OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 113TH CONGRESS:
Joint Press Conference by President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey
Doug Mills/The New York Times
Political storm clouds gave way to a steady drizzle at a Rose Garden news conference Thursday.
Source: WH, 5-16-13
12:48 P.M. EDT
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, before we get started let me just make sure that I’m a good host. Mr. Prime Minister, do you want an umbrella? (Laughter.) Because we can arrange it if you need it. You’re okay? All right, this will be incentive for the press to ask concise questions and us to give concise answers.
I’m going to start with Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg.
Q Unfortunately, we all forgot umbrellas. Mr. President, I want to ask you about the IRS. Can you assure the American people that nobody in the White House knew about the agency’s actions before your Counsel’s Office found out on April 22nd? And when they did find out, do you think that you should have learned about it before you learned about it from news reports as you said last Friday? And also, are you opposed to there being a special council appointed to lead the Justice Department investigation?….
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, with respect to the IRS, I spoke to this yesterday. My main concern is fixing a problem, and we began that process yesterday by asking and accepting the resignation of the Acting Director there. We will be putting in new leadership that will be able to make sure that — following up on the IG audit — that we gather up all the facts, that we hold accountable those who have taken these outrageous actions. As I said last night, it is just simply unacceptable for there to even be a hint of partisanship or ideology when it comes to the application of our tax laws.
I am going to go ahead and ask folks — why don’t we get a couple of Marines, they’re going to look good next to us — (laughter) — just because I’ve got a change of suits — (laughter) — but I don’t know about our Prime Minister. There we go. That’s good. You guys I’m sorry about. (Laughter.)
But let me make sure that I answer your specific question. I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the IG report before the IG report had been leaked through the press. Typically, the IG reports are not supposed to be widely distributed or shared. They tend to be a process that everybody is trying to protect the integrity of. But what I’m absolutely certain of is that the actions that were described in that IG report are unacceptable.
So in addition to making sure that we’ve got a new acting director there, we’re also going to make sure that we gather up the facts, and hold accountable and responsible anybody who was involved in this. We’re going to make sure that we identify any structural or management issues to prevent something like this from happening again. We’re going to make sure that we are accepting all of the recommendations that the IG has in the report.
And I’m looking forward to working with Congress to fully investigate what happened, make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and also look at some of the laws that create a bunch of ambiguity in which the IRS may not have enough guidance and not be clear about what exactly they need to be doing and doing it right, so that the American people have confidence that the tax laws are being applied fairly and evenly.
So in terms of the White House and reporting, I think that you’ve gotten that information from Mr. Carney and others. I promise you this — that the minute I found out about it, then my main focus is making sure we get the thing fixed. I think that it’s going to be sufficient for us to be working with Congress. They’ve got a whole bunch of committees. We’ve got IGs already there.
The IG has done an audit; it’s now my understanding they’re going to be recommending an investigation. And Attorney General Holder also announced a criminal investigation of what happened. Between those investigations, I think we’re going to be able to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong, and we’re going to be able to implement steps to fix it.
And that, ultimately, is the main priority that I have, but also I think the American people have. They understand that we’ve got an agency that has enormous potential power and is involved in everybody’s lives. And that’s part of the reason why it’s been treated as a quasi-independent institution. But that’s also why we’ve got to make sure that it is doing its job scrupulously and without even a hint of bias, or a hint that somehow they’re favoring one group over another.
And, as I said yesterday, I’m outraged by this in part because, look, I’m a public figure — if a future administration is starting to use the tax laws to favor one party over another or one political view over another, obviously we’re all vulnerable. And that’s why, as I’ve said, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you should be equally outraged at even the prospect that the IRS might not be acting with the kind of complete neutrality that we expect.
And I think we’re going to be able to fix it. We’re going to be able to get it done, and we’ve already begun that progress and we’re going to keep on going until it’s finished.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I’d like to ask you about the Justice Department. Do you believe that the seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists this week — or before that was announced recently this week was an overreach? And do you still have full confidence in your Attorney General? Should we interpret yesterday’s renewed interest by the White House in a media shield law as a response to that? And, more broadly, how do you feel about comparisons by some of your critics of this week’s scandals to those that happened under the Nixon administration?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons and you can go ahead and read the history I think and draw your own conclusions.
My concern is making sure that if there’s a problem in the government that we fix it. That’s my responsibility, and that’s what we’re going to do. That’s true with respect to the IRS and making sure that they apply the laws the way they were intended. That’s true with respect to the security of our diplomats, which is why we’re going to need to work with Congress to make sure that there’s adequate funding for what’s necessary out there.
Now, with respect to the Department of Justice, I’m not going to comment on a specific and pending case. But I can talk broadly about the balance that we have to strike. Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various, dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk.
U.S. national security is dependent on those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs, so they’re not just left out there high and dry, and potentially put in even more danger than they may already be. And so I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me as Commander-in-Chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.
Now, the flip side of it is we also live in a democracy where a free press, free expression, and the open flow of information helps hold me accountable, helps hold our government accountable, and helps our democracy function. And the whole reason I got involved in politics is because I believe so deeply in that democracy and that process.
So the whole goal of this media shield law — that was worked on and largely endorsed by folks like The Washington Post Editorial Page and by prosecutors — was finding a way to strike that balance appropriately. And to the extent that this case, which we still don’t know all the details of — to the extent that this case has prompted renewed interest about how do we strike that balance properly, then I think now is the time for us to go ahead and revisit that legislation. I think that’s a worthy conversation to have, and I think that’s important.
But I also think it’s important to recognize that when we express concern about leaks at a time when I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan, and I’ve still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations — in outposts that, in some cases, are as dangerous as the outpost in Benghazi — that part of my job is to make sure that we’re protecting what they do, while still accommodating for the need for information — or the need for the public to be informed and be able to hold my office accountable.
Q I asked about Holder as well.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Mr. Prime Minister, just excuse me — you’re right, I have complete confidence in Eric Holder as Attorney General. He’s an outstanding Attorney General and does his job with integrity, and I expect he will continue to do so.
Q Mr. President, my first question is to you. You mentioned that Assad should go, and the question is how and when. Is there a rough timetable? And shall we be talking about the Syrian tragedy next year at this time? What’s the idea?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We would have preferred Assad go two years ago; last year; six months ago; two months ago. And there has been consistency on the part of my administration that Assad lost legitimacy when he started firing on his own people and killing his own people, who initially were protesting peacefully for a greater voice in their country’s affairs. And obviously that’s escalated during the course of time. So the answer is the sooner the better.
Now, in terms of the question how, I think we’ve already discussed that. There’s no magic formula for dealing with a extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s. If there was, I think the Prime Minister and I would have already acted on it and it would already be finished.
And instead, what we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition. I do think that the prospect of talks in Geneva involving the Russians and representatives about a serious political transition that all the parties can buy into may yield results. But in the meantime, we’re going to continue to make sure that we’re helping the opposition, and obviously dealing with the humanitarian situation. And we’ll do so in close consultation with Turkey, which obviously is deeply invested in this and with whom we’ve got an outstanding relationship with.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you, guys.
1:26 P.M. EDT