In a last-minute press conference at the White House Friday, President Obama hit congressional Republicans for not passing an emergency border funding bill and for, as he sees it, keeping Congress unproductive.
“We all agree that there’s a problem that needs to be solved in a portion of our southern border, and we even agree on most of the solutions,” Obama said. “Instead of working together … House Republicans, as we speak, are trying to pass the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”
The House GOP is scrambling, Obama said, “just so they can check a box before leaving town this month.” On the crisis, Obama said, “I’m going to have to act alone.”
Obama also addressed post-9/11 America in remarks about the Central Intelligence Agency. “We tortured some folks,” he said. “We did some things that were contrary to our values. I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the twin towers fell, and the Pentagon had been hit, and a plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law-enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.”
He continued: “A lot of those folks were working hard and under enormous pressure, and are real patriots. But having said all that, we did some things that were wrong.” The president also said that he has “full confidence” in CIA Director John Brennan, despite the agency’s admission this week that it had hacked Senate computers.
It may be the first day of August, but there is a lot going on, so it’s not surprising that Obama decided to weigh in before the weekend. A cease-fire in Gaza brokered by the U.S. and the U.N. on Thursday fell apart less than two hours after it took effect, and there are now reports that an Israeli soldier has been captured by Hamas. In his statement, Obama slammed Palestinian militant group Hamas for breaking the cease-fire and abducting an Israeli soldier, but he also acknowledged that civilian deaths by Israeli air strikes “weigh on our conscience.” “A cease-fire was one way in which could stop the killing,” he said.
Obama also chastised Senate Republicans for blocking confirmation of an ambassador to Sierra Leone, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak, and to Guatemala, which is on the other end of the U.S. immigration crisis. He cited those lawmakers for dragging their feet on a vote on a new ambassador to Russia for “purely political reasons.”
“We shouldn’t be having an argument about placing career diplomats with bipartisan support in countries around the world where we have to have a presence,” he said.
“The truth of the matter, he continued, “is that there’s a big world out there, and that as indispensable as we are to try to lead it, there’s still going to be tragedies out there, and there are going to be conflicts, and our job is to just make sure that we continue to project what’s right, what’s just, and, you know, that we’re building coalitions of like-minded countries and partners in order to advance not only our core security interests, but also the interests of the world as a whole.”
In his statement, Obama slammed Hamas for breaking the cease-fire and abducting an Israeli soldier, but he also acknowledged that civilian deaths by Israeli air strikes “weigh on our conscience.” “A ceasefire was one way in which could stop the killing,” he said.
He added: “I want to see everything possible done to make sure that Palestinian civilians are not being killed, and it is heartbreaking to see what’s happening there.”
On the Ukraine crisis, Obama said that he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday morning. The White House, together with the European Union, announced new sanctions Tuesday against more Russian banks and energy and defense companies.
“We can’t control how Mr. Putin thinks, but what we can do is say to Mr. Putin, if you continue on the path of arming separatists, with heavy armaments that evidence suggests may have resulted in 300 innocent people on a jet dying and that violates international law and undermines the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Obama said, “then you’re going to face consequences that will hurt your country.”
The president brushed off a question about whether the U.S. has lost its influence in the world. “Apparently, people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on Earth, still does not control everything around the world,” he said. “And so our diplomatic efforts often take time.”
“Do you wish you could have done more?” CBS’s Bill Plante said then.
“On which one?” Obama asked.
“On any of them,” Plante replied.
Back in Washington, House Republicans are currently working toward a vote on a border measure that provides emergency funding to address the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America. That $694 million bill, even if it does pass the House later Friday, is at a funding level far below what the Senate wants, which in turn is less than what the Obama administration has asked for.
Without legislation for emergency funding, the Homeland Security Department may not have enough money to adequately control the crisis in the coming weeks, Secretary Jeh Johnson has said. “We’re going to run out of money to deal with this,” Johnson said in late July. With the Senate now adjourned until September, with no work planned during Congress’ five-week recess, and the House soon to follow, there is virtually zero chance of Congress giving Homeland Security and the White House any of the $3.7 billion in funds they had requested by August.
“Without additional resources and help from Congress,” Obama said Friday, “we’re just not going to have the resources we need to fully solve the problem. That means while they’re out on vacation, I’m going to have to make some tough choices to meet the challenge. With or without Congress.”
Speaker Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel put the border blame on Obama. “When it comes to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border, President Obama has been completely AWOL,” Steel said in a statement during the presser. “Senate Democrats have left town without acting on his request for a border supplemental. Right now, House Republicans are the only ones still working to address this crisis.”
The president opened with a statement about July’s jobs growth, which showed that the U.S. economy added 209,000 in the month. The report itself wasn’t anything groundbreaking: it came in slightly below expectations, and many key aspects of the report — such as the number of long-term unemployed, and average hourly wage growth — remained unchanged from June.
“That’s why my administration keeps taking whatever actions we can take on our own to help working families,” Obama said.
Next week, the president will participate in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, a three-day conference in Washington. The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone, two of the three West African nations hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak, have canceled plans to attend. Obama said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies are working to help West Africa contain the outbreak, the worst of its kind in recorded history.
Toward the end of the press conference, as multiple reporters shouted questions at him, the president played chummy. “I thought that you guys were going to ask me how I was going to spend my birthday,” said Obama, who turns 53 on Monday. “What happened to the happy birthday thing?” Eventually, someone obliged.