Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 29, 2016 – 12:52 P.M. EDT
MS. JANNEY: Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. I was going to tell you all to be seated, but I see you are already seated, so we can begin. Josh is out today. He has, I believe, it’s a root canal. (Laughter.) Yes, he has a root canal. But let’s be honest, I’m better at this than he is anyway. Just between us.
First, I have two announcements and then I’ll take questions. First, the President is still working on his jokes for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I don’t have any details on that other than he intends to be funny — very funny. Okay, and second, it is Friday, which means at half-past five I will be performing The Jackal in my office for anyone who is interested or remembers or cares. (Laughter.)
So now I’ll take your questions.
Oh, Josh! You’re back!
MR. EARNEST: This is not your show anymore!
MS. JANNEY: Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry. I just — I was in town and I just wanted to take a moment. Totally, this is your office.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re standing at the podium, so you might as well use it.
MS. JANNEY: All right. In all seriousness — what do you mean? This is just happening.
In all seriousness, my name is Allison Janney and I am here today to draw attention to the opioid epidemic and to celebrate those who are working to help others combat substance-use disorder. And I’m actually on a show now called “Mom,” which deals with people in recovery. And I’m here with my co-creator and executive producer, Chuck Lorre, who is — this issue is very important to both of us. He’s in the back there.
Today, here at the White House, 10 individuals from across the country will be honored as White House Champions of Change. They’ve been selected from over 900 nominations for their leadership in preventing prescription drug abuse and heroin use, and for increasing access to treatment and to support their fellow Americans in recovery — for supporting their fellow Americans in recovery.
This is a disease that can touch anybody, and all of us can help reduce drug abuse through evidence-based treatment, prevention, and recovery. Research shows it works. And courageous Americans show it works every day. I’m so nervous I can’t believe. (Laughter.) So thank you for the opportunity to be here today, and to highlight this important issue. And now I return the podium to its rightful owner, Josh. Thank you.
Q Can I ask C.J. a question? (Laughter.)
MS. JANNEY: Yes, sure.
Q Who is President Bartlett supporting in the Democratic Primary? (Laughter.)
MS. JANNEY: I think you know the answer to that question. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Allison. Nice job.
MS. JANNEY: Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. EARNEST: You’re welcome to stay.
Q Josh, when is the fun part? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was going to say, who says we don’t have some fun around here? So, obviously Allison thinks — feels very passionately about the work that she’s spending some time here at the White House focused on today. And so we obviously owe her a debt of gratitude for really taking on this cause and it’s something that she passionately believes in. And we obviously are pleased that we can work with somebody who is as committed and as talented as she is on something that’s that important.
All right, the fun stuff is out of the way now. We can go back to our regular Friday afternoon briefing. But we’ll try to keep it short, Mark. I know you’re ready to start your weekend. (Laughter.)
Q Aren’t we all? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That is true.
Kathleen, do you want to start?
Q Sure, sure. Well, I feel like a bit of a downer here. I wanted to ask about the report that came out on the helicopter attack on the hospital in Kunduz. I know you mentioned yesterday that the President planned to read it. I’m wondering if he’s either been briefed or read it, and if he feels that justice has been served in this case at this point, and if the appropriate reforms and changes have been made.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kathleen, you’re right, this is a very serious topic. And it is certainly a topic that the Commander-in-Chief has made a priority. The United States goes to tremendous lengths to avoid civilian casualties. And when those casualties occur, as they did in this instance, the President called for a transparent, thorough, and objective accounting of what exactly transpired.
As you point out, this objective accounting was put forward by the Department of Defense today. The President has been briefed on the report. The report is available — or at least a redacted, declassified version of the report is available on Central Command website, and that is consistent with the President’s view of transparency.
The report goes into some detail about what exactly transpired. The conclusion of the investigation is that there were human error that causes tragedy. Now, that human error was compounded by systems and procedural failures. The Department of Defense has announced a set of steps that will be taken to provide accountability for those who were involved. The Department of Defense has also laid out some specific reforms moving forward that will prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again in Afghanistan or anywhere else. And, again, all of this is consistent with the priority that President Obama places on avoiding civilian casualties.
Our adversaries certainly don’t go to these lengths. In some cases, our adversaries target civilian populations. But these are the kinds of reforms that are consistent with our values as a country and are consistent with the priorities that are established by the Commander-in-Chief.
Q So someone looking at it at a distance, how exactly then does the President sort of explain how something like this could happen, given all of these safeguards and assurances he gives about civilian casualties? That 42 people died in a hospital could be hit and there’s no criminal charges filed, it’s just administrative punishment. How does explain the justice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President called for from the beginning was a thorough, objective, and transparent accounting of what transpired. And that’s what the Department of Defense has put forward. This is an investigation that was conducted by military officers that were outside of the chain of command. These were individuals — the individuals who led this investigation are professional investigators, and they’re individuals who are not involved in the incident. So they were able to provide an objective perspective on what transpired.
And obviously they’ve spent months interviewing people who were involved, reviewing relevant facts and material to understand exactly what happened, to understand exactly what led to the failures, including the human error that led to this tragedy. And based on their own working knowledge of how these kinds of military operations are carried out, they made specific suggestions for reforms that could be instituted to prevent something like this from happening again.
But there’s no denying that what’s occurred here is a genuine tragedy, and when this incident occurred, you heard the President and others express their profound sorrow at the loss of innocent life, including individuals who had put themselves in harm’s way to try to treat the wounds of innocent people caught in the crossfire.
So there are multiple dimensions of this tragedy. And the significance and scale of what transpired explains why such a detailed investigation has been conducted and made public. All of that is consistent with our values. It’s consistent with the priorities that the President has established. It’s consistent with our commitment to avoiding civilian casualties. And it’s consistent with our values as a country.
Q Okay, on another topic. There seems to be a little bit of new momentum behind the criminal justice reform effort on the Hill. I just thought I’d give you an opportunity to see whether (inaudible) you felt that momentum here or is there any prospects for this actually happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know there was a bipartisan announcement that was made on Capitol Hill, I believe at the end of the day or at least yesterday afternoon. And what we have been saying for months is that the White House role has been to try to nurture and facilitate bipartisan cooperation on this issue on Capitol Hill.
Fortunately, the bipartisan interest in this legislation has been there at the beginning. Democrats and Republicans observed that common-sense reforms to our criminal justice system could not just save taxpayer dollars but it could actually make our communities safer, lower recidivism rates, and give those who have paid their debt to society a better chance at reentering American life and making a substantive contribution to it.
So what we have done all along is to try to encourage both sides to continue to find common ground, to present ideas for making that common ground more easily recognized, and there have been some strange bedfellows, given the context of these efforts. There have been representatives from conservative political organizations that had been interested in contributing to this effort as well.
So I think it does reflect that what is the subject of some debate is not necessarily something that should provoke a partisan or ideological objection, but rather a more common-sense, practical approach to recognizing the potential benefits of reforms like this. So, sometimes, that kind of pragmatic approach gets drowned out by the partisanship and ideology and occasional histrionics that are endemic on Capitol Hill.
But in this case, we’re going to continue to work with Democrats and Republicans to try to navigate those cross-currents and hopefully emerge on the other side with a genuine bipartisan reform bill that would have enormous positive consequences for our country. And the President identified this as a top legislative priority of his last year, and we’ve been working since then to try to make it a reality. And I do anticipate that the President will devote a significant portion of his eight months that remain here in office to getting this legislation passed through Congress an onto his desk.
Q In Syria, there was the short-term truce announced earlier today, and it doesn’t seem like it addresses the fighting in Aleppo. So I wanted to see what more information you could give us and what the plan is to address fighting there. And also, are you confident that a date could be set for peace talks to resume?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s first talk about the agreement that was announced today. Since the beginning of the cessation of hostilities, fighting has continued in the area of north Latakia and eastern Ghouta, putting armed opposition groups there and in other areas controlled by the opposition under pressure. Persistent violations in this area are unacceptable and damaging. As a result, the U.S. government and Russia have been working to secure a general recommitment to the cessation of hostilities by all parties in Latakia and eastern Ghouta to be implemented beginning at midnight tonight, Damascus time.
It’s our view that this essentially would be a refreshment of the cessation of hostilities, and getting both sides to commit to refreshing the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities could have potentially a catalyzing effect. And what we would like to see is a return to the situation on the ground that prevailed a couple of weeks ago, which was not an all-out end to the fighting, but rather a broad acceptance of the terms of the cessation of hostilities. And that agreement was only possible because the United States and Russia used our influence with the relevant groups to bring about that agreement and that cessation of hostilities.
And we acknowledged all along that there were likely to be violations of the cessation of hostilities. But what’s happened over the last week or so is that the frequency of violations has increased, and that’s been a source of significant concern. So our hope is that by refreshing this agreement, focusing our attention on these two particular areas, we can build momentum again toward a broadly observed cessation of hostilities.
Q And how confident are you that this refreshment is going to help push forward these talks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that we know is that the opposite is true. The thing that we know is that the weakening of the cessation of hostilities, or the repeated violations of the cessation of hostilities have tangibly undermined efforts to reach — or at least to advance political talks. So the question is, can we give some more momentum to those political talks by expanding the area in Syria where the cessation of hostilities is once again observed. And again, our goal of trying to refresh the cessation of hostilities is motivated by a desire to advance the political talks.
The other benefit — and this is another important benefit of refreshed cessation of hostilities, particularly in these two areas — is it could create space for the delivery of additional humanitarian relief. This part of Syria has been subject to quite intense fighting for a long time now. And there are communities and innocent people there that are suffering. And bringing much-needed humanitarian relief in the form of food and water and medicine could relieve, at least a little bit, so much of the widespread suffering that we’ve seen in that country.
Q On another topic, on the Korean Peninsula, China and Russia today said that they wanted the United States to back off its possible plan to put in an anti-missile defense system near South Korea. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the reaction to that is that the United States’ commitment to South Korea’s security is rock-solid. The Republic of Korea is a close ally of the United States, and that means the United States is prepared to invest resources in keeping them safe. We have seen repeated provocations, particularly in just the last few months, from North Korea, vowing to use their military might against our allies. And we’ve begun — there already has been a significant commitment of military firepower and manpower by the United States to defend South Korea. And the assessment of our military and national security experts is that additional resources could be necessary to ensure the safety and security of the Republic of Korea.
So that’s why the United States has engaged in conversations with our South Korean allies about deploying what’s called a THAAD battery. This is essentially a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system that would enhance our ally’s security. Those discussions are ongoing. I’ll just point out that that equipment would be oriented toward the threat that is posed by North Korea, not oriented toward China or Russia. That’s been our contention all along, and those are the facts. And it’s certainly changes in the environment, at least in the behavior of the North Korea government, that is prompting this consideration of increasing our posture on South Korea. It’s not a result of changes that are made by Russia or China.
Q So talks are ongoing with South Korea. Can you give us any sense of timing or when you expect the talks to conclude?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated sense of timing at this point. But obviously these conversations have been occurring for several weeks now. But I don’t have an announcement to make yet about a particular decision.
Q Thanks, Josh. More than once, China has now expressed its annoyance at this THAAD possibility. So if that’s going to go through — and you do expect that to be completed, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t prejudge the outcome. Obviously we would defer to the preferences of our allies in South Korea about whether or not they would like to have this additional equipment located on their territory. The assessment of our military and national security experts is that it could be a good idea for them to do that. But ultimately, this is a sovereign country, and because they’re an ally of the United States, we’re looking for ways to help them. And this is one potential way we could offer some assistance to them and enhance their security. But ultimately, they would make the final call.
Q But at this point, there’s no reason to think that that wouldn’t be completed, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t prejudge what the outcome here would be. I would just note that our officials have concluded it might be prudent, and we’ll have a conversation with the Koreans about that.
Q Okay. So if we already know that China is not happy about this, and they’ve expressed it more than once, if this does go through and that system is deployed there, is that going to affect China’s pressure on North Korea, which many feel is the only way to eventually get North Korea to change its behavior?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it shouldn’t. Let me explain a couple reasons why.
The first is, of course, the THAAD battery would be oriented to the threat in North Korea, not oriented to China in any way.
Q What if they don’t like it, though?
MR. EARNEST: They don’t, but those are the facts. The second fact is that we already know that China is understandably concerned about the behavior of the North Korean government. These repeated provocations and violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions are destabilizing. And it’s not at all in China’s interest to have that kind of destabilizing activity right on their doorstep.
So the point is, China, using its influence on the North Korean government to get them to end their provocative acts, is not something that they do as a favor to the United States. They’re focused on getting North Korea to end their provocations is rooted in their own self-interest, which is that having all this provocative behavior and this conflict and this destabilizing activity on their doorstep is not in their interest.
Q Do you expect THAAD to affect the relationship between the U.S. and China in any way, though? Or do you expect it to prompt China to, I don’t know, keep on militarizing or militarizing faster the islands that the U.S. disagrees with?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, obviously, there’s a reference to the situation on the South China Sea. That is obviously an entirely — I mean, it is an entirely different part of the world, both literally and figuratively here.
Q But do you expect some tit for tat if this goes through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t predict what the Chinese response would be, even if this is something that were eventually decided.
I think what I would say is that there’s an opportunity for the United States and China to work together — and we have, effectively — to increase the pressure on the North Korean government to change their behavior. We’ve ramped up the pressure, but thus far we have not seen the change that we are both seeking. And as a result, we have felt that it’s necessary to begin at least talking to our allies in South Korea about enhancing their national security. But that is not going to in any way diminish our interest in trying to make the Korean Peninsula more stable and less a source of tension in the region.
Q Okay. And looking at the way the campaigns are playing out, it was just a few days ago that Hillary Clinton’s communications director called Bernie Sanders “destructive,” said that he’s not “productive for Democrats, not productive for the country.” Does the President feel like Democrats are united right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, we’re still in the midst of a primary. And obviously, the Democratic Party has been engaged in a competitive process. That’s appropriate. That’s a way we can — that’s the way the party can evaluate who the strongest candidate is. And obviously, the party has a strong interest in choosing the strongest candidate to represent the party in the general election.
But these are decisions for voters to make. And the President, as a voter, has cast a ballot, but has not weighed in publicly about who his preference is.
So at some point, I think the President will make a strong case about the need for the Democratic Party to come together in support of the policies that he’s fought so hard to put in place. That will be a fundamental question in the election.
Q So you said multiple times that you welcome robust debate, this is just what happens with the election; it’s good for the country. But at the same time, we’ve heard the President say at a private event that Democrats really need to come together right now. So would you disagree with words like that, that Sanders has been a destructive influence not only on Democrats but on the country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve done my best to stay out of the middle of the debate between the two Democratic candidates, and I’m going to try to do that in this case.
I think what the President is focused on is ensuring that when the general election does roll around — and it hasn’t yet — but when we get knee-deep in a general election, it will be important for Democrats to keep in mind what their priorities are. And obviously, the President has spent the better part of seven and a half years fighting for a set of priorities, and he’ll, I’m confident, make a case in the general election about the wisdom of continuing that fight. But the time for that part of the debate has not yet arrived.
Q So Sanders being called “destructive” and “not productive for Democrats, not productive for this country,” you don’t want to weigh in on whether you agree or disagree with that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t. Because part of working on a campaign is engaging in charges and counter-charges, and I think it is a fair observation to note the difference in tone and tenor between the debate on the Democratic side and the debate on the Republican side. Many Republicans have made that observation. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly controversial.
But the President does believe in the value of a robust debate. And politics are tough. But I think what the President is focused on is a general election, and making sure that the people that have been so strongly supportive of his policies over the last seven or eight years realize the stakes of the general election. And the President will have ample opportunity to make that case.
Q And not sure if he knows, but this weekend is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
MR. EARNEST: I was aware.
Q This being the President’s last year, is he going to do anything different? Or can you sort of give us a little foreshadowing of what he plans to do with his time? I mean, it’s always — kind of follows the routine, he has a lot of jokes. Is he going to try to put his stamp on it? Anything like that you can say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to give away any surprises, but —
Q Will there be surprises?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t rule out a couple of surprises. I think surprise is a key element in humor, and the President is certainly — I want to protect his ability to surprise you with some good jokes.
The President does enjoy this opportunity, that it is something — the President, over the course of eight years, has given thousands of speeches in public in one form or another. The vast majority of them are dealing with very serious topics. And this is one unique opportunity that he has every year to poke a little fun at himself, poke a little fun at the process, maybe even poke a little fun at a political adversary or two, but it’s also a reminder of how in one way or another, we all have a role to play in our democracy. And obviously the President has an important role to set the agenda, but you all have an important role, too, to hold those in power accountable. And the President is respectful of that role, and I’m confident that the President will acknowledge that in the serious portion of his speech because he believes in the value of professional, independent media.
But, look, the other way that we can reflect the importance of political journalism in our country is to poke a little fun at the process, and there are ample opportunities to do so this year.
Q Is he just going to let loose this year, is basically what I’m asking. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ll let you judge, based on his comments, about whether or not he took advantage of the opportunity to let loose, as you described it.
Go ahead, JC.
Q To misquote Richard M. Nixon, the President won’t have Donald Trump to kick around anymore. The last time he appeared, I believe, was 2011. He will not be in the audience. Look, does the President regret that opportunity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m going to preserve the element of surprise here. And I don’t think that ducking in the room means that you are going to avoid some attention in the speeches. But we’ll see.
Q Is the President concerned about the protestors — again last night, took the street, protesting Donald Trump? That’s the first question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Laura, I think in general there is a long history of and a long tradition of protest in the American political system. In fact, this country was started by a bunch of protestors, some of whom decided that they were pretty unhappy about taxes and threw some barrels of tea in the Boston Harbor. So there’s a history of protest in this country.
What the President believes is that we also have a system of government, and there is an opportunity for voters to make their voices heard at the ballot box. And there should be a debate, and there should be a public debate. And that debate is likely to be filled with some emotion. These are serious issues that are being discussed.
So while people surely should take advantage of the history and tradition in this country of engaging in political protest, they need to do so with some respect for the system and for our country and for our government, and to ensure that that protest isn’t a source of violence, it doesn’t incite violence. The protest should not be used to drown out the ability of other people to participate in our political system or to participate in the political debate. But there’s a strong history of protest in this country — that’s a good thing. That’s something we’re proud of as Americans.
Q But in a presidential election, outside the United States, the whole world now is watching with quite astonishment what’s happening when Donald Trump is speaking. You don’t think the President has a responsibility to do something about the potential of violence, which is happening now each time Donald Trump is speaking?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say, as a general statement, the President has been outspoken on a number of occasions about how our political system, our form of politics in the United States was geared toward resolving conflicts. This is a big, diverse country, and people are going to have different points of view. And we resolve those differences not through violence, not by taking up arms against one another, not by questioning someone else’s patriotism or judging someone based on their religion or their color or who they are, but rather through our system of government, where every citizen has an opportunity to cast a vote and make their voices heard at the ballot box. And that’s how our system of government was designed. And that’s the way that it should work.
Q On Donald Trump again. Yesterday in California, he was talking about his solution to fight ISIS, referring to General Pershing, and it was quite astonishing also for a lot of foreign observers. And on NBC News, he was talking about the possibility to a nuclear ISIS. He said that he won’t exclude, if he is elected President, to use the nuclear weapon against ISIS. What’s the White House reaction on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let all of you sort of conclude the wisdom of that kind of strategy. I think the President has been pretty clear about what our strategy is. And that is a strategy that is mindful of the need to protect the American people, and that our success in the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is not unrelated to how those efforts are carried out.
For example, we make it a priority in this country to avoid civilian casualties. That certainly is going to be a lot harder to do if you’re using nuclear weapons, or advocating the use of nuclear weapons. In this country, we have made clear that people are included and not discriminated against just because of their religion or what their name is, or how they may have entered the country, but rather they’re judged based on their contributions to the country and their contributions to the political debate. And that’s not just a reflection of our values, but our commitment to our values is also an important part of advancing our interests around the world and protecting our national security.
Q You don’t see the need to quiet down the tone at this moment due to what’s happening — the level of anger, frustration, and what’s happening in this country? You don’t think there’s a responsibility to quiet down this tone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there’s a long history of tough political debate and protest in this country. And, again, that kind of protest and debate was present at the creation of our country. At the same time, leaders in both parties have a responsibility not to incite violence, not to promote discrimination, but rather to, even in the midst of tough political debates, remind us all that there’s a whole lot more that we have in common than divides us. And that certainly has been part and parcel of the President’s leadership style, even before he entered the Oval Office. And that is a legacy — certainly an aspect of his legacy that President Obama is quite proud of.
Q I was reading through the MSF response to the DOD investigation, and without going through all the details, they point out that they’ve been asking for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission to look into this. And they say that that has so far gone unanswered. Is there an answer to that request? Or is this the final word on this from the United States?
MR. EARNEST: I think at this point this is the final word. This is the transparent, thorough, and objective accounting that the President asked for.
Q There were other investigations, though, right? There was one involved in the Afghan government, wasn’t there? There were other investigations.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t remember. I guess you could check with the Afghan government about that.
Q So why not have an international body, a more impartial body? Obviously, the U.S. military has a vested interested in this. Why not have an international nonpartisan? Why not have that?
MR. EARNEST: Because the President has confidence that the investigation that was conducted was objective. It was conducted by people who were not involved in the particular operation, and it was conducted —
Q These are commanders, though.
MR. EARNEST: No, the investigation was conducted by individuals who are not involved in the investigation. They were outside of the chain of command of those who were involved in the investigation. So that’s why we would describe it as an objective investigation and an objective accounting of what exactly transpired. What’s also clear here, Ron, is that an investigation that includes suggestions for reforms needs to be conducted by individuals that have their own working expertise of how U.S. military operations are conducted.
So I understand sort of the case that you’re making for the benefits of an investigation that’s conducted by someone outside of the United States military, but I think it’s important that you don’t overlook the value of choosing somebody who understands how the U.S. military works, who understands how these kinds of operations are carried out, but is also somebody who can be objective because they weren’t involved in the operation, they’re not in the chain of the command with the individuals who were involved in the operation. They’re professional investigators, and they can put forward a clear rendering of what transpired of what steps toward accountability should be taken and what reforms should be implemented to prevent something like this from happening again.
Q This internationally renowned and respected organization does not think that this is justice when there are 42 people dead and there’s no one held criminally responsible. How do you reconcile that?
MR. EARNEST: I reconcile that by saying the United States goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties. And when those casualties do occur as a result of human error that was compounded by systemic and procedural failures, the United States of America owns up to it. The United States of America conducts an independent investigation to determine what exactly happened. The United States of America, consistent with our values, is transparent about those failures. They’re published on a website that all of you can see right now. We’ve owned up to it. The individuals who were involved and do bear some accountability are held accountable. That’s our system. And that is a system that’s consistent with our values. It’s also a system that follows through on implementing reforms that makes something like this much less likely to ever happen again. And that’s what the Commander-in-Chief asked for, and that’s what he got.
Q Another thing I’d point out is that they believe this focus on intent is not a valid answer to the question of responsibility in determining a crime or a war crime. Clearly, you don’t agree with that. But do you see the point, that this idea of intent is not — it’s the result, it’s what happened — and intent is not a way to essentially explain away someone’s responsibility.
MR. EARNEST: I think the passion that’s evident in the arguments that are being made by MSF is entirely understandable, and this is a tragedy. And this is an organization that does heroic work around the world. And in this case, some of the individuals that they employ, or at least support, were killed while they were trying to attend to wounds of innocent people who were injured in this conflict.
So I think their response is entirely human; one that’s entirely understandable, one that’s entirely reasonable. But what’s also true is that the investigation that was conducted by the Department of Defense is consistent with the orders they received from the Commander-in-Chief. And the American people and people around the world can go and decide for themselves whether or not this investigation was serious. I think when you take a look at a report that extends beyond 100 pages, there’s ample detail in there, and it does discuss what transpired and what steps could be taken to prevent these errors from happening somewhere else. And I think that’s what the President has been focused on, even in the midst of this terrible tragedy.
Q On a much lighter note, the Correspondents’ Dinner, when you answered the question before, you said “ducking the room.” Were you referring to Mr. Trump in that?
MR. EARNEST: No, I was just suggesting that —
Q Or generally anybody who doesn’t show up.
MR. EARNEST: Even people who don’t show up are not necessarily guaranteed to be spared from some good-natured ribbing by the President of the United States or by anybody else who speaks tomorrow night.
Q And just one other thing. The Invictus Games — there’s a video going around. Did the Royal Family ask — how did that come about, I guess is the question that some folks want to know.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Invictus Games is obviously an international competition by our men and women in uniform. And there’s a friendly rivalry between the United States and our allies in the United Kingdom. And the offices of the President and First Lady coordinated closely with the Royal Family to tape these videos and to organize this effort to show their support for our citizens who will be competing in those games.
Q And there was what be called some transatlantic trash-talking involved — (laughter) — where the Obamas said, “Bring it on,” or something to that effect. And the Queen’s response was, “Oh, please,” or something like that. What is their response?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) I was going to say, that was quite a reenactment there, Ron.
Q I spent a lot of time on it.
MR. EARNEST: I encourage everybody to go take a look at the video.
Q The “Oh, please,” from the Queen — what is the — you’re not frightened by that, I guess.
MR. EARNEST: Not frightened at all. This is just an attempt to show our strong support for the American and British heroes who will be participating in the Invictus Games. And obviously — I guess no pun intended — the Queen was a good sport about it. And so people should check out the video. But obviously, this is a competition to really highlight the service and sacrifice of the best that the United States has to offer, and it’s also the best that our allies in the UK have to offer. And it should be a great set of games. They’re hosted next weekend in Orlando, Florida.
Q Is he going to make fun of the Queen during the dinner?
MR. EARNEST: I doubt it. She probably does spare some ridicule by not attending the dinner.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said that the President has been briefed on the report about the accidental hospital bombing. You mentioned yesterday that he might read the entire report. Do you know if he plans to do that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not he plans to read the entire report. I know that he hasn’t so far, but he was briefed on the details of the report earlier today.
Q And has he or does he plan to reach out to anybody within Doctors Without Borders now that the report has been released?
MR. EARNEST: You’ll recall the President did have an opportunity to speak to one of the leaders of that organization shortly after this incident occurred. I know that the Department of Defense, including General Votel, the newly installed commander of Central Command, has been in touch with senior officials at MSF to discuss the report.
At this point, I’m not sure and I don’t know of any planned phone calls from the President to MSF officials at this point.
Q And then on one other topic, the Supreme Court this morning declined to block Texas’s voter ID law. The President has talked frequently about voter access this year. What’s his reaction to that action by the Supreme Court?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the announcement from the Supreme Court. The President has expressed his significant concern with politically motivated efforts to make it harder for people to vote. As the President observed I believe at this podium yesterday, the United States is the only genuine democracy in the world that actually makes it harder for its citizens to vote than it should be. And there’s increasing evidence to indicate that Republicans engage in these kinds of tactics to make it harder for people to vote because they perceive a political interest in doing so. They somehow believe that if fewer people vote, that that’s good for Republicans. It’s not exactly a motto to be proud of, I don’t think.
And so the President obviously believes that when cities and states, and even the federal government, are considering voting laws, that they should do so with an eye toward making it easier and more convenient for citizens who are registered to vote. And that’s a principle that he’s going to keep fighting for. But it’s hard for me to comment directly on a Supreme Court decision without having seen.
Q Thanks, Josh. Does the President support the idea that some of the women and men who are involved in the accident in Afghanistan should in fact lose their jobs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I’m not in a position to comment specifically on the accountability measures that were announced by the Department of Defense. As the Commander-in-Chief, and as the spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief, I need to avoid even the appearance of any potential undue command influence.
So the President was clear that an objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of this tragedy needed to be brought forward, and that’s what the Department of Defense did. And commanders at the Department of Defense took a look at the evidence, they took a look at the report, and they made a decision about the appropriate accountability measures to be imposed. But I’d refer you to the Department of Defense to speak to those.
Q But just to put a fine point on it, the President would support their decision should those commanders decide to relieve someone of duty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I just can’t speak in any detail about the specific accountability measures that have been imposed or any potential accountability measures that could be announced at a later date. This is something that was decided by the Department of Defense.
But what I can tell you is that the report that was made public today by the Department of Defense is consistent with the President’s expectations about the need for a thorough, transparent and objective accounting of the facts.
Q Can I ask you about smart guns? The federal government, from my research, is still the largest purchaser of weapons in the United States. Is this an area where the President would like to get more smart guns in the hands of the federal government and make that part of his mandate to push forward this technology?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, earlier today, the White House actually did announce the moving forward on an executive action that the President announced actually early this year. And this is an executive action that would essentially allow law enforcement officials at the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to begin developing guidelines and standards for smart gun technology.
And the idea is there are a set of standards and guidelines that can be developed that would ensure that smart gun technology could effectively be used by law enforcement officers. And the idea is that, yes, the federal government is a bulk purchaser of firearms, and so it does raise questions about that potential. But that is not the announcement that we made today.
The announcement that we made today was this question about specific guidelines and standards, and whether or not those could be developed consistent with the needs of law enforcement officials.
Q How concerned is the President about the notion from some gun owners that this is yet another intrusion by the federal government to try to get regular, law-abiding gun purchasers and gun owners to purchase a technology that they’re not interested in, which is, somehow mandate this in the future?
MR. EARNEST: I think this is consistent with the kind of wild-eyed conspiracy theories that we’ve heard on this issue for years now. I think what is true is I couldn’t think of another industry off the top of my head that isn’t interested in looking at new technology that could make their product safer. Just about every other industry that I can think of, that’s what people do. That’s what manufacturers do. That is a source of innovation in a variety of fields.
I think the best example of this is in the auto industry. Auto manufacturers actually market the degree to which they use new technology to make their products safer, to make cars and trucks safer. And it is surprising to me that so many gun manufacturers shirk that responsibility.
I think one of the other questions that can be answered by this effort to try to devise a set of standards and guidelines is whether or not a market would emerge for a gun manufacturer that deploys smart gun technology. Is there a manufacturer that comes forward and says, hey, I can adopt those standards that the federal government has said would be consistent with the needs of law enforcement officials and maybe I can make some money by marketing to people who are interested in actually being safer, but all of that is an open question and a question that will ultimately be determined by the free market. But it certainly is a question that’s been answered in the affirmative by the free market in just about every other product imaginable.
Q Lastly, let me ask you about Puerto Rico. You and I spoke yesterday about the ticking of the clock. May 1st is around the corner now. Can you discuss the restructuring of the debt effort that is ongoing for Puerto Rico and the possibility that American taxpayers can end up having to if not be on the hook for the problems there, responsible for trying to mitigate the damage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the problem right now, Kevin, is that the government of Puerto Rico does not have the authority that they need to effectively restructure their debt. The kind of authority that the federal government has proposed giving the Puerto Rican government is the kind of restructuring authority that’s available to cities all across the country. So this is not a strategy that had to be designed from scratch — there’s a template for giving the government the authority that they need — the local government the authority that they need to restructure their debt.
Now, what’s also true is the Obama administration, at least, is interested in making sure that that restructuring authority is paired with a commitment on the part of the Puerto Rican government to implement long-overdue economic, financial and fiscal reforms. And we should write into the law oversight that ensures the Puerto Rican government makes good on their commitment to implement those reforms.
Q So where are we in the process then? Because May 1st is around the corner.
MR. EARNEST: Well, where we are in the process is that now for 191 days we’ve seen Republicans in Congress fail to act on the common-sense proposal that the administration put forward back on October 21st. And that delay has allowed the situation in Puerto Rico to only get worse. And that’s why the case that I’ve made is that Republicans who are falsely suggesting that the proposal that I’ve outlined is a bailout. That’s wrong; it’s not a bailout. But the more they delay, and the more that Republicans drag their feet, the more likely it is that a bailout becomes the only option. So it’s irresponsible for Republicans to be handling this in the way that they have thus far. Frankly, their false accusations only further gum up the process in a way that makes the worst possible outcome even more likely.
Q Any chance that there will be work on this over the weekend? Because between now and Monday, something has got to give.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there have been extensive conversations already between administration officials, mostly at the Treasury Department, and officials on Capitol Hill. Obviously Puerto Rican officials have been involved in this, too. Look, this is an island that is inhabited by 3 million Americans, and these are American citizens who are increasingly at risk because of the dire fiscal situation of the local government.
So this is where Congress has to step in and act, show some leadership, and act in a way that is not just in the best interest of the Americans in Puerto Rico, but actually act in the best interests of the 300 million Americans that live here on the mainland to make sure we’re not on the hook for bailing out Puerto Rico.
Q Josh, have the Russians ever responded to the U.S. complaint about the buzzing of the U.S. naval vessel?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how the Russians responded to the concerns that were expressed by our military attaché.
Q Never responded?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t know whether or not, or how the Russians communicated or responded to the concerns that we raised. But obviously those concerns were raised by the military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow to his military counterpart.
Q Do you know if there was another complaint after the incident with a U.S. reconnaissance plane?
MR. EARNEST: I do not know whether or not additional concerns were raised about that incident, but you could check with the Department of Defense about that.
Q Also, I saw that there’s a movie coming out about the Obamas’ first date. Do you know whether the President and First Lady have cooperated in the making of that movie?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve read a little bit of the news coverage about this. It was a couple of months ago that I first saw the first story about it. I’m not aware of any cooperation on the part of the White House or the Obama family in the making of that movie, but I do know that the President and the First Lady have heard of the movie. I don’t know if they’ve seen it.
Q You don’t know. Could you find out?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll look into it.
Q Josh, apologies if you talked about this at the beginning. On Afghanistan, with this incident in Kunduz, there was a reference at the briefing at the Pentagon that there was some combat fatigue that played a role in all this. And it made me wonder if the White House has any timeline or any update on when you’re going to move from that 9,800 down to 5,500 U.S. troops.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update on our troop posture at this point. Obviously the President has laid out a strategy, one that he spoke about as recently as the end of last year. And the strategy that he’s laid out is consistent with the recommendations that he’s received from our military leaders, both here in Washington and on the ground in Afghanistan.
Our men and women in uniform have two missions. The first is continuing to fight terrorism. We know there are extremist elements that could be trying to use the chaos in Afghanistan as cover to establish a safe haven there. We want to make sure that they’re not able to do that. But in addition to that, our military servicemembers are also providing some advice and assistance to Afghan security forces whose capacity is only improving.
So those dual missions will continue, and I don’t have any update at this point about whether or not a change in our posture is imminent.
Q Is it fair to say that the troop position is still under review as is the consideration of allowing U.S. troops more of what their requesting, in terms of leeway to engage on the battlefield?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President has said about this is that it is important for the broader strategic decisions that are made about things like force posture to be influenced, at least, by conditions on the ground. We need to be mindful of what’s happening on the ground, even as we are making higher-level strategic decisions. That certainly is why the Commander-in-Chief gets regular updates from his military and civilian leadership at the Department of Defense about what’s happening in Afghanistan.
He understands that as he’s setting the broader strategic direction, it needs to reflect the changing situation on the ground. At this point, I’m not aware of any changes that are being contemplated with respect to the mission that our men and women in uniform are fulfilling.
Q On Syria, I wanted to ask you, some of the friendly groups to the U.S., rebel groups have come out and really strongly hit back, saying why isn’t the White House condemning specifically the Russian build-up around Aleppo and the regime’s — what they believe were regime strikes on medical personnel and hospitals, believing that it is, to them, obvious who did it, and wondering why the White House isn’t condemning it, saying that that makes you complicit in allowing this sort of thing to continue to happen.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that this particular incident about — I’m referring to the MSF facility in Syria — was not the result of any action taken by the United States or our coalition partners. I noted yesterday that the tactics used in that incident were consistent with tactics that we’ve seen used by the Assad regime in other parts of the country.
But at this point, I’m not aware of any analysis that has concluded definitively that the Assad regime or associated forces are directly responsible. But like I said, the early evidence that is already available indicates that it is quite similar to the tactics that have been used by the Assad regime in other places.
And this administration, from the President on down, have repeatedly and forcefully condemned the immoral tactics of the Assad regime. We’ve noted that this blood-thirsty dictator has time and time again used the military might of that nation to attack innocent citizens. That is, in fact, why the Obama administration believes that he has lost the legitimacy to lead that country. And it’s why we believe a political transition is necessary to try to bring an end to the chaos, and to try to address the series of consequences that have stemmed from President Bashar al-Assad’s failed political leadership.
Q But the opposition sees that hedging as a defense of a broken peace and a desperate attempt to save a faltering — didn’t really even get started — a peace process here, saying that this is some political theater; call it what it is and say directly what it is. How do you put that concern to rest?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say is simply that the observations that we have made are based on available information and available evidence. And there’s no denying that the United States of America has, on a variety of occasions, starting at the level of the President on down, has repeatedly and forcefully condemned the attacks that the Assad regime has launched against innocent civilians.
What’s also true is that this administration has made reaching a political settlement and a political transition inside of Syria a top priority. There’s no military solution that can be imposed successfully on Syria. The way to resolve the chaos in that country —
Q What if the Russians don’t believe that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, actually, the Russians themselves have acknowledged that a political transition is necessary. They’ve indicated that they share that view. And what we have challenged the Russians to do is to use their influence with the Assad regime to get them to participate on those talks more constructively. And look, the fact that those talks convened, and the fact that there was, at least for several weeks, a cessation of hostilities that largely held, was a testament to the efforts of the United States and our ability to persuade the Russians to influence the Assad regime.
So this is a strategy that has shown at least a little glimmer of progress, a glimmer of hope. And that’s why the administration continues to push. That’s why you see the dogged engagement of Secretary Kerry in this effort. His repeated calls to Foreign Minister Lavrov and other participants in these talks are an indication that we’re trying to capitalize on a very, very narrow opening. Because, as the President observed during his trip last week, all the options in Syria are bad. There are no good options there.
So we might as be focused on the one thing that we know can address the wide array of problems in that country, and that is seeking a political transition that would bring leadership to Syria that reflects the will and ambition of the Syrian people, that can unite that country, that can restore some order, that can be a partner of the United States and our coalition partners to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, and begin to try to govern that country once again. This is long-term goal. It’s not going to happen overnight. And there will be lots of starts and stops to try to achieve that end.
But that is the path that we’re trying to carve out. And it’s painstaking work, and it is — goodness knows it’s frustrating. But that is the path to an outcome that reflects the best interest of the United States, and the path to an outcome that reflects the best way to resolve a conflict that has contributed to tensions in an already volatile part of the world.
Q So this isn’t a failure to confront on the part of the U.S. in an attempt to rescue what remains a hopeful idea but not a real political process at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the United States has willingly and forcefully condemned the immoral and bloodthirsty actions of the Assad regime. They have repeatedly used grotesque military tactics to attack innocent men, women and children. And we have forcefully condemned those actions more times than I can count.
And yes, the United States has been focused on trying to bring along political talks — and not because it’s easy, but because we recognize that political talks are the best path to resolving the chaos and turmoil and violence inside of Syria.
Q And lastly, on North Korea. Is the U.S. open to doing what they’ve done in the past and perhaps entertain the idea of sending an envoy to bring back the two Americans who are now in prison there, one of them sentenced today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have said, particularly as it relates to Mr. Warmbier, the college student who was detained in North Korea back in January, is we’ve called on the North Korean government to release him on humanitarian grounds so that he can be reunited with his family. Our engagement with the North Koreans has been through the Swedish government. The Swedes are our protecting power in North Korea, and we’re going to continue to work through Swedish diplomats to secure the release of these American citizens.
Q But as for sentencing today, can you say anything about that?
MR. EARNEST: As for the sentencing today, I don’t have much to say about it. We continue to go to great lengths to try bring home Americans that we believe are wrongfully held around the world. And those efforts will continue, and those efforts in North Korea are done through our Swedish protecting power there.
Q Talking about the Zika funding, the bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, it increased discretionary caps — $80 billion over two years, including non-defense discretionary spending, about $40 billion over the next fiscal year. Does that money give the administration any flexibility to work with appropriators to try to come up with a way to fund the emergency for Zika?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly no expert when it comes to the intricacies of the congressional budget process. What I do know, and what requires no expertise to include, is that the budget process that’s being run by Republicans in the House and Senate right now is totally broken. The prospects of any sort of budget agreement, even by the strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate, are basically nil — which is why it is totally irresponsible for Republicans to suggest that this broken budget process should be pursued to meet an urgent need. Our public health professionals have called this a public health emergency. It has prompted an emergency response by the CDC and the NIH and other public health professionals all across the country. And it’s time for Congress to treat it accordingly.
Democrats in Congress are certainly committed to addressing this emergency, but Republicans aren’t. And, frankly, I don’t know why. I don’t know what their explanation is. There’s no — it’s not as if the Zika virus only affects Democrats. Pregnant women in both parties are affected by the Zika virus and are at risk. It’s time for Congress to do something to protect them.
And every day that goes by that Republicans in Congress fail to act is another day lost to our efforts to prepare for this emergency. And that’s the subject of intense disappointment. And it is highly irresponsible, and I don’t know how Republicans who are in the majority in Congress right now are going to explain that to their constituents as they spend the next 10 days not in Congress.
So I don’t know if these members of Congress are planning a vacation or if they’re planning town hall meetings, but I suspect they’re going to get some pretty direct questions from their constituents asking them why they haven’t done anything to address a public health emergency. And I suspect that Republicans at some point later this summer, when the television networks and the newspapers are warning of this public health crisis, the Republicans themselves are going to be wondering why they didn’t do something earlier. And I don’t know what the answer to that question will be, either.
Q And then quickly on the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In 2011, the President really went after Donald Trump, but since then he’s said that the rhetoric he’s using is dangerous and it’s making our allies nervous. Is Donald Trump still a laughing matter? Can he still prove to be the butt of jokes at the dinner this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: Tune in on Saturday night and we’ll all find out.
Q And Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate that will be in attendance. You said before that he would be going after his adversaries, but do you expect Democrats to also be on the receiving end?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that the President will certainly poke a little fun at himself, and I suspect a little good-natured ribbing of his friends will occur as well.
Q Okay. Lastly, after the party, is the President planning any sort of after-party here at the White House with his friends and supporters?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but that would be a pretty hot ticket if he were, wouldn’t it?
John, in the back.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’ve noticed on Donald Trump a reluctance — especially on Wednesday I noticed you wouldn’t say his name. Look back and it seems to be a pattern. And when asked about some of his proposals and pronouncements, you talk about the President’s record, especially on foreign policy. Why is that? And as he moves closer to being the nominee, will the White House have to change that approach?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, over the course of the last nine months or so, I’ve been asked frequently about presidential candidates in both parties. And I think I’ve been pretty candid about the fact that there are some opportunities that I’ve taken to weigh on that debate, but mostly I’ve tried to stay out of it.
And I think as the general election advances, I’m going to try to fulfill what responsibilities I have here, which is to obviously help all of you understand exactly what’s happening at the White House, but also to be an advocate for the President’s policies and the President’s values and the President’s priorities. That will be the subject of some debate in the general election.
And so I anticipate that I’ll be asked about what some of the other candidates have to say about it. And that will be a — I’ll have to make some strategic decisions about how to most effectively make the case for the President. Obviously the President himself is going to be out there making his case too, and he’ll do that here at the White House but also as he travels across the country. And it’s going to be an interesting fall, I suspect.
Q And on Zika, Senator Blunt says the Zika gang in the Senate, they’re trying to produce something that can move to final passage.
MR. EARNEST: Is “Zika gang” a thing now?
Q I’m giving it a shot.
MR. EARNEST: There you go. I imagine they all have, like, black leather jackets and maybe a certain color of bandana or something. “Hey, man, we’re the Zika gang.” It’s got a good ring to it.
Q They’re trying to produce something. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe it should be. I’ll call Cody and let him know we have some edits.
Q So Senator Blunt says they’re trying to produce something that can get to final passage in both chambers and the President’s desk. Senator Graham, yesterday, who’s part of the gang, mentioned possibly offsetting the funds, whatever additional funds that they might come up with. Is the White House open to some offsets, some or all of it? And might that be a way to pass it with a majority of the majority in the House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I don’t want to prejudge the process. What I will say is the process has already been delayed for too long by Republicans who have not recognized that this needs to be a priority.
One of the reasons that emergency funding is typically not offset is that funding bills can often get bogged down in debates about the pay-fors. The essence of an emergency is that Congress should act quickly. So what we would like to see is Congress to act quickly, to act consistent with the urgent needs that our public health professionals say exist.
So if there were a way to design a package that had strong bipartisan support that could be quickly and easily resolved that included pay-fors, I wouldn’t rule that out of hand. But given how long it has taken to just discuss the funding in and of itself, I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which there isn’t a protracted debate about the pay-fors. That protracted debate at this point is frankly not something that we can afford.
The fact is there is no debating among scientists that Congress needs to act urgently so that we can prepare for this emergency. But Republicans in Congress have failed to do it, and we’re going to continue to make the case that they should.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the Garland nomination with these progressive groups starting a campaign this weekend to push for the hearing, nine states they’ve planned in nine days. I wanted to talk a little bit about —
MR. EARNEST: I guess they’re calling it the 9-9-9 plan, huh?
Q And speaking of the congressional delays, you’ve been speaking about —
MR. EARNEST: It has a little ring to it, doesn’t it?
Q It does. It’s going on seven weeks since the President made this nomination. It doesn’t appear like you’re any closer to a hearing. And the congressional calendar, you might call it less than robust for the rest of the year. Do you view this campaign coming up as the last best shot you’ve got at getting a hearing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, not necessarily. Look, I think we’ve made a forceful case for why Chief Judge Garland deserves to be treated fairly by the Senate. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to offer their advice and consent of a presidential nominee.
President Obama has taken that advise and consent responsibility quite seriously. The President conducted extensive negotiations and conversations with members of Congress prior to putting Chief Judge Garland’s name forward. And it’s not a coincidence that the President actually nominated somebody that even leading Republicans have described as a consensus nominee.
Chief Judge Garland is somebody who has served on the second-highest court in the land for 19 years. He’s got more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history. He is an individual who spent his life in public service. He is somebody who has demonstrated that he understands that a judge should interpret the law, not advance a political agenda.
That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that somebody with a set of credentials and experience like this is being treated so unfairly by Republicans in the Senate. So we’re going to continue to press upon Republicans and make the case that they should do what every other Supreme Court nominee since *1975 has gotten, which is a hearing and/or a vote. Those are just the facts.
And those arguments have gotten some traction. Certainly there’s ample public evidence to indicate that Republicans’ political standing has suffered as a result of the unreasonable position they’ve taken with respect to Chief Judge Garland’s nomination. I saw some polling just yesterday that the approval rating of the Republican Party as a whole is as low as it has been since I was in high school. This is despite the fact that there are strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate in Congress.
I think that’s an indication that people aren’t particularly pleased in either party by the way that Republican leaders in Washington, D.C. have handled the people’s business. I think in many cases they’ve refused to handle the people’s business. They’ve refused to move on emergency funding for Zika. They’ve refused to consider restructuring authority for Puerto Rico, despite the dire financial situation there. They’ve refused to even give a hearing, let alone a vote, to the President’s consensus Supreme Court nominee — consensus is a word that is often used by Republicans — to say nothing of the budget process that Republicans have previously described as critically important and a basic function of Congress, but yet we’ve seen that process utterly break down in both the House and the Senate.
So there are some difficult questions for Republicans to answer. And certainly moving forward with fair consideration of the President’s Supreme Court nominee is one way that Republicans could try to restore confidence in their ability to do the simplest, most basic thing. This is a responsibility to consider these Supreme Court nominees, it’s a responsibility that’s outlined in the Constitution.
And the President could have chosen somebody who is outside the mainstream, somebody who is a strong progressive that has political views that are far different than any Republican senator. But that’s not what he’s done. He’s actually chosen somebody that even Republicans have described as a consensus nominee; somebody that’s demonstrated time and time again that he has what it takes to serve on the Supreme Court.
In fact, I made note of an op-ed that was written by Ted Olson today. Ted Olson is certainly no liberal. He’s a conservative, and a widely respected legal mind, frankly on both sides of the aisle. But his conservative credentials are well-known. He wrote, “By temperament, character and qualifications, Judge Garland is precisely the kind of jurist we want on the Supreme Court. For Republicans, there is much to recommend giving Mr. Garland a good look, a respectful hearing, and a vote on the merits.” That’s a conservative lawyer who’s making that argument.
So this is an argument that’s gotten traction. And I think the pressure on Republicans who refuse to do their job is only going to increase.
Q Given the calendar realities, aren’t they succeeding in running out the clock on you guys?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think it is clear that they are stalling, that they aren’t doing their jobs, and they’re hoping that no one will notice. I think, unfortunately, they’re going to be wrong about that. If they wanted to reverse course, there’s still ample time for them to do so. There is no reason that Republicans couldn’t act quickly to schedule a hearing, put Chief Judge Garland through his paces.
Again, I’m not expecting that — I’m not suggesting or in any way expecting that Chief Judge Garland should get a pass. He should just get what every other Supreme Court nominee has gotten since 1875, and that’s a fair hearing, a tough hearing. Every year since television was invented, those Supreme Court justices have gone on in front of the cameras to answer questions under oath, and those are tough questions that they’ve gotten from senators on both the right and the left.
That’s all we’re asking for Chief Judge Garland to get. And I think the reason that Republicans don’t want to give him that venue is they’re concerned that he’s going to actually perform well in that venue. And that’s the reason that they don’t even want to invite that possibility. It would only serve to increase pressure on them to confirm his nomination.
And we’re going to keep the pressure up. This is a powerful argument. And the effective functioning of our Supreme Court with the full complement of justices depends on it. And that’s an important thing because we know that the Supreme Court has a rather full docket next term. And they should have a full complement of justices up there to consider it.
Let me see if I’ve got a week ahead here and we’ll try to move on. I don’t know if I have a week ahead in here. Do we not? Oh, I do. Look at this! Brian Gabriel never lets me down. (Laughter.)
On Monday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Tuesday, the President will honor the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and other finalists here at the White House. The President will thank them for their hard work and dedication each and every day in the classroom.
On Wednesday, the President will travel to Flint, Michigan, to hear firsthand from Flint residents about the public health crisis, receive an in-person briefing on the federal efforts that are in place to help respond to the needs of the people of Flint, and deliver remarks to members of the community. Additional details about the President’s travel to Michigan will be available in the coming days. That evening, the President will deliver remarks at the Asia Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies 22nd annual awards gala dinner. That’s here in Washington.
On Thursday, the President will host a Cinco de Mayo reception at the White House. In the afternoon, the President will be joined by the Vice President, First Lady and Dr. Biden to kick off the fifth anniversary of Joining Forces and the 75th anniversary of the USO. The event that’s called “A Celebration of Service” will include nearly 1,500 servicemembers and their families.
On Friday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
And then on Saturday, the President will deliver the commencement address to the 2016 graduating class of Howard University here in Washington, D.C. As one of the nation’s top historically black colleges and universities, Howard University is recognized for its rigorous education and legacy of building lasting bridges of opportunity for young people. And I know the President is certainly looking forward to giving that speech next weekend.
So with all of that, have a great time this weekend, everybody. And we’ll see you on Monday.
2:17 P.M. EDT