WH Press Secy. Josh Earnest’s First Sunday Interview
Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources hosted by Brian Stelter, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke to Stelter in his first Sunday television interview as a CNN EXCLUSIVE about President Obama’s decision to not visit the border. Additionally, Earnest also discussed his experience as the new White House Press Secretary at this crucial time in the Obama presidency.
On the topic of the media’s focus on President Obama not visiting the border during his trip to Texas, Earnest explains that there are other things that the President has done to address the immigration issue, “The President has asked for additional resources from Congress to make sure we have the capacities to deal with the problem. Prior to that, the President made some unilateral decisions about moving resources from the interior of the country to the border that could be leveraged to try to address the need there…those are all policy-based solutions to a difficult problem. Those don’t lend themself to sexy pictures.”
A transcript and video from the interview is available after the jump.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest talks to Brian Stelter about what he’s learned from his predecessors.
BRIAN STELTER, HOST: Josh, thanks for joining me.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Nice to have you, Brian.
STELTER: Tell me if (INAUDIBLE) to change it up for you (INAUDIBLE) reporters (INAUDIBLE).
EARNEST: It’s nice to be (INAUDIBLE) as opposed to (INAUDIBLE).
STELTER: I guess it is, isn’t it?
Let’s start with the big story of the week, the humanitarian crisis on the border. What we heard all week was a drumbeat about photo-ops, about symbols. You know, so much of the presidency is symbols.
STELTER: So why not have the president go to the border, even if that’s just a symbol?
EARNEST: Sure. Well, it’s a good question, Brian, and it’s important for people to understand exactly what the president’s priority is. In this situation, the president’s priority was on solving the problem. You know, we’ve talked through all — you know, the range of things the president has done to try to address this urgent humanitarian situation on the border.
The president has asked for additional resources from Congress to make sure we have the capacities to deal with the problem. Prior to that, the president made some unilateral decisions about moving resources from the interior of the country to the border that could be leveraged to try to address the need there.
Essentially, that’s for group — Congress to provide greater authority to the secretary of Homeland Security for (INAUDIBLE) implement the law. And we’ve (INAUDIBLE) greater authority to crack down on the trafficking groups that are responsible for so much of this situation that we’re seeing there.
Those are all, uh, policy-based solutions to a difficult problem. Those don’t lend themself to sexy pictures.
STELTER: The president does think a lot about photo-ops, I would think, though. He’s been traveling across the country to spend time with the regular people…
STELTER: — and those (INAUDIBLE) photo-ops…
STELTER: — (INAUDIBLE).
EARNEST: Well, look, any time that the president and the symbol of the presidency goes somewhere, it does send a really important message.
STELTER: When you turn on the TV and hear all this chatters about photo-ops, do you think it’s a made up media issue, that the press is focusing on the wrong thing, a small thing, instead of a big thing?
EARNEST: Well, you know, particularly in this job, I really hesitate to sort of be media-critic-in-chief. But…
EARNEST: — but there’s — there’s a responsibility for the news media to try to make sense of a really complicated, fast-moving dynamic environment. And that’s particularly true when you’re talking about a story like this.
Um, look, I think the president made exactly the right decision. He’s focused on results. And sometimes this media environment doesn’t reward somebody who’s willing to absorb a little criticism and not pay attention to the optics, uh, or pay less attention to the optics, at least…
STELTER: — there’s some attention to the optics.
EARNEST: There’s always — there’s always some attention to the optics. And, look, particularly a news organization like CNN, television is a visual medium. Of course, your stock in trade is going to be the optics. So I understand that there’s — there is a value in paying attention to that.
But the responsibility, though, for the leaders of this country is to understand how to use those optics to solve problems. And I think what we’re seeing from the other side, at least when it relates to this issue, is they’re using photo-ops to avoid having to deal with the problem.
STELTER: You talk about tough issues. (INAUDIBLE) there are so many of them right now, it feels like we’re at one of the lowest moments in the Obama presidency.
Do you feel that?
EARNEST: I don’t feel that at all, actually. There is no doubt that we’re dealing with some tough problems (INAUDIBLE)…
STELTER: One person, when I asked for questions from Twitter for this interview…
STELTER: — one person just asked, “What were you thinking in taking on this job at this moment?”
EARNEST: Yes. Yes. Look, it is — it’s, um, it — it’s a real interesting time to take on this job. A…
STELTER: What were you thinking?
EARNEST: Uh, I was thinking about what a tremendous opportunity it would be, uh, to stand up at that podium on a daily basis and fight for something that I really believe in, and that is a president who has the right priorities for this country. He’s somebody who believes passionately in, uh, the American government being a force for good in the world. But he also believes passionately in using the influence he has in Washington, DC to fight for middle class families like the one I grew up in.
STELTER: And it’s quite a fight.
So how many days have you stood up there and dreaded having to do it so far?
EARNEST: Uh, none so far. Each time I’ve looked forward to the opportunity. It doesn’t mean that there haven’t been tough questions. And it doesn’t mean there haven’t been questions I’ve been worried about.
Uh, I think each day that I walked up there there have been questions that I’ve been worried about.
But again, it — it is a — it — it is a really interesting symbol of our democracy for somebody who works here at the White House for the president of the United States to walk out here every single day that the president is in town, uh, and say, ask me whatever question you’ve got, let me know what — what can I do to…
STELTER: — should we keep televising this?
There’s been some talk about whether this should be televised or not.
EARNEST: Yes. If it — if you guys think that it’s good for your ratings, you should do it. If you decide at some point that it’s not, then you shouldn’t. It — it’s not for me to judge.
I’m — I — I think that adding a television camera definitely changes the dynamic. But I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be in a position to say what you, you know, what you can and can’t film.
STELTER: I remember your first briefing in June was described as testy. And I thought, look, that’s what you’re supposed to be.
STELTER: But there’s an argument to be made that it’s too adversarial now.
STELTER: Do you ever feel that way?
EARNEST: Yes. Well…
STELTER: Like it’s a battle…
STELTER: — not an exchange of information.
EARNEST: Right. Well, I will say that there is built-in tension in the relationship, right?
If there’s ever a day when the White House press corps sits back and says, you know, we’re getting all the information that we need from the White House Press Office, then everybody in the White House Press Corps would not be doing their jobs, right. There’s a — there’s going to be that built-in tension.
The question is, for me, is does that tension help you get answers?
Does it help people get a better understanding into what’s happening here at the White House?
Or does it get in the way?
Sometimes I do think it gets in the way, that there’s a — a premium that’s placed on sort of a combative exchange as opposed to somebody who’s asking probing questions that actually elicit greater insight into what the president is thinking.
STELTER: Some would say that — that it may be more adversarial because you all are withholding more than ever.
STELTER: — have you seen this letter this week from the — (INAUDIBLE) journal?
EARNEST: I did see that.
STELTER: There’s some 40 press groups…
STELTER: — and they’re all saying that the president should be more transparent.
EARNEST: Um-hmm. Well, look, I think the president’s record of transparency stands up to any of the record, uh, of his predecessors.
STELTER: But you did see the ad and you did hear it from the groups?
EARNEST: I did. I did. And…
STELTER: Do you think they have legitimate concerns?
EARNEST: Well, again, they’re all journalists. And if the day that they stopped — the day that they sort of sit back and say, you know, we don’t need to write a letter, the White House is telling us everything that they’re supposed to, is the day that they’re no longer doing their jobs. So…
STELTER: Well, they said that these — you know, many federal agencies all across the government are imposing terrible restrictions on freedom of the press. And I wonder if there’s anything you can do in your new role to stop that, to improve the flow of information.
EARNEST: Um-hmm. Well, I definitely am committed. And I have a responsibility in this job to try to, uh, help the president live up to his commitment to be the most transparent president in history. And if you look at some of the steps that we’ve already taken…
STELTER: I’m surprised you still say that line, the most transparent president in history.
STELTER: He has been criticized so many times for saying that…
STELTER: — given the prosecutions of whistleblowers and other steps.
STELTER: You all still stick by that line?
EARNEST: Absolutely. Absolutely. But if you look at the president’s record of releasing the wage records once a quarter, that that’s something the previous administration, they went to the Supreme Court to prevent that information from being released. This administration releases it voluntarily on the Internet on a quarterly basis.
Reporters for years clamored to get access to fundraisers the president hosted or attended that were hosted in private homes. Reporters now have access to those when this president goes to a private home. He is at a private home…
STELTER: This week.
EARNEST: — (INAUDIBLE). Yes. So there are a number of steps that we’ve taken to give people greater insight into what’s happening at the White House.
STELTER: I noticed this week, the between two ferns interview was nominated for an Emmy.
STELTER: So what other sorts of outlets might we see the president try?
EARNEST: Well, I think the president said that it’s an honor just being nominated.
EARNEST: We certainly have our fingers crossed for that presentation. It’s a — that was a tremendous opportunity that the president had to really deliver a message in a unique form.
STELTER: Oh, and even though it was criticized, there’s evidence that it worked for his purposes.
STELTER: It got more traffic to the ObamaCare Web site.
EARNEST: Right. I — I think it — it was — it — it got as much traffic to the ObamaCare Web site as any other online project that we were engaged in. So it was a really powerful thing (INAUDIBLE)…
STELTER: So where else might we see him go?
EARNEST: The fact is, we’re always looking for new ideas. Some of them can be online. But maybe there’s a great print ad — print idea out there that we haven’t come up with yet.
But we’re going to — we’re going to be looking for, over the course of the next two and a half years, a lot of opportunity to really push the envelope and put the president in some unique formats where he can connect with the people in a different way.
STELTER: Let’s talk about you and your media habits.
STELTER: What newspapers do you read every day?
EARNEST: Yes. I, uh, well, I — I benefit from two things. One is an iPad, which I think has really transformed the way a lot of people consume print product, right. It’s something that can be regularly updated. So I love, you know, some of the apps are great.
STELTER: “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post?”
STELTER: “The Wall Street Journal?”
EARNEST: The app has a really good app that I use, too, at the risk of plugging them. But the other thing that I benefit from is there is — we have an internal service here at the White House where there is a staffer who starts sending e-mails before 7:00 a.m. every morning with a — with an individual news clip that’s relevant to the news of the day.
And so I’ve benefitted a lot from just being able to open up my inbox and read through the clips that are being sent around.
STELTER: How about television?
When you turn on the TV, what network do you go to first?
EARNEST: Um-hmm. Well, first is probably ESPN. But if it’s (INAUDIBLE)…
STELTER: It’s an easy answer.
EARNEST: That is an easy answer. If it’s for work, I definitely spend some time on CNN. I’ve found them to be a pretty good barometer of what a lot of people — what a lot of people in this room are going to be interested in on a daily basis.
STELTER: You must turn on Fox and MSNBC, as well?
EARNEST: Of course. It’s — it’s impor — it’s useful to have some insight into what the other cables are doing. There actually is a function on our television, on our internal television network, where we can watch four stations at the same time.
And so we can put — pull up (INAUDIBLE)…
STELTER: Do the broadcast networks still matter?
EARNEST: Absolutely, they do, in a different way than they used do. But they still have tremendous audience. And there are very serious people that work for those news organizations.
STELTER: For sure. We’re sitting in two of their seats.
EARNEST: That’s right.
STELTER: And what about the Web?
Are there any particular Web sites that are most important for you…
STELTER: — in terms of the news?
EARNEST: Yes. Well, I think, you know, Politico has certainly done a lot to really transform the way that the news is reported here in Washington. And that’s — that is a — an outlet that I know a lot of reporters go to for news and it’s certainly one that — that I look forward to. There are — in some ways, they style themselves as the ESPN of politics.
STELTER: Even though we think of this as being so adversarial, you’re describing a way you can help the press.
EARNEST: You know, well, look, I — there’s — my first responsibility is to be an advocate for the president. There’s no doubt about that.
But I’m serving the president really well if I’m doing a good job of serving the press corps. Sometimes that means helping them with their stories. Sometimes that means being an advocate for them internally at the White House, to get them access to — to particular things.
So it’s a — it’s a really unique role here.
The other thing that I really like about the White House is that, you know, through that door over there, reporters have the opportunity to wander through the press offices. They can show up unannounced. They don’t require an appointment.
STELTER: That’s something that I don’t think viewers realize.
EARNEST: Yes. That — right. You know, right behind that wall is where my old office used to be. And so that mean that I was often the — the stop of first resort for a lot of reporters, if they were desperate for a piece of information, if they were frustrated with the White House or if they just needed help on a story, I was really the first door that they came to. And that allowed me to develop a lot of really important, strong relationships in working with reporters.
And that’s something that you can’t really do over the phone or over e-mail. But by doing it face-to-face, you know, it has really been an interesting thing. It’s something that’s old-fashioned about the White House, but it’s something that serves the White House really well, even in a, you know, in a modern, 21st century, fast-moving leading environment.
STELTER: Thank you for taking my questions today.
EARNEST: Yes, thanks for coming, Brian.
STELTER: Thank you.
EARNEST: It’s nice to see you.
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