President Obama Holds a Press Conference

The President:
Good afternoon. This is the most wonderful
press conference of the year. I’ve got a list of who’s
been naughty and nice to call on. (laughter) But let me first make a
couple of quick points, and then I’ll take
your questions. Typically, I use this
yearend press conference to review how far we’ve
come over the course of the year. Today, understandably, I’m
going to talk a little bit about how far we’ve come
over the past eight years. As I was preparing to take
office, the unemployment rate was on its
way to 10 percent. Today, it’s at 4.6 percent
— the lowest in nearly a decade. We’ve seen the longest
streak of job growth on record, and wages have
grown faster over the past few years than at any
time in the past 40. When I came into office,
44 million people were uninsured. Today, we’ve covered more
than 20 million of them. For the first time in our
history, more than 90 percent of Americans
are insured. In fact, yesterday was
the biggest day ever for HealthCare.gov. More than 670,000
Americans signed up to get covered, and more are
signing up by the day. We’ve cut our dependence
on foreign oil by more than half, doubled
production of renewable energy, enacted the most
sweeping reforms since FDR to protect consumers and
prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing
Main Street ever again. None of these actions
stifled growth, as critics predicted. Instead, the stock market
has nearly tripled. Since I signed Obamacare
into law, our businesses have added more than
15 million new jobs. And the economy is
undoubtedly more durable than it was in the days
when we relied on oil from unstable nations and banks
took risky bets with your money. Add it all up, and last
year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest rate
in almost 50 years, while the median household
income grew at the fastest rate on record. In fact, income gains
were actually larger for households at the bottom
and the middle than for those at the top. And we’ve done all this
while cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds
and protecting vital investments that grow
the middle class. In foreign policy, when I
came into office, we were in the midst of two wars. Now, nearly 180,000 troops
are down to 15,000. Bin Laden, rather than
being at large, has been taken off the battlefield,
along with thousands of other terrorists. Over the past eight years,
no foreign terrorist organization has
successfully executed an attack on our homeland
that was directed from overseas. Through diplomacy, we’ve
ensured that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon —
without going to war with Iran. We opened up a new chapter
with the people of Cuba. And we brought nearly 200
nations together around a climate agreement that
could very well save this planet for our kids. And almost every country
on Earth sees America as stronger and more
respected today than they did eight years ago. In other words, by so many
measures, our country is stronger and more
prosperous than it was when we started. That’s a situation that
I’m proud to leave for my successor. And it’s thanks to the
American people — to the hard work that you’ve put
in, the sacrifices you’ve made for your families
and your communities, the businesses that you
started or invested in, the way you looked
out for one another. And I could not be prouder
to be your President. Of course, to tout this
progress doesn’t mean that we’re not mindful of how
much more there is to do. In this season in
particular, we’re reminded that there are people who
are still hungry, people who are still homeless;
people who still have trouble paying the bills
or finding work after being laid off. There are communities that
are still mourning those who have been stolen
from us by senseless gun violence, and parents who
still are wondering how to protect their kids. And after I leave office,
I intend to continue to work with organizations
and citizens doing good across the country on
these and other pressing issues to build on the
progress that we’ve made. Around the world, as well,
there are hotspots where disputes have been
intractable, conflicts have flared up, and people
— innocent people are suffering as a result. And nowhere is this more
terribly true than in the city of Aleppo. For years, we’ve worked
to stop the civil war in Syria and alleviate
human suffering. It has been one of the
hardest issues that I’ve faced as President. The world, as we speak, is
united in horror at the savage assault by the
Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies
on the city of Aleppo. We have seen a deliberate
strategy of surrounding, besieging, and starving
innocent civilians. We’ve seen relentless
targeting of humanitarian workers and medical
personnel; entire neighborhoods reduced
to rubble and dust. There are continuing
reports of civilians being executed. These are all horrific
violations of international law. Responsibility for this
brutality lies in one place alone — with the
Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these
atrocities are on their hands. We all know what
needs to happen. There needs to be an
impartial international observer force in Aleppo
that can help coordinate an orderly evacuation
through safe corridors. There has to be full
access for humanitarian aid, even as the United
States continues to be the world’s largest donor of
humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. And, beyond that, there
needs to be a broader ceasefire that can serve
as the basis for a political rather than
a military solution. That’s what the United
States is going to continue to push for, both
with our partners and through multilateral
institutions like the U.N. Regretfully, but
unsurprisingly, Russia has repeatedly blocked the
Security Council from taking action
on these issues. So we’re going to keep
pressing the Security Council to help improve
the delivery of humanitarian aid to those
who are in such desperate need, and to ensure
accountability, including continuing to monitor any
potential use of chemical weapons in Syria. And we’re going to
work in the U.N. General Assembly as well,
both on accountability and to advance a
political settlement. Because it should be clear
that although you may achieve tactical
victories, over the long term the Assad regime
cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy. That’s why we’ll continue
to press for a transition to a more representative
government. And that’s why the world
must not avert our eyes to the terrible events
that are unfolding. The Syrian regime and its
Russian and Iranian allies are trying to
obfuscate the truth. The world should
not be fooled. And the world
will not forget. So even in a season where
the incredible blessings that we know as Americans
are all around us, even as we enjoy family and
friends and are reminded of how lucky we are, we
should also be reminded that to be an American
involves bearing burdens and meeting
obligations to others. American values and
American ideals are what will lead the way to a
safer and more prosperous 2017, both here
and abroad. And by the way, few embody
those values and ideals like our brave men and
women in uniform and their families. So I just want to close by
wishing all of them a very Merry Christmas and
a Happy New Year. With that, I will
take some questions. And I’m going to start
with Josh Lederman, of AP. The Press: Thank
you, Mr. President. There’s a perception that
you’re letting President Putin get away with
interfering in the U.S. election, and that a
response that nobody knows about or a lookback
review just won’t cut it. Are you prepared to call
out President Putin by name for ordering
this hacking? And do you agree with what
Hillary Clinton now says, that the hacking
was actually partly responsible for her loss? And is your
administration’s open quarreling with Trump and
his team on this issue tarnishing the smooth
transition of power that you have promised? The President: Well, first
of all, with respect to the transition, I think
they would be the first to acknowledge that we have
done everything we can to make sure that they are
successful as I promised. And that will continue. And it’s just been a few
days since I last talked to the President-elect
about a whole range of transition issues. That cooperation is
going to continue. There hasn’t been a
lot of squabbling. What we’ve simply said is
the facts, which are that, based on uniform
intelligence assessments, the Russians were
responsible for hacking the DNC, and that, as
a consequence, it is important for us to review
all elements of that and make sure that we are
preventing that kind of interference through
cyberattacks in the future. That should be a
bipartisan issue; that shouldn’t be a
partisan issue. And my hope is that the
President-elect is going to similarly be concerned
with making sure that we don’t have potential
foreign influence in our election process. I don’t think any
American wants that. And that shouldn’t be a
source of an argument. I think that part of the
challenge is that it gets caught up in the carryover
from election season. And I think it is very
important for us to distinguish between the
politics of the election and the need for us, as
a country, both from a national security
perspective but also in terms of the integrity of
our election system and our democracy, to make
sure that we don’t create a political football here. Now, with respect to how
this thing unfolded last year, let’s just go
through the facts pretty quickly. At the beginning of the
summer, we’re alerted to the possibility that the
DNC has been hacked, and I immediately order law
enforcement as well as our intelligence teams to find
out everything about it, investigate it thoroughly,
to brief the potential victims of this hacking,
to brief on a bipartisan basis the leaders of both
the House and the Senate and the relevant
intelligence committees. And once we had clarity
and certainty around what, in fact, had happened, we
publicly announced that, in fact, Russia had
hacked into the DNC. And at that time, we did
not attribute motives or any interpretations of
why they had done so. We didn’t discuss what the
effects of it might be. We simply let people know
— the public know, just as we had let members of
Congress know — that this had happened. And as a consequence, all
of you wrote a lot of stories about both what
had happened, and then you interpreted why that might
have happened and what effect it was going to
have on the election outcomes. We did not. And the reason we did
not was because in this hyper-partisan atmosphere,
at a time when my primary concern was making sure
that the integrity of the election process was not
in any way damaged, at a time when anything that
was said by me or anybody in the White House would
immediately be seen through a partisan lens, I
wanted to make sure that everybody understood we
were playing this thing straight — that we
weren’t trying to advantage one side or
another, but what we were trying to do was let
people know that this had taken place, and so if you
started seeing effects on the election, if you were
trying to measure why this was happening and how
you should consume the information that was being
leaked, that you might want to take this
into account. And that’s exactly how we
should have handled it. Imagine if we had
done the opposite. It would have become
immediately just one more political scrum. And part of the goal here
was to make sure that we did not do the work of
the leakers for them by raising more and more
questions about the integrity of the election
right before the election was taking place — at a
time, by the way, when the President-elect himself
was raising questions about the integrity
of the election. And, finally, I think it’s
worth pointing out that the information
was already out. It was in the hands of
WikiLeaks, so that was going to come out
no matter what. What I was concerned
about, in particular, was making sure that that
wasn’t compounded by potential hacking that
could hamper vote counting, affect the
actual election process itself. And so in early September,
when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the
most effective way to ensure that that didn’t
happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to
cut it out, and there were going to be some serious
consequences if he didn’t. And, in fact, we did not
see further tampering of the election process. But the leaks through
WikiLeaks had already occurred. So when I look back in
terms of how we handled it, I think we handled it
the way it should have been handled. We allowed law enforcement
and the intelligence community to do its
job without political influence. We briefed all relevant
parties involved in terms of what was taking place. When we had a consensus
around what had happened, we announced it — not
through the White House, not through me, but rather
through the intelligence communities that had
actually carried out these investigations. And then we allowed you
and the American public to make an assessment as to
how to weigh that going into the election. And the truth is, is that
there was nobody here who didn’t have some sense of
what kind of effect it might have. I’m finding it a little
curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised
that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary
Clinton because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak. About every little juicy
tidbit of political gossip — including John
Podesta’s risotto recipe. This was an obsession
that dominated the news coverage. So I do think it’s worth
us reflecting how it is that a presidential
election of such importance, of such
moment, with so many big issues at stake and such
a contrast between the candidates, came to be
dominated by a bunch of these leaks. What is it about our
political system that made us vulnerable to these
kinds of potential manipulations — which, as
I’ve said publicly before, were not particularly
sophisticated. This was not some
elaborate, complicated espionage scheme. They hacked into some
Democratic Party emails that contained pretty
routine stuff, some of it embarrassing or
uncomfortable, because I suspect that if any of
us got our emails hacked into, there might be some
things that we wouldn’t want suddenly appearing
on the front page of a newspaper or a telecast,
even if there wasn’t anything particularly
illegal or controversial about it. And then it just took off. And that concerns me. And it should
concern all of us. But the truth of the
matter is, is that everybody had
the information. It was out there. And we handled it the
way we should have. Now, moving forward, I
think there are a couple of issues that
this raises. Number one is just the
constant challenge that we are going to have with
cybersecurity throughout our economy and
throughout our society. We are a digitalized
culture, and there is hacking going on
every single day. There’s not a company,
there’s not a major organization, there’s not
a financial institution, there’s not a branch of
our government where somebody is not going to
be phishing for something or trying to penetrate, or
put in a virus or malware. And this is why for the
last eight years, I’ve been obsessed with how do
we continually upgrade our cybersecurity systems. And this particular
concern around Russian hacking is part of a
broader set of concerns about how do we deal with
cyber issues being used in ways that can affect our
infrastructure, affect the stability of our financial
systems, and affect the integrity of our
institutions, like our election process. I just received a couple
weeks back — it wasn’t widely reported on
— a report from our cybersecurity commission
that outlines a whole range of strategies to
do a better job on this. But it’s difficult,
because it’s not all housed — the target of
cyberattacks is not one entity but it’s widely
dispersed, and a lot of it is private, like the DNC. It’s not a branch
of government. We can’t tell
people what to do. What we can do is inform
them, get best practices. What we can also do is to,
on a bilateral basis, warn other countries against
these kinds of attacks. And we’ve done
that in the past. So just as I told Russia
to stop it, and indicated there will be consequences
when they do it, the Chinese have, in the past,
engaged in cyberattacks directed at our companies
to steal trade secrets and proprietary technology. And I had to have the same
conversation with Prime Minister — or with
President Xi, and what we’ve seen is some
evidence that they have reduced — but not
completely eliminated — these activities, partly
because they can use cutouts. One of the problems with
the Internet and cyber issues is that there’s not
always a return address, and by the time you catch
up to it, attributing what happened to a particular
government can be difficult, not always
provable in court even though our intelligence
communities can make an assessment. What we’ve also tried to
do is to start creating some international norms
about this to prevent some sort of cyber arms race,
because we obviously have offensive capabilities
as well as defensive capabilities. And my approach is not
a situation in which everybody is worse
off because folks are constantly attacking each
other back and forth, but putting some guardrails
around the behavior of nation-states, including
our adversaries, just so that they understand that
whatever they do to us we can potentially
do to them. We do have some special
challenges, because oftentimes our economy is
more digitalized, it is more vulnerable, partly
because we’re a wealthier nation and we’re more
wired than some of these other countries. And we have a more open
society, and engage in less control and
censorship over what happens over the Internet,
which is also part of what makes us special. Last point — and the
reason I’m going on here is because I know that
you guys have a lot of questions about this, and
I haven’t addressed all of you directly about it. With respect to response,
my principal goal leading up to the election was
making sure that the election itself went off
without a hitch, that it was not tarnished, and
that it did not feed any sense in the public that
somehow tampering had taken place with the
actual process of voting. And we accomplished that. That does not mean that we
are not going to respond. It simply meant that we
had a set of priorities leading up to the election
that were of the utmost importance. Our goal continues to be
to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do
this to us, because we can do stuff to you. But it is also important
for us to do that in a thoughtful,
methodical way. Some of it we do publicly. Some of it we will do in
a way that they know, but not everybody will. And I know that there have
been folks out there who suggest somehow that if we
went out there and made big announcements, and
thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that
somehow that would potentially spook
the Russians. But keep in mind that we
already have enormous numbers of sanctions
against the Russians. The relationship between
us and Russia has deteriorated, sadly,
significantly over the last several years. And so how we approach an
appropriate response that increases costs for them
for behavior like this in the future, but does not
create problems for us, is something that’s worth
taking the time to think through and figure out. And that’s exactly
what we’ve done. So at a point in time
where we’ve taken certain actions that we can
divulge publically, we will do so. There are times where the
message will go — will be directly received by
the Russians and not publicized. And I should point out, by
the way, part of why the Russians have been
effective on this is because they don’t go
around announcing what they’re doing. It’s not like Putin is
going around the world publically saying, look
what we did, wasn’t that clever? He denies it. So the idea that somehow
public shaming is going to be effective I think
doesn’t read the thought process in
Russia very well. Okay? The Press: Did Clinton
lose because of the hacking? The President: I’m going
to let all the political pundits in this town have
a long discussion about what happened
in the election. It was a fascinating
election, so I’m sure there are going to be a
lot of books written about it. I’ve said what I think
is important for the Democratic Party going
forward rather than try to parse every aspect
of the election. And I’ve said before, I
couldn’t be prouder of Secretary Clinton, her
outstanding service. I thinks she’s worked
tirelessly on behalf of the American people, and
I don’t think she was treated fairly
during the election. I think the coverage of
her and the issues was troubling. But having said that, what
I’ve been most focused on — appropriate for the
fact that I’m not going to be a politician in about,
what is it, 32 days? 31? The Press: Thirty-four. The President:
Thirty four? (laughter) But what I’ve said is, is
that I can maybe give some counsel and advice to
the Democratic Party. And I think that that the
thing we have to spend the most time on — because
it’s the thing we have the most control over — is
how do we make sure that we are showing up in
places where I think Democratic policies are
needed, where they are helping, where they are
making a difference, but where people feel as if
they’re not being heard and where Democrats are
characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping,
politically-correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in
those communities. And I’ve seen that when we
are in those communities, it makes a difference. That’s how I
became President. I became a U.S. senator not just because
I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was
driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish
frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking
to farmers. And I didn’t win every one
of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was
talking about, what I cared about, that I was
for working people, that I was for the middle class,
that the reason I was interested in
strengthening unions, and raising the minimum
wage, and rebuilding our infrastructure, and making
sure that parents had decent childcare and
family leave was because my own family’s history
wasn’t that different from theirs, even if I looked
a little bit different. Same thing in Iowa. And so the question is,
how do we rebuild that party as a whole so that
there’s not a county in any state — I don’t care
how red — that we don’t have a presence and we’re
not making the argument. Because I think we have
the better argument. But that requires
a lot of work. It’s been something that
I’ve been able to do successfully in
my own campaigns. It is not something I’ve
been able to transfer to candidates in midterms and
sort of build a sustaining organization around. That’s something that I
would have liked to have done more of, but it’s
kind of hard to do when you’re also dealing with a
whole bunch of issues here in the White House. And that doesn’t mean,
though, that it can’t be done. And I think there are
going to be a lot of talented folks out there,
a lot of progressives who share my values who are
going to be leading the charge in the
years to come. Michelle Kosinski of CNN. The Press: Thank you. So this week we heard
Hillary Clinton talk about how she thinks that the
FBI Director’s most recent announcement made a
difference in the outcome of the election. And we also just heard
in an op-ed her campaign chairman talk about
something being deeply broken within the FBI. He talked about thinking
that the investigation early on was lackadaisical
in his words. So what do you think
about those comments? Do you think there’s
any truth to them? Do you think there’s a
danger there that they’re calling into question the
integrity of institutions in a similar way that
Donald Trump’s team has done? And the second part to
that is that Donald Trump’s team repeatedly
— I guess, giving the indication that the
investigation of the Russian hack, as well as
the retaliation, might not be such a priority once
he’s in office, so what do you think the
risk is there? And are you going to talk
to him directly about some of those comments he made? The President: Well, on
the latter point, as I said before, the
transition from election season to governance
season is not always smooth. It’s bumpy. There are still feelings
that are raw out there. There are people who are
still thinking about how things unfolded. And I get all that. But when Donald Trump
takes the Oath of Office and is sworn as the 45th
President of the United States, then he’s got
a different set of responsibilities
and considerations. And I’ve said this before:
I think there is a sobering process when you
walk into the Oval Office. And I haven’t shared
previously private conversations I’ve had
with the President-elect. I will say that they have
been cordial and, in some cases, have involved
me making some pretty specific suggestions
about how to ensure that regardless of our obvious
deep disagreements about policy, maybe I can
transmit some thoughts about maintaining the
effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office,
of various democratic institutions. And he has listened. I can’t say that he will
end up implementing, but the conversations
themselves have been cordial as opposed to
defensive in any way. And I will always make
myself available to him, just as previous
Presidents have made themselves available to
me as issues come up. With respect to the FBI, I
will tell you, I’ve had a chance to know a lot
of FBI agents, I know Director Comey, and they
take their job seriously, they work really hard,
they help keep us safe and save a lot of lives. And it is always a
challenge for law enforcement when there’s
an intersection between the work that they are
doing and the political system. It’s one of the
difficulties of democracy, generally. We have a system where we
want our law enforcement investigators and our
prosecutors to be free from politics, to be
independent, to play it straight, but sometimes
that involves investigations that
touch on politics. And particularly in this
hyper-partisan environment that we’ve been in,
everything is suspect, everything you do
one way or the other. One thing that I have done
is to be pretty scrupulous about not wading into
investigation decisions or prosecution decisions,
or decisions not to prosecute. I have tried to be really
strict in my own behavior about preserving the
independence of law enforcement, free from
my own judgments and political assessments,
in some cases. And I don’t know why
it would stop now. Mike Dorning of Bloomberg. The Press: Thank
you, Mr. President. On Aleppo, your views that
what happens there is the responsibility of the
Russian government, the Iranian government, the
Assad regime are pretty well aired. But do you, as President
of the United States, leader of the free world,
feel any personal moral responsibility now at the
end of your presidency for the carnage that we’re all
watching in Aleppo, which I’m sure disturbs you —
which you said disturbs you? And, secondly, also on
Aleppo, you’ve again made clear your practical
disagreements with the idea of safe zones. And President-elect Trump
has, throughout his campaign, and he said
again last night that he wants to create
safe zones in Syria. Do you feel like, in this
transition, you need to help him toward
implementing that? Or was that not something
that you should be doing? The President: Mike, I
always feel responsible. I felt responsible when
kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when
millions of people had been displaced. I feel responsible for
murder and slaughter that’s taken place in
South Sudan that’s not being reported on partly
because there’s not as much social media being
generated from there. There are places around
the world where horrible things are happening, and
because of my office, because I’m President of
the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single
day, is there something I could do that would
save lives and make a difference and spare some
child who doesn’t deserve to suffer. So that’s a
starting point. There’s not a moment
during the course of this presidency where I haven’t
felt some responsibility. That’s true, by the way,
for our own country. When I came into office
and people were losing their jobs and losing
their homes and losing their pensions, I felt
responsible, and I would go home at night and I
would ask myself, was there something better
that I could do or smarter that I could be that would
make a difference in their lives, that would relieve
their suffering and relieve their hardship. So with respect to Syria,
what I have consistently done is taken the best
course that I can to try to end the civil war while
having also to take into account the long-term
national security interests of the
United States. And throughout this
process, based on hours of meetings, if you tallied
it up, days or weeks of meetings where we went
through every option in painful detail, with maps,
and we had our military, and we had our aid
agencies, and we had our diplomatic teams, and
sometimes we’d bring in outsiders who were critics
of ours — whenever we went through it, the
challenge was that, short of putting large
numbers of U.S. troops on the ground,
uninvited, without any international law mandate,
without sufficient support from Congress, at a time
when we still had troops in Afghanistan and we
still had troops in Iraq, and we had just gone
through over a decade of war and spent trillions
of dollars, and when the opposition on the ground
was not cohesive enough to necessarily govern a
country, and you had a military superpower in
Russia prepared to do whatever it took to keeps
its client-state involved, and you had a regional
military power in Iran that saw their own vital
strategic interests at stake and were willing to
send in as many of their people or proxies to
support the regime — that in that circumstance,
unless we were all in and willing to take over
Syria, we were going to have problems, and that
everything else was tempting because we wanted
to do something and it sounded like the right
thing to do, but it was going to be impossible
to do this on the cheap. And in that circumstance,
I have to make a decision as President of the United
States as to what is best — I’m sorry,
what’s going on? Somebody’s not
feeling good? All right. Why don’t we have — we’ve
got — we can get our doctors back
there to help out. Does somebody want to go
to my doctor’s office and just have them — all
right — where was I? The Press: Doing
it on the cheap. The President: So we
couldn’t do it on the cheap. Now, it may be — Can somebody help out
please and get Doc Jackson in here? Is somebody
grabbing our doctor? The Press: Thank you,
Mr. President, for stopping. The President: Of course. In the meantime, just
give her a little room. The doctor will be
here in a second. You guys know where the
doctor’s office is? Just go through
the Palm doors. It’s right next
to the Map Room. There he is. All right, there’s
Doc Jackson. He’s all right. Okay. The doctor is
in the house. The Press: You were saying
you couldn’t do it on the cheap. The President: And I don’t
mean that — I mean that with all sincerity. I understand the impulse
to want to do something. But ultimately, what I’ve
had to do is to think about what can we sustain,
what is realistic. And my first priority has
to be what’s the right thing to do for America. And it has been our view
that the best thing to do has been to provide some
support to the moderate opposition so that they
could sustain themselves, and that we wouldn’t
see anti-Assad regime sentiments just pouring
into al Nusra and al Qaeda or ISIL; that we engaged
our international partners in order to put pressure
on all the parties involved, and to try to
resolve this through diplomatic and
political means. I cannot claim that
we’ve been successful. And so that’s something
that, as is true with a lot of issues and problems
around the world, I have to go to bed
with every night. But I continue to believe
that it was the right approach, given what
realistically we could get done absent a decision, as
I said, to go in a much more significant way. And that, I think, would
not have been sustainable or good for the American
people because we had a whole host of other
obligations that we also had to meet, wars we had
already started and that were not yet finished. With respect to the issue
of safe zones, it is a continued problem. A continued challenge with
safe zones is if you’re setting up those zones on
Syrian territory, then that requires some force
that is willing to maintain that territory
in the absence of consent from the Syrian government
and, now, the Russians or the Iranians. So it may be that with
Aleppo’s tragic situation unfolding, that in the
short term, if we can get more of the tens of
thousands who are still trapped there out, that so
long as the world’s eyes are on them and they are
feeling pressure, the regime and Russia
concludes that they are willing to find some
arrangement, perhaps in coordination with Turkey,
whereby those people can be safe. Even that will probably be
temporary, but at least it solves a short-term issue
that’s going to arise. Unfortunately, we’re not
even there yet, because right now we have Russians
and Assad claiming that basically all the innocent
civilians who were trapped in Aleppo are out
when international organizations,
humanitarian organizations who know better and who
are on the ground have said unequivocally that
there are still tens of thousands who are trapped
and prepared to leave under pretty much
any conditions. And so right now, our
biggest priority is to continue to put pressure
wherever we can to try to get them out. The Press:
Notwithstanding — The President: I can’t
have too much — The Press: On the second
question, your intentions are well aired, but do
you feel responsibility notwithstanding a move in
that direction or help President-elect Trump
move in that direction? The President: I will
help President Trump — President-elect Trump
with any advice, counsel, information that we can
provide so that he, once he’s sworn in, can
make a decision. Between now and then,
these are decisions that I have to make based on the
consultations I have with our military and the
people who have been working this
every single day. Peter Alexander. The Press: Mr. President,
thank you very much. Can you, given all the
intelligence that we have now heard, assure the
public that this was, once and for all, a free
and fair election? And specifically on
Russia, do you feel any obligation now, as they’ve
been insisting that this isn’t the case, to show
the proof, as it were — they say put your money
where your mouth is and declassify some of the
intelligence, some of the evidence that exists? And more broadly, as it
relates to Donald Trump on this very topic, are
you concerned about his relationship with Vladimir
Putin, especially given some of the recent Cabinet
picks, including his selection for Secretary of
State, Rex Tillerson, who toasted Putin with
champagne over oil deals together? Thank you. The President: I may be
getting older, because these multipart questions,
I start losing track. (laughter) I can assure the public
that there was not the kind of tampering with the
voting process that was of concern and will continue
to be of concern going forward; that the votes
that were cast were counted, they were
counted appropriately. We have not seen evidence
of machines being tampered with. So that assurance
I can provide. That doesn’t mean that
we find every single potential probe of every
single voting machine all across the country, but we
paid a lot of attention to it. We worked with state
officials, et cetera, and we feel confident that
that didn’t occur and that the votes were cast
and they were counted. So that’s on that point. What was the second one? The Press: The
second one was about declassification. The President:
Declassification. Look, we will provide
evidence that we can safely provide that does
not compromise sources and methods. But I’ll be honest with
you, when you’re talking about cybersecurity, a
lot of it is classified. And we’re not going to
provide it because the way we catch folks is by
knowing certain things about them that they may
not want us to know, and if we’re going to monitor
this stuff effectively going forward, we don’t
want them to know that we know. So this is one of those
situations where unless the American people
genuinely think that the professionals in the
CIA, the FBI, our entire intelligence
infrastructure — many of whom, by the way,
served in previous administrations and who
are Republicans — are less trustworthy than the
Russians, then people should pay attention to
what our intelligence agencies have to say. This is part of what I
meant when I said that we’ve got to think about
what’s happening to our political culture here. The Russians can’t change
us or significantly weaken us. They are a
smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t
produce anything that anybody wants to buy,
except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if
we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if
we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us,
just like he’s trying to weaken Europe, if we start
buying into notions that it’s okay to intimidate
the press, or lock up dissidents, or
discriminate against people because of their
faith or what they look like. And what I worry about
more than anything is the degree to which, because
of the fierceness of the partisan battle, you start
to see certain folks in the Republican Party and
Republican voters suddenly finding a government and
individuals who stand contrary to everything
that we stand for as being okay because that’s how
much we dislike Democrats. I mean, think about it. Some of the people who
historically have been very critical of me for
engaging with the Russians and having conversations
with them also endorsed the President-elect, even
as he was saying that we should stop sanctioning
Russia and being tough on them, and work together
with them against our common enemies. He was very complimentary
of Mr. Putin personally. That wasn’t news. The President-elect during
the campaign said so. And some folks who had
made a career out of being anti-Russian didn’t
say anything about it. And then after the
election, suddenly they’re asking, well, why didn’t
you tell us that maybe the Russians were trying
to help our candidate? Well, come on. There was a survey, some
of you saw, where — now, this is just one poll, but
a pretty credible source — 37 percent of
Republican voters approve of Putin. Over a third of Republican
voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former
head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would
roll over in his grave. And how did that happen? It happened in part
because, for too long, everything that happens
in this town, everything that’s said is seen
through the lens of “does this help or hurt us
relative to Democrats, or relative to
President Obama?” And unless that changes,
we’re going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign
influence, because we’ve lost track of what it is
that we’re about and what we stand for. With respect to the
President-elect’s appointments, it is his
prerogative, as I’ve always said, for him to
appoint who he thinks can best carry out his foreign
policy or his domestic policy. It is up to the Senate
to advise and consent. There will be plenty of
time for members of the Senate to go through
the record of all his appointees and determine
whether or not they’re appropriate for the job. Martha Raddatz. The Press: Mr. President,
I want to talk about Vladimir Putin again. Just to be clear, do you
believe Vladimir Putin himself authorized
the hack? And do you believe he
authorized that to help Donald Trump? And on the intelligence,
one of the things Donald Trump cites is Saddam
Hussein and the weapons of mass destruction, and that
they were never found. Can you say,
unequivocally, that this was not China, that this
was not a 400-pound guy sitting on his bed,
as Donald Trump says? And do these types of
tweets and kinds of statements from Donald
Trump embolden the Russians? The President: When the
report comes out, before I leave office, that will
have drawn together all the threads. And so I don’t want to
step on their work ahead of time. What I can tell you is
that the intelligence that I have seen gives me
great confidence in their assessment that the
Russians carried out this hack. The Press: Which hack? The President: The hack of
the DNC and the hack of John Podesta. Now, the — but again, I
think this is exactly why I want the report out, so
that everybody can review it. And this has been briefed,
and the evidence in closed session has been provided
on a bipartisan basis — not just to me, it’s been
provided to the leaders of the House and the Senate,
and the chairman and ranking members of the
relevant committees. And I think that what
you’ve already seen is, at least some of the folks
who have seen the evidence don’t dispute, I think,
the basic assessment that the Russians
carried this out. The Press: But
specifically, can you not say that — The President: Well,
Martha, I think what I want to make sure of
is that I give the intelligence community the
chance to gather all the information. But I’d make a larger
point, which is, not much happens in Russia
without Vladimir Putin. This is a pretty
hierarchical operation. Last I checked, there’s
not a lot of debate and democratic deliberation,
particularly when it comes to policies directed
at the United States. We have said, and I
will confirm, that this happened at the highest
levels of the Russian government. And I will let you make
that determination as to whether there are
high-level Russian officials who go off rogue
and decide to tamper with the U.S. election process without
Vladimir Putin knowing about it. The Press: So I wouldn’t
be wrong in saying the President thinks Vladimir
Putin authorized the hack? The President: Martha,
I’ve given you what I’m going to give you. What was your
second question? The Press: Do the tweets
and do the statements by Donald Trump
embolden Russia? The President: As I said
before, I think that the President-elect is still
in transition mode from campaign to governance. I think he hasn’t gotten
his whole team together yet. He still has campaign
spokespersons sort of filling in and appearing
on cable shows. And there’s just a whole
different attitude and vibe when you’re not in
power as when you’re in power. So rather than me sort
of characterize the appropriateness or
inappropriateness of what he’s doing at the moment,
I think what we have to see is how will the
President-elect operate, and how will his team
operate, when they’ve been fully briefed on all these
issues, they have their hands on all the levers of
government, and they’ve got to start
making decisions. One way I do believe that
the President-elect can approach this that would
be unifying is to say that we welcome a bipartisan,
independent process that gives the American people
an assurance not only that votes are counted
properly, that the elections are fair and
free, but that we have learned lessons about how
Internet propaganda from foreign countries can
be released into the political bloodstream and
that we’ve got strategies to deal with it
for the future. The more this can be
nonpartisan, the better served the American people
are going to be, which is why I made the point
earlier — and I’m going to keep on repeating this
point: Our vulnerability to Russia or any other
foreign power is directly related to how divided,
partisan, dysfunctional our political process is. That’s the thing that
makes us vulnerable. If fake news that’s being
released by some foreign government is almost
identical to reports that are being issued through
partisan news venues, then it’s not surprising that
that foreign propaganda will have a greater
effect, because it doesn’t seem that far-fetched
compared to some of the other stuff that folks
are hearing from domestic propagandists. To the extent that our
political dialogue is such where everything is under
suspicion, everybody is corrupt and everybody is
doing things for partisan reasons, and all of our
institutions are full of malevolent actors — if
that’s the storyline that’s being put out there
by whatever party is out of power, then when
a foreign government introduces that same
argument with facts that are made up, voters who
have been listening to that stuff for years, who
have been getting that stuff every day from talk
radio or other venues, they’re going
to believe it. So if we want to really
reduce foreign influence on our elections, then we
better think about how to make sure that our
political process, our political dialogue is
stronger than it’s been. Mark Landler. The Press: Thank
you, Mr. President. I wonder whether I can
move you from Russia to China for a moment. The President: Absolutely. The Press: Your successor
spoke by phone with the President of Taiwan the
other day and declared subsequently that he
wasn’t sure why the United States needed to be bound
by the one-China policy. He suggested it could be
used as a bargaining chip perhaps to get better
terms on a trade deal or more cooperation
on North Korea. There’s already evidence
that tensions between the two sides have increased a
bit, and just today, the Chinese have evidently
seized an underwater drone in the South China Sea. Do you agree, as some do,
that our China policy could use a fresh
set of eyes? And what’s the big deal
about having a short phone call with the
President of Taiwan? Or do you worry that
these types of unorthodox approaches are setting us
on a collision course with perhaps our biggest
geopolitical adversary? The President: That’s
a great question. I’m somewhere in between. I think all of our foreign
policy should be subject to fresh eyes. I think one of the — I’ve
said this before — I am very proud of the
work I’ve done. I think I’m a better
President now than when I started. But if you’re here for
eight years, in the bubble, you start seeing
things a certain way and you benefit from — the
democracy benefits, America benefits from
some new perspectives. And I think it should be
not just the prerogative but the obligation of a
new President to examine everything that’s been
done and see what makes sense and what doesn’t. That’s what I did when I
came in, and I’m assuming any new President is going
to undertake those same exercises. And given the importance
of the relationship between the United States
and China, given how much is at stake in terms
of the world economy, national security, our
presence in the Asia Pacific, China’s
increasing role in international affairs
— there’s probably no bilateral relationship
that carries more significance and where
there’s also the potential if that relationship
breaks down or goes into a full-conflict mode, that
everybody is worse off. So I think it’s fine for
him to take a look at it. What I’ve advised the
President-elect is that across the board on
foreign policy, you want to make sure that you’re
doing it in a systematic, deliberate,
intentional way. And since there’s only one
President at a time, my advice to him has been
that before he starts having a lot of
interactions with foreign governments other than the
usual courtesy calls, that he should want to have his
full team in place, that he should want his team to
be fully briefed on what’s gone on in the past and
where the potential pitfalls may be, where the
opportunities are, what we’ve learned from eight
years of experience, so that as he’s then maybe
taking foreign policy in a new direction, he’s got
all the information to make good decisions and,
by the way, that all of government is moving at
the same time and singing from the same hymnal. And with respect to China
— and let’s just take the example of Taiwan — there
has been a longstanding agreement, essentially,
between China, the United States, and, to some
degree, the Taiwanese, which is to not
change the status quo. Taiwan operates
differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part
of China, but recognizes that it has to approach
Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways
of doing things. The Taiwanese have agreed
that as long as they’re able to continue to
function with some degree of autonomy, that they
won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo,
although not completely satisfactory to any of the
parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the
Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and a
people who have a high degree of
self-determination. But understand, for China,
the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything
on their docket. The idea of one China is
at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to
upend this understanding, you have to have thought
through what the consequences are, because
the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll
treat some other issues. They won’t even treat it
the way they treat issues around the South China
Sea, where we’ve had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of
how they see themselves. And their reaction on this
issue could end up being very significant. That doesn’t mean that
you have to adhere to everything that’s been
done in the past. It does mean that you’ve
got to think it through and have planned for
potential reactions that they may engage in. All right. Isaac Dovere of Politico. The Press: Thank
you, Mr. President. Two questions on where
this all leaves us. The President:
What leaves us? Where my presidency
leaves us? The Press: The election — The President: It leaves
us in a really good spot — (laughter) — if we make some good
decisions going forward. The Press: Well, what do
you say to the electors who are going to meet on
Monday and are thinking of changing their votes? Do you think that they
should be given an intelligence briefing
about the Russian activity? Or should they bear in
mind everything you’ve said and is out already? Should they — should
votes be bound by the state votes as
they’ve gone? And long term, do you
think that there is a need for Electoral College
reform that would tie it to the popular vote? The President: It sounded
like two, but that was all one. (laughter) The Press: It was all one. (laughter) You know the way this
goes around here. The President: I love
how these — I got two questions, each
one has four parts. (laughter) The Press: On the
Democratic Party, your Labor Secretary is running
to be the Chair of the Democratic National
Committee. Is the vision that you’ve
seen him putting forward what you think the party
needs to be focused on? And what do you say to
some of the complaints that say the future of the
Democratic Party shouldn’t be a continuation of
some of your political approach? Part of that is complaints
that decisions that you’ve made as President, as the
leader of the party, have structurally weakened the
DNC and the Democratic Party, and they think that
that has led to — or has helped lead to some losses
in elections around the country. Do you regret any
of those decisions? The President: Okay. The Press: Those
are my two. (laughter) The President: Good. I’ll take the second one
first and say that Tom Perez has been, I
believe, one of the best secretaries of labor
in our history. He is tireless. He is wicked smart. He has been able to work
across the spectrum of labor, business,
activists. He’s produced. I mean, if you look at his
body of work on behalf of working people, what he’s
pushed for in terms of making sure that workers
get a fair deal, decent wages, better benefits,
that their safety is protected on the job — he
has been extraordinary. Now, others who have
declared are also my friends and are fine
people, as well. And the great thing is, I
don’t have a vote in this, so we’ll let the
process unfold. I don’t think it’s going
to happen anytime soon. I described to you earlier
what I think needs to happen, which is that the
Democratic Party, whether that’s entirely through
the DNC or through a rebuilding of state
parties or some other arrangement, has to work
at the grassroots level, has to be present in all
50 states, has to have a presence in counties, has
to think about message and how are we speaking
directly to voters. I will say this — and I’m
not going to engage in too much punditry — but that
I could not be prouder of the coalition that I put
together in each of my campaigns because it was
inclusive, and it drew in people who normally
weren’t interested in politics and didn’t
participate. But I’d like to think — I
think I can show that in those elections, I
always cast a broad net. I always said, first and
foremost we’re Americans, that we have a common
creed, that there’s more that we share than divides
us, and I want to talk to everybody and get a chance
to get everybody’s vote. I still believe what I
said in 2004, which is this red state/blue
thing is a construct. Now, it is a construct
that has gotten more and more powerful for a whole
lot of reasons, from gerrymandering to big
money, to the way that media has splintered. And so people are just
watching what reinforces their existing biases as
opposed to have to listen to different
points of view. So there are all kinds
of reasons for it. But outside of the realm
of electoral politics, I still see people the way I
saw them when I made that speech — full of
contradictions, and there are some regional
differences, but basically folks care about their
families, they care about having meaningful work,
they care about making sure their kids have more
opportunity than they did. They want to be safe, they
want to feel like things are fair. And whoever leads the DNC
and any candidate with the Democratic brand going
forward, I want them to feel as if they can reach
out and find that common ground — speak
to all of America. And that requires
some organization. And you’re right that —
and I said this in my earlier remarks — that
what I was able to do during my campaigns, I
wasn’t able to do during midterms. It’s not that we didn’t
put in time and effort into it. I spent time and effort
into it, but the coalition I put together didn’t
always turn out to be transferable. And the challenge is that
— you know, some of that just has to do with the
fact that when you’re in the party in power and
people are going through hard times like they were
in 2010, they’re going to punish, to some degree,
the President’s party regardless of what
organizational work is done. Some of it has to do with
just some deep-standing traditional challenges for
Democrats, like during off-year election, the
electorate is older and we do better with a
younger electorate. But we know those things
are true, and I didn’t crack the code on that. And if other people have
ideas about how to do that even better,
I’m all for it. So with respect to the
electors, I’m not going to wade into that issue
because, again, it’s the American people’s job, and
now the electors’ job to decide my successor. It is not my job to
decide my successor. And I have provided people
with a lot of information about what happened
during the course of the election. But more importantly, the
candidates themselves, I think, talked about their
beliefs and their vision for America. The President-elect, I
think, has been very explicit about what he
cares about and what he believes in. So it’s not in my hands
now; it’s up to them. The Press: What about
long-term about the Electoral College? The President: Long-term
with a respect to the Electoral College — the
Electoral College is a vestige, it’s a carryover
from an earlier vision of how our federal government
was going to work that put a lot of premium on
states, and it used to be that the Senate was not
elected directly, it was through state
legislatures. And it’s the same type
of thinking that gives Wyoming two senators with
about half a million people, and California
with 33 million get the same two. So there are some
structures in our political system, as
envisioned by the Founders, that sometimes
are going to disadvantage Democrats. But the truth of the
matter is, is that, if we have a strong message, if
we’re speaking to what the American people care
about, typically the popular vote and the
Electoral College vote will align. And I guess part of my
overall message here as I leave for the holidays is
that if we look for one explanation or one silver
bullet or one easy fix for our politics, then we’re
probably going to be disappointed. There are just a lot of
factors in what’s happened not just over the last few
months, but over the last decade that has made both
politics and governance more challenging. And I think everybody
has raised legitimate questions and
legitimate concerns. I do hope that we all just
take some time, take a breath — this is
certainly what I’m going to advise Democrats — to
just reflect a little bit more about how can we get
to a place where people are focused on working
together based on at least some common set of facts. How can we have a
conversation about policy that doesn’t
demonize each other. How can we channel what I
think is the basic decency and goodness of the
American people so it reflects itself in our
politics, as opposed to it being so polarized and so
nasty that, in some cases, you have voters and
elected officials who have more confidence and faith
in a foreign adversary than they have in
their neighbors. And those go to
some bigger issues. How is it that we have
some voters or some elected officials who
think that Michelle Obama’s healthy eating
initiative and school nutrition program is a
great threat to democracy than our government going
after the press if they’re issuing a story
they don’t like? I mean, that’s an issue
that I think we’ve got to wrestle with
— and we will. People have asked me how
do you feel after the election and so forth, and
I say, well, look, this is a clarifying moment. It’s a useful reminder
that voting counts, politics counts. What the President-elect
is going to be doing is going to be very different
than what I was doing, and I think people will be
able to compare and contrast and make
judgments about what worked for the
American people. And I hope that, building
off the progress we’ve made, that what the
President-elect is proposing works. What I can say with
confidence is that what we’ve done works. That I can prove. I can show you where we
were in 2008 and I can show you where we are now,
and you can’t argue that we’re not better off. We are. And for that, I thank the
American people and, more importantly, I thank —
well, not more importantly — as importantly — I was
going to say Josh Earnest for doing such
a great job. (laughter) For that, I thank
the American people. I thank the men and women
in uniform who serve. I haven’t gotten to the
point yet where I’ve been overly sentimental. I will tell you, when
I was doing my last Christmas party photoline
— many of you have participated in these;
they’re pretty long — right at the end of the
line, the President’s Marine Corps Band comes
in, those who had been performing, and I take a
picture when them, and it was the last time that
I was going to take a picture with my Marine
Corps Band after an event, and I got a
little choked up. Now, I was in front of
Marines, so I had to, like, tamp it down. But it was just one small
example of all the people who have contributed
to our success. I’m responsible for
where we’ve screwed up. The successes are widely
shared with all the amazing people who
have been part of this administration. Thank you, everybody. Mele Kalikimaka.

Stephen Childs

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