Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/11/14

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:54 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  It must be so quiet in here because there’s nothing happening anywhere really. It’s a very quiet day at the White House.  In the spirit of that quiet day, I don’t have any opening remarks, so, Nedra, we’ll just go straight to the questions. 

Q    A day later, has the White House taken a position on the omnibus spending bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nedra, you may have seen the statement of administration proposal that was sent shortly before I walked through the door.  You did not?

Q    Did not get that email.

Q    No, would be the answer.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, buckle up then.  (Laughter.) 

Q    We’ll listen to that when you listen to what happens during the briefing.  

Q    What does it say?  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll let you read it shortly, but you can also — I can relate to you what it says. 

The President on a number of occasions has expressed his concern about economic headwinds emanating from Congress and that there is a significant benefit associated with Congress acting responsibly to pass a budget without the threat of a shutdown, and to do so over an extended period of time, over a full year, because it provides the kind of certainty that’s important to our economy.  And that is among the reasons why the President supports the passage of this compromise proposal and would sign it if it arrives on his desk. 

Now, you heard me describe it as a compromise proposal.  Let me describe to you a number of the things that are included in this proposal that we believe merit the President’s support.  They essentially fall into three categories.

The first category is, over the course of this year, the President on at least a couple of different occasions made specific requests for urgent national security items.  The first is, the President sought substantial funding to support our efforts to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and to improve our domestic readiness here at home.  The proposal includes $5.4 billion to fight Ebola, and that certainly is a development that we are pleased to see.

The proposal also includes substantial funding, at the President’s request, to support our ongoing efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  So we are pleased that there are substantial resources included in this legislation to fight Ebola and to fight ISIL.  That’s the first category of sort of emergent national security priorities.

The second category are a range of domestic policy priorities that the President has identified that are supported in this piece of legislation.  The first thing — and I mentioned this yesterday — there is strong support for the President’s early childhood education proposal.  There is $750 million in funding to make progress against the goal that the President has set out, which is expanding access to high-quality early childhood education programs for every child in America.  This $750 million funding level locks in a funding increase that was originally agreed to last year.  So we certainly are pleased to see the financial support for those programs continue.

The second domestic priority is something the President has talked about quite a bit, which is Wall Street reform.  This funding proposal includes double-digit increases for both the CFTC and the SEC.  These are two independent regulatory agencies that have a very important role to play and now a larger role to play as a result of the passage of Wall Street reform in terms of protecting the stability of our financial system and of the U.S. economy.

Importantly, on previous pieces of must-pass legislation, we’ve seen Republicans attempt to add ideological riders that would essentially gut the authority of the CFPB — the CFPB is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  This is something that the President fought for and created as a result of the Wall Street reform legislation.  He believes it’s important for consumers to have a voice in Washington; that’s exactly what the CFPB does.  And Democrats, with the strong support of the administration, were able to fight off Republican attempts to add riders that would gut the authority of the CFPB.

The third priority that we are pleased to see is receiving an appropriate level of funding in this compromise proposal is related to our efforts to fight climate change.  We are pleased to see that the variety of agencies that are involved in implementing the Climate Action Plan are funded at a level appropriate to perform the functions that they need to perform in order to carry out that strategy that the President laid out earlier this year, and we certainly are gratified by that.

Importantly — this is another area where Republicans have identified efforts — or acknowledged efforts to try to undermine our ability to act on this important priority — there are no riders included in this legislation that would significantly impair our ability to make progress against some of these climate priorities the President has identified.  The President has identified these priorities because it’s good for the health and safety of the American people, it’s good for our ongoing efforts to fight climate change, and it’s good for the economy.  If we lay out a clear strategy in advance for trying to deal with the consequences of climate change, we can make the kinds of investments in renewable energy that are good for creating jobs and strengthening economic growth. 

The third and final category that I will touch on lightly here is that there are two areas at the beginning of this budget process that Republicans identified as significant targets for them.  These are two areas that Republicans have long opposed administration action and these are two areas where the administration has been very focused on following through in terms of implementation to make sure that we can make progress in these areas.  And those two areas are the Affordable Care Act and immigration. 

And this compromise proposal does not include riders that would significantly gut the President ability to implement the Affordable Care Act, or to implement the executive actions that would reform our broken immigration system. 

So those are the reasons that we believe that — those are just some of the reasons that we believe that this compromise proposal merits bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and hopefully will arrive on the President’s desk in the next few days.  If it does, he will sign it.

Q    This is very different than what some of the Democrats on the Hill are saying.  Some of them are angered and speaking of opposing this bill.  Is the President or the White House encouraging them to vote for it?  And if they oppose it, do you fear that you could be in a worse position negotiating in a new year?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ll say a couple things about that.  The first is, I think the message that you just heard from me about the reasons that the administration supports this legislation is — I think are reasons that we believe that Democrats should give careful consideration to as they vote their conscience.  Somebody asked me yesterday how we thought the Democrats should vote on this thing.  Our position yesterday is the same as it was today, which is we believe the Democrats should vote their conscience.  If there are Democrats who do choose to support this piece of legislation, there’s ample reason for them to do so.  But again, that will be their decision. 

As it relates to a future negotiating position, there’s no doubt that the amount of leverage that Democrats have on Capitol Hill will be reduced as a result of the Republicans gains that were made in the last midterm election.  That’s certainly not an eventuality that we’re pleased by, but that’s a fact. 

So that’s the answer to your question.

Q    Specifically, they’re angered by a couple provisions, predominantly the rollback of Dodd-Frank and the political contributions.  What is the President’s position on those parts of this bill?

MR. EARNEST:  The President opposes both of them.  And you’ll recall — and I can explain to you why if you’d like.  As it relates to the Wall Street reform provision that has attracted a lot of criticism among Democrats on Capitol Hill, that is a provision that the President strongly disagrees with as well.  In fact, when this provision was put on the floor in a standalone measure in the House of Representatives, this administration put out a statement of administration position indicating the President’s opposition and indicating the President’s intent to veto that proposal if it arrived on his desk.  So we’ve been very clear for some time now that we do not support that provision.

As it relates to the campaign finance proposal that’s included in here, that is also a provision that the administration does not support.  And the reason for that is slightly different.  The President has spoken at length in a variety of settings about concerns that he has about our campaign finance system in this country.  He believes that it’s in need of significant reform, particular in light of the landmark Supreme Court decision from three or four years ago. 

So if we’re going to reform that system we should have a public debate about it.  There should be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate to engage in a debate about it.  And reforms to that broken system shouldn’t just be tucked into a 1,600-page must-pass bill.  That’s not the best way to for us to try to solve this problem.

But more broadly — this sort of goes back to the first point that I made today — this is a long bill — 1,600 pages.  There are a lot of different provisions in it.  There are a lot of funding provisions, some ideological riders that are included in here that the President does not support, but it is a compromise.  It is why Democrats and Republicans can support this piece of legislation.  I anticipate that Democrats and Republicans will support this piece of legislation.

They will do so not because either side got every single thing that they wanted; the President certainly didn’t get everything that he wanted.  If the President were writing this bill himself, this bill would look a lot different.  But it is a compromise and it does fulfill some of the — many of the top-line priorities that the President himself has long identified, and passing this bill and signing it into law would allow us to make additional progress against those priorities.

Jeff.  I’ll try to shorten my answers.

Q    Josh, what’s the backup plan if it doesn’t pass and it doesn’t end up on the President‘s desk?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, like I said, Jeff, I think I made — judging myself here, I think I made a pretty persuasive case at least about why I think a lot of Democrats can support the legislation.  I would anticipate that there are a lot of Republicans who will be supporting this legislation, in spite of what I said.  That’s okay, too.  That’s how our democracy works. It means that Republicans have taken a look at this legislation and identified things in that bill that they think are good for the country.  We do have a disagreement about them, but we can’t allow a disagreement over one thing to be a deal-breaker over all the others.  I think this is a pretty good illustration of that principle that the President has been discussing for a few weeks now in the aftermath of the midterm elections.

Q    All right.  Some other brief topics. One, Secretary Lew talked about oil prices today being good for the American economy, but is the White House concerned that the dip in oil prices may hurt the overall world economy as exporters like Saudi Arabia and others are getting less revenue?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m certainly no expert in this area, so I wouldn’t disagree with Secretary Lew.  I do think that, just based on my, again, very elemental understanding of this issue, I think that one of the things that’s actually depressing oil prices is some weakness in other countries that are large consumers of fossil fuels.  So there is a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, right, that one of the things that’s driving down oil prices is the weak economy. 

But I guess you’re asking if it could have sort of a reinforcing effect.  I think there is some debate about that, about what the actual impact would be.  But again, I do think that Secretary Lew is correct when he does indicate that lower energy prices is good for middle-class families and is good for the broader economy.  It certainly is one of the reasons that this President has long advocated that we make the kinds of investments that are necessary to make America independent of foreign oil.  And we’ve made substantial progress against that goal while the President has been in office, and that’s because of the all-of-the-above approach that we have taken when it comes to energy.

Q    So is it accurate to say then that the White House is not concerned about lower oil prices?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, as we’ve talked — when oil prices were sort of at the other end of the spectrum we talked quite a bit about how the White House didn’t have a lot of direct control over the price of gas or oil in this country and certainly had minimal influence over the global oil market as well. 

So again, this is something that we’re going to closely monitor and we’re certainly going to be very cognizant of the impact that any changes in the price of oil would have on our economy.  And it’s something that we’ll continue to monitor closely, and Secretary Lew and the department that he runs will obviously be a big part of that.

Q    Just lastly, ahead of John Brennan’s press conference later this afternoon, does the President still have confidence in his CIA Director?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  And the reason is simply this — I mentioned this a little bit yesterday, but I’m happy to repeat it.  John Brennan is a dedicated professional who has dedicated his time in public service to protecting the United States of America.  That makes him a patriot and it makes him someone who has the full confidence of the President of the United States.  And the President wakes up every morning pleased to know that John Brennan and the men and women of the CIA are at work, using their skills and expertise to protect the American people.  And the President is pleased to count him as one of the people who has been a senior member of his national security team since the very beginning of his tenure in office and the President continues to rely on his advice to this day.

Michelle.

Q    We saw the CIA Director arriving at the White House this morning.  Did he meet with the President?  Can you talk about that meeting?  And was that specifically to discuss this unprecedented press conference that is happening?

MR. EARNEST:  Director Brennan participated in the Presidential Daily Briefing today.  It’s not particularly unusual for him to do that.  But that’s also going to limit my ability to give you much of a readout of that meeting because the substance of that meeting is just not something I’m in a position to talk about.

Q    So at this press conference he’s likely to say what’s already been said in the CIA statement.  So now that he’s publicly going to take questions and state, as we expect, that these methods did produce intelligence, is the White House still refusing to say whether it agrees with his statement on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Michelle, we did go through this at some length yesterday.  And let me again try to characterize for you what our view is of this.  And I think it sort of falls into two categories.  The first is simply that — and this is not just like a philosophical imponderable, this is actually relevant to what we’re trying to conclude here, which is it is unknowable whether or not specific information that was obtained through the use of an enhanced interrogation technique could not have also been obtained through some other interrogation technique that is in full compliance with the Army Field Manual and other generally acceptable law enforcement techniques.  It’s —  

Q    But why is the CIA Director saying that?  Sorry.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you can ask him.  But what I — you asked about the President, and the President’s view is that it is impossible for anyone to know whether or not the use of an enhanced interrogation technique was necessary to obtain a specific piece of information precisely because it’s impossible to know whether or not you could have obtained that piece of information through other means.

That’s important because the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in the mind of the President significantly undermines the moral authority of the United States of America.  And as I mentioned yesterday, regardless of which side of this debate you’re on, I think everybody agrees that the moral authority of the United States of America is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal that keeps the American people safe.

It allows us to build strong relationships with allies and partners around the globe.  It allows us to work in multilateral settings to ensure that any multilateral agreements that are struck between the United States and a series of other countries reflect the high standard that we have maintained in this country for the treatment of individuals and the respect for basic human rights. 

And that is a very powerful tool, and the American people and our broader national security benefit from that significantly.  And that is why, on his second full day in office, the President outlawed the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, because he believes they undermined our moral authority and therefore prevented us from doing everything that we possibly could to protect the American people and to protect our national security.

Q    So you don’t think it creates an uncomfortable rift to have your CIA Director saying this information did yield on that and the White House saying it’s impossible to know, as well as an uncomfortable message that he agreed with these methods back then and now is still the Director of the CIA?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t know — you should talk to him about his position on this because I don’t think that he would say that he — in fact, I think that he has said publicly that he did not agree with these when he was undergoing congressional testimony for this job.  So for his position about the use of these techniques, you should check with him.   But again, he or the individual who serves as his spokesman can best answer the questions that you have about his position on these issues. 

I will continue to do my best to help you understand, and help the American people understand exactly what the President’s view is on these issues.  But I think the most declarative thing that anybody can say about this is that on the President’s second full day in office, he took steps to unequivocally ban the use of these kinds of techniques in his administration.

Q    Since we’ve heard more world reaction and we’ve heard you say repeatedly — talking about the moral authority and concerns that those methods would undermine the U.S. in the view of the rest of the world, do you feel that keeping people on from that era, including Brennan — does that not undermine the U.S.’s values in some way?  Can you explain that?

MR. EARNEST:  It does not.  And I will actually put a finer point on it.  The President does believe that the use of those techniques undermine our moral authority around the globe, and that’s why the President has taken such demonstrative steps to rebuild that moral authority.  That’s why he outlawed those techniques on his second full day in office.  It’s why the President has strongly supported the release of a declassified version of the executive summary of the report, so that we can be transparent with the American people and the world about our shortcomings and demonstrate our commitment to making sure that it never happens again.

It’s also why the President took steps, again, within the first week that he was here in office to try to put in place reforms so that clear guidance was given to U.S. personnel about the proper treatment of individuals who are in detention and the proper treatment of individuals who were being subjected to interrogation. 

So, again, those are the kinds of reforms that even at the time didn’t get a lot of attention when they were mentioned.  But the irony is, is that when this report was released on Tuesday, it chronicled in excruciating detail the failure to properly implement these programs, the failure to provide proper oversight of these programs, the failure to give clear direction to individuals that didn’t have proper training. 

And what this administration did — again, on the President’s second day in office — initiated the kinds of reforms that provided greater oversight, that provided greater clarity, that provided clear guidelines to ensure that as these individuals were being held and interrogated that it was being done in a way that’s consistent with our values and consistent with a way that upholds our moral authority around the globe.

Q    Josh, how does it not — the question was more how does it not undermine our moral authority to keep people on who were involved during that era.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, at least in one way — one way I can explain that is to tell you that those individuals who are serving the President of the United States right now are not engaged and are not supporting a policy of enhanced interrogation techniques.  And the reason they’re not doing that is because the President unequivocally banned it on his second full day in office.  I suppose if those individuals didn’t agree with that policy, they wouldn’t be serving the President. 

Richard.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  But this ban is good for this administration.  We were listening to former Vice President Cheney yesterday saying that he would do it again if he had to.  You repeat that the U.S. will never again use these interrogation techniques.  How can you guarantee foreign leaders and people around the world that this won’t happen again?  I mean, it’s good for this administration, but it can — they can just come back — the next one, or the next one.

MR. EARNEST:  I do think a couple of things about this, Richard — and I alluded to this a little bit in yesterday’s briefing as well — that one of the benefits of having a public debate about this issue is that it informs the public about what our values are and the public is allowed to reach their own conclusions on these matters, and because it’s ultimately the public that’s going to decide who the next commander-in-chief is, they’re relevant to this discussion.  And I do think that by being so transparent and encouraging and fostering this kind of public debate, it will be very difficult, if any future commander-in-chief chose to do so, to try to roll back this ban that the President has put in place on torture.  I don’t think that that’s going to — I think that will be very, very difficult for any future President to do.

But I will concede the premise of your question, which is that there is no guarantee that I can offer here about what a future commander-in-chief may decide.  But I think the precedent that’s been set here and the public debate that’s been set here makes very clear about the commitment of the people of this country and the government of this country to uphold the values that we hold quite dear — not just because that’s the right thing to do, but also because we believe that makes us safer. 

Q    Since the publication of the report, any calls coming from outside from foreign leaders?  Or has the President had to talk about this to anybody?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Richard, I mentioned this a little bit yesterday, and the fact is I’m not going to be in a position to read out any calls that the President may have had with any foreign leaders on this specific topic.

Jon.

Q    Coming back to the spending bill, Elizabeth Warren said that this bill “shows us the worst of government of the rich and powerful.”  So I’m wondering, does the President think that Elizabeth Warren is wrong about that?  Or is he supporting the passage and willing to sign a bill that, in her words, “shows us the worst of government of rich and powerful”?

MR. EARNEST:  I think it would be fair for you to observe that we might have a difference of opinion about this.  The  President is pleased that the legislation includes a double-digit funding increase for the CFTC, a double-digit funding increase for the SEC, and does not include any Republican riders which they’ve tried to attach to previous pieces of legislation that would essentially gut the authority of the CFPB.  I know the CFPB is something that is — is certainly something that Senator Warren is a strong advocate for. 

And the President worked with her to actually create this agency that would be a voice for consumers here in Washington, D.C., and I think that’s a testament to, again, the reason that the President is supporting this legislation — not because it’s perfect, and not because he supports every provision in it.  He doesn’t.  And he does not — she’s referring to I think a specific provision in this omnibus that would be related to watering down one provision of the Wall Street reform law.  The President does not support that provision.  But on balance, the President does believe that this compromise proposal is worthy of his support.

Q    Another one of the riders you did not mention basically undoes what the voters in the District of Columbia voted for, which was legalizing marijuana.  What’s the White House position on the fact that Congress, through this bill, would be basically undoing a democratic action, the democratic will of the people of the District of Columbia?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll answer your question.  As a general matter, it’s going to be hard for me to take a position on every single rider that’s included in the bill.

Q    This is a pretty big one, though.

MR. EARNEST:  And I’m prepared to talk about it.  But just  — as everybody else is thinking through —

Q    I won’t ask about any others.  D.C. marijuana.

MR. EARNEST:  On this one, what I can tell you is that this administration has been a strong supporter of the District of Columbia getting statehood.  And that’s an indication that we do not believe that Congress should spend a lot of time interfering with the ability of the citizens of the District of Columbia to make decisions related to how they should govern their community. And this was a specific referendum, I believe, that was on the last ballot, and we do believe that this kind of congressional interference does interfere with this home rule principle of which the President is strongly supportive.

Q    So, effectively, the President’s position on this is that because the people of the District of Columbia voted to legalize marijuana Congress should not get in the way.  That should go through and we should have legalized marijuana in D.C.

MR. EARNEST:  The President believes that on principle that members of Congress shouldn’t be interfering in this way with the decisions that the citizens of the District of Columbia are making about how they should be governed.

Q    Okay.  And then just one other one.  You offer your case for why a Democrat should vote for this.  I wonder if you could just kind of put yourself in Republican shoes for a moment — a spending bill that, as you said, fully funds Obamacare and does nothing to undo the President’s executive order on immigration — do you want to take a stab as to why Republicans should support such a bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t know that it fully funds the Affordable Care Act as much as I would like it to.  I think Republicans were unsuccessful in putting in place the kinds of riders that would gut our ability to implement the Affordable Care Act substantially.  But I grant the premise here.

What I would say is this.  I would anticipate that there are people who will deliver a much more persuasive case to Republicans than I will be able to do so.  But as a general matter I can say that I do think that there is strong Democratic and Republican agreement that any sort of government shutdown would be bad for our economy, and that businesses across the country who are trying to make decisions for the upcoming year will benefit from Congress passing a piece of legislation that funds just about the entire federal government through the end of this fiscal year.  And that kind of certainty will be beneficial to business owners who are trying to plan their business expenditures for the remaining of this fiscal year. 

That’s a good thing for our economy.  That’s a good thing for middle-class families.  And that is something that both Democrats and Republicans have placed a significant priority on. And I think that in and of itself is a lot of the reason that Democrats and Republicans should give a close look at this legislation before they decided to oppose it.

Major.

Q    Did Director Brennan in any way suggest to the President what he was going to say?  Was the reason for him to be here to get some sort of clearance or guidance from the President about how he should either state his case or answer questions about this CIA report?

MR. EARNEST:  I know that Director Brennan was here for the PDB.  I did not ask for a readout of the conversation that they had in the PDB, so I don’t —

Q    How frequently does he participate in that?

MR. EARNEST:  He does not participate in it every time, but it’s not particularly unusual for him to be here for the PDB in person.

Q    Did the White House feel it was necessary visually to just have a sense that the President supports the CIA Director and have him come over here today, in the aftermath of some questions raised about either, as Michelle raised, the distance between the two parts of the executive branch on this particular question or the future of Brennan himself?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  And the reason for that is simply that I think if we were looking for a public forum in which to demonstrate the President’s support for Director Brennan or we felt it was necessary for the President to publicly demonstrate his support for Director Brennan, we probably wouldn’t have chosen the most secretive meeting in Washington, D.C. (Laughter.) 

Q    But we did see him. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s because all of you are careful observers and good reporters and noticed him entering the building.  So I compliment you for that.  That was not something that we had intended to announce in advance.

Q    Thanks for that.  You mentioned earlier that Hill Democrats will have less leverage next year.  That’s an obvious fact.  Will the President have less leverage when it comes to early spring next year and he has to negotiate an extension of homeland security funding and deal with what are likely to be more pointed and maybe politically volatile or precise objections to the executive action taken on immigration?

MR. EARNEST:  The premise of your question, Major, is that there may be some Republicans who will threaten to cease funding for border security, for criminal background checks, and for other elements of our national security infrastructure that are critical to our homeland security just because they’re upset with the President taking executive action on immigration reform.

I recognize that there has been a passionate response in some Republican quarters to this executive action, but I don’t think the vast majority of Republicans think it would be a good idea to stop funding for the kinds of personnel and programs that are critical to our homeland security.

Q    So you will not lose any leverage?  That’s your position?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I just — I think that this will be leverage that the vast majority of Republicans will be unwilling to use, because I don’t think that they will want to be in a position — maybe I’m wrong, and again, I probably have — I’m not the person you should go to for insight into the thinking of Republicans — but my sense is that even Republicans would not want to be in a position of saying, you know what, we should stop funding for our border patrol officers who are putting their lives on the line to secure our border just because I’m pretty mad at the President about his executive action on immigration, that thing that he announced about three months ago.  Again, I think that is a tough case for Republicans to make and I’d be surprised if they made it, frankly.

Q    So you were somewhat reluctant to make a pitch to Republicans on why they’d support it.  You might have just inadvertently explained to them why they should not support it, because the message being given to Republicans is, we’ll fight another day on this.  From your vantage point, the White House’s vantage point, it doesn’t matter when you fight on it, you’ll lose.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a — no.  What I’m saying is that is an opportunity that’s open to them.  But I do think that the vast majority of Republicans will not think that’s a very good idea.

But again, I’ve been wrong in making these kinds of predictions before; I might be wrong this time, too.  But I don’t think that they will — if they do choose to have that fight — and I don’t think they will — but if they do, I do feel confident in saying they will not have widespread support among the American people for this. 

Ed.

Q    Josh, on the Senate report, you said you welcome a public debate, so I wonder if you could answer one of the questions that Vice President Cheney was sort of posing last night about, put yourself in their shoes after 9/11.  He said, when it comes to terrorists, “What are we supposed to do, kiss them on both cheeks and say, please, please, tell us what you know”? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, I think this President’s record of fighting terrorists and bringing terrorists like Osama bin Laden to justice are a testament to the seriousness with which the President confronts his responsibility to fight terrorism and protect the American people.

Q    On that point, James Mitchell was one of the contractors who put the interrogation system together.  You probably saw some of his quotes to various news outlets.  He said it’s “completely insensible for the President to say that slapping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is bad, but sending a hellfire missile into a family picnic and killing the children, you know, and killing granny” is somehow acceptable.  We talked about this yesterday, but when one of the people who put together this program is saying that there is a moral divide here, where, on one hand, you’re saying these tactics were horrible, but it’s okay to send a hellfire missile in and kill innocent civilians.

MR. EARNEST:  This is a worthy discussion, and so I appreciate you raising it once again.  Ed, it’s important for people — not just your viewers but for people everywhere to understand that when the United States undertakes lethal operations, which we only do as a last resort, the President has emphasized the extraordinary care that is taken to ensure that our counterterrorism actions are carried out in accordance with all applicable domestic and international laws and are consistent with the United States’ values and our policy.

A particular note — before any action is taken and before any counterterrorism strike is taken outside the area of active hostilities, there must be near certainty — this is policy — there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard that we can set.  What that means is it means that the United States considers the death of innocent civilians to be something that should be avoided if at all possible, but in those rare instances in which it does appear that civilians may have been injured or killed, after-action reviews are conducted to determine why and to ensure that the United States is taking the most effective steps to minimize such risk to civilians in the future.

Q    I want to ask a little bit about why there have not been prosecutions, as well.  The ACLU is saying that putting out this report and talking about it is not enough.  They’re saying there should be prosecutions for people who approved these brutal tactics.  Isn’t it cowardly for the administration to basically say the law was broken, there was torture, and yet we’re just simply not going to prosecute anyone?  If you really believe the law was broken, why isn’t the President making sure that the law is followed from here on out on torture by prosecuting people?

MR. EARNEST:  The determination about whether or not the law has been broken is made by a career prosecutor.  And federal prosecutors have looked into this.  They reviewed all of the evidence, including all the evidence that was considered by the committee that wrote this report.  What those federal prosecutors have said is that they did not find sufficient evidence to indict anyone.  That is their decision.

Q    But Chris Anders of the ACLU is saying if they really  — if the Justice Department looked at this Senate report, he says there’s 500 pages of crime after crime.  The President is basically — by banning this his second day in office, as you’ve said over and over, he believes this was against the law.  And there’s now 500 pages in the public domain saying there’s crime after crime.  So how can the Justice Department look at that if you really believe that the law was broken here?  How could they not —

MR. EARNEST:  If you have questions about the Justice Department investigation you should consult with them.  The President was not making a legal —

Q    Isn’t it common sense, though?

MR. EARNEST:  The President was not making a legal —

Q    — the President saying this is outside the law, I had to ban it.  And now we have 500 pages saying the law was broken. 

MR. EARNEST:  Let’s be real clear about what the President was saying.  The President was saying that these tactics were entirely inconsistent with our values as Americans, and that they undermined our moral authority, which is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal to protect the American people.  The President was definitive about that.  That’s why he outlawed these tactics on his second full day in office. 

But questions about legality are questions that should be answered by federal career prosecutors, outside of any sort of political influence or interference.  This is their decision to make.  They reviewed all the evidence.  But for the conclusions that they reached and why they reached those conclusions, you should check with them.  I do think they would be willing to talk about it.

Q    The President himself weighs in on immigration for example.  He said again and again, America is a nation of laws.  If the law is broken, why is he not making sure that people pay a price for that?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, because the way that our law — the way that our system of criminal justice works, is that we have federal career prosecutors who are insulated from any sort of political pressure who can go back and look into these matters and dig into them.  And they looked at the same evidence that was reviewed by the committee that wrote this report.  And you can talk to them about their conclusions and why they reached them. 

The President reached his own conclusion, though, about whether or not these tactics were consistent with American values.  He decided that they were not.  And that’s why on his second full day in office he unequivocally banned them from use, and has been, ever since, working to rebuild our moral authority around the globe to rebuild the kind of relationships that took a hit as a result of these tactics.  And I think because of those efforts and because of our commitment to living up to those values, we’ve made the country safer.

Jessica.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Did the President sign off on Brennan doing this presser?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I can’t speak to any conversations that took place between —

Q    — before today?  I mean, was the President aware he was doing it yesterday and did he sign off on it?

MR. EARNEST:  Frankly, I don’t know when they announced their news conference.  It is not routine for the White House to sign off on every news conference that’s done by a senior member of this administration. 

Q    How does the President feel about him taking this step? It’s very unusual.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think it’s particularly unusual for members of the President’s team to do news conferences.  I don’t know how often the CIA Director does — probably less given the nature of his job.  But I will tell you that the President continues to be very proud of Director Brennan and his leadership at the CIA.  He believes because of his professionalism and expertise, the American people are safer.  The President relies on his advice every single day about steps that we can take to protect the country, and protect our interest around the globe.  The President is pleased to rely on that advice and is going to continue to do that.

Q    And was there any attempt to either dissuade or encourage him to do this press conference?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, this is a decision that Director Brennan made, and it’s one that he should make on his own.

Olivier.

Q    Josh, you’ve pointed us repeatedly to the President’s actions on his second full day in office, as you said.  But one of those points you said that he had outlawed these practices, which obviously begs the question, were they legal before he acted?

MR. EARNEST:  Well I think — if I said that, then I was speaking colloquially and perhaps not as precisely as I should have been.  He banned those tactics on his second full day in office.  The questions about whether or not it was consistent with the law is something that should be determined by a career federal prosecutor.  I’m not a career federal prosecutor. 

Q    And you cited public opinion as a potential deterrent to a future commander-in-chief acting, but I confess I haven’t seen the recent polls, but the polls I looked at over the last, I don’t know, six years don’t actually show the majority of Americans opposing these kind of techniques when questioning terrorists.  And I’m wondering really, what’s the value of that public opinion as a bulwark against these practices returning to — into the government’s arsenal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Olivier, I think that’s one of the reasons that we benefit from having a public debate, that other Americans that may have had a loosely formed opinion, or maybe no opinion at all, have now, at least for the last two or three days now, been tuned into what has been a pretty robust public debate. We’ve had forceful, good people on both sides of this debate in which we’ve had an extensive discussion about whether the use of these techniques was worth it. 

And the President clearly believes that it was not, that the hit to our moral authority was significant, and we are continuing to take the kinds of steps that are needed to try to rebuild it. And the reason for that is that our moral authority does strengthen the national security interest of the United States and of the American people.  And the moral authority of the United States is something that’s worth protecting. 

And again, I think people on both sides of this debate could acknowledge that and would agree with that — not just acknowledge it, but actually agree with it.  And I would acknowledge that not everybody is going to sort of come down the same way that the President has in terms of banning these techniques, but the President I think has a pretty persuasive case to make about how that’s clearly in the national security interest of the United States, and why he believes that future Presidents should reach the same conclusion.

Q    And finally, has the President ever sought a formal assessment from the intelligence community about whether the drone program is a net asset, either because of our moral authority, or in terms of creating more enemies than it takes off the battlefield?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not aware of any intelligence assessment like this.  You can certainly check with the office of the Director of National Intelligence to see if they’re aware of anything like this that they could talk to you about. 

Okay.  Tamara.

Q    Regarding the spending bill, I think we all sat and watched our C-SPAN and saw that the rule barely made it.

MR. EARNEST:  I did, too.

Q    I figured you were also watching it.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I was.

Q    So did the White House put this out, show of support, in hopes of helping the law — this bill at a time — at a moment when it didn’t look that pretty out there on the floor?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s an interesting question.  I will say that this — that the statement of administration policy is something that we obviously had prepared.  It’s not something — it’s not as if we saw that —

Q    That you wrote in 10 minutes.

MR. EARNEST:  Exactly.  But this administration has been prepared for some time to — after having sufficient time to review all of the elements of the proposal, to arrive at a decision about whether or not the President would sign it, and then make public that view prior to the floor vote.  And so that’s what we’re doing.  What we’re doing is consistent with the way that we’ve handled this in the past.  But certainly when there was some doubt about the passage of the rule, that did add a little short-term drama into the situation.  We’ll see as they start counting noses on both sides about who is going to vote for this thing, we’ll see if we have additional drama.

Okay.  April.

Q    Josh, could you talk to me about the passage in the House and the Senate on the Death and Custody Reporting Act?  It’s when someone dies in police custody and it’s required now by law to go to — be reported to the Justice Department.  Now it’s just waiting for the signature of the President.  Could you talk to me about that?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not familiar with this proposal, April, but we’ll follow up with you on it.

Q    Is this something along the lines of what the President had been talking about and the Justice Department has been looking at — trying to fix this mistrust with the African American community and the police department, to try to put more accountability?  Do you think this is something that will give a little bit of accountability to the process so there could be a lessening of mistrust?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, based on the way that you’ve described it, it sounds like it might.  But let me have somebody who’s more familiar with the proposal get back to you, and we can do that today.

Okay, all right.  Yes.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Now that the House has passed a bill calling for sanctions against some members of the government of Venezuela for human rights violations, what are the President’s intentions?  Is he going to sign it?  And does he intend to enforce those sanctions?

MR. EARNEST:  Thanks for the question.  The administration shares Congress’s concerns and those of other regional and international actors about the situation in Venezuela.  We have not and will not remain silent in the face of Venezuelan government actions that violate human rights and fundamental freedoms, and deviate from well-established democratic norms.

We continue to work closely with Congress and others in the region on this issue to support greater political space in Venezuela, and ensure the government lives up to its shared commitment to the collective defense of democracy as articulated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.  The President plans to sign the bill into law, and we’ll coordinate with the relevant agencies and members to implement the law.

Angela.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  On the Antonio Weiss nomination, there’s been (inaudible) Democratic support to approve him.  And obviously in another few weeks, there will be a Republican-controlled Senate.  Is there going to be a change in strategy to try to get him approved given that you’ve tried to paint him as a liberal to get Democratic support and now you’ll need Republican support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t think that we have actually suggested, Angela, that he has any particular ideological point of view.  I do think that we have been candid, though, that he shares the President’s view about steps that can be taken to make our tax code more fair.  These are actually views that he’s articulated prior to even being considered for a position in the administration.  He wrote a report back in 2012 titled, “Reforming Our Tax System and Reducing Our Deficit,” in which he discussed the need to simplify our tax code and implement policies that help boost economic growth for the middle class.

So he is somebody who shares the President’s view that our economy will be strongest and will grow fastest when it grows from the middle out.  And his support for that kind of philosophy and for that strategy for growing our economy is one of the reasons that the President has nominated him for this position.

It also is not lost on anybody in the administration and I think is a testament to his credentials that he is somebody that has a deep working knowledge of our financial markets and of the kinds of economic issues that will be at the top of the to-do list for the next Under Secretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance.  He’s somebody who has worked for 20 years in the financial industry.  He understands these issues inside and out. So bringing someone to this job that has the right mix of expertise and skill and a strategy — and is supportive of a strategy that the President has outlined makes him the right person for the job.  It also makes him somebody who is worthy of strong bipartisan support.  And I do believe that Democrats and Republicans should come together around his nomination.

Q    But the fact remains he’ll need Republican support in the next Congress to get him approved.  Is that going to be easier?

MR. EARNEST:  And that would be true even if every single member of the Democratic caucus said that they were supporting him.  And so just because there are a couple members who’ve said that they aren’t doesn’t change the need that we’re going to need some bipartisan support to get him confirmed.  The good news is he strongly deserves that bipartisan support, and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to make that case.

Justin, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    In today’s installment of Democratic lawmaker hitting the White House while you’re up at the podium — (laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  I love that program.  (Laughter.)

Q    Nancy Pelosi just said that she’s enormously disappointed that the White House feels that this is the only way to get a bill, that she’s sad for the American people, and that she wouldn’t whip support for the cromnibus.  So I’m wondering —

MR. EARNEST:  Can you say that last part again?  She said what?  I haven’t heard this so I —

Q    Yes, that she would not whip support for the cromnibus bill. 

MR. EARNEST:  Did she say that she was voting against it?

Q    I don’t know.  I didn’t —

MR. EARNEST:  Okay. 

Q    So my question is twofold.  One is your reaction to what she had to say, but also, if you’re aware of any efforts by the White House to sort of whip support — especially House Democrats, especially since the bill seems kind of tenuous right now?

MR. EARNEST:  You mean aside from the compelling and persuasive statement that I delivered here today?

Q    Well, any calls from the President or any —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me say a couple things about that.  The President’s respect and affection for Leader Pelosi are no secret.  The President has worked closely with Leader Pelosi to make progress on a wide range of accomplishments that will be at the top of any list of legislative highlights describing the President’s legacy.  They would not have been possible without somebody who has the kind of skill and determination and values that Nancy Pelosi does.

So that said, it’s clear that we have a difference of opinion here.  And again, as I mentioned yesterday and repeated today, it will be the responsibility of every member of Congress to vote their conscience on this legislation. 

The President has arrived at a different conclusion than the one that you have described as the conclusion that was reached by Leader Pelosi.  But for the reasons that I outlined — the support for key national security priorities, the support for key domestic policy priorities, and the success in fighting off Republican efforts to undermine some of the progress that we’ve made on other priorities — is, in the mind of this President, reason enough to support this piece of compromise legislation.

Q    Is the President making calls on this, or are administration officials making calls trying to whip support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I think you would anticipate, there have been at least a couple of phone calls between the White House and Capitol Hill today.  That’s probably not a surprise.  I don’t know if there will be additional phone calls, but if additional — if there are people who want to have a better sense of the administration’s view of this legislation, I’m sure we’ll be happy to have those conversations.

Thanks a lot, everybody.  Have a good afternoon.

END   
1:45 P.M. EST