Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 6/14/2016
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
**Please see below for a correction, marked with an asterisk.
1:11 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. After hearing the President’s comments, I think it should be apparent to you what’s on the President’s mind today. It includes, obviously, making sure that we follow through on our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL, to continue to press Congress to take common-sense but meaningful gun safety steps that would actually strengthen our homeland security, and also to make sure that even as we are in the midst of an important campaign and political debate across the country, that we don’t confuse political talking points for a counterterrorism strategy.
So I think the President’s comments largely stand for themselves, but if you have questions on this or other topics I’m happy to take them. So, Darlene, do you want to start?
Q They do stand for themselves, but would you give us a little bit of insight into what it is that led the President to sort of go off at the end of his statement there about Donald Trump — without naming Donald Trump — and everything that he’s had to say about Muslim Americans?
MR. EARNEST: I think there’s a tendency, based on those who have been covering this political debate for the last several months, to focus in on one candidate. But many Republicans have been making exactly the case that the President has expressed concern about. It was Governor Bush who initially advocated for a religious test on individuals who are entering the country. It was Senator Cruz who made the reference to enhanced surveillance of Muslim communities. It is Chris Christie who expressed concerns about admitting Syrian refugees to the United States. This is not — unfortunately, it’s not just about one politician in the Republican Party who is reacting out of fear and using language that the President is concerned could undermine our homeland security.
So the President is quite passionate, I think as was evident, about doing what’s necessary to protect the American people. He took a solemn oath, twice, in the last seven years, seven and a half years, to faithfully execute the duties of the office of the presidency and to fulfill his number one priority, which is protecting the American people.
And that commitment to our national security and to our homeland security, and to making sure that all Americans enjoy that protection is something the President gets quite passionate about, particularly because, as he also discussed, he sees firsthand the substantial commitment and sacrifices that are made by our men and women in uniform, that are made by our men and women in the intelligence community, that are made by our diplomats, that are made by our law enforcement professionals, that are made by officials at the Department of Homeland Security to keep us safe.
They, too, have taken an oath. They put their lives on the line, many of them every single day, to protect our country. And as the leader of the country and as the Commander-in-Chief, the President feels strongly about making sure that we’re executing a strategy that is consistent with the sacrifice that they’re making. And that would explain the President’s passion today.
Q Some of the other candidates that you did mention — Bush, Cruz, Christie — they’ve all said things against Muslim Americans, but Donald Trump is the Republican presidential — presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, so to be clear —
Q He is the loudest voice out there.
MR. EARNEST: That’s right, but he’s not the only one. And that’s the problem. That is the problem. There is a tendency to just reduce this to one person, and that is to deny the reality about what’s happening.
Q On another question, regarding the Orlando shooting, Governor Scott of Florida said earlier today that he hasn’t heard from the President since Sunday. Are there any plans for him to reach out to Governor Scott, given that he’s going to Florida on Thursday?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, the President has had the opportunity to speak with Buddy Dyer, who is the mayor of Orlando. Other senior White House officials have been in touch with Governor Scott directly, and there have been a number of conversations between Obama administration officials and their counterparts in Florida to ensure that we are effectively coordinating the efforts of federal authorities with state and local authorities as well.
So that is an important principle here, to make sure that all our efforts are concentrated on investigating this situation, getting to the bottom of it, but also standing in solidarity with a community that’s grieving. And, as we announced last night, the President will be traveling to Orlando on Thursday. And, as we always do, we will invite the governor to be a part of the President’s arrival. And hopefully the President will have the opportunity to see Governor Scott there.
Q The DNC has said it was hacked by Russian hackers. I’m wondering how concerned the President is about this. Has he been briefed about it? What do you make of that?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those reports. I do not know at this point whether or not the President has been briefed, but this administration obviously takes our cybersecurity — our nation’s cybersecurity quite seriously. As you’ve heard me discuss before, there is actually a very specific proposal included in the President’s budget to enhance our cybersecurity, including by increasing resources that are dedicated to that pursuit.
As has been well-documented, Republicans, for the first time in 40 years, have declined to even hold a hearing on that specific budget proposal, which means that the President has put forward a specific plan, laid out exactly how he believes we should pay for it to enhance our nation’s cybersecurity, and Republicans in the House and Senate have indicated they don’t even want to talk about it. So that’s rather disappointing.
As you know, standing from here, I do not make a habit of discussing ongoing criminal or national security investigations. So questions related to how or even whether the federal government is investigating this situation, I’d refer you to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
Q There was another horrific attack in France, and I’m wondering whether the White House has reached out to officials there and whether the President has been briefed on that.
MR. EARNEST: The President is aware of reports that a French police officer and his partner were killed outside Paris. This is obviously a concerning situation. It is only enhanced by the fact that there are indications that the killer may have had a terrorist affiliation. So U.S. officials have been in touch with French authorities. As you know, the United States and France are allies, and our counterterrorism partnership is critical to the national security of both of our countries. So I would anticipate that the United States will do what we can to assist French authorities as they conduct this investigation and as they take the steps that they believe are necessary to continue to protect their country.
Q I first wanted to ask about the President’s comments today. It seemed like they were matched nearly verbatim by Secretary Clinton, both on Twitter and in the speech that she gave right after the President’s. And so I’m wondering if you can talk at all about if there’s coordination on the messaging point today, kind of against Republicans, between the White House and Secretary Clinton about the discussion, who might have begun that conversation, and any kind of insight you could shed on that.
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not aware of any advance coordination or notification that was provided by the White House to the Clinton campaign of the President’s comments today. That said, I don’t think you should be particularly surprised that the President’s comments and views on this topic are similar to the views and principles that are articulated by the woman who served as his Secretary of State during his first term in office.
You often hear me indicate that the President believes it’s important for his successor to build on the progress that our country has made and not scrap it. I often make that argument in the context of our country’s success in digging out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And it’s certainly true in that context.
It also happens to be true in the context of our homeland security and our national security. The President does believe it’s important that his successor is somebody who recognizes that our country is safer than it was eight years ago; that we’ve enhanced our standing around the world; that we’ve strengthened our alliances; that we have refined and improved and strengthened our homeland security.
And we will — the American people do face a question about whether or not they want to build on that progress because there surely is more that can be done to protect the American people. The President made the direct reference to making it harder for would-be homegrown extremists to get their hands on a gun. So there certainly are steps that we can take. But the question for the next President will be, do you want to build on the progress that we made over the last eight years or do you want to tear it down? It doesn’t just apply when it comes to the economy; it also applies when it comes to protecting the American people.
Q Five straight public opinion polls in the UK have shown voters favor now leaving the European Union. They’re set to head to the polls in about a week. I’m wondering — obviously the President went there, spoke repeatedly about why he thought the UK should stay in the EU. Now that the tide seems to have turned against that position, is there anything more that we can expect him to do in the coming days to sort of make a last-ditch effort to persuade voters? And, secondly, is there anything the Treasury Department or the White House is doing to sort of prepare for what could happen to the financial markets if this sort of uncertainty is injected into them?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Justin, as you often hear me say, I’m confident there are well-compensated individuals in the United States that provide public analysis of polling data here in this country. I’m confident the same is true in the UK. So, again, maybe that’s — so I’ll leave that analysis to them.
What I will say is that the President did have an opportunity to travel to London six or eight weeks ago, and in the context of a conference with Prime Minister Cameron described how the United States benefits from having the UK as well-integrated with Europe. We have a special relationship with the United Kingdom. So the United States has an opinion, and it’s an opinion that the President has shared publicly.
But the President also was quick to add, as I am, that this is a decision for the British people to make. It’s a substantial one. It’s a consequential decision. And we’re confident that the British people will consider their options carefully. And it certainly is important for them to weigh in on this decision. It’s a weighty one, and it’s one that they alone will make.
Q Last one. Reuters yesterday reported that the administration had ruled out sort of additional executive actions to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. I know that there are a wide array of things that the President has already been doing, and also that your preference is for Congress to come up with a solution here. So kind of granting those, has the administration kind of ruled out kind of additional steps or an executive action that we hadn’t yet heard about to close the prison?
MR. EARNEST: Justin, I’m not going to take any options that are available to the President off the table. We do continue to believe that Congress should coordinate and cooperate with the administration in pursuit of a bipartisan national security goal, which is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Even if there are some Republicans that don’t support that bipartisan goal, they should at least be interested in trying to save taxpayers money. And there are many indications that a substantial sum of money could be saved without enhancing or increasing the risk to the American people by closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
So we’re going to continue to implement that strategy that we’ve been focused on for quite some time, which is carefully reviewing the case files of the individuals that are currently housed there. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners all around the world to find appropriate security circumstances in which those individuals can be safely transferred. And that work continues. I don’t have any transfer announcements to make today, but we’ll certainly keep you informed if there are any upcoming.
Q Just to follow up on this question of Secretary Clinton’s comments and the President’s, there was a phrase that the Secretary used, that somehow there are magic words once uttered will stop terrorism, she said about Trump. And the President said, there’s no magic in the words that radical — magic words. They were both used around the same time in Pittsburgh. So there was no discussion at all between the campaign and the White House about this day? It just seems such an unlikely coincidence that they would use phrases like “magic words,” “Islamic terrorism” at the same time —
MR. EARNEST: Again, I’m not aware that anyone at the White House gave the Clinton campaign advance notice of the President’s comments. But I’m also not sitting here telling you that it’s a coincidence. I think it should be apparent to all of you that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have similar approaches and consider the homeland security of the United States a top priority. So I’m not making the case that it’s a coincidence. I’m actually making a pretty bold case that they agree that these are principles that are worth fighting for and articulating, and that the use of the word “radical Islam” is a political talking point. That is not a counterterrorism strategy. And, in fact, to use that political talking point only gives our enemies the legitimacy that they are desperately craving, and giving them that legitimacy only makes it easier for them to recruit. And making it easier for them to recruit makes it harder for us to keep the country safe.
Q But clearly there is some discussion going on between the White House and the Clinton campaign about various things at some level?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there are appropriate confines within the law where the Clinton campaign can be in communication with the White House. I think that was evident when we released a video from the President last week through the campaign to announce his support for her in the general election. But when it comes to the President’s comments today, I’m not aware of anyone at the White House providing anybody at the Clinton campaign advance notice of the President’s comments.
Q And what is the President’s expectation about what Senator Sanders will do or say after the vote is completed tonight in the District and elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: Look, it’s my understanding — and again, this is just based on published reports — that Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton are planning to get together here in the not-too-distant future. So I wouldn’t get ahead of what their meeting is.
Q From the discussions that Senator Sanders had with the President last week, what would you say was the understanding that the President had as to what the Senator would do after, given that he said that Secretary Clinton had already clinched the votes needed for the nomination?
MR. EARNEST: Look, I think the President came away from the meeting with the impression that Senator Sanders understands exactly how important the general election is. And Senator Sanders addressed all of you right outside that window and made clear how important it is that the Republican nominee for President not be elected next President of the United States. And that was a view that he expressed. So he clearly understands the stakes.
At the same time, the President walked into his meeting with Senator Sanders well aware of the fact that Senator Sanders has more than earned the right to make his own decisions on his own timeframe about the future of his campaign. And the President is certainly respectful of that.
Q He has no — the President has no expectation about when the campaign will end?
MR. EARNEST: The President’s expectation is that that’s a decision that will be made by Senator Sanders.
Q Josh, often these post-NSC meeting briefings are very much just sort of battlefield assessments and a check-in. This had a very different feel to it. There was anger, there was frustration coming through from the President. And part of it really did feel like a political speech. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not my assessment. Look, I think what was different about this meeting is the fact that this meeting was convened 48 hours after the worst mass shooting in American history. That is, as the President and the FBI Director have indicated, is likely the result of an individual who became radicalized.
So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that this meeting took on a different flavor than it usually does. At the same time, the President’s national security team was able to report to him important and critical progress in implementing our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. In terms of reducing the flow of foreign fighters, reducing the ranks of ISIL fighters, reducing the amount of territory that they can control, reducing their ability to fund their operations — ISIL is under increasing pressure because of the strategy that has been led by the United States and effectively implemented by our 65 coalition partners.
So there’s no denying that we’re making progress — and that’s important. But there’s also no denying that the American people are grieving after a terrible tragedy. And there is intense focus on what steps we can take to prevent something like that from ever happening again. And some of those steps include closing the loophole that allows individuals who are currently on the no-fly list from being able to walk into a gun store and buy a gun. If it’s too dangerous for you to board an airplane, it should be too dangerous for you to buy a firearm.
The President believes that we should reinstitute the assault weapons ban. Right now, it’s too easy for a would-be homegrown extremist to get his or her hands on a weapon of war. The President also believes it’s important not to confuse political talking points for a counterterrorism strategy. And when it comes to protecting the American people, the President is quite passionate about that. And I think that passion was on display over at the Treasury Department about an hour ago.
Q But the things that the President got the most heated about in those remarks were not the sort of practical things in terms of confirming Adam Szubin or the gun control debate, or everything he had on that —
MR. EARNEST: That’s a good example of something I left out.
Q — on that long, long laundry list. Things he was getting heated up about, at least as a viewer, were about the ban on Muslims. He specifically mentioned a nominee tweeting, in particular. He mentioned basically scapegoating of the Muslim community. And it was couched as a defense of American values, which is something you have said would really be the message on the campaign trail, that this is, the President thinks, his role to defend American values, and that’s what he’s going to be doing alongside Hillary Clinton.
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, I think what is clear is that there is a basic question about American values; that to discriminate against people because of their religious views undermines American values. The President is quite passionate about defending American values.
But the President also is quite passionate about protecting the American people. And there are consequences for using political rhetoric that alienates or marginalizes or targets Muslims. It only serves to feed the narrative and confer legitimacy on ISIL’s argument. That is the thing that ISIL desperately craves.
We know that ISIL leaders wake up every morning desperate to try to find ways to convey to the rest of the world that they are fighting the West in the name of Islam. They call themselves religious leaders. They label the individual who are in their ranks as holy warriors. And they’re seeking to perpetuate this notion that they represent the world’s Muslims, more than a billion of them, in the fight against the West. They’re wrong about that.
And that’s why the political rhetoric that we too often hear on the campaign trail is so disconcerting. It feeds the false narrative and the myth that our enemies depend on for their survival. And the President feels strongly about that. And the President is concerned that there are some who are willing to cynically overlook that fact just because it might be good politics.
And again, I think it’s important to just step back here — I’m not just talking about a candidate, or several candidates, for President. It’s not uncommon to turn on cable television and see some Republican congressman I’ve never heard of talking about the President’s non-use of the word “radical Islamic extremism” to define our enemy. Those are facts. And the President wants to make clear why that matters.
Q But aren’t these the very same things we’re going to hear him say on the campaign trail? I mean, isn’t this inherently a political speech?
MR. EARNEST: No, this is inherently a speech about what is necessary to protect our values and keep the country safe. And that is the subject of intense political debate right now. I’m not denying that. And it should be that way. We should have a debate about what’s important to keeping the country safe.
Q But that’s why Ron and others are asking you — parsing phrasing, because it feels like this is perhaps parts of this we would have heard tomorrow in Wisconsin, if the President had gone there.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think the President feels quite strongly about making sure that his successor is someone who wants to build on the progress that we have made in strengthening our country and protecting our homeland. And the rhetoric that we hear from a large number of Republicans undermines that. And the President I think gave a pretty concise explanation for why exactly that is. And it’s not just the great offense that I think many Americans take at undermining core American values. Religious liberty is a founding principle of the United States of America. We don’t discriminate against people because of the way they worship God. We don’t treat them differently just because of where they attend religious services. That is something that we do not do. And the President is quite passionate about protecting that value.
But it doesn’t stop there. I think the President’s passion that was on display earlier this afternoon is not just a reflection of the way that our values have been undermined. It is a reflection of the risk associated with pursuing that cynical strategy. It is a strategy that undermines our ability to protect the American people in a very tangible way, particularly when we’re talking about an attack that was carried out two days ago by an American citizen who had been radicalized by an enemy whose narrative is only advanced when we hear that kind of rhetoric from politicians.
Q Just a quick question. Saudi Arabia, a very key ally in this fight against ISIS — will the President be meeting with the Deputy Crown Prince, who is in town and met with the Secretary of State yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: Obviously, we’ve seen in the last couple of days some changes to the President’s schedule over the course of this week, so we’ll keep you posted as things get added to the President’s schedule. But I don’t have anything to announce at this point.
Q And not coming to the White House at all?
MR. EARNEST: Again, I just don’t have any announcements about the President’s schedule at this point. We obviously had to change Wednesday — we cancelled the trip. The President added this trip to Orlando on Thursday. So the next few days, in terms of the President’s schedule, are in flux. But if anything gets added, including the meeting that you’re referring to, then we’ll let you know.
Q Thanks, Josh. I was hoping you could flesh out a little bit more about what the President might do on Thursday in Orlando. And Governor Scott mentioned — you were asked — that the President hasn’t called Governor Scott. Is there a reason he has not called him? He has called the governors of other states before or after a similar event. And the Governor has been pretty critical of the President. He said he wants a federal plan for a Zika response by Wednesday and he has not heard anything. And there’s also not been a response to a federal emergency declaration after the Orlando shooting.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’ll tell you, Lesley, is the fact that — Lesley, I do anticipate that the President will have an opportunity to see Governor Scott when he travels to Florida on Thursday. Governor Scott will certainly be invited, and hopefully he’ll be there. But obviously I’d make clear that senior officials at the White House have been in touch not just with Governor Scott’s office but with Governor Scott directly. President Obama has been in touch with Mayor Dyer directly, obviously, and a range of federal officials have been in touch with their state and local counterparts to ensure a seamless, coordinated response to this terrible situation.
Q What about an emergency declaration? Is that being considered?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that it’s going through the regular process. It is rather extraordinary to make a specific request like this for an event that is not ongoing. But that will be considered through the regular channels, and once a determination has been made about that request we’ll obviously let you all know.
Q And would your response to this at all be anything to do with Governor Scott, who has endorsed the President? Or is that a conflict between the President and the Governor?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’ll leave it to the Governor to describe how he may or may not be influenced by politics. But President Obama certainly believes that in terms of mobilizing federal resources to respond to a grieving community, politics needs to be set aside. And that certainly has been President Obama’s approach to the situation.
MR. EARNEST: On Zika, I think that we’ve made quite clear that this is a serious situation and our public health professionals almost four months ago put together a package that was submitted by the White House to Congress of the resources that they believe are necessary to do everything possible to protect the American people from the Zika virus. And Democrats have strongly supported the request that was made by our public health professionals, but for reasons that are difficult to explain, Republicans in Congress have resisted offering up the support that our public health professionals say is necessary to do everything possible to protect the American people.
So we would certainly welcome Governor Scott’s advocacy with his fellow Republicans to get Congress to provide the resources that public health professionals and states, particularly a big state like Florida, need to fight the Zika virus and to protect the American people.
Q So there’s the war against ISIS and then there’s this political war of words that seems to have reached strange proportions. In the President’s address today, he seemed to be acknowledging that, that this is — at times, he seemed to be ridiculing his critics for focusing on this. But then again, the President devoted a big chunk of this address to those words. So, I mean, this has been said for a long time, ever since the war against ISIS started. Why is he so angry about the rhetoric now? I mean, you yourself said you’ll turn on cable television and see some congressman that you’ve never heard of before. So why does this matter so much? Why is he so furious about this today?
MR. EARNEST: I think, Michelle, what I would describe is a President who is passionate about doing everything that’s necessary to protect the American people. And too often we heard Republicans — some we’ve heard of, some we’ve never heard of — making an argument that what’s necessary to protect the country is for the President to describe the threat as the threat of radical Islamist extremism. And here’s why that’s important: That is used as a substitute for actions that Congress can and should take that would enhance our national security — because again, maybe there is a Republican argument to be made about how using the magic words will somehow prompt ISIL to melt away. I don’t think that’s true, but they’re welcome to make that argument.
What the President actually thinks is that Congress should act to prevent people who are on the no-fly list from being able to buy a gun. That would make us safer. That would certainly make it harder for somebody who is suspected of being involved in terrorism from being able to get a gun, that doesn’t undermine the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans, but it would make us safer. We certainly could see Congress say, well, you know, we’re scared of the NRA so we don’t want to do that. But you know what, why don’t we confirm Adam Szubin? This is the financial expert who served in Democratic and Republican administrations who’s responsible for a critical element of our counter-ISIL strategy, which is shutting off their funding. But for more than a year, this financial expert, who served in Democratic and Republican administrations, has been blocked by Republican members of the United States Senate for reasons that they admit are only related to politics.
Q Does the President, or you, as well, not see a distinction, though, between calling what happens “Islam” and calling certain acts “radical Islamic terror”? I mean, some people would say, really, what’s the difference? And if you’re getting specific enough to call something “radical Islamic terror” when it clearly is, why is that such a big deal?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, to the extent that it would be helpful, we could provide you the numerous instances in which the President has acknowledged that what ISIL and other extremist organizations represent is a perversion of Islam. The President, on a number of occasions, has made clear that part of their strategy is to recruit potentially vulnerable members of the Muslim community in the United States and around the world. The President, on a number of occasions, has talked about the responsibility that leaders in the Muslim community — both here in the United States and around the world — have to speak out against those radical elements that are seeking to recruit people in their communities.
So the President certainly doesn’t misunderstand that. Here’s the problem, Michelle: The counterterrorism strategy articulated by Republicans is that the President should utter the magic words to defeat ISIL. That’s their strategy. And the President says, let’s define our enemy and let’s make sure we define our enemy precisely. Our enemy is not the religion of Islam. Our enemy are radical, violent extremists that seek to pervert Islam and seek to advance a narrative that they are representing Islam in a war against the West. That’s false. That’s a myth. That’s not true.
So the question really is, why aren’t those Republicans in Congress actually focused on things that aren’t just magic words but are a tangible contribution to our homeland security? Let’s close the no-buy, no-fly loophole. Let’s confirm Adam Szubin. Let’s hire 200 additional ATF officers. Let’s pass an AUMF that has actually authorized the Commander-in-Chief and our men and women in uniform to win this war against ISIL. There are tangible things that Congress could do, but yet, time and time and time again, they refuse because they think that somehow the magic words are somehow more important.
Q Are you sure that anyone sees those magic words as a strategy, though, and they’re not just pointing out the fact that the President hasn’t wanted to say them for a very long time, even though others have, and now including Hillary Clinton? Is just seems like, when he talks about people painting this with a very broad brush, it seems maybe as if you’re painting this with a broader brush than some of those critics mean from the beginning.
MR. EARNEST: What other critiques have those critics offered in terms of fighting ISIL? They haven’t. This is the thing that they constantly come back to. I’m not the one who constantly brings up “radical Islamic extremism.” That’s not me. That’s not the guy who usually stands here. It’s the Republicans, many of whom I’ve never heard of, who book themselves on cable television so they can make this argument. And again, it’s cynical. They know it’s not true. They know that — well, I don’t know if they know this, but the President knows that it undermines our ability to defeat ISIL. It undermines our ability to prevent ISIL from recruiting in the United States.
Q But when François Hollande says the words “radical Islamic terror” very specifically, and Hillary Clinton says it, and she says she’s happy to say it, are they then undermining values and strategy?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard them criticize the President for not using the magic words. And I think that’s the point. The President has been very specific and precise about how to define our enemy. And for people who say that the only reason we haven’t defeated ISIL is the President hasn’t used the magic words that they have chosen, that’s cynical politics there, and it doesn’t do anything to protect the country. And, in fact, as was on display tragically on Saturday night, it potentially makes the nation more vulnerable.
Q Was that really necessary, though, to make this speech political? What did the President think it was adding to make something that is about fighting the kind of act that we just saw about fighting Republican rhetoric? What did he think that was going to add? Or does he feel like that Republican rhetoric is so strong and so powerful out there that he needs to counter it when he’s talking about countering terrorism?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President believes that it is worth having a debate about the most effective way to protect our country. And it’s worth having a debate about who’s the person that will sit in the Oval Office, charged with making the most important decisions about how to protect the country, and there will be ample opportunity for the President to engage in that debate through the fall. And I think the American people are going to care what he has to say about it, because he’s been the person in charge of making those decisions over the last seven and a half years.
But what the President was talking about today is making sure that we don’t repeat mistakes that we’ve made in our history when we acted out of fear. And a willingness to compromise our values, even in the face of fear, is something that our nation and our leaders have previously regretted. And the President wants to prevent that mistake from happening again.
Q To continue along the lines just a little bit — whether it was a political speech or not, it was directed to a domestic audience, to the American people. And perhaps more than ever, leaders of terrorist groups such as ISIL and al Qaeda, and their emissaries across the world, are really now focusing on what the President has to say. In fact, they’re also focusing on what you have to say in your briefings. As the President’s spokesperson, what continued message does President Obama want to deliver on behalf of the American people directly to these individuals who would like to see Americans harmed and their allies as well?
MR. EARNEST: Well, look, I think some of what the President had to say today is a message that was focused on the U.S. audience, but it’s hopefully a message that the world will see. The world should understand that the United States is committed to the founding principles that make our country great — a protection of free press, protecting freedom of speech, protecting the ability to worship God in the way that we choose. Those are central to the founding of our country. And to compromise them because we’re scared or fearful is something that we’re going to regret.
Q Josh, are these individuals that are terrorists that are doing such harm, are they the same kind of people who understand Jeffersonian democracy and would understand what freedom of the press and freedom of religion mean in their world, in their environment?
MR. EARNEST: Well, listen, if you’re talking about ISIL leaders, I think the President’s message to them is quite direct — is we’re going to succeed in mobilizing the international community to degrade and ultimately destroy your organization. And if you threaten or harm Americans, we’re going to find you and we’re going to hold you accountable for it.
And I made reference yesterday to the President’s record speaking for itself, and part of the President’s record is a long list of dead terrorists. So the President hasn’t shied away from using force to protect the American people, and he’s not going to shy away from using force to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.
But there are also complicated questions about what we’re going to do here in the United States to protect the homeland and to protect the American people. And that does have a direct impact on our commitment to core American values and a commitment to a society that reflects the diversity of our country, and that prizes things like dignity and inclusiveness and tolerance.
And these are the profound concepts that in some ways we take for granted in our day-to-day life that are what make America the greatest country in the world.
Q Josh, thank you. Yesterday you said the administration and President Obama won’t be distracted by what you called “small remarks” by Donald Trump and Republicans when it comes to saying “radical Islam” or refusing to say it, and the President should resign if he doesn’t. So what happened in the past 24 hours? What changed? And is it safe to say the President is annoyed by those criticisms?
MR. EARNEST: Kenneth, I know that we all have to endure the challenge of differentiating the variety of charges that are lobbed on the campaign trail. And there was a suggestion — I think this was what I was asked about yesterday — that somehow the President may have been complicit or not concerned about the terrorist attack that occurred in Orlando on Saturday night, early Sunday morning.
And I think the — that’s what I was responding to when I made those comments yesterday. But I think the President’s comments today speak for themselves when it comes to making sure we don’t confuse a political talking point for a counterterrorism strategy.
Q Josh, the White House reaction to what happened on the House floor yesterday after the moment of silence — there was protest, House Democrats wanted to find out the status of some legislation on gun control after the Charleston church massacre, the legislation that was drafted. In the next — probably right now, Democrats are trying to force a vote on no-fly, no-buy. The White House response on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President and the administration strongly support common-sense, meaningful gun safety legislation. The Secretary of Homeland Security said it today. Meaningful gun control, gun safety legislation is critical to our homeland security. This is a homeland security issue now. It is a source of concern by our homeland security professionals that it is too easy for would-be terrorists to get their hands on weapons of war and use them against innocent Americans.
This is a homeland security issue, every bit as much as it is a question about protecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans. And the good news is simply this: We can take common-sense steps that will do more to protect the American people and protect our communities without undermining or gutting the basic constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.
So I think the question really for Republicans in Congress is, given this moment, given what we have endured, why wouldn’t they act on it?
Q And, Josh, finally on Orlando, on the trip on Thursday, do we know exactly where the President — will he meet with the doctors who were heroes and saved those lives? We heard from a few of them today, and the victims as well — the victims’ families. Do we know if he actually is going to meet with those impacted and, obviously, the first responders and the doctors as well?
MR. EARNEST: The President is certainly interested in spending time with people in the Orlando community that were touched by this terrorist attack and by people who were — acted quickly to save lives. The plans for the President to travel to Orlando were initiated at the end of the day yesterday, so our advance team has only arrived in Orlando this morning. So we’re still in the early stages of planning this trip. But as more details come together, we’ll certainly keep you posted on what the President plans to do when he’s in Orlando.
Q Josh, yesterday you said seeing after the Orlando shooting individuals lining up to donate blood was powerful and represented what this country is all about. But under the Obama administration policy, gay and bisexual men are prohibited from donating blood unless they’ve been celibate for a year. That means a gay person who wanted to donate blood to a wounded friend or a partner or spouse in Orlando was probably unable to. Are there any plans to revisit that policy in the aftermath of the shooting?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Chris, as you know, this is a decision that was made by the FDA, and it was made consistent with the advice that our scientists have offered about the best way to ensure the safety of the blood supply.
So you do know, and I think you’ve covered this, that there was a policy decision that was made to change what had been a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood to a one-year deferral that you described. So there has been a policy change. Again, that is a policy change that was made consistent with the advice of our best scientists and public health professionals. But the President believes that when it comes to these kinds of questions, that we’re going to rely on scientific advice.
Q Based on what your knowledge is, is there an opportunity for a further change on this policy? Or would that have to happen during another administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, if there are any additional changes that are made, it’s going to be rooted in the advice that we’re getting from the scientists at the FDA.
Q Josh, when did the President decide to expand his remarks from what are often the statistics of war following these types of briefings — 13,000 airstrikes, troop movements in Iraq and Syria? It appeared to be two separate speeches in a way. And when did he decide to do that? Did he go to the Treasury Department — did the White House arrange that on-camera availability with that in mind — with that message, the one about American values, in mind?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Rich, no. This meeting the President convened with his national security team to get an update on our progress against ISIL is one that has been on the books for a couple of weeks now. And as you know, the President every two or three weeks sits down with his national security team to review our strategy, to review our progress, and look for ways to intensify those elements of our strategy that are showing promise against ISIL. So this is a previously scheduled meeting, but obviously it occurred at a rather poignant moment — just about 48 hours after the worst incident of — the worst mass shooting incident on American soil in our history.
And there are indications that the individual who perpetrated that shooting was radicalized. So it is not uncommon for the President to speak to all of you on-camera after that meeting occurs. But yes, those comments were necessarily different, given the context in which he was delivering them. I know the President spent some time working on his remarks both last night and again this morning, so it’s certainly something the President has been thinking about.
Q House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier today said, I do not think a Muslim ban is in the country’s best interest. There are other Republicans who have said the same. Does the President see a difference between a Republican who says they will vote for Donald Trump but opposes this type of — or these types of proposals that have come out of this campaign?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Rich, I think it’s an interesting question, but it’s a much more interesting question for the individuals who do have concerns about imposing a religious test on people entering the United States but yet insist that they’re going to advocate for the election of a candidate that supports that ban. So I think that’s a very difficult pair of positions that they’ll need to figure out how they’re going to reconcile.
Q Does the President bring this up when he speaks with — when he has his regular conversations with House and Senate Leadership on the Republican side?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know the degree to which this particular issue or the challenge of reconciling these two positions have come up in his private conversations with individual congressional leaders.
Q And you mentioned earlier that you want Congress — the administration has asked for Congress to pass an AUMF to confirm Adam Szubin so we can win this war. The administration is operating, still under a very old AUMF, designed for a different fight in a way. Adam Szubin is working under an acting capacity. Isn’t it a bit misleading to say that? I mean, is it going to change things tomorrow drastically? The responsibility lies with the White House, no?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no denying that despite the fact that Congress has been AWOL when it comes to these critically important issues related to our war against ISIL, our men and women in uniform continue to perform their duties and do their job against ISIL, even when Congress won’t. Mr. Szubin and the individuals in his office continue to do their job to figure out how to shut down ISIL’s financing even though Congress won’t do their job and actually confirm him.
Q Will it make it dramatically easier for any of those parties to do their job?
MR. EARNEST: I think our men and women in uniform would certainly appreciate knowing that the United States Congress supports their efforts on the battlefield. I know that our allies would certainly appreciate seeing Congress weigh in with their support of our strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL. I know that when Adam Szubin is doing meetings with his counterparts all around the world, it’s going to only enhance his negotiating position and only enhance his leverage in conversations if the individuals that are sitting across the table know that Adam has the strong bipartisan support of the Congress. The only reason he doesn’t have that now, the only reason he can’t take the strongest possible negotiating position into those conversations that are critical to our efforts to defeat ISIL is because a bunch of Republicans in the Senate are playing politics. That’s shameful. It intensely disrespects the government service of a financial expert who served this country in the Bush administration and continues to serve the country in the Obama administration.
So it’s rather unfortunate the way that he’s been treated. And I hope that it doesn’t dissuade other dedicated, talented, qualified individuals like him from serving the American people in our government. Hopefully it won’t.
Q Thanks, Josh. Two topics, actually. California lawmakers have decided to extend the health care exchanges there to illegal immigrants. That’s something that the President said throughout 2009, 2010 would not happen under the ACA. Is this something that the White House actually would oppose? Is this something that the President or someone with the White House might talk to Governor Brown about?
MR. EARNEST: This is a state policy. I’m not aware of the policy decision that they’ve made, so I’d refer you to my counterpart in Governor Brown’s office for an answer about why they’ve chosen to pursue it.
Q But wouldn’t this be counter to what the administration policy was pushing when they were arguing in favor of the health care law?
MR. EARNEST: It is correct that it is different than the policy that the federal government has pursued. So that fact is true. But again, as a variety of Republican governors have not hesitated to demonstrate, they are, in many cases, willing to use their own authority as they choose.
Q And the other topic — beyond being a policy priority as far as gun control goes, have there been any national security studies, reports that have said that gun control would be a counterterrorism measure, an effective counterterrorism measure?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the Director of Homeland Security said it today, so I think that’s a pretty good endorsement. It’s also ironic that you ask this question, Fred, because, as you know, Republicans have routinely prevented the CDC from actually even conducting any studies about the impact of gun violence. So the answer to your question is something that Republicans I think are scared to learn.
Q But beyond the possible ban on semi-automatic rifles, would any of these measures have prevented what happened in Orlando?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Fred, the investigation into what happened in Orlando is barely 48 hours old. So I think it’s too early to assess at this point exactly what could have been done differently or what different laws or regulations would have prevented this terrible, tragic terrorist incident from occurring.
But look, the truth is the Secretary of Homeland Security I think made a pretty intuitive argument. He certainly has a lot of expertise in this area, but there’s also a lot of common sense that informs his position. If any individual — just about any individual can walk into a gun store, buy a weapon of war and walk out that same day, that certainly enhances the ability of a would-be terrorist to kill even more innocent Americans. Why wouldn’t we prevent that from happening? I don’t know why Republicans *[don’t] want to prevent that from happening.
Q You and the President have been talking a lot about religious liberty, the importance of not having a litmus test. And yet, there’s been a great debate in the Supreme Court about the HHS mandate controversy and religious liberty. No timetable has been set to end that. And given that both sides have indicated to the Supreme Court that there is a way to satisfy all parties, what’s the holdup?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have an update in terms of — as you know, the Supreme Court remanded this back down to a lower court to try to arrive at this compromise that we’ve been seeking for a number of years now. And I just don’t have an update on that process. You might check with either DOJ or HHS and they can give you some more insight into where that currently stands.
Q And one other question. An indictment was dismissed against David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress today for taking videos of a Planned Parenthood employee talking about selling fetal parts. Is this a good time to look at what Planned Parenthood does and says in selling fetal baby parts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, this is obviously something that has cropped up a fair amount over the last year or so. What the Obama administration has made clear are a couple of things. The first is that Planned Parenthood is an organization that provides needed health care services to millions of Americans. This is a valuable service that many Americans rely on.
The administration has also made clear that there are important rules and laws, consistent with our moral obligations, that are on the books. And we expect everybody to follow them. I know that Planned Parenthood has indicated that they do follow them, but I’d refer you to them for a more specific statement about that.
Mark, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Okay. Josh, was there a point in recent hours or days where the President just slammed his fist down on the Resolute Desk and said, I’ve had enough of Donald Trump’s criticism and he said, I’ve got to answer back? Was there a straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to today’s remarks?
MR. EARNEST: No, not that I’m aware of. I think the President does continue to be concerned by the rhetoric that we hear from a variety of Republicans, including the presumptive Republican nominee. This is rhetoric that isn’t just contrary to our values; it actually undermines our homeland security. And as somebody who swore an oath to protect our homeland security and to protect our values, the President has quite strong feelings about it. And after convening a meeting with his national security team to discuss what we’re doing to protect the country from ISIL, after spending the last 48 hours being briefed on the worst mass shooting in American history, I think the conditions came together for the President to deliver a forceful and passionate message about what’s necessary to protect the country.
And political rhetoric, magic words aren’t going to address the threat that is posed by ISIL. If anything, ironically it could make that threat even more dangerous because it only serves to advance the narrative that our enemy is seeking to perpetuate.
Q Considering the mood that the President reflected earlier today, is he in any mood for a picnic tonight — (laughter) — that includes Republican members of Congress coming by to chow down?
Q It’s National Bourbon Day.
MR. EARNEST: I was just going to say, is there ever a bad night for barbecue? (Laughter.)
Q Did you guys have a picnic last night for staff? The Vice President mentioned that in his speech.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, what typically happens when the South Lawn is set up to host members of Congress, I think either the day before or the day after administration officials will also enjoy a picnic to thank them for their service to the country and the government in the same way that we’re thanking members of Congress and their staff and their families for their commitment to serving the government. So there was an event last night, much like the one that all of you will see the President speak to tonight.
Q Do you get RSVPs from members of Congress who will or will not come tonight?
MR. EARNEST: I think there are RSVPs that are collected everywhere. I can’t account for all of them, so I’d refer you to individual offices about whether or not they’re going to attend. But yeah, I would not be disappointed if I, for instance, ran into Senator Perdue in the hallway, for example.
Q Do you think that’s likely?
MR. EARNEST: Probably not. But we’ll see.
Q You got any Bible verses for him? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe I should prepare just in case I happen to. So hopefully he’s been studying up himself.
Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you tomorrow.
2:13 P.M. EDT