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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Obama, Italy's Renzi Talk Economy; Press Conference on New Jersey's Bridgegate Findings.

Aired March 27, 2014 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I think that Italy is - is lucky to have such an extraordinary stateman -- statesman to help them guide the country through challenging times.

Italy and the United States share extraordinary bonds of history and family and culture. We're especially grateful and proud for the Italian-Americans who made enormous contributions to our country. Italy is one of our closest allies.

Our partnership is one of the strongest links binding Europe and the United States together. And I've made clear throughout the trip our partnership with Europe is the foundation of America's engagement in the world. It's a corner stone of our security policy. So I appreciate the opportunity to consult with the prime minister on a wide range of issues.

On a more personal level, I want to say I've been impressed by the energy and vision that Matteo is bringing to his position. There's a seriousness and ambition of ideas. And I think and spirit and energy of the Italian people has the opportunity to be unleashed in the way that will be good for Italy but it will also good for Europe. So it's wonderful to see this new generation of leadership coming to the floor.

As the prime minister indicated, we focused on the situation in Ukraine, something I've been talking about over the last three days. We continue to see international unity in the face of a violation of international law in Ukraine's territorial integrity.

The IMF's announcement today that it reached a preliminary agreement on Ukraine on a loan program is a major step forward. This significant package of support will help stabilize the economy and meet the needs of Ukrainian people over the long term because it provides the prospect for true growth.

It will require structural reforms, but it means Ukraine can go on a path that countries like Poland have been able to embark on, and seen incredible growth over the last several years. It's also going to reinforce democratic reforms and it should help unlock some $27 billion in international support for Ukraine.

So it's a concrete signal of how the world is united with Ukraine as it makes tough choices at an incredible difficult time. Ukraine's leaders can show considerable courage and foresight making the reforms to grow their economy, leave behind the corruption of the past. And today I want to call on the United States Congress to make sure the United States does its part with an economic assistance package that helps support the Ukrainian people as they move forward.

As NATO allies, the United States and Italy are going to uphold our solemn obligation to the security of our allies. The G-7 partners are moving ahead with in Brussels without Russia is a signal of the growing isolation. The sanctions the United States and European Union have imposed will continue to grow if Russia doesn't change course.

But as I said yesterday in Brussels, we're continually hopeful that Russia walks through the door of diplomacy and works with all of us to try to resolve this issue in a peaceful way. We will continue to coordinate closely with Italy and other European partners throughout this crisis.

I thanked the prime minister as well as President Napolitano for Italy's commitment to NATO. Italian forces have served admirably in Afghanistan where Italy is one of our largest contributors to the coalition, in Kosovo, where Italians command the NATO force. I would add that Italians both commands and contributes a large number of peace keepers to the U.N. force in Lebanon.

And at the nuclear security summit this week, we announced the complete removal of Italy's excess highly enriched uranium so it can be eliminated. And this was a critical step in our work to make sure that dangerous materials don't fall into the hands of terrorists. And it's one more example of Italian leadership across the board.

We discussed the need to boost economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic so that we're creating jobs for people, especially young people. That's why, in addition to kinds of steps the prime minister outlined and plans to pursue internally, we have an opportunity to move forward with a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that can boost growth and investment not just for large but also small and medium-sized businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

I commended Prime Minster Renzi for his efforts to make it easier for Italian companies to hire more workers and to make the Italian economy more competitive. I know a lot more remains to be done. There are going to be tough choices, but as Italy moves forward and makes the hard decisions, the United States will continue to stand with you.

Finally, we discussed some broader global issues. Italy played a critical role in the NATO air campaign to protect the Libyan people three years ago. We're now going to be working together to make sure they can develop the security forces that can restore order to Libya and make sure that they have a government that is actually serving the Libyan people.

The entire world appreciates the vital role that Italy will play in the international effort to destroy chemical weapons. It's an Italian port where chemicals from Syria's stockpiles will be unloaded and transferred to U.S. ships for elimination. And this is another example of how we work together not just for ourselves but for the world. And we are looking forward to being back in Italy in Milan hosting the world or being part of the world exhibition next year that Italy is hosting. I'm proud to announce today that the United States will participate in the expo.

And together with our partners we're going to put together an outstanding USA Pavilion that showcases American innovation to improve agriculture and nutrition and to help the people around the globe. I know the Milan expo is going to engage and educate the work as only Italy can. And I will tell you that I already have some volunteers from my staff who want to go and really make sure that it goes smoothly. I suspect that some restaurants and shopping may somewhere be in their agenda.

So, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for your friendship and leadership. I'm confident that together we can build on the progress that we've already made. I'm even more confident that the bonds between our two nations will continue to grow, rooted in the enduring friendship between our two people.

MATTEO RENZI, ITALIAN PRIME MINISTER: Thank you so much, Mr. President. Thank you so much also for the shopping and the food. It's so important for our economy, so.

(LAUGHTER)

For questions, OK, for America, OK.

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Channel 1 news. Channel 1 News. Good afternoon.

Prime minister, you said a moment ago that you will be -- you are committed to creating a new Europe with less austerity and more growth, less bureaucracy and we have to be closer to the people. Now, is there an American model to be followed here? Are you asking the U.S. to support that?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: For this effort by Italy to change, modify the Europe policies in the economic field. And what kind of Europe would you like to see for a better corporation in the economic field and also in the defense field, which you mentioned yesterday. Thank you.

RENZI (through translation): Italy's first effort is going to be change to Italy. Italy doesn't have alibis any longer. Italy mustn't think that its own problems and its opportunities will come from the outside, from Europe or the U.S. We have to change ourselves. We are a great country and we are able to change.

We have to reduce our oppressing bureaucracy. We have to reduce, downsize our political class and the costs. We have to work on our labor market because our international investors have to know this is a great place for ideas and businesses to grow.

So this is why we say to Italians and to all our fellow citizens that we shouldn't be looking for an excuse. Nobody is going to do this from the outside. We have to change ourselves from within. Of course, if we have that credibility which is needed, if we believe in ourselves, then Europe has to focus on growth and less on bureaucracy. I think this is how it should be. And I spoke to Angela Merkel, Francios Holland, Dave Cameron about this. We will be discussing this during our semester of presidencies.

Can the U.S. be a model, you ask that? Of course. Over the years, under the leadership of President Obama, the United States has chosen an ambitious course. They have been rebuilding their economy in America. In fact, that's a message that we've received. We decided to call our measures Jobs Act. This is the same term used in the U.S., more or less. This is a way of helping youth have more credibility, have more space, more room. We have to make sure that our investors want to come. So of course, the U.S. can be seen as a model.

The important point Italy has to do its homework. In other words, Italy must finally put into practice structural reforms that we've been waiting for past 20 years. And my government and our credibility over the next four years will come from that. We want to change ourselves.

And clearly, we're doing it in an interconnected global world. We know that Europe has to think a bit more about the future and a bit less about the past and the friendship and cooperation and partnership with the U.S., therefore, are an unrelinquishable beacon for us.

OBAMA: Before I talk about the future, let me talk about the recent past. I think Europe has taken some important steps and they deserve credit. As recently as the year and a half to two years ago, we were very worried about the Euro spinning out of control. There were enormous challenges across the board. I think because of strong coordination within the Eurozone, because of smart actions by the European Central Bank, the financial situation has stabilized.

I also think that there were countries under enormous market pressure, borrowing rates skyrocketing. And because of some tough decisions, you've seen those -- the ability of countries to borrow on the international markets stabilizes. All that was necessary and was important. It could not have happened had it not been for coordinated response among European leaders. We've also seen movement toward banking union, which I think is helpful. And there are other multilateral reforms taking place we have encouraged.

Now having said that, what is also true is that Europe's growth is still very slow. Its unemployment rate is still very high. And nobody knows that better than Prime Minister Renzi. That's part of his mission, to reinvigorate the Italian economy.

Each country will have a different set of issues it's going to have to address. Each country has both strengths and weaknesses in the economy. I think Prime Minister Renzi has identified some of the structural reforms that Italy needs to engage in order for it to be more competitive and more successful. I'm confident he's going to be able to move Italy forward, in part, because Italy is ready to move forward.

As far as Europe as a whole, I do think that the old debate about growth versus austerity is a sterile debate. You need public finances in order but you also have to grow. The more you grow, the easier it is to get your public finances in order. There are different capacities within Europe.

I've said before, and I will repeat again, those countries that have substantial surpluses have more room to help boost European-wide demand and that in turn will help countries still in deficit. That will lift Europe as a whole. And that means that everybody is growing.

And so, in my conversations with President Barroso and Rompuy yesterday at the European Union, I encouraged them to continue to identify ways in which countries with surpluses could do more to boost demand while still being prudent about their public finances.

Last point, I guess I would make is, in terms of the United States and how we can be helpful, part of it is us making sure we're taking care of our own issues. It's not as if we don't have a lot of work to do ourselves. We've grown faster than Europe and I think we recovered, in part, because we took some smart steps.

We also have fundamental problems that many advanced nations face. And then, in fact, I have discussed with His Holiness, Pope Francis, this morning, and that is an increasing tendency in the world economy for those who benefit from globalization and technology to do better than ever before, those at the top. Those at the bottom or in the middle having more and more problems, in part, because perhaps their jobs have been rendered obsolete, in part, because it's very difficult to see wages increase. Companies feel as if they can always move if labor makes too great of a demand on wage increases or salary increases.

And so, all of us are seeing structural problems in this new economy. And that means we've got to redouble our efforts to educate our young people to make sure that we have the capacity to provide skills to our workers; if they lose their jobs, they can transition quickly; that we have a strong baseline of social support for people if they end up transitioning out of jobs; that we're paying more attention to opening up opportunity for people who have been locked out, particularly young people.

As I mentioned to the prime minister, one of the tragedies of high youth unemployment is that when young people don't have a strong attachment to the labor market early that can continue the rest of their careers.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We have been listening to the prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, as well as President Obama, making comments from Rome, hold a news conference. Wide-ranging topics, but a lot focusing on the economy.

We want to turn now, leave the comments of the president, and head to a press conference underway now. JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This is in New Jersey. That man you're looking at there, I believe, Randy Mastro, with the law firm of Gibson and Dunn, hired by the Chris Christie administration in New Jersey to investigate the Bridgegate scandal. What this investigation has found is Chris Christie is not in any way responsible. He did not order and was not involved with noting directing the bridge closure.

Let's listen to what Randy Mastro has to say.

RANDY MASTRO, ATTORNEY, GIBSON & DUNN: They are contradicted by documents, witness accounts and their own prior statements. So no remedial actions are required in regard to those allegations.

Finally, I wanted to briefly summarize some of the recommendations that we have made to the governor. Because while the actions of the few, there was a violation, a breach of the public trust that we take very seriously. We take our mandate very seriously to make recommendations to the governor that something in his office, that something like this never happen again.

So among the recommendations we have made to the governor's office are that IGA, the Intergovernmental Affairs Office, run by Bridget Kelly in 2013, that that office be disbanded and the governor's office be reorganized, and it's functions be combined with those of the governor's office of Constituent Relations into an office of Legislative and Constituent Services, to get back to the original mission of that office, which was to provide constituent services, to provide services to local elected officials in a non-partisan way, open to all. The way that office functioned during the first three- plus years of Governor Christie's administration, until this aberrational behavior directed by Bridget Kelly in 2013. And the mission of that office should be made crystal clear to be a service function for all in a non-partisan manner.

Second, we've recommended to the governor's office that the governor appoint an ombudsman and a chief ethics officer for the governor's office. The ombudsman would be a senior statesman of unquestioned integrity and independence to report directly to the governor and issue period reports to the public as for complaints within the governor's office. And we have recommended separately the appointment of a chief ethics officer for the office of the governor to be responsible for ethics enforcement, conflicts/issue resolution and training. And that that person should have a direct reporting relationship both with the chief counsel to the governor, the ombudsman, and ability to report to the governor as well.

Finally, in regard to the port authority, which is where this lane realignment was effectuated, we recommend the appointment of a bi- state commission to examine ways in which to fundamentally restructure and reform the port authority to ensure its independence and professionalism.

This incident exemplifies that there are times within the port authority where the rivalries between New York and New Jersey have led to communication failures and other problematic issues. A bi-state commission appointed by both governors can look at ways to help improve the operations of port authority to make it truly independent and professional to serve the needs of both states.

In the first instance, a commission will hopefully look at these types of issues first, whether it's appropriate to restructure so that there are New Jersey and New York divisions, functions, projects principally in one state or the other that will be run by each of those states so that those states will be truly accountable for the projects applicable to each state.

Second, to look at ways to restructure the appointments process at the port authority to encourage independence and professionalism. Terms of years, staggered terms that will exceed the length of terms of governors and joint appointments by both governors to increase independence and responsibility within the port authority.

That is a brief summary, ladies and gentlemen, of our findings and recommendations. And now I would be pleased to take questions.

Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Someone looking at this they would say, well, Governor Christie's lawyer, the fact you found he did nothing wrong here is suspect because that's what you're supposed to do, work for him. And they would doubt these findings.

MASTRO: Sure. Sure. The premise of the question is wrong, David, because the premise of the question is that our law firm works for an individual. Our law firm was retained by the office of the governor. We were obtained by a public office. And we have an obligation to that public office. And whatever the facts were that we found, our obligation -- and it was publicly stated -- was to report those findings back to that office.

And that office announced publicly, long before we'd reached any point of rendering findings or knowing what our findings would be, that those findings would be put out to the public. And, David, had we found evidence to the contrary of what we found, we would have been reporting that. And of course, in facilitating our cooperation with investigations, we would have been providing that information to investigators.

What we found, David, what we found was Governor Christie had no involvement in the decision to close these lanes and prior knowledge of it. Not a shred of evidence of it. And we're obligated to report that back. That is our public responsibility, both as lawyers and to a public office.

Yes, Angela?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Did you interview witnesses on your oath? Did you interview Chairman Sampson? And what did -- (INAUDIBLE).

MASTRO: OK. Our interviews were not under oath, just as initial interviews that other investigations are doing are typically not under oath. Chairman Sampson had denied any prior knowledge of the lane closure incident in prior statements he made, so we had the benefit of that. But we did not have the opportunity to interview him. Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Residents of New Jersey are probably today realizing this cost a million dollars dragging on taxes. What does a million dollars buy with an investigation?

MASTRO: Well, first of all, I have no idea what the cost of this has been, but I will say that to do an investigation like this and to have to facilitate cooperation with other investigations that have issued sweeping overbroad subpoenas is a costly proposition. It's a costly proposition for the governor's office, for the legislative committees, for those individuals who are involved.

But let me also say this. It's a search for the truth. And we believe we have gotten to the truth or we would not be reporting it. It serves no one's interest, no one's interest, certainly not my or my law firm's interest, certainly not the governor's office's interest, or the constituency it serves, the people of New Jersey, for us to have done anything other than to try to get to the truth here and to address it.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, there are other investigations that will make findings after we are done. We will be judged at the end of the day by whether we got this right. We intended to get it right. We believe we've gotten it right. We've admitted where we don't have answers yet. And other investigations we will continue to work with to see that they get those answers.

But as to the most important questions, we believe we got it right. We'll ultimately be judged by that. And we had to work even harder to get it right now so that the people of New Jersey could be assured, as a matter of public trust, whether the officials in their governor's office have conducted themselves appropriately or not. So, yes, our findings today are a vindication of Governor Christie --

PEREIRA: All right. You've been listening to Randy Mastro, former member of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration. Interesting to note. He was hired to do this internal investigation basically finding no remedial action required, but they did make some recommendations to some changes that need to happen.

Let's bring in Chris Frates to sort of go through what was said.

Chris, give us your thoughts on what he said. We've been reacting to it ourselves.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIONS CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you what, John and Michaela, this is a huge report. You take a look, it's like 350 pages. So we're going through it, but the top line headlines here, Chris Christie didn't know about the lane closures before they happened, didn't know when they were happening, and everything he told us on January 9th in his big press conference according to this report turns out to be true at his understanding.

Now, what this report really does is take a hard look at Bridget Kelly. She was the deputy chief of staff to Chris Christie. And David Wildstein, he was one of the top at the port authority. And they come under scathing review. Essentially, this report says both Kelly and Wildstein knew and perpetrated these lane closures for some reason to get back at the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

The report doesn't tell us what the motivation is, but they say it's clear that both Kelly and Wildstein used the lane closures for political retribution.

The other interesting fact here that has come out in this report that had been rumored was that Bridget Kelly and Bill Steppien, Christie's campaign manager, had some kind of a personal relationship, quote, "And at some point after Steppien's departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Steppien became personally involved. Although, by early August 2013, the personal relationship cooled, apparently at Steppien's choice, and they largely stopped speaking." So that was a headline too that Christie's deputy chief of staff and campaign manager had some kind of personal relationship.

BERMAN: Gives you a sense of the web of connections at least going on behind the scenes. Chris, we can't state this enough. This isn't the final word here. This is an investigation launched by Chris Christie's office. by a law firm hired by Chris Christie's office. There's still a legislative committee with subpoena power investigating the situation. There's still a federal investigation at work right now. Any sense yet if they will find things to be a little bit different than this hand-picked lawyer's office did?

FRATES: Well, I'll tell you, John, the legislature is going after the documents of Bridget Kelly and Bill Steppien. Both of those parties have declined so far to give their e-mails and text messages to that investigative committee. And the lawyer for Chris Christie, who put this report together, said that, you know, what they know is limited because they also don't have those things.

BERMAN: That is the same thing they would all like to get their hands on.

Chris Frates following this closely. Dig into those pages, see what else you find out. We'll check back in with you in a little bit.

PEREIRA: I'm Michaela Pereira. That's it for this AT THIS HOUR.

BERMAN: "Legal View" with Ashleigh Banfield starts right now.