MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to see you all. Happy Friday. I do not have anything to do at the top, so we can go straight to your questions.
Darlene, would you like to start?
Q Thank you. I have a couple of quick ones on the Supreme Court. Can you say whether the White House gave a courtesy heads-up to either the Clinton or the Sanders campaign after the President settled on Judge Garland as his nominee?
MR. EARNEST: I obviously cannot account for all the phone calls to the White House, but my understanding is that we had obviously made a concerted effort to inform members of the United States Senate, particularly those who serve on the Judiciary Committee and those who serve in leadership, prior to the President making a formal announcement. I’m not aware of any plan to give either of the Democratic presidential candidates a heads-up. So I feel confident in telling you that they learned about the news from news reports. But your news reports were extensive prior to the President formally making his announcement.
QSecondly, would the President withdraw Garland’s nomination if either Sanders or Clinton win the nomination, are elected in November, and ask him to withdraw the nomination so that they can appoint someone more to their liking?
MR. EARNEST: Your colleague, Jon Karl, asked about this on Wednesday, and I’ll repeat what I said then, which is that the President believes strongly that Chief Judge Garland is the right person for this job. This is a substantial responsibility that President Obama has asked Chief Judge Garland to take on — a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land is significant. And again, Chief Judge Garland has demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law and an understanding that a judge’s responsibilities are to interpret the law, not to advance a political agenda. That is why Chief Judge Garland has been described by Republicans as a consensus nominee. Chief Judge Garland has more federal judiciary experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in American history.
The President is proud to have nominated him, and the President will stand by him and urge the United States Senate to confirm him promptly. There is no good reason that anybody can articulate that we should — that the Senate should delay consideration of his nomination until the lame duck. That would be irresponsible. Senator Lindsey Graham described it as unprecedented, and it shouldn’t happen. It’s not the right thing for the country and it would represent an escalation of partisan politics when it comes to a branch of government that we actually go to great lengths to try to protect from partisan politics.
Q So is that a no?
MR. EARNEST: That is that President stands by his nominee and believes that the Senate should confirm him as soon as possible. And I cannot imagine a scenario where the President would withdraw his support from his nominee.
Q Secondly, this week is Sunshine Week, and would you comment on the administration apparently setting a record for the number of times it told people — citizens, journalists, and others — that they couldn’t find files that were requested under the Freedom of Information Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I hadn’t seen that statistic. What I can tell you is that this administration has gone to great lengths to make the United States government and this administration in particular, more transparent than any other. There are a variety of ways to evaluate that. I think the most relevant one, given the intense focus on FOIA requests, is that in 2015 — Fiscal Year 2015, the administration processed 769,903 requests. I’d point out that is 769,903 more FOIA requests than were processed by Congress. Congress writes the rules, and they write themselves out of being accountable to the Freedom of Information Act request process. And as advocates for transparency, I hope that all of you will continue the pressure that you have applied to Congress to encourage them to subject themselves to the same kinds of transparency rules that they insist other government agencies follow.
Q Given that number, though, that you all have set a record for the number of times you told people you couldn’t find what they wanted, how do we know that FOIA officers in the administration are being diligent about trying to find what it is that people are asking them people are looking for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, one way to evaluate that is that for seven straight years, the government agencies have released records in full or in part for more than 91 percent of FOIA requests that have been processed for disclosure. I think that’s an indication that government officials work diligently to be responsive to requests from the media and the public. And I suspect that these statistics would be even better if Congress were also in a position to provide necessary funding to complete these activities. And we’d obviously welcome additional support and additional resources being appropriated by Congress for these kinds of important activities.
Q Just on the Supreme Court, following up on a question by Darlene yesterday about senators are going back home for two weeks, what would the White House like to see happen among constituents and groups considering the next term — Supreme Court term starts in October?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you had an opportunity to hear directly from the President on Wednesday about this, who suggested that members of Congress, members of the Senate should take the next couple of weeks while they’re enjoying spring break to consider their constitutional responsibilities and to consider whether or not they’re comfortable with taking orders from Republican leaders in Washington as opposed to taking orders from the Constitution and the American people. Presumably, it shouldn’t take two weeks to figure out the answer to that question, but maybe away from all of the clamor and debate in Washington, D.C., it will be easier to arrive at that conclusion. That certainly is what we hope Republican senators will do.
I would anticipate that over the next couple of weeks that you will hear members of the public who do share the President’s passion for this issue make clear what they hope their elected representatives in Washington will do. But ultimately, that will be up to those groups and those individual American citizens to determine how and whether to make their voices heard.
Q There’s been talk that they’ll hold up signs saying “Do Your Job.” Is there anything else they could do that would be effective?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, there are — presumably there are people who are thinking about this a little bit more than I am. But obviously, we’re going to continue to make a forceful, principled case that the United States Senate should fulfill their constitutional duties. The President took quite seriously the constitutional duties that he has to carefully consult with Congress and to carefully consider the record of a wide variety of individuals, and then put forward the person that he believes could best fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. I think by all accounts, the President took that responsibility quite seriously, and has nominated somebody that should not be subjected to the kind of political gamesmanship that we’re seeing from Republicans right now.
The President has put forward somebody that Republicans acknowledge should be on the bench, somebody who would be and is a consensus nominee. And those aren’t quotes from ancient history; those are quotes from earlier in this presidency. So it’s time for Republicans to take advantage of this opportunity to put their responsibility to govern ahead of their political calculations.
Q Switching to North Korea, a firing of the first mid-range missile. Does the White House have a reaction to this? And there were new sanctions this week from the White House. Could one argue that sanctions are not effective?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that we are aware of reports that North Korea did conduct a couple of launches into the Sea of Japan. The United States, as we always do, is closely monitoring the situation on the Korean Peninsula. Launches using ballistic missile technology are a clear violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.
North Korea should refrain from actions that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations. As you point out, the United States has worked assiduously with the international community to apply additional pressure and to further isolate an already deeply isolated country in North Korea. That includes imposing on North Korea sanctions that go beyond any other — go beyond sanctions that had previously been imposed on the country.
And I guess the other way you could argue this is that North Korea is feeling that pressure. They’re feeling that isolation, and they are acting out against it. At some point, we hope that they will channel that anxiety in the direction of coming into compliance with generally accepted international commitments and obligations.
If they do, that is the path back toward greater integration with the international community, greater integration with the international economy. That certainly would be good for the North Korean people. And that’s the case that we’ll make to the North Koreans.
The good news is that the United States is not the only country that’s making that case. We’ve got support from the Chinese, the Russians, and our allies in South Korea and Japan all making that case. And that serves to illustrate just how isolated North Korea is. But it will be up to them to decide if they’re going to change their strategy.
Q Apparently, police in Brussels have conducted some raids, and they have shot one of the Paris attackers. I’m wondering if the White House has been informed about this, and if you have any details on that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I saw the reports shortly before I came out here. And I can tell you that even in the minutes after the Paris attacks back in November, U.S. officials have been in close touch with national security and law enforcement officials in France and Belgium as they take steps to try to protect their country. The United States obviously has significant resources and significant capabilities, and we have used them to assist the French and the Belgians as they have conducted investigations into the attacks and as they have taken steps to try to safeguard their country.
So we’re going to continue to stay in close touch with them on this. I don’t know at this point whether or not the President has been briefed, but I’m confident that he will get an update from his national security team on these latest developments today.
Q Also, I also want to ask you about a letter sent by Senator Sanders about the Pfizer inversion deal. He’s asking the Treasury Department to basically create new rules to shut that down. Does the White House have any reaction to Senator Sanders sort of saying that the Treasury Department should be more aggressive and act more aggressively to stop this deal from happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Toluse, I can’t comment on any specific private financial transaction. I will just say as a general matter that this administration now for years has been urging Congress to take steps to close the inversions loophole that essentially allows large businesses to essentially renounce their American citizenship and execute a financial transaction that allows them to avoid at least some, if not all, of the taxes that they pay here in the United States. That’s unfair. Middle-class families certainly don’t have the opportunity to engage in a slick financial transaction that allows them to avoid paying taxes. In fact, what most middle-class families do is they step up and fulfill their responsibility to this country, and they pay the amount of taxes that are required.
And frankly, we believe that those kinds of rules and those values should also apply to large corporations that choose to benefit from the business climate, the labor supply and the infrastructure that exists here in this country. That’s only fair. And it’s been disappointing that we’ve seen Republicans block any effort to close this loophole and, in fact, actually take steps to try to protect the ability of large businesses to benefit from the inversions loophole. That’s not fair. And I think it’s an indication that the priorities of some Republicans in Congress are entirely mixed up and certainly not consistent with the priorities of most Americans.
So this has been a priority for us. We have been urging Congress to take action because we have indicated that it’s only through congressional action can we effectively close this loophole. We have acknowledged that there may be some steps that the administration can take using executive authority to reduce the incentive that some companies have to engage in these kinds of transactions. Some of those steps have already been announced. There may be additional steps that can be taken. But obviously the Treasury Department and Secretary Lew would be the ones to decide how and when to move forward with those steps. But he certainly understands that this is a priority that President Obama has articulated, that, in fact, you’ve heard Secretary Lew himself say that it’s a personal priority of his.
So this has our attention and this is something that the Treasury Department continues to work on.
Q And you call it a slick financial transaction in the letter. Senator Sanders called it a scam. Do you agree that it’s a scam? Would you go that far as using that language?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think he’s referring to a specific private transaction. So I’m not commenting on any specific transaction. I’m just talking about this general strategy that we have seen some businesses engage in. And it’s entirely unfair and it is the kind of financial maneuver that indicates that the system isn’t fair, primarily because it’s not the kind of benefit that is available to middle-class families. And it does allow businesses to continue to remain in the United States and benefit from our favorable business climate, our ample supply of highly skilled and highly motivated workers, and benefit from the infrastructure in this country that’s paid for by taxpayer dollars, but yet they’re not contributing to the improvement of our country. And that’s not fair. It’s unjust. Congress should act. It’s unfortunate that Republicans haven’t. But we’re certainly going to consider additional steps that may be able to be taken to reduce the incentive that some companies have to engage in these transactions.
Q Last one on the Supreme Court. Let’s say that the Senate goes on their recess and then they come back and they have a change of heart, and they decide they want to do hearings. If they do that —
MR. EARNEST: That would be good news.
Q And let’s say they do that and they decide that for whatever reason a Republican-led Senate does not want to confirm this nominee for a principle reason, based on his record, based on just the fact that they think it should be something decided in the election. If they do that, do you still think you have enough time to have another nomination, like what we had with Mr. Bork back in 1987? Or would that end it? Would end the conversation and basically allow the election to decide?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me make an observation, Toluse. That will require all of us to venture deep into the minds of Republicans. So you’ve been warned. But I suspect there’s a reason that they’re resisting even holding hearings. And I suspect that reason is they know that somebody that has Chief Judge Garland’s intellect and experience is going to perform quite well in the setting of a Judiciary Committee hearing. There’s a reason that they don’t want to have him in public, under oath, on camera, asking questions. Because if that happens, we will have tangible evidence for the world to see that he’d be a great Supreme Court justice. And that’s why Republicans are resisting the hearings.
It’s motivated purely by politics. We have heard Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, acknowledge as much. He has acknowledged that Republicans are treating President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court differently than they would a nominee put forward by a Republican President. So this doesn’t haven’t anything to do with principle, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Constitution. It doesn’t have anything to do with Chief Judge Garland. It has everything to do with the fact that Republicans are concerned about the fact that it’s a Democratic President fulfilling his constitutional duty to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. That’s not the way the system is supposed to work. In fact, our system is supposed to work to prevent that kind of political calculation being made around appointments to the Supreme Court.
So that’s why — I think you pose a provocative question. But I think the answer quite plainly is that the scenario you’ve laid out is not the scenario that Republicans expect, and that’s precisely why they continue to hold fast to not even holding hearings and giving a fair hearing to the President’s nominee.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Nice to see you today.
Q Good to see you. It’s been a long time.
MR. EARNEST: It has been a little while. So welcome back.
Q On Garland —
Q He’s being punished. (Laughter.)
Q On Garland, you said yesterday — and I’m sure you’ve said before — that there is no deal; that if a Democrat were elected in November, there’s no deal that they’ll come in and pass Garland — confirm Garland in a lame duck session. But have there been any discussions, have there been any communications at all from Republicans even raising that idea with the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not that I’m aware of. There are obviously extensive consultations that took place in advance of the President making this decision. And we’ve been in frequent touch with members of Congress as well. So I guess you’d have to ask individual Republican senators if this is something that they have floated with us. But I can tell you that with a lot of confidence that everybody who works here at the White House believes the Chief Judge Garland and his nomination should not be delayed until the lame duck. There’s no excuse for that.
First of all, it’s not as if the Senate is doing a bunch of important business now. We spend a lot of time talking about how the Senate hasn’t really done anything all year. So they can’t really complain that they’ve got some other crowded agenda that they have to get through. The fact of the matter is, even if they did, they’d be hard-pressed to make the case that somehow, this wasn’t as important as other things that they were considering.
The other thing I will say is that the average time that a Supreme Court nominee has had to wait for their confirmation is 67 days. So I guess the last point I would make about this is that if for some reason Republicans actually are concerned that they have a whole bunch of other things that they need to do, then why don’t they go ahead and quickly fulfill their constitutional duties here, take care of this business in the next two months, and let’s move on to the other pressing items that they claim to be focused on.
Q Can I ask you a question about Cuba? I’m wondering if there’s any kind of update on planning for meeting with dissidents. Have there been any objections from Cuba on people the President wants to meet with? And is this a negotiation? It’s “we’d like to meet with this person” and then they push back? Or is it just kind of “my way or the highway,” the President saying “I want to meet with these people and I’m going to do that?
MR. EARNEST: The President — the list of people invited to meet with the President in Cuba is non-negotiable. The White House and the President will be determining who he meets with. I would not be surprised if there might be people on that list that the Cuban government would prefer that we not meet with, but — and I don’t know whether or not they’ve raised those concerns or not.
But I can tell you that the President is going to move forward and host meetings, and have a conversation about human rights with the people that he chooses to meet with. And that’s how this will move forward. And we’ll have some names that we can share with you about who the President meets with on the trip, and we’ll also have an opportunity for the press pool that accompanies the President in Cuba to at least get a photograph of the meeting.
Q Will that list of people include people who are currently in prison? And are there — has there been an increase in the number of human rights activists detained since the President announced he was going?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the list of the people that the President will meet with, and so I’m not able to vouch for the status of those people. But we certainly are expecting the President to have the opportunity to meet with everybody who is invited and chooses to come.
As it relates to the broader climate on the island of Cuba when it comes to human rights, we have seen reports that there have been political prisoners in recent days that have been released. That certainly is what we have been urging the Castro government to do, and we’re going to continue to advocate for that.
Q But there are some groups that claim that while they’re releasing some people, they’re detaining others at the same time, and overall, in fact, there’s an uptick.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what we’ve seen for the last 50 or 60 years is the Cuban government wantonly detaining people who have objections or who have publicly criticized the Cuban government. And I guess the question all along is, what should the United States do about it? And for more than 50 years, we tried a strategy of saying, well, why don’t we just try to ignore the Cubans and see if they change their mind on their own. Not surprisingly, that strategy didn’t really work very well, so we’re trying a new approach.
And our approach now is that the President of the United States is going to get on Air Force One, he’s going to fly to Havana, Cuba, and he is going to sit down with the leader of Cuba and say, you need to do a better job of protecting the human rights of your people. He’s going to give a speech to the Cuban population, to the Cuban people, one that will be carried on TV, according to the Cuban government, where the President will advocate for better respect for human rights. And the President, while he’s in Cuba, will sit down in a meeting that all of you will have an opportunity to at least see part of and visit with people who have previously been victimized by the government, and encourage them to continue to fight for the kinds of universal human rights that we deeply cherish in this country.
That is effective advocacy for American values. That is effective advocacy for the kinds of principles that we cherish in this country and in our government. And it is, by the way, an approach that is strongly supported by the vast majority of the Cuban people.
Q Specifically, there’s a man named Carlos Amel Oliva who reportedly met with Ben Rhodes a couple of days ago and then went back to Cuba and was arrested and detained. Is that true?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of those reports. We can look into that for you and see if we can get you an answer.
Q I think it happened on the 14th or so, and literally within days of going back, he was arrested.
This list — and it’s non-negotiable — how does that — I don’t understand how that works. You just — and you didn’t answer Chip’s question I think about whether some of the people that the President wants to meet are, in fact, in jail now. Why would he not want to meet people who are in jail, people who are in the worst of circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Once we have a list that I’ve seen, I can be in a better position to describe to you the status of those individuals and why those individuals ended up on a list to meet with the President of the United States. Obviously, there are plenty of people that the President would be interested in having a conversation with, but just for — as a practical matter, and for the purposes of a useful conversation, we’re not going to have hundreds of people in the room. But we’ll have an opportunity for the President to visit with a small representative group of leading advocates for human rights in Cuba. And we’ll be able to talk about why those people were chosen once we’ve made public who’s been chosen.
Q So you can’t say — how this process has happened, what the criteria are, what groups have been consulted to try and form the list?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I would point out that this is not a unique engagement for the President to engage in. Whenever the President travels around the world, he looks for opportunities to visit with people, particularly when we’re in countries that don’t — haven’t observed the basic principles of democracy that we cherish in this country.
So when the President has traveled to Burma, he met with opposition figures. There are other places, even in China, where the President has spent time talking to people who are not enthusiastic supporters of their government.
So we can — I’ll provide you some more — we can provide you some more concrete examples of where the President has done this in other countries. My point is, we have a process for doing this. And what the President likes to do is to spend time talking to leaders of organizations who are advocating for a more robust civil society, and in many cases, that means people who are fighting for the rights of people who are oppressed, who are otherwise considered minorities.
There is one example that’s coming to mind — when the President was in Kenya, he hosted this meeting one morning with a group of advocates in Nairobi. And these were individuals who were advocating for a wide variety of causes — in some cases it was trying to combat wildlife trafficking, and were looking out for the environment in Kenya. In other cases it was people who were trying to advocate for the rights of certain minority populations, or even a more effective civil society that in some cases would be able to more effectively raise their concerns with the government.
So this is something that the President does frequently in other countries, and we’re going to apply those kinds of principles to putting together this meeting in Cuba.
Q So in all these efforts around the world, has there ever been a circumstance where the President has wanted to see someone and the government has said no?
MR. EARNEST: Off the top of my head, I can’t — I do not remember one. But I’ll check with my NSC colleagues to see if there is an example of that. I’m confident there are places where the President has gone and met with people that the host government would prefer that he not talk to. But I don’t think I can recall a situation — again, just off the top of my head — where the President has been prevented from meeting with a private citizen by the host government.
Q Even someone who’s in custody, in jail?
MR. EARNEST: Again, off the top of my head I can’t —
Q Because again — and I think people looking at the whole Cuba situation would argue — and again, not in a lot of detail necessarily — but you would think that some of the worst offenders are in government custody. And so if, in fact, the President has not met with people who are people the government doesn’t — I mean, I guess it’s just strange — it just leads you to the question, are these the most prominent dissidents in this country?
MR. EARNEST: And you’ll have an opportunity to evaluate that when we put out the list.
Q Just one other theoretical question on 2016 — but looking ahead, this (inaudible) report that the President is going to be very involved in 2016. Yesterday you were saying that none of that is going to happen until — when will that happen? I think you said that there’s not going to be — he’s going to remain balanced until a certain point. What can you expect — what do you think we can expect to see the President’s role look like in that broader campaign? And what do you think — what can we expect to see in the campaign that’s taking place now to push Judge Garland through this process? And I imagine they will merge to some extent.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that remains to be seen. I think — ironically, I think that’s what Republicans are hoping for. It’s clear that Republicans are in a situation where they’re basically suggesting that — they’re hoping that their obstruction of a Supreme Court justice can benefit their presidential candidate. And that’s a pretty unfortunate thing.
We heard Leader McConnell indicate this in an interview with Bret Baier on Wednesday, where he was talking about specific — sort of the specific goal of blocking hearings for the President’s nominee. And Leader McConnell’s reply was something like, “The point here is to choose the next President.”
So it’s clear that his eye is not on his constitutional responsibility. His eye is on trying to elect a Republican to the White House. Now, what’s a little complicated about that is he’s also said that he would run negative ads against the Republican frontrunner if he ends up being the nominee. I’ll let him try to reconcile that with all of you.
I think my objection is not about who the Republican nominee is in this instance, but rather the principle at stake here. The Supreme Court has long been an institution of government that we have tried to shield from the worst of our politics. And the fact is, there is a clear precedent for the United States Senate voting in a presidential election year to approve a nominee to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1988. And the reason it’s relevant is because the situations were reversed. People often say, well, gee, wouldn’t Democrats be doing the same thing if they were in Leader McConnell’s shoes. Well, the fact is, Democrats were in Leader McConnell’s shoes in 1988, and Democrats who had a majority in the United States Senate, actually did vote to confirm President Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court even though it was President Reagan’s last year in office and even though in early 1988, they were in the midst of a vigorous presidential campaign. We were just suggesting they do the same thing.
Q So given that this has become a hugely partisan issue, is the President going to make a campaign issue when he is out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President’s case that he’ll be making on the campaign trail in 2016 in the general election will be focused on whether or not our country continues to build on the progress that we’ve made over the last seven years. And again, even Leader McConnell has acknowledged earlier this year that America is better off than we were seven years ago. And that, I think, is going to make President Obama a particularly persuasive advocate on the trail in communities all across the country.
Just about any poll you take a look at, President Obama is actually the most popular politician in America. So I think Democrats are going to be pretty enthusiastic about having his support and having him make the case for Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C. Right now, based on the unprecedented partisan obstruction and refusal to govern that Republicans in the Senate have displayed, they’re actually making a pretty good case for Democrats, too.
Q Thanks, Josh. The New Jersey State Police have launched a campaign warning tourists about dangerous fugitives from U.S. Justice, including a pair of cop killers who are living free, apparently, right now in Cuba. What’s the administration’s reaction to the campaign? And people are wondering, why isn’t the return of such fugitives a requirement for normalization of relations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kevin, it’s certainly a priority. And we have raised our concerns with the Cuban government repeatedly that there are fugitives from American justice that have sought safe haven in Cuba, and we are seeking their return. I can tell you that there has already been a law enforcement dialogue established between our two countries to seek the return of these fugitives so that they can be brought to justice. This is a priority and, again, I would just make the case — some of these fugitives, including the one that I know that police officers in New Jersey are justifiably concerned about, has been in Cuba for a long time — a couple of decades, I think. And the policy that was in place before President Obama announced the change didn’t get us anywhere closer to bringing that fugitive back to the United States to face justice.
But the President of the United States, because of our normalization policy, has begun a dialogue between law enforcement officials and the United States in Cuba to effect the return of those fugitives, and I’m confident that over the course of the meetings that the President has with the Cuban government, that members of the U.S. delegation will be urging the Cuban government to work with us effectively to secure the return of wanted fugitives who are seeking safe haven in Cuba.
Q Let me ask you about encryption. Senators Feinstein and Burr are working on some encryption legislation. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. They say it will force companies to build mandated backdoors, requiring that all data be available to law enforcement in unencrypted form. Now, you may or may not have read it all, however, Senator Feinstein says that she has already provided that to Chief of Staff McDonough, given him a copy of the proposal, and that the White House will ultimately determine its fate. And I’m just wondering, in light of the President’s comments at South by Southwest, do you think the White House will support this effort?
MR. EARNEST: At this point, it’s too early to tell. What we have committed to doing — and this is, I think, what Senator Feinstein was alluding to — the administration has committed to working with Congress to discuss these issues. These issues are complicated. Obviously, they’re a top priority to the administration. The President has indicated that he believes in the robust implementation of strong encryption. At the same time, the President has also acknowledged that we need to make sure that our law enforcement and our national security professionals, within the appropriate confines of the law, can do their job to keep us safe. And I would acknowledge, as the President has, that there is some tension in those principles, and we need to resolve them. And we need to resolve them in a way that doesn’t undermine the basic civil liberties and privacy protections that are critical to our country, and that the President prioritizes.
So we’ll engage in a conversation with Congress about this, but I will repeat the skepticism you’ve heard me express before. There’s a reason to doubt the ability of the dysfunctional Congress, particularly one that’s led by Republicans who have refused to embrace their responsibility to govern, that they’d be able to handle and successfully pass legislation that would address this issue. So I’m a little skeptical that Congress is going to be able to handle this effectively, but that’s not going to prevent us from engaging with them to try to help them get it right. But I’m not going to be sitting over here, holding my breath that they’re eventually going to do that this year.
Q And just to follow, you would acknowledge, as you put it, the tension that a lot of Americans might feel about this notion of backdoors and the ability to essentially break into phones left unfettered in the hands of law enforcement or the government?
MR. EARNEST: No one is suggesting it should be unfettered. What we’re talking about is a set of principles that apply here. And so the tension that I was referring to is the need for the robust implementation of strong encryption and I think what also is a pretty common-sense notion that our law enforcement officials have tools that are appropriately governed, including by the third branch of government, the judicial branch, so that they can do their job to keep us safe. I think the vast majority of the American people — and I think even a significant number of people who specialize in this field acknowledge that terrorists and criminals and child pornographers shouldn’t have a safe haven in cyberspace.
We need to find a way that we can protect the country, protect our kids, while at the same time protecting privacy that ensures effective commerce, that ensures that individual citizens don’t get hacked, that ensures that our adversaries around the world that could potentially try to disrupt operations in the United States are not able to do so. So this is complicated, and it’s made only more complicated by the fact that this is a dynamic environment. Technology is always changing, and we’re seeing innovation move forward. All of that is a good thing. We certainly don’t want to do something that’s going to stifle innovation, but we do want to make sure that we have an appropriate policy that strikes the right balance between these two critically important principles.
Q Just a couple more. A source familiar with the negotiations to get Ben and Security Advisor Rice to testify before the Select Committee on Benghazi have announced or, rather, have reported that originally the White House declined their request. Fox News has also learned that Chairman Gowdy personally negotiated appearances for a meeting with Mr. Rhodes and Ms. Rice and members of the White House Counsel’s Office in Charlotte back in late January. I’m curious if you are familiar with that, and whether or not they actually did have conversations during that time.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I will just say as a general matter that the White House and the administration has, despite what Republicans acknowledge is the pure political motivation of that committee has sought to cooperate with them only because they’re a co-equal branch of government. But we had the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives acknowledge that this committee was formed and motivated specifically at driving down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. In spite of that, we have cooperated with them repeatedly and provided them access to senior administration officials and access to thousands of pages of documents and emails and other materials that could be relevant to their investigation.
But the fact is, this is an investigation that’s been going on longer than the investigations into 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination. And it is purely politically motivated, and they have not arrived at a differently conclusion than the seven other Republican-led committees that have looked into this and found that, frankly, that what happened in Benghazi was a tragedy and something that shouldn’t be subjected to partisan politics.
Q Last one. What’s the number-one goal for the President if he were talking to you privately or to the American people publicly? His main goal for this trip to Havana is what?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is looking forward to an opportunity to try to deepen our relationship with Cuba; that we can try to facilitate more effective economic ties between our two countries. There are a number of U.S. business leaders that will be in Cuba at the same time as the President. And we’re hopeful that this will facilitate more robust economic ties. The reason for that is simple. It certainly would expand economic opportunity on the island of Cuba in a way that could bring about some reforms to their economy and to their government that would be good.
But it also would expand economic opportunity back here in the United States. If American farmers have more markets that they can sell to in Cuba, that certainly is going to be good for growing our economy. That’s just one example. There’s a reason that over at the Chamber of Commerce here, just on the other side of the park here, they’re not typically enthusiastic advocates of policies advanced by the Obama administration, but they sure are enthusiastic about this one because they recognize that there’s an important economic opportunity here that is going to be good for the U.S. economy.
But I don’t think our goals are only economic. I think the President is looking to send a clear signal to citizens in Cuba, to citizens in the United States, and frankly to citizens throughout the Western Hemisphere that the United States is taking the appropriate steps to begin to normalize our relations with Cuba. And there are surely more issues that we have to work through, including this issue related to criminal fugitives.
But by deepening those ties and solidifying our efforts to normalize relations between our two countries, we can bring about the kind of change that we have long sought on the island nation of Cuba. And we can do it in a way that ends up being good for the American people and for the American economy.
Q So now that the Belgian government has confirmed that they have captured Abdeslam, what can you say about the U.S.’s role in this operation today? Did the U.S. play some role?
MR. EARNEST: Michelle, I can tell you that United States intelligence officials and other national security officials have been working closely with French and Belgian national security officials since November to help officials in those countries safeguard their country, to track down the perpetrators of the terrible terrorist incident that occurred back in November.
Obviously, the United States has deep ties to our allies across Europe, but that’s particularly true when it comes to France and Belgium. And the United States does have unique capabilities that we can use. And we have shared with them a lot of information and expertise, and I know that they have found that to be useful as they have conducted this investigation and taken other steps to protect their two countries. So we obviously stand with them as they confront this threat.
Q So since that working together has been so close, is it accurate to say that the U.S. worked closely with those authorities in this particular operation?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have specific details about this particular operation to share but I can tell you that operations like this are possible because of the longstanding commitment that this administration has demonstrated to using our resources and expertise to support the French and the Belgians as they protect their country and protect their citizens.
Q Okay. Let’s talk about some of the things that the President said in this recent interview — this last interview with NPR. Some of the words he used in describing the scenario around Garland’s nomination — he used words like “war zone”, “hurricane”, “circus” — that was more of the politics. I mean, this is the same President who, a couple of weeks ago during a bilateral meeting, said that he understands the political pressures that Republicans are under, he sympathizes with them. I mean, it’s somebody who has gone with the filibuster in the past. So describing this as a war zone — what is that reflecting? I mean, it just doesn’t really gel with him saying he had sympathy for what was going on a couple of weeks ago. Is he more frustrated now? Or is it accurate to say that this is a war zone?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Michelle, I don’t think the President has ever had sympathy for the Republican position that the President’s nominee doesn’t deserve a fair hearing and a timely yes or no vote. The President doesn’t have any sympathy with that position. This is a clear constitutional responsibility. It is a responsibility that every Congress since 1875 has fulfilled, which is that every Congress has given a President’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing and/or a vote. And what Republicans are vowing to do is unprecedented. And nobody should have sympathy for that position. And I think that is why you have seen an onslaught — another colorful word — of editorials from newspapers all across the country being harshly critical of the partisan political tactics of Republican senators who were refusing to fulfill their constitutional duty.
I think what the President does have sympathy for is that those who are most deeply engaged in the politics of all of this — the people who have succeeded in ramping up the stakes of the politics in judicial confirmation battles — are going to be applying pressure to Republicans to put politics ahead of their constitutional duty. He understands that it’s probably not fun for Republicans to be on the receiving end of strident Republican partisans who are suggesting that they should ignore their constitutional duties and just focus on the politics. But that’s not what they were elected to do.
So the President has sympathy for the fact that getting all those angry phone calls and letters is probably a little uncomfortable. But nobody forced them to take this job. This is the job they signed for. And on their first day on the job, every single one of them put their hand on a religious scripture of one sort or another, raised their right hand, and took an oath. And that oath included a commitment, a sworn obligation, to follow the Constitution. And unfortunately, right now, too many Republicans are refusing to do that.
Q Calling it a war zone, though, does that just add fuel to the fire? I mean, does the President really view this as a battle that could be called a war zone?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President was speaking — was using a metaphor. I don’t think he is —
Q Well, we understand that. We haven’t seen any bullets or anything.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think when Mr. Trump promises to host riots, he’s not speaking metaphorically. So it’s a rather unique environment that we’re operating in here so I thought I’d just clarify. But I do think that the President understands that there will be partisans on both sides who are going to be injecting themselves into the debate. And so the real question is, how are senators going to respond to that. Right now, we’re seeing Republican senators respond to that by siding with their partisans over the Constitution, and I think that’s why they’ve been subjected to such widespread criticism.
Q But the President also this week said that taking this tack could lead to an endless tit-for-tat in these nominations. So by saying that, isn’t he essentially saying that it’s going to cause Democrats to do the same thing? That he’s also decrying the philosophy behind this, but it seemed like he was saying Democrats would then do this too.
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s certainly possible. I think we all know that. This is the shame of the whole thing, Michelle. As we have seen — Republicans like to say, well, what if the shoe were on the other foot? The shoe was on the other foot in 1988. You did have a Republican President who was advocating for the United States Senate to confirm his nominee in the last year — in his last year in office. And you had a Democratic majority listening to that Republican President and actually following through. They held a vote in President Reagan’s last year in office, and many Democrats, including Vice President Biden, actually voted for Justice Kennedy. They set partisan politics aside. They set aside the fact that it was President Reagan’s last year, and they actually lived up to their constitutional duty. We believe Republicans should do the same thing.
Q How would this lead to a tit-for-tat, though? I mean, it seemed like the President was saying that this is going to keep happening on both sides. He doesn’t believe in — it’s like he is hitting Republicans for doing this and saying that this is a Republican thing that would happen, but he’s also saying that this would lead to a tit-for-tat, is how he described it.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that the President is making is on what basis, if Republicans follow through on this threat that they acknowledge is unprecedented and that they acknowledge is being pursued for purely political reasons — that is not a claim that I or the President is making; that is what Ron Johnson, the Republican Senator from Wisconsin acknowledged.
Q Was the President threatening back by saying —
MR. EARNEST: No, because the President is not going to be in office in 10 months, and the President doesn’t plan to run for the Senate again. But this is what the President is saying. What possible argument could Republican senators make that Democratic senators should consider a nominee put forward by a Republican President? I don’t know what it would be. The argument that they’re making is that they’re blocking Barack Obama’s nominee because Barack Obama is a Democrat. And so that’s the case.
But there is one other aspect of this that’s important and I think was relevant to your question, which is this is sort of the debate that we had for the last four or five weeks before the President put forward a nominee. And so I think even I have to remind myself the President has now put forward a nominee. And he has put forward a nominee that even Republicans describe as a consensus nominee, somebody that even Republicans acknowledge belongs on the bench, somebody who was voted to the second highest court in the land and confirmed in that role by seven Republican senators who are still in the United States Senate.
So I think you could actually make a strong case that the President actually has fulfilled his constitutional duty to appoint the right person for the job. He also has taken the kind of step that should be viewed — and I think has been viewed by many of you — as an attempt at de-escalation. The President has appointed somebody that should be easy for Republicans to support. Somebody that Republicans have previously supported in the past. Somebody that Republicans have advocated for in the past. And unfortunately, Republicans haven’t changed their partisan position.
Q So it sounds like now you’re saying that the right person for the job means — is indistinguishable from a consensus candidate — that that was the overriding principle. And it sounds like that’s what the President was saying in this interview, too.
MR. EARNEST: That’s not what I’m saying, and I don’t think it’s what the President was saying either. I think the President believes that Chief Judge Garland is the right person for the job because he has more experience in the federal judiciary than any Supreme Court nominee in history. And when you take a look at that long track record of experience — about 19 years now — you have a judge who has demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law and a commitment to interpreting the law and not advancing a political agenda. That’s his track record, and it can be carefully examined. And hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to have a hearing where Republicans and Democrats will take a look at that record. That’s why the President chose him.
At the same time, by choosing him, and by choosing somebody who Republicans have acknowledged is a consensus nominee and somebody who belongs on the court, we’ve also made it easier for Republicans to fulfill their constitutional duties in a way that doesn’t really require them to compromise. This is somebody that they say that they strongly support. Many of them have voted for him before. They’ve said he belongs on the Court. So just follow through and vote for the guy.
Here’s the thing, and I’ll end with this. I wonder what the Republican reaction would be — this is just a thought experiment — what would the Republican reaction be if President Mitt Romney had nominated Chief Judge Garland to this job, or some other Republican President had put forward Chief Judge Garland? Again, I would just posit that I think a lot of Republicans would continue to say that Chief Judge Garland is a consensus nominee and that he’s somebody that deserves the strong support of the United States Senate. We’re just asking them to follow through on that rhetoric.
Q Josh, going back to the Democratic — the Bernie Sanders question that Darlene asked earlier up. Is the President upset at all that members of his party, that both candidates looking to succeed him here at the White House have been less than fully supportive of Judge Garland’s confirmation in the sense that they’ve said it’s certainly Senator Sanders says he would have looked for somebody else?
MR. EARNEST: Well, no. In fact, looking at the statements from both Democrats who are running for President, both of them have said that Chief Judge Garland is eminently qualified; that he would do a good job on the Supreme Court, and they have urged Republicans to hold hearings and an up or down vote, and they have urged the Senate to confirm him.
Q (Inaudible) said look in another direction.
MR. EARNEST: My point is, they’re very much on message. I am not questioning the fact that if you have their ranked list of Supreme Court nominees, that there may be somebody that in their mind ranks higher than Merrick Garland. They’re not suggesting that Chief Judge Garland doesn’t deserve to be on the Supreme Court. They think that he should, and they think that the Senate should act. But I raised this example prior to Chief Judge Garland’s nomination. The question before the United States Senate is not, is Chief Judge Garland your number-one pick to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The President is the person that makes that decision. The President is the person that decides who is at the top of his list and puts forward that person. The Senate then considers whether or not that individual can serve with honor and distinction in a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court. The answer to that question is unquestionably yes. I suspect that’s why Republicans are refusing to even begin the process, because they don’t want to be forced into a position of trying to make that decision.
But my point is, is that Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton are making exactly the same case that I am standing up here, which is that he’s eminently qualified, that he’s somebody who can be trusted to fairly interpret the law, he’s somebody who understands that his job is not to advance a political agenda, and he is somebody who should be confirmed by the United States Senate — because the President of the United States was elected to a four-year term and is required by the Constitution to appoint somebody and the United States Senate is required to offer up their advice and consent. Based on his qualifications, there is no reason he shouldn’t be confirmed.
Q So we shouldn’t look at statements from Senator Sanders that he would nominate somebody more progressive as a sign of him trying to distance himself from the White House? The White House wouldn’t interpret it that way?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly didn’t. He’s entitled to his own opinion, and if he is elected President to the United States, presumably he will have a vacancy or two that he’ll have an opportunity to fill, and he’ll be able to evaluate the candidates and put some forward. But the President — the sitting President, the current President has already done that, as required by the Constitution. He’s fulfilled his duty. It’s time for the Senate to fulfill theirs. And I’m gratified that we’ve seen both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders acknowledge that Chief Judge Garland is eminently qualified, would do a good job on the Supreme Court, and they’ve been pretty aggressive in suggesting that the Senate should move forward.
Q Since you brought up Donald Trump’s comments about riots, earlier this week you addressed Republican comments that the President was somehow responsible for the violence and the rhetoric. Do you see a role for the President — does the President see a role for himself in trying to tone down what has become a sort of — tone down some of the rhetoric around the campaign or the heated nature of the current political discourse? Does the President see a responsibility as the President to try to make that process a little bit more peaceful?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President has acknowledged that he has this responsibility. And I think as recently as — his remarks at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Capitol Hill on Tuesday were an indication that he intends to embrace that responsibility. He mentioned this in his speech that he gave in Springfield, Illinois last month, and this even got prominent mention in the State of the Union address back in January.
I guess while we’re talking about it, I guess in some ways the President’s decision around the Supreme Court might actually be the best example of that, that we’re in a heated political season. We do see strident disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, and you do see what many people see as a top priority of the United States in terms of filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And what did the President do? The President put forward an eminently qualified nominee that even Republicans describe as a consensus nominee.
The President fulfilled his responsibility to the Constitution, but I think you could fairly interpret this as a legitimate effort on the part of the President to try to bridge these differences. And I think when we’re trying to sort of ascribe blame to who’s responsible for the divisiveness in Washington, I think you can look at the response from Republicans to a consensus nominee being put forward. They’re not just objecting to that person, they’re refusing to do their job to even consider that person for the Supreme Court.
So I guess to put it in legal terms, I think the case is closed when it comes to judging Senate Republicans for their role in contributing to the stark polarization in Washington, D.C.
Q Should we expect more overtures along these lines from the President in the coming weeks and months?
MR. EARNEST: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, whether it’s rhetorically in terms of his comments about particular issues or the tone of the debate. And we’ve long talked about the list of other priorities that we’d like to advance on Capitol Hill. And these are the kinds of priorities that Republicans themselves had advocated. So we’ve sought to find common ground.
And it’s been a while since I ran through the list. I’ll just do it quickly here: Criminal justice reform. Approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Investments in cancer research. Fighting poverty by reforming the earned income tax credit and expanding it to include those workers that don’t have children. We’ve talked about how opioid addiction and heroin abuse is a problem that Democrats and Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have talked about. Even the Republican presidential candidates that you’ve been covering over the last several months have talked about this being a priority. That certainly should be an opportunity where we could work together. Reform and assistance being provided to Puerto Rico as they deal with some of the financial challenges that they’ve encountered. And even passing an authorization to use military force against ISIL. That’s something that I know Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill believe is the responsibility of the United States Congress. We certainly believe they have that responsibility. And we’re willing to work with them to try to get that done, too.
Q Josh, can you describe the kind of operation now in place at the White House to get a hearing and a vote for Chief Judge Garland and to get him confirmed?
MR. EARNEST: Mark, I can put it in a couple different categories. The first would be, obviously, significant weight now shifts to our legislative affairs team. As I mentioned, there were extensive consultations that the White House had with members of the United States Senate in advance of choosing a nominee. And at a staff level, we’ve contacted the office of every single senator to discuss this issue. But in some ways, there will be even more robust conversations that we’ve chosen a nominee about trying to set up individual private meetings with individual members of the United States Senate trying to be responsive to questions that individual senators have about Chief Judge Garland’s record. So that will require a lot of administrative work, just handling all of that communication.
We certainly take seriously the Senate’s role to offer their advice and consent in this matter. Hopefully, the Senate will as well. The other thing that we’ll also begin doing is working with Chief Judge Garland to prepare for hearings. And those Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, as I’ve mentioned in the past, have typically been rather wide-ranging. They’ve been long and they’ve been detailed. And they’ve been characterized by difficult questions from both Democrats and Republicans. We would expect that Chief Judge Garland would have to do the same thing — that he will have to swear an oath, testify under oath, testify in public, and answer tough questions for hours from people on either side. And so we’ll begin the process of preparing for that process as well.
Q Would you describe it as a war room operation?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t describe it that way, at this point. Maybe it will have to evolve into that at some point. But right now it’s an operation that’s focused on outreach to Capitol Hill and on preparing Chief Judge Garland for what should be serious, robust Judiciary Committee hearings.
Q Is President Obama using his weekly address tomorrow about the nomination or about Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: The weekly address is typically embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow.
Q You can tell us the subject.
MR. EARNEST: But in general, I think you can expect the President to talk about why it’s important for the United States Senate to fulfill their constitutional duty and confirm Chief Judge Garland to the Supreme Court.
Q And his public schedule today is quite barren. Can you tell us what he’s doing today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, many of you will recall that this was the day that was originally marked on our calendar for Prime Minister Netanyahu to visit the White House. So that typically is an event that requires quite a bit of time. So just last week, the President’s schedule got a little more freed up. But given how busy this week has been and given how busy next will be with the President’s trip to Cuba and Argentina, the President has been quite busy today and has a little bit more time to handle those responsibilities before he leaves the country on Sunday.
Q Josh, can you just talk a little bit about any other speeches that the President will give or people from the White House, other surrogates for the President directly from the White House to talk about Chief Judge Garland and, for instance, Sunday news program stuff? Are you guys going to go out in full force in the next few days to sort of make this case to the country that he needs to be considered by the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Gardiner, I would anticipate that the administration will continue to make a forceful case for Chief Judge Garland’s confirmation. I don’t have any events to announce right now. But we certainly will be looking out for opportunities for the President, for the Vice President, and for other senior officials in the administration to make this case. Obviously, the Vice President is somebody that has particular knowledge and extra credibility when talking about this issue.
I cited that situation in 1988 a couple of times in here. That was the last time that a Supreme Court nominee was voted on in a presidential election year. At the time, Vice President Biden was in the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So he understands how this process should work, even in a presidential election year. Or I guess I should say, he understands that this process doesn’t end just because it’s a presidential election year.
And so I would anticipate you’ll hear from the Vice President as well, who can be a pretty persuasive advocate when it comes to these kinds of issues.
Q He’s speaking Sunday at AIPAC. And do you expect him then in the President’s absence next week to continue talking about this issue in public venues?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t expect for this to get much play at AIPAC. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out that the Vice President may have the occasion to discuss this next week. Stay tuned.
Q One other. You may soon nominate Air Force General Lori Robinson to the head of NORTHCOM, which would make her the first female to head up a combat command. Is that going to happen? And how important is that to have a woman in that job?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President does intend to nominate General Lori Robinson to be the next commander of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command. General Robinson is an extremely talented Air Force officer. She currently serves as the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Pacific. And she has served in a variety of leadership positions in the Air Force, and she has distinguished herself as a particularly effective leader.
And the President is pleased to be making this historic announcement. This is the first time that a woman would serve in the position of being a combatant commander, and there is no question that she is eminently qualified and exactly the right person for the job.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: You bet.
Q Thanks a lot, Josh. When the President in December of 2014, announced this policy change towards Cuba, he said at the time, “I will only travel to Cuba when the human rights situation improves on the island.” And we learned just a few weeks ago, when Ben Rhodes was up standing where you are, that the human rights situation in Cuba has not improved, and in some ways it’s gotten worse in the past 15 months. What’s changed? What’s changed to the extent that the President is going back on that vow not to travel to Cuba unless the human rights situation improves on the island?
MR. EARNEST: John, I recall that the President said that he would travel to Cuba when the time was right. And I think what Ben acknowledged when he talked about this a month or so ago is that we have seen some areas of improvement in Cuba when it comes to the human rights situation there, and some places where we haven’t seen nearly as much improvement as we would like to see.
So the case that the President will make I think is a pretty simple one. For more than 50 years, the United States tried to encounter this situation by trying to ostracize Cuba. And that ultimately had the effect of actually making it harder for the United States to advocate for changes in Cuba, both because we didn’t have access to the island, but also because other countries in the Western Hemisphere that did have leverage with the Cuban government were more angry at the United States for our policy toward Cuba than they were at the Cuban government for their policy toward their own people.
And so by removing this impediment to our relationship with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, we’ve actually shined a bright light on the human rights situation in Cuba that does, in some ways, actually put more pressure on them to implement the kinds of long-overdue political and economic reforms there.
The other thing is this: It will be powerful for the President of the United States to land Air Force One in Havana and get off the plane, and spend time, a couple of days meeting with leaders of the Cuban government, speaking to the Cuban people, and speaking to people who have been victimized by the Cuban government for their political views. That is an effective, persuasive, forceful advocacy of human rights and American values. And the President is proud to be engaged in this historic effort.
Q That pressure that you speak of hasn’t really changed anything in terms of the human rights situation in Cuba in the past 15 months. And I realize 15 months in the grand scheme of things is not a long amount of time, but still, the pressure has not changed anything in Cuba, wouldn’t you agree?
MR. EARNEST: No, I don’t think I would entirely agree. I would acknowledge that there are places where we haven’t seen nearly as much improvement as we would like, but there have been some places where we have started to see improvement in Cuba, and we certainly are going to go and press on those changes.
We just saw the announcement, actually, from the Cuban government yesterday that they intended to remove the 10 percent tax that had been imposed on U.S. currency exchanges in Cuba. That actually ends up being a really good thing for the Cuban people.
You’ll recall that early in his presidency, in 2009, the President loosened up the restrictions that were placed on remittances — these are payments from individuals in the United States to citizens in Cuba. Typically, when people in Cuba would receive those remittances, they would have to change the dollars into Euro, and the government would apply a 10-percent tax to those exchanges. But that’s something that the Cuban government has now committed to removing.
That obviously is going to be widely praised by the Cuban people, and will expand economic opportunity for the Cuban people. And they can now use that money to actually take advantage of the greater access they have to information, thanks to many of the changes that we’ve put forward in terms of giving people more regular access to the Internet on the island of Cuba.
So we have seen some important progress. But I think the aspect that I would agree with is there is no doubt that there’s a lot more that we need to see happen in Cuba. And the President will be traveling there on Sunday to advocate for it.
Q And one last thing. Just in terms of the itinerary that you’ve put out over the course of the two days that the President will be there, a lot of tourism on the schedule for the President. Would you say that the most important public thing that the President will take part in that Americans can see back home is the meetings that he will have with the political dissidents on the island?
MR. EARNEST: I think it’s probably hard to decide among the three. I think the meetings are critically important. And traveling to Cuba, sitting down with President Castro and forcefully advocating for normalized relations between our countries and better respect for human rights in Cuba, I think that is a powerful thing.
But I also expect that the President — using the bully pulpit in Cuba, and giving a speech to the Cuban people that will be carried on Cuban television — that’s a commitment that we’ve only recently received from the Cuban government. That will be quite powerful, and I think that will be a powerful message to the Cuban people. That will be effective in advancing our proposed reforms.
And just the pure symbolism of the President sitting down with political dissidents inside of Cuba, that’s quite powerful, too. If you consider that these are individuals who for decades had been persecuted by the government solely because of their political views, in some cases, these are individuals who have made great personal sacrifices. They’ve spent extended periods of time in jail, for example. I think the symbolism of the President sitting down with them in their home country and showing support for their cause will be a really powerful thing I think both in real terms but symbolically as well, too.
Q Given what you said about you not being able to see a scenario in which the President would drop his support of Chief Justice Garland, would that support continue beyond Obama’s presidency? Would he recommend to a successor, especially Democratic successor, that they also nominate him if he has not been voted on to the Court by that point?
MR. EARNEST: President Obama certainly believes that Chief Justice Garland should be on the Court. And it would be a real tragedy for him to be denied that position purely because of the President’s political affiliation. And that ultimately is what it is. It has nothing to do with principle, has nothing to do with the Constitution, has nothing to do with Chief Justice Garland. The Republican obstructionism is motivated entirely by the fact that the President of the United States is a Democrat.
I think that if, however, that situation comes to pass — and I sure hope it won’t — but if it did, I think you could expect that the President would say and continue to believe that Chief Justice Garland should be on the Supreme Court. At the same time, I think President Obama would acknowledge that the new President would be the person who has the constitutional duty to try again to fill that vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Q So you’re saying he might offer that advice to the next President?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President would wholeheartedly recommend that the next President, Democrat or Republican, give careful consideration to Chief Justice Garland as the person to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. There’s no doubt about that.
Q Will the President do an interview with Radio or TV Marti ahead of his trip or during his trip to Cuba?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t believe that is planned for the itinerary, but if that comes to pass we’ll let you know.
Q On Cuba, does the President believe that his trip there legitimizes the Castro regime?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President believes that his trip there will actually seek to advance the kinds of political and economic reforms that are long-overdue on the island nation of Cuba. The President will forcefully advocate for those reforms, both in his private meetings with the government and with dissidents, but he’ll also advocate for those reforms in his speech. And I think that’s what makes this trip so historic. It’s why it’s something that is strongly supported by the Cuban people. It’s also a trip that has strong bipartisan support here in the United States. And in fact, traveling along with the President will be Democratic and Republican members of Congress who believe that these reforms need to be implemented, and that the embargo against Cuba should be lifted.
Q And then on another topic, regarding the threat that Donald Trump had if his nomination was contested that there would be riots possibly, we’ve seen pockets of violence at several of his events, some ugly moments on the campaign trail this campaign. If he wins the election in November, is the White House at all concerned, is the President concerned that Democrats could possibly resort to violence, or pockets of violence could break out?
MR. EARNEST: The President, as he’s said on a couple of occasions, is not concerned about the potential that Donald Trump is going to be elected President. He just doesn’t think that’s going to happen.
Q But does his popularity at all — it seems like it’s kind of revving up Democrats too, that there’s been a lot of emotions, that they’ve gone to his events. Are you guys also calling on the protestors that go to his events to refrain from violence?
MR. EARNEST: Sure, we would call on everyone to refrain from violence. And there’s no political justification, no political dispute among citizens that would justify an act of violence. There’s no denying that.
That said, I don’t think I would use the word “popularity” when describing Mr. Trump. I think there are a significant number of Republicans, even people in his own party, who say that they would not vote for him. And I noted that it was even the Wall Street Journal editorial board who observed that Secretary Clinton has gotten a million more votes than Mr. Trump has.
So I recognize that’s a fact that he doesn’t enjoy seeing discussed particularly often, but it’s true. And it is why the President will be a forceful advocate of — in support of a Democratic nominee who emerges, because the stakes of the next election will be significant. And the President will have a forceful case to make that the values and priorities that have been championed by Democrats on the campaign trail are critically important to the future success of our country, particularly in the comparison to the rhetoric and values that are be espoused by a variety of Republican candidates, not just one.
Q And finally, yesterday during the briefing you said that the President — you hadn’t had a chance to talk to him about Adam LaRoche and his retirement. On the last day, have you had a chance to connect with him on that?
MR. EARNEST: I have seen him, but I have not talked to him about this specific story. But I’ll see if I can get you a better reaction to this.
Connie, I’ll give you the last one and we’ll do the week ahead.
Q On genocide and on North Korea. Do you see any evidence that international groups are mobilizing to help the Christians who are under threat, maybe get them to safety, get them to a safe haven someplace?
MR. EARNEST: And you’re talking about victims of genocide in Iraq and in Syria? Well, obviously, the State Department announced their judgment yesterday that applying the label of genocide to religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria who have been victimized by ISIL is appropriate. And these religious minorities include Christians, Yazidi, and even some Shia Muslims.
We have talked about how the willingness of extremists in ISIL to target religious minorities is part of the reason that the President has ordered aggressive military action against ISIL. I understand that the number of airstrikes carried out against ISIL targets in Iraq and in Syria is now 11,000. So that’s pretty robust military action, and represents the gravity of the situation there.
But I am reminded that we did see the United States House of Representatives come forward in bipartisan fashion and pass a resolution urging that the genocide label be applied in this situation. And I observed that the passage of that resolution would not have much of an impact on our decision-making, but it does beg the question about what exactly Congress is doing about it. They’re passing resolutions making a political statement — not necessarily a political statement that we disagree with, obviously — but there’s more that they could be doing. They could certainly be, for example, giving the U.S. government more resources to help those who are fleeing genocide. Let’s see Democrats and Republicans in Congress actually step up and say they understand how important the genocide label is, and ensure that the United States can play our rightful role in protecting people who are fleeing genocide in their home countries.
And there was a pretty nasty political debate about this issue taking in refugees, and maybe this will start to change the tone and tenor of that debate in the United States Congress.
Q And on North Korea, do you see any evidence that they’re interested in a prisoner swap for humanitarian reasons?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a whole lot more I can say about the situation in North Korea. Obviously, the safe return of American citizens who are being unjustly held overseas is a top priority. And we believe that’s exactly the situation in North Korea, and we are hopeful that the North Korean government will grant a special amnesty to the U.S. citizen that’s being detained there.
I’ll do the week ahead. I think most of you know this, so I’ll just do the short version.
On Sunday, the First Family will depart Washington, D.C. en route to Havana, Cuba. The President and First Lady will meet with staff of the U.S. embassy in Cuba and participate in a walking tour of Old Havana.
On Monday, the President will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony and take a tour of the Jose Marti Memorial. Later in the morning, the President will then take an official photo with President Raul Castro of Cuba, and participate in an official welcoming ceremony at the Palace of the Revolution. Afterward, the President will hold a bilateral meeting with President Castro and have an opportunity to deliver statements about that meeting to all of you.
In the afternoon, the President will take part in an event focused on entrepreneurship and opportunity for the Cuban people. And then in the evening — and many of the U.S. business leaders who are traveling in Cuba next week will also participate in that event. In the evening, the President and First Lady will attend a state dinner at the Palace of the Revolution.
Q It’s just going to be statements at the bilat? Those were still up in the air when they briefed us earlier.
MR. EARNEST: The plan at this point is for the two leaders to do statements, but obviously, the President typically will take questions from the media after an important meeting like this, and so we’ll keep you up to date on those plans.
On Tuesday, the President will deliver remarks to the people of Cuba. Later in the morning, the President — and, as I mentioned, the Cuban government has committed to airing those remarks on television. Later in the morning, the President will meet with members of civil society, including some political opponents — or at least political dissidents of the Cuban government.
Following the President’s meeting, the First Family will attend a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team. Americans and Cubans share a love of baseball, and this is yet another powerful reminder of the kinship between our peoples, as well as the progress we can achieve when we leverage those natural ties. That afternoon, the First Family will depart Havana, Cuba and travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they will remain overnight.
On Wednesday, the President will participate in a bilateral meeting with President Mauricio Macri of Argentina. In the afternoon, the President will participate in a news conference with President Macri. Afterward, the President will participate in a tour and wreath-laying ceremony at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. The President will then meet with staff of the U.S. embassy to Argentina and hold a town hall with young people to talk about the relationship between the United States and Latin America, and, more broadly, the Young Latin Americans Leaders initiative. In the evening, the President and First Lady will attend a state dinner hosted by President Macri.
On Thursday, the President will travel to the Parque de la Memoria. In the afternoon, the First Family will depart Buenos Aires and travel to Bariloche, Argentina. The First Family will visit cultural landmarks while in Bariloche. In the evening the First Family will depart Bariloche and return to Buenos Aires, where the First Family will depart from there back to Washington, D.C.
And on Friday — next Friday is Good Friday — the First Family will arrive back in Washington, D.C. after an overnight flight. And I do not anticipate that the President will have a public schedule that day.
Have a good weekend, everybody. Enjoy some March Madness.
Source: The White House