POLITICS: PennAve

This is why the White House press briefing is so hard to watch

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Immigration,Press Secretary,Russia,PennAve,Jay Carney,Josh Earnest,Law,Gaza

Josh Earnest hasn't been on the job as White House press secretary for long. But he's already mastered the art of creatively not answering reporters' questions.

On topics ranging from the border crisis to additional sanctions against Russia and the violence in Gaza, Earnest on Tuesday either didn't know the answer, passed the question along to another agency or simply chose not to give a response.

However, unlike his predecessor, Jay Carney, Earnest doesn't use the phrase “I appreciate the question.”

In fairness, it’s best for Earnest to not speculate if he doesn't know an answer. Still, here is a sampling how he handled inconvenient questions on Tuesday.

Q: Does treating Central American individuals, minors who cross the border, the same way that Mexican border-crossers are treated now … is that adequate due process for a Central American minor, for which that process does not exist?

Earnest: I'm not in a position to get — to shed a whole lot of more light on the details here. We've been pretty specific about the principles that are at stake.

Q: And have you had an opportunity since yesterday to review the (John) Cornyn-(Henry) Cuellar proposal?

Earnest: We have not. It's my understanding that bill has not yet been filed.

Q: Do you expect to see further flights (carrying unaccompanied minors back to their home countries) like this coming up, and will any of them have unaccompanied minors without their family units that were characteristic of yesterday's flight?

Earnest: For those kinds of questions -- because these flights are carried out by [the Department of Homeland Security] through their law enforcement capacity -- I would encourage you to direct your questions along those lines to them.

Q: All right. And one separate issue. Can you discuss the administration's efforts right now to encourage European partners to go further on sanctions with the -- against Russia with regard to Ukraine?

Earnest: I'm not into specific — I'm not in a position to read you in on specific meetings, but over the last several weeks you have seen readout calls between — or the readouts of calls between the president of the United States and a number of our allies from Western Europe.

Q: Back on immigration. These families that were flown from Artesia back to Central America, were they — did they ever leave American — the supervision or detention of American authorities, and were they given an opportunity to make their case that they may or may not deserve asylum?

Earnest: I would encourage you to ask these specific questions about these individual cases to DHS. I'm not in a position to talk about individual cases from here.

Q: You're assuming that they didn't receive their — a fair hearing on whatever.

Earnest: Well, what I'm suggesting is that for detailed questions about the handling of individual cases, you should check with DHS.

Q: The immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas was detained at the McAllen, Texas, airport. He's been in this country for a long time. Is he going to be deported?

Earnest: Well, Jim, as I mentioned to Mike in response to his questions a little bit earlier, I'm not in a position to talk about individual enforcement cases from the podium, so —

Q: Any reaction to his detention?

Earnest: No, no reaction to his detention. Again, I'd encourage you to either check with [Customs and Border Patrol] or DHS on this.

Q: Is it is fair to say, on the question of sanctions and Russia, that through the conversations the United States government and its European allies are closer than they've ever been to imposing this next level?

Earnest: Now it would be — as you won't be surprised to hear me say, it wouldn't be particularly strategic for us to announce in advance possible timing or scope of a specific sanctions regime that's being contemplated. So I won't get into that at this point.

Q: Back to the supposed six-hour ceasefire, Hamas says they rejected it because they weren't consulted by Egypt. So is there any thinking or any encouragement by the U.S. to have Egypt revive that plan, maybe tweak it a bit, so Hamas might have a different answer?

Earnest: I'm not in a position to characterize the conversations that may or may not have taken place between the Egyptians and Hamas. But it is the — it is the firm belief of the administration that putting an end to this violence and putting in place a cease fire is in the best interests of people on both sides of that border.

Q: It sounds like you're making the case for an extension [of nuclear talks with Iran]. You're saying on one hand the Iranians are engaged in serious talks about this and on the other hand, serious gaps remain.

Earnest: Well, there are a couple of important reasons why I wouldn't be in a position to say that from here. The first is, I haven't been the one that's been engaged in these conversations. So I would be curious for somebody standing at a podium in Washington to decide the outcome of negotiations that are taking place in Vienna. The second is, the president ultimately is going to determine what he believes is in the best interests of American national security.

Q: Do you believe, does the administration believe the Israel -- the Israelis have exhibited sufficient concern for civilians in Gaza?

Earnest: Well, I'm not in the position to Monday-morning-quarterback the steps that are taken by the Israeli government to provide for the security and self-defense of their country. But what I will say is something that I have said many times and the president has said many times, which is that we are very concerned about the well-being of civilians in that region on both sides of the border.

Q: Senator [Bob] Menendez, the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, says that the Cornyn-Cuellar Humane Act is inhumane. What is humane in the law, as it exists?

Earnest: I have not had an opportunity to review the piece of legislation that apparently Senator Menendez has had the opportunity to read through. So I'm going to reserve judgment till we've had a chance to review it, and you know, if we get a chance tomorrow to review that legislation, then maybe I can come back with a better answer then.

Q: I wanted to ask about the situation of — last week a Mexican court determined that Sergeant [Andrew] Tahmooressi would remain there. Will the president get involved?

Earnest: That's right. The response is still pending. And so I'm going to reserve judgment until we're ready to respond to that specific petition.

Q: Congressman Frank Pallone sent a letter, along with 34 members of Congress, urging President Obama not to include an exemption for religious organizations in that planned executive order barring anti-LGBT discrimination against federal contractors. Any reaction to that?

Earnest: I haven't seen the letter, so I'd hesitate to react to it.

Q: In other news, over the weekend, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the administration would file a brief in support of litigation seeking marriage equality once that returns to the Supreme Court. Do you anticipate the president will weigh in on the content in that brief?

Earnest: I wouldn't speculate on that at this point, but you know, once a case is filed at the Supreme Court and there is an opportunity for the Department of Justice to file a brief, I may or may not be in a position to give you greater insight into the president's involvement in that filing. All right?

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