Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–August 26, 2016 – 11:52 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Morning, everybody. Happy Friday. Before we get started I’ll just do a — one piece of news you may have seen already. As part of the President’s commitment to protect the natural beauty of the United States, we announced today that President Obama is building on this leadership by taking an historic step in creating the world’s largest marine protected area just off the coast of Hawaii.
The designation will more than quadruple the size of the existing marine monument, permanently protecting pristine coral reefs, deep-sea marine habitats, and other important ecological features and resources in the waters of the northwest Hawaiian Islands. Altogether, President Obama has protected more public lands and waters than any other President, and has protected important marine coastal environments, spectacular natural areas renowned for their outdoor recreation opportunities they offer.
And these sights often help tell the story of significant people or extraordinary events in American history. In fact, studies have shown that every dollar we invest in our national parks generates $10 for the national economy, most of which stays in local communities. And our national parks, forests and other public lands attract visitors from all over the world, fueling local economies and supporting an estimated $646 billion-dollar national outdoor economy.
So I’m happy to take your questions on the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument — (applause) — or anything else that may be on your mind today.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: There’s been a little practicing this morning.
Q Let’s start with the economy. I wanted to ask you about this newest estimate showing that the economy was growing at a 1.1-percent rate in the spring, a little bit of a revision downward. Is that concerning to the White House or not, particularly given the assessment from Chairwoman Yellen that the economy looks like it’s strong enough that the case is building for an interest rate hike?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the revision was just down one-tenth of 1 percent, so I don’t think that there is a whole lot of new information that’s revealed in the revision, some greater specificity around some of the underlying metrics.
But, look, even in those underlying metrics, there is some optimistic data to take a look at. I think the most significant of those is that consumer spending grew at a very strong rate of 4.4 percent in the second quarter. And I think that is consistent with the strong readings of consumer sentiment that we see in the economy. I think that is an indication that the President’s optimism about the economy is shared pretty broadly by the American people.
Now, I think everybody agrees that there’s a lot more important work that needs to get done. And the President certainly has spent some time talking about additional steps he believes the country needs to take to ensure that economic opportunity is being enjoyed by people up and down the income scale. And that’s why the President has made expanding access to a college education such a high priority. The President continues to believe that a robust investment in infrastructure, particularly while interest rates are low, would have positive economic benefits for the country in the short term, but would also lay a foundation for our long-term economic strength.
So the President has got plenty of ideas about what additional work could be done to strengthen the economy and to further strengthen economic growth. But the President’s optimism about the U.S. economy is widely shared, and it should be.
As it relates to comments from the Fed Chair, I understand that she gave a speech a little earlier this morning, and I’ll let her assessment of the economy speak for itself.
Q Thanks, Josh. There’s been this debate taking place in France over the burkini, which although it’s a different legal system over there, it seems to mirror the debate that we’ve been having in this country about religious freedom and tolerance, and concerns expressed over the political sphere about Islam. If a U.S. municipality were to ban the use of the burkini the way a number have in France, what kind of a view of that would the White House take?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, I want to be careful of not weighing in too aggressively to second-guess the policy decisions that are being made by one of our closest allies, particularly when it comes to their assessment about national security and homeland security.
I think what I can say affirmatively about the United States and certainly the approach that the President has taken is there’s a reason that the United States is a beacon of freedom around the world. The United States of America was founded to serve as a country where people could observe their religious faith and worship God without the fear of persecution or even intrusion by government authorities. This freedom of religion is something that we hold dear in this country. And what’s important about the right to a freedom of religion is that every American citizen enjoys it.
Every American citizen, regardless of your faith, benefits from the protection that’s provided by the United States Constitution. The President certainly believes strongly in protecting freedom of religion, and believes that it’s important that the commitment to that value and the commitment to that principle is reflected in the kinds of policies that are advanced by the federal government. The President also happens to believe that the commitment to those values actually strengthens our national security.
Q And lastly, we didn’t have a chance to talk a lot about the Olympics while the President was on Martha’s Vineyard. But Ryan Lochte is now being charged with filing basically a false police report in Brazil, and I’m wondering, given the fact that we have an extradition treaty with Brazil, would the U.S. consider a request from Brazil to extradite one of our own citizens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the United States will certainly adhere to the terms of any extradition treaty that we’ve signed with any country in the world. Obviously, as we’ve discussed in a very different context, we remain committed to following those guidelines assiduously, and allowing the guidelines of those treaties and the law here in the United States to guide those discussions and to guide those decisions.
I can’t speak to the details of the charges that have been reportedly filed against Mr. Lochte, so for more details on that I think I’d refer you either to Brazilian authorities or to attorneys that have been retained by Mr. Lochte.
Q Thanks. There have been reports of Yemeni missiles hitting Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities today. I was wondering — and oil prices are up on these reports. Is the White House monitoring this? Is there concern about this latest seeming attack?
MR. EARNEST: Ayesha, I have not seen this specific report. What I can tell you in general is that the United States has expressed on a number of occasions our concern about potential instability along Saudi Arabia’s southern border. I think the only people who are more concerned about that are the Saudis themselves. And they have expressed their own concerns about how some of the chaos and violence that they’ve seen in Yemen could spill over into Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia has undertaken military actions that they say are necessary to try to limit that threat. And the United States has provided some limited support to those operations. We certainly do stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners in Saudi Arabia as they figure out the most effective way to limit the national security risk that they face from the chaos and violence in the country along their southern border.
Q Moving on to Iran, so a U.S. Navy ship fired warning shots to warn an Iranian fast-attack craft yesterday. And this is the latest in a series of incidents in the Gulf this week. I was wondering, what does the White House think about these incidents that they seem to be escalating? Does the White House consider that these tactics are planned or that this is an orchestrated — that these events are being orchestrated towards some end? What is the White House view on these incidents?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Ayesha, you won’t be surprised to hear that the White House is well aware of recent incidents in and around the Strait of Hormuz of Iranian vessels approaching U.S. vessels who are operating in international waters. The Department of Defense has reached their own assessment about a couple of these situations and determined that the actions that were taken by the Iranian vessels were unsafe and unprofessional.
It’s unclear exactly what their intentions were or what their aims might have been, but the behavior that we have seen is not acceptable, primarily because this is already a volatile region of the world. And in a compressed space like the Strait of Hormuz, it only increases the risk associated with possible miscalculations. That’s certainly something that we want to avoid. And the truth is, a more dangerous interaction was avoided because of the professionalism and skill of our United States Navy and our men and women who represent our country in the United States Navy.
So obviously the situation is rather unique, and our ability to discern exactly what their intent was is limited by the fact that we don’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. There are some channels where we’ve engaged in some talks, but there are no formal diplomatic representation of the United States on Iranian soil. That typically — where we’ve had these kinds of concerns have been raised by, for example, Russian military vessels, we’ve got diplomatic channels that we can use to express our concerns and to try to reach an understanding about what exactly happened, we’re a little limited in our ability to do so because of the limited diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran.
Q But is there a concern that these incidents are escalating? Is there maybe a call now to maybe to change tactics on the U.S. behalf or to do something about these incidents that keep occurring?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just to make sure that the record is clear here, these are U.S. vessels who are operating professionally in international waters, consistent with international norms. And it’s only because of their professionalism that a more significant incident was avoided. And the behavior and the actions that we’ve seen by these Iranian vessels is a source of concern because their actions were unsafe and unprofessional, and because in territory that’s as compressed — or in international waters that are as compressed as the Strait of Hormuz, the likelihood of miscalculation is increased. And that is certainly something that we want to avoid.
Q We’ve heard plenty of speeches this week from each presidential candidate, especially just yesterday — hearing from both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, pretty much back to back. And what you see is the nominee on each side basically calling the other a bigot. You’ve talked about the debate in this country and how that’s good for America. Do you still feel like the debate is good for this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President himself has acknowledged that there are certain aspects of our political discourse [that] have gotten too polarized in a way that, ultimately, is counterproductive and only does feed greater dysfunction in our political system. And the President has acknowledged that his own performance on this measure is not perfect, but it’s been quite good.
I would say I think that there is a risk of drawing an equivalence, even among the two presidential candidates, that I don’t think would withstand any scrutiny at all by an unbiased analyst. And I think that people will consider the rhetoric and language that is used by the presidential candidates to draw their own conclusions about that individual’s fitness for office. But I think that’s part of the case that people make about what presidential elections are all about.
While running — being a presidential candidate is very different than being President of the United States. When you’re a presidential candidate, you do face some of the same challenges and stressors that a President has to face in difficult times. Being in the spotlight, being asked difficult questions under pressure, being able to communicate clearly to the country something that you believe, even if the topic is something that’s quite complicated.
So I think it’s entirely fair for people to listen carefully and to listen closely to the individual candidates, and to draw some conclusions about the rhetoric that they use.
Q I mean, there’s been a lot of name-calling. And obviously that’s something that’s been there before in American politics. I mean, you look 100-odd years ago, there was some pretty nasty and rough things said on the trail. But there’s something about this cycle that has shocked many watchers. Does the administration feel like this cycle has changed American politics for good?
MR. EARNEST: When you say “for good,” you mean for the better, or you mean permanently?
Q Or you could just say, has it changed American politics?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think many people have made the observation that the political debate in this country, in this cycle, is markedly different than the kind of race that has been run in recent presidential cycles. And some of that is due to the rhetoric that we’ve seen on the Republican side of the aisle. There’s just no denying that. And not by any one candidate. There were a variety of Republican candidates earlier in the primary process that had some quite shocking, controversial, and even offensive things to say — some of them about the President of the United States.
So that being said, I think the President has got a lot of confidence in the wisdom of the American people and in the strength of this country’s democratic institutions — and I’m referring to our system of government as a democracy, and not of the Democratic Party — but the confidence in our institutions to withstand some additional stress. But I would acknowledge that the American people and their ears and our institutions are facing a little more stress than they have in years past.
Q The reason I ask is because we often hear — and you just said yesterday — that the debate is good for America, this is a debate we should be having. But the way the debate has been conducted — maybe you could say on both sides — through this cycle, has that been good for America, really?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think there is a grave danger in drawing an equivalence between the rhetoric that we provide by both sides. But what I will say is I think that there is no denying that some of the rhetoric that we have heard from presidential candidates has been counterproductive and has been inconsistent with our country’s values. And the President is not pleased to see that. That said, the President understands, and has made the case himself on many occasions, that running for President is tough business, and there is throughout American history — there are throughout American history any number of examples of harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail. And it’s not the first time that we’ve seen that in the context of American politics. But I think it is fair to say that there seems to be a little something different going on this time around.
Jon, nice to see you.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about an interview that the parents of Kayla Mueller did. Of course, Kayla Mueller was taken hostage and murdered by ISIS, and the President went out to visit with the family about 17 months ago. Her parents say that, during that visit, the President had promised to make a donation to a foundation they had set up in Kayla’s name. Is that correct? Did he make that promise?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, let me just start by saying that obviously the ordeal that the Mueller family has had to endure is unimaginable. And their daughter, Kayla Mueller, was a special person who had a special calling in her life. And I actually still remember the first time that we were in this room talking about reports of her death. And her parents made public a letter that she had written and been able to deliver to them, or have delivered to them, where she talked about how her life had been fulfilled based on her passion to serve people in need. And I think the line that she used was she said that she recalled seeing God in the eyes of people who were in crisis. It’s a really profound statement for somebody who was — she was just in her late twenties when she was killed.
And her life and her example I think has had an impact on people all across the country. Her life and her example have had an impact on people here at the White House, myself included. And given all that, I think the pain and grief that continues to be experienced to this day by Kayla’s parents I think is entirely understandable.
What I can say — I’m not going to speak to any private conversations that the President has had with the Mueller family. I know that they’ve given an interview. What I will say is the President is aware of the foundation, Kayla’s Hands, that’s been formed to honor her memory and to honor her life’s work. Is certainly is consistent with the kind of charitable organization that the President and the First Lady have supported in the past. And I do anticipate that the President would make a commitment to support this organization moving forward.
Q What Carl Mueller, Kayla’s father, said is that the President in that meeting, back in March of last year — that he said that he would be making a donation to the foundation, and 17 months later he says the donation has not been made. Can you confirm that no donation has been made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I wasn’t a part of the conversation. Obviously, Mr. Mueller and the President were. So what I can tell you is —
Q But you wouldn’t think he would lie about this?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not accusing anybody of not telling the truth. I’m just indicating that I wasn’t part of the meeting. And even if I were, I wouldn’t — this is a private conversation. The President obviously is aware of the foundation that’s been set up to support the life’s work of Kayla Mueller, and it is exactly the kind of organization that the President and First Lady have supported in the past, and I would anticipate that this is a foundation that the President and First Lady would support.
Q Can you think of any reason that would prompt a delay like that? I mean, I know the President is obviously busy. Could he have forgotten about it? Or is there something that would prevent him as President for making a donation?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I can’t speak to any promises or conversations between the President and the Mueller family directly.
Q The Mueller family, both parents, also expressed some disappointment with the amounts — or saying that the efforts that were taken to free Kayla before she was murdered were inadequate. What Carl Mueller says is the President could have been a hero, but he chose not to. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: Again, this is a father who is grieving over the loss of his daughter. And again, I think the grief and sadness that he feels about the fact that his daughter was not successfully rescued I think is an entirely human response and one that’s entirely understandable. What I will say, Jon, is that at the direction of President Obama himself, a variety of national security agencies in the federal government expend significant resources and dedicate significant time to going to great lengths to try to rescue Americans who are being unjustly held against their will around the world.
And you’ll also recall, Jon — I know you covered this closely — there were some weaknesses in that approach that were identified by the administration. And there have been important reforms that have been made to that process over the course of the last 18 to 24 months that have resulted in more effective use of those resources and more effective use of the expertise within the federal government to sharpen our efforts to secure the return, or to rescue American citizens held against their will around the world.
There also has been a concerted effort made to improve the way in which the federal government of the United States communicates with families who are in this unspeakable situation, like the Mueller family was. And the President has been pleased by the way those reforms have improved the effectiveness, both in terms of securing the release of American hostages, but also in terms of communicating more clearly and directly with families who are in that difficult situation.
But the President hopes that the pace of improvement will continue as the reforms take root.
Q And I remember one of those issues was the question of private individuals paying ransom. The Muellers say that White House officials threatened them with criminal prosecution if they tried to pay the $6 million ransom that ISIS was demanding. Is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve talked about before, there are sort of three aspects to this. The first is, I’m just not going to get into private conversations between government officials and families who are in this difficult situation. I can tell you that it is not the policy of the Obama administration to threaten families like these who are in this situation with prosecution.
But thirdly, the United States does have a policy that we have assiduously followed of not paying ransom. And that is a very painful policy, and it’s understandable that families like the Muellers would have grave concerns about that policy, both as a policy matter, and I can understand them raising some pretty thorny moral questions about that, too. But the conclusion that President Obama reached is the same conclusion that previous Presidents in both parties have reached, which is that to get in the habit of paying ransom would only make Americans traveling overseas a more appetizing target to criminal or terrorist organizations that are hoping to collect a ransom.
And so for that reason, we’ve made clear and we have carefully followed a policy of not paying ransom, even to secure the release of Americans who are being held against their will overseas.
Q Okay, and just a last question, Josh. So just to be clear, the first line of questioning here. Can the Mueller family expect that the President, that the Obamas will make a donation to their daughter’s — to the foundation in the name of Kayla Mueller soon?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned, I can’t speak to any previous conversations that they’ve had, but I can tell you that —
Q But is a donation coming, is the question.
MR. EARNEST: The foundation, Kayla’s Hands, that’s been established in her memory is certainly the kind of foundation that the President and First Lady have supported in the past. And I would anticipate that they would make a financial contribution to continue supporting it.
Q I wanted to ask you about the coordination deal that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov were discussing today. I’m just wondering if you can give us any update on how those conversations are going, and also if you can confirm the kind of coordination between Russia and the U.S. on airstrikes as part of that deal, being the de-confliction that we’ve talked about previously.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly know that Russia has expressed some interest in greater military cooperation. The concern that we have expressed is that too much of the time and attention of the Russian military is being devoted to propping up the Assad regime and, in some cases, aiding and abetting the horrific tactics of the Assad regime. We know that government military assets, including aircraft, with the full support of the Russians and the Iranians, have been used to target civilians and to target medical facilities. It’s beyond the pale.
So as a practical matter, the actions that we’ve seen from the Assad regime are indefensible from a moral perspective. But for people who aren’t interested in morality, even as a practical matter, they only put off the kind of solution that even the Russians themselves acknowledge is necessary to deal with the situation inside of Syria.
As long as Russia is willing to support the Assad regime’s murderous military tactics that often claims the lives of innocent women and children, the more difficult it is for a political solution to be reached. It’s also more difficult for humanitarian relief to be delivered to these communities that so badly need it.
So that’s the crux of the problem here. And I recognize that it is a problem for the United States and that it has prevented the kind of political progress that we’d like to see inside of Syria. But it’s an even bigger problem for the Russians, primarily because it calls into question their integrity and their effectiveness to deal with the puppet regime that they’re maintaining in Syria. But it also raises questions because there’s an internal contradiction in their strategy that they have failed to resolve. They say that a political transition is necessary, but yet they are deeply invested in propping up the Assad regime. And the more they prop up the Assad regime, the more difficult it is to effect a political transition.
So I recognize that this has been an impediment to the United States making progress in the direction that we would like to see, which is an end to the violence inside of Syria, trying to get the chaos under control and thereby make it more difficult for extremist organizations to operate there. But because of the Russians and because of their inability or their refusal to exercise some influence over the Assad regime, it’s only continued to fuel the kind of extremism that the Russians I think are rightly worried about.
So this is all the subject of ongoing discussion between Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. I don’t have a detailed update on those conversations to share with you, primarily because, at least as I learned shortly before we walked out here, they’re still talking. But we’ve been clear about what it is we need to see, and what we need to see is we need to see a clear commitment demonstrated in real life on the ground that the Russians and the Syrian government are willing to live up to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities over six months ago now.
Q I guess I’m trying to understand how to read that wind-up — whether it was just sort of a history of the conflict in Syria, or if it was an indication that you — that the talks are going in a direction where you don’t think that the Russians and the Assad regime are making the type of concessions that you would need to see for this type of military agreement.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I probably don’t speak the kind of blunt diplomatic — let me say it this way. I probably don’t speak the kind of nuanced diplomatic talk that may be valued in other agencies. But we’ve been pretty clear about this and we’re not seeking concessions — we’re seeking the Russian government living up to the commitments that they’ve made. They’ve made commitments in the context of the cessation of hostilities. They made those commitments six months ago.
And for several weeks, there was a lot of skepticism when they initially made those commitments about their willingness or their ability to follow through on them. And I think everyone was pleasantly surprised. There did seem to be a commitment on the part of the Russians, both in terms of their own activities and both in terms of using their influence with the Assad regime, to scale back military activities in a way that allowed for much improved, though not perfect, humanitarian access and created space for diplomatic and political negotiations.
But over the last several months, we’ve seen the commitment to the cessation of hostilities fray in far too many communities, particularly around Aleppo. And that has led to a situation where the humanitarian situation that was already terrible has somehow gotten even worse. The political talks are struggling, if they’re doing anything, and the Russian activities only fuel extremism in that country.
Now, because of the efforts of the United States and our counter-ISIL coalition, we’ve been able to address a lot of that, and ISIL is under a lot of pressure in Syria. And we’ve made important progress on the ground against ISIL in Syria. But that’s come in spite of the actions of the Russians who continue to engage in activities that only fuel extremism.
So it’s a complicated situation right now, I would acknowledge that. And, again, there are negative consequences for the United States because of the inability of the Russians to live up to their commitments. But the negative consequences for the Russians themselves are much greater and it’s appealing to that self-interest.
So that’s why — I guess that’s a long answer to your question. The point is, that’s why I’d make the case to you that we’re not describing these as concessions on the part of the Russians. This is about living up to commitments that they made that are entirely consistent with their own self-interest. And, unfortunately, for reasons I think that only the Russians themselves can explain, they’ve refused to do that.
Q I wanted to follow up on your answer to Josh about GDP. The consumer-spending statistic that you cited was driven somewhat by used car sales, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but we’ve also seen proliferation of car loans being given to people with bad credit that are designed in a way with high interest rates, that are almost created — there’s an economy sort of designed for defaults and making money off of that. Is there concern that this kind of consumer spending and that the used car sector in particular is a bubble that could burst in the way that we saw with the housing sector?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think more generally — I can’t speak to the specifics of the used car sector. We certainly can find somebody in the President’s Council of Economic Advisers to follow up with you on this, so we’ll have somebody do that.
I think what the data does show is that the credit health of the U.S. economy, particularly when you’re talking about individuals, as opposed to businesses, has improved quite significantly over the last seven or eight years. That the credit bubble that we saw in the run-up to the financial crisis in 2008, 2009 is in a much-improved situation. And there are a variety of reasons for that, and some of it is the important work that’s been done as a part of Wall Street reform. Some of that is a function of common sense — people learning some important, even painful lessons.
So there has been improvement on this scale. When it comes to emerging risks, including things like the used car market, I’m going to defer to the experts who may be able to give you a better answer on that.
Q One last one. The DHS announced today its proposal to sort of unilaterally create a new type of entrepreneurship visa. My question, though, is: A lot of refugee advocates have talked about asking governments to create new visas that would sort of temporarily allow more quickly refugees to enter both the United States and other countries. So I’m wondering if DHS, since it’s right now in the business of creating different visas, if that’s an idea that’s been considered or worked on, or a proposal that the U.S. would advocate for other countries, if not the U.S. specifically.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’d refer you to my colleagues at DHS in terms of the specifics of answering the question about whether or not a specific refugee-like visa could be issued. I know that there have been steps to try to address the refugee situation with regard to Central America, and this is something that administration officials have been discussing with their counterparts in Costa Rica. And they’ve established a process that allows for individuals to apply for refugee status without coming to the United States.
And that could stem the tide — the flow of individuals from Central America to the southwest border of the United States, and help us get a handle on that particular situation while continuing to enforce our laws and make sure that we live up to the standards set by the President to subject potential refugees to more thorough vetting and screening than any other individual who enters the United States. And the President continues to be committed to that principle.
But in terms of potential use of some visa — or some executive action that could involve some visa-like authority, I’d refer you to DHS on that.
Q A couple quick Syria questions. The idea of safe zones has been often — is that still off the table in the President’s view?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah.
Q It’s just something that’s — not something militarily that’s in America’s interest?
MR. EARNEST: That is still off the table because of the implied military commitment that it would require in order to effectively enforce it. The concern is that while it sounds simple to maintain that kind of area, ultimately you’re responsible for protecting the borders of that safe zone and then policing that safe zone once it’s been created. That would be work-intensive, to say the least. It would be dangerous. It would likely require a greater U.S. military commitment. And all of that would come at the expense of our ongoing efforts to focus on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.
Q There’s been a military analysis done of the possibility of doing this or not.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know how formal of an analysis there’s been. But there certainly has been — well, I guess I could say this. There’s been a consideration and a discussion of this issue, and at each time it’s discussed, the team comes back to the realization that this work-intensive, dangerous effort to establish borders, to patrol the skies overhead, and to police the area once it’s been created is all too likely to fall on the shoulders of the United States of America in a way that’s contrary to our interests and in a way that could be contrary to our ongoing counter-ISIL efforts.
Q Do you know if there’s been a determination of whether it’s thought that President Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes, for all the horrible things he’s done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we read a little bit more about them today. There’s a quite painful story in the New York Times today about the situation in Daraya that, essentially, the scorched-earth strategy that has been executed — and I use that word appropriately — by the Assad regime to target medical facilities and to target residential facilities housing women and children is unconscionable.
Q Is he guilty of crimes against humanity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are international institutions that have been established to fairly evaluate questions like that. And these international institutions collect evidence, and they have a process for conducting those kinds of investigations and reaching those kinds of judgments. The United States is strongly supportive of, and has even called for, international consideration of this exact question. Unfortunately, at the United Nations we’ve seen countries like Russia and China step forward to try to block progress of those investigations. And that’s deeply disappointing, particularly when you read the kinds of accounts that I read about today in the New York Times.
Q So there is a process of delay where the United States is trying to — I don’t know how to characterize it. Is there a process of delay where the United States is trying to get the international community to reach that conclusion?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the United States has done is called for the international community and the International Criminal Court and other organizations to conduct investigations and get to the bottom of this specific question, to conduct an investigation that is impartial and is genuinely independent. We’re strongly supportive of that. And I know that this question has been raised at the United Nations level and it’s been blocked by the Russians and the Chinese, and that’s, again, unfortunate when there’s a lot of evidence to indicate that the Assad regime is engaged in tactics like targeting women and children and targeting medical facilities that are just unconscionable and entirely inconsistent with the law of armed conflict.
And the United States believes strongly that people should be held accountable and that they ultimately will. But that accountability should come through the well-established international process and through the international bodies that are charged with conducting these kinds of investigations and reaching those kinds of conclusions.
Q There was a big transition meeting here the other day that the Chief of Staff shared.
MR. EARNEST: Just yesterday.
Q Can you give us anything about what happened, what was on the agenda, what they’re talking about at this stage of the game?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as you know, the President made a smooth transition a top priority for his team this year. And we’ve talked a lot about how effective President Bush’s team was in their last year in the White House, preparing in advance for a smooth transition. And President Obama and his team here at the White House benefitted from that tremendously, and I think it did reflect a commitment to professionalism and democracy that President Obama and his team is determined to live up to.
And that’s why, over the course of this year, you have seen a steady pace of preparations already underway for a transition that’s not going to take place for another five months or so. The conversation yesterday, I understand, involved some senior members of the Trump campaign, some senior representatives from the Clinton-Kaine transition project. There were a number of senior White House officials involved, including a couple of senior national security officials.
And I can tell you that this meeting of the White House Transition Coordinating Council was focused on the kinds of steps along the way that the federal government and that the representatives of the two candidates will have to take over the course of the next five months as they eventually prepare for one of them to become President of the United States.
Q I’m just struck that there were so many very high-ranking administration officials in the room. Any more detail about what a meeting at this point — what’s on the agenda? Are you looking at national security issues around the world? Are you looking at logistics of the buildings, the rooms? I have no —
MR. EARNEST: I think mostly this is not a focus on policy issues, this is more a focus on the administrative process of bringing people onboard and eventually preparing them to assume significant responsibilities in the federal government. So there’s a discussion about different government agencies, about what the structure of those agencies looks like, and what process needs to be undertaken to prepare people to assume responsibility at those agencies inside those structures.
Q And lastly, given the tone of the campaign and given the President’s strong feelings about this election, it is still your position that you are being — that the administration is being even-handed in its dealings in these types of transitions?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. The President and his team are determined to being even-handed in planning for a presidential transition. That’s what the American people would expect of their President.
And again, this is one of the reasons that what President Bush’s team here at the White House did — they prepared for a transition in an even-handed way, and was able to even work effectively with a Democratic — incoming Democratic administration that was predicated on bringing change to Washington, and changing many of the policies that President Bush had advocated. But yet his team’s commitment to democracy was strong enough to ensure a smooth transition. They set a very high standard, and President Obama is determined to not just meet but to even exceed that standard.
And that’s why we started our planning so early in the year. That’s why you see this steady pace of meetings. And thus far it’s going well, but there’s a lot of important work to do between now and January 20th.
Q Thanks, Josh. I know we talked a bit about the EpiPen controversy yesterday, and I know it’s difficult to sort of drill down on a company in particular, but I wanted to sort of revisit it for just a second. Yahoo! reports that the CEO of Mylan — that’s the company that is marketing the pen at more than $600-per — said on an earnings call earlier this month that she was blaming the administration and, in particular, blaming Obamacare, saying that employers’ increased use of high deductible plans — one of the side effects of the law — has resulted in patients paying more out of pocket for the drug. What’s your reaction to critics who charge that it was the Obamacare changes that somehow exacerbated this extraordinary increase in cost for the EpiPen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that flies in the face of a logical explanation, which is that based on the news reports that I’ve seen, the company made a specific decision to jack up the price.
So I wasn’t on the call and I haven’t seen the reports of the call, so it’s hard for me to comment directly on those comments. But your media outlet is among many who has chronicled the precipitous increase in the price of this specific device, and that certainly raised a lot of questions. But I think it is hard to try to deflect the blame for the increase in price to anything else, including Obamacare.
Q Let me ask you about Gitmo. Any chance to announce any more transfers in the days ahead? And I ask because I know that the number — I believe it’s at 61 now — could drop somewhere even in the 20s between now and the end of the administration. I know that there have been some conversations to empty it out completely. That may or may not happen. Anything coming in the days ahead?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to announce in advance of a potential transfer. But if there are any transfers that are made we certainly will follow the practice that we have maintained for quite some time now in terms of making public the names of the individuals who have been transferred, and disclosing exactly where they’ve been transferred, at least in terms of other countries, and announcing that shortly after that transfer has been completed.
Q Has the government paid these other countries a particular fee for a detainee that they’re willing to take on? Is that how the process works, at least in part?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the process works by the United States working effectively with our partners around the world, and there are a wide variety of countries that have worked with us to ensure the safe and successful transfer of these individuals. There are extensive diplomatic negotiations involved, and in just about every case there is an intensive discussion about what sort of security precautions are imposed to ensure that these individuals don’t pose an ongoing threat to the United States.
Q Including surveillance — I can imagine that, too, or at least some sort of a monitoring mechanism for these detainees once they’re transferred.
MR. EARNEST: Well, in some cases, we are able to work effectively with other countries to make sure that we keep tabs on the individuals who have been transferred to ensure that they don’t pose an undue threat to the United States.
Q But does the American government pay these particular countries to take these guys?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the result of these transfers is a product of extensive diplomatic negotiations, and there are a lot of questions that are raised about the most effective place to house this person, the most effective way to ensure that this individual doesn’t pose an undue threat to the United States or our allies or interests. But we don’t typically get into too much detail about the kinds of requirements that are imposed on these individuals once they’re transferred.
Q Are you familiar with BleachBit? Have you been following this technology that enables a person or persons to sort of wipe clean electronic trails? Are you familiar with that at all?
MR. EARNEST: That’s the first time I’ve heard that term.
Q Okay, it was apparently utilized by Secretary Clinton in an effort to wipe clean her personal server of emails. If you haven’t heard anything about that, I was going to ask the follow-up, which would be: Is that something that this administration does not condone among not just Cabinet members but even among employees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our view here has been that government employees should use their government email for government work. And in those rare instances where they’re unable to do so — their iPhone or their Blackberry is acting up, then if that requires emergent use of their personal email, then they should be sure to CC their government address so that the records can be properly preserved. And that’s the policy that we expect people to follow and I’m quite confident that the vast majority of government employees certainly does follow them.
My guess is that people’s — the degree to which people are conscientious about following that policy has probably improved in the last 12 to 18 months, I suspect.
Q A cybersecurity question, Josh. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the reports that Apple was forced to update its operating system, its mobile operating system because of a hack that seems to be originated — or seems to be targeted against Emirati human rights activists. I was wondering, is the U.S. government looking into this? Have you been in contact with Apple about it? And do you have any idea about who is behind this breach?
MR. EARNEST: Andrew, I can tell you that I’m familiar with this news story. I’ve read about it. I’m not in a position to confirm any of the facts in the news story. I think what I can just say as a general matter is that the United States government understands that working effectively with U.S. technology companies is an important part of protecting the cybersecurity of the U.S. government and of the American people.
And there have been some well-chronicled differences of opinion about how to most effectively pursue those policies, but it’s the view of the administration that we need to continue to maintain a positive, constructive, working relationship with technology companies because we have a shared interest — at least we have many shared interests. And the administration is committed to pursuing those shared interests, where they exist, in a way that would enhance the cybersecurity of the U.S. government and of the American people.
Q Do you know if the President has downloaded the update — the security update — on his iPad?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to any of the capabilities of the devices used by the President of the United States.
Q Josh, can I follow up on Ron’s question about the transition meeting yesterday? Can you provide us any insight into the tone of the meeting? Did the representatives of the two campaigns behave themselves? Were there any outbursts reflecting the rhetoric of the campaigns themselves?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of anything like that. I think everybody who was around the table understands the serious responsibility that they have to ensure the smooth and effective transition from the 44th President to the 45th President. And I think the tone of the meeting reflected the seriousness of the topic.
Q Do you know when there will be another meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know when the next meeting of the White House Transition Coordinating Council will take place, but we’ll let you know.
Q Were you in the meeting?
MR. EARNEST: I did not attend the meeting.
Q Is your office part of the transition operation?
MR. EARNEST: At some point, I do anticipate being part of the effort to try to hand the reins over to the successor of my office, and —
Q Any thoughts on what you might tell them? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point. I suspect that there might be a difference in the way that advice is consumed and followed, but we’ll see what happens. I certainly am committed to doing my part to ensure the continuing success of the White House Press Office and the relationship between the White House Press Office and the press corps that will be closely chronicling the activities of the next President of the United States.
Q And on the national monument expansion, how does the administration decide whether to expand it by 400,000 square miles, or more or less? How is that decision made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a couple of factors that go into this. The first is, obviously, the President is relying on the scientific advice of officials at NOAA and other prominent government scientists who can talk about steps that the President can take, using his executive authority, to protect this valuable area. There’s also important input that we receive from local residents. When we’re talking about a marine monument like this, we’re obviously talking about people who live in the area. And obviously the native Hawaiian population views this area as quite special, if not sacred, and that’s why built into the creation of this monument are opportunities for native populations to continue to engage in the kinds of activities that are consistent with their cultural heritage.
There also is — I know that, for example, there also is an allowance that people, when they get a proper permit, that they can conduct private fishing operations in the area. I know that there’s a limit on commercial activities in this region, but people who want to fish for themselves can get a permit from the government and potentially have it approved and be able to do so.
Those are just two examples of how these kinds of designations are only enacted after robust conversation with the people who are most directly affected. And we saw that that certainly was true in Maine, when the President earlier this week designated some woodlands and waterways in Maine for special protection. There’s a lot of important work that had been done with people in local communities there to not just minimize the negative impacts on their communities but also to try to maximize the positive impact. And there is the expectation — I noted at the beginning the potential positive economic impact of these kinds of designations in the form of eco-tourism and other things.
Q And all of that protected water is U.S. federal waters?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, my understanding is all of this area is within the territorial waters of the United States of America.
Q A lot of waters.
MR. EARNEST: It is. It is.
Q A couple of follow-up questions on Papahanaumokuakea.
MR. EARNEST: Thank you for joining me.
Q Showoff. (Laughter.)
Q First, the President used his authority under the Antiquities Act fairly sparingly in his first term. He only did a couple of unilateral designations and they were relatively small in terms of land and water size. He’s obviously invoked it quite frequently in his second term. Can you talk about what’s propelled this shift for him to use the Antiquities Act as aggressively as he has in his second term?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think an important part of this, Juliet, is what I was just talking to Mark about, which is that these kinds of designations are not issued on short notice. These decisions are only made after extensive consultation with local communities. I know that there were — I think this is true both in Maine and in Hawaii, that there were — this is literally the culmination of a years-long effort to protect these pristine waters in Hawaii while ensuring that the way of life of native Hawaiians is also protected. And that requires a lot of negotiation and a lot of consultation and extensive follow-up. So that would account for some of this, which is that it took years to get this going and we’re starting to enjoy the benefits of that work.
I know that there also has been a realization that there is a role for Congress to play in terms of setting aside certain territory, lands and waters in the United States for future preservation, but we haven’t seen a lot of congressional activity of any sort, really, over the last few years. And it has turned the President’s attention to more robust use of executive action.
The President, I think in each of these cases, would be happy to sign into law a piece of legislation that would have protected these waters. But we haven’t seen that kind of legislative activity in this Congress, and it means the President has had to make more effective use of his executive authority, and that’s what he’s done, in a way that will benefit not just people in Hawaii, but the American people for generations to come.
Q And then more broadly on marine monuments, a lot of scientists have talked about the importance of protecting areas closer to the continental United States — in New England, in the Southeast, in the Gulf. These are proposals, again, that have been around for years but often tend to be controversial because they’re close to major population centers. Can you talk about why up to this point the White House has focused on relatively remote areas in the Pacific as opposed to some of these other areas, which many scientists consider just as ecologically valuable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I’m not going to rule out future decisions over the next five months or so. I think the thing that you can assume, Juliet, is that given the extensive consultation that I described over a large but remote stretch of water off the coast of Hawaii would engender more and more vigorous discussion when we’re talking about waters that are closer to larger population centers.
And again, I think it’s further evidence that the Obama administration takes quite seriously the responsibility that we have to carefully consider the impact of these decisions on local populations and on local communities. And when done right, the impact of these designations is positive, both when it comes to economic questions, but also when it comes to questions about quality of life. And we’re committed to trying to advance both those things in communities all across the country.
Q Josh, in the aftermath of a court order against the Obama administration’s guidance prohibiting schools to discriminate against transgender students, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to schools yesterday instructing them to disregard those guidelines. Should the letter from the attorney general be ignored?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I haven’t seen the specific letter. The guidelines — the guidance that was issued by the Department of Education was in response to schools and school districts and school administrators from across the country seeking the expertise of officials at the Department of Education about the most effective way to implement policies that protect the safety and dignity of all their students.
These school administrators don’t have the luxury of playing politics. They’re actually trying to solve problems. They’re trying to protect kids. They’re trying to create a learning environment in which every student has an opportunity to thrive. And it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re seeking the help of experts at the Department of Education about the most effective way to do that.
So what the Department of Education did was they collected best practices from school districts and school administrators all across the country, and they formulated those into guidance that school administrators could use in answering these questions that many of them face.
So that’s the process that was our goal. Unfortunately, I don’t think everybody shares the administration’s commitment to prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of all of America’s students over politics. Some politicians choose to do it the other way around, and that’s unfortunate.
Q In the aftermath of the court order, is the administration enforcing Title 9 and civil rights law in general in the same way? Or has that changed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think — I can’t speak to any individual enforcement action, I can just say in general that the Obama administration has been committed to ensuring the rights of all Americans are protected. And that has been a consistent goal that we have pursued since day one of the Obama administration, and it’s a goal that we’re going to continue to pursue until the very last day.
Q Well, why can’t you say — speak to any enforcement action? The order says the administration cannot interpret the prohibition on sex discrimination under current law to apply to transgender people. Are you still doing that in the — of the order, or is that not the case?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, as you know, this is a topic of vigorous dispute in a court of law, and so I certainly don’t want to say anything that’s going to influence the ability of the Department of Justice to make that argument.
Q One final question. The court order came down on Sunday, but the Justice Department has yet to file a notice of appeal for that order. Do you know why that is the case, almost a week out?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of the latest on the decision-making process at the Department of Justice, but I’m sure they can update you on our legal strategy moving forward.
Q Given the President’s desire to get some things done before he leaves office, and given your own kind of assessments about Congress’s likelihood of passing some of the legislation, or any legislation, is the President considering using more executive authority, more of his executive authority to check off some of that to-do list, even if it’s smaller bites at the apple than legislation would be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’m not going to rule out additional executive action on the part of the President, but I also don’t have any executive actions to preview at this point. We’ve been quite disappointed that Leader McConnell has broken the promise that he made the day after the election to get Congress moving again. And in fact, what we’ve seen instead is an utterly dysfunctional Congress, among the least productive in American history, and that’s primarily because Republicans have been much more interested in playing politics than they have been in running the country. And there’s been a failure on the part of Republicans to even act on common-sense things that have a direct impact on the daily lives of Americans.
Republicans in Congress have blocked adequate funding to fight the Zika virus. This is funding that was put forward by the Obama administration. But at the request of our nation’s public health professionals, Democratic and Republican governors across the country have strongly encouraged Congress to act and they haven’t. That’s a failure of Republicans in Congress.
Republicans, of course, have refused to do their job when it comes to filling vacancies on the Supreme Court. The President has put forward an individual who is more qualified when you consider his tenure on the federal judiciary than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history. So he’s got ample experience, he’s been rated highly qualified, the highest rating of the American Bar Association, and he’s been described by leading Republicans as a consensus nominee. But yet, Republicans have refused to move on that.
Republicans have also refused to move on budget bills, as well. And that’s also been a source of some disappointment and I think something we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about in September.
And I think all of this is a reflection of the failure of Republicans to effectively handle their responsibilities in the congressional majorities.
Q Does he have any concerns about using executive authority on the way out the door, kind of how that would look — the optics, controversy that might stir up?
MR. EARNEST: Look, again, I don’t want to prejudge any presidential actions, but we’re hopeful that as we get down to the end, that Republicans will find a way to be somewhat more productive. But I’m certainly not going to take any executive actions off the table.
Q Just a quick follow-up on Gitmo. If the population can be shrunk down to, say, around the two dozen or so individuals who can’t be transferred, can’t be tried for various reasons, is there some effort within the administration to determine what to do with those individuals, assuming Republicans aren’t going to lift some of the restrictions on those transfers?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, there’s been a lot of — the administration has been considering a wide variety of ideas for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And the efforts to close the prison have been made much more difficult because of the actions of the Congress, which has been not to work to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but to actually erect barriers to prevent the successful closure of the prison. That is contrary to the advice that we have received from Democratic and Republican foreign policy and national security experts, including leading military officers, retired military officers, who have indicated that the prison should be closed and that it’s in our national security interest to close the prison.
But, yes, there are a variety of considerations and a variety of discussions that have been held about the most effective way to do this, but obviously that’s not a goal that we’ve achieved yet.
Q Florida’s Governor asked for more Zika testing kits and a detailed plan to work with the federal government. HHS sent him a letter, which basically said that emergency supplemental funding requested by the administration is the most effective way to enhance the response. But there’s obviously no chance of any kind of congressional action in the near term.
MR. EARNEST: Well, unless Governor Scott wants to have a conversation with his fellow Republican, Mitch McConnell, and his fellow Republican, Speaker Paul Ryan, to try to move this process forward.
Q What’s av