James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:37 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Before we get started, I did want to call to your attention an announcement that was made briefly by the U.S. government earlier this morning.
The United States, this morning, at the WTO, the World Trade Organization, announced that we had filed a case against China for artificially cheap loans from banks and low-priced inputs for Chinese aluminum. The case that we have made is that those cheap loans and low-priced inputs are contributing to excess global capacity and undercutting American workers and businesses.
Today’s action follows numerous bilateral efforts by the Obama administration to persuade China to take strong steps to address the excess capacity situation in its aluminum sector. Those of you who have been following along know that this is the 16th trade enforcement challenge the Obama administration has launched against China at the WTO. It’s a demonstration of our commitment to hold China to its trade obligations.
And, of course, the incoming administration has spoken forcefully about their commitment to standing up for the United States when it comes to global trade. The incoming administration has suggested that they would consider imposing high tariffs and building walls in ways that economists have said would be damaging to workers, U.S. workers, bad for U.S. businesses, bad for U.S. entrepreneurs, bad for the broader American economy, and bad for American college graduates that are entering the workforce.
The Obama administration has taken a different approach. And as I have on a number of a policies, I would invite you to, as you consider the policies that are put forward by the incoming administration, evaluate their performance based on the approach that President Obama has pursued. And I will spare you the long recitation of the dramatic improvement we’ve seen in our economy, because that certainly is the backdrop for all of this.
But when it comes specifically to trade enforcement, you should remember that the United States, during the Obama administration over the last eight years, has filed more cases at the WTO than any other country. Now, in some ways that makes sense because the U.S. economy is so large and benefits from our strong relationships with other countries overseas, but it’s an illustration of how aggressively the Obama administration has worked to protect our economy here in the United States in the context of our trade relationships. Twenty-five cases filed at the WTO against other countries, by the United States, under President Obama’s leadership.
Of those cases, the United States has won every single one that’s been decided. Fourteen of the twenty-five cases have been decided. We’re 14 and 0 in those cases. There are six others that have been settled in our favor. That, of course, means that there are five that are still pending, including the one that was announced today.
Of the 25 that we have filed at the WTO, 16 of them have been filed against China — more than any other country over the last eight years. And as you would expect — those of you who are good at math will predict this — of the cases that have been decided, that we filed against China, we won them all — seven — we’re 7 and 0 — and that included cases that we won at the WTO to protect the American economy related to China policies that impact American-grown agricultural goods, American poultry, American-made manufacturing goods, including high-tech steel, cars and SUVs, airplanes, textiles, and medical products.
So, at some point next year, you will hear a robust case from the incoming administration about their proposal to ensure that America and our economy is protected when it comes to global trade. They’ll have a very high standard to meet when you consider the success of the Obama administration, not just in terms of bringing these cases to the WTO, but also when you consider the performance of our broader economy.
So with that, we’ll go to your questions. Vivian, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to the briefing room.
Q: Hi, thanks. I moved in a little early.
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) Good. Why don’t you get us started today?
Q: Sure. So the transition team has been really touting the fact that they have not had a very easygoing — with the hearings — that the Obama administration, they say, kind of had smooth sailing through their nominees, that their nominees had smooth sailing throughout their whole process. And so I just wanted to kind of hear your thoughts on that. Is there sort of a partisan push against their hearings? Do you feel that their nominees have in any way kind of had it a little bit more difficult than President Obama’s nominees when they first were coming in?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there are a lot of explanations that people can consider for this broader phenomenon. Certainly when you consider the way that Republicans in the Senate treated Obama nominees, the claim is laughable.
The President of the United States put forward the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in American history. Merrick Garland had more experience on the federal bench than any other Supreme Court nominee since the dawn of our Republic. He was recognized by Republicans as somebody who would be a consensus choice. He was somebody that had a sterling legal career and somebody who served this country as a law enforcement official, including leading the investigation and prosecution of one of the worst terrorists in American history. Republicans did not raise any sort of objection about his credentials, but they refused to even consider this nomination because he was appointed by a Democratic President. It’s outrageous. Outrageous.
I noted yesterday — maybe it was the day before — the disparate treatment, shall we say, afforded by Chairman Chuck Grassley of the Judiciary Committee in terms of the way that President Obama’s nominee to be Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, was handled, and the way that President Trump’s nominee, Jeff Sessions, has been handled, despite having what I think just about everybody acknowledges is some controversy in his past.
So I think this is a very difficult case for the incoming administration to make. But if they want to make it, they can.
Q: You talked about the trade enforcement. I wanted to ask you about an environmental enforcement issue. The EPA today said it’s accusing Fiat Chrysler of excess diesel emissions, something that could come with a maximum fine of about $4.6 billion. And the CEO today called this “absolute nonsense,” in his words, and said the EPA was “grandstanding,” said that the matter could have been settled or handled without such a public announcement. I’m just wondering if you can talk a little bit about whether the White House signed off on what the EPA did today, why the EPA decided to make this announcement today, the importance of it.
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that enforcement decisions at the EPA are made by officials at the EPA, and I’m not aware of any White House involvement in this particular matter. The President’s expectation is that officials at the EPA will fulfill their duty to enforce the laws and enforce regulations that are on the books, but how exactly they do that is up to enforcement officials at the EPA.
So for how this particular case was handled, I’d refer you to the EPA, but the President certainly does retain confidence in the important work that’s done by the EPA and retains confidence in their ability to effectively enforce the law.
Q: And the CEO said that the company plans to work with the incoming administration to put the matter behind them. Do you think that it would appropriate for the incoming administration to deal with this kind of enforcement issue directly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, with regard to how the incoming administration chooses to handle this matter, I’ll obviously defer to them. But the respect that we have shown the enforcement process by ensuring that politics does not infect it is a tradition and precedent that we believe is worth upholding, and it’s one that we have rigorously upheld over the course of the last eight years and hopefully that will persist into the next administration.
Q: And lastly, did the President ask Director Clapper to call President-elect Trump last night?
MR. EARNEST: He did not. He did not. I saw the statement from Director Clapper, but that call was not placed at the urging of the White House. I can’t speak to what may have led to the phone call that occurred between the Director of National Intelligence and the President-elect last night. You should check with Director Clapper’s office.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Have you talked to the President about the Donald Trump press conference yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President about the news conference yesterday. As I have mentioned, I am sure that he has followed the extensive news coverage, but I’m not aware that he watched it in real time and I have not had a chance to talk to him about it.
Q: Okay. And looking at an exchange like that, towards the start of the presser and the way the President-elect handled questions that were shouted out, what are your thoughts on that and how it bodes for moving forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the best way for me to answer that question is to talk about my own experience having worked in the White House Press Office for the last eight years.
As all of you know — except maybe you, Vivian, but maybe everyone else knows and maybe you’ve heard — there are ample occasions where I and some of my White House colleagues have not agreed with the way that certain journalists have chosen to ask questions of the President. Sometimes we’ve been frustrated by the number of questions that are asked in one exchange. Sometimes we’ve been frustrated that questions include either questionable or inaccurate premises. In some cases, we’ve been frustrated that the line of questioning from a number of journalists has been focused on the same thing. There are other occasions where I’ve expressed to journalists some frustration with their decision to interrupt the President as he’s giving his answer to try to press him more forcefully. And there have even been occasions where the President himself has betrayed a little frustration about that.
But I think, even at those moments where our frustration has been most acute, I can never recall a scenario in which I was tempted to throw somebody out of the room.
MR. EARNEST: Um. (Laughter.) I can certainly say that that’s nothing that I ever threatened to do, even if the thought did cross my mind.
But, look, this is part of the process. This is what it means to engage with the press corps. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that many of the speakers — because there was more than just one yesterday — hard-pressed to make the case that they didn’t invite a little conflict and friction. There were some pretty tough, even outrageous claims that were made. So it’s not hard to see how that kind of environment is shaped by the people who organized the event.
But ultimately, this exchange of ideas is good for the country. This questioning of people in authority by independent journalists is important to our democracy. That’s what we need to — that’s what ensures the health of our democracy.
And so it’s important that — I guess my point is I want to make sure that I don’t say something in this context, even as I cite my own experience, that would dissuade the incoming administration from participating in this process. It’s good for the country. And the President-elect himself indicated that he thought it was good for him — at least it was in the context of the primaries. So I hope that, recognizing that he felt like it was in his interest, hopefully he will recognize that it’s also in the interest of the country for him to engage in those kinds of question-and-answer sessions. So I hope he’ll work with his staff to continue to do that.
Q: Going way beyond this one notable press conference, though — I mean, there’s been this effort on the part of the Trump team to call entire news organizations purveyors of fake news from time to time. I mean, sometimes those designations change, but that’s been the case from the beginning of the campaign. And now that phrase, “fake news,” seems to be part of their criticism after certain reports have aired, or whatever. The President has had a lot to say about fake news lately and inaccuracies that are out there, but this seems to be like that designation is being turned on its head, that when certain elements are critical, now that’s being labeled “fake news,” so it kind of muddies the line as to who’s calling what fake.
So what are your concerns about that? I mean, do you feel like freedom of the press is going to be one of those things that can fall by the wayside?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I certainly hope not. Our country benefits from a free and independent media holding those in power accountable. There are not a lot of countries where that’s exactly what happens. In many countries, there’s not this — well, first of all, in some countries, there isn’t a free and independent media. In other countries, there isn’t the same tradition where there is — tends to be a little friction between the press corps and those who are in positions of authority. So the United States is relatively unique in having and fostering that kind of environment because we believe that it’s good for the country.
And as I’ve mentioned before, the philosophy that I brought to this job is not to insist that all of you write stories or broadcast packages that make the President look good. If that were my charge I would have gotten fired a long time ago because I failed miserably. (Laughter.) My charge has been to try to facilitate a relationship between the White House Press Corps and the White House that provides you with the information and access that you need to help the American people understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
And the essence of that relationship will include some friction because the White House Press Corps, as you should, is always going to be demanding more — more news conferences, more access, more transparency. That’s your job. It’s not your job to be satisfied; it’s your job to be demanding more. So there’s going to be some built-in friction. And I’ve often said that if there’s a day that that friction doesn’t exist, it’s an indication that somebody on one side or the other isn’t doing their job.
So what I’ve tried to do is to make sure that we — that even as that friction exists, that we not allow that friction to prevent either side from being able to effectively do their job. If so much friction builds up that you get so frustrated that nobody will return your call, that may mean you’re less likely to call and get to the bottom of the story. That’s a natural human reaction. So I certainly want to prevent that from happening.
On the other side, if the White House gets so frustrated with the coverage that they say, well, I’m just not going to engage with the press anymore, they engage in some kind of bunker mentality, well, that’s not going to be good either and that’s certainly not going to improve our coverage.
So trying to keep the friction at a low boil — at the risk of mixing metaphors — is the job of the person who stands behind this podium every day. And that’s what I’ve tried to do. And the President believes that that actually — like I said, if you have confidence in the arguments that you’re making and you’ve got confidence that there are professionals in the audience that actually want to use their skills as a journalist to get to the bottom of what’s actually happening, you should have a lot of confidence about presenting your arguments. Because if you present your arguments in an effective way and you’re actually doing the right thing, then you’re going to end up persuading a lot of people about the wisdom of your approach.
And I think the President’s strong approval ratings right now I think is an indication that we might be on to something.
Q: I guess to boil this down very simply, have you seen enough, or has the administration seen enough at this point to have real concerns about the way this new administration handles the press? Are you disturbed by it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there’s no doubt that there are a variety of substantive and stylistic differences between the incoming President and his team and the outgoing President and his team. And they extend to a variety of areas. They obviously have taken a different approach when it comes to dealing with the media. But all I can do, I think at this point, is to make a case about the virtues of the strategies that we’ve employed. But ultimately the incoming President and his team are going to implement strategies that they believe serves them and the country best. And we’ll have to see what they choose.
Q: Thanks. Just to follow up on Michelle’s line of questioning — the Turkish President, President Erdogan, basically backed up President-elect Trump in how he handled the CNN reporter’s questions yesterday, saying that he put him in his place. I know the White House has had a long history of criticizing the Turkish government’s handling of the free press, so I’m wondering what your reaction is to the fact that Turkey seems to be happy with how President-elect Trump is handling the press so far.
MR. EARNEST: I had not read about the Turkish President’s comment, but I’m not particularly surprised, given the treatment of journalists by the government in Turkey.
Turkey is a NATO ally, and the United States stands strongly with Turkey and works closely with Turkey to protect our mutual interests and also to protect the national security of Turkey. We continue to do that, and the American people and the world benefits from that close relationship. At the same time, that close relationship has not prevented us from speaking out and expressing our deeps concerns about the treatment of independent journalists in Turkey, who too often are imprisoned or silenced.
I recall that even when a senior Turkish official traveled to the United States, there was a physical altercation between that senior official’s security detail and Turkish journalists. That obviously was not something that the United States was prepared to tolerate on our soil, and we spoke out against it and, as I recall, there were security officials from the United States that intervened.
I noted earlier, the United States and our tradition in this country and in our politics of having a robust, vigorous exchange between those in positions of authority and independent media is important, and we believe that that strengthens our democracy. And if you have confidence in the arguments that you’re making, then you should have confidence in your ability to go and make that case to the press. And if you don’t, it may not just raise questions about your strategy for dealing with the media, it may raise questions about the confidence you have in the arguments that you have to defend.
Q: I have a question about — a couple of my colleagues had an interview with the Vice President earlier, and the Vice President said that he believes that some of the President-elect’s comments about the intelligence community, criticizing their actions so far, have already had a negative impact on our national security and have already helped Russia. Does the President agree with that assessment?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I know that Director Clapper was asked about this before Congress last week, and he expressed his concern about the impact that some of the President-elect’s comments could have on the morale of the men and women of the intelligence community. So I think Vice President Biden is expressing a concern that other leaders in the intelligence community have expressed.
The other thing that I’ll say about this is something that I’m confident that Vice President Biden agrees with me on, which is that the men and women of the United States intelligence community are professionals and they are patriots, and they set aside their own ideological and political views when they are focused on their task. These are also individuals who are not likely to be cowed by criticism.
So I think — I retain a lot of confidence that the men and women of the intelligence community are going to continue to do their job and do it as effectively as they ever have. And they make a substantial contribution to our national security. And President Obama has relied on them, the American people have relied on them to keep us safe over the last eight years, and we’re going to be counting on them as much as we ever have to do the important work that they do every day to keep us safe.
Q: Part of the interview — part of the argument that the Vice President made in the interview was that, basically Russia is benefitting from sort of the chaos and the confusion over whether or not the intelligence community is correct or is right with their assessments, and he made the argument that the President-elect is fomenting some of that by questioning their values. So does the President agree that Russia is benefitting from this chaos, from this lack of certainty and the lack of confidence in the intelligence community being propagated by the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, there’s no doubt that before the election, the intelligence community issued a statement indicating their belief — their conclusion that Russia was engaged in malicious cyber activity to try to undermine public confidence in our election system and in our democracy. So that’s — again, I think the Vice President is just giving voice to something that the intelligence community observed before the election that Russia believed that they would somehow benefit from undermining confidence in our democracy.
And that’s obviously something that this administration takes quite seriously. That’s why the President ordered such a vigorous response to those Russian efforts. That’s why the President ordered the — or directed the intelligence community to compile this report and to brief it to him, to the President-elect, and to members of Congress, because all of them are going to have a role moving forward in ensuring that the United States is protected from our adversaries, particularly those that are willing to try to undermine our democracy.
Q: In talking about the press conference yesterday, you said that some of the tough questioning was justified. I think you were saying this because some of the claims that were being made by Mr. Trump and his attorney. What were some of the more outrageous claims that were being made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I’m not going to offer up my own commentary from here. I’ll let other people make those kinds of observations about which particular comments they found to be particularly troubling, or offensive, or whatever else they may say.
I think the point that I’m making is that the kind of contentious environment that was in place at the news conference — and I think that was pretty obvious to everybody who was watching — was not one-sided. I think it seemed pretty evident that the President-elect and his team felt like they were going to benefit from a pretty raucous environment in which some pretty strong charges were traded back and forth.
And, look, the kinds of engagements that we have sought with the press have been of a different tone and tenor, but ultimately the incoming President and his team will have to determine exactly how they want these kinds of interactions to go and what kind of relationship he wants to have with the White House Press Corps.
Q: I only brought it up because you said you’ve thought about it. On the issue of — you may have answered this yesterday — but on the general question of Mr. Trump and his business and these possible conflicts of interest and so forth, and how he has made this arrangement to address that, in his view — what is the President’s thinking about that?
And I know you’ve said in the past how they have different financial situations and he went overboard to put his few thousand dollars in the — someplace in bonds, I think it was when — but just generally, what is the President’s thinking about what Mr. Trump is doing, particularly given the concern that this could threaten — that it could be something that could not just be embarrassing to him or threaten him but the country at large as a security issue?
MR. EARNEST: Look, there are obviously oversight responsibilities that are housed at the Office of Government Ethics. Congress has some important oversight responsibilities. There are important rules and regulations that are on the books. But what’s also important is the standard that’s set at the very top. And that’s why the President — why President Obama did undertake the extraordinary step of essentially liquidating all his assets, plowing them into treasuries.
And as I pointed out before, that wasn’t a smart financial decision because that coincided with a pretty dramatic reduction in interest rates, which hurt his return. But ultimately, that was a good decision for the country because there was no question about whether or not he had a financial motive to make a particular decision. He didn’t. He was making a particular decision only because he believed it was in the best interest of the country, not because he had some ulterior financial motive, or there wasn’t even the appearance that he could have a potential ulterior motive.
That served the country well. It took that question off the table. It also sent a strong signal to other officials in the United States government about the kind of ethical standard that they should maintain. This is a high standard that went above and beyond ethical regulations that were on the books. And that’s why the President is extraordinarily proud of the fact that there hasn’t been a major scandal in his administration over eight years.
Q: Does the President think Mr. Trump should do more than he has in this area?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that Mr. Trump is going to make his own decisions about the most effective way to deal with this particular situation.
I would stipulate, as the President has on a number of occasions, that Mr. Trump’s financial situation, given his wealth, is more complicated than the situation that President Obama faced. So I’m not suggesting that Mr. Trump has to do exactly the same thing that President Obama did. I think a reasonable person would acknowledge that it’s going to have to be treated differently given the size of his wealth. But I know that there are a number of people who are experts in this field
— Democrats and Republicans — who have expressed significant concern that the steps that were announced yesterday by the President-elect didn’t go nearly far enough to resolve these kinds of questions.
But for the response to this, we’re going to — the American people are going to be relying on those agencies that have the responsibility of setting ethical standards, and we’re going to also be relying on the United States Congress to provide the kind of oversight that must be provided, and ultimately the President-elect is going to have to decide what kind of leadership he wants to show.
Q: Just one other thing. The Senate moved last night about — on the Affordable Care Act and beginning to repeal Obamacare. What’s the — well, you’ve had a lot to say about this, so I’m trying to just kind of get to the nub of it.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: Is this fight now over, or is there something still — or do you —
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s only just begun. I was just looking — because as somebody who has been doing this job for a couple of years, I’ve got an appreciation for people who are able to summarize a complex situation in a rather pithy phrase. Sometimes I’m able to do that; sometimes I’m not. But I can appreciate when somebody else does it well. And I did happen to notice, thanks to the eagle eye of one member of our staff, a comment from Congressman MacArthur from New Jersey — this is a conservative Republican, somebody that I’ve never had a chance to meet. And when he was asked about the wisdom of the approach that Republicans were pursuing to repeal the Affordable Care Act and come up with a replacement at some indefinite point in the future, he put forward, I think, a rather apt metaphor. I don’t have it in front of me unfortunately, but he said something like: I want to know — before we take action with this loaded gun, I want to know where it’s pointed.
I think that is a pretty apt metaphor. There are going to be very serious consequences for repealing the Affordable Care Act, as we’ve discussed in here extensively. It’s going to have life-and-death consequences for some people in this country. And before the trigger is pulled, the United States Congress should be wise to understand exactly where it’s pointed. They should understand exactly what the consequences are going to be of them taking this action. They should understand who’s going to be hurt. They should understand who’s standing in the line of fire. Right now, there are 30 million Americans that are standing in the line of fire. Because if Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, 30 million Americans are going to lose their health insurance. 130 million Americans, it was recently found, have a preexisting condition. And if Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, those 130 million Americans are going to have protections stripped away that, thanks to the Affordable Care Act, prevent insurance companies from discriminating against them because of the preexisting conditions. So the consequences are great for a great many number of Americans.
So I thought that was a pretty apt metaphor, with all compliments to Congressman MacArthur. I don’t know if he’ll consider it a compliment or not, but that’s how I mean it.
There’s one other statistic I thought that was interesting, and we can provide you some more details on this. In 2014 — this is according to a government study — in 2014, 1.4 million marketplace consumers were either self-employed, small business owners, or both. 1.4 million Americans who purchased their health insurance through the marketplace. So if those marketplaces go away, we’re talking about small business owners who are going to be hurt. We’re talking about people who are self-employed, people who try to start their own business are going to be hurt.
And there was a study that was done about those states that have the highest share of small business owners who rely on marketplace coverage. These are states that represented in the United States Congress by Republicans. Idaho, Florida, Montana, Maine, and North Carolina have some of the highest share of small business owners who rely on the marketplace for health insurance coverage. So the senators from those states I think are going to have some explaining to do, why they voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But I guess, to go back to your original question, no, this isn’t over — it’s just beginning.
Q: Thanks, Josh. I want to ask you about the severe weather that seems to be plaguing many places in the West, in particular in California. Is the President aware of the flooding situation there? And has he been in contact, or has the White House been in contact with officials in the West to try to help mitigate the problem?
MR. EARNEST: Yes — this is a situation that the White House is following. Obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those whose lives have been upended by the severe weather, not just in California, but throughout the West. So this is something that we continue to watch closely.
Obviously, my colleagues at FEMA are the ones who are directly in touch with state and local first responders to make sure that they have the resources that they need. We can check on what sort of White House communications there have been with state and local officials, but I’d refer you to my colleagues at FEMA who can give you a better account of what kinds of conversations they’ve had with officials at the local level who are responding to the situation and trying to meet the immediate needs of those Americans whose lives have been significantly affected by this dangerous winter storm.
Q: No disaster declarations as yet?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but we can certainly track — we can track that for you.
Q: Thanks. As far as the U.S. response to — how do I put this — there has been some concerns by many people watching the destabilizing of Eastern Europe for quite some time. And as a response to that, and in an attempt to further secure the safety and security of many of our allies in that part of the world, the U.S. is now poised to put troops, I’m understanding, in Poland. Can you give an update on that? And what’s the thinking behind making a decision like that, which will be seen as provocative by some, say, the Kremlin, for example?
MR. EARNEST: So, Kevin, as you’ll recall, when we were at the NATO Summit over the summer, in Poland, coincidentally enough, that this was an announcement that was made by our NATO allies to increase the deployment of military forces on NATO’s eastern flank. This included in the Baltics and in Poland. And the United States, Canada, and a couple of other NATO members were deploying troops to NATO’s eastern flank to shore up our defenses.
We made very clear from the beginning — and let me repeat — this deployment is defensive in nature; it is intended entirely to shore up our defenses along the eastern flank. It is motivated, at least in part, by some of the destabilizing and even escalatory actions that the Russian military has undertaken over the last year or so. We continue to be concerned about that. So I think this does — I know that the announcement about the deployment of U.S. troops is indicative of the depth of this administration’s and this country’s commitment to our NATO Alliance.
For the operational details about sort of the timing — I know that some of these movements have already begun — but for the number of troops and the equipment that’s been deployed, or will be deployed, it’s something that my colleagues at the Department of Defense can help you understand.
Q: Let me stay on that for just a second. In terms of Russia, Vice President Biden made some interesting comments about the decrease in our nuclear stockpile while the Russians continue to not only maintain — in fact, they’re attempting to — he didn’t say “grow,” but they certainly have not decreased their stockpile. I’m just curious, now that we’re going to be going into a new administration, how concerned is the White House now, this administration, as it leaves that the posture, the American posture in terms of nuclear stockpile management — decreases — will change under a Trump administration — potentially change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll leave it to the next administration to describe what their plans are. I certainly can help you understand what our approach has been, and our approach has been — you know, you’ll recall that early in this administration, in 2010, Congress — the Senate did ratify the New START Treaty that did make commitments to the — that did put into force commitments that were made by the United States and Russia to reduce our nuclear stockpiles. And that obviously was an important step to promote the security not just of the United States and Russia, but of countries all around the world.
Q: Are they living up to it?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll refer you to the State Department for an updated assessment of exactly what they have done. We have been pleased with some of the steps that they have taken. We have been concerned with some of the other steps that they have taken. But for a detailed accounting of how all that washes out, I’d refer you to the State Department.
But what the United States has done is preserved our ability, beyond any doubt, to protect the United States and to protect the American people. That’s not going to change, and we continue to be confident of that. In fact, President Obama has proposed a significant investment in modernizing our arsenal of nuclear weapons to ensure that they remain modernized, effective, to minimize the risk of any mistakes or accidents, and to ensure that that arsenal is in place to protect the American people.
But the stockpile reduction that the Vice President discussed yesterday would enhance our national security. It is consistent with the way that we have tried to implement a policy to ensure that the United States of America is protected even as we make some reasonable steps — take some reasonable steps to reduce the risk of proliferation, reduce the risk of an accident or disaster, and reduce the cost to taxpayers. As we reduce the stockpile, we can reduce the resources that are necessary to protect it, to modernize it. This would also be in the category of ensuring that we are efficiently and effectively using taxpayer dollars.
Q: Even if the Russians don’t follow suit and reduce their stockpile?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, what we have seen, we have seen some steps that were taken by Russia to reduce their stockpile. There are some other steps they’ve taken that we haven’t been particularly happy with. But we continue to be focused on ensuring that all the necessary steps are taken to protect the United States of America. That’s been true over the last eight years, and that will be true until the President’s last day in office.
Q: And last one. Has the United States ever engaged in malicious cyber activity in an attempt to undermine the leadership of another country?
MR. EARNEST: Listen, I don’t have any covert cyber operations to talk about from here. That may not be surprising to you. But —
Q: Because you mentioned that Russia did, and our intelligence officials say they did. The pushback I’ve read is, well, the U.S. does it, too. And so because we’re not privy to that information I’m always curious how we can look at someone else and say, well, they’re doing this and they’re doing that, when, in fact — or at least in principle — we certainly might be doing something similar.
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say as a general matter with regard to Russia’s activity in the context of the 2016 election, it is not accurate to say that the United States did it first. What I can tell you is something that the President himself has said, which is the United States retains significant offensive cyber capabilities. Those offensive cyber capabilities are much stronger than the capabilities that are retained by any other country. And the work to ensure that we maintain that edge continues.
But what’s also true is, given the advanced nature of our economy, and given the way that our economy and our way of life is quite dependent on the Internet and being able to remain connected, the United States is also vulnerable in this realm in a way that a lot of other countries aren’t, which makes this a particularly thorny policy situation that the next administration is going to have to deal with. Of course, this administration has been very forceful not just in developing our offensive capabilities but also in strengthening and refining our defensive capabilities.
And unfortunately, we’ve not gotten the support from the Congress that we would like to further invest in those defensive capabilities. And maybe the Republicans in Congress will be more receptive to those kinds of arguments that are made by a Republican President — because the fact is the country has been hurt by the failure of Republicans in Congress to act on the specific recommendations that we put forward with regard to enhancing our cybersecurity.
Q: Vice President Biden told reporters earlier today that he was surprised that those unverified claims regarding the President-elect and Russia were brought to his level and the attention of the President. Did President Obama also have that reaction? Was he surprised that it reached his desk?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about that. I know that there is a reference to this in the statement that Director Clapper issued last night, but he obviously has a longer leash when it comes to discussing classified information or information that has been presented in classified form to senior officials, including the President. I just don’t have quite that latitude.
So with regard to the decision about what to include in an intelligence briefing that’s presented to the President of the United States, that’s certainly something that Director Clapper can speak to.
Q: You started off talking about China and then a trade option that was taken. Was that coordinated with the incoming administration, this decision to go to the WTO? And the detailed factsheet put out underscores how much this dumping of metals has hurt American workers. Is there any sense of regret in the administration not having acted earlier, given the amount of angst and rhetoric there’s been about American workers not being defended enough by this administration, at least on the campaign trail?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think when you consider the entirety of the record that I laid out at the beginning, I think there is no legitimate argument to be made about the forceful efforts that we’ve undertaken to protect the American people and protect the American economy from unfair trade practices originating anywhere around the world, but particularly in China. That is something that we have made a priority, and the American people and our economy have benefitted from it.
With regard to the timing of this announcement, I would just note that there were, as I mentioned, numerous bilateral efforts by the Obama administration to persuade China to take strong steps to address the excess capacity in the aluminum sector. So that would explain the timing, which is, we tried to work this out before we went and filed the case at the WTO.
But we haven’t shown any hesitation about filing cases with the WTO. The United States, under President Obama’s leadership, has filed more cases at the WTO than any other country in the world. And all of the cases that have been decided have been decided — that we have filed are cases that we’ve won. So that, I think, should be an indication of just how rigorous a process we pursue in protecting the American people, in protecting the American economy, and, most importantly, protecting American workers.
I think it would probably be an overstatement to suggest that we coordinated this announcement with the incoming administration, but I’m sure that they were informed one way or another this step as we were taking it.
Q: As recently I think as September, President Obama brought this up with Xi when he was in China.
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct.
Q: So you’re saying the President’s own personal attempts to persuade Chinese leadership failed? That’s what led to this decision to file a complaint?
MR. EARNEST: I think what you can assume is that these kinds of matters are important enough to President Obama that he doesn’t hesitate to raise them at the highest levels of the Chinese government. And when we don’t see the kind of response that we would like to see, on the timeline that we would like to see it, then we don’t hesitate to go to the World Trade Organization and hold them accountable for their actions. And thus far, when we’ve done that, we haven’t lost a case.
Q: Lastly, you also had a number of announcements from the State Department, from Treasury, and then from the NSC here in regard to Syria touting the first actions against Syrian officials for using chemical weapons. Why did it take so long, given that your own releases acknowledged that there were attacks in 2013 and every year since the initial U.S.-recognized attack that nearly led to U.S. military action? Why now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to understand that this was obviously not the only response. The United States did succeed in 2014, in working closely with Russia, to persuade the Assad regime to declare the existence of their chemical weapons stockpile, to cooperate with an international effort to secure those weapons and destroy them. And that, obviously, is a step that didn’t just enhance the security of the people in Syria who were facing the brunt of these chemical attacks, but it also reduced — it eliminated the risk that any of those weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists who might use them other places.
So we obviously were pleased about the impact of that step. What we have been concerned about since has been the willingness of the Assad regime to weaponized otherwise legitimate industrial compounds, like chlorine, and use them to wreak havoc, attack, wound, and kill innocent people, innocent Syrians. And so that’s why, again, you’ve seen the forceful response both in terms of the priority we placed in rounding up and destroying their declared chemical weapons stockpile, but also in terms of holding accountable, at least through financial sanctions, those who were involved in producing these weapons and carrying out these attacks.
There have also been international efforts that have been supported by the United States to have a broader international investigation into war crimes about the use of these kinds of tactics and the use of these kinds of weapons. So I think you have seen — I know you have seen a robust response from the United States with regard to the use of chemical weapons that is commensurate with the national security interests that this question raises for the United States of America.
Q: But the administration has called out the use of weaponized chemicals for years now, post that agreement that you reference — in fact, in violation, you’ve also said, of that agreement in many ways, at least in principle. So why now sanction if these are well-recognized attacks? At least from a unilateral position, these sanctions could have happened much earlier.
MR. EARNEST: Well, with regard to the precise timing for these individuals, when they were put forward, I’d refer you to the Treasury Department, because obviously they have to do the forensic work to determine exactly the most effective way to implement these kinds of penalties. This obviously stems from the intensive investigations that they do in the financial sector. They obviously work closely with the intelligence community to develop these options. But it does indicate another element of our forceful response on this matter.
Q: So would it be wrong to assume that the U.S. attempts at diplomatic efforts with the Assad regime via Russia, and the long, drawn-out, ultimately fruitless process is actually what caused the administration to pause before acting?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think you’d have to ask the Treasury Department for the precise timing. I think what is true is that Russia has failed time and time again to get their client-state in line. They have refused to stand up to them. They refused to persuade them. And I don’t know if that’s because they are unwilling to make a forceful case, or they’re unable to get the weakened Assad regime, their only client-state in the Middle East, to listen to them. And that’s been a subject of disappointment, and there have been a lot of lives lost as a result of Russia’s failure on that score. But for why exactly that happened, I guess you could consult with the Russians.
Q: The Justice Department inspector general is going to investigate FBI actions before the election with regard the probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Is that something that has been supported or sanctioned by the White House? And what questions do you think remain open about the FBI’s behavior regarding this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, decisions that are made by inspectors general across the administration are independent. And this administration has assiduously protected the independence of inspectors general, so we wouldn’t weigh in publicly or privately on any sort of investigative decision that’s made by an inspector general. Presumably, the stakes are even higher for an inspector general who has a responsibility for conducting these kinds of investigations of independent law enforcement agencies.
So I can tell you that the White House was not involved in that decision. And anything the inspector general chooses to investigate is something that he will do — he or she will do based on their view of the situation, based on their own knowledge of the facts. And hopefully they will follow the evidence where it leads, if they find any evidence.
Q: And a Chinese aircraft carrier into Taiwanese not exactly territorial waters, but the Air Identification Zone — I wondered if you had a reaction to that, if the U.S. government stepped in in any way to kind of defuse that situation.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a formal U.S. government response to that matter to share with you. We can see if there was any sort of reciprocal action or response from the U.S. with regard to that specific operation that was carried out by the Chinese navy.
What I can tell you is we have long encouraged both sides to look for ways to prevent tensions from escalating, and we believe that — look, one of the goals of our one-China policy is to prevent tensions from escalating, both because we don’t want tensions about that matter to interfere with our ability to work with China on a range of areas where we can make progress together, but also because obviously we value our interactions with the Taiwanese, including with regard to our trading relationship with them.
But for a more specific response to this Chinese military operation, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q: Okay. And you referenced the one-China policy. Do you — are you drawing a line between what Trump did with regard to the telephone call and what the Chinese are doing?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m just trying to do is to restate the policy that we have pursued, and the reason for it. And there are a variety of reasons for it, but one of them is that we believe it’s in the interest of the United States for tensions in that region of the world to not escalate, particularly between China and Taiwan. And the effective implementation of the one-China policy has been largely successful on that score. But obviously the incoming administration will have to make up their own mind about how and whether to pursue their relationship with China and with Taiwan.
Q: Josh, it’s been reported that Chelsea Manning is on the President’s short list for commutation or pardon. Can you confirm that?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t. I’ve seen those reports, of course. There is a well-established process for individuals to seek clemency from the President of the United States. That is a process that has been organized by the Department of Justice who will review those petitions for clemency. But I don’t have any comment on any of the petitions that have been submitted thus far. I can’t even confirm the existence of a petition or rely on those who are filing the petitions to indicate whether or not they filed them. And this applies not just to people like Chelsea Manning, but also applies to people like Governor Rod Blagojevich whose representatives have made clear that he would like some clemency from the President of the United States. But I just don’t have any comment on those potential applications.
Q: There is an organized set process, correct. There’s also a limited amount of time before the President can act. It was rumored that he might make those announcements yesterday. Can you give us any idea when we could expect them?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any update on timing of any potential clemency announcements.
Q: This week?
MR. EARNEST: I just don’t have any update on that.
Q: The Congressional Progressive Caucus has written a letter to President Obama, signed by 40 other Democrats, imploring the President to take bold action to follow up on his campaign promise to close Guantanamo. And the main point was that they didn’t want to give President-elect Trump another tool to place detainees in the future. Is the President going to be able to respond in a manner that the CPC is going to look upon favorably?
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen the letter from the CPC. I can tell you that the President has obviously made the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay a top priority. There’s a reason that he announced his proposal to close the prison on his, I believe, it was his first or second full day in office. So the President has made this a priority, and there are a number of reforms with regard to national security that we have successfully implemented, including in the use of torture.
But with regard to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, we’ve encountered significant obstacles from Congress — Democrats and Republicans, disappointingly. And what the President has pursued is an effort to responsibly review the case files of every detainee. Those case files were reviewed by representatives from six different national security agencies. A large number of those detainees were approved for transfer to other countries under a set of specific security requirements that would limit their ability to strengthen the United States once they were transferred.
By implementing that process, we have succeeded in dramatically reducing the population at Guantanamo Bay. It’s down in the mid-50s I believe, last time I checked. And if there are additional transfers to tell you about, we’ll certainly make those — if there are additional transfers, we will tell you about them. We always announce them publicly. But the President believes that this is in the best interest of the country, both because there are significant taxpayer dollars that are expended to maintain the prison there. It’s inefficient to maintain that facility. And we’re spending too much money to house those detainees when you consider that they could be housed at a much lower cost in the United States and would not endanger the American people.
We also know — and this is something that military officials have also concluded, national security experts in both parties have concluded — that we know that terrorist organizations are using the continuing operation of the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool. And I think that’s an indication of an unwise policy, to put it mildly. So that’s why the President has made a forceful case. Unfortunately, we’ve run into far too many obstacles in Congress, but we’ve made a lot of progress in getting the population of the prison at Guantanamo Bay down to a much smaller level.
Q: Does the President share concerns with the CPC that he’s leaving a tool out there for Donald Trump to use and that they’ll just reverse the progress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly have been concerned by some of the rhetoric that we heard during the campaign about the potential that the incoming President would fill it up, I think he colorfully described the prison there. That obviously is inconsistent with the policy that we have implemented. The Obama administration has never transferred somebody to the prison at Guantanamo Bay. We have been able to rely upon the strength of our criminal justice system to detain, prosecute, and put away terrorists that threaten the United States. We have not had to rely on the prison at Guantanamo Bay to do that. So I think the President’s record, when it comes to implementing a foreign policy that keeps us safe and is consistent with our values, is quite strong and one that the next administration will be challenged to live up to.
Q: Two quick, lighter questions. Our cameras caught the President over on the steps of the EEOB shaking hands with staff. Could you tell us what was happening there? Was he just thanking them for their service?
MR. EARNEST: I believe — and we can double-check this — that the President was greeting and taking a picture with members of the United States Digital Service. You’ll recall that one of the President’s initiatives was actually to recruit some of the best talent from Silicon Valley. These were individuals who have a particular expertise when it comes to technology. And many of them, after working in Silicon Valley, determined that they wanted to pursue a career in public service. So they have been, in some cases, volunteering their time to go work at government agencies and help improve what government agencies do to protect their networks from malicious cyber activity; to make their communication with the public more seamless and more effective; to help them refine the decisions that they’re making with regard to procuring IT technology — or IT equipment to enhance their systems.
There’s a lot of work that can be done to improve the way the government uses technology to be more effective and to keep us safe. And so the President has got a soft spot for the men and women who have signed up for that service. Many of them are individuals who could be making a whole lot more money in the private sector, but because of their commitment to this country and their patriotism, they’re serving this country in the United States Digital Service. And the President is grateful to them for their work, and the work that they have done has made a genuine impact on the American people and on the way the federal government serves the people.
Q: You also said the President will take the First Lady someplace warm after they leave office next Friday. I was just looking ahead on the 10-day forecast and some of the hot spots that the President has gone to lately — or frequently, actually. (Laughter.) And in Honolulu, it’s going to be in the mid-70s, but chance of rain —
MR. EARNEST: Yeah.
Q: — probably not ideal, right? (Laughter.) Palm Springs, kind of in the low 60s — it’s 65 degrees here today. So weather can be unpredictable. (Laughter.) Do you have any more to say about where the President might go when he leaves office?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t at this point. I admire your investigative journalism, though. (Laughter.) That was excellent work. The President is looking forward to getting out of town, and hopefully the weather will cooperate, regardless of where they go.
Q: Ginger Zee has nothing to worry about. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: John, in the back.
Q: Back to the Justice IG review. What do you make that Justice is saying they decided to do this review at the behest of multiple not just ranking members, Democrats, but Republican chairmen around the election? We heard a lot about, it’s just sour grapes, it’s inconsequential, not going to affect the election — or it didn’t affect the election. What do you make of Republicans wanting this review?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I can’t speak to the conversations that the Inspector General has had with members of Congress, so I’ll let the Inspector General speak for himself or herself with regard to why they chose to pursue this investigation.
Q: And last week you mentioned, as far as who is the leader of the Democratic Party next Friday at around 12:01 p.m., you said it might be by committee. You and I are probably familiar with the old saying, if you have two or three quarterbacks, you don’t even have one. So when the President gets back from destination to be determined on his vacation, and he’s concerned or has advice, who is that one person he calls?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think it is the nature of the Democratic Party that it functions most effectively when it’s energized from the ground up and when you have leaders in the Democratic Party who are responsive to the grassroots, to Democrats who aren’t in elected positions in communities all across the country. It is true that the President in power is the nominal head of his party, and when he’s not, there are other people who have to step up and take leadership positions. So I certainly would anticipate that people like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi will play a leading role. I know that Governor McAuliffe in the Commonwealth of Virginia plays a leading role in working with Democratic governors across the country, and I certainly would expect him to continue to be a leading voice among Democrats.
But what the President has also said is that his departure from the national stage will create an opening for others who we may not have heard of at this point to step up and to make their voices heard. I’ve often compared, particularly to some of our younger staff, the situation that the Democratic Party is in right now to the situation that the Democratic Party faced in 2001. That was also a situation in which a Democratic President was leaving office under circumstances that Democrats across the country were deeply disappointed by, to put it mildly. And you also had the Republican control of Capitol Hill, and there were questions being raised about who was going to lead the Democratic Party at that point.
And with the exception of some people who lived in the 312 area code, I don’t think there was anybody that had ever heard of Barack Obama. But seven years later, he was elected President of the United States. So he was obviously somebody that — I think there are plenty of reasons to, even looking back, to think about some of the possibilities, had Vice President Gore won that election, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario that Barack Obama would be President right now, had Al Gore won that election.
So his departure from the national stage, as sad and disappointing as it was at the time, did create an opening for new voices. And one of those voices belongs to Barack Obama, who later had a profound impact on our country and certainly on the Democratic Party. So it will be quite interesting to see, and I’ll certainly be watching to see what kinds of men and women choose to step up and take advantage of this opportunity.
Q: Josh, while you’re staring into the abyss, earlier you mentioned the Affordable Care Act repeal and you said —
MR. EARNEST: Not quite that dark yet, man.
Q: Darkest timeline. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) If you had asked me in November, I might not have said anything, but —
Q: You said earlier that repeal — this is only just begun. And while that is meticulously and technically accurate, it’s also a little ominous. What can the administration do at this point other than cajole? It’s like the President had a pen and a phone, and now he’s just going to have a phone. What can he do at this point to influence this process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, he’ll be using his pen to write a book that hopefully you’ll buy at some point. (Laughter.)
But more seriously, the reference that I made to Ron — I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to clarify this. What has just begun is the effort by Democrats to protect the Affordable Care Act. That’s what’s just begun. And the fact that Republicans were able to pass that budget resolution by the slimmest of margins when you consider that Joe Biden is still the Vice President of the United States. And so they’ll enhance their margin by one once Mike Pence is sworn in as the President of the Senate, as Vice President.
So there’s not much margin for error for Republicans, and when you look at the public statements of Republicans who are quite uneasy, including Congressman MacArthur, who I cited earlier, that’s why I think you see a lot of confidence on the part of the President and other Democrats about our ability to make a very forceful case that Republicans shouldn’t repeal the health care of 30 million Americans; that Republicans shouldn’t take away the kinds of consumer protections that ensure people have access to free check-ups and the ability to include their kids on their health insurance until they’re age 26; that ensure that policies that extend the health and life of the Medicare Trust Fund are preserved; that ensure that senior continue to enjoy the hundreds of dollars a year that they get that make their prescription drugs more affordable. These are all good benefits that are at risk when Republicans say they’re going to repeal the Affordable Care Act without putting forward a replacement. So the work to protect the Affordable Care Act has only just begun.
Q: On a separate topic, the Office of Government Ethics rules say that executive branch employees — and forgive me for reading this here — may not use government positions to suggest that the agency or any part of the executive branch endorses an organization, products, service, or person. Is it appropriate for the President-elect to tweet that someone should buy LL Bean products, particularly given that the person involved is a super PAC donor for the President-elect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly raises questions, and I think you alluded to a couple of them, even in the context of the one question that you asked.
I do think that this brings to the fore the need for ethics officials in Congress to conduct the important oversight work that they’re charged with conducting. Obviously, all of you as journalists and as agents of the American people, and defenders of transparency, and advocates for accountability, all of you have a role in this as well. But I’m not going to pass judgement on an individual tweet from the President-elect. I’ll let his team explain what he was trying to convey and why it doesn’t run afoul of the ethical regulations that you’ve just cited.
Q: I haven’t — I don’t recall the President doing anything like that in the last eight years. Has he — would he do something like that? Would President Obama do something like that?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly don’t recall the President doing something like that. I do recall a situation in which the President was photographed wearing a particular company’s jacket on the Great Wall of China, and that company, seeking to capitalize on the publicity, put up a billboard in Times Square, I believe. And rather than endorse the product, the White House contacted the company and asked them to remove that billboard. So it’s apparent that we’ve taken a different approach with regard to the President’s endorsement of outerwear. (Laughter.)
JC, you had your hand up. I’ll give you the last one.
Q: Sure. I’m sure we appreciates the appellations you just gave us — defender of transparency, et cetera. It’s quite remarkable, thank you.
You also mentioned earlier some of the frustrations you’ve had with members of the press corps. You did not act on them, no one went out the door — not when I was here. Can you just reflect on a few of the positive moments that you’ve had in this room? And also, if I may, just — and do you think these press briefings should continue on a daily basis?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I do think that the press briefings should continue on a daily basis. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that they serve the American people very well. The President believes that engaging in these briefings serves his administration well. It gives us an opportunity to make a forceful argument in favor of the policies that he’s advanced. And again, if you have confidence in the arguments that you’re making, then you’re not going to have any hesitation to make those arguments to people who are trying to understand exactly what the best thing to do is.
So I believe that these kinds of engagements are valuable, the President does too. But ultimately, the incoming administration will have to decide what the best course of action is. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that these kinds of engagements are perfect, so I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be any changes made. But protecting the core nature of these regular engagements, where all of you have an opportunity to demand accountability and demand transparency and demand answers to legitimate questions about what the President is doing and why he’s doing it, I think is an entirely fair process and it’s a process that’s good for our country. So hopefully it’s one that will continue.
Q: And will you hold off until next week your highlights that you might want to share with us?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, maybe I’ll try to come up with some between now and — (laughter) — I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding.
Thanks, guys. I will be back tomorrow. I’ll see you then.
Q: Question quickly — there’s a story out there about an incident involving a White House guest and a dog fight — Sunny — apparently earlier this week. Anything?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen anything on this, but we can take a look at it for you.
1:53 P.M. EST