The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
March 09, 2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:05 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you all got to enjoy some uncharacteristically springtime weather in Washington this weekend. I know I did. I don’t have anything else to get us started, so I’ll go straight to your questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. I want to get your response to the letter that Senate Republicans sent to Iranians leaders. Does the President fear that this letter could threaten the talks at this very delicate stage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, I would describe this letter as the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy and advance our national security interests around the globe.
The fact is the effort that is currently underway by the United States alongside our international partners seeks significant commitments from the Iranian government to curtail their nuclear program and make clear to the international community that their nuclear program exists exclusively for peaceful means. And the international community, and certainly the President, is not prepared to take Iran’s word for it. We’re going to insist that the Iranians agree to intrusive inspection measures that will resolve the broader international community’s concerns. And as the National Security Advisor put it, the approach of the international community is to distrust and verify that Iran’s is prepared to live up to the agreement.
And the fact is we have heard Republicans now, for quite some time, including the principal author of this letter, make clear that their goal was to undermine these negotiations. And, again, that is not something — that is not a position I am ascribing to Senator Cotton. That is a position that he has strongly advocated. He described it as a feature of his strategy, not a bug.
And the fact is that the President is trying to explore this diplomatic option with Iran alongside our international partners because it is in the best interests of the United States, for two reasons. The first is the best way for us to resolve the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program is to get Iran’s own commitment to not develop a nuclear weapon and to verify that for the broader international community. And the rush to war, or at least the rush to the military option that many Republicans are advocating is not at all in the best interests of the United States.
Q Could this have the effect of advancing their goal of trying to thwart these talks? Does it make it harder to reach a deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly interferes in that effort. The fact that there are ongoing negotiations with the United States, our P5-plus-1 partners that include our stalwart allies like Germany and France and the UK, but also include our partners like Russia and China, who are cooperating with us in this effort — that to essentially throw sand in the gears here is not helpful and is not, frankly, the role that our Founding Fathers envisioned for Congress to play when it comes to foreign policy.
Q Why shouldn’t a deal be considered a treaty that Congress should be able to weigh in on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, this is a useful discussion that what we are seeking from Iran are a whole set of commitments from them that are related to commitments to rein in the aspirations of their nuclear program and to submit — commit to comply with an intrusive set of inspections to verify their compliance with the agreement. What we are seeking, we’re seeking commitments from the Iranian government.
This is not that different than the kind of commitments that we seek from other countries when we establish basing agreements with them. So, currently, there are U.S. military personnel that are serving in places like Korea and Japan. We have commitments from the Japanese government and the Korean government, for example, about what sort of rules and regulations will govern the U.S. military presence there. That’s an important agreement that has a substantial impact on the ability of our men and women in uniform to do their jobs and to do their jobs safely, but that is not an agreement that is subjected to congressional approval. Those are specific commitments that, in that situation, Korea and Japan have made.
There are other examples. The agreement that was put in place to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program was the United States and Russia working with Syria to get Syria to make some specific commitments about dismantling their chemical weapons program. That is not an agreement that required congressional participation or approval, but it was a tangible set of commitments that were made by the Syrian government. And the United States and Russia and a number of other countries in the international community worked with us to succeed in that effort.
Let me give you one other example. There are also a variety of other multilateral agreements that relate to nonproliferation. So there are some direct similarities between this agreement that P5-plus-1 is currently negotiating with Iran and other agreements that ensure or prevent the proliferation of weapons, and in some cases, nuclear weapons. The best example of this is that there is a multilateral agreement that is related to interdicting weapons in international waters, and we worked closely with the international community to prevent the shipment of illicit weapons shipments through international waters. And we work with other countries to enforce those agreements and to secure commitments from other countries that they’re going to help us fight those efforts.
Again, that is a multilateral agreement that has significant consequences for American national security that doesn’t require congressional approval. And this is the way that our Founding Fathers envisioned, that the executive branch would be responsible for protecting the foreign policy interests of the United States.
Q One related question. Many news organizations on Friday reported that Senator Menendez is about to face criminal charges. And you had Senator Cruz suggesting that they would be political retribution from the White House for his opposition to the Iran talks. Can you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I have seen those reports. Those reports were not confirmed by the Justice Department, so we don’t know at this point exactly whether or not they’re true. So I’m not going to comment on them, principally for that reason, because we don’t yet know whether this is true.
The other reason that I am loathe to comment on this is that there is a principle that this administration takes very seriously, which is ensuring that criminal prosecutions are kept separate and apart from any sort of political interference, even the appearance of political interference. So that both explains why I’m not in a position to comment on this specific story, but it also serves to undermine the claims that are made by a number of people, including apparently Senator Cruz.
Q Thanks. So President Obama is meeting with European Council President Tusk today, and Tusk has indicated that Europe is not ready to tighten sanctions on Russia. Is the U.S. prepared to go it alone should it beef up sanctions on Russia and take other measures? And are you waiting to see what happens with the current cease-fire in Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: The President is pleased to have the opportunity to be visiting with President Tusk today here at the White House. It is an opportunity for us to discuss a range of issues, including the coordinated international effort to confront Russia over the situation in Ukraine. They’ll also have an opportunity to talk about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They’ll also talk about things like energy security and climate change, and even the situation in Libya. So they have a pretty long agenda.
I would anticipate that they’ll have a discussion about the ongoing strategy with respect to Russia in Ukraine. I don’t have any additional announcements to make at this point about sanctions that may be contemplated on the part of the United States. Obviously we have continued to watch the sort of uneven implementation of the Minsk Implementation Plan.
There had been reports that heavy weapons have been withdrawn, but we continue to be concerned about Russia and the behavior of the separatists that they back. Most specifically, Russia and those separatists have prevented OSCE monitors from getting full access to contested areas to verify compliance with the Minsk Implementation Plan. That continues to be the subject of significant concern. And it represents a failure of Russia and the separatists they back to live up to the terms of the agreement. So we continue to have concerns about that. And as long as Russia and the separatists that they back continue to engage in that kind of behavior, they’re only increasing the likelihood that they could face additional isolation and have additional costs imposed on them by the international community.
We have sought from the beginning to work closely in coordination with our European partners to ratchet up that pressure. And we’re going to continue to coordinate those efforts in the days ahead.
Q Okay. Also, the CBO just made another downward revision to the estimates of insurance costs under Obamacare. Is the White House — does it see this as the Supreme Court weighs in on making a decision — that it could bring down the curtain on Obamacare?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it certainly is a — only the latest in a long line of data points that indicate the Affordable Care Act is contributing in a very positive way to holding down the growth of health care costs in this country in a way that has very real economic benefits, not just for middle-class families across the country but also for businesses large and small.
And one of the goals here has been to recognize that the unrestrained growth in health care costs did pose a threat to governments — our government’s finances, but also did contribute to some weakness in our economy, and that over the long term, getting a handle on those trends is important and was one of the goals of the Affordable Care Act. And we’re pleased to see that even just after a couple of years of being in effect, that the impact is both noticeable and positive.
Q On this letter, now there’s some reaction coming from Democratic senators and others calling the Iran letter “cynical, brazen,” that it weakens America’s hand, that it could sabotage things. I mean, they’re using pretty strong terms, and you just said that it “interferes.” Does it put the U.S. in a weaker position for negotiating? Could this letter hurt that process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, as I mentioned I think at the very top, this is only the latest in an ongoing partisan strategy to undermine the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy and to advance our national security interests around the globe. I do think that it does that.
And I think the other thing that is notable here is when you have a letter that is signed by 47 senators of the same party being sent to the leader of another country, it raises I think some legitimate questions about the intent of those who signed the letter.
Q So you’re saying that it could harm the negotiations? I just want to be clear.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the fact that there are ongoing diplomatic conversations — again, not just between the United States and Iran, but between the United States and our P5-plus-1 partners that includes our allies like Germany and France and the UK, but also includes our partners like Russia and China. These are nations with whom we have some significant disagreement but who, in this case, are working closely with the United States because they agree that there are significant benefits associated with reaching a diplomatic agreement here.
And it’s surprising to me that there are some Republican senators who are seeking to establish a back channel with the hardliners in Iran to undermine an agreement between Iran and the broader international community.
Q So it does threaten the negotiations, in summary?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I’ve said this as — probably as many ways as I can at this point.
Q I’m still not sure. But you’re saying that what you said stands, or are you saying that it could threaten the negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: You keep using the same words. I’ve used lots of different words. Use one of mine to describe — (laughter.)
Q Okay. And also, over the weekend — so you’re also talking about how much you’re asking for from Iran on all of these commitments, but then again over the weekend, we heard the President say in an interview that the agreement would be extraordinarily reasonable for Iran. Can you sort of give us some balance there?
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the context that the President was making is if you assume that when Iran says their nuclear program exists solely for peaceful purposes, that should be an easy thing for them to demonstrate.
Now, there are all sorts of reasons why we doubt those previous claims. But the point of the President is that as Iran is evaluating this agreement, if they’re willing to live up to their commitment to have their nuclear program exist for only peaceful purposes, then that should be a relatively easy thing to demonstrate. Now, they’re going to have to demonstrate it. They’re going to have to agree to a set of very intrusive inspections, principally because in the past they have explored some covert strategies for developing a nuclear weapon.
But again, if your frame of reference is Iran’s commitment to a peaceful nuclear program, there should be a reasonable way for them to demonstrate that. And that is the point that the President was making. The concern that the President and the international community has is that Iran’s behavior in the recent past has not been consistent with their promises of a peaceful nuclear program, which is precisely why any sort of agreement that is reached will require serious commitments on the part of Iran to an intrusive inspections program that allows international inspectors not just into their nuclear facilities, but also into the manufacturing facilities that are manufacturing parts and equipment for their nuclear facilities that would require inspections at uranium mines in Iran to ensure that we have a lot of insight into their program, essentially to prevent them from being in a position of establishing another covert strategy for developing a nuclear weapon.
And again — I guess the last point is, all of this is much more likely to be successful and more enduring than the military option that our Republican opponents seem to be advocating.
Q Just when you said it was extraordinarily reasonable, is the extraordinary part, is that in the timeframe given or the fact that they’re able to continue with their nuclear program for peaceful means? Is that what would be extraordinary about the reasonableness of the negotiation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that the President made in the course of that interview is to demonstrate that if Iran is interested in a genuinely peaceful nuclear program, that that is something that they should be able to both agree to, but also agree to prove to the international community, that that essentially should be something that’s easy for them to demonstrate and therefore should be something that they would agree to.
Now, the fact of the matter is, this is not something that Iran has been honest about in the past, and that is part of why this is such an important strategy for resolving the international community’s concerns with their nuclear program. And military option is one that would be less effective, principally because it would not be as enduring in terms of the impact that it would have, but also if a military option were deployed, it’s not hard to imagine that Iran would say, we’re not going to agree to these inspections any longer. And that means the international community would only have less insight into what’s happening with Iran’s nuclear program.
That’s why a negotiated diplomatic solution is one that doesn’t require the kind of military commitment that some of our opponents seem to be advocating. It does ensure greater transparency into Iran’s nuclear program. And it’s one that’s likely to last longer. A military option would set back their program, but for only a fraction of the time than the length of the diplomatic agreement that’s currently being negotiated.
Q Okay. And lastly, on Iraq, over the weekend we also heard officials practically begging the coalition to help protect antiquities, and asking why, if the coalition can target an individual tank or an individual building, why they couldn’t do more to protect Nimrud, as ISIS was practically bulldozing the place. Is this something that concerns the President, concerns the administration, why those couldn’t be protected?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess for the kinds of tactical decisions that are being made as it relates to the use of military airpower, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. They’re the ones that are in a position to decide how those resources should be properly allocated.
Q A couple for you. You listed a number of international commitments that do not go to a vote in Congress. Can I just be clear? Do you regard the corporate legislation as unnecessary or actually undesirable?
MR. EARNEST: I guess what I would say is that the kind of commitments that we are seeking to extract from the Iranians, alongside our international partners, is not one that falls in the realm of requiring congressional approval on the frontend.
Now, what is important about this — and this is another aspect of our position that is routinely distorted by our opponents — the administration has long worked closely with Congress in this effort. You’ll recall that several years ago, when Congress put in place tough sanctions against Iran that the administration worked with them as they did that. The President signed that bill into law. And the President his team then implemented a diplomatic strategy to maximize the impact of the sanctions that Congress had passed.
So you did see effective coordination and cooperation between the administration and Congress in that effort. Since then, you have seen the administration go to great lengths to work closely with Congress to keep them in the loop on the status of ongoing negotiations. That’s taken place in a variety of settings. The President of the United States, for goodness sakes, has even had senior members of Congress here to talk to them about those conversations directly.
And we have always envisioned a role for Congress at some point in terms of essentially taking the sanctions away once we have seen demonstrated compliance on the part of Iran to the agreement. And I think this is in some ways where the difference is. Congress is insisting, well, that they should have a vote on the sanctions regime and on the deal shortly after an agreement is reached at the negotiating table, but that’s not what the President envisions. The fact is the President does not envision substantial sanctions relief for Iran right at the negotiating table. We want to see a demonstrated commitment on Iran’s part to living up to the agreement before we contemplate offering relief from the statutory sanctions regimes that Congress has put in place.
And I’m not just talking about over the course of weeks or months; I’m talking about years. We would want to see Iran demonstrate its commitment to this agreement for years before we’d envision a scenario where Congress would take away the sanctions that were so important to getting Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
So there is a robust and important role for Congress to play. There has been in the past; there is right now; and there will be in the future. But what Congress should not do — and, frankly, what Republicans in Congress should not do, is continue to pursue a partisan strategy to undermine the talks before a deal has even been reached.
Q Okay. And then you accused Republicans in Congress of trying to create a back channel to hardliners in Iran.
MR. EARNEST: Kind of ironic, isn’t it?
Q Well, it’s kind of weird because it’s an open letter to the leadership of Iran. I mean, unless you have evidence of a secret effort to enlist these folks behind — that’s what a back channel. It’s not a press release that’s labeled “To the leaders of Iran.”
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess the reason that I call it — maybe it’s a direct channel. I’m not as familiar with the diplomatic-speak as you might be. (Laughter.) But it is a little ironic that — well, and I don’t mean that as a criticism, it just reflects — (laughter) — your experience is different than mine.
The point is what we have seen is we have seen a bunch of Republicans in Congress, at least some of whom have previously criticized the President for engaging with Iran in the first place, now writing a letter to the leadership of Iran suggesting that they should withdraw or at least not participate in talks with the broader international community about their nuclear program.
This is why I think it raises significant questions about the intent or the aims of the letter’s authors, because it does undermine the President’s ability to represent our foreign policy interests around the globe and advance our national security interests, and it does raise questions about what their strategy actually is.
If they’re trying to undermine this agreement and not allow a diplomatic resolution to be arrived at, then they should just be — A, they should be honest about that. The letter is couched in all these terms about trying to provide a civics lesson to Iran’s political leadership. But the fact is they’re against a deal. If they’re so ashamed of that position, why wouldn’t they advocate it publicly? And if they do advocate that a diplomatic agreement is not the right approach, then they should explain what the right approach is.
The fact is the only other alternative that anybody else has put on the table is a military option. And the fact is this Republican track record of putting military options ahead of diplomatic options has a long and rather sordid history.
Q Does the letter send a message to Iran that no matter what they do, sanctions aren’t going to be lifted by this Congress?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the letter — I don’t know if I brought out the letter. I guess I did. I think the message they’re delivering is one, as Olivier pointed out, is an open letter. So I guess you can ask them about the message they’re trying to send. I can talk to you about the impact that it’s going to have.
Q Well, you’re saying Congress isn’t necessary to approve a deal. But you did say they are necessary to lift the sanctions.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, yes. But that is a scenario that we would envision only after years of demonstrated compliance with the agreement. The President does not believe it’s a good idea right after reaching the deal with Iran — particularly given their history of non-compliance with international standards, that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take away right away essentially the toughest weapon that we’ve used so far; that by putting in place these statutory sanctions that Congress passed several years ago, we did succeed in putting enormous pressure on the Iranian economy. Now, a lot of that, again, is thanks to the good work of this administration that worked with the international community to maximize the impact of those sanctions.
But we saw that oil exports plummeted in Iran, that Iran’s currency was significantly devalued, that there’s a whole host of negative economic impacts that they have sustained as a result of this international isolation. And in the mind of the President, we should make sure that Iran is serious about living up to the terms of this agreement over a number of years before we contemplate taking those sanctions away.
Q So you’re saying no sanction relief for many, many years?
MR. EARNEST: What I’m suggesting is that we should not take down, we should not dismantle our sanctions architecture until Iran has, over the course of a number of years, demonstrated a willingness to comply with an international agreement.
Q We’ve got about 20 minutes so I want to go back to your favorite topic from last week, which is Secretary Clinton’s emails.
MR. EARNEST: Great. (Laughter.)
Q We heard from the President in his interview with CBS about this and he said that he first became aware of it in the reports last week. So I’m wondering if, implicit in that, is that the President and Secretary Clinton never emailed one another when Secretary Clinton was serving at the State Department.
MR. EARNEST: That may be one conclusion to draw from the President’s remarks, but it would not be an accurate one. The President, as I think many people expected, did over the course of his first several years in office trade emails with his Secretary of State. I would not describe the number of emails as large, but they did have the occasion to email one another. And the point that the President was making is not that he didn’t know Secretary Clinton’s email address — he did — but he was not aware of the details of how that email address and that server had been set up or how Secretary Clinton and her team were planning to comply with the Federal Records Act.
Q Just to drill down on that a little bit, does that mean that he didn’t know that he was emailing whatever it was, like, HRC@Clintonemail.com, or that —
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I’m not going to get into a lot of detail here, but I’m not going to — the point is the President did email with Secretary Clinton. I assume that he recognized the email address that he was emailing back to. But, again, the question here is about compliance with the Federal Records Act. And understandably, the kinds of things that a President and his Secretary of State talk about are pretty weighty, national issues. I’m not sure that they drilled all the way down to the Federal Records Act.
But what is clear is that, as the President said in his interview, the emails that he sends are properly maintained, consistent with the Presidential Records Act — and that, by the way, would be true of any emails that he received from his Secretary of State. And the reason I raise that is because Secretary Clinton’s team has pointed out, rightfully so, that a large number of the emails that they provided to the State Department in response to a request from her personal email system were already maintained on the State Department agency system. And the reason for that is she was emailing people with — State Department employees with state.gov email addresses, which meant that those email communications had been properly preserved and maintained.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that what we know also is that the whole purpose of maintaining these records is to ensure that they can be properly used in responding to legitimate questions and inquiries from Congress and from the public. And I understand that hundreds of documents have already been provided to Congress consistent with their specific request out of these records.
Q Well, that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about. Trey Gowdy, I think also on CBS this weekend, said that in their request for emails and documents from the State Department that there were big holes in the Secretary’s emails that were turned over. He cited specifically there’s the famous photo of Hillary on her Blackberry flying to Libya and that there was — no emails turned over not only from that day but that trip entirely. So if those emails haven’t been produced by the State Department, does that suggest that Secretary Clinton has not turned over all the emails that she should have? And if the principal investigator from Congress is saying that there are holes that exist in the record, is that something that you guys at the White House now need to step in and say, what’s going on here, let’s investigate this, the State Department doesn’t seem to be doing their job?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure that there’s — I think that last part might be one step too far. It is the responsibility of the State Department to respond to legitimate requests from congressional committees. And the State Department has cooperated at great length with the eight different congressional committees that have been formed to investigate this situation.
Q But Secretary Clinton just turned over her emails —
MR. EARNEST: But my point is, is that if you or Chairman Gowdy have specific questions about specific emails that should be produced in response to a legitimate congressional inquiry, then he should raise that directly with State Department officials. In fact, I would hazard a guess that if the White House were intimately involved in that kind of effort to review email and make determinations about what should be provided to Congress, that he’d be complaining about that on national television as well.
So there is a process that’s involved and the point is there is a strong track record of the State Department working closely with legitimate and even some illegitimate congressional inquiries into this particular matter. And so if he has questions or concerns about that, as the eighth chairman of a committee to review this matter, then he should take that up directly with the State Department. And this administration will continue to be guided by a principle that we will work cooperatively with legitimate congressional inquiries.
Q Josh, what is the timeline on when the White House Counsel’s office found out that Secretary Clinton had her own server at home?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, I don’t know the answer to that question. What I can tell you is that it is the responsibility of individual agencies to establish an email system and to make sure that those emails as they’re created are properly archived and maintained both so they can be used to respond to legitimate public inquiries and to legitimate congressional inquiries. And that’s the responsibility of those agencies to do that.
It is the agency at the State Department that specifically made the request to Secretary Clinton and her team to provide the emails on her personal email system that relate to her official government responsibilities.
Q And when did the White House learn that not only that she had this other account or accounts but that she had not turned them over to the previous committees? Was it when Trey Gowdy sent a subpoena or requested these documents? Is that the timeline?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, again, I don’t know the answer to that specific question. Again, what I can tell you is it is the responsibility of the agencies to maintain these kinds of records and it’s the responsibility of agencies to administer the emails.
Q But at some point, isn’t it at some point the responsibility of the White House to make sure their Secretary of State is complying with at least rules if not the law?
MR. EARNEST: And that is why the State Department made a specific request of Secretary Clinton and all of the previous Secretaries of State to ask them to turn over their emails on their personal email that may relate to the conduct of official U.S. government business. And that is to ensure compliance with the Federal Records Act. And if Secretary Clinton’s team did as they said they did — and nobody has raised in my mind at least any legitimate reason to doubt that they’ve done anything other than what they said they did — then Secretary Clinton is in compliance with the Federal Records Act.
Q And on that point, the Wall Street Journal quoting an administration official this morning as saying of the Clinton camp, “If they screwed up on the emails, if we found out they skipped over her emails, then that will be a problem for them. It will be a scandal, but it’s not one that we’ll own.” Is there some separation going on here between the White House and the Clinton camp?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I think that quote refers to a specific fact, which is that it’s Secretary Clinton’s team that obviously has access to her personal email server and it’s their responsibility to respond to the State Department request to turn over emails that were related to her official government business. Now, again, they say that they’ve done that and I don’t see any reason to doubt that they have done exactly what they said they would do. But ultimately, that is the responsibility of Secretary Clinton and her team.
Q A couple other quick topics. On Senator Menendez, when you were saying the key here is to make sure the investigations are not politicized — and this administration, as you know, has been very aggressive about investigating press leaks and what not. Are you launching some sort of investigation here to figure out why someone at the Justice Department leaked the idea that a Democratic senator is about to face criminal charges?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, I can’t speak to the accuracy of those claims, so I don’t know —
Q They were published pretty widely. Someone at the Justice Department was quoted —
MR. EARNEST: That’s not proof of them being a fact. So —
Q — so misrepresented then and nobody at Justice talked to the media?
MR. EARNEST: I think the point here is, Ed, that I am not aware of anything like that because I shouldn’t be; that if there’s a criminal investigation underway, it is one that has been done wholly separate and apart from any sort of political interference. That’s why I’m not in a position to comment on whether or not they’re true or not. I don’t know. Nor should I. And I think that’s the point.
Q You’re suggesting you don’t know — is there a firewall between the Justice Department and the White House on the Menendez investigation? Has the President been briefed on the potential charges —
MR. EARNEST: Again, Ed —
Q No, just a simple question. Has anyone in the White House —
MR. EARNEST: I’m making a simple point. I don’t know if there’s a Menendez investigation. You’re referring to it as if it’s a fact, and I’m not in a position to comment on it because I’m not —
Q Nobody at the White House has been briefed at the White House because you’re not even aware that there’s an investigation, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware that there’s an investigation. Ed, the point is, is that we work very hard and diligently, as has previous administrations, to ensure for the integrity of these criminal investigations to move forward that there is not any political interference.
Q Okay. And the last thing, on Iran. You kept talking about sanctions and what the Republicans want is war, and in just reading Tom Cotton’s letter, I don’t see the word, “sanctions,” I don’t see the word, “war.” I understand that that may be the way you’re framing it, that they’re pushing some alternative to go to war instead of a deal. But the letter actually goes into great detail about how what these Republicans at least claim that they want is they want a vote in Congress on the deal. So my question to you is: What’s wrong with a little sunshine? What’s wrong with saying we’re going to negotiate a wonderful deal here, and we’re willing to let Democrats and Republicans vote on that? That appears to be — if you read their words, and I get you’re going to read other motives and all this — the letter is saying we want an up or down vote in Congress, something Bob Menendez, a Democrat we just talked about, he’s wanted. Other Democrats have talked about it.
MR. EARNEST: He didn’t sign this letter.
Q He didn’t sign this letter because Republicans did this. My question is what’s wrong with an up or down vote? They’re not saying they don’t want a deal. They’re saying they want a deal that is going to survive an up or down vote on the Hill. That’s different from what you’re —
MR. EARNEST: Senator Cotton has referred to his strategy to undermine this deal as an effort to prevent a diplomatic agreement. He described that as a feature of this strategy, not a bug. I think he said it on camera, and so it is clear what their strategy is.
And again, if they want to mask it as part of some sort of civics lesson that they want to share with Iran’s political leadership, they’re welcome to do that. It might evince some reluctance or at least hesitation about the wisdom of their strategy — or at least the wisdom of their ultimate goal here. And I think the reason for that is simple, Ed, because the only option to a diplomatic agreement that anybody else has raised is a military option. And again, we have seen Republicans time and again try to advance the military option ahead of a diplomatic option. And the President doesn’t think that that’s good policy. He certainly doesn’t think it’s good strategy. And the truth is the efforts of neocons in the previous administration to do that, frankly, hurt the country’s standing around the world.
Q Josh, first on the letter, the letter says, the next President could revoke such an agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses can modify the terms of the agreement at any time. I’m just wondering is that an accurate statement. Couldn’t the next President, if this is not a ratified treaty, if this is simply an agreement that the President has struck with the leadership of Iran and our allies, that a future President can say, we’re opting out?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I will tell you that one of the things that’s contributed to the United States’ diplomatic influence around the globe is this notion of continuity, that when other countries are doing business with the leader of the United States, they understand that they’re not just doing that business with one President, they’re doing it with the country.
And for example, on the campaign trail in 2008, there was no doubt about the fact that there was a substantial difference of opinion between President Bush and President Obama for confronting a wide variety of foreign policy challenges. And this President didn’t walk into office and with the stroke of a pen undo a whole long series of agreements that President Bush had reached with other countries. That would have been irresponsible.
And in fact, you’ll recall that the debate throughout the 2008 campaign was about a responsible drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq. And the fact is people around the globe understand that when they are doing business with the American President, they’re doing business with the United States of America and not just that one person.
Q But isn’t it true — that history taken into consideration — isn’t it true that the next President of the United States can undo this agreement with a stroke of a pen if it is not ratified by Congress? It may look bad, it may be something you think breaks with precedent, but would there be anything legally that would stop the next President from undoing that agreement first day in office?
MR. EARNEST: If a President is focused on the best interest of the United States of America and focused on the assessment of whether or not Iran is living up to the terms of the agreement, and if the international community has confirmed that they are, it would clearly not be in the best interest of the United States. And it is hard to envision a President taking an unprecedented step that only weakens the United States on his or her first day in office.
Q Okay. Back to the question of the emails. Given your back-and-forth on this question of what Mrs. Clinton has turned over, doesn’t it make sense to have an independent arbiter look at her server and determine which emails were official business and therefore, under the Records Act, should be turned over to Archives? I mean, doesn’t it make sense that there should be a third party, an independent party to make that determination?
MR. EARNEST: Well, ultimately — as I mentioned before Secretary Clinton’s team has said that they have reviewed all these emails and they’ve turned over 55,000 of them to the State Department —
Q So we’re supposed to just take their word for it?
MR. EARNEST: A large number of them already existed on the State Department system. And I haven’t heard anybody or seen anybody present any evidence to indicate that they didn’t do what they said that they did.
So again, if they decide — if Secretary Clinton’s team decides that they want to go to even greater lengths than they already have, then that’s ultimately a decision for them to make. They’re the ones that are in charge of the email server. But ultimately this administration is —
Q So you would not have a problem, the White House would not have a problem with a third party taking a look at her server and determining with emails were official correspondence?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, ultimately, this is a decision that is going to be left up to Secretary Clinton’s team to make on this. But again, what we know is —
Q I understand. There is — you’re saying it’s their decision to make, but you would have no objection to a third party looking at her server if that’s what they decided to do to reassure everybody that she was completely above board? The White House would have no problem if a third party were to look at her server and determine which of her emails are official business and therefore should be turned over.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’d be surprised that that would be required, however, because no one has been in a position to provide any evidence to indicate that they haven’t actually done —
Q You’d be surprised that would be required? You’d be surprised that people wouldn’t want to take her word for it, like it’s an honor system, whatever she determines is official business?
MR. EARNEST: Jon, what’s clear is that they have turned over thousands of records to the State Department. The State Department has properly archived and maintained them. They’ve already used them in response to questions that have been submitted by Congress. And no one, at any point, has suggested that Secretary Clinton’s team didn’t turn over the emails that they were supposed to turn over, the ones that were related to the conduct of official business.
Q Would it be strange for her to not have any emails from a trip she took to the region, where she’s photographed on her Blackberry?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I can’t speak to any emails that she may have sent on this. Maybe she was using her Blackberry to read the news. You can use your Blackberry for other things other than email, right?
Q And on the —
MR. EARNEST: Or tweeting, in fact. I think that’s the whole joke, right, about the whole thing? Is that she was —
Q A text. It was text.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, a text from Hillary, not tweets from Hillary.
Q Maybe we can get into a whole other thing about her texts.
MR. EARNEST: Let’s not. (Laughter.)
Q On the question of the President, the President was asked a very direct question by Bill Plante: If he was aware that she was using non-government email to conduct official business. And his answer was, he was not aware of that until he read the news, or heard about it in the news reports. How is that possible? Because you’ve just told us he received emails from her. I mean, by definition, wouldn’t any email going from the Secretary of State to the President of the United States be official business?
MR. EARNEST: Well, presumably. Although —
Q I mean, it could have been a birthday hello, but I would think just about anything between those two is business.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I tried to — in response to somebody’s question earlier — I think it was Justin who brought this up the first time — that the President was referring specifically to the arrangement associated with Secretary Clinton’s email. Yes, the President was aware of her email address; he traded emails with her. That shouldn’t be a surprise that the President of the United States is going to trade emails with the Secretary of State. But the President was not aware of the fact that this was a personal email server, and that this was the email address that she was using exclusively for —
Q All her business.
MR. EARNEST: — for all her business. The President was not aware of that until that had been more widely reported.
But again, the President’s commitment to the guidance that we’ve offered to employees of the government to use official email for official business is one that is important and one that he himself follows.
Q Would the President, if he had been aware, suggested to Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton, that she should be using official emails, since that was the guidance?
MR. EARNEST: That’s a hard hypothetical to speculate upon.
Q Thank you, Josh. A couple questions on the fight against ISIL. Last Friday, a Canadian soldier with Special Operations was killed in a friendly-fire incident. I was just wondering, first, how you see this — when we talk about a coordinated effort and strategy to fight ISIL, how come such incident happened?
MR. EARNEST: Richard, let me start by saying that the United States extends its deepest condolences on the loss of Canadian Armed Forces Sergeant Andrew Joseph Doiron, who was tragically killed in Iraq on Saturday during a friendly-fire incident. We offer our sympathies to the people of Canada and to the family and loved ones of Sergeant Doiron. Our thoughts are also with the three injured members of the Canadian Armed Forces as we wish them a speedy recovery.
The United States and more than 60 coalition partners proudly stand with Canada and recognize the extraordinary contributions and sacrifices of the Canadian Armed Forces and of all the men and women serving the coalition campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Obviously, as we have said and as you have heard me observe on a number of occasions, that Iraq is a very dangerous place right now, and that is the reason that we’ve seen the international community respond under the leadership of this President to try to support Iraqi forces on the ground, Kurdish security forces on the ground, as they try to roll back the gains that are made by ISIL. And it’s very dangerous work, and it is why we are so grateful of the contribution not just of the Canadian people and the Canadian military but of the military resources that have come from coalition countries all around the globe.
Q Part of the controversy, Josh — and in Canada they are studying the possibility of renewing the mandate of the soldiers over there — is that the Canadian soldiers are doing airstrikes targeting on the ground. And the perception is they’re doing this, the Americans are not on the ground doing it, taking big risks that the Americans are not taking to make sure that these types of missions are prolonged, when will we see American soldiers doing this type of airstrike targeting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is a question that was raised last fall for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and so in some ways he’s probably in the best position to answer this question. I think that American military personnel will start engaging in that kind of activity once the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff deems it necessary and makes such a recommendation to the United States that the President then agrees with and approves. And that’s the process that we have established for this. This is an option that, as Chairman Dempsey has said in the past, is on the table.
My rough understanding, though, of the circumstances of the tragic incident that occurred over the weekend, though, is that it was not related to this issue of calling in airstrikes; that it was in a different engagement in which this tragedy occurred.
Q Josh, I want to follow up on the ISIL issue. Boko Haram has pledged loyalty to ISIS. What is the White House saying about that as they’re still dealing with Boko Haram in Africa, particularly in Nigeria?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, we have seen reports of a Twitter message and a corresponding video, purportedly from Boko Haram’s leadership, pledging allegiance to ISIL. The intelligence community has no reason to doubt that these claims were issued by Boko Haram’s leader, and may be designed at least in part for propaganda value. Boko Haram, which has previously expressed solidarity with both AQIM and al Qaeda core, and ISIL have demonstrated similar acts of wanton brutality, and we take any potential links between these two groups as a matter of concern. The intelligence community will remain focused on potential indications of deepening ties.
The part of this that I would commend to your attention is the note that Boko Haram has previously sought to align themselves with other prominent terrorist organizations. And it might lead one, at least, to conclude that Boko Haram is primarily interested in the propaganda value of such an announcement. And at this point, it’s difficult to determine what sort of operational value it may have, but it’s one that I’m confident the international community will be closely monitoring.
Q On another subject, and I hate to do this, but back on the emails — when you talk about the President’s email, I’m sure there are security features and filters and things of that nature, but when he emails, I’m sure there — or you tell me if I right or wrong — you have to plug in a name or email so that the computer — his email system recognizes that person. You can’t just send any kind of email to that system, meaning that it would recognize her .Gov email account. Was it I guess programmed to accept that other server email as well?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, April, I’m not going to get into a detailed — well, let me say it this way. One of the security precautions we take around the President’s emails is we don’t talk about it very much publicly. And —
Q You were getting ready to talk about it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, safety first. But what I can tell you is that the President and the Secretary of State did exchange emails while she was serving as Secretary of State. And in accordance with the guidelines that we follow here at the White House, that email was — those exchanges were preserved pursuant to the Federal Records Act.
And the other point that I would make on all of this, particularly as it relates to the President’s email, is that he himself has a keen awareness of how valuable, when it comes to scholarly work, that this email could be in the future; that previous Presidents have not used email nearly as much as he has. And he understands that there is legitimate scholarly value in having insight into those conversations that the President has over email with Cabinet officials and with other senior members of his administration.
So he certainly understands personally why this is important. Over the weekend, the President had the opportunity to take his daughters to the Library of Congress to see the written text of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, that there’s rich historical value in a document like that.
And in some ways, my guess is that the mundane, day-to-day email that the President sends certainly wouldn’t rise to the level of interest or eloquence of the second inaugural address that was delivered by President Lincoln, but it has important scholarly value nonetheless, and the President recognizes that. And that’s why he takes very seriously the responsibilities that he has under the Presidential Records Act to ensure that those records are properly maintained and archived.
Q And the last question. Prime Minister Netanyahu said this on CBS yesterday; he said the word “best deal” when it comes to the Iran negotiations. The White House has said the words “best deal.” There are a lot of variables out there to create a “best deal.” What does the best deal look like when it comes to the negotiations with the world community, with Iran?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think, April, for obvious reasons I can’t get into a lot of detail about that. This is something that’s currently being negotiated. But as a principle, I can tell you that what the administration is seeking to do is to ensure that, at a minimum, the breakout time for Iran is expanded to one year.
We know that experts right now estimate that Iran’s breakout period is about two to three months. The breakout period refers to the time in which Iran would essentially throw off international monitoring and inspections, and run headlong toward developing a nuclear weapon. Right now, that’s something that they could achieve in just two or three months if you listen to what some public experts — or if you listen to what some experts have said publicly.
Under the terms of this negotiation, we would ensure that the breakout period was expanded to a year. Now, in addition to that, what we would insist upon is that Iran commit to comply with a historically intrusive set of inspections. And in the mind of the President, and I think in the mind of people who are willing to take a non-partisan look at this, that is the best way for us to resolve our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program; that we can push the breakout period to a year, substantially lengthen it, and impose an intrusive set of inspections that would verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement.
The wisdom of this is that if we determine that Iran is somehow not living up to the terms of the agreement, then the President will continue to have the full range of options on the table — additional sanctions, additional coordinated steps with the international community, or, yes, even the military option, if that’s the one that we have to resort to.
But this underscores the difference in approach between Democrats — or the President and congressional Republicans. Congressional Republicans are ready to fast-forward to the military approach before the diplomatic approach has been given the opportunity to succeed. And that, again, sort of reflects — is consistent with the pattern of foreign policy decision-making that Republicans have been engaged in over the last decade or two. It’s also an approach that has been roundly criticized by the international community. It did lead to the diminishment of the U.S. standing on the international scene.
It also is an approach that’s not been supported by the American public. And ultimately that’s the approach that — and ultimately that is sort of the measure that we would want our political leaders to do.
Q Josh, just hours after President Obama finished his remarks at Selma commemorating an event that is seared in the history of the Civil Rights Movement in this country, an ugly video came out of the university — Oklahoma University. It showed some students using racial epithets. The fraternity that they belong to has now been kicked off campus. The president has come out and adamantly spoken out against this. I’m curious if the President is aware of it, the President has thoughts on it, and just what this White House’s take is on it.
MR. EARNEST: I have not spoken to the President about this specific issue. But I certainly — on behalf of everybody here at the White House, we would certainly welcome the steps that were announced both by the president of the university, as well as the steps that were taken by the national organization to completely repudiate the comments that were included in that video. And that certainly is an appropriate step.
Q Quickly, just going back to Hillary Clinton and the emails — so right now, obviously she said, as the President said I should say — he said, “I’m glad that Hillary has instructed that those emails about official business need to be disclosed.” But is that a satisfactory bar? Or does the President want — or is this White House asking for some better explanation of why she was, in fact, using this private server when the rules or perhaps the law indicates that that’s not the system that should have been used?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the administration — at least when this regard is focused on is living up to the standard of transparency that this administration and this President has set. And that includes ensuring that government records are properly archived and maintained at least consistent with the Federal Records Act. And President Clinton’s — Secretary Clinton’s team has reviewed her personal email, and forwarded the ones pertaining to her official as the Secretary of State to the State Department so that they could be properly archived and maintained.
Q So you have faith that all the ones that had any relationship to the questions being posed have been provided?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, that is what Secretary Clinton’s team has said that they have done. And I haven’t seen anybody produce any evidence to indicate that they have fallen short of what they said they were going to do.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Mark.
Q Josh, did the White House play a role in the decision to raise the reward offered for the return of Robert Levinson to $5 million, as the FBI did today?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I can’t speak to any specific conversations that may have taken place between the White House and the FBI. If we’re able to do that, I’ll have somebody follow up with you.
But you point out that today is the eighth anniversary of Mr. Levinson’s disappearance. And this serves as a useful reminder of how many concerns the United States continues to have about Iran and their conduct in a wide variety of areas. We have for eight years now been seeking information from the Iranian government about the details surrounding Mr. Levinson’s disappearance. We have also sought agreement from the Iranian government to release those Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran. We’ve also expressed concerns with Iran’s support for terrorism around the globe and with their anti-Semitic threats against our closest ally in the region.
So we have a long list of concerns about Iran and their behavior. And those concerns aren’t going to go away even if we are able to reach a negotiated solution — or at least a negotiated commitment from Iran to try to bring their nuclear program into compliance with generally accepted international standards. We’re going to continue to have those concerns.
And, frankly, in the mind of the President, the fact that we have this long list of concerns is the reason it’s so important for us to resolve our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program; that a nuclear-armed Iran would only be able to more hostilely menace our closest ally in the region. Iran developing a nuclear weapon and acquiring a nuclear weapon will make it harder for us to get Americans who are unjustly detained inside of Iran home. And Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon only makes their support for terrorism around the globe more dangerous. So the stakes are high, and certainly the occasion of the eighth anniversary of Mr. Levinson’s disappearance is an appropriate time for us to acknowledge that.
Q Has the Levinson matter been brought up in the P5-plus-1 talks?
MR. EARNEST: What we have said, Mark, is that we have raised these broader concerns with the Iranians on the sidelines of these talks. We do not envision a scenario where discussions about Americans held in Iran or Mr. Levinson’s disappearance to become a specific part of the P5-plus-1 negotiations. But because this is a priority for the United States and for this administration, securing the safe return of Mr. Levinson and other Americans held in Iran, we have in the sidelines of those talks engaged with our Iranian counterparts to let them know that we consider this a priority and that we’d like to get that information about Mr. Levinson’s disappearance, and we would like for those individuals that we already know are being held in Iran released.
Q And how is offering a reward different from paying a ransom?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess that would be a question for the FBI. But, ultimately, presumably the payment of information would go to somebody who could help you find the individual who was missing and would not be paid to the individual who was holding that person captive.
Mike, I’ll give you the last one.
Q When you talk about a pattern on the part of Republicans undermining the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy, I’m wondering what other examples you might offer that would fit that pattern. I mean, you’ve talked about obviously the invitation — the protocol involved with the Netanyahu invitation. But what other examples could you offer?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that we’ve seen other comments. I did include — I did have in mind the sort of end run that we saw House Republicans engage in, in terms of circumventing the administration and unilaterally inviting the Israeli Prime Minister to speak to a joint meeting of the United States Congress.
The other thing that I have in mind are the repeated criticisms and efforts to undermine an agreement that has not yet even be reached. That kind of criticism from Republicans is a distortion of a deal, again, that doesn’t even exist. So what this administration envisions is an opportunity for us to try to continue to work cooperatively with Congress in this endeavor.
It’s yielded fruit so far that we have succeeded in putting in place a sanctions regime on Iran that has compelled them to the negotiating table; that we have succeeded in having extensive conversations between senior administration officials and leaders in Congress, frankly, without the details of those conversations leaking publicly. That reflects some good will and some good faith. And the administration is not just having those conversations with Democrats; we’re having them with Republicans, too.
So it does mean that there are at least some members of Congress who are willing to contribute to this constructively. But writing a letter like this that appeals to the hardliners in Iran is, frankly, just the latest in an ongoing strategy, a partisan strategy, to undermine the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy and to advance our interests around the globe. And I think that’s the explanation for, I think, what you could accurately describe as a pretty forceful response to the letter today.
Q When Democrats won back control of the House and the Senate in 2006, obviously in 2007 there were a number of efforts made to put limits on the fighting in Iraq, to cut off funding, and the President was a senator and part of that majority in the Senate at the time. I’m wondering how you draw the line between the usual give-and-take between the branches here and what you’re calling a pattern here on the part of Republicans.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I would say about this, Mike, and you do raise — this is one point that I have not had the opportunity to make, despite the fact that I’ve been talking a lot today — that there is something interesting about the pattern here, which is that the administration fully believes that there is a legitimate and even an important role for Congress to play when it comes to foreign policy. And I mean this even outside of the Iran context. I’ve sort of talked a number of times now about sort of the role that we believe Congress should play, both in the run-up to — in the midst of these conversations, and ultimately the role that they will play down the line in removing sanctions against Iran.
But there are other ways that Congress can and should be a part of foreign policy. And the best example I can think of right now is the Authorization to Use Military Force. The President has sent up language to Congress asking for Democrats and Republicans to come together around a strategy to establish a specific authorization that does not overly constrain the ability of the Commander-in-Chief to conduct foreign policy, but does ensure that Congress has a voice in making that decision.
The common thread at least between this Iran situation and the AUMF is that we see a Republican Party that is eager to direct almost unlimited authority to the President of the United States to wage war, but to try to repeatedly tie his hands when he’s trying to conduct diplomacy. And that is the nature of the conflict that we see right now, is you have a President of the United States that is seeking to advance our national security interests around the globe using diplomacy by using our influence around the world to build international coalitions to protect our interests and to protect the American people. The President finds that approach not just more effective, but one that has yielded important results for the American people.
The coalition that we built against ISIL is a great example of that. There are airstrikes that are being conducted against ISIL, and there are fighters who are taking the fight on the ground to ISIL to roll back their gains. But that fight on the ground is being led by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish security forces that are fighting for their own country. They’re doing so in close coordination with Sunni tribal fighters as well, and that reflects the kind of political strategy that the President wholeheartedly endorses in Iraq. But the role for the United States is one that’s limited to military airstrikes and limited to some train, advise and assist efforts.
But the point is that the reason that we’re having this conversation and this debate, in fact, is because there is a starkly different approach between the one that’s advocated by Republicans that puts the military option and war fighting at the top of the list. That is not an approach that the vast majority of the American public supports, and it’s certainly not an approach that our recent history indicates is the best way to protect American national security interests.
The best way for us to protect the United States, our citizens and our interests around the globe is to work cooperatively with nations around the globe and seek to advance our interests in multilateral fashion. We did that in destroying chemical weapons in Syria. We’ve done that in trying to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. And the President is in the midst of an effort to do that as it comes — when it comes to one of the most important national security challenges that we have right now, which is resolving the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
Thanks, everybody. Have a good Monday.
2:13 P.M. EDT