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Barack Obama: Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
Barack
Barack Obama
Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs
May 22, 2009
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James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:23 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Thanks for coming out here a little early -- I've got a meeting with the President, a few of us do, a little after 1:00 p.m., so I'm going to try to practice some brevity today. We'll see if that works out.

Let me give you a quick run through of the week ahead. At 6:30 tomorrow morning the President will announce his Supreme Court nominee. (Laughter.) Gotcha! I'm done. That's obviously a joke, but I did love to see that -- if somebody can quickly text me the name of a chiropractor because at least four dozen necks snapped in one direction. (Laughter.)

Q: If it's quarter to seven it's --

MR. GIBBS: Don't worry, you'll get a text message. It's cool.

Let me give you the real week ahead. The President will travel to Camp David tomorrow morning at 11:00. He will return to the White House on Monday morning and participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington. That ceremony starts at about 10:30 a.m. on Monday. Later that morning -- I'm sorry, after the ceremony he will return to Camp David and be with his family and come back to the White House at 7:30 on Monday night.

On Tuesday the President will attend meetings here at the White House. In the afternoon, I think around 3:30 p.m., he departs for Las Vegas, where he will attend a fundraiser for Senator Harry Reid. On Wednesday -- say again?

Q: Why?

MR. GIBBS: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. (Laughter.)

On Wednesday the President will hold an event in Las Vegas before departing for Los Angeles. He will attend a DNC fundraiser in the evening there. The President departs Los Angeles Thursday morning and returns to Washington. He will meet Palestinian President Abbas at the White House that afternoon. And on Friday the current schedule has the President attending meetings at the White House.

One other quick announcement. On Saturday and Sunday between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. at the White House there will be some practice landings for Marine One. And I just want to announce that so that nobody thinks either the President has come back early or there is anything other than routine practice for Marine One pilots.

Q: Robert, what's that Nevada event, besides the fundraiser?

MR. GIBBS: The one on Wednesday? It will be on the economy.

Q: And then in L.A. there's nothing other than the DNC event?

MR. GIBBS: Just the DNC event. All right. Mr. Babington.

Q: Thank you. Robert, will the President be interviewing any candidates for the Supreme Court either in person or by phone from Camp David this weekend?

MR. GIBBS: I have not been given anything on that, so I don't know the answer to that.

Q: Do you know -- could you give us some idea of how -- he's going to be there quite a while and returning on Monday -- give us some idea of how he's using the weekend, particularly vis--vis the Supreme Court?

MR. GIBBS: I can talk to him and see. I think he's looking forward to spending Memorial Day weekend with his family. I don't doubt that he'll take some reading along with him, and work on his selection.

Q: Would it be possible, before the day is out, to get a --

MR. GIBBS: We'll get a little readout on that for you.

Q: I have one.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q: Government bond prices have been falling, and the dollar value is falling, as well. Are there concerns about a possible cut in the government's credit rating, AAA credit rating?

MR. GIBBS: No -- go ahead, I'm sorry.

Q: Is the President concerned that his policies may be leading towards a downgrade in U.S. credit ratings, and is he considering anything to allay those fears?

MR. GIBBS: No, we're not concerned about a change in our credit rating. What the President is focused on and has been since coming into office was getting in place a recovery plan that will create jobs and get this economy moving again. Short term, the way to bring down the deficit is get this economy moving again. Medium to long term, we have to get our fiscal house back in order, and that's why the President was pleased that Congress passed a budget that cuts the deficit in half in four years.

So I think the President recognizes we have to make progress to get our fiscal house in order to get Congress back -- Congress and the executive branch back on a pay-as-you-go system, and to make some progress.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Robert, yesterday the President outlined these five categories for Guantanamo detainees, and the fifth one that he was talking about, he said, is really complex; very hard to determine exactly what should be done. Another official said that this is basically just the framework of a plan. In other words, it looks very, very undefined. Isn't this throwing into jeopardy the President's plan to shut down Guantanamo by the deadline that he set?

MR. GIBBS: No. I think I've been asked this question. I've had the opportunity to answer this question five days in a row --

Q: But realistically, after that speech, we heard nothing specifically from the President on how they could be treated, other than they might be detained indefinitely.

MR. GIBBS: You mean in basket number five?

Q: Yes.

MR. GIBBS: Well, and what the President, I think, outlined quite clearly in the plan was we obviously have rules relating to war, but instead of -- I mean, the whole theme of the speech was what we have right now at Guantanamo doesn't work. We have ad hoc patchwork of legal theories, some being undone by courts across our country today. What the President wants to do with the fifth basket, as he termed it, of detainees, is work with Congress and the courts to ensure that whatever system is set up is done through a means where -- using a phrase that he's used many times -- somebody watches the watcher. I think what got us into a series of the hasty decisions that the President talked about yesterday was one person or one group of people thought they alone had a legal theory that could govern all of what we did at Guantanamo Bay.

We found that that's not working. We found that courts have ruled -- by judges appointed by the very administration that set that up -- have decided that they don't have the authority to do some of the things that they're doing, or they have to grant certain rights to detainees, or they don't have the evidence to hold them for what they've been charged with. That's why we're in this mess.

But if the President didn't read to you a piece of legislation yesterday about basket number five, it's because he intends to work with Congress and to ensure that a process complies with the laws of our country in order to make progress. But the notion that we're not making progress on this I think is disputed -- I'm guessing that your network has done stories on our decision on military commissions, I'm guessing your network has done stories on the decision of the Justice Department to transfer a detainee to New York 11 years after committing a series of violent acts to bring them to justice.

So the notion that progress isn't being made I think just isn't borne out by the facts.

Q: Yes, but this is something new. This is holding somebody indefinitely.

MR. GIBBS: Well, unfortunately, Jill, it's not something new. (Laughter.)

Q: I shouldn't say that, let's go back a hundred years --

MR. GIBBS: We've been doing it for going on seven years.

Q: -- to American traditional legal approaches. So aren't you --

MR. GIBBS: How's it different than -- I don't think it's -- let me just say for the umpteenth time, I am not a constitutional lawyer. But if somebody is picked up on a battlefield you can detain that person for the length of the conflict. I think that's fairly well-established.

But, again, what the President wants to do is something that meets with agreement across a broad spectrum of people in Congress. I think that's what's important, that somebody as he has said on any number of government things that somebody has to watch the watchers, that not one person or one group of people is going to make a decision and justify it legally that they're going to work within a process that does this stuff adequately.

Q: About the great debate yesterday, how does the President feel about having Cheney speaking on the same day? In a way is he pleased to have these speeches in such sharp relief that it gave the public a chance to say, okay, here's column A, here's column B, and to compare it? And also, how does the President feel about the propriety of a Vice President who just only recently left office speaking out? President Bush said he was not going to for a while. Presidents usually keep pretty quiet that first year after leaving office. Are there different rules for Vice Presidents? What are your thoughts?

MR. GIBBS: The second one is a good question. I don't know what the rules are. I mean, obviously, anybody is free to speak. I think many, as well as you, have noted that the President and the Vice President have taken different tacks since leaving office about what they're going to do and what they're going to say. As I said yesterday, watching Vice President Cheney appears as if he's extending an argument that my sense was had inside these walls for many years during the administration which he served as Vice President.

I think the President -- in terms of yesterday's speeches side by side I think the President is not going to shy away from the debate on these issues. I think that was evident yesterday, and I think he always thinks it's helpful for the American people to be able to see, as you said, side by side, what the competing debate and narratives are. I don't think that's anything he's going to shy away from.

I think both would understand that these are complex issues, big decisions that have to be made, that the President is going to do all in his power to keep the American people safe. But he is strongly committed to the notion that we're going to change the way we conduct our foreign policy.

Q: And he sees nothing inappropriate in what the former Vice President --

MR. GIBBS: I mean, you know, I think the President would leave it up to the Vice President as to determine what he wants to do.

Helen.

Q: The question that he's being accused of hypocrisy because it's following in the footsteps of President Bush. What is your --

MR. GIBBS: I didn't see that from the Vice President yesterday -- (laughter) -- but maybe I was -- I had the TV down low. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, Krauthammer and some of the other pundits say that he's adopting all of the Bush policies -- foreign policies.

MR. GIBBS: I haven't read some of those columns today. I don't -- it seemed to me the thrust of the Vice President's speech yesterday was regarding enhanced interrogation techniques that the President outlawed. So I'm not entirely sure what the logic is. If one watches the Vice President, I did not get the impression that he strongly thought we were following in the footsteps of his boss.

Q: Well, in not allowing some people to even have due process.

MR. GIBBS: Pardon me?

Q: Not allowing some of the prisoners to have due process.

MR. GIBBS: Well, that's, again, a system that can be worked out that provides people their rights. The President has long agreed with that, and again, therein lies part of why we're in this. Remember, this whole thing got set up -- the original military commission idea that was ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, and then the renewed -- or the legislation that the Bush administration passed and signed -- that got struck down, as you said, largely because the Supreme Court held on two occasions that legally it didn't match the requirements in the Constitution. I think that would be -- is a pretty good answer in some of the ways that we're doing things differently than people who say we're simply following in footsteps.

Q: But hasn't the President put people's vacation in harm's way by allowing loaded guns in national parks?

MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously that is a piece of legislation that we're going to sign today and think it's -- whether or not Congress -- whether or not the -- I mean, obviously it's not related to the credit card reforms, and I don't know individually how the President views the legislation, but thinks overall the credit card reform bill is important for consumers and should be signed.

Q: Important enough to sign the bill --

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: -- loaded guns?

MR. GIBBS: Yes. Yes, sir.

Q: Given the vote on Capitol Hill on Guantanamo and given the dueling speeches yesterday that were kind of given equal billing by a lot of folks, I think the conventional wisdom in the pundit class is that for the first time this President is on the defensive and maybe even losing a public relations battle. What's your take on that?

MR. GIBBS: It's been about three years since I agreed with the conventional wisdom, and I don't know why -- I can't think of a good reason to start today.

Look, the President has said these are complex and difficult situations, complex and difficult decisions that have to be made. I think anybody that thinks this is going to be easy -- I've said this before, this -- Guantanamo Bay was set up more than seven years ago and wasn't going to get undone overnight. But the President strongly believes that we have to change the way this country pursues its foreign policy, that we have to -- there are good reasons for our foreign policy and for the safety of our men and women that we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. He intends to keep that promise.

Q: He is on the defensive.

MR. GIBBS: You know, so the pundits have something to do over the weekend, I'd let them -- I'll be hiking in Virginia and they can punditize away. That's fabulous.

Yes, sir.

Q: Did you call me "sir"? No, you didn't --

MR. GIBBS: I may have accidentally.

Q: It's the purple. (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma'am. Sorry.

Q: Okay. First of all, will you rule out that you might do a Supreme Court announcement next week?

MR. GIBBS: I just said it was going to be 6:30 a.m. tomorrow.

No, I'm not going to get into scheduling announcements.

Q: Okay. On Guantanamo, you were just talking to Jill about it, are you saying in no uncertain terms there is no way the President will allow the closure of Guantanamo to take place any later than January 22, 2010?

MR. GIBBS: That's what the executive order bearing his signature says.

Q: And so he is not open to a delay, even if he had that recommendation from the task force?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you're now into a series of hypotheticals that don't exist.

Yes.

Q: Last week the special relationship with Israel was discussed. How far is the U.S. willing to go if there are hostilities between Israel and Iran and Israel's existence is threatened? Will the U.S. come to Israel's aid --

MR. GIBBS: Well, continuing the line of hypotheticals that I'm not going to get into, obviously you saw last week -- I'm sorry, earlier this week, the continuation, as you said, of a special relationship between Israel and the United States. But I think you saw leaders that agree that we have to engage with Iran in convincing them to live up to their responsibilities to -- and forego their nuclear ambitions. But I'm not going to get into hypotheticals.

Yes.

Q: What kind of reading material is he taking to Camp David on the Supreme Court?

MR. GIBBS: I will endeavor, per Mr. Babington, to get you the subject matter that he might be looking at. I have not seen his briefcase.

Q: Would it be something as detailed as, you know, reports on individual possible choices? Would it be a Supreme Court history? What are we talking about here?

Q: "My Pet Goat"? (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into that. (Laughter.)

I'm going to get you -- I will endeavor to get a little bit broader readout per Mr. Babington.

Q: If I could just go back to the schedule, you don't anticipate anything being added to the schedule on Wednesday?

MR. GIBBS: No.

Q: Other than the DNC? So no announcements, no meetings?

MR. GIBBS: None that I've been apprised of, no.

Q: So Wednesday is just nice and quiet, all day?

MR. GIBBS: No, no. I mean, Wednesday is -- there's an event in --

Q: There's an event in the morning.

MR. GIBBS: Yes.

Q: Okay.

MR. GIBBS: All right, that was your question? Good.

Q: We're good.

MR. GIBBS: Okay.

Q: Robert, this morning Secretary Gates said that any detainees brought to the United States can be safely housed at one of the supermax prisons in the United States, or if not there we'll build a new one. Is that a signal that those who live in states where supermax facilities currently exist are likely to receive detainees? Or is the administration also open, as the Secretary suggested, to building a new supermax facility for this purpose?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what you saw and heard the Secretary do and say was to list the options by which the task force is going through right now.

Q: Those would be the two options?

MR. GIBBS: I think that's probably right.

Q: On detention? Okay.

MR. GIBBS: Yes. Obviously there are a series of, as the President said, baskets -- who we can move to reformed military commissions, who we can try in Article III courts and so on and so forth. The first thing that the task forces are doing is going through the individual cases, having prosecutors go through them determining how best to bring about that justice.

Q: As they did with Ghailani?

MR. GIBBS: Right. I mean, I think the important thing is -- the Secretary mentioned the same thing that the President did, because we have some very bad people in those prisons right now that are in prison safely and securely away from the American people.

Q: So if you are in a place that has a supermax facility, you should be under the impression now that it is likely that detainees will be coming to that facility. One of those facilities is possible.

MR. GIBBS: Well, one, I think if you live in a -- well, if you live within --

Q: Now, the reason I ask that is because the construction timeline for a supermax facility, based on the ones that have already been built, is about three and a half years, which is not, obviously, enough lead time to conform to the President's deadline of closing Guantanamo.

MR. GIBBS: That I can agree with.

Q: Yes.

MR. GIBBS: Look, my guess is that --

Q: So existing supermax facilities are the most likely point of entry for detainees sent to the United States, at least for the foreseeable, immediate future; correct?

MR. GIBBS: Yes. But I would also say that I think if you live around one of the communities, you probably -- some places already have some of those people.

Q: Okay. To follow up on the indefinite detention, does the President believe that the authorization of force in Afghanistan provides the legal authority for indefinite detention of those captured on the battlefield? Or does he believe he needs some separate, as you've implied, congressional buy-in on indefinite detention of those who fall into the fifth basket that Jill was discussing?

MR. GIBBS: Let me discuss specifically that with the Counsel's Office. I think --

Q: Because there are many theorists who say the authorization of force does provide the President the legal authority.

MR. GIBBS: Right, right. No, I've heard that argument. I've heard -- but I think what's important is the President would want to work through this with Congress and ensure that whatever was done met the test of -- could obviously hold up legally.

Q: And to the criticism from human rights groups that indefinite detention can never be justified you would say what?

MR. GIBBS: Well, the President takes very seriously the oath of office that he took to protect the American people. There may be cases, as the President said, where somebody received explosives training from al Qaeda, or commanded troops -- commanded Taliban troops. But these detainees are, based on any number of circumstances, unable to be tried but still pose an obvious threat to this country. And I would say that's a scenario by which we'd ensure that the safety and security of the American people is upheld.

Q: Thanks, Robert.

Q: Robert, for the sake of argument, is there anything that prevents the President from, in effect, telling Congress to keep its $90 million and keep Guantanamo open as a camp but depopulating the holding cells piecemeal? Doesn't the executive have that power, if he wants to?

MR. GIBBS: Help me understand -- are you basically saying you can keep Guantanamo, you just don't house people there?

Q: Keep Guantanamo open -- but the President, the executive branch, has the power to move those --

MR. GIBBS: I'm a little out of my depth legally here. I would have to -- I assume that's the case. I don't know -- I guess -- when I say legally here, I think obviously some -- I'd have to look at the exact wording of what was in a supplemental -- what ultimately came out of the supplemental, which I know is not yet finished.

Yes.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about what the President is going to be doing over the next week and a half, or whatever it is, to prepare for the big speech in Cairo? Is the speech already written, or at least does he know what he's going to say? Are you willing to give us a preview of how broad it will be and to what extent it will tackle the Mideast process?

And as people like President Abbas come in, is he previewing with them, or will he do calls by phone with other Mideast leaders and Arab leaders? Is he giving them a specific or general sense of what he's going to be saying and asking for buy-in, in advance?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think he will -- I think in many ways this process has been ongoing for months as part of his outreach, as part of his phone calls and meetings around long-term Mideast peace.

The goal is to be -- I guess, partly to clear some of this up, this is a -- this will be a broader speech about our relationship with Muslims around the world. I know there has been some conjecture that included in this speech will be some detailed comprehensive Mideast peace plan, and that is not the intention nor was it ever the intention of this speech. As I said a few days ago, I mean, obviously it would be difficult to give a speech and not touch on this subject -- I think that would be -- that wouldn't work -- but the notion that it will be the sole focus of the speech is not the case.

Q: Just to clarify, are you also ruling out -- forget out sole focus, but within the broader speech he is not going to say, "and here is what I want to do with the city of Jerusalem, and here is what I want" --

MR. GIBBS: No. As you know, Margaret, those are final status issues that the parties themselves have agreed to work out in whatever negotiation would be had. That's not something for the President to intone.

Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, Robert. Turning to the domestic front, Governor Barbour of Mississippi was in Washington earlier this week. As you know, he's one of the governors who has declined portions of the stimulus package that he feels would lead to increased taxes. He was referring specifically to the money that's going to unemployment compensation. And he said he would speak to federal officials with the hopes of possibly changing the rules so he could accept the money without an increased tax -- in other words, it wouldn't be an unfunded mandate. Any progress made on that?

MR. GIBBS: I will check with OMB to check to see if Governor Barbour has spoken with anybody. I don't have any information that he's spoken with anybody about that.

Q: The other thing I wanted to ask, President Obama is now -- has the most Republicans in high administration positions of any Democratic President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And can we expect similar announcements such as that about Governor Huntsman? And I'm referring to a major diplomatic appointment for former Senator Hagel of Nebraska in the next two weeks.

MR. GIBBS: I do not have anything specific on former Senator Hagel. Obviously the President has great respect for Senator Hagel. I don't have anything specific personnel-wise on that.

I will say that the President will continue to and hopes to add more Republicans to the administration. That's something he talked about extensively in the campaign and something that he thinks is important in creating a government that's truly representative of the people.

Yes, sir.

Q: Following up on Margaret's question there on final status talks, Prime Minister Netanyahu has just said that Jerusalem will be the forever undivided capital of Israel. Does the administration see this as prejudging final status talks?

MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don't think it's -- I don't think it makes a lot of sense for me to get ahead of or get involved in, at this point, issues that they've agreed to resolve during later negotiations.

April.

Q: Back on the Muslim speech, and just on the Muslim outreach -- we know that the President reads a lot of correspondences from the American people. Can you tell us some of the notes or comments that he's gotten -- good, bad, or indifferent -- on his outreach to the Muslim world, trying to change the image of the U.S. in the Muslim world?

MR. GIBBS: I have not seen anything -- he's not shared with me specific notes or letters on that. So I would have to go -- I'd go back and look for correspondence.

Q: The reason I'm asking, there was a big kind of shock and awe almost when people heard that he was making this outreach. And this President just prided himself on getting this blue envelope and reading all the questions or comments from the American public. And I would be very interested to hear about the correspondence, if he is reading what people are saying about his outreach to the Muslim world.

MR. GIBBS: I'll check on that today.

Q: Robert, can you say, does the President feel so strongly about closing Guantanamo that he would move unilaterally if Congress appeared to be moving towards tying his hands fiscally or otherwise with what he could do down there? Would the President be willing to move unilaterally to transfer people to a military base or some other facility in the U.S.?

And as it related to that, given what the Senate vote was the other day, isn't bringing Mr. Ghailani, I believe his name is, to New York at a time when the Senate has voted that they don't think anybody should be transferred to U.S. soil flying in the face of the will of the Senate at a minimum?

MR. GIBBS: Well, I think we would -- again, I think some of these issues ultimately have to be worked out based on whatever final language appears in legislation. It's far too early to get into this notion of what you would do unilaterally. I think the President believes that he can work with Democrats and Republicans on an issue that many of them agree has to be addressed.

And as I said this -- I've said this many days, and I'll keep trying, some of these issues have to be dealt with not because of an executive order that was signed on the 22nd of January, but by legal cases that require some action. This notion that -- I think the notion that we could put off dealing with this indefinitely, that I think is something that the President would reject because, like I said, each and every day there are legal maneuverings on both sides relating to this.

But I think the President believes that there are people that he can work with on both sides of the aisle, in working with them through a more detailed plan, about how to keep this promise.

Q: I just want to clarify on the credit ratings, you don't think they will be cut or you wouldn't be concerned if they were?

MR. GIBBS: I don't believe they will be.

Q: Thank you.

MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.

Q: Robert, on the signings today, I'm wondering, the President had pledged to put bills up on the Web for five days before he signed legislation. And is that just pretty much out the window?

MR. BURTON: It's been five days.

MR. GIBBS: I think we posted conference reports several days in advance. I can get you the exact days.

Q: The conference reports?

MR. GIBBS: The conference reports that after they've voted on become the gross legislation that's delivered here that the President ultimately signs that becomes public law.

Q: So you're -- is that a finalized version of it that went out or --

MR. GIBBS: Well, a conference report, as you know, is an unamendable piece of legislation that has to be approved by both Houses, language has to be simultaneous, it gets sent down here, and we sign it. So if a conference report is -- if something is delineated as a conference report or if there's not a conference committee and there's a separate piece of legislation, if the Senate passes a bill -- if the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill and the House agrees to accede to the Senate version, then the Senate version might be put up before the House votes on it. Once they vote on it, both Houses have passed identical legislation, and it comes down here.

Q: So it's effectively a finalized version. It just hasn't --

MR. GIBBS: It's not effectively -- it legally is, yes.

Q: Okay.

Q: Back to Guantanamo, in reference to European nations that you are negotiating with taking some of these detainees, have they expressed any kind of reservation or any kind of concern in reference to this "not in my backyard" movement? There's sentiment in the Senate in terms of they might say, "Well, the U.S. isn't going to take in some of these detainees; why should we?"

MR. GIBBS: Well, I got a similar question on this either yesterday or the day before. I would direct you to Justice and State because both the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, I know, have been discussing this directly with foreign counterparts.

Q: On the second question, the task force that's supposed to report back to the President by July in reference to matters relating to Guantanamo, is it your sense that it is still on track?

MR. GIBBS: Yes, yes.

I'll take one more back here. Yes.

Q: Yes. When the President had announced his AfPak policies two months ago, he had called for engaging India and Pakistan in constructive diplomacy. Now you have a new government in India. Can you give us a sense of how the President wants to engage both countries, nuclear powers, and reducing the tensions?

MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, I -- I mean, obviously he's in the past few weeks have been very involved in our discussions with Pakistan as it related to the meetings that were held here. And obviously we've seen reports recently of, without getting into any details, of intelligence sharing, which I think denotes important cooperation that we think is needed on both sides in order to ensure peace and stability in the region.

Thanks, guys. Have a good weekend.

END 12:59 P.M. EDT



Citation: Barack Obama: "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs," May 22, 2009. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=86196.
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