A lot of people have a lot of opinions about what Obama should do in his final four weeks in office -- about climate change, transparency, Guantanamo, clemency, dark money ...the list goes on. But what will Obama actually do? Brooke talks with deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz about the administration's plans for the next month, and why the president is forging ahead with his usual civility.
Passing Time by John Renbourn
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So after reviewing some of the things the Obama administration could do in the next month, we thought we'd ask what it will do. White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz says that Obama is forging ahead with his usual civility.
ERIC SCHULTZ: We’re gonna do regular business. We’re not gonna do anything different because of Mr. Trump’s agenda. Now, he has said he wanted to make a whole lot of changes, and that’s his prerogative. That’s what he’s going to be able to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right, but it, it hasn’t been entirely business as usual. For instance, the permanent ban on Arctic drilling that was announced this week, Obama invoked a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, so that he could act on this issue to issue the ban that Congress couldn't easily overturn; he’d have to go to the federal court. Opponents called it an abuse of power. Supporters called it creative. Is the search on for laws like this to secure parts of his program before he has to leave?
ERIC SCHULTZ: Brooke, are you suggesting you're not intimately familiar with the Outer Continental Shelf Land Act of 1953?
Look, I, I take your point, but the truth is that conservation is something the President has focused on for all eight years. So President Obama has protected hundreds of millions of acres of land and water, more than any US president in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wasn’t trying to point to inconsistency but rather the urgency of the action taken.
ERIC SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For instance, Obama could disclose information about, say, our drone program and surveillance operations, so that they can't be abused under the pretext of secrecy. Obama could make public the criteria for targeted killings and disclose the reviews of military errors.
ERIC SCHULTZ: Let me just walk you through the President’s approach on this. He believes that we can keep our country safe, consistent with democratic values. And first and foremost for that is accountability and transparency. We release information on counterterrorism strikes. We release information on airstrikes in Iraq and Syria almost on a daily basis. We don’t get good headlines when we put out a civilian casualties report. We don’t get a pat on the back for accountability or transparency, but the President still believes it’s the right thing to do and that’s why he ordered his National Security team to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the civilian casualty report tally is so much lower than that released elsewhere by respected sources, not necessarily politically inflected ones, they’re not trusted.
ERIC SCHULTZ: We’re the first administration to do it in history. We think that it’s a significant step in the right direction. We’ve moved a lot of our counterterrorism operations to the Department of Defense. That makes it easier to disclose and release information, and that’s not by accident.
It’s never going to be enough and transparency advocates will always be pushing for more. That’s healthy. That’s how the system should work. But we would put our record up to anyone, in terms of what we’ve been able to release, what we’ve been able to declassify.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The record is mixed but I don't want to argue that with you. That's not what this is about. There's also a whole body of secret legal opinions that were employed during his eight years to justify secret practices related to intelligence detention, interrogation, and so on. If he opened up on this, maybe, just maybe it could help set a precedent of more vigilance toward secret law under Trump.
ERIC SCHULTZ: I don't think the next administration has shown any interest in sort of adhering to our precedent. So I don’t want anyone to overstate the impact of what the Obama administration is doing and what could happen in the future. All I can speak to is what we have done and we’ve, I believe, lived up to the President’s commitment to be the most transparent administration in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Moving onto a different topic, the President has granted clemency to many federal inmates but the process could be streamlined. Will he apply a few simple fixes to the system before Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows up and slams the door?
ERIC SCHULTZ: The President is proud of his record on this. Like he has said many times, this is a nation of second chances, and there are certain individuals serving their sentence who’ve demonstrated a commitment to living a better life, and the President wants to make sure that they get a chance to do that. The President, like you said, is also aware that people who are serving time have often completed their sentences if they were sentenced under current law and current regulations. And that's why the President has redoubled his efforts over the past few years, through the Department of Justice, to make sure that as many of these applications were being reviewed as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So will he quicken the pace?
ERIC SCHULTZ: He has quickened the pace. I can say we will be granting more clemency between now and the end of the term.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He’s already said there's no chance of pardoning, say, Edward Snowden, but do you have any [LAUGHS] announcements you want to make about Chelsea Manning or Bowe Bergdahl?
ERIC SCHULTZ: Nope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, how about the High Court? Merrick Garland is set to return to his old job at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. There has been discussion, not from the White House, about the possibility of a recess appointment or maybe simply appointing Garland to the Court because the Senate will have seemed to have waived its rights to advise and consent. Any likelihood of any of that, at all?
ERIC SCHULTZ: Yeah, Brooke, I’m not sure any of that’s in the works. What I do think is it’s really shameful that the United States Senate didn’t do its job. He nominated someone who deserved to be on the bench, the Senate should have done their confirmation process and then Chief Judge Garland could have served with distinction. The problem is the –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think we know what the problem is.
ERIC SCHULTZ: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s move on to Guantanámo.
ERIC SCHULTZ: [LAUGHING] Okay, good, good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He steadily reduced the number of inmates from 241 when he took office to 59. Is there anyone else that he can transfer out or does he just have to walk away from Guantánamo now?
ERIC SCHULTZ: So we will continue to work to reduce the population at Guantanámo Bay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
ERIC SCHULTZ: I think, Brooke, it’s entirely possible that we see more transfers before January 20th.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How about other environmental actions?
ERIC SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know the President has repeatedly invoked the Antiquities Act to protect federal lands as national monuments. He's done a lot of that lately. More to come?
ERIC SCHULTZ: So, maybe. What I think goes unnoticed sometimes is the monuments that he designates celebrate, you know, America's greatest attributes, heroes and personalities. The César Chávez National Monument in California or the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland, Stonewall National Monument in New York, these are new parks that ensure we pass on a more inclusive and complete story of our nation to the next generation. So it’s not necessarily just about climate and conservation. It’s about history and celebrating some of the greatest Americans we’ve ever known.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Looming over much we've discussed is the Congressional Review Act that allows the next Congress to repeal any rule issued after May 30th with a majority vote, and if a rule is repealed the agency responsible cannot enact any regulation that is, quote, “substantially the same.” There’s nothing the White House can do about that.
ERIC SCHULTZ: I mean, look, if they believe that the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park shouldn’t be designated or if they have a compelling reason why they want to take down the César Chávez National Monument in California or if they believe we should start to drill in the Arctic and in parts of the Atlantic, they’re going to have to make the argument about why and, you know, it’s certainly their prerogative.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I can get a dim outline of the plan here. You do as much as you can and with the passage of something, for instance, the Affordable Care Act –
ERIC SCHULTZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - you at least create a political problem that the next Congress has to deal with, if they want to wipe it away. So is that part of the calculation?
ERIC SCHULTZ: Well, I think the first part of your question is right, do as much as you can. And you brought up the Affordable Care Act, so let me just say that 6.4 million people signed up for the Affordable Care Act for coverage beginning January 1st. The same period last year had 6 million people. So we’re seeing growth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that partly an administration effort?
ERIC SCHULTZ: You bet. We’ve been very aggressive spreading the word and encouraging enrollment around the country and specifically targeting the demographics that we think are important for making sure the success of the program. We’ve got 20 million people who now get healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans will have to figure out a way, if they want to roll back the Affordable Care Act, what they’re going to replace it with. They’re talked about repeal and replace. That’s not a real thing. That’s repeal and chaos. [LAUGHS] They’ve had seven years to come up with an alternative, and they haven’t produced one. So you’re right, Congress will be in the catbird seat to figure out what to do on healthcare, so we’ll have to see if they come up with an alternative.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC SCHULTZ: Good to be with you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Schultz is the principal deputy White House press secretary.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, time, is it running out or is it standing still?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.