President Obama's Pentagon Press Conference. Aired 5-6p ET - Part 1

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll keep working one team -- federal, state, and local -- to try to slow and limit the spread of the virus.

[17:00:10] I do want to be very clear, though. Our public health experts do not expect to see the kind of widespread -- widespread outbreaks of Zika here that we've seen in Brazil or in Puerto Rico. The kind of mosquitos that are most likely to carry Zika are limited to certain regions of our country.

But we cannot be complacent, because we do expect to see more Zika cases. And even though the symptoms for most people are mild -- many may never know that they have it -- we've seen that the complications for pregnant women and their babies can be severe. So I again want to encourage every American to learn what they can do to help stop Zika by going to CDC.gov.

In addition, Congress needs to do its job. Fighting Zika costs money. Helping Puerto Rico deal with its Zika crisis costs money. Research into new vaccines -- and by the way, NIH just announced the first clinical trials in humans. That costs money. That's why my administration proposed an urgent request for more funding back in February.

Not only did the Republican-led Congress not pass our request, they worked to cut it. And then they left for summer recess without passing any new funds for fighting against Zika.

Meanwhile, our experts at the NIH and CDC, the folks on the front lines, have been doing the best that they can do by moving funds from other areas. But now the money that we need to fight Zika is rapidly running out. The situation is getting critical. For instance, without sufficient funding, NIH critical trials -- or clinical trials and the possibilities of a vaccine, which is well within reach, could be delayed.

So this is not the time for politics. More than 40 U.S. service members have now contracted Zika overseas. Fifteen U.S. states. We know of more than 1,800 cases of Zika connected to travel to infected areas, and that includes nearly 500 pregnant women.

Zika is now present in almost every part of Puerto Rico, and now we have the first local transmission in Florida, and there will certainly be more.

And meanwhile, Congress is off on summer recess. A lot of folks talk about protecting Americans from threats. Well, Zika is a serious threat to Americans, especially babies, right now. So once again, I want to urge the American people to call their members of Congress and tell them to do their job. Deal with this threat and help protect the American people from Zika.

With I'm going to take some questions. I'm going to start with someone who just assumed the second most powerful office in the land, Jeff Mason, the News Correspondents Association president, also from Reuters -- Jeff.

JEFF MASON, PRESIDENT, CORRESPONDENTS ASSOCIATION: Hardly powerful. And happy birthday.

OBAMA: Thank you very much.

MASON: As Islamic State loses territory, you and other officials have said that it is becoming a more traditional terrorist group. Are you satisfied that the United States and its allies have shifted strategy sufficiently to address that change?

And secondly, given your comments this week about Donald Trump's volatility and lack of fitness to be president, are you concerned that he will be receiving security briefings about ISIS and other sensitive national security breaches?

OBAMA: I'm never satisfied with our response. Because if you're satisfied, that means the problem is solved; and it's not. So we just spent a couple of hours, me with my top national security folks, to look at what more can be done.

It is absolutely necessary for us to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. It is not sufficient, but it is necessary. So long as they have those bases, they can use their propaganda to suggest that somehow there's still caliphate being born. And that can insinuate itself, then, in the minds of folks who may be willing to travel there or carry out terrorist attacks. It's also destabilizing for countries in the region at a time when the region is already unstable.

So I am pleased with the progress that we've made on the ground in Iraq and Syria. We're far from freeing Mosul and Raqqa. We have shown that when it comes can be beaten with partners on the ground, so long as they've got the support from coalition forces that we've been providing.

In the meantime, though, you're seeing ISIL carry out external terrorist acts. And they've learned something. They've adapted from al-Qaeda. At a much more centralized operation, and tried to plan very elaborate attacks.

And what ISIL figured out is if they can convince a handful of people, or even one person to carry out an attack on a subway, or at a parade, or you know, some other public venue, and kill scores of people as opposed to thousands of people, it is still creating the kinds of fear and concern that elevates their profile. So in some ways, rooting out these networks for smaller, less complicated attacks is tougher, because it doesn't require as many resources on their part or preparation. But it does mean that we've got to do even more to generate the intelligence and to work with our partners in order to degrade those networks.

And the fact is, is that those networks will probably sustain themselves even after ISIL is defeated in Raqqa and Mosul. But what we've learned from our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda is that, if we stay on it, our intelligence gets better, and we adapt, as well. And eventually we will dismantle these networks also.

This is part of the reason why it is so important for us to keep our eye on the ball, and not panic, not succumb to fear. ISIL can't defeat the United States of America, or our NATO partners. But we can defeat ourselves, though, if we make bad decisions. And we have to understand that, as painful and as tragic as these attacks are, that we are going to keep on grinding away, preventing them wherever we can, using a whole government effort to knock down their propaganda, to disrupt their networks, to take their key operatives off the battlefield; and that eventually we will -- we will win.

But if we -- if we start making bad decisions, indiscriminately killing civilians, for example, in some of these areas; instituting offensive religious tests on who can enter the country, those kinds of strategies can end up backfiring. Because in order for us to ultimately win this fight, we cannot frame this as a clash of civilizations between the west and Islam. That plays exactly into the hands of ISIL and the perversions -- perverse interpretations of Islam that they're putting forward.

As far as Mr. Trump, we are going to go by the law, which is that -- both tradition and the law, that if somebody is the nominee, the Republican nominee for president, they need to get security briefings so that, if they were to win, they are not starting from scratch in terms of being prepared for this office. And I'm not going to go into the details of the nature of the security briefings that both candidates receive.

What I will say is that they have been told these are classified briefings. And if they want to be president, they've got to start acting like president, and that means being able to receive these briefings and not to spread them around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you worried about that?

OBAMA: Well, I think I've said enough on that.

Mary Bruce.

MARY BRUCE, JOURNALIST: Thank you, Mr. President.

What is your response to critics who say the $400 million in cash that you sent to Iran was a ransom payment? Was it really simply a pure coincidence that a sum that was a payment that was held up for almost four decades was suddenly sent at the exact same time that the American prisoners were released? And can you assure the American people that none of that money went to support terrorism?

OBAMA: OK. The -- it's been interesting to watch this story surface. Some of you may recall we announced these payments in January, many months ago. They wasn't a secret. We announced them to all of you. Josh did a briefing on them. This wasn't some nefarious deal.

And at the time, we explained that Iran had pressed a claim before an international tribunal about them recovering money of theirs that we had frozen, that as a consequence of its working its way through the international tribunal, it was the assessment of our lawyers that we were now at a point where there was significant litigation risk, and we could end up costing ourselves billions of dollars.

It was their advice and suggestion that we settle, and that's what these payments represent. And it wasn't a secret. We -- we were completely open with everybody about it, and it's interesting to me how suddenly this became a story again. That's point No. 1.

Point No. 2, we do not pay ransom for hostages. We've got a number of Americans being held all around the world. And I meet with their families, and it is heartbreaking. And we have stood up an entire section of interagency experts that devote all their time to working with these families to get these Americans out. But those families know that we have a policy that we don't pay ransom.

And the notion that we would somehow start now, in this high profile way, and announce it to the world, even as we're looking in the faces of other hostage families whose -- whose loved ones are being held hostage, and saying to them we don't pay ransom, defies logic. So that's point No. 2.

We do not pay ransom. We didn't here, and we don't -- we won't in the future. Precisely because if we did, then we would start encouraging Americans to be targeted, much in the same way that some countries that do pay ransom end up having a lot more of their citizens being taken by various groups.

Point No. 3 is that the timing of this was, in fact, dictated by the fact that, as a consequence of us negotiating around the nuclear deal, we actually had diplomatic negotiations and conversations with Iran for the first time in several decades.

So the issue is not so much that it was a coincidence, as it is that we were able to have a direct discussion. John Kerry could meet with the foreign minister, which meant our ability to clear accounts on a number of different issues at the same time converged.

And it was important for us to take advantage of that opportunity, both to deal with this litigation risk that had been raised. It was important for us to make sure that we finished the job on the Iran nuclear deal; and since we were in conversation with them, it was important for us to be able to push them hard in getting these Americans out.

And let me make a final point on this. It's now been well over a year since the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program was signed. And by all accounts, it has worked exactly the way we said it was going to work.

You will recall there were all these horror stories about how Iran was going to cheat; and this wasn't going to work; and Iran was going to get $150 billion to finance terrorism, and all these kinds of scenarios; and none of them have come to pass. And it's not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it's the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term break-out capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.

So what I'm interested in is, if there's some news to be made, why not have some of these folks who were predicting disaster say, "You know what? This thing actually worked"? That would be a shock. That would be impressive.

If some of these folks who had said the sky is falling suddenly said, "You know what? We were wrong, and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in short-term and develop a nuclear weapon."

But of course that wasn't going to happen. Instead, what we have is the manufacturing of outrage and a story that we disclosed in January.

And the only bit of news that is relevant on this is the fact that we paid cash, which brings me to my last point. The reason that we had to give them cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions, and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran, that we couldn't send them a check. And we could not wire the money.

And it is not at all clear to me why it is that cash, as opposed to a check or a wire transfer, has made this into a new story. Maybe because it kind of feels like some spy novel or, you know, some crime novel, because cash was exchanged. The reason cash was exchanged is because we don't have a banking relationship with Iran, which is precisely part of the pressure that we were able to apply to them so that they would ship a whole bunch of nuclear material out and close down a bunch of facilities that, as I remember, two years ago, three years ago, five years ago, was people's top fear and priority, that we make sure Iran doesn't have break-out nuclear capacity. They don't. This worked.

Josh -- Josh Letterman.

JOSH LETTERMAN, JOURNALIST: Thank you, Mr. President.

Repeatedly now, Donald Trump has said that this election will be rigged against him, challenging, really, the core foundation our Democratic system.

Can you promise the American people that this election will be conducted in a fair way? And are you worried that comments like his could erode the public's faith in the outcome of the election? And if he does win, given that you've just declared him unfit, what will you say to the American people? OBAMA: Well, at the end of the day, it's the American people's decision. I have one vote. I have the same vote you do. I have the same vote that all of the voters eligible all across the country have. I've offered my opinion, but ultimately, it's the American people's decision to make collectively.

And if somebody wins the election and they are president, then my constitutional responsibility is to peacefully transfer power to that individual and do everything I can to help them succeed.

It is -- I don't even really know where to start on answering this question. Of course the elections will not be rigged. What does that mean? The federal government doesn't run the election process. States and cities and communities all across the country, they are the ones who set up the voting systems and the voting booths.

And if Mr. Trump is suggesting that there is a conspiracy theory that is being propagated across the country, including in places like Texas, where it typically it's not Democrats who are in charge of voting booths, that's ridiculous. That doesn't make any sense, and I don't think anybody would take that seriously.

Now, we do take seriously, as we always do, our responsibilities to monitor and preserve the integrity of the voting process. If we see signs that a voting machine or system is vulnerable to hacking, then we inform those local authorities who are running the elections that they need to be careful. If we see jurisdictions that are violating federal laws in terms of equal access and aren't providing ramps for disabled voters, or are discriminating in some fashion, or are otherwise violating civil rights laws, then the Justice Department will come in and take care of that.

But this will be an election like any other election. And you know, I'm -- I think all of us at some points in our lives have played sports or maybe just played in a -- in a schoolyard or a sandbox, and sometimes folks, if they lose, they start complaining that they got cheated. But I've never heard of somebody complaining about being cheating before the game was over or before the score is even tallied.

So my suggestion would be, you know, go out there and try to win the election. If Mr. Trump is up 10 or 15 points on election day and ends up losing, then you know, maybe he can raise some questions. That doesn't seem to be the case at the moment -- Barbara Starr.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Thank you, Mr. President.

On the question of ISIS expansion that you've been talking about, because you see them expanding around the world, because you see them trying to inspire attacks, what is your current level of concern about the homeland? You talked about the protection measures, but what is your assessment about the possibility -- your own intelligence advisors suggest it's possible -- about the direct ISIS threat to Americans?

And if I may follow up, somewhat along the same lines, what is your assessment today, as you stand here, about whether Donald Trump can be trusted with America's nuclear weapons?

OBAMA: On your second question, and I'll sort of address this to any additional Trump questions, I would ask all of you to just make your own judgment. I've made this point already multiple times. Just listen to what Mr. Trump has to say and make your own judgment with respect to how confident you feel about his ability to manage things like our nuclear triad.

STARR: With respect, sir, it suggests that you're not confident.

OBAMA: Well, as I recall, I just answered a question about this a couple days ago, and I thought I made myself pretty clear. And I don't want to just keep on repeating it or a variation on it.

I obviously have a very strong opinion about the two candidates who are running here. One is very positive, and one is not so much. And I think that you will just hear any further questions that are directed to this suggest, I think you'll hear, pretty much, variations on the same thing.

What I can say is that this is serious business. And the person in the Oval Office and who our secretary of defense, and our joint chiefs of staff and our outstanding men and women in uniform report to. They counting on somebody who has the temperament and good judgment to be able to make decisions to keep America safe. And that should be very much on the minds of voters when they go into the voting booth in November.

In terms of the threat that ISIL poses to the homeland, I think it is serious. We take it seriously. And as I said earlier, precisely because they are less concerned about big spectacular 9/11-style attacks, because they've seen the degree of attention they can get with smaller-scale attacks using small arms or assault rifles, or in the case of Nice, France, a truck. The possibility of either a lone actor or a small cell carrying out an attack that kills people is real.

And that's why our intelligence and law enforcement and military officials are working around the clock to try to anticipate potential attacks; to obtain the threads of people who might be vulnerable to brainwashing by ISIL.

We are constrained here in the United States to carry out this work in a way that's consistent with our laws and presumptions of innocence. And the fact that we prevent a lot of these attacks as effectively as we do, without a lot of fanfare and abiding by our law, it is a testament to the incredible work that these folks are doing. They work really hard at it. But it is always a risk.

[17:25:47] And some of you may have read the article in "The New York Times" today -- I guess it came out last night online -- about an individual in Germany who had confessed and given himself up and then explained his -- his knowledge of how ISIS networks worked.

There was a paragraph in there that some may have caught, which we don't know for a fact that it is true, but according to this reporting, the individual indicated that ISIL recognizes it's harder to get its operatives into the United States.

But the fact that we have what he referred to as open gun laws meant that anybody, as long as they didn't have a criminal record that barred them from purchase, could go in and buy weapons. That made sort of a homegrown extremist strategy more attractive to them. And those are the hardest to stop, because by definition, if somebody doesn't have a record, if it's not triggering something, it means that anticipating their actions becomes that much more difficult.

And this is why the military strategy that we have in Syria and Iraq is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We have to do a better job of disrupting networks, and those networks are more active in Europe than they are here. But we don't know what we don't know, and so it's conceivable that there are some networks here that could be activated.

But we also have to get to the messaging that can reach a troubled individual over the Internet and do a better job of disrupting that. And what I've told my team is that, although we've been working on this now for five, six, seven years, we have to put more resources into it. This is -- this can't be an afterthought. It's something that we have to really focus on.

This is also why how we work with the Muslim American community, the values that we affirm about their patriotism, and their sacrifice, and our fellow feeling with them is so important.

One of the reasons that we don't have networks and cells that are as active here as they are in certain parts of Europe, is because the Muslim-American community in this country is extraordinarily patriotic and largely successful, and fights in our military, and serves as our doctors and our nurses. And you know, their communities in which they are raising their kids with love of country and a rejection of violence. And that has to be affirmed consistently. And if we -- if we screw that up, then we're going to have bigger problems.

Gregory Korte of "USA Today."

GREGORY KORTE, REPORTER, "USA TODAY": Thank you, Mr. President.

Yesterday you commuted the sentences of 214 federal inmates. It was the largest single-day grant of commutations in the history of the American presidency. So I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about your clemency process.

One is you talked about this as low-level drug offenders who got mandatory minimum sentences. About a quarter of the commutations you granted also had firearms offenses. Given your overall philosophy on firearms, can you reconcile that for us? And given that previously in your presidency, you had sent a memo to the Office of Pardon Attorneys saying there was a sort of a predisposition against firearms in hearing clemency, why did you change your mind on that?

Also, the other side of the ledger here is pardons. You've granted more commutations than any president since Calvin Coolidge. You've granted fewer pardons than any two-term president since John Addams. Why is that? Is the focus on commutations taking energy away from pardons? Especially since, you know, these are -- you talk about second chances. A full pardon would give people a better chance at those second chances.

[17:30:21] And then finally, just one other thing on pardons. Many of your predecessors, in the final days of their presidency, have saved -- reserved that for their more politically-sensitive pardons. Should we expect you to do that, or would you rule that out?

OBAMA: I appreciate the question, Gregory, because I haven't had a chance to talk about this much. And this is an effort that I'm really proud of.

It is my view, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike in many quarters, that as successful as we've been in reducing crime in this country, the extraordinary rate of incarceration of nonviolent offenders has created its own set of problems that are devastating. Entire communities have been ravaged, where largely men, but some women, are taken out of those communities. Kids are now growing up without parents. It perpetuates the cycle of poverty and disorder in their lives. It is disproportionally young men of color that are being arrested at higher rates, charged and convicted at higher rates, and imprisoned for longer sentences.

And so ultimately, the fix on this is criminal justice reform. And I still hold out hope that the bipartisan effort that's taken place in Congress can finish the job; and we can have a criminal justice system, at least at the federal level, that is both smart on crime, effective on crime, but recognizes the need for proportionality in sentencing and the need to rehabilitate those who commit crimes.

But even as that slow process of criminal justice reform goes forward, what I want to see is if we could reinvigorate the pardon process and commutation process that had become stalled over the course of several years. Partly because it's politically risky. You know, you commute somebody and they commit a crime, and the politics of it are tough. And everybody remembers the Willie Horton ad.

And so the bias, I think, of my predecessors and, frankly, a number of my advisors early in my presidency is "be careful about that." But I thought it was very important for us to send a clear message that we believe in the principles behind criminal justice reform, even if, ultimately, we need legislation.

So we have focused more on commutations than we have on pardons. I would argue, Gregory, that by the time I leave office, the number of pardons that we grant will be roughly in line with what other presidents have done, but standing up this commutations process has required a lot of effort and a lot of energy, and it's not like we've got a new slug of money to do it. So you've got limited resources. The primary job of the Justice Department is to prevent crime and to convict those who have committed crimes and to keep the American people safe, and that means that you've had this extraordinary and herculean effort by a lot of people inside the Justice Department to go above and beyond what they're doing, to also review these petitions that have been taking place. And we've been able to get bar organizations around the country to participate, to kind of screen and help people apply. And what we've -- the main criteria that I've tried to set is if, under today's laws, because there have been changes in how we charge nonviolent drug offenses, if under today's charges, their sentences would be substantially lower than the charges that they received if they got a life sentence but a U.S. attorney or the Justice Department indicates that today they'd be likely to get 20 years and they've already served 25, then what we try to do is to screen through and find those individuals who have paid their debt to society, that have behaved themselves and tried to reform themselves while incarcerated, and think -- we think have a good chance of being able to use that second chance well.

[17:35:31] On the firearms issue, what I've done is to try to screen out folks who seem to have a propensity for violence. And so -- and these are just hypotheticals. But there may be a situation where a kid at 18 was a member of a gang, had a firearm, did not use it in the offense that he was charged in, there's no evidence that he used it in any violent offense. It's still -- a firearms charge, an enhancement, but he didn't use it. He's now 48 or 38, 20 years later, and has an unblemished prison record, has gone back to school, gotten his G.E.D., has gone through drug treatment, has the support of the original judge that presided, the support of the U.S. attorney that charged him, support of the warden, has a family that loves him.

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