Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 18, 2016 – 1:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any comments to make at the top. We can go straight to your questions. Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. With the attempted coup in Turkey and crackdown on thousands of those said to be part of the coup, can you say whether Turkey’s membership in NATO is secure — whether it’s not in jeopardy? And is the White House worried that this turmoil is harming the war on the Islamic State group?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, the United States strongly values the important relationship that we have with our NATO ally, Turkey. That’s why you saw such forceful condemnation from U.S. officials of the failed coup in Turkey over the weekend. The United States strongly supports Turkey’s democratically elected civilian government and that country’s democratic institutions. That is support that’s been conveyed to Turkish officials at a variety of levels, and I would anticipate that relatively soon the President will have an opportunity to convey those views directly to his Turkish counterpart. We will let you know when that’s happened.
I also saw earlier today that the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, had an opportunity to talk to President Erdogan today as well to reiterate our alliance’s support for that country’s democratic institutions.
What we have also regularly done — and will continue to do this moving forward as well — is, even in the face of these very difficult circumstances, reiterate our view that it’s critically important that all parties show restraint, act within the rule of law, and avoid actions that could lead to additional instability or violence. That’s an important priority and one that we’ll continue to reiterate both publicly and privately in the days ahead.
Q You used the word “restraint.” Is that something that the Turkish government is using now as it arrests thousands in response to the attempt itself? Are the actions measured responsible in the eyes of the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to pass judgment from here. I think you could imagine that if the United States government is concerned about the failed coup in Turkey, you could imagine that the democratically elected government of Turkey might be quite concerned about the failed coup. So their concern is understandable. What the United States has offered to do is to assist where possible in the investigation of what transpired over the weekend. But again, what we’ve made clear many times and what U.S. officials will continue to make clear to their Turkish counterparts is that it’s critical for them to exercise restraint, to respect and observe due process, and to protect the freedoms that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution.
Q The President spent a lot of time and effort last week trying to unite law enforcement, elected officials, community activists, meetings here at the White House, his travels to Dallas. And then we had yesterday’s shooting in Baton Rouge. So I guess at least my question — we’ve had a lot of discussions and meetings over the past week. Are there any concrete actions that the administration will be taking in the next week or two that could help police departments? And is the President thinking about going to Baton Rouge, or is it too soon for to know that at this stage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take your last question first. Obviously officials in Baton Rouge are still in the midst of an investigation to learn as much as possible about the circumstances of the tragic incident that resulted in the unjustified killing of three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge. I’m not aware of any plans for a memorial service that surely that community will organize, so I don’t have any updates of the President’s schedule at this point to share.
You heard the President speak from this podium almost 24 hours ago, where he conveyed his condolences to the people of Baton Rouge. He reiterated his unwavering support for police officers across the country, the vast majority of whom are men and women who put on the uniform and walk out the door of their home every single day prepared to put their lives on the line to protect their fellow citizens. And unfortunately, yesterday morning in Baton Rouge, three of those police officers had to give their lives.
The President spoke to both Governor Edwards and Mayor Holden yesterday. The President also had an opportunity to visit with his Attorney General yesterday. The President has asked the Attorney General to come back tomorrow and give him a briefing on the situation. So we’ll have more details on that meeting hopefully before the end of the day today, but that I think should be an indication to you that the situation is closely on — is at the forefront of the President’s mind right now.
Over the course of the last week, we have been talking a lot about what more we could do to support our police officers. And when the President was at NATO, he had an opportunity to talk publicly about some of the things that he believes we can do as a government and as a society to show more support for our men and women in law enforcement. And that includes providing additional resources for training and equipment. It means looking for ways to provide additional resources even through the federal government to increase staffing levels at law enforcement agencies. We know that there are a lot of organizations that are strained because they don’t have as many officers as they would like to do the important work that they have to do.
We’ve certainly talked about the President’s support for collective bargaining rights. Certainly strengthening the ability of law enforcement officers to negotiate with local governments for things like better pay and better benefits, and more time off would certainly make their jobs a little bit easier. And the President has also talked about steps we could take as it relates to gun safety that could make the job, the very difficult job that men and women in law enforcement do every day just a little bit easier and just a little bit safer. And the President is going to continue to be outspoken about that as well.
Q Josh, to follow up on Turkey. Turkey has says that it will reconsider its friendship with the United States if the U.S. does not extradite a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania who it blames for the coup. The Prime Minister even said on Saturday that any country that stands by Mr. Gulen will be considered not a friend of Turkey, but at war with them. What’s your reaction to that? And how will this proceed with regard to this cleric?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, I know that Secretary Kerry was asked about some of these comments yesterday, and what Secretary Kerry said yesterday remains true today, which is that the United States has not received a specific extradition request from the Turkish government. We don’t often discuss those kinds of requests publicly, but at this point, we have not received an extradition request from the Turkish government as it relates to Mr. Gulen. If and when we receive a request, we will evaluate that request based on the extradition treaty that was signed by the United States and Turkey more than 30 years ago.
There is a clear, well-established, mutually agreed upon process for considering those kinds of requests, and there are essentially two factors. The first is, the request would be evaluated to determine whether or not it was related to crimes that are covered by the extradition treaty. And then second, there would be an evaluation made jointly by the Department of State and by the Department of Justice to determine whether or not the evidentiary standard that’s established — that’s described in the treaty is met in this case.
So the suggestion that somehow the United States is harboring Mr. Gulen is factually incorrect. The truth is there’s been no extradition request put forward. And when it is, it is one that will be carefully considered by the U.S. government consistent with the extradition treaty that’s been on the books for more than 30 years now.
Q Are you alarmed at all by the language with respect to that, suggesting being at war or suggesting that the friendship is at risk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important that in actions and in words, officials in Turkey are conscious of the need to prevent further violence and instability. The United States has been unequivocal of our condemnation of the failed coup attempt, and just as unequivocal in our strong support for the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. We believe those are institutions worth investing in.
And in fact, that’s actually a point that President Obama and other U.S. officials have made clear to Turkish officials for years now, even before this most recent coup attempt. And we’ll continue to make that point of view known both publicly and privately to Turkish officials.
Q Has President Obama spoken to President Erdogan, or if not, does he intend to?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not spoken to President Erdogan since the events of this weekend. But I would anticipate that President Obama will be on the phone with President Erdogan relatively soon. Once that call has taken place, we’ll let you know.
Q Does that mean today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as soon as it’s taken place, we’ll let you know. I don’t know if it will be today or tomorrow. But we’ll keep you posted on that.
President Obama, of course, had an opportunity to visit briefly with President Erdogan last weekend at the NATO Summit in Warsaw. In just the last couple of months, President Obama and President Erdogan have been on the phone three different times for a variety of different matters. And, of course, President Obama and President Erdogan had a brief visit when President Erdogan was in the United States for the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this spring.
I also recall vividly briefings where we were detailing the frequent conversations that President Erdogan and President Obama had in person over the course of the fall, as well. So given events in the region, and given the important relationship between our two countries, President Obama and President Erdogan have had an opportunity to visit frequently.
Q Just not about this coup.
MR. EARNEST: No. And I would anticipate that that will occur relatively soon. And when it does, we’ll let you know.
Q And lastly, just on another topic, does the White House have a reaction to the acquittal today of the Baltimore policeman in the death of Freddie Gray?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific reaction to that legal proceeding. Obviously this is something that’s best left to the courts, and so I don’t have a reaction to it. Obviously, Baltimore is a community where distrust between local law enforcement and some members of the Baltimore community was exposed last summer. And there’s been a lot of important work that’s been done by officials in Baltimore to try to address some of those concerns. They’ve done that with the strong support of the Obama administration, including the Department of Justice.
At the same time, there is an ongoing Department of Justice investigation that the Department of Justice has announced into the Baltimore Police Department. So there’s not a whole lot more I can say about it. But certainly we would expect that in the event there are those who have concerns with the outcome of this case, that they would register those concerns peacefully.
Q Erdogan has been called out a number of times recently by international human rights — for overreach in a number of areas — things like press freedoms. So how concerned are you that this — what some are calling a purge, or 6,000 arrests — isn’t an overreach that is going to be detrimental to democracy in Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I’m not prepared to pass judgment on the actions undertaken by the Erdogan government in just the last 24, 48 hours. Obviously, they’re reacting to a rather extraordinary situation — there was a failed coup attempt. And the United States has been strong in expressing our grave concern about that coup attempt, condemning it, and expressing our unequivocal support for the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey.
At the same time, we believe that that Turkish government has a responsibility to exercise restraint and certainly to be supportive of due process and the freedoms that are outlined in the Turkish constitution that include freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.
Q And the last couple of times we’ve heard the President speak out on violence involving race or police officers, which has been a number of times lately, he’s mentioned the number of guns on America’s streets. He’s mentioned wanting Congress to do something about it. Why did he not bring up that subject in his remarks yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s message yesterday was focused on offering his condolences to the families of the officers who were killed yesterday. He was focused on offering his condolences to the broader community of Baton Rouge that’s endured far too much violence over the last couple of weeks. And the President expressed his strong desire for the country to respond to this situation in a way that reflects our common values as American citizens. The President is hopeful that we won’t see the kind of overheated, super-charged rhetoric that has a tendency to counterproductively enflame passions on both sides.
There’s so much common ground to be established here. And I think that was on display over the course of the day yesterday. We saw — we heard from many civil rights activists who’ve been expressing concerns about the conduct of some law enforcement officers and concerns about persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system. But those same civil rights activists forcefully condemned the slaying of these three police officers — people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, two individuals with long records as leaders in the civil rights community — but even someone like Myra Richardson, a notable Black Lives Matter activist who said “Today was just horrific, and it is obviously something that none of us condone.”
There is strong support across this country for the idea that police officers shouldn’t be gunned down just for being police officers. That’s not a controversial notion. And the President was pleased to see the country coming together to condemn this outrageous act of violence and to show support for the vast majority of men and women in uniform who do an outstanding job protecting our community. And focusing on those common values and what we share in common is what will be required for us to make some of the progress that we’d all like to see.
And I think that was the main message that the President wanted to deliver yesterday. That was not an effort to signal in any way a change in his view about the need for Congress to take some common-sense steps that would reduce gun violence in communities across the country.
Q So, just quickly, something else we’ve been hearing from him a lot lately is about the divisions in America and how he feels they’re not as deep as some would portray them. But then we see these polls come out showing that most people feel that race relations in America are getting worse, and more than 70 percent from virtually any racial group feels like race relations are either bad or very bad. So what do you think — I mean, does the President disagree with all of these Americans and how deep those divisions are?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has made the observation that given the tenor of the political debate and given the outbreak of violence that we’ve seen, it’s understandable that people might feel pessimistic. The President talked in his remarks in Dallas about the inclination to give into despair. That is an understandable human reaction to this situation. But the President also spoke movingly about how much hope and inspiration he draws from the everyday actions of Americans.
He told the story of the woman in Dallas who was protesting, expressing her public concern about the conduct of some law enforcement officers, only to have law enforcement officers come to her rescue in a way that she described as heroic, and in a way that prompted her youngest son to say that he aspires to be a police officer when he grows up. That’s evidence of a lot of common ground. That’s evidence of a lot of people from a variety of perspectives sharing common values, sharing common values that are the essence of what it means to be an American.
Q Seventy-four percent of people feel that race relations are bad or very bad. Is the President — are you disputing that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think I just said that it’s an understandable human reaction to the violence that we’ve seen, to the overheated rhetoric that we’ve seen in some quarters, the inclination to give in to some pessimism and maybe even despair is a natural human tendency.
But I think what is true is that over the last several decades, our country has made remarkable progress on this front. And to deny that progress is to deny the sacrifice made by Americans of all races to make our society and our country more just. That progress has never been in a straight lines, but that progress should be a source of hope and inspiration and confidence as we confront the challenge that this generation of Americans faces when it comes to making our country and our criminal justice system more fair and more just and more reflective of our efforts to form a more perfect union.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back on Mr. Gulen. Outside of whether or not there’s been an extradition request, I’m wondering, does the U.S. have any evidence independently of whether or not he was involved in the coup attempt in Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I’m not going to use this podium to discuss any evidence that’s been collected by law enforcement. What I can tell you is that the United States government has made a commitment to the Turkish government that if they would like assistance in investigating the failed coup over the weekend, we’re prepared to use resources at our disposal to assist them in that investigation. What those resources are, what we find out in the context of conducting that investigation if a request is made is not something I would likely discuss publicly.
But again, I think it’s an indication of our commitment to due process and the rule of law, and that certainly is a commitment that we have encouraged the Erdogan government to continue to pursue as well.
Q Would you actually need a specific official request to investigate whether a resident of the U.S. was planning a coup attempt in another country that’s a NATO ally? Is that something that you would actually have them — actually need from the Turkish government — for them to write you a letter saying, we want you to investigate? Or is that something you could do on your own?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for any criminal investigations that are undertaken by the Department of Justice, you can check with them. My guess is they’re not likely going to be prepared to discuss much publicly. But what we have made clear to Turkish officials is that if we can be helpful as they conduct the investigation into the failed coup attempt, we’re prepared to use our resources to support our allies.
Q I also wanted to ask about the military purge you talked about earlier. A question I have is whether or not you’re worried or concerned that so many military officials being purged, are being arrested, will have an impact on the U.S. relationship with the Turkish military, which I’m sure you all have been working on for the last few years. Is that something you’re concerned about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not ready to pass judgment on any specific actions taken by the Erdogan government. Our view is that they should exercise restraint, that they need to act within the rule of law, and that they should avoid actions that could lead to further violence and instability.
The Turkish government and the Turkish people have long valued their democracy. They’ve long been proud of their democracy. They’ve long been proud of the rights that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution that protect the freedom of the press, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly for all of Turkey’s citizens. And respecting those freedoms and protecting those democratic traditions is important and something that the Turkish government should make a priority even as they confront these challenging times.
Q The President yesterday mentioned, as he was making his statement about Baton Rouge, he talked about (inaudible) and the importance of focusing on the rhetoric. I’m wondering, is the President concerned about violence at the upcoming conventions? Is that part of the reason he’s having Loretta Lynch come in tomorrow, to talk about what we’ve seen in terms of the last couple of weeks? Is that something that the President is specifically concerned about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, the President has got confidence in the year’s worth of work that the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Secret Service have devoted to working with state and local law enforcement officials in Cleveland and Philadelphia respectively to ensure the safety and security of the political conventions this year. Those efforts are organized around the idea that the candidates and the delegates and the media should all be able to participate in the democratic process of choosing a party nominee safely.
Those security plans also incorporate the rights of those protesting the convention to express their views peacefully. This is what a democracy should look like. The Obama administration has taken steps to work with local officials to ensure that that’s what occurs. And the President certainly has confidence. And I think the reference that the President was making — the President yesterday was referring to overheated rhetoric from politicians that tends to get even hotter in the midst of a political convention. Particularly at this time, given the violence that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, that kind of rhetoric would be particularly divisive and something the President believes that our country’s political leaders should try to avoid.
Q And just one more about the convention. There have been some calls for the open-carry law in Ohio be suspended during the convention there. Police, community leaders have said that they want that to happen. I think Sherrod Brown also mentioned that that should be considered. Does the White House have a position on whether the governor should consider banning open-carry during the week of the convention?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, for the specific tactical operational security decisions that have to be made, we’re going to defer to the professionals. Like I said, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service have been on the ground in Cleveland and Philadelphia for a year now, working with state and local officials to implement security plans to keep everybody safe. So we’ll let them determine what steps can and should be taken.
The President has already expressed his concern with the risks that are enhanced by some of these open-carry laws. The situation in Dallas was a pretty good example of that. You have police officers protecting a peaceful protest who come under fire from somebody wielding a high-powered weapon. The challenge the police officers had to protect themselves and to protect the protestors was made far more complicated by the fact that there were a lot of people walking around in public with high-powered weapons. It makes it particularly difficult to determine who the shooter is and who just is an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire.
It is a testament to the professionalism and courage of the men and women in the Dallas Police Department that they didn’t shoot the wrong person. Ordinarily, you would say that justification for the use of force by a police officer in a situation like that — you could imagine the police officer saying that person had a gun, in explaining why they might have shot somebody. Again, that shows a lot of heroism and a lot of courage and a lot of professionalism and a lot of good judgment exercised under some of the worst circumstances you could imagine.
And if we’re going to have a conversation in this country about what we can do to try to make the job of being a cop a little less dangerous, the President believes this is one place we could start.
Q Thanks, Josh. Is it consistent with the White House’s understanding of the agreement that our government has with the Turkish government that they would be able to cut power and restrict air traffic, essentially, in and out of Incirlik in circumstances like we saw the other day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, when it comes to these kinds of military facilities that are located on foreign soil, obviously U.S. forces and our ability to operate on those bases is at the invitation of the host government. We’re certainly not going to call into question their sovereignty or violate their sovereignty.
But for the way that those relationships are managed, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But I understand what they have indicated is that the Turkish government did take the appropriate steps to ensure the safety and security of U.S. service members, other national security civilians and their families who are located there. And again, as it relates to the power source for this one particular military facility, you should check with the Department of Defense.
Q Is it also the White House’s understanding that as the Erdogan government continues to round up individuals that the relationship as it has been laid out as a fellow NATO member is solid?
MR. EARNEST: The United States strongly values our relationship with our NATO ally, Turkey. There’s obviously a lot of business that the United States and Turkey are engaged in right now to the mutual benefit of both our countries. Not just — even outside of our specific NATO responsibilities, the United States and Turkey obviously working closely together to confront the extremist threat posed by ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. We also work together to shut down the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria that could potentially boost the capability of not just ISIL but other extremist groups, including al Qaeda’s presence in Syria.
So there are important priorities on which the United States and Turkey are closely coordinating. We value that relationship. It benefits both our countries. And I don’t anticipate that — there’s no good reason why that close coordination and effective working relationship shouldn’t continue into the future.
Q So from the White House’s perspective, there’s been no fracture in any way or any shape in the resulting days since the coup attempt?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, obviously we’ve seen some of this rhetoric from some Turkish officials about the status of Mr. Gulen. But at this point, when it comes to our efforts to coordinate on ISIL and other extremists in Iraq and Syria, we’re continuing to coordinate quite effectively with the Turks in a way that’s enhancing the national security of both our countries.
Q And in France, is it likely that the United States government will send a representative to Nice to represent us in the mourning of the victims of that attack?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I don’t know the details for that memorial service at this point, but I’m confident that there will be some U.S. representation at that event.
Q Highest level, meaning the President? Perhaps the Vice President?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate that the President will travel to Nice, but I’m confident that the United States will be represented at that event.
Q Just a couple more. I get this question a lot from not just our viewers but also people who just write me, wondering about this notion of the White House being illuminated in blue. I’ve asked you about this previously. It seems to be such a very small but potentially powerful gesture that would take so little and would mean so much to so many. And I’m just wondering if there might be any reconsideration, especially given what has now just happened again in Baton Rouge.
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I don’t anticipate that that’s something that we’ll do. But obviously the President did travel to Dallas to attend a memorial service of the five Dallas police officers who were killed. After the service, the President spent time meeting with the families of each of the officers who was killed. He also spent time with the officers who were wounded in protecting protestors and eventually taking down the shooter that posed such a significant threat to the community there.
In response to that tragic event, the President signed an order lowering the flags across the country to half-staff to reflect the mourning that our nation engaged in for the police officers who were killed in Dallas. The President spoke yesterday powerfully condemning the killing of police officers in Baton Rouge. He expressed his strong support for police officers in Baton Rouge and for the broader community that’s grieving the violence they had seen in that community over the last couple of weeks.
I would anticipate that soon, the President will have an opportunity to call the families of the police officers who were killed in Baton Rouge yesterday. I think all of this is an indication of just how strongly the President feels about the need to show our strong support for our men and women in law enforcement. As the President has said on a number of occasions, the vast majority of our police officers do an outstanding job and they do heroic work. They put on the uniform and walk out the door prepared to put their life on the line at a moment’s notice just to protect their community. And that is work that is worthy of our respect and our praise, and not our scorn. And the President feels quite strongly about that.
And the President had an opportunity to convey that directly to law enforcement officials that were here at the White House at the beginning of last week. He had an opportunity to express that strong support for our police officers at a four-hour meeting that he convened with civil rights leaders and academics and law enforcement officials and political leaders to discuss some of the challenges that are encountered by police officers and law enforcement organizations across the country, particularly as they try to sustain and even strengthen the bonds of trust that they have with the communities that they serve.
But the President dedicated a lot of time to this, both in substance and in symbolism. The President’s strong support for American law enforcement officers is crystal-clear.
Q But I’m just curious about the — I don’t know, Josh, it just seems sometimes that there’s this disconnect; that despite his efforts, it’s not reaching that community in a way that is reflective of perhaps his intentions. Is he frustrated by that? Because it seems like if you listen to some folks in law enforcement, they don’t feel like they’re getting the kind of support that they need. I don’t know what that looks like — I’m not in law enforcement. And so I’m just wondering, do you sense that disconnect? And is that frustrating in any way?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I think the President has been engaged in a lot of work over the last week, week and a half, to try to bring the country together; that some of the tension and some of the violence that we’ve seen in this country has started to pull people in different directions. And the President has worked hard and I think been conspicuous about his efforts to try to make sure that the country recognizes the common interest that we have as a country.
And the violence that we’ve seen in this country does I think pose a significant challenge to our political system, that the kind of dysfunction and division that we’ve seen in Washington, D.C. does leave people with the impression — does leave American citizens with the impression that our country is more divided than it actually is.
The vast majority of Americans believe that it is unjustified to carry out any act of violence against a police officer just because they’re wearing the uniform. The vast majority of Americans I think are concerned about the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system. And they I think have pointed questions that were raised by some of the videos that we’ve seen of interactions between police officers and African American men. That doesn’t mean those Americans are anti-cop. It doesn’t mean they’re anti-law enforcement. It just means that they’ve got some concerns based on the video.
And the President’s desire is to make sure we recognize that there’s a whole lot more that unites us, there’s a whole lot more that we have in common — even when it comes to our concerns, even when it comes to our sadness about innocent loss of life — and that focusing on that unity and focusing on what we have in common is what will be necessary to help us move past some of these challenges that have beset our country over the last couple of weeks.
Q Josh, just to follow up a little bit on Freddie Gray. We’ve heard the President talk in recent days about one of the ways that tensions can be eased between communities and law enforcement is that — open and transparent investigations, and thorough due process. This is now the fourth officer to stand trial. There have been no convictions. Not to get into the legal — like you said, don’t want to talk about this particular case — but what does the President say then — as transparent investigation. These charges came very quickly. But to those who say justice isn’t served because of how this ended up then in court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, knowing that I’m just not going to be in a position to talk about the individual court proceedings, I think what we have seen is an effort by local officials in Baltimore, including the police department, to try to address some of the concerns that have been raised by the community. The United States Department of Justice has been supportive of the efforts by officials in Baltimore to try to address some of these concerns that have been raised.
It’s hard to talk about that in a lot of detail because the other path to some justice here is relevant to an ongoing Department of Justice investigation of the Baltimore Police Department, so I certainly don’t want to say anything that could be perceived as influencing that investigation, either. But this is — obviously, what’s happening in Baltimore is indicative of the kind of challenge that other communities across the country are facing. And the President has said many times that our success in confronting those challenges requires follow-through. And there’s a tendency for these kinds of issues, as it relates to policing and equality and justice in our criminal justice system, have a tendency to bubble up when there are headlines, but then recede into the background and recede lower on the priority list when they’re not the focus of public attention.
And much of the conversation that the President convened last week with law enforcement officials and political leaders and academics and civil rights leaders, the sort of wide-ranging discussion from people of a variety of perspectives on this issue was about the need for follow-through, about the need for some persistence and some tenacity as communities try to pursue specific solutions. And that’s certainly something that a lot of communities can take to heart as they try to confront the situation in their own cities.
Q One on Turkey. U.S. citizens were told to avoid the area near the U.S. consulate in Istanbul because of the demonstrations today. Any concerns right now that the security there, any plans to beef up security around there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, of course, when you see this kind of instability in a country where there are a large number of Americans the President’s very first concern is about the safety and security of our diplomats, our service members, and our diplomatic and military facilities inside the country. The President is also, of course, concerned about other American citizens who may not be there in any sort of official role but are inside Turkey. So these were the first questions the President was asking on Friday night.
What I can tell you is that we were pleased by the response of the Turkish government to ensure that U.S. facilities, both diplomatic and military, have been protected. And that includes in advance of the planned protests today outside of diplomatic facilities in Istanbul and Ankara. In both cases, the Turkish government lived up to the responsibility that they have to ensure the protection of diplomatic installations. And we would expect that kind of cooperation and good faith to continue in the weeks ahead.
Q Josh, the Turkish President has said that if he’s asked to approve the death penalty, he will. When the President speaks to Mr. Erdogan, will he urge him, in that restraint you referenced, specifically not to carry out the death penalty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to prejudge their call. I think that what we have been saying and what I would anticipate the President to repeat is to urge restraint, to avoid actions or words that could further incite more violence or instability.
Turkey has a long tradition of democracy, and it’s been beset by challenges, including military coups, over the last several decades. But the Turkish people are justifiably proud of their constitution and the values that are enshrined in it. And the President believes strongly that it’s important for not just the Turkish people but the Turkish government to protect those traditions, to abide by them, and to invest in the democratic institutions that are critical to effective functioning of that country and that society.
Q But the EU has been very explicit, saying that if you roll out the death penalty you can’t be part of the EU. I know you don’t want to prejudge the phone call, but has the White House endorsed that sentiment? I know you don’t want to prejudge the phone call, but is that the idea that you’re endorsing here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the President, whenever he has these discussions with Erdogan — and to be clear, the President has had these kinds of conversations with President Ergogan in the past about the need for the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey to exercise restraint and to be respectful and even protective of the democratic practices and traditions of that country. Those conversations occurred at the highest level even before this most recent coup attempt.
But in each of those conversations, the President is always respectful of the sovereignty of the Turkish government. And ultimately, it’s the Turkish President, consistent with the traditions and due process of the country, that should make the decisions about how to rule the country. The President is not going to stand on the sidelines and dictate outcomes, but I do think you can expect the President to renew his call for restraint and urge everyone in Turkey to respect that country’s democratic institutions. And that’s certainly consistent with our forceful support for the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey.
Q If the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey doesn’t uphold democratic values, which the White House has suggested they haven’t in those conversations that you just referenced to as well, at what point do you start to question U.S. support there? Or is Turkey just so needed because of the operations with NATO, for so many reasons, that the U.S. will stand by Turkey even if we see the overreach that you fear?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals. Obviously the Turkish government and people of Turkey are dealing with an extraordinary situation here. There’s been a failed coup attempt that occurred not even 72 hours ago, and —
Q And he acted very quickly, thousands rounded up in a very short amount of time.
MR. EARNEST: And I’m not going to second-guess the individual actions that are taken by the Turkish government. But I will reiterate something that’s been reiterated many times in private as well, which is that the Turkish government should exercise restraint, that they should demonstrate a commitment to due process, they should demonstrate a continued commitment to the values that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution.
The Turkish people are genuinely proud, and justifiably proud, of the democratic traditions in that country. And those traditions and practices are worth protecting.
Q And finally, Mr. Gulen’s followers here in the U.S. have raised concerns of being targeted themselves. Have you seen anything like that? And is the U.S. in any way offering protection to Mr. Gulen in light of these concerns?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific steps that have been taken with regard to protecting Mr. Gulen. I guess I’d refer you to local law enforcement authorities in Pennsylvania. Our position vis-à-vis his relationship the Turkish government is clear.
Q On Turkey again. Today Secretary Kerry talk about whether Turkey’s NATO membership might be at risk and the State Department walked back a little bit. But I would like to ask you, do you see Turkey’s NATO membership, if it doesn’t adhere to democratic values, be at risk going forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear — again, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might happen going forward. Our message to the Turks both in public and in private is to urge them to exercise restraint, particularly at this volatile time. We certainly don’t want to see anybody taking actions that could lead to greater instability or more violence. There are important universal values and rights that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution, and we believe those values and rights are worth protecting. We believe everybody has some responsibility for doing that, including the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey.
We’ll make that point clear in public and in private. That is a President that we’ve emphasized in our interactions with the Turkish government prior to the recent failed coup attempt, and that’s a message that we’ll continue to deliver in the aftermath.
As it relates to Turkey’s membership in NATO, even in those periods in Turkey’s recent history where they haven’t had a democratically elected civilian government, they’ve been members of NATO, so that’s a relevant fact. But we certainly believe that the people of Turkey have benefitted significantly from a commitment to democratic values and the protection of freedoms that are enshrined in Turkey’s constitution. We certainly want to urge everyone to support those values moving forward.
Q — there have been (inaudible) news websites in Turkey shut down. There are lists being published for those journalists to be arrested. I have a friend — journalist friend — statement that more were issued this morning. Do you think after the coup attempt, is this justified for Mr. Erdogan to go after journalists and shut down the news websites?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have previously been critical — I’m not aware of the specific reports that you’re referring to. Let me just say that I have previously been asked about some steps that have been taken by the Turkish government against independent journalists in Turkey, and I’ve raised the significant concerns the United States government has with those kinds of steps. The fact is freedom of the press is one of the rights that’s enshrined in Turkey’s constitution and we believe that’s a freedom that’s worth protecting.
I do also recall, on a recent visit to the United States that some members of President Erdogan’s entourage were engaged in a scuffle with some journalists here in the United States. That certainly is conduct that we do not condone at all. The United States strongly believes in the importance of press freedom. We believe that freedom of the press is critical to the strength and success of our democracy here in the United States. And we believe that’s a universal human right that extends to other countries as well. Fortunately, in this case, it’s enshrined in Turkey’s constitution. And we believe that democratically elected civilian government of Turkey should protect it. And we believe that everybody in Turkey should protect those kinds of practices and traditions that have been critical to Turkey’s success as a country and as a society.
Q Can you tell us when did you first know the coup was happening? Did you have an initial report? What time was it on July 15? How did you learn about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have a specific time stamp to share with you. Obviously there were a lot of public reports about unusual military movements inside of Turkey. Obviously United States officials are in regular touch with their Turkish counterparts, so there presumably were reports that went beyond just the public reporting on this matter. But obviously it was a confused situation inside of Turkey for several hours. That was true of the people inside of Turkey, including the Turkey government, and there was not a lot of clarity for people outside of Turkey about what exactly was happening.
But obviously Secretary Kerry has been in frequent touch with his Turkish counterpart. President Obama was on the phone with his Secretary of State to hear firsthand about some of those conversations and from information that was being collected by the State Department that obviously has a substantial presence inside of Turkey. The President convened a conference call with many members of his national security and foreign policy team on Saturday morning where he was briefed with the latest information. So the President has a variety of mechanisms for staying up to date on fast-moving global events, and that machinery was well-exercised over the weekend.
Q So you didn’t know before it happened, was my final question. You knew before it happened, or after it started? What was it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any sort of intelligence assessment or intelligence information to share. But I think it’s fair to say that the nature of a coup is that not many people know in advance, before it happens.
Q Josh, I’m curious — you’ve been asked now by my count at least two or three times the simple question, is Turkey’s NATO membership secure, and you don’t answer yes or no. You answer by saying we hope they show restraint, protect rights, et cetera. That sort of puzzles me. Why isn’t this a simple yes or no question? Is Turkey’s NATO membership secure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not trying to be obtuse here. Turkey’s NATO status I think is quite clear and it is secure, based on their own judgments, based on the conversation that President Erdogan had with the Secretary General of NATO earlier today, and again, based on Turkey’s history, which is that even in those periods in their recent history where they have not had a democratically elected civilian government, they’ve been a member of NATO.
They are making important contributions to the security of our alliance. We also have an important national security relationship with them when it comes to fighting ISIL and other extremists in Iraq and in Syria. So the United States has an important relationship with Turkey, including a national security relationship that benefits both our countries and the citizens of both our countries.
Q Let me stick with Turkey for a second, because there’s this little question that I think is a yes/no that I still don’t think you’ve answered, which is did the U.S. have any prior knowledge that a coup was going to be taking place in Turkey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think in this situation, I just don’t have an intelligence assessment to offer. But I think it is — I think the very definition of a coup is that not many people are aware of a secret plot to overthrow the government.
Q But one of those people could have been an American official.
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to what may have been known by an individual U.S. intelligence officer. But I think what is clear is that even with some information foreshadowing an event like that, while the situation is occurring it’s unclear exactly what’s happening on the ground, how well it’s being executed, how much support there is across the government.
But what’s clear is that the United States has always and will continue to strongly support the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. The United States government is strongly supportive of Turkey’s democratic institutions and traditions. And it’s why we’ve been unequivocal in condemning the failed coup attempt.
Q Can I go back to the race-policing issue? You mentioned the Lynch meeting tomorrow that’s been added to the President’s schedule. Are we looking at any other meetings this week, a continuation, if you will, of the conversations that the President held in several venues last week?
MR. EARNEST: There’s the potential for that, but we’ll obviously keep you posted if things like that are added to the President’s schedule.
Q Okay. Did the President — I mean, you mentioned he spent so much time and effort last week in these pretty sometimes raw, emotional sessions, heartfelt people from various different walks of life and viewpoints on this. Does the President feel last week accomplished anything, especially in light of what happened in Baton Rouge?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s a hard thing to assess. What the President spent a lot of his time on last week was trying to do a couple of things. The first is to help the American people recognize that we’re not nearly as divided as it may seem. You might conclude from the overheated political rhetoric or the dysfunction in Congress that somehow the citizens of this country just can’t see eye to eye. The President doesn’t believe that’s true. And there are a variety of ways to evaluate that.
And I think whether it is — the outpouring of support for the police officers and the community of Dallas in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy there is one example of that. The outpouring of support that we’ve seen for the community of Baton Rouge and the families of the police officers who were killed yesterday I think is an example of that. The harsh condemnation, even among civil rights activists who have raises concerns about the conduct of the Baton Rouge Police Department I think is good evidence of that.
Those of you who had the opportunity to travel with the President to Dallas and attend the memorial service saw just how diverse the crowd was of people who were in attendance at the memorial service. So I think that’s an indication that there is a whole lot more that unites us than divides us.
And the President believes that that often is easily overshadowed by rhetoric from attention-seeking politicians to viral videos that show up in our Facebook feeds that contain horrible acts of violence. So there’s a lot to cut through there. But the President believes that that’s a point that’s worth repeating.
There was also a genuine conversation about what specific, tangible steps can we take to address the concerns that have been raised by people in the civil rights community, but also do more to support our men and women in law enforcement who have incredibly difficult jobs.
Q But, Josh, after all the President’s impassioned words last week, we still had a shooter open up and kill police officers.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, but, Mark, that guy, by definition, is a madman. He attacked police officers in a way that is totally unjustified and totally unjustifiable. And I don’t think that’s a fair standard at all to evaluate the President’s performance or his message.
I think what’s also true is that this is going to be a longer-term proposition. This is not the kind of problem that we are going to confront, address, and put behind us as a society in the next six months or even over the next six years. This is going to require sort of the sustained commitment and willingness on the part of people all across our society, both inside and outside of government, making it a priority. And the President is certainly committed to that task, and hopefully we’ll see other people of goodwill do the same.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two questions. As far as the coup in Turkey is concerned, according to the (inaudible) at the Middle Eastern Institute, and also experts there, what they are saying is, is the U.S. worried about next could be Pakistan? Because they said that Pakistan also had a history of many, many coups and it may not fail if it happened in Pakistan because the current Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is very unpopular among the people there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly not going to speculate about the political situation in another country. Obviously the United States has an important relationship with Pakistan. We don’t agree on everything, but we certainly have been able to effectively coordinate on a variety of national security issues that’s important to fighting extremists and protecting the citizens in both our countries.
So the relationship between the United States and Turkey is different than the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. Pakistan is not a NATO ally, but certainly the United States benefits from our ability to have a productive relationship with Pakistan, particularly as it relates to national security cooperation.
Q And second, as far as the recent arguments and decisions by the Supreme Court, especially on immigration, many experts, including the lawyers and the common people who were waiting for this decision, and also, of course, waiting that President Obama will bring some light in their life — what they’re asking is, since the Supreme Court has only eight justices, not nine, but four and four, on immigration, but fifth could have been in favor. So why somebody has taken this immigration issue — so what is the future of the immigration now, do you think? Because since the decision is not by the nine justices but only the eight.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a couple of things here, and both of them go back to Congress. The first is —
Q I’m sorry to interrupt you — do you the President can order another review by the eight that could be 5 and 3?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the way I’ll answer your question is in two ways and both of them have to do with Congress. The first is, the President believes that the Supreme Court of the United States functions most effectively when it has the full complement of justices. And this is something that President Reagan spoke to — about how the work of the Supreme Court and the work of the American people is not getting done as long as there’s a prolonged vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The second is, when it comes to immigration reform, the President has long acknowledged that his administrative actions to try to fix some aspects of our broken immigration system are not in any way a substitute for legislative action and reforms that are passed through legislation. That’s something that’s not going to happen in this Congress, but hopefully the next President and the next Congress will be able to get it done.
The President certainly has been pushing in that direction, because of the work of President Obama and his team, we did build strong bipartisan support in the United States Senate for a common-sense legislative proposal. Unfortunately, it was blocked by Republican leaders in the House — otherwise it would have gotten through. So there certainly is a path for a future Congress to succeed, and hopefully they will.
Q And finally, what is the presidential message to those who are waiting — 11 million or so? But they are working hard and they want to pay taxes and all they want is to be good citizens of the U.S. just like anybody else. So what do you think they should do now with the decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President’s message is that we are a nation of laws and we are a nation of immigrants. And he certainly is hopeful that the kind of widespread bipartisan support that we see all across the country for common-sense immigration reform is hopefully something that will manifest itself in bipartisan support in Congress. But there’s some dysfunction in Congress that needs to be addressed, and hopefully it will.
2:12 P.M. EDT
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