White House Press Briefing by Josh Earnest, April 29, 2015

Washingotn, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 29, 2015 – 1:012 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you.  It’s very quiet and calm in here today.  Why don’t we see if we can keep it that way.  (Laughter.) 

Q    We’d your appreciate your efforts.

MR. EARNEST:  I will.  I will reciprocate.  Let me do one quick announcement, Nedra, and then we’ll go to questions.

The President, earlier today, spoke with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal to convey the deep condolences of the American people for the loss of life and massive destruction caused by the April 25th earthquake in Nepal.  They discussed the ongoing efforts by U.S. civilian and military personnel to assist the government of Nepal and international organizations in the disaster response efforts, including with rescue and logistics support.  The President pledged the United States will do all it can to help the people of Nepal in this time of need.

So with that, Nedra, let’s go to your questions.

Q    I’d like to ask you about body cameras.  Hillary Clinton gave a speech today responding to Baltimore in which she said she would go further than the President and not just give matching funds for body cameras, but that she’d like to see every police department in the country have body cameras.  I know his request for funds were not granted by Congress, but would he also like to see every police department have body cameras?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, the President does believe that there’s a possibility that body-worn cameras by police officers could be a useful tool both in protecting police officers and protecting members of the public.  The Department of Justice, later this week, will be talking about a pilot body-worn camera grant program, and they’ll have some more details on that soon.  There were additional funds that were requested by the Obama administration in our budget proposal that was released earlier this year.

The one thing that was included in the set of recommendations from the task force was a proposal for a $75 million investment in body-worn cameras over the next three years.  This would assist local jurisdictions in the purchase of 50,000 body-worn cameras. 

The thing that we have said when discussing this issue is that there is not a strong body of evidence to this point about what impact body-worn cameras actually have.  The little evidence that does exist does indicate that they could positively contribute to relations between police officers and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  I know of one particular study that indicated that police officers who were wearing body-worn cameras were much less likely to be involved in confrontations with members of the community.  So that’s one preliminary piece of evidence that would indicate that body-worn cameras could be helpful in this regard.

But the task force recommendations and some of the funds from the Department of Justice will go toward actually studying the impact of body-worn cameras and gathering more evidence to try to assess with more specificity what impact the use of body-worn cameras has on relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect.

Q    So given that lack of evidence, does the President believe it’s premature right now to call for every department to have body cameras?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what the President believes is that we should expand funding and we should — the federal government should play a role in assisting local jurisdictions who are interested in making that kind of investment, making it more financially feasible for them to do so.  We also believe that the use of body-worn cameras is something that merits additional study, and we’re dedicating resources to doing that as well.

Q    She also says funds for local law enforcement should be used to focus on best practices instead of putting, what she called, “weapons of war” onto the streets.  You here have said that the President doesn’t want to push for repeal of the programs for military-style equipment.  So is she wrong about that, to voice opposition to those programs?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m detecting a little pattern in your questioning today — probably not the first time that this line of questioning will be pursued.

What we have said — what the President has said about this is that there are some situations in which the legitimate use of this kind of equipment can be valuable in assisting local law enforcement agencies in keeping the peace and responding to the needs of members of their community.  The initial review of this program did indicate there may be some situations in which law enforcement agencies didn’t have sufficient training to use the equipment that they’d received.  And so this is something that we are — that, again, is continuing to be reviewed here.

Q    I want to follow up on some of the hostage policy questions that we had earlier this week, and just ask, would the President support or oppose changing the law so that families cannot be prosecuted for paying ransoms?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific policy announcements to make at this point.  We’ve been very clear about what the official policy is of the United States government, which is a policy that has been in place under both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and that policy prohibits making concessions to terrorist organizations. 

And the concern is twofold.  One is, making those kinds of concessions by paying ransom could only put additional American citizens at even greater risk.  And the second is that we already know that there are terrorist organizations that essentially finance their terror activities through ransom payments.  And so one way we can effectively shut off financing for extremist organizations is to make sure they aren’t getting ransom payments.  And that is the policy of the U.S. government, and one that this administration has enforced.

As it relates to sort of the legal standing of efforts by families of hostages, I don’t have any new position to announce at this point.

Roberta.

Q    I want to ask about trade.  The President was scheduled to have lunch today with Leader Pelosi.  Did he plan to discuss the trade legislation with her?  And what other meetings with lawmakers is the President having this week on trade?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the President’s lunch with Leader Pelosi is ongoing right now.  I don’t anticipate that we’re going to have a detailed readout of that lunch once it’s concluded.  It would be fair for you to assume that the President and the Democratic Leader in the House are discussing an array of legislative priorities for the President, and that certainly would include trade promotion authority legislation.  But I don’t anticipate that we’ll have a detailed readout of their lunch.

There is one additional legislative engagement that I can tell you about at this point, that tomorrow the President will be meeting with members of the New Democrat Coalition.  These are Democrats in the House, many of whom are supporters of the President’s efforts to reach a trade agreement.  So I don’t know that we’ll have a particularly detailed readout of that meeting, but we’ll let you know.  That’s a meeting that’s scheduled to take place tomorrow.

Q    Is it going to be here?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s happening here at the White House, that’s correct.

Q    And Senator Portman is expected to push for enforceable currency manipulation language in the TPA when the bill comes up before the full Senate.  And I’m wondering if you can say whether the President would veto a TPA bill that included that language?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have expressed our concerns about a legislative approach similar to this.  And our concern principally is that legislation like that could unfairly and unwisely bind the hands of our monetary policymakers in this country as they pursue a strategy that’s consistent with the strength and growth of our economy.  So what the President has said is that we’re going to insist that other countries, when it comes to currency, that they play fairly.  And we have addressed currency issues in a wide range of international meetings, including at the G7, the G20 and the IMF, and we’ve seen that some of those engagements have had a positive impact.

So, in particular, China’s exchange rate is up nearly 30 percent on a real effective basis since 2010.  So that is at least one specific measurable impact that we can point to when talking about the effective advocacy of the United States in insisting that other countries level the playing field when it comes to their currency.

I think the other point that I would mention relates to our Japanese friends, who were just here at the White House yesterday — that the Japanese have not intervened in the foreign exchange market for more than three years.  And there previously had been some concerns about the impact of the monetary approaches that they were pursuing.  And again, I think that is another piece of evidence that I can point to that indicates that the administration, using effective tools and our international influence, can go to great lengths to level the playing field for the American economy, for American workers, and American businesses. 

Again, I think it’s the view of the President that reaching a trade agreement like the one that we are trying to hammer out with 10 or 11 other countries in the Asia Pacific region would allow us to further level that playing field, and remove tariff barriers, stronger intellectual property protections, raising standards for workers in an enforceable way, raising environmental standards in an enforceable way — that these are all elements of an agreement that would level the playing field for American businesses and American workers. 

And the President continues to have full confidence that if we can level the playing field, that American businesses and American workers are going to be very well positioned to win the long-term economic competition that’s shaping up in this prosperous — increasingly prosperous and dynamic region of the world.

Michelle.

Q    Yesterday, it surprised plenty of people I think when the President used the words “thugs and criminals” to describe some of the people in Baltimore.  And since then there has been some sharp criticism from leaders in the black community of the President’s use of that word, some analysts saying that when it falls on black ears, it’s, to some, the equivalent of using the N-word.  And we heard that on our air.

But when the President did the interview with Steve Harvey that aired this morning, it was almost a repeat of his press conference yesterday, except he left that word out.  So is that an indication that the administration feels that maybe that wasn’t the best use of terms yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t think the President would in any way revise the remarks that he shared with all of you in the Rose Garden.  The fact of the matter is the vast majority of people who were expressing their concern about the treatment of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody have done so in a responsible way.  These are individuals — black and white, I would point out — that have, in the mind of the President, legitimate concerns. After all, that is exactly why the Department of Justice is reviewing the facts of that situation. 

I know that local officials are engaged in a review, as well, to determine what exactly happened and whether or not any misconduct occurred, and whether criminal charges are necessary.

I wouldn’t weigh in on that.  That’s obviously going to be a decision that’s made by independent prosecutors, as it should be. But what’s also true, and what did get the lion’s share of the coverage out of Baltimore were the actions of a small minority that were nothing short of criminal actions.  And whether it’s arson or the looting of a liquor store, those were thuggish acts. And I think the President felt it was important, and continues to think it’s important, to draw a clear distinction between those actions and the efforts of the vast majority of people in that community to draw attention to the legitimate concerns that they have about the treatment of Freddie Gray and what they perceive to be some broader problems that may exist or — well, frankly, that do exist in the relationship between some communities in Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

Q    So for the President to use all the same phrases in virtually a recap of the press conference yesterday this morning, but to specifically leave out that word, you don’t think that that was deliberate?

MR. EARNEST:  I assure you that it was not.

Q    Okay.  And also, on this move by Senator McConnell to reauthorize the Patriot Act without revising Section 215 on the mass collection of data, does the President want to change that? Would he support something like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, for almost a year and a half now, has been calling on Congress to enact important changes to the FISA Act — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — that enhance privacy and better safeguard our civil liberties while keeping our nation safe.  And the President has been clear that he believes that we should end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism that would preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government being responsible for holding the bulk data.

Now, I can tell you that we are gratified that some of those reforms are included in a recent piece of legislation that has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.  And we’re going to continue to review the text of that bill before we render a final judgment on it, but it certainly is encouraging that Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate that share the President’s commitment to implementing those kinds of reforms have codified that into a piece of legislation. 

Now, what’s also true is that the deadline for renewing the PATRIOT Act is coming up in about a month, and we are hopeful that Democrats and Republicans can work together to implement the reforms the President has articulated that he believes are necessary while at the same time preserving the capability of our law enforcement officials and our intelligence professionals to take the steps that are necessary to keep the American people safe.

And so we are hopeful, and are going to be working closely with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to try to advance this bipartisan legislation that is clearly in the best interest of the country.

Q    But if this is fast-tracked without any reforms would the President then veto that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, what we’re most gratified by right now is the bipartisan progress that’s made in pursuit of some reforms that includes the renewal of the PATRIOT Act.  The proposal, the clean renewal that has been put forward by Senator McConnell does not include those reforms.  And the President was quite definitive about the need to make those kinds of reforms a top priority.

Q    But we shouldn’t see that as a veto threat at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think at this point, you should see that as the President and the administration seeking to work in bipartisan fashion with members of the House and members of the Senate to incorporate reforms that protect the civil liberties of the American people while ensuring that our intelligence and national security officials have the tools that they need to keep us safe.

All right?  Pamela.

Q    One of the recommendations of the policing task force was that police departments should not be investigating themselves.  And that’s apparently what’s happening in Baltimore. Is there any concern here that the report that they come out with will not be viewed as legitimate by the community and could cause more problems?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to prejudge an ongoing investigation, so we’ll allow those individuals to — the investigators to do their work.  Let me just point out two things.  The first is that there’s also a Department of Justice review of the facts that’s underway as well, and that is a review, an investigation that’s being conducted by career prosecutors and they have an important role in this.  And we’ll let them do their work, too, before we prejudge the outcome.

The second thing is — and the President I think was pretty direct about this in his robust answer in the Rose Garden yesterday in making clear that he believes that the vast majority of police officers who go to work every day to try to keep the peace and, in fact, are willing to put their lives on the line to try to protect the communities that they serve are people who are in that line of work for the right reason, and in fact, many times they’re doing heroic work.  They’re certainly doing the kind of work that is worthy of our honor and respect.

And as the President intimated yesterday in his answer, he believes that it’s clearly in the interest of all law enforcement professionals to ensure that those agencies and those individual officers are keeping faith with the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  And when there are individual officers who fall short of that, it’s important that that be acknowledged and that the justice system be allowed to work the way that it was intended.

Q    But it wouldn’t be better to have an independent person or police agency come in and look at it?

MR. EARNEST:  The fact is, right now there is still an ongoing investigation, and I wouldn’t want to say anything that would get ahead of or even leave you with the appearance or anyone with the appearance that we’re trying to influence the outcome of that investigation one way or the other.  So I’ll reserve judgment on that.  And I think — the fact is, I think that that’s something that can be more appropriately evaluated after that investigation has concluded.

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The White House yesterday started putting out veto threats on some of the appropriations bills.  And you’ve often said you’d like to see Ryan-Murray-style negotiations going on.  Do you see those actually coming together?  And who do you see in those roles?  Who is Ryan and who is Murray this year?   

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe we could feature Paul Ryan and Patty Murray as themselves in this feature-length film.   Well, I know that this is something — this is a sentiment that even Speaker Boehner has expressed, and we certainly were gratified to see him say something along those lines at the end of last week, I believe that was.

One of the reasons that that process succeeded both in finding common ground, making smarter decisions, at least, about what the federal budget priorities should look like, and finding a compromise that the President could sign is that it involved Democrats and Republicans working together, and it involved Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate trying to find that common ground, and doing so with the full engagement and support of the administration. 

And I think that was the key to that success, was that essentially you had Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate that were committed to trying to find that common ground, and you had engagement from the administration that supported those ongoing efforts. 

So, ultimately, members of Congress and probably leaders in Congress from both parties are going to have to decide who will play those important roles.  But if they do begin to move down this road in a constructive fashion, they can anticipate the full engagement and support of the administration in pursuit of that bipartisan compromise.

Justin.

Q    I wanted to ask about GDP.  This is the second straight quarter where GDP growth has mixed expectations, and today, kind of dramatically so.  I know that Jason obviously put a statement out earlier explaining some of it, attributing it to foreign demand and to weather.  But is there any concern among the White House that the recovery is really slowing down at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I think the first thing that’s worth pointing out is that when we get this kind of data, the thing that we are quick to review are the longer-term trends and what impact the immediate data has in the context of the broader trend.  And even incorporating this latest data, the GDP has grown by 3 percent over the last year.  And that does reflect the kind of economic strength that we see across a range of other economic metrics.  And that GDP growth is actually 50 percent faster than at some earlier stages of the ongoing economic recovery.  So that’s an indication that our economy continues to have some important momentum.

At the same time, there clearly were some headwinds that our economy was dealing with, and I think the most significant of this, as Jason Furman pointed out in his blog post — Jason is the President’s top economist — he indicated that one of the contributors to the disappointing GDP number is the weak demand overseas for American goods.  Some of that is, again, as Jason pointed out, is a result of the strong dollar.  But in the President’s mind, it highlights the need for the United States to engage in the kinds of trade agreements that are going to open up American goods and services to more markets and allow Americans goods and services to more deeply penetrate those markets.  And it would take away some of the barriers and hurdles that you have to overcome in order to do business overseas. 

Ninety-five percent of the world’s markets are beyond our borders.  And that’s why the President has been so tenacious in trying to pursue the kinds of agreements that are clearly in the best interest of American workers and American businesses.

The legitimate concern that the President has is that the refusal on the part of the United States to engage in these kinds of talks and agreements only opens up an avenue for China to step in and write the rules of the road in a way that is disadvantageous to American businesses, American workers, and the broader American economy.

So for those sort of wondering why has the President made the Trans-Pacific Partnership such an economic priority, I think we’d point to the recent GDP numbers as an indication of why it’s important for us to be vigilant about seeking out opportunities for American businesses overseas.

Q    And trailing off of that, I know that some of the big issues that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe were hoping to discuss yesterday was differences that exist on TPP, specifically on autos and rice.  And so I’m wondering if there were any breakthroughs or if you can report any progress on that. 

And then also, I know I asked you a couple days ago about whether the President would raise the issue of comfort women and trying to sort of satisfy some of South Korea’s concerns.  I don’t think the Prime Minister did that, but I’m wondering if President Obama ever raised the issue.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I don’t have a more detailed readout of the meeting between the two leaders than you’ve already received.  I can tell you that, as they stated in the Rose Garden, that they did feel as if they had a productive discussion about some of the remaining issues that need to be negotiated when it comes to the TPP, and they are hopeful that the kind of momentum that they are feeling at their back to resolve those issues can be carried over the broader TPP negotiations, and as the two largest economies that are involved in those talks, that they can push this agreement across the finish line.  But there is still some important work to be done, and I don’t have any breakthroughs to report at this point.

As it relates to the comfort women, I saw that the Prime Minister addressed this yesterday in the Rose Garden.  I don’t —

Q    I’m asking if the President —

MR. EARNEST:  And I don’t, frankly, know whether it came up in their private conversation.

Tamara.

Q    The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the FBI facilitated a ransom payment to al Qaeda by Warren Weinstein’s family.  And I’m wondering how that fits with the U.S. policy.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Tamara, I haven’t see the story that you’re talking about.  Did it just —

Q    It just crossed.

MR. EARNEST:  It just crossed?  Okay.  All I’ll say is we’ll look into this for you a little bit further.  It sounds like maybe you should have a conversation with the FBI about it, too, if they’re so prominently featured in the story.

But I’ll tell you that the policy that’s been in place throughout the six years of the Obama administration and that was in place during the previous administration as well is one that continues to be in place right now, and that is specifically that the United States government will not make concessions to terrorists.  To do so would only put American citizens at greater risk and would serve to allow terrorist organizations to better finance their ongoing violence.

Q    And I know we’ve been over this before, but are you drawing a distinction between the U.S. government and U.S. families of people held hostage?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, those are two different things, but there are relevant laws that apply to both.  But our policy on this hasn’t changed.

Kevin.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  You guys are used to battling the opposition on a number of issues, and yet, as it relates to trade now and even the Iranian negotiations, you may have to do a bit of jousting with Democrats that are usually on your side.  Does the President look forward to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the President looks forward to trying to find common ground on a couple of really important issues facing the country.  And certainly the President relishes the opportunity to try to work with Democrats and Republicans to advance a trade promotion authority bill that will allow us to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that would clearly be in the best interests of American businesses and American workers. 

There’s an opportunity for us to reach a trade agreement that would put in place enforceable labor provisions, enforceable environmental protections, significant provisions related to human rights, intellectual property protections, other things that would level the playing field and allow American businesses the opportunity to do business in the Asia Pacific region on a level playing field.  And the President continues to be confident that if given that level playing field that American businesses and American workers are well positioned to do very well in that kind of international economic competition.

Q    But is it a tougher sell to fellow Democrats to try to bring them on board for tough issues like the Iranian nuclear deal, for example, or even the trade deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been clear that there is historic reflexive opposition among many in the Democratic Party to these kinds of international trade agreements, but the President has a very persuasive case that he can make to Democrats who might have that reflexive reaction. 

The fact is those same Democrats also have significant concerns about the way — about the impact that NAFTA had on communities all across the country.  And the case that the President has made pretty bluntly is that both Canada and Mexico are in the TPP negotiations, and that if we can reach an agreement through the TPP negotiations, it would include enforceable labor provisions that were not included in NAFTA.  It would include enforceable environmental protections that were not included in NAFTA — and that there is an opportunity for American businesses to have access to a substantial economic market that could be very good for their bottom line. 

So the President is going to continue to make this case.  And the other part of this argument is simply that those who are opposed to this kind of trade agreement are essentially suggesting that we should just lock in the status quo.  And the President doesn’t believe that that’s at all in the best interest of our economy and it’s certainly not in the best interest of middle-class workers across the country.

Q    Last thing, on the Iranians intercepting the Tigris.  How concerned is the White House about what the Iranian navy has been up to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, as of this morning, it is our understanding that the Maersk Tigris remains in the custody of the IRGC navy.  And we’re continuing to monitor the situation.  We have not, at this point, received any reports of injuries to crew members, and as we noted yesterday, according to information received from the vessel’s operators, there are no Americans onboard. 

This is obviously a situation that we continue to monitor because we are committed to, as we discussed at some length last week, committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waters, so we’re going to continue to monitor this situation.

Jon.

Q    Just to pick up on that, though, what does it say when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is seizing a U.S.-flagged ship when you’re in the middle of what should be final stages on these nuclear negotiations?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I believe it’s a Marshall Islands-flagged ship, which is a protectorate of the United States.  And, again, this is a situation that we’re closely monitoring because we do have a vested interest and a vested economic interest in preserving the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce in this sensitive region of the world.

Q    But, again, isn’t this a display of, at the very least, bad faith while these negotiations are going on to be seizing clearly what is a commercial vessel?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, without speaking directly to this incident, we have in the past talked about the wide range of concerns that we have with Iranian behavior.  And our view is that a nuclear-armed Iran only makes their bad behavior even more dangerous.  And so to bring it back to this particular example, our concerns about the interference with the Maersk Tigris would be even more acute if an Iranian-armed — I’m sorry, a nuclear-armed Iranian navy were conducting these kinds of intercepts.

Q    They can do a lot of damage without nuclear weapons, can’t they?  In fact, they are, throughout the region, doing a lot of damage without nuclear weapons.

MR. EARNEST:  We have expressed a lot of concerns about the destabilizing activity of the Iranians.  And whether that is supporting the Houthis, whether that is continuing to prop up the Assad regime or engage in offering support for terror activities, we’ve seen Iranian support for Hezbollah, of course, and the destabilizing impact that that has had on a variety of countries in the Middle East.  We’ve got a lot of concerns with Iranian behavior but, again, if Iran had a nuclear weapon and they were supporting the Assad regime or if Iran had a nuclear weapon and they were supporting Hezbollah, our concerns about their support for — just to take those two entities — we’d be much more alarmed about that.

Q    Would the administration be willing to impose sanctions on Iran for issues beyond the — additional sanctions on Iran for issues beyond the nuclear program?  So in other words, you get the nuclear deal, you lift all the sanctions that have been imposed because of the nuclear program.  Would the administration be open to imposing sanctions for activity like this in the Gulf of Hormuz — the Strait of Hormuz for terror activity in Yemen and Syria and Lebanon and Iraq?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as you point out, Jon, the nuclear deal that is under negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 contemplates a scenario where Iran would make serious commitments that would essentially shut down — that would effectively shut down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, in exchange for offering phased sanctions relief that were put in place as a result of their nuclear program.

What that means is it means that sanctions that are already in place against Iran for other activities — their weapons programs, violation of human rights — those sanctions remain in place.  And even if we do reach a nuclear deal, those other sanctions that are in place because of Iran’s other activities and Iran’s behavior in a variety of other areas will remain in place.

At this point I’m not going to offer up any — make any threats from here about the likelihood of imposing additional sanctions over this particularly incident.  But our approach to this is consistent — our approach to Iranian behavior is consistent with the approach that we’ve taken when it comes to sanctions, which is that we can have a conversation about their nuclear program, get them to make serious concessions when it comes to their nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief for those concessions, but that would have no impact on our concerns about their behavior in a variety of other areas, and would have no impact on the sanctions that are already in place against them as a result of their behavior in other areas.

Q    But I’m asking a broader question.  Sanctions are lifted because — sanctions related to the nuclear program are lifted.  There’s a lot of concern in the region from our allies. You hear concern on Capitol Hill expressed about this that suddenly the Iranians have tens of billions, even hundreds of billions of additional revenue because sanctions have been lifted and are now able to do even more — conduct — do even more mischief in the region.  Would the United States be willing to re-impose sanctions not on the nuclear — not for violations of the nuclear program but because of what they’re doing elsewhere in the region?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll just say that — again, I’m not in a position to make additional threats about additional sanctions from here right now.  But we are going to continue to monitor the Iranian activities that continue to be a source of significant concern on the part of the United States, but other countries in the region and around the world.

And just because — well, let me just say it this way.  Just because we reach an agreement on the nuclear concerns and we do reach an agreement that would shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, and we do offer some phased sanctions relief in exchange, it would not in any way diminish the likelihood that if Iran were to engage in worsening behavior in other areas, we would not at all be reluctant to impose additional sanctions on those other areas if we concluded that that would be in our best interest.

Q    And then, last question.  The Senate, of course, is debating the Corker bill.  Corker announced that he has a veto-proof majority.  He doesn’t really need it because you’ve endorsed the compromise bill.  But there are a whole series of amendments that are going to be voted on.  For instance, there’s an amendment that says before any sanctions are lifted, Iran would have to release those three Americans known to be in Iranian prisons.  What is the administration’s view on these amendments?  Are you saying that it is this deal or no deal?  Would we go back to a veto threat?  If, in this specific instance I just mentioned, an amendment passes that says first Iran needs to release those Americans, would you veto that bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, we certainly would — the President would certainly veto any amendment or any bill with an amendment that undermined the unanimous compromise that was reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or that interfered with the ongoing negotiations.  And certainly a provision and amendment that made this nuclear deal contingent on Iran’s release of those three American citizens would fall, I think, frankly, into both categories.  It would directly undermine the unanimous compromise that was reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it certainly would interfere with the ongoing negotiations between the international community and Iran on their nuclear program.

Q    So the President would veto that?

MR. EARNEST:  So those kinds of amendments that are added to the bill that undermine the unanimous compromise or would interfere with the talks would earn a presidential veto.

And I think that — given, again, the unanimous vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I’m confident there would be strong support — or I guess strong opposition to those kinds of amendments, and then that opposition would — I would expect it to be bipartisan.  But this is a process that will have to play out.

Zeke.  Nice to see you today.

Q    Hey, Josh.  Good seeing you.  I was hoping you could give us an update on who in the White House is keeping an eye on what’s happening in Baltimore and in Maryland.  Valerie Jarrett was doing some of that yesterday.  Has the President reached out again to local leaders, local community leaders?  And is anyone going — traveling the 40-some-odd miles up there?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s no one from the White House that I know of that has travel plans for Baltimore at this point.  As you point out, Valerie Jarrett, the President’s senior advisor, has been in touch with state and local officials from Maryland.  And you noted that late in the day yesterday she convened a conference call with the Attorney General to discuss with local leaders in a variety of other communities our efforts to address the ongoing situation in Baltimore. 

I don’t have any new calls to read out at this point.  The President hasn’t made any new calls related to this.

Q    Governor Hogan said yesterday that he was expecting to speak to the President.  Is it possible that they did connect?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware that they connected.  We can check on that.  But, obviously, if Governor Hogan has an urgent need to speak to somebody here at the White House, he’ll get a return phone call.

I do want to point out that there have been senior Department of Justice officials who do have expertise in this particular area — did spend significant time in Baltimore yesterday.  So this is Vanita Gupta, who’s the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice; Ronald Davis, who’s the Director of the Community-Oriented Policing Office; and Grande Lum, who’s the Director of the Community Relations Service at the Department of Justice also spent time in Baltimore yesterday.  And I know that they continue to be in close touch with Baltimore officials as they deal with this matter.

Q    Circling back to the earlier conversation about body cameras, you said that there was a possibility that these could be useful in police-civilian interactions.  So are you saying that the expansion of that program nationally right now would be imprudent, that the White House thinks that that would be a potential waste of money, that it needs more study before it would be rolled out nationally?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t necessarily use that adjective.  I think what I would say is that we put forward a proposal to help local law enforcement agencies that make the decision to invest in body cameras — make that more financially feasible for them.  So we’re talking about $20 million or so from the Department of Justice.  There’s a three-year proposal that we have here.

And at the same time, we believe that some of those resources should be dedicated studying the impact that these cameras have on those kinds of interactions to determine exactly how effective they are in reducing violence and reducing the number of confrontations between police officers and members of the community.

Q    Does the White House think there’s a downside?  If there’s even a marginal benefit, why the delay?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t think it’s a matter of delay; I think it’s a matter of money.  And we would need some congressional action to get the resources that are necessary to expand this program even further.  And I noted that the President’s budget proposal that he rolled out just a couple months ago actually included a request for additional funds for this program. 

But at the same time, we feel like it would be prudent, to use your word, to more carefully examine the impact that body cameras would have on policing in communities across the country.

Major.

Q    A follow-up on Tamara’s question.  Are you shocked by this revelation that the FBI apparently facilitated a ransom payment in the Weinstein case?  Now, I know it just crossed, but my question is, would that shock you in any case?  Would that constitute the FBI ignoring specific policy guidance from this White House on the question of any American hostage in any perilous situation?

MR. EARNEST:  Major, I’m going to reserve comment on this until I’ve had a chance to look at the story and until I’ve had a chance to hear from the FBI about their explanation.

Q    Would it be wrong for me to conclude from that caution that you believe it’s possibly true?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the caution is rooted in my reluctance to talk about something that I don’t know about.

Q    Do you know about the specific guidance to every agency involved in this matter?

MR. EARNEST:  I do not.  I do not.

Q    There is no guidance about don’t facilitate?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know what the guidance is that the FBI is supposed to implement. 

Q    Yet, you come with a binder, State Department people come with binders.  When asked yesterday at the State Department, what is the situation with the Maersk, the State Department could not describe it.  Can you describe it?  Is it an act of piracy?  Is it a legal seizure?  Is it an illegal seizure?  What is going on, in the opinion of the U.S. government, with this Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel?

MR. EARNEST:  I think, Major, as we’ve discussed, I think it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  And that’s why we continue to monitor the situation closely to determine exactly why the IRGC took the steps that they took.  And we obviously do have concerns about the impact that it could have on the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in this region of the world.  That’s something that we have a vested interest in protecting.

Q    Is there anything, based on what this administration knows so far, that suggests that what happened is consistent in any way with the free flow of commerce?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, it’s unclear exactly why the Iranians have the taken the steps that they have, and that’s why we’re closely monitoring the situation.  And there are U.S. naval assets in the region, and there are a variety of ways that we can keep tabs on the situation there.

Q    But you don’t want to label it yet?  You don’t want to call it what you think it is?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, I think we need to gather some more information about what exactly happened and why it happened before we offer up a specific label.

Q    And we had a discussion last week and I asked you if, at that point, the administration was satisfied that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the foundation had complied with a memorandum of understanding and done everything in accordance with what the White House expectations were.  And you said it had.  But there’s been another story — 1,100 donors to the Clinton-Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative undisclosed.  Richard Lugar, who the President has — and I believe still does — hold in high regard, said that he, looking at that, believes that this did not meet the spirit or the intent of the memorandum of understanding. 

So let me ask you again.  Is the administration satisfied, is the President satisfied, that everything that was done met the standards of the memorandum of understanding and all the disclosures that should have been there were there?

MR. EARNEST:  Major, I think what I said last week is that there has been no evidence produced by even the Secretary’s most ardent partisan critics that the decisions that she made as Secretary of State were in any way influenced by anything that was done at the family’s foundation.

Q    Yes, but as we can revisit, I asked you specifically about compliance, if that satisfied the President.  And you said the compliance did satisfy the President; the President was proud of her service, and everything was done in accordance with his expectation.  I’m just asking you that question again.

Q    And I think even last week I was reluctant to talk about the specific compliance because the White House is not in a position to enforce that compliance. 

Q    It is in a position to render a judgment.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s the State Department’s responsibility to enforce and verify that compliance.  So that’s why I’ve referred questions to the State Department or to the family foundation when it comes specifically to that aspect of this question.

So what I can render judgment on is what I know about Secretary Clinton’s service as Secretary of State.  It was exemplary, and the President is proud of her service.  But when it comes to the specific memorandum in question, I’d refer you to the agency that was responsible for enforcing that memorandum, and that’s the State Department.

Q    One last thing.  The President often has talked, when issues of racial tension have come up, about how he perceives things, or tries to look at things as a father.  Toya Graham is being talked about as sort of a hero mom for her specific and videotaped interaction with her son in some of the more intense moments that occurred in Baltimore.  I’m just curious — has the President seen any of that?  Does he have any evaluation of it?  Does he believe it is something that adds to our understanding about the role of parents in situations like this?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t spoken to the President about this specific thing.  I do feel confident in hazarding a guess that he has seen the video.  The President, as he alluded to in the Rose Garden yesterday, does believe that there is a role for parents to play there in terms of setting guidelines and doing right by their kids.  He also pointed out that there are certain policies and certain situations where it’s virtually impossible for parents to do right by their kids.  And trying to confront those obstacles to responsible parenting is one thing that we all need to take responsibility for and not just pin that responsibility on police officers who already have a very difficult job.

But the President, even dating back to his first p0residential campaign — and you covered some of these events — remember that the President, in rather colorful fashion on occasion, talked about how important it is for parents to impose some guidelines and to impose some structure on their kids, and that that was going to be critical to their success, and that there is a lot, there’s a significant role for the government to play in terms of putting in place policies — like good schools, economic opportunity, early childhood education, even making sure that kids have good access to health care I think are in line with the kinds of things that the government can do to try to address some of these endemic problems. 

But the President also believes that we should not overlook the critically important role that parents can play in setting some guidelines and setting some structure for their kids to give them a chance to succeed.

Q    Based on your memory and my memory of that particular speech — and you, I’m sure, have seen the video, you have a hunch the President has seen it.  Without saying whether or not the President would have acted in a similar way or endorse Michelle asking in a similar way, do you think he would generally be okay with what he saw and this ultimate result, which was to discourage her son from participating further in the activity?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I — why don’t I just say it this way.  I think what resonated with me is — and he has got a lot more experience being a parent than I do, but let me just say what resonated with me —

Q    As do I.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  As do you.  So maybe we should hear what resonated with you.  But let me just say that the thing that resonated with me was her expression that she was concerned about her son facing the same fate as Freddie Gray.  And while I’m sure that it was not the immediate reaction of her son to feel like she was looking out for his best interest, there is no doubting that her reaction was one that was rooted in her concern for his safety and his well-being and her love for her child.  And I think that is a very powerful expression about the role that parents can play, that that expression of love was very conspicuous and one that I think will serve as a powerful influence on that young man’s life. 

And that same kind of passion and concern and love for the well-being of one’s child I do think is the kind of thing that can contribute to a young man or woman having the kind of opportunity to succeed that a lot of other kids don’t get.

Jared.

Q    Josh, the President yesterday in his answer on Baltimore explained at length that his agenda has a lot in it that he doesn’t expect Congress to pass.  And in your answer to Zeke a few minutes ago you also said that, look, this is in the budget but we don’t know what is actually going to get done.  In terms of actual actions for the next two years, what should we expect to see the President doing?  He was very eloquent yesterday, putting out the sense of deeper understanding of these issues, but, yet, what about actual actions?  Because there wasn’t — and maybe it wasn’t the place for it — a list of things that he’ll be doing over the next two years.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jared, there are at least a couple of things that come to mind.  The first is the President takes very seriously the recommendations that we got from the Policing Task Force.  And the President is hopeful, and he’s going to be counting on the Department of Justice and members of the task force to follow through on these recommendations, both to ensure that they are adequately implemented for federal law enforcement agencies, but also to ensure that local law enforcement agencies have the support and advice and guidance that they need to fully implement these measures at the local level, as well.

So I think that’s one thing that can be done right away, and is being done even as we speak.  The second thing is the President has talked a lot about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  This is an opportunity for the public and private sector to work together to try to serve as a positive influence on young men of color.  So many of the incidents that we’ve talked about that have gotten so much attention in the last several months are incidents involving young men of color, and it sort of highlights the special — it’s just one example, I guess, of the special challenges, unique challenges, that are faced by young men of color in this country. 

And this is an observation that not just the President has made — based in part on his own experience — but also an observation that’s been made by leaders in the private sector, leaders in academia, all of whom have articulated an interest in working with the federal government and, in some cases, state and local governments, to implement programs that will benefit young men of color.  That certainly would go to addressing some of the challenges that the President talked about yesterday.

The third thing that was a bit of a coincidence but still is an appropriate one is that across the administration there was a discussion about Promise Zones, that there were a number of communities across the country that were established as Promise Zones.  And these are areas where the efforts of the federal government will be integrated and focused on those communities that are in the greatest need.  And I think that is another example of how some common-sense steps can be taken to try to focus our efforts in particular on those communities that are in the greatest need.

Q    I know that’s not necessarily an exhaustive or representative sample, it’s just three off the top of your head. But is this kind of nibbling around the edges?  Because the President identified a deeper societal problem, and of those three that you mentioned, only really Promise Zones goes to the socio-economic inequality in a targeting-at-the-source kind of way.  With the Congress being the way it is for the next two years, do you see any opportunities to attack the deeper problem that the President described yesterday with legislation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jared, I think the President was pretty candid about this in his answer yesterday, that there are limitations, that there’s a majority in both houses of Congress right now that don’t seem to share his passion for these kinds of issues.  And there are some common-sense things that Congress could do that would have a near-term impact, and that’s everything from raising the federal minimum wage to offering tax credits, to make quality child care available to more families.  The President has a proposal for a second-earner tax credit.  Certainly for those families who are — both mom and dad are working, giving them a special tax break makes a lot of sense.  They probably have — they likely have greater needs when it comes to child care because both of them have jobs.

There are other things like free community college, expanding the earned income tax credit, and other things that the President has put on the table that doesn’t have the support from Republicans who are in the majority of both the House and the Senate, and unfortunately, legislation is required to take action on those two things.

The good news is that there are at least a couple of things that I can think of off the top of my head where there might be common ground, there might be some bipartisan support in Congress for these initiatives.  The first is infrastructure.  We’ve talked about how investments in infrastructure can create jobs in the short term, while laying the long-term foundation for economic strength. 

We know that in a lot of these communities where we’ve seen this kind of strife, these are communities that are in desperate need of upgraded infrastructure.  So we’re talking about improving the infrastructure in these communities, and doing so in a way that we’re creating good jobs.  There is bipartisan support in Congress for the concept of closing some tax loopholes and using the revenue to invest in infrastructure.  That could be one thing.

The second thing is there is bipartisan support — pretty broad bipartisan support — for criminal justice reform.  The President referred in his answer in the Rose Garden yesterday to the preponderance of minorities, many of them poor, who are serving long jail sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that they have committed.  Reforming our criminal justice system could address some of those situations where you have kids that are being raised by one parent because the other parent is in prison.

The last example I can cite is there has been some progress recently on education reform and on school reform.  We know that ensuring that our kids get a quality education can give them a good start and expand economic opportunities for them.  And there does seem to be emerging bipartisan support around some reform proposals in Congress, and we’ll obviously be supportive of those ongoing efforts. 

So I guess the point — to go back to your question, yes, there is a lot that we could do and there is a lot that the President would like to do.  And many of those things won’t be done because Republicans in the Congress oppose them, despite the positive economic impact they would have on communities across the country, including in these communities that we know are in the greatest need.  That said, there are some common-sense, bipartisan opportunities for us to make progress on policies, again, that will benefit the entire country but will also benefit these communities where we know a lot of work needs to get done.

Q    One last quick one, following up on Michelle’s question earlier.  You said that the President wouldn’t revise his comments specifically with the use of the word thugs — criminals and thugs.  And I just — in the context of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake saying that she was basically walking back that use, saying she doesn’t want to use loaded language, does this White House not think that that is a loaded word, that that is something that should be used with care?  Is that not something that’s on this White House’s radar?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’ll let you guys sort of decide what sort of — how those words get interpreted.  I think the President was pretty clear that the vast majority of people who were publicly expressing their concerns about the treatment of Freddie Gray were doing so in a responsible way that merits the attention of the American public and our elected officials; that they have a significant concern about a persistent problem in their community, both as it relates to the treatment of this one individual, but about broader concerns that they have when it comes to their relationship with the local police department.

At the same time, we saw a small minority of individuals engaged in other activity that was not responsible that is clearly a crime.  And when you’re looting a convenience store or you’re throwing a cinder block at a police officer, you’re engaging in thuggish behavior, and that’s why the President used that word.

Chris.

Q    Again, I understand you haven’t seen the Wall Street Journal story, but what they say specifically is that the FBI — the way they facilitated ransom was to vet a Pakistani intermediary, a middleman, who was negotiating and brought a quarter of a million dollars.  Generally, as you understand the policy, would facilitating, even in that way, ransom violate if not the letter, then the spirit of that policy?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to speak on a hypothetical. And it may not be hypothetical, but without having read the story, without understanding exactly what the FBI has said about this, if anything, I just don’t want to wade in at this point. 

Obviously we’re very clear about what our policy is about not offering concessions or making concessions to terrorist organizations.  And we’ve also been clear about the lengths that the federal government has gone to, to communicate with these families that are in a very desperate situation.  There are some additional steps that we believe that we can take to streamline and make that communication more effective, and that’s the subject of this ongoing hostage policy review.  But at this point, I’m not going to comment on the specific report from the Wall Street Journal that I just haven’t read yet.

Q    Are you aware of a report — just to keep with the theme of things that you may not have seen before you came out here —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be fair, some of them didn’t actually get reported until I came out here.

Q    The Federal Reserve is concerned about the economy, in fact, is downgrading its outlook on the economy and is going to keep interest rates low.  Were you aware of that?  And when you take that together with the GDP report today, is there a concern that the robust economy that you’ve talked about, the President has talked about, has definitely slowed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to comment on the independent decisions that are made by the Federal Reserve — even if they were announced while I was already out here.  But what I will say is I will go back to what we see as the longer-term trends, which is that there continues to be momentum in our economy.  And, again, over the last year we’ve seen the GDP grow at a rate of 3 percent. 

Now, the President believes that there is more that we can do to strengthen that economy even further.  And I mentioned most prominently this example of trying to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would open up U.S. goods and services to a variety of markets in the Asia Pacific region.  The reason that this is particularly important, based on the data that we’ve seen today, is that one of the headwinds facing our economy is weakening demand for American goods around the globe — not because there’s a loss of confidence in those American goods, but because the economy in some other important markets is not as strong as we would like, and there is obviously a reaction that some of those consumers are having to the strong American dollar.

So we’re mindful of this very dynamic situation.  And that’s why the President does believe that there is more that we can do to further strengthen our economy.  And whether it’s opening up access to overseas markets for American goods and services, or investing in infrastructure, or taking some other common-sense steps that we know would have a positive short-term and long-term impact on our economy, we’re going to continue to advocate for those steps.  And we hope that Congress will consider acting in a bipartisan fashion in pursuit of those policy priorities.

Q    Final question.  Any reaction to the decision by the Saudi King to change the line of succession, what its implications might be?  And as part of that decree, he also removed the most senior woman in the Kingdom, and I wonder if there’s any concern about that.

MR. EARNEST:  Chris, the decision that was announced by the Saudi King today is an internal Saudi government decision. 

Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the United States and a regional leader, and we’re going to continue to enjoy close, productive relationships with the leaders of Saudi Arabia.  We will do that because it’s clearly in the best interest of the United States, it’s clearly in the best interest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  And that’s why we’re confident that the U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue to be strong.

Q    But any movement — reversing any of the progress that might have been made through some of the repression within the Kingdom and the removal of the senior-most woman, any concern about that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific comment on the personnel announcements that were issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today.

Laura.

Q    Baltimore now is a big story, as you can imagine.  And some French politicians, some European commentators are wondering why the President is not going to Baltimore, or did not go yet to Ferguson.  What’s the reason?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President did talk about this with Steve Harvey this morning — or in the interview that aired this morning.  He taped the interview yesterday.  But the President was clear about the situation in Baltimore is such that his presence in Baltimore would draw away police resources that are needed in other areas right now.  So the President, in the context of that conversation, didn’t rule out a future visit to Baltimore, but at this point, we’re not contemplating doing that any time soon.

Q    Yesterday, inside a Baltimore church, a 16-year-old African American girl was saying to a crowd in front of international reporters, nobody cares about us, we need help, but nobody cares about us.  Do you agree with this statement?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t agree with that statement at all, and I think that there has been an aggressive effort by leaders in that community and members of the clergy in particular who have gone to great lengths to try to meet the needs of the community there.  And that’s a testament to, I think, the willingness of the people of Baltimore to invest in their own neighborhoods.  And I don’t think that we should allow the criminal actions of a few to overshadow the responsible and, in some cases, even generous acts of the vast majority of people in Baltimore in response to this particular situation.

That said, her sentiment is one that’s understandable.  She is growing up in an environment that is I think difficult for a lot of us to imagine.  The kinds of challenges that she has to overcome on a daily basis are the kinds of things that could lead somebody, a reasonable person, to draw that conclusion. 

And I think the President yesterday spoke to this most powerfully when he described the necessity of the leaders of this country, but also people in communities all across the country, to consider children like this to be their own children, and to assume the responsibility that we have as a nation to provide for the kids that are growing up here. 

And that animates a lot of the priority that the President has placed on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the good work that’s being done at the Council on Women and Girls here at the White House.  It’s also why he has pursued these policies that would strengthen our schools, offer free community college to hardworking students.  These are the kinds of policies that would benefit — that sounds like they would benefit the young girl that you were just quoting.

Q    But you understand that people in Baltimore want to see the President in the streets?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that they do.  I think they can also understand that the police officers are needed elsewhere right now.  But I’m confident that at some point the President will have the opportunity to make another trip to Baltimore.

Todd.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I have a question about — are you familiar with Operation Jade Helm 15?  This is a military exercise in seven western United States.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I have read about this.

Q    Okay, so 1,200 special operations forces over eight weeks, some of them traveling kind of incognito in these states. So the governor of Texas has ordered the National Guard to monitor this exercise to make sure that the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Texans are not going to be infringed.  Is this paranoia?  Is this concern justified?  Has it been conveyed to the White House in any way?  Can you explain what the purpose of the exercise is and why people should or shouldn’t be concerned?
MR. EARNEST:  I’ll say a couple things.  My understanding is that the individuals who are participating in the exercise won’t be traveling incognito, that they’ll be wearing armbands.  But what I would do is I would encourage you to check with the Department of Defense that’s conducting the exercise, and they can explain to you what the goal of the exercise is, what sort of — what practices and capabilities will be conducted in the conduct of this particular exercise. 

The thing that I can say without having a lot of detailed knowledge about the particular exercise is that in no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon while this exercise is being conducted.

Q    What do you think it says that the governor of a state as large as Texas would feel the need to not just order the Texas National Guard, but to announce that he has ordered the Texas National Guard to monitor federal troops to protect his citizens? What does that say about relations and mistrust of this administration?

MR. EARNEST:  I have no idea what he’s thinking.  (Laughter.)  I might have an idea about what he’s thinking, but I’m not going to — (laughter) — I appreciate the opportunity, though.

Q    Do you think it’s helpful?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s — I think what is clear is that I feel confident in expressing to you without having a lot of detailed knowledge of the particular exercise is that the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Americans citizens will be in no way affected by this exercise.

Chris.

Q    Josh, based on the arguments yesterday, how confident is the President the Supreme Court will strike down state prohibitions on same-sex marriage?

MR. EARNEST:  Chris, the President had the opportunity to be briefed on the arguments by Neil Eggleston, his counsel here at the White House, and by his senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, both of whom attended the arguments in person at the Supreme Court yesterday.  I have previously warned against drawing conclusions about what the Supreme Court will decide based exclusively on the public arguments.  That said, the President is very proud of the way in which the Solicitor General presented the viewpoint of the federal government and we continue to be very confident in the strength of the legal arguments that he presented.  But I’m not going to, at this point, prejudge the outcome of the decision.

Q    The President has articulated a vision of a ruling that strikes down all state prohibitions on same-sex marriage.  That is still a possibility that he perceives?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, we’re going to let the Supreme Court decide.  But Don Verrilli made a very cogent and persuasive argument about what he believes and what the federal government believes should be the outcome here.  And at this point, I’m not going to try to distill the arguments that he was making in this setting.  I’ll just say that we feel very confident in the strength of the legal argument that he made, but we’ll let the Supreme Court decide as they should.

Shirish.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  On the container ship that’s been seized, is the United States, through its protectorate status of the Marshall Islands — is this the government that’s on record as having to deal with Iran should this go beyond the owner of the ship phase?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know the legal question as it relates to what obligations the United States may have to the Marshall Islands in this particular matter.  But regardless of which flag is waving from the top of that ship’s mast, the United States is committed to ensuring the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in that region of the world.  There are U.S. naval assets in place to guarantee that there.  And we’re going to continue to monitor this situation, because, like I said, we do have a vested economic interest in ensuring that that free flow of commerce can continue unimpeded there.

Q    Just to follow up briefly, we, the United States government, has not made an effort to find out as of yet what this is about from the Iranian government?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any specific conversations to talk about from here.  We’re obviously closely monitoring the situation.  And again, we have a vested interest in the outcome here in a way that is consistent with and protects the free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation in that region of the world.

Go ahead, John.  I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks.  You mentioned there are no Americans on board that Maersk cargo ship.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s what we have learned from the ship’s crew, and I think the company has verified that.  That’s not something we’ve been able to independently verify at this point.

Q    As far as the crew that is on board, does the U.S. consider them to be hostages?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, we’re still monitoring the situation to determine exactly what’s happening here, and we’re going to continue to monitor it.  And as we have additional details, we’ll let you know.

Thanks, everybody.

    END   2:25 P.M. EDT

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:012 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you.  It’s very quiet and calm in here today.  Why don’t we see if we can keep it that way.  (Laughter.) 

Q    We’d your appreciate your efforts.

MR. EARNEST:  I will.  I will reciprocate.  Let me do one quick announcement, Nedra, and then we’ll go to questions.

The President, earlier today, spoke with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala of Nepal to convey the deep condolences of the American people for the loss of life and massive destruction caused by the April 25th earthquake in Nepal.  They discussed the ongoing efforts by U.S. civilian and military personnel to assist the government of Nepal and international organizations in the disaster response efforts, including with rescue and logistics support.  The President pledged the United States will do all it can to help the people of Nepal in this time of need.

So with that, Nedra, let’s go to your questions.

Q    I’d like to ask you about body cameras.  Hillary Clinton gave a speech today responding to Baltimore in which she said she would go further than the President and not just give matching funds for body cameras, but that she’d like to see every police department in the country have body cameras.  I know his request for funds were not granted by Congress, but would he also like to see every police department have body cameras?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, the President does believe that there’s a possibility that body-worn cameras by police officers could be a useful tool both in protecting police officers and protecting members of the public.  The Department of Justice, later this week, will be talking about a pilot body-worn camera grant program, and they’ll have some more details on that soon.  There were additional funds that were requested by the Obama administration in our budget proposal that was released earlier this year.

The one thing that was included in the set of recommendations from the task force was a proposal for a $75 million investment in body-worn cameras over the next three years.  This would assist local jurisdictions in the purchase of 50,000 body-worn cameras. 

The thing that we have said when discussing this issue is that there is not a strong body of evidence to this point about what impact body-worn cameras actually have.  The little evidence that does exist does indicate that they could positively contribute to relations between police officers and the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  I know of one particular study that indicated that police officers who were wearing body-worn cameras were much less likely to be involved in confrontations with members of the community.  So that’s one preliminary piece of evidence that would indicate that body-worn cameras could be helpful in this regard.

But the task force recommendations and some of the funds from the Department of Justice will go toward actually studying the impact of body-worn cameras and gathering more evidence to try to assess with more specificity what impact the use of body-worn cameras has on relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect.

Q    So given that lack of evidence, does the President believe it’s premature right now to call for every department to have body cameras?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what the President believes is that we should expand funding and we should — the federal government should play a role in assisting local jurisdictions who are interested in making that kind of investment, making it more financially feasible for them to do so.  We also believe that the use of body-worn cameras is something that merits additional study, and we’re dedicating resources to doing that as well.

Q    She also says funds for local law enforcement should be used to focus on best practices instead of putting, what she called, “weapons of war” onto the streets.  You here have said that the President doesn’t want to push for repeal of the programs for military-style equipment.  So is she wrong about that, to voice opposition to those programs?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m detecting a little pattern in your questioning today — probably not the first time that this line of questioning will be pursued.

What we have said — what the President has said about this is that there are some situations in which the legitimate use of this kind of equipment can be valuable in assisting local law enforcement agencies in keeping the peace and responding to the needs of members of their community.  The initial review of this program did indicate there may be some situations in which law enforcement agencies didn’t have sufficient training to use the equipment that they’d received.  And so this is something that we are — that, again, is continuing to be reviewed here.

Q    I want to follow up on some of the hostage policy questions that we had earlier this week, and just ask, would the President support or oppose changing the law so that families cannot be prosecuted for paying ransoms?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific policy announcements to make at this point.  We’ve been very clear about what the official policy is of the United States government, which is a policy that has been in place under both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and that policy prohibits making concessions to terrorist organizations. 

And the concern is twofold.  One is, making those kinds of concessions by paying ransom could only put additional American citizens at even greater risk.  And the second is that we already know that there are terrorist organizations that essentially finance their terror activities through ransom payments.  And so one way we can effectively shut off financing for extremist organizations is to make sure they aren’t getting ransom payments.  And that is the policy of the U.S. government, and one that this administration has enforced.

As it relates to sort of the legal standing of efforts by families of hostages, I don’t have any new position to announce at this point.

Roberta.

Q    I want to ask about trade.  The President was scheduled to have lunch today with Leader Pelosi.  Did he plan to discuss the trade legislation with her?  And what other meetings with lawmakers is the President having this week on trade?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can tell you that the President’s lunch with Leader Pelosi is ongoing right now.  I don’t anticipate that we’re going to have a detailed readout of that lunch once it’s concluded.  It would be fair for you to assume that the President and the Democratic Leader in the House are discussing an array of legislative priorities for the President, and that certainly would include trade promotion authority legislation.  But I don’t anticipate that we’ll have a detailed readout of their lunch.

There is one additional legislative engagement that I can tell you about at this point, that tomorrow the President will be meeting with members of the New Democrat Coalition.  These are Democrats in the House, many of whom are supporters of the President’s efforts to reach a trade agreement.  So I don’t know that we’ll have a particularly detailed readout of that meeting, but we’ll let you know.  That’s a meeting that’s scheduled to take place tomorrow.

Q    Is it going to be here?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s happening here at the White House, that’s correct.

Q    And Senator Portman is expected to push for enforceable currency manipulation language in the TPA when the bill comes up before the full Senate.  And I’m wondering if you can say whether the President would veto a TPA bill that included that language?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we have expressed our concerns about a legislative approach similar to this.  And our concern principally is that legislation like that could unfairly and unwisely bind the hands of our monetary policymakers in this country as they pursue a strategy that’s consistent with the strength and growth of our economy.  So what the President has said is that we’re going to insist that other countries, when it comes to currency, that they play fairly.  And we have addressed currency issues in a wide range of international meetings, including at the G7, the G20 and the IMF, and we’ve seen that some of those engagements have had a positive impact.

So, in particular, China’s exchange rate is up nearly 30 percent on a real effective basis since 2010.  So that is at least one specific measurable impact that we can point to when talking about the effective advocacy of the United States in insisting that other countries level the playing field when it comes to their currency.

I think the other point that I would mention relates to our Japanese friends, who were just here at the White House yesterday — that the Japanese have not intervened in the foreign exchange market for more than three years.  And there previously had been some concerns about the impact of the monetary approaches that they were pursuing.  And again, I think that is another piece of evidence that I can point to that indicates that the administration, using effective tools and our international influence, can go to great lengths to level the playing field for the American economy, for American workers, and American businesses. 

Again, I think it’s the view of the President that reaching a trade agreement like the one that we are trying to hammer out with 10 or 11 other countries in the Asia Pacific region would allow us to further level that playing field, and remove tariff barriers, stronger intellectual property protections, raising standards for workers in an enforceable way, raising environmental standards in an enforceable way — that these are all elements of an agreement that would level the playing field for American businesses and American workers. 

And the President continues to have full confidence that if we can level the playing field, that American businesses and American workers are going to be very well positioned to win the long-term economic competition that’s shaping up in this prosperous — increasingly prosperous and dynamic region of the world.

Michelle.

Q    Yesterday, it surprised plenty of people I think when the President used the words “thugs and criminals” to describe some of the people in Baltimore.  And since then there has been some sharp criticism from leaders in the black community of the President’s use of that word, some analysts saying that when it falls on black ears, it’s, to some, the equivalent of using the N-word.  And we heard that on our air.

But when the President did the interview with Steve Harvey that aired this morning, it was almost a repeat of his press conference yesterday, except he left that word out.  So is that an indication that the administration feels that maybe that wasn’t the best use of terms yesterday?

MR. EARNEST:  No, I don’t think the President would in any way revise the remarks that he shared with all of you in the Rose Garden.  The fact of the matter is the vast majority of people who were expressing their concern about the treatment of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody have done so in a responsible way.  These are individuals — black and white, I would point out — that have, in the mind of the President, legitimate concerns. After all, that is exactly why the Department of Justice is reviewing the facts of that situation. 

I know that local officials are engaged in a review, as well, to determine what exactly happened and whether or not any misconduct occurred, and whether criminal charges are necessary.

I wouldn’t weigh in on that.  That’s obviously going to be a decision that’s made by independent prosecutors, as it should be. But what’s also true, and what did get the lion’s share of the coverage out of Baltimore were the actions of a small minority that were nothing short of criminal actions.  And whether it’s arson or the looting of a liquor store, those were thuggish acts. And I think the President felt it was important, and continues to think it’s important, to draw a clear distinction between those actions and the efforts of the vast majority of people in that community to draw attention to the legitimate concerns that they have about the treatment of Freddie Gray and what they perceive to be some broader problems that may exist or — well, frankly, that do exist in the relationship between some communities in Baltimore and the Baltimore Police Department.

Q    So for the President to use all the same phrases in virtually a recap of the press conference yesterday this morning, but to specifically leave out that word, you don’t think that that was deliberate?

MR. EARNEST:  I assure you that it was not.

Q    Okay.  And also, on this move by Senator McConnell to reauthorize the Patriot Act without revising Section 215 on the mass collection of data, does the President want to change that? Would he support something like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, for almost a year and a half now, has been calling on Congress to enact important changes to the FISA Act — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — that enhance privacy and better safeguard our civil liberties while keeping our nation safe.  And the President has been clear that he believes that we should end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism that would preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government being responsible for holding the bulk data.

Now, I can tell you that we are gratified that some of those reforms are included in a recent piece of legislation that has bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate.  And we’re going to continue to review the text of that bill before we render a final judgment on it, but it certainly is encouraging that Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate that share the President’s commitment to implementing those kinds of reforms have codified that into a piece of legislation. 

Now, what’s also true is that the deadline for renewing the PATRIOT Act is coming up in about a month, and we are hopeful that Democrats and Republicans can work together to implement the reforms the President has articulated that he believes are necessary while at the same time preserving the capability of our law enforcement officials and our intelligence professionals to take the steps that are necessary to keep the American people safe.

And so we are hopeful, and are going to be working closely with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to try to advance this bipartisan legislation that is clearly in the best interest of the country.

Q    But if this is fast-tracked without any reforms would the President then veto that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, what we’re most gratified by right now is the bipartisan progress that’s made in pursuit of some reforms that includes the renewal of the PATRIOT Act.  The proposal, the clean renewal that has been put forward by Senator McConnell does not include those reforms.  And the President was quite definitive about the need to make those kinds of reforms a top priority.

Q    But we shouldn’t see that as a veto threat at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think at this point, you should see that as the President and the administration seeking to work in bipartisan fashion with members of the House and members of the Senate to incorporate reforms that protect the civil liberties of the American people while ensuring that our intelligence and national security officials have the tools that they need to keep us safe.

All right?  Pamela.

Q    One of the recommendations of the policing task force was that police departments should not be investigating themselves.  And that’s apparently what’s happening in Baltimore. Is there any concern here that the report that they come out with will not be viewed as legitimate by the community and could cause more problems?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to prejudge an ongoing investigation, so we’ll allow those individuals to — the investigators to do their work.  Let me just point out two things.  The first is that there’s also a Department of Justice review of the facts that’s underway as well, and that is a review, an investigation that’s being conducted by career prosecutors and they have an important role in this.  And we’ll let them do their work, too, before we prejudge the outcome.

The second thing is — and the President I think was pretty direct about this in his robust answer in the Rose Garden yesterday in making clear that he believes that the vast majority of police officers who go to work every day to try to keep the peace and, in fact, are willing to put their lives on the line to try to protect the communities that they serve are people who are in that line of work for the right reason, and in fact, many times they’re doing heroic work.  They’re certainly doing the kind of work that is worthy of our honor and respect.

And as the President intimated yesterday in his answer, he believes that it’s clearly in the interest of all law enforcement professionals to ensure that those agencies and those individual officers are keeping faith with the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  And when there are individual officers who fall short of that, it’s important that that be acknowledged and that the justice system be allowed to work the way that it was intended.

Q    But it wouldn’t be better to have an independent person or police agency come in and look at it?

MR. EARNEST:  The fact is, right now there is still an ongoing investigation, and I wouldn’t want to say anything that would get ahead of or even leave you with the appearance or anyone with the appearance that we’re trying to influence the outcome of that investigation one way or the other.  So I’ll reserve judgment on that.  And I think — the fact is, I think that that’s something that can be more appropriately evaluated after that investigation has concluded.

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  The White House yesterday started putting out veto threats on some of the appropriations bills.  And you’ve often said you’d like to see Ryan-Murray-style negotiations going on.  Do you see those actually coming together?  And who do you see in those roles?  Who is Ryan and who is Murray this year?   

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe we could feature Paul Ryan and Patty Murray as themselves in this feature-length film.   Well, I know that this is something — this is a sentiment that even Speaker Boehner has expressed, and we certainly were gratified to see him say something along those lines at the end of last week, I believe that was.

One of the reasons that that process succeeded both in finding common ground, making smarter decisions, at least, about what the federal budget priorities should look like, and finding a compromise that the President could sign is that it involved Democrats and Republicans working together, and it involved Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate trying to find that common ground, and doing so with the full engagement and support of the administration. 

And I think that was the key to that success, was that essentially you had Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate that were committed to trying to find that common ground, and you had engagement from the administration that supported those ongoing efforts. 

So, ultimately, members of Congress and probably leaders in Congress from both parties are going to have to decide who will play those important roles.  But if they do begin to move down this road in a constructive fashion, they can anticipate the full engagement and support of the administration in pursuit of that bipartisan compromise.

Justin.

Q    I wanted to ask about GDP.  This is the second straight quarter where GDP growth has mixed expectations, and today, kind of dramatically so.  I know that Jason obviously put a statement out earlier explaining some of it, attributing it to foreign demand and to weather.  But is there any concern among the White House that the recovery is really slowing down at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I think the first thing that’s worth pointing out is that when we get this kind of data, the thing that we are quick to review are the longer-term trends and what impact the immediate data has in the context of the broader trend.  And even incorporating this latest data, the GDP has grown by 3 percent over the last year.  And that does reflect the kind of economic strength that we see across a range of other economic metrics.  And that GDP growth is actually 50 percent faster than at some earlier stages of the ongoing economic recovery.  So that’s an indication that our economy continues to have some important momentum.

At the same time, there clearly were some headwinds that our economy was dealing with, and I think the most significant of this, as Jason Furman pointed out in his blog post — Jason is the President’s top economist — he indicated that one of the contributors to the disappointing GDP number is the weak demand overseas for American goods.  Some of that is, again, as Jason pointed out, is a result of the strong dollar.  But in the President’s mind, it highlights the need for the United States to engage in the kinds of trade agreements that are going to open up American goods and services to more markets and allow Americans goods and services to more deeply penetrate those markets.  And it would take away some of the barriers and hurdles that you have to overcome in order to do business overseas. 

Ninety-five percent of the world’s markets are beyond our borders.  And that’s why the President has been so tenacious in trying to pursue the kinds of agreements that are clearly in the best interest of American workers and American businesses.

The legitimate concern that the President has is that the refusal on the part of the United States to engage in these kinds of talks and agreements only opens up an avenue for China to step in and write the rules of the road in a way that is disadvantageous to American businesses, American workers, and the broader American economy.

So for those sort of wondering why has the President made the Trans-Pacific Partnership such an economic priority, I think we’d point to the recent GDP numbers as an indication of why it’s important for us to be vigilant about seeking out opportunities for American businesses overseas.

Q    And trailing off of that, I know that some of the big issues that President Obama and Prime Minister Abe were hoping to discuss yesterday was differences that exist on TPP, specifically on autos and rice.  And so I’m wondering if there were any breakthroughs or if you can report any progress on that. 

And then also, I know I asked you a couple days ago about whether the President would raise the issue of comfort women and trying to sort of satisfy some of South Korea’s concerns.  I don’t think the Prime Minister did that, but I’m wondering if President Obama ever raised the issue.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I don’t have a more detailed readout of the meeting between the two leaders than you’ve already received.  I can tell you that, as they stated in the Rose Garden, that they did feel as if they had a productive discussion about some of the remaining issues that need to be negotiated when it comes to the TPP, and they are hopeful that the kind of momentum that they are feeling at their back to resolve those issues can be carried over the broader TPP negotiations, and as the two largest economies that are involved in those talks, that they can push this agreement across the finish line.  But there is still some important work to be done, and I don’t have any breakthroughs to report at this point.

As it relates to the comfort women, I saw that the Prime Minister addressed this yesterday in the Rose Garden.  I don’t —

Q    I’m asking if the President —

MR. EARNEST:  And I don’t, frankly, know whether it came up in their private conversation.

Tamara.

Q    The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the FBI facilitated a ransom payment to al Qaeda by Warren Weinstein’s family.  And I’m wondering how that fits with the U.S. policy.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Tamara, I haven’t see the story that you’re talking about.  Did it just —

Q    It just crossed.

MR. EARNEST:  It just crossed?  Okay.  All I’ll say is we’ll look into this for you a little bit further.  It sounds like maybe you should have a conversation with the FBI about it, too, if they’re so prominently featured in the story.

But I’ll tell you that the policy that’s been in place throughout the six years of the Obama administration and that was in place during the previous administration as well is one that continues to be in place right now, and that is specifically that the United States government will not make concessions to terrorists.  To do so would only put American citizens at greater risk and would serve to allow terrorist organizations to better finance their ongoing violence.

Q    And I know we’ve been over this before, but are you drawing a distinction between the U.S. government and U.S. families of people held hostage?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, those are two different things, but there are relevant laws that apply to both.  But our policy on this hasn’t changed.

Kevin.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  You guys are used to battling the opposition on a number of issues, and yet, as it relates to trade now and even the Iranian negotiations, you may have to do a bit of jousting with Democrats that are usually on your side.  Does the President look forward to that?

MR. EARNEST:  I think the President looks forward to trying to find common ground on a couple of really important issues facing the country.  And certainly the President relishes the opportunity to try to work with Democrats and Republicans to advance a trade promotion authority bill that will allow us to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that would clearly be in the best interests of American businesses and American workers. 

There’s an opportunity for us to reach a trade agreement that would put in place enforceable labor provisions, enforceable environmental protections, significant provisions related to human rights, intellectual property protections, other things that would level the playing field and allow American businesses the opportunity to do business in the Asia Pacific region on a level playing field.  And the President continues to be confident that if given that level playing field that American businesses and American workers are well positioned to do very well in that kind of international economic competition.

Q    But is it a tougher sell to fellow Democrats to try to bring them on board for tough issues like the Iranian nuclear deal, for example, or even the trade deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been clear that there is historic reflexive opposition among many in the Democratic Party to these kinds of international trade agreements, but the President has a very persuasive case that he can make to Democrats who might have that reflexive reaction. 

The fact is those same Democrats also have significant concerns about the way — about the impact that NAFTA had on communities all across the country.  And the case that the President has made pretty bluntly is that both Canada and Mexico are in the TPP negotiations, and that if we can reach an agreement through the TPP negotiations, it would include enforceable labor provisions that were not included in NAFTA.  It would include enforceable environmental protections that were not included in NAFTA — and that there is an opportunity for American businesses to have access to a substantial economic market that could be very good for their bottom line. 

So the President is going to continue to make this case.  And the other part of this argument is simply that those who are opposed to this kind of trade agreement are essentially suggesting that we should just lock in the status quo.  And the President doesn’t believe that that’s at all in the best interest of our economy and it’s certainly not in the best interest of middle-class workers across the country.

Q    Last thing, on the Iranians intercepting the Tigris.  How concerned is the White House about what the Iranian navy has been up to?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, as of this morning, it is our understanding that the Maersk Tigris remains in the custody of the IRGC navy.  And we’re continuing to monitor the situation.  We have not, at this point, received any reports of injuries to crew members, and as we noted yesterday, according to information received from the vessel’s operators, there are no Americans onboard. 

This is obviously a situation that we continue to monitor because we are committed to, as we discussed at some length last week, committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waters, so we’re going to continue to monitor this situation.

Jon.

Q    Just to pick up on that, though, what does it say when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is seizing a U.S.-flagged ship when you’re in the middle of what should be final stages on these nuclear negotiations?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I believe it’s a Marshall Islands-flagged ship, which is a protectorate of the United States.  And, again, this is a situation that we’re closely monitoring because we do have a vested interest and a vested economic interest in preserving the freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce in this sensitive region of the world.

Q    But, again, isn’t this a display of, at the very least, bad faith while these negotiations are going on to be seizing clearly what is a commercial vessel?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, without speaking directly to this incident, we have in the past talked about the wide range of concerns that we have with Iranian behavior.  And our view is that a nuclear-armed Iran only makes their bad behavior even more dangerous.  And so to bring it back to this particular example, our concerns about the interference with the Maersk Tigris would be even more acute if an Iranian-armed — I’m sorry, a nuclear-armed Iranian navy were conducting these kinds of intercepts.

Q    They can do a lot of damage without nuclear weapons, can’t they?  In fact, they are, throughout the region, doing a lot of damage without nuclear weapons.

MR. EARNEST:  We have expressed a lot of concerns about the destabilizing activity of the Iranians.  And whether that is supporting the Houthis, whether that is continuing to prop up the Assad regime or engage in offering support for terror activities, we’ve seen Iranian support for Hezbollah, of course, and the destabilizing impact that that has had on a variety of countries in the Middle East.  We’ve got a lot of concerns with Iranian behavior but, again, if Iran had a nuclear weapon and they were supporting the Assad regime or if Iran had a nuclear weapon and they were supporting Hezbollah, our concerns about their support for — just to take those two entities — we’d be much more alarmed about that.

Q    Would the administration be willing to impose sanctions on Iran for issues beyond the — additional sanctions on Iran for issues beyond the nuclear program?  So in other words, you get the nuclear deal, you lift all the sanctions that have been imposed because of the nuclear program.  Would the administration be open to imposing sanctions for activity like this in the Gulf of Hormuz — the Strait of Hormuz for terror activity in Yemen and Syria and Lebanon and Iraq?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as you point out, Jon, the nuclear deal that is under negotiation between Iran and the P5+1 contemplates a scenario where Iran would make serious commitments that would essentially shut down — that would effectively shut down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon, in exchange for offering phased sanctions relief that were put in place as a result of their nuclear program.

What that means is it means that sanctions that are already in place against Iran for other activities — their weapons programs, violation of human rights — those sanctions remain in place.  And even if we do reach a nuclear deal, those other sanctions that are in place because of Iran’s other activities and Iran’s behavior in a variety of other areas will remain in place.

At this point I’m not going to offer up any — make any threats from here about the likelihood of imposing additional sanctions over this particularly incident.  But our approach to this is consistent — our approach to Iranian behavior is consistent with the approach that we’ve taken when it comes to sanctions, which is that we can have a conversation about their nuclear program, get them to make serious concessions when it comes to their nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief for those concessions, but that would have no impact on our concerns about their behavior in a variety of other areas, and would have no impact on the sanctions that are already in place against them as a result of their behavior in other areas.

Q    But I’m asking a broader question.  Sanctions are lifted because — sanctions related to the nuclear program are lifted.  There’s a lot of concern in the region from our allies. You hear concern on Capitol Hill expressed about this that suddenly the Iranians have tens of billions, even hundreds of billions of additional revenue because sanctions have been lifted and are now able to do even more — conduct — do even more mischief in the region.  Would the United States be willing to re-impose sanctions not on the nuclear — not for violations of the nuclear program but because of what they’re doing elsewhere in the region?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll just say that — again, I’m not in a position to make additional threats about additional sanctions from here right now.  But we are going to continue to monitor the Iranian activities that continue to be a source of significant concern on the part of the United States, but other countries in the region and around the world.

And just because — well, let me just say it this way.  Just because we reach an agreement on the nuclear concerns and we do reach an agreement that would shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, and we do offer some phased sanctions relief in exchange, it would not in any way diminish the likelihood that if Iran were to engage in worsening behavior in other areas, we would not at all be reluctant to impose additional sanctions on those other areas if we concluded that that would be in our best interest.

Q    And then, last question.  The Senate, of course, is debating the Corker bill.  Corker announced that he has a veto-proof majority.  He doesn’t really need it because you’ve endorsed the compromise bill.  But there are a whole series of amendments that are going to be voted on.  For instance, there’s an amendment that says before any sanctions are lifted, Iran would have to release those three Americans known to be in Iranian prisons.  What is the administration’s view on these amendments?  Are you saying that it is this deal or no deal?  Would we go back to a veto threat?  If, in this specific instance I just mentioned, an amendment passes that says first Iran needs to release those Americans, would you veto that bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, we certainly would — the President would certainly veto any amendment or any bill with an amendment that undermined the unanimous compromise that was reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or that interfered with the ongoing negotiations.  And certainly a provision and amendment that made this nuclear deal contingent on Iran’s release of those three American citizens would fall, I think, frankly, into both categories.  It would directly undermine the unanimous compromise that was reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and it certainly would interfere with the ongoing negotiations between the international community and Iran on their nuclear program.

Q    So the President would veto that?

MR. EARNEST:  So those kinds of amendments that are added to the bill that undermine the unanimous compromise or would interfere with the talks would earn a presidential veto.

And I think that — given, again, the unanimous vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I’m confident there would be strong support — or I guess strong opposition to those kinds of amendments, and then that opposition would — I would expect it to be bipartisan.  But this is a process that will have to play out.

Zeke.  Nice to see you today.

Q    Hey, Josh.  Good seeing you.  I was hoping you could give us an update on who in the White House is keeping an eye on what’s happening in Baltimore and in Maryland.  Valerie Jarrett was doing some of that yesterday.  Has the President reached out again to local leaders, local community leaders?  And is anyone going — traveling the 40-some-odd miles up there?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s no one from the White House that I know of that has travel plans for Baltimore at this point.  As you point out, Valerie Jarrett, the President’s senior advisor, has been in touch with state and local officials from Maryland.  And you noted that late in the day yesterday she convened a conference call with the Attorney General to discuss with local leaders in a variety of other communities our efforts to address the ongoing situation in Baltimore. 

I don’t have any new calls to read out at this point.  The President hasn’t made any new calls related to this.

Q    Governor Hogan said yesterday that he was expecting to speak to the President.  Is it possible that they did connect?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware that they connected.  We can check on that.  But, obviously, if Governor Hogan has an urgent need to speak to somebody here at the White House, he’ll get a return phone call.

I do want to point out that there have been senior Department of Justice officials who do have expertise in this particular area — did spend significant time in Baltimore yesterday.  So this is Vanita Gupta, who’s the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice; Ronald Davis, who’s the Director of the Community-Oriented Policing Office; and Grande Lum, who’s the Director of the Community Relations Service at the Department of Justice also spent time in Baltimore yesterday.  And I know that they continue to be in close touch with Baltimore officials as they deal with this matter.

Q    Circling back to the earlier conversation about body cameras, you said that there was a possibility that these could be useful in police-civilian interactions.  So are you saying that the expansion of that program nationally right now would be imprudent, that the White House thinks that that would be a potential waste of money, that it needs more study before it would be rolled out nationally?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t necessarily use that adjective.  I think what I would say is that we put forward a proposal to help local law enforcement agencies that make the decision to invest in body cameras — make that more financially feasible for them.  So we’re talking about $20 million or so from the Department of Justice.  There’s a three-year proposal that we have here.

And at the same time, we believe that some of those resources should be dedicated studying the impact that these cameras have on those kinds of interactions to determine exactly how effective they are in reducing violence and reducing the number of confrontations between police officers and members of the community.

Q    Does the White House think there’s a downside?  If there’s even a marginal benefit, why the delay?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t think it’s a matter of delay; I think it’s a matter of money.  And we would need some congressional action to get the resources that are necessary to expand this program even further.  And I noted that the President’s budget proposal that he rolled out just a couple months ago actually included a request for additional funds for this program. 

But at the same time, we feel like it would be prudent, to use your word, to more carefully examine the impact that body cameras would have on policing in communities across the country.

Major.

Q    A follow-up on Tamara’s question.  Are you shocked by this revelation that the FBI apparently facilitated a ransom payment in the Weinstein case?  Now, I know it just crossed, but my question is, would that shock you in any case?  Would that constitute the FBI ignoring specific policy guidance from this White House on the question of any American hostage in any perilous situation?

MR. EARNEST:  Major, I’m going to reserve comment on this until I’ve had a chance to look at the story and until I’ve had a chance to hear from the FBI about their explanation.

Q    Would it be wrong for me to conclude from that caution that you believe it’s possibly true?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the caution is rooted in my reluctance to talk about something that I don’t know about.

Q    Do you know about the specific guidance to every agency involved in this matter?

MR. EARNEST:  I do not.  I do not.

Q    There is no guidance about don’t facilitate?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know what the guidance is that the FBI is supposed to implement. 

Q    Yet, you come with a binder, State Department people come with binders.  When asked yesterday at the State Department, what is the situation with the Maersk, the State Department could not describe it.  Can you describe it?  Is it an act of piracy?  Is it a legal seizure?  Is it an illegal seizure?  What is going on, in the opinion of the U.S. government, with this Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel?

MR. EARNEST:  I think, Major, as we’ve discussed, I think it’s hard to tell what’s going on.  And that’s why we continue to monitor the situation closely to determine exactly why the IRGC took the steps that they took.  And we obviously do have concerns about the impact that it could have on the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in this region of the world.  That’s something that we have a vested interest in protecting.

Q    Is there anything, based on what this administration knows so far, that suggests that what happened is consistent in any way with the free flow of commerce?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, it’s unclear exactly why the Iranians have the taken the steps that they have, and that’s why we’re closely monitoring the situation.  And there are U.S. naval assets in the region, and there are a variety of ways that we can keep tabs on the situation there.

Q    But you don’t want to label it yet?  You don’t want to call it what you think it is?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, I think we need to gather some more information about what exactly happened and why it happened before we offer up a specific label.

Q    And we had a discussion last week and I asked you if, at that point, the administration was satisfied that Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the foundation had complied with a memorandum of understanding and done everything in accordance with what the White House expectations were.  And you said it had.  But there’s been another story — 1,100 donors to the Clinton-Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative undisclosed.  Richard Lugar, who the President has — and I believe still does — hold in high regard, said that he, looking at that, believes that this did not meet the spirit or the intent of the memorandum of understanding. 

So let me ask you again.  Is the administration satisfied, is the President satisfied, that everything that was done met the standards of the memorandum of understanding and all the disclosures that should have been there were there?

MR. EARNEST:  Major, I think what I said last week is that there has been no evidence produced by even the Secretary’s most ardent partisan critics that the decisions that she made as Secretary of State were in any way influenced by anything that was done at the family’s foundation.

Q    Yes, but as we can revisit, I asked you specifically about compliance, if that satisfied the President.  And you said the compliance did satisfy the President; the President was proud of her service, and everything was done in accordance with his expectation.  I’m just asking you that question again.

Q    And I think even last week I was reluctant to talk about the specific compliance because the White House is not in a position to enforce that compliance. 

Q    It is in a position to render a judgment.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s the State Department’s responsibility to enforce and verify that compliance.  So that’s why I’ve referred questions to the State Department or to the family foundation when it comes specifically to that aspect of this question.

So what I can render judgment on is what I know about Secretary Clinton’s service as Secretary of State.  It was exemplary, and the President is proud of her service.  But when it comes to the specific memorandum in question, I’d refer you to the agency that was responsible for enforcing that memorandum, and that’s the State Department.

Q    One last thing.  The President often has talked, when issues of racial tension have come up, about how he perceives things, or tries to look at things as a father.  Toya Graham is being talked about as sort of a hero mom for her specific and videotaped interaction with her son in some of the more intense moments that occurred in Baltimore.  I’m just curious — has the President seen any of that?  Does he have any evaluation of it?  Does he believe it is something that adds to our understanding about the role of parents in situations like this?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t spoken to the President about this specific thing.  I do feel confident in hazarding a guess that he has seen the video.  The President, as he alluded to in the Rose Garden yesterday, does believe that there is a role for parents to play there in terms of setting guidelines and doing right by their kids.  He also pointed out that there are certain policies and certain situations where it’s virtually impossible for parents to do right by their kids.  And trying to confront those obstacles to responsible parenting is one thing that we all need to take responsibility for and not just pin that responsibility on police officers who already have a very difficult job.

But the President, even dating back to his first p0residential campaign — and you covered some of these events — remember that the President, in rather colorful fashion on occasion, talked about how important it is for parents to impose some guidelines and to impose some structure on their kids, and that that was going to be critical to their success, and that there is a lot, there’s a significant role for the government to play in terms of putting in place policies — like good schools, economic opportunity, early childhood education, even making sure that kids have good access to health care I think are in line with the kinds of things that the government can do to try to address some of these endemic problems. 

But the President also believes that we should not overlook the critically important role that parents can play in setting some guidelines and setting some structure for their kids to give them a chance to succeed.

Q    Based on your memory and my memory of that particular speech — and you, I’m sure, have seen the video, you have a hunch the President has seen it.  Without saying whether or not the President would have acted in a similar way or endorse Michelle asking in a similar way, do you think he would generally be okay with what he saw and this ultimate result, which was to discourage her son from participating further in the activity?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what I — why don’t I just say it this way.  I think what resonated with me is — and he has got a lot more experience being a parent than I do, but let me just say what resonated with me —

Q    As do I.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  As do you.  So maybe we should hear what resonated with you.  But let me just say that the thing that resonated with me was her expression that she was concerned about her son facing the same fate as Freddie Gray.  And while I’m sure that it was not the immediate reaction of her son to feel like she was looking out for his best interest, there is no doubting that her reaction was one that was rooted in her concern for his safety and his well-being and her love for her child.  And I think that is a very powerful expression about the role that parents can play, that that expression of love was very conspicuous and one that I think will serve as a powerful influence on that young man’s life. 

And that same kind of passion and concern and love for the well-being of one’s child I do think is the kind of thing that can contribute to a young man or woman having the kind of opportunity to succeed that a lot of other kids don’t get.

Jared.

Q    Josh, the President yesterday in his answer on Baltimore explained at length that his agenda has a lot in it that he doesn’t expect Congress to pass.  And in your answer to Zeke a few minutes ago you also said that, look, this is in the budget but we don’t know what is actually going to get done.  In terms of actual actions for the next two years, what should we expect to see the President doing?  He was very eloquent yesterday, putting out the sense of deeper understanding of these issues, but, yet, what about actual actions?  Because there wasn’t — and maybe it wasn’t the place for it — a list of things that he’ll be doing over the next two years.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jared, there are at least a couple of things that come to mind.  The first is the President takes very seriously the recommendations that we got from the Policing Task Force.  And the President is hopeful, and he’s going to be counting on the Department of Justice and members of the task force to follow through on these recommendations, both to ensure that they are adequately implemented for federal law enforcement agencies, but also to ensure that local law enforcement agencies have the support and advice and guidance that they need to fully implement these measures at the local level, as well.

So I think that’s one thing that can be done right away, and is being done even as we speak.  The second thing is the President has talked a lot about his My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  This is an opportunity for the public and private sector to work together to try to serve as a positive influence on young men of color.  So many of the incidents that we’ve talked about that have gotten so much attention in the last several months are incidents involving young men of color, and it sort of highlights the special — it’s just one example, I guess, of the special challenges, unique challenges, that are faced by young men of color in this country. 

And this is an observation that not just the President has made — based in part on his own experience — but also an observation that’s been made by leaders in the private sector, leaders in academia, all of whom have articulated an interest in working with the federal government and, in some cases, state and local governments, to implement programs that will benefit young men of color.  That certainly would go to addressing some of the challenges that the President talked about yesterday.

The third thing that was a bit of a coincidence but still is an appropriate one is that across the administration there was a discussion about Promise Zones, that there were a number of communities across the country that were established as Promise Zones.  And these are areas where the efforts of the federal government will be integrated and focused on those communities that are in the greatest need.  And I think that is another example of how some common-sense steps can be taken to try to focus our efforts in particular on those communities that are in the greatest need.

Q    I know that’s not necessarily an exhaustive or representative sample, it’s just three off the top of your head. But is this kind of nibbling around the edges?  Because the President identified a deeper societal problem, and of those three that you mentioned, only really Promise Zones goes to the socio-economic inequality in a targeting-at-the-source kind of way.  With the Congress being the way it is for the next two years, do you see any opportunities to attack the deeper problem that the President described yesterday with legislation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jared, I think the President was pretty candid about this in his answer yesterday, that there are limitations, that there’s a majority in both houses of Congress right now that don’t seem to share his passion for these kinds of issues.  And there are some common-sense things that Congress could do that would have a near-term impact, and that’s everything from raising the federal minimum wage to offering tax credits, to make quality child care available to more families.  The President has a proposal for a second-earner tax credit.  Certainly for those families who are — both mom and dad are working, giving them a special tax break makes a lot of sense.  They probably have — they likely have greater needs when it comes to child care because both of them have jobs.

There are other things like free community college, expanding the earned income tax credit, and other things that the President has put on the table that doesn’t have the support from Republicans who are in the majority of both the House and the Senate, and unfortunately, legislation is required to take action on those two things.

The good news is that there are at least a couple of things that I can think of off the top of my head where there might be common ground, there might be some bipartisan support in Congress for these initiatives.  The first is infrastructure.  We’ve talked about how investments in infrastructure can create jobs in the short term, while laying the long-term foundation for economic strength. 

We know that in a lot of these communities where we’ve seen this kind of strife, these are communities that are in desperate need of upgraded infrastructure.  So we’re talking about improving the infrastructure in these communities, and doing so in a way that we’re creating good jobs.  There is bipartisan support in Congress for the concept of closing some tax loopholes and using the revenue to invest in infrastructure.  That could be one thing.

The second thing is there is bipartisan support — pretty broad bipartisan support — for criminal justice reform.  The President referred in his answer in the Rose Garden yesterday to the preponderance of minorities, many of them poor, who are serving long jail sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that they have committed.  Reforming our criminal justice system could address some of those situations where you have kids that are being raised by one parent because the other parent is in prison.

The last example I can cite is there has been some progress recently on education reform and on school reform.  We know that ensuring that our kids get a quality education can give them a good start and expand economic opportunities for them.  And there does seem to be emerging bipartisan support around some reform proposals in Congress, and we’ll obviously be supportive of those ongoing efforts. 

So I guess the point — to go back to your question, yes, there is a lot that we could do and there is a lot that the President would like to do.  And many of those things won’t be done because Republicans in the Congress oppose them, despite the positive economic impact they would have on communities across the country, including in these communities that we know are in the greatest need.  That said, there are some common-sense, bipartisan opportunities for us to make progress on policies, again, that will benefit the entire country but will also benefit these communities where we know a lot of work needs to get done.

Q    One last quick one, following up on Michelle’s question earlier.  You said that the President wouldn’t revise his comments specifically with the use of the word thugs — criminals and thugs.  And I just — in the context of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake saying that she was basically walking back that use, saying she doesn’t want to use loaded language, does this White House not think that that is a loaded word, that that is something that should be used with care?  Is that not something that’s on this White House’s radar?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I’ll let you guys sort of decide what sort of — how those words get interpreted.  I think the President was pretty clear that the vast majority of people who were publicly expressing their concerns about the treatment of Freddie Gray were doing so in a responsible way that merits the attention of the American public and our elected officials; that they have a significant concern about a persistent problem in their community, both as it relates to the treatment of this one individual, but about broader concerns that they have when it comes to their relationship with the local police department.

At the same time, we saw a small minority of individuals engaged in other activity that was not responsible that is clearly a crime.  And when you’re looting a convenience store or you’re throwing a cinder block at a police officer, you’re engaging in thuggish behavior, and that’s why the President used that word.

Chris.

Q    Again, I understand you haven’t seen the Wall Street Journal story, but what they say specifically is that the FBI — the way they facilitated ransom was to vet a Pakistani intermediary, a middleman, who was negotiating and brought a quarter of a million dollars.  Generally, as you understand the policy, would facilitating, even in that way, ransom violate if not the letter, then the spirit of that policy?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t want to speak on a hypothetical. And it may not be hypothetical, but without having read the story, without understanding exactly what the FBI has said about this, if anything, I just don’t want to wade in at this point. 

Obviously we’re very clear about what our policy is about not offering concessions or making concessions to terrorist organizations.  And we’ve also been clear about the lengths that the federal government has gone to, to communicate with these families that are in a very desperate situation.  There are some additional steps that we believe that we can take to streamline and make that communication more effective, and that’s the subject of this ongoing hostage policy review.  But at this point, I’m not going to comment on the specific report from the Wall Street Journal that I just haven’t read yet.

Q    Are you aware of a report — just to keep with the theme of things that you may not have seen before you came out here —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, to be fair, some of them didn’t actually get reported until I came out here.

Q    The Federal Reserve is concerned about the economy, in fact, is downgrading its outlook on the economy and is going to keep interest rates low.  Were you aware of that?  And when you take that together with the GDP report today, is there a concern that the robust economy that you’ve talked about, the President has talked about, has definitely slowed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to comment on the independent decisions that are made by the Federal Reserve — even if they were announced while I was already out here.  But what I will say is I will go back to what we see as the longer-term trends, which is that there continues to be momentum in our economy.  And, again, over the last year we’ve seen the GDP grow at a rate of 3 percent. 

Now, the President believes that there is more that we can do to strengthen that economy even further.  And I mentioned most prominently this example of trying to reach a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would open up U.S. goods and services to a variety of markets in the Asia Pacific region.  The reason that this is particularly important, based on the data that we’ve seen today, is that one of the headwinds facing our economy is weakening demand for American goods around the globe — not because there’s a loss of confidence in those American goods, but because the economy in some other important markets is not as strong as we would like, and there is obviously a reaction that some of those consumers are having to the strong American dollar.

So we’re mindful of this very dynamic situation.  And that’s why the President does believe that there is more that we can do to further strengthen our economy.  And whether it’s opening up access to overseas markets for American goods and services, or investing in infrastructure, or taking some other common-sense steps that we know would have a positive short-term and long-term impact on our economy, we’re going to continue to advocate for those steps.  And we hope that Congress will consider acting in a bipartisan fashion in pursuit of those policy priorities.

Q    Final question.  Any reaction to the decision by the Saudi King to change the line of succession, what its implications might be?  And as part of that decree, he also removed the most senior woman in the Kingdom, and I wonder if there’s any concern about that.

MR. EARNEST:  Chris, the decision that was announced by the Saudi King today is an internal Saudi government decision. 

Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the United States and a regional leader, and we’re going to continue to enjoy close, productive relationships with the leaders of Saudi Arabia.  We will do that because it’s clearly in the best interest of the United States, it’s clearly in the best interest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  And that’s why we’re confident that the U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue to be strong.

Q    But any movement — reversing any of the progress that might have been made through some of the repression within the Kingdom and the removal of the senior-most woman, any concern about that?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific comment on the personnel announcements that were issued by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today.

Laura.

Q    Baltimore now is a big story, as you can imagine.  And some French politicians, some European commentators are wondering why the President is not going to Baltimore, or did not go yet to Ferguson.  What’s the reason?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President did talk about this with Steve Harvey this morning — or in the interview that aired this morning.  He taped the interview yesterday.  But the President was clear about the situation in Baltimore is such that his presence in Baltimore would draw away police resources that are needed in other areas right now.  So the President, in the context of that conversation, didn’t rule out a future visit to Baltimore, but at this point, we’re not contemplating doing that any time soon.

Q    Yesterday, inside a Baltimore church, a 16-year-old African American girl was saying to a crowd in front of international reporters, nobody cares about us, we need help, but nobody cares about us.  Do you agree with this statement?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t agree with that statement at all, and I think that there has been an aggressive effort by leaders in that community and members of the clergy in particular who have gone to great lengths to try to meet the needs of the community there.  And that’s a testament to, I think, the willingness of the people of Baltimore to invest in their own neighborhoods.  And I don’t think that we should allow the criminal actions of a few to overshadow the responsible and, in some cases, even generous acts of the vast majority of people in Baltimore in response to this particular situation.

That said, her sentiment is one that’s understandable.  She is growing up in an environment that is I think difficult for a lot of us to imagine.  The kinds of challenges that she has to overcome on a daily basis are the kinds of things that could lead somebody, a reasonable person, to draw that conclusion. 

And I think the President yesterday spoke to this most powerfully when he described the necessity of the leaders of this country, but also people in communities all across the country, to consider children like this to be their own children, and to assume the responsibility that we have as a nation to provide for the kids that are growing up here. 

And that animates a lot of the priority that the President has placed on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the good work that’s being done at the Council on Women and Girls here at the White House.  It’s also why he has pursued these policies that would strengthen our schools, offer free community college to hardworking students.  These are the kinds of policies that would benefit — that sounds like they would benefit the young girl that you were just quoting.

Q    But you understand that people in Baltimore want to see the President in the streets?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that they do.  I think they can also understand that the police officers are needed elsewhere right now.  But I’m confident that at some point the President will have the opportunity to make another trip to Baltimore.

Todd.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I have a question about — are you familiar with Operation Jade Helm 15?  This is a military exercise in seven western United States.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I have read about this.

Q    Okay, so 1,200 special operations forces over eight weeks, some of them traveling kind of incognito in these states. So the governor of Texas has ordered the National Guard to monitor this exercise to make sure that the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Texans are not going to be infringed.  Is this paranoia?  Is this concern justified?  Has it been conveyed to the White House in any way?  Can you explain what the purpose of the exercise is and why people should or shouldn’t be concerned?
MR. EARNEST:  I’ll say a couple things.  My understanding is that the individuals who are participating in the exercise won’t be traveling incognito, that they’ll be wearing armbands.  But what I would do is I would encourage you to check with the Department of Defense that’s conducting the exercise, and they can explain to you what the goal of the exercise is, what sort of — what practices and capabilities will be conducted in the conduct of this particular exercise. 

The thing that I can say without having a lot of detailed knowledge about the particular exercise is that in no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon while this exercise is being conducted.

Q    What do you think it says that the governor of a state as large as Texas would feel the need to not just order the Texas National Guard, but to announce that he has ordered the Texas National Guard to monitor federal troops to protect his citizens? What does that say about relations and mistrust of this administration?

MR. EARNEST:  I have no idea what he’s thinking.  (Laughter.)  I might have an idea about what he’s thinking, but I’m not going to — (laughter) — I appreciate the opportunity, though.

Q    Do you think it’s helpful?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s — I think what is clear is that I feel confident in expressing to you without having a lot of detailed knowledge of the particular exercise is that the civil liberties and constitutional rights of Americans citizens will be in no way affected by this exercise.

Chris.

Q    Josh, based on the arguments yesterday, how confident is the President the Supreme Court will strike down state prohibitions on same-sex marriage?

MR. EARNEST:  Chris, the President had the opportunity to be briefed on the arguments by Neil Eggleston, his counsel here at the White House, and by his senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, both of whom attended the arguments in person at the Supreme Court yesterday.  I have previously warned against drawing conclusions about what the Supreme Court will decide based exclusively on the public arguments.  That said, the President is very proud of the way in which the Solicitor General presented the viewpoint of the federal government and we continue to be very confident in the strength of the legal arguments that he presented.  But I’m not going to, at this point, prejudge the outcome of the decision.

Q    The President has articulated a vision of a ruling that strikes down all state prohibitions on same-sex marriage.  That is still a possibility that he perceives?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, we’re going to let the Supreme Court decide.  But Don Verrilli made a very cogent and persuasive argument about what he believes and what the federal government believes should be the outcome here.  And at this point, I’m not going to try to distill the arguments that he was making in this setting.  I’ll just say that we feel very confident in the strength of the legal argument that he made, but we’ll let the Supreme Court decide as they should.

Shirish.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  On the container ship that’s been seized, is the United States, through its protectorate status of the Marshall Islands — is this the government that’s on record as having to deal with Iran should this go beyond the owner of the ship phase?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know the legal question as it relates to what obligations the United States may have to the Marshall Islands in this particular matter.  But regardless of which flag is waving from the top of that ship’s mast, the United States is committed to ensuring the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in that region of the world.  There are U.S. naval assets in place to guarantee that there.  And we’re going to continue to monitor this situation, because, like I said, we do have a vested economic interest in ensuring that that free flow of commerce can continue unimpeded there.

Q    Just to follow up briefly, we, the United States government, has not made an effort to find out as of yet what this is about from the Iranian government?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any specific conversations to talk about from here.  We’re obviously closely monitoring the situation.  And again, we have a vested interest in the outcome here in a way that is consistent with and protects the free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation in that region of the world.

Go ahead, John.  I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks.  You mentioned there are no Americans on board that Maersk cargo ship.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s what we have learned from the ship’s crew, and I think the company has verified that.  That’s not something we’ve been able to independently verify at this point.

Q    As far as the crew that is on board, does the U.S. consider them to be hostages?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, we’re still monitoring the situation to determine exactly what’s happening here, and we’re going to continue to monitor it.  And as we have additional details, we’ll let you know.

Thanks, everybody.

END  
2:25 P.M. EDT
Source: whitehouse.gov