Obama: I can't comment on Wall Street prosecutions

The same President who publicly harangued the DOJ not to prosecute Bush officials hauls out this excuse

Published December 12, 2011 9:23PM (EST)

(updated below)

President Obama was interviewed by 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft last night. Kroft mentioned a new poll showing that 42% of Americans believe Obama's policies most favor Wall Street rather than average Americans (only 35% believe the opposite). Kroft speculated that this was due in part to the fact that, as he put it, "there's not been any criminal prosecutions of people on Wall Street," and then asked Obama whether he was "disappointed" with that development. Obama replied:

I can't, as President of the United States, comment on the decisions about particular prosecutions. That's the job of the Justice Department, and we keep those separate so that there's no political influence on decisions made by professional prosecutors.

If only that were what President Obama really believed and how he actually comported himself.

On January 12, 2009, The New York Times -- under the headline: "Obama signals his reluctance to investigate Bush programs" -- reported that "President-elect Barack Obama signaled in an interview broadcast Sunday that he was unlikely to authorize a broad inquiry into Bush administration programs like domestic eavesdropping or the treatment of terrorism suspects"; specifically, he expressed the "belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards" and announced that "part of my job is to make sure that, for example, at the CIA, you've got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don't want them to suddenly feel like they've got spend their all their time looking over their shoulders." On April 19, Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, went on ABC News and announced that the President opposes investigations not only for the CIA torturers themselves, but also high-level Bush officials who devised and authorized the policies:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Final quick question. The president has ruled out prosecutions for CIA officials who believed they were following the law. Does he believe that the officials who devised the policies should be immune from prosecution?

EMANUEL: . . . He believes that people in good faith were operating with the guidance they were provided. They shouldn't be prosecuted.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What about those who devised policy?

EMANUEL: Yes, but those who devised policy, he believes that they were -- should not be prosecuted either, and that's not the place that we go -- as he said in that letter, and I would really recommend people look at the full statement -- not the letter, the statement -- in that second paragraph, "this is not a time for retribution." It's time for reflection. It's not a time to use our energy and our time in looking back and any sense of anger and retribution.

The following day, Obama's White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, announced that the President's opposition to prosecutions includes Bush lawyers who authorized torture:

CNN’S ED HENRY: Just so I understand, you’re saying the people in the CIA who followed through on what they were told was legal, they should not be prosecuted? But why not the Bush administration lawyers who, in the eyes of a lot of your supporters on the left, twisted the law, why are they not being held accountable?

GIBBS: The president is focused on looking forward. That’s why.

[During the same time period, the Obama White House worked to block plans by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a Congressional investigation into those crimes, and also had its State Department pressure Spain to impede its own judiciary's investigation into the torture regime.]

So the White House, and the President himself, publicly harangued the DOJ for months not to prosecute Bush officials (once the damage was done and controversy erupted over the White House's constant pressure on the "independent" DOJ, Obama cursorily acknowledged that it was a decision for the DOJ to make). Beyond that, the White House applied constant, intense political pressure on the Attorney General not to proceed with plans to try the 9/11 defendants in a civilian court. In April of this year, President Obama, while charges were pending, publicly decreed Bradley Manning guilty even though it is his direct military subordinates who will be judging Manning's case, possibly jeopardizing that prosecution on the ground of undue command influence. And it was recently revealed that Obama officials are pressuring the New York State Attorney General to sign onto a full-scale settlement agreement with banks rather than continue to investigate Wall Street's mortgage fraud. Even in this interview with Kroft, Obama observed from what he called "40,000 feet" that "some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn't illegal."

Does this sound like a President who actually believes that it's improper for him to "comment on the decisions about particular prosecutions" to ensure "there's no political influence on decisions made by professional prosecutors"? Or does this sound like a President who applies exactly that kind of political pressure on the DOJ when it suits him, and is now cynically invoking this excuse to avoid having to take responsibility for the virtually full-scale immunity given to the financial-crisis-causing Wall Street criminals under his watch?

* * * * *

Kroft, of course, mentioned none of this; in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf marvels at how vapid and sycophantic Kroft's interview was.


UPDATE: It's certainly true, as President Obama said, that many of the unethical and damaging acts of Wall Street were not illegal: thanks in large part to the orgy of de-regulation that took place in the Clinton era under Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Gary Gensler and others (also known as: Obama's economic team). But -- as even life-long Wall Street apologist Alan Greenspan admits -- much of what was done by Wall Street was outright fraud. Even after the 1990s spasm of deregulation, fraud -- e.g., representing debt instruments to the public as sound and top-grade while scorning them privately as toxic junk -- is (as Greenspan pointed out) still very much illegal, criminal, under existing statutes.

By Glenn Greenwald

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