Flip Flop? White House Concedes Obama Shift on Immigration Action

Obama spokesman says 'things have changed' to explain view on action legality.

ByABC News
November 18, 2014, 5:11 PM

— -- President Obama has long declared he does not have the legal authority to do what he is about to do on immigration: bypass Congress and extend legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants through an executive order.

“I am president, I am not king. I can't do these things just by myself,” Obama said Oct. 25, 2010.

“I’m not the emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed,” he declared three years later on Feb. 14, 2013.

Later that year on Sept. 17: “[I]f we start broadening that [the deferred action program for undocumented immigrant youth], then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally," he said. "So that's not an option.”

How could the president now do what he plainly said was illegal as recently as last fall?

That’s what I asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at today’s White House briefing. In what appears to be a rare acknowledgement of a presidential flip flop, Earnest explained “obviously there are some things that have changed on this.”

Watch the exchange.

KARL: Does the president still stand by what he said last year when he said, quote, I am not the emperor of the United States; my job is to execute laws that are passed. Is that still operative?

MR. EARNEST: Absolutely.

KARL: He’s not a king either.

MR. EARNEST: That’s right.

KARL: Because he was asked very specifically about the idea of expanding the deferred action executive order for the dreamers to their parents. And he said Sept. 17 last year, Telemundo, very clearly, 'If we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that would make it very difficult to defend legally, so that is not an option.' Is that still operative when the president had said specifically that expanding the DACA executive order is not an option because it would be ignoring the law? Does he still believe that?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, I don’t want to get ahead of what any sort of announcements that the president may make before the end of the year about executive actions that he may take to fix our broken immigration system. Since this interview aired, the president did direct the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to conduct a review of the law to determine what, if any, authority he could use to try to fix some of the problems that House Republicans have refused to address. So this is something that has been under consideration for some time by the attorney general of the United States and by the security of Homeland Security. And, you know, it --

KARL But just to be clear, so you’re saying that this is no longer operative because we’ve had a review. So when the president said that expanding DACA to apply to the parents of the dreamers, for instance, would be broadening and essentially ignoring the law in a way that would be difficult to defend legally, that it’s not an option, that statement is no longer operative?

MR. EARNEST: Well, what I’m saying is we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate the actions that the president has chosen to take after he’s announced them.

KARL: But I’m not asking about the options. I’m just saying, does the president still stand by what he said in that interview in September of last year?

MR. EARNEST: Well, Jon, there – obviously, there are some things that have changed in this. Obviously, there have – some things that have changed, right? We have been in a situation where the president has ordered a broader, in-depth review of the existing law to determine what sort of executive authority does rest with the presidency to determine what kinds of steps he could take on his own.

The other thing that we’ve seen is we’ve seen House Republicans refuse to act even on common-sense legislation that would fix so many of the problems of our broken immigration system in a way that would strengthen border security, reduce the deficit and be good for the economy.

KARL: But they had already refused to act at this point.

MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess – I guess it’s fair to say they’ve been refusing to act for quite some time. At that point it had only been a few months that they’d been refusing to act. Now it’s been almost a year and a half.