James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:11 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to questions. Mr. Freking, do you want to go first?
Q Thank you, Josh. Could you say what role the White House played, if any, if Secretary Carter ordering the Pentagon to stop recoupment of these enlistment bonuses that were sought from some National Guard members?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as you know, the President makes the fair treatment of our servicemembers a top priority, and so do officials at the Department of Defense. And as I alluded to yesterday, the President has been pleased to see in the last 24 hours the Department of Defense make some specific commitments to ensuring that our servicemembers are treated fairly. When a promise is made to our men and women in uniform, we should keep it. It certainly is the view of the President. And we certainly want to avoid a situation where servicemembers are punished because of nefarious or fraudulent behavior by someone else.
So we need to make sure that the process is fair. And I noted yesterday that a long, delayed completion of a complicated process could prevent people from being treated fairly. So the commitments that the Department of Defense has made are to, first and foremost, suspend ongoing collection activities. It may take a few days for that to take effect given the complicated nature of the payroll system at the Department of Defense. But they're going to suspend those collection efforts and implement a more streamlined and efficient process for evaluating the appeals that have been made by the thousands of California National Guardsmen and women who were affected by this particular situation.
So we certainly welcome this response from the Department of Defense, and it will be important for them to follow through in taking these steps to ensure the men and women of the California National Guard know that the Commander-in-Chief has their back.
Q And just going one step further on that, some people have been making payments. And according to the LA Times story, there has been some hardship from some of servicemembers who have been doing so. Is the White House or the Defense Department considering some way to maybe reimburse some of these servicemembers, or to see if they're made whole again?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the focus here, at least from the perspective of the Commander-in-Chief, is that we're going to make sure that everybody gets treated fairly, including people who may have had legitimate claims to keep their bonus but have already tried to do the right thing by repaying it, or at least follow the instructions that they* had received to repay it. So I'd refer you to the Department of Defense for how exactly those situations will be handled, but the President is mindful that there are some National Guardsmen who find themselves in that situation, and the President believes those individuals need to be treated fairly as well.
Q Josh, is the President confident — turning to the Philippines — is the President confidence that joint military exercises will continue? This week we saw an annual meeting to sort of plan out those military exercises. It was cancelled until late November. So is he confident that the exercises will continue, or is this another sort of problem that has to be overcome?
MR. EARNEST: Well, for the logistical details of planning a large military exercise, I'd refer you to my colleagues at Pacific Command, at the Department of Defense. What I can tell you is that we have received no formal communication from the government in the Philippines expressing a desire to make specific changes in the nature of our relationship or our alliance. So the United States remains committed to the pursuit of shared objectives. And the pursuit of those objectives has benefitted the people of the Philippines, and it is indicative of the seven-decade-long alliance between our two countries. And we have received no formal notification from the Filipino government, despite the rhetoric of some senior officials there indicating that they're prepared to change it.
Q So your understanding of why this week's meeting was cancelled?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. To be honest with you, I had no knowledge of the meeting, so you should check with them.
Q And Donald Trump, he's at the hotel down the street today.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, not too far away. Not too far away.
Q And yesterday, he was –
MR. EARNEST: Well, in some ways it's a really long way away. (Laughter.) Depending on how you look at it.
Q Yesterday, he was saying that Secretary Clinton's policy in Syria could lead to World War III because Russia is involved and it's a nuclear power. What do you make of that comment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it's difficult to discern precisely what policy objective the Republican nominee is advocating for when it comes to the situation in Syria. There are times where he’s advocated indiscriminate bombing of that country. There are other times where he’s chided his opponent for being too tough on Russia, that we know is targeting civilians in Syria to try to achieve their own political objectives in that country. We also know that Russia has been engaged in an effort to shore up the Assad regime in a way that makes it more difficult for us to resolve the political situation inside of Syria that we know is critical to ending the violence and chaos.
So it’s difficult to discern exactly what he’s advocating for in the context of an interview that your news organization did with him to try to elicit greater clarity about that. And when you look at the totality of his remarks — even over the last several months — it’s difficult to figure out if he knows what he’s talking about. And if he does, what policy he would vow to pursue as President.
Q Is it dangerous to say things like World War III in that context?
MR. EARNEST: Well again, the President on a number of occasions has expressed some significant concerns about the rhetoric that's being used by the Republican nominee. But I’ll leave it to all of you to try to figure out what exactly that means for what kind of policy he would pursue if he were President.
Q Thanks, Josh. With the numbers that we saw yesterday coming out on Obamacare, to what extent did the administration see that coming? Are the numbers of the premium increases, on average, bigger than you guys expected?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of things that are important for people to understand about these premium increases. And we have seen — and what these numbers do show is that there are a number of communities across the country that will see a significant increase in the premiums charged by insurance companies that are selling plans in the marketplace.
What’s important for people to understand about this is that most people don't get their health care through the marketplace. The vast majority of Americans get their health care, their health insurance from their employer, from Medicaid, or from Medicare. And for the large number of Americans — about 150 million Americans who get their health insurance through their employer, we've actually seen that the growth in premium increase has been remarkably low. In fact, when you total up the savings over the last several years from the reduction in the growth in those costs, the typical family in the United States has actually saved $3,600. That's a substantial savings — and doesn't factor in the kind of savings that are enjoyed by the businesses that are also paying for their employees to get access to health insurance.
So when it comes to the marketplace itself, it’s also important to understand that the vast majority of people who are purchasing health insurance through the marketplace benefit from tax credits that make that health insurance more affordable.
So even the wide reports that we’re seeing of some premium increases won’t have an impact on the majority of people who are signing up in the marketplace because they get tax credits that offset that increase in cost. But the President is concerned that there are some middle-class families who are purchasing health insurance at the marketplace and don’t get the substantial benefit associated with a tax credit. And the President believes that’s a problem that we need to address. Even if it’s one that affects a relatively small percentage of Americans, we’re still talking about a number of people that the President is hopeful that we can cut health care costs for.
Now, it’s important to remember that even people in that situation benefit from the Affordable Care Act because they have the kinds of options and choices and offerings that were not previously available to them before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. So how do we build on the progress that we've made? And the President has put forward several ideas.
The first is, one thing we know we could do is that, if every state expanded Medicaid, that would lower premiums for everybody. And in those states where Medicaid has not been expanded, that’s actually put upward pressure on premiums. That’s not a good outcome. And so, if we’re looking at ways that we can cut health care costs, let’s do right by all of our citizens and ensure that we’re expanding Medicaid.
Another idea that the President has put forward is, let’s offer a special tax credit for young adults to give them an even greater incentive to participate in the marketplace. We know that that would have a positive impact on the risk pool and would also put downward pressure on potential price increases.
So there are a number of proposals that the President has put forward. The unfortunate situation we find ourselves in is that Republicans would much rather play politics than solve problems. And that is true with the Republican approach to a wide range of issues, but it’s — there’s no better example of their approach to play politics and not solve problems than when it comes to the Affordable Care Act. Because we know that Republicans have proposed — have actually voted more than 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would, oh, by the way, significantly increase the deficit, strip health care from 20 million Americans who got it because of the Affordable Care Act, or have got it since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, and would have the effect of undermining the kinds of consumer protections that we all enjoy, including those of us who get our health insurance through our employer.
So Republicans are just looking for the political benefit of being able to say they opposed the Affordable Care Act, and not actually looking for the kinds of constructive solutions that would reduce costs and expand access to quality, affordable coverage.
The most important thing — and I know this has been a long answer, but it’s a complicated issue — is people should not be dissuaded from considering the options that are available to them on the marketplace. And I think, in many ways, that is our chief concern. The open enrollment period starts a week from today. And if you don’t have health insurance right now, or you purchased your health insurance off the marketplace and in the individual market, or even if you last year did purchase health insurance through the marketplace, it’s important for you to go back and see what options are available to you this year. There is actually good evidence to indicate that you may be able to purchase a plan at the same — at a comparable benefit level that costs less than what you paid in 2016.
So there are good options available to people out there, and it’s important that people are not confused by the headlines and understand the true impact of this law. It doesn’t cost anything to shop around. And the early evidence is that the vast majority of people who shop around are going to find a good deal and maybe even save some money.
Q That was remarkably thorough. Thank you, Josh. (Laughter.) The question was actually, did you see it coming? I mean, given that the increases have been around 7 percent the past couple of years, and now this jump, did you know this was going to happen given the profile of the enrollee pool?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is a reform of the private health insurance market. The decisions that are made about pricing are made by private companies. There is greater transparency into those decisions that is required by the Affordable Care Act. The only reason we’re having the discussion we’re having right now about the increase in costs is because the Affordable Care Act imposed additional requirements on insurance companies to disclose what those costs are.
So I guess the point is, Michelle, the United States government is not responsible for setting those prices. These are prices that are determined by private insurance companies. They’re in a regulated market, so we do have some impact to — and we do have an ability to impact some of those strategies. And there are some constraints that they’re operating under. But ultimately those decisions are made by private companies.
Q So should I take that as a no?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think you should take it as this is a private enterprise. It’s regulated by the federal government. There are constraints that are imposed on the private system in a way that does protect consumers and protects middle-class families and limits the cost — or limits the increase in prices. But ultimately the prices are set by private companies, and so that certainly is going to limit our ability to dictate an outcome that we’d like to see.
Q When you saw some of the strains within the system, some of these bigger insurers pulling out of some states completely, did you feel like this was going to be a year coming where you would see a jump like that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Michelle, the other thing that’s hard about answering this question is that there are some states where the average costs went down.
MR. EARNEST: So there’s a lot of variety across the country in terms of what the impact has been. It’s an indication that there are some states that are doing this the right way. There are some states that have expanded Medicaid; that have invested their own resources in building a marketplace; that have worked effectively with the citizens of their states to recruit people to sign up and ensure the kind of broad, diverse risk pool that benefits everybody in terms of reducing costs.
So some states have done this the right way. And there are several useful comparisons about states that have made an honest effort to look out for their constituents and implement this policy to maximize the upside for middle-class families. The growth in health care costs is not nearly as significant — or health care insurance costs is not nearly as significant as it is in comparable states.
California is a good example. Another example that we've seen is actually in Arkansas, that that's a state did work closely with HHS to tailor a Medicaid expansion that has actually proved beneficial for the citizens of their state. It’s also proved beneficial for the fiscal situation of the state government. And they've also taken that collaborative approach to expanding Medicaid and applied it to the construction of the marketplaces in that state. And the growth in health care costs in Arkansas is much lower than it is in a state like Oklahoma, with whom they share a significant border, a state that has been hostile to the Affordable Care Act, that has refused to expand Medicaid, that has opposed efforts to ensure the efficient functioning of their marketplace. And in Oklahoma, you're seeing prices get jacked up.
So I guess, if anything, Michelle, what we have — what this does illustrate is that in some states Republican politicians have been reasonably successful in sabotaging the effective implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Q Okay, and just quickly then, so if no changes are made across the board or within individual states, is it safe to say then the following year things could be — could rise again as significantly, or things could be just as unpredictable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess when you're talking about the private market, there is always going to be an element of unpredictability. There are some things that we could do if Congress were to take action that would limit the risk of future price increases, or at least would limit the size and risk of future price increases.
And so, again, enhancing incentives that are made available to young adults to get them to sign up, expanding access to tax credits to get more middle-class families more help in reducing their health care costs. The President has also put forward an idea that in those places where there is not as much competition, that we should set up a mechanism where there could be a public option that would give consumers in those locations an additional choice. And that could spur additional private competition that could improve benefits and lower costs. The President believes that these are all ideas that are worth considering.
You’ll note that none of these ideas are ideologically motivated. These are all very practical solutions that are actually consistent with the kinds of proposals that we've seen Republicans offer up in the past when it comes to health care reform.
The idea of offering people tax incentives and tax credits to make their health insurance more affordable is an idea that conservatives have long advocated — the idea of regulating the private insurance market and subjecting them to — making them compete in a marketplace that these market forces would have a positive impact on the choices that are available to consumers. Again, these are Republican talking points that I’m using here. And you would expect that there would be some Republicans in Congress that would be open to these ideas. But it’s going to require them focusing on actually solving problems and not just playing politics.
Q Did far fewer young adults sign up than the administration expected, though? What accounts for that?
MR. EARNEST: You’d have to check with HHS in terms of their projections. But regardless of how they match up to our projections, Michelle, there certainly is room for more young adults to sign up. And we certainly are going to be engaged in an aggressive effort in the federal government to get the word out and educate young adults about the options that are available to them — because we know as they sign up, that provides important protections for those young adults and their families. But it also enhances the risk pool in a way that would limit the growth in health care costs that would have a positive impact all across the country.
So regardless of what the projections show, there is more that we would like to do in terms of enrolling young adults and making sure they're educated about the options and opportunities that are available to them.
Q Thanks a lot.
MR. EARNEST: Margaret.
Q Josh, the President is going to that APEC meeting next month in November. Would he be open to meeting with the President of the Philippines who is also an APEC member?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I don't have details about the President’s schedule when he’s attending the APEC Summit. I don't know how much time his schedule will allow for bilateral meetings on the sidelines — presumably at least one or two.
I also don't know at this point whether or not President Duterte has committed to attending the APEC conference. But as we make some progress in putting the President’s schedule together for that trip, we’ll keep you posted on this.
Q So the White House would be open to scheduling such a meeting?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not one I’m prepared to rule out at this point. But we've ruled out previous meetings with President Duterte on short notice. (Laughter.)
Q I remember.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll bet you do.
Q Along those lines, when we were with the President in Asia in the wake of some fairly insulting comments from President Duterte, when that meeting was called off, the President himself sort of downplayed his own personal level of concern and sort of dismissed it, saying, this is not representative of our relationship with the Philippines. But since then we've seen this string of comments.
MR. EARNEST: That's true.
Q Twice in one week now this threat to end military exercises and push out U.S. troops within two years. Isn’t there a growing level of concern?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is true is that the string of counterproductive rhetoric that you're referring to has injected some unnecessary uncertainty in the relationship between the United States and the Philippines. And what the President said in Laos is certainly true today — that that rhetoric that we've seen quite a bit of over the last several weeks is not indicative of the strong relationship between the United States and the Philippines. It’s not indicative of the seven-decade-long alliance between our two countries. It’s not indicative of the deep cultural ties between our two countries, particularly given the sizeable Filipino-American population in this country.
It's also no indicative of the kind of support that the United States has offered to the Philippines in the past. In the last couple of years, the United States military has mobilized an aggressive response to assist the Filipino people as they respond — recover and rebuild in the aftermath of large storms in the Pacific Ocean. That's the nature of the United States' relationship with the Philippines. That's an indication of how beneficial this relationship has been to the citizens of both countries. And we certainly would welcome more rhetoric that is reflective of that relationship, and not rhetoric that only contributes to greater uncertainty about the willingness of the Filipino government to live up to commitments that they've abided by for seven decades.
Q So you just see this as rhetoric at this point? You're not taking these threats seriously?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned in response to Michelle's question, we haven’t received any formal notification or communication from the Filipino government that they're planning to make any changes to our relationship.
Q But that meeting is next month, though. That just hasn’t happened yet, right?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's a diplomatic process where, through a formal channel, the Philippines could formally notify the United States of their intent to, like I said, alter the terms of the alliance between our two countries. We've received no formal notification along those lines. So that's why the news that's been made out of the Philippines I would classify as rhetoric at this point. We haven’t received any sort of formal notification or communication indicating a policy change.
But it does contribute to some uncertainty, and that uncertainty is inconsistent with what has for the last seven decades been a rock-solid alliance that's benefitted people and governments in both countries.
Q But given all this uncertainty, I mean, the bigger picture — President Obama has tried to pivot towards Asia, and the Philippines is a pretty key military alliance within that region. Doesn’t this damage the President's own efforts to have this kind of rhetoric and perhaps some follow-through on those threats?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we haven’t seen that follow-through. And I don’t think I've been coy about the fact that we'd rather not see this kind of rhetoric from the President of the Philippines. But the United States has made a lot of important progress in strengthening our alliances throughout the Asia Pacific, mobilizing resources that indicate our long-term commitment to that region of the world, and making clear the long-term financial interest, economic interest that the United States has in preserving our ties throughout the region.
So the fact that the United States is a Pacific power is something that was in doubt when President Obama took office, and it's not anymore. And that's not just because of the way that we have previously made progress in strengthening our relationship with the Philippines, but it's also a testament to the progress that we've made in rotating an additional detachment of Marines through Australia, at Darwin, for example. The progress that we have made in shoring up, strengthening and investing in our alliances with South Korea and Japan, the deployment of additional military equipment and personnel to that region of the world to ensure that we're mitigating and countering the threat that emanates from North Korea — all of this is a testament to the progress that we've made in enhancing robust U.S. engagement in the Asia Pacific region.
Q Thanks, Josh. Another part of that meeting. You had put out in your statement yesterday that when the President goes to Peru, he's going to meet with leaders of the TPP countries and to talk about that. Do you expect that you'll know at that point whether or not Congress is going to take that up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I've been doing this job long enough to know that it's foolish to try to predict congressional outcomes, and so I'm going to resist the temptation to do it here. Rest assured that the President will make a strong case that Congress take up and pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an agreement that was long-negotiated, is an agreement that cuts taxes — 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods. It is an agreement that would put many Asian countries, some of the fastest-growing Asian countries, economically, in a position of raising their labor standards, raising their environmental standards, and creating an environment that's more fair to U.S. workers and U.S. businesses.
That's why the President makes a strong case that this is clearly in the national security, the strategic, and economic interest of the United States, including the small businesses and middle-class workers that are the backbone of our economy. So that's the strong case that the President will make, and it's a case that we expect would resonate with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. But ultimately they'll have to make their own decision about whether or not they're prepared to take it up; we certainly hope they will.
Q Have you had any recent conversations? I know the election has occupied much of Congress –
MR. EARNEST: Yeah.
Q – but about timing on that?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates for you. I mean, obviously this is something that we're thinking through. And we've indicated for some time now that we're prepared to coordinate with the leaders in both parties, and supporters of the TPP in both parties to formulate a strategy about the best path forward. But I don't have anything to tell you about that strategy at this point. But obviously, the election is two weeks away and we’ll have more to say about it afterwards.
Q On the National Guard bonus thing, you said the President’s guiding principle is that people should be treated fairly. Nobody has said that any of these individuals did anything wrong. So why does fairness not mean just forgiving these debts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ron, there actually was an FBI investigation that did uncover wrongdoing and fraudulent behavior by some of the recruiters.
Q But on the part of the individuals, not the recruiters, but on the part of the Guardsmen who received these bonuses.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you should check with the Department of Defense. There are a number of individuals who, based on some review, were found to have not been eligible for and shouldn’t have collected some of the bonuses. So you can talk to them about individual cases. But there is some evidence to indicate that some people shouldn’t have received bonuses. And the Department of Defense does have a responsibility to taxpayers to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. And if there was a payment that was made in error, they have a responsibility to the taxpayers to go and recover that money.
But our first priority and the overriding priority should be ensuring that our servicemembers are treated fairly. And it’s important that people who — are not punished unfairly because of the wrongdoing of some other people.
Q So would it be the President’s expectation that a lot of these individuals would get their money back?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s expectation is that each case would be considered individually, and each person who committed to serving this country is going to make sure that any promises that were made to them are kept and that those individuals are going to be treated fairly.
Q And in terms of — you've said that the DOD is obviously looking into this. But as Commander-in-Chief, has the President — is the President proposing any kind of fix? The question essentially is, how engaged is the Commander-in-Chief in this particular issue? Or is he just basically saying to the DOD, you take care of it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has an expectation that people further down the chain of command are going to be executing a strategy that is consistent with his expectations. And that's what we've seen from Secretary Carter in the announcement that he made today. That's what we've seen from Deputy Secretary Bob Work, who has indicated that he’s going to take his own personal responsibility for implementing some of the solutions that Secretary Carter discussed today. And the President’s expectation is that they're going to do that expeditiously because this is a top priority for him.
Q And just one thing on the Obamacare premiums, and I just want to make sure I understand this. You talked about some of the things that are happening. You talked about how these are state-regulated — it’s a private market.
MR. EARNEST: That's right.
Q But the bottom line that people see are these staggering numbers of a premium increase. And I know about tax credits and subsidies and so on and so forth. But the underlying increases that are happening in these private — by these private companies, is the administration concerned that those numbers are too high? When we see 116 percent increase in Arizona or a 22 percent or 5 percent average increase, is there some concern about that number? Not just about the things that the administration is advocating for or seeing as mitigating factors? Is there a concern about how — how we're getting to those big increases just on their own?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Ron, I think because you raised it this way, I think it’s important for people to understand that most people who go shopping on the marketplace are going to be able to find a health care plan that they can purchase — because of tax credits — for $75 a month or less. So it’s important for — this is complicated. So it is important for people to understand that it is worth their time to go and shop on the marketplace and consider what options are available to them. The vast majority of people who do that are going to find that they qualify for a plan that costs 75 bucks a month or less.
So that's the first thing that's important for people to understand. Even in the face of some of the significant price increases in some states, the tax credits that they are eligible for rise along with those prices, which mitigates the increase and does keep health care affordable for a lot of people — the majority of people, in fact — who end up purchasing plans.
Q We understand that. But again, the price increases are the thing. Is there some concern about that aspect of this very complicated and involved system?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s also important for people to understand that there are some states where prices this year have gone down. And so it’s important for people to sift through the headlines and understand what the actual impact is on them and their family and in the choices that are available to them.
But to get to the question that you're asking about the people who do purchase health insurance through the marketplace that don't qualify for tax credits — and there are some people in that situation who also live in states where they are seeing significant increase in prices — yes, the President has put forward some specific solutions that would address the circumstances of people who are in that situation and try to prevent it from happening again.
That is the proposal that would, for example, expand tax credits for young adults, or to expand eligibility for tax credits among some middle-class families that would address the concern that you're raising.
Q No, I understand what — again, the tax credits, and what’s mitigating — what’s being done to help people get affordable health care. The question is about the dynamic of these premiums increasing, the price increasing. Are these insurance companies making too much money? Is that gouging consumers? Do you understand what I mean? Is there some concern about just that aspect of the system that the prices are going up so high? Regardless of what the — regardless of what resources consumers have to mitigate that, is that aspect of the system a concern to the administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just start out by saying the President’s foremost concern is what impact that has on families. And so that's why there’s this intense focus on tax credits and making sure that people understand that despite the price increases, that most people who sign up are going to be able to purchase a plan for $75 a month or less; and that we have some ideas to mitigate the impact of those price increases on families that don't qualify for tax credits. But –
Q So the insurance companies aren’t making too much money then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, so there are regulations that apply to insurance companies. Again, these are regulations that for the first time apply and constrain health insurance companies because of what’s put in place by the Affordable Care Act. The first is, insurance companies have to be transparent and they have to disclose these costs. That kind of transparency does serve to limit the ability of insurance companies to jack up prices. They don't want the bad publicity associated with these significant cost increases. In some cases, insurance companies know this is going to cost them customers.
The second thing is there are some rules going back to the Affordable Care Act that are put in place that limit the amount of profit that an insurance company can make. So this is something that we talked about quite a bit very early on, but there’s something that’s called the 80-20 rule, which is that if — based on the financial submissions of insurance companies to regulators — if it’s determined that insurance companies paid less than 80 percent of the premiums that they collected to provide health insurance to people, that they had to pay into a fund to make sure that they weren’t gouging customers for the premiums that they were charging.
So there are efforts to limit the ability of insurance companies to gouge customers by forcing them to be transparent and forcing them to actually spend the money they collect on providing health care to people. And if they don't, then they pay into a fund that ensures that everybody is being treated fairly.
The other part of this that's important — and this is sort of an additional part of the mechanism here — is there’s something that's called rate review. This is not the first time that all of your news organizations are reporting on likely premium prices for 2017. Insurance companies had to make public an initial submission to rate regulators in their states to disclose what premiums were going to cost for the upcoming year and give regulators an opportunity to evaluate those costs and to impose limits on certain increases.
And so it’s often the case that the original reporting around likely premium costs for the upcoming year don't actually reflect what people have to pay next year because regulators are able to evaluate the proposal that they have put forward and force insurance companies to reduce costs. That is a process that is in place because of the Affordable Care Act. And it is having a positive impact on prices.
There is a reason that since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, studies indicate that the growth in health care costs all across the board are at historic lows. And that's — we certainly believe — and scientists, economists, policy makers believe — that the Affordable Care Act has had a positive impact on the growth in health care costs. And that's been a good thing.
Q Just lastly, when you were asked about the Trump hotel, you said something about in some ways it really is a long way away, depending on how you look at it. What did you mean?
MR. EARNEST: I just mean that on the map that the two places are not that far away, but there’s a big difference between standing in the hotel and standing in the White House.
Q The map — or the electoral map? Or you mean the D.C., District map?
MR. EARNEST: No, no, I mean, if you pull up Google Maps, it’s like three blocks away. So — (laughter) –
Q You sure you don't want to say anything else about this, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think I've covered it.
Q In France, at this moment, there’s a very serious discussion on media, information, tabloidization, and politics. Last week, the French Minister of Culture asked people to be careful about what she called the “Trumpization” of the information. Do you have any reaction to that? And what’s your reaction to the possibility of a Trump TV in this country?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t see the comments from the Culture Minister in France. What I will say is that here in the United States, we’ve got a longstanding tradition of vigorous political campaigns, particularly when the winner is somebody who will assume to the highest office in the United States. And our expectation is that a vigorous debate is something that makes our democracy even stronger.
Now, there’s a downside, which is that sometimes the rhetoric in the context of a debate gets overheated. Sometimes the rhetoric that’s used in the context of the debate doesn’t withstand much factual scrutiny. But by and large, the nature of a vigorous debate means — in fact, it ensures — that the person who is most effective in conveying to the American people their values and priorities and their agenda are the people who are entrusted for running the country for the next four years. So our system of democracy is certainly not perfect. But it’s better than all the alternatives, I think that’s — to paraphrase Winston Churchill, I believe.
So I think the bottom line here is that — and this is something that we’ve talked about over the course of the last couple of years — the President believes that a vibrant debate is an indication of a vibrant democracy. And the question is: Are there some things that we can do to make sure that the rhetoric is focused on political differences and doesn’t spill over into threats of violence? Are there some things that we can do to make sure that the rhetoric is focused on the facts and not just on an alternate reality? Yeah. There are some things that I think would be good. Or our debate would be better if we can avoid some of those things, and our democracy would benefit from it.
But I think, by and large, the American people should draw some confidence from the idea that we can engage in a vigorous debate in this country, and then when the votes are tallied, people can have confidence in the outcome and they can have confidence that the current President, the outgoing President, and the incoming President will work effectively together to ensure a seamless transition, and that the incoming President is given the best possible opportunity to succeed.
And that, you know, this is — I know that there was this letter that was written by our 41st President of the United States, President Bush, that he left for his successor, President Clinton, in which he ended the letter by saying he was rooting for President Clinton’s success. Keep in mind, they had just spent most of the last year campaigning against each other, participating in debates, criticizing each other’s plans. At the end of the day, President Bush showed the kind of spirit that makes America the greatest country in the world, which is a commitment, at the very highest level, to put the interests of the country over his own political interest and his own political ambition, and his own belief about which direction the country should go.
He was overruled by the voters. And to his credit, it’s one of the many reasons that people look upon President George H.W. Bush as not just a great President, but a great patriot, is that he acknowledged, from the very first day of the Clinton presidency, that he was rooting for the success of the American President, even the American President that was in the other party and had run against him, because he knew that if the American President was succeeding, that the country was succeeding. And the country’s success was even more important that his own.
And I think that’s why there is such enduring respect for his service to the country. There are lots of reasons to be respectful of his service to the country, but certainly that gesture is as good as any of the others.
Q But (inaudible) that Donald Trump might launch a Trump TV. It’s all over the news and it could be a global TV. It could a populist TV. So do you have some worries about that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President is losing any sleep over that.
Q And what’s the White House reaction about, again, the possibility of a Trump TV reaching a global audience?
MR. EARNEST: Look, last I heard, he had said that it wasn’t true. So there are some risks with taking him at his word, but I guess it’s all we’ve got in this case.
Q Thanks, Josh. You just talked about rhetoric, and I wanted to point to Vice President Joe Biden’s comments a couple of times about wanting to take Trump behind the gym. Trump responded to that yesterday, saying that he’d love that. Is that level of rhetoric, is there any concern that our political rhetoric has sort of devolved into threats of physical violence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that Vice President Biden had an opportunity to discuss this with Chris Matthews from MSNBC yesterday. So I'll largely let his comments speak for themselves. I think what I can contribute to this discussion is simply — you've heard me say in that past that the whole reason that our political system exists is to find a way to resolve our differences through politics and debate, not through violence. And I know that Vice President Biden shares that assessment. I think that he explained as much yesterday in describing to Chris Matthews his comments.
Q Can I ask about Raqqa, as well? I guess there is now a sort of an idea that the battle for Raqqa will begin before Mosul, or while the Mosul offensive is ongoing. Is that something the President is supporting? Is there a specific timeline that he's looking for? And what is your reaction to people like Trump who say that we shouldn’t be telegraphing an offensive that’s potentially weeks out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there's a lot there. Let me start by — you saw that Secretary Carter indicated earlier today that he expected the offensive against Raqqa to begin in a matter of weeks. So for more details on our operational planning, to the extent that the Department of Defense is willing to disclose them, you should direct your questions to them. Obviously, Secretary Carter's comments reflect the discussion that the President has had with his national security team, and reflect the President's conclusions about the strategy moving forward.
I believe, in the context of those comments, Secretary Carter indicated his confidence that there was sufficient military resources in the region to support all the operational requirements of efforts against Raqqa and Mosul taking place at the same time. But again, for the details about that, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. And again, they're going to be a little limited in what they can describe about that situation.
With regard to the criticism from the Republican nominee, I'll just say that the President feels like he's getting military advice from the right place, which is men and women in the United States military who have dedicated their lives to serving the country in the military and protecting our country.
Q Just one more on the Senate race down in Florida. There seems to be some internal conflict about what the DSCC and the national group should be doing in terms of spending money there. Apparently, the DSCC has pulled out money from the Democratic candidate, and sort of shifted funding to other Senate races. The President is going to be going down to Orlando later this week. Does he have an opinion one way or the other on whether Democrats should try as hard as possible to take out Marco Rubio and invest in that for the future as some, like Senator Nelson, have apparently said?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that President Obama is traveling down to Florida because he believes that Congressman Murphy is the right person to represent the state of the Florida in the United States Senate. And he will reiterate that case once again on Friday, in Orlando. The President feels strongly about race. The President, months ago, endorsed Congressman Murphy's campaign and has made numerous trips to Florida to support it.
When it comes to the strategy that's implemented by the DSCC, those are decisions for them to make. But the President is certainly committed to strongly supporting Congressman Murphy's campaign, and is optimistic about his prospects.
Q Just to follow up on my seatmate here, can you think of anyone that President Obama would like to take behind the gym? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not off the top of my head.
Q What's on his schedule today that it’s conspicuously empty?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President has a couple of internal meetings with staff, and I know that he's got at least one call that he's planning to make later today to a foreign leader. And we'll have some details about that call a little later. But, yeah, it's a relatively light schedule for the President today after several days on the road.
Q Can I also raise the question about why a number of the President's fundraisers the last three days were closed to any press coverage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there were a couple of them that were closed to press coverage, and this is consistent with the approach that we've been following for more than seven years now, which is that when the President does an event at a private home where he's not making formal remarks at the beginning, then that's not open to press coverage. And that simply is because the President is typically gathered in a room that has fewer people than are gathered in this room, and is engaging in a conversation and less of a speech.
So in those occasions where the President is giving formal opening remarks, like he was on Sunday night, for example, even though it was taking place in a private home, the print pool was allowed in to hear the President's case. And given the pointed remarks he had about the candidacy of Colonel Applegate there in southern California, in his race against Congressman Issa, I think the President was pleased to have the opportunity to make some news.
But in settings where there's a smaller number of people involved, the President is more interested in just having a conversation.
Q You know we're interested in his remarks formal or otherwise, right?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I'm aware of your abiding interest in all presidential remarks.
Q Does the White House make a transcript of his remarks in those settings?
MR. EARNEST: They typically do not, no.
Q So if you're not there, the White House staff wouldn’t know about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, sometimes I'll sit in on those remarks, and that's just because sometimes the President's comment, even in a private conversation, occasionally will leak out into the public. And sometimes the way that it leaks out is not true to the President's actual words, and so I certainly will — have in the past — try to help reporters, who are getting leaked information about what the President said, understand exactly what the President did say.
Q You mentioned a few weeks ago the possibility that you would let the press in for the Q&A portions of these fundraisers. Is that a possibility between now and Election Day?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that the President is going to be doing too many more fundraisers between now and Election Day. But we'll certainly keep that option open.
Q Josh, if you'll indulge me, one more follow-up to the Vice President's comments asked a little differently. The First Lady has one of the most notable lines of this campaign. Hillary Clinton is quoting her on the campaign trail, saying, “When they go low, we go high.” What was the President's reaction to the Vice President's “take him behind the gym” comments? Is that going high?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I didn’t speak — I haven’t spoken to the President about the Vice President's comments. I think what the Vice President would tell you is that the rhetoric that we've heard from Republicans has aroused strong feelings and strong views from everybody, particularly somebody like Vice President Biden who has dedicated his career in public service to preventing violence against women.
So I think the comments that you've seen from Vice President Biden are indicative of some deeply held values and principles that were called into question based on the offensive remarks of the Republican nominee for President. And again, I think you'd have to ask Vice President Biden for a more specific response, but that's my analysis about what happened. And I think that, at the same time, Vice President Biden would whole-heartedly agree with the wisdom that Mrs. Obama has been sharing with all of us about the need to, even when our opponents go low, to go high.
Q And back to the health care premiums. You say that you would not want people to be dissuaded from shopping at the marketplace and from signing up for plans, and that young people should still be signing up. The timing of this, though, is not great — right before the open enrollment, two weeks before the election. Republicans are saying this vindicates what they've been saying for years, that your costs are going to go up. Has the White House changed its plan, as you said earlier about you're going to be aggressively promoting the open enrollment phase? Do these headlines change how you're going to approach that over the next couple of weeks? Is the message different now than it would have been a month ago in the planning?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying, at the risk of being repetitive — when Republicans say, “I told you so, your costs are going to go up,” they're not telling the truth. For the vast majority of people who go to shop on the marketplace, they will be paying $75 a month or less for their health care. That's affordable. That's about the cost of a cellphone bill.
What we've also seen is that for the health care market overall, over the last several years, since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, the growth in health care costs has been held down at all-time lows. Even individuals who aren’t purchasing their health insurance through the marketplace, but get health insurance through their employer — when you tally up the savings that they've enjoyed since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, for the average family it's $3,600. That's a substantial sum of money for a middle-class family. And it's a testament to the success of the Affordable Care Act in holding down the growth in premium costs for people who get health insurance through their employer, to say nothing of the savings that are enjoyed by businesses who are also paying part of the health care bill of their employees.
So the rhetoric that we've seen from Republicans does not withstand scrutiny and is not consistent with the basic responsibility that they have to put the interest of their constituents first. Particularly when you consider that the stakes are as high as health care, that should be an occasion to put politics aside to try to solve some problems.
But for seven years, Republicans have refused to pursue that approach. And look, I think they think that there is an opportunity for them to score some political points. But you'll recall, back in 2012, Republicans vowed to make the President's reelection a referendum on the Affordable Care Act. And the President was reelected on with more than 51 percent of the vote.
So we've seen this strategy implemented in a national race before, and it failed. And I'm skeptical it's going to work this time, as well.
Q And the White House is campaigning over the next couple of weeks to get people to keep shopping and purchase, and not drop out of the marketplace?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. And I think what we're going to do is we're just going to do our very best to try to make sure that people understand what's available to them, give people the tools that they need to go and educate themselves. And starting November 1st, a week from today, people can go to HealthCare.gov and take a look at the options that are available to them and their families. And many people will find that there are some good options there.
And this is another fact that is a little confusing, and sometimes hard to convey, Karen, but it's important for people to understand: This is true even of people who purchased their health insurance through the marketplace last year; that a lot of people may feel like, well, I like the health care that I've had over the course of the last year, and so I'm not going to make any changes.
We encourage people to shop around, even if you already have health insurance and even if you purchased it last year. What some people will find is that there is a comparable plan that offers about the same level of benefits that in some cases could save them up to 20 percent on their premium costs. So it’s worth shopping around, particularly if people are sensitive to the costs.
So again, this is complicated. And sometimes it just does get reduced to health care prices spiking all across the country. And it doesn't reflect the complexity that we're seeing on the ground. That's not to minimize some of the challenges that we face in some states in some aspects of the market that are facing some middle-class families.
The President has put forward some specific solutions that would address those concerns. But for the vast majority of the American public, they're extraordinarily well served by the reforms that were put in place under the Affordable Care Act.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to circle back at least a little bit. You said for Republicans who are now running around saying, “We told you so,” you said prices have not gone up, that's just not true.
Is it partially true, at least, you can acknowledge that prices for at least three in ten of the folks who are on the Affordable Care Act, their prices may, in fact, go up?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the fact is, Kevin, that we've seen — we saw significant price increases before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. And in large part, for the vast majority of Americans, we found creative ways to limit those price spikes. Are there still some places where we can improve the law? Absolutely. In a way that will benefit everybody all across the country? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, the only thing Republicans are willing to vote on is to repeal the law, which would only have the effect of jacking up the deficit, jacking up health care costs, and kicking 20 million Americans off their health insurance plan. That's not a solution. And it certainly would not leave the American people better off. But it’s what Republicans keep proposing because somehow they think it’s going to be good politics for them. They're wrong, particularly because I think the American people understand that Republicans in Congress don't have a good track record as problem solvers right now. And that's true not just with health care, but that's true across the board.
Q But it is partially true then that, for some, prices did in fact go up, is what I’m trying to drill down on. You said it’s not true. And it’s at least partially true — you would acknowledge that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think we can go and check the transcript. I think I was pretty accurate when I said that for the vast majority of people, the growth in health care costs is going to be limited because of the tax credits. And that certainly undermines the argument that Republicans have been making.
Q You also said something interesting. You said, in comparing Arkansas and Oklahoma, two vastly different results — at least at first glance right now —
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q – you seemed to make the suggestion that the leadership in Oklahoma was intentionally sabotaging the Affordable Care Act at the expense of the health and wellbeing of their citizens. Is that a fair assessment of what you're saying?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's — it’s hard to explain why they wouldn’t expand Medicaid. Particularly for the first three years when they had an opportunity to expand Medicaid, the government was going to pay 100 percent of the cost.
So I think it’s hard to make the case on the part of Republicans in Oklahoma that they were looking out for the best interests of the thousands of people in the Oklahoma who would benefit from the expansion of Medicaid. We know the fact that Medicaid wasn’t expanded has resulted in increased costs for everybody in Oklahoma, and it’s prevented thousands of Oklahomans from getting access to the health care that they need.
And the only explanation that you hear from policy makers in Oklahoma is that they don't like the Affordable Care Act. So again, if there’s an alternate explanation, I’m happy for somebody to put one forward. But the easiest explanation, it seems to me, is that Republicans in Oklahoma are bound and determined to ensure that the Affordable Care Act fails. And that has negative consequences of people in Oklahoma. There’s just no arguing about that.
Q Just a couple more. You said the President would be making a phone call to a foreign international leader today. Is it safe to assume that it won’t be Mr. Putin or Mr. Duterte?
MR. EARNEST: It’s safe to assume that. But we’ll have more details on the call shortly. It may be that the call is going on right now, and that it would just be bad form to announce the call while they're still talking. So that's why — we’ll have news on the call shortly. There’s no big mystery here. I don't want you to be — I’m just trying to demonstrate some good manners. That's all.
Q Understood. I also wanted to give you a chance to clean up a little bit of space between what I believe you were suggesting about the President’s timeline and his knowledge of Secretary Clinton’s private email server or email account. There’s just been a little bit of back-and-forth, especially with the latest WikiLeaks revelation. I just want to share something — you probably have read this too — Cheryl Mills saying to John Podesta, “We really need to clean this up,” talking about the idea that the President may have learned about this not from press reports as he said to Bill Plante in an interview on March 7th. He said he learned the same time everybody else learned it, and that's through news reports. Can you help me understand the difference?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can't speak to the emails. You were talking about stolen emails from a private citizen. What I can tell you is that the President’s explanation in March of 2015 and my explanation about what the President knew in March of 2015 hasn’t changed. And the truth is, this is just critics of Secretary Clinton and President Obama recycling a conspiracy theory that's already been thoroughly debunked.
So does this mean that they've run out of conspiracy theories and they have to go back to one that's already been debunked? Maybe. But I guess you’d have to ask them.
The truth of the matter is, there is nothing about what I said in March of 2015 that has changed at all. And frankly, it doesn't even change based on what’s revealed in the stolen emails of a private citizen.
Q Josh, back on TPP. You've said for a while now, many months, that the White House has been in contact with leaders on the Hill about the right timing to bring TPP forward for the long-awaited vote in Congress. What’s changed after the election that that would mean the timing is right? Is it that vulnerable Congress members wouldn’t have to take that tough vote right ahead of this election? Is that the only difference? And why does that make sense for the public to believe that in a trade deal this important, that's the right process to sort of treat this with?
MR. EARNEST: David, I think the bottom line is — the real difference is, is that Congress will be back in town. And you heard Republicans in Congress use the upcoming election as an excuse not to do a whole bunch of things, including fulfilling their basic responsibility to consider the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court. This is the nominee that has got more experience on the federal bench than any other Supreme Court nominee in history.
And so Republicans haven’t been able to articulate an opposition to his candidacy; they have just said that they don’t want to do anything because the election is coming up. They have taken a similar approach with TPP and a range of other issues. So if they’re saying they want to procrastinate and wait until after the election –
Q The question is, do you think that that’s the right way to go, though? You have members who are voted out, who have maybe less to lose. Is that right for the biggest trade deal — regional trade deal in history? That that would be the right time to –
MR. EARNEST: Well, if your question goes to, would the President have preferred that they voted to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership earlier this year, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Q The question more is, does the President think that it makes the most sense to — I mean, this is an important trade deal. If it stands on its own, why not allow it to go forward under the next Congress that’s one that’s — and the next President?
MR. EARNEST: The President would have strongly preferred the Congress voted earlier this year to approve the agreement. If they’re going to put off all their work until the end of the year, they’re a separate branch of government; there’s not that much that we can do about it other than making sure that they do their job. And we hope that they’re going to do a lot of things when they get back after the election, including taking up the nomination of Chief Judge Garland and ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Q Secretary Clinton has said, again recently, she’d vote against the deal now; she’s against the deal after the election on TPP. If TPP does not get voted on or approved while President Obama is in office, President Obama took three trade deals that had been left on the table signed by President Bush, ultimately added side deals to each of those, and got it approved by Congress during his presidency with Korea, Panama, and Colombia, I believe.
Does the White House have confidence that Secretary Clinton, if elected President, would go forward and try to improve the deal, as she's talked about, and possibly push it for a vote in her first term?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’ll let Secretary Clinton’s team discuss what she will do once she takes office if she is elected.
What I can tell you, and the case that we have made to members of the United States Congress who we know support these kinds of agreements at least in principal, is essentially two things.
The first is, the agreements that you cited were important agreements and the President did have some success in strengthening those agreements and then signing them and submitting them to Congress for their approval. But those are bilateral agreements. With the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United States was negotiating with 11 different countries, all of whom were also negotiating with each other. And so changing the nature of that agreement once it’s been signed is extraordinarily complicated. There’s a reason that it took what, six, seven, eight years to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the first place. To undo it and try to renegotiate it is something that would, even if it’s possible, would be extraordinarily complicated. That’s the first argument that we have made.
The second is, that if there are people who — in either party — who support these kinds of agreements in principle, there’s a strong argument to be made that they should approve the treaty when the President who shares the same community to those principles is still in office.
But ultimately it will be up to individual members of the House and Senate to make that determination. What I’ll say is that, even in the context last summer, there were loud and public and passionate statements made by the opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership urging Congress not to give the President the authority that he needed to complete the agreement. And it was a heavy lift to convince a Republican-led Congress that they should give the Democratic President of the United States additional authority to negotiate a trade deal, particularly in the face of this bipartisan opposition on the campaign trail.
So even in the face of those long odds, we succeeded in building a bipartisan majority in the Congress to get that done. The President was given that authority, we encountered some snafus along the way, as you may recall, but we did succeed in getting that across the finish line.
Ratifying the TPP should be an easier vote. First of all, you don’t need to get 60 votes in the Senate in the same way that we needed 60 votes in order to get the authority to negotiate the deal. Now there are tangible benefits that individual representatives in Congress can point to, to explain their vote. And we can get back the slides out again, if we want to, with the cowboy boots and the barbeque sauce and all the other stuff, that indicate that there are specific products in the United States — specific taxes imposed by other countries that will be reduced as a result of their vote.
So there’s a stronger rationale for the vote. There is a stronger, more specific economic case that we can make about the benefits that the country will enjoy based on the approval of the agreement. And the legislative process is not nearly as complicated as it was last summer. So that’s why we continue to retain confidence and that’s why we continue to have confidence in the argument that we can make to Congress that this is something that supporters of agreements like this should pursue when they return to Washington in a few weeks here.
Q Thanks, Josh. In some of the follow-up reporting that my colleagues are doing on this enlistment bonus issue, it appears there was an effort by California guard officials in 2014 to raise this potential problem at least to members of Congress. And there was some effort legislatively to try to get around this.
Now there’s some finger-pointing about why that amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill wasn’t approved. Some of those fingers are being pointed at the Pentagon. One lawmaker said that the Pentagon told them that the Defense Secretary already had the authority to forgive those repayments involved. Are you aware of whether this was on the White House’s radar at that point in 2014, or is it safe to say that this was just a on your radar this week when it was reported?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know to what extent or even whether this particular situation was communicated to the White House in 2014. I can't account for all those conversations. What I can account for is the President's passion for making sure that our servicemembers are treated fairly, particularly when we're talking about our men and women in uniform who signed up to serve our country overseas in a very dangerous place. When we make promises to them, we need to keep them. And we certainly need to make sure that they aren’t unfairly punished for people who may have acted inappropriately or misled them as they were reenlisting.
So that's an important principle. And the President is ready for the bureaucratic explanations and the political finger-pointing to end, and for this problem to get solved. And to his credit, Secretary Carter has laid out a path for doing that just today. And the President has an expectation that they'll fulfill the commitment that Secretary Carter made in his announcement today.
Q One of the ways this issue came to light is because the California guard — there was an audit that happened in California that discovered this problem specific to the California guard. But it appears that this could be a nationwide issue. Is there any effort separately underway by the White House? Or are you confident in the Pentagon being able to manage this in determining whether this was a nationwide issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'd refer you to the Pentagon for an evaluation of whether or not this is something that — well, actually, the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon has ordered audits in all states and territories. So if this is something that — if this is a problem that has cropped up in other states, the Pentagon is interested in knowing about it so that they can, again, fulfill the spirit of the President's declaration that we need to make sure that our servicemembers are being treated fairly, particularly when we're talking about our men and women in uniform who serve our country overseas.
Q And while we were sitting here, there was a statement out from Jeff Miller, who's the Chairman of the Vets Committee in the House. And he's calling the announcement from the Pentagon, “…a weak and ham-handed attempt to shift the focus away from the Obama administration's shameful treatment of servicemembers and veterans…this is the same inexcusable incompetence from the Obama administration…” He makes a connection to the VA scandal separately. I wonder if you care to respond to Jeff Miller.
MR. EARNEST: I'm just curious about whether or not he put that statement out on campaign letterhead or his official letterhead. It sounds like a campaign statement.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, he is on the ballot in a couple weeks. It sounds like somebody who is.
Q He's not.
MR. EARNEST: He's not running for reelection?
Q Thank you, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Well, why don’t we do John Decker, and then, John, we'll do you next.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. Prior to the announcement today from the Pentagon regarding the suspension of the reenlistment bonuses, there was actually a coming-together in Congress, both the Democratic Leader in the House and House Speaker, Paul Ryan — had spoken about putting together some sort of legislative fix to this problem. Given the announcement, which came out from the Pentagon today, does the President feel there is no need for any type of legislative fix for this particular issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it's not clear to me exactly what constructive role Congress could play here. But the President has got — does believe that the Department of Defense is being responsive to his desire to make sure that our servicemembers are being treated fairly. And they've laid out a pretty clear path for acting expeditiously to make that happen for the thousands of National Guard members who are affected.
But I'll let Congress do whatever it is they're going to do in terms of speaking to potential solutions. But typically what we hear from Republicans in Congress is more along the lines of what Mr. Miller was stating, which is an effort to point fingers and score political points, and not actually solve problems.
Q The announcement today was forward-looking. It talked about a suspension of these reenlistment bonus payments. But it didn’t look backwards. So for servicemembers that had been paying back the government, perhaps as much as $600 a month, to reimburse the government for their reenlistment bonus, is there some sort of contingency for those individuals so that they're made whole for giving back that money to the government? After all, they signed on the dotted line. They made a commitment to the government to serve six years, perhaps a tour in Afghanistan, a tour in Iraq. And in return, they expected a bonus. So as it relates to looking backwards, is there a move on that front coming from the Pentagon, as well?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, John, I think somebody asked this question earlier, which is the President does believe that all servicemembers should be treated fairly, including those servicemembers who may have paid back their bonuses even if they didn’t need to. So the President's expectation is that every case and every servicemember who's affected in this situation will be treated fairly.
Just to be clear about the suspension that you described earlier in your question, it's important for people to understand that what the Department of Defense is suspending is the effort to collect bonuses that may have been improperly paid. They're not suspending the payment of bonuses. They're suspending the effort to go and recoup those bonuses. So just make sure people understand.
Q Thank you, Josh. You recently announced that the President would be visiting Greece, I believe, November 15th. And I think this is his last official trip overseas as President. I understand that the economy and refugees are going to be topics for discussion. Will debt relief be on the table between the President and Prime Minister Tsipras? And given the historic nature of the trip, what does it say in terms of future relations between Washington and Athens?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, I can tell you the President is not traveling to Greece to go and negotiate some sort of new financial arrangement between Greece and the EU. I would anticipate that the President will spend some time on this trip complimenting the Greek government for the success that they have had in implementing the reforms that they committed to make. He will also encourage them to continue the path of reform that is good for the long-term economic and fiscal situation in Greece. And so that will certainly be an important part of that conversation the President will have there.
When it comes to the longer-term relationship between the United States and Greece, obviously there are — there's a significant Greek-American population here in the United States, and they're quite interested in making sure that there continues to be a strong relationship between our two countries. Many Americans travel to Greece on vacation and tourism and enjoy the opportunity to visit the country. I think it’s an indication of the deep cultural ties between our two countries.
And there’s an important economic relationship as well. And the President is interested in underscoring all of that as he makes his own historic trip to Greece for the first as President.
Q My other question was, when the President campaigned for Attorney General Masto, in Nevada, in the Senate race, he made reference to the Republican candidate, Congressman Heck’s statement of October 8th that he was dis-endorsing Donald Trump for President, and said it was “too late.” And then he led the crowd chanting “Heck No!” afterward.
My question is this: It was indeed October 8th that the Congressman dis-endorsed Donald Trump for a very personal reason, by the way. Does the President have more respect for people such as, say, Senator Toomey who has never endorsed Donald Trump, or Congressman Kinzinger, who said he will write in another name? Or is there a timeline when it’s too late for a Republican to repudiate Trump? Or a time when he should have repudiated him?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that somehow not taking a position is worthy of praise in this particular situation. And that is the approach that at least one Republican Senate candidate has — one Republican senator has taken. I don't think that he’s likely to be chronicled in a future edition of “Profiles in Courage,” at least not for that public stance.
Look, I think the President made a powerful case in terms of indicating his frustration with Congressman Heck and other Republican Congress members who seem to be more motivated by poll numbers than the actual offensive comments of the Republican nominee. After all, there were a whole litany of controversial comments that were made by the Republican nominee that didn't prompt Congressman Heck and others to change their position.
It was only after the string of those controversial comments started to have an impact on the nominee’s poll numbers and the poll numbers of Republicans further down the ballot that we started to see some Republicans changing their position. That's the nature of the case that the President was making. And, yes, I think you can expect him to continue making that case across the country in the days leading up to Election Day.
Bill Press, nice to see you.
Q Good to see you, Josh. Thank you. I’m going to go back to the emails for just a second — not the timing of it, but the quantity. There were 18 emails released that were identified as emails between the President and the Secretary of State. And the question has been raised: During the four years, did they only communicate by email 18 times? Wouldn’t that be strange? Wouldn’t there be, one would expect, many more?
MR. EARNEST: No, not really — primarily because you would expect that the communication between the two of them would typically occur in their regular meetings in the Oval Office, or regular national security meetings in the Situation Room, or secure telephone calls where they could discuss sensitive information. As the State Department has indicated, none of the emails between the President and Secretary Clinton included classified information. And at least when it comes to work, most of their conversations were going to be a discussion of sensitive information. And that's why they had to choose alternative methods of communicating.
Q Which begs the question, given John Podesta’s experience, does the President still communicate by email using a pseudonym or whatever? And isn’t that kind of risky?
MR. EARNEST: The President does continue to use his iPhone, and he does continue to email people. As he told Jimmy Kimmel earlier this week — noted presidential inquisitor Jimmy Kimmel — the President said that he was very conscious of what he included in an email because of the likelihood that one way or another, it was likely to become public.
Q He uses a pseudonym always?
MR. EARNEST: Excuse me?
Q He uses a pseudonym, obviously.
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, his email address is not BObama@whitehouse.gov. (Laughter.)
Christophe, nice to see you.
Q Thank you. It’s good to be back after a long time. I wanted to ask about the trip to Germany. This comes a little bit as a surprise to the German public, because when President Obama visited the Hannover fair in spring, it was considered to be his last visit to Germany. What is the reason? Is he so concerned about the way Europe is going, about all the problems? And it’s not only the TPP, but also the T-TIP is in dire straits. So is this the main reason why he’s coming again before he’s leaving, that the situation is so strange, and we wonder where politics is more crazy on this side or the other side? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think — I’m confident that there will be a discussion of T-TIP when the President travels to Germany both in his conversations with Chancellor Merkel but also with other European leaders that he’s likely to see while he’s there.
But the President would not agree with your assessment that the T-TIP is in dire straits. The President has set an ambitious goal for his negotiators to try to complete the T-TIP negotiations before the end of the year. When the President laid out that goal earlier this year, he indicated that he knew that would be an ambitious timeline. And that's a timeline they haven’t reached yet. But they're continuing to push, and they're working to try to meet that ambitious goal. And if there’s something that the President can do in the context of those conversations, then he’ll look to do that.
More generally, I think the President is interested in traveling to Europe once again and to Germany once again to underscore how important our alliance is. And the President’s trip to Germany came before the Brexit vote. But I think the President will come with a message that's similar to the one that he hoped to convey at the Hannover Messe.
The President gave a speech, you’ll recall, where he talked about how the European people should be confident in the progress that they have made in integrating their countries and integrating their economies in a way that has unleashed remarkable prosperity for their people; that has made the continent more peaceful, more prosperous, more fair. That's not to paper over many of the challenges that the nations of Europe face. But it’s important that those challenges don't obscure the remarkable progress that the countries of Europe have made, particularly when you consider that Europe was the site of some pretty significant wars on two different occasions over the last hundred years or so.
And even in the aftermath of those widespread, bloody conflicts, Europe has been able to pursue an integration that protects the identity of the citizens of the various countries of Europe, but also allowing them to benefit from relationships that strengthen their economy, strengthen their security, and improve their quality of life. And the success of European countries working together only enhances the prospects of the United States because of the important ties that the United States has that strengthen our national security and strengthen our economy.
So the stakes are significant, and I would anticipate that you’ll have an opportunity to hear the President talk about this more eloquently than I just did. But I think it will be interesting nonetheless.
Q Josh, Democrats led by Senator Richard Blumenthal are sounding the alarm over the potential inclusion in the Defense Authorization Bill of an amendment that would undermine President Obama’s executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. That provision is included in the statement of administration policy as among things to which the White House objects. But can you say from the podium that the inclusion of this language alone would be enough to garner a veto from the President should the bill reach his desk?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, at this point, I’m not prepared to single out particular elements of a potential Defense Authorization Act bill and say whether or not one proposal or another is going to draw a veto. But the inclusion of that provision in the House version is absolutely one of the reasons that the President would veto that bill in the unlikely event that it were to come to his desk in its current form.
And the prospect that Republicans would hold hostage funding for our national security unless the President makes it easier for companies to discriminate against gay people is ridiculous, but unfortunately consistent with the pattern of behavior we’ve seen from Republicans in Congress over the last several years.
So the President does feel strongly about this, but I’m not prepared to single out specific provisions.
Q Other than — from the podium, how has the White House made those views clearer to lawmakers?
MR. EARNEST: I assure you that those views have been communicated very clearly to Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Q Do you have any other meetings or any sort of –
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any meetings to read out to you, but there’s no mistaking our — well, let me just say it this way — there’s no mistaking the President’s strong opinion on this issue.
Q And how confident are you that Republicans will actually hand a Defense Authorization Bill to the President that omits that language?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I told Cheryl, I’m out of the business of predicting future congressional actions. We’ll see what they do. It certainly is their responsibility to move that kind of legislation along. But they shouldn’t use the need to pass that kind of legislation to try to jam through controversial provisions that, for example, make it easier to discriminate against gay people. That’s not the right thing to do.
This gentleman in the back.
Q Thank you, Josh. Is the President following events in Venezuela? And if it is the case, what's reaction from the White House to what's going on in Venezuela with the military and the — supposed to be trial of President Maduro?
MR. EARNEST: The situation in Venezuela is one that is being closely watched by officials here at the White House. I don’t have a specific response to the latest developments there, but we have, at every stage, urged the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan people to resolve their differences peacefully. And much of the dysfunction that we see in the Venezuelan government right now is having a terrible impact on the population and on their economy. And the United States is hopeful that the differences can be resolved in the best interest of the Venezuelan people, many of whom are suffering quite deeply right now.
Okay. Gregory, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Could you address the U.S. vote in the United Nations today on the Cuba embargo? Why the change in position from last year? And isn’t it the duty of the executive to defend U.S. policy on the world stage even if you happen to disagree with the policies set by Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gregory, I know that Ambassador Power had an opportunity to address this shortly before I came out here. And why don’t I just try to distill the argument that she made for you.
First of all, what the United States did today was to abstain from the vote. And the reason for that is that it is the view of the United States that all actions of the United States with regard to Cuba have been and are fully in conformity with the U.N. Charter and international law, including applicable trade law and the customary law of the sea.
But the reason that the United States did make the decision to abstain from that vote is that the resolution is an excellent example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba didn’t work. It was in place for five decades, and, as measured by action in the United Nations, served to isolate the United States, not Cuba. And it certainly didn’t have the desired effect of applying more pressure to Cuba with regard to human rights.
The United States has actually been able to work quite effectively through the United Nations to coordinate our efforts to apply pressure to countries that don’t do a good job of protecting basic human rights. And the continuation of this policy only undermines our ability to make that case in the international community. That’s one of the reasons that the President made the change. That working to start normalizing our relations with Cuba serves the interests of the American public by allowing more travel to Cuba, by allowing more Americans to enjoy the benefits of Cuban cigars and Cuban rum and other things that Cuba has to offer.
Q Classic cars.
MR. EARNEST: Classic cars, for example, to name one example.
But what we’re also interested in doing is trying to advance the interests of the Cuban people who have been oppressed for decades. And our ability to do that is only strengthened when we remove the impediment of an embargo that has been in place for five decades, that didn’t work, and that only effectively isolated the United States. And that’s why the President believes that we shouldn’t vote again on a resolution that expresses opposition to the very policy that this administration is trying to end. And we’ll certainly continue to make a case to Congress that they should take the actions that are necessary to remove the embargo.
Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you tomorrow.
1:46 P.M. EDT