20160906 White House Press Briefing

Mr. Earnest: Good
evening, everybody. It’s nice to see you all. Obviously this will be the
— one of the briefings that we’ll do on the trip. I don’t think we have
anything at the top, so I think we’ll just go to
straight to your questions for the sake of efficiency. Who wants to get us started? Not everybody at once. Josh, do you
want to go first? The Press: Sure. I wanted to ask about the
cancellation of the meeting with Duterte. The President said yesterday
this wasn’t going to affect our long-term relationship
with the Philippines, but how is that the case if the
President and the head of this other — our ally are
essentially in a war of words with each other? And the office of the
Philippine leader said that the decision to cancel
the meeting was mutual. Is that the case,
or did the U.S. basically inform them that
this was not happening? Mr. Rhodes: Well, look,
first of all, the nature of our alliance with the
Philippines has been and remains rock solid. We have incredibly close
working relationships with the government of the
Philippines on issues related to disaster
response, maritime security, diplomatic coordination on
issues related to the South China Sea; economic,
commercial and people-to-people ties. So I think people should
certainly expect that our very close working
relationship with the Philippines is going
to be enduring. And in fact, we continue to
consult closely at a variety of levels, and in fact, I
think Chairman Dunford has even been in the Philippines
recently, if not today, for a chiefs of defense meeting. With respect to the
bilateral meeting, I think it was our judgment that
given the focus of attention on President Duterte’s
comments leading into the meetings here, we felt
that that did not create a constructive environment
for a bilateral meeting. All of the attention,
frankly, was on those comments and, therefore,
not on the very substantive agenda that we have
with the Philippines. So, again, given that focus,
we felt that it wasn’t the right time to have a
bilateral meeting between the two Presidents. And that’s something that
we discussed with officials from the government of the
Philippines last night. Going forward, I would
expect our close cooperation to continue, and where we
also have differences, we’ll continue to speak to those. And as President Obama said,
for any country in the world, not just the
Philippines, we’ll certainly support very robust
counter-narcotic efforts, but we also want to make
sure that they’re consistent with the rule of
law and due process. And that too will be a
message that we continue to carry forward. The Press: What can you say
about the likelihood of a Syrian ceasefire
at this point? And you’ve heard the calls
from Erdogan to establish a no-fly zone now that there’s
been more progress in Jarabulus. Do you still feel the same
way about a no-fly zone as you did before? Mr. Rhodes: So, again, as it
relates to the potential for a ceasefire, that continues
to be a subject of discussion with the
Russian government. After the discussion
between President Putin and President Obama yesterday,
we feel like we have now identified the remaining
gaps in what have been very extensive and technical
discussions over a number of weeks now. And Foreign Minister Lavrov
was returning to Moscow; Secretary Kerry is staying
in touch with him, and they plan to meet in the coming
days to see if they can conclude an agreement,
having now identified the remaining issues. Our objectives for that
agreement would include ensuring that there is a
Cessation of Hostilities that allows for humanitarian
assistance to get into people who are in need. We want to make sure that
there’s space for the moderate opposition, and we
also are open to working with Russia to focus on the
threat from al Qaeda in Syria, al Nusra,
as well as ISIL. However, again, in order to
achieve that cooperation, we do want to make sure that
there is this period of calm and that there is this
humanitarian access. So we’ll be, again,
following up in discussions between Secretary Kerry and
Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I think we’ve made
a lot of progress. But we’re not going to take
a deal that doesn’t meet our basic objectives. And I think we’ll know very
quickly whether or not we can close those
remaining gaps. And your other question
was — President Erdogan. Well, first of all, I think
we very much welcome the progress that has been made
in terms of clearing ISIL out from along the
Turkish border. That’s something that we’ve
been focused on for a long time now in our
discussions with Turkey. Our own operations in
support of SDF opposition forces on the ground helped
to clear Manbij, which was a key transit point for ISIL
fighters into Turkey. And Turkey’s operations in
Jarabulus and then further clearing operations on
the border have made a significant amount of
progress on what has been a key priority, which is
making sure that you cut off that border area. Because, frankly, that’s
also where the flow of foreign fighters comes in
and out of Syria, and so if we can seal that border
using Turkish forces, opposition forces, with our
logistical and air support, I think that would help us
make a substantial gain against ISIL. In terms of a no-fly zone,
in terms of the dedication of U.S. military resources, we want
to use those resources to go after ISIL, to go after al
Nusra insofar as we see them affiliated with al Qaeda
and engaged in external plotting. We do not think a no-fly
zone would resolve the fundamental issues on
the ground because there continues to be
fighting on the ground. A no-fly zone would
necessarily only be contained to one specific
area, and we have problems and violence
across the country. However, if we are able to
preserve the space along that Turkish border, you do
have an area for greater security and you do prevent
this flow of foreign fighters into
and out of Syria. So that’s something — an
objective we shared with President Erdogan. We have not determined that
a no-fly zone would be the best dedication of U.S. military resources. The Press: Back on the
meeting with Duterte. You said that it was your
judgment that given the focus on his comments that
you decided not to do the meeting. So are you saying that it
wasn’t the content of what he said that you found
objectionable, or — I’m trying to figure out what
you’re — it seems like you’re saying — you’re
putting the focus on the fact that it was gathering
all this attention as opposed to what he actually
said, and I’m wondering if that had anything to — if
the President was offended by that. Mr. Rhodes: Well, look,
I think the two are fundamentally interrelated. So certainly the nature
of those comments was not constructive, and therefore
there was an enormous amount of tension on this series
of statements by President Duterte. And again, given the
important issues that we have, having a meeting where
all we were going to discuss was a series of comments,
frankly, did not strike us as the most constructive
way to approach a bilateral meeting. At the same time, we also
knew that we could have a very important meeting
with President Park of the Republic of Korea at a time
when we just recently had an additional provocation
from North Korea. So we had a lot of business
to do with President Park, and we had a constructive
meeting with her today. But, again, we remain in
contact with Filipino officials, and our close
alliance relationship obviously continues
and will going forward. The Press: Can I
ask on North Korea? Can you explain a little bit
— about closing loopholes? What loopholes? And is he talking
about new sanctions? What did he mean by “making
them more effective?” And do you expect that he’ll
do some of this around UNGA? Mr. Rhodes: So we’ve passed
now through the U.N. Security Council the
strongest sanctions ever on North Korea. They are having an
impact, we believe. It is putting a tighter
squeeze on North Korea. At the same time, we have
over many years seen North Korea try to find ways to
evade sanctions, try to find ways to access foreign
currency, try to find ways to access sensitive
technology using front companies for
their activities. So we have to be very
vigilant in sanctions enforcement, and we have
to maintain the sense of urgency among the
international community. This is something that
President Obama talked to President Xi about, because
China plays an enormously important role in the
enforcement of those sanctions. It’s something that we’ll
talk about with the leaders here at the East Asia
Summit, because when you look at the interdiction of
sensitive technologies into North Korea, or the
interdiction of North Korean efforts to procure things
on the international black market, we’ve worked very
closely with a number of Southeast Asian
countries as well. So we want to make sure that
we’re just cutting off all the lifelines that North
Korea tries to grab onto in terms of evading sanctions
and accessing currency so that they pay the full
cost for their actions. So that was a subject of the
meeting with President Park. So was our shared commitment
to deploy the THAAD defensive — missile defense
system, given these repeated provocations and the
development of ballistic missiles. One of the things the two
leaders focused on was our determination to move
forward with the deployment of the THAAD system,
which protects U.S. personnel in the Republic of
Korea, protects our allies, and it ultimately is
necessary to counter the threat from North Korean
ballistic missiles Mr. Earnest: Ron. The Press: Are you saying
that in order to — a more meaningful agreement on
Syria, the two Presidents won’t be — down the road,
that something appropriate or (inaudible) be
accomplished about that? And secondly, on the whole
cyber issue thing, the President spoke about
it generally — about (inaudible) but how
concerned is he about the Russians specifically trying
to target — to meddle in the U.S. election? Mr. Rhodes: So, first of
all, on Syria, we did not in any way have an expectation
that the two presidents would conclude the
agreement, because, frankly, the remaining issues are
fairly technical, and they have to do with the manner
in which an agreement would be implemented. And so we’ve had expert
teams that have been negotiating this in Geneva
in some detail, and Secretary Kerry and Foreign
Minister Lavrov have been leading those discussions. So the purpose of the
meeting between the two presidents was to provide
direction to those teams to indicate what were our
respective priorities, and then to see whether
they can get this done. And I do not think that the
two presidents will need to meet on this again. Frankly, we would like to
see this, if it can get done, happen quickly because
of the enormous humanitarian needs in places like Aleppo. If it cannot get done, we
won’t sign on to a bad deal. So I think we’ve been at
this long enough to know what the outlines of an
agreement could be, and we have to see in the coming
days whether or not that can conclude, because there
is an urgent humanitarian situation that needs
to be dealt with. There is a terrorist threat
that needs to be dealt with. And there also is the
necessity of having space for a moderate opposition
that can participate in the political process in Syria. On cyber issues, the
President spoke to this yesterday. I think, again, generally
speaking, we have raised concerns with Russia, with
China, about certain cyber activities that
have targeted U.S. interests. The fact of the matter is,
in this space we have our own significant offensive
and defensive capabilities. And the reason he speaks
about international rules and norms is precisely
because we want to be able to hold nations to account
when they are operating in an offensive manner against
our infrastructure or, frankly, any other
nation’s infrastructure. We’re confident in our
cybersecurity capabilities and our ability to secure
our critical infrastructure, our election, as the
President said yesterday. So I’m not going to get
into the details of ongoing investigations that may be
taking place about certain cyber intrusions. Generally, we’ve also had
concerns with some Russian actions in other parts of
the world, where we’ve seen them seek to play a role in
European politics, as well. So I think, in addition to
the cyber issues, we do want to make sure that we and
our democratic allies are standing up for the values
that we believe in and pushing back against any
efforts from Russia to seek to support — again, I’m
speaking in Europe now — efforts to undermine
European unity. The Press: But about how
many — this investigation (inaudible). Is there a concern
specifically about the U.S. election, based
on (inaudible)? Mr. Rhodes: Well, again, I
think we’re always obviously focused on assuring that we
have the ability to defend against cyber threats
to all of our critical infrastructure and
all major events. But again, as the President
has said, I think we have great confidence in our
electoral process and the integrity of our elections. Mr. Earnest: Roberta. The Press: Is there any
chance at all that President Obama would have kind of
like an informal pull-aside or informal chat with
President Duterte on the sidelines of these summits,
particularly now that President Duterte has
offered some kind of an apology for his statements? And secondly, how concerned
is the White House that this spat, whatever you want
to call it, could have an impact and push the
Philippines into sort of China’s arms? Mr. Rhodes: So I would
expect that the President will see President Duterte
in the course of those summits. We have an ASEAN meeting,
we have an East Asia Summit meeting. He tends to interact with
all the leaders at those events. So I would not expect a
formal bilateral meeting, but I think he’ll have an
opportunity to interact with him, as with all leaders. With respect to the South
China Sea, we’ve sustained very close cooperation with
the Philippines over the course of the transition to
the new government there on those issues. So, first of all, we’ve
supported the outcome of the arbitral ruling because we
believe that international legal processes are the way
to resolve these issues. We have a very close
partnership with the Philippines on maritime
security issues and continue to provide them with
assistance in that space. We have a recently
agreed-upon access agreement as it relates to bases
in the Philippines. So the working relationship
in this very important space continues to be strong. Frankly, where we’ve had
differences with President Duterte has related more
to our concerns that there needs to be a clear
commitment to due process and the rule of law as it
relates to some of the internal security efforts
that had been undertaken there. On the alliance issues,
we’ll continue to work closely with them. We do think it’s important,
though, that given the serious nature of the issues
in our relationship, that leaders seek to create
a constructive tone for discussions. And again, that is why we
made the decision that we did about the
bilateral meeting. As it relates to China,
we welcome efforts by the Philippines to engage in
a dialogue with China. Our position has always been
that we’re not picking a winner in terms of claims;
that we want to see basic international principles
upheld, including the peaceful resolution of
disputes consistent with international law. What we don’t want to see
is these claims resolved through force or coercion. So we don’t want to see a
bigger nation forcing a smaller nation to
accept their will. However, if the Philippines
can reach a mutual understanding with China,
or any of the claimants can reach a peaceful resolution
to these disputes consistent with international law, then
we believe that would be a constructive development. And, in fact, we’ve
encouraged all ASEAN countries who are claimants
to engage in dialogue, and we’ve encouraged ASEAN as a
collective to support these basic sets of
international principles. Mr. Earnest: Margaret. The Press: On North Korea,
did you get any concrete pledges from Xi on cutting
off financial lifelines? Because it was mentioned
broadly, but specifically, anything that China is
actually going after, bank accounts of — leaders
in a serious way? And on Duterte, this isn’t
the first time that he’s insulted a U.S. leader,
though it’s certainly the first time the most powerful
man in the world. I mean, he called
John Kerry crazy. He used slurs to
refer to the U.S. ambassador. Do you see this as a trend
of anti-Americanism in the Philippines? And are you concerned about
some of the things Duterte has said about perhaps
getting a little closer to the Chinese, putting
the court ruling aside? Mr. Rhodes: So, each time
we’ve seen comments like that, I think we’ve
expressed concern. We were certainly concerned
about the comments that related to our ambassador. I think that, again, what
we are focused on here is whether or not comments
like that on the eve of a meeting, and comments
that related to a very substantive difference that
we have raised consistently as it relates to due
process, that those comments were going to prevent us
from having the right environment to have a
serious, productive discussion. In terms of
anti-Americanism, I think if you look at the views of the
people of the Philippines, they’re overwhelmingly in
favor of the alliance. They’re overwhelmingly
positive about the United States. Frankly, we’ve come a long
way from a number of years ago when there was a greater
degree of anti-American sentiment. I think we’ve built trust
with the people of the Philippines. President Obama has invested
a lot in that relationship. I think he’s very well
thought of in the Philippines. The fact that we’re able to
conclude a basing access agreement I think signaled
that we’re in a new chapter in our relationship. So, again, we look at the
whole, which is what is our relationship with the
government and people of the Philippines, and we
think it is very strong. However, when we see actions
that we would object to anywhere, we’re going
to voice concerns. And when we see comments
that are along the lines of what President Duterte said
the other day, again, we’ll raise our concerns
about that as well. What we want is an effective
working relationship, though, so our hope is that
there’s an effort that is continued to be made by
the government of the Philippines to have
the right tone for our discussions to be
productive going forward. The Press: Do you
want an apology? Mr. Rhodes: I think it’s
their determination as to how they address
his comments. We’ve noted the statements
that they’ve made over the course of the day. I think we’d welcome efforts
to set a positive tone for the discussions
between our leaders. At the same time, the
working relationships continue to be very strong
in the relevant ministries and throughout our
diplomatic and military channels. So none of these comments
have affected the basic cooperation that takes place
on a day to day basis with the Philippines. Mr. Earnest: William. The Press: Thank you. Mr. Rhodes: Oh and again on
China, look, we don’t — we have no concerns about there
being positive relations between our
allies and China. In fact, when our allies
have constructive relations with China, it contributes
to stability broadly in the Asia Pacific. We do have concerns about
circumstances where China or any other nation may seek
to coerce another country. So if the government of the
Philippines is engaged in a dialogue with China about
South China Sea claims or other issues, that’s
consistent with the type of diplomatic resolutions
we seek here. Frankly, what nobody has an
interest in is there to be an escalation or a conflict
over these issues. We do take the position on
the arbitral ruling that this is legally binding
and that claims should be resolved under
international law. And China is
party to the U.N. convention on the law of the
sea, and so therefore we believe that they and other
countries should respect that ruling as
final and binding. The Press: Can you talk
a little bit about human rights — with the
Lao government? In what context
did you raise it? Was it just, like, the
standard response? And do you get any sense
that there’s going to be any movement — any chance
of movement on that? And then I was also
wondering, is the difference you see between race and
human rights with a country like China on one — a
country like Laos, is there ever a greater chance of
getting something back for that? And how do you see
that coming out? And I have a follow-up
question about a specific case. Mr. Rhodes: So as it relates
to human rights here in Laos, in every country in
the world we support a set of basic universal values
like freedom of expression, freedom of association,
the freedom of people to exercise the rights that
are enshrined in the U.N. charter. I think in terms of the
President’s conversations and some of our work here,
we have focused on support for civil society. We believe, frankly, that
civil society can be an important partner in
supporting development. We’ve seen a trend in
different countries of restrictions placed
on civil society. So that is both an issue
that relates to political matters, but also we see
civil society organizations that could do important
work here in Laos on issues related to health or
education and development. So that’s certainly an issue
that the President raised here, as he has
in other places. I think tomorrow he’ll be
meeting with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders in
Luang Prabang, many of whom are in the civil
society space. When we work to develop
these YSEALI networks, civil society along with
entrepreneurship is one of the areas of focus. So there will be
representatives in the audience tomorrow who have
worked on civil society issues. I would say that we also
then generally raise concerns around specific
human rights concerns that emerge, whether they be
individual cases or, broadly speaking, our desire to see
a greater freedom of speech and association, whether
that’s in Laos or anywhere else in the world. Look, I would say candidly
— and I said this in Vietnam — that if you’re in
Vietnam or you’re in Laos, there’s obviously a history
that is quite complicated. And we do feel the need to
make clear that when we raise these issues, we’re
not in any way suggesting that the policy of the
United States is to change the regime here or to impose
a new political system. It’s to support a set of
universal values that we would anywhere else. And we understand,
obviously, and have to be mindful of the fact that
we’re building a new relationship here. And we don’t have as
extensive a history of dialogue with the government
on these issues as we might have in other places. So we’re just beginning
to have these types of conversations at high levels
and we will continue to do so. I think with respect to
China, we raise all of the same issues there. They manifest themselves in
different ways, whether it be the individual cases,
which President Obama did raise when he was in China,
or whether it be issues related to Tibet, or whether
it be issues related to freedom of religion, which
is something the President also raised when
he was in China. I think the U.S.-China
relationship is so big and so multifaceted that it just
takes place as a part of a much broader discussion. But a human rights dialogue
has been a consistent part of our China policy and
it will be going forward. The Press: And can you talk
about the case of Sombath Somphone? Was that raised? And how was that raised,
and what was your response? His wife mentioned
especially that the standard response — the police are
looking into it, but is that what you got? Mr. Rhodes: The standard
response has been what? The Press: It’s simply that
police are looking into his disappearance. It’s been four
years, though. Mr. Rhodes: So I met with
Mr. Somphone’s wife when I visited Laos
earlier this summer. I’ll be meeting with her
over the course of this visit as well. We stay in regular contact
with her and we care very deeply about her
case and her husband. We believe that she deserves
to know what happened to her husband and what the
status of his case is. The response that we get
from the Lao government is what she referenced, which
is that they’re continuing to investigate this. And oftentimes, they
indicate that they do not know and that there is an
ongoing investigation. Given his prominence, this
is something that we’ll continue to raise. I think the President
addresses these issues around civil society
and human rights in his meetings, and then we tend
to raise individual cases with the government
around those meetings. The Press: Just talking
about the complicated history of — the decision
to develop the funding for getting rid of these
bombs over the country. Is that — it was not the
case in, say, Hiroshima, but is this an apology
from the U.S. for what happened
all those years ago? And second, in terms of MIA,
I know it’s been about 30 years since we started
searching for the Americans that went missing. And the foreign minister
said last week — taken about 30 years. Why has it taken so long? Is it that they’re somewhere
out on the mountain somewhere? Are they buried where
they can’t be found? Why does it take so long to
find them if — it’s going to take around 30 years? Mr. Rhodes: So I’ve worked
on both of these issues. On the POW/MIA issues, we’ve
actually taken some steps around this visit that
we believe will help us accelerate the
process of recovery. We’ve been focused on
increasing the number of personnel that are in the
teams that go out and conduct the recovery efforts
and their ability to operate for longer durations
of time at the sites. The reality is, as you said,
I think part of the reason it’s so difficult here is
that many of the search areas are densely forested,
many years have passed, and it’s just hard work. But it is a
principle of the U.S. government that we do not
leave people behind and that we exhaust every effort
to find personnel who are missing in action and
we’ll continue to do that. I could not put a precise
timeline on it, but we’d obviously like to get it
done as quickly as possible. And we’ve made progress in
recent years and around this visit in taking steps to
improve our capacity in this space. Obviously, as in Vietnam,
this was a process of building trust. The notion of having teams
go out in this country was controversial when it
started, but now we have a good working relationship. On the UXO, I think that the
— what’s unique about the situation here is that this
poses an ongoing threat to the people of Laos. Since the conclusion of our
bombing, some 20,000 Lao have been either killed
or wounded by the UXO. So it poses a danger to
civilians in many different parts of the country. It’s also an enormous
obstacle to development here, because in a country
that has got a largely agricultural economy, you
cannot develop land that is littered with
cluster munitions. So we believe that we have a
profound responsibility, a moral responsibility
to do our part. When we took office, I think
we were spending roughly $3 million a year, which,
frankly, was nowhere near the scale of support that
the Lao government needed to try to get as much done as
possible in this space. We’ve steadily
increased that. The three-year $90 million
commitment is going to enable us to do a
comprehensive nationwide survey here in Laos so
that we’re better able to identify precisely where we
think these munitions are, and then we can prioritize
clearance, working with the Lao and our other
partners in this space. We want to make it more
efficient and quick, just as our recovery efforts,
to clear this UXO. And in the past, it’s been
very difficult work — people out with metal
detectors trying to identify individual munitions, and
then explode them when you have millions of cluster
munitions across the country — that is difficult work. But this is going to
jumpstart that process and hopefully save lives,
support victims, and open the space for greater
economic development here in Laos. So we’re very proud of the
ability to make additional contributions. I don’t think it’s a
matter of apologizing. I do think that, as
President Obama said — referenced in his remarks
today, this was largely a secret war to the American
people, and therefore there wasn’t the same degree of
public knowledge about what was taking place here, and
about the scale of the bombing that
took place here. And that may have
contributed to the fact that we were slower in beginning
to engage in some of these efforts than in a place like
Vietnam, where we’ve been doing Agent Orange and
Dioxin cleanup for a long time now. So we feel an urgency, given
the fact that people are still dying and being
wounded by these weapons, to do our part to try to
accelerate the clearance process. The Press: I had a quick —
with Ben, and then couple of domestic — I don’t know
if you want to — Ben, the President said Secretary
Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov were going to meet in
the coming days on the Syria deal. Has that — been planned? Has that been scheduled,
or is it kind of — Mr. Rhodes: No, I think
that’s — I mean, you’ll have to check with the
State Department on precise timing, but I think
that’s still the plan. And again, the urgency for
the meeting is both we feel like we have a clear
understanding of what the remaining issues, but also
there’s a humanitarian situation that we’d like to
address as soon as possible. The Press: Josh, Oklahom
ordered the shutdown of a couple dozen wells after the
earthquake over the weekend. I’m wondering if the
President worries those kinds of events are going
to become the norm, and secondly, if — he’s very
happy to take credit — energy crisis, so — if he
at all regrets the advocacy for fracking he’s —
attempting to (inaudible.) Mr. Earnest: I did see the
news about the announcement in Oklahoma. What our policy has been as
it relates to fracking has been to ensure that
environmental experts and the federal government,
including at the EPA, are working closely with state
officials to design a regime to ensure the safety and
security of the people who live in the area. In some cases, that has
meant a concern about the water supply. I know that there have been
other concerns about the impact of these kinds of
procedures on possibly leading to earthquakes. So our approach in Oklahoma
will continue to be the approach we’ve taken all
across the country, which is we’re going to continue to
work with local officials who do have the primary
responsibility of ensuring the safety and security of
the communities where this kind of activity
is taking place. Obviously, some of the
advances that we’ve seen in the technology that have
opened up access to larger deposits of natural gas have
contributed to driving down the cost of natural gas, and
also making the use of this fossil fuel that’s much
more — much less of a contributor to climate
change more common. And that’s had a positive
impact on the level of emissions that we’ve seen in
this country over the last several years. That’s not something that
the President regrets, but the President will insist
that the work to exploit those deposits is done
as safely as possible. And we’re certainly — we’ve
been mindful of that from the beginning, and our
policy with regard to fracking has not changed. The Press: And then Congress
went back today with a list of — a laundry list of the
priorities that we’ve heard for — I’m wondering
specifically about the possibility of a government
shutdown this fall — your thinking of the chances of
that happening, and have you received any assurances
from Speaker Ryan or other congressional leaders that
they’ll probably get through the election, or — and into
the next presidency before (inaudible)? Mr. Earnest: Well, listen,
Justin, I’m not sure that people would — that anybody
at this point would put a lot of stock in the
assurances, whether we receive them or not. The fact is we have seen
the Republican-led Congress operate at historic lows
when it comes to doing the people’s business. Republicans, for some time,
prided themselves on their ability to pass budgets. And despite having
significant majorities in both the House and the
Senate, they have not succeeded in passing any
appropriations bills this year. And that does not bode well
for the ability of members of Congress to do their job
and ensure that they can pass a budget before the
end of the fiscal year. This administration is
certainly going to continue to be in touch with members
of Congress now that they’re back to work after
a seven-week break. Hopefully they’re ready to
get some business done. Hopefully that will include
funding for Zika that is badly needed. Hopefully that will include
funding for opioid addiction and treatment — something
that both parties have identified as a priority. Obviously we’d like to
see some progress on the President’s Supreme Court
nominee and on TPP as well. So there’s a long to-do list
for members of Congress who have been gone
for a while now. And hopefully they’ll get
after it, as they say. But I think the other point
that I would make here is simply that the American
people are going to be watching. And as people across the
country prepare to go to the ballot box this fall,
they’re not just going to be casting votes for the
presidential candidates that understandably get the most
attention, but they’re also going to be making decisions
about whether or not they’re being well-represented
in Congress. And based on the track
record that we’ve seen from the Republican majority in
Congress, I think serious doubts have been raised. And I think that does
explain the low standing of Congress in public
opinion surveys. I think it does account for
a lot of the dissatisfaction that people have with
the political system in Washington, D.C. And I’ve made the
observation many times that there are no Republicans in
Congress who are currently serving there who are forced
to serve in Congress. They ran for these jobs. And the American people
elected them to these jobs with the expectation that
they were actually going to do something. And we have seen that
Republicans in Congress have not done much, and all too
often they have refused to do their job. And when it comes to the
budget and a looming deadline at the end of this
month, hopefully they’ll step up to the plate
and get it done. Andrew. The Press: A quick question
on the meeting next weekend with Aung San Suu Kyi. Ben, do you think there’s
anything you can do to help her government establish
itself in terms of — Mr. Rhodes: I’m sorry,
who did you say? Suu Kyi, okay. The Press: Is there anything
you can do to help her government improve their
fiscal situation or — in terms of sanctions or
with the (inaudible)? Mr. Rhodes: Well, first of
all, she’ll be visiting Washington and meeting with
the President on September 14th in her capacity
as State Counselor. Since the NLD-led government
took office, we have looked precisely at this question
of what we can do to help. Some of that is related to
providing direct assistance, and we’ve significantly
increased the assistance through USAID, much of which
is in the space related to capacity-building, so that
they’re better able to attract investment and
create the type of legal frameworks that can grow
their economy, in addition to dealing with specific
issues like conflict resolution and
trafficking. I think the biggest thing,
though, we can do is help their economy grow by
opening up greater trade between Myanmar and the
United States and other countries around
the world. Again, some of that involves
us working with them so that they’re strengthening the
environment for investment and trade. Some of that involves
sanctions relief, and we’ve taken steps to relax the
sanctions and to authorize greater activity. It’s something that we
continue to look at, because the purpose of the sanctions
regime was to support a democratic transition, and
some of the sanctions even were tied to the treatment
of Suu Kyi specifically. We, of course, continue to
have concerns about a range of issues inside of Myanmar,
but we do want to make sure that there’s a
democratic dividend. I got a question before
about human rights. One of the best things that
we can do to support human rights is to make sure that
when there are transitions to democracy,
that they succeed. And so given that Aung San
Suu Kyi and the NLD are now elected leaders in Myanmar,
we need to make sure that they are showing a
dividend for their people. And so we’ll be exploring
ways that we can help them deal with their economy,
whether that’s through sanctions relief, whether
that’s through working with her to promote greater
commercial ties with the United States. That’s going to be, I think,
a focal point of her visit to Washington. At the same time, she has a
range of other challenges that she’s dealing with,
whether it relates to the peace process with the
ethnic groups or the situation in Rakhine State. On both those issues, she’s
put forward ambitious plans recently — in the peace
process, convening a conference with all of the
different ethnic groups; in Rakhine State, taking some
initial steps to have a citizenship verification
process and have a commission that can oversee
that in Rakhine; but also, I think importantly, inviting
international participation through Kofi
Annan’s auspices. So she’s doing a lot of
things to try to address the toughest issues inside the
country, and we want to make sure she can succeed. And so that’s one of the
things that we’ll be most focused on when she
comes to Washington. I’m sure, again, given
Congress’s role in supporting her and our Burma
policy over the years, we’ll be consulting with them, as
well — and we have been — leading up to her visit. And that will continue when
we get back to Washington. The Press: (Inaudible) as in
Burma, you would welcome a transition to
the (inaudible)? Mr. Rhodes: Well, the key
point I’d make here is that that transition was led
by the people of Myanmar. That was not imposed
by the United States. We spoke out for
what we believed in. We imposed sanctions when
we saw things that were contrary to our values
or international law. But ultimately it took the
courage of people like Aung San Suu Kyi and countless
political prisoners who are now serving in parliament,
over many years, to bring about a democratic
transition. It also took a decision by
the previous government to allow for an opening and
to allow for elections. Now, we were very much
engaged in that process, pressuring them for many
years, and then, beginning in 2011 really, accelerating
our engagement on behalf of things like release of
political prisoners, democratic elections. So we played a role in
supporting that transition. But, ultimately, it was the
people of Myanmar themselves who claimed democratic
gains — that are not yet complete. There is still 25 percent of
the parliament reserved for the military. But I think a key point in
our foreign policy has been that we gain more in
promoting our interests and our values by engaging
countries; that just sitting back and criticizing
countries has a limit in terms of what
it can achieve. So when you look at a
Myanmar, when you look at a Cuba, when you look at a
Vietnam, and when you look at a Laos, these are all
countries with whom we have very different
relationships. The common thread is we have
very difficult histories. But we believe that we’re
going to be more effective in building partnerships and
advancing our interests and improving the livelihoods of
people in these countries, and ultimately in supporting
things we believe through engagement. We are going to make clear
in that process that we are not going to impose, again,
a political system, or impose — insist
upon regime change. Those are decisions that
should be left to the people of these countries. The Press: A
couple questions. Just to be clear, the
Philippine government I believe suggested that
there would be some sort of rescheduling of
this meeting. I know you mentioned that
they’ll probably have a chance, Obama and Duterte,
to chat along the sidelines. But is there any date set
for them to actually meet before President Obama
leaves office, perhaps during UNGA? That’s one. And then on Syria, broadly
speaking, what can the U.S. realistically do, not
just on a Cessation of Hostilities, but more
broadly to pressure Russia to stop propping up
the Assad regime? What are the carrots and the
sticks, if you look at it that way? And then lastly, on Turkey,
how concerned are you that any failure, if the U.S. doesn’t ultimately extradite
Fethullah Gulen — how concerned are you that that
could irreparably harm the relationship with Turkey? Mr. Rhodes: I think, look,
it’s an irritant on our relationship, there’s
no question about that. The fact of the matter is,
though, we have a system in which the President could
not simply choose to return Gulen. I do think it’s important
that we show that we take Turkey’s concerns seriously,
and that’s why the Department of Justice has
devoted a lot of resources to reviewing Turkish
evidence and sitting down with their Turkish
counterparts. And I think that the
government of Turkey sees that we’re taking
this seriously. We’re not ignoring their
concerns, we’re just saying you have to meet
a legal threshold. And so we’ll continue to
have those discussions. I do think that President
Obama and President Erdogan had a positive meeting, and
the tone of the comments after the meeting reflected
that, as well as the progress that we’re
seeing in Syria. With respect to Russia, I
think the principal point that we’ve always made to
the Russians is, when you talk about incentives: They
are not going to be able to achieve their own objectives
unless they engage in the type of process that
we’re negotiating. There is not a military
solution to pacify that entire country. There is not a circumstance
in which they continue to support a regime that has
been bombarding its own people that doesn’t lead
to greater international isolation of not just the
Assad regime, but ultimately Russia — because those
actions are opposed by many of the other countries
in the region. Russia would benefit from
there being a political resolution inside of Syria
that can end the violence. And the only way in which
you are going to achieve that is if there is a
moderate opposition that is able to come to the table. At the same time, Russia
wants — it says — to go after al Qaeda and ISIL. Well, the best way to do
that is to go after al Qaeda and ISIL, and not after
opposition that is more moderate in orientation and
that would be interested in coming into a
political resolution. Ultimately, they’ll have
to make the determination. And I think we’ll learn over
the course of the coming discussions whether or not
they indeed are serious about narrowing a focus
to al Qaeda and ISIL. That’s a proposition that’s
being tested in those discussions. On the Philippines, again, I
think they’ll see each other at the summit, as the
President will see leaders over the course of
tomorrow’s dinner and the meetings the following day. We do not have a formal
bilateral meeting scheduled. We don’t anticipate a
formal bilateral meeting. I do think it’s the case
that — we’re not indicating that we’ll never speak
to the President of the Philippines, we just don’t
think that this is the right environment after the
series of comments. So I don’t have any
scheduling updates. I think in terms of the
coming days we’ll see him as a part of the
summit meetings. The Press: Is there
situation in which THAAD doesn’t get deployed? For example, if you’re more
effective enforcing — if China is more effective
enforcing sanctions? Mr. Rhodes: Sanctions
enforcement, no, would not lead to a reconsideration
of THAAD. I think the two leaders
were very clear today that they’re both committed to
the deployment of the THAD system; that it’s entirely
necessary, given the threats emanating from North Korea. That’s something that
President Obama said to President Xi as well. The fact of the matter is
we’ve also made the case to the Chinese that this is not
a system directed at them; that this is directed at a
threat from North Korea so that they should not
have concerns about the deployment of the system. In terms of what could lead
us to change our minds, North Korea could abandon
its ballistic missile program and
nuclear programs. The reason we’re deploying
THAAD is because of the provocations from North
Korea and the constant testing of ballistic
missiles and the nuclear tests as well. So again, this is a
defensive system that is a response to North
Korean threats. A change of behavior from
North Korea is the thing that could change that
calculus, but we have not yet seen any indication,
given that they just recently launched another
ballistic missile. This is a threat to us, it’s
a threat to the Republic of Korea, it’s a
threat to Japan. I would add that the one
other thing that President Obama and President
Park spoke about is the importance of continued
trilateral cooperation between our three countries. And in that regard, we’ve
welcomed the progress and the leadership shown by
President Park and Prime Minister Abe as well. Mr. Earnest: Anybody else? Yes, ma’am, I’ll give
you the last one. The Press: Thank
you very much. So the President is —
wanted to have the bilateral meeting with Prime
Minister Abe? And also my question is
about the state of new — the review of the nuclear
— of the administration. So what do you want to
accomplish at the next UNGA about — in terms of the
state — and also, how much does the President weigh
in — of a nuclear weapon? Mr. Rhodes: So I would
expect that the President will have an opportunity to
have a meeting with Prime Minister Abe. So we’re — I think we’re
trying to find the time for that discussion. I think given the recent
missile launch and our continued efforts to
coordinate with Japan on a host of issues, that they’ll
want to find a time for a discussion. They spoke I think a number
of times at the G20 meeting, so it may not have to be a
lengthy meeting, but I do think that they’ll sit down
and want to have a bilateral conversation. With respect to our nuclear
policies, I think President Obama has consistently said
that we want to look for ways to strengthen
international norms against the use of nuclear weapons,
and that we want to find ways to lead by
example as well. As it relates to testing, we
are committed to CTBT, the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty. We are not able to achieve
ratification through the Senate, even though that’s
something we’ll continue to do because we think Senate
ratification would be critically important. At the same time, we do want
to see whether we can find ways for there to be
international expressions of support for the norm
against testing. I think that’s all the more
important given what we’re talking about, which is
North Korea having conducted repeated nuclear tests in
violation of international law. In that environment, why
would you not want to work at the U.N., with other
countries to have a strong statement that reinforces
and strengthens a fundamental international
norm against testing nuclear weapons? So those are conversations
that we’re having diplomatically. Beyond that, I think we
regularly look at a range of different options as it
relates to our own nuclear arsenal. Some of those involve how
we are addressing our own stockpile — we’ve had arms
control negotiations with Russia that have stalled. So we continue to look at
ways in which we can lead by example, and the President
said he was going to do that in Hiroshima. However, what should be very
clear is that the security guarantees that we have to
our allies are ironclad. And, in fact, today, in the
meeting with President Park, you heard President Obama
indicate once again that we embrace the concept of
extended deterrence as it relates to the
Republic of Korea. So we’ve always made clear
— and Japan, Republic of Korea will always have the
commitment of our full arsenal as it relates
to their defense. I think it’s certainly —
well, I wouldn’t go beyond that. There are no decisions
that are pending for the President. I think there’s been more
speculation, frankly, publicly about this than
should be the case, given that it’s not as if the
President is engaged in reviewing any
imminent decisions. And were we to look
at issues related to declaratory policy, we would
obviously consult with our allies. But the fact of the matter
is our security guarantees are rock solid and they
will continue to be. Mr. Earnest: Have a good
evening, everybody.

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