James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
12:18 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: If you have some opportunity to turn to somebody for inspiration, doesn’t Eric Schultz immediately come to mind? (Laughter.)
Q Eric Schultz comes to my mind.
MR. EARNEST: Me, too. Me, too. Nice to see you all this afternoon. I do not have any announcements at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, do you want to fire away?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. Will the United States send a delegation to the funeral of Fidel Castro?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I can tell you that the President has decided not to send a presidential delegation to attend the memorial service today. I can tell you, however, that Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes will attend the service, as will the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Jeff DeLaurentis.
Those of you who have been following this story closely over the last couple of years know that Mr. Rhodes has played a leading role in crafting the normalization policy that President Obama announced about two years ago. He has been the principal interlocutor with the Cuban government from the White House in crafting this policy and implementing it successfully. As a part of those responsibilities, he has the occasion to travel to Cuba occasionally to further implement this policy.
He actually was already planning to travel to Cuba this week, so in addition to the meetings that he already has on his schedule with the Cuban government officials and with officials at the U.S. embassy, he also will be attending the service that the Cuban government has planned for this evening. And as I mentioned, he'll be attending with the top U.S. diplomat on the island, Ambassador DeLaurentis.
Q So I guess it begs the question that if two high-ranking U.S. officials — national security official who worked on Cuba, the ambassador — are attending, how is that not a U.S. delegation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Josh, there’s a formal process where the President would designate a presidential delegation to travel to Cuba specifically to represent the United States at a foreign event. Sometimes it's an inauguration; sometimes it's a coronation; sometimes it's a funeral. That will not be taking place this time. But the United States will be represented at the event by our top diplomat on the island and by a senior White House official who will be traveling to Cuba.
Q What was the thinking behind not designating a formal delegation?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, Josh, so much of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with Cuba is quite complicated. There are many aspects of the U.S.-Cuba relationship that were characterized by a lot of conflict and turmoil not just during the Castro regime, but we continue to have some significant concerns about the way the Cuban government currently operates, particularly with regard to protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people.
So we believe that this was an appropriate way for the United States to show our commitment to an ongoing, future-oriented relationship with the Cuban people. And this is an appropriate way to show respect, to participate in the events that are planned for this evening, while also acknowledging some of the differences that remain between the two countries.
Q Josh, does the President view flag-burning to be a protected act of free speech, and does he feel that it should remain that way?
MR. EARNEST: The freedom that we all have to express ourselves in the way that we choose to do so is protected by the United States Constitution. Similar freedoms related to the practice of religion, speech, the institution of journalism are also enshrined in our Constitution and are worth protecting.
The need to protect those rights is in place to protect speech and expression not just when we agree with it but also when we find it offensive. Many Americans — the vast majority of Americans, myself included — find the burning of the flag offensive. But we have a responsibility as a country to carefully protect our rights that are enshrined in the Constitution.
I know this is a bipartisan sentiment. I know that there are conservatives on the Supreme Court that share the view that I just articulated. I know that there are Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress that share the view that I've just articulated. And it certainly is consistent with the kind of governing agenda that President Obama has pursued here in the White House during his eight years in the Oval Office.
Q We passed the right to burn the flag if one chooses to do so as part of a broader set of basic freedoms. You mentioned the freedom of the press and others. Is it fair then to say that the President is concerned, when he sees the President-elect saying we need to remove citizenship from people who choose to engage in that activity, about a rolling back of some basic freedoms under the next administration?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I'll just make an observation that many of you have made, which is that this is not the first thing that the President-elect has said or tweeted that President Obama disagrees with. So I will let the President-elect and his team discuss the words that populate his Twitter feed. They can explain or defend those positions or those views. What I can do is my best to articulate to you the President’s views and the priority that he places on a smooth and effective transition.
And if I spend our daily interactions here itemizing and criticizing all of the things that the President-elect does that are different than what President Obama has done, that is going to materially undermine our ability to engage in a smooth and effective transition. And since that's the priority right now, since the election was held, I'll let the President-elect’s team speak to the wisdom and views and policy positions that are articulated by the President-elect.
Q Policy aside, a number of times in the last week or so you’ve noted that the method that these positions have come out from the President-elect have been Twitter. Are you suggesting that maybe it would be wiser, given the stature of the office, for the President-elect to be tweeting less or to be finding another way to sort of communicate some of these positions?
MR. EARNEST: I don't mean to do that. I think what I've observed is that, since the election, this seems to have been the principal method that the President-elect has used to communicate with the American public and to communicate with all of you, with the exception of at least one off-the-record meeting that he held with journalists in New York last week. So I don't mean to make that reference pejoratively because the truth is President Obama has found Twitter to be a useful mechanism for communicating with the American public and providing some insight to all of you about what he’s thinking about.
At the same time, President Obama has not relied just on Twitter to communicate with the American public and interact with all of you. Over the course of the President’s foreign trip, for example, when he traveled around the world, meeting with world leaders, talking about some of our highest national security priorities, the President, over the course of that trip, convened three different news conferences to answer your questions and to speak to all of you about those meetings and about the way that he was representing and advancing our interests around the globe.
Interacting in that form with the independent media is not just valuable, it also is part of the job. And President Obama takes that part of his job quite seriously. And it’s something that we’ve done extensively during his time here in office.
But obviously the President-elect and his team will have to develop a communications strategy that they believe is most effective to informing the American public and is also consistent with the expectations that the American people have about transparency and accountability for those in positions of authority. And part of that is an individual in a position of authority submitting or even subjecting themselves to skeptical questioning from an independent news media. That’s a valuable and critically important part of our democracy, and, in fact, the success of our democracy depends on it.
Q The President-elect is going to name — or nominate Congressman Price as his HHS Secretary, and Congressman Price has for a long time been promoting an alternative to Obamacare. And I’m wondering what the White House’s assessment is of his ideas about the alternatives that he has presented to Obamacare.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know if a formal announcement has come from the President-elect’s team, but –
Q There has.
MR. EARNEST: There has been?
MR. EARNEST: Okay. So what is clear is that the President-elect has chosen to nominate someone to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services who is an ardent opponent of the Affordable Care Act and somebody who says he is committed to repealing it.
We have heard comments from the President-elect and from Congressman Price about some of the ideas that they say would work if implemented. And I spent a little time working with my staff today to develop what I think are some metrics that all of you and the American public should apply in evaluating some of the proposals that may be put forward by the other side.
Here’s why this is important. Since the day the President signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March of 2010, he indicated an openness to working with Republicans or Democrats to implement ideas for further strengthening the law. So the President has always welcomed good ideas either from Democrats or Republicans to strengthen the law.
The problem has been that the only kinds of ideas that have been put forward by the Republicans, to the extent that they have put forward any ideas — and there have not been many — but when they have, they actually have been ideas for undermining the law, not strengthening it. And those were primarily methods of political communication making a political argument, not for actually governing the country. But as the President observed in the context of a couple of those news conferences I referred to earlier, reality has a way of intruding once you enter the Oval Office and you assume the awesome responsibility of governing the greatest country in the world.
So I’ll move expeditiously here, but I can whittle it down to five metrics that you can use to evaluate their proposal, and I think what you should measure it against is the progress that we’ve made through the Affordable Care Act in the six years or so that it’s been in effect.
So let’s start. Number one — this is the one that you guys have written about the most. Since the Affordable Care Act went into effect, 20 million Americans have gotten health insurance. And according to a recent survey, 91.1 percent of Americans now has health insurance. That is an insured rate that’s higher than it’s ever been. So when these new ideas come forward, it’s important to evaluate whether or not — what impact that would have on the percentage of Americans that have health insurance, because, after all, expanding access to health care coverage was one of the principal goals of the Affordable Care Act.
Number two — another principal goal of the Affordable Care Act was holding down the rapid growth in health care costs. And this was a problem that has bedeviled policymakers for at least a generation, is that the growth in health care costs was higher than the growth of other aspects of our economy. And the Affordable Care Act has actually had a positive impact in holding down that growth in health care costs. And let me just give you the best metric to evaluate.
In 2016 — fiscal year 2016, which just ended a couple of months ago — the growth in employer-based health insurance premiums was 3.4 percent. That is much lower than it was before the Affordable Care Act went into effect. In fact, between 2010 and the decade before the Affordable Care Act went into effect, employer premiums grew on average of about 7.9 percent. So we’ve cut the growth in health care costs by more than half.
So, again, evaluating the proposals from the other side should take a look at what impact they have in limiting the growth in health care costs. And again, in 2016, the growth in employer-based insurance premiums was 3.4 percent, which is at or near all-time lows.
The third thing that is among the benefits of the Affordable Care Act are a whole range of consumer protections, many of which even Republicans say that they like. So the proposals put forward by the other side should be evaluated based on whether or not those proposals remain in place.
Some of these include ensuring that Americans can no longer be discriminated against because they have preexisting conditions. Before the Affordable Care Act, women could be charged more by their health insurance company for no other reason than the fact that they are women.
Before the Affordable Care Act went into place, many Americans were subject to lifetime limits on the benefits they could collect from their insurance company. The problem for a lot of — for many families is that if kids were sick at an early age, by age 10 or so, they would essentially be reaching the cap on the lifetime benefits that they could collect from their parents’ insurance company, which basically meant that these kids were going to be without insurance. Those caps were eliminated because of the Affordable Care Act. And we’ll have to evaluate whether or not those who vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act can protect those important consumer protections that are now in place.
The other one that’s gotten a lot of attention is that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, young Americans can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, and that provides an important buffer for many young Americans. When they get out of college before they get settled in a job over the long term, they can enjoy the protection of being on their parents’ health insurance. So another consumer protection enjoyed and praised by Democrats and Republicans. We’ll see if Republicans can do the important work to keep it, and their ability to do so should be part of the way in which their proposals are evaluated.
Just two more. The first is, what impact will the law have on Medicare? The Affordable Care Act went into effect and the life of Medicare was extended by 11 years. There’s still more work to do to strengthen and extend the life of Medicare, but you’ll recall that when President Obama took office, the prediction was that the Medicare trust fund was going to run out of money by 2017; 2017 is a month from now, and the life of Medicare has been extended because of the Affordable Care Act by more than a decade. So it certainly will be important to ask questions if and when there is a proposal from the other side what impact their plan will have on strengthening Medicare.
And the last thing — and I cite this only because this is what Republicans most like to talk about — and that’s the deficit — what impact will their proposal have on the deficit? What I can tell you that the CBO has concluded is that the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the deficit is to reduce the deficit by $3 trillion in the next 20 years — trillion, with a “t” — a $3 trillion reduction in the deficit over the next 20 years. So that certainly sets a pretty high bar for evaluating the budget impact of a proposal from the other side. But that is an important metric, one that Republicans have long prioritized. And if and when they put forward their own proposal, it should be measured against the kind of progress that the country has made under Obamacare.
So I appreciate you indulging me with a long answer, but this is the kind of thing that I can certainly understand why this may not end up in the stories about Mr. Price's — Congressman Price's nomination today, but at some point, if he makes good on his word, at some point, maybe in the next year or so, he will be standing at this podium, in this room, in front of all of you, unveiling a new health care plan. And so I hope — I'll be counting on all of you to just take a look at my notes and if you are — or take a look at notes from this briefing — and maybe it can serve as some questions that are worth asking about the new proposal.
Q So I don't want to go on too long –
MR. EARNEST: I already have, which I apologize.
Q But have you evaluated Congressman Price's proposal by these metrics? Or do you have — does the White House have an evaluation of his proposals, which have been out there for a long time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with all due respect to Congressman Price, what he's going to learn is that when he's the Secretary of Health and Human Services, it will be his job to implement the President's plan, not his own.
So we'll certainly take a close look and we'll be interested to see what proposal is put forward by the Trump administration. But I certainly have laid out for you the progress that we have made under Obamacare, and we'll see if “Trumpcare” measures up.
Q Thanks. So in the past, you've expressed optimism and the President himself expressed optimism after the first time he met with President-elect Trump in the Oval Office that he may keep parts of Obamacare. Now, with Tom Price coming in as the head of HHS, do you still have that optimism? Or do you think that a lot of this — Republicans, and these people in particular, are aware of the metrics that you cited, but there's still that mantra of repeal and replace. So do you still have that optimism, even with this pick that is coming?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think time will tell. I think what I said to Roberta certainly applies — that with all due respect to Congressman Price, his responsibility will be to implement President Trump's health care plan, not Congressman Price's health care plan. And we'll see how it measures up. There will be an opportunity for us to evaluate it.
And, look, Michelle, we have said all along, as I mentioned from the day the President signed this bill into law, the President indicated an openness to good ideas, including from Republicans, for strengthening our health care system and strengthening the Affordable Care Act. Those ideas didn't really materialize. But President Trump is taking office with certainly what he feels is strong support from the country to make some significant changes, including making changes to the Affordable Care Act. And he will — we'll see how his proposals measure up to the progress that we have made in the United States, thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
Q But given what is being said now and by whom, do you still have that optimism? Does the administration have an optimism that this is going to be a good idea by your standards?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I'm reluctant to predict exactly what's going to happen under the new administration. They'll have an opportunity to put forward their own ideas, and they'll have an opportunity to put forward ideas that they think, for example, in this case, will strengthen the health care system in this country. And fortunately, we've had an opportunity to try it the way that President Obama advocates and we've got some statistics that indicate the real progress that we've made, the way the system has been strengthened because of these reforms. We'll see if reforms implemented by the Trump administration measure up.
Q Often when you're — I mean, you keep being asked about the same kinds of things and you always add reality has a way of intruding.
MR. EARNEST: It does.
Q So it sounds like you have a lot of doubt that what's being said out there is actually going to come to fruition. And does that include this whole flag-burning thing?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I'm trying to convey, and I think what the President is trying to convey when he talks about the intrusion of reality is he's talking about his experience in the job. And President Obama's experience is that the job is harder than it looks, particularly even harder than it looks when you're campaigning for it. And reality has a way of intruding on your ability to do everything that you'd like to do.
Now, I think President Obama's record, doing many of the things that he would like to do, is quite good, and the Affordable Care Act is as good an example of that as any. But you certainly can't do everything that you would like to do. And look, that's been the experience of all 44 Presidents of the United States. Each of them has encountered a reality that they may not have anticipated that has limited their ability or checked their ability to do exactly what they want. Some of that is built into our system. That's part of a democracy and the need to compromise. In other cases, it's a function of real-world events, because, after all, nobody is governing in a vacuum.
I think that contributes to my reluctance to predict exactly what the Trump administration will do and how President Trump will act and what priorities President Trump will pursue. I'll let his team speak to that. And I think it's difficult to predict primarily because as all 44 Presidents of the United States have learned, reality has a way of intruding on some of the rhetoric that sounded really good during the campaign.
Q When you hear repeated defenses of Donald Trump statements that people who burn flags should be prosecuted, is that not much of a concern to the administration right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there is a pretty strong bipartisan consensus across the country that the constitutional right to freedom of expression is one that's worth protecting. And so, again, part of that free expression is being able to say whatever you want on Twitter. So there's a little irony associated with this particular situation. But freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of the press — those are freedoms that are worth protecting.
Q I guess this bubbling up again over flag-burning — it doesn't bother you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it certainly is not consistent with the kind of priority that President Obama has placed on protecting constitutional — our freedoms as citizens. So I'm not standing here prepared to defend or agree with those statements. But again, this is not the first time that the President-elect has said or tweeted something that is quite different than President Obama's approach. It was the hallmark of his campaign — he ran vowing to aggressively do things differently than President Obama has, and we'll see how it works.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back on the Castro event. You're not suggesting that Mr. Rhodes and Mr. DeLaurentis are attending this in a private capacity, right? They are representing the United States?
MR. EARNEST: That's correct. And I think if I was unclear about that, yes, they will be representing the United States at the memorial service this evening.
Q During this transition period, when the President makes changes to, say, the number of troops in Iraq and Syria, or makes other significant national security decisions, do you loop in the President-elect's team? Is there a mechanism or a structure for saying, hey, by the way — not submitting it for approval, but just to say, hey, by the way, we're going to be moving “x” number of troops from here to there? And is there a threshold for what kinds of decisions get read out to the incoming team?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Olivier, as you point out, there is one President and one Commander-in-Chief at a time, and President Obama's ability to make those kinds of decisions about his view of the best interests of the country remain unconstrained by the election. He is going to make his own determination about what's best for the country and he'll abide, of course, by all the constitutional legal constraints that are in place, as he's done for more than seven years now. But he'll be President of the United States until January 20th, in which he'll hand off that responsibility to President Trump.
One of the priorities that this President has articulated is a commitment to a smooth and effective transition. And that transition will be more smooth and more effective if the President-elect and his team has some insight into the kinds of decisions that are being made in real time as the President-elect prepares to take office.
So it’s hard for me to give you a lot of detail about what standard is established for something being needed to be communicated to the President-elect’s team. But there certainly is an interest in helping the President-elect’s team understand what kinds of decisions are being made so that they will be prepared to lead the country on January 20th.
Q — a slightly different take –
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Is there a mechanism other than the PDB, the intelligence briefings, for reading in the President-elect’s team on major national security issues?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a transition process. So, for example, the President-elect has designated a landing team to work closely with the National Security Council and the Department of Defense and other national security agencies to effect a smooth transition. So that certainly is a potential mechanism for providing insight into those decisions.
And then, as we've discussed, there obviously is some communication that is ongoing between the President and the President-elect directly. I can't speak to whether or not some of the national security issues that you've alluded to came up in those conversations or not, but that certainly would be another mechanism for that information being transmitted.
Q So on the Affordable Care Act, is the President — are you saying that the President believes that reality is going to hit the new administration and they're going to be able to see that they can't dismantle this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that I’m making, Ron, just to try to be as direct as I can about this, is that it’s one thing to use rhetoric on the campaign trail that may poll well among a certain segment of the population, and saying at a rally of thousands of conservatives who are ardent political opponents of President Obama — to stand at a podium like this and say, I’m going to repeal Obamacare. It’s yet another thing to enter office and be faced with the reality that one impact of the Affordable Care Act is that the rate of Americans who are uninsured is at a historic, all-time low; or to see that the growth in employer-based premiums is actually lower than it’s been in quite some time; or that these kinds of consumer protections are actually the kinds of things that Democrats and Republicans alike all across the country strongly support.
So the idea of repealing the law once you consider the benefits and once you have to reckon with the benefits becomes more difficult.
Q How engaged is the President in trying to make this argument now on a practical matter? Is he in touch with — is he in touch with the new administration? Is he in touch with folks on the Hill? What is he doing to try and make this case, if anything? Or is he just resigned to the fact that they're going to change it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think as I’ve tried to lay out here, their promise to change it I think is going to be challenging. If they're at all concerned about trying to expand health care coverage, or save people money, or protect people from insurance companies that may not have their interests at heart, or to extend the lifetime of Medicare, or to cut the deficit — if they don't share those priorities, then it will be pretty easy to come in and just knock this down and put in some other plan.
I’m not really sure what the benefits would be, but they’ll have an opportunity to make that case. I think that's my point.
With regard to the President, he has had a handful of conversations with the President-elect, including in the Oval Office. I’m not going to speak to the content of those conversations. There are plenty of very strong supporters of the Affordable Care Act who continue to serve in the United States Congress. And many of the kinds of changes that are being discussed by some conservatives would require congressional approval, so –
Q But I asked because I think there’s — among some of the President’s supporters, there’s a concern that in his effort to create a smooth transition he appears to be not fighting back as much of his legacy is about to be dismantled or certainly severely threatened.
MR. EARNEST: I guess my point is –
Q And on this issue, that's why I asked specifically what is he doing to protect Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act? Is my characterization –
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the point that I’m trying to make is that the most effective way for the Affordable Care Act to succeed is to implement it effectively. And I think many of the metrics here that we have laid out indicate how effectively we have implemented it. There have clearly been some highly publicized bumps in the road, and the failure of the website on the first day of its launch was not an insignificant one. But I think the results speak for themselves.
Q More generally, in the final weeks, what are the President’s priorities? What does he realistically think he can accomplish? And given your statement you keep coming back to about how the realities of the office set in, I imagine there’s a lot of reality that's setting in now, too –
MR. EARNEST: Sure, sure.
Q — at the back end of this whole thing. And I think when asked about this before, you talked about national security and those sort of ongoing important obligations that the President has. But what else is he really trying to accomplish in the final weeks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly are some legislative priorities that we're trying to make some progress on. There are many things that are going to be left undone, unfortunately — things like immigration reform, probably criminal justice reform. And that’s more than a little –
Q So what’s realistic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the first thing is we’ve got to — Congress has got to act on a budget. And if they don’t act by December 9th, we’ll have a government shutdown. I don’t think anybody wants that. We certainly don’t want that from here. And more than that, we don’t just want to avoid a shutdown,; we also want to make sure that our men and women at the Department of Defense have the resources that they need, even in this challenging time, to succeed in their mission to protect the country.
And there has been a proposal floated by some on Capitol Hill that they might consider an extension of the continuing resolution to May. That would be a big problem, and the reason that would be a problem is because it would hamstring some of the efforts that are underway at the Department of Defense to protect the country and to start new efforts, new weapons systems and other production increases that are required to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the resources that they need and the equipment that they need to protect the country.
There also is an important fight underway in Iraq right now against ISIL. And there are substantial resources that have been committed to that fight. The United States has a very specific role. It’s different than the role that our troops were — or different than the mission that our troops were given when President Bush was the Commander-in-Chief, but it still requires resources. President Obama has made a substantial commitment to a European reassurance effort.
And these are the kinds — I’m listing out these things because these are the kinds of things that would not be addressed through a straight CR. And I think even the Secretary of Defense can tell you how a CR through March that essentially covers six months of the fiscal year is bad enough, but extending the CR through May and having a CR in place for three-quarters of the year would have a really negative impact on the Department of Defense and would undermine some of the important work that’s being done there on a regular basis to protect the country.
So Congress has got a responsibility here. We obviously prefer that they pass a budget. But if they resort to just a continuing resolution, we believe that that should be made — that that should be as short as possible so that a regular appropriations bill can be passed and the resources that our men and women need can be approved.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about South Korea and the instability that’s happening there politically right now. How does that impact the U.S. relationship with what’s happening there, in particular as we make the Asian pivot, as we’ve talked about at length for quite some time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the thing I can tell you is that the United States and South Korea have been close allies for decades. And the strength of that alliance has persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States, and that alliance has persisted through different administrations in the Korean presidency as well. And that’s an indication that the security relationship between the Republic of Korea and the United States is substantial and so important that it supersedes political relationships. The people-to-people ties between our two countries indicate just how important a relationship this is, and that certainly supersedes politics.
So the President is committed to our alliance and, just as importantly, our country is committed to maintaining a strong alliance between our two countries. Investing in that alliance advances the interests of both our countries and enhances the national security of both our countries.
So obviously there is a rather complicated, shall we say, domestic political situation inside of South Korea right now. That is a situation that the South Korean people will grapple with. But the ongoing alliance between our two countries is as strong and durable as ever.
Q Has the President been in contact with his counterpart there?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that they have had an opportunity to speak since September. You’ll recall that President Obama had an opportunity to meet with President Park in Laos in early September. They spoke shortly after that meeting on the telephone in the hours after the latest nuclear test from North Korea. I don’t believe that they’ve spoken since then, but we can keep you updated on that situation.
Q What does the President think about David Petraeus and his ability to be a Secretary of State if that were to be something the Trump administration would consider? Does the President think he’s the kind of man who could do that job?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, as I mentioned yesterday, I’ve avoided speculating on potential Obama administration –
Q This is someone he knows personally.
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes — but let me finish. I’ll work on something here for you. (Laughter.)
Q All right.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll try to help. Let me just stipulate, though, that I’m going to — I’m reluctant — as I’ve been reluctant to speculate on potential Obama administration personnel announcements, I’m particularly reluctant to speculate on any Trump administration personnel announcements.
But as you point out, Kevin, the President does know General Petraeus, and General Petraeus assumed some significant responsibilities in the Obama administration, including not just in the military but also when he left the military to serve for a period of time as the Director of the CIA. And President Obama has always admired General Petraeus’s commitment to serving the country, certainly when it came to leading our men and women in uniform in a hostile situation in Iraq. At the same time, obviously General Petraeus admitted to some serious crimes. And he had to pay a price for that, both publicly and in private — and in his private life.
But with regard to his potential appointment as Secretary of State, we’ll leave it to the President-elect and his team to describe why General Petraeus may be a good fit for that position and why he may be under consideration for it.
Q It’s certainly fair to say the President doesn’t consider him unfit.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t think I’d pass judgment one way or another on a potential personnel announcement. As we’ve discussed earlier, General Petraeus is somebody with extensive experience in the Middle East, and he has, on occasion, served as an informal outside advisor to senior administration officials here who have sought his advice and counsel on some of the many difficult issues that our diplomats and intelligence professionals and military leaders face in that region of the world.
That advice was not provided through any sort of formal channel or his service on any sort of formal advisory board. But he, nonetheless, maintains some important relationships with officials here in the Obama administration. And that's an indication that he is a professional who has a lot of experience and knowledge. He’s somebody who loves his country and has served his country, and he’s somebody who, over the course of his career, has provided valuable advice to Presidents in both parties. But his fitness for this position is something that I'll allow the President-elect to determine.
Q Two quick ones. Any update on the possible strike — I'm not sure if it's actually taking place — up in Chicago? The SEIU is having a massive strike that could be impacting air travel. Are you aware of this? And if so, what’s the outlook?
MR. EARNEST: I've seen some of the news reports about the potential for a strike among some non-unionized workers in Chicago. I'm not aware of it having any significant impact on air travel at this point, but we can certainly check on that for you. I'm also not aware of any communication from the White House about this potential labor action.
Q Thanks, Josh. On the Dakota pipeline situation, how closely is the President now following this? It really is becoming a bit of a powder keg. There already has been a fair amount of violence and there are some people who believe there could be more with the evacuation order from the governor and now a large group of veterans saying that they are going to go in and act as human shields to protect the protestors. Is the President — there are people calling for the President to get more personally involved, for the administration to get more involved. Will they do that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chip, I did see the statement from the governor. I think the governor at some point hastened to add that he did not anticipate forcibly removing people who are currently at that site.
The President was asked about this a month ago and indicated his belief that protestors have a responsibility to protest peacefully. He indicated that there’s an obligation for law enforcement authorities to show some restraint. And it's important for everybody to do what they can to try to avoid a situation where people are going to get hurt. So that obviously is a top priority.
The President at the time indicated that there was an ongoing review at the Army Corps of Engineers, considering what sort of — or I guess I should say whether additional engagement with tribes in the area was necessary before moving forward with the project. And that review determined that it was important for the Army Corps of Engineers to go back to the tribes and other affected populations and engage in additional conversations with them to try to address their concerns about this particular infrastructure project. So that is work that the Army Corps of Engineers is engaged in.
The President obviously believes that it's important for government agencies in a situation like this to carefully consider the impact of these kinds of projects on local populations. I know that this is actually often a principle that Republicans — or at least conservatives would hold up as an important thing for the federal government to do. And in this situation, President Obama agrees. And it's important for the concerns that are raised by local populations to be taken into consideration when a significant government action like this is being contemplated.
Q So has he done anything to be more involved in this than what he said a month ago?
MR. EARNEST: The President is being regularly updated on the situation. And I know that there are officials at the White House that have been in touch with the relevant agencies, including the Department of Interior. But I'm not aware of any specific presidential actions that have been taken at this point, in part because the renewed engagement of local populations by the Army Corps of Engineers is consistent with what the President believes is an appropriate next step.
Q One of the possibilities that was suggested a month ago was rerouting the pipeline. Where does that stand?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I can't speak for the Army Corps in terms of the discussions that they’re having with the tribes in the area. I think the President’s hope is that both sides will sit at the table in a constructive spirit and actually focus on trying to resolve these differences as quickly as possible. And I think the President’s view is that it's in the interests of both the tribe — the locally affected tribes and the Army Corps of Engineers to resolve these differences as soon as possible and let the project go forward.
Q He has no plans to get more personally involved at this point?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I'm not aware of any impending presidential actions. But if that changes we'll let you know.
Q Josh, two quick questions. Are there any plans for any phone conversations or any meetings, face to face, with President Obama and President-elect Trump again?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly wouldn't rule them out, but there are no — nothing is scheduled at this point.
Q Nothing is scheduled. When you say you wouldn't rule it out, could it be this week, next week, and it just happened just by happenstance? How is it happening?
MR. EARNEST: It typically happens when the President-elect telephones the White House and says that he would like to speak to the President of the United States, and the President either gets on the phone or calls him back quickly.
Q Has he called –
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to the timing of those calls.
Q Why can't you?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know when the calls have been placed.
Q Next question. But that was a valid question. Next question. How do you rate or gauge the effectiveness of a presidential policy, an initiative, particularly when it is dismantled, defunded, or taken apart not like you intended or originally placed it — how do you gauge for legacy purposes the effectiveness of that piece of policy or an initiative?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, April, what I would do is I’d draw your attention to a metaphor that you've heard the President use before that he likens his service in the Oval Office to a relay run, that for eight years he’s had the baton, he’s had the responsibility of advancing the interests of the country. He took the handoff from President George W. Bush, and he ran as far and as fast as he could over the last eight years. But on January 20th, it will be time for him to hand off the baton to the next President — in this case it will be President Trump.
And there will be an opportunity, a very clear opportunity for people to evaluate the progress that the country has made during the eight years that the President was carrying the baton. And the Affordable Care Act is a good example. And I laid out some clear benchmarks of the progress that our country has made in the eight years that President Obama was in office.
And what I would encourage you to do — and I think it’s common sense — I think this is what people are likely to do, is to compare the progress that our country has enjoyed under President Obama’s leadership to the progress that our country makes after President Trump makes the changes that he’s recommended.
We've tried it the way that President Obama has advocated. We certainly would have appreciated greater cooperation with Republicans in Congress because there is more that we could have done to strengthen the economy and to improve our country, and even common-sense things like an investment in infrastructure, reform of our tax code, and immigration reform, all of which would have had significant positive economic benefits. So we could have done more. But look, after eight years, there’s no making excuses. We’ll set the bar where it is, and we’ll take a look at the progress that we've made on health care. We’ll take a look at the progress we've made on the economy — 73 consecutive months of job growth, 15.5 million private sector jobs over the last 80 months. There are a variety of metrics I think that will clearly indicate what kind of progress we've made under President Obama’s leadership.
The American people voted for a candidate who was promising to radically change all of that, and we’ll have an opportunity to measure the wisdom of making those changes.
Q And for the sake of this conversation, what was the most significant pieces of policy, executive order, or anything, initiative, that the Bush administration had — George W. Bush administration had that this administration dismantled and there was a significant change for the better over these eight years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, we've spent a lot of time talking about it, and I think it applies here — the Affordable Care Act. For a hundred years, Presidents in both parties had assumed office promising to fix the health care system to ensure that consumers were better protected, to ensure that more Americans had access to health care costs, to ensure that health care costs weren’t growing so rapidly, to strengthen Medicare, which is something that a more recent generation of Presidents were faced with. And by their own accounting, all those Presidents failed. They weren’t able to get it done because of the enormous legislative barriers that stood in their way and because of the inherent complexity of overhauling a sector of the economy that comprises about 20 percent of our overall economy.
So it’s substantial. But President Obama succeeded in doing it. And the results speak for themselves. And there will be an opportunity to evaluate whether or not the kinds of changes that President Trump is recommending actually do have a positive impact on the goals that Presidents in both parties have stated.
So we can determine whether or not the Trump administration succeeds in expanding access to coverage and limiting the growth in health care costs, and extending the life of *Medicaid [Medicare], and protecting consumers and in reducing the deficit — all tangible benefits of the Affordable Care Act. We’ll see if the changes that they vow to implement will build on that progress and increase those benefits. And if so, President Obama will be among the first to give them credit for doing so. But if not, I think it certainly will once again confirm the wisdom of the approach that President Obama has pursued.
Q It wasn’t there before. I’m talking like things like education, or even the military, with stem cell — different changes. What was dismantled there from when this President came and changed for the positive throughout his eight years — dismantled from that former administration?
MR. EARNEST: The former administration certainly was reluctant — in some cases, unwilling — to engage with the international community to fight climate change. The Bush administration famously ensured that the United States remained one of the holdouts from the Kyoto Protocol. That undermined that coordinated international effort to confront climate change.
President Obama reversed that strategy. And as a result, we have made progress in both reducing emissions and growing our economy. And there is a lot more important work to be done on that front, and that important work is going to require the international community to cooperate in pursuit of that effort.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can you tell us how this dinner last night with President Obama and the Vice President and Senator Reid came about, and tell us what they discussed over dinner?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have a detailed readout to provide, primarily because it was a social event. And this was an opportunity for the President and the First Lady to host a private dinner in honor of Senator Reid and his impending retirement.
Over the last eight years, the Democratic leader of the Senate has been an enormously valuable partner to the President. And last night was a small, private, social opportunity for the President and First Lady to offer some appreciation to Leader Reid for his friendship, for his partnership over the last eight years.
Q Was this at all on the CR or anything else like that? Or was it just social?
MR. EARNEST: My guess is they probably couldn't get in and out of the room without talking at least a little business, but it was primarily a social event.
Q One last thing on the Castro funeral plans. I know there's the memorial service today, but there's a lot going on — I know the formal funeral ceremony is taking place on Sunday. Is the United States sending anyone to that ceremony,y or is this the only event, memorial event, that is being attended by U.S. officials?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding, at least the way that it's been described to me is this is — the event that the Cuban government is organizing for this evening is the event where the United States will be represented by the Deputy National Security Advisor and by the top diplomat in Cuba.
I guess I'd refer you to the embassy in Havana for greater information about whether or not there will be a U.S. presence at any of those other events. Certainly no one from the White House and no other delegation will be sent to Cuba to participate in any of the other events. But I don't know if there will be other diplomats or other officials who are based at the embassy that may participate in some other events.
Q Josh, two quick questions. To follow up on what Olivier was asking, can you check and see — has General Flynn had a chance to talk with Susan Rice?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know whether or not General Flynn has had a conversation with Dr. Rice at this point. What I can tell you is that there obviously is important work that's being done by the officials at the National Security Council that have been designated to engage with the transition team appointed by the President-elect. And I know that there are officials who are designated by the President-elect that have been focused on a smooth and effective transition at the National Security Council. That cooperation is underway, but I don't know if that cooperation has included a phone call between the National Security Advisor and the President-elect's national security advisor.
Q A question about the metrics. Before the election, we listened to President Obama tell Americans that his prediction was that Donald Trump and a Donald Trump administration could reverse — he described it, everything he'd done is at risk. And he was quite strident in his dire predictions. Since the election and today again, yesterday, the President and your rhetoric is that — and he even told The New Yorker he didn't expect more than 20, 25 percent of his achievements to be erased. Can those two predictions of it's going to be much harder than they imagine or they're going to take away everything — can those be consistent? Or was he exaggerating then? Or is he exaggerating rosy eyeglasses now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's a good question, Alexis. I think the point that the President was making on the campaign trail is that progress is at risk because of the way — because of the outcome of the election. You had one candidate who was vowing to build on the progress that we've made under the Affordable Care Act — that's not the candidate that won. The candidate that won is the candidate that's vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has even appointed or somehow signaled his intention to nominate a Secretary of Health and Human Services who has been a strident critic of the Affordable Care Act. Elections have consequences. And as a result, the progress that we've made under the Affordable Care Act is at risk. There's just no denying that — and at risk in a way that it would not have been had the election outcome been different.
That said, there will be some limits on the ambition that was articulated by the President-elect, just based on the need to confront the reality of the progress that we've made under the Affordable Care Act. And that's something that he'll have to grapple with in office.
But the risk facing the millions of Americans that benefitted from the Affordable Care Act — and I don't just mean the 20 million who got health insurance from the Affordable Care Act, but I also mean the 150 million Americans who get health insurance through their employer who certainly are in a position where they could see their employer premiums go up more quickly than they have in the last few years, and they certainly are at risk of seeing some of these consumer protections that they benefit from now being stripped away.
But like I said, elections have consequences. And I think that is reconcilable with the idea that every President, when they take office, does have to deal with the reality that has a way of intruding.
Q I just want to clarify. The President — and we can imagine what the good reasons were — he did not tell voters, don’t worry, if she loses, it’s going to be really hard for him to do this stuff — right? Which is what he’s saying now. It’s going to be really hard for this administration to undo, he’s arguing, what the Obama administration achieved.
MR. EARNEST: The President was making an argument based on risk. And he was underscoring the risk that exists if President Trump was elected because the President-elect is vowing to roll back the progress that we’ve made in so many areas. That risk has now been realized. That risk is present in a way that it would not otherwise have been.
So the President’s rhetoric has, unfortunately, come to pass. And now this is a risk that our country is facing, unfortunately, a risk that the President would prefer that we not have to pile on top of the other inherent risks that any President will have to encounter. But yet that is what we face.
That risk is mitigated by the fact that, yes, reality has a way of intruding. But that risk is there nonetheless, and it’s one that the next administration will have to deal with.
Q You were speaking earlier about the important role the U.S. is taking in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, including, obviously, the battle in Mosul. There has been some concern expressed about the battle plan, the strategy there and its impact on civilian casualties. You probably have read there have been published estimates already of 600 or more Iraqi civilians already being killed in that and some controversy over whether there should be a change in the approach. Does the administration see any need to alter the approach to the battle of Mosul to reduce civilian casualties?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mike, I’ve read a little bit about this. In some ways — I would encourage you to also direct your question to the Department of Defense. They can provide you probably more tangible operational assessment of some changes that may be contemplated. But as a policy matter, why don’t I lay out a couple of the considerations that factor into this.
The first is that in the two and a half years that ISIL has been in control of Mosul, we know that any number of civilians have been killed, executed, tortured, harassed, threatened, maimed. So it’s not as if not acting to retake Mosul somehow enhances the security of the civilians who are already there. So the question really is, given that the status quo is unacceptable, how do you execute an operation that avoids unnecessary risk to the civilian population?
Anytime you’re talking about the second-largest city in Iraq, this is a pretty significant challenge. And it is why the United States spent months working closely with Iraqi security forces and with other members of our coalition to effectively plan for the operation to retake Mosul. And what we have seen thus far is effective coordination among a variety of fighting forces, Kurdish forces, Iraqi security forces, both of which are being advised and assisted by U.S. Special Forces on the ground there. And we’re pleased at the kind of progress that has been made thus far.
The other element of the planning was actually coordinated by the United Nations to ensure that there was sufficient capacity to deal with the humanitarian situation and to deal with the possibility, even the likelihood that there would be civilians fleeing that city once parts of it had been liberated. And fleeing the city means ending up in the desert without any food, water or shelter. And that has meant that the United Nations and a variety of multilateral aid organizations and some countries have mobilized resources to make sure that that aid is readily available to people fleeing violence. And we’ve seen that planning be useful as thousands of civilians fleeing Mosul have been able to benefit from the shelter, food, water and medicine that’s provided by the United Nations.
But there’s more work to be done. There are more risks that will be faced. And certainly minimizing the risk to the civilian population is an important priority of this ongoing operation. But anytime you are mobilizing a large-scale military operation in an urban environment, there are going to be risks. And that risk is only enhanced when you have an organization like ISIL that is so depraved that they’re willing to use innocent men, women and children as human shields.
So the United States and others who are involved in this operation will certainly be working to minimize the risk that is faced by civilians. But it is entirely — it’s impossible to reduce that risk to zero. And as you evaluate what sort of risk you’re willing to tolerate, it’s important to remember that those civilians are facing a severe risk even if the status quo were in place and even if there were not an operation underway to retake that city.
Q One more question. Most of the trade lobbyists and people around town have kind of given up on the TPP, particularly during this administration. When you’ve been asked about it in the past, you’ve been kind of coy about whether the administration is still trying to do anything on it. The lame duck session is starting. The President just had dinner with the Senate Democratic leader last night. Are you actually making any press to get this passed, ratified, done in the lame duck session? Or have you just completely given up on it like everyone else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the prospects are not good. But I don't know to what extent it was discussed at dinner last night.
Q Thanks, Josh. And this just came over — it looks like Vice President Biden is going to be traveling to Canada to meet with Trudeau and others. Talking a lot about risk, is there any — are there treaties or agreements or issues with Canada that maybe are at risk now? Why is Biden going to Canada?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have all the details on his itinerary or all of the items that are on his agenda. As you know, President Obama had an opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Trudeau in Peru just last week — or a week ago last Sunday, and it was a valuable opportunity for the leader of the United States to sit down with the leader of Canada, who is our closest partner on so many issues.
So I’ll refer you to the Vice President’s office for a more detailed account of what’s on his agenda when he travels there. But I think, like President Obama, he certainly admires the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau and is hopeful that the next administration will build on the strong relationship that this administration has helped to cultivate with Prime Minister Trudeau and the Canadian people.
Q The memorial service and the funeral Sunday — I just want to clarify one thing on that. Will the same U.S. non-presidential delegation be attending the funeral? Can we assume that Ben Rhodes and ambassador — or DeLaurentis will also be in attendance at the funeral?
MR. EARNEST: They are only participating in the memorial service that's planned for tonight. The briefing that was provided to me is that the actual funeral itself is actually a private event. But I can tell you that this is the only event that the Deputy National Security Advisor is planning to attend.
Q Ohio State yesterday — does the President condemn that as an act of terror?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, I should start by saying that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the first responders who reacted so heroically to the situation there. There are indications that the suspect was neutralized within a minute or two of beginning this terrible act of violence. And that's thanks to the bravery and professionalism and skill of some of the law enforcement officers who responded so quickly to the scene.
So we obviously — this is yet another opportunity for us to remember how professionally and how bravely men and women in police officers’ uniforms all across the country work to protect us so well every day.
We also are deeply appreciative of the response that was mobilized by EMTs and doctors and nurses in the Columbus area. Again, based on the briefing that I received this morning, it’s likely that there will be no loss of life in this incident other than the perpetrator. And we obviously are thinking about and praying for a swift recovery for those who were harmed in this incident.
More generally, I can tell you that law enforcement officers, with the support of the FBI, are conducting a thorough investigation of this situation to learn as much as they can about the potential motive of this individual. It’s important that those investigators uncover as much as they possibly can to learn about this incident and to learn what we can do to try to prevent it from taking — an event like this from happening again.
There are a couple of things, though, that we know. The first is that there is plenty of available evidence to indicate that this individual may have been motivated by extremism and may have been motivated by a desire to carry out an act of terrorism. And we know that our law enforcement officers have a critical role to play in preventing those acts of terrorism from succeeding. There are more than a hundred joint terrorism task forces that are organized in communities all across the country that fight crime, that fight extremism, that fight terrorism on a daily basis. And it’s important that we give them the support, financial and otherwise, to do their important work.
It’s also important for us to make sure that we're investing in programs to counter violent extremism. These interagency task forces, some of which are mobilized, are organized at the federal level and work closely with state and local officials, law enforcement and community leaders, to fight efforts to radicalize people in this country is critically important. And this administration has poured more resources and devoted more time and attention to the success of these programs than anyone else. And that reflects our desire to adapt to the current threat picture.
What's also true and what we also know based on some of the information about this perpetrator that has been made public is that our response to the situation matters. And I don't mean our response as a government. I mean our response as a country to this situation matters. And if we respond to this situation by casting aspersions on millions of people that adhere to a particular religion, or if we increase our suspicion of people who practice a particular religion, we're more likely to contribute to acts of violence than we are to prevent them.
So our response matters. We'll let our investigators determine exactly what led to this event, but even as we're waiting for additional information, we should be mindful of that response.
Q And then, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report that 2,500 acts of harassment and intimidation were reported by teachers, invoking either President-elect Donald Trump or his campaign rhetoric. Is this — how concerning is this to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we've seen is that the recently concluded presidential campaign was a hotly contested one and, unfortunately, a campaign that was characterized by a lot of divisive rhetoric. And it was going to be the responsibility of the winner of that election, whether it was Secretary Clinton or Donald Trump, to put at the top of his or her agenda uniting the country and healing the country in the aftermath of that election.
And there are a lot of ways to measure or evaluate the impact that this recently concluded election had on our country. But the President is certainly hopeful. And the President certainly tried to do his part by setting aside his own political views and focusing on a smooth and effective transition to lay the groundwork for the next President to take office and actually succeed in beginning to bring the country together once again after a divisive election. And the President is genuinely hopeful that the next President will make that a priority and that he will succeed in doing that.
Q Josh, thanks. The President-elect has had positive things to say about his dealings with President Obama in the Oval Office meeting and phone calls. Does President Obama view his discussions with his successor as an opportunity to maybe use his powers of persuasion to get him to back off of a lot of the things he said on the campaign in terms of changing Obama policies?
MR. EARNEST: I think President Obama views those conversations as an opportunity to offer some advice and to consult with the President-elect as he prepares to assume the awesome responsibility of governing the greatest country in the world. That's the nature of their phone conversations.
I'm going to protect their ability to have private consultations, so I won't be able to get into the topics that are covered or more precisely discuss the nature of their conversations. But President Obama does feel an obligation and believes that it is one of his most important remaining tasks to ensure a smooth and effective transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. And if that transition can be facilitated by telephone conversations between the President and the President-elect, then President Obama will participate in them accordingly, and he will offer the best advice that he possibly can to the incoming President.
Q Just a quick question. Has the President had the opportunity to speak to the Ohio State police officer that helped neutralize the attack yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know that they've had a chance to talk at this point, but if a conversation like that occurs, we'll let you know.
And, Fred, I'll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Yeah, just following up on some issues about what Trump might change. Has the President expressed any concern about what a Trump Supreme Court would look like and how that would affect some of the legacy?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware that the President has spoken to this, either publicly or privately. I think the President's expectation is that President Trump will fill vacancies on the Supreme Court by appointing people who are quite different than the kind of people that President Obama appointed. That may be one thing that everybody across the country can agree on.
It certainly doesn't discount the President's deep disappointment at the way Republicans in the Senate treated Chief Judge Merrick Garland. Chief Judge Garland has been waiting for consideration by this Senate for almost a year. And he is the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in American history when you consider his 19 years on the federal bench. He was somebody who served his country in prosecuting the perpetrators of one of the worst acts of terrorism on American soil when he helped lead an investigation and a prosecution of Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing. Chief Judge Garland is somebody that both Democrats and Republicans have said is somebody with a brilliant legal mind. And even Republicans have acknowledged that he's a consensus pick.
And yet, Republicans in the Senate refused to do their basic job and even give him a hearing and even give him a vote. And that's deeply disappointing. And, look, I don't know if that will — if they will change course between now and January 20th. I suspect they will not. And I don't know at this point who President Trump would choose. He certainly would — I think he could in good faith — well, look, he'll obviously have the opportunity to choose whomever he would like. And we'll see how they're treated in the Senate.
Q Two more quick ones. Would the President plan on any executive actions — or does he just believe that those will just be instantly overturned at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Can you repeat your question? There was a key word in your question that I missed and I want to make sure I don't screw it up.
Q Does the President plan on taking any executive actions before leaving office to solidify some policies? Or does he just believe those would be instantly overturned once the Trump presidency has started?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the process of acting on an executive order, Fred, as you know, is — an executive action or an executive order is one that requires a lot of preparation. And so I'm not going to rule out additional executive actions that the administration may take between now and January 20th — after all, the President of the United States is the President of the United States until January 20th. But what I can rule out are any sort of hastily added executive actions that weren't previously considered that would just be tacked on at the end. But are there some actions that have been in the pipeline for quite some time that could be announced between now and January 20th? That possibility certainly exists, but I don't have anything to preview at this point.
Q Trump made, of course, quite a bit of news last week when he indicated there wouldn't be prosecution of Hillary Clinton. Given that, does the Obama administration take his word on that? And is there no chance of a pardon of Secretary Clinton for any possible offenses or anything that the Trump administration might go after her for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, I did get asked about this last week or the week before. And the point is that there's a long tradition in the United States of ensuring that we separate criminal investigations from politics. And there are a lot of good reasons for that. Primarily the reason for it is to make sure that people aren't left somehow with the impression that they'll be treated differently in our criminal justice system based on their political affiliation.
Our tradition in this country is that everybody is treated equally under the law, and that's a tradition that's worth upholding. And in the case of Secretary Clinton, her use of a private email system was thoroughly investigated by career investigators at the Department of Justice and the FBI. And what the FBI Director concluded is that in the context of the investigation that no reasonable prosecutor would move forward in seeking charges against her. That was a recommendation that he forwarded to officials at the Department of Justice, and officials at the Department of Justice agreed with his recommendation.
So given that the FBI Director is somebody who was a registered Republican, who served in the senior Department of Justice position in a Republican administration, somebody who was confirmed with strong majorities in the United States Senate by Democrats and Republicans, I think it’s an indication that politics did not play a factor into their conclusion. And that's a good thing.
Q So for what Trump might do later if he does try to launch an investigation, or his Justice Department would, you don't think there would be a need for the President to pardon her before leaving?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think I’d just refer you to what the FBI Director had to say, which is that no reasonable prosecutor would seeks charges against her.
Q — federal help in Tennessee, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you, Kevin, I appreciate you asking. Obviously, the folks in Tennessee are dealing with a quite serious wildfire situation there right now. I can tell you that FEMA has already responded by providing a fire management assistance grant to the state of Tennessee to help them mobilize the resources that are necessary to fight the fire.
The one piece of good news that we have is that meteorologists are predicting some rain in the area in the next 24 to 48 hours. That obviously would be a welcome development and would hopefully hasten the extinguishing of that fire.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
1:37 P.M. EST