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Senators Dodd, Leahy Hold News Conference Following Meeting With Attorney General Reno Regarding Elian Gonzalez Case

Aired April 25, 2000 - 1:13 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We have been getting word about an hour- and-45-minute meeting between United States senators and Attorney General Janet Reno this morning behind closed doors. That meeting has ended. Those senators are stepping out now to tell the press what was talked about.

Here we see Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Let's listen.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: ... with less force, with less protection. I think you will hear the answer to that and anybody in law enforcement would tell you the same thing.

And thirdly, on the question of family reunion, family -- family values are the most important values in our country. We lost sight -- or many lost sight of the fact that one of those family values was to have a child back with his father, and that family value has been carried out.

But you also have to look at it from the father's point of view. He's heard the Miami relatives call him an unfit father, a child abuser. They said that the only reason that the -- that little Elian was even talking to his father from the airplane on the way up was that they held a gun to his head to force him to do that. They've said that the marshals who are pledged to protect little Elian with their life, if necessary, are in there drugging him. And then lastly, that the father went along with photographs that were totally doctored by substituting the head of another little boy for the face of his child in the photograph showing him hugging him.

These statements probably do not say that the very first meeting of the family is going to be a very loving one around the table. And one might understand why, if the Miami relatives really care for what's best for the child, they'll tone down the rhetoric, let the father and son be alone together for a while. This is a family that said they wanted to help Elian and at the same time hurt Castro. Instead, they helped Castro, they hurt Elian.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, first of all, let me thank the majority leader for inviting Senator Leahy and myself to attend the meeting with the attorney general and others this morning. And it was a very, very calm meeting; there was not a lot of partisan rhetoric in it, in my view, at least the time I was there. So we appreciate the opportunity to hear her, although we've heard certainly a lot over the last few days.

Bottom line in all of this, after you get through all the legalisms and the twisted discussions of search warrants and the like, is that I think most Americans believe that this boy deserved to be with his father.

He'd been through two tragedies. He'd lost his mother at sea and he had been separated from his father for the last four months. What the attorney general did is she reversed one of those tragedies. The tragedy of losing his mother cannot be reversed. The tragedy of being separated from his father has been reversed. After days, weeks, of trying to get this family, this family of great uncles to allow this father to be with his child.

This is a father that loves his boy. He has a family and a younger brother, grandparents. He has shown great affection for this child, raised by this child (sic).

The police -- or the officers that went in, did a good job, in my view. Time had run out. It was chaotic scene in Florida, one that was holding up this 6-year-old as a trophy to tweak Fidel Castro. This is not a trophy, it's a 6-year-old boy and he is where he ought to be, and that's with his father.

Today, I think the scenes contrasting what we've gone through over the last number of weeks, the circus environment, this boy being trotted out almost hourly, showered with gifts and toys and held up for the world to be able to see on a daily basis, versus this quiet scene where this boy is able to spend quiet time with his family, is one that I think most Americans can appreciate.

So I for one, deeply appreciate the job the attorney general did. I think most Americans do. I have a feeling most of my colleagues do, as well, and I think holding hearings is totally unnecessary.

Yesterday, five kids were shot in this city. One of them's on life support right now. We can't get the juvenile justice bill on the floor of the United States Senate and gun control. I think the American public might like to see us spend a few weeks trying to pass some legislation that would minimize the tragedy that occurred in this city only a day ago. Or an educational bill, or a patients' bill of rights or prescription drugs.

We don't need more politics in the Elian Gonzalez case. We do need some decisions made around here on issues that affect average lives of citizens in this country such as gun control.

And so, I would strongly recommend that the idea of a hearing be nixed. Let's get back to the real business of this body, of the Senate of the United States and not further politicize the life of this infant child.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Senator Leahy, can you describe the...

(CROSSTALK)

LEAHY: Let me take one at a time.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the attorney general (OFF-MIKE) her options?

LEAHY: Well, she went over the rationale for the decision; that this was a deteriorating situation in Florida, it was getting worse, the vigils going around the clock, this child being kept out of school, held up for public display; that it was a collapsing situation and no closer to a resolution of solving this problem peacefully or without the use of force.

And so she felt she was left with no other choice but to take the action she did.

DODD: And many would argue that it's not a case where she'd have to defend herself. She went down through the chronology, point by point by point. The chronology was pretty compelling. A chronology of a family that kept changing their agreement; that kept saying, "Well, we'll talk about this tomorrow. Oh, I'm sorry, Uncle Lazaro is tired, he's gone to bed now, maybe -- come back just tomorrow," and on and on.

She acted as she had to. They had a search warrant, the custody was in the father, and the family could have avoided this happening. I wish they had. They didn't. But the most important thing is this boy is back with his father.

QUESTION: Senator Leahy, we've seen an awful lot written about the chronology and et cetera in the last few days, and published and reported on the news. Did any new information emerge from this meeting at all?

If any new information emerged, can you encapsulate it for us, Senator...

DODD: Well, one of the things -- one of the things I just heard that was sort of new to me -- maybe others -- there was a point here over the weekend where like most Americans I was desperately trying to find a food channel to avoid this story...

(LAUGHTER)

... but it was desperate. Even the Food Channel, I think, had this story at one point.

But I heard that I thought was new, was the conclusion that this was a very deteriorating situation in terms of how the boy was being handled; that while the vigils had begun, sort of, held during the day, early weeks, they were now around the clock; some of the rhetoric got rather inflammatory; the concerns about whether or not there were going to be -- could be guns in the house; there were things other than television cameras there, sort of a forbidding kind of comments; that sort of deterioration. That's the first time I heard that and maybe others heard it over the weekend, but that was news to me.

WATERS: The Democratic senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd and his colleague, the senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy, emerging from the meeting with the attorney general as she met with senators today behind closed doors to explain her rationale for doing what she did over the weekend.

You just heard Christopher Dodd saying, the bottom line to all of this is that most Americans believe the boy deserves to be with his father; Patrick Leahy saying, now let's get the family back together, have them resolve this. He said that might not be an easy task, but the most important value has been upheld and that is the family value of reuniting father with son.

You see the sharp political divide there with the senators from Florida just before that calling for congressional hearings into the matter. You heard the Democrats from the Northeast saying, let's get on with the business of gun control and other matters that are important to the American public.

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