White House Press Briefing by Josh Earnest, Nov. 5, 2015

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–November 5, 2015 – 1:00 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Happy Thursday.  I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.

Josh, do you want to get started?

Q    Sure.  Thanks, Josh.  Can you give us the latest U.S. assessment on what may have brought that plane down over the Sinai?  Could it have been a bomb?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, there’s obviously an Egyptian-led investigation into this tragic incident that remains ongoing.  At this point, the United States has not made our own determination about the cause of the incident.  However, we can’t rule anything out, including the possibility of terrorist involvement.  

Obviously you heard the announcement from the British government about steps they were taking to ensure the safety of the British traveling public, and currently the Obama administration is reviewing a number of different steps that we can take to enhance security for commercial flights bound for the United States from certain foreign airports.  That’s an ongoing process.  When we develop those additional measures we work closely with industry and our international partners to make sure that they are properly and effectively implemented.  And I don’t have anything new at this point to announce, but once a decision on those steps has been made it will be announced by the Department of Homeland Security.

Q    When you say that you can’t rule anything out, is that kind of just a statement of we just don’t know yet, or does the U.S. have specific intelligence that suggests that it might, in fact, have been an act of terrorism?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, I can’t get into the intelligence.  And it is accurate to say that the United States has not made our own determination about the cause of the incident.  But based on what we know and based on, in part at least, what’s been publicly reported in terms of claims of responsibility, we can’t rule anything out, including the possibility of terrorist involvement.

Q    Now that we all have the TPP text to look at and enjoy at our bedside — (laughter) — can you give us an update on the timeline that the White House envisions for a vote on this, and specifically the notion that some Republicans have put forward that Congress would wait until the lame duck period after the next presidential election to vote on this trade deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, we’ve made clear that it’s not necessary to wait that long.  That would mean waiting for almost a year — a day or two short of a year, at least.  We don’t believe it’s necessary to wait that long.  However, the shorthand that many people used for the trade promotion authority legislation that Congress passed over the summer in bipartisan fashion was fast track legislation.  But Congress’s definition of fast is quite a bit different than I think most people’s definition of fast.  

So we are respectful of the fact that there is a process that needs to play out here.  In fact, this was actually one of the important commitments that the President made in discussing trade promotion authority legislation with Congress — is that the administration would go to great lengths to both produce the text of the agreement that was reached — that’s what we did overnight — but also to give the American public ample time the review that text and understand the details of the agreement before the President himself even signs it, let alone before Congress initiates the process that they have devised to consider approving this agreement.

So the point is, Josh, we don’t believe that we should wait a year before Congress — we don’t believe that Congress should wait a year before acting, but we are respectful of the need to give time to Congress and to the American public to consider the details of the agreement before they take action on it.  

One of the reasons that we acknowledge that is we continue to be confident that the more that people learn about the details of the agreement the more that people are going to be likely to support this agreement and understand the case that we’re making about how important this is to the economic success of the United States and to the middle class in the United States.

So included in this document — I don’t know how far you’ve gotten through it, based on your bedside reading so far — but there are significant details in here about the 18,000 taxes that would be cut on products that are stamped “Made in America.”  These are taxes that are imposed by countries overseas, and these are taxes that are imposed on U.S. goods that are flowing to some of the most economically dynamic regions in the world.  So the possibility of eliminating those taxes stands to provide a significant economic benefit to the broader U.S. economy, but also to the American workers that are responsible for making those high-quality goods.  

Q    And I wanted to ask you about this kerfluffle that’s erupted in Israel over the person that would be your new counterpart and the spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu who made some rather inflammatory comments about the President perhaps being anti-Semitic and about John Kerry, among others.  He’s apparently apologized, and Netanyahu’s office has condemned those remarks as totally unacceptable.  Does the White House think that that apology was merited?  Is it sufficient?  And does the President plant to raise any concerns about that when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu next week?

MR. EARNEST:  Josh, we’ve seen the reports about this individual’s previous comments about U.S. officials, and I also have seen the reports about his apology.  In this case, it’s readily apparent that that apology was warranted.  But obviously the decisions that Prime Minister Netanyahu has to make about who will serve his government and represent him and his country are decisions that he, rightfully, will make on his own.

Julia.

Q    Thanks.  Speaker Ryan said moments ago that he believes that prisoners in Guantanamo should stay in Guantanamo, which flies in the face obviously of one of the President’s priorities to close the prison and comes perhaps right ahead of a plan that you all planned to send over to Congress.  What does his obstinance on this signal to the White House in terms of the likelihood of passing such a plan?  And are there already considerations underway to bypass Congress and take executive actions to close Guantanamo?

MR. EARNEST:  Julia, it is true that the comments expressed by Speaker Ryan do contradict the position and priorities that President Obama has articulated when it comes to the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  It warrants mentioning, however, that Speaker Ryan’s comments also contradict the stated view of people like Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Susan Collins, all of whom have acknowledged the way that the prison at Guantanamo Bay undermines our national interest.

I’ll also note that the comments of Speaker Ryan contradict the views and priorities established by President George W. Bush. George W. Bush did say, “It should be a goal of the nation to shut down Guantanamo.”  This was a statement that President Bush articulated in August of 2007.  I would note that Speaker Ryan’s comments contradict the opinion of five former Secretaries of State, including Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and Colin Powell.  These are Secretaries of State who served under President Nixon, President Ford, President George H.W. Bush, President Clinton, and of course, President George W. Bush.

So the reason I’ve gone to great lengths to illustrate this is to underscore to you that the view that Speaker Ryan is expressing is in contradiction to some of the brightest foreign policy thinkers in both parties.  These are men and women who have had frontline responsibility for the safety and security of the United States and advancing our interests around the globe.  And all of them agree with President Obama and disagree with Speaker Ryan about the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Now, to be fair to Speaker Ryan, there are a number of other members of Congress who have also expressed a view that’s similar to his, but it surely is in contradiction to many who have — in the case of Senator McCain — served this country heroically, and in the case of some Secretaries of State and former President George H.W. Bush, spent a lot of time thinking about — or President George W. Bush — thinking about what steps are necessary to protect the United States and our citizens.

Q    But so, given Speaker Ryan’s position, new leadership position for the Republican Party, and the fact that he is against this, is the White House now recalculating the likelihood of a plan going through?  And can you answer the questions about whether executive actions would be considered?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, Julia, we continue to believe that Congress should remove the obstacles that they have imposed that have prevented us from successfully closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, to keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, only continues to exacerbate the government spending that could be more effectively used to keep the country safe.

Speaker Ryan spends a lot of time talking about the need to shrink government budgets.  Closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay makes a whole lot of fiscal sense.  The amount of money that is spent per detainee at Guantanamo Bay is far higher than the amount of money that’s spent to detain and incarcerate convicted terrorists on U.S. soil right now.  There are a number of convicted terrorists that are currently serving time on U.S. soil.

Let me give you some examples.  There are people like Zacarias Moussaoui, who was a mastermind — one of the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.  He was tried and convicted in a U.S. court and he is somebody that is currently incarcerated right now as we speak on American soil in an American prison.  

This is also true of people like Ramzi Yousef, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber.  There’s one other pertinent example that warrants mentioning here, and that is the name of Ahmed Ghailani, who was convicted of his involvement in the plots to carry out bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  Many of you may recall that Ahmed Ghailani was for a period of time detained at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, transferred to the United States, tried in American court, convicted of his crimes and sentenced to life in an American prison on American soil where he serves right now.

So the suggestion that this cannot be done safely flies in the face of every piece of available evidence that exists.  So it doesn’t make sense for our national security interest to keep the prison open.  This is something that many Republicans have acknowledged.  It doesn’t make fiscal sense to keep spending large sums of money to detain these individuals at the prison at Guantanamo Bay when it can be done in a much more cost-effective fashion elsewhere.  And it doesn’t make sense to make an argument that somehow this poses an undue risk to the American public.  

The fact is there are many convicted terrorists who are serving time on American soil right now, and they do so in a way that does not risk the safety and security of the American people.  What does risk the safety and security of the American people, according to Republicans who’ve had substantial national security responsibilities, is to continue to operate the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Q    Can you just tell us briefly what the President plans to do in the coming months to see that TPP is approved and to fast-track it in any way possible?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the thing I think that makes this trade issue so interesting both to work on from our standpoint but for all of you to cover is it’s one of those issues that requires genuine bipartisan support to both advance through the Congress and to become law.  And the President spent a great deal of time and made a substantial personal investment in seeing trade promotion authority legislation pass over the summer.  This legislation allowed U.S. negotiators to complete the TPP negotiations consisted with the guidance that had been given to them by the United States Congress.  And we will be engaged in an effort to rebuild that coalition once again to consider and approve the TransPacific Partnership agreement that has been reached.

There are a variety of ways to illustrate the President’s own personal involvement in this, including a substantial number of phone calls and a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend the congressional baseball game.  So I think that is indicative of the President’s willingness to spend his own time to lobby members of Congress in both parties to support this kind of agreement that we are confident is in the best interest of the U.S. economy and the best interest of U.S. middle-class families. And I’m confident the President will have ample opportunity to make this case to members of Congress over the course of the next year or so.

Mark.

Q    Josh, any further guidance on the timing of this Guantanamo report that you said was pretty imminent?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any additional — I don’t have an update on the timing at this point.  But it should be relatively soon.

Q    What do you have to say to Senator Roberts and the others who placed a hold on the Army Secretary nomination because of, frankly, what you said here yesterday about not ruling out executive action if Congress doesn’t give you the consideration that you think you deserve on this report?

MR. EARNEST:  So it seems to me that Senator Roberts has doubled down on his position of putting politics ahead of the national security of the United States.  That’s a particularly troubling position for the chairman of the Senate Intel Committee to take.  I don’t know if he still has that position or not.  At least at one point he did.  But the fact that he is preventing the Secretary of the Army from fulfilling his responsibilities is rather disappointing, and I think it is just the latest piece of evidence that we have that Republicans are willing to put their own perceived political priorities ahead of the national security of the United States.  And it’s quite disappointing.

Jim.

Q    Josh, does the President trust Russia and Egypt to give the public the real deal on what happened?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, it is clear at this point that it is in the national interest of both Egypt and Russia to get to the bottom of what exactly occurred in this incident.  And we’re hopeful that they’ll conduct the investigation consistent with that priority.  But the fact is this is an investigation that has only been going on for four or five days at this point.

So the United States — U.S. officials have been in touch the both Russian and Egyptian officials about the investigation, and we’ve offered assistance.  And we’re continuing to be prepared to support that investigation as it moves forward.

Q    Because this White House has doubted Russia’s word before when you look at the Malaysian Airliner that was shot down over Ukraine.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, their track record on these kinds of things, when it comes to the Russians, at least, is not particularly good.  That’s a fair assessment.

Q    And does the President have any plans to talk to President Putin? 

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware.

Q    I know that Prime Minister Cameron did.  Okay.  And getting back to the Guantanamo plan, it sounds like your proposal is dead on arrival.  If the new Speaker is saying that detainees should stay at Guantanamo, and you need congressional cooperation to reverse that law that was passed in 2010, it doesn’t sound like the plan is going to go very far up on Capitol Hill.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ll see.  I made this point yesterday that the administration has put a lot of time and effort to thoughtfully put together this plan for congressional consideration.  And hopefully Congress will receive that plan in the spirit in which that plan was drawn up, which is a commitment to focusing on the national security of the United States, not on the politics of the United States Congress.  And we stand ready to work with Democrats and Republicans to try to advance a national security priority that has been identified not just by President George W. Bush but by the Secretaries of State who served for just about every recent President.

So we’ve got a strong argument that has strong bipartisan agreement.  I noted earlier that there’s not a lot of bipartisanship in Congress right now, but we certainly would like to see more Democrats and Republicans work together with the administration to try to advance this priority.  And this is a priority, again, that’s shared by some Republicans in Congress — Senator McCain, Senator Graham, Senator Collins have all spoken of the need to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

So there are at least some Republicans who have spoken in a way that leads us to believe that they may be willing to work with us to accomplish this objective.  We’ll have to see if others will as well.

Q    And I just wanted to follow up on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s selection of a chief of diplomacy who has made these sorts of inflammatory remarks in the past.  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s a spokesman, not his chief of diplomacy.  I don’t think anybody would confuse me for the chief of diplomacy around here.  (Laughter.)  I mean that in the nicest possible way.  (Laughter.)  

Q    I mean, just days ahead of the Prime Minister visiting the White House, that doesn’t exactly set the table very well for a good meeting between the President and the Prime Minister, given the tensions that — I mean, obvious tensions between these two leaders in the past.  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, with all due respect to this individual, I would not anticipate that this person’s appearance in the international spotlight here is going to have much of an impact on the ability of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama to work effectively to advance the interests of our two countries. 

Jim.

Q    Josh, thank you.  The Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, told ABC today in an interview that —  

MR. EARNEST:  You guys had a pretty good get.  That was at the USS Theodore Roosevelt, “the Big Stick,” as it’s known.  

Q    Bob Woodruff was there and asked some excellent questions.  And one of the things that Ash Carter said was that Prime Minister Cameron’s theory that an explosive device brought down the plane is “consistent with what we know.”  Is that what the President thinks?  Or does the White House think that the Prime Minister went too far?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think I acknowledged at the top that at this point we have not made our own determination about what exactly led to this tragic incident, but at the same time, we can’t rule anything out, including the possibility of terrorist involvement.  And it sounds like Secretary Carter said something similar to that.

Q    It’s a little stronger.  He said “it’s consistent with what we know.”  Does the United States know that a bomb brought down this plane?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what he was alluding to is any time an incident like this occurs, the United States government has a responsibility to use all of our available resources to learn what we can about these kinds of incidents so that we can protect the American public.  So I think what Secretary Carter was referring to specifically was not a determination that’s been reached, but to some information that has been learned by the United States that is obviously consistent with what Prime Minister Cameron said.  So I don’t think that Secretary Carter is saying much that’s all that different than I am.

Q    Has Britain shared with the United States what its intelligence is that led the Prime Minister to that conclusion?  I’m not asking you reveal what that intelligence says, but have they shared that with us?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say — I don’t think I can get quite that specific in answering your question, but I can tell you that the United States and our British counterparts have a very effective intelligence-sharing relationship.  And particularly on a matter like this, I think you would expect that our closest allies would be in frequent and regular communication with us about what they have learned and about what we have learned.  

I mean, I think the one difference here is the different security situation that Prime Minister Cameron is confronting.  The fact is that the British government has had to take these steps because of the number of direct flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the U.K., the number of British-flagged commercial aircraft that are on the tarmac in Sharm el-Sheikh right now, and the substantial number of British citizens that are in this area of the world.  None of those situations, none of those factors is pertinent to the United States.

Q    I understand that, and you made that clear yesterday, that the reason why the United States is not taking further action.  But it doesn’t really explain the difference between what Britain, our closest ally, who we can assume — I think you said — has shared their intelligence with our intelligence folks, because we’re such close allies — why he would say something so strong, that it appears to be a bomb, and as far as we will get is Ash Carter’s statement and you’re kind of backing away from that statement a bit.  What is the difference between what we know and what they know?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, at this point, Jim — you said something earlier — at the beginning of your question, you said that we’re not taking steps.  I do want to take that because I think that’s important.  First of all, we are reviewing what steps should be taken, and I also think it warrants mentioning at this point that are some advisories that have been issued by the U.S. government over the course of the last year warning U.S. citizens about the risks that they would face by traveling to this part of the world.

Q    I should have said taken any new steps. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s something they’re reviewing about whether or not any new steps are warranted.  But there was this notice that was published by the FAA earlier this year, establishing a higher floor for U.S. aircraft that are operating in that region of the world.  The State Department, on July 16th of this year, cautioned U.S. citizens about the risk of travel to the Sinai Peninsula based on jihadist elements in that part of the world.  

There was an update from Embassy Cairo in September of this year warning U.S. citizens about the risks of traveling to that part of the world.  And then, on Monday, Embassy Cairo issued a notice, essentially, that they had instructed their employees not to travel either by land or by aircraft to Sharm el-Sheikh.  And when we give that kind of guidance to U.S. embassy employees, we share that guidance with the public so that U.S. citizens can factor that information to decisions that they may make about travel.

But more generally, based on what I have said today, I’m not sure that there is a significant difference in what Prime Minister Cameron has said and what I’ve said, and what you’ve read to me about what Secretary Carter has said.  Why Prime Minister Cameron chose to use the words that he did, you’d have to ask him.  But certainly the words that I’ve used and the words you’ve heard from Secretary Carter reflect information that has come to the attention of the U.S. government, both publicly based on what you all have reported, but based also on our ability to learn information about incidents like this.

Q    Perhaps I wasn’t listening carefully, Josh, but respectfully, it does seem like there’s a big disconnect between what Prime Minister Cameron said.  He used the word “bomb.”  You’re being very careful not to use that word, even though we apparently have the same information from the British that he has.  Why are we characterizing it differently?  Why are you characterizing it differently than he did?

MR. EARNEST:  And that just simply is based on the guidance that I’ve received from our national security professionals, including our intelligence professionals about both what we know and what we don’t know.  And at this point, we don’t have enough information to make our own determination about what exactly occurred.  But we do have enough information at this point to not rule out the possibility of terrorist involvement. 

Ron.

Q    Has the President spoken or reached out to Prime Minister Cameron today?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.  But if a call like that occurs, we’ll definitely let you know.

Q    Has he reached out — I’m trying to get a sense of the level of urgency about this.  Has he reached out to any leaders in the region about this particular incident?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not sure that — I don’t have any calls to tell you about.  I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to assess the sense of urgency that we feel about this particular matter, though.  

Q    What would be the best way to assess then?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that you can — in a couple different ways.  The first is that our national security professionals, particularly our professionals at the Department of Homeland Security that are responsible for securing the aviation system, have been reviewing potential steps that they could take to enhance security for U.S. commercial flights bound for the United States from certain foreign airports.  Considering those kinds of steps is their responsibility, and that’s something that they are working on and have been working on for some time.  And they’ll make those decisions and announce them in conjunction with our industry and international partners.

I think the other thing that you can glean what from I’ve shared here is that there has been a robust effort underway, using the variety of resources available to the United States government, to try to learn as much as we can about what exactly has happened.  And as we learn pertinent information, we do our best to try to communicate with the American public in a transparent way about what that is.  

Now, there are limitations to our ability to do that, given our need to protect those resources.  But we are going to great lengths to help people understand exactly what the situation is. and again, I think the reason that you’re seeing a different reaction from the British government and the U.S. government is just the different situation that our two countries are facing.  

It’s the British that are in a situation where they have a number of direct flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the U.K.  There are no direct flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the United States.  There are a number of British-flagged commercial aircraft on the ground in Sharm el-Sheikh right now; that’s not case of any U.S.-flagged commercial aircraft.  We don’t have any U.S.-flagged commercial aircraft on the tarmac in Sharm el-Sheikh right now.  And there are a substantial number of British citizens that are in that region of that world, and there certainly is a possibility that there may be American citizens in that region of the world, but certainly not as many British citizens as there are.  And that’s, I think, how you can account for the kind of steps that you’ve seen from Prime Minister Cameron.  He’s doing the kinds of things that he believes are necessary to protect the British public, and we certainly are going to share information with him to support his effort to do that.

Q    You said that on Monday there was some sort of warning issued by Embassy Cairo about Sharm el-Sheikh specifically?

MR. EARNEST:  Mm-hmm.

Q    What precipitated that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is obviously a day after we learned of this crash.  So this is — Embassy Cairo put out a — basically instructed its employees not to travel anywhere in the Sinai Peninsula pending the outcome of the investigation to the crash.  And when that kind of private instruction is given to embassy employees, that information is released publicly so that U.S. citizens who may be considering travel to this region can avail themselves of that information and make their own decisions about whether or not to travel there.

Q    Prior to all this, had there been any indication — or what has ISIS been doing in that particular part of the world that has the United States concerned prior to all of this?  Because so much of what we’ve talked about is focused on Iraq and Syria, but clearly there’s some presence there.  And how has the United States been attacking or trying to degrade and destroy ISIS in that part of the world?

MR. EARNEST:  One of the things that is important for people to understand about the Sinai Peninsula is that this is an area of the world where extremists have been operating for quite some time now.  And these are extremist organizations that frequently change their affiliation based on their assessment of the best way to raise their profile.  And so it’s only recently that we’ve seen some of the extremists that are known to operate in the Sinai Peninsula announce their affiliation with ISIL.  

I’ll note that in the July missive that was sent out by the State Department cautioning U.S. citizens about travel to that region of the world.  They singled out an Egyptian terrorist organization — and I’m probably going to botch this — that’s called Ansar Beyt Al-Maqdis, that they have pledged their allegiance to ISIL in Iraq and the Levant — or that they pledged their allegiance to ISIL, and that allegiance increases the risk that terrorist attacks could target U.S. or other Western interests, including civilians and the country’s — meaning Egypt’s — tourist industry.

So we’ve been quite candid, again, in communicating with the public about our assessment of the risk that U.S. interests would face from extremists operating in the Sinai, whether they’re affiliated with ISIL or not.

Q    Has there ever been any indication that ISIS intended to strike at Western or American targets beyond where they are?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that answer to that is yes, based on some public cases that you know.  There’s one in particular that comes to mind.  There was some evidence that was reported publicly over the summer that there was this individual in Arizona who drove to Texas intending to carry out a shooting against some people that he perceived were offending Muslims.  And thanks to the heroic work of local law enforcement there, that individual was prevented from killing anybody.  And some of the evidence did indicate that he may have been inspired to take these actions based on his communication with extremists on social media.

Q    — is practical, pragmatic plots, actions on the ground that indication this, not just someone in Arizona who’s being inspired by —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve long been concerned about the possibility that extremists, whether ISIL-affiliated or anybody else, that they would capitalize on the chaos in Syria to try to establish a safe haven that would allow them to plot and execute attacks against the United States and other interests.  And the United States has been pretty forward-leaning about taking strikes against ISIL leaders who are plotting in this way, but we’ve also been forthright about strikes that we’ve taken against other extremists that are not affiliated with ISIL but yet have designs on attacking the West.

We recently announced that a U.S. military airstrike had taken out David Drugeon.  This was an extremist — a French national, I believe — who was in Syria plotting against the United States.  And from the beginning, when we first started talking about the risk that is posed by ISIL, the concern that we have is that they would — that we have had is that they would use the chaos in Syria to establish a safe haven and pose a direct risk to U.S. interests. 

Q    And lastly, on the investigation, obviously you referred to the United States’ concerns about Russia investigating these kinds of incidents.  What about Egypt?  How much faith do we have in the Egyptians?  I mean, Egypt is a society that’s got a lot of things going on.  And you indicated that there were — we had offered assistance, so on and so forth.  But would you expect — or should we expect to see American investigators on the ground there, with the Egyptians trying to get this done?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, at this point, Ron, that’s not something that the Egyptians have requested.  The United States does have an important national security relationship with Egypt, and our ability to coordinate on security issues enhances the security not just of the Egyptian people, but also the American people.  And that’s a security relationship that we value.  And again, at this point I think it’s too early to determine — to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the investigation, considering the very difficult environment in which that investigation is taking place.  Obviously, the details of this incident are difficult to assess, given the far-flung nature of the wreckage and given the other questions that have been raised.  

So I think it’s too early to assess at this point the effectiveness of the investigation.  But I just would observe, as I did before, that it’s in the interest of the Egyptian government to get to the bottom of this kind of incident, frankly to be sure that it doesn’t happen again.

Q    You said that our aviation officials are trying to figure what, if anything, to do next in terms of enhancing security, so on and so forth.  But again, this is a part of the world where we know there have been problems for a long, long time.  It sounds a little bit behind the curve to be in a position now to begin trying to figure out what to do next, possibly.  Isn’t there a —

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think that’s a fair assessment.  There was an FAA notice to airmen that was issued earlier this year — March of 2015 — that actually raised the floor on U.S aircraft that were operating over the Sinai Peninsula.  There had been a previous notice that had been issued that had set that floor at 24,000 feet.  Based on our assessment of extremist activity inside the Sinai back in March, that floor was raised.  It’s unclear whether it would have been relevant to this particular incident, but it is clear that U.S. security officials have been keenly aware of the risk in this part of the world, and have been taking steps all along to address it.

The other thing I think that is relevant — as you’ll recall, back in the summer of 2014, that the Department of Homeland Security announced a range of new security measures that would be imposed on a handful, a certain number of foreign airports that were the last point of departure for flights traveling to the United States.  This was based on specific information that had been received by the intel community about the desire of some extremist organizations to try to target U.S. aircraft around the world.  

And so, again, I think the fact that this kind of increase in our security posture, dating back to the summer of 2014, again, is an indication of how vigilant the United States government and the Obama administration is about the need to take intelligence that’s being collected around the globe and to make sure that the security measures that we have in place are properly aligned with the threats that we assess exist.

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  In the past, I believe you said that you wanted to give the public about 60 days to read the TPP agreement.  Is that still your working timeframe, and does that start right now?

MR. EARNEST:  Our expectation is that the President would give the American public 60 days to read the agreement before he himself signs it.  And the President’s signature only initiates the transfer of these materials to the United States Congress for their consideration.  The transfer of materials is proverbial; Congress can read the documents online in the same way that anybody else can, frankly.  

But just to give you a sense of the process, yes, there is that 60-day window; yes, the President does intend to wait 60 days before he signs the agreement; and yes, that will give the American public and members of Congress 60 days to read the agreement before the President himself signs it.  And then that will initiate a longer phase of congressional consideration.  The documents will remain online after the President signs it.  So people won’t have to do their homework just in that 60 days, they’ll have ample time even after that, in the midst of the congressional process, to continue to take a look at the agreement and understand exactly the case that we’re making when it comes to the benefits associated with the U.S. economy and the benefits associated with U.S. middle-class families.

Q    And just on a different subject, the House today passed a long-term highway bill that is very different from the Senate version.  Are you confident that they’re going to be able to get an agreement on that before the short-term patch expires?

I did make note of the passage of that legislation in the House.  It is a piece of legislation that passed with bipartisan support.  And we were obviously gratified to see Democrats and Republicans working together on an issue like transportation infrastructure that shouldn’t be partisan.  

And there have been a lot of these infrastructure debates that have broken down along party lines.  And hopefully this is an indication that as this process moves forward, that Democrats and Republicans will work together constructively to advance it.

As it relates to the bill itself, there continues to be significant room for improvement.  And we’re hopeful that the impending conference between the Senate and the House to reconcile the differences in that bill will provide and open up an important opportunity for strengthening this critical piece of legislation.  Hopefully they’ll take advantage of that opportunity.  

Olivier.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I got a clarification and two questions. The clarification is you described Zacarias Moussaoui as a mastermind of the 9/11 plot.  That doesn’t jibe with my recollection.

MR. EARNEST:  I was slightly overstating it.  But he certainly is somebody who, based on the conclusion of the United States criminal justice system, he was somebody who was involved in that plot and he was brought to justice for his involvement in that plot, and he currently is serving time in a U.S. prison facility for his involvement in that plot.  And I think that clearly demonstrates the capacity of our criminal justice system and our prison system to deal with these individuals in a way that is consistent with our national security.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify.  

Q    And then two questions.  One is, has the President received an update on the investigations into the incident at Kunduz?

MR. EARNEST:  As you know, MSF, Doctors Without Borders, has released their own interim report into that terribly tragic incident.  And the President has been briefed on that report.  I also understand that General Campbell, who is the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, met with MSF staff in Kabul to discuss their findings.  And you can expect that U.S. officials will continue to remain in touch with MSF staff. 

President Obama called for a transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts and the circumstances that led to this tragic incident, and General Campbell has appointed several senior officers from outside of his command to conduct this investigation.  I don’t have an update at this point on the timing of when that investigation will be completed, but the Commander-in-Chief has indicated that he expects a full accounting of what exactly occurred and he’s got a high degree of confidence that that’s what he’ll receive.

The other thing that the Department of Defense has made clear about this investigation is that it will consider a series of potential human errors, failures of process, and technical malfunctions that may have contributed to the mistaken strike.  And I think that’s an indication from the Department of Defense that they take very seriously their responsibility to conduct this thorough investigation.  And so while we certainly are eager to understand all of the facts, I also don’t want to be in a position of rushing the investigators who are taking their jobs very seriously.  

And so we’re going to stand by for that full accounting of the facts.  But I do think it’s appropriate at this point for me to restate once again our profound sorrow and condolences to the Afghan medical professionals and other civilians who were killed or injured in this terrible accident.

Q    All right.  Last one.  You’ve talked at some length about the dangers that special operators face in Syria. Is one of those dangers being hit by a Russian airstrike that targets the rebels that they were advising and assisting?  Or was that dealt with in the de-confliction conversation?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Olivier, I think as a general matter, what we have said is that based on available information we know that Russian airstrikes and military activity are actually targeting those forces that are threatening the Assad regime.  U.S. forces will actually be partnered with moderate opposition fighters on the ground that are targeting ISIL.  And that is the difference in the two missions, and it’s why it is unlikely that Russian military activity would pose a significant risk to U.S. Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria.  

But that is in no way to downplay the substantial risks that they’re taking, as you noted in your question.  This is a very dangerous part of the world and there are a variety of risks that they face.  And we’re certainly grateful for their service and for their willingness to take on this very important mission.

Margaret.

Q    Josh, a question for you — Iran’s President’s comments today talking about and actually criticizing some of these crackdowns by hardliners, including large-scale arrests of journalists in Iran — is this something that President Obama likes to hear from his Iranian counterpart?

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t see his specific comments.  I think as a general matter, we have raised our concerns about the human rights record of the Iranian regime.  It is significantly less than stellar.  And those are concerns that we’ve raised on a number of occasions.  And in fact, you can get the details on this from Treasury, but I believe that there are even some elements of the Iranian government that are sanctioned because of their human rights record.  

Q    — the President of Iran saying this.

MR. EARNEST:  And obviously, again, I have not seen it, but the way you describe him it sounds encouraging.  But what we have said routinely about this is that we’re going to judge the Iranians based on their actions.  And that was true in the context of the nuclear negotiations.  It certainly is true in the context of their participation in efforts to facilitate a political transition that’s long overdue inside of Syria.  And it certainly is the way that we’ll judge their actions in the human rights realm as well.

Q    Can I ask you about some reports you might have seen in the past few days about IRGC elements trying to hack into and launching cyber-attacks against the White House and against the State Department.  Have you seen that increase, seen that happen?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ve seen those reports, but I’ll tell you that while we don’t have a comment on those specific reports, that we are keenly aware that malicious actors in Iran and elsewhere often use cyber activity to try to gain information about targets of interest.  And we know that the Iranians have some capabilities in this regard, and it’s why we take seriously all malicious activity in cyberspace and we’re going to use all the tools at our disposal to deter, detect, counter and mitigate such activity.

Q    Specifically, this round of attacks came in the wake of the arrest of a Iranian-American businessman, and in fact, it’s been said by friends of his who received some of these malware attacks that they thought it was directly related and people in the administration were on the receiving end of some of these emails as well.  Do you view that reporting as false at this time?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have a specific comment on the reports, but White House officials receiving emails with bad intentions would not be accurately characterized as breaking news.

Q    But you don’t think it links to this recent —

MR. EARNEST:  I just don’t have a comment on the specific report.  Just as a general matter, efforts to target White House officials or, frankly, government officials in cyberspace, including by sending an email, is something that malicious actors in cyberspace have been attempting for years.

Q    And we talked a lot about the plane already, but I just want to ask you, you’ve laid out very clearly where you see why the UK has great equity and great concern in finding out what happened with this crash, just to protect their nationals.  You’ve explained that Russians don’t have a great track record here.  Egyptians have great interest at getting to the bottom of this.  There’s also a lot of political factors here in terms of not wanting to be public what might have happened, but you’ve now said it is possible it could be terrorism.  Do you see there being a U.S. national interest in having this be publicly disclosed or classified if, in fact, it is terrorism?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think at this point, Margaret, we do believe it is in the interest of the United States to learn what exactly happened.  And that is why we’ve offered our support to the Egyptians and to the Russians who are part of the investigation.  The Egyptians are leading it.  And we’re prepared to offer support that they think would be helpful to that endeavor.  But we’re also going to use the resources and capabilities that we have to learn information that could be relevant to our efforts to keep the American people safe.  And we’re going to do our best to communicate with the American public as appropriate and to take common-sense steps as appropriate to ensure that our aviation system and other modes of transportation are adequately protected.

April.

Q    Josh, on ACA, is the message being communicated properly to the 10.5 million people that still are without insurance?  Has the message been delivered properly?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, we’ve certainly tried to be as straightforward as possible in explaining the benefits of this law for basically every American.  There are significant benefits associated with this law for those Americans that already have health insurance.  There are a variety of consumer protections that have gone into place because of the Affordable Care Act.  These are things that allow you to keep your child on your own insurance up until the age of 26.  These are provisions that prevent any insurance company from discriminating against somebody because they have a preexisting condition.  

So there are a variety of benefits to describe.  There’s a particular benefit for those Americans that do not already have health insurance and do not have health insurance through their employer, and that is previously these American citizens who were in a situation where they had to go and fend for themselves on the private market.  And we saw insurance companies charging exorbitant prices for low-quality health care coverage.  Because of the Affordable Care Act, what we have created are marketplaces in every state in the country where individuals can go online, or they can call CMS, and find out about the health care options, health insurance options that are available to them.

And what the Affordable Care Act did was it went in and it set some basic standards for those offerings.  And so it basically ensured that insurance companies had to raise their standards and offer a minimum level of coverage to potential customers.

The other thing that insurance companies were going to have to do was they were going to have to compete for business.  And that was going to hold down prices based on that competition.  Now, what the insurance companies got out of the deal was millions of new customers.  So this is essentially what I would describe and what others have described as a reform of the private insurance market.  That’s why the Heritage Foundation conceived of this plan.  It’s the way in which it was effectively implemented by the Republican governor of Massachusetts.  And it’s the kind of system that we’ve implemented all across the country.

And there are important benefits for people out there, and we certainly encourage those who do not have health insurance at this point to go online and take advantage of the open enrollment period that just started earlier this week and sign up for health insurance. 

Q    I talked to Secretary Burwell this morning and she said that a large portion of the 10.5 million who still have yet to buy into some kind of health insurance is that they did not know that there was some kind of financial assistance for them.  With that said, is there some kind of mechanism or some kind of way that you might be able to communicate more, and if they still are out there in large numbers like that, will the White House look at changing the penalty phase in some kind of way for those people who didn’t understand because the communication is not getting to them the proper way?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any plans to change that would be levied.  But I think what’s important is we’re now entering a phase where at least some of the people who would be subject to a penalty if they don’t sign up in this upcoming open enrollment period are individuals who would be subjected to a penalty that is actually higher than the premiums that they would have to pay in order to get health care coverage.  So in one scenario, you have the benefits of getting covered and at a lower cost than the kind of penalties that are associated with not being covered.  

So it’s a pretty straightforward decision that people have to make now, and this will be part of the case that we’re going to continue to make over the course of the next two and a half months, and it will certainly be part of the case that President Obama will make to the radio reporters who are visiting the White House today.

Q    Okay.  And the radio reporters are one segment.  How far do you have to go to reach those minorities that have yet to sign up?

MR. EARNEST:  Look, I think we’re going to continue to be creative in using a variety of — 

Q    How creative is creative?  What is creative?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, exactly, three ferns, as I discussed yesterday.  I think what we will — we’re going to be aggressive about making sure we get the word out about the benefits that are available to individuals at healthcare.gov who do not already have health insurance.

The other thing that we’re encouraging to do, by the way, is even for those people who last year purchased health coverage at healthcare.gov, we’re encouraging them to go back to the website and to shop around — that many of those people — I don’t think a majority, but I think many of them will actually find that they may be able to get an even better deal this time around, that they could get a plan that better fits their needs, potentially at a lower cost.

So our message is not just to people who don’t have health insurance, but also to those individuals who have already purchased health insurance at the marketplace to go back to the website, shop around — there may be an even better deal out there waiting for you. 

Laura.

Q    Thank you.  On Guantanamo, does the President plan to go to Guantanamo at one point?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any plans for the President to do that.

Q    Okay, on another question, if you plan to close Guantanamo, what will happen to the 9/11 detainees known as the high-value detainees, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind currently at Camp Seven, in Guantanamo?  Do you plan to have them back to the United States?  And what will happen to the military commission in charge of the 9/11 trial?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Laura, as you well know there is a sort of well-known strategy that we have discussed for reducing the prison population at Guantanamo Bay to zero, consistent with the priority that people like George W. Bush and John McCain and Henry Kissinger have identified.  And the strategy is simply this, there is a process that the Obama administration initiated on the President’s second full day in office to review the files of everyone who was being detained at the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  And based on that review, individuals were essentially put into three categories.  The first is approved for transfer.  Currently the prison population at Guantanamo Bay is 112.  And right now there are 53 of those detainees that have been approved for transfer.  And there is a complicated interagency process for working with other countries to create arrangements where these individuals can be taken to other countries.  And their risk to U.S. national security can be effectively mitigated.  That’s important work, and that’s work that is ongoing.  And there are 53 people in that category right now.

The second category is individuals who have been referred for prosecution, and whether it is through a criminal court proceeding in the United States or a military court, these are individuals who our national security professionals assess could effectively be prosecuted in the criminal justice system, or through the military criminal justice system. 

There’s another category of individuals who are — I think are individuals who cannot be safely transferred and could also not be effectively prosecuted.  And these are individuals who fall into the category of the irreducible minimum.  And these are individuals that we believe can be safely and securely detained at facilities in the United States.  

Q    Including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the — 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, for the categories that each of the individual inmates is located, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.  They can tell you exactly where those individuals are located right now in terms of the classification categories.

The thing that I’ll point out is that this review process did not exist until President Obama came into office.  And this is part of the strategy that we’ve laid out for closing the prison that was put in place the second day that he was here.

The thing that’s important for you to understand is that the case files of these individuals are regularly reviewed.  So it’s not uncommon for individuals based on the assessment of our national security professionals to actually move from one category to another.  And so this is something that we can continue to work on.  And for an update in terms of where that process stands, or in which category a specific inmate is located, I’d refer you to DOD.

Q    So what do you want to happen to the military commission?  Because the military commission is working at this moment, that’s the pre-9/11 trial.  It’s in Guantanamo.  So if you plan to close Guantanamo, what will happen to these military commission? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not aware of any specific details that we have in terms of how those proceedings would continue if the prison at Guantanamo Bay was closed.  But we certainly are confident that those proceedings could continue and could take place somewhere other than the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Kevin.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  Can you give me sort of a tick-tock on what happens now on TPP?  Is it at this point 60 days, public can look it over, then the President sends it off to Congress.  They look at it for 90 days, and they begin their process.  Sort of walk me through that.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you just did.

Q    Oh, is that accurate?  

MR. EARNEST:  I mean generally speaking, yes.  There are some more details that go along with that, and we can get you some more specific details.  But general speaking, that’s right.

The President will later today make public his intent to sign the document.  And that will initiative the 60-day clock for the American public to consider the text of the agreement.  After that 60 days is up, the President does intend to sign it.  So he would sign it, and then there would be a longer process for congressional review that would include another 90-day or so opportunity for the public to consider it, as well.  But we can get you those details.  It is rather complicated.

Q    Okay, you said earlier that it didn’t seem like such a great idea that Congress would take a whole year to look this over.  Give me sort of a timeline that you think would be appropriate.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this — ultimately it’s up to Congress.  I think as I sort of cheekily noted to Josh earlier, some people referred to the legislation that passed over the summer as “fast track,” but yet the agreement was struck 31 days ago.  We’re talking another 60-day delay before the President even signs it, and that initiates an even longer process for congressional consideration.  So it doesn’t really fit my definition of fast.  But what it does is it lays out a clear path for consideration.  And our expectation is that Congress will follow that path, as they should.  Careful consideration is necessary.  We want people to take a look carefully at the details.  But there is no reason that it should take a year to get that done.

Q    Give me an assessment of the President’s confidence level that this will ultimately happen?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, considering that we succeeded in building a bipartisan coalition over the summer to pass legislation that would allow us to complete the negotiations around the agreement.  In some cases, you could actually say that we — that our hand is strengthened this time around because now we actually have the details of an agreement to produce to people.

Before we were making the case to members of Congress that, please give us this authority and set up this process because if you do, we’re going to negotiate an agreement that’s really good for the economy in your state.

Now that we’ve completed the negotiations, and now that we have the complete text of the agreement for people to review, we now don’t have to say give us the opportunity to negotiate an agreement that’s good for your state.  We now can point to the text and say, take a look at the details here.  The thing that we have negotiated actually is good for the economy in your state.  It will create jobs.  It will be good for the middle class in your state.

And if you support the agreement and vote yes, these kinds of benefits will flow to your state.  And if you don’t, they won’t. 

So in some cases, we’ve got a stronger argument to make now.  And I think as you can tell, we’re quite eager to have the opportunity to make that argument.

Q    And yet some of your party members, Congress Dingell, for example — Congressman Dingell very much opposed to this.  There seems to be, at least to me, very strong opposition from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  Why is that, do you suspect?  And how concerned is the President about that rift between a group that’s usually very much on his side?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, you can certainly expect that the case that we will make about the agreement is the case that we’ll make to both Democrats and Republicans including progressive Democrats.  We believe that we have a very strong case to make, it goes something like this.

Many of those progressive Democrats are concerned about, for example, labor standards in other countries.  These are legitimate concerns — concerns that are shared by the President of the United States.

Q    In Vietnam, for example. 

MR. EARNEST:  In Vietnam, for example.  And the question is — the concern is essentially twofold.  The first is a legitimate human rights concern based on the working conditions that some people have to suffer in, in a country like Vietnam.  But there’s also a concern that U.S. workers are put at a grotesque disadvantage in trying to compete with products that are made in that country. 

And so the question is, given these legitimate concerns that the President himself has, the question is:  What are you going to do about it?  Are you just going to wring your hands and sort of despair at the terrible state of the condition of workers in Vietnam and be concerned about the impact that’s going to have on middle-class families back in the United States?  Or are you going to do something about it?  Are you going to create an agreement that compels Vietnam to actually raise their labor standards in a way that’s good for the human rights of people who live in Vietnam and in a way that’s good for middle-class workers here in the United States who are looking to compete in one of the most economically dynamic countries of the world?  There’s a growing middle-class market in Vietnam that U.S. workers can take advantage of if we do more to level the playing field.  And the question is:  Are we going to do something about it? 

That’s a strong case that we can make to progressives.  We don’t have to compromise on our principles.  That is entirely consistent with the kinds of principles that this President has been advocating for since before he ran for this job.  So we’ve got a strong case to make.  And like I said, we’re looking forward to the opportunity to make it.

Q    Last one.  I know you don’t like to talk much about the 2016 campaign as a horse race, but the two leading candidates, Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump both are very much opposed to TPP.  What does that tell you about the agreement or their ability to judge it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I would just note that both those individuals articulated their opposition to trade promotion authority legislation.  And despite their opposition, we built a bipartisan majority in the House and Senate to secure the passage of that legislation.  And as I think I just tried to explain, we anticipate that our argument is even stronger now.  And that’s why we’re not focused on the opposition outside of Congress.  We’re concerned about winning the support of people who actually have votes in the matter.

Q    Thanks, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Tolu.  

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to ask you about Guantanamo.  You were asked about that yesterday, and you were asked about whether or not the President had the authority to do this through executive action.  And you said, you’re not a lawyer and you’re not quite sure.

I’m wondering if the folks who are lawyers at the White House are currently going through a scrub of the laws and looking at whether or not that is something that the President can do without Congress.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, right now, Tolu, our focus is on trying to convince Congress to remove the obstacles that they have erected to prevent us from moving forward with closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  And that’s where our attention is focused.

And the national security professionals, including some lawyers, here at the White House, are focused on presenting a thoughtful, persuasive plan to members of Congress.  And like I said, we’re hopeful that members of Congress will receive the plan in the same spirit in which it was written.

Q    When we talk about gun laws here, you are willing to say that the administration is going through a scrub.  So I’m wondering if you’re willing to say that’s not happening on Guantanamo in terms of executive action.

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m trying to do is to give you a sense of where we are in that process.  And right now, that process is focused on working with Congress to get this done.  

I was asked yesterday about whether or not the President has executive authority.  That is a question for lawyers to answer.  But as the President’s spokesman here, I’m certainly not going to take anything off the table in terms of him doing everything that he can to make progress on a national security priority that he’s identified.  And again, this is a national security priority that is shared by national security professionals in both parties.

Q    On the Doctors Without Borders report that came out today, you said the President was briefed on it.  It was a pretty graphic and sort of scathing report detailing what happened that night — bombs going off in the middle of the night, in the operating room; people running out of the hospital, being shot from above.  Do you have any response from the President on what he — how he reacted to those details being briefed to him?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t spoken to him about the report since he was briefed on it.  I can tell you that this is obviously a tragic incident and a tragic mistake.  And the President has himself said, I think it was just the night after, within 24 hours of this incident, that he expected a full accounting of what exactly happened.  And there’s an ongoing, objective thorough review by the Department of Defense.  And the President expects that it will yield the kind of full accounting that he has said he’d like to see.

Q    Any reaction to that report being forwarded along to the international humanitarian fact-finding commission, sort of the Doctors Without Borders raising this to a level of them looking at whether or not this is a war crime?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been quite clear, and the President — the Commander-in-Chief has been quite clear that he expects a thorough, objective, and transparent accounting of what’s occurred.  And he wants all the facts, and he’s committed to being transparent about it, about releasing as many of the facts that are included in that report as possible so that everybody can see for themselves exactly what happened and understand the kinds of steps that the Department of Defense regularly takes to prevent civilian casualties, even in a dangerous place like Kunduz.

Christy.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Some people — just to follow up on what Tolu had just raised — some people think that the President has already exercised executive authority by authorizing the site visits to determine if certain prison sites might be suitable for housing Guantanamo detainees.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not sure there is any presidential authority that’s required for U.S. military officials to travel domestically within the United States.  So I guess I would — I’m not familiar with the claim that might be made with that regard.  At least based on hearing it for the first time, I’m not sure it stands up to much scrutiny.

Q    I actually want to ask you about the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to the White House next week.  Some analysts are predicting that the U.S. will decide to increase its military aid to Israel by somewhere between 15 percent and 50 percent over the next year.  Is the President looking at anything that significant?  And if so, why? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Christy, you traveled with the President to Israel back in the spring of 2013, I believe that was.  And in the context of that visit, the President made clear that he was prepared to begin review of another memorandum of understanding between Israel and the United States about how the United States could assist and support Israeli national defense efforts.

The current memorandum of understanding is one that doesn’t expire until fiscal year 2018.  But the President said that the early consideration of the next memorandum of understanding would be an indication of the depth of not just this administration’s but this country’s commitment to Israel’s national security.  

In recent months, U.S. officials have wanted to try to advance those conversations related to the memorandum of understanding.  And throughout much of the public debate about the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the Israelis were unwilling to participate in those conversations.

And what we’re hoping that we can do is to lay the groundwork to renew those talks and get those going again.  And our expectation is that there will be carefully considered process that the United States and Israel will jointly pursue to determine what should be included in that memorandum of understanding.  And considering the current one doesn’t expire until fiscal year 2018, we’ve got some time to work through those details. 

But I would anticipate that you’ll hear a little bit more about this process hopefully in the context of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit.

Q    Okay so you’re not thinking there would be an announcement of a significant increase in military aid next week, for example?  

MR. EARNEST:  No — 

Q    But rather that you would — there would be a readout on where you were in laying the groundwork for those talks?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.  I would not expect a major announcement like this.  This is something that requires intensive consultation between our two countries given the Israeli assessment about the risks that they face, and their assessment of the capabilities that they may need to mitigate those risks.

Obviously, we here at the United States have our own assessment about what capabilities we have available.  But certainly the Obama administration is committed to Israel’s national security.  We are committed to the Israelis continuing to have a qualitative military edge in the region.  And I would expect that this will be something that the two leaders will discuss.

Q    A slightly more personal question about the bilateral relationship.  Is the President hoping to maybe open a new, more congenial relationship with the Prime Minister?

MR. EARNEST:  Well — (laughter) — Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody that the President has spent a lot of time both talking to on the phone and in person.  And I think we’ve made quite clear that the personal relationship between the two men is both respectful and professional, but also almost completely immaterial to the importance of the relationship between our two countries.  That is far more important that any sort of interpersonal dynamics.  

And that was something that I observed on occasions in which there were rather obvious and significant public disagreements between the two leaders.  In the context of this meeting, I think those — it will be clear I think from their discussions that many of the things that are public are things that we agree on.  But even in that context, I’m willing to say to you that their interpersonal dynamics are not nearly as important as their ability to work together to advance the national security interests of the two countries that they lead.  And there is no denying that despite their differences, they have been able to do precisely that.

And I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu has observed the same thing.  He noted on a — I believe it was the end of the first term when Vice President Biden had made a visit to Israel that Prime Minister Netanyahu had indicated that the amount of security cooperation between the United States and Israel under the leadership of President Obama had been unprecedented.  And the President is determined to continue to meet that standard.

Rebecca.

Q    Thanks.  On the Affordable Care Act co-ops, an HHS inspector general report from 2013 predicted that they might not be sustainable in the long term.  Now more than half are closing.  Why didn’t the administration take greater action to prevent this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Rebecca for the finances relating to this, I’d refer you to HHS.  They obviously work closely with CMS to build — or to offer support to these nonprofits, but also to build the marketplaces in which they would operate.  So for the details about those decisions, I’d refer you to HHS.

Q    Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  Chris, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Great, Josh.  One of the election results this week was the defeat of a nondiscrimination ordnance in the nation’s fourth largest city, Houston, for which the Vice President and the President indicated support.  Did the President have a reaction upon the news that it had been defeated?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, I haven’t spoken to the President about this particular election result.  I’ll just say as a general matter, the administration certainly believes that preventing discrimination for American citizens because of their race, or their gender, their ethnicity, or their religion, or who they love is something that we should take steps to prevent.

And particularly when it comes to the rights of LGBT Americans, this country has made tremendous progress over the last several years.  And some of that was progress that was moved along by policy decisions made by this administration.

I think what is clear is that the opponents of this particular ordnance in Houston were much more interested on a political tactic that diverted attention from the true intent of the ordnance.  And this case, unfortunately, that cynical political tactic succeeded in securing the kind of election outcome that they would like to see.

But I do not think that it is going to set back the broader trend toward greater equality and justice in this country.

Thanks, everybody.  We’ll see you tomorrow.

END  
2:20 P.M. EST

Source: www.whitehouse.gov