Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 8/26/2015

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:51 P.M. EDT

MR. EARNEST:  Good afternoon, everybody.  I appreciate you accommodating the change in the time to the briefing today.  We wanted to make sure that all of you had the opportunity to see the President welcome the WNBA champions, Phoenix Mercury, to the White House.  

But now that we are all assembled, let’s get started.  Nancy, do you want to start us off?

Q    Yeah, thanks.  What was the President’s reaction to the Roanoke shooting?

MR. EARNEST:  I did not have the opportunity to speak to the President about the tragic shooting that occurred earlier today in Virginia.  Obviously the thoughts and prayers of everybody here at the White House are with the families of those who were injured or killed in that terrible incident.  The precise details of that incident continue to be under investigation.  

But as you’ve heard me say in the past, this is another example of gun violence that is becoming all too common in communities large and small, all across the United States.  And while there is no piece of legislation that will end all violence in this country, there are some common-sense things that only Congress can do that we know would have a tangible impact in reducing gun violence in this country.  And Congress could take those steps in a way that would not infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.  And the President has long advocated Congress taking those steps, and the President continues to believe that they should do so.

Q    Can you say what role federal officials will have in the investigation?

MR. EARNEST:  I do know that officials from the FBI and the ATF were involved in responding and tracking down the individual who is believed to have been responsible for this violence.  And I would anticipate that federal officials will be working to support state officials who will conduct the investigation.

Q    Also, do you have any comment on the signing of the peace agreement in South Sudan, and what the prospects are for lasting peace there?

MR. EARNEST:  This is something that was just reported within the last few hours.  What I would say is that the administration believes that President Kiir made the right decision to sign the peace agreement today.  But we should be just as clear that the United States and the international community does not recognize any reservations or addendums to that document.  And President Kiir and the government of South Sudan should abide by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development agreement that was signed today, and they should work toward ending the conflict and rebuilding the country.

Nancy, you’ll recall that the President had the opportunity to meet with leaders of other countries in the region in discussing trying to broker some peace in South Sudan.  So this is an issue that the President has not just been following but been actively engaged in.  And you heard him note that South Sudan is a country that has been wracked by terrible violence in recent years, and the United States and other countries in the region have been trying to act in coordinated fashion to broker some peace there.  So this is something that we’re going to continue to monitor as the situation moves forward.

Roberta.

Q    Has the White House raised its sights on the Iran vote?  And is the White House now trying to get enough votes to — actively trying to get enough votes to block a motion of disapproval?

MR. EARNEST:  Roberta, what our strategy is focused on right now is building as much support as possible in both the House and the Senate for the agreement.  As I’ve noted before, the appropriate congressional role here, as described and codified by Congress, is not to sign off on the agreement, but Congress does have a role in evaluating the agreement.  And essentially, the role that Congress would play at this point is spoiler.  Congress does have the capacity to kill this agreement.  

This is an international agreement between the United States and several other countries and Iran.  And our legislative efforts are focused on building enough support for the agreement to prevent Congress from spoiling, and that’s what we will continue to do.  That effort has included a variety of lobbying efforts.  This has included presidential phone calls.  Other senior members of the President’s national security team have reached out to members of Congress and their staff members to advocate for the agreement.  And you’ll note that later this afternoon the President will conduct a handful of interviews with television anchors from across the country, and this will be among the issues that will be up for discussion.  And it’s the President’s view and it’s the view of his team that the more that we elevate this discussion and the more that the American people have the opportunity to hear the arguments in favor of this agreement, the more likely they are to support it.  And that’s the reason that the President will do those interviews today.  It’s part of our ongoing effort to build as much support for the agreement in Congress as possible.

Q    So does the White House feel that it’s possible — feasible at all to get 41 votes of support in the Senate?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the last I saw, I think that there are 26 or 27 senators who support the agreement.  There are only two Democrats that have come out in opposition to it.  That’s an indication that we’ve got a lot of momentum built up in terms of building support for this agreement.  But what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get as many members of the Senate as possible — and as many members of the House as possible — to back the agreement.

I would note that there was a letter that was signed by about 150 House members prior to the completion of the comprehensive agreement back in July indicating their support for an agreement that was consistent with the aims that the President had identified for a final agreement.  And the essence of the final comprehensive agreement does fulfill that criteria, and so we are optimistic that we will be able to earn the support of those who sign that letter — we’re still hard at work in that effort.  But what’s notable is that there are several Democrats in the House of Representatives who declined to sign that letter, but yet have announced their support for the final agreement.

So there are several indications that we are succeeding in our efforts to build sufficient support for the agreement in the Congress, but we certainly want to collect as many votes as possible.  

Q &

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How Europe is Making the Refugee Crisis Even Worse

As Greece continues to capture headlines over the most recent economic bailout and its potential to still derail the Eurozone, another crisis is unfolding in the country. As thousands of refugees pour into Greece in search of the safety of the EU, their numbers and the inability of Greece to cope is setting off a chain reaction that could result in a far bigger political crisis down the line.

The difficulty in handling the refugee crisis is evident in the recent news from the Greek island of Kos. A popular tourist destination near the Turkish coast, in recent months Kos has become the EU landing site for thousands of refugees, mainly Syrians fleeing that country’s ongoing civil war but also people escaping human rights abuses in Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But as refugees come in search of a new life within the EU, what they are finding instead is a Greek government already struggling to provide for its own citizens and completely unable to cope with the needs of new arrivals.

That struggle is demonstrated in stark relief as local officials herded thousands of refugees into the local stadium, leaving them without food or water. Those with more resources took over abandoned hotels as they waited for their paperwork to be processed. Even as those on the island struggle to get by, more refugees arrive every day believing they finally have reached the promise land of the EU only to find little support and even less desire to assist them.

A Widening Crisis

While the recent stories from Kos highlight the desperate measures many are taking to reach the EU and the difficulty the Greek government is having in managing their numbers, the crisis extends far beyond the island. Earlier this month UNHCR reported that Greece took in more migrants in the past month than it accepted in all of 2014. Year to date, Greece has seen a 750 per cent increase in the number of refugees reaching its shore from the Mediterranean compared to last year. Yet despite the dramatic increase of migrants, Greek financial woes and an overstretched international aid systems means the response is falling far short of what is needed.

Because of austerity measures and the Euro crisis – Greece is now ranked as the 7th poorest state per capita in the EU – Greece in particular is in a bad spot to handle the massive refugee flows reaching the country. Making the situation worse is the lack of political will within the EU to deal with the crisis in a comprehensive way.

Under the current Dublin Regulation that controls how EU states handle asylum requests and irregular arrivals of refugees, it is generally the responsibility of the state a person first enters to process their claim. The outcome is border states, particularly those on the central and eastern Mediterranean such as Italy and Greece, face the bulk of the burden of the crisis. With few others EU states willing to share that burden, frustration is growing as border states struggle under the weight of refugee arrivals.

“The EU is having to deal with large numbers of people arriving in an irregular manner by sea and the logistical aspects of dealing with this are inherently difficult and dangerous,” Niels Frenzen, clinical professor of law at the University of Southern California, told UN Dispatch by email. “Syria is the largest refugee crisis in post-WW II era.  Millions of people are on the move as a result. So even if the EU and other neighboring countries had political consensus, they would be under strain because of the historic numbers.”

Europe, Unhelpful and Divided

The fact that political consensus is lacking only makes the problem worse.

Rather than come up with a unified approach to handling the refugee crisis, most European states are shifting blame and taking national approaches to block refugees from further entering the EU from Italy and Greece. This includes France blocking asylum seekers from entering the country from the Italian border, Hungary building a fence along its border with Serbia, and most recently, Macedonia attempting to close its border with Greece as riot police beat back refugees attempting to cross the border. These measures do little to address the underlying issue and instead create a whole new list of problems as asylum seekers desperately try to make it north.

“The biggest issue is political,” noted Frenzen. “No EU country wants to accept more people.  And no country wants to engage in burden sharing in regard to people arriving in Italy and Greece.  Migrants and asylum seekers are already reaching Germany, Sweden, UK and other countries by other means – overstaying visas, irregular movements – and there is no desire to accept more people who are arriving in EU by sea.”

Whether the EU likes it or not, these refugees will continue to come and they have rights that European countries are obligated to respect and uphold. In the meantime, the more Europe continues to stall in finding a unified response to the crisis, the more pressure it will place on states like Greece that have little room to handle yet another crisis. Doing so increases the likelihood that the next political crisis will occur much closer to home, and may in fact be within the EU’s own borders.

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