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Obama Aims to Close Gitmo by 2017, Says Podesta

Obama Aims to Close Gitmo by 2017, Says Podesta

By Alexis Simendinger - June 6, 2014

Closing the Guantanamo Bay prison by transferring or adjudicating the 149 terror suspects detained there remains President Obama’s aim by the end of his term, White House Counselor John Podesta said Friday.

“The president wants to close Guantanamo and he’s working very hard to do it. And I think he’s doing that within the bounds of the laws being passed by Congress,” Podesta told RCP, when asked if the president believes he can shutter the prison in Cuba before 2017 by relying on his executive muscle.

In the wake of Obama’s decision to release five prisoners from Guantanamo as part of a swap with the Taliban for captive U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, some GOP lawmakers and constitutional law experts suggest the president intends to rely on his executive authority to empty out the prison, sidestepping long-standing opposition in Congress.

“We let our friends know on Capitol Hill what restrictions are unacceptable in the current round of negotiations,” Podesta added during a question-and-answer session with reporters organized by the Christian Science Monitor.

“I think we’ll just keep working to ensure that the remaining detainees are moved or tried, and that Guantanamo is closed by the end of the administration,” he said.

The president’s counselor served as one of President Clinton’s White House chiefs of staff, and he headed Obama’s transition planning in 2008-2009. Podesta is a former law professor and authority on the presidential use of executive power under the Constitution and by law. His knowledge of the political and policy difficulties Obama has encountered involving Guantanamo, climate change policies, immigration reforms, and foreign affairs has helped the president in his second term weigh executive options as add-ons to stalled legislative goals.

Joking that serving as counselor was easier than being White House chief of staff, Podesta defended Obama’s transfer of five Afghans -- held by the United States for a dozen years -- to Qatar, where they are to be supervised for a year. Without adding any additional details about how the administration will track their movements or activities, Podesta said, “I think it’s fair to say we’ll keep an eye on them.”

The president’s adviser, who recently underwent hand surgery, reiterated Obama’s public comments about the decision to retrieve Bergdahl from captivity, reading with care at one point during the discussion with reporters from a piece of paper tucked under his conspicuously bandaged right arm.

“I think the president knew this was a controversial decision,” he said, adding it was why Obama decided to address the American people from the Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents hours after the prisoner swap occurred in Afghanistan. “He’s taken ownership of this,” he said. “These are tough calls.”

Podesta said Obama (at that moment in Normandy at the end of a week’s events in Europe) was only too anxious to return to domestic economic initiatives, which the president hoped could help steer Democratic candidates to midterm victories in November. Reporters asked him several times about fellow Democrats’ critiques that Obama was not doing enough to help progressive candidates, or worse, is a drag on their prospects.

Podesta said Democratic candidates have different responsibilities. “I think he’s doing what he needs to do, which is doing his job, first and foremost,” he told reporters.

The pileup of issues -- such as Ukraine-Russia hostilities, a Veterans Affairs scandal, and the prisoner swap -- that wandered afield of Americans’ top economic worries underscores how unforeseen and complex events can intrude on any president’s carefully constructed domestic agenda, he added.

“Look, I think we’d like to be talking about the economic future of the country, but when the president has an obligation -- when there’s a problem, as we found in the scheduling at the VA -- you have to tackle it,” he told RCP. “When there’s the opportunity to bring Sgt. Bergdahl home, it’s a tough call, but you have to make it. That just gets served up to you, and I think the president’s going to make those tough decisions,” Podesta said.

But Obama, conscious that November elections are fast approaching and his second term is racing ahead, “will keep coming back, and coming back -- and we’ll do it when he comes back from Europe -- to talking about an economic program that will deliver results for the American people,” his counselor said. In describing an economy he believes helps the middle class, including a higher federal minimum wage, pay equity and overtime pay reforms, Obama wants to show Americans what could be accomplished by a Congress controlled by Democrats, he continued.

Podesta, who helped found and lead the left-leaning Center for American Progress after Bill Clinton left office, also spoke to reporters about Hillary Clinton, whom he supports, should she decide to compete for the presidency again in 2016.

Her new book, “Hard Choices,” will appear in bookstores on June 10. Carefully choreographed promotion for the 656-page memoir has been compared to a dress rehearsal for a potential presidential campaign. Excerpts and early accounts describe Mrs. Clinton’s take on world crises and her advice while serving as Obama’s first secretary of state. Podesta said he reviewed some pre-publication chapters and read recent media accounts drawn from the book, a successor of sorts to the former senator’s 2003 work, “Living History.”

Asked by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page to come up with three adjectives to describe Hillary Clinton, Podesta barely paused before responding.

“Disciplined, tough, determined,” he said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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