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Sony Hacking: Obama Says Sony Made 'Mistake' in Canceling "The Interview"


The White House(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama says Sony made a "mistake" in canceling its planned release of the movie The Interview following a destructive cyber attack the U.S. government says was launched by North Korea.

"Sony is a corporation. It suffered significant damage. There were threats against its employees. I’m sympathetic to the concerns that they faced," Obama said. "Having said all that, yes I think they made a mistake."

"We cannot have a society where some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the U.S.," Obama said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The FBI formally fingered North Korea as being responsible for the attack, which successfully forced Sony to cancel its planned release of The Interview, which depicts the fictional assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The FBI said the Sony attack was unprecedented given its "destructive" and "coercive" nature, saying it disabled "thousands" of Sony's computers and "significantly disrupted the company's business operations."

The White House has declared the Sony hacking case a “serious national security matter" but has been trying to walk a fine line with its reaction. Administration officials say they are acutely aware that a public act of retribution could further give the hackers and the North Korean regime the kind of attention they seek. Some U.S. actions, they suggest, could be covert.

“I don't anticipate that we'll be in a position where we're gonna be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday.

"North Korea’s actions were intended to inflict significant harm on a U.S. business and suppress the right of American citizens to express themselves. Such acts of intimidation fall outside the bounds of acceptable state behavior," the FBI said.


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Supreme Court Denies Stay in Florida Same-Sex Marriage Case


 Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Thinkstock(TALLAHASSEE, Fla.) -- Same-sex couples in Florida could get married as soon as next month after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to issue a stay.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had filed for a stay while awaiting an appeal hearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court, however, decided by a 7-2 margin not to grant the stay. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented, saying that they would have granted the application for a stay.

In a statement on Friday night, Bondi said that "regardless of the ruling it has always been our goal to have uniformity throughout Florida until the final resolution of the numerous challenges to the voter-approved constitutional amendment on marriage."

Despite her application for a stay being denied, Bondi said that "the Supreme Court has now spoken, and the stay will end on January 5."

It's not clear whether Florida clerks will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

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Sen. Rand Paul Criticizes Marco Rubio's Stance on Cuba


Credit: US Senate(WASHINGTON) -- In an unusual series of events, a Republican Senator on Friday called out one of his fellow party members online on Friday.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have publicly shared differing viewpoints on President Obama's decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Paul has stated his interest in engaging Cuba, while Rubio is staunchly against the decision.

On Friday, Paul posted a series of messages on both his Facebook and Twitter pages criticizing Rubio's stance.

"[Rubio] believes the embargo against Cuba has been ineffective, yet he wants to continue perpetuating failed policies," the Facebook post began. In it, Paul calls himself "a proponent of peace through commerce" and stated his belief that "engaging Cuba can lead to positive change."

He went on to call Rubio an "isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat."

Paul then sent a series of tweets, mentioning Rubio's handle, asking questions such as "what about the majority of Cuban-Americans who now support normalizing relations between our countries?" and "The United States trades and engages with other communist nations, such as China and Vietnam. So @marcorubio why not Cuba?"

Hey @marcorubio if the embargo doesn't hurt Cuba, why do you want to keep it?

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014

Senator @marcorubio is acting like an isolationist who wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat. I reject this isolationism.

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014

The United States trades and engages with other communist nations, such as China and Vietnam. So @marcorubio why not Cuba?

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014

.@marcorubio what about the majority of Cuban-Americans who now support normalizing relations between our countries? http://t.co/0qhSOeD9Va

— Senator Rand Paul (@SenRandPaul) December 19, 2014


Both Paul and Rubio have been mentioned as possible candidates for the 2016 presidential election.

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Obama Determined to 'Chip Away' at 'Hermetically Sealed' Cuba


The White House(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba will "chip away" at the island's "hermetically sealed society," the president said Friday at what is likely his last press conference of the year.

"This is still a regime that represses its people," the president acknowledged. "But what I know, deep in my bones, is that if you’ve done the same things for 50 years, you should try something different if you want a different outcome."

"Suddenly Cuba is open to the world in way’s that it hasn’t been before," he continued. "Over time, that chips away at this hermetically sealed society and, I believe, offers the best prospect of leading to greater freedom, greater self-determination of the Cuban people."

In the wide-ranging press conference, Obama also touted his economic accomplishments this year.

"Pick any metric you want, America's resurgence is real," President Obama said. "We are better off."

“In terms of my own job, I am energized, I’m excited about the prospects for the next couple of years," Obama said, adding he wasn’t going to be “stopping for a minute” in his quest to make life better for all Americans.

“My presidency’s entering the fourth quarter,” he said. “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.”

The president leaves Washington on a high note, having made progress on several top priorities as he heads into the final two years of his presidency. In recent weeks, the president negotiated an unprecedented climate deal with China, took unilateral actions to reform the nation’s immigration system and announced a historic thawing of relations with Cuba.

Despite these successes, the president’s approval rating remains dismally low, hovering around 40 percent.

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Obama Makes History, Calling Only on Female Reporters


Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Mark this down as a historic day in White House history.

President Obama has just become the first president to field questions from only female reporters at a White House press conference.

Former ABC News correspondent Ann Compton, the first woman to report on the White House full time for a network and who covered the beat for 40 years, said that never before has a president only taken questions from women during a solo press conference.

On Friday, Obama took questions from eight reporters, all women from print or radio outlets. He fielded no questions from male reporters and none from the television networks.

The women-only question session triggered a flood of reactions on social media from members of the White House press corps and around journalism.

With 8th & last question, it's fact: Obama called only on women at press conf. Women long chafed at dominance of front-row male TV reporters

— Jackie Calmes (@calmesnyt) December 19, 2014

While I hope it's not a permanent ban on questions from male reporters, hard to complain about what women reporters have endured for decades

— Jonathan Allen (@jonallendc) December 19, 2014

Premise for Mrs. Doubtfire reboot: male tv reporter dresses as woman in order to land interview with POTUS. Briefing room hijinks ensue.

— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) December 19, 2014

@karentravers @markknoller Bush43 once called on only men. Ari Fleischer defended saying those news orgzs failed to assign women to WH

— Ann Compton (@AnnCompton) December 19, 2014

Asked about the decision to call only on female reporters, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said “The fact is, there are many women from a variety of news organizations who day-in and day-out do the hard work of covering the President of the United States. As the questioner list started to come together, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to highlight that fact at the President’s closely watched, end of the year news conference.”

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Obama to Deliver State of the Union Address on Jan. 20


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama has accepted House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to report to Congress on the state of the union next month.

Boehner, R-Ohio, invited the president to deliver his State of the Union address in a letter Friday.

"The new year will bring a new American Congress, and with it, the opportunity to continue our work to build a stronger economy and secure a better future for our country," the House speaker said in the letter. "In that spirit, it is my honor to invite you to address a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, January 20, 2015 so that you may fulfill your duty under the Constitution to report on the state of the union and recommend measures for our consideration."

"Your report will inform our efforts to address the people’s priorities," Boehner added.

The joint session of Congress to receive Obama's address is slated to take place at 9 p.m. ET on Jan. 20.

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Aloha, Obamas! First Family Off to Hawaii for 16-Day Vacation


JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Aloha, Obama family!

The president and first family are heading off to Honolulu, Hawaii, for a 16-day tropical vacation that’s become their annual tradition over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

“The president himself is eagerly looking forward to” the time away, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week.

While there’s no such thing as a work-free vacation for an American president, Obama will likely spend plenty of time soaking up the sun, snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, hiking and biking with his daughters, and enjoying the local cuisine.

He’s also expected to play several rounds of golf and squeeze in a few workouts at the Marine Base Kanehoe.

The White House says he plans to hold no public events. But as with past years, there’s the possibility Obama’s two-week getaway will be punctuated with breaking news around the world to which he’ll need to respond.

It will be the Obamas’ sixth trip to Oahu for family vacation since moving into the White House. The president has deep roots on the island, which is where he was born and spent most of his childhood.

The first family typically rents a multi-million dollar beach-side home in the town of Kailua, on the east side of the island, footing the several thousand-dollar per night bill with personal funds, the White House says.

Obama has taken fewer vacation days overall outside Washington than his predecessor, according to unofficial White House chronicler of presidential travel Mark Knoller of CBS News. While the meaning of "vacation day" is a matter of debate, by one measure, Obama had taken at least 140 days of R&R through August, per Knoller.

That compares to 533 days in George W. Bush’s two terms, including trips to his Crawford, Tex., ranch; 174 by Bill Clinton; and 390 for Ronald Reagan.

The president, first lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia, and dogs Sunny and Bo are expected to arrive on Air Force One Friday just before midnight local time. They will remain on the island until after the New Year.

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Obama's Presidency in 2014 by the Numbers


Alex Wong/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Fresh off his announcement about normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, President Obama on Friday will hold what will likely be his final press conference of the year before the first family jets off to Hawaii for 17 days of R and R.

Here's a look at how the commander-in-chief has fared this year:

  • He has a 41 percent job approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll out this week, a single point from his career low, with 54 percent disapproving.
  • His approval rating averaged just 43 percent in 2014, making it his worst year by a significant margin.
  • His rating on the economy is essentially flat; 52 percent disapprove, despite recent economic gains. Fifty-four percent disapprove of his work on international affairs, a steadily negative majority since September. He’s gained 9 points on handling immigration, but only to 38 percent approval, with 55 percent disapproving. And for only the second time, numerically more disapprove than approve of his handling of terrorism, 48-43 percent.
  • He’s presided over the steepest drop-off in Democratic self-identification we’ve ever seen. Just 26 percent of Americans now identify themselves as Democrats, down 6 points from late October to the fewest on record since the start of ABC/Post polling in 1981. (More are independents; Republican Party ID is flat, but the GOP’s favorability rating has risen sharply.)
  • Obama’s career-long job approval rating, 50 percent on average, lags all three of his immediate two-term predecessors at this point in their tenure.
  • He’s at 29 percent approval among whites, the lowest of his presidency; not only do 67 percent disapprove, but a majority, 53 percent, does so strongly. Nearly two-thirds of nonwhites, by contrast, approve of Obama’s work in office.
  • Previous results also have indicated the president’s problems: He reached career lows in both favorability and empathy -- understanding the problems of people like you -- in a pre-election ABC/Post poll. His career low job approval, 40 percent, was Oct. 12.

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The Gingriches' Guide to Surviving a Presidential Campaign


ABC News/Yahoo! News(WASHINGTON) -- As the wife of a former presidential candidate, Callista Gingrich has some advice for the spouses of 2016 presidential hopefuls.

“Focus on the positive, try not to let the negativity get you down, because you really have to keep your [attention] on those issues that are most important to the future of this country. And some days that's a challenge,” Gingrich said. “But just be open-minded and appreciate the moment.”

Gingrich, who is out with a new children’s book, From Sea to Shining Sea, said that part of staying positive means steering clear of reading the news if you’re the subject of the report.

“Probably avoid that,” she told ABC News/Yahoo! News in a joint interview with her husband, Newt Gingrich.

“We kept begging her,” her husband, the former speaker of the House and 2012 GOP presidential hopeful, chimed in. “Margaret Thatcher had a ground rule: That she never read stories about her. And I think there's a certain virtue to don't get the Google Alerts. …If you look at the Twitter, for example, as we both do a lot of, there's a group of people on Twitter who really like to get all their anger out; so if you pay too much attention, it can really get you down.”

But don’t expect the Gingriches to put their advice to personal use again come 2016: He’s not running. They said their days on the frontlines of a presidential campaign are in the past.

“We had an opportunity, and I think we worked very hard,” Callista Gingrich said. “There is a new crop of candidates, and we will help as much as we can and be involved in the process.”

“There is a new generation coming down the road, and there are a couple of people who have been around for a while,” added Newt Gingrich, who rattled off a roster of nearly a dozen Republicans whom he expects will run in 2016.

From that list, Gingrich said he doesn’t consider anyone a frontrunner -- not even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I don’t think he is,” Gingrich said. “I don’t think anyone is a frontrunner. I think if you go back and look at his brother in 1999, the amount of money he raised, the dominance he had over the field, no one has anything like that. I mean, Hillary arguably is a frontrunner, although I think she's a very fragile one.”

The problem for Clinton, Gingrich predicted, will be the same one she had in 2008.

“She's gotten her candidacy ahead of her cause, which is what she did in '08,” he said. “We're ready for Hillary, but for what? I mean, I think that's the real problem, and I think that's what all Jeb Bush and the others are going to have to answer for us is ‘So, why? …Why are you running and what would you do?’”

Callista Gingrich said some moderate Republican women voters might gravitate to Hillary Clinton's candidacy, if she runs. She said it was time for Republicans to nominate a woman on their ticket.

"Oh, I think we're more than ready, but I think somebody needs to step forward that's able to handle the job," she said. "Right now, we're not hearing about any of those likely people. So, I'm very hopeful that we'll see a woman run from the Republican Party in the very near future."

Callista Gingrich also discussed her newest children’s book, which is the fourth edition of a history series that follows a time-traveling elephant, Ellis, through major events in U.S. history.

“My books are really meant to serve as an introduction to the key moments that have shaped our nation,” Callista Gingrich said of the series. “And unfortunately, today, many of our kids are failing to learn our American history, including our founding principles and values and instead learning revisionist or politically correct history.”

She went on to add that the books are applicable to households across the political spectrum.

“These books are not meant to be Republican books or conservative books, but really they're pro-American books,” she said.

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White House Considering 'Range of Options' in Responding to Sony Hack


Jim Dorian/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The White House will consider a "range of options" in dealing with the Sony hack, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

Earnest would not speculate on the eventual White House response, saying, "I would acknowledge that an appropriate response is something that is not always obvious, but it's something that's worthy of careful consideration." The president's national security team continues to consider their options carefully, Earnest said.

"I don't anticipate that we'll be in a position where we're going to be able to be completely forthcoming about every single element of the response that has been decided upon," Earnest added.

Earnest would not discuss who would eventually be deemed responsible for the hack, though he did say that Obama "considers it to be a serious national security matter."


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President Obama to Close the Year with Annual Press Conference


The White House(WASHINGTON) —  President Obama will hold his annual year-end press conference Friday afternoon at the White House before taking off on his annual Hawaiian holiday vacation.

Obama last fielded reporters' questions the day after the mid-term elections and there's a lot of new ground to cover since then.

The president is expected to face tough questions on relations with Cuba, cyber-terrorism, torture, immigration, the economy, and race relations. Many also are watching closely to see whether the president will refer to the Sony hack as "terrorism" and how the U.S. is going to respond to North Korea.

President Obama will also likely tout his strong finish to the year -- in recent weeks he's announced a major climate deal with China, unilaterally reformed the nation's immigration system and seen a boost in job growth.  

This will be President Obama's seventh solo news conference of the year, according to the American Presidency Project at University of California, Santa Barbara. It's the 46th time in six years he will take questions in a solo session with reporters. George W. Bush held 34 solo pressers by this point in his presidency.

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Obama Signs Order Creating Task Force on 21st Century Policing


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama signed an order on Thursday that officially created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Obama had announced on Dec. 1 that he would take this step. The task force will convene sessions where they will hear testimony and accept proposed recommendations from invited witnesses. By March, the task force is expected to present a report and recommendations to the president.

According to the White House, the chairpersons of the task force will be Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, profesor of Criminology, Law and Society and George Mason University. Robinson is also a former assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs.

The task force will also include 10 other members, including attorneys, leaders of non-profit organizations and law enforcement officers.

Obama created the task force after weeks of protests over the police-involved shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson, Mo., and the death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York police officer in recent months.

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Five Changes Recommended for Secret Service After Fence Jumper Enters WH


Vacclav/iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A bipartisan, independent panel scrutinizing the U.S. Secret Service after a man with a small knife in his pocket jumped the perimeter fence and made it deep inside the White House earlier this year is recommending sweeping changes at the agency.

The Secret Service's “paramount mission” of protecting the president and other high-ranking officials “allows no tolerance for error,” and a “single miscue, or even a split-second delay, could have disastrous consequences for the nation and the world,” warns the panel's final report, commissioned by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson after the September breach.

After speaking with 50 officials from the Secret Service and as many as 70 others from other federal agencies, state agencies, and the White House, the panel's report makes these “important” recommendations:

1. A TALLER, “BETTER” FENCE

A better fence can provide agents with “crucial” time needed to identify a threat and determine how to respond appropriately, the report concludes. “Every additional second of response time” counts, and those seconds would help agents “decide, in a split-second, whether to use lethal force on a person who may not actually pose a viable threat to the president or the White House.” The report says that “for sure, the fence must be taller.” In addition, horizontal bars on the fence that can be used like a ladder “should be eliminated,” and the top of the fence could be curved outward “to make scaling it much more difficult for most,” the report recommends. “Importantly, designers of the new fence must balance security concerns with the long and storied tradition of the White House being the ‘People’s House,’” the report says. The acting head of the Secret Service, Joe Clancy, said recently that changes to the fence, which currently stands at 7.5 feet, are already under serious consideration.

2. A “STRONG” LEADER FROM OUTSIDE
“The Panel found an organization starved for leadership that rewards innovation and excellence and demands accountability. From agents to officers to supervisors, we heard a common desire: More resources would help, but what we really need is leadership.” Consequently, the report concludes that “the right person” to become the next Secret Service director “should come from outside the Service.” The report says any benefits from appointing someone with “Service experience” are “outweighed” by the need for “dynamic leadership” that can “move the Service forward into a new era,” “drive change in the organization,” and “make difficult choices.” “Only a director from outside the Service, removed from organizational traditions and personal relationships, will be able to do the honest top-to-bottom reassessment this will require,” the report concludes.

3. A NEW BUDGET

“[N]o one has really looked at how much the mission, done right, actually costs.” So, the report says, a new director should “start with a zero-based budget,” determine what “is needed” to accomplish the Service’s mission, and then ask the White House and Congress for “this sum.” In the meantime, “to ensure adequate training and personnel for the White House,” the administration and Congress should find a way to let the Secret Service hire 85 more special agents and 200 more Uniformed Division officers, the report says.

4. MORE TALENT AND MORE AGENTS

“The Secret Service is stretched to and, in many cases, beyond its limits,” with those protecting the White House working “an unsustainable number of hours,” the report says. So the service needs to “increase significantly in size” by hiring more agents and uniformed officers, the report concludes. In addition, the service needs to recruit “more of the best and most innovative scientists and engineers dreaming up ways to defeat the next threat,” according to the report. All that means the Secret Service needs “an administrative department that can demonstrate with rigorous precision why additional resources are necessary and knows how to budget for it,” the report says.

5. MORE ACCOUNTABILITY

“The agency’s zero-failure mission requires that its high standards be met,” so agents and officers themselves “must see that the organization itself believes in its standards and enforces them in a consistent, evenhanded manner,” according to the report. “It’s not just about morale or fairness, but about creating a “culture of performance that the Secret Service needs to meet its zero-failure mission,” the report states.

After the recommendations were released, Secretary Johnson called them "astute, thorough, and fair," saying, "Fundamental change is needed at the Secret Service." And the head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, said it's “imperative that the Secret Service begin to review and implement the recommendations...as soon as possible."

The four panelists – former top Justice Department officials Thomas Perelli and Mark Filip, and former White House officials Joseph Hagin and Danielle Gray – were directed to take a broad look at how to revamp an agency scarred by recent scandals. Two of the panelists served under the Obama administration, the other two served under the Bush administration.

A separate internal DHS probe, led by Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, detailed the multiple failings and missed opportunities that led to the Sept. 19 incursion allegedly carried out by 42-year-old Omar Gonzalez. The results of that probe were released last month.

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Congressmen Write Letter to 18 Universities Urging Them to End Use of University Debit Cards for Student Tanning


Credit: Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) -- Five congressmen on Thursday wrote a letter to 18 universities urging them to disallow the use of university debit cards by students for indoor tanning.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that the 18 universities allow the use of student debit cards for tanning services, an agreement that the reps. say "constitute an endorsement and even encourage indoor tanning," which they note "has been designated a carcinogen by the World Health Organization."

The letter was sent to Indiana University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Southern New Hampshire University, the universities of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pittsburgh, Texas at Austin, Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Vermont, Virginia Tech, Western Kentucky University, Clemson University and Georgia Southern University.

"We believe your university should not be offering incentives to students to engage in activities that put their health at risk," the congressmen wrote.

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Obama Surprised With 'Cuban' Cigar On Historic Day for U.S.-Cuba Relations


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) --  Turns out President Obama capped off Wednesday, a day that marked the dawn of a new relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, with...what else: a cigar.

And, according to the gift giver, it was a Cuban.

When a guest at one of two White House Hanukkah receptions handed one to Obama, he gave it a sniff.

“I had the unique distinction of gifting the president of the United States with one of Cuba’s finest cigars, a Montecristo Series at the White House…after a ceremony in which a Menorah was lit,” John Berzner, who offered the cigar to the president on Wednesday, told ABC News.

Berzner said when he was preparing to leave his Colorado home Tuesday for the annual White House Hanukkah Party, he selected one cigar from the box to bring with him.

Little did he know, of course, that Wednesday would be a landmark day in U.S.-Cuba relations with the freeing of American Alan Gross after five years of imprisonment in the country and the softening of long-hardened diplomatic relations with Cuba.

On Wednesday, the president announced an increase in the amount of Cuban goods authorized U.S. travelers to Cuba can bring back to the States, including tobacco. However, those revised regulations have not yet gone into effect. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to an ABC News request for comment.

When Berzner handed the cigar to the president, he said: “Mr. President, a Cuban cigar for you!”

“Oh, nice!” Obama replied as he lifted the cigar up from the crowd.

“The finest,” Berzner said as Obama raised the cigar to his nose to sniff.

The president approved, telling Berzner, “Pretty good!”

Nigel Savage, who was also a guest at the event and shot the video, added, “The president definitely looked like he appreciated a good Cuban cigar.”

There’s no telling what the president ultimately did with the gift.


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