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Rahm Emanuel: Obama ‘Fully Informed’ on Spy Swap Plan

July 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And now to our newsmaker interview with the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Rahm Emanuel, welcome.

RAHM EMANUEL, White House chief of staff: Thanks, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Was the decision on this spy swap the president’s?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, first of all, what the president does appreciate is the work of the law enforcement community, as well as the intelligence community for their hard work in this case.

It wasn’t the decision of the president. It was the decision, obviously, of the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. But he does appreciate what they did and making America safer and the hard work that they did to get this done.

JIM LEHRER: Did the president — let me rephrase it then. Did the president sign off on this spy swap?

RAHM EMANUEL: The president was briefed about it.

JIM LEHRER: Briefed about it. He said it was OK with him?

RAHM EMANUEL: He understood that, you know, these type of things are done by the law enforcement community and the intelligence community. He was briefed about it, given the information about it. But the actions were taken by the law enforcement community.

JIM LEHRER: But, as Jeffrey Smith just said, former CIA general counsel, that the — this was an arrangement designed to benefit the United States of America. Wouldn’t the president be involved in making that kind of decision?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, I think for what’s important in this time, there will be a lot of analysis afterwards.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

RAHM EMANUEL: For the purpose here, the president was fully informed of what was going on along the way.

JIM LEHRER: But why is it a good thing? You spend years following these 10 people, catch them…


JIM LEHRER: … disclose who they are, arrest them, and then turn them loose.


RAHM EMANUEL: Well, A, they pled guilty.


RAHM EMANUEL: B, they are deported. C, we also — as you know, there’s four people now coming back to the United States — or coming to the United States, not back.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mr. Smith that this is a good thing for the United States of America?

RAHM EMANUEL: Look, I think there is no doubt it’s a good thing, because we have uncovered individuals here who, although they didn’t plead to being spies…

JIM LEHRER: Spies, right.

RAHM EMANUEL: … were clearly caught in the business of spying. And it sends a clear signal to, not only Russia, but other countries that will attempt this, that we are on to them.

JIM LEHRER: Was the president aware that this spy ring existed before it was revealed publicly and these guys — these people were arrested?

RAHM EMANUEL: I think, Jim, it’s important — there will be a lot of postscripts on this.


RAHM EMANUEL: And I think that what you should take away from this, obviously, the president was informed appropriately, known what was going on.

And they made the decision to go forward on this action. There will be a lot of writing about it, but I think, at this time, let me just say the cautionary note, the less said, the better.



RAHM EMANUEL: Or how about, as I always like to say, less is more?

JIM LEHRER: Less is more.


JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir, whatever you say.

Was it the president’s decision for the Justice Department to sue the state of Arizona about its immigration law yesterday?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, the Justice Department made that decision themselves. Obviously, the president was briefed, as was other departments.

JIM LEHRER: But did the president think — I mean, here again, the reason this is an issue, obviously, because a lot came up about when Attorney General Holder made the decision, the original decision, to try some of the 9/11 terrorists in New York, I asked the attorney general, in fact, did you clear this with the president?

He said, well, I informed the president.


RAHM EMANUEL: The president doesn’t tell you what cases to take and what — how to file them or what positions.


RAHM EMANUEL: Obviously, the president was briefed. There are other agencies and departments that have equities in this. They were also briefed.

But the ultimate decision is the decision of the attorney general and the Justice Department.

JIM LEHRER: So, the president shouldn’t be held accountable for filing this lawsuit?


RAHM EMANUEL: Well, no. It’s obviously his administration, his attorney general, Justice Department.

But, in the sense, does he say to the attorney general, you have to go do this? That is not the way the cases are filed. That’s not how it’s done.

I think the right way to see it, and to give a perspective to your viewers, is, he was briefed on this. The ultimate decision on how to file it, where to file it, what was the premise of it is one done by the Justice Department.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go at it one other way, OK?

RAHM EMANUEL: I think all you’re going to get is a similar answer, but you give it a shot. Let’s see…


JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s see.

RAHM EMANUEL: Let’s see if I can get the right answer…


JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Let’s see if you can get the right answer.


JIM LEHRER: Let’s say the attorney general…

RAHM EMANUEL: I feel like I’m dealing with my children on their homework, OK.


JIM LEHRER: Let’s say the attorney general comes to the president and says, I think we should sue the state of Arizona on this immigration law. The president can very easily have said, forget it. I don’t want to you do that, right?

RAHM EMANUEL: I suppose. That is a hypothetical.


JIM LEHRER: It is, right.


RAHM EMANUEL: And the good news is, I’m not a lawyer. And so I think the way to see this is, is the president’s been clear about — and I think the most important thing is to take away that, on this case, he doesn’t believe 50 states should have — we should have 50 separate immigration laws.

That is where the president’s view is. And I think let’s walk back, since you are mostly trying to get at the president.


RAHM EMANUEL: He believes that we do not need 50 separate immigration policies, one per state.

He understands the frustration that exists in Arizona, the frustration that there hasn’t been an accountability by the government to secure the border, there hasn’t been an accountability by employers to abide by the laws as it relates to hiring illegal immigrants. And there hasn’t been — and a sense of accountability for people who came here, breaking our laws, and what it is going to require of them if they plan on staying in this country.

And the most important thing is, it’s a call to passing comprehensive immigration reform and a call that both parties work on solving it. That is what the president’s view is.

As it relates to this case, this was a case for the attorney general. As it relates to the president’s view, is that we can’t have every state go in different directions. And that’s why he gave a speech last week calling for addressing the issue in a bipartisan fashion from a comprehensive perspective, one that, A, remembers that we are a nation of laws and they have to be enforced, and, two, we are a nation of immigrants.

And I can say that as a son of an immigrant, as also a grandson of an immigrant, that it’s important we also honor and respect our history as a nation of immigrants. But that has to be found as a balance between those, A, a nation of laws and, B, a nation of immigrants. And, B, we have to do it in a — or, C, rather, we have to do in a comprehensive way with bipartisan buy-in.

JIM LEHRER: And you do not agree with the Republicans and others who say, first of all, we have got to seal the border; we have got to stop illegal immigration, and then worry about the other part?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, I — look, I — there’s a number of Republicans also who have worked on this…


RAHM EMANUEL: … who believe that it’s not an either/or choice.

Of course you have to secure the border. It’s a border. It has to be done.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But it hasn’t been secured, has it?

RAHM EMANUEL: No, we haven’t — it hasn’t been secured. And there have been more boots on the ground, more resources put at it.

JIM LEHRER: There’s at least 1,200 National Guardsmen.

RAHM EMANUEL: That’s not all that is on the border. You know there’s over 25,000 National Guard on the border.


RAHM EMANUEL: Second is, you have to…


JIM LEHRER: I mean, I was talking about new in the last several months.


RAHM EMANUEL: Right, but there has also been other types of technological support given to the resources on the border to help secure it.

But there’s — and that’s a problem, because we haven’t really done it. But, second, we also have to enforce the laws at the workplace. And people — we have to have a system to ensure that people aren’t hiring illegal immigrants who aren’t here legally.

Third is, our system as it relates to dealing with the legal immigrants that are here, who came here rightfully, who are choosing America as a place to raise their families, start a business, those laws have to be updated. And, so, it has to be — and so when you ask what is the president’s position, it is bigger than filing this case in Arizona.

It relates to what is our obligation, because it’s key to our future, as it has been at every juncture and critical every juncture in this country’s history, that immigrants are a way — one way of always refreshing America, making it young again.

And people that choose America as their home, where they want to raise their family, that has to be a land that’s welcoming. On the other hand, it can’t be a place where people are able to break our laws and come here illegally. So, either way, it’s not an either/or choice. You have to do both.


JIM LEHRER: OK. Got you.

Let me go back to an underlying point that relates to both of these first two subjects. And that has to do with the president — President Obama has been criticized for not being strong enough, not a firm enough leader, not making decisions as quickly and as firmly as he should.

And that’s the underlying, why I ask these questions about did — is he — the idea, is he in charge? Is he making the decisions about, hey, we’re going to do the spy thing, the president is in charge? There’s going to be immigration on — a lawsuit, the president is in charge? That is what I’m getting at.


RAHM EMANUEL: No, I — well, A, I’m glad, after five questions, we got right to….


JIM LEHRER: OK. We got it.

RAHM EMANUEL: But here’s — let me say it this way.

If — two weeks ago, a lot of people talked about just the opposite, the decisive action he took with General McChrystal and also replacing him with General Petraeus. I can also point to other places, and I will give you an example. And you and I have talked about this.

On health care, where I gave counsel with the president, which is what he wanted, was — I would have done a different road. He wants that kind of open debate. But he stuck with his guns and got — and solved a problem that had basically been at this country for over 100 years, which is comprehensive health care reform that controlled costs.

And I have seen him up close. Another example we can talk about as we talk about the economy…


RAHM EMANUEL: … the tough decisions he made when this country faced an economic crisis, a fiscal crisis, two wars, and the tough decisions in an auto industry that was on its back.

That was what he walked in on the to-do list on day one in his office. He made tough decisions to help right the ship as it related to the banking and financial system and get it to — and unpopular decisions that have turned out to be right and have saved money for the taxpayers. He did the tough things as it related to the auto industry, requiring them to make changes that they had not made themselves over 30 years.

And now they got — they are starting to get their costs under control. And, for the first time in 50 years, an auto industry company is doing an IPO. I have seen a tough gentleman who is up-front, faced with the tough choices on Afghanistan, hear all the voices, hear all the ideas, and then make a clear decision, where he led both civilian, political and military people in a clear set of policies.

So, just — so, for you to ask just two weeks after the decision on McChrystal, I think that question is — I hope you take this kindly — a little outdated.

JIM LEHRER: A little outdated.

Do you agree with Republican Chairman Michael Steele that Afghanistan — you mentioned Afghanistan — is now Obama’s war?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, since there are men and women, fathers and daughters, sons and daughters, cousins and uncles, everybody — all of America, when you send your troops over there, that’s America’s war.

And if you think that that is only one president’s war, then you don’t understand the obligation a country makes collectively. But the commander in chief ultimately has the decision. But the country is at war. The entire — I mean, I can say this as a former congressman, whether you agreed or whatever.

When an individual, a family member has somebody over there, the entire country — that entire family is there. Well, our entire country is there, because that was a place and the place of origin for the 9/11 act — crime that was committed and terrorist act that was committed in this country.

And all of America is at war. And I think that’s a horrible way and a wrong way to look at it. And that’s why I think a number of Republicans have criticized Chairman Steele. All of America is there, because there’s people from all across this country, all walks of life who are there.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama went to Missouri and to Nevada today to talk about the economy and do some politicking for Democratic candidates.

Does he help a lot when he goes to places like Missouri and Nevada with the independents…


JIM LEHRER: … and others who are very much at issue here as we approach the November elections?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, I believe, absolutely, because let’s talk about what he was doing in Missouri. And that is, he was at a factory that had received an investment to create alternative batteries.

JIM LEHRER: For cars.



RAHM EMANUEL: Well, in this case, for trucks.


RAHM EMANUEL: The United States, when we got — when the president was sworn into office, represented about 2 percent of the production of alternative batteries.

Through the Recovery Act, in about three, four years, it will represent 40 percent of the production of alternative batteries in the country. That was a clear-eyed choice of how to keep America ahead of the game and make it competitive in one of the most promising fields, in the sense of alternative batteries.

And governing is about choosing and making tough choices. Elections are about choice. Do you want to make that investment to those 50 workers that just got hired, or did you vote no so those 50 workers don’t have a future?

Next week, he will be in Michigan for one of the final factories that are going — literally going up to produce alternative batteries. Those were the choices. We either can lead in the most promising field, or we can put America back?

And, as the president said today, a lot of people had a set of policies that drove the car into the ditch. This is not the time to give them the keys again.

JIM LEHRER: Is it still — does it still work to blame the economic situation on the Bush administration?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, you know, there are choices here. There are clear choices. There are a set of policies that led to the recession. There are a set of policies and lack of enforcement that led to a financial crisis on Wall Street.

There was a set of policies that also led to, I believe, leaving us in the worst fiscal condition we had ever seen in this country. And the president understands he’s made a series of choices, willing to explain them, live up to them, and defend them.

But understand governing — you know, President Kennedy once said, Jim, to govern is to choose. There are choices. And then, in politics as well, there’s going to be a set of choices. Do you believe, like Chairman Boehner, that, when it came to the problems on Wall Street, that’s just an ant, that is just a minor problem?

Do you agree, like chairman — ranking member Barton, do you think BP was the aggrieved party here? That’s a set of policies. That is a set of ideas. I admire them for speaking up and saying what they believe. The president believes we have a clear set of choices to make as a country.

Do you invest in the people there, as a country, in that private sector company, or do you just walk away and say you have got to figure it out on your own?

JIM LEHRER: As coincidence would have it, John Boehner issued a statement today.

RAHM EMANUEL: Timing is everything.


JIM LEHRER: Yes, it’s everything. And I happen to have the statement right here.


RAHM EMANUEL: Somebody in the office is doing good research.

JIM LEHRER: It’s about his trip today.

And Boehner said: “On President Obama’s watch, more than three million Americans have lost their jobs and unemployment is near 10 percent. The American people continue to ask, where are the jobs? But the president keeps whining and indulging in childish partisan attacks. How out of touch can he get?” — end quote.


First of all, as Congressman Boehner knows, the last six months, we have produced about 600,000 private sector jobs. That is what the economy produced. When President Obama walked in on day one, we were losing on average 700,000 jobs a month. The economy was contracting by about 6 percent in the first quarter.

In the first quarter, it grew about 2.7 percent, one of the biggest swings in American history from declining to growing. You have got to make key decisions. We’re now producing private sector jobs, not fast enough, but we are producing them. There was a lot of decisions.

Congressman Boehner in Ohio knows the president made some tough decisions that it required to the auto industry — just take one industry by example — criticized by business, criticized by Republicans. He said, we’re not going to support you unless you make the tough decisions to get your costs under control.

They have restructured. They are coming — they have come out of bankruptcy. This month, GM, rather than close nine factories, kept them open, because they have turned around. They are filing an IPO, which will be the first IPO in the auto industry in over 50 years in the United States. And a bunch of suppliers have kept people on because GM is profiting.

That was a tough — going back to leadership, that was a tough decision, criticized at the time. And America, where he said, and the president said, the auto was invented, the industry was created here, and we have now GM back, starting to be aggressive again, good for future shareholders and good for its workers, and I and the president believes good for the United States.

And that was a decision that Republicans at the time criticized. And it turned out and so far to date has turned out to be the right decision for America’s economy.

JIM LEHRER: Why, then, do the public opinion polls not reflect this?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, but it makes sense. I mean, you have 10 percent unemployment, the worst…

JIM LEHRER: Some people are still hurting.

RAHM EMANUEL: Of course. And the president — as the president said, while we have turned the corner…


JIM LEHRER: He shares no responsibility or blame?

RAHM EMANUEL: No, he — he’s not — he shares — it is absolutely his belief he’s accountable for helping turn this economy around.

The ultimate place it is going to be turned around is in the private sector. But what we, i.e., the government’s role is to help in key areas like at that battery factory, that car company that has hired 50 new workers, that we have a role to help on that, and he has an accountability.

But we shouldn’t forget, A, what was the condition of the country on day one? What were the set of policies that led to those conditions? Let’s go back: the worst recession since the Great Depression — some people now have labeled it the great recession — two, the worst fiscal condition the country had ever been in; three, the worst shape the auto industry has ever been in the history of it.

Four, we had two wars going on, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. That was the moment of crisis. There was a to-do list that was that long. Now, where are we today? Because that’s the measure. The measure is, the financial system is in a better place, but it has to be better by lending.



RAHM EMANUEL: And, while we have stabilized it, the next step is to reform Wall Street, because we have got to ensure that that accident doesn’t happen again, and that reckless and careless type of risk-taking doesn’t happen again.

Number two, we just went through the auto industry, by example. Number three, the economy is not shrinking, but it’s growing, but not fast enough. Number four, we have a bipartisan commission set up to deal with our long-term deficit that the country inherited and how to get that under control.

So, step by step, a lot of coverage and a lot of time, a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but the country is making the steps that are necessary for its long-term economic competitiveness and its long-term growth as a strong, and main — and maintain its role as the number-one economy in the world.

JIM LEHRER: Whether the public gets it or not?

RAHM EMANUEL: No, I — but it makes it — I mean, let me say this as a former member of Congress and also somebody that enjoys politics.


RAHM EMANUEL: It is understandable for their frustration because of their own economic conditions.


RAHM EMANUEL: That doesn’t take away from where we have been, where we are today, and the road going forward.

JIM LEHRER: Rahm Emanuel, thank you very much.

RAHM EMANUEL: Thank you, Jim.