Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/13/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:26 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for the delay in getting started this afternoon. Obviously, it’s been a difficult 36 hours for our country. And you’ve had an opportunity to hear from the President in the last 24 hours about his concerns both in terms of continuing to do what’s necessary to protect the country and to get to the bottom of what exactly happened, and to make sure that our country continues to be united, and that in the face of this unspeakable act of violence, that we don’t give into the temptation to turn on one another.
And the President feels strongly about it. That’s why you’ve heard from him a couple of times in the last 24 hours. And I suspect you’ll have an opportunity to hear from him again tomorrow when he convenes his national security team over at the Treasury Department to get an update on our counter-ISIL efforts. This is, of course, a previously planned meeting, but it’s a timely one for tomorrow.
I know this afternoon you also had an opportunity to hear from Director Comey at the FBI about the ongoing investigation into the terrorist attack in Orlando over the weekend. I will not be able to share many details of the ongoing investigation. I’m not going to get ahead of what the FBI is doing. But I suspect if you have questions on a range of other aspects of this particular situation, I’m happy to do my best to answer them. But questions about the investigation will have to be directed to the FBI.
So with that lead-up — Kevin, do you want to start?
Q Sure. Thank you, Josh. Is the President resigned to the prospect that these sort of mass shootings of the United States are the new normal? Is he resigned to the prospect that perhaps he’s powerless to stop them?
MR. EARNEST: Not at all, Kevin. I think the President is quite intensely frustrated that we haven’t seen the kind of congressional action that we know would have an impact on the ability of individuals to carry out these kinds of mass shootings. There is no one law that we can pass that would prevent every aspect of violence, but there are some common-sense things that Congress could do that would make it harder for individuals who should not have guns from being able to get them. There are certain common-sense things that Congress could do that would make it harder for any individual to get their hands on a weapon of war.
And the President has been quite frustrated — and, in some cases, even angry — about congressional inaction on common-sense steps that could be taken that would make our community safer, that would not undermine the basic constitutional rights to law-abiding Americans. And that has been the source of some presidential frustration.
But when it comes to countering violent extremism and fighting ISIL and other extremist, terrorist organizations that seek to do harm to the United States, this is the President’s number one priority — is protecting the country and protecting the American people. And that’s why, on Friday afternoon at this podium, the President’s special envoy to our counter-ISIL coalition spent half an hour with maps, briefing all of you about the important progress that we have made. That was obviously a briefing that was scheduled in advance of this terrible incident.
But it is an indication of how intensely focused the President and his team are in countering ISIL, in successfully executing our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy that terrorist organization. And that’s something that this administration is focused on, even when a lot of other people aren’t. And that’s okay. That’s the responsibility of the President of the United States, which is to keep the country safe, and it’s something that the President and his team are considered to be their number one priority.
Q He’s frustrated about the prospect of doing anything about guns — or he’s frustrated about Congress not going anything about guns, but does he see this incident as really changing anything as far as the dynamics of getting something done?
MR. EARNEST: That’s difficult to assess, Kevin. I think there are a lot of people who suspected that seeing 20 first-graders get massacred in their classroom, that that might have sufficient pull on the nation’s conscience and on the conscience of individual members in the United States Congress to get them to change some of these laws — and it didn’t.
So I don’t know whether this profound tragedy will have more of an impact on the minds of members of the Congress. Hopefully, it will. But I think the President continues to believe that the only way we’re going to see the kind of change to our gun safety laws that we would like to see, that the vast majority of our country would like to see, would be — will be when individual Americans make clear to their representatives in Congress that this is a top priority.
And the President has made clear that he’s a single-issue voter on this issue, that he’s not going to support or raise money for candidates — including Democrats — who aren’t clear about their support for common-sense gun-safety legislation. And it’s not until we see the same intensity of opinion, or the same intensity in expressing the opinion that the majority of Americans have about common-sense gun-safety legislation as the intensity expressed by those that are in the minority. And that’s the only way we’re going to bring about the kind of change that we’d like to see in the United States Congress.
Q And does he hope to go to Orlando later this week?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on the President’s travel at this point. Obviously you saw that the campaign event that the President and Secretary Clinton had planned for Wednesday in Wisconsin has been postponed. But if we have any travel to Orlando to add to the schedule we’ll be sure to let you know.
Q Donald Trump, in his comments, seemed to question the President’s motivation. He said that the President has “something else in mind” and that there’s “something going on” in terms of the way the President is responding to this. He said, “He doesn’t get it. Or he gets it better than anybody understands.” He said the President “doesn’t want to see what’s happening” or that he “doesn’t want to get it.” I’m wondering if the President saw Donald Trump’s comments, or if you saw them, if you have a response, and what was the President’s reaction to these comments.
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t spoken to the President about these comments. I do not know whether or not he has seen them. I can tell you that when you are focused on something as big as helping the country respond to the worst mass shooting in our nation’s history, when you are focused on something as big as safeguarding the country and combatting violent extremism, it’s important not to get distracted by things that are so small.
Q And what did you make of them? Did you interpret those comments, you yourself, as a smear against the President? Or how did you respond to them?
MR. EARNEST: I took my own advice and I’ve been focused on not being distracted by something so small.
Q We heard from FBI Director Comey who said that they were looking to see if there was something we should have done differently. Obviously, the FBI interviewed the Orlando shooter three times, two separate inquiries, and then stopped — decided not to monitor him in any way. So in answering his own question, we’re looking to see if we should have done something different, Director Comey said, “So far, the answer is, I don’t think so. I don’t see anything in reviewing our work that our agents should have done differently.” Does the President share that confidence that, after this horrible shooting of somebody that had been on the FBI’s radar, does he share that confidence that they shouldn’t have done anything differently?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I think the reference — and again, you can speak to the FBI about Director Comey’s comments — but obviously the President has been briefed by Director Comey on a couple of different occasions now, including about the FBI’s investigation into this terrorist. And what the President has been briefed on is that the FBI followed all the rules and procedures that are on the books for how an investigation like this is supposed to be conducted.
Now, the obvious question that that raises, and I think the one that you’re raising is, does that mean that the rules and regulations that are on the books are insufficient? And I think that’s what Director Comey is referring to when he says that we’re going to take a close look to see if we should have done something differently.
Q But his answer is, so far the honest answer is, “I don’t think so.” I mean, there are 50 people dead. This is the worst shooting in American history. Something went wrong here. This was somebody that had been on the FBI’s radar not once, but twice, interviewed three times.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is an individual that — but the most recent investigation into this individual — again, according to the Director of the FBI — had been closed two years ago. And one of the particular risks associated with radicalization is that it can happen in a very compressed time period. And that’s what makes it so difficult to counter.
We’ve talked about how this is an evolving threat — and this is something that the President’s top counterterrorism advisor, Lisa Monaco, has talked about — that the kind of risk that is posed by individuals who are radicalized online is different than what we had previously confronted.
Again, as the FBI Director indicated, this individual is, at least based on what we know now, is not part of a broader terror network, but rather, essentially, a lone wolf, an individual who was radicalized online and carried out a heinous act of terrorism on his own. That’s what we know so far. There’s a whole lot more of an investigation that needs to be conducted, and I certainly don’t want to get ahead of that.
But that’s what makes this kind of threat so difficult to confront. And that’s why an investigation of the sort that Director Comey has initiated is one that is taking a look both forwards and backwards to learn as much as possible about this individual, about what may have motivated them, about who this individual communicated with, and, yes, it includes a review of past interactions with this individual to determine if there is something that investigators should have done differently that could have prevented something like this from happening.
Q Are you aware of reports that he celebrated 9/11, the attacks on 9/11? He was in class. His classmates recall him getting up and celebrating the attack.
MR. EARNEST: I have not seen those reports. What I suspect is likely to happen over the next few days is that there may be aspects of this investigation that leak out into the public.
Part of this is an indication that a large number of federal law enforcement officials are working closely with a substantial number of state and local law enforcement officials to conduct this investigation. And in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, I’m going to let the FBI talk about what they learned in a way — the FBI Director committed today to being as transparent as possible about that investigation. I think people have an understandable desire to learn what the FBI is learning, but I just don’t want to get ahead of any work they may be doing.
Q And just one last question, because it’s been raised by the President’s — this term has been raised by the President’s critics. But given this killer’s allegiance that he expressed to ISIS, given what we know — the indication that he had been radicalized by propaganda online — is it fair to say that this is an example of radical Islamic terrorism, this attack?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, again, as the FBI Director said, their interactions, their investigation has uncovered references to a number of extremist organizations. And they’re still trying to evaluate what impact any one terrorist organization may have had.
But let me — I’ll answer your question, because what is true is that many of those organizations pervert the religion of Islam to justify their murderous, nihilistic agenda. The President has said that on many occasions. He’s been very blunt about what those organizations are trying to do.
What they’re also trying to do is to claim the mantle of Islam to describe themselves as holy warriors, or religious leaders, engaged in a conflict with the United States of America. They’re wrong about that. That is a false agenda. That is a myth. That is not true. And this administration and the previous administration have gone to great lengths to debunk that myth and make clear that these organizations are seeking to perpetuate a perverted form of Islam.
How do we know this? We know this because the United States is actually working closely in partnership with a significant number of countries in the Muslim world to combat this organization. This organization carries out acts of violence around the world. The vast majority of the victims of those acts of violence are innocent Muslim men, women and children.
We know that there are American Muslims that serve this country loyally, patriotically in our armed forces and in the intelligence community to combat this threat and to protect our country. And in fact, the United States of America was founded on the principle of religious freedom, where people of all religions are welcome here, which makes it impossible that the United States could be at war with any one religion.
And this administration has gone to great lengths to debunk that myth, because to perpetuate that myth only gives the terrorists what they want, which is legitimacy. And it’s only going to make it harder for us to mobilize the Muslim world to fight this threat. It’s only going to make it harder for us to mobilize Muslim religious leaders to make their voices heard online, as they have a responsibility to do, to counter that messaging. And it’s only going to make it likely that some members of the Muslim community in the United States feel isolated and feel stigmatized, which only makes it harder to confront the threat that we face from individuals who might be radicalized.
So that was a long answer to your question but it was an important one, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to share it.
Q Josh, a couple of questions. When it comes to lone wolf, how is a lone wolf in this country identified? And how is he stopped?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, this is obviously something that the President and his national security team are quite concerned about. The President, I believe on a number of occasions, has noted that the most challenging threat facing our counterterrorism and homeland security officials is disruptive to the activities of a lone wolf. By definition, this is an individual that isn’t communicating with too many other people. And it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what they may have planned.
I think this does go to some of the messaging that you saw from Director Comey earlier today, that it’s important for people to be vigilant. He cited the experience that many FBI investigators have when following up and pursuing investigations of crimes that are committed by a lone wolf. That they often find, when they’re interviewing people, that people think to themselves — people express regret that they didn’t share something sooner about something that they saw or happened to overhear or otherwise notice.
And so we certainly want people to be vigilant. There are — I’d refer you to the FBI for sort of a more detailed rundown of the kind of investigative and law enforcement strategy that they have successfully pursued in dozens if not scores of cases over the last couple of years to disrupt attempts by a would-be lone-wolf terrorist from carrying out an act of violence. There are a number of investigative methods that can be used. But this is a very significant challenge, and there’s no one on the President’s team that would downplay it.
Q So what about the Internet? What can you tell us about the Internet? Because the President in the Oval Office was talking about how the Internet plays in this lone-wolf scenario. What is being done when it comes to Internet activity of people who are beginning the radicalization process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, over the last couple of years, a lot of resources have been dedicated to countering violent extremism. And the President has mandated that we mobilized resources across the federal government and worked closely with state and local governments to combat violent extremism. And there are a few things that we’ve learned over the last couple of years that are important to our efforts.
The first is we know that the government is usually not the best messenger; that the most effective way to rebut the radicalizing messaging from extremist organizations is to have other individuals with legitimacy in the community stand up and speak out against individuals who are seeking to propagate a radical ideology.
The other thing that the U.S. government has been able to work effectively to do is to partner with technology companies, social media companies and make it harder for those with bad intentions to use social media outlets to inspire people to carry out acts of violence. I’ve often used the analogy of the work that the government and technology companies have done to try to stamp out the spread of child pornography. There’s been a similar effort underway on the part of the government to work with technology companies to make sure that their tools and their social media outlets aren’t used to propagate hateful ideology to inspire people to carry out acts of violence.
And so we’ve been pleased at the interest that many technology companies have shown in working with the federal government to prevent the tools that they created to promote freedom and communication and openness from being used to inspire people to carry out acts of violence.
The other thing that we have sought to do is to ramp up the resources that are dedicated to this effort. And the President has been quite disappointed that Congress — Republicans in Congress have underfunded our countering violent extremist efforts. And there’s a substantial increase in that funding request that’s included in our fiscal year 2017 budget. And I don’t have to remind you, April, that Republicans haven’t — just haven’t refused to act on that request, but they refuse to even convene the traditional annual hearing to talk about that funding request with the President’s budget director. That’s the first time in 40 years that that hearing hasn’t occurred. And I think it reflects a lack of seriousness on the part of Republicans to doing their part to counter violent extremism. There is a role for Congress to play, and thus far we have not seen enough members of Congress, principally Republicans, step up to the plate and fulfill their responsibility to keep the country safe.
Q Last question. People were going about their business enjoying Pride Month, enjoying cultural dancing at the LGBT nightclub. And then we hear that there could have been possibly a target of one of the — I mean, when you think of Disney World, you think of happy, you think of family. What do you say to the American public as all of this is happening? I mean, you had this at a time when people were celebrating and feeling good about themselves. And then a possible target, one of the major amusement parks globally that people feel comfortable about going to. What do you say to the American public as we are in this era of lone-wolf attacks?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’re making reference to one other potential aspect of the investigation that’s apparently leaked. I can’t confirm that piece of information, and I certainly can’t give you the context to help you understand exactly what our investigators understand at this point. You need to ask them about that. But let me try to answer the spirit of your question, which is —
Q This is a question of life, happiness, moving forward.
MR. EARNEST: Correct. The goal of terrorist organizations is to inspire terror in their victims and in the American people. That is the goal of these terrorist organizations. They are attacking our way of life. And it’s important for us to step back and recognize that that’s the case. The American people should take great confidence in the nation security professionals that work, literally, around the clock to keep the country safe. They have a President of the United States who has made his number one priority protecting our homeland. And our federal government expends significant resources in pursuit of that goal. And that’s something that should give the American people great confidence to go on with their lives and to be vigilant, as the FBI director recommended, but also to not give in to the aims of terrorist organizations that are seeking to, as their name would suggest, terrorize the American people.
Q Thanks, Josh. Going back to the radicalization of the alleged shooter. First, on the medium, you talked about the Internet. Were you talking about YouTube videos, talking about e-mails from someone, you talking about discussion groups? What’s the online medium that we’re talking about here?
MR. EARNEST: In this particular case?
Q Yes, sir.
MR. EARNEST: That’s exactly what the FBI is seeking to determine. So the FBI I think has indicated quite clearly that they are trying to learn as much as they possibly can about this individual’s activity on the Internet. And they’re doing that because it could give them greater insight into any other individuals who potentially may have been involved or complicit in this heinous terrorist attack. It also may give them greater clarity about this individual’s motive. Director Comey acknowledged that there is still some lack of clarity about that. And so they’re seeking to gain as much information as possible, including this individual’s activities on the Internet to try to learn as much as they can.
Q So that applies then to my follow-up, which was going to be about the message, which is to say, what kind of radicalization are we talking about? Is it anti-gay, is it anti-American, is it pro-ISIS?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, again, there’s so much of this that is still being uncovered. This is an investigation that’s barely 24 hours old. I can assure you, however, that there is acute interest in the federal government to learn as much as possible. Director Comey I think acknowledged that at this point, it is not clear what role anti-gay bigotry may have played in targeting the Pulse nightclub. But what’s clear is that the LGBT community in Florida came under attack. And, in fact, our country came under attack. Our commitment to values like inclusion and dignity and tolerance came under direct attack, and it’s why it is so important for our country to respond, as the Orlando Sentinel suggests, in a fashion that is united, that preserves our commitment as a country to recognizing our diversity as a strength and to making clear that we’re not just going to marginalize certain segments of our population because of who they love or who they are. That is not what this country is all about.
And, again, we’re still learning exactly what his motives may have been, but we can choose our response. And the President feels quite strongly about what that response should be.
Q All right, last one. You submitted a War Powers letter to Congress today.
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q It gives specific numbers for the number of American troops in Afghanistan. And then it gives something called a force management number separately. You don’t give specific numbers for the number of troops in Iraq and in Syria. In fact, the number in Syria that’s given is — the force management number is 300, which, my understanding is that’s below where the current number of troops deployed. Why is there not a precise number attached to the troops in Iraq and Syria?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the answer to that question, but we can get you an answer to that question. I assure you that there is a good explanation for that.
Look, I’m glad that you mentioned the War Powers report because I think this is something that Congress requires be provided every six months. But the reason that it’s particularly appropriate today is, as the country considers what steps our government is taking to protect the American people, this is a pretty detailed accounting of all of the places where our national security professionals and our men and women in uniform are taking steps, actively, to counter terrorist organizations and protect the American people all around the world.
And so this is a handy reference guide for individuals who are inquiring about just what the United States and what the Commander-in-Chief has ordered to protect the country.
Q Josh, thank you. I want to go back to the debate over the term “radical Islam” and get your reaction to something that Secretary Clinton said this morning. She said, “To me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing… I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point.” She went on to say that it’s actions, not words, that matter. But does President Obama agree with her on that one point, that they effectively mean the same thing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think the President has been quite clear about why we choose the language that we choose to define our enemy. And we have defined the enemy, our adversary in this war, as a terrorist organization that perverts Islam. And the President has been blunt about that, and the President has been blunt about why exactly we use the terminology that we do, and it is to make crystal clear that we’re not going to give those extremist organizations the legitimacy of claiming legitimate Islam.
The President is not going to give into them. That’s exactly what they want. They want that legitimacy. They want to further this narrative that they represent Islam in a war against the West. That narrative is false. It is empty. It is a myth. In fact, most of the victims of these terrorist organizations are in fact innocent Muslim men, women and children. Many of our most important partners in our counter-ISIL effort are our partners in the Muslim world.
Kristen, you’ll recall back in late summer of 2014, early fall, when the President first authorized and ordered military airstrikes against extremist targets in Syria, that the United States was not flying alone in that mission in carrying out strikes against ISIL targets. There were several — four or five or six — Muslim-majority countries who were flying military jets alongside American military pilots to carry out those strikes against ISIL targets. That should send a very clear signal to these extremist organizations and to the world that these extremist organizations do not represent the Muslim faith.
Q Would President Obama then disagree with Secretary Clinton for using that term within that context?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I would not critique what Secretary Clinton had to say.
Q I want to go back to what you were saying about gun legislation. You said that the President is “not resigned,” and I just want to be clear — is there any possibility under which he would introduce new legislation for new gun laws, reintroduce the assault weapons ban, for example, or prohibiting those on the terror watch list from being able to access guns?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I know that there are Democrats in Congress that are discussing this right now.
Q Is the President discussing it, though, Josh?
MR. EARNEST: The President is certainly interested, and will be a forceful advocate for that legislation as it’s considered by the United States Congress. You’ve heard the President speak out on it many times in the past, and I certainly wouldn’t rule out him speaking out on it in the future.
But I think the President has talked about using his own executive authority — and there are a number of steps that the President took early this year — to prevent individuals from circumventing the background check system. And the President has vowed to use his not authority, but sort of his stature, as a leading political figure in this country to make clear that he’s not going to lend his political support to somebody who does not share his commitment to the pursuit of common-sense gun safety legislation.
Q Are there any more executive actions he’s looking at that he could potentially take to try to prevent this type of tragedy from happening —
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any imminent announcement — I’m not aware of — I’m sorry to cut you off. I’m not aware of any imminent announcements that the President is planning to make. But the President and his team are always thinking through ways that he could exercise his authority to make our communities safer.
And again, in the same way that there is no piece of legislation that would prevent every act of violence, there’s no executive action that’s going to prevent every act of violence, either. But the President’s frustration stems from the fact that there are common-sense steps that Congress could take that aren’t controversial across the country, that are strongly supported not just by Democrats but by a majority of Republicans and even a majority of gun owners that we know would have some impact in making our communities safer.
And the question is, for members of Congress, why they won’t take those steps, knowing that those steps aren’t going to undermine or gut the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. They’re just going to have the material effect of making our communities a little bit safer. Why wouldn’t they take them?
Q Josh, Hillary Clinton talked about the need for an intelligence surge focusing in on the lone wolves in particular here. Is that something that the White House thinks is needed right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, this is a — disrupting a lone wolf who’s plotting a terrorist has been described by the President as the most difficult challenge facing our homeland security and counterterrorism officials. By the nature of the way those kinds of acts are carried out, it’s very difficult to intervene. Now, it’s a testament to the professionalism of our intelligence community and the Department of Justice that it’s not fairly routine for them to make announcements about disrupting those kinds of plots. So our law enforcement and our intelligence and our national security professionals are quite skilled at doing exactly that. But I think what the President would say is, we’re open to additional ideas, particularly additional resources that could be dedicated to this effort.
And I defer to the intelligence community about how they would use additional resources and whether or not that would be valuable. I certainly know that the countering violent extremism strategy that we have laid out does need additional resources, and it would have additional resources and would be more effective in more communities across the country if Republicans in Congress hadn’t blocked funding for it. So there’s more that we would like to see Congress do. And the fact that they won’t even hold a hearing on the President’s budget request I think is an indication that Republicans in Congress aren’t doing their part to keep the country safe, particularly when it comes to countering violent extremism.
Q But what she was describing seemed more than just an issue of funding. It seemed to be more about surging the existing resources, breaking down walls, getting the — everyone running in the right direction kind of thing. Is that something that the White House is looking at right now — I mean, recognizing that there could have been better sharing of resources in this instance?
MR. EARNEST: I think in this instance — again, based on the fact that we’re only 24 hours into it — I think it’s too hard to tell whether or not there’s one thing that could have been done differently that would have prevented this kind of incident. But I’m confident that our national security professionals are dedicated to learning as much as we possibly can about this incident — not just to better assess the motives of the individual and to determine whether or not somebody else may have been involved, but they’re also interested in learning as much as possible about this incident so that we can take steps to prevent incidents like this from happening again.
Q The last time something like this happened on this scale, it was San Bernardino, and there was quite a public showdown over access to information and a public showdown with Apple in terms of getting full access to the digital footprint of the alleged perpetrators. Do you see that as something happening in this case? Has the administration gotten the tools this time to sort of move on? I mean, where are we with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think on that, I’d refer you to the FBI. I don’t know whether or not they’ve encountered a similar problem as they’re pursuing this investigation. But they could tell you more about that.
Q So that’s not something that has come up so far in the conversations with the President during these briefings — a lack of tools to access information?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll just say that I’m not prepared to share any more details about the investigation at this point. But if the FBI determines that they’re prepared to share more information about that, including this question about whether or not they’ve encountered some sort of encryption barrier, then that’s something they’ll talk about.
Q Earlier, were you meaning to indicate that the President is still open to executive action on anything related to gun control? Were you saying that had really been exhausted at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what I was trying to indicate to Kristen is that the President has taken substantial steps. I’m not aware of any sort of imminent announcement of additional steps that can be taken. But I think at the same time, the President and his team are always looking for ideas and they’re always open to considering new ideas about how the President could use his executive authority to take steps that would make us safer.
Q And the President doesn’t feel powerless at this point, despite a dozen or two dozen executive actions, despite emotional appeals, despite all of the description you laid out here of being totally frustrated by Republican opposition to any and all efforts? He doesn’t feel powerless?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is quite frustrated, and the President is going to continue to be a forceful public advocate for steps that Congress can take. They can close —
Q Just an advocate? It is just the bully pulpit, or is there something he can use —
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to rule out additional steps that he may take, but I’m not aware of any impending announcements. But again, common-sense steps like closing the loophole that allows individuals who are on the no-fly list from buying a gun. The President’s principle here is pretty straightforward: If it’s too dangerous for to board an airplane, then it should be too dangerous for you to walk into a gun store and buy a gun.
The President put forward a very specific request back in January to hire 200 additional ATF agents that could be used to more effectively enforce the gun laws that are on the books. Republicans in Congress have not acted on that proposal, even though that if often the rejoinder that we hear from Republicans who are too scared to take action on common-sense gun safety legislation. They say, well, why don’t we just better enforce the laws on the books. Great, let’s do that. Let’s hire 200 additional ATF agents that can do exactly that. Republicans in Congress haven’t acted on that either.
Q Can you just quickly tell us if there’s anything on the President’s schedule with the Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia this week who’s in town?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any updates on the President’s schedule at this point, but we’ll certainly keep you posted if something like that gets added to the schedule.
Q Thank you, Josh. We’re now months away from the President leaving office. Based on these incidents that keep happening, you would have thought that if he wanted to do something more on the gun issue, he would have done it by now. So does the President feel like he has done everything that he can do under the law on this issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is the President has taken substantial executive actions to using as much of his authority as he can to implement common-sense measures that would make our community safer from gun violence. I’m not going to rule out additional steps — because if we get a good idea about how we can use that authority to take additional steps, then the President is going to want to take a close look at it, but he’s not going to hesitate to act.
The responsibility right now lies with Congress. And whether it’s closing the no-buy, no-fly loophole, hiring additional ATF agents, reinstituting the assault weapons ban, passing legislation to close the background check loophole at gun shows, these are all common-sense steps that would not fundamentally gut the constitutional right of law-abiding Americans but would have a material impact on making our community safer.
Q But just to be clear, the last time you took executive action, the White House was saying that that’s as far as he could go — after all of this research, that’s as far as he could under the law. But now you’re open to more. So has he gone as far as he can go under the law right now?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I’m not aware of any ideas that are being actively considered right now, but I’m not going to rule out any good ideas that may come across the President’s desk in the future.
Q Okay. And you talked about — I mean, we heard many times the lone wolf obviously being the most difficult type of suspect to spot. Given that — I mean, just today we heard the President say that the FBI did a “proper job” from what he can see so far. But here’s a person who has made statements relating to jihadism, who has not only access to guns but has a job that allows him easier access to guns than most people have. Wouldn’t that be enough reason in the President’s view to keep on monitoring this person? I mean, doesn’t that alone tell you that something more could be done right there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me answer this question a couple of ways, Michelle. The first is that the FBI Director has indicated that they’re going to go back and take a look at the investigations that were conducted into this individual to determine if they should have done something differently. That certainly is an appropriate step to take, given what eventually transpired. So I think that is a —
Q But do you need an investigation to look back, to look at this sort of on the surface even and say — whether the President feels that more people should be monitored, if you want to take it more generally?
MR. EARNEST: I think what the — again, I think what the FBI has done is the prudent thing, which is that we’re only 24 hours into this particular investigation. And given the history of this individual’s interactions with the FBI, and derogatory information that was passed to the FBI, it certainly merits a reconsideration of how that individual was treated and how that investigation was conducted. And so that’s what the FBI is doing, and they’ll take a close look at that.
I think what we also have to acknowledge is that we’re dealing in a world of limited resources. And law enforcement officials are constantly trying to prioritize cases to make sure that they get an appropriate level of attention from investigators. And again, the almost routine announcements that we see from the Department of Justice about potential — about a potential lone wolf plot that is disrupted is a testament to how effective those kinds of investigations are, that is a testament to the professionalism of our law enforcement and our intelligence officials.
But the question is raised in this instance about whether or not there is something that could have been done differently. And that’s a question that the FBI is seeking to answer.
Q I think there seems to be a different — you can imagine if ISIS had organized this plot from overseas, had people here carrying this out, I feel like the response — the approach would obviously be different than this having been quite possibly a lone wolf. It seems like what it always boils down to is, well, it’s a lone wolf, it was impossible to find this out, they were online secretly or they had lied to investigators. It always kind of ends at the same point, with “there wasn’t really much anybody could do.” Does the President right now, in looking at these types of cases, feel that there are some areas where more can be done right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, absolutely. But let me start — you are touching on an important point that’s worthy of some consideration here, which is that the threat has evolved; that in countering — in confronting the threat that was posed by al Qaeda — this is the organization that carried out the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — you had a terrorist organization that was actively communicating and supporting a group of conspirators inside the United States.
The threat has evolved to something different now. Again, based on what we know now — and this investigation is barely 24 hours old — but based on what we know now, this individual is not part of a broader terror network, but rather somebody who was likely radicalized by absorbing messaging that’s disseminated online. And so the question is, what more can we do to prevent that kind of threat from turning into a violent terrorist?
So we do have a comprehensive countering violent extremism strategy that is housed at the Department of Homeland Security. And the President reorganized these efforts back in January, located them at the Department of Homeland Security so the Department of Homeland Security can coordinate with government agencies and with state and local officials across the country to focus our efforts on this. There are pilot programs that are underway in communities like Boston and Los Angeles and the Twin Cities because we know that we have to work with state and local officials to make these kinds of programs effective.
This is also why we have to be cognizant of the fact that we shouldn’t be stigmatizing or marginalizing anybody in this country; that to use hateful rhetoric that is directed toward Muslims, for example, only serves to drive potential recruits into the arms of terrorists. It certainly makes it harder to disrupt those kinds of plots. In fact, what our government should be doing is working closely with community leaders across the country to protect their communities from the radicalizing influence of extremist organizations. That’s exactly what our strategy is oriented to pursue.
And it’s unfortunate that Republicans in Congress have underfunded that effort. It’s unfortunate that Republicans in Congress have refused to even hold a hearing on our budget proposal that would increase funding for that effort. That is what makes clear that Congress is not fulfilling their responsibility. Republicans have not fulfilled their responsibility to do everything that is necessary to protect the country from violent extremism. And it’s time for them to step up to the plate and do their job.
Q And sorry, but just to clarify something that’s been asked before — the President has been so steadfast in how he frames the threat of radicalism and making it clear that words matter. So to hear Hillary Clinton on CNN this morning saying that it’s not really what we say or what we call it so much that matters as much as what we do, and when she said, “We can call it radical jihadism, radical Islamism,” does the President then feel that that was a bad idea for her to frame it in the opposite way than what the President has felt was the —
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think that’s what she was doing. But at this point, I’m not going to critique Secretary Clinton’s comments, but I feel confident in telling you that she is — having worked in this administration for four years, she is somebody who agrees strongly with the President’s approach to ensuring that we are not giving legitimacy to a terrorist organization that would love to advance the narrative that they are somehow holy warriors advancing the cause of Islam by waging war against the United States. That is an utterly baseless myth. It is false. And there are any number of ways to disprove that narrative, including that there are proud Muslim Americans that have dedicated their lives to serving in our armed forces and to serving our intelligence community to keep us safe.
And the fact is there are — our partners in the Muslim world are critical to our success in degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. And the fact of the matter is, most of the victims of terror attacks carried out by ISIL are, in fact, innocent Muslim men, women and children.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President said earlier that, “The FBI followed the procedures that they were supposed to and did a proper job.” So first off, I wanted to ask you how he knows — how he can say how he knows that, given that we know that this person had been investigated in the past and then was able to buy guns and then go and carry out this horrific act. That’s the first thing.
Secondly, if that’s the case, I wonder if the President thinks, or if the national security team is discussing at all the possibility of broader surveillance on people like this who have come across the radar screen at the FBI or other law enforcement agencies as potentially having a connection with terrorism, and you’re not sure what they’re going to do next.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Julie, first of all, we’re referring to — you’re making reference there and the President was making reference to a couple of the investigations that are more than two years old. But, look, what Director Comey acknowledged is that the FBI can and should go back and take a look at those investigations and determine if there is something that they should have done differently.
The President’s reference, based on the multiple briefings that he’s received from his team, including Director Comey, is that it appears that those investigations, again, that are more than two years old, were conducted consistent with the rules and procedures that are already in place. Again, it does beg the question — I think Jon made reference to this earlier — about whether or not they should do something differently. That’s exactly what the FBI is going to take a close look at. And, again, this is only 24 hours old.
But as I mentioned earlier, our law enforcement professionals and our intelligence professionals are constantly challenged to prioritize. They’re dealing with limited resources, and they’re quite good at it. They’re very effective at disrupting the plans of a would-be lone-wolf terrorist. Again, it is almost routine at this point for the Department of Justice to send out a news release saying that another lone-wolf plot was disrupted. That’s a testament to the skill and professionalism and effectiveness of our investigators, of our law enforcement officials, and of our intelligence community.
But in this situation, I think the FBI director has made clear that it does make sense to go take a look at that previous investigation — or those previous investigations — and determine whether or not something should have been done differently.
Q And depending on what the outcome of that is, is the President open to the idea of broader surveillance of this kind of suspect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President is certainly going to listen carefully to the advice from our professionals in the intelligence community and in our law enforcement community. He believes we need to take robust steps to keep the country safe. The President has ordered many of them. But the President is conscious of the fact that it’s the responsibility of law enforcement organizations and the Attorney General and the President of the United States to make sure that we’re also protecting the civil liberties of law-abiding Americans as well. And so the President — we’ve had a pretty roiling debate over the course of this presidency about the best way to strike that balance, and the President believes strongly in the notion of protecting our civil liberties.
Q And just quickly — I know someone asked about this earlier — but when Donald Trump goes on television and basically insinuates that the President may have somehow been complicit in or not done enough to prevent this attack and past attacks because of some personal beliefs or personal approach that he thinks is inappropriate, that doesn’t really seem like a small thing. So I’m wondering if you could respond to the idea that he has raised not just in the aftermath of Orlando but in the wake of Paris — that this administration has, for whatever reason, not done enough, not done the proper things to prevent this sort of thing from happening in this country and elsewhere.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what is clear is, if you take a look at the President’s record, it speaks for itself. And that record includes a lot of dead terrorists. It also includes an international coalition of 66 nations, led by the United States, that’s focused on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL. This is a coalition that, as the President’s special envoy of that coalition briefed all of you on Friday, is making important progress against ISIL not just in Iraq and in Syria, but also in other places like Libya.
The President will get an update on those efforts at the meeting that he’ll convene at the Treasury Department with his national security team tomorrow. So the fact is, this President has made his number one priority keeping the American people safe, and this President has time and time again sought to advance our interests, to strengthen our alliances, and where necessary, order our military to take action to protect the American people. And the President has done that in a way that is smart, that is tough, and has made our country safer.
Q Thanks, Josh. You’ve said — a few times during this briefing you’ve referenced the issue of resources and the FBI having limited resources. I’m wondering if during the conversation between Director Comey and the President he’s brought up that issue specifically when it comes to the issue of monitoring. You did mention earlier that the monitoring of this shooter involved recording him, following him, interviewing him, looking at his Internet use, which obviously is very costly. And they did it for a number of months. So I’m wondering if he said that they could have maybe continued doing it if they weren’t struggling with resources, or if they needed more resources in order to monitor more people for a longer time.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, again, if there was any sort of request like that that was made, then it would come from the FBI Director. So for questions about that, I’d refer you to the FBI.
But look, I think what is clear is that the FBI does have a robust infrastructure of professionals all across the country that do important work to keep us safe every single day. And look, most days we don’t even notice. Most days we don’t really pay attention to that important work. But that is work that is critical to the national security of the United States.
And the President is certainly focused on that work. Director Comey is certainly focused on that work. Obviously the Attorney General is as well. It’s a priority, and it’s the President’s top priority to keep this country safe.
Q I was hoping you would have a reaction to the idea that these most recent mass shootings have all involved guns that have been purchased legally. They haven’t involved guns that were purchased through a gun show loophole or without a background check. What’s the impact of that? And secondly, what’s the impact of the fact that we’ve seen this specific type of gun, the AR-15 assault rifle, used in a number of these mass shootings? Has that changed this White House’s strategy on what needs to be done?
MR. EARNEST: Toluse, I think the President — I feel strongly in telling you that the President believes that it should be illegal for an individual to walk into a gun store and purchase an assault rifle. It’s a weapon of war, and the President believes that it should be banned and that it should not be legal for you to walk into a gun store to buy that weapon of war.
Second thing is, the President has been clear that if we want to enforce the laws on the books, let’s make sure that the ATF has the necessary resources to do exactly that. So let’s hire 200 more ATF officers; this is a proposal the President unveiled back in January. Not clear to me that Republicans in Congress have even considered it. It certainly hasn’t advanced, and that’s unfortunate, particularly when you do have those same Republicans suggesting that we should be more — doing a better job of enforcing the gun laws that are on the books. Then hire the ATF agents to make sure that we can get that done. But Republicans in Congress have refused to do that.
But, Toluse, the other thing that I would say is it’s too early at this point to determine whether or not a different law or even a different investigative tactic might have prevented this terrible incident. The FBI is going to learn more about this individual and what they were motivated by and what they were doing in the days and hours that led up to this attack. But the President said on many occasions that there’s not one law that can be passed or an executive order that can be signed that will prevent every act of gun violence.
The point is that there are some common-sense bills that Congress could pass that would make our communities safer, that would make gun violence less likely and less prevalent, and, in the case of banning assault weapons, would have the effect of making some of these attacks less deadly. That’s not progress the President is going to be satisfied by, but it is progress that would save lives, and Republicans in Congress continue to block any effort to advance it. And that’s something that’s on their conscience.
Q One last one. You had said there are many parts of this that are too early to tell sort of what happened and make assessments, but when it comes to the idea of this person being radicalized as a lone wolf online, you guys seem to be much more definitive on that than any other issue. So I’m wondering if you have a reason to be sure that this person has not traveled to the Middle East, has not been in contact with terrorist networks overseas, or radicalized in person at a location here in the States.
MR. EARNEST: Again, this is what the FBI Director has said about their ongoing investigation. He has indicated that there’s a strong indication of radicalization, potentially inspired by a foreign organization.
So the FBI is conducting an investigation to try to learn more about the motives of this individual, to learn more of the details of his life. But that’s the status of the FBI investigation at this point, and based on what they have learned thus far, it does not appear that he is part of a broader network. I know that law enforcement officials earlier this morning indicated that they were not concerned, that there was another individual who was linked to this attack that posed an ongoing threat to the American people.
But again, this investigation is barely 24 hours old, and there is more that needs to be learned. And as the FBI learns that information, they are going to do their best to share as much of it as possible.
Q Josh, should the AR-15 be illegal in the United States?
MR. EARNEST: Rich, the President is very strongly on the record in favor of banning assault weapons. This is a ban that used to be in place; the President believes that it should be reinstituted. These assault weapons are weapons of war. And they have no place in the hands of a legitimate hunter, or what’s much more likely is that a weapon of war is going to end up in the hands of someone like this who will be able to carry out a much more violent act because they’re using a weapon that is intended not for the streets of Orlando, but for a battlefield.
Q Senate Democrats today, in response to this, are pushing a bill — it’s the background check bill we’ve seen before. A background check very likely wouldn’t have stopped this, it wouldn’t have stopped San Bernardino, a handful of other shootings, mass shootings. Why connect the two? I understand the overall argument about gun control. But if an AR-15 shouldn’t be in the hands of some American citizens, why not push that? I mean, this bill already failed. It’s a political statement. It’s not practical. It failed in December. So why not go all out here?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just say that as a factual matter, the President does believe that legislation should be passed that would ban assault weapons. So the President is strongly in favor of that, and he believes that Congress should act accordingly. I know that there are a number of other Democrats that strongly support legislation that would do that. The only reason it’s not going through right now is because Republicans are blocking it.
I think the reason that a range of these other gun safety measures continue to be considered by Congress or should be considered by Congress the way — the reason the President continues to advocate for the passage of these laws is not necessarily because they would have prevented the most recent terrorist attack, but because they could prevent a terrorist attack in the future.
Right now, it is possible for an individual who, because of their ties to terrorism, or potential ties to terrorism, is not allowed to board an airplane. But that same individual can walk into a gun store and buy a gun. That doesn’t make any sense.
And so the President’s view is this is a common-sense thing. It’s not going to undermine the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans, so why would we prevent that from being a law on the books? I really don’t know. Unless you’re a politician who’s terrified of the NRA. And unfortunately, that description — again, based on the position that they have taken on this bill — appears to aptly describe a substantial majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. That’s unfortunate. Our country is more dangerous because of it.
Q President Obama said earlier today that this could be the work of a “perversion of Islam.” House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans called it “radical Islamic terrorism.” Through the prism of translation, is there really a substantial difference between the two?
MR. EARNEST: The President chooses his language carefully, because it is quite important for the American people to understand that we are not in any way going to give an extremist terrorist organization the legitimacy that they seek.
There is a reason that ISIL likes to refer to them as the Islamic State. They crave the notion that they could be identified as religious leaders or holy warriors that are engaged in a war in the name of Islam against the West. They’re wrong. That’s a myth. That is false. They have a bankrupt ideology that they’re seeking to justify by using an otherwise peaceful religion.
The way that I can account for that is that there are Muslim Americans who have signed up to serve in our military who are fighting ISIL to protect the United States. There are patriotic Americans, Muslim Americans who serve in our intelligence services to try to protect the country, they’re fighting ISIL. The United States is leading an international coalition against ISIL that includes critically important partners in the Muslim world.
When the President of the United States first authorized airstrikes inside of Syria against ISIL targets, U.S. military pilots were flying alongside military pilots of other Muslim-majority countries. They are critical to our success. And in fact, ISIL carries out acts of violence and terrorism all around the world. The vast majority of the victims of that violence are innocent Muslim men, women and children.
So ISIL is seeking to perpetuate a narrative that they represent ISIL — that they represent Islam in a war against the West. They are right: They are at war with the United States. But they do not represent Islam. In fact, there are millions of Muslim Americans in this country that are mobilized in that effort to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
Q And finally, just a question about something you said earlier. Can you say that the White House has never reached legal determination that it has exhausted all of its efforts when it comes to unilaterally acting through executive orders and such on gun control? Has it ever reached that determination? Or is it still looking?
MR. EARNEST: Rich, I’m not going to rule out that the President may at some point in the future take steps, but I think we made pretty clear when the President announced a series of executive actions back in January, that he had asked his team to consider every available option for using his executive authority —
Q In those words, “Every available option at the time”?
MR. EARNEST: — and the President’s team pursued every available option. But again, they’re also always looking. And if there are new ways to use executive authority to keep the American people safe, the President won’t hesitate to use them.
Q Thanks, Josh. When you say assault weapon, what exactly do you mean?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are weapons of war. There was an assault weapons ban that was in place in the ‘90s that lapsed during the term of the previous President, and the President believes that that ban on assault weapons should be reinstated.
Q But the AR-15 is a pretty popular weapon, and it was tweaked in response to the assault weapons ban. So conceivably, with that ban, this gun would still be out there. So I guess, maybe to follow up on some of the other questions about whether you think this gun should be legal and what types of features would you want — would the President want banned in an assault weapons ban.
MR. EARNEST: The President feels strongly that — I will acknowledge that the technology behind some of these firearms and the way that they comport with certain aspects of certain pieces of legislation is complicated. I’m certainly not an expert in them. But there had previously been an assault weapons ban in place that took weapons of war off our streets — certainly did not allow an individual to walk into a gun store and walk out that same day with a weapon of war, with a weapon that belongs on the battlefield. And the President strongly supports legislation that would do that.
I know that there are Democrats in both houses of Congress that have put forward legislation that would do that, and the President believes that the Congress should pass it. And I think that Congress would succeed in passing it if it weren’t for Republicans who are blocking it.
Q Every time the President talks about this type of thing — the assault weapons ban, about gun restrictions — it just increases sales of those types of weapons because people are worried that they’re not going to be available. Is that something that he’s cognizant of, that you’re cognizant of, especially since this conversation today has also talked about the way the White House uses terminology about terrorism can affect the way people feel about it? Is that sort of same though process happening with the way you talk about guns?
MR. EARNEST: I think what we try to do, Sarah, is we try to be as specific and precise as possible about the goals of our policy priorities. And the President’s goals are to reduce gun violence. And the President believes that our communities would be safer, our streets would be safer if there were a range of common-sense steps, including reinstituting the assault weapons ban, put in place and passed by Congress. But they’re not right now because Republicans have been preventing it.
Q But how does demonizing the most popular gun help create that consensus?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t know that I’m demonizing it, and I’m not sure that it’s the most popular gun.
Q Josh, what is the significance of the attacks in the context of the struggle for LGBT rights and the broader civil rights movement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, I certainly don’t want to get ahead of the FBI investigation. And the FBI Director did say in his statement to the media earlier today that it’s not clear what role anti-gay bigotry may have played in this particular incident.
But what is clear is that the LGBT community in Orlando was attacked. This country was attacked. Our commitment to inclusion and dignity and diversity and tolerance came under attack. And it’s critically important that we unite in the face of that threat.
And, look, I think the response that we’ve seen from the community in Orlando has been powerful — to see people lined up around the block to give blood, to see innocent — to see bystanders responding to their fellow citizens lying in the street is powerful. It represents what our country is about.
And I think the President is certainly hopeful that that is the kind of spirit that will continue to be on display in the days and weeks and months ahead as the community of Orlando embarks on what is surely to be a long recovery from this very painful incident.
Q Is the attack a setback in the aftermath of victories for the LGBT community on marriage and other civil rights victories?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t think the LGBT community or the American people are going to shrink in the face of this kind of terrorist attack. I’m not concerned about that. I think the kind of strength and perseverance that’s been on display in the LGBT community for more than a generation now in the fight for equality I think is an indication that they’re not going to be cowed by violence perpetrated by this terrorist.
Q Many Republicans issued statements yesterday condemning the violence, but few, including Speaker Ryan, omitted the fact that it took place at a gay nightclub and many of the victims were LGBT patrons. Should they be faulted for that?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to — I mean, look, I’m not going to Monday morning quarterback those kinds of statements. I’ll let those individual members of Congress explain their views on this. But the President certainly had an opportunity to explain his views, and the President obviously stands by them.
Q Do you have any idea why they declined to identify the nature of the victims in this attack?
MR. EARNEST: I do not know why. I do not know why.
Go ahead, Jon.
Q One more. Back to this question of the shooter. Obviously, as we discussed, he had been under investigation on possible terrorist ties. And then he was able to buy his guns. Does the White House favor a policy change that would say that if somebody was under investigation, an FBI investigation, even if that investigation is closed, and if that individual then goes to purchase firearms, that that should at least — there should at least be a notification back to the FBI? In other words, that the FBI should be notified if somebody who had been under a terrorist investigation then goes out and buys guns.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know what sort of communication there already is in this regard.
Q Well, FBI Director Comey says that that is not the policy right now — that that would be up to policymakers. It would require a policy change that says somebody who has been under investigation and then goes out to buy a gun, the FBI would get informed. Shouldn’t that be the policy?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I don’t have a policy change to announce at this point. But obviously, as the FBI conducts an investigation and takes a look at the investigations that were previously conducted, they’re going to take a look at the question about whether or not there is something they could have done differently. And the President certainly will be interested to learn what they find out.
Q Given Mr. Trump’s comments about the President earlier today — in his speech just now, he misidentified the birthplace of the suspect; he said he was born in Afghanistan — are there any concerns here about Donald Trump receiving classified intelligence briefings once he officially becomes the party’s nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Jordan, as we discussed I think a few weeks ago, this obviously is a process that will be administered by the Director of National Intelligence, and I’m confident that the DNI’s office will fulfill the important responsibility that they have to brief the major-party nominees in a way that is absent any sort of political interference and consistent with the need to protect sensitive national security information.
Q Do you know if comments like this factor in the decisions they make about what information they decide to give to candidates?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know what factors into those decisions.
Let’s just do a couple more. Susan.
Q Thanks so much, Josh. Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that there was a friendly fire attack in Syria that was not previously acknowledged by the administration, that there was a dispute about how many people were killed — these are Syrian rebels that we trained, unfortunately — disputes between four and ten of them were killed. You had the man in charge of the counter-ISIL operation here at the White House on Friday talking about our counter-ISIL operations, obviously, and the state that they’re in. I’m wondering if you thought there should be a responsibility of him to share that information with the press every time.
MR. EARNEST: Susan, I have to admit, I have not seen the report from The Wall Street Journal, so at this point it’s hard for me to comment on it or to even confirm that their reporting is accurate. Why don’t you let me take a look at this and we’ll have somebody follow up with you this afternoon.
Q And just one more question about Mr. McGurk’s presentation. He cited a lot of progress on the aspects of countering the propaganda machine that Daesh, ISIL, has been putting out. I’m wondering if you feel that same level of confidence today, considering what happened at Pulse gay nightclub.
MR. EARNEST: It’s undeniable that we’ve made important progress in countering their efforts online. But they’re still disseminating information, and there are still places where a variety of extremist organizations are seeking to propagate their radical ideology.
So again, the FBI is still only 24 hours into an investigation to try to learn more about what may have motivated the individual who carried out this terrorist attack in Orlando. So it’s unclear exactly what this individual may have been exposed to that may have prompted them to be radicalized and inspired them to carry out this act of violence.
So it’s hard to say — I guess my point is this: It’s hard to say right now — and I don’t think I can say conclusively right now — that it was only ISIL that succeeded in radicalizing him. It’s possible he may have been influenced by another organization that’s an extremist organization that also has put out information that could inspire people to carry out acts of violence.
Q I think a lot of reporters are interested in that State Department operation to counter the propaganda machine. And the White House has worked with Twitter and Facebook and other social media websites. Is there any way we could have a briefing on that aspect of it? Because it seems a little bit shrouded in secrecy. I know it involves private organizations and private companies. But I think that a lot of us are curious about where that operation is, both at State and the White House.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly did have an opportunity to travel to the West Coast, I believe it was last year, to meet with a variety of Silicon Valley-based organizations to try to advance this cooperation. And I know the President gave a speech there, and there was a two-day summit, I believe, with a range of national security professionals.
Q It wasn’t completely open to the press.
MR. EARNEST: I think many aspects of the summit were open to the press. But we can certainly provide you with additional information. I think the other place that I would encourage you to consult is the Department of Homeland Security — that they do have a task force, a countering violent extremism task force, that’s housed at that agency to ensure that we’re marshalling and effectively integrating the wide variety of federal resources that are directed against violent extremism. And that involves a lot of careful coordination with state and local officials, as well. And so that would be another place for you to check.
Q One last question on the friendly fire incident. Does the President believe that the friendly fire incident should be acknowledged publicly?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I just don’t know enough about the individual report, so let me take a look at it and we’ll circle back with you.
Q Josh, a follow-up to Michelle’s question about the comments Secretary Clinton made earlier. You declined to criticize the candidate that the President has endorsed to succeed him. Will you acknowledge that there’s some sunlight when she’s willing to say phrases like “radical jihad” or “radical Islamism” and he is not?
MR. EARNEST: I feel confident in saying this for Secretary Clinton: I am confident that she agrees 100 percent with the President’s approach to fighting ISIL and strongly supporting this goal of making clear that Muslims in the United States should not be stigmatized or marginalized, and that we actually need to work effectively with state and local leaders all across the country in a way that the President has to make clear that Muslims are welcome in the United States.
The President gave a really powerful speech about this at the Baltimore-area mosque back in February, where the President made a direct appeal to young people and to young Muslims in the United States, making clear that they don’t have to choose between being Muslim and American. They’re Muslim — they’re both. They’re Muslim Americans. And there are proud, loyal, patriotic Muslim Americans that we interact with every day, and they are part of what makes America that greatest country on the planet.
Q Is the President concerned that Clinton’s choice to use language that is different and distinct from the language that he is carefully choosing to use — does that risk giving the legitimacy that he is trying very hard not to confirm?
MR. EARNEST: No, the President is not concerned about that.
Q Let me ask you about — the President said the terrorism issue or a gun safety issue, he said it doesn’t have to be an either/or, it can be a both/and. And yet you earlier in today’s briefing and the President for months now has been saying that this should be the single issue — that voters should use this as a litmus test; the President will use it as one to determine support for candidates. Which is it? Is it that voter — that terrorism and gun safety should be considered equally? Or is the gun safety concern the primary concern that voters should use as a litmus test?
MR. EARNEST: Jared, I think you’re making it a little more complicated than it needs to be. I think the President is making clear that as a matter of policy, we don’t have to choose between protecting the homeland and fighting terrorism and making our communities safer from gun violence. We can do both.
Q Josh, what the President has made clear is that as a political matter, the logic gate is that gun safety is the first and, as far as we’ve heard, only issue upon which he’s willing to apply this litmus test. So how do we not take that lesson from it, if he’s being so clear?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I guess I’m losing you on the logic gate business.
Q One last one about logistics. You said that you weren’t able to give us any update about travel to Orlando. The President has got a congressional picnic, travel to Carlsbad. Anything else that’s in flux on the calendar this week?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President’s travel to Wisconsin is no longer on the books, but we’ll keep you posted if there’s anything else.
Lauren, I’ll give you the last one here.
Q In these situations there’s a lot of blame that goes around. And people are blaming Muslims, and people are also blaming Christians — Christian conservatives responsible for creating an anti-gay climate. What is the White House position on Christians being blamed, Muslims being blamed — on this blame game that we seem to be playing?
MR. EARNEST: I strongly associate myself with the comments that were published on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel today. And the President has spoken to this in the past, as well, that when faced with adversity, there can be a temptation — and it’s a dangerous one — to turn against one another. The President believes that it’s important for our country to remain united, particularly around a set of core principles, particularly in the face of violent terrorists.
And we can have our political differences. I don’t think I’ve glossed over many political differences in the context of this briefing. But there’s a community in Orlando that’s grieving right now. They’ve sustained a terrible blow. But the rest of this country is grieving alongside with them.
People all across this country have been touched by this terrible tragedy, by this terrible act of violence. And we don’t allow the differences of race or religion, sexual orientation, gender identity to prevent us from being able to grieve alongside our fellow Americans. I think that’s a pretty powerful statement about our country.
And as our political leaders comment on this in the days and weeks ahead, I hope they’ll follow the example of people in Orlando that haven’t allowed those differences to divide that community. And the overwhelming outpouring of love and support and comfort has been inspiring. And I hope that people all across the country and even around the world can take some inspiration from that spirit of generosity that we’ve seen on display.
Q Last question on blame. At the top of the briefing, you pivoted to blaming Congress. Congress is also blaming the White House. One of the candidates is calling for the resignation. That is also another symptom in our country of the problems that exist. Why the blame?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Lauren, here’s the thing. I don’t think that there’s anything that I’ve said here today that blames members of Congress for the terrible tragedy that occurred. If anybody came away with that impression, please let me know, because I’d like to have the opportunity to correct the record.
But I do think that we can and, in fact, should have a detailed consideration of what policies we’re going to pursue as a country that prevent that kind of violence. And it is just a simple fact that Republicans have blocked common-sense steps that would make that kind of violence less frequent and could certainly potentially prevent those kinds of acts from taking place.
I’m not at all suggesting that that means that somehow Republican members of Congress celebrate that violence. I don’t think they do. I think that there were Democrats and Republicans in Orlando that came together and have come together to support that grieving community. They came together across party lines. I’m certainly not questioning the patriotism of any Republican in the United States Congress. I’m not questioning the commitment of Republicans in the United States Congress to caring about the death of innocent Americans.
But we do have an honest disagreement about some basic policy choices that does have significant and profound implications for our country’s national security and for the safety of our communities across the country. And the nature of this engagement and the nature of our politics is that we’re going to have a debate about those policies.
So, yes, I do hold Republicans accountable for blocking smart policies that would make us safer. And I’m going to continue to advocate for them to do so. The President certainly will, as well. We can do that without impugning their motives or questioning their patriotism. And that’s certainly what I’m going to try to do.
But I think what’s also true is that at some point this comes down to a level of just humanity. And it is important. And I think this was reflected in the statements from even some — many Republicans in Congress. And we may quibble with some of the wording that was included in them, but I think, by and large, the comments — even from Republicans in Congress with whom we have significant political differences — have indicated that their concerns are with the people of Orlando. And that is how it should be. And that is what makes this country great. And I hope that people will continue to be inspired by that spirit and what for the city of Orlando and certainly for the LGBT community across the country will be some difficult days ahead.
All right, thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:54 P.M. EDT