Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 24, 2014 – 1:23 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST:Afternoon, everybody.Nice to see you all.Just a quiet Monday to get our Thanksgiving week going.
Q We thought it was.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, well, we like to keep you on your toes.Let’s get settled in here.Josh, would you like to get us started, please?
Q Sure.Thanks, Josh.The President this morning said that it was the appropriate time for Chuck Hagel’s tenure at the Pentagon to come to an end.What exactly did he mean by that?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Josh, the President alluded to the fact that Secretary Hagel and the President had convened a number of conversations more than a month ago about the President’s two remaining years in office and the kinds of priorities that this administration, this country would be facing when it comes to our foreign policy.
Over the course of the last month or so, the President and the Secretary have had a number of conversations, and they determined that it would be best for the Pentagon to transition to new leadership.Now, this is pretty consistent with the tenure of previous Secretaries of Defense that we’ve seen.For about the President’s first two years, Secretary Gates served, and then the next two years, Secretary Panetta.And generally speaking, over the course of the last two years, Secretary Hagel has been running the Pentagon.So it certainly is consistent with this pattern that we would have a new Secretary of Defense for the two remaining years of the presidency.
I’ll tell you that Secretary Hagel departs with a pretty strong track record at the Department of Defense; that he’s put in place some key reforms at the Pentagon that will — that have strengthened our military in the short term, but also will do a lot to strengthen our military and our national security in the years ahead.
Obviously, he has served at a — in a very challenging budget environment, not just for the Pentagon but for the government.And managing those challenges, while also making sure that our military had the resources that they needed to carry out the very important missions that are protecting the United States and our interests around the globe, he was successful in that effort.
He is somebody who also led the effort at the Pentagon to ensure that the necessary steps were being taken to stamp out the scourge of sexual assault.There have been obviously reports of sexual assaults — at the rate of sexual assaults increasing in the military, and this is something that the President and his Secretary of Defense took very seriously.There’s a review underway on that, and that’s — that was something that required a significant reevaluation inside the military, and it required leadership.And that’s exactly what Secretary Hagel provided.
Q So if all those things were going so well then why did he have to leave?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the other thing that we have seen, Josh, is just in the last year, there have been some other significant challenges that have cropped up that have required strong leadership at the Department of Defense — something, again, that Secretary Hagel has provided — from countering the threat that’s posed by ISIL, building an international coalition to take the fight to them; to countering Ebola and using Department of Defense resources in West Africa to try support the ongoing international effort to stop that outbreak at the source; and certainly, our ongoing efforts to support the people of Ukraine as they deal with the inappropriate interference from separatists and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
All of those are crises that have emerged in just the last year or so and are things that will, on an ongoing basis, require the continued attention of the Department of Defense.
What I can tell you is that over the course of the last two years, Secretary Hagel has stepped in to fill a very important role, which is to navigate that department through a very difficult era of budget constraints and other threats to the United States.And he is somebody who has served ably, and he is somebody in whom the President has the highest respect.And the President is pleased that he’s agreed to stay on and serve in that role until his successor has been confirmed by the United States Senate.
Q How much of a role did the changing environment when it comes to the threat posed by Islamic State play in this decision?And is it fair to say that the President is looking for a new Defense Secretary who can bring a new approach to the Islamic State issue?
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, the President has been working very intensively with his national security team to deal with this rapidly changing environment.And certainly to make sure that we have the kind of strategy in place that will ensure that our interests are protected against the threat that’s posed by ISIL is an important part of the kinds of discussions the President has been having over the last several months.
I would anticipate that — the President is mindful of the fact that the next Secretary of Defense will have this as a top priority when he or she steps into that office.And the President is certainly mindful of that.
But the other thing that I think that it’s important for us to not forget — and this is one of the reasons that Secretary Hagel was nominated for this job in the first place — is that he was the first enlisted combat veteran to ever serve as a Secretary of Defense.He is somebody who understands firsthand — who understood and understands firsthand what our men and women in uniform and their families sacrifice on a daily basis to ensure our safety and security.
And that firsthand knowledge is not just a testament to Secretary Hagel’s character, it means he was the right person to lead that department at a time when they were going to have to make important reforms and important budgetary decisions that would have a direct impact on the ability of those — or our men and women in uniform to do their jobs.
So he served in a leadership role at a very critical time for the Department of Defense.He has been the right person for the job and he has performed to the President’s expectations in a way, as the President mentioned in his statement, will contribute to the ongoing effort that has made the United States military the most powerful force for good in the world.
Q Do you have any timeline for wanting to name and replace and confirm a replacement?The end of this year, at the start of the next congressional session?Anything like that?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t have any timeframe like that to lay out for you here.I would anticipate that, as we always do, that when the President makes a decision about who should succeed Secretary Hagel at the Pentagon, that that is a person that will be worthy of swift consideration and confirmation in bipartisan fashion by the United States Senate.
Q And just one on Iran — there are already members of Congress, prominent members, who are calling for increased sanctions to accompany this extension in the nuclear talks.During the round of talks that has just concluded, the President had threatened to veto any such new sanctions from Congress.Is that veto threat still valid and active now that the administration is asking for another seven months to wrap up these talks?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Josh, we continue to believe that adding on sanctions while negotiations are ongoing would be counterproductive.And the reason for that is pretty simple.It’s important for people to understand how the sanctions regime works.
The United States Congress deserves credit for this aspect of the strategy.They put in place a very tough sanctions regime against Iran.But the effect of that sanctions regime was multiplied because of the diplomatic work that the administration did to get other countries around the world to abide by that regime.So basically, you had American diplomats going around the globe urging their counterparts in other significant countries — some of whom buy much more Iranian oil than we do — saying, hey, we need to abide by this sanctions regime so that we can resolve the broader international community’s concerns with the Iranian nuclear program.And that required very difficult diplomatic work.
But that is, I think, a pretty good illustration of how Congress and the administration can work together to maximize the impact of these sanctions.The concern that we have is that layering on additional sanctions could leave some of our partners with the impression that this sanctions regime is more punitive in nature than anything else, and that could cause some cracks in that international coordination to appear.And that would, therefore, undermine the point of the sanctions regime in the first place.
So at this point, because of the ongoing talks, we have succeeded in actually rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.You’ll recall, Josh, that a year ago, Iran had 200 kilograms of uranium that had been enriched at the 20-percent level.They now don’t have a single ounce of uranium that has been enriched to the 20-percent level.They’ve eliminated that stockpile.That was one of the terms of these conversations.
You’ll recall that Iran was — has also, as part of this agreement, suspended enriching uranium above the 5-percent level.So that is also an indication that they are not making the same kinds of strides with their nuclear program that they have previously.The same is true when it comes to the heavy-water reactor that they were building in Arak.No progress has been made on that reactor in the context of these talks because the agreement was that they would not continue to develop that site in the context of these talks.
That also relates to the kind of inspections that we’ve seen.We’ve got international inspectors who are keeping close tabs on the Iranian nuclear program, and the access that they’ve gotten in the context of these talks is unlike any access they’ve gotten to the Iran nuclear program in history.
So again, there are substantial gaps that remain.And the President on numerous occasions has made clear that he believes the prospects of a deal are 50-50 at best.The President has also been clear that no deal is better than a bad deal.But we do believe that enough progress has been made to warrant giving the Iranian regime more time to answer the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program, and to put in place a protocol for continuing to assure the international community about their compliance with these agreements.
Q But if Congress sends him a bill early next year with more sanctions, will the President veto it?
MR. EARNEST:Again, Josh, our position on putting in place sanctions in the midst of these ongoing negotiations has not changed.
Q Josh, was Secretary Hagel forced out?
MR. EARNEST:Steve, again, the decision that was announced today is the result of conversations that the President and the Secretary have been having for more than a month now.And in the context of those conversations, the two of them arrived together at the determination that new leadership should take over at the Pentagon and — for the last two years of the President’s term, and that’s what’s going to happen.
Q Did the President try to talk him out of leaving?
MR. EARNEST:Well, certainly they spent a lot of time talking about the progress that’s been made under Secretary Hagel’s leadership.They talked about some of the critically important budget reforms that were put in place at the Pentagon.They talked about the work that Secretary Hagel has done with our men and women in uniform to combat sexual assault in the military.They also spent a lot of time talking about the success that Secretary Hagel has had in strengthening our relationships with NATO, strengthening that alliance.And you’ll recall, Steve, or at least those of you who traveled with us to Asia last week, that part of the context of the visit with — the state visit to China was an agreement about U.S.-China military relations; that there was an agreement on a protocol for stronger and clearer communication between the U.S. military and Chinese military.
Those kinds of agreements don’t happen by accident, particularly when you’re talking about agreements between the U.S. military and a pretty secretive military like the one that’s maintained by the Chinese.So again, that is an illustration of the kind of success and leadership that Secretary Hagel has provided at the Department of Defense.
Q The Secretary had written a two-page memo about Syria in which he disagreed with the President’s policy.Did that — what effect did that have here?
MR. EARNEST:It did not have any effect.As you know, Steve, the President is looking for his — the senior members of his team to provide clear, unvarnished advice based on their experience and their instincts.And people like Secretary Hagel are sought out because of their unique point of view.
The question, though, is how reliable are those individuals in terms of acting and carrying out the strategy that the President has selected.And in this matter, Secretary Hagel has performed extremely well.He is somebody who has understood the strategy.Obviously, the Department of Defense has a core component of that strategy.And Secretary Hagel has demonstrated clearly in a variety of public settings that he believes in the strategy that the President has laid out, that he believes that the strategy the President has laid out has made — has yielded important progress in the short term, and it will be successful over the long term.
Q And when exactly did the Secretary turn in his resignation?Was there a meeting on Friday, or — how did this transpire?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Steve, I probably won’t get into the tick-tock of all of the meetings that they had.But you heard Secretary Hagel say in his statement today that he had submitted his letter of resignation today.
Q Josh, is it safe to say the President will be looking for some new blood, some fresh perspectives, maybe somebody from outside of his inner circle, the administration for a replacement for Chuck Hagel?
MR. EARNEST:Jon, at this point I don’t have a sense of sort of where that process is, so I wouldn’t want to handicap that process at this point.But obviously, whoever the next Secretary of Defense is is going to have some big shoes to fill based on the success and track record of somebody like Secretary Hagel.
Q And let me get back to — Josh asked you a very direct question and I did not hear a direct answer to — if he’d done such a wonderful job, you listed all his accomplishments, why did he have to go?I mean, why?
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, this is based on a conversation between the two of them about what the next two years of this administration is going to look like.And based on what those priorities are going to be over the next two years, both men determined that it was an appropriate time for Secretary Hagel to step down and for someone else to take the reigns over at the Pentagon.
Q How central was he to crafting the strategy that the President has pursued against ISIL and the strategy towards Syria in general?
MR. EARNEST:Well, obviously the Secretary of Defense has a very important role to play in that strategy.Our men and women in uniform are performing a variety of important functions in that region of the world.The first and I think the most significant are the airstrikes that are being carried out against ISIL targets both in Iraq and in Syria.In Iraq, they’re obviously in support of ongoing ground operations by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces.
But there also is an important role for our military to play in terms of providing equipment to Iraqi security forces.There also is an important training and advisory component.So there are a number of important things that the Department of Defense is doing against ISIL, and so obviously the Secretary of Defense has to play an important role doing two things.One is making recommendations to the President about the capabilities of the Department of Defense, and then two, once the President has set out a strategy, implementing it within his department.Obviously, there are a lot of elements of the President’s strategy that need to be implemented that directly affect the Department of Defense.
Q Absolutely no question about that.But what I asked, though, is how central was he, how critical is he, how much ownership does he have over the strategy that the President has pursued?Obviously he’s been implementing the strategy insofar as it involves the Department of Defense, but in terms of the President’s strategy, the approach he has taken to Syria specifically and to the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, how much of a role did Chuck Hagel have in that?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the role that he played was substantial, as it was with other members of the President’s national security team.We all have lots of conversations in here about the number of national security meetings that the President had convened to discuss this issue.And obviously, again, there are significant equities when it comes to the Department of Defense, and so the President expected to hear from his Secretary of Defense on a number of these important strategic decisions.And the President is pleased with the advice and counsel that Secretary Hagel provided.
Q In an interview today, John McCain said that he spoke to Chuck Hagel and that Hagel was very frustrated — he said he has this conversation last week — he was very frustrated.There had been leaks out of the White House that he wasn’t up to the job, and he felt he was being micromanaged.Is John McCain onto something there?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think that given his relationship with the administration, I think there might be reasons to view a readout of the phone call from Senator McCain to be something less than impartial.
Q But a close relationship with Hagel, though?I mean he’s —
MR. EARNEST:Yes, I don’t think that was on full display during his confirmation hearings.(Laughter.)But I would grant that they served together for quite some time.And both of them certainly proudly served our country in the military, so I would expect that would make — form some kind of personal bond between the two men.
But again, I can’t speak to any private conversation that Secretary Hagel had with Senator McCain, but I can speak to Secretary Hagel’s proud record of service to this country, both as an enlisted combat veteran, but also as Secretary of Defense.
Q And you wouldn’t expect this confirmation of the successor to happen before the lame duck is up, right?This will be the next Congress?
MR. EARNEST:Well, before we talk about timing, we’ll find a nominee, and then we’ll — then we can discuss time up here.
Q Yes, thanks.Different topic.I understand that the House and Senate are close on a package of tax extenders and I’m wondering if you’ve seen that package and what the — if the President might support it.
MR. EARNEST:I have not seen that package.I’ve seen the reports about that package, Cheryl.I can tell you that the reports are not promising.The reports suggest that there may be some in Congress who want to provide tax relief to businesses and to corporate insiders, but not ensuring that those benefits are shared by middle-class families.
So certainly the administration would not be supportive of a package that provided relief to corporations without providing relief to middle-class families.That is consistent with the President’s view that we need to be focused on expanding economic opportunity for middle-class families because the President believes that our economy is strongest when it’s growing from the middle out.And investment in significant, unpaid-for tax breaks for corporations without giving a tax break to middle-class families is not consistent with that philosophy at all.
Q But does the President want to see that package move in the lame duck, or does he think with these reports that maybe we should hold off?
MR. EARNEST:Well, we certainly don’t want to see a package that benefits corporations but not middle-class families.That’s something that we’d strongly oppose.So we wouldn’t want to see that move in the lame duck.We wouldn’t want to see that move any point.We believe that if we’re going to have a conversation about lightening the tax load, that we need to start that conversation by focusing on how that will expand opportunity for middle-class families.
And again, just offering up those benefits to corporations without offering up any benefits to middle-class families is not something the President would support.
Q Josh, on — in terms of policy and substance with the new Secretary of Defense, has the President’s thinking evolved in terms of whether or not there will be combat missions for U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year?
MR. EARNEST:It has not, Ed.I know there are some reports about the role that U.S. men and women in our military will play in Afghanistan.As you know, the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will end at the end of this year, in just a little over a month.
In 2015, the mission for our men and women in uniform will shift into a different role that will be focusing on training and equipping Afghan security forces, and conducting targeted counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al Qaeda that still operate in that region of the world.That will be the focal point of their mission in in Afghanistan.
Q So there’s no expansion at all of the mission?
MR. EARNEST:No, the mission that the President has laid out remains consistent.
Q And in terms of the last two Secretaries of Defense writing books that were pretty scathing about the leadership of the President, and in some cases attacked him personally — Leon Panetta, Robert Gates — did that play any factor at all in terms of some of the divisions that have been raised, any concerns that Secretary Hagel was headed in that direction?
MR. EARNEST:No, I haven’t seen any evidence of that.I think that one of the hallmarks of Secretary Hagel’s career is he is somebody who has been extraordinarily loyal to his country and to his Commander-in-Chief.And again, that was true when he was an enlisted combat veteran, it was true when was in the United States Senate, and that’s been true when he’s served as Secretary of Defense.
Q And a couple other quick things.On immigration — in his interview with ABC News yesterday, the President was sort of asked about future Presidents, Democrat and Republican, using this as a precedent.And he seemed to say and dismiss the idea that it could be used on taxes, saying, “Absolutely not.It’s not legitimate for the next President to say we’re not going to enforce certain tax laws.”How can he make such a blanket statement when he’s applying this principle to immigration law that’s on the books?And frankly, he doesn’t know, if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, how they’re going to approach this.How does this not open the door to a pretty large precedent?
MR. EARNEST:It’s a good question.I think there are a couple of reasons for that, Ed.
The first is, we’re not talking about whether or not the President is going to enforce certain laws.We’re talking about the Department of Homeland Security using prosecutorial discretion to sharpen the focus of enforcement on those who pose a threat to national security, and those who pose a threat to public safety.
That is consistent with the kinds of executive actions that previous Presidents have taken in this area that every administration is challenged to make a decision about how to use limited resources to enforce the law.And in this case, the President believes that those limited resources should be focused on cracking down on criminals, on those who pose a threat to public safety, and those, of course, who pose a threat to national security.
The tax law thing is obviously much different.I think the analogy would be that refusing to enforce certain tax laws would be akin to refusing to enforce any laws as it relates to our border, for example.That’s not at all what the President is doing.In fact, as we’ve discussed quite a bit over the last couple of years, enforcement at the border is actually up under President Obama, and that’s thanks to the investment that we’ve made in terms of manpower and resources at the border.
Q But I thought George Stephanopoulos was trying to say, the next President could say, I’m going to enforce personal income tax, that’s a bigger priority, I’m going to enforce corporate taxes, but capital gains taxes maybe not as important — and could pick and choose, I think was the point that was made.So how do you know this is not a precedent on laws across the books?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I guess that’s the question that you could have asked President Reagan after he announced his executive action in terms of using prosecutorial discretion to reform the immigration law.
I guess the other thing is this — is that certainly when it comes to our tax law, there are important restrictions as it relates to political interference and the enforcement of tax law.Those are laws that have been scrupulously abided by in this administration, and we anticipate that other administrations would, as well.
Q Last one on tax laws.There was a rather long story in The New York Times last week about Al Sharpton having allegedly back taxes up to $4.5 million, between personally and his for-profit entity.He has said that he’s paid a bunch of it, and there’s some dispute about how much has been paid or not.He’s here at the White House frequently as an advisor to the President; the President spoke to his organization a few months ago.Is the White House concerned that he hasn’t paid his taxes?
MR. EARNEST:Ed, I have to be honest with you, I haven’t read those stories.I can tell you that the question that you’re asking, though, I think does illustrate the kind of important and justified restrictions that there are on political interference with any sort of tax investigations and tax enforcement.So I’m confident that this administration is allowing whatever enforcement procedures are underway to be carried out.
Q But an advisor to the President should pay his or her taxes.
MR. EARNEST:I’m sorry?
Q An advisor to the President should pay his or her taxes.
MR. EARNEST:I think every American should pay his or her taxes.Controversial statement for a Monday.(Laughter.)
Q Josh, Vice President Biden just spent several days in Turkey talking with Prime Minister Davutoglu and President Erdogan.Other than (inaudible), what progress was made on any of major issues between Turkey and U.S., such as no-fly zone or use of Incirlik Base — Air Base?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I got only a very brief readout of the Vice President’s meeting.I know that he had very long conversations with both the President and the Prime Minister while he was there.I think that’s indicative of a couple of things.
First, it’s indicative of the strong alliance that exists between the United States and Turkey.It also is indicative of the strong relationships that the Vice President personally has with those two leaders.
It’s also indicative of the significant stake that Turkey has in the outcome in Syria, and in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.There’s a long border that Turkey has with Syria.There’s a substantial humanitarian situation that’s pretty dire that Turkey has been focused on confronting.
And so I would anticipate that this is just the latest in what will continue to be extensive consultations between U.S. officials and Turkish officials in the region as it relates to dealing with ISIL.But in terms of any agreements or progress on those conversations, I’d refer you to the Vice President’s office for more details.
Q Thanks, Josh.You said that the President and Secretary Hagel have been having more than a month of conversations.Why wasn’t there a successor at this press event today?Does no one want the job?
MR. EARNEST:I’m sorry, what was the —
Q Does no one want the job?I mean, the array of challenges is huge.You had about a month, I guess, to figure out a potential successor.Why was there no one up there today?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the very first conversation between the President and the Secretary was — began with Secretary Hagel’s departure in mind; that this was a more recent decision that came out of more than a month of conversations between the two men.
So I can tell you that there has already been work done to start considering who the next Secretary of Defense will be, but I don’t have any updates on that process.
Q And then — I’m sorry to come back on this, but I’m confused — you told Josh — you suggested to Josh that the increased prominence of the ISIL threat was a factor in Secretary Hagel’s departure, but you told Jon that Secretary Hagel was implementing the strategy perfectly.I don’t understand, then, why — what role that campaign played in his departure.
MR. EARNEST:That’s a good question.Let me try to clarify.
The point I’m trying to make is that — simply, when Secretary Hagel was first nominated for this job — I believe that was at the end of 2012, even, before the first of the year — that the threat that was posed by ISIL was not nearly as significant as it is now.And that has caused the threat that’s posed by ISIL to rise up to near the top of the priority list at the Department of Defense, and that wasn’t the case when Secretary Hagel first took office.
At the top of the priority list was helping the Department of Defense adjust to some of the budgetary challenges that are facing that agency.Those challenges aren’t over, but substantial progress has been made in making sure that our men and women in uniform have the resources that they need to carry out their mission even as these new challenges emerge.And that is, frankly, a testament to the leadership and management of Secretary Hagel.
I think the point I’m trying to make is just that the priorities of the Department — or at least of the new Secretary — have changed, given changes in the international community.It doesn’t mean that Secretary Hagel hasn’t done an excellent job of managing these crises as they’ve cropped up, but it does mean that as we consider the next remaining two years of the President’s time in office, that another Secretary might be better suited to meet those challenges.That was something that the two of them agreed, and I’ll anticipate that we’ll have an announcement about his successor relatively soon.
Q I have two things I wanted to ask about.The first is, there’s reports that the Ferguson grand jury has come to a decision and will be announcing that today, and so I’m wondering if there are any plans here from the President to — I know he spoke about it in his interview over the weekend — but to address that verdict if it comes out, or in the coming days.
MR. EARNEST:I saw those news reports right before I walked out here.I don’t have any special insight into those grand jury proceedings, neither does anybody else at the White House.So if there’s a need for the President to make a public statement today, we’ll obviously let you know as soon as we’ve made that decision, but I don’t have any insight to share with you about what may be a part of those — of an announcement from the St. Louis County prosecutor.
Q And then there was a report in the Times last Friday, and so I’m wondering if it’s true, that the White House has banned congressional staffers from meetings between the President and lawmakers.
MR. EARNEST:I don’t think that that’s true, but I don’t sit in on too many meetings with the President and congressional leaders these days.I think he prefers to have those conversations just with the members, but I don’t think that that means that there’s never been a congressional staff who’s participated in those sessions.
Q I mean, the report suggested that this is a new policy initiative that’s changed as part of what I’ve asked you about a lot, which is kind of the continuing drama between —
MR. EARNEST:You have asked me about it a lot.(Laughter.)
Q It was funny, even though — I was the only one who cared about it.
MR. EARNEST:I’m just saying.
Q There was a very lengthy story in The New York Times.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, I did read that one.(Laughter.)
Q Well, I’m sort of wondering — I mean, it described —
MR. EARNEST:Let me try to answer your question more directly.I don’t know of any specific policy that’s been in place that bans congressional staffers from participating in meetings between the President and members of Congress.I know that as a general matter, the President prefers to have those meetings in smaller settings with fewer people, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be members of congressional staff included in the future.
Q Sifting through what you’ve been able to tell us this afternoon, a month ago these conversations started, they did not start with the premise that Hagel would leave.
MR. EARNEST:That’s correct.
Q They discussed the future of the obligations of the Secretary of Defense and the very difficult challenges ahead, preeminently, ISIL.And at the conclusion of those conversations, it was determined by both of them mutually that Hagel had to go.You also said that it was important for the President to know that the person at the head of the Defense Department would reliably implement his strategy going forward.Taking those things together, it sounds like there was a disagreement about the strategy, and a lack of confidence in the President that Hagel, if he remained there, would implement it to his satisfaction.Fair enough?
MR. EARNEST:No, I didn’t mean to — the last part of it — I was with you until the very last part.Secretary Hagel has been very reliably implementing the strategy that the President has directed.The President has been completely comfortable, in fact, pleased, with the way that the Secretary of Defense has implemented the very important role that the Department of Defense has to play in the execution of the strategy.
So this is not about the —
Q What about going forward?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the President doesn’t have any doubts about Secretary Hagel’s loyalty or his commitment to implementing the strategy that the President has laid out.There’s no concern about that.The fact is that, based on —
Q Was Hagel uncomfortable with carrying out the strategy as he saw it the next two years, and therefore less willing to serve?
MR. EARNEST:You’d have to ask him that, but I don’t think that he would say that that was the case.He is somebody who on a number of occasions has publicly stated his confidence in the strategy that the President and this nation is pursuing to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q So they were in agreement on everything but looked at each other and said, after a month of conversations, this can’t go on?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think they just — again, I don’t think they arrived at that conclusion, because you saw the two of them stand next to each other and talk about the respect and admiration that they have for one another in the State Dining Room today.I think there are genuinely warm feelings between the two men; that Secretary Hagel formed his friendship with then-newly elected Senator Obama at a very formative time, and I think that really sealed a strong bond between the two of them.
Q Right, and yet when Steve asked you if he was pushed out, you had an opportunity to say, no, he wasn’t pushed out, and you didn’t.
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, because I keep saying that the two men, in the context of these conversations, made the decision together, and I think that’s a pretty clear indication that this happened differently then what you or he described.
Q Okay.On Afghanistan, the report Friday late in The New York Times, which others here have confirmed, is that the President did sign an order clarifying force protection for U.S. military personnel remaining in Afghanistan until they’re all pulled out, meaning providing air cover and authorizing the use of combat operations if necessary to protect them from potential attacks.Those questions were raised on the various conference calls that the White House organized.At the time the new numbers were announced, and they weren’t answered.So I just want to clarify that the President has authorized air cover and combat operations if it’s needed for force protection for those remaining U.S. military personnel until they’re all pulled out of Afghanistan.
MR. EARNEST:Well, let’s go through a couple pieces of this.
The first is, there’s no secret order.The reports of a secret order are, at best, greatly exaggerated.There is a routine policymaking process that the President engages in with his national security team to determine these kinds of policies and strategies, and when the President did sign off on the strategy for keeping about 10,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan after 2014, focused on this very specific mission of training Afghan security forces and conducting limited counterterrorism operations, that in the context of that strategy, the President also signed off on those service personnel doing what is necessary to protect themselves.And I don’t think that’s a particularly surprising development; that’s pretty consistent with the kinds of decisions that the President makes as the military implements other military strategies.
So again, we’re not talking about a secret order here — at least in this case there’s no secret order.And the kind of guidance that the President has shared with the U.S. military is entirely consistent with the mission that they’ll be carrying out that we announced I guess it was at least a year ago.
Q Right, but air cover will be provided if necessary, and there could be combat operations, if required, to protect the forces there, correct?
MR. EARNEST:Again, for those kinds of operational details in terms of air cover —
Q Because that’s what the authorization is.
MR. EARNEST:The authorization is to make sure that our men and women in uniform have the authorization to do what’s necessary to protect themselves, yes.But that is true in a variety of — wide variety of settings where our men and women are stationed overseas, particularly when they’re serving in an area as dangerous as it continues to be in Afghanistan.
The other thing that’s I think important for people to more broadly understand is that we’ve made substantial progress in carrying out the strategy that this President has put in place for Afghanistan; that we, at one point, did peak the number of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan at over 100,000, by the end of this year we’ll be talking about 10,000 boots on the ground in Afghanistan.And that will be part of a trend that, at the end of 2016, will have our military personnel back into an embassy-protection role.And that I think represents the fulfillment of the President’s promise to wind down the war in Afghanistan in a responsible way.
Q One other thing — last week, the administration and you took great pains to talk about this particular figure related to immigration executive actions taken under George Herbert Walker Bush.Glenn Kessler has done a tremendous amount of fact-checking for The Washington Post.Understanding that it’s precedent that George H.W. Bush did take some actions, they were not nearly as significant, statistically, as represented by this administration in some of the news articles at the time.Will you either retract that or stop using that in the future as part of the defense of the President’s actions?
MR. EARNEST:I will not, Major.The fact of the matter is, the Bush administration did take an executive action that did have an impact on 1.5 million people who were living in this country, and that is about 40 percent of the population — of the undocumented population at the time.This is something that, as you point out, has been reported by The Associated Press, New York Times, and even the Congressional Research Service.
There actually is — we did a little digging on this because I anticipated that somebody might ask, so —
Q It’s a fair question.
MR. EARNEST:It is a fair question.February 21st, 1990 — we had to go far back into the archives — Mr. Gene McNary, who, at the time, was serving as the INS commissioner, testified before Congress, and he said — he was asked a specific question by Senator Morrison, I assume, who said, “Under your recent administrative order, these 1.5 million people essentially are here to stay, with work and travel privileges, isn’t that right?”And Mr. McNary said, under oath, “We think you are right as to the 1.5 million being here.There is an estimate of another 1.5 million that could come as a result of this change in definition.”So then Senator Morrison follows up and says, “There is another 1.5 million who you think would become eligible?”Mr. McNary’s answer to that question was, “Yes.”
So according to reports from The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Congressional Research Service, and according to the under-oath testimony of the Secretary — or of the commissioner of the INS, about 1.5 million people were affected by President Bush’s order.
Q Those were estimates at the time.As Glenn pointed out in his piece, subsequent numbers obtained from those who actually applied are far, far lower.So those were estimates of what might happen.There are numbers about what actually did happen that are far smaller than that.Do you find that any reason to revise your —
MR. EARNEST:I do not, because, again, what we’re talking about is the number of people who are eligible.There continues to be this open question about the take-up rate, about how many people will actually come forward and apply for this deferred action protection.But the fact is, there are 1.5 million people, about 40 percent of the undocumented population, that would have been eligible for the executive action that President George H.W. Bush announced, and about 40 percent of the undocumented population will be eligible for the executive action that President Obama announced.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, sir.Mark.
Q Yes, Josh, let me come back to the Iran talks, if I may.
Q A number of the lawmakers who have said they want to have additional sanctions have spoken of passing something that’s conditional that would only take effect, impose new sanctions, if the talks failed.How is that punitive?How does that signal in these — not any lack of seriousness in the talks if it’s held — if it, in effect, gives the negotiators an additional weapon?
MR. EARNEST:Well, at this point, Mark, I can tell you that, so far, we have felt we’ve needed — we’ve gotten all the leverage that we’ve needed from the Iranian regime to engage in serious conversations with the broader international community.That’s principally because we’ve had broad agreement among the international community about the enforcement of these sanctions, and that has had a substantial impact on the Iranian economy.
So that is why we have suggested that additional sanctions, at this point, are not necessary.
Q Because a lot of the lawmakers — and especially those who are critical of the administration — say, look, if the powers that be in Iran haven’t made the commitment necessary to reach agreement in this period of time, just adding another seven months is letting them play for time; that they’ve certainly proven in the past they’re willing to secretly try and build a bomb, why is there not some alarm that they’re not trying to do the same thing?
MR. EARNEST:Well, we’re mindful of that, Mark.And you raise what’s a really important point — that previously, the Iranian regime has used diplomatic conversations as cover to go out and secretly develop a nuclear capability.
What’s different in this instance is that there are — there is an inspections regime that has been more thorough and transparent than has previously been in place to confirm that the Iranians are abiding by the agreement that they’ve committed to in the course of these talks.And those agreements that they made in the course of the talks actually have succeeded in rolling back their program.They eliminated their stockpile of uranium that had been enriched to the 20-percent level.That’s important, because uranium that’s been enriched to the 20-percent level can rapidly be enriched further to a weaponized form.
We’ve also seen that they are not actually continuing to develop the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and that is a substantial agreement, too.And again, we know that not because the Iranians tell us that, we know that because international inspectors have been there to verify it.And that will be the key to any sort of agreement that we reach with the Iranian regime.
Q Understanding all that, how do you answer the argument that the incentives you already have at the table didn’t produce an agreement in a very likely period of time?How is it going to — how is putting additional incentive on the table going to — how is that not going to help the — hurry things toward an agreement?
MR. EARNEST:That’s an important question, and it is our assessment — or at least it has been our assessment that adding additional sanctions would actually cause others who are helping enforce these sanctions to break apart; that there might be others who say, look, we’ve put in — we’ve had in place a very tough sanctions regime, and just piling on more sanctions on the Iranians, even though they’ve rolled back their nuclear program, is an indication that you guys are more interested in punishing them than you are in actually reaching an agreement.
So this is not a matter just of applying additional pressure on Iran.There is substantial pressure on Iran, and that, frankly, is why we’ve been able to make as much progress as we have so far.We want to make sure that other members of the international community who need to have buy-in on this continue to enforce this sanctions regime.
But the other important — but because of the important points that you’ve raised that have also been raised by other members of Congress, this administration is going to continue to closely coordinate and communicate with leaders in Congress who are very interested in this issue.So I know that there are senior members of the administration up to and including the President of the United States who have been making calls on this in recent days and will be over the course of this week as well.
Q Josh, is there a worry, though, inside the administration, to follow up on Mark’s question, that the Iranians are buying themselves more time to develop things covertly that the rest of the world may not know about?
Mr. Ernest:Well, Jim, the reason that we are less concerned about that than we have been in the past is we do have this inspection team that’s been on the ground there, and has been given much greater access to the Iran and nuclear program than they have been in the past.
So again, were not in a situation where were trusting the Iranian regime that they aren’t making progress, we’re verifying that the Iranian regime is not making progress.In the context of engaging in these conversations, we’ve made some very difficult asks of the Iranian regime to take some steps to actually roll back their nuclear program, and based on the inspections regime, we know that that’s what they’ve done.
So we’re not in a position, as others have been in the past, where Iran has just been playing for time and engaging in diplomatic conversations while they could try to develop some aspects of their nuclear program secretly.We’re not as worried about that this time because we know that this — that our inspections team has been able to confirm that they’re living up with the agreement.
Q And getting back to Secretary Hagel, you said earlier that the President and Secretary arrived at this decision together.That suggests that this decision was not solely Secretary Hagel’s, isn’t that right?Because it was also the President’s decision.
MR. EARNEST:Well, yes, it’s something that they arrived at together.
Q But the President — as my good friend Steve tried to ask you — the President did not try to talk him out of that decision, so in essence, this was also the President’s decision?
MR. EARNEST:In essence I would say that this was a decision that they made together.
Q That’s as far as you want to — okay.And then on Ferguson, I know you said earlier that you don’t have any insights into the grand jury’s decision, but does the White House have a message for the people of Ferguson as this decision is about to be released later on today?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think — in his interview with ABC, the President I think delivered a pretty forceful message about his view — that those individuals in reaction to the grand jury’s decision that want to protest should do so peacefully.And he cited the words of Mr. Brown’s parents, who indicated that the proper way to remember and pay tribute to their son’s memory is for people to express their views peacefully.And that is a viewpoint that the President wholeheartedly embraces.
Q And on immigration –-
MR. EARNEST:And I should say, Jim, that that is the message that the President has for people not just in Ferguson but for people in communities all across the country.
Q And are you concerned that there could be unrest around the country and other parts of the country?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the Department of Defense has been engaged with local law enforcement and communities not just in the St. Louis area but across the country, because we are mindful of
Q Justice, you mean, not Defense.
MR. EARNEST:I’m sorry.We’ve been talking a lot about them lately, I apologize for that.Yes, the Department of Justice, that’s correct.
Q And let me just ask you very quickly on immigration, the President said in his speech in Las Vegas on Friday that the Congress should just pass a bill.But haven’t those prospects dimmed —
MR. EARNEST:They have, unfortunately.
Q — by the President taking executive action?Why would the Congress race out and pass a bill now?
MR. EARNEST:Because they say –- it’s a great question, I’m glad that you asked.The reason, simply, that Congress would feel motivated to pass legislation now is they’ve had such a strong negative reaction to the President’s executive action that what they could do is they could pass a piece of legislation that would supersede the President’s executive action.I’ve said this a couple of times — House Republican leaders actually are holding the trump card in their hands, they just have to decide whether or not to play it — maybe that’s an apt analogy for those of you who were in Las Vegas over the weekend.
But the fact of the matter is, the President has already said if House Republican leaders want to allow the bipartisan Senate bill to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives, it would pass.Even if John Boehner and others who have been aggressively critical of the President’s executive action want to vote no because they disagree with the bill, just let it come up for a vote.It’ll pass with bipartisan support, the President will happily sign it into law, and it will completely supersede any executive actions the President announced last week.
Q But putting that aside, putting the talking points to the side for a moment, just the objective assessment, political assessment — I mean, it’s just really not likely, isn’t that correct, that Congress would pass a bill, given that the President just took executive action and did what he wanted.
MR. EARNEST:I say that it’s not likely because Republican leaders for a year and a half have had this opportunity and not taken advantage of it.And there’s no reason to think that they’re going to now, particularly because the Speaker of the House won’t even commit to bringing it up next year.
But the fact is, what motivation do they have for actually passing the bill?If they feel as strongly and as negatively about the President’s executive action as they say, then the easiest way for them to counter it is to take the President up on his offer, to pass a piece of legislation that would fulfill these principles generally.And the President has indicated that he would tear up his own executive order, thereby easing all of the strenuous constitutional concerns that have been raised by Republicans.
Q Would he tear it up if the bill doesn’t go as far as he would like to see in certain areas?Is that negotiable in any way?Would it automatically supersede the executive action no matter what the Congress pass and he sign?
MR. EARNEST:What we would need to see Congress do is to take action along the lines of the comprehensive, common-sense measure that the Senate passed.Does it have to be exactly the Senate bill?Not necessarily.Certainly the Senate bill would do it, though.
Q That’s not going to happen.
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, it is the way that Republicans can counter the executive action that they feel so strongly about.And again, it is -– and this isn’t a matter of House Republicans being opposed to the President on this immigration issue.This is House Republicans being opposed to the President, every Senate Democrat, 14 Senate Republicans, and the leaders of the business community, the evangelical community, and even law enforcement officials all across the country.
So House Republicans, I can understand why they’re feeling pretty defensive right now, because they’re awfully isolated on this issue.
Q Thanks, Josh.Does the President think the rest of his national security team is well-suited to the new priorities?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I can tell you that the President is very proud of the important work that his — that members of his national security team have been conducting over the last couple of years.I just sort of highlighted that even just in the last year, if you take a look at the crises that have emerged from the Ebola outbreak, to the unrest in Ukraine that’s been fomented by their Russian neighbors, to, of course, the emergence of ISIL as a significant threat to the Middle East, that it’s been a very tumultuous environment.
And I mentioned in some briefings prior to the election that this a natural time for people to announce their decisions to leave.Now, I don’t have any knowledge of anybody else who’s planning to leave; I indicated that before the election, too.I didn’t do that knowing that Secretary Hagel was engaged in these conversations with the President.But I at the time said that I would anticipate that there will be other members of the President’s team, some of who work on national security and some of whom don’t, they might take advantage of this opportunity to depart so that someone else can take -– can come in and fulfill those responsibilities for the remaining two years.
So again, I don’t know of anybody who’s planning to leave, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody else makes a similar decision.
Q What kind of timeframe would you be thinking about for that?I mean the President needs time to nominate someone else and presumably get them confirmed in the near future.
MR. EARNEST:Again, it’s hard for me to characterize a timeframe of something that I’m not sure is going to happen.I think it’s possible that it could happen, but I don’t know for sure that it will.
Q The President -– did Chuck Hagel indicate in these conversations the desire to stay on?
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, this is a decision that the two of them arrived at together.
Q I understand that, I’m just asking if he, before they came to the mutual decision, he indicated a desire to stay on?
MR. EARNEST:I’m not aware of sort of the twists and turns of the conversations they’ve had over course of the last month.
Q Is it fair to say the President did not ask him to stay on?
MR. EARNEST:It’s fair to say that the two men arrived at the same conclusion together that it was time for Secretary Hagel to submit his letter of resignation, which he did today.
Q Thanks, Josh.You say you don’t know of anyone else who’s planning to leave, but it doesn’t sound like Secretary Hagel was planning to leave; in fact, he had given indications in the last couple of weeks that he had hoped to stay.So is this the first step in a broader shake-up of the national security team?
MR. EARNEST:Again, I don’t know of any other staff changes that are being contemplated either on the national security team or even on the domestic policy team for that matter.That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other individuals who decide that somebody else should serve in their role for the last two years of the President’s time in office.But I’m not aware of any impending announcements on this front.
Q Another question — looking ahead, you said that he was the right person to lead at the time; that certainly was the suggestion that was made at the time he was nominated — the particular skills, the particular background he had, including the combat experience.What is important now as you look at the things that — if indeed this change is being made because the situation has changed, the focus and the priorities have changed, what are the skills, what’s the background of the person who you’re looking at?Maybe — and I’m not asking you for a specific name, I know you’re not going to give it to me — but what are you looking for, what is the White House looking for in terms of meeting those new and emerging needs?
MR. EARNEST:Well, just as it relates to your question, let me say one other thing, which is there’s another way that we know that Secretary Hagel was the right man for the job, and that’s to look back at his two years — nearly two years of service as a Secretary of Defense; that if you look at his tremendous record of accomplishment over those two years, we know that he was the right person for the job.
As it relates to the next person, I don’t have a particularly specific answer to give you.I can tell you that the President is — certainly wants to make sure that the next Secretary of Defense is somebody who knows the inner workings of that agency well, and somebody who will bring the kind of leadership skills and management experience that’s necessary to guide such a large organization at a time of crisis; that there are emerging situations across the globe, from Ebola to ISIL, that mean that we need strong and steady leadership at the Pentagon.And the President is going to be looking for somebody who can provide it.
Q The conversation that Senator McCain talked about that he had with Secretary Hagel does seem to reflect the same criticisms that were in the books that Ed mentioned from Secretaries Panetta and Gates — that the White House micromanaged, that there was a difficult decision-making process, that the White House dominated it.Given those three Secretaries of Defense and the unanimity — what seems to be unanimity of opinion, of their criticism of the White House, is there — or does there need to be an assessment of the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’ll say a couple things about that.I just want to revisit the concerns that I raised earlier when Ed first asked this question.The fact that Senator McCain read out his conversation with Secretary Hagel in a way that’s consistent with common criticisms of the administration should not be a surprise to anybody in this room.It’s certainly not a surprise to me.
Q Does that necessarily mean that he’s misrepresenting the conversation?
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, I don’t have any insight into the conversation, so I’m not going to say that.I’m just going to observe that it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that Senator McCain would characterize the conversation as consistent with criticism that we have received from others.
That being said, I can tell you that if you look at Secretary Hagel’s track record of success in that agency, I think it would lend many people to the conclusion that the Department of Defense under Secretary Hagel’s management worked very well with the White House; that adjusting to the budgetary constraints of that department could not have been done without close coordination between the White House and the Pentagon.The prompt and efficient and effective response to these emerging situations in West Africa and the Middle East and in Ukraine are a testament to the careful and successful coordination between the White House and the Department of Defense.
So again, looking —
Q And yet he’s leaving not totally of his own accord, if any of it is of his own accord.
MR. EARNEST:Well, he’s leaving based on a number of conversations that he and the President convened over the last month or so.And it’s a conclusion that they arrived at together.
Q You also suggested that this was part of two years, two years, two years.There were, if my memory serves me, three Defense Secretaries in the Clinton administration; just two in over the course of the Bush administration.Is there some concern that there is not consistency at the Pentagon?
MR. EARNEST:Again, no, there is not.What the President has been looking for is looking for people who are highly qualified, skilled and effective managers who understand what it takes to use the elements of the Department of Defense to keep the country safe.And from Secretary Gates to Secretary Panetta to Secretary Hagel, we’ve had individuals in that role who performed at a very high level.And I’m confident that whomever the President nominates next will serve at a similarly high level.
Q And just really quick on Ferguson — now that we have confirmation that there is going to be an announcement today from the St. Louis prosecutor’s office, is the decision on whether the President makes a comment based on what the decision is, on what happens on the ground there?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I don’t have an explanation for why the President will speak because I don’t yet know whether or not the President will speak.So after we have made that determination and made an announcement, then we can certainly have a conversation about why that decision was made.
Q Thanks, Josh.Regarding the Iran talks, did the President personally sign off on the Iran extension?And if yes, could you tell us when?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Byron, I can tell you that the President was in close touch with the negotiating team out in Vienna, including in close touch with Secretary Kerry.The President was being frequently updated on these conversations both over the weekend, but also even last week when these talks were sort of reaching a fever pitch, you might say.
I don’t have any specific tick-tock to tell you, relate to you about what the President’s reaction was to those briefings, or what sort of conversations he may have had with the team, other than to say that the President has been aware in a very detailed fashion of how those conversations were proceeding.
Q Josh, you said a minute ago that the President would tear up his executive orders if Congress passed a bill that he could sign on immigration.But I just want to check — there are no executive orders associated with this immigration action, right?
MR. EARNEST:I must have misspoke.I meant executive actions.So I apologize.
Q Can you tell us why there are no executive orders where the President wrote down specifically and signed what he was ordering be done at his direction?
MR. EARNEST:I can follow up with you for — with a more detailed question — or a more detailed answer on this.But what I can tell you is that the exercise of prosecutorial discretion is something that is implemented by the Department of Homeland Security under the leadership of the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Now, you’ll recall that the Secretary of Homeland Security reviewed the law to determine what the administration could do to try to address some of the shortcomings in our legal immigration system.And my understanding is that those changes could be implemented within the confines of the current law based on exercising that prosecutorial discretion that resides in the Secretary of Homeland Security’s office.
Q And the idea of a three-year delay in deportations for certain people, isn’t that something that warrants an executive order?
MR. EARNEST:Apparently not.Our lawyers looked carefully at this.But we can follow up with you on these more detailed legal questions if you’d like.
Q Iran again, just to follow up.You just praised the Iranians for cooperation on good inspectors, regarding the inspectors.But the IAEA in the last report, they criticize them, and actually your own ambassador in Vienna slammed them for lack of cooperation.So how do you explain that you praise?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’ve seen those reports.What I’m suggesting is that we have more insight into the Iranian nuclear program than we ever have before, and that is because of the inspections that have taken place to review those facilities and to have a clear understanding of how they’re complying with the agreement.And based on the inspections that have occurred and have been conducted, we do have a high degree of confidence that the Iranians are living up to their end of the bargain.
Q On Iraq again, how do you see the President’s strategy of working with the Sunni tribes to fight ISIS being affected today by the decision by the Iraqi government to pass the death sentence on a prominent Iraqi Sunni leader?And does this hinder your kind of fight against ISIS in Iraq, which is the biggest component of the President’s kind of declared strategy?
MR. EARNEST:Well, Nadia, I haven’t seen the reports about that specific sentence.I can tell you as a general matter that we have long identified as critical to the success of this broader operation the ability of the Iraqi central government to unify that country.And that means even a Shia leader like Prime Minister Abadi governing that country in a way that makes it clear to the diverse population of Iraq that the central government, even though it’s led by a Shia, has the best interests of every Iraqi citizen at heart.
And there are plenty of indications to — that the Prime Minister has had success in winning over Sunni leaders to demonstrate to them that he’s willing to use the resources and military of the central government to protect their interests, too.And that was one of the principal concerns with Prime Minister Maliki, that he left too many Iraqis with the impression that he was willing to use the central government, the military of Iraq, to protect his own interests and the interests of the Shia citizens of Iraq.
Prime Minister Abadi has taken a much different approach and has had much more success in bringing on board and earning the support of Sunni leaders across the country.
Paul, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I want to come back to something you said about Afghanistan a little while ago.You said that basically troops will be there to basically mop up “remnants,” was the word you said, of al Qaeda.So they’ve got nothing left to do but mop up.But if you drive an hour beyond Kabul, the Taliban is controlling big parts of the country.Why are you downplaying the true threat that the Taliban poses in the country?
MR. EARNEST:I’m not, Paul.But there’s a little sleight of hand that you use there in your question.There is a difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda.And the difference in this mission after 2014 is that the U.S. military will not be engaged in specific operations targeting members of the Taliban just because they’re members of the Taliban.Any sort of combat operations that are carried out by U.S. military personnel will be for force protection or to go after remnants of al Qaeda or other extremists like al Qaeda that work with al Qaeda that pose a significant threat to the U.S. homeland or to U.S. interests around the globe.And that’s the change in the mission that will move forward at the end of this year consistent with the directives that the President has been discussing for some time now.
Q Even so, you can concede that the Taliban still represents a tremendous threat to Afghanistan’s stability as a whole.
MR. EARNEST:And that’s why it’s so important that the United States continue to play an important role in supporting the Afghan central government and supporting the Afghan security forces that are trying to maintain security in that country in a very difficult environment.
Thanks a lot, everybody.
2:29 P.M. EST