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Press Briefing by the Press Secretary, 11/18/2014

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

November 18, 2014

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:00 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Nice to see you all.  I don’t see too many faces that toured Asia with me last week.  (Laughter.)

Q    How’s your jetlag?

MR. EARNEST:  We’re still fighting it off, Steve, to be honest with you.  It’s nice to see you all.  I don’t have any announcements at the top, so we’ll go straight to questions.  So do you want to get us started?

Q    Thanks, Josh.   Can you talk a little bit about this review on hostages taken overseas?

MR. EARNEST:  I can.  This is something that the President ordered back over the summer, that given sort of the extraordinary nature of some of the hostage-takings that we’ve seen this year, the President felt it was warranted to direct the relevant departments and agencies who have traditionally been involved in assisting families as they try to recover the safe return of their family members.  So this is something that the Department of Defense, State, the FBI and the intelligence community have been reviewing.

The one thing that I do want to make clear, though, is this review does not include a reconsideration of a longstanding policy of the United States government that ransoms should not be paid to terrorist organizations that are holding hostages.  But this is obviously an issue that the President takes very seriously.  We have long said and we continue to take the view that significant resources have in the past been dedicated to trying to ensure the safe return of American citizens who are being held hostage overseas.

And there was an incident earlier this summer where the President did order a rather remarkable military effort, principally military effort, to recover some American citizens who were being held hostage in Syria.  That was a mission that was successfully executed, but it did not successfully result in the safe return of the hostages.

But this is a review that’s ongoing among the relevant agencies that are principally responsible for working on this issue.

Q    So if it’s a comprehensive review why would the paying of a ransom not be included in that?  And even if you’re not doing — on the question of the U.S. policy on that, are you looking at the policy of how family members who might want to pay ransom are treated, whether they’re possibly subject to prosecution?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice for how the law is specifically applied in those matters. The reason that we’re not reviewing the policy as it relates to not paying ransom is that our views on this are clear, and the President continues to believe, as previous Presidents have concluded, that it’s not in the best interests of American citizens to pay ransoms to any organization, let alone a terrorist organization, that is holding an American hostage.  And the reason for that is simple:  We don’t want to put other American citizens at even greater risk when they’re around the globe, and that knowing that terrorist organizations can extract a ransom from the United States if they take a hostage only puts American citizens at greater risk.

Q    And do you have a timeline for when this might be wrapped up?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have a sense of when this review would be concluded.  But when it has been, I’m sure we’ll let you know about it.

Q    The other question I had was about immigration.  Any sense of when the President would make his announcement?  There’s some talk on the Hill that it might be this week.

MR. EARNEST:  There is a lot of speculation both on the Hill and across town about this.  I don’t have any additional updates as it relates to timing.  I mentioned in a briefing that we conducted in Burma last week, of all places, that the President was nearing a final decision on the executive actions that he would take to fix our broken immigration system, but I don’t have an update beyond that.

Q    Thanks.

MR. EARNEST:  Steve.

Q    Josh, has he received the DHS recommendations on this?

MR. EARNEST:  Steve, as I mentioned — last week, we did talk about the fact that the President was nearing a final decision, and beyond that, I just don’t have an update.

Q    Any meetings today about this?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any meetings to tell you about.  The President was obviously pretty busy over the course of the Asia trip; did not have the opportunity to spend much, if any, time on this issue, but did plan to work on it when he got back. So I don’t know if there are any meetings that are on the books, but I know that’s something that — this is something that’s on his agenda this week.

Q    And what about this Republican strategy we’re hearing about that they would try to sort of cut off funding for various aspects of carrying out the order?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I know that there’s been some talk about this, but I haven’t seen any specific proposals.  Obviously this is not something that we would view very favorably.

Q    And are you hoping that by going ahead and acting that it will somehow spur the House into some legislative action in the near term?  Or what’s the strategy?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that possibility certainly does exist.  I’ve said this before that there is a trump card that Republicans hold right now, and that is the President has indicated that if the House of Representatives does pass the Senate bill that already passed in bipartisan fashion more than a year ago that the President would not actually follow through with his intent to use his executive authority to fix our broken immigration system.  The reason for that is simply that the legislation that’s already passed through the Senate would do more to fix the broken immigration system than the President is able to given the confines of the law.

So Republicans can certainly prevent the President from taking this executive action if they pass the Senate bill.  And I will say that if the President does take action sooner than that and House Republicans decide before the end of the year, before this Congress adjourns, that they do want to take up the Senate bill, the President has indicated that he would happily throw away any executive actions that he did enact in favor of bipartisan legislation that would have significant benefits for our economy in terms of economic growth and job creation, would reduce the deficit, would strengthen border security.

There are a whole range of things that are included in this common-sense, bipartisan Senate bill that would be good for the economy and good for the country.  I think that’s why we had 14 Republicans join with almost every Democrat in the Senate to support this legislation.  There’s a lot of common sense in there.  Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the House Republicans be persuaded by that common sense to actually take it up.

Michelle.

Q    Just to clarify what you said on — Steve asked if he’s received the recommendations.  You’re not saying whether this is in the review stage at this point, or whether he’s still waiting for the full recommendations?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right, I don’t have any update beyond what I said last week, which is that the President is nearing a final decision on this.

Q    Okay.  So why don’t you want to say whether he’s received those recommendations or not?  I’m just curious.

MR. EARNEST:  Only because I don’t want to be in a position of doing sort of the regular daily or even hourly play-by-play of all this.  The President has indicated that he’s going to act before the end of the year, and that timeline hasn’t changed.

Q    Okay.  And meantime, this rhetoric has been building out there, with now threats of everything from impeachment, lawsuits, and now shutting down the government.  Does the White House have a response to that kind of pretty fierce rhetoric at times?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s certainly not unprecedented rhetoric from Republicans, unfortunately, that even with a common-sense piece of legislation that has bipartisan support Republicans have been vociferously critical of that bill — for reasons that I’m not entirely clear on.

The question that the President has before him is a pretty simple one, which is, given that Congress, and in this case House Republicans, have refused to act on legislation that would be good for the economy, good for the deficit, good for border security, and given that the Speaker of the House convened a news conference shortly after the elections in which he refused to commit to even take up this legislation again, the question before the President of the United States is, is he going to use his authority to actually do something good for the country, that would be helpful when it comes to our border security in terms of strengthening our border security.  Is he going to take steps that would be good for the economy?

And the answer to that question is, yes, the President is determined to take the kinds of steps that are in the best interests of the country.  He would prefer for Congress to actually fulfill their responsibilities in this regard.  And that’s why the President has indicated that if Congress does pass this legislation the President is happy to have common-sense, comprehensive bipartisan legislation that supersedes his executive action.  But if they don’t, the President is not going to use that as an excuse to not act himself.

Q    The suspense is killing everyone.  (Laughter.)  But will the President veto the Keystone bill?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has been very clear about what our views are as it relates to the Keystone bill.  Consistent with past practice, the State Department has a method of reviewing these kinds of projects that span our international borders, and that means that the State Department can conduct a review that includes a wide range of considerations, including, at the President’s direction, the consideration about whether or not this particular project would substantially contribute to carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change.

So there is a process that’s underway that is currently going through its regular course.  This is complicated at least a little by ongoing court proceedings in the state of Nebraska as it relates to the route of the pipeline in Nebraska.

But there is a process underway, and the President is confident that that process will carefully evaluate the consequences of this specific proposal and that that’s the proper way for a decision like this to be made.

Q    So that’s a yes?

MR. EARNEST:  It is an answer to the President’s view that the State Department is the proper venue for reaching this determination.

Justin.

Q    I just wanted to go back to something you said first about the possibility that Republicans would attach something to a spending bill that would defund whatever the President’s executive actions on immigration were.  You said that’s not something that you would view very favorably.  Is that in the same way you’d not view the Keystone pipeline legislation favorably, on a scale of veto or not veto?  (Laughter.)  I’m just trying to understand what you mean by that.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s hard to render a particularly definitive judgment on those kinds of proposals because they haven’t been put forward yet.  But I think as a general matter as it relates to the immigration reform decision that rests on the President’s desk, that the President is confident that whatever action he will take will be within the confines of the law.  So he’ll be taking a lawful action that is not inconsistent with executive actions that previous Presidents, including Republican Presidents, have taken on this specific issue of immigration reform.

So I think that’s why, in our view, we would consider it to be unwarranted for Republicans in Congress to try to undo that executive action using the budget process.

Q    On the timing issue that’s come up a few times, will you concede that part of your calculation is kind of the political consideration of if you bring this out before a spending bill is brought up it would give Republicans an opportunity, through the budget process that has to happen by December 11th?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I mean, I guess the question you’re asking is, what about the legislative strategy, right, about whether the President should make this decision before Congress has acted on either a CR or an omnibus, with the thinking being that if the President waits until after they pass the CR or the omnibus that Republicans are less likely to attach some kind of rider that would defund any of the President’s actions.

I think the fact is you could probably argue this both ways. Republicans, as they should be, are well aware of the President’s intent to act before the end of the year.  And my sense is that even if the President doesn’t announce anything until late in December that will not prevent Republicans from preemptively trying to attach to the CR or an omnibus bill a proposal to make the implementation of that executive action harder.

So there are a variety of views on this topic, and while I guess I would concede, based on the long explanation I’ve given, that this is something that’s been discussed at the White House, that I’m not sure — that given you could argue it either way, I don’t think that this strategic decision that you’ve raised here will determine the outcome at all.

Q    Last one.  Do you expect the Keystone bill to pass today?

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not nearly as keen an observer of the legislative process as all of you.  I know that some supporters of the proposal say that they have the votes necessary to pass the bill.  But they’ll put the bill on the floor tonight, and I guess we’ll all find out.

Cheryl.

Q    I’m going to try.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  There will be a lot of that today.

Q    Senator McConnell has asked for a formal statement of administration policy to find out what the administration’s position is, whether he’d veto the bill or not, heading into that vote.  Do you plan on sending a statement of administration policy on the Keystone bill today?

MR. EARNEST:  I have not heard any discussion of doing that. But if our decision on that changes, we’ll make sure that all of you get it.

Laura.

Q    What’s the White House reaction regarding the attack in Israel today?  And does the President plan to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Laura, I don’t have any phone calls to preview for you here.  You’ve seen that the White House has put out a written statement from the President, and I believe he had the opportunity to address this senseless act of violence at the beginning of a meeting that he convened earlier today.

So we obviously are deeply concerned about the — specifically about this terrorist act.  We’re talking about attackers senselessly and brutally killing innocent worshipers at a synagogue.  Those who were killed include three American citizens.  The fact is there can be no justification for an attack like this against innocent civilians.  And the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with the victims and families of those who were killed and injured in this horrific attack, and in other recent violence.

At this sensitive moment in Jerusalem, it is all the more important for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens to work cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence, and seek a path forward toward peace.

Angela.

Q    There’s been a growing chorus of business leaders asking the White House to step in on the brewing West Coast port strike — right now a slowdown, but threatening a strike out there right as the holiday season approaches and shipping volume is high.  Is that something that the President is considering?  Is it being discussed at various levels?  Obviously President Bush did step in, in 2002, in a similar situation.

MR. EARNEST:  Angela, to be honest with you, I don’t know if there have been discussions about this at the White House.  There are none that I’m aware of, but we can certainly look into that for you.

Q    Is there a threshold at which the White House would intervene?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, presumably, that’s one of the things that would be discussed if discussions like that were ongoing.  And I just don’t know the answer to that.  We’ll have to look into that for you.

Jon.

Q    Going back to the immigration executive order that’s coming, does the President still stand by what he said last year when he said, “I am not the emperor of the United States.  My job is to execute laws that are passed.”  Is that still operative?

MR. EARNEST:  Absolutely.

Q    Not a king, either.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right.

Q    Because he was asked very specifically about the idea of expanding the deferred action executive order for the DREAMers to their parents.  And he said, September 17th of last year, to Telemundo, very clearly, “if we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that would make it very difficult to defend legally, so that is not an option.”  Is that still operative, when the President said specifically that expanding the DACA executive order is not an option because it would be ignoring the law.  Does he still believe that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, I don’t want to get ahead of any sort of announcements that the President may make before the end of the year about executive actions that he may take to fix our broken immigration system.  Since this interview aired, the President did direct the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a review of the law to determine what, if any, authority he could use to try to fix some of the problems that House Republicans have refused to address.

So this is something that has been under consideration for some time by the Attorney General of the United States and by the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Q    So just to be clear, so you’re saying that this is no longer operative because we’ve had a review.  So when the President said that expanding DACA to apply to the parents of the DREAMers, for instance, would be broadening and essentially ignoring the law in a way that would be difficult to defend legally, that it’s not an option — that that statement is no longer operative?

MR. EARNEST:  What I’m saying is we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate the actions that the President has chosen to take after he’s announced them.

Q    I’m not asking about the options.  I’m just saying, does the President still stand by what he said in that interview in September of last year?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jon, obviously there are some things —

Q    Sounds like a no.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it’s not.  Obviously there have been some things that have changed, right?  We have been in a situation where the President has ordered a broader, in-depth review of the existing law to determine what sort of executive authority does rest with the presidency to determine what kinds of steps he could take on his own.  The other thing that we’ve seen is we’ve seen House Republicans refuse to act even on common-sense legislation that would fix so many of the problems of our broken immigration system in a way that would strengthen border security, reduce the deficit, and be good for the economy.

Q    They had already refused to act at this point.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess it’s fair to say they’ve been refusing to act for quite some time.  At that point, it had only been a few months that they’d been refusing to act.  Now it’s been almost a year and a half.

Q    But why are you not using — to switch back to Keystone — why are you not using the word “veto”?  Why are you not saying — previously when this issue had come up, you said — you issued a statement of administration policy that the President’s advisor would recommend a veto.  It seems substantively what you’re saying is it hasn’t changed, but you’re not saying it again.  Is there a reason you’re leaving options open to not veto it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess — I don’t want to leave you that impression.  It certainly is a piece of legislation that the President doesn’t support because the President believes that this is something that should be determined through the State Department and the regular process that is in place to evaluate projects like this.

But again, I’m not in a position to issue veto threats from here, but as you rightly point out, there are similar pieces of legislation that have been introduced in this Congress where the President’s senior advisors have recommended a veto.

Q    Okay.  And just one other subject.  The videos of Jonathan Gruber have now become kind of — almost a hit series — I guess there’s like seven of them out now.  They’re talking about the stupidity of the American voter, of the ways that — the process of passing the health care law, the ways in which people were duped as to what was actually going on.  I’m wondering what your reaction to this — obviously he was a very important figure in the crafting of the health care law, so what is your view of what he’s had to say?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President, when he answered a question on this at the news conference in Brisbane over the weekend, was pretty clear about the fact that the sentiments that were expressed by Dr. Gruber are not sentiments that the President agrees with, and frankly, don’t actually reflect what actually happened in the process of passing and implementing this law.

The fact of the matter is I do think that people are understandably pretty tired of relitigating all the political fights from 2009 and 2010 as it relates to the Affordable Care Act.  And there are some Republicans, however, who do seek to sort of fan the flames of those old political arguments because they think it is politically advantageous for them to do so.

My suspicion is that they do so because it’s easier to talk about six and eight-year-old videos than it is to talk about how smoothly the opening of the second open enrollment period has gone so far, or to talk about the millions of people that have gotten health care as a result of the Affordable Care Act, or to talk about how the growth in health care costs is the lowest in recorded history, again, in the aftermath of the passing of the Affordable Care Act.

The Affordable Care Act guarantees a bunch of patient protections, including that people can’t be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition.  All that stuff is pretty inconvenient for people who oppose the law to talk about. So it’s easier for them to talk about these kinds of videos.  And they’re certainly welcome to do that.  I don’t think that there’s a particularly large audience of the American people that’s eager to have this discussion.

Q    But you would acknowledge he was an important figure in the crafting of this law.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the President acknowledged in the news conference that he did over the weekend when I believe Ed asked about this that Mr. Gruber was an advisor.

Q    Would he welcome more government contracts?  He’s made more than $2 million from the federal government, $400,000 specifically regarding the health care law, and of course, a lot more money from the states as well.  Is he now kind of persona non grata, no more government contracts for Jonathan Gruber?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I assume that those kinds of decisions are made on a — based on merit.  But certainly the comments that he has now famously expressed are not views that are shared by anybody at the White House.

Q    Can I follow that, Josh?

MR. EARNEST:  I’ll come right back to you, Wendell.

April.

Q    Josh, I have several subjects, different subjects.  I want to ask you first about something the President said about Ebola.  He said, we’re not out of the woods yet.  Is it an assumption that you’re hoping for the best, but expanding possibly another case scenario that you may have Ebola coming into this country, or that someone could contract it from someone with Ebola?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, April, I think the reason that the President said that we’re not out of the woods yet is that we continue to see Ebola cases being reported in West Africa and there is new concern about the nation of Mali, about the potential spread of the disease in that country.  We’ve been pretty candid about the fact that the risk of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States remains exceedingly low, but that that risk to the American people is not eliminated until this disease has been stopped in its tracks in West Africa.

And so that’s why you’re seeing the significant commitment of resources from the federal government to try to stop this outbreak in West Africa.  And that’s why the administration has asked Congress to pass some additional funding to increase readiness in this country to respond to Ebola patients if there should be others that materialize in this country, but also, and just as importantly, and in some ways even more importantly, to make sure that we’re mobilizing the necessary resources to stop this outbreak in West Africa.

Q    On my second subject, is this White House gearing up for a major fight come January?

MR. EARNEST:  About anything specific?  (Laughter.)

Q    January, both Houses are red, and this is a very blue White House.  Are you gearing up for a big fight?

MR. EARNEST:  I guess I don’t really understand the question.

Q    Okay.  Well, you’ve got a Congress that doesn’t like health care reform that this President put through.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s been true for four years, right?

Q    They are now in control and looking at doing things to change it.  Immigration reform — the President is talking about pushing immigration reform through now, and in January when they’re here they’re going to push back.  Are you concerned about a big fight?

MR. EARNEST:  April, I think the President has been pretty clear about what he believes he can do with the next Congress,  and that is specifically that we should be able to find some areas of common ground where we can make progress for the American people.  That said, we’re going to have plenty of disagreements over probably lots of things.  And I think the key here is to recognize that we don’t want to be in a position where we prevent those disagreements, some of them significant, from allowing us to identify some common ground and make progress for the American people using that common ground.

So whether it is tax reform, or even making it easier for American goods and services to be sold overseas, there may be an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together.  And we’d welcome those opportunities.

Q    Well, since you’re looking for common ground, Congresswoman Marsha Fudge said that you should have talked to Harry Reid to put on the schedule to have Ms. Lynch, Loretta Lynch, have a confirmation hearings before January because nothing will go through come January.  That’s what she said.  What do you say to people like that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, all I would say is that Ms. Lynch is an exceedingly highly qualified nominee.  She is somebody with a stellar legal track record and somebody who deserves prompt and bipartisan confirmation in the United States Senate.  We’ve seen some early indications from Republicans that they are going to give her a fair and prompt hearing.  We would expect nothing less.  And the President is confident that she’ll get the bipartisan confirmation that she deserves.

Q    And lastly, on Ferguson.  Has this administration or this President — does he know anything about the potentials of a verdict on this — or the possible indictment or not indictment on this officer who shot and killed Michael Brown?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think it’s been pretty broadly, widely reported that there are ongoing grand jury proceedings in Ferguson related to this specific case, but nobody at the White House has any special knowledge of those proceedings.

Q    Is there a concern then from this White House that the National Guard is getting called up and there’s a presence there to quell potential violence in that town if the verdict does come out that he is found not guilty?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President did have the opportunity to speak on the telephone with Governor Jay Nixon from the state of Missouri —

Q    When was this?

MR. EARNEST:  I believe it was November 7th.  We put out a readout of that call, so I can send that to you after the briefing.  The President spent some time talking about work that the Governor has been focused on in terms of ensuring that the community is — or that steps are taken to protect the community if necessary.  And that does include, in this case, the mobilization of some National Guard units.

The President has also been in touch with civil rights leaders over the last few weeks to talk to them about the important work that they’re doing in communities across the country to try to prevent any other violence associated with this particular circumstance.

That said, I think the President is pretty mindful of the advice from Mr. Brown’s parents, who urged people to pay tribute to their son’s memory by expressing their views peacefully.  The President is mindful of that and hopes other people will be, too.

Q    The verdict has not come out — or we don’t know if they’re nearing a decision or if they’re going to go up to the last day of the window.  Do you think it might be overkill right now to put the National Guard troops out until a verdict comes out?  Because right now they’re there and the people are just using their rights to speak out about what they feel.

MR. EARNEST:  Again, for any sort of tactical decisions about where and when to deploy National Guard personnel, I’d refer you to the Governor’s office.  Obviously they’re making those decisions.  The White House isn’t.

Wendell.

Q    Back on Jonathan Gruber.  In Brisbane, the President really downplayed his significance, I think, and you say that his views are not shared — his views about the voters are not shared at the White House.  But Steve Ratner of MSNBC, the President’s former car czar, says Gruber was “the man” on Obamacare when he was here.

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not sure the car czar would have a lot of insight into this.

Q    He was here.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes.  So was I.  (Laughter.)

Q    Okay.

MR. EARNEST:  So was the President.  And Mr. Gruber was an advisor, as the President himself said.

Q    He was the czar.

MR. EARNEST:  You mean he outranks me?  (Laughter.)  That could be.  That could be.

Q    Are you downplaying his significance in crafting the Affordable Care Act?

MR. EARNEST:  He obviously is somebody who knows his profession as it relates to being a health care economist very well.  He’s somebody who has offered advice to Democrats and Republicans as they’ve implemented health care policy.  Dr. Gruber was obviously involved with then-Governor Romney’s efforts to implement health care reform in the state of Massachusetts.  That principally is why he was involved with this effort because so many aspects of the Affordable Care Act borrowed from the successes of that law as well.

So he certainly is somebody who is well-versed in understanding how economics will have an impact on health care policy.  But I think it’s pretty evident from these videos that he doesn’t have nearly as much insight as it relates to politics or communications or legislative strategy.

Q    Republicans say his comments show a lack of transparency in selling the Affordable Care Act — for example, not calling a tax a tax.  And they say that they’re going to, based on that, challenge the President’s veracity in selling Obamacare.  How much of a political problem is Gruber now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think I would quibble with that critique for a couple of reasons.  When the Affordable Care Act was something that was debated over the course of 14 months, there were 79 bipartisan hearings that were convened in the House of Representatives.  There were about a hundred hours of hearings on health care reform in the House including from 181 witnesses from both sides of the aisle.  Over in the Senate, there were 53 additional hearings on this matter.

Q    I’ll stipulate that.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  So I guess — but the suggestion by some that this was something that had not been carefully worked through or was not transparent — I assume that all these hearings were open.  So I guess it’s why I just wanted to raise this because I do think it significantly undermines the charge that there wasn’t a lot of transparency as it relates to the debate around the health care law.  It was debated in — I’m just going to do the math here off the top of my head — 132 different congressional hearings.

Q    But when you’ve got one of the principal authors saying, look, you can’t call a tax a tax because politically it won’t go through, that’s a problem.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, it wasn’t his responsibility to figure out how to get this bill through.  We have people who were responsible for making those kinds of legislative decisions at the White House.  His expertise was focused on the economics of health care.  This was expertise that he lent to Governor Romney’s administration in Massachusetts as they worked on health care reform there.  And that was the role that he played here.

It also, I think, is why it’s pretty clear that the views that he’s articulated don’t reflect what actually happened when it comes to the passing or implementation of this law.

Chris.

Q    Let me ask you a few more questions about the review of the hostages and the policy here.  And I want to start with — I know that there’s been a lot of talk about how much people who actually do pay ransom, particularly European countries, whether directly or more likely through a third party or through a company actually do pay ransoms.  How concerning is that?  And where is the effort on putting pressure on governments not to pay ransoms?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve made the views of this country very clear.  And again, the reasons for that are that paying ransoms or making it clear to other organizations that we’re willing to pay ransoms only puts American citizens at greater risk.  And that’s something that obviously the President and his team are very focused on, is trying to protect American citizens.

The other thing that we know, based on our insight into the way that ISIL works is that they rely on these sort of ransom payments as a very important source of their financing.  So shutting off that source of financing is an important part of our strategy for defeating them.

So that’s why — and again, this isn’t a new policy.  This is actually a policy that predates this President.

Q    But is there any progress on putting pressure — on having any success in getting other countries, other organizations to back off on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve certainly impressed upon other countries and other organizations the wisdom of this view.  But ultimately, they’re going to make that decision for themselves.

Q    Also, at the time, James Foley’s parents were very critical of the relationship — we’ve talked about it here, you’ve talked about it from the podium.  Have there been any changes since that time in the way this administration deals with the families of people who are being held hostage, and is that also part of this review?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s part of the review.

Q    But no changes at this point?

MR. EARNEST:  Not that I’m aware of.  But again, once this review is completed, I’m sure we’ll have more that we can say about this.

Q    And just a quick question on immigration, because today — well, actually, on a number of occasions, the President has talked about that he’s tired of waiting, including at that post-press conference he suggested that.  You’ve also said here today that this isn’t going to make a difference in terms of the budget, that the Republicans will go ahead anyway, you think they’re going to do some sort of attachment.  And Harry Reid —

MR. EARNEST:  I think the point I was making is just I think you can argue it both ways.

Q    Yes.

MR. EARNEST:  So which is why a decision about that doesn’t necessarily determine the outcome.

Q    Well, Harry Reid said today, “I think it should be done now.”  Is there any real reason for the President to wait beyond this week?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think Justin floated sort of the reason that you might consider doing that.  I don’t have any updates in terms of the timing.  The President has been waiting a long time — more importantly, the American people have been waiting a long time — for congressional Republicans to stop blocking a common-sense proposal that would actually do a lot to solve so many aspects of our broken immigration system in a way that would be good for the economy, would be good for the deficit, and would strengthen our security at the border.

So there are some steps that the President can take using his own authority that he’s going to pursue to try to mitigate some of those concerns.  But the fact is the President is not going to be able to do as much as this legislation would do.  And that’s why, even after the President does take action before the end of this year, he’s going to continue to press Congress to take the kinds of steps that he believes are necessary.

The President pointed this out in the news conference that he did in Brisbane last week — or over the weekend, I guess — that it’s not just the President who believes that the common-sense, bipartisan proposal in the Senate would be good for the country.  The business community, the labor community, the evangelical community, even law enforcement believes that that legislation would be in the best interests of the country.

I think it makes it very difficult for Republicans to explain why they continue to block this proposal, because the other thing we know about this bill is that if House Republicans were just to allow it to come up for a vote that it would surely pass the House of Representatives also in bipartisan fashion.

So, again, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to evaluate whatever steps the President takes, and we can sort of at that point have a discussion about the wisdom of the actual timing that he chooses.  But at this point, I think the case is pretty clear for why the President should act, and eventually, sometime relatively soon, I think we’ll have the opportunity to have a discussion about what steps the President has actually taken.

Lesley.

Q    Thanks.  To go back to Keystone, the Times had a — mentioned in a story today that the President’s thinking was to veto now and go for some sort of a trade, maybe, after the State Department review comes out.  Can you speak a little bit to his  — is that his thinking, to wait on Keystone and use it for some sort of —

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that presupposes that it’s going to pass in the Senate.  So I think we’ll probably wait and see what happens in the Senate and see whether or not this comes to the President’s desk before we sort of make decisions about the next steps.

Q    But Congress is already thinking about the next steps.

MR. EARNEST:  I think that’s probably fair to say.

Q    Do you have —

MR. EARNEST:  I’m not at this point.  Maybe sometime soon as we advance further in the process.

Mr. Plante.

Q    What would be the advantage to waiting?  If the President is so determined to do this, why doesn’t he just do it this week?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, maybe he will.  Who knows?  (Laughter.)

Q    But you didn’t really answer Chris’s question.  Why would he wait?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, maybe he won’t.

Q    Who knows?

MR. EARNEST:  Who knows?

Q    What could the strategy —

Q    Could be.

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know — I’ll let you guys sort of weigh the pros and cons here.  When the President has made a decision, we will definitely let you — we’ll make sure you’re among the first to know.

Q    Right.  (Laughter.)

MR. EARNEST:  And we’ll have a chance to sort of walk through at that point what the President has decided, and why he decided to take the action he took, and at what timing.

Q    And perhaps you’ll also explain how he could walk back his comments that he made, which Jonathan referred to, in September of 2013, about the limits of his legal powers.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think what we’ll be confidently able to do is to explain to you what legal authority the President is using to take these actions.  That’s exactly right.

All right, J.C.

Q    Josh, in light of the deteriorating situation in Syria, especially the latest attacks by ISIL, has the President discussed this since Brisbane with U.S. allies?  And are they willing to put together some sort of concerted effort to deal with President Assad, who is actually giving them safe haven?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any additional phone calls to world leaders to read out at this point.  I don’t know of any calls the President has made.

Q    Was it discussed at G20?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it was.  There was an effort to talk about the threat that ISIL poses to the broader international order here.  And the President does remain very concerned about these reckless acts of violence that we see there.  And obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with the Kassig family today, who is mourning the loss of their son.

And the President has worked very hard to build a broader international coalition to take the fight to ISIL.  We’re very pleased with the kind of international cooperation that we’ve gotten in this endeavor, and it’s precisely because of the threat that ISIL poses to the broader international community if they can establish a safe haven inside of Syria.  And you’re right, it’s the failed leadership of the Assad regime that has created a power vacuum that has allowed extremist organizations like ISIL to try to gain a foothold and try to establish a safe haven in that area of the world.  And that’s why you’ve seen such a strong reaction from the United States and members of our international coalition to go after ISIL and to prevent that safe haven from being established.

Q    Has this raised Assad’s profile at all with this administration in terms of what needs to be done?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been saying for some time, J.C., that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead that country.  And that’s not based on a particularly unique conclusion that the United States has drawn.  That’s based on what I think is pretty clear evidence that the people of Syria don’t support him being in power.  And that’s not a coincidence.  This is somebody who has perpetrated terrible acts of violence using his nation’s military against the nation’s citizens.  There’s no place for world leaders like that, and that’s why this administration and this President believes that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead.

Peter.

Q    Josh, can we circle back a little bit to Jon’s question?

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.

Q    You said the circumstances have changed.  The President hadn’t waited as long then as he’s waited now for Republicans to act in the House and so forth.  And I can see why that might affect his policy choices or his strategic calculation.  I don’t see how that changes that law he is referring to in September of 2013.  So the question is Does he have a different view today of what the legal authority was?  Has he been educated?  Has he amended his view of what the law is, not what the calculation is in Congress?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me go back to the first part of your question first.  Then I’ll get to the second, which is — and I probably could have been clearer when I was answering Jon’s question on this, which is, it’s not just that the President and the country have been waiting a long time for House Republicans to act — we have.  But it’s also now Republicans have indicated that they’re not going to be able to pass — or not willing to bring that bill up for a vote in the House of Representatives, and not willing to commit to bringing it up in the next session of Congress.

So it’s no longer a situation where at that point, House Republicans were saying, well, this is something that we may get around to.  Now House Republicans are being pretty clear about the fact that they’re not ever going to get around to it.  And that’s what has caused the President — or prompted the President to consider some alternatives.  And this goes to the second part of your question.  And what the President has done since the interview is to ask for a detailed, in-depth, professional review of what kind of authority can be wielded by the President of the United States — any President — to address some of these problems that Congress is unwilling to confront.

And there’s a pretty well-established pattern of Presidents in both parties taking steps to reform the broken immigration system.  I had a list here before.  Even somebody like President George H.W. Bush took steps to expand the Family Fairness Program to cover more than 1.5 million unauthorized spouses and children. This represented 40 percent of the undocumented population of roughly 3.5 million undocumented immigrants in the country at that time.   So that’s just one example — President Reagan took a couple of steps — that were also significant in terms of using their executive authority to take actions related to our immigration system that would have a substantial impact on a large number of people.

Q    The question then is, did the President — President Obama — not know about those examples a year ago when he said he didn’t have that authority?  Has he been educated in a way that has changed the understanding of what that law is?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know whether or not he was aware of these specific examples.  What I can tell you is that the President has directed his team to conduct the review of the law, and what they have attempted to do is to try to determine what exactly can the President do within the confines of the law to try to address some of these problems.

Q    Would you agree that his comments from a year ago lend themselves to the critics who say he is expanding what his definition of the law really is, given that a year ago he seemed to suggest the opposite?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what the President and his team are focused on is trying to figure out what exactly the law says and what that means for the President’s ability to wield some authority here to try to solve problems, that ultimately is what this goes back to, is what capacity does the President have within the confines of the law to address some of these problems that Republicans in Congress just won’t address.

Q    He seemed pretty certain about what the law was when he was talking with immigration activists in the interview.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in a lot of these interviews that the President has done, the President was repeatedly challenged to end all deportations.  And that is what most often prompted the President to say that “I’m not a king.  I’m not an emperor.  I do have to enforce these laws.”  The question is to what extent, using his authority, can he have an impact on those laws?  And the fact is it’s not within his authority to end all deportations.

Q    Well, those weren’t the only times he was saying that, though.  He was also asked very specifically, can you expand —

MR. EARNEST:  I know.  I know.  I know.

Q    — which is now what he’s talking about doing.

MR. EARNEST:  Right.  But you made a reference to a large number of cases in which the President has said I’m not an emperor, I’m not a king, and I can’t change the law.  In the vast majority of situations, the President was talking — was responding to those who suggested that he could stop all deportations.  And that’s the context in which the President most often delivered this answer.

Q    Not always.

MR. EARNEST:  No, not always.

Q    So I asked about the ones he —

MR. EARNEST:  And that’s what Jon pointed out, is that there were other situations in which he was asked specifically about the deferred action program.  In this case, the President has ordered a review to determine what exactly is contained within the law that would allow him to take some steps that would address some of the problems that exist.

Q    Last question.  Is it fair to say that he ordered this review because he was no longer certain that his statements in the past were correct?

MR. EARNEST:  I think he ordered this review because he wanted to basically find out what authority he did have and to ensure that we were sort of leaving no stone unturned in examining what sort of authority the President of the United States could wield to try to address some of these problems that Congress has been unwilling to confront.

Q    Josh, can I just follow up?

MR. EARNEST:  Okay, go ahead.

Q    In the past, the President seemed to be explaining, as you say, to those people who were calling for him to take these actions that he’s not a king, that he’s not an emperor.  Is the President at all concerned about the message that it does send, particularly to young people who are calling for him to take these steps, that, in fact, he does have some powers that the general understanding is that he doesn’t have?  Is there concern about the message it sends even overseas?

MR. EARNEST:  No, because I remain confident, and the President remains confident, that whatever he announces will be entirely consistent with what the law is.

Q    What about the response from the Hill, though — I mean, the Republicans here in Congress who are suggesting that the President is acting unlawfully?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, once the President has made a decision and it’s a decision that’s been announced, we’ll all — Republicans and Democrats and even some reporters — all have the opportunity to evaluate whether or not those actions are consistent with the law.  I’m confident we’ll have a very strong case to make about how those actions are consistent with the law, as currently described.  But I don’t know if Republicans will find that entirely convincing.  Given their pretty staunch opposition to immigration reform in general, I’m confident they’ll look for any excuse they can come up with to try to explain why they’re against these actions.

I think we’ll have a strong case to make that what the President has done will be good for the economy, will be good for the country, will be good for border security.  But what we also know is that it won’t be as substantial as what Congress could do if House Republicans stopped blocking a common-sense piece of legislation that passed through the Senate and allowed it to come up for a vote in the House.

Q    Thanks, Josh.

Q    Follow on that?

MR. EARNEST:  Go ahead, Kathleen.

Q    As part of explaining the legal justification, will the White House release the AG’s legal opinion on this later then?

MR. EARNEST:  We will have some material that we can release to you related to the legal foundation of some of these decisions, but we’ll get to that when we have some announcements to make.

Jared, I’ll give you the last one.

Q    Josh, a week and a half ago, before the trip, you came out and, in an answer to Darlene’s question, you said that you didn’t have an answer, the President didn’t have a decision on Loretta Lynch.  Like six hours later, a statement — a paper statement under your name came out.  Did you know when you were answering the Associated Press’s question that you were going to be issuing that statement later in the day?

MR. EARNEST:  I did not because a decision hadn’t been made. But given the extensive reports that had sort of pushed this issue, a decision was sort of forced.  And in reaction to that, a decision was made.

Q    So it was reporting and not any other consideration about legislation or anything else that forced the hand of the White House at that point?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct.

All right, thanks, guys.  Have a good afternoon.

END
1:50 P.M. EST

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