WHITE HOUSE - Here is a transcript of President Barack Obama's news conference, held Friday in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House:
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. This is the most wonderful press conference of the year. I've got a list of who’s been naughty and nice to call on. (Laughter.) But let me first make a couple of quick points, and then I’ll take your questions.
Typically, I use this year-end press conference to review how far we’ve come over the course of the year. Today, understandably, I'm going to talk a little bit about how far we’ve come over the past eight years.
As I was preparing to take office, the unemployment rate was on its way to 10 percent. Today, it’s at 4.6 percent -- the lowest in nearly a decade. We’ve seen the longest streak of job growth on record, and wages have grown faster over the past few years than at any time in the past 40.
When I came into office, 44 million people were uninsured. Today, we’ve covered more than 20 million of them. For the first time in our history, more than 90 percent of Americans are insured. In fact, yesterday was the biggest day ever for HealthCare.gov. More than 670,000 Americans signed up to get covered, and more are signing up by the day.
We’ve cut our dependence on foreign oil by more than half, doubled production of renewable energy, enacted the most sweeping reforms since FDR to protect consumers and prevent a crisis on Wall Street from punishing Main Street ever again. None of these actions stifled growth, as critics predicted. Instead, the stock market has nearly tripled. Since I signed Obamacare into law, our businesses have added more than 15 million new jobs. And the economy is undoubtedly more durable than it was in the days when we relied on oil from unstable nations and banks took risky bets with your money.
Add it all up, and last year, the poverty rate fell at the fastest rate in almost 50 years, while the median household income grew at the fastest rate on record. In fact, income gains were actually larger for households at the bottom and the middle than for those at the top. And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by nearly two-thirds and protecting vital investments that grow the middle class.
In foreign policy, when I came into office, we were in the midst of two wars. Now, nearly 180,000 troops are down to 15,000. Bin Laden, rather than being at large, has been taken off the battlefield, along with thousands of other terrorists. Over the past eight years, no foreign terrorist organization has successfully executed an attack on our homeland that was directed from overseas.
Through diplomacy, we’ve ensured that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon -- without going to war with Iran. We opened up a new chapter with the people of Cuba. And we brought nearly 200 nations together around a climate agreement that could very well save this planet for our kids. And almost every country on Earth sees America as stronger and more respected today than they did eight years ago.
In other words, by so many measures, our country is stronger and more prosperous than it was when we started. That's a situation that I’m proud to leave for my successor. And it’s thanks to the American people -- to the hard work that you’ve put in, the sacrifices you’ve made for your families and your communities, the businesses that you started or invested in, the way you looked out for one another. And I could not be prouder to be your President.
Of course, to tout this progress doesn’t mean that we’re not mindful of how much more there is to do. In this season in particular, we’re reminded that there are people who are still hungry, people who are still homeless; people who still have trouble paying the bills or finding work after being laid off. There are communities that are still mourning those who have been stolen from us by senseless gun violence, and parents who still are wondering how to protect their kids. And after I leave office, I intend to continue to work with organizations and citizens doing good across the country on these and other pressing issues to build on the progress that we’ve made.
Around the world, as well, there are hot spots where disputes have been intractable, conflicts have flared up, and people -- innocent people are suffering as a result. And nowhere is this more terribly true than in the city of Aleppo. For years, we’ve worked to stop the civil war in Syria and alleviate human suffering. It has been one of the hardest issues that I've faced as President.
The world, as we speak, is united in horror at the savage assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on the city of Aleppo. We have seen a deliberate strategy of surrounding, besieging, and starving innocent civilians. We've seen relentless targeting of humanitarian workers and medical personnel; entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and dust. There are continuing reports of civilians being executed. These are all horrific violations of international law. Responsibility for this brutality lies in one place alone -- with the Assad regime and its allies Russia and Iran. And this blood and these atrocities are on their hands.
We all know what needs to happen. There needs to be an impartial international observer force in Aleppo that can help coordinate an orderly evacuation through safe corridors. There has to be full access for humanitarian aid, even as the United States continues to be the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. And, beyond that, there needs to be a broader ceasefire that can serve as the basis for a political rather than a military solution.
That’s what the United States is going to continue to push for, both with our partners and through multilateral institutions like the U.N.
Regretfully, but unsurprisingly, Russia has repeatedly blocked the Security Council from taking action on these issues. So we’re going to keep pressing the Security Council to help improve the delivery of humanitarian aid to those who are in such desperate need, and to ensure accountability, including continuing to monitor any potential use of chemical weapons in Syria. And we’re going to work in the U.N. General Assembly as well, both on accountability and to advance a political settlement. Because it should be clear that although you may achieve tactical victories, over the long term the Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy.
That’s why we'll continue to press for a transition to a more representative government. And that’s why the world must not avert our eyes to the terrible events that are unfolding. The Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies are trying to obfuscate the truth. The world should not be fooled. And the world will not forget.
So even in a season where the incredible blessings that we know as Americans are all around us, even as we enjoy family and friends and are reminded of how lucky we are, we should also be reminded that to be an American involves bearing burdens and meeting obligations to others. American values and American ideals are what will lead the way to a safer and more prosperous 2017, both here and abroad.
And by the way, few embody those values and ideals like our brave men and women in uniform and their families. So I just want to close by wishing all of them a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
With that, I will take some questions. And I'm going to start with Josh Lederman, of AP.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. There’s a perception that you're letting President Putin get away with interfering in the U.S. election, and that a response that nobody knows about or a look-back review just won’t cut it. Are you prepared to call out President Putin by name for ordering this hacking? And do you agree with what Hillary Clinton now says, that the hacking was actually partly responsible for her loss? And is your administration’s open quarreling with Trump and his team on this issue tarnishing the smooth transition of power that you have promised?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, with respect to the transition, I think they would be the first to acknowledge that we have done everything we can to make sure that they are successful as I promised. And that will continue. And it’s just been a few days since I last talked to the President-elect about a whole range of transition issues. That cooperation is going to continue.
There hasn’t been a lot of squabbling. What we’ve simply said is the facts, which are that, based on uniform intelligence assessments, the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC, and that, as a consequence, it is important for us to review all elements of that and make sure that we are preventing that kind of interference through cyberattacks in the future.
That should be a bipartisan issue; that shouldn’t be a partisan issue. And my hope is that the President-elect is going to similarly be concerned with making sure that we don’t have potential foreign influence in our election process. I don’t think any American wants that. And that shouldn’t be a source of an argument.
I think that part of the challenge is that it gets caught up in the carryover from election season. And I think it is very important for us to distinguish between the politics of the election and the need for us, as a country, both from a national security perspective but also in terms of the integrity of our election system and our democracy, to make sure that we don’t create a political football here.
Now, with respect to how this thing unfolded last year, let’s just go through the facts pretty quickly. At the beginning of the summer, we’re alerted to the possibility that the DNC has been hacked, and I immediately order law enforcement as well as our intelligence teams to find out everything about it, investigate it thoroughly, to brief the potential victims of this hacking, to brief on a bipartisan basis the leaders of both the House and the Senate and the relevant intelligence committees. And once we had clarity and certainty around what, in fact, had happened, we publicly announced that, in fact, Russia had hacked into the DNC.
And at that time, we did not attribute motives or any interpretations of why they had done so. We didn’t discuss what the effects of it might be. We simply let people know -- the public know, just as we had let members of Congress know -- that this had happened.
And as a consequence, all of you wrote a lot of stories about both what had happened, and then you interpreted why that might have happened and what effect it was going to have on the election outcomes. We did not. And the reason we did not was because in this hyper-partisan atmosphere, at a time when my primary concern was making sure that the integrity of the election process was not in any way damaged, at a time when anything that was said by me or anybody in the White House would immediately be seen through a partisan lens, I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight -- that we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another, but what we were trying to do was let people know that this had taken place, and so if you started seeing effects on the election, if you were trying to measure why this was happening and how you should consume the information that was being leaked, that you might want to take this into account.
And that's exactly how we should have handled it. Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become immediately just one more political scrum. And part of the goal here was to make sure that we did not do the work of the leakers for them by raising more and more questions about the integrity of the election right before the election was taking place -- at a time, by the way, when the President-elect himself was raising questions about the integrity of the election.
And, finally, I think it's worth pointing out that the information was already out. It was in the hands of WikiLeaks, so that was going to come out no matter what. What I was concerned about, in particular, was making sure that that wasn’t compounded by potential hacking that could hamper vote counting, affect the actual election process itself.
And so in early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t. And, in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process. But the leaks through WikiLeaks had already occurred.
So when I look back in terms of how we handled it, I think we handled it the way it should have been handled. We allowed law enforcement and the intelligence community to do its job without political influence. We briefed all relevant parties involved in terms of what was taking place. When we had a consensus around what had happened, we announced it -- not through the White House, not through me, but rather through the intelligence communities that had actually carried out these investigations. And then we allowed you and the American public to make an assessment as to how to weigh that going into the election.
And the truth is, is that there was nobody here who didn’t have some sense of what kind of effect it might have. I'm finding it a little curious that everybody is suddenly acting surprised that this looked like it was disadvantaging Hillary Clinton because you guys wrote about it every day. Every single leak. About every little juicy tidbit of political gossip -- including John Podesta's risotto recipe. This was an obsession that dominated the news coverage.
So I do think it's worth us reflecting how it is that a presidential election of such importance, of such moment, with so many big issues at stake and such a contrast between the candidates, came to be dominated by a bunch of these leaks. What is it about our political system that made us vulnerable to these kinds of potential manipulations -- which, as I've said publicly before, were not particularly sophisticated.
This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme. They hacked into some Democratic Party emails that contained pretty routine stuff, some of it embarrassing or uncomfortable, because I suspect that if any of us got our emails hacked into, there might be some things that we wouldn’t want suddenly appearing on the front page of a newspaper or a telecast, even if there wasn’t anything particularly illegal or controversial about it. And then it just took off.
And that concerns me. And it should concern all of us. But the truth of the matter is, is that everybody had the information. It was out there. And we handled it the way we should have.
Now, moving forward, I think there are a couple of issues that this raises. Number one is just the constant challenge that we are going to have with cybersecurity throughout our economy and throughout our society. We are a digitalized culture, and there is hacking going on every single day. There’s not a company, there’s not a major organization, there’s not a financial institution, there’s not a branch of our government where somebody is not going to be phishing for something or trying to penetrate, or put in a virus or malware. And this is why for the last eight years, I’ve been obsessed with how do we continually upgrade our cybersecurity systems.
And this particular concern around Russian hacking is part of a broader set of concerns about how do we deal with cyber issues being used in ways that can affect our infrastructure, affect the stability of our financial systems, and affect the integrity of our institutions, like our election process.
I just received a couple weeks back -- it wasn’t widely reported on -- a report from our cybersecurity commission that outlines a whole range of strategies to do a better job on this. But it’s difficult, because it’s not all housed -- the target of cyberattacks is not one entity but it’s widely dispersed, and a lot of it is private, like the DNC. It’s not a branch of government. We can’t tell people what to do. What we can do is inform them, get best practices.
What we can also do is to, on a bilateral basis, warn other countries against these kinds of attacks. And we’ve done that in the past. So just as I told Russia to stop it, and indicated there will be consequences when they do it, the Chinese have, in the past, engaged in cyberattacks directed at our companies to steal trade secrets and proprietary technology. And I had to have the same conversation with Prime Minister -- or with President Xi, and what we’ve seen is some evidence that they have reduced -- but not completely eliminated -- these activities, partly because they can use cutouts.
One of the problems with the Internet and cyber issues is that there’s not always a return address, and by the time you catch up to it, attributing what happened to a particular government can be difficult, not always provable in court even though our intelligence communities can make an assessment.
What we’ve also tried to do is to start creating some international norms about this to prevent some sort of cyber arms race, because we obviously have offensive capabilities as well as defensive capabilities. And my approach is not a situation in which everybody is worse off because folks are constantly attacking each other back and forth, but putting some guardrails around the behavior of nation-states, including our adversaries, just so that they understand that whatever they do to us we can potentially do to them.
We do have some special challenges, because oftentimes our economy is more digitalized, it is more vulnerable, partly because we’re a wealthier nation and we’re more wired than some of these other countries. And we have a more open society, and engage in less control and censorship over what happens over the Internet, which is also part of what makes us special.
Last point -- and the reason I’m going on here is because I know that you guys have a lot of questions about this, and I haven't addressed all of you directly about it. With respect to response, my principal goal leading up to the election was making sure that the election itself went off without a hitch, that it was not tarnished, and that it did not feed any sense in the public that somehow tampering had taken place with the actual process of voting. And we accomplished that.
That does not mean that we are not going to respond. It simply meant that we had a set of priorities leading up to the election that were of the utmost importance. Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us, because we can do stuff to you.
But it is also important for us to do that in a thoughtful, methodical way. Some of it we do publicly. Some of it we will do in a way that they know, but not everybody will. And I know that there have been folks out there who suggest somehow that if we went out there and made big announcements, and thumped our chests about a bunch of stuff, that somehow that would potentially spook the Russians. But keep in mind that we already have enormous numbers of sanctions against the Russians. The relationship between us and Russia has deteriorated, sadly, significantly over the last several years. And so how we approach an appropriate response that increases costs for them for behavior like this in the future, but does not create problems for us, is something that’s worth taking the time to think through and figure out. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.
So at a point in time where we’ve taken certain actions that we can divulge publicly, we will do so. There are times where the message will go -- will be directly received by the Russians and not publicized. And I should point out, by the way, part of why the Russians have been effective on this is because they don't go around announcing what they're doing. It's not like Putin is going around the world publicly saying, look what we did, wasn't that clever? He denies it. So the idea that somehow public shaming is going to be effective I think doesn't read the thought process in Russia very well.
Q Did Clinton lose because of the hacking?
THE PRESIDENT: I'm going to let all the political pundits in this town have a long discussion about what happened in the election. It was a fascinating election, so I'm sure there are going to be a lot of books written about it.
I've said what I think is important for the Democratic Party going forward rather than try to parse every aspect of the election. And I've said before, I couldn't be prouder of Secretary Clinton, her outstanding service. I thinks she's worked tirelessly on behalf of the American people, and I don't think she was treated fairly during the election. I think the coverage of her and the issues was troubling.
But having said that, what I've been most focused on -- appropriate for the fact that I'm not going to be a politician in about, what is it, 32 days? 31?
THE PRESIDENT: Thirty four? (Laughter.) But what I've said is, is that I can maybe give some counsel and advice to the Democratic Party. And I think that that the thing we have to spend the most time on -- because it's the thing we have the most control over -- is how do we make sure that we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they're not being heard and where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically-correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in those communities. And I've seen that when we are in those communities, it makes a difference.
That's how I became President. I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers. And I didn't win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class, that the reason I was interested in strengthening unions, and raising the minimum wage, and rebuilding our infrastructure, and making sure that parents had decent childcare and family leave was because my own family's history wasn't that different from theirs, even if I looked a little bit different. Same thing in Iowa.
And so the question is, how do we rebuild that party as a whole so that there's not a county in any state -- I don't care how red -- that we don't have a presence and we're not making the argument. Because I think we have the better argument. But that requires a lot of work. It's been something that I've been able to do successfully in my own campaigns. It is not something I've been able to transfer to candidates in midterms and sort of build a sustaining organization around. That's something that I would have liked to have done more of, but it's kind of hard to do when you're also dealing with a whole bunch of issues here in the White House.
And that doesn't mean, though, that it can't be done. And I think there are going to be a lot of talented folks out there, a lot of progressives who share my values who are going to be leading the charge in the years to come.
Michelle Kosinski of CNN.
Q Thank you. So this week we heard Hillary Clinton talk about how she thinks that the FBI Director's most recent announcement made a difference in the outcome of the election. And we also just heard in an op-ed her campaign chairman talk about something being deeply broken within the FBI. He talked about thinking that the investigation early on was lackadaisical in his words. So what do you think about those comments? Do you think there's any truth to them? Do you think there's a danger there that they're calling into question the integrity of institutions in a similar way that Donald Trump's team has done?
And the second part to that is that Donald Trump's team repeatedly -- I guess, giving the indication that the investigation of the Russian hack, as well as the retaliation, might not be such a priority once he's in office, so what do you think the risk is there? And are you going to talk to him directly about some of those comments he made?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, on the latter point, as I said before, the transition from election season to governance season is not always smooth. It's bumpy. There are still feelings that are raw out there. There are people who are still thinking about how things unfolded. And I get all that. But when Donald Trump takes the Oath of Office and is sworn as the 45th President of the United States, then he's got a different set of responsibilities and considerations.
And I've said this before: I think there is a sobering process when you walk into the Oval Office. And I haven’t shared previously private conversations I've had with the President-elect. I will say that they have been cordial and, in some cases, have involved me making some pretty specific suggestions about how to ensure that regardless of our obvious deep disagreements about policy, maybe I can transmit some thoughts about maintaining the effectiveness, integrity, cohesion of the office, of various democratic institutions. And he has listened. I can't say that he will end up implementing, but the conversations themselves have been cordial as opposed to defensive in any way. And I will always make myself available to him, just as previous Presidents have made themselves available to me as issues come up.
With respect to the FBI, I will tell you, I've had a chance to know a lot of FBI agents, I know Director Comey, and they take their job seriously, they work really hard, they help keep us safe and save a lot of lives. And it is always a challenge for law enforcement when there's an intersection between the work that they are doing and the political system. It's one of the difficulties of democracy, generally. We have a system where we want our law enforcement investigators and our prosecutors to be free from politics, to be independent, to play it straight, but sometimes that involves investigations that touch on politics. And particularly in this hyper-partisan environment that we've been in, everything is suspect, everything you do one way or the other.
One thing that I have done is to be pretty scrupulous about not wading into investigation decisions or prosecution decisions, or decisions not to prosecute. I have tried to be really strict in my own behavior about preserving the independence of law enforcement, free from my own judgments and political assessments, in some cases. And I don’t know why it would stop now.
Mike Dorning of Bloomberg.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. On Aleppo, your views that what happens there is the responsibility of the Russian government, the Iranian government, the Assad regime are pretty well aired. But do you, as President of the United States, leader of the free world, feel any personal moral responsibility now at the end of your presidency for the carnage that we’re all watching in Aleppo, which I’m sure disturbs you -- which you said disturbs you?
And, secondly, also on Aleppo, you’ve again made clear your practical disagreements with the idea of safe zones. And President-elect Trump has, throughout his campaign, and he said again last night that he wants to create safe zones in Syria. Do you feel like, in this transition, you need to help him toward implementing that? Or was that not something that you should be doing?
THE PRESIDENT: Mike, I always feel responsible. I felt responsible when kids were being shot by snipers. I felt responsible when millions of people had been displaced. I feel responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan that’s not being reported on partly because there’s not as much social media being generated from there.
There are places around the world where horrible things are happening, and because of my office, because I’m President of the United States, I feel responsible. I ask myself every single day, is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer.
So that’s a starting point. There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility. That’s true, by the way, for our own country. When I came into office and people were losing their jobs and losing their homes and losing their pensions, I felt responsible, and I would go home at night and I would ask myself, was there something better that I could do or smarter that I could be that would make a difference in their lives, that would relieve their suffering and relieve their hardship.
So with respect to Syria, what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while having also to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.
And throughout this process, based on hours of meetings, if you tallied it up, days or weeks of meetings where we went through every option in painful detail, with maps, and we had our military, and we had our aid agencies, and we had our diplomatic teams, and sometimes we’d bring in outsiders who were critics of ours -- whenever we went through it, the challenge was that, short of put