WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING WITH JOSH EARNEST STIX
THE REGULAR WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING WITH JOSH EARNEST
STIX / HEADON
White House Briefing with Josh Earnest
DC Slugs: 1230 WH BRIEF STIX FS37 73 & 1230 WH BRIEF CUTS FS38 74
Disc #722/077 & 756/078
NYFS: WASH3 (4523) / WASH4 (4524)
EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody.
Nice to see you. I don't have any comments at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Josh, you want to start?
QUESTION: Sure. I wanted to get the president's reaction to the Iowa caucuses last night. Was he glad to see Donald Trump defeated? Was he concerned to see the amount of support that Ted Cruz garnered in the Republican primary caucus?
12:52:33 EARNEST: Josh, I did not have a chance to talk to the president about the -- about the caucus results last night. So, sorry to disappoint you on that front. I think in general what I can share with you is that for at least a generation, Republican candidates aspiring to work in this building have tried to claim the mantel of President Reagan. While they've sought to claim his mantel, they have utterly failed in trying to claim his message of sunny optimism, at least this year.
You know, we've seen a campaign that's been characterized by candidates trying to exploit people's fears and anxieties and insecurities about the future. And those candidates ended up doing pretty well last night. And I think it's why a lot Democrats woke up this morning, at least at this point, not particularly concerned about the potential matchup that we would face in a general election when you consider that, you know, all of the candidates have -- are now under more pressure than ever to sort of adopt this pessimism and darkness in terms of assessing the future of the greatest country on planet Earth.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have been pretty forward- leaning, talking about the opportunity that exists for middle-class families and the need to put in place policies in Washington, D.C. that actually will do more for the middle class. And that's -- that draws the outlines of a general election whose outcomes bodes quite well for Democrats.
QUESTION: A lot of people here at the White House are obviously very interested and engaged in seeing a Democratic successor to this president. Looking at the results of the Democratic caucuses last night, is there a concern here at the White House that a drawn-out, slugfest between Hillary Clinton and an upstart candidate whose doing very well with young people, you know, could be difficult for the party or weaken the party's eventual nominee going into the general election?
12:54:53 EARNEST: Well, I think, Josh, you've been framing your question here sort of noting some of the echoes to 2008. I think that's -- while it's not a perfect analogy, I think it's an apt comparison. And many people worried about the same thing in 2008, about Senator Obama and Senator Clinton getting sucked into a long, bloody, drawn-out primary campaign that could hurt the general election candidate, or hurt the Democrats in a general election.
It turned out that the opposite was true, that the drawn-out primary campaign in 2008 had the effect of sharpening and improving the skills of both candidates on the stump and on the debate stage. It had the effect of forcing Democratic campaigns in just about all 50 states to build up a turnout operation that yielded important benefits in the general election.
KIRBY: There are a lot of my colleagues who are focused on the ground operation that said that the aggressively competitive Democratic primary in the state of Indiana, I believe, election day in -- in 2008 and the primary in Indiana was in May, to serve something that was basically unprecedented in at least the modern political schedule, led directly to our -- the president's ability to win Indiana in the general election.
So I don't know if that's going to be the case in 2016, but those concerns in 2008 were unfounded and I think there is certainly the potential that you could find in 2016 that a message that has -- a campaign and a debate that has clearly energized Democrats in Iowa, and I think we'll see energized Democrats in New Hampshire too, that having this campaign go to some other states would have the effect of energizing some Democrats in other states that eventually would be beneficial to whichever candidate emerges as the Democratic nominee.
QUESTION: Turning to the meetings here today at the White House, president and congressional leaders, I know that the -- at least the lunch portion of the agenda is probably still going on, but...
EARNEST: It is.
QUESTION: ... from the earlier portion with McConnell and Ryan, do you have any -- early readout you can give us or sense of what the leaders spoke about?
EARNEST: I can give you a sort of brief overview of -- of their discussion. The president spent some time sort of highlighting five of the -- of the priorities that he's hopeful that we can work with Congress on this year.
The first of those is addressing the crisis in Puerto Rico. Both -- I know that Speaker Ryan and other leaders in the House of Representatives have committed to taking action in the first quarter of this year to try to give government authorities in Puerto Rico more tools that they can use to address the financial challenges that are facing Puerto Rico.
The second topic of discussion was ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Both Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell Rob are obviously committed supporters of an agreement that would cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that are imposed by other countries. So, you know, there is an opportunity to discuss the path forward there, and obviously, the president is eager to see Congress take that action as soon as possible this year so that the U.S. economy and U.S. businesses and American workers can start enjoying the benefits of -- of that agreement.
There was also a discussion of the -- of additional steps that the administration and Congress can take to fight the opioid epidemic. Heroin abuse is actually something that has gotten a lot of discussion on the campaign trail. And you know, you may have seen the announcement from the White House earlier today about the additional resources that we would like to commit to fighting heroin abuse in committees large and small across the country.
We've certainly been pleased to see this issue get a lot of bipartisan attention in the context of the presidential race, particularly in New Hampshire, so today seemed like an appropriate day for us to talk about some of the administration's plans for confronting that significant challenge.
Just two other things that I'll mentioned. You know, yesterday, there was the meeting with administration officials to discuss the cancer moonshot initiative that the vice president's leading. There has been interest expressed by Republicans in Congress to supporting that effort, and that was discussed today. And then of course, they talked about criminal justice reform, and we've seen a lot of bipartisan discussions take place on that issue, frankly, for more than a year now. So it shouldn't be surprising that that came up in the meeting as well.
QUESTION: Just before he came over here this morning, Speaker Ryan was saying that, you know, basically the best thing about the Iowa caucuses last night was that it signaled the start at the end of the Barack Obama presidency.
And I was wondering, you know, with an outlook from a lot of Republicans that they're basically trying to run out the clock on this administration, does that bode well for compromise or some progress on the issues that you just mentioned?
13:00:00 EARNEST: Yeah, Josh, I think that's an appropriate question when you consider that the president's not going to be the ballot in 2016, but all the Republicans in the House of Representatives are going to be, and a third of the United States Senate is going to be on the ballot too. And there will be a lot of voters who are asking those members of Congress exactly what they've been doing for the last two years and what they've done to earn their vote, particularly when you consider that Republicans with a lot of fanfare, captured strong majorities in both houses of Congress in the last election. And I think a lot of voters are going to be asking incumbents what exactly they've done with that privilege.
And, you know, so this goes to something that I mentioned a little bit last week, there's a lot of coverage lately of some Republicans on Capitol Hill -- not a majority, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill -- signaling a desire to undermine bipartisan -- potential bipartisan cooperation between Republicans on Capitol Hill and Democrats in the White House, you know. And whether that is approving TPP or working on criminal justice reform, and that's, you know, understandably covered by many in the news media as a rejection of the president's legislative agenda.
We obviously would like to see those two things advance, and we're certainly going to be invested in trying to advance those two priorities in our legislative agenda, but it begs the question about what exactly is on the Republican legislative agenda.
The only thing that we can reliably count on appearing on the Republican legislative agenda are repeated attempts to repeal Obamacare. And, you know, we're pleased -- you know, Republicans poised to host another vote in the United States Congress today for, you know, the 60th time to repeal Obamacare. It's almost like it's Groundhog Day, except that today it actually is Groundhog Day and they're doing it again.
(LAUGHTER) So I'm not really sure that qualifies as the contours of a proactive legislative agenda, but it does put some pressure on Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell and other Republicans in Congress to lay out what it is exactly they support and try to find some common ground with the administration.
We certainly have done that, and we've made clear that some of the items that we have prioritized are things that they strongly support in their own right, and hopefully, we're going to find willing partners on Capitol Hill to advance those measures. I think that is certainly the expectation of most voters across the country.
QUESTION: So moving onto another topic. Today. some top U.S. generals told lawmakers at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that women should be required to register for the draft. I was wondering, is that an official White House position at this point? Does the president believe that women should be required to register for the draft?
13:02:58 EARNEST: It is not an official administration position. I believe that those military leaders were asked their personal opinion on that. I didn't see the exchange firsthand, but that -- there is no policy change to announce from here today.
QUESTION: Are you considering it, or...
EARNEST: I'm not aware of how seriously this is being studied by the Department of Defense. I know that there have been some members of Congress that have advocated for expanding Selective Service to include women registering as well. So I've seen those kinds of proposals floated, but I don't know how seriously that is being considered. You might check with the Department of Defense to get a (inaudible) on that.
QUESTION: OK, thank you. On North Korea, they've -- they've notified some U.N. agencies that the country plans to launch a satellite later this month, and this could be an attempt to advance the country's development of long-range missile technology.
How concerned is the White House about this latest announcement? And does the international community -- does the U.S. need -- need to move faster to get more sanctions on North Korea, to kind of stop these actions that could be considered provocative? Or is -- is something more than sanctions needed?
13:04:19 EARNEST: Well, the -- I think the international community -- I feel confident in telling you that the international community would regard a step like that by the North Koreans as just another irresponsible provocation, and a clear violation of their international obligations.
We have been working with the international community, both at the U.N. and with our allies and partners in the region, to confront North Korea for their destabilizing activities. Just a few weeks ago, they conducted a nuclear test that violated -- you know, sort of their -- their basic international obligations.
And -- you know, carrying out a satellite launch like the one that has been discussed publicly would just be another destabilizing provocation on the part of North -- on the part of the North Koreans.
And that's not just the view of the United States. I feel confident in telling you that is a view that is shared by -- you know, by our partners at the United Nations Security Council, and by our allies and partners in the region that have been seeking to stabilize and denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
QUESTION: But is there anything that can be done to stop these actions?
EARNEST: Well, the United States has worked closely, not just with our allies in South Korea and Japan, but also with our partners in China and Russia, to convey to the North Koreans the need to end their provocative actions.
And there are a range of options that have been on the table. And we certainly have, in our conversations at the diplomatic level with the Chinese in particular, encouraged them to -- you know, continue to work with us to develop potential options.
And obviously China is in a unique position. They have unique influence over the North Korean regime, and we are -- certainly are pleased to be able to work cooperatively and effectively with the Chinese to counter this threat.
And -- you know, that -- that work will -- will continue. We haven't, at this point, announced any specific response to the North Korean nuclear test, but that -- that certainly has been the subject of intense diplomacy over the last several weeks.
And once we have developed an appropriate response and are prepared to implement it with our allies and partners, then we'll be prepared to talk about it with you at that point.
QUESTION: Thank you.
EARNEST: OK. Mark?
QUESTION: Josh, were you in the meeting with Ryan and McConnell?
EARNEST: I was not.
QUESTION: So the readout you gave us was just based on what the agenda -- you knew the agenda to be?
13:06:51 EARNEST: And based on a conversation that somebody on my staff had with somebody who was in the meeting.
QUESTION: Do you expect to be able to give us any more about the tone of the talks today?
EARNEST: Not at this point, but if there's more detail that we can dig out for you, we'll look to do that.
QUESTION: OK. On another subject, yesterday, the Treasury Department posted the -- that the national debt topped $19 trillion. $8.3 trillion of that was -- soared during President Obama's watch. Is this something that the president's concerned about, as part of his legacy?
EARNEST: Mark, the measure that we are focused on is the percentage of debt to GDP, and the best way for us to confront that is to actually start driving down the deficit as a percentage of GDP.
EARNEST: And under the president's leadership, we have actually reduced that measure 75 percent because of this president's commitment to fiscal responsibility. And we have, at least in fiscal year 2015, and in the last couple of years, succeeded in driving the deficit-to- GDP ratio below three percent.
That is the measure that economists tell us over the long term will stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is the statistic that we follow most closely. And I think in the budget proposal that we'll put forward, the longer-term vision that we -- the president has is to continue to keep the debt at a relatively stable level as a percentage of our GDP.
QUESTION: My understanding is the debt is over 100 percent of GDP; that gross total debt at $19 trillion. I mean, that's an enormous amount. Do you believe that is sustainable?
EARNEST: Well, again, I think what we're seeking to do is to try to limit the growth of the debt as a percentage of GDP. And that's why we've been so focused on driving down the deficit. And that's why, frankly, the president's pretty proud of the success that we've had in reducing the deficit by 75 percent since he took office.
But this is certainly a measure that we're mindful of, and look, the -- it is -- to understand the long-term trends here, we have to sort of take a look at what exactly happened when the last Democratic president was leaving office. He was passing off budget surpluses as far as the eye could see to his successor. His successor inherited that strong fiscal position and proceeded to put in place tax cuts that predominantly benefit the wealthy and the well-connected, and launched a ground war in the Middle East, all without paying for it.
And that also led to -- the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression that put enormous pressure on the federal budget. And digging out of that economic downturn, leading our economy to recovery, and doing it all in a fiscally responsible way, will be a hallmark of the president's legacy.
QUESTION: The Congressional Budget Office projects $100 billion increase in the deficit for F.Y. '17. Is that something that corresponds with OMB's projection?
13:10:19 EARNEST: I haven't seen what OMB's projections are, but we can certainly check with you on that.
QUESTION: We get it Tuesday anyway.
13:43:55 EARNEST: OK. Yeah, I think it will be a part of the budget proposal that we'll put forward.
QUESTION: Back to the Iowa. You said how the winners of that were pessimistic, dark, all negative, so on and so forth.
EARNEST: I think others have made that observation, but I have, too.
QUESTION: It also marked the rise of another candidate who is a young person who represents a different generation, who arguably has not been as dark and has been optimistic and sunny (inaudible). What's the administration's reaction to that -- to Senator Rubio?
EARNEST: Well, you know, Mr. Rubio finished third and did so on the back of television ads saying that he no longer recognized his country; that he no longer recognized his country. So, look, it is difficult to differentiate among the messages from all of the candidates. I think that people like Senator Rubio have felt intense pressure to try to parrot the pessimism and darkness of the leading candidates on the Republican side.
And that does not position the party or the -- the Republican Party or the Republican Party nominee very well for a general election matchup in which they'll be squaring off against a Democratic candidate that's committed to building on the progress that this country has made under President Obama's leadership.
The Republicans will be offering up a candidate that is pessimistic about the future and committed to taking our country back to exactly the kinds of policies that got us into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the first place.
So you know, I think that's why -- again, I think that's why a lot of Democrats wake up feeling pretty good about our presidential prospects this morning.
QUESTION: With the -- the meeting -- the Ryan-McConnell meeting, you said the president had five things he wanted to highlight. Did they have five things they wanted to highlight?
QUESTION: (inaudible) or 10 things or...
EARNEST: For a readout of -- of what they came to present, you should check with them. The five things that I noted that were on the president's agenda and that the president brought up in the meeting are things that Republicans themselves say that they support. It doesn't mean we agree on every -- on every single aspect of them, but surely there is opportunity to find common ground when -- you know, when trying to fight heroin addiction or trying to cure cancer.
So you'd have to ask Republicans about -- about what their agenda is. I -- you know, this is -- was part of my response to Josh's question. It's not really clear right now what their agenda is. We certainly know what they're against. We know they're against a health reform bill that has driven down the uninsured rate and driven down the growth in healthcare costs. To say nothing of the fact -- sort of alluding to Mark's question, repealing the Affordable Care Act would actually have a disastrous impact on the fiscal situation in this country.
So again, you'd have to talk Republicans about what exactly it is they're trying to advance.
QUESTION: So at this early read, you -- it's really -- you can't say anything more about where there might be some cooperation, an idea that they had that the president would run with...
EARNEST: Yes. So all five of these are things that they say that they agree with. All five of these are ideas that they had. QUESTION: (inaudible) but did they -- was that -- was there agreement on that?
EARNEST: Well, just -- just to be blunt, out of respect for them, I'll let them describe what they said in the meeting. I -- I'm not the spokesperson for Speaker Ryan or for Leader McConnell, and if they want to characterize their conversation with the president, then I'll defer to them to do that. All I can tell you is that the proactive agenda that the president put forward included these five things, which are five things that they say that they support.
These are -- many of these are things that right now, you know, some of these Republican candidates who are on the campaign trail are actually trying to run to advance. So you know, for example, fighting heroin addiction. Why don't we lay the ground work so that the next president has a -- has a running start in trying to address that -- that specific challenge?
QUESTION: On TPP, what -- where are we technically in terms of -- can they bring it up at any time or are we still on a waiting -- (inaudible)...
EARNEST: Yeah. There's a -- it's a complicated process. We are not yet at a place where the president has forwarded the agreement to Congress for their ratification. The signing ceremony for the Trans- Pacific Partnership, I believe, is actually scheduled for tomorrow in New Zealand. This will be at the ministerial level. The United States will officially agree to the agreement.
Part of the committee that the president made was that we would give the American public ample opportunity to review the agreement before we signed it, and so that is -- that will be taking place in New Zealand tomorrow. After there, there are a couple of other steps before Congress has an opportunity to consider it.
So I'm not standing up here and suggesting that Congress should act tomorrow to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What I am saying is that once we go through this process and that there has been opportunity for the public to carefully consider what's included in the agreement, we'd like to see Congress act quickly on it.
QUESTION: Can you estimate where the time -- where the -- where the line is that they have to act before there's not enough time?
EARNEST: I don't, at this point, have a specific timeframe to lay out. Once -- as this process moves farther, we'll be able to characterize a little bit more clearly for you what the calendar would look like in terms of what sort of -- legislative steps would be required to ratify the -- the agreement. OK?
QUESTION: Josh, do you have any more detail you can share with us about the president's visit to this Islamic Society in Baltimore tomorrow?
EARNEST: Well, the president's certainly looking forward to his visit to this mosque in Baltimore. The president will begin his visit by sitting down for a roundtable discussion with some leaders in the Muslim community, and, you know, the president is looking for the opportunity to have some dialogue, to talk to leaders in the community about what's on their minds, what their concerns are, and the president's certainly looking forward to that discussion.
After that, the president will have an opportunity to speak to those -- to a broader audience at the mosque, and it will be an opportunity to do a couple of things. The first is to affirm the important role that Muslim Americans play in our society and to affirm our conviction in the principle of religious liberty, that law-abiding Americans should be able to worship God in the manner that they see -- that they see fit, consistent with their religious heritage and traditions in a way that doesn't subject them to either interference from the government or, frankly, divisive rhetoric on the campaign trail.
And this is an important message, and the president's looking forward to delivering it.
QUESTION: Is this -- in this message, is it a recognition that the president thinks profiling and discrimination against Muslims is a problem right now? It's not theoretical, it's a reality?
EARNEST: Well again, I'll let the president's words speak for themselves tomorrow. I think the president has talked a lot about how important it is for the government to have an effective partnership with leaders in the Muslim community. We know that there are extremist organizations like ISIL that are seeking to use social media to radicalize vulnerable members of the population, and certainly the leaders in the Muslim community have a strong interest in preventing that from happening.
And the -- we will have more success in our efforts to prevent that if we work effectively with the Muslim community to confront that threat as opposed to branding everybody who attends a mosque as a potential enemy of the United States of America. A, it's not true; and B, it's going to be counterproductive to our efforts to fight extremists.
QUESTION: So is this a personal appeal by the president to get Muslim leaders to help root out extremism when they see it in their own communities? I mean, is that a specific request from the president?
13:18:38 EARNEST: Look, I think the point that the -- that I'm making and I've made before and you'll hear the president make again tomorrow is that we already see that that's what Muslim -- leaders in Muslim communities are doing, that we do see that there are Muslim leaders in communities all across the country who are concerned about the pernicious influence of the radical ISIL ideology, and they are looking to protect their community from that. And the U.S. government should work with them to do that.
But look, I also don't want to leave you with the impression that the president's remarks at the mosque are going to be focused on national security, I think the president is quite interested in making sure that we're affirming the important role that Muslims play in our diverse American society and certainly affirming their right to worship God in the -- in a way that's consistent with their heritage. And they shouldn't be subject to ridicule or targeting by anybody, let alone somebody who aspires to leading the country.
QUESTION: But is this -- this is the president's first visit. I mean, do you expect anything to come out of it? Are there proposals that the president is bringing, or is this just a conversation?
EARNEST: No, I wouldn't expect any policy proposals tomorrow. But I'd -- I would suspect that -- that the president's activities tomorrow will prompt exactly the kind of the discussion and debate that the president thinks is worth having.
QUESTION: A few topics.
QUESTION: On this one first, can -- can you talk a little bit about the build-up of kind of anger or frustration that the president has seemed to have on this topic of the rhetoric against Muslims, dating back -- I don't know, at least to when he was on the trip to Turkey and all of the stuff came up with the Syrian refugees, and he seemed very eager to repeatedly come back to this topic again.
Does it -- does it go back further than that? And -- and can you talk a little bit about what -- you know, sort of how this appears to be kind of a culmination of that sort of, like, finger-wagging at -- at the Republicans, at the candidates, about the kind of rhetoric that he just feels very strongly about?
13:20:47 EARNEST: I -- I think is certainly true that we have seen an alarming willingness on the part of some Republicans to try to marginalize law- abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans, and it is offensive.
It's not just offensive to the president. I think it's -- it's certainly offensive to a lot of Muslim Americans. I think it's just offensive to a lot of Americans who recognize that those kinds of cynical political tactics run directly contrary to the values that we hold dear in this country.
And the president is looking forward to the opportunity to make that point. And again, we have seen a willingness on the part of leading Republican presidential candidates to try to appeal to people's fears and anxieties.
And they capitalized on terrorist attacks to do exactly that, and it's -- it's unfortunate, and I don't think that most Americans have had a particularly positive reaction about that. But -- and I -- I think the president is looking forward to the opportunity to affirm the kinds of values that are broadly held in this country.
QUESTION: And so -- just quickly, a follow-up on that. In -- in Turkey, when we were there, he -- he didn't limit it to a partisan attack against Republicans. He was very frustrated with Democrats in -- on Capitol Hill and in this country that were questioning the Syrian refugee program.
Is -- is tomorrow's -- are tomorrow's comments limited just to Republicans? Is it essentially a partisan critique that he's preparing to make?
EARNEST: Well, I -- there's no doubt that the -- that there are people in both parties who have gotten swept up -- or at least at the time, sort of got swept up in the furor around all of this.
But I think you'd be hard-pressed to make the case that Democrats have -- well, let me just say it this way. It has been a transparent strategy on the part of Republicans to play on people's anxieties, to target religious minorities, to advance their political ambition.
And there have been some people who are not Republicans who have gotten a little swept up in that, and the president was frustrated by that. But there's no doubt that there was -- that the cynical strategy that's been employed by some leading Republican candidates is -- is the violation of our values that the president's most concerned about.
QUESTION: And then just on the -- Paul Ryan and the meeting with Leader McConnell -- I understand you want to talk about the things that were on the president's agenda, and you want to leave the reactions from the Republicans to their folks.
QUESTION: What was the president's reaction to the things that they brought to the meeting? What did he say? What were the topics of conversation that were beyond the five things that he talked -- that he wanted to talk about? And what did he say about them?
EARNEST: Yeah, well, again...
QUESTION: Which isn't a question about what...
EARNEST: You're being very clever.
So I'll give you that up front.
I'm not going to have a whole lot more detail than this. I can tell you that...
QUESTION: ... talk about the topics that you -- that -- the other topics that were discussed...
EARNEST: Well, because I want to be deferential to -- to Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to describe their contribution to the meeting. But I also didn't sit in on the meeting, so the level of granular detail I can provide to you is limited.
The other thing that I can say that I didn't mention in the first run at this is the president was pleased with the opportunity to sit down with them. And he was, you know, again, for all of the divisiveness and hateful rhetoric and pessimism and partisanship that we see on the campaign trail, it actually is possible for leading Republicans to sit down in the same office with a leading Democrat and have a conversation about the priorities of the country.
And it's not treasonous to do that. In fact, it's part of the responsibility that goes along with leadership. And it certainly doesn't mean they agreed on everything. They didn't. But where there are areas of agreement... (CROSSTALK)
QUESTION: Such as? Do you want to give an example of where they didn't agree?
EARNEST: I don't.
But where they did agree, there is an -- there is an obligation that both sides have to try to find that common ground. And the president in his -- the year that remains in office is certainly committed to doing that. And, you know, maybe it's easier for Republicans to do that knowing that the president's not on the ballot. Speaker Ryan said he was reminded of that today. If that makes it easier for us to get some business done in Congress that's going to benefit the American people, then maybe we should hold the Iowa caucus every day.
MARY BRUCE QUESTION: On the list of the (inaudible) for this meeting, you mentioned several times that trying to fight the heroin epidemic is something that seems to be an area of possible compromise. Are there any signs that Congress is willing to allocate these new resources that the president is calling for?
13:26:08 EARNEST: I didn't see what sort of Republican reaction there has been to the budget proposal that we put forward today. But I'm confident that as the Congress undertakes the serious work that they have to undertake to pass a budget, that the proposal that we've put forward will be carefully considered.
You know, again, oftentimes budgetary debates sort of break down along party lines and I would acknowledge that, you know, things like investing in education is something that Democrats have traditionally supported and Republicans have been traditionally skeptical of that. And we can have a debate about that, but that's sort of a traditionally partisan thing.
I do think that most Americans agree with Democrats on that, but that's another matter.
My point is is there's nothing inherently partisan about dedicating the kinds of resources that we have proposed to helping people who are suffering from heroin addiction. And both parties recognize that there are long-term consequences not just for those individuals and not just for their families, but for the broader community. And trying to address the root causes of some of that is an area where we're hopeful we can find some common ground.
MARY BRUCE QUESTION: And back on Iowa, it now being official, the A.P. has just declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the caucuses. Any reaction?
EARNEST: That's a lot of responsibility, Josh, that the A.P. has.
This is an election that's conducted by the Iowa Democratic Party, but yet it is the Associated Press who determines whether or not (inaudible).
EARNEST: Oh, I was going to say...
13:27:30 EARNEST: An impressive show of multitasking, to sit there in the front row and count votes at the same time.
Listen, I would -- you know, this is the first contest in what I expect will be a series of competitive ones. And it was a spirited and close race in Iowa and I suspect it's not the last state where we say that.
MARY BRUCE QUESTION: So -- but no kind of congratulatory message or...
EARNEST: Well -- I mean, obviously, you know, Secretary Clinton has won, so congratulations to her. But look, the -- and I'm sure they feel about that; they should. But, you know, this is a -- Secretary Clinton, based on her 2008 experience, knows better than anybody that, you know, that these kinds of contests -- or that the -- that the path to the Democratic nomination is a long one, and, you know, she can -- again, based on her 2008 experience, she would tell you that the outcome in Iowa is not indicative of the outcome in New Hampshire.
So whether or not she, you know, came out on top in Iowa, I'm confident that she would be campaigning like an underdog in New Hampshire.
13:28:40 MARY BRUCE QUESTION: But what do you make of how close it was? I mean, it came down to three-tenths of a point.
EARNEST: Yeah, yeah. Look, it's a spirited debate, and she clearly had a very sophisticated and effective turnout operation. And, you know, her field staff and her staff in Iowa I think should feel very good about the way their operation performed last night.
At the same time, it's clear that Senator Sanders has just in the space of a few months inspired a passionate following, and I think that's a testament to his skills as a candidate, it's also a testament to the power of his message. And he should feel pretty good about that.
I guess the one advantage I would say that he has is it's easier to take that message to other states, and Secretary Clinton's team are going to have to do the hard work of building a grassroots infrastructure in the states ahead. So look, it's going to be a spirited competition. I think all of that is good for -- good for the country, it's good for the Democratic process. I also think, as I mentioned to Josh, I do expect it'll eventually be good for the Democratic nominee.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton got lots of attention from one of her emails where she called the caucus process a creature of the extremes of both parties. So would you say that the results last night exemplified that?
13:30:02 EARNEST: Well I -- I think -- it's a difficult thing for me to comment on because I, based on my own experience, I have a different sort of assessment of the -- of the caucus process. There's no denying that because of the impediments to participating in the caucus -- you don't just sort of show up in a -- in a 12-hour window and cast a secret ballot, at least on the Democratic side -- it requires more of a sustained commitment to the process and to the party.
So does that mean that you're much more likely to have partisans participating in the process? It definitely does. But look, everybody knows the rules on the front end, it's not as if it was -- you know, that it was a surprise to anybody who was participating in the caucuses exactly what the rules were going to be, and, you know, this is the kind of competition, again, that serves to hone the organizing skills of a particular campaign, it certainly hones the skills of candidates who are put to the test of participating in town hall meetings and forums and living room conversations for months on end.
It's a grueling process. But ultimately, it's one that reflects something important about our democracy. These are -- these are Iowans in both parties who are participating in essentially community- run, self-run events to organize, cast ballots and have them counted. So, you know, there are parts of it that are a little anachronistic, but it also is a pretty pure form of the kind of democratic ideals that are pretty important to the strength of our democracy.
QUESTION: To the extreme closeness of the Democratic race and Ted Cruz coming out on top. Is that surprising to the White House?
EARNEST: I wasn't particularly surprised. Traditionally, in Iowa - I mean, again, I don't know what everybody at the White House thought. But traditionally, you know, at least in recent history, those on the Republican side, those candidates that had demonstrated the most success in building support in the Evangelical community in Iowa had ended up winning the Iowa caucuses.
That was true of Senator Santorum in 2012, it was certainly true of Governor Huckabee in 2008. And knowing how hard Senator Cruz had worked to build support in that community in Iowa? I know that wasn't what the polls say, but I wasn't particularly surprised by the outcome.
QUESTION: When you look at each of the - you know, each side, isn't this kind of a perfect example though of the extremes of both parties in this particular contest?
EARNEST: I don't know. I think it's hard to say. I don't think that - you know, I did have a chance to watch some of the C-SPAN coverage of a couple of the polling locations - sorry, caucus locations yesterday.
And, it was - the process is not always clean and efficient. But, I don't think everybody that, I saw on camera at least, was an extremist.
Well, you know, I think most of these are...
QUESTION: You can tell by looking?
EARNEST: Well, you know. It seemed to me that most people were committed to participating in a democratic process, both on the Republican and Democratic sides. And again, I've seen some news coverage of that email from Secretary Clinton. My experiences in the caucuses has just been different.
QUESTION: OK. And do you know if the president watched any of the results coming in last night?
EARNEST: I haven't spoken to him this morning so I don't know how much he watched. I'm confident that he's read a lot of the coverage of the results though.
QUESTION: OK. Speaker Ryan did put out - his office put out a note this morning criticizing what the president wants to do with his budget. You know, it's not that that was unexpected. But what does that mean for somebody who is really specific, elements that the president wants to find for the upcoming year. Even some of the ones where you say there is a lot of bipartisan support, but hearing that from Speaker Ryan doesn't exactly sound too optimistic overall.
EARNEST: Well, listen, budgets are always, particularly in an Arab-divided government, are always an exercise in compromise. And, that's certainly been true the last couple of years and I would anticipate that if we can reach a budget agreement this year, that the same will be true.
There will be some budget priorities that Speaker Ryan is able to advance in the context of the budget and hopefully there will be some priorities that we'll be able to advance to. And if we strike that compromise in the right place, I think it will be a good thing for the country and I think it will attract the support that's necessary to be passed by the Congress and signed into law by the president.
QUESTION: Among those priorities, even when the president met with the democratic leadership and afterwards, you laid out what those priorities were. Gitmo is never mentioned even though in other venues you talk about that being the major priority.
And you've laid out, you know, the plan is going to save money. All of the virtues that this plan you've laid out. But by never mentioning that is something that the president can work with Republicans on. Are you essentially saying that there's no chance of that going anywhere?
EARNEST: No, I think what I've tried to do is to lay out the areas where bipartisan agreement is likely and in some cases, blatantly obvious. And that's a good thing. When it comes down to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, not many members of Congress share that priority.
And that's unfortunate, but it's certainly not going to stop us from making the case that doing so would be good for our national security and would be good for our country's fiscal situation.
QUESTION: Thanks Josh.
EARNEST: OK, Isaac.
QUESTION: So did the president lay out any desire for the TPP vote to happen before the lame-duck session? Was that part of the conversation at all? You talked about the calendar in the immediate, but what's the -- what's at stake in the meeting or what's the White House's take on that?
EARNEST: I think there was a general discussion about timing for considering Congressional votes on the Transpacific Partnership. We're obviously not there yet because there are some additional steps that have to go -- that this agreement has to go through before it can be presented to Congress.
But I -- you know, we have -- we haven't laid out any firm deadlines at this point, we have just made the case that it would be good for the country and our economy for the Transpacific Partnership to be approved by Congress as soon as possible. The good news is it's not just the White House that shares that view, there are, you know, organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau who are strong supporters of Republican causes who share that view.
QUESTION: So ideally, would you want this passed before the lame duck session before the election, or a vote to happen (OFF-MIKE)
EARNEST: I mean, we're obviously going to have to work with Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell on that. We haven't set out any firm timing deadlines at this point. But we certainly would have a bias toward earlier action from Congress.
QUESTION: The Republicans would say that what's going on with this meeting, the stuff that you've laid out, is that it's an old game from you guys, that you sort of beat them up for being obstructionists and then use it to -- for political gain.
EARNEST: Prove us wrong. Prove us wrong.
QUESTION: So --
EARNEST: Do it. Just do the five things then. Take that argument off the table.
QUESTION: So if the Republicans were to pass TPP and criminal justice reform, then you think that a Republican majority should be re-elected?
EARNEST: No! I -- we -- certainly not.
But I think what -- but I think Republicans would certainly be -- have a stronger case to make to the American electorate that they should be able to retain the majority if they can actually point to something that they've done in the last year other than vote to repeal Obamacare. They'll probably queue up four or five more of those votes. But that's not doing anybody any good. That's not helping any Republicans do anything. It's not helping anybody find a job, it's not strengthening our economy, it certainly isn't strengthening the security of the country, it's not helping anybody get access to health care, it's not improving our fiscal situation. So what are Republicans doing to address those challenges?
The president's got some good ideas where we can work with Republicans to do that, but we haven't actually seen anything from Republicans about that. If anything, we see comments from people like Tom Cotton who suggests that even bipartisan agreements should be torpedoed somehow.
QUESTION: But you don't think the Republican should be voted out of office, whatever they do on these agenda items, right?
EARNEST: Well ultimately what we believe is that Republicans should work with the president on at least these five areas because it's good for the country for them to do so and because they say that they support these things.
So if you accept that being elected to Congress means that you have some sort of responsibility to try to make the country a better, stronger, healthier, more prosperous place, then this should be a good place to start.
We can have vigorous debates about a bunch of other things that Republicans should do, we believe they should vote to raise the minimum wage. But we can at least start as a practical matter by focusing on areas where we know there is agreement and where there is bipartisan agreement that this kind of progress would be good for the country.
KIRBY: Again, I'm not suggesting that Republicans need any sort of electoral advice from me, Republicans in Congress have done just fine in elections by ignoring me. But my point is that in November, incumbents are going to be on the campaign trail making the case to their constituents about why they should be re-elected. Why not go on the campaign trail and say that you should be re-elected because you are helping communities across the country fight heroin addiction because we're going to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cut taxes on 18,000 American goods that are imposed by other countries. Or that we're going to make a historic investment in curing cancer.
Those are the kinds of things that, again, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, those are the kinds of credentials that are going to enhance anybody's prospects for reelection. OK?
QUESTION: Josh, you had previously listed seven things where they might be on the ground.
QUESTION: AUMF and EITC. Did the president take those off the list today?
EARNEST: No, those are -- those continue to be strong priorities that we support.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
EARNEST: Yes. Exactly. We'll save those for a follow-up meeting maybe?
Those continue to be items on our agenda. Obviously the deal with the AUMF is that this is something they've actually talked about on a number of other meetings. So, and there have been -- and it's no secret that there have been some staff-level discussions about this as well.
And it might -- the truth is it also might be a little harder to find some bipartisan common ground on this one. So, they didn't spend a lot of time on that in the meeting. The EITC thing. Our view on the EITC proposal is pretty well known. So I don't think it's a surprise to either lead or assuming that the president advocates, it just wasn't on the agenda today.
QUESTION: Just to be clear on selective service. Is the administration against expanding it to women, or are you just going to wait and see till the Pentagon...
EARNEST: Well, I'm just -- I'll be honest. I was informed of this Congressional exchange shortly before I walked out here. I'm not aware of any rigorous policy process that's underway to consider changing that policy. But let me take a look at and see if there is additional information on this that I can provide to you. I can just tell you that right now, our policy on this has not changed. OK?
QUESTION: Thanks Josh. You mentioned Puerto Rico for the ordering if this -- the ordering of this or what's of the agenda is an indication of how important and how much the president pushed those things?
EARNEST: It's not. They're not in any order. The reason I noted Puerto Rico first is just to underscore the commitment that the House had made, that Speaker Ryan had made to take action on giving the leaders of Puerto Rico greater restructuring authority earlier in this calendar year.
And so, I guess in some ways, it's in chronological order in which we hope they take action, but it's not a reflection of our priorities. All of these things are important.
QUESTION: And, did you get any sense from Peter McConnell that he also would move on this quickly. It does seems like a very good timeline with Puerto Rico sort of having the clock ticking on them in terms of their finances.
EARNEST: Well, the situation in Puerto Rico is certainly urgent and you know, obviously Secretary Lew has spent quite a bit of time working on this, even traveling down to Puerto Rico just a couple of weeks ago to have additional conversations on this. You'd have to ask Leader McConnell about any commitments he's prepared to make about timing for Senate consideration of that kind of legislation.
QUESTION: And Speaker Ryan on a number of different occasions -- it came up at the meeting, that said that one of the top things he wants from the president is for the president to lay out a plan for how to defeat ISIS.
I know you guys have talked about this regularly but it doesn't seem like he's satisfied with whatever plan that you all put out, so I'm wondering...
EARNEST: But he hasn't proposed an alternative. And he actually hasn't demonstrated yet a willingness to actually have members of Congress to do the one thing that they're supposed to do, which is to vote to authorize the use of military force against ISIL.
So, I that's why I guess I'm not particularly compelled by his rhetoric on this.
QUESTION: And the defense secretary today laid out some information about how much more money they want to spend on the budget for this upcoming year on counterterrorism and on defeating ISIS. I'm wondering if you could about specifically what you hope to achieve with the extra money.
EARNEST: We'll have -- that will be part of the -- of the budget rollout that we'll do next well. So we'll have more details on that.
The one component of the -- of the Defense budget that the Defense Department talked about in a -- in a little bit more detail was the European Reassurance Initiative funding that we're seeking in this budget, and this would be money that would be used to strengthen and deepen our coordination with our NATO allies.
And, you know, we have asked our NATO allies to ramp up the kind of financial commitment that they make to their national security and to our collective defense as NATO allies, and one way I think we can signal that being a priority is to ramp up our own commitment to those efforts. And that's exactly what this budget proposal would do. But, you know, Secretary Carter, I think, talked about that in a little bit more detail today.
As it relates to ISIL, we'll have more on that next week.
QUESTION: Just one more on Afghanistan. I think a suicide bomber -- in a suicide bomb attack either this morning or yesterday killed about 20 different policemen, and we've been hearing about increasingly growing numbers of casualties among the Afghan security forces.
The president's plan says that he would draw down U.S. troops from 9,800 to about 5,500 by the end of this year, but it does seem like the Afghan security forces are really struggling and taking on more casualties. So I'm wondering if the White House is reconsidering that timeline and whether or not you may end up having to change that timeline once again.
EARNEST: Well Tolu, let me start by just condemning in no uncertain terms this act of violence that occurred in Afghanistan yesterday. It did target police officers who -- or it appeared to target police officers who are just trying to keep the peace in their city and in their country. And, you know, obviously, our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who were killed in this attack.
More generally, I think this is just the latest illustration of how Afghanistan continues to be a dangerous place, and the security challenges in that country are significant, you know, particularly when, you know, considering an attack like this on police officers.
What the administration, what the United States and our NATO allies have committed to do is to standing with the Afghan people and the Afghan national security forces as they take full responsibility for the security situation in their own country. That is a responsibility that they assumed a little over a year ago, and it has proved to be a challenging task.
Afghanistan is a big country and there are extremists with a lot of skill that have sought to take the fight to those security forces. But what we have seen is a willingness on the part of those security forces, even when sustaining losses, to fight for their country.
And, you know, I cited the example of Konduz last week, I believe, where you saw extremists overrun Afghan national security forces that were protecting the city of Konduz, and, you know, Afghan forces were forced to flee the city. But what they did was they re- organized and acted quickly with the support of the United States and our NATO allies to within a couple of weeks re-take the city.
So that is an indication of a couple of things. One is it's an indication that additional training and equipping of Afghan national security forces is needed, and that is the first pillar of the ongoing mission of U.S. troops and NATO troops that are still in Afghanistan.
But the second thing it illustrates is that it illustrates the commitment that the Afghan national security forces have to fighting for their country, and that's a good thing and that bodes well for their long-term ability to fight extremists and eventually secure their country.
QUESTION: It sounds like you think that the timeline for now is the same. No plans to change that?
EARNEST: At this point, I don't have any policy changes to announce. OK?
QUESTION: Thanks Josh. To the best of your knowledge, has the president ever had a 50 point lead in a poll, in a race?
13:48:09 EARNEST: Off the top of my head, no.
QUESTION: Ever lost a 50 point lead in a race to the best of your knowledge?
EARNEST: Yes, not that I know of.
QUESTION: Has he ever, in your memory, been involved in a race where he led the group by 50 points plus and then finally on election day, in this case caucus day, squeaks by less than one percent.
EARNEST: Well, now that we're talking about this. I do think that there -- I don't know if it's 50 points, but I know that there was something pretty pessimistic polling the first time the president decided to run for the United States Senate.
He was mired at the bottom in the very low single digits in that race and he did eventually prevail. Obviously he faced some long odds the first time that he ran for president in 2007 and 2008. But, it's -- you know, even at that time, we had encouraged on people to not focus on the national polls but actually to consider the president's prospects in the early states because that was going to be part and parcel of our strategy.
QUESTION: So you hadn't been national public service for more than two decades when this happened. So does it not speak to the weakness of the Clinton campaign to have barely squeaked by against a Socialist in the caucuses?
13:49:21 EARNEST: Kevin, I think what is clear is that there is a robust and vigorous campaign in store for Democrats in this presidential campaign. And that's a good thing for our Democracy, it's a good thing for our country and it's ultimately going to be good for the Democratic Party. The skills of the Democratic nominees are going to be honed and improved in the context of a vigorous debate. We're going to see Democratic campaigns go from state to state, building up operations and exciting and inspiring and energizing their supporters. And, as we saw in 2008, that is going to have benefits for Democrats in the general election in 2016.
So, I don't know how long this Democratic nomination process is going to take, but I think everybody has always expected that it would go beyond the early states. How far beyond I think is the key question, but if it goes far beyond those early states, that's not necessarily a bad thing for Democrats. In fact, it was a really good thing for Democrats in 2008.
QUESTION: OK. Broadly, maybe for Democrats. But if you're in Clinton camp today are you doing a dance, are you worried, looking over your shoulder, that objects in the mirror maybe closer than they appear?
13:50:31 EARNEST: Well, I think -- you know, Secretary Clinton herself said last night that she was breathing a sigh of relief. So, it generally means that they're feeling pretty good. And again, I think the other thing that remember well is that New Hampshire primary from 2008 where even after sustaining a pretty significant defeat in Iowa in 2008...
QUESTION: Third place finish.
EARNEST: Third place finish, that Secretary Clinton emerged victorious in New Hampshire. Now, I'm not following the race close enough to know whether or not something like that is possible this time around. But I think it is an indication that both candidates are going to be campaigning hard in New Hampshire. And if they don't, there's some risk associated with that.
QUESTION: Just a couple more. On women in the military, you would agree and acknowledge that they serve honorably and well. You would agree that they are entitled to every opportunity that any other service member should be entitled to?
EARNEST: Yes, and the Secretary of Defense has recently announced a policy decision that would open up combat positions to women inside the military too. So this is certainly is a principle that is on display, not just in terms of the president's rhetoric but in terms of some the policies that we've implemented that we believe will enhance and strengthen our national security.
QUESTION: Then why not equal treatment in selective service?
EARNEST: Well I just don't know if this is a policy decision that's been carefully...
QUESTION: Broadly thinking, is it a good idea do you think? Do you think the president might back something like this?
EARNEST: Yeah, I'll acknowledge I don't know the -- sort of the pros and cons of a -- of advancing a policy like this. But we can look into it for you.
QUESTION: OK. Lastly on the economy and the deficit, you mentioned -- or Mark mentioned the debt earlier...
QUESTION: ... an enormous number, and then you came back and talked about the deficit and how you cut it down. I think 75 was the number you used.
QUESTION: And yet you've also acknowledged, or at least the CBO is suggesting that the deficit will, in fact, increase in 2016. Do you acknowledge that that is what will likely happen, and if that is the case, is the president's economic plan still working?
13:52:30 EARNEST: Well let's go through a couple of these things. I'm wary of conceding that the early projections of the deficit are going to be right because they're usually wrong. So I think that's the first thing.
The second thing is we'll have some updated data that we'll be able to produce in the context of our budget rollout next Tuesday, a week from today, where we'll be able to discuss some of the projections that we see as most likely in the future.
The third thing is the reason that the CBO made the change in their deficit projection was principally driven by the agreement to cut so many taxes at the end of last year and to make permanent some of those business tax cuts, not all of which we supported but is part and parcel of a compromise budget agreement.
So I certainly do think that it merits asking Republicans who do believe with such conviction that the size of the debt and the deficit is a problem why they believe it is appropriate to pass and make permanent business tax cuts without paying for them.
QUESTION: OK, last one then. On the meetings today -- and I know we'll probably get a bit of a readout from the Leader hopefully and from the Speaker as well -- did the president go into this meeting expecting something substantive to come out of it other than the exchange of ideas, or should we all expect that sometime in the next, say, week or so, even shorter time period, that something concrete will be announced?
13:53:55 EARNEST: I wouldn't expect -- our expectation going into this meeting was not that any specific policy announcements would be made coming out of it, but I do think that the hope is by having conversations at -- you know, among these three leaders in government that it can lay the groundwork for effective progress on shared priorities in the future. And, you know, hopefully a discussion about, for example, investing in a cure for cancer, among the Speaker of the House, the leader of the Senate and the president of the United States that that can lay the groundwork for effective bipartisan discussions moving forward to try to find a budget compromise around those kinds of investments.
And so no, I wouldn't expect any sort of immediate announcement, but we are hopeful that it can lay the groundwork for some progress in the future. OK?
QUESTION: Thanks Josh.
EARNEST: All right, George.
QUESTION: All right. Two follows on the Baltimore visit. You put it in the context of the ongoing political campaign. Is it fair to say that the scheduling of it for now, after seven years of requests by the community, is driven by the president's desire to partake in that debate?
EARNEST: Well, again, I think as Mike pointed out, the president was a pretty robust participant in that debate over the fall, but I certainly think this is an opportunity in the eyes of the president to send a clear signal to the Muslim American community that the president of the United States is going to firmly defend your right in this country to worship God consistent with your tradition and your heritage. That is a founding principle of our democracy. It is part of what makes America the greatest country in the world, and it's unfortunate that -- that -- that some people might perceive our commitment to those values cheapened by cynical political tactics from some Republicans.
The president's not gonna stand for that, and I think his appearance at the mosque tomorrow will make clear his commitment to our nation's founding principles.
QUESTION: So -- but he's not just sending a message to Muslim Americans. He's sending a message to other Americans, too.
13:56:20 EARNEST: I -- I -- I would anticipate that other Americans will make note of his visit, and I'm -- won't be surprised if that arouses some controversy. But this -- look, this is a debate that the president welcomes. And so tune in tomorrow. It'll be interesting.
QUESTION: Can we expect him to specifically mention the -- the Republican debate?
EARNEST: I wouldn't -- I wouldn't expect any -- any of the candidates tomorrow to be -- to enjoy the benefit of being singled out by the president of the United States.
But I think the president will -- look, the -- I think the fact that this visit is taking place in the current political context is obvious to everyone. So even -- even a subtle reference will be immediately recognizable to all of you that are such close observers of the President's speeches.
QUESTION: Josh, thanks. The European reassurance fund that you mentioned a little while ago -- first of all, did the president bring that up today in the meeting?
EARNEST: I don't know if that was something that -- that came up. It certainly was not the focus of a lot of discussion in the meeting. But -- but it may -- you'd have to ask Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell.
I would hazard a guess that this would be the kind of investment that -- that those two gentlemen would support. But you should check with them to confirm that.
QUESTION: And I know you've been pretty up-front over the last several months about the fact that sanctions against Russia have not been changing Putin's mind about Ukraine and so on.
EARNEST: Certainly not to the greed that we -- the -- the degree that we would like to see.
QUESTION: So is this proposal to quadruple the funding in this -- in this program to reassure NATO allies -- is that another indication that diplomacy is not working with Putin?
EARNEST: No, I wouldn't read that way. I -- I think it is an indication that the United States values deeply the strength of our alliance in NATO, and we are investing in that alliance in a way that will have important national security benefits, not just for the United States, but also for our allies in Europe.
And we're doing that in part to send a clear signal to our NATO allies that we're committed to their defense, but also as a signal that they should make a -- be making a similarly serious commitment to enhancing their national security and investing in their national security capacity, both because it will enhance the national security of -- of that country, but also of our alliance.
And there's no better way to do that and to send the clear signal that we believe that those kinds of investments should be a priority than to go ahead and make that kind of investment ourselves. And that's -- that's the signal that we're hoping to send.
QUESTION: What does the White House expect that Putin's response will be?
13:59:09 EARNEST: I have no idea what his response will be. He -- I think he prides himself on being a little unpredictable, and so I'm not even sure if he will determine that -- that such an announcement merits a response. But if he does, I'm sure he will make sure that we're all aware of it.
OK? Yes, ma'am, in the back -- I'll give you the last one. Yes?
QUESTION: Hi, Josh, thanks.
EARNEST: Hi, there.
QUESTION: So -- hi. Just a couple quick questions. One, I just want to go through the TPP tomorrow. It's being signed in New Zealand tomorrow...
EARNEST: That's correct.
QUESTION: ... and yet it still has to go through its process here, which of course is not fully understood in New Zealand and the -- the countries outside of America.
EARNEST: There are plenty of people in America that don't entirely understand that process. You might even include me in that category.
QUESTION: Worst case scenario, Congress doesn't pass it, the public throws your arms up in the air. What then happen to that agreement that they've signed in New Zealand?
EARNEST: Yeah. Well, listen, we -- I don't expect that that's what's going to happen. The -- there is strong bipartisan support in the United States Congress for a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that achieves the goals that we achieved in the context of this agreement. So we're bullish about the prospects for completing this agreement, and we're certainly going to make the case to Congress that they should act as quickly as possible on this.
But the good news is is it's not just going to be the Democratic president trying to appeal to Republicans in Congress to support this agreement, we're going to be relying on the United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Manufacturers and other Republican-friendly organizations to make a strong case to the Republicans that -- that they work closely with to support this agreement.
So we've got a strong case and -- and we'll be making it pretty aggressively. I'll also note that because of the successful passage of the trade promotion authority legislation last year, we see a couple of things. One is, there's a clear sort of outline for a strategy for getting this passed. The trade promotion authority legislation was designed around this idea of giving the -- getting Republicans to vote for authority that the Democratic president could to negotiate the agreement.
It's a pretty tough sell among Republicans. Our sell this time is much clearer. Right now, we've got 18,000 American goods that are facing taxes that are imposed by other countries, and we believe we should cut those taxes. Republicans like cutting taxes. They surely like cutting taxes that other countries unfairly put on American products. So we've got a stronger case.
The other thing is that because of trade promotion authority, at least in the United States Senate, we don't have to worry about the 60 vote filibuster threshold. And that should also make it -- at least lower the bar for congressional passage of this approval legislation.
QUESTION: Right. So Asia and Australia (inaudible) and New Zealand can be confident that this is actually going to go through at some point...
14:02:08 EARNEST: Well, we are confident that we'll get it done and -- so hopefully, they will be too. Alright?
Thanks. You had one more?
QUESTION: One more question...
QUESTION: ... on the Zika virus -- Zika virus. It's been discovered that this is possibly as a result of 500,000 mosquitoes being -- genetically engineered mosquitoes being released in the Amazon as a result of actually American (inaudible) and experimentations by a company such as (inaudible).
Would there ever be any accountability in that situation? Does the White House think there should be any accountability to organizations who are releasing genetically modified insects without -- in this case, failing to observe or acknowledge what could happen without antibiotics and...
14:03:00 EARNEST: I have to admit, I have not seen the news report that you're citing. I -- what is -- I think what I can say about this is it's -- it is clear there is a lot more that needs to be learned about the science behind this disease. There are still questions that are being raised about the precise linkage between the Zika virus in this particular birth defect. There are questions that are raised about -- about how closely those two things are actually related.
And that will have consequences for what steps we can take to try to fight this disease. So there is a lot more that needs to be learned. In fact, this is why the CDC and others have devoted so many resources to trying to study this disease, to try to interview those individuals that have -- that have suffered sort of the worst impacts that we're quite -- most concerned about.
And -- so the more that we learn will inform our ability both to protect the American people here at home, but also to make sure that something like this, if we can prevent it, keep it from happening again.
QUESTION: (inaudible) report that (inaudible) director of commission in Brazil, I think.
QUESTION: They did a study that they released in 2015 and it was directly related to genetically engineered...
14:04:19 EARNEST: OK. Well, we're obviously -- you know, the president spoke to President Rousseff earlier this week, where they talked about -- maybe it was the end of last week -- where they talked about how we could coordinate our efforts to fight this disease. And so we're certainly going to stay in touch with them moving forward. OK?
14:04:33 Thanks a lot, everybody.