James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for corrections, marked with asterisks.
12:50 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to hear you all in a good mood.
Q You're not wearing your tux. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I've changed back into my civilian clothes, which is a coat and tie — occupational hazard, I think. I do not have anything at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Josh, in keeping with the President's trip to Miami tomorrow, regarding the Affordable Care Act, is the President alarmed about the premium increases that many people are seeing, as well as insurers — major insurers exiting the program in some markets? And is it a sign that some changes are needed?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the President has been clear that the Affordable Care Act has had enormous benefits for Americans all across the country. Since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, we have seen the overall growth in health care costs held down. We have seen 20 million Americans get access to health care; these are Americans who didn't previously have access to health insurance before the Affordable Care Act. And we have seen millions of Americans all across the country benefit from the kinds of consumer protections that they have long been denied. These are consumer protections that protect people from having to declare bankruptcy because they essentially exceed the lifetime limit that is imposed by their health insurance company. Those lifetime limits are no longer allowed. Individuals cannot be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition.
So these kinds of consumer benefits have not just helped those Americans who are shopping for health insurance on the individual market; those are consumer protections that also benefit the 150 million Americans that get their health insurance through their employer. So those kinds of improvements are obvious benefits of the Affordable Care Act and obviously all critical reasons why the President fought so hard to have this law go into effect.
Now, I think you're acknowledging something that the President has discussed before, too, which is that there are some tweaks to the law that could be implemented that would further improve its performance. And the President has laid out some ideas for what those tweaks would look like, including further enhancing competition in the marketplace by allowing the creation of a public option that added competition in all 50 states would, we believe, have the effect of further challenging private health insurance companies to improve their offerings and reduce their prices.
So these are the kinds of the things that the next Congress will have to consider. Obviously, the current Congress is one that's dominated by Republicans who have voted more than 50 times to repeal the law but have not once in the last six years actually put forward their own alternative proposal.
So it's clear that Republicans in Congress don't share the President's interest in trying to improve our health care system in this country. Maybe the next batch of members of Congress will, and hopefully we'll have a President, like the candidate that President Obama has endorsed, who is determined to build on the remarkable success of the Affordable Care Act.
Q But would a public option bring insurers like United and Aetna back into the program? And what, in particular, is the administration thinking the next President, the next Congress should do to bring insurers back to the program? And isn't that a sign of a healthy Affordable Care Act if you have more insurers coming in rather than exiting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, potentially, that is — well, I think what we're — I think there are two different questions. The first is, one way that you could add competition is essentially to add another entity that's committed to competing in markets all across the country. And that's exactly what the public option would do. The question is, are there other tweaks that you could make that would make it more attractive to some of the companies that you mentioned, to engage more deeply in the marketplace.
So the public option is not the only suggested tweak that the President would consider, but again, this is not something that he's going to be in a position to consider because we already know that this Congress is not going to act on it. But the President has in mind that there could be additional tweaks that could be made that would further enhance competition in the marketplace. And, again, this is sort of rooted in a principle that has long been championed by Republicans — this idea of the free market driving the health insurance industry in a way that ends up being good for consumers. It has to be regulated, but regulated in a way that promotes competition, and that kind of competition can be good for consumers. And we've seen that. But there is more that we can do to further improve.
Q Secretary Burwell said today that she expects 1.1 million more people to sign up on the exchange this year. That's out of about 10.7 million people who are uninsured who are eligible. How does the White House feel about that level of expected enrollment — 1.1 million out of 10.7 possible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the 1.1 million increase I believe is an increase of 8 or 9 percent over last year. So we're talking about 1.1 million additionally enrolling during the open enrollment period this year. I believe last year we ended up somewhere *between 13 and 14 million [between 12 and 13 million].
So that represents a continuing increase in the number of people who are enrolling for health insurance through the marketplace. And this goes to the question that Kevin raised, which is, the more people that are competing in that market, the more attractive it is to companies that are engaged in that kind of business. And the more companies that are engaged in that business who are competing for that pool of customers, the more pressure we're going to put on prices to not increase at the same rate, and we're also going to put pressure on those companies to improve their offerings.
So this kind of enhanced competition is an important part of what the Affordable Care Act is focused on. Prior to the Affordable Care Act going into effect, you'll recall there was no such thing as a marketplace. And individuals who weren’t able to purchase health insurance through their employer — which, I'll remind you, is the vast majority of people who currently have health insurance — but for those who were on the individual market, were left to fend for themselves. And there was not a mechanism in place to regulate the offerings that were put forward by individual insurance companies in a way that allowed individuals to effectively compare offerings from different companies.
So these are the kinds of improvements on a system that was largely unregulated in a way that disadvantaged consumers. But the kinds of tweaks that we're talking about here are tweaks that would further regulate this market in a way that would enhance competition and improve the ability of individuals to go and purchase health insurance in the individual market.
Q By calling it a “tweak,” I mean, setting up a public option sounds like more than a tweak. Wouldn't that be a major legislative and administrative undertaking?
MR. EARNEST: I'm sorry, can you repeat the question?
Q By calling it a “tweak,” doesn’t it sort of underplay or downplay the amount of legislative and administrative work it would take to set up a public option to sort of address that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t mean to downplay it. I think that this would be an important change that would improve the system. But I also wouldn’t exaggerate the kind of change that this would necessitate. So many of the changes that already went into effect as a result of the Affordable Care Act were difficult to implement because of the significant changes that had brought to this individual — to the regulation of this individual market. And adding an additional offering is a substantial change, but it doesn’t reflect a complete overhaul, if you will, of the marketplace mechanism that was put in place by the Affordable Care Act.
I'm sorry I was distracted in answering your question, because there is one other element to this debate that I think is relevant — two other elements, actually. The first is, so much of what we're talking about when we're talking about competition and when we're talking about prices, there has understandably been an intense focus on the increase in cost in the individual market. These are individuals who have to purchase their health insurance during this open enrollment period at Healthcare.gov, in marketplaces.
The vast majority of Americans — again, 150 million Americans — get their health insurance through their employer. And five out of the last six years we have seen that the growth in premium increases is the lowest that it's been on record. So we've seen about 3 percent increases in premiums among people who get their health insurance through their employer. That represents tangible progress in limiting the growth in health care costs in a way that benefits both employers and employees.
That is one often-overlooked benefit of the Affordable Care Act. And again, I think there should be, and the President believes there should be focus on what we see in terms of rates in the individual market. But it's important to recognize that 10 times as many people get their health insurance through their employer, and the impact that we've seen in keeping the growth in health care costs low — the lowest on record, five out of last six years — is a remarkable benefit of the Affordable Care Act.
The second thing is, when you're talking about these marketplace consumers — individuals who do purchase their health insurance through the marketplace — even though we are seeing cost increases all across the country, the fact of the matter is, we do expect that next year more than half the people who seek to purchase health insurance plans through the marketplace will be able to do so for $75 a month or less. And the reason for that is that even though we are seeing an increase in costs in some states, the government subsidy that goes along with those costs also increases to limit costs for insurers to make health care affordable for people.
So this is something I do anticipate that we're going to be talking about quite a bit during the fall. So I appreciate your interest in this. And obviously the President will be discussing this in Miami tomorrow. But we'll have an opportunity to spend some more time working through these numbers.
Q And just briefly, is he going to Miami to give this speech tomorrow for some thematic reason having to do with Obamacare, or is just related to the other travel that he's doing?
MR. EARNEST: No, it's — the thematic reason is that we are essentially within about 10 days of the open enrollment beginning.
Q Right. But what does Miami or Florida have to do with –
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's a large population in Miami of young people in particular that we want to make sure understand the kinds of benefits that are available to them through the Affordable Care Act. And having covered our efforts over the two previous years — the last few years, the three previous years, of trying to raise the awareness among young adults across the country, we have sought to target those communities across the country that have a larger proportion of young people who are eligible for coverage on the marketplace but have not yet taken advantage of it.
Florida is also a particularly powerful illustration of the situation because we have seen Republicans in the state of Florida block Medicaid expansion. And what we have seen, and studies show — even studies that are not conducted by the government — indicate that those states that did not expand Medicaid, where you had Republicans who blocked the expansion of Medicaid, we did actually see health care costs for everybody else go up. And we've seen costs in the marketplace increase an additional 7 percent in those locations, in those states that didn’t expand Medicaid.
So I recognize that there is — look, in some ways you could actually describe this as an effort by Republicans to sabotage the Affordable Care Act, because you have Republicans in individual states essentially preventing some people from getting health insurance that's paid for by the federal government, through Medicaid, or almost entirely paid for through the federal government, through Medicaid. That's having a negative impact on the ability of other people to afford health care through the Affordable Care Act.
So again, it's unfortunate the degree to which Republicans have chosen to play politics with the Affordable Care Act in a way that has not just prevented millions of people across the country from being able to get access to health care through expanded Medicaid, but also driving up the costs of millions more Americans because of their political decision to block Medicaid expansion.
Q Josh, sticking to politics. Can I follow up on the President's “stop whining” comments from yesterday, and Trump's charges about a rigged election? The other part of the question, which I don’t think he answered was, is he — is the administration concerned about post-election violence. And frankly, I'll add to that question by saying, is the administration making any kinds of contingency plans?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I think the President, as he did — he alluded to this in his answer yesterday. The President retains significant confidence in the strength and durability of the U.S. election system. We have typically talked about that in the context of what the IC has concluded about Russia's efforts to try to undermine confidence in that system. But the President believes there's a lot of people — there are many reasons for the American people to have confidence in the integrity of that system, even in the face of some of these Russian-led efforts.
But even separate from that, there has been a concerted effort by at least one candidate to talk down the U.S. system of democracy. And that's unfortunate, and that was the substance of the President's comments yesterday. I think the President is pretty confident that not many people will be persuaded by an effort to run down the U.S. system of elections. And I'll just point out that over the last three or four days, we have seen the running mate to the Republican nominee indicate that he would respect the outcome of the election. And earlier today, we saw the campaign manager for the Republican nominee indicate her confidence in the integrity of our voting system.
So I don’t know if they need to have a staff meeting, or maybe more broadly, circulate a memo, but I think the comments of the running mate and the campaign manager I think reflect the sentiments of Americans in both parties who believe that our democracy benefits from the vigorous conduct of an election, but we also benefit from an acceptance of the result, an acceptance of the expression of the will of the American people, and a commitment by leaders in both parties to follow the will of the American people.
And this was an important part of the President's answer that I do think was a little overlooked, which is, the President articulated, despite his vigorous disagreements with Mr. Trump that we have in no way sought to minimize — the President did pledge that if the American people do make a decision to entrust Mr. Trump with the powers of the presidency, the President would fulfill the commitment that he has made to ensure the successful and smooth transition of power in our democracy.
Our system of government and our democracy depends on people who serve in positions of power who are willing to put the interests of the American people over their own. And the President has strong feelings about the outcome of this election. But if the American people disagree, the President is prepared to honor the will of the American people. Hopefully that’s not going to come about, but I think that’s a reflection of the President’s commitment to this issue, that he’s willing to exercise his own significant authority consistent with the approach he’s hoping that everybody else will take.
Q My question was about violence specifically. And we’ve — our colleagues who are out at campaign rallies and such hear and see people talking and holding signs talking about taking action of one sort or another if there’s an outcome that they don’t believe is credible. Is that something that the President finds worrisome?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think anytime anyone is talking about using violence to advance a political goal in one form or another, the President is concerned about that. And the President believes that there is no place for that in our democracy. In fact, our system of government, our democracy was established to, in an ideal world, aid our ability to resolve our differences through debate and negotiation and not — without resorting to violence.
And so there have been instances where violence has broken out at particular rallies. We saw a campaign office in North Carolina, a Republican campaign office in North Carolina that was vandalized. And the President didn’t get asked about it yesterday, but I’m confident his views are consistent with what I expressed here on Monday, which is to condemn that kind of vandalism, to condemn that kind of violence. And that is consistent with the President’s view that it is not appropriate to resort to violence to achieve a political goal.
Q And is the President’s concern sufficient that some sort of contingency planning is or ought to be underway?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any sort of contingency planning that’s currently underway. Obviously, the President is going to rely on law enforcement organizations and the Department of Homeland Security to make recommendations to him if any recommendations are necessary. Obviously, there is a long tradition in this country of law enforcement decisions being made at the community level, and obviously we’d expect that local law enforcement organizations would take the steps that they believe are appropriate to keep the peace in their communities.
But I’m not aware of any specific planning that’s been undertaken with regard to that potential outcome at this point. But we’re also still three weeks out from Election Day, so we’ll continue to monitor the situation. And if we need to engage in some contingency planning, then we’ll do that.
Q Thanks, Josh. On a separate but related topic, there’s a new report out today showing that anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter is on the rise, and the report linked that abuse to supporters of Donald Trump. I’m wondering, is the President aware of this phenomenon? And if so, how much responsible does he think that Trump shares for the uptick in abuse?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I saw some news coverage of the report; I didn’t read the report itself. The President has expressed, again, to all of you on a number of occasions, his concern about the kind of rhetoric that has been so carelessly used in the context of this election season.
The President understands that the stakes in this election are high and that he would expect people to engage in a vigorous debate. But he believes that that debate should be carried out consistent with the values in this country that we cherish, and those values include not targeting or discriminating against people because of their religion.
Q The Obama administration has worked with Twitter on shutting down channels related to ISIS and other extremist groups. In this instance, does the administration believe that Twitter should be doing more to curb this kind of abusive language on this platform?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously the administration is deeply respectful of the authority that Twitter should exercise in controlling — or at least protecting the freedom of people to use Twitter to express their views. I know that Twitter has faced many of their own questions about where to draw the lines — where do you draw the line from freely expressing your view to advocating violence or inciting violence in one form or another.
So you know these are difficult questions, but they also relate directly to the First Amendment rights of American citizens. So I think Twitter has taken — assumed this responsibility understanding how serious this question is. And they have frequently responded constructively to a desire on the part of the administration to make it harder for terrorist organizations to incite violence using social medial platforms like Twitter. I think the questions are a little bit different when we’re talking about the tone and rhetoric that’s used in the context of a political debate, but I know that these are questions that Twitter has carefully considered and has tried to confront, both because the responsibility that they have to all of their users, but also because the success of their platform is going to depend on them establishing some rules of the road that are fair.
They certainly don’t want to preside over a platform that muzzles dissent, where you have people who are taking a platform that should be used to freely express one's views and ultimately shut down the ability of individuals to express those views. But on the other hand, I think they’re going to have a hard time recruiting people to join and participate actively in the Twitter community if the Twitter community is littered with hateful, violent images and rhetoric.
Q Josh, do you have any reaction from President Obama to the invitation to his half-brother to be at the debate tonight from the Trump campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I don’t anticipate that the President has spent a lot of time considering whether or not his *brother-in-law [half-brother] should attend the debate. If he does choose to attend hopefully, he’ll do something more fun than just attend the debate.
Q Can you describe their relationship?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know much about it. My understanding is that there’s not much of one.
Q On the schedule for tomorrow, which comes first in the planning of tomorrow’s trip? Was it the Obamacare event or the political event?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, you’ll recall that this was actually a trip that the President had previously planned to take to Florida earlier this month, but the trip was rescheduled as a result of Hurricane Matthew that was predicted to make landfall, and we wanted to ensure that the President’s trip didn’t disrupt any of the activities that were underway to plan for the eventual landfall of the hurricane.
So in the context of that previous trip, the President was planning to deliver a speech about the Affordable Care Act in Tampa. And just for the sake of slimming down the trip and making it more efficient, he'll deliver that speech in Miami instead, but he'll also — we've also rescheduled the political activities that the President was previously planning to lead while he was there as well.
Q So the Affordable Care Act event came first in the planning?
MR. EARNEST: That's my understanding. But obviously it's complicated, because we had originally planned the trip, we pulled it down. And then — so in the rescheduling of the trip, I guess I would say, we planned them both because both of them had been part of the original plan. So it's hard to say that one came first, because we essentially were trying to reschedule both activities — or both sets of activities.
Q Were you able to check with advance about the use of a presidential seal at political events?
MR. EARNEST: I did have a conversation about this. I haven't gotten greater clarity about what guides the decision about whether or not to use the seal. But what is clear, and what you have clearly noticed, is that there are some occasions where we use it and some occasions where we don't. I'm not — I don't have a lot of insight into how that decision is made. But I'll see if I can get you some more information on it.
Q Appreciate it.
MR. EARNEST: Ron.
Q Just on the half-brother issue again, does the President see this as a perhaps subtle or not-so subtle echo of the birther issue?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't think it is. I have to admit I really don't know exactly what the intent is of this invitation, other than probably to get you guys to ask me about it. But even then, I'm not really sure what goal that accomplishes. But you can — I guess you can check with people who offered the invitation.
Q I think we have. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: And what did they say?
Q I don't know. I'll get back to you on that. (Laughter.) Some people described Mr. Trump’s tactics as sort of a scorched earth policy or approach in recent days. Is that — do you think that's accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that other analysts have observed that it doesn’t appear to be a vote-getting strategy either. But, look, for the strategy that they’re engaged in, they’re not looking for advice from me, and I think that's pretty evident from some of the strategies that they’ve chosen to pursue. But I'll let him run his campaign. And they’ve got three weeks left to try to execute whatever strategy they believe is most likely to lead to success.
Q Is it fair to say the President is going to be watching the debate tonight with interest?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think like most Americans, the President is interested to see what happens in this final confrontation between the two candidates. There’s an opportunity for each candidate to, in some ways, deliver a closing argument. This will be the last major platform that both candidates have, and that makes for an important moment. And the President, like most Americans who are following this election — and that's a lot of people — is interested to see what’s going to happen.
Q On another issue, the email issue, not the specifics of these emails, but there still is this constant release, this constant flow of hacked messages. Is that an indication that whatever the United States’ proportional response to the Russians was has not had its desired effect? Or is there any connection at all between any of that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a lot there in that question. Let me start by saying I'm just not going to be able to sort of evaluate what sort of response may eventually be mobilized with regard to the Russians and their effort to undermine our political system in cyberspace. So I'm not able to speak with much specificity about what actions have been taken, what actions have not been taken, whether any actions have been taken. Those are just questions I can't get into.
What I'll say is that many of the releases are consistent with the tactics that the intelligence community of the United States has concluded were directed by the Russian government. And these kinds of tactics are consistent with instructions that typically would require the involvement of senior-level officials in the Russian government. And we have seen Russia engage in tactics in other democracies to try to undermine confidence in democratic institutions, primarily in Europe. So these kinds of things are — or these kinds of tactics are not necessarily new, but what’s also not new is that the American people have a lot of confidence in our system of democracy, in the durability of that system.
If you think about our history of carrying out elections in this country, they’ve survived a civil war, multiple elections through two world wars, obviously a cold war, and their adversaries –
Q You mentioned confidence in the system. And I think that a lot of Americans don't have confidence in cyberspace that they may have had if they see these high-profile individuals being hacked, and the administration’s response is essentially they’re going to respond, or we have responded proportionally, and trust us, we can't talk about it. What’s reassuring about that? Because I think there is a lot of concern about whether, in fact, the administration is on top of this, given the constant, still flow of emails that have apparently been hacked.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me try to help you understand our approach to this situation. One of the things that we have tried to help people understand is that, even though our world is more connected through the Internet than ever before, it's very difficult to hack the U.S. election system. Many elements of that election system are not connected to the Internet. These systems of conducting elections, even in the context of a national election, are decentralized; that you've got states and individual localities –
Q I'm not talking about just confidence in the electoral system. I'm talking about confidence in email and online activities, generally speaking. I mean, I think the election issue is –
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm glad you clarified that, because what I'm talking about is our election system, and that is the system that we want to make sure that we are fortifying, and that is the system that people should have confidence in. With regard to cybersecurity and with regard to the willingness of Russia or other malevolent actors to try to engage in malicious activity in cyberspace, that's not new. All of your news organizations have had to deal with that.
And the President has put forward his own cybersecurity strategies, including a significant budget increase that Republicans in Congress refuse to even talk about. We believe there is more that Congress should do to invest in our cybersecurity efforts that wouldn't just protect U.S. government networks, but also the cybersecurity of the country more broadly. And there are significant national security and economic consequences for our success in that endeavor, and this administration continues to believe that's a priority, and I would expect that that's something that the President will spend some more time talking about, even in his last three months in office.
Q What about the specific case of Ecuador and Julian Assange and his being cut off from email? Did the United States have anything to do with that at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my colleagues at the State Department — I know the suggestion on the part of some has been that somehow Secretary Kerry may have tried to strong arm his Ecuadorian counterpart to undertake this action. Secretary Kerry said that that was not true, and we saw a statement from the Ecuadorians earlier today indicate that this is a decision that they made on their own. They have a sovereign foreign policy, and they made their own conclusion to pursue this action against Mr. Assange. And that's a decision that they've undertaken based on their own conclusion about what's in their country's best interest.
Q They just decided — so, again, aside from Secretary Kerry, the position is that the United States had nothing to do with that decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the accusation was made about Secretary Kerry, and he said that that was not true. The State Department said that that was not true. And the Ecuadorians have said, we did this because we decided it was the right thing to do, not because anybody else told us to do it. So I think it's a pretty open and shut case here.
Q Thanks, Josh. If I could follow just a second. A spokesman for the Czech National Police today announced that a Russian national was arrested in Prague for cyberattacks in the U.S. Are you aware of this report? Can you tell me anything about this individual?
MR. EARNEST: I am aware of the report. It is the subject of an ongoing law enforcement investigation, so I can't discuss any of the details. My colleagues at the Department of Justice may be able to give you some more information about this particular individual. What I would say — I think the one thing that I can say about it is you might cite this as one example of many where the United States Department of Justice takes very seriously the responsibility that they have to protect the United States and our interests in cyberspace. And they have gone after criminal networks, and they've even gone after individuals acting on behalf of nation-states to protect our cybersecurity here in the United States.
That's a vigorous effort that they've undertaken, and that's I think a clear sign that the Department of Justice is playing a vibrant role alongside other national security agencies in the United States government to protect the American people and to protect our cybersecurity.
Q Is it a leap too far afield to suggest that this is part of the proportional reaction to the Russians hacking U.S. cyber infrastructure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice about the decision that they made with regard to this particular individual. This is — as with all law enforcement decisions and law enforcement actions, those are taken independent of any sort of political interference.
Q Can I just push just a little bit more here about concerns about escalation? I think there might be at least some concern on the part of the public that if there is a proportional response to this and the Russians will simply go tit for tat on this, how big of a concern is that for the United States government?
MR. EARNEST: It’s an entirely legitimate concern, and I think it exposes — you’ve uncovered here one of the significant challenges that policymakers face in dealing with cyber policy. The rules of the road when it comes to cybersecurity in large part are not well established. And that makes it difficult.
It’s hard to draw these kinds of analogies that are very imperfect, but one example might be — there are rules that guide freedom of navigation of U.S. ships. So we’ve talked about how in the South China Sea, for example, the United States would — on several occasions has undertaken freedom of navigation operations to signal — or to send a signal about the willingness of the United States to fly, sail and operate in international waters. And that’s a well-established norm that, even though it might be occasionally irritating to some other countries, it’s a norm that everybody acknowledges is one that should be followed.
And when there’s a violation of some of those well-established norms, like what Russia has done in Ukraine, for example, that’s something that the international community acknowledges is a problem and acknowledges is worthy of a internationally organized response.
Those clear lines, those clear norms are not as well established in cyberspace. The technology is so new and our habits for interacting in that realm are not well established. That’s why at the G20, the President actually has tried to lead a discussion among other world leaders about trying to establish some of these rules of the road, to try to establish some norms among the 20 largest economies of the world about what’s acceptable in cyberspace and what’s not, and when those norms are violated what’s an appropriate response.
This is something that we’ve made some progress on. You heard Prime Minister Xi, when he was here at the White House a year or so ago, indicate a specific commitment about not using particular cyber strategies that are funded by the Chinese government to steal secrets that could then be used to advantage in an economic context a Chinese business. He acknowledged that that’s something that the Chinese government would not do. And that represents — that was an important step that might not seem like much but that actually does establish a pretty important norm, and does guide the behavior of the United States and China in cyberspace. And that’s a good thing.
There’s more work along those lines that needs to be done. And this will — establishing these kinds of rules of the road will be an important national security priority of the next President in the same way that it has been for this President.
Q Let me ask you about the new actions to spur competition in the airline industry. I remember back in April the President had an executive order among the ideas — requiring refunds for delayed baggage, for example; making the airline market fairer, more transparent; stopping the airlines from cherry-picking the data. But when we read reports like this, almost immediately and instinctively the airline industry and some of the larger players will say, this is going to lead to increased costs. What’s your response to that?
MR. EARNEST: Our response to that is that airlines should not use the requirement to treat their passengers fairly as an excuse to further jack up prices. I don’t think there’s anything that has — this doesn’t have anything to do with party politics. I think most Americans believe that the airlines to whom they pay significant sums of money to help them get places should treat them fairly in return.
And there is an appropriate role for the United States government to play to ensure that the interests of consumers and the interests of people who are using our commercial aviation system in the United States are treated fairly by the companies who make a substantial profit by operating in this market. U.S. airlines are making good money. That's a testament to the business practice. It's a testament to the innovation that we have seen many of them pursue. So there's nobody who is, that I can think of, that isn't rooting for their success. We all want an aviation system that functions effectively, that serves the needs of the American people. Our quality of life and our economy depend on it.
But we also have this sense that those airlines, as they're performing that service and as they're making a substantial profit, should treat their customers fairly. And that certainly is something that the U.S. government is prepared to enforce.
Q Lastly, I want to ask about the Project Veritas videos that have been making the rounds of late. Does the White House have any reaction to the dismissal or the severance of two veteran Democratic operatives after the release of the latest Project Veritas videos? In particular, I want to draw your attention to Robert Creamer, a convicted felon, who visited the White House, according to reports, 342 times; also met personally with the President some 47 times, the most recent occasion being in June of this year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I've been asked about videos that have come from this outlet in the past. And each time, I've tried to urge people to take those reports not at face value and not just with a grain of salt, but maybe even a whole package of salt. Because despite what the name might suggest, these videos have not often revealed the truth.
Q You have some people that were sort of shoved out or walked away based on the release of these videos.
MR. EARNEST: And so that is true, and so that's why I'm reluctant to comment directly on the videos themselves. I think there is a principle, though, that I will give voice to, which is, I know that there was the suggestion in some of these reports that it might be a clever organizing tactic or a clever political tactic to try to incite violence at political rallies –
Q Bird-dogging, that sort of thing.
MR. EARNEST: — that is entirely inconsistent with the President's view about community organizing and waging a vigorous campaign; that we should attempt and we should have so much confidence in the power of our persuasion and in our arguments that we shouldn't have to resort to violence. And in fact, it is completely inappropriate to resort to violence to advance a political goal. And that certainly is a principle that the President strong believes in.
Q As far as Creamer is concerned, with all those visits here to the White House in particular, I'm wondering, is that a reflection of the ethical standards of the Obama White House — that a guy like that who, at least according to the videos — admittedly, these videos are in some dispute in some circles — seems to be suggesting voter fraud, a person who is a convicted felon, who was an often frequent visitor here at the White House? It is a reflection, some would argue, of the standards of this White House that that's the type of person that's here with that sort of frequency.
MR. EARNEST: And I think at this point, I would urge extreme caution in drawing conclusions about anybody's character based on a few hours of having looked at this video, because time and time and time again, information that was released by this organization is a lot different than initial reports would indicate.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. EARNEST: I'll come back to you.
Go ahead, Cheryl.
Q Switching to policy. Yesterday, the President said that the T-TIP negotiation had been discussed with the Italian Prime Minister.
MR. EARNEST: That's correct.
Q Can you give us any update on the status of that agreement?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know in how much detail they were able to discuss it. We'll see if we can get you some more information about the nature of their discussions on this issue. But I don't have an update for you in terms of our expectations. The President has tasked his team with a rather ambitious goal, which is to attempt to complete T-TIP negotiations by the end of the year. I know that there — speaking of the airline industry, I suspect they're being significantly subsidized by the Office of the United States Trade Representative. I know individuals who work in that office have been logging some significant miles in the air as they have traveled to Europe to work on these negotiations. And they're working hard to try to meet the ambitious goal that the President has laid out.
But as is the case with all of these sorts of broad, international agreements, nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. So it's hard to give you a good status update other than to say that that ambitious goal remains in place, and those who have been tasked by the President of the United States to try to achieve that goal are working hard to fulfill the mission that the President has given them.
Q To put a little bit of a finer point on it, you just said nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. There is one train of thought that, in an attempt to try to get closure this year or in this administration that the T-TIP — what they've agreed to so far could be closed out, leaving maybe a few issues to be negotiated later, do you think that's a possibility?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don’t want to provide sort of a play-by-play of the negotiating efforts. I want to give them the opportunity to consider a range of options. And they'll pursue — Ambassador Froman and those on his staff will pursue the approach that they believe best serves the interests of the United States. And I wouldn't handicap at this point what the likely outcome would be other than to say the President has asked Ambassador Froman to pursue an ambitious goal. And I don't know, frankly, if it's one that they will be able to achieve, but they are certainly putting the time and effort in pursuit of it. And we'll just have to see.
The reason that I can't offer complete assurance that this is something that will be achieved is Ambassador Froman is only going to agree to something that is in the best interest of the U.S. economy. So this is not a situation where the United States is prepared to take the first deal that the Europeans put on the table; this is something that will be negotiated rigorously. And, again, the decision about whether or not to accept this deal will not be based on the President laying out an ambitious goal, but will be based on a clear-eyed assessment about whether or not it serves the interests of the American people and would stand to benefit the U.S. economy.
Q The Justice Department says they'll be dispatching fewer trained poll observers because of the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act. Is the White House concerned about the effect of this in any way on this election?
MR. EARNEST: I hadn't heard that announcement from the Department of Justice, so I guess I would refer you to them to give them the opportunity to say whether or not they expect that this will have much impact on their ability to ensure the effective conduct of the election. Overall, the President retains very high confidence in the ability of our election system to function effectively and to yield a result that reflects the will of the American people.
The President also has spoken at length about his disappointment that there has been an effort by Republicans in states across the country and some Republicans in Congress to make it harder for some citizens to vote, to make it harder for veterans, some elderly voters and, yes, some college students and minority voters, as well, to cast a ballot, even though they're eligible to do so. And the President believes we should be making our election system easier for people to participate in, not erect barriers that might make it harder for them to cast a ballot if they're eligible. But those frustrations aside, the President does have confidence that, whatever the outcome is on November 8th will be an accurate reflection of the U.S. electorate.
Q Confidence in the democratic process and the electoral system. But is the White House or the President concerned in any way about voter intimidation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's always something that, on the eve of a hard-fought election, that we are aware of. Again, we want to make sure that every eligible American voter in this country has an opportunity to participate in our system, to cast a ballot, and to have it counted. And that's with regard to whatever political party they've signed up with. So the President believes that this is an important principle, and we would call on Democrats and Republicans to work together to ensure that it's upheld in communities all across the country.
Q Does the President think his elder half-brother is being used as a prop at tonight’s debate?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don't think the President has given a lot of consideration about the invitation that was extended by the Trump campaign, in part because, again, I'm not really sure what kind of message they’re trying to send or what goal they think it may achieve, again, other than having you guys ask me about it.
Q It's been successful in that.
MR. EARNEST: I guess they have. I guess they got you on that one, didn’t they?
Q You're making a point that they’re not that close. Do you know the last time that they spoke or were in touch?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know the last time they spoke.
Q Getting back to Russia. You're talking about the new rules for engagement in cyber warfare. There is the argument that you're not going to disclose if decisions have been made or what actions are being taken before they’re being taken. It's different than saying you're not going to tell the American public after those actions have been taken. And the Vice President said as much when he was asked about this over the weekend. He said he hopes that the American public doesn’t know about the counter cyber strike that the President may order. Why shouldn’t the American public believe that they are entitled to knowing when their government orders a cyberattack or the aftermath of a cyberattack on coordination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me do a couple things. The first is, with regard to the premise of your question, just to be really clear — and when I'm talking about establishing rules of the road, I'm talking about rules of the road in cyberspace. It doesn’t just relate to cyber warfare. It also relates to espionage activity. It also relates to the conduct of businesses in cyberspace. What kind of privacy policies do they have in place? What are the rules and norms that will govern their analysis of big data, for example?
These are all complicated questions, and they are questions — these are questions that have a significant consequence not just for our economy but also for our national security. So it's much broader than just sort of the realm of cyber warfare.
With regard to cyber warfare, the President has discussed before the significant capabilities that are retained by the United States. These are capabilities that far exceed any other country’s. And some of those capabilities are based on our ability to exploit information that only we know — potential loopholes in a particular system. And that's why we're just not going to be in a position to detail those activities publicly. It would undermine our ability to do so.
But the other aspect of your question that I want to make sure we're really clear about is that an appropriate proportional response to Russia’s conduct in cyberspace that we believe, that our intelligence community has concluded is a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our political system, is not just limited to the cyber realm. There are other tools — through diplomacy, through the use of sanctions — that could be used as part of our response to Russia’s activities.
And so it's important that as people consider, again, the appropriate policy response, that they recognize that our options aren't just limited to a tit for tat. To sort of go back to some of the examples that I've used before, the international response to Russia flagrantly violating the international norm that Ukraine sovereignty is something that should be protected, or at least respected, was not to respond with military force. Russia violated that norm of military force, but the international response has not been to mobilize a military response. I recognize there may be some who would advocate that. But the response from the international community has actually been to mobilize a diplomatic response that has left Russia further isolated. There is an effort by the international community to mobilize a response around imposing sanctions that have had a significant, negative impact on the Russian economy.
So there are a variety of ways to respond to the violation of certain norms. And so just as people try to understand what the administration’s approach is here, I don't want people’s thinking to be so constrained that the only potential response is some secret — the deployment of a secret offensive cyber capability. The President’s options are much broader than that.
Q Sure. But in those examples, the American public would know about it. If we had a diplomatic response, if we had economic sanctions that we were announcing against Russia, the American public would know about that. And my question is about a cyber response from the administration and the idea that the American public doesn’t deserve to know about that.
MR. EARNEST: I think it's not necessarily about “deserve.” In this case, we're talking about our ability to protect the American people and to protect our interests. Obviously there is oversight of these activities. There is oversight within the executive branch; there’s oversight in Congress as well. Obviously there would be the appropriate congressional committees that will be a part of this discussion. So there’s independent oversight of these activities.
But, yes, this is an element of national security, which is that we can't talk about every single thing that the United States does to ensure that the American people are protected, and the American people retain confidence in our system of government both because they understand why some of those details can't be revealed, but also because they recognize that there is a system of checks and balances that ensure that those actions are consistent with our national interest and consistent with the United States Constitution, and that our right to privacy and civil liberties are not trampled. And the President has been forceful in advocating for the kinds of reforms that are built into those kinds of protections.
Q Sorry to ask so many questions about this, but as you lay out, it is unchartered territory. And what you're saying just now about balance of government and congressional oversight, I just want to be clear. Are you saying that if the President were to direct –
MR. EARNEST: I'm not going to get into hypotheticals, so I'll just –
Q I know, but I guess what I'm saying — I'm just trying to understand what you just told me — or ended with. Did you just say that Congress would be consulted and have a check on the President ordering cyber retaliation?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm saying is that — I'm not going to talk about a particular hypothetical. What I'm saying is that there is congressional oversight over a range of national security authorities that the President of the United States retains to protect the American people, and that is part of what gives the American people confidence that even when there are certain aspects of our national security strategy that we can't conduct — that we can't discuss publicly, that they are conducted consistent with our nation’s best interest and with our values, including the rights that are enshrined in the United States Constitution.
Q Several times we've heard the President now talk about his confidence in the election and in democratic systems. But the word “rigged” has now almost become a buzzword this cycle. It's all over the Internet. Now those videos that we talked about earlier are circulating as possible proof that things will be rigged. There’s talk of collusion and things like that. Do you think that that is a risk at this point? Does the President see that as a threat to things going smoothly after the election?
MR. EARNEST: I think most people see that kind of rhetoric as a farce. The idea that the Republican governors of Florida and Georgia and Arizona and North Carolina and Indiana and Ohio and Iowa are going to collude with Democrats is far-fetched, to say the least.
And the fact that most people find this unconvincing — the evidence that I have that most people find this unconvincing is that there are senior officials in the Republican Party who find this unconvincing, including the Republican presidential nominee’s running mate, who indicated that he would respect the results of the election. Another person who is unpersuaded by that argument of a potential bipartisan conspiracy is the Republican candidate’s campaign manager — to say nothing of the Republican Speaker of the House, whose spokesperson has indicated that those kinds of conspiracy theories are far-fetched.
So, again, as the President alluded to yesterday, these are the kinds of conspiracy theories that are rarely floated by winners. It's the people who are not feeling good about the prospects of the outcome that would start raising these kinds of questions. That's particularly true in athletic competitions –people who are trailing on the scoreboard are the people most likely to complain about the officiating.
Q In certain groups you really see that thought taking hold, though. I mean, a poll this month showed that about half of Donald Trump’s supporters felt like rigging is a possibility and that half of them don't trust the outcome of the election. Do you have any thoughts on why you think that that is taking hold?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don't know why that might be taking hold, particularly because there’s no evidence to substantiate those claims. And the President alluded to this in his answer yesterday, as well. There have been studies to examine whether or not to follow up on anecdotal reports of widespread voter fraud, and there’s never been evidence mobilized to indicate widespread voter fraud that would change the outcome of an election.
There certainly are colorful anecdotes from generations ago. But of studies that were conducted of the last three or four presidential elections where more than a billion votes were cast, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. And there are a variety of reasons for that. Our election systems are so decentralized. You’ve got Democrats and Republicans in different states to preside over those election systems. You’ve got a whole system of poll watchers and other election officials who believe in the system and, despite their own party affiliation, are mostly committed to the success of our democracy.
That's how most Americans feel. That's certainly how the current President of the United States feels.
Q But it was as recently as late August, during a fundraiser, the President said that he was tired of talking about Donald Trump and he felt like he didn’t need to make a case against him because he felt that Donald Trump was making the case against himself very well. And that was eight weeks ago. What has changed the President’s mind so distinctly that now he will take a question about Trump and he'll run with it?
MR. EARNEST: I think some of it is that he is concerned about some of the claims that are being made. He is concerned about the incessant, false claim that the election is subject, or at least susceptible to rigging. Undermining our democracy in that way is not good. It doesn’t benefit the country. It may benefit one person in our country, but it doesn’t benefit our system. And it certainly is inconsistent with the long, bipartisan tradition of respecting the outcome of our political elections.
And the President himself indicated his own commitment to this principle in his answer yesterday. In the event that the American people do choose Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States, the President would have grave concerns about that, but the President would be committed to ensuring a seamless and smooth transition in power, and would, as the President noted yesterday, personally escort Mr. Trump to Capitol Hill so that he could participate in the inauguration.
That is what the previous 43 Presidents have done. That is what the 43rd President of the United States, a Republican, did for the 44th Democratic President of the United States. And the President would certainly fulfill that tradition, even if it meant helping somebody that he vigorously disagrees with. And that would mean putting aside his own personal feelings because of his commitment to our country and our democracy.
Q So is he no longer tired of talking about Donald Trump and he no longer feels that Donald Trump is making a case against himself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think I feel confident speaking for everybody in this room in saying that we all are tired of it. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks, Josh. Senator Rubio said in a statement today that he's not going to talk about the WikiLeaks emails. He basically said that Democrats were being targeted today by the Russians and it could be Republicans tomorrow. Do you agree with that stance? And if it is Republicans tomorrow, would you say that Democrats shouldn't capitalize on those emails?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not aware that Democrats have. I think what I'll say is that you've seen the way that I've handled it, which is that I've been very reluctant to comment on the emails of a private citizen that were stolen, particularly when we know that the tactics for stealing and disseminating that information, according to our intelligence community, are at least similar to the tactics that are used by the Russian government to undermine confidence in our political system.
So I've been very reluctant to discuss reports about those stolen emails. But everybody is going to have to make up their own decision, make up their own mind about the most appropriate way to answer those questions.
Q I think I was sort of trying to get at if there was a Russian-inspired hack of Donald Trump's tax returns or his business dealings, are you confident that Democrats wouldn't capitalize on media reports about that and would take the same –
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think everybody would have to make up their own mind about how they want to handle that situation. But I've obviously been loath to discuss publically the stolen private emails of a private citizen.
Q So somewhat similarly about WikiLeaks, the question about the Ecuadorian decision now to — or to cut Assange's Internet. You were a little bit, I guess, indirect about whether or not the U.S. government was involved at all.
MR. EARNEST: I'm not sure that's true, but if there's an opportunity for me to clarify I will endeavor to do so.
Q Does the U.S. government support that decision?
MR. EARNEST: This is a decision that's made by a sovereign government, so I'm not going to weigh in one way or the other. The Ecuadorian foreign minister put out a statement indicating that they made this decision; they didn't do it because anybody asked them to, they did it because they believed it was in the best interest of their country. Why they have reached that conclusion is something that you should direct to them.
Q Just one more. The U.N. Humanitarian Chief said that the United Nation believes up to 1.5 million in Mosul will be at great risk for being targeted, or caught in the crossfire, or forcibly expelled, or used as human shields in the effort to free that city. Can you talk a little bit about what the administration, what the military has seen so far in terms of the humanitarian impact of the efforts to free Mosul, and what's being done to limit the human casualties?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the first fact that I want to mention — because it's important that it not be overlooked — you cited that as this operation is undertaken, it could potentially put the citizens of Mosul at great risk. The citizens of Mosul are already at great risk. We already know that they're subject to violence. We already know that they're used as human shields. We already know that some of them have faced violence and humiliation and targeting just because of their religious views or because they may have not been sufficiently supportive of the self-appointed ISIL leadership of that community.
So the humanitarian situation in Mosul is already grave. And the potential for certain humanitarian contingencies should not be used as an excuse to put off undertaking this operation. What we should do, and what the international community has done, as the President acknowledged yesterday, is to plan for those potential contingencies. And this planning has been led by the United Nations, with the strong support of the rest of the international community.
And so there are billions of dollars that have been pledged by the United States and the rest of the international community to plan for the humanitarian consequences of clearing ISIL from communities all across Iraq; that we have had important success in helping people move back into cities like Ramadi and Tikrit. These are cities that ISIL previously controlled. These are communities that ISIL sabotaged on their way out the door. And the international community, with the important influence of the U.N., but in a way that was entirely supportive of the sovereignty of the Iraqi central government, worked to rebuild those communities, worked to help citizens return to their homes in those communities, worked to ensure that there was a police force on the ground to protect law and order in those communities. And that's been an important effort.
All across Iraq, nearly 1 million Iraqis have returned to their homes, including 95 percent of the population from Tikrit and about 200,000 people who have returned to Ramadi. So there is a template for managing situations like this.
What’s also true — and I think why your question is an important one — is that Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq. There’s a large population. Mosul is larger than Tikrit and Ramadi. So we’re dealing with a contingency that could be on a much larger scale. And that’s why, for the last several months, you’ve seen an Iraqi-led, U.N.-coordinated effort to mobilize resources — everything from food and water to medicine and temporary housing facilities — so that if a humanitarian contingency does arise that there are resources in place to deal with it.
So this is a significant challenge, and it will require the rest of the international community being deeply engaged to make sure that this is a success — not just in terms of carrying out the military operation, but also in terms of rebuilding and restoring a community that I think will find, once ISIL has been driven out, has really taken a toll because of the depraved tactics that are regularly used by ISIL.
Q Josh, thanks. Back on the Project Veritas story. I understand why you don’t want to comment on the video itself, but in a general sense, can you assure voters that the DNC is not engaging in dirty tricks in this campaign?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, what I can assure you of is that the statements that you saw from Democratic officials that Kevin alluded to utterly disavowed those tactics. And I think you’ve heard me disavow those tactics. And so there should be no misunderstanding that the use of violence or any other things that could be construed as a dirty trick is not condoned by the President of the United States, and is not consistent with the kinds of values that we cherish in this democracy, particularly when you consider the stakes in this election, and particularly when you consider the broad appeal for the arguments that are being put forward by Democrats.
Democrats should be quite confident in the persuasive power of our arguments. And it’s important for us to make sure that those arguments are heard and that people are sufficiently motivated to get out to the polls and cast votes that reflect the persuasive power of those arguments.
Q Is the President a friend of Bob Creamer?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not how I would describe him. Kevin alluded to the fact that Mr. Creamer may have been at the White House a number of times, but, no, he’s not a friend of the President.
Jean, I’ll give you the last one. Susan, I’ll give you the last one. So, Jean, we’ll –
Q Thank you very much. If Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States, will you go after the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that’s probably a question that you should direct to her campaign. They can talk about what she will do as President of the United States. I think I can just speak in general terms that obviously having served as a Secretary of State under President Obama, she played an important role in strengthening our relationships throughout the Asia Pacific that have put the United States in a better position to confront North Korea for their destabilizing activities and their willingness to violate a wide range of international obligations.
But with regard to what she would do as President of the United States, I’d encourage you to touch base with her campaign.
Q What is President Obama’s final destination of the North Korean nuclear issue?
MR. EARNEST: What’s the final destination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President’s foremost concern is doing what’s necessary to protect the American people. And the President has also made a deep commitment to ensuring that the United States will stand with our allies in the face of the provocations from the North Koreans. And that’s why you’ve seen talks with the South Korean government to deploy a counter-ballistic-missile battery in South Korea advance as quickly and as far as they have.
There’s been a deployment of other radar and anti-missile systems in Japan and in Guam and other places throughout the Asia Pacific to better protect our allies and the American people. And that’s our foremost concern.
But we also are going to continue to work with the rest of the international community to further isolate the North Korean regime and apply additional pressure to them to convince them that they should pursue the kind of policies that are in the best interests of their people and in the best interests of what should be a shared goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Q Could it be more aggressively approaching North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have a policy change to signal at this point, but the President’s foremost concern is the safety and security of the American people and our allies. And I think that’s been consistent with the kinds of policies that the President has implemented over his eight years in office.
Susan, I’ll give you the last one.
Q I wanted to follow up on Dave’s question, and then I have a question of my own. So how would you describe the President’s relationship with Bob Creamer?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not sure that I can describe it because I’m not sure that there’s much of one. I know that they have met before, but I — again –
Q They met 40 times personally, and he was here 300 times.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we can get you some more details on that. I don’t want you to rely on those and leave people with the suggestion that somehow these are 40 different one-on-one meetings in the Oval Office. That would not be true. But we'll see if we can get you some more information about that.
Q That would be helpful, because it's out there on the Interwebs saying that he's been here, and they're showing the records from the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I know why they’re out there. They’re out there because the Obama administration is the most transparent White House in American history, and we can have this conversation because we have disclosed that information proactively. We do that on a regular basis. So it is a good thing.
Q It also empowers us to ask the question of why he’s there.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, and we welcome that kind of accountability and transparency, and we should be having this conversation.
Q I have a question about Merrick Garland. And I'm wondering if the President would like to see him confirmed in the next legislative session after the election.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President believes that Merrick Garland is somebody who can serve the American people on the Supreme Court with distinction, and he absolutely believes the United States Senate, in particular Republicans in the United States Senate, should do their job. They should consider his nomination. They should meet with him. They should give him a hearing and they should give him a vote. And the fact that he’s waited more than 200 days for that vote is appalling when you consider the credentials that he has.
He is the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in history when you consider that he served more years on the federal judiciary than any other Supreme Court nominee in history. He is somebody who is rated by the American Bar Association as unanimously well-qualified. He is somebody who’s been described by Republicans as a consensus pick. And he is somebody who has demonstrated a clear commitment and expertise when it comes to public service.
He prosecuted — or he led the investigation and prosecution of one of the worst terror acts in American history. So he’s put terrorists behind bars. He knows what it takes to keep the American people safe.
That's why the President — for all those reasons, that's why the President has put him forward. And it is outrageous that Republicans in the Senate have refused to even meet with him even though they don't call into question his credentials.
Q Do you have a commitment from Hillary Clinton if she becomes President to nominate him again?
MR. EARNEST: No, we don't. If the vacancy has not been filled when she takes office, she will be the President of the United States and she will be able to put forward whomever she believes should fill the vacancy. And I hasten to add that she has said many times that the President made an excellent choice when nominating Merrick Garland.
And I think that is part of why you have seen basically unanimous support among Democrats on Capitol Hill for this nomination. Those Democrats recognize the same thing that Secretary Clinton does, which is that he is enormously qualified. He is a devout public servant, and he’s somebody who could serve with honor and distinction on the Supreme Court. But when she’s elected President, she will be the one that is entrusted with the power to nominate Chief Judge Garland or someone else to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Q You see where I'm going with this. But do you feel like it would be hypocritical for Republicans to vote in favor of Merrick Garland or push his nomination after saying that they wouldn't if they turn around and do so in the next legislation if Hillary Clinton were to be elected? I know there’s some hypotheticals in that, but do you think it would be hypocritical for Republicans to turn around and vote in favor of Merrick Garland and push his nomination in the next legislative session?
MR. EARNEST: I'll try to answer your question as directly as I can, which is that every member of the United States Senate, including Republicans, swore an oath to fulfill their duties as a United States senator, and to do so upholding the Constitution of the United States. And the fact is Republicans have not done their job. Unfortunately, Leader McConnell actually spent part of his seven-week vacation bragging about not doing his job. That would explain some of his party’s standing in the polls.
But it also is having a negative impact on our federal judiciary as a country. There were at least a couple of high-profile cases that were heard in the Supreme Court earlier this year where the Court was unable to reach a decision because they were split 4 to 4. And so it's starting to have an impact on the functioning of the highest court in the land.
And that has impact on the country, where you essentially have a law interpreted different ways, based on where people live. And that is not a path that we want to go down when we’re talking about policies that have a direct impact on our constitutional rights as Americans.
So, look, the point I’m trying to make here is, Republicans have forced Merrick Garland to wait 217 days. And even after waiting 217 days, he is still not being given the opportunity to have a hearing and his nomination has still not received a vote.
Q Would he actively advise Democrats, if they win the Senate, to push his nomination through? And do you have a commitment from them to do so if they win the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President is certainly going to urge the United States Senate to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, and he’s been doing that for 217 days and unfortunately, Republicans have refused to do their job. The reason they haven’t don’t their job is because they know that if they gave him a hearing, he would impress people and they don’t want to have to face questions about why they won’t vote for him. So they figured it will just be easier if we don’t give him a hearing. That way, people are less likely to raise questions about the fact that we won’t vote to confirm him because we won’t be able to explain why we can’t confirm him.
So Michelle was talking about the notion of the word “rigged” being injected into our political system. Yes, with regard to the way that Merrick Garland has been treated, it’s been rigged against him by Republicans in a way that –
Q Do you have a commitment from Harry Reid or Chuck Schumer to push his nomination through if they win the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: So I’m not aware of any sort of commitment like that. What I have seen is both Senator Reid and Senator Schumer, and just about every other Democrat in the United States Senate say that Merrick Garland would do an excellent job on the Supreme Court.
And after the election, regardless of the outcome, the President is going to continue to make a strong case that the United States Senate should act on Chief Judge Garland’s nomination.
There’s no real question here about his credentials. Even Republicans acknowledge — the few of them that have agreed to meet with him have acknowledged that he is somebody of the highest integrity and has the intellectual firepower that’s necessary to ably protect the constitutional rights of the American people in serving on the Supreme Court.
So this has nothing to do with his credentials. Again, it’s very difficult to find a reason to oppose him, which is why Republicans don’t even want to consider him. And that’s unfortunate in part because it’s their job to consider him. They ran for this job. No one asked them to do it. No one forced them to do it. They ran for this job, to accept this responsibility to ensure the effective functioning of the third branch of government. And that’s being undermined right now because of Republicans’ willingness to abdicate one of their most basic responsibilities in the United States Senate.
Hopefully this will be a topic of some discussion in the debate tonight, so we’ll tune in to find out.
Thank you, guys.
2:12 P.M. EDT