Oct. 6, 2011 -- President Obama said Thursday that his administration has loaned billions to start-up high tech firms like the now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra based not on political influence, but "on the merits."
"I have confidence decisions were made based upon what's good for the American people," Obama said in a press conference Thursday in response to questions from ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper. "There were going to be some companies that did not work out. Solyndra was one of them."
The president addressed multiple questions Thursday about Solyndra, the first recipient of a government loan under a program to help finance start-up companies in the fledgling field of green energy. Solyndra declared bankruptcy last month, locking out 1,100 workers. The Energy Department loan is now the focus of investigations by Congress and by the Department of Justice.
"All I can say is the Department of Energy made these decisions based on their best judgments," Obama said, defending the decision to make Solyndra the country's first loan guarantee recipient.
The press conference came as sources inside the White House were being more specific about what took place when billionaire oil magnate George Kaiser visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to talk with top Obama aides.
Kaiser, a major donor to Obama's campaign, and a chief investor in the California solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, did not attempt to cajole the White House into giving the company a $535 million federal loan, a White House official told ABC News.
White House officials initially said they thought the meetings covered Kaiser's charity work. A new review of visitor logs by the Sunlight Foundation showed that Kaiser was accompanied by experts on energy policy to at least three of the meetings. On Wednesday, a White House official familiar with an internal review of meetings between Kaiser and such senior presidential aides as Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse told ABC News that the White House now firmly believes that Kaiser never broached the subject of the Solyndra loan.
Kaiser has "said publicly that Solyndra was not discussed at these meetings, and we have no reason to dispute that," the White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he had not been given approval to discuss the matter. "We understand that the conversations in these meetings were focused on the general policy priorities of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, including early childhood education and poverty, health care policy and energy policy."
Questions about Kaiser's 16 White House visits -- including four that occurred in the days and weeks before the Energy Department approved Solyndra's loan -- have been the focus of significant attention since Solyndra declared bankruptcy. House Republicans, in particular, have been trying to determine whether political influence played any role in the selection of Solyndra in 2009 to become the first loan recipient under President Obama's plan to provide a boost to the fledgling "green energy" industry.
Kaiser is one of several Obama campaign supporters who had a stake in companies that later received federal loans, and his presence in the White House during the days before Solyndra's loan won conditional approval provoked speculation among some Republicans that politics had influenced the loan decision.
Senior administration officials have vociferously denied this charge, saying career employees inside the Department of Energy evaluated the loan on its merits, free from political meddling. But the chairman of the House subcommittee that is overseeing an investigation into the Solyndra matter wrote to the White House Counsel Wednesday seeking more documents on the subject. The letter specifically notes that Obama fundraisers and senior White House aides appeared to be engaged in discussions about Solyndra.
"Nearly eight months into our investigation, documents provided to the Committee last Friday confirm those closest to the President -- top advisors like Valerie Jarrett, Larry Summers, and Ron Klain -- had direct involvement in the Solyndra mess," said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). "In addition to the cast of West Wing characters with access to the Oval Office, documents reveal a startlingly cozy relationship between wealthy donors and the President's confidantes, especially in matters related to Solyndra."
The latest statement from the White House came, in part, in response to a new report from the non-partisan group The Sunlight Foundation. The foundation reported on its blog this week that a closer inspection of White House visitor logs found three instances in which Kaiser visited the White House with former Alaska Gov. Anthony Knowles. Knowles now serves as president of the Kaiser-funded National Energy Policy Institute, whose goal is "to move beyond total oil dependence and to supplant consumption of imported oil through increased domestic energy supply, reduced foreign oil and gas demand and lower carbon emissions to include enhancement of traditional sources of domestic oil, gas and coal."
"We did not advocate any specific policies or portfolio of policies," Knowles told the Sunlight Foundation in response to questions about the White House meetings.