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Fleischer Briefs Press on Nominee Hearings

Aired January 10, 2001 - 1:10 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And Natalie, the trains are running on time over at the transition office in Washington. Ari Fleischer, who is the designated White House press secretary in the Bush administration, is conducting his daily briefing. Let's listen in.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY DESIGNATE: ...Mel Martinez hearing, January the 17th, Paul O'Neill, January the 17th and Ann Veneman, January the 18th. And just to recap the ones that were previously announced, Don Rumsfeld, the 11th, Colin Powell, the 16th, Christie Whitman, the 17th, Spencer Abraham, the 18th, Gale Norton, the 18th and Anthony Principi on the 18th.

QUESTION: Could I ask you to do that one more time?

FLEISCHER: In its entirety, John Ashcroft the 16th, Mel Martinez the 17th, Paul O'Neill the 17th, Ann Veneman the 18th, Rod Paige is under way, Don Evans has already had his. Don Rumsfeld the 11th, Colin Powell the 16th, Christie Todd Whitman the 17th, Spencer Abraham the 18th, Gale Norton the 18th, and Anthony Principi on the 18th.

A couple of little housekeeping items here.

FLEISCHER: Advisory panels: On the updates, somebody asked about that the other day, if you just click on the web page for the transition, you'll see it's updated on a regular basis, and that's been under way, so that's how we're updating it. So you'll just be able to click on there and see all the new the people that's been added to the advisory panels.

I have a handout at the end that I'm going to ask to bring out. I took a lot of questions on energy. I brought down the fact sheet on his energy speech. It's about 16 pages. I think copies have been made or are on their way down here so everybody can have his comprehensive energy plan, the 16-page fact sheet for your review and update.

My final item is, I will beg your indulgence and your permission, I need to get over to the Blair House for the budget meeting, so, if we can, I'd like to conclude no later than a 1:45, with your permission.

And with that, I'm ready for your questions. QUESTION: Ari, does the president-elect feel there are any lessons to be drawn from the Chavez situation? Is there anything you feel could've been done better to avoid being blind-sided by this information? Or is it simply a situation where your nominee lied to you, lied to the FBI?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's always an ongoing process with the vetting, and you rely on the information you are provided. And you do your thorough best at each and every step along the way to gather new information. As the new information comes in, you evaluate it. And we believe the system we have in place is working and is going to continue to work well. I'm not going to reflect on it much differently than that.

QUESTION: In light of the Chavez withdrawal, is the president- elect prepared to stand behind Senator John Ashcroft during the Senate confirmation process regardless of how rough the going gets?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know what's interesting here is the John Ashcroft process is marked by this escalating ideological division in this town, and I don't think that's healthy for the process. The Senate, as has been acknowledged by many people, has this long- standing tradition of giving the president latitude in the selection of his Cabinet. No less an august person than Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, said that John Ashcroft would make a great attorney general.

So I don't see any similarities. The fight against John Ashcroft is being waged entirely on ideological grounds by some people outside the United States Senate. And that'll be a new level of partisanship brought to Washington.

QUESTION: But is he prepared to stand behind his nominee all the way through regardless of how rough-and-tumble it gets?

FLEISCHER: He's prepared to stand behind each and every one of his nominees all the way through. And, obviously, if new information comes to light on anybody that is of a different nature involving something that's non-ideological -- that's a blanket statement I'm giving you -- but, obviously, there are going to be factors that are non-ideological that come into play and if you have something that you want to make me aware of, I'm pleased to listen. But, of course, he stands behind them.

QUESTION: Let me just use my follow up on this point. How confident are you that there will be no Republican defections in the Senate on the Ashcroft nomination?

FLEISCHER: Well, I've worked on the Hill too long to be in the prediction business for senators. Out of respect for the Senate, I think it's fair to allow the hearings to take place, to allow the senators to gather the information that they deem fit, and then I would refer that question up to the Hill.

But I'm not in the vote-counting business, but we're very confident that Senator Ashcroft is going to be confirmed. QUESTION: My esteemed colleague used the term "lied" when he referred to Ms. Chavez's statements to you. You did not take exception with that. Was that an oversight or deliberate?

FLEISCHER: I've reflected on that topic and I'm not going to characterize statements one way or another. I think there is a lot of confusion about the information that was provided and it was verified to the best degree as possible, but I certainly have no evidence that would lead me to put it that way.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the politics of personal destruction is going to obstruct the nomination then?

FLEISCHER: Let me just say this. There's another item that took place today in the nomination process that I think is disappointing, and that is the continuation of campaigns that has now been brought into government and I don't think that's healthy for the process. And by that, I refer to turning over of opposition research material from a campaign over to those who wanted to defeat Senator Ashcroft's nomination. I don't think that's what the American people expect of a thoughtful and serious nomination process. And items like that represent a further coarsening of the dialogue and the tone in Washington, and President-elect Bush would like to contribute to changing that.

QUESTION: But the material turned over on Chavez, per se, are you saying that politics of personal destruction was involved with that?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there is some element of that in this town, but I'm not going to venture in. We're looking forward, not looking backwards.

QUESTION: So, Ari, are you aware...

QUESTION: Do you think it's imprudent for a senator to be turning to the research materials to political parties in preparation for his confirmation?

FLEISCHER: I just think the whole notion of people finishing their campaigns by providing opposition research on people who have been named to the Senate is disappointing. It is not sending the signal of bipartisanship and that's disappointing.

QUESTION: But this is also coming from an office of a person who will vote up or down this nominee. Is there some suggestion of prudence from that standpoint?

FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to weigh in to who provided it and what people's roles were. I don't know that information. From what I understand, the senator had nothing to do with it. But the information was provided.

But it's this whole notion of a process that should be a thoughtful one, opposition research from a political campaign now is sought -- is provided to the liberal special interest groups so they have more ammo to take someone down. That's not the way a thoughtful process should work.

QUESTION: Ari, you said repeatedly that these candidates had to support President-elect Bush's positions and platform. And if people are expressing concern that a more extreme nature of some of the candidate's positions in the past, isn't it fair play for them to voice their opposition?

FLEISCHER: It's always fair to voice opposition. What's disappointing is when people make campaigns arms of government, or seek to do so. And I think that does not in keeping with the spirit that the American people expect at this time.

QUESTION: What specifically is in this opposition material that concerns you so?

FLEISCHER: I haven't seen what's in the information, but opposition research as part of a Senate confirmation process just strikes me as -- it's disappointing that they would have turned that over and brought the campaign into a serious Senate confirmation process.

QUESTION: Is there some specific item in there that is raising concerns here for the transition?

FLEISCHER: No, it's the notion of passing opposition research generated in a political campaign over to people who would seek to derail. This whole notion of -- the Senate process is a thoughtful one and we're appreciative of that. There are going to be liberal special interest groups that are not interested in being as thoughtful.

QUESTION: What is wrong, specifically, with opposition research?

FLEISCHER: It's the whole notion of carrying campaign-style tactics into a thoughtful process.

QUESTION: Well, what you're saying is that it's not thoughtful opposition research, that there's something wrong with it. Did the Bush campaign perform opposition research? I assume you did a lot of that.

FLEISCHER: Again, it's the whole notion of passing opposition research into a thoughtful process like this. The campaign is over.

QUESTION: If that campaign research reflects somebody's ideological viewpoints and that is part of the dialogue we have in this country, why not?

FLEISCHER: Again, it's -- the question has been asked and answered. I'm not going further.

QUESTION: But according to wire accounts, the opposition research included voting records, news clipping, all public information. What is wrong with the airing of John Ashcroft's voting record in public? FLEISCHER: Again, it's the notion of opposition research as part of this process. I just don't think that's the thoughtful manner that people want to have...

QUESTION: If opposition research is a voting record, that's public information. What is so nefarious about that?

FLEISCHER: And groups are free to collect their information, of course, as they weigh in on the process but, again, it's the transferring of that information from a political campaign. It suggests the campaign is ongoing. The campaign is over. QUESTION: Can I follow on a question about Ashcroft's nomination? This is a press question that comes from no opposition research.

Back in 1978, as Missouri attorney general, Ashcroft sued NOW, the National Organization for Women, for threatening a convention boycott of Missouri for the state's unwillingness to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. The U.S. district court later ruled against Ashcroft. That seems an example of not ideology, but judicial activism. How does that sit with Ashcroft if he's confirmed as U.S. attorney general, that style?

FLEISCHER: On the specifics or on the style?

QUESTION: Well, either one.

FLEISCHER: Because on specifics, I'm going to refer that to Senator Ashcroft's team who's working on that and has more information on any specifics. But the reason that president-elect has chosen John Ashcroft for attorney general is because he believes he'll be an outstanding attorney general who will enforce the law, as he did as the governor of Missouri and as he did as the attorney general of Missouri. He has a record of doing that and he'll continue to do that. His first dedication as attorney general will be to enforce the law.

QUESTION: I have two follow ups. Were you able to find out on my question yesterday whether any men had ever been disqualified because of Nannygate...

FLEISCHER: I did not have a chance to look into it. And, again, I think you're going to do better working with some of the historians and the scholars who pay attention to that. I haven't had a chance to do too much research into other things like that.

QUESTION: Just one more: Is there any, sort of, statute of limitations that runs out?

QUESTION: If someone has hired somebody 10, 15 years in the past, should that still be applicable in this day and age?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that's a judgment that the public will make, and we are where we are.

QUESTION: On the labor front, Republican Congressman Jack Quinn from Buffalo, who sponsored the minimum wage increase in 1997, has proposed himself as secretary of labor in a letter to the president- elect. Do you have any reflection on that? Has the transition team received that letter?

FLEISCHER: On this, I have not heard about this letter. And, as you know, the process by which the president-elect uses to select people is one he chooses not to share until somebody is ready to be announced. We don't speculate about it.

QUESTION: Does the transition team consider it an affront that he proposed himself? It's an unusual move.

FLEISCHER: We are cognizant of many unusual moves in this process. There's often lobbying campaigns of a variety of natures, and that's part of the process.

QUESTION: Several of the presidents since the 1940s have, in accordance with D.C. and Virginia law, tape-recorded either telephone calls or Oval Office conversations which were directed to them, even though without the director's knowledge. But Maryland outlaws such taping with a law, which if it had been enforced, would have deprived the United States of DNA evidence of perjury. My question is: Does the president-elect see the significant difference between intrusive wire taping by a third party and a presidential tape recording of conversations directed to them? And I have one last follow-up.

FLEISCHER: I think you've got me lost on the question.


QUESTION: Does the president-elect see the difference between two people talking on the phone and having a third person -- like those two Democrats in Florida intercepted Newt Gingrich, his phone call to Republicans -- and Linda Tripp, where she was talking across the state line to one person, and that one person, Monica, willingly gave her information. Do you think's that's criminal? Does the president-elect think that's wrong? FLEISCHER: Well, every state, of course, has its own laws regarding electronic collection of information. And he said throughout the campaign he didn't want to be superintendent of schools, and I hardly think he wants to become the governor or legislator of all states. Those are state matters.

QUESTION: One last -- and this is the last one. Since President Clinton has just said in Chicago, and I quote, "The Republicans thought the election was over. Our candidate won the popular vote, and the only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida," close quote.

Is there any law that requires President-elect Bush to ride into Capitol on Inauguration Day with a predecessor who has so derided his election and also has a limousine with a license reading "Taxation Without Representation," or couldn't Mr. Bush ride in a limousine of his own with Texas Lone Star plates?

FLEISCHER: I'm not aware of any such laws.

QUESTION: Good, he could, couldn't he? (LAUGHTER)

FLEISCHER: He can do a lot of things.

QUESTION: The person he's supposed to ride with has derided his election, has cast aspersions on his election. Should he have to ride with this man, or can't he ride in his own limo and go up there and take the oath?

FLEISCHER: If your question is, "Is there a law?" there is no such law.

QUESTION: What is he going to do?

FLEISCHER: Next question.


QUESTION: Surrounding the Ashcroft nomination, how does President-elect Bush start changing the tone? He's spoken about that so much, but looking ahead to the next 180 days...

FLEISCHER: On the question of changing the tone, he is well aware that this is going to be a long process. It doesn't happen overnight. It can't possibly happen overnight. But the whole manner in which he governed in Texas, the whole bipartisan nature of people in Texas and their legislature there, lends him to believe that it can be done here as well. He's under no illusions. It's a different town and has different mores, but those can change too over time.

And so, I think you're going to see him and his manner reach out, be bipartisan, hope that that bipartisanship is extended back. I think today's hearing on the Hill with Secretary Paige is a healthy example of it. And Secretary-designate Paige is a healthy example of it. But it's an ongoing process and it takes two.

QUESTION: Do you have a reaction to what President Clinton said last night?

FLEISCHER: There is another tradition in this country of presidents leaving office with respect for their successors, and I'm certain that President Clinton will want to follow that. QUESTION: But he didn't last night. So what do you make of what he said last night?

FLEISCHER: There is a tradition and I'm sure the president will want to follow it.

QUESTION: That he made a mistake in speaking out...

FLEISCHER: I think that tradition extends in two directions. And I'm not going to characterize what the president said beyond that. We have respect for President Clinton and I'm not going to characterize his statements beyond that.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Were his remarks last night (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: Again, there is a tradition that has served our nation well. And I would fully expect the president will continue to follow it.

QUESTION: He'll change, in other words?

QUESTION: In the Republican platform, Bush supported being a envoy to Ireland if the peace process was not moving along very well.

QUESTION: Last night, (OFF-MIKE) was shot in Belfast and they seem to have stagnated there. Is there any anticipation of naming an envoy to Northern Ireland? And do you perceive the issues going back to the State Department?

FLEISCHER: On that one, that's both personnel and foreign policy. As you know, we're not going to talk about foreign policy until -- until the 20th, in that sense.

WATERS: Ari Fleischer at the transition office talking about matters pending before the new Bush administration takes hold a week from Saturday. Those dates he was mentioning at the beginning of the news conference were the confirmation dates that have been scheduled for the various Cabinet nominees.

The one for Rod Paige, as we reported earlier, is ongoing right now as we speak in the Senate. He had a virtual "no comment" on Linda Chavez stepping aside as the nominee to head the Labor Department, as the media now turn their guns on John Ashcroft and the building controversy there over his nomination to become attorney general -- Ari Fleischer saying the fight against Ashcroft was being fought on ideological grounds. But they are confident of his confirmation in the Senate.

He did say he was disappointed in political-campaign-opposition material now being turned over to what he called a "serious confirmation process" -- these materials being turned over to liberal interest groups who are fighting Ashcroft in the Senate. We are continuing to follow that story. You heard the quote from one of the reporters from President Clinton last night when he was saying goodbye in Chicago at a rally attended by the Gore campaign manager, William Daley.

To quote the president: "They thought the election was over, the Republicans did. The time it was over, our candidate had won the popular vote, and the only way they could win the election was to stop the voting in Florida" -- a rather unusual comment for an exiting president, who must ride, as the reporter mentioned, in the same limousine to the inauguration ceremonies a week from Saturday.

We're going to talk with Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution about that comment and whether it was an attempt by President Clinton to delegitimize the presidential election.



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