THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
September 26, 2014
BY PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:24 P.M. EDT
- EARNEST: Afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. For those of you who traveled to New York, welcome back. For those of you who didn’t, it’s nice to see you.
Let me do a quick thing at the top on an issue that I know that you’re very interested in — the Affordable Care Act. There’s some recent data that I think merits some attention. And so to the extent that I can lend some attention toward, I’ll begin the briefing by discussing it.
The first is today’s GDP report shows that health care prices — the costs that matter the most to consumers — continue to grow at historically slow rates. Prices of health care services increased at a rate of only 1.8 percent annually in the second quarter of 2014. This slow rate follows four years in which we have seen the slowest growth in the prices of health care goods and services in nearly the last 50 years.
You’ll recall that one of the principal goals of the Affordable Care Act was to bend the cost curve as it relates to health care. And there is early evidence to indicate that there is very strong success in doing that.
The second thing is, also this week, HHS released a report showing that thanks to the Affordable Care Act, hospitals will save $5.7 billion just this year — that’s billion with a B — because of fewer unpaid bills, with about 74 percent of the total savings going to states that have smartly expanded Medicaid. So that is again an additional data point as it relates to cost savings, again thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
The third one — I know it seems like there were a lot of reports this week — the third report released this week shows that consumers will have even greater competition and choice in the health insurance marketplace next year, with 77 new health insurers participating in the marketplace in 2015. That’s a 25 percent increase. And again, this is another underlying principle of the Affordable Care Act getting — expanding choices that are available to consumers, and using competition in the marketplace to drive down costs. So we certainly welcomed that news.
And then, finally, a recent survey shows that the average premium for employer-provided family health care coverage only went up 3 percent this year. That’s tied for the lowest increase since they began conducting the survey back in 1999. So again, this is for individuals who largely already had health insurance when the Affordable Care Act was passed, but yet it has — this law has had an effect of restraining growth in their costs as well.
This is also a cost that is borne by businesses. Another thing that we saw a lot in advance of the Affordable Care Act were businesses that sought to provide health care benefits to their employers — to their employees, but were either reluctant to do so, or were unable to do so because of the fast-growing costs. But again, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, that cost was lower than it’s ever been last year.
So with all of that, we certainly can provide you some additional information about each of these individual reports and the impact that it’s having on families and businesses all across the country. Just follow up and let me know if you would like it.
So with that one lined up, Nedra, let’s kick off this Friday’s briefing.
Q Great, thanks, Josh. Lawmakers across Europe are voting to join the airstrike campaign against the Islamic State. Why is it that a place like Britain, where that was very contentious issue last year, can get support from lawmakers and yet that’s not happening here in the United States? Does that make anyone here think that maybe that’s the way that it should be done, with lawmaker support?
- EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that we certainly welcome the recent vote that occurred in the British parliament indicating their strong support for the plan that the President has put forward for dealing with the threat that’s posed by ISIL. The United States and the United Kingdom have a special relationship, and we are pleased to see the strong support from members of parliament for members of the British military working alongside U.S. servicemen and women in pursuit of this goal that benefits countries all around the globe, including the United States and the U.K.
Also this week, we saw that the parliament of Belgium approved sending six F-16s to join the growing international coalition. Again, that is another welcome development, and one that is indicative of the growing support that we’re seeing across the globe for this international coalition that the President has vowed to build and lead.
There are other countries that made important announcements in recent days. Just earlier today — I believe it was just today — we saw that Denmark indicated their willingness to contribute fighter jets to participate in airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. That follows upon the announcements of Denmark to do the same thing, to dedicate fighter jets to this effort.
We’ve already seen the French take airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. So there’s a strong, growing coalition among our European allies and partners for this effort. That builds upon the partnership that the United States has already worked to build with Muslim countries in the region, who worked alongside American pilots to hit targets in Syria earlier this week.
So there is a broad effort underway to build this international coalition, and we are pleased with the pace of this coalition’s growth. And we’re pleased with the strong ties between the United States — or among the United States and countries around the world as we confront this threat.
Q But that they are having support for that coalition, Europe, among lawmakers, does that make anyone here at the White House look at that and say, we’d like to have that too; that’s the way that it should be done?
- EARNEST: Well, we certainly welcome any indication from Congress of their support for the strategy that the President has put in place. I talked just last week or the week before — lost track — about Congress taking the step to give the administration the needed authority to ramp up our training and assistance program to Syrian opposition fighters. That was a pretty clear indication of Democrats and Republicans in Congress being willing to put aside their partisan labels and focus on the policy that they believe was in the best interests of American national security. So we certainly welcome that step. And that was a clear sign of support from a majority of Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress.
But if there are additional steps that Congress chooses to take to indicate their support for the President’s strategy, we would welcome it.
Q Following up on the Attorney General’s resignation yesterday, I know you said on the plane that you didn’t have an update on timing. But since then some — including Ted Cruz — have said that the President shouldn’t make this nomination until our new Senate is in place. Does he think that’s too long to wait? And does he intend to make the nomination this year?
- EARNEST: I don’t have an update for you in terms of timing. The President will obviously consider a range of candidates and will put forward the individual he believes is best positioned to lead the department.
I feel confident predicting for you now, without knowing who that candidate is, that that is somebody who will have the kinds of skills and credentials that will merit a prompt and bipartisan confirmation vote. That’s certainly what we would anticipate will happen. But in terms of timing, I don’t have an update at this point.
Q Not whether it will be this year or you’ll wait for the new Senate — you haven’t made the decision on that yet?
- EARNEST: Well, I don’t know if a decision has been made. We certainly — I don’t have one to announce from here.
Since you brought it up, I guess it is worth looking at some of the recent occasions in which Congress has considered nominees in this context. Many of you will recall that in the lead-up to the 2006 election, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced his resignation. And it was the day after the election in 2006, the day after the midterm elections, that President Bush nominated Bob Gates to be the Secretary of Defense.
Now, you’ll recall the dynamic that was at play. There was a Republican majority in the United States Senate. There was an election — a midterm election — that resulted in a change in power from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. After that election occurred and after it became clear that Democrats were going to take power in the United States Senate, the Republican President put forward a nominee — and with the strong support of the Republican Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell — indicated that that nominee should be confirmed in the lame-duck period; that they should not allow — they should not wait until after the first of the year, they should not allow the bipartisan — they should not allow the new senators in the Senate to evaluate the nominee, but that this nominee should get a prompt vote. And in less than a month, December 6th, Secretary Gates was confirmed to his post with strong bipartisan support.
So there is a precedent for presidents making important Cabinet nominations and counting on Congress to confirm them promptly, even in the context of a lame-duck session, if necessary.
The other relevant analogy here I think also applies to Mr. Holder’s predecessor, Attorney General Mukasey. He was not appointed in the context of a midterm election, but he was nominated for his job on September 17, 2007. And he was confirmed by the United States Senate in bipartisan fashion, again by a vote of a Senate that was led by the opposition party, within seven weeks. He was confirmed on November 8, 2007.
The other thing I think that’s notable about Mr. Mukasey, aside from the fact that he got bipartisan support, is that he was somebody who had been a federal judge, and served with distinction in that role, and he was confirmed by the Senate in 1988. So it had been nearly 20 years before his candidacy had been considered by the United States Senate for any sort of position. And yet, within seven weeks, he was given a hearing and an up-or-down vote, and was eventually confirmed with bipartisan support.
So there is a pretty clear precedent for Attorneys General and for other prominent Cabinet officials to go through the process of being nominated and confirmed quickly and with bipartisan support. So again, that is without announcing any sort of decisions that have been made internally about timelines, but I guess the point I’m trying to make is that either way, whether or not a nominee is — would need to be confirmed in a lame-duck session, or would need to be confirmed by a new Senate, that in either case, we would anticipate that the Senate would act promptly and in bipartisan fashion.
Q You just happened to have those handy, that information? (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: Mark, you count on me to show up to these briefings prepared. So at least in this one case I was able to do so. So we’ll see how — we’re still on the first question, so who knows what could happen from here.
Q I just want to go back to airstrikes for a second. On the U.S. airstrikes, there have been strikes on Islamic State targets and Khorasan targets. And I’m wondering whether strikes on other al Qaeda-linked groups like al-Nusra have been ruled out? Or are those possible too? Are other types of extremist targets possible?
- EARNEST: Well, I have worked hard in answering these kinds of questions over the last few weeks to be as candid and transparent as possible, while also protecting the need to act strategically. And that has often meant not previewing in much detail anticipated military actions.
So with that need for discretion in mind, let me just say generally that the President has made clear that as a core principle that he is willing and able to order military action, where required, to deny a safe haven to those individuals and organizations that are seeking to do harm to the United States or our homeland. And that applies to the wide array of extremist threats that are currently emanating from Syria at this point.
Q Since our last briefing on Monday, new fences have gone up around the fence outside. And I’m just wondering what stage the Secret Service review is at about what went wrong a week ago and how to prevent other security incidents here?
- EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that that review is well under way. Action on that review began on the night of the incident one week ago today, so I can tell you that they have been making progress on that review. For a more detailed status update, I’d refer you to the Secret Service who is conducting that review right now.
Q And does the White House have a timeline for when it will get the results of this review, which I’m sure the White House cares about very much?
- EARNEST: The White House does care about the review that’s being conducted by the Secret Service. I can tell you that the President was briefed just last night by the Director of the Secret Service, Julia Pierson, where she was able to give him an update of their review, and their initial assessment of what occurred last week. But in terms of the timing of that review, I don’t have an update.
Q What was his reaction to what she had to say to him?
- EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the President — as he has since he took office — has full confidence in the ability of the Secret Service, including the leadership of the Secret Service, to perform their very important job of protecting him and his family, and the White House more generally.
He recognizes that they have to balance some competing interests — the need preserve public access to the White House, to ensure that it retains the image as People’s House, but also to ensure that the people who work here on a daily basis, from all of you to members of the White House staff to the President, can do their job here safely. So there are a lot of competing interests, and the President has full confidence in the ability of the men and women of the Secret Service, including those in leadership positions, like the Director, to perform their responsibilities effectively and professionally.
Q Follow up?
- EARNEST: Go ahead, Mark.
Q Was Julia Pierson here at the White House?
- EARNEST: She was, yes.
Q Did Mrs. Obama take part in that briefing?
- EARNEST: I don’t know, to be honest with you. You can check with the First Lady’s Office on that. I don’t believe that she did, but check with them to confirm that.
Q In the Oval Office was it?
- EARNEST: That’s where it took place, yes.
Q About what time?
- EARNEST: It was after the President returned from New York. I don’t know exactly when. So it would have been late in the afternoon, early evening.
- EARNEST: Justin.
Q I wanted to ask first about the replacement for Attorney General Holder. Some of the high-profile names that have certainly been kind of floating around — there was Deval Patrick or Kamala Harris or Senator Whitehouse — all said that they weren’t interested in the position. And so I’m wondering if that’s a reflection of a struggle that you guys are facing with filling this position at the end of the last two years of the presidency, or if there’s any concern within the White House that you’ll be able to find a top-tier candidate to kind of replace Eric Holder.
- EARNEST: I have no concerns about that whatsoever. I am confident that the individual that the President nominates will have all of the skills and experience necessary to carry out the functions of the nation’s top law enforcement official very effectively.
Q And then on the Secret Service review, I’m wondering, especially as it pertains to the potential of making permanent the fence outside the White House with the additional fence, is that a decision that the President will make after getting the results of the review? Or is that a decision that the Secret Service would make on their own and then tell the President about?
- EARNEST: Well, as Roberta alluded to, I would anticipate and expect that the White House, including the President, will review the results of the reforms that the Secret Service is considering in this case.
I would expect that the President and other members of the White House will grant significant discretion to the law enforcement professionals who are responsible for conducting the review, but are also responsible for protecting the White House. So, yes, the White House will be aware of those decisions as they’re being made. But ultimately, those are important law enforcement decisions and assessments — I guess I should say it — let me just say it this way — those are the kinds of conclusions that law enforcement should draw. And I’m confident that the White House will have some input into those as they relate to balancing the competing priorities here at the White House.
So again, the White House is the People’s House. Thousands of tourists tour the White House on a daily basis. There are hundreds of us who work here on a regular basis. There’s also a priority placed on protecting the White House and the First Family. So there are competing interests here. The President does have confidence in the Secret Service to make the kinds of assessments about how to balance those competing interests, and the White House will be aware and part of those decisions.
Q One of those competing interests is D.C. residents. We’ve heard Eleanor Holmes Norton ask to meet with the Secret Service or the administration on whatever would happen that would affect D.C. residents. Obviously, this has been kind of an issue that’s been a hot-button issue in D.C. politics for the last decade or so. And so I’m wondering if part of the review process — whether within the White House or at the Secret Service — will include soliciting feedback or have any discussion with D.C. local leaders?
- EARNEST: Well, again, for questions about the review I’d refer you to the Secret Service. I do feel confident saying from here that the review will consider the impact that any changes would have on all of the various stakeholders that are involved here, and that certainly would include residents of the District of Columbia.
But again, there are a lot of priorities and equities that have to be balanced here. And the President and the White House staff have full confidence in the ability of the Secret Service to make those decisions.
Move around a little bit.
Q Thank you, Josh. Yesterday, the President and Vice President Biden spoke with President of Turkey to discuss the threat of terrorist groups and Syrian crisis. During those conversations, I assume, U.S. is taking — asking Turkey to take concrete steps to fight against ISIL. But some Turkish officials said during those conversations Turkish President set three preconditions for joining coalition militarily. One is first to establish no-fly zone over Syria; second is — which is very difficult task for U.S. — that U.S. must make removing Assad as high as — as high priority as fighting ISIL; third is U.S. must show who support the moderate Syrian opposition. So it seems to me now, ball is in U.S. court. What is your view on these preconditions?
- EARNEST: Well, the first thing that I think is important is to acknowledge that what the United States is doing is building a broader international coalition. So you have talked about steps that you — that the government of Turkey has indicated they would like to see. Several of those things are — include mitigating the threat to ISIL, or mitigating the ISIL threat to countries in the region. They also include trying to meet the humanitarian needs of those individuals inside Syria that have been displaced to other countries in the region. Turkey has certainly borne a pretty significant weight when it comes to trying to meet the basic humanitarian needs of those individuals in Syria who fled to Turkey ahead of violence in their communities back home.
So it is clear that the incentives and interests of the people of Turkey are pretty closely aligned with the incentives of the United States and other members of the coalition that has been formed to counter the threat from ISIL.
The President had the opportunity to speak with President Erdogan yesterday prior to his meeting with Vice President Biden. So there has been — there is an open line of communication between senior government officials here in the United States and the leadership of Turkey.
We’ve also talked about how it is not in the interest of any country in the region, particularly Turkey, for there to be the kind of instability and violence that ISIL is promoting right on Turkey’s doorstep that is — that poses a significant threat to the stability of Turkey. I know that’s something that President Erdogan himself has indicated he’s concerned about, and that’s precisely why the President — because the President shares his concerns, the President is building this broader international coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
We would anticipate that we will get cooperation from Turkey because — not, if you will, as a favor necessarily to the United States, but because it is so clearly in Turkey’s national security interest for them to be part of this broader coalition to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
So the lines of communication between the United States and other coalition members with Turkey will remain open. We value the strong working relationship that we have with President Erdogan and other members of the government there in Turkey, and we would anticipate that that open dialogue and strong working relationship will continue even as we work to meet the ISIL threat.
Q Just a couple quick ones. First, you have a private dinner with the Prime Minister of India here on Monday, and he’s going to be fasting. I’m wondering how does the White House hold a dinner for somebody who is fasting? What’s the plan?
- EARNEST: Well, Jon, we obviously tried to meet the — to be respectful of the needs of all of the high-profile visitors that come to the White House, and to be respectful of their observances. It’s my understanding that we’re talking about a working dinner with a substantial number of people around the table. If Prime Minister Modi or other members who are participating in that working dinner choose not to eat based on their own religious or cultural observance, then we’ll certainly work to accommodate their needs as best we can.
Q So there will be food at the table, but he just won’t partake, basically?
- EARNEST: Well, I think that he has indicated that is what his plan is, but I’ll let his spokesman speak for him.
Q And I wanted to ask you, first of all, going back to the U.N., was there any contact at all with the President and the Iranian delegation?
- EARNEST: No, I’m not aware of any contact that the President personally had with the Iranian delegation. You will recall — or I think you’re aware that there were a number of meetings between American officials and members of the Iranian delegation, going all the way up to Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif; that there were conversations that they had, principally focused on the P5-plus-1 negotiations. There were some conversations on the side about some other issue related to this broader international coalition against ISIL. But there was no specific presidential communication that I’m aware of.
Q And there’s some reporting that the White House, the administration is considering a new approach with the nuclear talks that would basically allow the Iranians to keep about half of the centrifuges they have and then more dramatically reduce their stockpile of nuclear fuel that they have. Is there anything to these reports that you would actually strike a deal with the Iranians, would let them keep half of their centrifuges?
- EARNEST: I won’t be in a position to explain what our current negotiating position is or to try to describe or characterize the accuracy of reports that are attempting to describe our current negotiating position.
These are conversations that have been going on for quite some time. This is the United States acting in concert with our P5-plus-1 partners to reach an agreement with Iran that would mitigate the broader international community’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.
And we do believe that it is a — it’s critically important for Iran in a verifiable, demonstrable way to come into compliance with generally accepted international standards as it relates to their nuclear program; to essentially ensure, again, in a verifiable, transparent way that their nuclear program exists solely for peaceful purposes. And that is a priority.
That is something that the Iranian regime says that they aim to do. But again, these are very difficult negotiations. And as much as I would like to, Jon, I’m not going to be in a position to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran just between you and me.
Q Right here. But —
- EARNEST: We might have more success.
Q We probably would. But —
- EARNEST: But that’s them — they’re hard at work behind closed doors.
Q The deadline is November. Obviously, we’d had a previous deadline of June that was extended. Is this November deadline a real deadline? Or is the White House open to extending it again?
- EARNEST: Well, at this point the negotiations are ongoing, so I wouldn’t want to get ahead of those negotiations by signaling a willingness to extend the deadline.
The previous deadline was real. In the aftermath of the previous deadline, you’ll recall that a subsequent agreement was reached that actually prompted Iran to further roll back their nuclear program. So this is not a situation where the United States is just running out the clock in a way that gives cover to Iran to make advances to their nuclear program. That was evident in earlier rounds of negotiations. There was concern that Iran would just use these negotiations as cover to make additional progress on their nuclear program.
The opposite is actually taking place here. As these conversations continue, Iran’s nuclear program is further rolled back. But these negotiations continue, and there are senior officials in the administration who are very hard at work on this important national security priority.
Q Okay. Then I’ve got one other, which is — in light of — now that we all know about this group Khorasan — obviously, the United States has bombed — is made up in part by al Qaeda — members of al Qaeda who came from Afghanistan, Pakistan. I’m wondering that in the light of this major military operation against a group that was planning an imminent attack on the United States, is it time to kind of revise and extend what the White House has said over and over again, claiming that core al Qaeda has been decimated? Is it clear now that that was simply an incorrect statement?
- EARNEST: No, it continues to be clear to this day that core al Qaeda has been decimated, that in —
Q But we just had to bomb a group that represents remnants of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan that posed such a threat that we had to do a major military operation to hit them in Syria.
- EARNEST: Well, I think one thing that should be clear is that these individuals and this organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan was so decimated that they had to flee to another country to try to find another safe haven, to try to get into a position where they could carry out attacks against the West. That’s an indication of the constant pressure that they’re under right now.
It also is an indication that the United States needs to continue to be, and is continuing to be vigilant about the threat that is posed by remnants of al Qaeda, that there are affiliates around the globe that do continue to pose a threat to Western interests.
And whether it’s Somalia or Yemen or, yes, even in Syria, the administration will put in place a counterterrorism strategy to deny them a safe haven, to mitigate the threat that they pose, and where necessary use military force to degrade their ability to strike the West or to strike the U.S. homeland. So we remain vigilant. But there’s no denying the significant success that we have had in decimating and destroying core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Q But they’re still able to pose a threat and plan an imminent attack that you were so concerned about that you’ve launched a military campaign against them. How can you call that decimated? I mean the fact that they moved to Syria, where they had access to more resources and actually were closer, I mean, I don’t understand how we can say this group has been decimated?
- EARNEST: Because —
Q — when we’re engaged in a military campaign —
- EARNEST: Because what’s clear — because of the bravery of our American military personnel, the courage of our intelligence officials and the effective work of our diplomats, that network previously was entrenched in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was so entrenched there that they could launch a worldwide conspiracy that allowed them to conduct a large-scale attack on the American homeland, no longer exists. That network is gone.
Q They’re closer. They have more resources.
- EARNEST: What they have done, like other al Qaeda affiliates, is fled to other places, hoping to hide from the United States — because of the pressure that they’re under — and tried to organize and plot against Western interests and possibly the Western homeland
We need to be vigilant against these threats, and we continue to be. But there’s no denying that the network that existed before 9/11 has been decimated and destroyed.
Q To follow up on Khorasan, why is it that the American people are just learning about this group now? When we woke up to find out about these airstrikes on that group, a lot of Americans had never even heard of this group before. Should this administration have been warning the public, talking about this group in more detail prior to those strikes occurring?
- EARNEST: Well, Jim, our intelligence services and our national security officials have been closely watching the activities of this particular organization for quite a while now. And in order to do that effectively, it does require us to be less than transparent in terms of the activities that we’re engaged in to mitigate the threat that they pose.
And what we have done since then, since this group has been identified, is to try to communicate as clearly as we can why military action was necessary. The military operation that was conducted earlier this week is still being reviewed in terms of what impact it had. The early indications are that the operation was effective and impactful. But we — and by “we,” I mean the Department of Defense — is still conducting an assessment of what the results were from the strike.
Q And the FBI director said yesterday that Khorasan is at the top of the list of threats that he’s concerned about. Does the President also share that view?
- EARNEST: The President is concerned about the threat that is emanating from extremist groups in the region, including in Syria and including the Khorasan group. But the fact is there are al Qaeda affiliates around the globe that we are — remain vigilant about. And that means that we are focused on implementing a counterterrorism strategy that applies continual pressure to them and mitigates the threat that they can pose to the United States, our interests and our homeland.
Q And on Prime Minister Abadi — yesterday he told a group of reporters about this alleged subway plot in the U.S. and in France, and it seemed as if later in the day the Iraqis were sort of walking back those comments. What’s the latest assessment? Did the Iraqi Prime Minister just botch that one? What happened there?
- EARNEST: Well, again, you’d have to speak to the spokesperson for the Iraqi Prime Minister in terms of what he actually meant.
You saw from State Department officials that they followed up with their Iraqi counterparts and determined that what Prime Minister Abadi was referring to is the threat that is posed by foreign terrorist fighters. We’ve talked about that on a number of occasions in this room, that there are individuals in the West and from countries around the world who have traveled to the region to take up arms alongside ISIL. And the concern is that they could use their training and equipment and their willingness to die for their cause to return home and launch violent attacks on their own homeland, wherever they’re from. Some of those individuals are from the United States.
Q They seemed to be speaking about something specific, and it really sort of launched this administration — parts of the administration into coming out and saying, we’ve looked at this, we’ve assessed this — the mayor of New York had to come out. I mean, it really sort of had everybody on edge there for several hours yesterday, including a lot of New Yorkers.
- EARNEST: We value the strong working relationship that we have with Prime Minister Abadi and his government. We’re obviously working very closely with them to counter ISIL both on the ground in Iraq, but also to counter the broader threat that they pose to Western interests.
So that is — what that means, because we value that relationship and we have confidence in that relationship, it means that we are — that we have open lines of communication. And as they assess threats, we want to be in close touch with them about that. That’s exactly what occurred yesterday, and that is what allowed us to clarify that apparently Prime Minister Abadi was not referring to a specific threat, but was referring more broadly to the threat that is posed by foreign terrorist fighters that are fighting alongside ISIL in his country and in Syria.
Q And can I just ask you very quickly about the President’s speech to the United Nations?
- EARNEST: Sure.
Q It seemed as if the talk about the only language that these terrorists understand is force, and any of these fighters better clear off the battlefield. I mean, this seemed to be a departure for the President in terms of the toughness that he put into the speech, and I’m just wondering, has he had a moment of clarity about all of this? Why has he sort of left maybe more of these mixed messages behind that we’ve heard from him in recent weeks about maybe not having a strategy, and managing versus degrading and destroying and — I know you may challenge some of those assertions that I just made there in that question. (Laughter.) But it did seem not too unreasonable for The Economist to put the President in George W. Bush’s flight suit on the cover of their magazine this week.
- EARNEST: Well, Jim, you’re right — I strongly disagree with that assessment. (Laughter.) You are —
Q I tried.
- EARNEST: You did. And you’re more than entitled to your opinion. You’re somebody who’s been following this —
Q Is that a rational point of view, though, that people have been expressing this week? That he just sort of — that there was a different President Obama at the United Nations on Wednesday? Is that a fair or unfair statement?
- EARNEST: I think it’s an unfair statement, because I do think that a careful scrutiny of the President’s record indicates that he is somebody who has been very strong about the need to act decisively to counter threats from extremist groups emanating from anywhere in the world.
This goes all the way back to a speech that the President delivered on August 1st of 2007 — so this is even before he won the Democratic nomination — and in that speech, the President signaled his willingness to go into Pakistan if necessary, without the permission of that government, to get Osama bin Laden if he thought he could do it. That was, at the time, regarded as a very bold and provocative statement. It was. And it was a signal of how determined this President at that point would be, and how this President has been, in terms of taking the force — using the force that’s necessary to protect the American people and the American homeland, and our interests around the globe.
The President followed through on that promise to go after Osama bin Laden where necessary. The President has ordered counterterrorism missions in locations around the globe where we have succeeded in working with our local partners to mitigate the threat that’s posed by organizations like AQAP, like al Shabaab. You’ll recall that just a couple of weeks ago, as a result of a military strike in Somalia, the leader of al Shabaab was killed. In just the last month or so, as a result of actions ordered by this Commander-in-Chief, more than 170 military airstrikes have been conducted against ISIL by American military aircraft in Iraq alone.
So I think there’s a variety of evidence to indicate that the President, since he first arrived on the national stage, has demonstrated not just an openness to but a commitment to acting decisively and forcefully to protect American interests all around the world.
Q Josh, how would you square that with the widespread assumption that the President has been very accommodating, has sought to play down American exceptionalism, beginning with his Cairo speech in 2009, where he reached out and embraced the rest of the world and seemed to play down the more militaristic aspects of the American experience in the previous administration? That’s the impression that we’re talking about here.
- EARNEST: I don’t think that’s an impression that’s rooted in the facts. I’ll just be blunt about it. I think that what the President has done time and time again is signaled a willingness to engage with the international community to try to find those situations in which our interests align, and to partner closely with them to advance our mutual interests.
At the same time, the President is not willing to do that to the exclusion of American interests. Where necessary, he’s willing to act unilaterally and forcefully to protect the American people. He believes, however, that that use of force can be more effective if it is done alongside partners all around the globe, and that’s what we have done in places like Yemen and Somalia, to mitigate the threats from extremist organizations in those countries.
But the best example is the coalition that’s being built right now, where we have —
Q Yes, but the sentiment was that he hasn’t done that until now.
- EARNEST: Well, again, the situations that I cited here with Jim are indications that the President has been willing to decide to take forceful action where necessary to protect the American people and American interests. And whether it’s killing Osama bin Laden or killing the leader of al Shabaab, the United States is going to work either alone or in partnership with local forces to protect American interests.
And the President has not done anything to indicate a hesitation to do exactly that — in fact, he has acted very forcefully, sometimes in a way that has prompted criticism from even members of his own party because of his willingness to order bold action to protect the American people. But that’s not something the President apologizes for.
Q I want to go to what you mean exactly when you say that the power of Khorasan and al Qaeda has been decimated. You’re literally saying we’ve taken out every tenth man?
- EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that the network that previously existed between Afghanistan and Pakistan — this is a network that was so potent and so deeply entrenched that they could carry out a global conspiracy that took years to enact that allowed them to strike the U.S. homeland in a catastrophic way that caused thousands of Americans to lose their lives on a very tragic day.
Q How many are left?
- EARNEST: As a result of this President’s policies, as a result primarily of the courageous service of our men and women in uniform and the dedication of our intelligence professionals, that network has been decimated.
Now, there continues to be a threat from al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists around the globe, but the President is just going to — going to be just as determined and just as persistent in countering and rooting out that threat as well.
Q How many Khorasan fighters are left?
- EARNEST: I don’t have a detailed intelligence assessment on the Khorasan.
Q There’s been a suggestion out there that it’s only a handful, actually.
- EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have an intelligence assessment on the Khorasan group to share from here. But you can check with the intelligence community. They may be able to provide you —
Q They’re very helpful. (Laughter.)
- EARNEST: — a better understanding than I have. I think for obvious reasons that I alluded to with Jim, there are certain aspects of this that prevent them from being fully transparent. But it’s possible they may be able to at least guide you in the direction of getting a better understanding of that group.
Q In answer to Bill’s question, though, in terms of decisive action by the President, how can you cite as a success Yemen, when the country is falling apart?
- EARNEST: Because, Ed, what we have seen is we have seen the effective deployment of a counterterrorism strategy that involves building up the capacity of local forces on occasion backed by American military forces, to counter extremist threats that are emanating from that country.
Q So if it’s been so successful, why are we pulling our embassy personnel out of there?
- EARNEST: Ed, what we have been focused on is mitigating the threat from extremists and denying them the kind of safe haven that would allow them to plot —
Q They have a safe haven because we’re pulling out, we have to get our people out of there.
- EARNEST: Ed, what we have seen in Yemen is the effective deployment of a counterterrorism strategy to put continual pressure on extremist groups that seek to do harm to the United States.
Q But if they’re under so much pressure, why are we leaving?
- EARNEST: And what that has done is it has prevented those extremist groups from being able to plot and plan and carry out successfully attacks against the U.S. homeland. That requires vigilance. If we take a day off, they could build up a capacity in such a way that could be very dangerous to the U.S. or our interests around the globe.
So I don’t want to signal to you that this is a mission that has been accomplished, but it has been a strategy effectively implemented in a way that has mitigated the threat from extremist organizations that are dangerous, and that seek to do harm to the United States.
Q You just used the “mission accomplished” phrase from the Bush administration. In The Economist cover, it was mentioned — they have the President in a flight suit, and they changed it to “Mission Re-launched.” How do you respond to that? You’ve gotten a couple different versions of this, but that basically — the President just sort of re-launched the Bush War on Terror.
- EARNEST: Well, I’ll start by saying I didn’t realize there were so many Economist readers in this room. (Laughter.)
Q It’s kind of a provocative cover.
Q Just the cover.
- EARNEST: Just the cover? (Laughter.) I see.
Q I can give you details of the story.
- EARNEST: So unlike some of the other magazines, you read it for the pictures as opposed to the articles. (Laughter.)
Q Talking about me?
- EARNEST: No, no. (Laughter.) I couldn’t resist that one. But you asked a serious question, I’m going to stop joking around now.
What is clear based on the strategy that the President has laid out, what he is pursuing is a strategy that’s very different than the strategy that was pursued by the previous administration. The previous administration undertook an effort to deploy more than 100,000 American military personnel to Iraq to occupy that land, and to try to put in place a democracy in Iraq.
Our military men and women served this country bravely in Iraq. Many of them paid a significant sacrifice for doing so. It did create an opportunity for the Iraqi people to try to seize some stability and greater control over their country. But what we’ve found is that the Iraqi people did not succeed in taking advantage of that opportunity. And the conclusion that this President drew is that these kinds of fights — that securing the Iraqi countryside for the Iraqi people — is not an effective strategy because it doesn’t lead to an enduring solution.
What we need instead is a strategy that puts the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces on point for fighting for their own country. They can count on the support of the United States of America and a broader international coalition as they take the fight to ISIL, but ultimately, that is a fight that they — that we cannot wage for them. We can support them, and that is what distinguishes the strategy that is being pursued by this administration from the strategy that was pursued by the previous one.
Q Very last one on Holder — when you said at the top that the — you used the example of Bob Gates after the 2006 midterms, I believe.
- EARNEST: That’s right.
Q My recollection is, President Bush made the case that we were in the middle of two wars at that time, and so you had to move quickly on a Defense Secretary. That would be another factor that you didn’t mention, about speed. And so I wonder if you’d acknowledge that, but also — does the President, this President, plan to make a case that the Attorney General is in the middle of so much important work right now that you do have to move forward on it right after the midterms?
- EARNEST: I do feel confident the President will make the case that the work of the Attorney General is so important that the United States Senate should act promptly and in bipartisan fashion to confirm his nominee. That is a case that I think is easily made by this President in the same way that it was made by not just his immediate predecessor but by many of his predecessors.
Q Thanks, Josh. Given the fact that — of everything that’s been said over the last week about the threat posed by Khorasan, and what is then said previously about how effective the administration felt the fight against al Qaeda has been, can you sort of jive those two things? Can you give us an assessment of where the White House stands now on where they think the threat is by both al Qaeda and its members that are still left?
- EARNEST: You mean specifically as it relates to the Khorasan group?
Q I would say in general — what kind of threat does al Qaeda pose? Because there has been an indication, especially in the post-bin Laden era, that al Qaeda did not pose a significant threat anymore.
- EARNEST: Well, I think, Chris, that it’s important for people to understand this complicated situation. The threat that has been decimated is the threat that was posed by core al Qaeda. This is a network that was based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That threat has been decimated, because that network in that region of the world has been decimated. And again, that is a testament to the courage, skill and professionalism of our intelligence officials and the United States military.
What continues to persist, however, is a threat that emanates from al Qaeda affiliates in countries around the globe; that there are al Qaeda affiliates that are active Yemen, there’s a threat that is posed by al Qaeda affiliates in Somalia. There is an al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, AQIM. That is something that we have been closely watching and that has been effectively countered, again, by the strategy that this administration has put in place. There is also this threat that emanates from extremist groups in Syria, most notably the Khorasan group.
And what this indicates is, it means that the — while we have made tremendous gains in terms of decimating core al Qaeda, the threat from these other affiliated organizations that have spread out to other countries is significant, but it’s very different; that when we’re talking about, for example, AQIM, we’re not talking about a years-in-the-making global conspiracy that would result in a catastrophic attack on the homeland. The nature of the threat is different.
One reason that the nature of that threat is different is that previously, core al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan operated in a virtual safe haven; that there was not a willingness or a capability by local governments to root them out. And that is why you have seen this administration implement a strategy that is focused on working with our international partners to support local governments and local forces to take the fight to these extremist groups in their own country. And by applying sustained pressure to these organizations, it’s mitigated the threat that they pose to the West — it hasn’t eliminated it yet.
But in many of these situations, you have leaders of these organizations that are so concerned with their own safety that it’s inhibiting their ability to threaten ours. And that’s a core component of our strategy. And that is why the threat that we face now is different, but it is one that we continue to be vigilant about.
Q But equal?
- EARNEST: Well, again, the capabilities are quite different. The capability that core al Qaeda, that the network of core al Qaeda retained in advance of 9/11 was dramatic. We’re talking about a global conspiracy where they had individuals in multiple countries who were all closely linked, they were all funded, and they spent years plotting this catastrophic attack on the U.S. homeland.
That kind of freedom to plan and execute a large-scale plot no longer exists. They pose a threat, and we are concerned about that, and we work every day to mitigate that threat. And we do so by working with our local partners, and by working with the international community. But the threat that they pose is quite different.
Q And can I make a dramatic turn and ask you if the President saw or has commented on the final moments of the Yankees game last night and Derek Jeter?
- EARNEST: I did not talk to him about the final home game in Mr. Jeter’s illustrious career. But it certainly was a storybook ending to a remarkable career.
Q Even for a Royals fan?
- EARNEST: Even for a Royals fan. Roger.
Q Thank you. Want to switch topics to North Korea. The leader there, Kim Jong-un, has not been seen in public for about three weeks. North Korean television is saying he has some sort of “discomfort.” Have you heard any talk around the West Wing here, what’s going on and where is he? Is there some revolution going on?
- EARNEST: Roger, I’ll have to admit, I have not seen those reports about Kim Jong-un’s schedule. But I’d refer you to the State Department, who may have some more information about his comfort.
Q Could you take the question?
- EARNEST: Well, I actually would just recommend that you contact the State Department. If I’m able to get something, I’ll come back to you on it, though.
Q Josh, I want to talk — get you to talk about the estimates of these airstrikes by 2016. Listening to the Pentagon briefing, the cost estimate was $7 million to $10 million a day, and hearing from Hank Johnson — Congressman Hank Johnson, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, he says that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could hit hundreds of millions of dollars with these airstrikes. Exactly what is the White House estimate as the Department of Defense is looking for more money to fund this?
- EARNEST: April, the Department of Defense is the one that’s responsible for carrying out these military operations, and they’re in the best position to give you an assessment of what the running total is in terms of the costs that they’re incurring as they carry them out.
Q So as they brief you and the President and others here at the White House, and tell you about the 43 airstrikes that we’ve conducted so far, and the ones that they want to — they hope to do in the future, they have not given you any kind of cost estimates as you look to possibly deal with the next budget year and things of that nature?
- EARNEST: I think they’ve carried out substantially more than just 43 airstrikes; I think they’re up to 170 or so in Iraq.
Q No, but they’re talking about Syria. They were just talking about — just now, in the Pentagon briefing.
- EARNEST: Okay. I have not — we’re obviously aware that they have estimated that so far, the average cost of carrying out this mission has been about $7 million to $10 million a day. That’s based on their estimates. That’s obviously a pretty significant gap, or at least window there, of an estimate. So they’re constantly refining and mindful of the need, and certainly the Commander-in-Chief is mindful of the need that they have to have the necessary resources to carry out this very important operation.
So we’ll certainly make whatever decisions are necessary. We certainly are interested in working with Congress to ensure that they have the necessary resources to fulfill this mission and carry it out successfully.
Q And is the U.S. bearing the largest portion of the financial burden as it relates to airstrikes?
- EARNEST: The United States — well, again, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. It’s my understanding that the United States has taken more airstrikes in Syria than any of the other partners. I don’t know, however, whether or not that constitutes a majority of the airstrikes in Syria, so I’d encourage you to check with them on that.
Q There’s been reports that Russia has reached out to Iraq saying initially that they would be helpful in supporting their fight against terror, especially ISIL. Considering how much is at stake for Mr. Putin and for Russia, especially in their borders where they border Chechnya, where these insurgents are as well, might the President make another overture to Mr. Putin and get some kind of a firm commitment for his support, as he has from the other leaders in Europe?
- EARNEST: Well, J.C., we’ve seen public comments from President Putin indicating his concern about the threat that foreign fighters pose to Russia. There is some evidence to indicate that there are individuals who have traveled from Russia or countries bordering Russia — that have traveled to take up arms alongside ISIL. And like the dozens of other countries around the globe, they are concerned about the threat that is posed by those individuals returning back home and carrying out acts of violence back home.
So there is a clear, vested interest that Russia has in mitigating this threat and ultimately supporting the broader effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. Earlier this week, the President convened a United Nations Security Council meeting where they passed a resolution with unanimous support on the Security Council, including Russia, for putting in place broad standards across the globe to keep eyes on and mitigate the threat that’s posed by foreign terrorist fighters. That’s an indication that Russia, at least in that instance, is working cooperatively with the broader international community to confront this threat.
And that certainly is an indication that despite our differences with Russia as it relates to the situation in Ukraine, that we do have the ability to cooperate with them in other areas of mutual interest. I read with interest that an American astronaut was sent into space alongside two Russian cosmonauts; that they’re staffing the international space station up there. And again, that’s another piece of evidence to indicate that, again, despite our differences, there are opportunities where we can successfully collaborate with Russia.
Q And possibly militarily.
- EARNEST: Well, I wouldn’t want to speculate about what sort of collaboration we might see.
Q Josh, to Nedra’s question — you said that you welcomed votes in allied Democratic parliaments authorizing participation in the anti-ISIS effort. Does the President regret not asking Congress to stay or congressional leaderships to stay and take a vote, or to change the AUMF status, or in any way otherwise mirror the votes that we’re now seeing in Europe?
- EARNEST: Jared, as we’ve said on a number of occasions, the President does believe that he has the statutory legal authority that’s necessary to launch the military actions that he has already ordered. If members of Congress decide that they would like to pass additional legislation or some other way signal their support for the President’s strategy, then we’d welcome them doing so. That indication of support would send a very powerful message to the American people, to our allies, and even to our enemies that across party lines and even across branches of government, that the American people are united in our determination to pursue a strategy that will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Do you think there’s any reason that Congress didn’t take those votes other than political or campaign cycle considerations?
- EARNEST: I think you’d have to ask them what sort of decisions they’re making about their — about what pieces of — about what things to vote on and how to vote on them.
Q And aside from that and the reason that the White House doesn’t think it’s necessary that our legislature make that vote, is there any reason the White House didn’t ask for it?
- EARNEST: About why we didn’t —
Q Ask for any kind of vote that would mirror what we’re seeing now in Europe?
- EARNEST: Well, again, Jared, because the President believes and because his national security team believes that he has all of the statutory authority that’s required to order the military action that’s being carried out right now. We’re confident in the position that the President has. But again, if Congress chooses to signal — send a signal of their support for what’s taking place right now, we’d welcome them doing so.
Q So it’s nice that our allied democracies are doing this but it’s not necessary here.
- EARNEST: Well, certainly these legislatures around the globe aren’t taking votes related to the President’s authority, if that’s what you’re asking. They obviously are making decisions about their own country’s resources and about their own country’s involvement in this broader coalition.
That said, we welcome the show of support that we’re seeing from other countries for the President’s strategy and for the broader coalition. And in the same way we welcome their participation in this debate, we would welcome additional signals from Congress for — that support the President’s position.
Kathleen, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I have two, if I could.
- EARNEST: The last two.
Q Yes, sorry. (Laughter.) Now that there’s an official President-elect in Afghanistan — maybe you’ve said this before — but how quickly do you expect him to sign the status of forces agreement?
- EARNEST: I believe the inauguration is taking place on Monday, and we would anticipate that he would sign the bilateral security agreement promptly after that. I don’t know exactly whether he said which day.
Q So days?
- EARNEST: Well, again, it’s ironic that I speak for the President of the United States, but I’ve asked — been asked to speak on behalf of like three or four different world leaders in the context of this news conference.
Q When do you expect him to?
Q North Korea —
- EARNEST: I know, right? Just all kinds of things. No, you’re asking a legitimate question, and what President-elect Ghani has said is that he would sign the bilateral security agreement promptly after taking the — after being inaugurated into office. So we would anticipate that he’ll act promptly on that. He’s a man of his word, and I expect he’ll keep it.
And again, the reason that he’ll do that, again, is not as a favor to the United States. It is clearly in the interest of the Afghan people, and it’s in the interest of the American people for this agreement to be signed. And we look forward to his signing it so that we can sign it and move forward with this agreement.
Q Josh, follow on India?
Q Oh, can I have one more on Holder? This is another timing thing, but you keep stressing that you expect the Senate to take this up and to act quickly. And so I’m wondering, if speed is such an issue, why the President hasn’t yet announced another nominee, or didn’t do it today. Should we take from that that you will make a decision quickly — or that he will make a decision quickly? Next week?
- EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any guidance on the timing to share with you. But this is — I mentioned this yesterday — this is a high-priority position. We certainly are pleased that Attorney General Holder has indicated a willingness to remain until his successor is confirmed.
But this is a priority. This is something that my White House colleagues are already hard at work on. And when we have an announcement I’ll definitely let you know, and we would hope that members of Congress will act with the same sense of urgency to confirm Attorney General Holder’s replacement.
All right, Goyal, I’ll give you one here. But only one, and then I’m going to do the week ahead.
Q Thank you. Josh, as far as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official visit to U.S. — in the past, many anti-U.S.-India elements were against the relations between the two countries. Now, same group had a White House petition online against Mr. Modi to arrest him about his alleged crimes in India. Now, in New York, American Justice Center has filed a lawsuit, and judge has ordered a summons against Mr. Modi while he’s in New York. So any comments on this? And also, how it will affect his meetings here in the White House, starting from Monday with the President.
- EARNEST: Let me say two things about that. The first is, as a general legal principle, let me say that sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts while in the United States. Sitting heads of government also enjoy personal inviolability while in the United States, which means they cannot be personally handed or delivered papers to begin the process of a lawsuit. In addition, as a matter of treaty, the heads of delegations to the U.N. General Assembly enjoy immunity while in New York to attend U.N. events. So this means I don’t anticipate that it’s going to have any impact on his very important visit here to the U.S. and to the White House.
I can tell you that the visit is an opportunity to discuss a range of issues of mutual interest in order to expand and deepen the U.S.-India strategy partnership. It is a partnership that is highly valued by this country and by this White House. We will discuss ways to accelerate economic growth, bolster security cooperation, and collaborate in activities that bring long-term benefits to both countries and the world. We’ll focus on regional issues, including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where India and the United States can work together with partners toward a positive outcome.
The President himself looks forward to working with the Prime Minister to fulfill the promise of the U.S.-India strategy partnership for the benefit of citizens in both our countries.
Q Josh, is the President aware of this lawsuit?
- EARNEST: I’ll do the week ahead, and if you have another one on Monday maybe we’ll give you a chance the day before.
On Monday, the President will attend a DNC event in Washington, D.C. In the evening, the President will host Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India for a private dinner at the White House. The Vice President will also attend.
On Tuesday, the President will host Prime Minister Modi of India at the White House. The two leaders, as I mentioned earlier, will discuss a wide range of issues of mutual interest in order to expand and deepen the U.S.-India strategy partnership.
On Wednesday, the President will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. The President looks forward to discussing with the Prime Minister Israel’s relations with Palestinians, including the situation in Gaza, developments related to Iran, and the international effort to combat ISIL. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit is a demonstration of the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel, and our close consultations on a range of regional issues. The Vice President will participate in those meetings as well.
In the afternoon, the President will welcome Sporting Kansas City to honor their 2014 MLS championship. I’m looking forward to their visit. In the evening, the President will travel to Chicago, Illinois where he will spend the night. We’ll have some additional details about the President’s travel to Chicago in the next couple of days.
On Thursday, after a couple of events in Chicago, the President will return back here to the White House. That evening, the President will deliver remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institutes Annual Awards Gala at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. And then on Friday, the President will participate in a range of meetings here at the White House.
So we’ll have more details on that Chicago trip hopefully in the next couple of days.
Q Josh, just for planning on Tuesday, what do you expect with the Prime Minister? Will there be a pool spray or an event, press conference?
- EARNEST: I haven’t gotten the rundown on the visit, but hopefully before the end of the day we can track that down for you. All right, thanks, guys.
Q Josh, is the Chicago visit political or official?
- EARNEST: It’s my understanding it’s a little of both. We’ll have some more details on that.
END 2:29 P.M. EDT