Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 8, 2016 -12:43 P.M. EST
Q Just to follow up on the questions about appointments and policy changes that they seem to be signaling. Is it fair to say that — on advocacy by the President — you seem to suggest that we’re not going to hear anything from the President in terms of advocacy or pushing back before January 20th. Is that fair?
- EARNEST: In terms of —
Q The President reacting to what appears to be changes in the direction the country is going to go on major policy issues, like climate change, the Affordable Care Act, education, other areas where there have been appointments that seem to suggest — that clearly suggest that there’s going to be a different direction than what he would like.
- EARNEST: Look, I think on November 9th we knew that the country was going to start moving in a different direction, even before any of those personnel appointments were made. So, look, I recognize why they come up in a setting like this, where you guys are interested in a reaction to those nominees, so I’m not suggesting that’s that an inappropriate line of questioning, but it’s certainly not a new one.
Q But I guess what I’m trying to understand is, is there a line? The President, in Lima, said something about how, if questions are raised about our core values and ideals, is I think the way he phrased it, that he would respond. And I think he was talking about in the post-January 20th period.
- EARNEST: That’s right — as a former President.
Q Right. So it seemed like there was no line before that could be crossed before January 20th that would motivate the President to engage in some kind of discussion about these issues, because he is so committed to the idea of a smooth transition. But I guess the question — and I guess I’ve asked it before — is that desire for a smooth transition — is there anything that the President could foresee happening where he would want to speak out more forcefully about the direction that the new administration is moving in?
- EARNEST: I think particularly since November 8th and the morning of November 9th, I think we’ve gotten out of the business of predicting or foreseeing what may or may not happen based on the outcome of the election. What our approach has been and will continue to be is to prioritize the smooth, effective transfer of power. And that will require the President and a number of other officials in the U.S. government setting aside their own personal political views and putting the interest of the country, first.
And that’s a difficult thing, particularly when you consider the stakes of the election, and particularly when you consider how invested senior officials in the Obama administration have been in our success. But it’s what the Constitution requires. It’s what the American people have said is their preference based on the election. And we’re going to fulfil the institutional responsibility of the executive branch to give the next President the best possible opportunity to get off to a running start.
Q But is there anything maybe you can say about any conversations that the President and the President-elect had and the level of engagement, advocacy, without talking about the substance of it?
- EARNEST: I don’t have anything new on this. They’ve engaged in some consultations, but —
Q You can understand the questions.
- EARNEST: Sure.
Q Clearly — I mean, I think we all understand the idea of a smooth transition, but clearly the country is going in a different direction that threatens so much of what the President and the team have done over the past eight years. That seems just obviously clear to most observers.
- EARNEST: It was clear before the election.
- EARNEST: And the President made a forceful case before the election and the President’s candidate didn’t win.
Q Right. And it would seem very difficult to just not — stand idly by. But obviously you’re doing some advocacy by listing all these accomplishments that you see in the area of the environment.
- EARNEST: Sure.
Q I would just think it’s very difficult for the President to watch this happen, to watch what seems to be his legacy unraveling and the things he cared about so passionately.
- EARNEST: I think you might have slightly overstated it there. But, look —
Q I guess that’s the argument. Am I overstating it? Or is he so convinced, as he’s put it, that the realities of the office and the realities of the world are going to be such a difficult inertia to push back at that much of what he has done will stay in place?
- EARNEST: We’ll see. I mean, that really is the answer. We had an opportunity to have this argument, and the President made it forcefully, and I think a lot of people were persuaded by the argument. The fact is, the candidate that he supported actually got more votes than the next President. So I think a lot of people were persuaded — most people were persuaded by it.
But that’s not the way that our system is structured. We’re following the rules of the Electoral College. Those are the rules we signed up for. Many analysts actually expected that the rules of the Electoral College would actually give Democrats a built-in advantage. Didn’t turn out that way. And the time for these kinds of debates, at least on the part of those of us who serve in the executive branch, has passed, because we’ve got a more important responsibility, and that is doing the will of the American people and ensuring a smooth and effective transition to the next administration, because that’s what’s in the best interests of the country.
Q But is he having any conversations with Mrs. Clinton while she’s in town?
- EARNEST: None that I can report and none that I’m aware of, but I can’t rule it out.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about the President’s thoughts about the DREAMers. Is there anything that he can do to protect their future vis-à-vis commutations or pardons? There’s been some talk that that’s something that he would strongly consider? And as sort of a secondary question on the same topic, is it fair to say that the President is strongly considering perhaps pardons or commutations for other high-profile individuals — Manning, Bergdahl, Snowden, and others?
- EARNEST: I don’t have a whole lot to say about the clemency process. The President has talked about this at some length earlier this year.
A couple things I can say. The first is, the President cannot use his clemency authority to legalize the immigration status of anybody, and that is why we pursued the executive actions that we did, and is why the President was such a forceful advocate for legislation that would correct some of the injustices and implement so many of the reforms that would improve our immigration system in a way that would enhance our national security, improve our country’s fiscal situation, and obviously ensure that we’re treating people fairly and giving America the benefit, the upside of immigrants who come to this country and create jobs, and serve in our military, and live in our communities, make the United States the great country that it is.
With regard to other clemency measures the President may be considering, and what the President has said previously is, he does not expect to essentially ram through any pardons at the last minute. There’s an established process and the President believes that’s a process that’s worth following.
Q Let me just drill down a little bit on that. Given his appreciation, if you will, for history and the understanding of how his reputation would certainly be impacted greatly depending on who might receive clemency, be that — if you want to look back Clinton and Mark Rich, if you look back at Ford and Nixon — how much of that do you think is a consideration, do you think, for the President as he considers clemency for some of these higher-profile people?
- EARNEST: I guess you’d have to talk to him about sort of to what extent history factors into his decision. What I know factors into his decision is the fact that we have worked very hard, particularly in the last couple of years, to stand up and expand the capacity of an existing process at the Department of Justice to consider clemency petitions that have been filed. And that has resulted in the President being able to offer clemency in the form of commuting sentences of more than a thousand people now. That is more than the past 11 Presidents combined. And that is an effort on the part of the President to use his executive authority to reform some aspects of the criminal justice system that don’t seem particularly just.
And the President would have preferred a more sweeping solution to that problem that only legislation could bring about, but that is not something that Congress was able to succeed in passing, despite the fact that there were high-profile Democrats and Republicans who supported that principle and did even support some pieces of legislation. But it is another criminal justice reform — common-sense criminal justice reform that would be good for our economy — that’s another victim of Republican dysfunction in Congress. And, unfortunately, there are numerous victims, and that’s one of them.
Q You mentioned solar a bit earlier. How much of the growth of the use of solar power is subsidized by the federal government?
- EARNEST: We can get you the metrics here, but the performance of the loan program at the Department of Energy was remarkably successful. And I think the growth of the solar industry overall — the fact that solar generation in this country has increased 30 times — 3-0 — since 2008 I think is an indication that that is an industry that’s taken off. And that is an industry that is now not just competing in the United States for business, but they’re competing around the world. And that’s a good thing for our economy.
Q Lastly, yesterday, it was interesting — you said “The kinds of people President-elect Trump has chosen to appear have in many cases different priorities, different styles and, in some cases, starkly different bank accounts.” I thought that was a pretty interesting statement by you. Obviously, talking today —
- EARNEST: I’m not the first person to make that observation.
Q Perhaps not. You’ve heard the former Ford CEO is someone that is also having a conversation perhaps with the President-elect. Does bank account matter? Or was that just sort of an off-the-cuff comment? How do you square that?
- EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, I was just trying to get you guys to laugh. And again, if the joke requires explanation, it probably was not particularly successful. (Laughter.)
Q Last one I have for you — there was a very interesting person in the room. What have you been able to draw from your friendship with the former press secretary, who happens to be in the back of the room today, and how have things changed?
- EARNEST: If I seem a little nervous today it’s because one of my predecessors is actually in the room today. Look, Dana did this job for President Bush for the last couple of years of his of his presidency, look, and she was widely acclaimed by people on both sides of the aisle for her integrity, her seriousness of purpose in doing this job. And she won a lot of admiration from people in Obama world by the way that she handled herself in the context of that transition in 2008 and 2009.
That surely must have been a very difficult thing to do, given the degree to which President Obama was promising to change many of the policies that President Bush had sought to implement. But she did a noble and, in some ways, uniquely American thing, which is that she set aside her own political views and actually was committed to ensuring that President Obama’s press staff could understand how the White House works and could get off to the best possible start.
And there is a tough learning curve when you walk through that door for the first time in understanding exactly what the expectations of the press corps are, and understanding how to operate all the levers of government in order to get the information that we need in order to come out here and make the President’s case. But she gave us — she was certainly more than an honest broker. She was somebody who was determined to try to help us understand exactly what the job required and what resources were available to us to do that job as well as we possibly could. And so that’s why a lot of us have enduring respect for Dana and the way that she did her job. And it’s been fun having her around here today.
Chris, go ahead.
Q I want to get your comment on a specific case. The ACLU is leading LGBT groups in calling for a clemency for Chelsea Manning, who is in the seventh year of a 35-year sentence for leaking classified information, has served in jail time longer than anyone else for that offense. Will the President commute the sentence for Chelsea Manning?
- EARNEST: Chris, I’m not going to discuss individual cases. There is a process that’s been established at the Department of Justice. For the way that those applications — whether or not those applications have been filed and how they’re being processed is a question you should direct to them.
Q Well, Manning is a transgender serving in a men’s prison, was initially denied transition-related care before the Army agreed to it, and has a history of suicide attempts at the prison. Would those be factors the President would weigh in deciding whether to grant clemency in this case?
- EARNEST: At this point, I wouldn’t speculate on what factors the President may consider. So there’s a well-established process for considering these clemency petitions, and I’d refer you to the Department of Justice for an update on why that may stand.
Q And the President has, of course, commuted a lot of sentences for a lot of individuals. Would there be some point at which they would stop? Or do you expect that to continue to happen right until January 20th?
- EARNEST: I would anticipate that the process will continue to run until the end. But this is a process that cannot be done overnight, that these kinds of applications have to be filed well in advance, and there’s a lot of background work that has to be done before decisions on individual cases can be rendered. So I would not envision a rush to the exits here, but I would anticipate that the process will continue until the last day.
Q A question on trade. The WTO makes a decision on Monday about whether China should be granted Market Economy Status. I wanted to see what the White House position on that is and what your concerns are for the ramifications for U.S. companies.
- EARNEST: Well, this is a determination that’s actually made by the Department of Commerce. And so we’ll let the analysists at the Department of Commerce take a close look at the Chinese economy and come to a decision based on the merits.
Q Josh, real quick, fine point. The NDAA — the President will sign it as written?
- EARNEST: I don’t have a position on that to disclose at this point, but why don’t we consult with our staff and we’ll get back to you on that.
Q On the CR, apparently Nancy Pelosi just said she’s going to oppose it. You got the Congressional Ball here today. Are you going to be sending everyone home to finish their work?
- EARNEST: (Laughter.) Maybe they’ll negotiate in their gowns and tuxedos. That would make for quite a picture.
Q Well, some arm-twisting, perhaps.
Q No coverage. (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: Well, maybe we should change it here for the end, huh?
Q Hear, hear.
Q Are you confident there won’t be a government shutdown?
- EARNEST: Well, again, as I told Kevin, when it comes to predicting the behavior of Republican politicians in Washington, I’m not going to do that.
Q Nancy Pelosi says she opposes it.
- EARNEST: Right. But ultimately we’ve got Republicans in charge of the House, Republicans in charge of the Senate, and if they want to get any bill passed and signed into law, they’re going to have to work with Democrats to get it done, in part because there are recalcitrant Republicans in the House, many of whom appear opposed to any kind of CR, so it’s possible they may need many Democratic votes to pass it. When you consider the well-chronicled and widely discussed rules in the Senate, it’s likely that Democratic votes will be needed to advance the legislation. And, of course, the bill has to be signed into law by a Democratic President.
So Republicans are in charge of those two branches of Congress. Congress has one basic responsibility — well, they’ve got many basic responsibilities — but among the more important basic responsibilities is passing a budget for the U.S. government and making sure that the government can function. And it sure would be a shame to shut the whole thing done just a couple of weeks before Christmas.
Q And on Syria, you said you’re not — you’re hopeful, but you don’t know about a deal yet. Riyad Hijab, who’s a Syrian prime minister who defected and is now the political leader of the opposition that the U.S. and (inaudible) recognize — had some blistering criticism that I want you to be able to respond to. He told the Wall Street Journal in an interview that “history will never forgive Obama for what he has done to the Syrian people. He has raised their expectations, and then he gave Bashar al-Assad the green light,” talking about strengthening Iran’s position in Syria, saying that Assad must go and not doing anything to oppose him. How do you respond to that?
- EARNEST: Well, listen, given the tragedy that has befallen his country, it’s not surprising to me that he’s using some rather pointed rhetoric to make his argument. But ultimately, the President of the United States has one overriding responsibility, and that’s to look out for the interests and safety of the American people. And that’s what President Obama has prioritized over everything else. We certainly have been deeply concerned about the plight of the Syrian people, and that’s why the United States has devoted significant time and attention and resources to trying to bring that violence to an end.
The President and the United States have played the leading role in the international community to reach the kind of negotiating, diplomatic solution that will be required to bring that violence to an end. And there is just no military solution that would work. And I think my evidence for that is that there are some people who hint that the President should ramp up military operations, but there’s no real, coherent description of a military solution that anybody has really described. And I certainly don’t mean that as a criticism of the gentleman that you cited; I mean that as an illustration of just how complex the situation is. And the President, at every turn, has put the interest of the United States first, and that’s the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief.
Q But to his point on history not forgiving the President, is the President certain that history will see his side of things and his view of this?
- EARNEST: Listen, I think if we know anything about history, it’s that historians tend to disagree about history, and I think this may be an area where historians do end up quibbling just a little bit.
But, again, I think the one thing that historians on both sides will acknowledge is the military solution that many people seem to wish for, including people with the best of intentions, simply does not exist. It has not been presented for any sort of public consideration.
And diplomacy can be hard, it can be frustrating, it can take far longer than we would like. And I think there’s probably no better illustration of diplomacy fitting that criteria that I just laid out then with regard to the situation in Syria. It has been hard, it’s been frustrating, and it’s taken far longer than we would like. But that’s the only solution. That is the only way we can bring this violence to an end. It’s the only way we can address the underlying chaos in Syria. And it’s the only way we can expedite the provision of badly needed humanitarian assistance. And the United States has done more than anybody else to try to find that diplomatic solution, but we haven’t found it yet.
Q Thank you, Josh. Leading up to the election, the President was quite vocal about President-elect Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and how he communicated on Twitter. And you’ve said that the President — it’s his responsibility to look out for the interest of American people, look out for the American people and business. So is this White House and the President concerned about the President-elect targeting certain businesses, i.e. Boeing, or individuals, American citizens on Twitter, i.e. union leader of Carrier factory jobs that was in the news last week. Any concern? Any thoughts? Obviously, I’m sure you heard about the union leader being targeted this morning and the criticism there.
- EARNEST: I’ve got lots of thoughts, and as tempting as it is, I’m going to refer questions about the Twitter handle of the President-elect to the President-elect’s team.
Q Josh, also, back to DREAMers — you were asked about it yesterday and again today — but is there a message for those who came out of the shadows at the urging of this administration? Is there a message to those folks who are now nervous about what’s going to happen after January 20th? I feel like the White House hasn’t put out that message or spoken directly to those DREAMers who feel that the information that they’ve given to the government and coming out of the shadows is not in jeopardy.
- EARNEST: Well, Kenneth, I think there are a couple things about this. The first is that the White House has been in close touch with a number of advocacy organizations, even in the aftermath of the election, to talk to them about the facts of immigration policy and to try to offer some reassurance. Certainly, the President and his transition team have gone to great lengths to describe and explain the policy that we have pursued to the incoming administration, so that when they begin the process of making some decisions about what our immigration policy should like, they can have the benefit of understanding exactly what our approach has been and what the benefits of that approach are.
We’re also continuing to encourage Congress to take action. Ultimately, the kind of executive action that President Obama has pursued was largely pursued because of congressional inaction. We would much have preferred Democrats and Republicans in the Congress to capitalize on the obvious bipartisan ground that exists to implement common-sense immigration reform that would strengthen our economy, that would reduce the deficit, that would strengthen our borders, and ensure that we were treating fairly the hundreds of thousands of people in this country that are American in every way but their papers.
And these are hundreds of thousands of people who were brought to the United States as children and have grown up in America, enmeshed in our communities, going to our schools, attending our churches, serving in our military.
So the President believes that we certainly are a nation of laws, a nation of laws that should be enforced, but we’re also a nation of immigrants, and our policy should reflect that as well.
Q And finally, when the President told CNN that the strength of ISIL, or ISIS, “wasn’t on his intelligence radar,” was he faulting the intelligence that he was getting or the failure of the intelligence?
- EARNEST: Well, I’m glad you asked. I know that some have perceived it that way, but the fact is, back in September of 2014, the Director of the Office of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, told David Ignatius, a writer for the Washington Post “in this case we underestimated ISIL, and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army.” He continued, “I didn’t see the collapse of the Iraqi security force in the North coming. I didn’t see that.”
So the President’s comments to Fareed Zakaria for that documentary are consistent with the comments that you heard from the Director of National Intelligence more than two years ago about how difficult it would have been to accurately predict the effectiveness of ISIL on the battlefield and the ineffectiveness of an Iraqi security force that essentially had been hollowed out by the corruption and failed leadership of Prime Minister Maliki.
Those are the facts the President discussed in that interview, not for the first time.
Q Josh, I have sort of a straightforward question. I know we had this week at MacDill Air Force Base a speech framing the President’s record on counterterrorism, lessons learned, et cetera. Does he envision a sort of more expansive farewell speech talking about lessons learned and what his legacy ought to be?
- EARNEST: There certainly is a possibility of that, so stay tuned.
Q After the holidays, maybe?
- EARNEST: Not before the holidays.
Q Not before the holidays, okay. Well, that’s comforting.
- EARNEST: Okay, good.
Q We’ve had a lot to say so far about the Pruitt appointment, and you made those environmental points. But we’ve also seen Donald Trump meeting with Al Gore, most recently Leonardo DiCaprio, and apparently he’s had these long wonderful conversations with President Obama. So what would you say your confidence level is that the environment will be a priority? How would you sort of describe your view of, I don’t know, I guess what these signals mean?
- EARNEST: Yeah. Well, clearly the signals are mixed. I would assume that the kinds of conversations that the President-elect had with the Nobel prize-winning former Vice President were different than the kinds of conversations he had with the attorney general of Oklahoma who has been working hand-in-glove with the energy industry to call into question the science of climate change and to fight in a court of law, tooth and nail, against the kind of common-sense rules that we’ve put forward that have strengthened our economy and improved the health of our planet.
But how all of that comes out in the wash, so to speak, I think is something we’ll all be watching over the next couple of years. But hopefully the metrics that I laid out earlier can be useful to all of you as you measure the results of the policy that the next administration chooses to pursue.
Q Okay. And Vice President Biden today, talking about the campaigns, called them ugly, coarse, dispiriting, a battle of personalities not of ideas, and he said that he was embarrassed by it. What does the administration think of those comments? And do you agree with them?
- EARNEST: Well, I think you heard me say on many occasions, you certainly heard the President say on a number of occasions how concerned and even disturbed at various points many Americans were by the rhetoric and tone of the election. There was a willingness to engage in some rather cynical tactics that was dispiriting.
But the election is over, the American people have decided. They cast more votes for Hillary Clinton but they elected Donald Trump President of the United States. And the time for that debate has ended, and the institutional responsibilities of the executive branch require all of us, including the President setting aside his political preferences and focusing on the responsibility that he has to ensure a smooth and effective transition to the incoming President.
Q Do you think the President agrees with Vice President Biden that this was embarrassing?
- EARNEST: Look, there are plenty of times where I think all Americans, certainly a large number of Americans, were disturbed by what they saw. But our opportunity to have that debate has — well, first of all, there was ample opportunity to have that debate, and I don’t think there was any mystery in the minds of too many voters about who they were voting for, but they decided.
Q Okay. And we keep hearing more calls for briefings by — members of Congress want to be briefed on that Russian intelligence on hacking. So what is the status of that?
- EARNEST: I can tell you that those kinds of briefings and the provision of that information continues on the part of the intelligence community to members of Congress who seek it out. They obviously have a direct responsibility to those congressional committees that are charged with providing oversight over certain elements of the executive branch, but there are other members of Congress who are interested in this issue who have also received briefings and information from the administration.
We’re going to continue to cooperate with Congress, and there is some classified elements of this analysis that can be shared with some of those members. But if there are additional intelligence conclusions that can be released, I wouldn’t rule out future releases — public releases of information about this matter either.
Q Thanks, Josh. Yesterday, the Russian government completed the sale of a stake of its largest oil producer, Rosneft, to Qatar and to Glencore. And there are some who are watching this deal, saying that this $11 billion deal is a way that Putin has been able to get around sanctions. Do you believe that this sale violated the sanctions (inaudible)?
- EARNEST: Well, the thing that I — there’s not much that I can say about an individual financial transaction, even one as large and as significant as this one. The thing I can confirm for you is that the experts at the Department of Treasury that are responsible for constructing and enforcing the sanctions regime will carefully look at a transaction like this. They’ll look at the terms of the deal and evaluate what impact sanctions would have on it. But how all that shakes out is something that you should ask the Treasury Department about.
Q And a question on Yemen. Human Rights Watch just put out a report saying that a couple of the airstrikes in Yemen in September and October by the Saudi-led coalition killed dozens of civilians, and the weapons that were used were American weapons that were given to the Saudi-led coalition after the conflict started. And the report, it says that these new findings put the U.S. at risk of complicity and unlawful attacks. Do you have a reaction to that report?
- EARNEST: Toluse, I’d say something similar to what we said before, because we’ve heard reports like this in the past. And the U.S. review of assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is ongoing, and the United States continues to have grave concerns about coalition strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties.
Even as the United States assists Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of its territorial integrity, we will continue to press the Saudi-led coalition to remediate the flaws in its targeting cycle and take other immediate steps to mitigate against future civilian casualties. We’ve spoken out about our concerns in the past, and we’ll continue to do so moving forward, even as we review the kind of assistance that we provide to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
Q And one more on life expectancy in the U.S. There was a report that said that for the first time since 1993, life expectancy has declined, or declined in 2015. I know you usually talk about all the ways that the economy and the U.S. political system has improved since 2008. What’s your reaction to the fact that life expectancy seems to have gone down at least slightly from last year?
- EARNEST: I haven’t seen that analysis, but why don’t we take a look and see if we can get somebody to follow up with you.
Q And sorry, one more.
- EARNEST: That’s okay. I didn’t really answer that one, so — (laughter) —
Q Donald Trump is going to Louisiana to stump for the Senate candidate down there. There’s going to be a Senate race; it concludes on Saturday. There has been some concern that Democrats don’t seem to be — at least national Democrats don’t seem to be rallying behind the candidate down there. Is the President aware of this race? Is he involved in any way? Does he have any reaction to how national Democrats aren’t engaging in that race?
- EARNEST: Listen, Louisiana has a peculiar election system that results in these kinds of runoffs occurring quite frequently. And it’s a process that results in a pretty important election, like the one that they’re expecting to hold here this coming weekend, taking place just a few weeks after a national election that captured everybody’s attention.
So this is not the first time that there’s been a discussion about whether one national party or the other is giving short shrifts to the outcome of a runoff in Louisiana. I’ll admit that I’ve been a little busy here lately and I haven’t been following the contours of the race, but, look — so I don’t know to what extent President Obama has weighed in or supported a candidate. I know that there are some Democrats across the country that have been supportive of the candidate down there, but I can’t speak to anything that the President has done.
Q Just quickly, Josh, when is the President going to sign the 21st Century Cures Act in a ceremony? Can you give us any hints about that?
- EARNEST: I can’t at this point. I don’t know that we’ve actually even received the bill at this point. Sometimes it takes a little while to work its way through the bureaucracy of Congress and arrive on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the President does intend to sign the bill. He was obviously pleased to see a rare moment — a rare bipartisan display that resulted in the passage of this bill that will increase funding for those fighting opioid addiction and increase funding for the cancer moonshot that the Vice President has been tasked with leading over the last year or so.
So obviously that’s good news. But I don’t have any update on the President’s schedule in terms of how he’ll sign it, but I can assure you that he will.
Q Specific issues that kind of have this CR stalled right now — the big one looks to be the coalminers’ health benefits. Where does the President stand? Does he stand with Senate Democrats who emerged from a meeting and said they’re united on that issue?
- EARNEST: I’m glad you asked about this. The truth is, it’s quite cynical that Republicans in the Congress would adopt a position of only extending these benefits for the five-month life of the CR. These are lives and livelihoods that hang in the balance. And there should be bipartisan common ground to address the needs of these 20,000 coalminers who are slated to lose their health insurance at the end of the month.
So Democrats are ready to solve this problem, and it’s not lost on me the irony that Republicans are bragging about the kind of support they have from workers in coal country, particularly retirees in coal country, and now are prepared to just extend their health care for five months. So we’ll have to see exactly whether or not that’s something that Republicans in Congress can fix before they send the bill to the White House.
There’s one other aspect of the CR that you’ve heard me talk about before, but I think it merits repeating. When the problems with the water supply in Flint, Michigan first became public, there was a hue and cry among Republicans on Capitol Hill about how the federal government had let down the people of Flint, Michigan. The study, commissioned by the governor of Michigan, tells a somewhat different story. The cause of this problem notwithstanding, there has been a robust response from the Obama administration to work closely with the Republican governor of Michigan, to work closely with the community in Flint to expedite relief and response resources to the community.
So you had FEMA passing out millions of bottles of water. You had the Department of Health and Human Services standing up new operations so that additional health care could be provided to kids in that community that could be affected. There were other community development resources that were mobilized to try to support the community that was going through this crisis.
The Obama administration even expedited some of the previously approved funding from Congress to address some of the more immediate infrastructure concerns of the community. But all along, we’ve said that Republicans in Congress have a responsibility to do more about this problem than falsely accuse the federal government of malfeasance. They’ve got a responsibility to try to solve the problem. And there is a role for the United States Congress to play in terms of appropriating necessary resources to the community of Flint so that they can fix their water system, so that the children of that community are not drinking poisoned water.
Finally, in the fall, we did see a promise from Republicans that they would act on this. But according to what you read in the newspapers — well, let me just clarify one thing. They, in the fall, promised to act on this before the end of the year. But what we’re seeing is that Republicans in Congress are actually planning to leave town for the year tomorrow. And hopefully they’re not going to do that without fulfilling their promise to the people of Flint that have already endured so much and are just asking the United States Congress to do something other than falsely criticize their political opponents on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Q Is the President prepared to take a stand on one or either issue to shut this thing down tomorrow night, to force Republicans to act?
EARNEST: Well, I think it is our steadfast hope that it’s not going to come to that, and that the kind of cynicism that Republicans have displayed with regard to coalminers and the cynicism that they have displayed when it comes to playing politics with trying to solve the problems in Flint — maybe a little of the holiday spirit will encroach. Maybe it will even happen at the congressional ball tonight. Maybe getting all gussied up in the tuxedos and the gowns will remind those Republicans of the responsibility that they have to look out for the interests of working people while they’re here in Washington. We’ll see.
Q Last one. Are things stalled or dire enough that it might be Biden time? Might be time to send the Vice President uEARNEST: To borrow a phrase? Look, I know that the Vice President of the United States has certainly, time and time again, over his four-decade career in Washington, D.C. and his eight-year record as Vice President of the United States, weighed in to try to get Congress to look out for the interests of working people. I don’t know if that will be required this time, but I know he stands ready to serve if he’s called.
Okay, thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
Q Josh, anything on the defense policy bill that was just passed?
EARNEST: I don’t have anything on that, but we’ll follow up with you.
Q Josh, anything else on the schedule today? All you’ve got on the schedule is the Congressional Ball. What’s he working on today
EARNEST: Just a couple of meetings with staff today. But other than that, just spending time with members of Congress.
Q If Hillary Clinton comes, will you tell us?
EARNEST: Not necessarily. (Laughter.)
Have a good day, everybody.
1:44 P.M. EST
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