Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–July 31, 2014 – 12:47 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Apologize for keeping you waiting a little bit this afternoon. There is a presidential event scheduled for a little later this afternoon. The President is also running a little behind schedule. But if you do feel like you need to leave the briefing early in order to cover the President’s remarks, I will not take personal offense at your early departure.
With that, Jim, would you like to get us started today?
Q Yes, thanks. Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Has the U.S. determined who was responsible for the U.N. school strike?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, what I can tell you is that the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday that “All available evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause.” He further said the coordinates of the school, like all U.N. facilities in Gaza, were repeatedly communicated to Israeli Defense Forces. The U.N. Rights and Works Agency Commissioner General said that UNWRA has gathered evidence, analyzed fragments and examined craters, and their initial assessment is that it was Israeli artillery that hit the school in which 3,300 people had sought refuge.
The Israeli government has acknowledged that Israeli forces were firing in that area in response to fire from Hamas in the immediate vicinity of the school. The Israelis have said it is possible that there was stray Israeli fire.
So while we underscore the importance of a full and prompt investigation of this tragic incident, as well as the shelling of other U.N. facilities and schools that have been hit, it does not appear there’s a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved in this incident. That is why we have continued to urge Israeli military officials to live up to their high standards that they have set for the protection of innocent civilians. There is clearly more that can and should be done to ensure the safety of innocent civilians.
Q So you do not dispute the U.N. determination on this thing?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, we don’t have any evidence that would contradict what both U.N. officials and Israelis officials are saying about this incident.
Q On another point, does the President agree that the tunnels that Hamas has used to transport or hide armaments should be destroyed and be part of any cease-fire agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we have said — this goes to the broader discussion about demilitarizing Gaza, and there have been some discussions about the proper way to do that. It is our view that an immediate cease-fire is what’s most important; that as the violence continues in a very active way, it puts at risk innocent civilians on both sides of this conflict. And trying to put in place a cease-fire, working with the international community, would provide greater protection for those innocent civilians. And that’s what we believe should be the focus.
Now, once that cease-fire is in place, we certainly would play a role in facilitating conversations among the parties that would involve discussion about demilitarizing Gaza and ensuring that rockets cannot be launched from Gaza, aimed squarely at innocent civilians, and that these tunnels that have been used to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and Israeli military on the Israeli side of the border are also dealt with as well.
Q So a cease-fire first, and then deal with demilitarizing.
MR. EARNEST: Correct.
Q And finally, there’s a Palestinian-American teenager — I believe his name is Mohamed Abu Nie — who’s been in Israeli custody for three weeks. And I wondered if the White House has raised this issue directly with Israel, Israeli officials.
Q Jim, I don’t have any conversations about that to read you in on at this point.
MR. EARNEST: Steve.
Q Josh, what is the status of efforts to get a cease-fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that Secretary Kerry has been actively engaged in. And —
Q Are there any thoughts right now about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a lot of discussions that are ongoing between U.S. officials and Israeli and Palestinians leaders. Obviously, the U.N. is closely involved in this. There are also regional players that have a role in bringing both sides to the table in trying to facilitate an agreement between the parties who are in conflict here. So there is an active effort that continues to be underway on this. And Secretary Kerry continues to be intimately involved in those conversations, even as he’s on the road, to deal with other important United States security measures.
Q But the Israelis are talking about a long campaign. Are you resigned to that, that it being a long campaign?
MR. EARNEST: We believe that it is in the clear interest of both sides in this conflict for there to be an immediate cease-fire reinstated along the lines of the November 2012 agreement that was reached and brought an end to some hostilities. That’s clearly in the interest of both sides, and that’s what we are urging both sides to do.
Q And just separately, lastly, Speaker Boehner says if the President takes further unilateral actions, he will be “sealing the deal” on his “lawlessness.” What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t have the opportunity to watch what apparently was a rather colorful news conference that was convened by the Speaker today. I will say that this President has repeatedly put forward specific proposals that deserve, and in some cases have already earned, bipartisan support to make progress on behalf of middle-class families all across the country. The best example of that is the proposal that this President put forward for comprehensive immigration reform. The President laid out principles in January of 2013 about what comprehensive immigration reform should look like, so we could maximize the economic benefits of that reform in the form of creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity, and addressing so many other problems that are caused by our broken immigration system.
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate side hammered out an agreement after a couple of months of negotiations, and eventually passed a piece of legislation with strong bipartisan support. Again, this is legislation that the CBO has found would reduce the deficit, create jobs, expand economic growth.
But for more than a year, Speaker Boehner and his colleagues in the House Republican conference have actively blocked that legislation from coming to the House floor for a vote. The reason they have blocked that legislation is because they know that if it were — if a vote were convened on this measure, it would pass, and it would pass with bipartisan support in the same way that it passed with bipartisan support in the Senate.
So we have not been shy about expressing our frustration about that. We have also been pretty candid about the President’s determination, even in the face of this congressional obstruction, to make progress on behalf of the American people. And so that’s why you’ve seen the President use the executive authority that’s codified in the law for any President of the United States to try to push our policy and a policy that benefits middle-class families forward. And the Republican commitment to keep in place the wall that is preventing the comprehensive immigration reform bill from coming up for a vote is why the President is considering measures that he could take on his own to try to address some of these problems.
And I don’t have any announcements about what that action would look like, but it will be consistent with the proposal that was put forward by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate that is supported by business leaders and labor leaders, leaders in the faith community, and even law enforcement leaders across the country about the benefits it would have for communities across the country.
Now, the President can’t do as much as Congress could do in terms of addressing some of these problems. But we’re going to figure out what exactly the law will allow the President to do, and we’re going to do as much as possible within the confines of the law to address a problem whose solution Republicans in Congress continue to actively block.
Q So while we don’t have a cease-fire in the Middle East, and we’ve heard from a number of people in the administration now that Israel could do more, so how could they do more at this point, exactly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have steadfastly defended the right of the Israeli government and Israeli military leaders to take the actions that they feel are necessary to protect their people and to defend their country. The steps that they have taken have also been taken with the standards that they put in place to protect the lives of innocent civilians. That stands in pretty stark contrast to the approach that’s adopted by Hamas, that is actually using their military might to target innocent Israeli civilians.
What we have said is that Israel clearly — based on published reports about the significant, tragic loss of life experienced by innocent Palestinian civilians — is that the Israeli military can and should do more to protect the lives of those innocent civilians. So there is a difference in approach between what Hamas is perpetrating on the Israeli people and what Israel is doing to defend their country.
But the shelling of a U.N. facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible. And it is clear that we need our allies in Israel to do more to live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves.
Q Do you feel the method of attack is not as precise as maybe many believed going in? And the U.S. continuing to supply them with more ammunition, does that raise concerns in the administration right now? Do you agree that the weaponry is not precise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the concerns that we have expressed are with the specific military decisions made by the Israeli military — that they have put in place high standards that ensure that they are taking steps to protect innocent civilians who may be caught in the cross-fire. And the observation that I think many across the globe have made is that there are, despite those standards, that there are innocent Palestinian lives that are being lost.
The loss of those lives, the lives of innocent Palestinians, is tragic. The thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the lives — are with the families of those who have been lost in this terrible conflict. And what we are simply asking the Israelis to do and, in fact, urging the Israelis to do, is to do more to live up to the standards that they have set for their own military operations to protect the lives of innocent civilians.
Q And lastly, on Ebola, I know that there have been high-level talks to do something about possibly bringing Americans or workers that have been exposed out of there. Can you discuss that a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can confirm for you, Michelle, that the State Department and the CDC are working to facilitate options for potential medevacs for U.S. patients, specifically American citizen humanitarian workers. There have been reports that humanitarian aid workers from the United States in West Africa have contracted the Ebola virus. I’m not in a position to talk about individual cases, but these kinds of medevacs would be consistent with — well, let me point out one other thing. These kinds of medevacs that are performed by private entities, by private organizations, yet facilitated by the U.S. government and government agencies is consistent with what has been done in similar situations in the past.
In 2003, there were reports of American citizens overseas who had contracted SARS, and the U.S. government facilitated the private transportation of those patients back to the U.S. so that they could benefit from our modern medical infrastructure and have access to the kind of technology that could render lifesaving aid to them.
In 2007, there were Americans overseas who were at risk of contracting drug-resistant tuberculosis. Again, those individuals were transported through private means, but yet in a manner that was facilitated by the U.S. government to return to the U.S. where they could get treatment.
So there are conversations underway about doing something similar in this situation to ensure that these American humanitarian aid workers who are currently in Africa can be returned to the U.S. in a way that — so that they can have access to modern medical facilities and technologies that would allow them to get access to potentially lifesaving aid.
Q Can we say that this is going happen? We just are looking at — we don’t know the timeline yet?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to confirm it. I’d refer you to the CDC on this.
There’s one other piece of this that is important for you to understand, and this goes to an assessment that was reached by the CDC. The CDC has concluded that there is no significant risk in the United States from the current Ebola outbreak. And while it is unlikely that the disease would spread if the virus were detected in the United States, the CDC is taking action to alert health care workers in the U.S. and remind them how to isolate and test suspected patients while following strict infection control procedures.
Q Josh, a quick follow-up on Ebola. Is there any concern that this could affect anything regarding the upcoming Africa summit?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, there are no plans in place to alter the schedule in any way.
Q Okay. And a question, which I haven’t had a chance to ask — it actually happened last week — but General Flynn, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, made some comment out at the Aspen Forum about — suggesting that we are less safe now than we were five years ago. The exact question he was asked, “Are we safer today than we were two, five, 10 years ago? What’s your assessment on that?” And his answer was, “[Yeah], my quick answer is [that] we’re not. My expanded answer is we understand that we’re not, and we are working to organize ourselves better.”
So what I’m wondering is, does the White House agree with that assessment that we are less safe now than we were two, five or 10 years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, I didn’t see his full comments, so I don’t want to comment directly on them. But I will say that there are very important steps that this administration has taken. And thanks to the service of our men and women in the intelligence community and our men and woman in the military, that there have been very devastating blows that have been leveled against al Qaeda, particularly core al Qaeda.
What is beyond debate is that prior to 2001, core al Qaeda was operating in a virtual vacuum in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and used that area that was essentially lawless as a base of operations to launch a horrific attack against the United States of America.
Since that time, members of the military, members of the intelligence community and others have worked to mitigate that threat, and, in fact, decimated the core al Qaeda leadership that previously was operating with impunity in that area.
However, what we continue to face are elements that are either sympathetic to al Qaeda, or associate themselves with the ideology of al Qaeda in other remote areas of the world that do pose a threat to the United States and our interests and our allies. And this administration has kept up a very aggressive pace of trying to counter that threat.
And we have done that in a variety of ways. We’ve done that by working with our partners around the globe, our allies around the globe to counter that threat. There are intelligence-sharing and national security agreements that we have with these other countries to mitigate that threat. And this President considers it to be his very top priority to ensure the safety and security of the American people here at home, but also all across the globe.
Q But what’s the bottom-line assessment? Do you agree that we are less safe now than we were five years ago? Or are you suggesting that that’s not correct?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that I’m not in a position to respond directly to his comments.
Q But just to the question generally, are we less safe now, or are we more safe now than we were five years ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we are is we are in a position where we have made significant gains over the last decade or so against al Qaeda elements that previously operated with impunity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and used that area to launch terrible attacks against the American people. There’s no doubt that we’ve made tremendous progress along those lines.
The threat from other affiliated organizations around the globe continues to exist. And this administration is working literally around the clock to mitigate those threats, to counter those threats, in some cases to bring those terrorists to justice. And the President’s record on that is incredibly strong.
Q Okay, just one last thing on the Congress leaving town. As you’ve pointed out and we’ve discussed, a five-week recess.
MR. EARNEST: Actually, somebody told me today that they’re returning on September 8th. So it may even be longer than five weeks.
Q So should we go six weeks? And I’ve asked you this before, but now that the jet fumes can be smelled, will the President call on Congress to stay until they can get their work done to delay this recess, to deal with specifically the border crisis issue? There was a whole long list of things that they’re leaving without finishing up. So will the President say, hey, Congress should stick around until it gets its work done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, Jon, I think we have seen that Congress being in Washington, D.C. doesn’t actually guarantee they’re going to do any additional work. So I think their record speaks for itself in terms of this Congress’s record. Specifically, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has demonstrated an inability to do very much, particularly when it’s related to the priorities that are shared by middle-class families.
Again, it was pretty disappointing that in the very limited time remaining, that House Republicans were focused on passing legislation authorizing them to file a lawsuit against the President merely for doing his job. The fact is we would have been much more happy — and I think the American people would have been happier — to see Republicans focused on legislation that would raise the minimum wage or guarantee access to equal pay for equal work. It would make the cost of a college education more affordable, or even legislation that would solve so many of the problems caused by our broken immigration system. Unfortunately, Republicans were focused instead on political priorities rather than the priorities of the American people, and particularly American middle-class families.
Q To sort of follow on that — the House and Senate are still very far apart on the border supplemental, and they’re obviously leaving town. Can your agencies operate and handle this crisis with no money for the next five weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Cheryl, there are already a number of steps that this administration has taken to add additional resources to the border and confront some of the challenges that we’re facing at the border right now. This administration has shifted resources from the interior to the border. We have surged some technology to allow immigration judges and other ICE prosecutors and asylum officials the opportunity to try to whittle down the bottleneck or the backlog of immigration cases that currently exists. We’ve prioritized the cases of recent border crossers to try to process those cases more efficiently.
So there are a number of things that this administration has done to try to deal with this problem. There have also been some diplomatic efforts underway to try to address this problem at the source. You’ll recall that the Vice President traveled down there. The Secretary of State traveled to Central America. The President met with Central American leaders here at the White House just a week or two ago to talk about some of these issues.
As I mentioned a week or two ago, we have actually seen some initially encouraging indications that the flow has receded somewhat; that in the month of June, that there were weeks that were averaging more than 300 individuals being apprehended at the border, children being apprehended at the border every day. That flow has been cut in half, or even more. So we certainly are encouraged by that initial assessment.
That said, because these numbers tend to fluctuate a lot, and there is some volatility in these numbers, we have continued to focus on this challenge. And we are doing everything we can to try to stem the flow at the source; to process efficiently the cases of those who are currently going through the immigration system; and do the other kinds of things that will ensure that our border remains secure, that the law continues to be enforced, while at the same time we’re ensuring that those individuals who are apprehended are treated in a humanitarian way and have access to the due process to which they’re entitled.
Q Do you still need that money, then?
MR. EARNEST: We certainly would welcome Congress taking action on a request that we forwarded to them almost four weeks ago now. And the fact that House Republicans have waited literally until the very last day of their session to even consider taking a vote on this is an indication that they’re not operating with the best interest of the American people in mind, that’s for sure.
Q But given what you just said and the fact that so many actions the administration has taken you believe have already helped the situation, does the White House believe perhaps it doesn’t need as much money as was in that original request?
MR. EARNEST: The answer to that is, no. We continue to believe that those resources are necessary, simply because we have seen in the past that these numbers can be pretty volatile. So we’re encouraged that the flow, at least for now, appears to have receded. But we remain very focused and concerned on this situation, both because those numbers can be volatile, but also because those who have been apprehended have extended the backlog that already existed in our immigration court system.
So working through that backlog and ensuring that we can enforce the law efficiently while ensuring that we’re respecting the due process rights to which many of these individuals are entitled is a priority. And we have been saying for weeks now that we need additional resources to address a problem that Republican members of Congress are eager to acknowledge is a problem on cable television, but when they get back to work in their congressional offices they’re not really willing to take any action.
Q Can I ask you about the internal CIA report that suggests that indeed the CIA was spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the conversations on the Hill that John Brennan had with Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss? Back in March, he said that when the facts come out a lot of people who are claiming there has been all this spying and monitoring and hacking will be proved wrong. Given what this report says, and the fact that he went to the Hill and has apologized, does the President believe that there is a credibility issue for John Brennan there?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all. The fact of the matter is, Director Brennan is the one who suggested that the inspector general investigate this situation in the first place.
In response to that report, the CIA Public Affairs Office put out a statement in which they said that Director Brennan was briefed on the IG’s findings, and noted that that finding included, “a judgment that some CIA employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA.”
So Director Brennan is the one who suggested that this situation be investigated. He supported the IG launching that investigation. He now has been briefed on those results, has affirmed the conclusion that the employees acted in a manner inconsistent with the common understanding reached between the CIA and the committee. Director Brennan has taken the further step of appointing an accountability board to review this situation, review the conduct of these individuals who are involved, and if necessary ensure that they are properly held accountable for that conduct. He has appointed somebody who doesn’t work at the CIA, former Senator Evan Bayh, a member of the Senate Intel Committee, to lead that accountability board and to offer him some recommendations about steps that can be taken to ensure that these kind of misunderstandings don’t happen again.
So Director Brennan has taken all of the kinds of responsible steps to address this situation. The fact of the matter is Director Brennan is somebody who over the course of the last five and a half years has played an instrumental role in helping the President make the kinds of decisions that I mentioned to Jon earlier that have decimated the leadership of core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he currently is operating in a very difficult environment to ensure the safety of the American public. He is somebody who had a very difficult job who does that job extraordinarily well.
Q So no concern about the fact that he stated so certainly in March that this hadn’t happened? Or any perception problems that may arise over the fact that obviously the President has a close relationship with him, that he was formerly, obviously, as you know, the NSC Deputy Director for Terrorism — no action anticipated as a result of this disconnect?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not. As I mentioned, Director Brennan has done what is necessary to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. He has been candid about the inconsistencies that the IG found, and he has taken the additional step of appointing somebody who does not work at the CIA to conduct a review, an accountability review of what exactly happened and to determine what’s necessary to hold those individuals accountable.
That’s the kind of proactive leadership that the President would expect from somebody who has an important job like running the CIA. And it in no way impacts any judgment on John Brennan’s strong record of making the kinds of difficult decisions that are necessary to keep the American public safe.
Q Josh, and is it accurate that it’s an apology he’s making today to the leaders of the Intelligence Committee?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of communication between the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I’d refer you to the CIA.
Q And do you know if it’s right that Senator Feinstein is here today to have a conversation with the President about this?
MR. EARNEST: I believe — we’ll have to check — that she is among those who is participating in the discussion that the President has convened with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about a range of foreign policy matters in the Cabinet Room. I know that some of you were actually in that room taking photographs of that meeting. I was not actually in that room.
So I believe Senator Feinstein was there.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Your colleague confirms that Senator Feinstein was in the room for that meeting. And so that was the reason that she’s at the White House today. I do not know whether or not she and the President will have the opportunity to discuss this specific issue.
Q Can I follow up?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll come right back to you, Bill. Julie, go ahead.
Q Just going back to Ebola and the summit for a moment. You said that you didn’t anticipate any scheduling changes. But I’m wondering —
MR. EARNEST: I do not.
Q — there are already three leaders who have pulled out of coming to the summit because of the health crisis in their countries. And so I’m just wondering, is the White House anxious at all about the impact that this could have on the summit? And at what point does the President become concerned that it could hinder the progress that he’s hoping to make in these meetings next week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly understand the decision that was made by some of these African leaders to not participate. They obviously have some very pressing items and business to handle in their own countries.
We certainly would have preferred that circumstances would allow them to attend and participate in what we think will be a very important conference for building the future of the relationship between the United States and nations in Africa.
I understand that these nations, however, are planning to send delegations to participate in the conference and will allow them to get the benefit of being here and participating in this historic event.
But again, I don’t anticipate at this point that any scheduling changes will be required. But if our assessment of that situation changes, we’ll definitely let you know.
Q And just quickly on the meeting that — the foreign policy meeting with the Senate and House members — or I guess not very many House members. But what —
MR. EARNEST: I think there were some more House members who were going to come, but they were delayed because of votes on the floor.
Q What was on the agenda? What was the point of the meeting? Did anything come out of — what was the President’s message to them on some of the world crises that he’s facing and they’ve been asking him about in recent days?
MR. EARNEST: The goal of this meeting was to further the important and valuable consultative relationship that exists between the White House and Capitol Hill. We obviously have worked in close partnership with members of Congress, particularly those who — a few relevant committees — in pursuit of our foreign policy goals around the globe. So this was intended to be a wide-ranging discussion of a range of issues.
We’re putting together a more formal readout of that meeting, and then we’ll be able to issue it a little later this afternoon.
Q Josh, which leaders pulled out of the summit?
MR. EARNEST: Check with the State Department on that. I’m not sure. It’s some of the countries that we’re talking about who — where these reported cases of Ebola have occurred.
Q And that’s why the leaders — you said the leaders pulled out because of that?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, I think that they did decide not to travel to the United States because they were attending to this important public health priority in their own country.
Q On the CIA IG report, is there a draft of talking points circulating here at the White House?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. I —
Q Received a draft?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ve seen the AP story about the draft talking points that are reportedly circulating around the White House. I think because they are still in their draft form I have not reviewed them. It’s also my understanding that this AP report is based on essentially an errant email that was inadvertently sent to a reporter. Those kinds of circumstances come up, frankly, on our side of the aisle and on your side of the aisle sometimes, too. So it was unfortunate. But I don’t have any comment on any sort of draft of talking points that are reported, but I haven’t seen them.
Q Well, now that it’s out there, you could email it to all of us. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, soon enough you’ll have the benefit of hearing me deliver the final version of those talking points — probably in the next week or so, I would assume.
Q Is it true, as the draft apparently indicates, that the Secretary of State was not told about these various procedures at the time?
MR. EARNEST: Bill, I’m just not in a position at this point to comment on the findings of a report that has not yet been declassified and has not yet been released by its authors on Capitol Hill.
Q Worth a try.
MR. EARNEST: It was.
Q While that inadvertently emailed information was interesting and helpful to us at least, I’m wondering what happened to the tougher standards you all were going to put in place after the inadvertent sending out of the name of a CIA official in Afghanistan earlier this year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have put in place some difficult standards. I think those are pretty — two different scenarios. The information that you’re referring to in that previous incident was related to classified information that had been improperly or inadvertently communicated to the media. There are a number of steps that we have put in place, some corrective actions to ensure that kind of thing doesn’t happen again. There will be more thorough vetting of those who participated in meetings with the President. There will be more careful review of the list that was — before it is publicized to the media. So that will be a way for us to put in place some safeguards for protecting classified information, while at the same time living up to the record of transparency that we pride ourselves in.
This situation is different. It did not relate specifically to classified information. It related specifically to the circulating of a draft document that I haven’t yet seen and not in a position to talk about just yet.
Q Anybody yet taken to the woodshed for pressing the send button?
MR. EARNEST: I think a mistake like that is something that we have all made in one form or another. I think in this case it was somebody who had sent an inadvertent email, and it was a particularly sensitive piece of information that was circulating. So, an unfortunate error, but an honest one.
Q Josh, how much was the timing of today’s executive order a kind of in-your-face to John Boehner for yesterday’s vote on suing the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the executive order that the President will be signing a little later this afternoon is a really important one. It puts in place some additional protections for workers to ensure that they are paid fairly and they’re not discriminated against because of their age or gender. It also ensures that their workers are taking the necessary — their employees are taking the next steps, the steps required to ensure that they are operating in a safe work environment. And it will do this by holding federal contractors to a high standard for meeting basic labor law provisions.
Q I’m not talking about what it does. I’m talking about the timing.
MR. EARNEST: Right. Well, what I’m saying is that we wanted to do this as soon as possible because it puts in place important protections for workers. It also puts in place important protections for taxpayers. This administration and this President promised to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars. And we have found that there’s actually correlation between federal contractors that don’t do a good job of protecting basic worker rights, not living up to the performance standards of the contract that they’ve signed.
So this is an executive order that will put in place important protections for workers. It will ensure that we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars when conducting the business of the American people. We also are ensuring that we’re not providing an incentive for employees — or for federal contractors to cut corners. Again, the vast majority of federal contractors actually do a good job of living up to these fair labor standards, and we want to make sure that those unscrupulous actors don’t get a benefit for not looking out for their workers in the way they should.
Q Okay. And on what it does — you already said earlier today that you could help more people if Congress got involved and passed legislation. Have you thought that you might be able to help more people than just people who work for federal contractors if you perhaps lowered your standards and compromised with Congress on broader legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Wendell, time and time again this administration has sought bipartisan compromise and in many cases even struck a bipartisan compromise with Republicans only to see it be thoroughly rejected by House Republicans. The best example of this is the common-sense immigration reform proposal that the Senate put forward. The President laid out his principles on January 29, 2013. He did that in a speech in Las Vegas that I believe many of you attended.
Several months later, over the course of several months, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate sat down and hammered out an agreement. We acknowledged at the time that that agreement was struck that it was a compromise proposal. It didn’t include every single thing that the President wanted, but it did broadly reflect the principles that the President had laid out. And that is why we got 68 senators, including 14 or so Republicans, to vote for that piece of legislation.
We are confident that Democrats and Republicans would vote for that legislation if they were given the opportunity to do so in the House of Representatives. That is exhibit A of the President’s willingness to compromise with Republicans, to find common ground, not get everything that he wants but to get everything that would be good for the American public. But yet again, the only reason it’s not moving forward is because House Republicans are refusing to allow it to move forward.
Wendell, we’ve said a couple of times that it would be okay if House Republicans decided that they had some sort of principled objection to this compromise and wanted to vote no. What’s not okay is for the House Republican leadership to continue to obstruct a piece of legislation that we know would pass the House of Representatives from even coming up for a vote.
Q Josh, what immediate actions can President Putin take to get the U.S. and the EU to roll back their latest sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of steps that we’ve been calling on President Putin to take for quite a few months now. The first step is he could use his influence with the Russian-backed separatists. After all, as Mr. Blinken, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, mentioned here earlier this week, many of the leaders of that separatist movement are actually Russian citizens. So presumably, their President would have some influence over them. Getting them to agree to lay down their arms and agree to a cease-fire with the Ukrainian government would be an important first step and something important for President Putin to do.
The second thing that President Putin could do would be to prevent the transfer of heavy weapons from the Russian border — from the Russian side across the border with Ukraine and put them into the hands of Russian separatists. We’ve seen the Russian military, at the direction of President Putin, conduct training exercises to ensure that those Russian-backed separatists know how to use that heavy equipment to maximum effect. There have been some tragic consequences for those decisions. And those are just three examples of the kinds of things we would like to see President Putin do.
Until he does them, he will face deepening isolation from the international community and the possibility that the international community would impose further economic costs on Russia for his failure to live up to basic international norms.
Q Has the President made these points specifically clear to President Putin, perhaps on the phone or through any diplomatic liaison?
MR. EARNEST: On multiple occasions at multiple levels, including at the presidential level, our insistence that President Putin and Russia live up to basic international norms has been made crystal clear.
Q I’ve got a few. I just saw that Treasury added a few more people to the list of those being sanctioned in regard to Ukraine. Do you have any comment on that? It includes a Russian Railways individual.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with that latest round of announcements, but I’d refer you to my colleagues at Treasury who may be able to give you some more information.
Q On Israel — to follow up on Michelle’s question, specifically with regard to the ammunition that Israel has asked for and the U.S. has said it would give the Israelis, is there any acknowledgement at the White House that sending the Israelis more ammunition might prolong the conflict? And was there any consideration not to send it?
MR. EARNEST: No. This is — the request that was made by the Israelis to the Department of Defense was part of a routine foreign military sales delivery. The requested items were readily available and were provided as they have been on numerous other occasions. For details about that specific transaction, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q And lastly, can you just give voice to your reaction at the White House to the Boehner lawsuit broadly and what it portends for a defense on behalf of the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jessica, I think the response here at the White House is some disappointment that rather than focusing on raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work, lowering the costs of a college education or even fixing our broken immigration system, the Republicans instead are focused on a frivolous taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President of the United States.
The fact is that Republicans in the House have repeatedly rejected any attempt to try to get them to do their job, that there are some common-sense pieces of legislation that they could pass — that would pass — if they would allow them to come up for a vote.
And that inaction has tarnished the standing of the House Republican leadership in the eyes of the American people, and it certainly has prevented the nation’s elected representatives in Washington from living up to their commitment to try to make progress for the American people.
And what the President has said is he is going to move forward, unbowed in the face of that obstruction, to try to make progress where he can within the confines of the law on behalf of middle-class families all across the country.
Q As you say, you’re disappointed. What does this White House view the basis for these lawsuits are, for why the lawsuit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we haven’t — despite the legislative time and attention that’s been devoted to this taxpayer-funded political stunt, it is actually not yet clear what the legal basis — what their legal basis is for filing the lawsuit. I know that they’re — I’ve seen reports that they are planning to file a lawsuit related to some provisions of the Affordable Care Act, but their opposition to the Affordable Care Act is not new.
So we’ll take a look at their legal reasoning, assuming there is one, and determine what’s necessary to defend — or represent the views of the administration in a court of law.
Q But they explained their legal reasoning. I’m asking —
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think we’ve seen their — they haven’t put forward a proposal yet in terms of their lawsuit.
Q They say you acted beyond your bounds, you’ve acted illegally in these executive orders. But I’m asking you, what do you think the real reason is for this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think we’ve described it as a taxpayer-funded political stunt before, and I think that is an appropriate label in this circumstance as well.
Q And also, there are concerns from some of the leaders, the black leaders in this country and those who advocate for Africa, many of the countries on the continent of Africa — there are concerns that this summit will be overshadowed once again as Presidents have tried to focus in on Africa before, and there have been other issues, other major issues, but it’s been overshadowed. What do you say to these leaders as this President is convening the largest contingent of African leaders to come to talk about issues of investment, and it’s supposedly to be win-win situation for both sides? What do you say to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, I do think this demonstrates the President’s historic commitment to advancing American interests on the African continent; that there is ample opportunity for Africa nations and the United States of America to find areas of common ground where we can — where both sides can make some progress. And so having a robust discussion about what citizens in Africa can do to promote greater respect for human rights in their country is a worthy endeavor.
We’re going to facilitate some conversations between private sector leaders in Africa and private sector leaders in this country to opportunities to cooperate economically in ways that benefit the economies and businesses on both sides.
There is an opportunity for us to build some deeper cultural and personal bonds between the African people and the American people. So there are a variety of opportunities, and we’re going to devote some significant time — two or three days — to this effort. And it builds upon the historic trip that the President made last year to Africa. I know that you traveled on that trip, and I think were probably struck in the same way that the President was about the importance and the opportunity that exists for American involvement and for the opportunity to strengthen that relationship between the U.S. and those nations in Africa.
Q Let me try to attack this one last time. As you are dealing with very serious issues in the Middle East, dealing with very serious issues with Russia and Ukraine, is there a place for serious issues to be on the forefront in the next couple of days when it comes to Africa? Will they get as much attention? That’s what people want to know.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly going to get the President’s attention, and the President will be devoting significant time and attention to this very important series of meetings. In terms of the media attention that it leaves, I think we’re in your hands.
Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thank you, sir. Two questions. One, Secretaries of State and Commerce are in India, and they just released a joint statement. And, one, if these Secretaries are carrying special messages from the President? And what is the future of the U.S.-India relation under the new government in India?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Goyal, I know that when Secretary Kerry and Secretary Pritzker are traveling in India and meeting with their counterparts in India, they do so with the expression of full support from the President of the United States. The President certainly recognizes the importance of a strong relationship between the United States and India. That relationship is multifaceted. There’s an important national security relationship that exists there.
There are obviously very important economic ties between our two countries. There exists the potential for us to build on some of those economic ties. And I know that was the subject of some discussion during the talks earlier this week. I know the President is looking forward to being briefed by officials at the State Department and at the Commerce Department about the results of those conversations.
Q And, second, as far as the new sanctions against Russia are concerned, how these countries will affect, like, India doing business with Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the sanctions regime that has been put in place against Russia is one that has been carefully coordinated across the global community. So there was a sanctions regime that was put in place by the United States that was followed by sanctions from our European partners. I know that many of our G7 partners have also put in place some pretty tough economic sanctions against Russia, and that will limit Russia’s access to the international financial community and it will deepen their isolation. And that is specifically a result of steps that President Putin has taken to destabilize the area in Ukraine.
He has failed to accept and acknowledge and abide by generally accepted international norms. There have been consequences for that. And we hope that by putting in place these economic costs, it will cause him to reevaluate his strategy in Ukraine.
Q Are you telling countries like India not to do business or act — or support the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve been pretty clear about what our sanctions regime entails. And if you have questions about that, I’d encourage you to check with the Treasury Department.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
1:30 P.M. EDT