James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:20 P.M. EST
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 your questions. Darlene, do you want to start?
Q I have a couple different topics today.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q First, Donald Trump this morning said that he was going to be stepping away from the business to focus on running the country, because that's more important. And I was wondering if that announcement comes as welcome news to this White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, ultimately the relevant observers here will have to conclude based on the details of the announcement once it's been made. So there's obviously an Office of Government Ethics that is charged with significant responsibilities in terms of ensuring that government officials are adhering to ethical standards. Certainly, Congress has oversight responsibilities that should transcend partisan loyalty. Congress has an institutional responsibility to provide oversight, even if it is a Republican-led Congress and Republican-led Oversight Committee. They have responsibilities of providing oversight, even if it’s a Republican-led administration.
In addition to that, all of you are going to have to spend some time demanding transparency and demanding some answers to tough questions. And I know at least the people in this room are pretty good at that. And ultimately the American public will be counting on you to get answers to determine whether or not the questions that have been raised or the questions that may still persist in their mind have been satisfied based on the steps that the President-elect will announce. None of that is for me to judge.
What I can tell you is what President Obama's approach has been, and it has simply been to abide by an extraordinarily high standard of not just following the letter of ethical requirements, but following the spirit of those ethical requirements, and even going to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. For example, when President Obama took office, he, with the exception of his home in Chicago, basically liquidated his assets and purchased Treasury bonds. He did that at a time when interest rates in this country were at historic lows. It was not a particularly lucrative investment, you might say. But the President was willing to put his own financial interests aside and focus on running on the country. And he benefitted from that. He's obviously not been implicated or involved in any sort of personal scandal.
He's demanded that the same kind of standard be met by people who have served in this administration. And I think that's why you've seen, over eight years, thousands of people have served in the Obama administration, and there's been no major and personal scandal among a senior official in the Obama administration. And that's because of the commitment — at least in part because of the commitment — to this high ethical standard. But ultimately, the President-elect will have to determine what sort of standard he will abide by and what sort of standard he'll ask those who serve in his administration to abide by.
Q House Democrats have reelected Nancy Pelosi as their leader. Is there any comment from the White House on that? I know the President was very positive about her at the news conference in Peru when he got a question about it. Is there anything more to add?
MR. EARNEST: Not really — primarily because this is a decision for House Democrats to make in terms of how best to organize themselves and who should lead their caucus. The President has spoken on more occasions than I can count about how this country and his administration has benefitted from the kind of leadership and toughness and character that Leader Pelosi has demonstrated throughout her career in the House of Representatives, but particularly over the last eight year in which she served in a leadership position while President Obama has been in office. They haven’t agreed on every issue, the President and the Democratic Leader in the House, but they have been able to work effectively together. And the President himself has said on many occasions that so many of the accomplishments of this administration would not have been possible without the skill, toughness, values, and leadership of Nancy Pelosi.
Q Finally, the President has a meeting this afternoon with the Nobel Laureates. Is it a practice to invite all of the prize-winners to come to meet with the President? Can you say who will be attending that meeting?
MR. EARNEST: What we have done every year is we've invited those Americans who have been awarded a Nobel Prize to come and visit with the President prior to the — prior to traveling to Norway to accept the prize.
So the President is looking forward to renewing that tradition again. And I believe that several of the winners, but not all of them, will be in attendance at the White House. Those of you who are wondering, unfortunately Bob Dylan will not be at the White House today, so everybody can relax.
But we can get you a list of those who will be participating in that greet with the President later this afternoon.
Q Did Bob Dylan give a reason for why he can't be here this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST: He didn't. I know that he has indicated publicly that he’s honored to have received the Nobel Prize, but I know that he’s also indicated that he does not intend to travel to Norway to participate in the ceremonies in which he’d be awarded the prize. Again, based on what I’ve seen in published reports, I think the Norwegians are hopeful that he’ll choose another time over the course of the coming year to travel to Norway and give a speech and accept his prize. But that will be up to him.
There have been previous occasions — at least one previous occasion where Mr. Dylan has had an opportunity to visit the White House, and the President enjoyed meeting him there. But he’ll not be here today.
Q Thank you. So, late yesterday, Carrier announced a deal with President-elect Donald Trump to keep close to a thousand jobs at an air conditioner plant in Indianapolis. I guess all of the details of the deal haven’t been announced. But I was wondering, does the White House have any thoughts on kind of the strategy that has been employed to maybe lean on a private company to get them to keep jobs in the U.S.? Is that a strategy that the White House approves of, that thinks it’s a good thing to do? I guess I just wanted thoughts on that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously we haven’t seen the details of the announcement from the company, but we’ll obviously — or the early indications are that this is good news. And obviously we’d welcome that good news.
I know that the President-elect has indicated that he deserves credit for that announcement. And I guess what I would observe is that if he is successful in doing that 804 more times, then he will meet the record of manufacturing jobs that were created in the United States while President Obama was in office. There were 805,000 manufacturing jobs that weren’t just protected or saved, but actually created while President Obama was in office.
So President Obama has set a high standard, and President-elect Trump can meet that standard if this Carrier deal is completed in the way that he expects that it will be. If he does that 804 more times, then he will have matched the standard established by President Obama — at least when it comes to manufacturing jobs. The one difference would be that the President-elect is talking about protecting jobs, and the metric I’m using is actually creating jobs.
If you go to protecting jobs, there are more than a million jobs in the industrial Midwest that were saved when President Obama made the decision to rescue the American auto industry. And the long-term benefits of that fateful decision that was not initially popular has yielded a substantial benefit for the entire country, but certainly for the industrial Midwest.
Q But are there any thoughts on kind of like a personal intervention, the use of the bully pulpit maybe to kind of protect American jobs or keep companies from moving overseas? I mean, was there — I guess, is there any position on whether that's a good use of the authority of the presidency?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think when it comes to the announcement from Carrier, we’ll wait to see the details. But the indications are that it’s good news. And we’d welcome that.
As it relates to the governing strategy, I think it remains to be seen whether or not that’s one that can be applied to other situations. Again, the President-elect will certainly have an opportunity to lay out his strategy when it comes to the economy. But he’s indicated that he intends to pursue a different economic strategy than this administration pursued. And we’ll all have an opportunity to evaluate whether or not that's likely to meet the rather high bar that's been established by the strategy put forward by President Obama.
Q On another topic, the U.N. Security Council has imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Wednesday. I was wondering, how do these sanctions — or is there hope that these sanctions will have an impact where other sanctions have not? How do these maybe differ? And would they be able to bring about some type of change in the North Korean regime?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ayesha, this U.N. Security Council resolution represents weeks of hard-nosed diplomacy. In order to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution, it requires not just the approval of the United States and some of our European allies, it also includes — or requires not just the consent but the cooperation of both Russia and China. Those are two countries with whom the United States has on occasion — and as it relates to some issues — a rather complicated relationship.
But in this case, we have succeeded in brokering a diplomatic agreement among every member of the U.N. Security Council to put forward a tough new resolution that will apply additional pressure to the North Korean regime.
There are a couple of things that I can cite for you, and for more details I’d refer you to my colleagues in Ambassador Powers’ office.
But the first thing — and I think this is the most notable one — is that this resolution will impose a hard, binding cap on North Korea’s coal exports. Coal exports are North Korea’s largest source of external revenue. And we know that a significant portion of that revenue is plowed into their nuclear program. So putting in place this hard cap and closing loopholes that they've previously exploited to get around previous sanctions is a substantial development.
The resolution also strengthens and expands a range of sectoral sanctions on other exports from the DPRK. And these are exports, aside from coal, that the North Koreans use to raise hard currency. And when you're the subject of so many sanctions like the North Koreans are, raising that hard currency is difficult to do. We've made it even harder and applied even more economic pressure in those areas where we know that the North Koreans are using revenue to fund their nuclear program.
And I think this does send a clear signal about the resolve — not just of the United States and South Korea and Japan — but rather of countries around the world to compelling the North Korean government to come into compliance with their international obligations as it relates to their nuclear program.
Q Thanks, Josh. So do you think that these new sanctions have a much greater likelihood of changing North Korean behavior? I mean, where do they rank in terms of past sanctions? I know you explained the cap and the revenue streams, but what do you think in terms of this working?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly ratchets up pressure on the North Korean government in a way that they have not experienced before. This will put real pressure on the North Korean government to evaluate the strategy that they have pursued.
I don’t think anybody outside of the North Korean government can predict exactly whether or not this will lead to the kind of change in their behavior that we’d like to see. But we do know that this will increase the pressure and it will make things more difficult for the North Korean government, both in terms of leading that country, but also in terms of investing in their nuclear program. It will deepen their isolation, and it makes clear that it’s getting harder and harder for them to extract much sympathy from other countries in the region.
This is a pretty united front. This is a united front that is being presented by the international community, including the Russians and the Chinese, about the need for the North Koreans to change their behavior. Will they actually do it? Time will tell.
Q These are based on past sanctions and behavior continuing. If these new sanctions don’t change behavior, is their still room for additional sanctions? Is that going to be the pattern for the indefinite future, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: Well, hopefully that won’t be the pattern because hopefully this will apply the necessary pressure to get them to change their behavior. We’ll see. But there always is an opportunity for us to go farther.
But we’re not putting sanctions in place as a punitive measure. We’re not putting sanctions in place just for the sake of putting in place sanctions. We’re putting in place sanctions with the hope that it will bring about a change in behavior for the North Korean government, and a possibility for the international community to more deeply and constructively engage the North Korean regime — bring them out of the shadows, bring them into the international community, and actually bring relief to the millions of people in North Korea who live under an oppressive regime in extraordinarily harsh condition.
Q But there’s going to be a point at which there’s not going to be much more you can do in the way of sanctions, right? Are we reaching that point now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that this certainly represents a substantial escalation in pressure on the North Korean regime, and hopefully it will lead to the kind of changes that we’d like to see.
Is there room to go further? I’m sure there always is. But hopefully that won’t be necessary, and hopefully we’ll see a change from the North Koreans that will address the significant concerns harbored around the world about North Korea’s provocations and their willingness to shirk their international — their responsibilities when it comes to developing a nuclear program.
Q Okay. And on this Carrier deal, sources are saying now that it wasn’t the promise of incentives from the state to keep some of these jobs here, but it was the threat of a 35 percent tariff on Carrier’s products. What do you think of that? And is that something that President Obama would have done in his attempts to build manufacturing jobs?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’ll let the President-elect’s team describe what kind of strategy they are going to choose to implement. I think it’s been quite clear the strategy that President Obama has sought to implement, and one of those strategies was actually predicated on successfully renegotiating NAFTA to level the playing field for American workers and American businesses so that the American economy could enjoy substantial benefits.
And threats of levying additional tariffs is not a tactic that this administration chose to pursue, but we may have an opportunity to test the theory that’s been put forward by the President-elect about whether or not that is a smart, sustainable strategy.
Q Josh, the Defense Authorization bill that the Republican lawmakers have agreed to omits the controversial language that would have undermined President Obama’s executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination on federal contractors. Do Republicans (inaudible) for leaving out that provision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that, as of just a few minutes ago, we had actually not seen the final text of the bill yet.
Typically, the bill is hundreds of pages long, and it takes some time to review the text of the bill and determine exactly what the consequences are of those measures. So I can't make a grand pronouncement at this point about our position on the legislation. What we have been told is the so-called Russell Amendment is not in that legislation. We'll obviously take a look to see — to confirm that. But no, I don't think you get credit for deciding not to discriminate against somebody. I think that is behavior that we would expect of everybody in the country, particularly people who are elected to represent their fellow citizens in the United States Congress.
Q Assuming that is correct that it's not in the bill, to what extent is that an empty victory, considering that Republicans could just do that again next Congress without a veto threat, or President Trump could just dismantle the executive order on his own volition?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I'm not going to speculate about what may happen after President Obama leaves office. Obviously the Republican-led Congress and the Republican President will have to determine what kind of policies they want to pursue. But we obviously have spent a lot of time over the course of this year talking about the fact that elections have consequences. And it's possible that this is one way in which elections would have consequences.
Q Do you expect the President will sign the NDAA?
MR. EARNEST: Again, we haven't seen the text of it, but we'll obviously review it. That may take a little time. But once we've reached a conclusion about whether or not the President will sign it, we'll let you know.
Q Josh, the President has been a big promoter of loan forgiveness plans for college students that tie their payments to their income. GAO has got a report out today saying that's going to be more costly than advertised; it also criticized the way that the Education Department counts for it. Any reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't seen the actual report. I can tell you the President has placed a priority on making sure that graduating students are treated fairly by the Department of Education and by lenders when it comes to their student loans. One idea that this administration has pioneered is the idea of income-based repayment, which essentially allows students or recent graduates to cap their loan repayments every month at 10 percent of their income. This is a way that we can ensure that graduates are fulfilling their basic responsibility to repay the government for the money that they've borrowed. But we want to make sure that when students graduate, that they're not saddled with so much debt that they're essentially penalized financially for pursuing college education opportunities.
So the strategy that we've put forward has benefitted thousands of students across the country. There are many thousands more that have not availed themselves of the opportunity that is part of the income-based repayment program. And so certainly if there are students or recent graduates out there that are struggling to repay their loans, we would encourage them to contact the Department of Education and learn more about income-based repayment. And we can probably, in many cases, design a strategy that allows you to keep your commitment to the government, to the American people, for the money that you've borrowed, and to get a college education, but we can do that in a way that doesn't pose an undue financial hardship as you go and try to get started on a career.
Q Elizabeth Warren came out today and blasted the 21st Century Cures Act, saying it's a giveaway to industry, that it's corruption at its worst. The administration has been supportive of the 21st Century Cures Act before. Where are you now on the bill?
MR. EARNEST: Gardiner, just last night we issued a detailed statement of administration policy that sort of walks through a lot of the details. So I'd refer you to that particular statement. But, in general, what I can tell you is that the legislation includes important funding for things like the President’s BRAIN Initiative that would turbo-charge the amount of research that's done into the human brain. It would dedicate significant funding streams to the Vice President’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, and would augment the government’s ability to organize research and focus it on those projects that are likely to lead to the kind of breakthroughs that could save lives.
The money also — or the bill also includes funding for offering assistance to those who are addicted to heroin and opioids. This is the epidemic of addiction that we've seen all across the country as plaguing far too many communities and families. And there has been a deficit of resources dedicated to making sure that those people who are trying to get help for their addiction can get it.
And so as with any piece of legislation that is passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democratic President, it's going to require some compromise. There are some elements of the bill that the administration doesn't support. I'm confident that there are some parts of the bill that some Republicans don't support either. But at the end of day, I think the bill will get overall support from Democrats and Republicans because of some of the priorities that I've identified.
Q I wanted to ask a quick follow-up on Leader Pelosi. Did the President go out and try to whip up any votes for her, or make any phone calls on her behalf?
MR. EARNEST: The President was not involved in the leadership race among House Democrats. The President, as he has done in previous contested party races in Congress, has essentially said that it's their responsibility to make that decision. And I think everyone is keenly aware of his warm feelings for Leader Pelosi, but ultimately it's the responsibility of House Democrats to make the decision about who should lead them.
Q I also wanted to ask you about any White House reaction, or reaction from the President, on the district attorney’s decision down in North Carolina to not pursue any sort of charges. He said that the officer who killed Keith Scott acted lawfully. I was wondering if there was any sort of reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we've discussed in other settings, John, the White House is not going to get involved in handicapping or second-guessing criminal investigations. As this investigation was opened by the local district attorney, there were statements from the Department of Justice indicating that they were going to monitor the situation in Charlotte, and so I certainly don't want to say anything that could be viewed as prejudging or getting ahead of any sort of decision that they may announce.
But I'm confident that my colleagues at the Department of Justice are aware of this announcement, have followed through on their commitment to continue to monitor the situation. But for any reaction, I'd refer you to them.
Q So DOJ’s decision will be completely independent of DA account?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the Department of Justice’s decision will be independent of any sort of personal feelings that the President of the United States may have about the decision made by the district attorney. What impact the district attorney’s decision has on the Department of Justice is something you should ask the Department of Justice.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to ask you about the wildfires in Tennessee. Three people have died; more than 150 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the wildfires. Can you give us an update on what the administration is doing to help the folks in the state?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, obviously our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tennessee who are dealing with a very difficult situation right now. The wildfire in that part of the country is a very serious situation and there are lives that have been lost. Less importantly, there’s been property that's been lost as well. And obviously the thoughts and prayers of the entire country are with that community that has been so negatively affected by the situation there.
There are a couple of steps that the federal government has taken to provide support to local officials who are dealing with this situation. The first is, my colleagues at FEMA have provided a Fire Management Assistance Grant — an FMAG — to local officials to provide them some additional resources to deal with that situation. There also are a couple of teams of firefighting experts that have been deployed. These are experts that serve in a variety of federal agencies. Some of them are actually employed by state agencies, but they work effectively with federal partners and are actually being deployed to Tennessee to help officials there develop a strategy to make sure that — to try to contain the fire as quickly as possible before more lives are lost and before more property is lost.
I understand that there was some rainfall overnight, which hopefully will have at least some positive impact. But I also understand that that rainfall was accompanied by some rather high winds. So we're hoping that the weather will continue to contribute positively to extinguishing this fire as soon as possible. But obviously this is a very serious situation. And significant resources have been mobilized by the federal government to offer our assistance to state and local officials who are dealing with it firsthand.
Q Does this warrant a federal disaster declaration? And has the President personally been in contact with the government?
MR. EARNEST: The President has been briefed on the situation. I don't know that he’s spoken to the governor. As it relates to the kind of federal assistance that we can provide, the financial assistance through an FMAG and the technical assistance through the team of experts that I have made reference to earlier are the most immediate, urgent way for the federal government to offer any assistance.
But down the line, I wouldn’t necessarily rule out the eventual declaration of an emergency. But we’ll have to exactly take a look at the scope of the damage and make a determination from there.
Q I want to draw your attention to something that's happening in Syria. It has been reported that Israeli jets have executed some airstrikes in the area. I’m curious — has the U.S. military, to your knowledge, been in contact with the Russians in terms of de-confliction in the airspace over Syria, or with the Israelis as that area continues to suffer from numerous airstrikes?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, as it relates to Israeli military action and reports of their military action, I’d refer you to the Israeli government. I won’t have any comment on that.
As it relates to the U.S. military action inside of Syria, there is a sustained air campaign being waged by U.S. military pilots against ISIL targets in Syria. And that bombing campaign has resulted in senior ISIL officials — including some who are responsible for external plotting — being taken off the battlefield in the last few months. So we've applied substantial pressure to ISIL targets through a robust U.S. military bombing campaign. And there is a low-level channel that's been established with the Russians to ensure that we can successfully de-conflict our military efforts with any efforts that the Russians may have ongoing.
That is different than, and stops short of, cooperating or coordinating with them militarily. But we are in contact enough to make sure that our military pilots can operate free of any interference by Russians who also may be engaged in military activities in the region.
Q Lastly, I want to ask you a domestic question. And this is a little bit of a hypothetical, but maybe you can be instructive on it. As it relates to sanctuary cities, there has been some suggestion that the federal government could apply pressure on so-called sanctuary cities if they fail to comply with the law. That's been talked about at length as a possibility under a Trump administration.
Broadly speaking from the Obama administration perspective, is that a good use of the federal government’s cudgel, if you will, to get the cities to follow the law as it relates to immigration or any other?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Kevin, the fact that we're even having a discussion about sanctuary cities is an indication of just how broken our immigration system is. And this is a good example of why President Obama fought so hard to try to reform our broken immigration system. And he did succeed in working with Democrats and Republicans in the Senate to put forward a common-sense bill that would have made a historic investment in border security, but also made some common-sense reforms to our immigration system that would have ensured that people who have been in the United States for a substantial period of time are essentially given an opportunity to come out of the shadows.
Now, they are in some cases asked to pay a fine. They got to pay taxes. They got to go through a background check. There are onerous obstacles that have to be overcome. But yet there is a path to resolving this situation.
And failing to act on comprehensive immigration reform — something that had bipartisan support not just in Washington, D.C. but all across the country — there is a reason that law enforcement organizations, faith-based communities, the business community are all strongly supportive of comprehensive immigration reform. They understand the benefits that are possible, and they understand that the current system we have is broken.
And the fact that there is a discussion about sanctuary cities is just one symptom of a much more significant affliction that continues to plague this country. And this is a problem that would have been solved had Republicans in the House of Representatives not blocked or prevented a vote on this bipartisan bill that had passed the Senate.
Q Even if I were to cede that — and I think there’s a lot there that I think most people would certainly agree with you on — isn’t it the responsibility of these cities and communities to still follow the law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the President has made clear that when it comes to our immigration policy, it’s important for federal law to reflect that we are a nation of laws, but we're also a nation of immigrants. And it shouldn’t be that hard. In fact, it’s not that hard to reconcile those two important priorities. And the bipartisan legislation that advanced through the Senate with the strong support of the administration certainly did effectively balance those two priorities.
But the failure to balance those priorities in our federal law has a number of difficult consequences. And again, the fact that we have to talk about sanctuary cities I think is one example of that.
Q Last one. On OPEC apparently cutting production, is the White House aware of this? And is there a concern here that that will have a major impact on, broadly, gas prices in particular for American citizens?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen that news report. I’m not aware of any specific briefing that the U.S. government has received on that vote. I know there have been previous occasions where there have been statements submitted by OPEC that didn't actually result in the policy change that they said that they were pursuing. So we’ll obviously watch and see what impact this statement has.
Q Thank you. On the funeral of Fidel Castro in Cuba this weekend, it’s a relatively long affair. So I’m wondering whether at some point the President is expected to watch parts of the funeral. And will he be updated regularly by Ben Rhodes, who is there for the funeral?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that the President will watch any of the proceedings on television. Mr. Rhodes and our diplomat in Cuba, Ambassador DeLaurentis, participated in a memorial service last night. But I'm not aware that either of them intends to be a part of all of the activities over the next three days. The two of them were in attendance last night representing the United States.
But Mr. Rhodes remains in Cuba today because he's been — he had previously planned to travel to Cuba this week to have meetings with government officials and officials at the U.S. embassy to discuss the continued effort to implement a policy of normalizing relations between our two countries. But the last I heard is that he's actually planning to come back tonight. So I don't think that — I know that he won't be there and participating in the events that are planned over the next several days.
Q Any details by any chance of who exactly those meetings were with and what they might have been about?
MR. EARNEST: Not at this point, but when he gets back we'll see if we can get you a readout of his engagements while he was there.
Q The phone calls between the President-elect and the President — you gave some details yesterday and said that, I believe all the phone calls or most of them emanated from the President-elect's office. Have there been any cases where a call has been initiated here at the White House and went to Donald Trump, to the President-elect, from here?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding — and again, I can't account for all of their conversations, but my understanding at least of the phone calls that have been discussed publically, those were calls that were initiated by the President-elect.
Q Do you expect that to even itself out a little bit from now until the inauguration?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know. We'll have to see. But I can't guarantee that we'll be talking about those conversations publically.
Q Thanks, Josh. Senate Majority Leader McConnell said today that the Senate is going to vote on the Iran Sanctions Act this week and that's expected to pass. And I'm wondering whether President Obama would veto that bill if it reached his desk.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jordan, as we have said on a number of occasions, the administration continues to retain substantial authorities that can be used to impose financial sanctions on the Iranian regime. There are a variety of reasons why we would want to do that.
The first is, we've seen the Iranians on a number of occasions take steps with regard to their ballistic missile program that are inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions. We have seen direct evidence of the Iranians sponsoring terrorism. We have seen ample evidence that the Iranians aren't living up to generally accepted norms when it comes to protecting the basic universal human rights of the Iranian people.
All those are reasons that Iran could be subject to financial sanctions — and they have been. These are financial sanctions imposed by the Obama administration against the Iranian government and other Iranian entities because of our concerns about those areas. So we retain substantial authority to impose additional sanctions if they are warranted.
We know that there is a renewed interest — or there is interest in Congress in giving the administration additional authority. We'll take a look at what bill is passed and determine whether or not the President will sign it. But for those in Congress who are interested in making sure the administration has sufficient authority, I can confirm that we do, and I can confirm that we have not been shy about using it.
Q It sounds like you think this legislation is unnecessary. Is that correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are plenty of times where the President has signed into law bills that Congress has passed that we're not sure are entirely necessary. So I would avoid reading in too much — reading too much into my comments about whether or not the President will sign it. We'll see what Congress passes, if they pass something. And we'll let you know if the President intends to sign it.
Q Thank you, Josh. Today, a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted new sanctions against North Korea. What is the difference between the (inaudible) and the new sanctions on North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jean, as I mentioned earlier, the most substantial difference is the new sanctions regime includes a hard, binding cap on North Korean coal exports. This is significant because we know that North Korea gets more revenue from their coal exports than anywhere else, and we know they use a substantial portion of that revenue to fund their nuclear program. So putting in place this hard, binding cap is going to limit their ability to do that.
There are other sectors of the economy that will also face tougher penalties and tougher sanctions. And again, we know that’s important because those sectoral sanctions are related to exports and we know that exports are the best way for the North Korean regime to get access to hard currency. We know a lot of that hard currency is then used to invest in their nuclear program.
So there are some other steps that relate to preventing the North Koreans from generating revenue by using their real property holdings overseas. There are additional prohibitions that are put in place on public and private support for trade with the North Korean government.
So for a more detailed run-down on how all this would work, I’d refer you to my colleagues in the office of Ambassador Power, who has obviously done remarkable work to organize the international community around this set of sanctions that actually represents a substantial escalation in the pressure that’s being applied against North Korea because of their nuclear program.
Q What if China rejects this?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Do you think Chinese will agree to this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, our expectation is that the Chinese will agree to this. The Chinese obviously have a veto power at the U.N. Security Council. And based on this difficult, weeks-long negotiation with the members of the Security Council, the indication is that the Chinese government is prepared to support a resolution like what I’ve just described — which is a good thing, an important step, and is an indication that the international community is presenting a united front in confronting North Korea for their nuclear program.
Q One more question. Japan and South Korea, China will hold a trilateral summit meeting at Tokyo next month. What is your comment on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have often said is that we believe the United States benefits from our allies having a constructive, productive relationship with China. After all, President Obama meets with his Chinese counterpart with some regularity; he just did it a couple of weeks ago when we were in Peru.
So we obviously would welcome both greater cooperation between our South Korean and Japanese allies on a range of issues. And if they can cooperate in terms of strengthening and improving their relationship with China — making it more productive and constructive — there’s nothing wrong with that at all from the standpoint of the United States.
Q Does U.S. agree with the South Korea and Japan military security agreement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have encouraged our allies in South Korea and Japan to intensify their efforts to coordinate on a range of issues, including on a range of security issues. Again, we believe that that will enhance the national security of our two allies, and we believe that that’s a good thing for the United States.
So the United States, including President Obama himself, has played a central role in trying to facilitate warmer, more effective relations between two of our most important allies in Asia. And we’ve obviously seen South Korea and Japan make some really important strides in terms of improving their relationship and having more effective coordination on a range of issues including a range of national security issues, and that’s something that we have long encouraged them to do.
Q Thank you, Josh. Has the administration’s effort to transfer detainees at the prison facility at Guantanamo ceased since the election — the presidential election three weeks ago?
MR. EARNEST: No.
Q And what are the plans, as it relates to the remaining detainees at Guantanamo, from this point forward, leading up to Inauguration Day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to continue to do the difficult, diplomatic spade work that’s necessary to transfer as many of those detainees as possible that have been cleared for transfer by the national security experts who are viewing their case files.
Those transfers obviously are contingent on a range of security requirements that ensure that those individuals can't pose an undue threat to U.S. national security after they’re transferred. That's the reason it requires a bit of diplomacy to ask other countries to assume this responsibility. But there are dozens of Gitmo detainees that have been cleared for transfer by national security experts that have reviewed their files, and we just need to do the diplomatic work that's necessary to find an appropriate place to send them.
Q As you know, President-elect Trump has spoken often about how he would like to keep the prison facility at Guantanamo open when he becomes President. Has the administration consulted with the Trump transition team in any way about plans to transfer any detainees from Guantanamo to third countries?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any specific conversations. I can tell you that there are individuals who have been designated by the President-elect to serve as the lead of his transition team both as it relates to the National Security Council, but also other agencies that do work on the prison at Guantanamo Bay, including at the Department of Defense and the Department of State.
I would certainly assume that some of those conversations have included a discussion about the prison at Guantanamo Bay and helping them understand the policy that we have pursued. And it's a policy that we will pursue until January 20th, as long as President Obama remains President of the United States.
Q So the administration feels then a need to consult with the Trump transition team about any plans that it may have to transfer detainees from Guantanamo?
MR. EARNEST: I think, John, what I'm trying to say is I'm not going the get into the specific details of their conversations. I can tell you that senior officials at the Department of State, at the Department of Defense and at the National Security Council are committed to what the President has made a top priority, which is a smooth and effective transition to the next presidency. That's going to include a detail discussion of complicated issues that those agencies are dealing with.
So, to the extent that we want the incoming team to have a good understanding of what our policy has been with regard to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, understand the steps that we're taking to review the case files of individual detainees, to understand the steps that we take to negotiate with other countries to understand what sort of security requirements we insist on when those prisoners are — those detainees are transferred — that's a good thing and that will ensure a smooth and effective transition. But this is a policy that will remain in place until President Obama leaves office on January 20th. After that and what policy will be in place after that is something that the President-elect and his team will have to work out.
Q One final thing on this. There is only one President at a time. There is only one Commander-in-Chief at a time. Does what you're saying, Josh, does it mean that the Trump transition team has no essentially veto authority on any detainees that could be transferred to third countries?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, of course not, they don't. The decision that’s made to transfer individuals is based on a review of their case file by national security experts at a variety of national security agencies, including the intelligence community, the Department of Defense and others. Once they have reached a determination that a detainee is eligible for transfer, then the Department of State goes to work in trying to do some diplomacy with another country to get them to accept the transfer of this detainee under a set of security requirements that limit the ability of that detainee to pose any risk to the United States or our interests or our allies.
So that's difficult work, but that's work that we've been doing for almost eight years now and that's work that will continue at least through January 20th. After that, the President-elect’s team will have to decide how they want to handle that situation.
Q Josh, have the Obamas bought a home in Rancho Mirage?
MR. EARNEST: I know there’s been some reporting speculating that they were considering doing that. I don't have any updates on any real estate transactions. Obviously the First Family still owns a home on the South Side of Chicago, and we have publicly discussed their intent to remain in Washington for a couple of years after President Obama leaves the White House, and they’ll be renting a home here in the Washington area. But for any transactions beyond that, I can't confirm those reports.
Q Or Hawaii?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously the President has great affection for Hawaii, but I'm not aware of any real estate transactions that he’s made there at this point.
Q How many receptions are the Obamas hosting in this final cycle, do you know?
MR. EARNEST: For the holiday season? Many. I don't have the exact count, but we can look that up for you. The First Lady’s office has been doing the work of organizing many of these activities, but we'll see if we can contact them on your behalf and get you an answer.
Q Speaking of executive residences, the First Lady has often described the rigors of living here at the White House as kind of living above the store. Obviously there are advantages of the President living in this particular executive mansion. It seems that Mr. Trump may become sort of — or his family certainly a part-time resident of the White House. What are the thoughts of this administration, especially when it comes to the national security areas, being close to the Situation Room, literally within minutes, that Mr. Trump may somehow be a bi-city resident — or his family certainly will be?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, obviously the President-elect and his family will have to determine what sort of living arrangement makes the most sense for them. And that's obviously not something I'm going to second-guess. We've made clear that when President Obama is traveling, he essentially takes the inner workings of the White House with him so that he can execute all of the duties that he has as President of the United States. And he's able to do that from aboard an aircraft and he's able to do that from overseas when he's traveling.
So I certainly wouldn't anticipate that the President-elect would encounter any difficult in trying to do that from New York City. But, look –
Q But if he’s –
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, as far as I can tell, he has for a number of years enjoyed the benefits of living above the store in Trump Tower, and so maybe he would appreciate the benefits of living above the store here in Washington, too. But ultimately, that will be for him and his family to decide, and I wouldn't second-guess or criticize that decision one way or the other.
Q I have a question about Guantanamo. I understand that transfers will still take place and they're still being planned — the transfers of detainees out of Guantanamo. But I'm wondering about the briefings that you're having for the incoming members, like Mike Pompeo, who is from Kansas. I know there was some history of him in Guantanamo, and I wondered if you had talked to him in the past about maybe the possibility of moving detainees to Kansas or how you might build on that.
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to what sort of conversations may have occurred with Congressman Pompeo. He obviously is somebody that has — I believe he served on the House Intelligence Committee, so he is conversed in many of these issues. So I'm confident he's had some discussions with senior administration officials about our approach to a range of these national security issues, including our efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But I can't speak to the details of any of those discussions.
Q – spoke with him, did you, about, like, anything related to Kansas or the transfers? You didn't know him from before?
MR. EARNEST: Me, personally? No, I've never had the pleasure of meeting Congressman Pompeo.
I'll give this gentleman in the back the last question.
Q I wanted to ask about the Nobel Prize award meeting this afternoon. I was wondering if you could comment on how well the President feels that he has lived up to his own award — the Nobel Peace Prize that he was awarded seven years ago, over the last seven years.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think that's an excellent question, one I'm sure the President can answer better than I can. What –
Q – come out –
MR. EARNEST: Well, we'll see. (Laughter.) The one thing I guess I would encourage those who are interested in this question to do is to go back and look at the speech that the President delivered in December of 2009 — maybe you've done this — in which the President talked about what his approach to being the President of the United States would be and how that was consistent with the aspirations that were represented by the committee's decision to award him the Nobel Prize.
And I feel confident in telling you that the President feels that he's lived up to the standard that he has set for himself in that speech. He acknowledged that his first responsibility and his first duty as President of the United States is to protect the American people. And in some cases, that has required him ordering the United States military to kill people who are trying to kill Americans. What the President has also tried to do is to use other elements of American power to advance our values and our interests around the world. And that's something that a U.S. President is uniquely positioned to do.
And many of you who have had an opportunity to cover President Obama as he's traveled around the world, have seen that he’s spent time in intensive discussions with other world leaders about military campaigns. He’s taken advantage of the opportunity to thank our men and women in uniform for their service in protecting this country when they're deployed at bases overseas, in many cases far away from their families and loved ones. He’s had an opportunity to thank them firsthand for their willingness to put their lives in harm’s way to protect America.
But the President has also spent a lot of time meeting with opposition figures in other countries, meeting with activists in other countries who fighting for greater freedom and liberty. The President has met with entrepreneurs in other countries — people who are seeking to build a stronger economy and a better life for them and their family in a way that contributes to their community and for their country.
All of that is consistent with the basic responsibilities of the President of the United States, consistent with the kinds of values that we cherish in this country, and in the President’s mind, consistent with the aspirations that were exhibited by the committee when they decided to award him the Nobel Prize in the first place.
So many people made the observation in 2009 that President Obama hadn’t earned the Nobel Prize. And I don't think anybody saw a particularly aggressive argument from the President at that time. But people will have an opportunity now, after almost eight years that the President has served in office, to evaluate whether or not, based on his record of protecting the American people and advancing our interests around the globe, whether or not he’s lived up to the aspirations of the Nobel committee. And the President is quite proud of his record.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow. And maybe even later tonight.
1:17 P.M. EST