James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:22 A.M. EST
MR. STANZEL: Good morning, everyone. Let me run through the President’s schedule and then I’ll go ahead and take your questions.
Today the President is visiting with White House Communication Agency and White House Transportation Agency. He is currently at Bolling Air Force Base where he is thanking them for their service over the past eight years. This visit is similar to the one he did for HMX-1, Marine One, and the one that he will do tomorrow for the Presidential Airlift Group.
One note on today’s schedule — not on the President’s schedule, however, but something going on very important here at the White House. Today Chief of Staff Josh Bolten will chair the fifth and final meeting of the transition coordinating council. Today’s meeting will focus on the operational details of the next two weeks, including inauguration-related security and logistics. Like the past meetings, the council has invited transition experts from outside government who can give meaningful advice to the administration and the President-elect’s team.
The hallmark of the transition has been our coordination with the President-elect’s team and for the second time leaders of this — his team are also attending the meeting.
And then next week our work with the President-elect’s transition team continues on Tuesday, January 13th, when we host a series of orientations and briefings, culminating with a facilitated exercise for senior, current and incoming officials. We are mindful that this is the first transition since September 11th and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Homeland Security Council, Office of Director of National Intelligence, and the National Counterterrorism Center, and U.S. Northern Command.
So in keeping with the President’s commitment to ensure a complete and smooth transition to the next administration, we have invited incoming senior members of President-Elect Obama’s team to attend 90 minute orientations and briefings, followed by a three hour exercise intended to familiarize the incoming administration with domestic and international incident management procedures used by the current administration. And the format of these sessions is intended to provide an opportunity for senior members of the incoming administration to discuss instant management practices and challenges with their outgoing peers.
On the President’s schedule, tomorrow the President and Mrs. Bush attend the commissioning ceremony of the George H.W. Bush in Norfolk, Virginia. Following the commissioning, he will meet with the United States Navy SEAL teams; that is closed press. When he arrives back at Andrews Air Force Base, he will visit with the Presidential Airlift Group; that meeting is also closed.
And on Tuesday morning, the President will have his final Cabinet meeting; that will be pool at the bottom. Later in that afternoon, the President and Mrs. Bush will present the 2009 Presidential Medals of Freedom Awards; and that is open press.
And with that, I will take your questions. Matt.
Q: Given the very grim discoveries of bodies in the Gaza Strip in recent days, is the administration still convinced that Israel is doing all it can to prevent civilian casualties and to facilitate the entry of humanitarian relief to the people there?
MR. STANZEL: We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We have expressed that concern throughout this crisis. Israel has indicated that they too are concerned and they are taking every step that they can to prevent the loss of innocent life. And we want to see that situation improve.
However, it is a difficult situation. It is a conflict area. And this situation will not improve until Hamas stops lobbing rockets into Israel.
And so that is very much a concern, but it is something that we have expressed, the President expressed to Prime Minister Olmert, and certainly officials at the State Department have indicated their concern in their conversations with their Israeli counterparts, as well.
Q: Scott, just on that, today the head of —
(Interruption to briefing.)
Q: I’m sure we’ll get to this, but I do have another question — I do have another question on Gaza. Today the head of the World Food Program said that 80 percent of the people in Gaza need urgent food assistance. Hundreds of people have died, many of them children. The Red Cross and the U.N. have both come out and said, we can’t get in there; we don’t have enough time in these limited cease-fires to administer the kind of humanitarian aid that is critical. At what point does this become, from the administration’s perspective, a humanitarian crisis?
MR. STANZEL: Well, it is a humanitarian crisis. It’s a war zone. And war zones are very difficult.
The Israeli officials have indicated their concerns. We have expressed our deep concerns about the situation with innocent lives being lost. But again, this is a problem, unfortunately, that was brought on by Hamas. Hamas, on December 19th, refused to extend the cease-fire. And they began lobbing more and more rockets into Israel. And that is a situation that the Israeli government nor any government would stand for. If you can imagine terrorists on boats in the Potomac lobbing rockets into Washington, D.C., I highly doubt that this government or any other government faced with that situation would stand for that.
So it is a difficult situation. They are concerned about the humanitarian situation and they are working with aid agencies, as are we, in terms of providing our aid. So it’s a difficult situation, but one that we’re constantly working on.
Q: Scott, anything on the farewell address?
MR. STANZEL: Nothing yet to announce at this point.
Q: And the exercise you mentioned earlier with the transition officials — is that an attack simulation?
MR. STANZEL: It is — I won’t go into the details of it, but it is an exercise scenario, a hypothetical scenario that is designed to test and tax the capabilities of the federal government, and is one to bring about a lot of discussions about how the government would respond in that type of situation. So I’m not going to go into the details of it, but it is a scenario — a disaster scenario where the government would be very much tested.
Q: Is it done in the Sit Room?
MR. STANZEL: I don’t have the exact location, but I don’t believe it will be in the Sit Room, but we can get back to you on that.
Q: And are Obama and Biden taking part, or just senior staff?
MR. STANZEL: I’ll decline to speak for their team, but it will be senior level officials.
Q: Scott, the unemployment rate today went up to 7.2 percent in December, another 524,000 jobs lost in December. The November numbers were revised, worse than expected. So as the President in the waning days of this administration is prepared to leave office, the economy continues to deteriorate, alarming even analysts who are hardened on these things. Can you give us s sense of — you know, the sense in the White House that’s seeing these numbers continue to tick up as this President prepares to leave office?
MR. STANZEL: We’ve seen tremendously disappointing reports over the last four or five months. Obviously the economy this entire year has been soft. That’s why the Congress and the President worked together at the beginning of the year to pass a stimulus package. But what we saw in September was a credit crisis that really accelerated those job losses and had a devastating impact throughout the entire economy.
So in the past four or five months the job losses have been about six times higher than what they had been before. And that’s of deep concern to us. And that’s why the President, in working with Congress, took the action they did to pass the TARP program to — it’s a big program to deal with a big problem. And we think that it’s helped to stabilize the financial sector, but we need to see more in terms of lending going on. We need to see more in terms of the loans going out to small businesses that can hire. Small businesses create about 75 percent of the new jobs that are created in this country. And when the credit — they can’t get credit to expand or hire new workers, that’s a deep concern.
And so it was a very, very disappointing report. We also have concern for those people who are looking for jobs. That’s why the unemployment benefits were extended, as well. But it’s one that we’re not happy with. The unemployment rate going from 7 percent to 7.2 percent is also deeply concerning. An unemployment rate of 7.2 percent might be an improvement for many countries around the world, but it is not good enough for Americans. It is unacceptable and we can do better, and that’s why we’re taking decisive action to improve the situation.
Q: Is there a sense of frustration and disappointment that this is happening on President Bush’s watch as he prepares to leave office?
MR. STANZEL: No, I don’t think that the President looks at it that way at all. He just looks at it as a challenge, an issue that must be tackled, that we must take decisive action. That’s how he’s looked at all of the major challenges that he’s faced throughout his presidency, be it challenges like 9/11 or wars or natural disasters or problems on the economic side. You know, the President inherited an economy that was in recession. That’s why he put in place tax relief that led to 52 straight months of job growth. And that was helpful.
On the housing side, obviously, that precipitated the problems that we’re in now. And if you go back over the years, you’ll see that people like Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his predecessors were warning about the problems with the GSEs and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We saw those problems on the horizon, and unfortunately it took a long time for Congress to act. And that was disappointing.
But the President doesn’t — isn’t one who wrings his hands and says, woe is me. It is — he has had this job now for seven years, 11 months and 20 days. And he’s put in the effort every day to challenge his staff and to tackle the problems and the issues and challenges that we face as a nation.
Q: There’s a report that the Obama administration intends to engage in low-level talks with Hamas. Looking at the situation in Gaza now, do you think that that’s something that perhaps you should have done?
MR. STANZEL: Our policy has been clear, in terms of not dealing with Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization that took over the Gaza — Gaza in — about 18 months ago. So our position has been clear.
As you’ve heard from the State Department, in terms of the actions that the world community has taken, obviously Egypt has been working with Israel in terms of trying to get to a durable and sustainable cease-fire. And that is a process that we have supported. But our position has not changed.
Q: I get to go again?
MR. STANZEL: Sure.
Q: I wanted to go back to TARP again, if you don’t mind. Later today the Congressional Oversight Panel is releasing its report in which it gives a pretty damning assessment of the oversight involved in the TARP funds, saying, “The panel still doesn’t know what the banks are doing with the taxpayer money.” And they go on to say that there’s no indication that there’s been a direct effort by Treasury to address the foreclosure crisis. Wondering if the administration has any thoughts on this report, and if those are some concerns that the President has, as well, and whether or not the President is recommending that there be stricter metrics and oversight on that second disbursement of TARP funds.
MR. STANZEL: Second $350 billion, yes. The Treasury Department has been balancing the urgent need to act quickly while also adhering to the most rigorous oversight ever imposed. They take that very seriously. They’re cooperating with the GAO, the special IG, Congressional Oversight Panel, congressional committees, congressional members. They make all of the reporting requirements and they’re available at treasury.gov. And they’ve met all of those reporting requirements.
Now, the Treasury has been using the TARP funds in the best way possible to stabilize the financial situation. The program is working. Obviously we would like to see results faster. Banks are beginning to strengthen their balance sheets and they are beginning lending again, even in a very difficult economy.
Once confidence returns, however, is when more lending can go forward. So we’re not there yet, but I think that the Treasury Department has acted swiftly to try to get this money out the door to try to stabilize the financial system, and at the same time deal with the reporting requirements and the oversight requirements.
So what Congress does in the future is up to them, but I think that the Treasury Department has worked very diligently to adhere to those reporting requirements.
Q: So just to be clear, the administration’s position is that, no, it’s fine, we didn’t need to have articulated any more detail, metrics or standards for how that money was supposed to be used — getting it out the door is one thing —
MR. STANZEL: Congress gave very broad authority to the Treasury Department to deal with a challenge the likes of which we have never seen. So they had very broad authority to use that money to stabilize the financial system that was having an impact on the rest of the economy.
And so as challenges have arisen and plans have been put in place, the Treasury Department and the administration have worked to communicate their actions. But this is a unique situation, a unique problem, and one that’s — one that is without precedent.
Q: Back on the disaster exercise — just to be clear, only one scenario?
MR. STANZEL: I’m not going to detail out the scenario.
Q: But you used the singular. I just wanted —
MR. STANZEL: I did? Okay, well, I did use singular, but I — there could be other parts of a scenario, it could be very complex, it could be very simple. I’m just not going to detail out the parameters of it.
Q: And to what extent, if at all, was this driven by the fact of some intelligence information?
MR. STANZEL: It’s not — obviously the — you may have heard Secretary Chertoff in recent days has talked about the fact that there is no threat that they are aware of, no corroborated threat to the inauguration. However, it is a very public event, one that is — happens every four years, one that is well known, and one that gathers leaders in a very small environment, essentially. So obviously we have a lot of concern about it, but there is no credible threat at this point to the inauguration that is precipitating this.
I would also note on the exercise — the exercise is a regular thing. We have these exercises at various levels throughout the administration, at several different levels on a regular basis every year. This just happens to be an exercise that we are having at a very senior level that we had planned that we can also include the incoming team on that exercise, and that provides them an opportunity to participate in that, as well. So this is a regular occurrence.
Q: Without necessarily naming the entities, but how many agencies — federal, state, local —
MR. STANZEL: It’s a federal exercise, so I will leave it at that, but we’ll see if we can’t get you more information as we get closer on Tuesday.
Q: Scott, back to the jobs report, it can be seen as evidence that the President’s, as well as the administration’s efforts to kick-start, recharge — whatever you want to use — the economy — keep people from cutting jobs hasn’t worked or hasn’t worked as quickly as you had hoped.
MR. STANZEL: Well, certainly any time a job is lost, we are concerned. And we would like to be able to flip a switch and have a job creation return. You know, we did have 52 straight months of that, which was a record. So the job losses that we have seen have been very troubling. But I would note again, the fact that the credit crisis and the credit freeze, where the credit markets essentially ground to a halt in September, really precipitated the magnitude of these job losses that we have seen. The average, I believe, before September in the first part of the year was about 80,000 jobs lost per month, which is unacceptable. But after that credit crisis, it’s jumped to 400,000 and 500,000 — and that is of deep concern. And that is why the $700 billion plan was so important. We needed a big solution to stop our economy from collapsing completely.
Q: Is it not working fast enough? I mean —
MR. STANZEL: Well, it’s never working fast enough. If we could speed it up, we certainly would. But the Treasury Department has worked very hard to implement the program and to try to have an impact, and I think the impact has been shown in that the markets, the credit markets, have stabilized. However, we’d like to see it move faster, for sure.
MR. STANZEL: Scott, two questions, thank you. One, are we still living under the threat of terrorism or any kind of threats now as far as the inauguration is concerned? Or let me ask you, since we don’t have Osama bin Laden, what — is it going to make any difference — let’s say, he dead or alive or we get him tomorrow, as far as terrorism is concerned in Afghanistan or around the globe?
MR. STANZEL: Well, the — I think Dana answered this question for you a couple days ago, and we continue to pursue Osama bin Laden; that is important. We continue to pursue top leadership of al Qaeda. We have had great success in bringing many leaders of al Qaeda to justice throughout this war on terror. So it is important. And whether or not we live under a threat, we of course do. My comments to Ed, however, was a specific threat on the inauguration itself, and the experts at the Department of Homeland Security have indicated at this time they don’t see a specific credible threat.
But as a nation, it is without question that terrorists continue to seek to harm Americans, harm our allies and our interests, not only here at home but around the world.
Q: No, I mean, it is going to make any difference whether Osama bin Laden is dead or not?
MR. STANZEL: I’ll leave that to other experts to pontificate about, but the fact remains that we are still in pursuit and we will continue to take on that effort.
Q: And finally, as far as U.S.-India nuclear civil agreement was concerned, there was one piece of paper still on the President’s desk. Was ever signed by him?
MR. STANZEL: I’ll have to take that question and get back to you. I haven’t been looking at the top of his desk lately.
Q: Thank you.
MR. STANZEL: Yes.
Q: On his previous point, do you have any direct comment on the apparent killings of two top —
MR. STANZEL: No, I don’t.
Q: The administration has been boasting about the success of the President’s war on terror, yet data compiled by the RAND Corporation show that the global rate of terrorism, as measured by the number of people killed per year, increased by almost fivefold during the Bush presidency. And according to the government’s own terrorism statistics, 2007 was the worst year ever, with over 22,000 people killed worldwide. Does the President consider that record a success?
MR. STANZEL: The President considers it very much a success that we have kept this nation safe since the devastating attacks of 9/11. The magnitude of the attacks on 9/11 were unprecedented, unseen, when 19 individuals armed with box cutters flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and were fought and died in a field in Pennsylvania.
We have taken the fight to the terrorists. It has been this President’s sole mission throughout his presidency to confront those threats where they are. He has a much talked about Bush Doctrine. The President has made it very clear that if you aid, abet, house, feed, fund a terrorist, you are just as guilty as the terrorist, and that we will also confront the challenges where they emerge so we don’t have to face them here at home. And we will work to spread an ideology of hope and freedom, which will be the ultimate tool in combating terrorism around the world.
So I’ll move on. Yes, go ahead —
Q: But shouldn’t the anti-terrorism efforts reduce terrorism rather than increase it?
MR. STANZEL: Well, I guess you should ask the question, have terrorists — do terrorists continue to try to kill innocent civilians around the world? Yes, they do. Should we then just take a step back and decide, no, we shouldn’t confront those challenges?
Q: But you can try a —
MR. STANZEL: I’m done, I’m going to move on.
Q: — you can try a different tactic.
MR. STANZEL: Which is — we have a full tactic, full panoply of tactics that we use, on the diplomatic side, on the defense side, on the homeland security side, and terrorist financing side. So the President is very proud of his record in defending this country and taking the fight to terrorists for the past two terms.
Q: Back to Gaza and the U.N. resolution yesterday, can you expand on why the White House opted for abstention rather than voting with the rest of the Security Council?
MR. STANZEL: Sure. Did you have an opportunity to see Secretary Rice’s remarks last night? So I would just refer you to those. The discussions between Israel and Egypt we believe hold great promise of providing a way to a durable and sustainable cease-fire. And as Secretary Rice said, that is a resolution — that resolution that passed last night, we believed it should have just been postponed to allow those discussions between Egypt and Israel to go forward so it could be more informed by those discussions.
However, I would note in the resolution and in Secretary Rice’s remarks, she talked about we agreed with the text, we agreed with the objectives, and we agreed with the goals of that resolution. We just happen to believe that there should have been a different timing for it.
Q: With Israel as our ally, how influential is the United States in pushing Israel towards a cease-fire? And have there been any more conversations about sending additional aid to Palestinians?
MR. STANZEL: Well, we have I believe earlier in the week, or maybe even last week, we talked about the $85 million that we have provided through the U.N. in terms of aid to the Palestinians. But the cease-fire will come when terrorists stop lobbing rockets at innocent civilians for the desire to kill to advance their ideology. When Hamas attacks Israel they’re not only hurting the Israeli people, but they are hurting the Palestinian people because they are also attacking the two-state solution, which is the ultimate solution for the Palestinians and the Israelis living side by side in peace.
Q: As the humanitarian crisis grows there, will the United States send more aid? I know the —
MR. STANZEL: I don’t have anything to announce for you, but obviously we’ve indicated our deep concern about the humanitarian situation, and that’s something that the State Department and the leaders there have talked about at length, as well.
Q: The French and the Egyptians have tried to broker a peace deal. Has the U.S. lost its leadership role in any kind of negotiations in this regard?
MR. STANZEL: I wouldn’t say that. I think that the United States has a unique role around the world and a unique relationship with Israel. We have a very strong bond with Israel. This is a challenge that has unfortunately gone back many years and many decades and — but, no, we are working with our international partners at length. The resolution that was passed, Secretary Rice had a very much — a very strong involvement in that resolution, and she’s been in New York working round-the-clock to try to bring a solution to this problem that, again, is durable and sustainable.
Q: Scott, is the White House hearing complaints about the plans for shutting down Washington on Inauguration Day — the shutdown of the bridges entering the city?
MR. STANZEL: I haven’t heard any complaints in terms of formally. Obviously I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it, and a lot of Virginians are talking about it in terms of the bridges and that sort of thing. But in terms of formal complaints, no, I haven’t heard. But obviously this is a new time and it’s important that security matters be taken into account.
Q: Thanks, Scott.
MR. STANZEL: Thank you.
END 10:50 A.M. EST