James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: After last night’s late arrival, we’re moving a little slower than usual today. So appreciate your patience. I do not have any statements at the top, Josh, so we can go straight to questions if you want to kick us off.
Q: Sure, thanks, Josh. Let me start with the summary that was provided to President-elect Trump last week about — by the intelligence community about unsubstantiated compromising information that was obtained by Russia. Was President Obama also briefed by the IC either on paper or in person about that report?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, what I can tell you is that as a general matter I’ve not been in a position to read out publicly the details of the intelligence briefings that the President receives. What I have previously confirmed, though, is that President Obama did receive a briefing on the report that was compiled by the intelligence community at the President’s direction on Russia’s nefarious activities to undermine public confidence in the 2016 election. The President received that briefing the day before the unclassified version of that report was released. That was last Thursday. But for the contents of that briefing, or for the contents of the classified report, for that matter, that’s not something I can speak to.
Q: Without getting into the content of it, what you were just discussing was information that was provided to the President about Russia’s cyber interference with the U.S. campaign. This seems to be slightly different. This isn’t about John Podesta’s emails or hacking the DNC. This would be about trying to obtain compromising information on Trump. Without talking about the details of it, can you say whether that was part of the briefing that the President received?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that gets — you’re asking me directly about the content of the report. And as we discussed before, it’s certainly understandable that people would be interested in trying to understand what’s included there, but that’s just not something that I can discuss.
Just to clarify one aspect of your question, the report that was released does discuss in detail the malicious cyber activity that was perpetrated by Russia on political entities in the United States — in both parties, by the way — to undermine public confidence in the election. But that wasn’t the only tactic that they used. Certainly the release of that hacked material — there’s a discussion of this fake news phenomenon in the report, as well — so it’s important to understand that the report that was compiled by the intelligence community goes beyond just the malicious cyber activity that Russia engaged in.
Q: You talked quite a bit from the podium about the importance of a smooth transition, and the President has, as well. Is this administration doing anything to try to stem what appears to be significant leaks from the intelligence community aimed at punching back at Trump?
MR. EARNEST: Josh, I think I’m on the record as much as anybody in talking about the need to protect classified information. And there are previous situations in which I’ve expressed concern about the willingness of individuals to talk about classified activity publicly — or classified information publicly, and I don’t have the luxury of doing that. I stand before all of you speaking on the record, on camera, and I have a responsibility to protect classified information.
There are other people who use the cloak of anonymity to disseminate that information, and that’s something that has happened not just throughout this presidency, but that’s something that’s been happening certainly over the course of many previous Presidents as well. That’s not to okay it, but it certainly is a frequent occurrence.
Q: And it’s one thing to sort of talk publicly about the need to protect classified information. It’s another thing to do something proactively to try to stop what appears to be leaks. Certainly there have been other instances where news organizations or others who receive leaks there have been investigations by this administration into that. So I’m just curious whether the White House is going back to these people and saying, you’ve got to button this up, you can’t be doing this. Or is it just sort of talking about it from the podium?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think a couple of things, Josh. I think, first of all, the White House has been extraordinarily conscientious in protecting classified information. And that is something that the President expects, particularly with regard to leaks. And the President is proud of that.
With regard to leak investigations, all of you have talked about — rather critically, in fact — some of the efforts that the administration has undertaken to protect classified information. Questions about prosecuting individuals who are engaging in criminal conduct or leaking information that is punishable under the criminal law, those kinds of prosecutorial investigative decisions are made at the FBI. And those decisions are made free of any sort of political interference, and certainly made free of any interference from the White House. But I’ve said on a number of occasions that I believe it’s important for everybody in the U.S. government who’s entrusted with access to classified information to uphold their oath to protect it.
Q: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — nominee Rex Tillerson was on the Hill — is on the Hill today, testifying. And he’s suggesting that he could be even tougher on Russia than the Obama administration in certain respects. Particularly, he said that what the administration should have done after Russia seized Crimea was to send defensive weapons and air surveillance assets to the Ukrainians. Is the outgoing administration sufficiently convinced that Tillerson, if confirmed, would be tough enough on Russia, and do you have any response to sort of his second-guessing of the way that this administration handled the Ukraine issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with regard to appraising Mr. Tillerson’s candidacy, I’ll leave that to the men and women of the United States Senate to evaluate. It’s their responsibility to determine whether or not this is an individual who is capable of representing the United States and serving in the President’s cabinet.
And that’s why we have a process where the United States Senate offers advice and consent to the President in choosing those nominees, and that certainly is why those nominees have to undergo rigorous background checks, comply with ethical regulations that ensure that they don’t have conflicts of interest that could impact their judgment or raise questions about their judgment. And this is also why the Congress holds hearings to try to understand how a nominee would approach some of these issues once in office.
But I’m going to leave to individual members of the Senate to pass judgment. That’s not something that I’ll do from here. It certainly would undermine our commitment to a smooth and effective transition if I spent a lot of time critiquing the performance of the nominees when they’re testifying before Congress.
With regard to the policy that we have used in Ukraine, what I can tell you is that this administration has been strongly supportive of the efforts of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government to counter flagrant attempts by the Russians to violate their sovereignty and their territorial integrity. And there are a variety of forms of assistance that the United States has provided — certainly extensive financial assistance to try to strengthen their economy.
Obviously President Obama had been a leading advocate in communicating with the world and in communicating with Russia about the need to resolve this conflict and certainly to deescalate it. And the President has been strongly supportive of the efforts of European leaders to pursue a process to try to broker a diplomatic agreement between Ukraine and Russia.
Implementing that agreement has been challenging and we’ve not made nearly as much progress on that score as we would like. The United States has also worked closely with our allies in Europe to impose tough sanctions against Russia that we know have had a negative impact on Russia’s economy. And we do know that since those sanctions were put in place, Russia’s economy has been faltering. Some of that is because of the global price of oil, but limiting their access to international financial markets and limiting their access to some of their most prominent and important trading partners surely hasn’t helped. And that’s a price that Russia has had to pay.
Russia, based on a decision that was made by the United States and our allies, is not participating in G8 meetings anymore. Those meetings are now called G7 meetings, and Russia doesn’t participate. So Russia has faced intense isolation because of their flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
So our response to Russia’s involvement in Ukraine has been tough. It has had an impact, and there have been negative consequences. But ultimately, if the incoming administration chooses to escalate that situation militarily, that would be a different conclusion than this administration reached with regard to our interests and the interests of our friends in Ukraine. But somebody else will be calling those shots in the afternoon of January 20th.
Q: And just lastly, did the President catch any of the President-elect’s news conference today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know that President Obama had an opportunity to watch the news conference live, but I’m confident that he’s following the news coverage of it.
Q: Thanks, Josh. One of the things that President-elect Trump touched on today was he actually said that he does think that Russia was behind the hack into the DNC. That was really the furthest he’s come on that subject so far.
MR. EARNEST: He also said it could be others — at the end of it.
Q: Sure. But the point he then followed with is that it was an equal opportunity hack; that, really, the reason why the DNC was exposed was because the RNC just had better cyber protections in place. Is it your understanding that both parties were equally targeted in these cyber intrusions during the campaign, and it just came down to a matter of security? Or was it more targeted than that?
MR. EARNEST: Julia, I think what I would do is I would just point you to the key judgments of the report that was issued by the intelligence community last week. And in these key judgments — let me just read one sentence, one bullet from those key judgments. It simply says, “Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 presidential election, including targets associated with both major U.S. political parties.” So that is the judgment of the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA that compiled this report with the support of the Director of National Intelligence. So I do think it is another illustration of the Russian motive.
And this is another finding of the report about the clear assessment of the intelligence community that Russia’s aim was to disadvantage Secretary Clinton and give a boost to Mr. Trump’s campaign. That certainly would explain the aggressive effort to hack Democrats and the refusal to release information about Republicans in a damaging way that had also been obtained by the Russians.
Q: But should the DNC have gone further to protect itself or to cooperate with the FBI?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll refer you to the DNC for what sort of cooperation was in place with regard to the FBI. And I also can’t speak to what sort of cyber defenses they had in place back in 2015. That’s something that they can speak to.
Q: One thing I’m wondering if you could speak to as well from the press conference was President-elect Trump’s moves to distance himself from his business interests by placing his business in the hands of his sons, but he did not go so far as to completely divest or to set up a blind trust. He’s bringing in an ethics advisor. Could you say whether or not the White House thinks that that goes far enough to really separate the future President from any conflicts of interest when he takes office?
MR. EARNEST: I’m obviously not in a position to offer any sort of expert judgment or analysis of the steps that the President-elect announced earlier today. All I can tell you is that President Obama chose a very different approach. I would acknowledge at the front end that their financial situations are quite different, but President Obama’s approach was quite different, nonetheless. And President Obama’s approach was to liquidate virtually all of his assets and put them into Treasury bills.
And as I’ve observed on a couple of occasions, that was a very good decision for the country. It was a very poor decision for the financial standing of the Obama family. This was a time when the Federal Reserve was slashing interest rates to deal with the Great Recession, and that made the return on Treasury bills very small. But President Obama was pleased to make the financial sacrifice because it was in the best interest of the country. He also believed that it ended up serving the administration quite well.
Essentially, he set a standard at the very top that everyone else in his administration has also followed. And President Obama is quite proud of the fact that there has not been a major personal or ethical scandal during his eight years in office. And some of that is because of the ethical — of the tone that he set from the earliest days of his presidency about the extraordinarily high ethical standard that he and other senior members of his administration would be following.
Q: Thanks, Josh. During the press conference today, President-elect Trump said that the intelligence community was disgraceful to let out the information that was published in BuzzFeed. He compared the intelligence community to Nazi Germany. I wonder if you have any response to that.
MR. EARNEST: Listen, as President Obama has said many times, the men and women of our intelligence community are patriots. They do their important work not because the paycheck is large — many of them are experts that could command a much higher salary in the private sector. They aren’t engaged in this work because they’re going to get a lot of personal glory and credit for their service — most of the men and women who serve in the intelligence community actually do their work in secret. Their identities will never be known. We will never have an opportunity to thank them personally for their service and sacrifice for this country.
These are men and women who served our country under Democratic and Republican Presidents, and they made a decision when they began their career to set aside their own personal and ideological views, and focus solely on the facts, and focus solely on marshaling and presenting the most insightful analysis and the most accurate, relevant and timely facts to the President and other national security decision-makers so that they can make the best decisions about what’s necessary to protect the country.
And the leadership of the intelligence under President Obama reflects that lifetime commitment to service. And there were some not-so-subtle references to questioning the integrity and motives of the leaders of the intelligence community.
Jim Clapper serves as the Director of National Intelligence — has for almost six years now. He’s somebody who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961. Since then he’s been serving his country. He flew dozens of combat missions over Southeast Asia as a pilot, and he is somebody who has served Presidents in both parties as a high-ranking military official and as a high-ranking official in our intelligence community.
Certainly somebody like Jim Comey, the Director of the FBI, was a high-ranking political appointee of the Bush administration. He was somebody who was confirmed almost unanimously in the United States Senate. Strong majorities of Democrats and Republicans signed up to support him because of his well-established reputation for integrity. That certainly is the reason that President Obama chose him for the job.
And similar things can be said about John Brennan, who dedicated more than two decades of his career to serving our country in the CIA. That included some service in countries overseas with whom the United States has very sensitive, complicated relationships, and he served Presidents in both parties.
Admiral Mike Rogers, Director of the NSA, is somebody who has had a distinguished career in the United States military, and he has held those senior positions — a variety of senior positions under Presidents in both parties.
So I think it is deeply misguided for anybody, at any level, to question the integrity and motives of the patriots who serve in our intelligence community. Doesn’t mean they’re always right, but questioning their motives is another thing altogether.
Q: I also wanted to ask what this administration thinks about Vladimir Putin and whether he’s a war criminal. That’s a question that came up in the hearings for Secretary of State. Rex Tillerson seemed to not want to use that label to describe Putin. Is that something that this administration believes is appropriate for a label for Vladimir Putin?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that that designation or that label has been used by any senior officials in this administration. Obviously we have, on a number of occasions, expressed profound concern about some of the tactics used by the Russian government under the leadership of President Putin. The willingness of the Russian government to punish journalists, to target political opponents, has created a human rights situation in Russia that’s troubling. But I’ve not heard anybody apply that label — at least nobody in the Obama administration apply that label to him.
Q: One more on — Trump basically said during his press conference that Obamacare was imploding on its own and Democrats should be happy that he’s putting for — he’s going to put forward a plan to vote to repeal it and replace the law simultaneously. What’s your reaction to that? And do you have a preference for whether or not there is a gap between repeal and replace, or whether it’s done, you know, as he said, on the same week or on the same day?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is certainly true is to repeal the law without a replacement would create chaos not just for those Americans who purchased their health insurance through the Obamacare marketplace, but for all Americans, including the vast majority of Americans who purchase their health insurance through their employer.
To repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement would inject an unprecedented level of uncertainty into the broader health care market. This is a significant portion of our economy we’re talking about here. So that would be a really bad thing for the country. It would be bad for our economy. It certainly would be bad for millions of Americans who rely on their health insurance to protect their family’s financial situation but also to protect their own health.
With regard to the plans that are put forward by the incoming administration, you’ve heard me say this before — I’ll give you the short version, and it’s simply this. At some point — based on the President-elect’s comments today, that point may come sooner rather than later — I would expect that the incoming Secretary of the Health and Human Services, Mr. Price, if he’s confirmed, will be standing before you, maybe even right at this podium, in this room, to present the health care plan that was put forward by the Trump administration. And what I would urge you to do is to evaluate that plan on its merits.
President Obama, with Obamacare, has established an extraordinarily high benchmark. Since President Obama signed that bill into law, 20 million more Americans got access to health care. These are Americans that didn’t previously have health insurance coverage that do now. That has reduced the uninsured rate in this country to historic lows.
What we have also seen is we have limited the growth in employer premiums to 3.4 percent last year. That’s a much lower inflation rate than before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
The Affordable Care Act includes sweeping protections for people that have a preexisting condition, for women who previously could be charged more by their insurance company just because they are women — that’s something that has been outlawed. Parents can now keep their children on their health insurance up until age 26. That was previously not an option available before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
The Affordable Care Act extended the life of Medicare by 11 years. And the Affordable Care Act, according to independent projections by the CBO, would reduce the deficit by $3 trillion over the next two decades. That’s a substantial savings.
And the President actually said this last night — you’ve all got it on tape — if the Trump administration can put forward a plan that would exceed these benchmarks and do so at a lower cost, President Obama will support it. So we’ll have an opportunity to see if the Trump administration is up to the task.
Q: Thanks, Josh. A question about the speech from last night. The President talked about major threats to our democracy, and in that he listed a number of things and they were reminiscent, if you will, of past criticisms of Mr. Trump. And what I’m wondering is, if you connect those dots, was the President saying that Mr. Trump is a threat to our democracy, or are his followers, based on those things?
MR. EARNEST: Leland, I can tell you that the President’s message was focused on the American people, and urging the American people to be engaged in our democracy to counter the threats, both external to the United States but also some of those threats internally.
And certainly our country has overcome significant internal divisions before — some even greater than the kind of political divide that we see on display in our current political debate. But the President was making the case to the country — both to his supporters and those who do not support him — that the most effective way to overcome those divisions is for us to look for common ground with our fellow citizens, to assume the best, and to engage in the hard work of democracy, of advocating for the kinds of solutions that will move the country forward.
And the President believes that if the American people pursue that approach, that our country is in — the future for our country is as bright as it’s ever been. And part of the President’s optimism is rooted in this spirit that he has seen in the younger generation of Americans who are committed to fairness and justice and equality, and are civic-minded. They wanted to see our country succeed and they want to see everyone in our country have an opportunity to get a fair shot and a fair shake. And that gives the President a lot of optimism about the future. But it’s going to require a lot of hard work, and the President indicated that he was prepared to engage in that hard work as a citizen himself.
Q: And speaking of something the President might be wanting to work on, he said that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 years ago. He said he doesn’t need statistics, although he alluded that statistics might support that. ABC News-Washington Post tracking poll — 30 percent of people in 2000 said race relations were generally bad. When the President was elected in 2008, 36 percent: generally bad. Today, 63 percent: generally bad. So what is the President or the White House pointing to showing that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 years ago that this poll doesn’t suggest?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think that the President didn’t have polling data in mind. I think the President had in mind other metrics about the success that we’ve had in closing the achievement gap; in increasing the percentage of Americans from minority groups that are enrolled in college, for example. We’ve had some success in closing the wealth gap. There’s more work to be done, but we certainly have moved that in a positive direction.
I think what those polls reflect are actually a somewhat different phenomenon, which is simply that in a modern age, in a modern communications environment, where everybody has got a video-equipped cellphone in their pocket, that we all too often come face to face with the most graphic elements of the racial divide in this country that have yet to be healed. And that’s disconcerting. In some cases, it’s even discouraging to some Americans. And I think that would explain some of the poll results that you’ve seen. But the truth is, those kinds of incidents — whether they are confrontations between law enforcement officers and young minorities, or a response to those kinds of incidents that show some significant civic discontent and even unrest — I think is disconcerting to a large portion of the population and prompts some people to despair about the state of race relations in our country.
The truth is, those kinds of things have been happening for generations — these kinds of confrontations between law enforcement and minorities. That’s not a new thing. The difference now is that we see it in vivid detail, and our conscience is aroused by that, both out of concern for the safety and security of our brave men and women who serve honorably to protect our communities, but also out of concern for the fair treatment and basic civil rights of people, regardless of the color of their skin.
And the fact that that is not a concern that is just held by Hispanics and African Americans, but rather a concern that the vast majority of Americans of all races hold, I think is also, in and of itself, an illustration of the progress that we’ve made in making our country as fair and as just as we would like it to be. But I think the President — the passion in the President’s speech was rooted in not just an acknowledgment that there’s more work to do, but in a commitment to engage in the difficult work of addressing some of those challenges. And the President looks forward to doing that as a citizen.
Q: Throughout the campaign, the President consistently questioned really whether President-elect Trump was prepared to assume the office of the presidency. I’m wondering now if that assessment has changed at all. He said during the campaign that the presidency is not a reality TV program. Nine days out, does the President think that he’s ready?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard the President put forward an assessment like that. And the President has strong feelings about this — he expressed them vividly over the summer and fall of the presidential campaign. Those sentiments, that opinion was rooted in the President’s values about what’s best for the country. They were also rooted in his own personal experience of serving as President of the United States for the last eight years. But the opportunity to make those arguments and to put forward that kind of assessment expired on Election Day. In the aftermath of the election, President Obama accepted responsibility for putting aside his own personal political views and focusing on the kind of smooth and effective transition that the American people are counting on.
President Obama, just last night, talked about how much he and his administration benefitted from the professionalism and courtesy and selflessness of the Bush administration as they were transitioning out of office. I’m confident that President Bush had frustrations and concerns and deep disagreements with the approach that the incoming Obama administration was prepared to pursue, but they were insistent that they were not going to allow those differences of opinion to affect their ability to give President Obama and his team every opportunity to get a running start when they entered the White House.
And President Obama made it a priority earlier this year, before the — or early last year, before the outcome of the election was known, that regardless of who succeeded him in office, he wanted his team to be prepared to engage in a smooth and effective transition so that the incoming President could have every opportunity to succeed. And that’s what we’ve been doing since November 9th, the day after the election.
Q: You said on Thursday and Friday of last week that the President had no plans to phone Donald Trump to talk about the briefing that they each received. Do you know whether they’ve spoken since last Thursday at all?
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned before, I’m going to protect the ability of the President and the President-elect to consult in private, so I don’t have any specific telephone calls to tell you about.
Q: On another subject, there are a lot of reports out indicating that as the President’s time in office winds down, that Chelsea Manning may be pardoned or sentence commuted. I’m wondering if you have any update on any of that legal question. And I have a follow-up question.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have additional information to share about this. I’ve refrained from commenting on specific clemency applications that have been filed with the Department of Justice. I was asked just last week about whether or not the President intended to act on the clemency petition that had been put forward by attorneys for former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich — I didn’t have any comment on that situation, and I don’t have any commentary on any of the paperwork involving Chelsea Manning either.
Q: On April 21st, 2011, the President was talking about then Bradley Manning’s case and said, “We are a nation of laws. We don’t let individuals make decisions about how the law operates.” He said, “He broke the law.” Does the President still believe that Chelsea Manning broke the law?
MR. EARNEST: Well, more importantly, it’s not the President’s responsibility to serve as judge and jury. Chelsea Manning, as a member of the United States armed forces, went through a legal proceeding administered by the United States military under the laws that govern the conduct of members of the United States military, and there was a hearing and a conviction and a sentence. And it all went through that regular process. And that’s the way we determine guilt or innocence in this country, particularly with regard to the conduct of men and women in our armed forces. And that’s the way that our system works.
Q: And my final question is, yesterday a Cubs official confirmed to me that the team will come to the White House on Monday to be honored for their World Series Championship. I’m hoping to —
MR. EARNEST: You’ve got good sources.
Q: Thank you. I’m hoping you can confirm that news and maybe tell me if it was difficult to arrange that visit in the last few days of the presidency.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing I can tell you, John, is that one of the highlights of my eight years of working in the White House was, earlier this summer, when my hometown Kansas City Royals came to the White House to celebrate their World Series Championship with President Obama. And I’m pleased to confirm that many of my colleagues here in the West Wing who are themselves Cub fans will get to enjoy exactly the same thing when the Chicago Cubs come to the White House on Monday to celebrate their World Series Championship with President Obama.
Those of us who were — I, of course, was disappointed that my Royals didn’t make the playoffs. But I think anybody who is a sports fan, even if you’re not a baseball fan and not a Cubs fan, appreciated the historic run that the Chicago Cubs had through the playoffs and to a World Series title this year. Obviously a seven-game series, that was historic and exciting, and this is a young team that’s equipped to make many future visits to the White House I think.
So the President is really looking forward to it. I’m not aware that we’ve encountered any unexpected challenge in trying to schedule this visit. In fact, this visit is actually being scheduled earlier than normal. For example, the Royals obviously won in November of 2015 and they didn’t visit the White House until July of the next year. The Cubs are coming just a couple of months after securing their World Series title, and I think that’s an indication that we’ve been able to work effectively with the front office of the Chicago Cubs to schedule a visit. And I know President Obama and other members of the White House staff are really looking forward to it.
Q: Josh, not in the context of last week’s briefing, but in the context of a news story over the last 24 hours, have you seen — has the President seen the reports from CNN, from BuzzFeed, from Mother Jones about this allegation about compromising information for the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: The President was quite busy last evening while this news broke, but I’m sure — so he was not reading it in real time as this information was being reported. But the President is certainly aware of the news reports and has read many of them.
Q: What is — is there any reaction that the President has? Have you spoken to him since that? I know that NBC News got a chance to ask him a little bit about this on the plane, but have you talked to him about any of these details, any reaction to what’s included in this? Again, not about what may or may not have been included last week in the confidential briefing, but in this as a news story?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific presidential reaction to share with you. I know the President did have an opportunity to talk to Lester Holt of NBC about this briefly last evening before the speech. But I don’t have anything to add to it beyond what the President said.
Q: In the press conference today, the President-elect said that because the presidency cannot have conflicts of interest in law, he basically — his argument was conflating it and saying that therefore there is no ability for the presidency to have a conflict of interest. That’s not true, is it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m no government ethics expert, but that seems like a tough case to make even to somebody who is not steeped in those kinds of details.
Q: And one last one. Again, this is not trying to get you to confirm or deny anything from the confidential briefing last week, but the President, on the campaign trail leading up to Election Day, expressed a lot of certitude about what the American people would choose on November 8th. Was that based on his impression of Donald Trump, the prima facie case that Trump was making to the people? Or was there something that he knew that either in the back of his mind or in the forefront of his mind said this is just — this is something that — can you give us a little bit more about that certitude and why it existed?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President was expressing exactly the same kind of certitude that most of you thought — not because I’m suggesting that you’re biased in any way, but based on your own analysis of the political environment. Just about every public poll indicated that Secretary Clinton was likely to win. Many of those public polls indicated that she was likely to win rather handily. But that’s not the way it turned out.
So the President was disappointed by that outcome. He was surprised by the outcome. But the American people spoke, and he set aside his own political differences with the incoming President to ensure a smooth and effective transition, and he’s asked his team to do the same thing. And the President and his team have delivered on that promise.
Q: Was classified information about Donald Trump a factor in President Obama’s confidence in what he thought was going to happen?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think the President’s confidence about what he thought and hoped would happen in the election was driven by a variety of factors. Many of them are his own experience campaigning on the campaign trail, the kind of projections about voter turnout that were coming in from sources around the country. Obviously, public polling and private polling influenced his judgment. I think the President was pleased to see the degree to which his message was resonating on the campaign trail. I think the President believed that Secretary Clinton would have been an excellent President, and that certainly contributed to some of the confidence that he felt. But like most Americans, he was surprised by the outcome.
Q: Thank you, Josh. On North Korea, North Korea continues to threaten with the nuclear and ICBM to South Korea and the United States. Did President Obama feel he did enough to resolve North Korean nuclear issues while he was President?
MR. EARNEST: Jean, obviously the situation is not resolved, but President Obama does believe that because of the decisions that he made, the United States is able to protect ourselves from the threat that is emanating from North Korea. The United States is able to protect our allies from the threat that emanates from North Korea. And the United States has succeeded in mobilizing the international community to further pressure and isolate the North Korean regime to persuade them to change course.
With regard to the defense of the United States, there’s been a significant increase in the military assets that have been deployed to the Asia Pacific, including naval assets with anti-ballistic missile capabilities, to protect the United States. That includes advanced radar systems in places like Guam and Japan. The United States is working closely with the South Korean government to deploy a THAAD battery, another anti-missile battery on South Korean soil, to better protect our South Korean allies.
There are a number of naval assets, ships in the Pacific Ocean that are bolstering the defense of the United States, and there’s also military equipment that’s been deployed to Alaska to also protect the United States. So there have been significant movements of military equipment to protect the U.S. And the President believed that that was prudent given the threat that emanates from North Korea.
We’ve obviously been steadfast in our support of both Japan and South Korea as they counter this threat. Those are our allies that are most directly in harm’s way. And our commitment to their national security is resolute, and hopefully that will be the case in the incoming administration. There’s a strong reason to believe that it will, but ultimately the incoming President will have to make those kinds of decisions.
And we’re pleased that we have succeeded at the end of last year in passing through the United Nations Security Council the toughest-ever sanctions on North Korea. And that required building the diplomatic support not just of our allies in Europe, but also the support of countries like Russia and China, with whom we have some profound differences of agreement — or differences of opinion in other areas, but with regard to North Korea, we’ve been able to find common ground in a way that has applied additional pressure and further isolated the North Korean government.
Q: So North Korea’s intent is still valid?
MR. EARNEST: Our view with regard to North Korea is that they should refrain from the kinds of destabilizing activities that frequently rattle nerves not just in the region but around the world. We believe that North Korea needs to come into compliance with international obligations that relate to their nuclear program because we would like to see the Korean Peninsula be denuclearized. And what we have indicated to North Korea is if they’re prepared to take those steps, the international community is prepared to work with them to implement those steps and allow North Korea to begin the process of reentering the global community.
Q: One more. Recently, North Korean Kim Jong-un proclaimed North Korea will soon launch ICBM anytime, anywhere. Is the United States ready to shoot down ICBM for defense?
MR. EARNEST: As the Secretary of Defense said over the weekend, the United States has the capability to protect the United States and our allies from the threat that emanates from North Korea, including the capability to shoot down those missiles that could pose a threat to the United States or our allies.
Q: Josh, you’ve worked in the White House for a relatively long time now. Do you think it’s a good strategy for an administration to pick fights on kind of multiple fronts with the media, with intelligence agencies, with senators within their own party? Would that be something you would advocate? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, it sounds like a bit of a leading question. (Laughter.) But that’s okay. Listen, I think what I can tell you is President Obama has pursued a different approach. The President benefitted from a highly effective working relationship with the intelligence community. He was able to obtain timely, relevant and accurate information from the experts in the U.S. intelligence community that aided him and his team greatly as they made important decisions to protect the United States and our interests around the world.
With regard to Congress, the administration worked to try to find common ground with Democrats and Republicans. It doesn’t mean that the administration got along with Democrats and Republicans at every turn. There are some cases where you’re going to have differences of opinion. And I would anticipate that the incoming administration will find the same thing with regard to their relationships both with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
With regard to the media, there’s been a lot of attention on this in the last couple of months. Our approach has been to engage with all of you. The President believes strongly that an independent, unbiased, professional media is critical to the success of our democracy. And one way we can invest in your efforts to hold people in power accountable is to come out here and answer questions, and to do so on camera, on the record, just about every single day. And President Obama does that himself occasionally. And it’s good for the country and it’s good for our democracy.
It means that all of you have an important role to play. It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ve always gotten along. But it does mean we’ve been able to function effectively to ensure that our differences of opinion don’t affect your ability to do your job. It doesn’t affect the ability of the White House to do its job or to effectively engage with the White House Press Corps that is tasked with informing the American people about what’s happening around here.
Q: Were there any times during this administration where you’ve worried that that kind of bunker mentality was setting in and that was preventing you from getting —
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s always a risk to guard against. And this is the example that I’ve most often cited with regard to our relationship with the media. Our democracy is constructed such that the free and independent media is in place to hold people in power accountable. And that means it’s your responsibility as an independent journalist to demand greater access, to demand greater transparency, to demand a better, more effective, more fulsome explanation of what the President is thinking about, what the President is doing and why he’s doing it. And that informs your coverage, and that certainly informs your analysis of what exactly is happening.
Now, there are certainly times — many times — where officials in the White House — sometimes the President, sometimes members of his senior staff, sometimes me — aren’t happy with the way that that information is being portrayed in your reporting or in your analysis. But the goal that I have set is not to suggest that you have a responsibility to write stories that make the White House look good. That’s not your job. Your job is to call it as you see it and to provide as much insight as possible about what exactly is happening here at the White House.
And if we’re doing a good job, more often than not the President will at least look like he’s got the right priorities, based on your readers. But really what we want is we want journalists to use their skills as storytellers, as writers, as journalists to describe to the American people what’s happening. And sometimes that’s going to make the President look good, and sometimes it’s probably not.
But when we’re dissatisfied or unhappy with the way that some of the coverage is going, there is a temptation to retreat to the bunker and to say, the heck with those guys, to heck with their stories, to heck with what they think, let’s just go and do what we think is right. That kind of conviction is admirable, but it’s unwise to write off such a critically important element of our democracy. And so that’s why I’ve viewed it as my role to make sure that when tensions do flare up — I should say, when tensions get a little higher than usual, that it’s important for me to make the case to my colleagues not retreat into the bunker, and to continue to engage. Occasionally, I have to make that case to my boss, too.
But I also have a responsibility that when you guys get frustrated with us, to engage with you to make sure that that frustration doesn’t interfere with your ability to do your job so you don’t start writing us off and say, I’m just not going to call those guys, I’m just going write what I want — to heck with what those guys think. And that’s the kind of relationship that I’ve tried to facilitate here. I think every press secretary has their own approach, and surely my successor is going to have his own approach. But that’s the approach that we have taken. And I think the President has been very well served by it, in part because so many people who are in here are so dedicated and experienced and determined to play that important role in our democracy, but also because our administration has a pretty powerful case to make about the virtue of the decisions that we’ve been making here.
The results speak for themselves, in large part. So that’s obviously going to make things — when you have a good story to tell, it’s going to make the storyteller look better than if you don’t have many results to show for your performance.
And so that’s the approach that we have taken. And I don’t know if that will be relevant or resonate with the incoming administration, but like I said, I believe that that has served the President well, and I also believe that it’s served the country well.
Q: Josh, when you said a moment ago that President Obama feels the opportunity for criticizing President-elect Trump expired on Election Day, do you feel that President-elect Trump is reciprocating when he is critical of the President’s policies today, again saying that the administration created ISIS; that Obamacare is a complete and total disaster; that Russia would have more respect for the United States once President-elect Trump is in office?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I noticed some of those comments as well. I’ll let the President-elect and his team explain why he made those statements and why he wanted to continue to make the arguments in that way, despite the fact that those arguments don’t withstand much scrutiny and there aren’t too many facts that are mobilized to support those kinds of arguments.
And to the extent that there’s interest in a debate, this administration feels quite proud of the progress that we’ve been able to make, and the facts of that progress strongly bolster our case and don’t do much to substantiate the case that’s made by our critics.
Q: On another issue, can you tell us what kind of packing up is underway in the West Wing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that the packing has begun. You can tell which members of the White House staff are planners because they have made more progress in preparing for their departure nine days from now. There are those of us who will probably be spending some time here over the three-day weekend trying to do that work.
The other thing that has begun happening is that members of the White House staff have started rolling off, because obviously the transfer of power has to occur just in a matter of hours so there’s has been a staggered roll-off of White House staff that is starting to accelerate. And so the line at the mess is a little bit shorter around lunchtime, and —
Q: A lot of empty seats in here, too.
MR. EARNEST: There’s more empty seats in here too, yeah. I think you guys are stretched thin as you are covering not just a President of the United States but also a President-elect as well.
Q: Oh, what else is the President doing today? There’s not much on the schedule that you gave us.
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, relatively quiet day today. The President has got a couple meetings with staff this afternoon, but obviously given the very busy day that he had yesterday and the very late return back here to the White House, the President’s day is, publicly, pretty quiet.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Just a couple with possible follows. On this issue of the unconfirmed allegations regarding the President-elect and his team and Russia that CNN and other organizations have reported on — I’m not asking you about those allegations themselves or what was in them, but the President talked last night about the selective sorting of facts, and he’s talked a lot over the past many months about the siloing of news sources, people living in their own bubbles. And then we have this whole idea of fake news — the definition of which there doesn’t seem to be a lot of agreement on because lots of people are using that term as they see fit.
So the question is, does the White House feel that BuzzFeed, in publishing these unconfirmed allegations in full, acted appropriately, or did they make it potentially harder for the truth to come out? And going with that, does Trump and his team have a point that these allegations are just another way to delegitimize him?
MR. EARNEST: With regard to the delegitimizing thing, I think that’s the easiest one, so let me just knock that one out of the way, which is I think that what should be evidence to anybody who’s even been paying a little bit of attention is that since the election outcome was announced, not just late on the night of November 8th but early in the morning of November 9th, this administration, led by this President, has been dedicated to ensuring a smooth and effective transition with the incoming administration. And with regard to the legitimacy of the election, I think that actions speak much louder than words, and I think that there’s just no question about that.
With regard to the decision that was made by your news organization, BuzzFeed — who I think were obviously all making their own independent decisions — and doing separately and different things, what I’m just suggesting is, is that your news organization was the first news organization to report on this. That obviously was — I don’t have any insight into what sort of editorial decision-making process was implemented to reach that conclusion, but I’m confident that there was one. I assume there was a similar process at BuzzFeed that reached a different conclusion, as you point out.
But I guess this is my point: Independent editorial decisions made by independent news organizations should be made independent of government influence.
Over the last eight years, we’ve had a variety of circumstances where the administration has expressed some frustration with some of the editorial decisions that were made by your news organizations. We’ve expressed those concerns sometimes — not sometimes; frequently. But at each stage, in every conversation that I’ve ever been a part of about an editorial decision, we have acknowledged at the beginning, middle and end of that conversation that whatever decision is made is one that you all will make. And that reflects the respect this administration has for the constitutional rights of independent media organizations.
But there’s another element of this that I think warrants mentioning here, which is, obviously, the President-elect and his team are suggesting that the accusations that are being made are totally unfounded, that there’s no basis for them. This President has been in a situation in which he has been criticized in an utterly false, baseless way. And I’m, of course, referring to the President’s birthplace. There were a wide variety of the President’s critics who were suggesting and propagating conspiracy theories that somehow the President wasn’t born in the United States, but that he was the object of some grand conspiracy.
It’s still hard to put together even now as you think about it. But they made those accusations even though the administration had already released the birth certificate, and even though there was contemporaneous news reporting announcing his birth in Hawaii. So the conspiracy theories were propagated even in the face of significant, overwhelming and convincing evidence. But yet, those conspiracy theories continued. And many of those conspiracy theories were centered on the long-form version of the President’s birth certificate.
So, when faced with that situation, President Obama made a decision. He dispatched an attorney to fly all the way to Hawaii and go to the state archives and engage in a process of obtaining a document that is rarely made public that is not stored in a way that makes it readily accessible to the public. The President’s legal team engaged in a process that typically takes weeks and months to obtain that document. And once it was obtained, we released it. In this very room. Handed it out, on paper, to all of you, so that all of you could look at that piece of paper and verify for yourself, to be convinced that the charges that were lobbed against the President were false.
I point all of this out — this well-trod path of history — to just underscore that the incoming administration has chosen a different approach. They’ve not been transparent. Many of the questions that have been raised have been about potential financial entanglements of the President-elect, his family and his business in Russia. There’s ample evidence that they could marshal to make public to refute those claims — those accusations that they say are baseless, but they’ve refused to do so.
That kind of secrecy only serves to sow public doubt. You’ll recall during the campaign, as the President-elect was refusing to release his tax returns, people were saying, what’s he hiding? People are asking that question again. And again, all of the available evidence, to the extent that there is any, doesn’t actually substantiate their argument that the claims are baseless, because I know at least one member of the Trump family was quoted on the record in the not too distant past saying that the family and the Trump organization had extensive financial ties to Russia.
So, ultimately, I think that the incoming administration is going to have to make some decisions about what approach they want to take. And again, this is an imperfect analogy — I’ll just stipulate that at the top — but the difference in approach that we have taken has been starkly different. We expressed great frustration about critics repeating that information even though there was plenty of publicly available evidence to indicate that it was false. We expressed some deep frustration to you and your news organizations about the way that you were handling those accusations. But ultimately, what we sought to do was to uncover and release information to substantiate our case.
And the incoming President has pursued a different approach — not just by trying to meet the bare standard of transparency, but to fall way short of it, and to refuse to meet that same standard that many previous Presidents have met by releasing tax returns.
So, with regard to the tactics and strategy that they’re employing to deal with this situation, it’s quite different than the one that this administration has implemented. And given the President’s election and reelection, even as the storm of these charges was swirling, I think that would be a pretty good validation of the approach that we have chosen, setting aside the intrinsic benefit to the American people of the incoming administration living up to standard of transparency that was set by previous Presidents.
Q: You raised a lot of points, so I’ll combine my follow with the only other question I have, which is —
MR. EARNEST: I appreciate you indulging me.
Q: Just to be clear, I want to make it clear, the administration doesn’t have a viewpoint or any stance on whether or not it is helpful to the pursuit of the truth for an organization to publish unsubstantiated allegations. I just want to make sure that I know what —
MR. EARNEST: On principle, the administration deeply respects and will protect the right of independent news organizations to make their own editorial decisions. It doesn’t mean that we agree with all of them. There are many situations in which we have not. But we respect and will stipulate from the beginning that independent news organizations should make editorial decisions independent of any sort of government interference.
Q: That’s sounds different from — for months, though, when publications were reporting on the leaks during the last months of the campaign, you guys were saying from the podium shouldn’t these news organizations not be doing that. So are you —
MR. EARNEST: Actually, I didn’t. I walked this fine line of saying — when I was asked about John Podesta’s emails, for example — these were emails that were leaked by DCLeaks, which we knew before the election was actually consistent with the kinds of efforts that were undertaken by Russia to sow doubt about our democracy. What I said at every turn was to stipulate that those materials were stolen. I said that independent news organizations are going to have to make their own editorial decisions about whether or not to publish them, or how to describe them publicly.
And in most situations, given the fact that they were stolen, I declined to respond — or to react to them. There were a couple of situations in which I did. But at each turn I stipulated that while the material was stolen — and I think that does indicate, potentially, difference of opinion with the editorial judgement that was being exercised by news organizations. I, at every turn, stipulated that it was their decision to make.
And look, I think news organizations who are looking back at this episode have already concluded and expressed some remorse about the way they handled it. It was The New York Times who described American news organizations, including the New York Times, as essentially weaponizing information that had been hacked and leaked by Russia with nefarious intent. So I give them credit for actually engaging in that thought process and in acknowledging their own regret about it. But ultimately, every independent news organization is going to have to draw their own conclusions about the best way to deal with situations like this.
With regard to the people who are facing these accusations though, they face some decisions too. And what this administration, when faced with a similar circumstance — our reaction was to try to provide as much information as possible to refute the claims. The incoming administration has relied on secrecy, and I think rather than to refute the claims, it has continued to sow doubt in the minds of the public and apparently in the minds of some media organizations.
Q: And last question, related to all of this — fine, the incoming administration may or may not choose to release this information, but my understanding is that Congress has the power to subpoena even the President — the incoming President to release his tax returns. If I have that right, does the White House feel that that’s something that should be done?
MR. EARNEST: I’m actually not aware of that congressional power. But if it is a power that Congress has, ultimately members of Congress will have to decide for themselves how and whether to exercise it.
This gentleman right here.
Q: Hi. So yesterday, in President Obama’s speech, one of the lines I saw frequently quoted was this idea of leaving the Facebook commenting section and going out and talking to people you disagree with. Do you think that —
MR. EARNEST: He said it a little bit more concisely than you did but — (laughter) —
Q: Do you think that the President and this administration has effectively reached out to those who may not have agreed with this administration’s agenda, whether that’s in the public or on the Hill or elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, this administration has gone to great lengths to try to engage the American public. Sometimes it’s been through the Internet, but oftentimes that’s been in person. President Obama himself has traveled to all 50 states. There were times where we sought out locations where the President could go to communities that had not traditionally supported the President.
Off the top of my head, I can recall last summer, when President Obama traveled to Elkhart, Indiana — a community that has enjoyed a dramatic recovery from the Great Recession. Most analysts acknowledge that that recovery was due to the hard work and grit of the people of Elkhart, but that opportunity would not have been available to them without the tough policy decisions that President Obama made early in his presidency.
And yet, despite the benefits that have been enjoyed by that community as a result of the decisions made by President Obama, President Obama didn’t fare well in that community during his re-elect. So that’s just one example of the President actually seeking out communities that don’t agree with him politically to go and try to make his case in person.
And I’ll say that I think where the President has acknowledged shortcomings on this score is with regard to the organizing that’s done by the Democratic Party. And certainly in the context of the 2016 election, the President has made the argument that Democrats weren’t effective in going out and making the case to communities all across the country about how they had benefitted from the policies that Democrats have championed.
And the President believes that in order for Democrats to do better in future elections, we’re going to need to do a whole lot more of that.
Q: One last question. We saw reports that Sasha wasn’t there last night because she had an exam today. Any news on how that exam went or what class it was in? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a readout of the youngest Obama’s performance in her exam today, but I suspect her parents concluded that her performance on the test would not have been enhanced by returning to the White House at 2:15 in the morning.
Q: Thanks a lot, Josh. You watched the President-elect’s press conference today, you alluded to that —
MR. EARNEST: I saw most of it.
Q: What do you make, I’m curious, of the format of the press conference today? A lot different than what we’re used to in dealing with President Obama —
MR. EARNEST: Including a cheering section, apparently.
Q: — that we’ve had over the course of the past eight years. What’s your view about how they conducted things today?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I think they’re going to have an opportunity to set up the structure of these engagements in the way that they believe best serves the President. And that certainly is a prerogative that they have. I don’t know if that means they’re going to install one of those flashing applause signs in the White House Briefing Room. (Laughter.) But they can do that if they would like.
Look, what you’ve heard me say is that it is important for the people who are in positions of authority to be held accountable. And I do think it was important for the President-elect, after a long delay, to make him available to the reporters who were covering him on a daily basis, even an hourly basis, and to answer their questions. And that was important. And I think the American people and our democracy benefits from him doing that.
Q: As you know, he famously uses Twitter to communicate to the public. What advantages are there, in your view, of just having a regular old press conference and talking to the press corps that covers the President on a daily basis?
MR. EARNEST: Well, obviously, that’s a very different engagement. When the President-elect is on Twitter he is putting forward into the public views and opinions that go virtually unchallenged. At a news conference it’s different. At a news conference, he’s responding to a question, he’ll give an answer, and in many cases is subjected to a follow-up, somebody pressing a little bit more to more directly answer the question, or to account for something that he’s said that may not be consistent with the facts. And that kind of engagement is entirely different than just disseminating information on Twitter.
Q: So you would suggest more — not that the Trump campaign or transition is listening to you at this point — but you would suggest more of these over the course of his presidency?
MR. EARNEST: What I can just say on principle is that I believe that those kinds of engagements in which people in authority are engaging with the reporters who cover them regularly, that’s a good thing for our democracy. There’s an important role for those reporters to play in terms of holding people in power accountable. And it’s good to see people in authority, in positions of authority spending time answering their questions and being held accountable by them in a way that’s public and in a way that everybody can see.
Q: Any possibility of the Clemson football team coming here to the White House? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: There is a friend of mine who is a proud Clemson graduate who did have an opportunity to fly down to Tampa for the game, who emailed me very early yesterday morning — presumably as he was boarding his flight back to D.C. — to find out if that was a possibility. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to arrange a visit on that short a notice.
But obviously, I think Clemson fans have a reason to be real proud of their team, not just in terms of the way that their team performed on the field and beat an Alabama program that I think has — even with the loss has probably achieved the status of a dynasty, but I also think they can be pretty proud of the way that the coaching staff and the players handled themselves in the aftermath of their victory. And I think that was — for their heroic performance in the field, during the game, I think it was their humility and sense of camaraderie that they expressed after the game that really struck me.
So, John Gizzi, I’ll give you the last one.
Q: Thank you, Josh. You said earlier that you would not comment on Rex Tillerson’s hearings, that you wouldn’t pass judgement and leave that up to the Senate in its capacity to advise and consent, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I’ll let the Senate decide. Obviously, it’s the men and women of the Senate who have a responsibility to demand answers from the men and women that President-elect Trump has asked to serve in his Cabinet. And ultimately, they will pass judgement on the qualifications of those individuals that have been put forward by the President-elect.
Q: Now, two good friends and allies of the President, Senator Cory Booker and Congressman John Lewis, are both testifying against Senator Sessions as nominee to be Attorney General. And does what you said about the Tillerson nomination apply to all Cabinet nominations? Do you have a comment on that and on two close allies of the President breaking historical precedent to testify against a nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I would in no way suggest that the standard that I’ve set for the President or for me who have an institutional responsibility to ensure a smooth and effective transition somehow applies to members of the United States Congress. They should make their voices heard, and they should do so consistent with their own judgement about that.
And I think that’s exactly what Congressman Lewis and Senator Booker have done. But President Obama obviously has institutional responsibilities that require him to focus on a transition and not focus on critiquing or criticizing the people that President-elect Trump has appointed to these important positions even if they are not at all the kind of people that President Obama would have appointed.
Q: And did Senator Booker or Congressman Lewis discuss their intention to testify with the President before they did?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that they spoke to the President about it. But even if they did, I’m not sure that it matters.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
END 2:27 P.M. EST