The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
July 25, 2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:17 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. It’s nice to see you all on this glorious Friday afternoon. If ever there was a day to do the White House briefing outside, today would be it.
Q Rose Garden?
MR. EARNEST: Maybe we’ll just do this quickly and we can all go outside afterwards.
Q You got some discretionary authority. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: It doesn’t require an act of Congress, right?
Q Plus, it’s freezing in here.
MR. EARNEST: It is. I don’t know why that’s always the case.
I’m going to do a couple of things at the top, and then we’ll move to your questions. It is a beautiful day and it is a Friday here at the White House, but me and so many other of my White House colleagues are a little wistful today. It is the final day of service of a couple of my long-serving White House colleagues, and I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge their service.
The first is — many of you know Dag Vega, our Director of Broadcast Media, is — today is his last day at the White House. He’s somebody who has served with the President since the early days of his presidential campaign. I know he’s a fan favorite with many of you. I hear there’s a profile of him on Univision that’s coming soon — at the risk of plugging one media outlet in front of a bunch of others.
But Dag has served the President for a long time, and really — he has the kind of Rolodex relationship that’s very rare and very valuable. And we are going to miss him, but certainly wish him well as he pursues some endeavors in the private sector.
Q So do we talk to him directly — (laughter).
MR. EARNEST: Good question. (Laughter.) I also want to acknowledge Matt Lehrich, who’s sitting on the side today. Matt has been a spokesperson for the President since early 2007. Matt started on the President’s campaign in New Hampshire. Matt and I first had the opportunity to meet in South Carolina in early 2008 on the President’s primary campaign down there. And everywhere that I’ve gone since then, I’ve wanted to have Matt come work alongside wherever I was. So Matt has been a very loyal advocate for the President, and we’re going to miss him being around here on a regular basis, too.
So with that, let me move to one other piece of presidential business and we’ll open it up to your questions.
Earlier today, the President spoke with Afghan presidential candidates, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, to thank them for their leadership in reaching an agreement to form a national unity government and to accept the outcome of the full audit of the ballots in the June 14th runoff election currently being undertaken by the election commissions.
He commended the two candidates for putting the interests of Afghanistan first and committing to working together as partners in governance. Noting that the audit is steadily progressing, the President encouraged both candidates to publicly endorse their previously agreed political framework and continue their dialogue on the details of its implementation to ensure the Afghan people have full confidence in the ongoing electoral process and outcome.
He reiterated that there is no justification for rhetoric that threatens extra-constitutional measures and urged Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani to continue to move forward in the spirit of collegiality to maintain national unity during this historic democratic transition.
The President indicated that Secretary Kerry would continue his close consultations with the two candidates and President Karzai in the days to come. The President also reaffirmed the enduring American commitment to the Afghan people and their future.
So with that, Darlene, do you want to get us started?
Q Sure, thank you. Josh, do you have anything to add to reports that a one-week cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians is going to be announced later this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not able to confirm those reports at this point. As you know, the President sent Secretary Kerry to the region earlier this week with one specific goal, which was to bring about an end to the violence as soon as possible.
So Secretary Kerry has been very deeply engaged in those efforts. He has traveled — he has been in Cairo. I know that he also traveled to Jerusalem, I believe, this week as well. He’s been in contact with U.N. officials, with officials at the Arab League, with officials and his counterparts in Qatar and Jordan and Turkey, as well as dealing with Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
So he’s been deeply engaged in these conversations. It’s a pretty dynamic situation, so I wouldn’t want to get ahead of any announcements that they’re preparing to make. I know that many of these details are also being very carefully negotiated, so I wouldn’t want to interfere in those negotiations even inadvertently.
So Secretary Kerry has been very hard at work this week in pursuit of a very important goal, which is bringing an end to that violence as soon as possible. And if there are any announcements to any progress that’s made in that effort, I’ll let them announce that out there.
Q Would the White House like to see a pause in the fighting of one week, or longer? Or is one week all that you can get under the circumstances?
MR. EARNEST: Our priority is trying to bring cessation to the violence as soon as possible; that every hour in which this violence continues there are innocent civilians on both sides of that border who are at risk. And that is something that we are quite concerned about.
This ongoing violence has had tragic circumstances — or tragic consequences, I should say, for innocent civilians on both sides of the border. We mourn the loss of innocent civilians on both sides. And we are hopeful that international efforts to bring about a cease-fire as soon as possible will be successful.
Q On the meeting that he’s having in a little while with the Presidents from Central America, what is it that he will specifically ask them to do to stem the flow of unaccompanied children across the border?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is part of a — today’s meeting is part of a whole-of-government approach that this administration has pursued to deal with the urgent humanitarian situation at the southwest border. Over the course of this summer, there has been a steady influx of unaccompanied children who have been apprehended along the border.
As I mentioned I believe a week or so ago, the early trends for the month of July indicated that that flow was starting to recede a little bit. But our efforts continue. And one important part of our effort has been trying to stem the flow at the source, and that has meant that this administration, primarily through CBP but also through the State Department, has been engaged in a public messaging campaign in Honduras, in Guatemala and El Salvador. That campaign has been focused on making it clear to the populations of those countries that they should not send their children on that very dangerous journey to the southwest border. That messaging has also made clear that even if against long odds those children are able to safely make that journey, they will not automatically be welcomed with open arms in this country. And that is an important part of our effort, and the President will certainly talk with those Presidents about that ongoing effort.
Another thing that we have done in coordination with those countries is try to establish an efficient way to facilitate the repatriation of individuals who have been apprehended in this country. We have demonstrated our commitment to enforcing the law, and also ensuring that those individuals get the due process to which they’re entitled. So there have already been, as you all have reported, flights sponsored by the U.S. government to repatriate some individuals back to their home countries. Those repatriation efforts are ongoing, and they are done in conjunction with local efforts as well.
After all, we don’t want to be in a position where we are repatriating individuals back into a violent situation. We want to try to find a way that we can meet the humanitarian needs of these individuals. And working with host governments to establish repatriation centers is an important step in that process.
Q Will he be offering them any money —
MR. EARNEST: Well, there have been some programs that the State Department has announced that have been instrumental in this effort. There are already some ongoing and critically important law enforcement operations and programs that beef up citizen security efforts in these countries. Many of the individuals who are pursuing this journey are fleeing pretty desperate situations, and the desperation that they are feeling is fueled by violence in their communities.
So using United States law enforcement programs and resources to try to improve security in those communities is part of this effort. There are also a number of development programs through USAID that can be useful in improving the economic circumstances, or even just the living conditions of individuals in these countries. So there are some existing programs and some programs that over the last several weeks have been enhanced to try to address some of the root causes of this illegal migration that we’ve seen this summer.
Q Josh, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO said just before you came up here that more than 15,000 Russian troops are now on the Ukrainian border. And earlier today the Pentagon said that Russia appears to be set to transfer more rockets to the separatists, possibly as early as today. I’m just wondering if you have any reaction from the podium about this latest development. And secondly, whether the White House is getting more worried that the sanctions regime to this point isn’t having the intended effect of getting Russia to deescalate.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have been saying for a few months now, Roberta, that we are very concerned about the transfer of weapons and materiel from the Russian side of the border into Ukraine and into the hands of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. That has fueled the violence and conflict that we’ve seen in Ukraine. Unfortunately, it has also had tragic consequences for citizens from countries around the world after the downing of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner.
In fact, last week, when the United States — the day before the downing of that jetliner — announced new set of sanctions against Russia, we noted specifically that these sanctions were aimed at Russia’s continuing efforts to provide weapons and materiel to the Russian-backed separatists. We’ve also called on President Putin and other leaders in Russia to use their influence with those separatists to urge them to abide by a cease-fire agreement.
In terms of the sanctions regime that has been put in place, there are a number of steps that the United States has taken against individuals in Russia but also against some large commercial entities in the banking, defense, and energy sectors. There’s ample evidence — if you look at some of the economic data out of Russia — that those sanctions are having an economic effect. They have had an impact on economic projections that have been performed by outside agencies. I know that the IMF and others, the World Bank I believe, have downgraded their future economic projections for Russia in terms of economic growth in that country.
We’ve seen a lot of capital flight and flows of capital out of Russia. That’s an indication that international investors are wary or even reluctant, because of the unstable situation, to continue making investments there.
We’re also seeing that the Central Bank in Russia is concerned about the health and well-being of the currency there. We’ve seen the Russian Central Bank extend significant sums — expend significant sums of money trying to shore up the strength of their currency.
So it is clear that Russia has had to take a number of steps to respond and deal with the sanctions regime that the United States, in coordination with our allies, has imposed. So those economic costs have been imposed on Russia and felt by Russia.
But if your suggestion is that they have not had yet the desired effect in terms of getting Russia to adhere to some basic international norms in their dealings with Ukraine, that’s correct. And that is why the United States continues to be in touch with our allies in Western Europe about additional economic costs that could be imposed.
The President stood at this podium last week and indicated his assumption that the downing of that jetliner would be a head-snapper for the international community. And it is clear that Russia is more isolated than ever in this circumstance because of their aiding and abetting of Russian separatists who killed 300 innocent people.
So this is something that we continue to be focused on. Even as the President traveled this week, he was in touch with some of his counterparts in Europe. I would anticipate that conversations between senior administration officials and their counterparts in Western Europe about dealing with this situation in Ukraine will continue over the weekend.
Q And what’s the latest reaction to the resignation of Ukraine’s Prime Minister? How much additional uncertainty or turmoil does that inject into the situation there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve seen the reports of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s resignation. I’d refer you to the Ukrainians for details about the status of their coalition government. President Poroshenko, who was recently elected, of course remains in place, and we continue to cooperate closely with the Ukrainian government. You’ll note that the President has made a couple of phone calls to President Poroshenko just in the last few weeks. And that’s an indication that the ties between our two countries and the cooperation between our two countries endures.
The fact is that any coalition government in any country is going to have varying views among its parties. And we’ve expected at some point that there would be new parliamentary elections in Ukraine in any case. So this is part of domestic politics in Ukraine, but it does not in any way affect the United States’ relationship and support for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people as they confront the destabilizing activities of their neighbor.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q The issue of sanctions, it sounds like there are active conversations going on. How soon could we see a new round of sanctions? And how confident are you that the EU would join the U.S. in another round of sanctions, in terms of intensity and severity?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let the Europeans themselves speak to their willingness and desire to put in place additional economic costs. Given the tragedy that we saw last week, and given Russian complicity in that tragedy, I think it is a reasonable assumption from any outside observer that the international community, including Europeans, are more motivated than ever to impose additional economic costs against the Russians. But, again, that will have to be a decision that they will make for themselves.
They will, however, I’m confident, continue to make those kinds of decisions in coordination with the United States. That’s why there have been so many phone calls, frankly, between this side of the Atlantic and that side of the Atlantic. In terms of timing, I’m not in a position to offer specific details about the timing of a new round of sanctions. As we’ve discussed before in this room, it would be unwise strategically for me to send clear signals about the content or timing of sanctions that would only allow those who were the target of those sanctions to make early efforts to try to get around them.
Q And going back to your point about the fact that Putin still clearly isn’t yielding to the sanctions, some of the President’s critics — one, William Cohen, former Secretary of Defense — has said that the President hasn’t shown enough leadership in terms of corralling European leaders. What do you say to those critics who say he really needs to step up here and pressure Putin?
MR. EARNEST: I think you’ve seen the President play a very visible leadership role in organizing the international response to Russia’s destabilizing activities in Ukraine. I say that not just as an observation about the President’s comments in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines tragedy. But this is — all along, the international community has been closely coordinating with this government under the leadership of this President to respond to this situation.
And the President continues to work closely with our allies to make progress on this. The international community is united, and the Russians are isolated. And some of that is a result of the outrageous actions that we’ve seen from the Russians. But some of that is also a result of this President’s leadership in organizing the international response to this situation.
Q And just domestically, Cecilia Muñoz acknowledged on MSNBC earlier today that the administration is considering a refugee program that would impact a small number of kids in Central America. Can you tell us where those considerations stand and what a small number would look like? Is that thousands of kids?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Kristen, this is among the things that the President will be discussing with the Central American leaders later today. As you know, for a number of weeks now, this administration has been focused on what kinds of steps we can put in place to deter illegal migration from Central America. We’ve taken a number of steps. The public messaging campaign that I referenced earlier that’s focused on ensuring that individuals don’t make that long journey has been a focal point of our efforts.
We have also sought additional resources to expand our detention facilities so that when individuals are apprehended at the border they can be detained and processed through the system. Now, we’ve also devoted additional resources to that immigration court system so that these cases can be processed more quickly and efficiently. The reason for that is that we want to efficiently enforce the law. And that is why you have seen some of these repatriation flights take place, because we are committed to not just enforcing the law, but also demonstrating in front of the international community, in the eyes of the public, that we’re committed to enforcing the law. That serves as a deterrent effect. That is clear evidence that making the dangerous journey and arriving on the southwest border does not grant one free access to the United States of America.
We have also sought additional authority and deployed additional resources to counter criminal networks that are facilitating so much of this illegal migration. Breaking up those criminal networks continues to be a focal point of U.S. law enforcement, but also law enforcement officials in Mexico as well. So we’re certainly gratified with the international cooperation that we’ve gotten from the Mexicans in particular on that matter. And the contemplation of this pilot program that would allow for some in-state processing is merely the continuation of our effort to try to deter individuals from traveling from Central America to the U.S. border.
Q But no decision has been made yet?
MR. EARNEST: No specific decisions I’m in a position to announce from here. But this is a program that we have talked about internally at the White House, and the President will be discussing with those Central American leaders. But it’s important for your viewers to understand that this pilot program is aimed squarely at deterring those individuals who may be contemplating a trip from Central America to the southwest border with the U.S.
Q Can I just ask, how many people would likely be involved in such a program? Is that going to make a sizeable dent in these huge numbers we’ve seen at the border? I wanted to follow with another subject, too.
MR. EARNEST: Our intent would be that, regardless of how many people are able to go through the program — and at this stage it’s too early for me to say what those numbers would look like — but our broader intent here is, as a broad message of deterrence, that people would see that there is an organized process if they feel like they have a legitimate asylum claim, that they don’t need to make the dangerous journey to the U.S. to make that asylum claim, that they can be processed in their own country.
And that would — we hope will serve as a pretty effective deterrent. We’ll see. That’s the point of a pilot program like this. But, again, this is still in the discussion phase. And if we have more to talk about today after the meeting, then we’ll try to get you some additional information at that point.
Q Can I also ask you about the state of play on the Hill? We’re about a week from congressional recess. Looks like the latest take on what the Republicans in the House are going to give you is something on the order of a billion dollars, and all contingent on changes to the 2008 law. Is that enough money? Are you willing to go along with that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, I think this may be one of those situations where your question indicates a little bit more optimism than even I have. (Laughter.) It’s usually the reverse. I guess in this case it’s — and I appreciate that. It’s one of the many things I appreciate about you, Mark. (Laughter.)
Q Should he be more cynical? Is that what you’re saying? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not at all, not at all. I think my rare display of cynicism is actually rooted in Speaker Boehner’s comments from yesterday. I saw that he did a news conference where he was asked basically the question that you’re asking me: Is it safe to say at this point that Congress probably won’t be able to strike a deal on legislation to deal with this immigration crisis before you all go home for a month? That was the question that was posed to the Speaker. The Speaker responded by saying, well, we’re continuing to talk to our colleagues, and these conversations are going to continue today and again tomorrow.
That is not — those are not the words of somebody who is, as the President might describe, feeling the fierce urgency of now. The President and this administration three weeks ago put forward to Congress a very specific proposal for the resources that this administration needs to deal with what even Speaker Boehner himself acknowledges is a pretty serious problem at the border. And what we’ve seen from Congress is a lot of talk, but not really any action.
And that is a disappointment, both because it is an indication that they’re not willing to live up to their own rhetoric when it comes to dealing with this issue. I think we also have seen that there’s a pretty strong feeling by the American public that this is a situation that needs to be addressed and be addressed in a way that is consistent with American values, in terms of providing for the basic humanitarian needs of these individuals, but also ensuring that the law is enforced.
There’s also a public safety question here. And Governor Perry, when he met with President Obama, raised concerns about the public health impact of having individuals who were apprehended on the border detained on American soil. He expressed concerns about whether or not they had immunizations and other basic health needs that could be met. Included in our supplemental appropriations request is additional money for HHS to make sure that those basic health care needs are met, both to meet the humanitarian needs of those who have been apprehended, but also to ensure the safety of the public in these communities where these individuals are detained.
So Republicans themselves acknowledge that the proposal that’s included in the appropriations request would meet some of the needs — many of the needs that they themselves have identified as a priority. But yet, all we see from Congress are conversations that are going to continue today and again tomorrow. That’s rather disappointing.
Q What about that number though — a billion dollars — less than a third of what you asked for?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’ve been pretty clear about what we think that we need. If there are additional proposals that Congress will actually act on, we’re certainly willing to have conversations with them about what they’re willing to do. But, again, all we’re hearing from the Speaker of the House is talk that’s not backed up by any action.
Q Thank you, sir. Staying with immigration — why is the President going to send an assessment team to the border to determine whether the National Guard is required?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you’ll recall, Mike, the President had the opportunity to visit with Governor Perry down in Texas just a couple of weeks ago, as I mentioned to Mark. In the context of those conversations, Governor Perry indicated that it might be helpful to deploy some National Guard resources to the border.
We’ve made pretty clear that those individuals who are interested in adding resources to the border to provide for border security should be strong supporters of comprehensive immigration reform that would invest about 20,000 boots on the ground. Governor Perry suggested that sending 1,000 boots of National Guard troops to the border would serve as a deterrent.
So despite that slight intellectual inconsistency that’s articulated by the Governor, the President, demonstrating his commitment to acting in bipartisan fashion, said he would at least consider the request that Governor Perry had made. So part of considering that request to send additional National Guard troops to the border, the President directed the Department of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security to dispatch an assessment team to the border to see what sort of DOD resources might be useful in helping address the situation there.
After all, we would want to make sure that any additional resources that are sent to the border are closely coordinated with the widespread efforts that are already ongoing there.
Q So it raises a few questions — and I wanted to follow on Mark — what House Republicans say they want to do at this point is to allocate money to send — to have the feds basically to pick up the tab for the National Guard. Would you be in favor of that portion of their proposal? And, number two, when this has been done in the past — President Bush did it in 2006 — there were conflicts with existing law enforcement like the Border Patrol. What are your concerns that the National Guard could be effective in actually stopping the flow, as opposed to interfering with existing law enforcement?
MR. EARNEST: Well, just to take the last part of your question first, the problem that exists at the border right now is not that there are individuals who are seeking to evade detection at the border. Rather, individuals are crossing into this country and seeking to turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, state law enforcement officials in Texas, even local law enforcement officials, in an effort to escape the elements, which are pretty severe at this time of year, but also to pursue their claims through the immigration process.
So that’s what’s so difficult to explain about the National Guard request — that the issue is not ensuring that we can detect everyone; the concern is about having the resources to process those who are detected and apprehended through the immigration system in a way that is efficient and consistent with our commitment to enforce the law. That’s why our supplemental appropriations request has included a request for resources that could be used to hire additional judges and prosecutors and asylum officials to process these claims.
Q Yes, but that’s an argument for allowing the National Guard to actually detain people, which they wouldn’t be allowed to do unless you actually — the President actually made that stipulation within whatever action he took. Is that what the President wants to do, allow them to detain people?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think what Governor Perry has said is that he wants to send the National Guard to the border because it would be an important symbol and serve as an effective deterrent to those who might be contemplating traveling to the southwest border. I’m not sure that Governor Perry himself has said that he believes they should be given the kind of law enforcement authorities that would allow them to detain individuals.
But you do highlight an important issue that also warrants mentioning. If there are additional resources that are deployed to the border from the Department of Defense, the National Guard or anybody else, we want to make sure that they are appropriately integrated with the efforts that are already ongoing along the border. Right now, we’ve got Border Patrol, ICE, state law enforcement officials through the Texas Department of Public Safety, and local law enforcement officials who are all working together to try to address this challenge.
And those are just the individuals who are actually serving a law enforcement function in terms of apprehending individuals. There’s a whole separate set of federal agencies — HHS, DHS, FEMA — who are coordinating the humanitarian response to make sure that those individuals who have been apprehended can also be detained in a humanitarian way.
So there are a lot of resources that have been deployed to deal with situation. And anybody who’s contemplating adding to those resources, we want to make sure that any additional resource are appropriately integrated into the system that’s already in place.
Q As you probably know, two of the Presidents of Central America, of these countries that are here today, have been making these rounds yesterday. And there was a call yesterday for the White House to spend less on law enforcement at the border and more on education initiatives in their country and efforts to get rid of the gangs, because they came as a result of Merida and other, what they call effective programs in Mexico and in Colombia. And I just wonder if that’s on the table and what the White House response is to the idea that you also have to change the conditions in these countries or be a part of that in order to change the reason why people are coming.
MR. EARNEST: Well, some of the substance of the conversations that the President will be having with these Central American officials is to talk to them about what we can do to stem the tide at the source. There are already some development programs that have been put in place through USAID to try to address some of the economic and quality-of-life concerns that individuals in these countries may have. So there already are American resources that are being devoted to that effort.
The other thing that we can, that is the subject of a lot of conversation even outside this latest situation, is extending and enhancing law enforcement cooperation between law enforcement agencies in Central America and in the United States. In some cases, that means offering some expertise and resources to local law enforcement about steps they can take to enhance security in communities in their country. This Citizen Security Initiative is something that the President talked about when he traveled to Central America a couple of years ago.
So this will be the subject of ongoing conversations. It has been so far, and it will be part of the conversations between the leaders today.
Q Just to follow up, there wasn’t any money in this latest proposal for these types of development initiatives. Is there an appetite to add that to the current proposal or to look at a second proposal along those lines?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s certainly an option on the table, but I’d refer you to the State Department for specific guidance about resources that have already been devoted to this effort and for additional resources that are available to address some of those concerns.
Q Thank you. Congressman Hensarling this morning said that he had written to the President asking the President to stop Russia from engaging in Ex-Im Bank financing. He said the President has the power through the authority now to intervene. Is that a good idea?
MR. EARNEST: Roger, I have to admit I have not seen the letter from Congressman Hensarling. So we’ll take a look at the letter, see if we’ve received it, and get back to you with an answer then.
Q And on another question — there are two Federal Reserve Board of Governors vacancies right now. One left in March 13th, the other May 28th. Is there any sort of holdup to naming new persons on the board?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no holdup that I know of, but I’m also not in a position to make any personnel announcements from here today beyond the notes that I mentioned earlier about Dag Vega and Matt Lehrich. I don’t think they’re in the running to be appointed to the Fed.
Q Anything imminent —
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any details about timing at this point.
Q Has Russia moved multiple launch missile systems across the border into Ukraine?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Bill, I’m not able to give you the latest intelligence assessment. We have seen a pretty strong track record, and there’s ample evidence to indicate that there has been, unfortunately, a steady flow of heavy weapons across the border from Russia into Ukraine and into the hands of these Russian-backed separatists. We continue to be very concerned about that. We do know that it was an SA-11 system that was in the hands of separatists that brought down the Malaysian airliner last week. We know that Russia had been involved in training separatists to use that system. And that is why the Russians are responsible for that and why the international community is now focused on isolating the Putin regime and getting them to change their behavior in Ukraine.
Q There were apparently one or more systems moved close to the border earlier. It’s not somewhere around after 10:00 p.m., and they thought they might move them over today. And I wonder whether you knew that.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to offer a specific detailed intelligence assessment about today’s movements of heavy weapons.
Q Is there firing across the border in either direction?
MR. EARNEST: We have seen in the last couple of days, according to some social media reports but also to some intelligence assessments that have been released by the intelligence community, reports that there has been firing of Russian heavy weapons from the Russian side of the border at Ukrainian military personnel. We have detected that firing, and that does represent an escalation in this conflict. I know that the Pentagon and the State Department both talked about this a little bit yesterday, but it only underscores the concerns that the United States and the international community has about Russian behavior and the need for the Putin regime to change their strategy.
Q So what are you going to do about it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to continue to work with the international community to further isolate Putin and Russia, and to discuss imposing additional economic costs on Russia for their activities in Ukraine.
Q I’m not meaning to be snarky, but that’s what you’ve been saying all along, and nothing much seems to have changed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I mentioned to Roberta, there’s ample evidence to indicate that the economic costs that have been imposed on Russia have been felt by Russia’s economy. There are a number of steps that have been taken by the Central Bank to try to shore up their currency. We’ve seen outflows of capital, which is an indication that international investors are wary of investing in Russia right now. That’s going to have an impact on their economy. So there is evidence to indicate that the sanctions regime has had an impact on Russia, but what you point out is that it hasn’t yet changed President Putin’s calculus for his intervention in Ukraine. That is why the international community is actively engaged in conversations about whether or not — and how — to impose additional economic costs and further isolate him.
Q The question, though, that’s often raised here is why doesn’t the President act?
MR. EARNEST: The President has acted many times. The President nine days ago announced a new sectoral sanctions regime against some entities in the defense, financial, and energy sectors in Russia. So there have been a number of steps that this President has already taken. Those are, as some pointed out, more serous steps than our European counterparts have taken so far; that we have seen indications that the Europeans are preparing to take some additional steps. They made some preliminary steps to that effect just yesterday, I believe.
So we’re going to — the President has, as is evidenced by the facts, led the international response to this effort. And he’s continuing to play a leadership role in focusing the international community’s attention on this urgent problem and using that attention to further isolate Vladimir Putin.
Q Josh, at a briefing yesterday, one of the Central American Presidents blamed America’s appetite for illegal drugs, and a flow of American weapons south for creating the conditions in these Central American countries that the kids are trying to get away from. How much responsibility do we bear for this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess, Wendell, I’m not enough of an expert on Central American politics to give you a very good assessment of that claim. What I will say is that the desperate conditions that exist in Central America is feeding the flow of illegal migration that we’ve seen from Central America to the U.S.
Now, fortunately, according to the data, we’ve seen that flow recede the first couple of weeks of this month. That said, our efforts to confront this problem continue. That will be the substance of some of the conversations that President has later today with those Central American Presidents. It’s why we continue to push Congress to take action on the resources request that has been sitting on their doorstep for three weeks now. There are additional resources that can be used to improve security at the border, to more efficiently process those individuals through the immigration court system, and make sure that we are repatriating those that don’t have a legal basis for remaining here.
Q Also, some immigration activists in this country say — since Speaker Boehner signaled comprehensive immigration reform wasn’t going to happen this year, the President began to look toward an executive order. They feel that executive order will be aimed at reducing deportations from the U.S. Is that a proper read?
MR. EARNEST: I think anybody who claims to have some knowledge about the executive actions the President is contemplating is merely guessing. What the President has said is he said he wants his Attorney General and his Secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a review of existing law and determine what steps the President can take using his executive authority within the confines of that law to address some of the more persistent problems that are caused by our broken immigration system.
So they’re out there casting a wide net. They’re conducting that review. And they intend to forward that review to the President of the United States before the end of the summer. I would anticipate that the President will act quickly after that.
But in terms of what the results of those executive actions will be, it’s not clear yet because it’s not clear yet what those executive actions themselves will be. What is clear — there’s only one thing that is clear — which is that House Republicans have blocked the kinds of solutions that would be more far-reaching to addressing those problems. And that’s unfortunate because there’s a bipartisan proposal that was passed through the Senate that has the support of the business community, the labor community, the faith community and the law enforcement community. There is strong support for this compromise proposal, and the only reason that it’s not law right now is that House Republicans have engaged in a political strategy to block it.
Q But some of those activists are being briefing here at the White House by the President’s advisors. Are they being told that the President would like reduce deportations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to give a detailed readout of those conversations. What I know about them, though, is that most of the communication is the other way. As the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General conduct a review about authorities that are available to the President within the confines of the law to address this problem, they’re interested in the ideas of activists and other experts who may have some suggestions for how that authority could be used to address some of these problems.
But again, in terms of what the outcome is going to look like, we’re going to have to wait until that review has been conducted and the President has made a decision about what executive authority he’d like to exercise.
Q I just wanted to be clear, when you were talking about the pilot program earlier you’re talking about a program that would start in Honduras and then move into El Salvador and Guatemala, is that right?
MR. EARNEST: Generally speaking, I think that some of these details are awaiting a presidential-level conversation, so I don’t want to get ahead of those conversations. But what has been discussed, I guess is the most accurate way to say it, is a program that would set up facilities in some Central American countries to allow asylum claims to be processed in those states — or in those countries, I guess I should say for the sake of clarity. That would — right now, what we’re seeing is individuals who feel like they have asylum claims making a very dangerous journey from Central America to the southwest border where they’re then put in the immigration system in this country, they’re detained in this country while their asylum claim is considered.
The idea here is that in order to deter them from making that dangerous journey, we’d allow — we’d set up a system, in coordination with these host countries, to allow those claims to be filed in that country without them having to make that dangerous journey. That’s the idea, and that’s why it’s consistent with our other deterrence efforts.
Q Okay, but you’re not confirming that that’s how it would — the discussions of it, that that’s what’s being discussed to start Honduras with the pilot program and then move into the other two?
MR. EARNEST: In terms of the countries where these would be located, I’m not in a position to confirm that right now. But you understand the general idea.
Q Can I just — on Ukraine — it’s a little over a week obviously since MH17. Does the administration have any doubt that that plane was brought down by separatists by an SA-11 system? Is there any doubt about that now at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have seen is we’ve seen that there were heavy weapons moved from Russia to Ukraine, that they have moved into the hands of separatist leaders, and that those separatists who are backed by the Russians were trained by the Russians to use those systems. Those systems include anti-aircraft weapons systems. And according to social media reports, those weapons include the SA-11 system.
What we also know is that the Malaysia Airlines jet was brought down by a missile that was fired from the ground. It was fired from the ground in an area that was controlled by separatists and in an area where the Ukrainians themselves were not actually operating anti-aircraft weapons at that time.
So that is why we have concluded that Vladimir Putin and the Russians are culpable to this tragedy. And I guess the other thing I would point out — let me look for my notes here — that I noticed a recent comment from Senator Chambliss, who is the vice-chair of the Senate Intel Committee. He’s a Republican and somebody who doesn’t often agree with the White House. But he did say, whether it was — this is a quote here — “whether it was the Russians themselves that pulled the trigger or Russian separatists trained by Russians, it’s all the same, and it all goes back ultimately to Vladimir Putin.”
So that is an indication that, based on somebody who has reviewed the classified intelligence assessments, that President Putin is responsible. And that is why we are coordinating with the international community on a response that targets Russia for their actions.
Q So you can’t say that you’re 100 percent certain and you have no doubt?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that sort of assessment is something that would be delivered by the intelligence community, and so I’m not going to speak for them. I’d let do that. What I was able to review for you, though, was the intelligence that has been provided that I think paints a pretty clear picture about what exactly happened and who exactly is responsible. That is an assessment that Senator Chambliss, somebody who has reviewed the classified intelligence on this matter, agrees with.
Q If I can follow up — that’s a pretty extraordinary statement I heard in the most direct way I’ve heard it from you. You just said “Vladimir Putin and the Russians are culpable.” So that leads to the immediate question, which is, what do you about it? You mentioned what the President did nine days ago; that was before that plane was down. So what will be done to hold the Russians and to hold President Putin accountable for the downing of that plane?
MR. EARNEST: I think the fact that the President imposed this sanctions regime in coordination with our allies the day before the jetliner was down is an indication of how aggressive the President has been leading the international community to confront the bad behavior of the Russians in this circumstance.
So I’m glad that you mentioned that in your question. The question that you’re asking now is a relevant one, which is what is the international community’s response going to be in light of this terrible tragedy. The President was pretty clear that he anticipated that this would be a head-snapper for the international community in terms of paying attention to a troublesome situation that they had previously, I think at least in some countries, had hoped they could get away with ignoring. It’s apparent that continuing to ignore this situation has had tragic consequences for at least 300 innocent civilians who were not even from either Ukraine or Russia.
So what the President will continue to do is to lead the international response to confront this effort. And that means working with the international community to impose additional economic costs in the hopes of changing President Putin’s calculus for dealing with this specific situation.
Q But that’s one thing he’s hoping to change his calculus for what he’s going to do forward. But as we talked about earlier this week, your U.N. Ambassador had said that the perpetrators of this must be brought to justice. What is the idea — what does that mean, being “brought to justice”? Does that mean some more sanctions, or is there something beyond that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the “brought to justice” language is a reference to the investigation into what exactly happened in terms of bringing down the jetliner. That’s why we’ve called for this transparent international investigation and for investigators to be given unfettered access to the crash site. I understand that the Ukrainians have given that authority to the Dutch to lead that investigation, and that investigation will necessarily lead to a review and an investigation into who personally is responsible for downing that jetliner. And —
Q But the words that you used was “Vladimir Putin and the Russians are culpable.”
MR. EARNEST: Are culpable for the situation, right, that they have been responsible for supplying the terrorists with these — or the separatists with these weapons.
Q But didn’t you use that in conjunction with the downing of that plane? You said Vladimir Putin and the Russians are culpable.
MR. EARNEST: Right, because of the intelligence that I had laid out earlier that has already been released by the intelligence community. But you’re asking a different question, which is those who are directly responsible be brought to justice. And that is a reference to an ongoing investigation about who specifically targeted that plane and fired the weapon that brought it down.
Q Who pressed the button and who was there.
MR. EARNEST: Exactly.
Q And if I can just — a clarification on the border situation. Your pessimism — it looks like Congress is not going to act on any supplemental — providing any supplemental funds to deal with this crisis. What will be the impact on that? I mean, what are the consequences we’re going to see? Is that going to impair your ability to address this crisis? I mean, I assume it obviously will impair it to some degree. But what are the stakes we’re talking about here, Congress leaving town doing nothing?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the biggest consequence is just that one of our priorities was to — well, was to prioritize the cases, the immigration cases of recent border crossers; that we are going to devote the additional judicial resources in the form of judges and prosecutors and asylum officials to more quickly process the claims of those who have been apprehended so that we could more efficiently enforce the law.
There are some resources that already exist that we can dedicate to that effort, and the President has made the decision to move some resources from the interior and focus them on the border. But there are additional resources that we would like to get access to so that we could just hire additional judges and prosecutors and put them on these cases.
Q But the fact that you’re not going to get that, what’s it going to mean?
MR. EARNEST: What that will do is that will just extend the backlog that already exists. And that’s something that we’re concerned about.
Q Has the President talked to any Republicans during this — since he released that, has there been any direct contact with Speaker Boehner, with Marco Rubio, with other Republican leaders, House or Senate, to try to push this thing through? Obviously, you would need bipartisan support to pass it.
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know of any presidential-level phone calls, but I know that there have been a number of conversations between White House officials and officials on Capitol Hill in both parties about this matter. We’ve been really clear about there should be — there’s no ambiguity about our request is, right?
Q Everybody knows what you want, but in politics you have to engage, you have to push, you have to negotiate. I’m just wondering what kind of direct negotiations there are — kind of shoe-leather work with Congress to get this done, specifically with Republicans.
MR. EARNEST: Right. I mean, again, Speaker Boehner himself said that he was still discussing among his members what they felt like they could do. It doesn’t sound to me like they’re in a position to begin negotiating, at least begin negotiating with the White House. It still appears that they’re, three weeks later, three weeks after we made our request, the House Republicans are still negotiating among themselves what to do.
We’re concerned about this because there’s only one week left before they depart Washington, D.C., for their annual five-week recess in August. And that means that this is a pivotal week that’s coming up. There are a lot of priorities that remain undone. And we’re pretty concerned about that.
Q And I’m sorry, just one more question on the executive order front. The President has been pretty consistent over the last several years that he did not have the authority to stop deportations. Remember he said in 2010 that such a move would be — “this could lead to a surge in more illegal immigration and it would also ignore the millions of people around the world who are waiting in line to come here legally.” The refrain year after year from the President, going back as long as we’ve been talking about immigration, is that anything done on this would have to be done through congressional action. Is that still the position of the White House, that you do not have the authority unilaterally, on your own, without Congress, to radically slow deportations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we certainly — the President does not have the executive authority that Congress has to take the kinds of steps that would confront so many of the problems that are caused by our broken immigration system. What the President has directed his Attorney General and his Secretary of Homeland Security to consider is whether or not there are some steps within the confines of the law that could be used to mitigate some of these problems.
But these solutions that would be deployed through executive action are not as far-reaching as those actions that could be taken by members of Congress through the passage of congressional legislation. Particularly when you consider what the Senate has already done in terms of the legislation that they’ve passed with bipartisan support that would have a tremendous impact on the broader economy on dealing with the estimated 11 million individuals who are undocumented but in this country.
Q But I’m just asking very specifically, does the President still believe he does not have the authority without Congress to radically slow deportations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, we’re trying to, through the assessment that’s being conducted by the Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security, trying to determine exactly what authority the President does have. What I can assure you of — and I think what the President was alluding to in those remarks that he’s made in the past — is that any steps that he takes unilaterally will not be as impactful as the steps that Congress could take by passing legislation that’s already passed through the Senate. The only reason it hasn’t passed through the House, of course, is because it’s simply been blocked by House Republicans.
Q Is his goal to slow deportations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Wendell, our goal is to try to address so many of the problems that have been created by our broken immigration system. If you listen to the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, many people acknowledge that there are a wide range of problems that are caused by our broken immigration system. What we want to try to do is pinpoint what problems can be mitigated through the use of executive authority. Any solution that we’re able to put forward will not be as impactful as congressional legislation.
Q Two quick questions. On the sanctions, is the question whether it’s “whether” still, or just “which and when”? The reason I ask, last night when you all put out a readout of the conversation with Prime Minister Rutte, it said “the President and Prime Minister agreed that Russia must not be permitted to destabilize the situation in Ukraine without incurring additional costs and that, accordingly, the international community will need to enact additional sanctions.” That sounds like there’s no “whether” at this point, it’s just a matter of when and which ones you pick.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s certainly the position of the United States, Peter, that additional costs should be imposed on Russia and Putin for their actions in Ukraine. Ultimately, our counterparts in Europe will have to make their own decision about the steps they’re willing to take to do exactly that.
We saw some positive indications yesterday in some preliminary steps that they had announced. I know that there are meetings among European leaders next week and they have set a deadline for the end of the month, which is a week ago yesterday, for trying to come to a decision about what exactly they’ll do. So we do believe that additional steps should be taken, but ultimately those are decisions that have to be made by those European leaders.
Q So this is not referring to U.S. sanctions. You’re not saying more U.S. sanctions are coming, it’s just a question of when and which ones?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have the readout in front of me. I think the reference — I’m not trying to dodge the question. I think the reference is to our view that additional costs in one form or another need to be placed on the Russians to try to get them to change their calculus for the way that they’re acting in Ukraine. So the obvious step — the next obvious step would be for the Europeans to take action. And the United States is also considering additional action as well.
Q On a different subject. On the health care lawsuits this week, the rulings, this Jonathan Gruber video — do you have a response to this? Your critics are saying this shows that, in fact, there was an intent or at least the knowledge that this law was not intended to mean subsidies would be provided in the instances the Court —
MR. EARNEST: I do have — I mean, the thing that Mr. Gruber has said is that even by his own analysis and projections, he had always assumed that all eligible individuals would get tax credits whether or not their state marketplace is run by federal officials or local officials.
I’d also point out that Mr. Gruber filed an amicus brief in the Halbig case, taking the administration’s side that all individuals should get access to those tax credits as long as they’re eligible to get them. So I think his views on this are pretty clear. I think that he described those remarks as a mistake, but I’d refer you to his explanation for why he said them. I think what is clear is that he, like Congress, intended for every eligible American to have access to tax credits that lower their health care costs regardless of who is operating the marketplace.
Q He said at the time it was not intended, that in fact this was meant to be an incentive to states to sign up — to do their own rather than to sign up with the federal system.
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think that he said that’s a mistake, that those comments were a mistake and didn’t represent his views. I do think that there’s ample evidence to indicate, based on his own analysis, his own projections, and even his own legal filings, that he supports the administration view that every eligible American should have access to those tax credits.
Q Earlier this week, even others in the administration were calling on the Israelis to take greater steps to minimize civilian casualties. And you had these awful deaths at this U.N. school in Gaza. It’s not exactly clear who is responsible for that, I don’t believe. And then later in the week you had this outrage expressed in Israel and here in the United States over the FAA’s decision to halt flights into Tel Aviv. I’m just curious — where are U.S.-Israeli relations right now? Do you feel that they were listening to your call, the White House call earlier this week to take greater steps to minimize civilian casualties? And what did you make of that outrage that was being expressed in Israel about the FAA’s actions?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first, I’m glad that you brought up the terrible violence that we saw in Gaza yesterday. I do want to note that we are deeply saddened