James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:24 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Don't all answer at once. (Laughter.)
Q Good afternoon.
MR. EARNEST: I do not have comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Josh, would you like to start?
Q Sure. Thanks, Josh. So some of our intelligence leaders were on the Hill today for quite a while testifying about Russian hacking, among other things. And Clapper talked a lot about what Russia did, but declined to call it an act of war, saying it wasn’t really their place to do that. But it seems it would be the place of the White House to make that kind of determination if it felt that it was appropriate. So based on the details that were laid out on the Hill, does the White House feel that the Russian hacking related to the campaign constituted an act of war?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, what I can tell you is that the Obama administration takes very seriously the effort that was undertaken by the Russians to interfere with, and even undermine, the basics of American democracy. And the intelligence community takes that quite seriously, and that was evident from the extraordinary statement that they issued back in October, a month before the election, indicating that they had concluded with high confidence, unanimously, that Russia had undertaken this effort and that this was an effort that could only have been directed from the highest levels of the Russian government.
I think you can discern the seriousness with which we take this issue. But taking a close look at the report that was issued last week detailing the U.S. government's response to this malicious cyber activity from the Russians — of course, that report was not comprehensive, but it certainly noted all of the public steps that were taken by the United States government in response. So I think you can discern that President Obama and the rest of the administration takes this issue quite seriously. I don’t have a new label to apply to it today, but this is something that has rightly drawn the attention of the American public and certainly drawn the attention of the President of the United States.
Q There seemed to be this debate playing out in the course of that hearing about whether intelligence assessments are debatable or irrefutable or open to interpretation, and intelligence officials acknowledging that they put forward information and that policy leaders have to make their own judgments about it. But in light of the President-elect's comments about what the intelligence community has come up with, does the White House think that what the IC has said about Russia's involvement is irrefutable? Is there any interpretation that is open to — or would you push back on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer that question a couple different ways. I think the first thing — and this is a point that I'd made in the past but I think it bears repeating, and I'll keep it brief. The fact that the 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government issued a public high-confidence assessment a month before the election I think should give you an indication of the degree of confidence that those intelligence communities had and have in those conclusions, in that analysis.
So this isn’t a situation where — look, there are many situations in which the intelligence community is responsible for drawing upon different strands of partial information and trying to present to policymakers a complete picture. That requires some interpretation. That requires — in some cases they would probably even say that it's educated guessing. And what the President has always asked is that the intelligence community provide to him their unvarnished assessment. He's also asked the intelligence community to provide dissenting views, if they exist; that surfacing disagreements that exist in the intelligence community actually does serve policymakers well by helping them get a variety of perspectives to try to understand exactly what's happening.
And President Obama has time and again insisted on the unvarnished assessment of the intelligence community. He's insisted on being able to consider dissenting views. The President has insisted that the intelligence that's presented to him should not be shaded to advance a policy or ideological objective. The President has insisted that the intelligence community should not hesitate to present to the President what could be considered bad news, because a white-washed assessment doesn’t serve anybody well. Somebody who's consuming this intelligence using rose-colored reading glasses is not going to be able to make good decisions.
So the President has time and time again asked the intelligence community to provide him solid, up-to-date, unvarnished assessments about what's happening around the world. And the President's decision-making has been very well-served by that, and the President is entirely confident that that's what they have produced in this case. Because there's not — again, according to the public statement that we saw from the intelligence community that was issued on paper before the election, based on the testimony that you saw from leaders in the intelligence community today, this is not one of those scenarios where the intelligence community has to make a tough call based only on partial information. They've been quite definitive.
And what you heard from some of those officials today is not just that they continue to have confidence in the assessments that they issued back in October, but based on the work that they have done in the intervening months, they actually have more confidence in the conclusion that they've put forward in October.
So I think the other thing that bears mentioning, Josh, is that the men and women of the intelligence community are experts in their field. These are men and women who don’t do those jobs because they are getting a big paycheck. In many cases, the men and who serve in our intelligence community are experts who could command a much higher salary in the private sector, but they choose to dedicate their talents to protecting the country. They don’t do it for the glory because, in many cases, members of the intelligence community have to do their work in secret, so their names are never made public. And in some cases, those officers have paid the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives for this country. And even now, even though they have made that remarkable sacrifice, their names are prevented from being made public because of the damage it could potentially do to our national security.
So the men and women of the United States intelligence community are patriots, they're experts, and they are dedicated to getting the facts right and providing information regardless of their political motivation or their political preference. And President Obama has benefitted enormously from their service, their sacrifice, their professionalism, and their expertise. And the President believes that those qualities will serve the incoming President well if he chooses to draw on that resource in the same way that President Obama has.
Q Can you say whether the President has been briefed on the version of the intelligence report that he has now received, and whether there's anything that he learned from that new report that adds to his understanding based on what he knew previously?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you, Josh, is that the White House does have the report, and President Obama is being briefed on it by a range of senior officials who are members of his national security team, some of whom you saw on television earlier today. And –
Q It’s happening today?
MR. EARNEST: It’s happening right now. And this is — obviously, the President directed the intelligence community to put together this report last month. He asked them to complete this report before January 20th, so they are beating that deadline by a couple of weeks. And the President has also asked the intelligence community to ensure that they are briefing Congress, which is something that Director Clapper indicated earlier today that he would do.
He has asked the intelligence community to brief the President-elect, something that apparently has been scheduled for tomorrow. The President has also directed the intelligence community to make as much of the information that's included in the report public because it’s important for the American people to understand that it’s our democracy that has been interfered with. And so the people who are participating in that democracy should have as much information as possible about what exactly happened.
Now, what the intelligence community will also have to do — and this is a critical priority — is protect sources and methods. They need to protect their ability to guard against these kinds of intrusions in the future. That's going to limit their ability to make as much public as they probably would otherwise like to do. But they will scrub this report and make as much of it public as they possibly can. But it will be a different version than is consumed by officials at the highest level of the United States government.
And I know that Director Clapper has indicated he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to produce a public version of the report early next week. But for more precision on the timing of that release, I’d refer you to his office.
Q And I think you were alluding to this a moment ago, but I wanted to ask you about the reports that the President-elect’s team is considering a shakeup in the way that the intelligence agencies are structured and possibly pulling back some of the employees in some of those key agencies. Have any of the intelligence agencies, to your knowledge, received any request for information from Trump’s transition team that you believe could be used to try to do that kind of a restructuring? And is the President urging his successor not to dismantle the intelligence apparatus, as we know it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, a couple things about this, Josh. I did have a chance to read that report that I think surfaced last night that was attributed to anonymous transition officials. I know that there are other transition officials speaking on the record who denied that report today. So I think it’s difficult to tell exactly what the incoming President’s plans actually are.
That being said, the President tasked his administration and agencies all across his administration to be very focused on ensuring a smooth and effective transition with the incoming President’s team, and that includes the intelligence community.
I can't speak with a lot of precision about the conversations that have already taken place, but I know that there already — there’s been extensive planning and a variety of conversations that have already taken place to try to prepare the incoming President and his team to assume responsibility for U.S. national security, including responsibility for the intelligence community. But I can't speak to what plans they may have for reforming the intelligence community. But obviously when he enters the Oval Office on January 20th, he’ll have an opportunity to consider what kinds of reforms he believes would best serve him, his team, and the country.
But I'll just say one more time how much President Obama has benefitted from the service and sacrifice of the professionals and patriots who serve this country every day, working around the clock, on weekends, over the holidays, to ensure the safety and security of the country.
Q But I guess that's the point right there, though. I mean, are you hearing from the intelligence officials who currently report to this President and this administration that they're demoralized by the disparagement that is coming from the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: I know that Director Clapper and others had the opportunity to speak to this today, and I think — well, we heard Director Clapper express concern about some of the President-elect's comments and tweets having a negative impact on morale. And that certainly is unfortunate. These are — like I said, these are men and women who could get a much bigger paycheck in the private sector. These are men and women who don't get a lot of glory and fame for their work. These are men and women who work long days and late nights and over the weekend and over the holidays to keep us safe. And they are worthy of nothing less than our deep gratitude for their service and for the safety and security that we enjoy because of their service.
Q Just one more question on the intelligence briefing. Are you expecting that the President will give like a formal response to the report, or will there be something in writing? Will there be some type of response from the President?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, I would not expect a formal response from the President of the United States. Obviously, if that changes, we'll make sure that all of you know. But at this point, that's not part of the plan. Presumably, at some point in the next few days, the President will have an opportunity to answer questions about this. So to the extent that there is a response from President Obama about some of this, I would anticipate that it would come in that form.
Q On another subject, going back to — which was a big topic yesterday, was the meeting on Obamacare and basically strategizing with the Democrats on what to do next. I wanted to kind of clarify — does the President still believe that Democrats should work with Republicans to help make changes to Obamacare or to repeal and replace Obamacare? Or is the idea that if they're going to repeal it and replace it, that Democrats should sit back and just kind of let the Republicans deal with the consequences of that? What exactly is the President's position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Look, this is an excellent question and I think your colleague, Michelle, asked a similar version of this yesterday. And this is important. The President's approach from day one, since the day that he signed the Affordable Care Act into law back in March of 2010 — so we're talking about almost seven years ago — the President has indicated not just an openness but a desire to work closely with Democrats and Republicans around ideas to further strengthen the law.
The President has even put forward some of his own suggestions for how the law could be strengthened; increasing tax credits to families to make some health care purchases even more affordable. The President has also even floated the possibility of enhancing competition in some areas of the country that don't currently have a lot of competition by introducing a public option in some of those communities. By enhancing competition, you could foster better options at potentially a lower cost.
These are some of the ideas the President has put forward. These are the kinds of ideas that you would expect Republicans to be able to support. Republicans spent a lot of time talking about free-market solutions and tax cuts for working people. This falls squarely in that category.
But the point here, Ayesha, is that the President has put forward specific ideas for strengthening the law. He has welcomed — or he would welcome Republicans and Democrats working together to implement some of those ideas to strengthen the law. That has been true throughout his presidency, and that will be true into the next presidency.
But unfortunately, that is not the approach that Republicans have pursued. Republicans, rather than being willing to look for solutions, have been focused for seven years on just trying to either sabotage the law, or to repeal it outright. And when I say “sabotage,” I’m making a reference to repeated lawsuits that Republicans have filed in courts to try to interfere with the implementation of the law. I’m referring to Republican governors who have refused, in the face of all common sense, to expand Medicaid in their state.
The expansion of Medicaid is paid almost entirely by the U.S. government. We know that providing essentially charity care — health care to people who can’t afford health insurance — is a significant drain on state budgets. We know that it would improve health care outcomes because people would be getting checkups more often. So people would be healthier, lives would be saved, and it would save money for all these states. But because Republican governors think that politics are more important than saving money, more important than saving lives, they’ve blocked Medicaid expansion in far too many places.
So the Republican idea of sabotaging the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is not new. And fortunately, they’ve been unsuccessful. They’ve been unsuccessful in repealing the law. They voted 50 times to repeal it and they haven’t succeeded. And despite their best efforts to undermine the implementation of the law, we’ve actually seen that 20 million Americans have gotten health insurance because of the law. We’ve seen that since the law was signed into force, that health care costs have risen at the slowest rate on record. So despite these Republican efforts, the law remains in place and it has worked.
So the advice that the President has to Democrats is if Republicans are willing to actually focus on a constructive effort to strengthen the law, that Democrats should work with them. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is not strengthening the law. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is taking health care away from up to 30 million Americans. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is to shorten and weaken — shorten the lifespan of and weaken Medicare. Repealing the Affordable Care Act is to take away consumer protections that currently prevent Americans from being discriminated against because they have preexisting conditions.
HHS recently released a report indicating that more than 130 million Americans have preexisting conditions, and they can’t be discriminated against or prevented from signing up for health insurance right now because of the Affordable Care Act. So that’s 130 million Americans who are going to have this protection stripped away if Republicans follow through on their plan.
So that’s not strengthening the law. There’s no reason that Republicans should — or that Democrats should be a party to a Republican effort to tear that law down. But if Republicans are actually interested in trying to strengthen the law and improve outcomes for the American people, then Democrats absolutely have a responsibility to work with them.
Q And will that depend on then the idea of what strengthening means? Because, I mean, obviously, they’re going to repeal it — they say they’re going to repeal it.
MR. EARNEST: They say that, but we’ll see if — you know, the President spent a lot of time talking about this yesterday. Republicans have a tough road to hoe. The promise of it sounds really good, and that’s why you heard them repeat it on the campaign trail so often: “We’re going to repeal Obamacare.” That was typically met by cheers from people in the crowd, many of whom probably were benefitting from Obamacare. Trying to explain that situation is something that you’ll have to turn to somebody else for.
But the point that the President has made is that there’s one thing — saying it on the campaign trail and getting raucous cheers from a political rally is one thing. Actually implementing the repeal and governing the country is yet another. Reckoning with the consequences of 130 million Americans having critically important protections being stripped away, that’s pretty complicated. That doesn’t roll right off the tongue at a campaign rally. Taking health care away from 30 million Americans — that’s something that you have to explain and compensate for once you start governing, once the campaigning has ended.
So I do not think that it is a foregone conclusion, particularly because Democrats are united around the idea that the Affordable Care Act is something that’s worth protecting. And we see lots of Republicans, including Senator Rand Paul, who voted against the reconciliation bill yesterday, expressing a lot of heartburn — no pun intended — about the idea of repealing the law in a way that’s going to weaken it, and in a way that’s going to take health care away from people and take away protections that are actually popular.
So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion, and I think Democrats should draw a lot of confidence from the kind of position that they’re in right now to defend a law that is producing for the American people. And the prospect of taking it away may sound good when it comes to the rhetoric, but when it comes to explaining exactly what they’re doing, I think it’s going to give those politicians a lot of pause.
Q I wanted to go back to when you were talking about dissenting views and sort of in the context of these conclusions that have been made. Trying to connect I think the two things that you said, would it be fair to take away that there were no sort of dissenting views in any of the — obviously, everybody signed off on this conclusion.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q But it is accurate to say that within the ranks of the intelligence community there was kind of universal agreement that Russia was responsible for this attack and some of the sort of motivations that we've heard ascribed to Russia for the attack?
MR. EARNEST: So you're right that the public statement that was issued back in October, a month before the election, that did indicate that Russia was engaged in an effort to undermine our democracy did represent the consensus view of all 17 intelligence agencies.
For the opinions of individual officers in those agencies, I think you’d have to go to them directly to get their opinion. But –
Q Well, what I'm wondering I guess is, is this report going to have — oftentimes reports are issued — the evaluation of something, you will hear from dissenters why they might question conclusions that were reached or an evaluation of alternate theories for what might have happened. And so I’m wondering if we can expect those sorts of things to be included in the publicly released information, or if it will just be — and it might be that there’s universal agreement that Russia was responsible. But that's just –
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think this is an entirely fair question, but it’s not one that I’m in a position to answer. I don't know what’s going to be included in the report that is produced early next week. That’s something that the intelligence community is working on, so we’ll have an opportunity to take a look at it there. And then maybe we could have some more questions about this.
But look, the other thing I think I would encourage you to do is to check with some of these intelligence agencies and to see to what extent they factored in dissenting views, or if those dissenting views didn't exist.
Q Buzzfeed reported that the FBI relied on a third-party analysis of the DNC servers to sort of reach their conclusions that Russia was responsible for this hacking. I’m wondering if that raised any concern within the White House. It seems like a credible third party. But obviously I think some of the critics on the transition team have said this is the equivalent of the FBI not going to the crime scene itself to look at it.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I can't speak to the investigative methods that were used by the FBI and the wisdom of the approach that they pursued. So I’d refer you to them for a comment on that.
Q Director Clapper said in his testimony today that Russia may have been responding to cyberespionage activities that the U.S. had taken. So I’m wondering if you — I guess if the White House believes that the Russian actions were potentially retaliatory rather than sort of proactively trying to interfere with American democracy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the conclusion from the intelligence community before the election was that the Russian government was motivated based on direction that was received at the highest levels of the government to interfere, undermine, or raise doubts about U.S. democracy and our political institutions. Whether there were additional motives that Russia may have had, that’s something that I’d refer you to the intelligence community to assess.
But I guess the point that — the thing that I would point out independent of any special or classified knowledge is simply that the two motives that you cited are in no way contradictory. You could imagine a scenario — I don’t know if it’s true or not — that Russia would be motivated for one reason or another to try to retaliate against the United States for some sort of perceived slight, and that retaliation would take the form of undermining confidence in U.S. democracy. So it’s easy to see how those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
Q One last one on a totally different topic. Some Turkish defense officials earlier this week seemed to float the idea of ending the use by the U.S. coalition of Incirlik Air Base. There seems to be some frustration over the level of U.S. and international support for their operation in Syria. What’s the level of concern in the administration that — you’ve spoken many times about how important that air base is and what it could mean for our attempts to go after ISIL.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I will say is that NATO is obviously a critically — Turkey is a critically important NATO Ally, and we have benefitted from our alliance with Turkey, and we obviously have valued the partnership and commitment that they have shown to going after ISIL.
One of the priorities that we identified early on was the need for Turkey to take steps to secure their border with Syria, and they didn’t take those steps as quickly as we would have liked, but in the last several months we have seen them take definitive action that has had a positive impact in securing that border that is limiting the ability of ISIL to smuggle people and materiel across that border into Syria.
So we obviously are pleased that Turkey has taken those steps. In general, the United States has been strongly supportive of the steps that Turkey has taken, and we have offered them additional support to supplement some of their ongoing efforts against ISIL right now. I think that it is — it would seem to undermine their case to threaten to eliminate our access to the Incirlik Air Base. Presumably some of the kind of assistance that we could provide would originate from Incirlik Air Base.
So it feels a little like cutting off one’s nose to spite your face. And hopefully that’s not in the cards.
Lynn Sweet. Welcome back to the White House Briefing Room. It’s always a treat to have you here.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Why are you looking at me like that?
Q I have a question.
MR. EARNEST: That’s why I called on you.
Q Thank you. With President Obama coming home to Chicago on Tuesday for his farewell address, is there any message that you could share now that he may have or want to sort of reflect on as the city is grappling with a soaring murder rate? It certainly is on the mind of a lot of people in Chicago as he comes home and as he intends to put his Obama Center in a part of the city that’s so very hard-hit by homicide. And could you also rule in or out if the President is going to give any kind of commutation to now-in-prison Governor Rod Blagojevich? As you know, the nature of the crime, one of the reasons he’s in prison, is in part for the attempt to try to sell then-Senator Obama’s Senate seat. So I’m hoping you could have some reflections.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any comment on potential offers of clemency. There’s a process that we have –
Q He has applied.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, but there’s a process that will be administered by the Department of Justice, and so I don’t have any comment on that.
With regard to the violence that has been plaguing the city of Chicago, you’ve heard the President over the last couple of years talk about his deep concern about the violence that’s plaguing his hometown. And he is certainly concerned about the use of illegal firearms in a lot of that violence. He believes that there are additional common-sense steps that could be taken that would at least reduce the number of illegal guns that are so readily available on the street.
He also believes that there are some simple things that could be done to make those guns a little harder to get, particularly for people that have bad intentions and shouldn’t have them in the first place. That’s not going to prevent every act of gun violence, but it certainly would have a positive impact.
The President has also talked about some of the work that needs to be done in the community there. And the President is certainly interested in investing in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. This is a program that has been implemented in a number of communities across the country, including Chicago, to try to mentor boys and young men of color who too often go overlooked. And the President is hopeful that when he leaves the White House, this is something that he’ll be able to devote more of his time and attention to.
I know the President and First Lady are also optimistic about the potential of the Obama Presidential Center having a positive economic impact on the South Side of Chicago. And he is hopeful that that will spur some economic activity and be a beneficial influence in the community. And many of the plans for the Presidential Center are focused on maximizing the benefits for the surrounding community. Obviously, this work is in the earliest of stages, but in the years ahead I know that both President Obama and Mrs. Obama will be making the positive impact on the local community one of the highest priorities of the Presidential Center.
Q Quick follow-up. The foundation has said that some programming is going to start in 2017 then. Are they going — it’s years away from this being built and up and running, the center. So is there something that they’re going to be doing programming-wise, without the center being built, but since the foundation is up and running in Chicago anyway? Will they wait for the bricks and mortar to be there, or will they, once they leave the White House, try to get some programs going through My Brother’s Keeper or other — My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which now is a nonprofit, or any other entity?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to any specific programs that –
Q That’s my main thing — are they going to wait until the thing is built, which is years away, or do something sooner?
MR. EARNEST: I think they are very interested in trying to make an immediate impact because this is obviously a community that is very close to them, and this is obviously where Mrs. Obama grew up and a place where President Obama spent most of his adult life. So this is a community that is close to their hearts and one that will get a lot of their attention beginning in 2017.
Q Do you know if he’s been by Jackson Park, or she has?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question.
Q Will he swing by it?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of plans to do that on this trip, but I haven’t looked carefully at the schedule. So obviously if he does something like that, the presidential pool will be along for the ride.
MR. EARNEST: You were speaking earlier about the high regard of the President of both the intelligence community and the work that they do. Is he concerned about the demoralizing effect that some people have talked about from the way the President-elect has spoken about them and the assessments being made in a way that would make America less safe over the course of the years to come from that demoralizing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that Director Clapper gave voice to some of these concerns in his testimony today. He indicated that some of the rhetoric and comments could potentially have a negative impact on the morale of the United States intelligence community. And I think I would leave it to Director Clapper to assess what sort of impact that could potentially have on our national security.
Based on what I know of our men and women in the intelligence community, they’re professionals. And even in the face of some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen, they’re determined to do their job for the right reason: to keep the American people safe. And they will do their job to the best of their ability without regard to who they would prefer to see in the Oval Office, and I’m confident that that work will continue and it will continue to be executed faithfully by the patriots in the intelligence community.
Q But the President doesn’t share Director Clapper’s concerns?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President would — I think what is clear to anybody, even those of us who are not in the intelligence community, is it’s hard to imagine how some of the rhetoric and comments we’ve seen would have a positive impact on morale in the intelligence community. But I think President Obama would share my assessment about the professionalism of the men and women in the intelligence community, but he would also listen carefully to the assessment of somebody like Director Clapper when considering what the potential impact of those comments and that rhetoric could be on the intelligence community broadly.
Q On a totally different topic, is the President excited about Tom Perriello’s candidacy for governor in Virginia?
MR. EARNEST: I saw a news report in the Times today. I don’t know that Mr. Perriello has made an official announcement, unless that’s happened since –
Q It’s happening.
MR. EARNEST: It's happening right now, huh?
Q They put out a video this morning.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President intends to endorse in the race, but obviously Mr. Perriello has served this administration with distinction. And the President did enjoy a close working relationship with him in Congress and appreciated his commitment to a set of democratic values in the context of his service in Congress. It was all too short, in the President’s view.
Q But you don’t think that he would get involved in this?
MR. EARNEST: But I’m not aware that the President will offer an endorsement, but maybe in his role as a former President of the United States he’ll have more time to consider these kinds of decisions. So I’m not in a position to rule out an endorsement, but I’m not aware of one that’s planned.
Q Josh, do you expect the President will be calling the President-elect after today’s briefing?
MR. EARNEST: I do not expect a phone call will occur between the President and the President-elect today.
Q How often have they been communicating?
MR. EARNEST: Many of their telephone conversations have been reported publicly, but I have tried to protect their ability to have private conversations by not talking about them too much publicly myself. So I said a few weeks ago that they have had a handful of conversations. They've had more conversations since then. So I don’t know if now it's two handfuls or not. But they continue to be in touch.
Q Will the report be sent to Congress today? And do we have an idea of when lawmakers are going to be briefed?
MR. EARNEST: Director Clapper's office will be responsible for disseminating the report and following the President's instruction to ensure that Congress is appropriately briefed. I don’t know that the timing for all that has been laid out at this point, but you can check with his office and they can keep you up to date on that. But the President's expectation — and I think this is something that Director Clapper committed to — is that Congress will be briefed on the results of the report, and I would expect that to happen soon.
Q And then piggybacking off of Josh's question, as far as the President's view of any kind of intelligence community shakeup that the Trump transition team may or may not be considering, what would the President think specifically about doing away with the DNI — with the role of the Director of the National Intelligence?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, listen, I think — obviously, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created to address an intelligence failure in the first place. And the President has benefitted from the organizing function that Director Clapper's office has performed in drawing on the material that's collected by the wide variety of intelligence agencies all across the U.S. government. And so serving as that organizing function I think is valuable.
Look, I think I would also add that Director Clapper is somebody who has served as the Director of National Intelligence more for than six years now. And President Obama has felt enormously well served by the way that he has handled the significant responsibilities of that office. But that's not new when you're talking about somebody like Director Clapper. Director Clapper enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1961, and he is somebody who began his career in the military as a rifleman in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He is somebody who served in the Air Force and flew 73 combat support missions over Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
This is somebody who has put his life on the line to protect this country, and he didn’t do that because he got drafted, he did that because he signed up. And since then, he has had a career of public service that's included him rising to the level as a Lieutenant General in the United States Air Force. And he is somebody who has served Presidents in both parties. He is somebody who is committed to the safety and security of this country. And we owe him — as he noted in his testimony today, he is ending his career in public service in January 20th, and we certainly owe him a deep debt of gratitude for his service to the country, not just as a Director of National Intelligence, but for the six decades that he has selflessly served this country.
Q Would the President advise the President-elect of any room for improvement within the intelligence community?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I think what the President would say is that the incoming President and his team should take a close look at the intelligence community, and if they have proposals or ideas for implementing reforms that would ensure that the country is better served, then that's something that they should carefully consider. But the current structure that's in place now and the individuals who populate the highest ranks of that organizational chart have served President Obama enormously well. And he is hopeful that the incoming President will benefit from the same kind of sound advice and expertise that has made the United States safer over the last eight years.
Q So are you saying that the President would say he shouldn’t change it if it has served him so well, meaning the structure?
MR. EARNEST: I think President Obama is simply someone who has benefitted enormously from the current structure and the people who serve in that structure. But obviously the President-elect will have an opportunity to consider if a new structure would be better for him.
Look, we've already spent some time in here previously talking about how the President-elect has chosen to handle this information somewhat differently than President Obama has. The President-elect has declined to get daily intelligence briefings from the intelligence community. So he clearly has different ideas for how this should work. President Obama believes that he was well served by getting this material briefed to him every day, and he believed that having a structure in place to support that was good for the country and good for his ability to make a good decision. But it may be that the President-elect has some different ideas.
Q So is there nothing about the current structure that President Obama would change?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think this is going to be entirely up to President-elect Trump to decide, but President Obama has been enormously well served by the people that are in the current structure.
Q Okay. And we heard the Speaker of the House today say publicly in an interview that Russia did not affect the outcome of this election. Do you think that's a fair thing to say? Is that something that can even be known, given the intelligence that has been out there?
MR. EARNEST: I was not able to listen to the entirety of the testimony, so I'm relying on you to provide the context for what was said. I suspect that the point that was being made is simply the idea that the intelligence community has concluded that Russia did not succeed in tampering with voting rolls in a way that would interfere with the ability of people to cast a ballot and have it counted. So from that standpoint, there's no evidence that the vote tally was manipulated.
For the broader political impact of the hack-and-leak strategy that the Russians implemented, this is a strategy that obviously had a negative effect on that Democratic candidate for President. I think that's something that people will be assessing for quite some time. I think you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that it had a positive impact on the Democratic campaign. But ultimately, what was the — how much of an impact it had I think is something that will be subject to debate for quite some time.
Q Because I think in the past when you were asked, “Did this hurt Democrats, did it hurt Clinton in particular,” you would say, well, that's up to analysts. But you're saying that it's obvious that the Russian meddling did hurt Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: I think particularly the week or so before we left for the holidays, I think I made pretty clear the ample evidence that is available to anybody who was paying attention –
Q I mean, I think then we were talking about intent, that it was clearly designed to hurt Democrats. But you're saying that it was obvious that it had a negative effect on Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah.
Q I just wanted to make sure that is what you're talking about.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, again, I don’t think that's different than what I said in December. I haven’t — I watch a lot of cable television and I read a lot of newspapers, and I haven’t heard anybody come out and say that having John Podesta's emails leaked on a daily basis, every day, for the last three weeks leading up to Election Day was good for the Clinton campaign. That would certainly be a controversial analysis. It would cut against the grain. But I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to make that case.
Q Okay, fine. And today, Senator Graham said that it's time at this point to throw rocks at Russia, and not just pebbles. So if we're going to go with the analogy of throwing stones, the response that this administration has put out there against Russia, do you consider that a pebble, or is that a rock?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's a hard thing to assess. I'll let Senator Graham put forward his own analogies. I think what — or metaphors.
Q I mean, we know what the point is, that he and others at this hearing are implying that it's not enough. So –
MR. EARNEST: And I think what I would say is that this is a forceful response. It's not the sum total of the response, but the public report that was issued last week that detailed the Russian government agencies being sanctioned, that detailed the PNGing of Russian diplomats from the United States, the closing of a couple of diplomatic facilities, the Joint Analysis Report that was issued that will interfere with Russia’s ability to carry out these kinds of operations in the future, both because by releasing this information system’s administrators in the United States and around the world can better protect their computer networks against the malware and the tactics that are employed by the Russians.
So that won’t just improve the defenses of these networks, it also means the Russians have to go back to the drawing board to look for new tactics and design new malware. That is going to interfere with their ability to continue to carry out these actions moving forward.
So what you have seen is a serious response, and you haven’t seen the sum total of it. And I know that there are some, including some members of the President-elect’s team, who fretted that the response was too severe. So they’re certainly entitled to their opinion, but the President believes that the serious effort that Russia undertook to interfere in our election deserves to be met with a serious response, and that’s what was announced last week.
Q Okay, and lastly on — we also heard Senator McCain today. When he was asked was that hack an act of war, he said in the broader sense he believes yes. And I know you don’t want to add any additional labels, but what we have here was an attack that you said was designed to undermine essentially democracy in America. So how do you draw the line in the cyber world? What is an act of war and what isn’t?
MR. EARNEST: Look, what the intelligence community has assessed is that it certainly interfered with our democracy, or the aim was to interfere with our democracy and to undermine public confidence. And that’s their assessment. And one of the challenges that policymakers will face, not just in the next administration but probably in subsequent administrations, is establishing some norms in this new realm. In cyberspace, these norms don’t exist. And it’s a brave new world out there, and it poses some risks. It obviously — in cyberspace, we’ve got enormous capabilities to strengthen our economy, to make it easier for small businesses to do business around the globe, to make our lives more convenient, and, in some cases, to make our lives more secure.
Those are all good things, but there are risks associated with those kinds of developments, and establishing some norms in cyberspace is important. And one area where we have made some progress on this is with regard to our relationship with China, where the United States has reached an agreement with China to establish a norm that state-sponsored, cyber-enabled theft for commercial purposes is not something that’s appropriate in cyberspace. And you heard the intelligence officials today indicate that they have seen a reduction in the kind of malicious cyber activity emanating from China targeting U.S. businesses.
That’s a positive impact. Does that entirely solve the problem? Of course not. But it does give us a sense of the kinds of solutions that we need to consult to enhance our security in cyberspace. And this is not something that’s going to get solved overnight, and this is not likely to be solved in the term of the next President, but it’s something that policymakers will be grappling with for quite some time.
Q How is it not an act of war, then, to attack democracy in this way?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is something that is deeply serious, and something that the administration takes quite seriously. And I think that’s evident not just from the public comments you’ve seen from the intelligence community, but that’s also evidence from the response that’s been put forward.
Q Hey, Josh. Back on the Affordable Care Act for a moment. How involved does the President plan to stay in what I’ll go so far as to say will be the replacement process, which is probably going to come piecemeal? He was up on the Hill yesterday asking Democrats to hold fast against any major changes to this overall program we call Obamacare. How much does Barack Obama expect the Democrats to seek his counsel or give his blessing to “this change is good, that change isn’t good” — something along those lines? How involved can he stay in all of this?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, as we discussed earlier, the advice that President Obama had for Democrats is that they should fight against the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act because of the extraordinarily negative impact it would have on millions of Americans, including the 30 million Americans who would lose health insurance, and including the 130 million Americans with preexisting conditions who would lose the protection against — that prevents insurance companies from discriminating against them. That only happened because of the Affordable Care Act, and stripping that protection away would have a negative impact on a large number of Americans.
The argument that the President has made is that isn’t just bad for the American people and bad for our economy and bad for the deficit, it’s also bad politics. So I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion, and the President certainly doesn’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that Republicans will succeed in repealing the law. They were only able to marshal 51 votes yesterday in the Senate to merely instruct committees to see if they could come up with a way to repeal the law. So they’ve got a very narrow margin for error, particularly when you consider how united Democrats are. And so that’s the advice that President Obama had for Democrats.
With regard to the role that he can play in his post-presidency, I would not expect for him to play a large public role in this fight. If there are people who want to seek his counsel, either for policy solutions or for particularly persuasive arguments that can be made publicly, I wouldn’t be surprised if he engages in those kinds of private conversations — not regularly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that occurred.
But as I mentioned yesterday, the President’s expectation is that congressional Democrats and Democrats across the country are going to have to stand up and speak out. And if they do, that will serve the country well, it will prevent Republicans from succeeding in repealing the Affordable Care Act, and it will provide an excellent opportunity for a new generation of Americans, a new generation of Democrats to step forward and begin to make their voice heard and exercise some influence in our political debate and, again, in a way that would be good for the country and good for the Democratic Party.
Q Couple more in general terms about the review the President is being briefed on now. I realize he’s still getting briefed, but does he have any initial reaction as to what he’s seen? Does he think this report contains something substantial and new that he hasn’t already been briefed on? And does it contain any smoking guns that would convince skeptics?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen the report, so I wouldn’t characterize it at this point about whether or not it includes smoking guns or other things.
I think just the caution that I would point out is that while the intelligence community is committed to fulfilling the President’s instructions to make public as much as possible, they’re sharply limited in their ability to produce a lot of information given the need to protect sources and methods.
So I haven’t seen the report. I don’t know what will be included in the report. But I do anticipate that it will be difficult to produce something like that, but we’ll have to see what they come forward with. And ultimately, I think we’ll — I’ll be making — I’ll be exercising some of our own judgment about what exactly the report means.
So since the President is getting briefed on it right now, I haven’t gotten a reaction from him. But presumably, at some point, the President will be asked about it and he’ll have an opportunity to offer up that reaction.
Q Admittedly, chunks of it are not going to be able to made public, so the public might not be convinced. But obviously one recipient of the full report is going to get briefed on it tomorrow. Is this report going to be convincing to that recipient?
MR. EARNEST: There are a number of things that come to mind that I could say in response to that question, but I’ll exercise some discretion today and say we’ll see.
MR. EARNEST: I know, I know.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to draw your attention to something that was circulating online yesterday, a beating that apparently took place on Facebook Live involving four individuals in Chicago. Is the White House aware of this video? Would the President himself have been aware of this, and would he have any comment about what happened?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, I’ve seen the video in news coverage, and I know that local officials, law enforcement officials are investigating this matter. Based on news reports that I’ve seen, some individuals who were likely involved are in custody. So they are still conducting an investigation about the disturbing images that we saw in that video.
They do demonstrate a level of depravity that is an outrage to a lot of Americans. I haven’t spoken to the President about it, but I’m confident that he would be angered by the images that are depicted on that video. But I believe it’s important for us to defer to the important work that local law enforcement must do in investigating these kinds of incidents, so I don’t want to say a whole lot more than that.
But obviously this is something that’s gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason.
Q Would this rise to the level of a hate crime in your opinion?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s too early to tell. I certainly don’t want to predict where the investigation would lead. I think our expectation would be that local law enforcement would follow the facts. And I wouldn’t speculate at this point to what degree federal officials would get involved for considering those kinds of crimes. Obviously, a decision by the Department of Justice to investigate a matter like this is something that — is a decision that they would have to make alone.
Q I want to piggyback on something Justin was talking about earlier, and that is this idea that the President gets briefed on this report, and yet sanctions and other decisions were doled out on the Russians prior to the completion of the report. And I’m wondering, does that mean there was sufficient evidence in the administration’s opinion prior to the completion of the report that the President is receiving a briefing on now to make that action? And if that’s the case, why not wait until the report itself was complete?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, there was a desire on the part of the U.S. government to be forceful in our response, but also to be very precise in our response. And that meant that there were a variety of agencies, including the Treasury Department and the Department of State, and others, had to carefully evaluate how best to use the tools that were available to them to implement a response to this situation, and as soon as those response options had been considered and developed, that we worked to implement them quickly.
There was no need to wait for additional evidence to substantiate the kind of response that was put forward. And again, I think based on the unprecedented nature of the statement that was issued by the intelligence community a month before the election, I think that should be a clear indication to everybody of the depth of conviction, the high confidence that the intelligence community had in the conclusions that they publicized back in October.
Q Is that report, the one the President is being briefed on, it wasn’t completed last week; it was, in fact, completed very recently — yesterday, for example?
MR. EARNEST: I believe that Director Clapper indicated in his testimony today that the report was only recently completed.
Q Let me ask you about the exit statements. It’s an interesting approach. I don’t think I’ve ever read exit statements like we’ve seen in previous administrations sort of so publicly dispensed. What was the thinking behind that, and why is that important?
MR. EARNEST: These are the exit memos from the Cabinet agencies?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, over the course of the last year, the President has directed his team to be focused on ensuring a smooth and effective transition to the next administration. And that was a tasking that the President gave to officials in a wide variety of agencies before we knew the outcome of the election.
But in that process, these agencies were compiling material to help the incoming team hit the ground running to understand what kinds of issues they were likely to inherit, to understand what kinds of strategies we had implemented, and what kind of results we had to show for the strategy that we implemented. And in developing this material, it became clear that these memos would provide the American people a lot of insight into the important work that’s been done over the last eight years, into the progress that we’ve made over the last eight years, but also in the challenges that remain.
And the President made a decision — and, again, I think this is consistent with his commitment to transparency — he said, let’s make these memos public, and let’s share with the American people in a comprehensive fashion — let’s show them our work, let’s show them what we’ve done, but let’s also be honest about the challenges that remain.
And we’ve talked before about what the outcome of the election means for the country, and it means that somebody who has promised to try governing the country in a different way is going to get the opportunity to do that. And there will be an opportunity for all of you and for the American public to evaluate what kind of progress they’re making. We’ve established benchmarks about the progress that the country made in the last eight years under President Obama’s leadership, and you’ll be able to compare the progress that was made under President Obama with the results of the incoming administration’s leadership. And I think that should inform people — it will inform people about the most effective way to lead the country in the future.
And if the incoming administration is able to exceed these benchmarks in a whole variety of areas, that obviously would be a powerful endorsement of the approach that President Trump chooses to take. If not, it won’t be.
Q Couple quick ones. First, on Gitmo, is it your expectation that there will be a reduction in the number of detainees again this week? And can you sort of clarify the administration’s perspective on the recidivism rate of those who have either gone back into battle and have either been re-apprehended, or not?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I am not able to speak to any specific detainee transfers between now and January 20th other than to confirm for you that there are likely to be some. And whenever those transfers take place, once they have been completed, we announce them publicly. And that will continue to be our approach through January 20th. And my expectation is that there will be some additional announcements of that type.
With regard to this question about –
Q Including this week, you think?
MR. EARNEST: I’m sorry?
Q Including this week, you think?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to timing at this point. But certainly before January 20th.
MR. EARNEST: With regard to this question about reengagement, you’ll recall that President Obama, upon taking office in 2009, ordered a comprehensive review of the file of every single detainee at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And the purpose of that review was to determine whether or not individuals under an appropriate set of security requirements could be safely transferred to another country in a way that would not undermine U.S. national security. And the process that he established required a variety of agencies, including the Secretary of Defense, to certify that the appropriate security requirements were in place before an individual was transferred.
This careful, specific approach was a departure from the approach that was taken by the previous administration, and it shows in the results. The percentage of those who have been confirmed of reengaging in the fight by the intelligence community — these are individual who were released or transferred from Guantanamo before 2009, before President Obama took office — is 21 percent. Twenty-one percent of the Gitmo detainees who were released before President Obama took office have been confirmed by our intelligence agency of reengaging in the fight.
Since President Obama took office, and since these reforms were initiated, nine detainees have been confirmed by the intelligence community of reengaging in the fight. Considering that we have released 183 detainees during President Obama’s time in office, a little back-of-the-envelope math would indicate that our percentage is much better, and it’s a result of the reforms that President Obama instituted on his first day in office.
Q Does that include now-deceased combatants?
MR. EARNEST: We can check on the details for you on that.
Q Okay. Lastly, Tuesday we were talking about the President and the economy and having created 900,000 manufacturing jobs. We’re doing some number-crunching and it seems to be a little bit higher than that which we’ve come up with. Can you sort of help me square the difference? I think we came at around 807,000 or something.
MR. EARNEST: I think what I said was nearly 900,000. I did overshoot the mark a little bit. I was just working off of memory, I didn’t have the numbers in front of me.
Q Okay, great.
MR. EARNEST: Ron.
Q Just on this — to follow Kevin's question about this review and briefing the President is getting, I don’t understand what’s new or what’s being learned or what was asked that moves the whole situation past what you knew to order sanctions and the removal diplomats to where we are today. What questions are now answered? And what's new, or what's the President learning about that he didn’t know then but already felt confident enough that he should make these moves?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a couple of parts to this, Ron. The first fact is that this report is, despite all the attention that is understandably focused on the review of Russian involvement and Russia's malicious cyber activity in the context of the 2016 election, this review will take a look at malicious cyber activity in previous presidential elections, as well, including by actors other than Russia. So it's a little bit broader than just this one incident.
The second thing is, the last time that we heard formally from the intelligence community on this matter was the first week in October. And since that time, the intelligence community has dedicated significant resources to learning as much as they possibly could about the Russian malicious cyber activity and the efforts that they undertook to undermine or raise questions about the durability of the American democracy. So that's the material that they're reviewing and including in the report.
I can't say at this point exactly what that means for the content, because I haven’t seen the content.
Q And you described a process kind of underway of briefing there. Who exactly is briefing the President? How many Cabinet secretaries are involved?
MR. EARNEST: It's members of his national security team, including some of the individuals who testified on Capitol Hill today. It essentially is senior officials who are responsible for compiling the report.
Q So we're talking about a half dozen or more people?
MR. EARNEST: I think it's more than that, but I don’t have a specific manifest from the meeting to share.
Q And Director Clapper talked about the motive and intent of it on the Hill, and he said that there was more than one motive. Does this review answer the question of whether the Russians intended to or were motivated to try to make Donald Trump or help him become President?
MR. EARNEST: I can't speak to the contents of the report because I just haven’t seen it.
Q But you can tell without seeing it. Going into this process, or as this process was ongoing, was that one of the questions that was going to be answered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I would leave it to the intelligence community to say what they're going to include in the report. And I think this will be easier to discuss then.
But look, as I said last month at some length, you don’t need a security clearance to know the impact that this Russian hack-and-leak strategy had on the campaign. Again, it was the DNC whose emails were hacked and released, not the RNC's. It was John Podesta's emails that were hacked and released, not Reince Priebus. It was the Trump campaign that had positive things to say about President Putin's leadership. And it was the Trump campaign that raised questions about their ongoing commitment to NATO.
Q But then why won't you say the Russians tried to get Donald Trump elected?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, because we're going to wait on an intelligence community assessment. But again, I think that there's certainly some common sense that can be applied that doesn’t require a security clearance.
Q And in talking about this, you always use the term “high confidence.” Is there something higher than high confidence? Is there like highest confidence or most highest? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The oldest confidence or something?
Q This could actually be like a fairly low standard high confidence, that there's like ultimate and — I hate to be –
MR. EARNEST: It's okay. You should probably direct this question to an expert in the intelligence community. What I can assure you is it's not a low standard. It is, as the name suggests, an extraordinarily high standard. It is not an –
Q — been something higher?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it is not uncommon for the President and other decision-makers to get analysis from the intelligence community that is a low confidence or a moderate confidence assessment. That's not unusual. That is an effort by the intelligence community to provide as much information and as much analysis as possible. So the fact that these are conclusions that have been reached with high confidence is an indication of their high confidence in this information.
Q Clapper said it was not a close call, this wasn’t tough to figure out. Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I think the best way to interpret this is to consider the extraordinary nature of the statement that was issued by the intelligence community before the election. That is not something that's happened before. That's unprecedented. And the fact that they were not just able, but willing, to make such a forceful statement, on the record, in advance of the election, I think is telling.
Q And lastly, completely different subject. What are the President and First Lady doing tomorrow night, Friday night?
MR. EARNEST: There have been some reports about the President and First Lady hosting a social event here at the White House, and that's something that they've done in the past and it's something I anticipate they're going to do again tomorrow.
Q Anything more about it? Are you going?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details about who's attending, and I'll get back to you about my own personal plans for Friday night. I don’t know if that's an invitation or — (laughter) — I'm just teasing.
Q This is a farewell party, essentially.
MR. EARNEST: Look, over the years the President and First Lady have on occasion, not frequently, but on occasion have hosted parties at the White House for their friends. And I anticipate this will be the last one that they have. They've got some packing to do.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about a resolution that's being voted on in the House this afternoon on the U.N. Security Council Resolution on Israeli Settlement Activity. It condemns the resolution and it calls for its repeal. I'm wondering if the White House has seen that resolution and what, if any, reaction you have to it.
MR. EARNEST: I'm aware of the resolution. Obviously, it is not at all something that the Obama administration agrees with. The action that was taken by the Obama administration a couple of weeks ago at the United Nations Security Council reflected the President's consideration of America's foremost national security interests. It reflected a careful considering of the policy that the United States has pursued under Presidents in both parties, which is the need for a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians in the region. And the United States declined to veto a resolution that expressed concern about the accelerated pace of Israeli settlement construction and, notably, the continued violence and incitement that we've seen in that context of that conflict.
Both of those things are making it harder for both sides to come together around a two-state solution. And, in fact, both of them — both of those actions are actually putting a two-state solution even further out of reach. And the administration is deeply concerned about that. The United States has long articulated our commitment to a secure, democratic Jewish Israel living side by side in peace and security with a contiguous, viable Palestinian state. And outside of that solution is only a single state that would force the Israeli government and the Israeli people to choose between being Jewish and democratic because — given the size of the large Palestinian population in that area.
So this is something that — the trend lines are not good. And that's why the Obama administration took, admittedly, a notable step, but a step that is entirely consistent with the long-held bipartisan policy of the United States of America.
Q And on another topic. There are a number of House Democrats who have decided to boycott the inauguration activities to protest President-elect Trump. Obviously, the President is going to participate in them, and he's talked about the need for a smooth transition. Does the White House have any view on whether it's appropriate for these members to sit on the sidelines and protest the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: I'm not aware of any view that the President has expressed. I think the President's view is that members of Congress can attend the inauguration if they'd like, and if they don’t want to then I think that's probably fine too.
Q Josh, what is the President's thinking in submitting, or resubmitting, 10 nominations to the Senate yesterday — several inspectors general, as I recall?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is just fulfilling his presidential responsibility to continue ensuring that the federal government is fully staffed and the individuals, the men and women that President Obama has put forward, are individuals with the highest degree of integrity. These are accomplished professionals who are more than qualified for these positions. We've been disappointed that we haven’t seen the Republican Congress act as expeditiously as they should have to confirm and, in some cases, even consider some of the President's nominees. We'll have to see what the congressional response to these nominees is, but obviously there's a short window for them to act.
Q Very short.
MR. EARNEST: Indeed.
Q Does President Obama have any expectation that this GOP Senate will act on these nominations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have seen a lot of Republican senators talk about how important it is for highly qualified inspectors general to be in place. So we certainly — if that's what they actually believe, then these individuals should be given due consideration.
Q Are these the last of his nominations?
MR. EARNEST: I can't rule out at this point additional nominations, but we'll obviously let you know.
Q I also wanted to ask whether there was any consideration given to sneaking in a recess appointment during the five-minute intersession recess on Monday.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that there was — at least not seriously. I guess I can’t speak to what everybody might have been considering. (Laughter.) But I’m not aware of any serious consideration to doing that.
Q Have you seen the article written by Mike McCurry and Ari Fleischer with recommendations to the Trump press operation? One of the things they’re recommending is no more live TV coverage of White House briefings and rotating in reporters into the seats in the briefing room. Does that sound like something you could endorse?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I don’t think I would endorse either of those things, but they’re certainly provocative ideas and they’re not things that I would instinctively oppose either.
I think — you know, what I’ve said publicly about this process is that it’s a valuable one, and that there’s a lot of symbolic value to a senior member of the President’s team being held accountable, and for that accountability to play out on camera and on the record. I think that’s a good thing for our democracy and the President has actually found that to be a useful thing for his presidency.
But look, this is an exercise that presidential press secretaries have engaged in for a couple generations now, and this venue and this process has evolved over time and it’s not automatically a bad thing if there are some innovations that can be introduced that would make this kind of exchange more fruitful and even more in line with the purpose of giving all of you an opportunity to demand some transparency and accountability.
But it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything you could do to make the briefing more entertaining than it’s been over the last couple years. (Laughter.) I say that facetiously.
We’ll do a couple more. Jared.
Q Josh, what’s your message to voters who find the argument compelling — this argument pushed out by the President-elect and certainly many of his supporters — that intelligence community reports are not to be trusted because of alleged failures of intelligence community reports in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think — my message to voters is that the elections are quite a ways away. So the message –
MR. EARNEST: My message to citizens though — that’s what I was just going to say. My message to citizens is a couple of things.
The first is, there have been serious reforms that have been put in place since the high-profile intelligence failures around 9/11, and those reforms have addressed a range of bureaucratic inefficiencies that prevented some decision-makers from getting timely, accurate information. And there should be motivation internally — in the U.S. government, in the intelligence community, and in the White House — to look for ways to continue to strengthen the kind of — to strengthen the process by which the President and his team receive up-to-date, accurate information.
What I can tell you is that over the last eight years, President Obama has been extraordinarily well served by the timely and accurate advice that he has received from the intelligence community. And so that’s been a good thing both in terms of the structure that’s been in place, but also in terms of the people who have filled the boxes in that organizational chart.
Q Just one follow-up on Isaac’s question about former Congressman Perriello. The President — you’ve described and he’s described with a lot of enthusiasm for the prospect of the Affordable Care Act moving forward. Does that enthusiasm for the ACA, which obviously was a big part of the 2010 vote that took Congressman Perriello out of office — does that enthusiasm for Obamacare’s future translate to enthusiasm for Perriello or for a Democrat’s chances in 2017 in the gubernatorial race in Virginia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think I already have made the observation that if Republicans follow through on their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act and take away health care for 30 million Americans, and strip the kinds of protections that prevent 130 million Americans with preexisting conditions from being discriminated against, that doesn’t sound like very good politics to me. But I think it’s far too early to tell what sort of impact that could have on, for example, the Virginia governor’s race.
I do know that there is a unanimity of opinion among Democrats in Virginia about how important it is to expand Medicaid in Virginia. And the Republican obstruction that we have seen that has prevented thousands of people in the Commonwealth of Virginia from getting access to health care, I don’t think that’s going to be a political winner for them either. But I’ll let the individual Democratic candidates speak to their position on that.
Q One last one. This is about the DNC race. The Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg, has entered that race. Does the President know this mayor? Does he have a relationship with him? And this has developed during the briefing today, so I don’t expect it if you don’t have anything today.
MR. EARNEST: I can tell you that the President has had an opportunity to meet him, and the President believes that he is obviously a young man with a very compelling story. He’s already quite accomplished. But I’m not aware that the President — as I mentioned earlier, I’m not aware the President intends to formally endorse in the race, but we’ll have to see what happens.
Francesca, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks. Coincidentally, I also have a question about the Democratic National Committee race. You just said that the President doesn’t intend to formally or publicly endorse anyone, but has he privately endorsed anyone? (Laughter.) And has he — no –
MR. EARNEST: Well, it wouldn’t be private if I said it here. (Laughter.)
Q No, no, no, no, no, no. I’m just saying, has he privately endorsed anyone, and has he potentially encouraged anyone to join the race?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I’m not going to — you know, obviously there are now at least a couple of people that are in the race that the President knows personally. The President obviously thinks very highly of a number of the people that have thrown their hat into the ring.
The thing that I can tell you is that the President does believe that having a vigorous contest for a position like this is good for the party because this is the kind of decision that’s not made by party insiders in Washington, this is — the chairman of the DNC is elected by votes cast by DNC members all across the country. And so having a vigorous debate in our party about who should be the leader of the party and what sort of approach that person should take to strengthening our party and making sure that Democrats are doing what the President suggested in terms of being more present and more effective advocates in communities all across the country for the kinds of values that our party stands for.
But ultimately, who will be entrusted with that responsibility is a decision that will be made by the men and women of the Democratic National Committee, and their membership extends to communities all across the country.
Q And a quick follow-up on one other thing. So it is possible, then, that he encouraged someone behind the scenes to get into the race?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to talk about the conversations that the President has. There are a number of people that the President respects, admires, and even likes who are in the race. And having a surplus of experienced, qualified, charismatic candidates is only a good thing for the Democratic Party, and the President is pleased by that.
Q Sure. And then the last thing, we discussed earlier this week possible details on the speech in Chicago. Anything else to share about that?
MR. EARNEST: Come back tomorrow and we’ll do that, okay?
MR. EARNEST: All right. Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you then.
2:49 P.M. EST