Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 4, 2016 – 12:58 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome back. I’m glad the New Year has you in a good spirit and you can join in some ribbing of some of my more tanned colleagues. (Laughter.) I don’t see too many tans out in the audience today — I suspect that’s mostly because that many of you actually got a little time off, and I hope it was a pleasant opportunity to spend a little time with your family. I know I certainly enjoyed that opportunity, so I hope all of you did as well.
But obviously, this is going to be a pretty exciting year for a variety of reasons. And we’re starting off fast, and we’ve got a lot of work to get to. So let’s go straight to questions. Julie, do you want to start?
Q Thanks, Josh. So, to start with, one of the things the President is getting underway this week, he’s meeting with Loretta Lynch this afternoon to talk about gun control recommendations. Is it your expectation that he will come out of this meeting ready to announce what he’s planning to do? Do you expect that to be an announcement for later this week?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that the President will have an announcement quite soon where he will discuss some steps that his administration has concluded and that he has concluded are within his executive authority that would keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. And there are common-sense steps that he can take, using his authority, that do not undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. But we have to do something in this country to address the consequences of Congress’s failure to act.
And, look, there are more than 30,000 Americans who die every year as the result of a gun. And we’re not going to be able to pass a law or take an executive action that would prevent every single incident of gun violence, but if there’s something that we can do that would prevent even one, why wouldn’t we do it? And that’s the President’s mindset as he enters this meeting with his Attorney General and as he prepares to make some announcements.
Q A lot of the executive actions the President has done on other topics have faced pretty swift legal challenges. You’ve already seen Republicans talking about things that they expect the President to announce being unconstitutional, overstepping his bounds. Is the White House, as you prepare for these announcements, also preparing for a legal fight? And do you expect that whatever he announces is something that could be implemented right away, or do you expect it to be tied up in the courts for perhaps the rest of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Part of the work — a lot of the work that has gone on behind the scenes to take a look at what the President can do using his executive authority has been grounded in the knowledge that the gun lobby and the Republicans in Congress who regularly do their bidding are going to look for ways to try to stop it. And we know that they are likely to try to pursue a creative legal theory to prevent the implementation of these rules. And that’s why the President wants to be sure that the recommendations that he receives and the executive actions that he carries out are going to stand up in a court of law.
And a lot of the work that has gone on has been to ensure that we would have confidence in the legal basis of these actions. And I feel confident in telling you now that what the President does announce will be the kinds of actions in which we have a lot of confidence that they are within the legal ability of the President of the United States to carry out these actions.
Q If I could switch to another topic. Saudi Arabia and now some of its allies have either cut off or downgraded diplomatic relations with Iran. How concerning is this to the White House — not just the dynamic between the Saudis and the Iranians, but also as it relates to diplomatic efforts in Syria and like the situation in Yemen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, we do continue to be concerned about the need for both the Iranians and the Saudis to deescalate the situation in the Middle East; that we’re urging all sides to show some restraint and to not further inflame tensions that are on quite vivid display in the region.
And Secretary Kerry has been in touch with his Iranian counterpart; United States diplomatic officials in Saudi Arabia have been in touch with their counterparts to convey this message. I would anticipate that Secretary Kerry will be in touch with his Saudi counterpart at some point soon, as well, to deliver that same message.
And we have seen that a lot of the volatility and instability in the Middle East has a tendency to break down along sectarian lines. It’s not a coincidence. And we believe that there is more that can be done by people on all sides to try to bridge those divides in a way that advances the interests of countries all across the region.
For example, Syria, I think, situation is probably the most vivid example of this. The United States has succeeded in leading the international effort to bring all sides together to try to bring about a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria.
Q But do you worry that with this now happening between the Saudis and the Iranians that it could influence that effort and perhaps cause it to break down?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly hope — we’re hopeful that it won’t. One reason that we are hopeful that it won’t is that it is so clearly in the interests of both countries to advance a political solution to the situation inside of Syria.
The reason that Iran and Saudi Arabia have participated in those conversations that are led by Secretary Kerry are not out of charity. They’re doing it because they have their own vested interest in trying to bring about an end to some of the chaos inside of Syria, and they’re looking for a way that they can contribute constructively to that process.
It was a lot of painstaking diplomatic work to bring them to the table the first time. And there will always be reasons for them to be suspicious and be reluctant to engage with countries that they consider to be their adversaries, but the pursuit of this ultimate goal is so clearly within their own direct interest that we’re hopeful that they will continue to engage. But ultimately, it will be up to them.
Q You talked about calls that Secretary Kerry has made or is planning to make. Has the President made any calls to any of his counterparts on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: As of this moment, the President has not made any calls to the leaders of either of those countries to discuss this issue. But certainly the President is aware of the situation, and the message that Secretary Kerry and other U.S. diplomats have been delivering is certainly consistent with the President’s perspective on the situation.
Q And did Saudi Arabia give the White House a heads-up before cutting off ties with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to get into the details of all of the diplomatic conversations between the United States and Saudi officials. I can tell you that the United States regularly has raised concerns about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia. The President has even done that in his conversations with King Salman. And more recently, there have been direct concerns raised by U.S. officials to Saudi officials about the potential damaging consequences of following through on the execution — on mass executions, in particular the execution of al-Nimr, the political opposition figure but also a religious leader. And this is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance. And unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed to the Saudis have precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.
Q Why did the U.S. pull back from imposing new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program last week? And did Saudi Arabia express irritation to the administration about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Roberta, I think there are a couple things about this. The first is, we have been talking publicly for some time about the potential that the United States could levy sanctions against Iran in light of ballistic missile tests that they conducted last year. This is an option that has been on the table for some time and it’s one that has been carefully considered by the experts at the Treasury Department, who are responsible for imposing those kinds of financial penalties.
We know that those kinds of financial penalties have an impact and they are helpful in countering Iran’s ballistic missile program. But ultimately, we will impose those financial penalties — we’ll impose those sanctions at a time and place of our choosing when our experts believe they would have the maximum impact. And those decisions are not subject to negotiation by the Iranians — or anybody else for that matter. They are actually — those decisions are made based solely on the conclusion of our financial experts about ensuring that those penalties have the maximum impact.
Q So did Saudi Arabia express any irritation about the sanctions not being levied at this particular time?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to ask them about that. But, again, the decision that the United States makes about imposing sanctions against the Iranians for their ongoing ballistic missile program are made based on our judgment about when those penalties would have the maximum impact.
Q Thanks, Josh. What does the President think about the situation that’s unfolding in Oregon on this preserve? It’s federal land, and the standoff has been going on now for a few days with these armed protestors. So I wonder whether he’s planning to talk with the Attorney General about this. Does he think that the federal government needs to take some action against these people? They seem to be occupying these buildings and not moving.
MR. EARNEST: The President is certainly aware of the situation. I, frankly, would be surprised if it came up in the context of the conversation the President is planning to have later today with his Attorney General. The FBI has indicated that they’re working with local law enforcement officials to resolve the situation, and we’re hopeful that that situation can be resolved peacefully and without any violence.
Q Does the President believe these people have a right to be on this land at this point?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure the President has spent a lot of time considering the case of the individuals who are carrying out this action. This ultimately is a local law enforcement matter. The FBI is monitoring the situation and offering support to the local law enforcement officials as they try to deal with it.
Q But what is the federal government’s role, given that it’s federal land? I mean, you said the FBI is involved, but it can’t be purely a local law enforcement matter when they’re occupying federal lands.
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly the concern that we have is for the safety of federal personnel that work in those facilities. To our knowledge at this point, there are no federal employees that are at risk or in danger right now. Obviously we’re aware of the situation and concerned about it, but ultimately right now this is a matter that local law enforcement is handling and they’re doing so with the support of the FBI.
Q Has the federal government provided any guidance, or the administration, any guidance to the employees of that facility that they should not enter or not attempt to go to their place of work?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that. You might check with the Department of the Interior that I believe manages these facilities.
Q Just to follow up on what you said to Julie earlier about court challenges to the executive actions on guns. You said the President is confident that the recommendations will stand up in a court of law. But you are a short-timer — the administration is a short-timer, the clock is ticking — (laughter) — and it’s not so much of whether you might eventually prevail, it’s just that, as we saw with the immigration orders, they can be tied up to the point where the clock just runs out and they can’t be — so how confident are you that the court challenges will actually all be finished in time for these to go into effect before you leave office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly am not going to be in the business of predicting court outcomes. What I can tell you is that the President will only put forward recommendations — or only put forward executive actions in which he has confidence in their constitutionality.
One of the reasons that this particular effort to scrub the law, as the President described it, to consider what executive authority he has to keep guns out of the wrong hands has been rooted in his desire to make sure that these would stand up in a court of law. And we want to make sure that the arguments that we can make are arguments that we can make with not just confidence in their ability to address the issue, but also confidence in their legal standing.
Q Right. But can’t the opponents stop the actions merely by tying them up in court for 12 months, which is all you’ve got?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if they try. But again, the kind of arguments that we’ll be able to mobilize in a court of law are ones that I am confident will be powerful and persuasive. Ultimately, a judge will have to decide. But we should not be distracted, however, from the fact that the reason the President is taking these actions is because Congress has utterly failed in their responsibility to do so. Congress time and again has had multiple opportunities to take action that would make it harder for the wrong hands to get ahold of guns. And there are steps that Congress can take that would not undermine the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, but Congress has refused. Congress has failed to take those actions. So the President is going to use his executive authority to follow through and take what steps he can.
I can tell you that after the President takes those steps, Congress is still going to have a responsibility to act in their own right, as well. This will not eliminate the responsibility that Congress has to take steps that only they can take to keep guns out of the wrong hands. So the President is going to make this announcement soon, and there will be some important steps that he will take. But that will not be the end of this debate. There will still be a responsibility that Congress has to take action.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said at the beginning that there are some steps that the President has concluded are within his executive power. Has he already made up his mind? When did he do that? And is he, today in the meeting with the AG, directing her to carry them out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll have an opportunity to hear from the President when he meets with the Attorney General, so I’ll let him speak for himself in that case. I can tell you that there are a number of recommendations that the President has considered and I would anticipate that we will very soon have some announcements about what actions the President has chosen to take.
Q Is it fair to say that he believes it’s within his executive power to increase or to expand the number of people who have to register as a federally licensed firearms dealer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a range of things that have been considered. And given that we will have some announcements relatively soon here, rather than speculate on what the President is likely to decide, let’s let the President make a decision here and announce these steps. And then we can discuss sort of the pros and cons of what’s been decided.
Q Just one more thing. Is he talking to us before the meeting with the AG, or after?
MR. EARNEST: It’s after. It will be after the meeting. So he’ll have an opportunity to tell you a little bit about that discussion.
Q There have been bipartisan attempts to act on this and they did fail. And in the normal course of events where you could say the way the system is supposed to work and also the way the system is supposed to work — that kind of congressional action would be informed by public opinion. So we now have a record of these attempts on a bipartisan basis failing, and now public opinion is showing that a majority of Americans oppose stricter gun laws. So are all of those people wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I think the polls actually indicate that there is strong support for some common-sense steps that Congress could take. For example, closing what is often referred to as the gun show loophole, essentially ensuring that everybody who tries to purchase a firearm, whether it’s at a gun show or at a gun store or over the Internet, has to undergo a background check — according to a recent poll, 84 percent of voters in households with guns support requiring background checks on gun purchases at gun shows or online.
People have been conducting a lot of polls of Iowa Republicans lately. I’m not sure why that is, he said jokingly. (Laughter.) But recent polls indicate that three out of four Iowa Republicans support barring people — or support requiring criminal background checks for all gun purchases. A similar number applies to New Hampshire Republicans — 81 percent of New Hampshire Republicans supports background checks on all gun purchases.
So this is not just — this is not something that — this is not a partisan endeavor, and this is not just something that is being advanced by people who are strong advocates of gun control. Gun owners and Republicans overwhelmingly support at least this common-sense step, closing the gun show loophole.
There are similar statistics that apply to congressional action that would prevent those individuals who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun. That’s a pretty common-sense step. If the government has determined that it is too dangerous for you to board an airplane, you shouldn’t be able to purchase a firearm. About three out of four Republicans who were surveyed recently came to the same conclusion and agree with that notion. And I know that there’s at least one Republican candidate for President who has articulated his support for that.
Q I mean, you can look at very specific aspects of this, but when you see broadly that a majority of Americans now, and fewer than a couple of years ago, support [sic] stricter gun control laws, even after the mass shootings, even after all those impassioned statements by the President — to what does the administration attribute those numbers, that a majority of Americans would feel that way?
MR. EARNEST: Again, what the President is focused on in the context of this exercise is very directly on what steps this administration can take to keep guns out of the wrong hands. And we’re not under the illusion that that is going to prevent every incident of gun violence, but if it’s possible that we could prevent even one or two incidents of gun violence, then we’re going to eagerly implement those executive actions. And that’s exactly what the President is focused on.
Q Is there any evidence that any of the President’s prior executive actions on gun control have kept guns out of the wrong hands? Is there any evidence that whatever he does now will do that? And I mean, I think some of the criticism in the past has been — or it’s possible that the reason so many Americans oppose stricter laws is maybe they feel like those laws or those actions wouldn’t have any effect. So why do you think that this — whatever the action is going to be — would be different?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me take that question a couple of different ways. After the terribly tragic shooting at Newtown in Connecticut at the end of 2012, in early 2013, the President announced about 23 executive actions that he was taking, again, to try to keep guns out of the wrong hands. Some of those steps related to ensuring that federal agencies were providing the necessary records to the system that conducts background checks. And the result was a 46 percent increase in the amount of federal records that were provided to the background check service — it’s called NICS.
One of the executive actions also had to do with providing an incentive to states and greater clarity to states to ensure that they’re providing records, and that has resulted in a 69 percent increase in the number of records that are provided to the background check service. Now the question is, well, what’s really the point of providing all that information to the background checks services if there are loopholes? That’s precisely why the President supports closing loopholes. Ostensibly, that’s why a majority of Americans — including a majority of gun-owners and Republicans — supports closing loopholes.
But even with the loopholes existing, our background check system over the last decade and a half or so has prevented about 2 million gun transactions. That’s 2 million guns that were blocked from going into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. So the idea that we can do more to ensure that more transactions are subjected to those background checks — that’s a pretty common-sense step. And we can do that in a common-sense way because we know that a law-abiding American who doesn’t have mental problems, is not the subject of a restraining order, can go through the background check system and in a timely fashion purchase a gun. And, again, that’s sort of part of the kind of common-sense steps that we believe should guide these kinds of decisions.
Q Josh, I’m going to follow up again on guns. Last year, the President was very forthright in his belief that, with the blockade in Congress, he wanted to make this a political issue. He talked about the issue as part of the body politic. Because of the number of times where he even talked about this, leading up to the State of the Union and afterwards, can you describe what his goals are in the body politic with his concentration on this issue this year, beyond what you’ve described as trying to keep people alive? But beyond that, what is his hope?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think his top priority is ensuring that he is using every element of his executive authority to take common-sense actions that would keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. And that is what will — that’s what’s driving the announcement that I think you can expect sometime pretty soon.
Separate from that, I would anticipate that the President wants to continue to engage in a dialogue and a debate about additional steps that Congress can take that would make our community safer. Again, the President doesn’t operate under the illusion that there is a law that can be passed that would prevent every single incident of gun violence, but there are laws that can be passed that would reduce the likelihood that guns are going to fall into the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. And we can pass those laws and implement them and enforce them in a way that doesn’t undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
And so I think the President’s desire to have this discussion and have this debate I think is — I think a piece of evidence that you have for that is that the President has agreed to participate in a town hall meeting later this week that will be broadcast in primetime on a notable cable television network, and I think that’s an indication of the President’s desire to not just focus on what he can do himself, using his executive authority to keep guns out of the wrong hands, but what he can do to lead an ongoing debate in this country about steps that can be taken and should be taken to reduce gun violence in communities all across the country.
Q You mentioned mental health. And Speaker Ryan talked about mental health in his statement this morning. Does the President believe that there is any good element of cooperation that could come out of just talking to House Republicans, including Speaker Ryan, about what more could be done on the issue of mental health?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will say that there is a lot of skepticism rooted in Republican claims that they care about improving mental health care in this country when they’re prepared this week to actually take their 60th vote to repeal the very law that has done more to expand access to mental health care than any other law in decades. So it’s a little hard to consider their claim that they’re interested in investing in mental health care as anything other than an attempt to excuse their own inaction to do something serious, like standing up to the NRA and passing a common-sense measure that would reduce gun violence.
Q Thanks, Josh. Happy New Year.
MR. EARNEST: Happy New Year to you, too.
Q On December 25th, the Indian Prime Minister visited Lahore with another peace initiative with Pakistan. And within a week there was another major terrorist attack inside India, this time again coming from across the border. What do you make of the situation there? Should India continue the peace initiative or they should —
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lalit, obviously the leaders of both countries are going to have to decide for themselves what they believe is in the interests of their citizens. The United States certainly believes that warmer relations and more cooperation between the government of India and the government of Pakistan would in the interests of both countries. But ultimately the leaders of those countries will have to decide for themselves.
Q And when the Pakistani Prime Minister was here, there was a joint statement issued by U.S. and Pakistan in which the Pakistanis promised that they will take action against terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. Do you see any action being taken by them against these terrorist groups?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lalit, obviously the United States and Pakistan have a security relationship that advances the interests of both of our countries. Thousands — hundreds, if not thousands of Pakistani citizens have been the victims of terrorist groups and terrorist actions inside Pakistan over the last several years. So obviously the government of Pakistan has their own interest in trying to fight extremism and fight terrorist organizations that are operating inside their own country.
And the United States has offered our support to the Pakistani government. We obviously want to help them with — particularly in light of that terrible terrorist incident where we saw an extremist organization carry out an attack against an elementary school inside of Pakistan — that was a little over a year ago, I believe. That I think was a rather vivid illustration — for people who don’t closely follow this issue — that citizens in Pakistan and the Pakistani government has their own vested interest in trying to deal with terrorist organizations that are attempting to operate inside their country. And the United States obviously strongly supports the Pakistani government as they do that.
Q And finally — the President invited the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in March some time?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any upcoming meetings between the President and the leaders of India and Pakistan. But if anything like that materializes, we’ll certainly let you know.
Q Josh, happy New Year.
MR. EARNEST: Happy New Year to you, too.
Q I wanted to cover two subjects with you. One, guns; and the other the Middle East.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q We’ll start with guns. You spoke repeatedly in this briefing about the confidence the President has in the lawfulness of the measures he is soon to implement. How did that confidence arise? Did he task people at the Office of Legal Counsel and the Department of Justice to provide legal memos on that subject?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have an opportunity to get into a little bit more of this work after the President has made an announcement on this. But I will say, James, that there have been attorneys both at the White House and at the Department of Justice that have been carefully looking at the law to determine what authority the President does have to take action in this area. And their focus, as I mentioned earlier, was not just on what would be effective in addressing the problem, which is keeping guns out of the wrong hands, but also making sure that the steps that the President was taking were well within his legal authority.
And so the attorneys who have been working on this were carefully considering both elements here. And that’s what gives me the confidence to assert that what the President does announce will be something in which he has full confidence in the legal arguments that we could make about them.
Q Is it accurate to say that the President tasked the Attorney General with developing options in this realm and that she has complied?
MR. EARNEST: The President certainly did ask the Department of Justice, including the Attorney General, to play a leading role in considering what authority was available to him to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
Q Doesn’t that call into question the independence of the Attorney General if the President can simply call her up like a Chinese food restaurant and order what he wants off the menu and she serves it up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, the system for doing that wasn’t quite as easy as ordering from column A and column B. Ultimately, experts at the Department of Justice had to carefully consider what the law would allow, and what — I mean, they bring expertise of two varieties to this situation. The first is law enforcement expertise, which is understanding exactly what steps can be taken to more effectively enforce the laws that are on the books and close loopholes that may make those laws less effective than was originally intended. But they also bring an expertise in understanding exactly what the President can do using his existing executive authority and also understanding what only Congress can do. So using both of those areas of expertise, the President was able to get some recommendations from the Department of Justice.
Q You’ve repeatedly talked here today and elsewhere previously about the gun lobby, the Republicans supposedly being in the grips of the gun lobby, about the need for the Republicans and lawmakers to stand up to the NRA. And I wonder if you don’t consider that precisely divisive language that asserts that only one political party is in the grip of a lobby. Is the President or the Democratic Party in the grip of any lobbies that you know of?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let you make that observation or reach that conclusion. Obviously, I think the President is, in this case, certainly, making a principled stand on an issue on which he is quite passionate. And there are certainly groups that have been formed because they are groups that have been formed that do share the President’s view on this matter. There are also groups in existence that do not share the President’s view and, in fact, oppose the steps that he is taking.
I think what we have seen, unfortunately, James, is politicians who, despite the preponderance of the kind of evidence that I was citing earlier, oppose common-sense gun measures that are strongly supported both by gun owners and even by members of their own Republican Party. And the real problem, though, are the real-world consequences of them failing to act.
Q To finish up on guns, I was going to ask about the evidence that you cited earlier. You recited some polling statistics as evidence that some putative majority of the country feels about this subject the way the President does. And since you are content with reciting polling statistics from the podium, I wonder if you would then, here and now, concede the legitimacy and the validity of the wide body of polling that is available online for us all to see that shows a majority of Americans disapproving of the President’s performance, or a majority of Americans feeling that he is not up to the job with respect to ISIS. There’s all kinds of polls. And so if you’re going to cite certain types of polls, do you regard those other kinds of polls that are not favorable to the President with equal legitimacy?
MR. EARNEST: James, I think what I was doing is — Michelle had asked a specific question about some polling that she had seen about a broad opposition to gun control measures in this country. And I pointed out that there is strong support, including in many polls, even among Republicans and among gun owners, for the kinds of common-sense steps that the President is advocating.
So I’ll leave the polling analysis to all of you —
Q Except for when you cite them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess if we’re going to have a discussion about polls, we can do that. And if you want to have a discussion about polls related to ISIL, we can do that as well. I suspect, for example, that some of the positions that are taken by the President’s critics are also not — when it relates to ISIL are also not going to be strongly supported by Republican polls.
Q To move to the Middle East, very quickly, two questions. In your comments about the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran in this briefing I detected a kind of studied neutrality, calling for both countries to deescalate, talking about how Secretary Kerry has reached out to one side and will soon be reaching out to the other. Is the United States neutral in this dispute?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s not how I would describe it. I think that the United States, frankly, has concerns with the way that both countries have carried out their activities over the last several days. Somebody asked earlier about the consultations we’ve had with the Saudis about the human rights situation inside of Saudi Arabia. And we have raised concerns in the past about mass executions, about a judicial process that isn’t transparent or doesn’t include any obvious due process; about the unfair targeting of religious minorities or political opposition figures. Those are concerns that we continue to have, and they certainly apply in this case, where Saudi Arabia announced the execution of 46 different individuals, including one prominent religious minority figure.
On the other hand, we are concerned about the failure of the Iranians to fulfill their responsibility to protect the Saudi diplomatic facilities inside of Iran. There’s obviously — Iran’s failure to protect diplomatic facilities has obviously soured the relationship between our two countries, so I speak with a special sense of urgency about this. But we have been concerned about their failure to do that.
So I guess the point is there is plenty of blame to go around. And what we would like to see are both sides — or all sides — begin to take the kinds of steps that will deescalate the situation and not further inflame the tensions that are obviously pretty raw right now.
Q Last attempt at this. You have these two countries — Saudi Arabia and Iran. Only one of these two countries can survey the situation and say truthfully, we are an ally of the United States; we have diplomatic relations with the United States; we are a coalition partner of the United States in several successive coalitions; we have prominent commercial ties to the United States for decades of standing. The other party is the central banker of terrorism and engaged in repeated illegal ballistic missile tests. And so, why should the Saudis be satisfied to hear the United States speaking with such studied neutrality about the blame that is to go around? Why shouldn’t the Saudis rather expect that the United States will behave like an ally in this situation with the Saudis?
MR. EARNEST: James, there’s no denying the United States has a much stronger and more effective relationship with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. But there’s also no denying that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is something that has been the source of significant concern on the part of the Obama administration and previous administrations as well. Those are concerns that have been relayed directly by President Obama to the two Saudi Arabian leaders — the two Saudi leaders that he has dealt with in his tenure as President, but these are also concerns that have been relayed to Saudi Arabia through a variety of channels. And I guess you could say that it is a testament to the strength of that relationship that we could be quite public and blunt about the concerns that we do have with their behavior.
I would say that our concerns about Saudi Arabia’s actions in this regard are related both to concerns that we have about the impact that these actions have on Saudi Arabia’s national security, but we also have concerns about the impact that this has on U.S. interests in the region. For example, Julie asked I think an entirely legitimate question, which is we’ve got a very difficult situation that we’re trying to navigate in terms of reaching a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria. It was very difficult to get everybody around the table. It certainly is going to be even more difficult to get everybody back around the table if you have the Saudis and the Iranians trading public barbs and public expressions of antagonism between the two countries. So we obviously want the situation to deescalate and for all sides to take the kinds of steps that will reduce tensions in the region.
Q Thanks, Josh. Going back to your favorite topic, polls, there’s another one that was out recently that showed that more people thought allowing people to carry guns legally was a better response to terrorism than stricter gun control laws. Anecdotally, people at gun shows and gun shops have been saying that the threat of terror has brought a lot of people in to purchase guns, and I wonder if San Bernardino, unlike some of the other past shootings, has changed the equation. And is the President doing what he’s doing with less support, do you think, as a result of that?
MR. EARNEST: You’ll have an opportunity to consider this after the President has announced a decision about steps that he’s going to take. But based on the access to public data that we have seen so far, I think there is plenty of reason to be confident that the kinds of common-sense steps that the President will take using his executive authority are the kinds of steps that will be broadly supported not just by American citizens all across the country but, as a matter of policy, are the kinds of steps that even Republicans and gun owners would ordinarily support.
Now, is that support going to show up in a public poll if President Obama’s name is attached to it? We’ll see. Probably not. But the President is focused on results. And the President is focused on taking common-sense steps that would keep guns out of the wrong hands.
Q So how was it determined that these are things that would be supported generally by the public? Was it polls, in part?
MR. EARNEST: No. What I’m saying is that the President has prioritized taking common-sense steps using his executive authority that would keep guns out of the wrong hands without infringing on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. Traditionally — and, again recently, according to polls — these are steps that are strongly supported by Americans in both parties, and even Americans who live in households that includes gun owners.
So I don’t want to leave you with the impression that what the President is considering is poll-tested. What I want to leave you with the impression of is that the steps that the President will announce are entirely consistent with the kinds of common-sense steps that are strongly supported by the American people because they would do something important to keep guns out of the wrong hands, and they would do it without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
The other thing that I think merits some discussion here is the fact that we have actually seen Republicans in the not-too-distant past actually articulate their support for some of these common-sense measures. President Bush — President George W. Bush, in the context of both his presidential election and his reelection, expressed support for background checks at gun shows. When he was running for reelection in October of 2004, President George W. Bush said “I believe in background checks at gun shows or anywhere to make sure that guns don’t get in the hands of people that shouldn’t have them.”
This is not a controversial notion. This is something that the previous Republican President, one that everybody would agree is a conservative, a proud gun owner himself, and certainly had previously served as the governor of a state with a large number — millions of gun owners — this is a position that he has taken. So that is what infuses my confidence that there is strong public support as a policy matter for these steps.
Q There’s also a political aspect to this, obviously. And Donald Trump said he would “unsign” these executive orders “so fast,” is the way he put it. Chris Christie called the President a “petulant child.” I wonder if the President has had any conversations with any of the Democratic candidates or intends to give them a heads-up about what his plans are in terms of the obvious politic reality that this is already a hot topic, even before they’re officially announced?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to all of the conversations that will take place prior to the President announcing a decision on this. I think many of you are aware that the President is meeting with some members of Congress, Democrats, who have previously made gun safety a priority and have said that it’s a priority. So those kinds of conversations are occurring.
I do think it’s probably worth taking a close look at Governor Christie’s record on some of these issues in particular to see whether or not he has changed his position in an effort to try to round up votes in a Republican presidential primary. I’ll leave that up to you guys to decide.
MR. EARNEST: But the President is taking these steps not because he believes that it’s a particularly powerful political argument — I happen to think that it is — but he’s taking these steps because he believes we can save some lives. And that’s the real tragedy in all of this, is that we have seen Republicans — and some Democrats — who refuse to take some what they perceive to be politically tough votes in Congress. And the consequences have been tragic.
We would like to see common-sense steps that would keep guns out of the wrong hands. And we would like to see loopholes closed that would do that in a way that doesn’t undermine the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. And the President has got some ideas for how to do this. His team has been looking carefully at the law to make sure that he has the authority to do this, and to make sure that the steps that he is taking have the intended effect. And the President will make this announcement soon, and we’ll have an opportunity to consider the merits of these individual proposals.
Q Just want to fact-check. You mentioned the 23 executive orders that were signed after Newtown. I believe there have been two more since, so there have been 25 total related to guns since Newtown?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that’s right, but we can check the statistics with you.
Q Thanks. I just wanted to kind of understand, why now? So there was the 23 — and I actually don’t remember the two — the 23 that we all covered a few years ago. The Vice President had his group and he went around the country and talked to people about that. There was a whole study then three years ago about what he could do. He didn’t do, presumably, what he’s going to do this week or whatever he’s going to announce. So there’s been more mass shootings, I know, but there have been for three years. What happened? Congress voted two and a half years ago and didn’t pass anything. So what happened recently that this is coming up now with less than a year in office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of things about that, Anita. The first is we certainly are concerned about these mass shootings that have gotten so much attention. But there are also shootings that take place every day all across the country, in some cases, presumably, shootings that could have been prevented or at least made a lot more difficult for the people who carried out those shootings to have gotten their hands on a gun. So it’s not just the high-profile incidents that dominate the news coverage for 36 or 48 or sometimes 72 hours.
But, look, there’s an organization that Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, runs, Everytown for Gun Safety, that according to analysis, there are seven children or teenagers killed by a gun in the average day. That’s an alarming statistic. Now, they can tell you more about the statistic. I assume this includes suicides. I assume this includes accidents. But it’s a tragedy.
And there’s no law that we’re going to pass that prevents every single one of them, but not passing laws and a failure on the part of Congress to act hasn’t helped the situation. And that’s why the President is determined to act. And, look, it has taken some time for the President’s team to scrub the law and to take a careful look at what exactly is within the realm of his executive authority and what exactly would have the intended effect. And they’ve been diligent about carefully considering the available options, and that’s taken time.
But what’s also taken time is for Congress to also consider their options. And yet, they have done nothing. And the only reason the President is being forced to act is because Congress hasn’t taken the kinds of common-sense steps that he has long advocated.
Q Were these steps considered three years ago? I guess what I’m asking is, they haven’t been studying them for three years. Why didn’t they come up three years ago? Were these recommendations made three years ago?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have an opportunity to answer those kinds of questions once an announcement has been made about what course the President has decided to pursue.
Q Oh, and can you just — you mentioned earlier and we just wanted to clarify — today’s meeting with members of the Democratic Party or Democratic members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: There are a handful of Democratic members of Congress who have made gun safety a priority who will be meeting with the President today.
Q At the White House here?
MR. EARNEST: At the White House.
Q Separate from the —
MR. EARNEST: Separate from the meeting with the Attorney General. And we’ll have some more information about that meeting once it’s concluded.
Q So you’ve talked a lot about the — that these are common-sense steps, and then what you’ve said about some of the Republican opposition and being beholden to the gun lobby. I just want to understand — are you saying that there is no principled reason for anyone to oppose these actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if there is, I haven’t heard it.
Q So no principled reason?
MR. EARNEST: Again, people certainly have an opportunity to make their case. And members of Congress will have to make their case about how in the face of these alarming statistics — 30,000 gun deaths in America every year; 20,000 children under the age of 18 have been killed by firearms over the last decade; hundreds of law enforcement officers that have been shot and killed over the last decade. And in the face of all those statistics, what’s Congress done?
Now, maybe there is a principled case to be made about why they didn’t do anything and why it’s in the best interest of those hundreds of police officers that have been killed that Congress didn’t take any steps. They’re welcome to make that case. I haven’t heard any sort of principled objection to that.
Q So Speaker Ryan said in his statement that this was subverting the legislative branch; that it was a dangerous level of basically executive overreach. So could you see the argument that while you may agree with this on policy, that the President — that this is an expansion of his executive authority that future White Houses could well use? Maybe they don’t agree with the executive authority being used here or see it as legal.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have an opportunity to discuss this in more detail once the President has made an announcement. But I continue to be confident standing here knowing that what the President announces are the kinds of things that are well within his executive authority. I would note that Speaker Ryan’s statement notes that it is a legislative failure that is prompting the President to act. On that measure we agree.
There’s also something on which we agree. In January of 2013, shortly after the President announced executive actions three years ago, then-Congressman Paul Ryan, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said that gun show loopholes are a “very reasonable issue,” and it’s “obvious” that it should be addressed. He said, “I think we should look into someone who is not legally allowed to buy a gun going to a gun show, buying one. And let’s figure that out. I think we need to find out how to close these loopholes and do it in such a way that we don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights.”
That’s the Speaker of the House that’s talking about this. He’s been in Congress every day for the last three years, and it’s unclear exactly what he’s done to try to advance legislation that would do what he thinks is “obvious” and “very reasonable”. But certainly in the next couple of days we’ll have some tangible things that the President has done to take some common-sense steps that keeps guns out of the wrong hands.
Q And then finally, when you talk about that you do feel confident that this will withstand legal challenge, was there anything that the President wanted to do in this executive action but that he was advised was just beyond what the separation of powers would allow?
MR. EARNEST: I think I’ve tried to be careful about not predicting judicial outcomes. And that’s based on some of my own personal experience. So I wouldn’t predict what the courts are going to rule. What I do predict and what I am confident of is that we will have a strong legal case to make about these actions being well within the President’s executive authority. And we’ll have an opportunity to discuss that once the President is prepared to actually make an announcement. When it comes to things that the President chose not to do, we can have a discussion about that also once we’ve discussed what the President has chosen to do.
Q Josh, there have been reports that the Department of Homeland Security and ICE have begun removal operations, I think is what they’re calling it, and others are calling it raids against Central American families who came across the border illegally over the past year and a half. And some of the reports suggest that families — the Los Angeles Times quoted a woman saying that her family in Georgia — ICE agents came in room to room, woke up her own kids; they were shaking with fear. I’m wondering if the administration can confirm that those operations have begun, and whether the White House has had input directly with DHS about how those operations should be handled, and whether there are any concerns about striking fear into the communities — including those who may be here legally — living with some of these other folks as these are carried out.
MR. EARNEST: David, for individual operations I would refer you to the Department of Homeland Security, and they can discuss with you individual operations that were carried out.
What I can tell you is that the Department of Homeland Security has prioritized the cases of recent arrivals — individuals who recently crossed the border into the United States without proper documentation. And those — again, based on public statements, including a statement that was recently issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security — were the nature of the operations that were carried out over the last couple of days.
This is consistent with the kinds of priorities that the President himself has talked about; that our enforcement efforts need to be focused on deporting felons, not families, and with a particular focus on individuals who have only recently crossed the border.
But, in general, I guess for these individual actions, I’d have to refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.
Q But you’re confirming that a broader operation has begun?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m actually pointing to the statement from the Secretary of Homeland Security that has indicated that some operations have taken place that have been focused on individuals — on deporting individuals who have recently crossed the border. And that is consistent with the kinds of enforcement priorities that the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security discussed more than a year ago when the President announced a set of executive actions related to immigration reform.
Q Have folks in the White House, including the President himself, talked at all with the Department of Homeland Security about sort of the way these operations are conducted — the tone that they’re taking and the way that they look for the immigrants and round them up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, in terms of setting policy, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security have had discussions about some of these matters. But, ultimately, when it comes to enforcement issues, those are decisions that are made by law enforcement professionals. And that’s what the Department of Homeland Security has been engaged in.
Q There has been a sense from the Department of Homeland Security that some of these operations were prompted by the sense that the number of migrants coming from Central America has ticked up over the past few months again after some success on certainly the height of sort of the issue over a year ago. Was there also concern at the White House and other places about the discussions about — from the Republicans on the campaign trail and elsewhere about securing the southern border but also worries about terrorism and others coming to the country illegally? Was that part of the motivation here?
MR. EARNEST: I can assure you that politics did not factor in these kinds of enforcement decisions. And, in fact, I think it does warrant mentioning that, in fiscal year 2015, the number of apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol of those attempting to cross our southern border illegally decreased in what is actually the lowest number of apprehensions on the southern border since 1972 *[,with the exception of one year, 2011.] That is an indication that our borders are certainly more secure than they’ve been in quite some time, and that is thanks to a significant investment that this administration has made in border security.
There’s more that we could have done when it comes to border security had Congress — had Republicans in Congress not blocked an historic investment in border security. And it is also an indication that some of the other work that we have done that’s been focused on Central America has yielded some fruit in stemming the tide of migrants from Central America to the United States.
Q Last question on this. I wonder if the White House, since — do you expect — there were over 100,000 of these families that came across I think in 2014 alone. Not all of the cases have been decided. Not all will be ordered to be returned to their countries. A similar number of unaccompanied minors came across last year and again this year. I’m wondering if the White House believes these raids will — or these efforts will continue throughout this year, whether there’s an estimated cost of this kind of operation, and whether the administration believes — when you talk about focusing your resources on felons and others — that this also can be done at the same time you’re also looking for those other felons and those who have had other misdemeanors.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, there is a due process here, right? So there is a process by which people have to — are evaluated by. They go through an immigration judicial proceeding. And the individuals who are participating — who are the targets of some of these efforts were the subject of final orders of removal.
In each case, the individuals exhausted appropriate legal remedies, including questions about whether or not they could qualify for some form of humanitarian relief. So there is a judicial process and a legal due process that the administration is committed to following.
But for people who are considering — we had a lot of these discussions 18 months ago — for people who are considering — who are in this country and considering asking their kids to travel from Central America through Mexico to enter the United States illegally, we strongly encourage them to not do that — primarily because that’s a very dangerous journey. We have seen individuals engaged in human trafficking try to prey upon those who are most vulnerable, including children. And too many children have been victimized and even lost their lives when trying to make that journey.
So certainly people should take from this the understanding that the administration is quite serious when it comes to enforcing our immigration laws and in focusing our efforts on felons and recent border crossers. That continues to be a priority, but it will be done within the context of due process.
Q Beyond urging restraint and urging for Iran and Saudi Arabia to deescalate the situation, what specifically can the administration do? What do you plan to do to try and ensure that this growing tension doesn’t hamper any efforts to deal with the crisis in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously that will be the subject of some of the discussions that Secretary Kerry will be having both with his Iranian counterpart and presumably with his Saudi counterpart relatively soon. Again, I think the case that we’ll make to them when it comes to reaching a political solution to the situation inside of Syria, or at least pursuing that diplomatic political process, will be, frankly, similar to the case that we made to them in the fall where we got them to participate in that process in the first place, which is that it is in the interests of those two countries to try to resolve the political chaos inside of Syria; that neither side benefits from the ongoing violence, the flow of migrants, and the political instability that does threaten to spread to other parts of the region. That’s not in either the Saudi or the Iranian interest.
And that’s why we’re going to continue to urge them to participate in the broader international effort to try to bring about at least a resolution to the political differences there.
Q And you talked about the human rights concerns, but just to be clear, does the White House condemn these executions and the execution of al-Nimr?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have raised significant concerns about the human rights environment in Saudi Arabia. And carrying out mass executions I think is a prime example of a government that is not doing enough to address the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by the international community about the human rights situation inside their own country.
The State Department put out a report detailing the long list of concerns that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and certainly mass executions would rate highly in that list of concerns and we certainly would condemn any country that’s carrying out mass executions.
Q Josh, back to the Oregon situation briefly. There have been some who have called the occupation of this federal facility an insurrection against the U.S. government. There’s others who have called the people involved terrorists. Does the President agree with either of those characterizations?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I think it’s difficult to discern exactly what the motive and intent is of the individuals who are undertaking this action inside of Oregon. Our hope is that local law enforcement can resolve the situation peacefully and relatively soon in a way that’s consistent with the rule of law. And the FBI has indicated that they’re monitoring the situation and have offered support to local law enforcement as they try to resolve it, and we’re hopeful that it can be resolved without any violence.
Q But you don’t agree with either of those characterizations? For example, you don’t consider the fact that armed people taking over federal property a challenge to federal authority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, right now, based on what we know about what has transpired, this is a law enforcement matter that’s being handled by local law enforcement officials. Obviously, the federal government has a vested interest. As you point out, it’s federal land and federal property that’s being occupied. And that’s why the FBI is closely monitoring the situation and has offered their assistance to local law enforcement officials who are dealing with this situation. But ultimately, our chief interest is the prompt and peaceful resolution of this particular matter.
Q Thanks, Josh. Following up on the ICE raids, this LA Times report out of Georgia detailed ICE agents entering a home without a warrant and taking a woman already under federal supervision into custody, along with her nine-year-old son. Why are nonviolent migrants and children and families being targeted as a priority for deportation?
MR. EARNEST: Rebecca, I’m not able to speak to any individual law enforcement actions. So I’d encourage you to check with DHS or even ICE on that particular incident. What I can tell you more broadly is that the enforcement priorities that have been laid out by the administration are concentrating our efforts to deport felons, not families, and to prioritize the case of recent border crossers.
The individuals who were the targets of these efforts were subject to final orders of removal by an immigration court. And their appropriate legal remedies that included claims for asylum or humanitarian relief had been exhausted. And that’s ultimately what it means to enforce the law.
For how that is applied in these individual cases, I’d encourage you to check with the Department of Homeland Security.
Cheryl, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just one on executive orders. To put it in context, over the years, the President has taken a number of executive actions. Will this one on gun violence be the last major executive action of his presidency? Or do you anticipate more throughout the year? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned. I told you at the beginning of this briefing that 2016 was going to be interesting, and I certainly would anticipate that over the course of this year and the President’s remaining 12 months or so in office, the President is going to use every element of his authority that he can within the confines of the law to make the country safer, to advance the interests of the middle class, and to advance the interests of the United States around the world.
And we made a lot of progress in that regard in 2015, where there are a number of long-term projects that we’ve been engaged in that came to fruition in 2015. That included everything from negotiating an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — while we were gone for the holidays, Iran shipped I believe it was 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of Iran. That actually means that for the first time in a decade, Iran doesn’t actually have the material to build a nuclear weapon. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. And it was all achieved without a single shot being fired. This was achieved through tough-minded, principled diplomacy that brought the international community together to advance the interests of the United States.
And that’s an example of the kind of work that the President is going to be focused on in 2016. We’ve got a lot of work to do to continue to implement that agreement with Iran. And there are additional steps that Iran has to take, and they have to be certified by the IAEA, by the independent nuclear experts there. So that’s certainly one example of the kind of long-term projects that have been in the works for quite some time that the President is determined to implement over the course of 2016.
Go ahead, JC.
Q Quick question on the Dow, which has plunged almost 500 points as we speak. (Laughter.) Sorry to break that news to you, colleagues. It seems that the Middle East issue that we were talking about — Saudi Arabia, Iran, et cetera — poor manufacturing numbers in China has forced the Shanghai market to literally stop trading today. It has affected the U.S. and global economies. How closely is this administration monitoring the situation as we speak today?
MR. EARNEST: JC., the Treasury Department has experts that are carefully monitoring the financial markets not just here in the United States but around the world. And we certainly make note of this kind of volatility that we’ve seen over the last 24 hours. In some ways, it makes it even more of a priority in the mind of the President for this administration and for Congress to work constructively to do some additional things that we know would strengthen and solidify the economy here in the United States, particularly when it comes to middle-class families.
That’s why the President is going to continue to advocate for the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — that we know this would be good for American companies and American workers because it will open up markets throughout the Asia Pacific for those high-quality American goods.
We know that there is more that can be done when it comes to investing in transportation infrastructure. We obviously were pleased that Congress did reach an agreement on a five-year highway bill at the end of last year. But, frankly, that was the bare minimum, if that. There are significantly more investments that can be made that we know would improve our infrastructure and create jobs, and lay a foundation for long-term economic strength in this country. And we believe those are worth pursuing.
So these are the hallmarks of the kind of economic agenda that the President is going to continue to press. And when we see this kind of economic volatility around the international community, it’s a reminder of how strong the U.S. economy is right now, but it’s also a reminder that there is more that we can do to strengthen that economy and to better position the United States and our economy over the long term, particularly when it comes to the interests of middle-class families.
Q Do you think this may forestall any future additional Fed rate hikes?
MR. EARNEST: That will be up to the Fed to decide.
Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you tomorrow.
2:07 P.M. EST
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