James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
See below for an answer to a question (marked with an asterisk) posed in the briefing that required follow up.
* The President asked the Department of Justice to establish a unit within the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, made up of Department of Housing and Urban Development, Securities and Exchange Commission and state Attorneys General, to investigate origination and securitization. Separately, federal enforcement agencies, state Attorneys General and some of the nation’s largest financial institutions continue negotiations to reach a settlement to resolve misconduct in the servicing of home loans.
1:45 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: I have no announcements to make at the top, so I will go straight to questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. First off, I wanted to ask about Afghanistan. The President has put in motion a plan to withdraw troops and get us down to about 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by September. Now Secretary Panetta says he envisions an end of combat role towards the middle -- latter part of 2013. How does that affect the pace of withdrawal for the rest of the U.S. troops?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me step back and clarify your question. Secretary Panetta, on his way to a meeting of fellow defense ministers of NATO in Brussels, spoke with reporters about the consultations he would be having, and in line with the NATO policy set forward in Lisbon with regards to Afghanistan that called for the transfer of security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014. That is the policy, and it has not changed.
What the meetings the Secretary is involved in now are about is how that transition will unfold and take place, and that will certainly be a subject of serious discussion among heads of state of NATO who are here in Chicago hosted by President Obama in May.
It certainly -- what Secretary Panetta said is that it could happen that the transition to Afghan security lead could be moved up to 2013, but he was not making an announcement about a decision that had been made, simply about the consultations that would be taking place in Brussels and from Brussels forward to Chicago.
Q Well, he said -- he did say “hopefully,” but the mid to latter part of 2013, we’ll be able to make the transition from combat role to training. Before that, we had heard from the President that the combat role would end by 2014. So that’s clearly a change.
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, he said “hopefully,” and it could happen early. Look, our objective -- let’s be clear about the President’s Afghanistan strategy, which included the ramping up of forces substantially in order to implement. Its number-one goal is to disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda. U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, as well as the forces of our international partners in ISAF, are in Afghanistan because al Qaeda attacked the United States, and al Qaeda has attacked other countries. Our number-one objective, therefore, is to defeat al Qaeda.
The President’s strategy, working with our NATO allies, has resulted in some significant progress in achieving that goal. I don’t think anybody could dispute that.
Another secondary goal of the policy is to stabilize Afghanistan to allow time for the Afghan security forces to be built up, trained, and develop the capacities to take over security lead. That process has begun. Some sections of Afghanistan have been transferred to Afghan security forces, and it will continue. The pace of it, the point at which full lead is turned over to Afghan forces is going to be a subject of discussion among defense ministers as well as heads of state in Chicago in May.
The operating strategy is still what was articulated in Lisbon, which is the combat lead will shift -- or rather, the lead, combat lead -- I guess you could say combat lead would shift to the Afghan security forces by 2014.
Q At the end of 2014?
MR. CARNEY: By the end of 2014. But that was -- I mean, that is where we are. And what that transition looks like and when -- the discussions about that transition will take place over time. And as Secretary Panetta said, it could happen, and hopefully it will happen that we could do it sooner.
Q Okay. Let me just wrap up on this point with my original question, which is, the President has been on record as withdrawing troops, but the latest we knew was that there would be about 68,000, 70,000 troops by September. Is there any clarity about how fast the rest of the troops will come home?
MR. CARNEY: After September?
MR. CARNEY: I’m sure that will be a subject of discussion among NATO ministers and heads of state and combat commanders. But I have nothing to announce from here about any changes about the pace, and I think that will be determined in part by how successful the transition is taking place over to Afghan security forces.
Q Okay. One quick question on the economy. As I’m sure you know, it’s three years to the day the President said in an interview, in talking about the economy, that if I don’t have this done in three years then there’s going to be a one-term proposition. I’m assuming you don’t think it’s done; maybe you do. But does he regret having said that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no. I think you aptly point out that it was three years ago, and he made that statement at a time -- in a month when I think the economy shed close to 700,000 or 800,000 jobs in the process of shedding 8 million overall; a time during which the economy had recently shrunk in one quarter by 9 percent -- the worst contraction in our economy since the Great Depression.
He has successfully, through the policies he has pursued, changed the direction that we were in when he took office. And while we are not done and won’t be done until every American who wants a job can find a job, and until we have built a foundation for our economy to compete and win in the 21st century, there is no question that -- and I talked about this the other day, the graph, basically the U-shaped graph of unemployment and what it looked like as the President was taking office, inheriting the economy that he had at the time, and what it had begun to look like and the slope upwards once his policies began to take effect.
Q But can’t you see how somebody who took him at his word would think that this deserves to be a one-term proposition?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, because I think that he made clear that, in that whole interview and I’m sure every interview he gave at the time, that what his primary obligation was, as President, was to stop this cataclysmic decline in the economy that was taking place when he took office. He successfully did that. He, working with Congress, set out -- put into place policies that have led to 22 straight months of private sector job growth, to 10 straight quarters of economic growth instead of contraction. I don’t think anybody who looks at that objectively could suggest that that turnaround hasn’t happened, or that we are finished with the job.
And I think the President has made clear, and will continue to make clear throughout this year, why we need to continue to do the things we can, and the right things, to grow the economy and create jobs; and certainly not go back to the policies that indisputably helped precipitate the situation that we found ourselves in in January of 2009, where the economy was in freefall.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, Alister.
Q Jay, just going back to Afghanistan. The statement by the Defense Secretary clearly surprised a number of people. It surprised U.S. lawmakers, it surprised U.S. allies, and it surprised officials in Kabul. I mean, why make the disclosure now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s not -- he was simply discussing -- Secretary Panetta was discussing the consultations he would be having shortly with NATO defense ministers. So I guess the disclosure, if you’re referring to it in that way, which I would take issue with, was going to happen within hours anyway, or a day, because those discussions would take place. All it was was a framing of the kind of conversations that the defense ministers would begin having in Brussels, and that would continue to take place up until May, when the President hosts NATO in Chicago.
Q Okay. And to just clarify, does it mean that U.S. troops will be coming home faster, or be less exposed to harm, than had previously been expected?
MR. CARNEY: Let me just be clear -- as I said in answer to Ben’s question -- this was an assessment of what could happen within the context of the stated policy of NATO, which is to transfer security lead to the Afghan security forces by 2014, and within that frame, within that timeline, the transition will take place. It has already started in some areas of Afghanistan, and troops -- U.S. troops are already -- already coming home, as you know.
So obviously, as time passes and defense ministers, heads of state, combat commanders make decisions about and assessment of how the progress is -- how much progress is being made, what the conditions are like on the ground, adjustments will be made in terms of schedules and timelines. But that’s what Secretary Panetta was referring to, and that discussion will continue, as I said, throughout the spring.
Q Okay, and one little thing. A group of Republican senators are proposing legislation to halt the sequester in 2013 and pay for it with a federal pay freeze. What would the White House say to that?
MR. CARNEY: That should be the legislation that says, “America, we didn’t mean what we said.” Is that the bill that should -- because the whole idea of the sequester was to design it in a way so that nobody, Democrats or Republicans, wanted it to become fact. Therefore they would be compelled to make the tough choices that would lead to the $1.2 minimum -- $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction that had been agreed to.
That remains the case. The sequester is bad policy for a reason -- so that it doesn’t get enacted. But those cuts have to take -- the cuts have to take place. Congress is compelled to make them happen. And this President will obviously sign into a law a balanced approach to making that deficit reduction happen.
But it can’t be that some members of Congress promised to their constituents, promised to America, with the Budget Control Act, look what we’ve done; we’re holding our own feet to the fire, my fellow Americans. And then a few months later decide, we didn’t really mean it, let’s change that. That’s not how it works, and that’s not how it should work. The sequester is onerous for a reason, and the President certainly hopes that Congress will take up the issue again and present him with deficit reduction measures that are balanced in the way that he has outlined and that bipartisan deficit reduction commissions have outlined.
Jake, and then Christi.
Q Two health care issues in the news today. The Susan G. Komen Foundation has decided to stop funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood; 22 Democratic senators just wrote a letter to the Komen Foundation asking them to change that decision. I’m wondering if the White House or President Obama had an opinion.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, I don’t -- I’ve seen the reports, but I don’t have any comment on it from the White House. These are obviously two private organizations. So I don’t have anything for you on that.
Q And then Speaker Boehner today said that he thought that the rule that HHS recently announced requiring all health insurance to provide contraceptive services, he thought that that rule, which, as you know, aroused the ire of the Catholic Church, among other organizations, is unconstitutional. And I’m wondering why -- without getting into the whole constitutionality, because neither you nor I are attorneys -- why does the Obama administration think it has the right to tell any organization that they have to provide a service, even if that service goes against their religious beliefs?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear about what the decision does. First of all, on the constitutionality issue, no, we do not believe -- we obviously believe this is constitutional. But the point of the decision, which was made after careful consideration, and we believe reaches the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and the need to provide -- make services available to women across the country, we want to make sure that women have access to good health care, no matter where they work, and that all women who want access to contraceptives are able to get them without paying a copay every time they go to the pharmacy.
And let’s be clear about -- because there’s been a lot of -- in some of the commentary about it there’s been some misstatements about what it actually does. No individual will be required to use or prescribe contraception. This rule does not force anyone with a religious objection, such as a Catholic doctor, to prescribe or provide contraception. It merely requires that insurance companies provide coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them, which is the recommendation of the non-partisan Institute of Medicine.
And it’s important to note that doctors prescribe contraception for medical and health reasons, including helping to reduce the risk of some cancers.
It’s also important to know -- because I think this has not been clear in some of the commentary -- that the policy maintains the religious-employer exemption: churches are not required -- they’re exempt; other houses of worship are not required -- they’re exempt -- to cover contraception.
So it’s also important to note that as we developed this policy and found what we believe is the appropriate balance, that 28 states -- more than half -- 28 states in the country have laws with contraception coverage mandates. Over half of Americans already live in those 28 states. Several of those states, like North Carolina, New York and California, have identical religious-employer exemptions. Some states, like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all -- no exemption for churches or other houses of worship.
Q As President Obama acknowledged in his comments at the prayer breakfast this morning, there are Catholic charities and other Catholic organizations that are not houses or worship, in which obviously their beliefs are very strongly held; it’s what they do for a living. They believe that life begins at the moment that an egg is fertilized.
MR. CARNEY: Sure. And the policy doesn’t -- does not require any individual to take or provide or prescribe contraception. It is simply -- requires employers to offer insurance coverage that provides that.
Q That provides services that they find morally objectionable.
MR. CARNEY: But the individuals have -- should have the, in our estimation, should have the same rights to have that kind of coverage. It’s an important health issue and it’s also an important financial issue for women across the country.
Again, I just -- as I just made clear to you, 28 states have similar -- similarly require insurance companies to cover contraception. And several states, large ones -- North Carolina, New York and California -- have identical religious-employer exemptions. And some -- Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin -- have no exemption at all.
So I think the idea that this is something wholly new has not been well explained in some of the coverage. Again, it makes sure that employees -- we’re talking about employers here and employees -- and employees of all different faiths who might work at organizations that are affiliated with a single faith -- we need to make sure that those employees of all different faiths get -- have access to contraception. And that’s why we sought the -- what we believe is an appropriate balance.
Q Can you see why individuals are offended by it and feel like you’re forcing --
MR. CARNEY: Well, we certainly see that there’s disagreement about this. We consulted with a wide range of people in establishing this policy, and finding the balance that was found. And we’re certainly aware of some of the reporting out there. But I think it’s important to note that there hasn’t been a lot of clarity to what the policy actually is, the exemption that exists within it, and what it’s requiring here. It is, again, not requiring any individual to in any way violate his or her conscience; it is not requiring anything but employers -- organizations -- big hospitals and universities, for example -- to offer insurance coverage that includes this service, just like elsewhere.
Q My questions actually are on the very same topic. The President this morning talked about making policy decisions within a moral framework, and I just wonder if this one followed that. Did the President -- did he pray about it? Did he talk it over with religious leaders before this decision was rendered?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t -- I haven’t had the discussion about what his own -- whether he himself prayed about it. I just haven’t had that conversation with him. He did consult with some religious leaders about it. And I think that when you talk about making decisions within a moral framework, providing necessary medical services to women across the country is also a decision that falls into that context. And when you seek to find the appropriate balance, which is what we sought here to do, you have to weigh all of these factors, including the need to provide services to women, and obviously the issue of religious belief.
And that’s the balance we found -- a balance that has been found by other -- by states across the country, and that other institutions have successfully dealt with in those states. As you know, we want to continue to work with organizations for the next year as they develop how they’re going to handle this policy. And so we -- this was done with careful consideration. It was not done arbitrarily, it was done absolutely focused on the issues under consideration now.
Q And could you also talk about the response that you’ve gotten since this picked up steam and people became aware of it? Have you heard from interest groups? Have people been calling? What kind of response? And also, this morning, were there any religious leaders who wanted to talk to the President about it?
MR. CARNEY: I didn’t travel with the President to the prayer breakfast, and I didn’t discuss that with him this morning, so I don’t know. But we’re certainly -- we’ve seen media reports, people expressing opinions on a variety of sides of this issue, and I’m sure that some folks have heard from people who believe it’s the right policy and people who disagree with it. But I don’t have anything specific on that for you.
Q On Afghanistan, is there any daylight between President Obama and Secretary Panetta?
MR. CARNEY: Not at all.
Q So the President also -- he’s hopeful that by mid-2013 American forces and others can transition from a combat role to a train-and-assist role?
MR. CARNEY: Look, the President made clear that U.S. forces are in Afghanistan to accomplish a mission. And they will not stay in Afghanistan forever, and they will not stay in Afghanistan any longer than is necessary to accomplish that mission. And one of the things he made very clear that he would do if he were elected President and that he has absolutely done since he’s been -- came to office, is clarify exactly what our mission in Afghanistan is. As you know, Norah, because you were --
Q Is this an instance where he and his Secretary are clarifying again with an accelerated timetable?
MR. CARNEY: No, I think that what was made clear back in June when the President talked about the drawdown is that there would be discussions about the transition, the pace and the slope of the drawdown, and the transfer and the time -- how the transfer would unfold to Afghan security lead.
Obviously, within the context of making the full transfer by the end of 2014, you can’t make assessments two years out about how things will look every month along the way. So those assessments are being made.
But it is absolutely the case that this President is committed to achieving our mission in Afghanistan and then drawing down U.S. forces. There is no question about that.
And let’s be clear that the policy he inherited was one of neglect in Afghanistan, because of the focus on the war in Iraq, and he made clear as a candidate that he would change that. He would make clear -- he made clear that he would heighten the focus on the real enemy, which was al Qaeda; he has done that. And he has made clear that he would commit resources and make tough decisions to ensure that we were successfully pursuing the right objectives in Afghanistan, and he’s done that. This is all part of that Afghanistan policy.
Q Can you respond then to the criticism, specifically from Mitt Romney, who has said, “Why in the world would you go and give people that you’re fighting and tell them the date you’re pulling out troops? It makes absolutely no sense.”
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to address specific criticisms from one person. But obviously there are some out there. The President has a very clear, focused, achievable policy with a lot of muscle behind it.
What he does not support is war without end. And I mean that in the temporal sense and in the objective sense. War without a temporal end, like when will this -- how long will we be there and why? And I think that there is -- some of the critics of the President’s very focused strategy in Afghanistan, who have said this when we talked about 2014 and are now saying it again today, supported a policy in Afghanistan under the previous administration that no two people involved in it could explain.
Why were we there? Why were the number of forces that we had there -- why was that number chosen as opposed to fewer or more? What was the objective? It was entirely unclear. And I know you know that because you covered it, and a lot of you did.
This President has been relentlessly focused on what the mission is and achieving it.
Q And then also, just on that, General Petraeus, the head of the CIA, said this morning that he thinks that Secretary Panetta’s comments have been overanalyzed. Would you share that view?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s up to you and others to analyze it. I mean, look --
Q No, I mean -- he’s the director of the CIA.
MR. CARNEY: Sure. No, I mean, I don’t know whether -- over-, underanalyzed. This is an important issue, and I think it’s always worth paying attention to, frankly, and it’s far better than some of the issues that sometimes consume us in Washington.
The Secretary of Defense made some comments about a very important policy that the President is implementing, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss it.
Q And then any opinion about the --
MR. CARNEY: But I would say, as I have said in answer to Ben and Jake and Alister, that the context is important to understand here. This is within the context of the already-stated policy of transferring security lead to the Afghans by 2014. How that transition takes place is what Secretary Panetta will be discussing and is discussing with defense ministers in Brussels, and that conversation will continue right up through May when President Obama hosts his fellow NATO heads of state in Chicago in May.
Q And your opinion on the CBO report yesterday that unemployment would likely be above 9 percent by the election, and also that the deficit again will be over $1 trillion this year, making President Obama the only President to have three years of trillion-plus deficits. How does the President defend that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, made possible in part by the trillion-dollar deficit he inherited from his predecessor, but the --
Q But he’s been in office three years.
MR. CARNEY: Oh, no question, and he came into office with the worst recession since the Great Depression, a catastrophic decline in economic growth and employment, and took measures to reverse that catastrophic situation, and measures that have been successful.
I think -- I don’t have the graph now, but I saw an interesting graph lately about what policies contributed to the deficit that we have now, and I think it’s worth reading -- and maybe we’ll find it for you -- because there’s no question that two massive unpaid tax cuts; two very expensive, unpaid-for wars; expansions in entitlements that were unpaid for, and other programs that were unpaid for that happened prior to this President coming into office were big contributors to the deficit.
It is also true, because of the catastrophic economy that existed in early 2009, that he took measures --
Q He did say -- Ben talked about it -- if he didn’t do it in three years he would be looking at a one-term proposition.
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, he didn’t talk about -- he wasn’t referring to the deficit by itself; he was talking about turning this economy around. And there’s no question that the economy has turned around, after it went down quite dramatically, and it’s now been climbing out of the hole that was dug for 10 straight quarters -- 22 straight months of private sector job growth.
The work is not done. But I think it is important to remember that the deficits that we’re dealing with now, and which we have to address seriously and in a balanced way, were contributed to mightily by the policies of the previous decade. And it’s important to remember that in January of 2001, after President Clinton left office, there were budget surpluses for the first time in a generation, and CBO and others forecasted budget surpluses for as far as the eye could see.
Q Thank you. On Iran, what is the White House position on these new financial sanctions that were passed by the Senate Banking Committee this morning?
MR. CARNEY: I’d have to take -- I haven’t seen those new sanctions. But I’m sure we will look at them and have a position for you on them.
Q In general terms, does the administration worry that some of the actions on the sanctions that Congress has taken has to some extent usurped President Obama’s prerogative on foreign policy?
MR. CARNEY: No. I think that we’ve made clear what our position is with regards, for example, to the sanctions that were part of the NDAA and the -- on the Central Bank of Iran, and making sure that we implement these sanctions, which were designed with a goal in mind that we absolutely share, which is further pressuring and isolating the Iranian regime in order to get it to comply with its international obligations. We want to make sure that the implementation of those sanctions is handled in a way that does not inadvertently do any harm to our allies or to the oil markets. But we believe there’s a way to implement them appropriately that achieves the goal that those sanctions have, which is to further isolate and pressure Iran.
Q On the contraceptives controversy, Speaker Boehner also called on the administration to reconsider this rule. Is there an ongoing debate about potentially reviewing this again, even though there was extensive review going into the decision?
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important, the point that you made at the end of your question is the point I was going to begin with, is there was extensive and careful consideration as this policy was developed and the decision was made.
And the issue here is we want to make sure that women, all women, have access to good health care. And the fact is, on average, an American woman uses contraception for 30 years of her life, with the average cost of contraception of $50 per month. So this is both an issue of health as well as economics for women across the country.
And so, in seeking to find the appropriate balance that we believe we found, it was very important to take into consideration the need to make sure that all women had access to good health care. And that’s what we’ve done here.
Q So no debate about whether or not this should be reconsidered?
MR. CARNEY: No, there’s not a debate. I think as was noted initially and I said again earlier, we want to work with organizations for the next year to help them deal with the implementation of the policy, but the decision has been made and it was made after careful consideration.
Q You’re quite aware that last Sunday in a number of Catholic churches across the country, priests got up and read letters of protest, if you will. Any concern at all that this kind of pushback could grow to sort of a wider extent among the Catholic Church and what the political implications of this could be?
MR. CARNEY: This policy was decided upon based on the merits, based on a balanced consideration of the need to find a balance between religious beliefs, on the one hand, and the need for broad access to important health care on the other for women across the country. This was not a decision about politics.
And we obviously know of and have seen the reports that you mention. I think it’s important also to note that there are a lot of folks out there who support this policy for the very reasons that we have put it forward, which is that this provides an important preventive service for women across the country. And it is not in any way in violation of the conscience clause. It’s not in any way -- does not in any way require any individual to provide or prescribe contraception. And it exempts -- unlike some significantly sized states in this country, it exempts houses of worship and churches from having to abide by the policy.
So that’s the balance we sought and we think we found it.
Q And one quick thing on the economy. Does the President have his own graph, if you will, where he wants to see unemployment by November?
MR. CARNEY: Well, he’s not an economist and he leaves predictions about what those numbers will look like to the economists. He is focused on doing what he can through legislative work with Congress and through executive initiative to move this economy forward, to keep it growing, to keep the recovery moving forward, making sure that it’s creating jobs.
We’ve made some progress and it is -- again, I think as we step back and look at this, as folks will be doing this year, at the context of what has happened since President Obama has been in office, and I think you will see, again, as that chart I keep describing shows, a pretty dramatic change from the situation that this economy was in when the President took office and the situation and the direction of the economy after his policies began to take effect.
He wants to keep that graph moving in the direction it’s been moving now for 10 months -- 10 quarters and 22 months.
Q Jay, yesterday when the President announced his housing policy, he made reference to that it’s not the humane thing to do to just let the market hit bottom. And it was widely seen as a contrast to Mitt Romney, who said that just a couple of months ago, that you have to let it hit bottom. When the President was talking at the prayer breakfast today about the poor and shared responsibility, was there any attempt there to show a contrast to what Mitt Romney had to say yesterday about the poor?
MR. CARNEY: I think if there is any more appropriate place than a prayer breakfast with people of faith to talk about the need to care for the least among us, I can’t think of it. It is certainly a central tenet of the President’s faith and I believe a central tenet of the faiths of everyone in that prayer breakfast that we, individually and as a nation and as a world, need to take care of those who need it most -- need help the most. And I think that was the context in which the President was speaking this morning.
Q He went on to say that he’d be willing to give up tax breaks since he’s wealthy and it makes economic sense, but then he also said, “but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching.” Why did he think it was appropriate in that case to talk about something that is sort of the central tenet now of his campaign, about shared responsibility?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think if you can’t discuss in a prayer breakfast one of the central tenets of your faith, which is prevalent throughout the New Testament, I think you’re really circumscribing yourself too much. I mean, that is just -- he was explaining how his faith guides him, how his faith guides the decisions he makes as a leader. And I think that’s entirely appropriate in a situation like that. He was not trying to engage in campaigning; he was simply talking about faith and how it affects the decisions he makes.
Q And one last thing on that. Since it was, you said, appropriate for him to do that, why did -- or did he give consideration to talking about this issue we were talking about here, about Catholics being upset about the HHS decision? Since you had faith leaders there -- and it’s not just Catholics who have spoken out, but Mormons and others have said that they have a problem with this -- was there consideration to using that forum to kind of explain this decision and why he does believe it fits into his moral --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I confess I was not involved in working on the remarks. I mean, I think we’ve pretty openly discussed the decision-making progress, the considerations that were taken --
Q The President hasn’t.
MR. CARNEY: Well, he might if he’s asked about it. I think I would just point you to the remarks he made today at the prayer breakfast.
Q And last thing. One of the things the critics are jumping on about that policy is they claim that once you cover contraception it will also include “morning after” drug and it opens the door to abortion. You just had a conference call -- officials of this administration saying on background that that is not true. But I want to give you a chance on the record here -- this being used to say this opens the door to abortion -- can you just flatly close that door and say this does not?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would cite the experts, both the policy and medical experts, and say yes. I would point you to the facts. I mean, I understand that things get used for -- and misrepresented. But that’s not the case here. And again, this is about providing American women, women across the country, with access to good health care and to the preventive services that the Institute of Medicine, a non-political organization, believes are necessary and required.
Q Back on the prayer breakfast. The President said that -- he cited some of the legislation, the major pieces of legislation he’s pursued -- financial institutions playing by the rules, insurance companies insuring those who are already sick, going after unscrupulous lenders. And he said, in addition to doing that because it’s best for the economy, he believes in God’s command to love thy neighbor as they love themselves. But is the implication of that that those who opposed those very controversial policies somehow fall outside the Judeo tradition -- Christian tradition?
MR. CARNEY: He’s talking about what guides him in making the decisions, as I just explained to Ed, within the context of a faith gathering, a prayer breakfast. So it was appropriate -- I mean, I think some of his critics out there suggest that he doesn’t talk about his faith often enough or very often, and within this context he did because it was appropriate at the National Prayer Breakfast. And he is influenced and informed by his faith.
Q But would you allow that a spiritual feeling of compassion towards one’s fellow man can be interpreted in different ways, but --
MR. CARNEY: Of course.
Q And when he quoted Proverbs -- “We speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” for the rights who are all -- “for all who are destitute,” following up on Ed’s question, is that a direct reference, or somehow an allusion to what Mitt Romney said the other day?
MR. CARNEY: I would be -- that would suggest that every conversation that was held in any house of worship in the last week that contained within it one of the central tenets of the New Testament about helping the least among us would have a political context.
Q Yes, but we’re talking in a political context here.
MR. CARNEY: But again, I’m saying that this President was simply explaining how his faith guides him. It was not a political event.
Q And finally, just -- as a matter of -- where is -- administration policy on Afghanistan, you said “combat lead should shift to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” which leaves open the possibility that there will be NATO and U.S. forces in a combat role for how long?
MR. CARNEY: Well, potentially for -- until that time when -- full security lead is actually the phrase that we use here -- until that transfer takes place. Which could -- which, as designated by NATO at Lisbon, will be accomplished by the end of 2014.
What -- the context of this conversation was the -- were the remark -- was the remarks that Secretary Panetta made that certainly laid out the possibility that it could be earlier than that. But the policy is by the end of 2014.
Q But the word “lead” does not preclude combat participation by U.S. forces, right?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no. And I think it’s important -- Iraq is a helpful reference point in this -- the transfer of security lead does not mean full removal of forces, and we’ve been clear about that -- necessarily. And the disposition of U.S. and NATO forces beyond 2014 will be up to the -- if forces might stay, part of that would be up to the Afghan government and whether or not they invite forces to stay, as was the case in Iraq.
And obviously -- and I remember trying to clarify this within the context of Iraq when we ended our combat mission and Iraqi forces took security lead -- the U.S. forces that were still there, the many thousands of U.S. forces that were still there were highly trained, skilled forces, combat-trained forces, who could and did, when necessary, participate in combat missions.
But the lead is a designation that’s important here in terms of how much presence you have and how much engagement you have in combat.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Jay, what’s the view here of the status of the investigation into the Fast and Furious gun-walking case -- the administration’s investigation of it, Justice Department? And what is your response to the growing Republican calls for Eric Holder to resign or for the President to can him?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I think the politicization of this -- or the politization of this is pretty apparent. The Attorney General spent the last five hours testifying in front of Congress. I would refer you to the Department of Justice for any questions regarding his testimony. But broadly speaking, fighting criminal activity along the Southwest border, including the illegal trafficking of guns to Mexico, remains a priority of this administration.
The Attorney General has also made clear that he takes the allegations that have been raised very seriously, and that is why he asked the Inspector General of the Justice Department to investigate this matter. It is also why you saw the department cooperating with congressional investigators, including producing thousands of pages of documents and the Attorney General making his sixth appearance on the Hill to discuss this. So any suggestion that we haven’t been cooperative with Congress, after six appearances testifying, I think doesn’t comport with the facts.
Q And the calls for him to resign or for the President to fire him -- does the President stand by him fully?
MR. CARNEY: He absolutely stands by the Attorney General; thinks he’s doing an excellent job.
Q Is that a new investigation --
MR. CARNEY: I’m going to get to you. I’m going to work around here.
Kate, did you have a question?
Q -- we’ve got evidence of ongoing bribery in the Justice Department. It’s only a $20 million bribe. So perhaps I thought you might be interested in that.
MR. CARNEY: Go ahead, Kate.
Q On Afghanistan, yesterday Secretary Panetta said, “We all went in together and we’ll all go out together.” So I’m wondering, did the President direct Secretary Panetta to, when he goes to make the case to France not to leave Afghanistan early, is that part of the --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to get into conversations between the President and the Secretary of Defense. I think he was making a broad statement about the fact that we work very closely with our NATO allies in Afghanistan.
Q Is it correct, though, to say that that -- reading between the lines what he’s talking about is bringing France back into the fold, that they shouldn’t --
MR. CARNEY: I leave the interpretation up to you.
Q Thanks, Jay. I just wanted to follow up on two units that the President announced during his State of the Union address and see if you had any more details on the Trade Enforcement Unit, what agency that would fall under, whether it would be specifically focused toward China. And then also -- have to read this one -- a residential mortgage-backed securities working group, and how that may be working in alignment with or separately from the work done by the states’ attorneys general focusing on banks with a (inaudible) foreclosure practices?
MR. CARNEY: Okay, I’m going to attempt to get this right. (Laughter.) On the unit dealing with mortgage-backed securities, they are working with the state attorneys general. And part of the idea of creating this unit was to combine focus and resources in the investigation of these matters that has to do with the servicing of -- I hope I get this right -- the servicing of mortgages.*
The trade enforcement task force, obviously think it was, as we’ve described and the President mentioned, China is part of it. It was -- one of the issues that we have in our relations with China is fair trade practices. But it’s not limited to China, as I understand it.
Q Does it fall under a specific agency as it exists? I remember asking about this around the time of the State of the Union and that wasn’t clear at that point.
MR. CARNEY: I will probably have to get back to you on that because I don’t want to give you the wrong answer. Thanks.
Q Jay, so what you’re saying is that there was nothing inartful or off-message said by the Secretary of Defense when he was in Europe?
MR. CARNEY: He’s an artful man. It wasn’t -- again, he was simply discussing the consultations he was about to have with his fellow defense ministers, and talking about what could be the case, depending on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and the discussions with our partners and allies in ISAF and NATO.
So that’s really -- to the extent that General Petraeus -- I think that’s what General Petraeus was probably referring to when he talks about them being overblown. Again, this was --
MR. CARNEY: -- overanalyzed. There’s I think not as much there as some people seem to think.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. CARNEY: Let him finish, then I’ll get to you.
Q And then when it comes to the HHS birth control decision -- so hospitals, schools and universities, all of these -- their statuses change because of this decision. Does that somehow limit their freedom of expression -- employers who are designated as such, but have religious affiliation?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, again, as I pointed out, there are -- there’s different treatment of this already in different states. In some states -- the three I named that have no exemption whatsoever -- so this will change for those states in terms of the churches and houses of worship. What we’re talking here is about employers and employees, not about institutions and employees, and not -- we’re not asking individuals -- it does not in any way require individuals to provide or prescribe contraceptives in contravention to their beliefs. It simply requires that insurance companies provide that coverage to women who work for those institutions, and again, women of all faiths.
So that is the balance that we sought. I hope that answers your question.
Q Did the President seek the endorsement of Donald Trump? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to comb over that question. (Laughter.) The -- that’s good, right? (Laughter.) It just -- there’s a danger in speaking off the cuff. But, no -- (laughter) -- I think the --
Q Or off the top of your head. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I need you up here.
Q Don’t just brush this off. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: You guys are pretty good. Look, the only comment I’ll have on that, beyond the one I just made, is the -- I think the President gave his views about Mr. Trump at the dinner that many of you attended last spring. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Keith.
Q You said that Secretary Panetta sort of suggested something that would be possible, but in fact what he said is that this is actually the goal of the United States, is by mid-2013 to late 2013, to end the combat role. And that’s what really was news about this. So the question is, is that U.S. policy, that it’s the goal to end combat participation by then?
MR. CARNEY: Keith, I appreciate the question. Our goal is to execute the mission -- disrupt, dismantle, ultimately defeat al Qaeda; give the Afghan government the breathing room to help build up Afghan security forces so that they can take security lead in the country. The policy, not just of this administration and the United States but of NATO, is for that transfer to full Afghan security lead to take place by the end of 2014. That is a policy decision made back at Lisbon, and what has been clear ever since Lisbon, and which -- and what the President made clear in his speech in June, is that we will obviously be evaluating the transition and how it takes place -- the slope and pace of the drawdown of forces and the transfer of territory to Afghan security forces along the way.
So it is certainly our goal -- I guess unlike some folks, the President does not believe that U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan for the sake of staying; they should stay there to fulfill their mission, and then he will bring them home. And so I think that within the context of transfer by the end of 2014, it is certainly possible, and, if possible, therefore desirable to have that transition take place earlier. But it is not an announcement of a new policy.
Q Jay, you mentioned that --
MR. CARNEY: Last one. Yes.
Q You mentioned that some of the President’s critics have suggested that he doesn’t talk about his faith very much or very often, so why would -- he did go into it quite a bit today; he mentioned --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he has at the National Prayer Breakfast, and I think that’s what I was saying, is that this is an environment where he has in the past, and he certainly felt comfortable talking about it today. And I just -- I’ve seen some of that criticism from some folks about him discussing his faith.
But I think this is an appropriate environment, a National Prayer Breakfast, a gathering of men and women of faith. And so he felt very comfortable discussing how his faith influences his world view and the decisions that he makes.
Q Did he have any political considerations?
MR. CARNEY: No, he did not. Thanks very much.
2:35 P.M EST