White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Source huffingtonpost.com
Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 28, 2016 – 1:08 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Hope you had a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday with your families.
Q And you.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you. I do not have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kevin Freking, do you want to start?
Q Thank you, Josh. I wanted to ask, how does the administration view Fidel Castro’s passing on the impact on normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba? Does it delay, does it hasten normalization of relations with Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at least from the U.S. standpoint, I wouldn’t expect any impact on the kind of progress that we’re committed to making on our end to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.
As you know, when President Obama made an announcement almost two years ago now to begin normalizing relations between our two countries, this was rooted in the President’s conclusion that a policy of isolation that the United States had pursued for more than five decades had failed to bring about the improved human rights climate that I think just about every American citizen would like to see in Cuba. And after five decades of trying the same policy of isolation without seeing many results, the President believed it was time to try something different.
And what we have seen is greater freedom for American citizens to visit Cuba, to send money to family members in Cuba, to engage in business and seek business opportunities in Cuba. It also enhanced the ability of the United States government to maintain an embassy in Cuba where U.S. officials can more effectively not just engage with government officials in Cuba but also those activists in civil society that are fighting for greater freedoms.
Those are all good things. Those are all benefits that are enjoyed by Americans. They also facilitate the kind of people-to-people ties that we believe will be more effective in bringing freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, something that they have long sought and been denied by the Cuban government. And after five decades of not seeing any results, the President believed it was time to see something different.
And I think it is — we clearly haven’t seen all the results that we would like to see, but we’re pleased with the progress. And it certainly has benefitted the American people in a tangible way and it continues to be strongly supported by an overwhelming majority of Cubans. When they’re asked about their opinion of this change in our policy, it’s something that was very warmly welcomed by the Cuban people. And I think that should be a pretty good indication of the kind of success that this policy is already having.
Q So, no on our end, but what about on their end? With his passing, do you anticipate that they would be more receptive to making some of the changes that the U.S. is calling for as far as opening up their private sector, things along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: Time will tell. I’ll let the Cuban government speak for the plans that they intend to pursue. Obviously we’d welcome a hastening of the kinds of changes that we would like to see, but I’ll let my Cuban counterpart speak to any plans that they may have and whether or not they’re changed by the death of Mr. Castro.
Q Just one more question along those lines. How does the President see — how will history view Fidel Castro in the President’s mind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that he obviously is a towering figure who had a profound impact on the history of not just his country but the Western Hemisphere. There certainly is no whitewashing the kinds of activities that he ordered and that his government presided over that go against the very values that this country — that our country — has long defended.
I think the question for the President is, in terms of making policy, are we going to be rooted in that past, or are we going to look to the future? It doesn’t mean that we should ignore the past, but it does mean that we can’t let the past interfere with our ability to make progress. And I think some of the changes that we’ve seen on Cuba already are an indication that progress is possible.
And that’s been the focus of the President’s policy direction over the last several years. And there certainly will be ample opportunity for historians to take stock of Fidel Castro’s legacy and what it has meant for the people in his country.
Q One last one. Would you comment on President-elect Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud taking place in the presidential election? Is there any truth whatsoever to what he’s saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I would defer to the President-elect’s team for commentary on his tweets. I think what I can say is an objective fact is that there has been no evidence produced to substantiate a claim like that. But for a reaction or an explanation, I’d refer you to the President-elect’s team.
Q Thank you. A little more on Cuba. Can you tell us anything about what the thoughts are on an official delegation going to Castro’s funeral? What the plans are on that, and if there’s any plans you can announce?
MR. EARNEST: If there is a U.S. delegation that’s sent to attend the funeral we’ll obviously announce that publicly in the same way that we have other official delegations. But I don’t have any information about that at this point to share.
Q So going back — you mentioned how you can’t whitewash some of Castro’s actions. Some lawmakers did criticize the President’s statement for not directly mentioning Castro’s human rights abuses. Can you kind of talk about — in the statement about his death. Can you kind of talk about or respond to that? And also, why was that decision made to not maybe more directly address some of those concerns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, those critics of the statement are also critics of the policy, and have been scrambling to try to justify their loyalty to an obviously failed policy of isolation that didn’t bring about any results for the Cuban people or for the American people.
I think the President’s statement quite clearly speaks for itself and it makes clear the President’s desire to look toward the future. That’s the responsibility that he has as the President of the United States and as the leader of this country, is to look out for the interests of the American people moving forward. It was a campaign slogan of his reelection. And that’s what he’s been focused on.
And to issue some sort of blistering statement and engage in the kind of mutual recriminations that are tied to the past — that doesn’t advance freedom or democracy on the island nation of Cuba. It doesn’t expand economic opportunity or cultural opportunity for the American people. It doesn’t advance further the success that we’ve had in removing the Cuba issue as an impediment in our relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.
The President made the observation when he was in Latin America last week about the strength and health of the relationship between the United States and countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, and Latin America in particular — they’re as strong as they’ve ever been.
Some of that is because of the commitment that this administration has made to reach out to engage countries in the Western Hemisphere to advance those relationships. But some of it is also attributable to the fact that for decades, the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba wasn’t just an irritant in the relationship between the United States and Cuba, it actually was an irritant in the relationship between the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere that had a relationship with Cuba.
And the consequence of that was that there wasn’t as much of a discussion about the human rights conditions in Cuba; there was an extensive discussion, though, about the wisdom of the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba. Now that that has been removed, there’s been much more scrutiny of the way the Cuban government treats the Cuban people. And it has allowed the United States to marshal international opinion and shine a brighter light on those policies in a way that has increased pressure on the Cuban government. And I think this was on full, vivid display during the President’s trip to Cuba earlier this spring, where the Cuban leader faced direct, probing questions about the treatment of citizens in Cuba.
So I think this is all part of a strategy that is strongly supported by the Cuban people, has already yielded important benefits for the Cuban people. It’s also yielded important benefits for the American people.
And I know that many of the President’s critics like to suggest that somehow the United States has made a bunch of concessions to the Cuban government. That’s wrong. It’s not a concession to allow Cuban Americans to send more money to their family members who are living in Cuba. It’s not a concession to secure the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor that was wrongly detained in Cuba. It’s not a concession to open an embassy in Cuba. It’s not a concession to start daily flights between the United States and Cuba that makes it easier for Americans to visit Cuba. It’s not a concession to allow American cruise operators to stop in Cuba. It’s not a concession to allow American hotel operators to sign licensing agreements with resorts in Cuba. It’s not a concession to give American agricultural interests the opportunity to do more business in Cuba.
All of those are things that had important benefits for the American people and are strongly supported by the Cuban people. So, again, I think it is very difficult for critics of this policy to make any sort of coherent, evidence-based argument that somehow the United States has been disadvantaged by this policy.
Based on all of the things that I’ve laid out, those all are benefits for the American people that we’ve all enjoyed. And continued pursuit of this policy moving forward only stands to enhance the benefits for the Cuban people and for the American people.
Q One more question on — there was an attack on Ohio State this morning. I was just wondering, has the President been briefed on that? Do you have anything further about like the investigation of that attack?
MR. EARNEST: The President was briefed this morning by Lisa Monaco who is his top Homeland Security Advisor. The President asked to be updated on the investigation. I know that local law enforcement officials have indicated that the situation in Columbus is no longer active, the site has been secured. FBI officials in Columbus are assisting local authorities as they conduct this investigation.
But we’ll obviously defer to local law enforcement to disclose additional information about what exactly occurred there. There’s still a lot of information to review and collect. But obviously this is a difficult situation, and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Columbus and the community of Ohio State at this difficult time.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Justin.
Q I wanted to ask about David Petraeus. You’ve said — talked previously about how he had been continuing to stay in touch with administration officials to offer occasional advice. And I’m wondering if that continues to be true, and if so, if that maybe lessens criticism that has been offered by some Democrats of his candidacy for Secretary of State in a potential Trump administration.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. I have in the past acknowledged that there were senior U.S. officials in the Obama administration that had consulted with General Petraeus, based on his decades of service to this country and his areas of expertise. I’m not aware that that relationship was formalized in any sort of way, so I can’t really speak to the last time that he participated in a meeting with a senior U.S. official, or even the last time that he had a conversation with a senior U.S. official.
Obviously, maintaining any sort of informal outside advisory role is a lot different than being nominated to serve as Secretary of State of the United States. But I recognize that there’s a lot of speculation right now about who the President-elect will choose to serve in senior positions in his administration. And I’ve spent the better part of the last two and a half years avoiding commentary on rumors about who may serve in the Obama administration, and I’m certainly not going to comment on speculation about who may serve in the Trump administration.
Q I guess just as a guiding principle, does the President or does the administration believe that somebody who’s had severe classification issues for which they’ve been convicted should hold senior positions in the United States government?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think every President is going to have to decide for themselves what kind of person can best serve them and the country in senior roles in the administration. And President Obama obviously took that responsibility very seriously and assembled a team that he’s quite proud of to serve him and the country. And the President has spoken at some length about how proud he is that there hasn’t been a major personal scandal in his administration; that the kind of people that he has chosen to serve in high-profile, influential positions in his administration have done so with a focus on the country’s best interest. And the President is quite proud of that.
Obviously, future Presidents will have to — I think will understandably — be measured against that high standard, but they’ll eventually have to decide on their own who they believe can best serve the country and best serve them in the range of important positions.
Q Let me guess — you’re not going to say if the President has told Donald Trump about the merits of the former presidential nominee from Massachusetts as Secretary of State?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any — I can’t speak to what sort of advice the President may or may not have offered to the President-elect as he’s weighing some of these personnel decisions.
Q And last one on the spending bill. The last time we did this, the issue of money for Flint got kind of punted to the lame duck session, with Republicans promising that they’d find funding for Flint within the water bill. That seems to have somewhat stalled out on Capitol Hill right now. Knowing that you and I could perhaps negotiate a bill more easily than Congress could —
MR. EARNEST: Are you taking my lines now? (Laughter.) Is that the deal? Is that what we’re going to do here at the end? (Laughter.)
Q I’m just wondering if —
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I just have one more for you. (Laughter.)
Q Like Jeopardy — (laughter) —
Q — if funding for Flint is going to be sort of a red line for the President in the CR.
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, the President feels quite passionately about the need for Congress to fulfill their rightful role in providing resources to the community of Flint that has been dealing with the contamination of their water supply. This is a significant problem, and this administration has mobilized significant resources to try to respond to the urgent need of the people there. But it’s going to require congressional resources to address the longer-term infrastructure challenge that exists. And there is a role for Congress to play. There were promises made by Republicans, and the President expects them to keep that promise.
Q Josh, let me follow on an answer that you gave to Justin. Kellyanne Conway said that President Obama and Donald Trump had a fruitful discussion on Saturday that lasted about 45 minutes. You were just telling him that you don’t want to discuss the advice that the President is giving the President-elect, but I’m going to ask you about that.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. You’re certainly entitled to do that.
Q Can you describe the nature of the call? Did the President call the President-elect? Did he want to talk about Castro’s death or Cuba policy? Did he want to talk about nominations and what his perspective might be on potential nominees? Did he want to talk about another international situation that he thought that the President should be briefed on personally? Can you add, embellish, rule out anything?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I can certainly confirm for you that the President did have a telephone conversation with the President-elect on Saturday. They spoke for 45 minutes or so. When the President-elect was in the Oval Office with President Obama 36 hours after the election results were tabulated, the President-elect indicated a desire to seek President Obama’s advice and counsel repeatedly, and President Obama made clear that he stood ready to offer that advice because of his underlying, enduring commitment to a smooth and effective transition from the Obama presidency into the next.
I didn’t foresee a scenario in which we would announce when each call had taken place. What I’m certainly going to do is protect the ability of the President-elect to confidentially seek the advice of the sitting President. So I’m not going to be able to get into the content of the call, but I can certainly confirm for you that the call did take place, even if I’m not willing to promise that I will announce when future calls have been placed.
Q Who called whom?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is the President-elect reached out to President Obama, and President Obama returned his call.
Q And can you say whether this was the first time since they met in the Oval that they’ve conversed by phone?
MR. EARNEST: I can confirm for you that it’s not. But I won’t be in a position to detail all of the conversations that they’ve had.
Q But can you give us an idea of how often this has happened?
MR. EARNEST: There are a handful of times.
Q A handful? Five times?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think handful — a handful is intentionally vague. (Laughter.)
Q Five or fewer?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think I said all I’m going to say.
Q It’s more than two — but more than several? I mean, let’s have a discussion —
MR. EARNEST: Maybe you guys can figure that out.
Q Depends on how big the hands are. (Laughter.)
Q But can you add —
MR. EARNEST: I can’t. I’ll spare you. Do you have anything else, Alexis?
Q There is no way to add to what we were talking about with Cuba, whether Cuba was discussed between them?
MR. EARNEST: I just am not going to get into the content of their conversation.
Q Thanks, Josh. No content, but how about tone? Were you in the room?
MR. EARNEST: I was not.
Q You were not.
MR. EARNEST: I was not.
Q Do you know anything about what the tone was? I mean, are they like best pals when they’re on the phone together? Or is it tense? Can you say anything about the tone and the mood of these conversations aside from the content?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that you — again, I’m going to protect the ability of the President-elect to consult confidentially with the President of the United States. But I think to the extent that I am willing to characterize it, I think that’s how I would do so, as a consultation. And the President-elect indicated publicly that he intended to seek out the advice and counsel of the sitting President of the United States, and that’s something that he’s done a couple of times now.
Q And Mr. Trump threatened to terminate the deal with Cuba today if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole. You’ve talked about it before, but, now, how worried is the President that he will terminate this deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let the President-elect and his team speak to whatever plans they may have in store once he takes office on January 20th. Certainly, I’ve spent a decent amount of time in this briefing already making a strong case about the way that the American people and the Cuban people have benefitted from the decision that President Obama made with the Cuban government to begin normalizing relations between our two countries.
So that normalization policy has brought about significant changes, including agreements to allow U.S. cruise ships to dock in Cuba. It won’t be easy to rescind that permission. There are already licensing agreements that have been signed by at least one U.S. hotel company to begin operating facilities in Cuba. That would be a difficult thing to unwind.
Q Right. But is Mr. Obama fretting over the possibility that it could all be reversed?
MR. EARNEST: No — again, in part, because there are up to 110 daily flights that are scheduled to occur between — scheduled to take off from the United States and land in Cuba on a daily basis in the coming months. In fact, today, coincidentally enough, the very first flight in several decades took off from the United States, commercial flight —
Q And can all be stopped.
MR. EARNEST: — and landed in Havana. And I don’t know how many people had purchased tickets for this flight, but this is now — there will now be daily flights between the United States and Havana.
Q Or not.
MR. EARNEST: Well, unwinding that, Chip, is not as easy as just a stroke of a pen because there are significant consequences for doing that. There will be an economic impact in the United States and in Cuba for unraveling that policy.
Again, those who are the harshest critics, particularly those in Congress who are the harshest critics of the President’s policy say that part of their concern is for the plight of the Cuban people. Well, first of all, the Cuban people overwhelmingly support this policy. According to some polls that I’ve seen, more than 90 percent of the Cuban people support this policy.
The second is that when Americans travel to Cuba, in some cases they’re staying in properties that are advertised on Airbnb. Some 50,000 Americans in just the last 18 or 19 months have availed themselves of this opportunity. They’re spending about $250, on average, per stay, and that’s money that benefits the Cuban people, to say nothing of the cab drivers and the restauranteurs who benefit from this increased travel, as well.
So, again, to cancel all of that would deal a significant economic blow to those Cuban citizens. So I think it’s very hard for critics of this policy to reconcile their opposition to this policy and their claimed desire to advance the interests of the Cuban people, because the truth is this policy does advance the interests of the Cuban people. So to take it away does not achieve the goal that they claim to have in mind.
Q What about dissidents and the opposition to Cuba? Have they benefitted at all from this policy change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, they certainly — I can tell you one way that they benefitted. Some of them got a meeting with the President of the United States when he traveled to Cuba in March.
Q And has the Cuban government done anything positive, tangible in the name of human rights that you can tell us about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if the critics of this policy want to say that their desire is to lift up the cause of the Cuban people, I don’t know what better way you could do that than to invite them to the United States embassy and have an in-person meeting with the President of the United States to talk about their efforts to fight for freedom and liberty in the island nation of Cuba. That certainly is a pretty profound statement and lifts up in an important way the cause of justice that they seek.
So, listen, I’ll refer you to the Cuban government to discuss what kinds of steps they’ve taken to better protect and acknowledge the human rights of those who may have political disagreements with the government. What I can tell you is that the policy that we have pursued in terms of policymaking and in terms of the President’s travel has succeeded in giving more attention and shining a spotlight on the cause of those Cubans who are putting themselves at grave risk to fight for the freedom and liberty of the Cuban people.
Q So just as the bottom line, is the President satisfied with what the Cuban government has done on human rights and is doing now on human rights, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, there is no doubt that we would like to see the Cuban government do more, but this policy has not even been in place for two years. But we certainly have enjoyed more benefits than was enjoyed under the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years and didn’t bring about the kinds of benefits or the kinds of progress that we would like to see.
So, again, I think it is hard for critics of this policy to somehow make the case that they’re looking out for the interests of the Cuban people, because the interests of the Cuban people were not advanced by a policy of isolation that for more than 50 years affected the U.S. relationship with Cuba, but also affected our relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, and not for the better.
Q Is there evidence that the Cuban people, and not the Cuban government, have benefitted economically from this? You talk about cab drivers and so on and so forth, but is there really hard evidence that somehow the behavior of the government is changing, not just in terms of its treatment of dissidents, but in terms of how the economy functions? The critics of this policy say that there’s no evidence. Critics say that, in fact, the government is the one who’s benefitting, not the Cuban people, generally.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we can certainly provide you some additional evidence about the economic benefits that are enjoyed by the Cuban people. What I can tell you is that those Cuban citizens that do work in industries, like cab drivers or working in restaurants, even Airbnb owners, are benefitting from the enhanced economic activity between Cuban citizens and American citizens who are visiting Cuba. They are paid at a higher rate, and they’re enjoying more economic activity than they otherwise would because of this policy to normalize relations with Cuba.
So we can follow up with you on some more specific data here. But what is clear is that there is a growing entrepreneurial sector inside of Cuba that is benefitting from greater engagement with the United States. That’s a good thing, and that is a benefit that is enjoyed by the Cuban people directly.
Q On the conversations between the President and President-elect, is there — I know you can’t talk about specifics, but — maybe you will change your mind — but does the President — what benefit does the President see coming from these handful of conversations? Is there something specific? I know the idea is to have a smooth transition, but is there anything specific that has been produced by these conversations that the President can say is a positive development, something that he has gotten out of this from the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: I’m just not going to be able to go into the details of their conversation to try to illustrate that kind of consequence or benefit. I think what I can say in general is that President Obama has been doing this job for almost eight years now and he’s learned a lot about the kinds of challenges that every President faces. These are the kinds of challenges that are difficult to assess until you’re actually sitting in that chair in the Oval Office. This is something the President talked about a lot on the campaign trail. This is a particularly significant challenge for someone who has never held elective office before.
Q So what were some of these specific challenges that he’s perhaps been able to illuminate?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m just not going to get into the details of their — or the content of their conversation.
Q What about the recounts in Michigan and Wisconsin? What’s the President’s thinking about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has talked a lot in the almost three weeks before the election — or since the election — about his institutional responsibilities as President. And those institutional responsibilities require him to focus on a smooth and effective transition to the next presidency, regardless of the partisan affiliation of the next President and regardless of whether or not the President endorsed the incoming President. Clearly he did not. But the President is determined to put his institutional responsibilities as the President of the United States ahead of his own personal feelings and ahead of his own political preferences.
The point of all this is that state election officials also have an institutional responsibility, and they have a responsibility to follow the election law in their state. And the election law in each state varies as it relates to when a recount can occur, how a recount should be conducted, what time frame in which a recount should be conducted, who bears the financial responsibility of paying for a recount. And the President’s expectation is that state and local election administrators all across the country will fulfill their basic institutional responsibilities. And so far, at least in Wisconsin, we’re seeing that election officials are doing that.
Q Is the White House and the Justice Department in any way involved in these recounts?
MR. EARNEST: The White House certainly isn’t. I’m not aware of any Justice Department involvement, but you should check with them to confirm that.
Q And I think you were asked earlier about the allegations by the President-elect about voter fraud. Is the Justice Department looking into that at all?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to check with them about that. But as I said before, it’s just an objective fact that there’s been no evidence marshalled to substantiate that kind of claim.
Q Just finally on the recount thing. I hear you saying that the law needs to be followed. So the President doesn’t have a view as to whether this is a positive development or a negative development that the Green Party and the Clinton campaign in some way would be involved in pursuing this?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s expectation is that everybody would fulfill their institutional responsibilities. And certainly election administrators at the state and local level in states like Wisconsin and Michigan have a very clear set of rules and responsibilities that they should follow. And the President’s expectation is that’s what they should do.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about something Senator Rubio said about the passing of Fidel Castro. He said he was a ruthless dictator who executed thousands of opponents and imprisoned tens of thousands. Does the President, and more broadly, does the White House believe that Fidel Castro was, indeed, a murderer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there certainly is no denying the kind of violence that occurred in Cuba under the watch of the Castro regime. There has been no effort to whitewash the history, either the history between the United States and Cuba or the history of what transpired in Cuba while Mr. Castro was leading the country. What we have —
Q Then what’s the problem in saying that?
MR. EARNEST: I think I just did.
Q No, I’m sorry, I meant in the statement in particular, it seemed that the President — he wasn’t denying necessarily — I thought he was very careful. And I think there are a number of people, in particular in south Florida, who felt like he could have been much more direct and stronger in saying that this is a person who killed his citizens, who led the destruction of their economy, and they would argue, took the lives and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of his countrymen. And yet the statement the President issued didn’t really broach that subject. And I’m just curious why.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there’s a couple of things, Kevin. The first is there certainly has been no attempt on the part of this administration, either during President Obama’s trip to Cuba earlier this spring or in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, to obscure or whitewash the history of the Cuban people under the Castro regime when Fidel Castro was leading that country.
I think what we have sought to avoid — what I know we have sought to avoid — is the downward spiral of mutual recriminations between the United States and Cuba. What President Obama is focused on is not whitewashing the past, but actually acknowledging the past but also looking to the future and focusing on what we can do to advance the shared interests of our two countries and the people who live in our two countries.
And the President believes that the most effective way for us to do that is to actually begin to move past that painful history and actually focus on what kinds of opportunities we can pursue now that will advance the plight of the Cuban people right now. And that’s why normalizing relations between our two countries, enhancing people-to-people ties, enhancing economic ties between the United States and Cuba can ensure that there is more opportunity for the American people, but also so that there’s more opportunity and more liberty and more freedom for the Cuban people, both economically, but also, hopefully in the future, politically.
Q Wouldn’t it have made a really powerful statement to just absolutely say this is what evil looks like, and while we don’t condone the past or while we’re not acknowledging this person for anything beyond what he is or was, we do have a hopeful view of the future? It just looked like — we talked a bit about the future; we were very benign in talking about this murderer’s past from a person that seemed to be celebrated in a number of circles — not saying the White House did — but I’m just curious why the President felt so strongly to not really drill down on the fact that this person killed so many and I think should be seen as that person.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we got a lot of the same kinds of questions in the context of the President’s visit to Cuba.
MR. EARNEST: And, again, I think the answer is just the same, which is that there’s no denying what happened in the past; there’s just a desire to try to advance the interest of the Cuban people and the American people by focusing on the future. And the President has put in place the kind of policy that over the course of two years has deepened and strengthened people-to-people and economic ties between our two countries in a way that we think will have positive, long-term benefits for the Cuban people.
That’s why upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban people actually support this policy and they welcome the greater engagement with the United States. They welcome the increased remittances that are provided Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba. They welcome the increase in travel by American citizens to Cuba. There’s a lot to offer. And the Cuban people certainly benefit from that kind of greater engagement. And that’s why the President has pursued this policy. And again, this policy hasn’t even been in place for two years, but the President certainly believes it’s showing a lot more promise than the failed policy that was in place for nearly six decades.
Q Let me ask you about Pearl Harbor Day coming up December 7th, the 75th anniversary of that fateful day. Is there any reason why the President wouldn’t consider it important that he be there, be in Hawaii, to mark the occasion, in particular given his trip in previous months to Japan that, of course, many of us in this room accompanied him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I am confident that President Obama will mark that fateful anniversary. And obviously there’s a generation of Americans whose lives were transformed by that day that will live in infamy. In fact, the history of our country and the history of the world was changed by that day.
On that day, thousands of American lives were lost. These were some of the bravest Americans that our country had to offer who had volunteered to serve our country in the United States Navy. And so I’m confident the President will mark that day. And it obviously is consistent with the way that he has marked previous anniversaries.
The President had the opportunity two years ago to visit Normandy, the site of D-Day, where — that was the site of the U.S. invasion with our allies that liberated a continent and also was a place that has been the site of remarkable sacrifice by the Greatest Generation of Americans. And the President has paid tribute on two different occasions over the course of his presidency to those Americans. The President has visited the site of the USS Arizona Memorial in the past, on a previous visit to Hawaii. But I’m confident the President will mark the day this year.
Q Lastly, I want to ask you about presidential pardons. What’s the timeframe, what’s the timetable like on something like that? Is that something that happens January 19th? Is that something that will happen on his way out the door on the 20th? How does that work out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President had an opportunity to talk about this a little bit back in August when your colleague Gregory asked him about this at the Pentagon. And the President indicated that there is a process in place to evaluate clemency petitions that have been put forward. And the President has granted clemency to hundreds of Americans who have sought a commutation of their sentence. And this is part of what the President believes is an effort to chip away at some of the injustice that exists in our criminal justice system.
It’s not a substitute for more wide-ranging criminal justice reform that unfortunately does not look like it’s going to happen before the end of the year. But when it comes to pardons, they’ll be carefully considered in the context of the same kind of process, and they’ll be announced when the President has made a decision. I don’t have a timeframe to provide at this point.
Q I just wanted to follow up on a question you got about Cuba. You said it wasn’t — it’s not so easy to change the Cuba policy. This is referring to the President-elect’s tweet this morning that he might terminate the deal.
Besides the economic impact that you’re saying is already happening, why is it not so easy? I mean, lot of reporting has been done in the last couple days, actually, that it is pretty easy to do that. So is it just the economic impact? Or is there something else you’re referring to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, let’s just take the example of flights. There will soon be 110 daily scheduled commercial flights between the United States and Cuba. Clearly, a variety of U.S. airlines have invested significant money in infrastructure both in Cuba and the United States to facilitate those flights. Many Americans signed up for tickets to board those aircraft before they depart. There are large companies in the United States — cruise operators and hotel operators — that have invested significant sums of money in investing in infrastructure and doing other work to do business down in Cuba. So unrolling all of that is much more complicated than just the stroke of a pen.
What’s also true is the American people clearly like the opportunity that they have now to more easily travel to Cuba. They like the opportunity that they have now to bring Cuban cigars and Cuban rum home with them for their personal enjoyment. And based on the strong support that exists on the island nation of Cuba for this policy, it’s hard to explain why you would roll it back if you say that your interest is advancing the interests of the Cuban people.
Clearly the Cuban people don’t agree that rolling it back advances their interests. So that’s going to require at least some explanation, if that’s the path that the President-elect chooses. But he’ll obviously have an opportunity to make his case to the American people.
And I left out another good example, which is part of this normalization was making it easier for Cuban Americans to send money home to their family members in Cuba. Telling Cuban Americans — who in some cases are actually the base of your political support — that they can’t send as much money to their own family members in Cuba who desperately need it, that they can’t send money to their family members who are, in some cases, using that money to start a business and to engage in exactly the kind of entrepreneurship that we’re hoping to facilitate on the island nation of Cuba.
Again, I think it’s hard to explain or justify why that’s a policy that anyone would pursue, particularly if that’s a policy that some of your strongest supporters benefit from. But again, the incoming President — because of the executive authority that he wields — will have an opportunity to make this decision. But the complications are large.
And the fact is this policy is one that — it has not just been implemented by the U.S. government. It’s actually a policy that’s been implemented by the American people and by U.S. businesses that have sought to take advantage of some of these opportunities and develop commercial relationships.
There are significant agricultural interests in the United States that long for the opportunity to expand their commercial operations in Cuba. So explaining to them that they’re going to have roll back those plans — even if they’ve committed significant sums of money to invest in those plans — again, I think is one that may be hard to explain.
Q It sounds like you have a lot of doubts that much will change then, even though — I mean, what you hear from analysts is that they expect at the very least a change in trajectory, is how some are saying it, coming from the new administration and the new Congress. But you seem to —
MR. EARNEST: You’re just talking about specifically on the Cuba policy, or you’re talking about more generally?
Q On Cuba policy.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q So — but you seem to cast doubt on there being much change there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think for all of the reasons that I have laid out, the prospects of scrapping the deal are rather remote if for no other reason than it would be extraordinarily complicated and costly to do so. It also is difficult to explain if you claim that you have the best interest of the Cuban people in mind, but an overwhelming majority of Cuban citizens actually supports the policy.
So again, all of that is very difficult to reconcile. And I think this goes to actually something that the President talked about quite a bit on his recent overseas trip, which is that there is a difference between making pronouncements as a candidate for office and actually doing the difficult work of governing, as the President described it. Sometimes, all too often, reality intrudes. I think this in some ways is as good an example as any.
Q Even though — I mean, one of the names we just saw as part of the State Department’s landing team is somebody who is pretty hardline, anti-Castro and against normalization. So if those are the initial people who are going there to make that transition, you still feel pretty confident that there’s not going to be much change, or a change in trajectory, as some analysts are seeing it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think I’m going to be in a position of predicting the future. I think what I’m merely highlighting and trying to underscore here in as much detail as possible is that it’s just not as simple as one tweet might make it seem. And again, that’s just an objective fact when you consider how the American people and U.S. businesses have implemented this deal in a way that has provided significant benefits to the American people and provided significant benefits to the Cuban people.
Again, the U.S. relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin American, is as strong as it’s been in generations. And all of that would be undone by the reinstitution of a policy that had failed after having been in place for more than five decades.
So there are significant diplomatic, economic, cultural costs that will have to be accounted for if this policy is rolled back. But this is among the many significant challenges that the incoming administration will have to carefully consider.
Q And speaking of that, why would you be vague on the number of conversations they’ve had? Why would that be something you wouldn’t want to share?
MR. EARNEST: Again, because I’m just going to protect the ability of the President and the President-elect to engage in confidential consultations. So I think that’s simply it. The President-elect indicated his intent to seek the advice and counsel of the President of the United States, and that’s something that he’s done on a number of occasions.
Q Is that something that President Obama did with outgoing President Bush? Did President Obama call him a number of times to have discussions?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not aware that that occurred. I can’t detail all of the conversations that occurred between President-elect Obama and then-President George W. Bush. But I’m not aware of the kinds of telephone consultations that have occurred in the context of this transition.
Q Okay, so this is President Obama helping out somebody that he said was unfit for office not that long ago, and said all kinds of things about on the campaign trail. So given that they’ve had these conversations, does the President have more confidence in the ability of Donald Trump to run the country?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President has changed his assessment. But I can tell you that the President is committed to living up to the responsibility that he has as the President of the United States to put the interest of the country ahead of his own political preferences.
And the President didn’t support President-elect Trump in the race. In fact, he endorsed his opponent and campaigned aggressively for his opponent. But the votes were cast, and they were counted. And within 36 hours, President-elect Trump was sitting in the Oval Office next to President Obama in a meeting that lasted 90 minutes that ended with a public statement by the President-elect indicating that he hoped to have many future conversations with President Obama.
And that is a very good illustration of President Obama’s deep commitment — despite their strong political differences — to facilitating the kind of smooth and effective transition that will give the incoming President the best opportunity to succeed in uniting the country and in moving our country forward.
Q So a few weeks ago, before all of these lengthy phone conversations took place, you and the administration stood by the things that President Obama had said on the campaign trail. Now, after those conversations, do you still stand by those?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President’s assessment has changed. But the election is over, and the President is focused on his institutional responsibilities as President of the United States to preside over a smooth and effective transition to the next administration — even though the next President is not one that he has supported politically.
Q And even though you say the election is over, there are many people who feel that the election is not over. And the recount efforts have also been called far-fetched and frivolous. During the campaign, the President many, many times expressed his confidence in the integrity of the electoral system, his doubts that there could be hacking, or widespread illegality of voting or anything like that. So that doesn’t sound like the stance that would support a recount.
Given those things that he said about integrity and how the system is run, does he feel like these efforts might be too much, or over the top?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, the President does have confidence in the way that the election system in this country is run. And part of what is required of any election system is providing for a recount when the law stipulates that one can be requested. And the President’s expectation is that, consistent with the smooth functioning of our election system on Election Day, is ensuring that the recount system functions smoothly, according to the law, when justified by a narrow victory by one side or the other. And the President’s expectation is that everybody will follow the rules and regulations, and that this recount will occur on a timeframe envisioned by the law.
Q Before the election, the President criticized Donald Trump’s — what was interpreted as foreshadowing that the election would be contested, or there would be calls for recounts, and now that is happening on the part of Democrats. Does that seem like the tables have just turned and it’s kind of the same principle?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it’s — I’m not sure it’s the same principle because I think there is a difference between unfounded claims of fraud and a conscientious interpretation of the recount law that is consistent with the rules that Democrats and Republicans alike apply in a situation where there’s a narrow victory by one candidate or the other.
MR. EARNEST: Bob.
Q Hey, Josh. Maybe you can answer this: Was the President-elect’s phone call to the President — and I believe it was on Saturday —
MR. EARNEST: It was on Saturday.
Q — was that prompted by the death of Fidel Castro?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that it was, no.
Q Nice try. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It was a good shot, though.
Q Excellent try.
MR. EARNEST: Lana.
Q No, no, no, I’m not finished.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q I have a follow-up.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry. I thought that blowing kisses to the audience was an indication — (laughter) — some sort of universal symbol that I’m done asking questions. My mistake.
Q In truth, is the death of Fidel Castro almost irrelevant in some ways to the trajectory of how things are going at the moment right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that’s a provocative question primarily because we’re talking about a figure in Cuban history that had a profound impact on the history of his island nation and on his nation’s relationship with the United States. And obviously some of that — at least some of that impact includes a treatment of citizens that’s inconsistent with the kinds of rights and norms and values that we go to great lengths to protect in this country.
But what I can say — and the observation I made earlier — is I’m not aware that the United States is going to do anything differently in pursuit of our normalization policy today that we weren’t doing the day before Fidel Castro’s death.
I can’t speak to what sort of impact this may have on the way that the Cuban government will pursue this policy. Obviously, it was a joint agreement between the United States government and the Cuban government to pursue this normalization policy, so you’d have to talk to them about whether or not they would make any changes based on their trajectory after the death of Fidel Castro.
Q The Hill is reporting that President Obama encouraged Hillary Clinton to concede the election. Can you confirm if the President called her prior to her call to Mr. Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I saw that report. I can tell you that President Obama did have a conversation with Secretary Clinton on Election Night. I’m not going to get into the content of their conversation either. I think the one observation that I would make is that Secretary Clinton, after having spent more than a year waging a tireless campaign across the country for the presidency, is going to make her own decision about whether or not she’s prepared to concede the election.
And I suspect, though I haven’t spoken to anyone on her staff, that she would take some umbrage at the suggestion that anybody is going to dictate to her how she should handle that situation. And I think the way that she did handle it — particularly in the statement that she delivered the morning after the election that was characterized by so much grace and poise and statesmanship, that was obviously a very difficult time for her given the surprising outcome — is a testament to her character and her leadership, and I think is a testament to the fact that she handled this situation based on what she believed was right, and based on what she believed was in the best interest of the country.
And I think there’s ample public evidence to indicate that that’s how — that that’s what she was motivated by. And I think that, frankly, is what has drawn her so many compliments, even by people who didn’t support her politically.
Q So just to be crystal clear, you dispute the characterization of The Hill article, but not the facts?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I will say is I don’t have anything to add to characterize the content of the telephone conversation. I can tell you that the President did call Secretary Clinton on Election Night, but I can’t shed any light on the content of their conversation. I can just tell you that when I was reading the story, my reaction was that in a situation like that, nobody is going to tell Secretary Clinton what to do. She’s going to decide what to do. And what she decided to do was to put the interest of the country first, even at a very, very difficult time for her personally.
Q Is Ambassador Caroline Kennedy being considered to represent the United States at Fidel Castro’s funeral? And if so, what message would that send about America’s past and future relationship with Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any news to make on the U.S. delegation to Mr. Castro’s funeral. I can’t even confirm that there will be one at this point. But if there is one, we’ll certainly announce who will lead it and who will participate in it. And we can talk about it then.
Q When do you expect to make a decision or have something to announce?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that the funeral is tomorrow, so we have to —
Q I know — that’s why I’m wondering what’s your timeline, Josh. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: So soon. (Laughter.)
Q And then finally, you said to Michelle twice you’re not aware that the President has changed his assessment regarding Mr. Trump. But we’ve also heard from Mr. Trump that, with the interactions that he’s had with President Obama, that he’s come to change his opinion. He thinks more fondly of him. He likes him more than he thought he would. So you’re saying that that’s not reciprocated by the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think mostly what I was referring to is the rhetoric and argument that the President was making in advance of the election in support of Secretary Clinton and raising concerns about Mr. Trump’s campaign. And the observation that I have made is that the President’s mind hasn’t changed, but his responsibilities have because an election has occurred, and the American people have decided that President-elect Trump should succeed President Obama.
And the President’s institutional responsibilities to ensure a smooth and effective transition supersede any specific political preference that he has, even on something as significant as the presidency of the United States.
For his personal feelings in terms of — or his assessment of the personal relationship that he has with President-elect Trump, to be honest with you, I haven’t really talked to him about that. But maybe one of you will have an opportunity to ask him about that at some point in the future.
Q Is it safe to say that the President won’t be attending Castro’s funeral given the timing and everything you’ve said today?
MR. EARNEST: That is correct. The President will not be traveling to attend the funeral of Fidel Castro.
Q Okay, thank you. Will the Vice President possibly be attending? Is that — but realistically, will the Vice President possibly be attending? And would the Secretary of State possibly attend at this point?
MR. EARNEST: So just to avoid all of the —
Q Just all the —
MR. EARNEST: So I can confirm for you that neither the President nor Vice President will attend. I don’t want to lead you to conclude that the Secretary of State is considering attending. What I’d want to lead you to conclude is that we’ll have an announcement as soon as we can get one out about a delegation, if there is one. I will keep you posted.
Q Sorry, to clarify the last part where you’re saying you don’t want to lead me to conclude that the Secretary of State would be attending —
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q — you’re also saying then that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, is not planning to attend, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned for the release.
Q Aleppo looks like it will fall fairly soon, and fall to the government of Bashar al-Assad. Do you have any further reaction to this impending disaster, which looks like it will happen in the coming several days?
MR. EARNEST: The Obama administration, including the President himself, continues to be profoundly disturbed at the violence that is being used against innocent Syrians in Aleppo. This is violence that is organized and executed by the Assad government with the willing support of the Russians and the Iranians.
And the situation is just heartbreaking. I saw a report earlier today that the latest estimate is that there are hundreds of thousands of children in besieged locations in Syria. That’s difficult to comprehend. And it’s tragic. And there’s no positive spin to put on a situation like that.
What I can tell you is that the United States continues to work diplomatically to try to bring the violence to an end and to try to provide for routine and continuous humanitarian aid deliveries. But a solution that looks like that has remained frustratingly out of reach.
It doesn’t mean the United States has stopped trying. If anything, we have seen Secretary of State John Kerry redouble his efforts to try to bring about that kind of solution, because we know that it’s just impossible to impose a military solution on a situation like this. And, unfortunately, a diplomatic solution has been very difficult to find, as well.
Q Thank you, Josh. You insisted on the fact that it would be complicated the cost to scrap the Cuban deal. Would you say it’s exactly the same and worse to scrap the NAFTA agreement? Like, it’s not comparable? It’s just recent there was a presidential decree, and the other one is like a treaty. It would seem it’s just a complicated to get rid of.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think a trade agreement is a little bit different than the broader diplomatic normalizing of relations between our two countries. So rather than try to compare them, why don’t we just talk about the NAFTA agreement.
What is true is that President Obama actually did engage in an effort to try to strengthen and improve the NAFTA agreement by negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that included Canada and Mexico and included enforceable higher labor and environmental standards. This is the chief complaint about NAFTA is that the higher labor standards that were contemplated in the NAFTA agreement were not central to the agreement and were not enforceable.
So what President Obama said is basically that he was going to make good on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. That’s what we did. And he put in place an agreement that would better serve American workers, American businesses, and the American economy.
Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress and Democrats in Congress have not acted to ratify that agreement even though most of the rest of the world has. And that is going to have pretty significant strategic consequences for the United States in the Asia Pacific region. It’s going to put us at a disadvantage in that region of the world, both strategically and economically. But it also exists as a missed opportunity for improvements to be built into the NAFTA agreement.
Now, the prospect of trying to withdraw from the NAFTA agreement will also be extraordinarily complicated. There are decades of economic and commercial ties among Mexican, American, and Canadian companies. And unraveling all of that will have profound economic consequences for the United States, both in terms of jobs that are created, but also in terms of the affordability of products that are available for sale to American consumers.
So this will be — fashioning a trade policy that advances the best interests of American businesses and American workers and American consumers is a challenging one, and one that this administration spent years focused on in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. And this is an agreement that was going to cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that were imposed by other countries, and this is an agreement that would for the first time have codified the kind of intellectual property protections that would serve as strong protection for American entrepreneurs and Americans businesses, including those ideas that have created a lot of jobs.
So this will certainly be another challenge — I guess, this would be the one area where I would acknowledge that there’s an apt comparison between the Cuba policy and the NAFTA agreement — which is, it’s easy to say that you’re going to tear up NAFTA, but the way that reality intrudes on the consequences of that decision make it more difficult to achieve than it might originally appear.
Q Thanks, Josh. The Heritage Foundation has come out with its new assessment of U.S. military strength, and it says that, basically, the U.S. military is only two-thirds of the size that it should be. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, David, I think the President had a rather colorful exchange about this with the Republican candidate for President during one of the debates in 2012 in which then-candidate Governor Romney cited a similar analysis, and President Obama pointed out that there are also fewer horses and bayonets in the U.S. military than there used to be. And it’s an indication of the kind of advances in technology that allow the United States to maintain, by far, the strongest military in the world.
And that military would be stronger if Republicans in Congress were not blocking the kind of spending reforms that our leaders in the Pentagon say that we need. These are spending reforms that would strengthen the military and save taxpayers money. But that kind of common-sense approach is one that has been opposed by Republicans in Congress, including those who claim that they oppose pork-barrel spending. That’s rather unfortunate.
So, Dave, I think there are steps that President Obama believes would make our military stronger, but they’re being blocked by Republicans in Congress right now. But the fact of the matter is, the United States military is the finest, strongest, most powerful military fighting force that the world has ever known, and is certainly more powerful and effective than any other military that is fielded by any other country in the world right now.
Q Donald Trump has relied on this group’s assessment during the campaign about military strength. Is the President concerned that Trump will embark on a military build-up next year, in light of the President viewing that the drawdown from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should provide the government with more money to devote to other programs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, these will all be questions that the President-elect will have to decide. After all, he won’t just be the President of the United States, he’ll also be the Commander-in-Chief. And President Obama has benefitted enormously from the wisdom and advice that he has received from the civilian and military leadership at the Department of Defense. He has listened carefully to that advice. He hasn’t followed it at every turn, but it certainly has influenced his thinking, and he certainly believes that the incoming President-elect would benefit from keeping an open mind about that advice in the same way that President Obama did.
Cheryl, I’ll give you that last one.
Q Thanks. Speaking of spending, this morning Senator Lankford released his annual report, finding $247 billion in wasteful and inefficient federal spending. It’s his waste, fraud and abuse report. Do you believe that there is $247 billion in wasteful spending in the government?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen his report. I can tell you, as I alluded to with Dave, there are at least tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, of dollars in reforms that the United States Department of Defense would implement if it weren’t for Republicans in Congress who are making much more narrow decisions based on their own political self-interest.
So there certainly are significant reforms that could be made that would make our country safer, would make our military stronger, and would save taxpayers money. And they’re not moving forward only because of Republicans who are more focused on politics than our national security.
So I can’t speak more broadly to Senator Lankford’s report, but I can certainly tell you that we hope that Congress, maybe under a Republican President, they’ll be more persuaded by the kinds of needed reforms that President Obama has long supported.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:21 P.M. EST
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