Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 10, 2015 – 12:55 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. A quiet group today.
Q Quiet, right?
MR. EARNEST: I do not have anything at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Kevin, do you want to dive in here?
Q So Senator Harry Reid compared Justice Scalia to Donald Trump, based on some comments the judge made regarding affirmative action. “The only difference between the ideas endorsed by Trump and Scalia is that Scalia has a robe and a lifetime appointment.” Does the White House agree with that comparison, and is it appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I’ll just say that I was asked yesterday about the comments of Justice Scalia and obviously the sentiment that he expressed is not something that anybody who has heard the public comments of Senator and now President Obama — they would detect a difference. For our position on this case, however, I would refer you to the filing from the Department of Justice. They have outlined quite clearly the position of the administration.
And the fact is opening the doors to a college education for every student in America has been a top priority of this administration, and there’s been significant progress made over the last several years. The high school graduation rate is currently at an all-time high — 81 percent. The graduation rate gap between white students and minority students is closing. The high school dropout rate is at an historic low, and most of that progress in reducing the dropout rate has been made among minority students. There are more students than ever graduating from college, and college enrollment among black and Hispanic students since 2008 is up by more than a million.
So this administration and this President has made expanding access to a college education a high priority, and we have worked closely both with Congress, with elements of the administration, but also with public and private universities to ensure that they are fulfilling their important mission of educating the next generation of American workers.
Q They would detect a difference. So the President would not agree with that comparison?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the comments articulated by Justice Scalia represent quite a different view than the priorities and values that President Obama has spent his career talking about.
Q Valerie Jarrett said at a Newtown vigil last night that the President has directed his team to, in short order, finalize a set of recommendations on what can be done by the administration to save lives from gun violence. Can you be more specific about what “short order” means? And can you confirm that the recommendations would cover the expanded use of background checks for gun purchases?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, at this point, I still don’t have an update in terms of the progress that the administration is making in scrubbing the rules and determining what elements of the President’s executive authority can be used to do a better job of keeping guns away from those who shouldn’t have them. This means what additional steps can we take to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are mentally ill.
And it’s no surprise that that has been a priority of the President’s, but in terms of that ongoing process or a timeline for rolling out some new ideas, I just don’t have an update for you at this point.
Q Just one question on the budget. A few days ago you said Republicans were whistling passed another potential shutdown. Are you becoming more optimistic, or pessimistic, where things stand? And what is the administration’s view on a short-term CR through the middle of next week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a lot there. Let me start from the beginning, which is that Congress has a responsibility to pass a budget to keep the government open. They were supposed to meet a September 30th deadline; they did not meet it, but they did come together around an agreement to essentially reach a compromise by the middle of December. And we’ve seen them make substantial progress toward completing that agreement. However, the differences that remain can be boiled down to the insistence on the part of Republicans to including ideological riders in the bill.
These are ideologically motivated policies that wouldn’t otherwise be able to pass Congress, and Republicans see this as an opportunity to sneak them through. And the real problem is these are, in most cases, little more than just earmarks to specific constituencies, and in some cases, the biggest contributors to the Republican Party.
The President is not going to go along with that. The American people certainly don’t believe that’s an effective or reasonable or responsible way to manage the affairs of the greatest country in the world. And the way that we will be able to finally reach an agreement here is when Republicans abandon their insistence on including these kinds of ideological riders in the budget process.
Q Josh, I’d like to ask you again about the K-1 visa program and the status of that review that we’ve talked about a couple of times this week already. Can you clarify whether or not the President and the White House believe you have the powers that you need already to make changes to that, or will you be asking Congress for help? And are you working with Congress on that issue right now?
MR. EARNEST: Jeff, it certainly is possible that after this investigation has made more progress in terms of the actual case, the actual investigation into this act of terrorism, that we may ask Congress for some additional assistance in reforming the program that allowed the female terrorist into the United States. But there’s still more information that needs to be learned. There’s still more information that needs to be learned about this individual, about the circumstances through which she came into this country. There’s more information that needs to be learned about her background and any connections or communications she may have had with other people overseas.
But we also need to take a close look at the K-1 visa program itself. This is the so-called fiancé visa program. And there are questions that are being asked about whether or not additional steps or screening measures could have been implemented or should have been implemented. And if so, would they have made a difference.
So these are all questions that, eight days after this terrible terrorist attack, that are still under careful consideration. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are responsible for administering this program, and both of those agencies are rightly conducting a review of that program to determine what changes are necessary.
Last thing I’d say about this is the administration routinely reviews our visa screening program writ large. And it’s not at all uncommon for adaptations or reforms to be implemented to tighten screening measures. We’ve talked, for example, about how on two different occasions over the last year the Secretary of Homeland Security has implemented tighter screening measures for those who are entering the country through the visa waiver program. There are 38 countries that cooperate with the United States that impose some screening on those individuals — or at least impose some measures on those individuals before they come to the United States to ensure they are able to properly enter the country. And there are some steps that have been taken over the last year or so to beef up those screening measures.
That’s an example of the kinds of ongoing efforts to orient our defenses to protect the homeland.
Q So you’re saying, Josh, that right now you’re not working with Congress on this review, and that that is pending until after the investigation into the California shootings is complete? Just to make sure I understand.
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that there is more information that needs to be collected in the context of the investigation to make sure we sort of have a complete picture of what exactly happened.
At the same time that that investigation is ongoing — that counterterrorism investigation is ongoing by the FBI, there is a review that’s underway at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to look into this program more broadly and determine if there are some changes that should be made to that program.
Now, obviously, information about the ongoing counterterrorism investigation — or terrorism investigation is shared with those who are doing the review. So these things can go on sort of in parallel. And as we collect additional information about the ongoing investigation that is fed into the review, and if we determine, as this review is ongoing, that congressional authority is required to make some of the changes that we believe need to be made, then we won’t hesitate to go to Congress to request that authority to make those changes.
Q Moving on to another topic, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared on Thursday to claim that his country has developed a hydrogen bomb. Is that something that the White House takes seriously? His claim?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly are concerned about the policies and intent and destabilizing actions of the North Korean regime. At this point, the information that we have access to calls into serious question those claims. But we take very seriously the risk and the threat that is posed by the North Korean regime and their ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon that doesn’t just threaten our close allies in South Korea, but could have a pretty destabilizing impact and even a national security threat to other countries in the region.
So the United States does take this quite seriously.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Michelle.
Q You’re saying that if some changes need to be made to the visa program, but just knowing what we know now — that investigators say she had talked to her potential husband about jihad ahead of time, she had attended a madrasa, she was going to a hard-core mosque in Islamabad — doesn’t that alone tell you that there’s a problem there with the screening process?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Michelle, the fact that this person entered the United States and then carried out an act of terrorism on American soil I think is reason enough to take a look at the program, and that’s exactly what the President has ordered.
Q But you’re saying if some changes need to be made. I mean, this points to some big holes already, no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that’s precisely what they’re looking at.
Q Do you feel that changes do need to be made? And I mean, based on what’s emerged now, do you feel that this person should not have been let in?
MR. EARNEST: The questions that you’re asking merit careful consideration by the experts who are responsible for administering this program, and that’s what they’re taking a look at, at the direction of the President of the United States.
Q Okay. And some of the things Harry Reid said about Scalia’s comments were that they’re “out of touch” and “distressing.” Does the administration agree with him on that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: I think in general I’m not going to have anything too direct to say in response to Justice Scalia other than pointing out that the views that he expressed stand in quite stark contrast to the kinds of values and priorities that this administration has been fighting for.
But when it comes to our administration’s view of this particular case, the Department of Justice has filed what we believe is a quite persuasive brief in the case, and so I’d encourage you to take a look at that brief for our position on these issues.
Q On their face, though, you don’t think that those comments are problematic?
MR. EARNEST: I think those comments are quite different than the kinds of values and priorities that this administration has been fighting for.
Q Okay. And I’m not sure I heard you give an answer in the beginning on your confidence level that the budget deal is going to get done.
MR. EARNEST: I’m confident it will get done if Republicans drop their insistence on including ideological riders in the budget process.
Q Do you have any hope or — do you have any confidence that they will do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’ll see. I take some confidence in knowing that the Majority Leader in the United States Senate has said that there won’t be a government shutdown, and I take some solace in knowing that the newly elected Speaker of the House doesn’t want to be in a position of presiding over a government shutdown six weeks into his tenure.
So I take some solace in that, but recognizing that ultimately, Republicans will have to decide if they’re prepared to shut down the government over these ideological issues.
Q Back in October, you guys threatened the veto of legislation that would have lifted restrictions on the export of crude oil, and kind of cited your environmental record. I’m wondering if the veto threat on legislation that would lift the crude oil ban is still operative, and if not, why not.
MR. EARNEST: Justin, our position on lifting the ban on crude oil from the United States is a position that hasn’t changed. We continue to oppose legislative action like that. The reason that I have given for that position is that we believe that it’s unnecessary for Congress to take that step, primarily because there’s authority that already rests with the executive branch to make that decision.
So that’s our view. It’s been our view for a number of months since this originally came up to be a subject of some debate.
Q And you’d still veto legislation that changed that.
MR. EARNEST: We certainly oppose it. Our position on that hasn’t changed.
Q That didn’t quite answer whether or not you would veto —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that a specific bill on this has been filed. I think I’ve been asked for our position on this issue and I’ve stated pretty consistently that we oppose it. I know that there’s some suggestion that we may — that it may be added to the omnibus. And I’ve been pretty rigorous about not walking through all the things that are going to lead to a veto or not of the overall omnibus. I’ve said that we’ll take a look at what Republicans put forward.
But our position on that particular policy proposal hasn’t changed. It’s one that we oppose.
Q On the omnibus, has the President been doing any personal outreach? Did he talk to members when they were over here for the Christmas party, or today at the bill signing? Has he been placing phone calls? Is there any kind of color that you can talk about — his involvement?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there has been some presidential involvement. The President and the First Lady spent several hours taking pictures with members of Congress while they were here for the holiday party earlier this week. I don’t know how many detailed negotiations were entered into in the context of the photo line — probably not very many.
Q Just with the photographer.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, maybe so.
Q Sounds like a fun party.
MR. EARNEST: Doesn’t it? (Laughter.) Almost like those working receptions that we have here at the White House.
But I don’t have a lot of color for you in terms of the President’s personal involvement. I know that he’s been regularly updated by his team on this. This is something that has primarily been led at the staff level, because it’s members of Congress who are negotiating among themselves, but the President is obviously more than just an interested observer, because ultimately the legislation they produce is one that will require the President’s signature.
So he’s certainly aware of what’s going on. I know that he’s had some conversations, but I don’t have a lot of details about those conversations to share with you.
Q And then I just wanted to do a last one following on the conversation you had yesterday about the AUMF. You said then that you guys were still happy with the text that you had submitted to Congress earlier this year, and I’m interested in a provision of that text. One of the few kind of limitations that was put on the administration was that there would not be enduring offensive ground operations. When it first rolled out, there was a lot of controversy over what exactly that meant. And so I guess I’m wondering, again, if you could give a more precise definition, and especially if the Special Ops that we’re sending to Iraq, doing offensive operations for an indefinite amount of time, why that wouldn’t qualify under that provision.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, what we have said all along is that we would be happy to engage in a constructive process to negotiate the text with members of Congress. And so if there are members of Congress who are interested in clarifying that provision of the legislation —
Q That’s part of the reason that it failed the first time, right, was you guys wouldn’t — there was a lot of frustration over that.
MR. EARNEST: I think the reason that it failed the first time is there was very little appetite from members of Congress in actually fulfilling their responsibility to weigh in on this issue. And I think that’s reflected in some of the comments that we’ve seen from members of Congress in The New York Times today — Senator Dan Coats: “I’m tired of pretending we’re not at war and pushing the responsibility somewhere else.”
So it’s not just me who’s being critical of Congress refusing to take this up. There are members of Congress who are quite frustrated by their colleagues’ collective refusal to consider this important piece of legislation.
But let me just try to answer your question a little bit more directly. That language that we sent up to Congress was designed to articulate our opposition to the kind of military mission that would require tens of thousands of U.S. troops essentially invading another country, and being in a position to both take and hold large swaths of territory for an open-ended period of time.
That obviously is quite different than the mission that has been given to some of our Special Operations Forces. Obviously, they’re in a dangerous situation and they’re risking their lives to advance our national security interest. It is not, however, their primary responsibility to go and hold territory, for example.
So I think that’s sort of how I would try to describe to you what exactly we intended to convey in wording the AUMF in the way that we did. But again, if there are members of Congress who have suggestions for clarifying that language in a helpful way, we certainly would be open to those kinds of conversations.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back to the omnibus. We’re hearing that both Democrats and Republicans are still struggling with the riders on that bill. Does the White House — do you want no riders whatsoever? Or are you just looking to get down the dozens and dozens down to just a few at compromise level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple of different things about this. The first is that omnibus budget bills have historically been characterized by adding extraneous pieces of policy to them, knowing that it’s likely to pass Congress. The thing that’s important is that typically, those have been measures that enjoy widespread support in Congress. Our objection comes to ideological riders that are partisan and that, in most cases, would not otherwise be able to pass the United States Congress.
And so using a must-pass piece of legislation to pass a controversial ideological policy proposal that wouldn’t otherwise pass the Congress is not responsible. And that’s what we object to. And frankly, that’s what Republicans are risking when they continue to insist on the inclusion of those kinds of measures.
Q Also, do you have any update on the progress of the tax extenders package? Is that moving in a direction that the White House supports?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update on those talks. Again, those are Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill who are engaged in those conversations. Obviously the White House is interested in those conversations to the extent that we believe that if we’re looking to extend a tax benefit that is enjoyed by large companies, we need to make sure that there are some tax benefits that are included for middle-class families, too.
So it remains to be seen what those negotiations will yield.
Q Josh, thank you. I want to try and hit a few topics very swiftly. First, I want to try and close out your exchange with my colleague from CNN just now by asking whether you are telling us in essence that there will inevitably be some changes made to the visa program, it’s just a matter of needing some more time and some more information out of San Bernardino in order to arrive at what those will be.
MR. EARNEST: That certainly seems the likely outcome, given what’s transpired. Look, James, somebody entered the United States through the K-1 visa program and proceeded to carry out an act of terrorism on American soil. That program is, at a minimum, worth a very close look. And that’s exactly what the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security are doing. And if there are changes that are necessary that can strengthen the program and greater ensure our security, then the President will certainly direct those agencies to implement them.
Q The Long War Journal has published a story reporting that a former detainee at Guantanamo released by the Obama administration has resumed an active war fighting role with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. Can you confirm that story?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports, but I’m not in a position to confirm that particular story. Obviously, any report about a former Gitmo detainee reengaging in the fight would be a source of significant concern and something that we would take quite seriously.
Based on what we know so far, more than 90 percent of those who have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay have not reengaged in the fight, but we are certainly paying close attention even if we find unconfirmed reports about those who may have.
Q Are you investigating the claims here?
MR. EARNEST: This is something that I can assure you that the U.S. government is taking a look at.
Q Have you been hearing from lawmakers about this story?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.
Q Lastly, I’d like to follow up on some of the exchanges at yesterday’s briefing, ideally without leading us to repeat the contents of yesterday’s briefing. Secretary Carter, in his testimony yesterday, reaffirmed that the United States, along with its coalition partners, is at war with ISIS. Does President Obama conceive of himself as a wartime Commander-in-Chief?
MR. EARNEST: I guess you’d have to ask him that direct question. We’ve been saying for more than —
Q This has not been evidenced to you in your dealings with him?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think that based on the fact that he gave an Oval Office address to the country to talk about the significant military steps that have been taken against a terrorist organization with whom we are at war, I suppose you could apply that label to him with a lot of credibility. But in terms of how he considers himself and how he would describe his own posture, you’d probably have to ask him that.
Q You, for example, would not quarrel with my describing him as a wartime Commander-in-Chief?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’ve acknowledged for more than a year that ISIS, ISIL has declared war on the rest of the world, and the United States is leading the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy them. So I think if you were to use that description it would be reasonable.
Q I know that yesterday, you did quarrel with the assertion that there was a flat contradiction between the President telling ABC News that ISIS was contained and Secretary Carter flatly telling the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that it is not contained. You asserted there is no contradiction there because of what the President meant. So just to clarify, when the President said that ISIS was contained just a few hours before the Paris attacks, he wasn’t referring to the group’s geographic reach or terror capabilities, but rather to, in essence, their office space?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President — if you go back and look at the transcript, you don’t have to discern what the President meant; you can actually look at what he said. And he did make a specific reference to the fact that the amount of territory that ISIL has been able to take over in Iraq and in Syria has been contained and, in fact, rolled back. Because about 25 percent of the populated areas that they previously controlled have now been taken — or retaken by Iraqi forces and by some opposition fighters inside of Syria.
Q But is it appropriate to use the word “contained” when just a few hours later, they demonstrated their ability to cause mass casualty attacks on the homeland of one of our chief allies in this war?
MR. EARNEST: James, the reason that the President ordered military action against ISIL in the first place is because the President was concerned about the territory that they had taken over inside of Iraq and in Syria, and the President was concerned that they would use that safe haven to carry out attacks against the United States, our allies and our interests around the world.
So this is the very reason that we are engaged in a campaign right now that is making progress to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Can you provide a historical analogue when in recent memory, a wartime Commander-in-Chief issued publicly an assessment of enemy strength that was so directly undercut in sworn testimony by the top civilian commander at the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST: James, as I pointed out, I don’t agree with your assessment that what Secretary Carter had to say undercut what the President had to say.
Q Josh, when it comes to the omnibus, the Speaker said today he’s not going to put a deadline on it, that he wants to make sure they get it right. And you said the President is open to a short-term extension. Is he willing to go beyond these five days, or is this it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the way that I described it yesterday is the President is not willing to give members of Congress additional weeks or months to negotiate a bipartisan budget agreement. The fact is they’ve already had weeks and months to negotiate a bipartisan budget agreement, and we would probably be very close to or at an agreement today if Republicans weren’t continuing to insist on the inclusion of ideological riders in a budget bill.
Q And on another topic, the House Armed Service Committee announced that its investigation found that the administration broke the law in not notifying Congress ahead of the transfer of five Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl. Does the administration stand by its actions surrounding his transfer?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. The President believes strongly in the principle of ensuring that anybody who puts on the military uniform of the United States is not somebody that’s going to be left behind by the Commander-in-Chief. And there was a unique opportunity that was presented to safely recover Sergeant Bergdahl, and that’s exactly what we did.
Q Josh, do you think that the K-1 visa process should continue while this investigation is ongoing, and should people be allowed in this country now on K-1 visas?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is exactly what the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security are taking a close look at, and I’m confident that as they review the program, if they determine that it is not in our national security interest to continue the program, that they’ll forward that recommendation to the President. But this is still ongoing.
Q For the moment, you don’t think the process should be slowed or stopped until it’s pinpointed exactly why Tashfeen Malik slipped through?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, what is underway is a careful review of the process by the State Department and by the Department of Homeland Security. And if there are changes that need to be made to the program to strengthen our national security based on the vulnerabilities that have been exposed here, then the President won’t hesitate to order those reforms being implemented.
Q It sounds like what you’re saying is, until we know more, we’re not stopping the boarding of K-1s. Is that accurate?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m saying is that this is something that is under careful review and investigation by the two agencies that are responsible for administering this program.
Q Well, I want to ask you specifically about — even though you said there’s a willingness to perhaps work toward giving more abilities to the agencies, if there is a hole in the process and the like — in looking at some of the questions that Tashfeen Malik would have been asked — Are you a member of a terrorist group? Have you given financial support to a terrorist group? — they seemed to be focused on self-reporting. Is it fair to say that there are going to be people, radicals, who aren’t revealing what they’re thinking, and thus it’s impossible to completely filter out potential security risks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Margaret, first of all, I think it is entirely reasonable to ask those questions and it would be foolish not to. It would also be foolish to rely only on those questions in conducting a thorough background check of those seeking to enter the United States. So the process involves certainly more than just asking those questions of that individual. But at the same time, it would be foolish not to.
Q When you say the thorough background check, do you think Tashfeen Malik’s background check was thorough? Can you say that at this time?
MR. EARNEST: This is precisely the subject of ongoing inquiry.
Q And on a different topic, can I ask you, is the President being briefed and is he watching the events in Chicago?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the President is being briefed on it. I know that the President is following the events that are taking place in his hometown. The President has got great affection for the city of Chicago and I know, like other citizens of that fine city, is concerned.
And I think the Mayor himself has acknowledged that a lot of work needs to be done to rebuild trust between the Chicago Police Department and the citizens of that fine city that they were sworn to serve and protect, and that is work that the Mayor has indicated he’s committed to. He’s acknowledged that those are reforms that can’t be implemented overnight. He’s acknowledged that those are reforms that will require conscientious and long-term focus of those who are in leadership positions in the city. And the Mayor himself took responsibility both for the shortcomings that had been observed and on fixing it. Ultimately, the citizens of Chicago will have to determine exactly how they feel about that.
Q And has the President, given his personal relationship with the Mayor, talked to him about what’s going on, and does he have confidence in the Mayor’s ability?
MR. EARNEST: The last that I heard, which was a few days ago, the President had not spoken to Mayor Emanuel. So I’m not aware of any conversations at this point.
Q Can you just tell us what your role is right now in the omnibus spending bill — what’s the White House’s role? It sounds like the President has had some discussions with members of Congress at least at the holiday party. What about the staff? Are you guys vetting these riders? How directly is the White House involved?
MR. EARNEST: First of all, I was being a lighthearted earlier; I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in the kinds of — the cocktail party conversations about the omnibus.
Q We at The New York Times take things very —
MR. EARNEST: I know. I know. (Laughter.) That’s why I felt the need to clarify.
Q Yes, okay. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: There has been for a number of weeks now a robust engagement at the staff level here at the White House. I say that, acknowledging that the focus of these negotiations is between Democrats and Republicans who actually serve in the United States Congress. But because of the need for the President to literally sign off on their agreement, the White House has been closely monitoring those conversations and occasionally offering a view on them.
I don’t have specific members of the White House staff to identify at this point, but I think you might say that the usual suspects are involved. So we’ll have to see where this ends up. Obviously, the concern that we have continues to center on the insistence on the part of Republicans in Congress to including ideological riders in the budget process. It’s not a good way to run the country. And I am optimistic that we will be able to find a bipartisan budget agreement if Republicans abandon that effort.
Q Can you at this point give us any sort of red lines? Obviously, you have been very good about sort of characterizing the riders broadly as unhelpful. But there’s clearly going to be a few riders in here, perhaps not dozens. Can you tell us where you want to get to on that in terms of the rider review process?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a creative way of suggesting that you and I should engage in these negotiations about what would be appropriate or acceptable —
Q I’m available. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’ve often remarked that if it was just down to you and me we could probably figure this out before the end of the day today. But there are other people involved, and ultimately they will be the ones who will determine the outcome here.
But I guess the other thing I will say that I think does sometimes get lost in this, the fact that we’re not at loggerheads over specific funding levels represents significant progress. We have had budget negotiations in the past that have broken down based on disputes about numbers, and so the fact that Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together to negotiate our differences and find some common ground about spending levels is an indication that we’ve made some important progress. And so I don’t want to be all dark here. But in order to reap the benefits of those effective negotiations Republicans are going to have to stop insisting on the inclusion of ideological provisions in the budget process.
MR. EARNEST: Mesfin.
Q On another topic, Josh, the worst drought in Ethiopia is happening right now. Even though the government can’t (inaudible) the drought right now, there is science that the current climate situation is getting even worse. A few days ago, the government announced that a number of Ethiopians needing food aid will rise to $10 million in January. It’s also noted that the drought will continue until December next year. Since Ethiopia and the U.S. enjoys very strong bilateral relation, what is the United States’ latest plan to assist it’s strong ally, Ethiopia before it’s too late, before the horrible drought spreads?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mesfin, the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia is obviously something that President Obama had the opportunity to discuss with the Ethipian President on his trip there earlier this year. And we’re keenly aware that the recent — that the El Niño comes on the heels of two poor harvests, and that has exacerbated drought conditions in Ethipia. And we’re seeing that that drought is having an impact on the food supply that millions of Ethiopians rely on.
I can tell you that USAID has committed to provide more than $120 million in assistance. That’s assistance that’s been provided just in the last four or five months. And that assistance can be used to try to meet the food needs of 3.5 million people. But there is additional rapid-response capabilities that USAID has that are being deployed in the situation. These capabilities include things like providing safe drinking water, improving sanitation and hygiene, some nutrition assistance, as you’d expect, and other emergency relief supplies in those communities where they’re most acutely needed.
Chris. Nice to see you.
Q Thanks, Josh. Nice to see you, too. If we can just go back to the original question or one of the original questions about Valerie Jarrett’s talking about finalizing a set of recommendations. I’m wondering, are you pretty much ruling out anything legislative?
MR. EARNEST: Certainly not. We would welcome Congress —
Q But in terms of what your recommendations might be, is there anything you think that legislatively could be possible? Or is this all — the set of recommendations that Valerie Jarrett is talking about, is it all executive actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the set of recommendations that Valerie is talking about is something that the President has been talking about for a couple of months now, and these are essentially recommendations that the President has asked for from his staff based on their review of available executive authority. And so I think the working assumption of this ongoing review is that Congress hasn’t acted. And they haven’t and that’s been the source of immense frustration on the part of the President and a lot of people in the executive branch, and frankly, a lot of people all across the country.
So given the congressional inaction, the question that’s been raised is what more can the Obama administration do. And that’s the substance of this review.
Q Beyond Congress and beyond the presidential candidates, there’s been a lot of conversation on what, from your perspective, would be the other side. Liberty University’s president just came out and said that students should be allowed to bring concealed weapons into dormitories. A number of sheriffs have weighed in across the country, suggesting that they would appreciate the help of the public who have legal guns to carry them in situations like this. Others have suggested that what happened in San Bernardino is proof positive that strict gun control laws don’t work. And I just wonder if the President feels as if what’s happened may actually be giving motivation or momentum to gun rights advocates rather than his position.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess there is some evidence to indicate this — the FBI put out information a week or so ago that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when many people go shopping, that they actually processed the largest number of background checks for gun purchases in history. So I described this I think in a briefing earlier this week as a tragic irony, that the more that we see this kind of violence on our streets, the more people go out and buy guns. And that is both ironic and tragic.
I think the President’s view is that he is going to forcefully advocate for the kind of gun safety measures that common sense tells us will not prevent every act of gun violence but even if it makes some acts of gun violence less likely, and we can do all of that without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, why wouldn’t we do it?
Q But does what happened on Black Friday and what I just mentioned, are those things an indication that your message is not getting out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think if you take a look at the intensity of this debate — and typically, this debate has been characterized by a majority of Americans who believe in gun safety measures and a minority of Americans who are extraordinarily vocal prevailing in congressional debates because they are more effective in making their voices heard. Right now there is a gun debate going on in this country, and I think the voices that agree with the majority of Americans, and in some cases, a majority of gun owners about the wisdom of taking common-sense steps to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, I think I’ve been encouraged by the way that those voices have spoken out.
So that’s not to — I think I’ve marshalled evidence to indicate that clearly there’s been a reaction on the other side of this debate. But there’s always been an intensity of opinion on that side of the debate. I think what’s different is that we are starting to see those who support more gun safety becoming more outspoken and becoming more insistent about their point of view.
Q Another topic. He didn’t mention him by name, but was much of the President’s speech yesterday aimed directly at Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: No, most of the President’s speech yesterday was devoted to lifting up the kinds of values that the vast majority of Americans agree with. And I think that’s the reason the President got a bipartisan standing ovation in the hall of the United States Congress when he delivered that speech.
Q So when he said “what faith they practice,” that was not a rebuttal to Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly stands in direct contrast to some of the views that are being expressed by a variety of Republican presidential candidates. But the views that the President has long sought to advocate, and the views that the President articulated yesterday, are consistent with the agenda that he has spent his career in public service trying to advance.
Q Any reaction to Trump’s announcement today that he’s postponing his trip to Israel or to the petition in the UK to keep him out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when it comes to his considered trip to Israel, I guess at this point I would say that most people are relieved that he’s reconsidered. He’s obviously a private citizen, so he can travel anywhere that he wants under U.S. law. But the situation in Israel is particularly volatile and so I think, in this case, his decision to reconsider that trip is a good outcome for all those involved.
Q Well, when you say most people are relieved, does that include the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, yeah, I think that — it may also include the Prime Minister of Israel, who had his own concerns to express about Mr. Trump’s recent comments.
Q Did you advise — did the United States government advise him not to go to Temple Mount?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any specific conversations between any government officials and Mr. Trump or his campaign.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senator Marco Rubio said recently that none of the recent mass shootings would have been stopped by the kind of stricter gun laws the White House has championed. That’s something The Washington Post fact-checker concluded was true in a long analysis. If not a single mass shooting — recent mass shooting — would have been stopped by the kind of gun control measures you champion, are those the right approach to this problem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bryon, I think we’ve been pretty direct and upfront about the fact that there is no piece of legislation that Congress can pass that would prevent every single act of gun violence. I think the case that we have made is one that rests primarily on our concern about national security and our careful consideration of common sense.
So let’s take one example — let’s take the no-fly, no-buy loophole. I think it’s common sense, the President believes it’s common sense, and it is in our national security interest to prevent those who are deemed by the government too dangerous to board an airplane that we should pass a law that prevents those people from purchasing a gun until such time as they can resolve the concerns that the government has about their potential links to terrorism.
There is a process that is administered by the Department of Homeland Security for those concerns to be considered a resolve. And, again, when it comes to gun safety that seems like a pretty common-sense step.
I guess in response to Senator Rubio, I guess I would simply say, is he suggesting that we should wait until someone who is on the no-fly list walks into a gun [store], purchases a firearm and kills a whole bunch of innocent Americans before we pass a law preventing it? I don’t think that passes the common-sense test either.
Q Can the White House point to a recent mass shooting that would have been stopped by an expanded assault weapons ban or stricter background checks? I mean, the evidence seems to be that in all these recent mass shootings, these folks either pass background checks or were very determined to circumvent the sort of strict gun laws that are already on the books. Can you point to any that would have been prevented or stopped by the kind of proposals the White House is championing?
MR. EARNEST: Again, Byron, I think the same thing applies here, which is it is not our view that we should wait until somebody who’s on the no-fly list walks into a gun store, legally purchases a gun and kills a bunch of innocent Americans before we pass a law preventing it. That’s a common-sense view. The President believes that that’s in our national security, and that’s why we believe quite strongly that Congress should take action to address it and close the no-fly, no-buy loophole.
Q Were any of the recent mass shooters on the no-fly list?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but you’d probably have to ask the Director of National Intelligence to confirm that.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just circling back on an earlier question, I want to clarify — you said that the sort of tragic irony that so many people bought the guns on Black Friday. Why would that necessarily be tragic? I mean, they did buy them legally. They went through the background process. Isn’t that sort of what you want? You’re not so much worried about the numbers as you’re worried about loopholes, people — the guns falling into the wrong hands of — kind of skipping out on the background checks. Why would you necessarily think it’s tragic that so many people buy guns on Black Friday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Fred, what I’m observing is that it’s tragic that in the aftermath — in the immediate aftermath of a series of high-profile mass shootings, that people feel like they have to go out and purchase a gun. Because it’s our view — and again, I think this is backed up by some common sense. Our nation is awash in guns. There are statistics about the large quantity of guns that are rather readily available on street corners and in gun stores all across America. That ready access to guns and that proliferation of violent weapons of war has not led to fewer gun deaths. In fact, we’re seeing that that doesn’t seem to be the effect that we’re witnessing here.
And so it’s tragic that even in a situation where we have lots of guns on the streets that lead to lots of innocent Americans being killed, that the response to that is that a whole lot more guns end up on the streets. That’s tragic and ironic.
Q And I do have another question — and you don’t agree with Karl Rove on too much, but Karl Rove had a column in the Wall Street Journal today saying that Donald Trump as the GOP nominee would be a nightmare for the Republican Party. Of course, this week you said he’s disqualified himself. Is there any sense of — within the White House or within the Democratic Party on a larger level that — an eagerness, a giddiness of Donald Trump as the Republican Party nominee?
MR. EARNEST: No, Fred, I think that — we’ve spent a lot of time talking about Mr. Trump and his comments, and I think you heard the Secretary of Homeland Security earlier this week indicate that his comments were dangerous. You’ve heard me describe his views as offensive and divisive and cynical. And speaking for myself, I take no delight in his continued strength in the polls.
Q And one more final one. As far — just circling back on Chicago, the investigation there, the question came up a little bit earlier — I didn’t hear you exactly answer whether the President has full confidence in Mayor Emanuel.
MR. EARNEST: The President obviously knows and respects Mayor Emanuel. But in terms of rendering judgment about his fitness to continue to lead the city of Chicago, the voters of that city will have to make that determination for themselves. I think it’s quite clear that many of them will make that determination based on how he takes responsibility for and follows through on his commitment to implement needed reforms in the Chicago Police Department.
He’s accepted that responsibility, and he’s offered up that commitment to see through the implementation of those reforms. But ultimately, the most appropriate judge of his success are the citizens of the city of Chicago.
Q The President’s the leader of the party and a resident of Chicago. Would that be more reason for him to have an opinion as to whether he has confidence in the Mayor?
MR. EARNEST: It may be, but again, I think I’ve sort of explained the President’s point of view.
Q Can you — what are the President’s thoughts about traveling to San Bernardino? Even if you don’t have any plans to announce, is this something he’d like to do, something he’s dealing — thinking about doing?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve not asked him this question directly. I’m sure that it’s something that somebody here has considered. It’s not uncommon for the President in the aftermath of some of these kinds of incidents to visit these communities that were touched so directly by an incident of gun violence.
So I wouldn’t rule out a future presidential trip, but I don’t have anything to announce at this point.
Q The governor in Connecticut announced his own statewide no-fly, no-buy. And he said that he had been in consultations — or he’s had some discussions with the White House about this. Is that — can you say anything more about that? And are there other discussions with other governors, state officials about statewide gun laws, if not executive actions or other national laws?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to any specific conversations that Governor Malloy may have had with somebody at the White House, but I certainly wouldn’t contradict what he’s said. It’s not at all uncommon for White House officials to be engaged in conversations with state and local officials about advancing shared priorities. And we know that there are many local and state officials across the country who are quite concerned about the impact of gun violence in the communities that they govern.
And there have been a number of conversations that White House officials have had — and particularly the Vice President’s office has had — with officials across the country about steps they can take to try to reduce gun violence in their communities.
Q So would it be overstating it to say that this is part of a White House strategy to try and push this particular approach since other approaches to gun safety legislation have not been successful?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is fair for you to assume that the White House is actively engaged with leaders across the country, including at the state and local level, about steps they can take to protect their communities from gun violence. That certainly is an accurate statement.
I think one thing that studies have shown, however, is that there are necessarily some shortcomings to that approach, which is that when you’re passing local laws, sometimes it can be a little too easy for somebody to just drive right outside that jurisdiction, purchase a firearm that may be prohibited in the city, and drive back into the city and carry out an act of violence.
So that is why even the success that many state and local jurisdictions are having in passing gun laws that the President’s commitment to keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them continues to be a priority of his federal legislative strategy.
Q Just one other topic — there was a report that there was a former Gitmo prisoner, Ibrahim al Qosi, who was seen in an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula video somewhere. He was released I think in 2012, and he appears with the leadership of this group somewhere in a — are you aware of those reports? Has the White House seen the video? Are you — can you confirm or deny, or whatever —
MR. EARNEST: I think this is the same individual that James asked me about, and so — that’s okay. So we’ve seen the reports but I can’t confirm them at this point.
Q Josh, just to follow up, you had answered a question that Chris has asked you — I have two questions — and you were talking about the maybe increased interest in those who support gun safety speaking out. Because President Obama of course has made a big effort to encourage the American public to speak out, to rise up, whatever, can I just clarify, when you were making that statement — that there is evidence of that — just to clarify, the evidence is that encouraging —
MR. EARNEST: I think she was sort of asking — I guess I was making an observation based on the sort of state of the debate.
Q Right, but I mean the state of the debate that you’re measuring, the yardstick or this increased vocalization, is, what, polling? Or is action at the state level, or — I’m just trying to clarify what you have in mind.
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s just my perception of the ongoing debate that too often we get into these debates and the intensity on the side of those who are opposed to additional gun safety measures typically far outweighs the intensity of the argument that is made by those who support measures that would keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are mentally ill.
And my perception is — it could be wrong — but my perception is that there’s a lot more intensity than there usually is on the side of those who would like to see some of these common-sense changes. And I welcome that. But ultimately the only thing that really matters is what the congressional perception is of that debate, and so maybe we should go ask them.
Q I was going to also ask something related to what Ron asked you about the San Bernardino families and the victims. Is it possible that the President, who is scheduled next week to head West, might actually stop in California? Would that be an opportunity for him perhaps to see some of the families?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have an update on the President’s schedule right now, but if the President were to do something like that we’ll definitely let you know.
Q And do you know whether in the interim he has in any way personally communicated with any of the families?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I have to share from here.
Q So it’s possible that he did that?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t have any information about that to share.
Mara, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Why do you think so many people went out and bought guns?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know. I really don’t. I think it’s hard to speak — my guess is that the 185,700 of them probably had a few different reasons for wanting to do so, but I would hesitate to —
Q No theories whatsoever?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think some of them have been floated. In some cases, these are individuals who believe that they need to buy a gun so that they can better protect themselves. In some cases, because it’s Black Friday, they’re probably going and purchasing a gift for a friend or a loved one who is a gun enthusiast. There are a variety of reasons why people might do that. I guess I’m just pointing out that there are already an astonishing number of guns on the streets of America, and far too many innocent Americans who are being killed by them. So the idea that our reaction to innocent Americans being killed by guns is to dump 185,000 more guns onto the streets of America is tragically ironic.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
1:56 P.M. EST