THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
August 9, 2013
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
IN A PRESS CONFERENCE
3:09 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask about some of the foreign policy fallout from the disclosure of the NSA programs that you discussed. Your spokesman said yesterday that there’s no question that the U.S. relationship with Russia has gotten worse since Vladimir Putin took office. How much of that decline do you attribute directly to Mr. Putin, given that you seem to have had a good working relationship with his predecessor? Also will there be any additional punitive measures taken against Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden? Or is canceling the September summit really all you can do given the host of issues the U.S. needs Russian cooperation for? Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. I think there’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union. There’s been cooperation in some areas; there’s been competition in others.
It is true that in my first four years, in working with President Medvedev, we made a lot of progress. We got START done -- or START II done. We were able to cooperate together on Iran sanctions. They provided us help in terms of supplying our troops in Afghanistan. We were able to get Russia into the WTO -- which is not just good for Russia, it’s good for our companies and businesses because they're more likely then to follow international norms and rules. So there's been a lot of good work that has been done and that is going to continue to be done.
What's also true is, is that when President Putin -- who was prime minister when Medvedev was president -- came back into power I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contests between the United States and Russia. And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues -- with mixed success.
And I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we're doing things that are good for the United States and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that there just are going to be some differences and we're not going to be able to completely disguise them.
And that's okay. Keep in mind that although I'm not attending the summit, I'll still be going to St. Petersburg because Russia is hosting the G20. That's important business in terms of our economy and our jobs and all the issues that are of concern to Americans.
I know that one question that's been raised is how do we approach the Olympics. I want to just make very clear right now I do not think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics. We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed. Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia. But as I said just this week, I've spoken out against that not just with respect to Russia but a number of other countries where we continue to do work with them, but we have a strong disagreement on this issue.
And one of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then it probably makes their team weaker.
Q. Are there going to be any additional punitive measures for Russia, beyond canceling the summit?
THE PRESIDENT: Keep in mind that our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden. It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved. And so we don't consider that strictly punitive.
We're going to assess where the relationship can advance U.S. interests and increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world. Where it can, we’re going to keep on working with them. Where we have differences, we’re going to say so clearly. And my hope is, is that over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples.
Q. No, I understand. It was a part of a question that you didn’t answer. Can you get stuff done with Russia, big stuff done, without having a good personal relationship with Putin?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.
So the issue here really has to do with where do they want to take Russia -- it’s substantive on a policy front. And --
THE PRESIDENT: No. Right now, this is just a matter of where Mr. Putin and the Russian people want to go. I think if they are looking forward into the 21st century and how they can advance their economy, and make sure that some of our joint concerns around counterterrorism are managed effectively, then I think we can work together. If issues are framed as if the U.S. is for it then Russia should be against it, or we’re going to be finding ways where we can poke each other at every opportunity, then probably we don’t get as much stuff done.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. You have said that core al Qaeda has been decimated, that its leaders are on the run. Now that we’ve seen this terror threat that has resulted in embassies closed throughout the Arab world, much of Africa, do you still believe that al Qaeda has been decimated? And if I can ask in the interest of transparency, can you tell us about these drone strikes that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: What I said in the same National Defense University speech back in May that I referred to earlier is that core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated. But what I also said was that al Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.
And I’d refer you back to that speech just back in May where I said specifically that although they are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after our embassies. They have the capacity, potentially, to go after our businesses. They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak. And that’s exactly what we are seeing right now.
So it’s entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and relatively centralized al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken apart and is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity, and to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people.
And so that requires us, then, to make sure that we have a strategy that is strengthening those partners so that they’ve got their own capacity to deal with what are potentially manageable regional threats if these countries are a little bit stronger and have more effective CT and so forth. It means that we’ve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists who are potentially carrying out plots or are going to strengthen their capacity over time -- because they’re always testing the boundaries of, well, maybe we can try this, maybe we can do that.
So this is a ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.
And I’m not going to discuss specific operations that have taken place. Again, in my speech in May, I was very specific about how we make these determinations about potential lethal strikes, so I would refer you to that speech.
Q. So you won’t even confirm that we carried out drone strikes in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: I will not have a discussion about operational issues.
Q. I hope you would defend me as well.
THE PRESIDENT: I would.
Q. Okay, thank you. I want to ask you about two important dates that are coming up. October 1st you’ve got to implement your signature health care law. You recently decided on your own to delay a key part of that. And I wonder, if you pick and choose what parts of the law to implement, couldn’t your successor down the road pick and choose whether they’ll implement your law and keep it in place?
And on September 11th we’ll have the first anniversary of Benghazi. And you said on September 12th, “Make no mistake, we’ll bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” Eleven months later, where are they, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I also said that we’d get bin Laden, and I didn’t get him in 11 months. So we have informed, I think, the public that there’s a sealed indictment. It’s sealed for a reason. But we are intent on capturing those who carried out this attack, and we’re going to stay on it until we get them.
Q. And you’re close to having suspects in custody?
THE PRESIDENT: I will leave it at that. But this remains a top priority for us. Anybody who attacks Americans, anybody who kills, tragically, four Americans who were serving us in a very dangerous place, we’re going to do everything we can to get those who carried out those attacks.
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. Part of the political logic behind immigration reform was the strong showing by Latino voters last November. That doesn’t seem to resonate with a lot of House Republicans who represent overwhelmingly white districts. What other political leverage can you bring to bear to help move a bill in the House?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, we’ve got an economic report that shows that our economy would be a trillion dollars stronger if we get immigration reform done. We’ve got evidence that our housing market would be stronger if immigrants are in a situation in which, having paid a fine, having paid back taxes, that they now have the ability to actually enter into the housing market. We’ve got strong evidence that our technological and research edge would be better if we get immigration reform done.
We know that the Senate bill strengthens border security, puts unprecedented resources on top of the unprecedented resources I’ve already put into border security. So if your main priority is border security, I’d think you’d want to vote for this bill. We know that the Senate bill creates a system in which employers are held accountable for when they hire undocumented workers. This is something that people say is a bad thing. I agree. Let’s make sure that that system for holding employers accountable is in place.
So when I hear the opposition to immigration reform, I just run through the list of things they’re concerned about, I look at what the Senate bill does, and I say to myself, you know what, the Senate bill actually improves the situation on every issue that they say they’re concerned about.
Now, what they may argue is it doesn’t solve the problem 100 percent. I don’t know a law that solves a problem 100 percent. Social Security lifted millions of seniors out of poverty, but there are still some poor seniors. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act drastically reduced discrimination in America, but there’s still discrimination. That doesn’t make them bad laws, it just means that there are very few human problems that are 100 percent solvable.
So what I see right now is a strong bipartisan vote coming out of the Senate. I think that the Speaker and others have said they need to do something, and I’d urge, when they get back, to do something -- put forward a bill that has an opportunity to actually pass. It may not be precisely what’s in the Senate bill. My preference would be for them to go ahead and call the Senate bill. But if they’ve got some additional ideas, I think the Senate is happy to consider them. And get that bill on the floor, put it up for a vote.
I am absolutely certain that the votes for the Senate bill -- which strengthens border security; demands responsibility from undocumented workers to pay a fine, pay a penalty and get to the back of the line; reforms our legal immigration system; holds employers accountable -- I am absolutely confident that if that bill was on the floor of the House, it would pass.
So the challenge right now is not that there aren’t a majority of House members, just like a majority of Senate members, who aren’t prepared to support this bill. The problem is internal Republican caucus politics. And that’s what the American people don’t want us to be worrying about. Don’t worry about your Washington politics. Solve problems.
And this is one where you’ve actually got some pretty broad consensus. I don’t know an issue where you’ve got labor, the Chamber of Commerce, evangelicals, student groups -- you name it -- supportive of a bill. Let’s get it done.
Thank you very much, everybody.
END 4:00 P.M. EDT