Briefing by White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, 2/3/10
1:23 P.M. EST
MR. BURTON: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming.
Q It's not too late -- oh, yes, it is. (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: So I just want to make one quick announcement before we get started --
Q There's been a coup. (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: Let's everybody calm down for a second. (Laughter.)
Q We like the tie.
MR. BURTON: Tomorrow Secretary Locke will be giving a speech on a new major export initiative. The President laid out a goal for increasing exports, doubling exports in five years, and this initiative will lay out the path to get there.
He has spoken to the winners in the Illinois primary. And with that, Julie, I'd be happy to take your questions.
Q Thank you. The President said this morning that he would be open to compromise on health care. What are the areas specifically that he'd be willing to compromise on?
MR. BURTON: Well, as the President has said before, he has very specific principles that he's laid out. He feels like we've gone a very far way in both the House and in the Senate. We've made more progress than any administration in history when it comes to health care. But he's not a legislative technician. He's not going to get into the nitty-gritty of what the best way forward is at this point. He's hoping that legislators on Capitol Hill will work to iron out their differences.
Q But even he said that he wasn't specific enough in the initial negotiations on health care. So will he be getting more specific?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President, as you know, has been very active in these negotiations, in the sense that he's making sure that folks in the Senate, folks in the House, have a clear sense of where the President wants to go. But in terms of actually writing the legislation and getting down to the line-by-line of what the best way to reach the final agreement is, he doesn’t consider that to be his role.
Q And then on AIG, last year when the bonuses were handed out Secretary Geithner said that he wasn’t aware at that point of the extent of them, but going forward there would be more flexibility in negotiating these bonuses. Was he aware, was the administration aware of these bonuses that were just handed out? And was there any negotiation that went on into the amounts and to the extent of them?
MR. BURTON: Well, news about these bonuses is not new. What is new is that AIG got some of their employees to voluntarily give back $20 million of those bonuses. Obviously the President is frustrated and angry that Wall Street continues to have the sense that excessive compensation should reward some of the excessive risk-taking that we've seen over the course of the last couple of years of Wall Street, things that brought us to the brink. That's why he hasn’t stopped fighting to make sure that we get the reforms in place in order to get these packages under control -- things like say-on-pay, ways that we can do this through financial regulatory reform.
He's also been serious about making sure that we get taxpayer money back, which is why he instituted the bank fee, to make sure that every single dime that went out from taxpayers comes back to the federal government.
Q But is there frustration, though, that no matter what he says and no matter what he seems to do at this point, these bonuses are still getting handed out?
MR. BURTON: Well, like I said before, the news about these isn't new, but what is new is that some of that money is not going out. But is he frustrated and angry about the fact that the bonus structure remains the same that it has been? Absolutely. So the President is going to work on those items that I mentioned.
Q A couple questions, one economic, the other foreign. Moody’s, the big bond-writing agency, has issued a report saying that growing U.S. deficits threaten the country's AAA bond rating; that the President's budget plan is just a small step in the right direction. And is the administration taking that assessment seriously, of that possible downgrade in the country's bond rating? And what, if anything, would the President do beyond what he's already announced to try to address that situation?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President didn't need Moody’s to tell him that we have a long-term fiscal problem in this country. That's why his budget lays out ways in which we can cut the deficit in the mid to long term, but in the short term take care of some of the problems that we've got in this economic crisis, putting Americans back to work, helping banks get more loans out to small businesses so they can create more jobs, and things like that.
So the President is very concerned about the fiscal state of this country and he's going to continue to work to make sure that we're taking on the deficit.
Q But Moody’s specifically says that the President's plan does not do enough at this time to address that problem. Is the President going to basically ignore that?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President doesn’t necessarily disagree that the plan doesn’t do enough. That's why he thinks that we need a fiscal commission in place to help get bipartisan support for some of the elements that we need to put in place to bring down the deficit in the long term. We've gone a long way towards cutting spending, towards being responsible about how we're spending taxpayers' dollars, getting rid of duplicative programs or programs that don't work. But there's more that we need to do, and hopefully that fiscal commission will help to do just that.
Q On Iran, Iran said today that they had fired a rocket capable of launching a satellite. What is the administration's level of concern at whether that technology, that capability could be devoted towards military use, even a nuclear missile program?
MR. BURTON: Obviously we've seen those reports and we're still checking them out to make sure that they're accurate. A launch like that is obviously a provocative act. But the President believes that it's not too late for Iran to do the right thing, come to the table with the international community, and live up to its international obligations.
Q Iranian President Ahmadinejad said yesterday that Iran was in fact ready to go ahead with a deal that it had reached earlier but yet reneged on to allow its nuclear fuel to be processed abroad. Does the President see that as a serious offer or overture, and would the U.S. take advantage of that in some way? Or do they see it as being a way of diverting attention or diverting efforts towards a new round of sanctions?
MR. BURTON: Well, some of these reports have been pretty fragmentary in the sense that we haven’t seen the whole transcript and everything that he has said. But if those comments indicate some sort of change in position for Iran, then President Ahmadinejad should let the IAEA know.
Q Two topics, first on Toyota, I wanted to ask you about the President's Transportation Secretary today on the Hill saying that people who have Toyotas should just stop driving them. He's since said that was a misstatement, but I wonder if you can clarify what is the White House telling the millions of Toyota owners out there across the country to do?
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, as you know, NHTSA, the Department of Transportation, has been very active in making sure that Americans are kept safe on our roads. They've been forward-leaning as it relates to Toyota, making sure that they're living up to safety standards, including encouraging them on the recall. As relates to people who have Toyotas now, you should go to the experts at the Department of Transportation who know a little more about this issue. But all Americans should really -- they should get their cars checked out if they think that they might have --
Q Well, why did the Secretary say stop driving Toyotas?
MR. BURTON: -- if they think that they might have a car that's a part of the recall, then they should go get it checked out. And if it is, they should get it fixed. And if it's not, then they should keep on doing what they're doing.
Q But on the question of why did the Secretary say stop driving Toyotas? And is there any procedures in place here at the White House now that -- the government owns a large share of GM -- about having procedures in place for potential conflicts of interest in terms of commenting on other cars and dealing with these safety recalls could be a sticky issue.
MR. BURTON: For starters, the Secretary made clear what he thinks is the right thing to do, which is what I just said. As for being involved in other car companies, this is obviously something the President never wanted to get involved in, but it, of course, would not have any impact on this administration's commitment to making sure that Americans are kept safe on our roads.
Q Can I ask you about last night's -- the information that came out from the White House about Abdulmutallab and the interrogations he's had and what cooperation he has with the government? There was a hearing on the Hill today where various Republicans, including Mac Thornberry, were saying that this was just about political cover and that the White House was trying to leak this information selectively in order to protect the President because he has a political problem right now.
MR. BURTON: Well, I would just say that, before, there was criticism from Republicans that what we were doing wasn't working. Now that people find out that what we're doing is working, they're criticizing the fact that we're saying that what's working is working.
Look, nothing came out last night that compromises any of the investigations or any of the interrogations that are currently ongoing. We feel like we pursued the correct course in interrogating Abdulmutallab, and through that course we've gotten quite a bit of information that's been helpful both to the United States and some of our foreign partners in keeping the American people safe.
So there's no regrets on that. But I will say that it's Washington, and there's a lot of politics that gets played. I was just watching an interview that was on cable news before I came out here, and you've got folks who are --
Q -- watching cable news?
MR. BURTON: I never said that I don't watch cable news. In fact, it's part of my job, frankly. I watch the broadcasts, too.
But you've got people who are criticizing things that we're doing in this administration, but never criticize things that happen in the administration prior that are exactly the same. And without anything changing in the interim, the only thing that I can surmise is maybe that there are some politics at play.
Q But it doesn't seem like you're -- you're not denying that part of the motive here was to push back on the President's political critics. And I wonder if by revealing that some of Abdulmutallab's family members are cooperating with the U.S. government, that could now put their lives in danger because al Qaeda and others are going to say these family members are helping the U.S. government.
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, I will say that the reason that people were told about the success of these interviews didn't have anything to do with politics in the sense that the determination was made here at the White House that it was important for the American people to know that we're doing everything possible to keep the American people safe, and that these interrogations are working, that we're getting evidence that is actionable, and that we feel like we've pursued the right course.
No information that was given out over the course of those briefings compromises that in any way, and we don't feel that we've given any information that will harm our ability to get some more.
Q Just may I follow on this quick?
MR. BURTON: We're just going to keep moving. Chip.
Q I'm a little confused. If the investigation was not compromised in any way by what came out last night, why didn't it come out a long time ago? Why wait? I mean, presumably the reason for keeping this stuff secret was because it could harm the investigation. Now it comes out, and you say it didn't harm the investigation.
MR. BURTON: Well, as you know, because it was said last night, ideally this information would not have necessarily come out.
Q Well, why, if it doesn't harm the investigation?
MR. BURTON: But in order for the American people to know that we are doing everything possible to keep them safe, and in order for our continued success in this effort, we made the determination that it was a good idea to make sure that people knew that our sources -- that our methods here were working.
Q Wouldn't you want to share with the American people the maximum amount of information possible so long as it doesn't hurt the investigation?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously this President has put a premium on transparency and making sure that people know what's happening in this White House, why he's making the decisions that he's making. And I would say that what happened last night falls under the rubric of making sure that people know why he's making decisions that he's made and the success of those decisions?
Q Why wasn't it done a week or two or three before that?
MR. BURTON: Well, I think that you could look -- you could pick apart any little piece of this process, but if you go back all the way back to December 25th of last year when this all started, we feel like, day by day, moment by moment, we've been successful in getting the information that we needed and telling the American people exactly what's going on.
Q On the AIG bonuses, is the President completely helpless to do anything about this?
MR. BURTON: No, I wouldn't say he is helpless. What he's done is -- well, for starters, on the AIG bonuses specifically, there has been success in getting some of those employees to voluntarily not take some of those bonuses to the tune of $20 million, which is no small feat. Secondly, I would say that he thinks that going forward we need to do more things to get these bonuses under control. That's why he is for and promoting say-on-pay legislation. That's why he is for getting some of this through financial reform. So, no, I would not say that he is helpless. I would say that he's doing everything that he can in order to get this under control.
Q But in the past when this has happened, he has come out and voiced his outrage. He is not doing it now. Is he just saying, well, I can't do anything about it; I'm not going to go out and voice the outrage I've voiced before? It's a marked difference that he is not out there --
MR. BURTON: Well, Chip, I think you should keep in mind that your network and other folks in here have all reported on these bonuses before. For the President to go out and holler at the top of his lungs just because there is old information that is being reported again -- and, in fact, the only new information that's being reported is actually good news, I don't think it necessarily makes sense for the President every single time to go out and say, here's what I'm thinking. The President is focused on creating jobs in this country; he is focused on getting our economy back on track. Speaking to every question every single day doesn't necessarily put our country on the path to where we need to be in the long term.
Q Well, it's front-page news today. Why not be out there?
MR. BURTON: You may have noticed from this White House that we don't necessarily just jump on every single thing that runs on the front page of newspapers.
Q Any significance to your being here? Should we read anything into this?
MR. BURTON: You shouldn't read a thing into it other than Gibbs had a couple of things to do.
Q What -- had what?
Q Gibbs had what?
MR. BURTON: Gibbs had a couple things to do.
Q It's not an audition?
Q Will you get a bonus? (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: No. Unfortunately, as you may know that there's a salary freeze in place here.
Q Were Admiral Blair and FBI Director Mueller not supposed to say in the hearing yesterday that Abdulmutallab was still talking? Was that inadvertent, sharing that information?
MR. BURTON: You would have to ask them about what was inadvertent and not inadvertent. We feel like we've done a good job at sharing with the American people what we're doing to keep them safe and we're going to continue to do that.
Q But my impression is that the reason that the briefing happened last night was because this information was starting to get out there, so the administration wanted to share the story to correct the record, but also because the information had already been disclosed that he was cooperating again. And my impression is that Blair and Mueller were the ones who let that information be known, unless I'm -- unless there's some other story --
MR. BURTON: Well, as I said, there's a lot of information that's getting out there from all corners. There was an importance in contextualizing some of that information that was out there from the White House. But I don't agree with your characterization of their testimony. But we do feel like we did a good job of letting folks know exactly what we're up to.
Q I don't think I characterized anything, I just asked if they'd --
MR. BURTON: It seemed like characterization.
Q Is that right? Well, the other question I have has to do with a statement President Obama made last week when he was speaking at the Republican retreat, the House Republican Conference. He said -- he was referring to the stray cats and dogs in the health care legislation. And he said as examples -- he said, "We said from the start it was going to be important for us to be consistent in saying to people, you want to keep the health insurance you got, you can keep it; that you're not going to have anybody getting in between you and your doctor in the decision-making. And I think that some of the provisions that got snuck in might have violated that pledge." And he said that you guys were in the process of eliminating those provisions. What are those provisions?
MR. BURTON: Not sure. I'll have to get back to you.
Q A couple questions. First, when you say he called the winners of the Illinois primary, you mean I assume the Senate race, he isn't -- not the governor's race or anything?
MR. BURTON: He called Giannoulis and Quinn.
Q He called -- not Mark Kirk? Should we assume he called Mark Kirk?
MR. BURTON: No, he did not call Mark Kirk. I think there is other calls on the schedule, but he was not called.
Q Going back to some of the facts that came out in last night's briefing, what do you say to the criticism that says, okay, you guys started to get information from him after January 17th, sometime last week, but there obviously was a four-week gap where you got no information from him, and so the argument is you didn't use every tool in the arsenal that you had to get information? And I guess there still hasn't been a clear sort of response from you guys as to why you didn't use every tool you could have used even in that, say, 24-hour period before he was Mirandized.
MR. BURTON: I'm not sure what you mean by not using every tool.
Q Getting other interrogators into the room that weren't the FBI, inviting other members of the intelligence community.
MR. BURTON: Well, I would say that the President put his trust very much in the professionals who have been tracking them and fighting al Qaeda for the last 10 years. And it was their determination that this course of action would be the best one to extract the most amount of information. And what we've seen there over the course of these past weeks is that that determination was correct and that we have gotten quite a bit of usable information that has helped across the intelligence community to keep the American people safe.
So I think it's easy to sort of armchair-quarterback this thing and say you could have done this, you could have done that, why didn't you do this. What we know is that because of what we did, we were successful. And so the President is pleased with the results.
Q But the criticism -- forget the politics of this a minute -- one of the criticisms is, okay, but there was a four-week gap. And, obviously, time is of the essence on all of these -- on all of this information. So how do you know you wouldn't have gotten this information sooner had you brought in another interrogator?
MR. BURTON: Well, how do you know anything could have happened in the past differently? But what we do know --
Q But you didn't try -- you didn't use that -- other interrogators. We know --
MR. BURTON: What we do know is that the way that we did this, step by step, methodically working to get every piece of information that we possibly could, that we were able to do it.
Now, there is criticism out there from folks on Capitol Hill and not on Capitol Hill who say that we could have done this differently. The President's view is that given the choice between politicians in Washington and the men and women who have been fighting this battle for the last 10 years against al Qaeda, he is going to talk to those folks who have been fighting al Qaeda. And I think that the results speak for themselves.
Q Is there any indication, though, that -- are you saying this is always going to be the -- be the way that you handle this, or could there be a next time where maybe before you Mirandize you would bring in other members of the intelligence community?
MR. BURTON: Let's just talk about this issue of Mirandizing for a second, because a lot of you probably saw the e-mail that Robert Gibbs sent out. And in it, it explains the FBI's current policy as it relates to Miranda. And in its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, it says clearly: "Within the United States, Miranda warnings are required to be given prior to custodial interviews." Now, this is the standard by which the FBI has given -- has Mirandized suspects over the course of the last years.
Q Wait, but even the FBI had made the determination not to Mirandize him immediately because there was -- determined that there might be an immediate threat.
MR. BURTON: Right. In consultation with the folks who were right there on the ground with the U.S. Attorneys in Detroit, with folks here in Washington D.C., they conducted this in the way that they thought was best in order to Mirandize them. So they did ultimately Mirandize him. And the notion that going forward we've made a wide variety of changes on how we would conduct this investigation or how we'd conduct this interrogation, I, A, think that's premature. I mean, this President does think that after any event, we should go back and see if there's ways that you can do things better or differently. But I think we're a little premature at this point. But I would just say that it has been successful. The way that we conducted this investigation, the information that we've been able to get has been a great help.
Q Can you quickly tell us why Tim Shriver is meeting with Rahm Emanuel?
MR. BURTON: I believe it's to talk about issues of mutual concern and a little bit about the incident that happened in August that was reported previously.
Q And what is -- what can you tell us that the Chief of Staff is going to say to Mr. Shriver?
MR. BURTON: I don't know. He is -- as you know, he has apologized. And we're all just moving forward.
Q Bill, tell me how things are going with respect to Iran and pursuing these sanctions against them?
MR. BURTON: Well, I would just say that Iran needs to live up to its obligations to the international community. But as a result of some of our policies, we have seen successes. We've seen that the international community is more united than it ever has been before in this region, Iran is more isolated from the international community than it has been before, and the nation of Iran is divided internally about what the best way forward is. So our view is that the door is still open. There is an offer on the table, and there's still time for Iran to do the right thing. But, obviously, they have not just yet. But if they don't, we'll apply all pressure that we can to make sure that they do.
Q How much more time, though? You said December 31st was the time. And also, how much leverage do you really have over China, given the tensions that have erupted in the last week or two?
MR. BURTON: Well, on time frame -- I don't have a new time frame for you necessarily, but I will say that obviously this is an issue that's deeply important to the President, and we do think that we've had an impact on.
As it relates to China, the President's view is that our relationship with them is mature enough that on issues where we disagree, we can disagree but work together to come to agreement. And we can also work with them on issues of mutual concern, like nuclear non-proliferation, the global economy, climate change and things like that.
Q I'm talking about sanctions on Iran --
MR. BURTON: Well, that's probably a better question for China.
Q This event today, the Q&A with Senate Democrats, Bill, what does the White House see -- is this akin to what happened in Baltimore with the GOP last week? And also, what’s the ultimate usefulness of these Senate Democrats who are running for reelection questioning the President?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President's view is that we ought to be as transparent as we can, and this meeting with Senate Democrats was an opportunity to, in open fashion, talk to them about some of the challenges that we have, some of the things that we need to work together to get done, and take their questions on a variety of issues. I don't know if it was Senator Reid or another senator picked who asked the questions, but it was a pretty productive exchange. And I think that everybody felt like folks got a lot out of it.
Q Did this combined with Baltimore represent sort of a new approach by the White House to get his message out?
MR. BURTON: We're certainly more -- these meetings are certainly more on camera than they used to be. So, in that sense, it is new.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. BURTON: Sure, Dan.
Q Thanks. As you might know, there's a coalition of right and left bloggers, politicos, including --
MR. BURTON: Cable pundits? (Laughter.)
Q -- people who watch cable TV and people who don't, including people who used to work in the administration and people who worked on the Obama campaign, who are asking both the President and the congressional Republican leaders in the House and Senate to hold these question sessions, to commit to holding them on a regular basis. Would the White House do that?
MR. BURTON: Well, David Axelrod has talked about this a little, and what he had to say was that part of the reason that Friday was so successful with the GOP conference is that it was for the spontaneity that occurred there. And it's going to be hard to sort of recreate that spontaneity that happened.
Now, the President thinks that there is space for more open dialogue, more -- and he's going to look for more opportunities to do things on camera and have open discussions on important issues. But in terms of a regularly scheduled event, I don't have anything for you on that.
Q Bill, when the President at the town meeting yesterday said he hopes that he can get health care enacted this year, is this year his new and latest deadline? Is there anything before that that he wants to set, or is he going to give this Congress the whole year to get it done?
MR. BURTON: I think the urgency of getting health care done because of the impact that the costs have on our federal deficit, that it has on small and large businesses, that it has on individuals, didn't go away, and the President wants to get it done as soon as possible. We don't have a specific deadline for what the next phase in this is, though.
Q Are you able to say in what way he expects it might be enacted, with a House vote or reconciliation or something of that nature?
MR. BURTON: No, he has not said.
Q Bill, back to Ray LaHood this morning, did the administration ask Mr. LaHood to tone down the original statement?
MR. BURTON: Not that I know of. I think that he said something that he felt could be misconstrued, and so he cleared it up in that press conference that you saw.
Q The White House has confidence in Mr. LaHood?
MR. BURTON: You bet.
Q All right. On another question, you mentioned Locke is doing a speech on tomorrow on the trade accords. Does the administration plan to renegotiate those trade accords before sending them to the Hill?
MR. BURTON: You'll have to wait for the speech to see what the trade policy that he's talking all about is. This might surprise you, but I don't have any news for you on renegotiating trade agreements today.
Q The administration has had some trouble with the Colombia accord before.
MR. BURTON: Well, people come to this from different places. I think folks agree that exports help the economy, they help create American jobs. And the President is committed to doubling exports over the course of the next five years. But nobody's going to agree on a specific trade accord just as it sits, so the President is going to continue to work with folks to make sure that we get to a good agreement that works for American workers and works for getting trade going in an aggressive way.
Q On Pakistan, there were three U.S. troops killed this morning. Is there any comment on that? Do you guys have any more details on that?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously our hearts go out to those families of the troops who were killed there today. I also saw that some of the girls who were at the school where they were, were killed as well, which shows the heinousness of the type of criminal that would inflict that sort of pain and suffering on folks there.
The President of the United States condemns these attacks. They only act to underscore the threat that these extremists in Pakistan are to both Pakistan and to the United States. And we're committed to rooting them out.
Q One other question. The biofuels thing this afternoon, there's a report coming out saying that the U.S. is failing to meet the biofuels target set in the '07 energy legislation. Why is that?
MR. BURTON: I don't have anything for you on that. There's a call at 4:00 p.m. You should hop on where we'll get into some granularity of biofuel policy.
Q Yes -- do you want to leave?
MR. BURTON: No, I'm not leaving. I'm going to stick around.
Q How would you evaluate the criticism from some that, on Abdulmutallab, yes, there is more information now, but it might be in the context of plea negotiations, and it might have been extracted before the United States, from a judicial position -- had offered things on the table legally to get him to talk more?
MR. BURTON: I think that's actually addressed in Gibbs'
e-mail that that's not on the table.
Q None of that is --
MR. BURTON: Right.
Q That there is no conversation whatsoever occurring within the context of a plea deal?
MR. BURTON: I mean, I'm not going to say what conversations are occurring or not occurring, but if you look at the e-mail that Gibbs sent you just a couple hours ago, it said that there's no plea agreement on the table.
Q And therefore, all these conversations could have happened earlier, but they're just happening now in a different context? I mean, what's causing him to talk now in ways that he didn't before?
MR. BURTON: Well, I mean, we went through some of the -- we went through some of the ways that he agreed to cooperate in terms of getting his family involved, which was helpful, and he's just decided that the best course of action is to cooperate and provide this information that he's decided to provide.
Q On his own? Okay.
MR. BURTON: But this is from Gibbs' e-mail: "Abdulmutallab has not been offered anything. The Department of Justice takes his cooperation into consideration, but he's been offered nothing."
Q Not formally or informally.
Q Can I just hop in for one quick question?
MR. BURTON: Sure.
Q I'm sorry, Major, but whether it's Brennan's letter to the Hill, Holder's letter to McConnell today, the briefing yesterday, there's been a much more aggressive case being made by the White House and the administration on how you guys are waging the war on terror and fighting for national security. What changed in the last couple days to prompt this reaction?
MR. BURTON: I don't know if I necessarily agree that it's a much more aggressive case being made. The President has made speeches about Afghanistan; Holder has been out there; Brennan has been out there. I think that we've seen a pretty coordinated effort to make sure that the American people know what's happening inside the administration and how hard the President is working to keep them safe.
Q I mean, but do you feel that there was something that was not getting out that needed to get out more forcefully, recently, maybe since Massachusetts, or to the broader criticism you've been receiving, or over the Abdulmutallab case itself? Because Jake is right -- if you look at these -- at the body of communication, it's not only different in volume but it's different in content and tone than what we've seen over the past month or so.
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously this is a change in debate. Obviously this is a change in debate, and this administration is doing everything it can to both make sure the American people know exactly what's happening inside the administration and also to answer questions that people might have or challenges that might come about the way that we're doing things. But I don't know that I necessarily agree that we're out there more, or more aggressively, because if you consider the fact that ever since this incident on Christmas Day, we have been very aggressive in taking this on.
Q So you guys, were you seething? Did you say, day after day we're getting hit by unfair criticism; we got to answer it?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously nobody likes to take on criticism, but it's Washington. And when you get a bunch of politicians talking about issues, and you get a bunch of folks who flip-flop from one part of an issue to another part of an issue, but there's no reason for them to have done it except that there happens to be a Democratic President as opposed to a Republican President in place, the President's view is that national security ought to be more important than an individual's job security, if they're a politician.
And so, no, I wouldn't necessarily characterize how we feel the way that you have. But we have a job to do, to make sure the American people know everything that we're doing to keep them safe, and we're going to continue to do that.
Q Would you say the questions that were raised that you've begun to answer with more information, that you've said here at this briefing, were raised simply for political reasons or because people were legitimately, though politicians, were curious?
MR. BURTON: Well, I don't know that I'm in a position to render a verdict on the motives necessarily, but the questions were raised and we answered them.
Q Can you -- just a couple things. The Super Bowl party, do you have a --
MR. BURTON: Nope.
Q Okay. (Laughter.) Well, there is one, yes. But you've got no details.
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q The Tuesday meeting with the --
MR. BURTON: Bipartisan bicameral leadership.
Q Yes. That's the monthly --
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q No particular agenda, just --
MR. BURTON: Well, I'm sure the agenda will be taking on some of the urgent challenges we face: jobs, the economy, what we can do on health care. So I think that some of those things will certainly be on the agenda.
Q One last thing. Tim Shriver is here, but other groups are here. It seems that there's something else that needs to be communicated than just directly to Tim Shriver about what Rahm said and what was quoted in the papers last week.
MR. BURTON: What's the question?
Q What else needs to be -- why bring in this larger group? Is there something the administration is trying to get across to this larger group of interested parties on this issue as a result of what was published about what Rahm said last August?
MR. BURTON: This is something that happened in August. It's something that Rahm has apologized for. Issues of derogatory comments that make fun of one group or pit one against the other don't do anything to further our political discourse, and for that Rahm apologized and we're looking to move forward here.
Q Did the President ask him to apologize?
MR. BURTON: I don't know what conversations Rahm had with the President about that.
Q Thanks, Bill. Tuesday's meeting seems to harken back to some of the President's early outreach efforts in the early days of this administration. And after those, as we know, Democrats went it alone on stimulus and health care. What gives him any optimism that things will be different now? Does he get any indication from Republicans that they want to play?
MR. BURTON: Well, if you listen to what Republicans have been saying, they say that they want to work with the President on the economy and on health care. They're obviously still attacking in ways that they've attacked in the past, but if you look at some of the elections that have happened over the course of the last year, what the American people have said is they want folks in Washington to work together. The President firmly believes that the way that we can get to the best solutions and the best ideas is by working with Democrats and Republicans to get it done.
So it may be difficult to get that done in Washington in this context. It may not happen overnight. But the President is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans. But as he said in the State of the Union, if Republicans won't come along, he's got a duty to govern. So he's going to do everything that he can in order to take on the things that the American people sent him here to take on.
Q Has he seen any action on the Republican side to give him any sense of optimism here, or is it just what he said?
MR. BURTON: We're just -- you got to chip away at bipartisanship one little bit at a time.
Q Okay, and one other thing, on your other point. Is there some concern in the administration that somehow this idea that you're not doing everything possible to keep the American people safe is something that's taking hold in the population? Is that a concern?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President wants to make sure that people know what the administration is doing, and he's making an effort to do that.
But if you -- I hesitate to do this, but the only data that we have that shows how the American people are viewing these issues is public opinion polling, and public opinion polling shows, in poll after poll after poll, that the American people think that we are -- that the President is doing a good job to keep them safe; that he is effectively conducting this fight against extremists. And all we can do is everything we can to make sure that they know exactly what's going on.
Q So like the point-by-point pushback on Collins and things like that, that's just -- that doesn't -- that's not rooted in some concern?
MR. BURTON: I mean, the only data that we have are polls that say that the American people are supporting the way that we're conducting this. It would sort of get at the premise of your question.
Q Does the President think that Toyota should be hit with civil penalties for a slow reaction?
MR. BURTON: I think this is -- the issue of what ought to happen to Toyota is something that's -- that is being discussed over at NHTSA and the Department of Transportation. I'd refer you there.
Q Would it ever reach the President's level, something like that, considering the safety implications for drivers?
MR. BURTON: Well, at this point, this is -- for starters, the President thinks it is critically important that the American people on our roads and highways are safe. And he thinks that the Department of Transportation and NHTSA have done a good job at pushing Toyota to make sure that people are informed about what's going on, to make sure that those vehicles were recalled. And going forward, the place to get answers on what comes next are the Department of Transportation and NHTSA?
Q All right, I just have questions about the Senate Democrats meeting. You said that last Friday was successful because it was so spontaneous.
MR. BURTON: In part.
MR. BURTON: In part.
Q In part because it was so spontaneous. How spontaneous do you think today was? (Laughter.)
MR. BURTON: Well, in fairness, we did tell them we were coming.
Q I'm talking about the session itself, not the fact you showed up.
MR. BURTON: I think that the -- if you looked at the questions, they weren't softballs. They were tough questions that the President took on, and they had a good exchange.
Q Okay, okay. My other question -- I mean, today was a real kind of -- you know, he really appealed to them to practice conviction politics instead of survival politics or calculation politics, and talked about the importance of leading and pushing forward and getting health care done. Yet you seem to be kind of almost reverting to default mode by saying he's not going to get into the nitty-gritty or talk about the best way forward. What I'm wondering is, does he consider the completion -- and of course the Senate Democrats are one of the main reasons health care didn't get done, because they didn't finish it in a year -- but does the President consider the completion of the health care legislation to be a measurement of whether Democrats can lead or not?
MR. BURTON: Well, I think that the President sees health care as something that we desperately need to take on for a variety of reasons that don't have anything to do with politics, and that includes the cost to the American family, the cost to American businesses, and what it's doing to our federal deficit. So pundits can make the determination of the sort that you're asking.
But if you look over the course of the last year, the President is proud of the accomplishments that he was able to make with this Congress, from everything from passing a Recovery Act that helped to create about 2 million jobs; passing Lilly Ledbetter to make sure that folks get -- that women get equal pay for equal work; signing SCHIP into law -- on and on and on. The President, I think, is pretty pleased with the amount of progress that we've been able to make, but he's not satisfied that we've done enough.
Q But when you were asked about when he wants -- you said he wants it done as soon as possible, he kind of said that all last year and it didn't get done. And one of the criticisms that's been raised is maybe he didn't crack the whip early enough or didn't really kind of heave it over the finish line himself earlier. I'm wondering if he's planning to do anything different this year.
MR. BURTON: I wish I had some news for you on this. The President has made clear what his principles are. He's obviously talked to Senate Democrats today. He talked to House Republicans last week. He's going to talk to the leadership in both parties next week. And he's going to keep working to make progress on it. It's too important not to.
Q Can I just ask on Iran? You skipped over me.
MR. BURTON: I shouldn't have. Go ahead.
Q All right. On Hamas, they had some very virulent anti-Israeli cartoons. In fact the Daily Show did a good job of publicizing them yesterday. Has anybody in this administration aware of these "cartoons" and do you -- to affect policy in anyway?
MR. BURTON: I haven't seen the cartoons and I missed the episode of the Jon Stewart Show, so I'll refer you to our folks in the NSC. I'm sure Hammer might have something for you.
Q Well, I have one on Iran, too. Some of the people being executed in Iran are as young as 18 years old. Does that harden the administration's attitude to hasten the sanctions towards Iran?
MR. BURTON: Look, the President condemns those executions. He thinks that it marks a new low in their -- in where they are on human rights. He thinks that if they want to not be isolated from the international community, if they want to not keep isolating themselves even more from the Iranian people, they need to respect universal human rights.
Q Bill, did the President call Pat Quinn to congratulate him on the win?
MR. BURTON: Yes.
Q Did he also talk to Dan Hines?
MR. BURTON: I'm not sure.
Q Is he among the Democratic leaders who would like to see Dan Hines concede the race and avoid a --
MR. BURTON: I haven't talked to him about it.
Q Does he have a feeling -- is he concerned at all about whether a protracted recount could --
MR. BURTON: Not that I know about, but I haven't talked to him about it.
Q Thanks, Bill. This morning the President expressed frustration over the fact that some of his nominees have been subject to a hold for an unrelated piece of business. But as you know, this was a tactic he used to use in the Senate. For example, he had a blanket hold on all EPA nominees because he was upset that the agency hadn't put out I think it was a lead paint ruling. So how do you square that just, you know, his record using somebody else's tactics with what he said this morning?
MR. BURTON: The President thinks that we are in serious times. And in order to take on the challenges that we've got, he needs a full team. It's all hands on deck right now. And some of the things that have been held up -- like let's take some nominees, for example, and there was an unemployment insurance last month. It's something that was held up for a long time that was wildly popular; it ended up getting passed 88-10 or so. There's no point in holding things up that people support just to make a point that isn't helping the American people. So we're trying to make as much progress as we can here, and to do that we're going to need a full team.
Q So as far as why it's different now as opposed to then is just because the situation is a lot more serious with the economy and --
MR. BURTON: What I'm saying is that people are holding up nominees who are actually really popular and that the United States Senate would support given the opportunity. And we need a full team in order to take on the things that we've got going here.
Q Yes, I'd like to take one crack at the health care angle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has essentially said that she could the votes to pass a bill provided that she had the guarantees that the Senate would act either first or during to amend its legislation. What is the White House doing to convey that message to Senate Democrats who, as the President rightly noted, need to act if health care is to pass?
MR. BURTON: Well, I think that Speaker Pelosi has made her views clear, and I think that she's probably communicating her own message to Senate Democrats.
Q So you're not helping her out communicating that message?
MR. BURTON: Well, I think that if Speaker Pelosi wants to talk to Senate Democrats, she knows where to find them, and I assume that she is indeed talking to them.
The President, as I've said, has made his principles clear here on health care and thinks that we need to finish the work so that we can get health reform signed into law.
Q Iraq is going to allow 500 people (inaudible) Baathist party in the elections in March. What role did the White House play in the last few days -- I know you've been working on this for a while -- to bring this about? And do you see now that there's a chance for credible elections in March?
MR. BURTON: I'm going to have to get back to you on that.
Thank you. All right, guys. Thanks.
2:05 P.M. EST