During the White House press briefing on Tuesday, Josh Earnest was asked about the legality of moving detainees from Guantanamo Bay into the United States and how that affects if it is possible to close the detention facility. He did not give a direct answer as to how the President would handle this obstacle in his proposed Gitmo plan.
ABC's Jon Karl referenced Loretta Lynch saying that it is illegal to bring detainees from Guantanamo Bay into the United States. He then said that if Congress does not change this law, then the prison cannot be closed. Earnest said he could not arrive at this conclusion.
After this, Earnest continually stressed that the Obama administration's main goal was congressional consideration of this plan.
Karl pressed further, saying, "You're not answering–it's a really simple question. If those barriers remain in place, can you still close that facility? Yes or no?"
Earnest dodged the question, saying their goal was to work with Congress on the issue, but that he would not speculate on whether Congress decides to do its job or on what President Obama's options were should Congress not cooperate.
JON KARL: But, Josh, given what you just said and given what Loretta Lynch said back in November when she said, ‘with respect to individuals being transferred to the United States, the law currently does not allow that, certainly it is the position of the department of justice that we would follow the law of the land in regard to that issue.’ So, given that it would be against the law to bring detainees at Guantanamo Bay to the United States, is it safe to say that if Congress does not act to change the law, then the prison at Guantanamo Bay will not be closed?
JOSH EARNEST: Well, John, I'm not ready to arrive at that conclusion. What we're focused on right now is congressional consideration of a plan that they specifically asked for so that we can have a discussion about the best path forward. So, it's, I think it's clear based on the fact that we've submitted this plan to Congress, right on the deadline and the time frame that they're asked for, that we're interested in a robust congressional consultation about this.
KARL: OK, but wait a minute. I'm just– I don't understand how you can say that you're not willing to rule that out. It's against the law. The law says–as I think you just said from the podium and, certainly, the Attorney General of the United States said in congressional testimony and, in fact, the Defense Secretary said just last month in congressional testimony– it is against the law to move those detainees to the United States. So, unless you're just going to let them all go, how could you close down that prison?
EARNEST: Well, first of all, nobody's talking about letting them all go. So, we put forward this very specific plan for how these individuals can either be safely transferred to other countries, how they can go through a criminal justice process or how they can be safely incarcerated here in the United States. That is a cost effective plan that is consistent with our national security interests–
KARL: Did you see the Congressional reaction to that plan?
EARNEST: Well, again, what I have seen is the plan that we have put forward actually lay out exactly why, what we are, what our argument is, reflects the facts. It reflects the facts that we can save money by doing it in the way that we've outlined, and it reflects the need to protect our national security. And, we're interested in this serious conversation with Congress about this. Look, there is this emerging trend in Congress that has worsened in just the last few weeks where Congress isn't even, isn't simply in a position of just saying no. Congress is actually refusing to engage. They're not just actively saying no, they're refusing to do the basic function of their job. They're refusing to consider the Gitmo plan, they're refusing to even consider the President's nominee to the Supreme Court, they're refusing to even take any sort of action on an AUMF, and they've refused to even convene a hearing to discuss the President's budget with the President's budget director, something that has happened every year for the last 40 years. So, I'm not really sure exactly sure what they're doing this Congress. They're doing just about everything except for fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities–
KARL: On this case, Congress actually has acted, and they've acted repeatedly, and they have acted to vote in a bipartisan fashion to say, no, they don't want detainees from Guantanamo Bay brought to the United States. So, I'm asking you if they don't act on this, if they don't approve this plan they've just outlined, can the president still close that detention facility before he leaves office–
EARNEST: John, Congress specifically–
KARL: Yes or no, can he still do it?
EARNEST: Congress specifically requested this on this time frame, and we have provided it to them. So, again, they're going to have to decide whether or not they actually want to take a look at this. What they have done thus far, as you point out, is put in place barriers that have prevented the administration from moving forward in this way. But, by putting those barriers in place, they have led us down the path of a policy that wastes taxpayer dollars and makes the United States of America more vulnerable to terrorist organizations.
KARL: You're not answering–it's a really simple question. If those barriers remain in place, can you still close that facility? Yes or no.
EARNEST: Well, the president himself has considered this question, and what he has said publicly is that our focus is going to be working with Congress. And working with Congress requires presenting them a specific plan on the time frame that they asked for. That's exactly what we've done, and we're now asking for Congress to give it fair consideration. and I'm not going to speculate at this point if congress refuses to do that.