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White House Briefing with Tony Fratto

Deputy press secretary briefs reporters December 23

23 December 2008

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release

December 23, 2008

PRESS BRIEFING

BY DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY TONY FRATTO

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

9:39 A.M. EST

MR. FRATTO: Good morning, everyone. Sorry I'm late. The President taped his weekly radio address this morning. It's a Christmas message.

Q: It's Tuesday.

MR. FRATTO: It is. But we make -- do it special for holidays, of course, and this Christmas message is a message of the spirit and courageous service of our troops, many of them who will be spending this holiday season as they've spent a number of previous holiday seasons away from their families, out in harm's way. And so that will be the President's message in the radio address.

The President, this morning, in a short while, will be signing H.R. 7311. This is the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008. We have stills coverage for this signing. This will be in the Oval Office. And we'll release a backgrounder, but just briefly, this has been a priority issue for the administration in preventing the trafficking of persons around the world. So this is a piece of legislation we're very proud to sign and to see that it's authorizing funding for fiscal years through -- 2008 through 2011. And this program has been very effective around the world in trying to stop trafficking in persons in Africa and Asia. So the President will sign that in a little while.

The President will also sign H.R. 7327, this is the Worker Retiree and Employee Recovery Act of 2008, generically referred to as the pension bill. The bill provides temporary short-term relief for businesses from their pension funding requirements under the Pension Protections Act. Those of you who may have followed this issue know that we did have some concerns with this bill because we think it will increase the cost of near-term claims on the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation -- the PBGC -- and could also result in some benefits lost to workers over the long term. Our concerns with the legislation remain, but we do believe that in this current economic environment and current economic circumstances, that the benefits of the legislation outweighed our objections.

And also, before leaving for Camp David -- I think you saw the schedule update, the President will now leave at 1:00 p.m., Carlton? -- leave at 1:00 p.m. The President will meet with, as he does from time to time, meet with a child with a life-threatening illness and this is part of the program set up by the Make A Wish Foundation.

As I said, the President will be heading to Camp David at 1:00 p.m. As you know, he has spent every Christmas at Camp David as President. He may have also spent, we think, all four Christmases at Camp David when his father, President George H.W. Bush, was President. We're not exactly sure if every day, but maybe -- this may be the 12th time that the Bush family has spent at Camp David for Christmas. So the President and his family are looking forward to that.

The President's parents, President and Mrs. Barbara Bush, will be there. The daughters, Barbara and Jenna, and Jenna's new husband, Henry, will be there. The President's siblings and their families will also be there. So we wish them well as they travel on to Camp David.

And with that, I'll be happy to take your questions. Ben.

Q: Tony, 28 days left if my math is right. I'm curious what the President wants to get done before he leaves office. Beyond ensuring a smooth transition, what's left for the President?

MR. FRATTO: Well, assuring the smooth transition is the single most critical effort that we'll have underway over the next four weeks. It's important for the nation, it's important that the next President, President-Elect Obama, come in in a smooth way and ready to -- as we've said, we don't want to drop the baton, we don't want to break stride, we want them to be able to hit the ground running and to be able to be successful.

In those areas of the transition that include some really important efforts that are underway, that include the global war on terror, so we want to continue to see progress in what we're trying to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then also the most immediate concern here domestically is the financial crisis and making sure that the programs that are underway will be able to continue, and that we continue to try to normalize conditions in credit markets so the banks can be out there lending to consumers and businesses, and as quickly as possible try to return the economy to normal.

Q: The administration has indicated that the President is unlikely at the last minute to issue a batch of pardons. I'm wondering if --

MR. FRATTO: No, I don't think we've indicated that. I mean, I think we've --

Q: Well, I've been told that.

MR. FRATTO: You have? (Laughter.)

Q: Yes. (Laughter.)

MR. FRATTO: One of those unnamed sources somewhere?

Q: Yes, I think it was named. The key was that at the last minute on the way out the door. I'm curious if you expect another round of pardons or commutations before the President leaves office.

MR. FRATTO: We do expect additional clemency requests. The President has been considering them, and hopefully soon we'll have something for you on that. I can't tell you that -- when exactly the next one will come -- the next batch will come and whether there will be more after that. I think the President has maintained his authority to do that until his last day as President. So we're not going to -- I don't think we'll take that away from him. But I think we should have something soon on clemency petitions.

Q: Would you expect it this week, Tony?

MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to put a point on that. The process is run from the Office of the Pardon Attorney over at the Department of Justice. Any announcement, as they all have, will come from the Department of Justice. So I would just stay ready to look for that paper to come across.

Toby.

Q: GDP third quarter shrank 0.5 percent. What is the outlook beyond that? Is that the worst of it, or is it going to just get worse?

MR. FRATTO: Well, of course, that's looking backwards, and it's certainly not the worst of it. That was for the months -- the late summer, early fall months were the third quarter. And that was a quarter where we definitely saw a significant slowing in the economy. The economy in the previous quarter, in the second quarter, had grown at about 3 percent, which is fairly healthy. And we saw the economy slow down that quarter. We also saw impacts from the hurricanes that hit the southern part of the United States, the impact of the Boeing strike. In effect, I think our estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers estimates that that -- those two events, the hurricanes and the Boeing strike combined probably knocked about a full percentage point off of GDP. So we may have seen positive growth in that quarter were it not for those events.

That's the third quarter. The fourth quarter we know, because of the credit crisis, the standstill in credit as markets froze up, and the financial market turmoil, will be significantly weaker. I think you have private sector forecasts out there that -- you can look up the ranges for what they're estimating. But there's absolutely no question the fourth quarter is going to be a very weak quarter. We see that already in the monthly payroll data that has been reported already.

So it's a tough quarter, there's no question about it. What we've been focused on is implementing the financial rescue package and the efforts of the Fed to restore growth, to free up credit so that the economy can return to more normal practices and get healthy again. And that's the most important thing we can do right now.

Q: Tony, obviously the President is not going to have any press conferences this year, for the remainder of the year. But in 2009 will he commit to having one before he leaves office? Can he at least --

MR. FRATTO: The truth is we get asked about this a lot, and I think I was asked about it yesterday and noted the number of interviews the President does, and he may do some additional interviews.

The secret about presidential press conferences is we never make the final decision until the day of. There's always lots of speculation, I know, on the part of all of you when you see a day on the -- without public events, and we begin getting calls wondering if there's going to be a press conference. We'll make those decisions as we get into the new year, whether we see a good reason and an opportunity to do one. But those are game day decisions and so we'll have to wait until the day.

Q: Another issue; any concerns about this apparent coups in Guinea? I don't know if you've been tracking it or not.

MR. FRATTO: Obviously we've seen some of the reports on that. Some of the reporting is a bit murky. We're working with our partners in the region and other countries in the region and the African Union to encourage the institutions in Guinea to take all steps to ensure a peaceful and democratic transition. We stand with the people of Guinea, who certainly strive for peace and a democratic transition, and an opportunity to get to a next government in the best way. It's obviously a troubled region with a history that hasn't always seen those kinds of smooth transitions of power.

And so we're keeping an eye on it. I'll refer you to the State Department; they'll have more up-to-date information as to events there. But we are working with the African Union, and the other countries in the region.

Roger.

Q: On that same topic, is there anything specific that the U.S. is doing to influence the successor government, anything you could point to?

MR. FRATTO: Just our communications with countries in the region, and that's all I can point to right now. And like I said, I'd refer you to the State Department for more on that.

Yes, John.

Q: Thank you, Tony. Two questions. On Friday, Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois, a Republican, told me that the President made a mistake in supporting the bailout of the automobile industry, that it doesn't address the fundamental issue of restructuring. And this is a complaint that came from other quarters -- Republican Leader Boehner in the House, and outside Congress -- Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, was highly critical of the President. Is the President aware of these criticisms from people in his own party?

MR. FRATTO: Sure, we're aware of them. We've heard these criticisms. I think there's no -- I think we would respectfully disagree with them, with all of the members of Congress who have had that kind of criticism, especially when you look back at our record on this issue, which has always been about trying to ensure that there is a real, meaningful restructuring of the auto industry if we were going to use taxpayer funds. That's why we wanted the legislation from Congress, to ensure that, that it had the force of statute behind it, that it came from funds that were already appropriated by Congress for the auto industry.

This loan agreement that we put together -- again, I would respectfully disagree. If you read through it, everything in this agreement is about encouraging meaningful concessions by all parties to make the reforms that they need to make so that the firms could be viable and competitive in the future, and that the taxpayer can be paid back. It's all about restructuring. And it has at the back end of it, should the stakeholders not take the steps that they need to make, the ability to call the loan and the firms go into bankruptcy court.

So, look, this isn't the preferred way of dealing with this issue. We asked Congress for the strong authority to do it in partnership with Congress. We were able to achieve majorities in both houses of Congress on the approach that we were advocating and the approach that we designed, to do it in the most appropriate way.

Congress failed to get that legislation to the President's desk, and so we were left with sub-optimal ways of dealing with the auto industry, and we've made the best of it. And we have a very strong agreement. We think that it's something that, if all the stakeholders and the next administration adhere to, will result in strong and meaningful restructuring of the auto industry and they will be able to be successful. Now, again, that wasn't our preferred or the most appropriate way to deal with it, but it's the option that we had left.

Q: My other question is this: Last year -- or two years ago, rather, the Bush White House recommended and the Republican National Committee agreed to the naming of Mike Duncan as national chairman. He is now seeking another term as national chairman against six other Republicans. Does the President support Chairman Duncan for another term as chairman?

MR. FRATTO: I don't think we are getting involved in the race for the next RNC chairman. I haven't had that conversation with the President to see what his personal views are, or our political director, Barry Jackson -- but I think I could check in with them and see if I can get back to you on that.

Paula.

Q: You talked about hoping that existing programs continue to deal with the financial crisis. Well, there was a report out on HOPE NOW that about half of those who benefitted in that program are now facing foreclosure again. Do you think the program can be modified in any way?

MR. FRATTO: I think what that report reflects is the incredible complexity of trying to help individual Americans who are facing these difficulties. I think you have lots of people out there with ideas for how to prevent foreclosures and to mitigate foreclosures and reduce the number of foreclosures out there.

At the end of the day what you're dealing with are individual American homeowners holding a mortgage who are trying to -- want to stay in their home, they may have uncertain economic futures, they're uncertain about the value of their home; you have banks who don't want to foreclose on homes --that's not a good business practice for banks. But trying to make that system work is very difficult and complicated. And we've heard lots of ideas, ideas from the FDIC, ideas from outside economists, we have our own ideas, I'm sure the next administration will have ideas. And what you find as you work through all of these foreclosure mitigation programs is that they have strengths and weaknesses, and not one of them is perfect. If there was a perfect program out there, I think we would have implemented it already.

So it's difficult; we're trying to get at that problem a variety of different ways, through programs like FHASecure over at the Federal Housing Administration. I think there's been some reporting recently about the difficulties of trying to implement Congress's designed program, the Hope for Homeowners legislation that they passed last summer. It's a difficult problem to get at, but we're trying -- and the HOPE NOW Alliance of bankers and lenders and mortgage counselors are trying, as well.

So, you're right, a lot of the people who will be helped will find themselves back in default status. That's a reality that we all have to deal with as we try to work through it.

Q: And also, this weekend, there was a new task force announced by the Obama transition that would deal with working families. The administration itself has got a lot of task forces, from energy to strengthening Social Security, reforming the tax code. Do you think this is an effective way to try --

MR. FRATTO: I'll speak about our task forces and the efforts that we've done, and leave you all to analyze the decisions by the incoming administration.

Q: I would like to ask about possible support of Europeans for closing down Guantanamo. There was a story in today's Washington Post, and there's an awful lot of debate in my country. Has your administration asked Germany to take detainees from Guantanamo and be -- in the case of relatively innocent or harmless people -- like the Bosnia Algerians, which have now been released -- if they can be released to European countries, couldn't they also be released to the United States?

MR. FRATTO: You know, I'm not going to speak to our specific conversations with certain countries. I think I'll just make a general statement on this. We've been -- we have had communications with countries all across the world -- allies and countries from regions where a lot of the detainees come from -- to try to resettle them and to ensure that they are treated humanely and safely.

The President has said a number of times that it's our intention to close Guantanamo. I think what many people are realizing -- as they take a closer look at it and look at the efforts to try to resettle detainees, to try to deal with and bring to justice the high-value detainees, the very dangerous, most dangerous terrorist suspects that we're holding at Guantanamo -- that it's complicated. There are legal concerns, there are cross-border concerns in any of the countries that may consider taking detainees. They have their own legal systems that need to be considered. And we have to consider the expected safety and treatment of any of the detainees that we release from our custody.

So it has taken a lot longer than any of us would have wanted to try to deal with them. We continue to move forward with the military commissions for a number of high-value detainees, and that's the way that we're going to continue to deal with it. If there are countries out there that are willing to take them and they meet those standards, in terms of the treatment of detainees, we certainly want to talk to them and we have been talking to a lot of them.

Q: And consideration to release them into the U.S. --

MR. FRATTO: That's not an option that we think is good for this country. These are enemy combatants that were picked up off the battlefield and I think in almost every case they've been shown to have had training and relationships with terrorist organizations, at the very least. So there's a reason we're holding them; there's a reason we're holding them where we're holding them. And we don't think releasing them to the United States is the most appropriate solution in whatever form.

Goyal.

Q: Two questions, Tony, thank you. One, you think the President is regret or disappointed that we still don't have Osama bin Laden, because he has been trying for the last -- right after 9/11? And --

MR. FRATTO: I wouldn't say "regret." I mean, we're disappointed that we haven't caught Osama bin Laden, but we're certainly going to continue to do that until our very last day here, to try to catch Osama bin Laden.

Q: Many people around the globe are really asking that the war is the largest military power or sophisticated -- all the weapons that you have. If the U.S. cannot, than who will? And President-Elect Obama said that if he's told where he is, and many people know where he is, and he will get him. So how do you think the President-Elect Obama will get and President Bush could not?

MR. FRATTO: I'm not going to speak for the Obama administration. You can ask them what they're -- how they intend to do that. If it was easy, it would be done. I remind you that these are large and difficult parts of the world where these terrorists are hiding. I'll also remind you that we've had fugitives from the law here in our own country that have escaped justice in the United States for many years. I mean, the Unabomber was in the United States hiding for a decade before the FBI could find them. And so it's difficult. But we're going to try to hunt down every one of them.

Q: As far as the Mumbai attacks -- still on the streets of India -- Mumbai attack people are on the streets of India -- and now there's a high tension between India and Pakistan on the border. Do you think the President has spoken with anybody? Because war could break any time.

MR. FRATTO: I don't know if President Bush has. I know Admiral Mullen is in the region, and he's speaking to people in the region. But I don't have anything new for you in terms of the President's conversations.

One last one in the back of the room.

Q: Thank you. Could you please speak to the U.S.'s consideration of moving troops into Basra, which is seen as pretty stable, and taking over from the British troops? I mean, aren't we supposed to be easing out of the country? And what --does this kind of send a message to the Iraqi people as they just passed the SOFA?

MR. FRATTO: I really have to apologize. I'm not familiar with our troop placements in Iraq right now, and what the latest is on that. Maybe you could check in with Ben Chang here and Ben can maybe give you something. Ben, who is with the National Security Council, can help.

Okay, thank you.

Q: Happy holidays.

MR. FRATTO: Thank you, and to you, too.

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