Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Nashville, Tennessee
1:12 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, and welcome aboard Air Force One as make our way to Music City, Nashville. The President is looking forward to the opportunity to talk about some of the steps that he's taken in recent weeks to reform our broken immigration system. Nashville is an example of an American city that has done really interesting work to integrate new immigrants to their city in a way that has led to a lot of dynamism in their community and a lot of dynamism in their local economy. And the President is looking forward to talking about this issue.
He's going to visit a community center called Casa Azafran. This is a center that facilitates some of that integration. They do a lot of really good important work with immigrant communities in Nashville. And while he's at the community center, the President will make some brief remarks and then we'll plan some time to take questions from the audience. So that's what you have to look forward to.
After the town hall meeting, the President will do interviews with Jose Diaz-Balart from Telemundo and Jorge Ramos from Univision. And those interviews will air at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time this evening. And the interviews will be embargoed until then, so you can advise your colleagues back to tune in.
Q: On the torture report, in light of the Justice Department closing its investigation without any action against any individual, does the President believe that this report suggests that someone should be held accountable?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Nedra, the release of the report is important because it is important in the mind of the President that we're crystal clear about what American values are. And it's important for us to be clear with the American public and with the world that every element of our government is doing everything possible to live up to those values and to live up to that high standard. The President believes that maintaining those high standards makes us safer. It also strengthens our standing in the world. It certainly gives us more moral authority.
The other thing that's clear is to be as transparent as possible when some officers in the name of the United States of America have fallen short. Being candid about those shortcomings, being candid with the American public and with the world about their shortcomings and vowing to do better, and being clear about how we're going to do better I think is something that's pretty uniquely American. Even as I was getting ready to come back and talk to you, I was looking through some of the materials that have been prepared for this, and this does seem like something that only the United States of America would do -- to step forward and have the courage to acknowledge where we've fallen short, and to allow that to be an example for the world about raising our standards and doing better. And the President thinks that that only serves to strengthen our national security.
And it is I think also a testament to our men and women in the intelligence community who, again, don't get a lot of attention for their work. By nature, a lot of the work that they do is work that can't be discussed publicly. These are men and women who show up to work, work long hours, use their unique skills. In some cases, they travel to faraway lands to protect America. And the President believes that the men and women of our intelligence community are patriots, and their work should be recognized, and they should be honored for their service to this country.
Q: But it also says that some of the techniques went beyond the bounds of the law. So should anyone be held accountable for that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven't read all of the executive summary, but I don't believe that they've reached a legal conclusion. I think that they reached some conclusions expressing concerns about the techniques that were used. This sort of -- questions about the legality or about the decision to prosecute are made entirely at the Department of Justice, as it should be. And so for questions about how the Department of Justice will consider these findings and whether that will lead them to reconsider any legal conclusions that they've reached, they can speak to that better than I can.
Q: Josh, does the White House have a position on whether prosecution should ensue? And do you see any reason for immunity to be granted to anyone, even at the highest levels, who were involved in these techniques?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, Jeff, decisions about prosecution will be made by the Department of Justice. And again, those kinds -- that protocol is followed for a reason; that we would not want there to be even the appearance of any sort of political interference with what should be a decision that's made on the merits. And so I will leave that decision to the experts, to our Department of Justice and our federal prosecutors.
As it relates to any sort of thinking about immunity or pardons or anything like that, I don't have anything to share with you on that.
Q: Does the White House have any regrets, now that the report is out, that it was released at all and that it was released at all at this time?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jeff, as I mentioned in the briefing yesterday, the administration has been preparing for a number of months now for the eventual release of this report. Those preparations were rooted in the possibility that the release of this report may have an impact on the security situation of U.S. facilities around the globe. And the President has directed that the State Department and the Department of Defense and other organizations that maintain a U.S. presence overseas take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of those facilities and their personnel. Extensive planning has gone into this.
So this is something that we had been preparing for. That also serves to highlight that there probably is never a good time to release something like this because of the potential reaction that we may see overseas. But sufficient planning, prudent planning has taken place to do everything that we can to ensure the safety of American personnel and facilities around the globe.
But as I was mentioning in response to Nedra's question, the President has strongly supported the release of this declassified report because the President does believe it's consistent with our national values to be candid about what our values are and to be candid when we've fallen short. And it is evident from this report that there are circumstances where we've fallen short of those values. That's why the President ended those practices during the first couple of days that he was in office -- because an unequivocal ban on torture is consistent with our values as a country, and does enhance our national security. The President strongly believes that and he continues to believe that today, and believes the decision to release a declassified version of this report is consistent with those values and consistent with that interest.
Q: Josh, based on the findings of the report, are there any changes the President thinks still need to be made? In the statement he talked about changes he has made, but is there anything else from these findings that he still thinks needs to be done?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President gets regular advice from our men and women in the intelligence community and, more broadly, from his national security team about procedures that can be reformed or strengthened. And those are the kinds of things the President considers regularly. The President, in fact, encourages members of his team to come forward with recommendations about what we can do and do better to protect the American people.
So we're talking about many classified programs, so it's – (inaudible) talk about that in a lot of detail. So even if there are some changes made, they may not be the kind of changes that we could announce. But the President's posture when he confronts these kinds of situations is to always keep any eye open for opportunities to reform procedures, strengthen procedures, and to initiate changes that would strengthen the national security of the United States of America.
Q: Josh, I know you don't want to get into the legal aspect of prosecutions, but one thing that the report also says, or at least suggests, is that CIA officials lied to the last White House about the effectiveness of these techniques. Is misleading the White House, does that not rise to the level of mass resignations or firings?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jared, I understand that some of those former administration officials have said in recent days that they did not feel like they were lied to or misled. I'll let them speak for themselves. They obviously were here and I wasn't. But I will tell you that as a general matter, the President believes that our men and women in the intelligence community are genuine patriots who put their lives on the line in some cases -- in some cases every day to protect the American people and to protect our national interests. And the President believes that we owe them a debt of gratitude.
The President in the written statement that he issued this morning made reference to the Wall of Stars that appears there at the entrance to the CIA Headquarters in Langley. And that does serve as a very stark reminder that there are men and women in the intelligence community who have given their lives to protect this country. And that is a sentiment and a culture that I think is indicative of the kinds of values that are embodied in our intelligence community. And the President is proud of our intelligence community and the work that they are putting in right now to keep us safe.
Q: So just to be clear, that the White House doesn't necessarily agree with the conclusion that the CIA aimed to mislead the last administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that's something that we're not passing judgment on. That's something that the Senate Intelligence Committee has investigated. That is something that members of the previous administration have denied. That's something that some current members of the intelligence community have denied. So there is a vigorous debate ongoing about this. And I think it's fair for you to characterize the current administration's position is not passing judgment on that but expressing our full support for our men and women in the intelligence community.
Q: What does the administration pass judgment on? I mean, there's a lot of -- like you said, the CIA is criticizing the way that this report was put together, a lot of the findings, many of the details. Does the President believe it's accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of things that we've passed judgment on. The first is, we've certainly been clear about the President's view that this report -- this declassified version of it should be released; that it's important for the American people and the world to understand where -- what our values are, where we've fallen short and what we're going to do to correct them.
We've passed judgment on the fact that the men and women who serve in our intelligence community are genuine patriots. The President has passed judgment on the fact that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were employed on occasion by the CIA in the previous administration were wrong. That's why he unequivocally banned torture during his first couple of days in office.
So I think the President has been pretty clear about what his position is on a range of these complicated topics.
Q: But does he think the Senate report is accurate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, it's -- the report that you're referring to is -- we've seen a 600-page executive summary be released. So I'm not in a position to pass judgment on every element of the report. I can tell you that the White House has been satisfied with the efforts of the intelligence committee and the CIA to litigate the necessary redactions; that this was the subject of some dispute as well, about what parts of the report needed to be redacted in order to protect national security, or to protect members of the national security team. And that was a painstaking effort that the White House was involved in at the request of the chair of the committee.
But we are certainly satisfied that those -- and pleased that those differences were resolved in a way that allowed for the report to be released, and in a way that only redacted 7 percent of the report.
Q: Josh, did the President make any calls to allies or -- to inform them or talk to them about the report? And is he backing off at all on his characterizations of the report? He only used the word "torture" once in the statement and didn't at all say that any of it resulted in a crime.
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any additional conversations that I can read out in terms of conversations the President may have had with foreign leaders about the report. In terms of the President's description of the report, I would say -- we put out a fairly lengthy written statement from the President today, and I do think that it accurately describes his view, which is that the tactics that are described in the report are tactics that should not have been employed. And that's why he banned them within a day or two of taking office.
Q: But he seems to stop short of calling them crimes.
MR. EARNEST: Well, this goes back to Jeff's question, which is that -- the determination of when a crime has been committed or when a certain action should be prosecuted is a decision that is left entirely to the Department of Justice. And that is -- that protocol is in place to ensure that there is not even the appearance of political interference with a decision -- with a prosecutorial decision.
Q: He had said before, "we tortured some folks." Does he still believe that statement is true, considering that that term was not really used in the statement --
MR. EARNEST: He stands by that statement, yes.
Q: Is he planning to speak about this report at all today at the event?
MR. EARNEST: I don't anticipate that the President will have much to say about it at the event. Obviously, Mr. Diaz-Balart and Mr. Ramos will be able to ask the President any question that they deem appropriate, and I wouldn't be surprised if they take the opportunity to ask him. But you have to check with them what their plans are. I'm not sure exactly what they intend for the --
Q: One other topic. There's a tax bill sponsored by Dave Camp that the tax committees are considering taking up in the next couple days that would make permanent some tax breaks for charities. There was an earlier version that the White House earlier this year threatened to veto. What's the President's opinion on the new version when they come up?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding, Angela, without actually having seen the text of the legislation, is that it tracks very closely with the legislation that the President's senior advisors had previously recommended he veto. So I think it's fair for you to assume that our view of the new version that appears very similar to the old version is the same.
Q: Josh, on another topic, has the White House had any contact with Gruber ahead of his testimony and the latest dustup?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I'm aware of, though that's saying -- asking whether or not the White House has been in touch with him requires me to account for a lot of different conversations -- none that I'm aware of, certainly none at a high level.
Q: Do you have any reaction?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing beyond that I certainly did make note of the apology that he offered to the committee. And I think given his comments and given how they do not at all reflect the view of this administration or the President in terms of how the bill was passed or how it's been implemented, it seems that his remarks of regret were appropriate.
Q: -- a report this morning that there was a misuse of the funds for the child tax credit, which obviously was a big part of the President's agenda. Do you have any response to that?
MR. EARNEST: I have to be honest, Nedra, I have not seen that report but we can follow up with you on that.
Q: -- spending bill from the Hill at some point today or tomorrow. Is the President still comfortable in signing something that treats homeland security differently because of the immigration executive actions that he's announced?
MR. EARNEST: We'll see what Congress is able to produce. We continue to believe, as you've heard me say over the last week or so, that Congress should fulfill their responsibility to pass a full-year budget for the full federal government. That continues to be our view, and that, frankly, will continue to be our view moving forward. That was our view when Democrats were in charge and it's our view now that Republicans are in charge too.
But we'll wait and see. And I'll reserve judgment on anything that they pass until we have an opportunity to take a look at it.
Q: But a full year for everything except one particular department, not going a full year with that department. Is that something that you could find acceptable?
MR. EARNEST: It'll depend on the details. So we'll take a look at it when it's produced. It certainly is falling short of what we believe is the minimum required in terms of passing the full-year budget for the full federal government. Again, this is not a standard that we've laid out, this is the standard that's laid out by our Founding Fathers in giving Congress the power of the purse; that it's their responsibility to pass a budget for the full federal government. They should do so for the full year.
By their own accounting, this is clearly in the best interest of our economy, and given the kind of economic weakness that we're seeing on the international economic -- that we see across the international economy, I should say, we believe that they should pass a full-year budget. The last thing we need are additional headwinds from Congress here.
The last jobs report was very encouraging because it did indicate that the American economy at least is demonstrating some tremendous resilience -- 10 consecutive months of more than 200,000 private sector jobs created is a streak that we haven't seen in more than two decades, or almost two decades.
So we obviously would like to see Congress take steps that are consistent with a Congress that's interested in strengthening our economy, or at least putting in place the kinds of policies that are going to give our economy the best opportunity for success.
All right, everbody. We'll see you on the ground.
END 1:30 P.M. EST
Barack Obama, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/308288