James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:46 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Monday. I do not have any announcements at the top so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to go first?
Q Thank you. So over the weekend, Donald Trump's chief of staff said the President-elect now accepts that Russia was behind the hacking of the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. And I was wondering if having Reince Priebus come out and say that Donald Trump now accepts the intelligence community's findings, is that enough for the White House? Or do you think that people need to hear Donald Trump come out and say that himself?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I'm not going to call on the President-elect to make any statements. Obviously, the American people and the world are watching as he and his team do the work to prepare to take over the most powerful job in the world. And so then obviously this entire process is being closely scrutinized, and it should be. That shouldn't be particularly surprising. That's been true of the 44 other Presidents of the United States and it's not particularly surprising that people are closely watching the 45th President as he prepares to take office.
And obviously the intelligence community has provided a rigorous analysis of the malicious activity carried out by Russia in cyberspace that was intended to interfere with our election. It was intended to harm the prospects of the President-elect's opponent in the election. These are well-established facts, and obviously the world will continue to watch how Mr. Trump and his team — the President-elect and his team choose to respond.
Q The President said in at least one interview last week that he hoped that after Donald Trump was briefed by the intelligence leaders last Friday, that some of the tensions between the President-elect and the intelligence community would ease. So wouldn't that happen if Donald Trump comes out and says, you know, I accept that Russia was behind this? Wouldn't a statement from him sort of contribute to this easing of tensions that the President spoke about last week?
MR. EARNEST: Look, what President Obama was talking about was his own experience. And what his own experience told President Obama is that he benefitted enormously from the men and women of the United States intelligence community providing him with the best available, most timely information. And the President counted on the intelligence community to provide him information that wasn't shaded to advance any ideological agenda. It was not influenced by politics. And it was presented without any concern that President Obama or anyone on his team was going to exact retribution for the information that was presented. And the President of the United States benefitted from getting an unvarnished assessment from the intelligence community about the state of the world and facts about the state of the world.
And President Obama believed that that improved his decision-making, and he believes that President Trump would benefit from having that kind of relationship with the intelligence community as well.
Q On another subject, a couple of years ago, Meryl Streep was here at the White House for the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award. The President talked a lot about how much he loves her. Does he think her speech last night at the Golden Globes was appropriate, that that ceremony was the appropriate venue to talk about Donald Trump?
MR. EARNEST: I haven't spoken to the President about her speech. I didn't see her speech, but I certainly read about it. It seemed to get plenty of attention. And I think what I can say is she clearly was delivering a thoughtful, carefully considered message that she believes in deeply. And it seemed to me to be a fairly straightforward exercise of her First Amendment rights as a citizen of the United States.
Q Ever since the election, he's been very reluctant to repeat a lot of the criticisms that he lodged against Donald Trump during the campaign.
MR. EARNEST: And the reason for that is that he's got institutional responsibilities. He's the President of the United States, and once the election is over, his chief responsibility is to ensure a smooth and effective transition to the incoming administration. I'm not aware that the United States Constitution includes any institutional responsibilities for the lifetime award winner of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Q So Hollywood doesn't have to move on?
MR. EARNEST: What I'm suggesting is that American citizens have the opportunity to exercise their right to free speech in any way that they choose. And certainly when it comes to standing up for deeply held values, the American people get to choose how and when and whether to express those sentiments.
President Obama is in a different position because he's got institutional responsibilities. He's got strongly held political views that he frequently and passionately conveyed on the campaign trail, and those views have not changed, as I've said on a number of occasions. But because of his institutional responsibilities as President of the United States to ensure a smooth and effective transition to the next President, he has to set aside those personal feelings in order to preside over an effective transition and give the incoming team every advantage associated with a running start. And the President has faithfully presided over a process that's done exactly that.
Q Thank you. Going on to another topic, Taiwan's President had a stopover in Houston on Sunday, and she met with some Republican lawmakers. I was wondering, what's the White House's response to that, and to the seeming — these kind of — I mean, this follows President-elect Trump's phone call with the President of Taiwan. What does the White House make of these actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the U.S. policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed. And the President and this administration have pursued that one China policy in the same way that previous administrations have because we believe that it best serves the national security interests of the United States. We also happen to believe it serves well the interests of our friends in Taiwan.
So I'm not sure whether or not Senator Cruz and his team was acting on behalf of the President-elect. They obviously have a rather unique relationship — so you'd have to ask them — ask him that. And obviously the incoming administration will determine whether or not to continue this policy once President-elect Trump takes office on January 20th. But as of now, there's nothing about the meeting that took place over the weekend that in any way changed U.S. policy with regard to Taiwan.
Q Does the White House feel that meeting shouldn't have happened? Like, would the White House be supportive — was the White House supportive of that meeting? Does the White House have a view on that meeting taking place?
MR. EARNEST: The meeting was one that was arranged at Senator Cruz's own initiative, as far as I know. It certainly wasn't coordinated or encouraged by the administration. And the meeting doesn't have any bearing whatsoever on our continued pursuit of a one China policy that benefits the United States and Taiwan.
Q On one more topic. A U.S. Navy destroyer fired three warning shots at some Iranian fast-attack vessels on Sunday, I believe. Can you talk about — this was the latest incident. There have been a number of these incidents at the — where there have been kind of aggressive measures and then the U.S. has kind of taken action to kind of stop these aggressive measures happening at sea. I mean, is this a concern, especially as we're about to go — we're in a transition period, we're about to go to a new presidency? Is Iran — like, what may be behind these — what may be behind these incidents and what is your concern that they keep — that they continue to happen?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ayesha, you're wise to point out that this is — that there is a habit of the Iranian military engaging in these kinds of activities in this particular region around the Strait of Hormuz. And I can tell you that the United States is aware of the latest incident involving Iranian vessels and the USS Mahan. As the Department of Defense has indicated, the actions were unsafe and unprofessional. These, of course, are the actions that were taken by the Iranian vessels.
At this point, the United States does not know what the intentions of the Iranian vessel were, but the behavior is not acceptable, given that the USS Mahan was operating in international waters. So these types of actions are certainly concerning and certainly risk escalating tensions. It is our view that we should look for ways to deescalate tensions, not unnecessarily escalate them.
So as we've repeatedly noted, the Strait of Hormuz — as anybody with access to a map can confirm — is a compressed space, which enhances the likelihood, or at least potential, for miscalculations. And that's certainly something that we would like to avoid.
So for additional details on the incident about how it — for a detailed assessment of what exactly transpired, I'd refer you to the Department of Defense. But it certainly is the view of the United States that these kinds of actions are concerning because of the potential that they could unnecessarily escalate tensions.
Q So, I mean, obviously — I mean, this is — I mean, you guys are at the end of your tenure here, but I mean, President-elect Trump has said that — has threatened to shoot any Iranian vessel out of the water — or any Iranian vessel that harasses a U.S. Navy ship will be shot out of the water. I mean, what do you think about those threats? That clearly hasn't been — this administration's approach has not been to aggressively go back when this harassment has occurred. I guess, what — do you think that more needs to be done? Or does the administration believe that more is going to need to be done to deal with this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly it is a blanket policy of this administration that U.S. service members have the ability to protect themselves and can exercise that capability when they're threatened directly. But our goal, particularly in this compressed region of the world, is to avoid escalating tensions. And the risk associated with the kinds of actions that we saw from the Iranian vessels is the heightened possibility that tensions could escalate, and that certainly is something that we've gone to great lengths to avoid.
Q Now that Americans have been able to see the report — the public portion of it, at least — on the Russian hacking, some of the criticism out there has been that it's not exactly heavy on evidence. And we heard Julian Assange just this morning call it embarrassing. How would you respond to those criticisms?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the report is actually consistent with what the administration and national security and intelligence officials have been saying for months. The analysis that was put forward by the CIA, by the FBI and the NSA makes clear Russia's culpability for these actions. It makes clear what Russia's intent was.
Now, the unclassified version of the report that was released prioritized the need to inform the American people about what exactly transpired, but there was an urgent priority to protect sources and methods, and make sure that the United States could retain the ability to protect the American people and protect our cyber infrastructure here in the United States. So it means that in order to protect those sources and methods, we were not prepared to make public how exactly each of these pieces of information was known. But the fact that the vast majority of this report includes the high-confidence assessment of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA I think should send a pretty powerful message about just how comprehensive this evidence is.
And again, this is a report that was compiled and put forward by intelligence officials who dedicate their lives to the safety and security of the United States. They are experts in their field. They are not engaged in this activity because it makes them rich, or it makes them fame, or it earns them glory. They do it because they're interested in protecting the country. They're patriots. And all that said, it's not surprising to me that somebody who has become globally infamous for releasing these kinds of secrets may not have a lot of complimentary words to say about the report.
Q We've also heard some statements from the Trump team saying that because the hacking activity predated the time when it was clear that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, it seems like the intent was to hurt the Democratic side but not necessarily help Donald Trump specifically. Would you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: I think the report was pretty blunt in indicating the evolving nature of the intent of the Russian operatives who were engaged in this activity. But, look, again, you don’t need a security clearance to determine who exactly was harmed by this hack-and-leak strategy and who benefitted from it. So setting the report aside, I think you'd have a really hard time making the case that somehow the Russians were impartial, again, because we know that they hacked Democratic sources and they hacked Republican-affiliated organizations. But the only information that was leaked in the most damaging possible way was the information that was collected from Democrats in a way that I don’t think anybody thinks benefitted the Clinton campaign. So at some point, this just isn’t all that complicated.
Q And this latest rhetoric coming from North Korea that basically anytime and anywhere they can fire off an ICBM, what are you guys making of that? Is this just more bluster? I mean, it's almost become like the typical thing — every two weeks or so there's another kind of provocative statement. Or are you taking this more seriously than rhetoric?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Obama administration, the United States, and I think the international community take seriously and is concerned about the destabilizing rhetoric and sometimes destabilizing actions that are undertaken by the regime in North Korea. And that's why you've seen the United States lead and international response to mobilize the international community to impose the toughest-ever sanctions that have ever been imposed on North Korea because of our concern about their rhetoric and their actions.
And you also heard the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, over the weekend indicate that the United States military retains significant capability to protect the United States and our allies, and we're prepared to use that capability when necessary. But our preference is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, deescalate tensions, and bring North Korea back into the community of nations. But right now, because of North Korea's refusal to abide by international obligations when it comes to their nuclear weapons program, they are an outlier, they are excluded, they are isolated in a way that — certainly more so than any other country in the world.
Q I just wanted to kind of return to what Michelle was talking about. Obviously, I think the conclusions made by the different branches of the intelligence community were powerful in their confidence. But it really seemed like there was little, if any, evidence to back up those conclusions, and some of the supplemental material was from reports that was outdated and went back to 2012. There was very little to show how the information that was hacked by the Russians got to Wikileaks. Those kinds of connections weren’t made. Did you guys do yourselves a disservice here by not including a little — obviously, there could have been more things that were disclosed without violating sources and methods here. I think that's apparent as sort of the things that you point to as apparent here. Couldn’t there have been more granted, and doesn't this give critics more ammunition to sort of discount the report?
MR. EARNEST: I think critics of this report have a very tough row to hoe here. I think any fair-minded individual would take a look at this report that was put forward by the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA and conclude that they feel quite strongly about the conclusions that they have reached and publicized. I think any fair-minded individual would understand the careful concern that was taken to protect sources and methods.
This is obviously a threat that exists in cyberspace that persists and has the potential to get worse before it gets better. And that means these intelligence agencies need to protect the ability of the United States to monitor, detect, and deter these kinds of activities. And that means that we're not able to make public all of the evidence in place. But the fact that this is a report that is consistent with the statement that was issued by all 17 intelligence agencies of the United States government back in October, the fact that that initial statement was delivered by all 17 intelligence agencies with high confidence, and the fact that this is a report that these agencies stand behind I think is notable.
And I think that your desire and the desire of the American public for more information is certainly understandable and one that I anticipated. Plenty of other people did, too. And that's why the President asked these experts to make as much public as was possible even as they protect the ability of the United States to protect ourselves in cyberspace — not just from the Russians, but from other malicious activities — from malicious hackers.
Q Sure. Even people who agree that Russia was responsible for the hack have — who are critics of the administration have pointed to this sort of entire enterprise and said, okay, we knew this before the election. Hillary Clinton talked about it every day. Donald Trump was asked about it. And so this sort of process was an effort by the White House to politically harm or delegitimize Donald Trump by resurfacing the allegations that we've known for a long time. And as you said, we've known since October or whatever it was. So I guess without the component of additional evidence to back up the claims, what did we learn on Friday that we didn't already know, or that would sort of help people, I guess, act on this to shield themselves in the future that we didn't know beforehand to sort of answer that criticism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Justin, the best piece of evidence I would point to you about the powerful nature of the report is the changing response from the President-elect and his team.
Q Well, now, that's not true, because he got a — so there was the declassified, the classified that Congress will get, and then an even higher level that the President and President-elect received?
MR. EARNEST: Right.
Q So there — inevitably he could have received that higher level briefing without the sort of public report and pressure from –
MR. EARNEST: So you're suggesting we should have put together this highly classified report and not release any details? I think the context of this questioning would be quite a bit different if that were the case.
Q No, I think you should have released more details.
MR. EARNEST: And what I’m telling you is that the experts in the international community released as many details as they possibly could without risking sources and methods.
So, again, I think your interest in wanting to know more about what happened is understandable and not surprising giving the kind of intellectual interest you typically show in these kinds of briefings. So I’m not surprised by that. But I think any other fair-minded person would understand that these are capabilities and resources that the United States government uses to protect the American people and they're critical to our national security, so we can't burn our sources here. And I think that is a reasonable and responsible conclusion. And what the international community tried to do is provide as much information as they could even as they were protecting sources and methods.
Q Thank you, Josh. John Kerry is issuing an apology on behalf of the State Department for past mistreatment of his LGBT employees. Is this going to be a government-wide thing? Should we expect to see other heads of agencies come out and offer the same sentiment?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of additional plans by other agencies, but certainly I wouldn’t rule it out either.
Q So this wasn’t directed by the President? He didn't say at a Cabinet meeting, by the way, let’s look at this possible?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President is — obviously, the decision that was made by Secretary Kerry today in his statement today is entirely consistent with the President’s view of these issues and certainly is entirely consistent with some of the work that the President and his administration have done in the United States military at the Department of Defense with regard to Americans that have previously been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. So this is obviously consistent with the kinds of values that the President has given voice to. But this is a decision that was made the Secretary of State.
Q Pakistan said that it’s tested its first sub-launched cruise missile. I’m wondering if the administration, specifically the White House has a reaction to that.
MR. EARNEST: I hadn’t seen those reports, Olivier. So let me look into it and we’ll get back to you.
Q Thanks, Josh. There are a lot of nomination hearings this week. And I’m wondering, now that Republicans think obstruction is a bad thing, if you think Democrats should allow those nominations to go forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think it’s not just obstruction they think is a bad thing. Apparently they think that background checks are bad, too.
I just want to read from a February 2009 letter that was signed the Honorable Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the United States Senate. And he sent it to Harry Reid, the Democratic then Majority Leader of the United States Senate. The letter says in part:
“We reaffirm our commitment to conduct the appropriate review of these nominations consistent with the longstanding and best practices of committees regardless of which political party is in the majority. These best practices serve the Senate well, and we will insist on their fair and consistent application.”
So we can provide all of you copies of this letter. It’s significant because it lays out eight different principles that they believe are critical to ensure the fair consideration of presidential nominees. And it includes things like ensuring that an FBI background check is complete and submitted to the committee in time for review and prior to a hearing being noticed. It also notes, conspicuously, the Office of Government Ethics letter should be complete and submitted to the committee in time for review prior to a committee hearing.
This, of course, is very different than the approach that Republicans are taking with regard to President-elect Trump’s nominees.
What I can tell you is that the Obama administration never asked for a nominee to get a hearing in the United States until their Office of Government Ethics letter was complete. That is to say, until the Office of Government Ethics, the independent watchdog of the United States government had completed their review to ensure that ethical conflicts had been resolved.
That was a principle that we abided by for eight years. So I can tell you that it does appear that now Republicans in the Senate are forming their own cheap suit caucus — and it’s a not commentary on their wardrobe, it’s a commentary on the fact that they are folding like a –
Q Like a cheap suit –
MR. EARNEST: – and rubber-stamping — thanks for following along — and rubber-stamping the nominees of the incoming Trump administration –
Q What happens when you rubber-stamp a cheap suit? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I guess we're going to find out. But I think it’s –
Q Sounds horrible.
MR. EARNEST: I think that what we've seen here is that the Republicans in the Senate are failing in their effort to advise and consent. Coming on the heels of the debacle that we saw in the House where House Republicans engineered an effort to gut ethical guidelines on the House, it sounds like a lot of Americans who voted to drain the swamp aren’t getting what they hoped for even before their guy takes office.
Q Back to Russia. You've obviously found that Russia sought to influence the U.S. election. I’m wondering if you've ruled out the possibility that Russia recruited American citizens to that effort, or American citizens were knowingly conspiring with Russia in that regard.
MR. EARNEST: Andrew, I don't recall having seen anything like that in the unclassified version of the report. For information that may be included in the classified version, I’d refer you to the intelligence community. I have not read the classified version. But if there is more analysis that the intelligence community has to share, you’ll have to check with them directly.
Q And the report named Putin personally. Why is he not facing sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we've discussed a couple of times, it is rather extraordinary for the United States to decide to sanction the leader of another country. I would hastily acknowledge that Russia’s activities with regard to the 2016 election were extraordinary. But obviously there are a range of factors that go into decisions about who merits sanctioning. And I think the decision by the United States government to sanction a couple of these Russian government and military entities and some of the — at least one or two companies that assisted them in this effort I think does reflect the significance of the concern that we have about Russia’s activities in cyberspace.
And I would point out that this is activity — or I’m sorry — this is a response that is available to the U.S. government because of the foresight demonstrated by this administration and this President to grant in advance authority to the Secretary of Treasury to use financial sanctions as a potential response to malicious cyber activity. So this does represent the implementation of a strategy. And I think, by and large, most people, including the President-elect’s team would acknowledge that the response from the Obama administration has been serious.
And you’ll recall that since this intelligence community assessment about the malicious Russian cyber activity was made public, we indicated that we were aiming for a proportionate response. And while we have not detailed every element of that response, those elements that are public I think gives you a pretty good indication of just how seriously we treat this matter.
Q Just a final question. Do you have any reaction to Rafsanjani’s death? Do you think it has any impact on the nuclear deal or Iranian government’s policy or position?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by acknowledging that former President Rafsanjani was a prominent figure throughout the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And the United States sends our condolences to his family and loved ones. He was a consequential figure inside Iran. But for what potential impact this could have on Iranian policy I wouldn’t speculate.
Q Thanks, Josh. Can you give me and update on the President’s latest conversation with Turkey’s President and the latest on the Gulen story? I haven’t heard if there’s an ongoing investigation into whether or not he will be repatriated to that country. Can you give us an update on it?
MR. EARNEST: Kevin, as you’ll recall, the President did have an opportunity to talk to President Erdoğan last week. The President called to offer his condolences on behalf of the American people to the Turkish people for the many deaths at the Turkish nightclub on New Year’s Eve.
Turkey is obviously a critically important NATO ally of the United States. And despite our occasional differences, we value the strong partnership that we have with Turkey, particularly when it comes to protecting the national security of citizens of both of our countries. And President Obama has dedicated a significant portion of his presidency to strengthening the NATO alliance, including the ability of the United States to work closely with Turkey to protect our national security.
With regard to Mr. Gulen, the Department of Justice has, for a number of months now, been working closely with their Turkish counterparts to determine what sort of evidence is available to support the petition for his extradition that was issued by the Turkish government. I haven’t gotten a recent update on that effort, but I know how seriously the Department of Justice was undertaking that effort, so I’d refer you to them for an update.
Q Is it your expectation that that would be something that could possibly be wrapped up before the President leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I don't know what the time frame is for completing that investigation. Obviously, this is an investigation that was going to be conducted jointly with Turkish officials, and it was going to develop evidence pursuant to the extradition treaty that exists between the United States and Turkey and has for some time. But I don't know what the time frame is for completing that work.
Q I don't want to step on the speech itself, but I’d love to get a readout of your expectation of the President’s comments in Chicago. And in particular, do you expect him to address at least at the micro level why some of the successes that he’s had at the macro level have not sort of translated down into the city of Chicago, in particular in the African American community, which has just been hit by such devastation in terms of violence, et cetera?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, the first thing I can confirm for you is there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done on the speech. So the President will be doing a lot of thinking between now and then, between now and 9:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, thinking about what he wants to say and what sort of presentation he wants to make to the American public as he enters the last couple of weeks that he has here at the White House.
I can tell you, in general, that the President is committed to delivering a forward-looking speech that will examine briefly the significant progress that our country has made in the last eight years. But it will take a closer look and he’ll spend more time talking about what the President believes is necessary for us to confront the challenges that lie ahead.
And most of those solutions, in the mind of the President, rest on the deeply held values that just about every American subscribes to. And those values include fairness and justice. It includes the idea that, if you work hard, you should have the opportunity to succeed regardless of what you look like, or what your last name is, or who you love. And the President believes that obviously the diversity of this country is a strength and that, for all our differences, there’s much more that unites us than separates us. And our country is stronger when we remember that principle and we draw upon those common values.
But the President will have some more to say about this tomorrow night and is really looking forward to the opportunity to address the American people one last time.
Q And I also want to ask — great interview with my colleagues over at GMA. Tthe President seemed very candid about his time not just remaining in office but also sort of looking ahead to what may lie on the agenda for Democrats looking forward. And he seemed to be suggesting in his interview that the principles and the ideas as you’ve just laid them out resonated with a great many Americans but they were unable to — the party was not able to convince enough Americans that they were the right ideas.
He seemed to suggest that, well, they voted for me. And I kind of took that to say, you know, if I were out there, we would have won this battle. Am I reading too much into that comment? And was it a matter of messaging or was it a matter of the messenger?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President has made the case, in a variety of settings that the kinds of values and agenda and priorities that he’s laid out over the last eight years continue to enjoy the strong support of the vast majority of the American public. And that’s true when you consult public opinion polls that rate the President of the United States higher than every other politician in America, and higher than most other Presidents at this stage in their presidency. So I think that is an indication of the strong support that the American people continue to have for his agenda and for his priorities and for his message.
I think the fact that President Obama was campaigning so aggressively for Secretary Clinton, somebody — she was the candidate that got the most votes in the last election. Now, she didn’t win, but if you’re just looking for public support for the message that President Obama was helping her communicate, it’s clear that that was a message that resonated deeply with the American people. Not sufficiently enough to win the Electoral College, of course, but I think it is an indication of just how deeply the President’s message and his agenda resonates with the American public.
And the President himself has made the observation — and this is an observation that all of you have made in the context of other elections, 2010 and 2014 in particular — that despite the President’s best efforts, the President’s message did not succeed in motivating enough people to participate in those elections when the President wasn’t on the ballot. But obviously, in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Hussein Obama was at the top of the ticket, we saw the American people respond in kind with a majority of support. So I think that’s an indication of the President standing with the American public and the strong support for his agenda.
But there are questions that he and other Democrats need to answer about what it is that our party can do to ensure that these priorities and these values and this agenda resonates even when the top line of the ticket doesn’t have Obama on it.
Q Josh, I want to go back to the speech. How much of this speech is directed to those who are trying to rewrite this President’s history — those who dismiss things like the fact that Osama bin Laden is no more, those who dismiss the fact that his — more efforts to look at the issues of criminal justice reform, those people who also don’t like the inclusion of same sex marriage. Is this an effort to rewrite history, and also focused at those people, the naysayers, to his accomplishments?
MR. EARNEST: No. The President is primarily delivering a message to the American people — all Americans, whether they voted for President Obama or not. The President feels an obligation to talk about what he’s learned over the last eight years, what he’s learned about the country, what he’s learned about governing the country, and offer up his advice to the American people about the most effective way to confront the challenges that we see ahead.
So that’s the goal. And there certainly — the President certainly could give a long speech reciting the many accomplishments of his administration, but that’s not how he’s choosing to spend his time tomorrow night.
Q So how long is the speech? You’re talking about several drafts — it’s almost sounding like a State of the Union kind of thing, where you have the drafts, you go through the drafts and the rewrites. Is it something like that? Would you equate it to that?
MR. EARNEST: I would not. It will be shorter and much different in style.
Q So, okay, how much shorter? I mean, is it going to be like half an hour, less, more?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll try to give you some guidance tomorrow. I don’t have one to share.
Q No, I mean, I’m serious because –
MR. EARNEST: I’m serious, too. The message of the speech hasn’t been completed yet. So we’ll give you some updated timing tomorrow.
Q And lastly, is this more heart or is it more policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what you can expect from the President is a heartfelt expression of gratitude to the American people for the trust they’ve shown in him, and a carefully considered collection of thoughts about the challenges that lie ahead and the most effective way for the United States of America to successfully confront them.
Q And how many drafts is this now?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a number to share with you on that.
Q Is it more than five? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a number to share with you on that.
Q Thanks, Josh. Back to Russia. It seems as though Russia is still aiming to ensure a Trump-Putin meeting takes place early in the new U.S. presidency. Is this concerning at all, considering the President has made a point to say that we are not on the same team?
MR. EARNEST: Well, President Obama has met with President Putin on a number of occasions, so I think it’s entirely appropriate that the President of the United States would meet with the President of Russia. President Obama agreed to participate in those meetings at a time and place of his choosing. And obviously the incoming President will make his own determination about the appropriate location and about the appropriate timing of those meetings.
Q And Jared Kushner, President-elect Donald Trump’s sone-in-law, has been named senior advisor in the administration. And we know Kushner has been one of the most influential voices during the campaign. Does this raise any questions? What is the White House’s reaction to this? Are there any questions of — maybe legal and ethical questions because of the family ties?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are a number of these kinds of questions that have been raised. I'll let President-elect Trump select whomever he would like to have around him. Obviously that's what he will do.
What I can tell you is that President Obama and all of those of us who served on his senior staff here in the White House went to great lengths to comply with the strict ethical requirements that the American people expect of people who are entrusted with so much authority. And President Obama takes great pride in the fact that there has not been a major scandal over the eight years that he’s been in office.
And at least some of that is attributable to the willingness of the people who serve in positions of authority both in the White House and across the federal government to not just abide by the ethical requirements put in place by the Office of Government Ethics, and not just abide by the letter of the law when it comes to ethics, but actually aspire to a higher standard.
And that was a standard that was set by President Obama himself who, when he took office, essentially liquidated his assets and put them into the Treasury bills. I've noted on a number of occasions that that was not a particularly wise investment decision because this was a time when interest rates were being slashed, but it was the right decision for the country, because it meant that questions about the President’s potential motivation were put to rest because he didn’t have a financial interest in these policies, rather his only interest was in the success of the American people, American middle-class workers and the American economy.
Q Thank you. Going back to the tomorrow event, just for some housekeeping, we know that Vice President Biden and the First Lady and Dr. Biden will be there. Will they also be speaking or introducing?
MR. EARNEST: They will not.
Q So when the President talks about the work ahead, what of his legacy organizations might he be thinking about? What fill can you give me? Is this OFA? Is this an entity to be created by the center? What is the vehicle then that you see him carrying out the forward-looking things he wants to talk about?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I wouldn't — when the President is giving his speech tomorrow he’s not going to have in mind his own –
Q I'm not asking you to tell me if it's in the speech. I'm asking you to tell me what the “it” is, if you know.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess it's hard to answer that question. I think what I would tell you is the President intends to lay out his own view about the challenges facing the country and the most effective way for the United States to overcome them. I'll let the President speak at a later date about what sort of activities he'll be engaged in after he leaves the White House to address some of those challenges.
Q Do you happen to know, will he be swinging by the Obama alumni event taking place also at McCormick Place?
MR. EARNEST: We'll keep you posted on the President’s schedule. I'm not sure exactly what all he'll do while he’s there, but we'll certainly keep you posted.
Q If I could follow on that February 2009 letter on OGE.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q How important for this administration, back at that time or throughout, was the OGE process. Did you guys ever learn anything new that made you reconsider a nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, at this point, I don’t think I would say that — off the top of my head I certainly can’t think of a scenario.
Q Did the disclosures about Richardson come out in the OGE letter, or a separate investigation?
MR. EARNEST: That’s ancient history, as far as I’m concerned. I guess what — I think what I can tell you is that the standard that the Obama administration lived up to was a standard of ensuring that that OGE ethics letter arrangement was complete before these individuals got a hearing before the United States Congress.
Q So it was more protocol. It wasn’t like you guys learned additional stuff that you didn’t pick up in your own vetting.
MR. EARNEST: It’s certainly possible that there would have been additional information that was unearthed as a result of those kinds of things. I think the more important thing here, Hans, is not just the background vetting, but also the arrangements that are put in place to ensure that conflicts of interest are eliminated. And that is what the Office of Government and Ethics can verify, is, what can we do to make sure that this individual doesn’t have some sort of ethical conflict of interest or financial conflict of interest.
The irony here is that a number of questions have been raised about the nominees put forward by the President-elect with regard to their financial conflict of interest. That’s why it’s particular egregious that Republicans in the United States Congress who previously had so aggressively advocated for ensuring that these ethical arrangements were completed before these hearings were held are now agreeing to hold hearings for nominees that do have obvious financial conflicts of interest that have been widely reported even though they haven’t undertaken the reasonable steps to deal with them.
And again, coupled with the decision by House Republicans to make their first act as the incoming majority in Congress to vote in secret to gut ethics regulations, it certainly has to arouse some concern around those Americans who voted to drain the swamp when they voted for Donald Trump.
Q It just — on the timing of it, though, was it fairly fast? Do you guys ever — do you remember any delays? Like was it — was the process smooth?
MR. EARNEST: Well, certainly those of us who worked in the Communications Office would have liked to have seen this process move more quickly. But when you’re trying to move a bunch of nominees through at the same time, in some cases — particularly in the case of the President-elect’s nominees, some of them have extensive financial holdings. So I guess the point that I would make is it’s worth the time to make sure that the kinds of ethical arrangements are in place to prevent conflicts of interest from cropping up.
And given the fact that there were no major ethical scandals in this administration, I think that’s an indication that we pursued the right path. It certainly is the path that was recognized — recommended by Mitch McConnell eight years ago. But now he and the rest of the Republicans are poised to fold like a cheap suit.
Q Just one quick — I’m sorry for stepping on your metaphor earlier — you had it all lined up.
MR. EARNEST: That’s okay. (Laughter.)
Q When you look at what the President is directly saying — because you guys have held back a little bit in terms of, like, giving direct advice — it is the President’s view that no nominee should be heard before they have the letter from OGE.
MR. EARNEST: What the President has said is that is the standard that we have maintained, and it’s served him and the American people and his administration very well, as evidenced by the fact in eight years we did not have a major ethical scandal while he was President.
Q Just to button one thing down with respect to the intelligence community’s declassified report — when he testified on the Hill last week, Director Clapper said that there would be a declassified version released sometime early this week, but it came out Friday, timed relatively close to the President-elect’s briefing. Was that a decision that was made here in the White House?
MR. EARNEST: It was not. That was a decision that was made entirely by the authors of the report — in this case, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and, of course, the Director of National Intelligence.
Q Not made to preempt any characterization that the President-elect might have?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all — well, again, you’d have to talk to them about the timing, but that timing of the report’s release was not in any way directed by the White House.
Q On the speech tomorrow, can we say that President Obama is himself part of this drafting process?
MR. EARNEST: You can say that President Obama is the drafting process. He’s working closely with his speechwriters, but it’s apparent in the drafts that these will be President Obama’s words and no one else’s.
Q Just one more question. There was apparently a party here on Friday night. Is there any chance we can get an on-the-record readout? There were reports that this thing lasted until 3:30, 4:00 in the morning.
MR. EARNEST: What I can confirm for you is that the President and the First Lady had a wonderful time seeing so many of their friends. And from what I could tell, everybody else seemed to have a really nice time as well.
Q What time did you leave? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That’s classified.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. There are 11 days left in this administration, and this apology from the Secretary of State comes very late in the administration’s tenure. Why did this apology to the LGBT community and past employees of the State Department come so late in this administration?
MR. EARNEST: John, for the timing of this statement, I’d refer you to the Secretary of State’s Office. I read the statement, but I’m not aware of all of the machinations that went on in the background to make it a reality. Obviously it does send, I think, a pretty strong message to all Americans that people should be judged not based on who they love or who they are, but based on their capacity to serve this country, and their willingness to set aside their own interests to go and represent the United States of America overseas.
And there are many Americans who have embraced that patriotic duty, and certainly everybody who is qualified to do so should be able to do so and shouldn’t be discriminated against just because of who they love or who they are.
Q There have been books, documentaries about past discrimination by the federal government against the LGBT community. Let me just cite two examples. President Dwight Eisenhower, in an executive order, declared homosexuality a sexual perversion and an issue of national security. In 1951, the FBI director at the time, J. Edgar Hoover, ordered all FBI agents to identify homosexuals working in the federal government. Does the President owe the LGBT community an apology for this past discrimination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, that’s the first I’m hearing of that reference. I think President Obama has, throughout his tenure as President worked hard to stand up for the rights of LGBT Americans. And he’s proud of his record. Some of that is certainly a consequence of the profound changes in our society that have taken place under a rather short period of time in a way that has made America a more perfect union.
The President has certainly welcomed those developments. The President has certainly encouraged those developments. And based on some of the statements that we’ve seen from advocates for this community, the President has played an important role in advancing those developments.
So he’s certainly proud of his record on these issues. But with regard to an apology for the behavior, or policies or statements of previous Presidents, that’s something we’ll have to take a look at.
Q So you would not rule that out?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’m not aware that there’s anything that’s being cooked up to officially respond to that at this point.
Q Thanks, Josh. Does the President have any reaction to the corruption allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any — I don’t have a specific response for you from here. Obviously, this is something that’s getting a lot of attention in Israel right now, and it’s certainly something that’s chronicled in newspapers back here in the United States. But I make a habit of not commenting on criminal inquiries by U.S. law enforcement authorities, and I’m not going to weigh in with comments on criminal inquiries that are being conducted by Israeli law enforcement officials, either.
Q Completely switching gears, the President has authored quite a few articles in scientific and academic journals lately. Beyond the insatiable intellectual interests in this room, what might be motivating him to do that?
MR. EARNEST: You and Justin certainly have that in common. Those of you who have covered the President for a long time know that the President is, almost to a fault, a rational guy and the basic underpinnings of his approach to a wide range of policy challenges are rooted in facts. And the President believes that we should carefully consider those facts. We should familiarize ourselves with those facts so that we can design the most effective solution.
The President also believes and hopes that the performance of his administration will be judged by facts. And when you take a look at the metrics, for example, when it comes to climate change — which was the subject of today’s episode in scientific journals published by President Barack H. Obama — we’ve demonstrated as a country and as an economy the ability to fight climate change and reduce carbon pollution even as we grow the economy.
We have succeeded in reducing the cost of wind and solar power even as we have expanded the amount of power that we derive from those sources in a way that’s had positive benefits for our economy. We know that the solar and wind energy industry have increased hiring, and we know that those are good-paying American jobs that can’t be outsourced.
So this is, in the President’s mind, an approach that is validated by the facts and by the results. And the President also believes that careful examination of those facts and those metrics points the way to the kinds of policies that should be implemented in the future to ensure that we continue making progress in solving this problem, and doing it in a way that has positive benefits for the economy.
Many Republicans previously doubted the idea that it was possible to reduce carbon pollution and protect the planet and grow the economy. And that is a criticism that has now been gutted, because it just doesn’t withhold — it just doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny.
So the President is pleased by his performance, and pleased by the results of the policy that he has implemented, and believes that a careful look at the facts points the way to the kinds of solutions that the American people should consider moving forward.
Q So does he think that his Republican critics are going to be reading science? Does he feel that current — the current generation of scientists are not familiar with the facts? Or is this more written kind of with future generations in mind?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to the reading habits of Republican members of Congress. I’ll let you guys do a little digging on that one. I think the President’s view is that these scientific journals are a venue where these arguments that are rooted in fact can be presented. And everybody who is willing to consider them, we certainly welcome their careful consideration.
Q Will there be more?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any that we have in the pipeline, but if there are additional ones we’ll make sure you get them.
Q Josh, when you say that the President himself is the drafting process of tomorrow’s speech, is that more of a role than he’s played in other major speeches that he’s given would you say?
MR. EARNEST: I would say that the President’s participation in the writing of this speech is commensurate with his role in the writing of other major speeches, which is to say that the President is heavily involved. The President gets important support from his team of speechwriters, so I certainly don’t want to downplay the difficult work that they do — that the President finds it incredibly valuable. But I think — I feel confident in telling you that even they would say that the President is the person that’s writing the speech.
Q Does he write by longhand when he drafts these out?
MR. EARNEST: He typically does. And this is — some of you have seen the pictures, including a batch that Pete Souza, the presidential photographer, released at the end of last year — that it’s not uncommon for the President to take a typewritten piece of paper and, in his very compact, left-handed script, to be including detailed edits on that piece of paper.
So that certainly is part of the process. Part of the process also involves dictating certain passages to his speechwriters that they’ll play with and mold so that it can get into a typewritten form that he can then heavily and repeatedly edit. And we’re deep into that process as of very early this morning, but I would anticipate that it will continue until very early tomorrow morning.
Q Is tomorrow’s trip still the last out-of-town by the President?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, the trip to Chicago will be President Obama’s final trip outside of Washington, D.C. as President of the United States.
Q Does that mean they’ll be his last Air Force One flights?
MR. EARNEST: I think it is likely to be his last Air Force One flight — although it is obviously tradition for the former President to take one last flight aboard the presidential aircraft at the conclusion of the inauguration.
Q Will he be leaving town after the inauguration?
MR. EARNEST: That’s certainly what I would anticipate, yes.
Q So not going to their D.C. residence, the new one?
MR. EARNEST: The President and First Lady will be leaving town shortly after the inaugural ceremony. But they will return, of course, to their rented house here in Washington, D.C.
Q Day trip?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll keep you posted.
Q One last question.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I’m sorry, Mark.
Q Is the White House — did the White House decide to supply an aircraft to Vice President-elect Pence to bring him and his family today to Washington?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t confirm any individual flights. I know that there are a number of situations in which military aircraft have been used to help the incoming team move about the country as appropriate, but we can certainly check on whether a military aircraft was provided for the purpose that you just cited today.
MR. EARNEST: Lalit.
Q Thanks, Josh. On Chicago speech, would it include some aspects of his foreign policy, including the Asia Pacific region?
MR. EARNEST: Lalit, I certainly wouldn’t rule out a discussion of some foreign policy topics. I can’t detail which ones will be included. But I would anticipate that the vast majority of his speech will be focused on many of the domestic policies and domestic considerations that the next President will have to carefully consider.
Q And secondly, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi had established a hotline. Will the President be passing on that hotline to President-elect Trump?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll take a look. I’d be surprised if that was something that was discontinued. Typically those kinds of arrangements are intended to persist beyond just one presidential term, but we can confirm that for you.
Yes, sir. You’ve had your hand up since the beginning.
Q Thank you. Does the interference by a foreign government — or can the interference by a foreign government in our electoral process be constituted as an act of war? First question. And the follow-up to the Mitch question after that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that there are many members of Congress — or at least a couple members of Congress — who have made clear that they believe that it does. I don’t have a new label to apply today. What I can tell you is that –
Q Cyber war?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that the administration takes this situation quite seriously. And I think that is evident from the unanimous statement that was issued back in October containing the high-confident assessment of the United States intelligence community about Russia’s involvement in these nefarious activities.
I think the seriousness is evident in the public listing of the response from the United States government to these activities that included everything from kicking some Russian diplomats out of the country for activities that they’re engaged in that were inconsistent with their diplomatic status, and closing down a couple diplomatic facilities that were maintained by the Russians here in the United States. It also included some significant sanctions against some entities in the Russian government and other entities that were involved in helping the Russian government.
So there are other elements of our response that I’m not in a position to discuss publicly –
Q I understand, but would you consider it an act of war?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I don’t have a new label to apply here today, but I think every careful examination of the evidence, of the statements from the intelligence community, and from the response that’s been mobilized from the United States government, this is a situation that we take quite seriously.
Q And thank you for the letter from Mitch. Those who have covered him for years understand his hypocrisy. It knows no bounds. But the question is, what are you all planning to do about it, or what does the government plan to do about it going forward? I mean, making us aware of the facts seem inconsequential at this point. Are there other steps to be taken?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are certainly members of the United States Senate that, at least for the last eight years, have taken quite seriously their responsibility to offer their advice and consent to presidential nominees. Democrats and Republicans have both set a very high standard for Obama administration nominees that we’ve met, and the question is whether or not they have the courage and the fortitude and the back bone to adhere to –
Q Are you calling them out?
MR. EARNEST: – to adhere to the same standard for President-elect Trump’s nominees. I think that’s a simple question, and particularly for a President who took office vowing to drain the swamp, and particularly knowing the fear that the President-elect’s supporters strike in the heart of some Republican members of the United States Senate, maybe they will respond to the President-elect’s call to drain the swamp.
Q Have you talked to Mitch?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any new conversations to tell you about between President Obama and the Republican leader in the Senate, but certainly there are any number of conversations on a regular basis between this White House and the Congress.
I don’t know if there have been conversations about the process that is in place for President-elect Trump’s nominees, but I can tell you that over the last eight years that items that are detailed in this letter have been the subject of thousands of conversations between Capitol Hill and the White House, and the thought that those conversations are no longer going to occur because Republicans in the Senate are just going to fold I think does a grave disservice to the American people.
Q Thank you for that sound bite.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. You’re welcome.
Jared, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two. One, this McConnell question. On many areas with the transition, you’ve meticulously avoided, in pursuit of a smooth and effective transition, avoided criticism of the incoming administration. Why is this area different? Why does the White House feel comfortable — is it because it’s — this is a Senate confirmation process? What is the window through which you seem to be jumping very enthusiastically?
MR. EARNEST: I feel quite strongly about this because this is certainly not the first time in the two and half years that I’ve been doing this job that we’ve have a detailed conversation in here about the process wielded by Republicans in the Senate for confirming executive branch nominees. We’ve talked about this a lot. And when you consider the case of people like Adam Szubin and Merrick Garland, and the passion with which you’ve heard me speak about their cases in the past, you shouldn’t be particularly surprised that I feel strongly about this particular situation.
I do want to make clear — in case it’s lost on anybody — I’m not telling anybody in the Senate how to vote. But I am suggesting that the United States Senate — Republicans in the Senate should merely adhere to the standard that’s been in place for the last eight years — that we’ve met. And I’m not the only person who thinks that they should adhere to the standard. The author of the letter suggested that this standard should be in place regardless of which political party is in the majority. I agree.
Q Senate leaders and the President-elect’s team have said that they need this to happen quickly. Why does the White House not find that argument compelling?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, let me cite a couple of reasons.
The first is, President Obama took office as the U.S. and global economy was hurtling off a cliff. We didn’t cut any corners on ethics. So I’d be interested to hear what sort of explanation Republicans in the Senate have for why they want to cut corners when it comes to ethics in considering the incoming administration’s nominees. I’m not sure that too many people are going to find their explanation particularly persuasive, which may be why we haven’t heard one.
Q One follow-up on Sarah’s question about energy independence. This is obviously a promise that the President-elect made on the campaign trail. It’s a very popular promise for members of either party to make when they’re running for elected office. How far down the field — forgive the football analogy — how far down the field does the White House believe they’re leaving the ball for the next administration to either score or fumble, as they will?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, the Chiefs are in the playoffs, so I’m happy to talk about all the football analogies that you want. (Laughter.) Look, there’s no denying that this administration has racked up more than one first down when it comes to making progress in fighting climate change. But I think even President Obama would acknowledge that we’re not even yet in field goal range in terms of solving this problem.
I could do this all day, but I won’t. (Laughter.) But I think it is an indication that we’ve made demonstrable progress, but there’s a lot more work to be done. And so the incoming administration is going to face a question about whether or not they want to build on this momentum. That certainly is a dynamic that we often see on the football field, that you get a couple of first downs going and you can string together a constructive drive. But ultimately, the incoming administration is going to have to make a decision about whether they’re willing to continue this progress or if they want to fumble it away. I couldn’t resist.
Q Why is –
MR. EARNEST: Let’s let Jared finish, and then I’ll do the last one.
Jared, anything else?
Q I was just going to say, do you at this point — based on the policies that they’ve laid out, which play does it look like they’re calling?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t predict at this point how they will take on this responsibility, but it is a significant one and it won’t just be people in the United States who are watching how they handle it.
Q – how Iran ended up with natural uranium as part of the JCPOA?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are some public reports about this. What I can tell you is that, pursuant to the international agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Iran had to agree to the most intrusive set of inspections and monitoring that’s imposed on any country’s nuclear program. And so any sort of uranium that is held by the Iranian government will be subject to very strict limits and very strict monitoring for how that material is handled. All of that will be done consistent with the agreement that does prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that does prevent Iran from shortening the amount of time that it would take for them to develop a nuclear weapon.
Q Without getting too much into yellow cake versus other types of uranium we’re talking about here, the transfer of the uranium from Russia to Iran — that was part of the deal, is that your understanding?
MR. EARNEST: I’d refer you to the IAEA on this. What I can tell you is that these kinds of arrangements are carefully negotiated among the parties and, as I mentioned earlier, will be subject to the careful monitoring and inspections that are included in the deal to ensure that Iran is living up to the commitments that they have made.
Thanks, everybody, we’ll see you on the plane tomorrow, at least some of you.
Q Are you going to brief tomorrow or just gaggle on the plane?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll just gaggle on the plane tomorrow.
Thanks, everybody. Enjoy the rest of your day.
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