Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 23, 2015 – 12:44 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Appreciate you being patient through some of the technical difficulties we’ve had today, but hopefully we’ll make it through here.
I do want to do one thing at the top before I go to your questions. This afternoon, as you know, the President is traveling over to the headquarters of the AARP where he’s going to be talking about the fact that middle-class economics means that Americans should be able to retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work, but the rules of the road often as they are currently written do not ensure that financial advisors act in the best interest of their clients when they give retirement investment advice, and it’s hurting millions of working and middle-class families.
A system where Wall Street benefits — where Wall Street firms benefit from backdoor payments and hidden fees, if they talk responsible Americans into buying bad retirement investments instead of recommending quality investments is a conflict of interest, and it isn’t fair. And this administration is going to take some steps, using the President’s executive authority, to try to correct it and make sure that Americans can count on the kinds of advice — or on the kind of advice that they’re getting from their financial advisors.
We should stipulate, as the President will later today, that there are thousands of financial advisors all across the country who are doing the right thing. And we need to take steps to make sure that all of them are.
So with that, Julie, let’s go to the questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President mentioned in his remarks to the governors the impending deadline for funding DHS. And I have a couple questions on this. One, are you working under the assumption at this point that there will be a shutdown of DHS at the end of this week? And can you give us a sense of any conversations the White House is having with Democrats in particular? Are you looking for some type of wiggle room on the Democratic position? Or is that strategy just to hold the line and hope that either Republicans move toward your position or take the blame for a shutdown?
MR. EARNEST: Our position right now is that Congress should do their job. And we continue to be hopeful that members of Congress — Republicans in particular — will live up to their promise to do their job, which is — our Founding Fathers gave the power of the purse to the United States Congress. And Republicans in Congress aggressively campaigned so that they could be in charge of that legislative body. That means they have a substantial responsibility for funding the kinds of operations that protect our homeland.
And you’re right that one week from today, if Congress does not act, there will be more than 100,000 U.S. Homeland Security personnel who will show up and do their job to protect the homeland, but they won’t be getting a paycheck unless Congress shows up to do theirs. And we are hopeful that they will take the simple, common-sense step. Funding for Homeland Security shouldn’t be controversial; neither should members of Congress actually doing their job.
Q Well, obviously, it hasn’t proven to be quite as simple as you may hope. So I’m wondering —
MR. EARNEST: Unfortunately.
Q — if you see anything that the White House would be willing to — any concessions the White House would be willing to make, anything you’re encouraging Democrats to do to maybe get a deal by the end of this week. Or is your position where you are today, where it’s going to be through the end of this week?
MR. EARNEST: Our position is a very common-sense one, which is that Congress should do their job and that the Department of Homeland Security should get funding for the full year. Everybody would acknowledge that that is the right thing for our homeland security. It’s the right thing for the country.
I recognize that there are some Republicans who do want to continue to have a debate about immigration policy. I have good news for them. The President is ready to have a debate and a discussion, and even a negotiation about reforms that we can put in place to bring greater accountability to our broken immigration system. The President and this administration engaged in those conversations two years ago. We got a bipartisan-compromise piece of legislation through the Senate, but it got blocked, ironically enough, by House Republicans.
So we’re ready to have that debate and discussion and negotiation, and even work toward a solution to trying to address our broken immigration system. But we shouldn’t allow politics to get in the way of ensuring that our Homeland Security operations are properly and fully funded.
Q If Congress were to try to avoid a DHS shutdown at the end of this week by passing a short-term CR, would the President sign it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we will continue to be engaged in this process and we’ll be working with congressional leaders in both parties as they figure out how to avoid a government shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. It is our view that the best policy outcome is a policy outcome that fully funds the Department of Homeland Security for a full year. And the reason for that — and based on some conversations that I’ve even had with the Secretary — the analogy that he uses is that continuing to just pass continuing resolutions doesn’t allow the Department of Homeland Security to effectively plan. The analogy that he draws is that it’s akin to trying to drive across the country but only filling up the car with five gallons of gas at a time. So you can do it, but it doesn’t allow you to effectively plan.
And when we’re talking about something as important as our homeland security, Congress should have a vested role in working with the Department to make sure that all of the priorities that exist in that agency that ensure the protection of our homeland are properly and fully funded, and that they do that in a way that the personnel who are working there can plan effectively and maximize their efforts.
Q But even if you see it as not an ideal scenario, it sounds like you can’t realistically come up with a situation where the President would not sign a short-term CR at current funding levels.
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I’m not going to commit to signing or not signing anything other than a fully funded, full-year appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security. That’s not just the best outcome in the mind of the President, it’s also clearly the best outcome when we’re talking about the interest of the American public. So it’s not a coincidence that that’s why the President thinks it’s the best outcome.
It also is fully within the scope of responsibilities of members of Congress. So this is not about asking Congress to take an unprecedented or special step; this is actually holding Congress responsible for doing the absolute bare minimum.
Q And just one other topic. It sounds like the Keystone bill is going to land over here tomorrow. Can you give us any sense of how quickly the President plans to veto this bill, whether he plans to do this in public or in private?
MR. EARNEST: I have been a little perplexed by the process and the way that it’s unfolded. I understand that Congress passed this bill like 10 days ago, but yet it’s just going to come to the White House apparently as early as tomorrow. But I would anticipate that, as we’ve been saying for years the President would veto that legislation — and he will — so I would not anticipate a lot of drama or fanfare around it. But we’ll certainly let you know when it’s taken place.
Q So nothing in public?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t count on that, no.
Q Just this morning, the Justice Department formally filed its request for a stay in the Texas immigration case. One alternative that they gave was for the judge to actually reverse the stay in all states but Texas. What was the thinking behind that alternative? And has the White House thought about the ramifications of allowing the executive action to play out in 49 states?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s start at the beginning, Julia. You are correct, the Department of Justice has asked the federal district court in Texas for an emergency stay of the preliminary injunction that currently prevents the Department of Homeland Security from implementing the deferred action policies the President announced back in December [November]*. The administration believes that a stay should be granted because the judge’s ruling in this case only makes it harder for the Department of Homeland Security to protect the American people and bring much-needed accountability to our nation’s immigration system. And that is why the documents that have been filed with the court today first seek a stay of his injunction so that we can move forward while the case is being appealed at the Fifth Circuit. So these two things are essentially operating on parallel tracks.
So the other alternative here that has been put forward in the filing is consistent with the judge’s finding that Texas — the state of Texas claimed some harm that he said he was sympathetic to. Now, he did not find that other states necessarily would be harmed by this ruling. So that’s why we suggest — and this is consistent with the way that the law has been explained to me, which is that when an injunction is issued by a judge, that it should be narrowly tailored. So in the view of the federal government, the question that we’re asking is, if you won’t grant a stay for the full injunction, then you should just grant a stay so that we can move forward with these executive actions in other states.
Now, there are two other relevant facts here. The first is, there are actually a dozen states and the District of Columbia that have affirmatively come forward and said that implementing these executive actions would actually be good for our states. We believe — and this is consistent with the other findings here that the economic impact of these executive actions are positive. That’s everything from job creation, to economic growth, to reducing the deficit, to even strengthening Social Security. All of those things would be enhanced if these executive actions were implemented.
And that is why we are seeking to move in this direction. If a full stay is not granted, then let us at least move forward in those states where the judge himself has even acknowledged that — or at least has not found that there is harm.
Q Okay. It’s just that they’ve also said that if he doesn’t rule by Wednesday, then they’re going to appeal — or they’re going to go try to get a stay from the Fifth Circuit. So why even give him the wiggle room to say not Texas, especially since that’s home to so many undocumented immigrants who could potentially be eligible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think this reflects our commitment to trying to work this through the legal process as quickly as possible.
One aspect of this that I have found somewhat curious is that the judge’s ruling was one that was celebrated by a lot of conservative Republicans. And the reason I find that curious is that the specific measures that the judge has prevented the administration from implementing are actually the same measures that would bring greater accountability to our broken immigration system; that the judge basically said that you can’t move forward with policies that are going to bring millions of people out of the shadows, you can’t move forward with these policies that are going to force people to pay taxes or submit to a background check. These are exactly the kinds of policies that would bring greater accountability to our immigration system, that would bring a positive economic benefit to communities across the country and actually make our communities safer.
And again, this is consistent with filings in the case that have been put forward by local sheriffs and other local law enforcement leaders who have said that implementing these executive actions would make it easier for local law enforcement to safeguard communities. So there are even some local law enforcement officials in the state of Texas that have indicated that implementing these executive actions would make communities in Texas safer. So there is not just a strong legal basis for the action that we’re pursuing, there’s actually a strong basis for those who are interested in doing the right thing for our economy and for public safety.
Q Okay, and Iran’s foreign minister said that negotiators are still a long way from reaching a deal on the nuclear program. Do you have any updates on the White House’s assessment on the chances of reaching a deal?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update. The President and I have, on a number of occasions when asked this question, noted that our odds of reaching an agreement with Iran are 50-50 at best. I think that continues to be a fair assessment of where things stand.
A lot of this, again, rests on the commitment of Iranian hardliners to move forward with an agreement that would resolve the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program; that what the international community alongside the United States is seeking is a verifiable commitment from Iran not to develop and obtain and nuclear weapon. And there should be an opportunity for us to reach an agreement about this. But there are some in the Iranian regime who are reluctant to make that kind of commitment.
And that is the principal barrier. And that is why that even as the negotiators make some progress that we continue to be realistic about the likelihood of success, that it’s less about actually trying to reach an agreement around the negotiating table, but about eliciting sufficient commitment from Iran’s leadership to move forward with an agreement.
But our negotiators are still hard at work on this, and they will continue to be in the days and weeks ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh. In the appeal that we were just talking about, the language in there says that without a stay, the Department of Homeland Security would suffer irreparable harm and that that harm wouldn’t be cured even if the defendants ultimately prevail. What harm would DHS suffer without a stay?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think to put it bluntly, the Department of Homeland Security was ready last week to begin taking the steps that would bring millions of people out of the shadows. These are individuals who have been in this country for a substantial period of time and have family connections inside the country. These are individuals who would being paying taxes. These are individuals who would submit to a background check.
So every day that goes by, we have individuals who will continue to be in the shadows, who will continue to not pay taxes, and who will continue to not have undergone a background check, which means that they could pose a threat to public safety.
So that is why you have seen so many states and their top-level leadership, and local law enforcement leaders from across the country come forward and say, we want to implement these accountability measures. But instead, based on the judge’s ruling, we’re actually moving farther in the direction of amnesty, which, again, is why it’s curious that we’ve seen so many conservative Republicans come out in celebration of a court ruling that essentially does move us closer to amnesty.
Q It said that the DHS could suffer irreparable harm even if the defendants ultimately prevail.
MR. EARNEST: Because there would be a delay in collecting these taxes. There would be a delay in conducting these background checks. And those are two examples of things that would benefit our economy and benefit public safety. So every day that goes by is a day that we won’t be collecting background checks — or collecting taxes, or executing the kinds of background checks that would ensure that we’re doing everything we can to keep our community safe.
Q Okay. And on DHS funding, a few times when you were asked about the impact on national security, you would always refer reporters to DHS itself. But today we heard the President very clearly state that this would have a direct impact on your national security. Can you explain what exactly he meant by that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of things. The first is I don’t think that there is anybody who would say that it is going to have a positive impact on national security for us to send people to work without a paycheck. And I think that is a large part of what the President was referring to. He also noted the negative economic impact this would have on communities across the country, as well.
You’ve also heard the Secretary of Homeland Security talk a little bit about how difficult it is for his agency to plan when they are facing looming deadlines like this, that that would have a direct impact on the operations of their agency. There are — while the vast majority of personnel at the Department of Homeland Security are considered essential personnel, which means they will show up to work even if they don’t get a paycheck, there are still tens of thousands of DHS employees that aren’t and, therefore, will be furloughed and won’t be showing up at the office. And again, that’s going to have an impact on the day-to-day functioning of the Department of Homeland Security.
And again, you’ve heard me say that it’s hard to imagine a good time for Congress to be mucking around with the funding of the Department of Homeland Security, but now seems like a particularly bad one.
Q And do you think that the Secretary overstated the threat to America’s malls over the weekend?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the Secretary was noting how important it is for the American people to continue to be vigilant. That said, the intelligence community has said that they are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center here in the United States.
But we certainly are mindful of the threat that exists. And that’s why DHS has their “See Something, Say Something” campaign. And we encourage people to be vigilant about that. But the fact of the matter is the intelligence community has indicated that there is no specific, credible plot against the mall and that — essentially this is a reaction to a propaganda video that was put out by a terrorist group in Africa. And I recognize that may be why the issue of mall security has come to the attention of the people in this room. But the fact of the matter is the administration has been mindful of this risk for years now. And that’s why Secretary Johnson, yesterday when he was asked about this, was able to indicate that we’d already been in touch with local law enforcement, that we’d already been in touch with individuals who were responsible for security at shopping centers, and even at this specific shopping center.
But I want to reiterate something that the intelligence community has said about there not being any specific credible threat that they’re aware of at this point.
Q Thanks, Josh. During a military town hall event yesterday in Kandahar, Secretary Carter expressed an openness to the idea of openly transgender service, saying only suitability for service should bar an American from enlistment. Does the President share Secretary Carter’s views on this?
MR. EARNEST: Chris, I’ve seen the reports of Secretary Carter’s comments. I can tell you that the President agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve. And for that reason we here at the White House welcome the comments from the Secretary of Defense.
But in terms of additional steps the Department of Defense will take to address this matter, I’d refer you to the Secretary’s office.
Q Is there any coordination going on between the White House and the Pentagon right now to coordinate those steps?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, to talk about what those next steps might be, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q In other news, in Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson, has just hours remaining to act on legislation, SB 202, which would prohibit localities from passing LGBT non-discrimination ordinances. Does the President think a veto of that state bill is the right decision?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that specific piece of legislation, Chris. Ultimately, governors have to make these kinds of decisions for themselves, so I wouldn’t weigh in at this point.
Q Thanks, Josh. What’s the White House reaction to yesterday night at the Oscars, the documentary rewarded about Snowden? The Oscar going to this documentary about Edward Snowden?
MR. EARNEST: I was not able to stay up until the very end of the Oscars. They started rather late. I’m not sure why — I guess it’s a West Coast thing. But I obviously did see the news of that documentary receiving the award, and I don’t have a specific reaction to it. Our views on this matter are well known and they aren’t affected by the decision of the academy.
Q Yes, I wanted to refer to you some reports over the weekend that the White House might not send any Cabinet-level members to AIPAC and I wanted to know if you could confirm that.
MR. EARNEST: The answer to that is that we are still in discussions with AIPAC about what sort of administration representation they’ll have at the meeting. You’ll recall that there are previous — in previous years there have been administration representatives, including the President on at least one occasion I can think of off the top of my head. But we’re still evaluating the invitation. And as soon as we have some more information about who will be available to speak to the group, we’ll let you all know.
Q Is the President considering going?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q And one other follow-up question. And I’m sorry to keep hounding on this Department of Homeland Security thing, but today, the President said — going back to what he said — it will have a direct impact on the economy, it will have a direct impact on America’s national security. And I just wanted to take one more opportunity I guess to try to understand how it would have a direct impact on national security. The potential I suppose of people being here that don’t have background checks, I guess — that doesn’t to me say it would have a direct impact. And I just wanted to clarify that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the direct impact is that people who will be showing up to protect our borders, to protect our ports of entry, including our airports, individuals who are responsible for keeping the machinery moving in terms of responding to natural disasters and responding to requests for assistance from states when they put forward those kinds of requests for financial assistance, that those kinds of basic day-to-day operations are affected. In some cases, it just means that there is personnel who are not receiving paychecks. In some cases we’re talking about personnel who are working on these important matters who are being furloughed. It certainly would have an impact on the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to plan for the future and to implement new procedures and programs.
There’s always an effort to innovate when it comes to homeland security to take steps that would keep us safer. This also applies to cybersecurity. The Department of Homeland Security is the agency that’s principally responsible for trying to keep Americans and their data safe in cyberspace. So again, I think it’s very hard for anybody to make the case — and I don’t think anybody really has — that stopping funding for the Department of Homeland Security somehow enhances our national security. And I think everybody would acknowledge that it’s going to have an impact, and it’s not going to be a positive one. And that’s the point that the President was making. And that’s why we believe that despite the differences between the parties, we should all be able to come together around the idea that Congress should fulfill their responsibility to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and to do it on-time and to do it for the full year.
Q Are you saying that people who don’t collect a paycheck will not do their jobs as well, protecting the border or doing anti-terrorist activities, than if they were being paid?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not saying that at all. I think the irony of this whole situation, Mara, is that you do have more than 100,000 patriotic Americans who show up to work every single day to keep our airports and the skies safe for the traveling public. They protect our borders. They work in cyberspace to try to protect our cybersecurity. These are patriotic Americans. They’re also middle-class families. And the thought that Congress, because they’re not willing to do their job, is going to put these patriotic Americans in a position of not being able to collect a paycheck even though they’re doing theirs — even though they’re doing the important work of keeping the country safe.
Q Well, that’s contradicting your other argument. You’re saying the country will be less safe if these people are not paid because it will have a direct effect on national security. But you’re saying these people are going to show up and do their jobs even under the onerous condition of not being paid.
MR. EARNEST: I think I made pretty clear in answering Francesca’s question and in answering Julia’s question that there are a variety of impacts from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. I think one of them — and it’s principally an issue of fairness — is the fact that you’ve got more than 100,000 Americans who work at the Department of Homeland Security, who work to keep us safe, who are not going to get a paycheck just because Congress isn’t doing their job.
And I would certainly not question the professionalism and performance of these individuals. But I don’t understand how anybody could make the case that their professionalism and performance is enhanced by withholding a paycheck for a job that they’re willing to do and that they’ve done.
Q But we’re asking about the direct effect on national security — direct effect. Not the economic impact or the unfairness to them, just the direct effect on national security.
MR. EARNEST: And I don’t think there’s anybody that can make the case that there is a positive impact on national security by withholding their paychecks. If somebody wants to make that case, I’m happy to have them try to persuade me, persuade all of you.
Q But what about people who say it won’t have any effect at all since these people are essential?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mara, I guess, again, in answering Julia’s question I was pretty clear about the fact that there is a lot of operational planning that goes on, that there are tens of thousands of DHS employees that are furloughed as a result of shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. And if we actually want the Department of Homeland Security to do everything they possibly can to keep us safe, then what we’re going to do is we’re going to give them the resources to plan and to innovate and to take all the necessary steps — whether it’s cybersecurity, border security, or airport security — to do their best to keep the American people safe.
And again, it’s beyond me how anybody would try to make the case that withholding funding from the department somehow makes it easier for all those people to do their jobs. I don’t think it does.
Q So, Josh, on this question. I understand Republicans are now fully in charge of the House, they’ve got a majority in the Senate, and, ultimately, it’s their responsibility to send a bill down here for the President’s signature. But given what the President has said about how this can impact the national security — have a negative impact on national security, what is he doing to try to get movement up there? Is he bringing the congressional leaders to the White House for an emergency meeting on this? What is he doing to try to prod them? I understand again it’s ultimately their responsibility, but he’s ultimately the President. If there’s something hurting national security, it’s on his watch. So what is his responsibility and his action plan on trying to get something done this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, when they — when members of Congress actually do make it back to Washington, D.C. after their week-long recess, maybe there is an opportunity for them to come to the White House and meet with the President to discuss this. I wouldn’t rule out that option necessarily.
But the fact of the matter is there’s not that much to discuss. The fact is everybody acknowledges that it’s the responsibility of Congress to use the power of the purse to fund the government. Everybody understands that funding the Department of Homeland Security is critical to maximizing our efforts to keep the homeland safe. And everybody acknowledges that failing to do so is not going to be good for the country, and it’s not going to be good for homeland security and it’s not going to be good for the economy.
So the President stands ready to have that discussion if it’s necessary, but, frankly, other than those issues, I’m not really sure what there is to discuss.
Q So if there’s a discussion for the President to have, you’re saying the only discussion is for him to tell them to act and to do it without strings, just fund the department. Forget this immigration dispute they have. Just fund the department, and there’s just no other path here.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is no path beyond Congress actually doing their job to pass a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security. That is true.
Now, what I recognize has affected the ability of some members of Congress to actually do their job is that they want to try to send some signal of dispute or objection to the President’s executive actions on immigration. And I’ve been very clear, and the President has been very clear, that we welcome the opportunity to have a discussion with Republicans about what we can do to fix our broken immigration system. In fact, the President and the administration engaged in a whole series of discussions two years ago that resulted in a bipartisan compromise piece of legislation emerging from the Senate. Ironically, that bipartisan proposal was blocked by House Republicans.
There is sort of a common theme in all of this, and I don’t think that’s lost on anybody who is paying attention. The truth is it’s not really lost on that many Republicans. You saw Senator Graham going out there on the Sunday shows when he’s been talking about this over the weekend, indicating that he understood that the Republican Party was going to get blamed if there were a negative impact, or if the — not if there was a negative impact, but if Republicans fail to follow their — fulfill their responsibility to fund the Department of Homeland Security.
Q But do you see an avenue of potential compromise where you give them something on this issue? They believe the President’s action were illegal. Actually, there appears to be a judge in Texas that agrees with that. They want it stopped. Obviously, immigration is done through the Department of Homeland Security. That’s why this impasse is there. Do you see a path for the President stepping in and being willing to put off this immigration executive order or engage in any kind of compromise whatsoever on that issue to resolve this impasse?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, we have indicated for years that the President stands ready to have conversations with Democrats and Republicans on immigration reform. We are ready to have that discussion. We had a number of discussions in the last Congress. We’re ready to have discussions with this Congress — not just with Democrats, but with Republicans too, if they’re willing to participate.
But right now, the question before the United States Congress is, are they going to continue to accept their paychecks and not do their jobs while members of the Department of Homeland Security, officials in the Department of Homeland Security, and front-line law enforcement officers in the Department of Homeland Security are going to be faced with the prospect of stepping up and doing their job even if they’re not getting a paycheck?
Q And can I get back to Secretary Jeh Johnson’s comments on the Mall of America?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q What he said specifically was, “If anybody is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they have got to be particularly careful.” Does the White House agree with that specific statement — “If somebody is going to the Mall of America today, they have got to be particularly careful”? That would suggest a specific threat or a heightened threat level right now at a specific place.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and what I have said and, more importantly, what the intelligence community has assessed and what they have said is that we’re not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic, commercial shopping center.
And I think what the Secretary was trying to say and what he — what’s his responsibility to say is that the American people should remain vigilant. And if they see something, they should say something. But that is —
Q So in this particular sentence he was misspeaking? Because he was saying be particularly careful today — again, clearly implying a threat now.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Secretary was very cognizant of the fact that it’s his responsibility to remind the American people that if they see something, they should say something. It’s important for them to be vigilant. But at the same time, in terms of understanding the facts about the threat that we fact, the intelligence community is not aware of any specific credible plot against the Mall of the America.
Q Last question. With the governors, did the President have a chance to talk to Governor Scott Walker at all, and did the question of his faith come up at all? As I’m sure you saw, he had a tough time answering whether or not he was a Christian.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if the President had the opportunity to speak to Governor Walker either last night or today.
Q I want to go back to Secretary Johnson’s comments.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, sir.
Q Don’t they conflict a little bit with what the President told Vox.com a couple weeks ago, that these terror threats are really kind of a media-hype situation and that if it bleeds, it leads? Isn’t there a serious threat out there that the Secretary was trying to alert people to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I’d just go back to the facts. The intelligence community has indicated that they are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other shopping center inside the United States.
And the reason that we’re having this discussion is because of a propaganda video that Al Shabaab did put out. But the fact that we’re having this discussion in public is not different than the fact that for years, this administration has been working with local law enforcement and, in some cases, even individuals who are responsible for mall security, to make sure that Americans can be protected and that we are aware of the aspirations that groups like this have to strike against soft targets.
But the fact is, again, the intelligence community has been very clear about the fact that they are not aware of any specific credible threat against the Mall of America.
Q So if there’s not a specific threat, why was the Secretary suggesting that people be extra careful if you go to that mall? Did it have anything to do with this DHS funding fight, to sort of scare Congress more to get that money to say, hey, there’s threats out there?
MR. EARNEST: No, it did not.
Q Secretary Carter — you asked about him earlier. He’s also having a meeting with military commanders in Kuwait.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q I wonder, is this mostly about him — we’re being told it’s about strategy, dealing with ISIS — this is mostly, as the new Defense Secretary, getting up to speed, sitting down with the military commanders? Or is it also kind of the administration taking a fresh look, fresh set of eyes with the situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, this is mostly about — and this is something that Secretary Carter I think will have the opportunity to discuss himself over in Kuwait — I understand that he’s got a press availability scheduled for later today. This is principally an opportunity for him, within his first week here now as the Secretary of Defense, to travel overseas to meet with our military personnel and some of our diplomats in the Middle East, to talk about the status of the campaign. And a lot of this is for him to get up to speed, to hear their firsthand assessment of how things are going.
At the same time, the President has challenged his team to constantly be reassessing our strategy and to constantly be in a posture of evaluating whether or not there are things that we can do even better than we’re already doing. So I would anticipate — and again, the Secretary can speak for himself — I would anticipate that he’s thinking about that as he’s hearing from these military leaders and from our diplomats, and from our intel officials that are participating in this meeting. But principally, this is an opportunity for the Secretary to hear firsthand from those who report to him about how things are going.
Q Last one. The various family members of Kayla Mueller did an interview with NBC News. And at one point they say that when the President swapped five Taliban commanders for Bowe Bergdahl, that ISIS’s demands to release Kayla started increasing, and they feel like there was an impact. Does the President have any regrets that the Bergdahl swap backfired and made it harder to get Kayla and other American hostages released?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I’m not even sure that that’s the case that Mueller family was making. The fact is, our hearts go out to the Mueller family —
Q But hang on. They directly said — I think it was her brother who was speaking — that once the Bergdahl swap happened, the demands from ISIS got much stronger. So how can you deny that they’re making that case? That’s what they said.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s what they said, but you tacked on something there at the end that said that would make it harder to get Kayla Mueller back.
Q If the demands go higher, it’s harder to get —
MR. EARNEST: Assuming that the individuals who are making the demands have any credibility at all, Ed. So the fact is the Mueller family is going through a very difficult time, and I think in the minds of all of us, it’s difficult to even imagine the pain that they’re going through as a result of this tragedy.
And even though — it is still true that the Mueller family continues to be in the thoughts and prayers of people here at the White House. And these families are in a particularly difficult position because the United States does have a policy that is clearly in our best interest and clearly in the best interest of the American people and our national security to not make concessions and to not negotiate with terrorists, and in this case, with Kayla Mueller’s hostage-takers.
And that puts — that did put Kayla and her family in a very difficult position. And it’s one — again, that is an important reason why what they’re dealing with is so tragic. But the President is confident that his administration did do everything that was possible within the confines of that policy, using our military might, using our intelligence capability, using our diplomatic influence to try to secure the safe release and return of Kayla Mueller. In fact, the President has talked about the fact that he ordered a military raid, a daring military raid that involved dozens of U.S. military personnel to try to rescue her. Unfortunately, while that mission was executed successfully, it did not result in her rescue.
And as the President confronts this challenge in the future — and we’re going to have to; there continue to be Americans who are being held against their will around the world — we’re going to continue to use every element at our disposal to try to secure the safe return of those Americans.
Q Just a couple of follow-ups on DHS. And a little bit of beating a dead horse maybe here, but I just want to make sure I understand — when Jeh Johnson says you would have to be indulging in a fantasy to believe that shutting down DHS will have no impact on homeland security itself — and I understand what you’re saying, that it certainly isn’t going to make things better, but in terms of real, tangible concerns that the White House has, can you detail what you think the impact would be in a negative way that would hurt homeland security that the average American should worry about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for a detailed assessment, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security. But what I can tell you is that there are at least a couple of things that I can cite for you. The first is that there are tens of thousands of DHS employees who do have an important function in that agency who will be furloughed. They will not be — they will no longer be coming into the office.
Q But if they were considered to be that important, they wouldn’t be furloughed, right? Isn’t that — the front-line people are the ones who have to work without pay, which is a couple hundred thousand, and then 30,000 more who are considered, for lack of a better term, non-essential.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, let me draw maybe an analogy that might resonate a little bit in this room — that the news could go on if your producer — you could do the nightly news tonight even if your producer were not able to come into work today —
Q No. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Impossible to imagine, right? I guess that’s my point. Even though people at home may not know who your very talented producer is, it would have an impact on the broadcast that night. And so to the people at home, it may seem as if that producer is not essential to the broadcast — you, because you’re so focused on the broadcast, understand just how important the work that that person does really is. And I think a similar analogy could be drawn with the Department of Homeland Security — that, yes, these may not be people who are instantly recognizable to the American public, but they do play an important role in protecting our homeland security.
And so there will be tens of thousands of those people who will be furloughed. In addition to that, there are, as the Secretary has said, impacts on basic operations when it comes to planning — trying to set out budgets, trying to make plans to implement new — deploy or implement new technology or new policies that only funding the Department of Homeland Security for 30 days at a time, or shutting it down altogether, is going to have an impact on their ability to carry out those kinds of operations to implement new technology, to implement new policies.
And again, this shouldn’t be that complicated. Congress has a basic responsibility, which is to pass a budget. And there’s no agency that I can think of at least that would be more important than funding the Department of Homeland Security. And it’s certainly not going to have a positive impact on our homeland security, and it’s certainly not going to be fair to the more than 100,000 Americans who will continue to show up and will continue to do a good job of protecting this country, but they’re going to do it without a paycheck.
And it’s kind of ironic that members of Congress are going to show up and not do their jobs, but their paycheck is still going to come on time.
Q Will there be a shift if some of those employees to do administrative tasks — will some of those jobs essentially continue to be done but by fewer people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the operational adjustments that they’ll have to make as a result of — if this eventuality does materialize, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security, who can give you some more details about the steps that they’ll need to take to try to mitigate the impact.
Q And just one more question, because there does seem to be on the Hill, even from people who support your position, a shift from what we’ve seen maybe a couple of weeks ago, where the feeling was that there was no way that this was likely to happen, to now, as we get closer to the weekend, a growing concern. What is the White House assessment of the likelihood that this happens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, trying to predict what Congress is actually going to get done is not something I think I’m willing to do in public, probably not even in private. It’s hard to really tell. I will say that at the end of last year — I guess it’s worth taking one second to remember exactly how we ended up in this place. At the end of last year, Republicans conceived of this scheme that they were going to put together something called a crominbus, something nobody had ever heard of before, which essentially was a proposal to fund the rest of the government but hold back funding for the Department of Homeland Security with the thought that it would allow Republicans to sort of demonstrate that they were protesting the President’s executive actions because of their political differences with the President of the United States.
And I observed at the time that it would not be a winning proposition for Republicans to fight a political fight over the Department of Homeland Security and to essentially hold hostage the funding for the Department of Homeland Security because of a political dispute. And I don’t think that it’s benefitted them politically. Again, Senator Graham, if you listen to his comments — I think he is somebody who does have a good sense of the way that these politics affect his party — said that he was confident that his party was going to get blamed. And that does seem to be where we’re headed, and that’s disappointing.
But hopefully, maybe after spending a week at home or wherever it is that Congress has been for the last 10 days, that they’ll have had a chance to clear their heads and maybe come to their senses even. And as long as they’re collecting a paycheck, they might as well do their job.
Q You just said “that does seem to be where we’re headed.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, right now, it does seem to be where we’re headed. But we’ll have to see. Again, this would be the responsibility of members of Congress to step forward and do their job.
Q Afghan President Ghani is going to be coming here pretty soon, over the weekend. Defense Secretary Carter was in Afghanistan. They both basically indicated that a slowdown in the drawdown of troops is warranted based on the situation on the ground. How firm, given those assessments, how firm is the 2017 deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ll recall that the President has been very clear about what he believes our strategy in Afghanistan should be, which is the President, for a number of years now, has sought the responsible drawdown of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan. And this strategy has been done in careful consultation with our military leaders, including our generals on the ground. It’s been done in careful consultation with other senior members of the President’s national security team, including National Security Council staff here at the White House, as well as our diplomats and our intelligence officers.
We’ve also worked carefully with the Afghan government. Because ultimately, there has been a partnership, useful partnership between the United States and the broader international community and the Afghan government as that government and their security forces have taken on more responsibility for securing their own country. So the strategy that the President has laid out is one that he continues to have confidence in.
Now, there continue to be around 10,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan fulfilling two important functions. The first is carrying out counterterrorism operations where necessary, but also continuing to partner with Afghan security forces to train, advise, and equip them. And those efforts are ongoing, and Afghan government officials indicate that they believe that that operation has been useful and beneficial to their ongoing efforts to try to secure their country.
So the President remains committed to those two tasks and believes that the strategy that he’s laid out so far is one that can accomplish those tasks. But the President continues to be open to taking advice from his military leadership, from the senior members of his national security team, to tailor that strategy to reflect the situation on the ground. And that’s — I’m confident this will be part of some of the discussions that we’ll have with President Ghani when he’s in Washington.
Q So if it turns out that the Afghan security forces are not prepared to take over completely by that original deadline, is the White House open to pushing that back beyond 2017?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just as a reminder, that deadline has already passed. Afghan security forces are now responsible for the security situation in their country. We’ve handed over that responsibility to them I believe at the end of last year.
And so what now is in place is an effort to continue to bolster their capacity to safeguard their country. And again, the President continues to be mindful of the security situation on the ground, of the contributions that are being made by our NATO allies to this broader effort, and we’re going to continue to tailor the strategy to reflect the situation on the ground with, of course, a careful focus on the implications for American national security.
Q And a quick question on Cuba.
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q There’s going to be some bilateral meetings later this week between the Cuban government and the U.S. government. The President is also going to Miami, where there’s a large and vocal Cuban American community. The President — I know he’s going to there to talk about immigration, but does he plan to give a message that’s tailored specifically to the Cuban American community, especially those who are opposed to ending the embargo specifically because they have strong personal relations with the country? Some have pretty strong stories when it comes to how they left Cuba. Does he plan to have a message that’s tailored specifically to that community?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the goal of the town hall that the President will convene in Miami later this week that will be broadcast on Telemundo will be principally to discuss immigration and the President’s ongoing efforts to bring some accountability to our immigration system and try to finally fix as many of the broken — many problems of the broken immigration system as he possibly can. That will be the focus of his remarks, but it’s a town hall meeting. So that means that people will have an opportunity to ask questions of the President.
And given the sizeable Cuban American population in South Florida I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does choose to ask the President about this. And I would not anticipate that the President will have any new announcements, but I do think that you can expect to hear the President persuasively restate his case for why he believes moving to normalized relations with Cuba is clearly in the best interests of the United States, and is the best way for us to elicit the kind of social and political change that we’d like to see in Cuba.
And it’s precisely because of the President’s commitment to universal human rights and applying pressure on the Cuban regime to respect and even protect those basic human rights that the President wants to change this policy. For 50 years, we tried a policy of essentially an embargo that had no discernable impact on the policies that were put in place by the Castro regime. So after 50 years, it’s the view of the President that we needed to try something different.
And by moving to normalize our relations what we hope will happen, in part, is to expose the Cuban people to more of the kind of liberty that we enjoy in this country, that that could further pressure the Castro regime to make some changes in the way that they treat their citizens. I also would anticipate that it will remove a barrier to our efforts to try to focus international attention on the Cuban regime’s treatment of its citizens; that for too long, any time we wanted to go and raise concerns about Cuba’s policy toward their own people, other countries wanted to raise questions about our policy toward Cuba. And now that that distraction has been removed, international attention will focus on the way that the Cuban regime all too often violates the basic human and political rights of their people — and whether that’s trying to squelch free speech, or trying to trample on the rights of independent journalists, or to prevent groups of people from gathering to have political discussions in Cuba, that there are a variety of instances on a regular basis where we see the Castro government try to squelch the basic human rights of their people. And we do believe that we will now be more successful in focusing international attention and ratcheting up the pressure on the Castro regime to change their ways.
Q Thank you, Josh. Just back on Keystone for a minute. It’s been a few days since the EPA assessment about the CO2 emissions that it would generate. Has the White House or anybody on the White House staff started to move toward the conclusion that this would significantly worsen carbon emissions?
MR. EARNEST: That is an evaluation that’s being carefully considered by the State Department, and that’s where this study currently resides. And I’m confident that they will consider the EPA analysis as they formulate a final opinion on whether or not the Keystone project is in the national interest of the United States.
Q So when the veto comes tomorrow, it will still be about the President’s concern about circumventing the process not about the actual project?
MR. EARNEST: That is correct. The process to evaluate that project is still ongoing.
Q And also can you say how quickly you would turn that veto around after you get the bill?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t anticipate a lengthy delay. Everybody is acutely aware of the administration’s position on this, so I wouldn’t anticipate a lot of fanfare or drama.
Q Just a couple on DHS, on homeland security. The President mentioned this to the governors earlier today. Was the point of that partly to get some of the Republican governors in the room to help to persuade members of Congress that they should resolve this dispute before the end of the week, or before the funding expires? Or was that part of his calculus in raising it with that group? They obviously don’t have a say in this current disagreement about funding the government or reauthorizing the department.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would just say that the President would certainly welcome the expressions of support from governors across the country that Congress should fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget for the Department of Homeland Security. And the President pointed out that the impact of a shutdown would be felt not just in our homeland security, but also in the economy of communities all across the country, including economies in every one of our 50 states.
So again, I think it’s ultimately up to governors to decide what sort of comments they want to make when it comes to federal decision-making. Certainly, some governors have not shown any sort of reticence about weighing in on those kinds of decisions. But we certainly would welcome the advocacy of the nation’s governors in making case that Congress and members of Congress should fulfill their responsibility to pass a budget for the Department of Homeland Security.
Q And on the town hall meeting in Miami, what was the thinking on the timing of that? This is coming right a few days before this funding expires for the Homeland Security Department. Obviously, you’ve acknowledged that at the root of that dispute is Republican opposition to the President’s executive action on immigration. That’s what the subject of the town hall meeting is going to be you’ve said. So is there any thought, any concern about sort of raising those points in the middle of trying to resolve this dispute? Or does the President feel like this is an appropriate forum for him to basically make his case while Congress is deciding what they should do with the funding?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is the President has for years now talked about how reforming our broken immigration system continues to be a top priority of his. He continues to have an interest in working with members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to try to pass legislation to that end.
The President has already demonstrated his willingness to use his executive authority to fix as many of the problems with our broken immigration system as he possibly can. We certainly were not pleased with the Texas district court ruling last week on this matter that did limit the ability of the President to carry out some of those executive actions — not all of them. The ability of the administration to use prosecutorial discretion in deciding who will be targeted for deportation still stands and is something that will still be implemented. That means the administration can still move forward with ensuring that our enforcement efforts are focused on felons and not on families.
But there is this element of accountability, about bringing people out of the shadows, making them submit to a background check and start paying taxes that we can’t move forward on because of the judge’s ruling. And so I would anticipate that the President will spend some time answering questions about the significance of the ruling and about the next steps in the legal process.
But ultimately, this is about the President doing what Presidents are supposed to do, which is traveling across the country and talking about their priorities for the country. And there is no question that one of the President’s priorities is reforming our broken immigration system because of the positive benefits it would have for reducing our deficit, for expanding economic growth, for creating jobs, and for actually making our borders and our country more secure.
Q Do you think this will ratchet up pressure on Republicans to approve funding for the Department of Homeland Security by making his case on the immigration issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, I actually think that congressional Republicans are already under intense pressure to get this done. And that would be true whether the President was planning a town hall meeting in Miami or not.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Victoria, I’ll give you the last one.
Q You’ve made some fairly tough comments today questioning Iran’s hard-liners’ willingness to give up their nuclear aspirations. And we know that any deal that’s made will have to go back Ayatollah Khamenei, and that President Obama is not willing to extend the March deadline, and also that the pace of talks is pretty glacial and they don’t have any talks scheduled till next week. Is there a sense of urgency in the administration about these talks?
MR. EARNEST: There is a sense of urgency. These talks have been going on for a substantial number of months, more than a year. And as the President himself has said, he does believe that we’re getting close to a time where we’re going to find out whether or not a deal can be reached or not.
And there is a sense of urgency because the President believes it is clearly in the national interest of the United States for us to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This is already a very volatile region of the world. And we do know the impact that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would have no a host of other countries in the region, to say nothing of Iran’s support for terrorism around the world, to say nothing of Iran’s condemnation and ill will toward our strongest ally in the region, Israel. The President believes that the best way for us to resolve the situation is to do so around the negotiating table; that if we can reach an agreement in which Iran will commit to resolving the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program in a verifiable way, that we can deescalate the tension around that issue.
Now, there continue to be issues that exist with Iran — or tension that exists with Iran in other areas. But this would be an important accomplishment and a good thing for U.S. national security. It also would be good for the national security of our strongest ally in the region, Israel.
So the President is pursuing this, and we do feel a sense of urgency about trying to get this done. But again, we’re also realistic about the chances of success here. And we’re realistic because of some of the political impediments that I described earlier. But trying to reach an agreement around the negotiating table, even if it is an uphill climb, is vastly preferable to the other options that are available to the international community for resolving these concerns.
Q So you put the likelihood of a deal at less than 50-50. So if you don’t get to a deal by March the 31st, what is plan B for April the 1st?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re focused right now on plan A, and that’s why we feel a sense of urgency around it.
Q Is there a plan B?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll have an opportunity to discuss that — well, hopefully we won’t have an opportunity to discuss that. But we’ll see in the weeks ahead.
1:41 P.M. EST