Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 28, 2016 – 2:05 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good Monday afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Happy Easter. I hope you all had a pleasant weekend. I do not have any announcements at the start, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thank you, Josh. Josh, do you have any updates on the investigation into the bombing attack in Brussels and the way law enforcement there has responded? Does the U.S. have any concerns about the way the investigation is being carried out, in particular with the release of this man in a white jacket that was seen walking in the airport?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, obviously this is an investigation that’s being conducted by Belgian law enforcement authorities. And they have demonstrated I think a seriousness of purpose that you would expect in getting to the bottom of what exactly transpired and understanding if there were any potential gaps in their system that allowed extremists to carry out this attack.
As you would expect the United States to do, we have offered up some assistance in the form of law enforcement and other national security expertise that hopefully can be used to assist them in their ongoing investigation. We do that because the nation of Belgium is an ally of the United States, and we’re committed to the security of our allies. We also recognize that there are direct consequences on the safety and security of international institutions that are based in Belgium, but also consequences for U.S. national security. So we certainly are going to continue to offer our assistance to the nation of Belgium and to their national security officials as they conduct this investigation.
Q Is there any sense that the release of this guy walking in, in white jacket, in the airport with the bombs was the correct thing — was a mistake?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I am not going to provide any additional information sort of about their ongoing investigation. If they have updates to announce about steps they’ve taken or mistakes that they recognize have been made in the past, that those are announcements that we will be counting on them to make. Needless to say, we take quite seriously the responsibility that we have here in the United States to support them in their ongoing investigation. And there have been times, particularly in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, where we have urged our partners and allies in Europe to undertake some critical national security measures more effectively.
Let me give you one example. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, you heard the President of the United States talk quite directly about the need of European officials to do a better job of sharing intelligence information not just among themselves, but also with the United States. There has been some progress made with regard to that intelligence-sharing, but there is surely more that can and must be done. And the attacks that we’ve seen should serve as a reminder of how critically important it is for the basic fundamentals of intelligence and national security procedures need to be followed. And we certainly are going to lend our support to the Belgians as they undertake the necessary steps to protect their country.
Q So Fidel Castro offered a 1,500-word critique of the President’s visit to Cuba. Is it a sign that the changes sought by the President are going to be a long time coming, maybe more difficult to come? And how much influence does Fidel Castro still have in that community?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, let me start by saying that the fact that the former President felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the President’s visit I think is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama’s visit to Cuba. We obviously were quite pleased with the reception that President Obama received from the Cuban people. And look, we’re also pleased with the kind of conversations that President Obama was able to have with other Cuban government officials. There was an opportunity for us to discuss what additional steps can be taken to normalize relations between our two countries.
The President made clear time and time again, both in private meetings with President Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock-solid, and that’s not going to change. And we’re going to continue to be leading advocates — and President Obama is going to continue to be a leading advocate — for universal human rights, not just in the Western Hemisphere but around the world.
And the kind of engagement that President Obama was able to pursue in the context of his visit is the kind of engagement that would not have been possible had he not made the trip. The President was able to go to Cuba and urge President Castro in person about the importance of human rights. The President was able to stand before a news conference, the assembled global media, and make a forceful case for the Cuban government to better protect universal human rights. That also created a venue where a couple of your colleagues were able to ask President Castro about this issue directly.
That’s the kind of thing that’s never happened before. And there’s no denying that that creates some additional pressure on the Cuban government. And again, the fact that the former President felt compelled to respond I think is an indication that the trip had its intended effect.
Q Thank you. I also wanted to give you a chance to talk about the response to the Easter terror attack in Pakistan.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms this terror attack at a children’s park in Lahore in yesterday. It’s grotesque. And the fact that you have an extremist organization targeting religious minorities and children is an outrage. The other thing, Kevin, that I think is indicative of what we talk about up here quite a bit is that even though this terror attack was targeted at Christians, a religious minority in Pakistan, again, that is in and of itself grotesque, but the fact of the matter is that based on the names that we’re seeing now, that the majority of the victims were actually Muslims. And it demonstrates how important it is for the world to come together to fight this kind of extremism.
And that certainly has been the approach that the President has taken in making sure that peace-loving people of all faiths and of all religions must come together to fight this kind of extremism. And that certainly is what our values and our sense of morality tells us. But as a purely practical matter, that’s also what’s going to be required. And our success in fighting extremism around the globe is going to also depend on the ability of individual nations to fight extremism within their borders. And certainly the government of Pakistan understands today just how critically important that is.
Q Do attacks like these point to our success or failure in the war against terror in the Middle East?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that you can point to one specific event and draw broader conclusions about our overall efforts to stamp out extremism around the globe. I think it is an indication that there is more that needs to be done. You heard in a briefing that was led by Secretary Carter and General Dunford on Friday talk about the important progress that we have made against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. A number of leaders of that organization and many of their capabilities, including their ability to finance their operations, has been significantly weakened by steps that have been taken by the United States military and our coalition partners over the last few months. That’s an indication of important progress, but the President’s key understanding here is that our success is going to depend upon the ability of our partners around the globe to take action to protect their own countries and to fight extremism in their own countries.
And we certainly have more work to do to get that done. The United States cannot be the world’s policeman, but our national security is going to depend on the ability of our partners to protect their own countries. And that’s why the United States is going to be very supportive of the Pakistani government as they confront the threat from extremism. And they’re not going to do that at our urging. Again, they recognize that it is their own citizens who are being victimized by these atrocious acts of terrorism.
Q How is the United States helping in coordinating with Pakistan on the investigation and the response? There’s a report today that Pakistan is preparing to launch what they’re calling a paramilitary crackdown on militants. And can you say whether the President has spoken with Prime Minister Sharif yet?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any presidential-level conversations to tell you about, but we’ll keep you updated on that. The United States and Pakistan have an important counterterrorism relationship. We certainly value the kind of cooperation that we have received from them.
In this instance, this will be — the response and the investigation will be conducted by the Pakistani government, and if they request assistance from the United States it will be provided.
Q And turning back to Belgium for a second. You’ve noted that the U.S. is offering support, but I’m wondering whether you can say whether Belgium is accepting the support that has been offered and whether you can describe at all the kind of support that is being provided.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into — I won’t be able to get into the details of what kind of support we are providing. Obviously there is some — there are law enforcement resources that the United States have. We have investigators, law enforcement investigators in this country that have a particular expertise in investigating these kinds of incidents. And there also is obviously important work to be done when it comes to analyzing intelligence and making sure that leads are being properly followed.
But I’m not going to be able to get into details of exactly how that assistance is being provided, but now is a time when Belgium is confronting a very significant threat, and the United States stands with them in a very real way as they confront this significant threat inside their borders.
Q And when you said that more can and should be done when it comes to information sharing and that basic fundamentals need to be followed, it sounded maybe like the White House is being a little bit critical of Belgium’s response. I’m wondering if you could just expand or explain a little bit about what you meant.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first is, we’ve heard Belgian officials themselves acknowledge in their own right and accept responsibility for some shortcomings that they have perceived in the way that they have handled this broader investigation of this terror cell that was linked to the attacks that were undertaken in Paris. And the fact that there’s some overlap with the cell that undertook this terrorist attack in Belgium last week I think is an indication that there is a very real threat inside of Belgium, and that there is more that national security professionals inside of Belgium need to do to address that threat to and to protect their people.
This is an admission, an acknowledgment that we’ve heard from Belgian officials themselves. And what the United States is going to continue to do is to continue to push them to take the necessary steps to make sure that if there are any gaps in their national security apparatus, that those are filled. And if the United States can play a useful role in filling those gaps, then we’ll do that.
Q Thanks, Josh. You mentioned several times how closely U.S. authorities have been working with Belgian and French authorities since the Paris attacks. So I guess the question could be asked then, when you look at these holes or shortcomings or miscommunications, couldn’t the U.S. have helped them more in tracking down this cell?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately, Michelle, these kinds of actions and these kinds of investigations and the steps that are taken to prevent these kinds of incidents are the responsibility of the Belgian government. And look, in the immediate aftermath of this attack taking place, the President of the United States was on the phone with his Belgian counterpart. So our coordination with Belgian authorities starts at the top level. But all the way down the chain, at the level of homeland security, of law enforcement, of intelligence, the United States is able to offer assistance to our European allies as they confront this threat. And we’re going to continue to do that.
And, again, we do that because Belgium is an important ally of the United States. We do that because there are important international institutions that are located in Belgium, including NATO. But we also do that because we understand that there are direct consequences for U.S. national security when it comes to making sure that Belgium is safe as well.
Q And given that there’s such a lack of information on the communications leading up to this attack, is it a foregone conclusion that encryption was involved? Or what are you saying about that at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the Belgian authorities are trying to learn as much as they can about how this particular terror cell operated. So I don’t have any information to share about what we have learned about how that cell operated or any method of communication that they used to organize their activities. Obviously all of this is getting a close look from Belgian authorities, and it should.
Q So you don’t have a sense as to whether encryption played a role and the fact that this couldn’t have been uncovered?
MR. EARNEST: This is exactly what Belgian law enforcement authorities are taking a close look at, and I just don’t have any updates in their investigation to share at this point.
Q Okay. We heard Secretary Kerry say that the rhetoric of the Republican Party right now is an embarrassment to the country. Does the President agree with that, and do you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President himself has observed that the kind of rhetoric that’s emanating from the Republican Party — and it’s not just one candidate; it’s from multiple candidates on the Republican side — is directly contrary to our values, the values that generations of Americans have fought and died for.
Their rhetoric is also counterproductive when it comes to protecting the American people. And that’s a significant problem too, particularly when you’re the Commander-in-Chief and you’re on the hook, you’re the one that’s primarily responsible for the safety and security of the American people. And the suggestion on the part of some of these Republican candidates is to marginalize certain communities in a way that could be counterproductive to our national security.
Q So you’ve said a lot of things about this rhetoric thus far. You’ve even said some things about Donald Trump in particular, and you even made a comment about his hair at one point. But you’re not willing to call this embarrassing, even though somebody like Kerry —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t disagree with Secretary Kerry’s assessment at all.
Q Okay. All right.
Q Follow up on that? You may be surprised to learn that Donald Trump, in responding to what the President said this weekend about the importance of an open policy for people fleeing — an open-door policy for refugees fleeing ISIL’s violence, you may be surprised to learn that he called it “insane, disgraceful, catastrophic, and could lead to the downfall of the greatest nation on Earth.” Could you give a response to that, since it certainly can’t be dismissed since he represents the views of a lot of Americans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, his comments don’t actually represent the facts of the situation. The fact of the matter is that individuals who enter the United States through the refugee program are subjected to more intensive scrutiny than any other individual trying to enter the United States. Typically, it takes between 18 to 24 months for an individual who is entering the United States through the refugee program, and the reason for that is individuals who are seeking to travel to the United States as a refugee are subjected to in-person interviews. They’re subjected to background checks. Their names are run through a variety of databases that are maintained by the U.S. military and the United States intelligence community. These individual are required to submit biometric and biographical information so that that information can also be used to vet them. And all of this is critical to our national security.
At the same time, the United States takes in more refugees through the U.N. program than every other country in the world combined. And we’re proud, and we should justifiably be proud, of the way that the United States is viewed around the world as a safe haven for people who have been targeted, victimized, or, in some cases, even the victims of genocide in their own countries.
And there was a big hullabaloo in the Republican Party — I got asked about it in here several times — about whether or not the State Department would conclude that genocide — acts of genocide were being carried out by ISIL in Iraq and in Syria. Are Republicans suggesting that somehow we should turn our backs on people that we have now concluded are fleeing genocide in their own country? Is that what they’re suggesting? So they’re suggesting that somehow we should be tough on ISIL and that we should protect people who might be victims of genocide, but we shouldn’t let them in the United States even after they’ve undergone two years of intensive background checks? That’s not right. That certainly is not what our values entail.
And it’s why I continue to believe, and Secretary Kerry and the President have both commented that these kinds — this kind of rhetoric from the Republican Party is counterproductive to our national security and flies in the face of the values that our country holds dear.
Q You get pretty fired up about that stuff. When the President hears Donald Trump and other Republicans say things like this, does he get just as fired up as — have you been with him when he has heard reports that Donald Trump is saying things like this? How does he respond?
MR. EARNEST: His response I think is rooted in the fact that as the Commander-in-Chief of the United States, that his top priority is to keep the American people safe.
Q Does he get fired up? Does he get angry? Does he show his frustration back there in the Oval Office?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think there is no denying that the President is passionate about these issues. He certainly does not condone in any way the kinds of comments that we’ve seen from several Republican candidates on this stuff.
But look, I also think that the comments that you just read me that apparently are recent comments from at least one candidate, they’re difficult to distinguish from comments that we’ve seen these candidates make over the last year. So maybe I’m just feeling particularly animated today, but —
Q You’re tan today also. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I got a chance to spend a little time outside before the briefing today.
But look, we’re talking about core American values. And we’re talking about the kinds of policies that have been in place that have safeguarded our security and made the United States of America the beacon of freedom around the world for generations. And the fact is that generations of — I alluded to this too — there are generations of Americans that have fought and died for those values. Our country was established by people who were fleeing governments that were targeting them because of their religion. There are refugees in this country, including from Cuba, who were fleeing the flagrant violation of their human rights by their government. And they all turned to the United States because of what we stand for and because of what our values are.
And for those values and those principles and those policies to be run down by somebody pursuing a cynical ploy to win votes in a party primary? It’s disappointing, to say the least.
Q During the trip in Cuba, there was a press conference that President Castro talked at.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, there was.
Q He made an answer to one of the questions by saying that the U.S. or someone should provide him a list of political prisoners in Cuba. I know you all have said that you regularly bring up the issue of political prisoners, but I’m wondering if, in the days since then, if there has been an official deliverance to the Cuban government of names of people who the U.S. believes are political prisoners in Cuba.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I don’t have any recent conversations to give you a lot of insight into. You will recall though back in December of 2014, when the President delivered a speech in the Cabinet Room to the country, announcing this change in our policy toward Cuba, part of the agreement was the Cuban government being responsive to our request to release about 50 political prisoners whose names we had provided to the Cuban government.
So we’re constantly in a position to be urging the government of Cuba to do a better job of protecting the universal human rights of their people, but we’re also making a specific push to look out for those that we know are being targeted because of their political views. So that is to say our call for greater respect for human rights on the island of Cuba is both a generalized call about respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people, but it’s also a specific call about making sure that individuals who have been victimized or targeted or rounded up or tortured because of their political views are freed.
And this is — those efforts are not going to stop just because the President had a productive two and a half day trip to Cuba. Those efforts are going to continue. And importantly, the United States and our government is not the only one encouraging Cuba to take these important steps.
One of the benefits of this policy change that the President has announced is that, for a long time, our policy toward Cuba served as an impediment to our relations with other countries throughout the hemisphere. And for a long time, we saw countries in the Western Hemisphere who were more focused on the U.S. policy toward Cuba than they were on the policy of the Cuban government toward its own people. Now that impediment has been removed, and now we are seeing greater scrutiny applied toward the Cuban government and, frankly, tougher questions being raised about the way that the Cuban government treats its own people. That’s a helpful thing. And that added pressure will only be a good thing for the Cuban people in the long run.
Q I wanted to ask you about the Nuclear Summit. There are some reports that the Turkish President requested a meeting with President Obama and that request was rejected. Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic described the relationship between President and the Turkish leader as one of disappointment. I’m wondering if you can confirm that that request was made and rejected, and if the relationship has broken down to a certain extent between the U.S. and Turkey to where the leaders can’t even meet face to face.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, over the course of the last six months or so, the President has had the opportunity to repeatedly meet in person with President Erdogan. You’ll recall that when the President traveled to the G20, which was in Turkey, in Antalya, he had a meeting with — President Obama met with President Erdogan face to face.
Just a week or so later, when both leaders were in Paris for the climate talks, President Obama and President Erdogan had an opportunity to sit down face to face. There have been a number of other telephone calls between the two leaders. You’ll recall that Vice President Biden just about four or six weeks ago was in Turkey, and met personally with President Erdogan.
And the reason for all that is that Turkey right now is going through a challenging time; that there have been terrorist incidents carried out on Turkish soil, and that has posed a threat to the national security of our NATO ally. And the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our NATO ally. We also have important business to do with Turkey when it comes to our counter-ISIL campaign. And we’ve made important progress in ensuring that the United States and our coalition partners has greater access to military facilities inside of Turkey that allow for the more efficient conduct of our counter-ISIL campaign. We’ve also seen Turkey in the last several months make important progress in securing their border with Syria. Now, there’s more that we’d like to see them do, but the fact is, because of Turkey’s efforts to secure the border more effectively, we have seen the flow of foreign fighters be reduced. And that has a positive impact on our ability to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
So the point is, there’s a reason for all these conversations, which is we’ve got a lot of important business with the Turks to do, and we’ve made important progress through that diplomacy. And I would anticipate that that diplomacy will continue when President Erdogan visits the United States to attend a Nuclear Security Summit later this week.
Q Just one more on Puerto Rico. The House is working on a draft bill to deal with the financial crisis there. There are some concerns from the Puerto Ricans about how that draft bill has been written. I’m wondering if the White House is engaged on the bill-drafting process, and whether or not you have any concerns that mirror what we’re hearing from the Puerto Ricans about what the Republicans have come up with.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the White House has been very engaged in this effort, and we have been for a long time. And it’s through our engagement and our joint work with Democrats on Capitol Hill that Speaker Ryan made a commitment that, in the first quarter of 2016, that the House would act on legislation to address some of Puerto Rico’s most serious needs. So those kinds of conversations continue, and I think Speaker Ryan — I’ll let his office provide an update about whether or not they’re going to meet that deadline. But I think his office has shown an understanding of how serious the challenges are facing Puerto Rico.
When it comes to our proposed prescription for what we can do to offer our assistance, there are essentially four elements of that proposal. The first is providing Puerto Rico with the kind of orderly restructuring regime that will allow it to comprehensively address their financial liabilities. This is exactly the kind of restructuring authority that’s available to every municipality all across the United States. We just want to extend those kinds of authorities to the Puerto Rican government.
We also believe that the Puerto Rican government should be subjected to independent fiscal oversight to certify that Puerto Rico actually adheres to the kinds of reforms that they’ve committed to. We also believe that Congress should address reforms of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid program. There’s more that can be done that would better provide for the health needs of the people of Puerto Rico while also reducing the burden on the Puerto Rican government.
And then, finally, we also believe that we should provide — that Congress should provide Puerto Rico with access to the earned income tax credit. This is a proven tool that has bipartisan support that rewards work and actually supports economic growth. And I know that in other contexts, Speaker Ryan has spoken warmly about the way that the EITC has a way of aligning incentives to both encourage people to be productive members of the labor force while at the same time contributing to the economy.
That’s what our proposal is. You’ll notice that even in that long description of what we actually propose should be done, that it never described a bailout for Puerto Rico. That’s not something that we support. But we do believe that there is a way for us to provide them with significant restructuring authority and oversight that would certify them following through on their reforms that will provide Puerto Rico with what it needs to get back on its feet.
Go ahead, Kevin.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q What about the outward migration? Would any of those things that you just mentioned last, or have a lasting impact if you’re, by the tens of thousands, losing people from the island to the mainland?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a lot of these proposals actually would lay the groundwork for the Puerto Rican economy to recover. And that ultimately is what is going to allow them to thrive again, is we need to help them lay a new foundation so that they can build back up the strength of their economy. It’s their weakening economy that, when sort of coupled with the financial problems of the economy, have led to a very difficult situation in Puerto Rico.
So by offering this restructuring authority to the Puerto Rican government, we can allow the government and then hopefully the economy to get back on its feet. And that ultimately would be good for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
Q Let me ask you about Cuba. It was asked of the President, but he didn’t answer it at the time. Has there been an invitation extended for President Castro to come here to the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Not that you’re aware of. Is that something the President would be interested in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I think a lot of the business that needed to get done was conducted during the President’s trip to Cuba. But if we determine that there is a need for an additional visit, and that that would serve a useful purpose, then it’s something that we’ll consider. But right now that’s something I don’t envision.
Q Let me also ask you about — this will probably be interesting to the folks in the Garden State in law enforcement — about the fugitive question. I asked you about it previous to the trip. I’m wondering, with so many accused cop killers, fugitives and others on the island there, in Cuba, did that topic come up at all in the conversation between the Presidents? If so, when? And what was said? And is there any movement on rectifying that situation?
MR. EARNEST: The President did have an opportunity in the course of his conversations to make clear that the kind of work that’s currently being done in law enforcement channels to try to coordinate the return of some of these fugitives is a priority of his. And he made that clear at the highest levels of the Cuban government. And we’re going to continue to push for those kinds of issues to be resolved because they’re a genuine irritant in our relationship.
Q Great. Just a couple more. Special Envoy Lewis talking about Gitmo detainees having killed Americans upon release — that was last week. Is there an official word from the administration? Is that true, is that not true? What can you tell us about the fact that there may be Gitmo detainees out there harming Americans?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you, Kevin, is that when President Obama took office in 2009, he instituted a tougher screening program to be implemented to evaluate under what conditions certain individuals could be transferred from Guantanamo Bay to other countries. I can tell you that none of the individuals who have gone through that process have been assessed to carry out acts of violence against American citizens. So that means no one who’s been released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay on President Obama’s watch has been implicated in violence against Americans.
That’s why implementing those reforms was so critical to our overall success in eventually closing the prison. And we’re going to continue to do two things. The first is, continue to apply that rigorous screening process to those remaining detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And that means also working with other countries to determine suitable locations where those individuals could be transferred. But at the same time, we’re also going to continue to push on Congress to help to encourage them, or urge them to remove the barriers that are preventing us from closing that prison entirely.
Q So was Special Envoy Lewis, was he wrong? Or maybe was he referring to someone from a previous administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you should go ask him that. I think it’s certainly possible that he was referring to somebody who may have been released prior to President Obama taking office. But I don’t have an updated assessment, so you should ask him.
Q Last one. On Donald Trump, if you’ll indulge me. I know Chip got to it pretty well there. You left out “inconceivable” among the descriptions that Mr. Trump used to describe this idea of encouraging the idea of having more Syrian refugees and others come here to escape the problems in their homelands. And I’m just wondering if you can understand the hesitance on the part of Americans, some of them — many of them — who feel like we have enough issues here at home, and we have joblessness here already; we’re dealing with crime and violence, and folks here who need help. Maybe we have a big tent, but maybe we ought to turn our focus inward before we start focusing outward. Can you understand that? And what would be the President’s response to people who feel that way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, I think the response from the President would be focused squarely on the fact that protecting the safety and security of the American people is the President’s number-one priority; that nothing exceeds that priority. But part of what keeps this country safe is the fact that we continue to be viewed by the rest of the world as a beacon of freedom; that we don’t do the things that other countries do. We don’t apply religious tests to people seeking to enter the United States, for example. We don’t marginalize specific minority communities, particularly religious minorities, and suggest that somehow we’d be safer if those communities were subject to additional patrol and surveillance. That’s counterproductive to our national security, but yet that’s what we’ve seen be offered up as a suggestion by some Republican candidates for President.
So what the President has put forward is a specific plan with the safety and security of the American people foremost in his mind, and that is ramping up our refugee program to bring more refugees to the United States, but only after they have gone through the kind of intensive screening that makes refugees who enter the United States more thoroughly vetted, subject to more background checks and more screening, and more information about them being collected than anybody else who tries to enter the United States. And that is consistent with our need to protect our values, but most importantly, to protect the United States of America.
Q Is that the process by which the San Bernardino killers, for example, were subjected to? I mean, this is what people will say to you, Josh —
MR. EARNEST: Well, no, that’s different. Those individuals did not enter the United States as refugees.
Q Just wanted to go back to the Belgian attacks. Two of the brothers involved, or allegedly involved, are also thought to have been involved in the surveillance of a leading nuclear scientist in Belgium. I wonder if you have any information about how much closer they got to acquiring fissile material, other than shooting video? And secondly, how does this feed into the Nuclear Security Summit later this week? Has the agenda at all changed in any respect?
MR. EARNEST: Andrew, let me answer that question a couple different ways. The first is, let me just remind you that the United States and Belgium have a long history of cooperation on nuclear issues, including nuclear security. Both countries take those threats seriously, and we’re working together, included on activities such as eliminating excess highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and converting reactors to non-highly-enriched uranium fuel.
We understand that the Belgian government has decided to employ on-site military quick-response teams at nuclear plants and research centers while it determines what other actions may be necessary. Obviously, ensuring the safety of those kinds of facilities can and should be a top priority. And again, as with other elements of the steps that Belgium has taken to protect our country, we’re prepared to offer assistance if necessary in safeguarding Belgium’s nuclear facilities.
More generally, when it comes to the Nuclear Security Summit, I would anticipate that issues related to nuclear materials and safeguarding them is high on the agenda. I don’t know that this specific threat is exactly — well, let me say it this way. This is obviously something that is a top priority. The Nuclear Security Summit I think is more focused on those nuclear materials that aren’t under the same kind of careful watchful eye that they are in Belgium.
And if there are additional steps that the Belgians need to take, then we’ll obviously support them as they do that. We want to make sure that other aspects of other countries’ nuclear programs are effectively safeguarded and secured.
I should point out — I should hasten to add that since there will be so many world leaders in Washington, D.C. for the Nuclear Security Summit, the President is planning to hold a meeting focused on ISIL, and focused on our coalition’s efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization. That is not because our foremost concern is that ISIL is in grave danger of getting their hands on nuclear materials; it will be focused on the broader threat. But obviously the prospect of ISIL getting access to any sort of nuclear material is something that must be avoided. And that will certainly be part of the conversation.
Q Given that this is the last such meeting of Obama’s presidency, how do you ensure that this continues beyond the end of January of next year and will not just fall by the wayside?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly hope that the incoming President would understand that safeguarding loose nuclear materials around the globe is a top national security priority of the United States. And President Obama has made this a priority because frankly this is an issue that he worked on prior to entering the White House. The President spent a decent amount of time working across the aisle with Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana on efforts around the globe to safeguard nuclear materials.
So this has been a priority for the President since before he took office. That’s why we created a venue like the Nuclear Security Summit to give additional attention to this issue and to make clear to the American people and to governments around the world that this is a top priority of the United States.
The next President will come in with a mandate to make their own decisions about what elements of our national security need to be prioritized and what’s the best way to do that. So we obviously would welcome a future President convening additional nuclear security summits. But given the important progress that we’ve made over the last eight years on this issue, those kinds of summits will be different because of the progress that we’ve made. And we’ll certainly have more to talk about that over the course of this week.
Q Thanks, Josh. I’ve got a couple for you. In how many Democratic primaries nationwide has the President endorsed one Democratic candidate over another?
MR. EARNEST: Off the top of my head I don’t know the answer to that question, but we can certainly take a look at it.
Q How does he make that decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the President has a political team here at the White House that can take a look at individual races and sort of assess what sort of impact a presidential endorsement would have. Obviously, that includes careful consideration of their records and agendas that are put forward by individual candidates.
So obviously, earlier today the President announced his endorsement of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz from Florida. She is somebody who has been a staunch ally and advocate for the kinds of priorities that President Obama has put forward, and we’ve been pleased to have her support on important issues, including protecting the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
She is somebody who has been a leader in advocating for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. She understands the consequences of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, not just because of the impact on U.S. national security, but also because of the impact on the national security of our allies in the Middle East, Israel. And so having her support for a proposal like that for that international agreement obviously was important, and that’s why it’s just one example of why the President felt it was important to announce his strong support for her reelection.
Q Yes, it was an endorsement that tripped that question because I couldn’t think of another intra-Democratic race where he weighed in.
MR. EARNEST: Well, actually there’s another one in Florida. The President did endorse Congressman Murphy in his Senate race. He’s facing some competition in the Democratic Primary as well. But we can get — I’m just thinking off the top of my head here, so there may be other examples, but Florida I guess is on both of our minds.
Q And then on Cuba, you’ve described Latin American unhappiness at the embargo. In the last seven years, has the President ever asked a Latin American leader to do something, to help with something, and been told no because of the embargo?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the issue is — I don’t know whether or not that’s true. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I think I mean it in a different way.
I can tell you that in every meeting that the President had with a Latin American leader in the first few years of his presidency, that at some point in the discussion when they could have been talking about an important economic priority, an important security priority related to immigration or narcotics, that at some point, the discussion was actually consumed by the nonsensical U.S. policy toward Cuba. And that was getting in the way of the ability of the United States to engage in the kinds of conversations that actually are helpful to our national security interests. And in some cases, that actually has opened up and created space for the President to have a conversation with other world leaders about the human rights situation in Cuba, which, after all, is actually the whole point of this exercise and was the point of that policy. And that’s why the President viewed it as a failed policy that had negative consequences for our relationship with other countries in Latin America — that too often they were talking about the embargo and not about the serious human rights situation inside of Cuba.
Q Hi, Josh. Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you.
Q Nice to see you. What do you say to the President’s critics who urged him to come home after the Belgium issue and who say he shouldn’t have stayed for the baseball game, and he shouldn’t have stayed to tango in Argentina?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President had the opportunity to confront this pretty directly, both at the baseball game in Cuba and at the news conference in Buenos Aires the next day. Look, the goal of terrorists, particularly extremists like ISIL, is to carry out heinous acts of violence to try to be disruptive and to advance their agenda.
And the fact is that, as a country, we’re at our strongest when we’re dictating the terms, when the President is the one that’s setting the agenda. And when the President sets the agenda, the item at the top is the safety and security of the American people. And that’s why, even on the trip, the President had conversations with his senior members of his national security team to make sure we were taking the necessary steps to protect the American people. The President was on the phone with his counterpart in Belgium to have that conversation and to talk about if any U.S. assistance could be helpful to the Belgians as they responded to this particular situation.
At the same time, the President was also able to undertake the critically important work that was part of his trip, and that meant seeking to normalize our relations with Cuba and to make the kind of trip to Argentina that could essentially transform the relationship between our two countries. There’s a tremendous opportunity there, and the President’s trip sent a strong signal about the likelihood that this administration and this country was going to take advantage of that opening.
Q And secondly, what was the President’s involvement in the genocide decision, if any?
MR. EARNEST: This was a decision that was made by the Secretary of State. And obviously the President agrees with it, but this was a decision that was made by the Secretary of State.
Q Thanks, Josh. I didn’t see if you’ve answered this question already so forgive me for asking this. At the conclusion of the joint press conference and joint statement between the President and Cuban President Raul Castro, Raul Castro grabbed the President’s arm, wished to raise it, and the President seemed reluctant to have his hand raised by the Cuban President. Can you explain a little bit what happened there? Because I haven’t seen an explanation about that.
MR. EARNEST: I do think that President Castro had in mind a rather iconic photo with President Obama and his arms raised together. I think President Obama believed that that would imply a whole lot more agreement on some priorities than actually exists. So the President was, of course, entirely comfortable appearing on stage with President Castro, they had important conversations behind the scenes, but I also think their differences of opinion on some really important priorities was also pretty evident from that news conference. And that’s why the President resisted the idea of a photograph like the one that President Castro apparently envisioned.
Q It was pretty quick thinking on the President’s part. Did he anticipate that Cuban President Raul Castro would do something like that at the conclusion of the press conference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that President Castro has a standard protocol for the end of news conferences — (laughter) — because I don’t think they have news conferences as part of their standard protocol. (Laughter.) So I don’t know that anybody was expecting him to do that, but I think the President did observe that for an 84-year-old, President Castro still has some pretty quick reflexes.
Q On that same subject, do you see any potential value in the fact that Castro seemed to be very uncomfortable answering questions, given that this was broadcast on Cuban TV?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the observation that I did make is that obviously President Castro is not used to pressing questions, particularly when it comes to questions about human rights. And the fact is, President Castro would not have been subjected to those questions had President Obama not decided to travel to Cuba, and he would not have been subjected to those questions had President Obama not insisted on the two leaders actually taking questions from reporters at the conclusion of their meetings. So this is a real-world, tangible example of how the President’s consistent and persuasive advocacy for things like freedom of the press actually bears fruit in a real, tangible way. The President is proud of that record and I think that will be an important part of his legacy.
Q Was there anything calculated in trying to show that there was a lack of freedom of the press there by having him answer questions?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think there was anything calculated about it. Obviously the journalists who were given an opportunity to ask questions were able to ask whatever question they wanted. There certainly are other pertinent questions that could have been asked, but I think it’s also understandable that journalists who had traveled to Cuba with an American President for the first time in 90 years might have some pretty direct questions they wanted to ask the Cuban leader about the human rights condition in his country.
So obviously reporters could ask whatever they wanted, but I wasn’t at all surprised that they gravitated toward questions about the human rights condition in the country. And, again, I think this is a testament to the kind of advocacy that the President has regularly engaged in as he’s traveled around the world. And that hasn’t been true just when he’s traveled to Cuba. That’s also been true when we’ve traveled to other countries that don’t have the kind of commitment to human rights that we see in this country.
Q And could you just give a little — maybe a preview of what the President is likely to do at the drug summit tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: We will have more information about that before the end of the day today. But we’ll certainly follow up.
Q At a briefing last Friday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, revealed that he and Secretary Ash Carter were putting together proposals to increase the number of U.S. military on the ground there in Iraq. And I was just curious, are they putting that together as a result of any requests from either the NSC or the President?
MR. EARNEST: Jim, the way that the President has managed this policymaking process is one that has been focused on results. And what he has asked his team to put together are a variety of tactics that would be a part of our overarching strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. There have been a range of tactics that have been involved.
The best example I guess I can give you would be sort of focusing on ISIL’s financing and looking for ways to destroy the facilities where they store cash to take out the leaders of their financing operation. And in the context of that news conference that you mentioned, the Department of Defense did announce that they had taken action against the so-called finance minister of ISIL. That’s one indication that those tactics are actually bearing some fruit.
The point is, the President’s direction to his team has been, when we sense that there are some tactics like this that are showing some progress, then come back to me with suggestions about how we can reinforce that element of our strategy. So that is what has led to the focus on ISIL’s financing. That’s also why the President has approved the greater commitment of manpower to these expeditionary targeting forces that can be used to carry out raids against leading ISIL’s figures. That is only something that we’ve been doing over the last several months, but that was in response to the President’s request for how the comparative advantage that the U.S. military has — particularly expertise when it comes to carrying out these raids — can be used to advance our campaign.
So I don’t know exactly what Secretary Carter and General Dunford had in mind when they made that specific comment. But surely the President is eager to hear suggestions from his military leaders about the way that we could reinforce those elements of our strategy that have shown progress. And if that means a commitment of greater resources, including additional personnel to that effort, then the President will give it careful consideration.
Q And over the weekend, the Syrian military forces were successful in driving ISIS fighters out of Palmyra, the ancient city there in Syria, and to retake the city. Is that somewhat of a mixed bag? While it’s a victory against ISIS, doesn’t it further entrench Syrian military operations, who, by the way, were successful with the help of Russian airstrikes and Iranian Shia militias? So doesn’t that in effect only cement al-Assad’s hold on Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Jim, what it does remind us is that we’re never going to forget what ISIL did to Palmyra. This was a city that reflected sort of our common human heritage, and that many of those cultural sites were destroyed by ISIL. And, in fact, the archaeologist who was responsible for protecting those sites and for setting those sites was, in fact, beheaded by ISIL. Palmyra is a good illustration of the brutal assault that ISIL has carried out across Syria and on innocent Syrians in a way that has a tangible impact on the rest of the region and on the rest of the world.
But what is also true is that over the long term, the Syrian army, under Bashar al-Assad’s command, cannot bring lasting peace to Syria. That is why we remain committed to finding a political solution to the conflict. As long as Assad is around and in charge of the country and in control of the military, we’re not going to be able to resolve the political chaos inside of Syria. And that’s why the United States has made this political transition a priority, and we’re pleased to have the support of the Russians, who have also made that a priority. But there’s a lot more important work to be done to bring about this kind of political transition because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to address the root cause of so many of the problems that are essentially an outgrowth of the chaos in Syria.
Q So you don’t see the defeat of ISIS in Palmyra as a victory for the Syrian military and President Assad?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly are pleased to see that ISIL has been driven out of Palmyra. But what is also true, Jim, is that as long as President Assad is in charge of the Syrian military, there will not be peace inside of Syria. And that’s why we need to bring about the kind of democratic, political transition inside of Syria, because all of these problems that we see emanating from Syria — terrorism, extremism, genocide, the millions of people fleeing their homes, including to other places in the region and around the world — all of those problems, at the root of them, is the failed leadership of Bashar al-Assad. And that’s why we need to see a democratic transition inside of Syria.
Q Josh, can you comment on the lockdown?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not. I’ve been standing up here since it occurred. I’ve noticed a distraction, but tried to be —
Q There were supposedly shots fired at the Capitol. And the Capitol, as well as the White House, is —
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to comment on it. I’ve been standing up here while it’s been going on.
Let me take a couple more questions, though. Scott.
Q Josh, can you preview what the President is going to say tonight at the dinner?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the President is looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have to speak at a dinner that’s honoring the memory of Robin Toner. Robin was obviously somebody — a political journalist who understood how important political journalism is in the United States. She, throughout her career, placed a premium on understanding the issues and helping her readers understand what impact it would have on our country and on the world. And that ultimately made the citizens of the United States better voters and better at making decisions about the future of our country.
And the President wants to use this opportunity to pay tribute to Robin and her career and her life, but he also wants to use this as an opportunity, as her family has done, to reward and recognize journalists who are committed to those same principles. And it will be an honor for the President to speak at the dinner, and it will be an opportunity for him to highlight the role that political journalism has in the success of our democracy. But the President will say it much more eloquently than I just did, and we’ll see if we can get you some excerpts in advance of his remarks.
Q He’s talked a lot about the splintering in the media as one factor contributing to political polarization. Is that theme we’re likely to hear?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you’re more likely to hear is why political journalism is important; why it’s important for people to consider facts and to evaluate on a factual basis the statements and claims that are made by candidates for President and, frankly, for candidates up and down the ballot. This not something that is exclusive just to the office of the presidency.
And I think you’ll hear the President also observe that when you’re in a position of power, having your assumptions challenged sometimes can be an uncomfortable thing. But it’s necessary for the success of our country, and I think the President would acknowledge that it’s made him a better President.
Fred, what do you got?
Q Thank you. As far as the three primaries this weekend, which Senator Sanders won, does that give you some concern that we’re going to see this turn into a long slog ahead?
MR. EARNEST: It is the end of March, Fred. (Laughter.) There might be some who say that it’s already attained that status. (Laughter.)
Q But do you think that’s going to make it difficult for the eventual nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’ve had an opportunity to answer those kinds of questions after the New Hampshire primary, after the Michigan primary, and now here after the results in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington.
But my assessment hasn’t changed. I continue to believe, and I think the President continues to believe, that the longer-than-expected primary in 2008, where we saw a similar dynamic, ultimately made the individual candidates and the Democratic Party as a whole stronger.
And I’ve used this example before so I’ll just repeat it again. In 2008, there was a primary in May, in Indiana, a place that is not used to having presidential nomination contests attract a whole lot of attention — but in 2008 they did, on the Democratic side. This is a state where Democratic candidates, at the presidential level at least, had not been particularly competitive. But it did give both candidates a strong incentive to campaign aggressively all across the state. The President did numerous events across the state of Indiana, campaigning and trying to win over the support of Democratic voters in Indiana, but it gave voters all across Indiana in both parties the opportunity to see what he had to offer.
The other thing that it importantly did is it also gave an incentive for the Democratic Party to invest in the kind of grassroots operations that are critical to turning out voters in Indiana. Lo and behold, in a general election six months later in Indiana, Democrat Barack Obama won Indiana.
So that’s the best illustration I can give you of how these kinds of primary contests — that if they go on longer than expected, that can still have a very positive benefit, both for the candidate and for the party as a whole. It remains to be seen whether or not that will be true in 2016. And the truth is, I don’t think we’ll be able to reach that kind of conclusion until we see the results from the general election.
Q Unlike 2008, though, it looks like we’re going to have a long slog on both sides this time. They’re talking about the convention fight for the Republicans. Is that going to — could it help both sides?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know a single Republican who would say that what’s happening on the Republican side of the aisle right now is good for their party. Maybe you guys can name one but I can’t.
Q A separate question then. During the Argentina town hall — and I do want to put this in context, because the President did praise the market-based system — but the sound bite that got a lot of attention is he said, socialism, capitalism, your generation should try whatever works. And I wanted to ask you about that a little bit. Is that something you could explain a little bit more, what he meant?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the fact that we were at a — or at least the President had, just the day before, hosted an entrepreneurship summit in a nominally Communist country I think is a pretty clear indication of where the President comes down on this. The President is making a concerted effort to reach out to entrepreneurs and to innovators because he understands that capitalism is a system that brings freedom better than any other one.
And the truth is, I think what he’s observing is that the degree to which the government regulates the economy varies in a variety of countries. And you’ve covered these debates, Fred. You understand that there’s a pretty vigorous debate in this country about the degree to which the government should be regulating the economy. But nobody questions the fact that our country’s economic, political and social strength benefits significantly from a robust capitalist economic system.
And the President certainly believes that making sure that other countries understand how the United States has benefitted from this kind of system is an important part of our diplomacy. And that’s why the President — again, on a very busy trip where he had events back to back to back — carved out time in Cuba to have a conversation with young entrepreneurs in Cuba to encourage them to pursue their visions of an entrepreneurship society.
Q Just — “whatever works,” could that undermine his own point that a market-based society —
MR. EARNEST: No, I think the President is actually just making the case that the United States is not going to impose a system on some other country; that ultimately, citizens in these countries need to determine the path that works best for them. I think the President was also clear that he believed that they would find that the path that’s characterized by capitalism is the one that is most likely to lead to a prosperous and free country.
Q Thank you, Josh. Does President Obama have any schedule to meet — have a bilateral meeting with the South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the Nuclear Security Summit this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have more details about the President’s schedule at the National Security Summit — at the Nuclear Security Summit here in Washington later this week. So stay tuned and we’ll have an update soon.
Q Josh, in Florida today, Vice President Biden was asked about Trump’s standing in Florida, and he said if Trump wins the GOP nomination will be extremely competitive here. Does the President agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: I think Vice President Biden is giving voice to something that President Obama and others have regularly urged Democrats, which is that we shouldn’t take Mr. Trump lightly, and that even if he is the Republican nominee, that Democrats are going to need to mount a serious campaign to ensure that he is not elected the next President of the United States.
And that is certainly why I think you can expect that both the President and the Vice President will be active on the campaign trail, making a forceful case for the Democratic nominee, whether that, frankly, is Secretary Clinton or Senator Sanders.
Q Do you think that the President will be holding a separate session on ISIS — on NSS sidelines? Is it fair to presume that al Qaeda is no longer a bigger threat to the world — ISIS is now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the administration has been quite clear that we are concerned about the threat that continues to emanate from al Qaeda. What’s different now is that al Qaeda core that had previously operated with some impunity in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region has been decimated because of the actions taken by the United States military in that region of the world.
But there are other affiliates of al Qaeda that remain dangerous. And this didn’t get a lot of attention last week, but I thought I’d just point out that last week, the United States conducted an airstrike in Yemen against an AQAP target that took dozens of fighters off the battlefield. That is an indication that for all of the chaos inside of Yemen and all of the chaos inside of the region that is being perpetuated by ISIL, that this administration has not taken our eye off the ball when it comes to the threat that is posed by al Qaeda.
And I think the fact that we ordered — that the President ordered that strike and that that was a strike that was carried out by the United States military I think is a clear indication that that’s a threat we continue to take seriously.
Q In the backdrop of the Lahore terrorist attack, does the White House believe that actions taken by the Pakistani (inaudible) organization the last four and a half years have been effective in decimating the terrorist organizations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, obviously there is a serious extremism and terrorism problem inside of Pakistan, and the Pakistan government understands that. And the United States has certainly been supportive and encouraging of the Pakistani government as they’ve considered the steps that are necessary to combat that extremist threat.
This terrorist attack that we saw in this park over the weekend is, as I mentioned, grotesque and chilling. But unfortunately, it’s not the only effort that we’ve seen on the part of extremists in a large-scale way to carry out an atrocity against a large group of people, innocent people, including children. It was just a year and a half or so ago that we saw extremists inside of Pakistan attack a school. And we saw I think more than 100 kids were killed in that attack.
So that’s an indication that there continues to be a serious problem there. And the United States will continue to support the Pakistani government as they try to confront and combat that extremist element within their own country.
Q And are there any plans for the President to meet the new Prime Minister who be here at the NSS summit?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have more details on the President’s schedule for later in the week later this week.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
Q Josh, anything on North Carolina?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll follow up with you, Chris.
3:15 P.M. EST