to protect the American people from the Zika virus. Thus far they haven’t. And if they’re going to change their approach, we hope they’ll do it soon.
Q Josh, tomorrow is the counter-ISIL meeting at the Pentagon. I realize this is one of the regular series the President has been having at the agencies. To what extent does this one have to do with the air campaign that’s begun in Libya this week, in and around Sirte?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I can tell you that this meeting was scheduled before those airstrikes were conducted. But I’m confident that U.S. activities in Libya, at the invitation of the Libya government, will be a part of the briefing that the President receives, because it’s an important part of our efforts to prevent ISIL from establishing a safe haven anywhere in the world.
Q How long is this campaign going to go on? Are we looking at days, weeks, months?
MR. EARNEST: Are you talking about the situation in Libya? Or just —
Q The campaign in and around Sirte.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the Department of Defense has put a timeline on it at this point. But obviously our activities in Libya are in support of a ground force that is acting on the orders of the Libyan government. And the actions that the United States has taken in Libya come at the request of the Libya government. And moving forward, all our activities in Libya will continue to be closely coordinated with the central government there. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that the timeframe will certainly be dependent upon the preferences and requests that are put forward by the Libyan government.
Andrei, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. I really appreciate it. I have a question about Pope Francis, what he said. But I’m a rare guest these days, so I’ll ask a couple of things about Russia. Number one, you are concerned about — Americans are held abroad. Are you aware that there are American prisoners in Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think you have to check with the State Department in terms of determining the case and determining what we can say publicly about this case.
Q Yeah, the question is — there are a couple of Russians, at least, held in the U.S. who basically have been kidnapped, brought here from third countries. The Russians today — I don’t know why today — mentioned that they offered a swap, a prisoner swap, to the Americans. They publicly said that. They hadn’t said that before. Are you aware of that offer? And what in general — what is your attitude to such ideas of prisoner swaps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know what cases you’re specifically referring to when you mention the Russian citizens there. I can confidently tell you that the U.S. government has not been involved in kidnapping any Russian citizens. I don’t know who would make that kind of claim, but there’s no evidence for it.
Q Viktor Bout and Yaroshenko, the pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who were (inaudible) one in Thailand and the other in Liberia, brought over here and put on trial and put in American jails. Those are the two cases.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would encourage you to check with the Department of Justice to get the facts on that case. It sounds like it might be worth you doing so.
Q Secondly, since you were talking about this campaign against ISIS, will we be bombing al Nusra together anytime soon? Because Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov seem to agree on this, but today at the Pentagon, they asked Peter Cook, and he basically there are — no, I’m sorry it was not Cook, it was the General from the battlefield. He said that no preparation was being done in terms of intelligence. So will we be bombing al Nusra together?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Andrei, the case that we have made directly to the Russians is they should use their special influence with the Assad regime to enforce a cessation of hostilities to get back to a place where the Assad regime, with the support of the Russians, is not attacking innocent civilians. And that’s not happened. And that is a violation of commitments that Russia made in the context of the Cessation of Hostilities. And that has prevented — frankly, it’s exacerbated a humanitarian situation because it has prevented an increase in humanitarian assistance that can be provided. It has exacerbated the political situation around the diplomatic talks that we’ve been working together to try to facilitate because opposition leaders don’t want to come and sit at the negotiating table with the Assad regime as long as the Assad regime that’s being aided and abetted by the Russian government is carrying out attacks against civilians that they supposedly represent.
So the truth is, the United States continues to be concerned both about the failure of Russia and the Assad regime to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the Cessation of Hostilities, but also about the continued presence and activities of extremist organizations inside of Syria. And we have said for quite some time that we would welcome Russia not using their military might to buck up the Assad regime, but rather to focus entirely on going after extremists. And if they were prepared to do that, the United States would be prepared and our coalition partners would be prepared to work more effectively with them. But thus far, Russia has refused to do that.
So the truth is — the question right now is one that relates directly to the credibility of Russian leaders. Are they going to live up to the commitments that they’ve made? And if so, we can begin doing the important work of more effectively coordinating our efforts to go after extremists that we know threaten both our countries. And the continued efforts of the Russians to prop up the Assad regime only makes it easier for extremists in Syria who we know thrive on chaos to bolster their positions in that country.
Q I guess the Russians would say that the biggest priority is going after the extremists. Do you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly believe that the priorities should be placed on going after extremists. Unfortunately, the conduct of Russian military activities has been inconsistent with that claim; that Russian military activities have devoted significant time and attention and resources and energy to supporting the Assad regime, and to further —
Q Against who?
MR. EARNEST: Against opposition fighters in Syria. The point is that the more that they do that —
Q The moderates.
MR. EARNEST: Excuse me?
Q The moderate opposition fighters. But there are no moderate opposition fighters. That’s the point.
MR. EARNEST: The point is, Andrei, as long as the Russian military continues to buck up the Assad regime, it only foments greater chaos in Syria. It only makes a diplomatic resolution and a political transition, that President Putin himself said is necessary, farther off into the distance. And the farther off that political transition is in the distance, the more chaos there is in Syria in the near term. And that chaos is something that we know extremist organizations thrive upon.
That’s why we believe that Russia should live up to the commitments that they have made, enforce the Cessation of Hostilities, not devote so much energy and attention to fortifying the Assad regime, and actually working more effectively with the international community to go after extremists. Once Russia has demonstrated a commitment to actually doing that, then I would be much more optimistic about the ability of the United States and Russia to work more effectively together inside of Syria.
Q And lastly, my general question about a very interesting comment that Pope Francis made. I don’t know if you can answer it right away. If you take my question, I’m fine if you give me an answer later. Pope Francis basically said peace is lost — which is striking. We all remember when — and I’m not saying that it’s like, I don’t know, President Obama’s fault, but we all remember that President Obama, when he was first elected, was immediately given this Nobel Peace Prize, which reflected at least like the hope of all the world that we’ll have some peaceful future ahead of us. And now, at the end of the Obama presidency, the Pope says peace has been lost. And when we look at Europe, when we look at the Middle East, when we look at the United States, we cannot say that peace is here. So basically my question is, how do you explain that? Why has peace been lost on President Obama’s watch?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that I don’t agree with the assessment in the way that you portrayed it. So I think I’d take a closer look at Pope Francis’s comments and see if we can get you a response.
1:14 P.M. EDT
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