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The White House

Briefing by White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, 8/24/09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                       August 24, 2009
Oak Bluffs School Filing Center
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
10:34 A.M. EDT
MR. BURTON: Good morning. I think we're going to call this Martha's File Center. I like it. A little warm. But the President has enjoyed the hospitality of the folks here in Martha's Vineyard and has, so far, hung out last night at the house, had dinner with Valerie Jarrett and her daughter, and the Whitakers came over. This morning the President worked out. He played some tennis with the First Lady, is going to hit the links today with Congressman Clyburn, Mr. Wolf of UBS, and Marvin Nicholson of the White House.
And here's what's on the reading list, because I know that some folks have been asking -- it's long: "The Way Home," by George Pelecanos; Tom Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded"; Richard Price's "Lush Life"; Kent Haruf's "Plainsong"; and "John Adams" by David McCullough.
Q What was the fourth one?
MR. BURTON: The fourth one? Kent Haruf -- "Plainsong." That one?
With that, I'll take some questions.
Q The CIA Inspector General report is expected to be released today, and it's expected to discuss detainee abuse. What reaction is the administration going to have to this report?
MR. BURTON: Well, as the President has said repeatedly, he thinks that we should be looking forward, not backward. He does agree with the Attorney General that anyone who conducted actions that had been sanctioned should not be prosecuted. But ultimately, the decisions on who is investigated and who is prosecuted are up to the Attorney General. So I would refer you to the Department of Justice for any follow-ups.
Q So now we have this report, we have looked backwards. Does the White House support going after people who may have committed crimes?
MR. BURTON: The White House supports the Attorney General making the decisions on who gets prosecuted and investigated.
Q Does the President have a preference?
MR. BURTON: The President thinks that Eric Holder, who he appointed as a very independent Attorney General, should make those decisions.
Q Bill, I know that there's no -- nothing official as far as a visit to Senator Kennedy, just across the Sound there, but is that a possibility that he might go by and visit Senator Kennedy during this week?
MR. BURTON: There's no plans for that. And I heard some reports today that the Secret Service had visited Hyannis Port. I don't think that there's any reason to believe that there's any plan to go to Hyannis Port at this point. I think that if Secret Service agents were there they probably heard, like all of you already know, that they have great lobster rolls out there and they're probably just checking on it. (Laughter.)
Hold on, I've got to get to Reuters.
Q General Motors' choice of a buyer for Opel -- there's been a lot of talk back and forth about the Secretary of State getting involved. Is there any thought that the President plans to speak with Merkel about it?
MR. BURTON: The President's view is that decisions made about the day-to-day operations at General Motors should be made by the folks at General Motors. He never wanted to get into the auto business, and he's happy for them to make their decisions and get back on their feet.
Q So no plans for him to get involved at all?
MR. BURTON: None that I know of.
Q And what about the talk that the Secretary of State may have gotten involved? Do you know anything about that?
MR. BURTON: I don't know anything about that. I would direct you over there.
Q Yes, on the new unit, the elite unit to question these terror suspects, what does the White House hope to get from this unit that it -- you know, information that couldn't have been garnered in other ways?
MR. BURTON: Well, for starters, I can confirm the Washington Post report is largely accurate, and that the President, at the consensus recommendation of his interagency task force on interrogations and detainees, did put in place a new group, the high-value interrogation group, which will be housed at the FBI. The director will report to the director of the FBI. And it'll bring together all the different elements of the intelligence community to get the best intelligence possible based on scientifically proven methods and consistent with the Army Field Manual.
The President's view is that intelligence gathering is best left to the intelligence community, and this is a way that the intelligence community can best operate, especially in these high-value instances.
Q So there's a sense, then, that what was in place before, other kinds of experts who were used to interrogate these suspects, this will be more efficient, you'll get better information?
MR. BURTON: Well, the President's view is that we can always work harder to protect the American people, and when he signed an executive order that put this task force in place to find new methods by which we can get more intelligence by scientifically proven means, he thought that they would be able to come up with a good plan in order to do just that. He has full confidence in this plan. And he's going to continue to support it going forward.
Q And one other thing on Afghanistan. Is the President at all concerned that perhaps there are not enough troops on the ground to get the job done, as he really has ramped things up there? I mean, there's the sense that we don't have enough people on the ground there to get the job done.
MR. BURTON: Well, as the -- let me start by saying that the men and women who serve the United States in Afghanistan are performing courageously and bravely under the most dangerous conditions in the world, and the President appreciates their service and is humbled by it. And the reason that we're there is because the people who plotted and executed the attacks of 9/11 operate there still and are still plotting against us. And the reason that we're there is to stop them. The President put in place a strategy by which we would disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies. And his view is that the -- when he laid out his policy earlier this year to put more troops on the ground, put a new strategy in place is a winning strategy.
As you know, General McChrystal has only been there for a short time. But he's undergoing a thorough review and assessment of the progress that we've made and what else we need to do in order to continue to make progress. So I think that we're going to hold off until we get that assessment back, not prejudge or predetermine based on reports that are coming out of the region, and make a decision accordingly.
Q On the investigation of abusive interrogations, you referred us to the Justice Department. Are you suggesting that the President will accept whatever recommendation the Attorney General comes up with?
MR. BURTON: I'm not just suggesting that. I'm saying that the President thinks that the decision of who to investigate and to prosecute is in his hands.
Q And does the -- are you saying the White House has no role? Is the White House now communicating with the Justice Department on that? Has the President himself had any communications?
MR. BURTON: When the President appointed Attorney General Holder to the job, he said specifically that he wanted him to be independent and he wanted the Department of Justice to be an independent entity. He has great faith in Attorney General Holder, but he ultimately is going to make the decisions.
Q So it's completely hands off, absolutely up to the Attorney General, no matter what the decision --
MR. BURTON: The decision is in the Attorney General's hands.
Q Does the establishment of this group within the FBI mean that the CIA is effectively out of the interrogation business?
MR. BURTON: I'm sorry, say that again.
Q Does the establishment of this group within the FBI, under the FBI's purview, mean that the CIA is out of the terror interrogation business?
MR. BURTON: Oh, no, absolutely not. The CIA is obviously -- obviously has a very important role to play as it relates to interrogations. They've done a brilliant job in doing it so far, gathering intelligence. A lot of people don't know that half of the FBI's mission is actually to gather intelligence. So what this does is it houses all these different elements under one group where they can best perform their duties. The intelligence community is going to have a deputy who will be in that group, and obviously the CIA will be very involved in this.
Q So the CIA will have a seat at that table?
Q Bill, what is the President doing to stay in front of the health care debate? He's out of the spotlight, obviously, out of Washington, behind the scenes, playing golf. Is he doing anything to maintain the message?
MR. BURTON: Well, as you know, there's no calls or meetings on his schedule right now. But I will say that he's obviously staying up to date with it. He's getting daily briefings, and he's talking to advisers as appropriate. But back at the White House, you can bet that Nancy-Ann DeParle and her team of folks is still working very hard to find some bipartisan consensus to move forward.
Q But is there a concern that they might lose steam? I mean, the President obviously is the strongest advocate on that?
MR. BURTON: I think that the President has a lot of faith in his team, and he also is due a little time to recharge his batteries with his family. So he's happy to be here in Martha's Vineyard. The health care debate I think is moving forward at a good clip. If you listen to what John McCain had to say yesterday on This Week, he said there is broad agreement on some of the key things as it relates to health care from bringing down costs to getting more folks covered to not spending too much money to do it.
So the President thinks that there is still a real possibility of getting a bipartisan plan through. He's going to continue to work towards that end. And right now -- he's probably at the golf course by now.
Q You just said he's not -- there are no calls on the schedule, but we were told by another press guy -- blond guy, glasses -- that he would be making calls to individual members of Congress on health care.
MR. BURTON: Sure. But there's nothing on the schedule. He's going to do that as appropriate. And stay tuned. If there's any readouts on anything that he's doing, I'll be sure to keep you --
Q Will you wait until the next day, or will you tell us right after that happens?
MR. BURTON: We'll go case-by-case basis.
Q Senator Kennedy, as you know, has asked the governor and the legislature to change the law to appoint someone to his seat if something should happen, if the seat is vacated for whatever reason. The big concern is about the health care vote, if it's close. Is the President concerned at all about losing Senator Kennedy's vote, and what might happen if the Senator's seat is vacated?
MR. BURTON: I don't think that there are many people in the history of our country who've worked harder towards health care reform than Senator Kennedy. So obviously any support from Senator Kennedy is critically important. The issue that you brought up isn't one that he's discussed with Senator Kennedy. I don't know that we've had any discussions, even on a staff level, with the governor of Massachusetts. But that's something for folks in Massachusetts to decide, not for the President to decide.
Q But is he concerned if it's a very close vote? I mean, if it's a real close vote and the Senator's vote isn't there, does that concern him?
MR. BURTON: Well, obviously, we'd like to get all the votes that we could for health care reform. The President would love to get 100 votes in the Senate for health care reform. We're going to work towards getting as big a majority as possible in order to achieve exactly what the President is trying to achieve. But decisions like that, that you're talking about, are up to folks in Massachusetts.
Q There are some making an issue of the President, that his arrival was not open to the public, and that the public wasn't allowed in. I mean, how is the -- the President was obviously aware of the greeting that he got on the roads and everything, but how is he going to balance that out, the security, with the fact that people want to see him?
MR. BURTON: Well, as you know, when we were originally coming in and the reason we had to delay was there were real weather concerns over whether or not we could have a big public arrival when we got here. So I don't think we were able to organize something like that knowing that the weather was going to be in such tough shape. So the President -- as I said, he really appreciates being here in Martha's Vineyard. Folks have been very warm in welcoming him. He's been coming here for some 10 years now and he plans to come back. So hopefully, going forward, there will be some opportunities for him to be out in the public, but for right now he's just spending a little time with his family.
Q Is the foursome with Congressman Clyburn, I guess, is he the only member of Congress who will be playing golf with him this week, or will there be other people visiting him throughout the week? And what's the President's relationship with Mr. Wolf?
MR. BURTON: He's friends with Mr. Wolf. And right now that's the only member of Congress he's scheduled to play golf with. You know, he's on vacation, so everything is a little bit loose. You know, you wake up, you have some breakfast, you workout, and then you decide, what do I feel like doing today? He's doing that just like anybody else.
Q Is he here specifically to play golf today?
MR. BURTON: I'm pretty sure he was already here.
Q Bill, Governor David Paterson in New York has given a couple interviews recently in which he said the criticism he's received as governor is racially based because we haven't reached a post-racial society. He suggests that Governor Deval Patrick's problems are similarly based, and he said that President Obama would be the next victim of this kind of bias in the media. Does the White House agree with that assessment that the criticism of African American politicians is often racially based?
MR. BURTON: The President's view is that -- and I'll be honest, we haven't been following that race with the sort of granularity where we might know the ins and outs of what's going on with David Paterson. But I will say that we're obviously in close touch with governors from time to time.
In terms of media coverage and the President, he thinks that there are a lot of people who agree with him in the media, there are a lot of people who disagree with him in the media, and there's a lot of folks who just report it straight. Whether or not race plays into that I don't think is the case. The President doesn't think it's the case. What he thinks is that there's a lot of people who have different opinions, and one of the great parts about the American tradition is that people are able to do that freely. And that's the sort of thing that makes our democracy so strong.
It's Major's birthday, so I'm going to go to him. (Laughter.) And I understand that on your birthday you don't have to ask too many questions --
Q No, I don't. Senator Schumer has asked for a U.N. resolution condemning the release of Megrahi. Does the administration have any position on that, number one? And number two, there are reports that if Ghadafi wants to see the President at the United Nations General Assembly in September, the White House has already decided that meeting will not happen? Can you comment on either of those two?
MR. BURTON: I don't know about Schumer's resolution. I would suggest that you contact my good friend Mark up in Ambassador Rice's office on that. As for seeing Ghadafi at the General Assembly, as you know, this year Ghadafi is the head of the General Assembly, and so I assume that at some point they'll run into each other, but there is no scheduled meeting and no plans to schedule one.
Q Is anything with Libya different now after the Megrahi welcome than it was before?
MR. BURTON: The President's view is that, as you've seen members of his administration say, from Robert Gibbs to Robert Mueller, it was disgusting to see a convicted terrorist welcomed the way that he was in Libya. So obviously the President feels like that was a particularly bad idea, that they shouldn't have done -- that we said beforehand -- that they should not have done. But in terms of our relationship, we'll just work on a case-by-case basis on whatever is appropriate going forward.
Q Senator Lieberman said over the weekend it might be worthwhile -- the White House's while to start over on health care. What's your reaction to that?
MR. BURTON: I think a lot of folks have a lot of different opinions. We're dealing with 535 members of Congress, some of which this weekend, like John McCain, said that there is great agreement. Kent Conrad said there also is great agreement. We think that the reason we've been able to make more progress on health care than any other President in the last 60 years is because the American people are foursquare behind getting something done. Costs have gotten to a point where they're completely out of control.
And the President's view is that until we get costs under control, until we get health care reform passed in this country, we're not going to be able to get everybody covered, we're not going to be able to get in place the kind of insurance reforms that the American people need, like not losing your health insurance just because you get sick, not being able to be stopped by getting health insurance because you have a preexisting condition.
And so the President feels like the process we've got moving forward is a good one. We've already gotten the support of doctors and nurses, hospitals. AARP has said that they are for health care reform. The President feels good about the progress that we've been able to make, and we're going to continue to move towards getting a bill done and getting health care reform passed this year.
Q What's your surrogate activity this week?
MR. BURTON: I don't exactly know. I will get back to you on that.
Q Bill, what kind of challenge does the administration face with half of its senior positions not being confirmed by the Senate yet?
MR. BURTON: I saw that report in The New York Times today, and I will say that what it missed was the fact that it's possible to slice presidential appointees in a whole bunch of different ways, and the way that that report did it specifically made it look like actually we're not doing very well. But if you compare where this President is to the most recent previous Presidents, we're actually far ahead of where they were when it comes to presidential appointees.
Now, are there individual frustrations along the way, like the fact that Congressman McHugh is being held up for partisan purposes and not able to serve in his job as Secretary of the Army, which people broadly think that he is able to do capably? Sure, absolutely. But if you look at the progress we've been able to make in this administration in just seven months, from what we've done on the auto industry, what we've done on the financial industry, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to children's health care, to stem cell research, to equal pay -- we've been able to do a whole lot. And the President is confident in his team and the team that he's putting together in order to continue to make the progress that he promised on the campaign trail.
Q But just comparing it to other administrations, maybe they had problems, too. I mean, is it making the job harder when half of these positions are unfilled?
MR. BURTON: Like I said, I think that that report did not accurately reflect the fact that there actually are a lot more folks in our administration and the pace is a lot quicker than it had been in previous administrations. So the President's view is, do we have some more hiring to do? Sure. But are we able to make a lot of progress with the team that's in place right now? Absolutely.
So I think that, moving forward, the President feels good about his team and is going to continue to put together a strong team.
Q (Inaudible) in confirming these positions?
MR. BURTON: In some cases. But there's other cases like Congressman McHugh that I mentioned, for Secretary of Army, where the answer is no.
Q Why does the administration seem to be so thin-skinned with regard to Fox News?
MR. BURTON: Thin-skinned -- that's interesting. I wouldn't say that we're thin-skinned. I would say that we appreciate that there are people not just at Fox, but in all aspects of the media who are -- who come to this with sometimes very sharp opinions, sometimes very tough questions, and the President has, in the past, obviously been happy to take tough questions, and the administration certainly has. We've appeared with conservatives with Michael Smerconish as recently as this week. The President has appeared with Chris Wallace, even Bill O'Reilly.
So the President welcomes a vigorous debate. He hopes that people keep an eye on the facts, as they're having it, but I don't know what you would base that assertion on, frankly.
Q It just seems to be singled out a lot of the times, especially with regard to cable chatter. Some people consider that maybe code for the Fox News Channel?
MR. BURTON: Oh, really? Where do you think they've been singled out?
Q I don't know. It seems like it's been mentioned by Gibbs, by the President himself, and by others.
Q Over the course of the last six months.
MR. BURTON: Fox News?
Q Yes, the Fox News Channel. And it just seems like on a number of occasions --
MR. BURTON: I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your questions.
Q It seems like in a number of occasions we've been singled out for maybe being a little more critical than some of the other cable networks, some of the other media outlets. Is that a strategy or is that some -- is that more haphazard?
MR. BURTON: Yes, like I said, I don't agree with the premise of your question, and so I wouldn't really know how to answer it.
Q Could you address the sort of complaints from Republicans (inaudible) NRCC -- is this really the best time for the man leading it all to be sipping wine (inaudible).
MR. BURTON: Who's that release from, I'm sorry?
MR. BURTON: NRCC. As I recall, the previous President actually had taken quite a bit a vacation himself, and I don't think that anybody bemoaned that or bemoans this President trying to take some time with his family to recharge his batteries and get ready for the fight ahead. He's obviously worked very hard this year, as have some members of the staff. I don't know about all of them; I know Tommy is in flip-flops today. But I think the President feels good about the progress that we've been able to make, but I think that it's important for the President, just like it is for any other individual, to take a little time, spend it with their family, recharge their batteries, so they're ready for the final push for the year.
Q You mentioned surrogate activities and phone calls, that there were none set today and you didn't know of surrogate activities going forward. Is it possible that we'll go several days without any of these sorts of activities? And also, following up on Chip, are you going to let us know in advance or after these things take place?
MR. BURTON: If the President decides to pick up the phone and call a member of Congress, I'm not going to let you know in advance. But I will encourage you to stay in touch, talk to Reid Cherlin about any surrogate activity that's happening this week. But we'll keep you posted on any information about --
Q So it is possible we'll go for several days without -- with him just relaxing and not doing any of these activities?
Q Bill, over the weekend, Senator Lieberman made the argument that there may be a good moral argument for expanding coverage, health care coverage, but not a good economic one right now. Could you respond to that, and also say whether you think that might be a concern (inaudible) starting to creep through Congress?
MR. BURTON: Well, I didn't see Senator Lieberman's remarks, so I can't respond directly to that. But on the economic argument for health care reform, I think it's pretty clear -- and the President has been talking about it for quite some time -- that if we don't get costs under control, the way that they're going up is causing the health insurance industry to shed tens of thousands of Americans each month as a result of rising costs.
And those higher costs are causing Medicare and Medicaid and state-run health care programs to create budgetary problems that are just fiscally unsustainable. So the President's view is that health care reform is important for health care's sake. But if you look at the long-term fiscal health in this country, it's critically important, as well.
Q Can I ask, now that he's here, can you give us more insight as to why the President chose to come to Martha's Vineyard as opposed to any place else? And can you give us an assessment of his level of desire to in some way engage the public here? Because, as you know, there is a lot of -- a lot of desire sort of for them to be seen in some public setting.
MR. BURTON: Sure. The President has been coming to Martha's Vineyard for some 10 years. He's probably been five or six times over the course of that time period. He enjoys it. It's comfortable. The beaches are nice. The people are particularly nice. There's really good food to eat. (Laughter.) If you're lucky and you go down to the Sand Pit [sic] on a Sunday night, Charlotte is singing. There's a lot of great things about Martha's Vineyard. And the President enjoys coming here, and he probably will continue to.
In terms of engaging the public, if he decides to put anything like that on the schedule -- be it a public event or just going out for dinner or anything like that -- we'll be sure to let you know.
Q Are they interested in doing anything?
MR. BURTON: His desire in Martha's Vineyard is to get a little break. He certainly appreciates the hospitality of the folks who are here. But his desire here is to relax and spend time with the family. All right, just last one.
Q Do you know if he's got any plans to host any sort of big dinner or anything at his place with other folks on the island?
MR. BURTON: No. At this point, there's no plan for that. I wouldn't foreclose that notion. But there's no plan for that right now.
11:00 A.M. EDT