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Bush Transition Spokesman Ari Fleischer Addresses Questions About Labor Secretary Nominee's Relationship With Illegal Immigrant

Aired January 8, 2001 - 1:12 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And questions about Ms. Chavez are now being asked at the transition office in Washington of the next White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, who's speaking to reporters right now. Let's listen to what he has to say.


QUESTION: ... that she was harboring, that this woman was in the country illegally?

ARI FLEISCHER, BUSH TRANSITION SPOKESMAN: I think that you've seen in the press this morning that she has acknowledged that she knew the legal status of the person. The exact date of that has not been determined, at which point she actually did know that information. And that is all part of the ongoing process.

QUESTION: Ari, are you -- is the president-elect at this moment satisfied that Ms. Chavez did nothing illegal related to this?

FLEISCHER: I think you -- the president-elect spoke on that topic about half of an hour ago.

QUESTION: He didn't answer that specific question, though. Does it bother the president-elect that she may have committed an act of questionable legality?

FLEISCHER: The president-elect now remains confident in his nominee and in the fact that we believe, as we do with all of our nominees, that she'll be confirmed.

QUESTION: She was illegal at that time, but then she became legal. And there is some sort of an amnesty that sets in. So where does that leave the situation now?

FLEISCHER: Well, these are all so precise legal matters, and that's why the normal vetting process continues. I mean, the definitions are precise ones, and the process is a careful and a thorough one. And we're confident that the process is being handled properly and fully.

And the president-elect remains confident in his choice. She's an excellent choice to be secretary of labor, and she'll make a great secretary of labor. QUESTION: What happens to a nominee whose had just a casual worker, maybe a gardener or somebody, and didn't check on the status? I mean, is it fair to lose a nomination because of this?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, ultimately, this is something, again, that our nation has a long history of people engaging in acts of compassion and helping out people in times of trouble or in moments of need. And that's important. And that is part of, I think, what has happened here, a significant part. And, again, that's one of the reasons the president-elect maintains that confidence, just as he indicated. He talked about this just a little while ago himself.

QUESTION: Mr. Fleischer, acts of compassion and harboring a person who's in the country illegally, isn't it something stronger than -- isn't there a suggestion of illegality there? Or something improper about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I would urge you -- well, you used the word "harbor," I'm not certain that's at all accurate, to say "harbored." That may very well not be the case at all. So I just urge you to be careful on that word, that's a specific word, that word has illegal meaning.

QUESTION: But you're calling it an "act of compassion," and...


FLEISCHER: I think there is no doubt about it. Taking somebody who is in a moment of need into your home is an act of compassion. She's done this on many occasions with other people of various backgrounds and from various walks of life. It's called kindness.

QUESTION: Other people who were in the country illegally?

FLEISCHER: I don't have any information on that.

QUESTION: What precisely was the need? In what way was this woman in need?

FLEISCHER: I don't know all the individual facts about this person who was in need, and what her specific needs were. I think some of them are probably a little bit sensitive as well, and so I don't want to delineate. But I think it's fair to say that she was down on her luck and she was going through some difficult times, and she reached out.

And as is the tradition of our country, Linda Chavez reached back and helped her.

QUESTION: Where did they meet? Do you know, Ari, where they met?


QUESTION: Ari, does performing an act of compassion, at any point, justify breaking the law? FLEISCHER: Well, I wouldn't urge you -- I'm not sure where you get that second part of the question from. I'm not going to speculate about things like that.

QUESTION: I mean as a general question.

FLEISCHER: No, I'm not going to go down that road. I think, that you're asking me specifically about this matter, and there's no evidence of that.

QUESTION: No evidence that any laws were broken, is that correct?

FLEISCHER: I think we're going to let the process continue.

Are you bringing something to my attention?

QUESTION: I'm asking you if you have evidence that laws were broken and if an act of compassion would justify that?

FLEISCHER: Obviously, we do not have such evidence at this time, and I'm not certain that -- we do not.

QUESTION: Concerning Ms. Chavez's (OFF-MIKE) aren't you worried about the hypocrisy factor here?

FLEISCHER: Well, you said hired. I'm not aware that anyone was hired in this case.


FLEISCHER: Well, but that's totally different. It's not the same as a hiring.

QUESTION: What's the legal definition of hiring?

FLEISCHER: Hiring is an employee. Hiring is a classification as an employee, as opposed to taking somebody in a moment of need into your home.

QUESTION: Sir, how do you square the active compassion of protecting or helping an illegal immigrant with the president-elect's assurance that the immigration laws in the nation should be fully enforced?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, the process is continuing forward. All the questions are being asked and answered, and if anything else comes to light, we'll talk about it at that time, if that happens.

QUESTION: Just one more question. How did she get to the United States, do you know, and whether she was a refugee from the war down there?

FLEISCHER: I do not know.

QUESTION: Is having a clean legal record a requirement for a Cabinet appointment in the Bush administration? Or is that something that you guys have addressed or have fears that...


FLEISCHER: Well, again, I think you're going back to the question of legality and what is legal. And as I mentioned, again, that the president-elect has a vetting process that is ongoing, that began with a clearing council, and the process continues.

And so, obviously, we take a look at everything. We look at all specific matters, and we look at things in terms of the context of them as well, and the president-elect make his determinations.

QUESTION: Ari, what is the administration's view, the incoming administration's view, the president-elect's view, of the legal responsibility of a citizen, an American citizen, who is involved with a person, perhaps helping them out, sheltering them in a time of need, and at a certain point, discovers that they're in the country illegally? What is the citizen's proper responsibility in that set of circumstances?

FLEISCHER: Well, again, I'm not going to answer that question because it's all in the context of one specific case, and those facts are all being ascertained. And so I think -- it's too specific to that case.


QUESTION: ... all of that seems to be clearly established. What is a citizen's responsibility, whether it's Linda Chavez or anyone else's? What is their legal responsibility in the view of the president-elect?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't think that we're in the business of telling every citizen what their legal responsibilities are. Their responsibilities are clearly to comport with the law, and that's important, and that's ongoing.

QUESTION: What does the law require?

FLEISCHER: I think that all depends on the facts of the case.

QUESTION: Does it not require that citizen to do something, to take...


FLEISCHER: Again, I think it all depends on the facts of the case.

QUESTION: Your answer a moment ago suggested that the fact- gathering process in this case is still underway. And I had the earlier impression that you had satisfied yourselves?

FLEISCHER: Well, the fact-gathering process is underway with each and every nominee, from the moment that they are announced by the president-elect until the moment that they are confirmed by the Senate.


FLEISCHER: That's part and parcel of the clearing process, of the nomination process, of the vetting process. As I indicated, the vetting process is several factors, each of which is conducted at a different point of time, beginning with the clearing council interview, and then with the FBI full field investigation, with the Senate's investigation that they conduct as an independent branch of the government.

All of that is part and parcel of the background investigation that obviously, when you investigate the background, you're gathering facts.

QUESTION: Sir, but I took it mean that you were referring specifically to this case, of this undocumented alien.

FLEISCHER: No, that applies to everything, involving every piece of anybody's background in all Cabinet matters and all Cabinet appointees.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied that you have all of the facts in this particular case relating to the undocumented alien?

FLEISCHER: That's why it's an ongoing vetting process.

QUESTION: In other words, you're not.

FLEISCHER: It's an ongoing vetting process, of course.

QUESTION: Have you figured out yet how much money, exactly, Linda Chavez paid this woman? And do you consider that part of the act of kindness and not compensation for the chores that she did around the house?

FLEISCHER: I think that's all matters that will be brought to the Senate's attention.

QUESTION: But have you made that determination? Or are those facts still being gathered?

FLEISCHER: Yes, you know the specific facts of it -- that again is part of the background investigation. And not every piece of the background investigation is going to get shared. Not at least -- you know, that's the Senate's purview.


QUESTION: Am I correct in my impression that the president-elect will not hesitate to speak out against any instance of racial discrimination in the United States government?

FLEISCHER: I would concur.

QUESTION: The House Democrat caucus expelled Congressman Traficant of Ohio and took away his committee assignments because he voted for the re-election of the speaker of the House. But they have done not one thing to the Black Caucus members who, as Mr. Gore noted, illegally on Saturday disrupted the joint congressional session for 20 minutes.

And my question is: Why is this punishment of Traficant, who is white, and no punishment for blacks not racial discrimination?

FLEISCHER: Well, obviously, on all matters of committee assignments, that's a matter of the legislative branch to decide. And I think the executive in all areas will not do well to weigh in on congressional committee assignments.

QUESTION: Well, he doesn't think that that's right, does he?

FLEISCHER: Again, I think...

QUESTION: You don't think it's right, do you, Ari? You were up there on the Hill.

FLEISCHER: I know when I worked on the Hill, the president didn't typically weigh in on committee assignments. And President- elect Bush is not going to weigh in on committee assignments.

WATERS: You're getting a taste of what lies ahead for the bipartisanship, much-touted bipartisanship in Washington, Ari Fleischer meeting with reporters, as you heard. Most of the questions about Linda Chavez, picked by President-elect Bush to become his labor secretary. But there's some questions now about her past relationship with an illegal immigrant and whether or not that immigrant was hired by Ms. Chavez. Ari Fleischer characterizing the relationship as an act of compassion or kindness. Reporters suggesting that perhaps Ms. Chavez harbored or broke the law in association with this illegal immigrant. Ari Fleischer having none of that. He even went so far as to say he's not certain anyone was hired.

So this is one of the major crises, if you can apply that word to the confirmation process which lies ahead in the Senate for Linda Chavez and the others. You know about some of the other problems that Democrats are having with the president-elect's choices. But that's for another time.



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