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Special Event

President Clinton Holds News Briefing

Aired December 27, 2000 - 3:07 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: President Clinton is making news at White House where he has just appointed Virginia trial lawyer Roger Gregory to become the first African-American ever to serve on the District Court, the Fourth District Court, which comprises to the largest African-American population of any circuit in the country. Upon ratification by the U.S. Senate, Roger Gregory will become the first African-American to serve on that court.

The president now is taking questions in the Oval Office. Let's listen to what he has to say.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The whole question now is whether they agree to continue the negotiation on the basis of these ideas.

The whole question now is whether they agree to continue negotiation on the basis of these ideas. We've got to bring this to a conclusion if we're going to continue.

The issues are extremely difficult, but they are closer than they have ever been before. And I hope and pray they will seize this opportunity. And I think that is all I should say at this time. The less I say, the better.

QUESTION: You haven't heard from him? It sounds like you have not. The Palestinian officials have been saying they cannot accept your proposals.

CLINTON: Well, we'll see what happens. Prime Minister Barak has said that he would accept and continue negotiations if the Palestinians would, and we'll see what happens. There's a lot of things going on now and will be in the next several days. And I think, as I said, the less I say about them all, the better.

QUESTION: Did you see the response -- the actual response from the Palestinians yet?

CLINTON: I've said all I'm going to say about this today.

QUESTION: What were your first thoughts when you saw the news of the shootings up in Massachusetts?

CLINTON: Excuse me? QUESTION: When you saw the shootings in Massachusetts, I'm wondering what your first thoughts were and what you would say to the nation in this holiday season with that happening.

CLINTON: Well, I feel what I always feel when tragedy befalls Americans. And I hope that they will remember that this holiday season -- interestingly enough, in this season, it is not only the Christian season of Christmas, but the great Jewish and Muslim holy days happen to coincide in the same week this year. So I hope that we will remember, amidst our celebration, to pray for all the people involved.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you think the issue of minority judgeships should be brought up in the Ashcroft confirmation hearings? And was this appointment in part aimed at highlighting that issue? And could, in fact, those hearings increase Mr. Gregory's chances of a confirmation?

CLINTON: Well, I think I should answer the second question clearly. This is unrelated. I have tried for five years to put an African-American on the 4th Circuit -- for five years. And for all the reasons that I stated in my remarks, I think it is most unfortunate that it has not been done and I am determined to do it. It's just time to do it.

On the other question, that is something that the Senate will have to deal with, and, you know, I will be -- it's not my appointment. I won't be president, and I don't think that I should say any more about it. The Senate will do what it thinks is proper there.

QUESTION: The president of South Korea says he thinks it's unlikely you'll visit North Korea before January 20. Have you moved any further toward the decision whether to send an envoy there to see if North Korea is ready to reduce its missile program?

CLINTON: We have been in touch with the North Koreans. And I may have some more to say about that. You know, I just have a limited number of days here before I leave office and I'm trying to get as much done as I can, including on that. I may have more to say in the next few days about it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, about the importation of drugs law that you signed and which today you received a letter from Secretary Shalala -- some folks are wondering why you would sign a law that contained such supposed flaws as were identified by the secretary. Do you have any plan to negate, circumvent or seek to counteract or overturn her ruling?

CLINTON: Well, what she had to -- I said when I signed the law that it was deeply flawed. She is required by law to make a determination that -- two things: one, that the reimportation would not weaken the safety standards that we have for Americans and their pharmaceuticals. I think she could do that.

But the second was, she had to make a determination by law that this would lower prices for American consumers. And the law was so different from the one we proposed and is so full of loopholes, that she could not say in good conscience that she believed that the prices for consumers would go down. Which is exactly what I warned when I asked them not to do this.

So what we'd like to see is a law that protects safety that will lower consumer prices. I do think that people ought to be able to do this. And I did before, but I will again: As soon as Congress comes back, I will send them a statement of the things I believe would meet the standard of the law.

I think that Secretary Shalala did what she felt the law required her to do. And since she couldn't certify that American consumers wouldn't get lower prices, she didn't want to hold out false hope and be involved in something she thought was not legitimate.

So I hope we can work this out. I do think there was in the last Congress, and I think there will be in this one, a majority for allowing Americans to reimport drugs under strict safety standards at lower prices. But I think we have to do it in a way where we don't promise something that doesn't materialize. That's all really that was at issue here.

And I think, you know, we'll send something up in the way of clarifying language as soon as they come back next week and see what we can do.

QUESTION: Mr. President, the Bush team has said that they're going through all of your executive orders and your administrations regulations with a fine tooth comb and even may undo them. Are you concerned about this? And do you think that this recess appointment could go the way some of your executive orders might?

CLINTON: Well, they have very different views on the environment, particularly, and on some other issues. And when they take office you have to expect them to do what they think is right. And then you have to expect the people who disagree to disagree, and democracy will work its will, and the citizens of the country will make their judgments. All I can do is to do what I think is right.

And these things that we have been doing lately are things that we have been working on for years. For example, the medical -- let me just use one example. The medical privacy regulations, which I think are profoundly important, we tried to do that through legislation. And the Congress, to be fair to the Congress, adopted a bill which said, "OK, we have to get this work done by a certain date, but if we can't get it done then the administration can take action."

So when it became obvious that, because of all the conflicting interests groups, that it wouldn't be possible for them to do that, when the date elapsed passed, we decided that we would take action as the Congress had explicitly authorized us to do.

In terms of Secretary Browner's order regarding the trucks and the diesel fuel, which I think is a very, very important part of our clean air efforts when asthma is the number one health problem among children in our country today, we'd been working on that for years.

That's not some sort of 11th hour thing. It's just that we didn't get to -- this is when we finished and so we did it.

And I think that we should just do what we think is right. And then they, when they get in, they'll do what they think is right. That's what democracy's all about.

And they'll either -- if they want to undo these things, then they'll either be able to do it or they won't, as the process plays itself out. That's the way the system works. And I have no problem with that. They have to do what they think is right, just like we do.

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you still considering providing pardons for some of the Whitewater figures?

CLINTON: I expect to do another round of pardons. But I haven't had any meetings or made any decisions about any others yet, I just expect to do some. You know, I have done -- I haven't seen the final numbers, but before the last batch at least, I had done fewer than any president in almost 30 years. And part of that, frankly, is the way the system works, something I'm not entirely satisfied with.

But I think that it is appropriate for the president to do them where circumstances are appropriate. I have always thought that presidents and governors -- when I was a governor -- should be quite conservative on commutations, that is, there needs to be a very specific reason if you reduce someone's sentence or let them out, but more broad-minded about pardons because in so many states in America, pardons are necessary to restore people's rights of citizenship.

And if people -- particularly if they committed relatively minor offenses, or if some years have elapsed and they've been good citizens and there's no reason to believe they won't be good citizens in the future, I think we ought to give them a chance to -- having paid the price, to be restored to full citizenship.

And in that sense, I think that the word is almost misused. Because it's not like you -- you can't erase the fact someone's been convicted and served a sentence in the case of those who have, but there are many people, including more people than I can get their applications to my desk, many people don't have lawyers, they don't even know to ask for a pardon. But they'd like to vote at election time, they'd like to be full citizens, and they're out there working hard and paying taxes. And they have paid the price.

So I would like to be in a position to do that. I mean, a lot of folks -- virtually all of them on the first list -- I released 58, I think -- were people that are unknown to most Americans. They're not people with money or power or influence. And I think that -- I wish I could do some of them; I am going to try. I'm trying to get it out of the system that exists, that existed before I got here, and I'm doing the best I can.

QUESTION: You gave wrap-up foreign policy speeches in London and in Nebraska. Do you have any other speeches -- summation speeches planned for other policy areas?

CLINTON: Yes. I expect I'll do one in domestic policy. I'm trying -- we're looking for a venue, and after the first of the year, I'll probably do at least one more.

Thank you all very much. Thank you.

WATERS: President Clinton in the Oval Office on the occasion of his appointment of Roger Gregory to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court, something the president said he has been trying to accomplish for five years: get an African-American appointed to that district, which comprises the largest African-American population. Other business: the president attending to the pardons. You heard the rest.

The last question floated by him there was his quest for a home in the Washington, D.C. area. You know the president and first lady made a bid on a house over the weekend. But it was too low. So that deal didn't go through. He only has got about three weeks left. But he is still doing business. And one of the most important pieces of business, as we know, is this quest for peace in the Middle east.

We have CNN White House correspondent Roger -- or rather, Major Garrett with us.

I am sorry, Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's all right.

WATERS: The president said the less that he says, the better. But we do know that he has received a response from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. A response has been characterized as neither an acceptance or rejection of the U.S. proposal. What's it all about?

GARRETT: Well, Lou, really what it's all about is, the Palestinians have asked for more time. And the administration expected that they would do just that. They don't really consider this a bump in the road at all. What they are looking at is this meeting tomorrow between the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli leader, Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

And at the meeting, the U.S. officials hope Mr. Arafat will receive a green light -- at least a conditional green light from Mr. Mubarak to continue these talks toward a comprehensive settlement with the Israelis. If that happens, what the White House expects is the Israeli leader, Mr. Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Mr. Arafat, will signal their willingness to come to Washington. In very short order, the president will invite both of them here to meet with him separately.

The meeting could occur as early as Friday of this week involving one or the other. Very soon after those meetings are conducted, the president would decide whether or not it's worthwhile to convene a second Camp-David-style summit. And behind the scenes, Lou, what the White House officials are telling CNN is that these differences the president referred to have narrowed significantly in the last couple of weeks. Violence has tended to have subsided. There have been some sporadic gunfire, but not a tremendous number of deaths in the last two or three days. The White House considers that a very positive development. And behind the scenes, they do see the differences narrowing. They feel a guarded sense of optimism about pulling something together. A lot would have to happen between now and January 20. But there is a little bit of optimism, certainly more than there was two or three weeks ago -- Lou.

WATERS: It sounds so much like around the Camp David time, when the president is again saying there are many obstacles, but they're closer than they have ever been before.

GARRETT: At Camp David afterwards, the president said they were tantalizingly close to a deal. And a couple of fundamental ingredients simply were not present there at Camp David in July. One is the Palestinian leader, Mr. Arafat, did not have a green light from Arab leaders to secure a final agreement with the Israelis. Number two, there were some key elements of the question of sovereignty in Jerusalem and this issue of what would become of 1 1/2 million Palestinian refugees that were not resolved fully there.

There is more meat on the bones on those two issues -- if you will except that phraseology -- more details that have been sort of laid down in this proposal set forth by President Clinton. And it's important to underline that that's not a proposal that the president made out of whole cloth. It's a reflection entirely of the behind- the-scenes conversations the Israelis and the Palestinians have had with the president. As a matter of fact, senior U.S. officials tell CNN that they asked the president to put it out himself so both sides could gauge the reaction in their own communities and decide if they could then move forward -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Major Garrett at the White House.

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