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Bush Meets with Defense Team, Pledges Support for Linda Chavez

Aired January 8, 2001 - 2:36 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And go to George W. Bush, who is speaking live in Austin.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... great discussion. And I believe that there's a lot of common ground to be had to fulfill our obligations to make the world more peaceful. I talked loud and clear about a peaceful world really will depend upon our nation's willingness to make a concerted effort to keep the peace, our nation's effort to make sure that the men and women who wear our uniform are better paid and better housed and treated with the respect they deserve.

I'm heartened by the discussion. Senator Warner, as being the oldest person here -- well, as being one of the more senior...


More senior, excuse me.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R-VA), RANKING MEMBER, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, I'm not so sure about the seniority, Mr. President- elect, but we thank you and Vice President-elect Cheney.

We've made history here today as we sit around this table -- some of us have been here almost a quarter of a century on these committees -- and this is the first time a president-elect has sat down with us ahead of the inauguration to hear our views.

And defense has, sort of, been on the back burner as one colleague said for many years. Now we're put up at the roundtable with education and the economy and other weighty issues which you're considering.

So we thank you for this opportunity. And you've been a superb listener, together with our distinguished vice president-elect.

We have let them know very clearly, in a bipartisan way, what we perceive after these many years that we have served in this arena exactly what the posture is of the U.S. military today.

We've gone from Europe to the Pacific. We've gone from soldiers, sailors and airplanes to ships. We've covered it all as best we can in this very important meeting. And we express our appreciation to you, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President-elect.

BUSH: Mr. Levin -- Mr. Chairman?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), CHAIRMAN, SENATE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thank you very much, Mr. President-elect, for inviting us all. This is a very useful discussion. It's very helpful, I think, to have a dialogue as we've had and I really want to commend you and your team here, your strong team, for gathering us together and hearing from us.

The policy questions will hopefully be addressed on a bipartisan basis and this is surely a step towards that outcome. The committees and the representatives and the leadership that you have here have proven over time to be the building blocks for a bipartisan security policy. And we've been able to accomplish some really good improvements in our security because of the bipartisan support around this table and members of our appropriations and authorization committees.

So obviously, the real challenge is ahead to actually adopt policies which will have bipartisan support, but in order to really meet those challenges, you've taken an important step here today in having this dialogue and I want to thank you for it.

BUSH: Anybody from the House? Mr. Chairman, do you want to say something?

REP. FLOYD SPENCE (R-SC), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I'd like to commend you something and that is for selecting the gentleman on your right as your vice president. He is the epitome of a statesman.

BUSH: Well, as I said earlier...


BUSH: As I said earlier, I appreciate all those electoral votes he brought.


BUSH: Anybody from the Democrat side of the House want to say something?


REP. NORMAN SISISKY (D-VA), HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Mr. President, let me just say, we'll give you a lot of advice, we'll argue with you, but when it comes out, once you've made a decision, people in this room are going to support you on national defense.

BUSH: Thank you, sir.

We'll be glad to take a few questions.

Yes? QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, you said earlier that you have confidence in Linda Chavez's qualifications to serve as labor secretary, but how does that providing shelter to a person who is in the country illegally square with your own call for stronger enforcement of immigration laws?

BUSH: Tom, I haven't changed my mind, still got the same opinion that I had a couple of hours ago about Linda Chavez. I think she'll be a fine secretary of labor.

QUESTION: You condone that kind of behavior, Mr. President- elect?

BUSH: I still think she'll be -- as I say, I haven't changed my mind from the first time you asked the question earlier this morning.


QUESTION: You didn't bring any information on that today.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, unfortunately it's the same subject, but...

BUSH: Well, I haven't changed my opinion.

QUESTION: I'd like to know, are you going to review to make sure you know all the facts? Is there any review process going on to make sure you know all the facts?

BUSH: Absolutely, on all nominees. Any time new information comes up, we'll review all the facts on any nominee.

And I expect our nominees to get good questioning in the Senate. That's what the hearings are all about. And I know there's going to be some withering questions for some of the people that we've nominated for the positions. But I'm convinced all of them will be able to withstand the withering questions.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect...

BUSH: Is that not the same question, hopefully...

QUESTION: When did you learn about the circumstances of this?

BUSH: Last night.

QUESTION: And secondly, on the defense issue today: Do you plan to ask Congress for an increase -- a big increase in defense spending this coming year? And how do you expect -- how do you plan to sell the national missile defense issue to our allies?

BUSH: Those series of questions -- one, part of the discussions was here for Dick Cheney and Condi and me to hear the different priorities of the members of the Congress, where they thought we ought to spend money, where they thought we ought to focus our attention.

We'll be preparing -- in the process of preparing a budget now. We're mindful of the different constraints on the budget.

Secondly, the missile defense issue is an issue that we discussed, and it's a sensitive subject for some members. I understand that. It's a sensitive subject for leaders of different countries around the world.

On the other hand, I think it's our obligation to do everything we can to protect America and our allies from the real threats of the 21st century.

But the missile defense subject and the budgetary matters are all matters that require a lot of discussion and a lot of give and take and a lot of listening. And this was a good beginning.

QUESTION: Mr. President-elect, all of your nominees have been asked a very blunt question late in the interviewing process, namely, "Is there anything in your past that would be an embarrassment if it became public?"

The question is, was Mrs. Chavez asked that question? And what do you know her answer to have been?

BUSH: I would have to ask the questioner. I haven't had a chance to ask the questioners the question they've been questioning. On the other hand, I firmly believe she'll be a fine secretary of labor. And I've got confidence in Linda Chavez.

She is a -- she'll bring an interesting perspective to the Labor Department. First and foremost, she used to be a member of a labor union. Secondly, she was a staffer on the Hill for a Democrat committee. She's got a unique background. She's plenty capable and she's smart. She understands her job is to, for example, make sure that this economy as it roars forward -- and hopefully it will -- doesn't leave people behind, that there's work training programs that are effective to help people be able to work in the jobs of the 21st century.

And I believe -- strongly believe that when the Senate gives her a fair hearing, they'll vote for her.

QUESTION: Second question, related to the latest proceedings. You talked a lot during the campaign about the importance of reinvigorating the military, but in contrast to some of your other proposals, there weren't a lot of dollar specifics. Did you get more specifics, in terms, today, in terms of costs for some of the things you want to do? And did you get feedback from...

BUSH: Not yet. Not yet. One of the things that we were doing was listening. I am mindful that the executive branch gets to propose but the legislative branch gets to decide on matters such as budgets.

Secondly, I said during the course of the campaign, we would like to see more pay, and our budget will reflect that.

But we also talked about the need for our secretary of defense to come to the Congress with a strategic vision; a vision that not only says, "Here's how we maintain our force structure and make sure it's trained for the short run," but a vision that knows how best to deal with long-term issues.

And today, you know, the discussion really did talk a lot about how best to utilize weapons systems that may be really relevant 20 years from now. And one member here was quite articulate on, for example, the B-2 and its relevance for the future.

And it was just an interesting discussion that helps me and helps Dick and these will be -- and the secretary of defense-designee will also be listening to members, obviously, not only during confirmation, but as he begins to prepare to recommend to us the strategic plan for what the military ought to look like. Because first and foremost our job is to make sure that we have a plan and a vision, and then the budget will follow. And it's a plan and a vision that will actually reflect the threats that the country faces in the 21st century.


QUESTION: Good afternoon, Mr. President-elect.

BUSH: No, the pleasure's mine.

QUESTION: To the extent that there has been some criticism growing about some of your Cabinet selections, are you prepared to talk to some of the critics personally on their behalf? Would you take a phone call, invite phone calls from specific senators who have issues in order to advocate for those selections?

BUSH: My first reaction is, I always anticipated that there would be some consternation about some of our nominees. I don't believe a Senate has ever said, "Gosh, they're all wonderful." I think that's the role of the Senate, is to question and is to make sure that people that I've submitted to be Cabinet officials get a full hearing.

Sometimes the questioning can be a little tougher than we'd like, but surely the members that I picked will be able to answer those questions. I'm confident they will. And I expect there to be some tough questions, both from Democrats and from Republicans. And I think it's going to make our Cabinet members better Cabinet members.

As to whether or not I should pick up the phone and lobby, we'll just have to wait and see. I look forward to talking to the senators from both parties on a wide-ranging -- you know, a whole bunch of different subjects, including my nominees, if need be.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just one quick announcement before Gordon yanks us out of here.

There's already been a suggestion by some of the Senate colleagues here that perhaps you should offer a pardon to President Clinton after he leaves office. Can you give us an idea of your thinking and plans on that?

BUSH: Well, I read that in the newspaper today. It's hard to pardon somebody who hadn't been indicted for anything.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Would you do it anyway, sir?

BUSH: Well, no, I wouldn't pardon somebody who hasn't been indicted. I think the president -- listen, here's my view: I think it's time to get all of this business behind us. I think it's time for the president -- to allow the president to finish his term, and let him move on and enjoy life and become an active participant in the American system. And I think we've had enough focus on the past; it's time to move forward.

But the suggestion that I would pardon somebody who has never been indicted, that doesn't make any sense to me, frankly, in all due respect to the suggester, who I happen to like a lot. I spent quality time with him during the primaries.

Thank you all.

ALLEN: Well, there you hear George W. Bush's thoughts on President Clinton there and taking lots of questions as he sat there amid his defense team about one of the nominees for his Cabinet: That's labor secretary.

You probably heard about the questions surrounding Linda Chavez, who allowed a illegal immigrant to stay at her home, do some odd jobs. And from time to time, she would give her money -- George W. Bush pledging his support for her and not wanting to give any details about what he thinks about this story that many are talking about -- some on Capitol Hill questioning whether she should be confirmed.

Let's talk with Major Garrett, who's following this story and many others there in Austin for us -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Natalie. Well, you know, one of the big questions that has come up in the recent hours is, how did the Bush team let this particular situation get out of control? That is to say, how did they not know about the situation involving Linda Chavez and this illegal Guatemalan immigrant named Marta Mercado who lived with her in 1991 and 1992?

Well, the answer that we are getting from the Bush transition officials now is that what they did is, they asked everyone the president-elect was going to nominate for a Cabinet position to disclose all domestic taxes -- all taxes they paid for domestic employees, and they say Mrs. Chavez, in fact, did that.

But she did not tell them about this particular episode because they say, Mrs. Chavez never employed Ms. Mercado. Therefore, there were no taxes to reveal, no situation to explain. Now, I just got off the phone with a senior Bush adviser and he told me that Bush transition fact-checkers are going back over this entire episode to find out when, in fact, Mrs. Chavez knew that Ms. Mercado was, in fact, an illegal alien.

She told the "Washington Post" in editions that were published this morning that she let Mrs. Chavez know of her illegal status after three months. What Bush transition officials said yesterday, that she did not know for years afterward that, in fact, this Guatemalan illegal immigrant was here in the United States illegally.

If she harbored her illegally, that would be a technical violation of law, so, I think, Democrats say deserves further scrutiny. They also want to ask Mrs. Chavez some more questions about the exact explanation she's offered and if she's been truthful throughout. That's the issue right now, Natalie.

ALLEN: And if it's found that she did harbor her illegally, have Bush's aides said whether they will continue to stand behind her?

GARRETT: Well, the word right now is, they will stand behind Mrs. Chavez completely. The president-elect said so a couple of hours ago. He repeated that now. Bush transition officials tell CNN that there's no discussion whatsoever going on right now, in any way, suggesting that there is anything but full confidence in Mrs. Chavez.

They say when all the facts are known, this will be seen, quite appropriately, in their terms, as an act of compassion: Mrs. Chavez reaching out to someone who was down on her luck, who didn't speak English, who was desperately in need of some job skills. Mrs. Chavez did what she could to provide that. And, they say, by an act of compassion such as this, Mrs. Chavez should be judged as someone suitable to lead the Labor Department, not someone that should be ruled out -- Natalie.

ALLEN: OK, Major Garrett in Austin, Texas. Thanks to you, Major.



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