Aboard Air Force One
En Route Ann Arbor, Michigan
10:18 A.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Happy Election Eve, everybody. The President, on the day before the election, has an ambitious travel schedule today, and we're pleased that you all will be along for the ride.
The President is looking forward to visiting three states that he won twice when he was running for President. And he's enthusiastic about spending some time in states that don't have early vote. As you know, over the course of the last four or six weeks, the President has been taking, obviously, direction from the Clinton campaign and has focused his activities in those states where people are already voting. And today, shortly before the election, attention turns to those states that are mobilizing GOTV efforts to turn out voters on Election Day.
And the President is enthusiastic about going to these states. I think two of these events today are on college campuses, and I think that should be a pretty good indication to you the President is looking forward to making the case to young voters about why they should be engaged in this race, why they should be casting a vote on Election Day, and why he believes they should be supporting the candidate that's looking to build on the progress that we've made over the last eight years.
So you all will hear from the President. I wouldn't expect a speech that's markedly different than what you've heard before. But in Philadelphia, he'll be doing something a little bit different than what he's done before because he will be introducing Secretary Clinton, and it will be the last speech that he'll give before Election Day. And he'll be doing it from a historic place. This is the site where our Founding Fathers, 240 years ago, signed the Declaration of Independence. And I think that this symbolic nature of this evening’s event I think will be powerful.
Over the next 48 hours, the American people will be taking part in our democracy, where the greatest country in the world decides who its leader will be, based on the preferences of the people. And that's a rather profound thing. And when you consider how we've been sort of focused on polling numbers and charges and counter-charges between the campaigns, there's something profound about the citizens of the greatest country in the world coming together to decide who is going to lead them for the next four years.
That's a weighty decision, but our process for that peaceful transition of power is an important part of what makes America the greatest country on Earth. And that's the exercise that we'll all be observing and participating in over the next 48 hours. And the President is looking forward at this impactful moment to having an opportunity to make a forceful case in support of Secretary Clinton.
So with that, I'm ready to take your questions.
Q Josh, yesterday Director Comey issued a letter to Congress saying that the FBI –
MR. EARNEST: I saw that.
Q I'm sure you did. What's the White House reaction to that? And more generally, what is your reaction to the fact that he did this at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, the thing I can — one week ago today, we stood in the White House Briefing Room — you all sat in the White House Briefing Room, and we had a protracted back- and-forth about the White House's view of Director Comey's decision to send a letter to Congress updating them on the status of their review of some emails potentially related to Secretary Clinton's server. At that point, I indicated that I was neither prepared to defend, nor criticize Director Comey's decision to communicate to Congress about that position. And standing here today aboard Air Force One, I'm not prepared to defend, nor criticize Director Comey's position to send another letter updating Congress further on the status of that work.
The White House has not been briefed on this investigation over the course of the last year and a half, and we’ve not been updated — we’ve not been briefed on that investigation over the course of the last week and a half, either. This is an investigation that's being conducted by the FBI and the Department of Justice. And the White House has gone to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of political interference in that ongoing investigation.
So the White House was not informed in advance of Director Comey's decision to send the letter yesterday. And the President believes that those decisions are best left to professionals at the FBI and the Department of Justice, who have a responsibility to set aside their own personal political views and focus on the facts of the investigation, follow where the evidence leads, and ensure that we have a criminal justice system, an investigative process that's insulated from politics, that's focused on the rule of law. And the President believes that our democracy is best served when investigators demonstrate a commitment to that principle.
Q Do you acknowledge that the FBI Director's actions have affected the campaign, even if that's not what the intent was?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would acknowledge that much of the debate in the campaign over the last 10 days has been concentrated around Director Comey's decision. I think that is an objective fact for anybody that's been watching television or reading the newspaper or checking Twitter.
What impact it actually has in the polling place I think is something that we'll have greater insight to on — about 36 hours from now. But even then, I'm confident that there were will be a lot of post-election analysis trying to discern what kind of impact and how much of an impact it actually had. And that's something for academics and political analysts to focus on.
Right now, the President will be making the case, and over the course of today the President will be making the case, that there's a lot at stake in this election. And that when you consider the impact on the economy, the impact on our national security, the impact on our ability to look out for middle-class families — all that's at stake in this election, too.
Q Does the President continue to have confidence in Director Comey?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I indicated last Monday, when asked about Director Comey in the briefing, that the President views Director Comey as a man of integrity, a man of principle. There's a reason that President Bush chose him to serve in a senior position at the Department of Justice. There's a reason that a strong majority of Democrats and Republicans in the United States Senate confirmed him to be the Director of the FBI after he was nominated by President Obama. And the President's views on him have not changed and, yes, he continues to have confidence in his ability to run the FBI.
Q One of the arguments from Donald Trump has been that it's not logistically feasible for the FBI to have gone through 650,000 emails in just over eight days, and that, therefore, they didn't actually look into this. Is the White House confident that the investigation was carried out diligently?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I have not been briefed on the investigation, so for how exactly the FBI went about doing the work that they said that they were going to do, beginning last — a week ago Friday, is something that you should talk about with them.
As I indicated last week, the President is entirely confident that Director Comey is not using his authority to advantage a particular political candidate or a particular political party. But for greater insight into how the FBI and the Department of Justice did the work they said that they were going to do and said that they have now completed, you should go talk to them.
Q The final day of the campaign, waged very viciously or hard, can I think bring about different emotions. And we saw, like, four years ago, for example, President Obama teared up in Iowa in the final campaign stop. Could you give us some color about sort of the President’s mindset, what he’s feeling right now, personally? I mean, this is sort of the final day before we may have a President-elect that would replace him. And also, maybe your own personal reflections.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I did speak to the President a little bit earlier today, both on the helicopter and on the plane. I think my comments earlier about the profound nature of this grand experiment that we call democracy is something that is on the President’s mind today. It’s a remarkable thing that the greatest country in the world, the most powerful country in the world, chooses its leadership not through force, but through a fair election in which the citizens have an opportunity to express their preference. And there’s a commitment on the part of the person who is serving in power to ensure a smooth transition to the next person, regardless of whether or not he supported the previous candidate.
I think the other thing that’s on the President’s mind is there’s also an opportunity for our country to make some history. There’s an opportunity for the American people to decide to elect a woman as President of the United States, and for the first time in the 240-year history of our country. That’s a powerful thing, too.
I think President Obama is well aware of the stakes of this election. He’s dedicated that last decade of his life to fighting for and advancing an agenda that tries to make our country more fair and more just, and expands opportunities for middle-class families and those families that are working really hard to try to get to the middle class. He poured his heart and soul into trying to advance our interests around the globe and to making the United States of America and the people of the United States safer.
And he’s proud of the progress that we’ve made. That progress would not have been possible without investment and involvement of the American people, and he recognizes that that progress will not continue unless the American people send a clear signal that it should. And that certainly is an important part of this election too.
I think the other thing that — in terms of my own view, the election of the next President is the clearest tangible sign that this presidency is about to end. And having served with President Obama since his first day in the White House, it’s a moment for reflection.
And today’s a day to savor, I think, in a lot of ways. If you haven’t noticed yet, you’ll notice over the course of today that there are a number of members of the President’s senior staff who are traveling today, and I think all of them have the same recognition, which is that this has been an extraordinary blessing to have an opportunity to serve this President and to serve this country, and to try to fight for things that we all believe deeply in too.
So I think I’m not the only one that’s feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the kind of opportunities that I’ve had over the last eight years. That doesn’t mean that every day has been easy. It doesn’t mean that every day has been fun. But this has been the opportunity of a lifetime.
And this is the kind of opportunity that most people don’t have. And so I feel incredibly blessed to have had the good fortune to see so much history up close and to be associated with a group of people who are committed to the public interest and fighting for a set of values that were instilled in me at an early age in terms of the fairness and justice and equality.
And so that certainly is on my mind through the course of today.
Q – strong emotions. I wonder if the President has talked or delivered any personal message to you all today, for the staff or is he making calls to other alumni, by any chance? And then also if you could also foreshadow at all what his schedule is like tomorrow, where he'll be watching the election. And I know on Election Day, the team has often had rituals such as playing basketball and so on. Does the President have any of those rituals he’s going to do tomorrow as well?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the President’s time today, he’s very focused on the upcoming election. And he’s going to be 100 percent focused on making a strong public case for Secretary Clinton and ensuring that people understand the stakes of this election. And there will be time for him to think and talk a little bit more about his own presidency and his own perspective on the last eight years in the two months or so that remain in his presidency. There will be plenty of time for that.
I don’t have much of an update on his schedule tomorrow. We’ll keep you posted on that. The President does have some Election Day traditions, and we’ll certainly do our best to keep you posted on how those are observed.
Q Tens of millions of people have already voted. The President said last week or a couple of weeks ago that he follows the returns and he was tracking the African American vote, and said that it hadn’t been where he expected it to be. Now that early voting is basically done, how does he feel about the electorate so far? Is he more confident today than he was back then?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President continues to feel optimistic about the trajectory of the race, and that is based on publicly available data; that is based on the data that he has access to in terms of the composition of the early vote. And it also is consistent with his sense of things on the ground. He’s spent a lot of time on the road over the last week and he senses the kind of energy among Secretary Clinton’s supporters that leaves him feeling optimistic about the trajectory of the race.
But I think the aggressive schedule that he has assembled for today I think is an indication that he’s not taking a single vote for granted. He is fighting complacency. And given the stakes of the election, he’s counting on Secretary Clinton’s supporters to do the same thing. He’s also counting on his supporters to do the same thing. He’s urging people not to give in to the temptation to not be as focused on this election just because he’s not on the ballot.
As you’ve heard him say many times, his agenda, his legacy is on the ballot. And so much of the work that he is proud of accomplishing over the last eight years would not have been possible without the American people mobilizing to make it happen, and he’s counting on the American people to mobilize once again on Election Day to ensure that that work and that progress can continue.
Q The Kurdish-led forces in Syria started the operation over the weekend to try to retake Raqqa. We now have that very challenging operation going on at the same time as another very challenging operation in Mosul. Could you give us an update on what kind of progress the U.S. is seeing in both of those battles?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, for a detailed operational assessment, I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Defense, but I got a very top line briefing this morning. As you’ve obviously seen from the Syrian Democratic forces and from Secretary Carter, the Syrian forces on the ground inside of Syria that we are supporting have begun the operation against Raqqa.
The first step in that process is isolating Raqqa. And we’re obviously pleased to see this coalition of forces that includes Arabs and Kurds and Turkmen fighters beginning to focus on what’s necessary to retake the city in Syria that ISIL has designated as their capital. This is important to successfully destroying the myth of a caliphate that ISIL has tried to propagate.
And the work that the Syrian Democratic forces are doing on the ground obviously will benefit from the kind of air campaign that the United States and our coalition partners can wage to advance their efforts. Those Syrian Democratic forces also benefit from the equipment that the United States and our coalition partners have provided them.
At the same time, we anticipate that this will be a long campaign and not one that is easily won. ISIL has dug into Raqqa for more than two years, and we anticipate that ISIL fighters will expend great effort to defend the city that they have designated as their capital.
With regard to Mosul, I can tell you that Iraqi security forces continue to make progress. The progress there is slow, but it's steady. They benefit from the advice and assistance of U.S. and other coalition forces on the ground. They also benefit from the military airpower that our coalition can bring to bear to make them more effective on the ground.
And the President is getting regular updates on the situation. And obviously all of this is an indication of the progress that our counter-ISIL coalition is making to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized the President for spending so much time on the campaign trail, saying that he should be focusing on ISIS and jobs. Can you give us a sense of how the President is balancing his official duties with his pretty heavy campaign schedule?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, you’ve heard me observe on a number of occasions that any successful President must be able to demonstrate an ability to handle more than one priority at a time. And the progress that our coalition is making against ISIL in Iraq and in Syria continues unabated — unabated by the campaign, I should say — they are obviously countering resistance on the ground. But they are continuing to make progress. And the Commander-in-Chief and everybody else in the chain of command has not been distracted one bit by the campaign — by the political campaign in the United States. Our fight against ISIL is critical to our national security and is prioritized for that reason.
I think last Friday’s jobs report is an indication that the President and his economic team continue to be focused on the kinds of policies that support and have supported the longest streak of job growth in our nation’s history.
And the truth of the matter is, though, Tuluse, is that the outcome of the election will have an impact on our national security and will have an impact on our continued economic strength. After all, you have one candidate who’s vowing to undermine the kinds of policies that have contributed so greatly to our economic recovery, and a political candidate who’s vowing to not just ignore but roll back the recommended steps that are advised by our nation’s military leaders.
These are the steps that have allowed us to increase the pressure on ISIL, to take back more than 50 percent of the territory that ISIL previously controlled in Iraq and a large portion of the territory that ISIL previously controlled in Syria.
In northern Syria, there now is an area about the size of New Jersey where opposition forces have succeeded in driving ISIL out, where ISIL no longer poses a direct, imminent threat to those areas. That's reflects important progress, and that progress is possible because of the good advice the President is getting from his military leaders.
Ignoring that advice, rolling it back would not be good for our national security, would not be good for our counter-ISIL campaign, and certainly would not be good for our relationships with the 60-some-odd countries that are contributing to the counter-ISIL campaign.
So it's important for people to understand that the kinds of priorities that the President is focused on every day are not disconnected from the outcome of tomorrow’s election.
Q The President and Secretary Clinton will presumably have a chance to speak before or after their event today in Philly. Do you know when the last time they spoke was and where the last time they were able to meet face to face?
MR. EARNEST: Off the top of my head, I don't know the last time they met face to face. I suspect it might have been at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute dinner about six weeks ago in Washington. They both spoke at that event. I believe they were there at the same time and saw each other backstage. I can't recall another time when they were in the same place at the same time.
Q – over the phone or over email over the course of the campaign?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any additional phone calls to tell you about. But obviously, Secretary Clinton has been quite busy on the campaign trail. But I don't have any additional calls to tell you about.
Q Just for clarification. You said earlier that some of the senior staff is traveling with the President today on the final campaign swing. We saw some get on the plane earlier. Are some joining later in the trip, to arrive with the President?
MR. EARNEST: I was noting that there are a number of senior officials that are on the plane today.
All right? Thanks, everybody. We'll see you on the ground.
10:41 A.M. EST