James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:20 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we go to your questions, I've got a little scheduling update for you.
On Tuesday, the President of the United States will travel to Tampa, Florida, where he will meet with active-duty servicemembers at MacDill Air Force Base, the home of the U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command. While at the base, the President will have an opportunity to meet with uniformed leadership from both commands, as well as with some of the men and women stationed there.
Among those the President will meet with are members of our special operations community who, over the past eight years, have been a key element of our relentless pursuit of terrorists who had threatened the United States of America. The President will offer his personal gratitude and that of the nation for the professionalism, skill, and sacrifice of those American patriots.
While in Tampa, the President also will deliver formal remarks on the counterterrorism strategy he's directed as Commander-in-Chief, including our strategy and the gains we have made while staying true to the values that have always been at America's core. The President has no higher priority than protecting the American people. And this speech will be a final opportunity for him to discuss at length how he has effectively, durably, and successfully implemented reforms to keep us safe. And we'll have some more details on the speech next week, and additional details about the logistics of the Tampa visit then as well.
So with that scheduling announcement out of the way, we can go to your questions. Darlene, do you want to start?
Q Yes, thank you. The sons of Ethel Rosenberg, the spy that was convicted 50-some odd years or so ago, were outside the
White House about an hour ago to call on the President to exonerate their mother. They've sent some paperwork into the White House, asking the President to do that. Can you say what the status of their request is? Is it being considered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I only learned of this shortly before coming out here. I'm not aware of any work that has been done thus far in terms of reviewing their request, but it sounds like they may have just submitted it. So I'm sure we'll take a look, but I don’t have any announcements or anything to preview on this matter.
Q Is there enough time left in the administration for that request to get a thorough review, do you think?
MR. EARNEST: It seems –
Q Or would that be something that would be passed on to the next administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, hard to say. I would — I think it's fair to say that any action on this matter before the end of this presidency is unlikely.
Q Second, on Pakistan, would this White House agree with Donald Trump's description that Pakistan is “amazing” and that its citizens are “one of the most intelligent people”? That's the description the Foreign Ministry provided of the conversation that Donald Trump had with their Prime Minister yesterday.
MR. EARNEST: Darlene, I saw the readout of the telephone call that you're referring to. I can't speak to the accuracy or to the tone of that phone call. I'd refer you to the President-elect's team for more of a description of what the President-elect may have communicated to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Obviously, President Obama's conversations with his counterpart in Pakistan have been an important priority. The U.S. relationship with Pakistan is one that's quite complicated, particularly when you consider our overlapping national security interests. The relations between our two countries, particularly over the last eight years, have not been smooth — consistently smooth, particularly in the aftermath of the raid on Pakistani soil that President Obama ordered to take Osama bin Laden off the battlefield.
But this obviously is an important relationship. There have been areas where the United States and Pakistan have been able to effectively coordinate our efforts. But one of the things that I'm reminded of is that every President, regardless of which party they're in, benefits enormously from the expertise and service of thousands of patriotic Americans at the State Department. These are men and women — some of them are career Foreign Service Officers. Some of them are just career civil servants. But these are individuals who are committed and passionate about serving our country and representing our country overseas, regardless of who the President is.
And President Obama benefitted enormously from the advice and expertise that's been shared by those who serve at the State Department. And I'm confident that as President-elect Trump takes office, those same State Department employees will stand ready to offer him advice as he conducts the business of the United States overseas. Hopefully he'll take it.
Q According to their readout, Donald Trump also said that he'd like to visit Pakistan. And I know President Obama has never been there.
MR. EARNEST: Not as President.
Q Not as President. Is there anything you can say about why he never visited as President?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, at one point in his presidency, I do recall President Obama expressing a desire to travel to Pakistan. For a variety of reasons, some of them relating to the complicated relationship between our two countries at certain times over the last eight years, President Obama was not able to realize that ambition. But one thing we do know is that it sends a powerful message to the people of a country when the President of the United States goes to visit. And that's true whether it's some of our closest allies, or that's also true if it's a country like Pakistan, with whom our relationship is somewhat more complicated. But ultimately, when President Trump begins planning his overseas travel, he'll have a range of places to consider, and Pakistan would certainly be one of them.
Q Thanks. I wanted to ask about the trip to Tampa. You had said that it's a chance for the President to — a final opportunity to discuss at length his counterterrorism strategy. But I'm wondering if it's also an opportunity to sort of talk about anything left on his to-do list as he runs through the tape, as you say. Is it an opportunity for him to sort of lay out what he didn't achieve or something that he hopes to still accomplish in his remaining days?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't have too much of the speech to preview at this point. I think the President on a number of occasions, particularly over the last couple of weeks at the variety of news conferences that he's convened, has acknowledged that he's proud of the record of success that we've demonstrated during his presidency, particularly in the area of foreign policy. But there are some objectives that we did not complete. And I'm confident that, in addition to listing off the numerous accomplishments and numerous reforms that we've successfully implemented, the President will certainly spend some time talking about the important work that remains to be done.
Q And when it comes to transition issues and the transition for the intelligence community, how is the White House feeling about how that transition process is going? Apparently there's only one member of the transition team named so far to deal with the intelligence community issues. And I just wonder if you could give us an assessment of any concerns you might have about the pace of that part of the transition.
MR. EARNEST: Roberta, I haven't gotten a detailed update about the status of transition efforts in the intelligence community. What I can tell you is that from the Obama administration's perspective, we've been planning for the better part of a year to organize paperwork, organize briefings, prepare materials for the incoming administration. And that groundwork has been laid, and the President has made clear to his team that ensuring a smooth and effective transition is a top priority and certainly is a top priority for the 50 days or so that are remaining.
But I have not gotten an update on how it's been going with regard to conversations in the intelligence community. I think I'd refer you to them for the latest assessment.
Q We're going to see this event today on the Carrier jobs announcement, and it's going to be this kind of presentation and celebration of that. And given the little that we know at this point about what was involved in that deal, do you think that it merits this kind of event, and is it worthy of a celebration at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, as you heard me say yesterday, we obviously welcome the news. Once the details are released — but based on what we know now, it appears that several hundred or maybe even a thousand U.S. jobs will not be moved overseas and that plans have changed. That's obviously good news and an announcement that we would welcome.
But, again, as I mentioned yesterday, Mr. Trump would have to make 804 more announcements just like that to equal the standard of jobs in the manufacturing sector that were created in this country under President Obama’s watch.
So this is good news, but the incoming President has a high bar to meet when it comes to putting in place the kinds of economic policies that are going to benefit American workers.
Let me give you one example: the overtime rule. And it’s a poignant example because that was a rule that was scheduled to go into effect today, December 1st. This was a rule that President Obama announced earlier this year. But the bottom line is that every week there are millions of middle class Americans who work more than 40 hours a weeks but don’t receive any pay for their extra work. There are 87,000 such workers in Indiana. By definition, these are the hardest-working people in America. And earlier this year, the administration finalized a rule to expand overtime protections to more than 4 million Americans — something that would boost wages by $12 billion over the next decade. This is boosting pay for people who are, by definition, middle-class Americans and Americans who are working harder than just about everybody else.
So the way that this rule was implemented was that we modernized the way that the government calculates the salary threshold under which most workers qualify for overtime, and that essentially changed the threshold from $23,700 to $47,500, and indexed it to inflation going forward. And this would essentially ensure that people who were intended to be eligible to collect overtime pay could do so.
Unfortunately, this rule was blocked just a couple of days ago by a federal district court judge in Texas. And that’s unfortunate that you essentially had Republican governors colluding with some of the biggest businesses in America to prevent the hardest-working middle-class Americans from getting a raise. If anybody deserves a raise in this country it’s middle-class Americans who are working overtime and not getting paid for it.
So hopefully this is the kind of thing that Democrats and Republicans would actually be able to work together to be able to implement. And I haven’t heard what the President-elect has had to say about this, but the possibility is there may be 87,000 middle class workers in Indiana who may be interested in what he has to say about this, and another 134,000 workers in Ohio who are affected by this rule who may be interested in what he has to say about it as well.
Q But what does the administration think of the details that we know so far — that it was millions of dollars in tax incentives to stay? And then I guess there are other pieces that we don’t know of it.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, listen, I think at this point it’s — I think ultimately we’d have to rely on the executives at Carrier to explain why they made the decision that they did. But again, if we’re talking about a thousand U.S. jobs that have been saved, we would welcome an announcement like that. But again, we’d need to see another 804 of them to equal the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector that were created in the United States under President Obama’s watch.
Q So you’re saying it’s good but it’s not that great? I mean, how would you kind of sum it up?
MR. EARNEST: No, look, if you’re a worker, or you live in one of the thousand families where that paycheck is being collected, then obviously that’s welcome news. I’m not criticizing it at all. I think what I’m trying to highlight is, as you evaluate the strategy that’s being put forward by the President-elect, I think it’s worthy drawing a comparison to what was done in the last eight years under President Obama.
And, if you’ll indulge me, we talked a little bit about the Affordable Care Act earlier this week — some metrics that you could use to judge the wisdom and approach that’s put forward by the incoming administration with regard to health care reform. We’ve put together some metrics that you could use to judge the performance of the incoming administration’s economic policy. And many analysts who have looked at the data have concluded that some of the rhetoric from the President-elect was critical to his success in winning the election. So I think people come in with some high expectations, so let’s look at some metrics.
The first would be jobs. Under President Obama and under the strategy that we have implemented, our economy has seen the largest streak of total job growth in our nation’s history. Over the last 80 months, we’ve created 15.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate has been cut in half from its peak that was reached back in 2011. So on the jobs front, President Obama has set quite a high standard, and one that will be a high bar for the next administration to live up to.
The second metric would be wages. So far, in 2016, we’ve seen wages grow at an annual rate of 3.1 percent. That’s good wage growth — not off the charts, but it’s good. And we’ll see if that’s a rate that the policies of the next administration can continue.
The third metric is something that got a lot of attention during the campaign: Inequality. And what we know about 2015 is our country made historic progress in reducing inequality under the leadership of President Obama. We saw the median household income rise at the fastest rate on record — $2,800 a year, or 5.2 percent. The largest gains were for middle-class and working families and for low-income households who, in 2015, saw their income rise almost 8 percent while those at the top saw their income rise less than 3 percent.
So we see a growing economy. We see wages and income growing for everybody in the country, but growing faster for those in the middle and at the bottom. That is important progress in reducing inequality, and certainly will be a high standard for the incoming administration to meet.
Just two more. The fourth one is actually something that should be familiar to the President-elect and many of the people that he has nominated to his economic team, and that’s just the stock market. Since President Obama took office — let me be precise — since the stock market reached its low in March of 2009, just two months after President Obama took office, the S&P 500 has more than tripled. That certainly means money in the pocket for a lot of people who invested in the market, and certainly a lot of money in the retirement accounts of a lot of middle-class workers who have been saving for their retirement and investing in the stock market. We’ll see how the incoming administration performs based on market reactions to some of the policies they’ve put forward.
The last thing I would note is poverty. And in 2015, the number of people in poverty fell by 3.5 million. That is the fastest rate — or fastest decline — it’s the fastest rate of decline since the 1960s. And that is a metric that the President is quite proud of. I haven’t heard the incoming administration identify this as a priority, but President Obama certainly believes that fighting poverty and reducing poverty is a priority. And on his watch, last year, the poverty rate fell faster than it has in 50 years.
So this is an economic track record that President Obama is proud of. I think it is a clear illustration of the smart strategy that we have implemented. The President-elect is preparing to take office vowing to overhaul that strategy. We’ll see if the reforms that he’s promising work as well as with the Obama administration has been able to achieve.
And again, I could understand why the stories that you may be working on today may not have room for all of this data, but at some point in the future –
Q Well, if you could say something about the dollar as well — maybe, about the strength of the dollar. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the incoming Treasury secretary comment on that. But I will — at some point, there will be some senior economic official for the Trump administration standing up here talking to all of you about the success of their economic strategy, and hopefully you’ll draw upon some of the notes from this conversation and ask them about it.
Q All right. And just one more thing — I’m sorry –
MR. EARNEST: No, I should apologize for the long answer, but I appreciate –
MR. EARNEST: I will.
Q Fifteen more questions. (Laughter.) Okay, so Pakistan read out this phone call with Donald Trump, and they included direct quotes, saying in part, “You have a very good reputation. You’re a terrific guy. You’re doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I’m looking forward to seeing you soon.” So does this — given the meetings that we’ve seen and the ways that they were conducted, as well as the phone calls and the contacts that have been made with foreign leaders, do you think that this signals a different kind of engagement around the world? And does the administration have concerns so far?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I mean, what you have read from is a readout that was put out by the Pakistani government reflecting a conversation and reflecting the words chosen by the President-elect. So I just don’t have a lot of insight into either of those things.
So what I can say is that President Obama benefitted from the professionalism and expertise of career diplomats at the State Department who were able to offer him good advice about engaging with world leaders. And every President has benefitted from that advice, and I think that President Trump would certainly benefit from it in the same way that President Obama did when he took office.
Go ahead, Julianna.
Q Thanks. Just to follow up on Michelle’s question about the tax incentives that were offered to Carrier as part of this deal, does that raise any concerns in the White House that it sets a standard that other companies can say we’re going to ship jobs overseas to Mexico, and think that they can extract economic incentives?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think it’s hard to tell at this point exactly what was driving Carrier’s decision. I’ve seen a lot of speculation. Some people have speculated that it was the promise of improved — “improved” is probably not the right word — the promise of federal taxation policies that would benefit Carrier. I know there's been some speculation that Carrier was threatened based on the defense contracting business that they have with the U.S. government. There's also been some reporting to indicate that Carrier's decision was actually driven not by any federal-level decisions, but by decisions that were made at the state level, potentially by the lame-duck governor of Indiana who also happens to be the Vice President-elect of the United States.
So there's a lot to unpack here. Ultimately, I think the executives at Carrier, if they choose to do so, will have to explain the decision that they made. I think the point that you are raising, though, Julianna, I think is a legitimate one, which is, what is the most effective strategy for ensuring that the United States continues to be viewed by countries and companies around the world as an attractive destination for investment. And we have seen foreign direct investment in the United States increase under President Obama, because a lot of companies and countries recognize all of the advantages that are present or that exist in the United States — from our workforce, from our infrastructure, to our education system, to an environment that makes innovation possible.
All of that has been part of our strategy. And the strategy under the Obama administration, as I just laid out, I think has served the American people, American workers and the broader U.S. economy quite well. We'll have an opportunity to measure whether or not the results stack up for the kinds of reforms that President Trump is promising.
Q Are there concerns, though, that they've set up a moral hazard?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, the strategy that the incoming administration is promising to use is very different than the strategy that we have pursued. And I think there is ample evidence to indicate that the strategy pursued by the Obama administration is one that yielded great economic benefits for the country. But President Trump won an election vowing to do it differently, and we'll have an opportunity to evaluate his approach based on the facts. And they've got a lot to measure up to, and it looks like we'll have an opportunity to do that.
Q You'll soon be in the private sector — to go back to the wage growth issue. Do you expect — based on what we're learning about the new Treasury Secretary, or potential new Treasury Secretary, do you expect to pay — or wealthy Americans to pay a higher or less overall tax burden?
MR. EARNEST: Well, even some of the rhetoric that we're hearing from the incoming administration is difficult to discern. During the campaign, I know that the President-elect vowed to raise taxes on people like him. And just yesterday, his incoming — the individual that he intends to nominate to be Secretary of the Treasury indicated that there would actually be no change in the net tax that's paid by higher-income Americans.
So, look, I think the fact is that they're still formulating exactly what their policy is going to be. And when it comes to tax reform, we know that ends up being complicated business because it has to move through the United States Congress too. Again, one of the things that I did include on here was tax policy, but you could certainly include in here the wisdom of the approach that President Obama has pursued in terms of locking in, making permanent tax cuts for middle-class families while asking those at the top to pay a little bit more. And that's had a positive impact on our economy, a positive impact on job growth, a positive impact on broader economic growth, a positive impact on reducing the deficit, and had the benefit of making our country just a little bit more fair.
So the kind of approach that President Obama has pursued I think has been a good one, and the facts bear that out. But it sounds like we'll have an opportunity for another President to come in and suggest a different approach. But we'll have a chance to see how it stacks up with the approach put forward by the Obama administration.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can you have someone that — Jason or one of your staff send out those notes you just sort of rattled off, those economic notes? I'd appreciate that.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q On the Carrier thing, I know you probably were just making the point that you all had a great deal of success in your approach economically, but I think some people are wondering if you were kind of taking a shot when you said, well, he's going to have to do it 800 more times — sort of get to where we are. Given the sensitivity of the people on the ground who are very worried and very concerned about losing their jobs, did you want to walk that back a little bit?
MR. EARNEST: No. Because, again, I certainly am not doing anything other than welcoming the announcement from Carrier that stands to benefit, potentially, a thousand workers and a thousand families in Indiana. That's good news. I don’t have anything bad to say about it.
I think the observation is just a coherent strategy will be required to ensure that people all across the country can enjoy the benefits of a particular economic strategy. And the economic strategy we have put forward is one that saved actually more than a million jobs in the manufacturing sector, and created another 805,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector.
So, again, I think, if anything, I'm suggesting that the success of the incoming administration in protecting those manufacturing jobs is something that they're going to have to aggressively ramp up if they want to meet the standard set by the Obama administration. Just a little rough math would indicate that if President Trump is fortunate enough to serve two terms in office for eight years, he's probably going to have to average about two of these announcements a week every week of his eight-year presidency in order to meet the same standard. So the bar is high, but he'll have an opportunity to try it his way and we'll see if it works.
Q I want to ask you about the Rolling Stone interview. And I don’t want to make more of this perhaps than some people might. The President was talking about the untenable nature of this sort of patchwork of having marijuana laws. You got Colorado and Washington, there's a new one in California, in Massachusetts, and then other states have medical marijuana provisions. He's not suggesting — or I'm going to ask you, is he suggesting that there needs to be a federal standard when it comes to the management of marijuana law?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the President is suggesting is that it's increasingly difficult for federal law enforcement officials to be enforcing the law differently in a variety of states. And as we see more states change their laws with regard to marijuana, it makes it more challenging for federal law enforcement officials to enforce the law. So that's something that I think the next administration is going to have to grapple with and certainly law enforcement officers in the next administration and some policymakers are going to have to sort of consider what's the most effective way to move forward here. I don't think the President at this point was trying to signal any specific policy change, but rather just indicating that this is an increasingly complicated situation that is facing federal law enforcement officers.
Q I want to ask you also about something the incoming President-elect has said about regulation. He's actually — well, two parts. First of all, is the President engaging in sort of any midnight regulations push between now and when he leaves office? And I guess the second part of the question would be, given that the President-elect has suggested that for every new regulation maybe we ought to take away two others — and I've heard the President himself suggest that this regulatory environment is cumbersome, to say the least — does he agree that this might be a useful way to go about cleaning up regulatory policy?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I can tell you that the regulatory work that's being done in this administration is not going to be characterized by a last-minute rush on the way out the door. I think what it will be characterized by is a continuous and persistent effort to complete the work that's already been started. And that is to say that there are a number of rule-making actions that were commenced earlier this year that haven't yet been completed. And we will be working to complete them on schedule before President Obama leaves office, but these are — in every case that I'm aware of — rulemaking actions that began before the outcome of the election was known.
And the President's view is that that's actually a smart way to make rules and make regulations. It also is a smart way to effectively implement them and ensure that they have the maximum intended benefit.
With regard to this idea of taking away two for every rule — taking away two rules for every new rule that's initiated, that's the kind of thing I think that probably sounds pretty good on the campaign trail but may be a little bit more complicated when you implement it. And the reason I say that is not because the President is against eliminating regulations. In fact, President Obama has actually presided over a regulatory lookback proposal that has resulted in the elimination of a substantial number of regulations with a substantial economic benefit. We can get you the particular numbers.
So we’ve been engaged in a regulatory lookback to take away rules that don’t make sense anymore — that are outdated, that are unnecessarily cumbersome — because I think people have an expectation that, to the extent that government is involved in some aspects of the economy, they shouldn’t be posing an unnecessarily high burden to companies or to private individuals. And that’s certainly something that has been an important part of the regulatory lookback process.
But I think the point is, is that each of those rules that are considered for repeal should be evaluated on the merits and shouldn’t just be evaluated because somebody decided to create another rule in another place.
Q Thanks, Josh. A couple times you’ve been asked about the calls between the President-elect and the leader of Pakistan. You’ve mentioned that there are career diplomats at the State Department who are able and willing to help the President get ready for those types of discussions. Is that to be read as some kind of a tacit criticism of Trump for not taking advantage and talking to the State Department before making several calls to world leaders?
MR. EARNEST: No, I can’t speak to any conversations that the President-elect may have had with the State Department. It’s possible that he was briefed by the State Department before that call. I just — I don’t know, you’d have to ask them.
I think I’m just making the observation that there are dedicated experts, public servants at the State Department that have years of experience that they have amassed and that they're prepared to use to advise the incoming President. And President Obama benefitted from that expertise, and I’m sure that President Trump will, as well.
Q I also wanted to ask you about — there’s been a letter sent by seven Democratic senators on the intelligence committee basically saying that the President should declassify some of the intelligence regarding Russian interference with the election. Has the President received that letter? Is that something that you’re considering?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve been briefed on the letter. I don’t have a sense of what the status is of responding to that letter. Obviously, in advance of the election, the intelligence community released a letter to the public presenting their own analysis and some of the conclusions that they had reached about the efforts of the Russians to use some of their tools in cyberspace nefariously to try to undermine confidence in our political system. And that’s something that we talked about quite a bit in advance of the election.
But if there are additional details that these members would like to have declassified, then I’m confident we’ll take a look at it, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess at this point about what kind of response they would receive.
Q I have just one more of the JASTA legislation — the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, yeah. I remember that. (Laughter.)
Q Seems to be coming back in the news as Senator Graham –
MR. EARNEST: It does, doesn’t it?
Q – and Senator McCain are offering an amendment or a change to that legislation.
MR. EARNEST: Hmm. Offering a change to a piece of legislation that they passed. And then when the President expressed some concerns about it, they passed it anyway over his objection. Then the President, recognizing that this was going to be a problem, vetoed the bill. And these same members, knowing that these problems existed, still overrode his veto. And now, two months later, are trying to figure out how they can clean up the mess they created. That’s the bill, right? (Laughter.)
I’m sorry to do that to you, Toluse. I couldn’t resist.
Q Yeah, so –
Q This is Jeopardy. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I know, it’s good. This is really good.
Q Has the White House reviewed the changes that are being offered up? And are they sufficient to basically get the President’s support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve obviously been in regular communication with members of Congress for months — first warning about the flaws in that bill, and then after the President’s veto was overridden, despite their full knowledge of the flaws in the bill, we’ve been working with them to try to put together some changes to the bill that would address the significant concerns that we’ve raised.
I don’t have an update for you on those conversations, but I can confirm for you that they’ve been ongoing since shortly after the veto override vote. And I guess you can tell from my tone that we obviously would welcome congressional action to clean up the rather significant mess that they’ve made.
Q Thanks, Josh. Okay, so we’re nine days away from a government shutdown — you know, the usual. And wondering if you would support a — (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, where is the optimism in the room today?
Q – support a CR in May, which is what is now being discussed on Capitol Hill.
MR. EARNEST: And so what’s the question?
Q Would the President sign a CR that would go through to May, which is something that’s being discussed on Capitol Hill?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are discussions about a number of different proposals, and I think there might be — this is a situation that we have seen before where there might be some disagreement between Republicans in the House and Republicans in the Senate, and they’re going to need to do some work to try to resolve those differences. Hopefully, they’ll do that work mindful of the need to work with congressional Democrats and mindful of the need for a Democratic President to sign it into law.
With regard to the specific question about the timing of a CR, I would actually refer you to a letter that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has sent to senior members of Congress expressing his profound concern about the possibility of a CR that extends through May.
He’s concerned that that would hamstring the ability of the Department of Defense to initiate a number of programs that are critical to our national security. And he continues to be concerned that the kind of funding that would be provided under essentially a long-term CR would limit the resources that are available to the Department of Defense for the important work that they need to do to wage the counter-ISIL campaign, to follow through on some of the promises that we’ve made to enhance the support that we provide to some of our European allies in countering Russian aggression. I think there’s also a concern about the funding stream that would be available to resource the military commitment that we’ve made to Afghanistan.
So the concerns that he’s raised are quite significant and the concerns that he’s expressed are shared by the Commander-in-Chief. So this is something that my colleagues at the Department of Defense have conveyed to members of Congress. And I hope that members of Congress will take very seriously the responsibility that they have to adequately resource our men and women at the Department of Defense who are doing work every day, putting their lives on the line, to keep us safe. It seems like the least that congress could do would be to just pass a budget and make sure that our men and women in uniform have what they need to keep us safe. That’s a basic responsibility of the Congress. It is one that Republicans in Congress have shirked far too often. And the election is over. Now would be a good time for Republicans to set aside politics and just focus on the best interest of the country. And passing a CR that extends through May would be inconsistent with that kind of approach.
Q And would that also apply to other — the government at large? How bad would it be to have a CR through May?
MR. EARNEST: Look, our most prominent concerns are at the Department of Defense. There are other concerns other places. There's a reason that Congress is tasked with passing the budget every year. And passing a budget on time for a year gives the United States government the certainty that it needs to plan effectively and make sure that the interests of the American people are being well-served.
Passing a budget resolution for two or three months at a time is not a very good approach. So we're hopeful that if Congress does have to pass a CR, that it's a short one so that they can get back to work after the holidays and actually pass one through the remainder of the fiscal year.
Obviously, the ideal would be for them to pass a budget through the remainder of the fiscal year. But given that that budget deal is unlikely to be forthcoming, we're hopeful that they will be able to come back after the start of the year and do that rather quickly, and not wait until May.
Q A Russian diplomat says that the Kremlin is talking directly to the President-elect's transition team about Syria. What does the White House think of that?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to any conversations that they may be — that may be taking place on that matter. I know that the President-elect's team has given voice to the principle that you've heard me cite on a number of occasions, which is the United States of America has one President and one Commander-in-Chief at a time. And Barack Obama will be the President of the United States until January 20th, at which point he'll hand off that awesome responsibility to the President-elect. And it will be his responsibility to determine an effective path forward.
I think it's been widely chronicled that the President-elect has been engaged in some conversations with world leaders, but the descriptions of those calls have primarily been social calls and him returning congratulatory calls that he received in the aftermath of the election. But, again, for greater insight into the potential substance of those conversations, I'd refer you to the President-elect's team.
Q Tell us about the insight — because I don't expect you to know what the President-elect is saying with the leaders in the Kremlin. But does that concern the White House? Does it feel like they're going around sort of diplomatic protocol?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there is this principle that I think is important for everyone to acknowledge, and the President-elect's team has acknowledged it. And I think it's been reflected in a lot of the statements and actions that they've taken over the last three weeks, which is that there's one President of the United States at a time. And right now, at this time, Barack Obama is the President of the United States, but on January 20th, we'll do the transition.
And it's important for everybody in the United States to understand that that principle is being observed by both the President and the President-elect. It's also important for people around the world to understand that that principle is operative. So, again, it's hard for me to render a judgment one way or the other without knowing the content of the conversations. And as we discussed, I just don't.
Q Bernie Sanders called the Carrier deal “corporate welfare.” Does the White House disagree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, at this point it's hard to tell exactly what kind of deal has been brokered between –
Q Seven million dollars from Indiana.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, there's some indication that it was the promise of a federal benefit that may have actually changed their mind. It's just hard to tell what exactly swayed them. It's also hard to tell exactly what they were offered. It does appear that they were offered a substantial economic incentive by the lame duck governor of Indiana, who is also the Vice President-elect of the United States. And these kinds of state-based incentives are something that states will often do to try to compete for business. But I'd refer you to Indiana about the wisdom of the approach that Governor Pence has elected to pursue.
Q We spent a lot of time earlier this week talking about phone calls between the President-elect and the President. Have there been any more?
MR. EARNEST: If there have been, I will not be the one to announce them.
Q What about with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Any calls that have occurred beyond the one that we talked about that happened on Election Night?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of. But again, if those kinds of calls took place, we'd likely keep them private.
Q And yesterday, Senator Chuck Schumer invited the defeated Democrats in the Senate to have lunch with him. Would we expect that — or are there any plans that the President might do the same with his former Secretary of State?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any social plans that they have at this point, but if that changes we'll let you know.
Q Earlier you said that this would be the final opportunity for the President to talk about his terrorism strategy. Do you also expect this to be his final domestic trip? And could we expect to see another major policy speech from him before he leaves office on January 20th?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t rule out additional domestic travel in January, but we'll keep you posted.
Q And as far as another at least major speech — I understand that that would fall under that, as well. But even here at the White House, do you have any plans for additional major policy speeches, particularly in other areas?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing to announce right now, but stay tuned.
Q Thanks, Josh. I wanted to follow up on Toluse's question about the intel committee and the Russian hacking. The Democratic senators said in their letter that they were conveying specifics through classified channels to the White House. And you said you'd been briefed on this. Can you confirm that the White House has received whatever sensitive information they have?
MR. EARNEST: I can confirm that we received the letter that they sent over. I can’t speak in any detail about the contents of the package that they sent over. But we'll do what we always do, which is we'll carefully review and consider the request from those senators. But at this point, I wouldn’t predict what kind of response they'll receive.
Q Senator Shaheen today renewed her call for congressional hearings into the subject of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Does the White House support that and look at whether Russia was deeply involved in trying to meddle with our election?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think ultimately this will be a decision for Congress to make. I don’t think we'd weigh in one way or the other. But obviously Congress has legitimate oversight over these kinds of questions, and I know that the intelligence community in particular takes seriously the responsibility that they have to maintain an open line of communication with relevant congressional committees. I know that's something that Director Brennan and Director Clapper and other leaders in the intel community and in the Obama administration have taken quite seriously.
Sometimes there have been some disagreements — some rather high-profile disagreements between leaders in the intelligence community and some members of Congress. But given the nature of that work and given the fact that in most cases significant public transparency is not possible, that kind of congressional oversight is particularly important when it comes to confidential or even classified matters.
So this administration has obviously taken seriously the need to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight in this area. Hopefully the next administration will, as well.
Q Can you say, is it still the White House's view that the integrity of the election was not compromised?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we have said is that the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security did not observe an increase in malicious cyber activity on Election Day from the Russians that was directed at disrupting the casting or counting of ballots. I think if that is something that had occurred, we probably would have spent a lot more time talking about it over the last three weeks. Fortunately, it did not. So that's the conclusion that we've put forward.
But look, what was true before the election is that there was a conclusion that was reached by the intelligence community that there were a variety of malicious efforts undertaken by Russia in cyberspace that were aimed at trying to disrupt, to destabilize, or shake the American people's confidence in our political system. And that's not an insignificant matter, and it certainly was treated quite seriously and has been treated quite seriously by this administration.
Q Just one more thing. Your answer just now sort of implies to me that there was — that you don’t really take the Senate Democrats complaints seriously because you've already established that there really wasn’t any meddling. And so do you think the Senate Democrats are just motivated by partisanship here?
MR. EARNEST: No. And I don’t mean to leave you with that impression. We'll certainly take quite seriously the concerns that they've raised and the request that they have made, and we'll take a close look at it. We just received the letter today, so I just can't predict at this point exactly what kind of response we will provide them. But we'll certainly take it seriously. And this is a matter that the United States government takes quite seriously.
Our political system and our democracy is at the foundation of our Constitution and it is at the foundation of our ability for the people of the United States to govern themselves. So this is a very serious matter. I think in those opportunities that the President had to discuss this matter publicly, I think he indicated just how serious it was. I recall him being asked about this when we were in China, I believe, and he indicated that he had raised, more broadly, concerns about Russia's activities in cyberspace and the way some of that malicious activity had had an impact on the United States.
So if this is — if these are the kinds of issues that are coming up between the U.S. President and the Russian President, then I think you can assume that the U.S. President certainly takes them quite seriously.
Q On the overtime rule, has the administration decided yet whether you're going to use the remaining 50 days or so to appeal the Texas ruling?
MR. EARNEST: I'd refer you to my colleagues at the Department of Justice for more details about our legal strategy. But I can tell you that everybody across the administration feels quite strongly not just of the wisdom of this approach, but in the legal basis for the decision that was announced earlier this year.
Q Are you going to rely on the incoming administration to advance that argument in the courts? Or are you going to make that argument to yourselves?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the observation — whether or not we'll make that argument in the Obama administration is something you can ask the Department of Justice. But you've raised exactly the point that I was trying to make, perhaps too subtly in talking to Michelle about it. Much was made in the aftermath of the election about how middle-class workers — blue-collar workers — supported the Republican nominee based on his promise to shake up Washington, D.C. and ensure that their views were represented. He had a rather — a variety of colorful expressions for doing this — “draining the swamp.”
And I assume this is part of what he meant — making sure that the hardest-working middle-class Americans are treated fairly. Right now, 4 million of them are not. Four million of them work overtime but aren’t paid for it. That costs their families $12 billion over the next 10 years. That’s a lot of money for a middle-class family. There are, as I mentioned, 87,000 such worked in Indiana, and another 134,000 such workers in Ohio.
So, presumably — and the only reason this is not moving — it should be moving forward today, December 1st. It’s not because of an injunction that was granted by a federal district court judge in Texas. And that injunction was granted to some large businesses and Republican governors who had colluded to try to disrupt the implementation of this rule and essentially continue to take advantage of more than 4 million of the hardest-working Americans.
So this seems like the kind of thing that, for all the profound differences between the President and the President-elect on policy, this seems like something they should be able to agree on. But we’ll see.
Q And the presidential finding today that any relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel should wait another six months. Can you just talk about the thinking behind that?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, this presidential determination was issued today consistent with the Jerusalem Embassy Act. This is a piece of legislation that was passed back in 1995 that essentially called on the United States — essentially mandated that the United States President move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But that legislation included waiver authority, essentially giving the U.S. President the opportunity to issue a waiver and delay that move. And that waiver has to be invoked every six months, and that’s something that President Obama has invoked every six months of his presidency over the last eight years.
And the reason for that is simple: It has long been U.S. policy that the final resolution of Jerusalem is something that should be determined between the two parties through face-to-face diplomatic negotiations. And that’s been a policy of U.S. Presidents in both parties, but we’ll see what policy the incoming President chooses to pursue.
Q I have another question, but I want to follow up on that. What would be the consequences of failing to issue that semi-annual waiver and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in almost every case — and maybe it’s true in every case — that the U.S. embassy in a foreign country is located in that country’s capital. And obviously a formal, concrete action by the United States signaling our determination that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel would be highly controversial and could be viewed by many, not just in the region but around the world, of the United States making it harder for the two sides to resolve the status of Jerusalem through negotiations.
The United States is — again, this has been the policy not just of the Obama administration, but of Democratic and Republican administrations since 1995. And it’s actually — it was a policy before then, but was less relevant because the bill was passed in 1995.
So I wouldn’t predict exactly what the consequences would be, but that is the concern that we’ve heard Democrats and Republicans in the White House express for more than 20 years now.
Q Second question. The President visited Walter Reed on Tuesday. We’re told that he met with 13 soldiers and awarded the Purple Heart to 12 of them. Is that something that the President does routinely, directly awarding Purple Hearts?
MR. EARNEST: I know it’s something that he’s done routinely when he’s visited Walter Reed, and I know that there have been other occasions where he’s been able to offer those kinds of military honors to our men and women in uniform.
Q Can you give us any insight as to what kinds of capacities those troops were serving in and in what theaters?
MR. EARNEST: I can look. We often will — let me see if there’s additional information on this that we can provide to you.
Q You talked about the President’s visit to MacDill next week. Last time he was there was in 2014, which he said the American forces that have been deployed to fight ISIL do not and will not have a combat mission. And you’ve addressed this a number of times. But if we are not engaged in combat operations, how is it that American troops are being injured due to hostile fire?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gregory, this is something that we’ve discussed a lot and it’s important for people to understand exactly what the President’s approach is here. And it’s simply this: The men and women in our military that have been sent to Iraq and Syria to participate in the counter-ISIL campaign are being sent to some of the most dangerous places in the world. They are being sent to an area where there’s a war being fought. And these men and women in our military put themselves in grave danger to train, and equip, and advise, and assist those forces that are taking the lead in fighting for their own country.
Our country has borne a significant burden by pursuing a policy in which the Commander-in-Chief deploys a large-scale, protracted ground combat presence to go fight a war somewhere else for some other country, and to occupy that territory and defend it until that country is prepared to fight for itself. That strategy didn’t work. That was basically the strategy that was put forward by the Bush administration in 2003 when they invaded Iraq, and we’re still, to this day, dealing with the consequences of that poor strategy.
The strategy that President Obama has pursued is a different one, and it’s a strategy that envisions working closely with Iraqi security forces to equip them, to train them, to offer them advice, and to offer them assistance so that they can go and fight for their own country. And Syria’s situation is more complicated because we’re not able to work with the host government. That host government has lost legitimacy to lead that country, so we’re training, and equipping, and advising, and assisting opposition fighters there all against ISIL — a terrorist organization that threatens the United States and our interests.
And the wisdom of this approach is that it puts fighters at the front of fighting for their own country, but it does not eliminate the risk that is facing our servicemembers. It’s a smaller number of U.S. servicemembers that are facing that risk, but they’re still assuming a grave risk. So the men and women who are sent into Iraq and Syria are trained for combat, they are equipped for combat, and there are some situations where they’ve encountered combat situations.
And in some of those situations, those servicemembers have given their lives. In some of those situations, those servicemembers have been wounded. We owe them a deep debt of gratitude because they are doing the dangerous work to protect America and to protect our freedom. And President Obama pays tribute to that service in a variety of ways, including by traveling to Walter Reed once a quarter to visit with those servicemembers, to visit with their families, to check on their recovery, and occasionally to award them military honors.
But it’s important for people to understand that the mission that President Obama has given them is different than the mission that President Bush gave many more U.S. servicemembers. But the mission that they’ve been given by President Obama is one that’s dangerous and, in some cases, requires them to pay the ultimate sacrifice. And it's why we are deeply indebted to them.
So thanks for giving me the chance to give a long answer.
John, I’ll give you last one.
Q Thanks. The Senate, very shortly, is expected to pass the Iran Sanctions Act. Is the President satisfied with what lawmakers have come up with? Will he sign that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ll take a look at the bill once it’s been passed. What I can tell you is that many members of Congress have indicated they strongly support this legislation because they believe the administration should have authority to impose financial penalties against Iran.
And what I can tell you is that the administration retains and has used substantial authority to impose sanctions against Iran because of a ballistic missile program that is inconsistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions, because of their ongoing support for terrorism, and because of the willingness of the Iranian government to routinely violate human rights.
So this administration has repeatedly imposed financial penalties and imposed sanctions against Iran because of that behavior. We’ve got plenty of authority and we’re not shy about using it, but we’ll take a look at the bill that’s been passed by Congress and we’ll let you know what the President decides to do with it.
Q Also, Senator Heitkamp is headed to New York to meet with the President-elect tomorrow, possibly to talk about a Cabinet position. In any of President Obama’s conversations with the President-elect, did he recommend Senator Heitkamp or any other Democrat for a Cabinet position?
MR. EARNEST: Any personnel recommendations that the President may have offered were recommendations that he made confidentially. So I’ll protect his ability to offer some private advice and counsel to the President-elect whenever the President-elect seeks it.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good rest of the day. We’ll see you later.
1:25 P.M. EST