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Obama calls Congress' veto override "a mistake"

President Obama said during a televised town hall Wednesday that Congress’ decision to override his veto on a 9/11 lawsuit bill was a “mistake,” though he said he understands the reasoning behind lawmakers’ vote.

“I think it was a mistake,” Obama told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “And I understand why it happened. Obviously, all of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11.”

Congress voted to override Obama’s veto on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows the families of the victims of 9/11 to directly sue the government of Saudi Arabia. It was the first veto override of Obama’s presidency.

Obama went on to say that the families of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks “deserve support and they deserve resources”—but that this legislation sets a “dangerous precedent.”

“The concern that I’ve had is -- has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families, it has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we’re suddenly exposed to liabilities for all the work that we’re doing all around the world, and suddenly finding ourselves subject to the -- the private lawsuits in courts where we don’t even know exactly whether they’re on the up and up, in some cases.”

Asked about the Obama administration’s decision to send an additional 600 troops to Iraq to aid in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Obama said he recognizes and respects the inherent “risk” of sending troops to a conflict zone.

“I’ve always been very mindful that when I send any of our outstanding men and women in uniform into a war theater, they’re taking a risk that they may not come back,” he said.

Still, Obama noted that the troops will not be in a combat role, noting that the “nature of the missions” for U.S. troops in Iraq have changed since he took office. He added that it’s not the job of U.S. soldiers, but of Iraqi forces, to be the ground troops in the fight against ISIS. The president also noted that the overall number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has decreased dramatically under his administration.

“When I came into office, we had well over 100,000 U.S. troops, and now we have about 15,000, between Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “Each one of those individuals are still carrying out a critical mission. They are engaging in a fight that is dangerous, and we are grateful for the sacrifice.”

Obama also defended San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players’ decision to take a knee during the national anthem at football games, saying “honoring our flag” is important but free speech is too. Kaepernick has said he is kneeling to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S.

“Well, as I’ve said before, I believe that us honoring our flag and our anthem is part of what binds us together as a nation,” Obama said. “And I think that for me, for my family, for those who work in the White House, we recognize what it means to us, but also what it means to the men and women who are fighting on our behalf.”

“But I’m also always trying to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns,” he added. “And the test of our fidelity to our constitution, the freedom of speech, to our bill of rights, is not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”

He also said it’s important that actions like Kaepernick’s can start a “conversation” about important issues in the country.

“I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat, and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing,” he said. “But I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”

  • Emily Schultheis

    Emily Schultheis is a reporter/editor for CBS News Digital.