WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday pushed back against criticism that President Barack Obama sidestepped the law by authorizing a prisoner swap of Guantanamo detainees without notifying Congress.
Asked at a press briefing if the president felt he was above the law, White House spokesman Jay Carney replied, “Absolutely not.”
Carney said the White House had repeatedly noted concerns with the requirement to give Congress 30-days notice of any release of Guantanamo detainees, as stipulated in the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill Obama signed last year.
The administration released five mid- to high-level detainees from Guantanamo in a deal with the Taliban to secure the freedom of 28-year-old Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Members of Congress were informed after the fact.
Amid growing questions about the deal on Monday, Carney said that Obama didn’t have to notify Congress in advance because he had added a “signing statement” to the law that said the 30-day requirement infringed on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief.
“In signing statements ... the president has consistently made clear that the executive branch must have the flexibility to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detaining transfers if necessary,” Carney said. “And that was certainly the case here.”
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama criticized former President George W. Bush for using signing statements to flaunt the law.
“I believe in the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution of the United States,” Obama said at the time. “We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.”
Carney stressed on Monday that Obama had never taken the position that he opposed all signing statements.
“He made clear that there were times when it would be appropriate, but that the authority to issue signing statements should not be overused or abuse and that a president should exercises restraint,” Carney said.
“And I think if you look at his record in office, now 5.5 years in office, you'll see that restraint demonstrated,” he said. “But there will be and have been circumstances when signing statements are necessary because of the president's view and the executive branch's view of the constitutional issues involved in a particular legislation.”
Obama has issued 28 signing statements in his six years in office, compared to 228 issued by George W. Bush, 381 by Bill Clinton and 250 by Ronald Reagan.