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Janet Reno Briefs Reporters on Elian Gonzalez Standoff

Aired March 30, 2000 - 9:37 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Live from Washington, Janet Reno, now ready to brief reporters there at the Justice Department the latest on Elian Gonzalez.


JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: ... we saw the beginning of new people coming to Miami, thousands of Cubans coming from an island they loved because of Castro.

It has been wonderful to watch what has happened in that community in the years that have passed, for these people have made a very wonderful contribution to that community. They have worked very hard. In the beginning they held three jobs at a time. The family worked together. The family was a strong and powerful structure in that community, and that has helped others understand the value of family.

They became the leaders of Miami. They are the bankers, the businessmen, the citizens, the physicians and doctors and lawyers who lead the city. And they are the musicians, the artists, the poets, the professors and the architects who have built a splendid city shining in the sun.

They are also very warm and generous people. And they also believe passionately in what they believe in.

Forty years later, a mother and her 6-year-old boy followed them across the Gulf Stream. The mother died, the boy survived miraculously and made it. Relatives took him in. They have cared for him, and they love him dearly. So does his father, who wants to be reunited with him.

This case has been heartbreaking for everybody involved. But we believe that the law is clear: The father must speak for the little boy because the sacred bond between parent and child must be recognized and honored, and Elian should be reunited with his father.

RENO: But having made that decision, we did not move hastily, although nothing -- no court order or anything -- prevented us from doing so.

The relatives had their day in court, and we gave them an opportunity to file. A federal district court judge in Miami heard their case and affirmed our decision.

Even then, we did not move hastily, although nothing prevented us from doing so. There was no court order, no stay, no injunction, that prevented us from doing so.

Now, questions have been raised about limiting Lazaro Gonzalez's right of appeal. He is currently pursuing an appeal, but there is no court order or any effective court that stays the actions that we can take.

Nonetheless, we have been engaged in conversation and we are continuing conversation this morning in Miami to try to work out a resolution that will ensure that an appeal is heard in a timely way, that nothing will be done to return Elian if that has happened, and if everyone agrees that we will abide in a prompt, orderly way with the rulings that come down in that appeal.

RENO: But then some officials yesterday suggested that if we take action, it is a provocation, a provoking of people that would produce risk that could contribute to violence. They said that they would not be responsible for that, that I would be.

The people I know in the Cuban community came to this country and have contributed so much to it because they believe in the rule of law. They came to this country seeking a democratic society in which to live, where all people can speak and there are processes and procedures for people to be heard.

I don't think they came to this country to incite violence. I think they came to this country to be able to speak their mind, to follow the law, to respect others and to see that those processes were carried out.

Those are the people that I think will speak, ultimately, with the loudest voice.

RENO: And although we may disagree as to what happens, I think for the Cuban community I know who are in solid agreement that the rule of law should apply, that democratic principles must be honored, enforced and supported in every way possible, and that respect must be given to everyone involved in this very difficult issue in which we all try to seek what we believe to be right.

QUESTION: Have you spoken to Mayor Penelas since his statement yesterday?


QUESTION: Do you plan to?

RENO: I believe Doris tried to reach him. I had spoken to him about a week ago, when he was here for the gun announcement at the White House.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that if there is unrest, he really will not allow the Miami police to deal with it? RENO: Well, first of all, it's the Metro Dade police under his jurisdiction.

And I think, again -- I have been there, when I wondered whether the federal government was going to support us, and then in the middle of Hurricane Andrew's recovery, when local government couldn't do it, the federal government was there.

I have been there when drugs seemed to be overwhelming the community, and the federal government was there.

I think in this great country, which is operated on principles of federalism, the government in Miami will continue to uphold the law and to work with other law enforcement to see that the law is honored the right way.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, going back to your letter of -- excuse me -- the INS letter from earlier this week, the issue is that once the federal appeals' process has ended, the Justice Department wants assurances that the family would abide by it and not, for example, go to state court and pursue other means. Is that what the central issue is in the negotiation?

RENO: I don't want to comment on the negotiations because I haven't been there and the people on the scene should comment. But what we're trying to do is to make sure that we honor what Judge Moore said and try not to delay this. But we give them their day in court and the right to an appeal and that there be an assurance that, having done that, this matter can be resolved.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, is there something of a contradiction though in saying that on the one hand you will jointly file with the family and ask for expedited review, and the Court of Appeals has now said oral argument would be in something like the second week in May, but at the same time say that you might revoke parole before that date if the family doesn't stipulate what it will do once the appeal is over?

RENO: There's not an inconsistency, because we have pointed out to the court that they have not taken the action that would ordinarily be taken if they wanted to stay the proceeding, which would be to move for an injunction against us.

And we are trying to work through all of these issues, bending over backwards, I think, to address the concerns that have been raised.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, you said you prefer a consensual resolution of this over anything else. How important is it for Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family to come to the United States for this process in order to work that type of arrangement out?

RENO: Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's always better when families work matters out between themselves. They do a better job than government.

QUESTION: Do you think it would be possible to work this out without him coming to this country?

RENO: I wouldn't speculate.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, like it or not, whatever the merits of the case, this has become a political battle. In Havana, Castro is using Elian to prop up his regime. In Miami, the Cuban-American community has found the first effective political hammer they have had in 40 years. Lazaro Gonzalez and his family have to live in this community. If they are seen as acceding or bending to your wishes, they are going to have problems.

If no one is going to have a change of heart in this dispute, aren't you left in the end with solely the weight of law to resolve this dispute in a way in which you think is correct?

RENO: First of all, I would take issue with you. Having lived in that community, the Cuban community found something far better to express their political beliefs in, and that is by going to vote. And they do that and they do it well and they have made, again, contributions in showing people that we cannot take democracy for granted, that it is important to go vote and they have achieved tremendous successes by voting that didn't include threats of violence or other situations that would be inconsistent with the rule of law.

Secondly, we have said from the get-go that politics should not be involved in this. One man, I am told, said, "I remember Janet, she came to us seeking our votes and now she doesn't pay any attention to us." I pay attention based on the law, and I try to explain to people why we're doing something.

I think it's absolutely critical that we consider the law and how it operates here and let it spell out what should be done.

RENO: And I have, sworn as I am to uphold the federal law, tried to do that.

QUESTION: You said this morning that your position here has been consistent all the way back to January, when Ms. Meissner made her initial announcement. Why do you think the community there believes that the Justice Department is acting precipitously? And are you concerned about some of the rhetoric the some of the families' representatives have used?

RENO: I think it is important for everyone to speak in measured, thoughtful terms. And I think the more that can be done, the better people can understood and appreciate what people are trying to do in this situation.

QUESTION: You said that it's always better for families to work things out themselves. If and when Juan Miguel comes to the United States, does the Justice Department step back and let him take care of it, or does he sort of enter the negotiations as a third party?

RENO: I will make judgments on how to proceed when I get there.

QUESTION: Has there been any discussion yet as to exactly what role he might play in this, if and when he comes?

RENO: We are going to continue our discussions this morning, and I think it would be premature to comment on the other.


QUESTION: How optimistic are you that a settlement will work out?


QUESTION: Considering what the mayor and the police have said regarding their plans, whatever they maybe, in the event the child is transferred back, don't you consider that potentially inciting some dangerous incident down there, I mean, given their statements. I mean, it's pretty unusual for them to back away from responsibility in their own communities.

RENO: I would not ascribe labels on it. I would just say this is a nation where we expect our laws to be enforced, where we expect law enforcement to cooperate together, where we expect that matters will be resolved without violence, without threats of violence, and that they will be resolved in the courts, at the polls, and in other administrative proceedings.

And with that in mind, I just think it's very important that everybody remember why we love this nation so much.

And having traveled and having listened to justice ministers who will sit right where Pete is sitting, and I sit across the table, and I hear their hopes and fears for their fragile democracy, we cannot take our democracy for granted. We cannot let it be subject to threats of violence. We must ensure that it operate in a way that gives everyone the right to express their opinion, everyone the right to be heard, but understanding that in the long run, we've got to make it work through the rule of law.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, given the fact that you're from the community, has that made this process easier or more difficult for you?

RENO: It is a community I was born in, raised in. It's a community I love. And when it's hurting, it hurts me.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, to follow up on the question about the father, if the father comes to Washington with other relatives and friends, does that present you with another option, a slightly different way of resolving it, such as turning the boy over to the father while he's here in Washington while the appeals process plays out? Would that be something you would consider?

RENO: Those all will be options; but, otherwise, I don't do what-ifs.


RENO: I don't do what-ifs.


QUESTION: How did you hear about this possibility of the father coming yesterday? A lot of people heard it through a speech of Fidel...

RENO: Carol told me.


QUESTION: Was it through Castro's speech that she heard about it? Was there any other channels opened up, in other words, on this?

RENO: There have been discussions with the lawyer for the father, but that's how I heard about what was happening. Carol's a good source.


QUESTION: Do you think the fact that it's coming from someone like Fidel Castro that that hurts the situation, instead of coming directly from the father or other...

RENO: I don't know.

QUESTION: Ms. Reno, back to the statements by the Miami-Dade officials, would you describe them as helpful or unhelpful?

RENO: I would let others characterize their nature and just urge a positive response that encourages everyone to work together to enforce the law.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about one thing. The family has repeatedly, through their lawyers and their spokesmen, characterized what you're asking for from the great uncle as an open-ended or blank check commitment to do whatever the government may ever ask them to do. Is that an accurate characterization of what you're asking?

RENO: No, it's not.

QUESTION: Why not?

RENO: Because all we've asked is, either file an action for an injunction, which the court can grant or not, but you will an opportunity to stay it, and they have not done that. That is something that they can do.

We have also said: But if you're not going to do that, let's agree to an expedited briefing schedule that will have the matter heard promptly. But if you will -- there will be no point in that if you just drag it out forever.

If the court rules for us, and if you don't get a stay in the Supreme Court, then let's get this matter resolved. QUESTION: Ms. Reno, is there a possibility of antitrust action against the other gun manufacturers we are talking about more or less ganging up on Smith & Wesson?

HEMMER: Janet Reno, born and raised in Southern Florida, the very beginning of her remarks, showing her compassion for the situation, compassion for Elian's case, compassion for the relatives of Elian, living and fighting now for the custody of the son, to keep him in South Florida, also compassion for Cuban-American history in that part of the country, that can be so incendiary at times, and lately we have seen that.

Janet Reno also reiterating that the father of Elian Gonzalez must speak for the boy, and also that Elian should be reunited with his father. That has been her position from the very beginning. She reiterated that today.

Let's talk with Greta Van Susteren all things legal right now.

Greta, good morning to you.


HEMMER: I tell you what. This does not seem to be softening on a daily basis. In fact, it seems to harden or become more incendiary. Where is this all going?

VAN SUSTEREN: Boy, I wish I knew. You know, this is the one case that is clouded by not just in -- not just the confusion of the law, but the fact that there's been this feud going on between two countries for so long. You know, no one can predict with as much certainty. The one thing that we can expect is that it will go to the United States Court of Appeals, and from then perhaps on to the United States Supreme Court.

I will say this, though, that most people who lose in the trial court know that as they go up the appellate ladder, as they go to the higher courts, it's harder to win as you proceed down this trail. So, it doesn't look particularly good for the Gonzalez family in Miami that they will win. But, who can predict?

HEMMER: Right. You mentioned the law there. Let's tick it off one by one. What does the law state? Does the family have to sign that promissory note before the appeals process continues, yes or no?



VAN SUSTEREN: And, you know -- let me just stop you for one second, Bill. You said, what does the law state? You get -- there arew sort of different areas of the law. You've got family law, you've got international law, you've got issues on immigration. You've got this merger of all these different laws, and they all sort of conflict. So when you talk about what the law says, that's the big problem. We don't have a bright line test to say exactly what you do in this circumstance.

HEMMER: Next question: If you were the lawyer advising these people in southern Florida, would you have them sign the letter?

VAN SUSTEREN: Probably to buy some time, I would. I would not have much optimism going to the United States Court of Appeals, and on to the Supreme Court. But what I would do is lean on Congress. Remember, there was a lot of action early on in this case in the United States Congress, a lot of members of Congress that are rather loyal to the cause that the family in Miami is pushing. So I would try to do that. I would push some sort of a political response.

It doesn't look particularly good for the Gonzalez family in Miami, but they've also got one other ace in their hands, and that's that it's extremely unlikely, at least in my opinion, that the federal government's going to go in there like gangbusters with handcuffs and drag a crying kid out of the home and drag him to the airport and throw him on a plane and say, you know, goodbye.

HEMMER: Next issue -- Carol and I were talking about this while Janet Reno was speaking there in Washington -- if Elian's father comes to the U.S., can he just come, take Elian, and go? Or would the relatives in Miami say, no, he's entitled to an asylum hearing based on U.S. law?

VAN SUSTEREN: I think if that father comes here, the family very hard pressed to say that anyone speaks for that child but the father. I think that the minute that father steps on United States soil and the minute the father says, I'm here to get my son, I think that they have no argument but to turn that son over to his father.

HEMMER: One more question here, then we'll let you go, Greta, and we'll talk later. But the impression we're getting from the folks in the Cuban-American community down in South Florida is that the INS is squeezing them and basically saying, go do this, and they do it. Go do that, and, they say, they do it. Is the perception correct that they're being forced into this agreement upon agreement before the appeals process is carried out?

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, I can't speak for them, Bill. I have to tell you, though, that every time there are lines drawn in the sand in litigation, both sides say the other side, they're doing all sort of horrible things and that they are being forced to do things.

The agreement, admittedly, is an unusual agreement. We had the former general counsel of the INS on "BURDEN OF PROOF" yesterday, and he said that it was unusual.

But in litigation, when someone has more muscle than the other person and when you've won in the trial court, that puts the federal government having a little more muscle. If it had been the other way around, the family would have the greater muscle.

But the side that wins in court is the side that can push the other side a little bit around in terms of agreement.

HEMMER: I think the best writers in Hollywood cannot draft this script.


HEMMER: More and more interesting by the day.

Greta, thanks. We'll be in touch later in the morning.

In the meantime, in southern Florida INS officials set to meet again with the lawyers for the family, the relatives, of Elian Gonzalez.

They met yesterday for about five hours. And at that meeting yesterday, very few results from it, other than a 24-hour extention. It was supposed that the parol would expire at 9:00 this morning, which was about 53 minutes ago.

However, that 24-hour extension will now take that until tomorrow morning, Friday morning, 9:00 a.m. Eastern time.

Again, it continues to be more and more interesting by the hour.



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