Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 1/14/10
1:02 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, welcome to the White House. One quick announcement before we get to questions.
The President has invited a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to come to the White House on Thursday, January 21, to talk about strengthening the economy and creating jobs in communities large and small across America. Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Dr. Larry Summers will also convene a discussion on jobs and the economy while the mayors are here in town.
On Wednesday, January 20, First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver remarks to the U.S. Conference on Mayors 78th Winter Meeting and discuss the launch of a major initiative to address the problem of childhood obesity and the impact that it has on the health of the nation and communities around the country.
And with that, Mr. Feller.
Q Thanks, Robert. Two topics, please. On Haiti, Secretary Clinton said this morning that “the United States is providing a lot of the glue that is keeping people communicating and working together as we try to assert authority, reinstate the government, and begin to do what governments have to do to rebuild” the country. And then the President said “This is one of these moments that calls out for American leadership.” Is the U.S. government essentially in charge of Haiti, at least for the foreseeable future?
MR. GIBBS: No. Obviously you know Haiti is governed by a sovereign Haitian government. We have been in contact, our administration has been in contact with the Haitian government, as they have with governments around the world, in seeking and requesting the type of assistance that our nation and other nations are providing, Ben, even as we speak.
The President last evening spent a little more than an hour in the Situation Room and was clear with the entire team involved that it was important that we do everything in our human power to help American citizens that are in Haiti, to help the Haitian people recover from a devastating earthquake. He was clear with all of us about the need to demonstrate American leadership in dealing with a disaster that happened so close to our home and is in a region -- is in basically our own neighborhood.
Q So is it the feeling of the White House that the Haitian government is literally in a position to assert leadership there, given the devastation?
MR. GIBBS: The Haitian government is in control of Haiti. They're the government of Haiti. They have asked for, as you can imagine, to meet the devastating earthquake, extraordinary assistance that the President has instructed all of the members of our team to work as hard as humanly possible on helping to provide to them. We will -- the President will continue to get regular updates on this. You heard him speak this morning on this. I assume there will be more meetings with him this afternoon on this topic as well.
Q I also wanted to ask you about health care. What can you tell the American public about this breakthrough the White House has reached with union leaders about the taxation of high-value insurance plans?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have any announcements to make at the moment. We may have more later in the day. I can tell you, Ben, that, as you got in the statement last evening, the President and Democratic members of Congress and the Senate worked throughout the day yesterday, made a tremendous amount of progress in bridging the differences that existed between the two pieces of legislation that have passed the House and the Senate. We've discussed many of those issues here, one of which obviously was an excise tax on insurers that offer health plans that exceed a certain threshold. And we will -- we may have more on that for you later today.
Q Just a very quick follow on that. You're not able to say more now because the details are still coming together, or why?
MR. GIBBS: We are not ready yet to talk about all of what may be pending.
Q Also a couple questions on Haiti. The President announced $100 million in immediate assistance, relief aid. Considering -- given the magnitude of the damage and destruction there, how much higher is it likely to go?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know, honestly, that there has been -- I don't know how much focus there has been on tallying, in monetary terms, Matt, the devastation that we've all seen on television over the last many hours since the earthquake struck. I know at this point, the President's focus is in search and rescue. We know there are some 40,000 to 45,000 American citizens that are in Haiti. Obviously, there are -- there's the U.N., there are NGOs, there's millions of Haitians in the capital city. And time is critical to ensure those safety efforts.
We want to make sure that we're doing all that we can right now, in this window of time, to get materials and assets as quickly as possible there to assist in that search and rescue. We know that there are likely people trapped, still trapped in this rubble, that have a good chance if we can get to them. I think that's what our primary focus is right now.
Q And on the bank fees, the President expressed outrage today about the resurgence of Wall Street bonuses. How can the administration practically get these banks to roll back bonuses or hold down on them, and to use that money to repay the bailout funds as he suggested?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the second part I don't --
Q Well, he said that they should roll back their bonuses, then use that money to pay the bailout funds, instead of passing it on to the customers.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me go through -- there's a number of different questions. First and foremost, the President discussed today his proposal for a financial crisis responsibility fee. You've heard the President before discuss ensuring that taxpayers that acted quickly to deal with, quite frankly, the wreckage left by excessive risk-taking and its threat to our financial and economic system, that those taxpayers deserve to be made whole and paid back for the money that was lent to financial institutions that have caused all this damage.
We think it's structured in a way that is reasonable. It is a little hard hearing some of the criticism coming from banks about what the President has proposed, based on the fact that the taxpayers have so generously lent their money at a time in which exponentially more money has been set aside for bonuses and compensation, because they think the good times are back. It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to me. It doesn't make any sense to the President. And I can't imagine it makes any sense to anybody watching in America to believe that somehow somebody that sets aside exponentially more for bonuses is going to take -- is going to pass this fee on to their customers.
Now, if they do, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and I think Americans will look at one of the 8,000 or 9,000 banks in this country that acted responsibly and move their money there. Americans have a choice in where they bank.
Again, I don't -- I think it strains your credibility to somehow believe or even make the case that this is something you have to pass on to your customers if you're setting aside somewhere on the order of 10 times that amount of money just to pay out bonuses.
This is a responsible way to ensure that the law is upheld and that taxpayers are paid back in full for the money that they lent to stabilize our financial system.
Q But if the marketplace does not -- fails to discipline these banks and prevent them from passing on the costs of these fees to their customers, are there any legislative measures that the administration would contemplate?
MR. GIBBS: Certainly I'll talk to the economic team, but it's a little play off that old slogan -- I think you can let your money do the talking. You just -- if your bank has decided that as a way of repaying your generosity in papering over their excessive risk-taking that almost crashed this economy into something as deep as the Great Depression, if their great reward to you is to pass the bar tab for their wreckage on to you, I would suggest to anybody that is at a bank like that to move it to any number of small and community banks throughout this country that somehow got by all these years playing by the rules.
Q There are reports from sources familiar with the negotiations that a tentative deal has been reached on the excise tax in the health care reform measure. What can you tell us about that?
MR. GIBBS: Nothing more than I just told Ben in answering -- in asking me largely the same thing. If we have more later today, we will certainly -- if we're in a position to talk about -- more about that, we will.
Obviously the President met a few days ago with representatives from labor unions all over the country who are concerned about the structure of the tax impacting their working men and women, their members. The President has obviously a strong desire to see a bending in the cost curve for health care, while at the same time not impacting working men and women.
So those meetings have taken place in order to try to find some sort of compromise that does not impact working men and women, while at the same time we take responsible actions to ensure that the amount of money that people are paying for health care, that we change the direction of that curve.
Q When you say working men and women, do you only mean working men and women who are members of unions?
MR. GIBBS: I mean that, I guess euphemistically, for those that are largely middle-class employees.
Q As a theoretical -- theoretically, is it fair to exclude -- and I'm not saying that this is what the deal was -- but as a theoretical question, is it fair to exclude health insurance plans that were the result of collective bargaining from this tax, and ones that were not a result of collective bargaining be hit with this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jake, let me wait for us to get into where those details are. I would say that throughout this legislation there will be -- there are in a number of areas measures and ideas that are phased in over time in order to transition from where we are to something that is better for the American people, more sustainable on our budgets, and provides better quality care for those in need.
Q I guess my question is, certainly there are a lot -- you would not dispute the fact that there are a lot of working people who are not members of unions -- maybe they've tried to form unions and they've not been allowed to; maybe they're in so-called right-to-work states -- but certainly the administration would never agree to something that would exclude working men and women --
MR. GIBBS: I think we'll have a better chance to talk about this when we walk through hopefully something that has been agreed upon that moves health care closer to passing.
Q Just one quick follow-up. Yesterday when I asked you how we have -- how are you guys going to avoid banks passing on this fee, this tax, to the consumer, you said it would be constructed in such a way. But so far all I can really discern, that the only thing that would prevent it is this idea of shame and the fact that 50 banks are going to be hit and 8,000 others are not.
MR. GIBBS: Well, except for the fact that, again, the structure -- the way this is structured is -- look, you could have structured this a number of different ways. We could have sought --
Q You could have taxed the bonuses.
MR. GIBBS: Well, but you have 100 -- we believe, and we'll show in the budget, $117 billion left to be repaid to the TARP to make it whole again. That's down from I think earlier in the year, on the order of about $340 billion. We structured this in a way that we felt was reasonable and responsible for an industry that has, quite honestly, bounced back pretty quickly, again, largely because of -- excuse me, almost entirely because of the help of taxpayers in making sure that there was a floor. We believe it's structured in a way that banks shouldn't pass this on, and that it shouldn't be something that is considered so amazingly onerous on them.
Again, if you're a bank and you're going to pay into a fee structure that we think will recoup on the order of $90 to $100 billion -- let's use that as a range over a 10-year period of time, because we think that $117 billion is likely to still come down some. But if you're likely to -- if that's the pool of money you're talking about, there's a number greater than that pool of money that's now being set aside for bonuses.
Now, maybe I missed their testimony yesterday where they said, we're going to pass all of our bonuses, the costs of all our bonuses on to their customers, and we're going to pass each and everything on to -- we believe it's structured in a rational and reasonable way that would allow banks to meet their requirements, meet our requirements under the law, not be overly onerous, but at the same time not be such that it's such a tremendously new business expense that would need to be passed on. I think the way it's structured --
Q Why not just tax the bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: But, Jake, don't you think --
Q But they can't -- they can't pass, necessarily -- they can't pass that onto the consumer.
MR. GIBBS: My guess is, Jake, that you would have them say that they'll pass that on, too.
Q They already are. I mean, they're already saying that they're going to pass this onto --
Q Why do you care what they say?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not caring what they say, I'm trying to explain -- I'm trying to answer Jake's question about --
Q Why not tax bonuses.
MR. GIBBS: -- what they pass on, and whether or not they rationalize what's being charged to them in a responsibility fee as to their M.O. for passing that onto consumers.
Q Why not tax bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: No, I understand. Again, it was structured in way -- we believe this was structured in a way that makes this the most responsible way to do that.
Q Taxing bonuses would not be the most responsible way?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we came up with the way that we thought was the best way to do this.
Q Aren't the banks supposed to have four years to pay this money back?
MR. GIBBS: Over the -- the law calls for by, I think it's by 2013, Congress and the executive branch have to have a way to make taxpayers whole. I don't believe the law stipulates the length of time for the actual repayment. I don't think they got into that.
Q Is the President pleased with the pace of the U.S. response in Haiti?
MR. GIBBS: He is, but I think he was clear with the team yesterday that day and night we have to do all that we can, as quickly as we can, to get assets, to get teams, to get personnel, to get resources as quickly as possible to Haiti. Obviously, Dan, as I talked about here earlier, there's a window of -- there's a time period, a window of time that -- whereby we have the greatest ability to impact the search and rescue portion of what's likely to be a very long mission for the international community in dealing with the devastation that we've seen.
That's been our goal, that's been the President's goal, is to try to get that there as rapidly as possible. Obviously there are logistical hurdles to overcome. It takes a few days to get ships there. We've got an aircraft carrier that's heading there now. Obviously the devastation in and around the capital will make -- no passing notes in class. Teachers used to take that stuff, they'd read them, but I won't -- (laughter.)
But obviously there's logistical hurdles, too, in moving some of this stuff, right -- unloading, ensuring that there's platforms for -- sufficient platforms for aircraft and helicopters, getting stuff moved in around the roads. I would say this, I think the President is pleased but took the beginning of the meeting last night to remind all of us that precious lives were at stake, that time was of the essence, that he expected the team to continue to work around the clock as they -- honestly, as they've done literally since we first got word of this many hours ago.
Q Any plans to send in former President Bush or former President Clinton on behalf of the administration?
MR. GIBBS: Well, President George W. Bush, obviously, after the tsunami struck several years ago, enlisted the help of his dad and former President Clinton in coordinating and raising -- helping to coordinate relief and raising money for the efforts in the area affected by the tsunami. President Obama last evening spoke with President George W. Bush and asked if he would take part in an effort similar to the good idea that he had around what has happened in Haiti.
Obviously the administrations of George H.W. Bush, the administration of Bill Clinton, the administration of George W. Bush, and now the Obama administration have worked and we've seen a lot of resources go to Haiti and the Haitian people. We obviously have a vested interest in the government and the people there. He asked them, again, to come together in an effort similar to the one that was done for the tsunami.
We'll have more details on that in the coming days. Again, our focus right now is on ensuring that what resources and capabilities we have are gotten to the region and gotten to Haiti as quickly as possible to affect that window of time for search and rescue.
Q Can you tell us if they at least initially have agreed --
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry, they have agreed -- both of them have agreed to take part in this. Again, I don't have details past that at this point, but in the very, very near future we will, as we focus again, and for the time being, on search and rescue.
Q On banks and bonuses, the President sounded particularly angry today. What made him catch up with the street and the outrage of people?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Helen, I'd remind you that a little more than a year ago the President was angry in the Oval Office about bonuses. I think when you read, as many of us did this weekend, about the newest bonus season coming around and the money that's being set aside, and it appears as if banks that through excessive risk helped cause -- through that excessive risk helped cause an economic catastrophe believe that the good times have returned. I think that's upsetting and would make angry many people in this country.
Q Especially those out of work.
MR. GIBBS: Especially those out of work, absolutely, who have see their tax money go to ensuring that a financial system doesn't collapse any further, and now are having trouble either finding work, or those who do have work, if they're in a small business, are having trouble finding a loan. You've heard the President talk about this in financial reform. We have in financial regulatory reform our proposals for shareholders to have a say on executive compensation. Companies that have received extraordinary assistance have to have their pay packages approved.
But -- I was asked this yesterday before the hearing started about what caused all this and whether or not the companies -- whether or not the banks should apologize, and I said yesterday, and I would say again today, I think an apology is the least that the American people are owed.
What the President outlined today was a plan for ensuring that that apology came with being made whole for the money that was lent to them after what they did to the economy.
Q One more question is, does the President feel remiss by not attaching some conditions, except for repayment of the --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, look, TARP was structured -- TARP was structured in September of -- September/October of '08. It didn't include -- it included the provision obviously in the law that requires repayment in full. It didn't require measures on executive compensation. So unfortunately that's a time that's passed. In all honesty, there were -- extraordinary assistance was rendered by the Fed and other places even before TARP was set up. So you even have companies -- you have -- AIG received the bulk of their assistance in a setup that even is a concentric circle outside of what even TARP is. I think we've all been remiss that there weren't stronger guidelines on that.
Q Following up on her question, this does not apply only to TARP banks, right?
MR. GIBBS: I think the call that we did last night lays out the formula for how this will be -- who this would apply to.
Q But it could catch non-TARP banks in the net. Is that fair?
MR. GIBBS: I would have to go back and ask some of these guys exactly which of the ones are in there. I think that -- I mean, look, there were big banks that -- some of whom got TARP money that say they didn't want it or didn't need it. But their excessive risk-taking contributed to an industry that made decisions that, in all honesty I don't think were even in their own best interest, and certainly not in the best interest of a stable economy or the American taxpayer.
Q There are obviously a lot of other banks that were TARP banks and paid their money back. Why is it fair to now go after them if they've paid the money back?
MR. GIBBS: Because of what they caused this economy.
Q So it's punishment?
MR. GIBBS: No, it's --
Q It sounds like -- how is that anything but punishment?
MR. GIBBS: It is making the taxpayer whole for the aid that was extended to the industry for a problem caused by the excessive risk-taking of the industry.
Q So if your bank behaved without engaging in that kind of risk, how do you get your bank off the list?
MR. GIBBS: Well, it depends on whether your bank is on the list. Again, there's 8,000 to 9,000 banks in this country. I think the call said around 50 or so would be paying this fee. So as you can see, this is designed for the biggest banks that we all know had the biggest impact on what we all felt and are continuing to feel.
Q Some in the financial community who follow these things very closely on Capitol Hill say that it's clear to them that this won't pass the Senate, that Republicans will vote against it, a lot of moderate Democrats will vote against it.
MR. GIBBS: We'll see.
Q If that's the case, isn't this just politics, an opportunity for the President to --
MR. GIBBS: No, because I --
Q -- beat up on Wall Street banks?
MR. GIBBS: No. No, it's a proposal by the President to uphold the law to ensure that taxpayers are made whole. If individual senators in either party want to make the decision that they don't think this is a good idea, they're certainly free to do that. And they can explain to you just what I've explained -- as I've explained our viewpoint on this responsibility fee.
Q Do you think this does put Republicans in a difficult position, in a box, as a lot of people have been --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know why it would. Why would you think it would?
Q Because they believe it's unfair to go after banks that have already paid back the money, so they oppose it.
MR. GIBBS: Then they can explain that to their constituents and to the American people. If you want to be on the side of big banks then you're certainly -- this is a great country; you're free to do so.
Q That's what this sounds like it's about. It's about the politics of trying to define Republicans as being on the side of the big banks and the President on the side of Main Street.
MR. GIBBS: Chip, I'll leave you to your own devices as to why you believe that all the Republicans are in favor of big banks. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. There will be a vote and we'll get to determine who's on what side. The President has throughout this process laid out that the American taxpayer isn't going to be left holding the tab for the reckless behavior of the banks. They're going to be made whole --
Q This doesn't include Fannie and Freddie, right?
MR. GIBBS: Does not. They're going to be made whole. Obviously, as you point out, this is going to have to go through Congress and people are going to have to decide where they stand. There has been an awful lot of teeth-gnashing and there's been an awful lot of hand-wringing about the way these banks have acted. We'll see if people that have let their comments be known about the irresponsibility of their actions, we'll see if that's backed up by ensuring that the American taxpayers are made whole for what they've lent these bankers.
Q The President pushed these bankers very hard to lend more money when they were here. Isn't this $117 billion that they won't be able to lend?
MR. GIBBS: But, again, Chip, if you believe that, then you should get an interview with one of these bankers and ask one bank why their bonus pool is $28 billion, right? I mean, it strains any common sense to assume that what their share of $9 billion in a year would somehow preclude them from loaning money to a small business when they've set aside $28 billion for bonuses. I mean, I don't know how math works on Wall Street -- that's not the way it worked in Alabama.
Q I have a quick one on Haiti, but I want to follow up on Chip's question. So you're making the taxpayers whole through the banks, but the largest outstanding, I guess, owers of TARP, of TARP creditors or debtors, is AIG. Are they getting -- are they part of this?
MR. GIBBS: Let me get --
Q I don't think they are. GMAC, General Motors, Chrysler.
MR. GIBBS: AIG I believe is in here but I need to find out -- let me find the -- in the background call the -- this was --
Q But the automakers --
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q I understand AIG is sort of a fuzzy --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I don't think it's fuzzy. (Laughter.)
Q They are supposed to be a part of this --
MR. GIBBS: Let me --
Q -- but the automakers are not --
MR. GIBBS: Let me find the part in this --
Q So I guess my question is, does this mean you have written off the automakers paying back TARP?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, not at all.
Q So what happens when that money comes in? Do you give it back to the banks?
MR. GIBBS: No, we give it back to the taxpayers. That's where the money came from.
Q But you're making the whole -- but if you're making the taxpayers whole --
MR. GIBBS: Well, understand this --
Q -- then where does this extra money come from if it does come?
MR. GIBBS: The extra money would go into the Treasury. This does not -- we're not absolving the auto companies for all the bad decisions that got us to the point where -- or that contributed to -- those decisions that contributed to getting to the point where two out of three of the American auto companies were in a position of needing to declare bankruptcy. But --
Q I understand that, but you are getting the banks, it looks like, to basically pay their debt.
MR. GIBBS: But -- no, because, one, we expect, as I think you've seen these companies say, they do expect to be making payments. But, two, the largest contributor to the acceleration in the downturn of car companies' economic health was the overall economy. Again, you know, when you're selling 16 -- when you're producing cars and selling cars at a pace of 16 million a year, for American auto companies, and then because of, again, excessive risk-taking that caused an economic catastrophe to happen in this country, and we now are dealing with an economic situation as we were last year where 10 million cars were being sold, that's going to affect anybody's bottom line. Again, this doesn't --
Q Robert, are you saying --
MR. GIBBS: Let me -- let me just --
Q -- but for the financial crisis the auto industry was on the right track?
MR. GIBBS: Hans, let me -- no, that's why I started the answer to my question by saying this is not to absolve them of the decisions that have been made that lent -- that came to that point, right? You can't -- right, there's no question. But do we not think that?
I mean, again, if you sold 16 million pairs of shoes in 2007 or 2008, and then you sold 10, do you think your company would be improving its economic picture? Not likely. Not likely -- not certainly if you had -- hold on, let me -- now that he's interrupted you and I'm now on his question.
Q Glad the court reporter noted.
MR. GIBBS: Exactly. Duly noted -- procedural, I'm told. That you've got a structure that's set up for the production of 16 million cars, an economic catastrophe hits, caused, again, primarily by a series of excessive risk-taking that causes an economic slowdown -- I don't think it's -- I do not think -- we do not think that the structure of this unnecessarily penalizes banks in making those payments.
Q But aren't you absolving the auto companies --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. Again --
Q You're not -- basically, you're not expecting them to pay back the debt, because you're getting all the money back from the banks.
MR. GIBBS: We've got a plan that will get all the money back. If the American taxpayers get more, that will go into the Treasury.
Q All right, I've got a follow-up on Haiti, the security situation there. On the security -- on the security situation, is there an unlimited amount, within reason, but is there an anticipation that you'll end up sending -- have to send more troops? I mean, sort of -- I know the President said today that, I guess, the Brazilians are in charge of the U.N. security force right now?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously, the U.N. has -- the U.N. provides a significant amount of security, particularly domestic police security.
Q What is a "significant amount"? Do you have numbers --
MR. GIBBS: Let me get them from -- Tommy will have them. I think it's on the order of -- I thought the number I heard last night was 9,000 MINUSTAH. But the question -- I mean, obviously it's likely I think that the U.N. has suffered -- well, it's obvious the U.N. has suffered devastating losses, likely as heavy as have ever been sustained on a single day.
So we have gotten -- obviously the 82nd Airborne is being moved -- parts of it, I should say, are being moved both for security as well as -- there will also be units that will go in that deal with logistics and supply chains. Obviously moving -- there will be a tremendous amount of resources, food and water that will be on its way in that have to be distributed and moved, and we'll be working that through.
Q On the security front, I mean, are there other troops that are ready to go, how much more do we have ready to --
MR. GIBBS: The President --
Q -- mobilize National Guard units? I mean, what is --
MR. GIBBS: The President was -- the President last night in the Situation Room discussed with Secretary Gates, with Admiral Mullen, with General Fraser at SOUTHCOM, ensuring that all is being -- all that can be done should be done. Secretary Gates said that there was no higher priority right now for the military in this country than ensuring our rescue and relief efforts, part of which obviously goes to that security.
Q There are all these rumors about gangs, roving gangs from the prison that collapsed. Is that something that's going to be our responsibility at some point?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think, again, based on the devastation that's happened to the U.N. and certainly that's happened in Haiti, I think the international community is likely to have to contribute to a security force and a stabilization effort to ensure that what is on its way can safely get to where it needs to go.
Let me do April and I'll come right back to you.
Q Robert, back on the issue of Haiti, first of all, has the President talked to President Préval as of yet? And what is that conversation going to entail with the President? What is he going to tell him?
MR. GIBBS: We have -- the President tried a couple of times yesterday, and as of me coming out here, they had not spoken directly. Our ambassador on the ground in Haiti had spoken several times with him yesterday. As soon as that call is completed, we'll have a detailed readout on it for you.
Q And also, there are conversations on the Hill about issues of medical attention and medical help for many in Haiti. They're saying because the hospitals are in shambles and things of that nature, there could possibly be need for many of these Haitians to be able to -- airlifted to local or I guess hospitals or medical facilities in the area nearby. And there's a conversation on the Hill about this. Is this White House in agreement with that, if Haitians had to be airlifted here for the specific matter of taking care of medical treatment?
MR. GIBBS: Well, first and foremost, I've not heard discussion about -- and I'll check on whether discussion about bringing anybody here. Obviously there would be the Dominican Republic. There may be some staging in Guantanamo. And one of the assets that is being readied to be moved is the ship the Comfort, that obviously played a big role in tsunami efforts, that has -- its primary mission is medical capabilities to ensure -- obviously we've certainly seen the reports of the sheer scope of the devastation relating to hospitals and medical facilities.
Q But what if there's an overflow -- 3 million people were affected in Port-au-Prince and, I mean, these areas that you said -- Gitmo, Dominican Republic, and the USS Comfort -- I mean, that has a certain amount but what about --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I would say this. The President asked our team to continue to examine any way that we can help. Obviously as time goes, more assessments will be made about the level of resources that are needed from the international community and the role that we'll play in providing that.
Q Robert, on the bank fees again, in the spring the President said that he would recoup the bonuses that were being promised to AIG executives. And there was legislation introduced in Congress, but it died there in part because the White House didn't like it. That, in addition to the fact that this is a $90 billion recoup over 10 years, which doesn't even reach this year's bonus pool, can we believe the President is serious on AIG? And is this a symbolic gesture in terms of this $90 billion being recouped through this?
MR. GIBBS: It's not a symbolic gesture -- $90 billion is what we believe, when you subtract what is likely to be repaid from the $117 billion, that taxpayers are owed. The President is going to go get that money for taxpayers. That's not symbolic. I appreciate that $90 billion --
Q But when you stack it up against the bonuses this year --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know who considers --
Q I mean, I'm using the same math you used just a little earlier.
MR. GIBBS: I don't know who considers the $90 billion that taxpayers are owed as part of TARP symbolic. The President doesn't. The President has a plan that will go get that money back for the taxpayers of this country that lent it to banks so that our financial system wouldn't collapse.
Q Did the idea for reaching out to Presidents Bush and Clinton come up in the Sit Room meeting last evening?
MR. GIBBS: No, the call to President George W. Bush happened I think about a half-hour before that meeting convened -- would have been 6:45ish if my memory serves.
Q Why didn't he announce it today? Are you planning an event with them?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what the details are exactly, Mark, I'll be honest with you. Our focus has been and continues to be on ensuring that all of our energy is dedicated to moving resources there as quickly as possible to affect the search and rescue phase of this operation; that, as I said, there's a window of time that those on the ground and those here believe is crucial for those that may be trapped still to have hope to live. That's our focus at the time -- for the time being and in the immediate future.
But, again, the President believed that the partnership that President George W. Bush created between his dad and former President Clinton was obviously a highly effective way of ensuring that after this phase of the operation, the search and rescue phase of this operation, after that concludes, obviously there's still going to be a tremendous need and there will probably be a tremendous need for many, many months to come, that that's the best vehicle and the most effective vehicle for setting that up. Like I said, I don't know whether it's -- I don't know whether we're talking about only a few hours from now giving you those details or in a couple of days, but we understand that you all are anxious for those, and as soon as they're complete we'll make sure that you all have them.
Q Is it President Obama's plan to restore Haiti to its pre-earthquake conditions, or make it better than that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that the international community had -- has been working for years, and American governments, again, as I mentioned, going back to -- going back many, many administrations, have focused on -- focused efforts on the Haitian people.
Immediately we're focused on ensuring their safety and security, finding them, getting them out of buildings that may have collapsed, ensuring that they have food and water. Obviously the rebuilding effort will take quite some time. But I think all of those involved believe that the goal here is to create something that was stronger than it was in the few moments right before the devastating earthquake.
Q I have a quick health care question, but I just want to clear up one loose end. You said "primarily" there, and I just want to see if I understood you correctly. Do you mean to indicate that the auto industry's insolvency was primarily the fault of the banking industry, or is it of the auto industry?
MR. GIBBS: I'm saying that -- I'm not absolving the auto industry for the decisions that contributed to -- that contributed to over the course, as you said, of many years -- decades -- that we witnessed a decrease in their share of auto sales in this country, in their auto sales worldwide; that nobody would absolve them of a series of exceedingly poor decisions, right? What accelerated that in the short term was a downturn in the economy that we have not seen since -- don't know exactly when they rolled off those cars -- but let's say it's been a long time since the economic conditions of this country have equaled what they did last year.
Q So the "primarily" reference was to the executive --
MR. GIBBS: I have to -- let me get back and look it up --
Q On health care and the $80 billion deal with PhRMA that you guys announced, any effort to bump that up, to get more from the pharmaceutical industry on the fees?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check. I know that obviously one of the issues that was being discussed in this series of meetings was the doughnut hole for prescription drug coverage for seniors. I don't know whether they've come to some resolution.
Chuck, let me just make -- from the call last night, AIG would be covered by the criteria outlined last night and put forward by this legislation. I don't know --
Q Well, let me follow up on AIG. I was -- A, the bonuses, but B --
MR. GIBBS: Never mind. (Laughter.) I'm kidding.
Q I want you to answer Elizabeth's question, too, but on AIG, I mean, isn't this -- this criteria -- why shouldn't AIG, for instance, just -- if you're going to be punitive about this, why shouldn't they make more -- pay more of a fee?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we believe that the fee is structured -- and I won't go through the --
Q But they took greater risk.
Q What about Fannie and Freddie? I mean, they certainly were part of it.
MR. GIBBS: Let me get to them in a second.
Again, we believe this thing is structured based on the size of the institution and is positioned at those that have seen their institutions become healthier faster, in a way that allows us to recoup this money.
In terms of Fannie and Freddie, Jake, they don't -- they're not at an economic health standpoint yet that would allow us to do that.
Q Two questions. On health care, on the timing of the next couple of days, there seems to be some evidence from -- or some suggestion from the Hill that maybe this could bleed into the first part of next week, but that the White House would like to see kind of some broad outline of a deal done by Friday. Can you talk about the timing and what's going to happen? I guess they're coming back later today. It wasn't on the schedule but they’re --
MR. GIBBS: They'll be here at 2:15 p.m. Mike, I don't know if -- I honestly don't know if --
Q You guys want to see this -- something done by Friday?
MR. GIBBS: By last August.
Q You blew through that one. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Just to -- right, so -- in the event that -- I think that sort of speaks for whether it's Friday or Monday. (Laughter.)
Q Hey, Robert, I want to leap in on the bonuses. What about the AIG bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: Let me go through here, and then I'll come back.
Q Just on Haiti, to go back to something somebody talked about. Somebody asked you whether -- who's in charge in Haiti and you said the Haitian government is. And I understand from a diplomatic standpoint that's -- you have to say that, and they are. But from a practical standpoint, I mean, their institutions are broken, their buildings are collapsed, they have no power. Do you know, are some Haitian officials working out of the U.S. embassy physically and do you have some sense that there's a joint --
MR. GIBBS: I'll certainly check -- I can certainly check with our representatives at the embassy. Look, we've all seen the pictures. We've all heard the accounts. The scope is devastating. I don't remember the graphic I saw on television of -- they went through -- I didn't have the sound up for the first part of it but they listed the magnitude of earthquakes and they had several thousand on the scale based on their level on the Richter scale. And I think the number of earthquakes at a 7.0 or above in these several thousand -- either 17 or 18 were in this 7.0 and above. The ones that -- again, this was an accounting of several thousand in number. The devastation is immense. It's unspeakable.
So it is understandable that the capabilities that existed for the government in the moments before it struck don't exist in terms of power and communications, water, food, resources, roads, the airport. They've asked for international assistance and I think it's -- we have contributed, others have contributed, in I think what is nothing short of an extraordinary way to ensure their safety and security.
But, again --
Q I guess I'm just interested in anything you guys could get for us on the actual working of the two governments and who's talking to who and who is making decisions and what ---
MR. GIBBS: Again, I know that our ambassador spoke at least twice yesterday with the President of Haiti, not the President -- but I will -- I'll have Tommy check specifically on it.
Q Just to quickly follow on that, is it clear to you why President Obama hasn't been able to speak to the Haitian President?
MR. GIBBS: Largely, I think because of communications. I'm sorry, like -- I don't mean --
Q They physically can't get a line through?
MR. GIBBS: I think it's the physical. I mean, obviously the President tried on at least two separate occasions yesterday. I will check if during this briefing that call has been completed.
Q Two questions -- one is on China and Google. Is there any concern within this administration that this issue could explode to affect the rest of the relationship with China, particularly if it gets wings or legs on Capitol Hill or within the American public? And how do you --
MR. GIBBS: Wings or legs, how?
Q I mean, if this strikes a chord with the American public or with Congress.
MR. GIBBS: Oh, I'm sure it does.
Q This -- I mean, you've talked a lot --
MR. GIBBS: I think the notion that -- right, I think the notion that -- the notion of what we've seen happen, I can't imagine that it hasn't struck a chord. You heard -- Helene, you heard the President in Shanghai take a question from the Internet about the universal right of a free Internet. He strongly supports that, and we support Google's action in a decision to no longer censure searches that happen using the Google platform.
Whether or not it affects our relationship -- look, we have, the President has, strong beliefs about the universal rights of men and women throughout the globe. Those don't -- those aren't carved out for certain countries. That's why the President answered the way he did in a town hall in Shanghai about the importance of that freedom.
Q So how do you manage -- how do you keep it contained, then, to just -- you have several different issues with China. You have China on Iran, you have the Google-China issue, but if you start -- if we start getting things coming out of Congress, for instance, and this starts to actually strike more of a cord with the public, do you think -- how do you manage the larger relationship?
MR. GIBBS: What do you mean -- do you mean like legislation or -- I don't know what.
Q I mean, are you worried at all about managing this within the frame of the larger relationship?
MR. GIBBS: I think our concern is with actions that threaten the universal rights of a free Internet.
Q And just one more quick question. What did you think of Pat Robertson's comments yesterday that the Haitians brought this on themselves by making a pact with the devil?
MR. GIBBS: It never ceases to amaze that in times of amazing human suffering somebody says something that could be so utterly stupid, but it like clockwork happens with some regularity. What is -- well, I won't --
Q Hey, Robert, you were going to come back on AIG --
Q No, go ahead.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no, I got -- hold on, let me just go --
Q You wanted to say something.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I know, and I -- the universal right of a --
Q Unburden yourself.
MR. GIBBS: -- free press secretary to -- no, I won't. You know, well, I'll tell you afterwards, it actually applies to what I might have said and I quickly formulated it through and -- go ahead.
Q It would have been very stupid.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, it would. (Laughter.)
Q Just briefly, the people coming at 2:15 p.m., is that the same group as yesterday, different subset, staff?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I believe staff is probably -- many staff probably are already here working on what was worked on yesterday. We'll get you a list. I don't know that they'll match up perfectly. Some people may or may not be in town.
Q Can you at least give us a general sense of how close you think things are to a deal, and at least a deal that could be submitted to CBO while some other language is --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that -- I think it's -- I think we are hopeful that by day's end they will have worked through -- House, Senate, and the President -- worked through any number of issues that remain outstanding, not just the excise tax on Cadillac health plans but other issues. So I think we are -- I think we're very, very close. I think -- again, I think they made extraordinary, tremendous progress yesterday. The President -- as you know, a meeting that was supposed to go several hours went several more than possibly originally planned.
Q You said "very, very close" -- do you mean from a whole thing or just the economics, just the scorable stuff?
MR. GIBBS: On many aspects of what remains to get an agreement.
Q Robert, on your favorite subject, I mean, the President was talking about --
MR. GIBBS: What's my favorite subject?
MR. GIBBS: Oh.
Q The President was talking about recouping money for the taxpayers, which the TARP law does require, and you said earlier that TARP didn't require action on bonuses, but you said we --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I'm sorry, what --
Q I just want to make clear -- you said, "We were all remiss on this." Does that mean not doing something about --
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I think Helen's original question was, in the original TARP, as it was passed in October, were there -- did that TARP include strict requirements on exec comp and bonuses. The answer is no, and I said -- look, do I think if people could go back in the way-back machine and land at about that time --
Q The way-back machine. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: The way-back machine, right. (Laughter.) That's what mine is called, Mark. I don't know what yours is called.
Q In Alabama that's what they call time machines, isn't it? The way-back machine.
MR. GIBBS: Mine is the way-back machine.
Q -- good, American time-traveling machine, that's what that is.
Q -- "we were all remiss" -- in other words, back then.
MR. GIBBS: Right, back then. Right, right. What I was talking about --
Q Okay, I understand that.
MR. GIBBS: And the -- I think that may be what Ethan calls it, too, so that's -- no, no. Obviously, I think I did make mention of -- in one of the economic answers here, obviously -- it all runs together. In last spring, early last summer restrictions were put on banks that received extraordinary assistance.
Q Right, but now most of them are out from under that.
MR. GIBBS: Right, now most of them are out from under that, right.
Q But the thing I'm trying to get at is he mentioned four times in extremely strong language today bonuses. And I guess what I'm trying to figure out is the reason why somebody is so angry about bonuses, seems to be almost going out of their way not to do anything about the bonuses. What is preventing you from going after them, or is there some other reason you've chosen not to? There has to be a reason.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we -- you made mention, in clarifying my first answer, that steps have been taken to deal with firms that had received extraordinary assistance.
Q He's talking about the bonuses today.
MR. GIBBS: I understand. I'm just, in totality, trying to answer your question. One of the reasons -- and this was mentioned also on the call last night when we walked through the plan -- you've heard and seen the banks somehow discuss that while we put aside hundreds of billions of dollars for bonuses, it's this $9 or $10 billion that will fundamentally change the way they do business. And I think that strains all credibility in making that analogy.
Q Yes, but I still don't understand the reason you've chosen not to go after bonuses. I mean, you provide --
MR. GIBBS: Again, the structure of this plan -- the structure of what was rolled out was what the economic team was the best way to get at the money that is owed taxpayers.
Q Are you ruling out doing anything -- proposing anything legislatively on bonuses going forward?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not ruling it out or ruling it in.
Q And what about AIG? You guys made no move to recoup those bonuses, and this legislation doesn't or this proposal doesn't do that, either.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think I'd -- I think in the last answer I didn't open or foreclose any action one way or the other. Again, as a result of what happened last spring, restrictions were put on companies that have received extraordinary assistance from the government.
Q But not AIG. The White House proposed that legislation and it died in Congress.
MR. GIBBS: Right. We are continuing to work through, in this process, work through the best way that we felt in order to recoup the money that had been lent to AIG and to other banks in preventing that economic catastrophe.
Q But, Robert, they were allowed by the White House, through your opposition to the measure in Congress, to pay bonuses to their executives. So what is being done to recoup that?
MR. GIBBS: Again -- well, again, I think The Wall Street Journal understands the problem that was had were contracts that were in existence prior to legislation that prevented bonuses, right? I've probably read a few of these articles on, say, your editorial page.
Q Now you're proposing new legislation --
MR. GIBBS: I understand.
Q -- so why not include a measure to recoup those bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: Because right now we're -- right now we are working on how to get the money back that's owed, through TARP, to the American taxpayer.
Q Robert, I want to go back to the choice of George W. Bush. I'm just curious, given how much this President criticized George W. Bush for his response to Katrina on the campaign trail time and time again, why does he think that this -- that that President is the best person to partner with on relief?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I guess the answer would probably be contained in why Bill Clinton worked with the guy he beat to come to the White House.
Q Right, but this President specifically campaigned constantly citing the response to Katrina.
MR. GIBBS: I don't think George Bush would hold up -- I think if you ask George Bush whether the government acted up to its ability in responding to Katrina, I think the answer to that would be no. I think the actions that were taken to deal with the humanitarian crisis from the tsunami, on the other hand, I think worked quite well.
Look, if everything -- if everything I criticized precluded me from ever doing something with them on an issue that we agreed on, we'd all be walking around as 300 million people unable to communicate or deal with anybody else. I mean, I just think that the notion that somehow because you've been critical of the previous administration doesn't mean -- I mean, why do we ever come here to have lunch with them? Why do we ever come here to ask them what's it like to be the President? I mean, I think that --
Q Yeah, but campaigning on that, I mean --
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead.
Q Robert, talking about relationships and partnerships, has the President or anybody from this administration in this effort for outreach reached out to President Chavez of Venezuela or anybody from his administration?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q In addition to the relief efforts, some lawmakers are calling on the administration to grant Haitian illegal immigrants and legal visitors temporary protected status, which would give them a chance to live and work here legally while their country recovers. Is that something the White House is leaning toward?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know where that is at this moment but I'll check on that.
Q Robert, I know you think of the one-year anniversary as a Hallmark holiday, but nevertheless people will be telling that story in the coming days. How do you tell the story of the first year when you're talking to people about it?
MR. GIBBS: In the circles under my eyes. (Laughter.)
Q Just a visual. I mean, how do you describe the year? What are the things you hit? What do you think of in terms of lessons learned, adjustments that the White House will be making for the new year?
MR. GIBBS: I would describe the first year -- and I should -- permission to revise and extend my remarks into whatever happens in the intervening six days.
Look, I think this President was sworn in under a series of circumstances that had quite honestly not been seen in quite some time. We had an economy that was in absolute freefall, an economic downturn that is -- has exceeded anything in memory since the Great Depression. We were involved in active wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a series of issues had been discussed and not dealt with for years -- dealing with health care, ensuring that our country was on a path towards energy independence -- all of the backdrop with a budget deficit that had swelled from a period of budget surpluses.
In those 12 months, the President has had to make a series of decisions, first and foremost, to move us back from that brink of economic catastrophe, to ensure that we didn't see in a horrific recession the next Great Depression.
Not all of those decisions have been popular, but the President knows that he was elected to deal with the circumstances as they existed when he came, to make decisions that he thought was in the best interest of this country in moving forward -- economically, in pulling back from the brink, but ultimately creating a new foundation for long-term economic growth that wasn't predicated on bubbles and busts; to deal with the problems that he talked about that had been neglected for years; to deal responsibly with an end to a war in Iraq, as we focused on those that did us harm on 9/11, with renewed emphasis on a very dangerous region of the world in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I would end probably largely with the fact that all of this work continues. You mentioned the notion of a Hallmark holiday. I don't think many people will recognize the day as anything other than another day in which they believe their country is on the road back to economic recovery, to a place where we have better relations with the rest of the world, and are taking steps that are necessary to deal with the long-term problems that have existed for so long in our country but haven't been dealt with.
Q Could you mention any lessons learned or adjustments that the White House wants to make going into the next year?
MR. GIBBS: Let me noodle on that one and we'll do this each day for the next five days. Thanks, guys.
Q Robert, Rush Limbaugh says that Americans shouldn't donate to Haiti. What do you say about that?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'd refer you back to the -- again, I think in times of great crisis there are always people that say really stupid things. I don't know how anybody -- I don't know how anybody could sit where he does, having enjoyed the success that he has, and not feel some measure of sorrow for what has happened in Haiti. I think to use the power of your pulpit to try to convince those not to help their brothers and sisters is sad. My sense is that most people, though, because they understand we're part of an amazing world, won't listen, and instead will seek to help those that they know, because through no fault of their own, have suffered an unspeakable tragedy.
2:10 P.M. EST