Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 20, 2016 – 1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any comments to make at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Thank you. Let’s start with the breaking political news, or Republican convention news — the statement from Melania Trump’s speechwriter that she made a mistake and incorporated some phrasing from Michelle Obama in Melania Trump’s speech. Do you have any comment on that today?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing beyond what I said yesterday. Look, obviously, Mrs. Obama spoke movingly, in her own words, about her life story, about her values. And she was warmly received by the crowd. She got strong reviews from pundits. And I’m confident that in the future, aspiring first ladies or potential first husbands would draw on the same kinds of sentiments to advocate for their spouse.
And Mrs. Obama is quite proud of the speech that she gave in 2008, and I’m confident that she’ll deliver another speech that’s equal to the test next week.
Q Can you say whether the news has made its way through various parts of the White House and reached the President and/or the First Lady? Are they aware of the statement from the Trump campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President and the First Lady since that letter became public, so I’m not sure if they’re aware of it right now.
Q To follow up on yesterday’s meeting the President had with the Attorney General and others on police matters. He talked about police departments around the country needing resources for things like bullet-proof vests and training and other items. Can you say if he’s preparing to ask Congress for money to provide police departments with those things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what is clear is that as is true of solving so many of these complex problems, there’s an important role for Congress to play. And has been true for much of the last 18 months, it’s not at all evident that the Republicans who lead the House and the Senate are up to the job. Included in the President’s budget proposal were resources that could be — could have been dedicated to those kinds of priorities, but as you recall, Republicans wouldn’t even convene a hearing to discuss the President’s budget.
Every year for the last 40 years, whether Democrats were in charge or Republicans were in charge of the Congress, there’s been a hearing about the President’s budget, where the President’s budget director has been called to testify, to discuss the priorities that are included in the President’s budget. And this year Republicans cancelled that hearing, and they wouldn’t even discuss those proposals with the President’s budget director. It’s particularly ironic because Republicans have, themselves, utterly failed to pass their own budget, either in the House or the Senate. So it’s an indication that the congressional budget process is broken. And it’s the American people that have to deal with the consequences.
But the President obviously believes that our men and women in law enforcement would benefit from additional support from the federal government and the President is certainly eager to provide it. I don’t have any news to make about an additional funding request, but when it comes to COP grants and funding for staffing and resources and equipment, the President believes that Congress needs to make that a priority.
Q Lastly, the new British Prime Minister is on her first overseas trip. She’s in Germany today meeting with Angela Merkel. She’s supposed to go to France. When President Obama spoke with her last week, did he invite her to come to the White House? Would he like to see her here before his time in office is up?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President extended a specific invitation to Washington, D.C. I think the President’s expectation is that when she travels to China for the G20 that she will be in attendance and they will have an opportunity to see one another there.
If there’s an additional meeting scheduled either before or after that conversation, we’ll definitely let you know.
Q Thanks. So Reuters reported yesterday that Donald Trump, if he wins the presidency, has a plan where he would purge any federal government officials appointed by this administration, and that he might seek legislation from the Congress to make it easier to fire public workers. And part of that is a concern because they fear that this administration might try to convert appointees to civil servants, which would make it harder for them to get rid of these appointees. I guess, first of all, is that a plan? Like is there any idea about converting appointees from this administration into civil servants as the term comes to an end? And then also, just a response to this idea that if Trump were elected that he would do this purge.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think just as a factual matter, my understanding is that there is a specific process that certain political appointees can enter into to make themselves eligible for a career civil service position in the federal government. And I know that political appointees in both parties over the years have availed themselves of that process. I will acknowledge I don’t have a lot of detailed knowledge about what that process is, but I just know that that is a longstanding precedent.
The second thing that I know, based on the Reuters reporting that I’ve seen on this, is that this is a policy priority that was identified and promoted by Governor Christie. I think it’s fair to say that if you want to stack up the ethical record of President Obama and his political appointees against the ethical record compiled by Governor Christie and his political appointees that we’d welcome that kind of comparison.
Q And on to Zika. So Florida health officials are investigating the case of Zika that may be actually locally transmitted and not connected to travel outside of this region. I was wondering, is the White House being kept abreast of this investigation? And also, like, is there a concern that now is this the start of maybe the disease spreading locally here in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen these reports of what could potentially be the first example of local transmission of the Zika virus. And by local transmission I mean an individual in the United States who has not traveled overseas to a Zika-infected location, but rather somebody who contracted the Zika virus through a mosquito bite here in the United States. It would be the first time that has happened.
I know the Florida authorities are still taking a look at this, and they obviously would be the ones to confirm any results that they have reached. The Centers for Disease Control and other public health experts in the federal government have been in close touch with public health officials in Florida on this matter and I would expect that they will continue to be, both as they conduct the investigation and also as they initiate any needed response.
That’s going to be — as we saw with Ebola, the effective coordination between federal public health authorities and state and local public health authorities will be critical to our success in combatting this virus, and it’s certainly something that public health officials at the highest levels of the CDC are closely watching.
I think what is unfortunate is those very public health professionals in the federal government that are responsible for fighting this disease, providing support to state and local health officials to prevent the spread of this disease, don’t have all of the resources that they would like to have to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And the reason for that is simply Republicans have rebuffed that request. Yet, again, Republicans in Congress have a responsibility to step up and foot the bill for the response to a genuine public emergency, and Republicans in Congress dropped the ball in a way that makes the American people more vulnerable.
And, again, I guess they’ll have the seven weeks of a recess to think about the consequences of their failure to deal with this situation. That’s unfortunate. But the federal government is certainly prepared to use the resources that we have to coordinate with officials in Florida, in this case, to investigate what happened and to respond accordingly in a way that’s necessary to protect the people of Florida and the people of the United States.
Q Yesterday, when we were talking about this speech incident at the convention, you mentioned that, well, you know, it shows that there’s bipartisan support of these kinds of values. But in this particular speech, the wording and phrasing was taken from the First Lady’s speech. Even if the sentiments or the idea was the same, the words themselves were taken. Does that bother you, or does that bother the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’ll let people draw their own conclusions based on what they have seen of the speech delivered by both women, eight years apart.
Q But now that we know that the words were taken, so that’s changed. But I’m asking, does it bother you that those words were taken from the First Lady’s speech, as though — credit was then given, though it was maybe better placed somewhere else — does it bother the President or you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the focus that we’ve had has been on the substance of the speech. And the fact that Mrs. Trump received such warm applause and such a strong review of her speech based on a reflection of the same kinds of values that were included in Mrs. Obama’s speech, I think that’s an indication that the country has got a lot of common ground, even in spite of the political divisions that are on display at the convention. And I think that certainly buttresses an argument the President has been making quite frequently of late about the country not being as divided as it might seem.
Q Well, how do you say that when some of the other speeches within the same basic time frame were blasting Secretary Clinton and President Obama? I mean, isn’t that completely the opposite of what you just said?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think those are the kinds of speeches that might make it seem that our country is quite divided, but, again, a speech that closely tracks with what Mrs. Obama said eight years ago and highlighting the same kinds of values, highlight the importance of those values in terms of the next generation of Americans and in our system of government receives applause in the room and strong reviews from pundits — again, I think that’s an indication that there’s a lot of common ground and that Americans are drawing on the same kinds of values.
Again, their political leaders may have their differences, but the values of the country are still broadly shared. I think the real question — and this is a question that ultimately the American people will determine in the fall — is who is best suited to put forward an agenda and advance an agenda that embodies those values. And that’s an assessment that the American people will make.
Q Do the speeches matter at all?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. The conventions matter and the speeches matter. And that’s the reason the First Lady is working so hard on hers, and the President is working so hard on his, is that it does give people an opportunity to be heard and to make a case about what they stand for and what our parties stand for. And, again, the American people I think will have an opportunity to evaluate those speeches, and those who tune into both will have an opportunity to compare the values and the message that’s included in both.
Q So when Governor Christie last night called on this huge crowd to judge Hillary Clinton guilty or not on a number of accounts, what’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have much of a reaction to that, again, beyond the observation I made earlier about the ethical record compiled by Governor Christie and his political appointees in New Jersey.
Q Thanks, Josh. To go back to the Reuters story about federal employees. If you remember, in early 2009, did this administration have a concern about agency staff that had been carried over from the Bush administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, the irony of all this is that it’s Republicans in Congress, chiefly, who have, in many cases, been waging an all-out assault on federal employees. It’s Republicans who have advocated for cutting pay and cutting retirement benefits from civil servants.
So the President has been in a position of both making smart decisions when it comes to our budget, and there’s some evidence that we can provide about growth and size of the U.S. government under President Obama is much smaller than the rate of growth of the federal government under self-described conservative Republican Presidents. So those are just the facts.
So I think the President’s approach to this has been much more responsible. Again, when it comes to Governor Christie, I think he’s got a tougher case to make.
Q Do you think there’s any value in replacing agency heads and agency staff with people from the President has been able to select?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, we’re balancing two priorities here, right? The President has talked about himself in terms of the value of fresh legs and new blood in important leadership positions in the federal government; that many of these jobs that are filled by civil servants are quite demanding, and having a schedule for turnover and giving different people with different perspectives and new insights, potentially, into the job is healthy for any organization and certainly is healthy for an organization as large as the federal government.
At the same time, there’s institutional knowledge that’s accrued over time, and people develop an expertise in a role or in a field that could be valuable. And in some cases, there are negative consequences for losing that institutional knowledge and that expertise.
So balancing those two things is certainly a challenge for any large organization that wants to preserve continuity. And that challenge is no less significant for the federal government, either. But the alternative to managing those kinds of changes is not changing at all, and I don’t think anybody thinks that’s an option and it certainly would not be an indication of a healthy democracy.
So the American people are counting on this kind of transition to be effectively managed to enjoy the benefits of protecting institutional knowledge and expertise, and maximizing the benefits of fresh thinking and fresh legs and new perspective. And that’s certainly what the President has made a priority as we prepare for a transition that’s set to take place in six months or so. I guess six months from today, actually, now that I think about it.
Q Only a half-year left. A couple questions on President Peña Nieto’s visit from Mexico. As you know, that will be the day after Donald Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention.
MR. EARNEST: I am aware of that. (Laughter.)
Q How much of this discussion do you expect will center on Trump’s proposals, including a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?
MR. EARNEST: I would not anticipate much time at all being spent on discussing that. There are any number of important, substantive issues between the United States and Mexico, and what President Obama has found over his seven and a half years in office is that effectively investing in the relationship with Mexico has strengthened the security and the economy of the United States. And coordinating on countering narcotics and drug-trafficking and other security issues has improved the security situation on both sides of the border. President Obama has obviously worked effectively with the Mexican government to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would raise labor and environmental standards, would raise standards when it comes to intellectual property protections in a way that would level the playing field for U.S. businesses and U.S. workers. That certainly has important economic benefits for the American people and the U.S. economy. So I’m confident that the President will be discussing that with his Mexican counterpart as well. So there’s plenty on the agenda that doesn’t involve the Republican nominee.
Q So is the visit or its timing, right between the two conventions, meant to highlight differences between Democrats and Republicans on treatment of Mexico or Latinos?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think the goal is to highlight the importance of the strong relationship between the United States and Mexico. And President Obama has certainly invested in that relationship in a way that has benefitted the American people.
I know that President Peña Nieto is committed to strengthening his country’s relationship with the United States, regardless of who wins the presidential election. And he’s looking to cement much of the progress that’s been made under President Obama’s leadership and create a strong platform for the next President to build on, in terms of our country’s relationship with Mexico.
So, look, I think the other thing is they’ll have a series of meetings here at the White House over the course of Friday morning, and then the two Presidents will come out and speak to all of you and take some questions about what they discussed. So you’ll have an opportunity to hear from them about what priorities they’ve identified and what progress they’ve been able to make by continuing this dialogue that they had just as recently as a few weeks ago in Canada.
Q One more topic. In Turkey, after the coup and its aftermath, has that had an impact on anti-ISIS operations, either from Incirlik or elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: For a detailed explanation of that, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. My understanding, based on what my colleagues at the Department of Defense have communicated to me, is that there has not been a significant disruption of our efforts against ISIL, in part because there are operations — flight operations that are still taking place at Incirlik. In addition to that, there are capabilities that the United States maintains in the region, including aircraft carriers that could supplement any sort of disruption that occurs. And so my understanding is that the pace of operations against ISIL targets has not been affected by some of the turmoil that we have seen in Turkey over the last few days.
That said, we’ve spent a lot of time talking even in this room about how strategically significant the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey is because of its close proximity to Syria. It allows our aircraft, both manned and unmanned, to spend more time over the battlefield. So we certainly have credited the Turks for their partnership and their cooperation in allowing the United States and our coalition partners to use the Incirlik Airbase, and it certainly has enhanced our efforts against ISIL in a way that has had positive national security benefits for Turkey. They’re the country that has the long border with Syria, so they certainly are interested in making sure that that pressure is maintained. And we’re going to work with them to make sure that we can use the Incirlik Airbase to do exactly that.
Q I won’t ask you specific figures, but have operations out of Incirlik been curtailed?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that they have not. But I’d check with the Department of Defense and they can give you a specific accounting. If there had been any changes or decline in the numbers, it’s been very small and easily compensated by some of the redundancies that I’ve described. But based on what I have heard, there has not been any significant reduction at all in our ability to use Incirlik Airbase to take strikes against ISIL targets in Syria.
Q Thanks, Josh. Following up on the ISIS issue. With this meeting out at Joint Base Andrews, how big a role does the President play in dealing with the Secretary of Defense in setting the agenda and determining the goals for this meeting? And is this going to be a meeting that is going to end up with a specific plan for the final defeat of ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chip, you may have seen on the President’s schedule that he had an opportunity to spend 45 minutes or so in the Oval Office with Secretary Carter just yesterday and he saw Secretary Carter a week or two ago at the NATO Summit in Poland. And since that time, I know Secretary Carter has done a little traveling, including in Iraq, to review our efforts there. So there was an opportunity for the President to meet with the Secretary of Defense in advance of this important meeting that the United States is hosting here.
The meeting will bring together defense ministers and chief diplomats of a number of countries — dozens of countries — who are part of our counter-ISIL coalition, and they’ll have a discussion about what we can do to continue to apply pressure against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. There will be a particular focus on what additional steps need to be taken to take back Mosul.
Obviously, Iraqi security forces have made a lot of important progress in that effort just even in the last few weeks, including the retaking of this particular military airstrip in Iraq known as Qayyarah. That was an important strategic objective and that will serve as an important logistical hub to supply forces that move against Mosul. So all of that was particularly important. I know that there will also be an extensive discussion at the State Department among the diplomats about how to provide additional stabilization in humanitarian support to Iraq.
And you’ll recall that one of the chief concerns that President Obama has is making sure that even as Iraqi forces succeed in driving ISIL out of villages and towns and even cities in Iraq, that we’re prepared to rebuild, that the Iraqi central government is prepared to rebuild these cities. We know that one of the things that ISIL has done in some of these other communities is essentially, on their way out of town, tried to destroy the basic infrastructure of the community. And the credibility of the Iraqi central government depends upon their ability to mobilize resources and work effectively to rebuild the infrastructure and rebuild these communities so that people can move back into their homes.
And that requires significant sums of money that, quite frankly, the Iraqi central government doesn’t have right now. Iraq, like many other countries that relies on energy as an important source of income for their country and as an important export in their economy, is struggling because the price of oil is lower now than it’s been in quite a while. So providing this kind of financial support to the Iraqi central government is critical to rebuilding the country of Iraq and building political support for the Iraqi central government. And that political strategy has always been the cornerstone of our broader counter-ISIL effort.
Q And somebody has got to ask it — you said the President probably watched sports rather than the convention on day one. Same thing last night?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure what he watched on TV last night, but it was not the Republican convention.
Q You’ll think he’ll watch any of it as we move along here?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’ll see if I can find out and try to keep you apprised.
Q Have you talked to him about — have you had a personal conversation with him about the convention at all since yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. I know that he has certainly been following the news coverage of the convention. I just don’t know that he’s watched much of it firsthand.
Q Is there something else you can tell us about that conversation? And a transcript would be nice. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t release a transcript. You might be disappointed in the conversation. But it sounds like on Friday you may have an opportunity to seek his reaction to the week of events in Cleveland.
Q Catching up on Netflix. (Laughter.) I want to ask you about — on a much more serious note — the radicalization of American women. The U.S. intelligence community is warning law enforcement agencies around the country of a persistent terror threat posed by radicalized Western women. This was in a joint intelligence bulletin. And I’m wondering what that bulletin tells us about the effectiveness of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the bulletin, Kevin. But obviously our intelligence community is quite attuned to the strategy that ISIL is undertaking to try to use social media to radicalize people to their cause and even potentially inspire them to carry out acts of violence. And you’ve heard me refer on a number of occasions to news releases that are issued by the Department of Justice, announcing their success in disrupting plots that could potentially be linked to ISIL. In most cases, these are cases that are not linked directly to ISIL having command and control of these operations, but rather ISIL inspiring individuals to carry out acts of violence.
And periodically, there are announcements from the FBI or the Department of Justice that American women have been detained because they’ve been attempting to travel to Syria or Iraq and provide support to ISIL fighters by traveling to those countries and taking up arms alongside them as well.
So we’re certainly mindful of this risk. And the United States has been very focused on developing a strategy that is showing more and more results of countering ISIL’s efforts online. And there are somewhat important lessons that’s we’ve learned. The first is that the United States government is not going to be the most credible source of information in pushing back against ISIL. We know that ISIL is an organization that seeks to pervert Islam to advance their ideology, so elevating the voices of Muslim leaders can often be a valuable way, a persuasive way to push back against ISIL’s attempts to pervert that religion. That’s why the United States has been able to work effectively with Muslim nations like Malaysia and the UAE to house fusion centers that essentially can be the focus of strategic planning for that counter-messaging effort. And that has yielded some important results.
The federal government has also been able to work effectively with technology companies. In the past, technology companies have been able to work effectively with the federal government to counter things like child pornography, to prevent social media tools from being used to produce and disseminate child pornography. A similar strategy can be applied to prevent social media from being used to produce and disseminate radicalizing images or messages from ISIL sympathizers. So there are obviously important free speech equities that have to be weighed into this, but there is a template for succeeding on this and we’ve been able to implement in an effective way.
So we’ve made some progress in this effort. Our efforts have improved. But there is more important work that needs to be done.
Q I want to draw your attention to something I crossed a couple weeks ago now. There have been a number of reports of U.S. diplomats being hassled by Russian governments, Russian agents. Is the White House aware of this harassment, continued harassment, not just in Russia but throughout Eastern Europe? And what, if anything, is the administration prepared to do about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I can’t speak to any specific case, but I can tell you that the U.S. government and the White House, at the highest levels, is aware of the harassment that some U.S. diplomats have had to endure overseas, and the United States has communicated to the Russian government our strongly held view about how important it is for the Russian government to abide by their responsibility to protect diplomats who are in their country.
Those views have been communicated in an unambiguous fashion. The President has said on many occasions that the safety and security of Americans serving overseas, whether they’re diplomats or servicemembers, is his top priority. And that is certainly true as we register our sincere and serious concerns with Russian officials about the kind of harassment that you’ve described.
Q Forty-seven years ago, man on the moon. Where are we in the U.S. space program? Is the President satisfied with where we are today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at NASA I’m sure could document in more detail the important progress that we’ve made in the space program over the last seven and a half years. But over the last seven and a half years, we’ve seen an important transition from a space agency that’s focused on maintaining a space shuttle, for example, and beginning to start working with private sector groups, private entities, to develop new technology that could allow humans to explore more of the solar system. And the President pursued this approach because it was a more effective use of taxpayer dollars. It had also had the potential to unleash innovation in the private sector in a way that could have positive benefits for the broader economy and certainly positive benefits for those local economies that are closely tied to the space industry.
We can certainly get you some more data and metrics that document the important progress that NASA has made in the last seven years.
Q Appreciate that. Just one more. Garry Marshall, film luminary, passed away at 81 years old. Any thoughts on his passing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously he is somebody who made a substantial contribution to American pop culture. And there are generations of Americans that were entertained on television and on film by his work. And he certainly is somebody that I think will be fondly remembered by his fans. And so obviously our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.
Q Josh, a Brexit question. The President has said and you have said, and the Vice President has said, that you want a smooth transition for the UK out of the EU. But all signs right now are pointing to the fact that the new Prime Minister said she’s not going to invoke Article 50 this year. Is that too long of a delay in the opinion of the White House? And are there concerns about what the impacts would be on the global and U.S. market?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Karen, the White House and the United States is not going to micromanage this process. This ultimately is about managing the relationship between two of the closest friends and partners of the United States — specifically, the United Kingdom and European Union. So it is certainly in the interest of the United States for that process to be undertaken in an orderly fashion, mindful of the way that those negotiations could unsettle the global economy. I think both sides are keenly aware of the stakes here. And the good news is that both sides have an interest in undertaking this process responsibly.
And we certainly are going to offer any support or facilitation that’s required to ensure that this process is done in an orderly fashion. And the President has communicated that directly to the leaders of the EU and to the newly elected leader of the United Kingdom. And in both those conversations, he received assurances about a commitment to an orderly process. But how that process takes place and when that process take place is something that will be determined by the EU charter and by the decisions made by the negotiating teams on both sides.
Q So orderly, responsibly, but you won’t say quickly, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Again, the timeline is one that should be determined by parties on both sides of the English Channel.
Q And one on — campaign-related. We’ve heard the President say that he often hears from foreign leaders and foreign officials who talk to him about this presidential election. The Vice President made some pretty candid comments in Australia, telling people at a town hall, don’t worry about our election. And he said, “The better angels in America will prevail.” Is it appropriate to be so overtly political and make such an assurance like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the Vice President is offering some reassurance to people around the world who have been a little unsettled by the tone and tenor of the political debate back here in the United States. I didn’t see the entirety of the Vice President’s remarks, but his effort is to reassure our close allies, including those in Australia, that the United States and the American people are committed to a set of principles that form the basis of our alliances and our relationships with countries around the world. And even despite some of the tension and dysfunction and colorfulness of the political debate, the American people remain committed to those institutions and to those values. And we’re hopeful that people around the world, particularly our allies, will be reassured by that.
Q Back to the question of potentially members of this administration serving in the next one, it’s been reported that two Cabinet Secretaries, Tom Vilsack and Tom Perez, both are being considered as vice presidential nominees with Secretary Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports.
Q Has the President, in fact, spoken to Secretary Clinton about them? And does he have a favorite?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve acknowledged in the past that President Obama has described his choice of Vice President Biden as the smartest political decision he ever made. And I think people like Secretary Clinton who know President Obama well personally can confirm that he means it when he says it. And the President feels as though he’s been extraordinarily well served by the expertise and experience and relationships and loyalty that Vice President Biden has brought to the job.
So when you consider how well that turned out, it seems natural that Secretary Clinton might consult President Obama about the process that he undertook to choose Vice President Biden. I’m not going to get into the conversations that they had about them or exactly to what extent those conversations lingered on specific candidates. But obviously the two men that you just named are among those who are considered to be on the short list, and the reason that there is public speculation about their consideration for that important role is at least in part because they’ve served the country so well in the roles that they have now.
So the President is extraordinarily proud of the work that Secretary Vilsack has done at the USDA and the work that Secretary Perez has done at the Department of Labor. These are individuals who are serious, who are focused on the right things. They’ve got their values in line, and these are two men who have dedicated their lives to public service and they’re in it for the right reasons. And so I guess my point is the reason that President Obama entrusted them with the responsibilities that they have now, which are substantial, their success in doing that job is exactly the same reason that people speculate that Secretary Clinton might be inclined to give them even more responsibility.
Q It sounds like you’re saying on behalf of the President that he is lobbying for one of these two to be the vice presidential nominee as the best way of continuing the stability and continuity with this administration.
MR. EARNEST: Well, not necessarily. I mean, I think — you didn’t ask me about Senator Kaine, but obviously he’s somebody else who’s —
Q He’s not a member of the administration.
MR. EARNEST: He’s not a member of the administration — that is true. But he is somebody who is the subject of some rather intense public speculation about —
Q I’m just asking about —
MR. EARNEST: Well, but I guess the thing is I think the President would consider Senator Kaine — to adopt your terminology there — one of his as well. Senator Kaine was one of the first public officials to announce a public endorsement of Senator Obama. Senator Kaine served as the chair of the DNC during President Obama’s first year in office. And Senator Kaine is somebody that the President deeply respects and I think it’s been publicly reported even considered himself as a running mate back in 2008.
Q Any one of the three. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the point is that all of these individuals have fulfilled their responsibilities quite well. They’ve distinguished themselves. And the President is pleased that all three of them have distinguished themselves in serving the public while President Obama has been in office and while President Obama has been President. He has benefitted from their leadership and their good service to the administration and to the country. And so I don’t know if the President has a specific favorite, but I know the President is extraordinarily proud of all three of those individuals. But, ultimately, he is going to defer to Secretary Clinton to make the decision that she believes is best.
Q Just to follow up a bit on that, continuing with this idea of these three figures, all of whom are just such close political allies of the President and also when you see the overlap between current and former members of, say, this administration and former Secretary of State Clinton’s team. If you have to describe what that synergy looks like and to what extent, when Americans are thinking about who their next President is, how close is the overlap between the White House and the Clinton campaign and a future Clinton administration at this point? To what extent is it is a continuation of the President’s term?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are some limits to how I can answer your question, in part because Secretary Clinton is going to describe what kind of President she will be. She will describe what agenda she will pursue and she will describe the values that she will rely on in setting that agenda. And so she should do that.
So that’s why it’s hard to assess from here how closely the vision that she will describe is to the record of President Obama. But I think what I can say are a couple of things. The first is, President Obama, in offering his endorsement of Secretary Clinton, has talked about how he has seen firsthand her skills and her values, both as a candidate for President and as a Secretary of State. And the President obviously has enormous regard for Secretary Clinton and her leadership abilities. And he spoke at length about that a couple of weeks ago in Charlotte.
Secretary Clinton herself has said publicly that she’s interested in building on a lot of the progress that this administration has made. She’s interested in continuing the work to raise wages, raise the minimum wage, fight for equal pay, increase funding for job training and education in a way that we can ensure that middle-class families in the United States are getting a fair shot at success, even in a 21st century global economy.
We’ve seen Secretary Clinton talk about how important it is to build on the progress that we’ve made in digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession [Depression]. We’ve seen Secretary Clinton talk about how important it is to build on the new foundation that’s been laid by Obamacare. She believes that there are some improvements that can be made, some tweaks that can be made. But she is interested in building on that progress, not tearing it down like Republicans have advocated.
She is certainly a strong believer in things like the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. She is committed to implementing the climate change deal that was reached at the end of last year. So I think based on all of that, I think that you can rightly assess that the values and priorities of President Obama and Secretary Clinton overlap.
That said, people in this room have not hesitated to highlight situations or particular aspects of her agenda that differ from President Obama. And that’s natural. She’s somebody with her own views, her own perspectives, and there may be some places where there’s a little bit of a different view. She’s going to be her own President if, in fact, she is elected. And, again, the President has talked about the value of fresh legs and a new perspective in the Oval Office after the last eight years.
But the President is interested in that fresh perspective and those fresh legs being a part of someone who is committed to building on all the important progress that we’ve made over the last seven years. And that certainly is why President Obama has been so enthusiastic in his support of Secretary Clinton’s campaign. And you’ll obviously hear him talk a little bit more about this next week.
Q And just briefly on next week, you mentioned that the President has not been closely watching every night the Republican convention. Do you expect that he will be regularly tuning into the DNC, again, before he goes there? Can you just talk about how you think he’ll be watching that event?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that he’ll watch the night that his wife speaks. Just get that on the record right away. (Laughter.) So we’ve got that box checked. Obviously he’ll be speaking one of the nights. My expectation is that he would watch at least part of Secretary Clinton’s speech when she delivers the speech accepting the Democratic nomination for President.
Q Just a part? (Laughter.)
Q — switching channels?
MR. EARNEST: Channel surfing, maybe a little bit. No, I suspect that he’ll watch that speech as well. The other night, I don’t know, I can’t account for that. So we’ll try to update you when that night arrives.
Q Thanks, Josh. It is next Wednesday night that the President will be speaking. Can you talk a bit about what he sees as his role at the convention? Is it to defend his own record, make a case for Secretary Clinton? How does he balance those two? And are there any insights you can share into the speechwriting process — how far along it is?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that — I can tell you that the speechwriting process has begun, but I think the President would be the first to say that he feels like there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to get that in shape. So I would anticipate that he’ll be working on that over the course of this week and over the weekend.
So with that in mind, I can tell you that certainly part of the speech will be devoted to laying out the values and priorities that President Obama has been fighting for over the last seven years and underscore how important it is that that fight continues. By focusing on the middle class, by focusing on how the United States can advance our interests around the world, including through the use of diplomacy, has yielded a lot of progress for the country.
Our country is more prosperous and safer than when President Obama took office. And the President believes strongly that we can’t afford to flush that progress down the drain. It’s so important that the next President is somebody with the judgment and skill, experience, leadership to build on that progress. And that’s the overarching case that the President will make, and I think it’s the kind of case that the President hopes will resonate not just with Democrats who are committed to progressive values, but also among Americans that may not have a deep attachment to one party or the other.
So obviously the core of the President’s agenda and his speech will be those progressive values. But he believes that there’s a very strong case to make, even to Americans that aren’t registered Democrats but are concerned about making sure that the next generation of Americans has an opportunity to succeed in the same way that previous generations have. The President is enormously confident about that. The President is bullish on the prospects of future generations of Americans. And he’ll have an opportunity to describe why.
Q Considering what you said about his own viewing habits this week, is there a degree to which his speech might change or his thoughts about what he might want to say will change, based on how the rest of the RNC proceeds? It’s been starkly negative, a lot of what we’ve heard on stage. I don’t think “Lucifer” has been referred to in a primetime speech before.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least not at a political convention — maybe at a — well, maybe somewhere else. Maybe on a different channel. No, I do not anticipate the President making any changes to his speech or to his plans to deliver remarks based on anything that’s said by anybody at the Republican convention.
Q And lastly, is there an event at the White House that you’ve seen that you’re looking forward to more than what will happen tomorrow here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s hard to imagine — (laughter) — something more exciting than having the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals visit the White House. Look, I think what’s true is that there’s — serendipity has led us to a situation where a rare Royals World Series Championship has coincided with my tenure at the White House. And so I’m obviously incredibly excited about that and really looking forward to tomorrow.
Q George Brett —
MR. EARNEST: Hopefully so. We’ll see.
Q Thanks, Josh. One convention question. I’ve got a couple. But with regards to the convention, the platform calls for the end of the Johnson Amendment, which would basically allow churches to — or pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit. Does the White House have any thoughts on that type of rule?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the language that’s included in the platform. I think I would just reiterate something I think the President has said, which is that one of the founding values of the country is the separation of church and state, both to ensure that state interests are not interfered with by religious authorities, but also to make sure that state interests are not interfering with the work of religious authorities. So the President believes that both our institutions of state and our institutions of religion in the United States both benefit significantly from observing that principle.
Q Something I wanted to share with you — Senator Sasse and Senator Lee have put forward a reform bill on occupational licensing. That’s something that the White House has supported, some type of reform there. Would the White House, President Obama, support the Lee-Sasse bill?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the details of their specific legislative proposal. But you’re right that there are a number of executive actions that this administration has taken to try to streamline occupational licensing in a way that would make our economy more efficient. I know that one area where the administration has done a lot of work on this has to do with military veterans. There are a number of individuals who serve in the United States military who developed a set of skills that have been very valuable in their service to the country and would be quite valuable in the private sector.
And in some cases, the transfer of those skills to the private sector has been impeded by overly burdensome regulations. And streamlining that process and facilitating the ability of our veterans to work in the private sector and use those skills in the private sector is something the administration has been quite focused on, both because it could improve the economic opportunity for veterans, but also could strengthen our economy.
So again, I haven’t looked at the specific legislative proposal that’s been forward, but there are some interesting things that the administration has been able to do using the President’s executive authority. So look, that’s something that they’re interested in talking to the White House about. I’m sure they’d get their phone call returned.
Q And just one last question. Last week, PolitiFact determined as mostly false President Obama’s comment that it’s easier to get a Glock than a book. The Washington Post fact-checker made a similar conclusion on that same point. Does the President actually believe that as fact, or does he say that kind of metaphorically to say — to demonstrate how easy it is to get a gun?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would just say is, with all due respect to the fact-checkers, when the President delivered that line to a room full of about a thousand cops, there was not a lot of evident disagreement. I think there is genuine concern on the mind of — in the minds of law enforcement officials who work in these economically disadvantaged communities about how readily accessible illegal guns are and, frankly, how hard it is for kids in that community to get access to a quality education, or get access to high-quality educational opportunities that would eventually allow them to escape that neighborhood.
And the point that the President was making is, rather than mobilize an effective policy response to that situation by increasing funding for schools or passing common-sense gun control legislation, too often — at least in this Republican Congress — those obvious solutions have been rejected, and as a result we’ve just asked law enforcement to deal with the problem. And we put law enforcement officers and police officers in a position where they’re the ones that have to be the director of the after-school program or the drug counselor or the mental health professional. And that’s not fair, particularly when you consider they’re trying to fight crime in a dangerous neighborhood. So adding that burden to law enforcement is not fair.
And I guess Darlene started out this briefing by talking about what are some of the steps that we can take to make the job of our law enforcement officers safer. One of the things that we could do is to ease the burden on law enforcement and make the kinds of investments in these communities that we know will have a tangible impact on the kind of opportunity that’s available to kids that are growing up in these communities.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two questions. One, as far as this summit on counterterrorism is concerned by the President and the Secretary of Defense and State, and — defense ministers and also diplomatic security officials will be there. My question is that now ISIL, or ISIS, is spreading beyond these countries who will be at this summit. Do you think the President is going to meet all those countries where ISIL is spreading or will be spreading? And also, they are brainwashing the young people, (inaudible) money and other facilities on social media or Internet. And this requires much education for all the young people in those countries. My question is now, that they need money and they are buying — they are sending the stolen oil and also buying arms. Are you going, or U.S. or these countries are going after those who are supplying them arms and buying their stolen oil?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, let me just start out by saying that there are 40 nations that are represented at this conference, and many nations chose to send both their top diplomat as well as their defense minister. There will also be a number of multilateral organizations like the United Nations, NATO, EU and Interpol, who will also be a part of these discussions.
And all of these organizations and these countries have made substantial contributions that benefit our fight against ISIL that is certainly focused on Iraq and Syria. This is the location where ISIL is attempting to form a caliphate. But we’ve seen that the mythology of that caliphate is being exposed for that it is. And that’s because of the success that Iraqi forces have enjoyed in driving ISIL out of about 48 percent of the territory that they previously occupied in Iraq. The percentage of territory in Syria is a little bit smaller, but there have been important gains against ISIL, even in Syria, based on the success that our coalition has had in backing the efforts of fighters on the ground.
And the thinking has been that so much of the ISIL ideology that is promoted around the world on social media is rooted in the idea that they are on the verge of establishing a caliphate. And that’s why the international community has been focused on the effort of debunking that myth and depriving ISIL of the ability to have land on which they can organize and establish a caliphate. And we’ve made a lot of important progress in that regard.
At the same time, the United States and our coalition partners have been prepared to take strikes against ISIL targets in other areas where concern has arisen. We’ve talked in the past about a couple of the strikes that have been taken against ISIL targets in Libya. We’ve talked a little bit about strikes that the United States has taken against ISIL targets in Afghanistan, and we’ll continue to be mindful of risks that may emanate from other places that are related to ISIL and make sure that we can confront them.
Q As far as this campaign is concerned, Madam Secretary Clinton was speaking last week at NOVA, Northern Virginia Community College, with Senator Tim Kaine. And she declared a number of things. One was that if she’s elected President, she will make community colleges free for all, and all the young people will be out with the teachings of basics they need in their life, and that will help them out of these troubles and all that. And also, at the same time, she said that she will not have any taxes on the middle class, among other things. So are there any comments from the President when she’s laying down all these — future presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the two examples that you’ve cited are obviously consistent with some of the proposals that President Obama has put forward. So in his State of the Union address in 2015, President Obama laid out a clear proposal for giving hardworking students access to a free community college education based on a program that was actually pioneered by the Republican Governor of Tennessee. This is a proposal that had bipartisan support across the country, but unfortunately is not supported by Republicans in Washington, D.C. — even though we’ve seen in Tennessee that it’s been really good for their economy and really good for the middle class.
As it relates to taxes, the President has a strong record on this in terms of protecting and making permanent tax cuts for the middle class, even as we ask those at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more. And the President certainly believes that there’s more that we could do when it comes to closing loopholes that only benefit the wealthy and well-connected.
Q Finally, as far as education is concerned, when President Obama and Dr. Manmohan Singh initiative on education was signed between the U.S. and India, where does that stand now after —
MR. EARNEST: We’ll get you an update. Obviously the connections between the United States and India include students in the United States that study abroad in India, and Indian students that study abroad in the United States. And so obviously that’s just one measure of the important relationship between our two countries. But as it relates to the specific proposal, we can follow up with you with some more specific information.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:18 P.M. EDT
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