Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 28, 2014 – 1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Hope you all enjoyed your weekend. It’s nice to see you on this Monday afternoon.
We are starting pretty close to on time today, which is a nice, new trend, hopefully that we’ll be able to continue. The reason for that is I have alongside with me here today the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Tony Blinken, who is going to talk to you about a telephone call that the President convened with some of our allies in Europe today.
I know that over the last couple of weeks you guys have had a lot of questions about what the President is doing in terms of leading the international community’s response to the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner a couple of weeks ago now. There have also been, obviously, a series of coordinated efforts to increase international pressure on Russia for the actions that they have taken in Ukraine.
So Tony is here to give you a detailed readout of that telephone conversation that the President convened today and answer any questions you may have about our ongoing efforts to coordinate the imposition of economic costs on the Russian regime. He probably only has 10 or 15 minutes here, so we’ll go through that part of it relatively quickly and then I’ll be around to answer remaining questions you may have.
But I would encourage you, as you’re thinking about the questions you want to ask Tony, to focus on the Russia and Ukraine situation. I know that there are a lot of newsy developments in Gaza as well, so he can take one or two of those before departing. But we have to limit this to 10 or 15 minutes.
So with that, I present Tony Blinken.
MR. BLINKEN: Josh, thank you.
Good afternoon. Let me start by giving you a readout of the President’s videoconference with Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom, President Hollande of France, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, and Prime Minister Renzi of Italy. I should add that Chancellor Merkel was actually on the phone; the others were on a videoconference.
The primary focus of the conversation today was to talk about Ukraine, and they discussed next steps concerning the crisis there, but also efforts to achieve a cease-fire in Gaza, and the situations in Iraq and Libya.
On Ukraine, they stressed the continued need for unrestricted access to the shoot-down site of Malaysia Air Flight 17 to allow for the recovery of the victims’ remains and for international investigators to proceed with their efforts. They agreed on the importance of coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country and instead choose a diplomatic path for resolving the crisis.
Concerning Gaza, the President noted that Israel has the right to take action to defend itself. The leaders agreed on the need for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire, noting shared concern about the risk of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.
On Iraq, they discussed the security challenges, welcomed developments in the political process, and urged the swift completion of government coordination and hopefully an inclusive government that results from that.
And then, with respect to Libya, they agreed on the need for an immediate cease-fire among the militias of Tripoli, calling for the seating of the newly elected Council of Representatives, and underscoring support for the U.N. in seeking a resolution to the conflict. They condemned any use of violence to attack civilians, intimidate officials, or disrupt the political process.
Having said that, let me just spend a few minutes if I can on Ukraine to put this in context. This was, I think by our count, about the 50th call or videoconference the President has had with his European counterparts since the beginning of this crisis. And ever since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its campaign to destabilize Ukraine, the President has led the international effort to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine, to support Ukraine itself, and to reassure our allies.
This effort has produced major strategic gains. We’ve created space for Ukraine to hold successful presidential elections despite Russian efforts to disrupt them. And that’s produced the strongest leadership Ukraine has seen since the end of the Cold War. We’ve created space for Ukraine to sign an association agreement with the European Union despite Russian efforts to prevent that. And recall that the former President Yanukovich’s last-minute about-face on signing that association agreement is exactly what precipitated this crisis in the first place. And we’ve forged a robust financial support package for Ukraine led by the IMF.
None of these things just happened. They were the result of a major, sustained effort by the President to lead the international community.
All of that said, the challenge to Ukraine remains acute. Ukrainian forces are right now making major gains to regain sovereignty in the east, but at the same time, Russia is doubling down on its own efforts to support the separatists and destabilize the country. Indeed, it is cynically using all of the attention focused on the crash of MH17 as a cover and distraction for its own efforts. It’s increased the provision of heavy weaponry across the border. We’ve seen convoys of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, artillery and armored vehicles. There’s evidence it’s preparing to deliver even more powerful multiple rocket launchers.
It is firing from positions inside of Russia into Ukraine — something that we documented this weekend. And we’ve seen a significant re-buildup of Russian forces along the border, potentially positioning Russia for a so-called humanitarian or peacekeeping intervention in Ukraine.
So there’s urgency to arresting these developments, to ending the efforts to destabilize Ukraine. And the urgency is this: First, everything we’re seeing is a real drag on the Ukrainian economy. The military expenditures that Ukraine has to make are a drag, and the fact that Luhansk and Donetsk, which represent 15 percent of Ukrainian GDP and about 25 percent of its manufacturing exports, are basically taken out of the Ukrainian economy equation is also a drag on the economy.
Second, the longer this goes on there’s the risk of further outrageous actions by the separatists or by Russia that deepen the international crisis. So there’s a need to take further action now to convince Russia to change course and cease its efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
On the call, the European leaders clearly shared this assessment and a determination to act. We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week, including in key sectors of the Russian economy. In turn, and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself.
Our purpose here, again, is not to punish Russia, but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.
Let me just finish by putting this in a larger context. Everything we’ve seen as a result of Russia’s actions and the actions that the President has led in the international community over these many months has turned what is happening in Ukraine into a strategic loser for Russia. First, we’ve seen a dramatic impact on the Russian economy by the sanctions that the United States, Europeans and others have taken.
These are acknowledged by the Russian Finance Minister and, indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister, even Putin himself. Sberbank, the largest bank in Russia and a proxy for the larger economy, a month ago, in announcing a steep decline in profits, said, “In particular, recent events in Ukraine significantly impacted the dynamics of the Russian economy.”
We’ve seen the financial markets go up and down, the ruble hitting lows, the Central Bank has had to spend $37 billion to defend the ruble, about 8 percent of its foreign exchange holdings. The result is higher borrowing costs and a decrease in the value of Russian savings.
Capital flight — $70 billion in the first half of this year, more than all of 2013 combined. And projections for the entire year put it at between $100 billion and $200 billion.
Foreign investment is drying up. Investors are looking for stability; they’re looking at countries that keep their international commitments; they’re looking at countries that have connected to the international economy. On all three counts, Russia is giving them great pause. The credit rating for Russia was cut to just above the junk level; financing yields are frozen; Russian companies are not issuing bonds to raise capital. And as we’ve seen overall, Russia is heading for economic contraction, not growth, a significant reversal from just a few months ago.
Let me add as well, there’s talk that Russia has “won Crimea.” But the fact of the matter is what’s happened is it’s lost Ukraine. Ukraine is more united in a Western orientation than ever before and has a much greater sense of national identity. We’ve produced, as I mentioned before, the space for elections and the signing of the association agreement with the European Union.
Crimea itself is becoming a dead weight on the Russian economy — $7 billion a year at least in budget and pension support; $50 to $60 billion required over the next several years for critical infrastructure. And Russians themselves are asking why this money is being spent in Crimea and not in Russia. There’s downward pressure on defense spending; there’s downward pressure on discretionary spending as a result of this.
We’ve seen the actions in Ukraine reenergize NATO. There’s a deeper commitment to Article 5. NATO itself, it now has a virtual regular presence, a continuous air, land and sea presence on the territory adjacent to Russia. And we’ll see what happens at the NATO summit, but there’s at least the prospect now for reversing the downward trend in defense spending.
We’ve seen on energy reform a jolt to the Europeans to take real steps to decrease dependence, to diversify supply, to upgrade infrastructure, to develop new sources.
And then, finally, I would say this: For the Russians and for President Putin, power equals a combination of geopolitical influence and economic strength to provide for the Russian people. There was a recent survey in Russia — the top two priorities of the Russian people were evenly split: international influence and creating the conditions for individual prosperity. As a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and as a result of the leadership we’ve exerted, both of those are in jeopardy. And so is President Putin’s compact with his own people.
There is a way out: Integrate Russia with the international economy, diversify away from fossil fuels, and play by the rules. That is still on offer. That is still a possibility. We would like nothing better than to resolve this crisis in Ukraine diplomatically. And that’s now up to President Putin.
Q Thank you very much for this update. Could you also update us on the U.S. response to the criticism that Senator Kerry has come under in Israel after his attempts to implement a cease-fire there? Is that damaging to the U.S.-Israel relationship?
MR. BLINKEN: Let me say this about Secretary Kerry: Israel has no better friend, no stronger defender. No one has done more to help Israel achieve a secure and lasting peace. He has been tireless in his efforts. And I think that Israel and many countries and friends around the world recognizes exactly that.
Q Has the President raised this in his call with the Prime Minister yesterday? Or have U.S. officials been complaining about the criticism to counterparts in Israel?
MR. BLINKEN: No. Look, what you see, I think, unfortunately on a regular basis, are people leaking things that are either misinformed or attempting to misinform. And in particular, with regard to criticism that was levied by undisclosed sources about the proposal for a cease-fire, the proposal that was criticized was not a U.S. proposal, it was a draft to illicit comments from the Israelis. It was basically a discussion paper based on the original Egyptian initiative. Virtually every element that unidentified sources complained about was in the initial Egyptian proposal and agreed to by Israel 10 days before.
In that, there was no mention of the need for disarmament. The document underscored the need for discussion between Israel and Palestinian factions. It called for the opening of border crossings. It did not make mention of tunnels. All of this, again, in the Egyptian proposal that the Israelis had accepted and unfortunately Hamas did not. The document also reflected the strong view that we have that demilitarization as well as reconstruction in Gaza are critical agenda items for any negotiations that follow a cease-fire.
So the bottom line on this is that what was leaked, unfortunately, was I think an effort to misinform or was just misinformed.
Q The sanctions that we’ve seen so far have been fairly targeted against Russia. Would you describe the sweeping nature of what you’re talking about later this week being coordinated between Europe and the United States?
MR. BLINKEN: I don’t want to get ahead of where the Europeans are or where we are, and we’ll see that in the days to come. But what we know is this: The Europeans made clear last week that they were prepared to act in key sectors of the Russian economy, including the financial sector, the arms sector, the energy sector. And so I think you can anticipate actions in those areas. Similarly, they’re looking to broaden criteria by which they can sanction people or entities. And I think one of the things they’re looking at is to bring in some of the cronies of President Putin.
So we’ve already seen with the sanctions to date, as I went through a few moments ago, a very serious impact on the Russian economy. And indeed, it’s the sanctions themselves and then the climate of tremendous uncertainty they create, even with the prospect of more sanctions, that has led to capital flight, investment drying up and the growth projections going down to basically zero.
Q And when you talk about this force that’s building up — the Russians are building up, are they preparing a Russian invasion of Ukraine?
MR. BLINKEN: One of the things that we believe Russia has been trying to do is, for example, to get the Ukrainians to take some action that they can then use as “justification” for some kind of intervention — so-called humanitarian intervention, or so-called peacekeeping intervention. So that’s one of the things that we think is in the potential Russian playbook.
The other thing they’re doing, most significantly, is increasing the supply of heavy equipment, weapons and fighters to the separatists across the border. And this is well documented in what we’ve seen; it’s well documented in social media.
Q In talking about that buildup and the heavier artillery, are we talking about more surface-to-air missile capability?
MR. BLINKEN: We are talking about multi-rocket launchers — that’s one of the things we’re seeing — artillery pieces, tanks, armored vehicles, and the concerns, as I said at the outset, about increasingly heavy weaponry. And I think there’s a reason for this, and the reason is that on the battlefield itself the Ukrainians are doing very well against the separatists in trying to regain the sovereignty of their entire country. So Russia’s proxies are right now on the losing end of the fight. And that’s why we think Russia is doubling down.
Q Do you think there are still Buk missile launchers within Ukraine at this point?
MR. BLINKEN: We believe that there are SA-11s that are still within Ukraine, including potentially in separatists’ hands.
Q A two-parter. How did you arrive at $37 billion spent to defend the ruble? And second, are there any other security things you’re looking at besides rocket launchers and tanks and heavy equipment?
MR. BLINKEN: I think the $37 billion has actually been fairly well documented in the financial press and by other statements that have been made. We can get you the backup for that.
And in terms of the military equipment that the Russians are providing, again, those are the main elements, but there are certainly other things that are going in. But in terms of heavy weaponry, those are the critical elements.
Q You’ve been talking about actions that have been taken this week by the EU and U.S. I want to go back to something that Josh said from the podium Friday about Russia and Putin were culpable for the downing of Flight 17. Is there a chance, is there a possibility that Putin could be charged in the International Crimes Court with war crimes, by any chance, with all of this that’s going on right now?
MR. BLINKEN: When it comes to Russian culpability, I think the record is clear. The Russians have been directly supporting the separatists with the provision of weapons. We believe that the SA-11 that was used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner came from Russia. We don’t know who was operating it. We believe the weapon itself came from Russia. The three top leading separatist leaders are all Russian nationals. So it’s clear that Russia has a significant influence over the separatists and could, if it so desired, get them to cease and desist.
So, in that sense, there is a clear and ongoing culpability by Russia for events in eastern Ukraine and for a failure to de-escalate the situation, and indeed, for the context in which all of this is happening, including the shoot-down of the airliner.
In terms of pointing to exactly who pulled the trigger, that we don’t know yet and we’ll see if we can develop that information. But the bottom line is this: Through its ongoing support and increasing support for the separatists, Russia bears responsibility for everything that’s going on in eastern Ukraine.
Q So you’re saying technically he could be brought before the International Crimes Court?
MR. BLINKEN: Look, I don’t want to get ahead of anything. Again, the main point is to emphasize that Russia bears responsibility and has the ability to actually de-escalate this crisis by moving it onto a diplomatic track. That is what we’d most like to see.
Q I don’t know if you’re aware of reports that just came now that Gaza Central Hospital has been hit, and 10 more dead Palestinian children. You said that the United States is Israel’s best friend, which I tend to agree with you. You also provide them with $3 billion a year, and you give them the Iron Dome that saved countless lives. How come you don’t have any leverage over Israel to extract a humanitarian cease-fire that would last for seven days? Does that mean that you basically have no influence over them, or that just Israel doesn’t care?
MR. BLINKEN: First, I haven’t seen those specific reports. Second, the record is clear: Israel has repeatedly accepted cease-fires that Hamas has rejected. So the bottom line on that is clear.
Let me say more generally, no country can abide rockets raining down on its people or terrorists tunneling underground to kill or kidnap its people. We have consistently and repeatedly defended Israel’s right to defend itself. Hamas intentionally targets civilians. And indeed, Iron Dome, thankfully, is there and has protected many of those civilians. And it uses the Palestinian people as human shields, wrapping them around its weapons and strategic sites.
In contrast, Israeli policy is to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, it holds itself to the highest standards to take every precaution to avoid those casualties. But the fact is, despite its efforts, the civilian suffering in Gaza is great and growing every day. So the practical reality is that it is difficult for Israel to meet its own high standards. Civilian casualties are increasing. It’s especially heartbreaking to see children suffering in this crisis.
This is a problem we have grappled with in Iraq and then in Afghanistan because we, too, hold ourselves to these standards. It’s incredibly difficult to sustain them. But I think this underscores the urgency of getting an unconditional, immediate, humanitarian cease-fire.
Q — said yesterday — just a quick a follow-up — that he wants Gaza demilitarized. What does that mean in terms of a long-term strategy or a peace negotiation or now as we talk in the next week or so?
MR. BLINKEN: As I said, we support an immediate, unconditional, humanitarian pause leading, we hope, to a sustainable cease-fire. We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must also lead to the disarmament of terrorist groups. And what we intend to do is to work closely with Israel, regional partners and the international community to achieve this goal.
MR. EARNEST: Ann, I’ll give you the last one, then we’ll let Tony go.
Q Thank you very much. On Russia, if all the impact of all of these sanctions and all the threat of sanctions are as dire as you’ve described, why hasn’t Putin blinked?
MR. BLINKEN: He has to make a strategic decision. And you’re exactly right, he hasn’t made it yet. We’ve seen him on a regular basis pull back tactically, say the right things in public while he’s doing the wrong things behind the scenes. So he’s clearly sensitive to the pressure that’s being exerted. But it’s precisely because we’ve not yet seen a strategic turn from Putin that we believe it’s absolutely essential to take additional measures. And that’s what the Europeans and the United States intend to do this week.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you, Tony.
MR. BLINKEN: Thanks, Josh. Thank you.
Q Thank you, Tony.
MR. EARNEST: All right before we move on to other topics, I do want to do one thing at the top. And I believe we have a slide that goes along with this — there it is. Today we got some very good news about Medicare’s financial future. In the President’s first year in office in 2009, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security trustees projected the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would not be able to pay its bills in 2017, just three years from now. Today’s new date is 2030 — 13 years later than that projection in 2009, an improvement that is thanks in part to the reforms of the Affordable Care Act, such as efforts to reduce hospital spending on preventable readmissions. And today’s date, you’ll note, is actually even four years later than was projected just last year.
A couple other relevant statistics that are included in the report: Furthermore, per-capita growth, or the amount spent per Medicare beneficiary has slowed dramatically in recent years, falling to one-third of what it was, and to nearly zero last year — helping to restrain overall growth in Medicare spending even as millions of baby boomers enter the program.
In addition, the trustees project that the Medicare Part B premium will not increase, which would make 2015 the second year in a row that premiums in Medicare stay flat.
While today’s report focuses on Medicare, it reflects broader trends in the health care system toward much slower growth in costs, a trend that has continued into 2014. Over the 50 months since enactment of the Affordable Care Act, health care prices have risen at a slower rate than over any comparable period in 50 years.
So that is a report that is being released as we speak, and so there will obviously be some more details included in that report later today when you get a chance to review it.
So with that, Nedra, do you have any additional questions today?
Q I do. Can you give us your response to the VA deal? Does the President think it does enough to solve the problem with the health care system?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, this compromise has been announced between House Republicans and the chair of the Senate Veterans Committee. We certainly welcome that announcement. There are a couple of reasons based on published reports that we’re encouraged by that compromise.
The first is, as you even heard me mention on Friday, there are much-needed reforms that need to be implemented into the Veterans Administration. The President and others have called for those important management reforms to be implemented, and again, based on press reports, the indications of those reforms are that many of them are included in this bill.
The second thing — and this is really important — on July 16th, Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson called for Congress to provide VA the additional resources necessary to deliver timely, high-quality care to veterans through a strengthened VA system while also temporarily using care in the community to help ensure veterans can get the care they need when they need it.
When he asked for those additional resources to address some very specific concerns that he had laid out, that was something that had previously not been part of the debate as it relates to this VA reform package. So the inclusion of these additional resources at the strong urging of the Acting Secretary is a positive step in the right direction, and something that we think will be very important to the success of some of the reforms that are contemplated by this bill.
In addition, this proposal for on a temporary, as-needed basis to allow some veterans to get some access to care in the community is also the kind of thing that could address the immediate need that many veterans have, but by adding these additional resources over the long term, we feel like those are benefits and care that can be provided through the VA.
So the details of this compromise have yet to be unveiled, so I don’t want to get ahead of the announcement that is planned for Capitol Hill later today. But the early reports are positive.
Q Josh, Susan Rice was on MSNBC a while ago. She talked about a grave and deepening concern at the civilian casualties in Gaza. What exactly would you like the Israelis to do? Are you calling on them to call off the offensive?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, we have said many times — I think Tony just had the opportunity to say that we defend Israel’s right to defend themselves. In fact, you could make a case, and many Israeli political leaders do, that they have a responsibility to make sure that they’re taking steps militarily to account for the safety of civilians on the Israeli side of the border. This is, after all, the Israeli population that elected them, and they are in the best position to determine what steps are necessary to protect their citizens. That is their right.
At the same time, Israel leaders often say that they have in place very high standards to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians on the other side of the border, as well. That stands in stark contrast to the strategy that is deployed by Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza that are intentionally targeting civilians on the other side of the border. They are also intentionally using civilians on their side of the border to try to essentially shield their equipment and their personnel from Israeli military activities. So there is a stark contrast in the approach that’s taken by the Israelis and taken by Hamas and other extremist groups.
That said, as I mentioned, Israel and their political leaders often talk about the high standards that they put in place for their military operations to ensure the safety and well-being of civilians — innocent civilians on the Palestinian side of the border. Based on published reports, it’s apparent that there is more that they should do to live up to those standards that they have set. And that is something that we routinely encourage them to do, while defending their right to defend themselves. The President reiterated that in his phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday.
Q For months, we’ve been talking about increasing sanctions against Russia, and sort of the ultimate would be these sweeping sectoral sanctions. So can you explain why that hasn’t happened now? Why is this not the time to go that far, and still do these kind of slow, incremental building sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that the sanctions regime that the President rolled out about a week and a half ago, the day before the downing of the Malaysian Airlines jetliner, did take a step in that very direction. These were sectoral sanctions that were aimed at specific entities in the defense, financial and energy sectors.
There was an indication from our European partners that they were taking the preliminary steps necessary to implement similar sanctions in their own right, but those steps have not yet been taken by the Europeans. That is something that was discussed by the President and his counterparts in Western Europe earlier today, as Tony mentioned.
So there have been some steps that the United States has taken to put in place and impose economic costs against President Putin and the Russian regime. Tony detailed the economic impact that those sanctions were having. But as Ann rightly pointed out in her question, it is true that the costs have not yet led to the kind of strategic re-evaluation that we would like to see the Russians undertake. That is why the international community is actively considering imposing additional costs by having the Europeans increase the amount of sanctions that they have currently levied. It’s also why the United States is considering additional steps that we could take that would pose additional economic costs on Russia and on President Putin.
Q Well, so the question was really — I mean, we all know that it’s sort of these very precise, let’s pick this bank or that bank; it’s not on the entire Russian banking system. Do you think there’s still any leverage left in doing it that way?
MR. EARNEST: I’m certainly not an expert in terms of the way that these tools are deployed. But it is our view that there is additional leverage that can be gained. That is certainly why they’re being contemplated both by leaders in Western Europe, but also by those who do have an expertise in this field in this country.
As Tony documented, there are a number of economic consequences that Russia has already had to bear in terms of the outflow of private capital, in terms of the downward revisions in their economic projections. We’ve also seen Russia expend significant sums of money to try to shore up the strength of their own currency.
So there are a number of steps that Russia has taken, and a number of outside evaluators who have reviewed the situation to confirm our suspicion that the economic costs have taken a toll on the Russian economy but they have not yet led President Putin to re-evaluate his strategy in Ukraine. And that ultimately is our goal.
Q Josh, a quick follow-up on the VA bill. Is $10 billion enough? They’ve unveiled it up on the Hill, so is $10 billion enough to take care of the system with its deep, deep troubles right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re still evaluating the specifics and details of their package, so I don’t want to get — I don’t want to say any more than I already have. But in the next couple of days, we may be in a position to comment on that a little further.
Q Thanks, Josh. The House and Senate are very divided on the border supplemental right now. If they can’t come to agreement by the end of the week, what is the practical effect? Can you wait until September?
MR. EARNEST: Cheryl, I would refer you to the individual agencies for the impact that Congress’s failure to pass the supplemental appropriations request would have on their ability to perform the functions that they are required to perform.
We are hopeful that Congress will take the kind of action that is required. Both Democrats and Republicans have spoken quite publicly about their concerns about the situation at the border. This administration has been really clear about what we feel like we need in terms of resources to deal with the influx that we saw of those who were apprehended at the border earlier this summer.
So there’s a detailed package that we’ve put forward. As I mentioned last week, the Speaker, at a news conference at the end of the week, said that he was still discussing this matter with members of his own caucus. That was a pretty disappointing development in the part of this administration. We put forward a detailed package — I happened to bring it with me right here — it includes very detailed numbers about what we feel is necessary.
I noticed that the new Republican Whip was on one of the Sunday shows yesterday and noted that the administration was asking for a — what he described as a blank check. It makes me think he’s not sure — that he doesn’t know what a blank check is. We’ve actually been very specific about the numbers that we feel are necessary to deal with this problem and to address the range of concerns that many people have raised about those who have been apprehended at the border.
So we hope that there will be prompt congressional action on this that is in line with their rhetoric on this issue.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Wendell, go ahead.
Q Why isn’t the change in the 2008 law on non-contiguous migrants’ deportation part of that package? The President had indicated that he supported a change and his advisors say that changing that law would be necessary to send the kids at least from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador back as rapidly as those from Canada and Mexico. So why is that not a part of that package?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you would have to talk to members of Congress about how they want to put this all together. What we believe is most important is ensuring that the federal government has the resources necessary to address the range of challenges that are posed by this situation. Remember, it includes some additional security at the border in the form of surveillance equipment. It also includes the ability of the federal government to open and operate additional detention centers so that we can detain those individuals who have been apprehended at the border. It includes some funding for HHS that would allow them to evaluate the basic health needs of those individuals who have been apprehended, both to meet their humanitarian needs, but also to ensure the safety of the broader communities in which they’re detained.
It also includes funding that would allow these repatriation flights to take place so that we could more quickly return those individuals that have been apprehended here to their home countries. It also, of course, includes additional resources to ensure that those who are apprehended at the border receive the due process to which they’re entitled. So this means hiring new judges and prosecutors and asylum officials to ensure that that can take place.
Q But notwithstanding Democrat and Republican differences over the amount of funding, the Republicans say in order to approve some, they’re going to need to change that 2008 law. Does the President support that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is unfortunate that you would see them take an absolutist position on this. We certainly do support Congress taking the necessary steps to give the Secretary of Homeland Security the flexibility he needs and the discretion that he can use to more efficiently and effectively enforce the law. That is a priority of this administration.
But we should not allow the debate around what should be included in that language to hold up something that everybody agrees is necessary, which is additional resources that can be used by the federal government to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals who are apprehended, but also provide funding that can be used to more quickly return those who are found by the courts to not have a legal basis for remaining in the country.
Q Thanks, Josh. Some members of the Republican Whip team on that have suggested that they’ve gotten surprising support for what is a much smaller check than the one that the White House is asking for, and the $2.7 billion being put forth by the Senate is getting some pushback from Democrats like Joe Manchin, Mary Landrieu and doesn’t seem to have a lot of support on the Republican side. And you also have a situation where Congress is in session for three and a half days this week. So with the clock ticking, what do you see as the prognosis and what happens if none of this goes through?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are those here in town and probably those of you here in this room that have a little bit more experience in evaluating congressional action than I do. So I will leave that analysis and prognostication to the experts. I’ll simply observe that this administration three weeks ago today put forward a very detailed request before Congress, and asking for those additional resources to address a problem that I think to a person every single member of Congress agreed existed. And what we have seen in Congress is a lot of talk, particularly from Republicans, but not a lot of willingness to act. And that is rather unfortunate.
And we are hopeful that in the pivotal week that remains before Congress departs Washington for the traditional five-week recess that they’ll take the important steps that are necessary to ensure the federal government has the resources to deal with a problem that, again, I think every single member of Congress agrees exists.
Q Can I also ask you about a Reuters’ report that just came out? I don’t have any more details than this, that Netanyahu says Israel “must be prepared for protracted Gaza campaign.” And I wonder if it’s possible that there could be a military victory for Israel, but a loss for them in both the political realm and the court of public opinion. Can I get your reaction to that statement by Benjamin Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s hard to react to a statement that occurred while I was standing up here. But let me say that it is the position of the United States that it is in the best interests of people on both sides of the border for a cease-fire to take effect. And the reason for that is pretty simple, that as long as the violence continues across the border, there are going to be innocent civilians in harm’s way. And having those innocent civilians face that extreme danger has already had terribly tragic consequences for both the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. And that’s why we want to see that cease-fire put in place.
There will be an opportunity once that cease-fire is in place for us to have discussions around the kinds of concerns that have legitimately been raised by the Israelis, in particular about Hamas’ repeated willingness to use tunnels and to fire rockets aimed squarely at doing harm to innocent civilians.
So it is the priority of this administration for a cease-fire to be put in place. That is why you’ve seen Secretary Kerry doggedly pursue diplomacy to protect the lives of innocent civilians on both sides of that border.
Q Moving on —
MR. EARNEST: Sure, Ann.
Q What are the two or three, maybe three or four absolute necessities that the President thinks Congress has to get done by the end of this week? Would he ask them to delay their recess? And would he ever consider skipping Kansas City?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we always say with the President’s travel, his trip to my hometown notwithstanding — (laughter) — as is always the case with the President’s travel, if there is a critically important function of the presidency that cannot be performed from the road, the President will not hesitate to change his schedule in order to fulfill those functions. So I do not anticipate that anything that’s happening in Congress would require that at this point. But if something does emerge, something unexpected does emerge, I’m sure that is something that the President would consider.
Q Will he ask Congress to delay its break?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let him speak to that. If he decides that that’s what they should do, then he will say so. At this point it’s the responsibility of the leaders in Congress to determine their own schedule.
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of important work that needs to get done this week. That includes continuing to follow through on these VA reforms on which an agreement was announced over the weekend. So hopefully that can move forward without any delay or incident.
We certainly would like to see a step taken in terms of passing the supplemental appropriations request that this administration put forward several weeks ago to ensure that the administration has the resources necessary to deal with the problem at the border.
That being said, we could certainly address many of the problems at the border if Congress — if the House were to take action on comprehensive immigration reform legislation that’s already passed the Senate. The Senate did their work more than a year ago. Just by taking one simple vote, the House of Representatives could approve that legislation. The President would sign it. That would do more to improve our economy, create jobs and reduce the deficit than so many other things that Congress is debating right now.
I think what is the source of particular disappointment on this end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I think of people in both parties across the country is to see that Congress — House Republicans in particular — are using this very valuable time to debate a piece of legislation that would allow House Republicans to file a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President of the United States. I certainly don’t think that rises to the level of a priority that so many of these other things Congress is ignoring right now.
Let’s move around a little bit. Leslie.
Q Thanks, Josh. With Secretary Kerry unable to get a cease-fire during his trip, and the President talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu last night in what sounded like pretty blunt terms — what are the next steps for the White House? And do you — to follow up on a previous question, do you believe that there is any leverage left for the United States with Israel?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the United States remains deeply engaged in this effort. Secretary Kerry has been leading that effort over the last week in terms of the dogged diplomacy that he’s been pursuing. He’s been meeting with his counterparts not just in Israel and among the leaders of the Palestinian people, but also with his counterparts in Egypt and Qatar and Turkey and the Arab League, the U.N. He’s been deeply engaged in these conversations in pursuit of a multilateral, international effort to try to bring both sides together and reinstate the terms of the 2012 cease-fire, to try to get those civilians who right now are in harm’s way into a safer position. That’s been the focal point of our efforts, and we remain engaged in it.
In terms of our relationship with Israel, the United States remains a strong ally of the nation of Israel. American leaders say that; Israeli leaders say the same thing. The best evidence that I have of that is the assistance that the United States has provided to the Israeli government to construct the Iron Dome system that right now is, thankfully, protecting so many Israeli civilians from these rockets that Hamas is firing. So that relationship remains strong.
And the reason that Secretary Kerry remains so committed to this effort is that — or at least is in part that we believe it is clearly in the interest of Israel’s long-term security for this cease-fire [violence]* to be brought to an end, and for negotiations between the Palestinian leaders and Israeli leaders to get started in terms of trying to eventually down the line reach this broader, two-state solution.
Q I want to go back to what Tony was saying about the sanctions and the outlook for them. Is that — if I understood it correctly, the EU is going to go first with their sanctions and probably — or possibly this week, is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that he was in a position to talk about the sequencing of the announcement. But I do think that he committed to our expectation that we would see Europe act before the end of the week.
Q Would the U.S. act before the end of the week?
MR. EARNEST: Our position is that the options like that remain on the table, that the United States is prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for their destabilizing activities in Ukraine. I’m not in a position to confirm for you whether any decisions have been made about carrying out that action or what those actions might look like. As we’ve talked before, it would be a strategically unwise thing to do to talk about the details of those sanctions before they’re implemented. But I am in a position to confirm that those kinds of options remain on the table when it comes to the United States.
Q One final — would the U.S. concentrate on any particular sector?
MR. EARNEST: Well, if we have additional sanctions to announce, then we will be able to get into those kinds of details. But at this point, it would be preliminary for me to do so.
MR. EARNEST: Goyal.
Q Thank you. Two questions. One, some people in the Congress want to close down the 84-year-old Export-Import Bank. And many small businesses are saying that it is helping small businesses export U.S. goods abroad and also creating thousands of jobs in the U.S. My question is that some people in the Congress are saying that it is helping only the big companies. What is the President’s action — or reaction about this bank? Next month will expire the —
MR. EARNEST: The President does believe that Congress should take steps to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. That’s not just the view of this administration and many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, it’s also the view of organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce. Those are two organizations that don’t often agree with the President when it comes to some aspects of American economic policy.
But that is an area where this administration agrees that the Export-Import Bank plays a positive role in creating jobs and creating opportunities for American businesses to succeed by opening up markets around the world.
Q Second question — oh, by the way, it has also created jobs between India and U.S. trade. Second question is that as far as U.S. ambassador to India is concerned, you think U.S. will have an ambassador before Prime Minister Modi visits the White House end of September? And second, what is happening as far as Mr. Modi’s address to the Congress? Is White House is supporting it?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any personnel announcements at this time, Goyal. But when we have any updates in terms of appointing an ambassador to India, we’ll let you know.
Q And address — U.S. address, Mr. Modi’s address to the U.S. Congress, is White House supporting it, the President?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of those conversations.
Q Josh, there was an unusual editorial in The New York Times yesterday, I’m sure you saw, urging the lifting of the prohibition against — the federal prohibition against marijuana. What is the White House’s position on that? Would you endorse that? It’s been there for 44 years. Maybe too long and time to change it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did read the editorial yesterday, Bill. The administration’s position on this issue has not changed. We remain committed to treating drug use as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice problem.
In light of state laws that legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults in Colorado and Washington, the Department of Justice issued updated guidance last August to federal prosecutors in all states. That guidance reiterates that marijuana remains an illegal substance based on the laws that Congress has passed. But it also recognizes that we have limited enforcement resources, and that those resources are best used to address the most significant threats to our communities.
That was the policy before The New York Times editorial, and it continues to be our policy today.
Q So does that mean that if other states follow Colorado and Washington, the administration would also give them a green light to go ahead and legalize marijuana without federal interference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure a green light is the technical term that the Department of Justice has used. (Laughter.) But in terms of the guidance that might be offered to those states, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
Q “Blessing” or whatever word you’d want to use.
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Justice issued guidance like that. So if there are other states that are contemplating these kinds of steps, you should check with the Department of Justice about that.
Q Thank you, Josh. Yesterday, North Korea military member had announced that North Korea will attack United States, and especially they point to the White House and Canada with using their nuclear missiles. What is your comment on their threatening like this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have not seen the reports of those specific threats. I would encourage you to check with my National Security Council colleagues about that. The United States remains very committed to our alliance with the Republic of Korea, and that alliance allows us to have a strong military-to-military relationship with South Korea to ensure their security. The United States remains committed as ever to the safety and security of the Republic of Korea.
Q So you don’t have a strong reaction to them? Because this is the first time they mentioned the White House and Pentagon specifically.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not in a position to comment specifically in reaction to those comments because I have not seen them.
Q Can I follow on Israel please?
MR. EARNEST: Let’s move around a little bit. Zeke.
Q Thanks, Josh. Just with regards to the President’s trip tomorrow, can you give us any reason why is he staying an extra night in your hometown if he’s not doing a fundraiser as you said on Friday?
MR. EARNEST: At my own personal recommendation. (Laughter.) No, look, we’ll have a little bit more about the President’s trip tomorrow. This will be an opportunity for the President to spend some time in that wonderful community. He’s going to spend some time talking to individuals who have written him a letter. You’ve seen on the last couple of trips the President has taken across the country, he’s spent a little extra time in the community to visit with those who have written him letters about the way that individuals in these individual communities are benefiting from some of the policies the President is putting forward and how they could benefit from some of the policies the President is pushing on Congress to implement. So we’ll have some more detail on that tomorrow.
Q Tuesday night or Wednesday?
MR. EARNEST: The President is departing tomorrow. He’ll remain —
Q — the letters segment, when he’s going to visit people, is that going to be —
MR. EARNEST: I believe he’ll have the opportunity to do that both Tuesday evening, as well as on Wednesday.
Q One other real quick, just on Secretary Kerry. Those leaked conversations or however you want to categorize them, is that jeopardizing the U.S. government’s ability to have candid conversations with the Israeli government? Or do you envision any sort of lasting impact on sort of the relationship between the Obama administration and the Israeli government as a result of these leaks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think Tony made clear that we were disappointed to read them. But I do not anticipate that they are going to have much of an impact on the very strong, robust relationship that exists between the United States and our allies in Israel.
Q And, finally, does Secretary Kerry coming back to the United States and the President conducting that phone call yesterday and the one today, is this a shift — is the President going to take a more active personal role now that Secretary Kerry’s efforts have at least temporarily failed? Is the President going to try to use his own convening authority?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do anticipate that the President will continue to be in regular touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu. That has been the case over the last several weeks of this crisis that has been ongoing in Gaza. And I do anticipate the President will continue to get regularly briefed by his team and will continue to be on the phone with his counterparts in the region who have concerns about the outcome here. So I do think that the President will continue to be engaged in this.
In terms of the next steps, those conversations will continue. But ultimately, as we’ve said in similar circumstances as it relates to situations like this, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the two sides to come together. What the international community and what the United States can certainly do is use our influence with both sides to press them to come to an agreement that’s in the best interest of their citizens.
As we’ve pointed out many times, we believe that a cease-fire is in the best interest of civilians on both sides of this conflict. We just need the leaders of both sides to take the kinds of steps that will impose a cease-fire and allow the leaders to sit around the table and try to broker an agreement here. And that’s what we’re going to continue to be focused on.
Q But over the last week, Secretary Kerry was the point person in trying to bring those two sides together. Has that changed this week? Will the President be trying to bring the two sides to a multilateral agreement together?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I would say — the point that I’m trying to make, Zeke, is that I think there have been a range of officials who have been actively engaged in trying to resolve the situation — the President, first and foremost among them. It was, however, the case last week that Secretary Kerry was the most senior U.S. official on the ground in the region trying to roll up his sleeves and broker an agreement between those who were involved in this situation.
So those efforts will continue, even though Secretary Kerry is not actually in the region. But if he needs to return, I’m sure that he will not hesitate to hop back on the plane and get back to work.
Q Josh, while you were at the podium, the Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed that Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. It’s the third federal court appeals ruling and the latest in an unbroken string in rulings against the marriage ban since the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA last year. Any thoughts on this latest decision and the unanimous string of these decisions against marriage bans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I haven’t — as you pointed out, the decision was handed down while I was up here, so I have not had an opportunity to talk to anybody on our team who was able to analyze the decision. But based on the way that you’ve described it, it does sound like the kind of decision that is consistent with the President’s views on this topic. I think that’s the best I can do.
All right, guys, we’ll see you tomorrow.
2:04 P.M. EDT