12/14/16: White House Press Briefing

Mr. Earnest: Good
afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you. I do not have any comments
at the top, so we can go straight to your questions. Josh, do you want to start? The Press: Sure. Thanks, Josh. I wanted to start with the
collapse of the ceasefire in Aleppo that was intended to
allow these final civilians and fighters to evacuate. It seems like this deal was
essentially brokered by the Turks and the Russians
without a whole lot of direct U.S. involvement. So I’m wondering at this
point whether — if you could tell us what kind
of engagement the U.S. is involved in in trying
to ameliorate the violence there or secure the
evacuation of the people who are still trapped there. Mr. Earnest: Josh, for
years, the United States has played a leading role in
trying to facilitate a diplomatic solution to
the situation in Syria, including the
situation in Aleppo. And our goal all along has
been to reduce the violence and create space for
sustained humanitarian assistance to be provided,
particularly to those communities that have been
under siege by the Syrian military, aided and abetted
by the Russians and the Iranians. So the United States
continues to play that leading role even today. And I know that there were
discussions at the U.N. Security Council, and the
United States continues to push for a diplomatic
agreement. We certainly encourage other
countries to be involved as well, and we’ve made clear
that our efforts to reach a bilateral agreement with the
Russians, which is something that we tried for many weeks
earlier this year, is not something that we could
achieve because the Russians couldn’t hold up their
end of the bargain. And I know they’ve got all
kinds of explanations for why that may be the case. Most of them are rooted
in the fact that they are either unable or unwilling
to control their client government. The Press: But as far as
right now, hour by hour there’s pummeling of Aleppo,
even when there’s supposed to be this ceasefire. I mean, is there any new
push or specific engagement by the U.S. to try to restore
the ceasefire? Mr. Earnest: There is
continued engagement, and there has been for years,
and it continues to this moment. And we continue to be
deeply concerned about the situation in Aleppo. We are seeing the same
reports that you are — that innocent people are being
slaughtered in the streets at the hands of the Assad
regime, aided and abetted by the Russians and
the Iranians. And it raises deep concerns,
and it’s a deeply tragic situation. And these atrocities
have to come to an end. And we’re working diligently
through a variety of diplomatic channels to
bring about that end state. The Press: There seems to be
some disagreement now, even within the intelligence
community, about whether the evidence that’s been turned
up supports an assessment that Russia was actually
trying to influence the election in a way to
help Donald Trump. Can you tell us — I know
you have limitations about what you can talk about —
but whether the President has been informed by his
Director of National Intelligence that they do
not concur or embrace what the CIA has
concluded about that? Mr. Earnest: When it comes
to CIA conclusions or intelligence community
conclusions, I’m going to refer you to the
intelligence community. And there’s a variety
of reasons for that. The first is that we work
hard to make sure that we are insulating the
intelligence community from the suggestion that they
are subject to political influence. It’s important that the
President be in a position to get good information. And when I say good
information, I mean timely, accurate information about
situations all around the world. And I certainly don’t want
to do anything or say anything from here that
could cast doubt about the integrity of the information
that’s being provided to the President of the
United States. So when they have an
assessment to offer, I’ll let them offer up
that assessment. What they have said, and
what they’ve said before the election, is that Russia was
engaged in malicious cyber activity in an attempt to
erode confidence in our system of government. And that’s deeply troubling
and very serious. And that’s why the President
ordered the Department of Homeland Security to
work with elections administrators across the
country to protect those systems and to bolster
their ability to withstand intrusions from Russia so we
could ensure the accurate counting of ballots, and we
could ensure that everybody who was eligible to cast
a ballot could do so. And the intelligence
community has reported that on Election Day they did not
see the kind of increase in malicious Russian cyber
activity that would call into question the casting
or counting of ballots. That certainly is good news. But there is rampant
evidence of other tactics that were used by the
Russians to erode public confidence in our democracy. And that’s deeply troubling,
and that’s why the President has ordered a review, and
the intelligence community is working on that review,
and the President’s expectation is that review
will be delivered before the President leaves office,
before January 20th. And we’re certainly going to
endeavor to release as much information as possible from
the review to the public as we can, knowing that there
will be some things that we can’t release because we
need to protect the ability of the intelligence
community to collect this information. The Press: Given that the
mixed signals about this is sort of fueling a
politicization of the intelligence work, certainly
with the President-elect, and given that you’ve said
that this review that’s taking place is basically
the primary distinguishing factor between that and the
assessments that had already been done, is that it’s
looking back into previous elections and sort of doing
this holistic thing — has the President indicated
that he would like the intelligence community to
perhaps release additional information or maybe clear
what exactly they think happened sooner than later,
perhaps sooner than that culmination of that review,
which doesn’t seem like it will happen until perhaps as
the President is headed out the door? Mr. Earnest: I don’t
have a timeframe. The President certainly
believes that as much information can — the
President believes that the intelligence community
should release as much information as they can to
the public about this issue, given how serious it is,
given that we’re talking about the integrity of
a national election. So the President certainly
does support that just on principle. But I don’t have an updated
timeframe to share in terms of what the intelligence
community may or may not be able to do. The Press: And then just
quickly, Reince Priebus has been out today talking about
mixing it up a bit here at the White House as far
as how the press corps interacts with the White
House, and possibly doing away with assigned seating
here in the Brady Press Briefing Room. And so I just wanted to
clarify for everyone, could you tell us whether your
office has any say or control over the seating
assignments here in the briefing room? Mr. Earnest: We do not. This is — I believe this
was — it certainly predates President Obama’s presence
in the White House. The White House Press Corps
has worked among yourselves to organize the seating
arrangements in this room, and I certainly would
recommend to the incoming administration that they
collect and familiarize themselves with some basic
facts as they consider what sort of policies to
implement moving forward. Roberta. The Press: A senior Chinese
official warned today in China Daily that the Chinese
government is ready to penalize a U.S. automaker for price fixing,
and I’m wondering what notice the U.S. government has been given about this and what concerns the White House has, if any, about this. Mr. Earnest: Roberta,
I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a lot of other
information that I can share. We’re still trying to
collect additional information about those
specific reports. I think what I can say
definitely is that the Obama administration has a strong
track record of making sure that we are protecting the
rights and interests of U.S. businesses around the
world, including in China. And as we learn more
information about this particular situation, the
United States government will continue to be
protective of our interests in that circumstance and in
other circumstances around the world. The Press: Do you see
this as a response to the President-elect’s sort of
tough rhetoric on Chinese policy? Mr. Earnest: Unclear. I can’t speak to why China
may or may not have made this decision. Again, I think it’s unclear
exactly what the decision is. And until we can figure out
what exactly that decision is, it makes it hard to
consider exactly what their motive may have been. The Press: Okay. And taking a step back just
from the decision, whatever it may be, I guess how
concerned in general is this White House, this
administration, that there could be economic
repercussions for U.S. companies because of the
stepped-up rhetoric against Chinese policies? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think
this goes to an argument that I have put forward when
I was previously asked about this issue. The longstanding U.S. commitment to a one-China
policy, this is a policy that’s governed by a piece
of legislation and three different communiqués that
were signed into law by Democratic — or were
signed — by Democratic and Republican Presidents. This is a policy that has
been observed for 40 years or so. And China considers their
relationship with Taiwan to be a highly sensitive issue,
and signaling potential changes in that policy is
going to have widespread ramifications for the United
States, both as it relates to our economy and as it
relates to our national security. So certainly the incoming
administration has an opportunity to consider what
sort of policy they believe is in the best interest
of the United States. I think the suggestion that
all Americans would have is that they consider those
kinds of choices very carefully before acting. And in this case, the
President-elect indicated in an interview over the
weekend that he took the call based on an
hour or two’s notice. And I think this is one
illustration of how important the role of the
presidency is and how important discipline and
careful consideration of one’s words and actions is
when you’re President of the United States and
responsible for advancing our interests
around the globe. So I’ll leave it there. Michelle. The Press: We heard the
retired NATO commander talk about the situation in
Syria, and though he had served under Obama, he said
that Obama would probably look back on that situation
with deep sorrow and some shame. What do you think of
those words that he said? Mr. Earnest: I didn’t
see those comments. I can tell you that,
under President Obama’s leadership, the United
States has been at the front of the effort to find a
diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria. The United States has
provided more humanitarian assistance through bilateral
channels than any other country in the world. We have provided $6
billion in relief. And the United States has
mobilized the international community to respond to the
threat that is posed by ISIL, which essentially is
a consequence of the chaos inside of Syria. So President Obama has been
making smart, strategic decisions that protect
carefully U.S. interests in the region
and around the world. That said, I think every
American and every human being is deeply troubled by
the violence and innocent loss of life that we
see inside of Syria. It’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic when you see a
government commit atrocities against its own people using
the military might of the state. That is a failed government. That is a failed state. And President Obama has been
leading the international effort to address it,
both by trying to find a diplomatic solution to the
chaos, but also dealing militarily and otherwise
with the extremist threat that is propagated by
that kind of chaos. The Press: I don’t think
anyone disputes the efforts. But for a very long time
now, those efforts have failed. So is there no
other alternative? Mr. Earnest: Well,
let’s be clear. You got a briefing for
a long time from the President’s Special Envoy to
the Counter-ISIL Coalition that documented the success
that we’ve had in rolling back ISIL and reducing their
capacity to harm the United States or our interests,
either in the region or around the world. So I would vigorously
dispute that characterization of our
efforts against ISIL. With regard to making the
kind of progress that we’d like to see toward a
diplomatic solution inside of Syria, we haven’t seen as
much progress as we would like. And there are innocent
Syrian men, women and children that have
died as a result of it. And ultimately, that cause
is the willingness of the Assad regime to use the
military might of the state against his own people,
and the willingness of the Russians to intervene on his
behalf to prop him up, even though they themselves claim
that they’re concerned about that chaos fueling extremism
that could have consequences back in their home country. They should be
concerned about that. And for years, the Russians
have failed to reconcile a basic contradiction
in their strategy. They say, on the one hand,
that they’re interested in trying to fight extremism
and bring the violence to an end in Syria, even at the
same time that they prop up the failed government
there that exacerbates the violence and makes the
diplomatic solution even harder to reach. There’s one good example
of this — there are some reports — reports I can’t
confirm, I have to start out by saying — but I think are
illustrative of what Russia has done. Russia, nine months ago,
touted publically their success in taking back the
Syrian community of Palmyra from ISIL terrorists. Well, we have learned that
ISIL has retaken that city from the Syrians
and the Russians. In doing so, they didn’t
just succeed in driving out the Syrian government and
the Russians; ISIL now has their hands on a significant
anti-aircraft missile system. This is according to reports
so I can’t confirm it. But it does illustrate,
if true, the grave danger associated with Russia’s
failed strategy. Their strategy, if they’re
actually interested in fighting terrorists, should
not involve an anti-aircraft missile system because ISIL
doesn’t have an air force. So what that anti-aircraft
missile system was doing in Palmyra is something that
only the Syrians and the Russians can explain, but it
does underscore the grave risk that Russia is taking
by dedicating their resources to attacking
innocent civilians in Aleppo and propping up the Assad
regime, and taking their eye off the ball when
it comes to ISIL. In this case, their
miscalculation was so grave that it’s not just a matter
of them ignoring the ISIL threat. The ISIL threat today —
again, if these reports are true — is worse because of
the failed strategy of the Syrians and the Russians. And that’s something that
only they can account for. The Press: When we use words
in here repeatedly like “atrocities” — I mean,
you just said today that innocent people are being
slaughtered in the streets — it just seems like you’re
saying that — have we gotten to a point now that
there really aren’t any red lines anymore? Like, it’s as if it’s gotten
to a point so many people have been killed, and now
because of social media and other means, Americans are
watching this happen, and many people thinking
humanity as a whole should be better than this. So at what point do nations
say, okay, something needs to be done now? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think
the Assad regime has demonstrated that they’ve
crossed all the lines in pursuit of their goals. And those goals apparently
include depraved tactics like trying to starve
innocent civilians into submission, bombing
hospitals and playgrounds, targeting them. These tactics are depraved. They do cross just about
every line that I can think of. And, frankly, they cross
lines I hadn’t previously thought of. The idea that you would
target a playground and bomb kids, hoping that you would
then convince people to give up because you had killed
their kids — what kind of a sick mind comes up with
a strategy like that? And what kind of civilized
country is going to support those tactics? But that’s what
Russia has done. The Press: So for the
families that we actually hear begging for
international help, what do you say to those
families today? Mr. Earnest: The United
States is playing a leading role in providing
financial assistance. The United States is playing
a leading role in trying to negotiate a kind of
cessation of hostilities what would allow for the
provision of humanitarian assistance. The United States is playing
a leading role in trying to facilitate a conversation
about resolving the political situation inside
of Syria so we can bring the violence to an end, and we
can put new leadership in Syria that actually reflects
the will of the Syrian people. And in that chaos, that’s
what the United States is doing. What we’re also doing is
engaging militarily to protect the international
community and the American people from the threat
that is posed by ISIL. And we’ve made a lot of
important progress against it. But we have not accomplished
our goal so far. Dave. The Press: Thanks, Josh. Has the President spoken
with Labor Secretary Perez about the DNC chairmanship? Mr. Earnest: Dave, I’ve seen
some of the reports about Mr. Perez’s interest
in that position. I can’t confirm them. And I don’t have any
additional conversations between the President and
his Labor Secretary to tell you about at this point. What I can tell you is
something that I’ve said before which is that
Democrats across the country have an important decision
to make about who will assume the role of leading
the national Democratic Party. And I would expect there
will be a vigorous campaign. I know that there are
already three or four candidates that
are in the race. But I don’t know if Mr.
Perez intends to be one of them. The Press: The President
over the years has obviously valued Secretary Perez’s
leadership in the administration. Does he think he’d be good
at the DNC chairmanship? Mr. Earnest: Well, it’s
certainly true that President Obama thinks very
highly of Secretary Perez. He is somebody who has
served at the Department of Labor for three
or four years now. And he has been instrumental
in advancing some of the executive actions that
President Obama has prioritized. At the Department of Labor,
they’ve worked to implement the overtime rule to ensure
that the hardest-working Americans are getting paid
fairly and even getting a raise. Under Secretary Perez’s
leadership, the Department of Labor has implemented the
conflict of interest rule that prevents large
financial institutions from not acting in the best
interest of their clients, and we know that some of
those practices cost working people billions of
dollars every year. We’re trying to bring that
to an end, and we’ve made progress in doing so because
of the leadership and effectiveness of
Secretary Perez. He’s somebody who hasn’t
just effectively led that department, he also is
somebody who is a forceful and persuasive advocate for
the values that animate the policies that he
has implemented. So he’s a very
effective guy. The President thinks
highly of him. But as I’ve said before, I
don’t anticipate a situation in which the President
forcefully endorses a candidate in the DNC chair’s
race simply because the President’s view is there
are rules and regulations that sort of lay out how the
DNC chair should be elected when there’s not a Democrat
in the White House. And the President believes
that that process, which involves Democrats all
across the country at a variety of levels, engaging
in that debate is healthy for the party over
the longer term. The Press: Do you have any
knowledge whether the Vice President’s office might
have been encouraging him to get involved? Mr. Earnest: I can’t speak
to any conversations that Secretary Perez may have had
with Vice President Biden, but you can check
with his office. The Press: One other issue. Governor Brown from
California yesterday wrote to the President asking for
him to ban all new offshore drilling in the state. And there are reports also
that the administration might be ready to ban
offshore drilling in the future in the Atlantic. Can you let us in on
plans for either ocean? Mr. Earnest: I haven’t seen
the letter, but let me see if we can get you a
substantive response to your question. Kevin. The Press: Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about
comments coming up today by Secretary Jewel. This is according to
reporting out of Reuters, my colleagues down
the row here. “Scientists must confront
climate change deniers and speak up if President-elect
Donald Trump tries to sideline climate research.”
Is that the President’s position that scientists
should speak up if they disagree with the
President-elect? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think
the President’s view is that policymaking should be
guided by science and that policymakers should be
listening to scientists, both inside the government
and outside the government. That’s the President’s view
and that’s certainly the way that he has chosen to run
his administration over the last eight years. If the incoming
administration determines that they want to base their
policy on something other than science, it looks like
they’re going to get at least four years to try
that out and we’ll have an opportunity to
see how it works. The Press: Do you believe
that it’s appropriate for Secretary Jewel to sort of
weigh in in this respect before she’s actually heard
from the President-elect officially on the job? She seems to be making
the suggestion that his administration will somehow
ignore that which the scientists — whether it be
the EPA or the Interior — have already established. Mr. Earnest: Well, listen, I
think based on some of the comments that we’ve seen
from the people that the incoming administration or
the President-elect has chosen to serve in important
positions like the EPA and the Department of Energy,
I think the concerns that people across the country
and around the globe have expressed about the incoming
administration’s commitment to focusing and continuing
the fight on climate change I think are legitimate
questions at this point. The Press: What can you tell
me about the “Investing in a Safer, Strong Baltimore: A
Model for the President’s Approach to Working
with Cities” report? Mr. Earnest: Let me take
a look at the report. I don’t know that I’ve seen
it, but we can certainly take a look into it. The Press: Okay. Last, I want to get the very
latest on the Gitmo numbers. I typically ask you about
this time — is there a plan to transfer more? What’s the latest tally
and/or is the President expected to make another
round of transfers between now and when he
leaves office? And should we expect him to
also comment on this as we hear from him
later in the week? Mr. Earnest: Well, I
wouldn’t rule out additional transfers between
now and January 20th. There is a process that is
in place that was instituted by this administration where
the case files of individual detainees are considered
by six different national security agencies. And based on the view of
those agencies, individuals can be cleared for transfer
under certain security restrictions that would
limit their ability to menace the United States or
our interests around the world. Once those individuals are
cleared for transfer, then the State Department does
the delicate work of asking countries around the world
to assume the responsibility of taking on these detainees
and imposing the security restrictions. And that work is continuing. I don’t have any transfers
to preview, but every time a detainee is transferred, we
make a public announcement about it. And that will also be true
between now and January 20th. The Press: Is it also true
that the United States pays these countries to receive
these detainees, these transferees? And what’s that number
like, and who tracks that? Mr. Earnest: Well, what I
can tell you is that the United States works closely
with these other countries to ensure that there are
security restrictions in place. I can’t speak to all of the
negotiations that go into it, but certainly in some
cases, we’re talking about countries that benefit from
the assistance of the United States and making sure that
those security restrictions are effectively implemented. And that’s consistent
with the mandate of these agencies that review the
case files to ensure that restrictions are put in
place to prevent these individuals from posing an
undue risk to the United States of America. The Press: Last, I’d like to
get your sort of expanded comments on something Ben
Rhodes talked about, and that is the continued
relations between the United States and Cuba, and the
importance moving forward. What is the
President’s message? And will he reach
out directly to the President-elect about the
importance of maintaining that relationship and some
of the pitfalls that come along with that, given their
lack of human rights and other concerns that many
people around this country have? Mr. Earnest: Yeah. Well, listen, Kevin, we’ve
got concerns about the human rights situation in a lot of
countries around the world, including some countries
like China and Russia that we’ve already spent a lot of
time talking about today. The question really is,
how do we shape those relationships so the United
States benefits from them? How can we shape those
relationships so that we can put pressure on those
countries to improve the human rights situation
inside their country while at the same time giving
the American people the opportunity and our country
the opportunity to benefit from those relationships? So when it comes to Cuba,
the United States had had a policy in place for more
than five decades that attempted to isolate Cuba in
an effort to pressure them to improve their respect
for human rights. That policy failed. That policy was in place for
more than 50 years and it didn’t have the
desired outcome. So President Obama decided
to try something new. And in just two years since
the President decided to try a new approach that would
seek to normalize relations between our two countries,
we’ve made a lot of important progress. More than $6 billion in
trade has been initiated between Cuba and the United
States since then, which obviously has an important
economic benefit here in the United States. More Cuban Americans are
able to send more money and travel more frequently to
Cuba to visit their family members who remain
in that country. Other Americans who are
interested in visiting Cuba for cultural or educational
reasons can have the benefit of learning more about the
island and essentially deepening relations
between our two countries. Those Americans are also
allowed to bring back as much Cuban rum and Cuban
cigars as they’d like for their own personal use. So there are a variety of
benefits, you might say, that the American people can
enjoy as a result of this policy change. Just as importantly, the
Cuban people are benefitting too. And we’re seeing the Cuban
economy — particularly when it comes to entrepreneurs in
that country — benefit from more interactions with
Americans who are traveling to their country. The Press: But would that
lead to a change in their human rights posture at all? I mean, because on the one
hand you said, listen, the old policy didn’t work as
far as human rights were concerned. Now this new policy seems
to be working perhaps economically, certainly for
them, and I think, from a social perspective, perhaps
even for the American and Cuban relations. But is that changing the
paradigm on human rights? Mr. Earnest: Well, it
certainly is ramping up pressure on the
Cuban regime. And earlier this year, many
of you had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with the
President where the Cuban President was asked directly
and put in the international spotlight around a question
about whether or not his government takes
political prisoners. That’s increasing pressure
on the Cuban government in a way that, frankly, they’re
not used to seeing. That was a rather
remarkable, extraordinary event, those of you
who saw it may recall. There were two different
times in which an aide came onstage to whisper in the
ear of the Cuban President about how best to answer
this question because they understood they were facing
more public pressure than ever before about their
respect for human rights; certainly more pressure than
they faced when they were under an embargo for
more than 50 years. And that pressure was only
existent — only existed because of the President’s
trip down there and his commitment to the
pursuit of this approach. I think the last thing is,
if we’re actually interested in trying to protect and
advance the interests of the Cuban people, if we actually
care about their plight, then we might consider what
their view is of the policy. And all the public data that
I’ve seen is that, in some cases, more than 90 percent
of Cubans actually believe that this policy has
been good for them. So this is a policy that has
only been in place for two years, and the President is
hopeful that as this policy remains in place, we’ll have
more benefits to show from it. But of course, the next
incoming President will have something to say about that. Margaret. Mr. Earnest: Josh, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power
had some strong words, some strong rhetoric, about Syria
and Russia in particular, and I want to ask if you
agree with one particular thing she said. She said, “Aleppo is joining
Rwanda and Srebrenica as defining historical events
that embody evil.” Is that how the White House views
what’s happening right now in Aleppo — comparing it
to those two genocidal mass atrocities? Mr. Earnest: Well, this
actually is an area of expertise for
Ambassador Power. She’s written award-winning
books on this topic, so I certainly wouldn’t be in a
position to disagree with her. The kinds of atrocities that
we’ve seen in Aleppo, as I mentioned earlier, seem to
cross every line, including some lines that I think
many of us had never even contemplated before. The willingness of the
Assad regime, backed by the Russians and the Iranians,
to engage in depraved tactics targeting innocent
civilians is beyond the pale. And it certainly does — the
kind of chaos and violence and bloodshed and innocent
loss of life that we’ve seen in Aleppo certainly does,
tragically, distinguish it from so many other countries
in the world — and so many other cities in the
world, I should say. The Press: But using those
two specific examples, they are very concrete examples
that are now widely recognized as genocidal acts
where the world community failed to prevent mass
atrocity, and American presidents have, in past,
then said, I regret not doing something then. So it’s a powerful
comparison to make, and I’m just wondering, how does
President Obama think about this? I mean, is he sitting there
saying — and putting it in the same category as
Srebrenica, and putting it in the same
category as Rwanda? And how does he feel? I mean, does he regret that
this is happening on his watch? Mr. Earnest: Well, listen,
as I mentioned in response to the earlier question,
President Obama is deeply troubled by the innocent
loss of life that we’ve seen in Aleppo and
all across Syria. There’s no denying that. That’s why the President has
played a leading role in the international community to
try to bring that violence to an end. That’s why we’ve been deeply
engaged from the beginning in trying to find a way to
bring this violence to an end, to negotiate the kind
of political solution that’s the only kind of solution
that can solve this problem. A military solution
cannot be imposed on this situation, unless of course
somebody is suggesting that somehow the United States of
America, on the orders of the Commander-in-Chief,
should deploy 100,000, 150,000 — 200,000 U.S. servicemen and women to
essentially occupy Syria. I don’t know — The Press:
Iran and Russia do believe there is a military solution
and they are seeing their version of a military
solution play out on the ground in Aleppo. Mr. Earnest: At the same
time that Bashar al-Assad does an interview today
saying that the violence is going to continue. The Press: Right. So not end the war, but
certainly advantage the side that you want to win. But putting that aside, just
talking about the atrocities — not the rest of it
— President Obama did something really
extraordinary when he came to office in saying that
atrocities prevention is a national security priority. He was the first
President to do that. You are now saying as an
administration these two prime examples of ethnic
cleansing, of genocidal acts are happening right now. And the action
stops at rhetoric. How does the President
process that? Mr. Earnest: Again, I
stridently disagree with the suggestion that the
action stops at rhetoric. There’s no basis. The Press: But there were
actions taken elsewhere, right? And President Clinton came
out and said, I regret not doing something in Rwanda. Mr. Earnest: Margaret, my
point is — The Press: There weren’t actions
taken in the Balkans. So it’s not as — Mr.
Earnest: When you say actions, you’re using some
shorthand for military action. If that’s the case, then we
should — but you cut me off from trying to offer up why
that’s not a wise solution. So there is — The Press: No one was advocating for invasion. I never said that, that that
was the example you were doing. Mr. Earnest: Okay, but
you’re suggesting why isn’t there any action on the part
of the Obama administration. And the case that I have
made repeatedly so often that you guys can repeat
this: President Obama has played a leading role in the
international community in trying to find a diplomatic
solution to this situation. You all have covered it. You all have traveled
frequently to locations throughout Europe where
Secretary Kerry has met repeatedly with the Russians
and other countries in the region to try to find a
solution to this situation. Those meetings occurred
because the United States is playing a leading role in
bringing people to the table to try to negotiate
this solution. The United States is the
largest donor of bilateral humanitarian assistance to
try to meet the needs of the people who are suffering. The United States is in a
position where we are taking military action to try to
prevent the chaos that President Assad is causing
in his country from fueling the kind of extremism that
could pose a threat to the United States and our allies
and our interests not just in the region, but
around the world. All of those things are
happening on President Obama’s orders, as a result
of his leadership, and they’re the kinds of
things that only a U.S. President can do given our
influence around the world. So that is what the
United States is doing. I readily acknowledge that
we are not seeing the results that we would like
to see in addressing the violence inside of Aleppo. But it’s offensive to
suggest that somehow the United States government
and the world is not doing anything, particularly when
no one has put forward an alternative suggestion for
what we should now be doing. Ron. The Press: I think the
issue, Josh, is that people will acknowledge all that
the United States has been doing — humanitarian
aid, so on and so forth, diplomacy — but we are
still at a place where the awfulness is
still happening. Mr. Earnest: Yeah. And I — The Press: And
that’s why the question becomes, okay, so the U.S. has done all that — now what? Which is why yesterday
Brett McGurk was saying the humanitarian, the civil
war part of Syria was only addressed briefly
in that meeting. Is that correct? It wasn’t — most of the
meeting was about the ISIS part of this,
ISIL part of it. Mr. Earnest: That’s correct. The Press: And the Syrian
civil war atrocities part of it was just brief. And I guess the question
is — the President just doesn’t see anything
more that the U.S. can do now to stop what’s
happening now despite all that you’ve done, all that
he’s done over the past number of years? There’s just nothing else? Mr. Earnest: Well, again, I — The Press: Again, I know — I hear you. But again, there’s nothing
new, nothing different, nothing that he thinks —
it’s just a problem that can’t be solved, or a
situation that can’t be ameliorated? Mr. Earnest: I’m not aware
of anybody in the U.S. government who has given up
trying to continue to play the leading role in
finding a solution here. The diplomacy continues. And you can go talk to my
colleagues at the State Department about all of the
conversations and all of the work that is underway there. And the reason for that is
not just because Secretary Kerry finds those
conversations particularly enjoyable; I’m sure
that he doesn’t. But they are the only path
to resolving the situation that exists. If there’s another one, by
all means, please send it up and we’ll make sure that it
gets a careful look, because even our harshest critics
cannot articulate some sort of alternative for what
is happening right now. And, again, if they think
that the most powerful thing that we should do is to
deploy the United States military and occupy the
country, they should do so. They should explain how
that’s going to reduce the violence. That certainly is
not our experience. They should explain how that
is in the interest of U.S. taxpayers because that’s
going to be expensive. They should explain to our
United States military why they should put themselves
at risk in that way. And they should explain how
that is part of a long-term strategy to protect our
interests in the region. Because what we have found
is when the United States engages in a ground war and
tries to occupy a country in the Middle East, there
are long-term negative consequences for doing that,
including the situation in Syria right now. The Press: And there’s
nothing short of a full-scale invasion? That, I guess, is what most
people would just ask. I mean, we’ve heard —
we understand all that. And I also understand how
you feel that your critics always say that if you’re
not doing something militarily, you’re
not doing anything. And I get that. But just talking to people
— there’s nothing short of a full-scale invasion. And there was talk
of safe zones. And during the campaign,
Hillary Clinton, others, some of the allies in the
region — the Turks at one point — were
talking about that. I guess it’s just hard for
people to see the slaughter continue and there’s not
something else that can be done militarily that would,
in the short term at least, stop some of the bloodshed. Mr. Earnest: Let me try to
answer your question this way. I suspect if there actually
were a military solution to this problem, depending
on what it was, the Commander-in-Chief wouldn’t
hesitate to implement it. But there’s not. And this is not a new
position that is being articulated by the
Obama administration. This is a position that we
have had since the earliest days of the civil
war in Syria. There is not a military
solution that can be imposed by the United States. Diplomacy is the avenue. Diplomacy is the path toward
a long-term resolution that is in the interest
of the United States. And that’s what
we’re pursuing. And, in fact, that’s
what we’re leading. The Press: It’s the
hesitancy that I think a lot of the critics point to —
this caution that is, yes, part of President Obama’s
approach to this — approach to many things. And we’ve heard him argue
how he has not hesitated in certain circumstances to
deploy the military to do things in different places. I guess this is a question
for him on Friday when he — because, again, given what’s
happening, I guess we’d love to get a better sense of
how he processes this. And I understand it’s a
tremendous responsibility, but how he processes the
criticism, the concern that the world has about this
situation at the same time that there’s this criticism
of him for being too cautious, too — dare I
say — weak to do more. Mr. Earnest: Well, I don’t
think you should use that word because people
certainly didn’t think it was cautious when the
President of the United States ordered the Seal Team
Six into Pakistan to go and take Osama bin Laden
off the battlefield. I don’t think people thought
it was cautious that the President has built an
international coalition of 68 members to go and
take the fight to ISIL. And you just got a long
briefing yesterday, a timely one, that reveals the
progress that we’ve made in rolling back territory
from ISIL and taking their external plotters off the
battlefield and limiting their ability to organize
those kinds of operations and carry them out against
the United States and our allies around the world. So I think the President
has been judicious and strategic, but he’s
also been bold. And the United States and
our national security has benefitted from it. Gardiner. The Press: Why did it
take until October 7th to attribute the hack to the
Russian government when the hack on the DNC was
confirmed in April, and from the first days investigators
knew it had Russian ties? That delay covered most of
the presidential election, causing months’ worth of
debilitating coverage of the leaks that were not properly
informed by a formal government statement that
this was an act of foreign espionage. Wasn’t that a mistake
to take so long? Mr. Earnest: Gardiner, this
is an assessment that was put forward by the
intelligence community, and the intelligence community
put forward this statement as soon as they were able to
confirm a couple of things. First, they had to confirm
across 17 different government agencies that
they had high confidence that this is exactly
what had transpired. Now, I recognize that there
was this independent, private analysis that had
been put forward, but the standards of the
intelligence community, for good reason, are very high. Second, the intelligence
community wanted to be as specific as possible in
putting forward that assessment so that people
could have confidence in the facts. In order to be specific, the
intelligence community also had to ensure they would not
be revealing the kinds of sources and methods that
give them the insight that they need to conduct
these investigations. So there was a determined
effort to both be as specific as possible while
also protecting the sources and methods that are used by
the intelligence community to conduct these
investigations. I think all in all,
Gardiner, this was a statement that was put out a
month before the election. So I would acknowledge that
there were reports of hacks and leaks before that, but
what also existed before that were private
assessments about how that material was obtained. And there’s no denying that
those materials were stolen property. The suggestion — there is
no denial on the part of the U.S. government that somehow the
DNC had not been hacked. So even as news
organizations were reporting on this information,
they were reporting on information that they know
had been stolen and leaked. Those are editorial
decisions that are made by independent news
organizations, but even the excellent report that was
included in your newspaper today about this incident
makes clear that news organizations in the United
States essentially became the arms of Russian
intelligence. The Press: But shouldn’t
those news organizations have been told
months earlier? I mean, Josh, this is a new
battlefield, and you’re telling me that the U.S. government cannot respond on
this battlefield for months, six months, until much of
the damage as a result of this attack has
already occurred? You’re saying that it was
appropriate to wait between April and October to allow
the Russians to have their goals and aims achieved
largely, and it wasn’t until pretty much the last minute
of the election that the U.S. government came out with
something that might have changed news organizations
decision-making about using this information? Why not do it before? And shouldn’t you — if you
are not capable because of this wide-ranging review,
shouldn’t you change that review process? Mr. Earnest: I don’t think
there’s any evidence to indicate that editorial
decisions changed as a result of the statement. So I think we actually do
have an opportunity to evaluate that claim. So I think it actually is an
open question about whether it would have
made a difference. It didn’t make a difference
when we put out the statement a month before the
election in the way that this was handled by
news organizations. But here’s the other thing,
Gardiner, and I think this is important, as well, as
you consider the government response, and in particular
the White House response to this situation. It would have been
inappropriate for White House figures, including
the President of the United States, to be rushing the
intelligence community to expedite their analysis of
the situation because we were concerned about the
negative impact it was having on the President’s
preferred candidate in the presidential election. That would have been all
the more damaging in an environment in which you
have the Republican nominee, without evidence, suggesting
that the election is rigged. So what we were deeply
concerned about from the beginning was making sure
that we were protecting the integrity of the
intelligence community and insulating the intelligence
community from the kind of political pressure that was
obvious to everybody who was reading the newspapers
or watching television. It’s important for our
intelligence community to be shielded from that kind of
political interference or political influence. We need — The Press: It’s
just that he has — that he’s sort of paralyzed and
can allow the Russians sort of open-field running as
long as they attack in a way that the President himself
feels awkward about intervening — right? I mean, this was a Russian
effort on the most important electoral process in
the United States. And you’re saying that
the President himself had difficulty responding simply
because of the politics of responding? Mr. Earnest: No, I’m not
ascribing any difficulty here. I’m merely stating the
facts, which is that the President believed it
was important for the intelligence community to
formulate in advance of the election, if possible, the
most definitive analysis that they could make public. And that’s what they did —
a month before the election. Unfortunately, that didn’t
seem to change the way that this was considered or
reported on by the media. So again, I think that’s why
it’s difficult to say that maybe it would have been
treated differently if the report had come out two
or three or four months earlier, because it’s not
clear that when the report did come out that it had
much of an impact on the way that it was — in the way
that this material was reported on. I also think this all
underscores the risk of politicizing the
intelligence community. There is a reason that
when the review that the President has ordered is
released in January will have some integrity. It will have that integrity
because the President has gone to great lengths to
protect the intelligence community from even the
appearance of being used as a political weapon. And that has long-term
consequences for the decisions that future
presidents — plural — will make. They need to be able to
count on the information that they’re getting from
the intelligence community being right and not being
influenced by — and by “right” I mean timely and
accurate — and not being influenced by
partisan politics. The Press: Is that the
reason for the very differential response
between what the President did after the North Korean
Sony hack, in which he very forcefully and personally
came out and addressed that, and this hack? Which it’s a strange thing
because this hack so clearly had far graver consequences
and was so much more important to the country
than the Sony hack, which he very publicly and forcefully
came out and denounced. So help me understand why
those two very different responses by the President
personally, and why he didn’t respond to this one
in the forceful personal way he did to the Sony one. Was it because of politics? Mr. Earnest: Well, I think
there are two things at play here. The first is that the North
Korea attack was, in many ways, more crude. And the President’s
statement in December of 2014 was also based on an
intelligence assessment. So the statements that
we have made as an administration have been
driven by the facts and have been driven by the
assessment of the intelligence community. And the intelligence
community assessment with regard to the Sony hack
was arrived at sooner. The Press: And
was more clear? Or is that — Mr. Earnest:
Well, you’d have to talk to them, I think, about
how they reached these conclusions. But in both — in all cases,
our administration is commenting on this based on
the facts and based on the impartial, unbiased
assessment of the United States intelligence
community. And the American people
benefit from having an intelligence community that
isn’t subject to partisan politics, even in the midst
of the most hotly contested, divisive election
in recent history. But you raised a second
question, which is sort of about the President’s
personal involvement. And the President did
believe, given that he had endorsed a candidate in the
political — given that the President had endorsed
a candidate in the presidential race, he
believed it was important for the intelligence
community to make this announcement. And that’s why you saw a
statement from — a joint statement from the IC and
from the Department of Homeland Security. Again, that was an effort to
ensure that this information avoided even the appearance
of being politically motivated. And the President had very
strong feelings about the race and about the
candidates who are involved in the race. And the President did not —
those of you who traveled with the President in the
last four or five weeks of the campaign saw that the
President didn’t pull any punches in forcefully making
an argument in support of his preferred candidate. And he believed that that
political activity should be separate from the
intelligence community’s analysis of Russian
malicious cyber activity. Now, what’s also true — and
this goes to something that we discussed in the briefing
on Monday — there’s ample evidence that was known long
before the election and, in most cases, long before
October about the Trump campaign and Russia —
everything from the Republican nominee himself
calling on Russia to hack his opponent. It might be an indication
that he was obviously aware and concluded, based on
whatever facts or sources he had available to him, that
Russia was involved, and their involvement was having
a negative impact on his opponent’s campaign. That’s why he was
encouraging them to keep doing it. You had the Republican
nominee refer to the President of Russia
as a strong leader. The Republican nominee chose
a campaign chair that had extensive, lucrative,
personal financial ties to the Kremlin. And it was obvious to those
who were covering the race that the hack-and-leak
strategy that had been operationalized was not
being equally applied to the two parties and to
the two campaigns. There was one side that was
bearing the brunt of that strategy and another side
that was clearly benefitting from it. Now, I know there’s a lot of
reporting that there may be some disagreement in the
intelligence community about whether or not that
was the intent. That’s a question that they
should ask and a question that they may attempt to
answer, but there certainly was no doubt
about the effect. And, again, it didn’t
require a security clearance or a consensus,
high-confidence intelligence assessment to understand. And in spite of all that,
that didn’t change the way in which this information
was reported on, either. The Press: Josh, we’ve
talked before here about this administration’s
retaliation or potential retaliation for
these efforts. And we quoted a lot of
experts in our story saying that basically you’re making
a mistake; that you didn’t — you haven’t apparently
retaliated against this attack and you continue
to sort of say that any retaliation could be secret. They are saying that, first
of all, you should have retaliated long before now
and probably before the election, and that it
shouldn’t be a secret retaliation — it should be
very clear that the United States is retaliating
against this to discourage this continued behavior. So help me — if you
don’t mind, defend the administration’s
decision-making on both not apparently retaliating so
far, not retaliating before the election as a means of
discouraging this continued behavior, and not
guaranteeing that this retaliation would becoming
public, which, again, according to these experts,
would help discourage this behavior then and
in the future. Mr. Earnest: Gardiner, what
we have indicated is the President believes that
based on what we know about what Russia did, that it
merits a proportional response. From here, I’m not in a
position to confirm whether or not that response has
been initiated or not. I’m also not in a position
to confirm that we won’t ever in the future discuss
what that response is or what that response may be. There may eventually be a
point at which we do discuss what the response is,
will be, or has been. Just trying to cover all
my verb tenses there. (laughter) But here’s a couple of other
things that are important to consider. Given the interconnected
nature of our society and our economy, the United
States is in the unique position vis-à-vis the rest
of the world because we rely on 21st century
communications technology for just about everything
in a way that lots of other societies and economies
and countries don’t. So — The Press: Are we
particularly vulnerable? Mr. Earnest: We are —
the United States is particularly vulnerable. Now, that is counterbalanced
by the fact that the United States is also more powerful
when it comes to our cyber capabilities than any other
country in the world. That’s compounded — the
complexity of that situation is compounded by the fact
that so much of this is new. When we’re talking about
international conflicts on the battlefield or in the
open seas, there are decades and, in some cases, even
centuries-long traditions and norms and treaties and
understandings that have been negotiated
and observed. And it sets up a framework
for countries being able to avoid disagreements about
what’s appropriate behavior. And when those disagreements
do arise, there is a codified system for
resolving them. None of that exists
in cyberspace. And, in fact, the President
has made this one of his top policy priorities is to
begin to initiate a process in our discussions at the
G20, in our discussions at the G7, and in our bilateral
relations with other countries that have
significant cyber capabilities to start to
establish those rules of the road. And if you go back and
look at some of the G20 communiqués, you can see
that there is a specific — I know that’s something
you’ve probably already done, Gardiner, knowing how
conscientious you are about covering these issues. So just to refresh your
memory about how specific some of those efforts were
in the context of the world’s 20 largest
economies, you’ll also recall — and this got more
attention, understandably so — when President Xi of
China came to the White House for a state visit last
fall, the fall of 2015, it was notable that he stood in
the Rose Garden of the White House next to the United
States President indicating his country’s commitment to
a norm in cyberspace that countries should not support
cyber-enabled theft for commercial gain. And that is a norm that
the United States had been previously concerned China
was not willing to observe. I can’t offer an updated
assessment on how well they are observing that norm
that the Chinese President stated. But it certainly addressed
many of the concerns that had been justifiably
raised by U.S. companies about how
China was hacking their businesses, and then using
proprietary technology and information to
disadvantage U.S. businesses and to give
Chinese businesses a leg up. So establishing those norms
in cyberspace is a priority. I just described an
economic situation that has significant economic
consequences for the country, but this also
applies in the national security and homeland
security realm, as well. So I think that would
explain a lot of this. Look, I guess there’s one
other — you asked a lot of questions, so that’s why
I’m giving a long answer. The Press: I’ve got
one more, by the way. Mr. Earnest: Which is — I
welcome the opportunity to have this discussion, so
I’m just trying to remember everything I wanted to say. There’s one last thing that
I did want to say, which is one of the highest
priorities that was identified by the President
and his policy team in the fall, given the threat
that was posed by Russian malicious cyber activity,
was ensuring that the elections infrastructure
of the United States was protected. Now, the thing that we
acknowledged from the very first time that I was asked
about this is that there are some built-in protections
based on how diffuse the elections infrastructure
is in this country. Cities, states, counties all
have a role in administering elections. They use different systems
for conducting those elections. That means that there’s not
one way to hack the entire election system of
the United States. That makes our elections
process complicated and messy and difficult to
reform and improve. It also makes it
harder to hack. The Press: So hanging
chads are a good thing? Mr. Earnest: Well, I don’t
know if I’d go quite that far, but relying on paper
ballots or hanging chads makes it hard for somebody
who’s sitting in a cubicle in Moscow to have an impact
on the outcome, at least by tampering with the ballots. But the same goes to
voter registration rules. Now, the concerning thing,
Gardiner, was that we had detected some Russian
malicious cyber activity on the systems of some
elections administrators across the country, and
this is where politics gets involved again. In most states, the people
who are in charge of administering elections are
themselves politicians. They’re not
impartial observers. They have an impartial
mandate to ensure the conduct of a free and fair
election, and the vast majority of them do
that job and do it well. But if there was a
perception that the Democratic President of the
United States was raising some of these concerns about
Russian malicious cyber activity because he was
trying to protect the Democratic candidate for
President, there is not likely to be a lot of
cooperation between a Republican elections
official and a Democratic administration. So this administration went
to great lengths — we even went to Capitol Hill — to
try to convince Democratic and Republican leaders on
Capitol Hill to signal their commitment to setting aside
partisan politics and focusing on the national
security of the country, and issuing a joint public
statement about how important it was for
election administrators in both parties to work
with the Democratic administration to protect
their systems from Russian intrusion. Democrats in Congress
readily agreed this was a good idea. Leader McConnell and Speaker
Ryan did not readily agree to it. I’m not going to get
into all of our private conversations, but this was
an element of the story that was published in your
newspaper today. And it’s true, we didn’t
get the kind of prompt cooperation we
would have liked. Now, we eventually did get a
letter that the four leaders of Congress did agree to
send to the organization that represents elections
administrators across the country. And as a result, there were
not a lot of charges and counter-charges that the
Democratic administration was up to no good. And, in fact, experts at
the Department of Homeland Security worked with
elections administrators in 45, 46, 47 states to ensure
that their systems were protected from
Russian intrusions. And the good news is that
the intelligence community was watching closely, and
they determined — or at least they did not observe
an increase in malicious Russian cyber activity on
Election Day that interfered with the casting or
counting of ballots. And that obviously
is good news. But that’s not the
whole question. The Press: One more. Sorry to take so long. The GSA has released a
letter stating that the Trump organization will be
in violation of its lease on the Trump hotel site here in
Washington the minute that President-elect Trump takes
office if he doesn’t fully divest himself of his
holdings in the hotel, which he has shown no sign
that he is doing. Was that appropriate
for the GSA to do? And what responsibility does
this administration have in ensuring that the incoming
Trump administration abides by conflict of interest laws
and the emoluments clause of the Constitution? Is this something you’re
working on in the transition? Mr. Earnest: Well, I’m not
aware that there’s a robust role for this administration
to play in this. I’d refer you to the GSA to
explain the concerns that they raised about the
contract that they have with the Trump organization. The relevant agency here is
going to be the Office of Government Ethics. This is a nonpartisan,
independent agency that is charged with ensuring that
government officials — federal government officials
are abiding by all of the rules and restrictions that
apply to the ethical conduct of people who are supposed
to be serving the national interest. So I think the proper role
here is going to be with the Office of Government Ethics,
with inspectors general who have independent oversight
responsibilities in the executive branch. There’s also going to be a
critically important role for Congress. And the early indications, I
think, leave me cautiously optimistic that Democrats
and Republicans are prepared to play that oversight role
to ensure that those who are entrusted with protecting
and advancing the public interest are not compromised
by their own personal financial considerations. Obviously, President Obama
has gone to great lengths to prevent even the appearance
of having a personal financial conflict. President Obama sold all his
stock and all of his outside interests before entering
the Oval Office, and tied all that money into
Treasury bonds. Given the aggressive way in
which the Federal Reserve was reducing the interest
rate, that was a very poor investment decision, but it
was the right thing for the country. And that’s kind
of the point. John. The Press: Thanks
a lot, Josh. Russia has figured
prominently in a number of questions that you’ve
received this week, whether it’s related to the
situation in Syria, or whether it’s related to the
alleged hack by Russia in an effort to influence our
presidential election. Does the President have any
plans to reach out, pick up the phone, speak to his
counterpart from Russia, Vladimir Putin, and talk
about some of the same issues that we’re talking
about all this week? Mr. Earnest: I’m not aware
of any calls that are planned. But obviously the President
has had a number of occasions to see his
counterpart and to talk to him about these issues. Obviously, the President saw
President Putin for a brief period in Lima, Peru, when
we were there for the APEC Summit — I guess it
was just last month. It feels like
about a year ago. President Obama also had an
opportunity to see President Putin in China when we were
in China for the G20 meeting in September, the meeting
of the world’s 20 largest economies. And over the course of his
time in office, President Obama has had conversations
with President Putin on the phone and in person to At
this point, I’m not sure that there’s a situation
that they’ve talked about more than the
situation in Syria. They’ve had multiple
opportunities to do that. Obviously, there are even
many more conversations that occurred between Secretary
Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign
Minister Lavrov. So there’s been deep
engagement with the Russians. But I’m not aware of any
upcoming conversations between President Obama
and President Putin. But if one does occur,
we’ll let you know. The Press: A lot of
conversation has occurred this week as it relates to
President-elect Trump’s decision to nominate Rex
Tillerson as his Secretary of State. And a knock on him from a
number of critics appears to be his preexisting
relationship with Russia, his preexisting relationship
with Vladimir Putin. Do you see this as a knock,
or do you think it can be helpful to have a
preexisting relationship with someone who figures so
prominently in America’s foreign affairs? Mr. Earnest: Well, look,
obviously, you have outlined the case that the Trump
administration has made in favor of the nomination. There are others who have
raised concerns about the wisdom of choosing someone
who has been awarded the Order of Friendship by
Vladimir Putin to represent U.S. interests around the globe,
considering the adversarial nature of our relationship
with Russia on so many important issues. There are some areas where
we do effectively cooperate with Russia already and have
done so to the benefit of the American people. But look, I’ll let others
make the argument on both sides. I think the argument that I
would make is simply: People shouldn’t be surprised. The President-elect ran on a
platform of pursuing warmer relations with Russia. He indicated his frustration
and signaled a potential lessening of our
commitment to NATO. He referred to President
Putin as a strong leader. So it shouldn’t be
particularly surprising that he chose someone who got the
Order of Friendship medal from Vladimir Putin to be
his Secretary of State. The Press: Would
that be a bad thing? U.S. relations with Russia are
at perhaps the lowest level they’ve been since the Cold
War, since maybe the early 1960s. Do you think that
relations between the U.S. and Russia should remain at
the level where they are right now, or do you
think there is room for improvement with Russia,
vis-à-vis the United States? Mr. Earnest: Yeah, I think
what the President would say is that he would welcome
additional opportunities to try to advance our interests
by working with Russia. But that’s going to require
not additional concessions to Russia but a willingness
on the part of the Russians to deal honestly with their
American interlocutors in pursuit of their
stated goals. So, for example, just to go
back because it’s the most pertinent one, Russia says
that they are committed to working with the
international community, including the United
States, to go after ISIL. There’s no
evidence for that. And, in fact, what Russia
has done against ISIL has been rolled back and ISIL’s
capabilities have been heightened and worsened
because of Russia’s poor decisions. So in some ways, until
Russia signals a willingness to pursue a different
approach in their relationship with the United
States, I think we’re going to encounter some
choppy waters here. I think what President Obama
has tried to do is to try to prevent our disagreements in
some areas of Syria and in Ukraine from allowing us to
make progress in some other areas. And whether that’s our
cooperation on the space program or the success that
the United States and Russia had in eliminating the
declared chemical weapons stockpile of the
Assad regime. There are some areas
where we are able to work effectively with the
Russians, and the American people have
benefitted from it. But if we want to see more
of that, I think we’re going to need to see a change in
behavior and a change in strategy on the part
of the Russians. Maggie. The Press: Thanks, Josh. Circling back to the Office
of Government Ethics, they recently are urging Trump
to act as if he must follow financial conflict of
interest laws, but as Trump has pointed out, the
President is not legally bound by these. Do you think it’s time to
update federal ethic laws to make sure that the President
does have to follow these laws, that it’s a law? Mr. Earnest: Look, I think
all I can say to you is what President Obama has done,
and as I described earlier, President Obama didn’t just
follow the ethics rules as if they applied to him — he
went far above and beyond them and made sure that
there was not even the appearance of a conflict of
interest when it comes to his personal finances. And he did that in a way
that disadvantaged him financially but was good
for the country because it erased any doubt about
his true motivations. So the President also
believed that that actually benefitted his presidency
because he wasn’t in a position in which he was
sidetracked by allegations of a personal
conflict of interest. And he set a very high
standard for ethics that people throughout his
administration have followed. And it’s why the President
is quite proud of the fact that his administration has
not been plagued by the kinds of major personal
scandals that have plagued other presidencies. The Press: So would you say
then that the argument of selling a lot of real estate
would make Donald Trump lose money is not a
valid argument? Mr. Earnest: I think the
incoming administration and the President-elect are
going to have to make their own decisions about how
they handle the situation. But if President-elect Trump
were to sustain a financial loss in order to enter the
Oval Office, he would not be the first one. Toluse. The Press: Thanks, Josh. I wanted to go back to the
comment you made about how people shouldn’t be
surprised that Donald Trump is selecting someone who has
close ties to Russia given the fact that he said all of
these things on the campaign trail that were seen
as friendly to Russia. It kind of seems to stand in
contrast to this idea that once Donald Trump leaves the
campaign trail and gets into the office, he’s going to be
woken up by the realities of the office, and all of those
sort of incendiary things he said on the campaign would
not be the actual policies that he pursues. And that seems to be the
message that the President was giving when he went
overseas and spoke to NATO partners and other partners. So what’s the message? Is it that people shouldn’t
be surprised and they should brace for Trump to follow
through on all of this rhetoric that he had
on the campaign trail? Or is that — the office
will change him and he’ll moderate on some
of those positions? Mr. Earnest: Well, Toluse, I
think it’s hard to assess, because you have in the past
heard Mr. Tillerson say positive things about the
Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris
Climate Agreement. So does that mean — so I
guess — I cite those two examples to illustrate
that we’ll have to see. It’s unclear. I think what we might be
seeing now is that the President-elect cares more
about his Secretary of State’s position on Russia
than he does about his Secretary of State nominee’s
position on trade and climate change. But again, when you go back
to the rhetoric of the Trump campaign, it’s not
particularly surprising that the President-elect appears
to be prioritizing over a bunch of other
important issues. But what that actually means
for the kinds of policy they will implement, that’s
something that we’ll all have to wait and see. The Press: I also wanted to
ask you about the — give you another chance to maybe
weigh in on the Energy Secretary pick. Obviously, President Obama
selected a Nobel Laureate physicist in Ernie Moniz
who — you know, highly respected and — Mr. Earnest: Merely a physicist at MIT. (laughter) The Press: Right. So I’m wondering if, given
the fact that Moniz had such an important role in
the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, I’m wondering
if the President has any thoughts about the former
Texas governor becoming the next person for
this position. Mr. Earnest: I’m really
tempted to, but — (laughter) The Press: Give in. Mr. Earnest: — maybe if you
want to come by and chat in my office, I’ve got some
good zingers for you. But I think I will try to
exercise some discipline and refrain from commenting any
more than I already have, admittedly, about — The Press: You could just tweet it. Mr. Earnest: If I can
remember them all, I’ll share them with you
after this briefing. The Press: I’ll
stay tuned for that. One more on the
stock market. Obviously, it’s hitting
record highs on a regular basis, almost at 20,000 in
the Dow, and Donald Trump and his surrogates are
claiming credit for that. Obviously, you all said
there’s only one President at a time, so I wondering
if you have any thoughts on whether or not this rally
has anything to do with the current President or
the President-elect. Mr. Earnest: Well, I’ll let
the significant number of market analysts who follow
the market more closely than I do comment on individual
market movements. I’ll just make the broader
observation that since the depths of the Great
Recession that President Obama inherited, the stock
market has more than tripled. We’ll see if the economic
policies that the incoming President implements have
a similar positive effect. He campaigned on vowing to
try things differently. He campaigned on the idea
that we need a different economic approach. And we’ve laid out a number
of times — and we’re getting late here, so I
won’t do it again — but we’ve laid out a number of
times the benchmark that the incoming administration
will have to live up to. And we’ll see if they do. But an important of them
is the stock market. And the stock market, since
was at its nadir in the summer of 2009, has
more than tripled. And we’ll see if President
Trump’s economic policies have a similar positive
impact on the market in a way that has a positive
impact on the savings and retirement savings of
millions of American workers. Taka, I’ll give
you the last one. The Press: Thank you, Josh. President Putin will visit
Japan tomorrow to meet Prime Minister Abe. What do you expect
from the meeting? They will meet in Japan
twice, in Tokyo and in Prime Minister Abe’s
old prefecture. What do you think of Prime
Minister Abe’s decision to maintain warm relations
with President Putin? Mr. Earnest: Well, listen,
you know, President Obama, as I mentioned earlier,
has had a number of conversations with President
Putin over the last year. Obviously, Russia has faced
some significant diplomatic isolation from the
international community, including the G7, of
which Japan is a member. We used to refer to that
meeting as the G8, back when Russia was included
in that meeting. They no longer are because
of their willingness to violate the territorial
integrity of Ukraine. So I can’t speak to what may
be on the agenda or what Prime Minister Abe intends
to discuss with President Putin, but while we
have been able to work effectively with the
international community to isolate Russia — and they
are facing more isolation than they have in recent
years — we also acknowledge that the United States
benefits from our allies, like Japan, having good
relations with other countries around the world. So, presumably, that will be
what Prime Minister Abe is pursuing when he meets
with President Putin later this week. The Press: Are you concerned
that the meeting may send the wrong message that the
G7 is not united, and may put pressure on Russia? Mr. Earnest: I have no doubt
that Japan and the other members of the G7 remain
firmly united about the need for Russia to observe the
basic territorial integrity and sovereignty of the
nation of Ukraine. Thanks, everybody,
we’ll see you tomorrow.

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