Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 4, 2015 – 12:53 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the brief delay there. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, do you want to get us started?
Q Thank you. The news out of London is that the British government says it’s suspending flights over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula out of concern that the Russian jet may have been brought down by some sort of explosive device. Is the U.S. considering taking a similar step?
MR. EARNEST: I’m glad I briefly delayed the briefing so I could be updated on this specific issue, because I was asking about this as well. This is what I understand about the situation. Let me start by saying that I don’t have any new information to share from here about the ongoing investigation. The Egyptians continue to lead that investigation. Obviously the Russians are involved because there were a substantial number of Russian citizens who lost their lives in this tragic incident. And I don’t want to say anything that would interfere or prejudice the outcome of that ongoing investigation. We obviously have a strong desire to get to the bottom of what exactly happened there.
As it relates to the procedures for aircraft operating in and around the Sinai Peninsula, let me share some information about the FAA. First of all, the FAA has a Notice to Airmen that was published earlier this year assessing that U.S. civil aviation operating into, out of, within, or over the Sinai Peninsula is at potential risk from hazards associated with extremist activities. So let me be clear that this is actually something that has been in place from the FAA prior to this tragic incident over the weekend. So this is what’s called a NOTAM that has been in place since March of 2015, and essentially it advises civil aviation to avoid flight operations in the Sinai Peninsula at altitudes below 26,000 feet.
Now, my understanding is prior to this March 2015 announcement, there actually was a previous NOTAM that was in place that urged flight operations above 24,000 feet that had been in place since at least 2014. So there have been rules, advisory rules, shared by the FAA to civil aviation operators about the potential risks associated with operating in airspace over the Sinai Peninsula.
Now, the second relevant piece of information for you to understand is that there are no U.S. carriers that regularly operate out of the Sinai Peninsula, and in fact, the airport in question at Sharm el-Sheikh is, in fact, not the last point of departure into the United States for any airline, including foreign airlines that do operate in the Sinai Peninsula. If it were the last point of departure for any aircraft operating regularly in the United States, there would be a whole set of security regulations that would be imposed to ensure the safety of the traveling public.
So I say all of this to illustrate that there is a longstanding policy — or at least policy related to security precautions for aviation in and around the Sinai Peninsula that’s been in place prior to this tragic incident over the weekend. So obviously the British officials are announcing steps that they have concluded are in the best interest of ensuring the safety of the British traveling public, and I’ll let them speak to any decisions that they’ve made about that.
Q On the elections yesterday, I was wondering if you could give us a sense of what the President makes of the fact that the Democratic Party has lost quite a number of state and local races since he’s been President, including last night.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, as it relates to last night, the fact is that the election results in some red states like Kentucky and Mississippi were good for Republicans; the results in some blue states, like in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, were good for Democrats. I understand that Democrats in New Jersey actually now have the largest majority in the state assembly that they’ve enjoyed since the 1970s. And the results in arguably the purplest of the most purple states, Virginia, that essentially the status quo was left in place by the voters, which means that the Democratic governor in Virginia will have to contend with the small Republican majority in the state Senate in Virginia.
So I guess that’s why we’d be reluctant to draw significant conclusions from the results of yesterday’s election results, beyond the issues that obviously were at stake in each of those elections.
So, more generally, though, I would say that the case that the President had made about the affirmative governing agenda that’s been put forward by Democrats all across the country is good for the country and has been an important part of advancing his governing agenda here in Washington. And there have been other Democrats that have sought to run on this agenda, and they’ve been served well by making that decision. And I do think that we see a lot of the Democratic candidates for President, who are running to succeed President Obama, vowing to build on the progress that he’s made thus far. And I think that’s an indication of the political potency of the kind of arguments that President Obama had been making in public.
And these kinds of political debates are important for our country. They indicate that our vibrant democracy here is alive and well. There are certainly some things that we believe would make that democracy more efficient and more effective, but that’s sort of part of the political debate, too.
Q But the question was not so much about the results last night, but the trend since he’s taken office and in elections since he’s taken office of Democrats losing statehouses, losing local races, so on and so forth. I mean, how does he feel about that? Or what does the White House feel about the totality of the trend?
MR. EARNEST: Well, generally speaking, I think the President generally wants Democrats to win elections. And I think there are —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, exactly. Stop the presses. (Laughter.)
Q Talk about the exceptions to that —
MR. EARNEST: Exactly. And there are a whole lot of theories that have been proffered about why Democrats have not performed as well as we would like either at the state level or in off-year elections. And some of that is observations that have been made by some about the strategy that Republicans have focused on, on redistricting efforts. And that has recently started to bear fruit for them. Even some demographers have observed that Democrats are more likely to live in more densely populated urban communities, and that has consequences for drawing legislative lines. In other cases, it’s just that, particularly in off-year elections, Republicans have been more effective in turning out their vote.
So I think there are a variety of explanations here. I’ll leave it to the experts to determine what is really driving the outcome. Obviously the President would like to see Democrats do better.
Q Finally, in Kentucky last night, Matt Bevin, the Republican, won on a platform of undoing Obamacare in the state. How would the White House feel about a rollback of Obamacare in the final year of the President’s term? Particularly in Kentucky, he’s talking about shutting down the state-run exchange and also undoing the Medicaid expansion.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I would just note as a factual matter that a couple of days before the election, Governor-elect Bevin said a couple of things, including that he wanted to work with CMS to “actually come up with a program that will provide for these folks.” By “these folks” he means people on Medicaid. When asked if people were going to be kicked off Medicaid, he said, “Nobody is losing anything.” In a different interview, he noted, “You don’t just bounce a person off Medicaid.”
So I think this is an indication of something you’ve heard me say on many occasions, which is that vowing to repeal the Affordable Act in some cases has been used as an effective political strategy, but it’s not a terribly effective governing strategy. The fact of the matter is, since Medicaid was expanded in Kentucky, more than a half-million Kentuckians have gotten health insurance through Medicaid — gotten health care coverage through Medicaid, or CHIP. That’s a testament to the astounding impact that the Affordable Care Act has had on the lives of a half-million Kentuckians, to say nothing of the more than 17.6 million Americans that have gotten health care since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
That’s why the uninsured rate across the country is at all-time lows, and even the uninsured rate in Kentucky has been cut in half since the Affordable Care Act went into effect.
So I think the real focus here should be on the people of Kentucky and what impact these campaign promises are going to have. And I’ll leave it to you to assess the explanation for the change in the rhetoric from the Governor-elect.
Q Josh, the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act has maintained language that would restrict the possibility of transferring prisoners out of Guantanamo Bay. Will the President veto this version as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, unfortunately, Jeff, this is language that we have seen Congress include in the NDAA in previous years as well. And we’ve made quite clear why we believe that’s a really bad idea and why that language has only served to make it more difficult for the President to succeed in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the national security priority that this President campaigned on in 2008 and vowed in early 2009 to eventually get done. The reason that hasn’t happened is because we’ve seen obstacles thrown in our way by the United States Congress.
So these are concerns that we’ve expressed before. But we’ll have to take a look at exactly what passes Congress before making a determination about what the President will sign. I will note that the current version of the NDAA is different than the one that the President just vetoed a week or two ago. This updated version includes language that essentially fixes, or at least addresses the concerns that we had raised about attempting to use a slush fund to fund our basic national security priorities. Congress has abandoned that bad idea, and we’re certainly pleased by that.
There are other elements — and the President noted this when he was actually vetoing legislation — there are other elements of the legislation that are important and that are useful and supported by the administration. But this language that prevents the administration from effectively closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay is something that we have long opposed, and we continue to oppose it now.
Q Separate topic. The Volkswagen scandal continues to deepen both in Europe and in the United States. Is this something that the President has discussed with Chancellor Merkel? And is the White House concerned about further fallout from that here?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any discussions between the two leaders on this particular topic. It is apparent just from reading the news coverage that executives of that company are struggling to get their arms around the problems that have been uncovered there. And the Environmental Protection Agency obviously has a significant responsibility to ensure that automakers are abiding by the environmental standards that ensure fair competition in the marketplace and ensure the health and safety of the American people.
So these are important rules. It’s important for the EPA to enforce them. And I don’t think that — again, based on the limited coverage I’ve seen of this particular incident, I’m not sure that that’s something that Volkswagen executives have disagreed with, but I do think it is apparent that they’re struggling to get their arms around what appears to be a pretty significant problem.
Q And lastly, Canada’s new Prime Minister was officially sworn in today. When does the President hope to meet with him?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a scheduling update at this point. But obviously the President had the opportunity to speak with him via telephone shortly after he was elected, and my guess is we’ll have an opportunity for the President to sit down with him at some point relatively soon.
Q Two questions. A follow-up on Darlene’s question about the flyover of the Sinai. I don’t think you directly answered the question of whether or not the administration would urge planes kind of flying in and out of the U.S., regardless of whether they’re flying into the Sinai, whether they should fly over it, in a more direct way than what has already been in place in the past. In other words, is there any need for a more urgent or a different kind of warning now? And then second, on Mr. Mason’s story that he had earlier today about Gitmo.
MR. EARNEST: Well, why don’t I do the FAA thing, and then that way I can better answer your second question if I’m not thinking through the answer of the first one.
MR. EARNEST: I know, I know. It’s one of the many reasons he’s got the job that he has and I have the job that I do.
So just to clarify as it specifically relates to aviation operations in the Sinai Peninsula — so the advisory that the FAA has in place right now is essentially a floor of 26,000 feet in the airspace of the Sinai Peninsula. And this is an advisory that the FAA has shared with civil aviation operators and this is based on their assessment of the security situation in the Sinai. I’m not aware of any plans to update that specific advisory, but if there is one, that’s something that the FAA can tell you.
So does that clarify?
Q My question is, given the fact that Britain looks like it has gone further than what we have, there’s no —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that’s true. They actually do have flights that operate in and out of Sharm el-Sheikh, which is in the Sinai Peninsula, which means that obviously, in order to land at Sharm el-Sheikh they have to go below 26,000 feet. And Sharm el-Sheikh for the British is, at least for some airlines, the last point of departure that flies directly to the UK, and there are no regularly scheduled flights like that into the United States.
So we’re handling this differently than they are I think for good reason, primarily related to the existing ties. I think it’s much more common for British citizens to vacation in Sharm el-Sheikh than it is for U.S. citizens.
Q And then, secondly, on Gitmo, do you have any update for us on when this much-anticipated decision to release the updated plan for closing Gitmo is going to come? And can you say is it by the end of the week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a timeframe to put on it. Obviously this is something that they’ve been working on for quite some time, and it is something that we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to produce both to members of Congress but also to the public.
I just would seek, however, to at least diminish the mystery around all of this. I know we’ve been quite candid over the years about exactly what our strategy is for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The President, when he first came into office, set up this process for classifying the detainees at the prison at Guantanamo Bay and putting them into essentially three different categories, and the board has remained in place to, on a regular basis, review the status of these detainees to see if they should be shifted among the categories.
And the first category is essentially a group of detainees that have been cleared for transfer. And there is a complicated process in place to verify that steps are taken in the countries where the detainees are transferred to mitigate any risk that they may pose to U.S. national security. Now, the Congress has made that process even more complicated than it otherwise would be, based on some language that’s included in the NDAA. We obviously oppose that.
The second category are a group of individuals that would not be transferred but could be prosecuted. And there are a variety of considerations for how exactly to do that, but there is essentially a system in place for managing that.
There is, however, what is often described as an irreducible minimum, a group of detainees that are too dangerous to transfer and, for a variety of practical reasons, cannot be effectively prosecuted through the justice system. And the proposal that the administration has been considering for some time is actually transferring those individuals to the United States where they can be securely held. And that has also been the stumbling block that Congress has erected to prevent the transfer of any of those detainees to the United States.
And this is a rather nonsensical position when you consider that there are already dozens of convicted terrorists who are doing time in prison facilities all across the country. There’s no reason that these detainees who’ve been held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay for some time now couldn’t do the same thing.
Q You described the prospects for Obamacare in Kentucky more positively and optimistically than others have interpreted Bevin’s election. Are you confident that you can work something out with him, or that CMS can work something out with him so that the Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion is more or less left intact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess there are some people who are analyzing the results of the election; I’m actually analyzing the direct comments of Governor-elect Bevin. He himself says — again, earlier in his comment, he says that “our request to CMS for basically the ability to take a block grant and customize as Indiana and others have done” — so if he’s envisioning a negotiation along the lines of what has been successful in other states, I’m confident that officials at CMS could engage in that kind of discussion with him.
I wouldn’t predict at this point exactly whether that will be successful, but we’ll obviously participate in that discussion. It certainly beats the alternative that he colorfully described as “bouncing people off Medicaid.” We don’t think that’s a good idea either.
Q Those are two different things. There’s the kynect and then there’s the Medicaid expansion.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think anybody is asking about kynect yet. I’m happy to talk about that, too, but —
Q I’m asking about kynect, because he did talk about rolling that back. So that was a state, kind of homegrown Obamacare exchange.
MR. EARNEST: It was, and it is a state-based exchange that has performed quite well and it’s served the people of Kentucky quite well. And it was a marketplace that was built and operated by the state of Kentucky, by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. And to their credit, it allowed thousands of Kentuckians to shop for and purchase quality, affordable health insurance.
Now, the fact is there are dozens of states across the country that have, either by request or by their own refusal to go through the work of setting up this system, have the federal government come in to operate these marketplaces. And so, if necessary, I’m confident that that’s something that we can do in Kentucky as well.
Q So you feel that, either way, people in Kentucky will have access, whether it’s kynect or the healthcare.gov?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as a practical matter, there’s no reason that that should have an impact on people’s ability to get health insurance through the marketplace. They run based on the same standards. So again, we’d wait for a formal request from the governor’s office, and he’s not even in office yet.
Q And I just had one more question to follow up on Darlene. Right now I think Democrats have the fewest elected offices across the country since the 1920s. And I think President Obama has presided over the biggest drop in his own party’s number of office-holders. Does he feel responsible for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I went through with Darlene the variety of theories that have been floated to try to explain this phenomenon.
Q In other words, does he feel in any way responsible for his party’s fate during his tenure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s no doubt that we’ve had a rather vigorous debate in this country over the last six or seven or eight years about the direction of the country. And that debate has allowed the President to build strong public support for an agenda that has shown tremendous results in terms of allowing our country to recover strongly from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, to make historic progress to fight carbon pollution, to make progress when it comes to equality and ensuring that people can’t be discriminated against just because of who they love.
So this is an agenda that has enjoyed strong support across the country, and that’s a result of the President’s success in winning a broader national debate in 2008 and 2012. But I’ll leave it to the pundits and political scientists to draw their own conclusions about the local and state-level trajectory has not followed the path that we would have liked.
Q I wanted to first ask about Jeff’s article as well. One of the things that popped out —
MR. EARNEST: Congratulations, Jeff. (Laughter.) You’re getting a lot of attention today.
Q One of the things that popped out to me was that officials have said that the plan won’t include a specific site for these detainees to go to in the U.S. So I’m wondering if you can both confirm that. And if it’s true, or assuming that it’s even a possibility, how can Congress evaluate one of these plans without a specific site determined? Obviously you’ve said and we already know that officials have looked at specific sites. And its’ especially relevant because I think we all kind of see this plan as a last offer to Congress to sort of sort this out before potential executive action. And so how can Congress really justifiably do this — do a fair evaluation if there’s no specific site?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that obviously assumes that Congress is interested in a fair evaluation. I think it is fair for me to say that that’s not what we’ve gotten from them over the last seven years and there is an open question about whether or not Congress does want to fairly consider this proposal. I guess we’ll find out.
I think what Congress will receive, without getting into the details, is a carefully considered, thoughtful proposal for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And again, the President has identified this as a national security priority because he doesn’t believe that it’s worth millions of dollars a year to hold these detainees in a way that only serves as a recruiting tool for extremist organizations around the globe; that there’s a much better way for us to ensure the safety and security of the American public than to continue to operate that facility.
So Congress will receive something that is thoughtful and carefully considered from the administration about what we propose to do, and it remains to be seen whether or not Congress will thoughtfully and carefully consider it.
Q I wanted to ask about the appropriations process, and specifically — I know Jeff asked about Gitmo — but whether either delay of the fiduciary rule that you guys rolled out earlier this year, or changes to the Dodd-Frank would rise to that sort of Planned Parenthood level of “we will veto a bill that kind of goes into that territory with riders.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve tried to be as clear as we can about how this process should play out. And our view is that the appropriations process should not be bogged down in controversial, divisive, ideologically driven riders. That’s exactly what the proposed Planned Parenthood rider would do. Any effort to defund Planned Parenthood because of concerns that people may have about abortion are ideologically driven, primarily because we know that Planned Parenthood doesn’t use federal dollars to perform abortions. That’s a law that’s been on the books for quite some time. It’s a law that’s been enforced by the administration. And that’s why it’s particularly dishonest to float those kinds of policy proposals.
And so I think that’s a good example of the kind of rider that would bog down the appropriations process in a way that would risk a government shutdown. And I do continue to have confidence, as I stated yesterday, that Speaker Ryan is not going to want to be presiding over a government shutdown engineered by congressional Republicans after just six weeks on the job.
Q But that didn’t really answer the question, though, because we already knew that Planned Parenthood was a potential veto point. So my question is, are these financial reforms also something that rises to that level of something you guys would say —
MR. EARNEST: We’re certainly going to oppose efforts, as we’ve done in the past, to gut the Wall Street reform legislation. I mean, in some ways, you’re asking me a hypothetical question because we haven’t actually seen the text of these specific proposals. But the President’s commitment to ensuring that Wall Street reform can be successfully implemented in preventing taxpayers for being on the hook for bailing out big banks who make risky bets is as steadfast as it’s ever been.
And hopefully, Republicans won’t engage in an effort to essentially gut those regulations, because if they do, it’s going to lead to a government shutdown. And that is primarily because I think that if you include — if they include those kinds of provisions in the appropriations bills they’re going to find that they’re not actually going to pass.
So it’s not a matter of even the President vetoing them; it’s a matter of what they can get passed through the Congress. We know they’re going to have to work in bipartisan fashion to get it done. And spending a whole lot of time on ideologically motivated and divisive rider provisions is not a particularly good use of anybody’s time, particularly when we’re just over a month away from the December 11th deadline.
Q And last one, quickly. Can you confirm these reports that we should see the actual text of TPP within the next day or two?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there has been a lot of important progress that has been made in working through this rather arduous task of finalizing the text of that agreement. At this point, I’m not going to hazard any guesses about when exactly this will be released. Obviously there are a lot of factors that will determine when it will actually be completed. But they’ve made a lot of important progress over the last several weeks, and hopefully they’ll be in a position to release it soon.
Q I wanted to ask about new data which has suggested that China may be significantly under-reporting its coal use. I wonder if that puts any doubts in the mind of the White House about the seriousness of Beijing’s climate pledges.
MR. EARNEST: At this point, what we have concluded is that this report does not have significant implications for the upcoming global climate negotiations. We continue to expect that China remains committed to cutting carbon pollution and making a constructive contribution to this international effort.
I think what it probably does show, though, is the need for strong transparency provisions as a component of the Paris agreement; that we are going to need countries to show up to Paris prepared to make specific commitments, but also be prepared to explain how they’re going to document their adherence to those commitments. So transparency will be an important element of the negotiations in those talks.
Q But do you think that you might perhaps need to move beyond transparency to some kind of verification — independent verification?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this will all have to be something that the negotiators will discuss at the climate talks in Paris later this year.
Q Just a quick question on Taiwan and China. The KMT presidential candidate, Eric Chu, is expected in Washington soon, if he’s not here already. Will anybody with the White House meet him? Is there any concern that such a meeting — about the message that the meeting might send so close to the election?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of his upcoming visit, but let me see if we can follow up with you for a reaction to those plans.
Q Thanks, Josh. You may want to grab your notes for this. We’re going to talk co-ops, and the big numbers. As many as 12 of 23 reportedly have failed and won’t be offering coverage beginning next year. And I’m just curious, especially given the enormous amount of loans that have been provided to many of these co-ops, is this a failure of this program that grew out of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, what we’ve been committed to all along is the successful functioning of marketplaces across the country that will provide an environment where insurance companies can compete to provide quality, affordable health insurance to Americans across the country who seek to obtain their health insurance through the marketplace. These are essentially those Americans who aren’t able to obtain health insurance either through their parents or through their employer.
So what we have seen is that people who are shopping on these marketplaces in general are finding a good product at an affordable cost. I noted yesterday that about seven in 10 Americans, when you factor in the kind of assistance they can receive from the federal government in affording their health insurance, can purchase health insurance for $75 a month or less. So that’s a pretty good deal.
Q That’s a great deal. But what about the 12 of 23 co-ops that have failed? And taxpayers are essentially going to be on the hook for a lot of money.
MR. EARNEST: And the point is, Kevin, is even though some of those coops won’t remain in business it will not affect the overall competitive balance of many of these marketplaces, as evidenced by the fact that seven in 10 Americans can purchase health insurance for 75 bucks a month.
Q So what about the people who have these particular co-ops for coverage — what happens to them now?
MR. EARNEST: They’ll be able to go into the marketplace as of Sunday and they’ll be able to shop for coverage. And the good news is, because of the Affordable Care Act, just because they lost their health insurance they actually can now go into the marketplace and they have options, and they have options where insurance companies are competing for their business and, in a fully transparent way, they can see exactly what the options are that are available to them; they can understand the services that will be provided by the health insurance companies; and they will see the cost associated with them. And this is an opportunity that millions of Americans have and as of today, they can go to healthcare.gov and start shopping.
Q There are two things that I don’t think you really touched on — one, what happens to the money? A lot of loans, a lot of government money from taxpayers. Who’s going to foot the bill for those losses? And the second part is, even if they can go to other exchanges or other marketplaces, now that there are fewer, doesn’t that again go against the argument that more is better, more will drive down prices?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have seen — for the cost associated with this, I’d refer you to HHS. I don’t have the details of that. But the marketplaces do provide a competitive environment where insurance companies are competing for the business of available customers, and it does mean that there are now more customers who will be going to the marketplace. And the good news is that seven out of 10 of them will find when they go in the marketplace that there is a good option that is available to them for $75 a month. And that is, as you point out, that’s a great deal.
Q Okay, last one. If you’re saying that HHS will handle the figures, how concerned that the taxpayers could end up on the hook for a billion or perhaps even more than $2 billion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the details of this, I’d refer you to HHS.
Q I understand that, but I’m saying how concerned is the President —
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re posing a hypothetical that I described to you earlier that I don’t have in front of me.
Q Any dollar amount — does it bother him? Is that a concern?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, you have to talk to HHS about the dollar figures that are involved here.
Q On health insurance, can you tell us what President Obama is going to tell the conference call that he’s going to be speaking to this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST: This is primarily an opportunity for the President to talk to individuals and advocates across the country who are doing the important leg work of educating people about the options that are available to them at healthcare.gov. And this is an opportunity for the President himself to express his appreciation for the important work that they’re doing and to remind them how significant it is. People’s lives have been transformed because people who — prior to the Affordable Care Act you had people who couldn’t purchase health insurance because they had a preexisting condition. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, no longer can people be discriminated against because of a preexisting condition. No longer can people be charged double just because they’re a woman, for example.
So this is important work; it’s changed people’s lives. But the only way that people are going to maximize the benefits of this law is if they’re educated about the benefits that are available to them. And these are people who, in communities all across the country, are doing the important work of getting the word out about the important opportunities that are available to people at healthcare.gov.
Q Don’t you want all of us to hear what he has to say?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll see if we can arrange a way for you all to at least get a sense of what the President said.
Q On the climate summit, is it a certainty that the President is going?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on the President’s travel schedule at this point to announce. But there’s an international summit where a lot of other heads of state are going, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something that’s added to the President’s schedule. But I don’t have any specific dates to share with you at this point.
Q Can we ask about Mrs. Obama’s trip? She’s in Qatar today and Jordan coming up at the end of the week. How does that work? Is she technically on a presidential mission he authorizes the military office to make arrangements for her travel?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of sort of the technical designation that’s involved here, but the First Lady is traveling overseas, as obviously other First Ladies have, to advance an administration priority, and that specifically is this Let Girls Learn initiative. So she’s speaking today — or probably already has, given the time difference in Qatar — to an international group that’s committed to expanding educational opportunities for women and girls.
When she travels to Jordan, she’s going to spend time at a school to highlight efforts that are underway in Jordan to ensure that girls have access to education. And I understand that the school that she will be visiting is one that actually is educating Syrian refugees who are now in Jordan. So it certainly underscores the kind of contribution that the United States can make to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those who are fleeing violence in Syria. And one of those basic needs is ensuring that kids can have access to education — and in this case, it’s girls having access to education.
Q But since government funds are involved in the travel, the President needs to authorize a trip of this nature?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, but we can look into that for you.
Q Okay. And lastly, the DNC — there will be 350 people at the fundraiser tonight the President is going to. Is there a reason the full pool couldn’t cover that?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and it’s primarily because the reception will be held in a private home, and so the ground rules that we’ve had in place are for private homes, that the print pool will be admitted to hear the President’s remarks, but it won’t be on camera.
Q Seems like there will be plenty of room, though, with 350 people.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the space, but it sounds like a large house. I’m not sure I can host 350 people at my house. I’m confident that I couldn’t.
Q Let us know. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Jordan.
Q Thanks, Josh. There are reports this morning that the President is doing some radio interviews tomorrow about the Affordable Care Act. Can you tell us more about those interviews, like what cities they’re going to be in, what’s the message that he’s going to have during those calls?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have some more details about the radio stations that the President is interviewing with tomorrow. But this is consistent with the effort that you’ve seen from the President in the past to interact with journalists in local communities all across the country, and in this case, to talk about the importance of going to healthcare.gov to get a sense of what health care options are available to people who need to purchase health insurance.
That will primarily be the President’s message. It will be an opportunity for him to educate the public about these options. And this is something that we’ve previously done on a number of occasions with local television reporters from across the country. And today we’re doing it a little bit differently — or tomorrow, we’ll be doing it a little bit differently and inviting radio hosts — disc jockeys, I guess they used to call them — to participate in those conversations. So it should be fun.
Q Are there additional interviews planned? Is this like part of a broader media blitz, one would say, to promote enrollment during the enrollment period?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has been involved in the two previous open enrollment periods to raise awareness about healthcare.gov and the options that are available to people. And I think you can anticipate that over the next couple of months, over the course of this third open enrollment period, that the President will spend some time talking to the American people about the importance of signing up.
Q More Zach Galifianakis?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe. Maybe we’ll trot in a third fern. (Laughter.)
Q Back on the Sinai. So our closest ally in the fight against terror, Britain, appears to be taking this very seriously and is, in fact, convening a cabinet-level meeting this afternoon. Why is the White House — it doesn’t appear as though the White House is taking it to that level. Or are there meetings that we don’t know about that are going on at the White House at that level today?
MR. EARNEST: I think in the difference is simply that there are British aircraft that are operating in the Sinai Peninsula. There are no American carriers that regularly operate in the Sinai Peninsula. There are also flights that fly from the Sinai Peninsula directly to the UK. Those kinds of flights are not regularly scheduled between the Sinai Peninsula and the United States.
So the situation is just different. And obviously British authorities are taking the steps that they believe are appropriate to safeguard the British traveling public. The United States has already taken steps that we believe are consistent with protecting American travelers overseas.
Q So American travelers in this area — Egypt and — there’s certainly a huge area for travel for Americans going to see the tourist places over there. You don’t think it’s raised to the level where American Cabinet-level officials should be seeing whether or not this was an act of terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the specific concern is about the Sinai Peninsula, and there is a resort area — Sharm el-Sheikh that I’ve referred to a couple of times that’s in the Sinai — but there are no American carriers that regularly service Sharm el-Sheikh, the airport near Sharm el-Sheikh. And there are no direct flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the United States that are regularly scheduled by any American carrier or even by foreign carriers. So that’s just a difference between the U.S. connection to that region of the world and the British connection to that region of the world. So it’s understandable that they’re taking a different approach.
I did mention earlier in the briefing that we are interested in understanding exactly what exactly led to the tragic airline disaster in the Sinai Peninsula, and Egyptian authorities are conducting that investigation. Obviously Russian authorities are involved, given the substantial number of Russian citizens that are involved. And the United States has been in touch with those authorities, but they’re the ones that are conducting the investigation.
Q Another subject. Just to follow up on the Defense Department bill that’s coming up for the President to review again that you spoke of earlier. Another part of that is a measure by Senators McCain and Flake on the issue of paid patriotism that we did a series of reports on yesterday. In that, they try to make that — in this bill, they make that practice illegal. And today, McCain and Flake had a news conference in which they said that the Department of Defense has been uncooperative with them in trying to get all the contracts between teams and the military about this practice of paying for patriotic displays. You’ll be happy to know the Kansas City Royals are not one of those teams.
But what is the White House position on this? And does the President support that part of the bill that is coming to his desk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know that the President has carefully considered this. It’s possible he saw the ABC report. I think what I would say is that I think the teams themselves have come out and said that they are not receiving payments from the federal government to recognize troops that may be in attendance at the game. So you have both the Defense Department and the individual teams saying that the allegations from these senators are just not true. So I guess I’m sort of at a loss to sort of explain what their argument is.
I think that the fact of the matter is that when you go to the ballgame and the team — the public address announcer acknowledges the presence of military servicemembers or veterans and the crowd stands up and applauds, that’s an appropriate thing. And that is an authentic gesture by the fans at the stadium to honor the service of those who have so bravely served our country. And I think that is separate and apart from what I think is a more logical financial transaction between the Department of Defense and teams for things like signage or other advertising that could enhance the military’s ability to recruit.
Q So if specific amounts are made in the contracts between the teams and military, which call for specific amounts for singing of the National Anthem, for welcoming home wounded warriors, for unfurling the flag on the field, for honor guards — do you believe that practice should continue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t reviewed the individual contracts, but I have seen that both the teams and the Department of Defense say that those kinds of displays are not subject to the financial transaction between the Department of Defense and the teams; that the financial transactions are specifically focused on more conventional advertising that is designed to enhance the military recruiting efforts.
Q And then finally — it’s in the bill, though, however. McCain and Flake had put it in the Defense Appropriation [sic] Act, saying that this practice must stop — putting the figures in the contract that actually pay for those patriotic acts. Not for signage, for the patriotic acts, which has been the practice in the past. Would the President sign that part of the bill? Would he sign the bill with that in it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, based on the fact that the Department of Defense said that this is not actually what they do, it sounds to me like the President likely would not have an objection to it. But for the details of how those contracts are structured, I certainly would encourage you to check with the Department of Defense, and maybe they can provide some greater clarity here.
Q Josh, getting back to the plan to close the detention center at Guantanamo, you mentioned that there’s a number of detainees there that cannot be prosecuted and would have to be transferred to the U.S. to be securely held. But then you went on to say that that remains a major sticking point with members of Congress, and you’re not sure whether or not that is a matter that you’ll be able to resolve legislatively. Does that mean, then, that ultimately the President’s goal at closing Guantanamo may not happen, and that it essentially rests on that one sticking point with members of Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, I think at this point I’m sort of identifying what has been one of the principal stumbling blocks. And the reaction from Congress has essentially prevented a carefully considered, rational approach to dealing with these individuals. Continuing to detain individuals that cannot be transferred and cannot be prosecuted at the prison in Guantanamo Bay is incredibly expensive and does play into the narrative that extremists around the world use to recruit terrorists.
So it’s the view of the administration — and I think it’s a pretty common-sense view — that we should find a more cost-effective way to ensure that these individuals don’t pose a threat to our national security. And our prison system has already demonstrated the ability to house and detain convicted terrorists. So we’ve demonstrated the ability to handle this kind of business in the past, and we believe this is the most effective approach for moving forward. But for political reasons, we’ve seen Congress object to that, and that’s been disappointing, and it has been the chief obstacle to the President succeeding in closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Q And if you’re blocked legislatively from achieving that portion of the plan, or the goal to close the detention center, the President would not consider going around the legislative branch of government, would he not — in moving those detainees out of Guantanamo? Can you state categorically whether or not he would do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I would not take anything off the table in terms of the President doing everything that he can to achieve this critically important national security objective. And this is a pretty transparent case of the United States Congress putting narrow political interests ahead of national security. And that’s been a source of some disappointment for almost seven years now. And the President believes this is a priority, and the President is determined to make progress on this. And we’re hopeful that Republicans and Democrats in Congress will have the opportunity to carefully consider the proposal that we’ll put forward, and that if they do thoughtfully and carefully consider that proposal, in the same way that it’s been thoughtfully and carefully considered in its preparation, that we may be able to address their concerns and proceed in a timely manner to close the prison.
Q And getting back to Governor-elect Bevin, you said, well, if they close down the kynect exchange, those people can go on to the federal exchange. But would you at least —
MR. EARNEST: Just to be clear, the exchange would be the same; it just would no longer be operated by the state government of Kentucky, and be operated by the federal government of the United States.
Q — healthcare.gov, though, versus the kynect website.
MR. EARNEST: But I think even right now, if you live in Kentucky and you go to Healthcare.gov, you get referred to kynect. So again, I’m not sure that —
Q So you don’t think it would be disruptive at all? Might it be disruptive for some of those folks there?
MR. EARNEST: I suspect that that potential exists. I’d encourage you to check with HHS for the details here. I think the question is one that Governor-elect Bevin will have to consider about whether or not he wants to disrupt the thousands of Kentuckians who have benefitted from a Kentucky-based marketplace that has worked really well.
It does seem a little curious for somebody who says he believes in smaller government and that he believes that the federal government shouldn’t be interfering with activities that can successfully managed by the state, for him to take something that’s working well right now in the state and turn it over to the federal government. But again, that’s something that he’ll have to consider.
Q And on the situation in the Sinai, it does raise the question — I know you don’t want to draw any conclusions, because I assume there are U.S. investigators working on this in some capacity.
MR. EARNEST: Well, right now there are not. Right now this is an Egyptian investigation. The Russians are involved in it.
Q So U.S. intelligence officials may be in contact with their counterparts? That kind of —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say as a general matter that U.S. officials have been in touch with both Russian and Egyptian officials about this, and we have offered assistance.
Q And is the threat posed by ISIS to commercial aircraft, is that something that this administration is going to have to pay closer attention to, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Given that we had these restrictions, or at least this advisory about the operation of civilian aircraft over the Sinai that have been in place for quite some time, I think we’re already cognizant of the risk that’s faced by the airline industry when it comes to extremists like ISIL.
Q And it hasn’t taken on a heightened awareness or anything along those lines since what happened with the Russian —
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the —
Q I’m not suggesting —
MR. EARNEST: Yes, yes. I think the awareness of this risk is something that has already been heightened. And certainly any time you seen an incident like this where these public claims by ISIL have been made, that we certainly are interested in understanding exactly what happened, and understanding what potential risk or increased risk that may pose to American citizens, including those who may be flying on U.S. aircraft.
Q Josh, what parts of the American population is the President trying to reach tomorrow with these radio interviews?
MR. EARNEST: He’s trying to reach the people who can listen to the radio stations in these five markets.
Q Urban? Latino? Young? Who? Tell us, please.
MR. EARNEST: Well, April —
Q I’ll give you the names of the DJs, as you call them.
MR. EARNEST: Disc jockeys. I think we’ll be in a better position to talk about this once we’ve gotten the markets and the outlets for you. But I think you can anticipate that the President will be talking to radio personalities that have a significant following in these individual markets. We want to reach as many people as we possibly can. And these markets have been identified as communities where there are a substantial number of people who have not yet availed themselves of the opportunity to get health insurance through their marketplace. So that’s the message the President will deliver tomorrow.
Q So listening to the Secretary of HHS, she said about 10 million people are still without insurance. And with that, is there a concern with this White House that the penalties are not really sticking people where it hurts for them to actually go on the website and get insurance, or get insurance from somewhere? Is there a concern about the penalties?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, the way I understand the penalties work is that there is actually a phasing-in and a phased increase of those penalties. And I think this past year was the first year that people did have to pay a penalty for not signing up for health insurance. And I think those individuals in particular are keenly aware that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to pay those penalties when for, in many cases, a smaller sum of money they could actually get health insurance so that they would be able to pay less and get a significantly better benefit than they would from failing to sign up for health insurance. So this will be part of the case that we’ll make.
Q I know you guys have tried to work out every kink that you had on the website, but is there a tracking mechanism — I hate to add something else new onto this website because it’s already had some issues — but is there some time of tracking mechanism that is in place to track to see who was penalized, and if they are going on the website to get insurance or if they are getting insurance after this penalty?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that there’s a way to do that, but you can check with HHS about that. Since you brought up the website — since the website was fired up on Sunday, the first day of open enrollment, in the first 48 hours they had a quarter-million people submit an application to get health insurance.
Q Is that a record?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how it compares to the previous — well, I know it’s better than the first couple of days of the first open enrollment period. (Laughter.) Far better. I think it is comparable to the rate of application submissions that we saw in the second open enrollment period. And I think it is an indication that there still is an appetite across the country for people who are looking for quality, affordable health care options. It’s also an indication that the website is working well.
Q Thanks, Josh. Maybe you said this — I just want to make sure I understand it. Would the President refuse to sign any version of NDAA that prevents him from closing Guantanamo?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, Christi, we’ll take a look at what Congress is able to pass. We continue to, as we have in the past, oppose language that makes it more difficult for the administration to follow through on our strategy to close the prison. But at this point, I don’t have a veto threat to offer.
Q Does the President think the American people are with him on this? I mean, he hasn’t talked about it an awful lot lately. Maybe the issue has faded in people’s minds. But does he feel like he’s got a sales job now to do on that front?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think given the kind of opposition that we see in Congress, that might be an indication that this is something we need to spend more time talking to the American public about. The good news is we’ve got quite a strong case to make. And this is a case that even former President George W. Bush has been persuaded by. He’s made the observation that continuing to operate the prison is not clearly in our interest.
So I think that’s an indication that we’ve got a pretty powerful argument. So we’ll make that case to members of Congress, and where needed, we’ll make it to the public too.
Q And when you said to Jim that you would not take anything off the table after he posed the question of whether the President could do this if Congress — if he’s not able to persuade Congress, is there a precedent that you would cite there? I mean, it sounds like there’s — you think there’s some way to construe this to be under the President’s executive authority.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything in mind when I say that we’re not taking anything off the table. What I’m simply observing is this: We would prefer for Congress to do something that they haven’t done in seven years on this issue, which is to carefully consider the national security interests of the United States and work cooperatively with the administration in pursuit of that priority. I mean, the thing you might — the thing that I might offer is, what’s the political benefit that the President can expect out of this? The President is not playing politics with this issue. The President is trying to do what he thinks is actually the right thing for the country and the thing that’s in the best interest of our national security.
And so I guess I would hope that members of Congress in both parties would interact with the administration in the same spirit. This is an issue that’s so critically important to our national security. Let’s set aside partisan politics when we consider it. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. We’re still going to have vigorous disagreements. But let’s not allow politics to make this complicated issue even more complicated.
So we’re hopeful, and we’re certainly going to try to respectfully engage with Congress to try to solve this problem with the cooperation of the legislative branch. And what I’m just saying is that if we continue to be rebuffed by Congress, that I wouldn’t take anything off the table when it comes to our efforts to try to accomplish this national security priority.
Q And because you keep framing it that way, I have to ask if this rises to the level that you believe — if the President believes that Congress is mired in politics on an issue of an imminent threat to American national security, you believe the President has the authority to act.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think I would describe it as an imminent threat necessarily. It certainly is a significant one, though. And its significance I think is something that we’ve illustrated because the President vowed to close it on his second day in office. So this is a priority, and the President has attached some significance to this issue. But ultimately, what we’d like to see is Congress work with us constructively in a way that puts the best interest of the American people and the national security of the American people at the top of the list.
Q I wish I had phrased that question differently and not said “imminent.” I wish I had said “significant.” If the President believes there’s a significant threat to national security, does he have the authority to act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m certainly not a lawyer. And again — and I say this without any sort of knowledge in the back of my mind about what those options would be, if there are even any. What I’m simply doing is suggesting we would like to work with Congress where we can, but if Congress continues to refuse, I wouldn’t rule out the President using every element of his authority to make progress, in the same way that he’s done that in other areas where Congress has refused to work constructively with the administration.
Q Just one more on the Affordable Care Act. I’m trying to put all this together. Despite what’s happening in Kentucky, do you think that there will still be the number of people insured through alternative methods?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that remains to be seen. But based on the —
Q With disruptions, and despite the closing down of several of these other exchanges, do you think those consumers will find an alternative? Am I wrong?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there aren’t exchanges that have closed down. Kevin was referring to some co-ops, which are essentially non-profits that have been formed in some states. And the case that we have made is that just because those non-profits are no longer functioning, their customers can now go to the marketplace and shop for other available options — options that are available to them for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act.
Q So is it the administration’s projection that the total number of uninsured will continue to drop? By how much is the program still expanding, or has it hit a ceiling? Where do you expect that this is going to be after the enrollment period?
MR. EARNEST: For those latest projections, I’d refer you to HHS. But our expectation is that next year we would have about 10 million people signed up for health insurance through the marketplaces across the country. And we have seen, coupled with our efforts to try to expand Medicaid coverage all across the country, we’ve succeeded in driving down the uninsured rate to the lowest levels in recorded history. And if we can get more states to cooperate with us when it comes to expanding Medicaid, I’m confident that we can go farther in driving down that uninsured rate.
Q But where does the expansion come? Are there states that have been identified where you think this is possible? Is there a demographic of consumers where you think this is possible, like some of the folks who you hope hear the President on the radio?
MR. EARNEST: When it comes to Medicaid expansion, this is actually Republicans — almost all Republicans, either governors or state legislators that have prevented the government from stepping in and expanding coverage to people who make just a little bit more than the poverty level. And it’s a shame that we’ve seen so many Republican politicians put their zeal to oppose Obamacare ahead of the basic health care of hundreds of thousands, in some cases, citizens in their own state.
Q Exactly. Which is why it’s hard to see where the program expands there. Where else do you get more —
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s either through expanded Medicaid or through more people signing up through the marketplace. And we’re going to continue to make our case to Republicans at the state level that they should support a program that is funded almost entirely by the federal government to provide health insurance to people in their states who don’t currently have it.
I’ll point out that right now it’s the states who are bearing the cost of providing health care for those individuals. They show up at the emergency room sick, they don’t have health insurance. In many cases, it’s the state budgets that are bearing that cost. The federal government is offering to step in and assume those costs — almost all of those costs.
So I think that’s why it’s a pretty transparently political play on the part of some Republicans. But we’re also going to make the case to the general public that those individuals that don’t have health insurance, that did have to pay a penalty last year for not having health insurance, now have the option of going to Healthcare.gov and shopping for the quality, affordable options that are available to them.
Q And just lastly, in answering the question about the number of Republican legislators and state senators — you essentially said — and the results of the election from last night — you essentially said it was something of a mixed bag. And when asked about whether the President felt responsible, you seemed to say no, essentially. So could we expect that the President is going to play a very interactive role in the 2016 campaign? And do you expect him to be out there, visible, touting his record? And do you expect the leading candidates in statewide races as well as the presidential candidates to invite him along?
MR. EARNEST: I would anticipate that the President will spend some time next year making a strong case to the American public about the important progress that has been made in this country under the leadership of President Barack Obama. And whether you take a look at the progress that we’ve made on the economy in terms of reducing our deficit by three-fourths or enjoying the longest-sustained job creation streak in American history. We can look at education and talk about the historic number of students that we now have going to college and the historic graduation rates at the high school level. You can take a look at the progress that we’ve made in fighting climate change and cutting carbon pollution; the progress that we’ve made in ensuring that people aren’t discriminated against just because of who they love; and the important progress that we’ve made in advancing the interests of the United States around the globe.
The President will have a very strong case to make. And I think that we will see Democratic candidates up and down the ballot running for office in 2016, vowing to build on that progress. And I think the President will be an important validator of their commitment to these kinds of issues. And you guys are much more attuned to the public polling than I am, but if you look at the President’s poll numbers and compare it to any other politician in America, I think you can see why that might be a pretty effective tactic.
Q Volkswagen this time. And we’ve already already saw the last revelation of Volkswagen from today. Volkswagen had to admit that, worldwide, more than 11 million cars are not meeting the environmental guidelines and standards. Considering that these cars are not just in German care, does the administration think that German and European agencies who regulate the (inaudible) over there are too lenient towards these companies?
MR. EARNEST: At this point we believe it’s the responsibility of authorities in each of these countries to enforce the rules that are on the books in their countries. And I do think that the revelations about cars that Volkswagen was selling in the United States has prompted authorities in a bunch of other countries to go back and take a look at what Volkswagen is doing in their country.
That’s a decision that they make on their own, but it certainly seems one that seems prudent to me.
Q Obviously, Jeff is the man today.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q To follow up to his question on the new Canadian Prime Minister now that he’s been sworn in. So three opportunities for the President to meet him in the next month, in the next weeks. At the G20, in Turkey, where obviously the fight against ISIL will be at the heart of several discussions. Considering what the Prime Minister has said — the new Prime Minister has said while he was a candidate, will the President try to convince him to keep the Canadian involvement in the coalition against ISIL?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any meetings between the two leaders to announce at this point. But let me just say as a general matter that the United States deeply appreciates the significant commitment that the Canadian government and the Canadian military have made to our 65-member counter-ISIL coalition. And Canada has made an important contribution, and we certainly value those contributions.
And it is our view that those contributions have enhanced the national security of countries around the world, including in Canada. But obviously the Prime Minister of Canada is the one that’s responsible for making those decisions. And we have been pleased with the degree to which the Canadian government and the Canadian military has worked closely with the United States to advance our shared interests. And we’re confident that that kind of relationship between the United States and Canada will continue under the leadership of President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau.
Q How will the White House build an argument to convince Canadians and the Canadian Prime Minister to stay —
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think we have a strong case to make in terms of the important contribution that Canada has made and why that’s a worthwhile investment. We’ve made important progress in implementing our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. But there’s a lot of important work that remains to be done, and we certainly would continue to welcome a Canadian contribution to that international effort.
Q One of the other questions would be if the President goes to Paris for the climate conference, do you see the new Prime Minister as a more constructive, valuable interlocutor for the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we talked shortly after the election about the degree to which the President valued the relationship that he built with Prime Minister Trudeau’s predecessor, Prime Minister Harper; that by working together, they were able to advance the interests of both of our countries in a variety of areas — everything from the environment to our national security. And the President is hopeful that by working closely with Prime Minister Trudeau we can continue that kind of coordination between our two countries, primarily because it so clearly serves the interests of the citizens of both of our countries.
When it comes to the issue of climate change, it’s quite clear that, based on the little that I’ve read about the campaign, that this is an issue that Prime Minister Trudeau intends to prioritize on his agenda. And that’s obviously an issue that President Obama has prioritized on his agenda. And we’d welcome the opportunity to work closely with the Canadians and Prime Minister Trudeau’s office to advance it.
Q Josh, on the Affordable Care Act, if I were a radio personality, I would love to ask the President if he thinks the insurance industry —
MR. EARNEST: — not going to make that “face for radio” joke, but I’m not going to do it. (Laughter.) I would never do something like that, Bob.
Q I’m a grunt. But if the President feels that the insurance industry has backed this legislation enough. And I mean politically, in a sense, because they came on board, and the providers came on board with the legislation originally because they would get more clients or whatever and make more money out of all this. Is the President satisfied with what the insurance industry and providers have done with this Obamacare so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Bob, what’s undeniable is that we have seen a lot of insurance companies across the country work with the marketplaces in each state to put forward plans for sale. And these are plans that are transparent — people can take a look at the plans in advance and actually see what kind of benefits they include. And they’re transparent about the pricing. And because the insurance companies are competing, we’ve seen that the pricing has been quite competitive. And that’s been a good thing for the market.
It’s also been a good thing for the bottom lines of these individual insurance companies around the country because, as you point out, they’re signing up new customers and that’s good for their business.
So this has always been the essence of the strategy. It’s a reform of the private insurance system. It’s why we don’t spend a whole lot of time trying to rebut the phony claims of some opponents who suggest this is somehow a government takeover. The fact of the matter is, this is an important reform of the private health insurance system. It’s modeled after a proposal that Republicans initially conceived of themselves at the Heritage Foundation. It was one that was successfully implemented by the Republican governor of Massachusetts. And it’s one that the President has taken across the country.
And I’m sure that our experts would tell you that there’s more that we could get the insurance companies to do to cooperate and to offer — put forward different offerings. But thus far I think it’s hard to argue with the results.
Bill Press, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Josh, first I want to suggest that it might be possible to raise a larger audience with a nationally syndicated radio station — (laughter) — than a lot of little ones. So I checked with my producer — we do have some time available tomorrow. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q I make that offer. On the issues, on Syria, is the United States at war in Syria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, the President has been quite clear about what the mission is in Syria. Our Special Operations forces that are operating in Syria are involved in a train and advise and assist mission. And it means that we are seeking to build the capacity of local forces inside of Syria to better take the fight to ISIL on the ground in their own country.
And there are a variety of ways in which we’ve offered support to those forces, including resupplying them with equipment and even carrying out military airstrikes in support of their operations on the ground that has improved their performance on the battlefield. And they’ve made some important gains in northern Syria. The President believes that by committing a relatively small number of forces, fewer than 50, that they can serve as a force multiplier and further enhance the efforts of these local forces on the ground.
What the President has been determined to do, however, though, is not allow the United States to be drawn into a sectarian quagmire in Syria. And that is the risk that is highlighted by the military strategy that’s been implemented by the Russians that’s quite different than the strategy that’s been carried out by the United States and our 65 coalition partners.
Q We have American pilots who are flying bombing missions by in Syria, and now we have American advisors who may not be firing the shots but they’re standing alongside of the people who are and directing them. How can you deny that we are in combat in Syria? These are combat forces, and to say they’re not, isn’t it a distinction without a difference?
MR. EARNEST: No, Bill, I think it’s an attempt by the administration and by me to be as clear as possible about the mission that these Special Operations forces have been given by the Commander-in-Chief. And that mission is specifically to train and advise and assist opposition forces.
And the reason for this, as we’ve also tried to be as clear as possible about, the whole emanating principle here is that the United States cannot impose a military solution on the problems inside of Syria. We’ve tried that approach. The previous administration tried to impose a military solution on Iraq, and it did not serve the interests of the country well at all — well, frankly, either that country or our country. And the President has taken a different approach. And I think that’s why we’ve gone to great lengths to be as clear as possible about what exactly their mission is.
Let me also be clear, though, Bill, that’s not in any way to diminish either the service or the sacrifice or the risk that our men and women in uniform are taking when they’re carrying out these bombing raids over the skies of Syria, or where they’re operating with local forces inside of Syria. These are Special Operations personnel — these are Americans who are bravely serving their country.
Q And there are 50 today. What guarantees do we have that that number will not increase?
MR. EARNEST: What we have said, Bill, is that in order to carry out the mission that the President has authorized it would require fewer than 50 American military personnel to be on the ground operating alongside these moderate opposition forces inside of Syria. And that’s the strategy that we’re pursuing at this point. I don’t have any updates about any future decisions the President may or may not make.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:15 P.M. EST