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Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King

Friday, September 30, 2016 9:09
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(Before It's News)

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:10 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I trust you all had an opportunity to hear the President talk about the remarkable accomplishments of our Olympic and Paralympic teams this summer.  The President obviously enjoyed the event.  Hopefully all of you did, too.

Before we get started today, I'm going to turn the podium over to the United States Secretary of Education, John King.  Secretary King is here to talk about a couple of important initiatives that are being advanced by the Obama administration, including some steps that his agency is taking to streamline the process of middle-class families and students who are applying for financial aid for college.

Those of you who are close watchers of the President’s schedule know that he had planned to speak at a local high school to discuss some of these efforts.  We have obviously had to pull down those events because the President is traveling to Israel and departing here shortly.  But we are obviously moving forward with the implementation of some of this policy, so we brought Secretary King here to talk about it.

So he'll make some opening remarks here for a few minutes, and then he'll take whatever questions you may have.  Then we'll let him go and we'll get on to the regularly scheduled program here. 

Secretary King.

SECRETARY KING:  Thanks, Josh.  And thank you all for letting me join you today.  Saturday, October 1st, is a big day for America’s students.  Last year, the President announced that for the first time ever, the free application for federal student aid — or FAFSA — will be available on October 1st.  Together with the College Scorecard, these changes to the FAFSA will help provide better information to families earlier to inform their decisions about where to go to college and also how they’ll be able to afford college. 

These changes also mean accessing financial aid for a good-value school will be easier and faster because students will be able to populate the FAFSA with information directly from their 2015 tax return, information that the IRS has already verified.

Saturday’s launch is the latest in a series of steps the administration has taken to make filling out the FAFSA faster and easier than ever before.  Since the President took office there have been more than 160 million FAFSAs completed, most by first-generation and low-income students, students for whom financial aid can be the difference between earning a college degree or not.  And we've slashed the average FAFSA completion time nearly in half.

We're continue to build on these efforts.  Next year it will be easier to sign up for the FSA ID student’s financial aid account, and the FAFSA will direct students to information in the College Scorecard.  We're also pleased that third parties around the country continue to use Scorecard data to create their own products to help students and families navigate the college choice process.  Just today, Google announced that it would put information like graduation rates and future earnings front and center in their search results. 

These critical steps have helped open the door to a college education for millions of Americans.  But they’re just one piece of the administration’s long track record of fighting to expand educational opportunity for Americans of all ages.  When President Obama took office, at the depth of the Great Recession, he recognized the need to not only stop the bleeding and rebuild the economy for the short term, but to invest in the long term through education.  He started by saving hundreds of thousands of teacher and educator jobs.  But he also knew that preserving America’s dream — the American Dream — and ensuring our nation’s future success depends on having educational opportunity for all.

That's why the Recovery Act also included programs like Investing in Innovation, Race to the Top, and strengthening Pell grants to spur innovation, raise expectations and improve access to world-class education for students of all ages.

Nearly eight years later, opportunity has expanded at every level of our education system, starting with our youngest learners.  Since the President called for preschool for all in 2013, states have invested more than $1.5 billion in increasing access to high-quality early learning.  And more than 30 states across the country have increased the percentage of their four-year-olds in preschool since the President took office.

When you look across the country, it's clear that this issue of early learning is an issue that has bipartisan momentum, at least outside the Beltway.

At the K-12 level, nearly every state in the country has raised its standards to prepare students for success in college and careers.  And thanks to the President’s ConnectED initiative, 20 million more students have access to high-speed Internet in school.  High school graduation rates are at an all-time high.  Dropout rates have hit a record low.  We've nearly halved the number of dropout factories — high schools where less than 60 percent of students graduate on time.  And the dropout rate among Hispanic students is nearly half what it was when President Obama took office, and we've cut the African American dropout rate by a third.

And after years of working to fix No Child Left Behind, the administration’s priorities were enshrined in law when the President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act last winter.  That new law includes a commitment to high-quality preschool, college and career-ready standards, support for struggling schools and high schools with high dropout rates, competitive programs like Investing in Innovation and Promise Neighborhoods, and various other core administration priorities that will now live on for years to come.

The administration has also made historic investments to keep college affordable for hardworking students and families, ending wasteful subsidies for banks and giving tens of millions back — tens of billions back to students.  Pell grants are more generous and are helping more students.  The American Opportunity Tax Credit is cutting taxes for millions of families who are trying to afford college each year.

And since President Obama unveiled America’s College Promise last year, more than a few dozen free community college programs have launched in states, cities and schools across the country — from Oregon and Minnesota to Texas and Kentucky. 

The President has also made a number of proposals focused on college completion — because we know even as we grapple with issues of access and affordability, ensuring that students who start college actually finish is critical to ensuring that they are able to manage their debt.  The President has proposed expanding Pell grants into the summer, through year-round Pell, which would help students stay on track to graduation.  The President has proposed incentives for students to take at least 15 credits per semester so they stay on track to on-time graduation.  And the President has proposed institutional incentives, a bonus for higher ed institutions if they enroll significant numbers of Pell students and get them through to graduation.

There’s no question that much work remains.  For too many of our students, especially our students of color, our low-income students, our English learners, our students with disabilities — we've not yet fulfilled the promise of equal opportunity for all. But as you look across the country and look at the past eight years of work, there’s no question that we're closer today than when we began eight years ago.

So with that, happy to take questions. 

Q    Just looking at reports that have been done in the last eight years, what do you think the next administration does have to address?  Is it going to be college cost, double down on that? Is it going to be graduation rates?  What’s the primary focus?

SECRETARY KING:  Well, the President has some proposals that I think reflect where the country needs to head next in terms of educational improvement.  Certainly preschool for all and the vision of trying to ensure that all low-income and middle-income families have access to high-quality preschool is the right investment.  We know there’s an 8-1, 9-1 return on investment for every dollar invested in early learning.

The President’s proposal around America’s College Promise, the idea that we can today make two years — at least two years of community college or the first two years at an HBCU or minority serving institution tuition free for all hardworking students I think is a step in the right direction towards expanding access to quality higher education.

So those are two places where we should begin.  And certainly the next administration will need to be vigilant to ensure that states implement the Every Student Succeeds Act well, with careful attention to issues of equity.

Q    College student loan debt is still fairly high out there, and the college costs are still — continue to go up.  What can be done to continue to try to — I mean, increased student financial aid wouldn't be as necessary if college costs could remain more stable.

SECRETARY KING:  Well, one of the biggest drivers of the increasing cost for students and families has been this investment by states in public higher education.  If you look across the last 20 years, you see many states where investment levels in public higher education are flat or even going down, and then those costs, of course, are passed along to students and families. 

One of the things we’ve tried to do to ensure college affordability and to help people manage their debt is the President’s REPAYE effort, where we use income-driven repayment, so that your payment on student debt are capped at about 10 percent of your income.  We are seeing that have an effect on the number of folks who are defaulting.  It’s helping us to bring down the rate of increase in defaults.  So we’re making progress there.  Certainly improving college completion is a part of solving the affordability puzzle.  We know that folks that don’t finish are dramatically more likely to default on their debt.

Q    Weeks ago, a federal judge in Texas issued an injunction against the administration’s guidance prohibiting discrimination against transgender students in schools.  There’s going to be a hearing tomorrow in that court clarifying the scope of the injunction, but to what extent has it hampered the Department of Education’s ability Title IX as of now?

SECRETARY KING:  Well, at the end of the day, all schools have a responsibility to make sure that school environments are safe and supportive for all students, and all schools have a responsibility to follow the law.  Ultimately, we know that Title IX protects both sex and gender identity, and we look forward to moving this issue forward across the country and continuing to support school districts and states in putting in place smart policies to protect the safety of all of their students, and to make school a place where kids feel comfortable. 

Ultimately, what led us to issue the guidance in the first place was a request from educators across the country for guidance to help them help their students — help their students feel safe and comfortable in schools and on higher education campuses.

Q    But has there been any problems as a result of that injunction thus far?

SECRETARY KING:   Well, again — I don’t want to get into the specifics of the issues that will be argued in court shortly. But I will say, if you look across the country, there are states and districts that are continuing to do the right thing for students and an increasing number of states and districts that are putting in place systems that help keep students safe and make school a place where they feel comfortable.

Q    Are you confident that the administration’s view will prevail in the legal system and the court system?

SECRETARY KING:   Yes.

Q    On this goal of preschool for all — what percentage of students now do not get preschool?  And do you have a metric for where the Obama administration has moved that number either up or down?  And similarly, on this issue of college aid, maybe there’s not a number for it, but what typically is an income level where a family can expect to get a significant amount of aid or a full ride, or however you measure it, and has that number gone up or down in terms of income during the last seven years?

SECRETARY KING:   Yes — on the first question, about 40 percent of low-and-middle-income students across the country are enrolled in public preschool programs.  We would certainly like to see that number increase. 

The most specific thing we’ve done around the number of seats — quality seats in preschool is the President’s Preschool Development Grants program, which is about $250 million that goes each year to 18 states to add seats.  And that’s added, I think roughly 35,000 seats this schoolyear in preschool.  So we are moving forward.  There are about 30 states that increased their state investment in preschool.  That’s also helping to add seats. But the President’s Preschool For All proposal is really about making sure that there’s universal access for low-and-middle-income families.

On the question of college aid, for a family with a dependent child, I think the typical level at which they’re eligible for Pell grants, which is the federal grants around college aid, is about $60,000 in income.  I think the average Pell recipient family is probably around $30,000, and the Pell grant is just under $6,000, about $5,800 this year.

Q    Has the administration, do you think, lowered that number, in other words, increased access by — what?

SECRETARY KING:  We can get you a more specific number, but we’ve increased access in two ways.  One, by increasing the amount of Pell dollars, the amount of the Pell grant, by about $1,000 since the beginning of the administration.  So folks who are eligible are getting more funding.  But then the American Opportunity Tax Credit is also helping thousands of families across the country — millions of families across the country to better afford college.

Q    I wanted to ask you about a statement from Senator Warren today.  She says — it has to do with students who attended the Corinthian Colleges.  Her staff did an investigation and found that the department is still intentionally trying to collect student loan debt from these students, and she’s asking that you stop that, even though the debt that these students have is eligible to be forgiven.

SECRETARY KING:  So, first, I appreciate Senator Warren’s leadership on behalf of students and borrowers, and she’s been a good partner to the administration on many efforts to try to help our borrowers. 

We, of course, are committed to making sure that we get good information to Corinthian borrowers about their options.  Folks who were Corinthian students have the option to seek closed-school discharge, where they give up their credits but they receive funding if they went to a Corinthian campus that closed. Or they have the option to pursue borrower defense, where they attest that they specifically were taken advantage of by one of the campuses where we have evidence of fraud. 

We’re going to continue to make every effort to reach out to Corinthian borrowers, and we’re going to continue to make every effort to ensure that we take aggressive action where there are higher ed institutions that are engaged in predatory behavior. And I think the administration has been clear from the beginning that we’re committed to holding higher education institutions accountable for providing a good education to students and protecting taxpayer interests.  We’re going to keep doing that. 

Within the 80,000 borrowers that Senator Warren refers to, folks are in different situations.  Some are eligible if they seek to apply for closed-school discharge or borrower defense; others would not be.  We’re going to keep making sure that borrowers know what their options are.

Q    So the numbers that Senator Warren mentioned in her letter, did those suggest to the department that the system of borrowing (inaudible) on an individual basis isn't working?

SECRETARY KING:  Well, I’d point out again, there are different categories of borrowers.  So in terms of closed-school discharge, that is when a school closes, a student can say, I’m not going to use my credits at another institution and I want to discharge my loans.

Under the proposed regulations for borrower defense, which we took public comment on and which are being finalized, under those proposed rules, students who are eligible for closed-school discharge and don’t apply those credits in another institution for three years then become eligible for automatic discharge.

Then there’s another set of students who would be seeking borrower defense, and that’s really about demonstrating that you have have been a victim of fraudulent activity by one of the schools.  And there, we believe part of what’s required is for students to attest that they actually were defrauded by the institution.

And again, with respect to the 80,000, it’s worth pointing out that some of those students attended programs where there were findings of fraud; others did not. 

Q    Are there lessons that the department has taken from the situations with Corinthian and ITT that it can use to avoid something like this in the future?

SECRETARY KING:  Yes, two things I’d point out.  One is, we’ve been very aggressive about reaching out to ITT students to make sure they understand what their options are.  We already have nearly 1,000 closed-school discharge applications from ITT students.  We’ve got a partnership with an organization called Beyond12 and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators that are providing counseling to ITT students about their options to transfer to other schools. 

We’ve seen community colleges and state higher education system reach out very aggressively to ITT students to let them know what their options are to help them figure out the next steps in their education. 

So I think we’ve learned some lessons about outreach to students quickly when a school closes — from the Corinthian experience that we’re now applying in ITT.  The other lesson I think that you see in ITT is that when there are bad-actor institutions, it’s important for the department to take clear enforcement actions early.  And with ITT, as their behavior did not change, as they made the same bad choices, we took early enforcement action and ultimately decided this summer not to allow them to enroll new students.  And the key with federal financial aid — and the key driver in that decision was knowing that when you have a sinking ship, you shouldn’t have other folks come on board that sinking ship.  And so then the responsibility was on ITT to determine their appropriate next steps.

Q    Warren’s letter also pointed out that a majority of the 80,000 students hadn't applied for debt relief.  So does there need to be more aggressive outreach for the Corinthian students?

SECRETARY KING:  We’re certainly going to continue to do outreach, and we’ll have an update, actually, later in October on the number of students who have sought either closed-school discharge or borrower defense.  The last update we put out I think was in June, and so there will be an update shortly.

We’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of folks applying for borrower defense as we’ve continued our outreach to students.

Q    My question is referring to — about student loan forgiveness, and about students who are graduating more immediately after college.  Is there anything being done as far as students who are graduating from college immediately but were already in school before certain programs as far as financial aid, but they might be negatively affected still, although after graduating?  Is there anything being done about that?

SECRETARY KING:  You mean generally across campuses, or specifically about ITT?

Q    Generally across campuses.

SECRETARY KING:  So generally across campuses — so what we’re trying to do is make sure that college students know about their options for how to manage their debt.  And I mentioned our income-based repayment approach.  There, students can cap how much they pay at 10 percent of their income.  And so we’re doing a lot of work to make sure students know about that, and we’ve seen actually a very significant increase in the number of folks who are taking advantage of income-driven repayment over the last few years.  So we’re now well over I think 5 million folks who are taking advantage of income-driven repayment.  We’re going to keep doing that work to make sure people know about that options.

There is also public service loan forgiveness for students who are in public service careers.  And again, we want to make sure that students, as they graduate, and recent graduates know about that option.  And so we’re working with a number of partners and with other federal agencies to make sure that students have information about both of those options — income-driven repayment and the public service loan forgiveness.

Q    Can you speak to the education programs inside of our nation’s prisons?  Is there a similar trajectory or path in terms of those who are earning their GED or those who are completing transition programs into society after they get out?

SECRETARY KING:  This is a place where we should be doing a lot more as a country.  I really appreciate you’re asking about it.  The evidence is overwhelming that folks who are incarcerated who get access to educational programs while incarcerated are much less likely to return.  Actually, RAND did a study that showed a 43 percent reduction in recidivism for folks who participated in any kind of educational program, whether it led to a certificate or not, while in prison.

We’ve launched an initiative called Second Chance Pell, where we’re using our flexibility under the Higher Education Act to allow universities to use Pell dollars for folks who are incarcerated.  And so, actually on my bus tour a couple weeks ago, I visited one of those programs — the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama — where they’re going to use Second Chance Pell dollars to support an expansion of their higher education program with Calhoun College.  And what the inmates talked about was the difference they know education will make for their life chances when they leave, but also the difference it will make for their families, for their kids, and ultimately for the community. 

We’ve got 69 universities participating in Second Chance Pell.  It’s going to serve 12,000 students across 28 states. 

Ultimately, we think Congress should undo the mistake that was made in the mid ‘90s.  In the mid-‘90s, Congress banned access to Pell grants for folks who are incarcerated.  That was a mistake.  It is consistent with other errors that were made in the mid ‘90s around mass incarceration.  Our Second Chance Pell initiative is a way to use our legal authority under the Higher Education Act to try and reverse some of that.  The President has proposed full restoration of Pell for folks who are incarcerated in his 2017 budget.  We hope Congress will act on that and see that education is a central part of criminal justice reform, making sure that when folks are incarcerated they have a meaningful chance to gain skills so they can come out of prison and be successful when they return.

Q    So is it fair to say it’s too soon to see results yet regarding that initiative?

SECRETARY KING:  So that just launched this year.  We announced it last summer.  We had universities apply from all over the country.  We saw a lot of demand.  We selected 69 universities to participate, and they’re just launching now.

But we’re confident that the evidence will be very clear that those students will be much less likely to return to prison as a result.

MR. EARNEST:  Mr. Secretary, thank you for your time today.

SECRETARY KING:  Thank you.  Thanks.

MR. EARNEST:  All right.  Certainly satisfying to see somebody with so much passion and expertise be able to apply their skills to benefit the American people.  So, appreciate him spending some time with us today.

But we can get back to our regularly scheduled programming here.  So, Darlene, do you want to get us started?

Q    Thanks.  So a day after overriding the President, Leader McConnell said that the 9/11 may have unintended ramifications, lawmakers will have to discuss fixes.  He says the White House was too slow to warn about the “potential consequences.”  Do you feel like he’s trying to shift blame here onto the White House perhaps?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I had a little bit of that impression myself I think.  Listen, it’s hard to know where to start.  I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.  Within minutes of casting their vote to put that bill into law, you had members of the United States Senate — some 28 of them — write a letter expressing deep concern about the potential impact of the bill they just passed.  The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting for, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. 

That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously when you had letters from President Bush’s attorney general and national security advisor warning about the consequences of the bill.  You had attorneys from our closest allies in Europe expressing their concerns about the impact of the bill.  You had a letter from some of America’s business leaders, including Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, warning about the potential economic consequences of the bill.  You had letters from the Director of the CIA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief all warning about the potential impact of the bill.

All of that communication was made public before Congress cast the first vote to put this bill into law yesterday.  So it’s hard to take at face value the suggestion that somehow they were unaware of the consequences of their vote.  But even if they were, what’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress — ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security, and the safety and security of our diplomats and our servicemembers.

I’ll also say that it’s a little hard to take that suggestion seriously when the arguments that are being made in this letter and in the public statements from some members of Congress are precisely the same arguments that senior administration officials have been making for months.  We first discussed it in this room back in April.  The President was asked about it in a nationally televised interview in April.  And the argument that he made in the context of that interview is exactly the same argument that members of Congress are making now.  Is that a coincidence?  It’s a remarkable one if that’s what it is.

What it mostly is, is an abject embarrassment.  Because I think the American people, and certainly our men and women in uniform — some of whom the President had the opportunity to meet with yesterday — expect better service and leadership from the men and women that they elected to represent them in the United States Congress.

I’ll stop there.  But I’ve got more if we want to discuss it further.  (Laughter.)

Q    Do you see the action around this bill — the voice votes, the override, lawmakers now coming out and saying they didn’t know what was in it — as another example of what people don’t like about Washington? 

MR. EARNEST:  I think you describe it faithfully as exhibit A in the kind of dysfunction that very poorly serves the country and leaves people very dissatisfied with the United States Congress.  It’s not a coincidence that the standing of the United States Congress among members of the voting public are at or near historic lows.  And an episode like this is not going to improve it.

Q    Two questions quickly on the President’s trip to Jerusalem.  Does he have a speaking role at the funeral tomorrow? And then, do you also have names of some of the members of the delegation that are traveling with the President?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has been invited to speak at the service.  Those remarks are being written as we speak, so I can’t give you much of a detailed preview.  But I think the personal nature of the presidential statement that we issued on the night of President Peres’s death I think should give you a good indication of the President’s thinking as he considers his remarks at this historic moment.

With regard to the delegation, we’ll have the specific names out shortly.  But it includes a number of senior White House officials, a number of members of Congress in both parties, and even some national security officials who don’t serve in this administration but served in the previous administration.  I think it’s a testament to the bipartisan commitment that exists in this country for the strong relationship that the United States enjoys with Israel — strong alliance, I should say.  And I think it’s clear that leaders in both parties here in the United States worked closely with President Peres to strengthen that relationship and to strengthen that alliance. 

And I think that’s evident in the individuals who, on short notice, are rearranging their schedules so that they can be present and pay tribute in person to the life and legacy of Shimon Peres.

Roberta.

Q    Back to the 9/11 bill.  Senator Corker said that he had tried to find a compromise and wanted to meet with White House officials the weekend — last weekend before the vote, but that that meeting was declined or turned down by people at the White House.  I’m just wondering if you can speak to that at all.  Did that happen?  Why was it declined or turned down?  And what can be done now if there is this remorse, as you describe it?  What’s the path forward for dealing with some of the concerns that are being expressed?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m not going to get into private conversations, but I will make a suggestion to Senator Corker that he get his story straight, because he spent most of the last week suggesting that he hadn’t heard from anybody in the administration and now he’s suggesting that his repeated request to members of the administration were not given their due attention.  I think it’s also curious that a number of members of the United States Senate — including Senator Corker — would suggest that they voted for a bill that they knew had negative consequences for America’s national security because they felt snubbed by the White House.  I think our men and women in uniform can expect a lot more than that from the United States Senate.

Q    I don't know if that's what you're suggesting, or not.  I didn’t mean to imply that in my question. 

MR. EARNEST:  I didn’t see his comments today, but –

Q    Did he reach out for a meeting and was one denied?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I can tell you is that — I'm not going to get into that individual conversation, but for a number of days, Senator Corker was suggesting that he had never heard from anybody in the administration.  That clearly is not true, I guess now by his own admission.  So –

Q    He’s just saying that no one replied to his request, that he wanted to –

MR. EARNEST:  Oh.  He’s suggesting –

Q    He reached out, he wanted a meeting, but the people here said no or didn’t reply to him — I'm not sure. 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I'm not going to get into the nature of the conversations.  What I can tell you is that senior White House officials and senior officials in the administration were in touch directly with Senator Corker and his office about this specific legislation.  That much is true.  I'm not going to get into the nature of those conversations.  But again, I think he’s going to have to explain to his constituents why he supported a piece of legislation that he claims to harbor significant concerns about.

Q    So what can be done now for people who have concerns, or to address some of the concerns the President expressed yesterday?  Do you see a path forward?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don't know what the path forward is.  I know that there are some members of Congress who are interested in trying to clean up the terrible mess that they have made.  The President has taken a principled position on this issue from the very beginning, and if there are members of Congress in either party, frankly, that want to join him in that principled position, the President would welcome them to that kind of discussion.  But it's awfully late.  I'm sure there’s a colorful expression that could be used here, but I'll leave that to others who may be more colorful.

Q    Just a quick follow-up on this — two things.  One, related to what you said on the plane yesterday, can you really not think of anything more embarrassing that the Congress has done in 30 years?  And two –

MR. EARNEST:  Well, why don't we start with that, and then we'll get to number two.

Q    Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  In the last 24 hours I've been reminded of a variety of very embarrassing things that Congress has engaged in in the last couple of years even.  We can go through a few of them if you’d like.  It’s kind of a nice stroll down Memory Lane. We've got the Tortilla Coast gambit –

Q    — go through all of them.

MR. EARNEST:   I won't go through all of them.  But we've got the Tortilla Coast gambit, which is a real highlight.  You’ve got the leading investigator in the House of Representatives into Secretary Clinton’s private email system passing out business cards with a private email address on it.  You’ve got the all-but-anointed House Speaker disclosing on live national television that the Benghazi investigation is motivated to drive down Secretary Clinton’s poll ratings.  You’ve got Republicans bringing the United States to the brink of default for the first time in our history, so close to default, in fact, that the credit of the United States was downgraded for the first time.

Separate from that, you have one Republican in the United States Senate engineering a government shutdown that lasted for two and a half weeks that didn’t actually result in any change in government policy.  You’ve got Republicans who are foursquare against even considering the nomination that the President has put forward of a candidate that they have described as a consensus nominee to the Supreme Court.  You’ve got an individual who is a financial expert who served in Democratic and Republican administrations alike who has been waiting for more than a year to be confirmed by the Senate to serve at the Treasury Department and administer the tough financial sanctions that the United States imposes on countries around the world. 

I could go on, but I'll stop there.  All of these are also embarrassing.  But you’ve got to admit that the situation that took place yesterday on the floor of the United States Senate stands out — to vote for a bill that members of the Senate know would have a negative impact on our national security, and before they even left the well of the United States Senate they’ve circulated a letter to their colleagues urging them to figure out a way to fix the problem they’ve just made.  That's deeply embarrassing, too. 

Q    Clearly, you were ready for that one.  The second is sort of a follow-up to that, which is there might be people that would understand the desire or the impulse to gloat and to call members of Congress kindergarteners and the like, and all of the stuff that you’ve done in the last 24 hours.  But given that you’ve had them express a desire to fix this in a direction that you guys would like to go, do you think that the kinds of rhetoric that you’ve offered in the last day has been helpful in some future period of time actually getting these people together and fix it the way you wanted it to be fixed?  In other words, that seems like the language you’ve been using is counterproductive to the extent that you actually would like to take then up on this offer, to say, okay, maybe you're having second thoughts and let’s sit down and try to fix it.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, I don't think it's fair to say I've been gloating in this situation, and I don't think that would be evident — typically, you gloat after a win. 

Q    “Gloating” may be the wrong word.  But –

MR. EARNEST:  But, look, the American people have been dealt a setback by the United States Congress, despite the President’s principled position to try to prevent that from happening.  That is deeply disappointing to the President of the United States.  I think it's deeply disappointing to the American people.  And based on the reaction in the last 24 hours from members of Congress, I think they find their own conduct deeply embarrassing.  They should.

Q    But you don't want to offer any sort of outreach to them, say, okay, fine, let’s come and talk about it and maybe we can kind of undo it?

MR. EARNEST:  We've been trying to persuade them to do that since April.

Q    Do you think the language that you used in the last day is going to help that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Mike, I think it is hard to persuade a member of Congress who isn't willing to vote their conscience.  Members of Congress say, and now publicly admit, that they’re deeply concerned about the impact that this bill will have on our national security, but yet they voted for it.  I don't really know what sort of legislative strategy or set of negotiations is going to persuade a member of Congress who’s not willing to put the national security interests of the United States first.  And that's unfortunate.

If there are members of Congress — to be clear, if there are members of Congress that have had a change of heart, are now prepared to take a principled position, we would welcome a conversation about that.  We would welcome action to solve the problem that they have created. 

I guess this is the other perspective.  There are plenty of problems that we believe that Congress should be taking up right now.  Secretary King was here talking about how additional funding for college and financial aid, or for early childhood education would address a problem that we see in our education system.  There are a variety of things that we could do to strengthen our national security, or strengthen our economy, invest in our infrastructure, make our tax code more fair.  There are plenty of problems to solve without Congress going around and creating more.  But yesterday, that's exactly what they did.  And for a Republican Congress that has refused to do its job, it's ironic that they’re only adding to their to-do list.

Justin.

Q    At the risk of misrepresenting Senator Corker, I think I'm going to try to refine what his plan was, look at it and try to get your reaction to it.  I think the way Republicans on Capitol Hill have described this is they wanted to take action on behalf of 9/11 families.  The bill that was sort of championed by Senator Schumer had broader implications than they would have liked, which is why they wanted to sit down with Senator Schumer, the Democratic leadership, the White House and hammer out some sort of compromise that could have attended to the 9/11 families and also satisfy at least some of the foreign policy concerns that you or others raised.  And so I think when you say, well, I'm not going to read out our conversations, the question here, getting to the core of it is, why wasn’t the White House negotiating in a way that the Senate seemed open to on a version of this bill?  I think they’re depicting you as saying this is a bad idea, we're putting our hands up, don't do it –

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that's wrong.  And again, there were extensive negotiations and extensive consultations from senior administration officials at the White House and throughout the President’s national security team with members of Congress in both houses and both parties.  And that's a fact.  Those conversations were substantive.  And we were trying to prevent Congress from creating a significant problem.  By their own assessment, they’ve acknowledged that this is a significant problem.  We were interested in having that conversation.

So, again, Senator Corker started out this week by saying that he hadn't heard from anybody at the White House, and that's just not true.  It wasn’t true then; it's not true now.  But let me give you one other example.  We also had a conversation here back in the spring — I will acknowledge I didn’t remember this, so — there was a conversation about one tweak that had been made to the bill at the request of the administration, and the request — or the tweak to the bill was one that we welcomed, that was based on conversations with the administration, but was not sufficient to satisfy the significant concerns that had been raised by White House lawyers, that had been raised by Republican national security experts, that have been raised by European officials, that have been raised by American business leaders about the potential unintended consequences of this bill.

So the fact that there were some changes that were made early on is evidence of the kind of ongoing consultation that's been taking place.  But the changes that were made — as I said back in the spring — were insufficient.  So I think that is pretty good evidence that there was a good-faith effort on the part of the administration to bring about these changes.  But they were insufficient to address the concerns that were raised by experts in both parties and some of the closest allies of the United States. 

Q    I mean, I think maybe that's the crux of it, which is you guys have said maybe your sense of negotiations with Congress — and it's hard to say if you're not going to sort of show your work — were to say there's no version of this bill that's going to satisfy these requirements.  And the reason that I think, or at least I'm particularly skeptical of the notion that there were these extensive negotiations is it's not just Republican leadership that's saying this.  Sherrod Brown, a close ally of the White House, says he didn’t hear from you guys the entire week.  There's a number of other Democrats who have been really frustrated and vocal about the White House outreach on this. 

MR. EARNEST:  And so the response to that is to vote for a bill they don’t support or they believe is harmful to –

Q    Well, the argument that they're making is they want to do something for the 9/11 families.  You guys, at a certain point, became unwilling to negotiate, and so this was the bill that was in front of them.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen, we've talked at great length — and I'm happy to do it again — about what the President has done to show his strong support for 9/11 families — right?  The President is somebody who got justice for the 9/11 families by ordering the mission to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield. And the President is enormously proud of our men and women in uniform and our men and women in the intelligence community who accomplished that mission and demonstrated tremendous bravery and courage in getting it done.

The President is also somebody who is a champion of ensuring that our first responders and the others who were working at Ground Zero got the health care benefits that they deserved.  The President is also somebody who has spoken eloquently and powerfully about how 9/11 families serve as a personal inspiration to him.  So when it comes to doing something for the 9/11 families, the President has already done a lot for our 9/11 families, and the President believes that we should continue to show support for them. 

So I think the other factor that has gone unmentioned so far is we're six weeks before an election.  I suspect that that's what had a lot more influence over members of Congress than anything else.  And I guess, Mike, to go back to your question, maybe after the election passes, maybe we will see some more principle on display in the United States Congress.

Q    Last one on this.  I mean, this is a campaign that you've been undertaking, as you said, since April.  And this is actually how we got into the 1983 question yesterday.  What does it say either about your Legislative Affairs office or the power that the President holds at this point, that members of Congress were unwilling or unable or just didn’t see the long litany of certain consequences that you've been laying out all of the briefing?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, first of all, Justin, they feigned ignorance, so that's on them.  Ignorance is not an excuse.  The concerns that they have now cited after passing the bill are exactly the same ones that we've cited.  So, again, I think that's a real tough argument for them to make.  They can either say they were ignorant of the consequences of the bill because they didn’t read it, that they were essentially unaware of what they were voting on, or they can say they carefully considered the opinions of Mike Mukasey and Steve Hadley and our closest allies in Europe, and Jeffrey Immelt and John Brennan, and Joe Dunford and Ash Carter and Barack Obama, and overruled them, and relied more on their own judgment than they did on all those — that bipartisan group of national security experts.  But they have to get their story straight. 

And I think when you see this kind of thrashing around that we've seen in Congress, I think it's an indication that they're pretty uncomfortable with the position that they're in.  And I don’t blame them.  If I were them, I would be deeply embarrassed. 

Q    I got a quick one on Deutsche Bank — this is on Bloomberg.  And then we can get back to this.  I just wanted to ask — I mean, their shares have spiraled over the last couple days, largely because the Justice Department has requested $14 billion to settle a case linked to mortgage-backed securities.  That's almost the entire market value of the bank and is creating ripples through the financial markets, but also kind of a political headache for Angela Merkel back in Germany, a close ally of the President.  Have there been conversations between the White House and the Germans about this?  And is there anything the U.S. can do to, I guess, help shore up that situation and provide greater clarity to investors?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Justin, I don’t have much that I'm going to be in a position to say about any sort of Justice Department actions or conversations that they've been having with one entity or another.  What I can tell you is that the President did have an opportunity to talk with Chancellor Merkel today, and their conversation was actually focused on the situation inside of Syria and the shared deep concern about the increase in violence there.  He also had an opportunity to discuss the situation in Ukraine, as well, and the continued violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity by the Russians. 

But I don’t have a more detailed readout of their conversation to share beyond that.

Karen.

Q    Josh, thanks.  Has the President been briefed on the train crash in Hoboken?  And do you have anything to add on the investigation?  I know it's early, but any potential cause?  And has he reached out to Governor Christie?

MR. EARNEST:  The President is aware of the crash in Hoboken.  He has not received a detailed briefing at this point. The investigation is still in its early stages.  That investigation is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board.  I know that the Federal Railroad Administration is involved, as well, and has personnel on site.  They're collecting as much information about what happened as they can.  And the President will be updated on that situation as they learn more.

I'm not aware of any conversations with Governor Christie's office at this point.  I know that White House officials — not the President, but White House officials — have been in touch with the mayor of Hoboken, and I would expect that open line of

— that line of communication to remain open.  And we'll do our best to keep you apprised of any conversations with Governor Christie's office. 

Q    After the train derailment in Philadelphia last year, there was a lot of focus on the positive train control and getting that installed, especially in the parts of the Northeast here.  None of New Jersey transit trains are fully equipped with this.  The deadline for this keeps getting pushed; it's now 2018 to get this all installed.  Is that a mistake?  Should this deadline be sped up?  What's your opinion on that?

MR. EARNEST:  I think at this point it's too early to tell what impact the deployment of the positive train control system would have had in this situation.  I actually don’t even know as we're standing here whether or not there is positive train control in that part of the system.  So we'll collect some more facts to determine what exactly happened.  And my colleagues at the NTSB will keep you apprised of that.

Suzanne.

Q    Josh, what do you make of the libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson's inability, what he calls a brain freeze, when asked if he could identify a foreign leader from any country or any continent that he admires?  And what do you think that says about the level of preparedness or discussion in this presidential race?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen, in the same way that I don’t regularly put myself in a position of responding to claims or reactions from the Republican nominee for President, the same thing would apply to the libertarian nominee.  What I think I can add to this conversation is that one of the things you've heard the President say on many occasions is that one of the reasons that he's a strong advocate of Secretary Clinton is she is somebody who is as experienced as any other non-incumbent to seek this office.  And part of that is based on her extensive experience ineffectively representing the United States of America around the globe.

So the President believes that that kind of experience, that kind of track record is relevant as people consider and make a decision about whom to support in the upcoming election.

Q    Do you think there's this dumbing down of the issues or the level of discussion in this presidential race?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I'll let others comment on that.  The President believes that a vigorous debate and discussion around the issues is important, and that certainly is going to improve the ability of voters across the country to make an informed decision if the candidates are talking about important issues.  The President certainly hopes that what people do.

Mark.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Has the CR arrived at the White House?  And will President Obama sign it before leaving for Israel?

MR. EARNEST:  I'm told, Mark, that it has arrived at the White House, and our intent is to have the President sign it before he departs.  We'll keep you posted on that. 

Q    Okay.  On the override, has there been or will there be any outreach to Saudi Arabia to discuss the veto override, explain what happened to them, if explanation is warranted?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know if there is explanation that's needed.  But obviously my colleagues at the State Department are in regular touch with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and obviously they have been, in recent weeks, given the consequences for this bill.  So I can’t speak to any specific conversations. You might check with the State Department if they have anything to read out.

Q    Was the phone call with Chancellor Merkel the reason the President was late to the Olympic event?

MR. EARNEST:  My understanding the reason that he was late to the Olympic event is because, before the event started, the President had an opportunity to shake hands with all the Olympians, and the President and First Lady really enjoyed that opportunity.  And it took a little longer than was allotted on the schedule, I think, primarily because the President and First Lady enjoyed the opportunity to visit with the Olympians one-on-one.

Q    Do you know if he met with John Carlos and Tommy Smith?

THE PRESIDENT:  I don’t know.  We can check on that for you.

Q    That's it.

MR. EARNEST:  Okay.

Nadia.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  I have three questions.  Let’s start with Syria.  The situation in Aleppo has been described as a living hell.  The Obama administration came under immense criticism from former U.S. diplomats like (inaudible) and Robert Ford that you rely too much on the Russian intentions.  And everybody know that their intention was to prop up the regime.  What real options do you have now to stop the carnage in Aleppo, apart from threatening just to stop talking with the Russians?

MR. EARNEST:  Nadia, we’re obviously deeply disappointed at the refusal of the Russians to use their influence with the Assad regime to reduce the violence and around Syria for a sustained period of time.  The goal of reducing the violence was, essentially, twofold.  The first is to allow for more and more regular deliveries of humanitarian assistance, and to kick-start discussions about a political transition inside of Syria.  It’s difficult for either of those things to take place when innocent Syrians are under fire.  And there has been a shameful strategy implemented by the Assad regime and aided and abetted by the Russians to try to bomb civilians into submission by targeting hospitals and refugee camps and even underground playgrounds.  It’s appalling.  And the situation in Syria does continue to worsen and it’s deeply concerning.

Our focus has been on trying to bring an end to that violence, and we’ve engaged diplomatically with the Russians, who have significant influence with the Assad regime, to try to bring that about.  But thus far, that has not worked nearly as well as we would have liked.

Q    How can a superpower like the United States — it seems to be in a position of being completely impotent of even delivering aid to sieged people, mainly children and women, in a city like Aleppo, where Ban Ki-Moon described the act now as a war crime.  Do you support that President Assad should be indicted as a war criminal and taken to The Hague instead of being invited to Geneva?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States has been supportive of efforts at the United Nations Security to refer cases to the ICC. Unfortunately, Russia has used their veto on the Security Council to block those referrals.  That’s been deeply disappointing.  As I mentioned, what the Assad regime has done inside of Syria, and in Aleppo in particular, is shameful.  It’s deeply immoral and it’s caused the kind of widespread bloodshed that’s difficult to even read about.  It’s tragic.  And it’s one that the President’s deeply concerned about.

Q    Tony Blinken said, or quoted as saying that he’s asked the President and his security team to come up with new options that we have not heard before.  Can you just elaborate on that, share some these options?

MR. EARNEST:  Listen, the President is regularly urging his national security team to evaluate the situation in Syria, to consider our strategy and look for ways to refine it and improve it and lead to more positive results.  Much of that strategy and much of the strategic discussion has been focused on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.  We’ve got some substantial progress to show for the effort that has been directed against ISIL.  We haven’t made as much progress in trying to address the political situation inside of Syria, and we certainly haven’t made as much progress as we would like in sustaining a cessation of hostilities.  That’s been deeply disappointing.

Q    Can you admit that your Syria policy has failed so far?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nadia, as long as there are innocent people being targeted by their government and killed in attacks by barrel bombs and chemical weapons, that’s going to be a problem that’s in need of more attention.  And the President’s been distressed by the reports, in the same way that I think everybody in this room has been, based on the news coverage of the situation there.  And the President is going to continue to push his team to look for and evaluate additional options that we can undertake to try to reduce the violence, increase the flow of humanitarian assistance, and kick-start the kind of political transition talks that everybody acknowledges are necessary to address the root cause of the situation in Syria.

Q    I have one more on Israel.  While President Peres has been advocating for the two-state solution, many believe that he didn’t do enough to advance the cause of peace, including respected Israeli writers like Gideon Levy.  He said that Mr. Peres supported the building of Israeli settlements, the occupation.  He never believed the Israeli and Palestinians are equal.  Since the President described him or his achievement in historical terms, can you just tell us exactly, practically, what did he do to advance the cause of peace?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen, there are people that know a whole lot more about the history of the situation that are in a better position to offer their own commentary about the legacy of Shimon Peres.  President Obama deeply admires Shimon Peres, not because he’s a perfect person, but because he is somebody who dedicated his life to championing the Israeli people and advocating for peace.  And that won President Peres President Obama’s enduring respect and admiration.  A,nd President Obama will have an opportunity to talk about that at the memorial service of course, but I’ll leave it to others to do the careful detailed evaluation of President Peres’s legacy.

Q    Josh, thank you.  Just a couple on Syria, and we’ll move back to JASTA, and one sort of random subject, if you don’t mind.  President Obama stated at the presidential town hall last night that he brings in critics of his Syria policy for consultations with him.  Can you identify any of those critics?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President has consulted with a wide variety of individuals, some of whom used to serve in this administration — and Nadia cited in her question.  But, listen, I’m not going to — I think the point that the President is making is that he’s open to a wide variety of views — that includes members of Congress.  Some of them have better-informed views that others, but many of them have not hesitated to be critical of the situation inside of Syria.  And the President is open to the point of view of people with a variety of perspectives in part because — James, I know that you’ve spent some time looking at this too — it’s not as if there’s anybody sitting out there that we’re aware of that has the magic key to solving the situation inside of Syria.

Q    I was asking if you could identify as the people he was referencing.  And if not, that’s fine.

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not going to go through individual names. But when you consider people who have written about this but don’t serve in government, or individuals that used to serve in the administration, or members of Congress who have strongly held views, the President has had an opportunity to talk to people who fit those kinds of broader descriptions, and that’s who the President was referring to.

Q    Secretary Kerry worked very hard with Foreign Minister Lavrov to set the terms and conditions for a potential ceasefire that would be followed by other measures.  And as we’ve seen, the ceasefire didn’t hold.  And Russia is now engaged in actions that Secretary Kerry, this very morning, described as inexcusable.  In response to all of this, the administration, both from the White House and the State Department, has threatened to sever all communications with the Russians related to Syria.  And I just wonder if there wasn’t a lack of planning on the part of the administration for the prospect of a complete breakdown of the ceasefire and the kinds of actions we have seen from Russia, because as a response, you’re left threatening to do something.  And I just wonder, why the administration didn’t have in place a plan for how to go about its business in the event we saw this kind of default.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, James, the President’s National Security team is always thoroughly evaluating contingency plans.  And that’s work that often goes — that often takes place behind the scenes, and is often something that we don’t talk about publicly, in some cases, because we don’t want to undermine the ongoing efforts by discussing what the alternative would be.  In some cases, those efforts are classified and not something we can talk about publicly anyway. 

I also think, James, that in talking about this over the last several weeks, even this new effort that in the first few hours showed some promise, was something we were deeply skeptical of.  There was never a sense that this was a guaranteed solution. In fact, there was skepticism about whether or not it would work. But the President made the case, I think rather persuasively, that it would be irresponsible to not even try.

Q    So the default setting on the part of the administration was if this thing collapses, let’s move to a threat to sever communications — that was your plan B, if this fell apart?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  I think what I tried to convey is that there are a variety of contingencies plans that the President’s national security team is always considering and, in some cases, we won’t discuss those contingency plans because we’re invested in trying to make the original plan work.  In some cases, we’re limited in discussing those contingency plans because they haven’t been cleared for a public discussion.

Q    On JASTA, given the historic nature of the outcome yesterday, can you tell us how the President learned of the outcome and what instant reaction he –

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there was no surprise.  In terms of describing it as historic — the reason it was obviously the first time that the Congress had voted to override President Obama’s veto.  President Obama, I would point out, went deeper into his presidency than any President since Lyndon Johnson before his vote was overridden.  And the President’s success rate at sustaining vetoes is over 90 percent, and that’s a percentage that’s higher than President George W. Bush, President Reagan, President Ford, and President Nixon.

Q    There’s a scale there, probably, but –

MR. EARNEST:  There is a scale there.  But, again, I think that would speak to the effectiveness of the President and his team.

Q    How did the President learn about it is what I asked.

MR. EARNEST:  The President learned about it from public reports.

Q    Was he watching the vote take place?

MR. EARNEST:  No, the President was on the road yesterday.  So he was updated on the road.

Q    So who told him about it?

MR. EARNEST:  I think that he read it himself in his reports.

Q    You’ve mentioned in your discussion of JASTA earlier in this briefing that ignorance is not an excuse for lawmakers.  Does that same maxim, ignorance is not an excuse, apply to Secretary Clinton professing to have been unaware of the classification markings on her private email?

MR. EARNEST:  Listen, I’ll let Secretary Clinton and her team talk about what she was thinking about and what she was aware of in the use of her email.

Q    Last question, different subject.  During the presidential town hall last night, a woman rose from the audience to ask the President a question.  She described herself as a widow of somebody who, she said, had been misdiagnosed by a particular doctor in the VA system.  The President at the end of that exchange, vowed to learn more information about that case.  Number one, did he learn more information about that case?

MR. EARNEST:  The President has asked his team to collect more information about that case.  I don’t know that he’s been updated on it today.

Q    And given that this was a nationally, perhaps internationally televised forum in which this exchange was held, it seemed to me that, not knowing the specifics of the case, it was quite possible that this doctor who was referenced by the woman and who is now the subject of presidential focus, may or may not have been guilty of misdiagnosing the individual in question.  And I just wonder if we can use this venue to establish that the White House takes no particular view on that subject as of now, doesn’t seem to prejudice the case, as it were.

MR. EARNEST:  Of course, we’re not seeking to prejudice the case.  But the President and everybody who works at the VA holds themselves to an extraordinarily high standard.  Accountability is important.  And I think this administration has demonstrated that, including at the VA, on a number of occasions.

Q    But even this physician has a right to innocence until proven guilty of malpractice or misdiagnosing, correct?

MR. EARNEST:  Of course, which is why we’re — again, the President was not familiar with the details of this case but asked his team to try to learn more about it.

Q    Thank you.

MR. EARNEST:  Ron.

Q    The train incident — is there any suggestion or any sign that this might be terrorism?

MR. EARNEST:  At this point, I’m not aware of any evidence that has been uncovered that would draw that kind of linkage.  But this is something that the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to look at, so I think it’s too soon to rule that out.  But at this point, I’m not aware of any evidence that would raise those kinds of concerns about this point.

Q    And on the veto override, the bill and so forth, you keep talking about potential unintended consequences.  Are there any specific cases, statements, actions by any foreign government or entity anywhere that are evidence of these unintended consequences actually happening now?  Because again, it’s such a vague — well, it’s not — it’s a vague notion that these things — these awful things could happen.  Are they happening anywhere?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me answer your question in two ways. The first is that our lawyers at the State Department will tell you that the concept — the principle of sovereign immunity is something that is routinely invoked by the United States to protect our country and to protect our servicemembers and diplomats.  So this is not some esoteric, rarely used part of international law.  This is actually one of the central principles of international law that does more to protect the United States than any other country in the world based on U.S. involvement around the globe.

So this is a critically important principle, and one that the President, again, and national security experts in both parties, believe is worth protecting.

Q    I understand it conceptually, but again, is there a specific example, as much as this happens routinely, where this concern of yours, the administration’s, as a practical matter, you can tell us exactly where this is happening or where you fear it’s going to happen in the coming days?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the concern is that — the bill went into law just yesterday, and our concern is that other countries around the world will see that change and begin to initiate –

Q    Is there any place where that has happened?  Because again, this was not a surprise.  Is there a legislature or a parliament somewhere where you see this happening?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, this is something that the EU warned about, so we’ve got our European allies who are suggesting that this is a cause of deep concern.  I’m not aware of any specific legislative actions that have been taken by another country as of today, but that risk now exists today in a way that it didn’t yesterday.  And that does expose our diplomats and our servicemembers to enhanced risk.

Q    And given the 9/11 families’ apparent intention to pursue lawsuits now, does the administration anticipate — do you feel so strongly about what’s at stake that the administration could see itself potentially intervening in those cases legally to try and stop them from proceeding because you’re so concerned about the unintended consequences of these legal cases proceeding?

MR. EARNEST:  A decision like that — I’d actually refer you to the Department of Justice.  It may be a little hard for them to comment on a court case that doesn’t exist yet, but they may be able to discuss what potential role the federal government could play in a legal proceeding like that.

Q    I’m talking about principles and ideas.  Is that a — do you think it’s an idea, a principle that would be — that’s so crucial that it would be worth defending or fighting for in that context?  Actually intervening?

MR. EARNEST:  Again, I don’t know if it’s possible for the federal government to play that kind of role in a private lawsuit, but I’m also not an attorney.  So the Department of Justice may be able to give you a better sense of what potential role the federal government could have in a potential lawsuit down the road.

Q    Lastly, with the passing of former President Peres in Israel, and the President’s deep concern about Middle East peace, the process and how it’s broken down — and there were some questions to you the other day about the possibility of him, before he leaves office, essentially laying out his view of how things should happen there — after a respectful period of time passes, given what’s happened and the passing of the former President, do you think it is more likely or possible that the President may now see that this is a moment where he should, given the fact that he’s leaving office and his concern about this issue, explain more or lay out a plan that he sees as viable and what should happen there, and what his predecessor should — a path they should pursue?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, listen –

Q    His successor, I’m sorry.

MR. EARNEST:  The President obviously earlier in his presidency, expended a lot of energy, as did Secretary Kerry, in trying to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together to the negotiating table to facilitate an agreement that would bring peace.  And those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful because the kinds of difficult decisions that must be made in the context of those negotiations can’t be imposed by the United States or even by the international community.  Ultimately, it’s the leaders of the parties themselves that have to make those kinds of decisions.

Q    Yes, but given this moment and given where we are in his time in office, does he feel like this is a moment where he feels like he should do more than he would have not previously?

MR. EARNEST:  I can’t speak to any sort of potential future actions.  What I can speak to is a principle that we have — a reality that we have acknowledged from the beginning, which is that the United States or the international community or other outside forces cannot impose a solution.  And a solution will only come when leaders on both sides demonstrate a willingness to make very difficult decisions to find a compromise.  And that’s difficult work.  It certainly is tricky when you consider the politics involved.  But it’s also tricky when you just consider the deeply held principles involved.

So I think that’s why it’s — when President Peres pursued this kind of peace through negotiations in his career, that effort was so difficult that his efforts were recognized with the Nobel Prize. 

So the President would be the first to acknowledge that the kinds of questions that are facing Israeli and Palestinian leaders are extraordinary, and they’re difficult, and they’re complicated, and they are filled with emotion and questions that go to very basic principles related to identity and religion. 

So this is complicated stuff.  But at the end of the day, it's precisely because of the nature of these questions that ultimately it will be the leaders of the Israeli and Palestinian people to decide how to move forward and how to pursue this peace.  And the United States is going to continue to play the historic role that we have played in encouraging both sides to come to the table.

John.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  Two brief questions.  First, on Friday, you issued a very strong endorsement from the podium of the role of the consumer fraud protection bureau in the investigation of Wells Fargo and the phantom accounts that were there.  Now, Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said, and it's been widely quoted now, that the CFPB did not go far enough in its investigation, was completely uncooperative with his committee, and was stonewalling.  And he wants to bring officials of it before his committee for further investigation.  There's obviously a different interpretation of the role of the CFPB here.

MR. EARNEST:  Obviously.  Chairman Hensarling is somebody who has repeatedly tried to undermine the effectiveness of the CFPB, questioning their independence, trying to cut their budget, otherwise questioning the reason for their existence.  And so hearing this criticism from him is not particularly surprising. 

But it's hard for me to speak in a lot of detail about the work that the CFPB has undertaken in the context of the Wells Fargo investigation because they're independent.  So I'd refer you to the CFPB for an explanation about what kinds of things were considered in the context of their investigation of Wells Fargo.

Q    Another question about Libya.  The President himself has expressed his sorrow about the inability to form a government.  In recent weeks, we've seen Field Marshal Haftar increasingly gain control over key areas of oil.  He is charged with his mission by the parliament (inaudible.)  Does the administration feel this is a good sign?  And is Marshal Haftar someone that we feel comfortable with in a future Libyan government?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the United States has indicated our unequivocal support for the government that was formed under the auspices of this U.N. process.  And the situation in Libya continues to be complicated, and the security situation there in particular continues to be challenging.  And that has challenged this newly formed, newly created government to succeed in unifying the country.  But they certainly undertake that work with the strong support of the United States and the rest of the international community. 

And the United States has, at the invitation of the government, taken some steps to help them counter the terror threat that they face.  I think that's an indication of the United States' investment in the success of that independent government in Libya.

Q    So the U.S. considers Marshal Haftar part of that independent government?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t think the independent government considers him part of that government.  But we'll see if we can get somebody to give you a more detailed accounting of the situation there.

Lalit.

Q    Thank you, Josh.  Yesterday, the Indian government said that it carried out some preemptive strike against terrorist groups coming from Pakistan who are trying to sneak inside India and carry out a terrorist attack.  What do you have to say on it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what I can tell you is that we've seen some reports from the region.  Those reports include that Indian and Pakistani militaries have been in communication with one another.  And we encourage continued discussions between India and Pakistan to avoid escalation.  Ambassador Rice yesterday had an opportunity to speak with her Indian counterpart, National Security Advisor Doval.  And in that call, Ambassador Rice made clear that the United States continues to be concerned by the danger that cross-border terrorism poses to the region. 

And the United States fully expects that Pakistan will take effective action to combat and delegitimize U.N.-designated terrorist individuals and entities.  The United States is firmly committed to our partnership with India and to our joint efforts to combat terrorism, and we're prepared to deepen collaboration on U.N. terrorist designations.  At the same time, we continue to be in close contact with Pakistan, and we continue to value the important partnership that we have formed with them on a range of issues, including security issues.   

Q    Given that there has been close strong cooperation between India and U.S. on counterterrorism things, was any coordination between India and U.S. on this strike by India?

MR. EARNEST:  I can tell you that Ambassador Rice yesterday had an opportunity to be in touch with her counterpart, but I can't speak to any specific coordination on this issue.

Q    U.S. Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, was here.  And he rushed back to Delhi, cancelling his other public engagements. Is he carrying a message from this building, from the White House?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I'm aware of.  But you can check with him to see if — to explain why he rushed back.

Chris, I'll give you the last one.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Today is the deadline to file amicus brief in the case before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.  The lawsuit is based on the premise that the prohibition on gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.  It’s the position of the administration that that law (inaudible) against discrimination against transgender people, but you haven’t said anything about whether it also applies to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I don’t expect you to know from the podium about the brief in this case –

MR. EARNEST:  Thank you.

Q    — but as a constitutional lawyer, has President Obama ever expressed to you that anti-gay discrimination is prohibited under federal law, current federal law?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know that I've heard him express a view even in private on that precise topic.  What I can tell you in general is the principle you've heard me give voice to on a number of occasions, and that simply is that the Obama administration is opposed to laws that are focused on trying to take freedom away from people.  And we've been concerned about laws that, in some cases, seem focused mostly on legitimizing one form of discrimination or another.  And that's why you have seen the Justice Department take some of the actions that they've had to try to protect those freedoms. 

And I can't speak to any specific action at the Department of Justice, but as it relates to the specific question you've raised, I'm sure they can talk to you about it.

Thanks, everybody.

END
2:30 P.M. EDT

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