Press Briefing 4/9/09

April 9, 2009 | 45:14

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing. (public domain)

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Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 4/9/09


Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                               April 9, 2009


James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

3:10 P.M. EDT

MR. GIBBS:  Let me just start with one -- one quick announcement.  The President has asked DHS Secretary Napolitano and John Brennan, the Director of the White House Homeland Security Council, to make a series of visits to border communities to meet with local officials and residents in the continuing effort to enhance border security and cooperation with Mexico and state and local law enforcement.  Their first visit to the Southwest border will be on Wednesday ahead of, as you know, the President's trip to Mexico and the Summit of the Americas beginning on Thursday.  And we'll have some more details on that as we get a little closer.

I think most of you know we're not going to do a briefing tomorrow.  So let me give you just a sort of quick week ahead.  Not all of it is fleshed out yet, and we'll have some more details.

Tomorrow the President is going to meet with the head of the FDIC, head of the Fed, Secretary Geithner and Dr. Summers in the Oval Office.  There will be a pool spray around that.  I don't know the topic of the radio address yet.  On Monday, the President will do a transportation event in suburban Maryland, but I don't have the exact city.

Q    A what?

MR. GIBBS:  Transportation event.  On Tuesday, there will be some other events, but the Phillies will be in town to celebrate their World Series victory.  And as you -- as I said, as you know, the President leaves sometime on Thursday to head to Mexico, and then ultimately over to the Summit of the Americas over the weekend.  So, with that -- what's that?

Q    Wednesday?  Anything on Wednesday?

MR. GIBBS:  There will be an event here at the White House, but I don't have –

Q    And what about this weekend?

MR. GIBBS:  He'll be here all weekend.

Q    At the White House?

Q    In Washington?

MR. GIBBS:  In D.C., yes.

Q    What church for Easter Sunday?

MR. GIBBS:  I'm not going to give that out.

Q    Is he going to church on Easter Sunday?

MR. GIBBS:  He will go, but I'm not going to tell you where.

Q    Robert.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, sir.

Q    A few quick ones, please, on the Somali piracy incident.  First of all, can you tell us about the President's specific role in this over the last couple days?  Has he been involved in the decision-making on how this was handled, how the FBI and the Navy proceed, or does that not rise to the level of President?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, we have at the White House had for some time an interagency group on maritime safety that includes agencies represented by the Department of Homeland Security, the Commerce Department, Energy, Justice and the FBI, the State Department, Transportation, the Department of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The President has followed the situation closely, has gotten -- got updates throughout yesterday and today.  And obviously his main concern is for the safety of the captain and the rest of the crew on the ship, and he will continue to receive those updates.

I don't have a transcript of this, but I know the commander of the Fifth Fleet, I think, gave an interview this afternoon.  As soon as we have that transcript, we will shoot that around, as well.

Q    So on this incident, is that the extent of the President's involvement, staying apprised?  Or is he involved in any way in direct --

MR. GIBBS:  At this point he's staying apprised of the situation.  And obviously the interagency maritime group has been -- has had a number of meetings and conference calls about this.  Obviously, the Navy and the FBI are, to some degree, on the scene with their resources, and so the resources of our government are deployed in ensuring the safety and security of the captain and the crew.

Q    Does this raise any questions for the White House about the administration's strategy towards addressing piracy?  Is the U.S. military and the government equipped to handle this kind of threat?  What does the President think about that?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, I think obviously this is not the first time that we've had unrest off the coast of Somalia.  That's why there's an interagency group on maritime safety to work on these issues.  Obviously, it's a concern, and particularly -- this is a ship containing food aid to Africa.  So obviously it is a concern of the administration, and as I said, particularly for the safety of the captain.

Yes, sir.

Q    Welcome back.

MR. GIBBS:  Thank you, glad to be here.

Q    Question on the economic meeting that you mentioned tomorrow.  Can you give us -- can you flesh out some of the details about what they'll be discussing?  Will they talk about the latest on the bank stress tests?  Will they discuss how to deal with the banks that are in the worst shape like Citibank and Bank of America?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, Jeff, I don't think the meeting will focus just on one aspect of -- I think there will be a series of discussions that they'll have relating to recovery, relating to financial stability.  They'll talk about the latest statistics on unemployment.  I'm sure there will be a discussion around some of what the President talked about today in terms of the incredible opportunities that the American people have with refinancing right now. 

Obviously, within stability, I'm sure health assessments of banks will be discussed; financial re-regulation; and an update off of and a building on the momentum of G20.  So I think the agenda will be quite broad for tomorrow's meeting.

Q    Not just specific to banks?

MR. GIBBS:  No, it's a -- it will be a broader meeting. 

Q    What is the President being told by his advisors about the results so far of those stress tests?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I don't know that there's been a comprehensive download on that yet.  Obviously, these are being conducted by -- conducted by the Fed.  And we'll have more on that when -- or I think there will be more information on that when all of that is -- when all of that is completed.

Q    Just a final follow-up on that.  Will the Fed be the key regulator for these banks going forward?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, obviously, there's a -- depending on the size of all of this stuff, there will be different groups involved.  But obviously as it relates to financial stability, Treasury, Fed, FDIC, I think have worked together and coordinated across the spectrum on solutions for this.  So they'll continue to work together on that to ensure that we're continuing to make progress on financial stability.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, we know the President is expected to take up -- start looking at immigration reform in the next couple of months, May, June.  How hard is the President willing to push to try to keep some, if not all, of these 12 million illegal immigrants in this country here illegally?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, let me, I guess, back up a little bit in the sense that most of what I read today, one could have written a year or so ago based on what he said on the campaign trail; that -- I mean, I think he told groups throughout 2007 and 2008 that the process on immigration reform would begin his first year in office.

Look, I don't -- obviously there are a lot of things on his plate and a lot of pressing issues relating to the economy.  I don't think he expects that it will be done this year.  But obviously it's an issue out there, a big issue out there, that the previous administration and Congress worked to try to address, and it's something the President is committed to addressing, as he said throughout the campaign trail.

Q    But on this one issue of trying to keep many of these illegal immigrants here, some 12 million, how hard is he willing to push on that one issue?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, look, the President has spoken, again, throughout the campaign about the need to have a comprehensive solution to immigration reform that requires increased border security, that includes immigrants going to the back of the line, learning English, paying a fine.  The President worked on, as a member of the Senate, cracking down on employers that flaunt our laws by employing illegal immigrants.  And I've even seen statements today from Republicans that have talked about continuing the effort that they've also been involved in over the past several years.

I think the President believes that there's only one way to solve this problem, and that is through comprehensive immigration reform.

Q    And then one unrelated question.  When the President met with King Abdullah, there was something that took place that I believe the White House explained as just the President being taller than the King.  We took a look at the video, and it does appear that the President actually bowed to King Abdullah.  Did he bow or didn't he?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think he bent over with both -- to shake with both hands to shake his hand.  So I don't --

Q    It appears to show one hand, that he was just --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I --

Q    Did he bow or didn't he?

MR. GIBBS:  No.  But I think this meeting was like a week ago, right?

Q    That's right, but this is something that a lot of people are still talking about today.

MR. GIBBS:  I can only imagine it is of great cause and concern for many people struggling with the economy.  (Laughter.) 

Yes, sir.

Q    There's been some significant opposition to some of the cuts in the budget for defense on Capitol Hill.  How do you expect to overcome a program like the F-22, which is planned to be cut, when built in 40 different states and has that kind of strong opposition?  Are you concerned that that money might be restored by Congress against the administration's will?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, obviously Secretary Gates I think outlined a robust set of reforms for Pentagon and defense spending that he believes best address the conflicts and the challenges that we're going to be involved in as a nation and as a military going forward; that they represent the priorities that he believes the military must address. 

Look, I don't think the Secretary or the President are under any illusion that some of this will be easy, but I think somebody like Secretary Gates has enormous credibility in determining what's important for this military and for this fighting force moving forward, and I think that will carry -- I think that endorsement will carry enormous weight.

Q    Isn't it a significant problem with defense costs -- I mean, you have contractors who use strategies like spreading around the parts throughout various states in order to get congressional support.

MR. GIBBS:  One of the programs that the Secretary cut, and he and the President had talked about this, was a helicopter program that was a contract that was originally let at I think $6 billion, a program cost that had climbed to nearly twice that amount for a helicopter that was not going to -- I think the current helicopters have had about a 30- or 40-year shelf life and the helicopters that were going to be built were going to have a 10-year shelf life. 

I think what the Secretary of Defense and the President are focused on is ensuring that as we tighten our belts and make the necessary cuts to get our fiscal house in order, that we ensure that we look everywhere.  And particularly the money that we know has to be spent and should be spent on keeping our country safe and our soldiers the best equipped in the world, that we're doing so with an eye on what is truly most important.  And I think that's what led to the procurement reform review and the cuts that the Secretary outlined.  And I think the American people can be assured that -- (cell phone rings) -- it's too hard to give a serious answer while they're playing like salsa music or something like that.  Two margaritas -- (laughter) -- salt, on the rocks, please, and some chips, maybe.  (Laughter.)

Q    There's nothing, really, that you can do about that kind of defense strategy, is there?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I don't think so, but I think that the reform plan that the President and the Secretary have laid out demonstrate the seriousness of getting this process under some amount of control, and that -- we all know that, as I said, the fiscal path that we're on is unsustainable, that we're going to have to make cuts and -- which means that the money that you do spend, the investments that you make, have to be on the things that are of the utmost importance.  And I think that's what the Secretary set out to do, and I think the American people can be assured that he has the protection of the American people and the health and the safety of our soldiers foremost in his mind.

Yes, ma'am.

Q    Can I go back to the banks for a minute?  The New York Times was reporting today that more of the nation's largest banks are actually doing better than expected in these stress tests, but that they may all need another bailout anyway.  Is that the way that the White House sees it, that they're doing well in these stress tests, but that they will need another bailout?  And if they do pass the stress test, why would they need another bailout?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I do not believe that the assessment -- health assessments have been returned yet, and I think that's a determination that will be made when those tests get a look at.  But I don't know that we're at that point quite yet.

Q    But if they pass the stress tests and then do require another bailout, don't you run the risk of having these tests look like they were just a publicity stunt?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I don't -- look, lord knows if that was a publicity stunt, we might want to go back to planning again on that one.  I don't think we've gotten a ton of really great, positive press on that one.  No, the stress tests were initiated in order to understand, given a severe economic recession, what the capital requirements would be.  I think the strong hope, regardless of whatever these tests show, first and foremost, you want a bank to go out and seek private capital to increase whatever its standing is in order to meet the severity of the recession.  So I don't -- I think, first and foremost, regardless of what the tests show, the hope is that private capital will be -- will be the path that any bank chooses, first and foremost.

Yes, ma'am, Helen.

Q    Me?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, ma'am.

Q    All right.  (Laughter.)  Is the President concerned over the epidemic of killings by guns in this country?  And is  he willing to move towards reinstating the ban on assault weapons?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, obviously we, while we were overseas last week, were surprised and shocked at the news at what had happened in New York.  And obviously anytime you see violence on the scale and the magnitude of something like that it's shocking to the system.

I think the President is looking for a coordinated strategy to deal with violence.  I think one of the reasons that -- violence and public safety, that's one of the reasons that increased money to hire more police officers was in the Recovery Act.  I was asked specifically about assault weapons.  I think the President would -- the President believes particularly that there are other strategies that we can take to enforce the laws that are already on our books, and that's not something that --

Q    The New York Times says he lacks courage to go ahead with this.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm sure The New York Times is going to say a lot of things over the course of the new few years.

Q    I mean, why isn't he taking a stand against these weapons?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I -- the President is concerned about violence, and that's -- again, that's one of the reasons --

Q    We're all concerned about violence.  What's he going to do about it?
MR. GIBBS:  Well, he asked the Congress to put in the Recovery Act to put more police officers on the street to keep us safe, and we're happy that that -- that that happened.


Q    Robert, a couple things.  One, General Petraeus apparently was just quoted as saying that there's going to be an increase in the Navy presence in southern Africa.  Is that something you guys are --

MR. GIBBS:  I have not -- I don't know when he said that.  I mean, I will -- again, as soon as I get a transcript from the commander's interview from the Fifth Fleet I will certainly --

Q    And has the President called the family of the kidnapped captain?

MR. GIBBS:  Not that I know of, but I will certainly double-check.

Q    On the banks front, with all these reports of banks that are showing some profit -- in some cases, record profitability, is the administration concerned that banks are borrowing money at maybe less than 1 percent, and yet the amount of interest that credits are going up on people, the numbers going up 20, 25 percent -- has the administration considered some type of restriction or at least on these -- on banks that are taking TARP money that they try to give some relief to the folks with credit card bills?

MR. GIBBS:  I can certainly check with Treasury on that.  I know that -- look, I think the -- we've had discussions in Congress for years about interest rates on credit cards, and obviously one of the things the President talked about in terms of the boom and bust was this notion that we've had economic growth financed by credit card debt, which, obviously, when the bill comes due, it's not pretty for anybody.  But I don't know if there's been any specific discussions related to that in the short term.

Q    Do you think there should be?

MR. GIBBS:  I'll check with the Treasury guys and see if that's something that they've discussed.


Q    Yes, thank you.  Back to the bank stress test again.  Have you -- do you know how the administration is going to announce the results of those things without hurting the banks that may be short of capital, and obviously affect their bank stock price? 

MR. GIBBS:  I don't.  I mean, obviously I know there's -- I think it's obviously important that -- I think the administration believes it's important that there be some transparency around that.  But I don't -- I have not been involved in specific discussions about how that would move forward.

Q    Would the FDIC do that, or Treasury?  Do you know?

MR. GIBBS:  I can certainly check with those guys and see what mechanism might be moving on that.

Q    One other question, on immigration.  Does the President, in connection with the Times article this morning, does the administration plan to send up any legislation this year or will you get started with your campaign on that?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President will, as he's done on a number of issues, deal with stakeholders, deal with members of Congress that have been involved like he has in these past debates, and figure out the best strategy moving forward. 

I think working groups on this and legislation could come at some point.  Obviously I think the President is focused on starting this process this year, as he said in the campaign.


Q    There's indications that the President will ask for a supplemental bill from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan later today.  Will that happen today?  And why is he asking for a supplemental when he was so critical of President Bush for putting these costs in a supplemental instead of on his budget?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, the supplemental will likely go to Congress today.  The reason that we have to do this, Wendell, is, as you know, funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, which will comprise the vast, vast majority of any supplemental request which is sent to Congress, hasn't been in the budget.  The efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan only have funding through half the fiscal year.  So a budget and appropriations process that -- the honest budgeting and appropriations process that the President has talked about falls somewhat victim to the fact that this is the way that wars have been funded previously.  So we can't wait until the appropriations process is done in September or -- August or September to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in June.

So a supplemental is required in order to fund the new strategy in Afghanistan and fund the process in Iraq that will lead to a drawdown of all of our combat troops.  But this, Wendell, is the process by which has -- this has gone on, and short of finishing the appropriations process by Memorial Day, you wouldn't have any money for troops that are there.

Q    Well, does that mean then that for --

MR. GIBBS:  This will be the last supplemental.

Q    The last supplemental?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, this will be the last supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan.  The process by which this has been funded over the past -- the course of the past many years the President has discussed and will change, and this will be the last time.


Q    It seemed this morning like the President was sort of playing the role of salesman on refinancing mortgages, things.  What else is the White House doing?  And does he have some concern that people aren't paying attention to this?  Are there any other things in the works, any clever things in the works like commercials or anything to encourage people to refinance?

MR. GIBBS:  Little snappy refinancing commercials you see late night on -- well, look, I think the importance of what the President talked about today and the reason to draw attention to it was, first and foremost, the policy that the President put into place to address the housing crisis, as he talked about doing, has contributed to the driving down of mortgage rates to an all-time low. 

There are people obviously that fall into the category of the program that the President outlined, but there are also millions and millions of people that aren't in danger of the foreclosure that the President has talked about, but still have the ability to take advantage of record low rates.  And what he'd like people to do is call their mortgage holder and see if they qualify.  You can -- the money you can save is the equivalent of a very nice tax cut for people. 

And I think whether it's on this or other things, I think the President is simply focused on ensuring that people know what they have available that they can take advantage of to help their own personal economic situation.

Q    It's kind of an interesting thing for a President to be doing, though, isn't it?

MR. GIBBS:  No, I think -- I mean, I think homeownership has been something that --

Q    Essentially selling refinancing?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think homeownership obviously has been something that Presidents for a long time have discussed.  I think in the economy that we're in, anything that can help families that are struggling to pay their bills, or struggling with mortgage costs, if they have the ability to take advantage of a lower interest rate than they secured with the original mortgage, I think it's important for people to take advantage of that.

Q    And those commercials?

MR. GIBBS:  I will check on the commercials and -- maybe we'll use some of that salsa music.


Q    Just to follow up on that -- just to follow up.  Is he satisfied with the number of people who have taken advantage of this?  It seems like a relatively low number -- in terms of taking advantage of all the programs that he's put out there so far, the financing.  Does he consider it a healthy number or that it should be higher?

MR. GIBBS:  Absolutely.  I mean, I think the program that he outlined in Arizona -- what's the date -- I think it's been up --

Q    February 18th.

MR. GIBBS:  Right, but the details of which -- you're like -- where's Mark -- you're like the new Mark Knoller.  (Laughter.)  The details of which -- the program I think was detailed the 4th of March.    

Q    So you're just saying it hasn't been that long -- because they said 500,000 people have inquired, but they didn't say how many exactly --

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know the exact number, but I -- look, I think the President is pleased with the people that have taken advantage of it.  I think -- but again, Mara, I think one of the most important things of what the President did today was -- there were people that asked, and have asked for quite some time about -- we talked about it in here several times, based on my good friends on CNBC -- that what's being done to help people that have played by the rules.

Well, first and foremost was a policy to help people that would have had trouble -- based on their percentage of the debt they owed on a mortgage, this was the ability to get additional help, but also this is exactly the type of effort that people can take advantage of that in some ways has been helped by the housing plan that he offered.  And I think if you look at -- I think the President talked about the amount of refinancings just last month were greater than I think at any time in almost the past decade.

So I think the President is pleased with the programs that he's outlined and hopes that even if you are somebody that does not fall into the category of the program that he specifically outlined, that program has helped the economic conditions of people that can take advantage of record low interest rates.

Q    One question about the interest rates, because he said that -- he pointed out that interest rates, or whatever they are, were 4.87 percent, which is really low, and you just said that the program --

MR. GIBBS:  Lowest on record, I believe.

Q    Yes, lowest on record.  And you just said the programs we've put in place have driven down the interest rates.  I thought it was the Fed and just the general cutting of interest rates that brought those mortgage rates down.  You're saying that the specific lending programs brought down the overall interest rates.

MR. GIBBS:  I'm not -- let me be very specific.  I'm not saying that the program that he outlined is the sole reason for, but the amount of money that was put out there in order to help refinance has indeed helped to drive down the overall rate that we find at such a low point right now.

Yes, sir.

Q    I would like to ask a question about the automakers.  Over the last weeks I was a little bit confused; what is the definition of the U.S. automakers?  It is dependent on where their headquarter is, or is it dependent on jobs, and then a car manufactured in the U.S. qualifies as a U.S. car?  That would mean Toyota manufactured in the U.S. is a U.S. car?  GM, manufactured in Canada, is not a U.S. car? 

And the second reason why I'm asking is GM itself presents itself as a U.S. automaker only inside the U.S.  Outside they are Swedish automaker because they want subsidies from Swedish government.  They are German automaker because they want subsidies from the German government.  The Canadian and Taiwan and so on.  So what is your definition of a U.S. automaker?  And by the way, since you advertise also your car, Ford is --

MR. GIBBS:  Right, headquartered in Detroit, Michigan.

Q    Have you checked where this car is manufactured actually?

MR. GIBBS:  I have not.  I know -- I don't know if I got all of those.  Did you get all those questions?  Can you -- (laughter.)

Q    Just the definition, if it's depending on jobs or headquarters?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, for the purposes of the discussion that we'd had in this building about cars, we're dealing with two because they've asked for -- they asked in December and asked again, which is what necessitated that March 31st deadline for additional governmental assistance from Chrysler and General Motors, both of which -- I've seen the buildings in Detroit, and I feel at least satisfied that they're American automakers, yes, as is the Ford that's sitting out in the driveway, as well.

Q    Robert, how about another -- how about Connie and then --

MR. GIBBS:  I will -- I'm over sort of on this side of the room, but I will -- I'll migrate over there. 

Q    Thank you very much.

MR. GIBBS:  What's the cell phone ringer on your phone?  I'm kidding.  (Laughter.)  Yes, sir.

Q    Another question on guns, actually, and in the nation's capital that we all live in.  Is the White House prepared to support the D.C. gun bill, which would allow for a vote on the House floor, if that amendment that would limit the District's gun laws is attached to it?

MR. GIBBS:  I will admit I don't have anything on this.  But I will have somebody look up something.

Q    And is there any take here on the move by the city council to okay gay marriages elsewhere in the city?

MR. GIBBS:  I'll let the city council worry about that.  Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you, Robert.  During the President's news conference, he strongly defended his position to support lowering the deductibility on charitable donations among the highest givers -- I believe from 39 to 28 percent.  And since then --

MR. GIBBS:  Thirty-five, I think.

Q    Thirty-five?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    All right.  Since then, two past presidents of the American Red Cross, as well a spokesman for Goodwill Industries of Greater Washington strongly attacked his position, saying it only makes sense if everyone gives the $100 that the presidents made in comparison to he and a bus driver donating to the same charitable cause.  Is the administration aware of the criticism of the charitable deductibility plan, and has his position changed on it?

MR. GIBBS:  I think we saw some of that criticism prior to the news conference.  I think that's one of the reasons it precipitated the question.  I think the President's position -- (laughter) -- (cell phone rings.)

Q    I'm sorry.

MR. GIBBS:  Just turn the thing off, man.  (Laughter.)  There's a power switch on there, I promise you.  Golly, this is like the bar scene from Star Wars.  (Laughter.)  We're going to -- God, I totally lost my train of thought.  (Laughter.)  The President is aware of the criticism, and the President continues to have that position.  I honestly forget where it all ended up.  I don't know where it was -- all ended up in the budget, but there have been studies that demonstrate that -- and I think the President discussed this -- that it would not have -- would have a very, very, very minor impact on charitable giving, and that I think the equitable -- is an equitable solution. 

Yes, sir.

Q    Last Friday, the Justice Department invoked the state secrets privilege in asking a judge to dismiss a civil suit filed against the National Security Administration regarding its domestic surveillance program.  And in its brief, the Justice Department argued that Americans have no right to sue the government for alleged illegal surveillance. 

Does the President support the Justice Department's positions in that case?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, absolutely.  It's the -- absolutely does.  Obviously, these are programs that have been debated and discussed, but the President does support that viewpoint.

Q    Before he was elected, the President said that the Bush administration had abused the state secrets privilege.  Has he changed his mind?

MR. GIBBS:  No.  I mean, obviously, we're dealing with some suits, and the President will -- and the Justice Department will make determinations based on protecting our national security.

Q    So he still thinks that the Bush administration abused the state secrets privilege?

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    Thanks, Robert.  The budget the President signed ended the program that gave Mexican truckers access to the U.S.

MR. GIBBS:  I don't think the President signed a budget.  You mean the --

Q    Well, the $410 billion continuing -- to keep government funded --

MR. GIBBS:  Oh, the continuing resolution, yes.

Q    Yes, yes.  That ended the program that gave Mexican truckers access to the U.S.  Is that his final position?

MR. GIBBS:  No, and I think I in fact talked about, either that day or a couple days following that, that we were involved in working with members on Capitol Hill to figure out a solution that didn't find ourselves involved in a big trade dispute with Mexico, as the President believes in a time of economic crisis, that we shouldn't be erecting barriers to trade, and wanted to and wished to work with members of Congress on that issue.  And I know that work continues today.

Q    He also talked about opening NAFTA, re-examining NAFTA during the campaign.  Is that going to happen?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I think the President addressed that -- has addressed that, and -- also when he was up in Canada.  And I think the President continues to believe that as we -- that in the trade agreements that we have, and that we are working on, that if labor and environmental standards are important to have as side agreements in a trade agreement that they're important enough to be in the original agreement itself.  I don't know of any specific plans.  Obviously, I think we're more focused on trade agreements that are moving forward.

Yes, sir.  Hold on, guys.  Just relax.  We're all -- we're not going anywhere.

Yes, sir.

Q    Robert, the Times article on immigration this morning said that the President believes that the economic difficulties in the country have undermined political support for immigration reform.  Does the President believe the economic difficulties have undermined support for immigration reform?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I have not talked to him specifically.  I don't think there was a quote -- I don't think they quoted the President on that.  I don't think the President is under any illusion that comprehensive immigration reform is going to be easy.  It hasn't been in the previous two Congresses and I don't anticipate that it's certainly going to get any easier now.

Q    Does the White House think that the economic problems have undermined political possibilities for a bill?

MR. GIBBS:  I think the -- what we have to address in terms of dealing with the economy make dealing with -- make adding any number of issues difficult simply by the sheer breadth of what we have to address each day.


Q    Is the administration open to or working on any program to help borrowers who have secondary liens?  A lot of people say they can't refinance because they have secondary liens and lenders won't --

MR. GIBBS:  Let me -- we can ask HUD on that.  I don't have anything specific on that.

Q    Okay.  And secondly, I don't think I quite caught how or what specific policy has helped interest rates be lowered -- you said, together with the Fed, but --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, the plan that the President outlined for helping those I think 7 to 9 million people that are not immediately facing foreclosure but could find themselves, based on the amount of debt that they owe relative to the mortgage that they have, that the amount of money that has been put into the system for refinancing has increased the amount of money and helped, along with a number of factors, drive down mortgage rates to their lowest point.


Q    Robert, going back to the earlier question that I had, what goes into finding a church for this President?  Will it be the church that he will continue to go to on Sundays during his presidency?  And since this is the Easter weekend, instead of a bunny for the girls, are they going to get their Portuguese Water Dog?  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  Very good.  That was pretty good.  I have no --

Q    Hey, I lost a bet.  I thought we would get --

MR. GIBBS:  Did you guys have a pool?

Q    -- the dog question a lot sooner.

MR. GIBBS:  Oh.  (Laughter.) 

Q    See, it takes me to do that.  (Laughter.)

MR. GIBBS:  I have no update on when the dog is coming.  In terms of a church, I don't know if your question was, is the church he's going to this weekend going to be --

Q    The same church throughout the presidency.

MR. GIBBS:  You know, I think the President is looking for a new church, but I don't think necessarily that the one that he attends this weekend will necessarily be the one he continues to attend.

Q    So with the politics of politics, what went into determining --

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I --

Q    No, no, no, no, because -- (laughter) --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  (Laughter.)

Q    No, no, no, no, no -- (laughter) --

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.  (Laughter.)

Q    Anyway, but what went into the picking of this church, and the next church or the church that he will attend, seriously?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, how can I talk about the politics of the church that he next attends when --

Q    But there is a politics in there, involved in there.

MR. GIBBS:  I -- you know, and none of which I'm going to either get into or discuss here.


Q    Thank you so much.  On piracy, it's the policy of some governments, such as Israel, to arm their merchant ships and to teach the merchant marines how to use firearms to defend themselves.  Is that ever likely to be the policy of this government?

MR. GIBBS:  I admit I do not know the maritime policies, particularly of different ships and what waters they're in.

Q    Could you look into it for us?

MR. GIBBS:  I can certainly have somebody do that.

Q    And one other thing, on the Seder tonight, will the President stay the whole time and how many people are expected to attend?

MR. GIBBS:  You know, the truth is I think there's about 17 to 20 people.  He'll certainly stay the whole time.  This is largely an offshoot of an event -- I use the word "event" somewhat loosely -- last year.  I think we were in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Eric Lesser organized for some folks this event and we got back to the hotel, it was the basement of a -- of this hotel and asked the President if he'd like to come and the President accepted the invitation.  And I think -- I did not go, but somebody told me that at the event that they said, next year let's do this at the White House, and -- (laughter) -- here we are.

So, unclear what predication will be made tonight about where next year's will be, but we'll --

Q    Who's leading the Seder?  Who's leading it?  Who's doing the service?

MR. BURTON:  Shared.

MR. GIBBS:  I don't know -- what was it?

MR. BURTON:  It's a shared leader.  Everybody will.

Q    Rahm?

MR. GIBBS:  The truth is Eric Lesser is the person that has organized most of this both last year and this year.

Q    Thank you, Robert.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, sir

Q    Wait a minute, Les first.

Q    Robert, thank you very much.  After whatever it was he did with the King of Saudi Arabia -- (laughter) -- did he ask or does he know about The National Review report, that a 23-year-old Saudi Arabian woman has been sentenced to a year in jail and 100 lashes because, having been gang-raped and impregnated, she tried to obtain an abortion?  I have one follow-up.

MR. GIBBS:  I have not discussed -- I don't know if the President is aware of that.

Q    Okay.  And the Cardinal Newman Society at Notre Dame reports one quarter of a million signatures on its petition asking the President not speak and receive a degree at the May 17th commencement, and they are joined by 19 Catholic bishops, including Cardinal George of Chicago and now 10 clergy of the Holy Cross order that runs Notre Dame.  And my question:  Has it occurred to the President how gracious it would be for him to politely withdraw rather than cause what will undoubtedly be even more protests, including demonstrations and possibly walkouts?

MR. GIBBS:  The President accepted the gracious invitation, looks forward to speaking and sharing a very important reflection and time of achievement for the graduates of Notre Dame, and hopefully the fight song won't be on anybody's cell phone ringer that day.

Thanks, guys.

3:55 P.M. EDT

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