Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 28, 2016 – 1:37 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. So what is the White House reaction to Donald Trump encouraging Vladimir Putin to find and make public missing emails deleted by Hillary Clinton?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I’m periodically asked about the controversial comments uttered by the Republican nominee for President, and I don’t make a habit of responding. What I can just make clear in this case is what the Obama administration’s approach to this issue is, and it’s a pretty simple, common-sense one. The United States counters cyber threats targeting all Americans regardless of which political party they belong to. And that’s consistent with the national security approach that’s been taken by Democratic and Republican Presidents for virtually our nation’s entire history.
Q There’s been a lot of concern about his comments, though. I guess my question is if you think that’s overblown.
MR. EARNEST: Well, particularly now, and particularly this week, there’s active political debate about the claims and rhetoric that are used by candidates on both sides. And I’ll let others do that. But when it comes to our national security, and when it comes to President Obama’s approach to national security, we’re going to do everything we can to protect the American people without regard to which political party they belong to or who they voted for in the last election.
Q Harry Reid today came out and said that intelligence agencies should withhold briefings for Donald Trump, in part as a result of his comments. Is that something that the White House thinks should be done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has made clear that ensuring a smooth transition to the next President is a top priority, and it’s certainly one of his top priorities for his last six months in office. And that requires a lot of advance preparation. And I can tell you that White House staff and agency staff all across the federal government are already working on the steps and procedures related to ensuring a smooth transition from one President to another.
And that’s important, in part because of the significant threats around the world. For more than 60 years now, the intelligence community has offered briefings to the presidential nominees of the two major political parties in an effort to facilitate a smooth transition. Again, in the same way that the Obama administration isn’t going to start planning for the transition after the election, we’re going to take steps in advance, the intelligence community is going to do the same thing in terms of preparing the potential next President. And they’re doing that based on a tradition that’s been in place for more than 60 years.
So the Director of National Intelligence has indicated he intends to conduct those briefings pursuant to that longstanding tradition, and he certainly is supported by this administration and this White House in doing so. What’s also true of the intelligence community is they understand what steps are necessary to protect sensitive national security information. And the administration is confident that they can both provide relevant and sufficient briefings to the two major party presidential candidates while also protecting sensitive national security information.
The one other thing that I’ll clarify, just to make sure that everybody understands this, is Director Clapper has also publicly indicated that his expectation is to provide the same information to both nominees. And that certainly seems appropriate.
Q Josh, Russia said today that the U.S. needs to handle this hacking issue on its own, responding to both comments by Donald Trump and others. Has there been any diplomatic exchange about this between Russia and the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take that in a couple different ways. The first is I want to be careful of trying to answer these questions that we’re all cognizant of the fact that there is an ongoing FBI investigation into the cyber breach at the DNC, and so I’m going to be as circumspect as I can out of a desire to protect the integrity of that ongoing investigation. I just don’t want to say anything that could be perceived even as having some kind of influence over the course of that investigation.
That investigation, as always, is being led by the investigators who will follow the facts, and they’ll do so without regard to politics. I think the political sensitivities here are obvious, and that’s why I’m trying to go to great lengths here to make clear exactly how this is being handled.
So separate from that, so the reason I’m making that point right now is that the FBI has not revealed any information about who may have perpetrated the cyber intrusion at the DNC. There’s plenty of speculation out there. I recognize there’s been an analysis done that has indicated that the Russians are likely to blame, but that is not a conclusion that the FBI has chosen to publicize at this point. They’re conducting an ongoing investigation, and so I’ll let them speak to whether or not they’ve made such a determination, and I’ll let them speak to whether they believe it’s appropriate to go public with such a determination.
That all said, I do understand that Secretary of State Kerry indicated, after his meeting with his Russian counterpart, that he had raised cybersecurity issues with Mr. Lavrov. That certainly is not the first time that senior-level U.S. government officials have raised significant concerns about Russian activities in cyberspace. In fact, just yesterday — I believe it was yesterday, maybe it was two days ago — the President’s top homeland security advisor, Lisa Monaco, gave a speech at the International Conference on Cybersecurity up in New York, and in that speech, she noted “The global landscape is increasingly diverse and dangerous. Nations like Russia and China are growing more assertive and sophisticated in their cyber operations.”
Mike Rogers, who is the Director of the NSA and the Commander of Cyber Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. He said “Russia has very capable cyber operators who can and do work with speed, precision and stealth. Russia is also home to a substantial segment of the world’s most sophisticated cyber criminals who have found victims all over the world.” You’ve heard similar comments — I’ll spare you the quotes for now, at least — from Director Clapper, Secretary Carter, and other senior U.S. officials.
The reason I cited those quotes, Jeff — and we can go through other — do more of them if it’s necessary — to make clear that the Obama administration has been mindful of the cyber threat emanating from Russia for quite some time. And that threat takes a variety of forms. In some cases, as the Director of the NSA indicated, there are actors that are both affiliated with the state, and some actors that are affiliated with criminal organizations, and occasionally, those two actors will have different motives in conducting their operations.
In all cases, the Obama administration and the United States government is committed to countering those threats, whether they emanate from Russia or anywhere else. And we will do so to protect all of the American people without regard to the political party that they support.
Q So it is safe to conclude that Russia and the United States have had diplomatic exchanges about this hacking topic, with both regard to what the Republican nominee has said about it and with regard to the investigation related to the DNC?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can’t speak to the conversation that Secretary Kerry had with his counterpart. I do know that within the course of that conversation Secretary Kerry did something that he did not do for the first time, which is raise concerns with his Russian counterpart about some of Russia’s activities in cyberspace. I can’t speak with any more specificity than that.
And those are messages that we’ve delivered both in private and in public in the past. And I gave you a couple of examples of the public expressions of concern we have about Russia’s activity in cyberspace and the potential threat it poses to U.S. citizens and U.S. national security.
Q Briefly, on one other topic, China said today it will hold routine naval exercises in the South China Sea with Russia in September. Is the United States convinced that those are routine? And is that announcement generally a concern, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any insight into what sort of exercises they’re planning. What I can tell you is that the United States conducted some exercises with Chinese military officials and Chinese military forces in the Pacific earlier this year. Just last week, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richardson, was in China interacting with his counterparts and even touring some Chinese military facilities in China. So that kind of military-to-military relationship is not just one that exists between China and Russia, it’s also a relationship that exists between the U.S. military and the Chinese military.
So I don’t know what exercises they are planning, but in the same way that the United States and China have a military-to-military relationship, I’m not surprised to hear that Russia and China are seeking to build on their military-to-military relationship, as well.
Q But this is the South China Sea, which is a disputed —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there’s no denying that this is a region of the world that is a sensitive diplomatic topic right now. But again, that doesn’t change the nature of the military-to-military relationship that the United States and China have. And I’ll let Chinese and Russian officials speak to the nature of their military-to-military relationship, but that’s not a particularly new development.
Q I wanted to ask first about the reported split between al Nusra and al Qaeda. It’s a move that seems designed to sort of embed al Nusra more with the broader Syrian insurgency. And so I’m wondering if there’s a concern that doing so risks al Nusra, through their influence, radicalizing more moderate Sunni insurgent groups; it’s going to complicate our ongoing talks with Russia about a political transition in Syria; and how, or what our plans are to distinguish al Nusra from sort of the other insurgency groups that we’ve sought to protect to some extent.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I think it’s worth remembering from the beginning that it’s a direct result of Bashar al Assad’s failed leadership that extremist organizations have sought a safe haven inside of Syria. Extremist organizations like al Nusra, like ISIL and others, seek to take root amid the chaos. And that is deeply destabilizing, as we saw with ISIL’s advance over the border with Iraq.
We’ve also seen that it poses a real national security risk to the United States and our allies. And our allies in Europe have been targeted and innocent people have been killed by individuals who traveled to Iraq and in Syria, got training, equipment, support, and then traveled back to the West and carried out terrorist attacks, killing innocent people.
So the fact is that the extremist threat that exists inside of Syria is one that is serious and concerning to the United States and to our allies. That’s why you’ve seen such a robust response on the part of the Obama administration, building a coalition of about 67 countries and entities to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
But it’s not just ISIL that we’ve been focused on. On the very first day that President Obama, in late summer of 2014, authorized military action inside of Syria, U.S. military fighter pilots also hit extremist targets not affiliated directly with ISIL. So we’ve been mindful of the extremist threat in Syria literally since the first day of our military operations there.
That all said, you will be surprised to hear me express some skepticism about the claims that you just cited. The United States continues to asses that Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe. So President Obama and the rest of the Obama administration and our military actions have been focused on and directed against a variety of extremist groups inside of Syria, including both ISIL and the Nusra Front.
Q I guess the question is more if — I’m not surprised the United States will continue to distinguish between al Nusra and other opposition groups. But as they’re clouding the picture on the ground in Syria, is there a concern among the administration that that will complicate our efforts either to negotiate a sort of political solution, or to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian people as we’re trying to garner that if our attacks on al Nusra are seen as in a way bolstering the Assad regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, what I think is true is that you’re accurately citing some of the complexities on the ground as it relates to the security situation and the political situation inside of Syria. I think what I would say is those complexities aren’t significantly changed by this newly issued public denial from leaders of the Nusra Front.
Q I wanted to ask about something else. Kind of buried in Donald Trump’s press conference yesterday, he said that he’d look at the possibility of recognizing Crimea as Russian and at the possibility of lifting sanctions against Moscow. I’m wondering both if you have a reaction to that, but also if you’ve heard any alarm from U.S. allies that obviously faced tough domestic policies to keep those sanctions in place.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t been informed of any diplomatic communications in response to that political rhetoric. Again, I’ll let — there are plenty of others, particularly this week, who are on duty responding to controversial comments uttered by the Republican presidential nominee, so I’ll let others handle that.
But with regard to the policy of the Obama administration, since early 2014, the United States and the rest of the international community has been deeply concerned about Russia’s flagrant violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including by attempting to annex Crimea. That is an action that wasn’t just not recognized by the international community, it actually prompted an aggressive response from the international community in the form of well-coordinated and integrated sanctions that have placed economic pressure on Russia.
There are also sanctions that have been targeted by the United States Treasury Department against certain entities — Russian entities operating in Crimea and other Crimean entities that were complicit. So the United States has been very direct about our view that the attempted annexation of Crimea by Russia is a flagrant violation, an egregious violation, of international norms. And it’s not a violation that the United States is prepared to tolerate.
It also, by the way, is not an international violation that most of Europe is prepared to tolerate. And that is why you’ve seen the United States and Europe be able to coordinate so effectively to impose sanctions against Russia, to impose costs against them for this action. And the international commitment to that principle is rock solid.
There was some doubt early on, you’ll recall, that once these sanctions were put in place — the biggest bulk of which, the most far-reaching of which were imposed in the fall of 2014 — there was a lot of doubt about whether or not the United States would be able to maintain political support among the Europeans for keeping those sanctions in place. But yet that’s exactly what we’ve done almost two years later. And I think that’s an indication not just of the skillful diplomacy of the Obama administration and the State Department, it also is an indication that European leaders share some deep concern about Russia’s actions inside of Ukraine, including the attempted annexation of Crimea.
Q Last quick one on Russia, as well. Vice President Biden described Vladimir Putin as a dictator last night in the speech. I’m wondering if that’s the administration’s policy towards the Russians.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that there is a — first of all, there is no official government designation about dictatorships, but there was included in the State Department Human Rights report a description of the political situation inside of Russia, with regard to the Russian government. And so I’ll just read from it: “The Russian Federation has a highly centralized authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin.” That’s a direct quote. It went on to say that Russia’s institutions “lacked independence from the executive branch.”
So that’s the official language that’s used by the U.S. government to describe the system of government that is currently in place in Russia.
Q And then I guess just to put a finer point on it — does President Obama believe that Vladimir Putin is a dictator?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you’d be hard-pressed to draw a distinction between the word that Vice President Biden used and the language that was included in the State Department report.
Q Thanks, Josh. Looking ahead to September, when Congress returns, what would the White House like for Congress to do first? What needs to be done?
MR. EARNEST: There are so many things that they left town —
Q How do you categorize it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, maybe, I guess, first I would say that they left a day early, and maybe they’ll come back a day early. We’ll see. There’s plenty of work to be done. I think the President has made clear what some of his priorities are, and I think if we saw forward movement on any of them in that first day that they’re back, we would welcome that sign of progress.
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is Zika. Five months ago, the Obama administration sent up to Congress a specific proposal at the request of our public health professionals about outlining the resources that they need to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus. And Republicans in Congress have not succeeded in passing legislation to do that. And that means that our public health professionals both at the federal government but also at the state and local level are not getting the support that they need to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus.
The President is quite concerned about this situation. The President, earlier this week, had a telephone conversation with the Governor of Florida. Based on public reports, there are now four suspected cases of non-travel-related Zika transmission. And that’s concerning because of the threat that that virus poses to pregnant women and newborn children. So congressional action on that would certainly be welcomed.
But the Obama administration has also been pressing Republicans in Congress to pass legislation that actually includes funding to fight opioid addiction. There’s been a lot of talk from Republicans about this being a priority. We haven’t actually seen Republicans do anything significant when it comes to providing resources that are necessary to expand treatment options for the thousands of Americans who are fighting an opioid addition.
Criminal justice reform; approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. There are a wide variety of priorities, but I guess progress on any of those four on the first day would be welcomed.
Q And also, just the regular annual appropriations bills are still standing. So do you see September as sort of a money battle with Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know. I suspect it’s going to be a dysfunction battle if the first eight months of this year is any indication. Republicans in Congress promised that if they were given the opportunity to run the United States Congress that they would get Congress moving again. And that was the subject of an op-ed that was penned by the Senate Majority Leader on the day after the last midterm elections. And as you point out, they haven’t passed the budget bills yet this year through both houses of Congress. And there are a whole bunch of legislative priorities, some of which I mentioned, that should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together, but the truth is, right now Republicans can’t even work together among themselves to make progress on these priorities.
So I don’t really know what September holds. But the pressure will certainly be on Republicans who worked hard and campaigned hard for the responsibility of running the United States Congress. Thus far, they’ve failed to perform that duty very effectively. And in expressing that view, I don’t think that’s the minority opinion when you consider that the approval rating of Congress right now is in the teens.
Q Thanks, Josh. You’d mentioned pressure — there may be a great deal of pressure tonight on Secretary Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: She’s up to it.
Q Yeah? You think? Because I think it would be fair to say that the First Lady and the President both hit homeruns. I would say the pressure is on. Do you expect she’ll hit a homerun? And what do you think she’ll touch on tonight?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I haven’t been briefed about her speech, so I’d refer you to her campaign to talk to you about the kinds of things that she’ll prioritize in I think what everybody would acknowledge is an important opportunity for any candidate when you’re speaking to a live television primetime audience.
Q Will you be satisfied with a double?
MR. EARNEST: I think both Mrs. Obama and President Obama made a forceful case for why they believe — why they’re strongly supporting Secretary Clinton’s campaign, and that’s based on their knowledge of what’s required of the job of President, but also based on their personal knowledge of Secretary Clinton’s character. So that’s why I would expect the President to watch the speech tonight. And he’ll do so with a lot of confidence in the candidate that he’s endorsed.
Q I want to ask you about Gitmo. I know on occasion we’ll get an update on the number. Do you have anything to announce in terms of more detainees being moved, as we get ever closer to the President’s summer break?
MR. EARNEST: I did get an updated count here. Again, the detainee population at Gitmo is 76, 32 that have been approved for transfer that are awaiting transfer at this point.
I don’t have any updates in terms of potential transfers that may be upcoming, but once those transfers have taken place, we’ll announce them publicly so that you can certainly be aware of the steps that we continue to take to reduce the population of the prison at Guantanamo Bay in the hopes of eventually closing it.
Q If I could, I want to draw your attention the Pope’s comments about the war on terror, broadly speaking. He said as a matter of fact that “the world is at war,” but he didn’t think it was a war of religions. Does the President share his viewpoint? And what’s his reaction to what the Pope had to say in the wake of the latest terror attacks in Europe?
MR. EARNEST: I was just going to mention that, Kevin. Obviously, the American people and everybody here at the White House offers our profound condolences to loved ones of the Catholic priest that was killed by apparent ISIL sympathizers in France earlier this week. It’s a tragedy. And I know that Pope Francis is mourning the loss of that Catholic priest, and the rest of us are, as well.
More generally, I will acknowledge I did not see the Pope’s comments before I came out here. But based on what you have relayed, it sounds like it’s quite consistent with the position of the Obama administration and what President Obama himself has articulated, which is it’s a fantasy for ISIL to suggest that they represent Islam in a fight against the world.
The fact is ISIL has declared war against the rest of the world, but they don’t represent Islam. They represent a perverted, nihilistic world view that promises nothing but chaos and violence. And President Obama, I think like Pope Francis, continues to be confident that while that threat needs to be taken seriously, that the rest of the world, including the Muslim world, will prevail over the deeply dark, violent vision that’s put forward by ISIL.
Q Hey, Josh. Thanks. A couple questions about the speech last night. One, I wanted to ask you about one line from the President. He said, “Anyone who threatens our values with their fascist, communist, jihadist, or homegrown demagogues will always fail in the end.”
MR. EARNEST: Great line.
Q Interesting line. When he was talking about demagogues, was he referring to Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that as I was listening to the speech, it seemed clear to me that each of the categories that the President was describing, that the President didn’t have one person in mind. The President didn’t have one jihadi in mind; the President didn’t have one fascist in mind; the President didn’t have one domestic demagogue in mind. The President was talking about how, over the course of our country’s history, by adhering to our core American values, we’ve overcome threats emanating from individuals and organizations that could be aptly described using that criteria.
Q He has referred to Mr. Trump as a demagogue before. He believes that Trump is a demagogue or can be a demagogue?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sure you could do a Google search to see if the President has used that word directly in response to Mr. Trump. I don’t know if he’s done that before or not. It’s possible that he has.
That portion of the speech was focused on the kinds of values that our country has pursued and sought to advance throughout our history. And our steadfast commitment to those values has served our country and our people quite well.
And, look, the President ended his speech, I thought, in a way that was really powerful in terms of talking about the values of his mother’s family in Kansas. That’s a small-town community, El Dorado — a place I’ve been to before, actually, not too far away from Kansas City. But this is typical of small towns all across the country that prioritize and value people who are humble, people who are kind, people who are generous, people who are honest, people who are unselfish. And those are the kinds of values that are rooted not just in the small towns in Kansas, though they certainly are. But those values transcend region. Those values transcend faith. Those values transcend political party. Those values transcend generations. Generations of Americans have been committed to those values. That’s served our country really well.
And this is the kind of rhetoric that the President used in his very first convention speech in 2004, and that’s got a deep resonance today. And I think that’s in some ways — it’s not uncommon for you all to ask a legitimate question in here about the President’s view of a divided America. And that passage of the speech, that four or five paragraphs near the end, it’s probably the most effective rebuttal of that question I’ve ever heard. And it certainly does reflect the President’s deeply held view. And it’s one that — frankly, this is a view that he had before he was elected President, before he ran for President. And the fact that he is as committed to those values as ever, and the way that he sees the American people be committed to those values, is what gives him such strong optimism about the future of our country.
Q And does he think Donald Trump threatens those values?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly are some rhetoric that we’ve heard on the other side of the aisle that contradicts those values. There is no denying that. But again, that’s something that other people will have to decide in terms of whether or not that influences their decision in November.
Q And just one more, quick follow. I was in touch with a number of servicemembers last night during the speech, a couple who are in theater, several who are here. And one of things that struck them was that the President did not mention — as he has in all of his previous DNC speeches — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and troops who are in harm’s way right now. And I was wondering if there’s any kind of reason why the President didn’t specifically mention those wars and the troops, aside from the fight against ISIL.
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, Devin, I think the President certainly did talk about how disappointed he was to hear rhetoric on the other side of the aisle that describes the United States military as a disaster. In fact, the President described the United States military and the men and women who serve in it as the greatest fighting force the world has ever known. That was included in his speech.
The President was introduced to the stage yesterday, last night, by a woman whose son served and gave his life for the United States in Afghanistan. And she told I thought a pretty powerful story about the way that the President has honored her son’s sacrifice and her family’s sacrifice for the country.
So I think speeches to a political convention are a little different than speeches, for example in the context of a State of the Union, where there’s a set of issues that has to be covered. But I think the President made clear his deep appreciation for the service of our men and women in uniform who are serving our country all around the world, including right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, to keep us safe.
Q Josh, thank you. On that same line, “fascists, communists, jihadists, and homegrown demagogues.”
MR. EARNEST: You liked that line, too? (Laughter.)
Q It certainly did stick out. I would venture to guess that probably about everybody who heard that speech —
MR. EARNEST: That’s part of what made it so great.
Q — when he said “homegrown demagogues” thought of Donald Trump. So even if you’re right that he was not referring to one individual, he was certainly grooving Donald Trump into that group of homegrown demagogues. You would concede that?
MR. EARNEST: I would concede that most of the President’s speech was not geared toward subtlety. (Laughter.) I think the American people —
Q I’ll take that as a yes.
MR. EARNEST: I think the American people understood quite directly the argument that the President was making. And the argument that he was making did not have — particularly in that line — did not have one single person in mind, but rather was talking about the kinds of values that generations of Americans have subscribed to —
Q He certainly put Donald Trump in the minds of the people who were listening. And he had to know he was going to do that.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, again, I’m not suggesting that the President was trying to be subtle. I think the President was quite direct in the argument that he was making.
Q But my question is, if Donald Trump was one of the “homegrown demagogues” he was referring to there, I know he doesn’t think much about Donald Trump, but is it fair to group him with “fascists, communists, and jihadists”?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what is fair is that the kinds of values that generations of Americans have been committed to and fought and died for have served our country quite well. It is the reason that people all around the world look to the United States as a beacon of freedom. It is the reason that people from all around the world travel to the United States. They desire to be a part of our country. They desire to be citizens of our country. It’s the reason that that diverse population signs up to serve this country in the military. And those values are what allowed the United States, for example, to defeat fascism in World War II.
Those are the kinds of values that we have followed even as we have overcome the threat from terrorism. And it requires vigilance. It also requires a firm commitment to those same values, again, that transcend faith, that transcend region, that transcend generations, that transcend party. And it speaks to the unique character of the United States and the people who live here.
Q And just one other. I want to follow up on Justin’s question about Crimea. You’ve covered the global politics of that issue pretty well. But what does the President think — or if you haven’t talked to the President — what does the White House think about the fact that a possible future President of the United States would say that maybe we should lift the sanctions, I’m looking into it; and I’m looking into allowing — recognizing Crimea as Russian territory?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President about it, but I know the President believes that in order to counter Russia’s flagrant violation of Ukraine sovereignty, we need to preserve and present a united front.
And at each step in mobilizing the international community to respond to this situation, President Obama has worked closely with our allies in Europe to ensure, for example, that in diplomatic exchanges with Russia about the situation in Ukraine, that the international community is on the same page. Obviously, Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have played a prominent role in all of that, in the context of the Normandy Group discussions.
But what’s also clear is that as the international community has pursued sanctions to impose costs on Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty that that’s required effective coordination in the international community, as well. The point that we’ve made on a number of occasions is that the United States — even if those sanctions were in place — doesn’t do a whole lot of business directly with Russia when you compare it to the economic ties between Germany and Russia, or Italy and Russia, or even France and Russia.
Q Right, but I’m just asking, is it acceptable for a presidential candidate to say what Donald Trump said about Crimea? Is it acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m trying to get at, Chip, is I’m not going to be able to respond directly to his comments. But let me just finish this thought by saying our ability to pressure Russia and to send a clear message about how we will not tolerate the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty is predicated on our ability to coordinate effectively with our allies. That’s why it would be a bad idea to unilaterally withdraw.
The United States ultimately has built a coalition that is imposing costs against Russia for violating those international norms. And the President believes strongly that the United States and our interests are better served by defending those international norms and coordinating with the international community to impose financial costs against Russia for violating them. And to unilaterally withdraw from that effort would weaken the United States.
Q I want to follow up with yesterday in Trump’s comments. Trump said that he was being sarcastic when he called and encouraged Russian intelligence agencies to look into Hillary Clinton’s emails — deleted emails, the hacked emails, that they would be richly rewarded. So can you clarify here, is this something — a lot of people saw this as beyond the pale, this was unacceptable, and at the very least irresponsible, coming from a presidential candidate. How does the White House see this? Is this something that you see that’s just an off-the-cuff remark? Or is this something the White House is taking seriously as a national security concern?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question a couple different ways. The first is, I’ll let the Republican nominee explain his comments and explain his motivation. And I’ll let other people decide for themselves if they can figure out when Mr. Trump is being sarcastic and when he’s being serious.
What I can speak to is the policy of the administration, and it’s a pretty simple one. It’s one I think is pretty intuitive, one that we’re all familiar with because it’s the same one that’s been pursued by Presidents of both parties since our nation’s founding, which is that the United States of America is committed to defending the American people without regard to which political party they belong to. And that certainly is true when it comes to our efforts to protect the American people in cyberspace.
Q So what does that mean, Josh? I mean, people who want to know, is there any consequence, is there any reaction, is there any fallout to what he said — is the White House taking what he said seriously?
MR. EARNEST: And I guess my point is I’ll let others react to the controversial comments of the Republican nominee. I can be here to help you understand exactly what our policy is and how significant or how important that policy is. And when it comes to protecting the American people against all threats, including threats that emanate from overseas, including threats that exist in cyberspace, this country and this government is committed to protecting our citizens without first asking which political party they belong to.
Q So is there any move afoot for White House officials to question the candidate or question the campaign at whether or not that was something that was, in fact, something that was real and acceptable? Or is it considered a national security issue? Does this administration consider it a national security issue, the comments that he made?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’ll let other people characterize his comments. I’ll let him explain them as best he can. But for me, we’re just going to stick to articulating what our policy is, and I think the differences in our policy and the rhetoric that is being put forward by the other side is quite different.
Q And the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, has said that there’s going to be a lot more material that’s relevant to the U.S. election that could come out. Is there anything that the administration is doing to prepare or respond to in any way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not that I’m aware of. And I’m not sure that anybody is quite sure what Mr. Assange is talking about.
Q Josh, on the issue of hacking, in this cyber age, is there any reason to be surprised or outraged that foreign governments engage in hacking for intelligence gathering or mischief making?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question a couple different ways. The first is, in the interview that President Obama did earlier this week, he acknowledged that we have seen Russia engage in efforts to at least interfere in a democratic process in other countries, including in Europe. So we know that interfering in the political process in other countries is a tactic, or even a strategy, that President Putin has used before.
The other thing that some have observed is that in this instance, the information wasn’t just hacked, it was also released. What that actually says about the potential perpetrator or their motive is something that the FBI will have to speak to. They’re obviously conducting an investigation here, and I’ll let them speak to it.
But I guess the other element of your question is how serious is this. And I think the fact that this is something that has drawn the attention of the FBI and their careful scrutiny and their coordination with experts across the federal government is an indication that a situation like this is certainly something that we take seriously.
Q Are you able to say if U.S. intelligence has a policy on hacking?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to say what sort of policy may be in place, but the Office of the Director of National Intelligence may be able to provide you with some information about that.
Q On last night’s speech, did President Obama know Hillary Clinton was backstage and was going to join him on stage after his speech?
MR. EARNEST: He did know that, yes.
Q And what did he do after the speech? There were about 40 minutes between the end of his speech and leaving the convention. What was he doing during that period?
MR. EARNEST: President Obama had an opportunity to visit backstage with Secretary Clinton, members of her family. I believe he had an opportunity to see Senator Kaine. I actually wasn’t backstage with him once he’d finished delivering his speech, but I know that there were a number of people backstage that he was eager to see and spend some time with.
Q And what’s he doing today?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s schedule started a little later today, given the late-night arrival last night. The President is meeting with members of his national security team. He periodically, once a quarter or so, will receive an update on the terror threat picture, so he’s meeting with members of his team to receive that update again today. And we’ll have a readout of that meeting this afternoon.
Q Josh, thanks very much. Just a couple of quick ones. The President has kind of hinted about possibly getting involved in the post-presidential period in venture capital. What particular area in sort of the VC world has he expressed any particular interest in? And what is it about sort of the VC world that interests him do you think?
MR. EARNEST: As I recall, the President talked about this in the interview that he did with Business Week. And there are some aspects of that line of work that appeals to some of the President’s intellectual interests. There’s obviously a lot of interesting work that’s being done in the field of innovation and science that VCs are strongly supporting. As President of the United States, the President has an opportunity to be briefed on those kinds of — on innovations and scientific developments. The President has got a council of advisors in science and technology, his PCAST, that he meets with frequently to get some updates on a variety of scientific innovations. And I know that he finds those conversations to be exceedingly interesting. And the intellectual rigor associated with those conversations is something that he genuinely enjoys.
So I think that’s part of what the — because that essentially was what would be part of — I think part of what a venture capital operation would include is evaluating innovations and testing the likelihood of their success. So that, I guess, would be the other thing that I think that he’s discussed appeals to him, is sort of the rigorous analysis of those kinds of ideas and plans. And again, that kind of rational consideration of options is something that the President doesn’t get to do as often as he would like in Washington, D.C. Too often there is a rather irrational and dysfunctional evaluation of options that I think the President has previously spoken to as being a source of frustration.
But in the VC world there’s a much more rigorous, cold-eyed analysis that’s done, a rational decision-making structure is applied. And the President is pretty good at that and feels like that’s something that he would both do well at and find to be incredibly interesting in his post-presidential life. I don’t know if he’ll actually do it. But having read the interview and having heard him talk about this a little bit, I think those are a couple of things that appeal to him about that line of work.
Q — it’s occurred to me that even in times that are far worse than today — the dark era of the Civil War, the Great Depression — Presidents then, Lincoln and Roosevelt, always spoke in terms of faith and optimism and hope for a future. Why is it, you think, that Donald Trump’s darkness now is getting so much traction? We don’t live in times nearly as bad as the times I mentioned. Why is he getting so much traction?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure. And I know that there are a lot of theories that have been floated out there. I’ll let other people speculate about that. But I will acknowledge that I was thinking about this a little bit myself earlier today, and the thing that occurred to me is, we don’t actually have to go that far back in our history to find an example of a time when the United States was facing a really tough challenge. When President Obama took office in 2009, the United States was on the brink of a second Great Depression. The U.S. auto industry was weeks away from utter collapse, costing millions of Americans — at least a million Americans their jobs. There were hundreds of thousands of jobs that were being hemorrhaged from our economy every month.
Q But why are people responding to fear now and they didn’t then? What’s changed?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think — stick with me on this. Even in the midst of what I would readily acknowledge was a scary time for our country in 2008 — we saw these precipitous declines in the stock market; Congress had to vote for extraordinary legislation that would try to stabilize the financial system — even in the midst of all of that, President Obama continued to articulate his hope, optimism and confidence in the future.
There’s no denying — even Mitch McConnell won’t deny that our country is in a far better position now than we were then — something that the Majority Leader has committed to publicly. And President Obama continues to have a lot of confidence in the country and is more optimistic than ever about the future of our country, in part because we weathered those hard times and we came out stronger on the other end. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot more work that needs to be done. And the President walked through some of those examples last night.
So, again, I can’t account for the strategy that’s being pursued by the Republican presidential nominee. But it’s a lot different than the strategy that President Obama employed in 2008 and 2012, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that President Obama is actually the first President since President Eisenhower to win two national elections back to back, earning a majority vote from the American people* [President Reagan won twice with a majority of the vote. President Obama won twice – getting more than 51% each time. He’s the first President since Eisenhower to do so.]
Q I think you mean the first Democrat.
MR. EARNEST: The first one since Eisenhower. He’s actually the first President, Democrat or Republican, to get more than *50  percent of the vote twice.
Q No, Reagan did it twice, actually.
MR. EARNEST: Reagan did not do it twice.
Q He got 50.7 in 1980, if I’m correct. The final question —
MR. EARNEST: I’ll follow up with you on it. I’m confident the facts are on my side on this one.
Q Okay. I could be wrong. The final question is, historians were always ranking Presidents, and the numbers kind of move up and down. Right now there’s sort of a general consensus that of the 43 men who have been President that Obama currently bounces around 19, 20, 21 — sort of in the middle of the pack. Does that strike you about right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m sure I’m biased. So, look, I also am confident that historians will spend a lot of time considering the Obama presidency. And I think historians acknowledge that, with time, that it’s easier to draw a more precise evaluation. What that means for the actual numbers is something that historians will determine.
Q Thank you very much, Josh. Donald Trump has mentioned that when he’s elected President of the United States, that he will withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea. It seems like withdrawing troops from Korea, that it concerns the security of Korean Peninsula and the U.S.-South Korea relationship. What is the Democratic Party’s view of withdrawal on Korean Peninsula?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States of America has an ironclad commitment to the security of our South Korean allies. That is a commitment that transcends party. I know that President Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, was committed to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. I know that President Clinton was, as well. So there has been a longstanding tradition of holding that alliance as a high priority and committing the United States to the defense of our South Korean allies. That’s the policy of the United States. It is a policy that benefits our national security. It’s a policy that President Obama has prioritized. And if there are people who disagree with that policy, even people who are running for President, I’ll let them make their own case.
Q Thanks, two questions. One, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, President Obama has had a very cozy and personal relations with at least two prime ministers of India, including Dr. Manmohan Singh and now Prime Minister Modi. And not only business-to-business or country-to-country, but also on a personal basis. What do you think will be the future after he leaves? Because many, including these two prime ministers and millions of people in India will miss him.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, part of President Obama’s Asia rebalance has included prioritizing the United States relationship with the world’s largest democracy. And President Obama has traveled multiple times to India. And the President has been warmly received by the Indian people on each visit. I know that he’s enjoyed each visit. And the President has appreciated the effective working relationship that he’s had with the leaders of both countries.
Of course, President and Mrs. Obama hosted Prime Minister Singh and his wife here at the White House for the very first White House state dinner. And President Obama was able to work effectively with Prime Minister Modi to reach an agreement about the commitments that India would make in the context of the Paris climate talks. That was viewed by many as the lynchpin of completing the agreement in Paris.
So I think it’s an indication of the longstanding warm relationship between the United States and India. Some of that is a result of the deep investment of diplomatic capital that President Obama has made in that relationship. And he certainly is hopeful that his successor will do the same thing, because it benefits the American people and our economy, and certainly our national security.
Q Do you think the President will have a word with President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton, whoever will be in the White House, before he leaves regarding U.S.-India relations and the future of U.S.-India relations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what President Obama has indicated is that he is committed to ensuring a smooth transition from the Obama administration to his successor. And I’m confident that will include conversations between President Obama and the President-elect when the time comes. I don’t know how wide-ranging that discussion will be. It certainly could include India. But whoever it is, President Obama is committed to ensuring a smooth transition.
Q And second, as far as hate in America and trust in America is concerned, millions of people in India, they think that there is no country — and of course the Indian-American community here — on Earth where there’s a trust in America, or many people want to come here. Now, there’s a program, Invest in America. And does the President support, the White House support this program? Because thousands of people in India are lining up to come to the U.S. and invest in America, which is close to $500,000 to $1 million for a green card or to be here. They feel safer, and there’s law and order and justice in America.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I’ll admit I’m not familiar with that specific program. We can see if somebody around here is and can give you our perspective on it. We obviously — and President Obama has made it a priority to seek out people who are committed to invested in the United States. Insourcing has been a top priority, and we certainly have welcomed the kind of investment that we’ve seen from countries around the world and from businesses around the world who recognize the opportunity that exists to invest in the United States. That obviously creates jobs and economic opportunity here in the United States, and we’ve gone to great lengths to try to encourage it.
Brian, I saw you had your hand up. Do you want the last shot here?
Q Thanks. I actually wanted to ask about the transition also. Next week, the GSA has made office space available to the two candidates. And I’m just wondering, has the President said any — given any specific marching orders or instructions to his agencies, to his people about how they should pursue — or to what degree they should cooperate —
MR. EARNEST: The President made clear at the beginning of this year that one of the top priorities of the federal government is to ensure the smooth transition from the Obama administration to the next administration. President Obama benefitted tremendously from the effective management and planning that was performed by his predecessor to ensure a smooth transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. It’s one of the reasons that President Obama holds President Bush in high regard.
President Bush was committed to that effective transition across political parties. And this is a testament to President Bush and his commitment to this country and to the institution of the presidency, and President Obama shares that commitment. President Obama has identified the same priority and has certainly used the strategy employed by President Bush as a template for his team. And so I can tell you that, for months, senior officials here at the White House have been engaged in planning, interacting with senior officials at a wide variety of government agencies to begin preparing now, months before the actual election, to ensure that that smooth transition takes place.
And President Obama believes that this is what the American people can and should expect from their federal government.
All right? Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:41 P.M. EDT
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