The Obama Administration has dramatically changed our course at the United Nations. The President’s new era of engagement has led to concrete results at the UN that advance U.S. foreign policy objectives and American security. The dividends of U.S. leadership at the UN are tangible – the stiffest UN sanctions ever against Iran and North Korea, renewed momentum against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, a coordinated global effort to help Haiti recover and rebuild, internationally agreed principles to address food insecurity, and direct U.S. participation to reform the flawed UN Human Rights Council. In a world facing so many complex transnational challenges, rebuilding a strong basis for international cooperation has allowed the U.S. to work collectively to solve problems at the United Nations, furthering core national security interests for the American people.
Strengthening UN Peacekeeping and Conflict Prevention Efforts
- Improving Peacekeeping Effectiveness: In September 2009, President Obama hosted the first-ever meeting with the leaders of the top troop-contributing nations to UN peacekeeping operations, underscoring America’s commitment to this vital tool, which allows countries around the world to share the burden for protecting civilians and fragile peace processes in societies emerging from war. The U.S. continues to advance initiatives to strengthen UN peacekeeping capabilities, including by seeking to expand the number, capacity, and effectiveness of troop and police contributors, helping secure General Assembly approval for vital peacekeeping reforms, and working with fellow Security Council members to craft more credible and achievable mandates for operations in Haiti, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and several other current operations.
Sudan: Following the indictment by the International Criminal Court of the President of Sudan and the retaliatory expulsion of humanitarian relief workers, the U.S. pressed for the return of the aid groups and opposed the deferral of the ICC arrest warrant. The U.S. has carefully supported the effective implementation of peacekeeping mandates in Southern Sudan and Darfur, and promoted improved cooperation between these two peacekeeping missions, in line with the Obama Administration’s comprehensive approach to Sudan. The U.S. continues to work closely with senior UN officials to improve the humanitarian situation on the ground, and ensure that the UN is prepared to support the upcoming referenda. President Obama will attend the high-level Sudan meeting hosted by United Nations Secretary General Ban during the General Assembly, to bring high-level attention and focus to actions that can support on-time referenda that reflect the will of the Sudanese people.
The U.S. strongly backs the work of the Sudan sanctions Committee and the Sudan Panel of Experts. The U.S. led negotiations on resolution 1891, renewing the mandate of the Experts and making the sanctions and the Committee more effective.
Statement from the Press Secretary on the Fifth Anniversary of the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement
This week marks the five-year anniversary of Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Africa’s longest running war. It speaks to the will and endurance of the Sudanese people that the ceasefire between northern and southern Sudan has now lasted longer than in any other period in Sudan’s history since independence. Our challenge is to ensure that this record holds, and that the agreement is implemented transparently, fairly and in a timely fashion. President Obama has made promoting peace and stability in Sudan a priority and his Administration is committed to supporting the CPA and its implementation.
The CPA maps out a series of confidence-building measures that are critical in the aftermath of what was a decades-long brutal war. Sudan’s progress —the withdrawal of northern military forces from southern Sudan, the sharing of significant portions of Sudan’s oil wealth between north and south, and an agreement on the contested Abyei region — is significant.
But time is limited, the stakes are high, and there is much work yet to be done to secure a lasting peace and prevent the resurgence of a deadly war. Recent setbacks, including violent clashes in the South, the Khartoum government’s passage of a repressive National Security Act, the government’s violent suppression of peaceful protests, and the failure of the two sides to come to agreement on critical issues such as border demarcation, do not bode well for the region or for the people of Sudan. Consistent with our strategy, the United States will continue to call to account those responsible for delays and deviations from the path to lasting peace.
Just one year remains in the CPA’s transition period before the south will vote in a referendum on secession. Given the brevity of the remaining period, the United States is intensifying our efforts to mobilize international coordination and support for the CPA, to encourage the parties to honor their commitments under the agreement, and to work with partners in the region and throughout the international community to prepare for the future.
The elections held recently in Sudan were an essential step in a process laid out by Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The United States notes the initial assessment of independent electoral observers that Sudan’s elections did not meet international standards. Political rights and freedoms were circumscribed throughout the electoral process, there were reports of intimidation and threats of violence in South Sudan, ongoing conflict in Darfur did not permit an environment conducive to acceptable elections, and inadequacies in technical preparations for the vote resulted in serious irregularities. The United States regrets that Sudan’s National Elections Commission did not do more to prevent and address such problems prior to voting.
The people of Sudan are to be commended for their efforts to make Sudan’s first multi-party elections in over two decades peaceful and meaningful. In the months and years ahead it will be critical to continue pressing for progress for the civil and political rights of all of the Sudanese people. This priority will not expire with the CPA, and all parties should draw on this experience to improve preparations for future elections and referenda.
The United States also remains committed to working with the international community to support implementation of outstanding elements of the CPA and ensure that the referendum happens on time and that its results are respected. With partners in the region and beyond, we will continue to engage in the preparations necessary to support peace and stability after the 2011 referenda, and continue to promote peace, security, and accountability in Darfur.
“The President is extremely pleased that voter registration has begun in Southern Sudan in preparation for the January 9th, 2011 referendum on self-determination. Voter registration is a critical milestone in that process, and we hope that it will continue unabated. We call on Northern and Southern leaders to finish the work started with the voter registration process to ensure the referendum is peaceful and occurs on time, and that the will of the people of South Sudan are respected regardless of the outcome. Both parties also must urgently work to find an agreed-upon way forward for Abyei in the interest of lasting peace, and we call on the government of Sudan to fully fund the Southern Sudan referendum commission.”
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. I apologize for the delay. Obviously we are watching and monitoring very closely a very fluid and dynamic situation, so I will do my best to answer some of your immediate questions. We may take some of those, again, as events, as we can all see, are changing very quickly.
So with that, Mr. Feller.
Q Thanks, Robert. Has President Obama spoken to President Mubarak about these issues?
MR. GIBBS: Let me start by giving you a little bit of a rundown in the President’s briefings thus far today. Overnight he received a memo from the National Security Advisor on the latest situation. I think you all have been briefed on the fact that the President’s PDB was about 40 minutes in the Oval Office this morning entirely on the situation in Egypt. We convened not too long ago, about 12:30 p.m., a deputies committee meeting in the Situation Room run by Denis McDonough where we heard directly from Ambassador Margaret Scobey from Egypt and the State Department and others. Those — that briefing was relayed back to the President not too long ago in the Oval Office.
So we have — throughout the process our ambassador and others in the government have been in touch with the Egyptian government. President Obama has not spoken with President Mubarak.
Q Does he have plans to and does he stand by him?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we are — again, we’re monitoring a very fluid situation. I would point you to what I think we’ve said over the course of this, Ben, and that is this is not about picking a person or picking the people of a country. And as you heard Secretary of State Clinton say today, we are deeply concerned about the images and the events that we see in Egypt today. We monitor those events closely.
The security personnel in Egypt need to refrain from violence. Protesters should refrain from violence, as well. We’ve said that throughout this. We think the government, as many of us have said throughout the day, need to turn the Internet and social networking sites back on.
The legitimate grievances that have festered for quite some time in Egypt have to be addressed by the Egyptian government immediately, and violence is not the response. A space has to be created for a meaningful dialogue that addresses, again, those very legitimate grievances. Our belief in their right on the freedom of expression, of association and of assembly — we have, and I outlined some yesterday, some very specific things that the government must begin to do immediately.
Q Two other quick ones, please?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, sir.
Q You say these legitimate grievances have to be addressed. I’m wondering: Or what? What can the President do if these matters are not –
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, first and foremost, this is a situation that will be solved by the people in Egypt. I will say this, that we — sorry — we are monitoring closely the situation, as I’ve said. We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events that take place in the coming days. So that’s certainly part of it. But this is — this will be solved by the Egyptian people. But it is important — and there’s a very important opportunity for the Egyptian government to address, again, grievances that have been in place for a number of years.
Q And, lastly, from the White House perspective, can you put what’s happening today and the last couple of days into context? Do you see this as a crisis that is teetering on something potentially much broader spreading across the Middle East?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously we’re monitoring this in a number of places. We’ve seen — we saw what happened in Tunisia. Again, as I said yesterday, I think you have different countries in the region at different stages of political development. And I don’t want to generalize across a series of countries.
Q What does the United States think of the Egyptian military sending tanks into the streets? And what do you think the military’s role should be appropriately?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think that, as we have urged repeatedly for many days, we urge a strong restraint. This is not a situation that should be addressed with violence. Security forces and the military should be restrained in anything that they do.
Q There’s been reports of clashes between the Egyptian military and the Egyptian police. Have you heard anything about that?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t want to get into — obviously, we’re monitoring this situation. So I don’t have a count of everything that’s happening on the ground.
Q What’s the United States doing about aid and are reviewing –
MR. GIBBS: As I said a minute ago, obviously we will be reviewing our assistance posture based on events now and in the coming days.
Q Robert, has the President been having any phone conversations at all with other allies, conferring about the situation in Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously, there have been a number of meetings throughout the government. There’s another higher level principals meeting scheduled for tomorrow morning. But I am unaware of any calls at this point that have been made.
Q And I’m wondering why this message that you are delivering from the podium and what we heard from Secretary of State Clinton earlier today, why the President isn’t himself making those same comments on a phone call? I mean, it seems that it would be more powerful if the President can pick up the phone, call President Mubarak and make the same remarks.
MR. GIBBS: Dan, I think it’s important to understand that we have — we are in continual contact with — throughout levels of our government with the Egyptian government.
Q But there’s more weight, though, if the President were to make that call himself.
MR. GIBBS: Well, and I think you heard the President speak quite clearly yesterday on this topic. And I think what’s also very important is we have not waited for the events of the past several days to bring up our concerns and the concerns of the Egyptian people about what I said: association, assembly, freedom of expression, freedom — Internet freedoms. Those are discussions that are had at every opportunity when anybody from our government meets with the Egyptian government. When the President last spoke with President Mubarak, he brought these concerns up. When we spoke in Cairo, these concerns were brought up.
So I would say only in terms of going forward, we continue to monitor a fast-paced situation.
Q And finally, what — can you kind of talk to us a bit about the role that Egypt has played in that region? And any concerns at all that this situation, this crisis, could hurt the relationship?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I think obvious — you know, we have seen the role that, on issues like Middle East peace, that, either in current negotiations or historically, the government of Egypt has played, and that’s important.
But there is a responsibility that is had by the government of Egypt regardless of the role that they have played internationally or regionally over the course of any number of years. They also have to address the grievances that have built up for those same number of years within the country of Egypt.
This is an important opportunity to institute concrete and legitimate political reforms, to address the deep concerns of the Egyptian people and make some substantive progress. And that’s what we’re looking for.
Q Robert, why does the U.S. still support countries and regimes that we know do not respect human rights, like Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we have documented, again, the concerns that some have had for quite some time. As is the case with a country like China, we have a whole host of bilateral issues that we deal with countries on, as we did in the recent trip. There were economic, security and basic human rights issues that we discuss when the President meets with his counterparts.
Our belief is it is important to have those conversations very directly with those leaders. If you walk away from the table of engagement, you can’t deliver that message in a face-to-face manner. And the President believes obviously that’s tremendously important.
Q You talk about urging restraint. Has that message been communicated from the United States directly to the Egyptian military to refrain from violence, or is just from the podium?
MR. GIBBS: No, it has been communicated not just from this podium, not just in the remarks of the Secretary of State, but at levels within the Pentagon to the Egyptian military from the Egyptian military, from the State Department, from the words and conversations that have been had by Ambassador Scobey — all levels — and also the words, most importantly, of the President yesterday.
Q One last question. Do you believe that the time has passed now for Mubarak to make these changes, these political changes that you’re calling for?
MR. GIBBS: I — absolutely not. I think the people of Egypt want to see, clearly and quickly, legitimate steps taken toward concrete reforms. The time for that to happen has most certainly come.
Q But Robert, you said that he has not talked to President Mubarak. Has he tried to reach him?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Has there been discussion of trying to reach him?
MR. GIBBS: Again, there’s a very fluid situation, and I have no doubt that there are conversations happening as I brief about Egypt on a whole host of levels and issues inside the building.
Q Why is the President not standing where you’re standing right now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we’re monitoring a very fluid situation, Chip.
Q He talked about it yesterday, but since he talked about it, the situation on the ground has changed pretty dramatically.
MR. GIBBS: And I don’t doubt by the time I finish here it will have changed more, and may several times before we all go to bed tonight.
Q Has there been any discussion of concerns expressed by people overseas if they don’t hear directly from the President talking into the camera himself?
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, because, again, I think you have seen a very clear and consistent message across all levels of our government in our interactions with the government in Egypt and in Cairo, the statements that I’ve made publicly in here and the messages that have been communicated most recently by Secretary of State Clinton just a few hours earlier.
Q And I believe earlier you said, “We’ll be reviewing our assistance posture depending on the events of the next several days.” Could you elaborate on that? Has that been discussed in the meetings with the President?
MR. GIBBS: It has. It has.
Q And what kind of change in posture could there be? Are you talking about cutting off aid?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think at this point I would just leave it to the fact that there — we are watching very closely the images and events that you’re watching and how that could very possibly impact our assistance to Egypt.
Q And is that part of a bigger — is there planning going on now for the possibility that he would be overthrown?
MR. GIBBS: There’s a robust set of meetings that are being had to discuss a whole host of issues right now in Egypt.
Q Plans for any contingency like that?
MR. GIBBS: A whole host of meetings that are going on.
Q “Deeply concerned”, “urging restraint” — to this point, from my knowledge, no U.S. official has come out and condemned the violence. Is it time to condemn the violence?
MR. GIBBS: Let’s be clear, Mike. Urging restraint and then seeing violence is obviously very counter to what we believe should be had. And we would strongly condemn the use of any violence on either side during this situation, absolutely.
Q It seemed that you were delayed today because we were waiting to see if Mubarak would have anything to say to his people and perhaps a global audience. Is the White House troubled that he has not come out, to our knowledge, to say something?
MR. GIBBS: Look, we were delayed for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which I wanted to make sure that we have the very best available information as we come out here. We are monitoring any and all actions and words that are coming out of the country, and we’ll continue to do so.
Q Isn’t this kind of a classic foreign policy dilemma for the U.S., where he may not be great to his own people but you have to be worried about who might replace him?
MR. GIBBS: Mike, I don’t think it’s a — I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to get into hypotheticals. I will say this, and it’s certainly not hypothetical, and that is that the situation should be addressed through concrete reforms. That’s what the people of Egypt demand. That’s what they deserve. Leaders of any country and any region of the world have to be responsive and responsible to the people they govern. That’s certainly true in this instance. And it’s true in each and every country around the globe.
Q Robert, has the Vice President or Secretary Clinton spoken to President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t have an updated list of calls. The Vice President has not. I would refer you to State on — if anything has happened. Again, things are moving quite quickly.
Q Can you share with us what world leaders the President has spoken with in the last 24 hours on this situation?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I do not believe that he has spoken –
Q Anybody from Saudi Arabia, the king of Jordan –
MR. GIBBS: Not that I — the President has not. Again, we are in touch at a whole host of levels. Again, I’d refer you to State on some of this, on what contacts have been had. Obviously we’re watching this.
Q Has he spoken to Prime Minister Cameron?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q Has any thought been given to pulling our ambassador temporarily?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’ve heard. Obviously, Chuck, we spent some time in the meeting at 12:30 p.m. discussing the security of the embassy, the security of American citizens inside of Egypt. There are no reports at this point of Americans in distress, but obviously this is an ongoing situation that we monitor. The State Department –
Q So we’re prepared if we need to evacuate –
MR. GIBBS: The contingencies have been discussed. And obviously there are preplanning for a lot of that — is in the pipeline for a whole host of contingencies.
I will say, obviously, that the State Department has issued a travel alert to any United States citizen considering travel to Egypt and urging people not to pursue non-essential travel to the country.
Q Has the United States, through the ambassador or somebody, officially condemned the house arrest of ElBaradei?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously — I don’t — I did not hear the ambassador discuss it directly. Obviously, again, this goes into — directly into our concern about expression, association and assembly.
Q If he is under house arrest, do you guys condemn –
MR. GIBBS: Let me say this, that this is an individual who is a Nobel Laureate, who the President has — knows and has worked with on a host of nuclear security issues, as the former — as the once head of the IAEA. And these are the type of activities that the government has a responsibility to change.
Q And finally, it sounds like we could still hear from the President sometime today?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, Chuck, the situation — as the situation changes, all of that will be evaluated.
Q You just said that if Mohamed ElBaradei is indeed arrested, that would feed into your concerns. You’ve spoken of concerns a lot. Why aren’t you using the term outrage for some of the things that we’ve seen? And is there a sense of making an equivocal statement when you talk about violence on one side versus violence on the other? Is it really comparable at this stage?
MR. GIBBS: Jonathan, this is not a solution that will be solved on either side with violence. I’ll be honest with you, Jonathan, I’ve been out here for three days discussing this issue. I have not equivocated on the seriousness of the situation. We have not equivocated on our very public posture that, as I said a minute ago, violence is not going to solve this.
What will solve the grievances of those that are protesting in Egypt is the government addressing those concerns. Free and fair elections is something we outlined yesterday. We condemned the continuation of emergency law earlier this — last year, when it was extended. It’s been in place for three decades. That should come to an end.
But there’s no situation that — this is certainly not a situation that will be solved by violence. In fact, the government’s response cannot be violence. The government’s response has to be to hear, to understand and to act on the concerns of its people.
Q One more. Apparently Vodafone — it’s a British company — is the company that turned off Internet access for the people of Egypt. Is there any way or any thought to pressuring Vodafone to put that network back on?
MR. GIBBS: Let me take the specific company question and make sure that I’m clear on whatever role any company is playing.
Obviously, without getting into the individual company, which I’ll check on with NSC, we have a — it is our strong belief that inside of the framework of basic individual rights are the rights of those to have access to the Internet and to sites for open communication and social networking.
Q Robert, beyond what you’ve said today about aid, how has it been conveyed to the Egyptian authorities that billions of dollars in U.S. help could be in jeopardy if they don’t change their ways?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Peter, I don’t know every conversation that’s been had at every level in this government, but suffice to say this is something that has been discussed and we’re monitoring.
Q And do you see any evidence at all that anything that you’ve said, the President has said, Secretary Clinton has said, has changed the equation on either side, the government or the protesters?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t — I’d have to ask for an evaluation of some of that from — in terms of measuring some actions based on media. I do know that the people of the country are watching what is said here. I know that, again, we see some limited amount of information that comes out, and social networking sites before they were shut down, that they’re very attuned to our words about their individual rights.
Q On the communications question — I know you had that deputies meeting earlier with the ambassador — are you guys having a hard time understanding and figuring out everything that’s going on in the ground in Cairo and elsewhere, or are you pretty clear on what’s happening?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we got a very thorough rundown from the ambassador who’s at the embassy right now.
Q But you’re not — none of these shutdowns, in terms of the Internet, it’s not affecting your ability to gather information?
MR. GIBBS: No, we have a host of ways to gather information.
Q And then just to follow real quick on the aid that you’re saying you’re reviewing, you’re confident that prior to you announcing it here, the Egyptians are aware that their aid is under review?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I want to be careful, Hans, that — I don’t know every conversation that’s been had. But suffice to say, I think I was rather clear in what I said.
Q Suffice it to say? Could we call it a warning?
MR. GIBBS: No, it’s — again, I think we’ve been very clear about what needs to happen. Violence in any form should stop immediately, and grievances should be addressed. We will monitor what is and what has happened and future events as we undertake a review of our assistance posture.
Q That sounds to me like a warning. If they don’t improve their behavior their assistance will be terminated.
MR. GIBBS: I think that if — I think we are watching very closely the actions of the government, of the police, of all the security forces, and all of those in the military. That their actions may affect our assistance would be the subject of that review.
Go ahead — I’m sorry, Jackie, do you have something?
Q Yes. I wondered if you could give us any new information you have about the composition of the protesters. You know, how much of it is and what proportion of it is Muslim Brotherhood or –
MR. GIBBS: Let me see if I can get some guidance on that. Obviously, we have — look, I think you have seen over the past several days the manifestation of these grievances express themselves in protests by I think what you would consider to be the Egyptian middle class in the very base concerns that they have about their political reform needs.
But I don’t have any update on that. I can check and see if there is anything else.
Q May I have a change of address, change of subject?
Q No, stay on this.
MR. GIBBS: My guess is that this is the predominant subject, but let me — I’ll come back at the end of this and see if — yes, ma’am.
Q Is there any thought that what went on in Tunisia had some impact on this in terms of timing? And do you fear that any sparks from the violence in Egypt might affect any other Arab countries?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as I’ve said in the past couple of days, I don’t want to generalize across the region. Countries are, obviously, as I’ve said, at different stages in development politically. But I think it is safe to say that we are monitoring events throughout the world.
Q Thank you, Robert. Could you talk a bit about the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in this? And should the Muslim Brotherhood be treated as a political party with privileges appertaining to –
MR. GIBBS: I do not think this is a — I do not think that the grievances of the people of Egypt are of a monolithic political belief. I think that it is well documented, and we have documented it, the grievances of those who feel they lack the basic individual rights that we’ve — that we enjoy and that we have enumerated over the past several days. Obviously, this is — we are not in touch with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Q Are you at all concerned about the increased role that the Muslim Brotherhood might play in Egypt’s political situation as a result?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t think it is — I don’t think it’s a — I’m not going to get into forecasting in a very fluid and dynamic situation what may happen. Again, I’d refer you to what I said to Peter in that I think that it would be a — based on what we know, a misinterpretation to believe that the events that we have seen are based on the beliefs of one — just one set of people.
Q Thanks. To clarify on the ongoing aid question that keeps popping up, most of the aid to Egypt is military aid, right? So when we’re talking about aid being reviewed, we’re talking about us reviewing our military aid assistance to them?
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, I want to be clear that the review would be — we’d review all of our aid to Egypt. And I think with — I would say, within that review is military.
Q Okay. And is that review currently ongoing, or are you sort of waiting until things chill a little bit to figure that out?
MR. GIBBS: Let’s just say it’s been discussed and we are monitoring events that could affect that aid.
Q Two other quick follow-ups. Does this affect our physical military posture in the region in any way that you could share with us today?
MR. GIBBS: In what way?
Q Whatever — U.S. military positioning. Do we have concerns where we would need to become involved and reposition U.S. forces in any way?
MR. GIBBS: Look, again, we discussed embassy security and we discussed — and I think it’s safe to say that there have always been contingency plans for both embassy security and American citizens that are in both Egypt and in many countries throughout the world.
Q But that’s what we’re talking about — we’re confined to talking about embassies?
MR. GIBBS: That’s all I would talk about publicly, that’s for sure.
Q Can I ask you about China? It seems like a leap, and geographically it is, and culturally it is, but when President Hu was here there was a lot of discussion about human rights and about the need as you become more powerful to consider elements of free society or rule of law. Does the U.S. believe — or do you think that China should be concerned in any way about what’s happening in Egypt? Or do you think it’s — they’re such completely different societies and that this is mostly an Arab-Muslim thing at this point?
MR. GIBBS: Let me make sure I understand. Are you talking about our posture toward China or –
Q No, I’m talking about the notion of citizens around the world in societies with –
MR. GIBBS: Let me –
Q — that don’t feel are open enough deciding to take to the streets?
MR. GIBBS: I think that — again, I think it would be — if I’m not going to generalize across a region, I probably shouldn’t generalize across several regions.
Q I just want to know about one country, not –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I understand. But to discuss this as it relates to one other country would be to do — would be to dip my toe into the pool of generalization, which I’m certainly not going to do.
I will say this. Again, I think the issues that the President talked with President Hu of China about and the issues with which President Hu told all of you that there was work to be done, that is the case regardless of what happens in any other country in the world. And the President has expressed his concerns about that, and I think you saw those concerns quite honestly expressed by President Hu.
Q Is there any concern that this situation or the free and fair elections you’re calling for could produce a government that’s less favorable to U.S. interests? And is that a price that you are willing to pay for those universal rights to be upheld?
MR. GIBBS: Let me be — I want to reiterate. I don’t want to project into the future. I don’t think that would be a wise use of my time given the fluidity of events. I think this is — the government of Egypt will be — is an issue for the people of Egypt.
Q Looking at the seriousness of the situation, who is the person you are in touch with in Cairo? You say the Presidents have not spoken. In all these answers I couldn’t find with whom are you in touch — except the ambassador — in the Mubarak administration.
MR. GIBBS: We are in touch with — again, I don’t have a list of every conversation that’s been had. We are in touch with the Egyptian government throughout entities in this building and throughout this administration. The Pentagon is obviously in touch with the military. The State Department is in touch with — directly with the government and in touch with the Foreign Ministry. Again, there are conversations that are had in many different buildings and at many different levels.
Q You have repeatedly said that the U.S. is urging for reform in Egypt.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q But concretely what types of reforms are you urging for? And also, is this realistic, I mean, given that the same regime has been in power there for 30 years?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me — I outlined a couple of things yesterday and repeated them today the types of things that we certainly would envision.
I think — and I repeat those — obviously, I mentioned free and fair elections, I mentioned our condemnation of the extension of emergency law, and that that should be ended. But the grievances of the people have to be addressed directly by the government, and I think there has to be a significant and thorough dialogue to address, again, a whole host of individual rights that the people rightly believe are lacking.
So I think there has to be a concrete process that involves — and I think it’s not — would not be something that would be only enumerated from our perspective. It has to be enumerated and addressed directly from the perspective of those in Egypt.
Q At the moment, this is the story — the whole world is watching — in a similar way like a few years ago, the whole world was watching Georgia or the Ukraine. At the time, it seemed that there was some international approach to it. Now, this is happening already one week, but you can’t tell us that the President or the White House is in contact, let’s say, with the most important three or four western allies to develop a strategy, a common strategy, in how to react to Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Well, first and foremost, obviously we’re watching a series of events that are rapidly unfolding and changing. I have no doubt that things may well have changed in the time in which I’ve stood up here. Again, we have a very robust — we have very robust diplomatic efforts. And we have contacts and conversations, as I said earlier, in many buildings in this administration, with entities throughout the world. The President has not made specific calls on this at this point. But we continue to monitor the situation.
Q Do you need a common strategy of the West — I mean, the –
MR. GIBBS: We need a strategy by the Egyptian government to address the grievances of the Egyptian people. I think the world — and I think several leaders have expressed the same — the very same concerns about violence that the President, the Secretary of State, and others have addressed, the Vice President. I think that the basic and universal rights that have to be reformed — I think there’s a pretty common response and reaction to the images that we’re seeing now.
Q Thank you, Robert. Much of the demonstration in the last few days seems to focus on President Mubarak’s apparent attempt to have his son, Gamal Mubarak, succeed him in the elections this year, one way or another. Now, you said the President has talked about basic human rights and non-violence in past conversations with President Mubarak. Has he ever discussed what many feel is a dynastic succession bid?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — I don’t have a direct answer to that. And let me see if there’s some guidance on it.
Q And are you following the reports about the whereabouts of Gamal Mubarak at all?
MR. GIBBS: We’re monitoring the events of the entire situation.
Q Thank you, Robert. During the meetings today, was the scenario or the possibility of Mubarak being toppled ever discussed or entertained?
MR. GIBBS: Not in meetings that I was in. Again, I think it is safe to say, without getting into a level of detail or granularity, that we are watching a situation that obviously changes day to day. And we’ll continue to watch and make preparations for a whole host of scenarios.
Q Robert, for a long time Egypt has been a partner in Middle East peace efforts. I know you said the President has not spoken with other world leaders, but on what level is the administration communicating with Israel and how might all this affect the Middle East peace agreement?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not aware of every conversation that’s happened. But I think it is safe to say that our — both inside of here and at the State Department, they have talked throughout the region.
Q Can I ask one on another topic?
MR. GIBBS: Let’s exhaust this before we — yes, sir.
Q Thank you. Is the U.S. — or excuse me, is Egypt in danger of losing its U.S. financial assistance? Is that — are they in jeopardy of losing that?
MR. GIBBS: I think that — I think the review is based upon their actions. The people — let’s be clear, the people of Egypt are watching the government’s actions. They have for quite some time, and their grievances have reached a boiling point. And they have to be addressed.
We will watch the actions of government. I’ll reiterate the urging of restraint for the security forces and for the military. All of that will go into that review.
Q When will there be a decision? Is there a point when you have to make a decision about –
MR. GIBBS: Again, it’s an ongoing review, so I don’t have an end date.
Q I didn’t quite understand your answer about Vodafone.
MR. GIBBS: My answer was I was going to take that question and see if there was any other specific information — I don’t have any information on that, and I will try to gather it.
Q Because, I mean, they’re a company in the U.K. –
MR. GIBBS: That part I did know. (Laughter.) It was –
Q Could you not urge them to switch service back on?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I think — again, I’ve been very clear — we have been very clear. The President was clear on this yesterday. The Secretary of State was clear on this today. P.J. and I have both spoken on this.
We believe in the basket of individual freedoms includes the freedom to access the Internet and the freedom to use social networking sites. I don’t want to speak about the specific company because I need a little bit more information. Regardless of any situation, we believe that the people of Egypt have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and that includes the use of the Internet.
Q I think what the concern is that what’s coming across is that you’re tempering your concern with –
MR. GIBBS: I’ll just be clear — can I be clear?
MR. GIBBS: Is there anything that I could say that would be more clear than that the people of Egypt have — should and have full access to social networking sites and the Internet; that the people of Egypt should have their concerns about freedom of expression, assembly and association addressed directly by their government?
I’m not tempering one word or one syllable of one word in what has to be done by the people — by the government of Egypt to address the concerns of the people of Egypt.
Q Even if that means that the government were to fall?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think I could be clearer. I don’t think the people of Egypt could be clearer. We’ve reached a point where the grievances of those have to be addressed in concrete reforms. Have to. Must. Unequivocal.
Q Robert, you said that the administration is reviewing the assistance posture. On what criteria is that review being hinged? What are the criteria?
MR. GIBBS: The events that we’re watching.
Q Robert — you’ve spoken several times –
MR. GIBBS: Oh, go ahead, I’m sorry, did you have one?
Q Yes. And there has not been direct contact between the two heads of state. Is that because Mubarak is unwilling or unavailable for that contact?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q Robert, you’ve spoken several times about how you’re watching the events that are fluid. Is there any interest of the President to intervene and use his influence to change the course of those events to quell the violence?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think he — I think that was apparent in what he said yesterday. I mean, he was clear on what the government shouldn’t do and he was clear on what the government needed to do. I think the Secretary of State has been clear on that. I think the Vice President has been clear on that.
Did you have a follow-up on something — let’s do a couple more, and then I’ll –
Q Two questions, Robert. Thanks. The one is in connection with Egypt. Ever since the presidential visit to India in November, if President has spoken with the Prime Minister of India, as India just celebrated the Republic Day of India? Indian Prime Minister is also worried about the events in Egypt because of the good relations with India and also the hundreds of thousands of Indians there.
MR. GIBBS: The President, to my knowledge, has not spoken with Prime Minister Singh.
Q And second, as far as presidential address to the union the other day, it came to surprise around the globe, the people were surprised when the President said that China is now head of super-computer once the U.S. lost the leader, and also in solar power. What people are asking now if China has compromised the U.S. security as far as leading in super-computers and all –
MR. GIBBS: Let’s be clear. I think — let’s be clear. We, as the President said in his speech, need to take important steps to win the future. We need to out-innovate and out-build and out-educate any of our competitors.
I don’t think people should be confused about the size of our economy and the size of their economy. Our economy is three times the size of the Chinese economy, with a quarter of its people.
Again, we need to take steps, because as you’ve heard the President say a number of times, people in one state in this country aren’t competing against people the next town over or two states away. It’s a global economy and we have global challenges, and I think the President addressed and outlined many of them, and over the course of the coming weeks and months we’ll outline specific plans to address them.
Sam, and then George.
Q Yes, I just want to — could you just talk real quick about Jay, what he brings to the position, what differences we’ll see? And what sort of — I guess if there’s a message that comes with –
MR. GIBBS: You know, let me just — I’ll do this quickly, because I — get back to the situation in Egypt. Look, I think, as I’ve said, I think Jay is tremendously smart. I think Jay is extraordinarily hard-working. He has done a terrific job for the Vice President. I think you need two things to do this job well. I think you need to have the confidence of the President and the team in the White House, and you need to have the access, which gives you the ability to do the job and answer questions. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jay has each of those abilities, and I think will be terrific at what he does.
Q Actually, that was what I was going to ask. But let me — two follow-ups — are you any closer, now that the announcements have been made, on saying when you’ll hand over the duties to him?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I anticipate transitioning out of here sometime in mid-February.
Q And, secondly, can you explain the President’s thinking at all, beyond the two things you just named, in being the first President to name a — since Gerald Ford to name a reporter to the job? Does he have — some skill in there he thinks is transferable?
MR. GIBBS: A thousand jokes just flashed in my head, George.
MR. GIBBS: I think the — I think given the nature of this briefing, I should probably holster each of those thousand jokes and we’ll discuss this later.
Q Robert, can we get another gaggle on this?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me do this –
Q Because there’s a lot of questions, and I understand –
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me do this — I think that’s a very important point. Let us go back now and see sort of where we are. And we will keep in touch with you. If you have questions, send them our way. Obviously, this is Ben’s last day, and we’ve made it a particularly busy one. He will go back over to the State Department, don’t worry.
So obviously, Ben, Denis, Tom, Ben Chang, Tommy Vietor, myself — we will endeavor to let you know as much as we know throughout this process. Let me go back and look at our scheduling as to when we might want to try to do this a little bit later today.
Mike, did you have something before I go?
Q Does the U.S. know for sure where President Mubarak is? I mean, do you think he is in Cairo?
MR. GIBBS: I have no information that he is not. Thanks.
See below for an answer to a question (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing that required follow up.
*The President has not yet voted in Chicago’s municipal election.
12:47 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Let me — I do have one quick scheduling announcement. Tomorrow afternoon at 12:30 p.m., the President will host Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor and Majority Whip McCarthy for lunch here at the White House.
Q Open coverage? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know that they’ve set out that many plates, Ms. Compton. But I know the President is looking forward to a productive lunch.
Q We’d love to do it. We’d love to come. We’re available.
MR. GIBBS: I will share that with the cooks.
Q I guess just quickly on that meeting, is there anything on the agenda that you can tell us about?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that the President looks forward to discussing all issues foreign and domestic. Obviously, without a doubt, there will be I think a heavy discussion on the economy and on spending. And I think the President will have a chance to talk to — through — with them many of the things that he outlined in the State of the Union, and I have no doubt that they have their cares and concerns as well.
Q Will he be giving them any guidance on what’s going to be in his budget?
MR. GIBBS: No, we will save that for them and for you for Monday.
Q And just a few questions on Egypt. Is the President concerned that if Mubarak steps down ahead of September that that could undermine reforms in Egypt or hurt the chances of free and fair elections?
MR. GIBBS: If he — I’m sorry, if he steps down –
Q If he steps down earlier than September.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, who leads Egypt and who leads Egypt when is a determination that can only be made by the Egyptians. What we’ve talked about throughout this process, and what I talked about extensively yesterday, was not about personalities but about a genuine and real process that leads us to those free and fair elections, a process that takes place without delay and produces immediate and irreversible results, progress for the people in Egypt.
I think there’s a series of things that they have to do along the way. The dialogue has to be real in order to produce that real change. I think, first and foremost, as we’ve talked about throughout this, the government has got to stop arresting protesters and journalists, harassment, beatings, detentions of reporters, of activists, of those involved in civil society. We would call on all of those prisoners, as we have, to be released immediately.
We believe that there has to be a process, that in this process that results in free and fair elections, that the emergency law be lifted, as we’ve talked about many times; that specific constitutional changes are made; and that we take concrete steps, as I’ve said, to free and fair elections.
And I will also add this. I think the rhetoric that we see coming out now that simply says that somehow what you see on TV has been drummed up by foreigners is at great odds with what we know is actually happening on the ground.
So I think that the process of who leads Egypt will be determined by Egyptians, but what we need to see now is continued progress by the Egyptian government to make these important real changes that demonstrate progress for the people.
Q But you have officials at the State Department who are saying that the chances of those changes being able to be enacted would be lessened if Mubarak resigned ahead of September.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I want to be clear. I speak for the President of the United States of America. We are not here to determine who leads Egypt and when they lead Egypt. That’s a — that is a problem that only Egyptians can solve. As I said yesterday, there’s no doubt there will be — this is a — this is not going to be an easy road. There will be bumps along the way. But it is important that the process that the government undergoes through negotiations with those that seek the representation that they deserve, that it be done in a way that’s broadly inclusive.
We’re not here to determine who leads Egypt. We are — and I think the President was quite, quite clear — the people of Egypt are not going back. They’ve moved forward and they’re going to continue to move forward, and they’re going to need to see progress from their government.
Q And then just finally, has Vice President Biden spoken to Vice President Suleiman today?
MR. GIBBS: Let me get a full readout. I do believe they have — I don’t know when they spoke, precisely. I will try to determine that. But one of the messages that Vice President Biden and a whole host of government officials have delivered at all levels of the Egyptian government are many of the things that I outlined: stopping the beatings and harassment and detentions; the release of those that have been held or detained; the release of political prisoners; lifting the emergency law; concrete constitutional changes that need to take place and concrete steps that move us toward that free and fair election.
And as I said, most of all, I think the notion somehow that what we’re seeing is drummed up by foreigners is — there’s absolutely no evidence that that’s the case.
Q Robert, Egyptian Vice President Suleiman has said that there is a timetable for a peaceful transfer of power, and he said today that this process is on the right path. Is the President satisfied that the process is on the right path, or does he want to see something more tangible?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think less important is what we think and more important is what the people of Egypt think. There were certainly reports that those that are out protesting today exceed what we’ve seen in the past several days. I think that is as good an answer for the Vice President of Egypt about the progress that the people in Egypt see and feel. It has to be tangible. It has to be real. It has to be immediate and irreversible.
Yesterday I think the Vice President — Vice President Suleiman made some particularly unhelpful comments about Egypt not being ready for democracy, about not seeing a lift of the emergency law. And I don’t think that in any way squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress.
But again, I think that’s going to be determined by — that’s going to be determined by the Egyptian people. Whether or not the government is taking those concrete steps can’t be arbitrated by us. We can’t do play-by-play on each and every step that they take. That’s going to be determined by the reaction in Cairo and throughout Egypt by the people.
Q But you certainly have a stake in that process going smoothly.
MR. GIBBS: We have a stake in stability in Egypt, in regional stability. I think that’s been a cornerstone of what we’ve seen over the past three decades.
As I said here on Friday and I think as you’ve heard the President say, the threat of instability — and you see this again today with the swelling crowds — the threat of instability is in not making that progress and in not letting the people in Egypt see that the steps that are being taken along that process are real, it’s something that they can feel, and it’s something that will end in — will end in free and fair elections based on a discussion that is had with a broad range of Egyptian society.
Q Just on one other topic briefly. On the proposal for the aid to states, are you concerned that critics may –
MR. GIBBS: On aid to states?
Q The jobless aid to states —
MR. GIBBS: Right, right, oh, I see.
Q — that the President is going to propose in the budget. Are you concerned that critics may call this a bailout for the states?
MR. GIBBS: No, in fact, in many ways it prevents in the future from having exactly to do that. Obviously some states have experienced even greater economic downturns than we have on average at a national level. It’s put pressure on the unemployment insurance funds.
The President’s proposal does two things that are most important. It prevents increases in the federal tax that goes to the unemployment insurance fund, and that’s tremendously important given where we are economically, but it prevents — it prevents future state bailouts, because in the future, states are going to have to rationalize what they offer and how they pay for it.
We are giving help to some states who have had to borrow and not been able yet to pay back, which would legally result in an increase in the federal share that has gotten through tax — a tax on businesses, which we don’t think makes any sense right now.
So let’s, in states that are overdrawn on this, ensure that we don’t place an extra burden on them. Let’s give them some time, in an economic downturn, to have what they need to effectively meet the needs of those that are unemployed and give them an understanding that in the future, as I said, they’re going to have to rationalize what is offered and how they come up with the funds to pay for what is ultimately offered.
Q The protesters, according to accounts from reporters on the ground, the protesters in Egypt, feel the need to keep protesting because they feel even if the drips and drabs of reform announcements keep coming from the Egyptian government, they fear that if they stop protesting, opposition leaders will be targeted and the Egyptian government will clamp down. Does the administration agree with that?
MR. GIBBS: Jake, that’s not for me to — as I said a minute ago, I don’t think there’s a lot of utility in our play-by-play of this. I think that the people that are expressing their desire for greater opportunity and freedom are going to continue to express that desire until the government takes the very concrete steps that I outlined a minute ago to address those concerns. And if they don’t, then those protests will, I assume, continue.
Again, I do think it is important — and I said this at the very beginning, Julie’s question, which is we — and have said this, quite frankly, throughout — the concerns that the people of Egypt have cannot, will not and should not be addressed through violence. It shouldn’t be addressed through beatings and detentions and the like. And I think the pressure is only going to be lessened and the demands for greater freedom met through a concrete process.
Q But the administration, even though obviously you’re not dictating what Egypt needs to do, you have — the government has offered guidance and suggestions as to what the Obama administration thinks would work well and what needs to happen, although you’re not dictating anything, and one of those things, one of those suggestions, has been, you said from the podium, that transformation process, the transition process, cannot start in September.
Others in the administration have said that they have concerns about anything being rushed because you can’t just go to a democracy in 60 days, and also fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would arise in the vacuum — let me just ask the question — which is, if we’re saying two months is too soon, and September is too far, what exactly kind of timeline would the administration like, with the understanding that you’re not dictating anything? What kind of suggestions are you making?
MR. GIBBS: I think it’s — I think we should understand a few things first, Jake, is that — I guess — I guess I would reject the notion of there just being two answers to this, right, in the sense that I think you have seen and heard the government of Egypt, as well as those seeking greater recognition and freedom — they’ve all acknowledged that there are some real and genuine constitutional changes that need to be made before we can have free and fair elections, right?
So right now, in order to qualify for the ballot, you go through a process of getting those in parliament, elections that we criticized, to basically sign up and bless your candidacy. Well, you can understand that those that are seeking greater freedom might not think that’s the best way to get to free and fair elections.
So I think the notion that you either, that what you had, which is September or immediately in terms of all of these changes — I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think –
Q That’s what I’m saying. What are you — I’m asking what –
MR. GIBBS: What I’m saying is there has to be a dynamic process to meet and address many of the concerns and the grievances, to set up a system where the world will watch an election that we all agree is free and fair. What timeline that takes I think is not for us to determine. But unless or until those that are seeking to have their grievances addressed — until they believe that that’s actually happening, the pressure is going to continue.
That’s why we’ve continued to advocate for a genuine process of negotiation to see this through.
Q And lastly, in his interview with ABC News, President Mubarak said that he told the President that he didn’t think he understood — that President Obama doesn’t understand Egyptian culture. Did Mubarak say that, and what did President Obama say back?
MR. GIBBS: I wouldn’t read out what — the specifics of the call. I think obviously the President and the administration have respect for what Egypt has accomplished over three decades and what President Mubarak has accomplished. But I think what is clear is what the President said — has said over the past few days, that the people of Egypt have moved and they’re not going back to what was.
Q As you track the progress on the ground in Egypt, what can you look at today that’s different from yesterday for progress being made?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Dan, I do not want to be the — just as I’m not going to be the arbiter of what freedom of speech is in Egypt, I don’t think it’s — I don’t think it makes sense for us to be the arbiter for whether today meant good progress or whether today was enough progress. I think that the world, quite frankly, understands what needs to happen.
We’ve enumerated some ideas, many of which I just said, that would demonstrate to the Egyptian people that a process that is serious, immediate and irreversible is underway. And that’s a process that must continue. We’ve got a long road to go to get to free and fair elections.
Q But the President yesterday talked about progress in those comments when he was walking, so –
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what the President alluded to, and I think what many have alluded to, is the fact that there is the beginning of a process to do that. Okay? But setting up and having a process to do that is just part of it. Now we’ve got to see — we’ve got to see some — and you heard Vice President Biden say over the weekend in his readout that we need to understand what the arc of this is and we need to see, as the Egyptian people do — most importantly — need to see progress along that arc.
Q Has the President gone to his intelligence community and sort of pressured them to take a look at some other hotspots, perhaps, to see if something like what happened in Egypt could be at risk of breaking out in other countries?
MR. GIBBS: Well, without getting in specifics on intelligence, obviously the intelligence community provides daily an update on what it sees happening in countries both in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Q But has the President applied more pressure now to say, hey, I need you to go and take a look at this in a much more focused way?
MR. GIBBS: The premise of your question is somehow that that hasn’t already happened.
Q Robert, you said earlier that it’s not about personalities, but then you specifically talked about Suleiman and said that he made some unhelpful comments. So if you’ve got a personality in there who is not helping and, in fact, may be hurting the process, it is about personalities, isn’t it? Is he the right person for this job?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I think — I want to say this. I think people have unnecessarily looked at what some people have said to believe that we’ve determined who should be the next leader of Egypt and when that leadership change should happen. That’s not for us to determine.
That is — the Vice President is — I should say Vice President Suleiman — is — has been tasked with the process of including opposition groups, those in civil society who have not been represented in government, along this — to institute a series of negotiations along this process to end in free and fair elections.
That’s a process we support. That certainly has to happen. But the notion that we’ve somehow laid hands on a particular person to lead Israel — I’m sorry, to lead Egypt is just not the case.
Q No, I’m not saying that you’ve laid hands on them to lead, but you certainly could voice an opinion that he’s not the right person to be in there if he’s saying unhelpful things.
MR. GIBBS: That’s not — well, look, I was pretty clear yesterday on what I don’t think anybody in the world thinks represents progress. The process, though, Chip, can’t — we cannot determine every actor in that process, the timeline of every action in that process –
Q You can’t determine it, but you can have opinions and say, we would prefer he not be there.
MR. GIBBS: And as I said a minute ago, I’m not going to be the play-by-play announcer, and neither is this administration, for what represents progress in Egypt. Chip, we’re just not — the people in Egypt are not looking for anybody in this country to tell them what constitutes the meeting of those freedoms. Why would we think we could do that? Why would we think that we could determine who should be in charge of — that’s — that is only something that can be determined by those that are in Egypt and those that are taking part in that process.
I do think, Chip, that the world will know as — and we will see it through the eyes of those who desire greater representation — we’ll know if progress is being made at a pace in which the Egyptian people believe it should be happening. And that’s I think what we’re all watching.
Q I think you’re right that the Egyptian people and even the protesters understand –
MR. GIBBS: Can you mark down he said he thought I was right?
Q You’re right that the Egyptian people, the protesters –
MR. GIBBS: He said it again.
Q You were just so right.
Q It’s his last week. (Laughter.)
Q You got to throw him a bone.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I know. I realize that — (laughter) –
Q In this one extraordinary –
MR. GIBBS: I can hardly wait to see what you say on Friday. (Laughter.)
Q In this one extraordinary instance, you’re –
Q Such a handsome guy, also. (Laughter.)
Q But he’s not a play-by-play announcer. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I am not — right. Somebody — you guys — so somebody can update the video, I am not a play-by-play commentator. (Laughter.) It would be a good gig, let me tell you. (Laughter.)
Q The protesters say they understand the United States is not in a position to determine what happens here, but on the other hand, they are so deeply frustrated that the President says the right things about human rights and universal rights and freedom of speech and everything else, and then they don’t understand how he can then not demand that Mubarak and Suleiman get out of there, since they’re the people who have implemented this oppressive system for so long.
MR. GIBBS: But then, I guess the question would be — I guess you’d ask the question — well, then, would you have us determine who that next person is? Would you have us determine what this council looks like that does this? Would you have us determine what that council can debate matches the definitions of freedom of access and freedom of speech and freedom of assembly?
That is not a task or a series of tasks that I think many in Egypt want us to do. And I don’t think that the cares and concerns of those that we see each day is going to be met by a process that is dictated by somebody else. It has to be a process that involves directly the Egyptian people.
And again, we will see based on what happens with those that continue to protest, whether the pace of what we understand — we all understand needs to happen, what the government of Egypt has acknowledged needs to happen. We will all understand if the pacing meets the demands.
Q And real quickly, the lunch tomorrow, is that going to be a regular thing, a weekly thing?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think it’s a weekly thing. I know we had Senator McConnell in I think late last week. I think the President, as you heard him say at the beginning of the lame duck session, that we needed to do better to reach out and have those discussions, and I think this is certainly part of that.
Q And just the four of them in the room? The three Republicans and the President?
MR. GIBBS: That’s as I understand it. And Ann of course. Go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q Robert, is the President comfortable if Mubarak stays through September?
MR. GIBBS: Mike, I don’t know how many times I can say two things: We’re not going to be the play-by-play commentators and that’s not for us to determine. That
Q At one point last week, you said the transition needs to start yesterday –
MR. GIBBS: I did.
Q And the impression we all got, I think, was that Mubarak needed to go. So now I’m just trying to get a sense of whether –
MR. GIBBS: But I think we’ve been very, very clear and very, very consistent that we are not going to pick those leaders. We are not going to — as I just said, we’re not going to define the membership in this process. The transition — remember that the transition we will see throughout this process happened many, many times on the road to free and fair elections. And quite frankly, there’s a lot to do in that process. The fact that that transition has to start, as the President said, now, and as we’ve repeated since, it’s because many of the things that I outlined are going to require those discussions and those negotiations.
So it is — again, it’s not up for us to determine the personalities and who’s going to lead and when they’re going to lead and when they’re not going to lead. That’s the job of the people of Egypt and that’s the tough work that’s involved in a democracy.
Q Last crack at it. Does the White House believe the protests will stop as long as Mubarak is there?
MR. GIBBS: I think that you will continue to see those exercise their great desire to be recognized and to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that they wish to — I think you will continue to see that unless or until the process of an orderly transition that is broad-based begins to show immediate and irreversible change. I think that’s what the Egyptian people want and I think that’s what the world is waiting for.
Q A quick follow-up based on the O’Reilly interview. He said that he did not raise taxes. A taxpayer group says, in effect, he has raised taxes on a couple things; he’s also cut taxes. I’m wondering, do you guys disagree with that assessment?
MR. GIBBS: I’ve not seen what the group has said. I would note that I think the Congressional Budget Office released figures yesterday that show that for the third consecutive year the American people are paying less in taxes than they did during the previous administration.
Q Is it fair to say that our policy towards Egypt is forever changed?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we — let me give you a broad answer to this, Chuck, because I think obviously we want to see the continued robust partnership that we’ve had, the stability in the region and around the world that that partnership has brought. I think Egypt has forever changed. I think that what the President said –
Q But not necessarily our policy yet?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think — look, again, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about what things look like in a year or in five years. But I think there’s no doubt that what the President said, that Egypt is not going backward, I think that what we’ve seen transpire over the past 10 days has been nothing short of remarkable. I don’t think that anybody — we have, other administrations have, called for the type of change that you’re seeing now — it’s happened in a very, very short period of time, but it is — you look at the size and the scope of the announcements that have been made, it’s astonishing.
Q I ask I guess — when does our policy change towards Yemen, towards Saudi Arabia, towards Jordan? When there’s a groundswell like Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I think — no, no, let’s be clear because –
Q Beyond what we say rhetorically.
MR. GIBBS: — this was the case when — when the President talked to the President of Egypt several weeks ago about what was happening in the Middle East, he reiterated that our calls for the government of Egypt to institute the type of reforms that we have long thought needed to be assumed.
Q I understand that, but we are now actively — after there were protests –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no –
Q — we as a — as a U.S. government actively got involved in trying to push them across –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, no.
Q So we didn’t send Ambassador Wisner? I mean, we wouldn’t have done that. We’re not sending an ambassador to the King of Jordan, right?
MR. GIBBS: Hold on — hold on, let’s — you’ve now generalized across the sweep of the entire Middle East, so let’s try to get this — let’s go backwards just a tad.
We have in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen and in many of the countries that you discussed talked to them, as our administration and as previous administrations have, about greater access to freedom, greater access to freedom of speech, assembly — all of those things.
Our position on bringing democracy to the Middle East and bringing greater freedoms to those people didn’t — wasn’t developed as a result of what happened in Tunisia or what we’ve seen in Egypt.
Ambassador Wisner went for — with a specific message and a specific conversation and to report back, okay? There were — that was an instance that, based on the fact that we were seeing rapid change. But the broad notion of what we want to see happen in countries in the Middle East and throughout the world is shaped by the values with which we started our country.
Q I understand that, but what happened in Egypt spurred us — spurred your administration, the administration to get more active in the situation in Egypt. Is that now going to forever change? Is the administration planning to get more active in Yemen, planning to get more active in Saudi Arabia –
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t –
Q — planning to get more active in Jordan? Or is this just you wait for a groundswell?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I think you’re generalizing broadly. Obviously we have a team that is — that monitors and works through a whole host of bilateral relationships because many of the countries that you just mentioned, we have very important relationships with.
And look, as events dictate, we will respond to them. I just don’t want to generalize across countries –
Q Is it fair to say that that is –
MR. GIBBS: I think what’s happening in –
Q — something would have to happen before we’d change our policies in another country?
MR. GIBBS: Well — no, no, but I think it’s — again, I have throughout this — as we’ve spoken about our universal values, I think it’s important not to generalize across a platform of countries that, again, as I’ve said, may be at different stages in their own political development.
Q Earlier today you guys sent out basically I guess a position on — you want Congress to re-enact, to continue the powers that you have with the FISA courts and some of these intelligence — some of the parts of the — how do you assure supporters of yours who didn’t like the President’s decision in 2008 when he voted for these changes in the law that gave these expansive powers, how do you assure them that they’re not being abused?
MR. GIBBS: Well, first and foremost, the reason –
Q — to monitor this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, there’s FISA courts to do that, and I think — look, there were — this was a debate that happened in ‘05 and ‘06 and ‘07 and even in ‘08 that — look, there were some that wanted to do away with FISA warrants and the court system that — and as the President said, it is important that we have a mechanism that watches the watchers. That’s — that is in this instance an important aspect of what the judicial branch does.
Q I understand the process. When does the public — I mean at some point do you allow sort of — some sort of scrutiny on this outside of the FISA court?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think — again, the role in government to do that is through a very specialized set of developed courts in order to ensure that what is done meets the law.
Q And you want new changes in the law at this point –
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think it — obviously this is — there are important activities that need to be reauthorized, and that’s where our focus is now.
Q Very quickly, has the President voted yet in Chicago?*
MR. GIBBS: The President requested, as the First Lady did, requested an absentee ballot. I do not know if that has been filled out, but I can put that on the list.
Q On the unemployment insurance proposal, are you at all concerned that this is going to be read as an increased tax on business at a time when the administration is working hard to mend its relationship with the business community?
MR. GIBBS: No, because, look, this specifically — this policy, if enacted, would prevent further federal tax increases, would help states make up for the shortfalls they have and give them time, as I said, to rationalize what they offer and how they pay for it.
In other words, you have in 2011 and 2012 and parts of 2013 the ability to make the type of structural changes that a state would need to make in order to ensure that, again, what they offer and how they pay for it, that that’s met up so that we can do this responsibly.
Q Do you think that the states are going to take up the opportunity to increase the tax?
MR. GIBBS: That’s — I think what you have to — what we think has to happen in those out-years is that you cannot continue to offer something at a state level, right, that is not ultimately supported by the base with which you’re funding it, right?
Look, those are the discussions that are happening at — have happened for many years at the state level. They’re happening now at the federal level in terms of getting our fiscal house in order. I think that whether it happens at the federal level or the state level, we can’t — we have to make some tough decisions about ensuring that we can pay for what we’re offering.
Q And just one other issue. How does that — in terms of the announcement from the Vice President today about the rail investment, how would you pay for that?
MR. GIBBS: That will be in the budget on Monday.
Q Robert, thank you. Back in 1979, President Carter was criticized for allowing the Shah to come here for medical treatment. If it came to the point where Mubarak had to flee, would the U.S. allow him to come here?
MR. GIBBS: I think getting into that sort of hypothetical at this point doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Q Also real quickly, your comments on the CBO report, didn’t the report actually say that Americans aren’t paying so much less in taxes but tax receipts are down because so many people have been laid off? Would you like to clarify your –
MR. GIBBS: No, I’d point you to the report.
Q Robert, is it accurate to say that the administration has extended its — for want of a better expression — expectation timetable for change in Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: I think that — I think it is accurate to say that Vice President Biden, in discussions with Vice President Suleiman and discussions that we’ve had government-to-government — we want to understand that they have a timetable to make change, yes.
Q But what would you say to someone in Egypt who — especially people on the streets who’ve told reporters that they think that the pressure from the United States for change is easing up after hearing some of the things that have been said the past couple of days?
MR. GIBBS: I hope they’ll listen to what we’ve said — I don’t think I’ve — I think if there’s any — I don’t think I’ve eased up in any way. I don’t think that — I don’t think what we’ve said, I don’t think what the President has said has in any way eased up on what we need to see.
I said that the transition should begin yesterday when I was asked the day after the President spoke and the day after President Mubarak spoke. And I think, again, you’re going to continue to see pressure within the people of Egypt unless or until the process makes those type of changes.
So I think that we have enumerated the universal values that we believe everyone should have, and I think we have been clear in making sure that the government of Egypt understands that they have to take those concrete steps.
Q Where do things stand on the aid review?
MR. GIBBS: No different than when I mentioned it I think a couple of Fridays ago, which is we will monitor the actions in response to what is happening in Cairo and in Egypt and make determinations as to whether that would affect our aid. And that — we continue to monitor that.
Q On the unemployment insurance aid to states, is that the primary way that the administration sees the federal government aiding states with their fiscal situations?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, this was obviously a particular situation because, as Laura mentioned in her question, if you — if states are borrowing off of a UI account, not able to pay that back, then the law says that the rate has to increase at a federal share on businesses. We don’t think that makes sense right now. We think that we ought to make sure that that doesn’t happen, that states have a chance to rationalize, again, what they offer, and that in the meantime we’re helping other states that might fall into things that you’ve seen in Michigan, in South Carolina and Indiana, with that fund.
Q Could we expect other proposals in the budget that would go toward helping states with their fiscal –
MR. GIBBS: I shouldn’t preview the budget.
Q And also, does the administration consider the fiscal situation that states are facing to be in crisis category yet?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that without getting into a specific word or series of words, obviously I think in each stage of — or each year that we’ve been in office, you’ve seen tremendous shortfalls. Obviously there are a number of states that are experiencing particularly acute shortfalls. And that has an impact on the economy.
Q On the lunch tomorrow, talk about the thinking behind having just House Republicans as opposed to House and Senate or Republican and Democratic leadership.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President will take an opportunity to see and to meet with a whole host of different leadership entities and things like that. As I said, I think it was Friday that Senator McConnell was here to have lunch with the President. So I think over the course of the next many weeks you’ll see folks in here to see the President and the administration as we move forward.
Q Is there a sense that he can get more done if it’s just Republicans as opposed to the Republican and Democratic clash that might come from having leaders of both parties there?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that, again, I go back to draw on what the President said in December — or I don’t remember if it’s December or November at this point now — late last year that he needed to do a better job of reaching out. And I think hearing what their concerns are and, quite frankly, understanding that the House Republicans now play the important role of governing House — governing half of the legislative branch. They’re going to be — they’re involved in the responsibility of governing, and I think an exchange of ideas on the issues that we face are important.
Q And on a different issue, since this is your last week, do you have advice for your successor that you’d be willing to share with us?
MR. GIBBS: No. (Laughter.) We have had many private conversations about that.
Q One domestic and one international. If Israel is threatened by any of these new governments or by Hamas or Hezbollah, if its existence is in danger, would the U.S. come to Israel’s assistance?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think regardless of the situation facing any government in the region, our friendship and our — our friendship, our partnership and our alliance with Israel is unchanged.
Q And on this Washington Post story about the wealthy taking up arms in the District — a very interesting story. What does that say about the level of confidence of the American people in a criminal situation?
MR. GIBBS: I read a lot this morning but I don’t know that I read that one.
Q If you could look at that and –
MR. GIBBS: I will.
Q Back to Vice President Suleiman. I just want to be clear about the call that the Vice President I gather made. Did the administration see Suleiman’s remarks and say, we’ve got to say something about this? Was it to object to that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I objected to and said that I thought what he said yesterday was unacceptable in this process.
Q Is that what prompted the call?
MR. GIBBS: No, no. Again, I think that — as we talked about yesterday, I think there’s a counterpart-to-counterpart relationship with Vice President Biden and Vice President Suleiman as a continued channel to discuss the process and the pathway to free and fair elections.
Q On that process, one of the criticisms that’s been made of it is that it has not been terribly inclusive at this point, that a very small subset of the opposition is involved. Has that point been made to the Egyptians?
MR. GIBBS: It has. It has — both privately and publicly. Again, unless or until there’s a broad base of those that are not currently represented in government, unless or until those are involved in this process, I think you’re going to see the reaction that you see from the people of Egypt.
Q One other thing, if I may. There have been reports that the three-way meeting — American, Pakistani and Afghan foreign ministers — is now in some question because of the continued detention of the U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. Is that true?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — I think State has got better details on that and I’d point you over there.
Q Thanks, Robert. As you wind down here, have you given any advice to your successor on press policy, on access? And do you have any regrets about –
MR. GIBBS: I should probably take all these questions. Do I have any regrets about –
Q Do you have thoughts about things that have gone on the last two years that you wish had gone better?
MR. GIBBS: Oh, let me tell you, I’ll say this — and I don’t want to answer for you all and I don’t want to answer for anybody in the country, but I think if you do a job for a specific amount of time and look back and say you wouldn’t have done anything differently, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking back about what you did.
I mean, look, I take my transcript home every night and I read my transcript. And I think if there’s a time in which I’ve read that transcript that I’ve thought, wow, perfect, I did it all just right — I mean, it may happen on Thursday night — we don’t brief that day — (laughter) — but I mean the notion that somehow you don’t look back and think you would have done things differently — look, I will have quite a bit of time to more aptly focus on it.
I will say — look, I think — and I’m going to go back to Ari because I avoided doing this and you repeated his question almost verbatim and I swallowed the hook — (laughter) — so, look, I think you have to have — we discuss in pretty broad detail and in great depths the situation that’s transpiring thousands of miles away. This is — when things like that happen it’s more than just — this is more than just a conversation that is happening between this side of the room and this side of the room. It’s happening and people are watching it not just throughout this country but throughout this world. And your questions and my answers are being translated in languages that are spoken in continents far away.
I think it demonstrates the importance of a strong freedom of the press, a sharing of information. I think the reason that we can speak about the universal values that we hold so dear, and we can speak about it halfway across the world, is because it’s something that we think is so tremendously important.
Q Have you given advice to your successor?
MR. GIBBS: That was Ari’s question. We have talked a lot about — I’m not going to share that advice. I’m going to let that counsel remain private. But Jay and I have talked a lot about the importance of this job. And I don’t mean that as a personal thing. I mean this will long outlive — in a country like this, it will long outlive the personality of myself, just as it long outlived the personalities that came before me and will long outlive who comes next.
Q Have you written your note for the flak jacket yet?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to share that –
Q Robert, there was a — based on what you’re saying here today, there was a story in The New York Times a few days ago that said that the United States was involved in discussions with the Egyptians to have Mubarak turn over power immediately. Is that story incorrect?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into conversations that are had between our government and –
Q But you’ve been pretty clear that the United States is not supposed to be getting into when Mubarak should leave and suggested very strongly that we have not tried to get him out immediately. Have discussions like that taken place where we are pressuring him to get out?
MR. GIBBS: I am not going to get into the details of every conversation that is had with our government and other foreign governments. But I want to be clear that these are decisions that can, and can only, be made by the Egyptians.
Q So the United States has not tried to remove Mubarak from power right away?
MR. GIBBS: Keith, I don’t know how many times I can answer the same question –
Q You’re not answering it.
MR. GIBBS: No, I am. You’re just not accepting my answer.
Q Okay. One other quick question. You talk a lot about what the Egyptian people want, and I think everybody would agree that the Mubarak regime is a repressive regime, and we do know that there have been a lot of very passionate people out in Tahrir Square. But how do we actually know what the Egyptian people want?
MR. GIBBS: Well — but, see, Keith, that is — that’s why would don’t — that’s why we’re not the ones who are checking off on what the process has to be. Again, as I said –
Q But you quote what the Egyptian people want several times already in this briefing. What I’m wondering is — and they may want exactly what you’re saying, but how do we know what — why people –
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think — I mean, I think the reason that you can ask me questions about why the Egyptian people don’t think they have greater freedoms is because those freedoms are enumerated in many of the stories that I read around — from different outlets around this room. It’s written on signs in Tahrir Square. It’s held up by people — but again, Keith, I think what is –
Q You could get people out on the Mall with lots of signs; that doesn’t mean that the majority of American people support whatever they’re out there for.
MR. GIBBS: Keith, you are enumerating far better than I could why it is not for us to arbitrate. Now, if somebody holds a sign up on the Washington Mall, it may not constitute the majority of opinion in this country but it probably constitutes the majority of the opinion that that person holds. And guess what. This is a great and exciting country that allows anybody to walk out on the Mall with a sign that expresses their viewpoint.
But that is — what you are saying is the exact reason why our government isn’t going to determine the definition of individual or group freedoms in a country like Egypt. We can talk about the universal values of free speech, of freedom of assembly, freedom to communicate across the Internet or social networking, but it is not up to — and it should not be up to our government or some entity in our government to determine what the scope of freedom of speech looks like in Egypt.
That is for the precise reason that we give the answer that this is up to Egyptians. It’s not a way of just simply saying that phrase over and over again. It’s what we believe.
Q But you’re not just saying that — you’re insisting on them doing certain things, and you’re justifying it based on the will of the Egyptian people. I’ve heard you say it many times. We’re not just –
MR. GIBBS: Keith, Keith –
Q It’s not just a totally hands-off process.
MR. GIBBS: Keith –
Q And I’m not saying — I don’t know what they’re –
MR. GIBBS: Keith, I think you should just go get any newspaper or turn on any television set inside of this building and I think you’ll see many — do I know every person’s concern in Egypt? I will go way out on this limb and say, I do not. But again, I don’t think you have to have — you could pull up your rabbit ears and figure out what people are concerned about in Cairo because it’s all over the TV.
Q I have just a question about Senator McConnell’s meeting here last week. Was it just the President and the Senator?
MR. GIBBS: It was just the two of them.
Q And what did they discuss?
MR. GIBBS: Same thing I think that I talked about that I think will be discussed in their lunch tomorrow.
Q Did the President have any Democratic leaders over last week at the White House?
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of, but I will double-check.
Q Thanks, Robert.
Q Robert — thank you, Robert. On the issue of the meeting and finding common ground and civility, realistically how long does this administration think that they’re going to be able to have civility and finding common ground, this whole era of that right now, as we’re walking into presidential campaigns and things of that nature?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t know how many months the presidential campaign is away, but it’s a long way away.
And, April, there are important things that have to happen in Congress and around the country to meet the concerns and to meet the problems that we face, the challenges that we have that are required that we take action on well in advance of the calendar of a presidential election.
Q There is posturing right now on the –
MR. GIBBS: Look, this town is –
Q Both sides –
MR. GIBBS: That’s what happens in this town. That’s what — but, again, I think the clear message from the American people in the election was that they don’t need that, they don’t want that. They’re looking for two parties to be able to sit down and have those conversations and work out answers to those problems.
I think it will — it’s what’s required. It’s not what may happen.
Q Now, also I asked you last week about the President’s involvement in Rahm Emanuel’s –
MR. GIBBS: Yes, let me — I will ask — I will see if I have any update on that after — if I find out if the President and the First Lady have voted.
Q And I want to ask — I want to ask you something about your departure. You consciously made a decision to leave. But from day one you have enjoyed that podium — beyond the professionalism –
MR. GIBBS: Let me — as I’ve said a hundred times, well, probably 10,000 times, if you didn’t enjoy some element of this, you’d do it for about three days, and you would turn in your pass and hope no one ever found you again. (Laughter.)
I mean, the truth is — if you don’t have some enjoyment in –
Q By the way, should we be judging you on that negatively that you enjoy this? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I assume you do, too. Well, some of you have contracts that require you to sit in these seats. (Laughter.)
Q So you’re saying there’s no gray area — there’s no gray area.
MR. GIBBS: No, no. Look, again, I think — look, first of all, I don’t want to turn this into my fond farewell.
Q It is.
MR. GIBBS: It’s the least favorite topic I have, which is me.
Q But it’s about you.
MR. GIBBS: But I think what’s important is — like I said, I think if you were to have somebody in this job that didn’t enjoy doing this job, like I said, it is one of the most challenging jobs I think that is had in all of this government for the precise reason of we’re up here talking about a subject that can influence what happens 10 miles and 10,000 miles away.
But if you didn’t have some enjoyment in doing this job, like I said, it would compound how — you couldn’t do it long.
Q There’s some skepticism about the President’s call for corporate tax reform because he hasn’t produced key specifics, like what the rates should be, what the treatment of foreign taxes should be, what is the difference between a preference and a loophole. It isn’t really — how long do we have to wait for the specifics of his plan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it’s important to understand that this is not going to be we put out a plan, we say, hey, this is our plan, take this or leave this. I think the President started a series of discussions about this with business leaders at the Blair House. Those conversations — and with Secretary Geithner — have continued to happen. This is a process that is not going to — not going to take a matter of days or weeks; it’s going to take months if not years. So I think this is a long process that will involve stakeholders at all levels with both political parties weighing in on their ideas about how we meet the goal of reforming the way corporate taxes are done, lowering that rate, but keeping it deficit neutral.
Q I have two questions.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Going back on Egypt. You said many times that you credited the Egyptian army. Considering the history of the Middle East, many of the current and previous leaders came from in the military coup d’état. Three of them are in charge of the transition now in Egypt — Suleiman, Shafik and Tantawi are military men. Do you really trust them they will lead the transition to free and fair election?
MR. GIBBS: Well, two things. One, I think we have rightly, I think, given some praise to the actions that haven’t been taken, that many feared might be taken with an army deployed and hundreds of thousands if not millions of protestors. I think it’s important, also, that we have — we talked about today and we have talked about this previously, about continued restraint and adherence to nonviolence and assurance that anything involving harassment or beating or detention is ended immediately.
So we will continue to watch, as I’ve said throughout this, the process of their reaction.
Secondly, again, I think the determination about the progress that’s being made toward free and fair elections will be determined by those in Egypt.
Q Can I follow up on that?
Q Okay. I just want to go –
MR. GIBBS: She has one more and then I’ll –
Q — to the second question, which is the British Foreign Minister William Hague said today that this is time for the U.S. administration to take a bold step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process considering what’s happening in the Middle East. Is this something that the President is considering now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President has, and this administration have been, from day one, actively involved in seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And we understand and we know that our lack of involvement by this country is not likely to produce the outcome that the world hopes for with peace. Only through active engagement and involvement can that happen. We have and we will continue to do that.
But just like in this instance, we cannot construct or force on those two entities something that they’re unwilling to take steps to do themselves.
Q Thanks, Robert.
Q Thanks, Robert. You started off by calling for the arrest of journalists to stop, and our own reporting shows that the military police was involved. Do you still think the Egyptian military showed professionalism, impartiality and restraint?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would refer you to what I said a second ago, which is obviously the restraint that we saw in Tahrir has been important. Without getting into who may or may not be involved, any involvement — look, the government of Egypt has a strict responsibility to its citizens to assure their safety and security, to ensure that they’re able to exercise their right to protest in a peaceful way.
And that goes for foreign journalists who are there to cover that story. I watched yesterday a couple of interviews with two journalists from FOX that — I mean, the pictures were hard to watch, the after-effect several days later of whomever that was, beating, detaining, harassing those reporters — and that has to stop regardless of who is either in charge of or involved in that.
Q Robert, can you just tell us real quickly why the meeting — why the President’s meeting with McConnell wasn’t on the public schedule?
MR. GIBBS: I’d have to check. I don’t know the answer.
Q There’s been talk on the Hill about reopening up the individual mandate in health care legislation. How firm is the President and the administration’s commitment to that provision considering that at one point in time, he was not supportive of it?
MR. GIBBS: Sam, we — look, we — the President had to make a conscious decision about how to ensure that the legislation would prevent the problem that we’ve seen with free riders; in other words, people that never think they’re going to get sick and don’t get sick, but they get hit by a bus and show up at the emergency room, and then they charge us basically to pay for it.
The protections that we will have as part of this law that are derived from ensuring that it’s not just a certain segment of the population that’s covered but that everybody has coverage is an important foundation in this law.
The President supports it. We’ve gone to court to maintain it. And as the President has said, we will work with those who want to see improvements in this law regardless of policy — I’m sorry, regardless of party. But we believe that individual responsibility is a foundation for this.
Q Have you not seen another provision that can do what that provision does?
MR. GIBBS: I think if we thought there was a better way of doing it, we would have done it that way.
Q I just wanted to follow on Abby’s question on the topics that came up with Senator McConnell.
MR. GIBBS: Let me see if I can get –
Q There’s one — well, but there’s one topic that wouldn’t come up with the House leaders. Did the President raise the issues of judicial confirmations? And are we going to see any further push by the President on confirmations?
MR. GIBBS: Let me go check on that right now.
Q Thanks, Robert. Back to Egypt, has there been a certain amount of soul-searching and reevaluation in the administration about how to deal with undemocratic governments that are nonetheless helpful to the United States?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we have important — as I said earlier, important bilateral relationships throughout the world. We cannot institute or force change on any of those governments. We can speak out directly, privately and in public on the universal values that we support. And I think what you’ve heard the President say and I think what my guess is governments throughout the world are seeing is that what happens in a country when a government appears not to be responsive to the needs of, the concerns of, its citizens. And I think as the President has said, each and every one in government has the responsibility to do that.
Q We just had a wire cross that said the First Lady said the President has now quit smoking and hasn’t smoked in almost a year. Just wonder if you know anything more about that.
MR. GIBBS: I think that goes along with what I said — I don’t remember when we last discussed this.
Q You were pretty vague about it –
Q You said nine months –
Q You said about nine months ago –
MR. GIBBS: No, I said we had –
Q You said nine months ago.
Q You hadn’t seen — yes, you hadn’t seen –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I said he hadn’t smoked in nine months.
Q Do you know what helped him finally kick the habit?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t doubt that the First Lady — (laughter.) No, no, I don’t mean that in a funny way.
Q Has Marvin quit?
MR. GIBBS: Marvin has quit.
Q Have you started?
MR. GIBBS: I have — (laughter.) I have not, and I –
Q So Marvin quit?
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me, let me — Marvin doesn’t smoke. Eugene Kang — Eugene, I hope you’re still not smoking because I just mentioned you. There are number of people that have decided not to –
Q Boehner? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: — that have decided to make that — I think — look, I will say this –
Q Did they do it all together?
MR. GIBBS: They did around the same time. I will say this. I think — and I didn’t mean to be — I didn’t actually mean for what I said about the First Lady to be humorous as much as — I think that when somebody decides to quit smoking, to try to overcome the physical addiction that they have, they do it not just because they want to, but because others want them to, and because others around them give them the type of encouragement that they need to break what is a tough habit to break.
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Q Can you comment on the conclusions of the financial crisis investigatory commission? And do you agree with the finding that the crisis was preventable and that current members of the administration were partly to blame? Geithner, for example?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, let me say this. I would — I think Treasury has a statement on this. We certainly applaud the efforts of the commission to explore the causes for the financial crisis that occurred in 2008. Our biggest task in assuming office as it related to the financial crisis was getting our economy back on track and taking the necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that it never happened again. That’s why the President put so much effort into Wall Street reform to ensure, again, that what happened leading up to and during that crisis never repeats itself. And we are obviously focused on taking all the necessary steps to implement that legislation to ensure that that is the case.
One member of the commission, though, on that point said today that the financial system is “not really very different” today from prior to passage of the Wall Street reform bill, if anything else, that they’re more concentrated. What would you say to that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, there are a whole host of authorities, resolution authority being one of them, that is markedly different.
We saw in the crisis, taking AIG as an example, a fairly successful insurance company that somebody put a hedge fund on top of. And instead of being able to break the company apart, the hedge fund caused government officials to have to put quite a bit of resources into the overall company rather than just dealing with some of the root causes of the downfall.
So we now have the ability to break those things apart and deal with them very separately. I would point out in my example that AIG’s money has been paid back to the government as a result of some of the steps — management steps that have been taken since the President came into office.
Q On one different topic, could you comment on the White House’s use of social media, which seems to be increasing? What’s the thinking behind that? Is Plouffe behind that? And is that something we’ll see continuing into the election?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I — look, obviously David is a big believer in social media. Are you talking about around the State of the Union, about some of the interactive stuff around the State of the Union?
Q Yes, and the YouTube thing today.
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously YouTube is a reprisal of I think something we did back in 2009. I think the President looks at something like YouTube as sort of an online town hall meeting.
Obviously a number of us use different types of social media like Twitter to communicate what the government is doing to the people in this country. I think it is a — I think it’s just another way of bringing people a little closer to the decisions that get made here and why. And I think the President, and the entire team, will continue to look for avenues and opportunities to expand the use of those entities, again, whether that be Twitter, whether that be YouTube or other aspects of social media.
Q Two questions, one financial and one foreign. The IMF today singled out the U.S., as well as Japan, as heavily indebted, advanced economies that need to lay out clear deficit reduction plans before the market sentiment turns against them. What’s the — how concerned is the administration that investors will in fact lose patience with the U.S. over its deficit handling?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that the President demonstrated the seriousness in the issue of deficit reduction that must be taken, as you heard the President say, to win the future on Tuesday during the State of the Union. The President understands that we have to take steps to reduce the level of government spending. He outlined very specific steps, as an opening bid of sorts in the State of the Union, to freeze non-defense discretionary spending over the course of five years, saving $400 billion and bringing non-defense discretionary spending, as a portion of our economy, to its lowest level since President Eisenhower was in this building.
So we certainly understand, and the President certainly understands, that this is an issue that has to and will be addressed.
Q Do you think the IMF’s concern is legitimate, then?
MR. GIBBS: I have not focused on the IMF report because I think the President believed it was legitimate several years ago. Again, we didn’t get into — as you heard the President say, we didn’t get into this — we’re not dealing with a $14 or $15 trillion debt because of the last two plus years. This is a problem many years in the making and will take a concerted effort by Democrats and Republicans working together to find a solution to it.
Q And in Egypt, street protests are continuing. Former IAEA chief ElBaradei has returned to the country and is calling for Mubarak to step down. How would the — does the administration see ElBaradei as a viable alternative to Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let’s broaden the discussion and have a little bit of a discussion about some of the events in Egypt. First and foremost — and I said this yesterday, but I want to reiterate it — that there’s an obligation by the government not to engage in violence. There’s an obligation by those that are protesting not to engage in violence by burning government buildings. So, first and foremost, this is a process that should be conducted peacefully, and that is one of our primary concerns.
I’m not going to get into different personalities except to say that we believe that this represents an opportunity for President Mubarak and for the government of Egypt to demonstrate its willingness to listen to its own people and to devise a way to broaden the discussion and take some necessary actions on political reform. Those are issues that the President talks with President Mubarak about every time they meet, and I doubt that there is a high-level meeting that happens between the two countries in a bilateral nature where those issues aren’t brought up.
Q And how concerned is the administration that the unrest, the upheaval in the Middle East, is now spreading to Yemen, which is a key base for al Qaeda?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is important not to — because every country is different and every country is at a different stage in its political development — to not generalize across the platform. So I think you heard the President talk about the people of Tunisia, and I think myself and the Secretary of State have said quite a bit on Egypt. Again, I hate to generalize across a whole series of countries at different stages in their political development and their history.
Q Just to follow on Egypt, does the White House believe that the Egyptian government is stable?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So Hosni Mubarak has the full support of the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Dan, I think it’s important to — this isn’t a choice between the government and the people of Egypt. Egypt, we know — and President Mubarak has for several decades been a close and important partner with our country. And every time the President meets with President Mubarak — and I would point you to the speech in Cairo in 2009 where the President also specifically addresses this, as well as the readout that we put out on the September meeting that the President had with President Mubarak as part of the Middle East peace process — that we consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform. All of those are important and we have at every turn encouraged President Mubarak to find a way to engender that political discourse in a positive way. And we will continue to do that.
Q And on the YouTube and other uses of social media, in addition to this being a chance for the President to reach out and promote jobs or the economy, is this also an effort by the President to engage younger voters ahead of the 2012 election?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I think this is just an opportunity to go to — it’s not a demographical slice and dice. It’s an opportunity simply to go and, again, talk with people directly about the decisions that the President is making and that the government is making. I think CNN hosted the YouTube debate back in 2007.
Again, I just think it’s a perfect opportunity to be able to discuss these things much like you would at a town hall, but bring people inside of that. And at 39 and being on Twitter and Facebook, I don’t consider myself necessarily a younger voter. (Laughter.)
Q Well — true. One final question — and I know you’ve been bugged about this quite a bit — are we any closer to naming a successor to you?
MR. GIBBS: As soon as the President and the team have announcements to make on the job of press secretary and others as part of the reorganization, they’ll be made. I don’t know when that will be. It could be later today, it could be tomorrow.
Q Has he made up his mind?
MR. GIBBS: I’d refer you to my previous answer.
Yes, sir — oh, I’m sorry.
Q Robert, on the new color-coded terror alert system, is the President confident that the new system will be able to communicate to Americans appropriately and effectively?
MR. GIBBS: It’s designed to try to take some of the uncertainty and confusion out of — and you’ve seen this from both Democrats and Republicans agree that while there might have — while there was some utility to this at the beginning, it has caused some confusion. And the Secretary — Secretary Napolitano is going to speak on this very shortly at George Washington, and I would point you to that.
Q On the jobs front, the CBO projected this week that the unemployment rate at the fourth quarter of 2012 will still be 8.2 percent. Obviously with the reelection campaign coming soon, does the President feel like the message of “it could have been worse” will resonate with voters?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I can assure you that what the President is — the President is not focused on what — is not focused today on what the unemployment rate will be in the fourth quarter of 2012. He’s focused on what the unemployment rate is in the first quarter of 2011. And I think that’s what animated his decisions in the tax agreement in December, again, a payroll tax cut which analysts have said will increase economic growth and job creation, tax incentives — and we saw some of this yesterday in Manitowoc — that allow companies to accelerate the expensing of investments, which we and others believe will help businesses expand and we hope hire more people.
So I don’t think people here are flipping through to the fourth quarter. We’re focused on today and tomorrow.
Q One other — Nelson Mandela is in the hospital. Has the President been briefed on his condition and reached out to anyone in the family?
MR. GIBBS: The President, to my knowledge, has not spoken with anybody. We’ve seen the reports that he’s in the hospital. Obviously the President and the First Lady, their thoughts are with Nelson Mandela. And we will try to keep up to date on his prognosis.
Q On Egypt, Mubarak has been the leader of Egypt and the United States has worked with him for a very long time. By not vocally supporting him but simply saying we support the people of Egypt, is that sending a message to the people who are out there protesting against him that they should just go full-bore and is that going to inflame the situation? And is that what the President is trying to do?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I –
Q It sounds like he’s being tossed aside to a lot of people.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, it’s what I said to Dan, Chip. This isn’t — our government and this administration and I presume previous administrations aren’t here to pick the leaders of countries over the people of those countries. We stand for the universal rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and what led our country to be created more than two centuries ago. We think that and believe strongly that those rights are held by those throughout the world.
Just recently when President Hu was here, the President discussed universal rights. We do not see this as a choice between one or the other, and I don’t believe it should be. We think that — again, he is a close and important partner.
Q He is?
MR. GIBBS: He is. And every time the two meet the President talks about the steps that he believes that President Mubarak should be taking to have that fuller conversation and to make some important reforms as it relates to political freedoms, we believe — and they’ll have an opportunity to do this later this year — to have free and fair elections. We believe that the emergency law that’s been largely in place since 1981 should be lifted, and spoke out in a statement by me that its extension was not a good thing. It gives the government obviously extra judicial powers, which we don’t find to be necessary.
So all of these things we will continue to push and prod President Mubarak on in order, again, to create a situation peacefully — peacefully — and I think that needs to be underscored, both the government and the protesters — to get into a place where a political dialogue can take place.
Q Since he has been so heavy-handed for so many years and you are saying that the most important thing here is adherence to international human rights or the international rights of the people of Egypt, would it be a good thing if he were overthrown?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into picking the leaders of Egypt and that’s not what the government of this country does. Again, I think that what is important is we can — President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way.
Q The perception by many on the ground in Egypt is the United States is taking sides here — not with Mubarak, but with the people out there protesting. Is that accurate?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’ll say this for the third time. This is not about taking sides. This is not about choosing –
Q But I’m saying the perception there is that you’re taking sides.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me try it a fourth time. This is not about taking sides. So I hope you’ll perceive to them that, again –
Q We don’t perceive — they perceive from you, not us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I hope you’ll play each of the four times in which I said it’s not a choice that you make.
Q And one other question on this –
MR. GIBBS: Because, again, let me just — when President Mubarak was in the Oval Office in September, these were issues that were brought up. When the President spoke with President Mubarak around the events that were taking place in Tunisia — again, go to the readout that we put out about that. It’s very explicit that the President talked about the political reforms that have for quite some time needed to take place in Egypt.
So this is a sustained and important message that we want to deliver to President Mubarak, to the government of Egypt, and we think they have an important role to play.
Q There are some analysts who believe the President is expressing that message much more forcefully now than, for example, he did during the Iran uprising; that he was a bit slow and cautious then in supporting the people out in the streets but he’s not now.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think our response has been quite similar in speaking out in support of universal rights. The President I know spoke with you all in the Rose Garden prior to the Iranian elections. And, again, as I said earlier, I hate to — political conditions and development in different countries are different, and I would hate to generalize.
Q Robert, I’m curious what the President’s thoughts are on this metropolitan area’s response to the snowstorm last night? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Honestly, Mike, I have not talked to him about it.
Q How long did it take you guys to get in from the motorcade?
MR. GIBBS: It took a little while to get in. I think –
Q No, it took more than a little while.
MR. GIBBS: I think if you were — anybody here that was in the in-town pool? Yes, I think you could — Jackie can appropriately report that based on the conditions on the Suitland Parkway, it was somewhat evident that we don’t get a lot of special treatment as it relates to that. (Laughter.)
I think it took a — it was interesting, last night it seemed like everybody was on the room and this morning it seemed like nobody was on the road. So obviously we hope — and you see a lot of stranded cars. I know some of — even some of our staff coming from Andrews found the conditions to be too hard to travel through and parked their car in a parking lot and took the metro. So I certainly hope that everybody is safe and accounted for in an arduous natural disaster of sorts.
Q Does the White House believe the financial crisis commission was a good use of time and resources?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we applaud their efforts to look into what caused and — what caused the crisis and what steps might be taken to ensure that it never happens again. That’s — again, that’s why the President spent so much time over the course of the previous two years trying to ensure that the steps that we took in Wall Street reform ensured that we don’t need a commission like that ever again.
Q Following up on something Sunlen asked, Doug Elmendorf said that the natural and sustainable unemployment rate of 5.3 percent probably won’t be back until 2016. Does the White House agree with that or –
MR. GIBBS: I would have to look at what estimates folks have. I know there’s an economic report that we have coming out. Look, I think what we saw was in many ways a perfect storm. And we’ve seen it with the financial sector, we saw it — it continues — we see the continuing effect of the downturn in the housing market.
And I should have it — I should always have it, the graph that, again, just shows the level of job loss. Again, they’re not quite apples to — red apples to red apples comparisons because obviously the size of the economy is marginally different. But if you look at the job loss in the recession in the early ‘80s, the recession in the early ‘90s, and the recession in the earlier part of the previous decade — 2001, 2002, 2003 — all of those dips added together don’t equal the amount of job loss that we saw — more than 8 million jobs — as a result of this calamity.
So it’s going to take some time. The key, though, is very much the path the President outlined in the State of the Union. And that is, we have to take steps as manufacturing jobs have left or as companies find it more profitable to set up shop in some other place, to provide incentives through research and development and manufacturing and exports right here.
That’s what the President focused on in the State of the Union: How do we out-educate, out-innovate and out-build countries? How do we reform our budget and our government in order to lay that foundation so that the jobs that we need today and tomorrow are created here; that companies are expanding and doing business not just in different parts of this country but in different parts of the world as we see emerging markets take place? And I think that will animate almost all of what the President does this year.
Q Part of the State of the Union, the President was talking about green energy. Some of the more traditional energy producers say if you want the economy to do better, maybe take some of the regulations off in terms of making it easier to drill or to gather coal until you can develop those green energies.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what’s important is — and I think is embodied in the promise that the President — or in the proposal the President made and the promise to increase the amount of electricity produced through clean energy sources, to double from 40 to 80 percent through 2035, is not to take an either/or approach. If drilling were just the answer, if nuclear was just the answer, if solar was just the answer, if wind was just the answer, my guess is the problem would have been figured out long ago.
But instead of picking this, this, this and this, you see in the standard that the President put forward is, yes, let’s do all of that. Let’s do wind, let’s do nuclear, let’s do solar, let’s do clean coal technology. We have an energy problem because too much of our energy — we’re dependent for too much of our energy on other places in the world. And the creation of the jobs around the newer forms of energy we can’t lose out to a place like China, as you heard the President talk about yesterday.
So let’s not pick just wind or just solar. Let’s pick a whole — let’s pick everything. And that’s what’s embodied in what the President laid out on Tuesday. And I think it’s — I think that’s, quite honestly, why Democrats and Republicans can all find something to like about that. And the question is, are we going to have the courage to take the steps to do something like that, to continue to make those investments?
And the last stop yesterday in Manitowoc, at Tower Tech, watching the manufacturing process of creating a wind turbine that might sit 100 meters upright and harness and create electricity, harness energy through wind, that’s putting people to work right there — creating the steel in some place, moving it in, manufacturing those towers, shipping those towers out, putting those towers up. We’re going to have to decide whether we’re going to import that type of technology from China or India or someplace else, or whether we’re going to put Americans to work, back to work, creating those energy sources right here. I think that very much embodies what the President was discussing on the State of the Union.
Q Robert, would it be easier to be on the side of the protestors in Egypt if the Egyptian government weren’t such an important ally to both us and Israel?
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, I think, Chuck, that we very much recognize the right that those in Egypt want more freely to assemble and to speak, and to be involved in political reform. That’s a bedrock American value. And I think the government of Egypt and the President of Egypt need to find a way to ensure that this is — this type of dialogue and these types of reforms can happen.
Q You say, though — you say that the President has spoken to President Mubarak about this in the past, and all these words, but financially we don’t speak that way. I mean, this is the — in the top four of foreign aid, Egypt is. And so, if — why — I mean, why not use a carrot and stick approach if we were so concerned about the democratic — the lack of democratic reform in Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Chuck, this is just as the President talked about with China. We have a whole host of bilateral concerns in relationships. But that does not change our desire to see in Egypt free and fair elections, the ability to assemble, the ability to speak more freely, to be involved in a healthy democracy.
Q Is that our policy for Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as well?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t want to — we certainly support — it is our policy to support the universal rights which I’ve spoken of and which you’ve heard the President speak of. Again, I hate generalizing across different platforms, but when you say that — you said you know that the President brings this up, again — and I’ll be happy to circulate some of these because I know sometimes when we put out a readout of a call or a meeting and it’s not on the front page of the newspaper or in the first five minutes of newscasts, it’s understandable that you might not immediately focus on some of the things that are in those readouts.
But, again, whether it was the President’s meeting with President Mubarak in September, the statements around the extension of the emergency law, or even the readout that we did just recently on the call to President Mubarak about the tensions in Tunisia, these are things that are brought up on each and every one of those calls.
Q A couple other issues. One is the Republicans are trying to get rid of the matching funds, the tax check-off, to use it to basically save some money for the government. How committed is the President in supporting this? Would he veto any sort of bill that had this in it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me recirculate the statement of administration –
Q I understand what his position is, but is it a — is this one of these he will veto this if it shows up in any appropriations bill?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think it’s getting through.
Q You think it will die in the Senate?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think it’s getting through.
Q With the government reorganization project and housing development that you’re entering on, do you expect it will result in –
(Cell phone rings.)
MR. GIBBS: Was that me squeaking or was that one of you? You don’t have your ringer on, do you? (Laughter.)
Q Got a new one, too.
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead.
Q Play it. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead.
Q I could make this question into a ring tone — it would be very popular. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: You should do that one.
Q That’s a good idea, next time record it. “My question is right here.”
MR. GIBBS: Right, and you just play it.
Q Do you expect it will result in savings to government outlays — saving government money in the end?
MR. GIBBS: I think the hope would be to see some savings, yes. But I think what’s primarily most important in a reorganization like this is that we — and I think you probably would see some savings as a result of the duplicative nature of many departments or departments and agencies and what have you, all having certain equities in the same basket of issues or ideas. But, first and foremost, I think as the President talked about, it’s reform for the creation of a government that hasn’t been reorganized in decades and needs to be more fully tilted toward the challenges that we have now and that we face tomorrow. I think those are the President’s objectives.
Q But when we’re talking about the debate that happens in Washington over the size of government and how much we should be spending each year — and that obviously is a very active debate — is this something that should be part of that, that is part of the administration’s thinking about this?
MR. GIBBS: I think so. But, again, I think it’s important to understand, as the President outlined in his State of the Union, domestic discretionary spending — if you did away with it all, you’d still have I think what most people would consider to be a deficit number that we don’t want to live with. So, again, I think there’s — I don’t think people think that we’re going to balance the budget based on a reorganization.
Q Sure, but this is part of the administration’s response to that conversation?
MR. GIBBS: I think that it is. Again, I think from the viewpoint of the President and the team here, it is to align — it is more so to align the priorities of our government with a structure that is able to more efficiently and adequately address those problems.
Q Why is the President not going to Colombia or Panama on this upcoming trip, given that we have trade deals pending with those countries?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I’m not entirely sure how each country was picked. I know that the President seeks to expand our alliances in a very important region of the world. And my guess is you could spend — there’s reasons to go and see virtually — or most countries down there. We are, as we talked about in the briefing that we did around the State of the Union, hopeful that first and foremost, we can get the Korea Free Trade Agreement through Congress as soon as possible, and that the USTR and others can continue work on Panama and Colombia.
Q Robert, when the President is ready to announce your successor, will he do it in person?
MR. GIBBS: I doubt it.
Q Really? Could be paper?
MR. GIBBS: Or trumpets.
Q Or trumpets?
Q Ring tone, maybe?
MR. GIBBS: Ring tone?
Q On Twitter?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t think it will be on Twitter. But I assume it will likely be on paper.
Q And on yesterday’s snow gridlock, does it raise questions that if there were an emergency and the President needed to get back to the White House or get to Andrews in a situation where there is no Marine One available, does it not raise national security concerns?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I talked to some of the detail leaders when we got back to the White House. And based on the resources that it would take in this instance to get enough equipment, manpower or what have you to fully block off that route while we were having this emergency, they did not necessarily think made sense at that time given, again, how many people were also trying to get home.
That having been said, obviously if there was — if we were coming in a weather emergency like yesterday and needed to have that happen, I have no doubt that that could easily happen because, again, it just was a matter of the resources that you move out there and then ultimately how quickly those resources you might need to get back.
Q And does it raise questions about what might happen were D.C. to be evacuated because of a national emergency?
MR. GIBBS: I’m probably not the right person in terms of an emergency management official to render something like that, but I can see if there might be an appropriate agency to address that.
[In the event that a mass evacuation of the National Capitol Region becomes necessary due to an emergency, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police, in close coordination with other federal and local law enforcement partners would activate the emergency evacuation plan which would facilitate the safe movement of evacuees from the District.]
Q Tomorrow morning the President is going to be speaking at the health care Families U.S.A. Health Action Conference. Can you give us a sense of the kind of message he’ll be delivering?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President will take the opportunity to largely reiterate a lot of what was in the State of the Union, to talk about the economic challenges that we face, what we have to do. And I expect that he’ll also reiterate what was said in the State of the Union around health care, the progress that we’ve seen in getting benefits to the American people as a result of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. And no doubt, as we talk about the fiscal impacts of decisions the government makes, what would repeal look like to the fiscal situation. And we know that the CBO says that the immediate impact is a couple hundred billion dollars.
Q Also, on corporate tax reform, when the President addressed it in the State of the Union it was in the context of the corporate tax rate in the U.S. being higher than anywhere else in the world and it really hampering businesses to compete. Is addressing the corporate tax rate an area that Jeff Immelt and his new — the competitiveness and jobs panel would advise the President on? Would there be a recommendation coming from that panel on it?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know if that’s the primary policy — let me get a little bit better answer on that. I don’t think this would be the primary policy driver, but at the same time I think the President would certainly want to hear from members of that group and other members in business and — economists, academia, that want to weigh in on that. I think this is a process where the President and the team will engage stakeholders in a process that typically takes quite some time.
Q Would GE, the global reach of that company and Jeff Immelt, is he somebody that the President would counsel on corporate tax matters?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the President — I think whether it’s Mr. Immelt or a whole host of those with direct experience, he’s certainly eager to hear their opinions.
Q Can you talk about your successor, the process of picking your successor at all, about what kind of things the President has looked for in the person — what the process has been? Can you discuss it at all?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sure we’ll have occasion to do that. I wouldn’t do that today.
Q I’m going to follow up on Julianna. When the President was deciding what to do or how to proceed on tax reform, and there had been talk for weeks that it was going to be limited to corporate tax reform, he did say in his speech — he left open the possibility he’d do individual as well. Ben Bernanke, when he testified recently before the Senate, said that he thought tax reform should be done in a comprehensive way, individual and corporate together. That’s how it was done, of course, the last time the code was overhauled. Could you tell us a little bit what went into the President’s decision-making that he’s sort of singling out the corporate side of the tax code?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, well, I mean, look, I think each of these are going to be longer-term projects. Obviously — and that may indicate sort of a bit of a reason for the bifurcation because I think the complexity on the individual side and obviously discussions that are had as it relates to the fiscal side are going to be important and probably, again, take some time, even as we — as we did tax reform in the mid-‘80s, or I should say, started in the early ‘80s and ended in the mid-‘80s, we know that it is a process that takes quite a bit of time to do.
I know the President is eager to address corporate tax reform as we need to take the steps to make our country more competitive and create those jobs — create jobs here rather than create those jobs overseas.
Q When you say each of these is going to be a longer-term project, does that indicate he’s not far along on the specifics on the corporate side, won’t have any, perhaps, in the –
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jackie, I think — and we talked a little bit about this yesterday — I think this is — I think the President wants to have and wants to hear from stakeholders, Democrats and Republicans, about what they want to see as part of corporate tax reform. I don’t think this is the President has a take-it-or-leave-it plan and you take it or leave it. I think the President wants to engender a discussion on the size, the scope, what all that may look at. And I think we’re certainly eager to have that conversation.
Q Now that the House Oversight Committee has had its first hearing, do you have any thoughts about the tone and content and what it bodes for the future in terms of oversight?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t have a — I traveled yesterday and didn’t see a ton of the hearing. Again, I think our posture hasn’t changed from even before Congress was sworn in. There is an obvious and necessary role for needed oversight. There is — and there has to be vigilance that it does not become and get into political witch hunts where we try to dredge up or fight the battles of many, many years ago. And we’re certainly — we will certainly cooperate on ensuring oversight and efficiency.
Q On the storm yesterday, is the President satisfied that the welfare of federal workers, the way they were released yesterday, many of them stuck in hours and hours of traffic home — that’s under the Executive Office of the President, isn’t it?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, Ann, I’ve not had an occasion to speak with him on this this morning. Let me see if I can get some further guidance from OPM on that, which may honestly be the best place. I mean, look, you have a fairly large city that has few ways home, to be quite —
Q Why weren’t they given more time to get out?
MR. GIBBS: Let me see if OPM can address that.
Q And would the President sign a continuing resolution if it has any earmarks in it?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President was clear about — I think the President was pretty clear about earmarks in the State of the Union. And I also –
Q Even if it meant the government had no money to continue after –
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President would tell leaders in Congress before the bill got here not to send it up here because he’s going to send it back.
Q And he’ll tell Senator Reid that?
MR. GIBBS: There’s 535 people that he told that on Tuesday, and he’s happy to reiterate it. I mean, I think that — I also think we’re entering into a period — I mean, I think there’s a reason why the piece of legislation that was contemplated at the end of last year never made it, because I think the days of those types of things have passed us by.
Q Robert, Senator Reid doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo, though. I mean, he said the President needs to back off. He said that the earmarks are coming back because he plans on being around for a long time. I mean, that’s a serious area of disagreement between the President and the leader of his party on the Hill.
MR. GIBBS: It is.
Q So, I mean, has the President talked to Senator Reid about that or is there –
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q — is there going to be a “come to Jesus” meeting or is it going to end in a veto?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know who would be Jesus. (Laughter.) No, I don’t — again, I –
Q You must be getting at the end of your reign here. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: No, I just — no, no, I mean, again, I think –
Q First Jesus reference. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I think the — again, not to be flippant or funny but to go back to the original answer. Again, the President was clear on this. We can’t — we’re going to make some very, very tough decisions, as the President talked about in his budget. We’re going to make some decisions that cut programs that Democrats and Republicans alike would both say are important. But we’re doing that because we know right now the government spends far, far more than it takes in and that that can’t continue.
So I don’t know why or how you could ask different agencies and different places to undertake an exercise that those on Capitol Hill are unwilling to take themselves. That’s what’s animated the President’s decision to include not just an end for earmarks but a specific pledge that if they show up in that legislation he will veto it and he will send it back. And he said that after the election in an interview with 60 Minutes and I take him at his word.
Q Thanks, Robert. Can you talk a bit about the President’s domestic travel schedule this year? Do you think he’ll be traveling more domestically than he did in the first two years? And also, he went to Wisconsin, an important swing state. Might there be a special focus and concentration on swing states that are part of the 2012 map?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we picked yesterday because, again, I think you saw three fairly dynamic companies. They’re adding jobs, they’re innovating, they’re meeting many of the challenges of tomorrow. And it was — they were good examples.
That’s why Manitowoc was picked. I can assure you, several days after the Bears lost, we wouldn’t have so closely targeted a suburb basically of Green Bay to — but I think that — I do think you’ll see the President travel more, and I think you’ll see the President — I think the President always feels better when he gets out of — I don’t mean out of the city, but out of — you live and you work in the same place, it’s nice to get out, it’s nice to see and talk to those that — like yesterday — that are innovating, that are building. We’ll take trips to schools to see decisions that are being made at a local or a state level to better educate children. And I think you — for those that are in the pool, I think he goes on these tours with a genuine amount of curiosity as to why they’re doing certain things, what they’re building. And I think to be able to get out and talk directly with those that are putting those projects together, they’re fun trips.
Q Just a quick clarification about what you said regarding a press secretary announcement. You said it could be either today or tomorrow. Do you mean that it will come either today or tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: It could. (Laughter.) It could.
Q Might it come later?
Q It’s either going to be today or tomorrow? One or the other?
MR. GIBBS: Or — what I said was — I think the beginning of the answer was the announcement will come when the President and all his –
Q How about before midnight Saturday?
MR. GIBBS: I was going to make an odds joke and that will just get me in trouble. Again, I think the decision will be announced when all the decisions have been made.
Q On the question about the jobs and competitiveness council, when will the President make a decision about those members? And a related question about — is anything going to change about how the President interacts with that council, compared to the previous one, in terms of it doing its new mission?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t have a timeline for some of those appointments, but let me check and see if there is anything updated on that. Look, I think the structure of setting up PERAB and — took some time and that probably got it off to, in terms of presidential meetings, a bit slower than the President and I think members of the PERAB would have liked. This I think — I do think the President will have the occasion to meet with this group on a more regular basis. And let me find some guidance on timing of that.
Q Robert, two quick ones. First, back on the press secretary. If it could come today or tomorrow, does that — that means a decision has been made, just not announced, correct?
MR. GIBBS: I have not been told that, no.
Q And the other thing is unrelated. Do you have any idea what Governor Palin — former — meant when she said that the President’s remark about –
MR. GIBBS: Governor Palin’s –
MR. GIBBS: Oh, okay, I’m sorry.
Q When she said that the President’s comment about Sputnik in the State of the Union was a WTF moment?
MR. GIBBS: Are you asking –
Q I know what it means but do you know what she meant?
MR. GIBBS: I was going to say, we should talk (whispers.) (Laughter.) I’m sorry, what –
Q What’s she trying to say — a WTF –
MR. GIBBS: I’m sure all the answers are on her Twitter account. I probably –
Q World trade –
MR. GIBBS: Do you think it means world trade? What is — what would –
Q Winning the future.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, winning the future. Oh, wow, that is — you’re hired. (Laughter.)
Q Robert, just to go back to Egypt for once more, for 30 years presidents have been saying to President Mubarak exactly what you say President Obama has been saying to President Mubarak with no effect. What additional leverage does President Obama have and can you blame the Egyptian people for seeing just the presidential pro forma statement of, well, you’ve got to do more on human rights to be more than pro forma after 30 of this –
MR. GIBBS: I don’t want to — I don’t know the level that — I don’t know the level of seriousness or exactly how each of those conversations transpired prior to when we got here. I can only speak for our time here and that is this has — as I said, this has been an important part of not just President Obama’s dialogue with President Mubarak but, as I said, in talking to those here that are involved in senior meetings around government with — that would interact on a bilateral basis with the government of Egypt, these are topics that we push on each and every one of those times.
I think what makes maybe this unique is — and I’d refer you back to the statements on this where we say this is an opportunity for President Mubarak to seize in order to address the decades-long concern and — concern that the people of Egypt have for their lack of rights. And I think our hope is that in a peaceful way we can all witness the government of Egypt, President Mubarak, and the people of Egypt come together in an important dialogue and a forum where these rights and these universal values can and will be addressed.
And, again, I think it’s important to reiterate one more time that as these discussions and as these protests happen, that first and foremost we want to caution both the government and the protesters to do so in a way that is peaceful and respects the very rights that we’re having a discussion about.
Q Hey, Robert, AfPak, did you go, any news?
MR. GIBBS: I did go for about three-quarters of it. The President — and you guys have a roster of who was there — the President got an update on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, both from a counterterrorism perspective as well as the security situation in Afghanistan. The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing our goals for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2011, goals and objectives and how we’re going to meet those. That was the bulk of what the team went through this morning with the President.
And, look, I think the assessment of where we are security-wise is not a lot different than when you heard the President in here during the AfPak review, that we’ve — while we’ve seen progress, we understand that that progress is — can be reversed if we don’t continue to take the steps to ensure that as we clear, that we hold, that we build, and that ultimately the goal, as enumerated in Lisbon, begin to transfer those security operations back to the Afghan government, the Afghan people, and we see an increase in the training and their security forces.
Q And is Joe Biden right that it will be more than a token withdrawal of troops in July?
MR. GIBBS: I would point you back to, again, what the President has said repeatedly and reiterated in the State of the Union just on Tuesday.
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller.
Q Thank you, Robert. I wanted to ask about the meeting with the Republican leadership and something on Egypt, too, please. So Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor essentially both said that there was agreement at the lunch on the need the cut spending and on the need to do it together with the President. Is that how the President sees it as well?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. I just came from talking to him about the lunch. He thought it was very constructive; that they agreed on — expand a little bit — on cutting spending and reducing our deficit; that we should have a broad discussion about, with the American people, the size and the scope of the problem that we face in getting our fiscal house in order. They discussed issues like trade as areas where we could work together.
Obviously our Trade Representative testified on the House side today, saying that the administration would soon send up the language around the South Korea free trade agreement and intensify our engagement to address both Colombia and Panama in hopes that those negotiations could be concluded this year and agreements could then be sent to Congress thereafter.
They agreed that education, an issue that we have worked on in a bipartisan way over the first two years of the administration, continues to be one where Democrats and Republicans can and should work together. Regulations that are outdated and don’t work was another topic. They also talked some about foreign policy, particularly managing the transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But I would say obviously reducing the deficit and growing the economy were the things that, according to the President, were most discussed at the lunch.
Q In the area of spending and the deficit, did the Republican leadership and the President reach and specific agreement on anything?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t — not that I’m aware of, no.
Q Okay. Was that something that was ever part of the agenda for this meeting?
MR. GIBBS: No, this is — look, I think this is going to be a long discussion on the steps that we need to take to reduce our deficit, and I don’t think that people looked at this as a negotiating session.
Q While that was happening or earlier, the House Republicans spelled out some proposed spending cuts, some $35 billion worth, including areas such as high-speed rail and education that the President obviously wants to invest more money in, and in some cases conservatives want even bigger cuts. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I know that not long ago we saw parts of that list. I know OMB is taking a look at that. There’s broad agreement that we have to change the way Washington works, particularly as it relates to spending. We have to do so in a way that protects important investments so that we can win the future. So I think the President looks forward to working with Republicans and other Democrats to make progress on these issues.
Q One question on Egypt, please. The Israeli Defense Minister is coming here later today to meet with Mr. Donilon and Secretaries Clinton and Gates. Can you say what the mission of that meeting is and whether you think the President might stop by?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — I don’t know the answer to the latter question. I think he’s in town for some regularly scheduled meetings. I think we’ll have a readout on some of those discussion afterwards.
Q Is it fair to say that you think he will be pushing the message about concerns of Mubarak stepping down too quickly?
MR. GIBBS: I am not going to presume what somebody from another government might say to us. That’s not my role.
Q One on the Republican leadership meeting, and the other on Egypt. What, if any, specific areas of spending cuts did they discuss in this meeting?
MR. GIBBS: The President didn’t give me details on that.
Q And did the President at any point ask the Republicans not to use as a political football the threat to not lift the national debt ceiling, which Republicans said they weren’t.
MR. GIBBS: I didn’t get that level of detail from him. I think our position on that is fairly well known.
Q Okay. And on Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Minister is telling PBS that Vice President Biden’s call for immediate lifting of the emergency law in Egypt was — he was amazed by that, and he felt that the Egyptian government could not make such a move until the unrest had been put down and calm had been restored. What’s your response on that?
MR. GIBBS: I think as we’ve said in the readout of the Vice President — from Vice President Biden’s call to Vice President Suleiman — that an orderly transition must begin now, that it must produce without delay immediate and irreversible progress. And I think it is clear that what the government has thus far put forward has yet to meet a minimum threshold for the people of Egypt. That’s why many of you reported the crowds in yesterday’s protests were bigger than even those on Friday.
I think we were all, and have been, struck here at the diversity of those that you saw in the street yesterday — diversity of age, diversity of lifestyle, diversity of ideas. And I think it is clear that the Egyptian government is going to have to take some real concrete steps in order to meet the threshold that the people of Egypt that they represent require from their government.
And I think unless, or until that progress takes hold, I think you’re going to see the continued pictures that all of us are watching out of Cairo and of over cities throughout Egypt. So I think the best way to do that is for Vice President Suleiman, as the head of this process representing the Egyptian government — is to expand the size and scope of the discussions and the negotiations with those that are not in power, and to take many of the steps that we outlined yesterday, one of which is lifting the emergency law. One of them is — are constitutional changes so that we get toward free and fair elections. But I think it’s obvious that they have yet to meet the threshold that will satisfy most of the people.
Q Has anybody in the Obama administration reached out for consultations or discussions at all with anybody in the leading opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q In terms of your readout of the President’s meeting with the House Republican leaders, you said — you made a reference to intensifying our engagement in the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements. The Republicans say those free trade agreements are good to go, send them up, we’ll vote for them. What do you mean when you say “intensifying our engagement”?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think there are some — and as Ambassador Kirk said today, there are some outstanding issues — look, these free trade agreements have been — haven’t gone anywhere in Congress because there continue to be some outstanding issues particularly around internationally recognized labor rights that I think many believe must be addressed.
I think the model that we used for South Korea is one that Ambassador Kirk and the President believe can result in an agreement that will capture broad bipartisan support, hopefully as soon as we can get some of this worked out.
But I don’t — there shouldn’t be — once the agreement gets done on South Korea, I don’t expect that there would be a lot of delay in getting that done. We had again outstanding issues as it related to South Korea, particularly on autos and beef. We worked that out and stakeholders from both sides of the political spectrum, business and labor are now endorsing that free trade agreement.
Q So do they need to be renegotiated, Colombia and Panama?
MR. GIBBS: We need to address some outstanding issues like we did with South Korea.
Q Right, but with South Korea you renegotiated the deal, right?
MR. GIBBS: No, we addressed outstanding issues.
Q Can you explain what that means?
MR. GIBBS: There are issues that need to be addressed, and that’s what we’re going to do address them.
Q I don’t know what that means when you say you have issues that need to be addressed. There’s a trade agreement — you renegotiated with the South Korea government is what you did.
MR. GIBBS: No, we — there were shortcomings in what needed to be addressed on issues relating to autos and beef, which had prevented an agreement from being voted on. There are, as I said in my earlier answer to you, outstanding issues relating to Colombia and Panama that also need to be addressed.
Q Is it safe to say that Vice President Suleiman’s vision for the transition process is not entirely in line with the U.S. position?
MR. GIBBS: I think that his — the process for his transition does not appear to be in line with the people of Egypt, and I think we believe that more has to be done and I think, more importantly, the people of Egypt think more has to be done. I think that’s why you continue to see the size of those gathered to express their concerns about their lack of recognition and freedom and opportunity — why those ranks continue to grow. I think the Vice President was clear with Vice President Suleiman on some steps that needed to be taken to address the concerns that we see.
Q And is the White House still confident that he’s the right person for the job? I know over the weekend there were a lot of positive comments made by this administration about sort of support for him and what he was doing.
MR. GIBBS: No, I — again, Vice President Suleiman — we’ve done this about four times but I’ll try one more time. Vice President Suleiman is in charge of a process in representing the Egyptian government to negotiate with those not in government in order to get us on a path toward an orderly transition that ends in a free and fair election. It’s not for us to determine who’s in charge of that process with the Egyptian government. It’s not for us to determine who sits in a room representing the opposition — except for us to understand that when unrest grows and the size of these crowds grow, it’s clear that the threshold of meeting a broad-based coalition in — that represents a broad-based coalition of civil society, that that’s not been reached. I think that is what continues to be the problem.
Q But if it’s not for you to decide, then why, then, is the Vice President — we saw strong language from the Vice President essentially putting pressure and offering up some demands, some things that need to be changed. So, clearly, there is a position. There’s something that you want to be done in Egypt, right?
MR. GIBBS: More importantly, Dan, there’s something the people of Egypt want to be done.
Q Right, but the administration does as well. It’s not just about the people in Egypt –
MR. GIBBS: True –
Q — it’s what the White House wants to happen there.
MR. GIBBS: It’s what I think everybody in the international community understands has to be done to meet the demands of those that are protesting in Cairo. Again, it’s obvious — you’re reporting it, what people are looking for. And we’ve talked about lifting the emergency law for quite some time. We put out a statement last year at its extension that, going backwards almost three decades, this was not something that we thought was in any way helpful. That happened — you see people believing that that should be rescinded just like we do.
But, again, it is not for us to determine the outcome. It’s not for us to determine all of those participants. The participants on the government side are — is Vice President Suleiman. That’s why the Vice President of our country has talked to him about broadening this process, quickening the pace of this process. Because, again, what we see happening on the streets of Cairo is not altogether surprising when you understand the lack of steps that the government has taken to address their concerns. I mean, I think that’s what we see happening.
Q Does the White House feel that it has a full understanding of all of those participants and what their motives are?
MR. GIBBS: Again, it’s not for us to determine, Dan. We’re not going to pick which seven people represent Egypt.
Q I’m not saying pick them. I’m just saying do you have an understanding –
MR. GIBBS: No, you are, Dan. In fact, you are. That was inherent in your questions.
Q No, no, what I said was do you think that you have a full understanding of all of these players and what their motives are. I’m not saying whether or not you’re supporting them or picking them. Do you think you have a good understanding of –
MR. GIBBS: I think — again, this is something for the Egyptians to work out. I think — again, I think what you saw yesterday was a very broad coalition — represented a very broad coalition of grievances and concerns by the Egyptian people. Again, one of them — I think somebody that stirred a lot of passion yesterday was somebody who works for a Silicon Valley company. I think, again, that there is a broad array of — you saw families, you saw older people bring their children. You say — there’s a broad cross-section of Egyptian society that seeks the types of freedoms that many have sought for quite some time.
And the government is going to have to be responsive to those concerns. And if not, you’re going to see, as I think everyone anticipates, the size of these protests, certainly as we get to Friday, get bigger and bigger.
Q Robert, we’ve talked about Suleiman, but I just want to — some of his quotes recently are that there will be no ending of — yesterday and today — “There will be no ending of the regime. We absolutely do not tolerate it” — meaning the civil disobedience. “We cannot bear this situation for a long time and we must end this crisis as soon as possible.” People on the ground there say they think what he’s threatening is a violent crackdown if these protests don’t end. Do you agree?
MR. GIBBS: I think, first and foremost, we would reiterate, and we have at every discussion that we’ve had at all levels with Egyptian government, that the demands of those protesting cannot be addressed with violence, and should not. I think — again, I think, Chip, if you layer what the government of Egypt is saying, if you put that on one side of the ledger, and then on the other side of the ledger you put a growing number of people out seeking redress of those grievances, then you understand that what he’s saying is not assuaging the concerns of those in protest. And they’re going to have to do more; it’s clear.
Q That’s exactly why some on the Hill today, some former State Department officials said it’s conceivable we’re moving toward a Tiananmen Square situation, because the rhetoric is — the tough rhetoric is increasing from Suleiman, in spite of the Vice President’s call –
MR. GIBBS: I think that –
Q — and the protesters are getting tougher on their side by increasing the size of the crowd and having stronger statements about Mubarak having to go.
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think anybody — I do not think anybody believes and I don’t think anybody wants on our — in this government that –
Q — for their government.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’m not a spokesperson for their government, Chip. But I think that — I think our strong belief is that the process — again, I think if the process is expanded, if a broader group of those not in government take part in this process — it’s clear that the government is going to have to do some changing, some immediate and some irreversible change. And I think –
Q That could mean a crackdown in the eyes of Suleiman.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Chip, I would simply reiterate as we have said from the very outset of this that it is our — we strongly condemn any violence that we’ve seen. That is not in any way going to meet the concerns of those that you see in the streets.
Q Your message today is very consistent with yesterday’s, but –
MR. GIBBS: I try.
Q — but first Vice President Biden had that call and put out the press release yesterday in which he said that he had called on Suleiman to end the arrests and the harassments and the beating, immediately rescind the emergency law, broaden participation in the dialogue and invite the opposition to participate in discussions on — but if anything, from his statements of yesterday and today, he’s moving in the opposite direction. So isn’t it time for the White House to ratchet up the pressure, do something?
MR. GIBBS: And the crowds are getting bigger.
Q But what about the White House response? If you’re saying you need to do X, Y and Z, and he’s moving in the opposite direction, doesn’t the White House need to do something else?
MR. GIBBS: I think what — the White House can do only — we’re not in charge of, and we can’t — we’re not going to be able to force them to do anything. But I think if Vice President Suleiman continues to pepper his statements with — as he had two days before and Sheryl asked me about, that we’re not ready to move toward democracy, not going to see anything change — it is clear, as the President has said, that Egypt is not going back to where it was. Nobody believes that. And unless or until the government broadens the negotiations with those in the opposition, unless or until that happens, the pressure for them to do so is only going to get greater.
And I don’t — I think if there’s some notion on the government’s side that you can put the genie back in this bottle, I think that’s gone a long time ago. And, quite frankly, we saw, Chip, what happened in the middle of last week when violence was entered into this equation, which is why the Prime Minister came out the next day and talked about what a fatal error that had been. And I don’t think that — nobody here believes that the grievances are going to be met with a violent — that the grievances will be dealt with through a violent response in a way that helps move toward change.
Q If there is — has the administration said to Suleiman that if there is violence again then we will cut the aid package?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we have been clear from the beginning of this that we will evaluate their responses to — and their level of restraint will be evaluated as we make decisions on our aid.
Q So on the aid, it’s still the same answer as it was two weeks ago?
MR. GIBBS: We are watching quite closely to see what those responses are, and the response of the government will determine what that aid looks like.
Q Does the White House have a timetable for getting these free trade deals done?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously, I think Ambassador Kirk said today that our hope is to get South Korea done in the first — through Congress in the first half of this year. And it is our hope that we can resolve outstanding issues with Colombia and Panama this year and then move language to the Hill soon thereafter.
Q Any thoughts on Senator Webb’s announcement of retirement and impact it may have on 2012?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President had an opportunity to talk with Senator Webb earlier in the morning and thanked him for, yet again, for the service that he has displayed on behalf of his country. Obviously, the impacts that he’s had on things like veterans through a post-9/11 GI Bill represent his mark on this country and the people that have served it. I think Virginia is going to be a very competitive state in — as it was last time in both presidential and Senate elections.
Q Are you going to run? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I wouldn’t serve if I was appointed. (Laughter.)
Q Who called who? Do you know?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, Senator Webb — I think the President called Senator Webb, but I think that was –
Q Before he made it public?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So they had given you a heads-up?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Are you done? I didn’t mean to interrupt you.
Q After you, Chuck. (Laughter.)
Q No, no, no.
Q Do you have any more?
MR. GIBBS: I love it, bipartisanship.
Q Ooooh –
MR. GIBBS: I meant between networks. (Laughter.) Golly.
Q Please note the groan.
MR. GIBBS: I know.
MR. GIBBS: Please put “groan” on the transcript. Maybe “Mixed groan and mixed laughter.” (Laughter.)
Q Are you done?
Q Somebody say something.
MR. GIBBS: I know, I was going to say — (laughter.) Knoller has got his –
Q If it was not a negotiating — I know, Knoller won’t let it last very long. If it was not a negotiating session, what was it today? What was this lunch about?
MR. GIBBS: As I said yesterday and as the President said at the end of last year, we needed to do a better job in reaching out and — look, I think we saw what happened in the lame duck session of Congress that when we can sit around a table and talk about what we agree on and what common ground is there, that we can get things done on behalf of the American people. So I think this was an opportunity to listen to each other and to figure out where that common ground is. Look, Chuck, I –
Q Is that one of the pieces of common ground, that you guys both agreed you didn’t talk enough the last year?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know if that came out in lunch on their side. I know that that’s what — again, that’s what the President said in a room of both representatives of the House and the Senate last year, that he needed to do better, and we’re resolved to do that.
Q I want to follow up on Egypt. It was pretty remarkable the position you guys laid out in the readout of the Vice President’s call to Vice President Suleiman, putting our policy out there in public of what we consider acceptable as the United States government. So even if you’re not going to tell us what the consequences are, did Vice President Biden made it clear to Vice President Suleiman there are consequences in the U.S. relationship in some form or another if this policy isn’t met?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Chuck, I think the greatest consequence are — the greatest consequences are the continued protests that we see and the increase in the size of those protests.
I think, as you heard the President say very early on in this, that every government has an obligation to represent its people. And I think that while some had thought — and I don’t — maybe we can wait this out, maybe we can set up some committees and some commissions and life will return to normal — I think that’s largely been answered by a greater number of people representing a greater cross-section of Egyptian society who’ve come out seeking their grievances to be addressed. And I think those are not likely to dissipate until the government takes some genuine steps, some of which we outlined.
But only they can solve this problem. Only the government of Egypt can enter into a serious process here. And again, I have no doubt that as we get farther and farther into this week, you’re going to see more and more of them.
Q Secretary Napolitano testified this morning in front of the House committee and said in no uncertain terms that al-Awlaki in Yemen is the clearest threat — terrorist threat to the United States and a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden or anything coming out of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Are we pursuing a new policy in terms of Yemen? Does this alter our Afghanistan policy? If this — if the number one threat to the United States is now Yemen, the question that a lot of Americans may ask is then why is there so many troops in Afghanistan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let’s understand that one of the reasons why — as you heard the President say in the State of the Union, one of the reasons why the breadth of the type of attack that we saw September 11th of 2001, why that is harder to take place today is because of the fact that in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the leadership of al Qaeda is under the greatest pressure that it has seen since September 11th.
Look, we came in and — to be honest, as we had said during the campaign, we did not think the central front for al Qaeda was in Iraq, that we believed it was in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we shifted our resources accordingly. Obviously –
Q Well, now you guys are saying it’s in Yemen. Does that mean we shift our resources again?
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, no — and I can assure you our cooperation with and our relationship with the government of Yemen is incredibly important in addressing the counterterrorism threat that exists there.
I think it’s clear that in the past 10 years, as we come up to the anniversary of September 11, 2001, that the threat has evolved, as our response, too, has evolved. We put greater pressure on Afghanistan and Pakistan — Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we have increased our cooperation with counterterrorism exercises with the government of Yemen.
Q Does the President have confidence in Margaret Scobey?
MR. GIBBS: Great, great confidence.
Q What do you — can you tell us if she — is she the lead envoy now? Or is there any thought of sending somebody like Ambassador Wisner back to –
MR. GIBBS: No, I think Ambassador Wisner was sent to have one conversation that he had. He reported back on that. Ambassador Scobey was well aware of that, and Ambassador Scobey takes part in the daily deputies committee meetings in the Situation Room run by the NSC in order to assess the situation on the ground in Egypt.
Q And is the President aware that the Iranian opposition, Mr. Mousavi, has requested a permit to protest — or give a sympathy protest on February 14th? And does he have a message for the Iranian leaders on that?
MR. GIBBS: I think the Iranian leaders mentioned something around watching what was happening in Egypt. And I think I challenged the Islamic Republic of Iran to show its responsiveness to its citizens by allowing such a march to happen. And we’ll see if the government of Iran is confident enough in its meeting the demands of its people to let its people show the demands that they have of their government. And we await their response.
Q Robert, do you know if the Patriot Act extensions came up in the lunch meeting?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the answer to that. I should have asked that question, and I don’t know it. Obviously, as I said here yesterday, we’re supportive of that extension. We actually — I think as you’ll see from our statement of administration policy I think that went out a couple of days ago, we support an even longer extension to take any of the uncertainty around extending these out past — out into 2013 rather than just the 8th of December of this year. And we hope that that gets figured out soon.
Q You think that’s possible?
MR. GIBBS: I do.
Q You’ve got more common ground on Republicans on that than with Democrats?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think there’s been some concern on the Democratic side about seeing an extension bill — I know at least in the Senate — making sure that that extension extends longer than just a little more than 10 months. But my sense is that that will get done.
Q Did you get an answer on whether the Obamas voted?
MR. GIBBS: I think the transcript yesterday, it should have said that they received their ballots, but they — at least as of yesterday, about 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon had not filled them out. I will check again.
Q Are they undecided? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I will check again and see if they voted. I’m resisting making a joke –
Q And before you leave, can you tell us what they’re really digging up out there on the North Lawn? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I told you. They’re moving the monument. It’s — they’re going to do it at night. Everyone is going to wake up and, where did that thing go? And they’ll look behind them and it will be –
Q I guess the answer is no? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Let me tell you, well, they’ve erected this gray wall in front of my office that I’ve threatened to go spray paint and make it a little bit more esthetically pleasing than — (laughter.)
Q Do you know what they are building — do you even know?
MR. GIBBS: I haven’t asked. I probably should given the pounding that I hear in my office. Maybe it is the monument.
Q All the options the administration is considering on Fannie and Freddie essentially amount to cutting down the support for that market, which would either raise fees and/or lower the amount that could be borrowed with government guarantees. Is the Obama administration going to backtrack on support for a working middle-class family buying houses?
MR. GIBBS: Let me address your question in a couple of different ways, Mike. Obviously, the financial reform legislation that passed a little more than six months ago required a process for reforming the nation’s housing finance market. On Friday, Secretaries Geithner and Donovan will unveil what some of those options are, and I’ll wait for them to do that.
Q Would you favor anything that made it harder for middle-class families to buy a house?
MR. GIBBS: I would favor both Secretaries rolling that out on Friday and answering all of your questions.
Q Another topic?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q One of the elements of the Republican proposal on the budget is to eliminate AmeriCorps. Now, I remember — eliminate funding for AmeriCorps, at least. Now, I remember in Iowa standing there in the audience while Ted Sorensen stood by Barack Obama — he was talking about his call to public service, and support for AmeriCorps figured prominently in his campaign for President. Would he consider signing the piece of legislation that eliminated AmeriCorps?
MR. GIBBS: Mike, I think we’re a long way from getting a piece of legislation to sign. As I said earlier, we look forward to seeing what Republicans have put out. You will see on Monday what the President puts out in a budget that over the course of the next five years will freeze spending levels resulting in cuts of about $400 billion and rolling us back to a spending level as a percentage of our economy that we haven’t seen since Eisenhower was President. I think we all agree that spending has to be reduced and I think we’re going to spend a lot of time in the next several months working to see what investments need to be made to address the challenges that we have in the future, and I think that’s what some of that debate is going to be about.
Q Will that be a question to them, eliminating AmeriCorps?
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate your multiple opportunities to get into a series of hypotheticals.
Q Can I just ask a question on Egypt? What role has the advice you’ve been getting from friendly Arab governments played in the sort of recalibrations of the administration policy over the last couple weeks?
MR. GIBBS: What recalibration of administration policy do you speak of?
Q I guess the main recalibration might be sort of the meaning of “now” when we’re calling for an orderly transition.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I haven’t spoken to any of those governments but I interpreted “now” the same way the President did, and that was both when President Mubarak said he was leaving and when the President said that that transition must begin now. I think that was a week ago Monday. But it’s clear, Mike, that the government has not taken the necessary steps that the people of Egypt need to see. That’s why more and more people come out to register their grievances.
But our notion of when the transition needed to have started hasn’t changed. What the people of Egypt seek in those grievances hasn’t changed. What has to change is the posture of the government in addressing what the people of Egypt need to see.
Q Was there much staff in the lunch? Was it just the four principals?
MR. GIBBS: I believe it was, on our side, the President, the Vice President, and the Chief of Staff; the Speaker, the Majority Leader and the Majority Whip — a total of six.
Q So none of their staff?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of, no.
Q And the Associated Press came out with an investigation showing that several different CIA officials who were involved in some of the worst abuses during the Bush administration and even some incidents in this administration have been promoted to leadership positions and consistently not disciplined. Is the President comfortable with the system of discipline and accountability within the CIA?
MR. GIBBS: The President has great confidence in the men and women that do the very difficult jobs at the CIA. I have not looked into that and I would point you over to the CIA for that.
Q Robert, is Friday your last day?
MR. GIBBS: It still is, yes.
Q It still is?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, technically, I will be here until Sunday, but my last briefing is Friday.
Q You’re last briefing will be Friday. So I’m just wondering if you might share with us what advice you would give to Jay and any reflections you might have — (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: It’s like — Ari tried that just yesterday. And then Ann did –
Q I’m sorry, I wasn’t here until today. I was having lunch with the First Lady yesterday –
Q Oooh –
MR. GIBBS: Namedropper. (Laughter.)
Q — where she made news and said the President –
MR. GIBBS: I had lunch Amy Brundage in my office as I got ready to answer Ari and Ann’s questions. (Laughter.)
Q Well, since I missed it and you apparently didn’t answer it yesterday, how about today?
MR. GIBBS: I did answer Ann’s. I didn’t answer Ari’s, awkwardly.
Q Just keep asking. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: As I said — look, I’m not going to give you everything that I’ve talked to Jay about for a whole host of reasons, much as I’m sure you all have talked about what Jay is going to bring and aren’t discussing those with myself and Jay. But, look, the advice I have for him is the, I think, advice that I got from the people like Marlin Fitzwater and others who have done this job so well. And that is, obviously first and foremost, regardless of what you know and what you’re asked, your solemn obligation is to always tell the truth. And while that may seem readily obvious, obviously in the past it’s not always been the case.
I think that as I said yesterday, I think it is remarkable to watch transpiring halfway around the world a fight for freedom of speech and a way of life that we have and we participate in each and every day here. I think the universal values that this government espouses, one of those is a healthy freedom of the press and a desire to have an informed public based on sessions like the one we’re having.
And I’ll say this — while we’re on the subject of halfway around the world, these sessions have been broadcast thousands of miles away and interpreted for billions of people. They watch your questions and they watch this government’s answers. I think it reminds us of the seriousness with which we all approach our jobs each day and the seriousness with which the world watches the example of this country as an example for all the world.
So, that and a lot of other things. (Laughter.)
Q So you didn’t give him a dossier on all of this?
MR. GIBBS: I didn’t say that. (Laughter.)
Q Can I follow on that? The President and his relationship with the opposition is something that’s watched around the world, too. The luncheon today, you kind of skirted around the edges, very vague about what was talked, didn’t get much specifics on –
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think that’s the case, but –
Q Does a lunch like this in the bigger picture of things have much impact? Is there a relationship between the President and the Speaker that takes root at something like this?
MR. GIBBS: I think that — I don’t think can only be a — I don’t think and I don’t think the President believes this can be a one-time-only affair. I think that in order to — particularly in a government that is divided in its control, obviously the requirement for something to get here means it has to go through an entity that’s controlled by the Republican Party and an entity that’s controlled by the Democratic Party. So we know without the type of dialogue and seeking of common ground that something like today’s lunch does, we’re not going to see any progress on behalf of the American people on the issues that they have concerns about — reducing our deficit, an atmosphere for creating jobs, the continued safety and security of the American people.
So I think all of those require that we try on both sides a little harder to understand where the other side is, and more importantly, to understand where we all agree. And I think that continues that process.
Q Is the President forswearing some of the sharper political rhetoric that he used in 2010?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, look, I think each entity would say that what is said in a campaign is different than — we have campaigns for a reason, right? We have — people make choices and then after those campaigns we get about to governing the country. I think what — certainly what this President hopes is that we spend the next many months leading up to something that’s far, far away, in 2012, that we spend the next many months addressing and finding that common ground and addressing the challenges that we know the American people want us to address. There will be plenty of time to get back to a political campaign and I think it’s important that we spend time focusing on what’s on people’s minds.
Q Can I follow up on that for a second?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q Tomorrow I believe the Republicans in the House will be unveiling about a half trillion dollars worth of specific budget cuts they want to enact relatively immediately. Did the President in effect get a preview of that? Did they get that specific in this?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of. Again, I think they talked broadly about the need to cut spending, but I am not aware that they got a preview of what they will unveil tomorrow.
Q I want to ask about tomorrow, but on the subject of the transition, do you know is Jay going to brief on Monday, dive right in?
MR. GIBBS: I believe he will.
Q Okay. And then can you talk a little bit — I know there’s going to be a call with more specifics –
MR. GIBBS: If he’s not, he is now. (Laughter.)
Q Are you going to leave him some ties, some of those nice purple –
MR. GIBBS: You like the — maybe a couple of nice purple ties would do him well.
Yes, sir, I’m sorry.
Q I know there’s going to be a call with more specifics, but can you talk a little bit about what the President is going to be saying tomorrow on his trip to Michigan?
MR. GIBBS: Let me wait for that. I mean, obviously the President is — he’ll get into some policy specifics on this, but obviously what the President outlined in the State of the Union with an agenda that out-innovates, out-educates and out-builds the competition. We’re focusing tomorrow in Marquette the portion of building the type of infrastructure and wireless networks that are needed to attract the jobs of tomorrow and to help train students to continue to be the most productive workforce in the world. So we will highlight that tomorrow in the trip and they’ll have more details on that call.
Q Robert, does the President think Governor Kaine would make a pretty good senator in Virginia? And does he think that Jim Webb might make a pretty good Secretary of Defense?
MR. GIBBS: I should answer both of those questions on Monday. (Laughter.) No, I — without getting into who would be a good candidate for either one of those jobs, obviously, I think Senator Webb has great experience. I mentioned his continued service to this country, and obviously his service in the Navy has been important. And then obviously I think — look, I particularly — somebody like Governor Kaine was the governor of the state or commonwealth that I’m from, and I think he did a terrific job as governor and is doing a terrific job as the chairman of the DNC.
Q And one other quick question. The President obviously watches you. I presume he watches you when — has he ever — what was the most interesting piece of advice or observation he had after observing one of these?
MR. GIBBS: I can’t recall necessarily that. I mean, look, I will say this, Glenn — and I think one of the things that I think will continue not just with Jay but press secretaries that come after is the type of important access that each individual has and needs to do the type of job that you do.
Each of the last several days, particularly I’ve gone to talk to him about Egypt and to talk to him about what our continued public messaging has to be. And I know that Jay will enjoy the same type of access that I’ve had and that others before me have had in being able to go in and get from the President his thoughts directly. And I think that will be a great benefit to you.
Q Robert, I asked you a question –
MR. GIBBS: I can’t –
Q I know Ari –
MR. GIBBS: It’s April’s voice and it’s your heard, and — freaked me out. (Laughter.)
Q Robert, I’ve been asking you a question for the last couple of days, and I hope you have an answer –
MR. GIBBS: Oh, is this the calls?
Q Yes. Am I going to get this by Friday?
MR. GIBBS: I will get this for you tonight. I went in to ask him about voting, and I got the answer. And I came back, and about 15 minutes later, I went to try to get the second answer, and he had gone to have dinner with the girls and I did not get an answer. I will get that as soon as I get out.
Q Thank you. I look forward to getting it for Friday. Now, also on the budget cuts, Jack Lew says that $350 million will be cut from the community service block grants. What do you say to the poor and grassroots communities that benefit from these community block grants, as they also supported this President when he was then candidate Obama, as they believed he felt their pain?
MR. GIBBS: Well, he does understand the importance of this funding. But as Jack Lew said in his op-ed, and as the President and Jack have talked about in the construction of the budget, we have reached a point where we have to do something about what we take in and what we spend and the great divergence in those two numbers, and that this process is not going to be an easy one.
It means that on each side we’re going to have to give a little on things that are even — even that are greatly important to us. And if we simply exempted everything that was important to everybody in this process, we would simply continue the process of spending much, much more than we have.
Q But in the September the 10th press conference that the President had, he talked about his efforts as a community — someone who was in the community, who worked for the community. And how far — and he understands — he said he understood what it meant to be an advocate for grassroots organizations, advocate for communities. But how far did the President go to spare these $350 million cuts to these programs?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously, we had to make a series of decisions. I think when you see the budget come out, you’ll see very little that was spared in the tough decisions that had to be made to construct a budget that gets us back on a path toward fiscal responsibility. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the grassroots; it’s that all of these decisions are going to be tough.
And quite frankly, we — all of the easy decisions have been made. Those decisions are going to not just impact the type of discretionary spending, April, that you’re talking about — you’ve seen that the Secretary of Defense is — has made it one of his priorities to get rid of weapons programs that even those in the military don’t want. So there are a series of tough decisions that will be laid out both in the budget that the President has, and in going forward, that even make changes to things that we believe are priorities.
Q Thank you, Robert. I have two questions, brief ones — one on American politics, one on Egypt. We know what you think of Chairman Kaine. Since his conversation with Senator Webb has the President had a phone conversation with Chairman Kaine or former Congressman Perriello?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of either one. I will double-check, but — see, when I came out here, he had not spoken with either one of those, no.
Q All right. And regarding Egypt right now, we all know very much about the conversations the Vice President has with Vice President Suleiman. You’ve spoken of contacts with other levels of government. Is the administration in touch with Dr. ElBaradei or with the former Egyptian foreign minister who sounds increasingly like a candidate for president?
MR. GIBBS: I know that — let me check and see if the embassy has any more guidance. I know that the embassy reached out and talk with Mr. ElBaradei, I want to say sometime — a lot of days run together — I think sometime early last week. Let me see if I can get a better sense of when that date was and whether we’ve had other contact with each of those individuals.
Q Thanks, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, ma’am.
Q Yes. On Egypt, you’ve said several times in this briefing that the discussions need to be broadened out between the Vice President and opposition groups. Well, some of these opposition groups there, particularly the young people who have been leading the movement don’t want to meet with Vice President Suleiman until Mubarak is gone. What is your message to them?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think, as I’ve talked about it before, if one side is unwilling to do anything in terms of change, and one side is not willing to meet until that side takes up all the change, you’re going to find yourself in an intractable position.
I think it is incumbent upon each side to play an important and constructive role. From the side of the government we have, I think, very clearly laid out the steps, both in broadening those that are being talked to and then the steps that they should take on a path towards — on an orderly transitioned path towards free and fair elections.
I think the opposition also has to come up with — a whole host of those in the opposition need to come up with a path forward as well. I think that that conversation and those negotiations have got to take place or we’re going to find ourselves in a largely intractable position.
Q Thank you, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: I’ll go here and then I’ll go there.
Q I have a follow-up on that.
MR. GIBBS: Go there and then I’ll go to you.
Q Thank you, Robert. On Egypt again, I just came back from Cairo, and we don’t hear them as much or hear about them as much, but there are major pro-Mubarak demonstrations. And you could hear more and more from the first days to the last days people screaming, U.S. stay out of this. And so to which point is the administration worried that by supporting too openly the pro-democracy movement, it will fuel more dangerous anti-American sentiments?
MR. GIBBS: Again, this is not for us to decide or determine. And I don’t think that — I think what we see happening is — what we see in terms of the growing number of crowds, people protesting, the demands of which can only met by the government. They can’t be met by us and they can’t — we can’t, quite frankly, compel any of the government to, well, just take this step. That’s not for us to determine.
Quite frankly, as I’ve said before, we can’t provide the definition of what those freedoms look like for the Egyptian people. So I think you’ve heard us say from very beginning of this that these are challenges that can only be solved by the people in Egypt, on both side of this. That has been our posture the entire time, and that will continue to be our posture.
Q What’s the message of this administration to the young people in Egypt demonstrating in the street? According to reporters, some of them have banners saying, “yes, we can, too.” “We are ready to die for democracy.” What do you want to tell them?
MR. GIBBS: Well, what I want to tell them is I think as the President said in his remarks after President Mubarak stepped down, that we hear your call for and respect your call for the universal rights that we’ve advocated that the government of Egypt pursue, and that it is clear to all of those that watch that unless or until progress is made, it’s not likely that any of those crowds are going away. I think that’s why it’s incumbent that the government of Egypt, without delay, proceed in a process that provides the sort of immediate, irreversible progress that Vice President Biden talked about yesterday.
Q Thanks, Robert. I have two quick questions. First of all on Egypt, over the weekend, Sarah Palin said of the administration’s response, we need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is America stands with. I’m wondering do you think that’s sort of a dog whistle to the birthers? And is that a question of the President’s American-ness?
MR. GIBBS: You know I — Tommy, I said to — I think Dan asked me this question on Monday –
Q Well, it wasn’t just like that. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, I’m sorry. Fair enough. Fair enough. I’m sorry. Let me rephrase that. Let me rephrase that. (Laughter.) Dan had asked me to respond to Sarah Palin. I think my response was that after having read what she said several times, it was hard for me to discern what she particularly was saying, so therefore I didn’t really have an immediate reaction to, nor do I have upon reflection any either greater understanding as to what she said or reaction to it.
Q But she seems to be questioning the President’s American-ness. You don’t have a reaction? Do you agree with that or –
MR. GIBBS: I read that answer probably four times and still don’t know what she — still don’t know what she said.
Q You were getting ready to say –
MR. GIBBS: Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, Webb was — I’m sorry, Secretary of the Navy, but obviously a Marine. Sorry.
Q Is tomorrow your last Air Force One ride?
MR. GIBBS: It is. It is.
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Take us away, Mr. Feller.
Q Thanks, Robert. We have your statement earlier about developments in Egypt, but I’m wondering if you could start off by telling us the President’s personal reaction to the bloody chaos in the streets.
MR. GIBBS: Ben, the President has been updated throughout the morning on this, both as part of his PDB as well as some written updates throughout the morning on some of these images. The President and this administration strongly condemn the outrageous and deplorable violence that’s taking place on the streets of Cairo — that’s taking place on the streets of Cairo today.
We have said that throughout this process. Obviously if any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately. That has been our message throughout this.
I think, Ben, this underscores precisely what the President was speaking about last night, and that is the time for a transition has come and that time is now. The Egyptian people need to see change. We know that that meaningful transition must include opposition voices and parties being involved in this process as we move toward free and fair elections. But that process must begin now.
Q He said last night that he — he said, “I want to commend the Egyptian military for the professionalism and patriotism that it’s shown thus far in allowing peaceful protests while protecting the Egyptian people.” What does he — what are his thoughts this morning about the way the military is handling itself?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we’re watching, as people are throughout the world, what is happening today. We continue to urge restraint. We continue — I will say what the President said last night — I do think that the role that had been played by the military was exceedingly important in what I think many people thought might happen late last week. Again, it is imperative that the violence that we’re seeing stop and that the transition that was spoken about last night begin immediately.
Q On that point — just two others — when he talks about that the transition must be meaningful, peaceful and must begin now, a phrase that you’ve repeated today –
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q — can you explain how this situation moves from President Obama talking about change now, President Mubarak talking about change in September? Is President Obama powerless to actually make that happen?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let’s be clear that these are very fluid and dynamic events. I think what we’ve seen happen over the course of the past many days, quite honestly, Ben, are events that many people have not seen — nobody has seen in their lifetime.
I think you heard the President last night pretty clearly, and I’m certainly here to say that the conversation that the President had with President Mubarak was direct, it was frank, it was candid. And without getting into exactly what was said, I think the message that the President delivered clearly to President Mubarak was that the time for change had some.
Q But I guess I’m still trying to get at that core question of what the President — this President can do about that.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that the — I think change in all of these instances — what we’ve seen transpire, Ben, over the course of the past many days in Cairo and around Egypt has taken place as a result of change that’s needed to happen from within the country.
I think you have seen statements from throughout the world, both in the region and outside of the region, where President Obama and leaders have been clear about what needs to happen. Many of these changes are going to have to happen on the ground in Egypt, and only those in Egypt will — can determine when those demands have been satisfied. But it is clear that the Egyptian people need to see progress and change immediately.
Q And finally, we have not had a chance to ask President Obama any questions since this crisis began. There have been at least a couple occasions that could have been open to the press that weren’t. Can you explain why we haven’t been able to talk to him?
MR. GIBBS: Ben, I think you’ll get a chance likely to talk to the President later in the week when Prime Minister Harper is here. We have had a couple of occasions that have been still photographers only. It was — those are part of the coverage plans that have been in place for a bit now in terms of those events.
I will say this, Ben. I think we have, like you all, watched a series of rapidly moving events. You’ve heard from the President in what’s happened in Egypt. We’ll continue to keep you up to date as best we can on what goes on, knowing, quite honestly, that some things in foreign policy have to be done away from TV cameras. Those are the types of direct and frank talks that the President had last night with President Mubarak.
Q So it was to avoid questions on Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: I said that it was not.
Q The President, just like the protesters on the streets in Egypt, are clearly unhappy with Mubarak’s insistence on staying in power until the elections in September. To put pressure on him, what are the specific steps that the administration is considering? Could that include a cutoff or curtailing of aid to try to push this along?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — I want to peel these questions apart slightly. First and foremost, these are very quick, rapidly moving events and we are watching them like you are. The question specifically on aid, as I said I believe last Friday, we will evaluate the actions of the government of Egypt in making and reviewing decisions about aid. That continues.
Q Secretary Clinton said that that was not under discussion as of the weekend –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, that’s –
Q — is that now under discussion?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no, that’s not what she said. I think she — go back and read the transcript. She said, had a decision been made to cut off — and she said no. And I would say that no decision has been made. She also said later in that answer that we certainly review our assistance posture, and that’s what we’re doing.
Q Okay, but the President says he wants Mubarak to begin the transition now.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Is he asking him, with those words, to say that he’s leaving before September, to announce his resignation, or to speed up the election process?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Matt, some of these obviously are decisions that are going to be — as you heard the President say, need to be made in concert with a whole host of and full range of voices in the ground in Egypt. I am not going to get into a greater level of specificity as to the direct nature of the conversation that was had except to reiterate what the President said in terms of that transition beginning now.
Q And what’s the level of contact right now? Is the President going to be speaking to Mubarak? Has Ambassador Wisner had further contacts, either meetings or talks?
MR. GIBBS: Ambassador Wisner is — remains in the country. I do not know of plans as I walked out here to speak with President Mubarak today. I know the President did end his call by telling the President that he would remain in contact and would remain in contact and would feel free to — President Obama would feel free to call at any time if he needed to speak directly with President Mubarak.
Obviously there are a range of conversations that are happening throughout our government at many levels. We have a very, very capable embassy and an ambassador there that’s working with former Ambassador Wisner on a full range of these problems.
Q I assume, as this crisis has developed, that the President and the national security team have been gaming out all the possible outcomes each step of the way. Is that a safe assumption?
MR. GIBBS: I think we have done that as events have transpired and as events have changed, sure.
I will say this, Jake. I would go back again and look at what this administration, what this President, has said specifically about changes that need to happen to respect the universal rights that we’ve spoken of both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. And I would point you to Secretary Clinton’s recent speech in Doha as outlining a series of these steps.
Q As you game this out, what’s the best-case scenario here, and what’s the worst-case scenario?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t want to get into a series of hypotheticals, because I think what’s — I think we would –
Q I thought you just said you guys are getting into a series of hypotheticals.
MR. GIBBS: I’m just not going to get into them here. Of course we are planning for a full range of scenarios.
I think it’s important, Jake, to understand that — I think it is hard to even imagine several days ago the events that happened yesterday. So events across this landscape are happening very quickly. We’re watching those events. We’re planning for those events.
There’s a deputies committee meeting that starts very shortly where we will get into a — they will get into a whole range of issues. Obviously we are concerned about violence that I talked about. We’re concerned about reports of food and fuel shortages in some of the cities and the ability to get what might be certain entry points and ports over to people that are in desperate need of them.
Q Do you think that Mubarak is a dictator?
MR. GIBBS: I think that –
Q More importantly, does the President think Mubarak is a dictator?
MR. GIBBS: The administration believes that President Mubarak has a chance to show the world exactly who he is by beginning this transition that is so desperately needed in his country and for his people now.
Q Does the President have any regrets that when this crisis began to unfold eight days ago he — his public statements were not more in line with the speech he gave in Cairo in 2009? In other words, the initial comments were a lot more pro-Mubarak, cautioning demonstrators not to engage in violence, as well as –
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jake, I don’t think — let me be clear. Eight days later we don’t think violence should be — we don’t want to see violence on protestors. We don’t want to see looting. Let’s be –
Q His comments yesterday –
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, let me –
Q — were that the protestors were an inspiration. His comments on Friday were they had the right to do what they’re doing but they shouldn’t engage in violence.
MR. GIBBS: And that continues to be our posture, Jake. I think –
Q Certainly it’s a journey. I mean, certainly his –
MR. GIBBS: Jake, I think for us to not acknowledge that — again, I don’t know what you guys, from a coverage standpoint, predicted would be what we’d be looking at on Wednesday last Thursday. Again, I think we are watching events that have not transpired as they have in this region of the world in thousands of years. We have — obviously a considerable amount of staff time has been spent on this. Some of the President’s time obviously has been dedicated to watching and — watching, taking note of, and responding to the events that have transpired. Again, what we’re watching is history being made.
Q So no regrets that his initial comments weren’t more in line with the 2009 Cairo speech?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think the notion that what we have said in public and in private at all levels of our government to all levels of the Egyptian government, to governments throughout the Middle East, have not been in line with the Cairo speech is simply wrong. the Cairo speech, the President stood up for a universal set of values and actions that had to be taken by governments, as you’ve heard him say over the course of many days here, that have to be responsive to their people. That is precisely what the President believes.
These are not going to be determinations that — and I said a few days ago, these are not determinations that are going to be made by us. Nobody in Washington will determine the range of freedom of assembly or freedom of speech for those in Tahrir Square. And I don’t think anybody in Tahrir Square is looking for us to gauge what the fence posts are on those freedoms.
Q No, but I think they’re there — they want the President to be standing up more for them and less for Mubarak. I think that’s what they — that’s what they’re telling our reporters, anyway.
MR. GIBBS: I think you’re — I don’t know the degree to which they’ve heard everything that the President’s said. I think the notion that the President has somehow shifted from one side or the other is completely inaccurate.
Q Thank you, Robert. When you talk about the transition happening now, how do you define “now”? Because now means today not September.
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, now means yesterday — because when we said now we meant yesterday.
MR. GIBBS: So I mean I think the definition of now is –
Q But when you say now today, it means now –
MR. GIBBS: And I meant yesterday –
Q — or yesterday.
MR. GIBBS: This is — again, I want to be clear. This is — though we are in the here and now, now started yesterday. Again, I think that’s what, Dan — what the people of Egypt want to see is not some process that starts a week, a month or several months from now. This is a –
Q So you’re not satisfied with September as an out date for President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: If you’re asking if now is September, it is unseasonably warm, but it is not September. Now means now. The transition — there are things that the government needs to do. There are reforms that need to be undertaken, and there are opposition entities that have to be included in the conversations as we move toward free and fair elections that we’ve advocated for quite some time.
Q So is the White House then satisfied with Mubarak in power until September?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I am not going to get into all the details of what they discussed. The conversation was frank and the transition must begin now.
Q What was the major event that seemed to cause a shift in I guess policy for this administration — a week ago talking about Egypt being a stable government, seemingly supporting Mubarak, and now –
MR. GIBBS: Wait a minute. I think I was asked if –
Q — trying to nudge him –
MR. GIBBS: I mean, Dan, again, I don’t know what — I’m not in editorial meetings at CNN. I don’t know what a week ago you guys thought we would be seeing now. I don’t know –
Q I’m not saying what we’ve seen, I’m saying what you were saying then was there was a stable government and –
MR. GIBBS: But, Dan, if you’re asking me if events have changed over the course of the week, the answer to that is of course.
Q I’m not saying — I said what was the one event that caused the shift from saying that it is a stable –
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t — there have been a series of events on the ground that have I think shifted, quite frankly — when you shift anchors into the region, I assume that’s based on certain things that are happening on the ground. Events have, again, moved enormously quickly in a very volatile region of the world and we have — the likes of which, again, we have not seen in our lifetimes. That just simply demands that we continue to watch and continue to ensure that we are taking the steps to communicate directly with all of the entities of their government about what we expect in terms of non-violence, what the world expects in terms of non-violence, and the steps that need to take place in order to see that transition.
Q Robert — and maybe I’m parsing words too much here — but yesterday the President, talking about the transition, said it must begin now. And when you walked in you said the time for a transition has come, and that time is now. You didn’t say “begin now.” Were you ratcheting up a little more by not putting the word “begin” in there?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, I don’t — and I don’t want to parse too much, but I think the events of yesterday began that transition yesterday. And I think that’s — I think that is what — most importantly, that’s what the people of Egypt expect. And I think the people of Egypt need to see progress.
Q Would the President object to a decision by Mubarak to step down now? Would there be a fear that that would leave Egypt leaderless? Does he need to stay in power, at least for the short term?
MR. GIBBS: That is not a decision that –
Q I know it’s not your decision, but would he think that’s a bad idea?
MR. GIBBS: Chip, again, I’m not going to get into fleshing out some of the very specifics of the conversation that was had. I think progress and change must come to Cairo, progress and change must come to Egypt, and it needs to happen quickly.
Q Is there going to be a timeline — at some point, isn’t there going to have to be some kind of timeline, other than September? Isn’t he going to have to get out before then if these protests are not going to simply continue and increase?
MR. GIBBS: Again — well, I assume those are discussions that are being had by the top levels of their government.
Q And are they being had by the top levels of our government?
MR. GIBBS: As I said to Jake, I think a full range of scenarios and a full range of events are being watched and discussed in many buildings throughout Washington.
Q Including putting more pressure on Mubarak to get out sooner?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’d point you to what the President said last night.
Q Were you in the room when he was on the phone with Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: I was.
Q Did you get the sense that the President thought Mubarak gets it, or was there some frustration on the part of the President?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t want to get into reading out some of that stuff.
Q Do you believe that President Obama’s communications to Mubarak made the difference here? Does the President have that kind of power in this situation?
MR. GIBBS: I will say, Chip, I think that — I think we have been clear with the government of Egypt before this the steps that needed to take place. I think we have communicated publicly and privately important steps that — and important reforms that need to take place.
I think, though, it is important to understand that we are obviously watching — we’re watching some — we’re watching the events based on what is happening on the ground there. And I think, as I said earlier, I think the world is watching, and the world is commenting on what we’ve seen happen and what we know must take place over the next many days and weeks.
Q But as far as what President Mubarak did and what he will do in the future, is President Obama basically calling the shots?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, look, again, I don’t know the direct answer in terms of that, Chip. Again, I think at each juncture of this, we have again made I think public and private comments about the situation and what needed to have happened.
I think you will hear this administration, whether it’s at the Pentagon, at the State Department, inside of this building, again, continue to communicate with both the government of and the people of Egypt about what the world expects.
Q Do we have evidence or indications that some of this violence is being instigated by the government?
MR. GIBBS: I have not been — I have not seen the latest on that in terms of whether or not we do, Wendell. I don’t know the answer to that.
MR. GIBBS: I shouldn’t hypothesize. Again, I think what’s important, though, is that the message must be that the violence stop, and that in the event that any entity or any government entity is behind any of this, it must stop.
Q Because some of the reporting out there indicates that its government thugs who are responsible for this.
MR. GIBBS: I understand.
Q Did the President ask Mr. Mubarak to supervise the transition? Did he ask him, don’t leave, supervise the transition of power?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not going to get into the specifics of — Wendell, I think the President was clear and I think the President was clear publicly that the transition must begin now.
Q Senator Kerry of Massachusetts has suggested a caretaker government. Does the President support that?
MR. GIBBS: I’ve not seen exactly what he’s suggested, and I’m happy to take a look at that.
Q Did the President get any indication from Mubarak that there was going to be a crackdown today?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q Did — even if — I understand you can’t talk about hypotheticals, but was it made clear — did the President make clear to Mubarak that there were consequences in the American-Egypt relationship if he did not –
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think –
Q — if he did not take the President’s suggestion?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — we have been clear with the government and the President was clear on continued stance of non-violence. Quite frankly, we would not have accepted anything less. Again, I think we have made it fairly well known what we think needs to happen and what is and what is not acceptable.
Q Have we made it clear there are consequences if they do not abide by what we believe is the right thing to do?
MR. GIBBS: We have — we talked late last week about our aid posture. And I think first and foremost, Chuck, the — I think those are — that’s precisely what’s happening on the ground right now. I think the people of Egypt need to see change. The people of Egypt need to see progress. And that’s what the world needs to see.
Q Are you — is there a fear that you will lose — if you push Mubarak too hard, you will lose the ability to influence him?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think I would go back to what I said earlier to Jake, that we are — we evaluate a whole range of activities and scenarios.
Q And let me circle back one more time. It seems like you’re avoiding using the word — are there policy consequences on the table that Mubarak is aware of if –
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, I think you have to understand that there are limits to what I can say about all of the private discussions.
Q I understand you can’t say what’s on the table, but is it clear — I mean, is it –
MR. GIBBS: I do not think the President could have been clearer with the President of Egypt last night.
Q The President last night praised the professionalism of the Egyptian military. Right now the military is being criticized for not intervening to help protesters who are being brutalized. Is there such a thing as a sin of omission by the military, and would this — would the U.S. government call for the Egyptian military to intervene on –
MR. GIBBS: Jonathan, let me — I don’t want to get over — let me see if I can get a direct answer from some of the military-to-military contacts on that.
Q I wanted to ask about the military-to-military contacts. And one other thing — back to the aid review. I mean you brought that up on Friday.
MR. GIBBS: Back to the –
Q The review of U.S. aid to Egypt.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q You brought that up by yourself on Friday. Can you at least tell us where that review is? What is the status of that review?
MR. GIBBS: Let me see if I can get an update. I said that we would — that review would be based on actions going forward, and I’ve not gotten any greater guidance on it from there. But I’ll see if there’s any review to that.
Q Just following up on that, you mentioned before the role of images of violence. Do you think what’s happening today is particularly important in this review of assistance to Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, any violence and any role that entities play — will take part in that. I do not want to — I don’t have anything to announce on that. And obviously, we will evaluate what has happened, and the images that we see based on that and a full range — as it relates to a full range of options going forward.
I think it’s — I do want to — if I can just be clear, though, and reiterate that we have said this from the very beginning, the President has said this at every opportunity, and every official in our government in speaking with officials in the Egyptian government have used every opportunity first and foremost to reiterate that any steps that are taken must not include violence. We reiterate that call today.
I think the people of Egypt — they do not want to see appointments. They do not want to see speeches. They want to see concrete action by their government, and I think that’s what the world waits for.
Q And since the beginning of the uprising, you called the Egyptian government to stop the shutdown of the Internet.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q The President called yesterday for transition to start now. Well, the shutdown of the Internet continues. The foreign minister of Egypt seems to suggest that they don’t want to start an immediate transition now, and it’s continuing to inflame more violence. Do you get the impression that your messages to Cairo at this time fall on deaf ears?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think not just President Obama but leaders throughout the world have in many ways signaled the same call that we’ve made. I know that this was a topic that has been discussed in some of the calls that he’s had with leaders in and outside of the region. There is no acceptable excuse for not turning back on the Internet, giving people the ability to communicate with cell phones, to access social networking sites. That stuff — those are — as you’ve heard the President say in trips throughout the world and in calls with the government of Egypt, those are part of the basic human freedoms that people everywhere should enjoy.
Q Do you think the government of Egypt is responsive to you at this time?
MR. GIBBS: I think that given the reports that Internet reception remains spotty at very best, they have not yet done what needs to happen as it relates to fulfilling that individual and basic right.
Q Robert, following up on Wendell’s question, what was your motivation for bringing up or raising the specter that the Egyptian government may have been involved in instigating trouble today?
MR. GIBBS: It is something that I think at all levels we want to ensure that the message that is sent — and the reason I said the first message that is talked about in what we say, what I say, and what you see others say is the need to respect the rights of individuals and to ensure that this is done in an orderly and peaceful way. I just want to make sure, Peter, that everyone understands that violence at any level is unacceptable.
Q There are reports that the administration does have evidence that someone in authority in the Mubarak government gave the go-ahead for these people to go into that square –
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’ve been in — I’ve been out getting ready to go into this, and I have — the last meeting I was in on this was earlier this morning. So I can go see if there’s anything that I know of on that.
Q Did the President finally –
Q One Mubarak –
Q Excuse me, excuse me. You’ve had a lot of questions. You listed a number of things that the deputies were taking up in this meeting. Would it be safe to assume that they’re also going to talk about the very stability of the Egyptian government?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I mean, I think there’s a — we have talked throughout this process about the transition, as I mentioned a second ago, being peaceful and orderly. And I think stability in the country and around in the region is tremendously important, most importantly for the people.
Q Would military officers be good leaders of this orderly transition given the restraint they’ve shown so far?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into picking either transitional or future leaders of Egypt. I think that is — that’s something that the people of Egypt and a broad cross-section of those in political entities are going to decide for their country.
Q And is the U.S. preparing any sort of aid package for Egypt?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as the President said last night, we are — we stand ready to — and I think one of the — again, as I mentioned earlier, I think one of the topics that was likely to be discussed this afternoon was what assistance needs or could be provided to meet some of the basic needs of the Egyptian people; what processes can we undertake, as I said, to see if there’s a way to move some of those resources from entry points or ports into cities and areas that are in need of those resources.
Q Any idea on specifics, dollar amount or –
MR. GIBBS: No, nothing that I have to announce.
Q And who else in the region has the administration made contact with?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I know the President spoke late last evening with King Abdullah of Jordan. I don’t know of any other calls that he’s made today.
Q Can you talk about what came of that discussion?
MR. GIBBS: Let me see if I can get some more information on that.
Q Robert, what is the President meeting with Senators McCain and Bingaman about?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Senator McCain, there’s a whole host of issues that — ranging from certainly domestic to foreign policy — that I anticipate the two will discuss.
I think — having been in the chamber for the speech itself when the President mentioned ending earmarks and the actions that he would take to veto something if it came with earmarks, I remember two people standing up and clapping — Senator McCain and Senator McCaskill. It was a little bit of a lonely group in that part of the speech. But I know they’ll talk some about that, as obviously you’ve seen announcements made on the Senate side that it appears as if we have seen the end of earmarks.
Q And Bingaman?
MR. GIBBS: Bingaman — obviously, Senator Bingaman plays an important role in the development of ideas around clean energy, and I think a large part of that conversation will center around the proposals that the President outlined to increase the amount of electricity that we create using clean energy, research and development around clean energy, and the manufacturing jobs that it can create.
Q The President has indicated he’s open to some changes in the health care law. Is the mandate something you would be open to — any kind of switch in the individual mandate investment because of the –
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’ve heard of, Perry. I think the President outlined in the State of the Union some adjustments to the way small businesses are treated, particularly around the 1099s. But we are not going to go back and fight the battles of the previous two years, and we’re certainly happy to talk to those who want to see the law improved. But we’re not going to go backwards. We’re going to move forwards.
Q Thanks, Robert. Two questions. One, do you think the President believes that this is a wake-up call not only for Mr. Mubarak but also dictators around the globe, including in China? And is the President going to speak about other dictators in the future?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me speak broadly to this in the sense that you’ve heard the President now on two occasions talk quite clearly about — off of what’s happened in Egypt — the obligations and responsibilities that those in power have to those that they represent.
I think you can go through a whole host of our discussions on both a public and a private level with leaders throughout the world about steps that we believe need to be taken to improve human rights, to improve basic rights, and to uphold individual liberties. Those are discussions that the President will continue to have in public and private with leaders throughout the world.
Q And second, if I may, WikiLeaks and Julian has been nominated for Nobel, and do you believe that WikiLeaks, all the leaks, are authentic, has not been altered?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry?
Q That all these WikiLeaks, all are authentic, has been not –
MR. GIBBS: I’m not a document veracity person.
Q Robert, there is a very sizeable school of thought that says in the elections that the President would like to see, if they were truly free and fair, Islamic fundamentalists would come to power in Egypt. Is the President ready to accept that outcome?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Mark, I think we’re getting way ahead of the process and we’re getting into — well, there’s a lot that — we need to get the transition going to get to the point of free and fair elections. Again, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about “what if.” I think what we would like to see is a continued, stable partnership with a country that has played an invaluable role in providing some stability to a volatile region in the world, and that we would expect that a government — that whatever government comes next, that that government respect the treaties that it has — that previous Egyptian governments have entered into.
Q Is there an element of “be careful what you wish for” here?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we are looking through a lot of different scenarios.
Q Thank you. On Israel, do you have any special concern for their security? Do you have any particular coordination with Israel? And are you still pushing for the supposed peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians?
MR. GIBBS: Well, first and foremost, our consultations — we have had consultations, as you know, between the President and the Prime Minister over the weekend. Our position has not changed about either our involvement or the benefit of comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
Q Robert, when you talk about your support for transitional process, whether you or the President, this seems to contradict what people want on the ground. If you listen to the chanting in every language, in English or Arabic or French, they’ve been saying basically one thing — that President Mubarak has to go, not in weeks, not in September, but tomorrow. How you reconcile these two contradicting messages?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not going to get into the very specifics of what President Obama and President Mubarak talked about. I would direct you to what he said last night about the timing of that transition and the, as he has mentioned now both in Washington speaking about Cairo and in Cairo speaking about the broader Middle East, we hear and respect the aspirations of those throughout the world to seek greater opportunity, to seek greater freedom, and the promise that it holds for them and their families.
Q One more thing regarding Ambassador Wisner. Is he still in Cairo and is he still in touch with President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: He is still in Cairo and he is still in touch with all levels of the Egyptian government
Q Does he have — if I could follow up on that –
Q — the report on the economic crisis –
MR. GIBBS: I’ll come back.
Q Does he have entrée if he needs to go back and talk to President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: He’s there at our behest to speak with, again, all levels of the Egyptian government. We asked him to go. He is obviously a very respected ambassador, respected widely by the Egyptian government, and provides us an opportunity to speak directly with the President.
Q Okay, so just two other things. Was the President angry this morning when he saw the violence in Cairo? It does seem that there has been some change in marching orders to the police on the ground.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think the President found the images outrageous and deplorable. Everybody did.
Q And do they seem to be a message of some kind about the interactions between the administration and Mubarak yesterday?
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Q Are they in some way a reaction to the message from Frank Wisner, for example, and the President’s remarks?
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of.
Q Okay, and let me also just ask you this. I need a follow up on what you said about the message to the allies — or to friends — U.S. friends in the region. Is there a suggestion in these conversations that there’s a template for other relationships between the U.S. and leaders in the region in what has transpired between President Obama and President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: How so?
Q Well, I mean, is the message that, look, these ideals are important to the people whom you represent. You just said the obligations — you were just talking about the obligations of those in power. Is that part of the message?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it’s — let me do a couple things. As I’ve said here for many days, I think if you — I don’t want to — you have different countries throughout the region at different stages of their political development. But regardless of that, as the President has said and as I have said, there’s a responsibility to be responsive to those that you represent. The conversations that the President has had with allies or partners in the region have continued to reiterate what we have said in bilateral meetings or in conversations that the President has had previously about the important steps that need to take place to honor and adhere to the individual freedoms that the President has talked about.
And so those have not taken — those have continued to take place, but they haven’t started as a result of this. And again, that’s why, I think I said earlier, what the President has said in these individual meetings and particularly what Secretary Clinton said in her recent speech I think provide you some pretty good road maps to what our feelings are as it relates to what countries need to do to respect those human rights.
Q Robert, you’ve used the word “transition” about 15 or 20 times today. In terms of the definition of that term, is the definition of the term “transition” a government that does not include Hosni Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: I think what President Mubarak said yesterday is he’s not going to be the next leader of Egypt. I think that was clear.
Q But you have said now versus September, transition now. Does transition now mean no Hosni Mubarak now?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Glenn, I’m not going to get into more specificity about what the Presidents — the two Presidents spoke about.
Q And to follow up — you’ve mentioned a couple of times also that we are having discussions with all levels of Egyptian government. Are we speaking with leaders in the army?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q And what are we talking to them about?
MR. GIBBS: Well, as I’ve talked about over the past several days, Admiral Mullen has spoken with his counterpart. Secretary Gates has spoken with his counterpart. Officers throughout our command ranks have spoken to their counterparts. It speaks to a couple of different things: one, the importance of robust military-to-military contact; being able to have the relationships and the knowledge of who you’re talking to and who you need to talk to in times of great crisis.
And I think it’s safe to say, again, each and every one of those conversations starts out with a conversation about restraint and nonviolence. And that’s what the President spoke about yesterday.
Q Do you think you have an impact? Do you think those military-to-military contacts have helped maintain this restraint?
MR. GIBBS: I do believe they have.
Q Well, following up on Glenn’s question, and then something else. With this military-to-military communication, was there also any communication about timelines, when the military should or could step in?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into that.
Q Okay. And also, with emotions so high in Egypt, realistically what is the timeline that you think that the violence will quell there — realistically?
MR. GIBBS: April, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that it is in — it is within the power of all of those involved to step away from that violence. And I said very early on in this that the legitimate concerns and grievances of the people of Egypt are not going to be addressed with violence or by violence. And it is our hope that what we saw today we won’t see tomorrow or Friday or into the weekend. Obviously this is going to take — this is not all going to be wrapped up in a matter of hours. It’s going to take some time. Regardless of the amount of that time, it is tremendously important that restraint and non-violence carry the day during this important transition.
Q And also, one more domestically. We’re seeing a major storm hitting this country. Could you talk to me about the economic impact, what Americans should be expecting? We’re hearing power is out in some places, places are shut down, airlines are not –
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I would say a couple of different things. Obviously each of the past two days the President has spoken directly with — I’m sorry — directly with FEMA Director Craig Fugate on the preparations that we are assisting with across the number of states have been affected by the breadth of this winter storm. I think you all got a readout yesterday that indicated that FEMA had coordinators on the ground across the arc in the country of where we were predicted to see that winter weather.
They spoke again today. The President received another update. I believe the FEMA director was going to do a briefing on camera today to talk about some of the preparations that have been had as we assist state and local entities and as we help businesses deal with the repercussions of, say, losing power or things like that. Obviously we anticipate that we could see appeals for disaster declarations, again, which come from the state level up to the federal level.
I think at this point it is hard to make some broad macroeconomic determinations about the impact of this storm. Obviously we’ve had tricky weather for, as is the wont of this time of the year, for many weeks. How that affects some economic statistics or hiring certainly remains to be seen.
Q How about the airlines? Do you have any numbers just on the airlines shutting down?
MR. GIBBS: I would point you to DOT and FAA for the particulars of that. I mean, obviously some of the pictures that you see in places that are used to dealing with pretty tough weather dealing with snow on the magnitude of 20 inches, it’s a stunning thing.
Q Is the President glad he’s not in Chicago today?
MR. GIBBS: We did remark that — my son gets excited any time it turns cold because he knows there’s a decent chance that he won’t have school. (Laughter.) But we did remark that I guess this is the first time in 12 years that kids have shared that same feeling across the city schools in Chicago.
Q Who’s checking on his house in Chicago, with the cold, the snow?
MR. GIBBS: That’s a very good question. I don’t know the answer to that. (Laughter.)
Q No, no, no, seriously.
MR. GIBBS: You guys have –
Q Is Rahm shoveling the sidewalk? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I wouldn’t wave you off that answer. I wouldn’t wave you off — Chuck thought Rahm was, the sidewalk outside of the — (laughter.)
Q He thought Rahm was going to handle the shoveling? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Ben LaBolt, if you’re listening — (laughter.)
Go ahead, Margaret.
Q So I’ve got a very quick one on Egypt and a slightly more complicated one. The quick one is, did President Mubarak –
MR. GIBBS: The Egypt is the easy one? (Laughter.)
Q They’re both about Egypt. The first one is, did President Mubarak explicitly commit on his call yesterday with the President to nonviolence? And I’ll just ask you the –
MR. GIBBS: I’ll say this. The President reiterated that any action — any events should take place with the same restraint and nonviolence that we’ve seen. And as I said to Chuck, we’ve received no indication on that call about any action that might take place.
Q But either he didn’t explicitly commit to it, or you don’t feel comfortable saying?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the President reiterated our strong call for nonviolence.
Q My second question is sort of a little broader. Was there any debate internally yesterday about whether President Obama should come out and make public remarks?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q And what do you hope is gained domestically from doing so? We know internationally — and especially the people of Egypt — what the thrust of his message is, what he wants them to hear. What does President Obama want Americans to hear about his leadership, about his command over foreign policy, and about why anything that happens in Egypt affects us at all?
MR. GIBBS: I got to tell you, Margaret, that of the three scenarios that you just outlined, I’ve not heard discussion of the first two inside of here in terms of dealing with events.
We have had — and we’ve talked about this in here — we have had an extremely important governmental partnership the past many years with Egypt, as I’ve talked about even today, providing the cornerstone for stability off of the Camp David Accords. So I think there is a great imperative that the relationship that we have with Egypt and with countries throughout the Middle East, those are — again, those are important relationships. We seek to bring, again, stability and peace to that region. And we seek to engage all of those entities in bringing about comprehensive peace to the region.
That’s — I think that outlives any particular administration. And I think that’s what people throughout the world expect to see.
Q I don’t want to — I’m sorry I’m taking a lot of time. But Americans are very obsessed right now about the economy, if you look at all the polls. And I just wonder, do you think that the average American makes a connection between the fate of Egypt and the fate of the United States? And what is that connection?
MR. GIBBS: You know, Margaret, I don’t think that anything that’s happening is going to change that, whether it is their personal economic situation. Somebody just asked about the weather, which obviously is some great cause of concern for a huge swath of this country. But we understand what peace and stability, and we understand what uncertainty and instability bring to the global economy and to the global economic recovery.
So I think that — this is an administration that obviously has spent a considerable amount of time working on the storm, on Egypt, but continues probably a majority of what we’re doing to work on aspects of the economic recovery.
Q Robert, one of the partnerships with Egypt is with counterterrorism. Is there concern that this situation is going to undermine U.S. security in that area?
MR. GIBBS: Again, we have, as you mention, an important partnership with them and with a number of countries throughout the region, and obviously not just that but a whole host of issues like that we are monitoring very closely.
You had a financial stability –
Q Robert, on the economic recovery, the Angelides commission issued a report giving a rather extensive description of the build-up to the crisis over the last few decades, indicating in particular the deregulation and particularly the revoking of the Glass-Steagall legislation which built a firewall between commercial banking and investment banking was the cause of the build-up of this bubble.
My question is, given the fact that you did not go back to Glass-Steagall, even though there was some discussion in Congress and a large number of congressmen who were supportive of that, that given to believe that the House leadership and the White House was not in favor of that — now that the report is out, now that the unambiguous conclusions are drawn that this was an important element in preventing a crisis, would it not be feasible to go back and relook at this in order to create the kind of firewall that would be needed now?
MR. GIBBS: I will say this. I think that the steps that this administration has taken and the time that we have dedicated to the passage of financial reform and ensuring that what happened — there are common-sense regulations that ensure that that kind of thing never happens again. I think the report underscores that we were right to do that.
We have put into place resolution authority. You’ve seen the beginnings of the Consumer Protection Bureau, the Volcker Rule, a whole host of important policy developments out of that legislation to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. I think the administration believes that we have taken a giant step forward in the passage of that to ensure that the impacts to our economy because of regulatory failures are not something that we see again.
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller.
Q Thanks, Robert. Two questions on Egypt. Since the crisis began, a couple of the central questions have been whether President Mubarak should stay in power, and if so, whether he has the capacity to put in place these reforms the people of Egypt want and the White House wants. Can you explain why on those two fronts the White House is not taking a position?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Ben, it is not up to us to determine when the grievances of the Egyptian people have been met by the Egyptian government. We have said all along that there are, as I mentioned, legitimate concerns and grievances had by the Egyptian people for a long time — the need for freedom to associate, freedom to communicate over the Internet, freedom to assemble, the freedom of speech — and that those must be addressed in a substantive way by the Egyptian government
But we’re not picking between those on the street and those in the government. As the Secretary of State said yesterday, we’re for and have enumerated our concern for the people of Egypt.
Q You say it’s up to the Egyptian people. Is it fair and accurate to say that it is the stand of the government that you do not want any kind of transition to be through the toppling of an existing head of state; it should be through resignation or an election?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me be clear. I’m not going to get into a series of hypotheticals. I think you heard yesterday very clearly the Secretary of State say there must be an orderly transition, that a whole range of issues — some of which I just talked about — have to be addressed, that there has to be meaningful negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people including opposition groups that go to answering the very core of the freedoms that people desire.
We’ve talked about those and you’ve heard the President speak in Cairo about them. Free and fair elections in September for the presidency and for the parliament, constitutional changes that facilitate a more open and more democratic process — these are some of the things that I know we’ve spoken directly with the Egyptians about.
Q Two others on this, please. The September elections you just referenced — is it the preference of the U.S. government that Mubarak not run again?
MR. GIBBS: Ben, it’s not — the United States government does not determine who’s on the ballot. The question is whether or not those elections are going to be free and fair. That’s what we would weigh in on and weigh in on strongly.
Q And of all these changes that you talked about that the U.S. government wants, can you give us some more detail perhaps from over the weekend or today about what the government is doing to help make it happen, as opposed to just calling for it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I’m going to let you report on that. I will say this. As you, I think, know, the President was briefed on the very latest, including readouts, from our embassy and from our ambassador yesterday. Our National Security Advisor held a call with some principals this morning. The President was briefed on the latest developments as a part of, quite frankly, as most of his daily intelligence briefing. The deputies committee — there’s now sort of a standing morning meeting on the situation that was had later this morning, and the President is receiving updates regularly out of that.
This is not about appointments; this is about actions. That’s what, I think, people here and people around the world need to see from the Egyptian government.
Q Thank you. Robert, can you define what you mean by an orderly transition?
MR. GIBBS: Well, many of the things I just talked about, Jeff. I talked about — a transition has to include — an orderly transition has to include a process of negotiations with a broad cross-section of the Egyptian people, including those that are in the political opposition at the moment.
Q With the current government?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I mean, I don’t think the grievances are going to be met unless there’s some measure of that involved.
They have to address the freedoms that the people of Egypt seek. And as I said a minute ago, many of the things that we’ve outlined over the course of the past many days have to be included — again, free and fair elections; we’ve talked about the emergency law; again, changes in the constitution that facilitate a more open and democratic process — all of those things are what must happen in the country in order to transition to something that is more democratic.
Q Do you believe President Mubarak is doing that now? Are you happy with this response so far?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think this is not about appointments; it’s about actions.
Q Do you see the actions that you’re looking for?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is obvious that there’s more work to be done. I think that is obvious in the pictures that we continue to see from Cairo.
Q Do you — what role should the military be playing in this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we have had — I should say this, too. There’s obviously a number of calls and contacts that happen between our government and counterparts in the Egyptian government. We are thus far pleased at the restraint that has taken place and encouraged that, even as we see reports of increased participation tomorrow by protesters, that calm and nonviolence once again carry the day on both sides.
So, again, it’s our belief that, first and foremost, this has to be something that’s conducted with — through nonviolence.
Q Has anybody in the administration been in contact with Mohamed ElBaradei?
MR. GIBBS: Obviously, the embassy has been in touch with him in the past. I think he is somebody, along with a whole host of people in — non-governmental voices in — whether they’re opposition political parties or whether they’re heads of business or banks that we are regularly in touch with. I believe that they will continue to reach out to people like him, and to a whole host of figures — again, non-governmental and civil society figures to have a discussion with them about what Egypt must do and what Egypt must look like.
Q Has the embassy been in touch with him in the last week?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of, at least when I came in here.
Q Wouldn’t it make sense for somebody to be in touch with him?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think that outreach is ongoing.
Q The Egyptian government in the past has conveyed to the Obama administration and to previous administrations that it suspects that the democracy push from the U.S. might result in something along the lines of what we’ve seen in Gaza, and that is an Islamist group being elected and gaining power, in this case the Muslim Brotherhood. How much does the Obama administration agree with that assessment?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Jake, I think that — as I said here last week, I think that it is — from what we can see, it’s not accurate to say that those protesting are made up of one particular group or one ideology. And I think it is clear that increase in democratic representation has to include a whole host of important non-secular actors that give Egypt a strong chance to continue to be the stable and reliable partner that the world sees in the Middle East.
Q ElBaradei told ABC News this weekend that the Muslim Brotherhood is no more extremist — is not an extremist organization and is no different from orthodox Jews in Israel or evangelical Christians in the United States. Does the Obama administration agree with that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me — without getting into a discussion about them, I think there are certain standards that we believe everybody should adhere to as being part of this process. One that is — to participate in this ongoing democratic process, one has to take part in it but not use it as a way of simply becoming or taking over that process simply to put themselves in power. We believe that any group should strongly weigh in on the side of non-violence and adherence to the law.
Q Orderly transition means change. So by using those words is the administration not admitting that President Mubarak should leave?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Dan, that is — I do believe orderly transition means change, and what we’ve advocated from the very beginning is that the way Egypt looks and operates must change. That’s why we believe we should increase the amount of freedom that is had by the Egyptian people on association, on assembly, on speech, on Internet and open communication. But that’s not for us to determine what the parameters and what the limits of those are. But undoubtedly, transition in this case means change. There’s no doubt about that.
Q If he’s the leader, though, are you not saying that he should be changed or removed from office by saying that?
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, Dan, that is not for our country or our government to determine. I don’t think that people that seek greater freedom are looking for somebody else to pick what and how that change looks like. That is, quite frankly — that doesn’t adhere in any way to an open, democratic process that allows for a full discussion and negotiation about what that freedom looks like. Freedom of — many of the freedoms I just talked about — the greater economic opportunity, greater economic freedoms — that’s not for us to determine.
Q The White House has really been ramping up its focus on innovation and jobs. There was a big event today as well. Does what is happening in Egypt distract at all from that push?
MR. GIBBS: No, not at all. Weather permitting, the President is planning to go later this week to Pennsylvania and continue our push on innovation. We will continue to work through all of that. I don’t — events happen that any administration and any government have to respond to, but at the same time, much as we dealt with over the previous two years, you have to deal with many things happening at once. And that’s what this administration continues to do.
Q One final question. The President obviously is getting a lot of updates from his national security team, but is he also bringing in outside advisors to help him –
MR. GIBBS: The National Security Council has regular outreach to experts around the country. I know they had some folks in here earlier today to talk about Egypt as a part of that regular process. And I don’t doubt that, again, at many levels of our government we are talking to many people with insights into Egypt.
Q Who were some of those people who came in today?
MR. GIBBS: We can give you a list of all those.
Q To follow, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: Chip.
Q Robert, the President’s schedule is clear today — public schedule is clear today. Did he clear that schedule so that he could deal with this?
MR. GIBBS: No. Again, he’s gotten — as far as I know, as of right now, there’s been — he’s been briefed as part of the PDB on what’s happened and on the discussions that have happened at a principals’ and at a deputies’ level. But there’s nothing that I know that’s been added to his schedule as a result of what’s gone on over the weekend.
Q So he’s not monitoring this constantly; he’s working on a lot of other stuff?
MR. GIBBS: He’s working on a lot of stuff. But I will say this, Chip. Obviously he’s — we give him updates as the situation dictates.
Q Would you suspect we’ll hear from him again sometime in the next few days as this goes on?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, again, I think that depends on some of what happens on the ground.
Q You said that this transition does not mean that Mubarak would have to go and that –
MR. GIBBS: No, no, no. I want to be clear — I want to be very clear because I don’t — that is not for me to determine. That is not for our government to determine. That is for the people of Egypt to determine. So I have not weighed in on anything other than — as we have throughout this process — on the side of the people of Egypt to determine what Egypt looks like in their future.
Q Right. But my question is, are you categorically saying that at no time will the President ever say it’s time for him to go?
MR. GIBBS: Look, Chip, I’m not going to stand up here and look that far into the future.
Q But it may — it may not be maybe a few days in the future. It sounds like you’re leaving a door open to the possibility of something –
MR. GIBBS: No, I appreciate the game we’re playing. I’d rather you not put words in my mouth in either of the three questions that get asked.
Q One other thing. Are there discussions going on about the possibility, the worries that this could spread in the Middle East?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it is safe to say that what we saw happen in Tunisia we saw certainly had the capabilities to go in other countries. I wouldn’t generalize, as I said last week, across the spectrum of countries in this region or outside this region because each country is different and at different stages of their political development.
Q Without predicting whether you’ll have to, do you feel that the U.S. could work with the Muslim Brotherhood?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think it’s important, Wendell, that the government of — we do not have contact with them. And we have, as we have throughout the world, standards for that contact. And those are as I dictated a minute ago. And that is adherence to the law, adherence to non-violence, and a willingness to be part of a democratic process, but not use that democratic process to simply instill yourself into power.
Q Have they met those standards?
MR. GIBBS: I am not the current ambassador. I would think that before we had any further contact, we’d want assurances on it.
Q Can you give us some idea of the level of contact between the President’s deputies and their counterparts in Egypt? We know Admiral Mullen has had talks with his counterpart, and the Secretary of State I believe as well.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think throughout the ranks of the military and over at the Pentagon, obviously between the Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministry. Our ambassador, Margaret Scobey, who we get updates from in his regular meetings about the security situation on the ground. She is obviously in contact with a whole host of entities inside of Egypt.
Obviously, one of our big focuses right now is on authorized departure — on getting non-essential embassy personnel, their families and others who wish to leave the country on any number of planes that are in Cairo and boarding. Earlier this morning, two of those planes had left, intended for Greece and Turkey. That continues, despite government curfews. We have clearance to get personnel onto those planes and to their destinations, regardless of that curfew.
Q Only two planes flew out so far today?
MR. GIBBS: Let me be sure. That was as of 11:15 a.m. this morning. I think between six and seven of those planes were on the ground. As soon as they are loaded, they’ll lift off.
Q One final question, if I may. The Israelis gave Egypt permission to secure basically the canal, to place troops in the Sinai, required because of their peace agreement. Did the U.S. have any part in that? Did the U.S. ask Israel to allow that?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of. I believe that was — I think that was a direct contact between those two governments.
Q The President hasn’t been in contact with Mubarak since Friday, is that correct?
MR. GIBBS: Let me just say this. Obviously the President, the Vice President, as I just mentioned — there’s contacts that are happening both throughout the region and throughout the world, some of which we’ve read out.
Q Is there — I was just going to say, is there a reason — has there been no contact made with the King of Jordan or — is that why he wasn’t included on the readout, or –
MR. GIBBS: Some of these contacts we’ve discussed and some of these we haven’t.
Q Speaking of his contacts, the Saudi government put out a readout of the President’s phone conversation with the King. And let me read from it directly: “The tragic events taking place currently in Egypt, which have been accompanied by chaos, looting, intimidation of innocents, exploitation of freedom and expression, and attempts to ignite the flames of chaos to achieve their suspicious goals, which are not approved by Saudi, U.S. sides.” Is that a fair characterization of the phone call?
MR. GIBBS: I think each of the readouts are put out based on what each government says on their end of the phone. I think our readout –
Q Well, if they’re speaking — they seem to be speaking for — they said that the U.S. government seemed to agree with them.
MR. GIBBS: I speak for the U.S. government, Chuck, not anybody –
Q I understand. So they are wrong?
MR. GIBBS: — not anybody in Riyadh.
Q Meaning the Saudi government put out an incorrect readout?
MR. GIBBS: Meaning you should read our readout if you’d like to know what we said on our end of the phone call.
Q So they are sent — putting out a misleading readout?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I will — happy to forward again the readout that reflects what we said on that end of the phone call.
Q And as far as Mubarak is concerned, so when you say orderly transition why is it that you’re hesitating? It’s clear that you’re calling — that the United States’ position is you want an orderly regime change. Is that not correct?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I want to be careful because I don’t want you to put words in my mouth anymore than I want to –
Q I understand that. That’s why — I mean, orderly transition — I mean, it seems you’re calling for a change in government.
MR. GIBBS: No, we’re calling for a change in the way the country works. The determination –
Q So were Mubarak to implement all that change, you’d be okay with that?
MR. GIBBS: The determination as to when that change is met or how that change happens is not going to be determined or dictated by our country — no more, Chuck, than I’m going to determine what freedom of speech means to you or to NBC. That’s not for me to determine. Why would it be for me to determine for Egypt? Why would anybody who is — why would anybody who seeks greater freedom in Egypt be looking for my signoff on what that means?
Q But it seems to be that many of the protesters are upset of the perception that the U.S. government is — looks like it’s still backing Mubarak.
MR. GIBBS: I do not think that those protesters would be assuaged by the notion that somebody in a series of buildings several thousand miles away have determined the extent to what that means for them. That is for the people of Egypt to decide and determine.
I’ll come to Connie real quick and then Jonathan.
Q Thank you. On evacuations, are military evacuations contemplated? And if –
MR. GIBBS: None that I’m aware of.
Q If American citizens have to get out on a charter but can’t afford a charter, what happens –
MR. GIBBS: If I’m not mistaken those are — because of the way the evacuations are taking place — I will check on — I guess I would refer you to State on that. I think those are government charters.
Q You said that White House and the U.S. government doesn’t want to choose — or it doesn’t want to choose the leadership of Egypt. When P.J. Crowley put out a Tweet after Mr. Mubarak’s speech on Friday night, saying that “rearranging the deck chairs is not the kind of change he’s talking about,” a lot of people interpreted that meaning that the appointment of Vice President Suleiman was not an acceptable change. How do you reconcile those two messages?
MR. GIBBS: I reconcile it exactly the way I’ve said it today and exactly the way P.J. Crowley’s boss reconciled it on Sunday. I don’t — Jonathan, as I said earlier today, I don’t think anybody is looking at the pictures in Cairo and believes that the actions that have been taken thus far have met that test.
I don’t — the Secretary of State I think was asked in each of her five interviews whether or not what has been done is all that needs to be done. And I think every one of her answers included the phrase, “of course not.” So I don’t — I think that is — those largely speak for themselves.
Q Tomorrow there is a major demonstration planned in Cairo. Have you — has the U.S. government delivered any kind of message to the Egyptian government specifically on what should be expected of the military’s response to that?
MR. GIBBS: Simply to reiterate — again, without getting into great specifics about each of the contacts that are had — and Wendell — I think it was Wendell — mentioned Admiral Mullen and others in the Pentagon, Secretary Gates, that are in touch with their counterparts. Again, that’s just not the leadership at the Pentagon, but that is military-to-military contact, the Secretary of State with the Foreign Ministry.
We have been clear from the outset that grievances will not, and cannot be addressed through violence. So I think that message remains clear to the government of Egypt.
Q Robert, can you assure us that any private back-channel messages to Mubarak or the Egyptian government are the same as what you’re saying publicly?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Yes, without getting into what a private back channel might look like. That would make it less private. Yes. No, our messaging — I don’t think the message would be quite clear or have a lot of impact if what I said up here transmitted to people throughout the region was different than what people heard in the region.
Q It’s happened in the past.
MR. GIBBS: It has. It hasn’t, that I know of, in this case.
Q In any of these conversations, any of these briefings that you’re talking about, how much has the price of oil crept into it? It’s obviously close to $90 a barrel. Are you concerned that it could have broader implications on the economy?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we — there are folks obviously in the NEC that are monitoring any impact that uncertainty or unrest has throughout financial markets. We have thus far, to my knowledge, not seen disruptions in, for instance in the Suez, which obviously is tremendously important to the movement of goods around the Cape of Good Horn.
Egypt is not an oil exporter, which shouldn’t greatly impact that — we obviously are monitoring, again, the unrest and the uncertainty to see what impacts that might cause.
Q And that’s true for both financial markets and the broader economic recovery?
MR. GIBBS: I would say financial markets, commodity markets, the whole host of things.
Q Robert, can you say what kind of counsel the administration is seeking from former Senator Bradley?
MR. GIBBS: From former Senator Bradley? Let me check and see. I’m not up on what that might be.
Q — his meeting with the Vice President and Treasury Secretary?
MR. GIBBS: Let me see — I don’t know if that’s tax reform, who — somebody who played a big role in that. But before I surmise out loud that it might be tax reform, let me check. (Laughter.) I didn’t say, “tax reform” — no, let me just check on that.
Q Are you guys doing tax reform? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Sometimes that bubble box appears audibly. (Laughter.) I will have Ms. Brundage check on that right away.
Q You said on Friday that the U.S. aid to Egypt was under review. Can you talk about that? Is there any update on that, in terms of the status of it?
MR. GIBBS: No, I said Friday, and I would reiterate here, that we are watching the actions of the government in response to the unrest and would make determinations about our aid based on some of their actions. That’s ongoing.
Q Hey, Robert. Your message is — messaging has obviously been done very carefully, as your — and your words are being picked very carefully. Can you talk a little bit about –
MR. GIBBS: As opposed to this haphazard briefing? Yes. (Laughter.)
Q Can you talk a little bit about the considerations and any special efforts that you guys are making to try to carefully pick your words in this crisis, and also, to follow up on Dan, the extent to which you guys — this is impacting your other efforts at focusing on the economy and the like?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me — look, I don’t think –
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I don’t — I’ll do this answer slowly so as to — no. (Laughter.) I think — obviously we understand that this is a volatile region of the world; that it is — that we have equities, again, in a strong partnership with Egypt and the Egyptian people as they have been a steadying force for peace in the region. I think that’s — we’ve seen that since the Camp David Accords, and again, that’s been a cornerstone for stability in the region since that time.
Obviously it’s a volatile time. Things and events are moving quickly. And it’s always important that our words not contributed to the — contribute to greater volatility.
In terms of — I don’t think that — as I said earlier, the President’s schedule has not changed as a result of what is happening. Obviously he continues to be kept up to date throughout the process. Our travel hasn’t changed for later in the week in terms of talking about the issue that Americans have foremost on their mind, and that is the state of the economy. We’ll continue to do that.
Q How long does President Mubarak have to move? I mean, could he take months and months, outreach to these –
MR. GIBBS: Again, Ann, I think that’s determined by the people in Egypt. That is — I think obviously, and I think you heard the President say clearly on Friday and he said this on the phone with President Mubarak, that this was an opportunity that should be seized to make significant change and to bring about significant democratic change.
And I think — the reason that we talk about the fact that this will be determined by the people of Egypt because this is not something that is — this is not something where the people of Egypt, again, are going to be satisfied that there is some mystical third party that determines when enough has been done.
As you heard — I said this on Friday, the President said this later on Friday, that governments in this country at all levels and governments around the world have to be responsive to their citizens.
Q Let me ask, as well, it’s been reported that your successor, the new press secretary will report to the communications director. Will there be a change in the way your — the press operation here works? Will the new press secretary be reporting to a communications director, not access directly to the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the modeling that we set up when we came in was, quite honestly, set up a bit like the previous administration’s in some ways. There was a separate — in some different branches of the Bush administration, there was a communications operation that the press office was within, and sometimes when it was a separate office.
Dan can stick his head out of his door and I can hear it pretty clearly in my office, and vice versa. So I wouldn’t — I don’t think anybody has to worry that the operation of — the press operation will act differently simply by combining the efforts of press and communication, largely because, quite honestly, I think if you looked at it — and Dan and others and I have discussed this — there’s a myriad of roles that are very duplicative.
I mean, for instance, we have assistant press secretaries that have split up a series of issues that you all interact with them. If it’s a homeland security issue, you deal with Nick. If there’s an economic issue, you deal with Amy. There’s a separate group of people in communications that works at the EEOB that they’re regional — basically they’re regional desks. They have the country split up, but they’re answering many of the same questions. So I don’t think you have to fear that things are going to act differently with Jay up here.
Q Will the new press secretary have your office? In a former Democratic administration, the communications director took your office and –
MR. GIBBS: I don’t — I have not been told otherwise.
Q Robert, I want to follow up on the issue of marriage and the President’s 1996 statement. I’ll read it again: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.” Why has the President abandoned this position?
MR. GIBBS: I can simply — I was not with the President in 1996. I was younger and thinner back then — same shoe size. I would simply say that I think that throughout the campaign of 2004 and the campaign of 2008, he’s made his position clear on that.
Q Was there a political motivation for the President to drop support for same-sex marriage as he pursued to higher office?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’d refer you to my previous answer.
Q One follow-up question.
MR. GIBBS: That’s two actually, but go ahead. I’ll entertain the second.
Q Will the President reclaim his support for same-sex marriage before the 2012 election?
MR. GIBBS: I’m not in the business of predicting. I think you’ve seen this President be clearly committed to issues of equality and justice. That’s why in — I can’t speak to 2012. I can speak to 2011 as the year in which a policy like “don’t ask, don’t tell” will end.
Q Thank you. So what’s going to be the indication for this administration that the Egyptian people are satisfied with the degree of change that they’ve received? Is it going to be when the protests end in the streets, or when some –
MR. GIBBS: My sense is — look, I hate to get into, again, predicting this. But I think you would see — you’d see broad agreement in Egypt that the cares and concerns of those that have manifested themselves in these protests, that some of those grievances have been met. And I think that’s why I think many people throughout the world think that we haven’t reached that level yet.
Q And a slightly separate question — very different question about the ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. There’s been a lot of reporting over the weekend about the potential for him to run in 2012. Is there any concern that that might affect the work that he’s going to be doing for a major U.S. ally — economic issues and otherwise over the next couple of months?
MR. GIBBS: Ambassador Huntsman has told a number — told several people inside this building that he plans to leave in the first part of — during the first part of this year. When the President picked him in 2009, it was because we believed, and continue to believe, he brings a broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post with one of our most important relationships in the world. The President continues to believe that.
I’ve seen reporting on this today, and I think it’s — I want to be clear on this from up here. I’ve talked to several people in the building, and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman, except to say, as I said earlier, that he will leave sometime in the first part of the year.
The President, and I think the American people, expect that somebody that holds the post of ambassador from the United States to China would dedicate their full energy and time to that position. And we believe that Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well.
Q Has the White House been preparing to find a replacement for him since –
MR. GIBBS: I think it’s safe to assume that when he started telling people in the building that he’d step down, that that’s a process that has begun, yes.
Q Is it Vietor? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: It is not. I can take him off the list.
Q Robert, back on Egypt, two questions, and following up a couple of people. You said that Egypt has been a cornerstone for that region since the Camp David Accords. What is this administration’s greatest fear with all of this lawlessness?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, let me rephrase what you — some of what you said there. I think they have been a valuable partner in the region in bringing about stability. I think the Camp David Accords have provided the cornerstone for that stability. And I think — well, it is our hope and our strong belief that that is a role that Egypt will continue to play for a long time going forward.
Q But what is the fear? What is the administration’s greatest fear? This is a country that you have greatly relied on, you’ve helped but greatly reliant on. And all the volatility –
MR. GIBBS: I think you can largely assume that our fears are the opposite of partnership and stability.
Q And also, back to what Hans asked about the barrel of oil — the price of a barrel of oil. You say the NEC is following it. But what is the rationale, especially since they are not exporters of oil and the fact that when other countries that do export oil, particularly like in Nigeria, gas prices go up — why now? What is the rationale? What is the NEC telling us as to why?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think there is a certain amount of volatility that’s always built into oil prices and we know oil prices also — and I’m not going to surmise deeply on this lest I get myself in trouble — that as I said to Hans, there are — that we watch for uncertainty and instability and whatever its impact might be on prices through a range of different commodities.
So, again, I don’t think they’ve come to any strong determinations except that it is something that we are, as you can imagine, for our economy and for the recovery of the global economy, watching quite closely.
Q Is it a fear about transportation, moving of oil back and forth in that region — is there a fear with that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as I said earlier, we’ve not received reports, at least when I came out here, that there were — that there seemed to be transportation disruptions in the area of the Suez. But again, that is — I think that is among the many concerns that we will, throughout the government, continue to monitor.
Q Thanks. I also have a couple of Egypt follow-up questions. Who inside the NSC or the EOP is actually managing this for the White House? Is this John Brennan or is it –
MR. GIBBS: No, this is — the process is — John has certainly been part of a number of these meetings. It’s Tom Donilon who is the principal on this, has been in virtually every one of these meetings, updated the President in a meeting we were all in on Saturday, obviously is in the PDB. Denis runs some of the deputy committee meetings that are also held on a daily basis.
Q And can you give me an idea of how many staff or basically full-time or close to full-time are on this now?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the NSC is largely divided up into regional issues. So when we go into these meetings, you see the same people that are dealing with issues throughout the Middle East obviously in these meetings.
Q Vice President Biden was really involved in Iraq, obviously was involved in the AfPak — and we saw in the picture when the President was on the phone with Mr. Mubarak on Friday. What’s Vice President Biden’s role in this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, obviously, the Vice President brings decades of experience in dealing with issues in foreign policy, and knows many of the actors in the region well. He, as you mentioned, was in the Oval Office during the call to President Mubarak on Friday afternoon. He has been a regular participant, as his staff has, in all of these meetings.
Q One more. The Associated Press today says –
MR. GIBBS: I’ve never heard of it.
Q — administration officials, apparently not White House officials — talking about those two terms that we talked about at the top of this briefing, the election in September and the lifting of emergency laws. And my question is, did the President personally urge Mubarak on their call to proceed on both of those fronts, or are these recommendations that are occurring at lower levels?
MR. GIBBS: Let me — without getting myself into reading out the precise words that are used in those diplomatic calls, I’d refer you largely back to the answer I gave Mark in that the public — our public messaging and our private messaging on changes that need to take place are remarkably similar.
Q I got the sense that what you meant was that they were not contradictory. But that doesn’t necessarily mean — when obviously this would be a choice that the President would have to calculate, is this what I — do I want to get involved in at this level and make these personal recommendations. But can you tell us whether he did –
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, without — again, I’m very reticent to read my notes from the call. But, again, I think when I outline up here many of the things that you heard the President has talked about throughout the many meetings that he’s had over the course of the past couple of years and in the speech in Cairo — things like free and fair elections, constitutional change — the freedoms that we’ve enumerated I think are all very consistent with messaging that is being delivered at all levels of our government throughout all levels of Egyptian government.
Q Thanks, Robert. What would you say to the Egyptian demonstrators watching you now and they infer a subtle support for Mubarak to stay in office and they respond to the steps you mention, and they would say we’ve given Mubarak 30 years and they just — they don’t trust him to meet those reforms?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think first and foremost what I would say to anybody watching is that the United States and the Obama administration are fully supportive of your universal rights. And look, this country was founded on the principle of grievances with government and having — setting about a constitution that addresses a process for those grievances to be heard. We believe that that has to happen in this instance, as well. And it is not for anybody in this government or anybody at this podium to determine how or when those grievances have been met.
As I said earlier, I don’t think anybody listening in Cairo or anywhere else in Egypt wants somebody in this country determining what’s the definition in Egypt for freedom of assembly. I don’t think anybody in this country would want that from Egypt, and I don’t think anybody in Egypt wants that from this country.
What we want is a meaningful dialogue to happen that results in significant democratic changes. When those changes and when those grievances — when those grievances have been met through those changes, then we’ll know that from the people of Egypt.
Q Robert, who do you expect to be at the table there? I’m just curious, who do you guys — who do you expect to be at a table for this meeting on meaningful dialogue? Is it ElBaradei? Is it representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood? I mean, I guess — like how does he do this? Who are the people at the table?
MR. GIBBS: This has to be determined by the people in Egypt. But, again, if we determine who sits at that table, we by definition are making decisions about the extent to which freedom looks like in that country.
Q I’m not asking you that. I mean, obviously we have a lot of Egyptian experts here who are the types of people who –
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that, as I said, that that has to include many of the people that the embassy and others talk to regularly in Egypt.
Q So it’s those folks?
MR. GIBBS: It has to — well, but I think it’s important –
Q Now, I’m not trying to narrow-cast –
MR. GIBBS: Right, I think it’s important to understand that certainly — there are certainly political actors that are currently not members of the government, some level of those — of opposition groups, certainly meeting the standard that we laid out earlier about adherence to democratic principles.
But I think obviously that that can’t simply include political players. It has to include, as I said earlier, those in business, those in banking, those in commerce. There has to be a broad enough cross-section of the Egyptian people to weigh in on the extent to which these grievances are held and that they will be addressed.
Q But to follow up on that point, has there been conversations between people in the administration or in the embassy and anyone in Mubarak’s government about a way to proceed? If there are these conversations, who are some of the people that might be involved, whether the U.S. can help or not –
MR. GIBBS: I think that we have weighed in on the broader notion of what that needs to look like. I don’t think — and I’ll double-check to see if there’s any more clarity, largely because I wouldn’t have been read into each and every one of those conversations — but the degree to which that gets quite that granular.
Again, I think this is — I think it has to — as I mentioned, it has to include a broad cross-section. It has to include people that represent those that have those grievances. And I think whenever you begin to narrow-cast this — only this, not this, you’re restricting that lens in a way that, again, is not a determination that this government will make.
Q I just want to — if you could just square –
Q Robert, just one question, one question.
MR. GIBBS: Hold on, Lester, hold on. I called on Savannah.
Q If you could just kind of square these two concepts — because on the one hand you’re saying don’t read the “orderly transition to democracy” as saying we believe Mubarak should step down because it’s not for the U.S. to insert itself in Egypt’s internal affairs. At the same time, you’ve just described a variety of changes that have to be made in Egypt, including the emergency law being lifted, which sounds exactly like the U.S. is meddling or weighing in on Egypt’s internal affairs.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, but let’s be clear, let’s be clear. And I think the Secretary of State was clear on a number of these things over the weekend. It’s been the position of this government through Democratic and Republican administrations that greater freedoms, greater democratic reforms, greater adherence to human rights needed to be part of what Egypt looked like.
We have, as a government, Democrat and Republican, advocated for the position of a vice president for the length of President Mubarak’s term because up until Saturday, for that 31 years, there never had been. We spoke out in I think September of this year as the emergency law was again extended, something that’s been several decades — has been in place for several decades — that we believed, Democratic and Republican administrations believed that that provided the government with extra judicial powers that were unnecessary.
So those are in accordance with the values that we hold, and the universal rights of the people of Egypt that we support. But it is not, again, for us to delineate that the only thing that has to happen is X, Y and Z. Again, that’s not a — I think that is important that we not make that determination on behalf of people halfway across the world.
Q The Vice President appointed by Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, presided over — presides over the intelligence apparatus in Egypt that has had a reputation for torturing people, but also has had a reputation for being a close intelligence ally of the U.S., may have helped, indeed, the U.S. with rendering suspects during that last administration, though not now. Has part of the communication about changes that the West would like to see include a reform of the security service, a declaration against torture and promise to end those practices?
MR. GIBBS: Mark, I know obviously as you mentioned it is the position of our government not to torture. It is our strong belief that that goes against many of the universal rights that we’ve discussed. I do not know the level, again, of granularity that has taken place in the discussions that have happened at different levels of government since Vice President Suleiman was sworn in. Again, I can just speak again broadly to those universal rights and what they must look like.
Q Thanks, Robert. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has sent undercover investigators from New York into Arizona where they were –
MR. GIBBS: I’m sorry, start that again.
Q Mayor Michael Blumberg –
MR. GIBBS: Okay.
Q — sent undercover — sorry, this is not Egypt-related — – sent undercover investigators to Arizona where they were legally allowed to buy semiautomatic pistols. This morning he said there was a “dangerous gap” in federal gun laws. What is this administration doing about that gap? And what is the reaction to the fact that investigators were allowed to legally buy semiautomatic pistols?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it has been — I have not seen the reports, Sam, and I will have somebody go pull that. But obviously, we are — we believe that there are reasons that federal laws are on the books, and the need to strongly adhere to and follow existing law is important not just in the purchase of weapons but throughout our civil life.