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Helen Clark: Bishop Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture 2015 on “The promise and challenge of 2015 for sustainable development”

26 Aug 2015

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the Bishop Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture this year. 

My association with Sir Paul began when I was a Cabinet Minister in the 1980s and Paul was Governor General of New Zealand. Paul Reeves was a strong character and had made his mark in the Anglican Church, rising to its top position here as Archbishop and Primate of New Zealand.  

Paul had my lifetime respect for his determination to make a difference for people.  Long after he left the office of Governor-General, he maintained a hectic pace at home and abroad, not least as Chancellor of the university hosting us tonight – Auckland University of Technology, but also in the service of the Commonwealth, the Anglican Church at the United Nations, and other causes.  

I was greatly honoured when Paul came to New York with a delegation of senior Maori leaders to support me when I took up my current position as Administrator of UNDP and Chair of the United Nations Development Group.  People still talk of how exciting the ceremony at which they “handed me over” to the UN was – nothing quite like that had ever happened there before!

I understand that, each year, Leadership New Zealand, the organizer of this lecture, adopts a theme for its programmes and events, and that this year’s theme is “Fearless Leadership”.  That description certainly applied to Paul Reeves, and it is an attribute needed to meet the huge challenges confronting our world today.  Fearless leadership, however, is not only a quality needed at the national and global levels – everyone, whatever their walk in life, has an opportunity to practise it.

2015 presents many opportunities to set a new course for people and planet – major global agendas related to development are being written this year.  These new agenda need to be bold and transformational. They need genuine commitment – from citizens and civil society organisations to Heads of State and Government.  I will reflect on these issues this evening.

For sure, the future of New Zealand is closely linked to the state of the global economy, global ecosystems, and global peace and stability. All countries need economies which generate jobs and opportunities, especially for today’s largest ever youth generation, many of whom don’t have a lot to look forward to right now. We need societies and political systems which are more inclusive and cohesive. We need healthy ecosystems. We need peace. Development plays a major role in advancing all these ends – that’s why I love my position at UNDP.

In September, leaders from most of the United Nations Member States are coming to New York to sign a declaration on advancing sustainable development, and to launch the Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs. This new agenda builds on the Millennium Declaration which I signed on behalf of New Zealand in 2000, and from which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched. The MDGs have guided global development co-operation with developing countries ever since.

The new agenda, however, will be universal – it will apply to all countries at all stages of development. This makes the point that sustainable development in the 21st century isn’t something which happens to somebody else, somewhere else. We all have a stake in it – and every country has work to do to progress towards it.

The UN Summit on Sustainable Development is just one of the four big development-related summits taking place this year. Already in March, in Japan, the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction took place, and wrote the global agenda in that area for the next generation.  From UNDP, we went to that meeting saying “if it’s not risk informed, it’s not sustainable development”. Time and time again, we see families and communities around the world losing everything because there was not effective mitigation of disaster risk. Nepal on 25 April suffered grievously from a major earthquake, and then a major subsequent quake.  The people of Christchurch, New Zealand, in particular, will empathize with Nepal. Let’s acknowledge too that the difference between earthquake impacts on the two locations was in the level of development of the two countries and in New Zealand’s capacity to make long term investments in disaster risk reduction.

Climate change is raising the risk of weather-related disasters exponentially, and unplanned urbanization is putting more and more people at risk of natural hazards in general.  It is the poor and vulnerable who are often most exposed to seismic and weather-related risks. 

The sustainable development and disaster risk reduction agendas link to the major UN climate change conference in Paris at the end of the year, where a new global treaty is due to be agreed. As we speak, countries are filing what are called their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – which are their announced commitments to mitigate climate change.  

At this point, these collective commitments to reduce greenhouse gases emissions will not add up to what is needed to keep the global temperature rise under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  Thus, the Typhoon Haiyans and Cyclone Pams which devastate coastal communities would become more and more regular – as would the protracted droughts which are impacting on food production globally.  This matters for New Zealand which needs a temperate and equable climate for its pastoral agriculture to thrive. It matters greatly to Small Island Developing States – for some of which it’s a question of survival.  It matters to us all.

Do global agendas matter?

Yes, they do. 

Looking back over the progress of the MDGs, there has been significant progress on getting children into school; reducing infant, child, and maternal deaths; and turning the tide on  HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB. The rate of progress would have been unlikely to have been achieved without the focus, funding and action which came in around the MDG targets. 

But there is a lot of unfinished business from the MDGs. While the target of halving  the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, measured against 1990 figures, was met by 2010, it is not much fun being in the other half – the so-called “bottom billion”, for whom life has scarcely changed in many respects. 

UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, recently estimated that at the current pace of progress, 68 million more children under five will die from mostly preventable causes by 2030. It would take almost 100 years before girls being born into sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest families could expect to complete their lower secondary education.

For these and many other reasons, including the accelerated degradation of ecosystems, we need the new, bolder, sustainable development agenda which aims to go to zero on eradication of extreme poverty and to confront the many other global challenges, including:

• growing inequality and ongoing discrimination,

• the jobs deficit and its implications, particularly for youth,

• mounting environmental challenges, including climate change, and

• the impact of conflicts and disasters.

Let me discuss these challenges.

First, inequality, which is rising in many countries rich and poor. 

UNDP estimates that seventy per cent of the citizens of developing countries are living in societies which are less equal today than they were in 1990, the baseline date for measuring progress on the MDGs. 

Then, if we take a developed world example, the ILO (International Labor Organization) tells us that child poverty is rising in eighteen of the 28 countries in the EU, and has linked that to falling levels of maternal and child benefits. The era of austerity has not been kind to social protection systems in many countries.  

One of the defining features of the SDG agenda will be to leave no one behind. The rising tide should lift every boat. That means tackling entrenched inequalities relating to gender, ethnicity, and other factors. 

Gender inequality remains pervasive – yet societies clearly are the poorer if they fail to tap the full potential of half their population. Around the world, where women are “out of sight out of mind” – disempowered and under-represented in decision-making circles – meeting their needs often doesn’t get prioritized.

Yet, let’s take hope from examples of the fearless leadership of women in so many communities, not least in working for peace and recovery from Guatemala to Liberia, and from Rwanda to Colombia.

And let’s salute the fearless leadership of Malala, already a beacon of hope for girls around the world, who defied serious attacks on her life in Pakistan and advocates globally for girls’ education. Earlier this year, Malala spent her 18th birthday in Syria, where she opened a school for displaced children funded through her Foundation. 

Malala reminds us of the hopes and aspirations of another major global group – today’s generation of adolescents and youth which stands at 1.8 billion people – the largest our world has ever seen. Most of these young people live in developing countries. The energy, hopes, and innovation of this large youth generation can bring a huge demographic dividend to countries. But the opposite is also true. A generation with many unemployed, alienated, and disengaged youth is not a recipe for peace and harmony.  Around our world, youth are disproportionately unemployed; and often lack access to quality and affordable services. 

Inequalities also continue to affect indigenous people adversely – including in our own country. Indigenous people have for centuries struggled to protect their ways of life and the fabric of their societies. A new global agenda determined to leave no one behind must embrace indigenous communities – and indeed all minorities around the world.

The inequalities and discrimination affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people are also now prominent on the global agenda. Many countries are addressing these issues decisively – but in others LGBTI communities continue to suffer from discrimination and punitive laws.  This grouping must not be left behind either in a global agenda determined to address inequalities.

Reducing inequalities requires proactive policies and investments: in education, skills training, sexual and reproductive health services, availability of credit – and in all the other services which widen opportunity. It also means commitment to inclusion – economic, social and political.  It may require legislative and regulatory change. New Zealand can advocate for this agenda globally.

I’ve already commented on another major challenge which the new global agenda must address – the rapid pace of environmental degradation – of which the damage to the climate ecosystem is the best known. Biodiversity loss is another critical case – human survival and wellbeing depend heavily upon the earth’s biodiversity. Species loss not only has serious implications for our natural environment: it also undermines our livelihoods, health, and food and water security.

Environmental sustainability and equity are inextricably linked. While climate change, deforestation, air and water pollution, and biodiversity loss affect us all, they affect the poorest and most vulnerable the most.

The 2011 UNDP global Human Development Report on Equity and Sustainability showed how escalating environmental degradation threatens human development. On the worst case scenario, which often appears probable, human development progress would slow to a crawl by mid-century, and disproportionately so in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Asia. That is surely not a future we want.

Fearless leadership to tackle environmental degradation is required. I know it’s not easy, having witnessed farmers’ protests against being included in a carbon tax, few people wanting to pay more for petrol, and even objections to mandatory energy efficient lightbulbs. But all countries must act.

As well, there can be no sustainable development without peace and stability – right now the world suffers a big deficit in this respect. Humanitarian emergencies fueled by war and conflict are overwhelming the international community’s capacity to respond. Humanitarian relief spending has trebled in the last decade. On current trends there will never be enough money to meet vital needs for relief.  We have to try to reduce demand through support for building more inclusive and peaceful societies – eight out of every ten dollars spent on meeting humanitarian needs goes to help people caught up in conflicts. The new global agenda has something to say about this too – calling for access to justice for all, and for accountable, inclusive, and effective institutions at all levels.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says sixty million people are now displaced in our world. Around twenty million of them are classified as refugees. More people are on the move today than at any time since the United Nations was founded in 1945. They are coming from Syria, for example, where conflict has resulted in more than four million refugees, and more than 7.6 million internally displaced people. 

The Syria crisis has sparked the largest humanitarian and development crisis of our times, with serious impacts on the sub-region and beyond. Among those attempting the desperate, dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean are many Syrians. I myself have spoken to Syrian refugees who have been sitting in camps for more than three years – it’s not hard to understand why people try to break out of their predicament. 

But people are also fleeing from other conflict zones, and from impoverished communities in stable countries too. It was distressing to read that at least two hundred Senegalese citizens died in just one boat disaster in the Mediterranean in April – their country has known stability since independence, but it is a low income country with still significant poverty which its government is trying determinedly to address. 

Elsewhere: 

• radical insurgents from Boko Haram to Al Shabaab on the African continent to Al Qaeda and IS in the Middle East are making life unbearable for those on whom they prey.

• In Yemen, major airstrikes, shelling and fighting have affected eighty per cent of the country’s 25 million people. 

• In South Sudan, nineteen months of conflict have contributed to food insecurity. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says that more than forty per cent of the population there face hunger.

• In Ukraine there are an estimated 1.3 million internally displaced people, which is putting strain on host communities in the Ukrainian Government-controlled areas.

The list of conflicts could go on……

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that appeals for humanitarian relief funding have soared. Thus, this is the time to be asking fundamental questions. Humanitarian needs need not be ever-increasing. How could we collectively act to stem the tide and reverse current trends?

This is intrinsically a development question. Humanitarian needs will shrink when and where long-term sustainable development based on peaceful and inclusive societies is achieved.  That’s why the proposed SDG, Goal 16, on this is so important.  

New Zealand can lead in this area: our country has a reputation for being fair minded and wanting to contribute to resolution of the world’s conflicts. Investing in what might prevent them in the future is important too. If Goal 16 were universally achieved, the conflicts we see destroying lives and hopes and driving so many desperate and dangerous journeys to other lands could become a thing of the past. 

Implementing the new global agenda

Let’s come then to implementation – the best agendas are more words on paper unless they can be advanced. 

The good news is that our world has more wealth, more knowledge, and more technologies at its disposal than ever before. The challenges we face are mostly human induced. We can tackle them, but not if we keep doing business as usual and expecting different results. 

Radical adjustments are needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities. There is capacity to be built. Governance to improve. Sweeping policy, legislative, and regulatory changes are needed. A commitment to lasting peace and stability based on peaceful and inclusive societies is essential.

Leadership – fearless leadership – is needed to realize the better world envisioned in the SDGs. 

First, leadership is needed on finding the funding required. Money isn’t everything, but it certainly helps, including through Official Development Assistance (ODA).

To put ODA in perspective, it amounted last year to $135.2 billion. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has forecast that to achieve the SDGs by 2030 in key sectors like food and nutrition, water and sanitation, and health, $3.3 to $4.5 trillion would need to be invested each year. 

So ODA is a small part of the financing picture. But that is all the more reason to be insisting on it being smart and effective, and to focus it on:

• building national capacities for inclusive and sustainable growth, to spark domestic resource mobilization from that growth, and to improve countries’ ability to trade and attract quality loans and investment;

• averting the crises which keep wiping out development gains, and supporting countries to emerge from conflict and get back on track for development. Risks of disaster, conflict and disease outbreaks are now the norm, not the exception; these risks need to be understood, planned for, and financed. Yet, currently, for every US$100 spent on development aid, just forty cents is estimated to go into protecting that development from disaster. With trillions to be spent on infrastructure between now and 2030, it’s vital for  development to be risk-informed;

• hard as it is, complex as it is, we need more investment in building the foundations of peace and stability, good governance, and inclusive and sustainable development in these most challenging of contexts; and

• ensuring all financing – development and humanitarian, international and national, public and private – works together to address risks and vulnerability. 

A new framework for financing for development was agreed at the Third International Conference on that theme in Addis Ababa last month – the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.  In many ways, it catches up with the reality that most development is financed through domestic resource mobilization. 

UNDP launched a new initiative with the OECD there: Tax Inspectors Without Borders. It will place international tax audit experts to work alongside national tax authorities to enable them to assess and collect the tax they should be being paid by international companies.

The Addis Ababa Action Agenda also established global technology and infrastructure mechanisms, and set important priorities for development investment – including in social protection, jobs creation, nutrition and agriculture, and more. 

Second, broad coalitions of leaders are needed. Clearly governments acting alone can’t achieve the goals envisaged in the new global agenda. Their leadership is vital, but insufficient – broader leadership is also required. That includes leadership from civil society – our NGOs, scientists, researchers, and academia; and from local government too – their role is critical. 

As well, the private sector must be engaged. How business does business and where it invests will have a huge bearing on whether the SDGs can be achieved. The commitment of business needs to go beyond relatively small scale corporate responsibility projects, and into commitments to shared value, inclusion of micro-enterprise and SMEs in value chains, and environmentally sensitive development. New business models and innovative partnerships need to be built.

Being an optimist, I look at what is happening with the palm oil sector. Vast areas of tropical forest have been cleared for palm oil production over the years.  Now, however, up to ninety per cent of the buying power of palm oil is estimated to be signing up to deforestation-free supply chains. The message is: don’t even bother deforesting for palm oil production – there will be no market for such product. 

These commitments were in evidence at last year’s Climate Summit at the UN – where the New York Declaration on Forests was signed by representatives of governments, business, and indigenous people and civil society groups.  UNDP led for the UN on the preparation of the forest action stream for the Summit. Now the aim is to expand this approach into other areas of commodities’ production – soy and beef production are obvious candidates. This is an agenda on which New Zealand can lead, based on our experience of stopping the destruction of native forest on all public land.

To come back to the driving principles of the new global agenda, it is as relevant to a developed country like New Zealand as it is to a least developed country. Of course there are very different starting points. But everybody needs to be on board with sustainable development. On areas like climate change, the poor and vulnerable, who have contributed very little – if anything at all to the problem – bear the brunt of the consequences.

That is a reason why developing countries to this day back a “common but differentiated responsibility” approach to action on climate change.  Those who’ve contributed to most to the problem historically should do the most. That leadership should be embraced by developed countries. If that leadership is shown, and if there is greater support for developing countries to make the transition to a green economy, then I believe developing countries too will lift their level of ambition on greenhouse gases emissions reductions.

Third, leadership is needed more than ever from the multilateral system – including from UNDP. We are turning ourselves inside out to play that role. Our job is to support countries to eradicate poverty, and to do that in a way which simultaneously reduces inequality and exclusion, and avoids wrecking the ecosystems on which life depends.

UNDP’s 50th anniversary is coming up on 1 January next year. Since the MDGs were launched, we’ve supported countries to integrate them into their national agendas and take action on them. We have worked to strengthen capacity, share knowledge, and support access to finance. Over the past five years, we’ve led on MDG acceleration – based on government leadership and convening the wide range of stakeholders to tackle the real obstacles to MDG achievement – which are often not the most obvious. For example, high maternal death rates may result not only from the absence of a skilled birth attendant.  There may be no transport to that service; the expectant mothers may be adolescents who experience high maternal mortality rates; and women may not have access to adequate nutrition or sexual and reproductive health services in general.   

To bring down maternal mortality rates, all such issues must be tackled. Solutions may not be quick – but if the real obstacles are identified, and a pathway to change is followed, eventually there will be better outcomes.

Now the UN development system as a whole has the challenge of working with countries on advancing the big, new, complex, sustainable development agenda. Already, where countries are developing their new national development plans, there is close discussion on how to incorporate the SDGs, just as the MDGs were incorporated over the past decade and a half. 

Conclusion

This is a “once in a generation year” for development. It’s a year in which the goals which will guide development for the next fifteen years will be launched. A new global disaster risk reduction framework is in place. A positive and realistic framework on financing for development was reached last month. There is likely to be a new agreement on tackling climate change in December – but the ambition for it needs to be lifted.

By advancing on all these agendas, there is a chance to meet the world’s citizens’ aspirations for a more peaceful, prosperous, and stable future, and for preserving the health of our planet’s ecosystems. 

But sustainable development will remain elusive, and global instability and turbulence will continue to undermine prospects, if business as usual continues.  Volatility is the new normal. 

• The realities of the world we live in must be acknowledged, so that there is earlier, more proactive, and more pre-emptive investment in risk-informed development. 

• The growing inequalities and unchecked discrimination which undermine social cohesion need to be tackled head on. 

• Environmental degradation must be arrested.

• The downward spiral of conflict, instability, and crisis must be halted.

Ours is the last generation which can head off the worst effects of climate change. Ours is the first generation with the know how to eradicate extreme poverty, and secure a more hopeful future for all. For this fearless leadership from us all is needed. 

If we are collectively prepared to step up to realize the opportunity which the 2015 agendas offer, then there’s a chance of achieving sustainable development – and with it better prospects for people and planet.

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/7/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room 

1:18 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Happy Friday.  

Q    Yes!

Q    Finally.

MR. EARNEST:  Let me do a short statement, Mark, and then we’ll go to your questions.

Today actually marks the one-year anniversary of the commencement of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIL targets.  You will recall, one year ago today, that ISIL had advanced unimpeded across Iraq.  Fallujah and other parts of Anbar had already fallen earlier in the year.  Mosul had fallen; Tikrit had fallen; Kirkuk had fallen.  ISIL was advancing rapidly on Erbil and Baghdad, where U.S. government personnel were located.  And ISIL forces were laying siege to Sinjar Mountain, threatening genocide against the Yazidi people.  ISIL had committed — and they still commit, by the way — atrocities against all of Iraq’s diverse communities — Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others.

But in the last year, we have made considerable progress in our effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  The U.S.-led coalition has now hit ISIL with more than 6,000 airstrikes.  The coalition has also taken out thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicles, bomb factories and training camps.  In Iraq, ISIL has lost the freedom to operate in some 30 percent of the territory that they held last summer. 

Overall, ISIL has lost more than 17,000 square kilometers of territory in northern Syria — that’s over the course of the last year.  And they are now cut off from all but 68 miles of the more than 500-mile long border between Syria and Turkey.  Coalition forces have repeatedly struck ISIL leadership targets, to an extent that ISIL leadership targets no longer have a safe haven.  And the United States and our coalition partners are taking steps to interrupt ISIL’s finances, and make it more different for the group to attract new foreign fighters.

As the President has said, this campaign will take time and there will be setbacks along the way.  But we and our coalition partners have made progress and we will ultimately prevail.

While our commanders continue this mission, there is one thing that Congress can do to support their efforts; they can vote on the authority for military force against ISIL that the President sent to Congress nearly six months ago.  There is simply no excuse for members of Congress to continue to dodge this debate while our men and women put themselves in harm’s way to support our effort to defeat and ultimately destroy ISIL.

So, with that, let’s go to questions.  Mark.

Q    And I’d like to shift straight to Iran and the two very large-scale defections that you had — Chuck Schumer and Eliot Engel.  How big a blow is that to the administration’s effort to avoid having Congress to (inaudible) of this deal?  And do these otherwise loyal Democrats now join the group who the President thinks are pursuing a fantasy of a better deal, choosing a form of war over diplomacy, and who are, in some cases, making common cause with folks shouting “Death to America”?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mark, the President certainly stands by the arguments that he made in his speech at American University on Wednesday.  You cited the two members of Congress that have come out in opposition to the deal since the President delivered his speech, but there are — we’re now up to — let me just do the math here — I think we’re up to 12 members of Congress that have come out in support of the deal.  And that’s seven in the House and five in the United States Senate.

So certainly the two members that you mentioned are influential members of Congress, but they have one vote.  And since the speech, we’ve gotten substantially more votes in support of the deal.  And I think that’s an indication of how persuasive the President’s speech was and how persuasive a case it is that he is making to members of Congress and to the American public.

Q    It’s not every day you lose a guy that’s going to be the number one Democrat in the Senate.  And again, does he, does Eliot Engel now — are they classified as these people who are rejectionists for reasons that the President has questioned?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what the President took on directly in his speech is that the individuals who are advocating for the defeat of this agreement are the same people who made the same arguments in 2003 in the march to war against Iraq.  So this includes people like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and John McCain and more recent newcomers like Tom Cotton and Donald Trump.  

That’s why, on the other side, the group of people who are supporting the agreement are those individuals who, like the President of the United States, opposed the Iraq war from the beginning or have since acknowledged that the congressional vote in support of that march to war was a mistake.  And I mentioned some of their names already — Senator Gillibrand and Senator Baldwin are two of the newcomers.  But there are also people like Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin and Adam Schiff who have strong records on these matters. 

So anyone — and Mark you would be in this category — anybody who has been covering American politics for the last 12 or 13 years would recognize the fault lines of this political argument.  It’s not new.  And this is a difference of opinion that President Obama and Senator Schumer have had dating all the way back to 2003.  

That all said, that’s why I would describe this as an announcement that was not particularly surprising to anybody here at the White House even if it was disappointing.  But it doesn’t change our confidence that we’ll be able to mobilize a substantial majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate in support of the deal, and if necessary, to sustain the President’s veto. 

Q    All right.  Since you’ve mentioned the Trump word, let me shift quickly to the debate.  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  If you needed to know — (laughter.)  

Q    Since the President wouldn’t answer our questions about whether he watched the debate, can you tell us whether he watched the debate?  What was his reaction to it? 

MR. EARNEST:  I did have an opportunity to speak briefly with him this morning and he indicated that he did not watch the debate last night.  I did have the opportunity to watch the debate.  I was disappointed that it started so late.  So there was a point where I did doze off for a little bit during the debate — (laughter) — but I woke up and thought I’d been transported back to 2012, where we saw a variety of Republicans making outlandish and certainly outside-the-mainstream claims about the country and claims about their views and priorities.  And I don’t think that Republicans found that to be a particularly useful line of attack last time.  But it appears they may be fixing to do it again. 

Q    Were you surprised by any of what you saw?  Or did you feel the need to fact-check anything? 

MR. EARNEST:  Not particularly.  

Q    And you said the President didn’t see it, but you also indicated yesterday he might at least catch clips or something. So he’s seen nothing of the debate? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think he has seen some of the coverage of the debate, but he did not watch it last night. 

Jeff. 

Q    Josh, an Iranian official has confirmed that the head of its elite military Quds Force — if I said that correctly — traveled to Russia to hold talks with Russian officials, in violation of an international travel ban.  Now that that’s been confirmed from the Iranian side, what is the U.S. reaction to that?  And what sort of concerns does it raise about both Russia and Iran’s respect for that ban? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, I’ve seen those reports as well, I’m not able to independently confirm them, however.  I think what I would remind you of is we have indicated from the very beginning that our expectation was that this effort to reach an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would not address the longstanding and lengthy list of concerns that we have with Iranian behavior. 

You mentioned Mr. Soleimani.  He, in particular, is someone who has been subject to U.S. sanctions for quite some time because of the effort that he has undertaken to support terrorist organizations around the world.  And again, I can’t confirm these specific reports, but it is an indication of our ongoing concerns with Iran and their behavior and, in the mind of the President, makes it all that more important that we pursue the best available strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And that’s exactly what the President believes this diplomatic agreement is.  

Q    Does it raise any concerns about Russia?  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, we have found over the course of this diplomatic engagement in the context of the P5+1 negotiations that Russia has been an effective partner, and the international community and the citizens of Russia have benefited from their willingness to cooperate with the broader international community in reaching an agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And we hope that Russia will continue to act cooperatively with the international community moving forward. 

Q    But you’re not worried that they would be holding meetings with Iranian military official?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not in a position to confirm the individual reports. 

Q    Going back briefly to Iran.  Does this development, which you’ve characterized as not surprising, but disappointing, change the calculations for a lobbying campaign going forward over the next few weeks?  Does it change your answer to my question yesterday about the President’s engagement while he’s on vacation? 

MR. EARNEST:  No, I do not anticipate that the President will spend a lot of time making calls on vacation.  I think it’s possible that the President would make some one-off calls, but I think most of the President’s time on Martha’s Vineyard will be spent with his family, or on the golf course, or a little bit of both. 

Q    And overall, are you still confident about support for the deal?  You listed the people who have come out in favor of it, but it’s still got a ways to go.  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think, Jeff, what’s clear is that there are still a number of people who have not announced a position on this issue.  And that’s why you can expect that there will be continued discussions between senior administration officials and members of Congress even over the next several weeks that Congress is out of town.  

And we do continue to be confident in our ability to build strong majorities in both the House and the Senate among the Democratic caucus.  And one of the reasons that that is the case is that there continue to be — there’s ample public data to indicate that this is an agreement that Democrats across the country support.  And there’s even some polling data to indicate that there are majorities of American Jews who support this agreement.  And that continues to give us confidence that as people consider the terms of this agreement and as they consider the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we’ve got a strong case to make in terms of persuading members of Congress and the American public that this is, in fact, the best approach.

Justin.

Q    One more on Senator Schumer.  A number of former senior administration officials, including Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau, last night tweeted suggesting that between this and what Senator Schumer said about Obamacare in the past, that the base might not support him as the Democratic leader in the Senate.  I’m wondering if Senator Schumer’s position on this issue has brought that question to any doubt at the White House.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, ultimately, this is a question for Democratic senators, and this is a vote that they will cast in early 2017 — I believe that’s the way the system would work.  So this was a line of questioning that came up in this context when Senator Reid announced his retirement, and I said at the time that the White House did not anticipate — this White House, at least — would not take a position on those future leadership elections in the Senate Democratic caucus.  

That continues to be true today.  But I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if there are individual members of the Senate Democratic caucus that will consider the voting record of those who say they would like to lead the caucus.

Q    Earlier this week, a draft memo of an executive order that would require federal contractors to provide their employees with a week of paid sick leave was circulated on the Hill.  I know that the Labor Department has said that no final decisions have been made, and you guys haven’t commented so far, but I’m wondering, is this at a point where it’s kind of getting through the regulatory language and crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, or is there any reason that the White House wouldn’t support and doesn’t plan to implement such an executive order?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I don’t have any comment on the consideration of possible executive actions that the President or the administration might take in pursuit of priorities that we have laid out.  The President has certainly made clear that he believes that middle-class families and our broader economy would benefit if more families had access to paid leave; that those kinds of policies help middle-class workers better balance the obligations they have at the office with the obligations that they have at home.  And when those polices are effectively implemented, they have a way of improving productivity and bolstering loyalty to the employer.  

That’s why we’ve seen so many private sector companies take action on their own to implement these kinds of policies.  And I know that — I believe it was Netflix earlier this week got a lot of attention for a paid-leave policy that they’re implementing at that company.  And they’re not doing it out of charity; I’m confident they think it’s good for their business.  And the President has made no secret of the fact that he believes this would be good business for companies all across the country.  But I don’t have any announcements to make at this point about executive actions that may be under consideration in pursuit of that goal.

Q    A last one on Syria.  In a meeting with columnists earlier this week, it’s reported that the President said that he saw a glimmer of opportunity for a political transition in Syria that hadn’t existed previously because the governments of both Iran and Russia were starting to worry about the stability there. So I’m wondering what the President is basing his assessment of positions of Russia and Iran on.  Was this an issue that came up during the nuclear talks?  Has the President or have administration officials had conversations with the Iranian government about Syria?  And secondly, what is the U.S. doing to seize advantage of this window that you perceive — are there any policy changes that you are trying to undertake to sort of take advantage of this moment that the President sees?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, it sounds to me like an accurate characterization of what the President said in the interview.  And the view that he was expressing was based on his own analysis of what’s occurring on the ground.  I think that many analysts with some expertise in this area have concluded that President Assad’s grip on power is not as strong as it once was.  And I don’t have any specific conversations to tell you about, but there’s reason to believe that it’s not just analysts in the United States that have made this observation, but other interested parties in the region have also reached this conclusion as well.

It’s unclear exactly how that is going to change anybody’s strategy or anybody’s actions in the region.  But as the President pointed out, it does offer at least a little bit more hope that our long-sought political reconciliation in Syria might be slightly more attainable.

Q    If he sees a window that’s unique from a previous time, shouldn’t he consider maybe some of the options about either arming more rebels, or backing them financially?  Or maybe some additional U.S. intervention that — whether it’s airstrikes against the Assad regime or some sort of military effort against them?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think that any of the steps that you just named would logically make some of the countries that you named in your original question more likely to be constructive.  But I think it is safe for you to assume that the President and his national security team have been and continue to watch the situation in Syria quite closely and to consider a range of policy options that could improve what is just an awful situation.

I had an opportunity to refer to it earlier this week of just the terrible humanitarian toll that this conflict has taken on that country.  And the United States has committed significant resources to try to alleve some of that human suffering and to try to ease the burden on other countries in the region that have taken on so much responsibility for some Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict.  So there are a variety of reasons to be concerned about the situation in Syria, and it’s one that we continue to watch closely.

Jim.

Q    Did Senator Schumer call the President to inform him of this decision?

MR. EARNEST:  The President was given a heads-up in advance of Senator Schumer’s announcement.

Q    But you can’t say whether or not it was a call from the Senator himself?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any specific conversations to readout.

Q    And you said you wouldn’t be surprised if Democratic caucus members in the Senate were to take this into consideration, deciding who their next leader should be.  How provocative would it be, do you think, if Senator Schumer were to start whipping against this deal.  Coming out against it is one thing; whipping against it is another, I suppose.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think ultimately that will be a decision that individual members of the Senate will have to make. And I’m not sure that my opinion on that matters too much.

Q    Okay.  And can you — 

MR. EARNEST:  I recognize that hasn’t stopped me from weighing in on other things.  (Laughter.)  But in this case, I’ll defer.

Q    Case-by-case basis.

MR. EARNEST:  Exactly.

Q    Can you measure the frustration level inside the White House right now in response to Senator Schumer’s decision?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think I would stick with my description before as disappointing but not surprising.  Again, this is a — the fault lines of this argument date back more than a decade and this is a difference of opinion that President Obama and Senator Schumer have had for quite some time.  

Senator Schumer, in his announcement, made a strong case for the President of the United States seeking to impose the will of the United States on a sovereign country in the Middle East.  And previous efforts to do that, like those that occurred in 2003, have not served the interests of the United States very well.  And that is the essence of the disagreement that was brought to light last night.

Q    And getting back to the debate last night, was there one comment that was made that you would take most exception to? What struck you as being something that you really had a problem with last night in terms the way these candidates were talking about the President’s record?

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, I think I’m going to resist the urge to choose just one, there were so many.  (Laughter.)

Q    You are the President’s spokesman.

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you for giving me the opportunity.  (Laughter.)

Q    And I’ll try another one — I probably won’t be successful.  It’s a Friday and he’s leaving for vacation, but I’m going to give it one more try.

MR. EARNEST:  Maybe the third try is the charm.

Q    Third try is the charm.  If I’m not mistaken, Secretary Clinton will likely be in Martha’s Vineyard roughly the same time that the President will.  Their vacations may overlap.  That did happen last year, as a matter of fact.  There was some news, as I recall, when that occurred.  Do you think that it’s possible that the two will meet?  It’s a small island.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, it is a small island.

Q    The ferry service is limited.  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know precisely what Secretary Clinton’s vacation itinerary will be, but I wouldn’t rule out that they may cross paths.  If they do, we’ll be in a position to let you know.

April.

Q    Josh, I want to go back to a couple of subjects.  First, I want to ask you about the Iran deal and the vote — well, potential vote.  You gave a glimmer of the tally.  Do you have more insight on the tally you gave us — 12 members of Congress have come out in support — 7 House, 5 Senate.  What’s the overall number that you have so far?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an overall number in front of me.  And even if I did, I’m not sure that I would share it.

Q    Well, why did you share this one?

MR. EARNEST:  To illustrate the persuasive power of the speech that the President delivered on Wednesday — that these are just the — and, again, the tally that I gave you, those are individuals who have publicly announced their support.  So merely as a service to you, I highlighted — I collated the public statements that have been issued and tallied them up for you.  But, again, just the raw numbers here — because we’re talking about one vote per member of Congress — the 12 members of Congress that have come out since the President’s speech on the Democratic side is an indication of the momentum we hope to build on to build the strong majority in the Democratic caucus in both the House and the Senate that we expect in support of the deal.

Q    And you say, the support and non-support runs along obvious fault lines.  But what do you say to someone like a Dave Scott in Georgia, who is a Democrat, who is going against it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I haven’t seen Mr. Scott’s statement.

Q    It came out —

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.  Well, it’s hard for me to evaluate his opposition without having seen his statement.

Q    Okay.  All right, on another subject — the debate last night.  There was verbal fisticuffs over this hug between Chris Christie and President Obama.  Were you awake for that piece?  

MR. EARNEST:  I was awake for that part.  (Laughter.)  

Q    It woke you up.  (Laughter.)  

Q    In your opinion, what was the essence of that hug, really?  Because I mean, Republicans are really upset about that hug.  It was the time of Sandy and a lot of emotion.  What does the White House think about that hug, and what — was the President surprised that there was a hug?  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we did have the opportunity to talk about this in 2012, shortly after that public display of affection occurred.  And I think what it symbolized to a lot of people is the willingness of leaders in this country to set aside their own partisan identity and political ambition, particularly in a time of crisis, to ensure that the interests of the people they were elected to serve are protected.  

And here you had an instance of, shortly before an election, a Democratic President and Republican Governor working effectively to try to meet the needs of the people of New Jersey that were significantly and negatively affected by the storm.  And I think that’s the expectation that people have for their government, is that we expect to have robust debates in this democracy and we’re going to have differences of opinion even occasionally within our political parties, but when the chips are down and when we’re in the midst of a crisis and American lives are at stake, the American people have an expectation that their elected leaders are going to put aside their political differences and focus on the best interests of their constituents.

And I think that this particular situation got outsized attention because it occurred just days before a significant national election.  But this is the kind of governing style that the American people rightly expect, and it certainly is the kind — it’s the approach that President Obama has prioritized even in less high-profile or less scrutinized situations.  It’s not uncommon for the President to travel to other areas of the country that have sustained a natural disaster, for example, and even when it’s clear that the vast majority of the local population didn’t support his election, the American people in those communities appreciate that the President of the United States is there.  

And having had the opportunity to travel with the President to visit communities in both Oklahoma and Arkansas that had been affected by tornadoes, and even I was struck by it.  It was clear to me that there weren’t a lot of Obama voters in the crowd as the motorcade was passing by, and certainly not a lot of Obama voters necessarily picking through the rubble of a neighborhood that had been destroyed by a tornado.  But at each turn, we’ve seen the President very warmly received.  And again, I think that’s the expectation the American people have for their political leaders, and it certainly is one of the reasons that the President is so proud to lead this country.

Q    And lastly, I know waning — 18 months left — but in this time, and because this is such a hot topic — and this is one of the reasons why the President and other Presidents, I guess, have been elected, because they were thought to be people who can reach across the aisle.  Do you think that this President, in the midst of all that he has to do in 18 months, that he will try to have more of an effort to reach across the aisle before he leaves office?

MR. EARNEST:  I think at least some of you saw the President just sign a piece of legislation into law creating a wilderness area in the state of Idaho, and standing over his shoulder was one of the Republican members of Congress from Idaho.  I think that’s at least one example of the President trying to find some common ground with Republicans, and, in this case, Congressman Simpson trying to find some common ground with President Obama despite the significant political differences that I’m sure that they have.

And again, I think that’s another illustration of not just the President’s effort to reach out and try to find common ground when it’s most important, but also a manifestation of the expectations of the American people that even in some of the darkest-red congressional districts in the country, that there’s — the expectation of even those people is that their member of Congress is going to work effectively with the Democratic President to advance the interests of their community.  And that’s what happened at least in this case.

Q    As they hug?  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe so.  I wasn’t in there, so maybe you should tell me.

Lesley.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to go back to Senator Schumer. You called his decision disappointing but not surprising.  But as recently as Tuesday I think it was, you said that the White House was in very close contact with him.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s true.

Q    Have you been under the hope or expectation that he — even if he was leaning no, that he would have waited until after the President gets back from vacation, until after September, until you had a chance to build up a campaign for votes?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s not clear to me what expectations anybody had here about the timing of Senator Schumer’s decision.  What the administration sought to do was to work closely with him to help him understand the facts of the agreement and understand the details of what had actually been agreed to that gives the President so much confidence that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

And I mentioned on Tuesday that the efforts by the administration to engage Senator Schumer actually predated the completion of the agreement, that Senator Schumer had indicated an interest and a willingness to interact with the President’s national security team to understand the details here.  And it would have been foolish for the administration to rebuff his interest merely because of his widely known views as it relates to the Iraq war in 2003; that we were going to engage him in pursuit of an opportunity that we might be able to succeed in persuading him to support the deal.

But ultimately, it didn’t turn out that way.  I don’t think anybody was surprised, but I think that would account for the disappointment that you’ve heard me express.

Q    But it sounds like the timing may have surprised you and more disappointed you, because you said Tuesday, as well, I think, that the President was not going to do anything on vacation but to vacation, and now there’s a suggestion that maybe he will be making some calls.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I was a little flippant in answering Jeff’s question earlier in the week saying that I doubt it.  I think that was my intent to try to convey to you that there would not be much time spent making phone calls.  But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that he might make some one-off calls, but that would have been true regardless of either the timing or ultimate conclusion that was reached by Senator Schumer. 

Q    So there’s no ramping up of what he plans to do? 

MR. EARNEST:  No. 

Jim. 

Q    A couple on the debate.  Obviously President Obama is not on the ballot, but his policies were certainly under attack. Did it sting at all that what the Republicans seemed to say is that, while you’re saying that the reason why the Middle East is such a mess now and because we’ve been led into this situation is because we went into war in 2003, what they’re saying is because we gave up the war.  And it’s because — they said that because President Obama ordered the troops out of Iraq, that’s why — that’s led to the ISIS revival.  Can you at least comment on that, if that was a direct attack on an Obama policy? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think it does serve to illustrate the starkly different approaches that’s pursued by some Republicans and the approach that’s pursued by President Obama.  President Obama has made clear that he does not envision a scenario in which U.S. military personnel will be engaged in a sustained offensive ground combat operation in Iraq or in Syria. I know there are many Republicans who were on the stage last night who either, on the stage or previously, have articulated their support for a strategy that would include significant commitment of U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq and in Syria.

The President does not believe that that would be the best way to advance the national security interest of the United States.  But that’s a disagreement that we’ve known about for some time.  And ultimately, the American people will have to render their own judgment about the wisdom of starting another ground war in the Middle East.  The President doesn’t support that approach, but that’s a well-known difference. 

Q    But did the trouble start when President Obama ordered the troops start going down in Iraq, or had it started already before that? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think that what we have been clear about is tracing the genesis of this situation back to 2003.  There has been extensive discussion about the fact that al Qaeda in Iraq — al Qaeda was not in Iraq until the invasion occurred.  And since then, we’ve been dealing with the consequences of that invasion and the infiltration and propagation of those extremist forces in Iraq.  And we are dealing with these consequences even today.

Q    On the Iran deal, the criticism over and over on the Republican stage was that the United States got nothing in this deal.  What did the United States get? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, what the United States got out of this deal is something that Republicans and even Prime Minister Netanyahu have long said is the top priority, which is verifiably preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  That’s the benefit of this particular agreement.  That is a goal that Democrats and Republicans and even Prime Minister Netanyahu all agree that they had set.  And this is, in the President’s mind, the best way for us to accomplish that goal.  

Q    On the other — another subject, on immigration, if I could.  DHS has, in fact, responded to the court about the detention centers along the border.  Is this a change in policy? It does, when you read it, say that — it sounds as though DHS is changing its policy of calling this even a detention center, but more of a processing center. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, as you and I discussed yesterday, this is something that the administration and the President have long acknowledged is a very difficult policy challenge and one that we have — that’s been difficult to confront.  For the details of the policy and the way that it’s described to the judge, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.  I certainly wouldn’t want to inadvertently describe it in a different way and cause a little interference or confusion in that ongoing court case.  But this is a challenging issue and one that the administration takes seriously.

Q    But if I could just follow up.  In the response, DHS says that in the two-week period from June 28th to July 11th, more than 60 percent of those at the detention centers were released.  Is this because the White House is to begin changing the policy of how these processing or these detention centers are being used? 

MR. EARNEST:  For those specific enforcement decisions, I’d refer you to DHS.  

Q    Okay. 

MR. EARNEST:  Margaret.  Nice to see you. 

Q    Nice to see you.  Yesterday we saw the announcement that the U.S. had transferred the Umm Sayyaf, as she’s known  — the wife of a senior ISIS leader — to Iraqi Kurdish custody.  And in the statement from the White House it said that she was complicit in the detention of an American, Kayla Mueller.  I want to know — because DOJ is saying that she will not face U.S. charges — why there was, or if there was a policy decision not to more aggressively pursue that avenue of trying her, bringing U.S. charges.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Margaret, I think there are a couple of things that factor in here.  The decision to transfer Umm Sayyaf to the Iraqi government was based on a unanimous interagency consensus that the detainee’s transfer would be appropriate with respect to legal, diplomatic, intelligence, security and law enforcement considerations.  And I think that the large number of adjectives there should give you an indication of how many agencies were consulted about this particular decision.  The determination of Umm Sayyaf’s disposition has been conducted in full coordination with the government of Iraq, and both the United States and the Iraqi government are fully supportive of this transfer.

Though, one other thing that I will add to that is that U.S. personnel did have an opportunity to interrogate Umm Sayyaf for an extended period of time to maximize the collection of available and useful intelligence.  She was married to a senior ISIL leader, Abu Sayyaf, who was killed in a special operations raid in Syria earlier this year.  And we do suspect that Umm Sayyaf was a member of ISIL and played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and we do believe that she and her husband are complicit in the captivity of a U.S. citizen, Kayla Mueller.  We believe they were also complicit in the captivity of a young Yezidi woman, who was rescued at the time of Umm Sayyaf’s capture.  We have a firm believe that in the context of the Iraqi criminal justice system that she will be held to account for her crimes.

Q    But given everything you just laid out, is there frustration, is there disappointment that now someone so complicit and engaged at a fairly senior level of ISIS now is outside the reach of U.S. justice and won’t face U.S. charges?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, the decision to press charges in a U.S. court is made by prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and that’s a decision that they would make, and they may be able to give you more of an explanation for the decision that they have made.  At the same time, the reason that you had broad interagency consensus that this was the right approach is that the United States has confidence that Umm Sayyaf will face justice in the Iraqi criminal justice system.

Q    And lastly on that, you’ve talked a fair amount about a review of hostage policy that the United States has undertaken.  How was this communicated to the family?  Was there communication from the White House to the family of Kayla Mueller in regard to this?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, it was communicated to Ms. Mueller’s family prior to this public announcement.

Q    By the newly created structure?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a good question.  I don’t know exactly how that communication occurred, but it was communicated to Ms. Mueller’s family here in the United States before any public announcement of this decision was made.

Andrew.

Q    Another question on Umm Sayyaf.  She was captured in Syria; her alleged crimes took place in Syria; she was living in Syria.  Why is she being sent to Iraq?

MR. EARNEST:  She’s an Iraqi citizen.

Q    Has she committed a crime in Iraq?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d refer you to the Iraqi criminal justice officials about that.  Obviously there’s some reason to be a little skeptical of the effectiveness of the Syrian criminal justice system at this point.  But for the charges that she’ll face and where they took place, I’d refer you to Iraqi criminal justice officials.  But the reason for her transfer to Iraqi criminal justice officials is because she is a citizen of Iraq.

Q    And also on Syria.  Does the President think that it would be useful to have a poll or a rethink in the train-and-assist mission, given the cohorts of U.S. fighters that have been deployed have either been captured, killed, gone underground, or are refusing to fight Nusra?  It seems like that’s more than just a setback — it seems like a failure of the program.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Andrew, I think we’ve been pretty forthright and candid about the significant challenges that we’ve faced in trying to implement this train-and-equip strategy when it comes to recruiting, training, and supporting moderate Syrian opposition fighters to take the fight to ISIL on the ground inside of Syria.  One of the most significant challenges that we face is actually conducting background checks of these individuals; that there is a priority that’s placed on making sure that the individuals who go through this training program and receive significant military equipment from the United States and our coalition partners are not individuals who are prepared to turn right around and use that training and equipment against coalition forces or other moderate Syrian opposition elements operating in Syria.

So this has been a difficult challenge.  And as I mentioned yesterday, the President has been briefed on the current state of this mission.  And I’ve often said that the United States — that the President and his team is interested in working closely with our coalition to make sure that we are constantly reviewing the policies that we have in place and updating and improving and refining them when necessary to better accomplish our goal.

Q    Are you still deploying U.S.-trained fighters into Syria?  Newly deployed — 

MR. EARNEST:  For an update on the current status of the train-and-equip mission I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. 

Q    I’m sorry, just one final question on Senator Schumer. He voted for the Iraq war, described passing health care as a mistake, and now he’s going to vote against the Iran deal.  Does the White House have confidence in his judgment?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are a variety of other areas where I could cite that Senator Schumer has been supportive of other Democrats in pursuit of the President’s agenda, but there’s no denying that this disagreement — this difference of opinion that emerged overnight is one that has existed between Senator Schumer and President Obama for more than a decade.

Nadia.

Q    I just want to follow up on Jeff’s question.  So in the reports that you said you cannot confirm, one American official said that Qasem Soleimani has visited Russia.  And actually there are details of the visit, that he spent three days and he met with President Putin and other defense officials, et cetera.  So he did not just violate your own travel ban, but he also violated the U.N. Security Council ban that was imposed on him in 2007.  So at least aren’t you asking for some kind of investigation from the U.N.?

MR. EARNEST:  I’d refer you to our mission at the United Nations for information about any kind of requests that we’re making of the United States.  Nadia, I think I’d just remind you that we have been very clear that we do not anticipate that even the successful implementation of this nuclear accord that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is going to resolve the long list of concerns that we have with Iran’s behavior, including the behavior of this individual.

Q    Let me go at it differently.  So if this report is true, doesn’t it concern you that this person who has been in the forefront of the accusation or your opponent against the deal, that actually he is then going to be given more money and he would have more of a carte blanche to operate in the Middle East that should worry you, should raise some kind of red flag?

MR. EARNEST:  The opponents who are making that argument are wrong.  The sanctions against Mr. Soleimani through the United Nations will remain in place once the deal is implemented for 10 years.  And the President has been clear that the U.S. sanctions against Mr. Soleimani are unaffected by the deal, that there are sanctions against Mr. Soleimani because of his support for terrorism that will remain in place.  

So we certainly are mindful of his activities and our level of concern about them has not changed.  I will tell you that our level of concern about his activities would be greater if he had access to a nuclear weapon.  And that’s why we’re working so hard to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  

Q    Just on the breaking news.  CNN just confirming that actually he did visit Moscow when he went to Russia.  

MR. EARNEST:  That sounds like CNN’s got some excellent sources.  (Laughter.) 

Mark. 

Q    Josh, as President Obama readies to leave on vacation later today, would you say that he regards the past seven months as especially tough and that this is a vacation he really needs badly?  (Laughter.)  

MR. EARNEST:  I think it is true that the — those of you who have been closely following the President would note that his schedule has been especially demanding in the last several weeks. I think he would also be quick to tell you that the last several weeks have been especially rewarding for him.  They’ve included a historic trip to Africa.  They’ve included the completion of negotiations on an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon that eventually got the unanimous support of the United Nations Security Council.  It included the — after a couple of snafus — the passage of Trade Promotion Authority legislation that we’re hopeful will allow the United States and a dozen other countries in the Asia Pacific to complete a trade agreement — to say nothing of the Supreme Court rulings that once again uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, and affirmed a right for everyone in this country to marry who they love.  

So it’s been a rather rewarding, satisfying several weeks even if the pace of those accomplishments and the pace of that progress has been rapid. 

Q    But he did move up the departure by a day.  Was he anxious to get out of town? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think he took a look at the schedule and recognized that he’d be able to fulfill all of his immediate responsibilities at a decent hour today — that would allow him to spend the night in Martha’s Vineyard and get started on his vacation first thing tomorrow morning.  And I know that the President is looking forward to spending some time with his family when he gets up there. 

Q    And, Josh, did you ever find out what he was talking about when, at the start of his AU speech, he said, even President have trouble with toner.  Do you know what he was talking about?

MR. EARNEST:  I think there might have been a little bit of a snafu when it came to the backstage printer at American University.  

Q    No wonder he needs to get out of town.  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  If it’s not one thing, it’s another, Mark. 

Q    Given the attack in Kabul today, in the last 24 hours this is the second major one after the new Taliban leadership has engaged in more strikes inside Afghanistan.  Do you think this is still the right time for having peace talks with the Taliban? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by saying that the United States condemns in the strongest terms last night’s bombing in Kabul, which reports indicate killed more than eight people — I think latest reports have increased that to 14 or 15 and there could be more — and wounded as many as 400 civilians including women and children.  This heinous attack demonstrates once again the ever growing gulf between extremists and the people of Afghanistan.  And it certainly shows the blatant disregard for human life on the part of those extremists.  

The fact is, in recent years the Afghan people have endured much, but they are resilient and are resilient even in the face of a brutal insurgency.  We continue to believe and continue to urge the Taliban to heed President Ghani’s call for reconciliation and make genuine peace with the Afghan government. 

Let me hasten to add that in terms of who is responsible for the attack, I’d refer you to the government of Afghanistan.  I can’t confirm that from here.  But what is clear is that there does appear to be an opening, and we are hopeful that the Taliban will take advantage of that opening to try to pursue a genuine peace with the Afghan government.  President Ghani has made clear that he would nurture and support that effort.  And we hope that those overtures will be reciprocated by the Taliban. 

Q    And secondly, several times from this podium you have said that countries like India, Japan, South Korea are not going to be part of any additional sanctions against Iran if this deal is not (inaudible.)  Is this based on a reduction of — 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s both.  And let me explain to you why.  You’ll recall that when these sanctions were originally put in place three or four years ago that the United States traveled around the world including to India, sat down with the Indian government and asked them to curtail the amount of Iranian oil that they imported into the country.  And we acknowledged in the context of those discussions that this would be an economic sacrifice that the people of India and that the economy of India would have to make.  But Indian leaders agreed to it by saying that this is something that they were willing to do if they can advance our effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.   

In essence, that was the agreement — that countries like India had agreed that they would take these steps, even at their own expense, to try to reach this broader international agreement.   And the good news is that that agreement has been reached.  And it is an agreement that is supported by the international community — 99 percent of the world, as the President has described it.  

And that’s why it would be so damaging to the standing of the United States for the United States Congress to act unilaterally to kill this deal.  No longer would countries like India, who have been making a substantial sacrifice over the years, have any interest or incentive to continue to enforce those sanctions against Iran.  There is no basis, there is no credible claim for why they would be willing to do that.  And there is no denying the significant negative impact on United States credibility for the United States to be isolated in this way. 

That’s why the President has said if Congress were to move forward to kill this deal or kill this agreement, it would, in fact, yield a better deal for Iran.  Because what we would see is that Iran would get sanctions relief; they would have the ability to sell oil to India and get the proceeds of doing so without having to reduce their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, without having to put 13,000 centrifuges in storage, without having to gut their heavy-water plutonium reactor, and without having to submit to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.

That’s why I’ve long said that the case before Congress is that Iran is going to get sanctions relief.  The question is whether or not the United States and the international community is going to get anything for it.  And that is ultimately the choice before members of Congress right now, and it’s why we continue to be confident that we’ll be able to build substantial support — at least in the Democratic caucus — in both the House and the Senate in support of this agreement.

Rich.

Q    Josh, in the past, the administration has charged Republicans with opposing certain administration initiatives with a personal sense — that it was the President’s support for something that led Republicans to oppose it.  Do you think, or does the President think, that that’s the effect here with the Iran deal?  And if, let’s say, a Republican President were to produce the same document, would Republicans oppose it as they do now?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s an interesting hypothetical.  I think there are a couple of things going on here, Rich.  I think the first one is there’s no denying the fact that senior Republicans in the United States Congress appeared on television two days before the agreement was reached to announce their opposition to the deal.  Senator McConnell appeared on Fox News Sunday two days before the agreement was reached, and proclaimed the deal “a bad deal.”  This was even before the deal was reached, even before the deal was announced.

So now the question is, why did he do that?  Does he have remarkable powers of clairvoyance?  That’s possible.  It seems more likely that he is committed to the kinds of arguments that he and other Republicans made in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq war, that he’s committed to this idea that diplomacy is not worth the effort, that war in the Middle East is easy and that we can easily work our will, and that the opinions of some of our closest allies and partners in the world aren’t worth paying attention to.  Those were exactly the arguments that were made in the march to war in 2003, and these are exactly the kinds of arguments that we hear from Republicans, including Senator McConnell, as they advocate against the deal.

Q    But does the President think that it’s also a matter of him, that were someone else negotiating — it’s his — the fact that he has negotiated — or his administration has negotiated this deal is what’s led to a bulk of the opposition?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I think it’s hard to tell.  I think there are a variety of motives that could be ascribed here.  I think the clearest one is, again, that Senator McConnell is making the same argument that he made in 2003.  And it’s the President’s view that those arguments and the policy that resulted from those arguments did not advance the interest of the United States in terms of going to war in Iraq in 2003, and he does not believe that they would serve well the interests of the United States if they were used to successfully kill an agreement that 99 percent of the world agrees with.

Q    Does the White House fear a multiplier effect from Schumer, Engels, senior Democrats opposing this, perhaps that they would sway other Democrats on the fence?

MR. EARNEST:  Not particularly.  And I’ll say a couple of things about that.  The first is that there was a story in Politico — just looking for a Politico reporter today — 

Q    They’re watching.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, they’re watching I’m sure, carefully covering our words as we have this discussion.  Politico did do a story sort of about the competing political pressures on Senator Schumer — and now that I’ve embarrassed them I’m going to say something nice about them — because of their diligence in reporting out that story, they interviewed a couple of Democratic United States senators who continue to be undecided, at least publicly, about whether or not to support this agreement.  And both Senator Tester and Senator McCaskill were quoted in the story saying that Senator Schumer’s eventual decision would have no impact on theirs.  And I think it was even Senator Tester who hoped that the reporter wouldn’t tell Senator Schumer that his vote wouldn’t factor into his own decision-making on this.

I think the other data point that I can point out to you, Rich, is that Senator Schumer is the senior Senator from New York.  The junior Senator from New York also came out yesterday, and she announced her support for the deal.  And since Senator Schumer made his announcement, at least based on my tally — and I don’t know if anybody has made any statements since I walked out here — but as far as I can tell, there’s one Democratic senator who has announced an opinion since then, and it’s Senator Tammy Baldwin, who came out in support of the agreement.  

So I think there is a preponderance of evidence to indicate that Democrats are going to make up their minds not based on Senator Schumer’s conclusion, but based on their own conclusions about the merits of this agreement and the strategy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And as long as they do that, we’re going to continue to feel quite confident about our ability to build support for this agreement in the Democratic caucus.

Q    And quickly on the debate from last night.  The President missed the debate.  How engaged would you say is the President in the Republican primary process?  I mean, one of these folks might meet him on Inauguration Day in 2017.  Isn’t he at least a little curious to see what the debate produces?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President is certainly following the terms of the debate — just not in real time.  So the President is aware of the broader political debate that’s ongoing, and I’m confident that he will be more than just a casual observer in the 16 months or so between now and Election Day — I guess it’s 15 months between now and Election Day.  And there have already been a couple of occasions where the President has been asked directly about some of the outrageous claims of those who are running to replace him ,and on at least one or two occasions, the President hasn’t shied away from responding.

Chris.

Q    I want to just follow up.  Do you think that Senator Schumer’s influence, particularly on matters relating to Israel, has been overstated?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess it’s hard to measure exactly what kind of influence he has on these matters.  He clearly is somebody who is very focused on these issues, but he’s also somebody who has arrived at a starkly different conclusion than the President has.  And I don’t think anybody, including all of you, who have had an opportunity to interact with the President when he is talking about this issue would suggest that the President has not paid a lot of attention to these issues as well.  

So I think it’s hard to quantify.  We continue to be confident that the vast majority of Democrats in the United States Congress will make a decision based on their own conclusions and not on Senator Schumer’s.

Q    So the President may or may not make some calls.  But what will be going on during this period?  Because obviously early September they’re going to start looking at this, start voting on this, and even though I think the analysis would say the numbers are on your side, given that they have to get more than two-thirds, you only have to get a third, you could still feasibly lose this, so what’s the strategy between now and then?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, as we talked about yesterday, I believe this deal does not require congressional approval, but there’s no doubt that Congress can play the spoiler here.  And we continue to be confident of our ability to prevent that from happening.  But we certainly don’t take any of these votes for granted.  And while Congress was in session, you saw senior members of the President’s national security team spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill in a classified setting, in private meetings and even testifying under oath, to help members of Congress understand exactly what’s included in it.  

I would anticipate that even when Congress is out of session that there will be a number of private conversations that occur between senior members of the President’s national security team and members of Congress.  And I’m confident that when the President returns to the White House in a couple of weeks that he also will reengage in that effort and will also be making a number of calls and having a number of conversations, too.

Q    A person close to the decision suggested — well, didn’t suggest, told NBC, and I believe Politico as well, that this announcement by Chuck Schumer was to be made today but that the White House leaked it last night deliberately because it would get buried with all of the attention on the Republican debate.  Did the White House leak this?

MR. EARNEST:  No, the White House did not leak this.  And I’m not sure who thought that leaking it on Thursday night would bury it.  Anybody who has been in this business for a few days would understand that announcing this at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday, particularly a Friday before the President and I assume many of you are prepared to head out on vacation, might have been a more effective strategy.  (Laughter.)

Q    Just one more thing.  Since the President did not spend his leisure time last night watching the debate, perhaps Jon Stewart?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if he watched Jon Stewart’s final show.  It definitely started too late for me to stay up and watch it.  But hopefully I’ll be able to catch up on it over the weekend.

Alexis.

Q    Josh, can I just follow up?  Because the President gave an interview to CNN that will air on Sunday and he had a quote related to this — I wanted to just follow up because events, of course, have overtaken what he said yesterday.  So on Senator Schumer, can you just clarify, does the President believe that Senator Schumer is making common cause with the hardliners in Iran by feeling that he is going to vote against supporting the Iran deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Alexis, I think what the President did say in his interview does directly apply even to this case, that the concern that the President had with the actions of the Republican conference that he described as making common cause with hardliners in Iran is that they announced their opposition to this agreement before the agreement was even reached, before the agreement was even announced, before the agreement was even available for those members of the Congress to read.  And that’s an indication of their ideological opposition to this deal.  Hardliners in Iran are also ideologically opposed to this deal, and that’s the point that the President was making.

I’d also point out that the other thing, the other way in which Republicans in at least the Senate were making common cause with hardliners in Iran is they wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran, tracking closely with the arguments that were made by hardliners in Iran, trying to convince the Supreme Leader of Iran not to engage in the agreement.

So that’s the essence of the President’s case.  And Senator Schumer reached a conclusion that we strongly disagree with, but the essence of our disagreement is vigorous but it’s different.  Senator Schumer is advocating an approach to foreign policy that minimized the likelihood of success in diplomacy and relies far too much on the ability of the United States to unilaterally impose our will through force, if necessary, on a sovereign Middle Eastern country.  That’s what Senator Schumer advocated in 2003.  The President does not believe that that served well the interest of the United States in 2003, and he doesn’t believe it serves the interest of the United States well to kill this deal.

Q    Just to follow up, and then one more question.  So what — tell me if I’m correct what you’re saying.  Even though the White House was disappointed in Senator Schumer’s — not surprised — disappointed, not surprised — the distinction here between his expression of views and Senator McConnell is that Senator McConnell, ideologically driven, expressed his views in July and Senator Schumer expressed his views on August 7th.  Is that what you’re saying? 

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that the month on the calendar is less significant than the timing of these announcements.  Senator McConnell announced his opposition to the deal, he referred to it as a bad deal, before the deal was even reached.  He called it a bad deal while the negotiators were still sitting around the negotiating table in Vienna — far before the deal was reached, announced or made available for his review.  That’s an indication that he was ideologically opposed to this, in the same way that hardliners in Iran were ideologically opposed to this agreement, even before it was announced.

Q    So you’re maintaining that Senator Schumer had an open mind about this, but the President’s persuasion was not effective? 

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is that Senator Schumer at least read the agreement, talked to the experts who were involved in negotiating it, spent time talking to experts to understand the nuclear basis for some of the strategic conclusions that were reached by our negotiators.  That at least demonstrates a willingness to consider the arguments of the other side.  And, yes, we were disappointed that he didn’t ultimately reach the same conclusion that we did.  But given his well-known view on a range of foreign policy issues, the result is not particularly surprising.

Q    One other question about the debate.  Because the President as his AU speech encouraged the American people to contact their members of Congress and because the debate last night had a viewership of something like 16 million — regardless of political party, right — is the President concerned that the viewership last night will in some way overtake his own appeal earlier in the week while members are at home, while members have gone home to talk to their constituents? 

MR. EARNEST:  No, the President is not worried about that.

Q    Thank you, Josh.

MR. EARNEST:  Jared.  I’ll do a couple more just because we’re not going to do this for a while.  

Q    Thank you for that.  Just to follow up on the Schumer, — Senator Schumer head’s up.  Did Senator Schumer indicate — because his statement was pretty clearly worded and there has been no follow-up from his office — did he indicate that he would both vote to override the President’s veto in addition to vote to disapprove the Iran nuclear deal?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know the details of the information that was transmitted from Senator Schumer’s office to the White House, so I’d refer you to Senator Schumer’s office for a detailed explanation of whether or not he would vote to override a presidential veto.

Q    You were pretty pragmatic yesterday when you were asked about does the number matter, and you said both yesterday and today that it’s really — in your words “Congress, don’t screw this up.”  When Democratic senators are considering their leadership, should they consider both the vote to disapprove and the vote to override?  Or does one matter — I guess does your pragmatism — should that leak into the Democratic Senate caucus?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think ultimately they’ll decide based on the criteria that they themselves set.  So I don’t have any advice to dispense.  Though I would predict — I suspect they will apply that test as they consider their vote for the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

Q    So you’re saying that the White House remains pragmatic about the utility of the vote, and that a motion to disapprove is not necessarily as important as the override vote, which would be obviously true?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, no, no.  I think I may have misunderstood your question.  My point is I think Democrats in the Senate will make up their own mind and apply their own criteria in terms of how they choose their next leader.  I merely suspect that many of them will include in their criteria the voting record of those who say they want to lead the caucus.  But ultimately that’s up for them to decide.  Maybe some of them won’t.  That’s their own decision to make.

In terms of the best way for members of Congress in either party who wants to support the deal, we would both encourage them strongly — and in the mind of the President, it’s a close call  — in terms of making the decision to both oppose a resolution of disapproval and certainly oppose an effort to override the presidential veto if that resolution of disapproval does pass.

Chris.

Q    Josh, a question on the GOP debate last night.  A number of the Republican candidates pledged to take unilateral actions if elected on behalf of (inaudible) seen to enable LGBT discrimination.  And Mike Huckabee objected to the Pentagon’s plan on transgender service.  And even though John Kasich expressed some nuance, all 17 candidates opposed same-sex marriage.  If any one of these Republican candidates are elected to the White House, are the President’s advances for the LGBT community at risk?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Chris, I think that’s a hard thing to say.  I think that so much of the progress that has been made is progress that a substantial number of Americans have come around to supporting.  And I think that speaks to not just the critically important political progress that’s been made in this country on some of the issues that you’ve just cited, but in some ways I think you can make a pretty persuasive argument that at least as important as that is the social progress that’s been made in communities, large and small, across the country in which discussions of these issues are taking place outside the context of any sort of political election or partisan debate.  

And it’s my view that at least some of that social progress would not have been possible without some political leadership.  And that’s why the President is, justifiably, proud of his record.  But the real power behind this change in the view of so many Americans, as we perfect our union, is the power of the American people and the significant change that we’ve seen in a relatively short period of time.

Q    You can’t deny, though, a lot of this change is a result of the President taking action on these issues — for example, the executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors.  That could be — the President signed that; a subsequent President could undo it.  So isn’t that in danger at all?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I think I alluded to this in my first answer.  I do think that some of the social progress that’s been made can be attributed to some political leadership, including political leadership by the President of the United States.  And there’s no doubt that we would have liked to have seen Congress take some of the steps that the President has been forced to take on his own to try to make our country a little more just and a little bit more fair.

Congress has resisted.  But ultimately, those voters who prioritize these issues I’m confident will look carefully at the views and records of those who are running for President — because there’s no denying the kind of authority that they could wield sitting in the Oval Office on these issues.

Molly.

Q    I want to just follow up briefly on Andrew and Justin’s questions.  Regarding the transfer of the Iraqi detainee, I had asked you about her disposition a few weeks ago and you seemed to hold up as an example — you said the record that the Obama administration has of capturing, building a case, trying terrorist suspects in U.S. courts was part of the decision in transferring her to the Iraqis because there was insufficient evidence — there was reporting that DOJ was building a case.  So was there insufficient evidence that would have either — that would have held up in U.S. courts?  Was that part of the reasoning?  Or was part of the reasoning additionally because the Iraqi government opposed this, given it provisions in their own constitution that they can’t hand over their citizens to foreign groups?  And then also, why was she given to the Kurds rather than to Iraqi authorities?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s a lot there.  Let me see if I can get through — 

Q    Sorry, that’s — 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s okay.  That’s okay.  Let’s get through all of that.  

Just in terms of why she will be put through the Kurdish system is that while we obviously can’t guarantee a particular result, we do have a firm belief that she will be held accountable for her crimes.  And the United States stands ready to cooperate with authorities in Iraq to support a prosecution and assist in ensuring that justice is served.

The other relevant facts here is that Umm Sayyaf has been detained in Erbil for the last few months.  And in the course of that detention, we’ve worked closely with the Kurdistan regional government and the criminal justice authorities there.  And one of the other reasons that this makes sense in terms of having her go through the Kurdish criminal justice system relates to the location of potential witnesses who would take part in these proceedings.

I’m not aware of any concern that the Department of Justice expressed about the weakness of their case.  You can go speak to them more directly about this.  But I do think that you could conclude that we believe this was the best course of action because, as I referred to earlier, this is the conclusion of the intelligence community, the diplomatic community, certainly our national security and our law enforcement officials, that this is the best disposition.  And this is a conclusion that we reached in agreement with Iraqi officials as well.  

Q    But did Baghdad ask for her?  Did Baghdad request that the U.S. hand her over? 

MR. EARNEST:  I can tell you that the central government in Baghdad certainly agreed with the decision.  

Q    And, sorry, just one more.  Tomorrow is the year anniversary of the military operation begun against the Islamic State.  You had mentioned earlier to Justin that expanded military options in Syria might be counterproductive to efforts to come to a political transition.  There’s been some hesitance to discuss what authorities the U.S. might have when it comes to protecting the train-and-equip fighters against anyone — whether al-Nusra, ISIS, or the Syrian government.  Is that reluctance due in part to seeing that discussion as counterproductive to a political transition? 

MR. EARNEST:  No, because I have been willing, in the context of this briefing, earlier this week, to discuss the legal justification for actions that the United States and our coalition partners have already taken to defend those Department of Defense trained and equipped soldiers that are — or forces that are fighting ISIL in Syria. 

The administration has concluded that it is appropriate under the 2001 AUMF for the United States and our coalition partners to take strikes against extremists that are threatening U.S. or coalition-trained Syrian forces that operating on the ground against ISIL.  So that is a policy decision that’s been made and a legal justification that we’ve already made public. 

Q    Sorry.  Absolutely last one, I promise.  But does the 2001 AUMF apply to strikes against Syrian government forces if they were to attack the troops that we’re training and equipping and reinserting into Syria? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we have indicated — I’m not aware of a firm legal analysis that’s been done on this.  Maybe there has — I have not been briefed on it.  What we have made clear is that this is not an eventuality that we’ve had to encounter at this point.  Prior to the initiation of U.S. and coalition airstrikes inside of Syria, the United States government admonished the Assad regime against interfering in those operations.  And that admonishment that we delivered to the Assad regime also applies to any temptation that the Assad regime may have to interfering with the efforts — the anti-ISIL efforts on the ground of Syrian opposition fighters that have been trained by the United States and our coalition partners.  

Okay.  Goyal, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks very much.  Two questions.  One, there are so many engagements going on between U.S.-India relations and including Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Nisha Desai made statements in New York, and also I got email from Ambassador Richard Verma from the U.S. Embassy in Delhi where he said that under his administration, during his six months in India, the embassy staff has done so much as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned in space and trade and other matters.  My question is here, now, Silicon Valley is ready to welcome Prime Minister Modi next month in a huge celebration and function like in New York he received a welcome.  Has the Prime Minister has been invited to the White House by President Obama before he leaves for the celebration of the U.N. 70th anniversary in New York?

MR. EARNEST:  Goyal, I’m not aware of any planned visits by Prime Minister Modi to the White House in conjunction with his travel to the United States for the U.N. General Assembly.

Q    Second, this week marks the third anniversary of the hate crimes at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin Sikh gurdwara.  Tomorrow, the members of the Sikh community is going to march from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.  And several lawmakers also registered, including Congressman Joe Crowley, against hate crimes against the Sikh community.   Any statement from the President?  Also if anything has been done?  Because they are asking anything for their safety because of their look.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Goyal, when this event — when this tragic event originally occurred, we expressed our profound sorry at the innocent loss of life and offered our sincere condolences to the families of those who have loved ones that were killed in this vicious attack.  And I think what I would remind you of is that this administration has made countering violent extremism like the violent extremism that we saw in Oak Creek, Wisconsin a top priority.  And this kind of extremism manifests itself in a variety of ways.  And this administration is determined to work effectively with local elected officials and local law enforcement and with community leaders across the country in communities large and small to counter it.

And this is a challenge and a risk that the administration doesn’t take lightly.  And our efforts, thanks to the good, hard work of our national security professionals continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to try to protect the American people. 

Q    And finally, my personal greetings and happy birthday to the President and I wish him all the best and God bless him.  

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you, Goyal.  

With that, everybody, I hope that all of you will get the chance to take a little vacation while the President himself is enjoying a vacation.  So while the President is out, we will not be convening these briefing settings.  So you got a couple of weeks off, enjoy it.  Take care, guys.

END   
2:40 P.M. EDT

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, 7/31/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:06 P.M. EDT
 
MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you all.  Happy Friday.  Let me do a quick announcement and then we’ll go to our special guest today.
 
On this coming Wednesday, next week, the President will travel to American University in Washington, D.C. to deliver a speech on the historic deal reached by the United States with — alongside our partners and allies to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  The President will continue his effort to make the case for why the Iran deal verifiably prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  He will lay out the enormous stakes in the current debate taking place in Congress, and describe why this diplomatic resolution is far preferable to the alternatives.
 
Many of you know, students of history, that 50 years ago President Kennedy spoke of a future defined by peace, not war, at American University.  And the President will also describe how this debate is fundamentally about U.S. leadership in the world and how we can lead global efforts to address threats like Iran’s nuclear program the way we did when President Kennedy made the case for diplomatic efforts to address the threat of nuclear weapons and avoid catastrophic conflict.
 
So that should make for an interesting day on Wednesday.  Now, joining me at the briefing today is Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz.  Many of you will recall his visit to the briefing room shortly after the completion of the political framework in Lausanne.  And we’ve been — since the announcement on July 14th of this final agreement, we’ve been trying to schedule his appearance here in the briefing room to discuss the deal and to answer your questions about it.  
 
But based on the President’s travel schedule and Secretary Moniz’s extensive visits to Capitol Hill, today is the first day that we could arrange that.  So I’m pleased to welcome him back here.  He’ll open with a quick statement and then stick around and take a few questions.
 
So, Secretary Moniz.
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  My opening statement is that there are too many familiar faces here now.  (Laughter.)  Just very briefly, to reinforce what was just said — obviously, this agreement was focused on the question of nuclear weapons and Iran, and the President’s commitment — and what I believe will be a commitment of future Presidents as well — to make it clear that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.  I believe this agreement provides us with a lot of tools to make sure that’s the case, or, if it isn’t, make sure that we find out in a timely way to respond. 
 
With that, I think I’m open for questions.
 
MR. EARNEST:  All right.  Who wants to go first?  Olivier.
 
Q    Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I’m wondering whether you can clear up whether it’s possible that Iran, anticipating the kinds of restrictions that this deal imposes, might have created yet another secret site that you haven’t detected with its own existing stockpile of atomic materials.  
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  I think that’s really a question for our intelligence community, and I think what they would tell you is that we feel pretty confident that we know their current configuration.
 
Clearly, the deal, of course, is ultimately based on verification.  And as General Clapper said earlier this week, while we can never have 100 percent certainty that we know everything, this deal, this agreement provides tremendously enhanced insight into the program.  And certainly, over the years ahead, with the measures that we have taken and with the considerable international presence in Iran, we expect to provide the intelligence community with many more tools.
 
MR. EARNEST:  April.
 
Q    Secretary Moniz, because of our lack of information on the Iran nuclear program, could you talk to us about the insight that you will get, in layman’s terms, what you’re expecting to get if this deal goes through and you are allowed to walk in and see what’s there?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, we should really think about a verification system as opposed to, you know, just one element here, one element there.  They all work together.  I think the critical issues are, first, that we have tremendously enhanced presence at their nuclear facilities — if you like, their known or declared nuclear facilities.  That includes the most stringent containment and surveillance opportunities for the IAEA, including the use of advanced technologies.
 
Secondly, very important, is there is an unprecedented visibility into the entire uranium supply chain — all the way from uranium basically just getting processed, through centrifuge manufacturing, to conversion, to gas — I mean, you name it.  And I think an important part of that is that if Iran were to try to develop a covert program, they would have to recreate an entire fuel cycle — an entire supply chain, excuse me — beginning to end, in multiple locations, doing multiple technologies.  And one weak link in that supply chain and, shall we say, there would be a problem. 
 
So that’s very important — this entire supply chain.  Again, as I was saying earlier, it’s really about more tools for the intelligence community.
 
A third point I do want to emphasize is — because there’s been a lot made about the IAEA process with regard to undeclared sites — and that is that we have for the first time anywhere a fixed time period for resolution, and secondly, we remain very confident in our abilities to detect the signatures of any activity with nuclear materials.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Josh.
 
Q    You’ve been spending a lot of time on the Hill talking with lawmakers, and you need a certain threshold of votes to block an attempt to override a veto on a legislative measure disapproving of this bill.  How many votes in the House and the Senate have you accumulated so far?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I don’t count votes.  I just try to explain the deal.  And we remain convinced that the more chances we have to explain exactly what the agreement is — and, of course not from me, but for the President, for the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State to talk about the ancillary activities around regional security arrangements, then the more I think we will be able to carry the day.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Jon.
 
Q    Iran has obviously long denied that they ever intended to develop a nuclear weapon, so this is all about civilian nuclear energy.  What is your sense looking at the Iran nuclear program as it exists?  Do you have any doubt in your mind that that nuclear program was established with the intention of developing nuclear bombs?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, a little historical perspective is that, of course, their nuclear energy program started many, many decades ago; in fact, prior to the 1979 revolution.  So they were definitely going for nuclear energy for quite a while.
 
Now, one of the things — and I will refer to my previous life as an academic analyzing nuclear power issues — we always said that the economics were not there for developing things like enrichment until you have the order of 10 nuclear power plants.
 
Now, Iran’s statement is that they are, in fact, planning for a program of that or even greater size, and that they are, in light of security of supply challenges, looking to develop capacity to provide fuel for at least part of that.  But that’s their statement.  We’ve said many times this is not an agreement based on trust.  If their statement were simply accepted at face value, they wouldn’t be under the sanctions regime in the first place.  There would not be IAEA reports already out there that talk about structured programs up to 2003 that were looking at technologies relevant to a weapons program.  So this is all about verifying.
 
So it’s all about — especially for the first 15 years –having dramatic constraints on their nuclear activities, but from day one, and forever, to having strengthened verification procedures.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Peter.
 
Q    Mr. Secretary, what do you say to the people of Israel who are convinced that this — although in the administration’s perspective would make that country more safe — does just the opposite in that there will be so much money now with the ending of the sanctions program that it will effectively put a bulls-eye on the state of Israel from the money that will go to many of Iran’s partners, like Hezbollah, Hamas and others?  Whether it’s a nuclear weapon or other forms of weapons, it’s still a bulls-eye, they think, that goes on top of their country and on their heads.
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, again, I think even though I will tire you by repetition, I do want to emphasize that this significantly rolls back all aspects of their nuclear program and adds to verification.
 
With regard to the funding — now, this is obviously not my lane, but I can certainly repeat what Secretary Lew has emphasized or went over again.  First of all, the resources to which Iran will have access is probably in the range of around $55 billion.  A lot of that is going to get tied up in a whole variety of areas, including their need to be able to finance international transactions, et cetera.  But as Jack has also said, obviously we’re not going to say that some of this funding will not go to their military. 
 
Q    So what do we (inaudible) —
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Yes, so it’s going to go there.  So what we say is I think what the President has said, what Secretary Kerry has said, what Secretary Carter said on Wednesday at the Senate hearing, is that we are going to have to redouble our efforts around regional security issues.  We’re going to have to confront directly and energetically the various areas in which Iran is generating instability or supporting terrorism.  And I think, in the end, we need to have a system that, without Iran — having the confidence of Iran not having a nuclear weapon, that we will be able to focus even more intensely on these additional security challenges.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Kevin.
 
Q    Josh, thanks.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I want to ask you about the undeclared sites.  What are the verification mechanisms that will be at play when you’re monitoring these so-called undeclared sites?  How does that differ from the monitoring of the declared sites?  And if it happens that Iran is in some sort of a violation, material violation, is there sort of a mulligan, they get one, they get two, they get three — what’s the process before the international community does more than just sanction this regime?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, there’s obviously a huge difference between declared and undeclared sites.  I mean, in the former, we have — or the IAEA will have daily access using advanced technologies, increased number of inspectors, and the resources to, by the way, to carry that out.  Now, by definition, an undeclared site starts out with no monitoring because it was undeclared.  And obviously intelligence is the foundation of being able to point the IAEA to those locations.
 
Once that happens, then we have this defined process with a defined time frame for resolving it.  I would say that if you think in terms of possible violations of the agreement, clearly there is the opportunity for graded responses.  For example, the snapback of U.N. sanctions is termed in whole or in part.  So now comes the issue of, okay, what deserves a graded response versus a more robust response.
 
So, for example, one of the very important conditions of the agreement is the 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium for 15 years.  Well, if for a short time there happens to be a little imbalance there, that’s probably something that’s got to get corrected, but you wouldn’t call a material response to kind of bring down the whole 64 tons.  On the other hand, if there is nuclear activity — nuclear materials activity at an undeclared site, and that is found, I would consider that to be a very material breach and one that would call for a very, very strong reaction.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Chip.
 
Q    Yesterday the President told supporters in a conference call that because so much money is being sent in opposition of this deal, a lot of members are really feeling the political heat, and some are getting “squishy.”  Are you experiencing that in your trips to Capitol Hill to talk to people?  And secondly, when you do come across — when the President does feel somebody is getting squishy, are you the guy he calls and says, get up there and firm things up?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I don’t know — he’s probably calling other people too, but I’m certainly getting enough calls.  He has to go up and speaking to many, many members.  And frankly, I welcome it.  And I’ve been very, frankly, pleased at how many members are really digging into the documents, both the public and the confidential documents that we have supplied. 
 
“Squishy,” I wouldn’t use that term, at least in my experiences in what I’ve seen.  I’ve spoken with many members after they have had visits, shall we say.  And I think what it has led them is to sharpen their questions and hopefully for us to sharpen our answers.  So that’s all we can do is continue the process of explaining exactly what this agreement is because I think it’ll stand on its own. 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Carol. 
 
Q    The IAEA Director General is set to meet with senators next week.  And based on your conversation with lawmakers and how much this side deal has raised concerns among them, do you think that that meeting will be enough?  And did the White House or the administration have anything to do with getting the Director General to the head to the Hill and meet with senators?  
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, I do want to just dispel this idea of secret side deals.  Again, just to make sure the record is straight on that, there is no secret side deal.  The agreement — the JCPOA agreement is that Iran will finally stop blunting the IAEA’s attempt to finish its PMD investigation. 
 
I do want to emphasize, somehow we think that this last visit to one site is kind of the whole thing.  This has been many, many years of activity, many reports; in fact, that’s what is responsible for a lot of the sanctions of the last years. 
 
So the agreement is — and this is not secret, this is public — Iran must respond by October the 15th in terms of providing IAEA all of the access it has asked for in their agreed-upon protocol.  Those protocols as a standard are called safeguards confidential between the country and the IAEA.  And the IAEA’s independence is very important to our long-term interests.  So it’s a standard safeguards confidential protocol. 
 
I’ll give you an example, by the way.  If you go back almost 25 years, the IAEA basically took apart the South African program.  Those documents all remain confidential.  That’s a standard.  So the issue is, IAEA negotiated with Iran, in confidential protocols, what would be the steps required for the IAEA to have satisfaction that it could finish the job and issue the final report on what happened; typically we’re talking like 12 years ago.  
 
So I think Amano will come; I think I’d welcome that.  And I should say, when I met with the Director General in Vienna a few days before the agreement was completed, he said then that he was going to be very happy to come and have discussions with the administration and with the Congress.  I’m personally quite pleased that he’s following up on that in a timely way.  I think it will be very helpful.  
 
MR. EARNEST:  Sunlen.
 
Q    Thank you Mr. Secretary.  You said you’re not responsible for counting votes, but you’ve spent a considerable amount of time on the Hill and in public and also behind closed doors meeting with members of Congress.  You also say you didn’t observe any of them getting squishy, as the President said.  What’s your level of confidence now on the Hill? 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I remain confident that this disagreement will go into effect.  I think ultimately if — certainly unless there are just too many closed minds, it was not — the thing which probably most disappointed me was all the opining on the agreement before it was reached.  
 
But I think as a long as there are open minds the agreement is very, very powerful in its constraints on the Iranian program and on its enhanced verification measures.  So I think as long as we keep at it and keep explaining that, and have others like Secretary Kerry, Secretary Carter, the President, reinforce our regional security commitments more broadly, I think that this deal will certainly go into effect. 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Jeff. 
 
Q    Mr. Secretary, I know some people see this as connected to the Iran deal and some people don’t, but there is some growing momentum in Congress for lifting the U.S. ban on oil exports.  Is that something that you would support, or is that something you have concerns about?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I find the linkage to be a little bit interesting.  I mean, I would note, first of all, a slight difference here that Iran is, after all, an oil exporter.  They’d like to be more of an oil exporter than they are today, obviously.  The United States remains an importer of 7 million barrels of crude oil per day.  So these are very, very asymmetric situations.  There’s a broader issue in general about American oil exports.  Obviously the Congress has been acting on that.  That’s a question for Secretary Pritzker. 
 
Q    Is that something you would support or encourage the administration to support? 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  It’s a question for Secretary Pritzker.  (Laughter.)  
 
MR. EARNEST:  Lynn. 
 
Q    Could you tell me how you’re talking — I understand you just had a meeting with leaders of major Jewish organizations before coming here, some who opposed the deal.  Can you tell me if you think you made any headway in selling the deal?  And what are the questions that you think are most formidable to persuading these leaders of Jewish groups who are opposed to it? 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, first of all, it was a very good meeting, and a number of the Jewish leaders came in from across the country.  So, I mean, it showed I think right there a very, very strong interest in really having a chance to discuss the agreement in depth.  
 
Make progress?  Again, I don’t like to make value judgments.  I can just say that it was a very good discussion.  Not surprising, these were people who were well-schooled in the agreement, but also had lots of clarifying questions to ask.  I felt that we made real progress in terms of clarification of issues in terms of how this agreement was ultimately good for our security and for the security in the region. 
 
A lot of the questions, some of the ones being asked here, what really — what’s the 24 days, what’s the IAEA arrangement — I would say a lot of it focused on these questions of verification because we all I think understand that those are central to this question of finding any covert activity. 
 
I think, for example, a point that we emphasized and I think had impact and had not been as fully appreciated is this idea of having transparency across the entire supply chain of uranium and how that significantly enhanced our capabilities to find anything outside that allowed supply chain.  So I think it was a very, very good meeting, and you are certainly correct that I think it was quite appropriate.  People came to that meeting with very, very different perspectives.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Mark.
 
Q    Mr. Secretary, putting aside the the whole secret side deal allegation — 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  There is no secret side deal.  (Laughter.) 
 
Q    — as you have put it aside, what do you say to the folks who say we’re placing a lot of trust in the IAEA, in fact subcontracting out a decision about what American sanctions will be doing in the future?  Should we trust the IAEA to that extent?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  The IAEA is a — we’ve always trusted the IAEA.  The IAEA is an extremely competent organization, I might add, partly because at a place like Los Alamos National Laboratory we have courses that all of the IAEA inspectors take, for example.  And that’s been going on for decades.  We have — obviously, there are many, many nationalities involved in the IAEA safeguard’s activities.  A number of them are American, typically coming from our laboratories.  
 
So they will not be part of the inspection teams because of our lack of diplomatic relations, but they are a very competent organization.  What we have done is give them the tools they need to apply those talents, and, I might say, to expand their scope relative to other countries as well, hopefully.  For example, this issue of having verification opportunities literally for the uranium supply chain is something that they have sought in many — they would love to have.  They’ve sought it in other occasions unsuccessfully.  This will be the first time they’ll have that capability.
 
This is a period in which they will have — I mean, an agreement in which they will have the ability to deploy advanced technologies, enrichment-monitoring technologies — I might add, developed at our national laboratories.  Electronic seals — our laboratories have worked on that, et cetera, et cetera.
 
So I think it’s the issue — they are very competent.  They need to have the options at their disposal to deploy their tools.  This is what the agreement gives them.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Toluse.
 
Q    Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I wanted to ask sort of a technical question about the Arak heavy-water reactor.  The original framework agreement said that the core would be destroyed, and I think the final agreement said that you all would pour — or that cement or concrete would be poured — 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Concrete.
 
Q    — into the core.  Is that the same as destroying it?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, so it renders it unusable in that or any future reactor.
 
Q    And is there a potential that if this deal breaks apart, that Iran would be able to get that core to — restart it or rebuilt in a way would get the — 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, clearly, if the agreement is rejected, then obviously — well, I won’t say obviously — I presume Iran would not take the steps required of it.  One of those steps is removing the calandria from that reactor, and then, in collaboration with the P5+1 — which includes the United States — to carry through an alternative design with an order of magnitude less plutonium production, and then build that reactor and, in addition, to send all of the irradiated plutonium-bearing fuel out of the country for the whole life of the reactor.
 
But if there’s no agreement, I don’t see — personally, I don’t see why they would do that.  They would presumably leave the calandria in and just finish that reactor, which is a major plutonium producer.
 
Q    How long does that process — or at what point in the agreement are they supposed to actually have done the redesign and taken — 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, the redesign — as the agreement says, a working group will be set up involving Iran and — well, involving the P5+1.  And that will go forward immediately.  And it’s not like there hasn’t been some work done on this; many of the countries’ technical teams, including our own — particularly the Argonne Laboratory, which is where a lot of especially research-reactor design goes on — we’ve already done modeling.  That’s why we have confidence in the basic parameters.
 
And if you look at the agreement, you will even find two pages of the parameter’s specification of the new reactor.  And then it would be, as expeditiously as possible, to go through design and then construction and commissioning of the reactor.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Victoria.
 
Q    In your meetings with lawmakers, among those who oppose the deal, have any of them come up with a credible alternative that they’ve suggested to you?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  I’ve not heard one, to be honest — at least not one that has the same impact as the agreement does.  We have said — and again, I’m not the Secretary of State, but nevertheless I would opine that if we now undercut this agreement, it’s hard to see how there would not be very negative consequences, and very negative consequences that we would see very quickly.  The most important point here is — I think one of the most surprising elements of this agreements to many is the fact that the P5+1 could hang together through a tough, grinding negotiation over a long time, at the same time in which it’s very clear some members of the P5+1 have some other issues among ourselves.  And we all know I think who we’re talking about. 
 
And yet, there was tremendous cohesion there.  And I think a core underlying reason — and one that gives me some confidence that this cohesion will stick if there is any question about how Iran is implementing the agreement — is the P5 have a self-interest in preserving the nonproliferation regime.  Obviously, the P5 has a special role in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so there is self-interest in seeing that this regime is executed properly.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Gardiner, I’ll give you the last one, then I’ll let the Secretary go.
 
Q    It’s an odd one.  Mr. Secretary, you’ve been seen as —
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  I am too.  (Laughter.) 
 
Q    Well, I was going to ask about — you’ve been seen as one of the most effective spokesmen for the administration on this agreement in part because you cut a somewhat unusual figure in Washington.  You’ve got that slightly longer hair than the rest of us.  
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  I’m leaving.
 
MR. EARNEST:  He means that in the nicest possible way.  (Laughter.)  
 
Q    Yes, it’s a compliment, sir.  So can you tell us what it is about bringing an academic to Washington, which is a somewhat unusual thing, that may have worked out in your particular case, and why you think that you have become the spokesman for this agreement that you’re now brought before us?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I would say a spokesman for the agreement.  But look, it’s an area that — as you know, this is — frankly, this is not part of — this was not part of my job description.  But obviously it was a fortuitous set of circumstances in the sense that this is an area in which I do have a lot experience.  Actually it’s not known but — here’s some news.  
 
Q    Bring it.
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Here’s some news.  1978 — you can look up the American Physical Society Report on Nuclear Fuel Cycles and Waste Management.  
 
Q    (Inaudible) reading? 
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  It’s terrific.  I recommend it for insomnia.  (Laughter.)  And there’s a chapter in there on nuclear safeguards.  And frankly, I was the lead author of that chapter.  So this goes back to 1978, so I’ve been doing this a long time.  And I think the other thing is — I’ll be honest, there was a certain fortuitousness in the sense that Mr. Salehi is also — was an MIT graduate.  I didn’t know him then, but his thesis advisor is a very dear friend of mine, so we were able to have at least some kind of commonality of experiences, which probably helped moved the negotiation along.  Because as you know, these kinds of relationships are important there.
 
So I don’t know, whatever the case is, I’m happy to obviously assist the President and Secretary Kerry — to aid and negotiate would be to advance this agreement.
 
Q    And you brought MIT paraphernalia, I understand, to some of these negotiations.  Is that right, sir?
 
SECRETARY MONIZ:  Well, I mean, it was, again — I want to make it clear, this was not guile or anything else.  This was just — I have two grandchildren.  Mr. Salehi, his first grandchild was born as we were sitting at the table negotiating.  So it just seemed appropriate to connect his new granddaughter to his educational past.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  
 
All right, we’ll take questions on other topics.  Or if additional discussion of Iran is warranted, we can do that too.
 
Josh, go ahead.
 
Q    On a different topic, I wanted to see what your response was with that of the President to this attack that killed a Palestinian toddler in a fire that has been blamed on Jewish individuals in Israel.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Josh, the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms last night’s vicious terrorist attack in the Palestinian village of Duma.  The arson attack on a family’s home in the dead of night resulted in the death of an 18-month old baby and the injury of three other family members.  We convey our profound condolences to the family, and extend our prayers for a full recovery to those were injured in the attack.
 
The United States welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s order to Israeli security forces to use all means at their disposal to apprehend the murders for what he called an act of terrorism, and bring them to justice.  We urge all sides to maintain calm and avoid escalating tensions in the wake of this tragic terrorist incident.
 
Q    And American intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the DIA, are saying that the Islamic State is essentially as strong as it was a year ago despite all of our massive efforts there, and that basically they’re replenishing it as quickly as we’re diminishing them.  Does the White House agree with that assessment from the intelligence agencies?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, I think that an evaluation of the facts, and anyone with some memory about what’s transpired over the last 12 months would acknowledge that we’ve made important progress in our campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  That’s undeniable, and there are a variety of ways to measure that.
 
One measure is that, over the last year, the U.S. coalition — the U.S. and our coalition has now hit ISIL with more than 5,800 airstrikes.  And that has resulted in the destruction of thousands of fighting positions, tanks, vehicle bomb factories, training camps, and even some ISIL fighters.  Our partners over the last year have made important progress on the ground when talking about Iraq.  We’ve frequently cited this statistic that ISIL has been driven out of, or at least is no longer able to freely operate in 25 percent of the populated areas that they previously controlled.  That’s an indication that their footprint has been reduced.  That’s quite a stark contrast to what was taking place one year ago today when ISIL was essentially operating and moving unimpeded across the desert in Iraq, even threatening cities like Erbil and Baghdad where there’s U.S. personnel.
 
You’ll recall that around this time, a year ago, there was a siege underway at Sinjar Mountain where religious minorities were trapped and ISIL fighters were threatening to slaughter them.  Since that time, operating effectively with fighting forces on the ground and backed by coalition military airpower, Sinjar Mountain is no longer — was not the site of a widespread slaughter like ISIL was threatening, and has been retaken by anti-ISIL forces.
 
There are a variety of ways to measure the progress that we’ve made in Syria as well.  I think we would acknowledge that the progress that we’ve made in Syria is not as significant as the progress that’s been made in Iraq.  But nonetheless, ISIL has been driven out of Kobani.  And we’ve talked quite a bit recently about the significant losses that ISIL fighters have endured across northern Syria, including in the key city of Tel Abyad.  And we’ve talked about the strategic significance of that city that had previously been a prominent — sort of the gateway to a prominent and important supply route for ISIL in Raqqa.  And that supply route has now been shut down.
 
I’ll remind you that there have been some prominent extremists taken off the battlefield in Syria as a result of our coalition efforts.  The President ordered a raid back in May in which a senior ISIL commander in Syria was killed, and a treasure trove of intelligence information was obtained and is currently being exploited.  And earlier this month, the Department of Defense announced the removal of a key al Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan group leader in Syria.  Obviously, that’s different than ISIL, but it is the source of the significant national security concern that the President articulated a year ago.
 
So that’s to say nothing of the important progress that’s been made on the political front in Iraq.  We have always indicated that progress on the political front was going to be critical to our longer-term success.  One year ago today, you had Prime Minister Maliki sitting comfortably in office, governing that country in a sectarian way that ultimately undermined the effectiveness of the security forces, but, more broadly, undermined the ability of the country to confront this ISIL threat.
 
Over the course of the last year, we’ve seen a new government take office, led by Prime Minister Abadi, who, thus far, has followed through on pursuing an inclusive, multi-sectarian governing agenda.  He has also extended that approach to the security forces, and that’s improved the performance of Iraqi security forces on the battlefield.
 
So I think there are a variety of measures to evaluate the progress that we’ve made against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria.  And the preponderance of those measures indicates that we’ve made important progress, but there’s no doubt that there is — there continue to be significant challenges in confronting ISIL and you noted one of them, which is that ISIL has continued to demonstrate some ability to continue to recruit fighters to their side.  And this is an important part of our strategy, and we obviously would like to see additional progress in confronting the flow of foreign fighters to the region, countering the radicalization strategy that they’ve pursued in social media, but also more effectively operating in these communities that had previously been taken over by ISIL to ensure that we can put in place some kind of stable governing structure that will make it more difficult for ISIL to recruit sympathizers to their side.
 
That’s a long answer but an important one.
 
Jeff.  
 
Q    Josh, does the White House have any last-minute measures to help Puerto Rico ahead of an expected default this weekend?  And if not, are you concerned about the consequences of that now, in the aftermath of that expected default?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Jeff, as you know, the administration has for some time been trying to work with Puerto Rico and its local leaders as they confront some of the significant financial challenges that they face there in the commonwealth.  Puerto Rico is home to more than 3.5 million U.S. citizens who have persevered through a decade-long recession.  
 
And we have put in place — the President has directed the creation of a Puerto Rico task force.  And some of the President’s most senior economic advisors have been engaged in the work of that task force.  And obviously, Secretary Lew has been closely following the efforts of both Puerto Rico and this task force to confront some of these significant financial challenges.  
 
I know that there is a payment that Puerto Rico is scheduled to make I believe by Monday.  What we have said for some time is that there should be no expectation of a federal bailout, but there should be the expectation that the Obama administration will continue to work with Puerto Rico and their local leaders as they work through some pretty significant financial challenges.
 
Q    Are you concerned about the fallout if they do not make that payment, which is expected?
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department for a specific economic or financial analysis of the consequences if that payment is not made.  But at this point, I would be reluctant to foreshadow what the consequences could be since, at least at this point, the payment is not due.
 
John.
 
Q    Thank you, Josh.  Two questions, first on Puerto Rico.  Former Governor Luis Fortuno, an advocate of statehood, said that if Puerto Rico moved ahead with statehood, it would be a lot easier to resolve these problems.  And he recalled conversations he had with the President on this where he found him not committed on the issue.  What is the President’s position today on statehood for Puerto Rico?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, our position has been that this was a decision for the people of Puerto Rico to make.  And I know that there have been a series of structures that have been — political structures have been created over the last couple of decades to try to resolve this issue.  But our position continues to be that this would be a decision for the people of Puerto Rico to make.
 
Q    And I wonder if you could clear up one more thing on the negotiations with Iran.  At the President’s news conference in his memorable reply to Major, he said the question is, why did we not tie negotiations to their release — meaning the hostages; think about the logic that that creates.  And then he went on and explained it thoroughly.
 
The next day, Secretary Kerry appeared on the “Morning Joe” program and said that during the Iran nuclear talks — and I quote — “There was not a meeting that took place, not one meeting that took place — believe me, that’s not an exaggeration — where we did not raise the issue of our American citizens being held.”  And he said it was the last conversation he had with the Foreign Minister.  
 
It would seem, on the surface at least, the statements of the President and the Secretary of State are contradictory.  Could you explain it and clear it up?
 
MR. EARNEST:  I can, John.  And what we said, even while the negotiations were ongoing, the Secretary Kerry and other Americans frequently raised the case of Americans who were being unjustly detained in Iran with their counterparts on the sidelines of the ongoing negotiations.
 
And let me explain what that means.  It means there was never a situation in which American negotiators offered up these unjustly detained Americans as a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations.  It is our view that those Americans should be released without any condition so that they can return to the United States and be reunited with their families.  And that is — we continue to advocate for their release and we’ll continue to do that.
 
And the point — the President made an important point in the news conference in saying that the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations was, as all of you know, not at all a foregone conclusion.  In fact, there was some healthy skepticism about whether or not this would actually be completed, as evidenced by the fact that the negotiations weren’t completed until two weeks after the original deadline. 
 
So to suggest — had these individuals and their fates been tied to the successful completion of the nuclear negotiations and the negotiations not had yielded an agreement, it would have only set back our efforts to try to secure their release.  And that’s why the President made the prudent judgment to routinely — and as Secretary Kerry indicated, daily — make clear that the safe return of these American citizens is a top priority of the administration.  We were not willing to subject them to the back-and-forth bargaining that took place in the nuclear talks.  
 
Olivier. 
 
Q    A couple on Gitmo.  Any more on when the plan will be made public?  
 
MR. EARNEST:  No additional timelines to share with you at this point. 
 
Q    And then, I think this is an obvious question, but does this plan envision the closing of the entire naval base, or just the detention center for suspected terrorists? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Just the detention center. 
 
Sunlen.
 
Q    The President, just a few hours ago in the Oval Office, called out Congress for — the House specifically — for leaving without having work done on the budget.  What conversations, if any, though, are the White House already doing to try to avoid a shut down once they get back?  What conversations are going on? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Sunlen, what the President has done, and what he did back in February, is actually put out a very detailed budget proposal.  This is a budget proposal that fully funds our national security requirements.  It also makes the key investments that are critical to the success of our economy when it comes to expanding opportunity for middle-class families.  And the whole thing was paid for with some common-sense reforms to our tax code that would make our tax code both more fair and more straightforward. 
 
That’s the President’s responsibility, is to be clear and direct about what exactly his priorities are.  But ultimately, the Founding Fathers of our nation believed that it was important for Congress to have the power of the purse.  And this is a constitutional responsibility, the basic responsibility of anybody who goes to the United States Congress, which is to legislate and pass a budget for the United States of America. This is a constitutional, congressional responsibility.  
 
And the good news is that we have seen Democrats be very forward-leaning in their willingness to sit down at the negotiating table with Republicans in Congress to try to find bipartisan common ground.  That has been the formula for past success.  You’ll recall that in 2013 after the government shutdown was sustained for a couple of weeks, that there was a patch that was put in place, and then Paul Ryan and Patty Murray — so a leading House Republican and a leading Senate Democrat — sat down at the negotiating table and hammered out a bipartisan agreement.  It was certainly not a perfect agreement, and there were some aspects of the agreement that the President didn’t like.  But what it did do is it avoided a second government shutdown and it identified clear, bipartisan common ground where we could make investments above and beyond the sequester — investments not just in our national security but also in our economy.  
 
We believe that is a template for success.  And we believe that’s what Democrats and Republicans in Congress should do.  Democrats have indicated a willingness to do that, but we haven’t seen that same willingness from Republicans.  And that is a source of significant disappointment because we know what’s going to happen, we’ve seen this movie before.  The ending is not very good.  They’re going to come back in early September and they’re going to say, oh, my goodness, look at this, we only have three weeks before a government shutdown.  And they’re going to claim that they don’t have time.  
 
The fact is, that’s why it has been a source of such disappointment, that Republicans have resisted talking to Democrats to pass a budget.  So what the President indicated is he was hopeful that they would use at least a couple of the next 39 days that they’re on vacation to start having these kinds of conversations.  Even if they’re informal, even if they’re phone calls, or even if they’re around a table at the beach somewhere, that we can start having constructive conversations between Democrats and Republicans in Congress to ultimately arrive at a bipartisan budget agreement that doesn’t risk any sort of government shutdown.
 
Q    And you weren’t exactly clear on this part yesterday so I’m going to try another time.  
 
MR. EARNEST:  Okay. 
 
Q    Would you veto, though, a spending bill that includes defunding for Planned Parenthood? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Sunlen, what we have indicated in the past continues to be true today, that we have routinely opposed the inclusion of ideologically driven riders in the budget process.  And certainly a rider that would, on a wholesale basis defund Planned Parenthood, which is the proposal of some Republicans in the House, is certainly something that would draw a presidential veto.  
 
Q    And has the President spoken directly with Senator Schumer over the Iran deal? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  The President has spoken to a substantial number of members of the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans.  But I don’t have any specific conversations to detail for you.  
 
April.  
 
Q    Josh, do you have any more information on the White House communication with Cincinnati officials after the indictment and charges for the police officer there — university police officer?  
 
MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any specific conversations that have occurred since the indictment was announced in the last day or two.  I know that over the last several days that Valerie Jarrett, the President’s Senior Advisor, has been in touch with the Mayor of Cincinnati.  But I’m not aware of any conversations that have taken place since the indictment was announced.  
 
Q    And lastly, apparently, Dylann Roff has pleaded not guilty to hate crimes charges for the Charleston shooting.  What does the White House have to say about that? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  This is a case that will be handled by the Department of Justice, and I know that they take the significant responsibility that they have very seriously.  And the President continues to have complete confidence in the skill and professionalism of our federal prosecutors, and we’re confident that this individual will be brought to justice. 
 
Q    I understand your comment which you just made, but the President went down, eulogized the pastor there, and he even — he didn’t use Dylann Roff’s name, but he brought it up.  And there were references to the Confederate flag and references to what he did.  I mean, he is pleading not guilty to hate crimes when we’ve heard from eye witnesses that there was pure racial hate when he conducted these mass killings.  So what do you say to that? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, all I’ll say is — I want to be careful because I don’t want to say something that could be construed as influencing the criminal justice process.  The President has a lot of confidence in the criminal justice process — in no small part because of the skill and professionalism of our prosecutors. I will say that there has been ample evidence that has been presented publicly.  But what’s most important is for that evidence to be presented in a court of law and for the accused to be given all of the rights and responsibilities that the Constitution guarantees.  
 
But we know that our federal prosecutors take this case seriously and they’re committed to pursuing justice.  And we believe that’s exactly what they’re pursuing right now. 
 
Jon. 
 
Q    Coming back to the Planned Parenthood videos.  You’ve been asked several days — I wondered if you have an answer now on whether or not the President has actually seen any of these videos. 
 
MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t asked him that question point-blank, but I do know that he is aware of the news that those videos have generated.  
 
Q    And one of the — the central question here, of course, is whether or not Planned Parenthood was involved in the selling of fetal tissue for profit.  There sure seems to be a strong suggestion that was exactly what was being talked about on those videos.  Does the White House believe this should be investigated?  Obviously, the selling of fetal tissue, fetal body parts for profit is against the law.  Does the White House believe it should be investigated?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, what I will say is I know that — I haven’t seen the videos.  But those who have taken a close look at them have raised some significant concerns about their authenticity and whether or not they accurately convey the view of those particular officials, or even the broader institution.
 
The New York Times described this as a “campaign of deception.”  The Seattle Times described this as a “manufactured crisis.”  And The Mercury News even described those videos as “grossly misleading.”  
 
So the other thing that I alluded to yesterday is we have seen this kind of tactic be attempted by other extremist organizations that have an ideological agenda, and they marshaled what purported to be convincing and damning evidence that didn’t — that later did not prove to hold up to much scrutiny.  And I guess the scrutiny that these videos have gotten thus far from at least a handful of news organizations raises significant doubts about their authenticity.
 
When it comes to a specific determination that needs to be reached about whether or not any sort of criminal behavior or criminal action took place, that is obviously a determination that would be made by career prosecutors at the Department of Justice, and so I’d refer you to them for any decisions they feel like they need to make on this matter.
 
Q    But it seems like the thrust of your comments are critical on those that have brought this evidence out, not at the alleged underlying behavior, which could be, if true, criminal behavior.  I mean, does the White House believe that this longstanding ban on the for-profit selling of fetal tissues is something that should be enforced, and if there were a violation it should be prosecuted?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, of course, this is the policy and the law, and we think everybody should be following the law.  There’s also a question — 
 
Q    You’ve chosen to selectively prosecute —
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, but there’s also a question of ethics.  And what Planned Parenthood has indicated is that their standards are consistent with the highest ethical standards that are out there.  
 
And again, there are significant questions that have been raised by outside organizations about the content of these videos, so I think that would explain the comments that I’ve shared here.  But when it comes to making decisions about either an investigation of possible criminal activity or charges being brought consistent with the suspicion of criminal activity, those would be questions for the Department of Justice.
 
Q    It sounds — one more — it sounds like you’re saying we should just believe Planned Parenthood because they’ve said that they’ve upheld the highest ethical standards.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the standards that they say that they have in place are certainly relevant in this case.  And again, those who have taken a close look at the videos have raised some significant concerns based on their own observations about the authenticity of the videos.  But ultimately, I think the American people will take a look at the evidence and decide for themselves.
 
Q    But nobody here has taken a close look at the video.  I mean, you keep referring to people who have taken a close look, but has anybody here taken a close look?
 
MR. EARNEST:  I think it’s possible that people here have seen the video, but just based on the fact that it’s getting a lot of news attention.  But I haven’t.  I don’t know if the President has.  And I certainly know that there are a handful of people who I think can legitimately be described as impartial observers who have raised some significant concerns about the content of those videos.
 
Let’s move around.  John.
 
Q    Thanks, Josh.  Former Secretary of State Clinton is in Miami today.  She made a speech calling for the end of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.  It’s a position, of course, that the President also supports.  I wanted to read to you The Miami Herald’s editorial today regarding this issue and get your reaction to it. It’s not very long.  They write:  “We have yet to see any significant actions by the Castro regime that will benefit the United States or enhance the civil liberties and freedoms of the Cuban people.”  Do you disagree with that statement by The Miami Herald editorial board?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would — what we have seen, John, are some steps that the Cuban government has taken both in terms of releasing some political prisoners and giving the Cuban population greater access to information.  These are steps that the government previously resisted.  So I think that is an indication of at least some forward progress.
 
I think the other thing that I would acknowledge is that our expectation is that the kind of policy change that the President initiated just seven or eight months ago is something that is strongly in the best interest of both the United States and the Cuban people over the long term.
 
And what we saw is that the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years didn’t yield any progress that anybody could point to in terms of changing the government’s posture in the direction of respecting and even protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people.  And that is what prompted the President’s policy decision to change our policy toward Cuba, to begin to normalize our relations with Cuba and to even establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.  We didn’t see any progress over more than 50 years.  And well, if you’ve been trying something for 50 years and it didn’t work, it’s time to try something different.  And what we have tried to do differently has resulted in at least what could be described as some preliminary change and positive indications about the future.
 
One other data point that I would point to is that available data about the preferences of the Cuban people indicate that more than 90 percent of them support the policy change that the President has initiated.  So even if there are skeptics here in the United States, the President, who has the national security interest of the United States at heart, believes that this is the right decision for our country.  But it is certainly relevant that an overwhelming majority, a near unanimity of the Cuban people, agree that this is in the best interests of their country, too.
 
Q    The editorial board writers with The Miami Herald also write:  “The daily arrests, acts of repudiation and censorship of any person or group that questions the official line are still in place.”  Do you disagree with that particular sentence?
 
MR. EARNEST:  There is no doubt that there is significant progress that remains to be done.  And there are a number of additional steps we would like to see the Cuban government take to do a better job of protecting and respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people, including those in Cuba who may have some political differences with the government.  And there’s no denying that there’s additional progress that’s needed.  And we believe that that progress is more likely and that we can be more effective in pressing for that progress by the Cuban government by more deeply engaging with the country and by reestablishing diplomatic ties to that country.
 
Kevin.
 
Q    Josh, thanks.  I want to follow up on Jon’s questions about the Planned Parenthood video.  You mentioned “grossly misleading,” “partisan,” when you talked about the writer.  You called it “ideological.”  You even said that there have been impartial observers who have raised questions.  Who are these impartial observers to whom you refer?  And can you understand why there are so many American people who feel like their voices should also be heard here at the White House?  Impartially speaking, there are people — whether they be Democrats or Republicans — who feel that what has been revealed in the video is grotesque, at a minimum, and if not criminal, worse?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, that’s why I’m pointing out to you that The New York Times has described the release of these videos as a campaign of deception, and the Mercury News —
 
Q    You’re not calling the Times impartial, are you? 

MR. EARNEST:  Of course I am, Kevin.
 
Q    But, Josh, seriously, you can’t say that the Times is impartial about all things vis-à-vis Planned Parenthood.  I’ve never seen them criticize Planned Parenthood for anything.  And yet you’re saying that they’re impartial somehow.
 
MR. EARNEST:  I’m going to resist the urge to raise questions about partiality of any news organization in this room, particularly in the context of this discussion. 
 
Q    Okay.  I’d also like to ask about the Clinton emails. Do you feel like the law is being applied equitably — especially when you consider what happened with the David Petraeus circumstance and how they basically went in there and they got all his information and took all of his computers.  In the case of the Clinton circumstance, the server, to this point, still have not been picked up by anyone in law enforcement.  Do you think that’s an equitable use of the law?
 
MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t judge the decision that’s being made by — about enforcing the law by the Department of Justice. If you have questions about that, you should direct it to them.
 
Q    Okay.  Then if I could follow up then on the emails themselves.  Is the White House confident, as more and more of them are revealed, that the Secretary of State — then-Secretary of State Clinton was right to predetermine that which she believed was classified?  Or does the White House believe that she should have done something different and let other people decide what, in fact, was classified information on her server?
 
MR. EARNEST:  The requirement for Secretary Clinton and for every other public official serving in the Obama administration is to ensure that in those instances where they use their personal email in the conduct of official government business, that they turn over those emails to agency officials so that they can be properly maintained, archived and used when — in responding to requests for information from either the general public or for the Congress.  And that is what Secretary Clinton has done.  And that’s what — those are requests that the State Department is currently attempting to fulfill.  
 
Q    Last, I want to ask you about Sandy Bland.  Any update on that in terms of a DOJ investigation?  It seems like the — I wouldn’t say the case has gone cold, but certainly there has been less news out of Texas about her untimely death.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I understand that there actually was a commission that was formed at the state level just yesterday to take a look at the conduct of the Department of Public Safety officer, the state-level law enforcement organization there, and I know that there are some state legislators that are actively involved in those discussions.  I believe there was a hearing just yesterday on this matter.
 
The Department of Justice continues to monitor the situation, both the review that’s going on at the local level by the local prosecutor, but also the efforts that are underway at the state level to review the conduct of state law enforcement agencies as well.
 
Carol.
 
Q    Any more details on the President’s speech on Wednesday?  Is this a daytime, evening speech?  Why is he doing this in this setting at this particular time?  And will there be anything new in the speech, meaning that you guys have talked about this a lot and he’s obviously talked about this a lot, a number of administration officials have — you’re delivering this in the middle of when people are typically on vacation, so how do you intend to break through?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Carol, we’ll have some more details on a number of those questions next week.  I can tell you that the President is looking forward to the opportunity to make a strong case about our broader national security interests, and how preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy advances those interests and advances the interest of our allies as well.  
 
I think the other thing that I alluded to in the opening statement is that this is also the venue where President Kennedy himself delivered a speech — I believe it was about 52 years ago — at American University where he talked about his efforts to try to use diplomacy to make a nuclear war less likely — in this case a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
 
So trying to advance our interests through diplomacy even when the threat of nuclear weapons is involved is something that has served our country well in the past, and the President believes that it will serve our country well in the future, particularly when it comes to confronting Iran and their nuclear program.  
 
Fred.
 
Q    Josh, just to follow up on The New York Times — that was an editorial board.  You’re not putting an editorial piece in the context of impartial — by definition, that’s opinion.  It’s not — 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Is there a question?
 
Q    Yes, yes, yes.
 
MR. EARNEST:  I thought there might be.
 
Q    Just asking for a clarification on that point.  Are you putting that in the context of an impartial observation, since it is an editorial?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I am.  I’m not saying that they don’t have an opinion, but I do think that these are individuals who can take a look at the facts and render an opinion.  And that’s what they do.  In this case, they called it a “campaign of deception.”  We saw FactCheck.org — if you want to raise questions about their credibility, ironically, you could do that as well — they described that as “unspinning the Planned Parenthood video.”
 
So I think the point that I’m making here is that I haven’t seen the videos, but those who have taken a look at it have raised some concerns about the content.  And ultimately, what the President believes is that — or our position on this is that if a Department of Justice inquiry is required, then that’s a decision that they will make.  And so for questions about that, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
 
Q    And as far as you’ve said defunding Planned Parenthood would be ideological.  Could one argue that even funding Planned Parenthood is ideological?  I mean, there’s a lot of community health services out there that would provide some of the same things — screenings, contraception even various health services that would not be nearly as controversial as Planned Parenthood, in terms of receiving federal tax dollars.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Fred, I guess it’s relevant to point out a couple of things — that Planned Parenthood does provide a range of important preventative care and health care services, including health screenings, vaccines and check-ups to men, women and children across the country.  Millions of men and women visit Planned Parenthood centers annually.
 
The other thing that is true — and this applies to Planned Parenthood, and sometimes I think it gets lost in the debate — is that no federal funds, including administrative funds, are permitted to cover abortions or administer plans that cover abortions, except in the case of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is endangered.  That’s been the federal law since the 1980s, and nothing has changed.
 
Q    And just lastly, this question keeps coming up — is there any reason to think that the President will watch the videos?  
 
MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.  I don’t believe that he has that planned for his weekend.
 
Chris.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  During a Pride celebration in Jerusalem yesterday, at least six people were stabbed, including a six-year-old girl who remains in critical condition.  Do you condemn the actions?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Absolutely.  And I believe those actions continue to be under investigation.  But this is a terrible act of violence and one that the United States would strongly condemn.

Scott.
 
Q    In case Secretary Pritzker wants to know, what is the White House position on lifting the oil exports —  (laughter.)    
MR. EARNEST:  If she needs to solicit an opinion on this policy matter, she can do so in private. 
 
Q    What about if we want to know — (laughter.) 
 
MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have an opinion on this to convey to you.  This is a policy decision that ultimately will be determined by the Secretary of Commerce at the Department of Commerce.  And I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the White House would be totally left out of the loop, but if any communication is necessary in making that policy decision, that’s a communication that would take place in private.
 
Q    IHS came out with a study this week showing that gasoline prices, consumer gasoline prices tend to track international oil prices anyway, not the discounted domestic prices.  Would that be a relevant thing to consider in making that policy choice?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, ultimately that will be something for the Department of Commerce to figure out. 
 
Sarah.
 
Q    Thanks, Josh.  I have a question about The New York Times and Clinton emails.  So it was reported that both the Times and several other news organizations were told by the Justice Department that it was a criminal referral and that later emerged to not be the case.  Is the President concerned about the fact that you have — whether it’s accurate information or not — that members of the Justice Department are leaking things about an inquiry related to his potential successor and a former member of the administration?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Sarah, I think the — I’ve gotten in trouble when I’ve opined on the wisdom of relying on anonymous sources for important new reports.  So considering it’s Friday in July, I want to avoid offering that kind of advice again.  So I guess I would let all of you decide on that.  
 
The Department of Justice I think has gone to some length to try to help all of you understand exactly what’s happened in this situation.  And that certainly was made more difficult not just because the report relied in anonymous sources at the Department of Justice, but relied on anonymous sources elsewhere who I think one could logically conclude, maybe even impartially conclude, might have an axe to grind in this particular matter.
 
But ultimately, it is news organizations themselves that have to account for their own reporting, and they’ll have to account also for relying on what turned out to be questionable, if not misleading, anonymous sources for a really important story.  But ultimately, again, that will be something for news editors and media reporters to churn through, and I’ll let them do that on their own.
 
Q    Is it awkward, though, for the administration?  And has the President kind of said anything to Attorney General Lynch or people at the Justice Department about dealing especially with things related to Secretary Clinton?
 
MR. EARNEST:  No, I’m not aware of any of those conversations.  The Department of Justice, like other agencies in the administration, goes to great lengths to try to help you guys understand exactly what’s happening inside the administration and why it’s happening.  And in this case, the Department of Justice did work hard to try to help the news media and the American public exactly understand what was going on, and that was complicated by the fact that the original report was wrong.  But that didn’t prevent the Department of Justice from trying to work even on an on-the-record basis to help all of you understand what exactly the facts were.
 
Jared.
 
Q    Josh, in the conference call last night, the President cautioned supporters not to repeat some of the same mistakes as Iraq.  How does the administration, when trying to sell the Iran nuclear deal, avoid the paradox that some fall into that the more that is known objectively — whether it’s by the IAEA, international community, or whatever — that the more is known, the less is trusted about the veracity of those reports?  That’s a paradox that international investigators fell into with Iraq, and that has to be the toughest sell for the administration, doesn’t it?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jared, I think I see it a little bit differently.  As it relates to this specific deal itself, I think the more that people understand the agreement and the commitments that Iran has made, and the nature of the most intrusive inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program, the more likely they are to support this agreement.  And that’s because they understand that this would effectively shut down every pathway that Iran has to a nuclear weapon.  And it would give us significant confidence, as Secretary Moniz described, that we had good insight into Iran’s nuclear program and could confirm whether or not they’re following the terms of the agreement that they committed to.
 
Andrew.
 
Q    The Iranians are a little bit annoyed with you.  I’m not sure if you’re aware of this.
 
MR. EARNEST:  I heard a little something about this.  (Laughter.) 
 
Q    — the IAEA about something you said regarding the military option still being on the table way down the line if the deal doesn’t work.
 
MR. EARNEST:  Did you wait until Olivier left to ask this question?  Because I was answering his question when they — 
 
Q    Oh was that his question? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, it was.  It was.
 
Q    I’m wondering if you want — you would want to walk back those remarks, or you think they still stand.
 
MR. EARNEST:  No, I certainly stand by those remarks.  I wouldn’t have — I stand by those remarks.
 
Q    And just a clarification on the confidential protocol between Iran and the IAEA — who is aware of the contents of that protocol?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Our negotiators were briefed on the contents of that agreement.  And it is the basis of that briefing that we have made a commitment to sharing in classified setting that information with members of Congress. 
 
My understanding is that Wendy Sherman, who is the lead negotiator, is the individual who briefed House members in classified setting earlier this week.  And she has made an offer to brief members of the United States Senate in classified setting.  That leads me to believe that she is the one who was briefed by the IAEA about the contents of that agreement.  But you should ask the State Department directly, and they can confirm that for you.
 
Q    And just question — obviously, you can’t go into details about a confidential protocol, but can you envisage a situation wherein the IAEA would come to a broader conclusion about Iran’s nuclear — the intentions of Iran’s nuclear program without access to Iranian scientists or sensitive sites like Parchin?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Andrew, my understanding is that the IAEA has indicated that they will have access to all of the information that they need to write their report.  And I mentioned yesterday some — the irony of some Republicans in the United States Senate who claim that they’re not scientists and, therefore, can’t form an opinion about the reality of climate change, but yet, all of a sudden, they have the expertise of a nuclear physicist and can effectively determine what sort of access and information the IAEA needs in order to write their report.  So I think it’s — that’s why we don’t put a lot of — that’s why we don’t find those critiques from Republicans in Congress to be particularly credible.  
 
Toluse, I’ll give you the last one.  Then we’ll do the week ahead.
 
Q    You’ve mentioned a couple of different times that you think that members of Congress, as they go on this five-week vacation or recess, should be working for part of that or doing informal conversations.  What is the White House going to be doing to sort of reach out or make themselves available to talk about all the unfinished business?  Are you going to be calling Congress members back in their districts?  Are you going to be doing any lobbying for the various issues that are on the table?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, Toluse, I might have been a little subtle when I was answering Sunlen’s question, so I’ll try to be more direct.  The White House has put forward a budget.  It was  — I believe it was February 1st that we put out a budget.  And if it were sitting here, it would be as big as a phone book.  So there is ample information and a very detailed proposal that the administration has already put forward when it comes to how we believe that the government should be funded. 
 
Now, if there are members of Congress who suggest that they really don’t want to do the work and they just want to pass our budget, we certainly would welcome them taking that step.  But my suspicion is that they would like to weigh in.  The good news for them is that our Founding Fathers have given the responsibility of maintaining the power of the purse, and ultimately it will be Congress’s responsibility to pass a budget.  
 
And so that’s why you’ve heard me say repeatedly that it’s the responsibility of Republicans in Congress to sit down with Democrats in Congress and find some common ground and put together a budget that can be passed well in advance of September 30th to keep the government open, and make sure that we’re funding the government at appropriate levels that are in the best interest of our economy and the best interests of our national security. 
 
The White House will certainly be available to facilitate those discussions, to offer technical advice, even to weigh in with our opinion if it’s requested.  But ultimately, when it comes to the responsibility of funding the government of the United States, the responsibility of the President is to put forward his own budget proposal — something that we did almost exactly six months ago — and it’s the responsibility of the congressional leadership to pass a budget that they send to the President’s desk before the end of the fiscal year.
 
And I’ll just remind you one last time that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, in the aftermath of the election, the day after the midterm election, in which it was confirmed that Republicans would be in charge of both houses of Congress, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, and the headline was:  Now We Can Get Congress Moving Again.
 
Congress’s most basic function, their most basic responsibility is to pass a budget.  And what we know about the process is they’re going to — it’s going to require at least the support of some Democrats in the Senate in order for that budget to pass.  And that’s why we’ve been urging for months for Republicans in the House and Senate to sit down with Democrats in the House and Senate to try to find this bipartisan agreement.  And that has been something that Republicans have resisted.  And it certainly runs contrary to the promise that they made to get Congress moving again.  
 
Because they’re going to come back the second week in September — from their August recess, ironically enough — and they’re going to be worried about how they’re going to get all this work done in three weeks.  We’re worried about it, too.  That’s why they should start now.
 
And the work that they need to get done right now is to sit down across the table from congressional Democrats and try to find some common ground.  The one silver lining in all of this is this is exactly how they worked through these conflicts in the past.  And in 2013, there was this government shutdown, and in the aftermath of that government shutdown, Democrats and Republicans sat across the table from one another and hammered out a bipartisan solution.  And it was a solution that funded the government at appropriate levels above the sequester both for our national security but also for our economy. 
 
So there is a template that we should follow that’s been successful in the past.  But Republicans, like I said, thus far has resisted it.  And that’s been the source of the frustration that I expressed at the beginning of yesterday’s briefing and the frustration that the President expressed in the Oval Office when he was signing the transportation bill.
 
Q    The President, on the call yesterday, mentioned the $20 million effort against basically to reject the Iran deal.  I’m assuming that effort will reach its peak during this recess as we get closer to the deadline of when Congress has to either approve or reject the deal.  What is the White House going to be doing to sort of counter that huge influx of money and advertising against the deal for the public?
 
MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President convened the call yesterday with Americans all across the country because of his belief in the power of grassroots organizing, and that there are people all across the country who have been following this issue and are concerned about making sure that we don’t engage in a rush to war, that we’re much more focused on trying to use every element of American authority, including our diplomacy, to try to resolve questions that are critical to our national security. 
 
And in this case, the President has done exactly that.  The President has used his influence around the globe to build an international coalition to confront Iran over their nuclear program.  They put in place sanctions that we coordinated with the rest of the global community and some of the — including the largest economies around the world; put intense pressure on Iran, compelled them to come to the negotiating table.  And in the context of those negotiations, they voluntarily agreed to shut down every pathway they have to a nuclear weapon, to reduce their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, to detach 13,000 centrifuges, to essentially render harmless the heavy water reactor at Arak, and to agree to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.  And that represents important progress. 
 
And it is — by following through on this diplomatic agreement and working with the international community to implement it and enforce it is not just the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; failing to do so only makes another war in the Middle East more likely.  
 
And that’s why the President has advocated so strongly for this agreement.  That’s why he’s going to continue to do that in the days and weeks ahead.  And that’s what we’re going to encourage Americans all across the country to do — to talk to their friends and neighbors, to talk to their coworkers and to talk to people at church — to explain to them exactly what’s included in this agreement and why we believe it’s something that should earn the support not just of people all across the country, but also of every member of Congress.
 
All right.  So with that, why don’t I do the week ahead, and you guys can begin your weekends. 
 
On Monday, the President will address the second class of 500 Mandela Washington Fellows at the Young African Leaders Initiative Presidential Summit.  The Young African Leaders Initiative, launched by the President in 2010, connects the United States to the next generation of leaders across sub-Saharan Africa and provides them with the leadership skills, networks, and professional opportunities that will allow them to make a meaningful impact in their countries and communities.  The three-day summit will bring together 500 of sub-Saharan Africa’s most promising young leaders to meet with the President and leading U.S. entrepreneurs, government officials, and civil society representatives.   
 
The event will be a capstone to the President’s trip to Africa, where he affirmed his commitment to young people across the continent and entrepreneurial approaches to common challenges. 
 
On Tuesday, the President will host United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the Oval Office for a bilateral meeting.  In the afternoon, the President will deliver remarks at the White House Demo day — and we’ll have more details on that over the weekend.  
 
Q    White House what? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Demo Day. 
 
Q    D-e-m-o? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  Yes, Demo. 
 
Q    That’s not short for demolition? 
 
MR. EARNEST:  I think it’s short for demonstration.  White House demolition day is a different event.  (Laughter.)  But an event I’m similarly looking forward to.  (Laughter.) 
 
On Wednesday, the President will deliver a speech on the nuclear deal reached with Iran at American University here in Washington.  
 
And then on Thursday and Friday, we anticipate the President will be here at the White House, but we’ll have some more details on his schedule early next week. 
 
Q    AU is daytime, nighttime?  
 
MR. EARNEST:  We’re still working through the details of this.  I anticipate at this point that it will be during the daytime.  We’ll keep you posted. 
 
All right.  Everybody have a great weekend. 
 
END   
2:29 P.M. EDT

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/3/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.

12:50 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Happy Monday.  I’m glad to see that the month of August did not dissuade you from participating today.  So appreciate you making it.

I don’t have any announcements at the top, Josh, so we can go straight to your questions.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  In Texas, the attorney general, Ken Paxton, has been charged with a felony and booked into jail.  And I know that you tend not to weigh in on criminal investigations, particularly those in states, but in this instance, this attorney general has really been the driving force behind the legal challenges to the President’s immigration policies and has really been a thorn in your side on some other environmental issues, including the Clean Power Plan.  So I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about how his criminal investigation may affect the President’s agenda.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, I heard about the news reports of this particular legal matter only recently, so I wouldn’t weigh in on what appears to be an ongoing investigation.  The Department of Justice continues to be an aggressive advocate for the President’s policies, including the executive actions that the President took at the end of last year to bring some much-needed accountability to our broken immigration system.

And there has, in fact, been a concerted partisan effort to try to undermine the implementation of those rules.  But we continue to aggressively advocate in the courts to continue the implementation of those rules, and we’re going to do that regardless of any sort of legal problems that may be faced by some of the plaintiffs.

Q    And on the Clean Power Plan that you’re going to be discussing, the President will be discussing later today, already a lot of reaction from both sides of the aisle in the presidential race.  And one of the things that seems notable about what the Republicans have been saying is they’ve been making some specific criticisms about costs or other factors that they don’t like in this, but they seem to be shying away from the kind of blanket ignoring of climate change as a problem that you have discussed it being the way that they had in the past and that you pointed out they had in the past.  So I’m wondering if you see a shift there, and whether Republicans seem more willing to embrace the issue as an issue, even if they don’t like your specific plan.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Josh, that’s an interesting observation.  I had not reached that conclusion.  It sounds like you may have studied some of these statements from the candidates more closely than I did.

But look, if acknowledging that you have a problem is the first step in trying to solve it, then we welcome the renewed interest by Republicans in confronting this issue.  The fact is, this is an issue that politicians in Washington have been putting off for too long.  And in this case, I think they have a decent excuse, which is there are some tough choices.  And one of the challenges that we have in our political system is getting our system oriented to focus on addressing problems over the longer term.  And the fact is, that is what has contributed to this becoming a more significant problem over the years.  

And in some ways, this is exactly the kind of issue that the President ran for this office to address.  In 2007 and 2008, much of the President’s rhetoric was directed toward changing business as usual in Washington and confronting the tough issues.  And this is a great example of that.  And that is why you heard the President himself describe this issue, or these rules as the most significant steps that our country has ever taken to fight the causes of climate change and to curb carbon pollution.  

One of the other reasons that we may see at least a slightly muted response from some Republicans is that in designing this rule, the administration has focused on the successful implementation of the rules.  That is why this is all geared toward setting targets that states must meet, but also giving states ample opportunity and freedom to design a plan that will allow them to meet those targets in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the people in their state.

One of the other things that you’ve seen is, since this proposed rule has been made final, the Environmental Protection Agency has considered 4 million different comments from the public about the initial proposed rule that was put forward.  And that’s why in the final rule you see that states have a full year under which they can submit their plans.  We’ve also given states a couple of additional years to begin implementing those plans, all while preserving the incentives that exist on the front end for states to continue to make investments in renewable energy that we know can be good for the planet, can be good for our economy, and can actually save consumers on their utility bills. 

So the approach that we have taken has been to maximize the likelihood of successful implementation.  And that should be an indication to you that this administration is not so much worried about the politics, but actually worried about trying to get these rules right.  Because implementing these rules accurately and successfully will allow us to achieve a significant economic benefit for us to protect public health in a way that we can reduce incidents of asthma and reduce the number of asthma attacks, and also save consumers on their utility bills.

So if successfully implemented, this could benefit the American public in a variety of ways.

Q    And a number of industry groups that are planning to sue the administration over this rule have written already to the administration today asking you to put the rule on hold while those legal challenges play out.  Will the administration grant that request?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any consideration to do that.

Julia.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I wanted to ask you about President Obama’s decision to defend Syrian rebels with air power, even though it’s loyal to the Assad regime.  Is the U.S. concerned that it’s deepening its role in the Syrian conflict, or raising the risk of a direct confrontation with Assad?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me answer that question in a couple of ways.  That first is that the train-and-equip program that the President announced almost a year ago now has been focused on preparing adequately vetted Syrian opposition forces to counter ISIL.  And we’ve indicated that a critical element of our counter-ISIL campaign is finding partners who can take the fight to ISIL on the ground.  The President has said, even in the face of criticism from some Republicans, that he’s not willing to commit a significant number of U.S. military personnel on the ground in a combat role in either Iraq or in Syria.  And we’ve acknowledged for some time that we had a little bit of a head start in Iraq because we had a central government in Iraq that was willing to pursue a multi-sectarian agenda and to lead the military in a multi-sectarian and inclusive way.  And that meant that we did have a fighting force on the ground in Iraq that the United States and our coalition partners could partner with.

And we have seen significant progress in terms of rolling back ISIL gains inside of Iraq.  And the latest statistic is that up to 25 percent of the populated area that was previously controlled by ISIL is now an area — are now locations where ISIL can no longer enjoy freedom of movement.  

The story is a little bit different in Syria because there is not a fighting force on the ground with which the United States has been — the United States and our coalition partners has been able to partner with.  We have had some success in partnering with some Kurdish groups on the ground inside of Syria, and we’ve made progress against ISIL, particularly in northern Syria.  But building up the capacity of a force of opposition fighters is something that we’ve been focused on for quite some time.  

And the goal of training and equipping those opposition fighters has been to focus our efforts on ISIL.  And at the commencement of our campaign against ISIL, you’ll recall that the United States sent a clear signal to the Assad regime that they should not interfere with our ongoing counter-ISIL efforts, even inside of Syria.  And that same admonition applies when it comes to the activities of these new Syrian fighter — or new Syrian forces on the ground that have been trained and equipped by our coalition. 

And there are already steps that our coalition has taken to protect these counter-ISIL fighters from attacks, and we’re prepared to take additional steps, if necessary, so that these fighters who are put on the ground to fight ISIL can succeed in that mission.

Q    Unrelated — over the weekend, there were reports that the U.S. Olympic committee — sorry, not U.S. — the Olympic committee is looking at U.S. cities, three U.S. cities to take the place of Boston, since they dropped their bid.  The President did not publicly campaign for Boston to be considered.  Would he do that for another city?  Or is it now his policy, since he was not successful in getting Chicago to be considered — is it his policy to stay out of any campaigning for American cities to host the Olympics?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think once the U.S. Olympic committee has selected an American city to bid on the — I believe it’s the 2024 Games, I’m confident that the President will be supportive of a U.S. bid.  It sounds like there’s still some work to be done to determine exactly which city will mount that effort.  But if the President would willingly lend his support to that bid.

Q    Would he go so far as to — actually, at that point, I guess maybe he could be out of the White House.  But when he was campaigning for Chicago, he went so far as to travel — meet with an international body and put his public support behind that.  Is that something that he’s refraining from doing, since he wasn’t successful with Chicago?

MR. EARNEST:  I wouldn’t say that.  I don’t know where they are in the process either, and I don’t know exactly when those bids will finally be considered by the international Olympic committee.  But certainly once the U.S. OC has selected an American bid city, I’m confident that the President will be strongly supportive of that American bid.

Let’s move around a little bit.  Nadia.

Q    Just to follow up on Syria — so basically you’re saying there is an agreement between you, the United States government, and the Syrian regime not to attack the opposition that you are training because they’re fighting ISIS?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would not describe it as an agreement.  In some ways, I would describe it as an admonition — one that we directed to the Assad regime at the very beginning of this effort last fall, where U.S. officials made clear to the Assad regime that they should not interfere with our ongoing counter-ISIL efforts inside of Syria.  At that point, we were principally referring to any temptation that the Assad regime may have to interfere in the air campaign against ISIL inside of Syria.

What I’m suggesting is that that same admonition that the Assad regime should not interfere in our counter-ISIL activities also applies to the opposition fighters that we have trained and equipped to fight ISIL.  So far, the Assad regime has followed that admonition from the United States, and we encourage them to continue to do so.

Q    So what will happen when these Syrian groups that you are training are engaged with the Assad forces?  How can you stop that?  And it’s not a theoretical question.  I mean, it could happen.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the fact that it could happen is a hypothetical.  At this point, it has not.  And we have made clear that these fighters have been trained and equipped to participate in the counter-ISIL effort.  And our coalition has been involved in that train-and-equip effort, and our opposition will be engaged — and our coalition will be engaged in protecting their ability to take the fight to ISIL on the ground.  And that means protecting them so that they can carry out that fight against ISIL.

Q    On Syria again, you often say that the Assad regime has no future in running the country.  And now there is talk that the Russians and the United States, and maybe Gulf countries are meeting in Doha as we speak with Secretary Kerry, that they will discuss a plan whereby Assad will be part of the coalition.  Does this contradict your stand, or this is a new development, a new strategy regarding Syria?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nadia, what we have made clear is that because of the frequency with which the Assad regime has used the military power of that country and directed it at Syrian citizens, that President Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead that country.  That has been our policy for some time, and that continues to be our policy today.

What we have tried to do for years, and admittedly with not a lot of success, is to facilitate a sustainable, durable political process that would allow a transition, a leadership transition, to occur inside Syria.  And we’ve worked hard to try to bring the opposition together, sit them down at the negotiating table to make a determination about this political transition, and we have not made a lot of progress on that.  But we continue to believe that that actually is the way to resolve the situation inside of Syria.

The chaos — the political chaos that has persisted inside of Syria for so long is what’s allowed extremist organizations like ISIL to gain a foothold in that country.  And to try to bring that violence to an end, we certainly need to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.  But to solve this problem over the long term, we need to bring about a political transition inside Syria.

Q    Sorry to push again, but he’s an ally with you against ISIS, but he’s not an ally with you when he’s fighting his own people and killing Syrians?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I would *not describe him as an ally in our fight against ISIL.  Certainly he has indicated, and even ordered, some military action against ISIL fighters.  But we’ve made clear that the Assad regime should not interfere in the ongoing efforts of the United States and our coalition partners to execute a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

Margaret.

Q    Iran.  The President has a big speech planned this week that we already know about.  Can you fill us in beyond that on kind of how he’s going to pace himself through the month of August?  And maybe since this week is right in front of us, is he doing daily calls?  Is he talking to individual members of Congress?  Is he letting the pro-deal, lobbying interests work their way first?  What’s he doing?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President is — I don’t have any specific telephone calls to tell you about, but the President over the course of this week will continue to be in touch with individual members of Congress on this particular issue.  House members have left Washington, as we talked about a little bit at the end of last week.  But United States Senators remain, so I certainly wouldn’t rule out additional conversations or meetings with members of the Senate.

I also would anticipate that the President would be in touch with other stakeholders who have shown an interest in this particular issue.  I can tell you that tomorrow the President will convene a meeting with the leaders of some prominent Jewish American organizations who have shown a particular interest in this issue, primarily because of their concern about its impact on the national security of the nation of Israel.  The President will come prepared to make a strong case that all of you have heard about how he believes that this historic agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best interest of the United States, it’s clearly within the national security interest of our closest ally in the Middle East, Israel.  And the President will have the opportunity to talk to them about that.

But the other thing, Margaret, I think that is notable is that we’ve made some important progress and are building up some momentum on Capitol Hill, and that over the last 48 to 72 hours, we’ve seen some notable names come out in support of the agreement.  This includes Iraq war veteran, Seth Moulton, from Massachusetts, who talked about his firsthand experience fighting a war in the Middle East — led him to conclude that this agreement makes a future war in the Middle East at least less likely.  We also saw powerful statements from Adam Schiff, who’s the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee — somebody who initially described himself as a skeptic of the agreement, who, after hearing the administration’s case, came around to supporting the agreement.  And even Senator Warren indicated her strong support for this deal.  And that’s an indication that we’re building some momentum on Capitol Hill.

But as you’ve heard me say, we’re not taking any of these votes for granted.  And the President and other senior members of his national security team will continue to make this case not just through the remainder of this week, but over the course of this month.

Q    And the leaders tomorrow, is that the kind of usual — is that the donor group or is that the organization’s group, or is it both in one?  And is it at the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a list of those who will be attending, but we’ll get you some more information about this.

Q    Can I just slide in one more question? 

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.

Q    You may have heard over the weekend a flurry of speculation about whether the Vice President was going to run for President.  

MR. EARNEST:  I did hear a little bit about that.

Q    So has the President talked to him since that flurry of speculation?  And did this come up?  And can you kind of articulate for us, in light of the coverage over the weekend, how the President intends to handle either private discussions with him about it or public speculation between now and September when he decides?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I would anticipate is that the President will keep his private discussions with the Vice President of the United States private.  And so I don’t have a lot of insight to share with you about either the Vice President’s thinking or his discussions with the President on this issue.

What the Vice President has said publicly is that a possible campaign for the presidency is something that he’s considering, and he anticipated that he would make a decision by the end of this summer.  And so obviously we’re in the first week of August and we’re getting closer to the end of the summer, but we’re not there yet.  And somebody with the extensive experience of the Vice President, and somebody who has made such a significant contribution to the safety and prosperity of his country should be afforded the opportunity to make that decision on a timeframe that he chooses.  And it sounds like that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Carol.

Q    Back on Iran.  The President seems to have gotten the support that he wanted from the Gulf States — that Secretary Kerry came out of those meetings and there’s at least tacit vocal support for the deal.  So, one is, what is the White House’s reaction to that?  And two, does that undercut the argument being made by groups such as APEC and others who are saying that this agreement is a threat to the U.S.’s Middle East allies?

MR. EARNEST:  Carol, I saw this right before I came out here, too.  And this is what I think is a rather rough translation of the comments from the Qatari Foreign Minister.  And he said, just in part, all the efforts — referring to the effort to negotiate an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 — that have been exerted make this region very secure and very stable.  And that’s an indication, at least on the part of the Foreign Minister of Qatar, that completing a diplomatic agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is in the security interest of at least the nation of Qatar.  

And the President is certainly aware of the impact that this agreement would have on the national security not just of our closest ally in the region, Israel, but also on our partners in the Middle East that are often subject to some of the destabilizing activities of Iran and their proxies in the region.  And that is why the President convened a meeting with some of the leaders of those countries at Camp David earlier this summer to discuss how the United States could deepen our security cooperation with the GCC countries.  And much of that discussion centered on how the GCC countries, with the support of the United States, could better coordinate their own security activities.

And one of the things that was discussed was trying to put in place anti-ballistic missile technology and capabilities that would provide for the joint security of those nations.  And obviously the United States could be supportive of that effort in terms of providing some expertise and equipment and training.  But ultimately this would be a joint capability that would be developed and maintained and operated by those GCC countries.  And that’s indicative of the President’s desire to deepen his cooperation with our GCC partners in the region.  

But as the President himself has said, he would not have pursued this agreement unless he was completely confident that it was in the best national security interest of the United States, first and foremost, but also in the interest of our allies and partners in the region.  And we’re pleased to hear that at least some representatives of those GCC countries have now clearly stated that they agree with the President’s conclusion.

Q    Does this help his case?  And can you answer the question about does it undercut that particular argument that’s —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I do think it undercuts the argument because we have seen some who have made the case that this agreement would have a negative impact on the security situation of our partners in the Middle East.  The President does not at all agree with that assessment.  In fact, he thinks it strengthens the national security considerations of our allies and partners in the Middle East.  And we welcome the statement from leaders of those countries who indicate that they agree with the President’s conclusion.

Major.

Q    So, Josh, federal agents are going to assist Baltimore police to deal with a rash of homicides.  And I was curious if the President, A, was advised, or that recommendation was brought to be signed off on it.  What does he think is going on there?  And in Kenya, and again today, the President has not hesitated to give admonishing words to young Africans in both cases about what they should do to address problems in their own countries.  Does he have any desire or willingness to go to Baltimore to speak directly to that community that’s in the grip of a historic level of violence?

MR. EARNEST:  Major, I’m not aware that this required a presidential decision.  The Department of Justice has been working with local officials and local law enforcement officials in Baltimore for some time to help them deal with a variety of challenges that they’ve been confronting, particularly in some predominantly African American neighborhoods in Baltimore. 

The commitment of additional resources and manpower to Baltimore is consistent with the kinds of consultations that have been ongoing for some time.

Certainly the President is concerned about reports about an uptick in violent crime in Baltimore.  And that’s why he has directed his Department of Justice to continue to be very focused on what steps can be taken not just to strengthen the relationship between local law enforcement and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect, but also to take some additional steps to try to provide for better law enforcement in that area.

Q    Stan Collender, who is somebody a lot of us pay attention to when it comes to budget matters, has now placed the odds in a government shutdown this fall at 60 percent from where he started a couple of weeks ago at 20 percent.  I would like to get your assessment of where you think and this administration thinks things are in terms of negotiated settlement ultimately, but the prospect of a shutdown.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Major, let me start by saying that Senator McConnell — Leader McConnell indicated that he did not believe that another shutdown would occur.  This is something that he expressed some time ago, and he vowed to use his significant influence in the United States Senate to prevent a government shutdown, and we certainly take him at his word.  

What’s going to be required is we’re going to need to see Democrats and Republicans in Congress sit down at the negotiating table and try to resolve their differences, and they should do that sooner rather than later.

Q    In that context, I’m sure you saw Senator Shelby said over the weekend, Thanksgiving for that.  How do you react to that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that certainly would not be consistent with the promise that was made by Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell to use their new majority in the United States Congress to get Congress moving again.  And the fact is, there is no reason we should wait until Thanksgiving.  We know what the issues are, and that’s precisely why Democrats and Republicans should follow a template that has resulted in important agreements in the past.  And that is for Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate to sit down and start trying to find some common ground.  There are legitimate differences between the two parties, but there should be enough common ground that can be agreed upon to prevent a government shutdown, and that’s what we’re hopeful that they’ll do.

So far, we’ve seen a willingness on the part of Democrats to actually have those negotiations, but unfortunately, Republicans have resisted those kinds of talks and it’s irresponsible for them to do so.

Q    If Thanksgiving is the landing place, would the President veto CRs to get there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly would not — we don’t believe that it is in the best interest of the country for the most powerful, successful country in the history of the world to be functioning on a budget that lasts month-to-month; that truly there should be a better way for us to run the country.

Q    Right.  I know that’s the preference.  I’m just curious if it’s a hard and fast rule.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, right now it shouldn’t come to a CR.  What should happen is Democrats and Republicans should get together and start working on a longer-term agreement.  I suppose they can wait until the end of November if — assuming that there’s some kind of extension passed in the interim period.  But there’s nothing that’s going to change between now and Thanksgiving, so why not go ahead and sit down and have these discussions now, and get this problem out of the way?  That certainly would be in the best interest of our economy.

Q    Xi Jinping will be here in September for a state visit.  There are reports — and they may have just popped up before you came out, so if you’re not aware of this, work on it if you could — that Ling Wancheng, who was purged in an anti-corruption move in China, has stayed here in the United States and the Chinese government has launched a formal request to have him sent back to China.  This is regarded as a complicating — one of many complicating factors in the U.S.-China relationship.  Can you tell us whether or not there has been any formal request from the Chinese government along these lines and if this is merited?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any specific request but let me take that question and see if we can get you a more formal response.

Julie.

Q    Thanks.  Just back on Iran for a moment.  Some of the groups that are opposing the deal have announced pretty elaborate plans to go to congressional districts and air advertising there during the recess to try and advocate — build up opposition against the deal.  What is the President planning to do once all the members have left town?  You noted senators are still here, but House members are back in their districts.  Will he be traveling to make the case for the deal?  Is the White House planning anything localized to try and counter the drumbeat of opposition in districts and states during the recess?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Julie, I think it’s fair to say that the President has had a pretty high profile on these issues over the last couple of weeks, and the President is planning a significant speech later this week, where he’ll discuss this issue and elevate some of the arguments that the President believes are central to any sort of decision on this agreement.  To put it bluntly, the President believes that Congress should be supportive of an international effort to resolve — well, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.  And no one has put forward a legitimate workable alternative other than raising the prospect of using the military option.  

Now, the President has been clear that the military option has always been on the table and it will continue to be.  But if we have an opportunity to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon using diplomacy, the President believes that we should seize that opportunity.  And that’s why over the last two years, or nearly two years, the President and senior members of his team, have spent so much time and effort trying to reach this agreement. 

And the President is pleased that his team was able to work effectively with the international community to unite the international community, to present a united front to Iran, and get Iran to make commitments to reduce their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, to remove 13,000 centrifuges and to render harmless their heavy-water reactor in Arak, and to submit to the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program to ensure they’re living up to the commitments that they made in the agreement.

So that’s the essence of the argument and that is what we hope that not just Americans across the country will find persuasive but what individual members of Congress will find persuasive.  And the President has given speeches, the President convened a conference call last week, where he talked with grassroots activists all across the country about this agreement to get them energized about this agreement to make sure that they understand the terms of the deal.  And we’re going to continue to make that case and we are confident that a sizeable number of members of Congress will put politics aside and focus on what they believe is in the best interest of the United States and our national security.  And if they do, a substantial number of those who follow that path will be supportive of the agreement.

Q    Have you been encouraging Democrats who are supportive or who are coming onboard, as you put it earlier, to publicize that support as quickly as possible to try to build the momentum in support of the deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we certainly welcome those public expressions of support but each individual member of Congress will take the time that they need to consider very carefully this agreement to receive a handful of briefings.  Whether it’s briefings in a classified setting or open testimony or even private meetings with the President of the United States, members of Congress have a variety of ways to understand exactly what’s included in the agreement and to understand what impact this agreement would have on national security and understand exactly how it will strengthen the hand of the United States and strengthen our national security.  And we’re going to continue to make that case, and it certainly is understandable that members of Congress are going to take their time in considering the agreement, considering the information that they have taken in, maybe even consult with some of their constituents before announcing their position.  But we certainly welcome the important expressions of public support that we’ve already received.

Q    You mentioned put politics aside, that’s what you’re encouraging members to do.  Do you think the Democrats who are on the fence are motivated by political concerns or are they worried about political considerations and not the substance of the deal?

MR. EARNEST:  There’s no denying that there is intense political pressure on both sides of this agreement, and what we’re hopeful that people will do is put aside that political pressure and focus on the specific terms of the agreement.  And, again, if you look squarely at the agreement that’s in place, these significant curbs on the Iranian nuclear program, the unprecedented level of inspections to which the Iranian nuclear program would be subjected, it’s clear that this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And that’s good for the national security interest of the United States; it’s good for the national security interest of our closest ally in the region, Israel; and it’s good for our partners in the Middle East like the GCC countries.  And that’s the case that the President will make and we think that’s a case that many members of Congress will be receptive to.

JC.

Q    May I follow up?  Not long after President Kennedy’s American University commencement address, a partial nuclear test ban treaty was signed that summer by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in Moscow — that was August 5th.  U.S. ratification occurred in the U.S. Senate a few weeks later on the 24th of September.  The treaty was signed by President Kennedy on October 7th, and the treaty went into effect on October 10th.  Is this the kind of rapid action that President Obama is hoping for as a result of his American University address on the Iran nuclear deal on Wednesday?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, JC, it sounds like you’ve done your homework in terms of that timeline.  What I would say is that we hope that we would be able to move forward with implementing this agreement soon.  Congress has 60 days to consider this agreement and we are going to, of course, give them those full 60 days to do their work.  The United Nations Security Council, the members of the — including all of the members of the P5+1 who negotiated this agreement — voted in favor of moving forward with this agreement, but there’s a 90-day period before the agreement will begin to be implemented.  But after that, we would anticipate that we would move quickly to implement it, and that starts, I’ll remind you, with Iran taking verifiable steps to curb their nuclear program before they receive any sort of sanctions relief.

So the kinds of steps that we want to see in the short term are laid out in the agreement, and they involve Iran reducing their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, removing 13,000 centrifuges, rendering harmless their heavy-water reactor at Arak, and beginning to comply with the basic — beginning to comply with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.  And that also includes giving the IAEA the access to the information that they need to complete their report about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

So we need to see Iran comply in the short term before any sort of sanctions relief is given, but we hope to see Iran begin to take those steps within the next couple of months.

Q    And the President will be making this case on Wednesday at AU?

MR. EARNEST:  This will certainly be an important part of the President’s case.  And since you mentioned President Kennedy, I think the other thing that’s relevant here are two things that come to mind.  The first is there are some who are critics of the deal who have worried that it’s somehow not wise to engage in these kinds of conversations with a country like Iran, with whom we have such significant concerns.  The fact is, we do have significant concerns with Iran.  This is an agreement that is not based on trust but rather is based on our ability to verify their compliance with the agreement.

But the fact is, as the President himself as often said, you don’t enter into these kinds of agreements with your friends.  You have to resolve these kinds of differences with your adversaries.  And given Iran’s support for terrorism, the way that they continue to menace Israel, the way that they continue to unjustly detain some Americans inside of Iran, that’s an indication of the long list of concerns we have with Iran; that’s all the more reason we need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The second thing that I’ll illustrate, or I’ll point out — and I think this is something that you’ll hear a little bit more about over the course of this week — the other thing that’s different about the agreement that the P5+1, the United States and our international partners, have struck with Iran, and the agreement that was struck between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Kennedy era is President Kennedy signed up the United States to make some significant concessions as a part of the agreement — that there were significant reductions in U.S. nuclear activity that was a part of that agreement.  That ultimately was an agreement that was in the best interest of our national security.  The difference is, in the case of our negotiation with Iran, the United States doesn’t have to make any concessions.  This is about the Iranian regime significantly rolling back key aspects of their nuclear program and agreeing to a whole set of inspections that will verify their compliance with the agreement. 

The United States, after all, doesn’t have to make any concessions.  And I think, again, that should serve — I think that’s a useful way for us to illustrate the wisdom of this approach.

Q    Did the President see any similarities between Mr. Khrushchev and the Ayatollah? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s a historical analogy that I would hesitate to comment on.

Jim.

Q    Getting back to the climate announcement that the President is going to make, I know you talked about this a little earlier with Josh, but isn’t it possible that this will get tied up in the courts?  Isn’t it very likely that this is going to get tied up in the courts?  Opponents of the Clean Air rules on mercury and other toxins — that went all the way to the Supreme Court.  Isn’t it possible that this is just going to get tied up until the end of the Obama administration?

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, I have no doubt that special interests and the politicians who are in their pockets will fight tooth and nail against this specific rule.  But the fact is, this is a step in the right direction when it comes to strengthening our economy, improving public health and finally confronting the carbon pollution that leads to climate change.

Q    But it could get tied up to the extent that this rule may not go into effect — these regulations may not go into effect.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, again, I’m confident the special interests will make that argument, but I’m also confident in the legal power of our arguments.  And as you pointed out, there is a clear track record of how the Clean Air Act has been used in the past to implement regulations that are clearly in the best interests of our country and in the best interests of our economy, I’d point out.  One of the common arguments that we’re most likely to hear from opponents is a suggestion that using the Clean Air Act in this way will have negative consequences for our economy.  But the fact is, since the Clean Air Act went into place in the mid-1970s, we’ve reduced pollution by 70 percent but the size of the U.S. economy has tripled.  So that’s why I think there’s a lot of skepticism on the part of anybody who is paying attention when confronted with arguments that these kinds of thoughtful, flexible but common-sense rules are somehow not in the best interest of the U.S. economy.

The fact is, our economy has done well when we’ve taken wise and prudent steps to protect the environment in a way that’s also good for our economy.

Q    Immigration also got stopped in its tracks.  Those executive actions have not been put into effect because of legal challenges — another legacy item that the President just is not going to see realized.  Isn’t it possible that this climate plan may be put in that same box?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t — again, I think that there is a clear legal justification for these rules.  In fact, this is authority that the President is using that was given to the administration by Congress in the Clean Air Act.  And this is authority that has been exercised by previous members of — by previous administrations on a number of occasions.  And, again, we continue to have a lot of confidence that the effective implementation of these rules, by working closely with states and giving them the flexibility that they need to tailor an approach that’s consistent with the needs of the citizens in their states, is in the best interest of the United States, the best interest of our economy, and the best interest of our planet.

Q    And getting back to Ling Wancheng — has he been in touch with the U.S. government?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any information on this particular matter but we’ll follow up with you on it.

Q    You have no information on this matter?  Were you aware of this report when you walked out into this briefing room?

MR. EARNEST:  I did not see this report before I walked out here.

Q    Okay, so you’re just not aware of it.  And getting back to Vice President Biden, do you have any observations on how that would affect this race and Hillary Clinton’s campaign?  There are so many former members of this administration, this White House team who went to work for Hillary Clinton.  If Vice President Biden were to get into the race, it would just undoubtedly change the dynamic of the race for the Democratic nomination.  Do you have any thoughts on that?  

MR. EARNEST:  Not really.  (Laughter.)  Look, I’ll try to be helpful here.

Q    The President selected a team of rivals, and we may have a team of rivals running for President.  Right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess it would be.

Q    Team Rivals 2, or something.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  Having worked on one successful campaign for the presidency, one of the recipes for success is focusing on the race at hand and on the things that you can actually control.  And it sounds like that’s the approach that the Clinton campaign is pursuing, and it is in their best interest to not be focused on which candidates may or may not get in the race, but actually to focus on the candidate that you’re working for and articulating his or her vision for the future of the country.

And that’s the approach that the Clinton campaign has said that they’re going to take, and I think it’s a wise approach.  And again, they don’t need to take any advice from me, but that certainly is an approach that served the Obama campaign quite well in 2007 and 2008.

Q    Advice that you put into practice running against Hillary Clinton at that time.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s one relevant observation, I suppose.

Q    But getting back to the Vice President, I mean, you’re not sending any signals at all that his entry would be unwelcome in any way, shape or form.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the signal that I’m trying to send is that the Vice President has earned the right to make a decision for himself on his own timeline about whether or not to pursue a campaign for the presidency in 2016.  And the fact is, when the President chose Vice President Biden to be his Vice President, he described it at the time, and many times since, that it was the smartest decision that he had made in politics.

And that’s because the Vice President has been uniquely suited for this role.  He’s somebody that had a long career as a fighter for the middle class.  He is somebody who, as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, developed important relationships with world leaders, and has used those relationships to advance the interests of the United States.  

And so whether it is working with leaders in Iraq or the leaders of Ukraine, or other countries in Latin America, the Vice President has been a very effective advocate for U.S. interests all around the globe.  That was true when he was in the Senate, and that’s certainly been true as Vice President.

That gives him a very unique set of skills and experience.  And it’s not surprising to me that there are people who are talking about this possibility.  But ultimately, when you have that kind of stature within the party, you’re afforded the opportunity to weigh this decision and to announce it on your own timeframe.  And that’s exactly what the Vice President is doing.

Q    I know we’ve gone around the horn on this next item quite a bit, and I just — to ask the question, it seems that part of the reason why there’s so much talk and speculation about Vice President Biden running for President is because of this issue of the emails and Secretary Clinton; that it is just such a headache and such a concern inside the Democratic Party that that has given some life to the speculation.  Agree with that, disagree with that?  

MR. EARNEST:  I disagree with that, principally because there were a lot of people speculating about the possibility of a Biden presidency long before anybody knew what Hillary Clinton’s email address was.  

Andrew.

Q    Just to go back to the Syria issue — to be clear, you said that you haven’t struck the regime in response to attacks against your allies in Syria, but you have defended your allies against attacks from al Nusra, is that right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Andrew, I think what I’m trying to make clear is that we have not detected at this point an attack, or any interference, by the Assad regime in the activities of our counter-ISIL coalition.  

So that would be the reason why it has not been necessary for the coalition to take any strikes against the Assad regime, because we’ve made clear to the Assad regime that they should not interfere with our counter-ISIL activities inside of Syria.  That was an admonition that we articulated at the beginning of our counter-ISIL campaign inside of Syria last fall, and that admonition at the time applied to airstrikes that the United States and our coalition partners were taking against extremist targets inside of Syria.

But that admonition certainly applies to the counter-ISIL ground forces that have been trained and equipped by the United States and our coalition partners and are currently operating inside of Syria against ISIL.

Q    And on a separate but related issue, an independent monitoring group has said that it believes 459 civilians have died in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.  I was wondering if you think that — does the White House believe that that death toll is credible?

MR. EARNEST:  Andrew, I haven’t seen that particularly analysis but I’d refer you to the Department of Defense on this.
  
April.

Q    Josh, two different subjects.  When it comes to Iran, you’re tallying votes here at the White House, and it’s suspected that you — from administration officials — that you have enough votes to sustain a veto.  What is your tally so far?  

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a specific vote count to share with you.  As you know, there are still many members of Congress who are deciding what their final vote will be on this.  

We put — one reason that we have projected a substantial amount of confidence in our ability to sustain a veto, at least in the House, is that back in May, there were about 150 or so House Democrats — I don’t have the letter in front of me; it’s about 150 House Democrats — who have indicated that they are — that they at the time were supportive of an effort to reach a final agreement consistent with the parameters established in the political agreement that was announced the first week in April.

And what you now know, since we announced the details of the comprehensive final agreement, is that we didn’t just meet the standard that was set in Lausanne in the context of the political agreement, we actually exceeded it.  And that’s the case that we have made to members of the House Democratic Caucus, in particular, and that’s why we continue to be confident that we’d be able to sustain a presidential veto in the House of Representatives.

That being said, we clearly are not taking any of those votes for granted.  And that’s why you’ve seen senior administration officials, including the President, participate in classified hearings — or classified briefings in — open hearings before relevant committees, and even in private meetings with the President of the United States.

Q    So what do you do for those Senate Democrats who feel they have six weeks to carefully look through this Iran deal?  I know it’s nail-biting here and you want an answer quickly, but how do you handle those senators who may wait up until the very last minute — the 11th hour, 59 minutes and 59 seconds — to make their decision?  How do you handle those Democrats in the Senate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean, I think our approach has been characterized by a desire to provide them with as much information as they feel they need to make their decision.  Our operating assumption here has been that the more information that we can provide about the agreement, the more likely that people are to support it.  And that’s simply because we’ve got a lot of confidence in what was negotiated by Secretary Kerry, Secretary Moniz, Secretary Lew and others who are responsible for reaching this agreement, not just with Iran but with the broader international community.

Q    And on my second subject, I want to go back to Major’s question on Baltimore.  And primarily, when you have a police department that is accused of deliberately slowing down actively working crimes, and then you’re going to bring in federal agents, is there some kind of quandary there?  And do you think that the Justice Department should look at a possible police shakeup of that department if they are actively accused of deliberately slowing down responding and dealing with crimes in that city that has seen a number of violent crimes and homicides rise to record numbers?

MR. EARNEST:  April, what I can tell you is that the Department of Justice is, and has been for some time, interested in working closely with officials in Baltimore, both elected political leaders but also local law enforcement officers, to provide for the needs of the people of the city of Baltimore.  And we did see a pretty significant rupture in the relationship between local law enforcement in some communities inside of Baltimore, and there have been consequences for that.  

And the Department of Justice has officials at the Department of — has officials who have a lot of experience in trying to repair those kinds of relationships, and to try to make sure that local officials and local law enforcement officials can meet the need of the people in those communities.  And that’s what they’re actively trying to do.

And that assistance takes a variety of forms.  So for some more details about what exactly they’re doing at the Department of Justice to help the people of Baltimore and to help the city of Baltimore meet the needs of the people in that city, I’d refer you to them.  But this certainly is something that they’re committed to.

Q    Does this White House find it acceptable, three months after that riot at Freddie Gray’s funeral, that the police are deliberately slowing down actively working crimes?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’ve seen some reports about that, but I don’t have facts to back up that accusation.

Kevin.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to ask you about clean power.  Can you assure the American people — I looked at a lot of the numbers and they’re pretty impressive, but can you ensure the American people that their basic energy costs won’t go up in the wake of this particular coup by the President?

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, what we have seen and what our analysis shows is that as the Clean Power Plan is implemented, we will see individual states and individual utilities ramp up their investments in efficiency, ramp up their investments in renewable energy, which is cheaper to produce than energy that’s produced by coal.  And making those kinds of investments will lead to savings in the utility bills of customers down the line.  

And that is what we’re focused on, both in terms of saving consumers money, but also a whole set of benefits that are associated with shifting to renewable energy, or the use of less energy.  And that means fewer cases of asthma, fewer asthma attacks.  It means accelerating the already-burgeoning clean-energy industry that exists in this country.  That’s going to lead to greater economic growth and more job creation.

So there’s a really important opportunity for us to seize here, and that’s the essence of this agreement moving forward, to say nothing of how important it is for us to take tangible steps to fight carbon pollution and the causes of climate change.

Q    You might, however, see how people in West Virginia, for example, and Kentucky and other places that would be severely impacted by a major economic shift like that — what do you say to people who live in these places who rely on those energies — I’m sorry, those jobs, from that particular industry?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Kevin, what we have seen is that for more than a decade we’ve seen a decline in the coal industry.  And the fact is that using coal to power — to generate power is more expensive than a number of alternatives, including natural gas.  And that has had a negative impact on the coal industry.  Just as one piece of — one illustration here, there have actually been more jobs lost in the coal industry under Presidents Reagan and Clinton than there have been under President Obama.  

And I use that example to illustrate that this is a much broader trend that we’ve seen over the course of decades and not a phenomenon that has emerged just since Barack Obama was elected President.  

But you asked a relevant question, which is what is the administration doing about it.  And, Kevin, we can get you some more details on this, but I would point you to — at the end of last year, the administration rolled out something called the POWER Plus plan, and this was essentially a $10 billion package of incentives that would focus directly on workers in coal country — those communities that rely on the coal industry and have for generations, particularly in places like West Virginia and Kentucky. 

And what this $10 billion would do is invest in things like job training and job creation to try to help those workers transition away from an industry that is facing some pretty stiff economic headwinds, and in the direction of better economic opportunities.  It also would include a specific investment in the health and retirement security of those workers.  We obviously know that working in the coal industry is one that can take a toll on a worker’s health and job security and retirement security.  And so we’ve made investments in that area as well.  

And that’s an indication that the administration is serious about helping the coal industry and the workers that rely on the coal industry transition into an industry that has better long-term prospects.

Q    Couple more — one on Syria, one on Iran.  On Iran, any update on the Americans that have been detained there unlawfully?

MR. EARNEST:  Just, Kevin, to assure you and those who have been very keenly focused on the well-being of those Americans, that our efforts to obtain their release are ongoing.  And the President himself indicated that this was a top priority, and that continues to be true even today.

Q    And in Syria, can you assure the American people that this country is not engaged in a proxy war against the Assad regime?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I mentioned to Andrew, we’ve been very clear that the United States and our coalition partners are committed to using military force where necessary to protect the coalition-trained-and-equipped Syrian opposition fighters that are operating against ISIL inside of Syria right now.

And what we have done is we have admonished the Assad regime to not interfere with our ongoing counter-ISIL efforts inside of Syria, and that doesn’t just mean not interfering with our air campaign inside of Syria that’s been going on for almost a year now, but also not to interfere in the efforts of our — of the coalition-trained-and-equipped fighters that are operating against ISIL in Syria right now.  

And we’ve already taken some steps that make sure — to provide for the safety and security of those opposition fighters and we’re going to continue to do so.

Q    But it’s not a proxy war?  You can say that definitively?

MR. EARNEST:  Yeah.  And primarily because we’ve taken steps to defend those fighters.  But we have, so far, seen the Assad regime abide by the admonishment that we have offered to not interfere with our activities inside of Syria.

Linsey.

Q    Thank you.  So back to Iran just for a moment.  You can just reiterate again — were you saying that President Obama does feel today confident that he has enough votes to sustain his veto?

MR. EARNEST:  Linsey, we do feel confident that when — that if faced with the choice of sustaining the President’s veto of a resolution of disapproval, that we’ve got enough support in the House of Representatives to sustain that veto. 

Now, we don’t take those votes for granted, and there certainly haven’t been a sufficient number of House Democrats who have come forward publicly to say that that’s what their position would be.  But we do put a lot of stock in the commitment that was made by enough House Democrats to sustain a veto in the form of that letter that they signed back in May that indicated their support for a comprehensive agreement that reflected the outlines of the political agreement that was reached in Lausanne in early April.

And what we have since indicated, since that letter was signed and delivered, is that we actually have a comprehensive agreement that doesn’t just meet the parameters of the Lausanne agreement; our comprehensive agreement actually exceeds those parameters in a couple of ways.

Q    And does the President believe that the Vice President would be a good President?  And does he believe that Hillary Clinton would be equally a good President?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I won’t get into rating the qualifications of any candidates or possible candidates.  But I think the President has indicated that one of the reasons that he chose Joe Biden to be his running mate and to be the Vice President of the United States is that he thinks that he would be a good President.  There’s no doubt about that.  But I would also point out that the President has spoken warmly of others who have served in his administration, including Secretary Clinton.  

So ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Democratic voters all across the country to decide who they believe would be the best Democratic nominee for President.  And the President will have the opportunity to vote in the Illinois primary, but at this point, I don’t have any public endorsement decisions that the President’s made.  But if the President has decided to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, we’ll let you know.

Jared.

Q    Josh, what does the administration make out of the last round of negotiations in Hawaii for the Trans-Pacific Partnership?  Are you concerned that this is going to stumble after a long fight on the domestic front?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  What we are focused on, and what Ambassador Froman is focused on, is making sure that the final TPP agreement is one that sets — that meets the criteria that the President has laid out.  And that criteria is specifically that it enhances the economic prospects of middle-class families here in the United States, but also enhances the national security interests of the United States around the globe.

And that’s the kind of agreement that the President has directed his team to try to broker.  And the President has indicated that he’s not going to sign onto an agreement that falls short of that standard.  And so it’s not particularly surprising to me that there might be some in other countries who are suggesting that the United States has not moven far enough in their direction.  Principally, you can expect Ambassador Froman and others who are negotiating this agreement to be strong advocates for the United States and for our economy and for middle-class families.

The good news is, is that there should be — there should be some common ground where we can reach an agreement that’s in the best interest of consumers in another country, while at the same time being clearly in the best interests of the United States and our economy.  And that’s the common ground that they’ve been hard at work at trying to find for several years now.

But again, I think — the President has, on a number of occasions, demonstrated a willingness to both walk away from the negotiating table or to bolt past deadlines to make sure that these kinds of agreements are clearly in the best interest of the United States.  And whether that’s — the thing that comes to mind most readily is the trip that the President took to South Korea in the fall of 2010.  And the expectation of many was that would be the place where the President and his team would complete a trade agreement with the Republic of Korea, and those of you who traveled on that trip remembered that we got a lot of bad press because that agreement wasn’t done.  And the suggestion was that the President had somehow fallen short and didn’t have the international juice that he needed to have to complete that agreement.  But about a year later, we completed an agreement, and that was an indication that the President was willing to endure a little criticism, even in the media — in the short in pursuit of a longer-term agreement that is clearly in the best interest of our economy.

Q    You fielded a question last week about how domestic politics in some of the member nations, specifically Canada, might affect something like Keystone.  Are you concerned that domestic politics in Canada, the upcoming election there, is affecting the TPP negotiations in a negative way?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I actually don’t know exactly what impact the Canadian political situation is having on the Canadian negotiators.  But I’m sure there’s somebody at the USTR that does.  I don’t know if they’ll talk to you about it publicly, but you can give it a shot.

Edwin.

Q    I have a quick question about immigration.  Even though this administration has broken records in the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the number of undocumented has stayed steady — 11.3 million.  Now, the White House website says that undocumented immigrants last stopped growing in the last decade.  How can we say that if the number is still over 11 million?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Edwin, what the President announced when it came to his executive actions on immigration reform at the end of last year is that he wanted to make our immigration system more accountable and to add some much-needed accountability to our broken immigration system.  And what that means is it meant focusing our law enforcement resources on those individuals who came to this country and posed a threat to this country, or to communities inside this country.  That principally means going after those who perpetrated acts of violence, and making sure that those individuals are promptly deported; that we should be focused on felons and not on separating families that in some cases have been in the United States for a decade or longer.

And the President made an aggressive case that Congress should act decisively to bring some much-needed accountability to our broken immigration system, and allow those who have been in this country for some time, who have tried to contribute to our country in a positive way by getting a job and trying to provide for their families, that one of the things that we can do is actually bring them out of the shadows and make them undergo a background check and put them in a situation where they can pay taxes again.  And this would actually be good for our economy, it would be good for economic growth, but it also would make the immigration system more fair and a better reflection of the kinds of values that are critically important in this country.

And that’s what the President did using his executive action.  But ultimately what we’d like to see is we’d like to see Congress take that kind of common-sense action that previously won some bipartisan for it, and we’re going to need to build it again.

Jessica, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  Just to get more clarity on the Clean Power Plan with respect to how it relates to Paris and the climate talks there.  I know on the call there was this sense of this being part of building momentum.  Can you talk about how these specific targets relate to what the U.S. and other major polluting economies want to see happen in Paris?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jessica, you know that we have had a lot of success in getting other countries to make significant commitments alongside the United States when we make important domestic commitments when it comes to reducing carbon pollution.  So the President traveled to China last November, where he announced a significant commitment on the part of the United States to reduce carbon pollution in this country, and he was met with a similar commitment by President Xi to cap carbon emissions in China on or around 2030.  

And what that would require on the part of the Chinese is a historic investment in renewable energy on the scale that we’ve never seen before.  And that’s — that means it’s a significant commitment that’s made by the Chinese government but also is the kind of commitment that opens up significant economic opportunity for U.S. businesses, particularly those U.S. businesses that are looking to do business in the renewable energy industry inside of China.  That’s an indication of how we’ve previously been able to leverage domestic commitments in the United States to broader international commitments by other countries.

We saw a similar dynamic when President Rousseff of Brazil visited the White House, where both Presidents made a commitment to reduce carbon emissions.  We’ve seen similar commitments from places like Mexico, which agreed to cap their carbon pollution in 2026.  We saw commitments from India when it comes to the deployment of renewable energy technology.  We also saw a significant commitment in just the last month or so from South Korea.  And that’s an indication that there is building momentum toward the climate talks in Paris.  And I do think you can expect that the United States will seek to use this significant domestic commitment that the President announced today to leverage a commitment from other countries and even advance the talks in December.

Q    And so how would it affect the President’s credibility and his representatives in Paris if this whole thing is undermined by industry groups and legislators who oppose it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jessica, we continue to be confident in the legal authority that the President was given by the United States Congress in the Clean Air Act to implement these rules in this way.  And it’s why the administration has gone to great lengths to try to be flexible in working with states to implement these rules.  And we’ve indicated that what the administration will do is set targets for individual states, but ultimately individual states can devise their own plan for meeting those targets.  And what we’ve said is, we’ve said that those states could spend most of the next year putting that plan together and submitting it to the federal government.

And what we have done is essentially given them a two-year extension in implementing those rules.  The proposed rule that we put forward was that the plans needed to begin being implemented in 2020, and what the final rule indicates is that states now don’t have to begin implementing those plans until 2022.  So they can use those two years to sort or refine and plan for the effective implementation of those strategies.

The other thing that’s notable is that what we have not done is taken away incentives for states to make early investments in clean energy; that our policy folks are calling this essentially a head start for renewable energy and for energy efficiency.  So if we see that states are making a commitment and implementing renewable energy technology or energy efficiency technology in their states in 2020, they’ll get the benefit of making those investments even though they’re not required to begin implementing their plans until 2022.

So again, I cite that — it’s a little complicated — but it’s an indication of our desire to work effectively with states and to give states alto of support and incentive to begin to seriously commit to the implementation of these rules.

Q    And just one other question on the renewables aspect, which is — yesterday on the call, Administrator McCarthy mentioned how part of the economic argument of the opposition has been undermined by the fact that renewables prices are coming down.  And part of that is due to global competition from solar panel manufacturers around the world, including China.  And I wonder if the White House recognizes that some of the economic incentives behind what you’re trying to do have been supported by some of the advances of other countries in this regard.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there are two things that come to mind on this.  The first is that part of the commitment that China made to cleaner energy production was an investment in nuclear technology — essentially technology for nuclear power plants.  There are a variety of U.S. companies that are the industry leader in that field.  And that does open up really important business opportunities in China for American companies, and that means a good opportunity to expand economic growth and job creation right here in the United States because of opportunities that exist in China.

Q    Do you recognize the reverse?

MR. EARNEST:  I do recognize the reverse.  And it’s principally because of those competitive forces that the President has made the case that that’s why the United States needs to get serious about accelerating the kind of investment that we’ve seen thus far in renewable energy.  Obviously, because of the commitment that China has made to cap their carbon pollution in 2030, that means that they’re going to need a significant investment in renewable energy technology.  And if the United States wants to keep pace, we need to make sure that we see a sustained investment in this country and in this economy, too. 
 
And one of the benefits of this rule — and I think this is sort of going back to the beginning of the briefing — I think this is one of the things that some industry leaders actually like about this proposal is it does give them some certainty.  That right now, if you’re an investor in the energy field, that you can look at these rules and say, well, this is a serious commitment that every state across the country is going to have to make to implementing this plan and investing in renewable energy by 2030.  That means, as a private sector investor trying to determine whether or not there’s going to be a market for renewable goods in this country, that you can be confident that your kind of investment has an opportunity to succeed because you know that states all across the country are invested in implementing this technology.  That’s going to create a whole new market.

Now, the truth is, in the last several years we’ve actually seen U.S. investment in U.S. companies perform very well in this sector, but we believe that those investments can essentially be turbocharged by making a significant long-term investment to that kind of technology.

END 
2:01 P.M. EDT

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/4/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:58 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you all.  We’ll do a couple of announcements at the top and then we’ll go to your questions.

The first is, the President was updated this morning by his top Homeland Security Advisor, Lisa Monaco, regarding the wildfires plaguing the American West.  Yesterday, the national preparedness level was raised to four, which means that three or more geographic areas are experiencing incidents required elevated management, including more resources and fire crews.  

Currently, there are up to 27 large uncontained active fires.  Nearly 37,000 total fires have been reported; 14,000 interagency personnel, including both state and federal jurisdictions, are assigned to the incidents, and this includes 108 helicopters and 22 air tankers that are available to fight the fires.

The President asked his team to stay in close touch with the governors and local officials as their efforts continue.  And the White House will continue to closely monitor the situation from here.

Finally, on behalf of the White House and the American people, I want to extend our gratitude along with our thoughts and prayers to the brave men and women who are battling these fires.  These are selfless individuals, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for putting their lives on the line to fight these fires and protect their fellow Americans.

Secondly, I just want to give you an update on the President’s schedule for later this week.  On Thursday, the President will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act by underscoring the importance of restoring the landmark law, and reaffirming the principle at the heart of our democracy that all of us are created equal, and that each of us deserves a voice in our government.

The President will participate in a video teleconference with citizens nationwide, and he will be joined by Attorney General Loretta Lynch and United States Congressman John Lewis, along with advocates and state and local officials who have worked to strengthen and protect Americans’ rights to vote.  

As the President said in Selma, the Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, and it’s our responsibility to honor the sacrifices of so many who risked so much by protecting the law as promised.  That’s why the President will take time out of his schedule to discuss this important issue on Thursday.  The event will be livestreamed on the White House website, and we’ll have more information about the event later this week.

So with that, Darlene, let’s go to your questions.  

Q    Thank you.  Couple on Iran.  The meeting this afternoon the President is having with the American Jewish leaders, I was wondering if the timing of that was arranged so that his meeting would purposely follow the Israeli Prime Minister’s webcast to some of the same — possibly some of the same American Jewish leaders who are opposed to the Iran deal.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Darlene, I can tell you that this event — or this meeting has been in the works for at least several days, if not more.  And the group of individuals that the President will meet with will include some who have publicly expressed some skepticism about the wisdom of this diplomatic agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  It will include others who have articulated their public support for the agreement, and also a group of individuals who have not yet expressed a public opinion on the deal.

And this is an opportunity for the President to once again lay out his case to all of them about why he believes this is the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  He will make clear that this is an agreement that is not built on trust, but rather is built on the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program.

And there will be an opportunity for those who participate in the meeting to ask questions directly to the President; that they’ll have an opportunity to make clear the concerns that they have and to ask questions about the details of the agreement.  And the President will be there to answer their questions.  

We will, at the conclusion of the meeting, provide you with a list of those who participated so that you’ll be able to examine for yourselves the diverse composition of opinions that’s included in the meeting.  

Q    Are you done?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I am.  (Laughter.)  Did I go on too long?  (Laughter.)  I probably did, but I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to answer your question.  

Q    But to the question of whether the meeting is sort of a response to Bibi — I mean, how do you answer that?

MR. EARNEST:  I would merely say that Prime Minister Netanyahu has had ample opportunity to make public his views of this particular situation.  You’ll recall that, I guess it was about five months ago now, he spoke to a joint session of the United States Congress that was carried live on television here in the United States.  Today, his team has organized a webcast to make his views known.

So it’s clear that he’s availed himself of a variety of opportunities to make clear what his views are, and the President obviously has his own views as well.  The Prime Minister has ample opportunity to make clear what his views are, and he’s taken advantage of that opportunity.  But the President, as you’ve heard him say, will make clear that he believes that this effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the best interest of the United States — and it is — the President believes that it’s in the national security interest of our closest ally in the region, Israel, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through diplomacy.  And that’s a view the President has made clear in public to all of you and it’s a view that he will reiterate in the context of this meeting with leaders in the American Jewish community later this afternoon.

Q    You mentioned that on Thursday he is going to take some questions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  Will the President put himself in a position where he can take people’s questions on the Iran deal?  Maybe the White House would consider doing a town hall where he could be seen answering regular people’s questions about the agreement?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that’s certainly an intriguing idea.  I’m not aware of anything like that that’s on the schedule, but obviously there are another 45 or 50 days that Congress has to consider this agreement, which means there are another 45 or 50 days for the President to make public his case about why he believes this sort of agreement is in the best interest of the United States and the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Obviously, the President has taken questions in a variety of settings on this topic.  Just a day after announcing this agreement, he took questions from all of you over in the East Room — or at least from many of you over in the East Room.

Q    But we’re not real people.  

MR. EARNEST:  (Laughter.)  Well, but I do think that those — well, maybe the jury is still out on that question.  But there’s no doubt that the people in this room have been following this issue as closely as anyone, and all of you have access to information to evaluate this agreement.  And so that’s why the President made a point very early on in this process of spending more than an hour with all of you answering questions to discuss this.

So I certainly wouldn’t rule out future public engagements in which the President takes questions on this.  You all have reported on the wide variety of private meetings that the President has had with individual members of Congress.  Many of those meetings, if not all of them, have been characterized by a lot of Q&A and give-and-take, both in settings involving a large number of members of Congress but also even in some one-on-one settings, too.  So the President certainly hasn’t been shy about his willingness to do some Q&A on this, and I wouldn’t rule out that he might do some Q&A with members of the general public on this in the future.

Jeff.

Q    Josh, is the White House or the administration considering returning a Chinese businessman, Ling Wancheng, to China on their request?

MR. EARNEST:  Jeff, I’m limited in what I can say about this particular matter.  Let me just — there are a couple of things I can say, however.  The first is that the United States and China regularly engage on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, including when it comes to fugitives and fighting corruption.  Through the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation, what U.S. law enforcement officials routinely emphasize to Chinese officials is that it’s incumbent upon them to provide U.S. officials with significant, clear and convincing evidence to allow our law enforcement agencies to proceed with investigations and even removals and prosecutions of fugitives.

As we stated many times in the past, the United States is not a safe haven for fugitives from any country.  And the facts that support any insinuation that we are hindering any other nation’s campaign against corruption just don’t stand up to the reality of our efforts.  The United States is an international leader in anti-corruption, and we will continue to work with partners across the globe to advance the fight against corruption.  

When it comes to the details of any particular case, including the case of Ling Wancheng that has attracted some media attention in the last 24 hours, I’m not able to comment on any specific details. 

Q    Are you able to say whether you consider him a fugitive? 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not able to render any judgment on this particular individual’s case.  

Q    Okay.  And going — sort of looking forward to September, the President of China is coming to the United States.  How does this particular issue, as well as some of the other major irritations in their relationship like the hacking, like China’s aggression, as some would say, in the South China Sea, how will that affect that visit?  And how are you preparing for it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, you’ve listed a couple of the irritants in the relationship between the United States and China.  The one that’s most regularly cited was the law enforcement action.  In fact, that was carried out by the Department of Justice a year or two ago to indict five Chinese military officials for their actions in cyberspace.  That was an irritant because the United States obviously has deep concerns about the activities of those individuals.  And the Chinese government expressed some frustration, and even concern, about the public law enforcement action that was taken against five military officials. 

So we’ve acknowledged that these kinds of differences exist in our relationship.  They carry over into other areas as well.  We’ve raised concerns in the past about our concern about China insufficiently protecting intellectual property, to say nothing of the concerns about some of their destabilizing activities in the South China Sea. 

At the same time, however, the United States has been able to work effectively with China to advance the mutual interests of our countries.  There are a couple of good examples of that on high-profile issues.  The first is, when the President traveled to China last fall, President Obama stood next to President Xi and announced that both countries were taking historic steps to curb carbon pollution.  I’ll remind you that China was an active participant in the P5+1 negotiations, alongside the United States and our international partners, to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran to prevent them from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  

So those are not — neither of those is an insignificant issue.  And both of those are examples where the United States and China have been able to effectively work together in ways that we could make progress for the citizens of our countries that may not have been possible had we been working alone. 

And that’s an indication that U.S. engagement with China is useful in protecting and even advancing the interest of the United States.  It doesn’t mean we’re going to always agree, but it does mean it’s worth preserving a constructive working relationship.  And it’s rooted in the President’s desire to have that kind of constructive, effective, productive relationship with China that he has decided to invite President Xi for a visit later this fall.  

But there’s no doubt that even for all those areas where we can cooperate, at least some portion of that meeting will be dedicated to some of the differences that exist between our two countries as well.

Q    Are you any closer to being able to say publicly or formally who was behind the OPM hack? 

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any additional information on that.  There has been obviously extensive public speculation about the attribution of some of those concerning actions in cyberspace.   But I don’t have any new information to share publicly today.

April. 

Q    Josh, I want to go over to the voting rights issue.  And I want to ask one thing about irony.  Is there irony — does this administration find there’s irony in the fact that the anniversary is Thursday, 50 years ago, of the Voting Rights Act was passed into law, and then you have the first GOP presidential debate where many of them are not feeling the Voting Rights Act as it stood? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess one person’s irony might be another person’s serendipity.  And maybe there will be an opportunity for Republican candidates to discuss the importance of protecting the right of every eligible American to cast a vote, particularly in an election as consequential as the upcoming presidential election. 

Q    When the President comes out and talking about restoration, 50 years ago there was a focus on Southern states with the problems in poll taxes and trying to come up with a test to make sure that African Americans were able to vote.  Now there are different challenges in various states across the nation.  Where does the President stand as it relates to restoring the Voting Rights Act?  What parts does he want to keep and which parts does he want to, I guess, bolster?   Or what does he want to take out?  What does he want to do?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, you’ll have an opportunity to hear more from the President directly on this later this week.  I’ll just say as a general matter, the President has been concerned, and even dismayed, by the significant amount of energy and effort that’s been expended almost exclusively by Republicans to make it more difficult for eligible citizens to cast a ballot.  

And the spirit of the country — in fact, the values of the country — would reinforce a view that every eligible American should have an opportunity to participate in their government and in their democracy.  And that is what motivates the President’s view of this policy, and that’s why the President is marking the 50th anniversary of this historic piece of legislation. 

Q    And on another subject, Sandra Bland’s family is filing a lawsuit after the government there said there was no reason for her to have been arrested.  And reports are saying she committed suicide.  What does the White House feel about that? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any comments on that specific civil litigation that’s been filed.  I can confirm for you that the Department of Justice continues to monitor the situation in Texas, and I know that local prosecutors continue to examine the circumstances of this case.  But I don’t have any additional information about federal action that’s been taken at this point. 

Justin. 

Q    Can I follow up quickly on voting rights and then I have a couple other things?  But there was a push a couple weeks ago from congressional Democrats to tie — essentially dropping their concern or their objection to displaying Confederate flags in military cemeteries to getting a vote on voting rights.  And I’m wondering if that’s a strategy that the White House has endorsed or been in contact with. 

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not aware of any specific discussions between the White House and leaders in the House Democratic caucus who I think championed that effort.  But obviously the administration is very interested in trying to make some progress on the Voting Rights Act, and we certainly have been in touch with members of Congress in both parties about that.  And you heard the President speak pretty forcefully about his support for renewing the Voting Rights Act in the speech that he delivered in Selma, Alabama earlier this year.  

Q    On Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico went into default for the first time yesterday.  And I’m wondering if you could just talk a bit about what the administration is doing at this point to help address that and if there’s concerns that it could impact the broader U.S. economy.

MR. EARNEST:  Justin, at this point I’m not going to be in a position to comment on any specific decisions that Puerto Rico’s leaders have made regarding their debt obligations.  But I will reiterate that we believe Puerto Rico needs an orderly process to restructure its unsustainable liabilities.  Unfortunately, Puerto Rico’s significant financial challenges didn’t begin overnight.  And this latest development is set against the backdrop of ongoing broader economic challenges across the island. 

And the President did establish a task force on Puerto Rico, essentially an interagency task force in Puerto Rico to try to leverage available federal assistance to assist Puerto Rico’s leaders as they confront these significant financial challenges.  And the work of that task force and our ongoing commitment to coordinating our efforts with leaders in Puerto Rico continues.  

But as I’ve said before, there’s no — the administration does not envision a bailout for Puerto Rico.  But where available federal assistance can be leveraged to assist the leaders of Puerto Rico in meeting some of their financial obligations, we stand ready to help. 

Q    And last thing on Iran.  Chairman Royce sent Secretary Kerry a letter yesterday and made public today, saying that it was imperative for Congress to be able to review this agreement between Iran and the IAEA that we’ve been discussing for more than a week now.  

I know everything that you’ve got to say about it not being a side deal and that you’re briefing Congress to the extent that you can.  But I’m wondering about two specific questions.  The first is something that you were asked last week but said that you hadn’t had a chance to review, which is whether the White House was confident that it had satisfied all the legal requirements of the Iran review legislation in terms of turning over information about these deals to Congress.

And the second is whether the President would veto legislation demanding that the actual text of these agreements be turned over to Congress.  This is something that some Senate Republicans floated.  

MR. EARNEST:  I can say that all of the available information that the administration has about this diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon has been turned over to Congress.  And I believe that was done on July 19th or 20th — whatever that Sunday was.  I believe it was the 20th.  And so that has been completed.  And that was — the presentation of those documents is what initiated a 60-day clock that Congress has imposed for the consideration of this agreement.  

And what we have indicated is a willingness — above and beyond the documents that were required to be submitted — is to spend time briefing Congress, in person, with our experts who actually were responsible for negotiating the agreement in the first place.

And that has included detailed, classified briefings about the contents of — or about the nature and contents of the agreement that was reached between Iran and the IAEA as it relates to the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.  And that classified briefing has already occurred for a large number of House members and I know that there’s a classified briefing for senators that’s scheduled for later this week.

I also know that the Director General of the IAEA is planning a series of meetings on Capitol Hill today as well.  And I think this is an indication of the administration’s desire for Congress to understand as much as possible about this important agreement so that they can judge for themselves about the success we believe this agreement will ensure to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Q    Would you veto legislation requiring turning over the physical text, knowing that you’re offering this briefing?

MR. EARNEST:  I haven’t seen the specific legislative proposal, and the reason I say that in this case is that it’s not immediately obvious to me what sort of congressional action — what sort of oversight Congress would have over an agreement between Iran and the IAEA.  In other words, I’m not sure exactly what impact the passing of legislation would have on the agreement between Iran and the IAEA.  You know what I mean?  Like, I’m not sure that Iran — that Congress can compel Iran — 

Q    Well, I think probably they would void the President’s ability to implement the Iran deal by saying that it’s tied to — whether or not he turns over the actual text of this agreement between Iran and the IAEA.

MR. EARNEST:  I see.  Well, obviously, then I guess I’d refer you to the answer that I just said, which is we believe that we’ve produced all of the material that Congress needs in order to consider this specific agreement, and we have followed up the presentation of those documents with extensive, in-person briefings by the individuals who are responsible for negotiating the agreement in the first place.  And those briefings have taken place in a classified setting.  Those briefings have taken place in one-on-one meetings.  Those briefings have also taken place out in the general public, under oath, before congressional committees, both in the House and in the Senate.  

So there are a variety of ways in which this information and this briefing — and these briefings have taken place, all in an effort to help members of Congress understand exactly what’s included in this diplomatic agreement.

Bob.

Q    Josh, on the campaign trail and probably in Thursday night’s debate, we will hear once again Republican candidates say how when they get to be President, they’re going to tear up this agreement.  If, in the end, after the 60-day review period, the other machinations, it is implemented, can a Republican President come in here and just tear that agreement up?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m sure there’s somebody who could give you a more lawyerly answer than I can, but I think what I can explain to you is that it would be foolish for a future President to do that, primarily because this will be an agreement that had been implemented.  And we will have an opportunity over the course of the next year and a half to implement the agreement and to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

Keep in mind, if Iran doesn’t comply with the agreement — and we’ll be able to tell, because we have the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program — but if we detect that Iran is not abiding by the significant commitments that they have made in the context of the agreement, then sanctions will snap back into place, and we will preserve the international unanimity of opinion in confronting Iran and their nuclear program.

And that international unity would be completely gutted if another President were to take office after a year and a half and, despite Iran’s compliance with the agreement, were to unilaterally withdraw from that agreement.  The other thing that strikes me about that is it’s unclear exactly what that would accomplish — is the suggestion that they would withdraw the United States from the agreement and somehow impose additional sanctions unilaterally on Iran.  

The reason that would be foolish is we’ve talked about the fact that the reason that our sanctions regime was so successful in compelling Iran to come to the negotiating table is that it required not just action by the United States, but by coordinated action all around the globe — not just among the members of the P5+1, but other significant economies that have close economic ties with Iran, including countries like India and South Korea and Japan.

And it’s not at all obvious that the United States unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement, that we would have any standing or success in persuading other countries around the world to go along with us, particularly if over the last year and a half we’ve been able to verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.  Keep in mind, Iran’s compliance with the agreement includes reducing their nuclear stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting 13,000 centrifuges, and essentially gutting the core of their heavy-water plutonium reactor.

So again, the reason that I would describe such an action as foolish is it’s not at all clear what that would accomplish other than making a military confrontation in the Middle East much more likely.

Q    Obviously we’re dealing with hypotheticals, but conversely, is there anything in this agreement that would bind a future President to adhering to it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the binding comes in with the inherent — the significant inherent value of preserving the international coalition to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.  And that coalition would be significantly undermined if the United States were to unilaterally withdraw.  

Jim.

Q    But it’s not a treaty?  

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.

Q    Just to follow up on Bob’s question.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.

Q    Getting back to Justin’s question about these side agreements, or the one that exists between the IAEA and Iran.  I guess the thrust of Chairman Royce’s concern is that this would set a precedent that Iran could say, well, we’ve got this agreement with the IAEA, we don’t have to comply with the other parts of the deal.  That seems to be the thrust of his concern.  How do you address that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess the first way that I would confront that concern is that there already is a precedent.  The IAEA has bilateral agreements with I think — I believe it’s on the order of 180 countries around the world.  And those are bilateral agreements between the IAEA and individual countries; in this case, between the IAEA and Iran. 

Now, the key here is that the United States and our negotiating team is aware of what’s included in that agreement, and that’s why we’ve been willing to communicate the contents of that agreement to members of Congress.  We want to do it in a classified setting because it includes a bunch of sensitive information, including information related to nuclear proliferation that we obviously don’t want to advertise broadly on the Internet.

Q    When you say communicate, you’re saying that you’re just talking about what’s in that side agreement?  You’re not showing the text. 

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.

Q    Does the administration have the text?  Has Secretary Kerry viewed this, Secretary Moniz?  Is there a text?

MR. EARNEST:  There is a text.  The administration does not have a text.  The text is a text that is shared between the IAEA and Iran.  But I want to go back to this key thing.  I would not describe it as a side agreement, and the reason simply is this, Jim.  The information that we’re talking about is information that the IAEA needs to write a report about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.  And the United States and our negotiating partners has made clear that this deal, this broader agreement will not go forward until Iran has complied with all of the IAEA’s requests for information and access that they need in order to write that report.

So that’s why I would not describe this as some sort of side agreement.  This is a critical —

Q    What do you call it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s an agreement directly between —

Q    Working document or — 

MR. EARNEST:  It’s an agreement directly between Iran and the IAEA.  But what we have made clear is that any sanctions relief will not be provided to Iran by the international community until Iran has complied with the requests for information and access that have been submitted by the IAEA.  So this is —

Q    So it would be up to the IAEA to determine whether or not Iran is complying with respect to Parchin?  Is that right?  And then the P5+1 has essentially agreed to — well, if the IAEA’s interpretation of compliance at Parchin is acceptable, then we’re okay with that.

MR. EARNEST:  So the IAEA is an international organization of nuclear experts that is responsible for enforcing the Non-Proliferation Treaty around the world.  So the IAEA — when we talk about the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program, those inspections will be conducted by the IAEA.  

And essentially, what the United States and the international community is doing is we’re coming in on behalf of the IAEA and telling Iran — we’re mandating to Iran that they must cooperate with the IAEA at every turn.  They must cooperate with them when it comes to preparing their report about the possible military dimensions of their nuclear program.  That’s to account for past behavior.  But even moving forward, the international community is going to insist — including the United States — is going to insist that Iran cooperate with IAEA inspectors who are responsible for verifying Iran’s compliance with the agreement.

They’re also responsible for, I might point out, the permanent, the never-ending commitment that Iran has now made to never develop a nuclear weapon.  And that is why there will be permanent inspections in place by IAEA nuclear experts to verify that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon.

And for too long, what’s happened in the past is that Iran has essentially given the IAEA the run-around, and that’s what —

Q    How do you know that’s not going to happen again?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, because the international community has come forward and said, if you want relief from these terrible sanctions that have had a decimating impact on your economy, then you need to cooperate with the IAEA, both when it comes to access and information that’s required to write about the possible military dimensions of your nuclear program in the past, but you’re also going to need to cooperate with them moving forward to verify that you’re not developing a nuclear weapon.

Q    And you’re satisfied that there’s — none of that wiggle room is built into this sidecar or whatever you want to call it between the IAEA and Iran?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, the reason that I resist describing it as a side agreement is because the agreement does not go forward unless Iran performs and follows through on the commitments that they’ve made to the IAEA to provide the information and access that the IAEA needs to write this report.

I’ll also point out that — sometimes this gets lost — we’ve set a deadline for that compliance.  We have insisted that Iran actually provide that access and that information by October 15th.  If they don’t, there’s not going to be any forthcoming sanctions relief.  And the reason for that is we want the IAEA to have access and information as soon as possible so that they can also complete their report before the end of the year.  That’s what they’re aiming to do.

Q    And yesterday, our colleague, JC, asked the question about this comparison between the President’s speech tomorrow at American University and President Kennedy’s speech.  Do you like that comparison?  What do you make of that comparison?

MR. EARNEST:  I think what’s appropriate about that comparison is President Kennedy more than 50 years ago entered into a diplomatic agreement with an adversary of the United States that did succeed in advancing the national security interests of the United States.  The United States — 

Q    A long time, Cold War —

MR. EARNEST:  Sure did.  But we clearly know who won, and we clearly know that the national security interests — 

Q    Might this diplomatic process — might this go on for another couple of decades before Iran and the United States can be in the same place where the U.S. and the Soviet Union were at the end of the 1980s?  Is that — 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think that’s a difficult historical analogy to draw.  Let me point out one thing that I mentioned yesterday to JC that I think is also relevant to this.  So it’s not just that Senator Kennedy engaged an adversary of the United States to use diplomacy to advance the national security interests of the United States.  There’s another thing that Senator — President Kennedy had to do, which is that he had to make some concessions on the part of the United States that there were commitments that the United States — there are elements of our nuclear program that were rolled back in the context of that diplomatic agreement with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.  

In the context of this agreement, you have President Obama, who has entered into a diplomatic agreement with the international community, with one of our adversaries, to advance the national security interests of the United States.  But here’s the catch — the United States didn’t have to make any concessions.  There’s no impact from this nuclear agreement on the United States and either our nuclear programs or our military programs.

And that’s — again, I think that speaks to the strength of this agreement that the President was able to reach alongside the international community in confronting Iran’s nuclear program.

Q    I don’t mean to belabor this, but he’s aiming for that comparison then with this speech tomorrow?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s a comparison that we welcome when it comes to this principle about the —

Q    Negotiating that deal. 

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, the effectiveness of principled, smart, tough diplomacy even with our adversaries to advance the national security interests of the United States.  

Q    And finally — I’m sorry to take so much time — but on a separate subject, is the Obama administration doing anything in terms of oversight, investigation?  Is a call being made to look into what is being alleged occurred inside these Planned Parenthood facilities?  Any activity whatsoever inside the administration?  Or is the White House essentially looking at these videos and saying these are selectively edited, doctored, whatever you want to call it, edited in such a way to indict Planned Parenthood unfairly?  Or is there some concern inside this administration about these videos?  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, you’ve heard me say a couple of times now, including on your network, that these are videos that were released for their shock value.  And they clearly are shocking.  I think that’s the reason that you saw the President of Planned Parenthood apologize for the statements that are included on that video just a day or two after the videos were released. 

Q    I understand that.  But these are health care facilities, and the administration has a responsibility to monitor and provide oversight for health care facilities.  So I’m just curious, is any of that going to go on? 

MR. EARNEST:  For any questions about oversight of health care facilities, I’d refer you to HHS.  

Jim. 

Q    Can I switch to immigration for a moment?  ICE has been an issue for some time among advocates of reform for immigration.  And now, apparently, there seems to be some pushback from municipal governments on whether or not they want to cooperate with ICE in the President’s program, or DHS program, to bring back those who were criminally — who have committed crimes.  Does ICE have a credibility problem?  Because sometimes they have not — frequently they have not followed what the administration wants to be done.  Frequently they have deported people who were not criminals, and is not administration policy, is my understanding.  Does ICE have a credibility problem not only with the cities but with this administration? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think that there are a variety of ways in which our broken immigration system has had a negative impact on the ability of law enforcement officials, both at the federal and local levels, to do their job.  

And the lack of clarity about the immigration policy in this country is why the President believes that reform is badly needed.  And in fact, the President is strongly supportive of reform that brings greater accountability to our broken immigration system.  And so this — our broken immigration system has resulted in a lot of frustration being expressed by local law enforcement officers about the best way to protect the communities that they’re sworn to serve and protect.  

There’s also been some frustration expressed by ICE officers — these are essentially federal law enforcement officers — about how to use their limited resources to try to both enforce the law but also to protect communities all across the country.  

That’s why the President was a strong advocate of comprehensive immigration reform.  The President built a strong bipartisan majority, Jim, as you know and covered closely.  And that’s why we were particularly disappointed that Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked the passage of that compromise proposal because that compromise, comprehensive, immigration reform proposal made a historic investment in border security, and it would have greatly enhanced the available law enforcement resources to enforce the law and protect our communities. 

And that’s why it’s such a shame, even a tragedy, that Republicans in Congress blocked comprehensive immigration reform. 

Q    But we are who we are.  I mean — 

MR. EARNEST:  Because of the efforts of House Republicans to block comprehensive immigration reform — but yes. 

Q    Point taken.  We are who we are, and the administration has to deal with what’s going on now.  

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right. 

Q    And what’s going on now, it appears, is ICE doesn’t consistently follow what their bosses are telling them to do.  Is there a problem there? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, what the President has said — and these are part of the executive actions that he rolled out at the end of last year, and essentially that was to pursue a policy at DHS that would focus law enforcement resources on those individuals that pose the most significant threat to public safety and to national security.  

So these are individuals with a record of committing violent crime, individuals with known gang affiliations, and even individuals who have repeatedly violated immigration law by crossing the border time and time again.  Those individuals were made a priority, and those are the individuals that the administration believes should be the focus of law enforcement efforts and the focus of deportation efforts. 

Q    But is that getting down to the field?  Because there have been deportations of families, of people who are not criminals, and at the same time, criminals like the one apparently in San Francisco, the alleged criminal there, have not been deported.  So is there not the emphasis that you want, the administration wants, being carried through? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can’t speak to individual cases.  But the President and the Secretary of Homeland Security have been very clear about what they believe is the most effective way for us to bring accountability to our broken immigration system, and that is to set the enforcement priorities in the way that I’ve just described.  

But ultimately, it is the responsibility of our law enforcement officers who are dealing with, in a very challenging environment, with limited resources to try to enforce a fundamentally broken system.  And that’s why it’s such a shame, even a tragedy, that Congress — that Republicans in Congress blocked a solution to this problem.  And it’s why the President has tried to impose a solution that would bring much needed accountability to our broken immigration system.  But it’s also why even after taking that action, we continue to urge Congress to take the kind of legislative action that’s needed to finally address this. 

Q    And just one more subject, if I could — and that is the USA Today report today that mass public shootings have increased in frequency from one a year to about four and a half a year, and that some 33 people were dying in the past every year — that are dying now every year because of mass shootings.  Has the President — does the President have a plan to reintroduce new gun control while he’s still President?  Or has he given up? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jim, I think it was in the interview that the President conducted with the BBC shortly before departing for his trip to Africa that he expressed that this was the inability of Congress to take even common-sense steps that would make our communities more safe by keeping guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. 

That has been the source of his biggest frustration as President.  And there are dozens of executive actions that this administration has taken to try to plug holes and fill some gaps.  And these are common-sense steps that we can take without in any way infringing upon the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans that’s protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. 

And the fact is, there are additional steps that Congress could take that would protect those constitutional rights while at the same time protecting our communities, including those communities that are increasingly home to the victims of gun violence. 

And again, it’s not just mass shootings that attract so much attention.  It’s even those shootings that have become all too common in significant — in larger urban areas all across the country. 

Q    But we should not expect any significant legislative initiative by the White House before President Obama leaves office? 

MR. EARNEST:  I think the President has made clear that he doesn’t expect a change of heart in Congress on this issue until the American public makes clear to members of Congress that their decisions, when it comes to provisions that would reduce gun violence in this country, are voting decisions that are going to be accounted for at the ballot box on Election Day. 

And we’ve not yet seen that kind of significant outpouring of support from the American public, at least in a sufficient quantity, to change the minds of individual members of Congress.  But that ultimately is the key here.  There’s no legislative strategy, there’s no trick to the legislative process that’s going to change the outcome.  The only thing that will change the outcome is a strong, clear, outpouring of public support from the American people. 

Q    So if he’s leaving it to the next election, that means he’s leaving it to the next President, he’s not going to do it himself?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don’t — this is an issue that the President is going to continue to advocate for.  But, ultimately, the way that we’re going to see the decisions that are made by members of Congress change is when we see members of the American public change their minds.

Chris.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  So just to follow up on that, so the President thinks at this point, given the curt political climate, he’s done everything he can do in terms of proactively advancing gun control?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, at least when it comes to the legislative process — and I think the President has been pretty clear about this for a couple of years now — that the way that we’re going to get to see — the only way we’re going to be able to change the minds of members of Congress is if members of the American public make clear that these kinds of decisions are going to be taken into account when they’re casting their ballot on election day.  And we’ve not seen enough outpouring of support from the American public to change many minds on Capitol Hill yet.  

But certainly the President is going to continue to be an advocate on this issue because he is very concerned about the impact that gun violence is having on communities all across the country.  And I mean, those communities that surely have been the site of terrible tragic mass shootings but also those communities that are the subject of what are now tragically routine incidents of gun violence — the President is very concerned about this.  The President continues to be an advocate for policies that would reduce gun violence.  

But, again, if we’re going to have success in the legislative process, it’s going to be because members of Congress change their minds on this issue.  And the only people who have the authority to change — or the power to change the minds of members of Congress are their constituents.

Q    Yesterday, when Senator Schumer was holding his press conference with his cousin, Amy, he — in addition to calling for new legislation — called on the Justice Department to make recommendations on how states deal with mental health issues.  Is that something that the President has had discussions with him about?  Is it something the President would get behind?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know there — I haven’t looked at the specific proposal that he’s advocating — I’d be happy to take that question — but I do know that a number of the executive actions that this administration announced almost two years ago included steps that would make sure that mental health information is more effectively shared between medical professionals and law enforcement to, again, try to do some common-sense things that would keep guns out of the hands of those individuals who shouldn’t have them.

Q    Chuck Schumer also said yesterday he’s not made a decision on whether to support the Iran nuclear deal.  Obviously he’s a key player in all of this, somebody who is widely respected.  And I wonder how much conversation there’s been — if you can share anything between either the President and Chuck Schumer, or other members of the administration and Chuck Schumer and how closely you keep in touch with him on this issue.

MR. EARNEST:  Very close.  I can tell you that there have been extensive conversations between senior administration officials and Senator Schumer that actually predate the completion of the comprehensive agreement that was announced a couple of weeks ago.

This is an issue that —

Q    But more recently?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is an issue that Senator Schumer takes very seriously.  And to his credit, he is closely studying this agreement and he obviously takes his responsibilities in this matter very seriously.  And he has actually actively sought the input and briefings and information from senior administration officials as it relates to this agreement.  And the administration has readily engaged in those conversations.

Jen.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Two questions.  So far, the Senate has only confirmed five judicial nominees this year.  And they’re getting ready to leave for a month, so no more for another month at least.  Is the President frustrated by the pace of his judicial confirmations?  And what is the White House doing, if anything, to try to get these moving?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jen, the administration certainly is interested in seeing Congress act to faithfully fulfill their responsibility to advise and consent on a wide variety of administration nominees — not just judicial nominees, but even some executive branch nominees as well.  

And over the last seven months or so, since Republicans did assume the majority in the Senate, we’ve seen that process almost completely break down.  And even when it came to confirming someone like Attorney General Lynch — somebody with strong bipartisan support, with impeccable credentials — it took — remember, it took almost as long as the four or five previous attorneys general nominees combined to finally get her confirmation completed.

So we have on a number of occasions expressed our frustration about the inability of the United States Senate to perform one of their most basic functions, which is to offer their advice and consent on nomination — on administration nominees.

Q    Has the White House been working with the Senate Republican leadership at all on this?

MR. EARNEST:  I know that there have been some conversations, if you will, on this matter, but I don’t have details of those conversations to share.

Q    Okay.  And then the second question — we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the United States bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and there’s still no new AUMF.  Does the President feel like there’s a point at which the 2001 AUMF can’t be used anymore as this military campaign escalates?

MR. EARNEST:  I would say, Jen, that in the proposed legislation that the administration put forward several months ago, it included language that would repeal the 2002 AUMF and aim to refine the 2001 AUMF.  The President has previously given speeches articulating the variety of concerns that he has with the overly broad nature in which the 2001 AUMF was written and passed.  There are a lot of logical explanations for why that’s the case, but there’s not a good explanation for why Congress hasn’t taken steps now to fix it.  

And the President has made very clear about what steps he believes is necessary to fix it; in fact, we’ve even submitted our own proposed legislative language to try to address some of those concerns.  But the truth is, we’ve run into a United States Congress that seems very interested in discussing this issue but not actually doing anything on it.  And that has also been a source of some frustration for the administration.

Q    But does the President believe there’s a point at which this — the current — the 2001 AUMF can’t be used anymore?  Is there some scenario, such as DOD-backed rebels in Syria being attacked — would the 2001 AUMF authorize airstrikes against people attacking DOD rebels in Syria, for example?

MR. EARNEST:  We did talk about this a little bit yesterday, and it is true that there are Syrian opposition fighters operating inside Syria that have gone through the train-and-equip operation that is run by DOD and our coalition partners.  And there has already been one occasion where those opposition fighters came under fire from other extremists that are operating inside Syria, and the United States and our coalition partners took military action to protect those coalition-trained anti-ISIL fighters inside Syria.  And the President and his lawyers have determined that the 2001 AUMF does apply in that particular case.

But I think you raise an argument that this administration has made, which is that there’s a lot of clarity that could be derived from Congress following through, from Congress living up to the rhetoric that we saw from members of Congress on both sides to try to put in place an anti-ISIL AUMF.  And the administration engaged in lengthy and significant and extensive discussions up to, and including, the President of the United States to try to broker compromise language on this.  We even put forward on paper our written proposal for how Congress could take this action, but yet we’ve seen little, other than one or two hearings on Capitol Hill.  And that’s a disappointment and it represents a fundamental failure of the United States Congress to perform one of the more important functions that they have.

Kevin.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  What is the President’s key message to Jewish leaders today?  And how, if at all, does that message differ from his broader message to the American people?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President is going to deliver very clearly his view that this diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon isn’t just the best way for us to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it’s also in the best national security interest of both the United States and Israel.  And that’s a pretty blunt, direct case that the President will make.  He will reiterate his view that that agreement is not based on trust but rather based on our ability to impose the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been conducted against a country’s nuclear program.  

That’s a case that I think sounds familiar to you.  You’ve heard the President make that case directly at least a couple of times, even in person.  And I can’t predict at this point what sort of questions the President is likely to get from the assembled group, but certainly when it comes to the President’s opening presentation, it will be along the lines of what I just described and along the lines of the kind of case that’s very familiar to those of you who have been following closely.

Q    Let me ask you about the IAEA and the inspections that might happen, and even some of these contested sites.  Are Americans allowed to be a part of the IAEA inspection group in any case, or is that prohibited by this particular deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, U.S. officials will not be part of the inspections team because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.  But there certainly are Americans at the IAEA, and that organization more broadly will be responsible for conducting these inspections, and it will be Iran’s responsibility to meet the expectations that the IAEA has, or the agreement is going to fall apart and we’ll see sanctions either snap back into place or sanctions relief not even start — because as I mentioned earlier, Iran has to comply with the IAEA’s request for access and information so that they can complete their report about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program before any sanctions relief is even offered in the first place.  So Iran’s compliance with the IAEA’s request for access and information are necessary before any sort of sanctions relief is offered.

Q    And lastly, far be it for me to lean on a brilliant Brit in John Oliver, you’re mentioning voting rights.  What about the voting rights of the nearly 700,000 Americans that live here in the District?  Is there anything you all do, are you willing to do, are you trying to do so that people in Washington, D.C. can vote?

MR. EARNEST:  Kevin, the President has strongly articulated his support for a home rule in Washington.  And there does appear to be a desire of District residents to exercise more control over the management of their district and the management of their communities.  And too often we’ve seen Congress interfere in those efforts, and that’s something the President strongly opposes.

Q    Statehood — yes or no?  Will he back that as well?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, ultimately, that would be a decision that we would support the residents of the District making for themselves.

Susan.

Q    The TPP talks, trade talks, ended a few days ago without any real progress.  I’m wondering if the President’s legacy on trade that he worked so hard to get through Congress, the TPA, is in peril right now.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Susan, what we’ve made clear is that the President is not going to accept an agreement that isn’t clearly in the best interest of middle-class families here in the United States, or he also will not accept an agreement that’s not clearly in the best interest of the national security of the United States.  

So the President has set a pretty high bar for what’s acceptable to him when it comes to a final TPP agreement that he’s willing to sign on to.  And that means that our negotiators, when sitting around the table with the 11 or 12 other countries that are part of these discussions, are driving a pretty hard bargain.  And so it’s not particularly surprising to me that efforts to reach a final agreement are taking a little bit more time than originally expected.  But that’s simply because our negotiators have been given instructions by the President about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

So ultimately, the President is much less worried about his legacy and much more worried about the impact of what a good trade agreement would have on the country.  And the President, frankly, is not one to sign on to a bad one.

Q    There’s been a Reuters report recently — I guess yesterday afternoon — that said — talked to numerous people at the State Department and found that there was some, according to the report, playing politics with this human trafficking report that came out July 27th.  And there’s going to be a hearing on Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Menendez and others are very concerned about the accusation of playing politics with a modern slavery report and prostitution report.  Can you address those concerns and put to rest any suggestion that there was politics at play here?  Because with Malaysia and Cuba, you know those are the two issues there.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I would refer you to the State Department.  This is a process that was run by the State Department, and they can speak to the process that they used to publish this report.  

I know what their goal was, and their goal was to offer up a detailed assessment of whether foreign governments — or whether foreign government efforts comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons that the United States has established.  So the department — the State Department, in this case — strives to make the report as accurate as possible, documenting the successes and shortcomings of other governments’ anti-trafficking efforts.

So that was the ultimate goal of the report, and that is what the findings reveal, is the conclusion that was drawn by — or that was yielded through this policymaking process at the State Department.  But this is a process that lived at the State Department, so I’d refer you to them for any questions about — that some may have about political interference.

Q    Can you say definitively that the White House did not have any role to play in that report in influencing whether Malaysia, Cuba or China got a better grade?

MR. EARNEST:  I can tell you that this is a process that lived at the State Department, and the White House was very respectful of the ongoing policy process at the State Department for publishing this report.

Q    And just one final one.  I don’t know if it’s already been reported, but what is the White House going to do, what is the President going to do to celebrate his birthday today?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President did, over the previous weekend, did get to spend some time on the golf course and at Camp David with some of his friends.  And I don’t have any other additional details about what may or may not be in store for today.

Mark.

Q    Josh, President Obama and Vice President Biden were having lunch today — I presume it’s over — and it’s lunch at a time when speculation is at a fever pitch on whether Vice President Biden will decide to run for President.  To borrow your phrase, is this lunch irony or serendipity?  (Laughter.) 

MR. EARNEST:  In this case, Mark, it’s serendipity.  The President and Vice President routinely have a lunch together about once a week, and there’s a reason there are only two place settings at the table, which is it is a unique opportunity for the President and the Vice President to talk privately about whatever happens to be on their minds.  

And so I don’t have a good sense about what exactly was discussed in their lunch.  I suspect they covered a variety of topics — some personal, some public, as they relate to ongoing debates.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was maybe even some politics discussed.  But I don’t have any insight to share.

Q    Maybe?  

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I don’t know whether or not — I don’t have any insight.  As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have any insight into the Vice President’s current thinking on this particular matter.  But again, the President and the Vice President have the kind of relationship where they speak pretty candidly with one another knowing that that information will remain private.

Fred.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Just to follow up on the Voting Rights Act, Martin O’Malley has said that — is going to be advocating for a constitutional amendment to guarantee the right to vote for everyone to sort of overcast all the ID laws and so forth.  Is that something the President or this administration could ever support?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Fred, I haven’t seen his specific proposal, but obviously a constitutional amendment along those lines is certainly something that would be consistent with the values and priorities that the President himself has discussed quite powerfully in the speech that he delivered in Selma, Alabama earlier this year.

Our efforts, however, not been focused on a constitutional amendment but actually on getting Congress to walk the walk when it comes to their expressions of support for the value and liberty of individual Americans — and that is to pass the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. 

Q    And just real quick, coming back to the Chuck Schumer gun bill.  You said that there needs to be more public support out there, but is this something that you would foresee the President speaking up for, championing, the Schumer bill? 

MR. EARNEST:  Fred, as I mentioned to Chris, I haven’t seen the specifics of Senator Schumer’s proposal. 

Scott, did you have your hand up? 

Q    Yes.  In that speech at American University, President Kennedy talked about the need to not demonize the Soviets but sort of get inside their head and approach them as rational people sharing interests with the U.S.  Should we expect to hear some echoes of that in reference to Iran from the President tomorrow? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously the relationship between the United States and Iran is different than the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union back in the early ‘60s.  I think what they have in common is that both countries were clearly adversaries of the United States.  

But the President has also been clear that in his dealings with Iran he’s been unwilling to rely on any trust with the Iranian leadership.  And in fact, what the President has said is his approach to this situation has been to distrust and verify.  And that’s why this deal would not have gone forward had Iran not agreed to cooperate with the most intrusive set of inspections that have ever been imposed on a country’s nuclear program. 

And the reason for that is that this agreement requires Iran to make some significant commitments, including things like reducing their uranium stockpile by 98 percent, disconnecting 13,000 centrifuges, and essentially gutting the core of their plutonium reactor.  These are all significant commitments, and each of them is necessary before any sort of sanctions relief will be offered. 

So the stakes of those commitments are high, and the President is unwilling to just trust the Iranian regime that they’re going to follow through on those commitments.  In fact, the President will insist that the IAEA be given the access they need to verify that Iran has followed through with those commitments.  And once that has occurred, then sanctions relief is something that the international community is prepared to offer. 

Q    For all that skepticism, though, in his interview with Tom Friedman, the President talked about sort of empathy as being a key to this kind of diplomacy.  And I’m just wondering if that’s something that he’s going to talk about tomorrow. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t anticipate an extensive discussion about that.  And I think what the President was referring to in the interview is that — I do think it’s safe to assume that the reason that the Iranian regime reached the calculation that they should cooperate with the international community to obtain the sanctions relief is that they were under significant pressure because of the international sanctions that had been imposed on that country and on their economy. 

And that is a — that, at least, is a rational reaction of the leader of a country when sensing that the people of Iran are eager for greater economic opportunity to take steps that would expand that opportunity and allow Iran to, at least haltingly, more deeply engage with the international community. 

And that was a — I think in describing the motivations of the leaders of Iran, the President described those decisions that Iran — or that conclusion that Iran’s leaders had reached as a logical one.  But again, the President is not at all in a position of trusting Iran to follow through on these commitments.  The President has insisted that any agreement — that this agreement include verification of Iran’s compliance by the international experts at the IAEA.

All right, Rebecca, I’ll give you the last one. 

Q    Thanks, Josh.  On cyber, given questions from privacy groups and even DHS about the bill’s effectiveness and privacy protections, does the White House support the cyber information-sharing bill that could go to a vote in the Senate this week? 

MR. EARNEST:  Rebecca, the administration at the beginning of this year put forward a series of specific bills that we believed that Congress should pass to address our concerns about cyber security.  And these were three different pieces of legislation that we sent up there that included legislative language about what exactly Congress should pass. 

And one of those bills was information related to information-sharing that essentially would allow law enforcement officials and even national security officials the ability to more freely share information with the private sector about threats that they’re detecting in cyberspace and vice versa.  That private sector entities who are either the victims, or aware of attempted cyber malfeasants, could share that information with law enforcement and national security officials so that other private sector entities could adapt their computer systems to defend against those attacks. 

So we have gone to great lengths to try to encourage that kind of information-sharing.  And I as I understand it, that’s the goal of the bill that’s currently being considered by the United States Senate.  But for our exact position on the issue, I’ll follow up with you on that.  

But ultimately, that’s the goal that we have strongly supported for some time now.  And we’ve strongly urged Congress to take action in that regard, but let me get back to you on that specific piece of legislation. 

Okay.  Thanks a lot everybody.

END 
2:09 P.M. EDT