James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:50 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Friday. TGIF, for one last time.
Q: Friday, the 13th.
MR. EARNEST: That’s good luck.
Let me do one, quick announcement before we get to your questions. Today the White House is hosting a transition exercise with current and perspective Cabinet members, agency heads and senior White House officials. The exercise provides an opportunity to familiarize members identified by the President-elect to fill senior administration positions on the authorities, policies, and coordination structures that this administration has used to respond to major domestic incidents. Cabinet members, agency heads and advisors in the current administration will share experiences and lessons from incident responses that they have led as they discuss a number of response scenarios together.
This exercise, which we announced back in November, advances the President’s goal of conducting the most professional, seamless transition possible. We’ll be in a position to provide some additional details at the conclusion of the meeting. You’ll recall that an exercise like this was held in early 2009 between — it was hosted by senior officials from the Bush administration and they invited their counterparts from the Obama administration at the time. And this is the next step in the process of ensuring a smooth and effective transition to the incoming administration.
So, with that, Darlene, want to get us started with questions?
Q: Thank you. Is this an all-day sort of exercise?
MR. EARNEST: It’s not an all-day exercise. I know it’s a multi-hour exercise. So it’s ongoing as we speak, and I suspect that it will encompass a significant portion of everyone’s afternoon schedule.
Q: Is there any more detail you can provide on exactly what they’re doing and how they’re doing it? Are they breaking up into little groups and doing exercises? Are they doing policy and all things domestic?
MR. EARNEST: The way that it’s been described to me is that this is primarily a large-group exercise and will be an opportunity to discuss a variety of different scenarios, some related to domestic emergency response — response to a natural disaster or a significant weather event, for example. But it also will include some foreign policy and national security exercises as well. And it will include both a review of responses that this administration has led to specific incidents, as well as exercises to walk through the options that are available in the context of a hypothetical event.
Q: And what senior administration officials from this administration are participating?
MR. EARNEST: We’ll get you some additional information about the participants in the meeting once the meeting is concluded.
Q: On another subject, will the President signed the waiver that’s moving through Congress to allow General Mattis to serve as Defense Secretary?
MR. EARNEST: I think we’ve indicated in the past that that’s not something that the President would prevent from passing. So, yes, I think you can anticipate that if it did make it to the President’s desk the he would sign it.
Q: Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q: Thanks. I want to follow up on the actions on Cuba yesterday, on the ending of “wet foot, dry foot.” I wasn’t clear — is this a move that can be overturned by the next administration? Realizing that it is the ending of a policy, but is this something that could easily — they could come in and decide they want to put that policy back in place?
MR. EARNEST: This policy change was codified in an executive agreement between the U.S. government and the government in Cuba. As even some of the incoming administration’s nominees have noted, there’s a tradition of subsequent Presidents observing and adhering to the executive agreements that were put in place by the previous President unless, of course, a specific decision is made to change the policy.
So, obviously, President-elect Trump will assume the awesome responsibilities of the American presidency on January 20th, one week from today. And he’ll be able to exercise all of the executive authority that are invested in the presidency at his discretion. We believe that there is a strong case to be made about normalizing relations between our two countries, and this is just the latest step in that process to ensure that we are treating Cuban migrants the same way that we treat migrants from other countries. And that has a variety of benefits, including not providing an incentive for Cubans to attempt the very dangerous journey across the 90 miles of ocean that separate our two countries.
So I think the response to this announcement I think is indicative of how public opinion is changing on these issues, including in the Cuban-American community. And I noted the supportive comments of someone like Jorge Mas, who is the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, somebody who is a leader in that community, obviously an influential voice. And his indication of support for this step I think is an indication of a growing majority of Americans who agree about the direction that the President has moved the relationship between the United States and Cuba.
Q: Does the White House have any message to those — I mean, there were — there have been a number of stories done on people who were just at, like, the Mexican border trying to get across who had come from Cuba, made a very long, treacherous trip and were just there and just missed getting over before this policy was ended. Does the White House have any message for those people that were just there? I mean, some of these stories sound pretty heartbreaking.
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the first thing that’s important for people to understand is that the migrants from Cuba will be treated in the same way that migrants from other countries are, which is to say legitimate claims for refugee status or for asylum will be subject to due process, which means that their claims will be evaluated. And if they have legitimate claims for asylum, then that will be granted. But that will be adjudicated through the regular process that every other — that migrants from other countries go through as well.
And as we’ve talked a lot about immigration policy over the last several years, obviously the President believes strongly that the United States live up to our values as a nation of laws and as a nation of immigrants. And that means abiding by the law, but it also means showing respect and recognizing the humanity in people who are fleeing their home country. So this is — and the policy change that we have announced ensures that we are harmonizing and normalizing our immigration policy with regard to Cuban migrants.
Q: On one other topic, the head of the House Oversight Committee has threatened to subpoena the Office of Government Ethics — the head of the Office of Government Ethics for his comments about Trump’s conflicts of interest. Does the White House think it’s appropriate for Congress to be looking into those comments from the Office of Government Ethics? Do they think that — I mean, I think the comment from Chaffetz was that he felt like the head of the Office of Government Ethics wasn’t behaving ethically when he was discussing Trump’s conflicts. Does the White House have any thoughts about this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is the completion of the congressional Republicans’ swamp-filling hat trick. They were able to get it done in two short weeks. You will recall that before congressional Republicans were even sworn into office their first act was to vote in secret to repeal the ethical regulations that applied to them. And it was only after an outcry from the public and a tweet from the President-elect that they reversed course.
A week later we learned that Senate Republicans were prepared to roll back the standards that they’d insisted on for eight years when it came to making sure that nominees for executive positions had been fully vetted and fully complied with ethical requirements before they were given a hearing before the United States Senate and considered for their nomination. And Senate Republicans have famously walked that back, such that they are moving through the process nominees that haven’t been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that they, themselves — that Mitch McConnell himself had said was necessary.
And now, to complete the hat trick, we’ve got the Republican Chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, the individual who, as much as anyone else in the United States Congress, is charged with providing oversight of the executive branch, is now seeking to intimidate a senior executive branch official who’s responsible for enforcing ethics rules. He’s threatening to shut down the office of the guy who is doing the job that Jason Chaffetz himself is refusing to do.
It’s outrageous — and I will say, only the latest installment in the embarrassing series of episodes that have characterized Jason Chaffetz’s tenure as chairman of that committee.
You’ll recall this is the guy who was charged with investigating government employees who were using personal email for government purposes at the same time that he’s handing out his government business card with his personal email address on it. You can’t make it up. This is the guy who led the investigation into Benghazi that the House Republican leader admitted was focused solely on politics and hurting Hillary Clinton’s poll ratings.
So this is not some — a departure from the series of embarrassing episodes that have characterized his tenure as chairman of the committee. And it certainly, as I’ve said before, runs contradictory to the preferences of the millions of Americans who showed up at the polls on Election Day and voted for the guy who is vowing to drain the swamp. Certainly it’s going to make for an interesting relationship between the members of that committee, I suspect. And I think it will be worth watching — particularly we’ll be counting on all of you to watch the relationship between that committee and the incoming administration.
Q: Thanks, Josh. Speaking of outrage, House Democrats —
MR. EARNEST: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Q: — after meeting with James Comey, and they expressed all kinds of emotions — anger, concern, lost confidence, yes, outrage —
MR. EARNEST: I think Washington psychiatrists are going to be doing a brisk business in the years ahead. (Laughter.)
Q: — some of them are saying that they have no confidence in the Director of the FBI at this point and that they don’t feel like he’s fit to do the job. I mean, hearing these strong words coming from Democrats — I mean, we knew, obviously, some of that sentiment was there — but at this point, Americans have heard anger and doubts coming from both sides related to the FBI and the intelligence community over the past couple of weeks. What are your thoughts on hearing this and the indication of deep problems that the American public now sees laid bare?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think it is really important to make sure that we don’t draw too many parallels between these two different situations. With regard to the handling of the investigation into Secretary Clinton by the Department of Justice and the FBI, for better or worse, we’ve spent a lot of time in this room talking about that matter — not just in October, but, frankly, for a lot of the last two years. But when this came to a head in October, you often heard me describe the merits of abiding by the longstanding norms and traditions about the way the FBI conducts investigations and traditionally doesn’t talk about those investigations in public.
Now, as I said back in October, and I’ll repeat again, the President does not at all believe that Director Comey was motivated by a desire to influence the outcome of the election. But there are longstanding norms and traditions that have served senior Department of Justice officials well over the years.
Now, there’s also — as was announced yesterday by the Inspector General, there’s now an independent investigation into this matter. And that certainly is going to limit the degree to which I can discuss it. That investigation was initiated at the sole discretion of the independent Inspector General. That’s the way the process should work. And presumably, when he’s got some findings to release, presumably he’ll be in a position to do that publicly.
With regard to the situation with the intelligence community, I think it’s different, because I think what you’ve heard from the intelligence community, including from Director Clapper in the statement that he released just a couple of days ago, is the intelligence community feels a strong responsibility to communicate to senior officials as much as possible about what they know, and as much as possible about the information that is available to them.
Now, what Director Clapper also said in that statement is he expressed confidence that the intelligence community was not the source of those leaks. I verified for you before that the White House is not the source of those leaks. And I think all of that is an indication that both the intelligence community with regard to this matter and the White House with regard to this matter is following longstanding precedent and tradition and norms and guidelines that have served generations of White House officials and intelligence officials well.
So I think that that’s why I would caution against drawing too many parallels between these situations. There are obvious similarities between these two cases, but there are certainly some places, as I just described, where the handling of these matters was different.
Q: I think Comey, in his explanations, talked about how he felt the need to share information. He was choosing between two bad options, but he felt getting that information out there was the right thing to do at the time.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but by getting it out there, briefing it to the President-elect, making sure that the President-elect himself was aware of the information that had come to the attention of the intelligence community. He stated in his statement that he could not at this point confirm the accuracy of the report, but I’ll leave it to him and other intelligence officials to describe how they described this information to the President-elect.
Q: Okay. And does it bother the administration that retired General Flynn was in contact with the Russian ambassador several times on the day that President Obama was sanctioning Russia?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve read some of these reports and I think, to answer your question as bluntly as I can, it depends on what he said. And I know that some members of the President-elect’s transition team have tried to describe those conversations. Obviously, I have zero insight into what may have been communicated back and forth, so I’d refer you to General Flynn himself or spokespeople for the transition who may be able to provide additional insight into the nature of those conversations and why those conversations were initiated.
Q: Okay. And you, today, and often you sort of list a long string of problems you have with behavior of Republicans in Congress over the last couple of years. But I wonder if everyday, average Americans who aren’t in this industry or yours really know or care. I think maybe a lot of that falls on deaf ears. I don’t know how much of that translates. And we just heard President Obama, in his latest interview, say that he feels that on some issues that he and his team lost the PR battle. So why do you think that is? Why do you think these things that you and he have been stressing as being so important, in some cases so important to democracy itself, they don’t seem to matter?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as a substantive matter, they do make a difference. They do have a bearing on the strength and success of our democracy. But you’re asking I think an entirely relevant question, particularly in light of the election outcome. Given the sordid record that Republicans have on some of these ethical matters, and have continued since the election, it raises questions about why that didn’t influence the vote of more people. And I don’t know that I can give you a real direct answer on that.
I think that in some ways, the President addressed this in his speech on Tuesday night pretty directly. He said that it’s a problem in our democracy when we excuse the ethical shortcomings of people in our own party but are ready to question the motives of people in the other party. He said it more eloquently than that, but you know the passage I’m referring to.
I think the concern that I’m raising is about one of the basic functions of the United States Congress, which is to provide oversight. There have been a bunch of ethical questions that have been raised about some members of Congress, about some of the conflicts of interest that loom in the background of some of the nominations that the incoming administration has put forward. There are some people who fit both those categories. And the responsibility lies with all of you and with the United States Congress to resolve those questions.
And the real problem I have right now is that there seems to be zero appetite among Republicans who were voted into office by people literally chanting “drain the swamp” for enforcing not tougher ethical regulations — they’re not even doing the basics. They’re not even enforcing the minimum standards. They’re trying to roll back those standards. They’re voting to reduce the standards that apply to them. They’re not applying the standards to Cabinet nominees that they have been applying for the last eight years. And in this case, the most egregious case, you have the person in the House of Representatives, who is most responsible for oversight, suggesting he’s going to shut down the office of the independent ethical watchdog of the executive branch.
So, again, they’re moving in the wrong direction. And those are all facts. I think it would be hard to contest any of this. Is it going to make a difference at the polling place the next time that people have an opportunity to vote for their elected representatives in Congress? I don’t know. We’ll see. But it does seem like Republicans are taking a pretty big risk, considering the “drain the swamp” chants at their pre-election rallies. To roll back those ethical standards within their first couple of weeks back in Washington I think does pose an electoral risk to them. And the last time that Democrats won the majority back from Republicans in the House of Representatives was prompted in no small part by a series of ethical transgressions on the part of congressional Republicans.
But, again, I think it’s far too early to be making particularly specific prognostications about the 2018 elections. But we’ll see.
Q: Josh, a couple questions and primarily on justice issues. With the announcement today, kind of makes me go back to something with justice. The Justice Department put new federal officials on the case for Eric Garner. Do you believe there’s still enough time left in this administration for some action to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I saw news reports about that. But I do not have — as we’ve discussed in here many times, the White House is not briefed on these kinds of criminal investigations. Those investigative decisions, including determining which investigators will take a look at a particular case — those are decisions that are made entirely by the Department of Justice without any influence or input from the White House.
Q: Okay, I understand that, but do you still have time left — yes, we have next week, but do we still have time left? Is there still enough time for things to happen?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know at what stage they are in the investigation, so it’s hard for me to assess how much more time they need in order to complete their investigation.
Q: Okay. And lastly, several of President Obama’s friends have had to do some prison time or jail time. And there’s one in particular, Congressman Chaka Fattah — there’s a letter that has been sent to President Obama for a pardon. What does President Obama feel about pardoning some friends like Chaka Fattah? Jesse Jackson Jr. has not asked for a pardon, but what does he feel about that issue, about his friends asking for pardons and the possibility of pardons for those people?
MR. EARNEST: I assume you’re using “friend” in the broadest possible context.
Q: Well, no, they were friends — no, no, no, when I said — but when I — no, no, no. When I say “friend,” Chaka Fattah was a friend to this administration. I’m not saying that he was involved. I’m saying there were friends of the administration he was supportive —
MR. EARNEST: He was a political supporter of the administration.
Q: Right, as what —
MR. EARNEST: And the President certainly appreciated his political support. But I think describing him as a friend might be going a little too far here.
Q: And what about Jesse Jr. who was part of the campaign, who was a big part of the —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure it’s fruitful for us to assess the President’s relationship on an individual basis with all these people. But let me just get to the root of your question, which is simply that there is a process in place at the Department of Justice to evaluate petitions for clemency that are filed by individuals who are currently incarcerated or people that have a record that they’re looking to clear. And the President established this process and has asked the Department of Justice to take the lead in considering these applications, to help process these applications as efficiently as possible and make individual determinations on the merits. And that’s what the President expects the Department of Justice to help him do, and that’s a standard that we have lived up to.
Q: Thanks, Josh. A couple for you. One, can you — you’ve already been asked for more details about the exercise today, but I’m wondering if you can say now whether this is actual incidents that they’re being walked through, or whether they’re modeled on incidents that — like, is there an Ebola crisis model? What exactly are they responding to?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is it’s a little bit of both. And I’m sort of — there’s a reference to it in here. It will be a combination of both walking through hypothetical scenarios so that the incoming administration can get a sense of what procedures and mechanisms are in place, what resources are available for responding to these kinds of hypothetical incidents so that when a real one comes up they can have a sense of how the process typically works.
But they also will review in some detail real-live incidents that this administration did respond to, to help the incoming officials understand what lessons learned, what best practices we were able to implement to benefit the American people. So I guess the point is, it will be a little bit of both.
Q: Will you be able to say, like, they looked at a Deepwater Horizon, they looked at an Ebola crisis, they looked at —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know how detailed our readout will be afterwards, but —
Q: If we could request as detailed a readout as possible.
MR. EARNEST: Okay. Okay.
Q: And then Rex Tillerson has been to the White House many, many, many times. On any of those occasions, as far as you’re aware, did he take a position with administration officials on the merits of sanctions involving Iran?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can see if we can try to get you an answer. As the leader of one of the largest companies in the United States, it certainly shouldn’t be surprising to most people that he did come to the White House on a number of occasions to discuss with senior officials important issues that have an impact on our economy and our national security. But let me see if I can get you some kind of an answer to that question. We’ll let you know.
Q: Josh, does the President have a reaction to the Department of Justice report on Chicago that there’s a pattern of practices of discrimination and unjustified use of deadly force?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about the specific report. I know that this was an inquiry that was initiated at the discretion of the Attorney General. These kinds of investigations are conducted independently, and the conclusions were put forward based on their own independent analysis of what exactly has been happening in Chicago with regard to the local police force there.
The President does believe that the Department of Justice, as a matter of principle, can play a useful role in helping uncover facts that can then be used to begin to restore trust and faith and confidence in local law enforcement, particularly among those communities that feel as if they’re — the concerns that they have raised have gone unheard; that surfacing them in the context of these kinds of investigations can be useful in all sides designing the kinds of strategies that would rebuild trust in a way that makes these communities safer, but also makes these police officers more safe as they try to do their dangerous work, as well.
These are men and women, the vast majority of whom are doing this dangerous job for all the right reasons. These are men and women who are genuinely interested in fighting crime. They’re interested in the public interest. They’re focused on trying to keep people safe. And they’ve got an extraordinarily difficult job. And if there is something that we can do to make their job just a little bit safer, then we should be looking for ways to do that.
And the President’s hope is that the effective professional, genuinely independent investigations that get to the bottom of some of the root challenges that are facing some of these law enforcement agencies — that does have the effect of restoring a little trust in making the work that police officers do every day just a little bit safer.
Q: There are some police officers who have said — high-ranking law enforcement officials who have said that the scrutiny that’s applied on police agencies is leading to — a Ferguson effect. Does the President share that concern? I guess particularly in Chicago.
MR. EARNEST: The President, when he’s been asked about this in the past, has indicated that he hasn’t seen any evidence to support that hypothesis. And I think some of it goes to the argument that I was making, which is that the vast majority of men and women in uniform who put on the blue every day, who go out there to put their lives on the line to keep us safe, are motivated much more by their genuine interest in public safety than they are in covering their own behind, if you will. And to be totally blunt about it, I think it speaks to their character.
I think there is a reason that people have put forward this hypothesis. And I think there is a reason that a number of law enforcement officers and leaders have taken some umbrage at that suggestion, because they see the men and women under their command at work every day, and they recognize that they’re putting their lives on the line, intervening in dangerous situations to try to protect the public, try to protect public safety, to live up to their motto “To serve and protect.” And they do that even in the face of some of these other — an environment in which their job is as complicated as it’s ever been.
And, again, I think that’s a pretty powerful illustration of the character of the vast majority of the American men and women who serve our country as law enforcement officers.
Q: Does the President see a connection between the challenges, as you put it, that the department faces and the spike in murders, violent crime in Chicago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think this goes to the same question. I think it’s difficult to assess exactly what that relationship is. I think the President’s view is that if the local law enforcement agency has an effective working relationship with the diverse community of the city of Chicago — I should say the diverse communities of the city of Chicago — they’ll be more effective in fighting crime. They’ll also be safer as they do that important work.
And so that’s why the President believes it’s a worthy goal for us to work in a direction that I know that Mayor Emanuel advocates. And I know that he’s put in some reforms and structures to try to address this basic challenge, and I know that his administration has worked to cooperate with the Department of Justice to try to get to the root of some of these problems and try to design some solutions that would address them.
Q: I ask because the bigger question is, to what extent are the problems in the police department contributing to the crime problem in the city? And I ask because obviously a lot of people in law enforcement would disagree with any notion that that is contributing to the problem. And the next step in their argument might be that this is another indication of the President not supporting law enforcement, as he has been accused of in the past and as you’re well aware of.
MR. EARNEST: Falsely and wrongly, but, yeah.
Q: That’s why I’m just trying to see if the President sees any connection between problems identified by this DOJ investigation and the spike in murders, specifically.
MR. EARNEST: And, again, I think the President’s view is that if we can get to the root of some of these challenges, we can certainly make law enforcement more effective at protecting the rights of every citizen in their community, even as they aggressively fight crime and keep all the citizens of that community safe.
Q: The other thing is, the President talked to you about this losing the PR battle in the 60 Minutes interview, and he specifically mentioned his inability to get a hearing for Judge Garland. I’m wondering what other issues out there does he think it was largely a question of not PR but swaying public opinion, or bringing public opinion to bear on the Republicans or on the nation’s psyche to get something done. For example, he talks about the inability to get common-sense gun laws passed. Is that another issue where he feels that his inability to get public opinion on his side was the determining factor? Or is there something else out there that was more — caused it? But I know, again, it’s hard to sort out what caused what, so on and so forth — beyond Garland, what else was he referring to?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s important to differentiate between public opinion and mobilizing the public. So, for example, when it comes to things like common-sense gun safety measures, closing a gun show loophole, closing the loophole that allows an individual who is on the no-fly list from walking into a gun store and buying a gun — those are measures that have the strong support of a majority of Americans, a majority of Republicans, a majority of Democrats, a majority of gun owners. Those are common-sense measures. And the fact that they are common-sense measures is evidenced, at least in part, by the fact that there is common agreement around the country that these would be good things for the Congress to do.
So I don’t know if people needed to be persuaded about the notion of common sense. But what clearly didn’t happen is there was not a successful mobilization of the American people around that common sense to get Congress to act. And the President has been deeply frustrated by that.
And I think that would — and I think the Garland nomination would actually fall in that same category, because I think if you take a look at sort of the public view of that situation, the vast majority of Americans didn’t have any objections to Chief Judge Garland, which is notable because Republicans didn’t really have any substantive objections to him, either — other than the fact that he was nominated by a Democratic President.
Q: Okay. So the question is, to what extent is it the inability to mobilize public opinion as sort of a tactical thing, versus misreading public opinion and misreading what’s really out there in terms of what people want in terms of gun safety or Judge Garland, or I don’t know — any other range of —
MR. EARNEST: Immigration reform I think would be another —
Q: Yes, exactly.
MR. EARNEST: Right? Because again, there was strong — there’s a strong coalition of Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement, religious leaders, faith leaders, business community who support the kind of common-sense immigration reform that this administration pursued and that this administration worked effectively with Republicans in the Senate to pass. But it was House Republican leaders who got together to block it.
So I think the other element of all this, Ron, is the widespread and damaging dysfunction that Republicans have imposed on the United States Congress. That strategy of essentially political sabotage was something that did apparently work for them politically, but it was bad for the country. Some of these common-sense steps are things that would be good for the country, and everybody agrees that they would be. Immigration reform would have lots of obvious economic benefits.
Q: Right, but on immigration reform, there’s a lot of people who also want to build a wall. And it seems like there’s more of them out there, based on the outcome of the election, than those who fall in the other category —
MR. EARNEST: Not when you consider that Secretary Clinton got 3 million more votes. So, again — and not when you consider that Democratic candidates for Congress got more votes than Republican candidates for Congress.
So I think what we’re illustrating here is I do think that there is a risk of oversimplifying this and saying, well, you know, if you just convinced more people. That’s not actually what it is. The solution to breaking through this dysfunction is more complicated than that. And this is a proposition we’re going to test because I don’t think — we’ll see — I don’t think, however, that it’s possible to rely solely on dysfunction and sabotage as your organizing, governing principle when your party is in charge of both houses in Congress and the White House.
Q: But what the President seems to be saying is that he believes that he is on the right side on so many of these issues —
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely.
Q: — and that the reason that he didn’t prevail was more tactical than right or philosophical.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what’s true about a number of the things —
Q: Republicans would argue, well, no, you’re not. You don’t quite understand the country on immigration, or on guns, or on the inability of —
MR. EARNEST: If there are people who are, indeed, saying that, I think those are people that don’t — that aren’t familiar with some basic principles of math, because there is ample public opinion data to indicate at least on the handful of things that we’ve discussed here — investments in infrastructure, investments in immigration — or progress on immigration reform, common-sense gun safety — there are strong majorities of Americans that agree with the President’s position on this.
But, look, here’s the other disconnect. Despite the fact that the administration was advocating for those policies that have the strong support of the American public, at least some of those Americans — despite the fact that they agree with the President on all of those measures — voted for somebody who doesn’t. And that I think is more complicated than just public relations.
I think there’s an element of it that relates to a political strategy, a set of obstruction tactics that were implemented by Republicans. And I think some of it has to do with how effective the Democratic Party is in communicating with those who aren’t regularly inclined to agree with Democrats.
So I think there’s a lot to sift through here. And some of it actually goes back to the thing that Michelle raised, which is these are issues where people say that they agree with the administration, or the position that’s been put forward by the President, but they don’t appear to care. And does that raise questions about the way that some of these issues are covered in the media? It might. But I think that there’s a lot of this that we’re going to have to spend some time thinking about. And I think you can be assured that the President, in his post-presidential life, will be thinking about these issues and looking for ways to solve them.
Q: And just last one. Are you going to do a week-ahead or almost week-ahead? Full week-ahead? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I will do a week-ahead.
Q: And sort of on that, can you tell us anything about Friday and the President?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll have some additional details on that, and we’ll do that at the end and look at the schedule.
Q: Josh, a quick follow-up on the tabletop exercise. I missed the beginning of it. I just want to clarify, the transition team — not the actual incoming staff — but the transition team witnessed a tabletop practice in December, right?
MR. EARNEST: That’s correct. So that was the December exercise. This January exercise that’s taking place today — it’s ongoing as we speak — includes some of the individuals who have already been named to senior White House positions. And in some cases, it includes individuals who have been nominated for Cabinet positions, even though they have not yet been confirmed.
Q: And they’re actually conducting it.
MR. EARNEST: They’re actually participating in the exercise, yes.
Q: And just to use that for Inauguration Day — because of the 2009 threat on Inauguration Day, and the importance of having the outgoing staff here until noon with the incoming, and the meetings that took place that morning, can you just tell us who will be here on the President’s staff up until noon?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that our staff will be structured in a way to ensure this continuity of government even through the day in which the handover takes place. So I can follow up with you with more details about how we’ll be staffed here at the White House. I would not anticipate a significant presence of Obama White House staffers here on the 20th just because the incoming administration will be moving in. But there will be officials who will be available.
Q: Will Denis wait until noon?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to the individual plans of staffers. I’m not sure exactly what Denis has planned.
Shana, nice to see you.
Q: Thanks for having me. I wanted to follow up on the question earlier about the call between the Russian ambassador and Flynn. So, first, could you let me know if the White House was informed of this call at all? And secondly, I’m just trying to get a sense of how usual or unusual it would be to have someone from the incoming administration, before they’ve been sworn in, contacting the Russian ambassador or any sort of officials. Did anything like that happen during the Obama transition period? Is this typical or unusual at all?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I can say as a general matter, on principle, you can imagine why these kinds of interactions may take place, why the incoming national security advisor may have the need to contact the representative of a foreign government that’s based here in Washington, D.C. But as I mentioned to Michelle, it depends on what they discussed. It depends on what he said, in terms of whether or not we would have significant objections about those conversations.
Your previous question about whether or not the White House was informed in advance — I’m not aware that we were informed in advance if he intended to make the call. I’ll check on that. And if I’m wrong about that, we’ll correct it. But I’m not aware that we were informed in advance of the call.
Q: So something like, as the Trump administration characterized it, “Merry Christmas, let’s get in touch after the Inauguration, let’s set up those logistics” — that would be normal transition business?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it sounds like it to me. But again, I can’t pass judgment on the content of the conversation because I obviously wasn’t privy to it.
Q: Josh, a follow on that. Has the White House had any contact or inquired about the nature of any of these conversations?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to the conversations that have taken place between White House officials and General Flynn’s office. And even if I were aware of the details of that, I probably wouldn’t discuss them here.
So obviously what I can tell you is, with regard to White House communications with the Russian ambassador, other than a White House staffer reaching out to the Russian embassy here in Washington to offer condolences on the death of the Russian diplomat in Turkey a month or so ago, I’m not aware of any conversations, at least in this period of time, around the holidays and around the work to develop and issue the response to Russia’s malicious cyber activity earlier this year — or in 2016.
Q: But I guess the reason all of this timing and the timeline becomes important is getting to the heart of what you’re saying, is it depends on what they said during that conversation. Refresh my memory: Did the White House brief the Trump team about the sanctions before they were rolled out on the 29th?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding is that they were briefed on the sanctions. I don’t know that they were necessarily briefed in advance.
Q: So if there was a conversation on the 28th, that wouldn’t necessarily raise a red flag to you?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I guess I can’t speak to everything that General Flynn may or may not have known. So again, I think I’ll let him describe what he knew at the time that he engaged in a conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Q: Do you find, I mean, the line of questioning, I guess the questions being raised generally fair, having gone through a transition yourself? I mean, technically speaking, there’s nothing to prohibit contact for an incoming NSA and a sitting ambassador, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, I think that’s the point that I was trying to make with Shana, that as a general matter, I don’t think there’s anything wrong, on principle, of an incoming national security advisor having basic contact with the representative of a foreign country before taking office — or at least the representative of that foreign country in Washington before taking office.
But the whole situation is rather unique, right? I’m not sure that we’ve ever had a transition in which the intelligence community concluded that a foreign country made a conscious effort to try to advantage one presidential candidate. So the fact that the designated national security advisor, who has his own rather remarkable relationship with the Russian government — the fact that that official was in touch with the Russian ambassador to the United States, I can understand why that was the subject of a column in the newspaper today.
Q: When you said it depends on what he said, you’re leaving the door open that there was something to truly question in terms of the motivations, the content of their conversations.
MR. EARNEST: I think what I’m saying is that I don’t know the content of their conversations and I can’t raise an objection without knowing the content of their conversations. I’m also not prepared to say it was entirely appropriate without knowing the content of their conversations. I just don’t know, and it just depends.
Q: And when you said the last contact between the White House and the Russian diplomat here in Washington was around —
MR. EARNEST: Yeah, let me try to be slightly more precise here. This was the only contact between the White House and the Russian ambassador during this period of time in which the response to Russia was being finalized and was rolled out the last week in December. What I do not know is whether or not there have been additional conversations between the White House and the Russian embassy after the first of the year, for example — or at least since that report was — since our response was announced.
But obviously, it was a sensitive time in this several-week period in which this response was being finalized. So obviously there were not a lot of conversations other than this expression of condolence to the Russian government and to the Russian people for the assassination of the Russian diplomat in Turkey. And that’s not something that we talked about in this room because that’s an event that took place when we were not doing regular briefings over the holidays, but that was the assassination of a diplomat on foreign soil. And despite our profound differences with Russia on a range of issues, that’s a genuine tragedy. And the expression of condolence that was made through a staffer here at the White House was genuine, and certainly our heart goes out to the families of — to the family of that diplomat that was killed in Turkey.
Q: And when you’re talking about contact, you’re just talking about the White House. You’re not talking about John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov speaking?
MR. EARNEST: Correct. I can’t speak to conversations —
Q: Or other government contacts.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. I can’t speak to conversations that may have taken place between State Department officials, for example, and the Russian embassy or other Russian diplomats.
Q: You talked about this process about presidential clemency. I just wanted to dive into that just a little bit. Today, WikiLeaks had a tweet that indicated that Julian Assange would agree to U.S. extradition if Chelsea Manning was granted a commutation of her sentence. There’s also a petition out there that calls for the pardon of Edward Snowden; it has over a million signatures. I’m wondering if those sorts of extraneous factors have any sort of bearing at all on the President’s decision when he ultimately decides on these cases.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that the Department of Justice and the President will consider individual clemency applications on their merits. And there are obviously a wide range of factors that the President and the Department of Justice will consider. And I think to illustrate one of them would be to illustrate the pretty stark difference between Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing. Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary, and has sought refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.
So I think the situation of these two individuals is quite different. I can’t speculate at this point about to what degree that will have an impact on the President’s consideration of clemency requests. But I know that there’s a temptation because the crimes were relatively similar to lump the two cases together. But there are some important differences, including the scale of the crimes that were committed and the consequences of their crimes.
Obviously, as Chelsea Manning has acknowledged, and as we have said many times, that the release of the information that she provided to WikiLeaks was damaging to national security. But the disclosures by Edward Snowden were far more serious and far more dangerous.
Q: Just one quick question, a follow-up on that. Does the Department of Justice come forward with a recommendation on each case to recommend to the President? Or does he ultimately take that with heavy weight? Or how does it work?
MR. EARNEST: The Department of Justice does administer a process where they will review factors about each case individually. They’ll do so based on the merits, and they will provide a recommendation to the President. And I think you would expect the President would very carefully consider the recommendation that’s made by the Department of Justice before making a final decision.
Q: And then yesterday, at the end of the briefing, you were asked about these photographs that TMZ got ahold of where it was apparent that the First Dog, Sunny, bit a guest here at the White House. Were you able to follow up on that at all and find out if that was true?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a whole lot more to — more light to shed on that particular situation. I think what I can say is both Bo and Sunny have been genuine ambassadors to the American people. (Laughter.) Thousands of people have had an opportunity to interact, play with those dogs, pet with those dogs — as you have, my son has, I have.
Q: I heard April say over my shoulder that this has happened before. Are you aware that the dogs have — either of the dogs have bitten —
Q: No, it was Barney. It was Barney.
Q: Barney, okay.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that that’s happened before. And I think that they have represented themselves and our country quite well in their status as the First Dogs. (Laughter.)
Q: Thanks, Josh. Did the President by chance have an opportunity to watch to Speaker Ryan last night? He was part of an interesting public conversation about the Affordable Care Act. Did the President take in any of that, by chance?
MR. EARNEST: The President did not watch that last night.
Q: I ask because one of the suggestions that was made in the conversation was that rather than sort of hang on to a program that’s apparently in a death spiral, as it has been described by some, with decreasing —
MR. EARNEST: Not by economists, I’d point out.
Q: By some. Decreasing choices and increasing premiums, rather than sort of hang on to that, why not repeal it — even if the process of replacing it takes longer than perhaps they would like? What do you think about that notion?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s a dangerous proposition. As a Republican congressman said, that’s them loading the gun without knowing where it’s pointed. It’s dangerous. It’s going to have impact on lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. If Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act, they’re going to take away health care from 30 million Americans. They’re going to take away protections from 130 million Americans that, because of the Affordable Care Act, currently cannot be discriminated against because they have a preexisting condition. Those protections are removed if Republicans repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Q: What if they repeal it and expand Medicare and Medicaid in the process? Wouldn’t that sort of, at least temporarily, cover those who might be impacted while they work on the sort of —
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, let me compliment you for doing much more than any Republican on Capitol Hill has done. (Laughter.) You’ve actually put forward an idea. You’ve actually put forward a specific idea that we can evaluate and we can see what impact that would have on our health care system. Republicans have refused to do that. Republicans are saying that they’ll get around to putting forward a replacement at some point in the future, despite the fact they’ve been saying that for seven years now. They haven’t put forward a plan. There’s no evidence that they can actually come together around a plan to replace it.
What the President has said is that if Republicans actually are willing to put forward good ideas, including potentially expanding Medicaid or increasing tax credits for people to make the purchase of health insurance on the Marketplace even more affordable, those are good ideas and those are ideas that the President and Democrats in Congress would have been and will, I think in the future, be happy to work with Republicans to implement because it would have the effect of strengthening the Affordable Care Act, expanding further access to health care coverage, and reducing costs for middle-class families. Those are all good things. But that’s not what Republicans have proposed. And that’s not what Paul Ryan proposed.
When Paul Ryan came face to face with one person who would be very negatively affected by the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the best he could do was reiterate chewed-over, debunked, politically motivated talking points that may have tested well in focus groups but were not at all satisfying to the millions of Americans whose lives will be put at risk if Republicans follow through on their promise.
Q: Let me ask you about the AG’s discovery and ultimately her decision about the situation in Chicago. Is it fair to say that, ultimately, the buck stops with the mayor — in this case, the President’s good friend — and I use that expression because I know that’s a friend.
MR. EARNEST: That is true.
Q: Rahm Emanuel.
Q: They’re really friends?
Q: Yeah, they’re really friends.
MR. EARNEST: They are.
Q: They are.
Q: Would it be fair to say the buck stops with him? And how disappointing would that be, as someone who not only knows him well but has affinity for that city, that they were unable, at least at this point, to get a handle on what was obviously something that was happening within the police department?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, Kevin, I haven’t read the Department of Justice report, but I am confident that it will say that the challenges that were uncovered, the problems that were uncovered in the police department have been in place for a long time. And having heard Mayor Emanuel talk about these issues, it is clear that his interest in solving those problems is genuine. He’s got an authentic interest in trying to address some of these very thorny challenges, because he recognizes — in the same way that the President does — that the men and women of the Chicago Police Department are safer and are going to be more effective at fighting crime, and the communities that they patrol will be safer if the breach in trust that has erupted in the last few years between some of the communities in Chicago and the Chicago Police Department can be repaired.
Those repairs are not going to happen overnight. You don’t build trust with somebody overnight. You build trust with somebody over time, particularly when you’re talking about an institution as large as the Chicago Police Department and when you’re talking about neighborhoods that are as large and as populated as some of the communities in Chicago.
So it’s going to take some time. And what’s going to be required is people like Mayor Emanuel stepping up and showing the kind of leadership that he has for the last several years in making these reforms a priority and making getting to the truth a priority, and genuinely engaging in the kind of work that is hard, is not glamorous, and, in some cases, may not be politically popular in order to get at the crux of these problems. And I think — that’s why I know that President Obama is proud of the leadership that Mayor Emanuel has shown and is counting on him to continue to show it so that the Chicago Police Department and the entire city can continue to make progress in the right direction.
Q: Thank you, Josh. Two questions. First, you and the President have noted from this podium historic firsts. Does the administration have any comment at all about the news last night that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has selected Justice Clarence Thomas to administer the oath of office to him, and that that will make him the first black American ever to swear in one of the top two officials in U.S. history?
MR. EARNEST: I was not aware of that announcement from Vice President-elect Pence, but obviously Justice Thomas, for all of our profound differences when it comes to some pretty important basic American values, he is somebody who has had a genuinely historic career. And I think this is just the latest evidence of the historic nature of the position that he holds, and I think it’s also reflective of the political philosophy of Vice President-elect Pence that he would choose Justice Thomas to administer the oath. But obviously that was a decision that was left up to him.
Q: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy spoke yesterday, and he addressed some of the concerns about taking time to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. And what he said is that they, Republicans, would be criticized in the past if they rushed into a plan, and that by taking their time and considering things they were going to get it right this time. I’m paraphrasing the Majority Leader.
MR. EARNEST: Right.
Q: Do you have a response to that, or a comment?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll try to keep this one short. Seven years seems like a really long time to me.
Q: Thank you, Josh. Official Chinese media today warned U.S. if it is denied access to the artificial islands in the South China Sea. This follows after a few hearings on the Hill. What do you have to say on this?
MR. EARNEST: I think this is an allusion to some comments that were made by Mr. Tillerson, the gentleman that President-elect Trump has designated to serve as — or has nominated — been nominated to serve as Secretary of State. I would refer you to Mr. Tillerson’s team for an explanation of what exactly he was trying to convey in his remarks.
I can tell you that the policy that’s been in place in the Obama administration has been to not take sides in the competing land claims in the South China Sea. Certainly, the United States doesn’t have any claims to any territory in that region of the world. And what we have suggested is that those with competing claims should seek to resolve those competing claims not through brute force or through intimidation or coercion, but rather through diplomacy and negotiation.
And that is something that we have encouraged all parties to do. And I don’t know whether or not that will be the policy of the incoming administration. I assume that will be one of the topics that will be covered in first briefing that you guys have in here with my successor. But that’s the policy that’s been in place in this administration.
Q: The Asia Pacific pivot was one key aspects of the President’s foreign policy. Do you feel that it might be dumped in the Pacific in the new administration?
MR. EARNEST: Can you repeat the first part of your question one more time?
Q: The Asia Pacific pivot was one of the key aspects of the President’s foreign policy.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, it was. Again, I can’t speak to what foreign policy priorities will be pursued by the incoming administration.
Q: Did it serve as value?
MR. EARNEST: Oh, I think the interests of the United States of America were advanced in important ways with the commitment of this administration to strengthening our alliances in the Asia Pacific and looking for ways to expand economic opportunity for the American people in the Asia Pacific.
Of course, this administration did complete the trade agreement with the Republic of Korea, something that does deepen our ties with our allies in South Korea. It also expands economic opportunity for American businesses that are looking to get access to South Korean markets.
Now, what we advocated and what President Obama dedicated a significant portion of his presidency to doing was negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership. This would be a trade agreement with 11 other countries, where the United States would be able to work effectively to level the playing field and impose higher and enforceable labor and environmental standards, enforceable and higher human rights standards, protections for things like intellectual property that would give U.S. businesses access to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
The benefits of the policy include slashing 18,000 taxes that other countries impose on American goods and services. But unfortunately, Congress did not take action on the agreement that the Obama administration negotiated. And that’s unfortunate because early indications are that other countries are prepared to move forward without the United States.
That’s going to put U.S. businesses and the U.S. economy at a disadvantage. It means that other countries’ products are going to be cheaper for some countries to import. And that’s going to put U.S. businesses at even greater disadvantage. So it’s a very difficult case for opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to make that the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have a negative impact on our economy.
The fact is this would have followed through on a number of the President’s promises, including renegotiating NAFTA in a way that has positive benefits for the U.S. economy for American businesses and for American workers.
So the President believes that the interests of the United States were well served by our policy of rebalancing our attention to Asia, but there certainly is more that can and should be done. But we’ll have to see what the incoming administration chooses to do.
Q: Josh, already at the start of this year, there are a number of proposals in state legislatures that seem to enable discrimination against LGBT people, including measures in Texas, Virginia, and Kentucky that would bar transgender people from using the restrooms consistent with their gender identity. You’ve spoken against measures along these lines at your time from the podium. Is it incumbent upon the Trump administration to speak out against these measures as well as they move forward?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the first observation I would make is I’d encourage the leaders of those states that you named to consult with outgoing North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory about whether or not that’s a particularly smart political idea. I’m not sure that it is.
I would also encourage them to contact the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce to determine whether or not the state of North Carolina benefitted economically from implementing these policies. They did not when you consider the business decisions that were made by not just high-profile organizations like the NCAA and the NBA, but also other businesses that were looking to expand their footprint, and expand their business in that state. They chose not to do so because they were concerned that their employees and their customers were at heightened risk of being discriminated against.
So obviously these states, because of our system of government, have an opportunity to pass and implement laws as they see fit. But they might consider the experience of the state of North Carolina before they do so.
Q: I know what you think. But it is incumbent upon the person who —
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t really kept it a secret, have I?
Q: Yes. (Laughter.) Is it incumbent upon the person who takes the podium after you to make a similar case?
MR. EARNEST: The incoming administration is going to be responsible for what they choose to advocate for. I’ve always been proud to stand at this podium and advocate for fairness and justice and equal treatment of every single American. I think the incoming administration will have to determine if they’re going to do the same thing.
Q: Thank you, Josh. I’m curious about this change in policy as it relates to Cubans that make it to U.S. shores. Was there any effort by the administration to consult with, reach out to, give a heads up to the Trump transition team or President-elect Trump as it relates to this policy?
MR. EARNEST: There was an effort, a successful effort, to brief the incoming administration shortly before this policy change was made public.
Q: And give me a sense, if you could, about the reaction coming from the Trump transition team once you gave them an effort to let them know about this policy change.
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let the incoming administration describe their reaction to this policy change.
Q: Talk a little bit about the timing here. It comes eight days before a new administration takes over and will then be in charge of immigration policy. Was there any thought about, do we do this now? It’s so soon before the next administration takes over and will be in charge of immigration policy.
MR. EARNEST: Well, John, it takes time to negotiate these kinds of executive agreements, particularly with a country like Cuba that does not have a long history of negotiating these kinds of agreements with the United States. For more than 50 years, the United States pursued a policy of diplomatic isolation with Cuba. And so it’s only over the course of the last year or so that we’ve had the kind of diplomatic opening that will allow us to have these kinds of conversations. So, negotiating these kinds of executive agreements takes time, but as soon as this agreement was completed, we announced it right away.
Q: President-elect Trump, I think it was in late November, took to Twitter to talk about what he called the deal that has been reached between the U.S. government and the Cuban government. And essentially, he threatened that he may undo it once he becomes President. Is that a concern of this administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, if he wants to cancel this policy, he’ll be cancelling $6 billion of increased exports and financial ties between the United States and Cuba.
Q: It’s all about the financial relationship?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s relevant. He certainly seems to be motivated by financial interests in some pretty important ways; he has over his professional career. So I think he’ll find that argument persuasive, particularly when you consider that there were reports that his company was negotiating with Cuba for exactly those kinds of agreements. So he obviously recognizes the economic opportunity that’s there. There’s more than a hundred flights every day between the United States and Cuba. That’s cancelling a lot of flights if he wants to roll back this policy. And I can’t imagine that the U.S. airline industry is going to be particularly pleased by that kind of development.
There are thousands of Americans that have an opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they’ve had an opportunity to enjoy their time there, learn a little bit more about the country, enhance ties between our two countries, and they’ve been able to return to the United States with all of the cigars and rum that they could pack into their suitcase if they choose to. I don’t think those Americans are going to be particularly pleased to see that policy rolled back.
Q: In that answer you failed to mention — that long answer — you failed to mention —
MR. EARNEST: I’m happy to go on. (Laughter.) So I will.
Q: Please do.
MR. EARNEST: I think what we also know is that the Cuban people genuinely support this policy.
Q: — human rights. Can you talk about that issue as it relates to the Cuban people? Because you talk mainly about the economic benefits that will —
MR. EARNEST: As I mentioned, I could go on.
Q: — the Cuban government.
MR. EARNEST: I’m happy to go on. And I think what we have found is that for 50 years, more than 50 years, there was a policy of diplomatic isolation in place that had no material impact in improving the human rights situation in Cuba. If anything, it got worse. This policy has been in place for about a year. And is there more that we would like to see the Cuban government do with regard to protecting human rights? We absolutely would. But our view is that the ability of the United States to advocate for those kinds of improvements is enhanced when we deepen the ties between our two countries. When there are more Americans that are traveling to Cuba, when there is more communication going back and forth between Cuba and the United States, when there are more Cuban Americans that have an opportunity to visit family and send money to family in Cuba, all that is going to promote freedom. That’s going to promote our values.
And what we’ve also succeeded in doing is removing an impediment to our relationship with countries throughout Latin America that have important relationships with Cuba. For most of the last 50 years, those countries in Latin America didn’t apply that much pressure to Cuba about their human rights situation, and were focused on the United States and our failed policy of trying to isolate them. Now that that impediment has been removed, it’s not just the United States that’s encouraging the Cuban government to improve their human rights situation, but you’ve got countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that are making the same argument. So all we have done is to increase pressure on the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation there, and, at the same time, the merican people have enjoyed a number of material benefits, including monetary benefits, that I do think will be persuasive to the incoming President as he determines what policy he believes is best with regard to the United States and Cuba.
Q: Do you think there has been an improvement in human rights in Cuba since the policy change?
MR. EARNEST: Not nearly as much as we would like to see. But the policy has been in place for a little over a year. So let’s give it another 50 years and see where it ends up.
Q: Thank you, sir. Two questions. One, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, President Obama has been dealing with two Indian Prime Ministers — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and now Prime Minister Modi. And he became the first U.S. President to visit India twice during his administration. And many members of the Indian-American community will miss him, and of course, some of us will miss you. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Wow. Goyal is getting all sentimental here. It’s not even my last day. Mark chooses not to associate himself with your remarks. (Laughter.) That’s very kind of you, Goyal. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. So the relations have been great between U.S. and India under this administration and of course, in relations to India. My question is that what is the future of — can you highlight some of the policies during this administration and what you think the future will be between the two countries, and what you think the new President will have for the new administration.
MR. EARNEST: Well, President Obama has recognized the opportunity that exists with India to deepen our security, economic and diplomatic relationship. And the President believes that doing that successfully allows the United States to advance our interest not just in Asia but around the world. And President Obama is proud of the success that we have had in doing exactly that.
There are important economic benefits for the American people. There obviously are important security benefits in that region of the world as two of the world’s largest democracies get together and work together to advance the interests of peace-loving countries like our two countries.
With regard to the future, that’s something that the incoming administration will have to speak to. But President Obama had an opportunity during his eight years in office to chart a course that he believes benefitted the citizens of the United States and India.
Q: And second, as far as the press relations are concerned between President-elect Trump press relations and also you think — what advice do you think the President will have — President Obama for President-elect as far as press relations are concerned, or what President-elect believes or might be thinking that press who are not favoring him or was against him? And also, any advice for upcoming press secretary, Sean Spicer, who is not a new face in the White House or in this town?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I had an opportunity to meet with Mr. Spicer at the beginning of last week. We had a nice conversation. My colleague, Jen Psaki, who has got a lot of experience working here at the White House, spent a long time talking to him about the opportunity to work here and talked to him a little bit about the logistics of running a White House press office, but also some of the things that he can do to prepare himself to do the important work, standing behind this podium and representing the interests of not just the administration but of the country.
And both of us, in private and as I’ve done publicly, I wish him well and will be hoping for his success as he manages the relationship between the White House and the White House Press Corps and as he seeks to advocate for the best interests of the United States.
With regard to advice that the President has given the President-elect, as we’ve discussed in here a few times, the President and President-elect had an opportunity to consult on the telephone a number of times since they met in person in the Oval Office back on November 10th. But I’m going to protect their ability to have a private conversation.
Q: One on the new relations, please?
MR. EARNEST: Okay, last one.
Q: Yes, sir. Thank you. Still so many people are waiting and see that if there is a light in the dark tunnel for them under Obama administration. What is the future of — because many of them are living under the prospect of working under — so what do you think is for them, what is their future?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it’s hard for me to speak to the future because there’s an incoming administration who will set their own agenda and pursue the priorities that they have identified. But President Obama certainly recognized that there is an important opportunity for us to reform our broken immigration system. And we did work to develop a proposal that was supported by a number of Republicans in the United States Senate that would bring people out of the shadows and prevent people from taking advantage of them because of their status, and also asking them, after undergoing a background check and paying taxes — giving them a path to citizenship.
That is consistent with the United States of America being a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. That’s a policy that reflects the views of a broad majority of the American public. But we’ll have to see what this Congress and the next administration chooses to pursue.
Q: My country, Canada, and yours, the United States, share common igloos in the Northern Arctic, and we’ve heard a word bandied about — some very wonderful interviews by with Barack Obama — “hope.” What kind of hope do you have for environmental and natural habitat issues in the Arctic?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I can tell you is that President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau have been able to work quite effectively together to safeguard some of the most beautiful places in the world in the Arctic. Obviously both the United States and Canada are Arctic nations, and being able to work together to safeguard some of those areas is an important legacy of President Obama. And I know that President Obama is hopeful that Prime Minister Trudeau will continue to look for ways to make efforts to protect the Arctic and fight climate change a top priority. And I can’t speak for the incoming administration, but I would expect that — well, what I will say is that President Obama is hopeful that Prime Minister Trudeau will continue to make those issues a priority.
Q: (inaudible) — the next administration?
MR. EARNEST: I think it remains to —
Q: — denying the issues of environmental changes and the things that are taking place there. Are you —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we have found and certainly what President Obama has found over his eight years in office is that we can make tangible, important progress in protecting the planet by working closely with other countries. And the United States has played a leading role in doing exactly that.
The United States brokered an agreement with China that really mobilized the international community and convinced individual countries to make their own commitments to reduce carbon pollution in a way that has had a tangible, positive impact on the diplomatic track, in terms of making commitments to reduce carbon pollution.
That’s good for the country. It’s good for the planet. It’s also good for our economy, because the United States does stand at the forefront of many of the technologies that other countries we’ll have to invest in, in order to keep their promises. And so whether that’s a company — a U.S. company like Westinghouse that builds nuclear reactors, or if it’s smaller American companies that are at the forefront of wind energy technology or at the forefront of solar technology or at the forefront of energy efficiency technology, countries now around the world will be turning to that kind of technology in order to meet the commitments that they have made.
So by enforcing these commitments and by continuing to lead the international community to make these commitments, President Obama has created a real economic opportunity. And hopefully those are the kinds of policies that will be continued and the full benefits will be enjoyed.
I’ll give you the last one, sir, and then we’ll do the week ahead.
Q: It isn’t your last day, but it is your last week. I’d love to hear your own self-criticism, what you think you could have done better on the job; what you think we could have done better. And finally, Chiefs and Steelers — what’s your —
MR. EARNEST: I thought you would never ask. (Laughter.) With regard to — we’ll get to that. With regard to my own performance, I’m confident that we could spend a decent amount of time every day underscoring aspects of my presentation that could have been improved.
The one thing that I feel good about having done is I succeeded in being consistently honest. I succeeded in understanding the President’s point of view and doing my best to accurately describe it to all of you and to the American public. And I’ve shown a genuine interest in and respect for the role that all of you play in holding people in power accountable. That’s critical to the success of our democracy. You all have dedicated a significant portion of your lives to doing exactly that, and I certainly hope that it continues.
With regard to assessing your performance, it’s not my first day here — I’m not going to fall into that trap. (Laughter.) So there is a healthy separation between the United States government and the independent media that covers us, so I’ll leave it to all of you to assess your own performance and to look for ways to play your important role in our democracy even better.
With regard to —
Q: Gold, silver, or bronze — you, Gibbs and Carney? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let you award the medals.
With regard to the football game this weekend, I’m really looking forward to it. The Chiefs have not won a home playoff game since 1994, so to say that the Chiefs are due is an understatement. But as I recall, that game that they won in January of 1994 was against the Steelers. Look, what I do think is if the defense can make some stops and even slow down that potent Pittsburgh offense, then I think the Chiefs stand a good chance.
Q: — on that regard?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to jinx it, but I will be watching with interest.
Q: Week ahead?
MR. EARNEST: Let’s do the week ahead. Darlene seems as interested in the football game as I am. (Laughter.)
On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, the President will welcome the Chicago Cubs to the White House to honor that team and their 2016 World Series victory. Later that day, the President will participate in a service project to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Wednesday, the President of the United States will host his final news conference as President of the United States here in the briefing room. It will be in the afternoon, but we’ll get you a specific time next week.
Q: East Room?
MR. EARNEST: It will be in this room.
On Thursday, the President will attend meetings at the White House.
On Friday morning, President Obama and the First Lady will welcome President-elect Trump and Melania Trump to the White House for tea and a small reception. Then, per custom, President Obama and President-elect Trump will motorcade up to the United States Capitol together.
The President and First Lady will attend the inaugural swearing-in and inaugural address of President-elect Trump, and then depart the United States Capitol via helicopter, as other Presidents have done in recent years. At that point, President Obama and the First Lady will proceed to Joint Base Andrews, where he will deliver remarks to a group of staff that will be gathered there to bid farewell. And then he and Mrs. Obama will depart Joint Base Andrews on their last flight aboard the presidential aircraft to a destination to be announced.
Q: Are those staff remarks open? Or pooled?
MR. EARNEST: There will be some pool coverage of the President’s remarks to staff at Joint Base Andrews.
Q: White House staff?
MR. EARNEST: I think it will be both the White House staff and staff from across the administration.
Q: Are you briefing Tuesday?
MR. EARNEST: Tuesday I will do a briefing and it will be, as you could tell from the schedule, my final briefing at the White House as well.
Q: It better be great.
MR. EARNEST: Bring your hankies. (Laughter.)
Q: No, you need to bring your hanky. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: I will not brief on Thursday. On Thursday, I anticipate that will be a quiet day of packing. (Laughter.)
Q: Are you going to miss this?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. Can’t you tell? (Laughter.)
Q: You’re going to miss us.
MR. EARNEST: I will.
Q: No, I’m serious.
MR. EARNEST: I am — we’ll have an opportunity to talk about this on Tuesday.
Francesca, do you have the last one here?
Q: Did you say what he’s doing this weekend?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that the President has a public schedule this weekend.
Have a good weekend, everybody.
END 2:23 P.M. EST