Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–April 6, 2016 – 1:04 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I do have some words here at the top before we get to your questions.
For months now, the administration has been warning about the risk posed by the Zika virus, particularly the risk that is posed to pregnant women. In early January, in the midst of a significant snowstorm that many of you may recall, the President convened his top advisors to formulate a proactive response to this epidemic, which has spread across the Americas.
In February, the administration formally submitted a request to Congress for $1.9 billion for activities that scientists and experts say are critically important to combatting Zika. This includes funding for mosquito control, which is particularly important now that the weather is beginning to warm up. It also includes funding for things —
Q Not today.
MR. EARNEST: Well, not today. (Laughter.) At least not today in Washington.
But the funding also included investments in disease detection and testing, vaccine development, and support for maternal women’s health.
Just last week, the administration convened a summit in Atlanta of top state and local health officials, nonprofit officials, and health care experts. We heard from states that they’re keenly aware of the threat that the disease poses, and many do not have the money that they need for basic tasks that would prevent the spread of Zika.
Over this time, Congress has done nothing. Now, we know that we cannot continue to fund a robust response to this disease without adequate resources, particularly for our partners in state and local government who bear much of the burden of fighting Zika.
So earlier today, as many of you may have seen, the administration announced that we would reprogram about $600 million to bolster the ongoing Zika response. We’ve consistently said that an available option for the government was to repurpose some existing Ebola funds that would not undermine our fight against that deadly disease. But we also told Congress that just using some of the Ebola funds would be insufficient. And that should be an indication to you that today’s actions to reprogram $600 million is a temporary fix and not at all a long-term solution.
Since the beginning of the year, our concerns about Zika have only increased because of some new things that we’ve learned about the disease. First, we’ve learned that sexual transmission of the virus is actually more common than was initially believed. Second, we learned that the impact of the virus on fetal brain development is likely starker and more serious than first understood. Third, in the United States, the geographical range of the mosquito that carries this virus is significantly broader than our initial estimate. And as we learn more about all of these things, we continue to be concerned about the potential impact of this virus on the public health situation inside the United States.
So let me leave you with a couple of last thoughts. The first is that this is actually a pretty unique scenario. We’ve got advanced warning of a disease. It was difficult to predict in advance that Ebola would wind up in a patient that had presented himself at an American hospital. That was something that few people predicted.
Everybody now is predicting months in advance that we’re going to see more cases of Zika in the United States. That means that we have an opportunity to do something about it in advance. As I stood at this podium and talked to you about the risks that were posed by Ebola, I think many of you legitimately observed why hasn’t the government done more to prepare for these kinds of situations.
We do have an opportunity to prepare for the Zika virus, but Congress has completely abdicated their responsibility to follow through on a proposal that the administration put forward based on the advice of scientific experts. So the administration is going to do what we can right now to fight this disease by shifting funds temporarily from the fight against Ebola into the fight against Zika. State and local officials are certainly doing their job right now to try to prepare their communities to fight Zika. Now it’s time for Congress to do its job for a change.
So with all of that, Kathleen, do you want to get us started?
Q Sure. Actually, I’m going to come back to the topic from yesterday. I’m sure you saw that Pfizer and Allergan had cancelled the merger in the wake of the new inversion rules. And I’m wondering if — I know you said that the regulations weren’t explicitly targeted at that transaction, but do you have any reaction — is this is a sign that these tough new rules have already had an impact —
MR. EARNEST: We make it a habit of not commenting on individual transactions. That is true when transactions, or potential transactions are announced. That’s also true when potential transactions are killed. So in this case, I don’t have a reaction to the specific transaction.
We were clear yesterday that the steps that the Treasury Department was taking was not focused on any one particular transaction, but rather was focused on a loophole that we knew certain corporate interests either had previously taken advantage of or were looking to take advantage of. And so that’s why they took steps to close that loophole. That, of course, does not eliminate the need for Congress to take action with regard to corporate inversions. In order to completely close the corporate inversion loophole, or frankly, the series of loopholes, we need congressional action in the form of legislation to do that definitively.
Q And then just on the broader topic of tax evasion, I’m wondering if you saw Senator Sanders’s comment about the Panama Papers. He brought up his opposition to the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement, and called it — that he had warned that it would be a stamp of approval for Panama as a tax shelter. And he had criticized then-Secretary Clinton for supporting the deal, and I guess by implication also the President for signing it. I’m wondering if you have any reaction.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the simple facts are that the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement didn’t apply to tax measures. And one reason for that is that in 2011, under President Obama’s leadership, the United States and Panama did conclude a Tax Information Exchange Agreement. These are the kinds of agreements that the United States maintains with other countries to promote tax transparency in creating a major disincentive for U.S. citizens to use a country like Panama, in this case, to circumvent tax laws.
And what essentially that means is it means this exchange of information between the United States and Panama gives enforcement authorities here in the United States greater clarity into financial transactions that are taking place in Panama by U.S. citizens or entities. And this is not dissimilar from the kinds of information-sharing agreements that we’ve signed with about 112 other countries around the world as a result of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. This is the FATCA legislation that President Obama signed into law in 2010.
All of this has promoted greater transparency in the context of international financial transactions. That’s important because it will allow the international community and the United States to do things like fight corruption, to crack down on individuals who are trying to use shell corporations to avoid paying their fair share in taxes. It also is a way for us to detect individuals or entities that are trying to circumvent U.S. financial sanctions.
So this greater transparency is important to our efforts, and it’s something that President Obama has fought for both in the context of signing FATCA into law, but also in the context of reaching an agreement with Panama, specifically, to do a better job of exchanging information related to these financial transactions.
Q So Senator Sanders is off base?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see his entire comments. But the facts are that the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement doesn’t apply to tax measures. And the reason that it wasn’t necessary to write into that agreement certain rules governing tax measures is we already had this existing tax information exchange agreement with Panama that promoted important transparency between our two governments when it comes to these kinds of financial transactions.
Q One more on the trip to Chicago. And I know you’ve been asked a couple of times this week, but I’m hoping you have a bit more to give us on what we should expect in terms of the remarks about the Supreme Court, the sort of tenor, the general message, and whether or not this is going to be part of an ongoing effort from the White House to keep this issue in the news — spotlight on this —
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President does consider confirming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court a top priority, and this is an important constitutional responsibility that the President has fulfilled in terms of nominating somebody with impeccable legal credentials to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The good news is that even Republicans have described him as a consensus candidate. He is somebody who has more federal judicial experience than any other nominee to the Supreme Court in American history. And throughout that long career on the federal bench, Chief Judge Garland has demonstrated a commitment to interpreting the law, as a judge should, not seeking to advance a political agenda. This is exactly the kind of person who is worthy of a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. And we’re going to continue to make the case to Republicans in the United States Senate that they should fulfill their constitutional responsibility, too, to give him a fair hearing and a timely up or down vote. Simple as that.
The President will certainly make that case tomorrow. And the President will continue to make that case until the Senate finally starts to do its job.
Q Should we expect that Judge Garland will make that case in some form or another down the road? Will he start speaking for himself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kathleen, hopefully he’ll have the opportunity to do that in the context of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Q Outside the —
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen that’s how the process is supposed to work. We’re not at all standing up here suggesting that members of the United States Senate — Democrat or Republican — should just vote to confirm Chief Judge Garland because the President said to do it. In fact, we’re suggesting that they should find out for themselves. And we have been pleased to see that there are a number of members of the Senate that have agreed to meet with Chief Judge Garland in private. That is traditionally how this process has worked, and we’re working to set up additional meetings with Republicans to have those private conversations in the days and weeks ahead. And I understand that Chairman Grassley has even indicated that next week he’s prepared to meet with Chief Judge Garland.
That’s all good news. But I guess the thing — the point that I would make is, why does it have to all take place in private? Why not have Chief Judge Garland go out in public, under oath, on camera and answer tough questions from individual members of the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans? That’s traditionally the way the process has worked. And our expectation is that that’s the way the process should work this time.
I suspect the reason that Republicans are resisting the process is because they too believe that Chief Judge Garland on camera, under oath, facing tough questions would demonstrate for everybody that he actually is worthy of a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. And unfortunately, Republicans are in a position where they’re making complaints about this process not based on Chief Judge Garland or his credentials or his record or how he would serve the American people on the Supreme Court. In fact, you hear Republicans actually saying that this has way more to do with their political objections to the President of the United States, to President Obama.
You heard from Senator Cornyn that he had taken a vow not to confirm another Obama judge to the Supreme Court. You heard Ron Johnson a few weeks ago acknowledge that if a Republican were President, that the Republicans in the Senate would be treating the nominee quite a bit differently than they are now.
So it’s Republicans who have politicized this process. And I think that’s the other reason it’s a little ironic that yesterday, you heard the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley do something that is pretty remarkable — in a town and in a context like this where we’re used to charges and counter-charges, and disputes across the aisle being traded back and forth — and at least when it comes to Republicans, sometimes there are charges within the party that are being traded back and forth.
But I think we need to create a whole separate category when you have the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman go to the floor of the United States Senate and criticize the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and accuse him of politicizing the Supreme Court. That’s a pretty remarkable turn of events. It certainly flies in the face of Chairman Grassley’s well-established reputation for being a straight shooter who’s focused on just getting the job done for the people of Iowa.
But I think the other thing is it’s also remarkably ironic. Because it’s Chairman Grassley who is the person who is standing in the way of this process moving forward, and it’s Chairman Grassley who is suggesting that it’s the President — that it’s a presidential election year, and therefore he’s not going to do his job, to then turn around and say that it’s actually the fault of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that the process has gotten so politicized. It’s a curious explanation.
Q On Zika, why do you think the White House hasn’t been able to convince Congress to push through the funding? And is the President — or has he made calls to lawmakers on Zika?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any presidential calls to tell you about, but there have been a number of conversations with senior White House officials and senior administration officials about this legislation being a priority.
And there’s no reason that this should be a partisan dispute. Ron, yesterday, asked me about a range of opportunities where Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together to get something done in Congress, and I went through a lengthy list, but I didn’t include Zika funding. There’s no reason that Democrats and Republicans should disagree about the need to protect the American people from an impending epidemic that has serious consequences for pregnant women in this country. That surely should be something that we could figure out a way to agree on and actually take the responsible steps that are necessary to solve this problem.
And, Tim, here’s the other thing about this — and in some ways, this is a little bit of human nature, and a little bit of this is some of the imperfection of our political system. But responsible adults should be able to step back and acknowledge that planning in advance, when you’re talking about something like this, is really important. Mark my words, at some point — and I don’t know when it’s going to be — at some point later this spring, maybe later this summer, all of you and your news organizations are going to be sounding the alarm about the significant threat that is posed by the Zika virus. That is going to happen.
We know that as the weather warms up, as the mosquito population spreads, that this is something that we’re going to have to deal with. And I regret, the President regrets that Congress hasn’t fulfilled their responsibilities to take these steps to fight something that we know is coming. But I hope that all of you as you’re writing those stories remember this day. Because the administration is fighting hard to get Congress just to fulfill their basic function and allow the federal government and our experts and state and local officials to take the steps that we know should be taken to begin to implement mosquito-control programs and try and kill mosquitoes; to start to expand our lab capacity so that we can track the virus; to start to develop better diagnostics and vaccines; and to do the other kinds of things that would allow us to put in place effective prevention tools; and where necessary, begin to stockpile necessary resources to respond to this disease.
Q Does the White House see lawmakers it can work with in states that might see Zika first like Florida, Texas? Does it see Republicans it can work with there?
MR. EARNEST: Look, we’re going to work with anybody who is ready to work with us. Some of the data indicates that there are a bunch of northern states that may be fortunate enough to avoid seeing this particular mosquito that carries the virus migrating to their states. But even those senators should understand how important this is. And we’re willing to work with anybody — Democrat or Republican — to try to move this forward.
But you’re right, most of the pressure should be on senators from states like Texas and Mississippi and Alabama and Florida and Georgia — places where we know the climate is warmer, where the mosquito populations of this particular mosquito are likely to be larger. And, yes, there is something that all those states have in common, that they’re overwhelmingly represented by Republicans in the United States Congress. So I guess at some point they’re going to have to choose whether or not their animosity toward President Obama trumps their desire to try to protect pregnant women in their states from this terrible disease.
Q And on Pfizer and tax inversions, how would you describe the President’s reaction to that? I know you don’t want to comment on particular deals. But does he seem happy?
MR. EARNEST: I think my reluctance to comment on individual deals also includes my reluctance to comment on the President’s reaction to individual deals. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: So, but it was a good try, though, Tim.
Q All right.
MR. EARNEST: JC.
Q This seems like something that the President might want to bring in the governors, and we talked earlier about governors — the Zika crisis basically. I’m understanding that the travel and tourism business in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is suffering as a result of this. This last season was not what they hoped. Might the President go to the administrator of the Small Business Administration and discuss a possible support or aid for some of the small businesses that exist in those areas that are being affected by the perception, at least, of the Zika virus and how that effect is affecting the —
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any presidential conversations that have involved that topic, but I’m confident there is somebody at the Small Business Administration who could give you a sense of what kind of resources or assistance could be provided by the federal government if that situation arises or even gets worse.
I can tell you, though, that there already has been extensive coordination between administration officials and state and local officials. So I made a reference to last Friday in Atlanta, at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control, there was a summit that was convened with administration officials and with the top state and local health officials from across the country to discuss what our response to this should be.
Again, this is a pretty unique scenario. We have an opportunity to get out ahead of this disease. I don’t think we’re going to — the sense is not that we can prevent it entirely, but we can begin to take steps right now before the disease is widespread in the United States that can prevent it from having the worst possible impact on our public health.
And because of Congress’s refusal to act, our ability to take those steps is quite limited right now — so limited, in fact, that we are now actually having to take money away from the Ebola fight to try to at least begin some of those activities to prepare for the onset of the mosquito season and the potential spread of the Zika virus. But those resources are insufficient. We need a lot more resources to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to protect pregnant women in the United States of America. That shouldn’t be a controversial notion. In fact, it’s a common-sense one.
And it’s going to seem pretty common sense if and when we reach the scenario where there is genuine public panic about the spread of this disease. And again, I take no joy in suggesting that Republicans are going to look back on this time that they’ve had to act on the Zika virus and deeply regret it. It’s deeply regrettable right now that they aren’t taking the necessary steps to fight this disease.
Q I just sort of wanted to ask about — when you talk about these limited funds, but you do have $600 million to take from Ebola, which isn’t as pressing at the moment, in what ways is the lack of funding felt? So what is not being done that could be done with more money?
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So let’s talk about a couple of those things. The first is it is typically local jurisdictions that are responsible for fighting mosquitoes. In some states I know that they’ve even set up mosquito-control districts where they can essentially tax local residents to reduce the mosquito population in those communities.
The sense here is knowing that this is a disease that is carried by mosquitoes that we should ramp up and expand mosquito-control efforts in communities across the country, particularly in those communities in the south where there already is a large mosquito population, and one that is only going to grow as the calendar gets closer to the summertime. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is that there is a lot of scientific work that needs to be done to develop diagnostics and vaccines. A lot of that work is done by the private sector, but they do so based on guarantees from the federal government. And in order to get a serious investment on the part of the private sector, the federal government needs to be able to make some commitments about a market existing for these products. So that’s why we believe that longer-term funding is critically important to make available right now so the private sector has the confidence that they can go out and invest in robust production of diagnostic tools and vaccines to fight Zika.
There is additional work that can be done primarily by state and local health authorities to try to prepare for the eventuality that Zika arrives in the United States. And many of those preparatory activities are limited until they get sufficient funding.
The last thing is just laboratory capacity. If you have a situation where a whole bunch of people are going to start getting tested to see whether or not they have the Zika virus, we need to make sure that we can then process those tests rapidly enough to give people a quick response so that they can begin to take the necessary precautions if they are determined to have the Zika virus.
Here’s why that’s important. Four out of five people that contract Zika won’t have any symptoms. And it could potentially put individuals in a situation where they unknowingly pass the disease on to their sexual partners, for example. So that’s why providing them information about whether or not they have the Zika virus is critical, and ensuring that diagnostics can be promptly processed through the labs requires additional lab capacity. And that’s something that we would use funding from Congress to do.
Q So are you saying that at this point, the federal government can’t do all that it wants to do to try to prevent Zika because of the money? Or is the money that you’re transferring over adequate for X amount of time, and how much time would that be?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that right now the federal government needs additional resources to make sure that the federal government and state and local governments are doing all that is necessary to protect the American people from the Zika virus. It’s as simple as that.
And that is why we need Congress to step up to the plate and not do something controversial, not do something that guarantees anybody a political victory, but to do something that would make the American people safer from a virus that targets pregnant women and their newborn babies.
Q But I’m asking — you’re transferring a large amount of money. Is that allowing the federal government to do everything it wants to do for a particular amount of time? And can you tell me what that time is? Or is the federal government right now not able to do everything it wants to do because the $600 million that you’re transferring is not enough?
MR. EARNEST: Right, but what I’m suggesting is that the $600 million is not enough, and that there is more support that we would provide in particular to state and local authorities who are carrying a lot of this burden. It’s state and local authorities that are going to be responsible for mosquito control. It’s state and local authorities that need to ramp up their public health infrastructure to make sure that if individuals show up sick to the doctor’s office, that a Zika diagnosis can be quickly made if necessary.
Q Okay. So it’s accurate to say that the federal government would be doing more if it had more money from Congress right now. I just want to —
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. And we believe there is more that the federal, state and local governments should be doing with sufficient resources to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And right now, that’s not happening because Congress has not done its job.
Q Okay, great. And on Pfizer, I know you don’t want to comment on the individual cases, but you spoke very generally about what these rules want to do. So any time you have a company that would have completed a merger that would have resulted in a tax inversion that is now prevented, you would call that a success, right? Is that exactly what these rules intend?
MR. EARNEST: The intent of the rule is to close a loophole that allows individual corporations to, on paper, move their company’s operations overseas so that they can avoid paying taxes. First of all, the President thinks that that’s unfair. This is a tax benefit that is not available to middle-class families. It’s only available to wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals. And the lost revenue associated with individuals not — or corporations in this case — not paying their fair share does have an impact on our ability to invest in our schools, or in reducing the cost of a college education, or in putting people back to work building our infrastructure. That’s the loss. And we’re focused on closing that loophole.
I’ll let individual companies discuss how exactly they’re affected by the closing of this loophole. But, yes, preventing anybody, any corporation from using this loophole to avoid paying taxes is exactly the intent of the rule.
Q And what would you say about the results of the primary last night? Kind of an —
MR. EARNEST: Not much, probably. (Laughter.)
Q — interesting —
MR. EARNEST: Look, there’s a lot that’s been said, and I don’t know that I’d have a whole lot to weigh in on it. I mean, look, Wisconsin is going to be an important state in the general election. And at some point, regardless of who the nominees are, there will be a vigorous campaign in the fall in that state.
So it is — I think those who did well in the results — or who did well in the election yesterday want to say that Wisconsin had an important role to play in the primary. I think what is clear is that Wisconsin, regardless of who the nominees are, will have an important role to play in the general. And so there will be more to come from Wisconsin voters, I’m sure, before the year is up.
Q But what we’re hearing from the Clinton campaign is that they’re going to be sort of changing their tack from here on out, that it’s going to be more of trying to disqualify — is the word that we’ve heard from some advisors — Bernie Sanders. So we’ve already heard this kind of abrasive rhetoric from Republicans against each other. Now things might get more testy among the Democrats. What are your thoughts on that? And given the President’s words on — we heard him at I think it was a fundraiser, I think about a month ago, where he talked sort of behind the scenes and off camera about trying to unify the party. What do you think if the Democratic race is also going to be getting more contentious, I guess would be the word?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it is fair to say that Democrats have a long way to go — a long way to go — before they reach the level of vitriol that has been traded between the Republican candidates, to say nothing of the comments that Republican candidates have made about each other’s spouses.
But I think what is true is the President, at some point, as the leader of the Democratic Party, as the most well-regarded figure not just in the Democratic Party, but right now in American politics, the President is going to play an important role in the general election — first and foremost, unifying Democrats behind the Democratic nominee, but also making a strong case about his successor. And you’ve all heard from the President about the kind of argument that he wants to make about ensuring that he’s succeeded by somebody who shares his values and is committed to building on the progress that we’ve made.
But look, there will be plenty of time for that general election to come around and for the President to spend a lot of time in public making a forceful case in support of his successor.
Q Is more contentiousness now at this point, though, going to lessen the unity that many see as ultimately necessary?
MR. EARNEST: I think people expect that a Democratic primary — or a primary on either side is going to be vigorous. I think the question is, are you focused on the issues that are most important to the American people. And I think to the extent that you have seen a debate on the Republican side, it hasn’t necessarily been focused on those issues. I think it’s been focused on a lot of other things. But on the Democratic side, to the extent that there have been differences between the candidates on policy, it has been focused on issues. And I think that’s a healthy thing.
Q Just to follow up on that, is the President getting at all antsy sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the nominee to come with the — clinch delegates?
MR. EARNEST: No. The President has plenty on his plate right now. But the time will come where the President will have the opportunity to make a forceful public case about who he believes should succeed him in the Oval Office. And when that time comes, I’m confident that the President will join that debate with a lot of zest.
Q And then, I wanted to ask you about the minimum wage. The President put out statements earlier this week praising the governors of California and New York for their action raising the state minimum wage there to $15.00 an hour. I don’t think that the budget that the President put forward had a dollar amount, but congressional Democrats have consistently talked about this $10.10 figure. Where is the President coming down on this right now? Where does he want to see the federal minimum wage go to?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been pretty clear that he’s strongly supportive of Democratic efforts in the United States Congress to raise the minimum wage. I think there are a couple of different proposals out there, and the President has simply said that it’s time to give hardworking Americans a raise. And it’s unfortunate that Republicans have thus far blocked that idea and blocked that legislation from moving forward.
The President’s thinking is actually pretty simple here — that our economy grows best when it grows from the middle out. And if we’re looking for ways — and this is what Republicans say — to give people an incentive to go back to work, what better way to give them an incentive to work hard than to give them a raise? Right now, we’re not properly incentivizing or rewarding hard work. Right now, if you’re raising a family of four and you’re working full-time, but only getting paid the minimum wage, you’re trying to raise your family below the poverty line. The President doesn’t think that that’s fair. It’s not good for our economy. And that’s why the President is a strong advocate of raising the minimum wage.
There are a variety of proposals that have been floated in states, and there are a handful of proposals that have been floated in Congress. The President believes that the people who are making minimum wage in America right now deserve a raise.
Q The Washington Post had an op-ed that said that $15.00 an hour would represent a quantum leap in the increase in the minimum wage. Does the White House disagree with that? Does the President think that making that large of a jump from $7.25 all the way up to $15.00, or even if it’s $12.00, is that something that’s happening too quick, too fast?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think many of the proposals that have been floated in Congress have been phased proposals. And I think that even many of these — I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs of municipalities and states that have raised their minimum wage. I know many of them have a phased increase in the minimum wage, and I think for common-sense reasons.
But look, right now you have Republicans who are saying that people who are working the minimum wage don’t deserve a raise. People who are working full-time, making the minimum wage, raising a family of four, deserve to be below the poverty line. I don’t really understand why that’s the case that they’re making. It certainly seems inconsistent not just with common sense, or a common-sense appraisal of or economy, it also seems inconsistent with the kind of rhetoric that we hear from Republicans about having access to the American Dream.
So we’re going to continue to make our case to Republicans, but this is another example where Republicans in Congress have sided with corporate interests rather than hardworking Americans.
Let’s move around a little bit. Toluse.
Q Thanks, Josh. You said earlier on inversions that you’ll allow individual companies to talk about this on their own. And I wanted to give you a chance to respond to what the Allergan CEO said in an interview earlier today. He said that these new rules are un-American and they seem to have been written in a way that specifically targets this deal and no others. And he also said that these new deals will build a wall around the U.S., that there will be less foreign investment in the future. So I wanted to give you a chance to respond.
MR. EARNEST: Well, on the last part, just as a factual matter, he’s wrong about that. The Treasury Department can walk you through the technical details, but there are provisions that are included in the rules that allow for significant investments on the part of foreign countries — or foreign companies to make investments in the United States. So that’s obviously a good thing. The President has talked about how that’s important for our economy over the long term. And the President has been a leading advocate of companies overseas doing that.
The President is going to spend some time in Germany at the end of this month, where you’ll hear more from him talking about how important it is for companies around the world to invest in the United States, that they can get access to a vibrant economy. They can get access to the hardest-working, most innovative workers in the world. They can get access to a business climate where people who work hard and play by the rules have a pretty good shot at success.
So that is entirely consistent with the case that we’ve been making for some time.
As it relates to the other aspects of the quote, look, I think it is difficult to have a lot of patience for an American CEO trying to execute a complicated financial transaction to avoid paying taxes in America talking about what it means to be a good citizen of the United States. At this point, it’s hard to have a lot of patience for the commentary on patriotism from a corporate leader who’s prepared to renounce his citizenship just to avoid paying his fair share. And that’s I think part of why I think the American people are strongly on the side of the government in this case. You have some corporate leaders — look, I think most corporate leaders are trying to do the right thing for the country. Most corporate leaders in America understand that a strong American economy is good for their business. And the concern that we have is with the leaders of some corporations that are looking to take the best of America without making a contribution to the success of our country. And that’s wrong.
And I think — I’m not going to have a lot of patience — or I don’t think anybody else is going to have a lot of patience for a discussion of patriotism from somebody who is advocating that kind of approach to their company’s accounting practices.
Q Would you agree that since this was done via executive action instead of going through Congress, and since it was such a major rule change, that it’s sunken this $160 billion deal that it’s possible that there may be unintended consequences since Congress wasn’t involved in terms of how this might affect future deals, future decisions by companies in terms of investing in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Look, again, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department because I think that they have been quite thoughtful about this.
Look, many of you observed yesterday that it took the Treasury Department a couple of years to announce these rule changes, so they clearly have thought through the consequences for this specific action. It’s also why there are specific provisions in here that go to great lengths to ensure that we’re not overly disincentivizing foreign companies who are seeking to invest in the United States.
Our target here, what we’re focused on is American companies that are seeking to move overseas only on paper just to avoid paying American taxes. That’s the loophole that we’re focused on closing. And we do believe that these rules will be helpful in pursuing that goal. But to definitively end this unpatriotic corporate practice, we need Congress to act. And more precisely we need Republicans in Congress to stop working so hard to defend corporate interests that are seeking to shirk their basic American responsibility. That’s the real issue here.
And look, it’s not Democrats — at least that I’m aware of — that are opposed to closing the inversion loophole. In fact, there are a handful of Republicans who are supportive of it, including at least one presidential candidate. But yet we can’t get Republicans in Congress to understand the significance of their failure to act.
Q One more on — apparently WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, decided to encrypt all messages that are sent over that messaging service going forward. I’m wondering since there has been such a big debate over Apple and the FBI and terrorism, if you have a reaction to that decision by WhatsApp?
MR. EARNEST: Not really. It doesn’t change our policy or our view of how the federal government and the technology industry can and should be able to work together to ensure that robust — or that strong encryption can be robustly deployed without giving terrorists or child pornographers or other bad actors a safe haven in cyberspace.
So it’s complicated and it’s technical, in part because these policies and the technology itself is rapidly changing. It means that we need to have a policy that can adapt along with it. That kind of innovation is healthy. We also want to make sure that we don’t put in place rules that are going to stifle that innovation. That innovation is critical to the success of our economy. It’s also critical to the success of strong encryption.
But there are areas where we’ve been able to work together to get this done, including fighting things like child pornography. And hopefully when it comes to keeping the American people safe from terrorism, we should be able to work together to stop that, too.
Q Just one clarification on the Zika thing. My colleagues who have covered this a lot closer over the last couple of months say that when Republicans have repeatedly asked on Capitol Hill of the administration, why don’t you just spend some of the Ebola money that you have, the answer from the administration for the last two months has been, it’s spent. We don’t have it. It’s allocated. There’s no way we can spend any of that money. So I guess the question is: What changed between — what changed now that changed that answer and suddenly you have half a billion dollars to spend?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not been our approach. And since we started talking about this in early February, even when I discussed this shortly after the President talked about this in the Super Bowl interview he did with CBS, we acknowledged that there were some funds that could be made available to this fight from Ebola-dedicated accounts that we could take away without completely undermining the fight against Ebola.
Q But you didn’t do it for two months.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q So was that just a — that was a political decision to keep the pressure on for two months, and then now it’s bad enough that you want to go ahead and take the money?
MR. EARNEST: Well, now we can’t wait any longer for Congress to act. We simply asked Congress for the money, and they didn’t act. And so now we’re going to take — we’re doing the responsible thing, which is drawing on all available resources to try to meet this urgent need. But the only reason that we’re having to do that, to tap in an emergency fashion these funds is because Congress for two months hasn’t done a single thing.
Q So you didn’t tell them for the last two months that this money was not available to spend?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t account for all the conversations. What I can tell you is what I’ve said publicly since the first Monday in February is that there would be some funding that we could use to this effort from Ebola, but that that funding level would be insufficient to meet the significant needs that we’ve identified, and that there’s a risk associated with drawing that money away from the Ebola fight. And that’s why we’re going to continue to urge Congress that as they pass the Zika money, that they also make sure that they’re making available funds so that we can repay the Ebola accounts that have been drawn down to deal with this emergency situation.
The truth is this is way more complicated than it should be. The fact is we knew back in February that this was going to be a significant issue. We put forward a specific plan to Congress about what resources would be necessary. And for two months Congress hasn’t done a thing. I don’t really understand how they account for that. Maybe they want to suggest that there has been some sort of miscommunication. I don’t think that kind of explanation is going to fly when it comes to the American people wondering why their government didn’t take all of the available steps that they knew were necessary to try to protect pregnant women and their newborn kids from the Zika virus.
The administration is going to have a strong case to make about what we’ve been doing. We’ve been focused on this since January. We put forward a specific plan to Congress. We’ve been interacting with state and local officials trying to provide them advice and support about what steps they can take to fight the Zika virus. The President had a conversation with the governors when they were here back in February about steps they could take in their own states. We convened this conference at the CDC at the end of last week. We’re taking money that is available from some Ebola accounts to try to shore up this investment.
But all of this activity has taken place on the part of the administration and on the part of state and local officials, to be fair. But when it comes to Congress, we’ve gotten nothing.
Q Just on the Zika thing, I’m struck by the way you’re describing the circumstance that we find ourselves in. You’re talking about it in the same sentence with the words Ebola. Yes, pregnant women and their newborns are the target, but it seemed to me that months ago you were trying to downplay how much of a threat to public health Zika was. You were saying how the symptoms were mild in many cases, and how it’s not fatal, it’s nothing like Ebola, and now it sounds like your tone has changed a lot. And the question is, has this all become just too partisan? You list this funding issue — which is a legitimate issue — along with six or seven other things that Congress won’t act on, as we were discussing yesterday. So how much of a threat and how serious is this whole outbreak to the general population? And are you being a bit partisan about this?
MR. EARNEST: Ron, I think I’ve gone to great lengths to make clear that there is no reason this should be partisan. In fact, I think I just went to great lengths to actually point out that the danger is most significant for states that are represented in the Congress by Republicans. But yet, the administration has made this a priority. The administration doesn’t care any less about people who are represented in Congress by Republicans.
We’re genuinely concerned about the health of the American people. In this case, we’re concerned about pregnant women and their newborn babies who are at the greatest risk from the Zika virus.
I have gone to great lengths to try to describe to people exactly what the risk is that is posed by the Zika virus. It’s different than the risk that is posed by Ebola. There’s no denying that. We’ve gone to great lengths to make that clear. But that doesn’t mean the risk is insignificant. The risk is quite significant when you talk about the impact that this virus has on pregnant women and their newborn babies.
And our concern has been enhanced by the fact that we now know that sexual transmission of this virus is actually more common than was previously thought. That is a reason for us to raise awareness among people who are not pregnant women about the risk that they could pose, and about the risk that the Zika virus could pose to them and their family.
Q Of all the diseases and maladies that the public health system is fighting, why is just the Ebola account that Zika money can be drawn from? I mean, I don’t — maybe there’s a technical reason, but it just strikes me as odd that suddenly we’re talking about Zika and Ebola in the same sentence.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think in this case, there — well —
Q Because they’re nothing alike.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is an illustrative thing. Here’s what they do have in common. They both are reliant, at least in part, on a high-functioning public health care system to protect people. And we saw in the Ebola situation that our public health system in the United States didn’t perform quite as well as we’d expected. We certainly saw that the way that a poor public health system in another country had a very real impact on the public health of the United States; that the reason that the Ebola virus got so out of control in West Africa is because they didn’t have nearly the public health infrastructure in place to protect it. And in order to eventually go fight that disease, the United States military had to take it upon themselves to begin laying the ground work for the international community to come in and essentially build that public health infrastructure from the ground up.
So there are significant resources that were dedicated after the fact by Congress to fighting Ebola. And so this is the second thing that they have in common. Ebola didn’t get people’s attention until — at least significantly in the United States, it certainly didn’t get a lot of attention in Congress until somebody showed up at an American hospital with symptoms of the Ebola virus. That was a wake-up call for everybody.
And we did see Congress eventually mobilize to stop it. But many of you — or mobilize to get us the resources to stop it. Many of you I think legitimately asked, well, why did it take so long, and why did it take an incident — somebody testing positive for Ebola in the United States for Congress to take any sort of action, or for the government to take any sort of action, to begin to prepare the American people?
That’s exactly the opportunity that we have right now. We do know what’s coming. We do know that this mosquito-borne virus is more prevalent and is likely to be more prevalent in the United States as the weather warms up. And we know that it poses significant risk to pregnant women and newborn children. That is why we’re trying to get out ahead of this. We’re trying to learn the lessons from Ebola. They’re two different diseases — both caused by a virus, both have different risks — but the thing that we know is that we’re going to be more effective in fighting Zika if we can start trying to prevent it in the first place.
Q You mentioned the military. Yesterday, the President had these meetings with his defense team and so on and so forth about ISIS. And he said in his remarks something about how we can no longer tolerate ISIL having a headquarters in Raqqa — I think I’m quoting pretty closely. So is something going to be different now? Is there some new strategy if, in fact, we can’t tolerate this existing headquarters there anymore?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was making the case that we continue to be very focused in trying to enhance the fighting capacity of local fighters on the ground in Syria who are focused on fighting ISIL. And there have been ample public discussions about the fact that the next big objective for that fighting force is to start moving toward Raqqa.
And they’ve made some important progress. They’ve severed the supply line between Raqqa and Mosul. There are some communities, including Shaddadi, on the outskirts of Raqqa, or at least in the same region as Raqqa, where they’ve made important progress and kicked ISIL out of that town.
So they’re slowly encroaching on ISIL’s capital. And I think the President is making clear why that objective is a priority.
Q The analysis was that Raqqa would be a target many months from now, it wasn’t imminent. And maybe I’m wrong — how would you characterize how imminent it is or not?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly do not have any military training, but it is unwise to announce military operations before they’ve begun. I can tell you that there are many, many military airstrikes that have been carried out by the United States and our coalition partners against ISIL targets in Raqqa.
So there already is significant pressure that’s being applied against ISIL targets in Raqqa. There already are ISIL officials in Raqqa that have been killed by U.S. military airstrikes. There are other aspects of ISIL’s infrastructure in Raqqa, including financial resources, that have been destroyed by U.S. military airstrikes in Raqqa.
So we’re already applying significant pressure against ISIL officials in their capital. But our broader objective is to enhance the capacity of local fighters on the ground to eventually drive ISIL out of that city. I don’t have an updated timeframe for you on that, but that is certainly an important priority.
Q So that was a not routine meeting, but it was a regular meeting that he has, and so forth. And even though the strategy was assessed, as it is on an ongoing basis — I’m trying to use some — we should expect that that moment was not pivotal? There’s nothing dramatically different that’s going to be happening on the ground in that theater now, going forward, post-Brussels?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure I totally understand your question. The President typically meets with combatant commanders who are military uniform leaders from around the world every year or two. And he’ll host all of them when they happen to be in town, invite them over to the White House. They’ll do a business meeting, and then they’ll have a formal dinner.
And obviously, ISIL was a prominent topic of discussion, but far from the only one. There are a variety of challenges that the United States military is confronting around the globe, and those are the kinds of challenges that were discussed in the meeting, including making sure that our military leaders have the resources that are necessary to wage those fights. And the President believes all of that is important.
We’ve talked about how we’re going to continue to steadily ramp up the pressure against ISIL not just in Syria, but also in Iraq, and anyplace else that extremists decide that they want to try to establish a safe haven and carry out strikes against the United States. And so that’s why you’ve seen recent strikes in places like Somalia and Yemen and even Libya against extremists that are threatening the United States.
And this is something that the President has described as his top priority. That was true before Brussels and it continues to be true today.
Q Josh, I want to ask — two different subjects. On the Zika virus, as you’re offering these warnings about the summer, what’s the worst-case scenario that you’ve envisioning for the summer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any specific projections to offer from here. I think that what we have seen is that we do anticipate that the mosquito that carries this virus, or is capable of carrying this virus, is likely to be more widespread in the United States than previously thought.
Part of our concern about the Zika virus is also motivated by additional information that indicates that the Zika virus is more easily spread through sexual contact than was previously understood. We also are concerned that the Zika virus appears to have a more potent impact on infant brain development than was previously understood.
So there are a variety of reasons to be more concerned about this particular situation than we were early in the year. But even then, the administration was mindful of the risk that this virus posed, and we sought to communicate publicly to the American people in accurate form exactly what the risk was. But we also conveyed to Congress specifically exactly what we believed was necessary to try to fight this virus, and what steps we could take in advance of the mosquito season, if you will, to fight this disease, or to at least prepare for its arrival and spread in the United States.
Q So you’re more ramped up now than you were about a month or two ago when you had the officials at the podium talking about the virus.
MR. EARNEST: We have made some steps to try to ramp up our preparations. A lot of this has involved coordinating with state and local officials who, again, are going to bear the burden of this response. They’re responsible for fighting mosquito populations. They’re going to be responsible for the strength and effectiveness of their public health infrastructure.
All these are things that take place at the state and local level. And the United States government has an important responsibility to give them the resources that they need to carry out these activities. And again, this is the other reason that Congress should be taking these requests seriously, because it’s not just the United States — I’m sorry — it’s not just the President of the United States that’s making this request. He’s making this request on behalf of state and local officials who are desperate to ensure that they have the resources necessary to protect their citizens.
Q So since you’re ramping everything up, what’s the status of the vaccines? I remember the conversation the last time the vaccines were coming, but there were trials that were — are you ramping that up? Well, not are you, but is there a ramp-up in that as well? And what’s the status?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an updated assessment for you on that. I know that that work has been continuing, but I don’t have an updated assessment. I’m sure my colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control could give you an update.
Q And on the last subject, is there hope that Merrick Garland will have some sort of hearing — a Senate confirmation hearing before the end of this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, absolutely. Just yesterday, a Republican senator, after having met with Chief Judge Garland, joined the call suggesting that the next step should be for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings.
We’ve acknowledged that next week, Judge Garland will be meeting with a number of Republican senators — I’ve got the list right here somewhere — that includes, just next week, Senators Ayotte, Portman, Murkowski and Flake will be meeting with Chief Judge Garland. Chief Judge Garland will be meeting next week with the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley from Iowa.
So, yes, there is a continued progress that we’re seeing. We’ve made clear — or at least, I should say, the Senate Judiciary Committee has made clear that they’re prepared to accept the questionnaire from Chief Judge Garland.
So this is a process that, slowly but surely, is moving forward. But we need to see Republicans demonstrate a clear commitment to actually doing their job and fulfilling their constitutional responsibility. And the idea that they’re not going to do their job just because Mitch McConnell told them not to is not an explanation that’s going to fly with their voters.
Q But the constituents in some of these states are saying — in the Republican states are saying no; Democratic states are saying yes. I mean, you have a clear divide.
MR. EARNEST: I disagree. And we’ll provide you some publicly available polling information that are conducted by the new organizations of your colleagues that actually send a rather clear signal, even in purple states like the one that is represented in the United States Senate by Chairman Grassley, that most Republicans agree with us.
Most Republican voters agree that members of the United States Senate should do their job, even though it’s a presidential election year and even though Mitch McConnell doesn’t want them to.
Q Can I get your private polling — not the public one. Can you get that? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Gregory.
Q You didn’t answer that. (Laughter.)
Q I wanted to go back to Pfizer but take it maybe in a slightly different direction. We also had news today out of the Justice Department on the Halliburton-Baker Hughes merger. There is a Staples-Office Depot merger that is being challenged at the Federal Trade Commission. Can you connect the dots for us on this a little bit, not just on tax policy, but anti-trust policy, consumer protection policy, financial regulation? Could you articulate what the President’s attitude is towards these corporate mergers? Do they add value to the economy and to shareholders through creating more efficiencies? Or is it fair to say he’s more skeptical because of the impacts these mergers often have on taxpayers and on jobs and on consumers?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s going to be hard for me to be helpful in answering this question because we’re just not going to weigh in on individual financial transactions. And some of the transactions that you referred to are actually being considered by independent regulators, like at the FTC or at the Department of Justice.
Q And what I’m trying to do is try to ask this at a level that you can comment on. Philosophically, how does the President, how does this administration view corporate mergers?
MR. EARNEST: I think philosophically you have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. And I think that’s exactly what regulators do.
Look, the President’s principle here is that the United States economy is the envy of the world. There are a variety of reasons for that. But one of the reasons that we have recovered so strongly from the economic downturn in 2007 and 2008 is the President was focused on a strategy that was growing the economy from the middle out. And as long as we’re focused on the best interests of middle-class families, then we’re going to be doing the right thing, not just for those middle-class families but for the country.
And that’s the President’s approach to all these economic issues. It’s why the President is such a strong advocate of putting people back to work by building our infrastructure. Those are pretty good jobs. But those also lay the foundation for the long-term strength of our economy. That’s why the President is a strong advocate for things like early childhood education, or lowering the cost of a college education, or even many job-training programs that ensure that American workers have the skills they need to compete in a 21st century global economy.
That’s the way that the President sort of evaluates all of these economic circumstances, and certainly the way he evaluates economic policies. I guess it would be fair to say that assessing the impact of those kinds of transactions on middle-class families would be the way the President believes one could reasonably determine their impact on the U.S. economy.
Q And then on Zika, it seems to be the White House position that Congress is forcing you into a position where you have to rob Peter to pay Paul on Zika. You’ve talked a little bit about what you want to give to Paul. Can you talk a little bit about Peter and what exactly — (laughter) — what Ebola-related activities you will not be able to do because you’ve diverted $510 million from Ebola to Zika?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a lot of granular detail on exactly what sort of impact this will have. I will note that this is not all of the available Ebola money. We can’t take our eye off the ball when it comes to Ebola. And so there are critical aspects of the fight against Ebola that are ongoing.
Now, I think the other thing that I should clarify — and this goes a little bit to Ron’s question from earlier — is that a lot of our Ebola funding and our efforts to fight Ebola were actually focused on improving public health infrastructures. So these are the kinds — the shorthand for all of this is Ebola, because we saw that weaknesses in that public health infrastructure contributed to a greater risk of Ebola.
But the fact is, enhancing this public health infrastructure, both in the United States and around the world, can have the effect of protecting the American people from a wide variety of diseases. And that’s all the more reason that we can’t risk undermining those critically important investments simply because Congress won’t take the necessary steps, the common-sense steps to prepare for a disease that we know is on the way.
And so I will see if we can get somebody at OMB to provide you with some additional information on that. But generally speaking, that’s what our approach has been.
Q Thanks, Josh. A sad note to begin on. Merle Haggard has passed away on his 79th birthday. The country music world losing a legend. Your thoughts on his passing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, he’s a legend in country music. And his passing I think is something that people all across the country — even people who are only casual country music fans — can appreciate. He was a legend. And he was somebody who I think told the kinds of stories that, whether you live in an urban community or a suburban community or a rural community, I think you could relate to.
And so obviously his passing is a loss for country music, but it obviously is a loss for all the people who got to know him personally too. And so I say our thoughts and prayers are with his family and his friends at this time.
Q Thanks for that, Josh, appreciate that. I know we’ve talked a bit about inversions today. I want to circle back to the fiduciary rule. And if you would — I know sometimes inside the beltway, there’s sort of a technical aspect to this, but if you would help me make sense of this — let’s say somebody in Marshall or Fayette who just wants to understand broadly what the President is aiming for here. And as sort of a second part of that, what about caveat emptor — buy beware? How much is the responsibility also on the investor to do that right thing? So if you could explain, I’d appreciate it.
MR. EARNEST: The core principle here, Kevin, is fairness. And right now the President believes that financial advisors who are offering people retirement advice should do a pretty common-sense thing, which is that they should put the interest of their customer ahead of their own financial interests. Right now there are some financial advisors who don’t abide by what’s called the fiduciary standard, and instead what they do is they actually try to sell certain retirement products to their customers, even if those products may not be exactly right for their customer, given their customer’s age or wealth. But by selling them those products, there are incentives that the retirement advisor, the financial advisor gets access to. They get kickbacks from the company that created the instrument in the first place, or they can be rewarded with a free cruise for themselves and their family if they sell enough shares in this particular product.
And it’s not fair for financial advisors to give advice for their customers that isn’t in their customer’s best interest. That’s not honest. That’s not fair. And so all the President is saying is, if you are doing this the right way, if you are abiding by the fiduciary standard, if you are eliminating that conflict of interest and making clear to your customer that your customer’s interest comes first, then this rule doesn’t have any impact on you.
This rule is aimed at those financial advisors that aren’t disclosing that conflict of interest and that are not appropriately looking out for the long-term financial interests of their customers who are looking to save a little money for retirement. The consequences are significant. At least one study indicates that American families lose $17 billion each year because the advice that they’re getting is not in their own personal financial interest.
So the President has made access to a secure retirement a top priority. We want to make sure that every family, particularly middle-class families, have access to a secure retirement. And if there are people who are going to financial advisors who are not acting in their best interest and are causing the system to bleed $17 billion in losses every year, that makes it harder for people to retire securely. And that’s why the President — or the Department of Labor, I think in this case, has put forward a rule that is focused on the simple, common-sense fairness of people who are trying to do the right thing by responsibly saving for retirement.
Q Can you answer the second part of that question about “buyer beware — you have a responsibility as well”?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and I think that is part of this problem, is that individual retirement advisors didn’t have to disclose whether or not they were acting in their customer’s best interest. And this rule makes clear that if you want to offer people retirement advice, that you have to put the financial interests of your customers first.
Q Okay, and last one for me. You may have seen this in the Post about paid administrative leave in federal agencies. Some pretty staggering numbers. GAO cited in this report by the Post that to the tune of millions of dollars have been wasted effectively by federal employees who have been placed on administrative leave and then receive full pay, full benefits, only to come back to work, effectively getting sometimes years of paid leave. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen that full report. I can just tell you in general that this administration has worked hard to root out waste, fraud, and abuse, particularly when it comes to the use of taxpayer dollars. That’s something that we take quite seriously. And there are a variety of ways in which we have approached this, including everything from — including most importantly, I should say, taking a look at old regulations and figuring out what sort of regulations don’t make sense anymore. And by eliminating those old regulations that don’t really apply, we can actually do something quite significant to save taxpayer dollars. That’s just one example of the kinds of steps that we have taken to make sure that this administration is a good steward of taxpayer dollars.
Bill, nice to see you today.
Q Thank you very much. You devoted considerable time yesterday and some today in saying that there was no connection between the publication of the inversion rule and the cessation of the merger plan between Allergan and Pfizer. Pfizer said they dropped it because of the rule. Why should anybody believe that the timing had nothing to do with it, that the timing was not coincidental?
MR. EARNEST: I guess the reason that people should — the thing that people should understand is that this rule was under development and being considered by the Treasury Department four years — years — before these two companies even announced that that they were considering a corporate inversion. So this is a long thought-out strategy here.
Q Right. But the news of their pending inversion has been in the papers for days. So it was obviously about to happen.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let them speak to the timing of when they were expecting to consummate their transaction. I certainly didn’t have any insight into when exactly they were planning to move forward with their transaction. What I can tell you is that the focus of this rule was to close a loophole that, yes, we knew that corporations were considering taking advantage of. There’s no denying that. That’s the whole reason we closed the loophole in the first place. That’s the reason we targeted the loophole — because we knew it was possible for corporations to use that loophole to avoid paying their fair share. And we went out to close it.
Let’s move around. Andrew.
Q Is the President considering sending more troops to Iraq?
MR. EARNEST: Andrew, I don’t have any decisions to announce from here. In considering our counter-ISIL strategy, the instructions that the President has given to his team are something that we’ve talked about publicly quite a bit. We obviously have a very multifaceted strategy when it comes to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. It includes carrying out military airstrikes. It includes building the capacity of fighting forces on the ground, in Iraq and in Syria, to take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country. Our strategy includes countering the efforts of ISIL to finance their activities.
Our efforts include shutting down or at least countering the ability of ISIL to recruit fighters to their cause. Our efforts include working collaboratively with countries around the world to prevent potential foreign fighters from traveling to Iraq and in Syria in the first place. And in each of those lines of effort, we’ve made important progress.
We are seeing that ISIL is struggling to pay their fighters as much as they were before. We are seeing that the number of fighters — foreign fighters in Iraq and in Syria is lower than it has been before. We are seeing more voices, particularly in the Muslim world, speaking out against the hateful ideology of ISIL. We are seeing the capacity of fighting forces on the ground in Iraq and in Syria be enhanced. We are seeing more airstrikes being taken against ISIL targets. We are seeing that ISIL is having to withdraw from about 40 percent of the territory that they previously held in Iraq. The percentage is smaller in Syria. But there are tens of thousands of square kilometers inside of Syria that ISIL used to control that they don’t anymore. All of that is a result of the efforts that we have undertaken.
And what the President has said is if there is an opportunity for us to devote more resources to a particular aspect of our strategy that would allow us to yield more success, then bring me those ideas. And so there are a couple examples of that. One thing that we have seen that has been useful is to put U.S. and coalition military personnel on the ground in Iraq and in Syria to provide some advice and assistance to troops that are fighting ISIL.
And the President recognized that was a strategy that was yielding some fruit in Iraq, and he decided to try that strategy in Syria, as well. And so there are Special Operations Forces in Syria right now — a small number — but that small number of U.S. military personnel is working to offer advice and assistance to forces that are fighting ISIL on the ground.
So the President is looking for ways that we can reinforce those aspects of our strategy that are yielding some progress. And if there’s an opportunity for us to make more progress by putting more resources behind one particular line of effort, then the President wants to see those kinds of recommendations.
So at the same time, I guess just because you raise the prospect, it’s important for people to understand what we’re not doing. We’re not going to devote tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel on the ground in Iraq and in Syria in a combat role. We tried that. That doesn’t work. That doesn’t address the situation on the ground. And it doesn’t make the United States of America safer. So the President’s strategy is one that is not going to solve this problem overnight, but it is going to make us safer. It is going to put additional pressure against ISIL. And it is more likely to lead to the kind of political outcome that we know will be required in Syria for sure, and to a different extent in Iraq, to eventually solve this problem. And that’s what we’re focused on.
Q In that regard, has he asked for or received any updates on the troop levels or troop posture since the beginning of the Mosul offensive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been reviewing progress on the ground. The President every couple of weeks meets with his broader national security team to talk about the progress of the counter-ISIL coalition. And that includes a regular update about the resources that are being devoted to particular lines of effort. But I don’t have anything to tell you publicly at this point about any additional requests that have been made by the Department of Defense or any other member of his national security team.
Q Thanks, Josh. With the President going back tomorrow to the school where he once taught constitutional law, he’s saying that senators, Republican senators are not doing their constitutional duty in blocking confirmation hearings for Judge Garland. Obviously, over the last two terms, Republicans have often criticized the President for exceeding his constitutional authority. I know that’s not an unusual charge to come from Congress. But in a couple of big cases, the courts have dealt him setbacks on that front — like immigration, for example. I’m just wondering can you say how the President’s views have changed about the limits of presidential power since he was a law school instructor?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question. I think it’s probably going to be hard for me to answer. It’s one that probably is best for him to answer. I can tell you —
Q Bring him out.
MR. EARNEST: We could just — like we did yesterday, just do it again? Let me go see if he’s available, and we’ll — (laughter). I think — I suppose there’s an opportunity — the President will take some questions from the audience at the event tomorrow. So maybe there’s the potential that somebody would ask him this question tomorrow.
I think in general the President believes — and I think his record bears this out — that he has been rather conscientious about aggressively using executive authority within the confines of the law to make progress where Congress has refused.
And more often than not, when those questions have been raised in the courts, the administration has won. I think the numerous health care cases I think is a good illustration of that. You cited some examples where we have not seen the outcome that we would like. But I think the President while serving in office does appreciate how important executive authority is. And I think we’ve seen and our economy has benefitted from some of the decisions that the President has made or his administration has made using executive authority.
The irony, Dave, is that nobody questions the responsibility of the President of the United States to nominate someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. That’s written into the Constitution. Rather, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing Republicans refuse to fulfill their basic responsibility that’s written into the Constitution. So, in some ways, I think you’re asking both an interesting and legitimate question about the President’s view of executive authority. I think to give you a full answer it would probably require some more insight into the President’s thinking, and I think you’d probably get a thoughtful answer.
When it comes to the basic congressional responsibility in terms of considering Supreme Court nominees, that’s a whole lot more straightforward and something I’m sure the President will talk about more tomorrow.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Any guidance on when we’ll get President Obama’s tax returns?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any guidance about that right now. We will provide them before the filing deadline, which I believe this year is actually April 18th. But we’ll have them before then.
Q His schedule today that you’ve given us is pretty light. Anything he’s doing that you can tell us about?
MR. EARNEST: Over the course of the day today?
MR. EARNEST: The President has got some meetings with members of his team here. It is a little quieter than usual just as the President prepares for a three-day trip at the end of this week. And obviously the President was working a little later yesterday when he was hosting the combatant commanders here at the White House. But nothing specific I can tell you about.
Q And can you confirm that he’s doing a Sunday Show interview tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President, while in Chicago, will tape an interview with Chris Wallace for Fox News Sunday. It’s the first time that the President has appeared on that program as President of the United States. He’s done at least one other interview with Mr. Wallace since becoming President, and he did an interview for that program before being elected President. This will be the first time that he’s on that program exclusively as a guest, as President of the United States.
Q What’s your thinking in doing it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think this is an opportunity for the President to — well, let me say it this way. Obviously, Mr. Wallace is traveling to Chicago and will interview the President at the University of Chicago Law School. So I think part of our expectation in terms of preparing the President for the interview is that Mr. Wallace will want to talk to him about the Supreme Court nomination that he’s put forward. And this is obviously something that Mr. Wallace has questioned his guests about quite frequently over the last several weeks. And I would anticipate that that will be true of this week’s program, as well.
But while that will obviously be an important topic for the interview, I expect, I also expect that Mr. Wallace will ask him about some other things, too. But look, the President is looking forward to it. And I think any time that the President is doing an interview with a television program that he hasn’t done an interview with for a while, it’s an opportunity to reach a new audience, or at least an audience that may not have heard from the President directly in a while. So it seems like a particularly good opportunity to make a strong case that the United States Congress should fulfill their constitutional responsibility to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court that even Republicans describe as a consensus nominee.
Q What audience do you think he’ll be reaching by going on Fox?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, as Mr. Wallace I think would point out to you, that his audience is not just Fox News viewers, but it also Fox broadcast viewers. And this is — I’m not up to date, maybe Kevin could fill me on the latest ratings of the Sunday shows — (laughter) —
MR. EARNEST: We wouldn’t do it if it weren’t. (Laughter.) But look, obviously Mr. Wallace has a well-establish reputation for asking tough questions, so I don’t think anybody is expecting a softball interview here. But I also think that there’s some important issues to talk about. And the President is certainly looking forward to a thoughtful and serious conversation about some of these important issues. And at least for the context in which this interview is taking place, the Supreme Court will be at the top of the list.
Q Is he in the exit interview phase now?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
2:30 P.M. EDT