Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 27, 2016 – 1:08 P.M. EDT
Q You didn’t wait and finish watching Trump —
MR. EARNEST: No. I didn’t start, either. (Laughter.) I’ll catch the highlights later on tonight.
Q He said “Tan-zania.”
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, apparently the phonetics are not included on the teleprompter. (Laughter.)
All right, on to more serious topics. Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Josh, can you talk a bit about the President’s trip to Flint, Michigan? Why now? What does he hope to accomplish? And is it designed to put more pressure on Congress to do more to help that area?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, you saw that the President had written a letter in response to a young girl in Flint who had asked the President to spend some time meeting with the residents of Flint to show and remind them that the American people continue to keep that community in mind as they deal with some pretty significant challenges.
The President is prepared to travel there next month — next week, and demonstrate that while the public discussion of this situation doesn’t retain the same spot in the limelight, the administration is committed to following through on helping that community recover.
Now, we certainly would welcome a greater commitment — or, frankly, any commitment — from Republicans in Congress to responding to this situation. The administration has marshalled significant resources to help that community respond. There was the urgent provision of bottled water and filters by FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the situation. But over the longer term, there’s been a commitment by the administration to expanding Medicaid to ensure that more citizens across Flint can get access to needed health care. There have been grants provided to local health care providers to expand their capacity to provide immediate needed health care. The EPA has ramped up their monitoring of the water supply, and this expanded testing can verify that the appropriate steps are being taken to restore safe drinking water to Flint.
So there are a number of things that the administration has done, but there are significant underlying problems that can only be addressed through congressional action. And I also think that the President will note that the administration is committed to responding to the situation both to help the people of Flint recover but also to make sure that a similar situation is not being experienced in communities all across the country.
And you’ve seen the EPA, months ago — or at least more than a month ago — write a letter to governors across the country, outlining exactly how the lead and copper rule will be enforced to ensure that a situation like this isn’t repeated. And that certainly stands in stark contrast to some Republicans in Congress who advocate for the eliminating of the EPA. How exactly is that going to improve the situation? This is the agency that is principally responsible for protecting our clean air and clean water.
So as you can tell from my answer to your question, there’s a lot to talk about in Flint, and the President is looking forward to taking advantage of this opportunity to ensure that the people of Flint understand that we’re going to follow through on our response and to make sure they understand that the American people haven’t forgotten.
Q Is the administration confident that EPA leaders have been held fully accountable for what occurred there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, there’s more than one ongoing investigation. And so when it comes to accountability, I’ve refrained from weighing in in a lot of detail because I don’t want to be perceived as even attempting to influence those ongoing investigations in one form or another. So we’ll let those move forward. But the President certainly believes in accountability. And as the President of the United States, the President takes responsibility for a lot of things.
Q And now that we have a clearer picture of this year’s presidential race, does President Obama consider Hillary Clinton to be the presumptive nominee? Does he have any near-term plans for rallying Democrats around her candidacy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Democratic voters will determine who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and Republican voters will determine who the Republican nominee is going to be. And that’s the way that our process was structured, and the President participated in that process by casting a vote of his own in the Illinois primary.
But, ultimately, the voters will decide and the candidates will make their own individual decisions about how long to pursue the nomination. And that’s a perfectly appropriate decision for them to make on their own. I don’t have any details to announce at this point about when the President will be engaged in this debate, but he most assuredly will once the general election has begun.
Q Josh, just one final one. How serious is the threat of the legislation from Senator Cotton to prevent the U.S. from purchasing heavy-water from Iran? Is the White House prepared to veto that legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I learned shortly before coming out here that this legislation did not succeed in getting the sufficient number of votes in the Senate to end debate. So that is an indication that there is not likely to be the necessary support in the United States Senate to add that amendment to this broader appropriations bill.
But we’ve made clear our commitment to a principle that ideologically motivated policy riders are not appropriate for appropriations bills. And that is the — you all have written extensively about Senator Cotton’s repeated commitment to undermining the successful implementation of the international agreement among Iran and some of our closest allies to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon. So it is clear what the intent of his amendment is. Senator Cotton is certainly no expert when it comes to heavy-water. I’m confident that he couldn’t differentiate heavy-water from sparkling water. His focus is on undermining the effective implementation of this agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
So we’ll have to see if — but right now, I guess I’d say that we’re gratified that this has not advanced in the Senate.
Q Hi. Back to Flint. Given that the federal EPA — there were problems there, there were failures there — and you mentioned some of the FEMA money, but Congress is not being able to get money through. So can we expect some other way to get federal money to the people in Flint?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t hear the entirety of the first part of your question. What did you say about the EPA?
Q Just the failures there, that the EPA was at fault for not telling — there was a scientist there who knew about the poisoning, but within the EPA the message didn’t get out and was delayed there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there continues to be an investigation into the EPA’s response to the situation. So, again, I’m going to reserve judgment on that.
But there have been some conclusions that have been reached about the conduct at the state agency that was responsible for protecting the water supply in Flint. And there are at least three individuals who have been indicted for their conduct by the Michigan Attorney General. And I’d also point out that it was the independent commission that was established by Governor Snyder who pointed out that “the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.” So, again, I think when it comes to accountability, the agencies that have looked at this thus far and reported some results have raised significant concerns about what was happening at the state level.
There continues to be an investigation of the entire response and the potential role of the federal regulators. And, again, I’m certainly not going to say anything that’s going to try to — that could be perceived as influencing the outcome of those investigations. But the investigations that have been completed thus far have focused most of their attention, if not all, on the conduct of state officials.
More generally, the reason that Congress has not acted on funding for Flint is because Republicans say they oppose it. So it’s not just congressional dysfunction that has prevented the appropriation of this money, but rather because Republicans oppose providing it. And that’s despite the conscientious work of people like Senator Stabenow and Senator Peters, in particular, but other Democrats who have said that Congress has a role and a responsibility for making sure that the state of Michigan and the city of Flint has available resources.
When it comes to the administration, our options are a little bit more limited. But you saw that earlier this year the administration expedited some grant funding that was relevant to water infrastructure projects to try to provide additional resources to the state of Michigan that could be used in Flint to address this situation. We’ll continue to look for other ways that we can offer up assistance, both as it relates to infrastructure but also as it relates to health care and other emergency funding. But there’s a role for Congress to play, and right now it’s Republicans who are preventing those necessary steps from occurring.
Q And when can we expect the EPA to change the lead and copper rule?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to talk to them about whether or not that’s something they’re considering. The concern that has been expressed is that there was a little bit of ambiguity about the most effective way to enforce that rule, and that’s precisely why you saw the administrator of the EPA write a letter to governors all across the country making clear exactly how the EPA was prepared to enforce that rule. And she did that because she’s focused on making sure that what happened in Flint doesn’t crop up in a whole bunch of communities across the country. And I think this is prudent and effective leadership of learning from shortcomings, and making sure they aren’t replicated in other situations. That’s responsible leadership and it’s certainly something that the EPA Administrator, Gina McCarthy, takes quite seriously.
Q And on Puerto Rico, there’s a payment due on Sunday and then one in July. But it looks like the bill — rescue package — whatever you want to call it — is being delayed. Is there anything the White House can do to speed that along?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Tim, I’m not sure what it would be. We rolled out a proposal 188 or 189 days ago, and we haven’t seen much activity from the Republicans who are in charge of the House of Representatives. We did see a commitment from the Republican leadership in the House to move on a legislative package for Puerto Rico in the first quarter of this year, and we haven’t seen nearly as much movement as we would like.
I think among some Republican leaders there has been a genuine effort that’s been made, but among many other Republicans there has just been a refusal to embrace their responsibility to govern. I think you can detect what I expect will be a bit of an emerging pattern over the course of this briefing that we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how Republicans in Congress aren’t doing their job, and that when it comes to core priorities, you’ve got an administration that is putting forward ideas, that is offering up specific proposals, making specific recommendations, and doing everything within our power to try to address problems.
But you have a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate that seems much more committed to playing political games and engaging in political obstruction than actually using the majority that they fought so hard to win to strengthen the country. And that’s unfortunate.
Q How concerned is the White House that, even if Republicans come to a deal, that there’s going to be items attached, like the minimum wage, that the Democrats have —
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly would be consistent with what I just said. Attempting to add completely unrelated ideological riders to a piece of legislation that would give the government of Puerto Rico the restructuring authority that they need to try to prevent an economic and humanitarian disaster on an island that’s inhabited by 3 million Americans is a failure of leadership on the part of Republicans. And I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do, but what I do know is that the longer that we go with Republicans blocking responsible legislation that is not a bailout, but does give the Puerto Rican government the opportunity to restructure their debts in a way that would allow them to implement some economic and fiscal reforms, means that we’re only getting closer to a bailout actually being required.
So that’s why we continue to make a strong case that Republican obstruction of this critical legislation only makes a bailout more likely. But hopefully that’s something that we can avoid.
Q Josh, is the little girl from Flint who wrote the President coming to the White House this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t believe that she is.
Q She asked if she could come by.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I believe in the President’s response he noted that he was looking forward to traveling to Flint and having an opportunity to meet with her there.
Q How does a letter like that get in front of the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Mark, there’s a process where the White House Correspondence Office will consider the thousands of pieces of correspondence that’s received by the White House, either through the postal service or via e-mail, and they process that material and they choose about 10 letters each day that are a representative sample of the letters that have been received by the White House that day, and they put them in front of the President.
Q So that was one of the 10-a-day?
MR. EARNEST: That’s often how this process works. Occasionally, if the President shows interest in a particular area, they may seek out additional pieces of correspondence that they can show the President. I do not know whether this young lady’s letter was one of the 10, but I do know that the President has reviewed several pieces of correspondence that are directly related to the situation in Flint. And I just don’t know whether or not her letter was included in the Flint-related correspondence that was presented to the President, or if her letter was part of the 10 letters a day that the President reviews on a variety of topics.
Q On politics, Donald Trump said again today that he believes President Obama was snubbed because President Castro was not at the airport to greet him when he arrived in Havana. Did the White House see that as a snub or arriving anywhere and the head of state is not there to greet the President?
MR. EARNEST: No. And, Mark, as you know, it is not at all uncommon for the President to have formal meetings with heads of state when he travels not to participate in ceremonial arrival ceremonies with heads of state when he arrives at the airport. And so those of you who traveled with the President to Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Germany may have observed that neither the leader of Saudi Arabia, nor the United Kingdom, nor Germany met the President at the airport. So it rather is — so it is most common for the President to be received by a lower level official at the airport so that the senior level official, the head of the government or the head of — the most senior official in the country can meet with the President more formally.
Q And lastly, is President Obama planning on addressing the Democratic Convention in July?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that’s something that we’ve announced at this point.
Q That’s why I’m asking. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I certainly would expect that the President would do so. I do not know at this point whether or not a date has been selected. Presumably, that’s something that we would coordinate with the Democratic nominee, once one has been chosen. So we’ll keep you posted on that, though.
Q On the ongoing fight over Zika funding, Republicans continue to insist that there’s enough remaining money in the pipeline to address this. And the Speaker actually went a step further by saying — or rather accusing the administration of having, as he put it, a bit of a track record of over-requesting what is needed. Just wonder if you’re confident that the amount that’s being requested will be —
MR. EARNEST: That’s interesting. The Republican Congress certainly has a well-established track record of under-performing in response to those requests. This is the latest example of that.
Sometimes that can be attributed to just a difference of opinion about what’s needed. That’s not a plausible explanation in this case. You have the Director of the National Institute of Health and a high-ranking official from the Centers for Disease Control standing at this podium about three weeks ago and say they did not have the resources that they needed that should be used to fully prepare for the onset of the Zika virus. So these are experts. These are not political appointees of the President of the United States. These are legitimate scientific experts who are responsible for protecting the health and safety of the American people. And they said that Congress had not provided them with all of the resources that they believe are necessary to do everything possible to prepare the country for the Zika virus.
This is notable primarily because when we initially put forward our request, Speaker Ryan indicated that there is “plenty of money in the pipeline right now that can go to Zika.” Then just a couple of weeks ago, he said that funding for Zika should go through the normal process. Presumably, he said that before the process completely broke down in the House of Representatives that he leads.
And now he’s saying that somehow they don’t have enough information to evaluate our request. He says that despite the fact that discussions of the Zika virus have emerged in 48 different congressional hearings. There was a briefing that was offered to every member of Congress in both the House and the Senate so that they could hear directly from our nation’s top scientists, so they could understand exactly what the threat is.
There have been ample opportunities for members of Congress who have questions to ask them. There have been a variety of answers that have been given. The administration put forward a specific proposal, dated February 22nd, with lots of details about what exactly these resources would do to make the country safer and to allow us to prepare for the Zika virus.
What’s interesting about this situation is, as I mentioned yesterday, we often can’t predict exactly where a flood is going to hit; we don’t know the exact path of a tornado. These are emergencies that we cannot specifically prepare for; we can in general. We know which regions of the country are more likely to be flooded or more likely to be hit by a tornado. In this situation, we do have an opportunity. We have months that could have been used to prepare for the onset of this virus. And yet, that time has been frittered away by Republicans who have refused to do what is necessary to protect the country from a genuine public health emergency.
Q Beyond the $600,000 million in remaining Ebola funding that’s already been allocated, it seems there’s several hundreds of millions left, still remaining in Ebola funding. As the stalemate continues, is that an area where you may be looking to free up some remaining funding, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that certainly would not be our preference. Look, when we were in the midst of what was then described by many people publicly as an Ebola crisis, there were legitimate questions asked by all of you in this room of me while I was standing here why we hadn’t done more to prepare for the situation. And we eventually were able to secure necessary resources from Congress to begin to take the appropriate steps to ensure that our public health system and, frankly, the public health system in other countries where the Ebola virus is most likely to emerge, were oriented to try to protect us from the Ebola virus.
Why we would now go and undermine those investments and dedicate them to something else only because Congress wouldn’t act is not a wise decision. The wise decision is to take the investments that we’ve already made in protecting the country from Ebola, making sure they continue to be effectively spent, and also using the resources of this country to protect the American people from the Zika virus.
This is not that complicated. This should be a pretty straightforward policy decision. But unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, Republicans, who spent years in the minority throwing sand in the gears of government, have kept throwing the sand in the gears, despite the fact they are now in charge of the government when it comes to the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. That raises questions, frankly, why they chose to run in the first place.
Q And one question on the campaign. It was around this time in 2008 when Senator Feinstein brokered a meeting between then Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton to try and bring the two together and unite the party. Does the President at all feel obligated to try and foster a similar meeting between Senators Clinton and Sanders, and does he think that such a meeting would benefit the candidates and the party at this point?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any discussions about a brokered meeting, at least, that involve the White House. Look, as you’ve heard me say on many occasions, there were predictions in 2008 that the longer than expected Democratic primary was going to have a negative impact on the eventual nominee. That didn’t prove to be true. In some states that had not recently been the host of a competitive primary, it gave Democrats in those states the opportunity to build an infrastructure. And it certainly created opportunities for Democrats in 2008 to win in states that Democrats hadn’t won in a while. Indiana is a good example of that.
So that’s why I think you’ll find a lot of people, at least in this administration, who still have vivid memories of the 2008 race, that we understand that these kinds of contests can sometimes go on longer than expected, but that’s not automatically a bad thing — particularly when the debate is focused on substantive issues that are worthy of a significant public debate. And there certainly is no shortage of those.
Q Thanks, Josh. One thing that the Republicans on the Hill seem to repeatedly ask for with regard to the Zika funding is a rundown of what exactly is needed for this year versus next year. And that’s not an answer that they’ve gotten either from the White House or, they say, anywhere else in the administration. Is that a number that’s noble? Is there a reason that you haven’t provided that to them? Because they seem to be pointing to that as the reason that they can’t go forward on figuring out what they might be able to free up for this year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you get differing explanations depending on who you ask. Obviously there appears to be, based on public reports, an effort to put specific numbers on paper on the Senate side. So certainly members of the Senate — Democrats and Republicans — feel like they have necessary information to start working on a bill. We haven’t had the top to take a close look at it, so it’s unclear at this point whether or not that’s something that we would believe is sufficient for the task. So it’s a little hard to take seriously criticism from Republicans in the House that they don’t have enough information to write the bill when there are Republicans in the Senate who are working with Democrats who are writing a bill.
I think, separately, what we’ve also gone to great lengths to try to explain is that while we are concerned about ensuring that we have sufficient resources over the course of this summer and fall to fight Zika, we need to make sure we’re laying the groundwork for an effective long-term response. For example, despite the remarkable scientific capacity of the United States and the United States government, our experts do not anticipate that we will have an effective vaccine against Zika available this summer. But if we want to have one available by next summer or the summer after that, we need to start doing research now, and we need to start doing clinical trials now. And we need to demonstrate a commitment from the federal government to be a customer for those vaccines so that private sector entities that have a capacity to manufacture that vaccine will pursue it.
So the point is, we are going to need resources and a commitment of resources over the long term. And this is something that we have discussed in both private and in public with members of the House and the Senate. So it’s just a little hard to take very seriously these complaints when there’s ample information that’s been provided. There are a wide range of discussions that have occurred. And those discussions have actually resulted in members of the Senate working in bipartisan fashion to draft legislation. I don’t understand why they can’t do that in the House.
Q But when you talk about long term, I mean, these are emergency funds that are being requested in a supplemental. So you can understand why there might be some opposition on the Hill to providing funding that you’re talking about for a long-term response in an emergency fashion. I’m just wondering if you can distinguish between one and the other, if that’s possible.
MR. EARNEST: Right. It’s an emergency because we need to start working on that vaccine right now. If we don’t start working now on that vaccine — well, let me say it this way. The most effective way to protect the country from the Zika virus is to develop a vaccine. And we know that developing a vaccine takes time. It also requires a long-term commitment of resources both to conduct clinical trials, but also to manufacture a large quantity of the vaccine so that we can protect a large number of Americans. And every day that goes by now, where we haven’t made a long-term commitment to that vaccine, is a day lost to the eventual implementation of that vaccine.
So we need a commitment now. And we don’t just need a commitment now for two or three months; we need a commitment for a couple of years, so that private sector pharmaceutical companies will know that there will be a customer for their vaccine if they implement the resources now to developing it. And that’s why it’s urgent. It’s urgent because we need to get started now. But it’s not just going to apply to this fiscal year because it’s going to take more than a year to develop tests and manufacture a vaccine.
Q Just one more on a separate issue. Eighty-one senators wrote to the President earlier this week, asking for what they called a substantially enhanced new long-term agreement with Israel with regard to U.S. military aid. Could you give us an update on where the talks stand with regard to sort of closing that 10-year deal? You’ve been negotiating now since December. We’ve heard you say repeatedly that the U.S. is willing to increase the level of aid, but it’s not clear what the hang-up would be between now and December being able to close the deal on it since Israel and the U.S. both seem to be willing to make an agreement. What’s holding it up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, I think I want to start by just pointing out that the idea for extending this agreement between the United States and Israel originated with President Obama back in 2013. So it’s the President who, for I believe three years now, has been advocating for the extension of this agreement. And the idea was that this agreement that I believe extends to — the agreement that’s currently in place I believe extends to 2018. And the thought was that by beginning negotiations early, the United States can provide some significant assurance to the nation of Israel that our commitment to their security is enduring. But over those three years, a lot has happened that has had an impact on the effective coordination related to those negotiations.
And the talks continue. And what the United States has committed to do is to ramp up the assistance that we provide to Israel in a way that would allow Israel to be the recipient of more national security aid than any other country has ever received from the United States. That is an indication of the depth of this country and this administration’s commitment to Israel’s security. Working out the details, though, is complicated. And there are a number of technical details that have to be worked through. There are also questions related to reaching an assessment of the threat that Israel faces, and making sure that the assistance that is provided is most effectively oriented to counter that threat.
So these are issues that take some time to work through, but there is a strong commitment on the part of this administration and on the part of this country to providing resources to the nation of Israel so that they can defend themselves.
Q But you’re making it sound like the President and this administration is committed to it, and leaving open the question of whether Israel is really willing to come to the table at this point. Have they refused these offers, these repeated offers of the most unprecedented military aid that any nation has ever received from the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we have acknowledged previously that there was a period prior to last December where there was at least some reticence on the part of the Israelis to engage in these conversations. But those talks were restarted back in December. And since then, there have been active discussions between national security officials in both countries about reaching this agreement.
And I don’t have an updated timeframe for you in terms of when we expect an agreement to be completed, but the work to try to reach that agreement remains ongoing.
Q Josh, you said earlier you weren’t listening to Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech. And a lot of people, however, really are paying attention to it as he gets closer to the responsibility nomination, including people who are concerned around the world. I’m not asking to dispute point by point what he said, because there was a lot of criticism in saying —
MR. EARNEST: We might be here a while. (Laughter.)
Q — that the U.S. treated Iran with tender love and care; that the U.S. is not a friend to Israel; that rivals no longer respect us, et cetera — concluding that the foreign policy is reckless, rudderless, and aimless. Just in general terms, can you tell us what is the President’s thinking about what he has hoped to accomplish over the last two terms and his impact around the world. And also, how does the White House prepare for something like this when you have Trump coming out, dissecting this with this kind of criticism? Does the President anticipate world leaders, ambassadors, people starting to make phone calls of concern about what he is saying in light of the fact that he is so close to becoming the nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you’ve heard the President already speak at some length about the concerns that he has heard from other world leaders about the tone and tenor of the presidential debate in the United States. The President has already spoken to that. I think when it comes to this President’s foreign policy, there is no denying that the United States is safer and stronger than we were when President Obama took office back in January of 2009.
And there are a variety of ways to measure it. You can certainly carefully consider the economic situation of the United States. That certainly has an impact on the influence that we wield around the world. Right now, the U.S. economy, because of the longest streak of private sector job growth in American history that we’ve enjoyed over the last 73 or so months resulting in more than 14 million private-sector jobs created, the United States continues to be the envy of the world when it comes to having such a durable economy.
As it relates to protecting the United States from very specific threats, when President Obama took office, there was a genuine concern about the likelihood that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon. And at the time, the international community was fractured in terms of considering how, exactly, to respond to the situation. But because of President Obama’s leadership, we united the world in imposing stringent sanctions on the Iranian government and on the Iranian economy that compelled them to come to the table, and compelled them to agree to a diplomatic agreement that prevents them from obtaining a nuclear weapon and establishes a verification regime, inspections, that allow us to verify that Iran has not developed a nuclear weapon and that they are actually abiding by the terms of the deal.
What we’ve also seen is a strengthening of our alliances around the world. We’ve seen an effective renewed focus on the Asia Pacific region that has both positive economic and strategic benefits for the United States.
So the President has got a strong record to run on, to say nothing of the advances that we’ve made in improving our relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, in part because of the President’s historic agreement or policy change to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. This has revolutionized the kinds of relationships that the United States has with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. In fact, a country like Argentina that had long elected leaders that were deeply skeptical of the United States has now elected a leader that President Obama met with just last month who ran on a platform of warmer relations with the United States. It didn’t happen by accident. That happened because of a renewed commitment to engagement by this administration in the hemisphere, and a commitment to moving past the kinds of obstacles that have stood in the way of those warmer relations for decades.
So historians will have ample opportunity to consider this President’s policies, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the subject of extensive debate over the next several months and through the fall. In fact, we’d welcome that opportunity to have that debate.
Q How much of the President’s time is really devoted to reassuring allies and others that there’s not going to be a dramatic change in foreign policy? Because obviously there are many world leaders and people in the diplomatic community who are very, very concerned about what they hear from Trump.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President has been clear that this is something that comes up frequently in his conversations, and the President’s response has been to reassure them that the President retains significant confidence in the wisdom of the American people to continue to pursue policies that are in the best interest of the United States and are focused on strengthening our alliances around the world, and ensuring the safety and security of the American people.
Q On another matter, does the administration have any reaction to former Speaker Denny Hastert, sentenced today by a judge to 15 months imprisonment? The judge calling him a serial child molester, and Hastert apologizing for what he calls “mistreating boys” when he was a wrestling coach.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific response to that. Obviously, this is part of our criminal justice system carrying out its mandate. And I don’t have a specific response to it.
Q Josh, I want to ask you a couple things on two different subjects. One, on the issue of Donald Trump, he brought up this issue of foreign policy today. And I want to ask you some things about ISIS. He said once he becomes President, he would eliminate ISIS. In your conversations with world leaders, national security, intelligence officials, as well as generals on the ground, has there ever been any concrete, one-stop-shop, we can eliminate ISIS in your conversations over ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has been clear about what his strategy is for degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. And this is a strategy that requires intensive cooperation with countries, partners, and allies around the world. And the President devoted a significant portion of his just-completed foreign trip to discussing how to intensify that coordination.
The progress that we’ve made on the ground against ISIL in both Iraq and in Syria has been noteworthy. In Iraq, the calculations are that we have driven ISIL out of about 40 percent of the territory on the ground that they previously controlled. In Syria, the number is somewhat smaller, but it’s about 16 percent, which represents important progress. And this isn’t just large swaths of unpopulated desert land; these are populated areas that have been retaken from ISIL.
The other thing that has attracted a lot of attention in recent days is our ongoing efforts to shut down ISIL’s financing. The United States has worked effectively with countries around the world, including countries in the region, to counter ISIL’s ability to finance their reign of terror. And we have worked closely with the Emirates, for example, to limit the ability of ISIL to access international financial networks. But we’ve also been able to coordinate among intelligence officials, finance officials, and military officials to actually carry out military strikes against some of ISIL’s cash stockpiles. And there is extensive reporting to indicate that ISIL is now having trouble paying its fighters on time. In some cases, there is even evidence that ISIL has slashed payments to their fighters, and this has had a very negative impact on morale.
Let me just give you one more example. The President has been focused, dating back to the fall of 2014, on shutting down the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and in Syria. One of the concerns that the international community originally had was that ISIL was able to rather easily replenish its ranks and that even as Iraqi security forces or coalition airstrikes were able to take ISIL fighters off the battlefield, there were so many ISIL fighters from around the world that were being recruited that they could easily replace those fighters who had been killed. There was even more concern about some of those fighters using their passports to return home and carry out attacks in their home countries.
Because of the coordinated diplomacy of the United States and many of our partners, we have drastically reduced the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and in Syria. This began with the President chairing a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss this issue. It was enhanced by the efforts of our allies in Turkey taking important steps to better secure their border with Syria, but we know that the flow of foreign fighters has not been entirely shut off, but it is significantly lower than it was before.
So this is all an indication that we have made progress, important progress in the fight against ISIL, progress that has made the American people safer — progress that has yielded a degradation of ISIL forces. But there’s a lot more work to be done. I think the critical part of this is the President is committed to making sure the United States is not doing this alone. This is not a burden that we’re going to carry on our own. We’re not going to be the world’s policeman. We’re not going to impose a military solution on this situation. We’re going to work carefully with the international community that also has an important stake in this to continue this fight and to continue to make progress in degrading and destroying this terrorist organization.
Q You said something critical — we’re not going to impose a military solution. Donald Trump is — I don’t know, didn’t get through the weeds with what he was saying —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, you’re probably not the only one.
Q I’m not saying that to be smart, though. I’m not saying that to be smart. But he said that he could eliminate ISIS. So could a military solution eliminate ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would encourage you to check with his advisors to get them to explain to you what it means to “eliminate ISIS.” Or at least what he means when he says that.
Q Before the end of the year, around December or so, President Obama from the Oval Office addressed the nation, and around that time, national security folks were saying that ISIS had been degraded about 25 percent. Are we still around that number, or is it higher or lower, even as they’re still carrying out acts of violence and terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: The latest statistics that we’ve seen is that we’ve retaken about 40 percent of the territory in Iraq that ISIL previously held, and about 16 percent of the territory in Syria — populated territory in Syria that ISIL previously held.
Q All right. And then on Flint, Michigan, will the President be making any news when he travels there, particularly as it’s still an ongoing situation? There have been charges. People are still pointing figures and there are still long-term effects to include the lost generation of kids and some people who were physically harmed by drinking this water.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just point out that there have already been some serious steps taken by the administration to try to confront some of the potential long-term consequences of the soiled Flint water supply. I can give you a couple of examples.
There’s been a significant expansion of Medicaid coverage so that more individuals can get access to treatment that would address any problems that they have sustained as a result of increased levels of lead in the water supply. There has been a widespread increase in testing to evaluate the impact on children in Flint as a result of the contaminated water supply.
Q What are you finding in that so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to HHS and they can give you some more details on exactly what those studies and what those tests have found.
There also has been work to provide additional assistance — economic assistance to Flint. The contamination of the water supply has a ripple effect across the economy. You can understand that you’re not likely to go and establish a new business in a community that doesn’t have access to clean water. So there’s a variety of economic assistance that’s been provided to the local government and to members of the community as they go through this difficult situation.
So we’ve been mindful of the longer-term challenges that Flint is facing, and we’re going to continue to follow through with those commitments.
As it relates to the President’s trip, I don’t have any remarks to preview at this point. I suspect that the fact of the President’s trip is news in and of itself. And he certainly is looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have to meet with local officials, to meet with people in the community who have been affected, and both reassure them that the Obama administration is committed to following through on the commitments that we have made, but also making a broader argument to the country about why investments in our infrastructure are so critically important.
So we’ll have more to say about that next week.
Q One last question. Now there are charges, what is up — can you say what this administration feels is at the root of this problem? Hillary Clinton already said what she felt. What does this President and this administration feel is the root cause of this crisis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll get an opportunity to hear directly from the President on that next week.
Q So will he kind of reflect, mirror some of what Hillary Clinton said? Because he’s been very vocal when it comes to issues of inequality, the lesser served, and race. Will he mirror her?
MR. EARNEST: Stay tuned. I’ll let you draw that conclusion for yourself.
Q On the Trump speech, you didn’t see it, right?
MR. EARNEST: I did not.
Q Weren’t you curious? Didn’t you want to? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not really. (Laughter.)
Q Why not?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. I guess I have plenty more important things to be focused on, to prepare for your serious questions, beyond what any individual presidential candidate might have to say.
Q The President was — one thing about the speech was it was done very differently, apparently. A lot of commentators I think would agree. Even a teleprompter appeared to be used. It was scripted. The setting was much more structured. What do you think of Mr. Trump’s effort to do a foreign policy speech in that manner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve given up trying to divine the intentions of him or any other presidential candidate. Obviously he’s got plenty of people on his staff who can describe what they’re focused on doing there. But I wouldn’t begin to describe what they had in mind.
Q You don’t think you’re being too dismissive of him?
MR. EARNEST: No. I guess it’s an ironic answer. I didn’t view it that way. (Laughter.) But, no, I don’t think so. Look, our process is structured so that individual voters all across the country can take stock of the candidates, and given the length of this campaign, they’ve had ample opportunity to take stock of the candidates on both sides. And as the President, himself, said, he’s got a lot of confidence in the American people to make the right decision. And he certainly intends to spend some time advocating, making his preferences known. But the time for that will be during the general election.
Q On the Flint situation, the timing. These letters were exchanged some time ago, or received some time ago, correct?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President got the letter from this little girl in Flint last month.
Q So why now? Did he just receive it? Or is there something about the situation there that he sees that changed his mind about going? Because for so long he said he would not go.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that — I don’t think the President said that he would not go. In terms of —
Q But he said he wouldn’t go —
MR. EARNEST: He hadn’t scheduled one. And, look, I think the President’s goal here is to go to the community of Flint and say in person to the people of Flint what he conveyed in the letter to this little girl, which is, we’ve not forgotten you. In fact, we’re committed to making sure that this community has the support that they need to recover.
What’s happened there is terrible. The President, himself, described what he thought it must be like for a parent to look at the news and see that their child has been drinking poisoned water for months, if not years. I think many parents in Flint, like the President imagined, are beside themselves — they still are. And the President feels it’s important to go and signal his continued support for that community even though it’s not an everyday headline like it used to be.
And I don’t mean that as some sort of criticism of the media, just a practical observation that if you live in the city of Flint, there were satellite trucks and news photographers all over the streets. And understandably, attention has moved on to other things. And the President feels it’s important to go back to them and make it clear that while the intention of other people has shifted onto other things, he continues to be focused on making sure that we do right by the people of Flint.
Q Just to clarify, there was a federal state of emergency declared, correct? That’s still in effect?
MR. EARNEST: So there was an initial declaration. The President issued an emergency declaration for the state of Michigan that allowed some resources to be provided. There was a broader declaration that was denied simply because of the way the law is written for those broader declarations. Those broader declarations are only allowed to be used in the event of a natural disaster, and this disaster is obviously a man-made one.
Q So there will be a federal disaster — declaring it a federal disaster area, essentially.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly.
Q We’ve had more calls and discussions with residents out there, and the feeling is — and as we’ve talked about before — there’s a huge trust deficit now —
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q — that may not be reparable given what’s happened for some certainly. Is there some contemplation by the administration of trying to find some other way to broaden the federal role there going forward? If, in fact, you’re saying a disaster area can’t be declared between it’s a man-made circumstance, does the President feel there is some need for something further — some reassurance, some declaration, something — that structures in federal oversight to make sure this problem gets solved?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, I don’t think that there is anything that the federal government could do in one day that is going to repair the trust that has been broken. I would acknowledge that that’s the case.
I think the way that you rebuild trust in a situation like this is demonstrating a sustained commitment to following through on what you say you’re going to do. And what the federal government has said that they were going to do is mobilize resources to help people have access to clean water while the situation with the water supply is being fixed. So that’s why you saw FEMA move in. They’ve now passed out 7.3 million liters of water that has been provided by FEMA to people in Flint; 55,000 water filters and 243,000 replacement filter cartridges.
So just meeting the urgent emergency needs of people is certainly an appropriate role for the federal government. You also saw the federal government step in and expand Medicaid coverage so that more individuals up to the age of 21 could get access to reliable health care. You saw grants from the Department of Health and Human Services to local health care officials to make sure they could handle the capacity — I’m sorry, to expand their capacity so that they could handle the increase in the number of patients that they were going to see on a regular basis. These are just some of the examples of the assistance that’s been provided by the federal government.
So there certainly is an important role for the federal government to play in responding to a situation like this. What’s also true is there’s a role for Congress to play. There are additional resources that could be used to make some changes to their aging water infrastructure and to provide additional assistance to help the city of Flint recover and rebuild. Unfortunately, we’ve seen Republicans refuse to embrace that responsibility, and that’s unfortunate. But the President is certainly committed to this. And it is fair to say that the President is interested in any new ideas that are developed about additional assistance that can be provided within the authority of the executive branch. But there certainly is important assistance that could be provided by Congress; we just need to see Republicans stop blocking it.
Q The President travels to Vietnam soon. I was wondering if you could give us the White House position on the lifting of the arms embargo against that country. And if you do support them, what would you like to see the Vietnamese do in return for that being lifted?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, Andrew, I’m not aware of a change in our position. Obviously we’ll keep you posted if something like that is being contemplated in advance of the trip. I anticipate that the President, when he travels to Vietnam, will actually spend most of his time talking about the increased focus of the United States on the Asia Pacific region. Vietnam has a dynamic economy and they have a rapidly growing middle class. And it’s a country that is trying to decide exactly how it’s going to orient its economy in the decades ahead. And there’s an opportunity for the United States, through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to which Vietnam is a party, to raise labor and environmental standards in a way that creates more of a level playing field for American businesses.
That means that Vietnamese businesses that are interested in doing business in the United States need to change the way that they operate on a regular basis. What it also means is it means that U.S. businesses will have more access to that growing middle class in Vietnam. It’s a win-win for the U.S. economy. And the President will certainly highlight that win-win when he travels to Vietnam. He’ll also illustrate the risk that is posed by rejecting this agreement.
What we know is that China would love to strengthen and deepen their economic ties with Vietnam. They recognize the same economic opportunities in Vietnam that we do. But if China is able to establish a foothold in Vietnam, China will surely say, well, we don’t really care anything about your labor standards, we don’t care anything about your environmental standards, we certainly don’t care anything about the human rights standards in your country — we just want to look for ways to do more business. There will be a race to the bottom, and that will only put American businesses at a greater disadvantage in trying to expand opportunities in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
So it’s a pretty simple strategic calculation. It’s just one that we’re going to continue to explain, and there’s no better way to do that than having the President travel to that country directly.
Q And on a separate issue, one thing you may have agreed with Trump on today was his suggestion that U.S. allies are not pulling their weight when it comes to the security program. Is the President considering deploying naval and reconnaissance assets to the central Mediterranean, or is that a job for the Europeans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President in his discussions with our European allies in Europe over the weekend and earlier this week did talk about the significant national security of the situation that exists in the central Mediterranean. The flow of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea into southern Europe represents a significant challenge for our European allies. It has significant consequences for their national security. And the President pointed out it wasn’t just their national security that was at risk, but the U.S. national security is affected as well. So we certainly have a stake in their ability to resolve that situation.
I don’t have anything to announce, and the President certainly didn’t have anything to announce in the aftermath of those meetings, but I think that should be a pretty clear indication to you that the United States is prepared to offer our support as they work to find an appropriate solution.
What’s also true is the President did take advantage of the opportunity with some of strongest our allies in the world sitting around the same table to make clear that we all need to follow through on commitments that we’ve made as it relates to funding our defense capacities. There was a commitment that was made by our NATO allies a couple of years ago at the NATO meeting in the U.K., I believe, where each of the countries of NATO committed to dedicating 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. The United States far exceeds that goal. Our allies in the U.K. have met that goal, but too many others haven’t. And the President reminded all of them of the importance of meeting that goal, particularly in the face of threats from ISIL, a migration flow in southern Europe that is potentially destabilizing, and a steady increase in provocations from the Russians.
This is exactly the wrong time for our closest allies in the world to be insufficiently funding their defense capabilities. It’s only by working together — that’s the essence of an alliance — working together and adequately funding our capacity to work together is the way for us to provide for our mutual defense. And the President certainly did make that case to his partners and our allies in the context of that meeting and other meetings that he’s convened with them in recent months and years.
Q Is it fair to say that the President might be reluctant to deploy U.S. assets, should he see that Europeans are not willing to put their own assets on the line as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point of setting this two percent goal is ensuring that when a situation does arise that requires a commitment of resources, that our partners have the capacity to follow through on those commitments.
Q Sorry, I was specifically talking about the central Mediterranean.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, okay. I mean, as it relates to that specific situation, we’re obviously going to work closely with our European allies as they consider an appropriate response. But the President I think was pretty blunt in saying that the potential impact of the situation there doesn’t just have an impact on national security in Europe, it has an impact on the national security of the United States. And I think that would signal to you that the United States is prepared to actively support our European allies as they confront this challenge.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to extend the conversation about the NSC that you had, in particular acknowledging that National Security Advisor Rice has, in fact, trimmed her staff. Tell me about Mac Thornberry’s suggestion that the NSC could be cut significantly more than that — is he off-base? And if so, how?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think even just the conversation in the briefing today is a useful illustration of the wide range of threats and challenges that is being confronted by our national security professionals every day. And ensuring that the Commander-in-Chief has access to the information and judgment of his advisors not just here in the White House but across a variety of national security agencies is critically important.
There are a number of diplomatic and — well, let me say it this way: One way to ensure effective decision-making is to effectively coordinate the actions of all of the different agencies that are involved in protecting the country. And that is essentially the core function of the National Security Council — to make sure that all of these agencies who have significant responsibilities related to national security are effectively coordinated so that they can provide effective advice and information to the President of the United States, but also so that decisions that are made by the President of the United States are effectively implemented by that wide array of agencies.
So given the risks that we are — the wide range of risks that this country is confronting right now, it shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that there is a robust structure in place, here at the White House, to make sure that these decisions are made and implemented effectively.
Q And yet there has been criticism by some former Defense Secretaries that the West Wing is effectively trying to override, for lack of a more descriptive word, the intentions of the Pentagon, for example. In fact, one said, all too often they were subject to second-guessing, even to direct conversations of commanders on the ground, coming from the NSC. Is that the proper role?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think that it’s probably true over the course of our nation’s history that every Secretary of Defense has expressed some frustration about working with the White House. That is a built-in part of being part of the government. That’s also part of being part of the chain of command. And I think the President is proud — I can tell you confidently that the President is proud of the performance of the Secretaries of Defense that have served under him. He certainly is proud of the performance of Secretary Carter. It doesn’t mean that he’s taken their advice every time. He hasn’t. He’s the President of the United States. They’re the Secretary of Defense. It’s their responsibility to offer up their advice.
He surely has taken their advice more often than not, and I think a lot of our frustration actually stems from Congress refusing to take the advice of our Secretaries of Defense over the years. And whether that is failing to pass an authorization to use military force, something that our Secretaries of Defense have strongly advocated, our Secretaries of Defense — I think all of them — have actually time and again gone to Congress and asked for spending reforms that would save taxpayers money and make our national defense stronger. But yet, those reforms have not been implemented.
So there is a strong record of this White House working effectively with leaders of the military, civilian and military, at the Department of Defense to implement policies that have made the country safer. And the President is certainly proud of the service of his Secretaries of Defense, and he’s certainly proud of the way those decisions and the implementation of those policies has made our country safer.
Q Just to put a finer point on it, some of the suggestion was that the NSC is meddling — sort of they’ve got his ear ahead of his direct Cabinet Secretaries.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I just disagree. I think the President carefully considered the advice that he received from each of his Secretaries of Defense. He valued that advice, and it played an important role as he made critically important policy decisions throughout this presidency.
Q Last one. The President has done well in communicating with young voters. There is a sense in 2016, a greater sense of disenfranchisement — that the process is rigged. You’ve heard that both on the Republican and on the Democratic side, and in particular some young voters feel like the fix is in. What would the President say to young voters, in particular as we get closer to the conventions, about the process that they’re seeing here in 2016?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President’s message to young voters is the message that he has for all Americans, which is simply that casting a vote is the most effective and powerful way to have your voice heard. The President has talked about this most frequently I think in the context of the debate about gun safety. The President has been greatly frustrated, profoundly frustrated at repeated congressional inaction and obstruction when it comes to common-sense gun-safety bills. And the President I think has been pretty blunt about the fact that he doesn’t expect that environment in Congress to change until voters make their voices heard and until voters make clear that this is something that is a priority to them.
So the President wasn’t signaling that this environment would change if some billionaire started a super PAC. It’s possible that could be the case, but there have already been super PACs created by billionaires that have tried to make this change that haven’t succeeded, at least as much as we would like them to. The way that this will get fixed, the way that we’ll see common-sense legislation passed that doesn’t undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans is when voters across the country make clear that this is a priority to them. And they can do that in only one way, and that’s by casting their votes accordingly. And I think that’s a powerful message about the responsibility that citizens in every party of every age all across the country has to contribute to our democracy and to make our country great.
Q Let me ask one on Chief Judge Garland. Any new activities coming down on him?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he is doing a handful of meetings today. He is meeting with Senator Rounds of South Dakota and Senator Nelson of Florida. He’s also doing a meeting with Senators Lankford and Inhofe of Oklahoma.
I point this out because we also saw some interesting comments for former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn yesterday — maybe it was earlier today that he made these comments. He was often referred to as the conscience of the Senate, and he made clear, in his typical avuncular style, that the Senate should do its job, and that there’s no excuse for Republicans refusing to consider voting on the nomination of Chief Judge Garland.
I don’t think that he was vowing to vote for Chief Judge Garland if he were still in the Senate, but he was saying he would at least do his job. He would meet with the Chief Judge, and he would stand up before the American people and cast a vote. Obviously we would make a strong case to him that Chief Judge Garland is deserving of his support, but there is no denying, there’s no argument, even among people who disagree with the administration, about the wisdom of appointing Chief Judge Garland to the Supreme Court — that at the very least, the President’s nominee deserves a hearing and a vote.
And hopefully that counsel from the former Republican senator of Oklahoma will have an influence over the current Republican senators from Oklahoma.
Q Thanks, Josh. When the President was in London, he said that, on Syria, that we’d looked at all the options and none of them are great. I’m wondering if the President has asked his Defense Department for any options that would make it more difficult for the Assad regime to kill as many civilians as it has, something short of a full occupation, but something that would make it more difficult for the Assad regime that seems to have pretty much carte blanche to kill civilians. Has the President asked for any options that would specifically deal with that without going as far as a full no-fly zone or a full occupation in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I guess I would just tell you that you should take the President at his word that he has directed his team to consider all options about the best way for the United States to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL and to do it in a way that is consistent with our national security interests and our objectives.
Conducting another ground invasion of another Middle Eastern country is not in our interest. We’ve learned the lessons of the previous war in Iraq. We know that we’ve got the best military in the world — primarily because the United States has the best sailors and soldiers and Marines and airmen in the world. But risking their lives to go occupy another country, put them in harm’s way, and to spend billions of dollars — hundreds of billions of dollars to risk their lives, thinking that we can impose a military solution on another country is foolish.
That’s not a criticism of our military. It’s a criticism of policymakers who have failed to understand the consequences of making a decision like that.
So the President and the national security advisors and policymakers on his team are aware of those consequences and they have considered all of those consequences as they’ve looked for the best way for us to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL and bring about the kind of political transition inside of Syria that is long overdue. And we’re going to continue to press the Russians to use the influence that they have with the Assad regime to bring an end to the violence and engage in talks about a political transition. We’re going to continue to marshal the other influential countries in the region to encourage the opposition to engage constructively in those negotiations.
Ultimately, it’s a political solution that’s required. President Assad’s failed political leadership is the root cause of all of these problems, and the only way we’re going to solve them is to allow for a political transition to a new leader that reflects the will and ambition of the Syrian people, that has the capacity to unite that country to counter the extremist threat that has encroached on their territory.
And I wouldn’t make the case to you that that’s a simple solution. It certainly is not a solution that we’re likely to see be imposed overnight. But it is the only solution that will achieve the objectives that the President has outlined.
Q The President also said that we’re going to play this option out if the cessation falls apart, the U.S. going to try to put it together, and I think that stands in a bit of a contrast to folks who were talking about a plan B earlier on in this process. And I’m wondering if there still is a plan B. Is that something that the President and his advisors are still looking at in terms of what to do if the cessation falls apart?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I think this is exactly what the President was answering when he said he and his advisors have looked at all of the options and that none of them are good, and the United States is committed to supporting the international process to bring about a political transition inside of Syria.
Look, even the Russians have indicated that they believe a political transition is what’s required. So it’s just going to require the international community continuing to chip away at this problem and try to bring all the parties to the table and jumpstart this process. But there’s no denying how difficult that is or how long it’s likely to take.
Q A few more on Mr. Trump. You say you have better things to do than to watch or listen to the speech. Is that indicative of the point of view of the White House generally? In other words, how seriously does this White House take the foreign policy or the lack thereof of Mr. Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s indicative of the substantive questions I expected to receive in the context of this briefing, so I certainly take seriously my responsibility to try to prepare for it.
Look, I think what I said is true, is that the American people will carefully consider the presentations of candidates in both parties and they’ll be watching closely, particularly when making a decision as important as who should be the Commander-in-Chief.
So in some ways, it doesn’t really matter whether or not, in my context as a White House spokesperson, I spend a lot of time watching the speeches delivered by other candidates. I suppose that it does matter in the context of me as a voter. But in this case, the American people will have an opportunity to decide.
Q — the President himself — Mr. Trump, after all, is the man who calls himself the presumptive Republican nominee. How seriously does the President take this speech? I don’t think he had time to watch it because of a lunch with the Vice President, but how will he be informed of it, and how interested is he in what was actually said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the one candidate that you named has certainly not struggled to get attention from all of you. And the President, as somebody who is an avid consumer of the media — as you’ve heard me observe on a number of occasions — so he certainly is aware of the debate that’s going on in the presidential race on both sides. And you won’t have any — again, given the amount of attention that’s been lavished on a couple of these candidates, the President doesn’t have any trouble keeping up to speed on what they’re saying.
Q One more, and I’ll try and make it substantive. When Donald Trump says he wants to bring peace to the world, what do you make of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is that President Obama, over the course of his presidency, has worked to unite the international community to confront a wide range of threats. And that is everything from uniting the international community, to completing an agreement to fight climate change. That is making the American people safer. And that is evidence of the United States using our influence to work with China and other countries with large economies to make an agreement like this possible.
This is also true when it comes to Iran and their nuclear program. As I mentioned, when President Obama took office, the international community was fractured in terms of considering how exactly to confront Iran in their nuclear ambitions. But President Obama demonstrated the leadership that was required to unite the international community behind a strategy that would impose sanctions on Iran until they came to the table and committed in a verifiable fashion to not pursuing a nuclear weapon. That’s exactly what we’ve done. That has also made the world safer.
At the same time, the President has not hesitated to order military action where necessary to protect the American people. President Obama after all — we’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of President Obama deciding to order our military to go after Osama bin Laden. And because of the bravery and courage and dedication of our national security professionals, including our men and women in uniform, that operation was successful. And that certainly has enhanced our national security and made the American people safer. That’s just one example of countless military operations that President Obama as a Commander-in-Chief has ordered to take terrorists off the battlefield.
And again, it’s a testament to the bravery, courage and professionalism and skill of our men and women in uniform that those operations have taken a large number of terrorists off the battlefield. That has made the American people safer. That’s made the world a safer place. But there continue to be threats. And the President’s success in strengthening our alliances and strengthening our partnerships around the world, building a coalition of 65 nations to counter ISIL, including a number of Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East, have all been advances that have enhanced our standing in the world and enhanced our national security. And so the President’s record on those issues is quite strong, and to the extent that anybody wants to have a debate about that, the President will not shy away from it.
Q Has the White House been in touch with former Senator Coburn about the nomination?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any — I certainly don’t know of any presidential-level conversations with former Senator Coburn about Chief Judge Garland’s nomination.
Q Any sub-presidential talks?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Do you know of any sub-presidential-level talks?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any off the top of my head, but I wouldn’t rule them out either.
Q One other thing. There’s a House subcommittee tomorrow that’s holding a hearing on the President’s plan to transfer Gitmo detainees to the U.S. There’s going to be some local officials from South Carolina — Governor Haley and some people from Kansas testifying in opposition to the plan, calling it dangerous. At this point, do you see any encouraging signs that Congress will take up your plan and move forward on it this year? Or it is a dead-end?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s unclear. There’s no evidence I can point to. I think I would just point out that there are national security professionals on both sides who think that it’s dangerous to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open and that the proposal that the President has put forward is actually that makes us safer.
Just to go back to your previous question, even though I don’t know of any conversations between White House or administration officials and former Senator Coburn, obviously Senator Coburn was a pretty conservative Republican, and his personal affection for President Obama is well-known and certainly transcends their partisan differences, but I don’t have any reason to believe that he was communicating anything other than his own personal view with his own personal conviction about how important it is for the Senate to vote on Chief Judge Garland’s nomination because it’s their constitutional responsibility to do so.
John, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, Josh. When the President met with Chancellor Merkel, did they have any discussions — as we were previously led to expect — about the continuing and rising economic crisis in Greece, as well as the refugee crisis?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any more details to share in terms of their private conversation. But I think I can just say as a general matter that there are a range of issues that were discussed that have a direct impact on the unity of the EU. And obviously questions about the economy and the financial health of the European Union is something that was discussed, but I don’t know in how much detail they discussed the situation in Greece.
Q And is there any concern within the White House about what appears to be an obvious deadlock between the creditors over the Greek debt situation and the International Monetary Fund?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any detailed knowledge of those ongoing discussions. Obviously we’re very supportive of the efforts that members of the EU have made to deal with the financial challenges posed by Greece’s finances. Part of that agreement included Greece following through on a number of structural reforms, and we certainly believe that Greece has a responsibility to do that. But we’ve been clear all along that effective coordination among Greece and the other EU was going to be critical to resolving that situation in a way that didn’t undermine the fundamentals of the European economy.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:36 P.M. EDT