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Press Briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/26/15

The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

February 26, 2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:55 P.M. EST

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I apologize for the delayed start to today’s briefing.  Let’s go right to your questions. 

Nancy, do you want to get us started?  Nice to see you today. 

Q    Josh, with time running out on the DHS deadline, is it time for the President to get more directly involved?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nancy, right now it seems to be an agreement — a disagreement, actually — principally between the Republican leader of the House and the Republican leader of the United States Senate.  And again, Republicans made an aggressive case over the course of last year about why the American people should entrust the United States Congress to Republican leadership.  And here we are, seven or eight weeks into their tenure, and they’re on the precipice of falling down on the job. Particularly when — and that’s notable when we’re talking about something as important as funding the Department of Homeland Security. 

So the President remains engaged.  The President is ready to take phone calls as necessary.  But right now, this is not a partisan dispute; this is a party dispute among leaders in the Republican Party.  Unfortunately, the people who stand to lose the most from it are the American people. 

Q    Does the President — is he willing to accept a CR if this doesn’t get resolved?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, right now there’s no reason that this shouldn’t get resolved.  What’s being considered by the United States Senate is a piece of legislation that would fund the Department of Homeland Security through the remainder of this fiscal year.  It would not include any ideological or politically motivated riders, but it would reflect the bipartisan compromise about appropriate funding levels for that agency. 

I’m routinely loathe to make predictions about what’s going to happen when it comes to Congress.  But right now, I think everybody expects that that piece of legislation, once it actually comes up for a vote, will get bipartisan support.  And so the question then will be whether or not the Speaker of the House is going to put it on the floor.  Because, again, we know that if that piece of legislation that passes the Senate with bipartisan support is put on the floor of the House of Representatives, it would also pass with bipartisan support. 

So the question right now is a question for senators in both parties as they consider that piece of legislation.  I think we have an expectation about what that outcome is going to be.  Then the question I think will rest with the Speaker of the House.  And if it’s necessary for the President to speak to him directly about how important it is to fund the Department of Homeland Security, he’ll have that conversation.  But I would anticipate that the Speaker of the House understands the stakes of this action.  And we’re hopeful that he will take the responsible course and allow that bipartisan bill that would fund the agency for the remainder of this year, to come up for a vote and pass the House of Representatives.

Q    And then I just have one question on Israel.  Is the decision to send Susan Rice and Samantha Power to AIPAC this weekend, is that sort of an effort to kind of dial down the rhetoric that’s just been getting hotter and hotter on both sides?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Nancy, I think the participation of Ambassador Power and National Security Advisor Rice is consistent with the kind of administration participation you’ve seen in previous AIPAC conferences.  The President’s spoke a couple of times over the course of his tenure in the White House.  I know the Vice President has spoken over there at least once during that conference.  But it’s not at all uncommon for senior administration officials to also speak at that conference, and that’s what will happen this year.

And certainly if it’s perceived by some as an effort to demonstrate bipartisan support for the relationship between the United States and Israel, then that would be great.  That would be a great conclusion.  That certainly is the kind of investment that has characterized this administration’s management of that relationship. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way that everyone has participated in this dispute over the last several weeks.  And we are hopeful that we can get back to a place where the national security of the United States, most importantly, but also the national security of Israel, can be enhanced by ensuring that our relationship is not subjected to partisan turbulence. 

Jeff. 

Q    Josh, what role did the U.S. play in the un-masking of so-called Jihadi John?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I have seen those reports over the course of today and I know that there are some media outlets that are reporting that this suspect has been identified.  What I can tell you is that the United States government continues to aggressively investigate the individuals who are responsible for the murder of American citizens.  And at this point, I’m not in a position to either confirm or deny that the individual named in these reports is the individual that we’re searching for.  But I can tell you that the United States’ commitment and the President’s commitment to ensuring that we find and hold accountable the terrorists who are responsible for the murders of American citizens has never been stronger.

And we will continue to work closely with our partners around the globe, including the British government, to ensure that these terrorists are brought to justice.

Q    Can you describe that relationship with the British government in terms of finding this particular individual, which side was more active or more successful?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I can just say as a general matter, Jeff, that, as you know, there is a special relationship that exists between the United States and the United Kingdom that characterizes our conversations on a wide variety of areas, but it certainly applies to the area of national security.  And there are extensive law enforcement and intelligence resources that have been shared between our two countries as we search for the individuals who are responsible for the murder of both U.S. citizens and some British citizens as well.

So this is something that we continue to be focused on and it continues to be a priority.

Q    And on one other national security issue — Secretary Kerry said on Saturday that the President will be making decisions in the next few days about Ukraine and other steps with regard to sanctions or defensive arms.  Can you give us an update on his thinking and when you expect a decision to be made?

MR. EARNEST:  Jeff, I don’t have a specific update in terms of the President’s thinking.  Obviously over the last several weeks, we have seen negotiators from France and Germany and Ukraine and Russia convene to try to find a diplomatic resolution to the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.  We have expressed concern about the tendency of the Russians to pretty flagrantly violate the terms of an agreement that they had just signed.  That does put the Russians at greater risk of isolation and of additional costs being imposed upon them by the international community

I can tell you that the President’s National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, is convening a meeting today with her counterparts in Italy, France, the UK, and Germany to discuss this issue further.  All of these countries have both observed the continued Russian escalation of the situation.  They also have been an important part of coordinating the effort to impose costs on Russia.  So these kinds of discussions between the United States and our counterparts are timely.  And I would anticipate we’ll have at least some kind of readout of that meeting later today.

Q    Should we anticipate that that meeting is a next step in another set of sanctions against Russia?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think you should just — let me say it this way.  It is not uncommon for the United States and members of the President’s national security team to be in regular touch with our close allies, including the four that I just named here. It is notable that we’re convening sort of a group meeting, if you will.  But I don’t have any advance readout of decisions that may or may not be made in the context of that meeting.

Olivier.

Q    Josh, a couple for you.  One is, will Susan Rice and Samantha Power have a specific way to rebut Prime Minister Netanyahu’s arguments against an Iran nuclear deal?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have a specific preview of their remarks.  I’m not sure of the status of Ambassador Power’s remarks, but I know that Dr. Rice’s remarks are still being written at this point.  But I can tell you that, as previous administration officials have done at previous AIPAC conferences, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate once again the commitment of this administration and of this country to close security cooperation with Israel. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has observed that the security cooperation between the Netanyahu administration and the Obama administration is unprecedented.  He meant that as a compliment, in a positive way.  And I would expect that that’s something you would hear Ambassador Power and Dr. Rice reiterate in the context of their remarks. 

I also would anticipate that you would hear them talk at least a little bit about why the administration believes that it serves the national security interests of the United States and of Israel to try to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically.  But for a more detailed preview, that may be something that we can provide at a later date.

Q    And then, on an unrelated note, Senator Menendez has written a letter to the administration, asking — or insisting, rather, that before you take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, if you do, that the administration address the fate of a number of fugitives from U.S. justice.  And I’m wondering whether, as a matter of principle, the President believes that, in fact, those fugitives should be turned back over to the United States in the context of these negotiations.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Olivier, I’ve heard about the letter; I haven’t read the details of it.  I can tell you that when the President announced at the end of last year that he was prepared to move toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it was part of an effort to change our strategy in terms of the way the United States has pressured the Cuban government to protect and advance the basic human rights of their citizens.  And part of that process was reviewing Cuba’s status on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. 

But essentially, these are two separate processes.  There is a process between Diplomats of the United States and Cuba, where they’re talking about normalizing relations between our two countries and reestablishing diplomatic ties.  This review process about Cuba’s status on the state sponsor of terror list is a separate process, but it’s one that’s being driven by the State Department and it’s one that’s ongoing.

I would draw a bit of a distinction between terrorists and those who supports terrorism around the globe and people who are wanted by the United States of America.  They aren’t always the same. 

Cheryl.

Q    Thanks.  One of the administration’s priorities this year has been passage of trade promotion authority.  But I’m wondering — and I know that some of the Cabinet secretaries have been out talking about it — can you say how close you are to getting the votes to passage of that in Congress.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as I mentioned at the top, I am always loathe to make predictions about the speed and efficiency of the United States Congress.  It’s not uncommon for them to not meet those expectations.  But I can tell you that this is a process that the administration remains committed to, and it’s a process that we remain committed to advancing in bipartisan fashion.  We know that this is a top priority of many Republicans in the United States Congress. 

There are some Democrats who believe that this is a worthy endeavor, and certainly those Democrats take heart in knowing that the President is committed to agreements that strengthen the standing and expand the opportunity of middle-class families in the United States.

So the President has pretty high standards when it comes to considering agreements like this.  There is no doubt, however, that rising U.S. exports have contributed significantly to our country’s economic strength; that throughout the economic recovery, since the worst downturn since the Great Depression, increasing exports have contributed to nearly one-third of our overall economic growth.  We’ve also seen that exports have increased by roughly 50 percent since 2009, and between 2009 and 2013, exports have supported an additional 1.6 million U.S. jobs.
So there are a variety of metrics that indicate how good trade agreements that open up opportunities in overseas markets for American goods and services is good for the U.S. economy. 

That’s the reason that the President would be pursuing an agreement along these lines.  And we’re going to need to work with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to try to make some progress on that.  The good news is that I know that there are some Republicans who agree with the President when he says that.
So we’re going to try to capitalize on that possible area of common ground in an attempt to work with Democrats and Republicans to try to advance this through the Congress.

Bill.

Q    Even though you won’t say whether — you won’t address the name of the so-called “Jihadi John,” does the U.S. government know the name?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if you will recall, Bill, I guess it was the end of last year, I believe, that the FBI Director, Jim Comey, had indicated that investigators had zeroed in on an individual, based on the careful coordination and investigative work that has been conducted alongside our British allies.  But whether or not the person that’s named in those news reports is the person in question is something that I can neither confirm, nor deny.

Q    In terms of the bigger question, though, there are thousands of people who have reportedly left the Western world, and hundreds certainly from the United States, to fight in service of ISIS.  How is it possible to keep track of these people?  Do you have resources to even do that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, there’s no doubt that the challenge that you’re raising is a significant one and one that the President and other world leaders have identified as a risk.  Now, I believe that the latest assessment as it relates to U.S. citizens is about 100 or 150 individuals who have either traveled or attempted to travel to that region of the world to lend support to ISIL.  But the numbers, when you consider people across the globe, we’re talking about people who have traveled from more than 90 countries and upwards of 20,000 people.  So this is a significant challenge, and it’s a challenge to which we have devoted significant resources. 

There is an effort — I guess the best illustration of this is, as you’ll recall, the President convened the U.N. Security Council last fall — only the second time a U.S. President has ever done that — to talk about this precise issue, about what the international community can do to improve our coordination as we fight and mitigate the threat that is posed by foreign fighters. 

And we’re using significant law enforcement resources — INTERPOL, obviously significant intelligence resources are dedicated to this; there are important homeland security resources that are involved.  But this is a risk and a challenge, and one that we are working very hard to mitigate.

Q    Can the U.S. follow each of the people, those who have left these shores? 

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’d refer you to our national security experts in terms of how exactly we mitigate this threat.  There are a variety of ways that we do exactly that.  And one of those ways is to do our best to monitor the movements of individuals that may have traveled to the region and may be seeking to use their Western passport to travel back.  We’re cognizant of that.

The other thing that we are also aware of is trying to prevent people from going in the first place.  And that was part of what we talked about at the Countering Violent Extremism Summit here at the White House last week.  But this is part of an ongoing effort to try to prevent people from even going in the first place, and there are significant DHS resources that we can use to do that.

Q    But the basic question is, can you monitor them all?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, obviously, we’re talking about 20,000 people, and there are a variety of ways that we can counter and mitigate the threat that they pose to the United States and the West, and we’re working very aggressively to do that.

Jim.

Q    Josh, does the naming of Jihadi John help or hurt the effort to capture or kill him?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, that may be a question that’s better posed to our law enforcement and national security officials who are responsible for bringing that individual to justice.  And we are focused on making sure that the terrorists who are responsible for the killing of these innocent Americans are brought to justice. 

But as it relates, again, to these specific reports, I can neither confirm nor deny their accuracy.

Q    But the United States, does it have a position on whether or not he should be named?  Does it help in finding him or hurt in finding him?  Can you answer that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I have not seen a specific request necessarily from this government and I don’t believe there’s been one from the British government — well, let me say it this way. I do think that you can infer from the fact that neither the U.S. government, nor the British government is confirming the identity of this individual or the accuracy of these reports is an indication that the investigation is one that we are pursuing rather aggressively.  And over the last several months, at least, our investigators have found it to their advantage to not talk publicly about the details or progress of that investigation.

But again, as it relates to these reports and their veracity, I can’t confirm or deny them.

Q    On another subject then, Cuba.  The second round of negotiations begins tomorrow here in Washington, D.C.  What do you expect to be accomplished?  Will there be deliverables?  Will, in fact, embassies be reopened soon?

MR. EARNEST:  Jim, it’s correct that tomorrow, Friday, February 27th, the United States will host a delegation from the Cuban government to discuss reestablishing diplomatic relations. The delegation for the United States will be led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson.  The Cuban delegation will be led by Josefina Vidal, who’s the Director-General of the U.S. Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  These talks continue the dialogue that was initiated by the parties on January 22nd in Havana.  These talks also represent a key step in implementing the new direction

During the talks in Havana, the parties identified a set of issues that need to be addressed as we reestablish diplomatic relations between our countries.  We discussed, among other things, the opening of embassies in our respective countries, and stated our expectation that the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington will operate the way diplomatic missions do throughout the world.  And we look forward to building upon our previous conversations and beginning ways to address these issues that we have identified.

Q    Do you expect that they’ll be successful this week?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, certainly these kinds of diplomatic exchanges represent an effort to try to propel our relationship forward.  And again, the President was very clear that it does reflect a new strategy that we’re pursuing.  The previous strategy, one that had been pursued for more than 50 years, was to try to isolate Cuba and to try to use that isolation as pressure on them to change the way they treat their citizens.  For 50 years, that strategy was implemented with very little to show for it.  And the President believes it’s time to try a new strategy where we more thoroughly engage the government, and more thoroughly engage the people to give them more voice and to give the Cuban people the opportunity to have more say in the direction of their country and in the leadership of their country.

Q    And, finally, in an interview with Governor Abbott of Texas, he said that it’s not his responsibility — even though his lawsuit, in fact, stopped at least temporarily the President’s executive actions — it’s not his responsibility to figure out what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrations who are in this country; that it’s the President’s to work with Congress.  Does the President have any new initiatives that he’s going to present to Congress on how to least deal with the 11 million who are here while this court ruling stands?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, a number of things come to mind — I didn’t see the specific interview that you’re referencing.  The first thing that comes to mind is I think that everybody understands that it is unrealistic to suggest that the United States  will devote the resources to deporting all 11 million people who are here.  It’s unrealistic.  It would be cost-prohibitive.  And the President talked a little bit in the town hall meeting yesterday about the negative economic consequences that would have for the country.

What the President has cited is that we should actually bring some accountability to our immigration system.  And one way we can do that is to offer some relief to those individuals that have family members in this country and that have been in this country for a number of years.  And by doing so, we can bring them out of the shadows; we can submit them to background checks; we can weed out those individuals who may pose a threat to public safety; and then we can also ensure that those individuals are paying taxes.

And according to a lot of independent analysis, that would have very positive economic benefits for the country.  And we’ve seen that a number of law enforcement officials, including some local law enforcement officials in Texas, have said that it would make their communities safer.

Q    I understand your position.  Is the President going to Congress now, again, with a new plan, saying let’s deal with this?  Or is he just going to sit back and wait and see whether or not they adopt Senate did a year ago?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President is certainly interested in seeing Congress move forward on compromise, common-sense immigration reform legislation.  The United States Senate did do that in 2013, and we certainly would be supportive of the Congress picking up where they left off, seeing the Senate pass that legislation and finally have it be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives.  But the fact is that was something that was blocked by congressional Republicans for a year and a half.  And there’s been no indication that they’re prepared to change their position, at least yet. 

But if there are additional conversations that members of Congress want to have with the President about trying to pass immigration reform legislation, the President would be happy to have those conversations.  In fact, I’m confident that the President would be happy to host those conversations.  But we haven’t seen a lot of interest in this from Republicans on Capitol Hill.  And the fact is that means that means that they are continuing to advance a system that is the closest thing that we have to amnesty; that right now, because of their failure to act, and because they’re aided and abetted by people like Governor Abbott, we have 11 million people running around this country without being held accountable for it. 

And the President has proposed a common-sense way that’s well within his executive authority to bring some accountability to the system.  To make these individuals who’ve been here for some time submit to a background check, pay their taxes.  It also has the benefit of ensuring that some of these individuals who have been in this country for a substantial period of time and are making a tangible contribution to these communities no longer have to live in fear of one day being separated from their family. 

So the President has been put forward a common-sense solution both in legislative form; he has also taken steps to try to address this problem and bring some accountability to the system using his executive authority.  And, frankly, it is irresponsible for Republicans to not act on this.

Okay, Ed.

Q    Josh, are there are any regrets here on the Clinton Foundation story that the ethics deal that White House aides, administration officials negotiated with Secretary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation failed to prevent the Algerian government from contributing half a million dollars to the Clinton Foundation the very time that they were lobbying this White House, the State Department?  Wasn’t this what the President was trying to prevent?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Ed, let’s go back to 2008.  At the end of 2008, there was a memorandum of understanding that was drafted between the then-transition team and the Clinton Foundation, and the goal of that memorandum was to ensure that the excellent work that is being done at the Clinton Foundation could continue. 

This is work that involves providing HIV and AIDS medicine to children in Africa.  It involves trying to meet the needs of people who are in extreme poverty.  Later it involved trying to bring relief to the citizens of Haiti who had been struck by a terrible earthquake — that they were doing very important work, and we wanted to make sure that that work could continue without interfering with the responsibility of Secretary Clinton to represent the United States government in an official capacity.

And that memorandum of understanding went beyond the baseline ethical guidelines.  It put in place some additional requirements to ensure that we could — that the Clinton Foundation could continue its work, and that the Secretary of State could do her work without even the appearance of a conflict of interest.  And we are —

Q    But it failed then, because then a half million dollars came in from a government that was accused of human rights abuses and was lobbying this administration for relief.  How do you explain then, given these wonderful ethics rules that this mistake was made?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, for compliance with the memorandum of understanding, I’d refer you to the State Department.  They’re ultimately responsible for executing the agreement.  And obviously there was some responsibility at the Clinton Foundation to live up to it.

Q    — the White House’s reputation on the line.  This was a negotiation between, as I recall, very senior people like Valerie Jarrett.  This is not just the State Department, not just a foundation.  Does the President have any concerns?  You laid out all the wonderful work the foundation does.  No dispute there.  But what about the appearance of impropriety, these foreign governments trying to get access and wield influence in this President’s administration?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, it is the responsibility of the Department of State to determine how compliance was enforced when it comes to the memorandum of understanding.

Q    Or not, right?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, it’s their responsibility to monitor the agreement.  And so I’d refer you to them for questions about this.  But I can tell you that the President is obviously very pleased with the way that Secretary Clinton represented the United States around the globe during her tenure over in Foggy Bottom.

Q    Is the President disappointed at all that this money came in despite the ethics rules?

MR. EARNEST:  The President thinks very highly of the work that Secretary Clinton did while she was in office.

Q    Okay.  I want to ask you about ISIS and Secretary Kerry.  Yesterday, he testified on Capitol Hill and said, “Despite ISIL, despite the visible killings that you see and how horrific they are, we are actually living in a period of less daily threat to Americans and to people in the world than normally.  Less deaths.  Less violent deaths.”  When you have, tragically, American families have seen their family members beheaded by ISIS, we see these images every day — how could Secretary Kerry make the claim to the American people, to the world that we’re safer than we were before?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think he could do so with the evidence on his side.  What he was able to demonstrate, and I think what he was discussing, is the success that our military campaign has had in applying significant pressure to the ISIS leadership; that there are thousands of strikes that have been conducted by the United States and our coalition partners to take out ISIL targets, in some cases, even ISIL leadership targets.  Supply lines have been destroyed, fighting positions have been destroyed.  And what this has done is it has prevented ISIL from being able to operate comfortably in Iraq and in Syria.

We have been concerned from the very beginning that ISIL would attempt to use all of the instability and chaos in Syria to try to establish a safe haven that they could then use to launch targets in other locations in the world, and because of the pressure that we have applied, because of the strategy that we have pursued to have fighters on the ground to take the fight to ISIL, and to back them up with military and coalition airstrikes, that pressure has been applied and that has reduced the ability of ISIL to expand their reign of terror.

That said, ISIL continues to be very dangerous, and there have been tragic incidents of violence in which Americans have been killed —

Q    You just said this is preventing ISIL from expanding their reign of terror? 

MR. EARNEST:  That’s correct, Ed, that we have been concerned that ISIL would try to establish Syria as a safe haven where they could then use that area to plan and execute terror attacks all around the globe. 

Q    Would you disagree with James Clapper, the President’s Director of National Intelligence?  Because he gave very direct testimony today, among other things, said that 2014 is shaping up to be the most terror attacks and deaths than the previous 45 years that this data has been collected, and said that in 55 years of his personal involvement in intelligence, he’s never seen a bigger threat to the world right now.  How does that square with everything you just said?  He’s the President’s Director of National Intelligence.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s right, and he is somebody who is reviewing this intelligence on a daily basis.  What we’re talking about here is their capacity.  Their capacity has been limited because of our efforts in Iraq and in Syria, because of our efforts to shut down their financing, because of our efforts to use military airpower to take out ISIL targets, because of our efforts to arm and equip fighters on the ground to take the fight to them.

We are seeing the ISIL leadership is not operating comfortably in that area of the world, and they’re under extensive and extreme pressure.  That does not mean that the threat that they pose has been eliminated.  There is significant work that remains to be done.  And it’s important for us to be vigilant.  It’s why we’re going to continue to pursue this multifaceted strategy to shut down their financing, to try to shut down the flow of foreign fighters, to try to counter their messaging that radicalizes people around the globe.

And we’re going to continue to train and equip even more fighters to take the fight to them on the ground.  And we’re going to continue this airstrike campaign against them.  And that has allowed us to make progress against them.  But the effort to degrade and ultimately destroy them is one that’s going to continue.

Q    And last one.  Last summer you said that a lot of the President’s efforts have brought tranquility to the world.  Do you stand by that?

MR. EARNEST:  I stand by the fact that what the President has done on numerous occasions — has used American influence, American diplomacy, and American military power to try to make the world a safer place for the American people.  And there is no doubt that we face significant threats from terrorist organizations and others around the globe.  The world is a dangerous place.  But there is no doubt that the President is using his authority as the Commander-in-Chief to protect the American people and to make it a safer place for the American people.

Alexis.

Q    Two quick questions.  Can you indicate what the President’s reaction to the FCC ruling on net neutrality is and whether he looks forward to the government defending the FCC’s ruling in court?

MR. EARNEST:  Alexis, I have not — when I walked up here they had not yet taken the final vote on this net neutrality provision.  This is an independent process, so what I will say is I know they’re planning to vote on it later today.  Once they take a vote on that measure, we’ll evaluate exactly what it is they voted on —

Q    They did.

MR. EARNEST:  They did?  Okay.  So our policy team will be taking a look exactly what it is that they approved. 

Early indications were that it was going to be in line and consistent with the position that the President had articulated last November.  But we’ll take a look at that, and once our policy folks have had an opportunity to review the policy that they’ve approved, we’ll have a reaction from the President for you.

Q    The second question relates to Ukraine.  I wanted to go back to the question of costs that are on the table.  Is the President supportive of talking to allies about the potential of coordinating jettisoning Russia from SWIFT?  Do you know what SWIFT is?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t.

Q    Okay.  SWIFT is like the ATM, it’s like the ability in which the banking money moves so that Russia can tap into —

MR. EARNEST:  I see.

Q    And that is one cost that’s been talked about potentially. 

MR. EARNEST:  I see.  Well, I can tell you that I’m sure my colleagues at the Treasury Department know a whole lot more about this than I obviously do, so I’d refer you to them in terms of getting a better sense about what sort of options they’re considering.

We have in the past been reluctant to talk about the options that we’re considering because we wouldn’t want to essentially announce the steps that we are preparing to take because it would only allow individuals who would be the targets of those steps to take actions that would move their money around or shield them from the steps that we’re trying to take. 

But for better insight into the policy dilemma, or at least the policy decision that needs to be made on this, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department. 

April.

Q    Josh, I want to ask you a couple questions.  With everything that’s going on with immigration on the Hill, yesterday the head of Homeland Security was on the Hill.  Could you give us some information about his conversations?  Did he have a conversation with the President following his Hill visit, and what that Hill visit entailed?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t believe that the DHS Secretary had an opportunity to speak to the President.  The President was on the road for most of the day yesterday, and I don’t believe that the two of them connected on the phone. 

And I’m not aware of all of the meetings that the Secretary had.  I know that for weeks now, he has been meeting with both Democrats and Republicans.  But he’s spending most of his time trying to urge Republicans to do the responsible thing and ensure that his agency that’s responsible for protecting the homeland of the United States of America is properly and fully funded through the end of the year, at least until the end of the fiscal year.

The other irony that struck me about this is that the thing that we’re not debating right now are what the funding levels should be, that the hard work — the difficult part of this, of making policy decisions about what the appropriate funding levels are and which elements of the Department of Homeland Security need what level of resources, that all of that work has been done.  And right now it’s just a matter of whether or not we’re going to implement a compromise that just about everybody has agreed to. 

That’s what I think is such a disappointing fact about this situation, is that the hard work of making policy decisions about the proper funding levels for the Department of Homeland Security has been done and agreed to across party lines.  Right now, it’s just the responsibility of Republican leaders in Congress to move that bipartisan agreement across the finish line.  And their failure to do so would have negative consequences for the country. 

Q    So can you detail and go into specifics about the negative consequences for the country?  I mean, we hear certain things about how it would affect — just broad brushed strokes — how it would affect anti-terrorism efforts, and how it would effect this place as well, and the furloughs, the possible furloughs of tens of thousands.  Could you go into a little bit more detail about the negative effects?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I’m sure that the Department of Homeland Security can get you some more detailed information about this, but I think generally speaking, I think the most obvious consequence is that we would have more than 100,000 DHS personnel that are on the frontlines of keeping the country safe, they would be responsible for showing up to work on Monday without knowing they’re going to get a paycheck for it.  And knowing the professionalism of these men and women, I’m confident that they’re going to show up and do a good job.   But it certainly isn’t fair.  And it certainly doesn’t give them the kind of support that they deserve, for leaders in Congress to not give them a paycheck because of a political dispute with the President of the United States who happens to be in a different party. 

Failing to do that would be a failure of Republican leadership.  And hopefully we’re not going to reach that eventuality.  The other consequences are we would see tens of thousands of other DHS employees be furloughed, so they wouldn’t show up to work.  That can’t be good for our Homeland Security.  There’s a bunch of other processes that would be stopped or at least slowed down, particularly as they relate to processing emergency assistance to states that need it. 

So there is important work that is at risk here, and hopefully we’ll see Republicans and Republican leaders come to their senses and do the right thing for the country and move across the finish line a bipartisan agreement to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the year. 

Q    And the next subject — today is February 26th, the three-year anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin.  There was an outgrowth of the death of Trayvon Martin here at the White House with a “My Brother’s Keeper” event.  Three years later, what is the President thinking?  What has he learned?  What does he want to do moving forward?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the most important lesson for the President out of this is that there are a lot of important things that the President of the United States can do without passing a piece of legislation.  There is no bill that created the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, but by mobilizing local elected officials and leaders in the private sector to try to address this urgent need in communities across the country, there’s an opportunity to make a real difference. 

And the President is pleased that after three years, that substantial progress has been made on the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.  But there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done.  And I do think that this will be an important legacy of — the historians who evaluate the presidency of Barack Obama will take a careful look at.

Q    So you’re saying that this is a heart issue?  To a certain extent that it’s trumped — this heart issue kind of trumped legislation?

MR. EARNEST:  No I’m not saying that.  The case that I’m making is that there is very important work that can be done in communities all across the country and that can make a real difference in the lives of thousands of people that doesn’t require legislation; that the President using his executive authority that the President can use, capitalizing on his stature at the leader of the free world, that he can make a real difference in the lives of people all across the country.

And more importantly, he can mobilize other people who are concerned about their communities, who want to get involved in their communities, to try to address some of these urgent needs. And the President believes that it’s good for those individual communities, but it’s also good for the country.  And he’s certainly proud of the progress that’s been made so far, but also recognizes the important work that needs to be done.

Q    Did he reach out to Trayvon Martin’s family today at all?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t have any conversations with them to read out at this point.

Michelle.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  On AIPAC, without the President or the Vice President or the Secretary of State speaking, this is something different than in past years, isn’t it?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, not necessarily.  I know that there are other years in which the administration has been represented at AIPAC by individuals other than the President or the Vice President.  I can get you a list of previous speakers.  For like a week I’ve had a page in my book that described all the previous speakers at AIPAC, so we can get you that list.  I know that it exists.

Q    But within this administration?

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, within this administration.  So there are two times in which the President has spoken.  The Vice President has spoken to the gathering at least once.  But the other occasions were — the message from the administration was delivered by other senior members of the President’s national security team.  And that’s the case this year, as well.

Q    But the delay in deciding and the timing of this, you have to know that the perception is there that — there was tension about this and that it’s not going to be the President.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the other thing that was included in that sheet that I was given was the time frame under which these sorts of announcements were made.  So let me follow up with some facts.  But what they indicate is that the story is that it’s not at all uncommon for three or four days before the conference is slated to begin that the administration announces the senior administration officials who are participating.

The point here is that the fact that both Ambassador Power and the National Security Advisor Rice are speaking to the group, it’s indicative of the commitment of this administration to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and that the security cooperation in particular is one that is, under the leadership of this President, is unprecedented.  And that’s everything from close intel-sharing relations to working to counter threats from terrorists in the region, to even providing funding for the Iron Dome program that over the summer saved the lives of countless innocent Israelis who were at risk and being targeted by extremists in Gaza that were firing rockets at them.  So —

Q    Is it — oh, sorry.

MR. EARNEST:  That’s okay.

Q    Why isn’t the President himself going to say exactly those things in that forum?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, in this case, the President believes that both Ambassador Power and the National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, will do a good job of indicating the administration’s commitment to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, of indicating that the President and his team are determined to ensure that that relationship isn’t reduced to a relationship between a couple of political parties but actually reflects the strong bipartisan consensus that exists in Washington that the United States national security interests are enhanced by assisting in the protection of the national security of our closest ally in the Middle East.

And we’ve demonstrated a commitment to that principle throughout this President’s tenure in office, and that will continue in the years ahead.

Q    And for the past couple of weeks, whenever it was asked here, does all of this detract from that relationship, or could it be destructive, and you always kind of gave that answer, what you just said about it being a strong relationship.  But now we’re hearing that, yes, this is destructive to the relationship. So what has changed in the assessment to actually be saying those words now?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, what we have said all along — and the President spoke about this at some length at his news conference with Chancellor Merkel — that there is a long tradition in the United States of ensuring that the relationship between the United States and Israel isn’t just reduced to a relationship between political parties; that for a long time, leaders in both parties in this country and in Israel have sought to try to shield that relationship from turbulence associated with party politics.

Look, both in the United States and Israel, we have thriving democracies that occasionally are characterized by a pretty robust and, in some cases, even aggressive political debate.  That’s one of the things that we actually have in common with Israel.  It’s one of the reasons that we feel a close kinship with that country.  But for a long time, the relationship between our countries has been shielded from that occasionally rambunctious political debate.  And the President believes that that is an important principle that’s worth protecting.  And that’s something that he’s determined to do, and it’s certainly a message that both Ambassador Power and Dr. Rice will present when they speak to AIPAC.

Q    So you’re saying that the debate surrounding this is what’s being destructive?  Or is the fact that he’s coming here in this way to give this speech what could be destructive to the relationship?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, no, I’m not trying to squelch a healthy political debate.  What I’m suggesting is that the President believes very strongly that even the appearance of interfering in party politics on one side or the other is bad for our broader relationship.  And in fact, that’s precisely why the President will not be meeting with the Prime Minister when he travels to the U.S. next week. 

As you know, the Prime Minister is on the ballot in Israel and an election is scheduled for just two or three weeks from now, and the President doesn’t want to leave anybody in Israel with the impression that he’s trying to put his thumb on the scale to support one candidate or another.  What I’m confident of is that whoever wins the election will continue to have regular consultations with the U.S. President and that that person will enjoy strong coordination between our government and theirs.  And the President is committed to that because he believes that American national security interests are enhanced by it.

Chris.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Back on DHS.  You said that the President remains engaged.  What specifically is the President doing to try to avert a shutdown?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President, at this point, stands ready to continue to encourage members of Congress to take this common-sense step and ensure that the funding for the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t lapse at the end of the year.  But right now, the principal disagreement is between the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives and the Republican leadership in the United States Senate. 

Q    So you think engagement is the most useful thing right now?

MR. EARNEST:  No.  I think the most useful thing is for the President to stand ready to make the case to Republicans that funding the Department of Homeland Security is a really important thing for them to do.  It’s a pretty common-sense case.  I think it’s a case that Americans — I’m sorry — Democrats and Republicans all across the country would make to congressional leaders if they had the opportunity to make that case.  And certainly the President will make that case if he’s given the opportunity as well.

Q    So if he’s given that opportunity, what does that mean?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I guess it means if there’s a need for him to have a conversation with Speaker Boehner to move this process along, then he’ll do it.  If there’s a need for him to have a conversation with Leader McConnell this week to move this process along, he’ll do it.

Right now, the issue is that in the United States Senate they’re poised to approve a full year funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security in bipartisan fashion.  And the question right now is whether or not the Speaker of the House is going to put that up for a vote in the House of Representatives.

If he does, no one has any reason to be worried.  If he does, we know that will strongly pass with bipartisan support in the House.  The President will sign it, and operations at the Department of Homeland Security will not just continue uninterrupted, but they will get the benefit of certainty, knowing that they have a full year funding bill that is at appropriate levels for them to do their important work.

So that’s the good outcome.  That good outcome is entirely possible.  It just depends on the Speaker of the House demonstrating some leadership and doing the responsible thing.

Q    I guess I’m just trying to get a sense of what the circumstances would be in which he would proactively get involved.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President has had meetings with members of Congress in both parties on a number of occasions over the last six or seven weeks.

Q    But now the clock is really ticking.

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, now the clock is really ticking.  But again, this is not a dispute between Congress and the administration.  As I pointed out in response to somebody’s question earlier, we’ve done the hard work of figuring out what the funding level should be.  We figured out which programs at the Department of Homeland Security deserve which levels of funding, and that required a lot of negotiation and compromise and work across party lines to reach that agreement.  That’s the hard work of this process.

The easy work is taking a consensus bipartisan agreement and just moving it through the Congress on time.  When we’re talking about something as important as the Department of Homeland Security it shouldn’t be that difficult.  All it requires is a little bit of leadership and I guess a pretty good dose of responsibility.  The question is whether or not the Speaker of the House is actually going to assume it.

Q    Let me just ask you quickly about Jihadi John, understanding again that the U.S. isn’t confirming the name.  Can we assume, though, that — whether it’s him or others who are directly involved — that they would be on a no-fly list?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the no-fly list I believe is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, so you can check with them about the steps they would take.  But you can be assured that the United States government is using every element at our disposal — intelligence, even our military capability, certainly our law enforcement capability and our law enforcement relationships — to bring to justice those individuals who are responsible for the slaughter of innocent Americans.

Q    And you had mentioned a number.  What we’ve heard a lot that there are probably between 100 and 150 Americans who have gone abroad either to train or to fight.  But then with the three arrests in New York and the statements that were made yesterday by James Comey, there obviously is another group who have not left the United States and perhaps will never leave the United States but are still considered to pose a threat.  In fact, what he said yesterday was that the agency is following — has homegrown, violent extremist investigations in every state.  Is there a number that you know of people who are being followed who are in that category, as opposed to people who have left?  And is the message — I don’t know — that we’re on top of this, or you’re at risk wherever you live?

MR. EARNEST:  The message I think is one that we tried to send pretty clearly in the context of the Countering Violent Extremism Summit last week, and that is that the U.S. government is working closely with local officials in communities all across the country to combat violent extremism and to try to counter the efforts from ISIL and other extremist organizations to radicalize vulnerable members of the U.S. population. 

And this is something that we continue to be very mindful of.  And it requires a lot of work, but we certainly have gotten excellent cooperation from local law enforcement and from community leaders.  And there are some communities that actually came to the summit to participate and share their best practices, that some communities have devoted significant time and resources to these efforts and actually shown some important results.  And our efforts to replicate that scenario in communities across the country is a priority of the administration and one that continues every day.

Q    I guess the people that I’ve talked to even who have run some of these programs and believe that they’re useful and important say that’s a long-term prospect.  It isn’t something that happens overnight.  So I guess I’m asking, in a more immediate sense, are there any — do you know of any numbers?  And should people — I guess following up a little bit on Bill’s question — should people feel confident in all 50 states that the resources are there?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I don’t have any numbers like that in front of me.  But I can tell you that the American people can be confident that the administration and local law enforcement in communities all across the country are keenly aware of this risk and implementing a coordinated strategy to mitigate it.

Pam.

Q    Thank you.  Following up on Bill’s question, by not publicly unmasking Jihadi John and showing maybe he’s like kind of an ordinary guy, does that raise the risk that he might be more of a celebrity, he might become more of a cult figure and maybe more of a magnet for the scores of Americans who are trying to go over there, and the other Westerners trying to go over there?  

MR. EARNEST:  Well, these are the kinds of equities that I’m confident that our investigators consider.  Ultimately, the goal here is to keep the American people safe.  And our counterparts in the UK are trying to keep the British people safe.  That means engaging in and conducting an exhaustive investigation to try to bring to justice the individual who is responsible for the murder of the citizens in our countries. 

And I’m confident they have evaluated the pros and cons, if you will, of offering up more details about the investigation.  But at this point they have not offered up very many details at all.  That’s why I’m certainly not in a position to confirm or deny any details that have been reported today.  But I am confident that if at some point our experts do determine that there is a benefit to talking more publicly about the progress that the investigation has made so far, that they’ll do that.  But they’ll do that only if they conclude that that’s in the best interest of the investigation and in the best interest of protecting the American and British people.

Q    And when the President invited some Muslim leaders to the White House several weeks ago, did he made a specific appeal to them to kind of watch their communities for extremism and counter any kind of efforts that might be going on?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the thing about this, Pam, is that the
— first of all, that that was a conversation that covered a pretty wide range of topics.  But they certainly did talk about this issue of countering violent extremism.  And the fact is the leaders in their community are having a conversation about that issue because they want to protect the members of their community.  So they didn’t need the President of the United States to come in and say to them that they needed to look out for members of their community.  They’re leaders in their community because that’s exactly what they’re focused on.

And it is why we have been successful in working in partnership with leaders in the Muslim community to try to combat some of the efforts from extremist groups overseas to radicalize people in the Muslim community in this country.  And that has been a successful, fruitful partnership that has protected the American people, including American Muslims.

So that was the nature of at least part of that conversation that was convened here at the White House a few weeks ago.

Q    And if the government does know the identity of Jihadi John, would the Justice Department be already preparing to file charges against him?

MR. EARNEST:  That’s a question I don’t know the answer to.  You might check with the Department of Justice on that.

Toluse. 

Q    A couple quick questions on trade. 

MR. EARNEST:  Sure.

Q    You said a little bit earlier in the briefing that there are a lot of Republicans who would support the TPP, and you said there are some Democrats.  What is the President doing, as the leader of the Democratic Party, to get more of his party members to support his agenda?  And is he willing to compromise on some of his current positions to assuage some of the concerns of his party members?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Toluse, I can tell you that just as a practical matter, the President devoted some portion of his State of Union address to talking about why this is important to the country.  The President, as you know, today is doing interviews with a handful of local television anchors from across the country where he’s going to make the case that the communities that they cover are communities that have benefitted significantly from opening up Americans goods and services to overseas exports, and that striking additional agreements that are good for middle-class families would also be good for these individual communities.

And in some ways, that sort of ground-level advocacy is something that I do think will persuade Democrats and Republicans, frankly, to take a close look at some of the trade agreements that the President is trying to broker.

And the President continues to have conversations with Democrats and Republicans all the time, some of which you hear about and some of which you don’t, in which he makes a very direct case for why what he wants to do in terms of trying to reach an agreement with a host of other Asia Pacific countries would be in the best interest of the United States.

And one key element of that argument was also a key element of the argument that he made during the State of Union, that if the United States refuses to or fails to engage in this region of the world, that what you’ll see is you’ll see that China, given their own economic aspirations, will engage pretty aggressively in that region of the world in a way that will be disadvantageous to American workers and American businesses and American farmers; that they will seek to lower the kind of standards that we abide by in this country.  So it’s in our interest to try to go to our partners in the Asia Pacific and work with them to abide by the kinds of standards that we regularly abide by.

The benefit of that is the President continues to be confident that if American workers and American entrepreneurs and American businesses and American farmers are given a level playing field, that they can’t just compete — they’re going to win.  And that’s going to be good for our economy.  It’s going to be good for job creation.  And that is th

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