Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–May 11, 2015 – 1:03 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all had a good weekend and spent some quality time with your mothers — even on the phone if necessary. Let me do two quick things and then we’ll go to your questions.
The first is, the President and his team here at the White House have been monitoring the storms that occurred overnight in Texas and throughout the Midwest. The President is receiving updates. We know that our officials in FEMA — or at FEMA offices in both Kansas City and Denton are closely monitoring the response efforts. At this point, we have not received any official request for federal assistance, but we continue to be in close touch with the state and local officials who do have the primary responsibility for responding to those storms.
Obviously, we’re thinking about the communities that were affected, some quite violently, overnight by these storms. We’re going to keep them in our thoughts and prayers, and we’re going to continue to stand with them as they rebuild from the destruction that they saw as a result of the weather.
The second thing that I want to point out is today is the last day for Jessica Santillo, who has served the President in a number of capacities, including in his campaign but also here at the White House. She’s been a fixture in lower press, dealing with many of your inquiries about a variety of things, including the Affordable Care Act. And throughout all of that, she has demonstrated the kind of professionalism and grace and commitment to this cause that is certainly something that we all admire. And she’s going to move on to some private sector opportunities, and we certainly wish her well as she does that. But she’s definitely going to be missed around my office.
So thank you, Jessica, for your service.
Nedra, let’s go to your questions.
Q Great, thanks. What changed since last Friday’s announcement of the Saudi King’s visit to lead to the trip being called off?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, the goal of the meeting that the President has planned for Camp David later this week is to discuss the best ways to deepen and modernize the important security relationship between the United States and our GCC partners. The countries who are participating in the meeting have obviously made decisions about who they believe is best positioned to represent their countries at the meeting. And given the goals that I’ve just outlined, we agree that the right people will be attending, and are confident that we’ll have the right people around the table at Camp David for discussing and acting on these priorities.
As it relates to the travel plans of the King, I’d refer you to his office for more information about his change in travel plans. There are a couple things I can tell you about that.
The first is there’s been no concern raised by our Saudi partners, either before the change in travels plans or after, related to the agenda at Camp David. So I know that there had been some speculation that this change in travel plans was an attempt to send a message to the United States. If so, that message was not received, because all the feedback that we have received from the Saudis has been positive.
You’ll recall that Secretary of State John Kerry was in Riyadh last week, where he had the opportunity to meet with the King directly. And in the context of that meeting, the King and other senior members of his national security team that visited with Secretary of State Kerry expressed satisfaction and even some optimism about the possibilities of the Camp David agenda. Secretary Kerry also met with all of his counterparts in Paris last week. These are his GCC counterparts. And even coming out of those discussions, there was widespread agreement that this was going to be a worthwhile session with the President of the United States, and each of those countries indicated that they were looking forward to it.
I’ll close by just pointing out that Saudi Arabia will be ably represented at the meeting by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. He’s the former interior minister. He is somebody who is obviously well known to members of the President’s national security team, and he’s well known to the President himself because he has convened meetings with the President in the Oval Office two times over the last two years or so. He’ll also be joined by the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who happens to be the son of the King and is the chief defense official.
So obviously, for the purposes of having a meeting about how to deepen our security cooperation with our partners in Saudi Arabia, having the Crown Prince and the Deputy Crown Prince, both of whom have leadership responsibilities when it comes to providing for the security of Saudi Arabia, gives us confidence that we’ll be able to have a robust discussion at Camp David, but also that we’ll be able to follow through on the commitments that are made in the context of the meeting.
Q Is it safe to assume, since your deputy announced the visit on Friday, that the King had formally accepted the invitation at one point?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that is true.
Q And does the White House consider this a snub of any kind? Or how do you interpret this then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, for the reasons that the King changed his travel plans, I’d refer you to Saudi Arabia. What I’m confident that they will tell you is that the travel plans are completely unrelated to the agenda that’s planned for Camp David. And again, that is based on the private conversations that the Secretary of State has had with the King himself and with other senior officials in Saudi Arabia, both in Riyadh and in Paris. That’s evident from the public statements that we have seen from senior members of the Saudi Arabian national security team so far. And we continue to be confident that the senior officials who will be representing the interest of Saudi Arabia at the meeting will be able to — are empowered to not just represent the views of Saudi Arabia in the meeting, but also to implement any decisions that are made in the context of the meeting.
So the point is, the President wanted to convene a discussion with our GCC partners with the goal of modernizing and deepening our security cooperation with them. I’ll point out that these GCC members consider the security cooperation that they have with the United States as integral to their own country’s national security. So it is in the interest of these countries to send senior members of their national security team who can represent the views of their country and ensure that they live up to any commitments that they make in the context of the meeting. And based on the list of attendees that we’ve seen so far, we’re confident that that will occur.
Q Thanks. On that, with the change in plans that we found out about over the weekend that will now leave only two out of the six GCC rulers attending the summit at Camp David, how does the White House see that? I mean, does that number present a snub to the White House? And if not, why not a snub? If you’re only getting two of —
MR. EARNEST: I think we’ve identified the word of the day in the briefing today. No, fair enough. That was probably the word of the day in the briefing based on the press coverage before we even started going through these questions, which is why I’m happy to talk to you about them.
Well, we’ve walked through the situation in Saudi Arabia. We continue to be confident that the senior national security officials who can both represent the interest of Saudi Arabia at the meeting and follow through on any commitments that Saudi Arabia makes in the context of the meeting will be present and accounted for at the meeting.
The same is true when it’s applied to the four other countries that are participating in addition to Saudi Arabia. Let me give you another example. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, is the deputy commander of the UAE military, but is the principal interlocutor between the United States and the UAE when it comes to significant national security questions like this one.
So, again, we continue to be completely confident that Mohammed bin Zayed, as the senior representative of the UAE at the meeting, will, again, be able to represent the interests of his country in the discussion, and ensure that any commitments that he makes on behalf of his country will be fully and appropriately implemented. I would point out that there was never a commitment from anyone other than Mohammed bin Zayed to lead the UAE delegation at Camp David. We’re obviously pleased that — I mean, so I guess the point is, taken together, if you look at the individuals who will be sitting around the table with the President at Camp David, we continue to be confident that these are individuals who can represent the interests of their country and implement any commitments that they make in the context of the meeting.
More importantly, the countries that are sending the delegations have confidence that these are the appropriate individuals to participate in this meeting. And, again, to the extent that we are seeking to reassure those nations about the importance of their security relationship with the United States, it’s in their interest to ensure that the right leaders are attending the meeting. We’ve heard from all the countries that they will be able to provide — or that the necessary officials will participate in the meeting at the right time. And we are confident that they’ve made the right decision about who to send.
Q On another topic — Secretary Kerry’s meeting with President Putin in Sochi. Can you explain the utility of that?
What is the U.S. hoping to get out of that meeting? We’ve heard maintaining lines of communication, but it seems pretty clear where the U.S. stands in respect to eastern Ukraine. So could you just explain what you hope to get out of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve talked quite a bit about how complicated the relationship is between the United States and Russia; that there are a variety of areas where the United States has been able to successfully work with Russia in pursuit of interests that benefit the citizens of both our countries. And that’s been a wide range of things.
Russia has participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. They have been an important partner in putting in place the sanctions regime that has compelled Iran to the negotiating table, and we have been appreciative of the role that they have played in that effort. There’s much discussion about the way that the United States and Russia was able to work together to dispose of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile. That would not have been possible without the leadership of Russia, using their unique relationship with the Assad regime, to both convince the Assad regime to declare their chemical weapons stockpile, but then also to effectuate the destruction of that chemical stockpile. And that did highlight the strong working relationship between the United States and Russia when it comes in pursuit of our mutual interests.
We’ve also, as you pointed out, not been shy about identifying those areas where we have had pretty sharp disagreements with Russia that’s principally come on the issue of Ukraine and the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of that independent nation.
So I don’t have a preview of the specific meeting that Secretary Kerry will be convening in Sochi. But this relationship will, of course, be against the backdrop of those conversations.
Q Continuing on Syria, what is the common ground that Russia and the United States have about Syria? Why is there reason for the talks themselves?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when it comes to Syria, I mean, obviously the significant concern that we had about Syria’s declared chemical stockpile was that it presented a significant proliferation risk; that when you’re in a chaotic war-torn country, like in Syria, that there is the risk that extremists could get their hands on those chemical weapons and proliferate them around the globe, putting citizens of both our countries at pretty deep risk. And so it was in the clear interest of the United States and Russia to get the Assad regime to acknowledge that chemical weapons stockpile existed, and to engage in a broader international effort to ensure that those chemical weapons were destroyed so they couldn’t be used anywhere else.
So that’s a pretty good example of where our interests align.
Q But going forward, Josh, I understand what’s already happened. But sending the Secretary of State to talk about what’s going forward, what is the common ground he’s looking at that you feel might cause Syria to reengage and help settle a civil war there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is going to be the only thing that they discuss. There are a lot of things that are obviously on our mutual list of interests here. But it’s clear that it’s not in anybody’s interest for there to continue to be this widespread violence and chaos inside of Syria. This is why we’ve been able to effectively build a coalition of more than 60 countries to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Because the prospect of these violent extremists getting a foothold inside Syria and establishing a safe haven does pose a risk most immediately to countries in the region, but it certainly poses a risk to countries around the world. So we’ve obviously been able to work with Russia in pursuit of that effort.
But more broadly, I’m confident that a lot of the conversation that the Secretary of State will have both with his counterpart and with President Putin will include a discussion about the need to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and ongoing efforts to try to deescalate the violence in that country.
Q But respectfully, I’m still not hearing what’s in it for Syria, because Syria [sic] has backed Assad — continues to back Assad. And while they did help with the ridding of the nuclear weapons, how is the civil war in Syria hurting Russia? Because it continues to leave the man they want in power, in power. What is in it for Russia?
MR. EARNEST: What’s in it for Russia is that it is not in their interest for there to be a chaotic war-torn country where violent extremists could seek to establish a safe haven. And anytime you see that kind of violence and chaos in a country like Syria, that obviously raises significant concerns from countries in the immediate vicinity of Syria, but also around the world.
Q But do those extremists really threaten Russia? Don’t you think they mostly threaten the West?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think President Putin would be happy to convey to you what he believes is a long list of risks and threats that are posed by violent extremists. And I know that this counterterrorism area is an area where the United States and Russia had been able to effectively cooperate. So I know that President Putin shares that concern.
Q Josh, thank you. Has the President spoken to the Saudi King?
MR. EARNEST: The President has not recently, but I would not be surprised if the President does have an opportunity to consult with him directly prior to the start of the Camp David meetings.
Q Do you anticipate that could happen today?
MR. EARNEST: It’s a possibility.
Q Okay, but nothing specifically planned?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll let you know if there is a conversation.
Q Okay. And you were making the argument that these Gulf nations are sending the appropriate representatives.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right.
Q But the President is still not meeting with his counterparts. So does that not diminish the gravitas, the seriousness, the effectiveness of this summit?
MR. EARNEST: Not in the mind of the President and not in the mind of anybody here. There is important work to be done to deepen and modernize these security relationships. And having the senior security officials from each of these countries represented in a way that they can participate robustly in the discussions represent the interests of their country and follow through on any commitments that they make in the context of the meeting gives us some confidence that this will be a worthwhile session.
And again, the goal here is for each of these countries to strengthen — further strengthen the important security relationship that they have with the United States. So it’s in the interest of these countries to send the appropriate individuals who can participate in the discussions, and we’re confident that that’s what’s occurring.
Q Is the United States, is the President prepared to offer any concessions to any of these nations, perhaps allow them to buy more weapons, for example, than they currently —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess if any sort of agreement like that were reached, I would not at all characterize that as a concession. These are partners of ours, and we have an interest in the continued security cooperation that we have with them.
So whether it’s intelligence cooperation, counterterrorism efforts, or even enhancing the national defense of these countries, this is something that the United States is invested in and has been invested in for quite some time. And this will be the substance of the discussions that will be underway at Camp David. I don’t have anything to preview in terms of what kinds of outcomes we anticipate that we’ll see, but I do believe and the President continues to believe that the appropriate individuals representing these countries will be in attendance.
Q I just want to ask you about President Obama’s comments about Senator Warren over the weekend. He said, “On this one, though” — meaning the discussion of the trade deal — “her arguments don’t stand the test of fact and scrutiny.” So I just want to be clear — is he accusing her of lying for political gain? What is he specifically saying there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President had about a 20-minute conversation with Matt Bai, and they released the text of the interview. So I think you got a good sense about what the President meant, if you look at the transcript.
Q Well, is he worried that by having this public dispute with her, that he could, in fact, wind up alienating some of the Democratic lawmakers that he wants to get on board?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not worried about that at all, and I don’t think the President is either. I think that’s why he’s been blunt about his views on this topic and why he believes that Democrats should be supportive of a trade agreement that, if reached, would clearly be in the best interest of our economy and clearly would be in the best interest of middle-class families across the country.
Q And Elizabeth Warren said, “If the President is so confident it’s a good deal, he should declassify the text and let people see it before asking Congress to tie its hands on fixing it.” What is the President’s response to that? Why not declassify it now?
MR. EARNEST: The point is that if Senator Warren is wondering what she’s voting on, then she can walk over to the room that has been established on Capitol Hill, by the U.S. Trade Representative, and she can read the latest version of the negotiated document. So there is no need for this false criticism that the members of Congress aren’t aware of what’s being negotiated. If they’re not aware of what’s being negotiated, it’s because they have failed to take the responsibility to read the document. It will be provided to them. And that, the President believes, is an important part of this commitment to work with Congress to reach this agreement. And those who do understand what’s being negotiated have a reason to be supportive of it. And I think the best example I can point you to is to take a look at the vote in the Senate Finance Committee — that when carefully considered by the Senate Finance Committee, there were hearings that were held, and I assume that many, if not every member of the committee took time to review what was being negotiated, that it earned the support of a majority of Republicans and a majority of Democrats. That’s a small sample size, but I think it’s an indication to Democrats who are undecided, or at least considering how they’re going to vote on this, that there is ample reason for them to consider why this particular agreement would be clearly in the best interest of our economy and clearly in the best interest of middle-class families.
Let’s move around a bit. Jordan.
Q Thanks, Josh. On trade, are you guys confident that Democrats will have the votes to advance TPA tomorrow when the Senate holds the test vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what’s important, Jordan, is for Democrats and Republicans to have the votes. This is something that’s not going to pass on party line. If it’s only Republicans who are supporting it, it’s not going to reach the 60-vote threshold; and if it’s only Democrats who are supporting it, it’s not going to reach the 60-vote threshold.
So what we need is we need to build a bipartisan coalition. And the President has been trying to do his part to make the case to Democrats, some of whom started out reluctant. We’ve talked quite a bit in here about the reflexive opposition that exists in many corners of the Democratic Party about trade agreements. And the case that the President made in private is very similar to the case that the President has made in public that Kristen referred to — that he’s made a very strong case about why he believes this is in the best interest of our economy both in the short term and over the long term. And that is what has led him to strongly support trying to advance this particular trade agreement. And we’re hopeful that other Democrats will keep an open mind as they evaluate what we’re trying to do here.
Q Is he making any calls or holding any emails with lawmakers today on trade?
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President has been in frequent conversations with members of Congress — mostly Democrats, but some Republicans. But I don’t have any detailed information to convey to you about those communications or those meetings.
Q And one last one on the defense bill. I know that House Republicans are trying to reinsert some language into that bill that would delay some regulations that have been placed on payday lenders to military members. And I’m wondering if that is something that would prompt the White House to issue an official veto threat of the defense bill.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have already raised significant concerns about a variety of provisions included in the Defense Authorization Act. You have identified yet another one. There is a provision in this bill that would protect loopholes that allow predatory lenders to target military families. It’s almost too difficult to believe that you’d have a member of Congress looking to carry water for the payday loan industry, and allow them to continue to target in a predatory fashion military families who in many case are already in a vulnerable financial state. In some cases, we’re talking about military families who have a loved one that’s deployed overseas, and as they’re trying to makes ends meet to allow predatory lenders to target them is something that I can’t imagine earning the majority support in the United States Congress.
Q There are some Democrats who generally support fast track, but they want to attach this currency provision that the Treasury Secretary has already warned that if currency is attached and bolted on to the fast track bill, that that could potentially undermine getting to a final agreement with all these Asian countries for TPP. Is the White House working aggressively to kill that currency provision? Would it be something that the White House would need to threaten a veto on so that it’s not bolted on to this TPA?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Steve, what we have indicated is that we believe that there’s a better way for us to resolve concerns related to currency. The administration over the last six years has tried to address a wide range of currency issues with other countries through the designated international fora for negotiating these kinds of issues. So whether it’s the G7 or the G20 or at the International Monetary Fund meetings, the United States has been engaged in conversations with other countries to talk to them about exchange rates. And there are a couple of examples that I can cite of progress that has been made in this regard.
China’s exchange rate is up nearly 30 percent on a real effective basis since 2010. And the fact is we have not seen Japan intervene in the foreign exchange market for more than three years. That’s an indication that our advocacy through these multilateral meetings has been effective in a way that has effectively protected American businesses and American workers from some unfair practices. The concern that we have about some of the approaches that are currently being discussed on Capitol Hill is that they could be used to effectively undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve. And so this is why we’ve been having a robust conversation on Capitol Hill about the best way to move this forward, and we’ll continue to do that. I’m not ready to pass judgment on any specific legislative proposal along these lines at this point. But our concerns about some of the proposals that have been floated are well known.
Q Is that something, though, that you would threaten to veto, if that’s attached to fast track, that would be not worth signing that bill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not willing to make that commitment at this point. We’ve been very clear about what we would like to see, and we’re hopeful that we can build some bipartisan support in the Senate to get it passed.
Q Is the White House at all disappointed in how the Saudis have handled the King’s decision not to come? You said earlier that he had committed, that he had said he was coming, and to find out just days before the summit is supposed to take place would seem to me to be a disappointment for the White House. I’m just curious if you feel like the Saudis have handled it properly.
MR. EARNEST: Jim, as I mentioned before, what we’ve been focused on is making sure that we had the proper senior-level representation from each of these countries to participate in a discussion about how to deepen and modernize the security relationship between the United States and our GCC partners. And the fact is, seated around the table will be representatives of these countries that are empowered to represent the views of their country and their national interest in the discussions, and ensure that they follow through on any commitments that those countries make in the context of the Camp David meeting. That is the bottom line, that’s what we’ve been looking for, and that’s what we’ve received, and it’s why the President is looking forward to the meeting later this week.
Q And you said you weren’t sure a message was being sent because one hasn’t been received here at the White House. But isn’t it fair to say that the Saudis are concerned about the Iran nuclear deal? And isn’t it possible that this is part of the reason why the King is not coming?
MR. EARNEST: Again, they have said — the Saudis themselves have said that the reason for the change in the King’s travel schedule is not related at all to the substance of the meeting. I think what they have indicated is that he has said that he would prefer to remain in Saudi Arabia to monitor the implementation of the humanitarian pause in Yemen.
As it relates to the Iran framework, the reason I’m consulting my notes here is that there was a specific statement that was put out by the Saudi cabinet soon after the announcement of the Iran framework in which they said — in which they expressed “their hope for attaining a binding and definitive agreement that would lead to the strengthening of security and stability in the region and the world.” So the early indications from the Saudi —
Q Is that an endorsement, do you think, of the framework?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what it is, is it is an indication that they recognize that there is a significant national security benefit for Saudi Arabia in preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It’s also an indication that they are at least open to the argument that the President has made that the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy. And we certainly were encouraged by that specific statement.
I think what the Saudis would probably be quick to tell you is the same thing that lots of other people in this country would be quick to tell you, which is that they want to evaluate the final agreement, and that is something that is still being negotiated by our experts. And what we are striving to achieve is a final agreement that reflects the broad political framework that was announced in early April.
Q I guess, just getting back to the protocol aspect of this, the President, when he was in India, cut short that trip so he could go to Saudi Arabia and pay his respects to the fallen king and meet the new monarch who was being brought in. It’s not the first time that the President has shown respect to the Saudi family and the Saudi Kingdom. The Secretary of State was just there this last week. Your deputy said on Air Force One late last week that it was expected that the King was coming. And so I’m just curious if — I would assume that this was, at the very least, a surprise. But I have to ask, is the President disappointed?
MR. EARNEST: No. The fact is that the President did cut short his visit to India in order to make a stop in Saudi Arabia while that nation was mourning the loss of King Abdullah. And I think many of you all who reported on that visit noted that it was an important symbolic gesture that reflected the depth of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Now, on the back end of that symbolic visit was a working meeting that the President convened with King Salman. The meeting that the President has scheduled for later this week is not symbolic; it’s one where the President anticipates having a specific and robust discussion about how to deepen and modernize our security relationship with our GCC partners. And the proper leadership will be attending that meeting, and that is to say these are individuals who are empowered to represent the interests of their country in those discussions and ensure that any commitments that they make in the context of that meeting will be implemented.
And there is a very practical, specific reason for this particular meeting, and that’s why we’re less interested in symbolic messages and much more interested in the actual discussions that will take place later this week.
Q And I know that the journalist, Seymour Hersh, has put out an article on the facts and circumstances that were involved in the killing of Osama bin Laden — the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. And I know the White House has put out a statement saying that the article is “baseless” and essentially false. I’m just curious — are the facts that the public generally understand about the killing of Osama bin Laden, is that story essentially what happened? Are there any elements of that story that perhaps are not correct in the public’s mind and information that’s been put out by the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly nothing that I’m aware of. I can tell you that the Obama White House is not the only one to observe that the story is riddled with inaccuracies and outright falsehoods. The former Deputy Director of the CIA, Mike Morell, has said that every sentence was wrong. And, Jim, I actually thought one of your colleagues at CNN put it best. Peter Bergen, a security analyst for CNN, described the story as being about 10,000 words in length; and he said, based on reading it, that what’s true in the story isn’t new, and what’s new in the story isn’t true. So I thought that was a pretty good way of describing why no one here is particularly concerned about it.
Q Josh, I want to ask you about a concert that was held in Baltimore last night.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry I missed it. It sounded like it was pretty interesting.
Q It was good.
MR. EARNEST: Did you attend?
Q Yes, I did. So did Kristen.
MR. EARNEST: You did? Is that right?
Q I reported on it. We were reporting on it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Boy, you are just a slave to your profession, aren’t you, Kristen? (Laughter.) Talk about getting the real story. We couldn’t just cover that concert from afar; we needed to be there in the front row. That’s pretty good.
Q Yes, I was close. I got a chance to see a lot. But going back to the concert and the Rally for Peace, the message is meaningful for urban areas and those who have had issues with policing. And the musical artist, Prince, was the one who put this on last night, and he said something — he said that the system is broken and it needs to be fixed now. Realistically, what can be fixed before this President leaves office, as he has put a spotlight on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President has acknowledged is a couple of things. The first is that the vast majority of our law enforcement officers across the country do a very difficult job very well. And these are individuals who have chosen a very honorable profession, if not a calling, to be willing to put on that uniform every day, walk out the door, and be prepared to put their life on the line to protect that community. And that is something that is worthy of our respect. And the President will be participating in the National Peace Officers Memorial at the end of this week, and he’ll have an opportunity to talk about that a little bit more.
But what is also true is that there are some isolated situations where people I think for justifiable reasons believe that the law is not being fairly implemented. And that is the source of some concern because that does feed some distrust between law enforcement and the community or communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect. And that gap in trust makes police work more dangerous. It also makes it easier for crime to infiltrate in those communities. So the interest of neither the police nor the community is being served when there is a rupture between them.
And that is why you saw the President convene a Task Force on 21st Century Policing to bring community leaders and law enforcement officials together to engage in a discussion of best practices — what are some of the steps that have been taken in some communities that have enhanced trust between local law enforcement in the community — with the hope that those best practices can be shared with communities across the country. That’s one specific example of how the President believes that we can start to address some of these issues.
But what’s also true is that this kind of distrust and the kinds of situations that have contributed to this distrust have been around for a long time, and they’re not the kinds of things that are going to get solved overnight. But what the President is confident in is that if we have people who enter these professions for the right reasons, and if we have people of goodwill who are leaders in the community who are willing to step forward and work with police to try to bridge their differences, that that can have a material impact on the success that law enforcement has in building strong relationships in communities and preventing crime.
Q But I want to drill down on this a little bit more. Because those statements are echoed throughout the nation, not just by a superstar entertainer or several superstar entertainers who say this. What realistically, though, within the next two years can realistically be done to start to break this cycle that has been going on for decades and maybe even centuries? I mean, what realistically in the next two years, as this administration is I guess winding down, what can be expected — tangibly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think there are a very specific set of recommendations and principles that were outlined in the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And I think as a very tangible matter, that is what communities across the country can begin to do — that we can have our local elected leaders, certainly leaders in law enforcement and community leaders come together around implementing some of those best practices. So in terms of a very tangible contribution to addressing some of those problems, I’d refer you to that document.
What’s also true — and the President made note of this a couple of weeks ago when he was talking about this in the Rose Garden — is that we can’t allow all of this to just be boiled down to a law enforcement problem; that the kind of distrust and violence that we see in some communities that’s directed toward law enforcement is indicative of a much broader and more deep-rooted set of concerns. And the commitment to trying to address the economic inequality and economic injustice in many of these communities will have an impact on our ability to try to lower the crime rate and strengthen the relationship with law enforcement.
And whether it’s making sure that every child in America has access to high-quality early childhood education, or that every kid that wants to go to college can find a way to pay for it, or ensuring that there are job-training opportunities available to those who want to go get some skills that are needed in the workforce and prepare themselves to make a good living — it could even be something as simple as raising the minimum wage. Right now, if you’re trying to raise a family of four by working full-time and earning the minimum wage, you’re raising that family of four below the poverty line. That’s not fair. That’s not consistent with the values in this country that hard work should lead to a decent living.
And so these are the kinds of common-sense steps that, again, are not going to be implemented overnight, and they’re not going to make a difference overnight, but they can certainly start moving us in the right direction.
Q And lastly, Cecilia Muñoz. Could you talk to us about any conversations that she’s having with mayors, singularly, in certain problematic cities, or mayors as a whole, when it comes to the summer and trying to lessen or just prevent any of what we saw this spring and last summer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, you’ll also recall that last week the President had the opportunity to visit the conference call with a number of mayors who were meeting in Philadelphia from across the country who were talking about this exact problem. And they spent a lot of time in that meeting talking about what they can do to better meet the needs of the young people in their community. And, again, this is something that the administration is focused on, and this is not just a White House thing that the President is focused on. We know that there are Cabinet officials, like Secretary Duncan, obviously Cecilia Muñoz, Valerie Jarrett has been engaged in conversations with mayors about how to address this problem and further reduce violence in our communities.
Q So summer jobs, rec centers opening, what are the —
MR. EARNEST: I can have somebody follow up with you to get you some more specific information about that.
Q Back on Elizabeth Warren and the trade talk. Has the President spoken to Elizabeth Warren in the last few weeks since this sort of war of words deepened between them on fast track? And if not, when was the last time they spoke? And lastly, has the opposition — outspoken opposition of such a prominent liberal Democratic figure complicated his ability to attract Democratic lawmakers to his side on fast track?
MR. EARNEST: Mike, I’m not in a position to detail every conversation that the President has been having with members of Congress.
Q — any of the discussions.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not going to get into the details of that. I’m not aware of any — I’m not personally aware of any specific conversations that he’s had with her recently. But, again, I wouldn’t rule them out because the fact is the President has been having a number of conversations over the last several weeks on this. So it’s possible that he may have had a conversation with her that I’m not aware of.
As it relates to his effort to make the case and win the support of Democrats both on Capitol Hill and across the country, we’re going to continue to make an aggressive case. And the President has made a very powerful case about why anybody who is focused on advancing the interest of middle-class families is going to take a close look and likely be supportive of this kind of trade agreement.
And the reason for that is simple: That those who are particularly concerned about the negative impact that recent trade agreements have had on middle-class families would acknowledge that failing to engage in the Asia Pacific and declining to support or engage in the Trans-Pacific Partnership would essentially just lock in the status quo. And those companies that have left the United States and sought to invest in countries that have lower labor standards are companies that have already left. And if we want to try to make the case to those companies that they should invest in America, again, we need to start leveling the playing field. And if we can start to raise working standards in other countries, it’s going to give them an incentive to consider a country like the United States that has a lot to offer.
We may not have the cheapest labor in the world, but we do have the most dedicated, hardest-working workers in the world. We have the most aggressive entrepreneurs. We have the best colleges and universities. We have a system that will allow innovators who are willing to follow the rules to have a genuine opportunity to succeed. And those are the kinds of — that’s the kind of environment that we can offer that gives us a significant competitive edge over the rest of the world.
Q How has her opposition in particular affected this? He’s singling out her and her criticism. He’s not talking publicly about Richard Trumka and Leo Gerard, or the Sierra Club, or other opponents. It’s Elizabeth Warren who he feels he needs to address publicly her criticism.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess — I mean, I’d have to go back and look at the transcript. But at least as it relates to the specific interview that he did on Friday, he was asked directly about Senator Warren’s comments, and that is what prompted the response. The thing that I’ll say is that there’s recent polling data to indicate that the President’s message is starting to have an impact. The latest NBC poll that was just published last week indicated that there is now a plurality of Americans that believes that free trade helps the United States.
And so that is an indication that people are open to the argument that the President is making, or at least a plurality of Americans is open to that argument. And the President is going to continue to make that case to members of Congress. And again, as I mentioned earlier, we did see that when a vote was taken on the most progressive trade promotion authority legislation by the Senate Finance Committee, that a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans supported it. And that makes us optimistic that we can build the kind of bipartisan support that’s necessary to advance this bill.
Q Josh, would the summit this week be better if King Salman were here? Are you saying it would make no difference whether he shows up or not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is that what will make the summit successful is ensuring that we have representatives of each of the countries that can represent their country’s view in the discussion and follow through on any commitments they make in the context of that discussion. And we have those representatives around the table — or we will have those representatives around the table at Camp David when the meetings begin on Thursday.
Q The President is notoriously, let us say, unmoved by summits. He said publicly many times he gets bored by them. He doesn’t — always sure they make all that much headway. That’s when heads of state are with him. Okay? So what I’m asking is, why does he believe a summit in which four of the nations will not even send a head of state will be as important as a summit where — summits before when he said even with heads of state present you don’t often get that much done? And by that logic, why not just send your Defense Secretary?
MR. EARNEST: And I think the reason for that is that the five GCC countries who are participating in the summit I can assure you that they understand the significance of the summit and the importance of their security relationship with the United States. That’s why they’re sending anybody. And what we are seeing is that they are sending representatives of their country at a level appropriate in terms of being able to represent the views of their country and follow through on any commitments that are made in the context of the meeting.
And that’s what the President is looking forward to here, is a substantive, legitimate discussion of these important issues. And again, I’m sure there will be plenty of pictures taken, so I don’t have to get our news photographer friends worried about it, but this is not just a photo op. This is an opportunity for us to have a substantive discussion about how to deepen and modernize the security relationship between the United States and our GCC allies.
And while we here in the United States certainly value that relationship, I can tell you that those GCC countries understand that that relationship is critical to their very existence.
Q The biggest issue right now for Saudi Arabia, at least immediately, is Yemen. The Houthis announced yesterday that they would accept a cease-fire. What degree of confidence does this administration have that that cease-fire will hold? What does it hope to achieve during that time? And how much will this be a part of the conversations at Camp David?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m confident that this will be something that is discussed at Camp David because this is a source of a lot of concern among the GCC countries; that they see this instability and even chaos inside of Yemen as a security threat to — certainly not just to Saudi Arabia but to other countries in the region.
They’re obviously concerned about the destabilizing impact that Iran appears to be playing in this situation. That obviously is a source of some concern to them, and I’m confident that this will be discussed.
What we hope to achieve by the cease-fire is that we can bring badly needed humanitarian aid to those who have been caught in the cross-fire in Yemen. All of this chaos has had a terrible impact on the humanitarian situation there, and we know that there — we’ve already seen reports of food shortages and fuel shortages and other things that are critical to daily life. And we’ve been very concerned for some time about the humanitarian toll that this violence and chaos is taking on the Yemeni population. And we’re hopeful that over the course of the five days that this cease-fire is in place that many of those needs will be met.
And then there was one other part to your question.
Q You didn’t say anything about the cease-fire in the context of it providing any sort of springboard for a political resolution. Do you not see it as such?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been concerned about the violence there for some time, and we have been urging all sides to get started with all-party negotiations, led by the U.N. The U.N. has offered to step in and facilitate this role. The U.N. representative to Yemen was here in the White House in the last couple of weeks, meeting with members of our national security team here to talk about this important role. And what’s clear is that the violence that we see in Yemen right now is not going to address the political differences that exist within that country. We’re going to need all of the parties to set aside the violence and engage in political negotiations to try to resolve their differences.
The United Nations has offered to step in and try to facilitate those conversations consistent with other GCC agreements that have previously been established in Yemen. And we’re hopeful that in the context of this cease-fire agreement that there’s a possibility that all the parties could begin those kinds of political negotiations. But the goal, the point of this cease-fire is specifically to try to address — give the international community the opportunity to address the pretty dire humanitarian situation that we see in that country right now.
Q Quickly, on trade. In the interview you discussed, the President said Senator Warren is a politician like anybody else. What did he mean by that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he meant that she’s making a political case. And —
Q She doesn’t believe it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’d have to ask her if she believes it.
Q So what is the President saying when he says she’s a politician like anybody else?
MR. EARNEST: That they’re having a political debate about this issue. And that’s true — we are having a robust political debate, but we feel good about the progress that we’ve made in the context of that political debate. In the United States Senate, in the Finance Committee, we got a majority or Republicans and a majority of Democrats to support this particular proposal. And when you consider the political views of people all across the country, we’re seeing that a plurality of Americans at least is open to the argument that the President is making about the opportunity that exists by opening up more overseas markets to American goods and services.
Q Was she implying that she’s insincere?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was blunt about the fact that some of her facts are wrong, and there is a substantive disagreement that they have on this. But the President is also confident that those Democrats who are willing to set aside their reflexive opposition to anything that has trade associated with it and actually consider whether or not this proposal is in the best interest of American workers and American families, that we’re optimistic about our ability to win over the support and votes of a number of Democrats.
Q Would you say in the House you are further ahead in that than you were two weeks ago?
MR. EARNEST: That’s hard to say.
Q I know it is. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s principally hard to say because I’m not at all the designated vote counter in the administration. But I can tell you that —
Q But you know the people who are.
MR. EARNEST: I do. I do. And what they say is that the conversations that the President has been having with members of Congress, most of them Democrats, have been useful and that there have been Democrats who have been willing to set aside their reflexive opposition to anything that has trade associated with it and consider the argument that the President has made. And that’s yielded us some votes.
Q When you can identify even one of those, please let me know. You went from no to yes because of the President’s urging. Could you do that?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is that’s something that will likely be clear once we’ve actually had an opportunity to take a vote, because I also think that this is a case that we’re going to continue to make right up until the vote, and we’re not going to take any of those votes for granted.
Q Josh, a couple quick things. Just back on trade. In your answer to Kristen’s question about transparency or putting the trade pact forward, you know that Senator Warren has said that she has read it; she has read the draft.
MR. EARNEST: Good. I’m glad to hear that. I don’t think that’s true of all of her colleagues.
Q But you were not aware of that? You seemed to suggest —
MR. EARNEST: I was not aware of that.
Q So when she’s talking about advocating more transparency, one of the questions she’s asking is, if on its face the draft is such a persuasive case supporting what the President is saying, why is the President not advocating that the language be publicly available — publicly available? And the answer is?
MR. EARNEST: Because it’s not final. It’s not been agreed to. And nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. But the good news is that when the agreement is reached, if one is reached, there will be a 60-day period where everyone will have an opportunity to review the final agreement before the President even signs it. So that will be part of how this works, is that there will be full transparency for the American public for two months prior to the President signing the agreement.
What’s also true is then, from there, Congress will have an opportunity to consider it. And any vote that Congress takes in terms of this trade agreement will be done with the public’s full knowledge of exactly what’s included in the trade agreement. But right now the negotiations are still underway, and so it wouldn’t make sense to make public a document that all the parties have not yet committed to.
Q Even if public understanding of it might possibly weigh in on the votes that lawmakers might feel comfortable casting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, before members of Congress have to vote on the trade agreement, there will be ample opportunity for the American public to review it. They’ll have ample opportunity to review it prior to the President signing it, and they’ll have ample opportunity for reviewing it prior to Congress taking a vote on it.
Q And switching gears to another topic, and that is presidential fundraising for both his library and potentially for the Democratic nominee going forward. Because the President’s — I think the library announcement might be tomorrow, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to my colleagues who are managing that rollout for the precise details.
Q But anyway, the Obama Foundation is actually sending out now missives and using social media to gather up support for what will be aggressive fundraising. So can I just review in anticipation of the announcement of the library, the President does intend to participate in fundraising for the presidential library for the foundation, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have to go and check on that for you. I don’t know the specific answer to that. I do know that the foundation has indicated that they expect to live up to the commitments that the President made in the context of his campaign for disclosure and transparency when it comes to donations that they’ll accept. That includes not accepting donations while the President is in office from PACs or lobbyists. And that also — I think what they have also indicated is a commitment to disclosing with some regularity all donations above a $200- or $250-level. ** The President and the First Lady will not raise money for the foundation while still in office.
Q Okay. And then going forward to when there is a Democratic nominee. Because, for instance, Hillary Clinton is now using Priorities USA as a super PAC, will the President going forward headline any events to raise money for super PACs for the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t contemplated that question. But we can get back to you if we’ve made a policy decision on that.
Q Josh, can you give us a little flavor of what the President is going to talk about at Georgetown tomorrow?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is looking forward to the discussion that he’ll have, that will be moderated by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. And it will be an opportunity for the President, in the context of this ongoing conference at Georgetown University, to talk about what more we can do in this country to ensure that everybody is getting a fair shot and everybody is getting a fair shake; and making sure that the common-sense things that we can do to expand opportunity for everybody are things that we follow through on. And whether that’s raising the minimum wage, or ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality pre-K, or ensuring that the cost of a college education doesn’t prevent an otherwise hardworking, talented student who wants to make sure that they’re prepared for a 21st century global economy. So there’s a lot to discuss. And it’s all consistent with the President’s view that the primary goal of the President’s domestic policy agenda is expanding opportunity for every single American.
Q Josh, thanks. It’s been widely reported that several nations in the GCC would like to see a structured written statement coming out of Thursday’s meetings about a security cooperation, maybe NATO-like. Does the White House share the enthusiasm that that is something that should come out of this week’s meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to preview any of the potential deliverables out of the meeting, but I can tell you that the goal of the meeting is to have a robust and specific discussion about steps that can be taken to modernize and deepen the security cooperation between the United States and our GCC partners.
Q You said earlier it wasn’t a snub that King Salman wasn’t coming. You said you wouldn’t characterize the President —
MR. EARNEST: More importantly, Saudi Arabia said it wasn’t a snub. But go ahead.
Q And you said the President wouldn’t characterize it as being disappointed. Was the invitation then extended to him more or less out of courtesy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the —
Q Did you specifically know that someone else from their group would be more appropriate?
MR. EARNEST: I see what you’re saying. No, there was an invitation to Saudi Arabia to participate in the summit, and that was up to and including the King and his participation. He initially committed to participating in the meeting and then informed us late on Friday evening that he would not be able to do so.
That said, we continue to be pleased that the Crown Prince and the Deputy Crown Prince will both be in attendance. I understand that there will be senior officials from the Saudi national security apparatus who will also be participating in the meeting. And, again, what we would like to see at the end of the day are representatives from these countries that can articulate the interests and point of view of their country in the meeting and follow through on any commitments that are made in the meeting. And we are confident that we have the appropriate level of representation from Saudi Arabia in the meeting.
Q Last thing I want to ask you about — Hillary Clinton said last week that she would like to expand — and this is an immigration question — that she’d like to expand on something that the President said he had done as much as he could do in terms of the DREAMers. She said she’d like to see protections from deportation for the parents of so-called DREAMers. Does the White House support that position?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has said as a general matter that he strongly believes that we need to bring some greater accountability to our broken immigration system. And the President announced some steps back in November that he believed were the extent of the executive authority that he could exercise to try to bring that much-needed accountability to our broken immigration system. And there are aspects of that announcement that we have moved forward with implementing.
There are other aspects of that announcement that are currently ensnared in a legal dispute in the Fifth Circuit. The Department of Justice is representing the interest of the administration and the federal government in that court proceeding, and we continue to have full confidence in the strength of the legal argument that they’re making.
Q So this is as far as the President can go to this point is what you’re saying?
MR. EARNEST: We’ve been very clear about exactly what legal authorities the President had vested in the office of the presidency to make changes to our immigration system in a way that’s consistent with bringing greater accountability to that system. And we continue to believe that that will have a positive impact on our economy. It will have a positive impact even on our budget deficit. And we certainly believe that it’s consistent with our values as a country.
Q So to follow on the GCC question, it’s fair to say that this is not the summit the President envisioned when he made the announcement that he invited the leaders in the Rose Garden?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think I would — because, again, as it relates to the question that somebody asked earlier, the goal here was not a symbolic picture with the leaders of five other countries. Frankly — well, what we’re looking for is a more direct conversation, a substantive conversation about how to deepen and modernize our security relationship with those countries. Are you smiling because I said “frankly” and then started to say something else?
Q Yes, you didn’t finish. We were all looking forward to what you were going to say.
MR. EARNEST: It’s getting to be the end of the briefing. We get a little —
Q As a practical matter, does the — the lower level of this meeting, should it also lower our expectations as we’re covering it for what the President can or will announce at the end of it on Thursday because there are not leaders present who perhaps can sign off on some of the things that they’re asking for and that you guys are asking for?
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate you asking that question because I think that is ultimately what’s important. We do believe that the representatives from each of these countries are at a sufficient level to sign off on the commitments that are made in the context of the meeting. So we do believe that we will have the representation that’s necessary to have a robust, specific, detailed discussion about our security cooperation with each of these countries, and that any commitments that any of the countries make in the context of this discussion will be the kinds of commitments that they can follow through on because of the sufficient level of representation at the meeting.
Q Thank you, Josh. French President François Hollande arrived in Cuba earlier today. President Obama has expressed in the past his willingness to go to Cuba one day. Does he feel it’s too early for him to go? And if so, is he waiting for a specific move or specific gesture from Raul Castro before going?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is an ongoing diplomatic effort to try to normalize the relations between the United States and Cuba. There is still some important diplomatic work that remains to be done. The President did enjoy the opportunity that he had to have a pretty blunt and direct conversation with President Castro about additional steps that we need to see Cuba make to better reflecting a country that protects the universal human rights of its people.
And this is a strong case that the President made in the context of that meeting. And there are lower-level discussions that are ongoing, both on the human rights issue but also on the range of other steps that we can take to try to normalize relations between our two countries.
I think the President has indicated that he does not envision a trip to Cuba anytime in the near future. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out over the course of the next year now.
Q Arctic drilling?
Q You just approved Arctic drilling.
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry.
Q You guys just approved Arctic drilling.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that breaking news. We’ll see if we can —
Q It’s been a big deal with environmentalists.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you just barked out Arctic drilling. (Laughter.) So why don’t we just — (laughter) — why don’t we find out what the announcement is and we’ll get back to you with —
Q You don’t know what the announcement is?
MR. EARNEST: Viqueira, maybe you have a more fully formed question you’d like to ask?
Q That was probably a better one. I just want to close the loop, first of all, on this back-and-forth between symbolic. You said that the Saudi — that this is more than a symbolic summit. The Saudis will have the proper people there. Just so there’s no misunderstanding, it would have been merely symbolic if the King had shown up?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that the President intends for this to be a working meeting. And if the only thing we are concerned about was symbolism, then the only thing we would be focused on is whether or not the person with the highest-ranking title was in attendance.
But because we’re actually focused on some more specific details, we’re interested in making sure that individuals who are participating in the meeting are individuals who are empowered and sufficiently equipped with the ability to represent the interest of their country and follow through on any commitments that they make.
Q Okay. In the Rose Garden, after the interim agreement was signed, the President at the end of his remarks spoke of the possibility of Iran joining the community of nations if it sticks by its obligations. That sort of gets to the anxiety that many Gulf nations are feeling about Iran’s role in the region. That they look at the interim agreement and wonder if it is containment of Iran or détente with Iran, and they worry that it’s détente with Iran. Does the President understand those anxieties on the part of the Gulf nations?
MR. EARNEST: He does. And frankly, he shares them. The President has been pretty blunt about the fact that it is important for us to try to reach this diplomatic agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But we do not anticipate that these conversations are going to lead to a satisfactory resolution when it comes to the long list of bad behavior that Iran engages in.
We’ve seen Iran support terror groups around the world, we’ve seen Iran engage in destabilizing activity, both in the region and around the world including in Yemen. Right now, Iran has unjustly detained three or four Americans inside of Iran. We believe that those individuals should be released.
And we continue to harbor significant concerns about the anti-Semitic rhetoric that Iran uses to menace our closest ally in the region, Israel. So we’ve got a long list of concerns. And in some ways, they serve to remind us of how important it is for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But we’re going to continue to have these concerns even if a diplomatic agreement about their nuclear program can be reached. And it’s one that we know is shared by our other partners and allies in the region.
Q Just a couple more on the GCC summit very quickly. The air campaign against the Houthis, as you mentioned, is obviously going to come up. The United States has supported it with logistics and intelligence. Has it been worth it? Has it been successful?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for an updated assessment of that, I’d refer you to the Saudis and to the Department of Defense. But I can tell you that the goal of supporting that ongoing effort was to try to help Saudi Arabia resolve the security situation that they were concerned about along their southern border.
I think that there are indications that have had a positive impact, but what we have said all along is the only way to completely resolve the security situation inside of Yemen is through a political dialogue that incorporates all parties. And so that’s why we have aggressively pushed all parties in this conflict to engage in that dialogue that’s facilitated by the United Nations.
Q And finally, evidentially the King of Bahrain is not coming to the summit as well. Did he ever indicate, or did the Bahrainis ever indicate that he would be and —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t — I’m not sure of the status of his invitation. But we’ll be able to follow up with you on that before Thursday. Okay?
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:11 P.M. EDT